No Hard Feelings

Ellen would not have followed the path if she’d known it would lead to the graveyard. All those dead people lovingly remembered; all those people who were probably right bastards when they were alive.

A cleft between shoulder-high stinging nettles, it had looked so promising when she’d stumbled upon it on the way home from the day centre. She’d imagined it snaking through field and forest to a runaway’s secret den. She’d imagined a skinny teen offering her a mug of muddy tea brewed in a treacle tin in exchange for not betraying his whereabouts. Instead she’d pitched up in a churchyard barely a hundred metres from the main road.

Once there, she felt obliged to wander around the graves, acting as if this had been her destination, although there were only birds around to judge her. Besides, she had a couple of hours to kill before teatime; she might as well be bored here as in her room.

She knew the feelings she was meant to have in such places. Didn’t she recite a thesaurus-worth of synonyms for sadness every week? The counsellors were nice enough, but hypocritical. Claim your feelings, they said. Embrace your emotions! As if feelings were groceries waiting to be bagged at the supermarket checkout. But as soon as anyone showed a smidgen of genuine agitation, they freaked out. Calm down! Take deep breaths! And if that didn’t douse the flames of rampaging sentiment, they went knocking on the psychiatrist’s office door.

Ellen took note of their insincerity, because she was a hypocrite too. She filled in her charts, circling the words for the emotions she might have experienced that day, had she known how to feel. There were no words in the English language for what Ellen had seen, no answering echo in another’s soul. But she was smart enough to lay claim to the feelings that would pay for her room and board at the hostel. Whenever her review was scheduled, she threw in a despondent and an anguished to safeguard her place among the estranged.

Wandering between the graves, she rubbed at her forearms. Even though she’d pushed down her sleeves to negotiate the nettles, her skin stung. On her inner arm, tiny red welts had sprung up among the network of scars, like station stops on a rail map. Pain was the sole authentic feeling Ellen knew.

Worn letters on mildewed stones, and weeds growing through the gravel; she’d stumbled upon the old part of the cemetery. Cracked urns atop graves sunken at the belly and edged with shattered stones, like the rubbled remains of an earthquake. Then, smack between a Percy and a Gladys, she found herself or, at least, her namesake, an Ellen Blyth who’d died fifty years and a day before she herself was born.

She’d have a story to tell that evening at the hostel. Curtains drawn, a candle at her chin, she’d spook them, or have them quake with laughter. And then a hand reached out and grabbed me by the ankle. Terror was a feeling she’d circle sometimes on her chart.

A dog barked. Ellen turned to see a woman walk a poodle towards a gap in the hedge. She thought to warn her about the nettles but other words spilled from her lips. ‘I’ve found my own grave!’

The woman seemed to shiver as she hurried out of sight. Ellen didn’t need a checklist to decipher whether it was from fear of a ghost or disgust at her dishevelled state. At least she had no need to worry about dirtying her jeans as she made a daybed of Ellen Blyth’s grave; headstone as a backrest, legs stretched out in front. Laughing, she clawed a clutch of soil and stones to rub between her fingers.

From her pocket, she took a printed sheet and a pencil. Resting the paper on her leg, she began to circle a random selection of phoney feelings. And stopped. This time, she didn’t want to lie anymore. Something had changed inside her so that she didn’t have to.

She’d been dead inside, like a ghost, like her namesake, and it was only with the numbness in retreat that she could claim it. For as long as she could remember she’d been this way and now, like a storybook granny picking up her dirty socks and apple cores and scrunched up tissues, old Ellen Blyth had taken her deadness from her. She couldn’t say what she was without it. It wasn’t anything on her printed sheet.

She wouldn’t share her story with the girls at the hostel. She wouldn’t tell the counsellors she was ready to move on. Not-dead-inside was a treasure too precious to reveal to another living soul. But that didn’t matter, now she had a grave to visit. Next time she’d borrow a trowel from the day centre and tidy Ellen Blyth’s plot.


About the author:

After a career as a clinical psychologist engaging with other people’s disturbance, Anne Goodwin has turned to fiction to explore her own. She is delighted to have found homes for over 70 of her short stories and two novels. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, was shortlisted for the 2016 Polari First Book Prize. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in a cellar, is published this year. Website: annethology Twitter @Annecdotist.