Over the years, Elisabeth has learned that the dawn hour, with its anaemic half-light and low dry fog, is the best time for a walk. Fewer patrols crawl the streets. The thugs have retreated to sleep off their nighttime ravages. Inquisitive children have not yet risen. But even in this emptiness, she is alert and careful. A hood covers her white hair and casts a shadow over her face. She holds her shoulders square and straight, taking measured deliberate steps. A shuffle would give her away at a distance. Imitating a younger person is exhausting and painful. But she likes to get out, even for a few moments, to hear the noises, feel the wind and smell the air. Just get out and look at the world. Grey as it is.
Today is particularly dull. The pretty redbrick houses at the end of the street were knocked down overnight. She can see the sky, dirty as dishwater, where the buildings used to stand, as if someone has taken a scissors to them and just cut them away. Only scatterings of rubble and a mound of dirt remain in the centre of the foundations.
She looks around. It is quiet still. She goes through the gate, kneels in the dirt and sifts through the debris. With her hand half-buried in the mound, her fingers find something soft against the dry gravel. She pulls out a jagged triangle of cloth. Its pattern has long been lost to grime, so she throws it aside and continues digging; clawing at lumps of concrete, loosening dust and dirt, raising her head every few minutes to listen and look around.
The sun flashes briefly through cloud and a glint of light catches her eye. She moves a rock and underneath is a square bronze plate. Elisabeth takes it carefully in both hands. Painted on the metal is a woman, curling towards a baby in her arms. She wears a blue dress and hood, but the hood is pulled back from her face. Her skin is smooth and pale and she smiles with the corners of her mouth. The curly-haired baby smiles back. Behind them, shines a yellow circle of light. Elisabeth traces the circle and touches their faces. She checks no one is around, puts the plate under her coat and returns to the street.
She has been out longer than usual. The morning has brightened, and the whole way home she keeps her head down, expecting at every moment to be caught and knocked to the ground. She has seen people younger than herself picked up off the street. Just for being too old; for disobeying the new laws of nature. Elisabeth is into her seventh decade, and never had a cancer or a virus in her life. Somehow she has managed to outlive almost everyone she’s known, outlived her daughter’s expectations by twenty years, lived longer than most know is possible.
A faint rumbling creeps up behind her from beyond the street. As she listens, it moves closer and she can make out voices, whistles, a heavy engine. She hurries, letting her posture sink. Under the shadow of the house, she reaches for the iron rail and pulls herself up the steps. Inside the front door, she stops a moment to catch her breath but does not linger, and climbs the stairs to her room.
She is lucky, really. In the redistribution of accommodation, the storeroom was overlooked, so she has somewhere to sleep. Next door, Amanda has a large room and sometimes, when her mood is light, she knocks on Elisabeth’s door and they eat together. The bathroom is shared with another family on the landing: a young man with hard eyes who wears his patrol uniform, even in his time off, his insipid wife, and two children, who would probably scream the house down at the sight of Elisabeth. The elder girl is tricky and light-footed, and many times Elisabeth has listened for safety, tipped open her door, only to see the girl sitting on the landing, or slipping out of the bathroom.
It is a silent half-life, concealed in her cupboard, but better than a Boarding House, where every ageing day would be counted, and she would not have survived long. Elisabeth suspects that Amanda regrets her generosity with the room now, would be glad for her to be caught; hauled off to a hospital and dealt with. But she has hidden her for this long, and as Elisabeth ages, Amanda’s fear and shame keep her safe. Fear and shame of this mother, riddled with old age and poisonous with the past.
At the top of the stairs, Amanda’s door opens. She beckons to Elisabeth, and then stands flat against the wall by the window and points down. A parade lorry passes slowly along the street. On the open trailer, tied to scaffolding, is a woman. She stands on a wooden step over a coal fire, a rope around her neck. Her eyes are closed tightly, her shoulders raised almost to her ears. All along the street, people come out to shout at her. Children trail the lorry, throwing rocks, bottles, whatever lies near at hand. Already twenty or so run behind and the parade will pick up more as it rolls through the streets.
‘Old-timer,’ Amanda spits. ‘Probably from the houses at the bottom of the street. About time they were got rid of.’
The woman’s mouth opens as glass shatters on her shoulder. Flames climb around the step and lick her toes. Elisabeth tightens the fold of her arms, holding her coat closed and turns away.
Safely in her own room, she counts out steps, removes the loose floor board and takes out her treasures. She has found many, but kept only a few over the years. An iron key, weighty, the size of her thumb. Every time she holds it she remembers the security of a lock clicking. Next, a cracked china cup, delicate and fragile, painted with blue flowers. It reminds her of Nana’s house, where women would gather to drink tea, talk and exchange stories. And various swatches of coloured fabric that once must have decorated windows or been worn as pretty dresses. Useless objects really. Relics of the other life.
She sometimes wonders if she is the only person in the whole world with stories from the old days. That was the trouble with old people, they remembered further back. But, her own stories are shadowy, she even doubts them herself. Did people really dress differently once, in coloured fabric, a different one for every day of the week, for every person on the street? Was it really possible once, to lock a door and keep people out? She would not believe it if she did not have a key. There is not a soldier in the Guard or a patrol on the street that today would recognise a real key.
Elisabeth lays out her treasures on the floor and props the new picture against the wall. She rolls out her sleeping mat and blanket and lies on her side where she can see. She knows that soft, kind woman and the peaceful baby in the picture. She has seen them before.
Nana and she took two buses and walked for what seemed like hours through neighbourhoods she did not know. Tall stern guards watched as people hurried along the streets. Nana took giant footsteps and Elisabeth’s legs were tired from running to keep up. She tripped often, but every time, Nana’s strong, tight grip pulled her up and kept her from falling.
At a corner they stopped to show identification. Nana held hers out, but the guard would not take it from her, and he made Elisabeth hand them to him. He checked the pictures, spat on Nana’s and gave them back. Elisabeth wiped the card on her skirt and even later she could still see the stain. But Nana didn’t care. She stared at the guard and did not even cry.
It was a hot day and Elisabeth was tiring of the adventure, when finally they turned into an alley so narrow and secret that even the sun could not find it. There were doors along both sides. Nana counted them, then rang a bell, and even though no one appeared, the door opened and they went in.
The hall had green carpet, a coat rack, a mirror and a little table. At the back a stairs went down instead of up, and down they went, and down again, until they must have been under the street. At a large wooden door they knocked again and after a few moments were allowed in.
The room was small and dark and cold. People sat quietly on wooden benches. On a small stage was a table covered in white cloth, a beautiful golden cup, and behind it stood a man in a long white dress. When the man spoke, everyone in the room answered together. Elisabeth did not know the answers so watched and copied Nana, pressing her hands together, standing, sitting, kneeling with everyone else. Everyone looked at the ground, but all that was there was a brown cushion for knees and the same green carpet as upstairs. Elisabeth could not understand why anyone would look down when there were so many strange and beautiful pictures on the walls; a man with great white bird’s wings, a man stuck to a cross that frightened Elisabeth until she saw a tall statue of a kind woman in blue, cradling a baby. She smiled at that woman and didn’t look at the scary picture again.
It has been a long time since she exercised that memory and Elisabeth is sad that many details have been lost. The sequence is correct and she can see the low lines of flickering candles, but she cannot quite smell them. She does not remember any of the stories the man told. But even if she does not remember everything, until this morning, it was another barely remembered, wispy story. Now it is another treasure to hold on to.
She hears Amanda’s hollow cough outside the door and clambers to sit up and return her treasures to their nook. She drops the china cup in and it clatters against the wall of the hole. Another crack or chip, soon there will be nothing left of it at all. Amanda gives three knocks for dinnertime, and Elisabeth knows there are a few minutes of safety for her to cross the landing. She leaves the mat on the floor and the picture plate against the wall for later, and goes to eat.
The cafeteria had been quiet and Amanda worked the last shift so there were plenty of leftovers for her to take. They eat cold pasta and sauce with real tomatoes. Amanda watches a television story about a handsome official and his beautiful wife. Bored, Elisabeth longs for her own stories, but the other family has just come home, so she dares not leave until they have settled behind their own door.
She watches Amanda recline in her chair, her head lolling against the rest, her face relaxing out of her usual clenched expression.
‘Did I ever tell you about the old woman Nana?’
‘What are you talking about?’ Amanda says, without taking her eyes from the television screen.
‘She would take me places and give me things when I was a little girl. Things that aren’t around today. She took me once to an underground house with pictures on the walls and—’
‘Stop,’ says Amanda. ‘It’s already bad enough that I keep you. I don’t want to hear your ridiculous tales.’
‘It’s not. Today I—’
‘I said stop.’ Amanda turns from the television. ‘If you ever talk to me like that again, I’ll throw you in the street. Tell your stories to the patrol.’
Elisabeth creeps from the room. The bathroom is empty and there are no sounds from the family’s room, but Elisabeth’s door is open. Surely she closed it? She is always so careful. And then she sees the child. Sitting by the hole in the floor, the picture and the broken china cup beside her. Elisabeth braces herself for the scream, but the child simply looks up and brushes hair back from her eyes.
She holds a red patterned square of material, strokes it lightly with her fingertips, then rubs it on her cheek. That swatch was one of Elisabeth’s first finds. She too had gently explored it. It was as soft as hair, not like the wiry gowns of today. The child puts it down, and takes up the plate, all the time her eyes on Elisabeth. Elisabeth smiles at her. The girl cocks her head and offers the metal plate. Elisabeth reaches out and accepts.
‘This is from the old days,’ she whispers, ‘a lady called Nana took me to their house once. I was little, like you. We walked for hours.’
The child dips her hand back into the hole, so that her whole arm is swallowed up. She gropes around and pulls out the key.
‘We walked for hours, until we reached an alleyway,’ Elisabeth says. The child holds the key up, looks at it from all sides and presses her fingers into the ridges.
‘We knocked on the door.’
The girl stands up. She looks again at Elisabeth, at the picture, at the key in her own hand. She walks out.
Elisabeth closes her eyes and leans back against the wall. She does not even hear the child move down the corridor, but there is a cry from the mother. Then heavy footsteps in the corridor. Doors open. Amanda’s voice, raised, ‘I would have reported her, she has nothing to do with me.’ Elisabeth waits and presses the picture to her chest. The spit stained her skirt. Her legs were tired. Nana stared at the guard and did not cry.