DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
TEL. 01273 603766 - EMAIL [email protected] - www.fulltable.com/fj
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The Child under the Table
The table was long and low, built of solid oak, with six carved legs to support it. If you put your eye to the edge, you could look all the way along, and it seemed to stretch on and on, with only little bumps and whirls here and there, like a flat but uneven landscape. If you looked further you saw the end of the room it was in. On one side was a large stone fireplace, with a bright orange fire hissing and crackling. On the other, a small table stood, with plates and dishes arranged on it, and above that, several large framed paintings – portraits of lond-dead men and women in old-fashioned clothes. Behinh you, you knew there was an entrance door, with two pieces of carved sculptures, a man and a woman, in robes, mounted on stands, quietly watching the far end of the room.
The far wall was clear except for a very large portrait of a man, painted so that you could only see him from the waist up. He was in formal evening dress of the old-fashioned type, and his face looked back at you with a very proud, almost a sneering expression. His dark hair was combed back from his broad forehead, his nose was long, and his full lips curved back in such a way as to suggest he was far superior to you. This was the man who, over a hundred years ago, had owned this house and its lands.
To speak of the house, this dining-room was part of a number of rooms on this floor. which were arranged in a way so that they were all connected. There was a large entrance hall, a parlour, a study, a drawing-room (for ladies) and a very large living –room, with another stone fireplace with another crackling fire. A grand staircase led upwards from the hall to the level above to the bedrooms, that opened out from a landing running around the entrance hall. You might also remember the kitchen, scullery (for washing dishes) and butler’s pantry, for drinks and other things, formed part of the back of the house.
The house was called Otter House, for no particular reason. Imagine yourself outside, looking at the front. It was a large stone building, shaped like a simple box, with a small, but rather grand entrance doorway, that you had to climb six stone steps to reach. It appeared to have a simple flat roof, fronted by a low stone parapet. The windows, four on each side, and another smaller four above, peered out from the ivy, which covered much of the front. It had been cut back to allow the windows to peer out: normally they would look like blank, rectangles, sub-divided into smaller rectangles of glass panes, but now in the early evening sunlight, they gleamed like flashing eyes in the house’s rather gentle face.
If one could rise in the air, and look down, you would see that Otter House was not a palace, or a castle, but quite a large mansion, that the British would call a manor-house – belonging to a wealthy landowner. But the house only now possessed a large, slightly overgrown garden around it on all four sides, surrounded by fields of wheat and barley, forming a patterned and coloured quilt over the landscape. But what concerns us in this story is the family, that now live here, and whom we can see sitting on a terrace at the southern side of the house.
These are the Leymos, and the origin of their name is unknown even to them! There is Pa Donald Leymos, a rich man and now retired from his computer business, His wife, and mother to his two children, is Patricia, sitting next to him, sipping tea, that she considers a very good English habit. Opposite them, on the other side of the table, is their daughter, Dorothea,, affectionately known as Dolly, a dark, tousled-hair girl of thirteen, who is snapping biscuits apart and arranging them in patterns on her plate. Behind her, on the lawn, is Robert, her twin, known as Bobby, playing with a small terrier dog. The dog’s name is Rex, which is a rather boring name, and anyway, he does not anything to do with this story. We don’t need to know much about the parents, because it is Dolly and Bobby who will be important, and as yet, they don’t know that very soon some very strange things will happen to them.
It is later in the evening, and time for the characters themselves to take over, and explain everything in their own words.
‘Why do we have to do this every night?’ complained Dolly. ‘A formal evening supper! Why does Dad do this/’
‘Well, he’s true-blue American, and he wants to be a true-blue lord of the manor. Live up to it. All this glorious heritage! C’mon, humour him!’ Bobby grinned. ‘Anyway, I quite like it. It’s fun.’
Dolly merely grunted in reply. There was, really, something troubling her. She loved the house, since her Pa had decided to retire early and settle in England. He’d bought the house, and they had all approved it right from the start. Some repairs needed to be done, but Pa was rich, and could afford it. The village was just down the road, and she’d already made friends there. So it was a lovely summer evening, and she couldn’t really find fault. But there was something. She had felt it. There was some little secret, some small bundle of sadness and misery that was inside the house. It was just a feeling, but there was something wrong. A ghost, perhaps? She didn’t believe in them. But there was something. She didn’t know what it was, and nobody else seemed to notice. She shrugged and went into the dining-room.
During the meal, that the cook had prepared for them, Dolly dropped her fork, without realising, It had bounced under the table. ‘Oh-ho’ sniggered her brother. ‘You’ll never make an English debitante!’
“It’s debutante, you clown!’
She bent down under the table. She was there for several seconds. When she rose up, her face was totally white. The rest of the family put down their knives and forks and stared at her in amazement. In her left hand she gripped the missing fork so tightly her knuckles were clenched as white as her face.
‘There’s a child under the table!’
She said it with a gasp, shaking. Without a word, the rest of her family looked down under the table, and then sat up again.‘There’s nothing there, Dolly’. her father said quietly. Dolly looked at each of them in turn, and then got up and ran out of the room. Bobby got up to go after her, but his father waved him back. ‘Let’s finish eating. Probably just saw a shadow. Often the case in these old English houses’.
Next morning, Dolly looked normal, particularly as she looked several times under the table, and saw –nothing. Perhaps it was her imagination, after all. So she went back into her normal routing of being slightly grumpy and getting cross with her silly brother. Three days later, they were sitting around the table again, enjoying roast chicken and vegetables. Everybody was in a good mood. Ma and Pa had met lots of the people in the village, who had welcomed them and asked them to help out with village fetes, and cooking, and had accepted them into village life. For Pa , this was really important. ‘There’s some wonderful characters in the village. There’s the vicar and the parish clerk, and the pub landlord, and the shopkeepers. They all seemed to be really nice and welcoming. I was a bit afraid that they might not like us, but they seem to. I feel really happy’.
Dolly smiled at her Pa, who seemed to be enjoying himself. So did Ma, who’d got herself a place in the local women’s sewing circle. As she was an expert quilt-maker, she was in her element. Only me and Bobby, she reflected, need to fit in more. For some idiotic reason, she lent over and looked under the table. What she saw made her cry out in fear
Another head suddenly appeared form the opposite side.
Dolly got up so fast that she hit her head on the edge of the table.
Pa looked at Ma and sighed. ‘What kids we’ve got’.
Dolly was in the state, when you’ve bumped your head, you don’t want any sympathy from anybody, and certainly not your brother, who caused it in the first place. Finally, she sat and glared at him, wishing him a lot of terrible horrors and nightmares forever. But Bobby didn’t smile, Instead he looked troubled, even anxious.
Later, that evening, Bobby walked into her bedroom without even knocking, as usual. Dolly was lying on the bed, nursing the bump on the back of her head. But she saw Bobby’s anxious face and softened.
‘What is it?’ she asked
‘What did you see?’
‘You, you idiot!’
‘But what else? I need to know!’
‘You really want me to tell you?’
She looked at him. His face was white, as hers had been. She decided to tell him.
‘I saw, both times, a little girl. Not very old, perhaps about eight or nine. She was crouching under the table. She was only wearing a very thin dirty white frock. Her hair was dirty and matted. Her face was very pale and she looked so thin! But it was her eyes I remember. They were, I suppose very sunken into her face, But her eyes – her eyes – were so black! They just looked at me. She was in such misery. That’s why I ran out the first time. I couldn’t bear it. I don’t know who she is. I think she is the – thing- or whatever, that is around this place. There is something terribly wrong. I just don’t know what it is. But, Bobby, she is in terrible pain and sadness. What can we do? What can we do about this child under the table?’
There was something wrong about his face. ‘Bobby, did you see her?’
‘No’, he said. ‘no, I didn’t’. But I’ll tell you what we should do. Let’s find out who she is. Let’s play this as a detective story. Let’s see what we can find out about her and about this family that we got this place from. It’ll keep us occupied, and maybe we can meet some people that might be able to tell us. You’ve seen her twice under the table. Why there? I want to find out’.
‘So do I. She looked as if…as if …she had been starved or something. Let’s start with the parish records. There must be someone in the village who can tell us where to find them’. So they agreed. But Dolly was still a little worried about Bobby. Next morning, they walked into the village, and asked Mrs Botherby, in the general store, who they could ask about parish records, and how to find out about the history of the village, Little Otter, and Otter House.
‘’Cause I know! You want Mr Parrot. He’s like the chappie who does all the historying. He’s in the little red cottage at the end of Goose Lane. Mind you, e’s a bit addled’. she added significantly.
‘Yor’ll see what I mean, when you sees ‘im’.
They found the little cottage in the middle of a completely overgrown garden, with brambles and weeds mixed up with roses and various other flowers, the names of which they simply didn’t know. The cottage actually was red: its stucco walls had been painted a gaudy vermilion colour, which rather fortunately was softened by the dense mass of weeds around it. The front door, with its’ blistering and scaling paint, had no doorknocker or bell, so Dolly banged on it loudly. At first there was no sound at all, and then suddenly, there was a high-pitched shrieking, rather like the sound of a very mad goose. Then the door flew open.
Nothing had prepared them for their first sight of Mr Parrot. A small, stooping man stood there, clad in a very dirty but very bright red shirt, and an equally filthy red waistcoat. His down-at-heel trousers flopped around his bony ankles, and his feet were encased in a huge pair of moth-eaten brown slippers. His arms hung down loosely by his sides, and looked as if they reached to his knees But his head was extraordinary. It was small and seemed to have shifted back and his face was definitely very birdlike. It was centred upon a huge beak of a nose, with wide red lips underneath, that apparently did not possess teeth. His eyes, set each side of his huge nose, were small and black, darting this way and that, and when he spoke it was in a high-pitched kind of shriek. He reminded Dolly so much of a human parrot, that she had to make an effort to keep her face straight.
‘Come in, come in! Haven’t had any visitors for a while! Oh, no! Not in a while, in while, in a while.’His voice did seem like a cackle. They coughed and gasped as they went in. The inside of the cottage, was not a living-room, but a huge dustbin of books, manuscripts, documents, papers and broken pens, all in heaps and piles everywhere. On a very small table in the window was a bowl, with what looked suspiciously like birdfeed, and a half-open bottle of milk. ‘Just having some breakfast! Not to worry, not to worry, not to worry!. Have a seat!’ They looked around and eventually sat down on various piles of books that looked as if they might not fall over. Mr Parrot perched on a similar pile and looked at them expectantly.
‘Mr Parrot’, began Dolly, since her brother seemed unable to speak. ‘We would like you to help us. We would like to find out more about the people who lived in our house, Otter House, about a hundred years ago. And in particular we would like to know about the little girl who lived there. She must have had a terrible time. My conscience will not let me go on without knowing about her. We need your help’. Mr Parrot cocked his head on one side. He hopped down and started rummaging through files and documents in a cupboard at one side of the room. The dust made them both sneeze violently. Then he shook out a large ledger, put it onto the little table, the only clear space, and opened it , his small, birdlike hands turning page after page. Then he stopped.
‘Father – born 1857. Matthew Sebastian Otter, died 1913. Mother – Eliza Anne Carbott – born 1880,died 1906. Daughter – Catherine Anne born 1898 – died under mysterious circumstances, July 1906. That is all I can tell you’. All this was said in his high cackly voice, but there was a tremor in it, that Dolly later remembered. ‘What do you think, Bobby?’ she asked. But there was no answer. He sat staring at his shoes. Dolly looked at Mr Parrot. ‘Is there anything else you can tell us?’ But Mr Parrot made no answer. He just looked up at her, with his small beady eyes, and said finally, ‘You’ll have to ask the vicar. He might know more’. Dolly got the impression that Mr Parrot was not saying anything now, even if he wanted to. They said their goodbyes and left.There was sadness in Mr Parrot’s voice. Perhaps he knew more than he had told them.They could ask the vicar tomorrow.
But it was that evening that something really happened. Ma and Pa were yawning. Bobby sat staring at his plate. Dolly felt bored, and decided to slip under the table, just to see.
The shock went through her like a thunderbolt. There was that sad, starved, lonely child, sitting there, as before, with her hands clasped around her thin.bony knees. She looked straight at Dolly. This time Dolly didn’t leap up in a fright. This time, she was going to make contact. This time. She was going to try to touch the child. She leant forwards, and pushed her left hand towards the child. Nothing happened at first. The child simply sat looking at her. Then she moved her right hand towards Dolly. Her hand seemed to stretch out from a great distance. They made contact. It was all Dolly could do not to cry out. Her hand was so cold! The child’s hand gripped hers but it was icy, as if she had come from the cold earth. But Dolly held on. Suddenly, she heard her father’s voice.
‘What on earth are you doing down there, Dolly?’
The child vanished.
Later that night, as she lay in bed, Dolly resolved to see the vicar, with or without Bobby. He had been so quiet lately. What was the matter with him? But she wanted to find out more. She had clasped hands with the child. She felt such warmth towards this little unknown waif, or person, despite their icy meeting. She began to suspect more. Mr Parrot had given some ideas, but perhaps the vicar could provide more clues. She felt that she was now on the beginning of a mystery, one which she really liked, but above all, wanted to solve. She wanted the child to come out from under the table.
Next morning, the caw-caw of crows awakened her. She got up, dressed and was away before anybody else in the household was awake. Walking down the lane, she found a miniature stone house, standing back from the road, with a small wooden gate. Unlike Mr Parrot’s house, this had a very well-tended garden, with roses and shrubs bordering the front path, that led up to a green-painted door, that had, also unlike Mr Parrot’s, a doorbell. She rang it and waited. The man who answered it, hastily wiping away breadcrumbs, was not at all like Mr Parrot, but was definitely rather odd. When he spoke, he trumpeted, again in a slightly high-pitched voice. ‘Good-day, my dear. What can I do for you? I am Reverend Beaker’.? He was very tall, but bent forwards from the middle, so that his rather large stomach protruded forward. Like Mr Parrot. He had a long, rather beaky nose, with shaggy eyebrows above each wide brown eye. Above it,, his head was bald, apart from a few streaks of grey hair brushed sideways across it. Around his long, rather scrawny neck, he wore a clerical collar.But it was his way of walking, as he brought her into the parlour. He, sort of, walked backwards, holding his head and legs back, and his rather large stomach forwards. Just like a pheasant.
She told him what she wanted to know and he nodded. She began to realise that he nodded all the time. As he walked back to take her into his study, his head bobbed back and forth, and she immediately thought of the pheasants that lived in the woods nearby. He led her into a little, rather untidy study, which, though not as bad as Mr Parrot’s, still contained lots and lots of muddled books and papers, that took up most of the space in what was already a very small room.
‘Now then, now then’, he said in his rather trumpeting voice. ‘You need a register of births and deaths, don’t you? I’ve got it here somewhere, you know’, and he bent down to search through a pile of old books and ledgers next to his semi-buried desk. Presently he emerged and triumphantly brandished a large, rather dusty book. ‘The church record, dating back to 1890. It goes on to 1914. Let’s see what we have’. They both pored over the book searching all the rather badly handwritten entries, or so Dolly thought. At last his long finger stopped. ‘Ah, here we are. Here we are. Now then. Oh, yes. Catherine Anne Otter, born 1898. Baptised but no record of her burial. That’s very strange’.
‘Was she buried here?’
‘Yes, surely, but there’s no record of her burial. That’s very strange. I did hear that a young girl was buried here, at night. But it was a long time ago, and there was no ceremony, as there should have been’. He sighed, and his long neck and head bobbed backwards and forwards. ‘That’s a mystery. I don’t know why that should have happened. To put a child in a grave, without ceremony, without blessings, is monstrous’. His head bobbed in distress. ‘We must look into this. At once’. Dolly immediately said ‘Can we go and look? She must be there somewhere’.
‘Of course, of course’. And he went into the hallway and pulled on a large, shapeless brown coat and an equally shapeless brown hat, and walked out with her into the quiet churchyard, where everybody who died had been buried and remembered, apart from this little girl. He clucked and bobbed by her side, peering at gravestones right and left. He certainly appeared to be as interested as she was, and also quite worried. But they found no record anywhere of little Catherine. They stopped, tired and hot, in the morning sunshine, by a large mausoleum, that Dolly noticed was the Otters’ tomb, but without any indication that that was where Catherine was buried. ‘Is there anywhere else? What about in there?’ She pointed to a small shaded area close to the east of the church, but separated from it by a small lawn. ‘There?’ That’s the place where anonymous people lie. No-one knows anything about them. But we can see if you like’. And with a cluck, the Reverend Beaker pulled himself from the tomb he was leaning against, and bobbed along with her to the unknown graves.
‘These are often those that are born ‘ you know, he added rather shyly, ‘out of wedlock’.
You mean, illegimate/?’
‘Well…er… yes’. And the vicar silently bobbed.
They looked along the sad little graves. Each had a small grey tombstone, now badly weathered, and none of them had been looked after. The grass was thick around them, and they were all neglected, and forgotten by anyone, even the women that normally looked after the graves and put flowers on some of them. Here there were no flowers, and everything looked forlorn, as if no-one cared or remembered them. Dolly felt a great sadness for them. They had done nothing wrong, had they? Just to be born, and then left, abandoned and… just left. Why? They lived and died. They had dreams and ambitions, like anyone else. But here they were, lost and neglected
It was while she was thinking these thoughts that the Reverend’s excited squeal disturbed her. She ran over to him. ‘What is it?’ He pointed dramatically. She saw a little grey tombstone, with some inscribed letters on it. Kneeling down, she was able to read the letters. All they said was :
Catherine Anne Otter
So this where that sad little girl had been buried. The Reverend Beaker squeaked, interrupting her thoughts. ‘She must have been buried quietly, without a church service. The records would have said. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, what a terrible thing! Just to be put into her grave, without anyone saying blessings for her! That is such a terrible thing! Perhaps you could leave me now. I’ll say some thing for her’.And so Dolly left, her mind turning over and over with sad thoughts. Why had little Catherine been buried so hurriedly? To cover up something? had she been so ill-treated, starved, beaten, until she had died of pain and misery? The certainty began to grow. Who had done such a terrible thing, to a young child?
That evening was going to be one of the worst in her life. To begin with, there was no Bobby. Their Ma and Pa had called him but to no avail. He was nowhere to be found. Dolly sat at the table, not even enjoying her food. She was so worried about Bobby, who was always, down whenever there was food to be eaten. Where was he? She also realised that the source of her worry about the house might come from the past and what had happened so many years ago. The house itself bore a scar of the events that had taken place, and was, in some ways nursing it,, like someone who has been deeply upset in the past, and still holds it in their heart, unable to cast it away. All Dolly knew was that she felt sorry for the house, even the table, and most of all, for the little child that it had sheltered.
The door flew open, it’s hinges groaning in protest. There stood Bobby, clutching a shotgun to his chest, which was pointed straight towards his father. He moved into the room, the gun still aimed at his mother and father who now were standing and holding each other, in fright and horror. Only Dolly remained seated, looking in stunned fascination at the two small barrels at the end of the gun, gleaming in the candlelight. Out of those dark holes a deadly missile would come, to kill and destroy whatever was in front of them, to pluck the life from a living, thinking human being.
‘You killed her! You killed her! Your little daughter! But now you!’
Bobby’s eyes were wide open but vacant and empty. His face was pale, and his mouth hung open in rage and fury. Dolly saw all this in a moment. Her parents clutching each other in fear and terror, Bobby standing with his shotgun levelled at them and the sneering portrait behind. Without thinking, she shouted suddenly.
‘Shoot the portrait, Bobby! Shoot the portrait! It’s him! He’s the one that did it! He’s the one! Shoot him!’
Slowly, the dark muzzles of the shotgun turned towards the portrait, and then back again to their parents. Then it turned again to the portrait then back again to the parents. Bobby’s finger tightened on the trigger. Dolly shut her eyes. What she heard was a deafening explosive sound, and a crash and splintering of metal and glass. What she saw, when she opened them again, were her Ma and Pa still standing frozen in the same pose. Behind them was the portrait, now shattered and broken, leaning at the foot of the wall. As she watched it fell forwards, and crumpled into a heap on the floor. And there was Bobby, now looking wide-eyed, clumsily holding the shotgun, still smoking from its’ two barrels. Instinctively, she looked down under the table. The child was not there.
Explanations came and went. Her parents were understanding and patient, and once they knew what had happened, forgave Bobby. Bobby himself was subdued and deeply upset, despite Dolly’s sympathy. But she had to go and explain these strange things to others, and asked him to come with her. So it was that they set off together next morning to see Mr Parrot and the Reverend Beaker. Looking back at the house, it seemed to Dolly that a weight had been lifted from it: indeed it seemed almost as if it was smiling at them from its golden, glistening windows.
. Dolly was carrying a bunch of flowers – blue cornflowers, sweet forget-me-nots and some white roses, that she had found in the local florists. Mr Parrot and the Reverend Beaker had immediately agreed to come with them. Together, they walked down to the forgotten little cemetery where Catherine was buried, Mr Parrot’s head cocking from one side to the other, and the Reverend Beaker’s head bobbing backwards and forwards in unison. They looked exactly like two strange birds walking together. Bobby was quiet, which was unusual for him, but he seemed relaxed and genuinely cheerful. They stopped in front of the little grey headstone. Dolly quietly put down the flowers on the grave.
To Mr Parrot and the Reverend Beaker, both the boy and girl behaved somewhat strangely. They walked each side of the gravestone, each extending their hand as if they were clasping something. They stood there as if holding something precious, and then let their hands drop. ‘How very odd’. Said Mr Parrot. ‘Most peculiar.’ agreed the Reverend Beaker. But they waited until both Dolly and Bobby turned away from the gravestone, though they did notice that both had tears glistening in their eyes. The Reverend Beaker quickly invited them all back to his house for tea, and, together, all four walked back out of the little cemetery.
Perhaps, at this point in time, it should be explained what both Mr Parrot and the Reverend Beaker did, or could, not see. For what Dolly and Bobby saw, was a small, smiling little girl, in a long white frock, her dark hair brushed back from her face, who held out both her hands in affection and friendship. Nor did the two see or experience, the two small hands extended to the children were firm and warm. Nor did they see the little girl smile at them both, and then vanish. But Dolly and Bobby did, and they would always remember the warmth of that little child. Never knowing who her real father was, and the terrible things she had endured in her short life, she had greeted them with new happiness.
The child under the table was now at peace.
Frank Jackson (17/02/08)