Missing In Action

Posted on June 5, 2011

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By Joanne Sheppard…

“Mrs Keane?” Peter called. “Mrs Keane, are you here? Mabel? Mabel Keane? My name’s Peter, from the Council? Your neighbours were a bit worried about you, so I’ve just come to see if you’re all right. The back door was open, so…”

He trailed off. There was not a sound to be heard but the measured drip of the limescale-clouded kitchen tap. Judging by the level of the water in the faded plastic washing-up bowl, it had been dripping like that for quite a while.

The neighbours hadn’t seen Mabel for several days, they’d said. Usually, they saw her shuffling to the Happy Shopper on the corner every morning for her newspaper and a pint of milk, leaning precariously on her stick.

“I think she manages all right,” the man next door had said. He had fingers like raw sausages, and had taken a razor to what remained of his hair. “She keeps herself to herself, like. She’ll chat about the weather, but not much more. She don’t get out far these days, but she manages. She used to go up the high street for the wool shop, but that closed last year. Like I say, she’s a private sort of lady. She’s never invited us in. But we’ve been worried, and when we knocked there weren’t no answer, so we thought we better give you people a ring.”

Peter was used to smells. The nature of his job meant he came across a lot of them. An overweight dog, panting by a four-bar electric fire on a greasy tartan blanket, blinking up at him with eyes as milky and sightless as its owner’s. Food, unrefrigerated and undisposed-of because throwing away half a tin of mouldy pear slices would be A Waste. A blocked sink, a mouldy bath-mat, long-term incontinence. Sometimes, it was just plain old human dirt, settling in the wrinkles of someone who had long lacked the mobility to step into a bath. Even, once, a dead body. That was by far the worst, of course, and Peter was thankful that nothing of that magnitude assaulted his nostrils as he stood in Mabel Keane’s kitchen. But there was a definite smell, and he couldn’t place it. It was somewhere between old carpet and wet dog, with a hint of a grubby old stuffed toy that’s been in the attic too long.

There was an old-fashioned painted dresser in the kitchen, upon which stood some floral crockery and two framed photographs. One showed a young airman in his RAF uniform, his moustache barely more than teenage fluff, and had a neat copperplate inscription in the corner: ‘To my darling Mabel, Yours Ever, Roy’. The other showed the same man, still in uniform, on the steps of some municipal building or other, arm in arm with a petite, laughing woman holding a tiny bouquet and a silver cardboard horseshoe. Despite the plain suit the woman wore, it was clearly a wedding picture, a typical war-time marriage, hastily arranged at the town hall before the groom got his call-up papers. Peter’s granddad had been shipped straight to North Africa; a boy from Streatham who’d never been further than Margate sent off to the Egyptian desert, just like that. Perhaps the same had happened to Mabel’s late husband. He must have come home with some stories to tell.

As Peter made his way across the kitchen to explore further, he noticed that the damp dog smell was getting stronger. He wrinkled his nose and saw that something was protruding under the kitchen door, something maroon and fuzzy.

It was one end of a piece of knitting, a strip about eight inches across, the wool matted. Peter bent down and tugged it gingerly. It felt unpleasantly dirty, almost greasy, between his fingers. A few more inches slithered into the kitchen before he felt resistance, and decided to open the door into the living room.

It was full of knitting.

Coiled and tangled, the wool covered the floor and most of the furniture, with just the tops of a couple of armchairs and an old-fashioned set-top TV aerial protruding from the chaotic nest. Only a little light filtered through the closed curtains, as the bottom half of the window had been obscured. As Peter had opened the door, some of the knitting had tumbled out, and was now snaked limply around his ankles. He picked up the loose end again and gave it an experimental yank.

The vast knot of knitting must have been a single piece. When he pulled, the pile shifted creepily in several different places in the room, twitching as he tugged as if it were some sort of living entity, entangled into heaving great Gordian knot. Although dulled by years of grime, the thing was composed of a multitude of colours, textures and thicknesses of wool. After switching on the light, Peter saw that the stairs that ascended from the corner of the living room were smothered in the stuff too. If he was going to check on Mrs Keane, he would have to negotiate it.

As he made his way across the living room, the festering scarf – for that was what he imagined it to be, an obscenely long, monstrous Dr Who scarf that had taken over the house like some sort of knitted infestation – seemed to clutch at his shins. He almost fancied that he could feel the itchy, prickling fibres through his trousers, and he had an overwhelming desire to scratch his crawling skin. The smell of mildewing wool was much stronger now as he reached the stairs, and he recalled a documentary he’d once seen about farming, in which a farmer had parted the woolly coat of a sheep to reveal a writhing cluster of blowfly maggots that had hatched in the fleece. Peter almost lost his footing on the stairs – as they were completely swamped, he could only feel his way – as he jumped at the thought. He could have sworn, no, he really could, that he saw a wriggling motion somewhere deep in the knitting before he stumbled to the top of the staircase, a loose lurching sensation in his gut.

The scarf was deeper over the landing. It was flecked with mouse droppings, telltale black pellets, and his final step disturbed a moth.

One of the three doors off the landing was open, but Peter could already see that the tiny boxroom was crammed floor-to-ceiling with the scarf, which had strangled the contents as an invasive weed suffocates a flower-bed. There was a second door too, this time closed; a plastic plaque upon which was silhouetted a winged cherub standing ready to pee into a chamber-pot suggested that it must the bathroom. Presumably – hopefully – it remained free of the scarf, although reaching it couldn’t have been easy.

The third door was ajar.

“Mrs Keane?” Peter called.

Silence.

He could no longer try to pick his way painstakingly through the wool. The thought of treading on something that might be nesting within its mouldy depths was sickening, but it would be more so if it happened slowly, brittle rodent bones or the shiny carapace of a huge beetle crunching stickily underfoot. No, this needed to be done quickly, and Peter found himself blundering, with his eyes half-shut and his breath held, into the bedroom.

The bed was buried under the scarf, and all that could be seen of the chest of drawers was the top half of its mirror. The only mostly-visible furniture in the room was a wing-backed armchair in the corner, upholstered in threadbare green velveteen.

In the armchair sat Mabel Keane.

She wasn’t moving.

The old woman’s cheeks were sunken and grey, her eyes closed in cavernous, shadowy sockets, the their lids were paper-thin. Her shrivelled lips were cracked, and clutched in her stiffened chicken-claw hands were two knitting needles.]

She was halfway through a row.

Mabel’s hair was dry and fine, and fell in long cobweb-wisps around her face and shoulders, shrouding her skeletal frame. It must have been long enough to reach her waist, Peter thought. He assumed she’d worn it in a bun or something to go out, or surely, people would have stared. It was terribly sparse, and her flaking scalp, marbled with blue veins, was clearly visible beneath it.

Suddenly, Peter saw what had happened.

The most recent inches of the woollen scarf that had all but overwhelmed the house, creeping into its corners and swamping its furniture, harbouring mice and gathering filth, were knitted from dirty-white human hair. Mabel had begun to knit her hair, still attached to her head, into the scarf.

               “Oh, Jesus,” muttered Peter.

He reached for his clunky Council mobile to call an ambulance, even though the urgent need for one had obviously passed at least a day or two previously. Then he remembered: check the pulse. That was procedure. Only a formality in this case, of course, but if there was one thing Peter had learnt in ten years working for a local authority, it was the importance of procedure. He reached out his hand to Mabel’s neck, and only recoiled twice before his fingers made contact with the clammy skin.

“Roy?”

Peter leapt back, almost falling into the woollen undergrowth in which he already stood knee-deep. Mabel’s eyes, the colour of sour milk, had snapped open to stare at him.

“You gave me a fright,” she said in an indistinct croak. There was no teacup or water glass to be seen; she must have desperately dehydrated. “Roy? Roy, love, is that you?”

“No, Mrs Keane, I’m not Roy, it’s – my name’s Peter, I’m from social – social services, I – you seem to have got yourself into a bit of a –”

Breathless with shock, he swallowed stale air. The tang of dried urine prickled his nostrils.

To his horror, Mabel snatched at his wrist. Her fingers were icy and her splitting, overgrown fingernails dug into his flesh. “He’ll be back home on leave soon,” she rasped. “I’m knitting him a scarf. He asked me for one, in his letter. All the air crews have scarves, you know. It’s cold up there, in their Tiger Moths, because they have those open cockpits, don’t they?  So I’m knitting him one, for luck. He said if I knit him a nice stripy scarf, and I see a Tiger Moth over Kent, I’ll be able to look up and see if there’s a lovely bright scarf flying out behind it. If there is, he says I’ll know it’s him, in his lucky scarf. Started knitting it the very next day, I did. It wasn’t always easy to get wool at first, with the rationing. Every scrap I could get, I used. I even unravelled my bedsocks.” She sucked drily at her toothless gums. “After rationing finished, it was easier.”

“Mrs Keane, I think you might be a little… confused,” Peter said. “You’ve just woken up, after all. Now, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to call an ambulance for you, because I don’t think you’re feeling very well, are you? Do you understand?”

“I ran out of wool,” Mabel said. “I couldn’t knit because I didn’t have any wool.” She looked around her, her hair still knitted tightly into the scarf as if she had become part of its very being. “But I found a way. And I’m not confused,” she added.  She tightened her grip on Peter’s wrist. “The telegram only said missing. Missing in action. Over France. That doesn’t mean dead. Vi Walker’s Bill was missing, and he turned up again.” She closed her eyes again. “They have escape lines, you know,” she whispered. “The Resistance, in France. They help our boys get back.”

              “Mrs Keane, it’s… it’s been a long time.”

“My Roy wouldn’t leave me. He’ll be back soon, you see. Bold as brass. He’ll want the kettle on, and I can give him his scarf.”

And she took up the needles again and began to knit.

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