1 "Alex!" Katherine called, but he ignored her and just kept plodding about with his arms full of wood, making that clanking, chinking sound. Her eyes opened to the sight of Alice noisily arranging the tea things. Oh no.. not a dream.. don't let it have been a dream.
She closed her eyes tight and tried to escape back to her enchanted island, the sunlight dancing on the water, the flying fish... But it was no use.
The island was just an island of dreams, Alex was dead and gone these twenty five years, and reality was Alice..
..in her drab woollen cardigan and wispy hair, setting out a tea that neither of them really wanted.
Katherine opened her eyes again and let them drift out of focus across the room. She did this a lot lately - went into a kind of trance.
Alice didn't seem to want to talk much these days, which suited her as well. It was almost as if Alice was waiting for something to happen, she kept looking at her..
then looking away quickly when her gaze was returned. Slightly impatient, but cautious as well. Like someone waiting for the January sales, but not quite sure if she was in the right queue.
She kept asking Katherine how she was. Silly really, she ought to know.. Katherine thought the smell from the wardrobe had been getting quite noticeable lately, and today had better be the day.
No sense in shilly shallying, best to get it over with, and anyway Alice had brought it all on herself.
2 The things one had to do to humour invalids! (Even those who were invalids because of the mince and beef stock you gave them..)
Why on earth was Mother suddenly making such a thing about wanting to look in the big trunk in the cellar?
It had been there for a thousand years, and Alice was doubtful if she'd be able to manage it up those steep steps on her own anyway.
Still, anything was better than the reproachful looks from the bed if she refused, and the photograph albums Mother was sure were in the trunk might be of some interest..
..though why did she want so particularly to look at them now?
Oh well, she'd get it while Mother was eating her latest instalment of Alice's 'Freedom Dinners'. A horrid giggle burst from her at this irreverent description.
What a dreadful thing to call them! But best to call a spade a spade really. And that's what they were, weren't they? Her passport to freedom.
But there must be no pain in the process, just Mother's gradually increased weakness and a quiet death in her sleep - if Alice had calculated the doses right. Then... look out world!
She had to leave the room while Mother ate the mince anyway, as that was another example of the secretive behaviour. She'd said..
"I don't want you peering at me while I eat dear, it's like being an animal at feeding time. You go and watch television".
Come to think of it, Alice had only seen her eat one of these 'special dinners', but they were always finished when she collected the tray later.
A nasty doubt suddenly brushed against her mind like a bat's wing. Could Mother suspect?..
If so, what would she have done?
Supposing she hadn't eaten any of the meals!
Alice stood irresolutely at the top of the cellar steps, gazing hard into the blackness beneath, as if trying to conjure up what might have happened. No, it didn't make any kind of sense.
Mother was bed-ridden, wasn't she?And if she hadn't eaten any, what had she done with them? If she'd hidden them, there'd be an awful smell by now. And what had she eaten to stay alive?
But the doubts seemed to hurry closer now, like shuffling feet. And she stared down into the gloom in mounting horror. Shuffling feet.. Shuffling feet..
She turned round as the shuffling stopped, and stared into Katherine's fixed and expressionless gaze.
"Why Mother! What on earth are you.."
Her sentence turned into a rising scream, as she was given a sudden sharp push, and went tumbling backwards.. down, down...
She fell in a wide arc, struck her head on the sixth step, and knew no more.
3 With surprising agility Katherine negotiated the steps, and checked for a pulse. All quite satisfactory. Poison her indeed! The very idea. And so hopelessly inept in its execution.
But then, Alice had never been very efficient, and this attempt had been so feeble, and yet so typical. Katherine had used one of her tiny medicine bottles to send a sample of the first ‘Freedom Dinner’ to an old chemist friend of hers and Alex’s in Northampton (luckily he was still alive, though long-since retired).
She'd noticed an odd slightly nutty flavour to the mince, and the meal had been followed by a dull headache (she never got headaches), and slight aches in the joints as well.
She'd written quite a chatty letter, 'You probably don't remember me after what must be close on a century!' and merely mentioned the sample as an 'Oh, by the way..''
postscript - not important, but one of her granddaughters had been doing a rather complicated chemistry experiment and she just wondered what was in the enclosed sample.
The friend's report had been quite definite, so Katherine had known what was going on right from the beginning.
The plastic bags in the (locked) wardrobe began to fill up with mince - all securely sealed to prevent them smelling too much - and she lived on those packets of high-calorie food supplements tucked away on the top shelf of the larder. Alice had bought a boxful a couple of years ago during a (temporary) slimming craze.
She'd only used a few and there'd been forty five packets left; now there were twelve. Alice had probably forgotten they were even there.
She'd always been a rather sad character Katherine reflected. She was forever hiding behind her mother's skirts. Making excuses why she couldn't accept friends' invitations to go out.
Giving those nice boys the 'brush-off' - that was the expression wasn't it? Telling them all she 'had to stay with Mother'. Rubbish of course, as Katherine had told her on many occasions.
She hadn't wanted Alice hanging round anyway; no conversation at all, and she liked all the TV programmes that Katherine hated - the game shows, the cookery programmes and those awful soaps..
And why for goodness sake try to poison her? Why not just get hold of a live-in housekeeper (money wasn't a problem, she could have told her that) and leave?
Oh, it would be so nice to have proper meals again! She'd certainly get a live-in cook/housekeeper as soon as possible. Oh, and redecorate the house at once. Brighten it up a bit..
lots of flame-coloured cushions would be a good start..
But first, she needed to look up Dr Hamer's number in the local phone book and ask him if he could just pop round after surgery this evening - she'd been having chest pains which were a bit of a worry.
He was always ready to make a house call to her, she was a favourite patient and the surgery was near by.
She wouldn't bother with 999, because of course she'd been asleep when it happened, and had only made the dreadful discovery much later with Dr Hamer.
4 Denise's large front room was unusually quiet. David had a large and complicated cardboard jigsaw strewn all over the floor and was quietly grumbling to it.
Why was there always such a lot of completely blue sky? And why were most of the pieces the same? Not just similar, but exactly the same?
Janet was also spread-eagled on the floor rather listlessly turning the pages of the local paper - why not use the perfectly serviceable large table in the room? Denise wondered for the millionth time.
Suddenly Janet called out..
"Mummy look! It's that lady from the supermarket! You remember, the funny one with the wrinkly stockings!"
Snorts of laughter from David greeted this, and Janet put the paper on the table where they could all see the interesting item.
There was a photo, not a very good one, of Alice, and the headline read:
"The paper salutes a courageous local pensioner"
The item read:
"It's easy to get cynical these days, but here's a story to really restore our faith in human nature.
Mrs French, aged 72, has been fighting a battle with the local council to make stair-rails compulsory in older properties with basements and cellars.
Readers may recall that Mrs French's daughter Alice (see photo above) tragically died after missing her footing on their cellar steps.
Her indefatigable mother has beaten the Town Hall mandarins and got the measure accepted!
This should certainly go a long way to prevent more serious injuries or deaths. Mrs French - well done!
This shy pensioner didn't want to be interviewed, but she did make this statement which we're pleased and indeed proud to print:
"I thought I owed it to Alice - and quite honestly I just felt it was my duty. If even one needless accident is prevented, it will all have been worthwhile." The End