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Friday, 2 May 2008
a collaboration with Margaret B Simon

There were too many houses in Matilda's road.

The line of terraced two-up-two downs curved out of sight as her eyes negotiated the parlour's net-choked window for what she had determined would be the final count. One extra today. One less yesterday. Who knows how many extra tomorrow?

She was a maidenly creature who wished she had been given the chance to audition God before allowing herself to be born. The nearest she'd been to sex was surprisingly in the recent Autumn of her years when a Peeping Tom had watched her through the net curtains - without Matilda's least inkling. But even this most vicariously tenuous experience had its subliminal effect, since she had spent the rest of that day preening her face in the mirror and pampering her scrawny body with strange lotions, much to her own retrospective disgust.

She received weekly visits from a brother called Tom who had even more reason than Matilda to bear a grudge against God for palming off a willy-nilly existence on him. Yet he humiliated himself in worship of that very God each Sunday.

Bill often fetched a small pet thing in a ventilated hatbox, one that scratched amid the purse-lipped conversations and the tinkly teacups. And squeeked. And snorted. With gentle noises-in-waiting. In the meantime, Bill and Matilda were in staccato communion with trivialities and useless truths, pointedly ignoring the tell-tale shuffly gurgly sounds from this box and the even more tell-tale silences...

And then, of course, beyond the reach of Tom's fraternal prying, there were portions of Matilda's life which were, for her, tantalising insertions of time for letting down her hair. An extra whole day now and again, was filleted forth from between say, Thursday and Friday: a period during which any experience could be as easily forgotten as something that had never been a memory in the first place.

So went Matilda's rather uneventful life, neither active nor entirely passive, for she did withhold a few secrets from her brother. One involved a nightly dose of cream sherry. Exactly one fourth liter, not an ounce more nor less. She would sip it slowly, looking out through the net curtains until the lights of the houses dimmed and blinked out, one by one.

Matilda's other secret involved what was in Tom's hatbox. She knew what it was. She had one of her own upstairs but she never took it shopping or to visit a neighbor. At some point during Thursdays and Fridays, she would take it out and talk to it. And it would sing to her in its strange way while she lay prone upon the coverlet, eyes half-closed - as if drugged.

Only during those hours did Matilda lift outwards from her mortal body, soaring into fantasies of other worlds and times, of romance and passion. There were many handsome men, all with black hair and hairy chests, who would press her tender body to their sweaty loins and croon loving things into her delicate ears. But when Friday evening came, she would awake and place the creature back in its vented shoebox. Before so doing, of course, she would make sure it was well fed. This task, in fact, was at last what caused her prying brother to discover her secret. Yet secrets were in hierarchies of secrecy, each secret being a gin-trap or, at least, decoy for the unwary Peeping Tom.

Secrets between siblings, even secrets surreptitiously discovered, were merely secret diversions. Truth and lie were not even considerations. Indeed, some secrets lived a secret autonomous life and were at such a deep level they kept secrets from eath other in a variety of conspiratorial games...

Bill was unaware of these clandestine undercurrents. Today was Thursday and he breathed the frosty air as he trudged past row upon row of terraced housing en route to his sister's...clutching the faintly throbbing hatbox to his chest. He was plying a different path, owing to the underground station where he usually alighted being subject to a security alert. His walk seemed so interminable, he almost believed he met himself several times coming in the opposite direction. Almost...until he did. He could only think to wave. The other one was equally unimaginative. And each walked on. What would Matilda think? Bill's conduit into some sort of reality as a bachelor was often via this question. What would Matilda say about it?

"Just because you were dressed alike, Bill, doesn't mean you were alike, other than the normal limbs and so forth we all have to bear..." She looked towards the hatbox which he was trying to balance on his lap amid various manoeuvres with a tea-cup and a plateful of cucumber sandwiches. "...and don't forget, many men are nondescript. By the way, Bill, they're knocking down No. 17 - you know the one, nearly opposite here - next week, because they say it's infested from floor to roof. The way some people live!"

At these last words, the hatbox began a most unusually agitated activity, as if its guest within had a definite inkling of what she was talking about. Its usual squeeks and snorts grew in volume to match the shaking of the hatbox until it fell from Bill's lap and rolled across Matilda's Persian rug, coming to a halt at the doorstop.

Matilda gave it a cursory frown of disapproval. While Bill was hastening to retrieve the box before the lid was jarred open, she continued. "We are fortunate, Bill. Decent law abiding people who were raised with proper family values - why, I don't understand what the world is coming to! Much less, this neighborhood--"

Here, she cut short her sentence as Bill was obviously having problems with the contents of the hatbox. He was attempting to solace the thing within, without much success. It continued to clamor and squeel, its sounds drowning out any possibility of further conversation.

At last, Matilda rose, giving an exasperated snort of her own. She went into the kitchen, shutting the door behind her. To her surprise, her hands were trembling uncontrollably. Underneath the sink, the bottle of cream sherry - half full, yes. Just the ticket. She poured herself a full snifter and downed it all, stifling a choking sensation. Turning then, arms braced against the sink, her eyes lifted upward to the ceiling where, above, her bedroom floor was beginning to shake. She could hear a keening noise coming from the cracks in the plaster.

Partly because of her abrupt and most unseemly response to the problem Bill was having with his hatbox companion, and partly because of the effects of the alcohol so rapidly consumed, Matilda's confused mind centered on one thought: possibly she had forgotten to feed it! Surely, it had never called to her in this manner before ... surely she might have forgotten, for last week's dreams were the very best enchantments she had known to date.

How had the secrets escaped? She had heard, yet shrugged off, Bill's statement that there was a security alert at the underground station he customarily used when visiting her. Now, it returned to her with a force quite inconsistent with its relative importance. She looked back down toward the sink, where she had decided to remain in case of an onset of being sick ... and saw an old potato she had earlier been scrubbing, in preparation for cooking something vis a vis Bill's tea. Even that assumed a significance quite beyond its intrinsic ability merely to waste space. Everything in her vicinity closed in ... sharpening corners, widening cracks, swollen windows, engorged plumbing, as if there were no longer any triviality in life. No relativities.


She heard Bill's shout from another room, but it sounded further away than being in the same house should permit. Perhaps, the days of the week were only part of the answer. She shrugged, not to shrug off as she had done before, but to remind herself that she was the only trivial thing left in the whole universe. The only unsecret obviousness.

The noise of dozers broke her dazed ruminations. Bulldozers? Yes, they must've started work on the demolishment of number 17. So it must be next week already. She knew her stairs to the bedrooms would soon be too steep to climb - all terraced houses thought that their working-class inhabitants would always be fit enough to climb their foot hierarchies, howsoever old age encroached the limbs.

Perhaps Matilta was too late. She rushed, sick or not, toward the stairwell ... fearing that her bedroom floor might be smothered in all those secret secrets secreting in and out of the skirting-boards. Worse than bugs. Worse than humpbacked slugs. All trying to reach her shoebox.

"Matilda!!!" Bill's voice resounded more urgently than the first time, yet more distant, as if feather-pillowed and further distant.

She forced her disagreeing legs into haste, whacking the sides of her hips sharply on corners she'd forgotton existed. Into the living room, half tripping over a mound of something on the floor which grappled with the toe of her shoe, late afternoon shadows kissing the curtained windows, windows now leaning at dangerous slants toward one another. Fully panicked now, she shook off the shoe with thing now firmly attached and without a backward glance, lumbered even less gracefully on in the direction of the stairwell.


Heart pumping, body grieving with every exertion, she fell to her knees halfway up the stairs when everything suddenly tilted sideways. The dozers thrummparation for snoring herself into an unforgiving slumber...or into the only child who needed more than Snakes & Ladders...and Stairwells...and Spuds...and Siblings...and Secrets to expunge the Solitude.

Posted by augusthog at 4:38 PM EDT
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