The bundle of newspaper was yellow and brittle with age and the string that held it together frayed, by the urgent gnawing of rodent teeth, to a few thin strands. Jill picked the papers up, glad the barrier the rubber gloves she wore made between her skin and the mouldiness and carried it over to the table. Her spring cleaning had started in earnest two days before, and this was just one more oddity that had shown itself during her quest to let no nook undisturbed. The papers were stuffed down behind an old settle in the kitchen and fell out when she moved it. For now, they joined with the rest of the photographs and letters her grandmother had hidden during one of her eccentric moments.
The house was unoccupied for over a year and the spiders took advantage of the silence. The evidence of their work was plain, as no corner remained untouched by their webs. Shuddering, Jill aimed the feather duster at dusty, gossamer net and jumped back as the cobweb came free, in case its occupant should decide to make itself known. Running to the back door, she shook the duster and stood for a moment surveying the landscape. The fields behind the house stretched for miles in a kaleidoscope of colour. The crops, ripened by the summer sun, were now ready for harvesting. Having little experience in the way of the land, she called on her nearest neighbor for advice, and an agreement was reached satisfactory to both parties. In the future, he would plant and harvest the crops for fifty per cent of the profit. This meant Jill had some income to rely on until she could find a job, and it also allowed her time to get the house in order. The woods to her right were as colorful as the fields and burned with all the colors of autumn. She breathe in the scent carried to her on the chill wind. It smelt of fresh pine and evergreen, the aroma familiar and comforting. Shivering, and aware for the first time of the cold, she shook the duster one more time before going back into the kitchen.
Looking around the room she sighed, imagining the mammoth task ahead. The house was over a hundred and fifty years old, and the rooms were built to accommodate a large, extended family. Though the big, open fire in the kitchen insured the room would always be warm, she dreaded to think what the bedrooms would be like in winter. The old fireplaces that sat unused in each one was choked with soot, and she had seen the crows’ nests on top of all the chimney pots. As there were no funds available to allow for the installation of a heating system, she had no other choice then to have someone sweep the chimneys and check that the ventilation vents allowed for the lighting of fires.
The bubbling of the kettle roused her from her musings, and she dropped a tea bag into the waiting mug and filled it with boiling water. The sandwich she prepared earlier looked tasteless and unappetising, so she pushed it aside. As she sipped her drink, her fingers moved over the assortment of things she had found. Many of the letters were written in her hand and she smiled at some of the childish gossip she had relayed over the years. Some were from her aunts and uncles. There were even some from her mother, and she became lost in the memory of the past. The later letters, the ones sent in the year before her grandmother’s death, were colder and more demanding than the others. There were threats, thinly veiled as advice, that she should sell the house now that her health was failing and move into a nursing home. Though nothing was directly implied, the words thundered off the pages, as each new letter became an exact copy of their siblings. Jill felt her throat grow tight as the words echoed up from the neatly written notes. Her heart ached when she imagined her grandmother’s reaction to the commands. Sell up, check into a home and stop being a bother to us. The meaning was clear.
Tearing the remaining letters to shreds and refusing to let her anger and sadness overwhelm her, she thumbed through old photographs. Some were quite ancient, the film grainy and yellow. The names, written in the familiar shaky hand of her grandmother, were of friends and relations long dead. There was one of Jill and her grandmother, taken in the orchard at a time when the trees hung heavy with fruit. I could not have been more than six-years-old, Jill thought, just a little younger than Toby. Her eyes misted over as she gazed down at the figure beside her, taking in the strong hand resting on her shoulder and the bright eyes sparkling with vitality even in their seventieth year. While Toby would never know his great grandmother, Jill would see to it that her memory lived on. He would always be aware of the great kindness she had done in willing them the house. No matter what happened in the future, she had ensured by her actions they would always have somewhere to call home.
Wiping the tears from her face, Jill walked to the old dresser and placed the photograph against one of the plates. It would remain there as a constant reminder of her loved one, and its presence would be comforting, as she adjusted to her new life. Now, back to the matter in hand, and she sighed, as she looked around the huge kitchen. Her grandmother was loath to throw anything away, believing everything would one day come in handy, so there was a mountain of old, rusty pots and enamel bowls to contend with. It took most of the day to clean out the old presses that lined the walls, and by the time she was done, a small hill of clutter had formed at the side of the house. With eight more rooms to go, Jill knew she would have to hire a rubbish skip. This would be yet another drain on her dwindling budget, but she could not allow the rubbish to remain where it was, especially not the rusted and sharp metal items dangerous to a child’s probing fingers.
The telephone had been installed, and she leafed through the phone book in search of a waste disposal firm. The voice on the other end of the line informed her that the skip would be delivered in two days. That gave her enough time, if she worked non-stop, to clear out the rest of the rooms and have the house in better order before the wintry weather.
Unlike the city, where the roads rarely filled up with snow and the thousands of streetlamps kept even the frost at bay, the country was a completely different matter. Memories of past Christmases’ spent with her grandmother reminded her of how harsh the weather could get, and she was glad of the large log pile in the lean-to behind the house. Despite spending most of her childhood summers with her grandmother, she still had a lot to learn, and there was not much time left before winter set in. The animals roaming the land had made provisions for the cold, but she did not have the harvesting instinct of the squirrel or field mouse. The small orchard screamed for attention on the few occasions she walked there with her son, and the vegetable patch was overgrown. The leaves from the rhubarb were now the size of small bushes, and she knew she could not allow the crop to rot in the ground. Once the house was in order, she decided, she’d start to work on the land.
The buzzing of the alarm on her mobile phone meant it was time to leave. The school was a twenty-minute drive away and, she had not met any of the women from the neighbouring farms to carpool with. She tried not to think how she would manage for childcare, if she did get a job. Biting her lip, she tried to concentrate on driving, and avoid the many potholes on the lane that led to the road. Christ, she swore, as a wheel descended with a resounding thud, and she prayed that the tire remained unscathed by its encounter with the rough ground. Only when she was out on the main road did she relax a little. She sat back in her seat glad there was so little traffic to contend with, one of the bonuses of living in the country, along with the silence and the clean air.
Though a city girl at heart, the country offered her protection and its surroundings were the balm her tired senses needed. Don’t, she warned, try to think of something else; the house and the amount of work that needed doing. But still it remained the constant, reoccurring ache that refused to be ignored, and the memory of Joe’s desertion. The news that he was leaving them was the proverbial bolt from the blue, and the shock of seeing him go, remained. The anxious months that followed, and the times she had to placate her frightened son and assure him of his father’s love were the most traumatic of her life. It was bad enough to have a broken heart to contend with, but she was an adult. While sorrow was a part of growing up, the damaged emotions of a young boy was something she never imagined having to cope with.
In the past, when they were a family, she pictured Toby’s life and managed to endure letting him go, first to playschool and then primary. Though many a secret tear was shed, nothing prepared her for the child’s anguish at being abandoned by his father, his hero. Though never a boisterous boy, he had grown quieter over the past months, and the move from the city was hard on him. Not only was he leaving behind his friends and the familiar streets, he no longer had the hope he once did of seeing his father return. For weeks after Joe left, he’d spend his free time with his nose pressed against the apartment window, searching the crowds thronging the pavements outside. Jill never asked what he was doing. She knew, as she watched his eyes scan the streets, that he was looking for that one, special face. No pills or antacids would still the burning inside her, and she no longer bothered the doctors with her complaints, as her own diagnosis was correct. Her heart was broken.
Cars lined both sides of the road outside the school and she moved along the lines, hoping for a parking space. There was none and she was forced to park on a grass verge quite a way from the school. The bell was ringing as she picked her way along the mound and most of the children were reunited with their mothers when she reached the gate. Some of the women smiled and nodded when they passed her, and she was glad of the greeting and the feeling she was being recognized. Those children not with their mothers, were standing in groups exchanging childish gossip, as they waited to be collected. Only Toby stood alone. Her heart ached as she took in his disheveled appearance. The white shirt she tucked in his pants now hung over his belt, and his gelled hair stood at all angles. This was his own doing, as, like his father, he had a habit of running his fingers through it when he was concentrating or worried. He looked pale beside the other children, whose cheeks still retained traces of the summer’s sun, and she saw he was cold, as his lips had lost their colour.
There was no rush to greet her, when her saw her, and he allowed her to take the coat draped over his school bag.
“You should put this on,” Jill smiled, and helped him put his arms through.
Kneeling in front of him, she did up the buttons and looked in his sad, grey eyes.
“I love you, you know,” she whispered.
“Yeah, I know,” he sighed, and this told her all that she needed to know.
Her love was not enough. He needed his father.
His hand in hers felt small, as they walked back to the car. She thought of the lunch box and the food that would be untouched. She had become used to throwing away sandwiches and fruit she packed for him each morning. Just the juice carton would be empty.
They never spoke as they drove back to the house. She didn’t try to make conversation, as her questions would only annoy him, and made a mental note to speak to his teacher. It was impossible to know what was going on in his mind, and she reached across and squeezed his hand. The smile he gave her didn’t reach his eyes, and he pulled his hand away. The bumpy drive down the lane to the house never touched him, even when they were jostled from side to side. Jill looked at her son from the corner of her eye, hoping for a reaction, but there was none.
“I’ll do my homework in my room,” he said, as he climbed from the car.
“Wouldn’t you like something to eat first?” She called after him.
“Naw, not hungry,” he shrugged, before climbing the stairs.
Jill watched his retreating back. He was thinner, and even a little stooped under the weight of his terrible grief. Tormented by worry, she retreated to the kitchen. The light had faded, and the room was deep in shadow. The lone bulb in the ceiling did little to dispel the gloom, and she knelt beside the fire and struck a match. The dry sticks and bunches of old newspaper were soon blazing away, and she stayed warming her hands on the red flames. Her legs ached when she stood. She sat at the table and pulled the remaining bundle of newspapers towards her. No longer caring about their condition, she pulled on the binding string. It gave way with a small snap, and she unfurled the tattered bundle. She was about the scrunch it into a ball for the fire when the photo on the cover caught her attention. The bright, smiling face of a little girl, about the same age of her son, stared back at her and the headline proclaiming the child was missing made Jill’s blood run cold.