Sunday, 20 October 2013
What became of Lilia.
"I remember that house well," I told the old man standing on the corner, "But how did it come to this?"
The old man looked at me bemused for a moment. I explained that I'd been away in China on company business for 15 years. He shook his head in wonderment and shuffled away. As such, I was still baffled. Where was Lilia? Where the friendly hustle and bustle of the house and the street?
I had left the firm and returned having made some advantageous speculations of my own. I was now a fairly well-off man and had returned hoping to find Lilia and renew our friendship. I had written to her while in China, the intimacy of a handwritten letter still appealed to me, it was not the impersonal text of email that I had used for business. For a while she had returned my letters with vivid descriptions of her own. Her later letters however had the sense that something was left unsaid as if she did not wish to spoil my happiness with her own sorrow. It was subtle, just subtle enough that I could not quite come out and ask what was wrong.
Did I love Lilia? Yes, in the way I love those women who are good friends, but it never occurred to me to love her any more than that. Somehow it would have felt wrong. Nor did I wish to spoil a valuable and valued friendship with that love that calls itself romantic and is nothing of the kind.
Besides, I had my books and my poetry to protect me from such 'romantic' delusions. Indeed I had become something of an amateur author myself. I wrote for trade journals about doing business in China and of the intricacies of Chinese culture, which I had come to love as much as the country. Officialdom I disliked, but I disliked that everywhere. The beauty of a Chinese garden, the wonders of the country's museums and the beauty of its people made me long to stay. Only a sickness made me have to return home to England. I was torn, for I loved China, but I loved also my homeland. I returned in late September when Summer clung on to its raiment while cold autumn sought to impose his rule.
For a while I took rooms in Cavendish Square in London and recovered my health in relative quiet. Another dear friend looked in on me, brought me newspapers and books and welcome talk of people we both knew. She also reported what news she had of the landlady's cat, a large, rumbustious creature, very handsome and friendly to all the local children. He was a hunter in the brick jungle and among the weeds of neglected neighbourhood gardens. My friend knew how much I loved cats and their ways.
By the second week of October, I was recovered and restless. I phoned Lilia, but there was no reply. I took walks about London and met the ginger tomcat to whom I became quite attached and he to me. Soon enough I was summoned by a letter that finally took me back to Hallamwyck. There, I stepped out of the old familiar station and was shocked to realise that the town I loved so well had changed beyond measure. I had been away almost twenty years after all. I bought a map and went out into the town. I was looking for Branlington House and longing to see Lilia again. So you may imagine my shock to find the house covered in builders scaffolding and the windows temporarily replaced with plastic. Worse, I did not know where to find Lilia, or even if she still lived.
I wandered like a lost soul, stunned by what I had found until I came across the Pot & Plate, a familiar anchor in this shifting town. I stepped inside and was taken aback to find that it had not changed very much at all. Old Grumble the cafe's resident dog had presumably died some years ago, for I could not see him sprawled on the hearth of the old fireplace.
I ordered a plate of the house speciality and a pot of coffee from a young woman who seemed familiar. I asked her if she knew what had happened to Lilia Branlington and she became brusque.
"If you'll take a seat I'll bring your order, sir," she said firmly, a snap in her tone.
I obeyed more out of shock. Had I said something wrong?
I sat by the window and tried to absorb it all. The downfall of the house and the disappearance of my dear Lilia. A woman came from behind the counter with my food and the pot of coffee and placed them in front of me.
"We don't talk of the Branlingtons here sir," she said, setting my order before me.
I looked up at her tone and she gasped before sitting opposite me.
"Oh William! Oh my dear, I am sorry, I should have known you would ask. Eat your food sweetheart and come back after five. We'll talk then, when I'm not so busy," she said.
"I see Old Grumble's gone, Glenda," I said.
She smiled and her lovely face softened. Glenda McLeod had always had a lovely friendly face. It positively sparkled when she smiled.
"Oh bless you, no. He died of old age five years ago. Just went to sleep on the hearth and never woke up, poor old thing," she said.
She sighed and reaching across the table she took my hand. Her fingers were warm and moist - and comforting. I felt that at last I had met my old life and recognised it.
"Then my George went, doctor said it was his heart. Now there's just me and Sula. I think she was just a little girl when you left. I missed you William, you were always very kind. I remember you feeding Grumble when you thought I wasn't looking! That dog could be a right scrounger when he wanted," she chuckled.
"I didn't think you knew. He would look at me with those big eyes and I couldn't resist. Glenda, what happened? Where is Lilia?" I asked her.
"Come back later William, it's not something to tell you quick and sharp. Where are you staying?" she asked.
I had not given it much thought, I was so sure I'd see Lilia again. We are so fixed in time ourselves that we do not quite expect the world to change around us so quickly. I told Glenda I had to see a lawyer at 2 o'clock and then I had intended to spend a little time with Lilia catching up. I told her that I was living in London at present and hoped to invite Lilia to come up and visit me there.
"Oh sweetheart! Go see your lawyer, take a look around and come back here at half-four. When the shop's closed up, we'll go up and talk. You'll spend the night here. I'm telling you William, not asking," she said wagging a finger at me.
"Far be it from me to argue Glenda," I answered.
"Good. Then I'll tell you all I know and we can catch up, ok?" she asked.
I nodded and she came around the table and hugged me. I put my arms around her and inhaled her scent of warmth, cooking and the delicate scent of jasmine perfume. Then she stood back and smiled a little wistfully.
"You look good William. I'm glad you came back," she said.
I thanked her and she left me to eat my food. After I had supped I thanked Sula, the young woman behind the counter and said I'd be back later.
"Righto," she said cautiously.
Then I went back out into the town and with the help of the map found the offices of the lawyer whose importunate letter had summoned me. I sat for a while in silence in a hushed waiting room that had an air of solemnity. After some minutes I had made a decision and yet it was contingent on what I did not yet know. A young man called my name and I followed him into the office of Sally-Ann Matthews the lawyer. She sat straight behind her desk and smiled briefly gesturing me to sit. Her heavy ash-blonde hair was gathered on the back of her head in elegant waves and her grey eyes were depthless. She had aged well and while a few lines crossed her face, she was still a handsome woman. She was, fortunately, also a highly intelligent woman.
"You summoned me Ms Matthews and I am come," I said with a smile.
"I asked you to come because of your part in a legacy, sir," she said, fishing for the file on her desk and opening it.
"A legacy? What part do I have Sally-Ann, my parent's are long gone and their affairs settled," I answered.
"Someone else William. You have been left a large box and it's key. I am not at liberty to tell you who left you the box, but you may or may not know who when you see it," she said.
"Is it Lilia?" I asked leaning forwards with a terrible presentiment.
"I am not at liberty to tell you William. I will say, as it will not compromise me that Lilia Branlington is not the deceased. Be easy on that score. I can if you wish have the box sent to your residence. It is not a big box, but it is heavy and a little cumbersome to carry," she said.
"I'm grateful to you Sally-Ann, please do have the box sent to my home in London. If that's all, allow me to say that it is a real pleasure to see you again and to see you so well," I remarked.
She sat back in her chair, placing her hands across her stomach and smiled.
"Thank you William. I hear you've been unwell, nothing serious I suppose or we might have lost you. You look well enough. I also understand that you've been in China, are you going back there?" she asked.
I told her of my return and how it was unlikely that I would be returning. I felt a strong inclination to embrace her, for like Glenda she was another anchor in this shifting town. I resisted the urge to do so, for I had too much respect for her. After a little more chat, I got up to leave. To my surprise she got up and came around her desk to me.
"I've never done this to you William and most likely never will again," she said and put her arms about me.
We stood there for a few moments in each other's arms and I kissed her cheek as I released her.
"A great shame," I said, "That we never got to know each other better. I'll leave my address with your clerk. Should you get the chance to come to London, let me know. I shall make up a spare room for you. I would truly like very much for us to become friends Sally-Ann. I have always had the greatest of respect for you," I told her.
She smiled and kissed me.
"Oh William, how very sweet of you," she said, "I shall certainly be grateful to visit you and yes, let us get better acquainted," she said.
I left her office and made my way to the museum. There was, I knew, a full-length portrait of Lilia by Adams in the gallery - unless it had been removed to the store-rooms. I entered the museum and paused. It was so familiar and precious to me that I almost wept to see it again. I took a deep breath and glanced at the clock, It wanted a few minutes to three-fifteen. I wandered up the grand staircase to the main gallery and entered it. It was a high and long room full of paintings. Along the centre of the gallery at intervals were elegant padded benches where visitors might sit. I strolled along the gallery meeting the paintings again as one meets old friends not seen in some years. Unlike we mortals, the paintings rarely visibly age, they remain as fine as when they were painted for the most part. There, at the centre of the gallery was the painting I had never forgotten. My hand flew to my mouth as if to stifle a cry. There as in her life was Lilia in the deep red dress trimmed with bright orange ribbon and old lace. Her skin was as pale as milk, her hair a cascade of inky blackness and her twinkling eyes as dark as a raven's. I remembered Snow White - skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood and hair as black as a raven's wing and I smiled in spite of myself. I always recalled Snow White when I looked at this painting.
I sat and gazed at her face. She was smiling as if Adams had said something he shouldn't have and it had amused her. I recalled her voice, her scent and her laugh. I recalled little things she had said, her opinions and her jokes. I recalled her pouring coffee for the two of us; teasing me that I would get fat if I had more than one teaspoon of sugar in my coffee. I sat and gazed upon the image of Lilia, upon my dear, dear friend and I wept.
After a little while, I took a deep breath and stood up. I wiped away the tears from my face and felt that I should never see Lilia again. Somehow I felt sure that she was dead and would only, could only live in the memories I had of her. I left the main gallery and wandered aimlessly through the museum until it dawned on my to ask an assistant the time. I had about a quarter of an hour to return to the Pot & Plate.
I hurried there and took a cup of tea and cake in sombre mood. The place was busy now and Sula had only time to place the cake and tea before me, hurrying away to fetch another order. It took another half hour before she showed out the last customer and locked up the door. I asked if she needed a hand clearing up and she smiled and shook her head.
"'S alright, but thanks," she said, moving in fluid motion about the cafe.
Glenda came out of the kitchen and I stood by the counter.
"I did offer to help," I said, "But Sula's got everything under control."
Glenda smiled and took my hand,
"Come on you, let's go up to the flat," she said.
Once we were seated Glenda took my hand in both of hers and sighed.
"You know there was a garden behind the house," she said.
I told her I knew about it. I'd been in it one summer with Lilia. We'd sat on the grass and had tea. She'd worn a pale green dress and a matching hairband.
"Well, it seems that Lilia was persuaded by someone, I don't know who that she should have a well put in. Lilia was all for it, but then an old lady showed up and told her it would be a bad idea. She told Lilia that the Fair Folk wouldn't like it. Well, Lilia laughed at that and the old woman went away in a fury. The well was dug and put in. It seems that one night, Lilia woke up and went out into the garden. She was no sooner on the grass in her bare feet then she changed into an apple tree. A maid who couldn't sleep saw her. The problem was, that the next morning the garden was full of apple trees. The police were baffled. Then the old woman shows up and says that only someone who loved her might return her. They would have to kiss the right tree though. If they didn't, Lilia would forever be an apple tree. Nobody dared, in case they got it wrong.
That was ten years ago. Now the house is up for sale and the orchard is to be uprooted. Most of us think Lilia will die if that happens, but it needs - well someone like you William. If you can kiss the right tree, Lilia will live again," Glenda told me.
I sat for a moment taking this in. A faery curse on Lilia did not seem real. I could not imagine Lilia being cursed by anyone. Then I stood up.
"I'm going over there Glenda. I'm going to kiss the right tree. I never fell in love with Lilia..." I blushed, I had fallen in love with Glenda, but she married George.
"I know William, I know. But I didn't realise until after you'd gone. Now I have Sula and I'm not the beauty I once was, no man wants me. But Sula and me get on ok," she said with a smile.
"I did love Lilia, Glenda, but always as a dear and precious friend. Now I have to do what a friend must do - help the friend in trouble," I said.
Glenda chuckled gently and sat up.
"The spare room's got a double bed. Go save the girl, hero. I'll keep an eye for you," she said.
I went down the stairs, my heart thumping in me. I went out into the street, the painting of Lilia in the museum, burning in my memory. There was a fence around the site, but I climbed it. The builders had gone home and the street was mostly empty. A woman shouted out, something about the police, but I ignored her.
I went around the side of the house and a strong wind blew up. I entered the garden and rain began to fall. I stood with my back to the house gazing at the apple trees. Their branches were weighted with apples, green and red. The gnarled bark and winding branches creaked in the storm that had sprung up.
"You will never have her, she belongs to us now," a voice made of wind and rain murmured about my ears.
I stared at the trees and suddenly noticed something I had not seen before. I dashed forward my arms up about my head, branches lashing at me and clasped the slim trunk of one tree. I held on tightly and kissed the rough bark. Very suddenly there was a whimper in the garden. I thought it had been me. The rain dashed at my face and neck as if it would drown me, the wind tore at my clothes and hair. Still branches lashed me unmercifully.
Suddenly I was aware of a heart beating against mine, of warm limbs and a howl of anguish rent the air. With as much suddenness as it had begun, the storm died away. The apple trees in the garden creaked terribly. I took the living being in my arms and lifted her up. I carried her away from that cursed garden and the house. Only in the evening of the road did I look down to find Lilia unconscious in my arms. I took her across the road to the Pot & Plate and Glenda opened the door silently.
I sat all night with Lilia. She slept as if dead. I gently caressed her cold brow, stroked her ink-black hair and her pale, pale face. Sometime in the very early morning I must have fallen asleep. I awoke to my name being spoken, aware I slept on a soft stomach. I raised my head to find Lilia awake with a cup of coffee in her hand.
"Dear William, I owe you so much," she said gently.
I yawned and stretched and grinned at her.
"I leave you alone for a few years and look what happens," I told her.
"Lucky for me I have good friends," she said, adding, "Glenda has something to ask you".
I turned to Glenda and waited. She took my hand and put down her coffee cup. Then she went down on her knee. Reader, I married her. What else should I do?