Three things occurred to Dina, in exactly this order, as she was vacuuming the lounge. It was lucky that she’d spotted the earring before she sucked it up in the Hoover (not because it was an expensive earring, but because it might have damaged the Hoover) - it was also lucky she had spotted it because although cheap, it was pretty, and she wouldn’t have liked to break up the pair. Oh – and the third thing? She was wearing the earrings in question, little artificial pearls, and there was one in each ear, and she most definitely hadn’t bought a spare for her non-existent third ear. She paused in her work and shrugged, and told herself there would be a logical explanation. There always was.

    But as she sat down a mug of coffee afterwards, she couldn’t think what that logical explanation might be

   If she mentioned it to her colleagues, one of them would be bound to suggest that someone had been visiting who had been wearing similar earrings and one had dropped on the floor. That made sense.

    Except the trouble was, it didn’t. It was the kind of thing that sounded as if it did, and that was another matter altogether. Dina went through her most recent visitors. Hannah didn’t have pierced ears. Shaun was male (not that that necessarily excluded him from having pierced ears, but he most definitely hadn’t been wearing cheapo pearl knock-offs!) and Lisa went in for long and dangly ones, the ones she had been wearing resplendent with turquoise feathers and imitation at least Dina hoped they were imitation) sharks’ teeth. 

    The equally apparently sensible, but less innocuous explanation concerned a burglar or an intruder. But nothing had been taken, and nothing had been displaced. Like many untidy and clutter-loving people Dina had a far greater awareness of what place things were in than most of her more orderly friends gave her credit for. Anyway, though she didn’t claim any psychic powers, she was pretty sure there was a feeling when there had been an intruder, and she felt nothing disturbing or troublesome at all. Or at least, she hadn’t, until she found that earring.

    She had let her coffee go cold, so she made herself a fresh mug and told herself there was no point to dwelling on it. But telling yourself something is a different matter from doing (or not doing) it. 

    Still, she got on with her life, and didn’t even use it as an excuse for not doing the housework. She tried to render the situation harmless by making little jokes to herself like, if she must find a phantom earring, she could at least wish it had been a real pearl. 

    She decided to put it in the medicine cabinet(which, like most people’s, held far more shampoos and soap and shower cleaner than medicines). She wasn’t quite sure why. She didn’t have a jewellery box as such, hadn’t had one since the one with the pale blue velvet lining and the tiny twirling ballerina and the tinny rendition of “Fly me to the moon” she’d had as a tenth birthday present. What bits and pieces of jewellery she had, and apart her cross and chain (she wasn’t overly religious, but had inherited it from her grandmother and they’d been close) and a few more pairs of cheap earrings, she didn’t have much, she kept in a pretty little drawstring bag that had originally held some perfume she’d been given for Christmas, and put in her bedroom drawer. But for some reason, she didn’t want to put the superfluous earring there. She’d have been hard-pushed to say why she didn’t just throw it away. 

    Anyway, she most certainly didn’t open the cabinet to have a sneak peak at the earring – she needed a new mouthwash. She knew there was one there, in all its unnatural green glory. Next to it was another bottle of unnaturally bright liquid, this time pink. Cough linctus. Which was a normal enough thing to find in a medicine cabinet, if it hadn’t been for the fact that this bottle was full, and she had noticed only the other day that her “old” bottle was nearly empty, and what was left had probably gone off, and she supposed she ought to get some in case she went down with a cough or cold. She had, however, neither been thus afflicted nor bought a bottle on the off-chance. 

    Words like stress and amnesia flashed across her mind, not leaving it quite as quickly as she might have liked.

    The mock-pearl earring was sitting on the childproof cap of the cough linctus bottle. 

    So I have a one-eared ghost with a cough, she thought – and her laughter was somewhat forced. Anyway, “forced” was a nicer word than “hysterical” – wasn’t it?

    What next, she wondered? It was June, but the “Twelve Days of Christmas” sprang unbidden into her mind. One pearl earring, one jar of linctus, and a partridge in a pear tree.

    It should have been two pearl earrings of course.

    Yes, it most definitely should, but that was beside the point.

    I shall prove that I am not remotely bothered about being in the bathroom, and nothing has spooked me out, thought Dina. I will give the bath a thorough cleaning, even though it doesn’t need it.

    It wasn’t some kind of cleansing ritual. Of course it wasn’t. 

    Nobody would have noticed anything strange about Dina at work (she worked in the gift shop of a local garden centre). I will sure they notice nothing strange about me, she thought, not that there is anything strange to notice. She was the same old Dina, reserved but friendly, quite well up on the plants (not that they sold many actual plants in the gift shop) not obsessively tidy but knowing where everything was. So it took her by surprise when Lisa, who managed the café (and somehow managed to get away with her earrings, though it was a standing joke that one day they’d find one in the vegetarian casserole and it wouldn’t end well) said, when Dina came to collect her morning “survival” latte, “You look a bit tired.” 

    Dina caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror-tiles behind the counter, and had to admit her friend was right. She didn’t look bone-weary or exhausted, or ill, but was certainly “peaky” and with shadows under her eyes. Yet she had been sleeping  enough and done nothing requiring much physical effort.

    “I didn’t sleep that well,” said Dina. It was only a half lie. She had probably slept long enough, but that didn’t mean she had slept well. To her relief, Lisa made one of those sympathetic noises and didn’t further pursue the matter.

    She decided to treat herself to a plant. Dina had no esoteric notions about the restorative power of plants, and most certainly had no intention of staring at one for hours and indulging in the worship of the modern god mindfulness. She didn’t even have especially green fingers, though she wasn’t what her mother, who did have green fingers, termed a plant-killer. It was no big deal. Just one of those little gifts to cheer yourself up (and pretending to pretend you preferred it to wine or chocolate) and that looked pretty. An African violet, perhaps. Purple was her favourite colour and they were fairly low-maintenance.

    She was halfway home before she realised that she had forgotten to pick up her plant. Not that it mattered in the least. But it certainly did prove just how absent-minded she was getting. 

    The minute she opened the door she saw it on the coffee table. Sitting modestly and conspicuously, not disturbing the order and disorder of the magazines there, was a little African violet, in one of those cute terracotta pots with violets painted on them. Dina had never been able to quite decide if it were a clever visual pun or decidedly unoriginal.

    There was no note or tag with it, no message or explanation.

    Dina sat down on the couch, closed her eyes, and repeated to herself, like a mantra. I have not bought a plant and carried it home and put it down on the coffee table and then, in a split second, forgotten that I have done it. I haven’t done that, and that isn’t happening to me. I am sane.

    She believed it. Didn’t she? The trouble was, the alternative was worse. Some people may have been in a state of excitement, with a combination of their dreams come true and their beliefs affirmed. Dina wasn’t one of those people. She wasn’t one of those rock-solid sceptics who said there were no such things as strange phenomena, they were entirely figments of people’s imagination and the work of either harmless cranks or dangerous conspiracy theorists. She had undeniably been in places where she had sensed an atmosphere, and thought it arrogant to presume we know everything about the universe and beyond. But she owned no books and watched no TV shows about such things. She wasn’t even especially superstitious, though she did admit to a certain relief when a Friday the 13th was over. 

    She knew people – Hannah was one of them – who would be thrilled and intrigued by the whole business. Hannah firmly believed in auras and crystals, and her keyring had a rabbit’s paw on it, although she was a vegetarian and it wasn’t a real one. Best not tell her, thought Dina. Definitely best not tell her. Or anyone for that matter. 

    She automatically put her finger in the pot. The soil was exactly as it should be. Not dried out, not flooded. The African violet was well-looked after and in good condition. But I’m not having it on the coffee table, she decided. She transferred it to the corner unit, putting a little runner underneath it to protect the wood. This has nothing to do with not wanting to look at it all the time, she told herself. 

    Coming home the next day, she could not silence a thought. What if it has moved back to the coffee table? There would be no logical explanation for that!

    Not that she had found a logical explanation for anything else, but this would be another matter entirely. 

    The African violet was not on the coffee table, where everything was entirely as Dina had left it. It was still on the corner unit, minding its own business. Well, thank goodness for small mercies, she thought. She went through the soil-touching ritual again. Or at least, that was her intent – until she realised that the runner underneath the plant had a check pattern on it. The one she had put there was plain blue. She did not own any checked runners. Still, it matched the cushions.

    She did not have any checked cushions. 

    She did now. As she sank down on one of them, she heard a cough. It was not a hacking and cackling cough, it was more of a getting your attention cough, but a decidedly audible one. A cough that meant it.

    “I’m sorry, I have this tickle in my throat – it’s annoying, but I hope that linctus will shift it.”

    I don’t want to look, thought Dina, but of course, she did. There was a woman standing by the corner unit. She didn’t look spectral or ethereal. Just a regular woman, about ten years older than Dina, and vaguely familiar, though she didn’t quite now why. She wore a calf-length checked skirt and a loose-fitting green top that set off her hair – she had, Dina noticed, surprised she was paying such attention to such things, lovely auburn hair, the kind you never quite get from a colorant, though she’d tried often enough.

    “I used to live here – the owner before the owner before you, though I stayed in town for a while. I thought we could work it out, Bill and I, that he was a good man underneath, but I’m not the first woman who thought that and lived – well, you know what I mean – to regret it. They told me it was a nasty injury, but I’d survive, and there were prosthetics, that was quite a surprise, I thought you only had those for arms and legs. I might be a bit hard of hearing, but I’d adjust. Anyway, it never did Van Gogh any harm – well, I suppose it did. But it got infected – septicaemia – and that was before there were all those campaigns. I always did like it here. You don’t mind me dropping in now and then, do you? Look, I know it’s none of my business, but that pretty little plant of yours really isn’t going to thrive there!”

    The woman (she recoiled from that other word) smiled at Dina – a nice smile, though a slightly odd one. She had a pearl earring in one ear, and her lovely hair was carefully combed over where the other used to be.

September 20, 2019 06:47

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