WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Elsie’s Magic Carpet

Write Across Sussex
Write Across Sussex

By Amanda Green

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

“The daffodils are blooming

And spring is on its way…”

The old 78 was so scratched there was more crackle than song, but Rob didn’t mind. He smiled as he gently lifted the needle and swung the arm back into place. Once the record stopped turning he picked it up and slid it into the paper sleeve, taking care not to touch the fragile surface. Then he looked again at the faded picture on the sleeve, a pretty face smiling in soft focus above the words “Elspeth St John in Springtime Review 1946.” It had to be her.

He hadn’t even been searching for her, not really. Mrs Evans from the Hospice Shop always rang when they had any old records donated, and this week there’d been two boxes, buried in a huge pile of stuff dropped in by some hot shot city type whose old aunt had passed away. Mrs Evans said it was as if he’d just emptied the contents of her bungalow into his fancy car and then dumped it at the first charity shop he came across. He couldn’t wait to sell the place and get his hands on the money.

So Rob had two new boxes in his music room and the delightful anticipation that they might contain something to add to his collection. He’d sell the rest online, for more than they’d get in the shop, and hand all the profit straight back to Mrs Evans.

He didn’t tell many people about his hobby, his passion for old musicals from the thirties and forties. He collected film posters and photographs of the stars, but the records were his real love. He had hundreds, all carefully arranged on purpose built shelves covering three walls of the music room (previously the dining room) in his small house. Two ancient phonographs were set up to play them and to Rob there was nothing finer than listening to a record and being transported back to the very moment when the orchestra played and the song was sung.

A secret crush on Deanna Durbin didn’t really go with his day job as a landscape gardener. It was his Gran’s fault – he’d lived with her years ago after his mum died and dad was struggling to cope. He and Gran would have ‘Matinee Afternoons’ watching videos of the old musicals and soon he was hooked. Deanna was his first love, and first love never truly fades.

And so it was some rare Deanna gem, or perhaps an unusual arrangement of a favourite tune he was hoping for in the two boxes, but instead there was Elsie, smiling up at him and singing of daffodils.

He’d first seen Elsie almost as soon as they’d started working up at The Lawns, a slight figure gazing out of a ground floor window. It was a big contract, landscaping and replanting the grounds of a sheltered housing complex and it would take at least six weeks his boss said, getting the place looking nice before spring. Rob enjoyed jobs like this, staying in one place for a while and seeing a real transformation at the end of it.

His first task had been clearing the ground in front of one of the accommodation blocks, and when he’d stood up from his digging to stretch out his back she’d been there, watching. Her bright scarf had caught his eye even through the glass, and when he looked more closely he could see that all her clothes were unusual, an exotic array of rich colours and fabrics. He was no expert, but it didn’t look like the drab skirt and cardigan that most of the other old ladies seemed to wear. And neither were the other ladies draped in jewellery like that, nor did they have a cloud of long white hair.

Rob only ever saw her at that same window though, she was never walking in the grounds, or sitting in the lounge when he went inside to the canteen for a coffee. After a week or so he asked one of the staff about the lady in the window.

“Oh that’ll be Elsie” the nurse smiled, “amazing clothes and dripping with jewels?”

“Yes that’s right,” Rob sipped his coffee, “what’s her story? She’s always at that window but I never see her anywhere else, and she seems so lonely.”

“She hardly ever leaves her room, and do you know she never speaks?”

“What, never?”

The nurse put down her own coffee cup, glad of the chance to tell the tale.

“Well I’ve been here five years and never heard her say a word. She was a theatrical type, singing on the stage, and even made a couple of films I heard. Apparently,” she leaned in towards Rob conspiratorially, “she got married and her husband made her give it all up but then not long after he dropped down dead. She came here about eight years ago.”

After his coffee break Rob made a point of walking past Elsie’s window, even though he was now working on the other side of the grounds. Feeling rather foolish he smiled at her and gave a little wave, but she showed no response.

Over the next couple of weeks Rob often walked by the window, and always smiled at Elsie. By the second week he felt sure she was watching for him, but she gave no outward sign when he passed by. In the meantime he had got her surname from the chatty nurse and had searched online but found nothing. He only had her married name though, and if her husband had not let her perform there might well be no record of Elsie Crawford in the archives.

The days started to lengthen and winter’s chill was fading. They were taking delivery of a mountain of new plants from the local nursery and there were only the last finishing touches to the landscaping work to go.

Rob couldn’t really say why, but the silent lady was still in his thoughts. There were parallels with his beloved Deanna of course. She had disappeared from public view after her marriage and moved to France, but somehow that always seemed a happy outcome while Elsie looked so sad.

He had a kind heart, and he couldn’t stand to think of Elsie alone, the only resident who never had a visitor according to his informant. Nurse McBride now sought him out at coffee time, happy to have someone new to talk to. Finally Rob asked her if he could visit Elsie. The nurse didn’t see why not, and so later that same afternoon Rob took two mugs of tea and sat across a small table from the old lady. She watched him silently with still bright eyes as he put a plate of chocolate biscuits down between them.

“Help yourself,” he said, but she didn’t.

“My name is Robert.” He felt awkward, almost as if he was intruding, but he decided to ignore any misgivings and began to chat.

He told her about the gardening work, the new footpaths and flowerbeds he was creating, but she didn’t seem to hear him, gazing unseeing into the middle distance. He tried something different.

“I hear you were a singer Mrs Crawford, back in the days when there were proper singers, not like all that racket they call music nowadays.”

There was still no response but he persevered.

“Deanna Durbin’s my favourite. I’ve loved her since I was twelve,” he looked down at the table, picking at a sticky mark with his thumbnail, “I used to imagine I was Franchot Tone…” he tailed off into embarrassed silence and then looked up. Two piercing blue eyes were fixed on him – now she was listening, he was sure of it.

Rob carried on talking, about his favourite films and songs, his Gran, and his record collection. Eventually he’d drunk his tea and eaten all the biscuits. Elsie had touched neither, but her unwavering gaze had not left him until a member of staff suddenly bustled past rattling a tray of crockery. Then she immediately seemed to retreat back into herself and the blue eyes looked vacant again, but Rob knew he’d got through to her.

The next day was Saturday so he wasn’t working at The Lawns, and that was when Mrs Evans had rung about the boxes. Now it was Sunday afternoon and Rob was holding a picture of a young and beautiful Elsie in his hands. It didn’t take much research on the computer to find out more. The nurse had been right, Elspeth St John was a musical theatre performer who had suddenly abandoned a promising career after just a few recordings and one film – Springtime Review. Unlike Deanna there were no fan clubs or societies devoted to her, just a few passing mentions on theatrical history website.

On Monday morning Rob packed the record into a bag and took it with him to The Lawns. He spent most of the morning checking in the final consignment of plants and then on the phone to the nursery sorting out the inevitable mistakes. As soon as he could he slipped away from the planting and made his way to Elsie’s room. He knocked at the door but there was no response so gently he turned the handle. The room was empty and the bed had not been slept in. His stomach did a flip flop as he closed the door and went to the nurses’ canteen. Nurse McBride wasn’t there, she was working nights this week, so he swallowed nervously and asked one of the others.

“Excuse me, has something happened to Elsie Crawford?”

“Why do you want to know?” This nurse was not suspicious not chatty.

“I have something for her,” Rob held up the bag.

“She had a fall. For some reason she decided to take herself outside for the first time in years yesterday morning and slipped over in the garden.”

“Is she alright?”

“Oh yes,” the nurse sounded kinder now, “they took her up to the hospital as a precaution but she’ll be back on Wednesday.”

“Right. Thanks.” Rob retreated and took the record back to his van. He felt terrible, what if it was his telling her all about the new gardens that had prompted her to go outside and fall.

He went back to work, thinking hard as he got on with the last of the planting. There must be something he could do to make amends. Then his phone rang, it was the nursery about redelivering, and suddenly Rob knew exactly what he was going to do.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, for the second night in a row, Nurse McBride made two mugs of tea, and then looked carefully around to make sure she wasn’t spotted before taking one of them outside. She was going to need a lot more tea to keep her going – she’d swapped shifts with a colleague and was doing a double so she could be there when Elsie returned.

At half past ten Nurse McBride wheeled the elderly lady from the ambulance back to her room where the bedside light glowed and the curtains were drawn. Rob had told her what to do and when she’d settled Elsie in the chair by the window she turned to the strange looking box now sitting on the chest of drawers. Gingerly she lifted the lid and peered inside at the delicate mechanism. Her hands were shaking but she remembered what he’d shown her just before dawn.

As the crackling sound filled the small room the nurse smiled and opened the curtains.

“Look outside Elsie, this is all for you.”

“The daffodils are blooming

And spring is on its way…”

And Elsie looked out onto a magical carpet of yellow flowers covering the lawn beneath her window, and for the first time in sixty years she heard her own voice singing of springtime. The heart she thought had died a long time ago filled with joy, and she turned shining blue eyes first to the nurse and then to the diffident young man standing shyly in the doorway.

“Robert,” she whispered, “thank you.”

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