This short story was a fun little exercise which started in the classroom. I was taking a cover lesson with Year 8 (12-13 year-olds) for an unwell English colleague. The lesson details gave a photo prompt of an innocent-looking old lady and instructions to form a plot for a short story. If my recollections are correct, the activity was based around an exam task. I knew many of the pupils quite well and before long we had created a number of ideas.
Normally I teach Humanities to these kids and they’re well aware I’m drawn to oddities. They loved the ideas we’d discussed and before long the innocent old lady was everything from a superhero in disguise to a war criminal on the run.
Not normally able to model creative work with the pupils, I fired up the projector and started writing one of the ideas I had contributed. I only managed to get six or seven paragraphs finished before the bell, but they approved of where the plot was going, especially the most mischievous of the pupils.
Those pupils have not seen the entire short story, I only finished it earlier this year in-between bigger projects. I hope you enjoy it. One spoiler in advance, there are no zombies.
Short Story – Let’s eat children
‘I really can’t see what I’m looking for,’ the old woman said as she poked through the birthday card selection muttering to herself. ‘If I could just find the right one…’
The shop assistant looked at the elderly lady. It was almost closing time, and she just wished the old woman would pick a card, hurry up, and pay. Breeda had been working on her own for the last hour, she knew it would take at least twenty minutes to lock the shop. As soon as the old woman paid, Breeda would shut the doors and close-down the till. She was in a hurry tonight. She had to get home and prepare for a night out with her friends. They had booked a table at the new peri-peri chicken restaurant.
The old woman shuffled along the aisles of cards, poking and prodding. Her wrinkled hands shook as they lifted first one card, and then another. She held each card close to her face, her glasses not powerful enough to correct her failing eyesight.
‘No, not that one,’ the old woman said. She dismissed an inappropriately gaudy birthday card.
Breeda’s impatience grew. She wanted to have a shower before she went out. All the hours working in the stuffy shop, under the train arches, had made her feel unclean. She was planning on sending back the new dress she had ordered from the catalogue. However, first she would wear it on an evening out with her friends. Breeda loudly sighed, perhaps the old granny would take the hint?
The elderly woman wore an orange jumper coupled with an old styled orange dress with apple motifs. Her fashion sense had been left behind in the 1960s. Her greyed hair was tied up in a bun at the back of her head, and she looked the epitome of a caring grandparent. Her kind face carried the hint of a smile as she picked up another card. This one was a birthday card to celebrate a ninetieth birthday.
She scrutinised the card, taking her time to absorb the front cover before she fumbled the card open. Moving the card backwards and forwards, to compensate for her underpowered glasses, she read the words. A grimace ran across her face as she put the card back on the shelf, ‘That won’t do.’
Breeda watched as the old lady shuffled across to a display covered in inappropriately suggestive cards. The old lady gazed at two cards without picking them up. She took her time studying them, enough to work out the intricate details. The elderly woman cackled. It sounded evil and knowledgeable and Breeda realised the old woman must have seen a lot during her life.
Still, she was annoyed and wanted to close the shop for the evening. At this rate, she would be older than the lady by the time she escaped. Breeda thought the old granny should just hurry. She looked up, at last, the old lady was heading towards her. But, there was no card in the woman’s hand, she would have to help the old lady find the card she needed. As a sales assistant, she was good at picking the perfect cards for her customers. She would have the lady’s needs sorted out in no time, and then she would close the shop. The sooner she was out of here, the sooner she would meet with her friends.
‘Young girl,’ the old lady said, ‘I seem to be a little lost and confused. This is the card shop, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, you’re in the card shop,’ Breeda’s tone was unintentionally patronising. Yet, she had not realised the old lady was so confused. Rather than feel sorry for the woman, she feared the elderly lady would now take longer to help, confused as the old dear was.
‘It is only… I couldn’t find…’ The old woman paused and refocused her thoughts. It looked like she was making an immense mental effort, ‘I’d like a card for a birthday.’
‘Ah yes, we have plenty of birthday cards. They’re just over there, down that aisle.’ Breeda pointed.
‘I looked down there, and the other aisle too, and couldn’t see them,’ the elderly woman said, ‘Please would you be a dear and show me them?’
Breeda tried not to show her growing irritation, but again she failed. She stepped from behind the counter, her angry paces consuming the scant distance. ‘Here you go, madame,’ she said. Breeda pointed out the birthday cards, ‘Is it a special birthday, a son, a daughter, a close friend, or a loved one?’
‘Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure I can remember,’ the elderly woman said. She opened her large handbag which might have briefly been stylish fifty years before. ‘I know, I wrote it down on a piece of paper, which I put in my bag here. Let me check.’
Breeda watched with growing impatience as the old lady fumbled with the contents of the bag. How many concealed items could the old woman hide within its depths? The time it was taking her to find the missing piece of paper, suggested there were a lot. Eventually, the woman found what she was looking for, withdrawing the precious paper from her handbag.
‘Just let me read this,’ she said, holding the paper very close before her spectacled old eyes.
‘Would you like me to read it for you, madam?’ Breeda asked. She would do anything to hurry the slow woman.
‘It’s Greta, dear.’
‘Greta? Is that who you’re buying the card for?’ Breeda asked.
‘No, dear. Greta is my name. Please use it and stop calling me madame. I don’t like that name. It seems old, stuffy and French,’ her tone was not nasty, just matter-of-fact.
‘Okay Greta, would you like me to read the note for you,’ Breeda offered again.
‘No, no, no. I remember who it was for, now. It was my nephew, What’s-His-Name?’
‘What’s his name?’ Breeda asked, ‘Who is what’s his name?’
‘That is his name, it is. What’s-His-Name. We have strange names in my family. My name is one of the most normal. Now, he will be one hundred and twenty next month. Do you have any one hundred and twenty year old birthday cards?’
‘What? A hundred and twenty? And you said he is your nephew? You’re having a laugh. How old does that make you?’ Breeda asked, shocked as she hurriedly did the maths. She did not realise she had just asked the woman her age. Obviously, it was possible to have an older nephew or niece, but one one-hundred and twenty years old. It was incredible, Breeda was uncertain people could even survive to such an advanced age.
‘Oh yes, he’s much younger than me,’ Greta replied.
‘He’s much younger than you?’ Breeda now knew the woman was not lucid. She had lost her grip on reality. Maybe she had escaped from a supervising relative, who would be desperately searching for her right now.
The shop assistant looked out of the window and did not see anyone outside the shop desperately seeking a missing elderly relative. This Greta needed to be in the funny-farm, or at least a home for the old and senile. Breeda paused for a moment, undecided what to do next. Perhaps she needed to call the police. This wasn’t an emergency, but she was sure the police would deal with missing relatives, especially senile old people.
‘You seem as if you do not believe me,’ Greta said.
‘I don’t believe you,’ Breeda challenged, ‘there’s no way you can be that old. If you are older, and he is one hundred and twenty, well, how old could you be? You don’t seem anywhere near that old.’
‘My dear, you are so kind. I put an immense amount of effort into making myself look so young.’
‘But you can’t be that old,’ Breeda insisted. However, she was intrigued by the self-belief the old woman possessed. Breeda’s disbelief was fading against the possibilities. The woman’s stories might sound as if she was as mad as a box of frogs, but she only appeared old, not ancient.
‘Of course, I can, my dear,’ Greta said, ‘What you see before you is not my true self. I keep myself looking far younger than I actually am.’
‘How do you keep yourself young?’ Breeda hoped she might learn something. The old woman might not be telling the truth, stretching it somewhat. Or maybe she was simply convinced she was older than she actually was. But in Breeda’s estimation, passing up beauty tips was not wise. For one day, Breeda knew she would need to make herself look much younger to fit the demands of society.
‘Well, there are several ways to stay young, but we need not discuss them now. Ah, this card,’ Greta changed the subject and pick out a floral card from the display unit.
‘But, I thought you said the card was for your nephew. Isn’t that card a little too flowery for male tastes?’ The tips could wait, sanity was possibly reasserting itself.
‘Ah, but he likes flowers, and when you’ve been around long enough, you get stuck with certain fashions. This fashion is where he got stuck. You can see where I got stuck,’ Greta waved an arm down herself to show the once fashionable clothes she was wearing.
‘Hang on, so if you’re older than your nephew, can you remember Queen Victoria?’ Breeda asked. She half hoped to catch out the old woman and equally wished the story was true. At the back of Breeda’s mind, an idea formed. Maybe this old woman would share the elixir of life with her, allowing her to live far past her naturally allotted lifespan. Of course, any gains would be based on the assumption the older woman was telling the truth and was not senile.
‘Queen Victoria? Oh, yes, I remember her. But, I never met The Good Old Lady, even with the good age she reached. Now this card…’ Greta picked up a less relevant card, inspected it and returned it to the shelf, ‘Drat, a condolence card.’
‘So, can’t you tell me anything from Queen Victoria’s reign?’ Breeda pushed, her hopes dimming again. The woman was not sane.
‘Well, there are many stories. Such as the time I spied on Dickens when he was walking the streets of Whitechapel. He was such a busybody that man, and very lucky he did not meet a sticky end. He would have if I’d not been around, always one step away from trouble, he was.
‘Then there was The Lady of the Lamp. She was a complete pain in the neck. Her heart was in the right place, but she was such an insufferable bossy-boots. Then, there was also that time I travelled the Khyber pass. Now that was an unusual experience, as was the Golden Square cholera outbreak of ’54. Oh, so many memories, so many memories.’
‘So, you really were there?’ Breeda asked, sudden awe and belief flowing through her. She was being drawn into the old woman’s stories and losing track of time. As Greta spoke, there had been an almost intangible element of lived experience permeating the air, something magical. Breeda could not put her finger on it, but it was almost as if the sounds, tastes and sights were present around her.
‘When What’s-His-Name was young, well, some places weren’t very safe. Some places in East London were the worst. When What’s-His-Name was young, well, he made some silly mistakes.’
‘But you don’t look old enough. How is that? I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I think I do.’ Breeda said.
‘Well, you can believe me. I am that old,’ Greta replied, ‘Could you not feel my stories, smell them, taste them even? You can tell they’re true from that bit of magic.’
‘But how do you stay so young and healthy-looking? Is that magic too?’ Breeda asked. There was something unusual about this older lady, hidden just beneath the surface. She was almost ready to burst with excitement at finding out the older woman’s secret. Imagine if she could live so long herself.
‘Well,’ Greta turned to face Breeda, peering over the tops of her spectacles at the taller and younger women, ‘there is a secret behind that. Isn’t it time you close the shop, dear? Once you’ve locked up, I’ll tell you all about it.’
Breeda flew across the scant distance to the doors, eagerly locking them. She fumbled with the key in her excitement. The secret of a long life? She had never thought this could happen. To know such a fantastic secret? It would not matter if you had all those extra years of ageing if you could disguise them so well.
‘You just need to come closer, dear. I prefer little children, but you’re not too old, so you will do.’
Breeda did as she was asked. The lights flickered before going off. Breeda did not even scream in surprise, she was so mesmerised by the old lady.
Anyone passing by outside would not have noticed what was going on in the dark shop. A passer-by may have seen the lighting switching off, but that was not unusual for a shop at this time of the evening. They also would not have seen the old woman, or the sudden change to her form. Not the unfolding of wings; the growing claws; the straightening of posture and increase in height. Nor would they have seen the rapid and decisive movement as the predatory form seized the shop assistant. Last of all, passers-by would not have heard the tearing and slapping noises caused by the older woman consuming her prey. The ancient woman chuckled. All this fuss would ensure her life continued for many more years.
Greta let herself out of the shop, locking the door behind her. Her physical form had already returned to her usual disguise. Now appearing middle-aged, rather than old, she dropped the keys down a nearby drain. Tying up loose ends was what it was all about. In this modern world of CCTV cameras, a supernatural being had to take care of the signs and traces you left behind. She knew she did not need to worry too much about such electronic devices. They would not pick up her image, but they could pick up her actions. You had to be careful. What’s-His-Name had not always been meticulous in his actions. He had learned, with time, but he had made such an awful mess in Whitechapel, years ago.