New year, new start.
My daughter reaches her fifteenth year during 2015, and daily she awes me.Her general knowledge long ago overtook mine, and she grows and a pianist and singer, and all-round graceful young woman, with each day that passes.
And, indeed, she grows as a writer.
She watches the adventure we have every year, putting up a ghost story at Christmas time. She listens to the tussles over plot and twist and vocabulary between Phil and I, and this year supplied one of the most important parts of the story. And indeed, it must be added that Madeleine Pitt is rarely seen without a notepad and pen. She writes to exist, I think. She rarely looks ahead, but almost always into a lined notebook.
So: to celebrate the coming in of a New Year, she has written a story, in three parts. I’ll be posting it roughly each day.
Happy New Year to you all.
The Veiled Lady.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” asked James. Amy looked at the picture. The eyes of the subject seemed to gaze back at her, with that strange sense of polite superiority that emanated from it. James waited too, his white rubber gloves smeared now with the thick dust that had rubbed off from the archive room.
“Yes.” Amy replied. To say anything else would have felt rude under the picture’s quiet, watchful presence. The sitter of the portrait was beautiful, in a strange, eerie sort of way.
James sat down at his desk, and looked again at the picture. “I don’t quite know what it is about her. She’s so…oh, I don’t know. Maybe it’s her eyes.”
They looked at the drawing for a moment, as if waiting for inspiration.
“She’s like a barn owl.” Amy said at last.
“Her eyes,” she repeated, “The woman’s eyes. They’re like barn owl’s. You know; the shape of them and their colour, and the way that they dip into the tear duct.”
“Yes. Yeah, I suppose they are.” James leant back in his chair, and gently, using what looked like a surgeon’s scalpel, teased the picture into the clinical glass container that was to protect the sitter from the careless outside world. Both colleagues gave a sigh of relief as the sturdy glass container clicked shut, and the picture was safe inside her new home. There was a whispering, crackling noise, as the ancient paper pressed up against the clear surface.
“There you are,” James spoke lowly, “Safe and sound, thank God.”
It seemed only polite to talk to the portrait.
“Do you want to take her to the exhibit?” Asked Amy.
James sighed. “Might as well. Not sure about how their going to display her, though. A bit dubious. They should have put her over by the window, if you ask me. Put a big sign over her. That way people will know where to look for her.”
“They’re not putting her in the medieval room, are they?” Amy thought of the tired, disheveled display of ageing plastic dress up kits and depressing old wax works that was the medieval room. It would be madness to put the picture in there; no one in their right mind would take themselves off to that forgotten place. It hadn’t been redressed since the seventies. It wasn’t fair to the visitors to make them trawl through the medieval exhibit in order to see the museum’s new ‘mystery’ attraction.
James took a deep breath. “They were going to. She is medieval, so they had the perfect excuse. I wanted her to be in the reception gallery, next to the silver boat. Everyone could see her there. ”
Amy raised an eyebrow. “You’re smitten, aren’t you?”
James didn’t answer, but he was almost smiling. “She’s the best artefact we’ve been sent in donkey’s years, Amy,” he replied. “She’s caused a deluge of custom.”
“I know,” Amy looked innocently through her notes, and found the file on the picture;
Veiled lady. Late 15th Century charcoal sketch. Simple Square of parchment, 20 by 20cm. Sitter is a woman, dressed in an aristocratic, pearl grey silk dress, typical of the time period, with hair pinned up against her head. She wears a long white veil. Around her neck hangs a byzantine cross necklace, and in her hand she holds a red rose. There are two strange elements to this painting; one is, of course, the anonymity of the sitter, and the artist. Neither are recorded, as an inscription on the drawing, or otherwise. Also the strange appearance of the sitter; her hands seem to have extraordinarily long talon-like nails. Her large eyes are entirely black, with no other colour.
Amy looked again at the picture, meeting the gaze. No word in the English language could easily describe the look of the woman’s face. Was it superiority? Gentility? Wisdom? It was something like all three of these. Though no lashes decorated the woman’s strange, dark eyes, they seem to emphasize all of the strange beauty that she possessed.
“Where did they find her?” she asked.
“She was given in by her family.”
Amy couldn’t help laughing now. “Her family? How can a picture have a family-”
“Amy, she’s been with that family for generations, apparently.” James picked up the glass case, “They think that she’s a Great Grandmother of some kind. I’ve contacted them, and they say they’ll tell me all that they know-”
“You’ve contacted them?”
“Yes,” James looked a little shifty, “Yes, why? Are you interested in talking to them?”
“Are you even allowed to do that?”
James sighed. “Yes. Yes, if it’s for my own research that I’m contacting them. Not if it’s anything to do with the museum’s research. Otherwise, yes, it would be a breech of the anonymous donation policy. They didn’t ask for anonymity.”
“So it’s for your own interest?”
“So you are smitten?”
James laughed. Was Amy just dreaming that the picture seemed to be smiling a little more now? Oh, dear, she would have said, fluttering her eyelashes teasingly, we have embarrassed our good gentleman.
“I am quite taken with her, yes,” James smiled at the picture. “I don’t know why. She has something about her. I’m curious as to where she came from.”
“So am I,” Amy picked up her file and headed for the door. She paused, and looked back for a moment at James, who was looking at the picture again, and smiling now, to himself.
James looked up, “Mmm?”
“Tell me if you find anything out, would you?”
“What, about her?”
James nodded, and winked. “Will do.”
Amy smiled, pushed the heavy archive door to, and glided in her black work pumps back towards reception. It had been a long day; every day was long, but this had been one of those days that really did seem to trail on forever. She arrived at 9 o’clock, hung up her coat and stuffed her bag into the ancient grey employee’s locker. It seemed that now, that many, many years later, she was finally out of the door at five.
She clambered into her car-the plucky little Mercedes that she had been given for her 18th birthday- and backed out of her tight parking space. It was time she looked for work elsewhere, really. The museum internship had only really been a university job; perfectly nice, and on occasion very interesting. But she wanted bigger things. Something up in London. All of her old St. Mary’s friends were out of Stallbrook by now. Katy was in New York, apparently. Well, apparently; her Facebook stream was littered with skylines and boutiques and picnics in central park.
And I work twice as hard as Katy.
Life is simply not fair. She thought of what her sixth form had been like; when life was clearer than it ever had been before, and yet still so distorted. You had one chance, it seemed, to win at life, and if you didn’t catch that kite quickly, as soon as it descended, it would swoop off again in the opposite direction, taking with it all the people who had caught it; those who would become rich, successful, famous, beloved. Those who would win everything that they had dreamt of as a student. So many people from her year had caught the kite, and were flying. And yet here she was; stuck in Stallbrook, still with her university bank and still working at the museum, watching on every screen and update and twitter feed as the kite soared off into the sunny distance, leaving her behind, in the dark depths of obscurity. It was cruel to teach kids that they would achieve everything they ever wanted with hard work. Some people work their fingers to the bone, Amy thought, as she slammed the car door and tottered up the cold, dark drive to the front door. And yet no one remembers their name.
Inside, the light was on and the whole house was filled with the smell of cooking. It was nice here, Amy realized, as she hung up her handbag and coat underneath the stairs. At least here, at home, there were people (a lot of people; her cousins had come over to see the new dog, she remembered,) to distract her from the morose thoughts that hung over her in her quiet moments.
She hadn’t been able to wait to move out of this house. She had grown to really hate the quirks and eccentricities of her less than conventional family, and had nearly cried with joy when she saw the polished floors and scatter cushions and scented candles of her new flat. But here, there was so much buzz and noise and life; at ‘home’ Amy could hear the floorboards creak.
“It’s weird,” Amy twisted her spaghetti round and round her fork. Her mother, father, aunt, uncle, and younger cousins looked at her expectantly. “She’s a very beautiful sitter, in a strange way. They can’t work out who she is, and there’s no inscription by the artist. The paint and the lead in the pencil that are used are both from the same date (they were worried that the paint may have been added later,) but it all seems to be genuine.”
“Could she be a princess?” asked Daisy.
Amy smiled at her youngest cousin. “Maybe. I don’t know. My friend at work is doing some research about her, and he says that he’ll tell me if anything about her comes to light.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to do that.” Amy’s mother got up and began to clear the plates away. Then her mood seemed to change, “The picture’s been on the news, hasn’t it? Is it the same picture as was on the news?”
“Yes. It is. He’s allowed to dig into it a bit, because he’s not doing the research for the museum; it’s for his own interest. And I think it’s a stupid rule to have, anyway. Artifacts are supposed to have a history behind them, otherwise they’re just lumps of wood or metal. You shouldn’t have to ask special permission, just to do some research-”
Amy stopped, mid-rant. She felt a strange prickling sensation at the back of her neck, as if someone were standing very, very near behind her. The room was suddenly hazy, filled with that golden tint that you only find in the summer time. She looked up at her family, who were still watching her with interest. She counted them, all the people sat at the table, taking half a second in her head; mum, dad, Aunty Sam, Uncle Dave, Daisy, Tammy, Eliot-Yes, everyone. She looked to her mother.
“Sorry-” Amy squeezed her eyes shut. She had a headache all of a sudden, “Is there someone in the living room?”
“No,” her mother replied, “why should there be?”
Amy felt it again. That prickly, dizzying feeling.
“Erm…I’m sorry, where was I?”
She rubbed her eyes hard with her fingers. Ribbons of dizziness seemed to swill through her and over her, now. She looked again at her family; their faces were full of love and concern. They were well used to the tides and rhythms of her anxiety by now. Her father took her hand. “Are you alright, poppet?”
“I’m fine.” Amy said firmly, “I’m just tired…” the friendly kitchen lights were blinding, and she could hear the blood racing through her head. “I…I just need to go and lie down for a bit.”
“Of course, poppet.”
Amy stumbled upstairs to her old bedroom, that was still covered in blue tack smears; fossils left by ancient posters that had grown old and scrappy, and eventually had rotted away. There was a faded pink duvet on her bed, and the tired Disney princess lamp that stood on her desk still shone with a plucky, bright little light. Amy slithered miserably into bed, pushing and rubbing her forehead to try and ease the pressure that seemed to be building up in her brain. It wasn’t so long before she slipped into a hot, uncomfortable sleep.
And then, a lovely dream.
A gentle summer’s day seemed to inhabit a room that she didn’t recognize. A room, with a handsomely carved, cedar four-poster bed, about which hung white silk curtains, sat serenely against the East facing wall of the room. The bed linen was fresh and cool, with luxurious blankets and throws, and an exquisitely soft goose-feather mattress. The whole room was filled with the heavy scent of wildflowers, mixed with that warm midsummer breeze. The paned windows were open, providing entry to the summer that sat so at ease over the sunny fields outside that window, beyond, beyond the house. Marveling, Amy sat, and watched the long grass swirled by that May breeze outside the window. The whole room was ancient. So ancient, that it had been neither seen nor touched in hundreds of years. Yet here she was, sat on the bed’s white throws and fur blankets.
And, sitting by the window as part of that wonderful sunlit haze, was a woman; fairly young and very beautiful. Her dress was long and graceful, made of a pearl grey silk. Around her neck hung an ornately decorated crucifix, which the woman held in her snow white hand as she gazed out of the window. Her hands, too, were plain, save the silver ring on her fourth finger. Her hair was mouse-brown, and thick, pinned up neatly against her head.
Her large eyes were a strange shade of grey.
I might have known.
But not black. No, not then.
The lady sighed. She turned, and looked directly at the spot that Amy was sitting in; and smiled. Well, sort of. It was almost a smile- a little acknowledgment of Amy’s presence. A little more formal than I can see you!
But it meant exactly that.
The country is at work during the summer, when it is easier to rise from one’s bed. The workers scuttle around like insects under the sun, and throw themselves into their God-appointed task; the task that they have to complete before the winter set its teeth in again. The townsfolk work. During the day, they work in the fields, all of them; separate bodies but one hand, all of them working to churn the soil and sow the seeds. The men work, the women work, some of the children help, that are old enough. The mothers even hang their babes up in the trees around the field during the day, so that they can work without hinderance. They wake at dawn, and they do not stop working until dusk.
One would think that they had no time to listen to the priest, on the Sabbath.
Ah, but summer. There is no more lovely a season than this. The land turns azure blue underneath the splendid sky, and the sunlight gilds the earth with Gold. Berries ripen, and the air churns and changes like swilling tides. The earth is at peace when it works. Why, when she touches the surface of the tree bark or holds one of the blooms in her hand, she can almost feel it.
You can feel it in the townsfolk, too. They refuse to sleep until they have finished the day’s work; she has never known a people who work so united, and so hard. The only shame is that they do not stop to listen to the world and her rhythms, and her beats and melodies. They would learn so much if they watched what an effect their labour had upon the earth. Listen. Just listen; every moment in the day, every season of the year, every second of the hour has its own music. She thanks God each day that she can hear his songs.
So few can hear it. That music is part of one long symphony, a song that will wind its way on forever. When we are content, the song of the earth is sweet and calm. When one of us, (and one is all it takes,) is discontent, the song is suddenly panicked and rambling, a maddened Orison. After all, a father will not sleep soundly if he knows his children are not peaceful
“Please, my love. I beg you, as your husband. Just for the summer.”
Perhaps her remedies take away from the doctor’s custom. The village priest is like a terrier, small and angry. When he has formed an allegiance-and he is slow to friendship-those who are his friends are favoured long afterwards. When he finds fault with someone-and this, he is quick to-he will not let go of that dislike. He growls and yelps, but he will not be shaken away. His older brother is the village apothecary, and he charges very dearly for his medicines and remedies.
She charges nothing for the herbal remedies and medicines that she makes, in her potion room. She grows the herbs and blooms that she needs in her garden, next to her rose bush. During the summer, she cuts and studies and liquidizes them, and makes them into medicine. Those potions she makes are then ready for the winter, when the cold and sickness comes again to the village. The townsfolk come to her for the remedies that she made in the summer, often instead of going to the Doctor for cures.
The priest has hated her for a long time, it seems.
Why, the townsfolk tie their shawls and pull tight their cloaks. The field triumphs over all else for their attention during the week, but come Sunday, their trowels and spades lie dormant, caked in the sweet summer earth. They leave the crop fields, the place that the summer calls them to.
They wind their way through the village, and into the cold, stony church. They listen to the priest, and the sermons he gives. He tells the villagers of the scourge of this land; he tells them that Lucifer himself inhabits this village; He works amongst us, and against us; he chooses sinful and disobedient hands to do his work. The one who is evil concocts potions that heal us of our ills, or seem to cure us; she is jezebel, and she is a temptress, for all her disguise. Those potions that we take from her are the Devil’s brew, and by taking them we are forcing the poison that Satan has poured out for us into ourselves, and our families. We make the devil prosperous. If we wish to remain holy, and make the Lord, our God, prosperous, then we all must seek help for our ailments in the abbeys and convents-the true houses of the Lord-or from a trusted and God-fearing physician. Go not to that evil place, upon the hill.
Thus, she is an outcast in the village. Cold eyes turn towards her, and her household. It is quite irrelevant, it seems, that during the spring and the autumn and the winter, most of the townsfolk visit this castle, her home, in search of a cure for an illness. My good Lady, have you anything that will help my Sarah’s cold? Ease poor James’s gout? They are polite and courteous then. She helps them, though, if they are not courteous. She does not need flattery in order to make her medicine.
Only during the summer is the priest’s word taken. Only during the summer, she is Jezebel.
Her potion room is where she does her work. Some call it Alchemy, some devilry. It is neither. God gifted her in a singular way, but it was certainly God who gifted her, and not another entity. She knows well that in time, her work shall be regarded only as research and progress made in the field of medicine. She may even be regarded as a physician, a doctor. But she is a woman, and she has no children, therefore God simply must be punishing her for her sins against him.
The summer sermons are all so similar, that they could all be one and the same;
“Yes, you townsfolk. Listen to me when I say that I have seen entire villages purge themselves of evil as we must try to do. Why, whilst I studied for my priesthood, I ventured to the village of Valais, across the water; they found so many who had been possessed by the devil there that they had to kill all those in the village found with the devil…. and an abundance of them did confessed to great evil and many murders and heretic beliefs.
She must go to the church to reconcile herself with the village. But for her husband, there is but one solution.
“Please, Beatrice, my love. I know well that you ought to work through the summer, but we both know that your potion room will set tongues wagging in the village. They have no right to persecute you as they do, but please, to set my mind at rest, lock up your green house, just for the summer. Just until the villagers turn back to you, in the winter.”