Writer in Residence · 04/19/2012

Wax

She came to me again last night. The breeze was slight. It might account for the trembling of Nottingham lace – how I hate its machined exactness – but not for the slow, deliberate lifting of velvet drapes. The curtain lifted slowly, unsteadily. Her hand must have trembled at the weight of it but she wanted to tell me she was there.

When she visits, I tell no-one. They would think me – not mad but “imaginative.” That’s their word for my perceptions. It was admiring once. Now I hear the slow drag of sympathy in their voices. “Imaginative” has become an excuse for denying my special knowledge.

It’s me she comes to see. After my illness I heard her laugh as soon as I asked for her, while the maid looked away and sniffed. Arthur’s eyes were red as he told me to wait. When my mother came in with the vicar I knew what it meant but all the time I could hear little Maddie chattering away as if playing with one of her dolls. So I didn’t cry when they told me she was dead – I didn’t want to upset her. She didn’t know what being dead meant. If she understood she would get up and go away, into a distance I can’t reach. How could I bear to lose her?

They insisted on telling me details. I didn’t let them talk when Maddie was near but I couldn’t silence them for ever. I learnt about the black box, her best white dress and silver necklace, the hymns in the church, the little grave with a space on the stone for Arthur and me and one other child – they told me, hopefully, there might be another child. But I can’t let Arthur near me – not like that. It’s not right. Maddie has a disconcerting way of slipping through walls and windows. She likes to stroke my cheek and blow gently onto my ear and forehead. I never know when she’ll come in – and there are things a child should never see.

Poor Arthur. He minded more than I did. Maddie never visited him. He was always in search of her. His practice suffered. One of his clients came to the house to complain that some document or other had been badly drafted or wrongly witnessed – I forget the details. He was a round man smelling of beef and onions. He rubbed his fat fingers against the rim of his hat so firmly that I feared he’d wear a thumb-shaped patch as bald as his head. I tried to listen to what he said but Maddie was running in the garden – I could hear her laughter as she slipped between the trees – and my first duty was to watch for my child. In the end his anger vanished. He apologised. I noticed a band of sweat on his neck as he left, jamming the hat back on his head. It did not fit very well.

Every week, Arthur picked flowers from the garden to put on Maddie’s grave. He cut them himself, with the gardener’s secateurs. I think that was after we dismissed the gardener’s boy. We made economies, just as though we had the son Arthur wanted and were saving to send him to school. Maddie has no governess to control her. She is locked for ever at seven years – she should learn to be a lady in her invisible world. I try reading books to her. I try to instruct her as my governess instructed me. Maddie just laughs and returns to her game of hide and seek. At times I’m almost cross with her.

Arthur dismissed the cook for stealing silverware. We found two spoons half-buried in the garden. It must have been Maddie. Arthur said the cook confessed but that was only so he would let her go without calling the police. Servants are often dishonest. I said I would write her a character. She thanked me and put it, carefully folded, in her bag. The next day I found my cameo gone. It was Maddie’s favourite. I was pleased to think that she had it now.

I didn’t criticise when Arthur attended his first séance. It was fake, of course. The medium was discredited. Within months she was charged with deception. Arthur was disappointed. “It wasn’t Maddie’s voice,” he said. I made soothing sounds. It would have been cruel to tell him that Maddie was, that very moment, hiding in the cupboard by the front stairs. I could almost see her there. Arthur began to cry and I held him in my arms for a while. Then he apologised, blew his nose, pulled himself together and went upstairs.

Arthur needed to believe. If you can’t see or hear your child, what else is there? A procession of mediums came to the house. He took them to his study – I refused to take part but he let them see one of Maddie’s little toys or a bonnet or skirt that she had worn. I knew when they were at work. Maddie would come to my side and stay close to me until the front door closed and the clip-clop of hooves told me the session was over.

Mr Chidgey was different. Mr Chidgey, with his shop-bought suit and flattened vowels, had something the others lacked. They were smooth on the surface, blending easily in their surroundings, but Mr Chidgey had the awkwardness of a man who was convinced of one thing only. His elbows were at odds with his body. When he spoke, the fingers of his left hand wrapped themselves round his knobbly right wrist, exposed because his frayed shirt and jacket were too short for his long arms. He drank tea with us and his hand shook. He left a pool of tea in the saucer. Sometimes he smelt of stale wine or beer and I think he also forgets to wash himself for days. But when Maddie spoke in my ear, then wandered across the room, his eyes followed her. Turning to Arthur, he said, “The child is here. I can feel her presence.”

I don’t know if Maddie likes him. She’s not afraid – I’m certain of that. But she may be inclined to do what he says – playful Maddie, who cries when anyone orders her to do something she doesn’t like, Maddie who refuses to sit by me with a book and who won’t make the first attempt to tie her curls into a tidy plait.

I too must do what Mr Chidgey says. Arthur decrees it, with an unfamiliar face. I sit with them in a darkened room while Mr Chidgey calls out messages from the Other Side. That’s where they want Maddie – safely away from me, on the Other Side.

I tried to protest. Maddie, my love, I want you with me. I don’t want water or wax or the near dark of the fireside. But they’re setting them out as I speak – the warm wax, the candles, the chill water. Maddie, stay away. They’re endangering you.

Mr Chidgey has brought two assistants. They bind him tight in the chair, against Arthur’s protests. “It’s as though I don’t trust you,” he says. “It’s not right. I’m a gentleman. I trust you absolutely.”

There’s a small man from the Society for Psychical Research with a strong notebook and a pencil. He writes everything down. I look away and close my eyes. I try not to cry. Maddie, stay in the garden tonight. Hide in the warm cupboard beside the front stair. Play with the curtains around my bed, tap at the glass, breathe on the flowers. Whatever you do, don’t come here. It’s not safe.

The guard is in front of the fire now. Mr Chidgey breathes deeply – I can hear the hoarse notes of his voice – even his snores are gangly and flattened. The man from the Psychical Society scribbles fast – his pencil grates on the paper as though he wrote on a slate. Arthur is intent. I think if I close my eyes and pretend I’m elsewhere perhaps – oh please – perhaps you’ll stay away.

No, Maddie! I can feel you coming closer. You’re in the dark behind my eyelids and you’re in the room, treading softly on the deep red of the carpet. Even with my eyes closed, I see the pressure of your bare feet as the carpet dents a little at your slight weight.

And you stare at the wax. Don’t, Maddie, don’t …. but you never listen when I warn you. You plunge your hand in deep and let out a cry of pain at the heat. Your hand clenches as you pull back and all I can say is “The water, Maddie. Put your hand in the water,” because I know no other way to ease the pain.

We hear the splash. Arthur stands, the man from the Psychical Society stops writing and I force my eyes to see. The room is silent apart from Mr Chidgey’s breathing which is still deep and hoarse.

White drips harden on carpet and table. I follow their trail to the chill water where a small fist still clenches in sudden pain. My face is wet and my body emptier than it has ever been. Soon they will clear away the mess. They will leave nothing of Maddie but the smooth impression of her tight right hand in chill and clumsy wax.

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Kathleen Bell is a Londoner but has lived in the East Midlands for more than twenty years. She writes poetry and short stories and is currently editing her first novel. She is also a lecturer in Creative Writing and English at De Montfort University.

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posted by Will Buckingham