Elynore Pyn lived in a box.
Not in a cardboard box stuffed with newspaper and used for warmth against the city. No. In quite a different sort of box – a jewellery box of enamelled rosewood with mother of pearl inlay decoration around the edges. At one time it had housed the trinkets and private letters of an important general, of some army or other, somewhere in central Europe.
Now, with the incriminating personal correspondence burned, the delicate box housed Elynore Pyn and all her worldly possessions. Apart from her cat – which could not shrink down to the appropriate size and so merely patrolled around Elynore’s abode, like an enormous feline Cerberus.
Elynore’s friends had warned her that the inflation of house prices in the Capital over the past two decades was resulting in ever-smaller homes for first time buyers. They had been right. The box was cheap, but it was a tight squeeze.
Elynore had found the trinket on a stall in the Portobello Road. She had fallen in love with it. It had a warm, homey smell about it. She moved in the very next day. The box was of a sarcophagus design, with a writing slope in the dome of its lid, and it was lined with purple felt. Purple was Elynore’s favourite colour. Under her bare feet the fabric would be as plush and comfortable as the finest shag pile carpet.
Elynore brought in what little furniture she had, including a tiny urn containing her mother’s ashes. She took the dolls-house size furniture out of her coat pocket and, sitting on an obligingly empty park bench, she furnished her new home.
She put the copper bathtub in the top left hand corner and her old-fashioned, Victorian, metal bed-frame (with a blue and white striped mattress) in the top right hand corner. She arranged a tiny vase of plastic flowers on a small nightstand, next to a collection of miniature books. She didn’t read these. She had a Kindle, like everyone else. The real books were for decoration.
Then she walked through the park, swinging the box by the large handle on its lid. When she was sure she had gone far enough, and that no-one was looking, she placed the box under a hedge, where she knew no gardener or maintenance person would ever find it. She made sure to leave the lid open. Then, very slowly, she put one foot inside. Up to her calf.
The process was fairly slow. And painful. You had to dip a toe in first, like testing the temperature of the water. Elynore felt the familiar pricking sensation, like pins and needles only much, much worse. Holding her breath, and squeezing her eyes shut, trying to close her mind to the pain of her cell walls and membranes imploding, she clambered into the box.
You had to choose your moments for downsizing wisely. If a passer-by saw what was happening, they might call the police. Elynore looked like a dismembered torso as she sank into her new home, and her new shape. Her mouth opened. She gulped for air. It was like watching someone drown.
Once she was almost completely shrunk, with only her hand sticking out of the box –looking pale, macabre, and bloated, as if all the blood had drained out of it (which is, incidentally, exactly what had happened. A small heart can only pump so fast) – Elynore reached for a place on the lining, where the purple felt was torn. Using a painfully outstretched index finger, she tugged at the loop of fabric as hard as she could. Which was feebly. Never the less, it was enough to pull the lid forward. Inertia did the rest. The wooden lid slammed down with a quiet ‘thunk’ over Elynore’s tiny, shrunken head, like an enormous trap door.
Still reeling, and trying to make her heart beat less quickly, Elynore turned on a lamp. It was a bicycle light she had found in the park. It shed a warm glow over her little abode. She sat on the bed, letting the pins and needles and tachycardia pass. She knew from experience that they would. After a quick snack and a little read, she tucked herself into her small dollhouse bed and waited for sleep.
Elynore didn’t tell anyone that she lived in a box. It wasn’t something you could just tell people. She had a fairly respectable job in a bookshop. What would Daisy in HR think if Elynore told her, quite openly one morning, that she lived in a jewellery box? Elynore suspected it wouldn’t be too long before Daisy was smiling sweetly and reaching for the panic button under her desk with a manicured finger.
She hadn’t told Arthur, her possibly/maybe boyfriend. Though she might have if he had asked. But Arthur never asked. In fact, he rarely spoke. He was sullen and wrote bad poetry. Yet Elynore could tell that he had a good heart. Sometimes she thought about the future, and what she would say to him when it came to the question of ‘moving in together’. She would probably make up something about needing her own space. She secretly hoped, when it came to it, that Arthur might live in a jewellery box of his own, made of oak, or cedar, under a shrub on Hampstead Heath. Though she knew that that was just wishful thinking.
Elynore sank into a sweet and comfortable sleep, and dozed for a few hours, enjoying the smell of the jewellery box that was her very own private bit of purple-lined heaven.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, there was a knocking on the little wooden roof.
She checked her mobile. It was three o’clock in the morning. Who could it be? This was most irregular. The only person who knew about her unusual new abode was her brother Jack. But he lived in Berlin, now. And the last time they had texted he hadn’t mentioned anything about visiting. Besides, she hadn’t even told him which park she was in! She didn’t want to go through the agony of re-sizing, unless it was Jack, or something really important. Instead, she stood up, and gingerly pushed against the lid with all her might. Elynore’s heart was in her mouth. Had Arthur found out? Had he come to confront her? The lid opened a fraction.
Through the crack she could see the silhouette of a bird. It was bobbing its head up and down, tapping on the side of the box.
Elynore breathed a sigh of relief.
Ellie sat on a bench. She was in tears. And she was quite drunk. It had been a horrible dinner. It was too much. They always made her feel about two inches tall. She didn’t know why she bothered. She smeared mascara all the way along her right cheekbone, like war paint, as she wiped her eyes.
They had looked at her across the dinner table and she could feel the judgement pouring down, like confetti at a wedding.
Why wasn’t her life working? Why wasn’t she where she had intended to be in five years time? What had happened to her five-year plan? Why didn’t her degree count for anything on the job market? Why didn’t she have a mortgage? Why, oh why, had she left Arthur, when he was the only good thing in her life? Correction – had been.
Of course they didn’t say these things out loud. They didn’t have to. The hand gestures, crossed arms, and tired expressions said it all. The questions were written in their eyes.
Ellie didn’t have the heart to tell them why she had really done it. It sounded too childish. And she was a grown woman.
Grown women shouldn’t be out ‘looking’ for themselves. They should have found themselves (and all the necessary accoutrements – of which there were at least three, and hopefully four if you included a decent career) by the time they were twenty five, twenty eight at a push. If you really wanted to be modern about it, thirty, but that was quite late enough. How much time did she need?
She was a grown woman. A grown woman, drunk, and blubbing on a park bench at three o’clock in the morning. A grown woman with no job, no partner (not so much as a ‘part’) and, soon, no place to live. It had all looked so different four years ago. In fact, she didn’t have to look that far back. It had all looked so different four months ago. She blew her nose on her sleeve. Then looked down at herself with disgust.
Something touched her thigh.
Ellie’s heart stopped. She turned her head slowly, expecting a mugger. Instead, she saw something she had not noticed when she first sat down: a pile of old grey clothes and carrier bags.
Only it wasn’t a pile of old clothes. It was an elderly lady. She had been sleeping. And Ellie’s loud sniffing had evidently woken her up. The lady shifted and sat up.
Ellie suddenly felt very self-conscious.
The old woman’s skin was tight across her cheeks, red and peeling, and heavily lined everywhere else. Her thin wrists looked ready to snap, as if the rags were bandages holding her together. Ellie was horrified that a person so old and frail, a person who should have been in a hospital bed, or in a four-poster in the warm embrace of a loving family in a country house somewhere, should be out here, in a park in London, all alone at night.
The old lady didn’t seem too concerned. She did, however, seem angry to have been rudely awoken.
She gave Ellie a condescending, haughty look and then, gathering up her various odds and ends, got up. She sniffed angrily and walked over to the next bench in a huff. Then, obviously judging the distance between the two benches to be too small, she went along to the next one, further away from Ellie.
Ellie was mortified. She looked down at the empty space that had opened up beside her – a space she had not even noticed contained a person. She couldn’t do anything right tonight!
Ellie observed the elderly lady for a while. Poor thing, she thought. At least it was a warm night. She dried her eyes with her cardigan.
‘I’m sorry I woke you…’ she started to say.
‘Shhhhh!’ came an enraged sound from two benches away.
Ellie had only wanted to apologise. She felt hurt by the old lady’s anger. Everyone was angry with her tonight. She thought about texting Arthur – but she knew that the impulse to make things right was only the alcohol talking. She had had four glasses of wine. She would have wanted to make it right with anyone, even that weird, shifty guy from speed-dating, who had told her about his collection of cockroaches. Dead cockroaches. Three a.m. was no time to make important life decisions. She left her phone locked and shifted uncomfortably on the bench. She didn’t feel like going home. Her roommate was probably still up, and making lots and lots of noise with Malcolm, the tiresome accountant who couldn’t account. And who forgot het name and called her Emmie. Continuing to play with her phone in her pocket, debating whether or not she should totter home on foot or get a cab, Ellie felt something wind itself around her bare ankles. It was a black cat, with one oddly purple eye. It was purring. Ellie bent down to stroke it.
When she looked up again, the old lady had materialised beside her. The sudden reappearance of the woman made of rags and bones made Ellie jump. The lady looked exceedingly grumpy.
‘Woken up at three a.m.! That’s what I get, I suppose, for sleeping on a park bench!’ she said drily. Ellie looked embarrassed.
The elderly lady’s face didn’t change.
‘Do you want one?’ she asked, after a few minutes of awkward silence, pushing a little paper bag towards Ellie. ‘I believe its traditional for old crones to offer something – don’t have pearls of wisdom. Only sherbet lemons.’
Ellie took one gingerly. Then looked embarrassed. She didn’t want to offend the old lady, but it felt odd taking an unwrapped candy from a stranger.
‘Eat it. Don’t eat it. Suit yourself. You’re lucky I didn’t give you a clip round the ear. Waking a body up in the middle of the night!’
‘I said I was sorry,’ said Ellie, feeling more than a little offended.
‘I see you’ve met Kitten,’ said the old lady pointing down at the cat. ‘Don’t touch her too much will you – she’s got more fleas than a box full of fleas.’ She smacked her lips. ‘Don’t talk much do you? Too late to be quiet now! I’m awake!’ she continued.
Ellie shifted in her seat. But she couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘Smart one, aren’t you,’ said the old lady, sarcastically. ‘Should have stayed over there,’ she added, pointing to the bench, about twenty metres away. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked, after another long silence.
‘Ellie,’ said Ellie, looking surprised at the question.
‘Well, are you sure, now? Because you don’t look so sure.’
‘It’s Ellie,’ said Ellie, getting annoyed.
‘Knew an Elly once. Only she was Elly with a Y. You’re spelling yours with an IE, I shouldn’t wonder. Elly with a Y is much prettier. As a name, I mean. She used to come by here sometimes. Loved sherbet lemons, she did. Don’t know what happened to her. She was a lovely girl.’
The old woman’s eyes clouded over. She looked confused and forlorn for a moment.
Ellie felt uncomfortable and pretended to check her phone.
‘I…I should go. It’s very late,’ she said finally.
‘Don’t leave on my account. Though you’re probably right – streets are dangerous places for a young girl at night,’ said the elderly lady.
Ellie got up. It felt like a century since the last time anyone had called her a young girl. She wondered how dangerous the city was for an old lady at night. Very, she decided. Feeling guilty for wanting to get away, Ellie asked her if she needed any help.
‘Do you want some money for a shelter or something?’ she asked, as she got up to leave.
Words rumbled up from the old woman. She didn’t seem so frail any more. Her words were sharp. She spoke as if she was shooting arrows. Ellie had never seen a person look so offended.
‘Yes, and I suppose, in an ideal world, I should come home with you, and you could cook me a dinner and give me a bath? And then I would be so grateful that I would be gone first thing in the morning, without waking you – and I would leave you a quaint thank you letter – misspelled of course – on your kitchen table. You’re all the bloody same! I don’t want anything from you at all. Go on, piss off! And give me back my sherbet lemon!’
Ellie was shocked. She walked away from the bench feeling red from her toes to her eyelashes, like a child, told off for spilling the milk. Not knowing quite why she did it, she spat out the sherbet lemon. Tears pricked her eyes again. Only this time, they were angry tears. A whole array of things she could say in retort swam behind her eyelids.
‘I will say something! It’s not fair for her to treat me like that. All I did was offer some help,’ thought Ellie.
But when she turned around to give the old lady a piece of her mind, the bench was empty.
Elynore went back to bed, tutting. What a noisy bird! Where had the blasted cat got to? It was usually there to shoo them away. One flash of that purple eye and the little things scarpered.
She settled down into the soft eiderdown of the coverlet. She felt a bit sorry for shooing. She didn’t like being unkind. It was just a silly bird, after all. What did it know? It didn’t realise it had been pecking at a box with a woman inside.
She had been dreaming about something lovely. It was warm, and comfortable, her dream, and it smelled of sherbet lemons. She closed her eyes and tried to get back to sleep. She had work in the morning. Those books wouldn’t sell themselves.