Clash of Concepts Revisited

June 10: Florence In The Hall of Wonders

By j.r.law 

Florence Winters lived alone in the largest apartment in the old Statesman Building, though you certainly wouldn’t be able to tell it from the inside. It was a perpetual museum commemorating a long and eccentric life. The sort of place a grown-up interested in history and oddities would have appreciated, but to five-year-old Alexis Purcell, it was a cramped, dust-filled place that smelled of mothballs. Alexis didn’t much care for the old lady who lived at the end of the hall. Innumerable doilies draped the arms and backs of every piece of mismatched furniture, even the back of Toby, Mrs. Winter’s former Scottish Terrier, who had been stuffed at his owner’s insistence after death. She just simply could not bear to part with him, she mused to more than one of her guests over the years, affectionately patting Toby’s head.

Alexis’s parents always asked Mrs. Winters to watch her when they wanted to go out and do grown-up things. They would walk her down the long hallway, she’d drag her hand lazily along the beige walls and staring at the strange paintings and pictures running its length, and wait with her as the old lady on the other side of the door shuffled in her house shoes to open it and greet them. On this occasion, however, her parents were running late for their dinner reservations and left her to traverse the passage alone.

Wishing to delay the inevitable hours of stale hard candies, Alexis stopped at each painting along the walls. Her favorite was of a girl and her dog, a dog that looked entirely too much like Toby, now that she thought of it, playing fetch by the side of a pond. One time she could have sworn she saw the dog’s head twitch as if in anticipation of its master’s throw. She stood on tiptoe now, to get a better look. Everything was as it should be, frozen in time. All at once, Alexis was overcome with the smell of mothballs as Mrs. Winters flung her door open.

“Oh, there you are, dear! I was beginning to wonder if you were coming at all. Do come in, the hallway is no place to linger!”

Mrs. Winters stood in the doorway in a floor-length brown dress, with a faded green and moth-eaten cardigan draped over her shoulders, hair askew. Her house shoes were just visible, sticking out from the hem of the dress. To say that Florence was eccentric perhaps didn’t carry the full weight of her appearance. Mildly annoyed, Alexis dropped down from the tips of her toes and strode through the open door. The old lady chuckled and closed the door behind them. The entryway, unchanged since her last visit albeit a bit dustier, played host to a large claw-footed umbrella stand, an assortment of primordial peacock feathers drooped lazily from it.

“Shoes off, dear, that’s it,” said Mrs. Winters, brushing a peacock feather aside as she passed. It was cold outside and the fireplace was working hard to keep the apartment warm. The pair of them sat near the fire in two wing-backed chairs, Mrs. Winters knitting and Alexis sorting and untangling spools of yarn. They sat in silence, an old clock ticking in the distance. Frustrated with a particularly difficult tangle of yarn, Alexis looked around at the various bobbles and oddities. Her eyes fell upon a large stuffed bird in a far corner. Before she could stop herself she asked what it was.

Mrs. Winters followed the girl’s gaze and said, “Why that’s an emu, dear. My Hugo brought it back from Australia many years ago.”

“Why do you have it,” asked Alexis, her voice betraying the thinnest amount of interest.

“Oh, just one of my many treasures. It brings back happy memories of another time. This old place is just full of memories, stories.” She looked into the fire, momentarily lost. A log popped and she came back to herself. “You must think me pretty silly, an old lady living with all of this,” she waved a hand through the air at the menagerie of possessions, “but what if I told you it was full of magic?”

Quite forgetting the lump of yarn in her hands, Alexis leaned forward, eyes wide, “But…magic isn’t real,” she said.

Mrs. Winters giggled and stood, “Pick something, anything except the emu. I don’t think we could capture it again.” Perplexed, Alexis stared blankly at the old woman standing before her. Pick something? What on earth did she mean? As if reading her mind, Mrs. Winters said, “Might I suggest Ol’ Toby, here?” She crossed to the window and picked up the dog and held him under her arm, beckoning the girl to follow.

Together, both women, young and old, stood in the entryway at the front door. Mrs. Winters reached up behind the peacock feathers and withdrew an old skeleton key from a hook on the wall. Alexis had never noticed the key before. Mrs. Winters inserted the key into the lock, turned it once, and the girl heard the unmistakable sound of the door locking. It was then that the old woman turned the key again, unlocking the door she had only just locked, and turned the knob.

The door swung inward to reveal the same dark hallway that was always there. Everything was still, quiet. Mrs. Winters stepped out silently, as if afraid she would wake the portraits, and carefully deposited Toby on the hall rug before stepping back into her home and closing the door.  Yet again she locked the door and she waited.

Silence.

A minute ticked by.

Two.

Mrs. Winters checked her wristwatch and smiled at Alexis. The faint sound of wind and rustling leaves could be heard in the distance as if billowing in from somewhere previously forgotten. A shadow appeared just beneath the door, followed by loud sniffing and an anxious whine. Mrs. Winters promptly unlocked the door and flung it wide. Toby, no longer dead and stuffed, bounded into the room and into the old woman’s waiting arms. He then jumped down and zoomed out of the apartment and down the hall, barking excitedly. When he reached its end he turned and, catching sight of Alexis, took off at a sprint and straight into the girl’s chest, knocking her over.

Amongst the yips and the licking, Alexis found herself laughing in disbelief. When she finally managed to sit up, she found Mrs. Winters smiling down at her, Toby excitedly wagging his tail so fast that she felt certain it would fling off at any moment. It was only now that she realized the dog was wearing a red and black checked sweater.

“My Hugo bought Toby that sweater probably twelve years ago,” said Mrs. Winters, happily, “brought it home from Scotland. Wears it proudly, don’t you think?”

“I-I…well yes, but…how,” stammered the girl. Mrs. Winters stepped away from the doorway, leaving it open, and sat back down in her chair near the fire. Alexis made to close it but the old lady stopped her.

“You can leave that open, dear. It may resemble the hallway you came through earlier this evening but, the way I figure it, it is a copy, a memory. I dare say not a single occupant of this floor heard Toby just now. I’ll explain, but do me a favor, won’t you? Look out the window.”

Alexis did as she was told and approached the window across the room. She pulled back the curtain to see the town square below, the fountain, the people getting on with the comings and goings of their lives, the snow. All of it frozen mid-stride. Startled, she turned to face Mrs. Winters, questions running through her young mind.

“Don’t worry, everything will return to normal shortly. Time seems to stand still out there in the world, only in here does it continue. At the last stroke of midnight, Toby here will vanish, leaving you and me here alone. Time, out there, will speed forward to catch up, and none will be the wiser of what has happened here tonight,” said Mrs. Winters seriously but kindly.

“I discovered this little trick about ten years ago,” began the old lady, gesturing to Alexis to take her seat. Toby jumped up into her lap and sighed contentedly, “I had just lost my Hugo, and I had been sorting some of his old clothes. Oh, you should have seen that man’s wardrobe, things from all over the globe. One night, stricken with grief, I  sat one of his old suits in the hallway for trash pickup the next morning. I closed and locked the door, and suddenly I heard his laughter from the hall.” Mrs. Winters smiled at this, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I wrenched open the door and there he stood, in his old suit, as he had always been. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought perhaps, in His infinite mercy, the good Lord had given him back to me to ease my grief. I was heartbroken to find this was not so. When the last chime of midnight struck my Hugo vanished. I’ve refused to bring him back ever since.”

As if on queue Toby let out a small whimper and hopped from Alexis’s lap and up into his owner’s. Mrs. Winters smiled and kissed his forehead, “Better to stick with Toby here,” she said in a false cheerfulness, “when he left me I had him stuffed so I could try it with him and I have brought him back many times since.”

Alexis did not speak for the longest time. She understood the words, but her young mind was struggling to grasp the complexity of what she had just heard. She wanted to know why Toby didn’t stay once he’d come back and Mrs. Winters explained that he was merely a memory of what Toby was when he was alive. She went on to describe how only objects that had a strong memory attached to it seemed to come back and that, as she got older, some memories seemed to fade and took longer to bring back at all and when some came back they seemed…. distorted as if she had gotten something mixed up.

“But why haven’t you shown me this before?” demanded Alexis, suddenly cross. “We sit here untangling yarn when we could be having adventures!” Mrs. Winters, for the first time all evening, truly laughed.

“My dear! I have shown you many times. The last time I told you about it I left you alone for just a moment and, when I came back, you had that emu running all about the place in a green scarf and a floppy hat! It took me ages to capture and contain it until midnight came, I didn’t recover fully for days.”

Slightly embarrassed, but fighting back laughter, Alexis dropped her gaze. A thought came to her and she looked up again, “Why can’t I remember?”

Mrs. Winters grew serious again, “That is one thing I have never been able to understand. I have shown many people over the years, hoping someone would share in it with me, and no one has ever recalled what happened after they’ve crossed into the hall after midnight.” Mrs. Winters looked down at her wristwatch again, “Ah, speaking of which, it’s nearly time. Come, my dear, I want you to see the most magical part of it all.”

The two of them stood and crossed to the window, Toby keeping pace. Florence Winters flung the heavy curtains aside as the first chime of midnight sounded from the clock in the distance. Alexis watched as the snow outside began to fall to the ground once more. With the second chime, the bare branches of the trees began to sway in the breeze as it whistled through them. As each chime of the clock drew nearer to the final stroke of midnight life began to creep back into the frozen landscape. Soon everyone below was stirring and speeding up as if to catch the time they didn’t even know they’d lost.

Alexis looked down in time to see Toby stretch and run off across the room and into the hallway. They watched as, with the final chime, he sat, scratched his ear with his paw, and vanished into a shimmer of light, the front door closing of its own accord and the key falling out of the lock with a clatter. The stuffed Toby reappeared at their feet where he’d been when she first arrived.

She looked up into Mrs. Winter’s kind face and saw the lady was smiling at her, tears streaming down her face, “It’s time we get you home. Your parents will be wondering where you are.”

The two of them stopped at the front door and Alexis bent down to pick up the key. She considered it for a moment before flinging her arms around the old woman. Mrs. Winters responded in kind and then hung the key back on its hook, hidden amongst the peacock feathers. Alexis opened the door but turned back to her and said, “I’ll remember this time, I know I will!”

Mrs. Winters smiled down at her, “I am sure of it. Now off you go.”

The girl turned and headed off down the hallway, towards her own front door. And as she reached it, and old Mrs. Winters shut her own door, Alexis thought she could hear the faintest sound of a dog barking happily in the distance. She stopped and looked around, listening hard. Mystified, she entered her home and closed the door to the chill of the hall.

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