The Harvesters, Eric Leclere (2023)


Small Mercies — The spirit never dies.

For two years now, every day between 5 and 7 p.m., Mrs Raspberry and her cat Pester could be seen inside the ground floor window of number 49 Cemetery Hill in Highbury. Being that it was a large south-facing bay window and Cemetery Hill uncoiled as a wide steep sloping avenue lined with semi-detached residences no higher than three storeys, come autumn and spring the dusk setting sun beamed on the woman and cat, illuminating their presence. Framed between heavy scarlet and black curtains, come what may, cold sleet or sweltering stillness, grey-haired, silk robed and decorously rouged Mrs Raspberry always sat poised in a high-back leopard-skin armchair, her cat Pester curled up on a crimson velvet vanity stool near enough for her to rest her deadwood-coloured hand on its tawny fur. One was eighty-one and the other seven. One day one had turned obstinate as the other had turned sweet-natured. And ever since at the same appointed afternoon hour the two never failed to show up in number 49’s window.

There hardly could be imagined a more untroubled scene of contemplative tranquillity than Mrs Raspberry and her cat in the whole of London, so that while heading down towards the tube station at the bottom of Cemetery Hill, or be it while climbing the opposite way towards the church and graveyard at the top of the hill, well-disposed passers-by could and occasionally did feel moved to smile or wave graciously in her direction. By all means, some were so stirred by reason of being reminded of elderly relatives, or their own mortality. Others, overwhelmed by their generous nature, merely wished to give an old woman a sign that she was still welcome among them. All the same, it hardly would have been a singular state of affairs if a few folks were swayed by a sense of gratitude, indebted to her for providing their afternoon with an image that evoked a time when miles still kept lovers and rivals apart and thresholds and horizons were spaces to pass from sight and vanish out of reach, gateways to all manner of unrecorded deeds. For although Mrs Raspberry never failed to ignore their warm overtures – and likewise Pester invariably growled forbiddingly at the sound of the front gate being pushed on its hinges – within an electronically connected habitat in which whereabouts were tracked and minds exposed to much distraction, the old woman and her cat provided an arresting sight. Certainly, seated all poised, rouged and robed in her window Mrs Raspberry appeared preserved from the agitation and swirls of instructions that dogged all and sundry in the course of their everyday activities. Such has forever been the privilege of the old. A day comes when age is clear to wander its way, to take a seat and reminisce about all that once summed up a life well done: births, funerals, weddings, separations, triumphs and defeats. And although such matters still punctuated most existences, a new rhythm and reality now influenced the very nature of existing.

For this was the time at which this tale took place: a time of great changes, a time of great challenges, a time unlike any recorded time before. The great changes stemmed from men’s and women’s ingenuity. Ever more wondrous communication and monitoring devices bonded humanity under an unseeable interactive cyber dome, tethered all minds to novel and untested arrangements. Where once each living soul was tantamount to an island – distinct from all others, set within their own shores, the sum of their own qualities and limitations – each now counted as a continent’s fraction constituent, a scintilla within a digital effervescence, primed to provide at all times to digitized notifications and summonses. To look up at the stars or navigate the paths of passion no longer spelled distinct uniquely peculiar personal pursuits; to be, no longer was to endure, or leisure of your own, but to make good within a cross-connected information get-together. “We’re going where no one has gone before. Safer and closer together; all as one,” many cheered – “One size fits all and the mob visits each and every house,” lamented some. Such environment, overseen by about a dozen or so dominant nations and transnational organisations, made for loud choruses of convictions pressed on young and old from beaches to mountain tops, an always-ringing information concert from the dawn to the dead of night, so that great changes had borne great challenges, for from the first men and women’s ingenuity has always come a poor second to their zeal.

Thereby, afforded the means to instruct and audit all, a new elite advised a new generation that it knew better of all things than all generations which hitherto had passed; had all the answers; owned all the fixes. Former and present wrongs were to be remedied. Where inquisitions and persecutions once thrived, now they chimed of contrition and tolerance, set forth new sets of intransgressible rules designed to eradicate prejudices. Here some spoke of righteousness – others of oppression by another name. They who once enslaved people to promote their own homestead now sang with the confidence of former masters the virtues of mass re-education and reparation, picking out from among themselves and the formerly subjugated those they deemed most deserved to be put at the front of the queue. “Justice! Past wrongs must be righted; the better to heal and promote harmony in diversity,” they declared – “Where is the fairness in shackling our children to a past which no living soul played any part in? Besides, nobody likes queue jumpers; two wrongs don’t make a right,” some whispered. Where once they felled forests, lauded the industrial revolution, slaughtered wild beasts for sport and built tall cities and empires, now they charged for drinking water, pressed for boycotts and restrictive taxes, microchipped pets and beasts and went on building cities and empires. Where once there were men and women only, now some denied the notion of genders, and academia and policy institutions were also found to propose that in the affairs of mind and body smart and fit people were provided with unfair advantages such as required remedying too.

Such upheaval took some getting used to, spared none from its momentum. Providing that great changes bring about great challenges, likewise great challenges provide great potential for confusion. If the pursuit of the common good and ending discrimination called for the fostering of fresh discrimination and censorship, “let it be so” the chorus pledged. There were lists of words deemed good and lists of words deemed bad. There were banned words. There were prohibited pronouns, films, songs, images, statues, stories, and – inasmuch as they could be unmasked by judicious scrutiny of a person’s conversation, demeanour or industry – outlawed thoughts, notions and longings. For all practical purposes, this profited many, unnerved scores more and the balance existed in fear of correction. Teachers, publishers, bartenders, train drivers, just about anyone, it hardly mattered. A frowned-on word could end a career; a suggestion lead to censure and public scrutiny; an opinion to social exclusion or arrest and detention. The elevation of social justice, diversity and accountability, some were adamant, warranted transparent and blunt instruments. And it followed that where once they celebrated the burning of books and people on public squares, they now divested and deleted books and people from places of learning, social platforms and stores, driving them into silent exile and oblivion. There were some who believed that, like previous great reassessments, this exaltation would run its course, spoke of growing pains. Others cited a new world order, the end of Western culture, a catastrophe equal if not greater than such as had befallen the Greeks millennia earlier. For it was true that while the prodigious technological advancements which drove the rearranging of human life concerned the entire world, the patients most receptive to the zeal-induced agitation which followed were places like London, Paris and New York, or all such western settings and lands which once had prevailed over earthly matters now determined by new eastern rulers with great designs of their own.

Such was the general situation at the time of this tale; not un-akin to simmering water within which each atom grows more and more agitated and restless by virtue of exposure to external heat. And Mrs Raspberry would readily have known none of it. But her advanced age had dulled little of her mental faculties. She never was without visitors, couldn’t but have noted the younger generations’ antics. Still, none of what she knew of it unduly concerned her. “Human nature doesn’t change,” she would say; “Winds of changes blown by angels are hardly novel and invariably herald thunder. At my stage of life I have too precious little time left to fret about such things.” 

This, it would turn out, were the words of an old woman who failed to grasp the scope of the changes around her. And in good time she would be disabused of the notion that her mind could afford to play such tricks as remain indifferent to the ways of the present. It would seal her fate and leave her stranded on Cemetery Hill. For had any of the good-natured waving or smiling passers-by called on any of her neighbours to query about the nice old lady sitting in the window of number 49 with her cat, they’d have been told that she was a crazy mean old woman – a fact nobody could deny after acquainting themselves with the note she had sent two years earlier to Audrey Pomeroy of number 54. And, had the same neighbours opted to produce on their personal communication devices the said note which Audrey Pomeroy had circulated two years previously on the neighbourhood’s SafeHaven-Network for the edification of all, like they once used to click a flashlight they’d have there and then swiftly submitted the evidence:

‘Dear Mrs Pomeroy, it is by no means certain that you shall outlive me. But then again, I started to die long before you, so most unfortunately it’s highly likely that I shall perish first. If Hell does exist, there’s little doubt that once released from this mortal frame I shall head straight there. You may like to learn that I have had most of the men I set my sights on during my long and full carnal life. So, if the devil is anything like a man, I want you to know that I’ll make sure I’ll make him mine, so that together he and I shall be waiting for you (and your litter) when your time comes. Yours most sincerely, Mary Raspberry.’

And to stress their point further, the same good neighbours may have gone on to state that the crazy mean old woman was also a racist who for two years now had turned herself into the bane of the neighbourhood by perching in her large bay window every afternoon between 5 and 7 p.m. for the intent purpose of causing nuisance to Audrey Pomeroy who lived two doors down across the street at number 54.

As often is the case with words from the street, speaking a little truth with great outrage helped spread a bigger lie.

It was fifteen years now since Mary Raspberry had moved to number 49 Cemetery Hill, a pleasant three-storey Victorian house with a generous garden graced with old oak and cherry trees. It had belonged to Mr Raspberry, a tree surgeon who had converted the property into three flats, retaining the ground floor and basement as his dwelling while renting out the two upper storeys. A quick courtship had led to marriage and her moving into her new husband’s domicile. He was fifty-four, she sixty-six, and, more than a man of property – which was incidental since she had means of her own – he was a handsome fellow with a fit body, a good head of hair and strong hands who still climbed trees in the course of his occupation; and proud of it he was too. He was a good catch to enter old age with; while Mary Raspberry would never have settled for less, by then time had begun to catch up with her, setting up that stage of life when mind and body are no longer quite one and the same, start to move at different paces.

In the event, for all its pleasant promises, their union had lasted little more than a year. Perhaps Mr Raspberry had gone on climbing trees too long. A seizure while up with his chainsaw had led to his severing his femoral artery and dying of blood loss while still securely roped to the top of his tree; he may have been saved had he had the presence of mind to apply a tourniquet to his limb or the rescue service been able to bring him down in good time to stem the blood flow. “Probably the best way for a man like him to go,” his daughter from a previous marriage mused while on a brief visit from Australia for his funeral.

Mary Raspberry had considered moving back to Brighton in Surrey, her town of residence before coming to Highbury, but Cemetery Hill presented comforts and conveniences, not least the two upstairs rented flats which afforded her the right sort of cordial but formal social company. It was then that she had got herself a kitten for distraction, a male British Shorthair which soon grew into a rascally truant tom who by the time of its going missing seven years later had lost parts of both its ears and the tip of its tail, grown huge jowls, drooled and limped along. Always very fond of the animal, she never thought of taming or having it neutered as it clearly favoured the street to being confined indoors, oftentimes absent for long spells. Still, following its loss, she missed it enough to seek a new tom, a common tawny type of cat which she named Pester on account of its rumbustious character. It too soon had grown into a truant, unrestrained and unneutered, and five years had gone by with it, not unlike its predecessor, often returning home battle-scarred to stay put only long enough to lick its wounds. Now and then, a neighbour would complain about it spoiling their lawns, badgering their pet or killing birds. “What would you have me do?” Mrs Raspberry would say; “In China they eat cats. In France they declaw them. In America they bath and blow dry them. In England we celebrate their independence. What would you have me do?”

As it turned out, someone would not have her do anything, opting instead to take matters into their own hands. One February day, Pester had returned from its latest escapade a much-changed beast, bereft of swagger and testicles. “For goodness’ sake,” cried a disbelieving Mrs Raspberry; “Poor Pester. What sick degenerate did this to you?”

She called the police, fumed against the “criminal who castrated my Pester and must be caught and punished”, and they, after attempting to explain that this was no police matter, that she should report the matter to the RSPCA – all in vain as she would have none of it – had reluctantly dispatched an officer to her home. The officer expressed sympathy, reiterated much of what was said on the phone, asked whether her cat was named Pester by reason of its being a nuisance, suggested it had been mistaken for a stray and advised that its ordeal would likely have been averted had she got it chipped. She hadn’t. “There you are, Mrs Raspberry. Whoever interfered with your cat could have contacted you if you’d chipped him. The fact they let him find his way home after having had him neutered suggests they aren’t a bad sort. They must have had cause to think he was feral-like—Quite an understandable error looking at his scarred face and all. There isn’t much the police can do, Mrs Raspberry. It’s all within the law really.” “How can it be within the law to castrate somebody else’s cat? This is absurd!” “If cause exists to think a tom stray or feral, it is indeed within the law, Mrs Raspberry. Like I said, it could have been averted if you’d had him chipped. Most folks microchip their pets nowadays, Mrs Raspberry. And not a bad thing it is too. As a matter of fact it is a legal requirement for dog owners; I believe the same may soon be the case for cat owners too. But don’t quote me on that.” She’d contacted her solicitor, was informed that he’d retired some years earlier and was put through to a young woman the law firm recommended. The latter, pointing out that she could only express an uninformed opinion as she did not have all the facts, echoed the police position, adding “Of course, were you able to provide evidence that the person or persons responsible were aware your cat was not feral nor a stray, you could have a legitimate complaint. But you’d have to know who they are in order to do so.”

In the end, as she prepared to call at all the veterinary clinics within her neighbourhood armed with a photograph of Pester, Rose Pemberton of number 91 down the road – a retired ballerina and seamstress who had resided on Cemetery Hill even longer than she had and with whom she would exchange small talk whenever their ways crossed – cleared up the mystery. “Hello. Mary,” she said after knocking at her door, the first time she’d ever done so; “I hope you don’t mind my intruding but have you seen Pester recently? And if you have, has anything happened to him?” “Hello, Rose. Indeed—I have and something has happened to him: some deranged mind castrated him. What is it that you know?” “Oh. So it is your Pester. I thought so. Well, you see, two days ago I noticed that one of my dogs—Oscar, you know—Has a small tumour growing on his lower lip; better have someone look at it at once, I thought. The thing is my regular vet is booked solid for the next few weeks so I made an appointment at a new clinic on the Holloway Road, near the junction with the Seven Sisters Road, you know. Anyway, turns out it’s benign, Oscar’s fine. But while I was there chatting to the receptionist, she noted my address and remarked I was the second person from Cemetery Hill to visit their clinic this week. So I asked who the other person was. And she looked it up and said ‘Audrey Pomeroy. Number 54. Do you know her?’ ‘Oh yes. But by sight only,’ I said. ‘She’s only been on the Hill a couple of years. She’s our local environmental activist,’ I said, alluding to her making the national news last Easter when she took part in that lie-down protest on Waterloo Bridge together with her four teenagers; you remember, when they blocked the Easter holiday traffic? ‘Well, she’s a very nice lady,’ the receptionist said, ‘She brought this stray tom: a grumpy thing with a missing ear and scarred nose. It had been bothering her two cats and up to all sorts of mischief in her garden. She wanted it neutered.’ Well, I said to myself—grumpy, missing ear, scarred nose—That sounds just like Mary’s Pester.”

Even though number 54 was a mere two houses down across the street from her, Mary Raspberry barely knew much about the Pomeroys; she hardly spent time in her window in those days. Yet, she recalled reading in the local paper about the ‘Highbury environmental warrior mum of four teenage crusaders’, who, if her memory served her right, was a Chartered Surveyor with an architect husband. Still, none of this mattered to Mary Raspberry when she set out across Cemetery Hill to confront Audrey Pomeroy, a woman in her late thirties wearing pink lipstick who opened her front door in a vest, Lycra pants and trainers, ready for her regular early evening jog.

“You stupid woman! How dare you castrate my cat,” said Mary Raspberry.

“Hello! What the—Who the hell are you?”

“Mary Raspberry. Number 49. How dare you mutilate my cat, you sorry excuse of a woman. I’m going to sue you.” 

Mary Raspberry was beside herself. And Audrey Pomeroy, none too pleased to be so confronted by an old woman on her own doorstep, in this soon rivalled her. A storm of words ensued and many things were said in the next few minutes. About Pester from Audrey Pomeroy: “If the cat’s yours you ought to thank me for having him seen to at my expense and bringing it back here, you silly old hag!” – “You aren’t fit to look after animals. And besides, your cat was a menace. He’s been spraying and defecating all across my garden—Stinking the whole place up and endangering my children’s health. When is the last time you gave him his shots, eh?” – “I reckon your cat’s been contaminating the entire local feline population, you irresponsible woman. Go ahead. Sue me. See if I care. I had no idea that feral thing was a pet of yours. And now I do I’m not sorry. The law says I am entirely within my rights to have him done if he presented a health hazard to my family’s wellbeing. Actually, now I met you, I feel sorry I didn’t do your cat a favour and have him put to sleep to spare him further suffering in your miserable company!”

About Audrey Pomeroy from Mary Raspberry: “You’re a liar. I’ve lived here for over fifteen years now. Most of the street knows my Pester; all you had to do is ask around if you had a problem with him. I’m two doors across the road from you, stupid woman. You did this deliberately. How dare you castrate my cat, Mrs Watch-Me-Care-For-The-World-By-Holding-Up-Traffic!” – And, after Audrey Pomeroy’s four teenagers, drawn by the ruckus, had joined their mother outside their front door to sneer and smirk: “Let me tell you something: it’s you who ought to be spayed, you high-minded nitwit. Instead of allowing you to go around mutilating animals and dispensing your misery onto the rest of humanity they ought to make it illegal for the likes of you to reproduce. There ought to be laws to prevent people like you from breeding! Think about it. Never mind the spite that leads you to mutilate animals—Think how much more agreeable the universe and space would be if you and your litter weren’t around passing wind and judgement. You had no business with my cat, woman—You moron! Your expensive shade of pink lipstick may fool some into believing that you possess taste and discernment, but you’d only be fooling them. You aren’t fooling me! Let me give you some words for your education, Mrs Pomeroy: ‘But woman, proud woman, dress’d in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what she’s most assur’d—Her glassy essence—like an angry ape, plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven as makes the angels weep.’ You make the angels weep, Mrs Pomeroy. You’re a fool. And far beyond help you are too. You ought to know your place. And I’m going to sue you.”

Mary Raspberry had had little idea what she would say to Audrey Pomeroy prior to heading across the road towards number 54’s door; too much anger fogged her thoughts. All that mattered was to let the woman know what was on her mind. And she was satisfied she had done just that when she returned home afterwards. She’d shown her teeth, was thrilled she still had teeth, chuffed at the way her mind had brought up the Shakespeare quote, not to mention the manner in which she’d substituted gender and pronoun without missing a beat. She’d known these words most of her adult life, from a time when she turned heads and lived in New York and was distracting a theatre producer-director who was putting on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’. Teasing, she’d asked why he couldn’t give her a part in the play: “I’m not just a pretty face, you know.” And he’d laughed, pledged he would if she memorized the entire play. It was all in jest, but she’d resolved to make the joke on him, trusting her agile mind. Later, she could barely contain her glee at his amazement when she made him test her; she’d learnt the whole text by heart, all one hundred and forty-four pages of it. By then, all the parts were cast, but feeling duty-bound to keep his word the man had offered her a silent walk-on part, which to the relief of all she turned down after a mere two attempts at the role; her acting skills proved no match for her agile mind or power to drive men to distraction. Today, still ignorant of much of Shakespeare’s work, she could still bring up most of ‘Measure for Measure’ on cue, now and again recited passages from it to herself as a means to keep her mind occupied, preferring this to solving crossword puzzles which after years of practice had become more tedious than challenging.

On this account, genuine concerns for Pester aside, she’d returned home feeling quite pleased with her performance at Audrey Pomeroy’s door, particularly as she’d managed to keep her wits about her when the woman’s four teenagers had turned up behind their mother to smirk and sneer. In fact, their appearance had spurred her on, five against one was no fair fight, and wasn’t it a good thing that after all those years her knowledge of a Shakespeare play had come advantageously to her rescue.

Or so she thought. What occurred next was fast and brutal. Now she knew the culprit of Pester’s misfortune, her plan was to call the young lady at the solicitor’s. However, by the time she did, she had been visited by the police again, though not as she hoped on account of Pester. Instead, they informed her under caution that she was to be investigated for committing a hate crime, her offence being to have spoken and acted in a way which ‘is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race’. In other words, the police had received complaints – dozens of them – that she had made threatening and racist comments, a serious offence which they were required to investigate. “It’s the law,” they said.

As it happened, Mary Raspberry knew of mobile phones – she owned and used such a device to make calls – but had yet to use one to film, take photographs, or for that matter to explore the internet, with which she was still unacquainted at the time. Likewise, she had no idea that Audrey Pomeroy was – as the police put it – ‘a woman of colour’; or to be more precise, ‘a sixteenth woman of colour’.

“A sixteenth woman of colour? What on earth are you talking about? What colour? Have you seen the woman? She’s grey. Wipe out the lipstick and she’s the colour of a bleak sky on a joyless day.”

“That may be how you feel, Mrs Raspberry. But that is not how she perceives herself. Or how her children perceive themselves. Complaints have been received and we must investigate. It’s the law.”

One of Audrey Pomeroy’s four children, it transpired, had appeared at the door not merely to sneer at the old woman exchanging angry words with their mother; they had recorded the incident on their phone, so that while Mary Raspberry was back home still basking in her performance an hour or so after the fact, Audrey Pomeroy, ridiculing the charge that she had got Pester neutered knowing full well that it belonged to a neighbour, was posting the captured footage across several platforms for the world to see, charging Mary Raspberry with racism for ‘comparing me to an angry ape under the cover of Shakespeare’, suggesting she should be “spayed” and stating “There ought to be laws to prevent people like you from breeding!” ‘I’m a sixteenth coloured woman and proud of it,’ Audrey Pomeroy’s comments concluded; ‘This old woman probably thinks her age protects her, but she is a racist disgrace.’ At once, without further encouragement, numerous complaints were made to the police, including four from the Pomeroy children who publicly declared having received offence and characterized themselves as ‘thirty twoth of colour’. Almost overnight, most of Cemetery Hill’s residents – even the previously gracious Rose Pemberton – had taken to shun Mary Raspberry, unwilling to be seen talking to or standing alongside her. It had not helped that the affair had motivated someone to post on the Cemetery Hill SafeHaven-Network – the local community’s cross-platform network which interconnected most of the street’s residents into a ‘Safe, Healthy and Trusty Community’ (but not Mary Raspberry, who had no interest in such things) – that ‘The racist disgrace from number 49’ had form, summoning up a four-year-old incident which had seen her accuse her part-time ‘person of colour’ housekeeper of stealing £20 from her purse and then have the police come to remove them from her property when they had refuted the allegation and refused to leave until paid compensation for unfair dismissal without notice. Likewise, the young lady at the solicitor’s turned hostile, or at the least unhelpful: “Perhaps, if you’d called us rather than confront your neighbour on learning what happened to your cat we may have been able to help you, Mrs Raspberry. It’s a very awkward situation now. There’s little we can do, really. If you want my opinion, you could do worse than going to apologize to your neighbour for your incautious words.”

But Mary Raspberry never apologized, the police soon dropped their investigation – citing her advanced age – and in the end, the recipient of much unpleasant mail and now acquainted with the marvel of the online digital world and the firestorm of venal comments directed against her on social media platforms, embittered, she had felt it necessary not to renew the leases of her upstairs flats’ tenants; they too had changed, eyed and addressed her in ways she hardly appreciated. After their departure, she opted to keep the flats unoccupied, and save for the defiant ‘devil note’ she sent Audrey Pomeroy, from here on out resolved to keep her thoughts and company to herself. 

The community made her into an outcast and something snapped inside her head. She could have upped and left, but like her neighbours rightly suspected her mind was set on being a nuisance, making certain Audrey Pomeroy couldn’t forget her; not as long as the woman remained on Cemetery Hill. She still kept herself occupied with ‘Measure for Measure’, but now had taken to reading Shakespeare’s other works; “When mercy seasons justice,” she often whispered between her cracked lips for no discernible reason, a line from ‘The Merchant of Venice’. “When mercy seasons justice.” Alone, she listened to the empty old house creaking. Pester was still much loved, but she missed its virility; the once truant tom was now a cute house pet content to doze for hours who rolled on its back at feeding time and meowed sweetly, only venturing out now and again to return with a mouse or bird it would drop by its food bowl but never ate. It did growl warningly whenever anyone pushed the front gate to come to the house though.

There were times when Mary Raspberry did still wonder what her neighbours and the digital crowds would have made of her divulging having given birth to a couple of ‘coloured’ babies many long years ago, before the sorcery of easy contraception. This, if nothing else, made her ‘of colour’ by impregnation and, as the mother of two ‘half-coloured’ children, many times more ‘of colour’ than ‘a sixteenth woman of colour’ Audrey Pomeroy. Then again, as she’d already done with yet another product of her womb who admittedly could never be painted as ‘of colour’, just as soon as she had brought them into the world she had also abandoned them and their fathers; such choices had determined her life. So it likely wouldn’t have helped. And besides, no one had much listened when she protested that for all she cared Audrey Pomeroy could have been purple, green or orange on the day she confronted her. That she was seeing red. That she’d spoken to the woman as an equal; a foolish and most nasty equal but an equal all the same. That when it came even to fools she’d always been colour blind. That no one ever taught her to discriminate or address others pursuant to their skin colour; make pitiful, condescending, nervous allowances for it. But this too was hardly likely to have helped. After all, no one could deny it, grey Audrey Pomeroy and her children weren’t ‘persons of colour’, not to the eye, be it a sixteenth or a thirty twoth. “Perception,” the police insisted; “It’s not just about what you said, or about whom you thought you were speaking to, but how Mrs Pomeroy and her children perceived your words, Mrs Raspberry. It’s the law.”

Such was the time at which this tale took place. They who once enslaved people to promote their own homestead, who felled forests, slaughtered wild beasts and built empires and cities and burnt books and people they feared or disliked, now made lists of good and bad words, of perceived rights and perceived wrongs, and – inasmuch as they could be detected or unmasked by judicious scrutiny of a person’s conversation, demeanour or industry – lists of illicit thoughts, notions and longings. The celebration of justice, diversity and accountability, some were adamant, warranted blunt instruments, brutal but necessary measures.

For two years now, come 7 p.m., Mrs Raspberry would get up from her high-back leopard-skin armchair to pace her way to the kitchen at the back of the house. Pester would sit up as soon as she clambered to her feet, watch her go a few paces to give her a head start and then leap from its crimson-cushioned vanity stool to dart past her to the kitchen to roll on its back against the rug by the sink. “Poor Pester,” she would say once there, before putting some soup to warm up on the stove for her supper, feeding the cat and sitting down at the table to eat. Today was no different. She was slow, a grey-haired shuffling silk robe with deadwood hands and feet. “Poor Pester,” she said, and a little later, after sipping her soup, she stood up to head for the window overlooking the large back garden.

Under the sunset sky, summer was coming to an end and dead oak and cherry leaves gently swirled down towards the lush lawn. She remembered how she used to own the summers, when she could feel the warm air caress her inner thighs and was still called Amérique. She remembered when she became Amy, and later still when Amy became Frédérique, and then Madam Eimi, and then Amy again and Amy became Mary. Tomorrow was Thursday. Unless it rained, like every other week Jack would turn up mid-morning to do the garden. He would rake the dead leaves, set them alight on the bonfire by the shed against the far wall and mow the lawn. He was a tall handsome lad with winsome brown eyes. She would open the window, savour the smell of burning leaves and remember campfires and unhurried Spanish rivers; make it last as long as she could. Only then would she offer Jack a cup of tea and biscuits before Janice would arrive to do the cleaning and shopping. Standing at the window sill Jack would grin, showing his big teeth, ask if she was well.

He had no idea. There was a time when she had it all.

“Small mercies,” she whispered; “The spirit never dies.”

And here for now we shall leave Mrs Raspberry and Pester, not to return until the time comes to catch up with them again.

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