All the empty horses

When I was little, I had this suspicion that she was a witch.  It was because there was a room in her house where you had to take your shoes off and there were statues and it smelled weird.  There were words that applied to her that didn’t to anyone else we knew – yoga, Buddhist, vegetarian.   When I walked past her house alone I used to stop and look at the curtains.  She had nets, like most of the other houses in that street, but hers had big, circular holes in the design – like an invitation to peep in.  I didn’t though.  I kept back, by the road side, and wondered what she did in there by herself, in her childless, man-less world.  Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of her crossing the alleyway at the side of the house, headed for the back garden.  She wore overalls – bright blue – and she had her long hair in a ponytail.

We knew her but we didn’t.  Mum said she was a ‘lovely woman’ but she didn’t come to the wine and song evenings or turn up at the junior school fete.  She came carol singing at Christmas – her red hair tucked underneath a green wool beret that I always wanted to touch.  She would wave from her car if she saw me waiting to cross at the lights.  She was like a bird I spotted sometimes and couldn’t name.  And her appearances left a slight stirring in my head that I never mentioned to anyone.

I wasn’t surprised that she came when Matt died.  Everyone came.  People.  All day.  For days.  On the third day I was doing the door.  It was constant, people would knock and I’d let them in and they’d hold me and I’d try to keep my armour tight.  Then they’d ask for Mum and I’d show them into the kitchen.  Someone was always making tea.  Someone was clicking open a new bottle of whisky at midday.  It was too hot.  I couldn’t eat and I couldn’t escape.  Then she came.

When I opened the door she didn’t make a move across the threshold.  She was holding out an earthenware dish with foil stretched across the top.

“Jessie, this is for your Mum.”

I stepped aside to let her in but she didn’t move.

“I won’t come in.  Can you give her this too?”

She lay an envelope on top of the foil.  Then she left.  She didn’t touch me.  I stood on the doorstep for a few minutes and watched her go down the steps.  There was a slight breeze and it lifted the envelope.  I went indoors and put the dish in the fridge.

It was an aubergine thing.  It got eaten that night by a selection of people.   Then the dish went onto the side and started to disappear into the stuff of our house.  There was always stuff.  The bereavement just brought more – letters and letters, forms, things we wanted to keep safe that were returned by friends who had forgotten they had them – loaned albums, borrowed books.  I started to develop a selective eye – managing to sift from my vision all the things that were just too hard to see.  But that night, months later, when the people had all gone, when the phone was silent, I saw her earthenware dish.

“Mum, I think I should return this, don’t you?”

It was dark already – a gusty, October evening.  The weight of the house slipped from my neck like a ship sailing off into the sky.  I floated slightly.  Guilt fought relief and relief, when it won, brought tears.  I let them flow and walked a looping route through the streets to her house.

The light was on in her front room and, from the door step, I could see her laying a fire in the hearth.  The little wigwam of kindling was very neat.  When I rang the bell she stood, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans.  She opened the door and didn’t speak.

“I’ve brought this.”

I held out her dish, casting my eyes to one side, quick, hoping the teary look had gone.

“Thank you.  I was about to make tea.  Do you want one?”

The thought of half an hour more out of the house was irresistible.

“Yes.  Thanks.”

In her kitchen there was a faint scent of some sort of spice I didn’t recognise.  She had herbs in bunches, hanging from a shelf of cookbooks.  It looked very tidy compared to my house.  There was a clock with a hollow tick.  Her kettle went on the hob and whistled when it boiled.  She talked.  Not a babble.  But not silence.  She didn’t seem to be expecting much in return and I didn’t give it.  I just looked around her kitchen, taking in the world of a woman who lived alone.

“Would you like to see my merry-go-round?”

It was such a startling sentence that I looked right into her eyes for the first time.  She smiled.

“Didn’t you know about that?”

“No.”

“It belonged to a friend of a friend of my father.  He won it in a bet with a gypsy in 1952.  I’ve been doing it up for years.”

She rose from her chair and reached for a jacket on a peg by the door.  When she held it out to me I found I was sliding my arms into the sleeves without complaining that I wasn’t cold.  I was cold.  I’d been shaking with cold for hours.

The garden was damp and surprisingly dark.  The houses down here had long gardens and the reach of the orange streetlights was limited by plenty of large trees and shrubbery.  But I could see something huge.

“I’ll be covering it for the winter next week.  So you’re just in time.”

She stooped into the long grass beside the narrow path and I realised she was connecting flexes.  And then there it was.  A full-sized fairground carousel, filling the end of her garden – with red and gold lights around its rims.  As if it had fallen from the sky, dropped by some celestial travelling fair.

The running board of the circle just cleared the hedges on each side.  Then there were the horses – stabled under the red canvas canopy.  And in the centre, the mysterious source of fairground music.  I didn’t know what it was called – that thing.  I’d never asked anyone.   The paintwork on it was gold and red, in curls.

She stood to one side and held out her hand, inviting me to step up.  I walked between the horses – speared on metal poles that transformed into twists of gold above their coloured saddles and forever-blowing manes.  I stood in front of the face of one – little white teeth bared.  I swept my fingertip into its flared nostril.

“I like their faces.”

I didn’t mean to speak out loud and was surprised to hear my voice.

The horses in front of me were faded, flaky.  She was beside me suddenly.

“It’s a work in progress, as I said.  But she goes.   And we have the sounds.  The pipe organ used to be really wheezy but this summer I got a bloke to help me with it.”

Pipe organ.  I was stroking, patting the painted neck of the horse.

“Come on.”

I climbed up.   A single-rider horse – always my first choice when the fair came to town.  I remembered to check its name – Gloria.

“Gloria was my mum.”

“Oh, is it ok, my riding this one?”

“Of course.  She’s not my horse.   That one’s mine.”

She pointed to a half-painted horse in front.

“See?”

There was her name on the neck – fresh, gold on black.

“I ride there and they’re all around me – behind, in front too when I get it all finished.  They’re all named for people I’ve loved and lost.”

 I felt too young, too scared – overwhelmed – too many horses.

“It’s ok.  It’s fine, Jessie.  You get on Gloria.  You’ll see.”

Then she went to the pipe organ in the middle, stepped behind it and the world started to turn.  The music was loud and wild in the dark garden – punctuated with cymbals and a thumping drum.  I was spinning and rising and falling – faster, faster.  I couldn’t see anything beyond the colour and light of her carousel.  And all the empty horses were galloping with me. 

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