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  • Writer's pictureLouise Worthington

In Her Mind - The haunted wood or the haunted mind?



CHAPTER ONE

 

To the drum of sadness, Isabella marched through snow, still four footprints and widening between them.  That winter, she had never felt so remote, and it seemed that the season refused to leave its icy breath inside and outside the house, as if the world beyond their window would never be green again.  Most days, snow covered the landscape in blankness – she stared at what she felt inside.

The months passed.

 

*

 

The house was too big, their having bought a family home, so she kept the bedroom doors closed to rooms left unheated and unfurnished.  Sometimes she felt trapped, so she wandered outside, only to find that too wide.  Inside, it was too quiet.

The clock ticking, heart gripping, forgetting everything – everything… except what they hadn’t got any longer.  Seeing vacancy where it wasn’t before: in the spare chair at the kitchen table, and the beige walls.  The landing grew a foot wider, the staircase a stair extra, the house bigger and them smaller.  Smaller, rattling in a world which grew fatter around them.

Their families watched on over the Christmas period, respectful of their sadness and loss, tactfully not intervening in private grief, while their siblings kept their distance, for they had young children on so many little feet.  Isabella sent postcard messages, as if they had gone away to someplace new, which was experiencing a power failure; travelled to a strange land in which they didn’t know how to live, or how to get back from.  She didn’t say as much, only: ‘We are busy.  All is well.  Don’t worry.’

It is cruel to carry on as before: nine to five, paying bills, her grief packed in a black handbag with ham sandwiches; Manfred’s in a briefcase beside a laptop, on a screensaver, carried on back seats, trains and stowed in hotels.

Grief: a nightie under Isabella’s pillow, there for when she got home after work, and tucked back neatly again in the morning. 

 

*

 

Spring has finally arrived.

She and Manfred eat at the kitchen table – dinner with the radio on low – then she baths in candlelight, for the kindness of its light.  The bathroom window is obscured by steam from the bath.  She washes her neck, back, chest.  Manfred says she must choose life again, and wash away the death-ridden days of grief.  She soaps her hair with strawberry-scented shampoo, thinking of the spring and summer ahead, and she breathes in the scent of Lavinia’s favourite fruit.

Outside, the wind whips the pine trees in the nearby wood, and another long scream of a childless night awaits.  She’d never thought of the wood as haunting her before… until her daughter vanished, presumed dead.

I hear you!  I hear you, Lavinia.

Here she is, inside the cocoon of a warm house, a hot bath, on the other side of the moon.  Isabella thinks she can hear Lavinia tapping at the window, blowing cold breath through the gap, calling for her, sending a mess of wings and curses from the trees into the sky.  The world is green again.  The sap is rising.

I will find you!

Wrapped in a soft, lavender-smelling towel, her skin is cleansed, fragrant, dried and renewed, for another way of waiting to be a family again.

In bed, they wrap themselves in a starched white sheet like two mummies, and she waits for sleep to take her away.

‘I love you,’ she whispers to Lavinia, her bones cold beneath the winter tog, despite the mild weather.

They sleep in their bedroom with the window open, so the breeze can move into the room while they lie still under the weight of loss, a tog they’d not known before, and which Manfred fears Isabella is not strong enough to withstand.  An owl in the nearby wood asks them to stay awake.  Isabella’s breath is warm, her aroma strange in this room, permanently chilled now that she insists on leaving the window open all night long.  Not for fresh air, but for Lavinia to come and go.

She has a photograph of Lavinia, aged two, on the dressing table beside their bed.  The framed photo on the table is not just dusty, but old, too; Lavinia’s childhood is turning into a ghost, and she is haunting each hour.  Isabella knows the shape of her daughter’s forehead, her chin, and the wideness of her eyes without seeing them.  Lavinia’s skin is luminous; it glows in the darkness of the bedroom.  Her fair hair is thin and fine; it always reminded Isabella of a spider’s web, those delicate strands catching the light.  Lavinia is shy, quiet and needy.  That smile of hers is cherry blossom and pink magnolia petals, bursting from the smallest and tightest of a soft and firm bud.  She loves to run, to play chase in the wood, to pick wildflowers and blow the heads off of dandelions.  She calls them ‘bubbles’.

Lavinia used to run away from Manfred in the kitchen, along the landing, in the garden.  She ran away from him at the park, the local shop, and the changing rooms at the swimming pool.  Her feet couldn’t keep still for Isabella to take care of her.  The child who liked to run.

Isabella recalls being in a shopping centre with Manfred, among the dress shops and nail bars.  There, a tot ascended toward Heaven, happy to be travelling to someplace else; running on her four-year-old legs, she left them, the stroller and shopping bags to shrink beneath, while Lavinia grew larger on the escalator to the second floor.  In Hell, she followed Lavinia’s alarmed eyes backward, Baby-Doll dangling from one hand.  Isabella was afraid of the silver teeth and the adults up above.

Lavinia slid off the end and out – another slippery birth – up on the cloud of the upper storey, where music and the tang of coffee framed her face.  Perhaps that event was a premonition.

Sometimes, she dreams that Lavinia is still in the shopping centre, on the second floor, cuddling Baby-Doll and crying for her.  The lights are out and the escalator in frozen motion.

‘Night, love,’ Manfred says, planting a chaste kiss on her cheek, before rolling over to face the other way.

Next door, Lavinia’s bedroom is recently decorated and furnished with empty drawers; the toys and books are gone.  Baby-Doll, her favourite, with a soft, tactile body and a large, plastic head with blue orbs for eyes, disappeared with Lavinia for a time.  Isabella asked Manfred to take the rest of the dolls to the charity shop, but he told her he couldn’t bring himself to share them, so he buried them in the wood instead, in a favourite shaded spot.

Since Lavinia disappeared, Isabella sleeps facing the photograph, so they can see one another.  She has stared at it for so long it’s a wonder a hole hasn’t formed in its centre, in the shape of a heart.  Somewhere out there, Lavinia is still alive.  Just lost, not dead.  Not missing.  Taken.

Isabella closes her eyes to the picture in her mind: a house where Lavinia lived for the first few years of her life, before being whisked to a place no one can find.  Since finding Baby-Doll, Isabella is more concerned Lavinia is close by.  Even under her nose.

She takes a breath, a deep one, filling her defective self with air and expectation.  Inside, a hollow space in need of filling; a waxy balloon snagged on a branch.  She turns to Manfred and thinks how he, like her, looks different to before their loss; it’s written in his furtive gaze, his demeanour.  Isabella used to think they were a family heading for a pink and orange sunset, motoring on a straight road.

How pointed the pain is to lose a child and not know what happened!  Who knows where her loss will take her?  Their history can’t be cut out of them because it’s part of them.  It’s a diseased kidney, a drinker’s liver and Manfred wants to cut out, donate, transplant, heal, mend… forget.  Lavinia disappeared from the back garden before she was seven years old. 

Still, Isabella has long imagined them with the backdrop of the moon on a camping trip, or the ebb and flow of the River Severn, as they row a little rowing boat.  Or, holding her tightly in the shallow end of the local swimming pool, the sound of laughter echoing around the walls.

This grief, this tortuous waiting, is a light so bright she shields her eyes with her hand.  The seasons don’t matter anymore.  It’s just time without Lavinia.

 

*

 

Isabella stirs and moans then, knowing Manfred is fast asleep, holds her breath, afraid of being seen.  She hates the part of herself that is relieved she doesn’t have to meet his marble eye or explain.  Ever since she found Baby-Doll, in a red phone box not more than two miles from their road, she can’t give up on finding Lavinia alive.  A fitting place, she’d thought, the disused telephone box: the phone ripped out of its womb, the umbilical cord of a line cut out, yet the vessel still there.

Manfred’s fair hair whips the pillow, as if a gust of wind gate-crashed into the room.  His legs and arms have met with a car bonnet at speed; Joyriding through to morning.  His legs are akimbo on top of the crunched covers and silk eiderdown, wrenched from the mattress like unwanted bandages.  A survivor of the tragedy, or a collision with something?  Peace must fall like snowflakes behind those eyes, for him to sleep so soundly.

Isabella tiptoes onto the dimly-lit landing, where a night-light glows, because she insists on having it on.  She briefly closes her eyes on feeling the sensations searing through her, and focuses on the plush carpet beneath her bare feet. 

This time, now the snow has melted, and the leaves on the trees are green and tender, she’ll find the shaded spot and return Baby-Doll to the buried bag of Lavinia’s dolls in the hedgerow, where she belongs.

It’s still a foreign feeling, to not have a third living person in the house.  Downstairs, the mess in the kitchen glows in the light from the hob.  If they had a landlord, they would be evicted from this house, for having no regard for the property or the contents.  There is a kind of homelessness in the way she lives now.  Squatting.  A temporary effort at each day, like it doesn’t matter.  Like kicking someone else’s dropped litter.

Manfred should stop glueing and sewing.  Pretending.  This trail sadness leaves; the trail it steals; this feeling inside her – it’s a red felt-tip on the wall.  She doesn’t see it as graffiti, like he does, but hieroglyphics.  It’s written on the back of the kitchen door:

‘Lavinia cannot be dead.’

Manfred cleans, tidies away the broken things and fixes what he can.  Puts hope in the electricity meter to put warmth back into her bones, so she’ll reach for him and make love like they used to.  He puts the books back to a standing position in the bookcase and closes drawers, previously agape like tongue and teeth.

Meanwhile, she remembers a trail of Coco Pops under the kitchen table.  The rooms pretend everything is normal, but Isabella can see Lavinia’s blueprint everywhere.


 

CHAPTER TWO

 

She throws on Manfred’s coat over her nightdress, pushes Baby-Doll into the generous coat pocket, and slides her bare feet into Wellington boots.  Walking makes a slapping sound, loud in the silence of the sleeping house, so she hurries outside.

She instinctively strides to the outhouse, to peek inside at the sparrow’s nest.  The mother is there, and her four babies with their beaks open, pointing toward the sky.  Watching that nest being built had been a source of wonder, the tireless painstaking effort a labour of love, to create an object of beauty for a family.  Then, when she heard the chicks, she had to take a look – not too close, so as not to frighten the mother bird away.  What a wonderful mother she was, keeping her babies fed and safe from predators.

The lawn looks like it has doubled in size, since Manfred dismantled the trampoline and the swing.  Lavinia’s purple bike used to lean against the back wall, by the outhouse – that too looks bigger now.  Only last weekend he removed the cover over the decorative pond; she had wept in the bathroom.

Deciding it best not to loiter in the garden, in case Manfred gets up, she turns toward the wood without a second glance.  It has always overshadowed the house.  For them, being a private couple, they liked the privacy and wildness of the wood on their doorstep.  It was a natural playground for Lavinia who, as an only child, liked nothing better than to play games under the trees, watch the clouds pass and make up stories about the goblins who lived there.

They used to walk to the wood quite often at one time, before Lavinia was born.  Now it seems like even the trees lean away from her, and the old silver birch won’t offer a single love letter from its bark.  She moves her hand over its textured flesh, thinking it has been a long time since she wanted Manfred to touch her.

They preferred to walk here on an early evening, when the temperature was cool and the light a half -gloom.  Now, it’s as a dark-room to sepia-toned affection.  A long time ago, he had cupped her face so gently her heart moved.

That was before.

Now, the air inside the wood feels bruised. 

A vacated skyline tells the early hour, and the emptiness she feels within.  It is light enough to see the path is muddy and slippery, fringed by green ferns.  She enters the wood like it is a wound, and she opens it.

They’d search for conkers in spiky, green overcoats, splash in the puddles and, in summer, pick wildflowers for the kitchen table, loving the golden sunrays through the bleached trees.

Her heart fists beneath his jacket, as she winds her way toward the shady spot Lavinia loved, opening up to her like soily hands.  The wood is breathing again now it’s spring.  The season is spelt out in the bluebells and cow parsley, and the aroma of pine needles.  The trees twist their branches as if wringing out their wetness, after the snow and rain the winter dealt so harshly.  There is no order to the bashing undergrowth, or the landing places of sticks and branches, or the disappearance of a child.  The unplanned architecture of nature is around, abundantly lacking in symmetry or sanity, framed by the sky.  Birds take refuge on branches, and a white sun breaks through the pencil-grey cloud, to sketch a familiar path.  A tangled bramble grabs her nightdress; a small tear sounds as she pulls it free.

If only she would appear from behind a tree, shout ‘Got you!’ and laugh, like it was all a big game.  Lavinia’s face could break into a transparent smile, as if the movement had been kept captive for years.  The gods ache for more of its curve, and Isabella flushes and blinks with the pain of the memory.  If only Lavinia’s little hand could slide into hers.  A baton-pain pokes her under the ribs.

Bluebells are so delicate with their heads in prayer, if they were people they would weep.  A tower of foxgloves in a soft, purple hue reminds her of dear Lavinia in party frocks.  She had dresses she used to wear for ‘best’: birthday parties and family get-togethers of a similar hue.

In a mist of blue, she picks the way, remembering the smallness of Lavinia’s bird-like hands and feet, which were never still.  She keeps walking, and the birdsong rings louder than her static.  Then the sky lifts, and hope of finding her alive shines like pearls.

Isabella eventually arrives where she has been too afraid to go.  It’s only right that Baby-Doll joins the other teddies and dolls in the home Manfred found for them.

Movement is in the undergrowth.

Is that the sound of a child’s laughter?

A squirrel shoots up a tree.  A murmur of the wind like a soft lullaby.

‘Lavinia?’ the sound of Isabella’s voice is hacksaw on bone.  ‘It’s Mummy.’

She pulls her coat tighter around her, the air colder than it was before.  Frigid.

Nestling under the hedgerows, nettles battle with wild, white flowers.  Isabella clambers through the thorns and tall nettles, to kneel beside an overgrown hawthorn hedge.  The hiding place Manfred will have chosen was a rabbit burrow at one time – he said the hole in the soft earth was ready-made and perfect for it.  Lavinia made up a story about a family of rabbits who lived there: a mummy and a baby girl rabbit.  She scratches away at the soil like a hungry badger.

The bag is there, comfortably nestled and sleeping in the burrow.

She gently moves the waterproof bag, conscious of its weight, then removes it from its grave like a stillborn. 

A blackbird settles onto a nearby branch, watching the world below it intently – a beguiling statue, yet able to fly away when it chooses to come back to life.  Its simple beauty pulls at something inside Isabella, its perfect living form knowing freedom and joy.

Her arms rock the waterproof bag.  It is stained with something frighteningly like blood.

Sorrow as heavy as lead settles over her, now that the bag is cradled in her arms.

She rocks the bag, choked by the smell of decay overpowering the scent of pine needles.  The scent is all wrong: dank and horrible.

A pain in her head akin to a migraine blooms.  Isabella makes fists and thumps the earth.  Tears dribble from each cornea; a sound released from a dome: a lid of grief opened on a box, a tomb of buried dread and loathing.  The blackbird takes flight into the sky.

She opens the bag and screams, dropping Baby-Doll into the nettles and stones.

And she runs.  Runs.

The sun is rising.  A pain forms like a stitch in her side.  The sun’s rays make empty fisherman’s nets on the path home.  Hope has turned to stone, and the glass of pretence has smashed.

The veil of darkness is lifted.

Manfred had never cried for Lavinia – for ‘Little Medusa’, as he called her.

Lavinia ran away.  He had found her.

 

*

 

Inside the hall, she closes the back door and hangs up Manfred’s coat.  The house still smells of last night’s fish pie, which he’d enjoyed, while she, as usual, picked at it with a fork.

Studying her face in the hall mirror, she expects to see an older self.  There, she acknowledges the same face she’d avoided looking at for all this time.  The same facial muscles that had incubated fears and dragged them into her nightmares.

Only, this time, she was awake.


 

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LOUISE WORTHINGTON

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