I was just twenty six when Auntie Joyce died. During that long cold winter the hospital, two bus rides away from my house, became my second home. Agitated, cantankerous and grumpy, Auntie Joyce discouraged all visits except mine. At first her son and daughter made an almost daily pilgrimage. But after the greetings and the giving of flowers, a silence descended, punctuated only by occasional small talk about the weather, or the state of the roads. When the clock watching became unbearable the gap between visits grew longer, until they were replaced with phone calls, then messages, then finally a forwarding number, ‘In case something happens.’
“I know what their game is Tom, they’re just fretting about the money. And the cottage.”
Auntie Joyce missed the view from her kitchen window. She missed the little gate at the end of her path, she missed the fire, the old pewter kettle. I missed picking the rhubarb, washing the cabbages, shovelling the coal into the scuttle. More than anything I missed listening to her readings, I missed the cards and the Ouija board, and I missed the people.
Then one day Auntie Joyce received a new visitor. It was Joyce’s best client, the rich businessman from Liverpool, the one who consulted Joyce about every decision. I saw him leaning over her bed as I entered the ward. A nurse approached and asked him to leave. Red faced, he brushed past me on his way out. Screens were around Joyce’s bed. I wasn’t allowed to see her, she had taken a turn for the worse. What had the businessman said to so upset her? Blazing inside, I ran out to the car park, just in time to see his Mercedes pulling away.
They stabilised her enough for me to sit quietly next to the bed. Under strict instructions not to say anything to agitate her, I placed my ear as close I as could to to listen to her croaky, distant voice.
“That was Frank. He’s going bankrupt. Not only that, his wife’s cleared off and left him and she’s taking him to the cleaners. Everybody is after him. I don’t know what he’s been up to, but he’s in the shit with money. Why did the come to see me? Because he’s worried that if I snuff it he’ll wave goodbye to his stash.”
Never before had I heard Auntie Joyce use that kind of language. Why would she use it now, on her death-bed? And what had she got to do with Frank’s money?
The thought of this Frank character speaking harshly to Auntie Joyce burned me up inside. How could anyone talk like that to such a sweet old lady? And after all she’d done for him? After all she’d done for everyone she’d met?
Ten years previously, I prayed for the start of the summer holidays. Summer meant an escape from my tormentors at school and a train trip down the North Wales coast to see Auntie Joyce.
That summer was the best summer of all. The burning sun turned the mountainside a deep ochre, the cabbage patch exploded into a dark green forest and Joyce was as busy as ever. No longer banished behind the curtain, I was now employed as Joyce’s assistant. Fetching tea cakes or hankies as required, I became a familiar face to the regulars. I removed their coats or helped them back into them, eased them in or out of the chair, took phone messages and arranged the diary. I made sure the tarot cards were to hand, I brushed up, tidied round and made endless, countless cups of tea.
I ran errands into the village, collected parcels, brought home rabbits from the butcher. I had my own room, a low space in the attic just big enough to squeeze in a tiny bed. One morning I awoke to a most terrible smell. I padded down the tight staircase to be met by an acrid, greasy stink emanating from the kitchen. It wasn’t Joyce’s pipe, she only lit up her tobacco in the evening after the last client had gone home. The smell came from something cooking on the range .
Standing over her stove, Joyce was carefully skimming grease off the liquid bubbling away inside .
“Auntie Joyce? What’s in there?”
She reached inside the pot with a hook. Slowly, from out of the bubbling brine appeared a pig’s head. When she saw my face she started laughing in her big deep guffaw.
“What’s that for?”
“Wait and see young man, wait and see.”
And for the first time since visiting auntie Joyce I felt not a little unsettled