I’d arrived at her home to pick up my latest eBay purchase – a large, lead-lined, mahogany box. I planned to use it as a form of strong box or safe. Given the weight of the item, posting it had been prohibitively expensive, but I’d borne that in mind when placing my bids. I’d checked in advance, and discovered the seller lived nearby on the opposite side of town, and had been amenable to my picking it up. In fact, she’d been most understanding and had closed the auction, allowing me to do a Buy It Now for a reduced price.
The seller’s home was a dark, three-storey Georgian place with chequer tiled entranceway, in a part of town I hadn’t been to before. It reflected the gentrified suburbs as they had likely been more than 100 years ago.
I was met, at first, by a young girl, who invited me into the drawing room. I’d never been in a home that had a drawing room before, living as I did on a down to earth council estate where living rooms and lounges predominated.
As I entered her living space I was overwhelmed by the pinkness, the puffiness and the laciness of the lady and everything around her. The decor was far too feminine and glitzy for my taste, being rich with chandeliers and crystal drop lightshades, mirrored furniture and even a rug with pile so deep that I got my shoe a little stuck. I was immediately fascinated and couldn’t take my eyes off LadyPinkland, the eBay seller of all things esoteric.
LadyPinkland was reclining on her chaise longue with a contrived Barbara Cartland-type air, accentuated by the fact that she was entirely dressed in pink. It was possible, in my curiosity and interest, to forgive her the tiny lap dog and gallons of perfume. It was also possible to forgive the terrible (but thankfully short) poetry on Spring and Kittens and Babies she spouted at me the moment I arrived.
Her poem finished on the line “Oh, her ears were so fluffy, my adorable Muffy,” and I genuinely wondered if it was possible to be nauseated by words, when the lady rose from her lying position and said, “The name is Emmeline, like Emily Dickinson, of course”, before flopping back down.
I nodded. “Oh yes, of course, of course,” I said.
Emmeline brushed off some dog hair from her pink angora cardigan. She was quite a woman – and it wasn’t just the air of pinkness about her (the cardigan of course, her long pink skirt, and the little peter pan collar on her tiny, tight pink blouse), but if you’d got closer you’d have noticed how the effect was spoiled by support stockings and far-too-comfy shoes.
Being at least ten years younger than her at the time (I estimated she was 70, to my 55), I was unsure of why she read me poetry, why she showed me so much interest and why she had allowed me to purchase the box for less than the reserve price. It was hard to say. And, even now, in hindsight, I know more, I still struggle to make much sense of any of it.
It did cross my mind that perhaps she’d been one of those women who had always received a lot of attention as a youth, and who didn’t understand why it should ever stop.
I found myself wondering, as I stared at her orthopaedic shoes, flat and brown and wide, if she’d ever been married, and reckoned that if she had, then her husband had died young, leaving her to go slowly insane. But I wasn’t uneasy, really I wasn’t. The only thing which might have made me a little uneasy was her constant and noisy crunching of parma violets – an easily forgivable attribute – as were her odd attitude and the way she hand-fed the sweets to her revolting mutt.
After all, ladies of that age who weren’t particularly nimble and couldn’t get out much, must get a little lonely. Her dog would likely be her best friend. Her only friend. And the little girl who answered the door must surely have been a neighbour’s child who came in occasionally to keep an eye on her and assist her with her pearl earrings and other womanly stuff.
That was a point. The girl… where was the girl? I looked around, and though I heard no door open or close, the girl had gone. No mind. I was there for the box – nothing else.
“Hello, Emmeline,” I said, “I’m Stewart and I’m here to pick up the lead-lined box I ordered on eBay”.
“I know,” she said, displaying a slight nervous twitch round the corner of her mouth. “Would you like a sweet? Chocolate? Chopped banana?”
“No thank you,” I say. “I’ve paid for the box so if you could point me in the direction of it, I’ll collect it and soon be out of your way.”
“Nonsense,” Emmeline boomed, popping what looked like barley sugar into her mouth. “Nonsense, you must remain here and partake in tea. I shall get Emmeline to bring some in.” She reached and pulled a pink velvet bell cord as her tiny dog scuttled to the floor to hide behind the furniture.
So, the girl must also have been called Emmeline. That was strange. Such an unusual name. Such an unusual household.
“Is the little girl your neighbour?”
“Oh no,” said the older Emmeline. “She is my…” She seemed to struggle finding the right words. “She is my ward.”
“Ah,” I said, “named after you?”
“Oh no. No, no. No. Not that at all.”
A knock came to the drawing room door. The young Emmeline, no doubt. From her couch, the older Emmeline commanded “Get some tea. But first, the box. Mahogany, lead-lined. Show the man where it is”.
I was relieved – I can’t pretend I wasn’t. I was going to get what I came in for, and get the hell out of there pretty damn soon.
I watched as Emmeline re-entered the room as silently as she had left it. She looked in the direction of the older woman with what I could only describe as a sulky glare, then turned her glare to me as she walked towards another door at the far side of the room. Her face was too pale. Her eyes were too tired. Her clothing was odd too… why the hell hadn’t I noticed that clothing before? She looked like something from a fancy dress shop with her blue smock and ridiculous bonnet.
“Emmeline, more speed,” came the older woman’s instruction.
More important than the young girl’s obvious pallor was the equally obvious fact that she also was becoming transparent.
It was all getting a little bit much. Fair enough, I’d had a couple of pints at lunch, and had only finished one of my sandwiches, but I didn’t think I was becoming delusional from too much drink or too little nourishment. It was the place and the people, not me – and it was all beginning to freak me out. Certainly I could cope with a mad old lady with a Barbara Cartland complex, and I could cope easily with a weird little Wednesday Addams kind of kid but what I couldn’t deal with – and didn’t really want to deal with – was anything that defied the bloody laws of physics. That really did get me down. And that whole transparency thing. Wow. I’ve seen some things in my time, but that I really couldn’t grasp.
What the hell was going on? As Emmeline the younger had drifted past me, I’d caught a smell of something old and musty like moth balls and the old-style Germolene ointment my gran had always used to patch up my grazed knees. But little Emmeline was young and sweet and should not smell old and musty. I wondered if I should ask her what the smell was, but as I blinked, the rapidly disappearing shape of Emmeline the younger was gone.
And then I realised. Then, I got it. My rapidly rising cold sweat and leaden feet confirmed I’d got it right, though I felt insane to even consider it… but there was no other explanation.
Emmeline 1 and Emmeline 2 did not seem able to share the same room space.
As one arrived the other departed.
I had stumbled into some horrific, terrifying farce where two became one, and – to make matters more horrifying – I was seemingly unable to move.
The girl Emmeline had disappeared and the old lady Emmeline had lifted her hefty pink bulk once again from its reclining position. “Where has that dreadful girl gone?” she asked.
I shrugged, suddenly brave. “She became transparent and left. You don’t seem to be able to co-exist.”
“Well, of course not,” the old Emmeline said. “She and I are one and we are the same.”
One old and one young, as if the person was split in two and not quite whole in either of the forms. It was then, and only then, that I wondered what the Emmelines would do with me and whether I would make it out of that house alive.
“Are you going to kill me?” I asked.
“Good heavens, no,” the old Emmeline said. “You have come for the box, and you shall take it away. And then you shall forget.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh, dear man, you shall. You shall.”
I don’t remember the box. I don’t remember getting home and getting into bed. In fact, I remember nothing else till I woke the following morning.
Well, that’s not strictly true.
If I’m to be perfectly honest, I don’t remember any of the events that had passed since I’d left the pub. But… and here’s the interesting part… I’d been interviewing a work colleague in The White Hart. She was going through her presentation for our next sales campaign. My memory being as it is, I had set up my dictaphone in my jacket pocket. It was only when I woke fully dressed and checked my pockets for phone and wallet (thankfully still there), that I also saw the dictaphone. It had recorded till the space ran out.
That’s how I pieced together the story and a couple of images and memories had returned. And that’s how I knew I’d returned from the lady’s house without the mahogany box I’d paid for. And how there was no way I was going back for it.
And, anyway, I’d ended up with something else entirely more sinister…
A note, in an older woman’s spidery handwriting simply saying “A Liberation Commemoration. Thank you”.
And a portrait of the young Emmeline (in lead-lined mahogany frame) now hanging over my bed. Her expression odd, somehow trapped.