Aunt Edythe’s long, grey silky hair clung to her shoulders before spreading down the back of her chair. Her clean hair crackled as the young Acacia drew the brush down the long tresses in lengthy swoops. The old woman sighed contentedly as Acacia swung her slender arms in big arc-like movements as she covered the full length of her elderly aunt’s hair. It must have been Saturday.
It was ever thus. Every Saturday, straight after lunch, Aunt Edythe carefully washed her hair and then called to Acacia to fetch the special hairbrush with the padded base. Soft rubber padding on the brush supported fine but strong bristles; the brush’s handle was made from smooth tortoise-shell. Acacia would begin the brush-brush-brushing of the long grey strands until Aunt Edythe’s hair was straight, shiny and tangle free. Aunt Edythe only ever used Velvet soap to wash her hair and, although it made it clean, the aunt was aware that Acacia probably would have liked for once to embrace modern life and use a hair care product that might aid the elimination of tangled knots. It was possible that Edythe enjoyed the pain of the knots being pulled. Or perhaps it was the feel of the extra effort needed by Acacia’s hands and arms as they worked with the rhythmic brushing that pleased her? Acacia never questioned the ritual.
After a time, Aunt Edythe would check the dryness of her hair and, if it passed the test, would plait it in two long braids which she would then wind around her head in the style that she had used for the past 65 years.
And then it was time for reading. But that was the afternoon. First, let me tell you about the morning...
Saturday mornings in the sparse little home were spent doing mundane chores that never varied from one Saturday to the next. The two women stripped their beds, taking the bottom sheets to be washed and placing the sheet that was previously on top now on to the mattress. They pulled off the pillow slips and then moved to the bathroom where they took the two skimpy towels off the railing. All this was put out to wash, along with some items of underwear but not much else. Aunt Edythe could never see much point in over-washing outer garments. The washing took some time as although Edythe had succumbed to a modicum of modernity and purchased a second-hand washing machine some years ago, it was an old-fashioned thing that simply chugged the soapy water (Velvet soap, again) around and around in its barrel. After a while it was Acacia’s job to help Aunt Edythe haul each item out of the soapy water and push it into the electric wringer, from which it tumbled into the rinsing water in the concrete trough to be swished around for a whole minute before being returned back through the wringer to nestle in the upturned lid of the machine. The washed items were then tipped into the cane washing basket positioned on the laundry floor. Some job! It really needed two sets of hands!
Can you picture the two of them, hard at work, talking minimally and yet with a pattern that comes with repetition? As Acacia finished pegging out the last of the washing on the clothesline strung between the two tall fence posts in the meagre back yard, Aunt Edythe made her way to the kitchen and made two sets of cheese sandwiches. Once eaten, the sandwiches were followed by a cup of sweet tea and then - and only then - it was time to begin the hair washing ritual.
* * * *
Theirs was an arrangement about which there is not much to tell. Acacia had lived with Aunt Edythe seemingly forever. If she had memories of life with anyone else, they were not accessible. There were no recollections of any other family members and no recollection of ever being told her history. Acacia must have had a “history”. Acacia must have known that children had families; mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmas, grandpas. She once asked Aunt Edythe about her family. “You know I’m your family, Acacia dear,” was the reply. And Acacia never asked again. So, it was just Aunt Edythe and Acacia who lived in a small cottage in what used to be an industrial area of the city. Theirs was one of the few houses that had not been swallowed up by the crazy renovators who had besieged their suburb. Edythe and Acacia were a different breed.
But, now Saturday’s chores were finished and it was time for books. This particular Saturday went thus: Edythe looked towards the overladen book case in the front room, and chose Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase andFable as her first choice. (This was often the case.) “Find the section where the word ‘prince’ is, please dear”, she asked Acacia, once they were seated comfortably.
Acacia rifled through the pages of the thick book, looking at the “P’s”, until she came to “Prince” on page 893. “Prince, from the Latin, princes, meaning chief or leader. A royal title which, in England, is now limited to the sons of the sovereign and their sons.” Acacia read the words clearly and accurately. “Go on”, said her Aunt Edythe. “Black Prince”, announced Acacia, reading the next listing. “Ah, the Black Prince,” sighed Aunt Edythe, “the beautiful Edward” and straightaway embarked on a series of tales about Edward, Prince of Wales, born in 1330, died 1376. Now, was he named the Black Prince because of his stunning black armour or was he, as some malcontents would have it, named for his black actions? How much burning and pillaging had he really been responsible for?
As Aunt Edythe went into a reverie about one of her favourite princes, Acacia began to read further. But silently, with her eyes only, until Aunt Edythe abruptly stopped her personal dissertation on the Black Prince and asked, “What comes next?” Although Acacia felt that her aunt knew quite well, what came next, she dutifully read (aloud, this time), “Crown Prince....the title of the heir apparent to the throne in some countries, such as Sweden, Denmark and Japan.”
Acacia looked up. “Go on”, commanded the aunt. “Prince Consort”, announced Acacia, reading the next entry, “a prince who is the husband of the reigning queen.”
“Leave the next few and read the ‘prince of darkness’ entry”, Aunt Edythe’s voice had a conspiratorial tone. “Aunt Edythe, we’ve done this before,” sighed Acacia, “I’ll only have to look up Satan now.” “Go on, then.” And, doing as requested, Acacia then read the entry about Satan as applied to the devil and evil, which led on to references to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Acacia was then instructed to reach for a book of Milton poetry.
She knew where to start reading........... “Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the World, and all our woe..............”, she began, after which her aunt took over - not reading, mind, but reciting from memory.... “With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing, Heav’nly Muse, that, on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire….”
And the afternoon stretched almost to evening as Acacia progressed from “Paradise Lost” to “Paradise Regained” and Aunt Edythe, impatient to reach her favourite parts, urged Acacia to flip over some pages until she came to “Hail, Son of the Most High, heir of both Worlds, Queller of Satan! On thy glorious work ……….”
And Aunt Edythe finished, by memory,
“Thus they the Son of God, our Saviour meek, Sung victor, and, from heavenly feast refreshed, Brought on his way with joy. He, unobserved, Home to his mother's house private returned.”
And she sighed the sigh of a satisfied soul.
Thus it was that Acacia and Aunt Edythe similarly spent each and every Saturday. And thus it was that Acacia absorbed an education beyond the realms of normal. In bygone days, school had been incidental to Acacia’s life, with each report card Acacia brought home to Aunt Edythe full of praise for Acacia’s abilities and the extent of her knowledge. In former times, on week day mornings, Aunt Edythe would make a packed lunch for Acacia and see her off to school. Those day-long waits were tedious ones for Edythe until Acacia came through the door again and they could discuss the day’s school happenings before Edythe began cooking a meal that she knew Acacia liked. And, as Edythe cooked, Acacia sat in the tiny kitchen and read or recited poetry to her. Just as directed.
In these present days Saturdays and Sundays were spent with books. The Sunday reading was never the demanding style of Saturday: During the morning they read silently on their on own and usually had a short discussion about what each had read. This Sunday, Acacia read, not a book of fiction or poetry, but “What Bird is That?” at her aunt’s insistence, in order to increase her knowledge of the names of the birds that visited their garden. Not that there were many. But there was also the gardening ritual. And the garden? Well, it wasn’t much of a garden, to be honest, but Acacia dutifully dug and weeded as she learned the names of the little flowering bulbs that peeped through each spring and the scraggy bits of shrubbery that, if they were lucky, sent forth flowery offerings once or twice a year.
Edythe was proud of her garden, such as it was. Even geraniums were treasured. “Flowers in meus ortus, flowers in meus ortus EGO diligo”, announced Aunt Edythe one Sunday. “Oh, the flowers in my garden, the flowers in my garden, I love”. Acacia was used to her aunt branching out into Latin phrases. She even knew some of what they meant, even without the English translation that Aunt Edythe usually straightway provided.
Unfortunately, this blissful coexistence that had gone on for a very long time was to come to an end. One Sunday in the garden, as Acacia awaited the (Latin) singing of praises of the latest little garden miracle, she was surprised to see her aunt topple into the small clipped English Box hedge instead. Edythe raised her arms, wordlessly requesting Acacia to pull her up into a sitting position. Acacia merely offered a questioning look. “Is est nusquam”. The aunt gave a weak smile as she found some words in Latin to fit. After all, it was the weekend and Latin was the order of the day. “It is nothing”.
And the days went by. But a little hesitation and the occasional stumble was evident in Edythe, each and every day. One Saturday the hair brushing ritual had a slightly different edge. “Brush harder”, ordered Edythe, “Harder”. Acacia tried her best to do as she was told. And Edythe didn’t tell Acacia that it was the headaches that she was trying to have brushed away.
And then one day another topple; this time almost into the bath. And the next week, on a Saturday, a stumble and topple - and the laundry floor was soaked with water as wet sheets fell with Aunt Edythe.
And the hair brushing. “Brush harder, harder”, was now the constant order. Saturday afternoon reading sessions changed, with Acacia now in charge as her aunt began to find reading difficult and her interest to wander. Aunt Edythe persevered, but she was losing the battle.
Then, on a week day Edythe needed to go to the shops for food; a necessary trip to the outside world. There was a collapse. A crowd, an ambulance and a hospital were involved.
A grim situation. An old woman, very ill and very alone. Doctors, nurses, social workers, a hospital chaplain, all assisted in various ways. A delegate was sent to the address (found on a letter - just a flyer, really) in Edythe’s handbag. There were questions of neighbours. Lived alone? There were no visitors? No relatives that you were aware of? Lived alone? Lived alone. Lived alone?
A policeman searched the house. Look hard, Constable. Do you see the book? The policeman saw a book; a fabric covered journal. He flipped through some pages only to see what to him was gobbledy-gook. Unable to read any of it, he assumed that it was the ramblings of an old, mad woman.
The book had obviously been used well and often over many years. Did anyone remember any Latin? ? Some early pages reveal that Edythe has written: ‘EGO teneo ego sum habeo a parvulus’. What could that mean?
I’ll tell you. It is more or less accurate Latin for: I know I am to have a child Looking closer still; just a glimpse of some pages in the fabric covered journal. EGO mos reperio suus sub boughs of a nemus = I will find her under the boughs of a tree. Una nos mos have a vita of scientia , opus quod licentia = together we will have a life of knowledge, work and liberty. Meus darling Acacia quod EGO ero melior quam procer beter quam rex rgis quod regina , melior quam usque universitas quoniam nos ero una = my darling Acacia and I will be better than princes, better than kings and queens, better than all the world because we will be have each other.
* * * * There is an investigation into the life and death of the old woman, known only as Edythe Willington. No living relative is found. “Are you sure there was nothing of interest? No jewellery? No wedding ring?” “We need to make one last check ...................distinguishing marks........ identification .....”
* * * *
Investigating officers arrive at the funeral parlour two days before Edythe’s burial is permitted to take place. They are there to ‘sign off’ for the coroner in order to close the case. The mortuary assistant, Joanie, greets them. “I am just now preparing the body for burial.” Joanie has had an easy morning. Once she had noted that there was to be no viewing of the body, she was able to relax. Nothing much to do; just the basics. No fiddling with hair-style and make-up. She had grabbed the coil of grey hair and bunched it into a flat bun at the back of Edythe’s poor old head.
Joanie showed the officers into the mortuary cool room where a figure lay on the mortuary table; a slight form, draped loosely in a white cloth. The policemen are not fazed. They are just doing a job. They are quickly gone. Joanie sees them out, stops work to pour a quick cup of coffee, then returns to finish the job in hand.
As she re-enters the cooled room, she pauses, staring at something. What she sees she cannot understand, nor would anyone else. But who could she tell, anyway? Joanie stares and recalls the almost rough manner in which she had tied back the hair of the old woman. Something has changed. At the end of the table, from where the old woman’s head rests, an astonishing cascade of silky grey hair falls straight and shimmering, downwards like a waterfall. On the work bench, directly beside the head of shiny grey hair, lies an old-fashioned hairbrush, with cushioned base for the bristles and a smooth tortoise-shell handle.
A container of talcum powder has spilled a little of its contents and a few fine lines of writing are visible in the powder. ‘farewell meus darling’.