I had overheard conversation on the topic but felt unable to examine the rumours from any rational point of view. Although it would amount to nothing elaborate, I had posited that the time required to conduct an investigation would be entirely wasted as, ultimately, the villain would soon be unmasked; more so, all my instincts pointed to the revelation of a scoundrel no more than a child or simple-minded adult (perhaps more than one) intent on concocting reckless mischief out of sheer devilment.
But no matter my opinion; for it is the past. Instead, I will keep to the facts, simply told, and begin with the events of the afternoon of Mothering Sunday, two years before.
We had returned from church, the sky a bitter shade of grey; and at the margins of the unploughed fields surrounding us, dark clouds threatened with torpid heaviness. I passed my hand behind her back to support her frame and she, in turn, shrank further into my side, taking pitiful shelter from the bracing winds. It was the first time in many months I had seen her looking this frail.
Beside us, and looking nearly to be doubled-over by the strength of the gales, were Mrs Bentley and her son. He too was doing his utmost to support his mother and make some headway upon the path.
Finally, having negotiated such inclemency, we arrived at the front porch of our cottage, the middle of a nestled set of three.
I bid good afternoon to the Bentleys and stepped through the iron gate, at the same time removing a few veins of ivy that had made their way through from the adjacent hedgerow. Here, I made a commitment to spend time remedying matters at the front of the house having just spent a season behind it.
A few hours passed in drinking tea and conversation, when at half past three we were alarmed to hear an awful banging at the front door.
My mother indicated that she would rise to answer the door, but I insisted that she should remain at rest and I should attend to the caller; though I was at a complete loss as to whom would be visiting at such an inconvenient time.
When I opened the door, I was surprised to see Mrs Bentley’s son and immediately I took note of his rather confused and distressed state. Holding his chest, he managed to find his voice and told me that I should come quickly to the house. Inside, upon the kitchen floor, I found Mrs Bentley, lying in a most unusual position, as if she had fallen backwards although, somehow, her arms had remained directly by her sides. With all the finesse of a well read scholar I set about searching for signs of life upon the unfortunate woman’s body. But there was little I could do, as I soon became aware of a great coldness that had set into her. I recall having seen only one deceased person in my life, and I can assure you that I felt decidedly queasy despite deference in the duties I had in assisting her poor son.
A doctor was duly dispatched to the house and thereupon confirmation came that Mrs Bentley had suffered heart failure. It was a shocking circumstance despite Mrs Bentley’s advancing years; and on such a day too!
That evening we invited Thomas, Mrs Bentley’s son, to stay with us. The situation was made all the more heartfelt by his insistence on persistently thanking us for our help in dealing with the day’s unfortunate events. Each time, I reminded him that it was the very least we could do considering the circumstances.
It was only through this close-hand hospitality did Thomas reveal a curious happening but an hour or so before his mother’s death.
He had been seated in the drawing room, reading a newspaper, when a sudden, awful shriek had attracted his attention. It appeared to come from the kitchen. Knowing the room to be solely inhabited at this time of day by his mother, he ran through the house and in that particular room he had found Mrs Bentley staring at the window, her hand over her mouth, breathing with such pronounced irregularity. After Thomas had helped her in taking a seat and some refreshment, she told him the source of her distress. Whilst examining the condition of the hedge from the kitchen window, she noticed a woman standing beside the garden gate. Not expecting visitors she wondered who it could be. Most certainly not her sister or a regular caller. For a time, she puzzled over this black-dressed stranger who stood as still as a statue outside her cottage. Finally, with the unpleasant looking woman having remained there for as long as she could take, Mrs Bentley ventured outside to confront her; but on so doing, the woman had disappeared into thin air. And the most awful of sights; returning to the kitchen, she had taken another look out through the window and there, to her utter disbelief, she had come upon a vision that brought a chill to her bones, wracking her frame with a sickening tautness: from behind the hedge, she had seen the same woman rising up, up beyond the height limited by human form, reaching and stopping at her waist, her arms outstretching to draw a shadow upon the hedgerow top; and with lips still, her eyes bore straight at her with such intensity, before disappearing once more.
I must say that I had been quite affected by the tale; it remained with me for a considerable time in undiminished intensity. As I stated earlier, I had taken some comfort in considering it to be the result of inconsiderate japery from youths; concluding in such darker an end that they did not dream to imagine. But despite this, I was to consider from time to time that it was, perhaps, something else.
My mother and I have now returned from church; the day a far improved version of that two years before. And even though through anniversary alone my mind does dwell on such troubles of the past, I have found the day to be one of joy, especially to have seen her in such fine fettle. And such command of her stick too; it had come to her aid several times throughout the service and she had administered its alleviating qualities with considerable deftness. More so, with the sun behind us, and a spread of warm radiance on our backs, her steps have been more robust and steadfast than for as long as I could remember.
I am back in the house now, having just prepared tea. On the table beside the fire I have placed our favourite biscuits. On the air, a little early blossom that I was want to bring into the house before we left for church. And now, with the clock not long past three, I settle down, dragging the newspaper onto my lap. The comforting glow of the fire soothes the eyes and undoubtedly, before long, I shall be assuaged into sleep, the paper falling to my feet.
As I listen towards the kitchen, with my eyelids struggling not to surrender to the seductive comforts of the fire, I hear the sound of plates: surely a little Simnel cake to add to the occasion?
But possibly more plates than one or two hands could adequately grasp. No matter, I will go to her aid as surely her womanly stubbornness will prevent her from seeking help in this direction. As for the shriek; mother gets so awfully upset when she drops things.
(C) PJ Hodge