The slow ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece and the crackle of the fire were the only sound in the little parlour. Her tears were silent, red as heart’s blood with the reflected flame.
“I don’t think you’re allowed up there…” The voice of the harassed young mother recalled her errant children and the weeper held her breath. The text had come through as she wandered the mock-Victorian streets of the museum. It wasn’t a surprise, she had known it was coming. Even so…
The low ceiling and discrete booths of the Hark to Rover pub had seemed like a place to escape from the curious stares. A party of schoolchildren was being led through the reconstructed streets by guides dressed as figures from the past. Grown-ups don’t cry in public. Not even when the bottom has fallen out of their world.
She had waited in the shadows, but still the tears came. Stupid tears… she had always known it would come. But she had hoped. Wished…
A youngster wandered into the pub. A toddler, no more than two years old, a cherub with unruly gold curling about her head and blue eyes that seemed to see to the heart of grief. She could hear her mother’s voice. Unable to face the world, not yet, she had slipped up the stairway, past the ‘no entry’ sign, letting the gate swing closed behind her.
The voices receded, yet still she waited, finally taking stock of where she stood. A tiny parlour, dimly lit and draped in red chenille. The tiger skin rug and ornate marble and ormolu sideboard looked too exotic for the polished mahogany darkness of the room. There was something comforting about place that reminded her of her grandmother… a smell of beeswax, lavender and coal dust.
Silence. She breathed a sigh of relief, cut short when the big winged chair creaked.
“Don’t sniff, dear.” A wrinkled hand held out a lace-edged handkerchief. “He isn’t worth it.”
“How…?” There was a rich chuckle as the hand beckoned.
“I haven’t always been this old, you know.” The old lady with twinkling eyes swished aside her wide bombazine skirt, indicating a footstool. She carefully folded the white-work and laid the sewing on the table beside her. “Now, sit down and tell me all about it.”
The tears came in earnest then, spilling into the lap of the old lady. This was the comfort she needed, the safe place she no longer had. It wasn’t just him. It was everything…
The old lady stroked the curling, golden hair that spilled over her skirts, making cooing sounds and waiting till the storm had passed. Then she talked, nonsense of course, about a future that would unfold in its own good time. A future filled with love and laughter, troubles shared and burdens halved. Nonsense, but reassuring.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed quarter to five.
“And now you must go before the door closes.” She smiled down into the damp blue eyes and patted her hands. “It’ll be alright, you’ll see. Chin up, child.”
A quick embrace and a glance back at the little parlour, fixing it in her memory as a place to which she could return when the tears came again.
“Good evening, miss.” The museum guard looked at her sternly as she approached the turnstile.
“Oh!” She looked down at the beautiful lace-edged handkerchief. Perhaps it belonged to the museum? “The lady in the parlour gave me this… I’m not sure I should take it.”
“The parlour, miss?”
“Yes, the old woman playing the Victorian lady. In the room above the pub.”
“We don’t have any old ladies re-enacting, miss. Above the Hark to Rover, you say? But miss, that room’s not been a parlour these twenty years! Not sin’ afore you was born, I reckon!” He rubbed his chin. “They sealed it up right after… It’s a bedroom now, and closed to the public, you kin only see in through a window… Hey!”
She ran back the way she had come. The pub door was open, but the gate was barred. Sure enough, there was only a little window looking into a Victorian bedroom with no door. The clock stood still, marking quarter to five on the mantelpiece. She looked down at the crumpled lace in her hands. In the corner, embroidered in white, she saw the letters ‘V. R’… her own initials…