Read the 1st Prize winner 2023 - Dancing the Dead Leaf Charleston by Abigail Williams

 Dancing the Dead Leaf Charleston 


Abigail Williams


Agnes had never liked this time of year. All the leaves falling, the skittish wind. They had meant to repaper his room, get rid of all the model aeroplanes he had spent so many hours glueing and painting, but then there had been the news about Freya and their engagement and there hadn't seemed much point. She had known even then that he would never come home to live. He would have joined the firm as a clerk, she supposed, worked his way up. The war put paid to university of course. 
            A branch scratched the window. Every fresh gust pushed it this way, then pulled it back. It was like fingernails, someone trying to get in.
            She liked to pretend that he had died in spring. That he succumbed to injuries in a walled garden surrounded by English nurses in crisp white aprons, the sun winking through shed-skin apple blossom. The Captain's visit had shattered that idea of course. The diamond scar on the back of his hand, the way his eye skin hung loose around its socket as if his elastic had gone. 
            'He was a g-good chap,' the Captain had stuttered, holding out that foul and stinking wooden box and she'd wanted to screech at him to keep it away. She didn't want the war here in her house. They burnt it all: the suffocated socks Agnes had knit and sent to him, earth pressed into every gaping stitch. The shameful diary. The half empty bottle of spirits when they had never kept alcohol in the house. Cracked. It was all cracked. Her Nathaniel had been sheet glass and Passchendaele had cracked him open.   
            'Sorry to disturb, Mrs Stuart.'
            'What is it, Ruth?' The girl chafed like new shoes even after a year. The agency said there was no one else, girls just didn't want to enter service any more. 
            'The Algernon-Smythes've sent their apologies. They can't come this afternoon.' 
            'Thank you, Ruth.' 
            'Also, Cook says the bird's bad and is there anything you'd like her to make instead?' 
            Agnes pressed her eyes shut. The branch scratched at the window. Mathers would have known how important today was, how everything had to be just so. She would have known not to trouble the mistress on a morning like this, especially when she was sitting in His room. 
            'Has Cook any cheese? If she can rustle up an interesting board we won't need the bird.'
            Still Ruth hovered. She couldn't feel that the room didn't want her here, all that youth frothing up and spilling out. 'Cook wanted me to ask if you're sure about the drinks. She said she could make some hot apple punch with a drop of rum...' 
            Agnes's eyes snapped open. 'It's not a party.' 
The cloud lifted shortly before lunch. The pavements were still black with rain but their puddles split white sky into dazzling shards. Women laughed as they splashed across the tramlines, hands clutching their cloche hats to their heads, the fronts of their sack coats flapping.
            'Whoa!' The dray horses bucked their heads, and one of the women whooped, flashing her wide smile and the driver leered at them through his whiskers. 
             So many necks in the shops, newly bared and blue-ish pale, bent over the vegetable stalls. Agnes imagined all the hair that had been grown since birth, long enough to kiss the clefts of their lower backs, miles of the stuff scattered and strewn across the floors of hairdressing salons. Thank God for Freya, she thought. So steady. Eight years today since he had left them. No time at all, in the land of the dead.
            They'd lived on tenterhooks at first, knowing he was out there. Scouring the casualty lists with a magnifying glass for his name. And they had been wary of each other too; the marriage ring a tight fit for three. But his name didn't materialise and the two women started to relax. There had been long nights in front of the fire, needles clacking, Freya spilling all her hopes for the future and Agnes admiring their shape and glitter. She sometimes wondered if that was why. If God believed that they had stopped caring enough, taken his safety for granted. Her boy.  
            A car honked. Agnes hadn't realised she'd stepped into the road. 
The church boomed with silence. Beeswax and ghosts. No one needed it now, in the same way the spritiualists were going out of business but Agnes liked the place empty, the way the huge vaulted ceilings carried the sky. She relished the narrow pews that hurt her thighs. She sat a while but she could only conjure corners. A chipped tooth. A protruding ear. There were footsteps, and the fragments of him scattered. 
            'Reverend,' Agnes said. 'I have the orders of service for this afternoon.' She held out thick sheets of creamy card bordered in black. 'I thought that if we stuck to the old favourites everyone might join in.' 
            'Of course, Mrs Stuart.' 
            He didn't meet her eyes, she noticed. It happened often, these days. It was as if she had dirt on her nose, or too much rouge. Her mourning dress of course; out of vogue when everybody else had moved on. 
            'Are you expecting many?' 
            Agnes dipped her head. 'Fewer than last year, unfortunately. Mrs Marston is ill. Mrs Quentin is away. There will be my household. Freya Wilson of course. Her mother, Mrs Wilson. The Judge.' She lifted her chin. 'Between us we should make it worth your while, Reverend.'
            He rubbed a knuckle.
            'Are these the flowers?' Agnes nodded at the white lilies, their heads already rimmed in brown.
            'Ah, yes! The WI ladies never miss a Tuesday.' 
            It was a small stone pellet in her heart. Flowers nearly a week old. When he had given so much. 
The sun strengthened while she was inside the church. She emerged to white dazzle: light glinting off windshields, exhausts misfiring. Life just galloping, galloping. Where was the solemn gentle clop of the carthorses? The sleepy buzz of conversation? Everywhere there was jazz, see-sawing bows, screeching trumpets. Cigarettes, pale shoulders, dimpled knees. No one picking up their responsibilities any more. No one getting on with things, quietly, uncomplainingly. Agnes wanted to get home, back to Waldron, with its strong beams and routines. 
            As she slipped through the door she caught the sound of Cook and Ruth in the kitchen and she had a sudden desire to be with the other women. Quiet industry. That's what she needed.
            Music spilled into the corridor. They didn't hear her nudge the door open. 
            'No! Like this...' 
            Ruth's vowels were broad as the Calder valley bottom that had created them. Cook had one fist on her hip, her pinny all floury, big grin across her meaty face. Ruth held her palms up, rotated them one way and then the other. She swivelled her toe inwards, kicked up her other foot. She had taken her shoes off. She was loose-hinged and wild. 
            Even here, in her own kitchen, there was to be no peace from the world. 
            'Oh! Sorry, Missus.' Ruth scrabbled for her shoes. Cook turned her back and started rolling out pastry with her marble pin as if she had never been involved. 
'I'm sorry to call on you out of the blue like this.' Mrs Wilson, Freya's mother, was serene in duck egg blue. 'My dear, are you quite all right? You look terribly pale.'
            Agnes did feel a little faint. 'Please. Sit, won't you?' 
            Mrs Wilson was a small car of a woman, reassuringly bulky in her boiled wool. Agnes always thought she looked more like a farmer's wife than a judge's. She waved away the plate of biscuits Agnes offered. 'It's a bit delicate, I'm afraid. It's Freya. She's. Well, I'm afraid she won't be coming this afternoon. And neither will I. Freya didn't know quite how to tell you.'
            Time, that strange elastic stuff, slackened and slowed. It felt like an age between each tick of the grandfather clock. Agnes felt incredibly hot all of a sudden. 
            'Freya's made a new friend. A very nice young man. Peter Samson. Actually, they're engaged to be married.' 
            'So you see,' she opened her hands so that Agnes could see her palms, 'we didn't think it would be appropriate for us to come to Nathaniel's memorial. You do see?'
            There they were, two women on different sofas. Mrs Wilson with a husband, a daughter and a son-in-law. Soon they would be joined by plump little babies. Mrs Wilson would be able to rest her cheek against their warm round calves. Rub cloves on their gums. All of life over again. On the other sofa it was just Agnes. Bernard had passed very early. Then Mother. Then finally Nathaniel. She felt them slip from her hand, all the strands she had clutched so tightly, the tail ends of memories.
            Mrs Wilson breathed in, dug into her handbag. 'She wanted me to give you this back.' 
            Agnes knew what it was without looking. It was her grandmother's sapphire pendant, the most precious thing Agnes owned. She had given it to Freya not when she got engaged to Nathaniel, but so many years later, after he'd died, when the girl had spent weeks just getting Agnes out of bed. Reminding her to breathe. And now she was gone too, the daughter she'd almost had. 
            The pendant, in its scuffed leather box, felt heavy. Agnes, on the sofa, felt heavy. 
            She looked up sharply, aware of Mrs Wilson's pity crawling her skin. She expected the woman to rise now that her work was done. She would dust Agnes's humiliation off her skirt, go back to her family. 'Eight years on and still grieving,' she'd say. 'Needs to pull herself together.' 
            Mrs Wilson did stand but she didn't leave. A weight sank into the cushion next to Agnes's own. And then Mrs Wilson's large, capable hand was on top of hers. 
            'You know, Freya's been feeling wretched. She's terrified that this will mean she loses you, and you've been a second mother to her these past few years.' Mrs Wilson looked around the sitting room, everything exactly where it should be. 'It'd do her a power of good to see you. I don't suppose you'll come for supper? After everything is over. We could introduce you to Peter.' Mrs Wilson leaned forward. 'You know, we all loved him, Agnes.' 
She rolled this thought around her head during the quiet hours of the afternoon. Of course, the vicar cancelled – a sudden death in Crossgates, terribly sorry and all that. Agnes heard Cook slap down her wooden spoon in exasperation. Had they loved him? If they had loved him, how could they leave him? Abandon him among the craters and gravestones. Set him down along with all the other dead things, allow him to moss, to lichen. 
            The shadows in the garden cast long dark fingers. She watched them reaching for the kitchen garden wall. She imagined flesh hands clutching at duck boards. Sucking mud. Eventually the shadows melted into each other and then into the night. Agnes closed her eyes. There was nowhere to be. Nothing to do. 
            And then suddenly, he appeared, without her asking. Fully formed, almost tangible. Glorious perfect images. Not in his creaking uniform, but a lad, with scabbed knees and bruised shins, and his face just starting to man. She could – oh! – she could smell him. His faint scent of sweat and the French lavender soap she left by the bathroom sink. She closed her eyes. She could almost feel the softness of his child hair on her face. She daredn't move, barely breathed, in case he noticed her there and left again.
            As soon as he was old enough to play out on his own, he had rarely been at home. He used to burst in like a gale, boots clattering, mud everywhere. He was shifting tides, pulled by this delight or that discovery. She had been so proud of him, this Boy being such a good example of himself. When he fell from a tree and came home with a split head, she had been horrified but proud. Proud of the scar that it left above his right eye. Proud that he was a daredevil. He had made her swim when they went to the seaside, screaming at the North Sea cold of it. It was Nathaniel who decided when they ought to have a picnic, always wanting to drive the horses himself. And when Bernard died – heart attack in the middle of the Roundhay Park – it was as if he grew up overnight. He had insisted on holidays after, just the two of them, tramping around the Lake District. 
            He had taught her to be brave. She had forgotten that. 
She knew it was the right house, even though she had never been inside. Nathaniel could barely keep its name from his lips: 'They love charades at Carstairs.' 'They've a telephone at Carstairs.' 
            Carstairs was where his other life happened. 
            Laughter spilled over the driveway. It wasn't yet cold, just damp, and someone had raised a sash. Three voices spoke at once, then a roar of laughter. The squeal of a trumpet playing on a gramophone, the chinking of glass. 
            Agnes smoothed out her green dress. The colour, her first in eight years, felt loud as a firework and Ruth hadn't helped, the way her jaw had dropped. 
            'Very nice, Missus,' she'd said, marble-eyed. 
            Now that she was here, she wasn't sure. She touched a hand to her hair in its plaited bun, fussed at the seed pearls on her clutch. She had just about decided to leave when the front door opened. The flare of Mr Wilson's match lit up his face.
            'Good Lord! Mrs Stuart! Agnes – come in, won't you? Dorothy, Dot! Someone here to see you.'
            The house wasn't what she had expected. She'd imagined Tiffany lamps and dark corners, rows of leatherbound books, not colonies of shoes scattered over the floor by the front door, a collection of humorous walking canes in the umbrella stand. She hadn't anticipated the carpet on the stairs would be threadbare – 'No point changing it, not while we've got the dogs' – or the console table to be jostling with keys and candle stubs. 
            'Agnes!' It felt like there was genuine pleasure under Mrs Wilson's surprise. 'I'm so glad you've come. I wasn't sure you would.' 
            And then there was Freya: lovely, beautiful Freya. Too young to be tied to a ghost, Agnes could see that now. The girl crept up, put a palm to the underside of her bobbed hair. 
            'Do you like it?'
            Agnes imagined those long tresses tumbling to the salon floor. She remembered brushing it through in the quiet days when Nathaniel hadn't been gone long. Such an intimate thing, her hand resting on the crown of Freya's head, individual hairs lifting with static to the brush as though they were old friends greeting each other.
            'It looks wonderful.' 
            Freya's face relaxed. 'Oh I'm so glad you like it. It's so freeing. My neck is wonderfully cool. And I don't have to spend hours a day brushing and braiding, I can just get up and go.' 
            'That must be delightful, dear. And you must be Peter I think?' 
            Agnes held out her hand. She knew she mustn't let it tremble, mustn't let the smile flicker for a moment. This was the fulcrum on which the future might be built because, suddenly, it was terribly important to Agnes that the Wilsons let her in. That she might come back again. She had been parched, she realised. Desiccated. 
            He was a handsome man. Older than Freya. He shook her right hand with his left in an awkward little motion and she saw that his sleeve was pinned up above his elbow. 
            'It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Stuart.' 
            The piercing pain in her heart lasted only for a moment because this wasn't a replacement for her boy. This was a man with his own wounds, quiet and steady. Soon be a partner in Watkins & Adams, Mrs Wilson murmured as she passed Agnes a drink. And he wasn't stealing anything. Eight long years she had kept the poor girl in thrall to her dead son, the weight of grief dragging behind them like grappling hooks catching onto every rocky memory.
            After supper there was dancing. Agnes said yes to a small sherry. She watched Freya's dress bounce and cling, saw her smile. She could almost feel Nathaniel beside her, laughing at something Mr Wilson had said, rising to flip the record on the gramophone. He would have grabbed her hand. 'Come on Mater, can't have you sitting there like a wallflower.' 
            'May I have the pleasure?' 
            Mr Wilson had a grey handlebar moustache and his broad frame disguised a wide middle. The words 'I don't dance' bubbled around in Agnes's chest but it was so lovely and warm in here, and her sherry-limbs were liquid and she shimmered like lake water in her green frock.
            'I've no idea how to Charleston, I'm afraid. The last dance I learnt was a foxtrot.' 
            'Never mind, old thing. We'll hash it up together.' 
            As Agnes reached out to take Mr Wilson's hand, she felt the air alter. A waft of lavender and North Sea salt drifted over them, wisps of laughter, and then it was gone and the plain smells of autumn came flooding in through the cracked window. Damp ground and bonfire smoke. Humus and flesh. Earth dressing itself in broken leaves so that all of life could start again.