The Roses & the Weeds, and other stories by Elinora Westfall

 





The Roses & the Weeds


Ollie talks.

Not that Bridget listens. She’s too absorbed in the mundane task of fastening her bra, a simple action frustrated by a twinge of back pain, a lingering stiffness in her shoulder, and her own condemning thoughts: You’re getting too old to shag in a van.

Apparently, she’s not getting too old for Ollie, though, because he keeps coming back for more; she’s continually mystified, flattered, and unable to resist. He’s too beautiful. He is too close to physical perfection.

Despite this however her interactions with him frequently disappoint, her sexual and aesthetic experience diminishes substantially with the inevitable occurrence of one very simple thing: He speaks. 

She wishes that she had kept a written record of all the epic bloody nonsense that has come out of his mouth over the years because she could have gained some kind of minor social media fame and parleyed a book deal out of it to boot: Shit My Stupid Shag Buddy Says. It occurs to her that as far as sordid shag buddies go, she has run the gamut from an Oxford graduate to this, the man who thought that when his sister was pregnant with twins, she’d be pregnant for eighteen months rather than nine. It’s her typical anti-accomplishment: From the gutter to the stars and back again.

As Ollie blathers about football he leans over to tie his trainers and this singular movement initiates a glorious symphony of muscle and flesh in stirring, magnificent counterpoint with one another. She longs to trace the perfect trapezoid muscles within reach but doesn’t, knowing that he would interpret this as an overture for a second go-round, which she’s not really up for because of the pulled muscle in her lower back and various other reasons that she won’t let herself think about.

So, she lets him go on and on about Liverpool and the proliferation of their bloody stupid fans up North.

“They’re everywhere,” he says,“everywhere! I don’t get it. I mean, there must be a Brazilian of them here.”

Bridget successfully resists the urge to bang her head on the side of the van.

“Don’t you think?” He gazes up at her.

Aw, bless, he’s trying to engage her in conversation; it would be touching if it weren’t so pathetic. “A Brazilian,” she says flatly. She rubs her aching shoulder and pulls on the hideous yellow work apron; she has to give the cafe credit for picking the one colour that makes all pasty white people look like utter shite.

“Yeah. You know. Like a lot. Like more than a million?” Ollie rolls his eyes. “Know maths is not your strong suit Bridget, but Jesus, everyone knows that.”

“It’s billion,” Bridget enunciates with a certain sarcastic slowness that immediately reminds her of Vita, and that makes her want to slam her head against the van until she is unconscious. “You mean billion. Not Brazilian.”

He’s sceptical, “you sure?”

“A Brazilian is a person. From Brazil,” she forces out the point between clenched teeth,“the country.”

The light-bulb goes off over Ollie’s handsome head, offering only a bare minimal illumination of knowledge. 

“Oh. Right, right,” he nods vigorously,“okay. Yeah. That makes sense,” slow, graceful, and lazy, he pulls on his shirt, “we doing this again next week, maybe?”

“Maybe,” she lies, and ties the apron at her back with stiff fingers, catching a hangnail on the waistline of her jeans; she wore jeans to work today and amazingly Claud didn’t call her out on it. Ollie said it was because she looked stunning in them. He rarely compliments her, so she figures it must be true. Again, she thinks of Vita, who once said - you should always wear jeans, it ought to be the law of the land - woozily stated after one nap, two orgasms, and three glasses of wine, so she was feeling uncharacteristically munificent that day. And again, she wishes she would stop thinking of Vita, at least immediately after shagging idiots.

Ollie laughs, “it’s weird. You’re really like a bloke sometimes,” he pulls a face. “Shit, that sounds really gay, doesn’t it?”

She stares at the abandoned used condom on the floor of the van—flaccid, sad, and inanimate as if it were the eviscerated hydro-skeleton of some strange jellyfish. 

“Yeah. It does,” she grabs her jacket, pushes at the van’s heavy door with her good shoulder, and she’s free. For the moment, anyway.

-

At home, the windows are fogged up with steam from the beef stew she’s reheating on the Aga. She’s staring at her own reflection, sullied and blurry, hair all over the bloody place, curling about her jaw, slipping out from her poor excuse for a ponytail. An unremarkable colour at the best of times, but in this steam bleached reflection it is even more limp, even more of a non-colour - an insipid pale brown with a fleck of early grey. And her eyes, staring back at her like the eyes of a ghost, almost too pale to see, almost the same colour as the sky.

“What’s this?” Her dad pipes up. He’s fishing for something in the drawer of the kitchen dresser.

She turns around, “what’s what?”

He’s holding a champagne cork. “Taittinger’s? When were you drinking Taittinger’s?” He laughs, his eyes twinkle.

Oh, you—stupid slapper, stroppy trailer trash, foul-mouthed slattern. Who do you think you are? Someone worthy of fine champagne? 

It’s not the kind voice of her father, but the voice of the past that fills her head so unexpectedly.

It’s been said that the past is another country; in Bridget’s case, it is more than that. It is an enemy combatant. Any object that could possibly function as a passport into this hostile territory runs the risk of emotional high treason and as such is mercilessly discarded. When she turned 30 (nine whole years ago...) she trashed or burned nearly everything sentimental. Including herself. But there were clothes, photos, keepsakes, a napkin with a heart drawn on it from a first official date, all consigned to the flames or the rubbish heap. The cork is an emissary from a different part of the past, however, and she should have got rid of it but couldn’t. Not yet, anyway. The cork, the same one she absently touched to her lips that night as she stood in Room 503 of the Belgravia Hotel, fully clothed and ready to leave but unable to as she helplessly stared down at Vita, sprawled face down on the bed in a dead sleep.

Oh, you...

Bridget jams a wooden spoon into the dense, beefy glop of stew, which plops ominously like a volcano stirring from a dormancy of a thousand years. 

“Don’t remember when.”

“Looks recent,” he turns the cork over in his hand. 

“Bloody cork expert now, are you?” She throws him a sideways glance through the steam and he smiles at her, that sweet smile that always gets her right in the chest. You’d better not ever bloody die. She thinks. A thought so often passing through her head that it had now become a sort of mantra, something she had to think daily to save his life. 

He gives a vague nod of his head, amusement behind his eyes as he places the cork carefully back into the drawer.

The front door opens, the hall floorboards creak, and for the briefest of moments she feels the gritty unevenness of those floorboards against her bloody cheek, and hears that voice in her head; God it was fun breaking you, Bridget. 

“Granddad,” Ryan drops a school bag down by the leg of the dining table and claps a hand over his granddad’s shoulder.

“What’s for dinner?” 

She feels his presence behind her. She wants to turn and hug him, draw him close and apologise for everything; for the stew, for the bad weather, for not knowing who his father was...for being such a disappointment.

“Thought you ate at school?” She says instead.

She hears him groan, can just about make out his reflection behind her in the window.

“Bloody salad.”

He wraps his arms around her waistline and she swats at his wrists with her free hand.

“Language.”

Her dad hums sympathetically from the corner of the room.

“What’s news?” She asks absently, glancing at him before turning to the washing up in the sink.

“The usual,” he shrugs. He’s wearing the hoody she bought him for Christmas. 

“Sounds fascinating,” she says, mouth full affectionate sarcasm as she notices the holes in his cuffs.

“Actually, there is a bit of news, about our hermit next-door neighbour.”

She feels the skin just above the veins in her wrist begin to buzz and she plunges her hands into the too-hot water.

“Vita?” She doesn’t know why she’s asking, they only have one neighbour for miles around.

“So, what’s the news?” She prompts while Ryan nods through a gulp of coke from a bottle she hadn’t noticed he was holding.

“Looks like she’s got herself a girlfriend.”

Bridget is glad she’s facing the window. She waits for the sky and the land to do their usual trick of calming her, bringing her peace. She studies the thin band of clouds frosting the blue sky, the way the wind presses into the long, faded grass. She squeezes the steel wool pad in her hand. Watery brown gunk from the pot she’s been scrubbing surrenders to the drain and she predicts by the end of the week she’ll have to take apart the pipes again to work out the clog. Didn’t expect her to remain on the market forever, did you? Despite the fact that she was a middle-aged woman.... a widow, a posh bitch, a recluse...

Put like that, Bridget asks herself, why are you so keen on her, you dozy cow?

She dries her hands with a towel and turns around. Keeping her hands busy always settles her nerves. She can tell by the way Ryan looks at her that he’s waiting for her to trot out some smart-arsed remark, some homophobic put-down.

“Good,” she says softly. She clears her throat and tries it again—this time firmer and louder, and almost convinces herself, “that’s good.”

“You met her?” Her dad asks from the dresser. He’s left the drawer open. She stares at it, unblinking, while Ryan answers.

“Briefly. She was leaving when we showed up. They were kind of giggly together. It was cute.”

Bridget twirls the limp, damp dish-towel into a sinewy rope and attempts fashioning a hangman’s noose out of it.

“She seems cool. Didn’t talk to her for long but she was funny, smart. Her name is Sacha. Works in finance or something. There was an article on her and her family in the Courier yesterday—Clarissa was telling me, God, I think even Clarissa likes her—anyway, the family’s really posh and they set up some new scholarship fund for, you know, ‘underprivileged students,’” Ryan employs the good old air quotes around the phrase—an Elizabeth sarcasm speciality, and again Bridget suspects that he has a crush on Vita, even as she simultaneously acknowledges the fierce irrationality of her ridiculous jealousy. At this pathetic moment, she is even jealous of the Jeep Cherokee she sees parked in Vita's drive every morning, jealous of it for its close proximity to its owner, not to mention the front seat.

Oh, Christ, you are bananas.

“Maybe you should apply,” her dad says.

“I’m not underprivileged. Right, Mum?”

Bridget hums absently.

“Mum?”

“Yeah?”

Amused, Ryan smirks, “why are you making a noose with the dish-towel?”

Her dad propels himself from the edge of the dresser. “My cue to leave, before she gets any ideas.”

Oh, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

“I’ll join you.” Ryan follows his granddad from the room. Bridget hears the creak of the sofa as they sit down in the sitting room, a pause, then the welcome murmur of the television.

She fishes for her phone in the pocket of her jeans, flicks the screen on and hits Google...

This is what she has become.... someone who stalks a former shag buddy with whom you have the grave and stupid misfortune of being in love. It’s exhausting. She yawns. After a good ten minutes, she is finally online and hopping to the Courier’s website, where the fluff piece on Vita’s new woman is found easily enough.

In Bridget’s mind, there are two types of English woman: The Roses and the Weeds. Vita, of course, is a Rose: pale and elegant, seemingly perfect, secretly thorny, and bitchily unrepentant when blood is drawn. She herself is, of course, a sturdy English Weed: tough, available, and usually trampled upon by blokes in obsessive pursuit of the Roses. Ollie alone is proof of the paradox. When they weren’t shagging, they were drinking and talking about Vita; a shared loathing of the same woman bonded them more than sex ever did.

But Jennifer Elena Sacheverell Easley Parmenter—Jesus Christ, Bridget thinks, what kind of person needs five fucking names? —is a voluptuous variation on the Weed: A bit horsey-looking but well-groomed, well-dressed, and possessing abundant dark locks a la Nigella Lawson. Not to mention big tits. No, she is not a common English Weed, this lady’s not for trampling. She’s the weed that will wrap with luxurious abandon around everything in a garden till it’s hers, that will scale the stone walls of the mansion until her wild garlands smother everything in sight. In the photo, she’s smiling handsomely, about ready to burst out of her blouse, and sandwiched between two happy teenagers and a man, whom Bridget is pretty certain she might have shagged. 

Bridget reads on. Jennifer—is a CEO of a digital music company. Even though she and her fucking ex-husband, a fucking barrister, both went to fucking Cambridge she fucking supported her fucking son when he wanted to go to fucking Oxford. Her fucking father is a fucking marquis and—here Bridget dies a little—her fucking Italian mother is a fucking “member of the distinguished, aristocratic Milanese family” that includes the filmmaker Luchino Fucking Visconti.

Defeated, she leans back in the chair. Sure, great. That’s just great. She manages one final, rallying thought: Can Jennifer single-handedly replace a toilet? Plumb in a washing machine or rewire a house? Bet not. Top that, bitch. “Fucking slag.”

Bridget does not realize she’s said this aloud until Ryan calls loudly from the couch: “Who’s a fucking slag?”

“The Queen,” she shouts back.

“Too right. Always thought she was a bit tarty with all those hats.”

She scowls, realizes her mother was right so many years ago when she still had possession of at least a few marbles; Someday you’ll have one of your own, and they’ll be mouthing off to you the way you do to me, and you’ll be sorry then.

She is very sorry indeed. About a lot of things, but not that.





December 14th 1922


London.

Spread across the dining room table, the newspaper is dissected, absorbed, and devoured

voraciously. This rag, running necklaces of dirty type that smudges fingertips, this dirty

Herald, the only touchstone with the world outside Bloomsbury Square. Today the paper

tantalises with a headline on a comet streaking through the southern hemisphere; one slice of

an onion-thin page and there it is, an artist’s sad rendering that accompanies the story of the

Great Meteor shower of 1922, first seen in Cordoba, Argentina.

Over wire-rimmed glasses, Virginia Woolf peers down at the drawing, takes in the words,

breathes in an imagined Argentinian starry sky.

By the 12th December—the paper informs her—the nucleus had all but disappeared but the

long tail retained a bright viscosity that shot through the wintry sky near Princeton, New

Jersey, its breathless magnitude an estimated 140,000,000 miles long and still visible to the

naked eye. That said, the storywriter concludes spitefully, “It is very doubtful whether people

generally would know anything about the occurrence until they read of it in the papers.”

Were she so inclined, she would track down the writer and slit his miserable throat just for

that attitudinal prose alone. Fortunately, it is in her practical nature to reserve homicidal urges

(imaginative, of course) for matters of a more pressing nature—most recently, an unknown

and heinously boring writer who had shunned the press after Leonard declined his

manuscript, and thus, her imagination rushed him to an early grave – a razor blade to the

throat perhaps, a body slumped in an unmarked grave wrapped in a Persian rug – perhaps the

very rug she’d had Nelly send out for just the other day, which had been delivered two hours

early, and she herself had had to see in the delivery men.


There is the chink of glass against glass, somebody is pouring her another drink, and Virginia

reclines back in her chair, happy to allow the conversation to continue around her. She is

back in the room, present again, a flurry of fire-lit faces unaware that she had ever left. She

sweeps a thumb across inky fingertips and crowns a drawing of Tutankhamen on the opposite

fold on the paper with her discarded glasses, which distort a thick spray of stars in a

farsighted lens. She fixes her expression just over Leonard’s shoulder, to the window - she

looks into the winter evening. All that is visible are shadows from the dim light of other

buildings, other rooms, gaslights along the street, and beyond that, the eternal vault of the city

that harbours so many of her dreams. For long hours the dreary, muddy, rainy winter stays

encapsulated in darkness; winters are different here than they are in Rodmell. Even after

everything that has happened, she still thinks of London as home. She still thinks of

returning. But there is no undoing the past, no returning from Rodmell to here—the

precarious edge of the world, where this strange city captures voices unknown to Mr. Bell’s

invitation of a dinner party, where the abstraction of the waves of imagination always fit,

painful and unerring, in the form of a novel, an essay, a word on the tip of her tongue – a

story that takes flight mid stride down a street fuelled and chased by everybody else’s

conversation.

How exciting other people were.

She had become lost again, a train of thought abruptly derailed by the door opening, a great

oak of a door, creaking on its hinges, and she was back in the room for the second time,

transfixed by the sudden entrance of another woman, the conversation, she realised, having

taken a rather alarming turn, and Vanessa, blushing, was clutching Lytton’s arm in mock

dismay.


“You can either become an actress or a whore,” Clive was saying, though the subject of

conversation was lost on her. Then the damning line, aimed at Vanessa: “I’d say the latter, as

your acting in the bedroom has always proved a mastery of your performance.”

Somehow, Virginia is neither shocked nor offended, neither does she look across at her sister,

Vanessa, who she knows very well will be sinking herself into Duncan Grant’s shoulder,

much to Lytton’s despair. She hears Clive’s usual demanding rap upon the table, following,

what he thought was a comment of great hilarity, followed by the shoulder-hunched

uxoriousness of his posture, as if in the time between the knock and the opening of the door

he thinks better of his behaviour, and suddenly, once again, he is in love.

“Who is that?” It’s Dorothy that speaks after what appears to be a considerable amount of

time, and Virginia wonderers if she had somehow seen the door open even before it had.

“Mrs Harold Nicholson”, “Lady Sackville-West”, “The Right Honourable…” Whispers pass

between the glasses, and Clive stands, chair legs grating fiercely on the flagstone floor, and

opens his arms to welcome the late guest.

“Vita!”

She shines with a candle lit radiance, stalking on legs like beech trees, pink glowing, grape

clustered, pearl hung. Lytton pulls a chair from the table with the lavish gesture of the half-

drunk, and Roger Fry pours wine into her glass as she comments on the d├ęcor, touches the

fine satin of the curtain, as marvellous as what lies between a woman’s legs, and says,

“Virginia Woolf,” slowly, as though she were reading her name for the first time whilst

tracing a finger along the spine of Mrs Dalloway, and finally Virginia sees her face in the

light, plain, handsome, dark eyes burning as if she were coming out of a fevered dream.

Virginia is no romantic, but she imagines her own eyes in response, the perihelion—the

blazing comet at its closest point to the sun, so dazzlingly close to immolation—to be this

elusive shade of blue, cool and hot at once.


And then, before Virginia can respond, Vita is caught up unexpectedly by E.M Forster, who,

sitting to her left, encompasses Vita and her attention halfway through a sentence. And then,

seamlessly, she is laughing, charming, taking the floor, immediately the highlight of the

evening, her being in short (what Virginia had never been) a real woman, and Virginia is left

to push her wine glass half an inch further away, leaving a half-moon of condensation on the

table, a puddle reflecting the fluttering caprices of the fires waxes and wanes. She feels heat

rising within herself, not unlike the heat of the fire itself, only this heat is inside her, and she

knows without looking up that Vita is watching her, in between conversational pauses, so,

instead, she turns to her right, to Desmond MacCarthy, a man in mid-rant, who points

dramatically at John Maynard-Keynes, dark eyes threaded with fine lines of bloodshot, an

embroidery of failure and gin. “I trust you’ve made overtures to the fellow?” he inquires.

“Suggest that he leave the premises?”


Desmond snorts a laugh through his nose and gestures with an empty glass. “Suggestions,

overt, subtle, and all gradations in between, have been felicitously extended.” And John

declares that he should be “throw him to the wolves,” which Virginia mishears as the waves,

a thought which rolls in, and rolls back with the suddenness of yet more snorted derision

from Desmond, and again, Virginia finds herself between half-heard conversation, and,

whether deliberate or not, her gaze about the table wanders hand-in-hand with her mind,

catches the rise of Vita’s fingers to her lips to conceal a smile that reveals, despite this

glamour, grape clusters and pearl necklaces, that there is something loose fitting.

She reaches again for the wine glass, blurs the crescent moon of firelight on the table, and

sips the warmth of it, and, like the waves of the sea, the wine consecrates the past in a

dreamlike sheen, in memories blurred and comforting, the real and the imaginary

indistinguishable in a fragmentary nocturne. For a moment she closes her eyes, imagines the


bottom of the sea. Then, with a sigh, rouses herself. Her imagination lifts up its skirts and

tiptoes back to life: the clinking of glasses, the slapping of cards on the table, and the gentle

murmur of a piano she had never realised was being played.









Note: Inspired by the children who found Virginia Woolf's body in The River Ouse

in 1941 during World War II. The Title, ‘A Terrible Thing Has Happened’, is taken from the letter Leonard Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s husband wrote after her suicide.



A Terrible Thing Has Happened


There were two things Mrs L. M. Everland wasn’t.

She wasn’t married. Never had been.

And she wasn’t a good cook.

“It’s rabbit,” she said, putting the chipped white plate down in front of

Tabatha, “or it was,” she added, turning away, wiping her hands on the old

red dishcloth she so often had over one shoulder.

“I expect you’re used to much finer things. In London,” she said with that

glimmer of amusement in her eye as she set the tea kettle on the stove to

heat up for the fourth time that evening, and Tabatha sliced a

not-quite-boiled potato from a tin in half with her fork, forgoing the

blackened cubes of rabbit for now.

“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.

Mrs Everland sat down on the chair on the opposite side of the table with the

kettle slowly boiling behind her. She moved the jam jar of Hellebores from

the centre of the table to one side so that they could see each other better,

revealing the scorch mark in the middle of the table, and the old wax

pockmarks on the old scrubbed pine table where the candle had been in the

winter.

“Did someone give you those?” Tabatha asked, watching how the few

wilting yellowed leaves among the green quivered slightly in the gentle

breeze that came through the half-open window.

Mrs Everland smiled one of her secret smiles, gave the tiniest purse of her

lips and reached out to touch one of the yellow leaves that fell neatly into

her palm as if she had willed it.

“No,” she said, “I gave them to myself,” she smiled again, and held the tip

of the leaf between her thumb and forefinger, twirling it so that the light

caught the yellow and blotched brown turning it gold and bronze in the

sunlight that stretched half-way across the table between them, “like Mrs

Dalloway,” she paused again, “only I picked them myself, instead of buying

them.”

“Who’s Mrs Dalloway?” Tabatha asked, and Mrs Everland drew in a very

long, very slow breath, and then released it just as slowly. Peaceful, calm,

always. As if she half-existed in a dream, but only inside the house, once

outside the house she came alive only in the minds of the outsiders that

mistook her for cruel and unkind.

Different.

“She’s a character,” she said, “in a book,” and then, leaning forward

slightly across the table on her forearms, with hands both clasped about the

leaf, she said “a very wonderful book, written by a very wonderful woman,”

with her eyes glittering, dark and wide, and full of secrets yet and never to

be told.

She stood up, slowly, early spring light in the dark auburn brown of unruly

hair pinned with often-falling hairpins on the very top of her head, so that it

fell about her face in curls she never seemed to brush. Early spring light that

cast a fleeting warmth across her cheek, her lips, her chin, as she passed, to

the shelf in the kitchen, a board she’d put up herself with mismatching

black iron brackets, the emerald rings she wore, three of them, on every

other finger of her right hand glinting as she carefully eased a book from

between another and a big, clear glass jar of golden shining honeycomb.

She set the book down on the table in front of Tabatha, next to her plate, a

well-thumbed paperback with Mrs Dalloway in painted black writing inside

a yellow border.

She sat down again, reached across the table and slipped the leaf between

the cover and the first page, “bookmark,” she said, then rested back in her

chair, head to one side, regarding Tabatha with the faraway and yet

all-seeing look that only women are ever capable of having, and women like

Mrs Everland even more so.

“Do you miss them?” She asked, “your parents?” As if the question needed

clarification, and Tabatha pushed the half-moon of the mealy white potato

over with her fork while the tea kettle began its whistle, louder and louder,

and louder until the silence came, and Mrs Everland had taken it from the

stove and was pouring more tea into the big brown teapot.

“Here,” she set the little blue and turquoise glazed sugar bowl down in front

of Tabatha, “use the last of it. As much as you want. There’s always the

honey.”

That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.

Kind.

-

The next morning, early, while the sparrows were still singing in the

hedgerows and the spring sunshine was turning the shimmer of a light frost

to the warmth of new green grass on the fields, Tabatha walked to school

with the three other children evacuated to Rodmell, Lewes, a village

somewhere amidst the South Downs.

Tabatha, Nancy, Letty and Constance, all four of them eleven years old, all

four from the anonymity of London’s shroud of grey and white and the

murmur of pigeons in the eaves and alcoves of looming grey brick buildings

turned to rubble and the dull brown rats on the wet grey cobbles.

“I’ve heard things about Mrs Everland,” Nancy said, squinting into the sky,

shielding her eyes while she watched the planes fly in the distance.

“What sort of things?” Tabatha asked, watching the dew-shined toes of her

black boots as she walked.

“I heard she never leaves her house,” Letty said before Nancy had a chance

to answer, turning, grinning, brown leather satchel bumping against her

thigh.

“Well, I heard that she killed her husband. Poisoned him,” Nancy, who was

tall for her age with two long plaits of chestnut hair, said this with a pointed

look in Tabatha’s direction, “apparently,” she went on, “she cooked this

huge, sumptuous feast for him, everything he liked, desert too, and he ate it,

but he didn’t know she’s put poison in it first.”

“Don’t listen to her,” Constance whispered, leaning her head of tight

blonde curls close to Tabatha’s own and interlinking her arm with hers.

Nancy glanced back again and grinned a toothy grin.

“Then what happened?” Letty asked, kicking a small white round stone that

looked like one of Mrs Everland’s boiled potatoes into the grass from the

track.

“Then,” Nancy drew in a breath, thoroughly enjoying her role as revealer of

truths, “his blood turned to ice, just froze up in his body and he died in his

chair, just sitting there before he’d even eaten the stewed pears. They say he

was buried still holding his spoon because his body was so seized up they

couldn’t get it out of his hand.”

Letty screwed up her face, opened her mouth to say something, and then

closed it again.

“That’s not true,” Tabatha said, nonchalant, looking up now, edging on

defiant should the weather have called for it.

“And how would you know?” Nancy asked, all but rolling her eyes.

“She told me,” she said, “when we first arrived. She said, ‘they’ll tell you

about me, the people in the village, they’ll tell you I poisoned by husband,

but I can tell you that’s not true.’” she quoted.

“Of course, she’d tell you it wasn’t true,” Nancy laughed, “she’s not going

to admit it, is she.”

“She’s never been married,” Tabatha added, and Nancy’s smile faltered

slightly, “and,” now it was time for the nail in the proverbial coffin, “she

can’t cook.”

Nancy ignored her, and chose instead to look up again at the second arrow

of warplanes heading north, engines burning up the sky and the silence and

leaving a ring in the air that seemed always to be there, but never lasted

longer than it took to see them disappear.

“Well I heard she never got married because she was having an affair,”

Letty began, once they’d started walking again, this was her moment now,

and she paused for effect, “with a woman.”

“Who?!” Nancy asked before she could stop herself, now it was Letty’s turn

to look smug.

“A writer. She writes books, novels, she’s quite famous,” Letty said with an

air of authority, “although Mother said they’re not appropriate, she writes

stories about women who aren’t women at all, they act like men. One of

them, Orlando, kept turning from a man to a woman and did...all sorts.”

Nancy’s face twisted from alarm, through intrigue, to suspicion, “how do

you know?” She asked, and Tabatha felt the heaviness of Constance’s arm

through her own, and the weight of Mrs Dalloway in her satchel, as she

remembered the flush of Mrs Everland’s cheeks as she had set the book

down so carefully beside her, ‘...a very wonderful woman...’

Around the corner, they bumped into Arrick, an elderly man with a dog they

had passed every morning since last Tuesday, on their first day to school. He

tipped his cap to them, stepped aside so that his earth-brown boots

crunched the final frost beneath the hedges, and tugged the fraying string

rope gently to bring the little black and white terrier dog to his heels.

“Mornin’,” he said, as he tipped his hat, the thinning blue-white skin

beneath his eyes damp from the cold and his cheeks and nose a colourless

grey pink as they smiled their replies, “There’s something afoot up there,”

he raised his free arm that held a long hand-whittled cane and pointed

stiffly with the end of it in the direction they were heading, “something

going on,” he spoke slowly, and with an accent from further north.”

“What?” Nancy asked, all of them looking in the direction he pointed to, the

place furthest from the rising sun, where the fields still glittered and

shimmered with frost.

“I don’t know,” he lowered his stick, “men about, police by the looks of

things, poking about in the woods with sticks and dogs, Mitsy were scared

witless,” he tugged on the string so that the little dog with shivering legs

looked up at him with blinking dark eyes and twitching black nose, “weren’t

you?” he asked her, and she sat down in response, “I’d take the long way

round if I were you, down by the river,” he pointed again with his stick in a

more Westerly direction, where the fields hid the pathway that nobody but

the locals expected, down to where The River Ouse abruptly sliced the

landscape, small, snakelike and startlingly silver.

“Thank you,” Nancy gave their thanks as her own, quiet, unusually so for

her, still looking in the direction of the woods that seemed all but a mist and

smudge of grey on the horizon, “thank you,” she said again, suddenly

realising her manners, turning, smiling, and realising he had already begun

his shuffling stoop back on his way.

“Which way?” Letty asked, narrowing her eyes, like Nancy had, looking to

the trees, seeing only what was perhaps her imagination moving between

the trees.

“The river,” Tabatha said, “I know the way, Mrs Everland showed me the

other day when we were foraging.”

Nancy looked at her in the sceptical way she had inherited from her school

mistress mother, “foraging for what?” She asked, not yet quite convinced of

Mrs Everland’s innocence.

“Mushrooms,” Tabatha said, already setting off, Constance’s hand still

neatly tucked into the crook of her elbow, “and wild garlic,” she added,

when Nancy and Letty began, begrudgingly, to follow.

“I thought she couldn’t cook?” Nancy asked as they turned down the lane in

between the fields, the grass and the odd uncut blade of uncut wheat that

brushed the backs of their knees.

“She can’t,” Tabatha and Constance stepped over a rabbit hole in unison,

“but she does try,” she glanced briefly back at Nancy’s screwed-up face, her

feet wet inside her shoes from the grass, Letty trailing along behind her,

“and the garlic was for a remedy she made, it has antibacterial properties,”

she glanced again at Nancy, enjoying, fleetingly, the knowledge that when it

came to Mrs Everland, she was the expert, as much as one could be, after

knowing her only for a week.

“Sounds like witchcraft to me,” Letty said from the back, breathless and

pale, unused to walking for longer than the time it would take to step from a

London doorway to a carriage, but neither girl replied, they merely stopped,

in a line, stopped without thinking, the grass in its dew-lit glory melted

away to sand-coloured grit shot through with the glint of splinters of quartz

and feldspar, and the water, flat, calm, both grey and silver, gold and white,

sparkling beneath clouds that reflected the day in the cool of the water that

ran, seemingly unmoving beneath the old stone bridge they would cross on

their way to school.

“What’s that?” Letty asked, after a moment of silence where the air that

smelled of fresh-cut grass and the early morning smell of the Earth

warming held them, suspended within that moment.

“What?” Constance asked, quietly, not wanting to break the stillness.

Letty moved further down the slope toward the river, “that,” she pointed to

what looked like the ebb and flow of fabric the same colour as both the water

and the sky.

In silence, they followed Letty, Nancy just behind her, the soft bump-bump

of four school satchels and the scuff of shoes on dry gravel and grit, the

gentle lap of the water and the cheerful twittering of the birds the only

sounds in this Rodmell morning.

“What is that?” Nancy asked, and Letty stopped, now only feet from the

puckering fabric blooming and fading and blooming again from where the

old tree branches and sticks had dammed up a corner beneath the bridge,

then, slowly, ever so slowly, the colourless white of a hand, a knuckle, the

glance of a gold wedding band on a finger swollen and water-logged, and

the thin, long ripples that caught, not the fragile spindles of newly snapped

twigs from the trees, but the grey-brown of hair that pulled and

shimmered, and from somewhere in the near distance, from above, on the

outskirts of the forest, a man’s voice called, “Virginia?” in a voice that had

called for too long.

-

That evening, in silence, Tabatha and Mrs Everland picked Hellebores in the

garden, the flowers of friendship, love, strength and devotion, of silent

mutual support, and the ability to help each other through the trials and

tribulations of life.

They picked one of each colour, and she set them in the window in an old

enamel jug, in the dying light of day, for Orlando, for Mrs Dalloway.


For Virginia Woolf.



___


Elinora Westfall is a multi-award-winning writer of stage, screen, radio and literary fiction.

Her novel, Everland has been selected for the Penguin and Random House WriteNow 2021 Editorial Programme, and her short films have been selected by Pinewood Studios & Lift-Off Sessions, Cannes Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Camden Fringe Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, while her theatre shows have been performed in London's West End and on Broadway, where she won the award for Best Monologue.


Elinora can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @elinorawriter

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