“It seemed almost as if listening to Kidman, rather than fighting against her, had allowed purpose to take the lead when dancing with trepidation, and it allowed uncertainty to sit it out, realising it had had its spell on the dancefloor and should now just let others get up and do their thing”
When I think of Mrs Ormsley, I think first and foremost of her eyes. Those eyes designed to perturb and flummox, to unsettle and bewilder. One eyebrow raised, startled and yet strangely accepting; the other lowered, piercing and suspicious. I also, if I’m an honest kinda girl, think about her stomach nice and full with lots of food and fluids, her stomach muscles all relaxed and comfortable, and me delivering an incisive punch right in her bitching old gut! As well as being an honest girl, I’m also at times that kinda girl.
But here I was being a totally different kinda girl. The one who seeks out the company of such a woman. And all I can think of to call this kinda girl is a fool.
It took me forever to decide what to wear, although I concluded that it didn’t really matter. Mrs Ormsley, readers may recall, had concluded long ago, and on scanty circumstantial evidence, that I was little more than a vagrant who was living in Mordan House illegally. Not that she’d ever asked me about how I came to live there! No, she wasn’t interested in truth. Only opinion.
If I 'dressed down' to go and visit her then Mrs Ormsley’s opinion would be that I warranted pity, visibly concluding that I was a poor, ghastly little thing (one brow raised in commiseration), but also concluding at the same time that it wasn’t possible for me to be anything other than a tad ghastly when I was downtrodden and generally alienated from society (the other brow lowered in contempt).
But if I 'dressed up', yes there would be one brow raised in admiration, but it would be the other one that would do all the damage. It would conclude that my cleanliness would be down to a swift half-hour using the mirror and wash basin in a public lavatory, before the janitor decided to move me on after I’d declined his gracious offer of a couple of lost property hair-grips and a skoosh of his Lynx in exchange for a BJ. Alternatively, she would think that my neat and tidy attire would be at the expense of some poor cow who would currently be sitting in the back of a police car on a country road, her nakedness now reduced somewhat by a blanket, and with a cold compress held against a nasty gash at the back of her head, as she explained that she hadn’t seen her assailant as she had been too busy inspecting the dead sheep that was mysteriously blocking the road.
“She would think that my neat and tidy attire would be at the expense of some poor cow who would currently be sitting in the back of a police car on a country road, her nakedness now reduced somewhat by a blanket, and with a cold compress held against a nasty gash at the back of her head”
No. Whatever I wore I would be the loser. So I dressed tastefully, smartly. Jeans for a bit of daytime casualness and black leather shoes with a small heel. I wore a navy blue wrapover top that set my puppies barking and snarling slightly – but not too much that people would worry that they might get out at any moment and cause some damage to property. Earrings with a slight drop. A funky silver necklace with ickle, dainty beads. Hair tied back. Make up. Black waist-length coat with large lapels, but unbuttoned to show off my top. As I said before: tasteful, smart.
Before I left, Kidman had mentioned that I should align my eyebrows, nose and puppies (the ENP of Kidman) if I got into any difficulty – it was to her mind the display of the peacock, the act of defiance, the unfurled stance of unequivocal female pride that kept all evil forces at bay. But there was no need for such a reminder. I was a convert. If in trouble, ENP would get me out of it, and I aimed to use it as much as I needed to.
Another thing that I found myself to be doing was not thinking about this thing that I’d made up my mind to do. Ordinarily I’d let my mind twist in all manner of ways until I was exhausted – yet, for all the deliberation, the outcome would be the same. So, today, as I drove towards the neighbouring town, I let my made-up mind get on with what it had made up. It seemed almost as if listening to Kidman, rather than fighting against her, had allowed purpose to take the lead when dancing with trepidation, and it allowed uncertainty to sit it out, realising it had had its spell on the dancefloor and should now just let others get up and do their thing. Sure, my idea of Kidman was opposed to me going to see Mrs Ormsley to ask for answers to questions about the history of Mordan House, but the philosophy of Kidman as I understood it – the attitude, the soft and genial fire, the keenness of purpose, the resilience – was undeniably true of my idea of her also. I was, it seemed, taking this idea and using it for my own purpose.
Of course this purpose became harder to realise as I walked up the steps to the library where Mrs Ormsley worked. Oh, much, much harder! It was not that I was having second thoughts about going through with it, it was that I was still unsure about smacking her a hard one at gut-level if she said anything that I objected to! And yet, at the back of my mind was the fact that she had let me stay over at her place the night after I’d ventured down to the basement, and that had been a kind thing to do. But surely that was just one momentary flash of a solitary kind brow – and, due to my frazzled state, I had merely missed the workings of the other brow.
When she turned round and saw me, Mrs Ormsley suddenly had the look of someone who’s just banged her face against an invisible wall.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. Ouch, I thought would have been more appropriate.
I garbled some kind of hello and some kind of request as to the state of her health. From where she stood behind the enquiries desk she made some kind of reply, but I can’t remember what it was – I was looking around me and thinking about my face and my appearance and the positioning of my body, and only just taking in the sound of her voice. I then found myself resting on her face and seeing that it was eyeing me quizzically, as if waiting, and I realised that she had asked me if she could help me with anything.
“Sure, my idea of Kidman was opposed to me going to see Mrs Ormsley to ask for answers to questions about the history of Mordan House, but the philosophy of Kidman as I understood it – the attitude, the soft and genial fire, the keenness of purpose, the resilience – was undeniably true of my idea of her also. I was, it seemed, taking this idea and using it for my own purpose”
“No,” I uttered without the smallest trace of emotion. “Well, yes, actually. I’m looking for some information and I thought you might be able to help.”
In reply, her face did something I had never seen before: both eyebrows rose and arched dramatically. The symmetrical act transformed the entirety of her face. She looked, in fact, like a different person. Moreover, she was looking at me as if I was a different person too.
“Oh,” she repeated, this time as if the wall had just spoken to her. And walls, of course, aren’t supposed to do that. I felt a moment of achievement and flexed my brickwork slightly.
Then, just as quickly as it had appeared, imbalance quickly returned: her eyebrows again opposed each other, one tumbling as the other rose, like the arms of a set of scales.
“Information,” she said coldly, not entirely as a question or a statement. “On what? Emphysema? Bronchitis? STDs? Goodness, I’m trying to think of other conditions associated with vagrancy. Perhaps hepatitis?”
Hepatitis? Hepatitis! The compulsion rose in me like indigestion, or like some ever so small man trying to box his way out of my belly. I felt a tingling in my fingers and my tongue cleaved to the top of my mouth. I poked her in the eye with a sharp look, but, dammit, I didn’t see them flinch or water. Composure, composure, I told myself. I tried to breathe deeply, aligned my nose like a tiny dagger, arched my brows into two tightly-strung peashooters, and pushed my breasts up and out like a tray of delicious cakes.
But then …
Hold on a sec. Now wait a min.
What the devil was she ..?
It was hard to believe – and hard to digest even once I’d started to believe – but Mrs Ormsley appeared to be looking directly at my cleavage. Looking? No, too faint a word. Staring! And staring like some right dirty minx too!
“I tried to breathe deeply, aligned my nose like a tiny dagger, arched my brows into two tightly-strung peashooters, and pushed my breasts up and out like a tray of delicious cakes”
It was my turn to frown. My turn to pull some awkward, garish, twisted facial display. “No. Information on the house. Mordan House,” I said in a weak, slightly staccato fashion.
At the name of Mordan House, her eyes glanced at mine, but then dropped stone-like back to my haughty, tail-wagging, sprightly, conceited little pups. What was going on?
Could this be the effect of the Eyebrows plus Nose plus Puppies equation? The ENP of Kidman? If so, then what were so many mathematicians doing wasting their time on lengthy formulas with brackets, and little numbers sitting on the shoulders of big numbers, when a simple ENP obviously unlocked so many secrets to the universe! Eureka, I exclaimed within. Voila! Ole! Take that, testicle-face!
Eureka? Voila? Ole? No! I wasn’t sure I liked this, this looking. No, this staring! Moreover, I felt exposed and uncomfortable standing on one side of the enquiries desk of a library, while a middle-aged woman scrutinised my chest as if they were a couple of full bowls ready to be handed over to hungry orphans, or two long-awaited invitations on a butler’s silver salver. Like wriggly bait on a fisherman’s hook. Like a couple of tempting water coolers on a scorching hot day. Oh, please tell me, dear reader, if a vivid picture of the scene is still alluding you!
Reflex kicked in, before I was even aware that it wanted to kick, and I found that I’d grabbed the big lapels of my coat and brought them tightly together to hide my little Dalmatians from the naughty Cruella Deville. Another reflex – of sorts, anyway – kicked in and I found myself taking some kind of control of proceedings.
“I was wondering why the owners of the refuge left? Were they forced out?” I asked.
The library was quiet, but it was a small town and it had been quiet every time I’d been in it. The lighting was subdued around the entrance and the enquiries desk, but brighter at many of the book shelves where light was allowed in by large, old windows.
Mr Ormsley, her eyes disengaged from my puppy pouch, looked away into the shadows and contorted her lips before replying. “I don’t think it ever really closed. We never referred to it as a refuge – it was just the people up at Mordan House. It’s only since it’s been empty that people here refer to the time when it was a refuge. But you could as well have called it a commune. Although it was nearly all women there – and women who had been physically abused. But they were into all manner of things. Living off the land. A return to basics. Trying to build a new idea of society. And, to my mind, it accidentally became a fact that the majority of people there had been abused. Maybe through word of mouth, I don’t know. And because of the problem they were escaping, those in charge tried to cater for them. To help them, I guess. I’m not sure that they did help them though.”
It was only then that Mrs Ormsley looked at me. “I only ever really spoke to one woman from the house," she said. "She would come here and read. I actually think that she used to walk here and then walk back. I can’t think how long that would take her! She was a scraggly-haired girl. Bitten nails. Pretty face. But clothes like yours. Attempting to be tasteful, but dying a death, you know.”
I glanced down at myself and frowned. Within my coat, my two little puppies wriggled uncomfortably.
“I think eventually everyone just left the place, one by one,” she continued, again looking away. “And eventually it was just common knowledge that there was no-one living there anymore.”
As she spoke I was thinking about the house, about these women and the character of the place with them all living inside of it. What would it have been like? How would it have felt? What would have been its atmosphere? I was busy thinking along these lines, as well as formulating a next question, when Mrs Ormsley added to her statement.
“Oh, that girl who came here said something very odd to me once! Maybe it’s a clue to why the women eventually all left. She said that her husband had abused her body and her mind, but that Mordan House abused her soul. She said that they made her eat darkness. And she said that once you get that stuff inside of you then you never get it out. Such a strange thing to say! But, there again, she was a bit like you in other ways too: there was a circus going on in her head but you wouldn’t want to buy a ticket to see it or anything!”
I heard two puppies yelp and felt their little paws try to dig a hole to bury themselves in it.
“Catherine! Catherine!” An old woman’s voice came booming out of the library’s silence. Mrs Ormsley looked up and said, “Oh, dear.”
“She said that her husband had abused her body and her mind, but that Mordan House abused her soul. She said that they made her eat darkness. And she said that once you get that stuff inside of you then you never get it out. Such a strange thing to say!”
“Oh. Someone’s lost a companion, I think,” I said, trying to sound light-hearted and friendly.
“Catherine Cookson! Where the hell are the Catherine Cookson books in this place?” the voice shouted. Then I saw the old woman who had been with Mrs Ormsley that day when I’d waited for James in the café. She was, it seemed, wandering about, frustrated, and trying desperately to find the books of her favourite author.
Mrs Ormsley muttered something, but I wasn’t sure if it was directed at me or herself. Then she got out from the enquiries desk to go to the old woman, and before I had a chance to ask more, she was gone.
There was no point staying. I felt I had a huge amount of information to digest. More than plenty. As I left the library, a middle-aged man with a hold-all and wearing a duffle coat passed me. “Nothing yet,” he said and winked.
“No, not yet,” I mumbled indifferently, my head full of thoughts and impressions. But then, all of a sudden, I stopped and turned back to him. “Actually, no. I’m sorry but I don’t know what you mean by that. What hasn’t happened yet?”
“Oh,” he uttered. Someone else confronted by an invisible wall, I thought. I must have been attracting the damned things! “Josh,” he said. “He hasn’t been found yet. Or come home. That’s all. That’s all I meant.”
I tried to formulate a response, but by the time I’d thought of one the man was several steps away from me. Josh? It was a name I’d never heard mentioned to me before. So that was why they said “Not yet” all the time. Someone called Josh was missing from the town and hadn’t reappeared or been found. But who was Josh?
When I told Kidman how nice to me Mrs Ormsley had been, but at the same time so unusual, all she had to say was: “Nice to you? Unusual to you? How dare she! Testicle-faced whore!”
“Yes, Kidman,” I said in full agreement, “you’re bloody right! How dare she! The dangleberry-faced bitch!”
And we both laughed. Yes, reader, we laughed! Later on, we sat and had a bottle of wine together and we discussed long into the night what I’d discovered that day.
And during that discussion I told her that my ENP had collapsed while talking to Mrs Ormsley, due to my puppies getting scared. She said they needed to be trained. Hm, was my response.
And during this discussion Kidman also told me that she was planning a gift for me. What she called a very special gift indeed. Hm, was my response to that too.
Next instalment: 45. The Astronaut Stopped