On Saturday night, when she was in the kitchen having her weekly bath in the tin tub, I crept upstairs and looked in her wardrobe again. I couldn’t find the pink dress. I opened the door wide and searched all the way through Aunty’s dark serges and cottons, and even felt around the bottom of the wardrobe in case the pink dress had slipped off its hanger. But it wasn’t there.
I waited until after I’d had my own bath, and then, while Aunty was brushing my wet hair, I said as casually as I could, ‘Please may I have another peep at that lovely pink dress with the silver beads, Aunty?’
‘Which dress?’ she said. ‘Don’t be silly, Mona. I don’t have any dresses like that.’
‘Yes you do. I found it at the back of your wardrobe. It was my mother’s dress, wasn’t it?’ I pressed her.
‘I think you’ve been dreaming, girl. A pink dress with silver beads! Even Lady Somerset in her heyday would never have worn such an outfit. There, your hair’s nearly dry now. Up the little wooden stairs to Bedfordshire, if you please,’ she said, giving me a light tap on the shoulder with the hairbrush.
That’s the trouble with Aunty. She’s as slippery as the pink satin dress. She’ll never answer properly. But I’ve found that, if I listen carefully enough, Mother herself answers.
Today, when I left Maggie’s cottage I decided to go and visit her, even though I’d already lingered too long – Aunty liked me to come straight home from school.
Still, Mother didn’t live too far away. I ran down Church Lane, through the old lychgate and up the path, nodding at the ancient yew trees on either side and muttering, ‘Pleased to meet yew,’ giggling at my own silly joke. I greeted a lot of the gravestones too, reading their names and saying how do you do. The Somersets had a lot of very grand graves. Sir William had a big marble tomb like a little house. I wondered if Lady Somerset would be stuffed inside when her time came.
Mother was round the back, half hidden in the shade, at the end of a long row of gravestones covered in lichen. It was much nicer for her there, away from the recent raw graves with their withered wreaths.
I made sure that Mother had flowers too. I didn’t have any money to buy them, but now that it was spring I could pick buttercups and daisies and cowslips and bluebells, and I sometimes stole a hothouse rose or two from someone else’s wreath. I didn’t think they’d mind too much. I once seized a large bunch of lilies and arranged them in a holy cross over Mother’s grave, but then I had a nightmare: the newly dead person had struggled up through the muddy earth to grab their lilies back. I didn’t dare go back to the churchyard for days after that.
Aunty never went to visit Mother. I couldn’t understand why. She’d taken me to see the grave when I was four, and about to start at the village school.
‘There you are, Mona, do you see?’ she said, pointing to the green mound at the end. It looked very plain without a headstone.
I felt sorry for Mother, and when I’d learned to write properly I tried carving her one myself. I found a bit of old fencing and etched Sylvia Mona Smith slowly and laboriously with Aunty’s sewing scissors. I was named after her. I rather wished she’d called me Sylvia too, because it was much prettier than Mona. I carried on carving, but gave up after Beloved Mother because it was such hard work. I’d already blunted Aunty’s scissors and she was furious, but I didn’t care. I needed Mother’s grave to look special.
‘So, where’s Father’s grave? Why doesn’t he have a bed beside Mother?’ I wondered.
‘It’s a grave, Mona, not a bed. Don’t be fanciful. He’s buried where he fell in France,’ Aunty said.
I didn’t know about the war then. I took her literally and worried that I might die each time I fell over. I tumbled frequently because Aunty bought my shoes a size too big so she didn’t have to replace them too often.
Once I’d seen the grave I wanted Aunty to take me to visit Mother regularly, but she said it was morbid. I didn’t know what that meant, but then I often didn’t understand her. When I was trusted to get to and from school by myself, I started taking a detour and wandering around the churchyard on my way home.
If it hadn’t rained for a while I’d look around furtively to make sure no one was watching, and then lie full length on top of Mother’s rectangle of grass. I pictured her underneath, smiling up at me. I refused to believe that she had turned into a skeleton: she would be perfectly preserved, her skin still fair, her black hair neatly brushed, lying in her white nightgown with her arms crossed piously over her chest.
Today I lay with my head pressed against the grass and my eyes open, trying to see down through the earth. ‘Hello, Mother. I’ve picked you cowslips. I hope you like them. They don’t really smell much, but they look pretty. Mrs Higgins gave me some bread and dripping. I like her making a fuss of me. At home I just get a malted milk biscuit and they don’t really taste of much, though I like the picture of the cow. I wonder what you’d have given me when I got home from school.’
I waited. I could hear Mother laughing softly. She said she’d have given me a hug and a slice of cherry cake. Then she asked how I’d got on at school.
‘I got ten out of ten for my story about a rainy day,’ I said proudly. I didn’t tell her I’d only got two out of ten for my arithmetic test. She didn’t need to know that.
Mother told me that I was her bright girl and she was proud of me.
‘I wish Aunty would say that!’ I said wistfully.
‘But she’s not your mother,’ she replied. ‘You’re my girl, Mona.’
She always said that, and she was always such a comfort. I wanted to stay lying on her grave for ages, but I heard footsteps coming round the side of the church. I scrambled up, cursing inside my head.
‘Are you all right, child?’ It was the vicar in his long church dress. ‘Did you trip?’
‘I just felt like lying down, Mr Vicar,’ I said, brushing grass off my dress. I didn’t know his proper name. Aunty and I weren’t churchgoers. She said she didn’t hold with it, though I didn’t know why.
‘On a grave?’ he said. ‘Oh dear, you mustn’t do that! It’s not respectful.’
‘Yes, it is,’ I said. ‘I’m always very respectful to Mother.’
The vicar blinked at me. ‘Don’t answer back!’ he snapped.
‘I shall if I want,’ I said, and then I ran off quick. I hoped he didn’t know who I was. I’d be for it if he reported me to Miss Nelson.
I ran all the way along Church Lane, then down the alley and over the stile and across the meadow. There were several skippy calves butting at their mothers’ sides. You weren’t meant to go too near the cows when the calves were young in case they charged at you, but their faces looked kind, their long-lashed eyes gentle.
‘You won’t hurt me, will you?’ I called. ‘I’m Mona. I’m your friend.’
They munched tranquilly, and several nodded their heads as if they understood. Animals seemed to like me. I wished Aunty would let me have a pet. Maybe I could help Mr Thompson, the vet, when I was older. I’d begged him to take me on his rounds during the school holidays, but he insisted I wasn’t old enough. Perhaps he was alarmed at the thought of my seeing baby animals being born.
I expect he thought I still believed in storks and gooseberry bushes. Aunty had fed me such nonsense, but when the last baby Higgins arrived Maggie had had to help her mother. She told me about it in detail, and swore she was telling the truth. We both resolved there and then never, ever to have babies ourselves.
I dodged the cowpats in the meadow, and then crossed the road and went through the great gates of Somerset Manor. There was a deer on top of each one, and when they were closed, it looked as if they were about to clash antlers. Aunty told me that many years ago there were real deer in the grounds. I wished they were still here now. I’d have loved to see little fawns. I always looked around carefully when I wandered in the woods just in case one or two still lurked there.
Our cottage was tucked just inside the entrance. It was the old gatekeeper’s cottage. Lady Somerset didn’t have a gatekeeper any more. Sam, the head gardener, opened and closed the gates when he could be bothered. He used to have ten men under him, Aunty told me, but now he just had Poor Fred, who was simple, and Geoffrey, who had only just left school. He seemed a little simple too – he’d had to repeat a year to get his leaving certificate.
When I got home Aunty was usually in her workroom (which was originally the front parlour), stitching away, her mouth full of pins. I could never work out how she managed not to swallow any. However, today she was standing on the doorstep, dressed in her Sunday black, looking agitated.
‘Where have you been, Mona? School finished an hour ago! Look at the state of you! You’ve got your frock all creased! And what’s that down the front? Is it grass stains? What have you been doing?’ She seized hold of me, pulled me into the kitchen and whipped my dress right off before I realized what she was up to.
‘Aunty! Don’t!’ I protested as she wet a corner of the tea towel and started scrubbing my face. ‘I can wash myself, for heaven’s sake! What’s all the fuss?’
‘We’re going to see Lady Somerset,’ she said.