Authors: Amy Cross
“Emily Switherington?” the landlord replies as he leads me up the narrow, twisty staircase. “Well, now there's a character, alright. Lady of the manor, so to speak.”
“But have you seen her around lately?” I ask, taking care on the bumpy, uneven steps.
“What, like in the village?” He chuckles. “She's never been one for coming in and mixing with us regular types. She even arranged to get food delivered out there from the shop, once a month, and do you know what the guy finds every time he arrives?”
Reaching the top of the stairs, he unlocks the nearest door.
“A paper check in an envelope,” he continues. “She doesn't even go out and give him the time of day. If you ask me, she's become something of a recluse over the years.”
“I can believe that,” I mutter.
“This is the room,” he adds, pushing the door open and stepping aside to let me through. “Like I said, the price includes a full English in the bar in the morning.”
“That sounds great,” I reply, taking a look around the room before turning to him. “So my aunt
never comes into town? And she never invites anyone out to Auercliff, apart from the delivery guy?”
“Keeps herself to herself,” he mutters. “Been like that ever since her husband died, from what I've heard. Shame, really. Auercliff used to be pretty important to village life, but these days most people have almost forgotten the house is still there. What kind of state's it in, anyway? I've kinda assumed it's starting to crumble by now.”
“You're not far wrong,” I tell him, feeling a faint shudder at the thought of my aunt sealing herself off in the house. “It's almost like she wants to spend the rest of her days just rattling around alone.”
A little after 9am the next morning, I slam my car door shut and make my way across the gravel drive. Somehow Auercliff seems brighter today, as if the sun is having an easier job of breaking through the trees.
“And best of all,” I continue, as I take another bandage out from the First Aid kit, “the landlord actually has cellphones nailed to the wall above the bar. There's a sign saying anyone who's caught with their phone out will get them added to the collection. Can you believe that?”
“Old Simon Hughes has always been a Luddite,” Emily mutters, sitting up a little higher in the bed. “I remember a time when the King's Head didn't even have mains electricity. I think it wasn't until, oh, 1955 or 1956 that a connection was made. Of course, the pub used to be owned by Simon's father Geoffrey, who was even worse. Geoffrey Hughes was the rudest, foulest man alive. Simon is at least tolerable.”
Sliding the sock down on her left leg, I can't help noticing that Emily seems much more lucid this morning, and friendlier too. It's as if a night's sleep has given her the chance to get used to my presence.
“Do you mind if I ask you something that might seem a little personal?” I say after a moment, hoping that I'm not moving too quickly. Still, I need to get her on my side if I'm to have any hope of persuading her to go to hospital.
“And what might that be?”
I lift the bandage I put in place yesterday, revealing the wound beneath. It certainly isn't any worse, but I still want to find a way to get her out of here for a few days, so she can be monitored properly.
“How much can you see?” I ask finally.
When she doesn't answer, I look over at her face and see that she's looking toward the end of the bed. Her whitened eyes appear to be a little moist, almost teary.
“I can see as much as I need,” she mutters, a little defensively.
“Can you see this?” I ask, holding up my left hand and waving it toward her.
She doesn't respond, not at first, but after a few seconds she tilts her head slightly.
“It's a hand,” she tells me.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
She pauses. “I can see a shadow,” she admits finally, turning her head as if she can see better out of one side of her eyes. “That's all I need. I can see when someone's nearby.”
“How long has your eyesight been this bad?” I ask, pulling the old bandage away entirely and immediately squeezing some antiseptic gel from the tube, filling the wound directly.
“Oh, I don't know,” she says with a sigh, before forcing a faint smile. “There's no need to fuss, Becky. What do I really
to see, anyway? I've never been one for the television, and I have my radio right here by the bed.”
“You shouldn't be living alone in such a big house when you can't see to get about,” I tell her. “What if you fall?”
“Well I'll get back up again, won't I?” she replies as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. “I've never -”
She lets out a sudden, pained gasp as I wipe the edge of her wound. After that, she mutters something under her breath, as if she's annoyed at herself for betraying any sign of pain or weakness.
“Do you sleep properly?” I ask.
She looks almost directly at me, though not quite. I guess to her, I'm just another shadow.
“I sleep as much as I need,” she says cautiously. “I certainly don't want to sleep away what little -”
Before she can finish, there's a sudden, brief clunking sound from elsewhere in the house, as if something hit one of the many pipes that run along the walls. I immediately look toward the open door that leads out into the corridor, but of course there's no sign of anyone. When I turn back at Emily, however, I see that she's also looking toward the door, and I swear there's a hint of concern in her eyes. Almost fear.
“Noisy place, huh?” I say with a smile, hoping to make a joke of it all.
She doesn't reply at first, instead watching the door as if she expects to see someone, but finally she turns to me again.
“I see as much as I need to see,” she replies finally. “And that's about all that matters, wouldn't you say?”
“How did you get that bruise on your wrist?” I ask.
She immediately reaches down and slips her left hand under the bed-sheets, as if to hide it from me.
“Aunt Emily -”
“That was a while ago,” she says firmly. “There's no point fussing.”
“I'm sure you didn't have that bruise when I left last night,” I tell her. “Did you get up in the night and -”
“I don't need minding like I'm some kind of baby,” she continues, snapping just a little. “What would you prefer, that I just sit in bed all night and rot?”
“I'd prefer that you -”
“Aren't you done yet?” she adds testily. “There's nothing wrong with my legs, you know. You're fussing over nothing!”
“She's blind,” I mutter, sitting downstairs at the piano as I carefully dust the keys. “There's no way she'll let me examine her properly, but I doubt she has much more than 5% of her vision remaining.”
“So get her into hospital,” Scott replies, his voice sounding a little tinny over my phone's speakers. “If she's blind and she can't get about properly, there's no way she should be living alone.”
“It's not as easy as that. She's lived at Auercliff all her life, and she's the most stubborn woman I've ever met. I honestly think...” I pause, before lowering my voice so that there's no chance I can be overheard, even though I'm certain Emily's still up in bed. “I honestly think she's the kind of person who'd rather die in her home, instead of setting foot in any kind of hospital or residential home. She's probably scared that if she leaves, she'll never come back.”
“But you can't force her to go to hospital.”
“She's still capable of making her own decisions.”
“I know that too.”
“So maybe you have to let her get on with it,” he adds. “I know it's harsh, but what else are you gonna do? Stay there forever in case she changes her mind?”
“I can't leave her,” I tell him, getting up and heading over to the mantelpiece. Sure enough, there's a thick layer of dust covering every surface. “The house is in a terrible state. She's clearly confined herself to just a few rooms, and the rest of the place is covered in dust. She can't manage by herself, but she won't accept help. She wouldn't even let me stay the night last night!”
“Maybe she just doesn't like you,” he suggests, with a laugh.
“I'm serious! I hate to think of her bumping about the place in the dark and -”
matter if she's blind?” he asks, interrupting me.
“You know what I mean,” I reply, dropping the cloth into a nearby bucket and then heading through to the hallway, on my way to the kitchen. I need more cleaning supplies. “She has no children of her own, she doesn't talk to my mother, she has no-one to look out for her. She's been managing by herself all this time but now -”
Stopping suddenly at the foot of the stairs, I realize I can hear Emily's voice in the distance. I pause for a moment, and although I can't make out any of the words, I'm certain she's talking in her bedroom. Which is odd, since I know for a fact that the land-line is down, and I seriously doubt she has a mobile phone.
“I get where this is going,” Scott says after a few seconds. “You're determined to save the old -”
“Quiet!” I hiss, taking a couple of steps up and then stopping again. I can still hear Emily chatting away, and she even seems to be leaving regular pauses, as if she's giving someone else a chance to speak. “She thinks she's talking to someone,” I whisper.
“What's that?” Scott asks. “If she's lost her mind, shouldn't that make it easier for you to -”
“I'll call you back,” I tell him, cutting the call and slipping the phone into my pocket as I make my way up the stairs.
When I reach the top, I stop again and listen to the sound of Emily's voice, and now I'm close enough to hear what she's saying.
“Barbara and I never got along,” she mutters. “I could never deal with how uptight she is all the time. She ground Daniel down, too. He used to be a rather carefree young man when they first met, but she got her claws into him and before long he had bags under his eyes and a kind of worried, hangdog expression all the time. That's the thing about Barbara, I'm sure you're aware of it by now. She just wears people down and tries to make them bend to her will.”
Realizing that she seems to be talking about my parents, I make my way cautiously along the corridor. God, I really,
hope she's speaking to someone on the phone, even though I saw no sign of a phone in her room earlier. If she's talking to herself or – worse – having imaginary conversations with people, there'd definitely be no way I could let her stay alone at Auercliff, and by the time I get to her bedroom door I've already started to wonder whether her dementia might be far more advanced than I'd realized.
Just as I look through and see her sitting on her bed, my left foot presses on a floorboard that shifts slightly and lets out a loud creaking sound.
Emily immediately turns and looks toward me.
“Who's that?” she asks, with a hint of fear in her voice. “Who's there? Becky, did you hear someone?”
“It's me,” I tell her. “It's Becky.”
“But what...” She turns and looks back over toward the far side of the room, and then she turns to me again. For a moment, she seems genuinely flustered.
“Were you talking to someone?” I ask, stepping into the room.
“Well, I just...” She pauses, before starting to chuckle. “Oh, you'll think I'm so foolish,” she says finally. “It's not the first time, either. With my, you know, my blurry vision and what-not, sometimes I lose track of where people are in the room. I thought you came back in several minutes ago, I was busy grumbling on about your mother and the way she drags your poor father down. I thought you were right over there by the dresser, but I suppose I must have been nattering away to myself.”
“And before you go saying anything,” she adds, raising a finger as if she thinks she's admonishing a naughty little girl, “I am
losing my marbles! It's not my fault that you young people always move so quietly, always tip-toeing around the place. When I was a girl, we all knew to make some bloody noise wherever we went, to announce our arrival. That way, you know if there's someone in the bloody room with you or not!”
“Okay,” I reply, hoping to calm her down a little, “I'm sorry if -”
“I'm tired now,” she grumbles, turning away from me slightly and gasping as she settles against her pillows. “If you insist on being here at all, at least let me sleep.”
“Sure,” I reply, figuring I can get on with some cleaning work. “I should get on with cleaning downstairs anyway. We'll talk later.”
“There's a pub in the village,” she adds as I head to the door. “The King's Head, it's called. They'll have rooms if you need one for tonight. You can't stay here. It's a decent place, though. I'm sure they'll have rooms going, so long as you get there nice and early.”
Glancing back at her, I can't help thinking that she's struggling to cover for her failing memory. In fact, I think she might be in far more trouble than I realized.
“Becky punched me!” Nathan yells, running through the patio doors and almost clattering straight into the sofa, where my parents are sitting. “On the sunburn!”
“I didn't!” I shout, stopping at the doors with tears in my eyes. “Not hard!”
Carrying a cup of tea through to the study, I swear I can almost see and hear my younger self. Last time I was here, I was just a kid, brought here against my will because my parents thought it'd do me good to get out into the countryside. Actually, that's not entirely true. Years later, I found out that my mother's real plan was to make Aunt Emily so fond of me that she'd end up leaving Auercliff to me when she died. My mother was basically using me – and to a lesser extent my brother Nathan, too – in an attempt to manipulate her sister. And that's one of the many, many reasons I cut all contact with that toxic woman years ago.
It's also the reason I stayed away from Auercliff for so long. Guilt. Well, that and a general sense of fear. My last visit here wasn't exactly smooth sailing.
Hearing a bumping sound from the next room, I wander into the conservatory and see that the door to the garden has been left open. I take a sip of tea as I make my way over, but before pulling the door shut I can't help looking out at the huge, sunlit lawn. I know it's none of my business to question why Emily and Martin never had children, but it's impossible to deny that Auercliff would have been the perfect place to raise kids. Even now, it's so easy to imagine a bunch of little girls and boys playing on the lawn, or maybe running down to the river where they can explore the ruins of the old abbey. Maybe it's wrong of me to think that the potential of Auercliff has been wasted, but I can't shake the thought that this could have been such a happy house, filled with -