The Surviving Miss Sobol


Short Fiction by Eleanor Knight

 

On a Wednesday afternoon in the August of her seventy-eighth year, Miss Sobol was taking her hat off upstairs at her bedroom window and watching three council workmen, bare-chested in the heat, paint a mini-roundabout on to the awkward T-junction in front of the Boot and Slipper. Now that the new bypass girdled the town so snugly, here at the top end the traffic was more or less continuous during daylight hours and there had been a couple of nasty near misses.  Two of the men stood in the middle of the road, one pouring white paint from a bucket and the other catching it in what looked like a long-handled dustpan but must be some sort of roller. The third man, a little farther off, the legs of his rumpled jeans wobbly in the haze, trudged round in a perfect circle, pushing a wheel on a long metal arm so that he looked like a grumpy boy with a hoop and stick.

On the other side of the road from Miss Sobol’s cottage was a broad brick pavement, but over here there was no more than a narrow brick spit. A slender, uneven causeway cordoned the flat-fronted cottage and its long, soot-blackened garden wall from the steady procession of cars, vans, lorries and now buses that squeezed between the houses like brushes through a bottle-neck. As the traffic passed by, the glass in the windows, upstairs and down, rattled in its frames, the putty dried up and perished long ago.

Miss Sobol laid her hat down on the bed, put a hand up to her hair and turned back to the window only to find herself looking straight into the gluey blue eyes of a small boy, alone, on the upstairs of a bus, the left side of his face horribly distorted, his sallow cheek swollen to a size that looked most painful and embarrassing – an abscess? A defect?  Then the child spotted her and grinned so wide that his wet, pink teeth showed. He fired an enormous, glistening red gobstopper from his mouth and it hit the bus window. Miss Sobol flinched with surprise and had to steady herself against the chest of drawers by gripping it at one corner, so that the whole thing shook, upsetting a glass scent bottle and causing a framed photograph to slam face down.  The boy dived below his seat, out of sight, the bus moved on. And then before Miss Sobol fell again, there was just the quiet, empty road in front of her and, across the way, the broad, generous pavement, and the house, just as it had always been, Newlyn.

‘An English house from an English novel,’ said Regina, wide-eyed. Gripping her heavy woollen skirt she jumped down from the cart that had bumped them up the cobbled street from the station, this last, and by far shortest part of their journey seemingly the longest because here they were and everything was different.

‘A house,’ Regina went on, ‘With girls lolling about in the garden in lace dresses, and wide, wide hats, and gentlemen with smoking pipes. And they play croquet on the lawn which makes them sulky and cross and then they take a bath at five thirty and the water is never hot enough, and they dress for dinner, which, as we have learned in English novels, is always something brown.’ She pulled a face.

Eva, allowing her younger sister the pleasure of her discovery, helped the driver pull down their brown leather trunk with its wooden ribs worn thin, and stood by while he reached into his pocket and drew out a key, long, slender, rusted with age and with a brown paper label on a piece of string. He handed it to Eva with a nod: she thanked him and pressed into his hand half a crown, and he whistled a long, descending note, smiled up at both young women, took off his cap and swept the toes of his boots with it as he bowed low.

Eva turned and looked across at the house that had captivated her sister. A broad, low-slung villa of red brick and blue-grey knapped flint with a sheen like mother of pearl, stoutly constructed with all the material abandon of empire. A million houses like this might be built every day and still, there would be wood, brick, glass and mortar for all. Optimism and rightness sang around its very walls, and yet the same seemed braced to contain any troubles with confidence and discretion. The long, terra-cotta tiled roof swept deep and low over the upper windows like a fox fur, and the oak gables – thick enough to be buttresses – creaked lazily in the summer heat. Swags of purple wisteria, their fragrance heady as church incense, hung over the leaded windows. Wasps bounced about the eaves as if suspended on invisible threads. A carved white plaster shell curved over the black lacquered front door while two creamy white stone pillars stood either side, and a shiny, circular brass plate housed a modern press-button doorbell. Picked out in the delicate wrought ironwork of the gate, the name: Newlyn.

‘Well then.’ The driver wished them both luck and climbed back on his cart.  The two women stood in the empty street beside their trunk. Eva checked the handwriting on the key’s label and said, simply,  ‘Yes. Everything is well,’ and with a last look, they turned their backs on the house they so admired and slid the key into the lock of the small wooden door to the cottage at number twenty-three.

Eva, pouring coffee for her sister from a tall, blue enamel pot, ‘They have guests this week,’ she nodded towards Newlyn, ‘Fred says. They might be glad of some eggs.’ Despite they kept the hens shut up in their coop until long after breakfast, the silly birds were still laying in the dahlia beds where the dark, loamy soil was like Sachertorte under Eva’s fingers. She plucked a brown speckled egg from the earth and cupped it in her hands, still warm.

‘Quick!’ Regina called from the back door. On the other side of the garden wall, the tick-a-tick-a-tick of the postman’s bicycle coming to a stop against Newlyn’s privet hedge.  Eva jumped up, slid the egg into her apron pocket and ran inside, wiping her hands.

The young Misses Sobol, breathless, at their front door.

‘Ladies…’ Fred touched his cap. His smile was lopsided, tugged at the corner by the long scar that ran from his temple to his neck: just now it was still puce and raised, like the line of a field boundary on a map, but it would settle down. At least he’d come back.  ‘Well, well, what have you there?’ Fred pointed at her apron pocket and Eva blushed: warm and smooth, the egg bulged against her thigh. ‘The hens,’ she said, ‘They will get the hang of it.’ And Fred laughed and said they better had, as one egg was hardly a banquet.

There were always a great many letters for Newlyn and, from time to time, a telegram. Nobody feared them anymore, far from it. A telegram once more signalled prestige, connections. The Misses Sobol looked from their card table at the window in time to see Fred swaggering back down the herringbone path opposite, his leather satchel slung across his body, swinging open the gate. Fred said, over there they had people on the Empress of Australia.

On Regina’s twenty-first birthday, Eva got up before dawn and made a torte as best she could in an old iron skillet she’d found hanging by the stove when they first moved in. ‘How did you…?’ marvelled Regina, woken from sleep by the blanketing, sour-sweetness of chocolate. Their tiny black range had an appetite for coal of something much more impressive and they struggled to keep the heat going. And the grocer never seemed to have quite what they wanted, unless someone happened to have asked for that particular thing a minute before: coffee, brown paper, boot polish, whatever it was, Eva learned to repeat items overheard from the lists of other customers and hold out her string shopping bag, open in hope.  Chocolate was yesterday’s miracle and she had seized the chance, but chocolate wasn’t the end of it because outside in the street, even now,  three men in shirtsleeves were easing an upright piano down wooden runners from the back of a covered wagon. Eva gave instructions but all the while stood by the horse with a shovel and pail. She looked up at the bedroom window where Regina had gone up to brush her hair, to make it shine like treacle; Papa used to hold it in both hands and drape it over his chin like a long, pantomime beard so that they shrieked with laughter. Mama’s little scissors, snip, snip, snip, at the dry ends.

But here was Fred, sauntering down the path from Newlyn’s front door under a wreath of honeysuckle, watching the men, whistling at the effort they made in getting the piano through the narrow front door, lifting, swearing, resting, and lifting again.  Regina, trapped behind, but trying to exchange places with the piano, was bobbing up and down like one of its felt hammers at work. ‘From the trunk!’ she cried and held up a sheaf of music books spilling from a brown paper folder.

Fred brought news of a party. There had been talk in the Boot and Slipper as to the hiring of a marquee and a delivery of champagne – crates of the stuff – the people at Newlyn liked to do things properly.  Fred winked and said his guess was that they were keen on a bit of music.

Out in town with their string bags looped over their arms, the Misses Sobol dared to let the words organza, shot silk and velvet slip from their lips as they peered in greedily at the displays in the drapers’ windows, and rose, peach, even chartreuse as they came giggling home to number twenty-three.  No doubt, preparations would be well underway at Newlyn; gold embossed invitation cards, each name inscribed with care and generosity, each slipped into a smooth cream envelope and lined up smartly with the rest on a silver tray ready for the post. The sisters found the tape measure in the work-basket and pinched hard at their cheeks in the mirror. They caught each other out, staring from their windows, or else stood stock still in the garden if they thought they heard the wheels of a bicycle.

Early one Saturday morning the publican’s wagon drew up in the street outside.  Dozens of brightly striped deckchairs lay folded one on top of the other, two stout rolls of white canvas and a great many awkward-looking poles. The driver greeted the dedicated procession of men in overalls that appeared from Newlyn’s tradesman’s entrance and applied themselves to picking up chairs or poles from the wagon, the publican and his boy swinging the bellied canvas between them before turning at the thick grey foot of the wisteria and disappearing again through the garden door. Once the dew had burned off, a man arrived with a hand cart full of Chinese paper lanterns, you never saw such a thing, orange, red and gold, they were so beautiful. The Misses Sobol watched from indoors as the lantern man tapped out his pipe on the side of his leg and reached out a single stained finger to press Newlyn’s big brass bell.

That evening as they shut up the hens in silence, a benign, near-distant artillery of champagne corks, followed by cheers and muffled peals of laughter drifted over the wall on the summer air.  The sisters stood at their back door and watched the splendid orange sun collapse and bleed into a sky of pink and rose. A breeze tugged at a patch of dandelion clocks by the quiet hen house and lifted their gossamer onto the breeze, while above the rose beds hung a grey gauze of flies intent on the stinking bounty dropped by the publican’s horse.

 

In hot weather,  Eva propped the skillet against the front door to let the air through the stuffy cottage. Regina played the Debussy preludes from the book with Papa’s black, inky handwriting curling up the page. Eva loved to hear La jeune fille aux cheveux de lin, the languor of a summer’s day finding her outdoors as she dead-headed the roses or swept the brick path. But it was the submerged cathedral – La cathédrale engloutie – that transfixed her. Her sister struck at the repeated bass pedal note with such mystic force that Eva felt that the cathedral, flying buttresses, gothic arches and all, was submerged deep within Regina herself. The louder she played, the higher the limestone columns rose majestic and powerful in her, reaching ever upwards to the gilded vaults and ready to burst through her ribs.

At Newlyn, the honeysuckle died away, the wisteria withered right back to its twisted grey limbs, and something Eva was delighted to find was called Old Man’s Beard clambered wetly onto the top of the privet hedge. The sweet smell of wood-smoke drifted across from Newlyn’s patrician chimneys, great white puffs of it, like a train at full steam, not the thin, acrid stream that wavered upwards from the meagre coal range at number twenty-three.

When war came again, Newlyn gave up its wrought iron. The Misses Sobol handed in their skillet. It was a shame to look across the street and see just a gap in the overgrown privet hedge, and now was no time to find a gardener. But it was the squeak they missed, as soon as it had gone, though not as much as they missed poor Fred, balancing on one bicycle pedal like a dandy.

The King died and the sisters dug out a tin of mourning pins from the workbox and cut armbands from the old blackout, but Regina had been ill again and was only just out of bed so it was Eva alone who joined the townspeople gathered at the war memorial, wept as the band played Nimrod, and stumbled over the change of words in the national anthem before, sinking down into her thick coat collar against the raw, wet wind.

Miss Sobol, who always looked elegant on every occasion, one should say that for her at least, was followed up the high street by a small crowd that spilled off the narrow pavement into the road and murmured about the awful burden on the young princess, queen, Her Majesty now, terrible for her. They all turned in at Newlyn, ushering each other through the absent gate and up the path to where the front door stood open to receive them, a light in the hallway, a fire in the hearth.

Eva, no more than a few paces ahead and carrying silence like a heavy sack on her back, turned the key in the lock at number twenty-three.

There was a new family at Newlyn now. The daughter looked like trouble:  her skirt was no more than a gesture, and she had dreadful legs. Her hair hung straight down like two sheets of brown paper either side of her pale, angular face and she stubbed out her cigarettes against the low flint wall that replaced the privet hedge, removed because it was a threat to the drains and therefore an impediment to sale. Only a few dry nubs of wisteria had survived, cut right back to the wall like scars so that the flaking windowsills could be sanded, filled and repainted.

The Newlyn girl had friends, boys and girls, who shuffled in their enormous shoes, jostling each other off the pavement and into the path of passing cars, or sat along the wall, eating chips from paper in the middle of the afternoon, talking and laughing in loud voices. They darted across the road in front of cars, narrowly escaping and slamming into the cottage wall, their schoolbags bashed at the windows, thump, thump, thump; their laughter and their shrieking.

To break the tedium of the long summer holiday, some of the boys hoisted the Newlyn girl one day upon their shoulders and posted her over the garden wall so that she fell down on the other side into brambles and had to tear herself free. The collapsed face of the dilapidated, empty chicken house stared back at her, the door open and swinging, lopsided on a single rusted hinge.  She stood up, stamped the mud from her shoes, and peeped in at the cottage through a back window. She saw a dirt floor, a black iron range, a cracked butler’s sink piled with washing up, a small, cheap-looking table with a lace mat in the middle, a white china cup in a white china saucer, and a blue enamel coffee pot. In one corner, above a sloping shelf, a tongue of yellowed wallpaper hung loose under a ceiling so bowed it would probably have to come down.

She tried the handle and finding the door wasn’t locked gave it a shove with her shoulder. Wax polish, stew, mildew and urine. She wouldn’t go upstairs: the old lady had only died a week or so ago – exactly when, it wasn’t clear. There had been a police car, an ambulance and then a van for the most part of last Saturday morning, all three parked right against the cottage wall, their wheels half on, half off the narrow pavement, the usual flow of traffic reduced to a single line, alternating between one direction and the other, and tailing back all three ways from the new roundabout.  There were no living relatives, apparently, and there had been two of them at one time, she’d heard, sisters – or they called themselves sisters – the Misses Sobol, they had lived here forever but had kept themselves to themselves, didn’t mix. ‘And no sign of anyone to clear it up,’  – her mother, looking up from a story in the paper, ‘So many houses, so little time.’

In the living room, a crowded pine dresser narrowed the room so badly it was a wonder one person, let alone two, had lived here without bumping into things all day long. Mismatched china, newspapers, woollen blankets folded in neat piles, a dark stain covering much of the faded pink rag rug in the middle of the room, an olive green velvet chair with bald arms, mouse droppings dot-dot-dot along the bottom of the bookcase. An upright piano and a stool.

She picked her way through the clutter, brushed some droppings off the stool, sat down and lifted the piano lid. A pencil rolled off the keys and onto the floor and when she picked it up and put it back at the end of the keyboard her fingers found a small, square photograph nestled there, sepia, a group in an old-fashioned studio. A handsome woman in a high-necked blouse, with a watch hung upside down on her chest like a nurse’s, sat on a high-backed chair; on her face an expression of pleasant surprise, as if she’d just received a present from a stranger.  Her skirts were spread out like a scallop shell between two little girls with ringleted hair, white lace dresses and the sort of boots the Newlyn girl had always coveted for herself – black, shiny, buttoned all the way to the knee. Both girls frowned comically at the camera, their cupid’s bow lips turned down with suspicion. Behind them stood a man in a long Astrakhan frock coat; his beard trim, his eyes bright and looking straight out at her, expectantly,  from behind his wire-rimmed spectacles, as if he had just asked the first part of a joke. On the back someone had written, ‘Never forget. For all our English birthdays and forever. All my love, always.’

The room was cool and still, but the ivory keys were warm and tempting beneath her fingertips. She pressed one down and a single note, like a question, broke the silence.  No musician, the Newlyn girl tried another key at random, a black one this time near the bottom, let it ring, and pressed it again and again, daring herself to fill the silent house with this one deep, bell-like note.  Then she spread her fingers over several keys at once and sank her hands down onto a cluster of them. The notes jarred together:  angry, shy, light, dark, needy, loutish, pliant, complicit and heroic, all at once.  She grew bolder, pounding the keys with her fists,  jabbing at them with her elbows, then sinking down on her forearms, making the notes boom and ring. She zipped her thumb and forefinger up and down the keys from bottom to top and back again, and again, and again until the skin around her thumbnail snagged.  She would be in trouble for being here: the thought broadened her palms, strengthened her wrists, while her fingers, now strong as a potter’s, reached hungrily for more and more notes, and she had the curious sensation that even as her upper limbs seemed to grow wider and stronger, longer and heavier, her heart was too small to keep up, too new, too frail to pump the blood fast enough into her resolute arms, wrists, fingers.  The piano pealed its deafening bells, the sound loud enough to rattle the windows in their frames, the walls of the tiny cottage might crack and the whole place come tumbling down. She felt a roaring in her ears, and then an overwhelming flood of strength, power, of awe, as if her whole body thundered, as if it boiled from inside, screaming and howling, as if she were a monster, as if, from her painted toenails to the straw-dry ends of her un-brushed hair, she were ablaze.

 


Eleanor Knight is a British writer whose short stories have been anthologised by Serpent’s Tail and appeared in a number of journals. She is also a librettist, because that way she gets to have workmates sometimes, but currently she is mostly working on a novel. She teaches on the creative writing MA at the University of Brighton and runs community writing workshops.