It was a cold night, that Christmas eve night, as we walked back from the pub. Warmed from the fire and the food and the beer, we hunkered down inside hats and scarves and coats and boots, trying to hold onto the heat as we stepped out of the door. Every surface glittered like diamonds, reflecting the chill light of the distant stars. Behind the long snaking dry stone walls, sheep huddled together, and the night was so still and quiet we could hear them breathing. The hills rose up either side of us, crisp white with snow and bathed in the cold light of the full moon. Etched with the blue-black shadows of the winter trees and the footsteps of the fox.
As we dropped down into the village, the windows of the church glowed with the flickering gold of candlelight and the warmth of centuries-old stained glass. Around the edges of the door leaked light and sound, the sweet melancholy of In the Bleak Midwinter and the quiet rumble of prayer.
Tiny white and blue lights edged the trees, lighting our way as we walked through the streets, our footsteps muffled and creaking in the snow that had only stopped falling a few hours before. We tiptoed into the house, not wanting to break the mood of stillness, and stayed silent, arms around each other, bathed in the glow of the damped down fire and the lights of the tree. And as we stood there, the church bells pealed Christmas through the cold night air.
This was her hourglass, and when I flip it over, I can hear her voice, bickering with me about how long to boil an egg. Telling me I've thought long enough, and it's time to put the Scrabble letters on the board. Asking me to tell her when the time's up so that she can pour the perfect four-minute cup of tea. Laughing as I time her putting up her waist length hair to go to work. Insisting that she was only going to be out in the garden for five minutes, and grinning when she came back to find me standing in the doorway, hourglass in hand.
It was in my pocket that night. I was home before her, and I was getting ready to make bread. I'd mixed the yeast and the warm water and the sugar. The timer was broken, so I'd decided to let the hourglass run through four times to give the mixture time to froth. It wasn't really necessary but watching the sand run through the glass in the sleepy warm afternoon sunshine was soothing, almost hypnotic. The sound of the crash took a moment to work its way into my befuddled head.
It was all done by the time I got to the garden gate. A man sat inside the deep red Jaguar, his hair falling forwards, his face blank and white. And tucked underneath the gleaming front bumper, her bicycle. She was face down, still and quiet, her tweed skirt rucked up around her knees, her white silk shirt growing pink. And a cascade of late cabbage roses and heady sweet peas scattered around her. When I close my eyes, all I can see is her pink lace slip, her favourite, almost frivolous under the hem of her sensible skirt.
The ambulance arrived in seconds, or in days, I'm not quite sure which, and I was shooed away by the capable and set-faced men in uniform. We didn't have a car, but Mr Jenkins, our neighbour, drove me over to the hospital.
They wouldn't let me in to see her. I was only her landlady, the spinster she shared a house with. I found the hourglass in my pocket – it must have been in my hand as I ran out of the door. It was wrapped tight in my fingers when I heard her voice, quiet, tense, asking for me. But still they wouldn't let me in. All they wanted to know from me was whether she had any family, and where they were. I told them what I knew.
They left me alone, and I turned the hourglass over and over, but I didn't hear her voice any more. I must have dozed in that hard wooden chair, because the next I heard was an auxiliary, rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the polished floor, with an elderly woman on her arm. Later, a frantic call for a nurse, running feet, and then a doctor, walking quietly, a man in no hurry. And I knew.
On the long, cold bus journey home, the hourglass turned and glinted under my fingers, under the early morning streetlights, and all I could think was at least she didn't die alone.
Her brother came to clear her things, and he treated me civilly, distantly. No discomfort, just the politeness reserved for staff. He told me about the funeral, and seemed surprised when I turned up. I sat at the back, looking at the grieving family in the front two rows. I said my silent goodbyes. And I never had another… tenant.
I've still got the hourglass, and now, watching the sand running though, it feels I'm seeing my future running through into my past.
I might give it to my niece, when she marries her girlfriend next weekend, in the registry office right next to the beautiful park. We will have a picnic in the sunshine, she said.
I might tell her what I have told no-one else, about the woman who, in a different life, could have been her aunt.
I think she might understand.
My baby Florence hated thunderstorms. She would come running home to me and hide herself in my skirts, pulling the cloth over her face so she couldn't hear the thunderclaps or see the flashes of lightning.
We get a lot of thunderstorms here in Natchez, and she would know when they were coming, even before the sky got dark. Her poppa called her his little weathervane, and would go and get the chickens in as soon as he saw her run to me. Even the dog – who hated thunderstorms almost as much as she did – knew to hide when he saw her clinging to my apron. The cat – well, you know cats. It was almost as if the cat would shrug and say, 'it don't bother me'. But in the worst of the storms, Poppy the cat would curl up with Florence and they would comfort each other.
Florence is my youngest. All the others, well, they were nearly grown up when she was born. I thought that there would be no more babies. That my time for that was past. And then along came Florence. She was the prettiest baby – hair so blonde it was almost white, and big wide blue eyes like a china doll. And she was so good. Slept right through from the beginning. Never needed telling off – well, not very often. She wasn't an angel after all. Just a lovely little girl. She charmed her big brothers and sisters. Loved her books. And she hardly ever cried, except in a thunderstorm.
Florence said that storms felt like the sky was shouting at her and the wind was chasing her. And the lightning made her eyes hurt. She was so brave about everything else. It was just storms that scared her.
That last time she came running to me, I thought there must be a storm coming. But the sky was a clear bright blue and there wasn't a sign of a cloud. Then I felt the heat of her skin right through my skirts. I looked at her. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were glassy. She said that her head hurt, and everything ached. And that she felt sick. My mouth went dry. I'd heard about the boats bringing in the slaves to pick the cotton. The boats with the dreaded butter-coloured flag that showed they had yellow jack on board.
Dr Parsons came over, and said he thought she might have yellow fever, but he doubted it. And even if she did, that she'd would get better in a few days. She was young and strong. I sat with her day and night, bathing her head with a cold flannel, and on the fifth night her fever broke. She woke up and smiled at me. I gave her a drink, and she drifted back to sleep, her forehead cool and her breathing regular.
I slept for what seemed like the first time in days, curled up in a chair in her room, and my husband must've come in, because when I woke up, I had a blanket tucked over me.
I looked over at Florence, and I saw straight away that the fever was back. She woke and whispered that her belly ached, it ached so much. When she opened her eyes, the whites were just tinged with a little bit of yellow, and I knew. That was the longest week of my life. Dr Parsons came and went. My husband tried to get me to go to bed, to sleep, to eat. I couldn't leave Florence's side. I tried to keep her cool, to get her to take sips of broth. I prayed to God until my knees were sore, not to take away my ten-year-old baby. I pleaded with her to get well. But whatever I did, her skin turned bronze and her eyes became bright yellow. And she slipped a little further away from me each day.
I knew the end was near when the cat, who never came upstairs, curled up at her side. As she took her last breath, I heard the first rumble of thunder.
I wept all night. Wept for my baby. Held her against the storm, just in case wherever she was, she was still afraid. And then in the morning, I wept all the more that I wouldn't be able to comfort her when she was in the ground. My husband held me tight.
I've always loved drawing. And I started to draw. A tiny coffin with a window in the side so that I could see her face. A stairway down to the grave, to a wall with a window. A set of doors at the top of the steps that would shield me from the storm. A headstone that read ' As bright and affectionate a Daughter as ever God with His Image blest'. And so, her grave was built. And I go down the stairs and read and sing to my baby Florence during every storm, like I always have.
I've just seen the clouds coming in. There's a storm on the way. I must go to Florence.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays