The butterfly brooch

 

There is a path not far from where I live. To the uninitiated it is by all accounts, a path like any other. It’s flank is lined by trees, which though bare in winter, bloom greatly in the spring, locking overhead to create a canopy from which one can take shade from the sun. The route of three miles or so follows the river Nene, which itself runs from Northampton through to Peterborough before branching out to the nearby town of Wellingborough, On summer days it is indeed a pleasant walk, but we are not passing through those months at present, and it is the winter days, and more particularly nights that concern me here. For it is during these times that the path draws me.

To understand it’s power I must go back a little. Twelve years in fact. A time when I was renting a small one bedroomed house a stones throw away from the Peterborough city centrer. The house itself has little baring on this story, only to say it was located in a small cul-de-sac in which 6 flats were situated at the entrance, with my house and one other at the rear. The two houses were joined and the builders of the properties, wanting to save money, had skimped on materials. The plumbing and heating was inadequate and the walls, made from plasterboard, were paper thin. One could hear just about every word that passed between their neighbour if they so wished just by pressing an ear to the wall. The rest of the time brought a muffled background noise consisting of television noise and footsteps on stairs. Quiet was not an option.

For all this noise my neighbour was something of an enigma. He never seemed to leave the house, though he had frequent visitors. Nothing particularity unusual in that. That was until the girl arrived.
She appeared in mid March. A pretty, though somewhat tired looking girl. I took her age to be around 19, though you could probably take a few years either side of that. I was putting out the rubbish when she walked up to the adjoining house, I said hello and she nodded in return before knocking on the neighbours door. The door opened and she was quickly ushered inside. The curtains were drawn as always and if I didn’t know better, I would have said the house was empty, such was the feeling that came off it. Thinking about it now, even at night no lights were seen emanating from within it’s walls. It was a place of darkness, only later did I find out just how dark it really was.

That night as I lay in bed trying to ignore the muffled sound of the neighbours television ( a game show from what I recall), I was startled by a loud crashing sound. I sat upright and listened in the dark. Silence. Even the television had ceased. After a time my senses became more acute. I heard a car sound it’s horn in the night and off in the distance the laughter of a group making their way home from an evening out. From the house next door there was nothing. It was only as I lay my head back down to my pillow and closed my eyes that the weeping stated. It was the girl I had seen earlier, I had no doubt. I do not know how long I lay in the dark listening to her sobbing, only that as sleep took me, her tears were far from over.

I had work the next day and on leaving my house I glanced over at the one next door. The curtains were shut as usual, but apart from that, there was nothing untoward; no hint of what had occurred the previous night. I told myself it was lovers tiff, but all throughout the day, the memory of the girls grief haunted me. And it was with some trepidation that I made the journey home.

That evening it was not the sound of sobbing that greeted me, but that of what I took to be love making; the sounds of a bed moving on thread bare carpet, and the laborious heavy breathing of a man. I turned up my television to drain out the sound and moved to the kitchen to make some dinner, then having eaten, decided to take a shower. The sound coming from next door continued unabated.

In fact it hardly stopped. Over the next few days I took to wearing ear-plugs at night. I had thought of knocking on the neighbours door, but to say what ‘Do you mind not having sex with your girlfriend’? Ridiculous. And so, that’s how it continued. It was only on the fourth day that I started to think something was not right. It was late evening and I was just seeing a friend of mine out,  I stood and watched as she walked down the long drive that led from my house, when the door to my neighbours house opened. I turned and in the low light saw the young girl appear. She looked pale and even in the fading light I could see the dark patches around her eyes. ‘Hi again’ I said.
She looked sheepishly behind her as if searching the gloom of the interior for something, then said ‘Can you do something for me?’
I was a little taken back by this request, but said ‘Of course. What is it?’
She then handed me a brooch. ‘Look after this for me.’ And with that she closed the door. I was somewhat confused by her request. I looked down at the object in my hand. The brooch was a simple design, a white butterfly resting on a golden petal. Not real gold, I could tell, but an elegant brooch nonetheless. It seemed at odds for someone so young, more in keeping with someone from another age. I put it in my pocket and went back inside. Throughout the evening I kept returning to it though, moving it over in my hand. By nine the familiar banging had resumed next door. By midnight the sound was replaced by sobbing once more. As I lay there in the dark, the brooch resting on the table at my side, I decided that come morning, I would find out what was going on in the house next door.

I knocked again, harder this time and with more urgency, yet still no one answered. I stepped back looking up at the bedroom window, the curtains were drawn there too. And just as the downstairs appeared unoccupied, as is was with the upper floor. If anyone was in there, they didn’t want to talk to me. I tried once more, then, resigned to failure, grabbed my things for work and made my way up the drive. I looked back nearly a dozen times, and although I still didn’t see any movement, was sure that everyone one of my steps was being watched by eyes unseen.

The next few days were quiet. So quiet that not once did I hear even the slightest sound emanating from the adjoining house. Perhaps, my imagination had gotten the better of me and the sounds next door were nothing more than the ups and downs of a volatile couple. But then I hadn’t heard any shouting, and the brooch, what of that? I kept an eye on the house over the following week, even knocking again once or twice, but nothing stirred. I started to think that perhaps the occupants had left. The curtains remained closed though. The house it seemed, was keeping it’s secrets.

And that’s how it was, for a month or so at least. I may have even forgotten about the whole episode , but events were about to transpire that have made me question my judgement ever since. I was on the way home and had popped into my local newsagents to buy some milk. I got on fairly well with the proprietor; we often chatted about nothing in particular and he often had a tale to tell, but his usual upbeat manner was lacking on this day. He handed me a newspaper off the top of a stack on the counter, it was the local rag, the Telegraph ”You seen this”
I recognised the girl in the picture immediately Only in the black and white photograph before me she appeared slightly younger, and was smiling. It was to be the first and only time I would see that smile. ”Such a waste. Drowned they say”. I could hear the newsagents voice, but my head was swimming, I put money on the counter and with paper in hand rushed home.

Local girl Fiona Habbard (20) was found dead yesterday. Peter New found her body in the river Nene whilst walking his dog. Early police reports say she was a victim of drowning and that….

I continued reading in something of a daze. I need to call the police I thought. As it was, I didn’t get a chance. By the time I had finished reading a car was already pulling into the drive. I opened the door to two uniformed officers. ”Can we have a word?”

I told them everything I knew. One watched me and nodded whilst the other took notes. They explained that the man who was my neighbour had already been questioned. He wasn’t returning apparently. I wasn’t sure what they meant by that, but I took it that he had been arrested. After a time, they stood up, thanked me for my help and returned to their vehicle. It was only later, that I realised I hadn’t told them of the brooch. I thought about calling them, but in the end decided against it. She had told me to look after it after all.

As it turned out, no arrests were made. The coroners report stated that the girl Fiona had been intoxicated, and making her way along the river had slid down the bank and drowned.
I don’t know if this is true. Part of me would like to believe that it is. That the sobbing I heard was just that of a young woman having argued with her boyfriend. That the sounds of a bed moving over thread bare floors were made from love, not violence. I like to believe these things.

I have walked along the path on which Fiona fell. As I say it is not far from my house. Though it is a route I take in the summer, when there is light to guide my way. Then there is bird song, and the gentle sound of the river. Cyclists use it as a route into the city, families walk it’s length, children hand in hand play together, running this way and that, always careful not to stray to close to the trees where the bank suddenly deeps into the water.

People stay away from it in the winter. Perhaps it is just because the lights that line the paths route only reach so far before giving over to darkness, perhaps they fear it is too dangerous walking in the dark so close to the rivers edge. Or perhaps they know of the tales, the urban legends that arise from tragedy, the stories of footsteps heard in the night; the weeping of a woman that emanates from the river. Perhaps it is these tales that keep them from visiting the path.

As I said it draws me. And I know I must go. I have donned my scarf and winter coat, for it is dark outside and the cold reaches that much further into my bones since I have turned 40. I walk outside, turning left, from there I follow the footpath that leads down to the railway line. I stop for a moment taking in the night air, watching my breath rise against the darkened sky, then tightening my resolve make my way over the crossing and onto the path that leads by the river. It’s dark. Oh so dark. I dare say I can’t see ten yards left or right of me so encompassing is the night. I take it slowly, walking carefully, making sure each footfall finds even ground. Only when I feel I have reached the right place do I stop.

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It is then that I hear the sobbing.

There is no mistaking it. So long has it haunted my dreams. I reach down into my pocket and carefully retrieve the object found there. The brooch feels so familiar in my hand. I run my fingers over it for the last time, remembering the girl who entrusted it to me. Her face, her voice; the touch of her hand. Memories all, of a time long past.

She is behind me, I know. More than anything I want to turn around and see her. To tell her that I am sorry. For her to forgive me. But, I know there is no forgiveness to be found here. My lack of action will haunt me always. We create our own ghosts. The dead have other lives.

”I brought it” I say aloud, ”I kept it safe, just like you asked.” The temperature drops further, my breath appears more pronounced on the air, the branches at my side glaze with a sudden frost. I stretch out my hand, gaze at the brooch one last time then throw it up and behind me into the air.

And a hand catches it.

I stand there a long time in the dark. When eventually I turn around, there is of course nothing there. Only the path leading out before me. I make my way home and sit down with a mug of tea. There would be no more footsteps for children to be scared of in the dark, there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to the path that leads by the river.

The butterfly has found it’s wings.
It is the living who are left weeping.

 

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