THE BAG LADY
A GHOST STORY
Devised and written by Graham Pawley
Ethel Wainwright awoke with such a start she almost jumped out of her skin, and indeed, actually found herself standing bolt upright in her bedroom. Now a youngster might be capable of leaping out of bed without so much as a yawn or stretch, but for someone of Ethel’s advanced age, that was indeed a very strange event.
The early morning light of day had all but cast its spell of daybreak upon the gloom and dingy bedroom of Ethel’s tiny ground floor flat, and Ethel, not being one to dither, quickly took her dressing gown from the hook behind the door put her arms in it wrapped it about her and, while she tied the belt around her waist, thought about the day ahead.
No need for her to pull back the curtains for she had none to hang. No need, for it was the tree in the garden that gave her some privacy and which also absorbed most of any natural light, even on a fine summer’s day the pallid light in her bedroom veiled the furnishings and decor with gloom. The weeping willow tree which grew on their small shared front lawn had always been there, even before she and her Stan were given the keys to the place by the council way back in the spring of 1950.
That was when Ethel and Stan had moved from Reading, Berkshire, to London, Islington. Stan was a prison warder or screw as the cons or lags called them and he had told her the move would be just right for them, he had been offered a transfer from Reading gaol to Pentonville prison.
The prison governor at Pentonville, being a local councillor and serving on Islington’s local housing committee had managed somehow to acquire for his personnel, half the dwellings in Bride Street, which any con or screw knew was half a spit from the great metal gateway to hell that was H M prison.
Back in 1950 they were both young and had youth on their side. Stan had just turned thirty-four and Ethel was thirty. They had both wanted to move away because of family issues. Ethel’s parents were considered middle-class for they owned a small confectionary retail outlet situated within Reading’s main high street, and because Stan came from working class stock, and was, as her mother had persistently warned, ONLY a prison warder. Her parents resolved themselves to discourage her relationship with her Stanley from the very beginning.
Alas, the die and been cast from that day forth. And the more Ethel defied her parents and went out to meet her Stan, the more estranged her relationship with her parents became, and it wasn’t long before she and Stan thought about getting away from their troubles and on to somewhere else.
After all, she was hardly a child for goodness sake, and half the reasons why Ethel at thirty, was still unwed, was because each time she had brought a gentleman friend home to meet her parents her father or mother had found some excuse as to why their only daughter and child should not get herself too seriously acquainted. At that time Ethel remembered she had been very afraid of herself being left on the shelf becoming a spinster.
Stan who at that time had worked eight years as an ordinary warder at Reading gaol decided to go and apply for a transfer on personal and compassionate grounds. His personnel officer had been very sympathetic and subsequently had put Stan in for a transfer. Pentonville came along within a few weeks, and London, the bright lights, busy streets, and the prospect of the two making new friends beckoned them like some huge magnetic wonderland. They left.
They got married later that year in the September of 1950. Ethel’s parents refused to attend and that had really hurt Ethel. It had been the thin end of a wedge that over the remaining years of her parents lives had been driven in very deep, so deep in fact that when her mother died her father disinherited Ethel in his last will and testament and her three surviving aunts and only uncle did very nicely when the estate was finally realised and divided up.
Stan had served his time at Pentonville prison from 1950 up until he had passed away in the June of 1980 aged sixty-four. My, Ethel mused to herself as she walked from the bedroom through her small living room into her hallway, she paused at the doorway to her bathroom and thought, how long ago that was, twenty-eight years, and sadly for Ethel, since Stan died she had lived alone for every single second of it.
She had been an only child. Her parents had each died within two years of each other prior to Stan’s passing, and she had no family at all. Yes there were some distant cousins still left somewhere but where? She neither knew now nor cared. And her only aunts and uncles were now either dead and buried or as good as. Stan’s family were also either dead or so distant that even Christmas cards these past years had never been considered worth sending. Children for Ethel and Stan had not been allowed them, yes they had tried during the fifties but Ethel had never conceived. It had been a disappointment which both of them deeply regretted.
The need of cards for celebration days of any description had long since fizzled out, and Ethel had not written any such banalities for at least ten or twelve years. It had been a lonely existence for Ethel. Cities, Ethel thought, although teeming with people are the most desolate places on earth, for in the desert if one were to meet another soul then conversation would have to take on some form and shape, but here in London, one could wander for days in a sea of people and no one, not anyone, would take the bother to stop and pass the time of day.
She brushed her teeth and got dressed, she always dressed in her bathroom, it was warmer there as her hot water cylinder and immersion heater warmed her airing cupboard, and that was where she hung her clothes each night. At eighty-eight years of age and with December just around the corner she had learnt a trick or two about being nifty with her small income.
Dear old Stan had left her with a small pension, but she had hardly any income of her own for she had never worked under PAYE tax system therefore she subsisted on Stan’s pension and her own somewhat reduced old age state pension. Not that she was lazy at all for she had given many years of her life to voluntary service work.
Oxfam and the National Society for Cancer Relief, or as it is now known Macmillan Cancer Support, these two charities had been her life’s work, she had made them her business. Sorting through other people’s unwanted items, cast-offs, and jumble.
She had worked for Oxfam fifteen years before Stan’s passing and when Stan’s cancer had him bed-ridden at the end. Ethel had been so grateful to the nursing-staff who attended him and administered him his morphine that after his death she left Oxfam and went to help in her local cancer relief shop, and she had worked there on and off from 1981 until 2000 when she reached eighty years of age.
It was in these two positions that Ethel had learned that wealth was wasteful and often bordered on decadence while thrift was not only wise but also much more enduring and pleasing to the soul. In truth, Ethel despised the standards of today.
Today’s celebrity culture which saw huge sums of money paid to what were, in Ethel’s opinion, largely talentless individuals. What drove a person to indulge an audience of voyeurs to giggle and squirm when allowing rats to walk upon their face or ate worms and bugs like some jungle creature? Money! Ethel thought. And those that worship money also say that every man has his price. Well those idiots that do those disgusting things for money would say that, and that is the summation of anyone who thinks along those same lines. But not everyman can be bought or bribed with money, for her Stan was the sort of man that would rather have burned money on his bonfire than have a price put on his dignity and pride and standards.
Her Stan was above money, and that is not to say he was a snob or big headed. It was just because he knew better. He had been properly brought up with good old fashioned principles and through his work had seen so many ruined lives that for the most part money, and the greed and desire it created in the wretched Stan despised. And if her Stan had seen on television what Ethel had recently watched only the other night on ITV, why! Her Stan would have turned the telly off.
Take the banking system, which for almost all of Ethel’s life ran a foolproof system in which the banks had only, and somewhat reluctantly, lent borrowers money which they actually had in their vault, and here’s the point, money taken from willing investors who actually had real money to invest, rather than today, and the shambolic system of lending money which wasn’t their investors money to lend. In effect since 2001 the banks became as laundry houses. They laundered money through the markets driven by greed, it wasn’t even theirs to lend yet between them they lent seven-hundred-billion pounds or about one-hundred-billion pounds each year.
Where had this enterprise ended? The banks had no money left and now looked towards the government to bail them out. Of course it was the government’s fault for allowing this foolish practice to go on for the past seven years, the only reason they’ve stopped now is because all the money’s all dried up. Ah! Had they really assumed that it was never ending! ‘Bloody fools,’ Ethel said out loud.
The capitalists had long been exporting British made goods abroad, nothing wrong in that, for the life blood of any economy was rooted in its capacity of having a skilled army of workforce, capable of producing reliable products, be they nuts or bolts, machinery, cars, electrical, biological or medical pharmaceuticals, etc, etc, for exportation.
But now where is that skilled workforce? The capitalists selfishly and greedily decided that they would become richer and more wealthier if they moved the manufacturing abroad where people were hungrier and more willing to work for a quarter of their British counterpart, and subsequently, Britain had lost practically all of its skilled workforce.
No economy thought Ethel in her sharp and fertile mind could possibly sustain itself without a healthy export industry. No economy can flourish when all that is left is service industry jobs. They are as abundant as the autumn leaves and fall like confetti at a wedding when times are good yet are immediately swept aside as soon as the funeral cortege arrives to take the place before the altar where the happy wedding couple had themselves only a few minutes before stood. Skilled people earn more money, and so they should, and it was their money that was ultimately the life blood of Britain.
The capitalists thought only of themselves, their profit, and through their selfish neglect of the skills that people equipped themselves with over many years of service to Britain. Britain today had very little left to sell to the world.
And now Ethel thought, here we see the next disaster before it happens. For what person, who when mortgaged up to their hilt would decide upon a scheme of borrowing ever vaster sums of money in order to buy themselves out of their debt? Yes of course it can all be paid back later, but how? We have no export industry. And houses, thought Ethel, should not be considered investments to buy and sell like stocks and shares, for they are, or should be, places for people to live. And if the government was unable to pay off the national debt and turn that around into a surplus during the last boom period, during which the national debt actually increased. How on earth will it ever be paid off in the future?
No! Ethel had seen it all in her time, she left her bathroom and went through her hallway and back into her sitting room where she paused to check the time, 8.15 a.m. she then went through to her small kitchen, she carefully filled the kettle with just enough water for a cuppa and put her kettle on the gas cooker and made herself a cup of tea. She shook cornflakes from the packet into her breakfast bowl poured in the milk and sat down at her small kitchen table.
Her mind had been extremely active which was unusual for Ethel first thing. And now as she sat there eating her breakfast she decided upon what she would do with her time that morning. Since Ethel had given up voluntary work she had found it hard, even impossible to stop herself searching through bags. After all, when you spend five to six hours, five to six days each week, for thirty-four years of your life, emptying the contents of other people’s plastic bin liners or shopping bags it can get a bit habit forming.
And besides, during her service Ethel had enjoyed the prospect of seeing what other people considered old jumble and unwanted items. Some of the things she had found were brand new still wrapped in their original packaging. And some of the clothes clearly had never been worn more than once or twice and all they needed was washing and pressing and consequently had years of service in them.
And what about the time she had found five hundred-and-fifty pounds in fifties inside a hollowed out book that some relative of some deceased person had haplessly thrown out when clearing out that person’s house contents. Of course, Ethel had handed all of the money over to her charity, but how that thrill had left a strange taste for ever more thorough searches.
Of course, since those heady days when she had worked in charity shops it became necessary to lower her sights, for quality and charity are typically very good bedfellows. Whereas skips and public waste bins are typically full of rubbish. And because of how this generation’s psyche of buy now and pay later view people like Ethel. Ethel had become what most people would certainly consider a bin-diver or even a scavenger. A bag lady, even!
Supermarket skips were a favourite of Ethel’s, often she would find herself some cakes or a loaf of bread still in its packet, sometimes yoghurts, cheeses, even a chicken breast or packet of sausages. And providing she got there quickly and the weather had not been too warm Ethel often ate like a queen for nothing.
There was always competition, yet she knew a few good places and these she kept a closely guarded secret. Oh yes! If the banking system had been ran by Ethel Wainwright with her astute and canny mind, and note as much as this, not so much about making a measly shilling out of sixpence, but more like making five or ten or fifty quid out of thin fresh air. The country would be in far better shape, for she was certain that she could shit Gordon Brown and his Westminster chums out of sight when it came to handling money and making do. Ethel had had a lifetime of experience in this department.
Ethel knew how to sort the British economy out. For a start she would have all politicians living in one secure apartment block owned by the State. No longer would they be allowed to claim huge expenses from the Treasury for second homes based in London that all needed furnishing with ten grand kitchens and two grand plasma television sets.
The John Lewis list! They’d get fuck all but their wages thought Ethel. And Gordon Brown would not get one-hundred-and-eighty odd grand a year as she read he gets in the Sun newspaper recently, he’d be lucky if he got thirty grand. Tony Blair thought Ethel, there’s another sponger, what a prick he turned out to be. Jumped into bed with that stupid fucker George Bush without thinking about condoms and gave the whole of Britain the clap.
Ethel had read about Tony Blair, and how he could make as much as three-hundred grand for doing one after dinner speech and all this since he stepped down from Number Ten. He was now worth several million pounds and owned several homes. David Cameron wasn’t any better, for he had claimed every penny of his so-called John Lewis allowance of twenty-three grand a year to help pay his mortgage on his London based home.
And what about all the rest of them in Office who claim every penny of their various entitled expenses, and then say, that they paid their wives or boyfriends or offspring wages for secretarial duties, when in reality they shared out the cash between them and ran with it.
The whole shower of money grabbing shit down at Westminster fed like maggots from the State. Yet the corpse won’t last long when so many maggots gorge their fat faces day and night. And listen up to how they all tell the people of Britain who may claim some paltry benefit money or income support about if they’re found working while claiming benefit they could go to prison. How stupid is that for it would cost the State at least ten times as much money to keep one person in prison for one week than pay them one week’s benefit money!
She banged her cup down on the table. ‘Ethel,’ she told herself, ‘here you go again getting all worked up.’ And with that she was silent. Having finished her inward tirade Ethel stood up knocking the chair backwards against the kitchen wall. Normally Ethel would have washed up her breakfast bowl and tea cup before going out yet this morning she felt a real need to get out of the flat and do some serious walking. At eighty-eight years of age most people are buried or close to it. Yet Ethel had never allowed old age a chance to catch her napping, she was forever on the go and might walk between five and ten miles on any one day. And she went out everyday.
Ethel dressed herself in her woollen cardigan and long woollen winter coat with matching hat, she threw a long knitted scarf several times around her neck and then shoved on her feet her fleece lined rubber boots, she grabbed her knitted gloves from the hallway table where she had left them the day before and then took hold of three large strong canvas bags. The bags were her favourite bags and in them she had over time collected hundreds, if not thousands of pounds worth of goods. She put these inside a robust trolley. Normally the trolley would hold everything she was likely to find but just in case of finding some wonderful treasure, Ethel had the bags in tow just in case, these she could tie to her trolley if the need arose.
Ethel left her flat through her only door which led outside to the front of the house, but first she walked around to the left to check that her wheelie bin was still there in her small yard as the local kids often tried to steal the bins for they used the wheels for their homemade skateboards. Ethel had put a stop to this caper of theirs by smearing cat shit on the wheels and even the handle, that had put them off the scent. Ethel smiled inside at the thought, her bin hadn’t moved an inch.
She walked down her path and onto the pavement. She looked up and down Bride Street. The prison where her Stan had worked for thirty years was to her right while if she went left the busy Liverpool Road and Holloway Road or A1 as it was more popularly known stood in her way. That direction was not a favourite of Ethel’s, dodging traffic at Eighty-eight years of age was neither to be desired or indeed necessary. Decision made, Ethel went right and set off towards the prison.
Pentonville prison was an ugly monster of a building enough to scare the shit out of you. The building was finished in 1842 and was designed with a large central hall with five radiating wings, all of which are visible to the staff positioned at the centre. It was originally designed to house 520 prisoners, each prisoner had his own cell which measured thirteen feet long by seven feet wide by nine feet high. Not very big if you, like Ethel, enjoyed walking and taking fresh air.
Her Stan had often said when hearing some murder, rape, robbery, or assault, on the radio or television, that what they ought to do, the authorities, was bring school children into prisons when they were still at primary school aged five or six. Give me the child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man. It was one of Stan’s favourite quotes. Give them to me Stan would say and let me take the sweet and the innocent into Pentonville prison. Let me take them one by one into a typical cell and let me lock them in that cell on their own for five minutes each.
Let them smell a prisoner’s despair, let them glimpse a glimpse of his misery, let them see his iron bed, his little settle with its hinged lid that he lifted up to reveal his slop bucket, where he would piss at night, for he’d never dare shit for it was his job to clean it out every morning, and noon, and night.
Let them look up and see that nine feet of brickwork don’t extend to yonder blue sky with her sky larks singing or some dark infinite and mysterious starry cosmos. And let them try and look out of his only window which for any tall man standing don’t give him a view of any blue and opal sea or distant sandy shore. For the glass is always covered in grime, for prison cell windows were never cleaned from the one year to the next. At Pentonville her bars are not the ones for drinking bitter with friends while having a pleasant smoke and natter, for prison window bars are made of iron.
And he that looks between them every day of every year that burden weighs his pendulum slow and watches he his tiny world that shrinks a man his spirit knows the tears are his upon his cheeks and bitter taste when daily betwixt his bars his sore eyes are drawn to and out so sullen stare.
Let them shit themselves and when and only when I had heard their cries for help, he would say. Would I let them out! Yes, thought Ethel, my Stan knew what was needed. Cruel to be kind he was and would have swept them up in his arms on opening that great metal clanking door, his own eyes streaming with tears himself same as the scared kid within. And told him or her. ‘That providing they were good throughout their whole lives then they would never have to see the nasty smelly cell ever again for as long as they so shall live.’ Amen! Thought Ethel, as she walked ever closer to the prison.
That was of course until the same kids grew up a bit and were older at secondary school. Then Stan would say, let them visit Pentonville prison again. But this time I’ll take them one by one and show them the gallows beam. The one that when Newgate prison was finally condemned unfit for human beings and closed in 1902 came to Pentonville to continue with its illustrious service. In the early days they had done the executions in a garage that was used for the prison van, it housed the beam and had a twelve feet brick lined drop and the condemned prisoner had to walk twenty-five yards to the gallows.
It was a cruel walk for any man to take no matter what they had done to deserve it. But Stan knew the hell that was prison life. And he had seen it all in his day. Suicides, beatings, how some younger men had been brutally raped or made to perform the most humiliating and disgusting sexual acts for the chief cons in return for their own protection. For men will turn homosexual when years of celibacy and masturbation drive a man insane with lust. Prison should not serve to reform convicted men Stan had told Ethel. Prisons should serve as a reality that was so awful the fear of conviction and imprisonment was enough in itself to stop a person committing the crime in the first place.
Stan had endorsed his reasons for his own thoughts on crime prevention to Ethel by reminding her of the story of Henry Jacoby who had been just eighteen years old when he was hanged for murder at Pentonville during 1922. It had been before Stan’s time there but nevertheless Jacoby had been no more than a lad himself. He had been a hotel pantry boy and been discovered in the bedroom of one, Lady Alice White. She had screamed and Jacoby in his blind panic battered her to death. The jury at the Old Bailey had recommended to mercy, for they had not been convinced the lad had intended murdering Lady White but had only intended to rob her.
That was why Stan was so strict with himself about what was acceptable and what wasn’t. He was convinced that if youngsters knew something of the horror of prison life then that in itself, in turn, would save countless crimes and thus countless broken lives for it was not only the prisoners that suffered it was of course their families, too. Yes Stan thought it right during the fifties, his idea and concept of seeding young minds with fear by showing secondary school children where men were hanged.
Stan would show every youngster every detail and make certain they knew what fear of capital punishment really consisted of. For all men can experience fear but usually they only do so when it’s too late. One-hundred-and-twenty men were hanged at Pentonville between 1902 and 1961 on average two per year.
The new gallows at Pentonville were installed and built in the middle of one of the wings during the 1920s. It comprised of a stack of three rooms. The top most room contained the beam from which the 4” link chains were suspended for attachment of the rope or ropes for at one time they hanged men in pairs. The ropes hung down through the floor hatches. The adjusters for the chain gave the drop and each drop was different depending upon a person’s weight and height, the drop was gauged by the hangman. If he got it right the person’s neck broke instantly and that was that, get it wrong and one of two terrible consequences followed. The person either lost their head severed at the neck when the drop was too great or, and worst still, did not die immediately if the drop was too shallow.
The first floor room was painted green, and when the condemned prisoner was brought there to the cell it was usually a day or so before the day of his execution. They entered from the outside corridor into a small seemingly innocuous ante room where they turned left through a doorway and there found himself within a small cell with bed, toilet, table and chairs. This cell had two doors. The first the condemned man had entered through, and a second through which he expected to be led out to his execution.
On the exact hour of execution the second door would open and the hangman would stride into the cell with his assistant, he would greet the condemned man cordially while he would ask him to stand if he wasn’t already standing, the hangman would immediately turn him around and secure his wrists behind his back. By this time his assistant would have opened the first door, the doorway through which the prisoner had originally entered the condemned cell, the small ante room was no longer small for a false wall had been removed. And in its place the prisoner would realise the terror of his gallows and see his rope with his noose prepared for his neck.
Seven yards he was marched until he stood upon the hatch, the assistant then quickly tied his legs together while the hangman pulled a hood over the prisoner’s head, the noose was quickly around his neck and the eyelet of the noose skilfully and humanely positioned in the correct place about his neck to ensure a clean break. The hatch safety pin was pulled when the hangman and his assistant were away from the hatch the lever pushed forward, drop.
Ethel loosened the scarf around her neck and crossed Bride Street at the end of her road and stood on the corner there where Bride Street met with Roman Way. Directly opposite was the prison. The weather was cold and damp. The slate grey sky overhead and her thoughts about the gallows, and the state of the economy, and the poor standards which this generation venerated, and her aching loss she had endured daily for her dear Stan, almost overwhelmed her with grief, and she lent hard on the handle of her trolley.
She began walking south at a good brisk pace in the direction of Pentonville road, as she walked she pulled her empty trolley behind her, it was her shadow, for Ethel never went out anywhere without her trolley and it bounced now and rattled over the uneven pavements and banged up and down the curb stones as she crossed the busy streets. Ethel stared downwards at her black boots as she strode along the pavement. Suddenly a dark shape seemed to eclipse her and she looked up with a start but no one was there. She quickly turned around and her jaw dropped involuntarily.
‘My goodness,’ exclaimed Ethel. ‘Why, wasn’t that Jean hardbent?’ - what a rude old cow thought Ethel. ‘Yes’, she admitted to herself under her breath. They were not exactly the best of friends, yet they had lived in the same street now for the best part of sixty years. And she normally spoke a few words. Usually about her Jack, and his bad back or his piles or some other ailment or other. Her Jack mused Ethel, had died that many times according to Jean, that when he really would die! Ethel would find that so hard to believe that she’d have to go and see him and poke him just to make certain.
Perhaps, thought Ethel, perhaps, Jean’s feeling as shitty as I am about life and that’s why she had not spoken. Ethel walked down Rodney Street and turned left into the busy Pentonville Road. She now knew where she was heading. She walked on past a gallery on her left and also the crafts council building on the corner where Upper Street swung left. She turned into it and soon stopped where the crowd were waiting for the traffic lights to change red. The little green man lit up and Ethel heard the beep so crossed the road with all the other pedestrians at the four lane request stop.
She quickly headed into Angel underground station and was soon on the first set of escalators heading down when she suddenly realised that she had walked through the disabled ticket barrier without actually showing her freedom pass to the guard there. Then she remembered that he had just ignored her altogether! Yet the gate had opened all by itself as if by some magic spell. Probably, thought Ethel, as her descent was nearing completion. Probably, it had remained open from the last commuter passing through, they sometimes leave them open thought Ethel when the crowds swell.
It was then, as Ethel dragged her trolley along the main tunnel, which leads to the second set of escalators and takes one down to the northern line, Ethel heard some music being played that she had not heard being played in public places for a very long time. During the fifties and sixties She and Stan would often love to listen to Larry Adler, harmonica virtuoso. He was an American born in 1914 into a Jewish family. He had decided to leave America and emigrate here in 1949 leaving his roots behind because of false accusations of communist sympathies during the era of McCarthyism. And had settled here in London where he remained until he died aged 87 in 2001.
Ethel remembered all his tunes and whoever it was up ahead playing ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ really knew how to play the chromatic harmonica. For this song was one that Larry used to do and was actually written by his one time friend George Gershwin. She walked into the area that widened out when one approached the second set of escalators and there on her left stood a man performing on a busking pitch. Ethel ground to a halt for the music was very wonderful. So wonderful in fact that it beggared belief. He had no microphone or music to help accompany him with harmonies yet he really didn’t need any for on his own he sounded like a choir of angels.
Instantly Ethel felt paralysed, for she instinctively knew that she dare not move. It was just as if she had been quickly frozen in liquid-nitrogen and now, she feared that if she tried to move a muscle, at that exact moment, her whole body was likely to crack and fracture into thousands of tiny shards of ice. Goose bumps had frozen her skin to her body like tightly wrapped cling film and she rooted to the spot. For the young man playing the harmonica was a very young looking Larry Adler. He was no older than 37 years old.
Ethel had been six years his junior when Larry had been alive. Through music magazines, British cinema pathe news reels and television news, television shows and live performance. Ethel had watch him grow from a young man with dashing good looks to maturity and old age.
When Ethel had been single, and before she had met her Stan, she’d actually secretly fancied him, and at one time had a picture poster of him on her bedroom wall when she’d lived with her parents. And it had been a dream come true, when in 1952, and shortly after they themselves had moved to London, that she and Stan actually had the rare treat of going to see him perform live at a Royal Albert Hall Promenade Concert.
What a special treat that had been. And while she stood there in Angel underground station. Ethel realised that fifty-six years ago to be exact. Larry must have been thirty-eight years old. Stan and Ethel were smitten by his music. And whenever it were possible, Ethel and Stan had collected all his gramophone records and would often sit down of an evening with a glass of port and relax while Larry serenaded them. Ethel had loved that time with her Stan. They would sit side by side on their sofa, with their feet up on their large soft pouffe, talking and chatting about the day they’d had and listening to Larry.
She suddenly remembered herself when shapes of people crowded her from every angle and intimidated her. Her body reluctantly began to function and she did her best to move out of their way. She reached into her pocket for her purse and opened it. She often gave money to buskers, because she knew that they were not thieves like bankers or rogue builders were thieves. And thought Ethel, although some of them were known to claim benefit money and still busk. That money they earned all went back into their local economy, into the local businesses which were the life blood of real people with real lives.
And nothing like these so-called celebrities who were likely to eat dog shit for applause providing they received fat pay cheques and money which in turn was often spent on foreign and expensive holidays or second homes with distant shores. Thus raping Britain as the biblical locusts swarms spoiled the crops and orchards of ancient Egypt.
Such was the like of bankers and their ilk! Who had loads of money and kept it hidden away in foreign bank accounts secretly filed under names which had not christened them with passwords no one knew, for most of that money was stolen from the economy, and thus real people in one shape or form or another.
Besides all this, many people who claimed benefit sat about all day long doing very little, and as Stan had often said to her when seeing life from the inside out at Pentonville. Idle hands make mischief. And there was nothing idle about performing on the world’s stage, that thought Ethel, took some guts and self belief.
For buskers work alone and rely upon their sharpened wits and their skills which they had taught themselves. And that was enough for Ethel for she was very good at weighing up a person from their occupation. Yes thought Ethel. Busking was much more honourable in every sense than corporate workers who lost their lives and their souls within institutions pleasing bosses whom neither knew them nor cared providing that they made them money.
And regardless of what other people thought. Ethel knew that there were some souls who had to perform for it was what gave to them a life and a purpose. City men who wore grey pinstriped suits may think in their minds that they are indispensable to the great and wonderful revolving globe that holds us all here as prisoners. But the world didn’t need them for the world could function without them.
One had only to look to history to understand this fact for their time here was but a nanosecond in an infinite ocean of endless time. But music never was so and never is so and never shall be so. Music had been since the first person had heard the first morning chorus on the First Day of Creation.
Who and what had taught the first lark his part and chorus on that first morning symphony? The song thrush or the black bird or was it the cuckoo? And who was it that gave a nightingale his melody to sing during the first evening and sunset of the first day? Was it the owl that first night?
Therefore, if all these had a different sound and song to sing, then certainly, each sang as they had been given to. And while it is evident that the last had not imitated the first, for each sound different, it must now also be obvious that each were given a different sound and song to sing.
Therefore He that formed them also gave to each their sound. And therefore music had been before the worlds had formed. Before God had created even the worlds. For God was before Creation.
For silence is worse than having nothing. It is a miserable timeless shapeless vacuum of emptiness and aching void of solitude and despair. And if necessity was the mother of invention then music was created because of silence. It was a necessity. And with that Ethel stopped her musings.
Ethel took out a two pound coin from her purse and instinctively looked down to the place where the busker stood and performed. And there she searched for his hat or whatever it was he used to collect his cash gratuities. But Ethel could not see one anywhere? Indeed, there was no money there at all!
Ethel stared in amazement! She could not believe that he had not even been noticed, for she believed he should have been besieged with coinage. What tight fisted bastards thought Ethel. What was up with people that they could not appreciate such a beautiful rendition of Rhapsody in Blue?
Ethel lay her two pound coin in front of the busker and noticed out from the corner of her eye that he winked at her and bowed his head. There and then in that brief yet sincerest of moments there had been something they both knew and shared, for Ethel at eighty-eight years of age saw his pain and his gratitude in a fleeting second that was more honest than many months of pretence.
Ethel went down the escalator towards the northern line platform, and while the busker disappeared from her view a new song he began to play. Instantly, Ethel knew it, for she had heard Larry Adler play it so often ‘Blues In The Night’. Yes! It was one of her favourites. My good god, thought Ethel. For his timing and the key were exactly the same, just as it always sounded when she sat at home listening to Larry Adler and her gramophone. And her goose bumps were back. What a strange and completely unforgettable encounter!
Ethel climbed aboard her crowded train and stood there as the doors closed immediately behind her. No one noticed her and no one bothered to offer her their seat even though they’re supposed to offer the elderly and the disabled one of either two seats closest to the doors. What had life amounted to thought Ethel when young people thought only of themselves? So she stood there had stared at the young man opposite who was sitting down and seemingly doing a very good job of ignoring Ethel.
Ethel was the sort of person who went about her life in her own way and kept herself to herself. Since her Stan had died she had made a point of depending on no one and she would rather die or take her own life if the prospect of her, through some illness or other, had her looking at going into one of those wretched old age peoples homes. It was because of this resolve she had lasted so long on her own. She had needed to, for even her own parents had been worse than useless to her.
Ethel held on tightly to the metal bar by her shoulder with her left hand while her right gripped the handle of her trolley, the train lurched and swung from side to side as it belted along through the tunnel. Ethel loved every minute of it. She had always admired the railways, and the men who gave many years of their lives digging out their great underground warrens.
Stan once told her the deepest tunnels were more than two-hundred feet deep and had been dug out by hand with horse and cart. As Ethel looked about at the other passengers she wondered if they ever gave that fact a passing thought? Certainly not the young man sitting opposite her, thought Ethel, who lounged away in what should have been her seat. It was just as if she was invisible for he appeared to Ethel to be looking straight through her. The little shit.
The train began to slow down and Ethel waited until it finally stopped before she let go of the rail. The doors opened and Ethel dragging her empty trolley stepped from the train onto the platform at Old Street Station.
It was spitting with rain when Ethel walked outside and she pulled her scarf up round her neck and over her mouth, at her age she had to be careful not to catch her death. She went left and walked along busy Old Street heading for Shoreditch High Street. Tesco Express was her destination, it had been good to her on many of her outings.
The supermarkets were so wasteful throwing out wrapped sandwiches, meats and poultry, just because the sell by date had expired, and fruit and vegetables as soon as they showed any signs of turning. And as it was still nice and early Ethel felt confident that she would find something useful in the skip at the back of the store.
The thing with supermarkets mused Ethel, as she tramped her way down Shoreditch High Street is that they naturally expect customers to walk in through the front door and spend money and not to slip round to the back trade entrance where the bins and skips were kept, and therefore, security typically was non existent.
Naturally enough if they caught you there in the bins they would soon tell you where to go so it was always wise to be ready with some sort of credible excuse. Ethel’s favourite, and she had used it many times before when found with her hands in the bins was that she was looking for her Tabby, an imaginary cat that Ethel had loved so much and lost that many times!
Tesco was a busy store open Monday through to Saturday from 6am till 11pm and Sunday 8am till 6pm. With so many hours manning the shop within they did not waste time when it came to clearing out stock that was out of date. Ethel walked past the store and did her usual reconnaissance, there weren’t any lorries parked up the side so the signs looked good. Sometimes staff would hang about a bit round the back door having a smoke but it was still too early for morning tea breaks.
Ethel left the path went around the front of the shop to the right and was soon heading towards the rear yard. She soon turned left and there was the skip just where it usually was. She peered inside and her smile spread across her face. She could see about seven packets of assorted cooked meats which lay there on top of what appeared to be some bananas. Over the other side Ethel spied some broccoli and some leeks.
She moved really quickly now for this part was always risky. She removed her canvas bags from her trolley and these she stuffed inside her coat. The next thing was to pack her bag wisely so as not to damage any produce. She put all the cold meats into her trolley first and noticed the sell by date was only one day out of date, then the bananas a bit brown but nothing to worry about. Ethel went round the skip to the other side and grabbed the leeks and apart from their yellow leaves the main stalks were perfect, the broccoli was next and showing signs of yellowing but they could be trimmed.
All these went into her trolley with the consummate ease of someone who knew what Tesco was really good for. Ethel even said out loud, ‘Every Little Helps.’ And she practically wet herself at her ridiculous use of their silly slogan. Having done this she noticed a packet of tea bags which had been damaged, but on close inspection at least three-quarters of the bags looked clean and dry.
Yorkshire tea thought Ethel, that will do nicely. Just then a door banged hard against a wall causing Ethel to look up startled, there at the back of the store Ethel noticed a young woman coming out of Tesco’s rear exit. She had a cigarette in her mouth and was lighting it. Ethel chose to carry on looking in the skip and steeled herself ready to put her usual excuse into action.
‘Hi! Now don’t tell me cos I know.’ Said the young woman. ‘E is what I see! Edna, Effel, or Edie. I bet you’re an Effel. Ain’t ya?’
Ethel was so nonplussed at this stranger’s self-confidence and apparent sorcery that she just stared up at the young woman who was now standing on the landing at the top of the steps. Unexpected and unparalleled. The situation was a complete first. What a strange morning Ethel was having. First that weird business with what looked to be a young Larry Adler at Angel tube station. And now this person who seemed to know not only her name. But her outward confidence betrayed the fact that she might know a lot more besides!
Normally Ethel went about her business without having to explain herself to anyone and she was happiest when she arrived home without having to. But this young lady was the first person that morning to have noticed her at all, apart from that busker, he’d certainly bowed his head and winked at Ethel when she had given him her two-pound coin.
‘You’re not sure about me dear, are you?’ Said the young woman. ‘But I bet yer name is Effel. Am I right?’ And with that she confidently blew out a plume of smoke which quickly blew away in the wind.
Ethel conceded and nodded her head.
‘Me name’s Tracy. And I’m ever so pleased to meet you.’ And with that Tracy walked down the steps from the doorway and was soon proffering her hand to Ethel as a gesture of friendship!
Ethel could not do anything other than also offer to her her hand, as it would have been very rude to refuse. And there they shook each other’s hand. Tracy was a plain spectacle to behold and her Tesco outfit did nothing for her shape which was dowdy. She was a bit on the plump side mid-twenties and had spots and blemishes which looked cultivated and farmed by her greasy unkempt mouse coloured hair. The whites of her eyes were yellow through lack of sleep or cigarette smoke, and her pale blue eyes were completely uninspiring.
‘Yes! I’ve seen yees before.’ Said Tracy. ‘When I used to work ’ere on the checkouts. You’d walk past the front window and nip round the back. Then ’alf an hour later, off I’d see ya go wiv ur bags all filled up as like. You’re one ov those bag ladies, innit?’ Tracy smiled, and her yellow and brown teeth made it plainly obvious to Ethel that Tracy and dental hygiene had never been introduced let alone acquainted with one another.
Ethel rose up to her full height ready to deliver her rehearsed reply but the words got caught in her throat. Besides, you can’t fool all the people all of the time. ‘Yes. I am.’ Replied Ethel. ‘But I don’t understand. What do you mean used to work here on the checkouts you seem dressed in their corporate outfit of blue trousers and blue checked shirt? Have they given you another job shelf-filling or some other such duties?’
Tracy, for the first time looked baffled and a little concerned. She stared at Ethel as if she were a ghost which had just surprised her when jumping out of a stairwell cupboard. ‘Effel.’ Asked Tracy puffing on her fag. ‘You live on ur own, don’t ya?’
‘Yes, but I don’t understand Tracy. How do you know that I live on my own?’ Ethel was getting a bit concerned and Tracy could sense her distress.
‘Effel, I don’t know ow to tell you this because it’s difficult see. But I ’ave to tell you dear that you ain’t no longer a caterpillar! Very recently, perhaps it was only last night, you changed into a butterfly. And it’s like you don’t even know it as yet. Wicked! Innit?’
‘A butterfly! What on earth are you saying Tracy! What do you mean by butterfly?’ Ethel was confused.
‘You’ve gone and popped ur clogs Effel! You’ve snuffed it! And you don’t even know it!’
Ethel’s jaw dropped wide open and she couldn’t speak a word in reply. Every time she went to think of a reply she couldn’t form the correct sentence for her words were all jumbled up. She was reeling from the idea. Then she blurted out. ‘Don’t be so bloody silly with me! Do I look stupid?’
It was right there and then at that exact moment the situation took care of itself. For immediately Ethel finished her sentence their attention was averted to the rear of Tesco. The door which Tracy had left wide open a moment earlier. Opened! And banged against the wall, and two lads came out dressed in Tesco uniform and holding cups of hot tea or coffee. They both had cigarettes and lit them.
‘Effel,’ said Tracy. ‘The tongue can’t lie about what the eyes will see that the ears can’t hear and the sight can’t see! Now stay ’ere and watch this.’ And with that Tracy stepped out right into the field of vision of the two lads chatting away up on the landing of the steps. What followed was the most absurd spectacle that Ethel had ever witnessed in all her life.
Tracy began to break-dance! It was the sort of dance that Ethel would never try to attempt to do. She was too old and it looked far too silly. She had seen youngsters on the television doing similar such moves and shapes and Ethel thought that it was something to do with rap or hip hop. Tracy was rather good at it and while she threw some shapes in front of the two lads she began to make the strangest pops and raspberries using her tongue and also her fingers against the sides of her cheeks. And mixing this with swishing and whizzing noises through her pursed lips, some sounds were base guitar while other sounds gave her a rhythm that sounded close to that of drum beats. She was beatboxing.
Meanwhile to Ethel’s amazement and sheer terror. The two lads did not batter an eyelid before Tracy. It was now obvious to Ethel that they could not see her or hear her. Between them they just carried on talking amongst themselves drinking and smoking. Completely unaware of Tracy’s spectacular and impromptu live performance. Quickly shifting through her gears now Tracy selected the overdrive button on music’s-Mustang and she Roared down the fast lane of hip hop rap with beatbox accompaniment and all this not less than six feet in front of these two young lads eyes:
Tracy, now spinning in circles half ballerina half mad began to rap or as it can be known Mcing. She stopped spinning and in between her beats buzzes and raspberries she sang in rhyme:
‘I don’t care if you ignore me guys …
‘Cos you’re full of shit … And you tell way too many lies …
‘Neither of you cried the day you heard I’d died …
‘For like everyone else you wrongly called it …
‘But I’m no longer hurting … you hear me BOys…
‘The hell that I endured while you played Wiv Ya TOys …
‘My life it was shitty an’ all without … self-PITY…
‘For there’s nothing so tragic than using that Powerful MAGIC …
‘Boys … Hear the story of time tick! Tock!
‘The pendulum swings backwards n forwards …
‘To and fro… but ain’t no clock …
‘That arc and length …
‘Your whole life the seeds never sow…
‘From the first day you’re born till … God only knows …
‘And the last thing that you do …
‘And the way that you leave …
‘Has nothing to do with you …
‘Never say goodbye until there’s a real need …
‘Boys will be boys but it’s silly to deride …
‘As the last thing that you’ll do on earth …
‘As the first …
‘Was never really yours to choose or decide.’
A moment after Tracy finished, the boys finished their cigarettes and went back into the shop and closed the door behind them. Both had been completely and totally unaware of Tracy or Ethel’s presence.
Tracy turned around and looked at Ethel and as she did so, she half raised her arms by her sides her body language indicating to Ethel that she had nothing at all to hide from her.
And it was there and then that Ethel recollected how she’d woken first thing that morning with such a start that she literally leapt out of bed and found herself standing bolt upright and wide awake. Ethel slowly realised that it must mean that her dead body was still at home in her bed in her flat. ‘Oh! How dreadful!’ Exclaimed Ethel loudly.
‘Well, please yourself Effel, and don’t mind me. But I thought that was pretty good for a quick make do effort.’ Protested Tracy.
‘I’m sorry dear, I didn’t mean I mean I wasn’t meaning I mean I hadn’t meant to put you down. It was only that I have just this moment realised something terrible. My dead body is at home in my bed.’
It was a ludicrous statement to make, but when you yourself actually die, believe me lots of strange things begin to happen that one would never expect. And then Ethel wept, and Tracy threw her arms about her and comforted her until her sobbing subsided.
The two new friends let go after a short while and Tracy gave to Ethel a clean tissue to wipe her tears away. Ethel looked at Tracy and saw that she was close to tears herself but also had a sympathetic smile of rare and honest empathy.
Tracy was quite a short girl standing about five feet four inches so she stood about two inches below Ethel. She had short black spiky hair that had a tint of copper to it with a bit of a gothic punk look. She wore black shoes, black tights with a short black mini skirt, her T shirt was black with THE ENEMY emblazoned across her breasts in large bright and jagged yellow letters. And she wore a black harrington jacket with a red tartan lining. All this fitted very neatly on her petite size ten figure.
Her skin was so smooth and pale without any spots or blemishes and she did not use makeup at all as she really had no need to. Her eyes were of great beauty. Her iris’s were bright green like emerald gemstones which sparkled brilliantly as diamonds will when in a darkened room catch the light from a nearby candle, and her eye ball or sclera was of the Purest Purest white. They were not real for they were ethereal.
‘My goodness!’ Exclaimed Ethel. ‘Tracy! Why you’ve CHANGED! Your appearance! Your look! How? I don’t understand. My! What a morning I’m having. It’s enough to give an old girl like me a heart attack!’ And then Ethel began to laugh uncontrollably. As she realised that she was already dead … actually alive!
‘Ethel.’ Said Tracy, and with best elocution. ‘Welcome to the world of spirit.’ And Tracy smiled and her teeth were perfect. Like special pearls each one looked to be crafted as by a master jeweller and carefully set next to its neighbour so as to complement. The two sets both top and bottom looked perfectly aligned to one another and each tooth in each set was mirrored by perfect symmetry about the centreline in size and shape and the whole formed a breath taking smile.
‘My god, you are beautiful Tracy, but please forgive me my dear as this is all going along far too quickly for me. I don’t know what to say.’ And Ethel held her hand tightly over her mouth too afraid of what she wanted to ask Tracy. Through fear of an answer she would not be able to deal with!
There followed what felt like minutes in the final seconds of someone’s life when hurtling towards the pavement from the sixteenth floor. The conclusion was certain the impact awesome the fallout for all concerned messy. But that was the strange truth and threshold where Ethel now found herself standing.
‘I have so many thoughts so many questions.’ Whispered Ethel, as if afraid she could be overheard. ‘And I don’t understand how you can change your appearance? How can I be here yet also be dead? How can I handle real objects like my trolley, my clothes, these teabags and other things which I just this moment collected from the skip?’ She raised her voice as if realising the fact that no one else could actually hear her. No one alive! ‘How can that door which I know you left wide open, open again when those lads came through it?’
Tracy nodded her head at every question Ethel put to her and smiled inwardly, the sort of smile that the eyes gave away when someone knows exactly the answer to an improbable question everyone is asking yet no one can answer, the sort of question that even scientists would be hard pressed to evaluate and solve.
For knowledge is a powerful narcotic.
‘Okay Ethel, I know exactly where you’re coming from because I came asking the same questions after I’d died. And like you I died really quick and found myself standing there not really certain if I was dead or alive, that was until I saw the mess that used to be one Tracy Coleman. And I’m going to tell you exactly what you need to know without getting all scientific or intillectual.’ Tracy paused and looked at Ethel.
Tracy then took hold of Ethel by the hand and squeezed. ‘Can you feel that?’ asked Tracy.
‘Yes I can.’ Replied Ethel.
‘The world of spirit is a world that is as real as the world we have left behind. It is a world where the mind of the spirit is the reality rather than the reality existing outside the mind. And this is the difference between what we are and what we were, in its most basic guise.’
Tracy picked up Ethel’s trolley which was filled with the things which she had collected from the skip and swung it round quickly in the direction of the skip. What happened next made Ethel gasp out loud with surprise. The trolley passed right through the skip and out the other side without a whisper. It was as if the trolley was made of fresh air and had no substance. Then Tracy did exactly the same manouver again. She quickly swung Ethel’s trolley against the skip … CLANG! And this time it banged hard against the side of the skip and fell to the floor spilling half its contents everywhere!
‘Oh my god!’ Exclamed Ethel. ‘Well I never. Whatever next? This is fantastic.’ Proclaimed a completely flabbergasted Ethel. ‘But how on earth did you do that Tracy?’
‘This trolley of yours is a projection of your thoughts Ethel, that is all, as the clothes are that you are now wearing. When you died, you, that being your spirit, left your body wearing the clothes that you were wearing before you died. The body, your dead body, which now lies at home in your bed still has the clothes on which you dressed in when you went to bed. Your day clothes are exactly where you left them when you undressed and went to bed last night, as indeed are the trolley, your boots, everything you last touched when you were alive is exactly as it was before you died and now at home.’
Tracy paused to let Ethel think about all this information which she knew would be so hard for her to handle and come to terms with. ‘The trolley.’ Said Tracy. ‘Passed right through the skip the first time because I knew it would. I told myself it would because I know it can only be a part of your personality, and thus a part of your mind. Then, when I swung it the second time I told myself it was real, as real as the skip. And in every sense it is as real as the skip. …
‘In the world that we have left behind everything created was conceived through the process of thought. Whether created by God or created by people. Everything exists through the power of the mind, but in the world which we have left behind we have to make the thought a reality through a physical action from invention to creation. It takes what we term, or used to term, work. …
‘The world of spirit is mind total, and therefore from invention to creation is a process that cannot include work because the mind of the spirit is the reality rather than the reality existing outside the mind.’ Tracy stopped to allow Ethel time to understand.
‘Okay.’ Ethel said. ‘I’m beginning to understand, but how can these leeks be the same leeks as the ones in the skip? As they’re no longer in the skip they’re here on the floor where they fell!’ And with that Ethel picked up the leeks from off the floor and held them up for Tracy to see.
‘Good girl Ethel.’ Said Tracy. ‘You know, you really are a bright lady. It’s obvious to me that you were still playing with a full deck right up until the day you died. Okay bring them with you and come with me.’
Tracy led Ethel over to the skip and took her round to the side where Ethel had collected her leeks from only a few moments earlier. Ethel peered in the skip and just as she thought, there weren’t any leeks left there remaining. ‘There you are you see Tracy, there are no leeks.’ Exclaimed Ethel.
‘Remember what I said Ethel, the mind of the spirit is the reality rather than the reality existing outside the mind. I want you to look in the skip while you tell your mind that the leeks you hold in your hand are purely a product of your mind.’
Ethel looked in the skip and did exactly what Tracy had asked her to do, but the more she looked the more nothing happened and the more frustrated she became! ‘Nothing is happening Tracy. The leeks are still in my hand. They are firm and real and there’s no leeks at all in the skip.’
‘Ethel.’ Guided Tracy. ‘Just relax don’t even try and force it. Just look in the skip and relax let your mind go blank.’
This time Ethel looked in the skip and did her best to relax but still she could not see any leeks there at all. Then after some minutes she saw some movement and then! Just like a 3D puzzle revealing its hidden images when the eyes relax Ethel yelled ‘Yes! There they are I can see them. They’re still in the skip, but goodness gracious they’re also still in my hand as well!’
‘There you have it Ethel in a nutshell.’ Said Tracy. With a very sincere smile on her face. ‘The world of two parallel realities coexisting within one another. One completely invisible from all five of the six senses when viewed from one side. The two completely parallel and real when viewed from the other.’
And with that succinct statement there wasn’t anymore that needed saying. It was better that way and both of them instinctively knew that. This world, meaning the world which both of them had left was full of overbearing windbags, who would have murdered this subject in five volumes or six movies and thus killed the mystery. For although we have nailed some truths to the mast we know that there are many more still sailing out there in the wind.
‘Ah! My dear old Ethel. My dear old girl.’ It was a real choker of a scene and Tracy felt almost as if she were eavesdropping or worse still peeping over the top of a garden wall upon an acutely personal and sensitive scene.
Tracy stood just inside Ethel’s bedroom door. Ethel meanwhile, sat midway on the edge of her bed looking down at the mortal remains of what had been for eighty-eight years her life. Ethel took hold of Ethel Wainwright’s limp hand and held it firmly within her own. Her other hand instinctively caressed and tidied her hair which had fallen across her forehead.
‘You look all in old girl. I’ve never seen you looking so tired.’ Her hair had been a natural grey for many years but Ethel hadn’t even noticed herself how white her hair had grown in recent years. It was white as snow. Her skin was naturally wrinkled through age and weathered bronze for she had walked everywhere in all weathers, but to see herself now actually in the flesh, all eight stones, was so much more personal, so much more final and therefore intrusive, that the effect struck her to her core.
It gave her spirit flesh goosebumps and her tummy contracted tightly and made her ache from within.
Mirrors only give the viewer a two dimensional picture whereas, Ethel now, could look, could touch, feel, her life, her death. Her eyelids were closed for she died in her sleep. She looked at Ethel’s mouth, it was closed and Ethel thought there was something of a serene smile, that smile thought Ethel as if remembering something from long ago, was kept for one person only. Her Stan.
So had Stan been here when Ethel died? She had heard stories about how a loved one would be waiting on the other side when a death drew nigh and a passing over grew imminent. And Ethel had always hoped that her Stan would be the one waiting for her to take her hand in his and lead her off to wherever spirits were meant to go to after they had passed over.
It was then that something either real or imagined came to Ethel’s mind. The golden heart shaped locket that Ethel had worn around her neck since her wedding day, the one Stan and saved his overtime money to buy for her, the one that had two small black and white photographs of each of them one in each half and taken on their wedding day was hiding from Ethel’s view.
She could just make out the fine gold chain around Ethel’s neckline yet the locket had slipped inside the top of Ethel’s nightdress. Silently as the wings beat together of a butterfly when hovering around the flowers in the garden on a summer’s day. Ethel concentrated her mind and her spirit fingers gently retrieved Ethel’s locket. It was wide open! There thought Ethel, how unusual? And she immediately felt for the locket around her own neck, her spirit locket was there, yet the locket remained typically closed.
So Ethel Wainwright deceased, must have seen something Ethel the spirit had not, for what other explanation could there be to explain this rather odd discrepancy?
Perhaps Ethel had opened the locket before going to sleep and forgot all about it. Then later died and the rest we now know. That was a possible explanation however, it took no account to the trace of that smile. And now the more Ethel looked the more she could see. For in the open locket a thirty year old Ethel wore exactly the same smile on her wedding day.
‘It was me that opened up your locket Ethel. Who else has been here and who else would know of it but he that gave it to you almost sixty years ago.’
‘Stan!’ Ethel blurted the word out like a bullet from a barrel. She swung round to her right and looked up into the face of a thirty-four year old Stanley Wainwright. He was dressed head to toe in exactly the same clothes which he had worn on his wedding day. ‘Hello duch, I’ve missed you so much, come here and give us a cuddle.’
Tracy stared on with ever widening eyes, and wept ever bigger crocodile tears. Her tears literally sploshed onto her black shoes, for there is seldom anything as moving as witnessing a reunion such as one like this, especially after so many lonely years spent apart.
Ethel stood up to embrace her Stan and as she did so the years fell from her. This mortal world condemns youth, despises even, for time governs everything here from the cradle to the grave. The effect the years had taken on Ethel fell from her, they fell like water droplets fall from a swan’s plumage, when the bird cuts itself free from gravity, and thus the world beneath its feet. When the fleeing footstep kicks off the lake water for the final time and the wings expand in sunlight. When grace and beauty are crowned king and queen and reign forever in the stead of those impostors old age and infirmity.
Tracy had never experienced love as an unconditional emotion. Her own experience of love was that it came at a price but that can never be love at all but blackmail. She was only twenty-four years old when she jumped from the platform into the path of a train at Paddington station three months earlier.
Her life was still very raw to her and she couldn’t move on because she knew nothing better. She spent her days in and out of Tesco because that had been one of the few places in her short life where she had truly found some sort of happiness. A sad epitaph to a young woman who with help and support could have done so much more with her life.
Ethel and Stan embraced. They were each like Aladdin’s genie, escaped from a golden heart shaped locket where they had been held prisoners for too long for they were now as they had been on their wedding day in September 1950.
It was then Tracy noticed the light in the room had changed. She instinctively looked up and when she did so she saw a great void opening. A great tear pulling apart the atoms that hold together this mortal world. And a world where everything is governed and everything served day and night by three ever moving hour minute and second hands.
The clock face howls and barks its commands. Tick tock time to rise! Tick tock time to work! Tick tock time to eat! Tick tock time to sleep! Tick tock time to die! Yes! That was what Tracy had heard the station clock say to her just before she jumped at Paddington.
The room went completely black as soot as if all the light that had been before was inferior before the true light that Tracy sensed was coming.
Something flew across the pitch black void high up. It had looked to Tracy like a swan but Tracy wasn’t certain for she had thought the figure had the face of a boy! Suddenly a dot of light sparkled way up in the ether it grew steadily wider and brighter and was focused on Ethel and Stan it came down so quickly it made Tracy jump backward with such a fright! Suddenly Tracy now realised her worst fears!
Her scream came from deep down in her soul. It came from the day her teenage prostitute junkie mother had pushed her from her filthy womb. It came from the years of sexual and physical abuse suffered at the hands of those people that were suppose to look after kids like Tracy. It came from the day she got sacked from Tesco for allegedly stealing cigarettes when Robert had used her as his unwitting mule to carry his fags out in Tracy’s shoulder bag.
Tracy screamed. ‘Don’t Leave Me Here. PLEASE.’
Tracy LEAPT forward in the direction of where Ethel and Stan had been standing a moment earlier. Yet all she could see now was the shabby advertisement poster pasted to the curved wall of the Bakerloo line tunnel. She suddenly saw the steel rail tracks beneath her prone body coming up to meet her. She could hear now every steel wheel squealing its own personal agony and grinding sparks on the steel railway tracks. There she saw the train driver’s face pressed against his windscreen thrown off balance by the force required to stop the speeding train.
Do angels really exist? If they do they’re very good at hiding. In one superb and defining moment one such being plunged vertically out of the void like a peregrine falcon wing tips crisscrossed over his ankles he checked his trajectory in front of the speeding train with minute finesse. His wings outspread he sped along in front of the train inches from the tracks and in one merciful movement cleaved hold of Tracy’s spirit in one hand. His body was the colour of creamy white marble yet in a state of liquid flux and a physique had he of an Olympian. His huge wings formed the shape of a discus and in one blinding flash went up.
The void was no more the rent had healed and Ethel’s bedroom returned to exactly as it had been. The only person there was the late Ethel Wainwright.
Jean Hardbent woke and looked at her bedside digital clock. They had bought this clock back in the seventies. That was the decade when the digital clock and his red neon figures really came into fashion. The time was five minutes past three in the morning.
‘Jack! Jack! Wake up will you.’ And Jean elbowed her husband in the small of his back until his awful bloody snoring abruptly interrupted his sleep apnoea, and grunts, gurgles, spluttering coughs and chesty wheezes gave Jean, the opinion at least, that vital signs of life were still for the moment confirmed positive.
Jack farted right in Jean’s crotch as she attempted to wake her semi comatose husband. Jack could have been dead what with the smell from his putrid fart, and the time it took him to come back to the surface. So Jean decided that light was needed, bright blinding light, and so half out of need, and half out of relishing Jack’s discomfort. She reached up for the light cord which dangled over the bed and pulled with all her strength.
Jack blinked away like some sort of hamster that had been rudely tipped out of winter hibernation by some cruel kid who wanted to play and poke him for amusement. ‘This had better be important Jean. I, I, I was in a very deep sleep, and I, I doubt now if I’m going to be able to return after you’ve just buggered me up.’
‘Jack, I think something has happened to Ethel Wainwright. Why, I’ve just this minute had the strangest dream. Stan and Ethel Wainwright came round and knocked on our door. I answered it, and Ethel just kept pointing to her flat. I have a feeling that something is wrong.’
‘So, what do you want me to do about it at this hour of the night?’ Exclaimed Jack.
‘Seeing that Ethel don’t own a telephone we’ll never sleep sound unless we investigate. I suggest we get dressed and go and see.’ Jean threw the duvet back and swung her short fat legs onto the bedroom floor. She quickly located her slippers and stood up. ‘Oh! No! You don’t Jack Hardbent.’ And Jean quickly snatched hold of the duvet from Jack’s grip and yanked the cover right off the bed.
Jack lay there on his side curled up in the foetal position like a little fat Buddha. The cold air in the bedroom had the desired effect and in a strange sadistic way seemed to breathe life back into Jack for he actually began to move all by himself. Reptiles need to lay in the morning sun in order to warm their bodies before they function properly. Well here was something quite new, little fat men needed a cold kick up the arse before they could move all by themselves at 3am on a freezing cold winter’s morning.
Jack slowly dragged himself into a sitting position and sat on the edge of the bed. He held his head in his hands and kept rubbing his eyes. ‘Well unless you get yourself dressed soon Jack we may as well have waited till the morning!’
And with that Jack’s sizeable bottom did something that was akin to aviation history its undercarriage lifted from the mattress and seemed to stall just for a moment, then there was a grunt from Jack’s mouth which in turn seemed to work a spell at the other end. A great ripper of a fart erupted and this seemed to provide him with just enough thrust! Hey presto! His arse was actually in the air.
‘Men,’ Said Jean under her breath. ‘The only bloody things they’re good at is eating, drinking, snoring, farting and moaning.’
About half an hour later they were both dressed and ready. Both had their overcoats on as it was freezing cold outside. Jean had her handbag and the front door key to Ethel’s flat that Ethel had placed in her trust some years earlier. They had been neighbours close on sixty years and Jack had worked with Stan at Pentonville. Life was so unfair when Stan died and left her all on her own.
Jean made certain Jack had his torch and they opened their front door and went outside. It was a white frost and all the cars were covered. Jack quietly closed the front door. They quickly walked up Bride Street crossed the road and walked up the short path by the weeping willow tree to Ethel’s modest front door. Jean found the little knocker and gave it three sharp taps. Nothing. She did exactly the same again and waited. Nothing.
Jean inserted the key in Ethel’s lock and opened the door, she searched for the hall light switch and felt it click the light came on and in they went and shut the front door quickly. They felt ill at ease because of the strangeness of the situation.
‘Ethel, Can you hear me my dear? It’s Jean Hardbent.’ She shouted from the hallway as they moved along from the front doorway. Jack switched the lights on as they went from the hall into Ethel’s small sitting room. There was no answer and Jean sensed that Ethel was in trouble.
‘Jack I think something’s happened to her, don’t you?’ ‘Well we’d better take a look in her bedroom first.’ And with that they crossed the sitting room towards the bedroom. Jack felt for the bedroom light switch and turned on the light. Jean and Jack stood in the doorway and peered into Ethel’s bedroom and could make out the form of Ethel laying in her bed.
‘Ethel!’ Called out Jean. ‘Are you Alright?’ There was no answer so they entered the room together. ‘Oh my! She’s passed away Jack look at her, the poor old girl’s gone and left us without saying goodbye.’
Jean and Jack Hardbent moved along the side of the bed until they stood right over Ethel. Jean then carefully touched her hand, the one that lay on top of her blanket, it was cold as ice. ‘Well there you are Jack I told you something was up and here’s the proof. She must have been worried about who would find her so she contacted me in my sleep to come and see.’
‘Yes your right Jean.’ Jack agreed. ‘We had better phone for an ambulance or her doctor. They will have to come and collect her tonight we can’t leave her here a moment longer.’
Jean took out her mobile phone and dialled 999 she did not know what else to do and she felt all panicky and upset. Jean had been friends with Ethel for most of her life and they had been through ups and downs over the years.
The emergency operator listened carefully to everything Jean said and asked her and Jack to wait there as she would need to send an ambulance first of all to establish an official death and then the undertakers can remove her body.
While they waited Jean and Jack just looked at Ethel and commented on how peaceful she looked, they both said she had a smile on her lips and then Jean noticed her locket was open. Jean then let out a little gasp! ‘Oh Jack look! I never mentioned this before Jack because, it would have sounded so silly, but in my dream Ethel and Stan well, eh, they were both as they were on their wedding day! They were both young again! Jack they were both dressed in the same clothes as they’re wearing in these old photos in Ethel’s locket. They were dressed to get married.’
Jean carefully lifted the locket from Ethel’s neckline and it was then she noticed that the locket was the type that had a little catch which when depressed opened another little page and place for an extra photograph. Jean carefully pressed the catch and the little page popped open. Jean carefully turned it over and inside was a brand new photo taken in black and white of a young lady. She had the most beautiful sparkling eyes and perfect smile, her skin was smooth as white porcelain and her hair was jet black styled in a gothic punk.
‘Well I don’t know who that young lady is Jack? Ethel never mentioned Stan had any nieces.’ With that Jean carefully closed the locket and laid it very gently on Ethel’s neck.