Missing the Painted Lady

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic

What happens when dreams fly away?

Submitted: December 20, 2017

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 20, 2017



The cabbage white breezed from purple Buddleia to tangled bramble in the pale afternoon light.

It was the middle of summer, but the day felt cool to the touch and that morning's dew still lay draped across the garden, glinting like strings of iridescent pearls. It seemed surprising the butterfly had enough warmth in its wings, beating a path from the silky efflorescence of each velvety bud; its white silhouette, like a triangle of delicate lace. And the Hibiscus white of its gentle shimmer contrasted sharply against the riot of colour splayed out across the garden; over cracked, weed filled path, verdant green lawn, furrow and bank, ditch or cleave, all the way up to the rickety white fence presumed to be a border.

All of the flowers swayed and danced in the wind that swept in from the hillside: poppy, water mint, yellow iris, white clover and many more fighting their way through thick cleaver, sneezewort and common chickweed. This same wind blew the thick curtain at the window of the cottage, a window open just a fraction, the flap and swirl of the polyester like a rag doll's excited legs. A woman, whose name is Kathleen, sits in a Victorian easy chair, her large feet set firmly on a scored pine chest, looking through the glass, watching silvery beads of condensation ripple into the corners of the frame. She wears large brown bifocal glasses over heavy eyebrows, and her long hair, grey and brittle, hangs over her broad shoulders like the tough bristles of a yard broom.

She shifted slightly as the light changed outside, and shadows unfurled across her wallpaper like tall thin men with exceedingly long necks. On the wall opposite was a picture of a male Queen Alexandra's birdwing in an ostentatious gilt frame. The sharpness of the gold picked out the lustrous green/blue streaks of his wings. The largest in the world she muttered to herself and then jumped.

By the white fence, a little girl with a helmet of blonde hair stood motionless, fingertips clutching the cracked paint. Ordinarily, Kathleen would have stood, rushed into the hall and flung open her canary yellow door, but not today. The girl watched her, without even a hint of blush in her cheeks, and Kathleen stared back, wondering what she wanted. Hannah, she believed her name was, lived the other side of the river with her mother and father and a dog called Mike. Had a three-bedroom white-washed house and rectangle of paved drive, no foliage to be seen. She remembered all those years ago, arriving on the River Tweed herself: the green rolling hills and abundant fields and she closed her eyes with a sigh and Hannah blessedly disappeared.

Two days later, Hannah stood in her kitchen looking up at her mum. 'I miss the butterfly lady' she said. Her mum had slices of doughy white bread on a wooden chopping board and a jar of peanut butter in her hand. The peanut butter had been left in the fridge, so her mum was prodding it fiercely with a silver knife.

'I know, sweetheart. I've not seen her either, but it's the summer festival soon, and she always makes an appearance.'

'Do you think she is sad?' Hannah had peeped into the lady's house when she wandered home from school the day before. The house wasn't really on the way home, but no one noticed her going the wrong way across the bridge in her blazer. The lady had been sitting on an old chair, staring out of the window. Her wallpaper was busy with Brown Argus and her eyes had a faraway look in them, and Hannah wondered whether Brown Argus and her had flown away somewhere together.

'It has been hard for her of late, especially since Burt,' Hannah's mother said. Hannah had stopped listening, and her mum's voice made her start. 'Ah not listening again I see, always away with the fairies.' Her mum laughed, cut the fresh bread, handed her daughter a triangle of sandwich and said, as much to herself, ‘It's hard being alone.'

Hannah wondered where the butterflies had gone because if they were here, the butterfly lady wouldn't be alone.


Twenty years earlier, just before the swallows arrived in the south, a steam train ploughed into a station in a cloud of hot steam and tumbling smoke, ushering away pigeons that plodded along the floor like wearied old men. Kathleen McClean of Kingussie waved enthusiastically at the driver in his smart uniform, picked up her belongings and boarded the train. She carried with her: a white parasol, a white heart shaped carry case and a tall rectangle box, mysteriously covered in a piece of pristine white silk embroidered with an array of tiny bright butterflies.

She stepped off the train at midnight. The village lay pitched in darkness, except for fingers of silvery fog curling around chimney pots and the luminescent gleam of one or two stars in the black, anonymous sky. She stood still and listened.  The only sounds were the river winding itself through the soul of the valley and a bird quipping sleepily in a tree. Carrying her precious box, she manoeuvred herself along the winding footpaths, whipped by the breeze blowing in from the water, and the tang of salt, wafting from a faraway sea. The box needed to be held firmly with two hands, so she hung her carry case on one wrist, her parasol on the other and followed the sway of the river. Her home sat behind a steep grassy knoll, bordered on all sides by tall Scots pine. The grass of the knoll, never being cut, had grown native, filled with a rich fanfare of flowers and now bees and butterflies flittered contently in and out of their nectar filled gems.


Once inside, she uncovered the box, inspected its contents with a steady eye. It seemed they had survived the journey. Wanting to celebrate, she placed the kettle onto a flickering flame and placed the box somewhere quiet and safe. She drank Lady Grey in fine bone china, then opened her case and plucked out a tape measure. Then in a curious fashion and with an excited flourish it must be said, she began measuring all of her doors and recording the measurements in a turquoise notepad, adorned with pearl-bordered fritillary. Finally, with a frown, she perched on the edge of a chair and pondered out loud about the appropriate size of mesh cages, considered how much issue paper and balls of string were required and thought of where she could possibly find common milkweed. Her face looked perplexed for a moment before with an energetic bounce, she yanked open her front door on a bright fresh morning, and left in a hurry for town, with a large shopping bag and a scarf decorated with cabbage white.

The village where Kathleen lived had a summer festival every year, hopefully when the sun felt gracious enough to bathe the proceedings in warm summer gold. At the end of spring, fliers flew through creaky letterboxes and people would put on their best faces and march off to see how they could help. Each villager would be given a job, often the same one as the year before if their efforts were deemed satisfactory. They then, for about six weeks, would excitedly go about with occupied frowns and a firm step, collecting wood for the bonfire, choosing fireworks, procuring prizes for the raffle, sorting out fancy dress, inviting an important person, purchasing burgers and hot dogs and arranging the boat race. Strangely, one well known resident didn't turn up that year and the space her absence created heaved with concern. Villagers nudged each other until like Chinese whispers, all the nudges had been passed along rows of houses and everyone knew the butterfly lady had not turned up and a few other random things as is the way with whispers.

'She's not been the same since, Burt,' someone shouted over the noise of the Bingo hall one evening a few days later.

'I'm glad he's gone,' a man piped up and thumped his pint glass on the bar.

A woman shouted, 'Off with his head' then smiled weakly when everyone stared at her.

'But what can we do?' a thin man shouted and rubbed a tuft of beard battling to stay on his face. The rubbing seemed to clear his mind and he added 'we need to do something. I've been round there. She won't let me in or let herself out.'

'My Hannah had an idea,' Sarah tried to interject as she watched the bingo caller stroke his microphone in preparation. She hated speaking in public so tended to whisper then get frustrated when nobody listened

'What was that?' Majorie boomed. Majorie had once been shy so now liked to bellow at anyone who seemed self-conscious.

'I said....oh it doesn't matter.' Sarah muttered, both her cheeks now turning scarlet.

No one knew who Burt was or even what happened. They surmised he must have been a lover or a fellow fanatic or maybe just an over-zealous odd job man, but they didn't know for sure. He had kept himself to himself, clad in his old stained overalls, mud-caked boots, and Tweed flat cap and as the butterfly lady always did the same – the most anyone knew of her was she liked Heinz baked beans and a cucumber sandwich, of course, not together, – it was difficult to fathom the facts. Not that this stopped anyone from fashioning ideas together, the currency in any village is often gossip and speculation.

The festival began but the butterfly lady didn't appear. Normally she would arrive in a long flowing silk tunic, decorated with an exquisite atlas of butterflies. Her long purple hair would be piled up on top of her head, kept in place with a hand-painted duke of burgundy. On her feet, there would be a pair of satin white shoes with a single speckled wood on each toe.  Her legs would be clad in white stockings, lined with rows of small tortoiseshell and above her head, a delicate white parasol festooned with beautiful orange monarchs. She would wander around, throwing confetti butterflies at the crowds, and offering small brooches and cards to the children and always the children would rush out and cling to her knowing all too well the magic she represented.  

'I don't think the butterfly lady has any butterflies any more,' Hannah said to her parents one evening, as she chomped away on a broccoli floret, and watched the rain slide down the window.

'None at all, why ever not?' her father asked. He didn't bother with village life, said he had important work outside of the village to do, but still he pressed his ear into every snippet of gossip.

'I don't know, but there are none in her house.'

'Have you been?' Her mum ate her food demurely, putting perfectly square pieces of roast parsnip into her mouth.

'I peered in, she looks sad and she wasn't even wearing her clothes.'

'No clothes?' Who is his woman?' Her father prodded his wife with his fork leaving spots of ketchup on her thin wrist.

'She doesn't mean naked, Bob. She means not dressed normally,' his wife snapped and wiped her arm impatiently with a napkin.

'Can I have my pocket money early?'

'You've had this months.'

'But Dad, I need to buy something really important.'

'I don't care, I am not a millionaire.'

'Mum, please tell him, I need a butterfly kit. I really need one.

Behind the canary yellow door, magic occurred. Not the sort involving spells, wands or flying carpets, not the sort involving broomsticks, potions or bunnies pulled from a felt hat but the sort involving hundreds of wings, because Kathleen McClean of Kingussie kept a house full of butterflies. All those years before, beneath the silk sheet, in her rectangle box, she had been protecting tiny furry caterpillars. She had kept butterflies from a young girl, much to the consternation of her parents, who constantly bargained with her to have 'normal' pets. We will buy you a gerbil or a hamster they would shout as she stood in her room, the air undulating with the frenetic flutter of wings. 'I will buy you two goldfish' her father once yelled and then as an afterthought said, 'or even a mouse’, which made her mother scream and collaspe in horror. 'God' her mother whined, after she'd composed herself with a pink hankie and a few deep breaths 'you can even have a snake or a spider if you wish' then she fell back into her chair whilst all the blood drained from her face. Kathleen's answer would always be a steadfast no - as they dragged her past run-down pet shop after run-down pet shop, all crammed to the rafters with life lived out in blunt small cages, posters pinned to the greasy windows, offering buy one goldfish, get one free.

People found out about her butterflies and began coming along to her cottage and winding themselves around her walls in long, impatient queues. When she finally let them in, their faces would be pink with joy as a symphony of butterfly wings thrummed the humid air and their delicate bodies spun into a dazzling kaleidoscope of colour. Kathleen called it her butterfly ballet, as she watched people twirling round and around, pirouetting on their toes, arms outstretched, faces bathed in childlike contentment.

'What's this about butterflies?' Clive asked. Clive had the wayward beard. He had come to Hannah's house to talk to her father about insurance for his cat, John. Hannah's father dealt specifically with car insurance, but Clive didn't seem to mind.

'They will become painted ladies and I want to take them to the butterfly lady.'

'It's a grand idea. I had been wondering what the answer could be. Maybe we should all buy a kit.'

'They don't live for long, so the more she has, the better, ' her mother said.

'We will be inundated with butterflies, though,' her father snapped. 'It will be like Daphne Du Maurier's, The Birds.' Her father liked to pretend to read.

'Hitchcock, surely?' Clive remarked. Hannah noticed his beard was so small; it only covered the left-hand side of his face.

'Never mind, are you going to buy a kit, Clive?'

Clive stroked his beard, thoughtfully, and nodded, then quickly stalked out of the house without his insurance.

Kathleen sat up in bed, drinking camomile tea from a china cup, dreaming of her butterflies. She knew they wouldn't have survived but still she imagined them like flower petals, picking out their flight on the ivory keys of the wind. She had been cross, but he hadn't meant to leave the door open. He'd been trying to help her with leaf spot on her milkweed and the monarchs had flown up and out in a blazing sweep of orange. She closed her eyes and felt tears rise up, a sob trapped in her throat. Fanning her face, she tried to pull herself together, much like pulling a string on a wash bag and lay down on her damp pillow. They may have all gone, but she kept the cottage boiling hot, just in case a new butterfly should appear.

The next morning, rather early, her jaunty bell rang out through the cottage. She heard muffled voices and what sounded like a faint whoop outside. She got up, tired and sluggish, put on her navy-blue dressing gown and stuffed her feet into a pair of black moccasins.  With a protracted sigh, she opened her door.

'Hi!' a little girl cried.

'Can I help you?'

'Can we come in?'

'I would rather you didn't.'

'But we've got something for you,' the two girls chorused. They held a tall, rectangle shaped box between them, covered in a piece of raggedy cloth. One of the girls was Hannah, with her bright bobbed hair and a huge toothy smile.

Kathleen scratched her head 'What is it you want?' she asked. They didn't answer but stormed quickly towards her and into her house, like robots she thought, as she wobbled on one leg, holding onto the wall, watching them disappear into her very own living room. They didn't even wipe their feet she noticed.

'Now look here' she began to say crossly, but then out the corner of her eye, something fluttered. She rushed forwards and there, in her living room, on the table, was a butterfly house.

'They are painted ladies' Kathleen exclaimed, breathlessly and began to walk round and around, on tiptoe, her face pink with joy. 'It's so lovely for you to show me.'

Sarah, standing in the doorway, stepped forward and took the butterfly lady's hand in her own. 'There are lots more; we all bought a butterfly kit. Everyone in the village.'

'Whatever for?' Kathleen said and stared at the butterflies beating their tender wings like a beautiful symphony. 

'Because we want you to return to us.'

'I don't know what to say?'

'Will you come to the last day of the festival?'

'I haven't been out in such a long time, though but..yes, yes, yes I will. Oh gosh, look at me' she groaned as she caught sight of her reflection in a mirror. 'I must sort myself out.'

'We want you to come as the butterfly lady' the children shouted and danced around the room excitedly, as more people, big and small, walked through the canary yellow door, with their own painted ladies and placed their houses down for all to see.


And in the gentle beat of all those butterfly wings, Kathleen McClean of KinGussie smiled, for the first time in along time and went to find her dress.




© Copyright 2020 Henrietta M Ross. All rights reserved.

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