I was interested at once.
‘Where is Arthur Needham now?’
‘In the condemned cell.’
I wanted to know, I wanted to know everything. A spark from her excitement had touched me and lit something inside me that would never go out.
‘He’s a wicked, evil man, and I’ll be there, watching and waiting until I know he’s been punished and justice has been done.’
‘What will happen?’
‘He’ll be hanged by the neck until he is dead.’ Her face had changed too now; her eyes were bulging slightly and her mouth was thin and tight and bloodless.
‘You can come with me,’ she said.
Four days later, when she was seeing me to bed, and after she had heard my prayers, she said, ‘It’s tomorrow morning. If you still want to come.’
‘To the hanging prison?’
‘You can change your mind and no shame.’
‘I’m coming with you.’
‘It’ll do you good to see evil vanquished.’
I didn’t understand, of course, but I knew that I wanted to be there.
‘I’ll be waking you,’ she said, ‘early. And now you have to make me a solemn promise.’
‘That you never breathe a word to a living soul about this coming with me tomorrow, where you go, what you see. Your mother’d never forgive me. So you promise. Never a word.’
‘Never a word.’
‘To a living soul.’
‘To a living soul.’
I remember that I added, ‘Amen.’
My aunt went out of the room and I lay on my back, thinking that I would never sleep for wanting to go to the hanging prison. And not wanting to. ‘To a living soul,’ I promised.
I kept my promise. But it’s all right now, isn’t it? I can tell you at last and the promise is still not broken.
It was as dark as tar when Aunt Elsie woke me before six the next morning, but there was a cup of hot, sweet tea for me before I had to set foot out of bed and then a fried egg tucked into a thick fried-bread sandwich.
If I close my eyes, I can smell the air now, the smoke from all the chimneys thick in my mouth, mingled with the sharp cold. I can still feel Aunt Elsie’s hand in mine and the hardness of her rings bedded in the soft plumpness of her fingers.
We walked down Pomfrey Street and then Belmont Road, to the tram stop, and now the streets were busy with women walking to the factories, arm in arm and three or four in a row, all wearing headscarves, and the men in caps, a lot of them on bicycles. The smoke from their cigarettes merged with the chimney smoke. The tram was full and smelled of bodies. I was squeezed between large women, their rough coats pressed against my cheek. We changed, and when we boarded the second tram, I felt it at once – something was different, people were silent and still now, and I thought how big their eyes looked. We were all going to the prison. I was pushed up against more women, and stared at.
‘Queer place to bring a child,’ someone said.
‘I don’t see why. They have to learn there’s evil in this world.’
People began to take sides across the tram, but my aunt crushed my hand in hers like a bone in a mincer and said nothing at all. I felt sick, or perhaps afraid. I did not know what might happen.
The tram stopped and emptied out. I looked back at it, a fuzzily lit caterpillar. But again, what I was most aware of, what I remember most vividly, were the sounds … the footsteps of all the people walking up the black road towards the great dark hulk with sheer walls and turrets like a castle.
‘The prison,’ Aunt Elsie said, in the low, choked voice.
Footsteps – one-two, one-two, one-two. The sky behind the prison was turning grey as the dawn started to come up. The smoky air felt damp, though it was not raining,
One-two. One-two. One-two.
We joined the crowd that was already there, ten-deep in front of the high iron gates.
‘There’s the clock. That’s how we’ll know.’
I looked up, though I didn’t understand her, but all I could see were people’s backs, dark coats, scarves, felt hats.
‘Let’s have you up then or you’ll see nowt.’
And I was swung up on to the beefy shoulders of a stranger. The rough cloth of his jacket scratched the inside of my legs, but I could see over the tops of the heads now, as the sour light strengthened slowly, see the iron gates and the tower and the bone-white clock with its black fingers. As I looked the second hand jerked one point closer to eight and from behind and all around me there was a soft murmur like the sea, spreading, then dying away again.
I was afraid. I still could not imagine what was going to happen, but I was sure that they were going to bring Arthur Needham out on to the prison tower and hang him there before us all. I couldn’t see how the whole crowd could go inside the prison itself to watch, as I had watched down the viewing tube at the peep show on the pier. I didn’t know if I wanted to see the hanging or not. It was the condemned cell that I thought about. I wanted to see that, to be there inside it with Arthur Needham.
The clock hand jerked forward again. Then, from somewhere behind us, someone began to sing, and gradually, the crowd took it up, until everyone was singing, but quietly. The soft low swell of the hymn made me shiver.
Abide with me
Fast falls the eventide.
The darkness deepens
Lord with me abide.
They sang another verse and then the singing stopped quite suddenly, as if there had been a conductor somewhere who had given the signal. And after that there was the greatest silence I had ever known.
The clock hands were at eight. The man carrying me on his shoulders gripped my legs tightly. I stared and stared at the tower. Everyone in the crowd seemed to have stopped breathing and the sky was grey and faintly shining behind the dark prison.
Nothing happened. No one came on to the tower. I screwed my eyes up in case I was not seeing properly, but still there was nothing, nothing at all, for quite a long time, and still the strange and dreadful silence went on.
And then I saw a man in uniform walking across the prison yard towards the gates, holding a white piece of paper in his hand. There was a murmur at the front of the crowd, and a whisper took off and spread like a flame. The man came out of a small gate set within the great one, and pinned the piece of paper on to a board. The murmur grew. People were telling one another and passing it on, passing it on, and then the man swung me abruptly down from his shoulders, so that I felt giddy and sick.
‘Say thank you,’ Aunt Elsie said.
I did not know what I was to thank him for. I had seen nothing. Nothing had happened. I told my aunt.
‘A wicked evil man has been hanged to death and you were here, you witnessed it, you saw justice done. Never forget it.’
Iris Chater had told Dr Deerbon that she was tired but she had not been able to find the words to convey just how tired. Every day since Harry’s death had been a struggle, with an exhaustion that muddled her mind and seemed to fill her limbs with warm wet sand. When she went to the shops – and she always chose those nearby now, she had not been into the centre of Lafferton for weeks – she could have got down on the pavement and slept there.
Now, she lay on the sofa in the front room. It was the middle of December. The tiredness was worse, even though she had just slept for over two hours. The fire sputtered and the curtains were half drawn. The birds were quiet under their cover.
She could see that it had turned dark outside. That was one of the harder things about being alone at this back end of the year, the dark early and late, making the days so short and the nights never-ending.
But for the moment, warm under a rug, she felt comfortable, and oddly happy. The room seemed to hold her in a glowing embrace and the warmth eased the arthritis in her knees. Best of all, she had the feeling, which came and went so unpredictably, that Harry was in the room with her. After a moment, she spoke his name aloud, quietly, tentatively, startled by the sound of her own voice.
She heard nothing but she knew he had answered her. She put out her hand.
‘Oh, Harry love, it is hard, it’s very hard. I know you’re happy and not in pain any more and I’m glad about that, of course I am, only I do miss you so much. I never dreamed I’d find it so hard. You won’t go right away from me, will you? So long as I know you’re here with me like this, I can manage.’
She willed him to be sitting in the chair opposite, to be able to see him, not only sense his presence, to have him show her he was all right, and not changed.
‘I want to see you, Harry.’
The gas fire flared suddenly, and the flame went blue for a second. She held her breath, willing and praying.
He was there.
‘I want to see you,’ she wailed aloud, and the sudden cold certainty that she would not, and the disappointment of it, were as bitter and sharp as at the beginning.
The tap on the back door made her start, until she heard Pauline Moss calling and struggled to get up from the sofa.
‘I’m all right, I’m in here.’
Pauline was a good neighbour, a good friend, only just sometimes less than welcome. There were days when Iris thought she would prefer never to see or speak to another living soul again.
‘I’ve made some drop scones. Shall I put the kettle on?’
Iris Chater wiped her eyes and replaced her spectacles, switched on the lamps. Well, I’m very lucky, she told herself. What about those who have no neighbour to keep an eye on them and share a cup of tea?
‘Hello, my dear – oh, did I wake you? I’m sorry.’
‘No, no, I was just lying having a think. Time I pulled myself out of it.’ She followed Pauline back into the kitchen. ‘You are good.’
The tray was laid, the plate of warm drop scones stood on the stove under a plate.
‘I’m not, I’m selfish. I wanted drop scones that badly and you gave me the excuse. I’ll never get that weight off now with Christmas coming up. I got the tins for my cake out while I was at it. Do you fancy coming up the market on Saturday while I buy the fruit?’
Christmas. Iris stared at the embroidered lupins on the tray cloth. Christmas. The word meant nothing. She couldn’t imagine it, didn’t want to try.
Pauline picked up the tray. ‘Could you bring the pot in?’
She stood up and the pain like white-hot skewers shot through her knees so that she had to hold on to the table edge, catching her breath. Pauline glanced at her sharply but said nothing until they were sitting beside the fire, the drop scones had been eaten and they were on their second cups of tea.
‘I put a pinch of bicarbonate of soda in drop scones … my mother always did and I don’t know why but it does make them tastier, don’t you think?’
Iris Chater looked affectionately across at her friend. ‘I don’t know what I’d have done without you these past few weeks. And all the time Harry was ill. I wish there was something I could do for you, Pauline.’
‘You’ve only to ask. You know that much, I should hope.’
‘Right. I want you to take those knees of yours back to the doctor, and don’t start saying they’re not so bad because I know they are.’
‘No, I meant do something for you, Pauline.’
‘I know you did. Now, what did Dr Deerbon say last time?’
‘Oh, the old story, waiting list for an operation, only apparently knees aren’t as successful as hips, she said. And tablets for the pain.’
Iris was not going to admit that her arthritic knees had not been mentioned to the doctor. Where was the point? They were a lot worse, the pain was sharper and always there, but what she had told Pauline was true, it would be a question of a waiting list for goodness knows how long and the strong painkillers that upset her stomach. She could buy aspirin for herself.
‘Go back then. Tell her you’re not satisfied, ask her to get you on to the urgent list.’
‘There are plenty worse than me.’
Iris reached forward to pour a last half-cup of tea from the pot.
‘Harry’s still here, you know,’ she said.
Pauline smiled. ‘Well, of course he is … he’s looking after you, always will.’
‘I mean here, in this room. It startles me sometimes. Only I want to … see him, I want to hear him … not just feel it. Am I going daft?’
‘It’s such a comfort, Pauline. I don’t want it to fade away.’
The room was warm. The lamplight caught a row of brass monkeys on the shelf, and made them glow.
‘Have you ever, you know, thought of going to see someone?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘One of those spiritualists? A medium.’
Hearing Pauline speak aloud the idea that had been in her own mind made her flush and her heart jump.
‘A lot of people do, a lot say they’re really … well, that they do have a gift.’
‘Have you ever been to one?’
‘Never had occasion really. Anyway, it was only a thought.’
‘I’d be afraid.’
‘Just … it would upset me.’ She looked down at her cup. ‘My grandmother used to read the tea leaves.’
‘Oh, so did mine. They all did then, didn’t they? Load of rubbish.’
Yet when Grandma Bixby had described the man Iris was to marry, before she’d ever set eyes on Harry Chater, she’d got him just right, everything about him, looks, manners, line of work, family, everything. She’d got it right that they’d have no children, years before they’d had to give up hope.
‘Besides,’ she said, ‘how would I go about finding one? I’d want to be careful.’
‘There’s that spiritualist church in Passage Street. They might have a noticeboard.’
‘I never like the look of that place, it’s a bit of a Nissen hut.’
‘Well, you wouldn’t want to go to one of those that come round the hotels … the Deer Park sometimes has them. They put a board out … “An Evening of Clairvoyance and Psychic Fair” and all that. Madame Rosita, all gold earrings. They’re just a joke.’
‘They take people’s money though.’
Pauline started putting the tea things on to the tray. ‘I suppose it’s like anything else … you need someone to recommend, don’t you? I’ll ask about a bit. Now, do you want to come in later and watch The Weakest Link?’
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