This extract picks up where the last one left off – Tommy and Alf are going to see Ethel.
A short cab ride later found Tommy and Alf standing outside a block of flats; a single column of concrete modernity, stretching up into the sky for 14-storeys. It was the tallest building for miles around, and the views from the top floor were stunning. The view when standing at the bottom was not quite so inspiring. A burnt out car sat across three parking spaces, a blackened shell of its former self surrounded by shattered glass. A sagging sofa filled another space. If the police were ever called to the flats, certain residents would throw missiles down at the patrol a car from the balconies, including it was said, fridges, T.V.s and even three piece suites.
Alf and Tommy entered the block by an industrial sized metal door covered in obscene graffiti. The lobby, of course, smelled of piss and there were two discarded shopping trolleys blocking the doors to the lift which, of course, was out of order.
“Which floor we going to Alf?”
Alf took a huge breath. “Thirteen,” he huffed as he started up the stairs.
Of course, thought Tommy. Of course it’s the thirteenth floor. Why would it be anything else? He started the climb.
Half way up, wheezing heavily, Tommy begged Alf for a rest.
“Who are we going to see again?” he puffed, bent over double with his head between his knees.
“I told you; Ethel. You know her already. Know of her, anyway.”
Tommy thought hard. Ethel. Ethel. The only Ethel he could think of was…
“Not that old woman who walks around town with the dodgy wig? Everyone says she’s the oldest prostitute in Gravesend. We’re going to see some old tom?!”
Tommy took a gasping lungful of air and started up the stairs again after Alf.
“She’d better have some food,” he grumbled.
“Oh trust me, son, she will.”
Finally at the thirteenth floor, they walked past grimy doors fitted with multiple locks, metal bars and even a full length wrought iron gate, until they reached a very clean, very smart red door, with no extra security, and a raffia mat in the front with the words “There’s no place like home” printed on it in curly script.
Alf lifted a hand to knock when a thin voice from inside called out, “Hold on, I’m just getting something out of the oven.”
The smell of baking was drifting under the door, tickling Tommy’s nostrils with warm deliciousness. His mouth would have watered if it wasn’t so dry from walking up thirteen flights of stairs. The unmistakable tinkling sound of a fully laden tea trolley came from behind the red door, which opened wide to reveal a very, very old lady with the blackest of black hair piled on top of her head in a beehive almost a foot tall. The wig was perched at a slight angle, giving a leaning tower of Pisa effect to the jet black cone of matted hair. Her face underneath the wonky wig, though wrinkled in every conceivable place – her eyelids, nostrils, earlobes, lips all had wrinkles upon their wrinkles – was still strangely youthful. Her eyes, though covered with early cataracts, were bright and her expression was sunny and open, like a perfect summer’s day, and she instantly made Tommy feel safe. A twitch of confused recognition hit her face when her eyes met Tommy’s, but then she smiled and shook her head, as if to dislodge an idea that was taking root.
“Come on in, then. There’s a fresh brew in the pot. Sorry I’ve not put on much of a spread. I didn’t get much warning you were coming,” she aimed this at Alf.
Tommy looked past Ethel at the trolley. He could see hot crumpets, oozing butter; lemon drizzle cake with sugar crystals sparkling on top; square slabs of bread pudding stuffed with fat raisins; the pastel yellow and pink checkerboard of sliced Battenburg cake; pale scones topped with thick wedges of clotted cream and strawberry jam with whole strawberries in it. His mouth forgot all about the climb, and he started to drool.
Walking into Ethel’s flat was like walking into the cleanest, brightest, nicest smelling charity shop, crammed wall to wall, floor to ceiling with all manner of curious bric-a-brac. Every piece of wall space was covered with framed pictures, ranging from insipid watercolours to jazzy pop-art. Her mantel held no less than fifteen carriage clocks of various shape and size. A large dresser on the farthest wall from the door housed hundreds of tiny crystal animals, a group of sad clown figurines, and a full set of Babycham glasses adorned with the famous leaping fawn. There was no television, nor was there a radio anywhere apparent, but there was a huge gramophone on a wooden stand taking up a whole corner of the room. Tommy squeezed in next to Alf on the two-seater while Ethel took her seat on an upright armchair. All had embroidered antimacassar covers on the head and arm rests, to protect the furniture from Brylcreem and dirty fingers.
“Alfred, you can be mother, and I will have a nice chat with our young friend here.”
While Alf poured the tea into delicate china cups, none of which matched, Ethel turned to Tommy, who was stuffing a slice of lemon drizzle into his face. It was sharp, sweet and supernaturally moist. It was often the case with the munchies that whatever you ate seemed like the best, most delicious thing in the world. Ethel’s cakes were actually the best, most delicious things in the world, stoned or not.
“It’sh Tommy,” he said, spraying crumbs all over himself.
“Tommy. Do you know who I am?”
He looked sideways at Alf for help. Alf gave him an encouraging nod.
“Don’t be shy, Tommy. Who am I? What’s my name? What do people call me? It’s ok, I’ve got a thick old hide, I can take it. Who am I?”
“Well…I would never say it, but I’ve heard…well…once I heard someone say you might have been a…well…” he reached out for his tea, and took a scalding gulp, bringing on a spluttering coughing fit.
“I’ll make this easier for you, shall I?” said the old lady.
Tommy nodded at Ethel, still coughing.
“My name is Ethel Tilley and I am a whore.” This sent Tommy off into such violent spasms, he thought he might choke on his tea.
“In fact, I am the oldest whore in Gravesend,” Ethel dropped her voice to a stage whisper, “Although, to be honest, business has been a bit slow of late.”
Tommy, still trying to suppress the urge to cough, took a long look at Ethel Tilley. The opalescent eyes, the crepe paper eyelids, the deep creases running vertically down her rouged cheeks, the slightly dusty wig.
“How old are you?”
“Manners, Tommy! You never ask a lady their age.” Alf gave him a swift clip round the ear.
“Put it this way: Samuel Pepys said I was the most handsome wench he ever kissed,” she said with a twinkle deep in her milky eye. “I myself have had better, but you don’t want to know about that. It would make a little boy like you blush.”
The name meant nothing to Tommy, and he stared blankly at Ethel. A dim light began to flicker in his peripheral vision. He tried to ignore it and reached for another slice of cake. His hand completely overshot the plate and knocked over the milk jug. The flickering became stronger, like a Super8 film reel running in the next room.
“I was born in the year of our Lord sixteen hundred and one, in a back room of The Mermaid Tavern to a young whore named Ann Tilley, and on my next birthday I will be 397 years old.”
Tommy barked a laugh. “Yeah, alright Grandma! I think you need to go easy on the cooking sherry.”
“You don’t believe me? Let me show you.”
Ethel reached out and took both of Tommy’s hands within her own. Her skin was so soft it was barely perceptible to the touch. She held her hands over his in a prayer pose, and touched her thumbs together.
The second her thumb pads touched, Tommy was slapped in the face by the sea. Cold salty water sprayed his eyes, making it impossible to see. The soft couch he had been sitting on was gone, and he could feel his feet beneath him. There was no carpet underfoot, just a hard floor, which was rising and falling, making him instantly nauseous.
Ethel pulled her hands away sharply, and Tommy was dropped back in the cosy living room. He reached up to his face, which was bone dry.
“How did you do that?” said Tommy and Ethel simultaneously. They both looked at each other in confusion, then over at Alf.
“Don’t look at me, I didn’t think he’d even heard of Shade until this afternoon.”
“I hadn’t. I didn’t do that!”
Now it was Alf and Ethel’s turn to stare at Tommy.
“I can assure you, my lad, that you most certainly did do it.” Ethel paused, her cloudy eyes searching his face, “But you don’t know how, or why or even what you did, do you?”
“That’s because I didn’t do anything!”
“Tommy,” Alf said gently. “Ethel is nigh on 400 years old, and has been mastering Shade her whole life. She knows what she’s talking about. Now, I don’t know exactly what you did, ‘cos I wasn’t part of the connection, but I felt a surge as you touched hands, and if Ethel says it was you, then it was you.” He looked to Ethel for an explanation.
“I was going to take him back, put him in a projection and show him where I grew up. But he took me, Alf, he took me. And it was the strongest projection I’ve ever been in. I could taste the sea air, feel the spray on my skin. Like we were on a ship. Does that mean anything to you, Tommy?”
“No, no, nothing. Look. I believe Ok? I believe all of it – Alf being The Searcher, Shade, you, everything. But I’m tired and freaked out and had enough, and I just want to go home to bed.” Tommy looked like a bewildered child who has woken up not knowing where they are.
“Alright, Son. Tell you what, I’ll call you a cab. You get home and get some rest. Be at my house tomorrow morning for breakfast, and we can get started properly. You can see what being Searcher is all about.”