Mad Annie


Bird cage and crowsI could still hear her shouting above the screech of the brakes.  I stamped down hard and the car kangarooed to a halt only inches in front of her. ‘Keep out,’ she screamed ‘We don’t want strangers in our village. Go away.’
‘Connor, are you ok?' I called out to my son, who was sitting in the back seat. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘No Mummy,’ he replied. ‘Did you hit her with the car?’
‘No just missed her, stupid old fool.’ The woman certainly looked crazy, judging by her voluminous black dress that looked two sizes too big for her. She was wizened and ancient, like something out of Hammer Horror. A battered top hat sat crooked on her head, and a cascade of grey hair spilt out from underneath it. She was carrying an old-fashioned birdcage and inside, a pair of dead crows lay sideways on top of each other. Their pointy black beaks protruded through the bars, and two pairs of dead eyes stared back at me. 
The woman hobbled around to the windows at the back and peered in at Connor. ‘Is that my boy you’ve got in there? Is that my boy?’
I wound down the window. ‘Of course, it isn't. That’s my son. Get out of the way. I could have killed you.’
‘So you’ve not seen my babies, Rufus and Helen? Still missing they are. Strangers took 'em, I’m sure of it. Swapped 'em for crows.’
‘No we’ve not seen them. Now move out the way. We’re trying to get to Levingtree.’
The woman took a step back and pointed in the opposite direction. ‘You need to turn round and go that way. Levingtree is that way.’
‘Thanks for nothing,’ I said. I wound up the window and continued in the direction I’d been heading. In the rearview mirror, I saw the woman disappear back into the bushes.
To my relief, I soon passed the sign for the village and spotted the thatched roof of the Poachers Tavern. As I parked up, a ruddy-faced man came out of the pub and hurried over. I guessed this must be Michael - my friend Hannah’s father and the pub landlord.
‘Louise,’ he said. ‘So glad you could make it. Hannah told me all about you. Come in, come in. And you must be Connor. Delighted to meet you.’
Relieved to have finally arrived, I got our things out of the boot of the car and followed him into the pub.
I guess the pub was 15th Century, with its knotted oak beams, and stone flagons underfoot. A swathe of dried flowers hung from the ceiling, framing the bar which was edged with beaten copper. A handful of locals were seated at small round tables enjoying an afternoon pint. They smiled and nodded as we followed Michael up the stairs.
‘I’m hoping you’ll be comfortable here,’ said Michael as he opened the door to our room in the attic.
It was the sort of room you had to duck your head to walk into. I put my case down on the patchwork bedspread covering one of the twin beds, and Connor put his backpack on the other. There was a chest of drawers, but the room was too small fit in much else.
‘Sorry it's a rather basic, and it can get a bit noisy at night, but I'm sure the lads will keep it down when I tell him we've a kiddy staying. How old are you, Master Connor?'
‘Seven,’ mumbled Connor.
‘Oh, a big lad, eh. And where do you go to school then?’
‘I’m teaching Connor at home,’ I said. ‘We had a bit of trouble with bullies. That’s why he’s a bit shy when you first meet him.’
Connor stayed silent and appeared to take a keen interest in the floor.
‘But you like reading, don't you, Connor,’ I said. ‘He’s already started on Harry Potter. That’s your favourite, isn't it?’
He nodded.
‘Well, I best let you settle in,’ said Michael. ‘Come down and choose what you fancy for dinner when you’re ready.’
‘Thank you for letting us stay here,’ I said. ‘You don’t know what it means to me.’
‘It’s my pleasure. Hannah told me you needed to get away, and we were happy to oblige. Any friend of Hannah's is a friend of mine.’
‘She’s been so lovely. I was only working at Marsden’s for a couple of weeks, but she really looked after me. It was good to have someone to confide in.’
‘That’s our Hannah all over. I’ll call her tonight and say you’ve arrived safely. See you in a bit.’
As we unpacked, I tried my best to cheer up Connor. ‘It’s only for a couple of weeks.’ I said. ‘Just so I can have a break. You know how much mummy needs a break’. My head was aching from the stress of the journey, and the bruises around my eye began to throb. ‘We’ll go back soon. I promise.’
‘I miss Daddy,’ whined Connor.
‘Yes well, Daddy's not here,’ I snapped. We just have to make the best of it. Let’s go down to the bar. Maybe they’ll have chicken nuggets?’
‘I’m not hungry.’
‘Well let’s go down anyway.’
Fortunately, nuggets were on the menu, and after we'd eaten, I took Connor upstairs and read him the beginning of ‘the Prisoner of Azkaban,’ until he fell asleep.
Feeling in need of a drink, I walked down to the lounge, but the first thing I noticed was a battered top hat laying on the side of the bar. A few moments later, the crazy old woman I'd seen earlier, appeared from the toilets. A sour smell of alcohol wafted past as she seated herself on a stool.
Spotting me immediately, she lifted up her shot glass in a toast. ‘I see you found Levingtree after all. Cheers!’ She downed her drink as if it was water, then cackled ‘Line 'em up Mickey and get one for your friend too.’
‘Er thanks,’ I said. ‘Excuse me a moment.’ I moved over to the other end of the bar where Michael was already pouring me a shot. ‘I nearly ran that woman over when I arrived,’ I whispered. ‘I could have killed her. She told me to go away.’
‘Oh, you mustn’t mind her. That's Mad Annie. She's lived here for as long as I can remember. But she doesn’t like strangers. Too many folks coming up from London. They come along here and buy up our homes and then start renting them out to all and sundry. Annie likes to try and scare them away. But you’re all right. She knows you’re a friend now. Isn’t that right Annie? Louise is a friend.’
Annie nodded and waved. ‘Pour me another one Mikey,’ she cried.
Whatever the spirit was, it tasted delicious. Michael hinted it was the local moonshine, not strictly legal, but a favourite with the regulars and I could see why. For the first time in ages, I felt the tension melt away, and I sat myself down at the back of the pub and lost myself in a novel. Yes, this would do for a couple of weeks. I was safe now.
The next morning we headed out to explore. Connor had spotted a small playground on the village green, and after we’d been on swings, we decided to go and look in the church. It was gloomy and dark, so we didn’t stay long and instead bought ice cream at the tiny village shop. By lunchtime, apart from the rows of cottages either side of the green, we’d pretty much covered the whole village.
Our days quickly took on a quiet routine. As lovely as the local tipple, was it tended to make me very sleepy, so Connor would play games on his iPad until I got up at 10. We’d have a late breakfast and then go for a walk in the nearby woods, or read his school books together. We'd have dinner, and then he'd go to bed. Over the next few nights, I made friends with the locals, and we'd sit drinking and laughing. Mad Annie would sit there cackling in her chair, not saying much but obviously enjoying her usual tipple. But on the fifth night, as I went down looking forward to another evening, I found the bar empty.
‘Michael,’ I called out. ‘Where is everyone tonight?’
Michael came out of the kitchen, but his usual smile was gone. ‘It’s Annie. She passed away this afternoon. Her neighbour Claire found her dead in the hallway.’
‘Oh, I'm so sorry,’ I said. Despite our first meeting, Annie wasn't a bad old thing, really.
‘There’ll be no drinking tonight,’ said Michael. ‘We’ve a funeral to organise and a Wake. Poor Annie had no family. This village was her family.’
‘But do you know what she died of? Won’t she need a post-mortem?’
‘No, Dr Lister will sort that all out. Poor Annie’s had cancer for years. That’s what’ll have done for her in the end.’
‘If there’s anything I can do you’ll tell me, won't you?’
‘Some help making sandwiches would be good -  if you don’t mind getting up early. The funerals at 12 tomorrow.’
‘Of course, I'll be happy to help.’
‘Let’s have a toast to poor Annie,’ he said, bringing out the usual bottle from under the counter.’
‘Ok, why not.’ I said. And so we clinked our glasses and drank to the memory of mad old Annie.’
I managed to ignore my fuzzy head and go up at 7am to butter five loaves of bread accompanied by a mountain of grated cheese. Then soon, it was time to head to the church for the service.
Mourners were already lined up on each side of the route, their heads bowed in silence. The whole village must have turned out. Connor and I managed to find the last space to squeeze into just as the black limousine carrying Annie’s coffin passed by on its way to the church.
We followed the pallbearers and side and Connor, and I sat in a pew at the back. The Vicar spoke of Annie’s devotion to the village and the sad loss of her children, and we sang a few solemn hymns. When the service was over, we walked to the churchyard and watch Annie’s coffin lowered into the grave, while the local women wept and threw in rose petals. I was surprised how much emotion everyone was showing, but their tears dried back at the pub, where the food and drinks were on the house. Very soon people were dancing and making merry, despite it being early afternoon.
Connor was soon bored and probably embarrassed at the sight of us old people enjoying ourselves, so he went upstairs. I was already feeling drunk, so I sat down at a table for a quick breather. People were so kind and friendly here and generous with their drinks. I wasn’t used to this in the suburbs.
Then I noticed something weird. The wall next to me was covered in old framed photographs. I’d never really studied them before. They were pictures of the village in the 19th Century, and to be honest, you could barely tell the difference apart from the horses and carts in the road. But one photo made me sit up with a start. For there, grinning back at me, was Mad Annie. I was sure it was her. It was the same top hat and black flowing dress, and yes there was even the birdcage. But the date on the photo made it impossible for it to be her. It read '1860'. That would have made Annie over 150 years old.
I got up and found Michael, who was washing glasses behind the bar. ‘I’ve just noticed something odd in that photo over there. It’s got Mad Annie in it – but it can’t be.’
‘Haha, I wondered if you’d spot that,’ said Michael. ‘Of course, it couldn't be our Mad Annie, just two days passed God rest her soul. But this village has always had a mad Annie of some sort.’
‘But the dress and the birdcage. It’s identical.’
‘That photo’s probably where Annie got her inspiration. She loved this pub and this village and everyone in it. Maybe it was her way of paying homage to the past. I can see your glass is empty. Have another drink.’
‘Ok, just one more.’
Next day I woke up feeling like crap. Connor was shouting in my ear.
‘Wake up mummy it’s late.’
‘Shut up Connor,’ I said ‘I need more sleep. Go play on your tablet.’
‘But it’s 11 O’clock. I’m hungry.’
‘Go down and get something from Michael. Can’t you see I’m sleeping?’
‘Mummy.’
‘Oh for God's sake shut up, Connor,’ I shouted. ‘What the hell is wrong with you. Can’t I ever get some rest? You never let me rest.’
It didn’t matter where I went. I always had to put up with shit from someone. Why couldn’t my life ever go right? Connor kept on and on until frustration finally overwhelmed me. ‘I can’t cope!’ I screamed. I felt like my brain was going to burst, and I began to slap myself in the face. ‘I can’t stand it!’ I shouted.
‘Mummy, please don’t hurt yourself,’ pleaded Connor. ‘I’ll be good, I promise.’
I saw tears running down his face, but the pain came as a release.
Someone began tapping at the attic door.  I heard Michael call out ‘Is everything all right?’
I snapped back to reality. My head felt like it was being pounded by a fist and my face stung from where I’d slapped it. ‘Yes, I’m sorry, everything’s fine.’
‘Connor, are you ok?’ said Michael. ‘Can I come in?’
‘We’re fine. Your ok aren’t you Connor?’
‘Guess so.’ mumbled Connor.
‘Ok if you’re sure. I’ve got your breakfast waiting for you.’
‘We’ll be down in a minute.’
I hauled myself out of bed and started to get dressed, but then came more banging on the door. ‘Christ, what does he want now?’ I said under my breath. ‘Connor, go open the door.’
Connor opened it and then rushed forward, straight into my ex-husband Richard’s outstretched arms.
‘Get the hell out of here!’ I shouted. We don’t want you here.’
‘Daddy.’ cried Connor ‘Take me away from her please Daddy. She scares me.’
‘It’s ok my darling’ said Richard ‘I’m here now and we’re leaving.’
‘You can’t take him!’ I screamed. ‘He’s staying with me.’
‘Over my dead body,’ said Richard. ‘You’re an unfit mother, Louise. The Courts said he should live me and you had no right to take him.’
‘He’s my son,’ I yelled. ‘He’s all I’ve got.’ I tried to run over to Connor, but Richard pulled him away.
‘He doesn’t want to be with you. Don’t you get it?’
Michael appeared in the doorway and came over to try and comfort me. ‘Come on now, Louise. Let Connor go with his father. I’m sure we
can sort this all out when you’ve had a chance to calm down.’
I brushed him off and turned my attention back to my husband ‘How did you find me?’ I demanded. ‘How did you know we were here?’
‘I went to your old workplace and your mate Hannah told me. She was reluctant to at first - until I told her what you’d done to him.’
‘Bastard!!’ I raised my fist to hit him, but Michael grabbed my arm.
‘Let them go.’ he said. ‘We can sort this out, I promise.’
I wriggled for a second, but all my fight abandoned me as Richard led Connor out of the room. ‘Connor!’ I shouted, but he didn’t even turn around.
I sank to the floor, crying, knowing that Connor was gone now for good. ‘There, there,’ said Michael, rubbing my back. ‘Cry it all out. We’ll talk about what we can do later.’
After my tears were all spent, he led me downstairs, reassuring me I could stay as long as I wanted. Then he poured me a glass of the local moonshine, and I downed it and then another until the room swam around me, and I collapsed on the floor.
I woke up in darkness, save for a tiny beam of light shining through an old leaded window. I reached for the bedside lamp, and when the room was illuminated around me, I knew it was different.
I sat up and looked around. The room was sparsely furnished; a bed, a table, a faded armchair and a battered old wardrobe. This hadn’t been my room before, yet it looked so familiar. Pain seared through my head, and when I tried to remember what had happened, my thoughts were all jumbled.  I could remember the village, the old pub and Michael, but everything else seemed blurry. It felt like something important was missing, but I knew it would come back to me eventually.
I shivered and realised I was only wearing underwear. I got out of bed and stumbled towards the armchair where my clothes lay neatly folded, as if they were waiting for me. A black top hat, a long black dress and yes it was still there, lying in the corner - my beautiful birdcage with one precious black crow sleeping peacefully inside.

‘Keep out!’ I scream. The couple stares at me in horror after swerving their Range Rover to avoid me. ‘This is my village,’ I say. ‘We don’t want folks like you here.’
Ignoring their cries of protest, I walk around the side of the car. ‘Have you seen my boy?’ I say. ‘I’m looking for my son, Connor.’
‘Get out the way,’ the man shouts at me. ‘Who the hell are you anyway?’
I spit at the car and wipe the residual phlegm from my mouth. ‘I’m the lady who looks after this village.’ I cackle. ‘Folks ‘round here call me Mad Annie.’

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