Mrs. Henshaw, grey-haired and ancient before her time, resting her rheumatic twig fingers in her pinny lap, sat facing a large wall mirror and rocked the gloom away. Her frame was bent by discontent, missed opportunity, and twisted by rejection. The once sweet child was now a sour old woman who could curdle the milk of human kindness with a mere glance. Come good days she rocked and thought, come bad, she just rocked but on this middling day, she rocked and nursed her obsession with the past as though it was newly born. No longer recognising her own reflection, she shared her musings with the only one to pay her attention; a deaf-mute woman who appeared in the mirror and rocked with her each morning.
All the people who'd been in her life had left and not one with as much as a wave goodbye. Since Mrs. Henshaw had joined the unwanted generation of the elderly, she'd become an embarrassing vexation and something to be ignored.
A man in a boiler suit dug the garden and a heavy hand knocked at the front door.
"Is that you, dear?" She murmured in time to her rocking. "Wipe your feet, bring in the milk, and let out the cat." She closed her eyes. "Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around … and she, in her mind now seven years old, skipped with her friend, Pigtail Mary through tarmac melting summer days doing handstands against the school wall showing knickers to all. "Did you marry your sweetheart; did he make good? Did your dreams come true? Do you pay me any mind? As if it was yesterday, she recalled school friends; school bullies, tests and exams, 'could do better' reports, then big school, new friends, bigger bullies, 'must do better' reports till one day, an old teacher in a worn grey suit marked the final day's register and with a warm smile, wished 'good lucks and do stay in touches' but no one ever did.
Mrs. Henshaw's childhood seemed to stretch to infinity and was a life of honed routine filled with old people. It was church and roast beef on Sunday, boiling clothes and steam on Mondays, ironing on Tuesdays, shopping Fridays; fruit in season, butterflies in summer, bright days, moth filled nights, fogs in winter, curtains frozen to bedroom windows, heat bumps, growing pains, tonsils and adenoids, Carol singers in the snow, Christmases with Aunties and Uncles who were no relations at all doing the Hokey Cokey in the parlour, fewer each year till none came anymore. 'Am I still your favourite, Auntie - am I?'
Then first dance, first date, first kiss, first love, first broken heart till you - dear Johnny, swaggered into my life, blotting out everything and setting my world ablaze. Mrs. Henshaw focused tear-filled eyes on her mute visitor. "Are you a part of someone's past?" Her visitor didn't reply. "I loved him dearly – I really did. His mother found out about us and insisted he break off our engagement. She said there was Tuberculosis in my family. He did - he always did what she said. She didn't like me anyway and I cried 'till there were no more tears in the world to cry. Why can't we change our past, why can't we change our 'could haves' and 'should haves?' She closed her eyes as though she was weary and murmured under her breath: 'Friends … suitors … husband … children … grandchildren … all washed in and out of my life like flotsam on the tide. One day I will be a thing of the past as well and for others to weep over, whether with joy or sorrow will be for them to choose.'
Two men in boiler suits now dug the garden behind the privy.
Plodding footsteps with the pace of an undertaker approached the back door. Heavy hand rapped and opened it without being bid.
"Is that the new gardener?"
"No, Inspector Pritchard."
"Oh, how nice of you to call again. I see you've brought a friend, how jolly. Has he come far? Perhaps we can have a party."
"No, Mrs. Henshaw, this is Sergeant Watkins." This was Watkins' first visit. He glanced around. The run-down farmhouse looked like the sort of place you'd need to even wash the soap before it could be used. "We've made enquiries and no one has seen your husband for several weeks now. I have to ask you again, where is he, madam?"
"I expect he's in the garden, he spends such a lot of time out there you know. Loves gardening."
"Don't you know exactly where then?"
"Are you married, Inspector?"
"Yes last year, Madam."
"When you're newly married you spend every possible moment together; when you're old like me, you spend most of your time apart; it happens to all of us; you'll see. Mr. Henshaw's not far away; when you find him, send him in for his tea."
Inspector Pritchard nodded to the Sergeant who didn't understand.
"What, Sir?" he whispered. The Inspector whispered back.
"Well, go on, have a look around."
"But we haven't got a warrant."
"Sergeant!" The Inspector hissed, "we could get 10 warrants, it wouldn't make an atom of difference, look at her; her mind abandoned ship years ago - now go and look around the house, I'll keep her here."
As the Inspector drew Mrs. Henshaw's attention to the garden, Sergeant Watkins slipped past and crept up the ill-lit stairs. He tiptoed towards the landing, froze, and drew a sharp breath. Two unworldly green eyes stared at him out of the gloom. He gasped and instinctively stepped back, missed a step, and narrowly saved himself from hurtling downstairs by grabbing the handrail. The bannisters creaked and swayed but no one came to investigate and all the while, the green eyes continued to stare, unmoved. He desperately searched in his pocket for his tablet, put it to torch mode, found the landing light switch, and flicked it on to reveal the eyes belonged to a large, stuffed cat with a manky coat standing guard over the staircase. He inched past it and rapidly checked through the musty bedrooms. It appeared that nothing had changed in years; the walls in each room were covered frame to frame with pictures. Worn, floral rugs were set in the middle of every room and heavy furniture filled every other space. Evidence of Mr. Henshaw was in abundance, but there was no Mr. Henshaw.
Watkins crept downstairs and peeked in the larder; its walls were lined with pine shelves. There were rows of rusty tins and Kilner jars filled with preserves and pickles, all covered with cobwebs and dust. The room had a disturbing, sickly smell that he'd smelt before, but couldn't recall where. He was still desperately trying to remember when he saw a large bottle of liquid at the end of the middle shelf. The label read; Formaldehyde; he'd last seen it in the path lab. He rapidly backed out and briefly searched the kitchen. The walls and air were alive with flies. The room had little modern equipment except for a large chest freezer. His blood ran cold when he got near it. Flies were swarming over the lid. With difficulty, he prized the frozen lid open to be greeted by Mr. Henshaw, frozen rigid and partly decomposed, staring up at him with his mouth open, surrounded by packs of deep-frozen vegetables. Watkins recoiled and let the lid drop, sending a cloud of flies buzzing around his head. With one hand clutching his stomach and the other clamped over his mouth he hurtled past Mrs. Henshaw and the Inspector, wrenched open the back door and projectile vomited into the garden with full sound effects in stereo. The two men in boiler suits stopped digging, gave a rousing cheer, and applauded. Colleagues can always be counted on to give solace in times of trauma.
The Inspector followed him to the garden and waited, exuding irritation and impatience through every pore. Watkins moped his face with a grubby handkerchief. Looking more dead than Mr. Henshaw, he faced his boss, desperately trying not to vomit again. It was his first day working with Inspector Pritchard. Not the way he'd planned it to go.
"So … sorry, Guv … he's in the freezer … looks as if she tried to embalm him. The cat's been stuffed too, it's at the top of the stairs. Guv, she's a nut job."
"Embalmed, with what?"
"Where is it?"
"The formaldehyde? In the pantry."
"Where else? You didn't touch it did you?" The Sergeant shook his head. Inspector Pritchard signalled to the two men in boiler suits to stop digging. "We'd better see if we can get a statement from her then, hadn't we?" He turned to go, then turned back. "For heaven's sake throw a bucket of water over that and tidy yourself up then come in and take notes. Phone the factory for the usual backup and some female help. Well, get on with it then."
The Inspector marched back to the kitchen, peeked into the freezer cabinet, closed his eyes and gulped, then strode back to Mrs. Henshaw.
"We've looked in the freezer." Mrs. Henshaw ignored him and started to rock again. "Tell me what happened." She didn't respond. "Mrs. Henshaw, when did your husband die? The question was disregarded. "All right then," he demanded, "how long has he been in the freezer?" Silence. Sergeant Watkins returned looking greyer than Mr. Henshaw. Inspector Pritchard nodded, indicating he should take notes. "How did your husband die Mrs. Henshaw?" No reply. Then Sergeant Watkins gingerly walked around to face the old lady as if he was approaching his grandmother. "Mrs. Henshaw," he said gently, "you do know there will be an autopsy, don't you? Did you try to embalm him? She stopped rocking.
"You don't look very well, dear – upset tummy?" He nodded. "Tea, that's what you need." She got up and shuffled to the kitchen in her worn slippers. Inspector Pritchard indicated to Watkins to follow her. She boiled water and stuffed handfuls of assorted herbs and leaves from a wicker trug into a large brown teapot. It had a chipped spout. She stirred vigorously with a wooden spoon; then put it on a tray with a huge stained blue mug and two cups, a sugar bowl, and a milk jug and handed it to Watkins to carry. As soon as they returned, she filled the blue mug without adding milk or sugar and drank it straight down and poured herself a second and drank that. "What were you saying, young man?"
"When did Mr. Henshaw die, Mrs. Henshaw?" She smiled at the Sergeant.
"Oh, not long ago." She started to rock again.
"Why didn't you report his death, you know you should have told someone?"
She looked angry and stopped rocking. "They would have taken him away from me." Mrs. Henshaw sat forward. "He kept saying he wanted to visit his brother in Australia. I knew what that meant. He was always going on about Australia, said he wished he'd emigrated when his brother did. He wouldn't have come back, that's for sure. I wasn't having that." Her demeanour softened. "Would you like some tea; it was Mr. Henshaw's favourite?" Watkins glanced at Inspector Pritchard who shook his head with gusto.
"In a minute maybe, thank you." He waited as Mrs. Henshaw drank more tea. "Preventing a lawful and decent burial of a dead body is a serious offence, you can go to prison for that." Mrs. Henshaw stopped rocking and as she started to get up, she spied the deaf-mute woman leave the mirror. "No!" She screamed. "You're not going to leave me either." She grabbed the milk jug and hurled it at the mirror, sending the shattered glass flying in all directions. "Now you'll have to stay forever." She sank back and started to rock again, crunching the glass into the worn lino. "I'm not going to prison, young man. I'm not going anywhere." Smoothing her pinny with her twig fingers, she turned to the Inspector with a hint of a twinkle in her eyes. "Are you sure you wouldn't like some herbal tea, Inspector, it's my very own recipe? I only make it with the very freshest of deadly nightshade plants."