I unlock the bungalow door and the smell hits me. Urine and lavender. I pause for a moment. Dear Granny, she was such a stinker. Lavender by name, Lavender by…scent. A walking predictability.
It isn’t urine, it’s mustiness. Old dusty lavender, hanging in the living room, and sitting in all the drawers no doubt. I dip my hand into my bag and pull out a small mango perfume, spraying it in my path.
Anyway, I’ve gone off script. I’m meant to be doing…what did Mum say? First, windows: get some air in. That’s a high priority, or we’ll never get a buyer. She’s not wrong. Mum must sell the house, you see, and I agreed to go on ahead to sort things out.
This is the acting job of my life. Well, not really an acting job, but that’s what I like to think. Reinvent myself, why not?
My name is Demelza and I belong to Cornwall.
In St Ives, they will see this, they will see me as I want to be. If I’m not too high on lavender that is – can you get high on lavender?
I’m surprised this smell didn’t drive Granny insane. Maybe it did. She was always on her own, sitting in that saggy old armchair with the red blanket cover, staring at the log-burner.
Everything’s patterned in this place, old-fashioned, never matching – it would give me a headache if the lavender hadn’t already. I open the living room curtain, let in some fresh air, and reach for the bunch hanging off the rail. It’s tied up with brown string and decorated with dust and dead flies, nice.
By the time I’m done with the lavender, there’s half a bag full and I collapse onto the sofa, where I always used to sit with one leg tucked under.
I started the performance weeks ago, playing Responsible Family Girl, and Mum handed me the key. Easy enough. Mind you, it was just egging up my own boring personality – hardly an Oscar-winning performance. No, that will come later.
What shall I be in St Ives?
My name is Delilah, Queen of Allurement.
Or perhaps a wild partygoer, socialite, intriguing…something.
It’s hard to come up with anything sensible with her empty chair looking across at me. Is there a hint of disapproval in the crinkled corners of the red blanket? No, of course not. The disapproval died with Granny.
I can see me now, ten years old, feet up on the sofa, telling her my idea.
‘I’m going to be an actor,’ I said. ‘A famous actor.’
‘Oh?’ She didn’t feel the need to lean forward, barely a crinkle of the forehead’s acknowledgment. ‘How do you plan to do that then?’
‘By acting,’ I said. Simple.
‘Hmm, perhaps you could do the school show this year.’
‘Well, that’s the sort of thing an actress does, isn’t it?’
‘The other kids hate me.’
She leant forward then. ‘I’m quite sure that’s not true.’
That annoyed me, that did. How could Granny be sure of anything? I only saw her a few times a year – five hours from London was hardly day trip distance.
‘And besides,’ she said. ‘Why would you want to pretend to be someone you’re not?’
Granny shook her head. ‘Act if you must, dear, but it won’t make you happy.’
Thus spoke the woman who died alone.
I balance my orange makeup bag on the edge of the bath. The bathroom mirror is too small, and it’s got a whole lot of smudges, like someone’s been flicking their toothpaste. Never had Granny down as a toothpaste-flicker, but it suits me fine not to see myself clearly. Maybe I’ll clean the mirror when I’m done working on this ugly mug, ready for the big reveal…
My name is Gwendolen, a Scintillator in Sparkling Jewels.
Well, I would be if I had any. Sticking with makeup for now. Makeup and a little denim skirt with a black t-shirt – do I look like a child? Maybe I look like a child, an unpopular one at that, which is not the vibe I’m going for. I’ve played pathetic loner for long enough, since the day I was born probably, not that I can remember that part.
I’m off script again, keep focussed, Glamorous Gwendolen.
I’m having doubts about Gwendolen, actually – she’s gone and poked me in the eye with the mascara wand. Well, this eye will just have to be even more smoky then, won’t it?
I laugh into the mirror, then hold dead still while I draw red around my Cupid’s bow.
‘Mum says I can wear makeup when I’m fifteen, but the other girls do already,’ I told Granny once. ‘It’s not fair!’
‘Of course it is.’
‘You’re lovely how you are.’
My lipstick stops.
‘They call me ugly.’
‘Then why do you want them for friends? Choose people who love you for you, not for paint.’
Upper lip done, like a red moustache. I rub my lips together. Damn, my stabbed eye is going all pink – that’s not what I need for my crazy night out.
‘You’re not ugly, don’t listen to them.’
I walk towards the front door. I might need a coat. Damn it, Granny, sort out the draught! Oh wait, you can’t.
Back in her bedroom, I pick up my swishy black jacket, which was splayed over a chair. And something makes me stop: an embroidered box sitting on top of her chest of drawers.
A jewellery box. I really do need jewellery. Scintillating.
‘Stop running around in circles and be yourself.’
My name is Devil. I look around me – like anyone’s here to notice – and open the box’s heavy lid. One plain silver necklace.
It sits on a pile of envelopes. I open the first one, marked with a foreign stamp, yellow and musty – deffo not urine. It’s like I’m in a film, you know the loud crinkle sound when someone opens a letter, because it’s near the mic or something? Loudest thing I’ve heard all day.
Dear L, I hope you are well, and all your family. It was wonderful to finally meet you in person.
I moved on to others, all jumbled up, some old, some new. From all sorts of places, all sorts of people, all sorts of handwriting. Wow, Granny.
I put them back, quickly. The plain necklace is hanging over my palm. Hardly scintillating, but it’s got to be better than nothing. Mirror? No, there isn’t one in here.
‘Beauty is only skin deep. You don’t need to play their game.’
The bathroom mirror really gets my goat. Stupid toothpaste. Hair, what the hell you doing? And what is that face?
The girl looks sad. Sad and pathetic, painted up like a clown. She fumbles with the necklace’s tiny stiff clasp, and finally gives up, dropping it next to the purple soap.
I sit down on the edge of the bath and
The orange bag is upside down. Eyeshadow exploded, like brown dandruff on the beige tub, foundation bottle rolling towards the plug hole.
I feel them coming, try not to blink, picking up a piece of loo roll and dabbing the corners of my eyes. Don’t want to ruin my makeup. The stuff on my face I mean – my actual makeup is trashed.
I let the tears go in the end. There’s no stopping them. I try out a crying sound, remembering I’m alone, and get louder and louder and louder. ARRGH!
Then a whimper. Because that’s what I am, a quiet whimperer. And I’m tired. Real tired.
I pick up the loo roll, slowly wrapping several sheets around my hand, and run the wad across my face. Tears are cheap makeup remover. Black, brown, and clownish red.
Damn you, Granny, you and your contentment, your stinky lavender contentment.
The lit fire adds to the smell. Smoky lavender. No, no, I didn’t burn them – that would be wrong, she wouldn’t want it. I took them into the garden instead, black bin liner billowing as I shook them out.
Still, the smell lingers in here. The breeze is too chilly for me to keep the window open. I spray the mango again, but it makes no difference; lavender’s been here longer. There’s a bunch I missed on the hearth. Above, on the mantelpiece, are photos – of family, and of people in exotic places, the ones from the letters who chose to be part of her life, even millions of miles away.
I sit in the saggy old armchair with the red blanket cover, staring at the log-burner, with its lovely crackling wood. My bare legs are bumped with cold. I draw the blanket tighter. Maybe I’ll sit here forever.
My name is Lavender. Just Lavender. I was named for her. I breathe slowly and deeply, letting the warm scent run through me.
Hannah Retallick is a twenty-eight-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, before passing her Creative Writing MA with a Distinction. She has been shortlisted/highly commended in many international competitions and won Second Place with Cranked Anvil Press in January 2022.