Short Story

All Round The Room

They used to joke - Which came first? Ollie or the village? The village was settled early, back when some prospector counted on finding gold in the creeks around. That proved a furphy. But how old Ollie was, nobody knew. They couldn’t remember a time when she wasn’t there. So the village, nestling like a pendant between warm, bosomy hills, and Ollie were seen as - old as each other, almost. A hundred and thirty, give or take.

            She hailed from the Big Smoke wherever that might be and arrived with a husband in tow, looking for work. It was mostly timber back then, drawn by bullock dray and later, by jinker, but now it was dairying. He scarpered soon after, never to be heard of again and with a few too many drinks downed, some of the locals would mutter that maybe she’d disposed of Mr Ollie and buried him down the bottom of the hill, or else cemented him in the hollow old tree behind her house. Not that rumours bothered Ollie, she merely smiled and shrugged, adding fire to smoke.

The village boasted a general store and butcher’s, a pub, the boarding house plus a dozen houses. Ollie started working in the boarding house, but later she came into a little money from an aunt, enough to buy one of the long-empty houses, a ramshackle old place in need of shoring up, not from white ant, just age. It’s what happened to places where the timbers were arthritic. And there was a garden, big and overgrown with gnarled fruit trees, avocadoes and cherry guavas. Soon Ollie was putting in rhubarb and all manner of veggies and herbs.
            At first, the locals didn’t take to her. Not that she wasn’t polite enough, there was never a cross word or sliver of gossip from her, but she wasn’t “one of them”. Not born and bred. An outsider. And her house didn’t help, either. Okay, it was hers to do as she liked, but she put half the village offside when she set about painting it herself, and at midday, when it was hottest. She said the paint would dry faster, but the blokes on the verandah of the pub were watching and they agreed one of them should have done it. They would have too, eventually. Better that than making a fool of herself with the brush tied to a broom handle to paint the bits she couldn’t reach by ladder. And the colours! Downright offensive. They would have said, leave the galvo roof, paint the walls dirt brown, and anything else beige. Not white, and definitely not that glossy black door and matching window frames, let alone a red roof that was going to frighten the cows for sure.

            But the funny thing was, when they went home to their wives, they said why shouldn’t she paint her house any colour she liked. Pink and grey like a galah even, since she didn’t have some man telling her what to do. Besides if she’d waited for them to do it, she’d be waiting years.

So the women came to accept her before the men. They’d go walking with her looking for blackberries by the side of the road, or mushrooms in the fields after rain, when the rains weren’t so heavy that the river rose, the bridge went under and they were cut off completely. But every day, over the hills and back down into the valley. Ollie was generous sharing her produce, too, avocadoes, oranges as many as she could reach and plenty of parsley. Once she gave a big bunch to a small child for its mother, only to have the older sister rush up moments later insisting Ollie take 20c.

“But, I’ve plenty, really.”

“Mum says you must. If you give a woman parsley, she’ll fall pregnant within a week and there’s six of us already.” So Ollie took the 20c wondering how many bunches of her parsley had increased the population in other houses.

In time, Ollie acquired a cat. The village regarded cats as working animals, to keep vermin at bay, and not need feeding. But to Ollie, Grimalkin was a companion.

“What did you say his name was?”

“Grimalkin. It’s an archaic word meaning ‘cat’.”

Given local felines were only ever referred to as Cat, or Hey! Get-out-of-it, this seemed a bit fancy.

Still, one pet cat was considered odd, but allowable. But when she added another it became eccentric, especially when she named it Broomstick.

Then one of the neighbours found a litter under a rainwater tank, dead but for one which he was about to drown, when Ollie rushed up shouting, “Stop! I’ll take it!” and when asked, said she’d be naming it Morgan le Fay. Why on earth would she call a cat that? He stood scratching his head as he watched her go.

Nor was that the last of it. When the neighbours either side started shooting at a feral cat, Ollie swore she’d heard a howl of pain and although she didn’t approve of feral cats, per se, she thought it may have been injured and wanted to treat it. So she began placing a bowl of food on the back verandah each night trying to coax the animal in to catch it. But first the cat had to submit to a pat from Ollie before being fed. All went well for a while, and Ollie thought the cat was getting the message about being, maybe not BFF, but friends at least, when one night she was watching something on TV and forgot about the cat.

No sooner had she settled down, than she felt herself glared at and there was the cat, at her feet, preparing to spring. Ollie shrieked and ran into the bedroom, the cat in pursuit. She jumped on the bed, the cat circling, hissing, threatening to attack, and Ollie desperate. What had gone wrong? Then she realised, she hadn’t patted the animal. Very gingerly, she reached down to touch the cat’s head, and instantly it raced out to the verandah and wolfed down its food.

Ollie hoped these pre-dinner pats might in time lead to stroking, then cuddling and the feral cat would eventually become tame enough to move in. Which is exactly what happened and when that day came, Ollie named her Halloween.

For the locals, this was completely unheard of, nobody needed four cats, especially ones with funny names and even funnier habits. Whenever Ollie crossed the road, they would form into line, legs in unison, moving like the traction on a Sherman tank, following, she said so they could choose what they wanted for dinner.

No doubt about it, the locals shook their heads, Ollie might be tolerated, but she’d never be “one of them”.

Then came Seniors’ Week and the school decided to honour the village’s elderly citizens by inviting them for morning tea. Songs were sung after which came tea and scones in the hall and Ollie, who’d joined them, felt it had been a success. Apart from the fact that all the other old ladies wore pastels, floral prints and cardies and she’d worn her only pair of black, town-going slacks and a black jacket, because she didn’t own any pastels.

      The following year, she was unable to attend Seniors’ Week, because she’d broken a tooth and the dentist in the nearest town could only take her at that time. So she sent her apologies and thought no more about it. She was surprised, therefore, when she found a note in her letterbox written in a childish hand saying:

Dear Mrs Ollie

Our teacher, Mr Jones, says you are an old lady who wears black and has four cats. Can you please tell us a spell?

Thank you from

         Year 3      

Ollie wasn’t sure how to react. Had the teacher been discussing her with the children? Then she decided no, it was probably part of a Creative Writing class, meant to trigger their little imaginations, so she decided to respond in kind.

            She took out her witch’s missal, which she’d bought years before in a second-hand bookshop thinking it might come in useful some day and thumbed through till she found a 16th Century Love Charm:

 

Take a nutmeg and prick it full of holes and you shall see it wear a dew upon it. Put it in your arm-pit for two days, and then dry it upon a tilestone and so it will fall to powder, the which you put in the desired one’s portion of potage or drink. Do not eat of it yourself. They shall love thee without doubt.

         Having copied this in as flowery a hand as her arthritis could manage, she put it in an envelope, sealed and addressed it to Year 3, and popped it in the school letterbox one evening after sunset when no one would see her.

            Next year’s Seniors’ Week, came another letter from a new Year 3:

Dear Mrs Ollie,

Our teacher, Mr Jones, says you are really, really old and that you know a lot of spells. Could you please give us one.  

Yours cerncilly

         Year 3

         This time Ollie was greatly put out - How dare the teacher egg on the children in this way. Still, not wanting to appear a bad sport, she wrote:

 

To Make Oneself Invisible

Take five black beans and the head of a dead man .  .

She was hoping this would be enough to discourage the children, and she continued, ingredient after ingredient, which would normally have been followed by an incantation, but here she stopped because she didn’t want to put the children at risk. They would have difficulty enough finding the ingredients and may even give up early, but some bolder children still might try giving voice to the spell, which included words aligned to the darker elements. So she wrote:

I have deliberately left some words out of the spell, because I don’t want you conjuring up beings that could prove dangerous. If, however, an evil presence should suddenly manifest itself in the classroom, stop the spell IMMEDIATELY!

            There, that should do it, she thought, but when Seniors’ Week came round yet again and there was the usual letter, Ollie was more than annoyed. This time, she sent no spell, merely a letter saying:

Dear Class 3

Please tell Mr Jones from me that it is not polite to pick on old ladies who happen to wear black and own cats. I will not be sending any more spells.

Signed

       Mrs Ollie

            After that there were no more letters, but the villagers, the blokes especially, regarded her as even more odd, “fancy treating the kiddies like that”, they muttered, and some even started avoiding her. The children now became more polite, chorusing, “Good afternoon Mrs Ollie,” if they saw her in the main street and the women still swapped produce with her. She and her fellow walkers took to doing “marathons” to the nearest town, 30 kms there, 30 back, raising money for charities while the blokes offered to supervise from the pub verandah. So life in the village continued much as before.

Then one of the local lads decided to get married and his mates organised a buck’s party, which according to village tradition, meant after being plied with several drinks, the groom would be taken into a remote part of the rainforest and lashed to a tree. Despite its lush beauty the district was known as Yowie country, thickly populated with wild dogs, snakes and spiders. Moreover, it could be freezing and the victim was expecting a night involving all of the above when he spotted a rope sticking out the door of one of the cars and panicked. Without waiting, he took off, charging through the trees, before his mates realised he’d gone, only to arrive back at the village hours later, covered in mud, cuts and scratches, his clothes in tatters, ending up, short of breath on Ollie’s back verandah.

            Halloween, still vaguely feral, began hissing the alarm and Ollie went to see what the fuss was about. “Oh dear, Bobby, you are a mess. You’d better come in.” She gave him a bowl of soup, cream for his cuts and scratches and an old track suit, left by her long-forgotten husband. “I knew I’d find a use for it some day. Now don’t go home tonight, they’ll be out looking for you but they won’t think to come here,” she chuckled. So Bobby accepted a blanket and gratefully bedded down on her couch for the night and went home early next day.

            Not long after this Ollie began to suspect there was something seriously wrong with her. During the day she felt not quite right, but come night, she was queasy with undetermined aches and pains, so she went to bed early, only to wake in the middle of the night convinced she was dying. She managed to stagger out of bed, find pen and paper and write a note to Bobby. In it she said she was calling in a favour, and could he please contact a cousin of hers in Sydney and ask her to come and take the cats. Then she went back to bed, and died.

Next morning when she didn’t appear for her usual early walk, some of the women came to the house and found her lying peacefully in bed, with Grimalkin, Broomstick, Morgan le Fay and Halloween forming a catafalque on the corners.

The police and undertaker were called and some of the blokes downed a few stiff drinks before helping get the body out of the house and into the hearse. They almost panicked when they saw froth on her mouth and she was surprisingly heavy. It was as much as they could do to manoeuvre the body into the hallway, but unfortunately, in doing so, Ollie’s nightie was accidentally hoisted up and as they turned to lower it discreetly, they saw her eyes openly glaring at them and they all but dropped her then and there.

The cousin from Sydney arrived for the funeral and as a mark of respect some of the locals turned up, not all, but most. One said, somewhat uncharitably in the pub, “Ollie won’t be coming to my funeral, so why should I go to hers?” which seemed only fair and the others agreed. But the women were there, and Mr Jones, the teacher, plus Bobby and the blokes who’d helped get her into the hearse.

They all agreed that Ollie, although not “one of them” had been a fixture of sorts, and some of the blokes who’d been there at the end, wished they’d been a little more respectful towards her in life. Because, sure as eggs, they’d be having nightmares now for years to come, what with the way her eyes had followed them all round the room. 

© Vashti Farrer

© Vashti Farrer 2017

Australian Author

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Sydney, Australia