Although Winnie is a fictional character set in a fictional Norwich, she was inspired by Nora Bridle, a resident of the streets of Cardiff. I am indebted to everyone who took the trouble to write to me with their memories of Nora.
Im not infirm, you know: I am my grandfathers age. Thats not so old. And the girl didnt frighten me; she just took me by surprise. I dont know how long I lay there. I only heard her, first. The door at the front of the house was stiff; you had to put all your weight on it, come winter, just to shift it an inch. It groaned if anyone came in. The girl made it groan. It was quiet for a bit, then there was a soft sound, footsteps, someone on the stairs. She came up careful over the broken treads. I wasnt afraid: there was nothing to steal. There was nothing anyone would want. Mine wasnt a house with a TV set or a video player, there was no computer, no jewellery in boxes, no money. All it had was empty rooms, and me. And it wasnt even my house. None of this mattered to her. She was looking for something else entirely, but I didnt know it then; I only heard her as she came.
Id settled for the night in the corner of what used to be the front bedroom, tucked myself in next to the alcove where it was warmer. The girl stopped at the doorway, then went over to the fireplace, holding her hands out for a minute in front of the heat. I thought maybe she hadnt seen me; unless you were looking, Id be easy to miss. I watched her slip across to the far end of the room. On the wall, her shadow was giant. From the corner, she studied me. The fire died down and I kept still. I wasnt afraid, then; she could please herself, is what I thought. Shes only a girl, and not the first Id seen on the streets. She did nothing for a while, just stood there. The wind was butting at the glass, but she didnt shift. She was black in the darkness, and when she finally moved, it was a creeping thing she did: slowly, slowly, feeling her way over to where I lay. I thought she wouldnt take any notice of me. I was wrong. I closed my eyes and kept still, like a mouse in the shadow of a cat.
The next thing I knew, her hands were on my face. I couldnt look; I was playing dead, and she was so quick, running her fingers over my head, under my chin, along my neck.
And just as quick, she was away, jumping the treads at the bottom of the stairs, shrieking like a firework as she landed. I could feel my heart, like a bird, trapped in its cage, banging at my ribs. She wasnt out. She was in the hall. She was moving through the back of the house. A shunt of sash, a blast of air: she was gone.
I stayed quite still. I think I was in shock. The day came up and showed me an empty room, a dead fire, a blue morning. All that I had left was the plastic bag with the face on it. I kept it in my inside pocket, next to my heart. She didnt get that.
Its only another loss; its not as if Ive been harmed. Id like to say she didnt touch a hair on my head, but that would be a lie.
Ill take my time. It wont do to miss things out. Im sure Id never seen her before: names wont stay with me, but a face is my prisoner for life. Id been living in the house for a good while. To be straight, I was living in just the upstairs room. It wasnt always empty either; people came and went. I didnt mind them and they didnt mind me, and sometimes we knew each other. It used to be a shop, on a parade that was full of shops: Arlotts the butcher, a bakery with its bicycle outside, a post office run by two old women who looked like twins; and this one on the end, which was a fancy cobblers. It had a sign painted in gold across the window: Hewitts Shoe Repairs and Fittings, with Bespoke picked out in smaller lettering underneath. The front was already boarded up when I came back, but the words were still there in the glass; you could see them, etched backwards, from the inside. I knew what it said anyway: I had visited this place when I was a girl. Hewitt led me into the back room, for a fitting, he said. Called it the Personal Touch. He had Devices, Methods, cunning hands.
Copyright © 2004 by Trezza Azzopardi. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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