MUNGO JOUDRY – Excerpt
Mrs Gibson stood in her doorway shaking her head, her soft grey curls bobbing around her lined pink face. “No, dear. I haven’t been around to feed Caprice. Sorry, didn’t know you were away.” She pulled her long knitted cardigan more closely around her. “Do you want to come in?”
“Just for a minute,” It wasn’t fair to keep the old lady freezing in the open doorway. She stepped in and felt the stale, cloying air wrap itself around her as the smell of vegetable soup and damp penetrated her nostrils. “I wasn’t planning to be away long but my flight was cancelled. I got back this morning,” she looked around quickly. The place was dusty and the carpet beneath her feet was dirty. The old lady really needs some help with this place, she thought. Or she should move into one of those retirement homes. But it’s not my concern. Her children should be seeing to it. “Mrs Gibson, I was wondering, do you still have the key I gave you a while ago?”
“Yes dear, I think so. I haven’t used it for a long time. Let me see…” she shuffled through to a room leading off the hallway, the heels of her slippers dragging on the floor. Elizabeth heard her opening and closing drawers, rummaging. She came back with the key. “Here it is,” she said, clearly pleased with herself. “As I said, I haven’t used it for a long time, not since you went on that long holiday last year to, where was it?”
“Portugal,” Elizabeth filled her memory lapse. “Mrs Gibson, you wouldn’t perhaps have left something in my house would you? In my basement? I know it seems odd, but I’ve found something and I can’t think how else it could have got there.”
“No, no, dear. Why would I do that? I know people think I’m going dotty. My children tell me all the time that I should sell this house and move into one of those retirement places. Samuel was here just yesterday trying to persuade me to move to a new home they’re putting up for old people. But I said no. I’m not going to live on the twelfth floor of some modern apartment block looking over an intersection. No trees, no space, impersonal. No this is my home. I said to him I don’t…” she stopped herself with an abashed smile. “Sorry I know I go on a bit. So what is it dear, what did you find?” Her watery blue eyes stared at Elizabeth through her glasses.
“That’s okay Mrs Gibson. It’s an old suitcase. It looks like it belongs to a man.”
“No, no. It’s not mine.” She looked thoughtful. “Where did you say you found it?”
“In my basement, in a storage room amongst some boxes.” Elizabeth explained starting to feel that the conversation was getting her nowhere.
Mrs Gibson shook her head sadly, “I’ve never been in your basement. I hardly ever go into mine. The stairs are too much for me. It’s all I can manage to get up and down the stairs to my bedroom these days.” Her face brightened a little. “Perhaps it belongs to your brother? Why don’t you ask him?”
“I don’t have a brother. I only have a sister. You’ve met her, remember?”
“But I saw him just the other day. He waved at me. He does sometimes.” Mrs Gibson insisted.
“What do you mean? Who waved at you? I don’t have a brother. Who did you see?” Elizabeth stared at her, alarmed, insistent.
“I, I don’t know dear,” said Mrs Gibson, becoming flustered. “I just, I just thought he was your brother. I’m sorry.” Her eyes looked more watery than they had done a few minutes previously.
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “No, I’m sorry Mrs Gibson. It’s not your fault at all. It’s not you. I’m just a bit worried about this. Could we sit down for a minute?”
Mrs Gibson nodded and turned toward a doorway leading off the entrance hall. She showed Elizabeth into a dark, over-furnished sitting room and sat down in a floral armchair, switching on the table lamp next to her. In the half-light from the lamp Elizabeth thought she looked so small and vulnerable, engulfed as she was by the stuffed armchair. She was struck again by the thought that the big unkempt house was really too much for the old lady, but brushed this aside bringing her mind back to more immediate matters.
“Mrs Gibson, you say you’ve seen a man at my house. When was this exactly?” asked Elizabeth struggling to keep the urgency out of her voice, not wanting to upset the old lady further.
“Well from time to time really. I couldn’t say exactly. A few days ago, I suppose. I see him sometimes.”
“OK, Mrs Gibson, this is important. Can you tell me what he looks like? Where do you see him?”
“He looks nice.” She said vaguely. “He waves at me sometimes.”
“How old is he? How tall is he?” Elizabeth’s impatience was growing.
“He’s quite tall. Handsome. He reminds me of my father. He has lots of shiny grey hair. When I was a little girl I used to love running my fingers through my father’s hair. It was thick and wavy and very silver. I only knew him with silver hair. My mother said it went grey when he was still a young man. It suited him. I can still see it. Sometimes I remember…” Her eyes teared up. “I’m sorry dear. I’m not feeling very good.”
Elizabeth realized that she was not going to make much progress with this conversation. All she was doing was upsetting the old lady. “Don’t worry about it Mrs Gibson. I should get going. Are you going to be okay? Shall I call someone for you?”
“No, no dear. Don’t do that. I’m fine. If you call them they will just tell me again that I must move to one of those homes. They think I need help. They don’t understand, this is my home.”
Elizabeth thanked her and said good-bye. She made her way back up the path to her front door more concerned about the old lady than before. My brother? Her father? The old lady must be losing it.