Mabel tip toed over the wooden floor, passing her sleeping husband. The stuffiness of heat and the air of sickness filled her nostrils. At the window she took a finger and drew ‘tick-tak-toe’ in the mist that filled the small pane. She started with an 'X', always an 'X'.
Nathan stirred, pushing the wool sheet away and dropping a heavy arm on top. "You awake Darling?" she spoke softly without turning round and placing an 'O' for him in the top left. "I think you and this room needs some air. Will do you some good.” The window moved up with a little effort to get it started and the cold morning air caught Mabel's lungs with icy chill.
Giving up on her game, it wasn't much fun without Nathan's mouth turning down at the corners as she won, Mabel scratched a line through it . Standing over her husbands' grey and lined face, she gave an involuntary grimace. Not the pretty boy face a twenty six year old should have. Or the carefree one he did have when they first met. Or even the experienced face of coming home from the war in one piece. She cut a smile at the relief of him coming back, not a scratch physically. So lucky.
His eyes closed. Mabel reached for the gas lamp, ready to damp it down and as the glow surrendered from yellow to orange Nathan lids flicked open again. "Leave it on, I can see your face.” he smiled gently. "And I wouldn't have put an X there." He lifted his hand and dropped it dead, it was too much energy. Nathan licked his lips, trying to keep his throat from drying out. "I like the light.”’He let his eyes close and whispered, "Remember darling, remember our pact," as he drifted into a slumber.
Mabel stood back and smiled sweetly at her beloved. "No need to leave the evidence." She picked up his glass, swirled the remains and let the drops fall on the floor. "Remember the pact, fat chance.” She turned and gently shut the door.
Two hours later Nathan woke up dead. What the war couldn't do, Mabel did.
Mable shuffled into the hallway slamming the heavy black painted door behind. She wrapped her cardigan around tightly, wishing she had worn jeans and not these skinny leggings. The damp got into the bricks and the whole place felt cold and clammy. She hated the place.
From the kitchen her mother let the keys land on the kitchen side. "And can you give the kitchen a wipe down please?” Mabel slouched in after the voice, miming a reply that would have got her a lecture on how to not talk to your mother.
Her parent turned as the twenty one year old fell back into the corner. Reading her daughter and with tight lips she started, "Now Mabel, it's one night. The Sheridan's will be here tomorrow to measure up and i'll be straight here after I get back from your Gran’s."
"My Gran’s dead, that's why I'm here aint it?" She raised her nose.
Her mother raised her eyes. They were very much alike. "Your other Grandmother.” Shaking it out she continued. "Your Gran left you this house, its your choice to sell it, and we are all fine with that, but young lady you have to do some work. The kitchen needs a clean and get the heating on, make it nice for the new owners." Mabel knew she had lost. Her Gran had lived here all her life and her mother before her. It was from her Great Gran she got the name. And what a name. All those years at school. “Mabel syrup...Syrup and Fig...Wig...Wiggy." All through her school days that name had stuck. She hated her name. She was twenty one and most things got her temper up.
"Thank God I never have to step foot into this bloody house again." The kitchen door swept opened and both of the ladies automatically checked to see who had come in. "Bloody house." said Mabel kicking it closed again.
Tuning in the radio she hummed along to the songs as the wipe cleared a thin layer of dust that had already covered the kitchen surface. She hooked the keys up from where her mother had dropped them as the DJ shouted “Congratulations to Mandy and Kevin from Chepstow.”
The heating was up and apart from the front upstairs bedroom the house was warming nicely and becoming slightly more homely. She checked her work. Pleased with it, Mabel bounced into the living room. It needed a Hoover. Sighing at the carpet she decided that a coffee called first.
Next to the kettle lay a large brown envelope, already opened. The bottom frayed to cotton and a small letter with a very old stale picture sticking out. Tugging at it, her thoughts retraced her wiping. She hadn't moved anything and was sure, fairly sure, that there wasn't any envelope here when she cleaned. Or there again, maybe it was. Moving anything on the side was not in her nature, just a skate around.
It was old, black and white. A troop of soldiers posed in lines, some serious others showing a little grin and one circled. His face was young, cheeky and even for the size of the photograph,there was life in his eyes. Mabel beamed at him. She liked his face, It was familiar. Warmth flowed over her. The letter fell out. Fine slanting writing covered the first few lines which had faded to blue with age. The bottom of the sheet had been ripped off.
"The writing is so lovely.” she said to the radio and then mouthed the words that could be made out.....
......and we've kept our heads down as I promised. If I can't keep it safe, remember our pact and I will see you on the other side. We have a break in Paris next week, I wish I could take you. When I'm home we can have the life we pl...........
She turned over and read the last and only line.
....all my love dearest Mabel, your Nathan.
. "Ugh!” she said as it dropped back down on the side.
Yep it needs a Hoover. The carpet had a good sprinkle of toast crumbs stomped in and a dead bug or two. Mabel pulled Henry from the cupboard under the stairs and went back in to search for the attachments. Something cold and metal closed in her hand. Lifting it out to the light, she held a lamp. Copper, greened and the cracked glass bowl, lined with black dust and dead spiders. Turning it , her shoulders prickled. There was something warm, it belonged to her. A memory . She’d take it with her, a souvenir form the house .
Henry shouted his way around the furniture, the lamp sitting on top of the fire place and Mabel getting bored. She pressed in the button, and hit the television on. A documentary sprang to life. She switched over, the television didn't. Again she tried but the screen wouldn't budge. "Bloody remote, bloody house." she forced out through gritted teeth, before falling back on the sofa and curling into a ball.
With the radiator full on and the presenter droning on about the trenches, the noise of the bombs and the advances, Mabel grabbed the air with a yawn. Her eyes drifted back and her head nodded. She drooled and snored quietly .
He was stood by the window, uniform on, drawing a grid pattern. "You want to go first Mabel?" Of course she did .
Standing up she and walked over to his side. "I'll win, I always do.”
"And I'll let you. I always do.”
Mabel put in her X as his arm came around her waist, pulling her in a little closer. She felt his warmth, like the Nathan of old, not the bitter man who came home, the demanding, quick to temper stranger he'd become.
He held up his lamp to take a closer look before drawing in his O.
"Nathan?" she asked. "Are you the Nathan before the war or after?"
He turned his head down, his green eyes penetrating her brown . "I'm the real one, the one before." He winked and a cheeky grin spread over his face. Mabel blushed, the way she hadn't done it such a long time.
Her man stood erect, coughed into his fist. "Darling, I'm sorry for what I became." He finished with a nod. Silence settled between them, her waiting for more.
"And?” she asked.
"The noise, the bombs. I know it's no excuse. It all boiled up in me. And I couldn't get it out. When it did, I'm sorry, but you were there.” He bowed his head.
Mabel stuttered and started twice. "You were an angel to me, so caring, thoughtful. We got married because you were going to the front. And that was good. I was happy to be your wife. But it felt as though that as soon as you had me and I couldn't go, then you dropped the pretence and your anger came out." She put her hand to her cheek.
Her finger drew in her second X. "I'm sorry for what I did. But the violence, I couldn't carry on."
They stood in silence contemplating the next moves. He drew in his O leaving it open for her to win. "But Mabel we had a pact. We said, you said. His voice struggled to keep calm. "I can't go on, we can't go on until you come over.” Catching himself Nathan continued. "I've always loved you. The taking you out, getting you home safe. That is us. The other part was out of my control. But years of watching and waiting. I know I was wrong. And one thing you need to trust me on is that I've seen the other side and Darling, it's made for us. It's perfect."
She was listening. Her eyes dark, never leaving the movement of his mouth. He was mesmerising. His words painted the picture and she could feel the tension removing from her shoulders. The perfect place. No worrying about work, or the pressure of her parents and friends. Just her and Nathan as it was. When it was heavenly.
Nathan eyes met hers and pleaded "If I died you would join me straight away. I've waited. For such a long time. Join me Mabel , I need you. You have to do it Mabel. It was our pact.”
He glared out of the window. "We can go on as soon as you arrive. Do it Mabel. Today and we can join the stars."
Her hands drew down her face. "I don't know darling. Will it hurt?"
"No darling, like going to sleep." His face glowed, the life in the eyes sparkled. And the love for her poured out. She felt it. Knew it.
She placed in her final X and made a line through the three. "I won."
"Yes dear you always do.”
She woke with a snore and blinked her eyes awake. Uncurling her legs, Mabel stretched her back out with a grunt. The sitting room was warm, the stupid documentary had finished and now M.A.S.H was being repeated. The theme tune sung out. "Stupid old programs.” she exclaimed, hitting the button and the television went off.
It caught her eye, and she jumped up, back towards the window. The yellow glow shone through the dust bowl. Brightly lighting the room. "Mum.” she shouted in hope. Nothing came back.
She must have come in, must have lit the thing and gone. Or maybe she'd done it herself, sleep walking. Yes it must have been. She took another step in retreat and felt the cold clammy sill of the window and the condensation soaked into her woollen cardigan.
A thought jumped into her head. Her dream. She spun on the spot and faced the mist on the panes . Three X's were in a line against his two O's.
"Bloody hell" she said to herself, eyes wide and her skin tightening. Dragging her finger over the picture, it stopped with a sharp intake of breath. Above, a word had joined the game.
Her brown eyes crazed and her dark hair wild from sleep, Mabel slid quickly from the room in small silent footsteps. Out in the hall she fell back against the outer wall. Herr breathing high up and shallow.
"I'm not staying in the bloody house.” she said through her closed teeth and with a rise in anger, stomped into the kitchen. Better to fight than give in she said to the hall.
The key hook was to the left towards the back door. She didn't need to travel that far, she could see it was empty. “Where were they?” Her hand flew behind the kettle, pushed the toaster out of the way and lifted the note and picture that were sat on the side. It was a chub lock, she was stuck inside without the key.
Slamming the letter back down, Mabel stopped. It wasn't there before, she knew it wasn't. But in that slanted writing she'd noticed before, a few new words had been added.
Mabel remember our pact. if I was to go , you were to join me. I've been waiting.
Her hands went up to her blood drained face, she shook it from side to side. This was wrong. She wasn't his Mabel. Her foot came down and her temper flew out.
"Nathan Jones, I am not your Mabel." she wailed. "Do you hear me?". The house replied with silence. "Well?” she demanded.
The sound of keys slid from the wooden hall floor and skidded onto the kitchen tiles.
"Thank you very much." she shouted. "You could always be frustrating.”
Mabel stopped. He made her giggle, winked when he was being cheeky. Held her when she needed. From time to time, could be very annoying, but mostly he belonged to her.
She bit her lip and turned in the kitchen. A few seconds ago she wanted out, but things change quickly and now she wasn't so sure.
Coming out of her dream she bit down. "Of course I want out" she said. "I'm Mabel Wiggy Jones, I am not your Mabel." With the keys in hand, she fled to the door, turned it open and stepped out in to the cold winter afternoon.
The modern world was flying passed. Carpenter Road had moved on from being deadly quiet (nearly a hundred years ago) to now roaring with diesel and petrol. Less coal smoke made the air easier to breath and her vision clear. She stepped out of the gate and came to a stop.
Did it just happen, had the old house sent her into delusions? Mabel faced her house. Her gaze went up to the first floor. Nathan stood tall, peering at his girl. His eyes smiled and he winked. At that moment she knew. They belonged together.
Mabel waved to her man and he nodded back. At a sprint she flew into the road as the number sixty four from Bulwark hit top speed and also the young girl.
"Another game?” he asked as she moved into his side.
"Yes why not, I'll win you know?" Mabel drew up the grid. "So when do we move on, when do we become stars?"
Nathan winked down at her, his smile pulled tight and his skin faded from the orange glow of his lamp to the grey of his death-bed.
"Darling Mabel. I go on to the stars. Unfortunately, there are others waiting for you." The hatred behind his eyes burned into hers. "You killed me, slowly, and I waited. I waited so long for you to come to me. And when you did, you did it by taking your own life. There are somethings that you just don't get forgiven for and I've never forgiven you. You've pressed both those buttons. You'll never be free to go to the stars now”
The glow from his lamp faded to blue and with a sizzle, the room closed in. Cold, damp and surrounded by darkness Mabel called out to her man. "Nathan." She could feel the distance and as the door at the far end opened, his words echoed around her head before it closed her in again.
"Goodbye Mabel, and for once...I’ve won.”