Thursday 4 May 2023

Martha by Charlotte Parsons, double espresso

The wind circles the house. It catches the bunting in my neighbour’s garden, and now it flutters and snaps in the wind like a rotten flag.

            I get up for work up before I need to.

            I cough. It travels from a sour belly of wretched anxiety and becomes a tickly hum in my mouth.

            I can’t just lie here and listen. I can’t, especially now that he’s not here.


The cat jumps off the bed and follows me down the stairs with a friendly meow. I put her food in her bowl and watch her tuck in with relish to the slick meat.  She tongues the plate clean as it chinks across the tiled floor and I wait for the kettle to boil.

            I face the window, catch my reflection, indistinct lines of me bobbing a teabag into my mug. The garden gate suddenly swings open. I look past my reflection in a splintered instant, into the dark forest.  A shiver runs up from my bare feet off the cold tiles. This winter has seemed longer than most; the dark has felt like a tunnel which I’ve been stumbling through, seeking out the light at the end. How I long to feel summers breath on my skin. Catch a burn on my shoulders. I long for the days to be longer and give me time to reshuffle these feelings, time to sit and breathe.  The constant misty rain makes me take short breaths, makes me look downwards, inwards.

            I get ready at my dressing table. It’s a sturdy looking thing I bought at an auction. One of the first things I bought and felt like a grown woman. Perfume bottles, lipsticks, balls of make-up soiled cotton wool are strewn across the surface,  an empty wine glass with an old coating of red wine at the bottom that will probably never come off.  I stare at my face, my makeup sticks into the creases that spider across the puffy skin under my eyes. I pull on my black tights and skirt. Even this reminds me of him.  Having our morning coffee and sharing grumbles until the caffeine had done its magic and the day seemed doable and we would kiss, he would drag me to bed from my dressing table, one last cuddle before I got changed for work. The smell of his t-shirt.  It seems so recent, I could grab at the vision of the memory.  It passes. 

            Drawing my jacket around me, I start my short walk to work in the village.  I coil my scarf around my neck and burrow my mouth and nose down in to it.  Nearly 6:45 in the morning and it’s still inky dark, not even the hint of the sun light penetrating upwards, sending a fade of pink to yellow to white or blue.

I pass the graveyard by the ancient church. The pub light opposite dances on sparkling quartz in the granite headstones. Its monolithic bell tower rises up and through its silhouette I can see the sky is a lighter black, a bluer black.  There is a grave for a woman who was murdered right here two hundred years ago. Her name was Martha, she was robbed, her throat cut. The pub light shines on it so I can trace lines around the granite cross, make shadows in corners of the yard that I can’t bring myself to look right into.

            I have to tell myself it’s not that dark, it’s not that early, people are waking in their beds, switching off alarms, bobbing teabags in mugs,  rubbing their tired expressions in the windows that reflect their own faces back at them. I can almost smell the stale, fatty smell of frying food. Maybe it’s just a fire, the smoke caught on the wind.

            A rustling comes from the hedges as I come to the curve in the lane, it’s darkest here. The trees overhang the road and the solitary street lamp seems to serve to accentuate the lack of visibility elsewhere. I pass the field of rotting cauliflowers; there is a path that leads out of it into the lane through thick, high hedgerows. The rustling again, something sounds as if it is running alongside me, an animal perhaps? My heartbeat pulses in my head. I’m telling myself to run, but from what exactly?  As I continue to walk my breath comes out strange and hard.

            I see the curve of the bench, its iron arms glint in the meagre street light, halfway up the hill for walkers. It’s nestled in the ivy in the pathway. If I had my torch, I would shine a light on it. There would be someone there. Then they would be up close to my face, rancid and screeching. I keep going, past the rusty gate that leads up to someone’s back garden.

            The trees bend in the breeze and creak and crack. They had to cut them back in the summer, the trees.  They hit a wasp’s nest. I would hear the low murmur of buzzing each time I came up the hill in the dry heat. My legs would be aching from a long, wrought day on my feet.  He was still there when I got home then; we would go for a cold beer and rant about our worst customers and laugh. It’s the same every day, but he’s not there anymore and people get tired of asking if you’re okay. My heartache shifts and changes but to everyone else it’s the same ache that must be getting less and less.

            I glance down at the orange street light peppered across the wet concrete. The wind has gone away and the buds are starting to return, when I finish late it’s no longer dark. But it’s still dark in the morning and that’s when I see Martha . There was a woman who was murdered here a long time ago.  I think of her a lot. Her walk to the nearby villages where I’ve read she was selling salt. I wonder if she felt afraid walking in these silent lanes, across ancient fields where only moonlight could guide you home.I told a customer what I saw and they said I was lying. Their eyes flickered and darkened when I told them. They didn’t believe me or they think I’m crazy.

I look down and know she is there.  She stares at me with terror in her eyes, her arm outstretched to me. I would walk past, my head down, press my mouth into my scarf, a low scream escaping me.  It’s always the same, she puts out her hand and I recoil and run. She looks stricken, unsurprising really. Yet, there really is nothing I can do.

Today, is different. I stop. Martha stands beneath the streetlight, the blood iridescent on her throat. I look at her and meet her panicked eyes, and I realise something. She isn’t holding out her hand, she is pointing and she is looking behind me. I turn too slowly; a shadow has emerged from behind me. I turn too slowly.

About the author

 Charlotte Parsons lives in Cornwall and works as an online English teacher as well as a barista in a small village cafe. She spends all of her spare time reading or writing fiction.
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  1. I’m hooked! need to know the rest of the story! :)

    1. Pretty sure it ends with a new Martha!

  2. Great story!!
    Pulled me in from the first sentence, full body chills at the end... can't wait to read more!