The Dark Hem
Asquew bought HABLA USTED as an investment.
Its corner turrets were imposing, but it was a pity a TV satellite dish had been erected on one of them. The disused balconies were choked with a plant-life which didn’t evidently need real ground for its roots. He decided to leave repairing the chimney-stacks until the house’s future was settled. Planning permission for the place to be converted into offices was not out of the question and he mentally listed out the necessary changes, including communication systems and toilet facilities. In the meantime, he decided to allow his three Aunts to live there at a reasonable rent since they had all recently been widowed and this fact made them cheap caretakers.
“Do you think the roof leaks?” asked Mildred to the other two who were sounding-boards rather than an audience.
“It hasn’t rained for ages,” piped up Louise, as if that were an answer.
“Those chimneys don’t look too safe to me, so I reckon we should ask him to do something or other about them,” continued Mildred, using a non-sequitur as a conversational ploy.
Tania didn’t say anything. The three women were sitting in one of the front rooms where the paltry cul-de-sac’s lamps outside seeped sufficiently indoors, leaving the switching on of the electricity to the very last minute.
“Can’t you put your knitting down for a while, Mildred and give me a hand with my crossword,” said Louise.
“Only if you help me ball the rest of my wool later.”
Meanwhile, Tania stoked the open coal fire which also helped to illuminate the room, throwing three Auntish shadows across the garish wallpaper. They had already taken down the three diagonal ducks, as such knickknacks were not to their taste. Well, at least, Tania did not object to them being taken down. Louise had hung a picture of her late husband upon the ducks’ faded outlines.
Mildred was the shy one, on the quiet. She had always dressed like a spinster, even when she was happily married. Her eyes were often settled on the medium stare, showing only whites from certain angles, as if she were examining the insides of her head. Most of the day she dressed in a dowdy house-coat and wielded a tickle-duster. She did not even change come the evenings. Her husband’s name was Bob.
Asquew remembered Bob, particularly. Louise was more certain of her own identity than Mildred was of herself.
Louise’s clothes were ever immaculate, usually twin-sets with cascading pearl necklaces and heavy tweed skirts, whatever the weather. Unlike Mildred, she rather enjoyed wearing high heels, even at home. Her husband was Nigel, an uncommon name for the times. Asquew never knew him, since Louise had met Nigel in Kuala Lumpur where they had settled after marriage. No one stood out as memorable.
Tania didn’t say much. Whilst Mildred overcame her shyness by strange remarks, Tania was silent most of the time, mainly because she had very little to say … a credit to her. Her clothes could not be characterised, since she wore different outfits according to mood. If each choice of apparel was evidence, then she was not only in a state of near continuous flux but also varied between a very wide spectrum of emotions. Tonight, she wore a bright red silk scarf at the throat, providing contrast to the black cocktail dress, grey fish-net stockings and, like Louise, high heel shoes, all specially sported for the short evening. Her husband was Fred whom Asquew thought was a bit of a prat.
Fred, Bob and Asquew had been drinking friends, and Fred had often ended the evening by drinking himself silly and slapping the other two on the back as if he thought they liked him. Bob and Asquew had separate get-togethers, without Fred.
So, Mildred was shy but relatively talkative, showily domesticated, somewhat reflective, widow of Bob. Louise was forceful, confident, unreflective, member of the twin-set brigade, widow of Nigel, had lived in Kuala Lumpur for most of her life. Tania was quiet, but not shy, changeable moods and costumes, unshowy in her tasks, widow of Fred (prat).
Asquew’s mother, Deirdre, another sister, had died in giving birth. None of them were memorable. Particularly Deirdre, who did not figure much at all.
Asquew stood on the pavement opposite the house. There were not many houses in the cul-de-sac, the only other one being an even larger (but without the turrets) close to the railway embankment. That other house had also been on the market, when he was negotiating for HABLA USTED.
HABLA USTED was not Asquew’s name for it, but the nameplate was still above the front entrance, and the Aunts had not complained. One of them even wiped it over daily. He had been upset by Bob’s sudden death. In fact, it was one of those deaths which lingered in the mind, since he had been on holiday in Spain with Mildred and, forgetting for a moment that foreign traffic went the wrong way, he had stepped boldly into an on-going motorbike and, mercifully, died without further preamble. From then on, drinking just with Fred, out of duty to habit, was barely bearable. And now with Fred gone by means of an abrupt heart attack, Asquew was again a free agent. Being an only child and unmarried, his simple concerns were the three Aunts and the furtherance of his money-making. He had even given up drinking, since he had nobody with whom to share visits to the pub. Saved a lot of loot this way, too.
Yes, HABLA USTED was a bit of a monstrosity. The sooner the satellite dish was removed the better, but that would not help a lot. The chimneystacks were indeed outlandish, far too tall. In Victorian times, he assumed, they liked smoke to be carried up as far as possible before letting it go. This evening, one of the chimneypots was puffing paltry amounts which stayed put in the still air like grey cotton-wool around the cluster of TV aerials.
From time to time, he saw one of the sisters fiddling with the curtains of the front room. They did not pull them across fully, but only halfway, a fact which mystified Asquew. In any event, he was finding it impossible to remember which Aunt was which. He had to mull over their attributes in his mind. One of them had been abroad for most of her life, married to someone or called Nigel. So the one Bob always kissed goodbye before going to the pub, she must have been…
He couldn’t bother to put names to faces. As a businessman, he had enough to do keeping track of his contacts. And his contacts had wives, too. After all, the Aunts were simply house fillings, until he had made decisions relating to HABLA USTED. He did, however, have a soft spot for them, and widowed Aunts of their age were surely intended to be at least a trifle batty.
Round the corner from the cul-de-sac was one of the pubs he used to frequent with Bob and Fred. He fancied a little tipple, despite the abstinence of the last few months, and he left the environs of HABLA USTED, whilst considering the intricacies of setting a fair commercial rent for office premises in this otherwise residential area. He liked summarising, totting up, drawing tentative conclusions…
Asquew’s mother, Deirdre, had married early in life. His father, Tom, was a stocky fellow made even stockier by the heavy lifting and carrying he did at the East London docks. He drank too much and knocked his wife around when he had finished drinking. He loved her too much to mark her face. But her bottom was often black and blue, criss-crossed with fresh red welts. Tom was not as bad as had been painted, Asquew thought. At least one of Deirdre’s sisters had kept a soft spot for Tom. Asquew suspected, Deirdre was in the dark as to whether Louise, Mildred or Tania were at the guilty end of Tom’s canoodling – that is, before one of them went off to Kuala Lumpur.
Asquew had enough problems ridding himself of his own feelings about Deirdre’s death, without taking on anybody else’s. The whole affair was too complicated to consider as a whole … like HABLA USTED itself which, because of the railway, the trees and the high wall around the cemetery opposite, there was never any one vantage point with a complete view of the roofs, stacks, turrets and windows.
Asquew felt that human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints (even if some were misguided) to obtain as true a picture as possible. Tom, after all, was never so black as he was painted. He took one last look for the night at HABLA USTED before submitting to the desire for a drink. But who was that man at one of the half-drawn windows? Not a question he wanted asking, exactly. How could an impossibility happen? The male figure once seen, was gone, and could easily have been mistaken for one of the three Aunts. He decided not to follow it up. He had enough problems and he shuffled slowly, almost against his own will, towards the Spread Eagle pub.
Mildred tried to get the others to bed. She liked making sure the fire was damped down (after Tania’s careless poking), then lightly Ewbanking the carpet to paddle-brush up the odd macaroon speck, turning off all the lights … an endless list of chores if she tried to tot them up. She had certainly had enough chat about Kuala Lumpur tonight to last her a lifetime. If all the so-called facts about that godforsaken place could be paraphrased and documented it would be as good as having visited the place oneself. She thought she knew London well enough by having happened to live there all her life – but Louise’s Kuala Lumpur … it almost seemed she knew it better than London, by virtue of being one step removed. Mildred shrugged – at least they didn’t have A-to-Z maps of Kuala Lumpur. Or did they? She would rather not know.
In any event, Louise had already retired for the night. Only Tania to go. And there was no getting through to her. She was as inscrutable as a dead trout on the fishmonger’s slab. Still waters ran deep. Tania had a lot going for her, if only she would come out. Not exactly shy. More stuck-up. She took after Deirdre, in that respect.
The nights were drawing in and, as Tania eventually gathered herself together, Mildred squared up Louise’s crossword book on the coffee table and then bagged up her own spools of wool.
Upon undrawing the curtains ready for morning, she shuddered as she imagined a figure lurking near the cemetery opposite. Could that be somebody undergrunting in the newly plumbed bathroom upstairs? It was surely to be a long time before Mildred could find a slot for her ablutions. That came from sharing a bathroom.
A goods train trundled by, not allowing Mildred to hear Tania’s mealy-mouthed “good night”. Asquew would doubtlessly come tomorrow to collect the rent. She would ask him for a rent book. Even witn relations, one should have things above board. The house shook with the train’s passage, en route for London Bridge Station further up the line. Such sounds accentuated loneliness. She wondered if there were trains in Kuala Lumpur. Louise had never mentioned them. So, probably not. Despite everthing, Mildred felt happy and secure, convinced she could see her whole life, past and future, from all angles.
When Tania died peacefully in her sleep, the remaining two sisters expected Asquew to allow them to stay on at HABLA USTED, but they couldn’t each afford half of the total rent he was previously charging.
Asquew smiled. The sisters were pets. They knew on which side their bread was buttered. At least, there was no possible motivation for them to have wanted Tania’s death. Where money was concerned love often relegated itself to second place.
“Yes, you may continue at your current individual rents.” He couldn’t help making it sound business-like. Mildred nodded a thank you, for once at a loss for words. Louise tried to think of a word as one of the answers for her crossword but, as usual, she failed. It had seven letters and the gaps could only be vowels. The puzzles had been even more difficult when she lived in Kuala Lumpur.
Tania’s last costume, the one she wore dead for the funeral, was not exactly a tour de force… Louise couldn’t finish the memory. Tania had only passed away two weeks ago and what was a fortnight between sisters? Bitchiness was only one step removed from mental cruelty. You cannot divorce a blood relation.
Asquew decided he had at least buttoned down the identity of the remaining Aunts. Two were easier to handle than three. But he couldn’t avoid the memory of the face he had spotted between the curtains the night of Tania’s death. If only recognition could reach that far. Not a police matter, more a family one. No good thinking such thoughts. It made no sense to think.
He had indeed visited the Spread Eagle, but at the last moment decided to order a mineral water instead of a beer. He had never really believed in drinking on his own. Fred had been such a prat, but he was useful as a drinking-board. The fizzy water didn’t seem to have a flavour, but it was equally obvious that Asquew had lost his taste for life … even as far back as when Deirdre died giving birth to his nameless dead sister.
Mildred looked at Asquew. In the old days, men had been men. Bob, her husband, had been quite a bit older than Asquew. He had been a man’s man, whatever that was supposed to mean. Asquew would never be a proper man. He pretended to make money, but often ended up owing it to someone. Take this house for example – dearly bought with Deirdre’s money. He would be nowhere without that little windfall. Everyone seemed to die at convenient moments for Asquew. Even Tom, his father. But that was another story. Somewhere along the line, a family tree would have to be drawn up with no gaps. Like most crossword puzzles, the clues were sure to fit together.
Mildred and Louise did not talk after Asquew had left. The roof, he promised, did not leak, but a man would be coming round to clear the balconies and dismantle the satellite dish. With the docks closed down, there was a lot of unemployment in the area and many odd job men about. Time for an early night, thought Mildred. Slots in the bathtime rota were getting easier to find. First a bit of light Ewbanking to break sweat.
How someone like Louise could have married Nigel, it was all like a dream now … with the added confusion as to the identity of the dreamer.
Kuala Lumpur looked more like London, for an oriental city. Amid all the mosques, there was one which appeared remarkably like St Paul’s Cathedral. And the muezzins sounded as if they were wailing out newspaper sellers’ calls rather than anything to do with their religion.
Louise wandered amid the Persian market, feeling carpets, running necklaces over her hands, tasting spicy titbits … and, there, there was Nigel, like a knight on a white charger. Except he was selling cigarettes in a booth in Leicester Square…
Mildred awoke from Louise’s nightmare.
She was in a cold sweat. She could hear something or other moving about on the roof above her bedroom. She went to the window but the cul-de-sac’s light opposite was nearly out. The satellite dish glinted, as if it might be slowly revolving. One of the house’s turrets was close to her bedroom’s bay window, but that night it seemed like a separate building, a lighthouse or folly. She was convinced she could see half of the moon shining through between the turret and the brick mainland of HABLA USTED.
Mildred wept, knowing that death was not as distant as it used to be. But all her tears would need to be eked out … for Ruth (who was lost at the age of two in an accident with scalding water), for Louise (yet to be lost), for Bill (lost in the First World War), for Deirdre (lost in fruitless childbirth), for Tania (lost in her bed in this very house), for Hubert (lost in the Indian Ocean during the second world war), for Tom (lost from the top of his crane at the docks), for Nigel whom she never knew (lost through a terribly painful oriental disease), Fred (lost in his pint of beer at the Spread Eagle, as he always predicted he would be), for Bob (lost in suicide), for Asquew (who would leave no formal children of his own but was a rogue father nevertheless), and finally for Mildred.
Mildred knitted out the clicks of night for a while. Or was it Louise? Even Tania? None were memorable enough to count (or list).
An undergrunt sounded outside as the satellite dish was manhandled away in the dark. It wasn’t yet even 1980 something.