Around this time Beatrice came
to my room. I thought she’d come
to make a cheap dig. But she looked
deeply concerned. Augustus, you’ve
gotten yourself entangled in a really
nasty mess. My advice would be to
simplify your life and extract yourself
from this girl and her mental family,
before you get really screwed. Having
said her bit, she waltzed from my room,
rattling the door as she left. Beatrice’s
words always left me feeling deflated.
She had this ability to steamroller my soul.
Leo Mannheim’s antics had rattled me
badly. I had a clear vision of him lurking
at the school gates in a dingy hoodie,
waiting to bundle my girl into a grubby
van. I didn’t speak of this to Alice. I was
sure such an outrageous scenario would
never cast a shadow across her mind.
But on Monday morning we piled into
Uncle’s sedan and navigated the traffic.
I watched Alice stride up the slippery
stone steps to her classrooms. My heart
palpitated. I waved goodbye forlornly.
Already I was yearning for the last bell
to be rung.
Alice had become silent.
I squeezed her hand,
and tried to prize a smile,
but she seemed in shock.
Aunt bumbled in carrying
a large tray with a teapot,
cups and cake. Here, my
dear, drink this, and eat
something sweet too.
Alice gratefully accepted
the drink and blew delicately
on her hot beverage. I know
my Father, she declared
ominously. He will never
give up. Until he gets his way.
He snatched brutally at Alice’s arm.
Unhand me Father, this is embarrassing,
screamed Alice. Leo suddenly went
limp, like all the steam had rushed
out of him. I could almost hear the gears
grinding in his head. Make no mistake,
I will be back for you Alice. These fancy
folk aren’t your family. You belong with
me, girl. Leo lurched heavily to the door,
tripped on the carpet, and cursed
furiously. The door swung on its hinges
for a while, as if astounded by the scene.
We all breathed. Alice began to cry softly.
Well Alice, your Father is quite a
formidable man. He’s given me
the collywobbles, Uncle explained.
The upshot is, he wants you back.
He made that very clear, in no uncertain
terms. Alice reflected quietly. Father
has always been an angry man. Parents,
she stated, can be awfully inconvenient.
I wouldn’t put it past your Father to
come and physically seize you, Uncle
returned. Alice looked alarmed. We
moved inside the house, and I boiled
the kettle. We’d take solace in tea,
wait for what happened next.
I could hear the tremor in her voice,
I knew she was genuinely frightened.
It would not be good to subject Alice
to an alarming meeting. I rang Uncle
back and explained that Alice wasn’t
ready to see her parents. I quivered
to think of poor Uncle struggling to fend
off these dangerous villains. I thought
perhaps I should go home and help him
out. Alice was instantly aware. Stay with
me Augustus, I need you here, to be
my protector, she declared theatrically.
I nodded, in my best understanding way,
and went off to order more coffee. I was
beginning to feel my life had become a
tangled, ungovernable mess.
When I came downstairs, everyone
was having breakfast. Alice looked
rested, munching delicately through
some muesli. It was like she didn’t
have a care in the world. My mind,
however, had begun to churn over
some nasty repercussions. Not least
the thought of Mr Mannheim coming
here to aggressively claim his daughter.
As I chewed distractedly on some toast,
I imagined the horrible scene. I didn’t
think Uncle and Aunt would know how
to handle such a thuggish brute. Alice
was speaking to me. She fizzed with
pleasure. Breakfast was over. I gulped
a big slug of black coffee and scraped
my chair on the tiled floor.
Augustus, go fetch my bag and coat,
Alice said quietly. I was stunned. So
were the Mannheims. For a brief
second, I stood galvanized
to the spot, then I stumbled dizzily
to Alice’s bedroom. Behind me there
was absolute silence. I came back
clutching Alice’s things, and we both
walked to the door. Mr Mannheim was
totally deflated. He was like a broken
man. The door clicked shut behind us.
The night air struck my face, I could not
believe what had transpired.
The door inched open and she un-
hooked the latch. I tried to smile
but failed completely. Her blotchy face
looked particularly antique, her deep
wrinkles rigid and ingrained. She sighed
heavily and let me in. I could hear the
tremor in her voice. I asked when Mr
Mannheim would return. Alice waltzed
into the room. When she saw me she
froze, and gasped. I grinned lamely,
and looked down, studying the floor.
I’ll admit it, I had some gumption
coming here. Just at that moment
I heard keys rattling outside, and a string
of muttered curses. It was Leo Mannheim.
I stood outside their crummy door
in a chilly wind, reviewing my next
move. I thought it unwise to hammer
loudly or create a scene, so I knocked
reasonably. This time there was no
shuffling of feet from inside, or scraping
of chairs on cheap linoleum. I banged
more aggressively, but I knew in my heart
no one was home. My mind churned.
Should I wait, or leave a note? Her
Father was a lost cause, but the Mother
would surely be more sensitive. This new
possibility buoyed me up. I thrust my
chapped hands deep into my pockets,
and strode away in search of coffee.