Updated: Jan 8
Great Aunt Katherine had been seemingly on her last legs for about thirty years. Since I could remember she had been shrinking and creaking and swaying in the wind. Finally, she was gone and was currently resident in a casket for public viewing before burial later in the day.
We had never got along.
She was caustic and bitter and complained about everything. She irked me to the core.
None of us liked her and we seldom got in touch. Mum had fallen out with her years back and the connections rusted and corroded like old batteries. Damage had been done with emotional weaponry and unrepentant intent.
But in death people rally together to do their duty and triumphantly, one hopes, they ignore the fallout from the battleground.
The undertaker had worked a treat. Great Aunt’s hair was spruced and pompadoured like a grand poodle and someone had done a great job on her makeup. In repose, I thought I saw in her some beauty. I had never seen it before in her. How, I wondered, had I not seen it before? Perhaps then, it had been the light.
It was stuffy and death makes me nauseous so I took myself off for some air in the Lancashire sun.
The grounds of the estate were rambling and pretty, cared for by a team of gardeners and gamekeepers. I followed a winding road, then a desire path through an accidental arch of higher foliage. Birds sang and I noticed the accidental grace of an untouched place.
‘You wanna be careful down there luv,’ said a man with a thick accident and clobber befitting a man who works on the land.
‘Oh, where does it go, this path?’ I asked.
‘Just by the riverside, it’s dangerous if you lose your footing; and don’t be tempted to swim in it, there’s wild currents, people ‘av drowned.’
‘Ok,’ I said, ‘I’ll be careful’.
‘Make sure you are, shout if there’s a bother’.
I objected to be being told and marched arrogantly on.
The riverside was a reedy unkempt place and the water seemed almost still. I doubted anyone had drowned there. I followed the bank upstream for some minutes and saw a beautiful glade just inland covered in bluebells. The blue-purple velvet tones in the late sun were breathtaking and I stopped to take a photograph on my phone.
I misjudged the bank and as I stepped back, cascaded down the steep slope, twisting my ankle as I landed with little room to spare before the water’s edge. It was a close shave. I would probably have to eat humble pie after all.
I stroked my foot; it was sore and I assumed I had twisted it. Reluctantly I called for help without trying to sound panicked.
Something had stabbed on my way down, something sharp. I was bleeding quite badly from my thigh.
I looked up the bank amongst the flattened grasses and saw something. It shimmered in the sun’s rays.
A bellowing voice broke the silence.
‘Are you alright? I told you to be careful din I?’
It was the gamekeeper doing his job, thank goodness.
‘I was trying to take a photograph,’ I explained feebly. ‘I hurt my ankle’.
‘Stay put, if you think you can follow a simple instruction. I will get my car and the first aid kit.’
The gamekeeper muttered several gripes and made his way to prepare for an overly dramatic rescue mission.
I waited as instructed and looked at the shiny object, it was a large red and gold brooch with an open bent pin. I must have stabbed myself as I tumbled down the verge.
It was tarnished and dirty but I could see it was gold. The stone looked like ruby, but I cannot profess to being an expert. It wasn’t paste, that much I knew. It was big and I was pleased to have found it immediately wondering if it was worth anything.
I began to polish it on my skirt, breathing hard on it and trying to remove the muck. As I did so I could see a small clasp and a hinge.
I tried to prize it open but it seemed to be stuck. After some brute force the clasp released.
Inside was like a locket, squared off. There were two photographs. One side, a picture of a young woman, a beautiful young woman and a young man with dark eyes. The woman’s hair was mounted in pompadour fashion on her proud dignified face. They were lovers, you could tell.
The other was a picture of an infant in swaddling clothes.
I tried to take out the photos but the baby picture was stuck fast. The other came out easily and inscribed on the reverse in tiny handwriting was my great aunt’s name, Katherine Baltimore and a date, 1938.
I looked again at the beautiful woman in the photograph and there I saw her as I have never seen her before.
‘Alright, old tight!’ shouted the gamekeeper.
The rescue mission passed off with ease and we trundled along the road towards the house in a four by four that looked and smelled like things were growing in it.
‘How long have you worked here?’ I asked.
‘Nigh on sixty years,’ said the gamekeeper.
‘Did my Aunt ever marry?’
‘No no, she was broken-hearted as a young girl, so they say. Had a love, apparently, died in the river there. I told you dint I?....don’t get close to the river, it has a jinx it does, I’m tellin’ ya, and your ma’ld never forgive me should out ‘appen.’
We arrived at the house to a general fuss about the state of my health and I was taken to be ‘fixed up.’
Mum was not pleased and came to my room to reprimand me in that maternal way mums do.
‘Why did you go to the riverside? People have drowned there!’ she exclaimed.
‘I wish people would stop telling me that’ I said in disgruntled fashion, ‘and who was it, Great Aunt Katherine’s boyfriend? I can’t believe she ever had one, looked like she hadn’t ever been laid with that scowl.’
‘That’s unkind,’ said mum.
‘Oh yeah sorry, I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. But she was such a bitch.’
Mum sat down on the bed next to me.
‘Well, I may as well tell you, it won’t do any damage now, I suppose.
Your Great Aunt was such a rebel. She had this red hair. My great-grandma used to say it was the hair was the problem. There was a boy here, employed. He was rough, son of the gamekeeper who rescued you.’
I raised my internal eyebrows at the word rescue but listened intently.
‘My great-grandma knew he was going to cause trouble because he had those eyes.’
‘What eyes?’ I asked
‘One’s that make you want to lie down and take your clothes off, that’s what eyes.’
‘Oh. Those eyes......’ I said, knowingly.
‘Well,’ mum continued, ‘they struck up a very intense relationship but it was never going to work. Everyone was up in arms about it. They were different people, different class, different upbringing. Those eyes were not going to solve the problem.’
‘So, what happened? I asked, desperate now for the full story.
‘Well, your Great Aunt ended the affair but he took it badly. They say he jumped off the bridge upstream where the two rivers meet and his body was washed up here, by the bluebell glade. He had been drinking, no one really knew what had happened.’
‘But she had a baby,’ I said.
‘Yes, how did you know? It was stillborn. At the time it was all for the best.’
I went downstairs to look at the coffin and say farewell to a great aunt who had felt such pain and loss. I looked at her face embraced in the sumptuous cream satin. Great Aunt Katherine looked content, different to when I had seen her this morning. I wondered if she would have wanted me to keep the brooch and considered its value. But I knew that that would be wrong. She would want to be reunited with her baby and her love with the lay down eyes.
I put the brooch on her lapel and kissed her forehead. Then I apologised and said farewell.
© 2020 Sarnia de la Mare