Alice Jolly

Arrangements Have Been Made

I walk through the house looking for you. I know this house well but now, of course, it is quite changed. The sounds of my feet are silenced by your cream carpets. I pull open one door after another, feeling watched, judged. They will come at midday and then we will all gather at 12.30. Lipstick applied, black pencil skirt now found to be slightly too tight, postcode already keyed into the sat nav. We really do not have time to spare. Where are you?

      I hurry past the long landing windows although I might like to stop and look out. After all, it is an offensively pleasant day and the garden is glossily verdant after last night’s rain. You always loved the garden. Even now the wheelbarrow stands in the middle of the lawn. During the last three months, when I have come to visit, I have tidied the beds with you trailing behind me, pointing out what should be pruned.
      Such activities were part of the rituals of determined calm, of robust good humour. Part of the performance of breezy normality. No panic, no hysteria. I also helped with other minor household tasks. Re-organising your bedside table, arranging the many vases of flowers so you could see them from your bed. I did that because you were always quite particular about the house. You liked things to be artfully arranged.
      Now every window is streaked and dusty. Dead flies gather on windowsills. Paintings which you bought but never managed to hang are stacked against walls. Everywhere smells of decaying cut flowers. Maybe I will find you on the top floor. I hitch my too-tight black skirt up above my knees, then hurry up the cramped attic stairs, peer along the slanting corridor. Your behaviour now is rather silly and you know that.
      Occasionally, I think I hear you. A rustle or a suppressed cough, the soft click-close of a door. The house turning and settling, finding a new and reluctant stability in this changed time. You were told the arrangements. You cannot claim you did not know. The person you were – the person I knew – was never a person to make trouble for others. But who are you now in this bruised and severed world? Who can tell?
      I search the bathroom on the top floor and then the bedrooms. Brass beds, velvet quilts, Victorian wardrobes and dressers. Dark floor rugs with faded but intricate patterns, curtains made of jewel-coloured silks. Fringed lampshades. Soft brown, dark red, dusty plum, emerald green. You always loved a Gothic look, a fairy tale style, a gingerbread house. Something burlesque, performative, eccentric.
      Still, I don’t think you would hide in a wardrobe or under a bed. This is not a silly children’s game. The rituals we will enact today are for grown-ups, definitely for grown-ups. We have all aged rapidly in the last few months. As I shut a door, I hear movement on the floor below. I hurry to the stairs, look over the bannister. I catch a glimpse of you. Silver hair, tall and slightly snake-like. A flexibility in the waist and a flickering speed of movement.
      There was always something of the trickster in you. I half expect you to appear from behind a door, raise an entirely feminine top hat before evaporating again in a pantomime puff of smoke. You always thought that the rules did not apply to you and, for so many years, you were right. I sometimes thought of you as the woman who is sawed in half at the circus. With one leap she was free.
      You did not wink at people. You were never obvious enough for that but you did have that quizzical look – a look which said – you and me, we know, don’t we? When you gave me that look, we both of us laughed, delighted by the sheer strangeness of this pageant life. But not anymore. I hurry down the stairs. I know you do not want to go. I understand that fully and completely. You are not ready. I do understand.
      I did not make the arrangements. I do hope you are not going to make this difficult. It has already been quite hard enough. I might like to say – do you not at least owe me this? But the truth is that you do not owe me anything, never did. The pleasure was always mine. In all the time I knew you, I felt lucky and you never felt like a burden. Until you were – and we both knew it and hated it.
      Why this now? Come on. Please, be reasonable. I am searching in the kitchen, the boiler room, the larder, the cloakroom. It occurs to me that you might have left the house, gone into the garden, or the garage, or even out across the fields. A cold panic rises. What would we do then? I go to the back door, turn the handle but find that the door is locked. In the sitting room, the French windows are also closed and the keys have been taken away. 
      So Paul knew that this might happen and he thought ahead, secured the house. He knew that it might be difficult to lay hold of you. I am impressed by Paul. I always have been. He has worked in security, shipping, construction. He is a practical and efficient man. I know that was one of the reasons why you married him. You were a practical person yourself and you knew that Paul would always deal with any difficulty without making a fuss.
      Yet even he will find this challenging. If I do not find you soon then I will have to ask for his help. He is in no fit state. It is not fair on him. He will be getting ready – dark suit carefully pressed, tie pulled up smartly and positioned neatly at the neck of his white shirt. I do not want to disturb him. The house is not so large. I just need to check again and I will find you.
      I search the attic rooms once more. I check the large cupboard next to the bathroom, shake out the curtains in each room, look under the beds. This is silly. It is twelve o’clock. Everything else is ready. Ladies in the kitchen are making sandwiches, laying out cups for tea, cutting cake into neat pieces. The means of conveyance is in the sitting room and it has been there since early this morning.
      Please. Are you listening? Follow the instructions you have been given. I know you don’t want to go. I don’t want you to go either. I would give anything, anything. As I am coming down the main stairs, the front doorbell rings. Oh hell, they are here and we are not ready. They might be annoyed. Although I suppose they probably do see this quite often. Probably, in their line of work, they see many things.
      There are four of them. All in dark suits, discreet, polite. Their voices low. Paul has opened the door to them. They wait in the hall, hands clasped behind their backs. Paul comes up the stairs, shakes his head, shrugs. His face says – a bad business but what did we expect? He hurries up the stairs to check the top floor again. I search the first-floor bedrooms although I know you are not there.
      I hear Paul go back downstairs and speak to the men in the hall. He has no choice now but to involve them in this search. It is midday. This is the time appointed. It cannot be changed. Please, please, will you listen to me? Stop hiding. You have to go with them now. You have to follow the instructions they will give you. I know, darling, I know. But please, please.
      This is a hunt now. No visible nets, or ropes, or guns or traps but still it feels vicious, stealthy, inevitable. The men spread out through the house. Track, exhaust, corner. Did it have to come to this? I must locate you myself and we will do this together in a calm and reasonable manner. Feet are moving, muffled but hurried, all through the house.
      Every corner is being searched again. Where would you go? The study at the back? Would Paul have locked that up? I do not think so. The men are coming down the stairs. They know now that you are somewhere on the ground floor. Did I always know that you were in the study?  Was I too frightened to go there? Please, please, do not make me do this.
      As soon as I push open the door of that expectant room, I see you. You are in the corner by the window. Right next to the desk. Quite visible. Radiant in your white dress with your silver hair hanging down and your eyes moon-blank and pleading. Your face lights with a gentle smile. Here I am. Fooled you. That top hat performance again. Perhaps if I put a lampshade on my head then they might mistake me for a lamp?
      The men now are gathering behind me. Paul is with them. You must know that you are beaten. This has already happened. It is already done. You just need to fold yourself into the means of conveyance. It is ready in the sitting room so come along. Do not look at me like that. Do not joke or laugh in the hope of persuading me. Please, please.
      But that look on your face – brazen, questioning, defiant – makes clear that you will not oblige. The men move forward but Paul raises a hand to hold them back. I do not know how he can do this. A glance of intimacy flickers between us. Until recently, I never really knew Paul. You were my friend, and he was simply a person I waved to as we passed through the kitchen.
      But over the months of your illness, we got to know each other. We had no choice. Now there exists between us some strange and unwanted knowing which arises from having seen the worst that illness can do. From having seen a loved body twisted, leaking, punctured, wasted. From having done impossible things, said impossible things, thought impossible things. We will never talk of that or this – not now, not later.
      Paul steps forward decisively, seizes hold of you. You pull back but he has grasped your wrist and his grip is tight as a vice. He begins to speak to you in a gentle voice. Come along, now. Be a good girl. We talked about this. You know how this goes. There is no other way. He is trying not to force you but what can he do? You are fighting back, twisting, teeth clenched, eyes alive with anger.
      Paul is strong and he needs to be. You have always appeared ethereal, fragile, but we all know that you are all sinew and strength and fight. Now you are grappling, wrestling. The men will not get involved unless their help is requested. It is better for me to help Paul. We have all got to be practical. I step forward, catch hold of one of your wrists, try to stop you hitting Paul. Immediately you strike out at me.
      Some unbidden anger rises now. Why are you doing this? How dare you make us suffer even more? We have done the best we can. I grab with both hands, take tight hold of your struggling wrist. Now I have you. You are cold, so cold. This is not you; this is not the person I knew. Please, don’t you understand? It is already done. We are finished here so don’t, don’t.  
      Paul and I are dragging you forward. Your wrist twists and tugs in my hands. All the strength you lost through illness has come back – and more, more. You shimmer now with a brilliant power. Your feet kick at Paul’s shins, you would scratch our faces, tear out our eyes, if you could. We are at the study door now. Please, please. Stop this now. Come on. Be good, please. Make this easy. Paul has you gripped around the waist yet still you twist away.
      Paul and I are brutal now. We start to hate you. You fling yourself onto the floor and we pin you there before Paul starts to drag you through the hall. Your white nightdress is riding up to reveal marble-white legs, shapely and strong. I let go of your hands so I can pull the nightdress down. That is a mistake. With your hand free, you grip at Paul’s neck. He calls to the men and they come to help.
      We are six people now but still you will not surrender. We carry you – snarling, biting, scratching – across the hall. The ladies in the kitchen tactfully shut the door. As we come to the door of the front room, you grab at the door frame, lock your fingers around it. If you and I were joking I would say – like putting toothpaste back into the tube. Like putting an octopus into a string bag.
      But we cannot joke now. The men unpick your grasping fingers from the door frame. We just need to get you in. Push the lid down, nail it shut. Whatever you are now, whatever you have become, still wants to say – do not think this ends here. But it does, it must. Paul is determined and he will not relent. He needs me not to weaken and I will not. You – still kicking, struggling, writhing. The men – lifting, pushing, trying to force your limbs into that narrow, satin-lined space where nothing, nothing.
      For a moment Paul weakens. I think he might sob. His face says – for God’s sake, I did not want this. Not done in such a way. I did not want. Could you not lie quiet for him? He wants to kiss your cheek and touch your hand, say his last farewells. But even now you are jumping and buckling, smashing your feet and head against the softened sides. I do not want.
      Paul moves back just one tiny step. I loosen my grip. You look up into my eyes and you are asking – why why why? Saying – I thought I could count on you. Now I cannot hold you anymore and Paul also is spent, choking, struggling with tears. You see your moment. You force yourself up, push a leg over the side, but the men are ready. They force your kicking legs straight, push your struggling arms down.
      The lid is near now, held above you. We must get it fixed in place. We must. Thank God for the men. I cannot touch that lid. Paul also cannot. Your hair is tumbling out of the side. I gather it in my hands to push it in beside you. Oh God. Oh God. Forgive us. Forgive. You have stretched your hand across your chest and your fingers now are gripped around the sides, holding tight to the wood. Do not think this ends.
      How can the men get the lid down without trapping your fingers? They must not hurt your hands. Must not damage your poor, cold, elegant fingers. Of course, it does not matter. This is already done. I know, I know. But still I don’t want your fingers to be trapped. The lid is coming down and I watch those white, claw like fingers still gripping.
      But the men know, they have done this before. They are neat and accurate, professional, compassionate. They did not know you. They can calmly prise your fingers away from the wood, push them back inside, just as the lid comes down. Down now, neatly fitted, all closed up. Done, done. Hastily the men are working to fix the lid down.
      I stagger to a chair and sit down. It is done, done. Yet your imagined eyes are still watching me, still saying – how could you? How you linger still. And I think again those poisonous thoughts which came to me sometimes in the worst of your illness. Thank God it was you and not me. The shame now of having thought that – of thinking it even now. I am sorry, I am sorry.
      Yet also thinking – how? Why? You and I would have counted ourselves as people who were at ease with death. But now the reality. This reality. The men are lifting the coffin. It is ten past twelve but we will get to the service in time. I am told the place is attractive – green and open, situated at the foot of the hills you so loved. Many people will attend. You were so loved.
      Yet still you are banging and banging. Your feet kicking against the wood, your hands bashing, scratching, thumping. Fighting, fighting. And I know that you are calling out to me in your outrage and your anger and your pain. No, no, no, no, no. So much living still to do. This does end here. I am sorry, my darling, my dear friend. I am sorry.

Alice Jolly
’s most recent novel Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was published in 2018 by Unbound. It was runner up for the Rathbones Folio Prize. Alice has also won the Pen Ackerley Prize for memoir and the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize for one of her short stories. She was awarded an O.Henry Prize in 2021 and teaches creative writing at Oxford University.

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