From Behind The Net Curtain, story by Richard Rose at Spillwords.com

From Behind The Net Curtain

From Behind The Net Curtain

written by: Richard Rose

 

In the stagnant existence that passed itself off as life for Miss Edna Henshaw, Thursday afternoons provided some brief respite from the monotony that characterised her daily routine. It was on Thursday afternoons, or to be more precise, at 1.30 pm on that day each week, that Miss Henshaw felt able to put aside her regime of dusting, sweeping, polishing and re-arranging her collection of Staffordshire pottery ornaments, to satisfy what she would have described as her innate curiosity, but which others may have regarded as a vicarious intrusion into other people’s business.

Linden Avenue, a pleasantly leafy road located at the more affluent end of a small suburban East Midlands town, was fringed not only by the mature lime trees from which the avenue derived its name, but also by sixty well-maintained semi-detached properties, one of which, number 22, had been home to Miss Henshaw for the past forty-seven years. As with all such locations, residents of Linden Avenue came and went, some staying for many years, others moving either up or down the property ladder to more salubrious or less costly accommodation, and some leaving the area entirely. Throughout these comings and goings, Miss Henshaw had remained a constant. Perhaps in her younger days she might have dreamed of meeting the right kind of gentleman, who having swept her off her feet could have gifted to her a life of perpetual happiness and married bliss. But alas such knights of chivalry appeared always to have passed beyond Edna Henshaw’s reach. So it was that the seventy-six-year-old spinster came to be living comfortably alone at number 22 Linden Avenue.

At 1.20 pm each Thursday afternoon, having made a cup of Earl Grey tea and cut for herself a slice of homemade Madeira cake, Miss Henshaw settled herself at a small drop-leaf table that had been placed strategically at the downstairs front room bay-window. From this vantage, she had a clear view of a considerable length of the Avenue including houses numbered 19 and 21 located directly across the road. As a lady who valued her privacy and resented the least intrusion from those familiar, and more especially those unknown individuals, who while passing might have cast the slightest glance into her property, Edna Henshaw had installed a lace curtain of finest floral pattern to obscure their view. This afforded a satisfyingly effective barrier but one over which she had complete control. Where necessity arose, it was simply a matter of a delicate push at the edge of the lace to ensure that Miss Henshaw had access to the clearest view of all that might have been of interest in the Avenue. And it was at 1.30 each Thursday afternoon that an event of particular interest had demanded her attention over the past few months.

The walnut cased clock inherited from Miss Henshaw’s father and placed centrally on the font-room mantelpiece, provided a reassuringly familiar tick, this being faithfully supplemented by Westminster chimes that sounded at each hour. A less elaborate tune marked the half-hour at which point on Thursdays at 1.30, an astute observer might have detected the slightest twitch of the net curtain at the window of number 22 Linden Avenue. At this moment, Miss Henshaw having devoured her slice of homemade Madeira cake and checked for any wayward crumbs that might have escaped and would need her attention later in the afternoon, making a slow movement with her left hand would ensure a gap of no more than three inches between the edge of her curtain and the window frame. This distance she had calculated was sufficient to ensure that she had an unobstructed view of the green door of number 19 opposite. 1.30 was the appointed time, and though on occasion the anticipated event might be a little late occurring, possibly stretching at an extreme to 1.40 pm; for the past twelve weeks, Miss Henshaw’s vigil had always yielded results.

A diary, open at the current date, lay on the table next to Miss Henshaw’s bone China tea cup and saucer. A brief perusal of this slim volume would have revealed small details recorded on the half pages devoted to those Thursdays that had followed her weekly ritual of surveillance. These entries, written not in continuous prose, but in the briefest of statements, such as “yellow roses probably from petrol station at end of Garforth Street,” or “Tweed jacket and black trousers – a rather poor choice,” revealed not only the observations made by Edna Henshaw, but also something of her opinions of what she had seen. While any competent ethnographer would have paled at the suppositions made in such observations, for Miss Henshaw they served as a means of enabling her to piece together what she assumed to be the rather disturbing behaviours of her near neighbour.

At 1.32 on Thursday 4th April, Miss Henshaw stole a glance at the mantelpiece clock and nodded as an indication of her self-satisfaction at having completed a successful calculation. At this time there arrived at the gate to number 19 The Avenue, a tall hatless gentleman dressed in dark jacket and grey trousers clutching a small parcel. Picking up her pen from the table before her, Miss Henshaw quickly penned a note in her open diary, “brown shoes with grey trousers – oh dear!”

Reaching out to adjust the lace curtain, just enough to ensure a clear view and returning her attention to the scene at number 19, she had less than a minute to wait until, exactly as she would have predicted, the door was opened by a petite brunette woman, casually dressed in a yellow sweater and blue jeans. This woman, clearly pleased to receive her visitor raised herself on her toes in order to proffer a quick kiss to the visitor’s cheek. Within no more than a few seconds, the man had entered through the green door, which was swiftly closed, to announce the end of a scene. One it must be said that revealed little of interest, though Miss Henshaw may possibly have had other feelings as she entered a further note in her diary which read, “entered at 1.34 – parcel today, chocolates perhaps?”

Knowing that nothing further of interest was likely to occur for some considerable time, Edna Henshaw left her front room to collect her vacuum cleaner to remove any potential trace of the homemade Madeira cake in which she had indulged a few minutes earlier. Her observations, made over so many weeks, had indicated that the visitor to number 19 usually departed from the scene at around 3.15 pm, though she would occasionally return to her lookout position during this two and three quarter hour period, anxious that there might be an unexpected change to this pattern.

At approximately 2.50 each Thursday afternoon, Miss Henshaw would boil water in a kettle and make a fresh cup of tea in her Crown Derby teapot and having carried this along with matching cup and saucer, milk jug, tea strainer and sugar bowl, would return to her sentry point and settle to observe the anticipated action. Today, April 4th saw no diversion from this ritual as the lady of the lookout settled into her strategic observation post and commenced her wait. She had on occasion considered the purchase of a small pair of binoculars, but on reflection had decided that these may have been too cumbersome to manage through a three-inch space between curtain and window frame. A great shame none-the-less, as she felt sure that such an instrument could have revealed far more detail than she could obtain through her current approach.

At 3.15 the attentive Miss Henshaw would have expected that the visitor to number 19 Linden Avenue would depart the premises as usual, but today this time came and went without any sign of his exit. 3.20, 3.30 and 3.40 all passed without movement, and it was not until 3.46, far later than ever previously recorded, that the green front door was opened, and the two central characters of Miss Henshaw’s attention emerged. Having exited the house first, the gentleman visitor turned to the woman following him and they linked in a warm and lengthy embrace. (An examination of Edna Henshaw’s diary later that day would have revealed this particular action as having lasted for two minutes and thirty-five seconds). The visit having reached its conclusion, the visitor turned and left the premises, halting only briefly at the gate to number 19 to look back and wave to the woman standing on the threshold of the house. She in response blew a kiss in his direction.

“A full twenty-five minutes longer than usual.” Miss Henshaw spoke out loud, despite or possibly because she knew that there was no one who might have heard this surprised utterance. Turning to her diary she recorded her afternoon’s details in her customary staccato format before checking through previous entries to confirm that this was indeed the longest Thursday afternoon visit recorded. Her assertion having been justified, she closed her diary and with a satisfied smile commenced with some vigour, to plump the cushions on each of her front room armchairs.

A weekly convention having been well established, nobody with any knowledge of Miss Henshaw’s routine would have been surprised to find her at 1.25 on April 11th, seated with home-made Madeira cake and best China at the table behind the lace curtained window of her front room. Fully equipped with pen, diary and an insatiable curiosity, the lady readied herself for the events that were certain to unfold. At 1.45, though feeling a little frustrated and recalling that she might have neglected her weekly task of dusting the household lampshades, Miss Henshaw assumed that the visitor to number 19 must have been for some legitimate reason delayed, and that he would most certainly arrive soon. It was not until 2.35 that afternoon that she eventually deserted her post, reconciled to the likelihood that the anticipated tryst between man and woman was not going to happen on this day. Rising from her chair, she strode purposefully to the cupboard beneath the stairs in her hallway, from where she retrieved a feather duster and set about relieving her frustration with a savage attack upon the imaginary cobwebs that adorned her lampshades.

It might have been regarded as hyperbole to suggest that Miss Henshaw had far too little opportunity or interests in her life to keep her suitably entertained. Indeed, entertainment would never have been regarded as a high priority by the lady occupant of number 22 Linden Avenue. But it is probably safe to say that Thursday afternoons had afforded a certain amount of diversion, or possibly even relief from her otherwise ordered and staid existence. It was therefore with some disappointment that having assumed her position and role as observer of neighbourhood events as usual over the next five Thursday afternoons, she had nothing of interest to record in her diary.

As you will have readily discerned from what you have already learned of Miss Henshaw, she was a lady of predictable habit. A well-ordered life brought with it an element of security, that she found reassuring and enabled her to make most of her necessary arrangements around a meticulously planned timetable. Mondays for example, were devoted to laundry and changing her bedsheets and pillowcases, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays occupied largely with gardening, weather permitting. Tuesday mornings were Miss Henshaw’s time for the week’s major grocery shopping trip to the local supermarket. At 9.30 am precisely each Tuesday, armed with notebook containing her shopping list and carrying an assortment of bags, Miss Henshaw left 22 Linden Avenue and walked the half mile to the large Waitrose store. Here, having collected a trolley at the door, following a pre-ordained route, disturbed only when some inconsiderate employee of the company had decided to rearrange the layout of the store, she would weave her way along each aisle, removing items from the shelves and inserting them into her trolley. At the end of this process, having paid for her groceries, Miss Henshaw would use the free-phone service from the supermarket to order a taxi to her home.

This weekly outing was occasionally enhanced by a chance meeting with an individual, let us call them an acquaintance, for in truth Miss Henshaw had no close friends, with whom she would exchange greetings and even at times engage in a short conversation. Depending upon the individual concerned, Miss Henshaw often regarded these chance encounters as an opportunity to gain small insights into the lives of those who lived within her immediate environs. Such exchanges of intelligence, a far more respectable term than gossip, had on occasion provided valuable information concerning the welfare of the residents of Linden Avenue and beyond. It was therefore with some satisfaction that on a Tuesday morning in June, shortly after her arrival at the supermarket and while pushing her trolley past a shelf labelled teas, coffees and assorted hot beverages, Miss Henshaw chanced upon Mrs Gibbons who lived in a large house at the corner of Linden Avenue and Alma Road.

Following the customary exchange of pleasantries, during which the two ladies discussed the increased accumulation of litter that was plaguing Harewood Park, and the unreliability of the number 34 bus service, Miss Henshaw turned the conversation in the direction of number 19 Linden Avenue.

“Her husband seems such a quiet and well-presented gentleman don’t you think?” suggested Miss Henshaw.

“Oh yes,” agreed Mrs Gibbons, “I believe he has an important position in one of the banks in the city and commutes there every day.

“I am quite sure he goes into London every day,” Miss Henshaw confirmed. “You could set your watch by him. Leaves home at 6.50 every morning and returns at 6.20 each evening. I just happen to have noticed this on a few occasions you understand.”

“Do you know her well? The lady at number 19, I mean.”

“Oh no, not at all really. I see her about occasionally of course, but I don’t think she is quite my type if you know what I mean. Well, I suppose she is from a different generation, and we wouldn’t have anything in common anyway. You know, I don’t think I have ever had anything in common with a woman who wears Jeans. I hear that she works from home, whatever that means. I gather that there are many people today who use their computers to do something or other. Not like our days I don’t suppose Mrs Gibbons.”

Mrs Gibbons nodded. In all honesty her understanding of what people did with computers was quite limited, though she had heard from her nephews that they were changing the world. She only hoped that this would be for the better.

“Mind you,” Miss Henshaw recommenced her assertions, “I don’t think it’s a question of all work at number 19. Particularly on Thursday afternoons, which I believe are what might be described as being devoted to leisure.”

“Whatever do you mean, Miss Henshaw? I don’t quite follow what you are saying.”

“Oh, far be it from me to spread rumours. Let’s just say that it seems that sometimes when the cat’s away, the mice may play.” Miss Henshaw tapped the side of her nose twice with her right index finger and gave Mrs Gibbons what she hoped might be interpreted as a knowing look. “Well, anyway, I can’t stand around talking all day. I have so much to do these days, I really don’t know how I fit everything in. Nice to bump into you. I hope to catch up with you again before too long.” And with these concluding remarks, Miss Henshaw turned and headed off in the direction of washing powders and fabric conditioners.

Time passes and memories fade. However, there are many instances of a chance occurrence jogging the memory and enabling incidents from the past to be restored to the hippocampus. It was a late October evening, when waiting for a bus to take her home from a performance by the local choral society that Miss Henshaw became aware of her name being called from somewhere along the Winshall Road. As she looked along the road in an effort to detect the source of the call, she noticed a car reversing in her direction. This vehicle having drawn to a halt next to her, Miss Henshaw immediately recognised the woman from number 19 Linden Avenue leaning through the passenger window.

“Good evening, Miss Henshaw. I thought it was you, Robert and I are just on our way home from the cinema. Do hop into the back, we are more than happy to give you a lift.”
Edna Henshaw, recognising both the practicality and generosity of this offer responded gratefully. “Well, that really is most kind. If you are quite sure I am not inconveniencing, you.”

“Goodness, not at all. After all, we live right opposite so it’s not as if we are going out of our way, so please do climb in. It’ll only take us fifteen minutes, much quicker than the bus, I’m sure.”

Miss Henshaw knowing that this was undoubtedly true, accepted the invitation graciously and was soon seated directly behind her near neighbour as her husband, who she now knew to be named Robert steered the car into the flow of traffic.

“It does seem crazy. We live opposite each other and yet I don’t feel that I know you at all. My name is Christine, though most of my friends just call me Chrissie. And I know you are Miss Henshaw, but other than that I seem to know nothing at all about you.”

“Oh well, not much to know really. I tend to keep myself to myself. Just lead a quiet life. I don’t get out a lot these days.” Miss Henshaw was unsure exactly how much about herself she should reveal. After all, she thought, I suspect that Christine – she knew she could never bring herself to use the name Chrissie, and I will have little in common.

“Well, I notice how beautiful your front garden always looks. I can see that gardening is a labour of love for you.” Christine hoped that such a compliment might put their passenger more at ease. “Unfortunately, my gardening skills are somewhat limited. Perhaps I could get a few tips from you sometime.”

Miss Henshaw whilst recognising the compliment, was unsure how to respond to this latest statement. It came rather unexpectedly from someone she hardly knew. In fact, it felt possibly a little presumptuous and probably best glossed over.

“I used to get some advice about the garden from my brother Edward. He was a keen gardener and even had an allotment where he grew vegetables near where he lived. He helped us to sort out the back garden, suggesting what we should plant and how to look after things. You know, pruning and those kinds of things.”

“Well, it’s always good to consult the experts in these matters,” stated Miss Henshaw. “I would certainly not consider myself as having anything more than a rudimentary knowledge of gardening, but I suppose that over the years I have gained an element of ability, and I do enjoy the garden. I have never myself attempted to grow vegetables. In the small gardens of Linden Avenue there is so little space and I prefer to concentrate on my borders. But your brother must, I imagine, gain considerable satisfaction from growing and eating his own produce.”

“Yes, he really did,” confirmed Christine. He was always proud of his successes on the allotment. Onions, carrots, potatoes, beans, he grew so many good things over the years. And whenever he had a glut of something he would bring some over to share on his weekly visits.”

Edna was quiet as she gave some thought to this last statement from Christine. But after a few minutes, just as they were pulling into the end of Linden Avenue, she knew that she must ask the question that had been immediately brought to mind. “You said that your brother was proud of his successes and that he used to give you gardening advice. Does this mean that he no longer has the allotment and has ceased to garden?”

“In a manner of speaking yes,” Christine confirmed as the car came to a halt outside number 22. Unfortunately, my brother was not a well man in recent years. He did his best to maintain his allotment, but sadly, his illness eventually became too much. His death back in May was not unexpected, but I miss him greatly.”

“I am so sorry to hear that Christine” Miss Henshaw’s voice had changed, betraying a slight tremour. “Although I obviously never knew your brother, it sounds like he was a fine man. I am truly sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you, Miss Henshaw,” said Christine looking directly at her. “You are quite right in saying that he was a fine man. And although you never did get to meet him, you did of course see he him on Thursday afternoons for a while as you peered out through the gap in your front room lace curtain to watch both his arrival and departure. I do hope that the vacuum caused by his absence from your weekly schedule will soon be filled.”

Miss Henshaw, seeking for some appropriate words to say in her defence, discovered that she could do nothing more than make a series of strange guttural noises. As Christine, having left the car, opened the rear door and held it for Edna to climb awkwardly out on to the pavement.
“Good night, Miss Henshaw. And thank you once again for your condolences.

The older woman opened her gate and walked slowly along the short path to her front door. On entering her hallway, she sat down on one of the lower steps of her stairs, where she remained for the next half hour. A spontaneous act, and one might say completely out of character in a lady who led such an orderly existence.

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