He’d hung there for many years on the old woman’s wall, handsome in his painted scarlet tunic, wavy hair, small moustache. A gentle face for a warrior, he carried his feathered hat beneath his arm, his sword at his side.
He resided in his frame next to a picture of flowers. Not poppies, not roses, but red nevertheless. The colour of blood. He’d seen so much blood on the battlefields.
The wall was in an out-of-the-way corner of the dining room and he couldn’t see much of the room itself. He could not see when the family gathered at Christmas, though he could hear them, hear their chatter, their laughter. He’d catch glimpses of people as they cleaned, as they hung out the laundry on the drier. He had a good view of the old oak desk where the woman kept money to pay the cleaner, the milkman, the gardener. He could see when someone came to take out a pack of cards for a game.
He wouldn’t mind a game himself after all this time.
She resided in the hallway, a dog-leg passage that connected the other rooms. She was near an old pen and ink sketch of The Old Curiosity Shop. Opposite was a sampler by a young Mary Ann Barrell, aged seven, dated 1834. Not bad for a seven-year-old, she thought. She was pleased to see that at the bottom were signs of moth damage. She herself had been embroidered too, though earlier than 1834 and more finely done than the sampler. She stood there in her best dress, her good shoes, with her blond curls escaping from her bonnet. She had no moth.
She’d watch and listen as the old woman wheezed up and down the hallway in the night on her way to the bathroom. She’d watch as the carers took her to have a shower, back to the bedroom to get dressed. She’d see others come and go as they stripped the linen from the bed, or fetched something from the bedroom before a rare trip out, only to bring it back later.
She wondered at the age of the woman. All those wrinkles, all that stooping. Yet she’d put up with that for what the woman had, family, people who loved her. A life.
The house was empty. The old woman had been gone for several days and no one came. Eventually the door opened and two women entered. Daughters. The old woman, it would seem, would not return. Over the coming weeks the people began to empty the house. Mary Ann Barrell’s sampler was taken down and one daughter took it. The other daughter, not the one with the sampler, took down the young woman.
“I think she needs a bit of company, don’t you? I’ll put her with the soldier.”
She was bagged, taken, and after a journey, found herself on the wall of a different house. There was indeed a soldier hanging next to her on the wall, though she couldn’t see him from where she was hung. More company than The Old Curiosity Shop and a moth-eaten sampler.
“Hello,” said a voice, when the house had gone quiet that night.
“Hello,” she replied nervously.
“What do you think happened to the old woman?”
“I don’t know. I think probably she died. She was very old, wasn’t she?”
“I only caught glimpses of her from where I was. Perhaps it was just her time.”
They both remained quiet for a while, wondering what old age might feel like, both wishing they’d had the chance to find out.
“I’m George Crocker,” said the soldier. “What’s your name?”
“Fanny,” replied the girl hesitantly. As a young woman, she’d been told to beware of speaking to men alone. But what could he do here? He was caught in his picture, she in hers. And he sounded nice. “Fanny Cooke.”
“Fanny. That’s a nice name.”
“It’s been a while since I had anyone to talk to. I’ve got Theo here in the picture, and he’s holding my horse, but as they’re not whole, so they’re only, well, part of the painting.”
Fanny laughed. “I don’t have anyone here in my picture. And I’m not a painting. I’m an embroidery.”
“An embroidery? Is it a good one?”
“It’s very well done. It looks like a painting from a distance, so I’ve been told, but the needlework is very fine. It’s certainly better than the sampler.”
“Yes, a sampler done by Mary Ann Barrell in 1834. That was moth-eaten at the bottom, but you can’t see moth on me.”
“I bet you look very pretty.”
Fanny blushed, a hint of red coming to the threads round her cheeks. “What do you look like?”
“I’m a soldier, member of The Kings Own.”
Fanny gasped. “You’re in scarlet?”
“Yes. Ready for war.”
“I always thought men in scarlet looked so handsome.”
“Not so handsome when we’ve been butchered by war.” At least the colour of the jackets hid some of the gore, he thought.
“Is that what happened to you? Did you die in the war?”
“How old were you?”
“Why? The war was not of your making.”
“It’s just, well, such a waste.”
George sighed. “Yes, I suppose it is. But sometimes, when you’ve seen what I’ve seen in places like that, you don’t really see the point of living.”
“But didn’t you have someone at home waiting for you?”
“No. My parents had both died, I’d no family. The army was all I had, and on that day, it seemed all of that was being taken away too, one fatality at a time.”
They fell silent, both lost in their own thoughts, in their own pictures.
The following night, George called to his companion.
“Fanny? Are you there?”
“Oh good. I was worried that being able to talk to you might have lasted only one night.”
“No, I’m still here.”
“How old are you Fanny? In the picture, how old are you?”
“Seventeen. So young. I bet you have a sweetheart.”
“No, I do not.”
“Ha, I bet there’s plenty would like to be your sweetheart.”
“I’m a good girl me. Working hard in service, I’ll have you know. Missus would sack me if I didn’t behave.”
“What did you do in service?”
“I worked in the kitchens.”
“That must have been good, for your husband, when you got married.”
Fanny was silent.
“Fanny, are you all right? Did I say the wrong thing?”
“No, you weren’t to know. It’s just that I never made it to twenty-three even.”
“I’m like you. I died young.”
“Was it sickness?”
“No, there was a fire.”
“Yes. I’d gone down to the kitchens to get something, and when the fire started, I couldn’t get back up again. I tried to get out the door in the scullery, but someone had left something heavy outside the door and I was trapped.”
“Where was this fire?”
“Yes. Do you know it?”
“My commanding officer knew the family. We were camped near on the night of the fire. We’d gone up to see if we could help, make a chain to bring buckets of water from the lake. But I thought everyone had got out?”
“Most did. Just me that didn’t. Just a young serving girl.”
“I wish I’d known.”
“But you didn’t.”
“But if I had, I could have helped.”
“Everyone was at the front of the house, making sure the master and his family got out. They were more important.”
“Even so, didn’t anyone think to check all the servants were accounted for?”
“Not until it was too late, when they realised I wasn’t there.”
“What a waste.”
“That makes two of us then.”
“Oh look,” said Fanny the next night. “Someone’s put a mirror up on the wall opposite.”
“So they have. I must say, Fanny, it’s good to see you at last.”
“Can you see the fine stitches from there?”
“No, I’m too far away. But I can see you’re a very pretty girl.”
Fanny blushed. “You’re not so bad yourself.”
“Well thank you kind lady. Would you care to dance?”
“Dance. Would you care to dance? If we could get out of these pictures, would you dance with me?”
Fanny laughed. “It’s been so long since I’ve danced. And I’ve never danced with a soldier before.”
“Ah, then perhaps we can pretend. You sing, and we’ll each dance in our own pictures.”
Fanny sang, hesitantly at first, in a sweet lilting voice. She began to twirl in her picture, moving to her song. The soldier joined her in the dance, pretending he was dancing with her. It would feel good to have her in his arms, he thought.
“Do you think,” George said later once they’d danced themselves to a standstill, “that we’re in these pictures able to talk and dance because we missed out on so much of life?”
“I don’t know,” replied Fanny. “It’s a strange God if he makes it so that we can live in pictures where we couldn’t live in life.”
Over the coming weeks, they talked, sang and danced each evening, and slowly fell in love with someone they could not touch.
“Hey, George, wake up.”
George woke up to find Theo shaking him. They were due to leave for France in the morning, and he’d turned in early.
“Surely it’s not time to go already.”
“No, there’s a fire. Look, up at Hartfield House.”
Suddenly George was wide awake. Hartfield House? Wasn’t that where Fanny lived? But that had been a dream, right? He’d been living in a picture. So had she.
“Come on George. We’re all going up to see if there’s anything we can do.”
George and Theo followed others up to the house, round to the front where some were helping people out of the house while others joined a line of were passing buckets of water. But George didn’t join the line. He grabbed a passing boy.
“Where’s the door to the scullery?”
“I said, where’s the door to the scullery. There’s someone trapped in there.”
“Are you mad?” asked Theo, when he saw George grab the boy.
“Look, I don’t know how to explain, but I think there’s someone stuck in the scullery, and they can’t get out through the door. I may need your help.” And he ran after the boy round the side of the house, hoping Theo would follow.
Round the back, they found the door, blocked as Fanny had said it was. A broken garden statue had been placed nearby, and as recent rain had washed away soil, it had fallen in front of the door.
“Quick,” George shouted. “Help me.” And he jumped down and started pulling at the heavy stone. After a moment’s pause, Theo joined him and between them they managed to pull the stone away. As soon as there was room, George opened the door. The room beyond was full of smoke, but there, on the floor, was a young woman.
“Fanny.” George coughed as he pulled the young woman free, took her away from the smoke-filled doorway. He laid her down gently. “Fanny.”
Fanny started to breath, started to cough.
“You two go back round the front. You’ll be needed there. Tell them we’ve got Fanny out of the back.”
Bemused, wondering how George had known, Theo glanced quickly into the smoke-filled doorway, making sure there was no one else there before he and the boy ran off.
Fanny continued to cough, gulping in the sweet fresh air. Eventually her breathing got easier, though it would be a while before she stopped coughing altogether. Still breathing heavily, she opened her eyes.
“We danced,” she said.
“Separate but together.” And she smiled.
The butler and housekeeper arrived soon after. “Fanny,” said the housekeeper.
“She’s breathed in a lot of smoke,” George said. “She’ll need to rest.”
“And who might you be?”
“I’m the man who intends to marry her one day,” he said, his eyes not leaving Fanny. “If she’ll have me that is.”
“But aren’t you supposed to leave for war tomorrow,” she said, a sorrowful look in her eyes.
“If I can change your destiny, don’t you think I can change mine too?”