NZ Forest Native Birds
Old Grumpy

“Dad’s right you know. Forbidden fruit does taste sweetest.”

      Kirsty and her brother, sitting under Arthur Grundy’s trees scoffing his peaches, grinned at each other, juice running down their chins. Old Grumpy didn’t scare them: they could outrun him with ease.

      Kirsty reached for another peach but paused, frowning. Something about the garden didn’t look right. Then the reason struck her: the grass needed mowing. In fact, everything was starting to look neglected. And Dad said old Grumpy was so addicted to gardening he worked in the rain and at night.

  “Maybe they’ve gone on holiday,” was Steve’s answer to Kirsty’s criticism.

     “They can’t. Dad says Mrs Grumpy’s housebound.”

       Steve looked puzzled. “How can a house bind anyone?”

       Kirsty sighed in exasperation at Steve’s slowness in outgrowing the habit of taking everything literally. “Dad called it … ag-agrophobia—well something sounding like agrophobia, anyway.”

      “What’s that?”

      “Fear of open spaces.”

      “Maybe old Grumpy’s caught it too?” Steve sounded unashamedly hopeful. It was unfair that a house without children had all this garden while theirs had none.

      Kirsty snorted. “Idiot! It’s like heart attacks. You can’t catch it.” And she threw a peach at him.

      Within seconds a mock fight was in progress. It developed into a real one when something hit Steve’s shoulder so hard he yelped, and he returned it, hollering. But each soon realised the stones were coming too thick and fast for the other to be throwing them.

      Then they saw him—old Grumpy—and knew he had to be the culprit.

      They dodged behind a large camellia. The rain of stones stopped. Kirsty peered out. And her mouth dropped open.

      Old Grumpy was standing staring at the camellia, empty-handed and looking distraught rather than angry. On sighting Kirsty he spoke. But it wasn’t his usual tirade.

      “You haven’t come for weeks.” His voice held a hint of accusation. “Elizabeth’s ill. Your noise upsets her—and I can’t manage her. You’ll have to calm her and apologise.”

      Kirsty blinked in shock. Trespassing and pinching fruit was one thing. Worsening an old lady’s illness was another matter. Usually they took care to be quiet.

      Meekly they stepped out, ready to flee at the least threat from the old man. However, he just turned and walked up the lawn.

      Inside the big old house Kirsty glimpsed a large, messy kitchen. And for such a posh home it smelled foul.

      Mr Grundy led them to a downstairs bedroom. That too was messy. With the velvet drapes closed it was also dim. The stench here made Kirsty gag.

      Amongst discarded clothing, Mrs Grundy was crouched over someone sprawled on the floor. With her silk nightgown inside-out, back-to-front and unbuttoned as well as unclean, she was an astonishing sight. She looked up and they saw, with further shock, that she had no teeth, her hair was matted and dirty, and stale food and grease smeared her face.

      “It’s Arthur. He won’t wake up.” Tears trembled in her voice. Leaning on the dressing-table, she hauled herself up and stumbled towards them. “Please help me.”

      Kirsty’s first instinct was to flee. But old Grumpy was behind her. Having caught them, he would block their escape. Besides, the old woman had asked for help—piteously, with a dignity undiminished by her bizarre appearance.

      Kirsty snapped on the light. Now that Mrs Grundy no longer hid the fallen man’s face, it was obvious he would never wake up: his eyes stared vacantly; blood clotted his forehead. Beside him lay the poker that had dealt his deathblow.

      Shock made Kirsty giddy. She swallowed hard. She mustn’t faint at her first sight and smell of death, she scolded herself.

      Reluctantly she approached the corpse—and received a second shock. The dead man was a replica of old Grumpy.

      But old Grumpy was behind her. They’d just been speaking to him. And if the dead man was Arthur Grundy then who was the other? His identical twin? If so, how come nobody knew old Grumpy had a twin? But that would explain the behaviour of the man outside. It was the twin who’d thrown the stones. What was wrong with him that he’d allowed things to reach this state? Had he killed his brother?

      Kirsty swung round to challenge him. But only Steve stood there, white-faced, wide-eyed, his fist in his mouth. Then Mrs Grundy plucked her sleeve. Kirsty turned back to her. “Where’s your husband’s brother gone?”

      Mrs Grundy looked at her blankly. “Arthur’s got no relatives. Neither have I. Not any more.” She looked from Kirsty to Steve. “Is it dinner time yet? Could someone please tell Arthur I’m hungry.”

      Kirsty could see no way to avoid telling the poor woman the truth. She later realised that this moment was when she grew up. “I’m sorry, Mrs Grundy, your husband’s dead. And we’ll have to ring the police. Would you like to shower and dress before they arrive? Then you can have dinner.”

      Only Kirsty’s last two sentences seemed to register with Mrs Grundy, who beamed and nodded. “I’ll wear my best gown. I do like visitors. Is Arthur coming?”

      Kirsty bit her lip. It seemed pointless repeating that Arthur was dead. “We’ll see about that later,” she said with forced brightness. “First we must get you ready.” She turned to Steve and lowered her voice. “D’you think you could find some food—preferably something you can heat up? I don’t think she’s eaten properly since … it happened. But ring the cops first—and a doctor.”

      Steve left with obvious relief. Just her luck to get the difficult, unpleasant chores, Kirsty reflected. Well, at least she could ignore the bedroom. The police would regard cleaning that up as interfering with evidence.

      But what about the twin? How stupid of them to let him get away!

      And why had he chosen one of their visits to Old Grumpy’s garden to make his crime known? A little longer and Mrs Grundy would also have been dead, and it would have been ages before the bodies were discovered. Did he not want her dead? Had he wiped his fingerprints from the poker and tricked her into putting hers there? Did he hate his twin’s wife so much he wanted her accused of murder?

      But surely someone as obviously gaga as Elizabeth Grundy couldn’t be tried for murder?

      Or could she?

      Oh, what a muddle everything was!

      Kirsty, you’re letting your imagination run wild. There has to be a simple explanation.

      By the time the police arrived Kirsty had managed to get Mrs Grundy reasonably clean and into the only unsoiled garment available—a dressing gown—and had unearthed her dentures. And Steve had found some canned food so that the old woman was tucking into warmed corned beef and vegetables in a less filthy kitchen when the police took over.

      But they didn’t have a simple explanation. Neither did Kirsty and Mark’s father.

      “Mr Grundy was a very proud man,” he explained later to his puzzled, distressed children. “Although he didn’t seem to mind people knowing of his wife’s agoraphobia, her increasingly odd behaviour must have shamed him. Maybe he didn’t understand what was happening. Even today there’s a lot of ignorance of Alzheimer’s disease.

      “Unfortunately not seeking help was the worst thing he could have done. Alzheimer sufferers get very muddled and eventually don’t even recognise their loved ones. The police seem to think that while Mr Grundy was dressing or undressing his wife she confused him with someone trying to take advantage of her and hit him with the poker she kept by her bed. Fingerprints on it suggested she was the last to handle it. But the doctor says it wasn’t the blow that killed Mr Grundy. He had a heart attack, probably brought on by the stress of looking after her alone and in secret. It must have been horrifying for you finding him, especially as he’d been dead a week. But Mrs Grundy’s going to be all right. She’s just thin and dehydrated.”

      “And what about the twin—the man who threw stones at us?”

      Kirsty’s father shrugged. “The police can’t account for the stones—there wasn’t anywhere on the property they could have come from—and insist that yours and Steve’s were the only footprints.”

      “But we didn’t throw any stones,” Kirsty protested. “And we’d never have entered the house unasked. Old Gr… Mr Grundy always came out with a large stick—and I’m sure he would’ve used it if he’d caught us. But this man didn’t have a stick.”

      Her father put an arm around her shoulders. “If you say you didn’t throw stones then I believe you. But the police say that their enquiries at the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages drew a blank, and records at the hospital where Arthur Grundy was born confirmed he had no twin. And nobody else saw a man answering his description on the day you discovered him.”

      “But we both saw him!” Steve insisted.

      “Just as well for Mrs Grundy,” his father said. “As for the rest, well I suppose it’ll always be a mystery.”

   

That afternoon Kirsty went to enquire after Mrs Grundy and offer to help clean the house.

      “She’s lucid today, but she’ll have to go into a home: she needs full-time care,” the temporary nurse said, ushering Kirsty into the now clean and tidy bedroom where Elizabeth Grundy, serenely regal, sat staring into space.

      She looked up at Kirsty’s entrance and smiled—a sweetly sad smile that made Kirsty’s chest tighten. “Ah, my dear! How nice to see you. Arthur’s just been. It seems I owe you and your brother my life. I’d like to reward you—but only if you stop trespassing and stealing Arthur’s fruit.”

      “But we don’t want a reward—except permission to play in your garden. We don’t do any harm. Apart from eating some fruit we only play there.”

      Mrs Grundy cocked her head like a bird, her smile slyly arch. “Wouldn’t you rather have something you’re not allowed? Surely you know forbidden fruit tastes sweetest?”

      Kirsty blinked. Good heavens! She’s teasing me!

      Elizabeth Grundy cackled merrily. But before Kirsty could answer, a figure started materialising behind Elizabeth, fist raised—Arthur Grundy.

      Kirsty gasped. Although the fist was empty, habit made her flee.

      “Don’t go, Kirsty—please! Arthur won’t hurt you.”

      Kirsty, already half-way to the door, paused at this desperate, crestfallen plea. But the apparition was now coming towards her. She leapt for the door—only to pull up short when Arthur, eyes blazing, reached it first.

      “Stupid girl! Stupid heartless girl!” he hissed. “Abandon Elizabeth now and they’ll shove her in an institution.”

      “But I can’t stop them. I’m only a kid. And besides, she’s—she’s…”

      “Well, go on, say it! Gaga’s the usual term. She’s also a wealthy woman. I’m sure that nice nurse would love to stay on, with staff to boss and a good salary. Instead they’ll take Elizabeth’s money and dump her somewhere more like a hospital than a home.”

      “But I can’t stop them!”

      “Well, you could at least try. After the way you handled things I thought you a bright, spirited girl, not a lily-livered twit.”

      His sarcasm made Kirsty feel as though her insides shrivelled. Was she really such a coward? Remembering how she and Steve had always run from the living Arthur, she supposed she must be.

      “But what can I do?”

      “For a start, deliver my new will to my solicitors. I didn’t get time to send it to them. It’s properly signed and witnessed.”

      Kirsty took the envelope from the drawer he indicated. Its flap was fastened with a blob of red wax imprinted with a seal. She turned the envelope over. It was addressed in writing that looked as old-fashioned as the seal.

      “Now!” Arthur barked.

      Kirsty glared at him. “Only on one condition—that I never see you again.”

      He gave a snort of humourless laughter. “If Elizabeth ever goes into a home I’ll haunt you till your dying day. You have my word on that.”

      Bridling, Kirsty replied with chilling dignity, “For your poor wife’s sake—not because of your bullying threats—I’ll do my best. You have my word on that.”

      As she swept out, Kirsty’s last impression of Arthur, hovering behind his wife, was uncannily that of a guardian angel. But the smile lighting his normally dour face wasn’t for Kirsty. He had eyes for only Elizabeth. The sight of such devotion from a man whose personality had always been otherwise unpleasant brought a lump to Kirsty’s throat.

      Years later, pondering why she and Steve hadn’t returned to the Grundy garden, she was sorry she would never see Arthur again—if only to thank him for the legacy he had left on his wife’s death “to the girl who trespasses in my garden and steals my fruit, on condition that she takes my will to my solicitor, with seal unbroken, and ensures my dearest Elizabeth spends the rest of her life in her own home”.

© L A Barker Enterprises
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