The Last Move

'The Last Move' by Susan Davenport

It wasn’t until she found the arm on the kitchen table, wrapped in a length of muslin up to the wrist, the hand exposed and the index finger pointing at her usual seat at the kitchen table, that Lucy started to have suspicions. Joe came down for breakfast five minutes later, groggy with sleep and useless, as he always was in the mornings, and he seemed as surprised as she was. But was he really? She didn’t think of him as a dissembler, but perhaps he was. After all, the only other rational explanation was that she had put it there herself and not remembered. But surely not.

Joe looked at the terracotta arm, the clean break at the elbow. It stretched most of the way across the table, the index finger undeniably pointing at Lucy’s place, and he sighed.

‘It’s the house again,’ he pronounced. ‘It doesn’t want us to move.’ He shrugged, as if this were the only conclusion possible and he was powerless to do anything about it. He hesitated. ‘And it knows you are the one responsible.’ He nodded towards the pointing finger and raised his eyebrows up and down, humming the theme tune to The Twilight Zone.

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she snapped back. ‘This isn’t funny. I’m trying to work out what’s happened. Everything else has had a plausible explanation. I just hope this isn’t your idea of a joke.’

It was the fourth strange event that had occurred since they had finally signed the contracts to sell their house two weeks ago. And what was so peculiar was that in all the thirty years they had lived here, nothing like this had ever happened. Lucy picked the arm up. It looked like an amputated limb. She teased out some of the folded cloth to cover the hand completely, but then decided it looked even more sinister, like a baby in a shroud, so she uncovered it again and placed it on the top of the Welsh dresser in the same position as before, the finger pointing to the wall.

‘I can’t understand it,’ she told Joe. ‘But thank goodness we’re completing next week and we’ll be shot of the place.’

Joe didn’t reply. He picked up his plate and mug and took them over to the dishwasher. He rinsed them both thoroughly before stacking them and walking upstairs to his study without saying a word.

 

Lucy remained at the table, reviewing the events of the last fortnight to see if she could detect any pattern. The first item to disappear had been the watering can. Joe liked to water the plants every evening in the summer months unless it had rained the previous night. He kept the watering can on the top step just outside the kitchen. It was part of his daily ritual. Lucy would watch him as she prepared supper. First, the pots on the two wide stone steps between the French doors and the patio – geraniums mostly, of all colours, from white to blood red. Even the leaves varied: some thick and glossy, others much more delicate, a faded green, almost grey, veined with a dull rust. He watered first and then offered them a few drops from his plant food bottle. Sometimes he stroked the leaves before pinching off a dead flower. You could tell he’d been a civil servant, she thought, so precise and methodical. Since he’d retired last year, he’d taken even more time than usual over these jobs. Sometimes she enjoyed watching him, but other times it irritated her that a simple task should take so long.

Joe was predictably perturbed on the day the watering can disappeared. They both agreed that no one could possibly want to steal it: industrial green plastic, with a kink in the spout where their last dog had bitten it. They continued to look for it over the next few days, but it was in none of the obvious places. They examined the fencing at the end of the garden. There was a large triangular gap in the corner where a fox had pushed through, and a few boards in the middle were loose where the boys in the house behind had kicked their football too many times. Joe reached through the gap, but it wasn’t there.

Their neighbours on that side were new. They had two children and a rescue greyhound who howled whenever they left the house. While Joe looked for the watering can, Lucy watched the boy and the girl, bouncing on the trampoline, appearing briefly above the line of the fence, clapping their hands as they jumped and looking down into the garden from the height of their ascent. The boy was wearing a red baseball cap. The dog was barking in excitement.

‘Who knows? Maybe someone stole it, as a joke? Those new children next door, perhaps?’ she Suggested. ‘They could easily get through that gap in the fence.’

They both concluded this was possible, if unlikely, and the next day Joe used an old kettle to water the plants. It was hardly worth buying a new one when they were moving to a flat in only a few weeks’ time.

Then it was the balloon whisk. Lucy had bought it in her second year of university from an old-fashioned hardware shop: long, narrow and cluttered where you could buy anything and the assistant always knew exactly where everything was. It was just the right size and shape with a beautiful pale wood handle, soft and familiar in her hand. Her first thought was that the cleaning lady had put it back in the wrong place, but she didn’t find it anywhere. It nagged at her. Where could it be?

She phoned their daughter.

‘It’s like that silly watering can,’ she complained. ‘What could have happened to them? It isn’t as if anyone would want to take these things. They’re of no value.’

But, almost as soon as she had rung off, she found the whisk. It was on her desk upstairs, placed in a diagonal across her mousepad.

‘So, you found it?’ she said to Joe as he came in from his afternoon walk. ‘The whisk?’

He looked confused. ‘No, I didn’t look for it. To be honest, I’d forgotten about it completely. Why?’

Lucy was bewildered. How had it turned up there?

She put it back in the drawer where it belonged. She wondered if she had early onset dementia. Her friend Emily had experienced little niggling symptoms when she was only fifty-five. Everyone said it was nothing until she couldn’t find her way home from the gym, then by sixty she was in a home. Perhaps this was the first sign.

And finally, the broken statue. They had a possible explanation for its fall, but not for the arm being on the table instead of the Welsh dresser. Lucy was sure she wouldn’t have put it there without being aware of it, but could she trust her memory? In any case, what reason could she have had for putting the arm on the table and in that position? But what about Joe? Could she trust him?

It was true, he didn’t want to move and she did. She had known that all along, but when had Joe ever been the one to instigate any major change in their lives? He’d always been passive. She’d been the one to decide everything: when to marry, when to move, when to start a family, when to retire. He was resistant at first, but then he always seemed grateful that she was willing to take the responsibility, to think it all through. It took the pressure off.

Even in his work, he’d waited for others to make decisions for him. That was why he’d never progressed in his career. He had taken the civil service exams straight out of university and started his career at the Department for Education. He’d never worked particularly long hours and he rose only to a middle-ranking grade, but he seemed to enjoy his job and looked surprised when Lucy suggested he retire early. Her idea was they would both retire at the same time and once they’d sold this big house and moved to the flat, they would go away for long stretches: to France, Italy and Greece, the places they’d loved on holidays when the children were young. And New Zealand, of course, where their son had moved soon after he’d finished medical school. They had only been once, but now they could go for three months, if they liked, and spend time with Mark and Tess and their new baby, Johnny. Lucy recognised that this had been her strongest argument. Joe had always been closest to Mark and she to Sarah who had, luckily, remained in London. So, in the end he’d agreed and they’d put the house up for sale. She knew he loved the house and, of course, she did too, but it didn’t make sense for them to have the ties and responsibilities of a big house like this now that the children were gone for good.

But now, it seemed he was starting to get cold feet about the move again. So aggravating, especially now, when he knew it couldn’t be stopped. The packing cases supplied by the removal people were already full, except for the ones in Joe’s study, and the shed was full of boxes destined for charity shops, containing the detritus of the last thirty years. In the late afternoons when Lucy had exhausted herself packing all day, she liked to take out the floor plan for their new-build flat near Hampstead Heath and decide on the paint colours and blinds for each room. She picked up the chart from the other end of the table and circled ‘Gentian Blue’. That would be perfect for the new sitting room. She couldn’t wait to be there. One the fifth floor, with views of the Heath from the sitting/dining room, a perfect modern kitchen and bathroom and built-in cupboards in both bedrooms. All clean, clear and light; no clutter, no awkward Victorian furniture, no nagging memories. They would be free to start a new life. Why didn’t Joe want that too? She would watch him carefully now to see if he might be behind these mysterious events, and she would watch herself carefully too.

 

The following day nothing happened and Lucy began to relax. The terracotta arm remained exactly where she had placed it, and Joe finally started to pack up his books. It was a slow process as he kept calling her up to look at photos he found sandwiched between books left undisturbed for years. Mark and Sarah on an unremembered beach in Greece. Joe couldn’t understand why he hadn’t labelled it. It worried Lucy too because she couldn’t remember anything about the holiday, let alone the beach. Mark looked about seven and Sarah two years younger, Sarah so like Lucy, but her temperament was Joe’s. Mark was more like her, although he looked like Joe.

‘Limnos,’ Joe announced. He looked relieved. ‘1996.’ He smiled at her for the first time in days.

Lucy left him sorting the books. It would be alright. This was how Joe finally came around; he just needed time. She found the colour chart. ‘Sunbury Yellow’ for the guest bedroom, she thought. So cheerful.

 

The next day after breakfast Lucy went up to Mark’s old room to finish packing there. It was mainly boxes for the charity shops, two already full and one more to go. But when she tried to open the door, it stuck against something soft. She pushed harder and almost fell into the room as it gave way. Mark’s old sleeping bag unrolled across the floor, still partially wedged under the door. The rest of the contents of two large boxes were spread over the floor, not as if the boxes had tipped over, but as if they had been turned upside down and the contents spread out to all corners of the bedroom.

‘Joe,’ she called. She could hear the panic in her voice. He must have too because he ran up the stairs and joined her standing in the door looking into the room. She wondered what he would have to say this time, but he didn’t say anything. He walked around the room, looking at the way his son’s old possessions were distributed. The bright yellow Duplo castle under the window, the Tintin books in the corner, one with a torn cover, the red bobble hat, just the same colour as the boy’s next door. He looked at her.

‘We should save some of these for Johnny,’ he said. ‘Even if they stay in New Zealand, he might like them if they come to visit.’

Lucy was astonished at his response. ‘But why are they here, Joe? They were in the boxes last night. Did you do this?’

He shook his head slowly.

‘Because, if you did, you can stop it. You are behaving like a child about this. I know you don’t want to move, but this is ridiculous.’

He looked at her with a strange expression on his face, concern and pity. Why would he be looking like that?

‘The only possibility I can think of, and it’s remote, I know,’ he started, ‘is that the dog next door did it. We left the French doors open until late last night and then we opened them as soon as we got up. Do you remember how Poppy used to take all of your clothes out of your suitcase when you were going away for work? She spread them out all over the house, just like this.’

It was true that Poppy, their first dog, had done this. And also that the next door dog had managed to squeeze through the gap in the fence twice before, but it hadn’t stayed. And why would it come into their house when its family was at home? It didn’t make sense. Still, she held on to the suggestion. It was better than any alternative. She picked up the sleeping bag and started to roll it up again.

‘Mark used that when we went to Snowdonia the weekend after his A-level results,’ Joe said. ‘When we went up Crib Goch.’

Lucy picked up the yellow castle. ‘I know you miss your hiking and climbing with Mark, Joe,’ she said. ‘But, even if he were here, he wouldn’t have time now with his job and Tess and Johnny.’

When she had cleared everything up again, Lucy went downstairs to make a cup of tea. She took two strawberries out of their cartoon in the fridge and ate them standing at the counter while the water boiled. Thinking about Mark’s room and the dog and the move, she opened the fridge again to get the milk and noticed she had placed the yellow castle drawbridge on the middle shelf. She hadn’t even realised she’d been carrying it. She pulled it out and pushed it onto the counter, looking towards the door in case Joe had seen her. So, was that why he had looked at her like that? He had realised she was losing her memory and behaving oddly and didn’t want to tell her, so he was thinking of possible explanations and allowing her to suspect him of all these irregularities even though he knew she was the one responsible? Was it possible? She was sure she hadn’t knocked the statue down. Why would she do that? But she supposed the watering can, the whisk and the repositioning of the arm were all possible. Not the boxes in Mark’s room though. Whatever Joe thought, she had not done that. If the neighbours’ dog hadn’t been in the room, it must have been Joe.

 

That night Lucy was woken by the dog. She checked the alarm: 3am, and yet the dog seemed to be outside. She got out of bed and looked out of the open window. The dog was in the middle of their garden, looking up at their house and howling. She turned to tell Joe, but his bed was empty. He was standing by her dresser looking at something on the floor. As she walked towards him, he looked anxious and almost frightened. On the floor was her grandmother’s hairbrush, backed with silver and decorated with an elaborate pattern of tiny flowers. Next to it was the matching hand mirror, smashed into tiny pieces, lying over the carpet, glinting in the moonlight.

‘Why are you standing here?’ she asked.

‘I heard a crash and woke up. Then the dog started howling. When I got out of bed, I stood on a piece of glass and then I saw this…’

They looked at each other.

‘I didn’t do this, Joe,’ she said. ‘I know you think I’m doing things I don’t remember. But not this or the arm or the boxes.’ She paused. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking. ‘I think it’s you. I think you’re doing these things to unnerve me. You’re trying to get back at me for deciding we should move, even though we discussed it and you had the chance to object if you felt so strongly about it. It’s a horrible thing to do.’ She heard tears building in her voice. ‘It’s cowardly.’

Joe looked at her evenly. ‘You think you gave me any chance to have my say? You overrode all of my objections. I don’t understand why we’ve had to rush this. We’re only in our early sixties. We don’t need to put ourselves in a miserable little flat in a mansion block, as if we were on our last legs. I thought we might enjoy all this space for a while. If Mark and Tess move back, they’ll want to stay here until they get settled. And we could have the grandchildren…’ He tailed off.

‘Oh, so that’s it? That’s your fantasy. Mark, Mark, Mark. Why would they come back? They chose to go there for the job opportunities and all those outdoor activities. What’s changed? Why would they come back? What for?’

‘So that their children will have grandparents.’ He responded sharply, as if he had rehearsed his argument. ‘And in any case, he wouldn’t have gone all that way if you hadn’t driven him there.’ He paused, as if he had said too much, but then he looked at her defiantly. ‘Yes, you. He would still be here, if not for you…’

She was taken aback. Why was he speaking to her like this, with such hate and resentment in his voice and mouthing such nonsense? But once he had started, it was clear he was not going to stop.

‘You want to control everything. You decide what everyone wants and needs and you orchestrate it all. I know you think you are doing it for our own good, but it’s intolerable. You may have got away with it with Sarah. She’s too much like me. Anything for a quiet life. But not Mark. He needed to establish himself somewhere far away from you and your interference. But he misses it here – his friends, the pubs, London, us. He told me… And now that they have Johnny, they might want to come back…’

‘So, you did all of this to stop us moving? So you could play happy families with Mark and Tess? You couldn’t just tell me? Oh Joe, it’s so pathetic.’

‘What do you mean?’ He looked surprised. The dog started to howl again and it seemed to bring him back to the present. ‘No, of course not. I haven’t done any of this. It’s either you—’ He paused, holding up his hand to stop her from cutting in. ‘—Or this house.’ He picked up a book from the bedside table and started to edge the broken glass towards the skirting board where it would be out of the way. Lucy got back into bed. She was shaking uncontrollably. Joe sat on his bed, reached over to her and patted the covers.

‘Come into bed with me, Joe,’ Lucy said. ‘I can’t stop shaking.’

He held her tightly and gradually the shaking subsided.

‘It must be frightening,’ he told her. ‘We’ll make an appointment for you to see someone…’

 

Three days later the removal van was outside. Nothing more had happened, although both of them regarded the other suspiciously, waiting for the next event. Lucy went out into the garden to check that Joe had remembered to collect all the small pots at the back. As she neared the gap in the fence, she saw the greyhound’s nose poke through. He had the boy’s red baseball cap in his mouth.

Lucy snapped her fingers at him. ‘Drop,’ she said. The dog dropped it, but instead of the cap, she saw Mark’s old woollen bobble hat. She looked back towards the house, wondering if Joe would be watching her. His last malicious trick. She tossed it over to the neighbours’ and the dog ran off in pursuit. When she saw Joe in the doorway, she was composed.

‘Just a final check,’ she told him.

They sat on opposite sides of the top step waiting for the removal men to finish loading. It was a beautiful summer’s day: clear blue sky, the sun already heating the stone. Lucy tried to recall what that stone colour she liked on the paint charts was called. ‘Skimming Stone’ or ‘Purbeck Stone’? She might use it for the bathroom.

‘We could go to the ponds on the Heath tomorrow,’ Joe said. ‘It will be good to be able to get there so easily. I may take up jogging again.’ His tone was artificially bright.

‘I’m worn out with all of this,’ Lucy replied. ‘You can go. I’ll be recuperating tomorrow.’ She wasn’t going to let him off so easily.

He cleared his throat, as if he was about to say something.

‘So, ready when you are,’ the removal man said. His assistant stubbed his cigarette out on the tree.

Joe and Lucy stood up and looked back through the open door at the house for one last time. Lucy wondered how you would describe that blue in the hall tiles. Delft? Or lighter? She smiled to herself. What a relief to leave. Everything would be alright now. Then Lucy felt, rather than saw, a movement in the hall. It was the sensation she had when sunbathing and a scudding cloud covered the sun. As she turned to ask Joe if he’d noticed it, the door slammed shut with a sharp retort. The stained glass panels were shaking from the impact.

‘Joe?’ Lucy tried to keep her voice steady.

He was looking at her blankly.

‘Why did you do that? We’re leaving. why can’t you let go? Please, please, don’t keep on with this.’

‘With what?’ he asked.

 

 

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