Will shifted restlessly, throwing another glance at the locked bathroom door. His fingers itched to tap-tap-tap his nerves away, a terrible habit that his mother despaired of, and he pulled out his phone instead. Another five minutes had passed. Surely, it must have been long enough by now.
He raised his hand to knock, but his knuckles froze against wood as he heard the click of the lock. He stepped back, almost tripping over his heels in his haste and the door swung open. Nell stood before him, her hair tangled into clumps like she’d been clutching it between her hands.
Nell shook her head, shoving something hard and plastic into his hand as she brushed passed him. Will looked down. One line.
“Talk to your mother,” Nell said, and the bedroom door swung closed behind her with a deafening click.
Will’s mother lived in a small, one-bedroom maisonette attached to a large Victorian house that had long since fallen into disrepair. Will didn’t know why she still lived there. The deed to the main house was hers, she could have moved in at any point. Instead, she chose to live in its cramped shadow, complaining of the lack of room.
The house had not always been empty. Will remembered neighbours, when he was very small. A thin woman, who always wore a rope of pearls around her neck and would turn pale when she saw Will’s mother in the garden. A man with hunched shoulders who would never meet their eyes. A baby who cried and cried and cried until it never cried again. Will had been five, perhaps, the last time he saw them, the woman dressed in black sitting in the passenger seat of their car as she waited for her husband. She had caught sight of Will climbing the stone wall at the edge of the garden and her face had twisted with such visceral hate that he’d lost his grip, tumbling down onto the grass below. The car had driven away, and Will had never seen them again.
Will took in a deep breath. His hand, he noticed, trembled slightly where it was resting on the wooden gate. He forced himself to swing it open and stepped through. The garden had become more overgrown since he last saw it and tangled weeds snagged against his ankles as he moved through them. He shifted, getting a better hold on the box he was carrying in case he tripped Halfway to the house he met someone coming the other way. The man was perhaps a little older than Will, wearing a suit that was well tailored but crumpled, and well-polished shoes of cracked leather. His hands were empty, and he wouldn’t meet Will’s gaze as they sidled past each other.
Will’s key still worked, and the door creaked open into the hall of his childhood home. The walls were filled with knickknacks, with paintings hung with pride, dozens of shelves and old display cabinets creating a narrow maze into the house. Everything was covered in a thick layer of dust, making the priceless treasures look worthless. One window had finger-streaks through the grey, Will assumed from Mother’s most recent visitor, and through the gloom he could see the gleaming green of a Faberge egg.
His mother was in the kitchen, her back to the door. It was the least cluttered room in the house, though there were piles of folded brown paper stacked by the back door, with a haystack of rough brown string half piled on top, tumbling halfway down to the floor. His mother didn’t look up as he came in. Will hadn’t expected she would. He made his way round to sit opposite her. There was glistening broach in her hands, and two cups of tea on the table in front of her. As Will sat, the broach disappeared into one of her many pockets, and with one arm she carelessly swept the paper it had come in onto the floor. She took a deep sip of tea and finally looked up at Will.
“Still married to the bitch, then?”
“Mother,” Will objected, fingers twitching against the box in his hands. His Mother’s gaze darted down at the move, a disapproving frown twitching across her lips and Will forced his fingers still.
“Nell has asked me to bring you something,” Will said, carefully placing the package on the table between them. “A gift.”
His mother cackled. “I bet she has.” She reached out, greedy hands pulling the box closer and out of nowhere came a glimmer of silver as she slit the thread with a knife. The paper around it fell away with a gentle sigh, revealing a dark blue box.
“It was her mother’s,” Will said, as his mother lifted the lid.
Inside was a statue of a horse, in stunning detail. It was reared back on its hind legs, mane tossed back in an imaginary wind, throwing the dozen silver bells braided through it into stark relief. They were real silver, and real bells, and they chimed gently as his mother lifted it out of the box and tilted it too and fro. She hummed dismissively and Will winced.
“Drink your tea,” she said, putting the horse back into the box and pushing it firmly back across the table towards him. She picked up her own cup, twisting her wrist so the liquid swirled and in the ripples that formed, for a snatch of a second, Will saw Nell in the dark surface, curled up in their bed and weeping. His mother smiled.
Will flinched, picking up his own cup in both hands, his wedding ring cold as ice around his finger.
Will was waiting outside the bathroom door again. He flicked restlessly through social media, his thumb pausing over a new story about the latest lottery win. He recognised the man, even in his newer, fancier suit. He hoped the price would turn out worth the prize.
Time, it seemed, went even slower than it had the last time. But this time he heard Nell’s shattered sob through the door, and knew the answer before it opened. Her eyes were red and brimming with tears, but she stepped back from the cradle of his arms as he reached for her. She shook her head once and disappeared into the bedroom. As she shut the door behind her Will barely managed to catch sight of her crumpling over, a broken keen tumbling from her lips. And then the lock flicked shut.
He didn’t see anyone on the path to his mother’s home the next time. It was less overgrown, though barely – some of the bushes had been trimmed back, but the weeds and grass had been left to run wild. As a child, Will had loved playing in the overgrowth. He had tunnelled his way through grass that hung high over his head, imaging explorations and knight and dragons and danger. When he was ten, his hand had sunk through nothing, dirt crumbling beneath his fingers as he had tumbled halfway into an old fox earth. It was abandoned, filled with the tiny bones of rabbits and squirrels and birds, half crushed beneath his weight. He had felt something cold beneath his fingertips and dug until he unearthed a string of pearls, tangled in brown thread and twisted into a tight knot. Thoughts of buried treasure running through his head he had picked at the thread with his nails, coarse fibres digging into the soft flesh beneath them until the string had finally snapped. The pearls unwound, and a dozen tiny white teeth had spilled into his palm. He had screamed, and thrown them into the dirt, running back into the house.
He’d never explored the garden again.
The house was exactly the same, though the cupboard with the egg in had reaccumulated it’s missing dirt, its insides lost behind grime once more. His mother was back in the kitchen. He wondered if she ever left it anymore or just sat there, waiting for people to come to her.
She didn’t speak when he sat, and he picked up the waiting cup of tea, grimacing at the flecks of white swirling on top. It was too bitter. It was always too bitter, and lukewarm.
“I have something for you,” he said, placing a box the size of an envelope on the table between them. “It’s from Nell. It was her grandmother’s.”
A flash of silver and the package was unwrapped, the lid removed to reveal an absolutely breath-taking necklace. It was gold, twisted like a rope with one large, tear-drop shaped ruby hanging down. Nell had been wearing it when they met, the gold dancing off her glistening skin. She had told him about it, a gift from her grandfather that her grandmother had never taken off, even for Saturday morning cartoons, dressed in pyjamas and fuzzy dressing gowns. She had told him how she would one day give it to a daughter of her own and Will had almost fallen in love right then and there, an image of the three of them in his head, Nell and him and a little girl that shared both their features bundled up together in a warm and friendly home.
His mother hummed unhappily, pushing the box back with the very tip of one finger, as though it were diseased.
“Drink your tea,” she said, swirling her own and Will caught a glimpse of Nell’s face, closer than a camera and catching every tear that slid down her cheeks. Anger flashed white hot and blistering through Will’s chest.
“Do you really hate her that much?” he demanded nails biting crescent moons into his palms. “I would have thought you wanted me to have children.”
His mother raised one eyebrow. She had never been fond of his emotional outbursts. Even when he was a child. “You can have children,” she said. “Just not with her. Drink you tea, Will. I won’t have this conversation again.”
Will drank his tea. It didn’t drown the flames in his chest.
Will sat outside the bathroom door, back pressed against the wall and hands against his knees. The sun was setting outside the window, beautiful oranges and pinks that would have taken his breath away if he were in any state to enjoy them.
The door swung open and his head shot up. Nell was stood there, framed in that same stunning orange. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her hair haloed with light. Her hand was fisted around the pregnancy test, hard enough that the plastic had cracked. She glared at nothing for a long moment, and then threw the test on the floor. Even broken, the single line stood out like neon light. Will looked away.
“Come on,” Nell said, grabbing his hand and pulling him into the bedroom. “I have an idea.”
The year Will had spent away from his mother’s house had not been kind to it. The garden, always overgrown, had suffocated beneath the weight of its own greenery, a tangled snarl of plant matter – grass, weeds, bushes, and trees indistinguishable from each other.
Inside there were new treasures on the shelves, not yet subsumed by the layer of grey that covered everything else. A family photo in a silver frame – smiling faces that Will had never seen in his life – a child’s drawing, a cluster of delicate porcelain teacups their delicate rose pattern already smudged and faded in the gloom.
His mother waited in the kitchen. The chair screeched as he sat. The tea was cold. Will drank it in three long swallows, ignoring the grit of leaves and dirt beneath his teeth as he slammed it back onto the table. There was a string of pearls wrapped around his mother’s throat and looked at them instead of her face as he pulled a slim brown package out of his pocket and placed it on the table between them.
His mother laughed. “They get smaller every time,” she said, and her knife flashed, cutting the string. The paper fell away, and the knife clattered loudly as it hit the table. For a long time, his mother stared down at the thin square of paper revealed.
“What is this?” she demanded. Will smiled.
“An invitation,” he said, leaning forward and resting his hands on the table. One landed on the handle of the knife. “To the Christening,” he tacked on. “I thought you might like to meet your grandson.”
“Impossible,” his mother snarled. “Impossible. I made it so you couldn’t – so she could never –”
She snatched up her teacup, swirling the brown liquid. Nell’s image flickered across the surface and Will let his face twist in a soft smile. Nell was smiling, incandescent as she smiled down into a bundle of blankets and singing softly – words that Will couldn’t hear but could see forming on her lips. She rocked the child in her arms, and the blankets shifted just enough to see soft skin and a closed eye.
“Impossible,” his mother snarled again, and the image shifted to some place dark. He caught a glimpse of brown thread, spread out in a web of knots and lines. “The nine-witch knot is still in place. How could you possibly have a child? With her?”
“I am your son,” Will said with a smile, “I picked up a few things.” He stood up, tucking his hands into his pockets. “it’s RSVP, so let us know if you’re coming, we’ll make sure there’s a place for you.”
His smile grew wider as he left, but he waited until he had turned the corner of the street before he broke into a run.
Nell was waiting in their bedroom, and she looked up as he burst in.
“Well?” she demanded, jumping to her feet and dropping the blanket-wrapped doll onto the bed.
Will grinned, holding up the knife he had stolen from his mother’s table. “Found it,” he said and dropped to his knees, rolling under the bed. The woven tangle of strings were tied so close beneath the bedframe that they were almost impossible to see in the darkness. It was mostly by feel that he found each knot, cutting them free until all he felt beneath his fingers was smooth wood.
He wriggled back out, knife in one hand and a bundle of frayed thread in the other.
This time, when he smiled at Nell, she beamed back.
Time had never crawled so slowly, Will mused, hands tap-tap-tapping a rhythm on the wall behind him as he stared fixedly at the bathroom door. Surely it must have been long enough. How long could it take?
The sound of the lock clicking open was deafening, and Will’s whole body froze as the door swung open. Nell was stood there, eyes red rimmed and Will’s stomach dropped. He started forwards, words trying and failing to rise to his lips, and when he held out his arms Nell threw herself into them with a delighted laugh. Something plastic clattered against the floor as Will felt tears soaking into his collar. He looked down.
‘Two Lines’ is based off of one of Child’s ballads ‘Willie’s Lady,’ which tells the story of a king who married against his mother’s wishes and whose wife was subsequently cursed by her mother-in-law.
Francis James Child was an American folklorist who is perhaps most well-known for his collection of English and Scottish ballads, of which ‘Willie’s Lady’ is one. Many, though not all, of these ballads contain magical or supernatural elements, such as the witch-mother who cursed Willie’s bride.
The actual curse of the ballad was not infertility as it appears in this modern re-imagining, but instead that Willie’s wife would fall pregnant but – despite the passing years – be unable to birth the babe, trapped in perpetual pregnancy that would eventually take her life. In Child’s ballad, the idea of creating a fake infant to trick the mother-in-law to revealing the manner of the curse came not from the wife, but from a friendly household spirit named Billy Blind who appears in other Child ballads as a benevolent advisor.