It isn’t so hard to begin this story because I was there at the beginning. I just didn’t know it.
Mum and I arrived to collect Grandma to go to the beauty salon and day spa as a treat for her
birthday. Grandma didn’t answer the door, so mum used her door key while I waited in the car.
When I heard mum scream; I ran inside to see what was wrong.
I still remember the terror, not being able to move, my hand lifted to my mouth. Grandma
was sitting in her favourite chair, lips as blue as the blue rinse she always put through her white
hair, her hands curled in her lap. Her eyes closed.
Mum was yelling at me to get the paramedics as she pulled Grandma to the floor to try to
revive her. Mum knew little about first aid and I was fumbling with the telephone, trying to
answer the emergency service operator’s questions.
“Is she breathing?” “No, I don’t think so.”
“Is there a pulse?” “I don’t know.”
I whispered each reply as I watched mum pumping Grandma’s chest and attempting to
breathe air into her and weeping at the same time. I heard the operator say the ambulance would
be there soon, but I could only stand in horror, clutching the phone up to my ear. It was starting
then—Grandma’s story. She was already there.
* * *
Alice was our grandmother. The mother of adult children and the widow of an ordinary man.
Uncomplicated, predictable, commonplace and unexceptional. I mean no criticism, she was a
lovely person and I adored her, but she was indeed ordinary. To be honest, she was uneducated,
never had prospects, married young and was uncomfortable with everybody she perceived to be
better than her, you know, people like shopgirls and garbage collectors and people who cleaned
houses. Grandma was ill at ease around those folks and she didn’t—couldn’t hide it.
And she believed anything anyone told her. For example, her mother insisted shaving made
hairs grow back stronger and thicker and the young Alice listened to what she was told, never
doubting her mother’s skewed logic.
“If God had wanted you to shave, he would have made you hairless.”-Alice’s mother.
So, Grandma, for all her adult life spurned razors and sported hairy armpits, even when her
little grandson in recent years told her about her chin hairs, she was terrified to shave, preferring
instead to keep the hairs she had in preference to getting longer, thicker ones.
She believed all the ads on TV as well, because to her, they were like biblical truths and
often, she would budget to buy this or that brand of soap powder, so her whites would be whiter!
Grandad used to tease her about a time when she read that putting a rice pudding in the
oven with the Sunday roast would economise on gas. She did it for ages until someone asked
why she always threw the pudding out (no-one in their house ate rice pudding). She was
convinced it did something to the gas oven to make it run better (and cheaper). Gullible, Grandad
maintained. And he was right, she was.
Grandma was a teenager in the liberal sixties. but she hadn’t been liberal herself. Liberal or
any of its counterparts never got a foothold in her mother’s house so she never made friends and
the mother carefully nurtured in her daughter, zero ambition and few social skills.
“Girls whose hormones are triggered by kissing and dirty words are not nice girls.”
Ted, her mother’s handyman kissed Alice when no-one was looking, no hormones got
triggered so Grandma supposed she was “nice.” In truth, she had no idea what a “triggered
hormone” might even feel like. Ted was her first and only boyfriend and when she was 17, she
Grandma, since the age of 30, had the same hairstyle as her mother and over the years, as
the mousy tones of her hair grew to a salty white, chose a blue rinse, the same as her mother. She even held her teacup like her mother, laid out the house the same way and often caught herself
dishing out old wives’ tales for advice, just like her mother. And she still didn’t understand why
the rice pudding story made people laugh.
As the years rolled by, she became all that her mother had insisted and without considering
it, supposed it would be that way with her own daughter when she got old. Generations of hairy
armpits and blue rinses, but her daughter, (my mother), Michelle, rebelled and shaved her
armpits. And her legs and somewhere else that shocked Grandma!
But now Grandma had sprouted chin hairs, her wee grandson, Toby pointed them out in a
loud voice, “Grandma, you got a beard!”
She got up to look at herself in the mirror, pushing the small, accusing body with the
probing fingers from her lap to see for herself how much more she was becoming her mother.
She wasn’t sure she wanted them removed but Michelle had other ideas. Grandma didn’t have
original thoughts, never really needing them because everyone else had done her thinking for
her; her mum, her husband and then after he died, Michelle, her eldest child, made the decisions,
and Michelle had now decreed her mother needed these particular hairs dealt with even if the
underarm ones were to stay put.
Grandma didn’t understand the goings on of beauty salons or day spas, only knew Michelle
liked them and that they did ‘things,’ but she was suspicious and anxious about what those
‘things’ might be, despite her daughter seeming to thoroughly enjoy the experience. Michelle, at
41 years of age, had been going to the beautician all her adult life.
As Grandma’s 65th birthday approached, a visit to the salon and day spa had been
organised, where our hairy grandma would lose her chin hairs and have her first facial and
“Facial?” she said, her eyes wide with the enormity of it all. “Where they peel your skin
She had read about facials in a magazine and hadn’t grasped the concept and now, with the
expectation of having one herself, suffered no small measure of anxiety, but Grandma would not
dare challenge her daughter and in the end, tried to accept my reassurances.
After the salon, Mum decided, Grandma would be off to the hairdressers to update her
hairstyle and get some foils. ‘Foils’ baffled Grandma, but Michelle had organised it with no
thought of asking if all this beauty therapy was welcome. Grandma told me privately that she
always thought her blue rinse smart and stylish and that she would miss it. I tried to tell my
mum, but she ignored me because she wanted Grandma to have all these things done, insisting
she would love the results.
So, that was my grandma. I’ve told you something of her, so you might understand how
her extraordinary experiences changed her and shaped the woman she became. What comes next is her own remarkable story, entrusted to me so many years ago, and though we were close, I wasn’t part of what happened, or part of where she went, only that she asked me to write it down
for her. “Like a novel,” she said. “No-one will believe it anyway,” were her exact words.
It’s her story until it’s finished and as you will see, “finished” means something that had a
beginning, a middle and a conclusion. You can decide for yourself where the unremarkable,
homely, getting-on-in-years, Alice Watkins’s story started, middled and ended. Or even if it has
not yet begun.
Eliza Campbell (Alice’s granddaughter)
Sydney NSW – 19th August 2103
* * *
Alice Watkins seldom bothered with the mirror, but that morning, she screwed up her face to
check out the wrinkles that had been her constant companions for many years. She’d lived
behind this face for almost 65 years, a face, that at one time, had been smooth and unlined. Now,
deep creases etched both sides of her nose and mouth, but their presence didn’t trouble her. The
wrinkles were welcome to make their home in her face because, after all, that’s what happens
when you get old and such things must be accepted.
She thrust up her chin, inspecting the hairs that were due to be waxed off that day and ran
an arthritic finger over her neck and jaw, the bristly sensation reminding her of the stubble on her
late husband’s face when he hadn’t shaved.
Alice Watkins suffered not a skerrick of vanity, but Toby thought facial hair on his
grandma so hilarious, she wondered if others found them entertaining, perhaps people at the shop were snickering and pointing at the bearded lady, so she kept her head down since Toby drew her attention to them, knowing all the while, no-one would bother paying her any mind.
“Why would anyone be watching you, Alice Watkins? What’s so special about you?” Alice’s mother.
Alice’s 65th birthday was on Saturday and a special family dinner arranged to mark the
occasion. Michelle decided it was too much to pack into one day and arranged for the three of
them, herself, Eliza and Alice to visit the day spa a few days before.
Alice didn’t know what went on in a day spa, but Michelle waved away her concerns,
explaining that the ladies there would wax off Alice’s chin hairs, put hot stones on her back, give
her an “all over massage” and do “stuff” to her face to relax the wrinkles. It would be a
wonderful experience, Michelle promised, but it didn’t sound wonderful to Alice, even though
she didn’t dare argue and only hoped the day spa ladies wouldn’t make her take off her bra and
On that day, the pre-birthday, chin hair gone day, blue rinse gone day, Alice lingered at the
hall mirror, not wanting to forget what it looked like to grow old gracefully as her mother’s God
intended, fearing she might not recognise the new image that would be looking back at her when
she arrived home.
So, what if she came back all fresh and tarted up? Who would see it? Who would care?
Alice didn’t, but if it gave Michelle pleasure to take her to this place, she would go obediently
and not complain.
Turning away, she checked her watch, there were still a few minutes before Michelle and
Eliza were due to arrive so she eased herself into the somewhat saggy-seated, worse-for-wear old
chair facing the window and folded her hands in her lap, letting her mind wander, and straining
her ears a smidgeon to hear if Michelle’s far-too-large four-wheel drive had turned up the street.
She thought about the new baby Michelle was due to have in a month and marvelled, not for the
first time, how she managed to fit that enormous baby bump behind the steering wheel at all.
Michelle had to drop the other children off at school first, but Eliza had finished for the
year now exams were over. Eliza was 16, and Alice loved that she was going with them, even
though she couldn’t imagine what Eliza might need at a day spa, as beautiful as a model; clever,
happy and the apple of her grandma’s eye, she would easily get a job in an insurance firm or a
department store that one! Alice’s heart filled with pride at the thought of her granddaughter’s
Sammy, the big tabby cat with one tooth jumped on Alice's lap. It was only 8.30am, but the
day had already warmed and through the open window, she could hear the city waking up in the
distance. Sammy’s fat tummy was cosy and rumbly; he wouldn’t recognise her when she got
home, so she tickled his ears and watched the rogue branch of the frangipani tree tapping against
the window. What on earth possessed her to plant the blasted thing so close to the house? She
must cut it back again before it broke the window pane—it had only been a few weeks since she
last went out to it with her secateurs.
Alice felt warm and sleepy, it would be so easy to close her eyes and doze. The day spa
might be nice, she thought, trying to reconcile herself to going and hoping that keeping her bra
and knickers on wouldn’t be an issue. Eliza said they had gowns, but that knowledge hadn’t been
enough to reassure her.
If her mother had still been alive, she’d have pursed her lips and told Ted and Ted would
have said the day spa was, “a bloody waste of money,” and Alice wouldn’t have gone. But now,
she could do as she pleased, no mother, no Ted. If she wanted, she could take the chin hairs off
with a razor, even pull them out by the roots—but then they might grow back thicker, darker,
stronger, despite Michelle assuring her that was an old wives’ tale and that waxing made them
finer and less noticeable when they regrew, but the idea of defying her deceased mother and
husband still caused her considerable anxiety.
And so, Alice’s small, simple life and thoughts sat with her in the chair with Sammy. The
rhythmic tapping of the branch lulled her, and she thought she heard Michelle’s car pull into the
driveway, but her eyelids felt heavy and it wasn’t easy to stir herself to get up to answer the door.
And why suddenly, was it night?
Like what you read? Find out what happens to Alice when she wakes up!
Then follow her story in The Afterlife of Alice Watkins: Book Two
Scotland Yard: Missing Persons Files (Cold Cases–Overseas Agencies) Summary research only.
Christmas Eve, 2008: A family of five headed home after a pre-Christmas get-together with
friends. Travelling along the M25 motorway near Junction 20 at Hemel Hempstead, their car
collided with a speeding drunk driver who’d strayed into their lane. The force of the impact lifted
the family’s car into the air before it plunged to the ground and rolled several times before
landing on its roof. Horrified witnesses rushed to help, but the car was already a fireball, and
flames beat back any would-be rescuers. Emergency services recovered four bodies from the
burnt-out wreck of the family’s car. Anxious friends later told police a teenaged girl
accompanied her parents and two brothers on the journey; a fact corroborated by a service station attendant who spoke to the family less than ten minutes before the accident. Witnesses testified no-one could have walked away from such carnage. The girl was never found.
This and other strange, unsolved cases of missing persons are listed on several government
databases. The files date back more than a century and make extraordinary reading although the
very early accounts are poorly documented, often recording the attending police officer’s
mistrust in the witness’s descriptions and making personal observations about intoxication and
Later incidents, those which occurred within living memory, are profiled
more efficiently and without bias; such as the 1964 disappearance of a young man from a locked,
virtually windowless cell in a South African prison; and the nurse who left a Chicago hospital
very early one January morning in 2018 and was witnessed by a cab driver vanishing into “thin
air”. (The cabbie’s blood alcohol reading accompanied the report).
An intriguing entry, from 2017, reported the disappearance of an Australian woman in
Bali. Her departure was reported to police by a Balinese masseuse who described her missing
client as, “Gone! Poof! Just like that!”
Equally compelling is the 2012 account of a German woman, witnessed by several of her
colleagues getting into her car in an underground car park when she was due at an important
meeting. Three of the witnesses went to speak to her, but the car was empty, the keys in the
ignition and the woman’s shoes kicked off in the driver’s seat well.
But perhaps the most bizarre? In a small Sicilian town in the spring of 1991, a woman and
her child went to chat with their elderly neighbour, whom they’d known for years. As they
approached, the man, “walked into the scenery, out of sight”. Why was this more bizarre than the
others? According to the report, the man stepped purposefully, and as he vanished, he looked at
the mother and child, and waved.
Police enquiries found homes left as if the occupant planned to return; food in the fridge,
open bank accounts (which went untouched), and in the case of the Sicilian man, the washing
machine in mid-cycle. Mystified workmates and employers were unable to shed light on their
colleague’s disappearance and in every event, no doctors’ records documented any psychiatric
In time, these and the mystery of the teenaged girl were packaged together and marked as
cold cases. A scribbled memo sticky-taped to the lid of the archive box lends a poignant epitaph:
“Bill, (Archivist) These are the foreign ones. I put the English kid in as well. Scan ‘em and
shove the physical files in the archives. Don’t waste resources. They’re gone.”
But gone where? The Soul Monger knows where they are.