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Reaping

* Story contains bad language

When she is feeling particularly put-upon – whenever she has been treated with less than the respect that she deserves – Dr Heather Preedy slips one hand into the deep back pocket of her mind and takes up a memory. She turns this memory in her palm, thumbing it fondly. Its edges, once rough, have long since been worked smooth by years of such tender attention. Cold to the touch, the memory is all that can be relied upon to drain the heat from Heather's temper.

With the memory comes a name; one that Heather has not spoken out loud for almost a decade, although within the safe confines of her own mind it has been intoned like a peace-giving mantra: Mrs Blythe. Mrs Blythe. Mrs Blythe. The noises of suffering (from the mouths of staff and patients alike) that echo through the ward around her; the laughter of the secretaries in the office next to her own; all these petty irritations can be reduced to nothing by this simple invocation.

Heather wonders sometimes if she still owes Mrs Blythe her title, and ought not to have progressed to first name terms by now, calling instead on 'Catherine' for her comfort. She can't quite bring herself to do it. The deference of the schoolroom was drilled into her too deeply to be challenged now. It irks Heather, this submissive mental tic; she has more than earned the right to address the woman as an equal. What they had shared, what had passed between them that night, had been so… intimate.

Nine years have passed, but each detail is as vivid to Heather as if it had happened only yesterday. If it hadn't been for her friend Angela, she thinks now as she turns the memory once more in her palm, she would have forgotten all about Mrs Blythe. If she had remembered her, she certainly wouldn't have done anything about it. But Angela got her drunk, and got her reminiscing. A lot of things can seem like a good idea after an evening like that, once you're walking home alone.

'Contrary girl,' her mother used to say, and it's true, even now, that what everybody else adores, Heather is likely to despise. Perhaps she's just a better judge than most. During Heather's childhood, this so-called contrariness of hers was endearing until it directed itself at something her mother really admired, at which point she would start muttering about Heather's father, as if it were a hereditary flaw to never share Mrs Preedy's passions. Heather learned very quickly not to say what she thought of anything until she'd gauged her mother's reaction first – and her mother was very struck by Mrs Blythe.

The village of Aberstow was large enough to require its own school, but too small to properly fill one. They had only three classes between the seven year groups, meaning that children of disparate ages had to be taught together. The one teacher who managed to handle this with any grace was Mrs Blythe. She had taught the oldest class for as long as anybody could remember; in fact she taught Heather's late father when he was a boy. Everyone looked forward to the day when they could move up into Mrs Blythe's class. She was not the greatest educator – her students tended to discover when they graduated to the local secondary school just how far behind on the curriculum they really were – but she ruled with her wit rather than her temper, and could always find something nice to say, even about the most awful work. She did all the voices when she read out stories to the class. Heather could easily see the mechanism of the woman's charm; it just didn't work on her.

Mr Blythe was a very wealthy man. Heather supposed that his wife had only continued to teach after they married because, somehow, she actually enjoyed it. The couple lived in a handsome old house on the uppermost edge of the village. Their situation allowed them to look right over the top of everybody else's roofs, granting them a clear view all the way down to the river and on to its distant mouth, prettily framed by green hills as it flowed into the sea. Heather knew this because for one week of every summer they opened the garden for charity, and once Mrs Preedy had got together the money for herself and Heather to go. They did their best to admire the plants – which Heather was sure must have been rare, and challenging to grow, and arranged with a tastefulness that she couldn't begin to appreciate – but really her mother was most taken with the hostess. They hadn't met before: Mrs Preedy had been at work and unable to make the parent-teacher evening. Mrs Blythe had set up tea-tables along one terrace, and approached Heather and her mother as they were enjoying their complimentary scones. She made Mrs Preedy laugh in a way Heather had rarely heard. Her mother had recognised Mrs Blythe's fragrance, and named it to Heather later in an almost reverential tone.

In spite of her prime real estate and her good perfume, Mrs Blythe chugged up to the school each morning in a rotten little car that must have been older than any of her students. You could hear her coming from the other side of the village. She was quick to dismiss Mrs Preedy's compliments to her beautiful home:

'Really, it's just such a nuisance to keep a place so large clean!'

Heather and her mother met Mrs Blythe more than once over the following years, rummaging through the local charity shops. Heather always got the feeling that the woman was glad to have been seen. She remembered Mrs Blythe saying once to her class that she had an irrepressible affection for the ungainly, and the plain; it's what originally drew her to that husband of hers, before he got rich and polished off his rougher edges. 'He's tried to thank me ever since,' she told them, 'with all manner of lovely things, but he can never bring me what I really want… a tugboat of my very own, and a pet rhinoceros!'

Sometimes, in Heather's early teens, Mrs Blythe used to putter past her in that ridiculous little car as she was walking home. Each time Heather would experience a stab of contempt; it's easy to sneer at lovely things, she thought, when you go home to a heap of them. But the woman never meant much to her really. For her mother's sake, Heather kept her opinions to herself. She worked hard, moved away to start her medical degree, and didn't think of Mrs Blythe again for a very long time.

'I think it's sad. It's really sad to see her like this. I mean, I deal with this stuff all day, every day, and it still upsets me.'

'Because you knew this one?'

'Yeah, or because I liked her. For a rich old lady, she was pretty cool. Being in her class was probably the most fun we ever had in school, you remember?'

'I remember.'

'What were those stories she used to read us, about the little man who lived in the fridge?'

Heather couldn't recall a time before her friendship with Angela. Their mothers had brought them to the same play group when they were only just past toddling, and they had gone through the whole of school together. She suspected that this long shared history was the only reason why Angela persisted with their friendship as the years rolled by: she was simply used to having Heather in her life, and hadn't stopped to consider whether, as adults, they actually had anything in common, or even really liked each other. Heather suspected that they didn't, and would have been happy to let the already rare contact between them fade amicably to nothing. Unfortunately, this had never been an option. Angela's parents ran the local Post Office, and inevitably, at some point whenever Heather came home for a visit, she would have to stop by in order to purchase some stamps or a little something sweet for her mother. Angela's own mother sat at the till, and her father behind the post counter. One or both of them would beam at Heather as she handed over her money, and assure her that they would let Angela know she was back in the village, as if they were doing her a great favour. A day or two later her mother's old rotary-dial telephone would ring, and Heather would soon find herself sat in Aberstow's single ancient pub, trying to think of something to say to her oldest friend. This time, however, nobody had needed to tell Angela that Heather had come home; instead, they had met at the funeral.

Mrs Preedy had passed away unexpectedly several weeks before. It was a decent death, quick and probably painless: she suffered a massive stroke one afternoon as she was napping in her garden, resting after the day's small chores. A neighbour came around and found her there, slumped in her deck-chair in the middle of the sun-warmed lawn. Her apron pocket had been full of freshly picked tomatoes. Heather would have been happy for any older person who was gifted with such a death, if only it hadn't been her Mum.

Being an only child, and having no other relatives to speak of, it fell to Heather to sort everything out. It might have seemed callous to an outsider, the efficiency with which she had gone about this process; so obviously itching to return to her job, her city life. She had made several trips to the dump, and what remained of her mother's possessions were all boxed up and labelled, ready for a charity house-clearance service to collect. There were very few things she wanted to keep for herself: only the photograph albums, and her mother's ruby and diamond engagement ring; her mother-in-law's before her, this was the one item of real beauty and quality that Mrs Preedy ever owned. Heather had no interest in keeping anything of which her mother had not been proud.

The funeral was a chore. The best part of the village had to be invited. Mrs Preedy was an old-school local, a part of the core of individuals and families that had lived in the village for years or even generations. Heather loathed it, their petty claim to her mother. She hated having to cater to these people's silly little griefs, ushering them into the house after the service, and providing trays of sandwiches and cake for them to shovel into their faces while they talked about Mrs Preedy as if they'd known a single meaningful thing about her – as if they had ever shared anything more with the woman than geographical proximity and small-talk. Their eyes, trailing over every immaculately tended surface of her mother's home, seemed to Heather to leave a trail of slime behind them.

Of course, Angela came and found her scowling at the kitchen counter – under the guise of preparing another tray of tea – and assumed that Heather was simply suffering under her grief.

'Oh, Heather,' she said, pulling her into a long, close hug. 'You poor thing.'

It was unexpectedly comforting. Angela, at least, had really known and cared for Mrs Preedy, having spent so much time here when they were little girls. Heather found herself agreeing to go out for sympathy drinks later in the week with somewhat less internal resistance than usual.

By the time that the day rolled around, that weird frisson of affection had passed, and it was just as disconcerting as always to find herself sat in the same old corner of The Swan, opposite the same old Angela. It was a number of years then since Heather had first left the village to pursue her studies. Those years had been hard, and hungry, and frightening beyond anything she had imagined. She felt so changed by them that it was always startling to come back home and realise that no matter what happened to her out there in the world, no matter what she did, back in the village things would always remain the same. This was reality, and it could not be moved an inch; it was the rest of her life that was a dream.

In no mind to discuss her mother's untimely passing, Heather instead steered the conversation towards Angela. She was employed as a care assistant now, working primarily with the elderly. She had been helping Mrs Blythe for some time, apparently, although this was the first Heather had heard of it. The woman was now in her late seventies, and had become quite badly demented.

'Hey, did you- did anyone tell you about her husband?'

'What about him?'

'He died. He got burned.'

'What?!'

'Like, literally, he burned to death. He went to sleep with his electric blanket on, and it – I don't know – it must have had a frayed cord or something, but the whole bed went up.'

'Christ!'

'I know. Luckily they had twin beds and hers was closest to the door… but can you imagine, waking up to the sight of that?' Angela shook her head, and took another gulp of her drink. 'That was a few years ago now. I'm surprised your mum didn't tell you about it. But listen, I've got a theory. The window thing I told you about?'

Mrs Blythe had started opening all of her bedroom windows at night. They had never yet caught her at it, apparently. Some innate sense of cunning, as yet unaffected by the gradual disintegration of her grey matter, must have instructed her to lie quietly in her bed, as she had been arranged, until her final carers of the day had left. Heather could picture it easily: as soon as the house had settled into silence, two bare feet – their hammer toes the legacy of a lifetime in high-heeled shoes – would descend to the floor. When the carers arrived to get her up again in the morning, the whole row of windows was flung wide open, and Mrs Blythe was back in her bed, shivering against the chill.

This might not seem like a terribly grievous issue, but in fact was likely to be the final cause for Mrs Blythe being removed from her own home and put into permanent residential care. They had tried locking the windows, but that only resulted in her becoming panicked, and falling over in her efforts to force them open. She had spent the night on the ground, thankfully escaping with no more damage than a wet night dress and some bruising to one wrist – but it could easily have been worse. If they couldn't safely prevent her from opening the windows, then, come winter, the cold alone could be enough to kill her.

There was also the issue of security, of course. The bedroom was on the ground floor; anybody, if they so wished, could climb in through those windows during the long, untended hours of the night.

'What about it?' asked Heather.

'Okay. So she wakes up, right, one night back when she's still got all her marbles; she wakes up, and the room is hot. It's really hot. She's drowning in smoke, she can't breathe, and she manages to get herself up and she realises – that's the heat of her husband's body getting barbecued. That's the smoke of his fucking funeral pyre.'

'You've spent too long thinking about this.'

'Shut up. So, doesn't it seem actually kind of… I mean, I don't want to say reasonable, but doesn't it make sense that once she had the top few layers of her rationality, um, chipped away, she might start to really, really appreciate a cool breeze in the room while she's sleeping?'

'… I suppose it makes as much sense as anything else… but Ange, why does there have to be a reason? By the sounds of it, the woman's barmy.'

'What a charming bedside manner you must have, Dr Preedy!' Angela's grin quickly dissolved into a sigh. 'She's still in there somewhere, you know.'

Heather did know. And as she was weaving her way home, hours later, she couldn't get it off her mind. She was never much of a drinker normally, but at that moment, it felt so right and good to have some fire in her belly. It reminded her of what she had sometimes forgotten, in the hospitals, and the cities, when she was too busy being afraid: really, in her rightest mind, Heather was a very angry person.

Of course she knew rationally that it wasn't Mrs Blythe's fault, but when she thought of the scene described to her by Angela – of the woman sitting slack-faced in the front room of that lovely house, pissing all over the custom upholstery – it really did seem typical, just typical of her, to have developed a disease that left her incapable of appreciating her surroundings. She could have been living in the garden shed for all she knew, but instead she was slumped up there in her palace, while Mrs Preedy had so feared the cost of heating that she could only ever be persuaded to turn it on for an hour when the pipes were at risk of freezing, and Heather herself had spent years stuck in damp bed-sits that were broken into so frequently that she had taken to blocking the door at night with a chair covered in saucepans: the closest you could get to a burglar alarm on a student budget.

It's not fair, Heather thought as she fumbled the door open and entered the house. She didn't bother to turn on any lights; her childhood home was so familiar to her that she could easily navigate it in the dark. She was headed for the kitchen. There was, she knew, a half-bottle of gin under the sink.

Even as intoxicated as she was, Heather remembered to take off her shoes at the living room door before crossing her mother's carpet. She sank into the old armchair, and sat there for a while, quiet, and still except for her occasional sips from the bottle. The orange light of a streetlamp leaked through the curtains and stained the room with its brash hue. It was an unforgiving light, and by it Heather examined the room around her. The nicest thing in her mother's lounge was a porcelain statuette of a boy playing a fiddle, which Mrs Preedy had insisted was an antique of fine make, and yes, alright, had only been £15 from the charity shop, but would certainly have been worth much more if the poor violinist hadn't had the end of his bow chipped off! Heather would have liked to break the statue against the wall. She didn't, of course; her mother's lingering presence in the room stopped her. In fact, seated in the armchair and surveying the room with a critical eye, Heather realised that she felt now a stronger connection to her mother than she had since the moment she first heard of her death. The quiet was so heavy that it seemed to press her down into her seat. Living on her own ever since Heather had moved out, with so little to fill her days… Mrs Preedy must have spent many hours sitting in this very chair, and sinking down beneath this same silence.

Heather shook her head viciously from side to side, as if her thoughts could be physically dislodged, and took another few long gulps from the bottle. The gin, drunk straight, was face-contortingly foul, but it did the job; the flames inside her were being stoked to fierce new heights. Anger, Heather was rediscovering – for she was sure that she had known this in her teens, and was a fool to forget it – feels much better than sadness. It's not fair said the voice in her head, with far more force than it had spoken before.

Heather swung up from the sofa and onto her feet. She stopped only to pull her shoes back on and stuff her keys into her coat pocket before striding out of the house, Mrs Preedy's pretty duck-egg blue door slamming shut behind her. It's not fucking fair, she thought at last; and she turned not down the hill towards the heart of the village, but up, instead, towards the long driveway of the Blythes'.

It was very late. Heather and Angela had sat for a long while talking on the pub's little jetty after closing, and she had continued to sit there alone for some time after that, watching the black mud of the riverbed as it was slowly revealed by the sinking tide. Now, the village was silent, all asleep. Heather staggered through the abandoned streets like the sole survivor of an atrocity.

She felt the strangest sense of déjà vu as she began to climb the narrow tree-lined lane that led to Mrs Blythe's house. So many years had passed since the last time she had walked this way, with her mother at her side on a summer's morning almost twenty years ago. She thought that it had changed – or did it just appear different by night? Had the trees always been so overgrown? Or did they merely seem to loom higher now that they stood as shadows, cut-out shapes of true black against the lesser darkness of the sky? It was the landscape of a nightmare, Heather thought; a twisted-up version of a memory, coloured in with all the wrong shades – and all the more eerie for being somewhat familiar.

A group of cows stood in a circle in the field adjacent to the narrow track. They watched Heather stumble past, and said nothing.

At first, she just wanted to look; she wanted to see the house, and whether it stood as grandly in life as it did in her childish recollections. But when Heather finally rounded the corner of the lane and saw it there, its front of pale stone shining brightly in the moonlight – and especially when she saw the four wide-open windows on the ground floor – she changed her mind.

It was for her mother, she thought. She suddenly wanted to take something from this place – to leave with some little thing, something otherwise meaningless, that could rest quietly on Mrs Preedy's sideboard and smirk at all who passed it. It's hard to say – her head wasn't clear – but it seemed vital in that moment, as the house stared coldly down at her, that something, anything from it be hers. Whatever it was, Mrs Blythe wouldn't miss it. Maybe that was the point.

Getting in was the work of a moment. Heather approached the windows quietly – or, as quietly as was possible when crunching her way across the gravel drive – hooked one foot almost gracefully onto the sill, and lifted herself over. She groped her way through a wispy set of curtains on the other side. Her feet sunk down into a thick, luxurious carpet.

It was as if she had stepped into another world.

The silence was absolute: not even the ticking of a clock disturbed the air. They had all been left, one by one, to wind their way down to a stop. Mrs Blythe's bed stood in the centre of the room. It was a single bed, rather dwarfed by the space, and was fitted with white safety rails. The sterile metal, so undeniably medical, was a shock against the richness all around it: the dark sheets, the crystal lamps, the ornaments that cluttered every surface. There was a slight mound visible beneath the covers on the bed. Heather stood there – really, ridiculously there – and stared.

She thought, distantly, that that sense of ridiculous reality ought to sober her up a little. Instead, the alcohol and the absurdity of the scenario combined to give the moment that same hallucinogenic quality that she had recognised on her walk to the house. Heather stood, for a while, staring in a kind of fascination at Mrs Blythe's sleeping body, watching the chest as it rose and fell. She could hear those breaths from where she stood – weak, wet huffs, each one like a dog's sigh.

Blinking herself out of her reverie, Heather looked beyond the bed, deeper into the room. There stood against one wall a mirrored vanity table with an assortment of objects on its surface. Take something, and then go. That was her plan. That was why she was here. She took a steadying breath. The yellow taste of a sickroom was familiar and reassuring on her tongue. Finally, she began to creep towards the table.

She moved so slowly. She barely breathed. Her eyes flitted back to the bed with every step. It was as if there was a lion, rather than a little old lady, asleep at the other end of the room.

There was a bottle of perfume on the vanity table; the very scent, Heather would wager, that her mother had coveted all those years ago. Unfortunately, it was half used – that wouldn't do. A shame, mumbled Heather's brain; to take it would have been pleasingly symbolic. She eased open the lid of a carved wooden box, and found it filled with jewellery. Perfect. Not knowing enough about these things to be able to tell what was good and what wasn't, Heather could only guess at what to take, but she somehow doubted that Mr Blythe would ever have bought his wife costume pieces. She chose something that her mother might have worn – a simple bracelet of white gold – and lifted it carefully from the box. Once the lid was closed again and the table looked as she had found it, Heather turned, and started back across the room.

She thought that she was quiet. Her heartbeat, it seemed, was louder than her footsteps on that lush carpet. But it's possible, she supposes now when she replays that night in her mind, that she was made too confident by the treasure safely secured in her pocket. Her movements might have become a little clumsier than they were when she had so tentatively crossed the room for the first time; or perhaps the woman would have woken anyway, no matter what she did. Mrs Blythe did have a history of disturbed nights. Whatever the case, Heather took one final glance towards the bed, and their eyes met.

Mrs Blythe lay on her back, staring up at Heather. She looked so much older than Heather had expected – but at the same time, younger than she had ever known her. The child that she once was and the stripped skull that she would become were warring for dominance across her features. The loose flesh of her cheeks sunk into her empty mouth, but the eyes that met Heather's were as bright as any youth's. There was no confusion in those eyes; they shone with certainty, and with terror.

Heather gaped down at her as excuses flew through her mind. For those few moments, as she fumbled for some reason, any good reason there could be for her appearance in this woman's bedroom at the crack of dawn, she saw her whole career dying before her eyes – but Mrs Blythe beat her to the punch. A single long, dry breath scraped across the woman's dry palette.

'Are you… here for me?' she whispered.

Heather said nothing. For a strange, lingering moment she could not speak, nor move, as Mrs Blythe continued to stare up at her in wonder. Then Heather found herself stepping closer to the bed, and closer still, until she stood right at its side.

She meant to comfort her.

In the years since, Heather has thought so hard about that night, and she knows now how she must have looked to Mrs Blythe. It was dawn. The sun was just lightening the sky, and the birds were striking up their dreadful chorus for a new day. The light breaking through the windows at Heather's back must have rendered her as no more than a silhouette– a dark, featureless figure, looming above the bed. The curtains were of long white gauze, and the breeze from the open windows was lifting them into the room; they floated up behind Heather like sheets of impossibly long white hair, or perhaps a pair of wings. The birds were screaming.

'Am I dead?' gasped Mrs Blythe.

Heather looked down at her for a long time.

'No,' she said. 'Not yet.'

And she stroked one finger down the woman's cheek. Mrs Blythe shuddered. She heaved and shook, and her eyes never left Heather's until the light was gone from them completely.

Heather stood there for perhaps a minute before she turned and left. She did not run, but walked all the way home, got into her bed, and lay there wide awake 'til morning. Angela phoned later that day to tell her the bad news about their old teacher: Mrs Blythe had been found dead in her bed that morning by Angela and another carer.

'I probably shouldn't be telling anybody yet,' Angela snuffled on the other end of the line, 'but I just had to talk to you. They… they can't be sure yet, but they think it was probably her heart. Oh, Heather, it was terrible – you should have seen her face!'

Heather is in her final year of specialist training now. She chose to pursue Care of the Elderly. It hasn't been easy – this is not the most glamorous of disciplines, given how many of your patients are liable to die no matter what you do – but you know Heather has a little trick she uses, if it ever gets her down.

She has never told anybody what happened that night in Mrs Blythe's house, but she carries the memory with her always. She still has the bracelet, too. The requirement to be bare below the elbow during her working day has prevented her from wearing it often in public, but she keeps it in a safe place. Sometimes she likes to take it out, and the memory too, and sit with them both awhile. She reminds herself that she has been looked upon with reverence and awe; that hers has been, just for a moment, the hand – or, more accurately, the finger – of Death itself.

That's usually enough to set her right again.