THE CRYSTAL BALL
AND OTHER SUPERNATURAL STORIES
by FIONA ROBERTS
Copyright Fiona Roberts 2013
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Jenny White was twenty three years old and lived in Oldham.
She hadn’t grown up in that town, or even visited it as a child, and two years ago when she had first arrived there, she hadn’t known anyone at all.
Alighting wearily from the long distance coach, hitching her backpack over one shoulder, Jenny stood on the rain-damp pavement and gazed around.
The sharp glare of low-angle winter sunshine reflecting off a dozen wet buildings hurt her eyes, and she could see little or nothing of her surroundings. That first blurred glimpse of Oldham was uninspiring; she could have been standing in the centre of any of a dozen towns in the north of England. No matter though; Jenny wasn’t particularly interested in her new environment anyway.
That fact had not changed in the last two years and Jenny was, predictably you may think, as alone now as she had been then. She could not honestly say that she really knew a living soul in Oldham.
Always a shy, withdrawn youngster, habitually preferring the company of a good book to that of her peers, Jenny’s developing character had been almost totally obliterated in childhood by a domineering, jealous mother who regarded her only child as nothing short of cheap labour, and cared not a jot for her offspring’s right to happiness.
Jenny had never known a father - indeed, things may well have been very different in her life if she had.
On the single occasion she had ventured to ask her mother where her father lived, and why he was not a part of their lives, her temerity had been rewarded with a hard, icy glare, a couple of seconds of complete silence, and then a venomous tirade, the sheer force of which sent Jenny rushing upstairs into her bedroom for sanctuary. Her mother’s voice, though muffled then by floor and ceiling, still stabbed through into Jenny’s mind, screeching that “the slag was welcome to him”, and loudly assuring the four walls of her living room, and any neighbours unfortunate enough to be nearby, that Jenny’s father would never darken her doorway again.
Jenny shivered; she felt reasonably confident that her father would never feel the urge to darken any doorway in her mother’s vicinity ever again.
Jenny’s school days were filled from earliest times with such tasks as preparing her mother’s breakfast before leaving the house in the morning; and shopping, cleaning and cooking at the end of the day; tasks which she quietly and diligently performed for a mother who rarely set one slovenly foot outside the house, or moved far from the armchair in front of the TV. A mother whose only interests began and ended with ‘self’.
While sport, dancing, partying and having fun were frequent fixtures on her classmates’ busy teenage agendas, Jenny took part in no social activities at all; her constant refusals to participate in any way had swiftly seen to that.
Her usual brief, “I’m sorry, I can’t,” uttered quietly, and without the benefit of eye contact cut no ice with the average teenager, whose hormonal self-centeredness left no room for the dissemination of even a smattering of sympathy in her direction. They didn’t understand. And why should they? Jenny had never offered any explanation for her standoffishness, had never ventured any excuse, and had certainly never mentioned the fact that her mother would not countenance her daughter’s absence from the house for any reason other than necessary errands or shopping.
The flow of invitations from her peers, though never more than a trickle even at its height, rapidly dried up.
Jenny was at no time aware that anyone at all felt sorry for her, and indeed it is true to say that those who secretly did could be counted on the fingers of one hand. For Jenny did not inspire such feelings in her fellow humans, and those eyes that glanced in her direction did not linger long there.
Life itself can seem unbearably cruel to those who pass through its waters without making a single tell-tale wave to mark their presence. They may as well be invisible. And so it was with Jenny, as she navigated the choppy waters of her teens in the silence of the unnoticed.
If you’d asked her at any time if she was unhappy Jenny would have looked at you in that rather odd way of hers – head tilted, eyes narrowed, mouth slightly open, and asked you to explain what you meant. You see, to Jenny her life was just that; her life, and she got through it in the only way she knew how. She was neither happy nor sad with the cards that this particular incarnation had dealt her; she neither analyzed nor dwelt glumly upon her situation, she just moved on from one day to the next.
Jenny didn’t know it but her emotional development had been stunted, maybe even twisted by her upbringing. Starved of emotional expression in her formative years, Jenny grew into a young adult completely unaware of her deeply buried, latent emotional nature.
She looked on dispassionately as classmates cried over heart-break teen affairs; and she could not manage to join in with the enthusiastic screaming of her peers when a minor pop celebrity visited the school. She remained shockingly unmoved when her class was shown film of tiny children starving in an African country; and she could not even begin to understand her classmates’ communal dismay when a well-known Boy Band split up.
So, human nature being such as it is, Jenny eventually found herself out in the cold and isolated. The teenage herd has no mercy for those who are in some way different, or for those who do not conform, so Jenny subsequently became side-lined in every area of school life, and totally ignored socially. And there, in that grey and dismal hinterland, she remained for the rest of her schooldays, and beyond.
By the time Jenny left school she had not had even one ‘girlie’ conversation with a group of giggling friends – actually she had never had a friend to call her own, someone to share her adolescent thoughts and experiences with, to laugh and cry inexplicably with; and even those who would simply deign to pass the time of day with her were seriously thin on the ground.
By this time the woman Jenny called mother, and for whom she harboured only feelings of utter disgust, had actually become unable to fend for herself. Stella White had never done much fending anyway – why keep a dog and bark yourself, she’d always said.
As we make our way through this life, absorbing its experiences; making necessary decisions; facing the consequences of our actions; interacting with our fellow humans; we gradually crystallise into what we really are. We become ourselves. And Stella had finally become the lazy, slovenly, self-absorbed and bitter woman who had always been there, hidden beneath a thin veneer of ladylike behaviours.
Stella White’s liberal intake of ill-chosen food, coupled with half a lifetime’s addiction to alcohol and tobacco, had wrought havoc with her body and mind over the years. The short trip from her bedroom to the old, sagging armchair in front of the TV was the only bit of exercise she had had for almost as long as Jenny could remember.
Now Jenny looked at her mother where she sat propped up on cushions in her armchair, unable to rise unaided, unable to reach out and grasp the cup of tea that was going cold on the table at her side, and saw her for exactly what she was; Jenny had always known what lay beneath.
Even the normally reticent Dr Brown, who had never willingly entered into any kind of conversation with Jenny over the past fifteen years of house visits to her mother, now took her aside and asked what she intended doing,
“What about?” Jenny asked him, genuinely surprised by the question. It flashed through her mind that probably the only words she had ever previously heard Dr Brown say were,
“Here you are dear,” as he handed her yet another prescription that she would have to collect from the pharmacy for her mother,
“Your mother needs looking after, her health is deteriorating rapidly,” the Doctor said quietly, “and she will need substantial on going care,” He paused, and looked Jenny straight in the eyes for a moment before asking the all-important question, “Can you cope?”
“Yes,” Jenny answered with barely a pause, and although that single word carried no particular emotion or emphasis, and gave nothing away, the Doctor was reassured. He left, promising to organise a carer or two to help Jenny out with her mother once or twice a week.
Jenny closed the door after him, noticing as the elderly Doctor stepped over the threshold and down onto the pavement that the backs of his shiny brown shoes were scuffed.
Jenny coped. She looked after her mother, and day after day she fed, bathed, medicated and dressed the woman she loathed, the woman who had never once uttered a kind or motherly word to her, or even acknowledged the fact that Jenny had a right to a life of her own.
The days became weeks, and the weeks became months. A year passed. Little changed in the household. The daily routine eventually became enshrined in concrete, and ran smoothly like a well-oiled machine.
Jenny cared admirably for her mother, not because she loved Stella, not because she felt a daughter’s sense of duty towards her, but simply because, in Jenny’s life, it was the next thing to do.
Milestones crept past. Jenny turned twenty one and her mother turned fifty five. Neither occasion was celebrated.
Stella grew physically weaker, and as her health deteriorated so did her temper. Now the carers came and went with stony expressions on their faces, remaining mute in the face of constant and unjustified tongue-lashings and sarcastic jibes from their patient. They wondered how Jenny coped and whispered to each other that although she was a cold fish, Jenny really must be a devoted daughter; she must be.
The inevitable day crept closer, closer, and finally dawned.
The sun had barely risen as Jenny stood looking down at her mother’s body, seeming quite small and somehow pointless now beneath the bedcovers. It occurred to her that she felt nothing at all in the face of this trauma. It was reminiscent of those times at school when her classmates had all shared in the emotion of the moment, and Jenny was left looking on, aware that she felt nothing; vaguely conscious that some part of her was lacking, anchored just beyond her reach.
She phoned the doctor, cancelled the carers, washed the dishes, and still felt nothing.
“You’ll be able to make a life for yourself now,” Dr Brown said kindly as he left the house later that morning.
“Will I?” Jenny said.
“Of course you will. You can get a job now, and make some friends. Things will be very different for you from now on,” and the doctor patted her gently on the arm before walking off along the short, narrow road to where he had parked his car. He turned and waved to Jenny before he got behind the wheel and drove away.
Jenny didn’t doubt that things would be different for her, but she looked towards her future with the weariness born of indifference.
Two weeks later all trace of Stella White had gone from her small, two up two down terraced house, situated in a nondescript back street, in a small southern town.
Jenny carefully and methodically disposed of every one of her mother’s possessions. She had to get the local council to collect the bed and armchair, but everything else, even her clothes, went in the bin.
Stella White was wiped clean away.
Jenny walked slowly around the almost bare house, revelling in its pristine emptiness. She was glad her mother had gone.
But Jenny couldn’t wipe her mother clean away from inside her mind which, like a hyperactive DVD player reproduced, unbidden, a series of scenes from her childhood again and again. The sound of her mother’s cruel, sarcastic laughter filled her head as Jenny saw herself tripping and spilling a cup of just poured tea down her school blouse, gasping as the hot liquid burnt her skin and brought tears to her eyes. And she winced yet again as her mother gleefully ripped up the treasured school report which showed that Jenny had come top of her class in a number of subjects, and her teachers envisaged a bright academic future for her.
It was in the middle of a particularly sleep disturbed night that Jenny decided to move house.
She was tired of trying to escape the sound of her mother’s voice running through her dreams; tired of closing her eyes only to see her mother berating her yet again for not boiling an egg long enough; and most of all she was tired of the all-pervading smell of her mother. It filled the whole house; it reached into cupboards and drawers; it lingered on towels and bed linen; it drifted down around her in a heavy cloud from the living room curtains every time Jenny touched them.
Only the day before Jenny had gone into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, and in the dim light that filtered in through the small, grimy window panes, she clearly saw her mother standing by the sink. The figure had its back towards the door, as if Stella was leaning over the sink looking for something. There was an odd kind of light; almost a pale sapphire glow around the figure, which itself seemed strangely incandescent, as if somehow illuminated from within. Jenny stood perfectly still, staring at her mother; curious, unafraid and unmoved.
The figure straightened suddenly, and turned to face Jenny. The otherworld light around it swirled and flowed unevenly, seeming to almost fill the small room with its soft blue tones and bright, white gold sparks. The objects on the kitchen table sprang into relief and shot long, oddly coloured shadows along the pale lino on the floor; they grasped towards Jenny as she stood immobile in the doorway. The room itself seemed to sway. Unfazed, Jenny glared at the figure.
Without a doubt it was Stella. The facial features were unmistakable, and she had that sarcastic half smile on her face that Jenny remembered so well,
“You don’t belong here now!” she said sharply, and heard her mother’s stomach-churning laughter erupt all around her, as the spirit faded away into nothing, taking its unearthly light with it, and plunging the kitchen into comparative darkness. Jenny shivered.
A surprising, almost immediate sale of the house left Jenny wondering what she was going to do, where she was going to live. Her old school atlas solved the problem. Jenny opened it at a dog eared double page map of the UK, picked up a sharp pencil, closed her eyes and circled the pencil half a dozen times over where she gauged the map to be. Then she stabbed downwards, breaking the pencil’s point as it made contact with the atlas.
The rest, as they say, is history, and within a month Jenny stepped off the long distance coach in her new home town of Oldham.
The rest of this novella, and others, can be read in 'The Crystal Ball and other Supernatural Stories'.