From the life of Kevin Flannagan
By Lydia Morris
“…and you’re not expecting it, some people you only meet once and it has that instant effect on you, you know?” – Flan.
Hand on the steering wheel, he takes a left turn. The sleeve of his coat is still wet from the rain that fell earlier that morning as he left his home in Leytonstone. He drives on.
The street is lined with houses, houses that seem to have been roughly sewn together into a patchwork quilt and displayed on the street with a small sign next to them saying ‘Finchley Road’. They are united only by their front doors, with unknown worlds behind them, unknown except to those like Flan. Flan’s job is to watch over those that no one else looks out for. Every day he meets new people who have pressed their alarm because they are in need of a helping hand. Flan is a guardian and each day his role is different, as are the people in need, but each day he chooses to listen.
The car moves through the traffic lights, he drives a little more, remembering the call he had earlier with Catherine as he looks for the driveway that she had instructed him to park on. Slowing near a hedge that peeks out onto the road, he muses over the outstretched branches that wave him down. Following the line of the steep drive beside it, he looks up towards the house. On first glance, it looks like the house is grounded by a line of shrubbery that circles the building, stopping it from escaping into the blue sky above. The drive juts out onto the main road at an angle so steep that passing children would memorise its location for the coming snowy days, eagerly awaiting the chance to impress their friends with the sledging opportunity they had found. Looking closer at the house he feels his breathing grow shallow over the stillness that looms. There’s no movement in any of the three storeys of windows, just the silent waving of the garden in the breeze. Glancing back to the drive, he shakes his head.
Finding somewhere to park a little way around the corner, he gets out of his car and walks back to the house. Taking brisk, long steps up the driveway he approaches the grand oak door; there is a black cast-iron knocker between two panes of stained glass. He reaches for it. The wind rustles over the flowerless rose beds in front of the bay window to his right, and he knocks twice. The house remains still. Looking up at the windows above, he notices the vines that run up the side of the house, separating around the large panes of ice-like glass. There is movement from behind the door, just a few feet away from him; the aged wood separating their worlds, just mere blurred ghosts behind the panes. It opens.
A strange sense of secrecy passes by him from the hallway, like a treasure trove being opened, and there, standing before him on the wooden floorboards, is Catherine.
He looks at her for a moment. She is a small elderly lady with wispy white hair and pale skin that creases around her mouth and under her eyes. Her lips are thin, lining her mouth firmly as he watches them tighten.
“Hi Catherine. I called earlier. My name’s Flan, I’ve come to check your alarm, I’m from the…”
“Where’s your car?” She stares out onto the driveway.
Flan follows her gaze out towards the sunlit driveway, and the sounds of the cars on the road outside seem to drift further and further away. He looks back to her again and she returns his gaze with a blank stare that wades through him, the corner of her lip curling ever so slightly.
“I parked it just around the corner.” He nods to his right.
Face dropping, her forehead furrows. “I said you could park it on the drive.” She gestures to the open space behind him.
“Yes, but your driveway is so steep I wouldn’t be able to get back out onto the road again.”
“Pfft, I do it all the time.” The back of her hand flicks through the air as she bats him off, her 83 years of age going with it like long locks over a teenager’s shoulder.
“What, you back out onto…”
“Yes, people let me, people just stop,” she says to him blankly, her face harbouring confusion.
A smile breaks out across his face.
Sitting on the edge of the velvet trim sofa, he holds his tea in his left hand, fingers tightened around the handle of the cup. His right hand remains motionless as it holds the small china plate below it. He stares at her, his face not moving, holding its expression, his lips slightly parted.
She is looking back at him from the seat opposite. Her wrinkles have now softened across her face and her lips have loosened. He thinks of how content she seems: her face is gentle and still, her breathing light, and her eyes humble. Sitting back in the armchair with a cushion propping her up, she smiles ever so slightly.
Contemplating what she has said, his look unfastens, his eyes still moist from the laughter some eternal moments ago. Their gaze is locked but for the first time he notices that only one of them can see the other; she sees him, but he sees only the ripples, not the creatures below the waves.
“You… you are a holocaust survivor?”
“Yes, my dear,” she says. His gaze drops to her sleeve without him realising, it sits gently below her wrist, palm upwards. He half expects a group of black spidery numbers to crawl from beneath her cotton sleeve. Nothing happens. She smiles at him again.
“I was meant to go in there for 15 minutes, just check the alarm, and I was in there for three quarters of an hour, just sitting there, hearing about her stories… That was about five years ago now, and she is no longer with us. It is the nature of my job.”
Iris is transferring to the Gold Service, which means she’ll be able to call Flan or his colleagues directly should she have a fall. Flan has been sent out to collect her keys. Also built on Finchley Road, the house is enriched with time; old bricks against trimmed hedges and a luscious welcoming carpet of a lawn greets him. The windowpanes are the colour of ivy and the glass gleams in the sunlight, blushing over the vintage blinds they conceal.
The doormat, untrodden, sits perfectly angled upon a recently swept step. He knocks on the door and she answers. Before him is a lady with short thin hair that frames her plumped cheeks, which seem as white as snow under her gaze. But then those eyes… those eyes that swirl rich turquoise within softened shades of pale blue. And with black pinheads for pupils, holding all the shades of the sky to her glance. Eyes as youthful as the flowing waters of a spring that eagerly seeks the exploration of vast oceans.
She greets him with a single smile, the rising of her cheeks reflecting the blue in her eyes. She invites him in. Turning back into the house, her gaze unlocks and his forehead furrows as he tries to make sense of the small ninety-seven-year-old woman with her floor-length skirt and buttoned-up blouse.
Collecting himself, the door shuffles to a close behind him and his body is submerged into the preserved silence, the world outside evaporating. He breathes. The hallway is lined with wooden panelling against a vibrant but delicate design, still clearly detailed as though William Morris himself had stood there to paint it mere days before. The ornate features, which seem as old as the bricks that hold them up, carry a tickle across the back of Flan’s neck, ensuring he knows that he is privy to something special here.
“Well think about it, when you meet somebody and they’re in their seventies, eighties, nineties, they’ve lived a whole life: They’ve been independent, they’ve raised families, they’ve worked, and I think we can forget that sometimes. All you see is someone old, rather than someone who has had this incredible life.”
Iris notices him admiring the wallpaper, his eyes tracing the lines of the decoration as though they were his fingertips. “It went up in the twenties, if I remember correctly. Never once desired to change it.”
“It’s stunning.” He muses over how the museums would squabble over the paper if they knew it was here, defended in its time-lock. Soon his gaze is swallowed back into her blue one, as he looks back to her before following her into the back room.
Entering, the room seems to have paused for just a moment, eighty years prior. Dust particles hover mid-air and the spirits of children frozen in play tease him in the corner of his eye. Iris walks ahead as he tries to get back in touch with reality. She clutches her small frame tightly with her arms, and there is barely any distance between her footsteps. The thousand beams of light that hold still through the windows quietly soften all the surfaces around her, preparing to catch her fall.
Invited to sit, he takes a seat on the dark green sofa noticing the tapestry that lines the length of the room. She catches the direction of his attention as she walks towards a chest of drawers, “I made it.”
He looks from the delicately stitched embroidery to her. “It’s magnificent.” Meeting her eyes, the magnetic blue perforates him. This is how he’ll remember her.
Breaking her gaze, she moves towards a chest of drawers and her arm outstretches, light travelling down the contour of her arm and onto her hand, peaking at the bones that wind around each other like the roots of a willow tree. She opens the drawer.
Flan looks to the coffee table in front of him. It’s perfectly parallel to the sofa. On top is today’s newspaper, a magazine and a worn book; each arranged in line with each other and with the edge of the coffee table. The table is gleaming under a stack of wooden coasters.
“Is that what you used to do for a living, Iris?”
“Oh no, it was just something I loved to do. I used to work in hotels. I’d be in charge of cleaning the bedrooms.” She giggles girlishly, “Oh, the things I would see!”
Flan chuckles and they both smile to themselves.
Iris’s hair falls over her forehead as she glances up to the material that covers the pearl-coloured wall. Flan watches as her smile rises, and the colours leap from the embroidery and funnel into her eyes, swirling like an artist’s palette. Flan imagines her stitching with beige threads, and wonders if it was her past tears that seeped colour into each fibre.
The house sighs from the rooms above as it leans in to watch her comfortingly, and she moves around silently in the corner of its grandeur.
“It really is a beautiful house you have here, Iris. How long have you been here now?”
She moves towards him. “Let me see, I moved in here when I was seven, my father bought the house, and… we just moved in. He was a chauffeur.”
“And you’ve lived here all your life then? Did you never marry?”
Her eyes dart to him as a lively laughter jumps through her from her stomach; her eyes darken and dance with melancholy. “Don’t be silly, I’ve never needed a man. I’ve always been happy with myself.”
She lowers herself slowly to sit opposite him. “Yes, ninety years I’ve been in this house. All the furnishings are the same, and the walls.” She raises her aged hand to gesture to the immaculate paper around the fireplace. “I dread to think what will happen to all of this when I go.”
Flan looks around the room, “Do you not have any relatives that it could go on to?”
“Just two nephews now, but I don’t see them.” She pauses.
“I don’t want those modern people coming in and pulling everything out.” She jolts her body forward in her chair. “It’d be like we had never even been here.” She looks to the window, watching the trees outside move in a breeze, before gently placing the keys on the coffee table in front of them.
Flan stays for another hour. Like Catherine, he never sees her again.