HORLA FICTION (January 2019)





FROM her window, Olga watched her husband’s naked white body sink into the lake. 

She held her breath until he surfaced, then her eyes followed his heavy progress through the reeds and under the ornamental bridge.  In all weathers and on most mornings, the older men silently appeared, one by one, on the banks of the lake in the Kiev Public Gardens. 

Ponderously, they would remove their clothing, which they would neatly fold, as if delaying the plunge into the frigid water.  She told him he shouldn’t do it, that the cold or the weeds might kill him one day, but he was adamant.  He said it kept him fit, kept him alive, as if the lake contained an elixir of youth, drawing in the older men.  There were four swimming this morning, pale and slow as belugas.  She waited at the window until she saw her husband emerge from the water and wipe the algae off his round stomach. 

Olga tidied the stray hairs behind her ears and smoothed her pallid cheeks as she passed the mirror in the hall. She was looking much older these days.  In the kitchen, she prepared his breakfast: some bread, thinly sliced, and a little bit of cheese.  She carefully cut off the stale crusts and set them to the side to make into breadcrumbs to coat the chicken livers for their meal that evening. There would still be enough bread left over, she thought, for a little sandwich for him before bed.  She carefully wrapped the leftover heel of bread in a square of waxed paper and placed it in the cupboard.

Max was tired after his swim and didn’t have anything to say to her as he ate.  She sat opposite him for a while in case he wanted to tell her about something he was reading in his newspaper. His jaws moved slowly as he chewed his bread and, from time to time, she picked the flecks off her skirt.  Eventually she decided to go to the kitchen to busy herself with preparing the livers, but paused, listening at the door, when she heard him speak.  

‘Hello Demetri, it’s Max. I’m sorry to call again so soon but I’m going to have to ask for another extension.  I cannot make the payment this weekend.  I’m sorry, I wish I could…Come now, Demetri, you know I always cough up in the end.  You don’t need to get angry…Thank you.  Thank you.  I won’t disappoint you this time.  You will get it on Wednesday.  No later.  I promise.’ 

Through the crack in the door, she watched him put the phone down and the smile drop from his face.  She knew, as his eyes searched the room, he was looking for more things to sell.  She had worried when he’d first become involved with Demetri, that she’d see him in the lake one morning, floating face down.  She then worried for herself, if she should live to old age with no one to support her.  

Olga opened the brown paper packet of chicken livers.  There were more in there than she had paid for.  Had the butcher made a mistake or had he seen how thin she’d become? She coated the livers in egg and breadcrumbs, frying half of them and placing the others in the refrigerator for tomorrow.  Then, looking in the cupboard, she didn’t see the left over bread for supper. 

She asked Max if he had eaten it but he was irritated by this question and asked her why he’d take bread when he’d just had his breakfast.  She searched the kitchen but couldn’t find it, then wondered if this spare bread had just been a dream in her hunger. 

The next morning, Olga resolved to take the train to the catacombs at Lavra to pray at the tomb of Saint Pimen, the Faster.  A babushka in a faded pinafore dress decorated with a dusky pink geranium pattern, sat on the steps that led down to the subway stop, a dead chicken, still covered in feathers, draped over her knees.  Olga shuddered at the sight, more at the woman than the lifeless bird, with the thought that she may spend her final years so. 

She would have liked to have bought the chicken from her because it would be cheap, but couldn’t face the plucking of it.  Another babushka sat opposite selling black sausage she had probably made in her little kitchen in the ramshackle dwellings on the banks of the Dnieper.  She had seen this woman going through the rubbish at the end of the road. 

They had probably had husbands who had drunk themselves into the ground and now they had to fend for themselves. At least they wouldn’t have to buy vodka for their men any longer. 

In the catacombs, Olga moved through the tunnels in a line of hushed worshippers, the darkness fractured only by the occasional flickering of the priests’ candles.  The martyrs were dressed in their finery in glass sarcophagi.  Finger bones stemmed from disintegrating silk sleeves dotted with beads.  Embroidered vests sunk into the crevices between the ribs. 

As she rounded the corner, a spiteful voice hissed into her ear, ‘You have no head covering, you heathen.’  She turned and squinted through the darkness at a priest, in black robes and tall hat, towering over her.  His beard, which had grazed her cheek when he spoke, was a vivid red tangle and his small round glasses threw out two pinholes of light.  His eyes fixed on her unkindly. 

‘You can buy this,’ he demanded as he pulled a package wrapped in plastic film from a pocket in his robe.  ‘Two hundred hryvnia.’ 

Without disputing the high price for the headscarf, Olga took the only notes in her purse and handed them to the priest.  Moving on quickly, she took the scarf out of its wrapper.  In the semi darkness it appeared to be orange blossom on a purple background.  Not suitable for her fair colouring, but she did not have the nerve to ask the priest for a different one.  She placed it on her head and tied it under her chin.  She mustn’t tell Max how much she’d paid for it. 

Returning home, she quietly registered the absence of some things in the sitting room.  Max must have pawned the gilt frame of their wedding photograph and now the image of their thirty years ago nuptial was propped up on the mantelpiece behind his packet of cigarettes.  In the photograph she and Max were sitting at a table laden with dishes. 

She looked at each in turn, naming it under her breath and trying to remember the way each one had tasted… ‘yushka, kovbasa, salo, ryba, koravai’. The photograph would drift onto the floor in the lightest gust, she thought, so she brought a teacup from the kitchen to hold it against the wall.  She went upstairs and put the headscarf from the catacombs in the drawer in the dressing table in her room so Max wouldn’t see it. 

Dinner would be the livers again but the bowl where she had placed then in the refrigerator was now empty, just a few smears of egg with a scattering of breadcrumbs showing where they had been.  She looked around the kitchen for evidence that her husband had cooked them, but could find none and besides, he had no idea how to cook anyway. 

(Cont next column)

When Max returned to the house, she tried to be as casual and calm as possible when she asked him about the livers but he looked at her as if she had lost her mind.  ‘I went out just before you.  Don’t you remember?  I haven’t been home until now.  Alex gave me a cup of soup for lunch.  Maybe you will need to retrace your steps.’

That night, her dream upset her.  The figure of an old, ragged woman was in her room standing with her back to her in front of the dressing table.  She was looking in the mirror, trying on the headscarf.  Olga fancied she could hear her breath rasping as she struggled with the knot under the chin. 

In the reflection, in the semi darkness, Olga could make out a face like a celeriac root: ingrained dirt in the deep lines and thick pale root hairs sprouting from the chin.

She woke, alone in the bed, and leaned over to open the dressing table drawer.  When she saw that the scarf was not there, she made her way to the top of the stairs and saw that Max had filled a cardboard box that he had placed by the front door ready to take to the pawnbroker.  She went down the stairs as quietly as she could and tremulously moved through the items in the box. 

‘Olga, Olga,’ Max called over to her gently from the kitchen table where he was sitting with his coffee.  She straightened herself up and he walked towards her, his brow glistening from the effort he had taken to pack the box.  He put his hand tenderly on her shoulder.  ‘You know I must pay Demetri. This won’t go on much longer.  Just a few more things, I promise.  When I get back on my feet, I will buy them all back for you or get you new things, okay?’

She nodded quietly.  He kissed her on both cheeks and went out with the box under his arm.  She stared after him and kept gazing down the road long after he had disappeared from sight, still trying to fathom where the headscarf might be because it hadn’t been in the box.  

Olga wondered if a thief had been coming into the house.  She started keeping the windows locked, looked for gaps in the fence around the garden and bolted the outside doors.  She didn’t say anything about it to Max because he had enough to worry about. 

She finally resolved to try to catch the thief.  She would set a trap.  She had heard that some out-of-date tinned food was being sold off for next to nothing at the local grocers and had gone to get some.  Max was out. 

She left the front door ajar and made a tempting arrangement of the tins of chopped ham and potted radish on the counter in the kitchen.  She positioned herself in the pantry, sitting on an upturned zinc bucket, with the door open a crack giving her a view of the tins.  If the intruder was indeed the frail old woman she had seen in what she thought had been her dream, Olga felt she could overpower her. 

After a few hours of sitting, barely breathing, Olga’s head began to nod and she was awoken by a metallic crash.  She had fallen from her bucket and it had tipped over.  Crouching, she peered through the crack in the door.  Like the bucket, the tins were upset over the floor.  The sound of the bucket had probably disturbed the thief.  She came out of her hiding place and saw the door under the stairs being slowly pushed shut.  The door led to the coal cellar, a tiny room she hadn’t been in for years. 

She disliked the low ceiling and the smell of damp mortar.  She tried the door but it was locked so she fetched the bunch of keys from the bureau drawer and eventually found the one that fit. It turned stiffly in the lock.  She nudged open the door, swollen with damp, and broke through ragged webs.  Sandy-coloured grains of wood dust fell into her hair.  Hesitating, she peered down the cellar steps.  She could see a pile of flattened cardboard boxes with heavy curtains, like the ones in her front room, layered up on top of them. 

She moved closer to get a better look, clinging to the banister, and then it dawned on her that someone had been living there.  Food packaging was strewn on the floor.  The smell of urine emanated from the zinc bucket in a corner. 

She walked to the curtains and examined them closely:  they were identical to hers upstairs, apart from being spotted with mildew.  And the dressing table under the window was also very like her own.  Then she saw her.  The old woman stared back at her, looking as frightened as she was. 

‘What are you doing here?’ Olga’s voice came out strained and frail.

‘What are YOU doing here?’ the old woman’s voice echoed her. 

‘I live here,’ Olga said, attempting assertiveness but unable to hide her fear.

‘I live here,’ the old lady mimicked her and Olga felt she must be in the presence of a mad woman.

She backed away towards the stairs and the old woman did the same, backing away with a horrible, twisted exaggeration of Olga’s own terror on her face, a cruel imitation.

Gathering courage to turn her back on the old woman, Olga stumbled back up the stairs and out of the door. She thought she must have come out of a different door as what she entered was not her house, but one with broken glass, fallen plaster and empty vodka bottles strewn over the floor.  She tried to calm herself and looked around for a way out. 

Then something caught her eye in the room in front of her:  her wedding photograph on the floor, partially covered in grit.  She picked it up and automatically looked for the mantelpiece to put it on but where that had been, there was now a gaping hole revealing a chaos of brambles outside.  She looked at the photograph again and then the hand holding the photograph— covered in liver spots and with chilblained, swollen finger joints.  She put her hand to her head as if she were waking and felt sparse strands of tangled hair sprouting from a balding scalp.  ‘Max, Max,’ she called weakly. 

She was glad there was no reply because she didn’t want him her to see her like this.   And then she remembered watching him swimming, it must be more than twenty years ago now, and he had stopped, just stopped, as if taking a rest, but his face was in the water, and she had gone down there and the other old men had pulled him out and lain him on the bank.  His eyes were looking upwards and she had wiped the algae off his stomach.

Slowly, she recited the Prayer to the Guardian Angel to steady herself and walked back down the cellar steps to confront the apparition, clinging to the banister. She crossed the dimly illuminated room and opened the drawer of the dust-covered dressing table where the scarf from the catacombs lay neatly folded.  She looked into the shattered mirror of the dressing table, its cracks fragmenting her face, and placed the scarf on her head and tied it under her chin, her breath rasping with the effort of it and condensing into mist.              

Auriel Roe resides in Nottingham (England) and Madrid and is an author and artist who spent the first part of her career as a school teacher. Her two published comic novels are set in schools: A Blindefellows Chronicle, published 2017, in a British private school and Let the Swine Go Forth, published 2018, in an international school in a totalitarian state. A Blindefellows Chronicle reached the #1 spot in the humour genre in Amazon US, UK and Canada.  She is currently plotting her third novel, which won’t be set in a school for a change, she says, and probably won’t – she adds – be particularly humorous!
Previously, she worked for a while in the Ukraine. Images from that time, such as the lake in the park where men used to swim unclothed in all weathers, and the catacombs with the priests, made themselves felt in the writing of her story. 
Her blog in part documents travels with two elderly dogs (aged fifteen and eighteen) for whom she’s designed a bucket list trip that takes in four countries. They’re still going strong, their owner reports.   https://aurielroe.wixsite.com/aurielroe