Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 490 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews, and anthologies since June 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories, Sand, Rain, Heat, The Tales of Talker Knock and 50 Short Stories: The Very Best of Steve Carr, and LGBTQ: 33 Stories, and The Theory of Existence: 50 Short Stories, published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.
All the Lovely Nightmares
By Steve Carr
Abigail Keaton awoke with a start. She looked around the sunlit room to catch her bearings. Yes, she was in her bedroom in her new house, that wasn’t new at all, having been built nearly 150 years before in the verdant and hilly Cotswolds district of England, in the rural and historic village of Coln Saint Dennis. Yes, her unpacked boxes and steamer trunks brought from her seaside home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, were still stacked in the corners of the room. Yes, her joints ached as they always did first thing in the morning. Being seventy wasn’t easy.
The sound of creaking wood, footsteps on the stairs, and the tinkling of china alerted her that Marta was on her way, bringing breakfast for Abigail’s first morning in her new abode, just as Marta promised the night before that she would do.
Abigail sat up in the bed and propped her pillow behind her back. She folded her hands on top of the goose down-filled comforter and smiled brightly, trying to hide the subtle pain that coursed through her arthritic hands. “How lovely of you, dear Marta,” she said warmly as Marta pushed the door open with her foot and walked into the room. The also elderly Marta carried a tray with a porcelain coffee pot, coffee cup, a saucer with blue images of Chinese dragons, a plate piled with slices of melon, pears and apples, and another plate ladled with a large mound of scrambled eggs, sausages and two slices of buttered toast. A large dollop of blackberry jam sat near the rim of the plate.
“This should restore you to health after such a long trip,” Marta said. She placed the tray across Abigail’s lap and stood back and looked on with anticipation as if she had just presented Abigail with a work of art and was awaiting the review of an art critic.
“I’ll never be able to eat all of this,”Abigail said with good humor as she stared at the tray. She poured coffee into the cup she poured a bit of cream into it. She lifted the steaming liquid to her lips and slowly took several small sips.
Mildly crestfallen that Abigail hadn’t been more effusive with praise or showing more eagerness to eat, Marta brushed crumbs from her apron turned to the window. “Looks to be a perfect spring day,” she said in a sing-song manner. “The primroses and violets are in full bloom already.”
Abigail placed the cup on the tray and picked up a slice of toast and lathered jam onto it. “I’m so eager to see Coln Saint Dennis in its entirety,” she said. “Do you think your Harvey could drive me around later today?”
Marta turned from the window. “Are you sure you’ll feel up to it? The village will still be here tomorrow if you would rather wait.”
Abigail bit into the toast and while chewing, said, “I’ve heard of this village, of this entire part of your country ever since I was a little girl, and now that I’ve inherited this estate I’m busting at the seams to see everything there is to see.” Jam dribbled down her chin.
“Why didn’t you come here before this?” Marta asked, trying to keep her eyes averted from the sight of Abigail eating with her mouth open.
“I had my teaching duties to tend to during most of the year for forty-three years and during the summer months there was always my mother and father who needed me to be around.”
“You must be very proud of your career teaching so many children.”
“It was what my mother wanted me to do.”
Marta turned back to the window. “Your Aunt Helen talked of your mother quite often. The bond between twins is quite strong, isn’t it?”
Abigail took another bite of toast. “Yes, quite strong. They are together again now just as they were before they both married and Aunt Helen moved here from Edinburgh and my mother and father moved to Halifax.” She took another sip of coffee, washing down the toast. “About Harvey?” she asked, wiping the jam from her chin with the back of her hand.
Watching a kestrel cross the sky, Marta replied. “I’m certain it won’t be a problem.”
The road leading into the heart of Coln Saint Dennis wound its way through the countryside, weaving its way between farms and rural residences where honey-colored homes built of Cotswold stone sat back from the road, many partly hidden by stone walls with vines that draped over them like decorative art. Tall oak, wylch elm and maple trees, thick with leaves for so early in the year, stood like solitary sentinels in the fields and meadows, where meandering small flocks of sheep grazed amidst patches of bluebells and dog’s mercury.
With her window rolled down just enough to let the moist, warm air blow in and tousle her snow-white hair, Abigail sat with her purse in her lap and stared out at the passing scenery, repressing the deep sadness she felt over not seeing this landscape before old age had crept into her bones. Despite Harvey’s protests, she had opened the door to the front passenger side and had settled in, refusing to allow him to treat her as his chauffeur. “We ride together as old friends or not at all,” she had demanded.
He had been quiet from the moment they pulled out of the driveway. The aromas of pipe smoke and stale ale wafted from his sweater. When she oohed or awwed at a scene of particular beauty, he slowed down and didn’t speed up again until the scenery was no longer within sight. “Misses tells me you were a teacher,” he said at last during a long stretch of road lined with walls.
She turned her head, studied him for a moment, and brushed her hair back from her face before answering. “Yes. I taught in a private school for girls and boys under the age of thirteen in Halifax.”
He nodded approvingly. “It’s a fine profession, that,” he said. “I wasn’t much of a student when I was school age. The teachers had to beat reading and writing into me. The seat of my britches were shiny from being swatted so often.” He chuckled, to himself, as if he had instantly forgotten he had said that out loud. “Maybe it’s easier teaching now that there is so much importance placed on education.”
“Not as easy as you might think,” she replied. “Children always resist learning. They can be lovely in their own right, but . . .” Her voice trailed off and she turned her head and looked out the window again. During a brief break between the end of one wall and the start of the next one she watched a woman lead a white horse out of a stable by its reins. A saddle on a red and blue tartan blanket sat on the horse’s back. “I should have liked to ride horses,” she said, wistfully.
“They don’t have horses in Nova Scotia?” he asked.
With the wall once again obscuring her view she turned her gaze to the front window. “Certainly they do,” she replied. “Many of my students rode them but when I was a young girl my mother didn’t consider it ladylike to ride a horse.”
“That’s a funny attitude for your mother to have, seeing as how she and your mother were born in Scotland,” he said. “Horse racing has been a popular sport there for hundreds of years.”
“My mother gave up her Scottish Kerr heritage when she married my father and became a Keaton,” she replied. She opened her purse and sorted through the tissues, bottles of medication, brush, comb and compact until she found a small opened bag of candy. She pulled it out held it out to him. “I bought this in the airport in Halifax before getting on the plane. It’s not very good candy though.”
“No, thank you,” he answered. “I’m not one much for sweets.”
She took a piece of candy from the bag, unwrapped the red cellophane from around it and plopped it in her mouth. She stuffed the wrapper and the bag into her purse and snapped it shut. For the next several miles she made loud sucking noises as she pushed the candy around with her tongue.
In the village, Harvey pulled the car to the curb outside of the Old Abbey Bookstore. “I thought this might be of interest to you,” he said. “It was once part of an abbey, but that was long, long ago.”
Behind a large plate glass window, rows of books on shelves lined the display case. The building looked as if it were being held together by spit and glue. The yellowish Cotswold stone that the walls were built from was cracked with veins that ran from the ground to the ornately carved oak eaves. She rolled down her window and while inhaling the fragrance of orchids that were in bloom in a row of window boxes, she gazed at the building and the books. “Except for what was required so that I could teach the subjects, to my mother’s dismay, I never read for leisure. She could recite lines by memory from the works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and many other Scottish authors until the day she died at age ninety-two. I never had that interest in literature of any kind.”
“Your Aunt Helen was the same way as your mother,” he said. “Despite that bit of difference, there is much about you that reminds me of your aunt.”
In silence, Abigail rolled up the window. “We both never married,” she said at last.
He turned the key in the ignition.“Shall we see the rest of the village?” he asked.
“I saw a sign for the River Coln,” she said. “I’d like to go there if we could.”
“Certainly,” he replied. He pulled away from the curb and slowly drove down the street, passing the few shops in the village before they left the town and entered a stretch of road lined with groves of tall beechwood trees. The ground around them was thick with blossoming wood anemone. Their white petals gleamed in the sunlight that streamed through the beechwood canopy.
Abigail burst out crying.
Harvey quickly pulled the car to the side of the road and turned off the engine. As she sobbed, her body shaking, he gently patted her shoulder. “Now, now, nothing is worth all that, is it?”
With tears streaming down her face, she looked out at the woodland scene. “I’ve missed seeing so much of the beauty that the world offers,” she said. She opened her purse, took out several tissues, and dabbed her eyes. “My parents were very strict when I was young, you see, and when I obtained my degree to teach and then began teaching at the school, my duties to it and to tending to my parents, both who suffered from poor health, consumed my life.”
He withdrew his hand, wiggled his fingers, and stared at them, as if trying to understand how they worked. “Just imagine all the learning you put into the head of all of those young ones,” he said cheerfully.
“Yes, imagine,” she replied almost inaudibly. She opened her purse and thrust the damp tissues in and then closed it. “You and Marta worked for many years for my aunt. You’re not obliged to stay around now that I’m here.”
“We have no other place to go.”
“Oh,” she replied with solemnity. “I hope you don’t mind me saying how glad that makes me.”
“Not at all,” he replied enthusiastically. “Would you like to see the river, now?”
“Yes, that would be quite lovely.”
Bands of gold, purple and red fanned out across the twilight sky. With a cup of tea in her hand, Abigail stood in the driveway looking up. Blue tits nesting in the nearby trees chirped melodically in the otherwise silence as the sun slowly set. When Marta came out of the house, Abigail turned and watched her walk toward her on legs as thin as twigs.
“Did I hear Harvey drive off after supper?” Abigail asked.
Marta came up next to her and she too glanced up at the sky and then looked at Abigail. “Yes. He’s gone to have a pint with his pals at the pub. It’s a nightly habit of his. You know how men can be.”
Abigail took a sip of tea. “Except for my what were my father’s, I know nothing of men’s habits.”
“Did you never fancy men?” Marta asked, and then felt her cheeks burn with the brazenness of the question.
“When I was young I fancied a few, but I never had the face or figure that men fancied in return,” she replied. “My parents discouraged me from seeking a husband.” She ran her fingers self-consciously through her hair and let out a short self-deprecating laugh. “It’s too late to do anything about it now, isn’t it?”
Marta looked up at the sky again. “This was your aunt’s favorite time of the day. She too would come out with a cup of tea just as you have and stare up at the sky.” She then took a small diary from her apron pocket and handed it to Abigail. “Your aunt wrote a line or two in this whenever anything new happened in her life. I found it when I was unpacking your things away while you were out with Harvey and thought you might want to see it.”
Abigail took the diary and held it open in the palm of one hand. The breeze slowly flipped the pages. Most of them were empty. She closed the diary and took a sip of tea. “I’ve often wondered why my mother and Aunt Helen wrote to each other so often, but never made the effort to see one another.”
“So many secrets we all take to our graves with us.”
“I hated teaching,” Abigail blurted out with a laugh. “That’s one of my secrets.”
“I’ve always been a cook but I hate cooking,” Marta said, also laughing.
“I hate children.”
“What?” Marta responded, her facial expression registering her dismay.
“Children are monsters,” Abigail said icily, her demeanor as changed as day to night. “There wasn’t a school day that went by that I didn’t hate the sight and sound of them. I should never have been a teacher, but I had no skills to do anything else. I’ve wasted my entire life on the ungrateful little heathen. They’re living nightmares, every last one of them.”
Marta was silent for several moments before saying, hesitantly, “Surely they never knew how you felt about them?”
“No, I never let on.” Abigail replied coolly, and then a smile slowly crossed her face. “If I had had a gun I would have shot each and every one of them.”