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the lady who dressed for death

This little story pretty much wrote itself - in 90 minutes - not long after my mother died. I don't think I need to say anything more.

Late in the afternoon, as the breeze was picking up and the sun was beginning to set, Arathea Scott stepped out of her house, locked the front door and made her way carefully down the path to her front gate. She was dressed in a powder blue frock with white gloves and a matching white and blue hat. The hat had a small lace veil that covered her eyes. Looped over her right arm, which she in turn held carefully across her stomach, was the worn black strap of her favourite handbag. In her left hand was her walking stick.

           Her seventy-eight year old neighbour, Mr Hillbury Cutworth, watched her from his front room. He had the window open and could hear her laboured breathing over the evening breeze.

‘Everything all right, Ms Scott?’ he called out.

             ‘Couldn't be better, Mr Cutworth,’ she replied, without turning to look in his direction. ‘Things could not be better.’

            ‘Mind if I ask where you're going?’

            ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I certainly do.’

            ‘I thought you were supposed to be in bed. Doctor's orders.’

            ‘Well, now I'm supposed to be outside. Walking.’

            ‘Whose orders are those?’

            ‘Mine.’

            And she closed the gate and set off along the street towards the beach.

            Mr Cutterworth immediately telephoned his sister Lavinia, who lived three streets away.

            ‘You'll never guess who's heading in your direction,’ he said as soon as she answered. ‘Arathea Scott.’

‘Arathea Scott? When?’

            ‘Couple of minutes ago. I think –’

            But his sister had already hung up and was heading for the front door. Ten minutes later, the old woman drew level with her.

            ‘Good evening, Arathea,’ she called out.

            Arathea didn't take her eyes off the pavement. ‘Evening,’ she replied.

            ‘Out for a walk, I see.’

            Arathea answered that one with no more than a nod.

            ‘Mind if I ask where you're going?’

            ‘Yes,’ said Arathea, ‘I certainly do.’

            ‘Aren't you scared?’

            ‘Of what?’

            ‘Of being out on your own.’

            ‘Why would I be scared to be out on my own?’

            ‘Well,’ said Lavinia, ‘all those kids, for one thing. With their drugs. And those guns.’

            ‘Newspaper headlines from the big city,’ Arathea scoffed. ‘Don't apply to this town and don't scare me a whit.’

            Lavinia tried another tack. ‘But a woman of your age. Walking!’

            Arathea smiled at that and kept going without even bothering to reply. Lavinia went back inside and called the police station. Bob Mackettson took the call and by the time Arathea hove into view, he was waiting for her in his patrol car. He stayed in his seat and rolled down his window.

            ‘Evening, Arathea,’ he said.

            ‘You might be the Chief of Police, Mr Mackettson,’ she replied, without slowing her pace or turning in his direction, ‘but you're fifty-five years younger than me and you wear more perfume in a year than I ever did in my whole lifetime. I'd appreciate it if you'd address me formally.’

            Bob blushed. ‘All right, Ms Scott,’ he said. ‘I was wondering where you were going.’

            ‘What's that got to do with you?’

            ‘I'm Chief of Police.’

            ‘A fact I'm fully aware of.’

            ‘It's my job to know what goes on in this town.’

            ‘Sounds like an excuse for snooping to me,’ said Arathea. ‘But if it makes you happy, I'm going to the beach.’

            ‘Little late in the day for a trip to the beach, isn't it?’

            ‘Not really,’ replied Arathea, who still hadn't stopped walking. ‘My connection doesn't like to deliver that much heroin in daylight. Makes him nervous.’

            Bob sighed. ‘Ms Scott, you really ought to be at home, taking it easy. Is all this walking good for a woman your age?’

            ‘I'm eighty-eight years old,’ said Lavinia, trudging steadily onward. ‘You think I'm too old to know what I want to do?’

            Bob let out an even deeper sigh and sat back in his seat. As he did so, he saw seventeen-year-old Sally Jenson pull up beside Arathea on her scooter. They began to talk. Sally said something that made Arathea smile. But Sally insisted and after a moment or two, shaking her head in a What-On-Earth-Do-I-Think-I'm-Doing? manner, Arathea eased herself up onto the scooter's seat and wrapped her arms around the young girl's waist. The scooter pulled away from the pavement, heading for the beach. As he rolled up his window, Bob heard the two women laughing.

            A few minutes later, Sally stopped the scooter beside the metal railings of the promenade. It was almost sunset and the beach was deserted. Arathea climbed down and adjusted her hat and her skirt.

            ‘Sally,’ she said, still smiling, ‘that was as much fun as I always thought it would be and I'm glad I finally got to do it one time.  You're a girl after my own heart.’

            ‘Anything else I can do, Ms Scott?’ Sally asked.

            ‘No, dear,’ said Arathea. ‘I'll be fine now.  I'm almost there.’

            Sally watched Arathea climb slowly down the concrete steps and set off across the sand towards the water.

            Then she blinked.

            The beach was no longer deserted. Standing at the water's edge, with his face turned towards the horizon, was a man wearing a baggy black suit and a large black hat. He had his hands stuffed into his pockets and looked more relaxed than Sally had ever seen anyone look.

Slowly, as if he didn't want to take his eyes off the view in front of him, the man in the suit turned towards Arathea at the exact same moment that she stopped at his side and rested her stick against her hip. He doffed his hat and took her hand gently in his.

            ‘Arathea,’ he said. ‘It's good to meet you at last.’

            ‘It's good to meet you, too,’ she replied.

            ‘I see you've dressed for the occasion. I like that. I appreciate it.’

            ‘It seemed only right,’ she said.

            They were silent for a while. The breeze tugged playfully at their clothing and the waves tumbled gently onto the shore. Overhead, gulls swooped and dived.

            ‘Will it hurt?’ she asked at last.

            The man in the suit shook his head. ‘Not at all.’

            Arathea considered this. ‘Good,’ she said. ‘That's nice to know. I was always a little scared of that.’

            ‘I know,’ said the man in the suit. ‘People are. But they don't have to be.’

            Once again, the two of them were silent and, once again, it was Arathea who broke that silence.

            ‘Will there be dancing?’ she asked.

            The man in the suit replaced his hat on his head and straightened his jacket. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘There'll be all the dancing you want.’

            He stepped towards her and took her hands in his. From far away came the distant strains of a waltz. Together, they began to dance on the shore.

 

©  Nick Garlick 2017