It was almost 2 p.m. by the time they got back. I’d taken the dogs to the park for a run and a ‘poo,’ poop bag at the ready, but the grey-haired lady wasn’t on self-appointed duty today. Still, I did my bit, now knowing the ropes.
Henry was the more affectionate of the two, trying to stand on his hind legs, with his front legs on my shoulders, to lick my face, but his head was so far above mine he could only lick my hair, not that I was sorry. He weighed a ton too.
I’d discovered that Helena had quite a large garden – a long rectangular lawn, and a further sizeable grassy area with mature shrubs down both sides. Beyond that lay some steps down to a small stream and an area planted with ferns and bamboo. The whole was overhung by low trees, and there were two iron benches. Numerous Arum lilies graced the area, displaying their large scented white flowers. A pleasant place to sit in summer, I imagined.
There was new wire mesh across the stream at both ends of Helena’s property, so I imagined the dogs were allowed down there, although I wasn’t sure the mesh would hold those two hulking brutes if they felt determined to ‘explore.’ They seemed happy enough to sleep in the TV room for now though, where there were two enormous baskets, so why tempt fate?
I practised the music I’d looked at with Clarissa. In the cold light of day and with no pressure of a talented pianist breathing down my neck, it wasn’t so hard. I found a pencil and marked some fingering in for future reference.
Then I had a little ‘wander.’ I looked in Clarissa’s bedroom. A large double bed stood by a huge bay window that went up to a high ceiling. The house was old and solid, likely Victorian I surmised. Clothes were strewn around the room and I saw some panties on the floor by the bed. I felt a sudden urge to pick them up and sniff them, but instead turned to a dresser, covered with spectacle cases and contact lens solution bottles, along with a pack of her violet stationery.
I had a peek in a medicine cabinet, grinning at myself in the mirror. Esomeprazole, Montelukast, Prednisolone, Seratide, Salamol, Beconase and the ubiquitous Ibuprofen, among other boxes and packets, haphazardly stacked. Looked like she had a few health issues! A small pink packet contained Zyprexa – hmm, where had I come across that before? Suddenly feeling guilty, I closed the cabinet, carefully wiping a thumbprint off the mirror. I wouldn’t want her to think I was nosy.
Feeling peckish, I made a sandwich for lunch, and some extra for the girls, and afterwards began to feel like a spare part. I was just thinking about going home when I heard the doorbell ring.
Answering it, I was relieved to see Clarissa and, presumably, Helena, her sister, laden down with rucksacks and other gear. Clarissa looked old and tired, her blonde hair rumpled and out of place. She managed a weak smile. “Hello, John, I was hoping you’d still be here. I thought it’d save looking for the key if I rang. This is Helena, my sister.”
By contrast, Helena looked ten years younger, was about a foot taller and had short, bright-red dyed hair. She smiled brightly at me with even, porcelain-white teeth. “Hello, John, Clarissa’s told me all about you!”
I wondered what precisely, seeing as I barely knew Clarissa. “I made some sandwiches,” I ventured. “Ham, cheese and tomato.”
“Lovely!” exclaimed Helena, “We’re starving!’
After they’d eaten and tidied themselves up we all sat in a comfortable conservatory that gave onto some variegated shrubs in the lower part of the garden.
Helena looked at me. “You’ve got a good man here, Clarissa dear. His aura is very blue!”
“Pardon?” I said.
She turned her chair to face me directly and her eyes took on a faraway expression. I noticed they were large and pale blue, with wide pupils. “Yes, John, I see a room, a room in your house. There are some guitars, four or five, on stands.”
“She’s training to be a clairvoyant,” explained Clarissa, looking slightly embarrassed.
“Yes, there are some guitars on stands,” I affirmed. Clarissa had no doubt told her I was a guitar teacher!
Helena continued. “And is there a … a cello?”
“No, sorry,” I said.
“It’s just that I see those funny little holes that cellos have.”
Then the penny dropped. “Actually I do have a jazz guitar, it has the same type of holes, ‘f-holes’ they’re called.”
Helena smiled. “Now, your father, he’s in spirit, is that right?”
“She means, has he passed over, died?” explained Clarissa, whose interest had perked up.
“Yes, that’s right, seven years ago.”
“He’s here with you now. I’m hearing the name Jim, or is it Joe? Yes, Joe, I think.”
I looked around. No sign of the old man! “That was his name,” I affirmed.
Helena stood up and started lurching around the room in an odd manner. “I’m feeling no movement down my right side. Did he suffer a stroke?”
“Yes, he did,” I said, feeling a chill run down my spine.
She turned to me. “He wants you to know that he’s OK now, he’s well again.”
“Oh, that’s good.” I didn’t know what else to say.
“He says you’ve been offered a job, at a private school, but you’re not sure. It seems like there won’t be enough hours teaching for the travelling involved. Is that right?”
I was gobsmacked. That was absolutely spot on and I hadn’t told a soul either!
“He says to take it, it will lead to greater opportunities.”
“All right, I will!” I said and smiled. Well, that was a turn-up for the books, I’d been wondering what to do about it!
Just then, the ‘reading’ was shattered by a loud howl as Henry burst into the room. He began to bark loudly.
“Henry, stop it!” shouted Clarissa, but, looking from me to Helena and back, he continued his ear-shattering noise.
“Henry, shut up!” Helena shouted repeatedly, to no avail.
Then Clarissa clapped her hands. “Henry, play dead!” Henry dropped to the ground and rolled onto his side, occupying most of the conservatory floor, and becoming completely still and quiet.
Clarissa laughed, suddenly looking years younger. “I taught him that when he was a tiny puppy!”
Henry got up and sat with his head on Clarissa’s lap, making an odd whimpering sound. “Don’t worry Henry, the spirits have gone now,” said Clarissa, soothingly.
“I’m going to show John around,” said Helena.
“OK.” Clarissa lay back in the chair and closed her eyes, one hand stroking Henry’s head.
Helena took me around the house. It was much bigger than I’d realized on my little ‘inspection.’ The kitchen was large and modern with oak units and extensive black slate surfaces. It looked expensive. A small staircase led upstairs. “That goes to an annexe,” she said. “There’s a guest bedroom, a bathroom, and an office space, but we don’t use them right now. The main staircase is on the other side of the lounge.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, nonchalantly.
We passed through a chilly pantry, shelves covered with jars and packets, and down to the stream-side area. Helena gestured for me to take a seat. “Look, I like you, John, and I know Clarissa does too. But go easy with her. She took a nasty knock when Stan, er, her last husband left her.”
“Stan?” I said, surprised.
“Yes, he ran off with an ex-pupil, thirty years younger than him, can you believe!”
“Anyway, poor Clarissa almost had a nervous breakdown, what with the press interest ….”
“What happened with them?”
“Oh, they’re still together. Got three little kids now too!”
We heard a door close up at the house. “Shh,” said Helena.
“Hello!” Clarissa appeared with a piece of paper in her hand, Boris and Henry at her heels, almost up to her shoulders. The dogs lay down by the side of the stream and Clarissa handed it over.
‘The Lucknow Centre presents Circus Skills with The Joules Mangier Troupe – unicycle, juggling, tumbling, clown workshop, acrobatics and more!’
“It’s on Wednesday evenings, six to nine, starting next week,” said Clarissa excitedly. “I’ve always wanted to juggle!”
“Me too,” said Helena, “and I’d just die to go on a unicycle!” She stood up and motioned her hips backwards and forwards, as if balancing on one, laughing.
“John, say you’ll come!” exclaimed Clarissa, an earnest expression on her face.
I looked from Clarissa’s wide emerald eyes to Helena’s pale blue ones and back. I wasn’t sure what I was letting myself in for, but I felt at home here. I’d have to rearrange four students, but, what the hell, ‘In for a penny ….’ I laughed. “I always wanted to run away and join the circus!”
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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