On the verandah, the ginger cat Tomato knows leaping onto the flyscreen is the only way to get the attention of his mistress. Crash, rattle, meow, thud. A small framed elderly woman wearing a long floral flannelette nightie opens the door and pokes her head out.
‘Is that you Bertie? I’ve been waiting for you to visit. Come inside and let me get you something to eat.’ Emily smiles indulgently at the old tom who strolls past her nonchalantly, right to the source of his happiness – the food bowl. Emily potters around happily, her long grey hair cascading around her petite shoulders. Fluffy bed socks silently pad across the warm wooden floor to the pantry where everything is stocked. ‘Ah!’ Emily exclaims, as if she has suddenly discovered a cache of knowledge. ‘I wondered where all the food had got to Bertie and look, its right here.’ Emily selects a tin of Irish stew. ‘I remember this is your favourite, with bread. We’ll share it as a treat.’ Emily looks almost girlish as she pops the contents into a saucepan, her sapphire blue eyes twinkling while she butters stale bread and hums a tune from a long lost memory. Tomato waits patiently.
In the lounge, an old teddy bear lies on his back, eyes staring at the ceiling. The coffee table, where he reposes is stained under a layer of dust, old photographs, letters and cards. A stuffy smell and collected balls of cat hair suggests the windows and doors are rarely if ever opened. The bear sticks out a little in that he is a toy but he blends in well in other ways. His fur is missing in places. Small tufts here and there, leave the bear looking worn and aged like the surrounding furniture. A brown leather armchair in the corner stands proud in its shabby elegance. The bear’s fur is the same golden honey colour. He has a grubby snout and short sparse hairs on his paws. The bear has been handled much over the years – a single ragged frayed ear gives testimony to this. As the china clock chimes the hour in the background, the bear stares upwards in stony silence.
Far away, Clare is knitting another jumper. Under her breath she mutters, ‘Purl two, knit one,’ all the while her mind is busy thinking on domestic matters. ‘I’ll be starting at Miss Saunders tomorrow, so you’ll have to make do with stew.’ Her husband grunts, without taking his eyes from the telly and Clare counts the stitches on her needle.
Back at the house in Crowley Place, a solitary figure in her flannelette nightgown dances in steady movements up and down the cold hallway. Perfectly poised, her feet glide smoothly across the wooden floor as her dance partner, Bertie holds her in an embrace that is more than a little forward. ‘Emily blue eyes,’ murmurs Bertie into her ear as Emily flushes to the roots of her hair. Her parents will be most annoyed to see her dancing like this, smiles Emily to herself. Bertie twirls her for a second time to the music. Round and round she goes. The hallway echoes with crowds of happy laughing bodies moving to the upbeat tempo. The walls are decked with banners heralding returned soldiers. Balloons and streamers float up and around Emily, as she is lost in the atmosphere and she and Bertie dance their way deep into the heady night. Later, she sneaks quietly into bed so as not to wake the household but as she hides under the warm covers, Emily is aware that something in her bed is missing. She becomes anxious as she tries to remember what it is.
When Clare arrives, Emily looks childish in her wide-eyed puzzled gaze. Clare loses no time in bathing Emily, the process a confirmation about the old woman’s growing needs. Later in the morning, Emily finds herself at the kitchen table, in a fresh floral nightie, smelling like rose water; her hair brushed and braided. Clare prattles happily about her brother who is visiting from Melbourne, as she wipes down the cupboard shelves.
‘Bertie comes to see me all the time.’ Emily suddenly confesses. She blushes with all the innocence of an adolescent child. ‘Everyday actually but don’t tell anyone or I’ll be in awful trouble.’
Clare can’t believe the collected junk in Emily’s pantry and answers automatically. ‘Your secret is safe with me Miss Saunders.’
Emily’s face lights up. ‘What a sweet person you are to keep my secret. I can write too you know and I think you deserve a story. A story for a good little girl is just what you shall have.’ Emily rises from her chair but Clare quickly sits her back down.
‘Whoa there, a story would be lovely Miss Saunders but as you can see, I have things to do, so how about if I get you comfortable?’ Emily is steered down the hallway to her room.
Emily finds in her hand, much to her delight a pen and a notebook. She thinks Clare is a large bustling woman who booms loudly in everything she says.
‘You make yourself at home in bed dear while I clean up. If you need anything just call alright?’
Emily waves at the fat woman and starts her story. Her writing is a little spidery but she knows just the tale for Clare.
Talk, talk, talk. What to say with young ears sticking out. Funny words trickle round and round and tinkle with laughter like some show. Little Ears with sapphire eyes stays still and hopes to hear while not being watched. Shh! Oooh! Really? Fancy that! Hushed circle of voices closes around the talk, talk, talk drama while Little Ears looks the other way. Not over there but here, where I am. I am part of the scenery. Cries of pain rise up and out of the talk, talk, talk circle to spatter across the lobes of Little Ears who is not scene or herd but is naďve and in danger. Soothing arms pat Little Ears like unwanted cake then forgets the place while folded arms, open arms, waving arms spew out more talk, talk, talk. Little Ears’ green fronds curl at the tips. Still unscene. Still unherd.
A sense of fulfilment washes over Emily now that the tale is told. It explains everything really and as she lays back on her pillow, Emily slowly becomes conscious of that same undeniable absence in her bed. She closes her eyes and tries hard to remember and this time the stark memory reveals itself to the old woman in full colour. He isn’t there any longer. She has promised to whisper a nighttime secret into his ear. Perhaps he doesn’t come to her bed because of the war but the question has to be asked: Whatever happened to Archie? Emily is mortified and bursts into uncontrollable tears. Clare hurries in and tries to soothe her with a cup of tea but it is some time before Emily settles down. When she does, it is a sleep full of childish memories.
When she was nine, her cousin Dawn came to stay at her house. Emily’s braids were longer and the girl would yank them sharply for no other reason than that. When Emily told her about ‘Dead Man’s Wood’, where the bodies of several murdered children were dug up years before, her face lit up in anticipation.
‘Take me there,’ she ordered. Emily was not supposed to go, but Dawn had an air, which told her not to disobey. A soft caress with one hand and a severe pinch with the other convinced Emily. They fled to the wood after tea and crept through the dense thick bush until they arrived at a small clearing.
‘Is this where they were buried?’ asked Dawn, who, looking around, picked up a stick.
‘Yes,’ came Emily’s breathless reply. The cicadas echoed their evening tune in the lonely overgrown spot and the two girls stood opposite each other, absorbing every drop of the eerie atmosphere.
‘Take off your clothes.’ It was a simple command and Emily, under the watchful eye of her cousin, quickly dispensed with her garments and underclothes, to stand naked in the cool evening air. Trembling, she felt the pleasurable hum of fear intermingled with excitement coursing through her body, and waited obediently for her next instruction. Dawn stepped close enough to let the stick slide idly over the contours of Emily’s bare skin. Each tantalizing stroke of the rough, dry wood left her tingling all over. ‘Lie down and pretend you’re dead,’ she ordered. Emily obeyed without question. Flinging one arm out dramatically, her head turned to one side, her knees bent and hips stretched at an awkward angle, Emily did her best to please her cousin. The prickly texture of the grass tangled uncomfortably between her legs and bottom but she lay stock still. The stick was pinned against her throat while her cousin stood over her, contemplating her ‘dead’ state. An insect buzzed overhead. Dawn seem satisfied with the pose Emily had struck. ‘Good,’ she breathed. ‘Now you can go home.’ A silent gaze watched Emily dress then she ran down the hill, flushed to the very core of her soul.
Emily calls out fitfully in her sleep. Clare lets the old lady be while she clicks her tongue at the books and semi filled bookcases. She can’t understand why, if people claim to love reading so much, they take such poor care of them. Clare calculates there must be six hundred books as she tries to sort through the piles strewn across the floor, in boxes, on tables, balancing precariously on one another. They are all old editions, which Clare doesn’t give two hoots about. What concerns her is the amount of dust and cleaning it will take to get the room in order. The bookcases are solid mahogany and it is tragic to see them the way they are. Nothing a little polish can’t fix. Old books should go to the tip to be replaced with shiny new ones thinks Clare as she works industriously. Too many are fragile and the bindings split with rough handling. Perhaps they’re worth money she muses as the feathery duster shimmers across classics like ‘A Legend of Montrose’ by Sir Walter Scott. Another book is titled ‘Teddy Robinson’ by Emily Saunders. She stops dusting momentarily and then shakes her head.
‘Nah! couldn’t be,’ she says aloud and keeps dusting. Saunders is a common enough name but Emily seems too vague to answer a straightforward question. She slips it into her apron pocket to read on her coffee break.
From the kitchen doorway, Emily stands silently watching Clare wash dishes. ‘May I tell you about the time I walked my dog in the park and saw a shaking mass?’
Clare almost jumps out of her skin at the sound of the old lady’s voice. ‘Jesus Mother of Mary! You gave me a right fright. Go ahead then, I’ve got till six o’clock and I’m happy for your company.’ Emily bridles in her rose print flannelette nightie. Her hair has been brushed to perfection and its sheen is quite alluring. Later on, when Bertie visits, she will ask him, demurely of course, what he thinks of her hair. But for now, she has to tell her visitor about shaking masses, which are everywhere and she had never quite realized it until the day she walked her dog.
‘Well, that’s where I saw the mass. It was a shaking, shivering mass and it blubbered and burbled and I wondered why. There is myself walking the dog in the park, not caring in the least about my surroundings. That is when you walk your dog you see. In the mornings. He would run about from tree to tree, roaming all over the place, sniffing the ground, the bushes and then, and then - there it was!’
‘What was?’ Clare stops washing and sits down. Sometimes the old dear sounds quite lucid.
‘The mass, the shaking mass. I had never really known what one was and I was frozen on the path. The well travelled path that could either take me away from or toward the mass, you understand?’ Emily clutches Clare’s wrist.
‘I searched for an invisible face or hand to touch me and guide me in my next step. Then I realised I was trembling. I looked down and saw that my whole body was a shaking mass. Here am I, a shaking mass holding a dog in a park in twilight streaking through the trees onto another shaking mass. I understood our common ground then and bent to the figure and said, “Let me help you.”
Clare is drawn in by the saga and the increased tightening of Emily’s grasp. ‘What, what did it say?’
Emily holds her grip for a moment then pulls her hand away, gesturing nervously. ‘It howled like a wounded creature. It curled into a ball, its arms wrapped tightly around itself. I realized it was dried up inside, falling to bits, holding the outside so the insides would not collapse. This shaking mass you see, was an old shed on a rocky foundation. I understood that perfectly and tried to lend support with my hands. I kept knocking at the door. I kept offering my help.’ Emily sits back and sighs wistfully. She picks contentedly at the threads of her nightie. Silence follows more silence.
‘For God’s sake! What happened?’
The old lady snaps back from her reverie, her sapphire blue eyes sharpened by the image in her mind. ‘Well you see, it was most sad. Nobody was home.’
Clare thumps the table and laughs heartily. Emily merely looks confused and Clare decides the old woman is definitely losing it. ‘You’re right about one thing, Miss Saunders,’ says Clare as she goes back to her dishes, ‘There sure ain’t nobody home now.’
One evening, Emily shuffles through the house, wandering round aimlessly, sobbing. ‘Archie! Archie! Where are you?’ Silence meets her desperate plea. Quite despondent, she moves from room to room, each time her frantic calls unanswered. Finally, she comes into the lounge room, the smell of fresh polish permeates the air as her eyes squint in the fading evening light. She doesn’t see him there either.
As she turns to leave, a lone book on the coffee table catches her eye. ‘Teddy Robinson.’
‘Oh Archie!’ sobs Emily and carefully tucks the book into the folds of her nightie. She tiptoes to her room, down the silent deserted hall, unmoved by Bertie slinking around in the corner. As far as she is concerned, Emily Saunders is far too young for that sort of thing.
The bear’s old ears absorb the mild activity from the closet shelf. One stiff arm points upwards, as if to say, ‘here I am’. His blue and red tartan bow has come undone and his furry belly, which curves invitingly and tempts many a child to tickle it, is falling apart at the seams. Since Clare moved him, his view is different but he has borne many burdens through the decades and he is resolute.
The bear waits patiently.