Bay was delighted to be contacted by Matthew G Rees regarding his newly published collection of short stories Keyhole. Matthew lives in Swansea and was recently awarded a PhD in Creative Writing at Swansea University. Keyhole is published by Three Impostors, an independent press based in Newport and is available to purchase through their website (see details at the end of this a story). Dreamcoat is a previously unpublished short story illustrated by our own Simon Williams.
It was late when I heard the knocking. Having finished some writing, I was almost ready for bed and, save for the modest glow from my table lamp, darkness filled the house. It’s a rural, quite isolated property whose loneliness I rather like. But the sound of a caller at that time of night alarmed me. And the banging at my front door was no ordinary summons, but something agitated… even wild.
Although not the martial type, I felt the need to arm myself. Remembering my father’s thick walking stick in the stand of fishing rods and umbrellas in the hall, I crept to it, as noiselessly as I could, over the flagstone floor.
The beating at the door now ceased (with the same abruptness with which it had begun). I stood stock-still in the unlit passage, holding my breath: listening… waiting… a mere inch of oak separating me from whoever, or whatever, it was that stood at my step.
‘Will-yum?’ a voice called through the woodwork. ‘Is that you?’
The speaker’s words – a woman’s – were oddly soft after the hail of rough rapping. More to the point, this midnight whisperer beyond the timber seemed to intuit my presence (despite my silence and statue-like pose).
For my part, the burr in her voice (it told of woodsmoke and wild honeysuckle) and, in particular, her pronunciation of my name, awoke in me something distant… almost forgotten, in the way that a sudden wind can rekindle a fire that has waned.
‘It’s me…’ she continued.
But by then she had no need to identify herself. For, never mind that I had neither seen nor heard from her in thirty years, I knew her without a doubt.
Lizzie!’ we both said as I drew open the door.
I put on the porch light – and there she stood. No longer a girl, no longer the Lizzie of my youth. A woman now, of course. But, unmistakably, Lizzie: dark, beautiful… damp.
By the looks of her, she’d walked through the rain that had pattered my windows for most of the evening. Her loose black mane and the droplets that beaded her made me think of some storm-caught crow… come to shake itself dry in the shelter of my tiles.
Her eyes – as serious as I remembered them – stared at me (doubtless computing how I also had changed since whenever it had been that we’d last seen one another).
Then, in her Lizzie way, as if we had been apart mere moments in a childhood game and she’d re-discovered me in a dingle or on the shadow side of a tump, she began her explanation.
‘It’s Mossie. I needs you to take me to ’im, Will-yum. I needs you to ’elp me.’
‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘Now?’ I asked. ‘It’s late. You’re… wet.’ I continued, somewhat perplexed: ‘Is there a problem… with Mossie?’
‘Yes, but not now. It’ll keep for a little while. I’ll come back in the mornin’,’ she said, distractedly. ‘But no later, mind, Will-yum. No later than that.’
‘Where is he?’ I asked. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘’e’s at the ’ospital, Will-yum. ’E’s dead. ’E’s my brother, Will-yum. An’ I must go to ’im. I’m ’is family. It’s right, isn’ it, Will-yum? I’m ’is nexta kin. You knows that. I’ll be back in the mornin’. I’ll tell you all then.’
And with that, fleet as in her girlhood, Lizzie turned and disappeared, the night and its drizzle taking her, as if she’d never been there.
I decided against going to bed. I calculated that when Lizzie said she would be back ‘in the morning’ that she meant dawn, more or less. I was also upset by her news of the death of her brother, my boyhood friend Mossie.
(I was to learn the next day that his body had been found under an oak tree on the edge of a village not ten miles from mine. There, on his travels, he’d sat down and died, alone, during an epileptic seizure. The disclosure, and my ignorance of this aspect of my old friend’s life, caused me to feel that I had failed him.)
He and I had met when we were each seven or eight years old. Amos and Elizabeth belonged to a large family of gypsies well known in my part of the country who at that time were still employed on farms during the various seasons of picking and harvesting, before this living was taken from them by mechanisation and gang masters.
Mossie and Lizzie lived not with their parents, who I never actually met, but with their grandmother who, looking back now, may actually have been what’s known as a Gypsy Queen.
She had a traditional wooden caravan that was pitched in a field within walking distance of my house (which, of course, was my parents’ house back then). Each morning, my mother would send me to collect Mossie for school. As I walked through the grass stalks and thistles, calling his name, Mossie – with Lizzie and their granny – would come crawling out from under the caravan, beneath which they seemed to live on a tarpaulin. They never, it appeared to me, actually went inside the caravan – its interior being almost a shrine, so it seemed.
As Mossie and I walked to school – Lizzie never came: she spent her days with their granny – my mother would appear at our gate with a piece of bread and jam, a breakfast that Mossie ate keenly.
He couldn’t read or write, and I’m not sure that going to school benefitted him much. But something that he could do – in a way that I’ve never heard anyone equal – was whistle. This he did to the birds in the hedgerows and fields as we walked, he and they engaged in song, each echoing or finishing the other’s passage of notes. Blackbirds, thrushes, robins, wrens… name any songbird, Mossie had the mastery of their tunes.
When I was eleven I left the village school for the grammar in town. This meant I saw a lot less of Mossie and Lizzie. At weekends we would sometimes go fishing together but, although still living close to one another, we were growing distant, our lives taking different paths.
In what I think must have been the summer after my A levels I saw Mossie in a pub in town. I asked after Lizzie and their granny. He said that Lizzie was ‘mad as ever’ but that their granny’s health was failing and he wasn’t sure how much longer they would ‘have’ her. He added that this turn of events was not unexpected on account of her age. (Thinking about it now, I suspect she may actually have been their great-grandmother.)
One evening, near the end of the summer, he came to our house and asked to borrow a spade; my father gave him one from our shed. Due to leave shortly for university, I decided to walk back with Mossie to the field where his grandmother’s caravan was pitched. When we went through the gate, however, its yellow and green woodwork was nowhere to be seen. In its place lay a low heap of cinders and ashes.
Mossie told me there had been an ‘accident’: a candle had been upturned, setting the lovely old wagon alight. All that remained was its ironwork, and this he now needed to bury. He began to dig. Although I wondered, I didn’t ask about his granny.
When he finished treading down the sods on the hole he’d dug and filled, I asked him what he was going to do now, since both his granny and his home seemed gone.
He led me to one side of the field, where a tarpaulin covered various objects. Pulling the tarpaulin back, he announced, ‘I’m gunna make these.’ He revealed from beneath the rough cloak a beautiful laundry basket that he’d woven from willow, each withy perfectly cut and thatched. It sat there on the grass like some handsome coracle or crib.
For the rest of his life, this was to be his trade, making and selling laundry baskets – in our county, the next and sometimes the shire after… always journeying on foot and more often than not with one or more of his baskets on his back, like some character from the pages of Hardy.
Our evening in the field was the last time we spoke. Occasionally in the years that followed I caught sight of him (or seemed to), but never in a way that I was able to approach or hail him: a figure, I thought to be his, walking on the opposite verge of a road I was driving… disappearing in the dimness of a towpath in a canal tunnel… stepping on a shortcut to somewhere through a gap (a ‘glat’ as we called it) in a hedge, known only to a countryman like Mossie.
Come the dawn, Lizzie was, as I’d expected, at my door… sitting on my step, smoking a roll-up cigarette. It was as if she’d passed the night no further afield than one of my beds of hollyhocks, or amid the boughs of one of the damson trees at the back of the house.
I offered her breakfast, but this she declined, looking over my shoulder and into the hall. I remembered then that it had always been their way, hers and Mossie’s: the two of them politely refusing to set foot in our cottage. It was as if they were fearful that, once over the threshold, its bricks and beams wouldn’t let them out, would bind the pair of them in.
‘Thank you Will-yum, but no,’ said Lizzie, nipping her cigarette between forefinger and thumb. ‘We have to go to Mossie.’ And she repeated, ‘It’s only right. I’m ’is nexta kin.’
And so I drove her to the hospital.
At the mortuary, a bleary-eyed attendant showed her Mossie. I was present, at Lizzie’s request: ‘You were ’is friend, Will-yum.’
Although his jaw was stubbled silver and his face somewhat lined, I knew him still. Lizzie kissed his cheek.
Sensing that the necessary had been done, I stepped back and was about to look for the exit. Lizzie, however, caught my cuff and kept me where I was.
‘Where’s ’is cloze?’ she asked the attendant.
‘I’m sorry?’ said the man.
‘’Is cloze,’ she repeated. ‘I wants ’em. Where are they?’
The attendant began some polite bluster. The state of Mossie’s clothes was something I could imagine given his rather vagabond life. I suspected that, more than a little shabby, they were destined for, and possibly had already entered, the hospital’s incinerator.
I tried to mollify Lizzie. But her dander was up and she meant business, I could see.
‘I’m ’is nexta kin. I’m entitled,’ she told the attendant, her jet eyes flashing. ‘You’ll get me ’is cloze, if you know what’s good for yer. And you’ll get me ’em quick.’
The man – clearly unaccustomed to someone of Lizzie’s directness – ushered us to a small office and asked us to wait.
A while later he returned with Mossie’s clothes in a clear plastic bag. Despite a tight knot at the top, the parcel was pungent. I placed it in the boot of my car, and we drove home.
As always, Lizzie declined my invitation to come into the house. She was pre-occupied with the matter of Mossie’s clothes and had me open the boot as soon as I parked.
‘You, Will-yum, will be my witness,’ she said solemnly, as we stood inside my gate. I had little real idea what she meant – an aspect of gypsy lore, I presumed, in the same way that Mossie had more than likely burnt their grandmother’s caravan and possibly the old lady’s body along with it (though I never truly knew). Still, it was clear that Lizzie was set upon something.
Opening the bag of Mossie’s clothes, she took from it an old and worn jacket. It might once have been tweed but looked now as if its fabric had been cut from a compost of leaves, straw and – perhaps appropriately – moss. It was a garment that might long have been cast off by many a tramp – or scarecrow, come to that. The irony of Mossie having spent his life making laundry baskets wasn’t lost on me.
As Lizzie held the ragged raiment, it occurred to me that if Mossie had kept up as a man the habits of his youth then the jacket was something that – apart from an irregular bath or shower as circumstances permitted – he would seldom, if ever, have removed.
As I watched, wondering what she was up to, Lizzie began to unpick the jacket’s lining.
‘Remember Will-yum,’ she said, working at the jacket with her long, knuckly fingers, one with a silver ring that I remembered on her grand-mother’s hand, ‘I’m entitled. I’m ’is nexta kin.’
When the first bundle of banknotes fell out, plump and weighty, I wondered what it could be. These were the days before money came coated with plastic, a time when notes were bigger (and seemed to be worth something, too). I thought the small sheaf must be family papers of some kind: deeds, letters, maps.
Half expecting Lizzie to want me to read for her, I took a step forward… and I saw the Queen’s head.
It was a healthy-sized bundle, to be sure: a £20 note on the top, with a grubby tan band looping it and the rest. Grimy, yes… but money. My eyes told me £1,000, at least.
Lizzie set the wad on a stone wall. ‘That’s one,’ she said, and went back to working at Mossie’s jacket.
Another bundle fell from it… and another… and another.
‘Two… three… four,’ said Lizzie.
I smiled, both at the thrift of my old friend Mossie and the way that Lizzie was charming this treasure from the tatty garment before me, which, in her conjuring hands, had suddenly become a kind of dreamcoat.
‘’E was a good worker,’ said Lizzie. ‘’is wash baskets were the best. Everybody knew that. They all had ’em, Will-yum. Lords, ladies, in their big ’ouses. They all wanted Mossie’s baskets. Real willow – ’and-made, you see.
‘Five!’ she said finally as the last bundle fell out.
‘Is that it then Lizzie?’ I asked, smiling.
‘No, I don’t think so. Not yet,’ she said. ‘Patience now.’ She was wriggling, so it seemed, one last thing from Mossie’s bountiful jacket. ‘’Old your osses, Will-yum.’
When the small, dark book, about the size of a passport, finally came free, she handed it to me and asked me to read it to her. ‘You knows I canna,’ she said. ‘Tell me what it says, Will-yum… please.’
I went into the house for my reading glasses and studied the book for a moment in my kitchen. It was for a savings account at a High Street bank. Lizzie, as ever, wouldn’t come in, and I returned to where she was standing in the garden.
‘Well, Will-yum, what’s it say?’
‘Thirty… thousand,’ I said to her.
Suddenly, I sensed that all of the songbirds of the garden were singing, their anthem rising around us as Lizzie and I stood there in the morning sun.
‘See ’ow they sings to my notes, Will-yum!’ my old friend Mossie, smiling somewhere, seemed to be saying.
Lizzie left soon afterwards, as magically and mercurially as she had arrived. And I haven’t seen her or heard from her from that day to this.
I’ve often wondered when she might again come knocking… to whisper the ephemeral gold of childhood through the cracks and knotholes of my door.
Frequently, near midnight, I listen for her.
Keyhole can be purchased through the publishers website https://threeimpostors.co.uk
ISBN No. 978-1-78461-704-2
£10 plus p & p. Also available at Cover to Cover, Mumbles