“What… is that?”
It was the first sign of interest Blake had shown since he and Anna had arrived to look over the house. She couldn’t figure out why he was so disinterested in a free and clear home, an inheritance from her grandma. It rankled the more because Anna had so many happy memories of summers there. Following his gaze she spotted the tiny door set just above the wainscot, the teeny ladder which gave access.
“Oh wow, I can’t believe it’s still there!” she cooed, clapping her hands in delight, “The fairy door!”
“I told you I used to stay here, summer holidays and that, right?”
Blake nodded, his eyes wandering the room, judging and finding wanting.
“Well, Grandma had a tribe of house fairies who used to come out and do the housework overnight. She always said it was how she managed to spend all day playing with us kids and still keep the house spotless.”
“And you believed that? Geez, thought you had more sense.”
To hide the hurt, Anna knelt, running a hand over the faded and cracked paint of the little door, noting one rung of the ladder was hanging loose.
“I was a kid, Blake. It was nice, no matter if it was true or not. We all loved Grandma’s tales of the games the fairies played.”
“I assume you are now grown up enough to understand that the woman was (a) nuts and (b) probably working herself into an early grave by playing with you lot all day and then cleaning all night.”
Anna hated his condescension, how he swung out of the room before she could make any point of her own in counter. She followed him downstairs, trailing in the wake of his dislike for the old, lived in house, fighting not to let his bleakness overwhelm the happiness she felt at being back in the place she considered safest in the world.
He stopped in the Formica and gingham kitchen, rubbing his hands on his pristine jeans after accidentally touching the stained porcelain sink, and her heart sank as his face set into ‘implacable’.
“We’ll give it a lick of paint, bland it out, get it on the market in a couple of days. I suppose we have no choice but to sleep here until the work is done.”
Anna concealed her smile. Even a couple of nights in Mercy cottage was more than she had hoped for,
Afternoon of the next day proved warm and bright. To Anna’s eye it lit the cottage with inner warmth which spoke of her grandma’s own. On a wave of nostalgia, Anna decided to fix the door. She had a quick search through grandma’s bits and bobs cupboard, found a broken wooden spoon, a trial pot of brilliant white paint and the dregs of some wood glue. Upstairs she painted the tiny door, one ear cocked and listening for Blake’s return from town and his mission to find estate agents, then used the broken spoon handle. Snapping it to size, she glued it in place, held it for a minute and then set it back against the wall. With a little dab of hand cream to grease the doorknob the job was complete. She flopped onto the bed she had slept in for so many idyllic summers, gazing at the door. On the verge of sleep she whispered,
“I want to stay”
Waking with a start, she realised a couple of hours had passed, the light now peachy with evening. She swung off the bed, scurried to the window and noted the lack of Blake’s car with relief. Sleeping on the job was sure to be a no-no. Only as she turned away did she note the peculiarity. The windows had been cloudy, in need of a polish, the sill the same. The curtains had been faded, home to the evidence of a moth or two. Turning back she realised the windows sparkled in the setting sunlight, the sill felt slick and reflected back light from the panes. As to the curtains, it appeared they had undergone some sort of regression back to the vibrant paisley pattern she had recalled from childhood. Of holes there was no sign.
Walking through the room, heading back to finish the magnolia painting in the kitchen, she noted several more small changes. The stairway lampshades, gorgeous art décor glass, were brilliant, bathing the stairwell in kaleidoscopic light. The runner in the hall felt springy under her feet, the pile no longer stubby or flat. The brasses hanging over the parlour chimney breast also caught gleams and sparks of light. Anna smiled; maybe the house fairies had liked that she’d fixed the door and ladder. Her smile faded as she heard Blake’s car crunch over the gravel drive.
The following morning Blake declared he couldn’t help any more – not that Anna had seen him lift so much as a paintbrush – as the local vendors were worse than useless and he needed to go further afield. Watching him drive away, Anna couldn’t help but notice the oppressive cloud of his presence lifting. The whole cottage seemed brighter, freer. Her heart railed against the idea of selling, but it also recoiled at the idea of Blake living there.
‘Maybe you should get rid of him’
Her treacherous little mind always seemed to speak the words she dare not form and cast into the world. The idea had all kinds of merit, but how would she cope on her own? She never had. Her parents had taken care of her, boarding school had taken care of her and then Blake. He called her Mouse and laughed, her self-esteem shrinking with every chuckle.
Walking back into the bedroom she noticed a pin sticking out of the curtain. Left over from the restoration work perhaps, she smiled, tucking it into a drawer and being hit by a very clear memory. Grandma teaching her how to do patchwork, telling her the story of the mouse and the lion when Anna stuck herself with a pin. Could she ever quit being a mousey Mouse and turn into a hero Mouse?
She gazed at the door, gave in to the urge and knelt before it, speaking softly.
“I was never brave enough as a child. I don’t know if I can change that now, but if you exist, if it’s you restoring the house, show me, please? Some sign that you are there and want me to keep the house. I don’t know how to do that, but I need to know.”
With her index finger she tapped lightly on the tiny door and sat back hard on her rear when her knock was repeated from the other side. Gathering herself she whispered,
“This sounds so silly, but I feel I shouldn’t open the door. If you can’t or won’t speak, how about the one knock for yes, two for no code? Can you do that?”
“Do you want me to find a way to keep the cottage?”
“Can you help me?”
She didn’t really know what to do or what to ask so she backed away and headed into the garden to sit under the oak on the swing seat. She spent the day dozing, thinking, planning and discarding, flying to her feet a little before five. Blake had said he’d be back then. She fled upstairs to wash up and change, aware he would be crazy angry because she had accomplished nothing and then stopped.
On the bed lay two objects. The first was a poppet, a stuffed doll with two pins laying next to it. The second she recognised as a memory card for a laptop. Scooping up the doll and tucking it into her dress pocket she plucked the card and headed to the bathroom with it and her laptop. Locking herself in she turned the machine on, inserted the card and opened the single file it contained. It proved to be a recording of a conversation. The background noise suggested Blake had been somewhere busy, like a pub or restaurant, but his words were clear enough.
‘Yeah, I found an agent in Barking who’s willing to fight for a good price. Once it’s sold the money will go into the account, I’ll syphon it off to mine and we’re good to go.’
A pause, a short, nasty laugh.
‘Don’t worry, Shirley. She’s dumb as a sack of bricks. By the time she realises I’ve drained both her inheritance and our savings we’ll be on a beach in Spain, planning our next adventure.’
Another pause, a softened tone.
‘Yeah, love you to. Can’t wait to get back to a real woman. Not long now, lover’
The file stopped. Anna sat on the bed feeling as if she were caught on some bad tv drama. Her mind flipped through all the humiliation and misery Blake had put her through. Her anger boiled up, the hero mouse finally shoving the mousey one over the cliff.She picked up the poppet, took it and the pins to the window, and gazed into nowhere. He’d be coming over the bridge about now. Now a turn left onto the side track. Now a sharp right to avoid the river. She stabbed the pins neatly into both poppet eyes.
When the police came, the older one, who remembered Anna and her grandmother, was surprised at how much she had turned the cottage around in just a couple of days. Surfaces shone, open windows allowed brightly patterned curtains to billow out, and the smell of coffee and cake drifted lazily on the air. Anna seemed unsurprised at the news, explaining how Blake had a habit of lunch-time drinks and then driving too fast. She wasn’t at all surprised he had come to a poor end in the river. Perhaps she would stay after all. She had been happy here in her youth.
“Do you remember your grandma’s fairy stories?” the man asked, smiling when Anna nodded.
“Oh yes. A lot of silly nonsense for us kids really, but that little door in my bedroom did give me a certain sense of protection and happiness.” She said, walking them to the door with its new coat of green paint and shiny door knocker.
Upstairs the last trace of the poppet vanished through the fairy door and the house fell quiet.