Miriam Clendon lay down the small bunch of flowers and pulled her coat tight around her aging body. The wind was biting today, whipping into the coast and rolling up and over the cliffs that formed the border between the village and the sea, battering the dwindling clumps of farms and cottages that formed Flintsea.
Miriam had lived in Flintsea her whole life. As a little girl she’d played in the fields that were now either yellow with rapeseed or purple with lavender during the growing season. Most of the vegetable crops that she remembered from all those years ago – cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots – were long gone. The farmers couldn’t make enough money from those things anymore. They were all flown in from overseas by big companies with unpronounceable names. Times changed and the world moved on; that was how things went, not just on the farms but with everything else too. People got left behind.
She pulled herself upright, dusting her clothes down as she did so. Her knees ached from crouching down with the flowers – that, and the arthritis that nowadays needed only the slightest invitation to rear its increasingly ugly head. The flowers were a simple bouquet, nothing fancy – just a small clutch of tulips bought from the grocery shop on Flintsea’s high street.
Miriam looked around her. There was nobody else in the graveyard. She glanced down at the flowers. Above them, on a low stone wall, was a small brass plaque. It read – “In Memory of Donald Clendon. Loving Husband. 1943-1982.”
Today would have been Donald’s birthday. Later, there would be other flowers by the grave as friends came to pay their respects, but for now Miriam’s was the only tribute. Of course it wasn’t a grave, not really, because Donald’s body wasn’t actually here.
They told her that Donald had been taken by the sea – like so many others over the years – but his body had never been found. He had been fond of late-night walks along the cliffs – he used to say there was no more beautiful sight than that of the sun setting over the sea, and you only saw that properly out on the cliffs, away from artificial light. Of course, strangers and the people from the city would say that walking along the cliffs at night was a dangerous and foolhardy thing to do – but out in the country things are different. We all walked out there from time to time. We knew the coastline like we knew our own faces. We could have done it with our eyes closed. But that one night, the night Donald went missing, a storm had hit like nothing any of us could ever recall witnessing before. The gales had been so fierce that part of the spire of the old church had collapsed and come crashing down on the surrounding graveyard. A number of the old cottages in the village had suffered serious damage – mainly to chimneys and the dry stone walls around the properties – and by the time the winds had abated, the village green looked like a rubbish dump.
And Donald? The villagers – Miriam’s neighbours and friends since the day she was born – all told her not to worry. He’d be back. He was a tough one. He’d be safe somewhere, making his way home. Miriam wasn’t so sure.
They searched, the police and the coastguards, but they found nothing, just as she’d always known they wouldn’t. She remembered the face of the policeman who had come to tell her they were going to stop the search. He looked so young, so innocent. She remembered thinking that he was going to cry as he told her, but he hadn’t. Neither had she. She’d told him she understood, and thanked him for being so kind. Then she’d offered him a cup of tea in a slightly too high and panicky tone, and he’d politely declined with a gentle smile.
All so long ago now, of course.
Once the policeman left, Miriam was all alone. She and Donald had never had any children. Nearly, once – so nearly – but then after the accident there couldn’t be any more children. And so Miriam had been left all alone, with an empty pit in her broken heart and an even emptier void throbbing away in her barren, useless womb.
Miriam left the tulips in the graveyard and made her way home. She passed the houses nearest the church – the church with its rebuilt steeple – and waved at Ruth Paynter, who was just coming out of her front door. She waved back, and nodded her head so gently that it was almost imperceptible. Ruth had been in the village as long as Miriam. She knew Donald and would know that today was his birthday. The village celebrated it every year. All of Donald’s old pals would descend on the local pub – there was only one, The Plough – and drink a toast (several, if truth be told) in his honour. Donald’s old pint pot – he’d always said it was a family heirloom, but Miriam knew that was just a story he’d invented – still sat on a high shelf behind the bar.
Donald had loved The Plough. In truth, Miriam thought he’d loved it more than he’d ever loved her. He would go down to that pub most nights, often as an extension of his cliff top walks, and then he would drink until the early hours (licensing laws counted for nothing in the countryside) with the other locals. Occasionally Miriam would join them, but only rarely. No, usually it would be just Donald, holding court with his friends. They all loved him, hence the annual celebration of his life. He would walk into that pub and make people smile. He would leave at the end of the night all laughs and jokes.
And then he would stagger home, crash in through the door, and become something else entirely.
As Miriam made her way across the village, a young girl walked past, pushing a pram. Miriam remembered that girl – Abigail Forster – being in a pram herself. How time flew. Children grew and became young adults, had children of their own. Eventually they would become grandparents, those same children Miriam had cooed over when they were still snuggled up in knitted blankets and old terry nappies. It was nice. She loved to see them growing up, even though they made her feel old.
She often wondered what her own child would have been like. Would it have looked like her, or Donald? Her, she hoped. In the months after the accident – her’s, not Donald’s – that had been all she could think about. When she’d been laid in hospital, and then later at home, Donald had been by her side day and night. That had been the worst time of Miriam’s life. She could still remember that awful feeling in her stomach. One day her body had been holding a new life inside of it, and then the next, that life – her baby, their baby, Donald’s baby – had been taken out of her and placed inside a bag to be taken to an incinerator.
After the baby was gone, Donald had kept stroking her forehead, and with every touch of his fingers, another small part of her had withered and died inside. She said nothing for days.
The cottage where Miriam lived was on the edge of the village. Like most of the dwellings in Flintsea, it was small and claustrophobic, but it suited Miriam just fine. The house stood on its own, a hundred yards or so from the school (still open, but only just), and then a further distance from the next cottage on the way into the centre of the village. Miriam unlocked the front door and slipped inside.
The kitchen was resolutely unmodernised. The old stone floor was still there in all its glory, the heavy flags cold as ice on a winter’s morning but comfortingly warm in the summer. The heavy wooden door to the cellar was also unaltered since the house had been built. That door… behind it a flight of stone stairs led down into the small cellar beneath the cottage.
Miriam removed her coat and draped it over one of the kitchen chairs, to be hung up later. Again she looked to the old cellar door. She always remembered it – the accident. That’s what she called it then, an accident.
She opened the door and looked down into the gloom as the whole thing played back in her head, like it did time and time again, every day, over and over.
Miriam has been in the cellar fetching logs for the fire. As she comes back up the stairs she hears Donald arrive home, crashing in through the front door like he always does at this time of night. Drunk. Immediately Miriam thinks of going back down into that cellar and hiding down there in the dark, but she knows he’ll find her in the end, and if she makes him angry it will be so much worse. Besides, tonight could be a good night. He might be tired. He might even go straight to bed and leave her to sit downstairs in peace, alone. He might, if she’s lucky.
She steps into the kitchen and Donald is there, smiling. His face is red as if he’s been running home. He reaches down and grabs himself through his pants, kneading his penis, all the time smiling at Miriam. He is salivating, his breathing deep and threatening. “Hello, darling,” he says, “Come here.”
“Donald,” Miriam says, “I don’t feel well. The baby…”
She doesn’t see him move but he’s in front of her, grabbing her throat and pushing her back against the frame of the cellar door. “Please…” she says, her words barely audible as he squeezes her throat harder. He’s pulling his pants down and groping for her skirt with the same hand, fumbling around in his drunkenness and struggling to get to her. He is so drunk he can’t get his hand working properly. Miriam senses her chance and tries to pull away. She shoves as hard as she can – as hard as she dare – and he staggers back into the middle of the kitchen. The look on his face is one she has never seen before – but then, she has never dared fight back before. But the baby – she has to protect the baby.
He roars like a wounded animal and flies at her before she has time to think. As he clatters into her, sending her flying, the cellar door bangs wide open and her foot slips on the top step. Those steps, so old and uneven… so dangerous.
Miriam falls, downwards, into the cellar, down those steep stone stairs. She doesn’t remember hitting the bottom.
The doctors told her later that she was lucky to be alive. She wanted to tell them they were wrong.
These days, she is careful on those stairs. Nobody knows better than Miriam how hazardous they are. She picks her way down the steps, one by one, until she reaches the bottom, where a small lamp sits on a wooden shelf only just large enough to hold it. She switches the light on.
Miriam picks up the metal dog bowl from the floor. Underneath the stone staircase, behind the old oak supports, is a stack of cans of dog food. She fetches one, pops the lid and empties the contents into the dog bowl.
She places the dog bowl back on the floor and then sends it sliding across the cellar with her foot.
“Hello Donald,” she says. Donald won’t answer of course – he no longer speaks, hasn’t done for years. He looks up at her from the corner of the cellar and then scrabbles for the dog food, moving on all fours, the chains around his hands and feet clinking against the old iron rings in the cellar wall. He gave up struggling against the chains years ago too.
Miriam turns her back on him, flicks the light off, and slowly heads back up the stairs.
“Oh, and Donald…” she calls as she approaches the sanctuary of the kitchen, “Happy Birthday.”
Nick Boldock is a writer from East Yorkshire who has been published in print in “Radgepacket: Tales From The Inner Cities” (Byker Books) and “Fathom 10” (Fathom Press) as well as online at Pulp Metal, Radgepacket Online and Thrillers, Killers & Chillers. He is working on a novel and a whole host of short stories.