Stella hates Tuesdays. Her grandmother, Alice Eva, died on a Tuesday. Now Stella must hang a rope around Alice Eva’s bed and let strangers in to mutter and fret, “Lovely needlework this, Gill.”

“Please stay this side of the rope,” Stella says.

In the music room, the suspended ceiling’s coming down, one moulded peak at a time, plaster peppering the boards. All is sag and warp.

Alice Eva danced there, long yesterdays ago, the hem of her gown frowsy with dust, head high, flashing a smile and her best diamonds, long gone now, sold like so much else to patch the cracks in the cornicing and keep the ceilings up, and for what? So strangers can tramp through, pointing at the beds, remarking on the magazines Stella sometimes forgets to tidy, a slip-slide of Sunday glossies, “Look, Gill, they read the Times just like Martin!”

“Stay this side of the rope,” Stella pleads.

Oh, Alice Eva! In your primrose silk, lilac blossom between gloved hands, your eyes fierce as a first frost, laughter brimming over on your lips.

Stella’s kept the petals from those flowers, crisp as cinders in a drawer, and the gloves, under glass where visitors can admire them. She’s not to touch now, the insurance company insists. These things are part of the assets of the house. Stella’s grandmother was not famous but her home is old and the public will pay money to see a little of life as it was once lived.

Alice Eva’s past is an asset, and a liability.

Stella is not to touch the gloves or the little bits of ratted brocade she played with as a child, the beads and brushes, ivory elephants, paper fans. It’s all roped off, under glass.

Once a month, on a Wednesday when it’s safe, Stella shuts herself up in Alice Eva’s room.

She sits on her grandmother’s bed and pulls the kidskin gloves onto her hands, working the ebony hook the way she was taught, one buttonhole at a time, dressing herself to the wrists in a time when Alice Eva danced on floors that dipped and rose, the house like a sea around her, shifting and shining to her smile.

Sarah Hilary  won the Fish Historical-Crime Contest with Fall River, August 1892, and has two stories in the Fish anthology 2008. She was a runner-up in the Biscuit Short Story Contest 2008. MO: Crimes of Practice, the Crime Writers’ Association anthology, features Sarah’s story, One Last Pick-Up. Her work appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Literary Fever, Every Day Fiction, Ranfurly Review and Zygote in my Coffee. Sarah blogs at http://sarah-crawl-space.blogspot.com/.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Lamia Van Marle

    Really lovely. So poignant. “eyes fierce as a first frost’ – that was a wonderful line.

  • Thanks, Lamia, I’m very glad you liked it.

  • FrancesG

    Great story, Sarah! I love all the plasterwork and other detail.

  • Anna

    Terrific stuff.

  • Thanks, Anna!

  • Poignant and evocative, Sarah. We all yearn, from time to time, for “life as it was once lived”, don’t we?


  • Thanks, KC, I’m glad it worked for you.

  • Gerard Demayne

    Definitely evocative but I got the impression we were meant to feel pity for this tragic figure stuck in the past. Wouldn’t you just love to shake her and tell her to get on with her life?

  • Thanks, Gerard, I’m happy for you to give her a shake if that’s the response you had to the story. I definitely wasn’t attempting to evoke pity, simply to paint a picture which would move the reader in whatever way he/she chose. “Always leave elbowroom for the reader” is my motto!

  • Justine

    I particularly love this last bit:
    “Alice Eva danced on floors that dipped and rose, the house like a sea around her, shifting and shining to her smile.”
    That a house can come alive when lived in is just lovely.

  • Thank you, Justine! I rewrote that ending just before it was finally accepted by Jordan and Camille, so it’s especially good to hear that you liked it.

  • Shezan

    The past is another country, of Alice and Eve, girl and woman, glimpsed across the velvet rope of memory. Wonderful evocation.

  • Thank you, Shezan, for that wonderful response!

  • Gerard Demayne

    ““Always leave elbowroom for the reader” is my motto!”

    Good attitude.

  • Beautiful. Rich in poetic images.

  • Thanks, Bill.

  • Lovely images, Sarah. The pen as a paintbrush.

    You can smell the dust and the old fabrics. Absolutely wonderful.

  • Thank you, John! “The pen as a paintbrush” – I love that.

  • gay

    This evoked in me memories of reading Faulkner’s “A Rose for Miss Emily.” Don’t know why exactly but that’s where my elbow room led me. I wish I could give you a 10.

  • Thanks, Gay. I hadn’t heard of that story but will seek it out now.

  • “the hem of her gown frowsy with dust,” frowsy 🙂 I just love that word – as I just love the entire story, Sarah.

  • Thanks, Oonah!

  • jennifer walmsley

    What a lovely story; a real sense of place and time.


  • Thank you, Jennifer, I really appreciate the time everyone is taking to read and comment on this story.

  • Beautifully phrased with a light hand. I like the openness of the story. It’s a nice contrast to the traps that keep Stella locked in place.

  • Thank you, Greta, I much appreciate the feedback.

  • Brilliant, gorgeous, evocative. It also reminds me very much of the historic estate where my wife worked. An estate of two famous actors. When she first began work–she was the first employee–the place had just been bought and saved from wrecking. All the couple’s things were there–couches, brushes, beds, (even Laurence Olivier’s) everything. At first we could sit on the chairs, eat off their plates, run hands across murals. And then it became an historic estate, and had to be preserved, and it changed so drastically.

    It’s where my wife and I were married, sorta where we weren’t supposed to be. And we pretended it was still alright. We sat on divans, we played the piano. We, and our very few guests lived in the music room for an afternoon, and so allowed that music room some of its life.

    Thank you. You snatched that feeling of life out of many a heart and room, I’m sure.

  • Aw, Kev, I welled up when I read that! What a brilliant way to get married, and what a great place it must have been. Amazing to be able to touch that life after it was lived. Thank you for your kind comments about my flash – I’m glad it was able to give rise to such happy memories for you.

  • Douglas Campbell

    Lovely story, Sarah, so rich in feeling and vividly written. This sort of thing echoes throughout Western literature. Off the top of my head it calls to mind Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations,” and Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” But you’ve given the main idea, of a character imprisoned by the past, a fresh twist here, in the character of Stella, a younger person who’s imprisoned by the past as a result of her own choice rather than by the force of events. She’s chosen to inhabit the soul of her lost and much-loved grandmother and to take up and carry on, furtively at least, a lost way of life.

    Lots of great writing, but this is my favorite: “Alice Eva danced there, long yesterdays ago, the hem of her gown frowsy with dust, head high, flashing a smile and her best diamonds, long gone now, sold like so much else to patch the cracks in the cornicing and keep the ceilings up, and for what?” Terrific the way that captures the pride, the beauty, and the futility.

    A couple of suggestions: “Alice Eva’s past is an asset, and a liability.” I’m not sure you need to come right out and tell us that.

    What about “This Side Of The Rope” as a title, to capture the theme of dividedness this story explores, the separation between past and present, between public display and private emotions, between real life and imaginary life?

    Top notch work, Sarah. Bravo!

  • Thank you, Douglas, what great feedback. I hear what you’re saying about that line that spells out what I’ve said, obliquely, already. And I love your idea of the title – “rope” also brings to mind a wrestling ring, the struggle that Stella’s going through.

    Thank you for singling out that sentence the way you did – I worked hard to have it contain all the conflicting emotions. To have you describer it the way you did: “Terrific the way that captures the pride, the beauty, and the futility” is pure gold.

    I appreciate the time and thought you put into this very detailed response, and for the suggestions you have made. Many thanks.

  • Nice, Sarah! Hmm, is the rope keeping the past in or is it keeping the present out? Or is it just there to corral those pesky tourists? 🙂

    Love the “elbow room” comment.

  • Mark Dalligan

    Poignant and well written.



  • Well im glad i read this before i went to bed….it was worth the read


  • Thanks, Madeline, I think the rope is doing a bit of all three! Glad you liked it.

  • Thanks, Mark and Mike, I really appreciate the time you took to read and comment.

  • I really enjoyed the story, Sarah. Very poignant. Wanted to get on here yesterday and comment, but my computer wouldn’t connect!

  • Thanks, Erin, it was lovely getting your comment when I was just thinking that would be for comments on this one.

  • Terri

    I think Douglas’ title for your story is fantastic–right on the mark.

  • Celeste Goschen

    Beautiful, rich, glorious prose. Well done, Sarah.

  • Thank you, Celeste.

  • Thanks, Frances!

  • Lorna

    Moving and memorable. Thank you, Sarah.

  • Thank you, Lorna.