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Friday, 4 April 2014

The Romany Princess



            “Funny really, getting this,” the old lady commented reflectively.  “I never had much time for royalty.  Always thought they were a waste of money.”

            Clutched between her twisted fingers she held the royal telegram, crushed into a ball like so much waste paper.  It didn’t seem to mean much to her, living long enough to claim her prize.

            Stella watched her uncomfortably, wondering how coherent she could expect her to be.  She was Stella’s Great Aunt Bess, the sister to whom her grandmother had not spoken since the first world war.

            Although they had never met before, she knew the story well.  Their quarrel had been talked about frequently and with bitterness by Stella’s grandmother, who had been engaged, at the age of sixteen, to a handsome sailor.  She had loved him dearly, but her own sister had set out to destroy the romance.  Bess had met him first, had been jealous when he transferred his affections to Edith, and her jealousy had festered as their wedding plans took form.  So she had lied, had told him Edith had been unfaithful, and he had accepted her story.  Since then, the two sisters had had no contact with each other.

            “So you’re Mary’s girl, are you?”  Bess said now.

            Stella nodded.

            “That’s right,” she replied.  “I’m Stella MacKenzie.”

            “Edie’s granddaughter,” she murmured thoughtfully.

            Seeing her now, it was hard to believe that she had ever been young, had ever been susceptible to the yearnings and schemes of a teenage girl.  She had become a grim parody of a human being, shrunken and withered by the common enemy of good and bad alike.

            Stella’s uneasiness on first accepting her invitation faded a little when she heard her cracked voice, saw the way arthritis twisted her limbs.  There are few of us who do not feel the desire to protect and cosset the very old, to absolve them of past sins as though they had been committed in another lifetime.

            Stella had prepared for this visit with a blend of apprehension and curiosity;  she wanted to meet the woman she had heard so much about, the woman of whom her own mother had recently remarked:  ‘even Jesus doesn’t want her;  that’s why she’s still alive.’

            She wanted to hear her side of the story, for she had no doubt that it was that which the old woman intended to tell her.  If someone so very ancient felt the need, in her twilight days, to ease her conscience, Stella felt it would be wrong to refuse her.

            She still lived alone, tending to her own needs with the aid of a home help two mornings a week, which aroused Stella’s grudging admiration.  She had not expected everything to be so modern and functional.  She was expecting her environment to be as archaic as the lady herself, but that assumption was to do her an injustice, for she had made the place easy to manage.  There was a deep red fitted carpet with a small pattern of black woven into it; the three piece suite had removable covers which went into the washing machine and the fire was one of the modern, coal effect gas models.

            Her only visible concession to the past was a massive walnut sideboard which stood against one wall, laden with greetings cards of various shapes and sizes which obscured the few photographs in their silver frames.

            She sat in a high backed armchair beside the fire and looked at Stella expectantly, her dark eyes wandering over her as though searching for some hint of familiarity, while Stella tried to think of something to say to her, something that

would not display her pre-conceived notions about her.  But she could not seem to project her thoughts beyond the fact that this woman was born into this world one hundred years ago today.

            Inevitably, she could do nothing but wait for Bess to speak.  There was no delicate way to prompt the regrets Stella was sure she wished to voice, and she felt like a benevolent arbitrator, awaiting a confession.  She believed that her aunt was suffering an angry conscience as death drew near for her, and she had come prepared to accept a belated apology on her grandmother’s behalf.  Her complacent beliefs were shattered when Bess said:

            “I want to tell you about Rose.”

            Stella looked as startled as she felt, and she could feel the anger mounting within her.  She realised the old woman had no intention of trying to atone for the past.  That had never been her purpose in bringing Stella to her home, and she had never pretended that it was.  Stella felt embarrassed by her own folly and assumptions.  And she had absolutely no idea who Rose might be.

            The old woman raised an eyebrow sceptically, as though she had read Stella’s thoughts, and a slow smile crept over her mouth, revealing a subtle ghost of the beauty that had once been hers.  She had small, even features and large, almost black eyes, even now only slightly faded.  Her hair was almost entirely white, but there were streaks of black still visible beneath.  She bore no resemblance whatsoever to Stella’s grandmother.

            Bess shifted in her armchair, seeming to settle herself more comfortably, and Stella was afraid she was getting ready for a long story.  She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, hoping she wouldn’t take too long about it.  But, restless though she was, she couldn’t quite believe she was meeting her at last.

            Her reference to someone Stella had never heard of made her doubt that she really knew who her great niece was, and she seemed to read that doubt in her face.

            “You needn’t look at me like that, Miss,” she snapped.  “I suppose you thought I was too senile to understand, did you?”  She sighed softly.  “That’s what most people think when you get to my age.  They treat you like some sort of backward child.  You’ll find out one day.”

            Stella’s grandmother had always said that her sister had a tongue that could cut glass.  It was clear that time had failed to mellow Great Aunt Bess.

            “Edie’s granddaughter,” she repeated.  “You don’t look like her.  Not a bit.”

            “I’ve been told I resemble my father.”

            She shrugged.

            “Never met him,” she said.  “Never met your mother, either.”

            Stella felt resentment gathering once more.  She was prepared to be forgiving, but if her aunt wanted to be belligerent about the quarrel, she saw no reason why she shouldn’t have her say.

            “I know about the feud between you and my grandmother,” she replied.  “From what I’ve heard, you played no small part in it.”

            She smiled, but it was a menacing smile that made Stella wish she hadn’t spoken.

            “Is that what you heard?”  Bess said, then swung away from the subject with:  “Mary must have been knocking on a bit when she had you.”

            “She was in her forties,” she replied stiffly.

            “I’m glad you don’t look like Edith.  I wouldn’t have liked that.  I’ve kept my secret for seventy-five years.  I don’t think I could tell it to anyone who reminded me of Edie.”

            “I can’t believe you still hate my grandmother,” Stella protested.

            “I’m not surprised you don’t know about Rose,” Bess went on, ignoring her.  “That stuck-up bigot Edie married thought he was too good for the likes of us.  He wouldn’t have let her mention Rose.”  She leaned forward suddenly and peered into Stella’s face.  “Is he dead?”  She demanded sharply.  “Reg, I mean.”

            “Yes, he is.  He died about twenty years ago, actually.”


            Stella could feel the shock taking shape on her face.  She had never met anyone who would say such a thing about the dead, no matter how much they had disliked them.

            “I know you didn’t get on with him,”  she said defensively.  “But he was my grandfather.”

            “That’s your misfortune, dear.”  She relaxed back in her seat.  “I could tell you a thing or two about Mr. High-and-Mighty Parrish!”

            Stella bit down on her animosity.  She told herself firmly that her aunt was an old lady, that she must try to be tolerant.

            “Don’t take it personally, love,” Bess said.  “I’ve got things to say, a story to tell, and I’ve already had thirty years more than the Bible allows.”

            She leaned forward once more, wincing with the arthritic pain in her spine, and her eyes glowed with an intensity that convinced Stella to hear her out.  “It’s only fair, you see,” she went on.  “I’ve done what Rose wanted.  I’ve kept my promise, all my life I’ve kept it.  But I won’t take the truth to the grave with me.”

            Stella was growing impatient with her cryptic references to someone she knew nothing about.

            “But who is Rose?”  She demanded.

            “Rose was my sister,” Bess answered quietly.  “The eldest of the lot of us;  well, all of us that survived, that is.  There were many before her, and a few after her, but they never lived long enough to notice.”

            “Your sister?”  Stella repeated stupidly.  “There was another sister?  I always thought you were the eldest.”

            She shook her head slowly, her eyes misting with fleeting sorrow.

            “I often wondered whether you and your mother were ever told anything about her.  That’s why I asked you here, to tell you all about it.”

            Stella nodded her agreement, somewhat reluctantly.  There didn’t seem to be anything else she could do.  The old woman had aroused her curiosity and she didn’t want to risk offending her and have to go away without ever knowing what she had to say.

            “Fifteen children my mother brought into the world,” she began, “and there were just the five of us left.  Rose, me, Edith, Billy and Nina.”

            Stella nodded eagerly, relieved to hear familiar names.

            “Billy was the one who died of pneumonia,” Stella said.

            “That’s right.  And it was his death that started it all.”

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