First Read in Link – Full Story Here by Ellie Stevenson
Dorothy Taylor breathed in dust like it was her own, her own worn bones being ground into dirt. Instead of being just a tired old floor, and hardly dirty, she'd swept it herself. Such a pity her head was pressed up against it.
She could feel Jack's foot in the small of her back, could smell his shoes, and something else, the smell of old sock. Unwashed at that. She was surprised that Jack could afford leather shoes, he was only part-time, and when he was here he worked so little. And then she smelt something worse than socks, sweat and fear. She got to her feet as Jack released her, watched him leave, finally cowed, as bullies always were when they met someone bigger. The person in question was Alison Beaumont, she was bigger, and she had the ear of the man in charge. Dorothy groaned.
Alison Beaumont was normally sharp but today the woman looked dulled with grief. Dorothy noticed the flash of her eyes and guessed the grief might come with a spark. The woman was angry, very angry.
"Get me some tea, Doris," she said.
Beaumont could never remember her name, but today was not a day to argue. Dorothy sighed and left the room, following Jack into the passage and then to the staff room. When she got back, Alison Beaumont was by the window and staring out of the grimy panes.
"These need a clean," she said to Dot, running a finger down the glass, which came away smudged with grease and dirt. She looked surprised.
Dorothy didn't bother to answer, she was a carer, it wasn't her job to clean the windows. But the Home cared less about people than money, and not having cleaners saved quite a bit. Dorothy knew she ought to tell, but also knew she never would. She needed the pay.
Alison Beaumont sniffed and sat down. "I've come to see you about my mother. Now that she's dead."
Old Annie Barton was better than you, Dot thought savagely, grief surprising her with its sudden appearance. A small, hollow pain was birthed in her gut. At least your mother, Annie, was kind.
Alison Beaumont leant towards her. "My mother left you a small legacy." The frown on her face was comment enough and pure displeasure, that and the stress on the word small. But Dot didn't care, the round, hollow pain was replaced by pride. Dot was in a fantasy world.
What would it be, this small legacy? A simple gift, some flowers or a vase? Maybe money, but not that much. A little something to make a difference. She hardly dared hope.
Alison Beaumont pursed her lips. "You needn't look like that," she said. "My mother left you a garden shed."
Dorothy stared at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were small and her nose was big, far too big for the size of her face, but somehow, today, that didn't matter. She adjusted the mirror, which wouldn't stay straight, no matter how many times she tried. Dorothy frowned. The mirror was tired and old, like her, or so she felt, but it hung there proud in the tiny shed. She'd never had anything like a shed. Living in a tiny, top floor flat, she'd never had even so much as a yard. And now she had her very own shed. It even came with electric light. How strange, she thought.
"I still remember when Annie's old man wired the place," said Artie Frost, the elderly neighbour, who lived next door. They'd met across the garden fence. "I doubt it would pass the safety tests, not then or now. He was always one for DIY, was my mate Eddie."
Dorothy nodded, she didn't much care about DIY and Eddie Barton, not right then, she was cold and tired and needed some heat. She thought there might be a mystery here, electric lights and a missing man, but she knew it would keep, for now was December, and the leaves on the trees, so lovely once, had dropped to the ground and turned to mush.
"Just like your meals," said Ralph, her bloke, a fly-by-night type, but all she could get. Dorothy thought he was probably married, but she didn't dare ask and he wasn't going to say. He never had any money either.
Dorothy sighed and thought of the shed. It wasn't exactly a normal gift and the garden belonged to someone else.
"It's a pity she didn't leave you the house," said Ralph shortly, poking the fire.
"Isn't it just," said Dot, sadly.
When she returned to the house after Christmas, she took the time, and examined it properly. The street was fat and clearly prosperous, with tall, broad houses and buffed up steps. All except one, old Annie Barton's, it looked rather shabby. She let herself through by the garden gate.
The windows were shuttered and closed to the world. The house looked grim, in need of improvement, the garden was worse. Dot feared gardens, their untamed nature and the secret rules she'd never managed to learn. According to Artie, there'd once been a lawn and beautiful plants and a brand new shed. It was hard to believe. "He left just after he fitted the electrics," Artie explained, speaking of Eddie, "just packed up his bags, and left, like that." He clicked his fingers, a sharp, twanging sound that symbolised loss.
Dot said nothing, just smiled slightly, she'd taken to Artie, who'd become more generous, sharing gossip and bits of news.
"You know she's putting the house on the market?"
Dorothy nodded, she hadn't known but she'd guessed as much, it was obvious, really. The house was empty and rather run down, but still substantial, a valuable asset, and Alison Beaumont wasn't the type to waste an asset. A few days later, the woman herself turned up at the shed.
"I rather thought I'd find you here."
"It makes a change," said Dot, mildly. "From the Home, I mean. Would you like some tea? The kettle's just on."
"In here?" said Alison Beaumont rudely, scanning the space with her sharp, black eyes. She seemed to think the idea crazy, but squeezed herself in and perched on a chair.
"You've made the place look almost homely. I only came to give you this."
This was a box tied up with string. It was long and narrow and opened easily.
"It's an easel," said Dot, pleased but surprised. She hadn't expected Annie to remember.
"I think it's why she gave you the shed." Alison Beaumont tapped the box. "I found it when I was clearing up."
"She always knew I wanted to paint. And now she's given me something towards it. Two things really." A shaft of light hit the grimy panes and a thousand colours entered the room. "I always thought she'd forgotten," she said.
"My mother never forgot anything," Alison Beaumont, said with feeling. "Not bad tea, for you, Doris."
"My name's Dot," said Dorothy, sharply.
Alison Beaumont put the mug down."You know I'm selling the house, don't you?"
"I thought you would," said Dot sadly. "But of course I'm sorry."
"You've made this place look so much better, all those prints and that lovely old rug. And the lights still work, my dad did those."
"Yes," said Dorothy, drifting off, to a much better place of landscape oils and vibrant hues.
"He really was rather good, you know, at that sort of thing."
"What?" said Dorothy, coming back, but rather reluctant.
"My father, Doris. He loved model trains and he liked a smoke. Mother wouldn't let him smoke in the house, so he built this shed and moved in here. He used to spend all his time in here, turned it into a home from home." She paused briefly. "Rather like you, but without the trains."
"Right," said Dorothy, looking around and wondering where the trains would have gone.
Alison Beaumont reached in her coat and pulled out a packet of cigarettes. "Want one?" she said.
Dorothy shook her head sharply, wondering how to say, "Not here. This is my shed now."
But Alison Beaumont didn't argue, just shoved the packet back in her pocket and carried on talking. "My mother never believed he'd left, would leave all this, apart from her." She looked outside at the overgrown garden. Dorothy looked for somewhere to go.
"He wasn't really my father, you know." Alison Beaumont got to her feet.
"Right," said Dot. What could she say?
"She should have had the thing knocked down, the moment he left." Alison Beaumont's voice was harsh. She walked to the door, then looked at Dot. "My mother always hoped he'd come back. And now the wretched shed is yours."
Weeks passed by and a thaw came on, and working outside in the early evenings became almost possible. Dot spent time in the garden, painting.
"I reckon you've got a bloke down there," said Ralph, moaning.
"You're probably right," said Dot mildly, thinking of Artie. "He's quite debonair, and much more polite than you'll ever be."
Ralph didn't answer, just snorted loudly and made for the door. Dot was joking but Ralph didn't see it, he was far too angry. He left for the pub, slamming the door as hard as he could. Dorothy sighed. Things weren't great at home, these days.
It wasn't much better at the shed either. However she tried, she couldn't quite get the shapes right on the sketches she made, or catch the mists of seasonal rain. All her paintings looked indifferent. I'll never be any good at this, she thought, sadly.
A few weeks later, the weather improved, but the painting hadn't. Buds emerged but Dot couldn't draw them, and the leaves looked wrong. Artie appeared across the fence.
"Still painting I see," he said smiling and Dorothy nodded.
"I try," she said, "but it won't work out."
Artie climbed over and studied her latest effort closely. "I reckon you're trying to do too much, at least for now. You need to focus on something smaller. Try those anemones over there."
"Do you think that's it?" said Dorothy, hopeful, looking at the plant, which was small and pretty but mostly weeds.
"I do," he said, as the rain came down and soaked them both as well as her painting.
"Oh, look, it's ruined," said Dot fed up, "and the shed'll be wet and the lights'll go off. I'm sure those electrics aren't safe, you know, just like you said. It's not that I'm not grateful, though." Her voice trailed off.
"I know you are," said Artie, nodding "I know you are." He looked thoughtful.
"Why don't I give you the key to the house? The power's still on in there, I think, and at least it's dry. It's a better place to paint than out here, or in that shed."
"What? Annie's old house? I don't think so."
"But who's to know bar you and me? I've had that key for years," he said. "I got it from Annie, in case of trouble. Not many people know I've got it."
Dot knew he meant Alison Beaumont, she wouldn't want her going inside. But old Annie Barton had been her friend, and Dorothy wanted to see the place, just once.
"I shouldn't really," she said, weakening.
"It'll be alright," Artie insisted. "And I'll come with you, just this first time, so you'll know it's safe. Let's go now."
"Right" said Dot, knowing it was wrong, but following Artie down the path, he was miles ahead and rushing with the vigour of a much younger man. Dorothy followed him into the house. The hall was huge.
"Better not switch the lights on yet," said Artie, laughing. "God knows what we'll see in here."
They wandered around from room to room, looking at curtains closed to the light, and left-over furniture, covered in sheets.
"Nobody's been in here for years," said Dot with feeling. "Look at the dust, it's inches thick."
"No-one apart from Alison Beaumont. And I don't think she's the cleaning sort."
The word cleaning leapt out at Dorothy, swung from a thread, was hung out to dry. Like rags and cloths and freshly washed curtains. "No," she said, and wandered away. After that, the rest was easy. I'm doing it all for Annie, she thought. But she knew it was all for herself and the house.
As they left she turned to Artie. "Did you know my friend Annie well?" she asked, curious.
Artie took a moment to answer. "In some ways, yes, I did, very well. But in others, no, hardly at all. Nor her, me."
Then the lights came on in the street outside.
The season took hold, got into its swing, and all the gardens were bright with colour. Annie's old neighbour, Artie Frost, was bored with hanging around his house, so he wandered next door, and let himself in with his duplicate key. He stopped, stunned. The house was still cold and empty, yes. But the floors had been polished, the windows gleamed and someone had taken the dust sheets off. The house was different, had a sort of glow, just like it had then, in Annie's day. Artie smiled, he knew the touch of a woman's heart and he thought he knew who the woman was. She walked towards him, down the hall.
"I thought I heard your footsteps just now, you gave me a fright." Artie grinned, she didn't look scared.
"I see you've been busy in here, my girl. The place looks great, you've done a good job." Dorothy scowled.
"My bloke's left home, I needed something different to do, apart from the job. Something to keep my mind off Ralph." She looked defiant, not at all sad.
Artie smiled, he didn't believe a word she'd said. He'd seen the glint that lit her eye, that very first day. Perhaps that's why he'd asked her here. But what would Alison Beaumont say?
Then he heard the key in the lock.
"Time to go," he said shortly, and scuttled away as fast as he could. Leaving Dorothy far behind. He'd always avoided Annie's daughter.
Alison Beaumont looked outraged and so she might. "What do you think you're doing in here?"
Dorothy grasped the vacuum firmly. She might as well be hung for a sheep…
"I thought I'd do it for Annie," she said.
"But how did you get inside the house?" She paused briefly. "It's sold by the way, the agent gave me the news this morning. They've even paid more for your wretched shed." Her eyes glowed. "You know you're breaking the law don't you?"
"But Artie Frost gave me the key." Dorothy swore, and clapped her hand over her mouth. She hadn't meant to mention Artie.
"Yeah, sure he did. I remember him, a right layabout, never at work. Him and my father were thick as thieves. Eddie wasn't my father, you know."
"Yes, you said," Dot nodded, feeling weary, but thinking rapidly. If Eddie wasn't, who was? Thoughts of Artie slipped into her mind, a man perhaps once sweet on Annie, a man who might have been Alison's father. It could be true. Maybe that's why he'd lent her the key.
Dorothy considered. It was hard to tell, with him being old, but Beaumont's look matched his to a tee. She couldn't ask but she wished she could.
Alison Beaumont hurried her out, slamming the door, and turning the key with extra force.
"Just one more thing," she said sharply, grabbing her arm, as she sailed down the path. "I know your work probably helped with the sale, and for that I'm grateful. We'll leave it there, on one condition."
"I heard what you said about Artie Frost, and I know it's not true. Where did you really get that key?"
"Where I said, from the man next door." Dorothy felt annoyed and tired. Did the woman never listen?
"No you didn't," said Alison Beaumont. "Try again, I know it's a lie. Artie Frost's been dead for years."
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|Author:||Pam Fish||Date:||May 30, 2014 11:20 pm|
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