Weekend Fiction: Last Trumpet
Matilda had treacle feet again, like in bad dreams where she had to go places fast but couldn’t. Roza kept striding ahead, as if she actually wanted to get where they were going, which was past the precinct and up the hill, to where the bungalows were.
‘They’re like hutches for humans,’ whispered Matilda when they got there.
‘Snob.’ Roza knocked on the door of number six.
It was a quiet spot with few cars and no people around. Each bungalow had a patch of grass outside and a white handrail that needed painting.
No answer. Roza knocked again.
Matilda was relieved. ‘There’s no one here. Let’s go.’ Roza lifted up the letterbox and peered through.
From inside came faint yowling sounds: person or cat, it wasn’t clear. Matilda flinched. Roza went round to the net-curtained window. ‘She’s in there.’
More yowling, louder this time.
‘What the hell should we do?’
A woman came out of next door-but-one. ‘You girls here to see Mrs Kyle?’
‘She isn’t answering the door.’
The neighbour marched over towards them and followed the path up to the window. She was only wearing slippers but had her coat on. ‘Mrs Kyle! Your visitors are here.’
Different sounds, now sort-of human.
The woman turned back to the girls. ‘You’re supposed to get the key from inside the front window. Meals on Wheels will leave it cracked for you at lunchtime. The community service people should’ve told you that.’ She passed Matilda the key and then ambled back down the path and left them.
Matilda willed the key not to open the lock. It did, and so she hung back and let Roza go in first. The place was roasting hot.
They could make out words at last. ‘Shall we take our shoes off?’ shouted Roza.
‘Just do it,’ Roza motioned to Matilda. Inside, the front room was even hotter. The gas fire had been left on full. The TV was on too but with subtitles and no sound. A few pale plastic flowers sprung from a vase on the sideboard alongside an old photo of a young man in a tilted hat, and a record player.
‘Hello, Mrs Kyle. We’re Roza and Matilda from the middle school.’
The woman stared but her eyes didn’t quite grab onto them. She had papery skin that had gone beyond wrinkly and back to smooth again, like a baby bird. She’d been positioned in a high-backed armchair with a tray across her lap and a foot-rest extended. Her legs were twiggy, with big moon-boot slippers lolling off the end of them at weird angles.
‘We’re going to be visiting you every Wednesday this term.’
Something registered on Mrs Kyle’s face, more like acceptance than pleasure. ‘Oh yes, they told me.’ There was a pause.
‘Shall we make some tea?’
Matilda wondered how Roza always seemed to know what to do in these situations. Of course tea was the thing. When Roza went out into the kitchen at the back, Matilda rushed to help. Through a doorway she could see a bed contraption tilted upwards with a blanket the colour of mushy peas. In the kitchen there were mouldy cups on the counter and the fridge was pungent with off milk.
‘Just give them a wash.’ Roza sniffed each of the bottles of milk in turn. ‘I think this one’s OK. Let’s bring our own next week.’Backin the living room, Mrs Kyle was gazing past the TV.
'TORVILL AND DEAN!’ she shouted at the subtitles, making Roza wobble with the tray.
‘Is that a quiz show you’re watching, Mrs Kyle?’ ventured Matilda.
‘Yes,’ she answered without looking, as if to say, ‘they don’t teach you much in school these days, do they?’
‘Did you like Torvill and Dean?’ asked Roza.
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Kyle.
‘They were at the Olympics, weren’t they?’
‘Yes.’ It appeared that the conversation was becoming a mild inconvenience.
‘They won the gold medal, didn’t they?’ Roza persisted.
‘I remember that.’ There was a long pause and they all stared at the subtitles. ‘What was that music?’ Mrs Kyle looked over at Matilda for the first time, and then back to Roza, who shrugged. Mrs Kyle’s pale face twitched slightly, tensed, and then relaxed. ‘The gold medal!’ she exclaimed. ‘Ravel’s Bolero! Jonathan bought the record.’
Roza seemed intrigued. ‘Do you still have it?’
‘I don’t know. They made me throw out all sorts before I moved in here.’ Mrs Kyle looked over in the vague direction of the sideboard. ‘It’s in there if it’s anywhere.’
‘Do you mind if I look?’
Roza slid open the door. Cardboard spines filled the length of the cabinet, classical mostly. It was quite a collection. Roza ran her fingers down the sleeves, searching for Ravel. She’d been saving all her Saturday job money for CDs and so far she’d only filled a shoe box, although she planned to have walls full of music one day. The cover, when she found it, smelled musty and the paper inside was yellowing. She slid the vinyl out carefully, noticing the weight of it, and opened the lid of the player. Roza had never put a record on before. There was a rubbery scrape as the needle found its place and then a crackle before the music started. It seemed too quiet so Roza cranked the volume knob before going back to her seat. Mrs Kyle’s speakers probably weren’t up to much, and the woman was mostly deaf anyway. As the tune started swelling around them, Roza closed her eyes. ‘It never seems to settle,’ she said.
‘They’re approaching from miles away, over the desert,’ Mrs Kyle announced from nowhere.
‘Who are?’ mouthed Matilda, but Roza didn’t acknowledge her. She was starting to sway a little. Matilda watched a bus ease past outside the net curtains.
‘A huge procession with soldiers and servants; tigers in cages; with the noble people riding on elephants! They would keep them cool with palm leaves.’
Matilda caught Roza’s eye: ‘Really?’
‘You can hear the anticipation,’ said Roza to the room, raising her voice over the evolving sounds.
‘I remember watching them skate at the Olympics,’ said Mrs Kyle. ‘The longer they went on—unbearable! If they made a mistake—’
She seemed to lose her train of thought and then, as the chords changed, she found it again. ‘And at the end they collapsed and slid, like all the life was danced out of them. Perfect—’ Mrs Kyle’s milky eyes gleamed.
‘Yes! The music carries you along—’ Roza, almost shouting now, stood up and started to march. ‘Come on Matilda.’ She yanked her friend’s arm.
With Roza conducting, Matilda, as always, wanted to be part of it. She noticed how her friend’s hands were starting to find the flow of the top notes, how her hips were now shifting with the patterns underneath. Roza was following the elephants, or perhaps paving their way. Matilda delved back into her old ballet lessons, unsticking her feet, plotting some steps and bends.In the tiny living room she started to sensethe unusual freedom of stretching out her arms and taking up space. She felt the melodies tugging as the tempo built, the adrenaline of something-in-common washing over her. She and Roza were dancing girls in Mrs Kyle’s procession; the roasting heat of the gas fire was the desert sun.
‘They’re getting closer! The elephants are coming!’ clapped Mrs Kyle, barely audible above the music. Unseen, she lunged from side to side, slopping tea across the surface of her lap tray and then swiping the whole thing out of her way.
Roza was twining her arms, eyes closed, a blissed expression on her face. The tune was still building, threads and repetitions culminating, getting more and more assertive, more and more joyful. Matilda felt the beat in her stomach; Roza swirled with the tune. Then, a raucous shift in the brass—
‘Oh there it is!’ exclaimed Mrs Kyle. ‘Here come the elephants! Hear them call!’
Neither of the girls saw Mrs Kyle reaching up, trying to leave her chair. The speakers faltered, like something was breaking. There was a loud trumpeting, an unheard crash, and then it all stopped.
Matilda and Roza opened their eyes.
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