Yoohoo! Sandra!”
“Kathleen….My God!” She waved back. Fiddled with her hair. Rolled her tongue over her teeth.

“I’ll not kiss,” Kathleen said. “I’ll smudge.”
“I love the car! You look great.”
“You too.  I see you’ve still got the Land-rover. My new car is called Tony after the guy who bought it for me!”

She was still the Kathleen Sandra hated. It was the boasting. It had been the same all through school.

“How about coffee?” Kathleen asked.

Sandra was hesitating. It was her day out.  Her treat day: lunch at a restaurant. Get her hair done. Do Charity shops. She shrugged her shoulders.
“Yes, alright. There’s the ‘Coffee Shop’ at the bottom of Market Street. That’s nice.”
The town hall clock was striking four. A heavy goods wagon was grumbling towards them.
“Are you alright?”
Kathleen’s eyes were glazed over. She was whacking her leg with a rolled up magazine.
“Kathleen, are you alright?”
Sandra went to hold her hand. Then changed her mind. There was something about her that wasn’t right. Seconds previously she had been the Kathleen she loved and hated.

The wagon stopped a couple of feet in front of them.

“The bloody idiot!” shouted Sandra. “Is he trying to kill us or what?”
The driver was smiling.  There was something wrong about this. She was going to grab Kathleen’s arm to drag her away.  Kathleen pulled away from her.

There was a stillness and silence Sandra had not heard for a long time. No one was talking. A dog was moving its mouth as if it was barking but there was no noise! People around them had suddenly stopped doing whatever they were doing.  Only Sandra was moving. The wagon driver was in his seat. He didn’t look like a wagon driver with his hair slicked back like that and his film star teeth. The red silk tie on a white shirt didn’t go along with the wagon driver image.

Sandra wasn’t grasping the situation and that frightened her.

 

The wagon driver held his hand up as if he was working a puppet. Then he clicked his fingers. Life started up again. She could hear the dog barking. Cars were sounding their horns. Someone was shouting to friends across the road. Waving.

“How about coffee?” Kathleen asked again.
“Are you alright?”
The driver waved, flashed his teeth and drove off.
“So, do you fancy coffee or not?”
“Yes, come on then!”
“You are going the wrong way!” Kathleen said. “Your Land-rover is over there near the post office. I can see it from here!”
“Did you know that wagon driver?”
“What wagon Driver?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“How about your house for coffee?”

“So, why my house? I’m the freak remember?”
“OK, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things. Now can we please go to your house. It is still down that lane, isn’t it?”
“How do you know that, when you’ve never been?”
“I don’t know. How did I know that!”
Silence.

“Don’t look like that. Please, let me stay?”
“What’s happened?”
“I don’t know. Honestly I don’t.”

Silence.

“Please?”
“OK.”
Kathleen still wore the fur coat and the bright red lipstick.  She waved, pointed, and dug Sandra’s ribs with a glossy magazine but there was something different about her.
“OK,” Sandra said. “You go on.  It won’t be long I have to get the chicken feed. The front door is not locked!”
“I don’t suppose they’ve cut down those woods. They used to give me the creeps!”
“They’re just woods. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! They are just trees being trees. They’re alright once you get to know them.”
“You get worse Sandra….”
“The trees won’t harm you – they are under my strict orders! I told them they have to start behaving themselves!”
Silence.
“You are still wild. How come?”
“Compliments, compliments!” Sandra said, laughing.

……………………………….

Herbs and spices slapped Kathleen in the nose when she opened the front door. Plants and cacti had almost taken over the hallway.  She squeezed past a cycle holding up a wicker basket.  The walls were covered with sketches of foreign birds and big muscular, ape–like creatures .

Her heels were now tick-ticking over the tiled floor towards the front room. “God, if it’s like this in the hallway, I dread to think what it’s like in here!”
As she opened the door there was a smell of pot-pouri mixed with a musty smell of old books. “Bloody-hell!” she said. “I’m in the British Natural Museum!” She walked around looking at various knick-knacks.
“She’s not even got a television!  Bugger me, what’s in those jars?”

A big clock was chiming 4.45. She made her way across to the back of the room and peered at the large jars on the window sill. “What on earth makes people collect things like this? Skulls. I’ve never seen an animal with that shape of head!”

In the kitchen there were lines of old-fashioned jars (labelled in alphabetical order) with big stoppers. There were all sorts of herbs and strange shaped branches hanging from a clothes horse about a foot from the ceiling. There were paints and sketches everywhere. Turkish and Indian rugs were like stepping stones over the flagged floor.

She put the kettle on and got two mugs of coffee ready.

“This will be her?”
There was a slamming of a car door. The front door flew open. Sandra was standing there with a large sack of chicken feed over her shoulder.
“Why didn’t you give me a shout? I’d have opened the doors for you!”
“You’ve never opened a door for anyone in your life!”

“I’ll go and make the coffees!”

………………….

 

“Do you mind if I smoke?”
She didn’t give Sandra a chance to answer before moving over to the open grate. Lighting up, she blew smoke up the chimney. She was moving the brass poker set back and forth like a chess player. Fiddling with it. She leaned forward, flicked ash in the grate, tucked her skirt under her thighs and tried to sit still. She brushed some strands of hair from her face.
“For God’s sake, Kathleen, be still!”
“I’m sorry...I ...”
“You were going to say?”
“Nothing. It’s alright.”
“You seem restless?”

Silence.

 

“So, why me?  Why here in the middle of nowhere?”
“I just need somewhere that’s away from everything and everyone one I know. I’m sorry for the things I’ve said in the past. Please let me stay!”
“For how long?”
She took a deep drag on her cigarette, blew out and threw the butt in the grate.
“Three days !”
“I don’t want all your fancy men coming down here!”
“It’s not like that!”
“OK, three days!”
She hugged and kissed Sandra on both cheeks.
“That’s enough of all that……If you think you’re sitting around all day…..”
“Just show me what do, and I’ll do it.”
“Even if it means breaking those fancy nails?”
She looked at her nails then nodded.

“Go on, then. Three days at the most!”
She hugged Sandra.
“There’s no need to cry!”
“I didn’t know who else to turn to!”
No-one else to turn to Sandra thought. She’s always had someone to turn to. Everyone used to be falling at her feet to do things for her. Nothing ever went wrong for her. She never had zits. She always seemed to have had the perfect figure. Perfect skin. Everything.
“Well, no-one will hurt you here! No one had better try. God forbid if they did!”
“What do you mean, by that?” sobbed Kathleen.
“It doesn’t matter!”

Sandra became aware of the clock. Its loud ticking.  She dismissed it.
“Well, we’d better start then!” said Sandra. “I’ve an old pair of wellies you can put on!  There are spare clothes in the bedroom. Come on, I’ll show you upstairs. Then after, we’ll dig up tonight’s dinner and then we’ll feed the chickens.”
………………….

“What a beautiful bedroom! I love yellow.”
“This is my sunshine room.”
“It’s so different from downstairs. The view from here is ... What was that?” she asked pointing to the woods. She opened the window.
“I didn’t see anything!”
“You must have!”
Sandra was shoulder to shoulder with her. Kathleen wasn’t as tall as she remembered her.
“Over there, just to the right of that old beech tree!”
Yes, she had seen it. But Sandra said nothing. Why should she? She knew what it was. Besides Kathleen wouldn’t understand.  She wouldn’t be able to keep that secret. She’d want the limelight. Paparazzi everywhere. There would be no mercy.  That was Kathleen all over.

Leaning out of the window. “It was over there. I’m not daft. I know what I saw!”
“Probably kids messing about.”
“I don’t think so, it was far, far too big. I’m talking massive.”
“Well, whatever it was, it’s gone now!”
“I could have sworn I saw something!”
“It’s those woods, they play tricks on your eyes!”
She put her arm around Kathleen, “Why don’t you go and have a shower, those midges will love that sweet perfume. I’ll be chopping wood!”
…………………..

Legs apart in front of the chopping block, Sandra was sliding up her sleeves. Kathleen saw her spit on her hands, her whole body lifting as her left hand slid down the shaft, down to the handle grip. Then she heard the sound of wood splitting like snapped bone.
“Come on your turn.”
“I can’t remember the last time I didn’t wear make-up and if people could see me in these jeans, well, they’d think I’d gone mad!”
Sandra walked over to Kathleen’s far right and ripped a handful of leaves from an elder bush. 
“Here,” she said. “If the flies, or the midges get too much, just rub these on.”
Kathleen looked at them sceptically and then shoved them in her back pocket.
“Don’t be like that. They do work! Same as the nettle tea I’ve made you. It will help purify your system. It’s cooling in the kitchen.”
Kathleen gave no response.

There were woodpeckers.

“You can either chop wood or dig up the spuds, which do you want to do?”
“I used to dig up potatoes with my granddad. I wish he was here now. He’d tell me what to do!”
“Don’t go all girlie on me!”
“Well, he would, and besides I can’t chop wood!”
“In that case you’re chopping wood,” she said handing her the axe.
“Now listen!” Sandra said. “It’s ash wood. It’s the easiest of all the woods. Look how white it is.  It’s pure. King Arthur’s throne was made from ash.  The ash connects this world to the next. You will not be hurt! The ash tree will look after you. The axe and the wood are a kind of partnership. They work hand in hand with each other. They understand what each other has to do. Let the axe do its work, see!”

Kathleen brushed hair from her face. With one hand next to the axe head and taking a deep breath, she lifted it. She was on her toes. Power and excitement surged through her body. There was a slight judder as two halves fell onto the grass. She shrieked with excitement.
Sandra was nodding. “See,” she said. “Carry on. Just do those half a dozen logs. Any more and you’ll know about it in the morning. I’ll go and dig up the spuds. Dinner will be about half an hour or so.”

Kathleen was balancing the last log on the block when suddenly a flock of pigeons flew out from the woods. She went to shout for Sandra but she was busying at the sink. Kathleen walked to where the field ran down to the stream. She lifted her skirt up over her knees as though to cross but then changed her mind. She was making her way back when she had a sudden urge to turn around. The woods were moving towards her. Only she was still.  The clouds above her were going around in circles. She looked straight ahead. The whole wood was still moving toward her. She wanted to run back to the house, but she couldn’t move. She wanted to scream, but she couldn’t open her mouth. The woods were almost upon her, when she felt someone grab her by the wrist.

Sandra was holding up her other hand as if to say stop. “They are only checking you out. Just as a dog would!”
The woods returned back to where they were. Hanging about. The birds were flying back to their favourite trees and the clouds returned to being clouds. Cooing returned.
“Don’t be afraid, let’s go and have a cup of tea. Your colour is coming back. It’s alright. If you don’t harm the woods they won’t harm you. Come on, you’ve had enough for one day!”

…………….


Wednesday.
The sweet smell of burnt ash wood from the night before still perfumed the front room. Sandra was sitting near the open grate with a cup of tea.
“I’ve just made this,” she said holding up her mug. “It should still be hot.”
“Do you know?” Kathleen said looking through the back window. “I had the strangest dream of all. I dreamt those woods came charging towards me!”
Sandra smiled.
“It’s a lovely morning.”
“How do you feel?” asked Sandra.
“Fine. I was gone in seconds. It usually takes me hours!”
“You must have needed it.”
Kathleen was rooting in the kitchen cupboards, opening and closing doors.  
“You were crying in your sleep!” Sandra said.
There was no response.
“I said, you ...”
“I don’t want to talk about it!”  Kathleen shouted from the other side of the kitchen.
“In your own time.”
“This is not right! I never get up at this time!”
Sandra was expecting Kathleen to comment about her first night in the country. There was a strange atmosphere as if something physical had come between them. OK, Sandra realised she may have pushed it too hard. But then what are friends for if they can’t ask if something is wrong. Then it suddenly dawned on Sandra. They weren’t friends. Not really. Even as children and then into their teens they had only been friends for moments. It was usually when Kathleen needed some kind of help and then it was over until the next time.  Even their mothers were always puzzled by it. They always seemed to fall out at the least possible thing. Yet for those short moments when they were friends, they were more than friends. They were more than sisters. More than women, more than human beings if that was possible.  At those times it was if they were one.  Something instinctively would explode between them! Then for whatever reason they would not see or hear from each other for months, sometimes years!

“Are you still with Patrick?” asked Sandra.
“That fizzled out two years ago.”
“Have you no cornflakes?”
“In the pantry at the back!”
“So, who is it?”
“No one and that frightens me!”
Sandra made her way into the kitchen. “Do you still have sugar in your coffee?”
“Please ... Have you still the thing with those two men?”
“Bill and Pete? Why not? It’s convenient. No-one has ties. No questions. People ask too many questions these days.”
“Do they know of each other?”
“They do now! They didn’t at first. We’re adult about the whole thing. So why not?”
They made their way back into the front room. Sandra carried the drinks while Kathleen followed with her bowl of Cornflakes.
“But what do you say when you phone them up?”
“OK, at first it was clumsy. They both knew the score.  It’s usually….”
“Have you ever had them together?” Kathleen asked eagerly.
“No!”

………………………..

An hour later they were back in the kitchen. Sandra was doing the pots. “What are you looking for?”
“This!” Kathleen said, pulling the stopper from a large jar.

“What is it?”
“It’s just some herbs.”
“God, that’s wonderful, what is it, pineapple? No. Sage. No ... What is it?” she said with her nose in the jar.
“It’s all of those and a touch of fennel and a couple of herbs you won’t recognise. It makes a nice tea. Do you want to try it?”
“Please.”

…………..

“This tea is wonderful – what did you say it was?  Where can I buy it?”
Sandra relaxed, sipping her tea, fell back into her chair.

“God,” said Kathleen. “I feel so wonderful. So free. This is me. Me. Me.” She shouted. “Not all the stuff everyone expects!” 
She placed her cup on the sideboard. And danced her way out of the room and upstairs. The floorboards creaked.  She danced along the landing to her bedroom.

Sandra was making her way to the kitchen when she suddenly saw a fur coat dropping past the window, followed by a pair of crocodile shoes, a silk blouse, woollen skirt, silk underwear and the contents of a handbag!
“Yahoo!! This is me,” Kathleen was screaming through the upstairs window.
“What’s happening?” Sandra shouted from the bottom of the stairs.

Kathleen came charging out of her bedroom stark naked. Sandra laughed. This was the childhood friend she knew and loved. This was her childhood Kathleen. She recognised the scar just under her right breast. It’s where she fell against that broken bottle. Six stitches.  She remembered it as though it was yesterday. Of course Kathleen blamed her for it. She was like that. It was never her fault. It wasn’t the fault of the boys who threw the bottle in the first place. No, it wasn’t even the fault of the boy who accidentally knocked her over. Sandra was the one she shouted at, blamed, because if they had gone to the pictures in the first place like Kathleen suggested then it wouldn’t have happened. Even then Sandra suggested she would have been in some sort of accident wherever she went. That was the first time Kathleen called her weird.

She came running downstairs and flung her arms around Sandra. She was laughing then crying. Then back to laughing again. “I’m sorry, for everything I’ve ever done to you. I didn’t understand. I was so jealous!”
“Of me! I never thought anyone would be ...”
“You’ve always known where you’re going and who you are. As far back as I can remember you talked about living in a place like this.”

Standing there naked it suddenly dawned on Kathleen. “Oh, my god, this is the place you used to talk about when we were kids! It’s got the woods, the stream. The sunshine room. The flagged floors. Everything! How did you know?”
Sandra said nothing.
“It doesn’t matter how you knew!” said Kathleen. “You knew, and we are here. Together. Best friends. How it should be. We’ll never be parted. We are sisters.  Come on, let’s go down to the stream.” she said, tugging at Sandra’s top. “Take it off, take them all off! Let’s have some fun!”
Standing there topless ready to take off her skirt. Sandra laughed,then suddenly changed moods. She was smelling something in the wind.
“I’m not coming. You go!”
“I’m needed here!”
“Sandra!”
“No. You go. I need to keep ...”
“What! You need to keep what?”
Silence.

…………….

 

Thursday. Sandra was sitting in front of the grate whittling a piece of wood. She wafted smoke from burning larch logs over her face.
“Trust it to start throwing it down when I’m up near the beech tree!” said Kathleen, drying her hair.
“The beech tree?” Sandra became apprehensive. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Why shouldn’t I be?” Kathleen suddenly remembered Sandra’s warning and for a moment there was a frightening uneasiness.
“I’m sorry I forgot. I know what you said about going into the woods, but I thought I heard someone laughing.  I thought it was a laugh. Well I don’t really know what it was?”
“What are you not telling me?”
“I’ll tell you after, I promise!”
They both knew that wasn’t good enough.  But Sandra was right. It wasn’t the right time. It never would be the right time. How could she explain something like that?
“What I will say is that he won’t be long?”
“What do you mean?”
“The wagon driver! He’ll be here in about twenty minutes or so!”
“Who?
“The wagon driver!”
“What wagon driver?”
“From the other day. Tuesday. Slicked-back hair. Red tie. White shirt. Film-star teeth.”
“He sounds gorgeous. Is he married? No, don’t tell me, I’ll ask him myself!”
“What are you doing?” Sandra asked.  “Stop flapping about. Where are you going?”
“I’m getting my coat! I’m getting dressed!”
“But what about yesterday?”
“That was yesterday. This is another day. Another moment!”

Sandra knew she had lost. It would be a long time before they ever met again. If ever. It all depended on what happened with the wagon driver.  She walked to the back window. Kathleen was gathering the clothes she had so happily discarded the day before. There was an intensity Sandra had never felt before. Everything was shutting down and she couldn’t do a thing about it. She was going into mourning. The explosion was minutes away. Nothing could stop it.

There was a thundering coming down the lane.
Sandra tapped on the window. “He’s here!”
Kathleen was putting on bright red lipstick. Patted her lips with tissue paper, checked herself in her compact mirror.
Sandra walked over to the grate for her piece of whittled-down holly stick. “I’m coming!” she shouted. “Wait for me!”

………….

 

Sandra was standing a metre or so from the front door. Kathleen was hurrying into the front room when he walked in. The clock suddenly stopped ticking. The pendulum came to an abrupt halt. Kathleen was between strides when she suddenly stopped.
“She looks like a mannequin!” he said.
“Leave her alone!”
“She’s the one I’ve come for!”
“I said leave her alone. Take me instead!”
“You! Who would want someone like you! You wouldn’t conform. Wouldn’t do what we want. You’d want to change things. No, it’s her I’m taking. She likes formal. Order: that sort of thing! The things most people like.”
He walked towards Kathleen. Sandra hurried towards him. Instinctively she looped her left hand round to force back his forehead while with the other she jammed the pointed strip of wood up through the bottom of his skull. He was dead before he hit the floor.
The clock started ticking again. Kathleen screamed when she saw the body. Frightened, she stepped back. She rummaged her pocket for a cigarette. There were none.
“You’ve killed him. What are we going to do?” Suddenly his face started changing from one face to another.
“Shit! Those faces, they’re the faces of every man I’ve been with!”
“Who is he really?”
“He’s the wagon driver I was telling you about. He’s the clicker of fingers. He’s the one who makes us do the things we don’t really want to do. He’s the one who likes us in lines.  His love is linear. Anything else is wrong. He, they only want people who think inside the box.”
“What the shit are you talking about?”
“Come on, we’ll take him and his wagon up to the beech tree. We’ll leave him there and let the woods take care of him!”
“Woods?”
“You’ll see.”
“Can I stay here, with you?”
“Are you ready to stay?”
“Yes.”
“How do you know? And how do you know you won’t have one of your moments.”
“I don’t. But I’ll try my best not to. Besides,” she said, undressing, “I won’t have anything to wear. These are going on the fire ………..”

*

Peter Street

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