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Granny Fishwick's Mystic Smile

When I was child, my mother threatened me if I annoyed her, which I often did, "Watch your lip, girl, or Granny Fishwick will bury you in her garden and turn you into a carrot." The old lady's supposed practice of the Dark Arts didn't stop the neighbours from buying her vegetables. No shop-bought carrots tasted as good as Granny Fishwick's. The local kids believed she was a witch. They were wrong. I discovered her true identity when I was eighteen.

One Friday afternoon I passed Granny's house as I was walking home from college. Some neighbourhood genius had chalked on her drive, 'Bern the Wich', and added an inept drawing of a figure in a pointed hat, sitting on a broomstick that resembled a giant dead dandelion head.

The old lady was on her hands and knees with a bucket and a scrubbing brush. "Do you need any help getting rid of that, Granny?" I said.

She looked up. "Well, I don't want to preserve it for posterity. It isn't exactly Leonardo de Vinci, is it?"

I laughed. "I think they were aiming for Banksy, but they missed."

"Pity. I rather like Banksy." She put down her brush, and groaned. "It'll have to wait for now. My back's killing me."

I helped her to her feet. "I'll do it for you. You're too old."

"Thanks," she said. "That makes me feel much better." Being unfamiliar with irony, I said, "You're welcome."

She leaned on me and limped into her house. "Do your feet hurt?" I asked her.

"Everything hurts, but my feet have been the bane of my life since I was a girl." She flopped into her fireside chair. "What's your name, child?"

"Georgia Johnson."

"Ah, yes, of course. We've met before."

"Have we? I don't remember. What's wrong with your feet?"

"I've had corns, bunions, blisters, warts, athlete's foot and ingrown toenails. I should have listened to my mother and worn sensible shoes."

"Will you let me fix them for you?" I said.

"How can you do that? You're not a witch, are you?"

"No, and neither are you."

"Are you sure about that?"

I looked at her face. Her skin was firm and hardly wrinkled, but her hair was grey, and her sly, ancient eyes were full of secrets. "Yes, but you're a bit strange and I think you're very old."

"You're right. I'm older than I look. What do you know about feet?"

"I'm doing a health and beauty course at college. It includes pedicures and I'm very good at them, but I'd like more practice."

"You're on. When can you do it?"

"I'll bring my equipment tomorrow morning, but for now I'll finish scrubbing the graffiti while you have a rest."

"Thank you, Georgia. I always knew you were a good girl."

I was sure she'd never met me before, but old people get muddled and it's best not to argue with them.

I went back to the bucket and brush we'd abandoned on the drive and finished the clean up. I was about to return to the house when someone giggled behind me. I turned and confronted two smirking boys about ten years old, slouched against the gate. Their jackets were marked with chalk dust.

"You idiots made that mess, didn't you?" I said.

"What if we did?"

I gave them what my mother calls The Evil Eye. "Granny Fishwick knows who you are. If she catches you she'll bury you in her garden and turn you into carrots."

While they were deciding whether to run or to call my bluff, I aimed the bucket and drenched them in dirty water. They howled, and took off as if all the devils in Hell were after them. Granny stood at the window. She gave me a thumbs up.

My mother pounced when I arrived home. "You're late," she said. "You haven't been chasing after some lad or other, have you?"

"Chance would be a fine thing. Name one worth chasing."

"Less of the attitude. Where have you been?"

"Scrubbing graffiti off Granny Fishwick's drive."

It takes a lot to frighten my mother but I saw the unease in her eyes. "You shouldn't be hanging around that old witch."

"She isn't a witch. She's a frail old lady and I'm doing her feet tomorrow."

"Well, make sure she pays you."

I flung down my college bag and snapped at her. "If you want more money give up smoking. I'm not taking any off a pensioner to help you poison yourself."

She backed off and blushed. "Alright, don't get snotty. Ask her for some carrots."

"If she offers I'll take them, but I won't ask."

I turned up at Granny's next morning with a bottle of acetone, cotton wool balls, cuticle cream, cuticle pusher, moisturising lotion, nail file, orangewood sticks, toenail clippers, toe spacers, two towels, and a pumice stone.

"I thought you were going to give me a pedicure, not embalm me," she said.

"Don't worry. I know what I'm doing. Do you have a bowl?"

"To soak my feet?"

"Yes"

"There's a green one under the sink specifically for that purpose."

I filled the bowl with hot water and carried it into her living room. She'd removed her Adidas trainers and thick socks decorated with snowmen and reindeers, and she was sitting in her fireside chair with her leggings rolled up to her knees. "Nice socks," I said.

She nodded. "Half price from Asda's sin bin in the January sales."

I placed the bowl in front of her chair. She lowered her feet into it, gave a sigh of pleasure, and then she smiled, and her face was transformed. I knew that smile. Everyone knows it. "Granny," I said. "You look like Mona Lisa."

She squeezed my arm. "Can you keep a secret, Georgia?"

"Yes. You're going to tell me you're descended from her, aren't you?"

"No. I'm going to tell you my name is Lisa Gherardini. I am Mona Lisa."

"What? You're over five hundred years old?" I dropped my clippers with a clatter.

"Yes, and sometimes I feel every hour of it. Will Shakespeare calls it 'The wrackful siege of battering days'. Old Will's good with words."

My throat felt dry and my head spun. Maybe my mother was right for the only time in her life, and Granny was a witch. "How could you possibly live so long?"

"Leonardo's painting made me immortal. Millions of humans remember it, and the power of memories keeps some people alive. It isn't as rare as you'd think." She wriggled her toes. "Ooh, that water feels lovely."

I calmed down and rationalised the situation. She couldn't be Mona Lisa, of course. She was a batty old woman, but there was no harm in humouring her. "So you'll live forever?"

"Nothing lasts forever. We stop visibly ageing on the day we should have died, and we live a very long time, but one day we'll be dust. It isn't true immortality, but it feels like it. Carry on with my feet and I'll explain."

She told me she spent her old age at the Saint Orsola convent, in Florence, where the nuns took care of her. "One day, in 1542 Leo turned up."

"You mean Leonardo? I thought he died in France in 1519."

"I thought so too, so I was surprised to see him. He'd been travelling the world since the day he was supposed to have died and he felt in need of company, so he asked me to join him."

"How did he realise he wasn't going to die?"

"Socrates paid him a visit and told him."

It was bonkers but it was a good story. I dried her feet and applied moisturiser while she continued. "He'd sold all his paintings for a stash of cash so we were holding folding, as they say these days. We spent the next four hundred years globetrotting, avoiding military conflicts as much as possible, and we came to England at the end of the Second World War."

"And you've been here ever since? No wonder people think you're a witch. Their grandparents must have remembered you being old when they were kids."

"I suppose so. Back in my day I would have been burned at the stake. That's why we had to keep travelling."

Remembering the graffiti on the drive, it occurred to me that human nature doesn't improve much. I shuddered and changed the subject. "What happened to Leo?"

"He moved on to Wales but before he left he forged a birth certificate for me. I stayed here and married Albert Fishwick. He was a good man but he didn't have much conversation and he died in 1954, when Bill Haley and the Comets topped the Hit Parade, as it used to be called, with 'Rock Around the Clock'. I liked that."

"Granny, why did you tell me all this?"

"Because I saw something rare in you. An open mind. The other immortals would like you."

"Thanks. Do they keep in touch?"

"Some do. We have an immortality support group."

"Anyone I'd know?"

"Joan of Arc, Will Shakespeare, and Leo. Others call or send a text from time to time." She glanced at the pumice stone in my hand, "What's that for?"

"To remove hard, dead skin from your soles."

"Will it hurt?"

"No." To distract her I said, "Tell me what Will Shakespeare's doing these days."

"Composing advertising slogans. There's good money in it. He has the Dark Lady to keep him company, and a liaison with the Lovely Boy at 'The Admiral Duncan' in Soho, every Friday night. His sonnets made them immortal too."

"The Dark Lady must have a mind as open as mine."

"Possibly, but she told me she likes to get rid of him so she can wallow in her box sets of 'The Good Wife' and 'Doctor Who', and she has her own lovely boy who brings his ladder and cleans the windows every three weeks."

I inserted spacers between her toes and set to work with the file and clippers. "You're doing a grand job, Georgia," she said, "but be careful with those things. They look lethal."

"Then don't look. Is Leo still in Wales?"

"Yes, he works for the Welsh Highland Railway, keeping the steam engines in good repair. He visits me once a month and calls me every week. Never misses. He's my closest friend."

I knew it was none of my business, but I had to ask. "Were you lovers when you were young?"

She laughed, "No, my dear. His inclinations veered in a different direction."

"Was he gay?"

"He was rather morose, actually."

"No, I mean would he enjoy a night at the Admiral Duncan?"

"In the sixteenth century?"

I saw the amusement in her sly eyes. "You're laughing at me, Granny."

"You're right. I apologise. The truth is, Georgia, for certain people gender is irrelevant. It's something they wear, like a cloak, but it doesn't define who they are. Will Shakespeare understood that. Have you read his plays?"

"No, but I'll get round to them. My grandmother says someone called Elvis is still alive."

"Alive and hip-swinging. I believe he works for a trucker company called Eddie Stobart. Tell your grandmother he's content."

"If he's up for a date she'll be willing."

"I'm afraid she'd have to join the queue, dear. I hear he's lost weight and he's looking good these days."

She winced when I attacked her cuticles. "Sorry," I said. "Nearly done." I finished the job and asked her to stand up. "How do they feel?"

"Better than they have in years. I've enjoyed our chat, too. Will you visit me again?"

"Yes. I'd like that."

She put on her festive socks and her trainers, trotted to the kitchen without limping, and returned with a bunch of carrots wrapped in the centre pages of the previous week's Radio Times. "Take these. They have an excellent flavour."

"Thanks. You must spend a lot of time growing carrots."

"People will always need carrots, my dear, and immortality can be a burden. The trick is to keep busy. I grow vegetables, Will writes jingles, and Leo tinkers with engines. He's building a time and motion machine in his garage. It will move to any time, any location."

"Where's he planning to go?"

"He'll take the immortals back to their own time and place, so we can die when and where we were supposed to die."

"Is that what you want?"

"Yes, dear. It's definitely what we want." I believed her.

I visited her again the following Saturday. She made us each a bowl of soup. "Try this, Georgia, and tell me what you think."

"What's in it?"

"Carrots, and a few herbs to spice it up."

I tasted it. "Delicious. My mother's cooking doesn't taste like this."

"I'll give you the recipe."

"Thank you. Now tell me about Joan of Arc."

"Ah, yes, poor schizophrenic Jeanne. She prefers Jeanne to Joan. She's deputy stage manager at the Sydney Opera House now, putting her flair for theatricals to good use. As long as she keeps taking the pills the only voices that bother her are the ones coming from the stage, so she wears earmuffs to protect her from the onslaught of the sopranos."

Joan had always been one of my heroines. Her horrific death appalled me. The possibility that she may have escaped it made me want to punch the air, and yell, Yes! I restrained myself, and said. "Is she happy?"

"Deliriously, but she misses her former glory. She kept the armour for old time's sake and she polishes it regularly to prevent rust."

We finished our soup, and Granny said, "Follow me. I want to show you something." She led me into her bedroom and pointed to the painting hanging on the wall: the Mona Lisa. "There she is, my legacy, and my curse."

I gasped. The picture was smaller than I'd imagined, but it dominated the room. "Is it genuine?"

"If you mean did Leo paint it? Yes."

"So the one in the Louvre is a fake?"

"No, he painted that one too, and four more that art collectors with indecent amounts of money have hidden away in vaults somewhere. They all believe that theirs is unique. Fools."

"She's beautiful. Why do you call her your curse?"

She sighed. "Because she made me immortal."

I looked at her strange old face and I saw how tired she was. On an impulse I threw my arms around her and hugged her.

We washed and dried the soup bowls, she told me of her adventures over the centuries, and the hours passed.

"I have to leave now, Granny," I said. "I have an evening job, waiting on tables at the Riverside Restaurant."

"Are you in need of money? If I had any to spare I'd give it to you."

"No, my father sends my mother enough for us to live on, and she works part time as a receptionist at Vision Express to pay for her cigarettes."

"So, why do you need to work?"

"I'm saving my earnings so that one day, when I have my qualifications, I can open my own beauty salon. You can have free pedicures."

"Thank you, Georgia, but I may have gone home by then."

"You can't go anywhere until the time machine's ready, can you?"

"No, that's true."

I crossed my fingers and hoped that Leo wouldn't hurry the job. I didn't want to lose her.

My Saturday visits became a regular occurrence. Sometimes I took my course work with me and studied while she pottered in her garden or her kitchen. She tried out new recipes on me. They all included carrots.

One day she seemed quieter than usual. I was unprepared when she asked, "Do you miss your father, Georgia?"

I shrugged. "I don't know him. He never lived with us. You can't miss what you didn't have."

"Be kind to your mother. She needs you."

"I wish she was more like you."

When it was time for me to leave she said. "I have to tell you something, and I don't want you to be unhappy about it."

I knew what she was going to say. "The time machine's ready, isn't it?"

"Yes. We're leaving tomorrow morning. I hope you'll come to say goodbye. I want to introduce you to Leo. I have a feeling you'll be great friends."

I couldn't keep the anger out of my voice, "So, he has no intention of dying himself?"

"He can't. The immortals want him to take them all home first. He'll be around for a while yet."

A sickening thought popped into my head. "Will he take Jeanne back to be burned alive?"

"No. He's a humane, gentle man, and an expert in poisons. Socrates taught him a lot. Jeanne will be dead before the flames reach her."

That night I cried myself to sleep.

When I turned up at Granny's house next morning the time machine was standing in her drive. It resembled a helicopter. Leo was polishing it with his handkerchief. His long hair and beard were silver; he wore jeans, a leather coat, and a tee shirt emblazoned with an image of Mona Lisa. He looked like an aging rock star. My grandmother would have been impressed. He waved, "Georgia, I've heard a lot about you."

"I've heard a lot about you, too. How's Wales?"

"Very Welsh, look you."

I laughed, in spite of my misery.

Granny opened her front door. "Ah, Georgia. I see you two have met. I have something for you." She handed me an Asda 'Bag for Life'. I peeped inside, expecting more carrots. She'd given me the Mona Lisa. "It was my legacy. It's yours now. Hang it in your salon as a talking point and ask your customers to guess why I'm smiling."

"Thank you. I'll miss you, Granny."

"I'll miss you too, but remember, Leo has a time machine." She kissed me and climbed into the thing that looked like a helicopter.

Leo shook my hand. "See you in Florence."

Before I had chance to ask him what the Hell he was talking about he pressed a button, the whirly things started to whirl, and the machine disappeared.

I stood for a moment on the empty drive, before walking home, feeling lonelier than I had in my life. I took my One Direction calendar off the nail on my bedroom wall, and hung the Mona Lisa in its place.

At the end of the summer term a group of my classmates planned to start the holiday with two weeks of drunken debauchery in Magaluf. They invited me to join them but I had other plans. I booked a return flight to Florence and two nights in a cheap hotel.

The morning after I arrived I sought out the ruins of the Saint Orsolo Convent. It made no sense, but I wanted to visit Granny's grave. The guidebook said Lisa Gherardini's tomb was rumoured to be under the cloister in the chapel but archaeologists had failed to locate it.

I found my way into what remained of the chapel. Leo was waiting for me. "Lisa knew you'd come here," he said. "She asked me to watch out for you."

"Why?"

"She believed you're in need of a father figure."

"Some crazy father you'd make. Where is she? Why didn't the archaeologists find her? Is she still alive?"

He shook his head. "No, Georgia. She's dead. They were looking in the wrong place. She's not beneath the cloister. She didn't want her grave to be found."

"Why not? People would have visited it to honour her memory."

"But the academics would have taken her skull to a laboratory and digitally reconstructed her face."

I knew he was right. I'd seen it done in television documentaries. It was fascinating, but I couldn't bear the prospect of it happening to Granny. "That's gross," I said.

"She thought so too. She wanted to be remembered as I painted her."

"So, where was she buried?"

"In front of the high altar, below the exact spot on which you're standing."

I looked down. "Rest in peace, Granny." Tears stung my eyes. Leo handed me his handkerchief. It was covered in engine oil. I blew my nose and handed it back to him. "Who persuaded the nuns not to put her under the cloister? Was it you?"

He laughed. "I had help from Jeanne. Mother Superior was walking in the garden one day when she encountered an apparition of the sainted Maid of Orleans, in full military regalia, her helmet and breastplate gleaming in the sunlight."

"You old trickster. Mother Superior could have had a heart attack!"

"She didn't quite, but she fell to her knees and asked the saint how she could serve her."

"And Jeanne told her where to bury Granny?"

"Spot on. She also threatened divine retribution if the nuns told anyone, then she clanged away to the rear of the chapel where I was hiding with the time machine. We were off before you could say Vive le Dauphin."

"I'm glad Granny's where she wanted to be, but I really wanted to see her again."

"So you shall. I have a time machine at your disposal, but not until after lunch." He linked my arm through his. "I know a little place on the Piazza degli Strozzi that serves a mind-blowing stroganoff made with wild mushrooms from the forests of Calabria. Will you join me?"

I giggled, "Lead on, Macduff."

"Oh, please, don't misquote the upstart crow at me."

Leo had accurately described the mushroom stroganoff as mind-blowing. After we'd eaten, we floated out of the restaurant and he led me to a courtyard behind a derelict villa, where the time machine was parked.

We climbed in, he pressed the start button, the whirlies whirled, and we plunged into a cold, dark void. A second later we stood in the same courtyard but it was decorated with potted plants, and the paving stones appeared to be newly laid. The building was now a luxurious residence.

He said, "Welcome to the villa del Giocondo. Within those walls my younger self is creating a masterpiece."

"So there are two of you here. How is that possible?"

"I'm not sure. Something to do with electrons. I often pop in to see how the work's progressing. Young Leo keeps a couch situated behind him so I can relax while I supervise."

He helped me to climb out of the machine. I felt dizzy, possibly due to time travel, but more likely the mushrooms.

The villa's door was open. "They're expecting me," he said. We entered a large, sunlit room. The floor was tiled and tapestries covered the walls.

Young Leo was painting Mona Lisa. He looked up. "Ciao," he said.

Old Leo said, "Ciao, Leo. Ciao, Lisa. Questo è Georgia."

Young Leo and Lisa said. "Ciao, Georgia."

I said, "Ciao, Lisa, Ciao, Leo."

When we'd all finished Ciaoing, I whispered to old Leo, "When she told me we'd met before I thought she was barking mad." I felt tears welling up again. "Over five hundred years from now she'll still remember me."

He produced the oil-stained handkerchief once more. "Of course she will. Dry your eyes. Let's sit down and watch young Leo immortalise her."

"Give me a minute," I said. I stood beside young Leo and looked at the lady with the mystic smile. I knew why she was smiling. A bowl of water stood on the floor in front of her chair, and she was soaking her feet.

Footnote

"The wrackful seige of battering days" (William Shakespeare, Sonnet no.65, Line 6.)

About the Author
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had over a hundred stories and poems accepted by paying markets, and Silver Pen Publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She loves her family and friends, rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare, and cats.