Arthur Will Be Home Soon

By Jan Howcroft

I picked my neighbour’s flowers and set fire to the house, or so this woman says. She keeps saying she’s my daughter, but she’s sixty if she’s a day. How could I have a daughter who’s older than me?

Arthur comes in from the greenhouses and says the first truss of tomatoes has already set. I smile and put his breakfast down, then lift Sarah from her cot. She never cries. I sit her in the pram; she looks just like him.

‘Why did you do it, mum?’

I don’t trust her. She might steal my baby. Some women do that, you know. It happened to a woman in Torteval. ‘Go away.’ I say. ‘You’re not welcome here.’

I take her with me to the packing shed. The field of daffodils is dancing. I stand and watch but not for long, too much to do: a gross of boxes to fill and seal by dinner time. I cut the flowers long and lay a dozen in each box. Imagine a woman somewhere in England arranging Arthur’s daffodils in a vase, eating Arthur’s tomatoes for her tea.

‘Are you warm enough, mum?’

The baby-stealer’s still here.

‘I’m going now,’ I say. ‘I have to light the fire before Arthur comes in.’

I’ll be late and the nappies will be getting damp on the line.

I must light the fire. Arthur likes to sit in the front room after his tea and read the Guernsey Press. I crinkle yesterday’s paper and lay it in the grate and put sticks on top, then coal. There’s a smell of sulphur as the match flares into life. The flames are greedy like caterpillars on cabbage, devouring the paper in a creeping orange line. The wood crackles.

‘I’ve got to bring the nappies in.’

‘Whose nappies, mum. Are they mine?’ It’s the baby-stealer in a purple jumper. She reminds me of somebody.

‘You know the house burned down, don’t you,’ she says.

‘Cobo Cottage?’

‘Not Cobo Cottage. Your house in Nottingham. Where you moved, after dad died.’

She must be mistaking me for someone else.

‘I’m very sorry for your loss,’ I say.

The woman’s crying now. Her face is all screwed up and she’s looking for a hanky up her purple jumper sleeve.

I look her in the face ‘Who are you?’ I say.

‘It’s Sarah.’

And it’s like that film. The Russian one. That Egyptian actor with the liquid eyes. When the snow thaws and spring arrives, and all the daffodils come out, and the music plays: da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da-da.  My daughter’s here and everything will be all right.

‘Don’t cry, love,’ I say.

She throws her arms around me and we hug a while then she sits back in her chair and takes my hands.

‘Oh, mum.’

But I can’t sit here talking all day, Arthur will be home soon.

‘I have to go now,’ I say. ‘I have to bring the nappies in and put them on the clothes horse, round the fire.’

Jan Howcroft lives in Essex. She started writing when she retired, attending courses in London at City Lit, City University, the Bishopsgate Institute and the Mary Ward Centre.  Over that time, she has produced a wide variety of short stories and flash fiction. One of her stories achieved third place at the Wells Festival short story competition and another was shortlisted at Words and Women.