Alice lived in a small cottage, all the way up the hill, a long way from the village. She lived alone, and always had. Even when I was a child she seemed old. That was forty five years ago.
Back then, I only ever saw her when she cycled into the village for her shopping. Once a week she’d come, whatever the weather. Her hair billowed out behind her as she freewheeled down the hill. I knew nothing about her, other than she was a strange woman who lived up on the hill. The village seemed to be full of strange, old people. She didn’t especially stand out to my child mind.
As I got older, I found myself taken into the confidences of the adults around me. That was when Alice’s peculiarities, her eccentricities, her weirdnesses were made apparent to me. She was a loner. She disliked company. She hated people. Of course, as a teenager, I was drawn to her. Not to her as such, but to her isolation and her difference. I also began to resent the tittle tattle of the village.
Eventually, I fell into conversing with her. I found her quiet, a little sad, but disappointingly normal. She was not the oddball some in the village made her out to be. She just didn’t need other people in her life. She seemed contented.
I moved away. Went to study, to find a career. I thought I had left for good, but – in the way life does these things – I eventually found myself drawn back to the old place, not long after I lost my partner. Alice was on my rounds of home visits, looking after the elderly.
I’d forgotten how far up the hill she lived. I’d rarely journeyed up the little lane that led to the moors, and only vaguely remembered the landmarks. Even for a young, fit woman, this must have been a trek for her. How she managed in the months, or years, before the home help, goodness only knows. The case notes said she had no known family, no close friends. Even by the standards of the old folk of the valley, Alice truly was alone.
And yet, on my visit, it was obvious that, more than anything else, she feared being taken from her home: from what anyone else would have called her lonely existence. As I completed my tasks, she eyed me suspiciously. I couldn’t tell if she remembered me. She certainly didn’t trust me. There was something else I felt too. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was a sense of being unwanted – and not only by Alice. Something in the place felt – for want of a better word – threatened. I left her, my jobs done, with an uneasiness.
Over the following few months the feeling grew. I couldn’t be picking it up from Alice. On the contrary, she began to relax in my company. I can’t say she welcomed my intrusions, but she certainly became less defensive. No: the disquiet seemed to come from elsewhere. Was it me?
One week towards the end of summer, as downpour followed torrential downpour and the first Autumn winds began to buffet the still full branches, Alice’s health began to fail. She had a fall in the garden. Nothing at all major. She didn’t hit the floor, managing to steady herself against the fencepost before she went. However, it seemed to really knock her confidence. When I next visited her, she seemed so frail. She had never looked frail before – old, yes – but frail, never. She asked me over and over again not to let them take her from the cottage. It was her home. The wind chimes above the window were ringing louder than ever. The eaves rattled.
A couple of weeks later she was taken to hospital. She’d been found wandering across the fields some distance from the cottage. She was wearing a nightgown, and clutching a little jewelry box. She only let go of the box when she was sedated.
The hospital room was, as they are, busy with monitors and nurses. The last place anyone could get any rest. The last place.
She lay there, so small and paper-skinned. She didn’t know me. Just another voice in the room. She was mouthing words, barely audible. I picked out “where is she…” and “Annabel”. She was muttering these, and a few other phrases I couldn’t work out.
She was obviously confused, whether or not it was the drugs, or her general condition. I spoke to the duty nurse. Alice had been mumbling like this since they brought in. She had become distressed when they took her box off her. They had to really work to calm her. It was safe in the bedside cupboard, the little box. She only ever was quiet when she could touch the box, but they were concerned she’d knock it off the bed. She was going in and out of consciousness. Who was this Annabel? She didn’t have any relations, and family did she? The nurse shook her head, and looked down sadly at Alice.
She was very weak. The room, full of its beeping, and at a temperature so correct it was sterile, seemed empty. She looked so very alone in there. In some ways no different to everyone else on the ward. Clinging on to nothing.
Her voice suddenly sounded clear, demanding almost. I took the jewelry box out of the cupboard. It seemed heavy for its size. It was old, covered in a simple, pink silk-like fabric. I placed it on the bed next to her, close enough that her fingers touched it. At first she didn’t seem to notice. Then, ever so slowly, her finger gently stroked the box, barely moving.What seemed like a smile lit her face. It was as if she had found the strength. The strength she needed.
We tried to find any family – or anyone who knew anything at all about her. Even amongst her contemporaries in the village we drew a blank. It was as if she had not touched the world outside her little cottage.
I looked at the carrier bag on her kitchen table. A tatty supermarket bag. It was the only thing I had in the car when I picked up Alice’s belongings. I took out the jewelry box. It had obviously meant so much to her. More than anything else of her possessions.
I laid it on the table and slowly opened it
It was a music box, and played the theme from Doctor Zhivago. It was full, almost to overflowing, with a coarse, grey dust, some of which blew on the table. Tucked into a pocket under the lid was a small, yellowed scrap of paper, with a note, written in a shaky but clear handwriting:
I will always love you,
The wind chimes rang in the breeze, as the music box played its tune, gradually slowing until it stopped. The feelings I had in that cottage cameback, grew and kept growing. Something wanted me gone. She wanted them together, as one. Forever.