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The Kaleidoscope House

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Unfortunately, Anne Lister was in Halifax, West Yorkshire. Not Thailand, not Italy, not Antarctica. She was on her family’s farm, dozing off in front of the fireplace with her thumb tucked between the pages of a travel magazine. It was an issue published last year.

The flow of time felt slow here. Everything numbed her senses. The crackling of firewood, the wind rattling the old windows, and the creaking of her wicker rocking chair. The silence crept into her from under the fingernails. 

Peace made her suspicious. At her workplace, it told of a fat storm brewing under their nose. 

Her legs jerked just as she had fallen off a cliff in her dream. She thought she had heard a scream or the piercing sound of a whistle. But in the living room, the loudest thing was her own drumming heart. 

She looked around the room for a clock, but found none. The life on the farm didn’t seem to need a clock. The sky above the vegetable beds outside the window looked grey. She checked the time on her good ol’ smartphone. 

There were still a few hours, her phone said, until night fell. But Anne felt too restless to wait. She did not mind hitting the town early if the alternative was the anguish of boredom. She returned to her bedroom, where her duffle bags full of clothes sat on the floor. When she had come home to the farm, hope still haunted her that she might spontaneously get on a plane. That was one week ago. It might be time she gave up and unpacked.

She rummaged through the bags for nice clothes and got dressed. It was when Marian appeared in the doorway with her cat, Percy, rubbing against her legs.

“What are you dressing up for?”

“Going out,” Anne said. “I don’t mind pulling out vegetables all day, but having nothing to do is torture. And since we’re done for the day—”

“We aren’t done for the day. What are you, CEO of a mega-corporation?”

Anne frowned. “Didn’t you say we were done?”

“The fieldwork is done. I need you to deliver to a customer. You can go out later.”

They walked down the hallway and stepped into the cold storage outside the house. In there, several wooden crates with winter vegetables in them sat on racks. Turnips, broccoli, onions, beans and peas, asparagus, carrots, cabbages, and more. The air smelt of soil. Anne hated this smell as a teenager, believing it made her appear unsophisticated. 

“This one.” Marian pointed at the crate with assorted vegetables at their feet. 

Anne picked it up, carried it out of the storage, and loaded it onto the rear bed of their pickup truck. Marian handed her a piece of paper with a house address on it. 

“Ha,” Anne said. “It’s on Anne Lane.”

Marian gave a blank stare as though she had heard that joke a thousand times already. “It’s near a big car park. Two-storey house. Has a rainbow flag hung in the window. Only a colour-blind person can miss. Oh— And this.” She gave Anne some cash. 

“I’m getting paid for this?” Anne said with delightful surprise, which turned out to be short-lived.

“No. Buy some bread from her. Whatever she has is fine. She will refuse to take the money. Do not let her.”

If the woman, whoever she might be, refused it, Anne decided it would be her bonus. “Can I go out after that? After buying her bread?”

“Yes, but why do you want to go out? You’ve got no friends,” Marian said it with genuine confusion in her voice. 

Anne ignored her, stuffing the banknotes and memo into her pocket, and climbed into the car. 

As the car drove on the uneven roads, she reflected on the past week she had spent helping her sister around the farm, and wondered why she hadn’t chosen to go travel abroad instead. 

She shouldn’t have come back home. Her work had always kept her from pursuing her dreams, but she was on suspension now. Six months of suspension. A ridiculous, misguided decision made by her superior. It had thrown her off balance, so much so that going home had seemed like the only option for her then. 

Her mind was clear now. She didn’t want to spend the next six months in her shabby hometown. This is the opportunity she had always coveted. When she got home, she would tell Marian.

Her truck stopped at an intersection, at the end of Anne Lane. She looked around. If there was a house with a rainbow flag in the window, she had missed it. Making a U-turn on the deserted intersection, she drove back the street more slowly, with her head out of the clouds this time. 

The house turned out to be close to the other end of the lane. The rainbow flag was big, screening the entire window like blinds. It was a mystery how she had missed that, even in reverie. 

She parked the truck and rang the doorbell. The mouthwatering smell of fresh bread wafted in the air. While she unloaded the crate of vegetables, a shadow behind the flag caught her eye. The person lifted the rainbow flag a little and peeked out through the gap. Anne could only see their dark-skinned hand. A moment later, the door opened. A young white woman stood behind the door with a friendly smile.

But the woman faltered as soon as she saw Anne. Her eyes darted to the crate in her hands and then to the truck behind her. “Oh, you’re not Marian…” She seemed bashful. And very pretty.

“No, I’m her sister. Name is Anne.” 

The woman briefly looked at her lips. It reminded Anne that she had a cut on the upper lip that was healing. 

“Marian has told me a lot about you,” the woman said. “She told me last week that you were coming home.”

“She took the piss out of me, didn’t she? I know it.” Anne repositioned the crate in her arms. The edge of the wood was digging into her fingers.

The woman saw it and apologised with a troubled grimace. “I’ll take it. Let me take it.” She extended her arms.

“I can bring it in,” Anne said. “It’s rather heavy— Not to patronise you, though.”

With a quiet chuckle, the woman took a step back and invited Anne in. The smell of bread was thicker. Calm piano music came flowing from somewhere in the house. 

“I just remembered,” Anne said, “my sister wanted some of your bread.”

“Her favourite is banana bread. Every time she drops by, she asks for it.” 

The air in the kitchen felt warm, probably because of the oven. On the table sat trays of bread, golden and fluffy. 

The woman made a gesture at the corner closest to the doorway. There was another crate that looked identical to the one Anne held. It was empty. “Put it down here. Thank you.” 

Anne lowered it next to the empty crate. “Do I take this back, then?”

Nodding her head, the woman went to the table. She picked a brown paper bag and slid a whole loaf of banana bread into it. One strand of her hair seemed white and powdery, coated with flour.

Anne had assumed that whoever needed their delivery service, instead of coming to the farm or the farmers’ market, must’ve been old and frail. But the woman looked young, a decade younger than Anne herself, perhaps. About the same age as her sister. There was no ring on her left ring finger, though it was possible that she had taken it off to bake. Some people never wear a wedding ring to begin with. 

The woman handed the bread to her. It really was fresh out of the oven. The warmth of it travelled through her clothes as Anne cradled it within the crook of her arm.

“Splendid. How much do I owe you?” Anne pulled the banknotes out of her pocket.

“No, I shouldn’t take money from you.”

“Ah, yes. Marian warned me about that.”

“No, I really shouldn’t,” the woman said. “I always have to tell that to Marian. I always tell her it’s me that has to pay.”

“What do you mean?”

The woman blinked as though the question confused her. “It means—” Her hand drew circles in the air, reeling words into her mind. She just pointed at the crate of vegetables across the room. “Marian never lets me pay for them.”

“Huh.” Anne, though still clueless, had no choice but to put the money back into her pocket. 

With the empty crate on the truck, Anne said goodbye to the house. 

During the short drive back to the farm, she thought about the woman and remembered why she had chosen not to go travelling abroad. She had nobody to go with her. The world was too vast and beautiful not to share it with someone she loved. A sudden burst of loneliness clouded her heart. 

She had forgotten to ask the woman’s name. 

In the living room of their farmhouse, Marian expressed eloquently that she was pissed off.

“I’m pissed off, okay? I told you to give her the money even if she refused it.” She talked with a chunk of banana bread in her mouth.

“What could I have done?” Anne said from the opposite side of the table. “She didn’t even tell me how much it was.”

“How much do you think it is?”

Anne looked down at the fancy bread. She got a thick slice for herself. “I don’t know. Twenty pounds?”

It looked like the shot in the dark was way off-target. Her sister regarded her with disappointed annoyance. “What kind of place have you been living in that a loaf of bread costs that much?”

“London?”

“That’s a made-up place, I tell you. You are not the sister I used to know.”

“Why do you give vegetables away?”

“She has three kids to feed. That’s the least I can do.”

Anne coughed out a piece of bread that almost entered her airways. She took her time sipping her tea, sorting out her thoughts. “Three kids?” 

“Not hers biologically. No. They are all her foster kids. She dotes on all of them, though. The oldest one is in high school. The youngest one just turned five.”

It took some more moments for the information to sink in. “What’s her name? I forgot to ask her.”

“Ann, without an E. Ann Walker.”

“How well do you know each other?”

“We went to high school together, took some classes together. I knew her late aunt, too. That house used to be hers.”

So Ms Walker had grown up in this town. Anne had never noticed her before. “Do you know why she has that rainbow flag in the window? Is she married? Does she like women?”

Marian fixed her judgemental gaze on her. “What happened to your girlfriend?” She didn’t have a high opinion of Anne’s most recent girlfriend. And judging from the tone of her voice, her attitude had not changed. 

“We broke up,” Anne told a half-lie. 

“Do I want to know why?”

“No.”

Marian accepted the answer with a shrug and returned to the previous topic. “Her neighbours are a nosy bunch. Old-school, too. They think a woman her age must need a man. She sometimes goes out with some faceless, nameless wankers. But they all walk away eventually. Maybe she’s aromantic. She’s never asked me about my romantic life.”

“Not everyone is aromantic like you, Marian.”

“And not everyone is attracted to women like you, Anne.” 

They glared at each other but, understanding the futility of it, agreed to a truce between two queer people. Anne could never stay mad at her sister for long. Her face looked too absurd for any sort of seriousness, and she knew Marian thought the same of her.

Anne finished her slice of bread. “Am I wrong to want to look for true love in this town? I’m in my forties. I’m tired of heartbreaks.”

“Is romantic love the only true love?”

“Ugh, you know what I mean.” Anne sighed. “I can’t change what I want.”

Percy the cat jumped onto Marian’s lap and curled up in a ball. “You can never be just ‘happy enough,’ can you? You know what they say, good things come to those who wait. Isn’t that right, Percy?”

Anne chewed on that idea. Then, a light bulb went on in her head. “Romance runs away when I pursue it, therefore I should ignore it. Once it realises that it's being ignored, it'll come to me. How about that? A genius plan!”

Marian didn’t look impressed. “Congratulations. You just described a cat.”

Confused, Anne glanced at Percy. “He hates me. He hisses when I try to pet him.”

"You just met him a week ago. It’s not his fault.” Marian folded him against her body in a protective embrace. 

“So, what, I should actively seek it?” Anne said. “Just like I’ve always been doing?”

“Maybe. But not too aggressively. Desperation only attracts desperate people. And there are a lot of desperate people in Halifax. That much I know. The rest of the romance talk, I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Anne stood outside Ms Walker’s foster house the next afternoon. No truck today. The lane was close enough to go on foot when there were no vegetables to carry. From the opposite side of the street, Anne had the full view of the house. There was no smell of bread in the air. She didn’t know whether Ms Walker was home.

The curtains on the first floor were drawn, except for the two windows on the ground floor. One of them had the rainbow flag, and the other one had open blinds. On its glass, there was a sheet of paper put up. It had not caught her attention the previous day. She crossed the empty street for a closer look.   

It was a handwritten poster with hand-drawn flowers in the margin. 

*** 

Looking for someone to convert the attic.

We cannot afford to hire professionals, so the pay won’t be good. 

But we will cover the cost of any tools necessary. We can also cook for you. 

Call or knock on the door if you have questions.

***

There was a phone number at the bottom of the text. Anne looked up at the house again. It didn’t look new by any means, but not that decrepit, either— 

Something moved in the corner of her eye. She whipped her head around. A little far from where she stood, a black girl with a reusable shopping bag slung over her shoulder was giving her a suspicious stare. Neither of them made a move. Anne felt awkward. She never liked it when children stared at her as though they had never seen an adult before.

At last, the black girl took off her gigantic headphones and said, “May I help you?”

After initial confusion, Anne soon gathered that the girl must be one of the foster children that lived here. “I was just—” She pointed at the poster. “Looking at this. The attic needs remodelling. Do you know anything about this?”

“It just… needs to be turned into a bedroom. The floor is already insulated, though I don’t know how good their job is. They tried to do it themselves once before, but gave up, I guess. So, we just need the walls, paint job, the windows, maybe. Ern… Yeah.” 

Staying in the same spot, the girl averted her gaze from Anne’s as she spoke. And there was so much mumbling. Anne had to lean forward and read her lips, and still had to fill the blanks inside her head. 

“Okay, that sounds complicated. But I’m sure once I take a look, it won’t be so bad,” Anne said. “Is your mum home?”

At the same time the girl murmured something, the door between them opened a crack. Ms Walker smiled at Anne, took one step over the threshold, and smiled at the black girl on the other side of the door. 

“Oh, that was quick,” she said to the girl.

The girl made a one-syllable reply before entering the house. Then, Ms Walker’s attention returned to Anne.

“She was just telling me about the attic.” Anne pointed at the poster for the second time. “I think I can help.” 

Her blue eyes twinkled. “Really?”

“I’ve never done DIY before, but I’m a quick learner. My farm already has a lot of tools for it, too. Like drills and hammers, right?”

There was a moment then, where Ms Walker stared at her in a mesmerised manner. “Please, do come in,” she said.

The house smelt different from the day before, but the same calming piano music still seemed to reach every corner. On one wall of the hallway,  there were a bunch of Polaroid photographs of children. Ms Walker led her into the kitchen again. The black girl was putting groceries into the fridge and overhead pantry. 

The fridge had drawings and postcards on it. Ms Walker took a piece of paper that was almost buried under these things. She then looked at the black girl. “Eugénie, have you met Ms Lister before?”

The girl called Eugénie slowly turned around to face Anne, still not meeting her eyes. “Marian’s sister?”

“I am. Yes. Call me Anne.”

Eugénie cast a side glance at Ms Walker, who gave her an encouraging smile. “Eugénie Pierre. Pleased to meet you,” she said as if there was no pleasure in the world.

“The pleasure is mine,” Anne said.

Eugénie turned to Ms Walker. “Where are the kids?”

“Upstairs, taking a nap.”

Eugénie gave a nod, finished putting away the rest of the groceries, and left the kitchen without another word.

“She’s very shy,” Ms Walker said. “But she’s such a nice kid. I hope you’d come to love her as much as I do.”

The paper in Ms Walker’s hand was a colourful drawing of a bedroom. But before getting to work, Ms Walker put the kettle on. Anne walked around the kitchen while she waited. 

Everywhere she looked, she saw kids’ drawings. Uninterested, she paid no attention to them and stood in front of a notice board, the good ol’ cork kind. It had a sheet of paper with the house rules type-written on it. The three main rules were: 1) Look out for each other, 2) Be kind and honest, 3) No yelling. Other more minor rules included things like ‘sharing is caring’ and ‘apologise when you’re sorry’ and ‘keep your word.’ There was also ‘If somebody is speaking, listen’ with ‘including sign language’ hand-written in addition. 

Anne then walked out into the hallway to look at the Polaroids on the wall. There were a couple dozens of them, pinned in a row. She supposed they were photos of foster children that had ever stayed in this house. 

Each of them had a name and a date written in the bottom part. Some dates even went as far as twenty years ago. Those photos had weathered so much that the images of the children were unrecognisable, reduced to haunting shadows confined in grey squares. But they still had a place on the wall. The more recent photos had more colours. Their names and dates were written with colourful markers, as opposed to the black words on the old ones. Not only that, but the images also had colours. The first coloured photo was dated eight years ago. 

Anne spotted the photo of Eugénie near the left-hand end of the gallery. Her name was in purple. The date said she had only come to the house last year.     

Anne turned her head around when she sensed another presence in the hallway. The black girl, Eugénie, was again staring at her from a distance.

“Hey, it’s you, isn’t it?” Anne said. 

But in the split second her gaze was on the photo, Eugénie had walked away and up the stairs. It was fine by Anne. Very fine. She resumed her observation of the photos.

It soon came to her attention that there were two kids that had their photos taken more than once. One of them first appeared in the gallery three years ago. It looked like a regular boy. But the unusual part was that the child’s name was blacked out, and a girl’s name was written in orange above it. Eliza Washington. That was the name of the other child that also appeared a few times on the wall. They looked identical. Only, Eliza’s hair was longer, and after the appearance of Eliza, there was no more photo of the other child. They were the same child, Anne realised.

Ms Walker poked her head out from the kitchen. “Tea is ready.” But as she saw Anne in front of the photos, she came to stand next to her.

Anne tapped her finger on the photos of Eliza. “This child…”

“She loves to have her pictures taken. Begs me every time she comes back.” Ms Walker chuckled, though she ended it with a little sigh. 

“Is she trans?”

Ms Walker nodded. “I helped her choose her name while she was here. Her father wasn’t happy at first. Didn’t know how to handle it. Everything is fine now— Well, fine in terms of that, at least.”

“Where’s the father now?”

“In jail.”

They went back into the kitchen and had tea and homemade cookies. They tasted better than cookies bought in France, Anne commented.

“I’ve never been abroad,” Ms Walker said. “I’ve never been really outside Halifax, either.”

“I haven’t been able to travel since college, so my situation isn’t any better.”

“Marian told me before that you were a prison guard in London. Is that still what you do? She told me you got a suspension.”

Her reputation always preceded her. That was nothing new. But she wished her sister had kept her mouth shut about this. “Yes. We had a big argument the night I came back. She thinks I’ve done something stupid to get my arse suspended.”

“Is that why your lip is cut?”

That threw Anne off. 

Ms Walker frowned at it. “I’m sorry. That was rude. I’m— I’m sorry.”

“No.” Anne reached across the table for her hand. “I was just surprised. Nothing to apologise for. But, are you asking if Marian gave me the cut or…?”

Ms Walker shook her head, a tiny smile re-appearing on her face. “I know Marian would never do things like that. I meant, at work.” She squeezed Anne’s hand back.

Anne’s heart skipped a beat while her stomach dropped simultaneously. Keeping her cool, she ran the tip of her tongue over the scab on her upper lip. “Yes, at work.” She was used to inmates wishing her harm. But this one hit her differently. “To be honest, it’s only been two weeks, and my memory is still in a mess.”

“Okay.”

“Ask me again in a month. I might have found an answer by then.”

After finishing the tea, Ms Walker gave a quick tour around the house and led her upstairs. Quietly, because her kids were napping.

The attic hatch had a silver frame, very easy to find. Ms Walker opened it with a stick with a hook attached to one end. It opened creaking. The ladder that appeared had to be manually unfolded. It looked bulky, and Ms Walker’s thin arms looked too delicate to support the weight. Above their heads, darkness opened its mouth. 

Anne went up first. Once she secured her footing, she offered Ms Walker a hand, pulling her up. Her hand felt cold. The light from the open hatch wasn’t bright enough to reach their faces. In the relative darkness, they stood close to each other for a brief moment. 

The air was mouldy. The smell felt almost tangible in the back of her throat. Ms Walker bent down and picked up something. With a click, the flashlight in her hands lit up the place. The ceiling was much higher than Anne had expected. It was cold. Anne remembered Eugénie was saying something about insulation.

“We tried to do it ourselves once,” Ms Walker said. She shone the flashlight on the light bulbs that hung between the naked beams. “Hired an electrician to put up wires. But the bulbs were burnt out last time we checked. ”

Anne asked to see the ‘blueprint’ of the bedroom. It had green walls and ceiling, a tiny red bed, and a purple study desk. Next to the bed was a line drawn from ceiling to floor, and a squiggly arrow pointing at it and saying CLOSET.

“I think I can handle it,” Anne said. 

To be honest, Anne had no idea where to start or why she had even asked to see the blueprint. The place looked like an abandoned shed from an indie horror film. But her pride wouldn’t allow her to say no. This was her project now. She had to carry this through to the end. 

With her smartphone, she took pictures of the place for reference. Ms Walker followed her from corner to corner like a duckling. When they finished, they returned to the hatch.

“I need to go back to the farm,” Anne said. “Marian must be fuming. I told her I was just taking a short walk.”

After a quick nod, Ms Walker frowned. “I’m sorry it was so dirty here. I promise that there’ll be no dust when you start.”

They quietly descended downstairs. 

Ms Walker rushed into the kitchen and came back with a tiny paper bag. “Cookies for you and Marian. But tell her not to put more than one in her mouth at once. She’s nearly choked on them before.”

“So typical of her.” Anne snickered. “You’re too good for her, Ms Walker.”

Ms Walker gave a shy smile. “Call me Ann. Or Adney. That’s what the kids call me.” Next moment, however, her face clouded. “We forgot to discuss your payment.” 

“Let’s not decide it now. You haven’t seen my work yet,” Anne said with a sarcastic smile. “I might be a completely useless tit.”  

Adney put a hand on Anne’s, with the same gentleness Anne had shown earlier at the table. “I’m sure you’re very capable, Anne. I believe in you,” she said as if she was talking to a child. 

It didn’t sound patronising to Anne. Maybe because it came from her. Maybe because her cheeks flushed a little.

“I should let you go now, shouldn’t I?” Adney withdrew her hand, grabbed Anne’s coat off the rack, and helped her put it on. “I’m glad I know you. I mean, we’ve only met once. This is our second time. But I know Marian, and she tells me about you all the time. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I’m sorry if I made any rude comments today.”

Anne couldn’t help but smile at her. “You didn’t. I’m excited to get to know you better.”

“I was feeling unsure about the poster. I don’t know what I would’ve done if some stranger had offered to help.”

“I’m glad I was taking a walk, then.” Anne winked before leaving the house.

Once on the pavement, she took a moment to adjust her scarf and coat collar. The blinds on the window swayed slightly, and she saw Adney take down the poster. 

That night, Anne received a text from an unknown number. It was Adney, who had gotten her number from Marian.

Adney: I wanted to make sure Marian isn’t cross with you. I told her it was my fault you got home late.

Anne replied, Wasn’t your fault. She’s alright. She ate most of the cookies.

Adney: She said you had a fight again.

Only bickering. Told her I’d be fixing your house, and she got worried I might slack off my farm work. 

Anne had also accused her sister of telling every person in the town about her suspension. 

Adney: Oh my God. I’m so sorry.

Don't apologise. She understands. I’m doing research on attic conversion now. Will go borrow more tools from my neighbour tomorrow. How does this Sunday sound?

Adney: Sounds good. 

Adney: Would you like to have lunch with us? We can get to work after that.

If you insist :)

Adney: I do. The kids can’t wait to see you. 

Anne had forgotten about the kids, and this reminder produced ambivalent feelings in her. Children were not her field of expertise. A shortcoming that mainly came from inexperience. The life she had led so far hadn’t offered many opportunities to interact with them. 

But the farm life was so monotonous. It would drive her nuts if her only conversation partners were her sister and the cat. The choice was between Marian and the kids. There didn’t seem to be any difference at all.