Death gave the caterpillar her wings to greet happiness in the clouds.
~ Orphan by David W Jones
The Lord preserveth the strangers; he relieveth the fatherless and widow: but the way of the wicked he turneth upside down
~ Psalm 146:9 (King James)
|Falling (by cacodemonic deviantart.com)|
My Little Gustav
Hemel Hempstead, South-East London
An elegant second-hand bookshop in the heart of town.
The eco-conscious bookshop where people donated their books and customers chose three books to take away free of charge.
A nobility in recycling.
The lure of a free book is an incentive for people not only to feed their minds but to help the environment too.
Peter Lojko had been managing Earth Hand since it opened three years before.
He was the only paid member of staff.
Lojko was a tall and charming forty-six year-old man with wavy brown hair and light blue eyes.
His birth name was Patek but he preferred to be called Peter.
Both his Polish parents had passed and he was still grieving for his mother Anka.
Peter Lojko was an accomplished musician who performed with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Earth Hand was his labour of love.
He was a member of Greenpeace and supporter of Amnesty International and his large message board was full of slogans from Save The Children, Oxfam and Médecins Sans Frontières - amid the job adverts, rooms to let and fliers for the local theatre.
The quiet bachelor lived alone in a modest flat in Woodland End.
He had an on-off relationship with a pretty woman named Sandra Fields who worked at the BBC.
Today Peter Lojke silently observed his newest recruit: a sprightly older woman who surreptitiously tidied up the shelves with a deft hand.
The smooth running of Earth Hand was maintained by eight members of staff all working on a rota basis but Peter Lojko is the only one who is paid.
A homely looking Irish septuagenarian.
Mild mannered and reserved.
She was tiny with greying auburn hair, bright blue eyes and quick, birdlike movements.
O'Reilly was like a little sparrow.
A native of Dublin: she had been living in England since the age of eighteen but still spoke with a pronounced Irish lilt.
And she was unfathomable.
Nobody seemed to know much about her.
They only knew that she was a former nurse.
And that she lived alone in a small semi-detached house in Belmont Road.
That was all.
Three Weeks Before
"My name is Margaret O'Reilly and I'd like to speak to the manager"
Peter Lojko looked at the austere looking older woman before him.
She was wearing a green woolen coat and a small black cap.
She could have stepped straight of the 1950's.
By all intents and purposes, she reminded him of a school headmistress.
And she addressed him as if he were a naughty schoolboy.
He liked it.
He gave her an amused smile.
"I am the manager" Peter Lojko replied evenly.
"Oh my dear, I am sorry"
She seemed surprised.
Her face melted into a smile.
Like the sun melting an iceberg,
"That's perfectly okay"
"You could be my son" Margaret O'Reilly informed him with intense eyes.
Peter Lojko felt a stab of pain lurch in his chest.
His mother had died two years before of a massive stroke and he was still grieving for her.
There was something comforting about the diminutive older woman before him.
And something else ...
"How can I help you?" Peter Lojko asked her politely.
"Well, I saw your advertisement in the shop window for assistance and I would like to help"
"What can you do?"
"Anything you like" Margaret O'Reilly said.
And with that she glanced quickly around the shop and then back at Peter Lojko with a confident smile..
He eyed her warily.
It was unlikely that she could do any cumbersome jobs but she could do some tidying up and perhaps even some sorting out of the newly arrived books in the large storeroom upstairs.
She was a harmless older woman.
She would make a welcome motherly addition to the ranks.
"I'm retired you see, and I'm looking for something to do"
"When can you start?" Peter Lojko asked her with a smile.
In the intervening three weeks Peter Lojko had become impressed with Margaret O'Reilly.
In spite of her eccentricity, she could not be faulted.
She insisted on working five days a week at Earth Hand.
And she was always in the shop by 9.30 am every morning.
Regular like clockwork.
She was dedicated, industrious and efficient.
And she was so quiet that people often forgot she was even there.
Margaret O'Reilly remained aloof and non-committal.
Peter Lojko watched as Abby Jenkins gave her instructions.
Jenkins had been working in the shop almost since it opened.
She was a short and plump woman with dark brown hair forever in a pony tail and small grey eyes.
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She had devised a system with the books and each one of them was stacked alphabetically into fiction and non-fiction.
Without asking her, Margaret O'Reilly had rearranged the books and separated them into subjects.
She had gone over Abby Jenkins head.
Jenkins threw a fearsome tantrum when she saw what the older woman had done.
She behaved like a woman possessed
Margaret O'Reilly hadn't reacted at all.
It took Peter Lojko over an hour to calm Abby Jenkins down.
This was the only hiccup since Margaret O'Reilly arrived.
In fact the dour Irishwoman had made herself indispensable.
Even bringing in homemade fruit cakes for tea.
And she was never more enthused than when she was talking about her son.
The other workers at Earth Hand would gather around her like little chicks around the mother hen.
The severe Margaret O'Reilly transformed into a storyteller.
Each one listening to stories about her exemplative son.
"My little Gustav"
She never tired of taking out the little faded photograph from her wallet and handing it around.
It didn't matter how many times she showed it.
Her eyes would light up and she would talk animatedly for nearly an hour.
Gustav was the perfect son.
A chip off his German father's block,
The apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
An Oxford graduate.
An eminent surgeon.
Famous all around the globe.
Out of the little photograph stared a stern looking unsmiling young man with blond hair, sharp features and crisp blue eyes.
"My little Gustav" Margaret O'Reilly sighed.
He lived with his father now in Baden Baden, Germany.
And nobody sought to ask any further.
Margaret O'Reilly had a strange faraway look in her eyes.
As if she had been transported.
"She's a bit of a mystery"
Ian Hendly had joined Peter Lojko in his observation of Margaret O'Reilly.
She appeared to working closely with Abby Jenkins now.
The two were carefully sifting through a box of novels.
Ian Hendley was a nineteen-year-old media student at the University of Westminster.
He was tall and gangling with carrot hair and clear blue eyes.
"I think she's probably lonely" Peter Lojko answered "like a lot of older people who live alone"
"Well, I tried to speak to her the other day during the lunch break and she barely said a word"
"She's definitely a ... strange one" Lojko said "I wonder what the deal is with her"
"She wasted no time in showing me that photograph" Ian Hendley retorted.
Both men slowly looked at each other.
Three Months Later
It was 5 pm.
Peter Lojko decided to take a quick look around the shop before going upstairs to the storeroom.
It was immaculate.
The shelves were gleaming.
All the books were neatly stacked.
The hand of Margaret O'Reilly.
Thinking of the enigmatic Irish woman made Peter Lojko think of his mother.
Anka Lojko was a small woman with light brown hair and large hazel eyes.
Her diminutive stature belied her strength of character and unswerving faith in human nature.
She was devout Catholic with a strong maternal instinct and Peter Lojko could still not believe she had gone.
Anka Lojko was everywhere.
A loud commotion suddenly snapped Peter out of his reverie.
There was a loud crash and the sound of a woman shouting loudly.
It was the voice of Abby Jenkins.
Then he remembered.
Jenkins and Margaret O'Reilly were alone in the storeroom.
They were supposed to be sorting out the new influx of books before closing.
The sound of heavy footsteps coming down the steps stomping down the stairs forestalled Peter Lojko's next move.
Within moments a panting and sweaty Abby Jenkins was standing before him.
Her eyes were intense and her hair disheveled.
She looked crazed.
"She tried to kill me!" Jenkins screamed.
Peter Lojko stared at her in disbelief.
"She tried to ... to push me down the stairs ... she just flipped out and went for me after I told her to leave the books to me ..."
Abby Jenkins was clearly distressed and very shaken.
But she was a pathological liar who was known to make stories up as effortlessly as she breathed.
Fact and fiction merged into one.
Like the books she stacked on the shelves.
And Peter Lojko couldn't be sure whether it was because of her condition or a predilection to deception.
But he was distrustful of her tall stories.
Margaret O'Reilly had appeared quietly behind her.
Peter Lojko looked from Jenkins to O'Reilly.
Something had obviously happened.
"Well, what do you have to say?" He asked the older Irishwoman.
"I don't know what she's talking about" Margaret O'Reilly replied calmly "I was just doing my job"
"Liar!" Abby Jenkins shrieked "You're a cow and a liar!"
"Now we won't have any of that!" Lojko said firmly.
"She wants to take over!" Jenkins railed "She wants to take over the whole shop!"
Peter Lojko frowned.
Abby Jenkins was behaving like a child and he would treat her like a child.
"Come, come" he said softly "let's all be friends"
"No bloody way!" Jenkins exclaimed "She tried to murder me! Tried to push me down the stairs"
"Nobody wants to murder anybody" Lojko assured.
He glanced quickly at Margaret O'Reilly.
She was too frail to push anyone anywhere.
Abby Jenkins shot the older Irishwoman a dagger look.
The older woman stared dumbly back at her.
Peter Lojko was silent.
"I ain't staying here no more!" Abby Jenkins shouted and with that, she strode out of the shop.
Lojko and Margaret O'Reilly watched Jenkins disappear.
Then he slowly turned to look at the older Irishwoman.
A fragile looking figure.
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"That woman is mad" Margaret O'Reilly finally declared.
Abby Jenkins never returned to Earth Hand.
Two Weeks Later
Peter Lojko glanced at his watch again.
It was 10.15 am.
And Margaret O'Reilly had still not arrived.
Usually she was in the shop by 9.30 am: making tea for everyone and quietly looking forward to the day ahead.
All the other Earth Hand workers were already busy preparing the shop for opening.
The first customers were due to walk through the door in fifteen minutes time.
And the absence of the dutiful Margaret O'Reilly was glaring.
At 1 pm, she had still not arrived and Peter Lojko was getting very concerned.
So he decided to go looking for the missing Irishwoman.
Lojko handed over the reigns of management to Ian Hendley and was out of the shop by 1.30 pm.
Twenty minutes later and Peter Lojko pulled up outside Margaret O'Reilly's small semi-attached house in his little silver Mini.
63 Belmont Road.
Lojko's first impression was that the pleasant house was very quiet.
He rang the house phone before getting out of the car.
There was no answer.
He strode up to the green door and rang the door bell.
But nobody came to the door.
He peered through the letterbox.
It looked very still inside.
The house was empty.
Peter Lojko checked the piece of paper again.
63 Belmont Road.
He let out a long weary sigh.
Margaret O'Reilly was a puzzle.
A strange one.
"Excuse me, are you looking for Margie?"
An unmistakable Irish accent.
Peter Lojko turned to see a small older woman in a grey woolen coat.
She had a round open face, short grey hair and bright green eyes.
"My name is Aileen Cleary and I live across the road"
"Oh hello, my name is Peter Lojko and I manage the Earth Hand bookshop. I'm just looking for Margaret because she didn't show up today"
"Oh my dear boy, you don't know ..."
"Margie had a massive stroke on Saturday evening but thankfully I was with her ... she was taken to Hemel Hempstead General"
The bottom of Peter Lojko's world fell out.
Suddenly two years fell away and racing through the driving rain to get to the hospital.
His sister's words were racing around his head.
"It's mom ... she's had a big stroke ... she's in Watford General Hospital ... it looks bad ... please hurry"
Peter Lojko was in tears as he drove.
His mother had always been strong and independent but she had been frail and unwell in recents months.
"She's too young to go!" Lojko exclaimed.
He could see his mother's face smiling down at him as she gently brushed his face with her warm hand.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Tears had filled Peter Lojko's eyes as he stood outside the house of Margaret O'Reilly.
"Dear boy, why don't you join me for some tea" Aileen Cleary said softly as she placed a hand on his shoulder "My house is only across the road"
Lojko nodded silently.
Within ten minutes he was sitting in Aileen Cleary's modest but tasteful living room with its antique furniture.
She bought in the tea and Bourbon biscuits on a silver tray and poured it from a floral patterned china teapot into floral patterned china teacups.
Peter Lojko waited until Aileen Clear had settled down.
She resembled Margaret O'Reilly so much that they could have been sisters.
"Thank you for the tea" Lojko said.
"Don't mention it, son" Cleary replied "Visiting hours are from 4 pm and we can go together if you like"
"I'd like that"
Peter Lojko was already feeling much better in the company of the kindly Irishwoman.
"Have you always lived here?" He asked her.
"Now let me see ... I think it must have been 1975 when Patrick and I moved here and Margie had already been living in her house a year"
"You're good friends"
"My dear boy we worked at the Royal Free together as nurses and we became inseparable. My late husband always said we must be twins - two Irish lasses from Dublin!"
"I'm sorry about your husband"
"It's been ten years" Aileen Cleary sighed "God rest his soul"
She looked over at his picture on the mantelpiece.
A good looking square jawed man with wavy black hair, brown eyes and a fine moustache gazed out.
"I lost my mother to a massive stroke two years ago" Peter Lojko said sadly.
"It's still very early, son" Aileen Cleary told him gently as she patted his hand affectionately "God love her - she's in a much better place"
Lojko smiled sadly.
He felt like an orphan.
It was just he and his sister now, against the world.
The living had become very quiet but for the sound of the large ticking clock.
Cleary and Lojko silently sipped their tea.
It was the older Irishwoman who spoke first.
"She's a dark horse, our Margie"
A chill ran down Peter Lojko's spine.
But he didn't know why.
"I really think that we should contact her son in Germany if they haven't contacted him already" Lojko informed her.
Her face suddenly fell.
Aileen Cleary placed her teacup on the silver tray.
"My dear boy, Gustav has been dead for over thirty years now"
Peter Lojko felt as if a bucket of cold water had been tipped over his head.
The room was deathly silent save for the ticking clock.
Lojko's hands were shaking.
The teacup tumbled from his hand onto the floor.
"Oh I am sorry ..." he cried as he jumped up.
"Don't trouble yourself!" Aileen Cleary cried picked up the fallen teacup and placing it on the silver tray.
She disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with a little kitchen roll and effortlessly cleared up the tea stained carpet.
Peter Lojko was picturing Margaret O'Reilly during her lunch break at Earth Hand.
She was holding court and surrounded by a little audience hanging on her every word.
She was proudly regaling them with tales about her perfect son.
"My little Gustav"
The words rang through Peter Lojko's brain.
"It was a strange case" Aileen Cleary continued as she settled back in her chair "happened the year after we moved here. Apparently Gustav fell down the stairs and broke his neck"
Bile rose in Lojko's throat and he fought the urge to retch.
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"Nobody knows how it happened. he fell or was ... who knows"
Abby Jenkins words were crawling around his brain like a spider.
"She tried to murder me! Tried to push me down the stairs"
He squeezed his eyes tightly shut,
Margaret O'Reilly was just a dotty but harmless older lady.
"She tried to murder me!"
"Tried to murder me!"
It can't be true
"Are you sure you're okay, Mr Lojko?" Aileen Cleary asked him with a concerned expression on her face.
"I'm okay ... I'm okay .. I'm ...."
I'm going crazy
He took a deep breath.
"What about the husband?"
"There is no husband" Aileen Cleary replied "As far as I am aware, Gustav was the result of a fling with a German patient of hers"
"The mental hospital"
Lojko's hand shot to his mouth.
"I don't understand ..."
"Margie worked in a mental hospital before I met her and fell in love with one of the patients. She got pregnant and was so ashamed that she never returned to Ireland and that was why she stayed here"
The room had begun to spin and little sparks of light were darting across Peter Lojko's eyes.
"Are you alright, son?" Aileen Cleary asked "You look very pale"
He sprang to his feet and stumbled out of the living room and lurched towards the bathroom where he vomited into the sink.
At 4.30 pm Peter Lojko parked his silver Mini in the car park of Hemel Hempstead Hospital.
He had sufficiently recovered by now but he took a deep breath before following Aileen Cleary out of the car.
Margaret O'Reilly was full of unexpected surprises.
Aileen Cleary strode purposefully into the hospital.
Peter Lojko hurried behind her and as he rushed towards the hospital doors he collided with a young male nurse who was coming out.
Lojko watched as the medic's file flew into the air and a shower of papers rained down.
Lojko scrabbled to help him.
"I am so sorry!" He cried as he began to gather up the papers "Please excuse me!"
That was when Lojko suddenly noticed the young man's face.
Then he froze as if he had been turned to stone.
Time had stopped.
The young man who smiled at him was the same man as the one in Margaret O'Reilly's photograph.
The same blond hair.
The same sharp features.
The same startling blue eyes.
The same impassive stare.
"My little Gustav"
Peter Lojko remained rooted to the spot.
"Are you alright, sir?" The young male nurse asked "You look like you've just seen a ghost"
Then everything went black.
"Mr Lojko! Mr Lojko! Mr Lojko!"
Peter Lojko stirred.
Gradually he opened his eyes, squinting at the light.
He felt completely disoriented.
It was as if he were waking from a coma.
Margaret O'Reilly was smiling down at him.
Peter Lojko was slumped slightly in his leather chair in the storeroom.
"It's 5 pm, sleepy head!" O'Reilly informed him cheerily "You've been sleeping all afternoon so you have. But don't worry, I looked after the shop for you!"
"I'm sorry" Lojko groaned as he stretched.
His body ached and his head felt as if it had been held underwater.
"Well I can't stand around here talking" Margaret O'Reilly declared "My little Gustav is home again and he's waiting for me"
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