The Long Woman
by Kevan Manwaring
When does a story start? With a biplane flying over a battlefield at dawn? With a whistling postman on a creaking bicycle delivering a telegram to a house in Eastbourne? With a box of personal effects? With an engagement ring slipped on to a finger on the eve of the new century? Or before that? The moment of conception? The ghost-trails of ancestors? Or even before that? Before history … The meeting of a magician and a priestess? A curse? Or even further back? To the splitting of light, the birth of shadow? To the death of worlds? The beginning of the universe – the first fracturing of harmony and discord? Now I see it all – time compacted, occupying the same space – all contained within me, within this moment. The shining roads … stretching into the past, present and future. Intersecting alignments of lives, of desires and destinies.
The winds of the worlds blow. Who can say when they start? Who can disentangle their invisible threads? Who can sing their song?
I am a windsmith.
And this is my song.
Let me choose a point in time, a place, a person dear to me.
Let me show you.
The year it all changed.
The Dead of Winter
31 December 1922, Paddington Station
Maud Kerne sat down in the waiting room, an hour early as always for the 10.30 a.m. London to Penzance. Like a scratched ‘78’ she took the journey always at the same time of year – the limbo between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Time to kill in the hangover of the twenty-fifth, the glamour of the season faded with the false sentiment, smiles dropped like pine needles on the carpet.
Life roared around her, but it seemed far away.
Like a gas lamp turned low, Maud had withdrawn into herself, and if the others waiting to depart had not been so preoccupied or torpid they might have been unnerved by the sullen statue in their midst. The pariah.
A woman alone.
The sounds of the vast station echoed around her, volume modulated by the opening and closing of the frosted door. Through the window of the waiting room she saw the cathedral-like iron arches that reached overhead like a tree canopy or cage; an iron cage. A wonder of its age they had called it, or perhaps the belly of the whale for all the lost souls on life’s road. But not Maud – oh no, she knew exactly where she was going. She should do: it was a journey she had taken many times before, in honour of her husband, commemorating their first trip to Glastonbury in 1900 when he had proposed to her on the Tor. It was her pilgrimage to him, her way of remembering; not that she had ever forgotten. The events of that summer in 1914 were engraved on her mind like the hot metal of a press.
A man with a walrus moustache rustled a copy of The Times. She snatched a half-read headline: ‘Mussolini cr— his Rubicon … marches to Rome.’ The Tatler gave an office-worker a glamorous face. Another paper veil, another wall of privacy. A poster for the new magazine Good Housekeeping showed a beaming housewife advertising a ‘miraculous’ labour-saving device called a vacuum cleaner. Just what Maud needed – something to cleanse the void inside her. Her empty life. So hollow without her Sam. Like this echo chamber, she thought; Narcissus long vanished, announcements distorted on the tannoy, some higher authority issuing incomprehensible dictums, conducting chaos.
She pulled her rabbit-fur-trimmed coat around her. Shades of brown, like the rest of her – a study in brown: hair, eyes, shoes, stockings, skirt, jacket, hat. Her skin was wan, its pallor not artificial, like those modern girls all-made up. Bold as brass, a young lady applied lipstick in the mirror above the waiting room mantelpiece, to the withering looks of the matrons and the admiration of the stiff-collared men. Long-legged, a slimness exaggerated by the long tight dress, her hair in waves. Thoroughly modern like Maggie, Maud’s would-be flapper friend, whereas Maud tended to blend into the background. Fine. Maud did not want life to notice her any more, but she already felt like a ghost. The phantom of platform 5, that’s what they should call her.
There was a chorus of coughing. Maud’s skin crawled at the thought of all those winter germs and bad habits, the room reeking of pipe tobacco and cough sweets. The air swirled with smoke, highlighted in the shafts of pale winter sunlight. Like the Athena auditorium, Maud thought – or a chambered barrow at midwinter, she could imagine her husband saying. He never liked the pictures. Preferred long walks in the countryside. Preferred his own way in many things. Even death, it seemed.
Maud’s gaze wandered. Plain walls were given a touch of reflected glamour by film posters advertising the latest releases. The pictures offered her escape. She enjoyed the Saturday matinees. After evenings of marking essays she needed to do something less cerebral, although nothing could match a good book – her first and deepest love. A heavy tome awaited her in her hand luggage, a Christmas present, but it could wait. She wanted to savour every page on the train, when it would feel like lying in the arms of her Sam, reading in bed, rocked gently to sleep.
She looked at the time on the wall and recalled ‘a pair of glasses and a smile’ Harold Lloyd in Safety Last hanging on to the clock-face as it buckled under his weight, as if melting in his hands … And, oh, how she would melt into Valentino’s gaze in The Sheik. He would hypnotise her and she would be completely in his power, like Lil Dagover carried away by the spectral somnambulist Conrad in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Yet, looking around her at the sleepy torpor of bodies, Maud wondered, Aren’t they all sleepwalking through life?
And what was this around her except smoke and mirrors?