in my pockets for blue marbles
My Uncle had been complaining for a decade. Our
road was a disgraceful mess of flinty stones and gaping potholes. But the
council was recalcitrant. There wasn’t money available. There were no important
ratepayers in our obscure street at the council’s boundary. With my satchel
slung across my shoulders, it was a strenuous walk home, and I’d ruined many
pairs of serviceable shoes. My few friends barely visited, they came up with
lame excuses about how far I was from acceptable civilization. My Uncle was
profoundly deaf. I bellowed at him, but he never caught my drift. I do know he
turned off his hearing aids, especially when my large, jovial Aunt was having a
I’d been living with Uncle and Aunt for five years,
since my parents died in a drunken smash up. I remember little about them.
Except that their lunatic parties had turned me into a child insomniac, and I
was glad to get some peace, when they were gone. Aunt Judith sometimes referred
obliquely to my Mother when she was maudlin, but for me the memory of her had
become fogged long ago. I only saw her clearly in disquieting dreams. I strove
hard to forget she’d ever been.
Father was always loud. I have bizarre flashes of
him attending my primary school productions, or stooped over a pitchfork,
weeding our old vegetable patch at weekends. I know that he rarely spoke to me.
I imagine he must have had issues with my young soul. He liked to bark at me
about the silliest, most trivial misdemeanours. I think it made him sad. I
remember the hard stubble on his chin. His eyes grew bloodshot when he turned
to drink. I tried not to stare.
I had two cousins. My
heart had fallen for Beatrice, who was older, who wore baggy clothes and was
bulimic. Uncle and Aunt knew nothing. Which was hard to fathom, as she noisily
vomited in the bathroom sink every evening. Beatrice had a pet goat. The two were
inseparable. The three of us walked in the woods, by the second world war bomb
holes. Horace hated me, and butted me remorselessly with his horns. I dreamt of
marrying Beatrice. I knew this was wrong. Beatrice’s older brother, my cousin
Tom, tinkered with old cars. The garden was awash with mechanical parts and
rusting chassis. Tom had a million projects. None were ever completed. The
grass sprouted out of oily slicks and grew over long neglected engines. Uncle
despaired. But did nothing.
School, which consumed my
life and spat me out, was a considerable walk away, through the big woods. I
set off early, passing through the painted stile, until I was deep among the
trees. The huge storm last year had brought down many giant oaks. A ghostly
mist always hung about the broken boles of these fallen kings. It was actually
called the Kingswood, this place, because five hundred years ago some royal
used to trot among the trees with his entourage, and the name stuck. I hate
history. It’s my lousiest subject. I’m not strong academically. With my shoes
all muddied, and my house tie spattered with egg, I was no model student. I’d
reach the school gates late and get instant detention. My school day always
started poorly, and careened downhill from there.
Mine was an all boys
school. It felt unnatural. Being short and relatively shy, I was bullied
horribly. My startling name, Augustus Paxman, was universally derided. My
nickname, Auggie, really grated on my nerves. Only Beatrice addressed me as
Augustus, and her husky voice made me feel like a Roman emperor. My teachers
were mostly sour old bears with personal vendettas against the young. I learnt
nothing. It was sweaty pandemonium. I sneezed from the corrosive chalk dust. My
soul felt soiled by last bell. By which time, I couldn’t wait to submerge
myself in the woods, and find my way home.
‘Did you have a good
day?’ Uncle Benedict asked me chirpily. ‘Fine. Standard day,’ I lied. He always
greeted me home with this same question. It was mildly irritating, but I was
used to it. I yanked my foul school tie over my head, and stomped up to my room.
Beatrice would be home later, she always had these after school activities. She
was a gymnast, a netball player, she rode horses, her life was full. I lay on
my bed for an hour, keeping perfectly still. Until Aunt Judith summoned me to
tea. Which I ate alone. Uncle Benedict had stepped outside to trim the hedge.
Aunt Judith was hanging out washing, singing some nonsense about a sweet
enchanted garden. It was her favourite song. It got on my wick, in a mild kind
of way. When I’d cleared my plate, I pushed it aside, and started on dessert.
It was always sticky, comforting and warm. Aunt specialized in high calorie
comfort. Beatrice suddenly breezed into the room, and hugged me around my
shoulders. She glowed. Her long glossy brunette hair was tied back, I tried not
Uncle Benedict and I were
inveterate chess players. We played in a charmed silence, our games going late
into the evening. I always trounced my Uncle, because I had an exact,
calculating mind. Beatrice was mightily amused by my victories. This was my
favourite time of day. When we had battled for too long, Aunt brought us warm
milk and homebaked cookies. Then I was shooshed away to bed, my mind nicely
numb. I never suffered from the poor sleep that had plagued me when Mother and
Father were alive. I always waited to hear Beatrice’s door click shut before I
closed my eyes. My only grouse was that Tom would sometimes bang his way
upstairs, usually when I was drifting beautifully. Dreaming time was enchanted,
precious. How I hated the morning light breaking through my curtains. The
thought of school addled my head. It was a nasty ugly poisonous ghoulish place
I must escape.
I had a novel idea. I
would not go to school. I woke as usual, donned my ghastly uniform, and gave
every indication that this was an ordinary day. But in my satchel was stuffed a
change of clothes. I had five pounds of pocket money, to get drinks and snacks.
I’d no clear idea of how I’d spend the day, but I would be free. I wished
goodbye to my Aunt, who was slaving over hot breakfasts, and walked outside. A
feathery rain fell. It was misty. I jumped the stile, and went on into the
woods. After a mile, I ducked among the deeper trees and changed my clothes. It
was official, I was a truant.
By lunchtime, I was
kicking around leaves in the town square. It was a drab spot. I hadn’t expected
to feel any remorse. But when I went to buy sweets in the confectioners, the
assistant asked me why I was away from school, and I invented some flimsy story
about a family funeral, and left the shop awkwardly, knocking over a small
display as I went. Sitting under the statue of some obscure town elder, I
devoured my chocolate, but still felt hungry. I’d need to buy lunch. The idea
of more prying questions wasn’t a welcome thought. The supermarket delicatessen
seemed a better choice, although my money might not stretch to fancy foods. But
I went inside and got some sliced ham, coleslaw and baps without issue. In the
square, under the gaze of the town elder, I prepared my picnic. I got an illicit
thrill from eating outside. And then something very strange happened. I met
A girl, my age, leapt up
onto the bench opposite me. She performed some beautiful balletic movements, I
was thoroughly transfixed. She didn’t seem to care that people watched, that I
followed her lithe exercises greedily. When she had finished, a few older
people in the square clapped. She was coming across to me. I tried to clear my
head and act normally. ‘Did you like my dance routine?’ she asked simply. I
nodded my head. The cat had got my tongue. That’s what my Aunt would have said.
Not discouraged, the girl sat beside. ‘I’m Alice,’ she said, extending her hand
for me to shake. I took her lean fingers in mine. There was an electricity in
her grasp. ‘Augustus,’ I declared, rather too loudly. But our friendship was
Alice and I strolled
around the town together. It didn’t seem awkward when I held her slender hand.
With the last of my money, I bought her a colourful ice cream. I was surprised
to find it was afternoon. I’d need to get back home soon, to keep up the
pretence that this was just another school day. ‘Where do you live?’ Alice
asked suddenly, quite bold. I explained. ‘I shall come for tea,’ Alice
announced. Mildly shocked at her forwardness, but very happy nonetheless, I
said that would be good. ‘Expect me Saturday,’ Alice said breezily, pecked me
on the cheek, and was gone. For some while I wondered if it was all a big
hallucination. I stood rooted to the spot, then smiled. My temerity at missing
school had entangled me in a big adventure.
‘So who is this girl?’
asked Uncle Benedict loudly, smirking. I reddened up and muttered something
about us having just met. ‘Alice, is it? Good name,’ Uncle ruminated,
embarrassing me further. I explained that she’d be coming on Saturday. Beatrice
was sitting next to me. She crowed with laughter. ‘Found yourself a girlfriend,
have you?’ she teased, knocking me under the chin. I insisted it was not like
that, but I don’t think I sounded terribly convincing. Aunt promised that she’d
rustle up a nice spread, she was good like that. The next school days passed so
slowly that I thought the weekend would never come. On Friday I became nervous,
convinced Alice wouldn’t show.
But she came. Just before
midday she strode purposefully up our path, and vaulted our low white gate. I
tried to act nonchalant. I opened the door wide and she hugged me. It was as if
we’d been hooked up for years. ‘Introduce me to your family,’ Alice said
huskily, when we’d untangled from our embrace. My Aunt, Uncle and cousin
Beatrice all paraded themselves before Alice’s appraising gaze. ‘I shall pour
tea,’ Alice announced, assessing the things Aunt had lain out so beautifully on
our best table. Throughout lunch Alice bubbled away like a mountain spring, and
we soon fell under her giddy spell. Uncle could suddenly hear every nuance of
the conversation and laughed delightedly. I myself was thoroughly smitten,
amazed at Alice’s boundless energy and effortless charisma. And then she said
she must sadly leave, to exercise her pony. Alice stood up, hugged my entire
family, and kissed me with complete abandon. At the door, exchanging warm
goodbyes with my Aunt, she subtly handed me a slip of paper. It was her phone
I was never particularly
taken by the expensive smartphone Uncle had given me. Until now. The first call
to Alice set my heart racing. When she picked up, I was so choked with emotion
I could barely speak my name. I burnt through my allocated minutes before I
knew it, and had to ask Beatrice for a loan. Because Alice simply loved to
talk. About all subjects under the sun. She was eloquent, commanding, and I
could listen to her for hours. She texted me constantly, telling me each
thought as it crossed her mind. In class this could be difficult. My phone
throbbed in my pocket, teachers were not pleased, I was a disruptive influence.
I became terrified that the headmaster might confiscate my phone. Alice and I
agreed to a date on Saturday, in the square where we’d first met.
Equipped with another
small loan from Beatrice, who said she was delighted to fund my romantic
entanglements, I waited for the weekend. Beatrice suggested I should look a bit
smarter, so I polished up my neatest shoes and asked Aunt to iron my faun-coloured
shirt, an old birthday gift I’d never worn before. I felt a little
self-conscious, but Aunt was subtle. Uncle, however, grinned from ear to ear,
and tapped me on the chest, and winked. I cringed inside. I wouldn’t have the
way I felt for Alice in any way demeaned. We had agreed to have lunch in the
town’s new vegan cafe. Alice was a staunch spokesperson against cruelty to
animals. I wholeheartedly agreed, and felt shamefaced about my long, ignorant
carnivorous childhood. Alice was opening my eyes to many things.
Alice leaned across the
table alluringly. ‘Tell me about your parents,’ she said, full of husky
concern. This subject always made me feel uncomfortable. I stated tersely that
they were both dead. Alice batted her eyelids, squeezing my hand profoundly. I
could tell how she understood. We shared a moment of silence. Alice wasn’t
afraid to broach the big subjects. Eating my lentil dish, which tasted of
boiled ashes, I listened to her politics and religious views. I was quite out
of my league. But we gelled. Because I was a good listener, and Alice liked an
audience. After we’d done, I suggested ice creams again. Alice’s eyes lit up
like bonfires. After settling the bill, we went out into the street. Where
Alice dawdled and giggled beautifully, and held my hand.
We went to the playground
beside the town hall with our big ice creams. Alice wanted to play, so we leapt
on the swings, and swung high into the sky. I was amazed at Alice’s reckless
abandon, she thrust out her feet and heaved up with her whole body. Everything
she did was to the max. She had no inhibitions. ‘Let try the slides,’ Alice
shouted, with the exalting enthusiasm of a five year old. She charged up the
metal chute, squealing with glee, then turned, and shot down the slide,
barrelling straight at me. I caught her. Alice went still. We kissed.
‘How’s my favourite
lovesick puppy?’ Uncle Benedict chided me during the week. It was true, I was
anxious and maudlin. There was an obstruction in my chest. When my phone
buzzed, I pounced on it like a lunatic. I felt sad for myself. I wanted to know
if Alice suffered like me. I’d thought about buying Alice a little gift. I
asked Beatrice what a girl might wish for. She hummed profoundly, and told me
to avoid flowers and chocolates. This didn’t help. I needed inspiration. After
school I scoured the trinket shop in town. Avoiding all the old silver rings
and gaudy beads, I selected a broach shaped like a gorgeous green blue
dragonfly. It was perfect.
I got Alice to close her
eyes. Then I pinned the broach gently onto her shirt pocket. I could feel the
thrill run through her body. She was simply dying to know. ‘You can open now,’
I said, intoxicated by her excitement. Alice slowly opened her exquisite
cornflower blue eyes. She ran her lean fingers over the dragonfly’s wings. ‘It
is such a treasure,’ she said huskily, quite moved. Then Alice flung her arms
around my neck, went up on her toes, and kissed me. ‘You are so sweet,
Augustus.’ I glowed inside. Our relationship was scaling new heights.
It wasn’t long now until
the school holidays, when I could spend two delightful weeks seeing Alice
everyday. I knew nothing about her family, except they lived on the rough side
of town. Alice had mentioned a younger brother once, fleetingly, but she never
spoke of her Mum and Dad. I had begun to wonder at this. Being such a confident
person, I’d made the assumption that Alice had a really stable background. But
maybe I was wrong. It was time to discover more about this remarkable girl
who’d overturned my world.
I didn’t want to besiege
Alice with endless questions. I’d have to concoct a more subtle strategy. So I
asked, just in passing as it were, what her Father did for work. ‘Let’s not
waste our breath on tiresome people,’ was her unexpected answer. The subject
had been categorically brushed under the carpet. I thought I might try
something relating to her Mum. ‘Why are you spoiling things,’ Alice replied
tetchily, clearly aggrieved. She didn’t discuss her parents it seemed. She must
have something to hide. I had been totally transparent about my family life, so
I found Alice’s reticence terribly strange. I decided, however, to pose no more
questions. If Alice must remain mysterious, so be it. Nothing could addle the
beautiful thing we had. I kissed Alice’s nose and apologized. She kissed me
I bounced home elated, to
find Uncle Benedict in the garden, tinkering with an old lawn mower. ‘So the
romantic wanderer returns,’ he jibed, provoking me to blush. Uncle always
succeeded in making me feel incredibly self-conscious, like he had witnessed
all of my most intimate moments. I mumbled something, which Uncle surely
couldn’t hear, reddened again, and went inside. Where Aunt and Beatrice were
drinking tea at the big table. ‘Hello Augustus, we were just talking about
you,’ Beatrice smiled widely, but there wasn’t a hint of ridicule in her tone.
She was simply pleased to see me. Aunt poured me a generous mug of sweet tea.
We sat and nattered about immaterial things. I wondered if Alice did such
simple stuff at her house. Suddenly I had a fleeting vision of Alice upstairs
in her room at home, frightened, emotional, while her parents battled it out,
shouting and screaming heatedly below. It was all horribly vivid. I prayed it
I grew increasingly
curious, if not downright concerned. Alice’s last name was Mannheim, so I did
some internet sleuthing. At first I got no results. But I persisted, and
discovered her Father, Leo, was a driver for some national haulage company. He
must have been away from home a lot. Alice’s Mother, from what I could deduce,
didn’t work. I found a reference to a housebound help group, which included her
name, Rachael. I also unearthed Alice’s address, but felt rather grubby and
sordid after this, and ceased my hunting. I didn’t want Alice to know I’d been
researching her private life. If she discovered me, I felt sure she’d scream
louder than a kettle left on the stove. I’d never seen her ballistic, but I
knew in my bones it would be scary. I mustn’t give her any reason to suspect my
It was the school
holidays. Alice and I had decided on a day trip to the zoo. Uncle Benedict
offered to drop us at the tube station. Where I purchased two tickets. I’d run
up a considerable debt to Beatrice, but she didn’t seem to mind. The stuffy
carriage swayed and lurched from side to side, and I clutched Alice’s waist.
‘It’s more like a rollercoaster than a train,’ Alice shouted over the racket,
quite delighted. It was as if this was her first tube ride. When we finally
emerged out of the ground, Alice began to talk about animals. ‘I hope they
won’t be sad imprisoned creatures, with the light extinguished from their
eyes.’ Alice said she adored elephants. We should search them out first. At the
zoo entrance, I fished into my wallet, where the notes were depleting. When we
moved through the turnstile, I could sense Alice’s tremendous excitement. ‘This
is going to be a fabulous adventure,’ she declared, squeezing my shoulder.
Alice cantered between
the animal compounds, conversing with every creature she saw. She pulled funny
faces at the wildebeest, who gawped back rudely. The tigers made her gasp. She
crunched my hand so tightly I was sure the bones would break. When we found our
elephant, a keeper was hosing down its majestic leathery body. Alice went
quiet. It was like she was communing with this giant. ‘Look into his eyes, I
should like to have just one iota of his wisdom.’ There was a quiet seriousness
in her voice. I found it terribly attractive. I suggested we go for lunch. ‘Yes
I am quite ravenous,’ Alice assured me. Near the monkey’s enclosure we found a
food court themed like a sprawling jungle hut. There was a vegetarian option. I
fished in my wallet, and ordered random dishes. Alice beamed.
Aunt was peeling
potatoes, tossing them into a big bubbling pot. I leant my back against the
kitchen top and drank my tea. This was one of my favourite places. ‘Don’t you
think it might be good to slow things down with Alice,’ Aunt suddenly asked,
looking deeply into my eyes. I’d expected this. I wasn’t angry, because I knew
my Aunt asked only out of concern. ‘We are good,’ I responded simply. Aunt
quartered a huge potato noisily, but she was thoughtful. Then her big shoulders
relaxed, and she nodded her head. ‘Well, you do seem to hit it off splendidly,’
she mused out loud. This was like a blessing. My heart thumped in its cage.
Aunt was a walkover. ‘Invite Alice over for dinner, I’ll make my special nut
roast,’ she offered. I said that I’d ask Alice. I slurped my tea contentedly.
Then quite unexpectedly, a disturbing idea settled in my head. Did Alice’s
parents even know of my existence?
It became a growing
obsession with me. I tried to garner more information about Alice’s Mum and
Dad, but I uncovered absolutely nothing new. So I decided I must ask for an
invitation. It wouldn’t be rude. It was only good manners, considering how
serious Alice and I had become, to visit her family. We were in our local park
when a good moment arose. Alice was out of breath, having exerted herself on
the swings. Her whole body glowed. She was in a fabulous mood. ‘I’d like to
come and visit you at home,’ I said rather stiffly. Having rehearsed my lines,
they stuck in my throat now. Alice froze. ‘Why would you want to do that? My
parents are both crazy and my house is a misery.’ She looked thoroughly
awkward, like I’d made a huge faux pas. ‘Let’s not spoil the day, I’m having
such fun,’ Alice bemoaned. I nodded my head. I gave in. She looked grateful,
and tweaked my nose tenderly. This wasn’t going to be easy. I was consumed with
such terrible fascination. I wouldn’t admit defeat.
Aunt’s nut roast was
memorable. It was earthy, it put the heart back into you. Aunt could perform a
special magic on food. Even Alice was silently contented afterwards. For
dessert there was homemade Arctic roll, Uncle’s favourite. The sweetness
loosened our tongues. Alice babbled away like a brook, touching on every
subject under the sun. I wondered what Beatrice thought. She was strangely
subdued, quite unlike herself. Alice had robbed her of the limelight, and
Beatrice wasn’t pleased, she didn’t like to be outdone. Meanwhile Alice was
recounting our excursion to the zoo. She told the tale beautifully. Aunt was
tickled, and howled with laughter. Beatrice seethed. I seriously wondered
whether she’d loan me anymore money. I hated friction and squirmed uneasily in
my seat. ‘Thank you for a simply gorgeous meal,’ Alice suddenly announced. It
was the signal that she’d be leaving. We all stood up. Our chairs scraped. She
kissed me wildly, and was gone like a breeze.
Once Alice had gone,
Beatrice cornered me for a little chat. I felt my heart sinking. ‘Do you
understand what you’re getting yourself into with Alice? That girl has a bolt
loose,’ Beatrice warned bluntly. I didn’t know how to respond to this. I knew
Alice was revved up, but I’d never considered her mad. ‘I can see you’re
totally besotted, but slow down, don’t burn your heart,’ Beatrice continued,
more gently. I could tell she was concerned for me. I didn’t want us to have a
shouting match, so I stayed cool, and thanked Beatrice for her advice. From
that moment, something cold crept between us. Beatrice slapped my back as
usual, and stalked away. But she walked stiffly, as if she was suddenly
treading on marshy ground. I was thoughtful for a while, but soon dismissed her
absurd allegations. Alice was simply lively. Maybe Beatrice felt threatened, a
little jealous. Girls could be silly like that.
School was back on. The
teachers droned and burbled, nothing made any sense. I found it all
superfluous. This wasn’t a real education. But I dared not repeat my truant
behaviour. The idea of skipping school with Alice was overwhelming, but I knew
I’d be reported, and Uncle would have strong words for me. So I sat at my desk
and yawned widely through classes, until the bell liberated me. Once I’d walked
through the gates, I texted Alice to ask about her day. She found school
endlessly fascinating and always had hilarious stories to relate, mostly concerning
the absurd buffooneries of eccentric teachers. But Beatrice’s warning had
shaken me. It crossed my mind whether Alice’s tales were pure invention.
Despite my blind devotion to Alice, Beatrice had done something quite horrible.
She had planted a burgeoning grain of doubt.
Uncle only had beautiful
things to say about Alice. She had quite stolen his heart. So I asked both Aunt
and Uncle if they thought Alice was unbalanced. ‘No,’ my Uncle quickly
retorted, ‘she’s just an original. You’ll go a long way before you find anyone
as unique as Alice,’ he mused enthusiastically. This somewhat assuaged my
mounting concern. But I noticed how Aunt Judith shuffled awkwardly, and
although she said nothing, she lowered her eyes very slightly. I began to see
how women mightn’t be in love with Alice. She was simply too intimidating. I
wondered how many friends Alice had at her all girls’ school, and, suddenly, I
knew with absolute certainty, the answer was none. She’d never mentioned any
classmates. Alice was a loner, a phenomenon. This made me adore her even more.
‘Augustus, I know you’re
dying to see my home, my parents are both away, you can come around,’ Alice
announced, all in one breath. I was a little startled, but quickly said yes,
I’d love to see her place. Alice declared that we’d go now. We walked
hand-in-hand, past the skateboard park, over the graffitied railway bridge,
into the crumbly part of town. Gangs of youths stood idling around, everything
was splashed with painted profanities, I quailed inside. We came to a group of
dour state houses. ‘This is me,’ Alice stated, slightly abashed. I tried to
frame a smile, and not act deeply bourgeois. She fished awkwardly in her
pockets for her keys. ‘Here we are,’ Alice said, opening the shabby front door.
I hesitated for a second, and then we moved inside.
It was gloomy and
cavernous, until Alice flicked on a light. We stood in a cramped hallway with a
manky threadbare carpet. Alice showed me into the lounge, where a decrepit
grandfather clock ticked in a chilly corner. It felt soulless, almost
abandoned. ‘Let me show you my room,’ Alice piped brightly. Her bedroom was
boxy, but imaginatively decorated. There were big gaudy art-deco posters and
many large soft blue bears. It was strangely homely. Alice leapt onto her bed,
stretching out her long legs. I sat beside her. My hands felt clammy. I
trembled. ‘Come closer Augustus, don’t be so shy.’ Alice spoke confidently.
This was her domain. She hugged my shoulders, and planted a wet kiss on my
lips. A current thrilled through my whole body. Alice giggled coyly. We kissed
I marvelled at the
arbitrary way in which love had struck me. I’d not sought it out, now it had
railroaded my life. I was smitten so badly, it hurt. I wanted to spend every
minute with Alice. I was surprised that Aunt and Beatrice didn’t somehow divine
my lost innocence. I felt it was branded on my forehead, in screaming red
letters. I found it hard to function normally. My limbs wouldn’t engage and
walk me to school. I was completely deaf to the mumblings of my teachers, who
seemed like sorry cardboard cut-outs. I saw Alice everywhere. When she texted,
I glowed. We wrote intimacies. We arranged our next tryst.
It was growing dark and
drizzly when we met. Alice was wearing her big yellow duffle coat. I grinned
when I thought how good it’d be to play with its big red buttons. Alice caught
me in a huge embrace. She kissed me wildly. A man across the road
wolf-whistled, which made us smile. Alice pulled up her hood, and we bounded
towards the cafe. Where we sat across from each other, smiling and talking
nonsense, sipping scalding cappuccinos. ‘Now we’re a serious item,’ Alice said
in her profoundest voice, ‘I think we should exchange special tokens of our
love. Beautiful rings.’ Alice’s eyes glazed. She grew dreamy. I had my doubts
if Beatrice’s funds would stretch to such extravagance. Nevertheless I shook my
head in strong agreement. We’d go to the shop, and look at their best
jewellery. Alice toyed with her slim ring finger, imagining it dressed in a
gorgeous band of gold. The coffee shop was closing. We went out into the rain.
It was pouring now. We didn’t care.
‘I’m happy to fund your
little excursions, but really, rings, at your age,’ Beatrice ranted,
annihilating my dreams. I knew her answer was final, I wouldn’t argue. But it
was another nail in my deteriorating relationship with Beatrice. Uncle had a
big heart. I would approach him. I knew Alice wasn’t grasping, she wasn’t after
some twenty-two carat gem, she simply wanted a beautiful emblem of our love. So
I plucked up my courage and asked Uncle outright. Once he heard me correctly,
he let out a startled gasp. But he recovered quickly, smiled broadly, and
fished in his wallet. ‘Here’s fifty pounds,’ he said, jamming a crisp note in my
hand. ‘Buy your girl something gorgeous.’ I blushed hugely and thanked him
repeatedly. Alice would have her ring.
I was a little sheepish
about entering the jewellers, but Alice pulled my hand and dragged me in. ‘I am
looking for two rings. I should like them engraved,’ Alice announced to the
bemused assistant. She detailed our respective budgets, and waited to be shown
the merchandise. I was always impressed by Alice’s commanding manner. After a
while we were shown a tiny selection of modest but charming rings. Alice didn’t
hesitate. She pointed to a thin gold band and thrust out her finger. The shop
assistant obliged. Alice displayed her hand for my inspection. ‘Augustus, don’t
you think it looks gorgeous!’ she enthused. I said yes. We spoke softly together
for a while, about a suitable engraving. Alice gushed at first, until I came up
with some genuine heartfelt words. She beamed. Then I chose a golden ring for
myself. It was a little chunkier, but Alice approved, saying it made my hand
look manly. We paid, and the jeweller told us our rings would be ready the next
day. ‘Excellent,’ Alice said, ‘expect us at four o’clock.’ She took my hand
briskly, turned on her heel, and we swooped out of the shop, tinkling a bell as
I held out my hand to
Aunt. She gazed intently at my ring, as if it were some fabulous heirloom. I
felt proud, a little abashed too. ‘So things are pretty serious with Alice,’
Aunt quizzed. I said yes, they were. She looked hard into my eyes. ‘You are
very young Augustus, take care you don’t get hurt,’ Aunt warned, exactly
mimicking Beatrice. I told her Alice was kind, and we both felt the same way.
This somewhat pacified Aunt. She hugged me warmly, and her jovial self
returned. We both moved into the kitchen. Aunt brewed some tea. In the garden,
the trees had let fall their leaves. It looked drab and wintry now. But the
blaze in my heart was fierce.
Walking in the woods,
through drifts of leaves, the dark still clinging to the world, I would be
early that morning to school. My satchel was heavy, my phone buzzed hot with
messages from Alice. She loved to bombard me with her waking thoughts. Her mind
fizzed like a firework. I was among the deepest of the trees when I heard
following feet. This didn’t alarm me at first, because many folk used the wood.
I looked over my shoulder, and saw a grubby, burly man slouching behind. There
was something unwholesome about him. I put on speed, but I couldn’t shake him
off. My heart thumped inside my chest like a frightened rabbit. I broke into a
run. I could hear pounding boots and hoarse wheezing perilously close behind.
It was clear that some weirdo was pursuing me. I was near the stile now, and
leapt over it, clearing the bar by miles. My feet scrabbled on small stones,
then I sprinted away. The dirty oafish man had given up. But I raced until I
reached the school gates.
I went straight to the
headmaster Mr Summerly with my story. He was a frowning bald man, disturbingly
severe, but he listened intently. I had the distinct impression he’d heard all
this before. Mr Summerly asked if I could give a full description. The police
were sure to ask. I said yes, I could. Then I was shunted into the secretary’s
office and seated in the corner. It was a long wait, until two officers came
with notebooks and scrupulously recorded my tale. They both seemed bored, like
this was run-of-the-mill stuff. Although I knew it would distress her horribly,
I longed to speak with Alice and share my dreadful experience. After a solid,
hour-long interrogation, I was released. I felt dirtied, like it was all my
fault. I was driven home in a squad car. Uncle would surely think I was a
Aunt and Uncle kept me
away from school for the rest of the week. I was told to stay clear of the
woods, until the authorities dealt with this undesirable prowler. Alice, once
she found out, deluged me with loving concern, coming over to hear the whole story
first hand. I felt like a victim, but really nothing had happened, beyond a
racing heart. I didn’t feel especially traumatized or anything like that.
Nevertheless I accepted Alice’s tender solicitude, and milked the moment. Even
Beatrice visited my room, punched my arm squarely, and asked if I was
surviving. ‘There are perverts lurking everywhere, Augustus, take care of
yourself,’ she announced matter-of-factly, and abruptly left. When I returned
to school, Aunt would be driving me. I’d miss my morning walks, the early sun
on my face, the sound of snapping twigs. But I didn’t expect the ban would last
forever. The weirdo would be caught. I would walk again.
My scorching obsession to
meet Alice’s parents had burnt itself out. I no longer broached the subject
with Alice, because she flared up, and I didn’t like to see her sad. So it was
totally unexpected when Alice invited me to afternoon tea, to visit her folks.
I wondered at this incredible sea-change, and what had inspired it. ‘Saturday
at three would be a suitable hour,’ Alice declared, and I made no protest. To
finally meet and speak with these shadowy figures was something remarkable. I
itched to ask Alice why she’d relented, but I kept silent. I quietly relished
this upcoming visit. Because I believed it would somehow explain the beautiful
conundrum that was Alice.
Saturday rolled around
and I became afflicted with nerves. I arranged with Alice for us to meet at the
railway bridge, and we’d go together from there. I asked her to tell me a
little bit about her parents, hoping to garner some topics for general
conversation. But Alice insisted they were too weird for ordinary society, and
that I was unlikely to warm to their peculiar breed of babble. All this sounded
extraordinarily bizarre, but Alice wouldn’t elaborate, or help me any further.
In fact I had the strong impression that she thoroughly regretted inviting me.
We walked together over the footbridge, holding hands. Alice was strangely
subdued. It was an overcast day, the sky promised rain. There were hundreds of
butterflies in my stomach. The housing estate looked drear and foreboding,
menacing youths loafed around idly. I wanted to sink into the ground.
My first impression was
that they were a very odd couple. We sat rigidly in the boxy front room, and
neither Mr or Mrs Mannheim said a word. They never even greeted me, and they
seemed loath to break the awkward silence. Leo Mannheim was an enormous man,
freakishly tall, with a lorry driver’s girth. I thought it immensely strange
that here was the father of Alice, who was herself so slim and perfect. ‘I
suppose you’ll be wanting a cup of tea, young man. Alice, put on the stove,’
Rachael Mannheim suddenly blurted. There was a hard edge in her voice. Her face
was all wrinkled and blotchy. She sounded unfathomably bored. Alice disappeared
into the kitchen, and the three of us were left to stew in the uncomfortable
silence. I searched my head desperately for some conversational subjects. ‘So
Alice tells me you drive articulated trucks,’ I stated rather stupidly,
choosing to try out Mr Mannheim. ‘What else has our Alice been blabbing?’ he
barked back unexpectedly, so that I felt quite shocked. Alice returned with the
tea. I was hoping she’d help me out, but she seemed dazed. Leo Mannheim slurped
his tea noisily. ‘Fetch the boy a biscuit from the fancy tin,’ Rachael Mannheim
barked coarsely. Nothing would defrost her, this whole thing was disastrous.
Alice escorted me out.
I’d made a dreadful impression. And I thought her parents were truly abominable.
‘I warned you, they’re both head cases. They have nothing in common with me.’
Alice spoke emotionally. We walked together as far as the rail bridge. ‘It irks
me how they make no effort. I apologize Augustus, it must have been hideous for
you.’ I squeezed Alice’s hand, and put on my best heartening smile. We were
allies in this. I apologized for forcing her into such a fruitless meeting.
‘Well, it shan’t spoil things between us,’ Alice declared, kissing me softly on
the nose. I felt immensely relieved. We’d meet by the skate park the next day.
After folding me in a big bear hug, Alice strode purposefully back towards her
house. The light was failing. I felt suddenly bereaved. Aunt would have said
someone had walked over my grave.
Alice wasn’t replying to
my text messages. This was more than peculiar, as she normally flooded me with
all her random thoughts. It crossed my mind whether her phone was lost or
broken, but that seemed unlikely. There was something more sinister happening
here. I felt certain that her bizarre parents had forbidden her to speak to me.
Nothing else could explain such terrible silence. It was as if my entire life
had caved. There was an empty hole in my world, and it was consuming me. I
decided that I must see Alice. I’d go to her wretched house and thump on her
crappy door until she came. I didn’t care if her parents hated me. Just as I
was firing myself up, my phone pinged. It was Alice. ‘Stop bothering me
Augustus, it’s over.’ I didn’t believe my eyes. This could not be happening.
I called and called, but
I only got to voicemail. I booted the skirting board viciously, I couldn’t
contain my misery. Beatrice, hearing the noise, wandered in. ‘So does this
means she’s ditched you?’ she asked, with a glimmer of excitement. I nodded
abjectly. ‘Honestly Augustus, that girl is a liability.’ As I didn’t look
immediately converted, Beatrice slouched out of the room, giving me a weak
thumbs-up. Aunt poked her head around the door. ‘Anything wrong Augustus?’ she
asked tenderly. I felt I’d burst into tears. ‘Are you having some problems with
your girlfriend?’ Aunt hazarded. I explained how I couldn’t reach Alice,
repeating what she’d texted to me. For just the merest millisecond, Aunt looked
pleased at this. ‘Relationships can be the most difficult thing.’ she finally
stated. Aunt spoke these words sagely, they didn’t seem at all hackneyed. ‘Give
her time, she’ll come round, you’ll see,’ Aunt announced, hugging me broadly,
scurrying out of my room. I felt immensely grateful. I would plan my next move.
Alice simply had to be in my life.
Immediately after school,
I walked to the rail bridge, and climbed over, into the housing estate. It
looked as bleak as ever, and it didn’t encourage my heart. There always seemed
to be a pall of gloom lurking around these parts. I knocked gently at Alice’s
door. Inside I could hear chairs scraping, then feet shuffling in the corridor.
‘Who is that thumping?’ shouted an unfriendly voice. It was Mr Mannheim. I
explained it was me, Augustus, and I wished to see Alice. ‘Well she doesn’t
want to see you, matey. So buzz off!’ This was discouraging. I didn’t know how
to respond, so I said nothing. Leo Mannheim’s feet retreated back into the
house. The discussion was over. I’d need to try a different approach. I backed
away, and lurched disconsolately home.
I was so distraught that
I called a family conference. Aunt, Uncle, Beatrice and I sat around the
kitchen table. I explained my awful dilemma. Beatrice and Aunt both looked
awkward, if slightly amused. But Uncle Benedict rallied to my cause. ‘What I
suggest is a bouquet. A dozen red roses. Always does the trick.’ Uncle looked
pleased with himself, and offered to purchase them immediately, and put it on
his credit card. It seemed to me like a solid idea. ‘You must write a touching
card to go with the flowers,’ Uncle continued, inspired now. We went online and
completed the order. I composed a few romantic lines in which I tried to sound
less desperate than I felt. ‘Excellent, Augustus. Now we wait and pray for an
auspicious result.’ Uncle slapped me on the back, a little bit too hard,
because I staggered. Aunt and Beatrice were painfully silent, clearly
unconvinced by the whole proceeding. I felt they might even be secretly glad
things had gone awry with Alice. I locked myself in my room the entire
afternoon. I agonized over when Alice would receive the flowers, and prayed
that she’d text me soon. It grew dark. Hope failed inside me. A horrible
bleakness crept into my bones.
I woke suddenly. My phone
was still perched on my chest. It had vibrated. I felt a thrill run through me.
I grabbed my mobile and scrolled down the messages. It was all junk mail. My
heart died. Light was beginning to edge through the curtains. I’d slept a solid
twelve hours. I was probably late for school. I didn’t give a damn. Alice’s
flowers were surely already delivered. I had this vision of them gracing her
dustbin. I pulled myself out of bed, eager to speak with Uncle Benedict. They
were all sitting at the breakfast table. ‘Anything new,’ chirped my Uncle
happily. ‘I should think your girl will have gotten her flowers by now.’ The
misery in my eyes answered his question. Uncle looked down at his toast. Beside
him, Aunt and Beatrice oozed silent consolation. ‘Come Augustus, I’ll pour you
some tea, that’ll strengthen your soul,’ Beatrice said encouragingly. In our
house, the wondrous power of tea was always acknowledged. I sat down heavily
and sipped my sweetened beverage.
I strapped myself into
the passenger seat and Aunt drove. It was congested, our progress was
funereally slow. In my jacket pocket my phone suddenly pulsed. I snatched it
out, and there it was, a text from Alice. ‘Augustus, they are simply beautiful,
you precious darling!’ I thought my heart would stop, I felt so giddy. ‘It’s
from that girl, isn’t it?’ Aunt Judith quizzed. She didn’t look at all pleased.
I said nothing, struggling to catch my breath. I laboured hard to phrase a
coherent reply. But I was like a dead man resurrected. My message sent, Alice
followed up with a string of wild, delighted replies. I felt fabulous, whole.
Surely we were an item once again.
Apparently the Mannheims
had taken an instant disliking to me. They found me stuck-up, not right for
their girl. Alice was candid about this, and admitted she’d been warned to have
no contact with me. Fortunately the flowers had arrived when both of her
parents were out. I felt this new ban gave me the kind of illicit charm that
would appeal to Alice. Our trysts would have to be conducted in the utmost secrecy.
We’d hook up on Saturday, but in a new location. I wasn’t to tell a soul about
our revived relationship, in case the Mannheims got wind of things. Alice
seemed to think they could turn mean, and inflict harm on me. I didn’t care. I
was back with Alice.
We arranged to meet in
the fading botanic gardens, which was slightly out of town. Alice wanted us to
wander together in the Japanese garden, far from prying eyes. There was a
charming old-worldly villa at the centre of the park, which doubled as a coffee
shop and restaurant, where we could sit together, and croon comfortably. I
caught a local bus, arriving early. I stood at the gates in the freezing
morning, blessing the kindness of the world. Quite soon I couldn’t feel my feet
or toes. I stamped the pavement hard and blew on my fingertips. Time passed
grudgingly slowly. After half an hour, all hope had dwindled in my heart. Alice
wasn’t coming today. I kicked the kerbstone bitterly. I felt like my life was
in ruins. I waited another five desperate hope-fuelled minutes and then trudged
across the road to the bus stop. I instinctively felt that the Mannheims were
the problem. Alice had been so eager to meet. I’d need to thrash this out with
Alice texted me that
afternoon. ‘I’m so sorry Augustus! My Father forbade me to leave the house.’
She sounded genuinely frightened, and I was worried for her. Had her crazy-ugly
Father locked Alice in her room, or pulled some other alarming stunt? I begin
to wonder if Alice was a victim of child abuse. I would have to fathom this
out. I began drafting a letter to the Mannheims, seeking an urgent, friendly
meeting. But my prose grew mannered and flowery, and I didn’t think this would
endear me. So I screwed up and binned my first attempt, and wrote something
altogether more ordinary. Then I went to mail the letter, urgent, next day
delivery. Life seemed to have become a waiting game.
My phone rang loudly. It
was an unknown number. My heart raced. I answered immediately. It was Mr
Mannheim. ‘Look, Alice doesn’t want to associate with the likes of you, matey.
So stay away, shove off. Consider yourself officially warned.’ Mr Mannheim
growled deeply, then hung up abruptly. I didn’t have the chance to speak a
single word. I could understand that the man wanted to protect his daughter,
that was only natural. But Alice and I were happily hitched, so what could be
his grouse against me? I figured it must be a general loathing for my social
class, my obviously privileged background. That would be hard to dispel. But I
would go and thump on Leo Mannheim’s door, and prove to him that I was just a
decent, regular lovesick guy. Surely even the most embittered, socially
disadvantaged Father could understand about true love.
I just had to share my
problems. I thought I’d burst. So I told Uncle Benedict. Once he’d heard me
correctly, he looked concerned. ‘Jealous Fathers are a force of nature. They
are not to be underestimated.’ This was discouraging, but I nodded my head in
agreement. ‘What do you propose I do, Uncle? I can’t lose Alice,’ I shouted
desperately. ‘Give the man some cooling down time. A confrontation would be
unwise. He’ll eventually see the light,’ Uncle suggested sagely. ‘If you show
up at his house, gunning for his daughter, he’s very likely to bop you on the
nose.’ I had to agree. This was the most likely outcome. My strategy would need
to be more subtle. Uncle and I knocked our heads together, devising a plan. I
would wait for the moment. I could still text Alice, Mr Mannheim hadn’t
confiscated her phone. I grabbed my mobile and started typing.
My gadget buzzed happily
with a stream of beautiful messages. Alice didn’t seem at all spooked by her
Father’s sinister antics. She said he’d always been overly possessive and he
wasn’t about to change. When there was the tiniest chance of freedom, she’d dash
away and come to me. This heartened my gloom. I soon burnt through my allowance
of texts. I’d have to ask Beatrice for another loan, to top-up my device. I
knocked on Beatrice’s door. Loud, uncouth music shook the walls. ‘Enter,’
shouted Beatrice above the noise. I went inside and asked directly. ‘I suppose
I could stretch to twenty pounds. I hope you’re not squandering my money on
silly gifts for that crazy nut-job!’ I said no. I wanted to spill my heart to
Beatrice, but our recent chilliness stopped my tongue. I said thank you, and
backed cautiously from the room. Beatrice took no notice of my awkwardness. I
didn’t care. I would message Alice until my fingertips were red and raw.
For the whole week I
prayed that we’d be able to meet. But Alice said her Father was watching her
like a hawk, and demanded to know everything she did. I didn’t understand how
Alice could accept this imprisonment, it was mediaeval. But she never
criticized her Father once. I was baffled by their weird relationship. But I let
things rest, remembering Uncle’s sterling advice. I didn’t pressure Alice to
sneak out and risk a torrid scene. My whole soul ached for Alice. In school I
was like a love zombie. I set my phone to silent, typing madly when the
teachers were busy elsewhere. I was terrified the headmaster might snatch away
my mobile. I’d learnt one overwhelming lesson. That love was compulsive, it
obeyed no rules.
And then the unthinkable
happened. Alice’s messages stopped. I fired off a string of desperate texts,
but there was only depressing silence. I had a vision of Mr Mannheim
manhandling Alice, wrenching her phone out of her grappling hands. There’d be
tears, and unreasonable threats. I was scared for Alice. What was I to do? I
couldn’t lay back. I needed to act. I went to tell Uncle Benedict everything.
He was in his potting shed, cultivating young tomato plants. He looked
thoroughly immersed, but glad to see me. I breathlessly explained. ‘Well, there
seems little choice, young man,’ Uncle stated baldly. ‘You’ll need to go and
knock at her door. Faint heart never won fair maiden, as the saying goes.’ He
was entirely correct. I went back to my room, and pulled out my best clothes.
If I had to wrestle it out with Mr Mannheim, I’d need to look impressive. It
had begun to rain heavily. So I hastily borrowed some cash from Beatrice and
called a taxi. As the car manoeuvred into the drab housing estate, some
suitable phrases sprung into my head. I was drenched in a cold sweat now. This
was the biggest crisis of my life.
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? I decided to search for a coffee shop,
warm myself up, and return a bit later. It was more than likely Mr Mannheim was
driving his articulated truck on some long distance route, and he wouldn’t be
home for days. But Alice and Mrs Mannheim couldn’t be far away. Her Mother
would surely be more sensitive, I might be able to gain her trust. This new
possibility buoyed me up. I thrust my chapped hands deep into my pockets, and
strode away in search of coffee.
I drank a gritty mug of
coffee, which was slushy, bitter, and stared at the grubby wallpaper. Some
tough-looking teens slouched at a neighbouring table, otherwise the place was
deserted. It exuded a thick slovenly odour. This made me reflect on my
privileged life. I understood the anger the Mannheims must feel for my kind. It
was going to be an uphill struggle, convincing them that I was good enough for
their girl. I paid up and edged out of the cafe. A light rain was falling and
it had grown gloomy. Across a treeless concreted square I could see two women
walking. One of them was definitely Alice. My heart leapt into my mouth. Trying
to keep a respectable distance, so as not to alarm them, I followed behind.
This was my big chance. I waited until they turned the key, and went inside.
After a breathing space, I knocked gently. I could hear feet moving towards the
The door inched open and
Mrs Mannheim unhooked the latch. I tried to smile but completely failed. Mrs
Manheim’s blotchy face looked particularly antique, her deep wrinkles rigid and
ingrained. ‘It is me, Augustus. I’ve come to speak to you both about Alice.’
She sighed heavily and let me in. ‘Leo isn’t going to like this,’ she declared.
I could hear the terror in her voice. I asked when Mr Mannheim would return.
‘He’s at his social club. He’ll be here soon. He ain’t going to like this one
bit!’ Alice waltzed into the room. When she saw me she froze, and gasped. I
grinned lamely. Alice looked down and studied the carpet. ‘I’ll admit it,
you’ve got some gumption coming here,’ Mrs Mannheim was blustering. ‘This’ll
put Leo in a mean mood.’ Just at that moment I heard keys rattling outside, and
string of muttered curses. It was Leo Mannheim.
‘What the blazes are you
doing here!’ Mr Mannheim blurted out, aghast. ‘Get your lousy body out of my
house right now!’ I was prepared for this. ‘You need to stop sniffing around my
daughter like some dirty little hound.’ I had my speech prepared, but at this
onslaught, it withered on my tongue. I looked to Alice for help, but she hung
her head. I noticed a raw-looking gash on Mr Mannheim’s forehead, as if he’d
already been in a scrap. He was just warming up to me. ‘I love Alice. I hope
you’ll accept that we’re together,’ I announced. At this Mr Mannheim snorted,
scoffed, and spat vulgarly. His neck turned crimson. I thought he was about to
pounce. ‘What complete balderdash, at your age!’ he sneered. He hulked towards
me, like he might take a swing. ‘You need to leave my house right now, before I
reduce you to a blob of mincemeat!’ Then, most unexpectedly, Alice spoke.
‘Father. I am going with Augustus.’ Mr Mannheim’s rage instantly evaporated
with his daughter’s voice. ‘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. Mrs Mannheim swallowed hard. Leo Mannheim was totally
deflated. He was like a broken man. Neither of the Mannheims uttered a single
word. The door clicked shut behind us. The night air struck my face. I could
not believe what had just transpired.
Alice and I held hands
and strode briskly down the unlit streets. Our relationship had just moved up a
significant notch. We didn’t speak but it was clear to me that I should now
take Alice home. Aunt and Uncle would no doubt be alarmed, but they were
essentially hospitable souls. Uncle would always rally when there was trouble.
‘Augustus, I am chilly. Hold me,’ Alice announced theatrically. I put my arm
around her waist and held her close. She shivered slightly. We crossed the rail
bridge. I fished in my pocket for my phone and called a taxi. ‘You know that
Father took away my mobile,’ Alice suddenly announced. I nodded my head, saying
I’d suspected as much. We clambered into the back seat of the car. ‘I have done
a brash, bold thing,’ Alice reflected, as if speaking to herself. She seemed
shell-shocked, damaged. As the car pulled away, I kissed Alice passionately.
‘You poor dear!’ my Aunt
was fussing, offering Alice her moral support. Beatrice, who sat opposite,
looked less convinced, and pulled a long horsey face. ‘I shall put you in the
attic room, Alice. It is nice and snug.’ I was grateful to Aunt, for making
Alice so welcome. Uncle Benedict, who’d been out at the pub with some old
cronies, shuffled in. ‘Hullo, my dear. It is grand to see you!’ Uncle
blustered, clearly the worse for drink. Alice was still rather muted, but she
was warming to her new predicament. ‘It is so very kind of you all,’ Alice
announced, with a hint of royalty in her voice. ‘I really don’t know what
Augustus and I would have done.’ She repeated her story to Uncle, who listened
hard and was clearly disturbed. ‘You’ve been through a dreadful ordeal, my
girl. Beatrice, there’s a good soul, fish in my desk drawer. My old mobile
should be there. Give it to Alice.’ Beatrice snuffled something unintelligible,
and noisily ransacked Uncle’s desk. Then, rather too pointedly, too daintily,
she handed over to Alice a glossy, expensive-looking smartphone. ‘Thank you so
much!’ Alice chimed, very delighted. ‘Really, it’s my pleasure,’ Uncle snorted
happily. Aunt stood up, keen to escort Alice off to bed. I kissed Alice
modestly, and wished her an untroubled sleep. She flounced beautifully from the
room, scattering warm goodnights, almost her old self.
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 wanted us to go to the mobile shop and set up her new phone. She would
also need some small things, having fled her home with nothing. Surprisingly
Beatrice piped in and offered to loan Alice some of her clothes. I thought this
kind. Alice fizzed with pleasure. ‘Beatrice, you are such a darling!’ she
enthused. Breakfast was over. I gulped a big slug of black coffee and scraped
my chair on the tiled floor.
The business with Alice’s
phone was soon resolved, so we went to hunt out cosmetics and toiletries. Alice
was an impulsive shopper, and she quickly had a basket laden with expensive
products. I shivered when I thought of the bill, but Uncle had magnanimously
loaned me his credit card for the morning. ‘Get the girl whatever she fancies,
it’ll soothe her,’ Uncle had generously declared. But I don’t think he had
bargained on the scale of Alice’s excesses. Once we’d left the department
store, I suggested coffee. ‘Augustus, that’d be delightful!’ Alice bubbled.
Something was very amiss. It suddenly struck me that Alice wasn’t at all
aggrieved about her parents, or the uncertainty surrounding her own future. I
wondered whether something like this hadn’t happened to her before.
Nevertheless we strolled into an upmarket cafe and sipped beautiful lattes. My
phone rang loudly. It was Uncle. The Mannheims were waiting at home. Uncle
sounded sheepish, even scared.
When I shared this with
Alice, she said she daren’t go back. I could hear the tremor in her voice and I
knew she was genuinely frightened. It would not be good to subject Alice to an
alarming meeting. I rang Uncle Benedict back and explained that Alice wasn’t
ready to see her parents. ‘I will try to explain,’ Uncle replied in hushed
tones, ‘but the Mannheims don’t seem like terribly reasonable people.’ I knew
exactly what he meant, and 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 of my dilemma. ‘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, inescapable mess.
Alice and I mooched
around town until Uncle texted, to report that the coast was clear. Alice clung
to my arm in a needy way, making me feel self-conscious. I had strange new
emotions surging in me. I’d always placed Alice on an inviolable pedestal, but her
image was now wobbling precariously. I couldn’t expel from my head the
suspicion that she’d enacted all this before. Perhaps even her abusive,
repulsive parents were a sham. My head churned with unsubstantiated misgivings.
But Alice squeezed my hand tenderly. She looked up at me. She could sense the
slightest of mood changes. I pecked her pretty nose, and put away my doubts.
She needed my full support. We wended our way home, talking of little things.
After a mile I felt hugely pacified. We walked together up the stony, potholed
road. Uncle standing outside the house. His face was ashen.
‘Well Alice, your Father
is quite a formidable man. He’s given me the collywobbles,’ Uncle explained. He
was noticeably shaken. ‘The upshot is, he wants you back. He made that very
clear, in no uncertain terms.’ Alice seemed cowed by this, but
unsurprised. ‘Father has always been an
angry man,’ Alice reflected quietly. ‘But I want to stay with Augustus and you
all!’ she added passionately. ‘Parents can be so awfully inconvenient.’ I
blanched inwardly at this, but saw Alice’s point. ‘I wouldn’t put it past your
Father to come and physically seize you,’ Uncle returned. At that Alice looked
positively frightened. We moved inside the house, and Uncle boiled the kettle.
We’d take solace in tea, and wait for what happened next.
In the kitchen, Aunt
assimilated the new information greedily. I stood in my favourite spot, hoping
for illumination. ‘I can envisage that Mr Mannheim will be here soon, pounding
on the door,’ Aunt announced, with something like divine authority. I sensed
Uncle shuffling his hands in his pockets, clearly alarmed. ‘But let’s not brood
on this. I’m happy that Alice is here.’ Alice made a little curtsy and lunged
to kiss Aunt Judith, obviously very pleased. ‘I’m so fortunate to have you
lovely people!’ Alice declared, effervescing excitedly. Then Beatrice waltzed
in. ‘I hate to break up your party guys, but there’s an aggrieved Father at the
door.’ My heart sunk into my shoes. Alice reached out for my wrist. I could
feel her pulse racing. ‘Let me deal with this,’ Uncle said nobly. ‘We must all
be civil, and thrash this out like adults.’ The kitchen door was hurled open.
Leo Mannheim, burly, red-faced, bristling with anger, eyeballed his daughter.
‘You, Miss, are coming home with me! No more of your lame, lovesick bullshit!’
The man was rabid. He would not be contradicted. This, surely, was the end of
Alice stood firm. I
thought Leo Mannheim was going to grapple with her. He snatched brutally at Alice’s
arm. ‘Unhand me Father, this is embarrassing,’ screamed Alice. Mr Mannheim
suddenly went limp, like all the steam had rushed out of him. I could almost
hear the gears grinding in his head. Alice moved towards me, so I held her hand
tenderly. ‘Mr Mannheim, Alice is safe with us. You need to go and calm down,
and then we can discuss this intelligently,’ Uncle declared firmly. Mr
Mannheim’s normal colouring was returning. He nodded curtly, and grunted
something unintelligible. The ghastly scene was cooling. Alice and I had won.
‘Make no mistake, I will be back for you Alice. These fancy folk aren’t your
family. You belong with me, girl.’ Once Mr Mannheim had fired off his parting
comment, he 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, that was an
eye-opener!’ chimed in Beatrice, theatrically wiping her forehead. She grabbed
a generous slice of Battenberg cake, and pranced out of the kitchen. Gently, I
cupped my hand around Alice’s waist, and guided her into the lounge. We sat together
on the big, sagging sofa. Aunt was preparing more tea. ‘I think your Father has
calmed a little,’ Uncle said, ‘but I wouldn’t expect we’ve seen the last of
him.’ I had to agree with this saddening synopsis. Alice had become silent. I
squeezed her hand, and tried to prize a smile, but Alice 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.’
Alice wanted to go for a
walk, to clear her head. We decided on a gentle stroll in the woods. I hadn’t
been in there since the pervert tried to chase me. I didn’t tell Aunt our plan,
in case she tried to squash it. Alice perked up as soon as we were deep among
the trees. ‘It is so gorgeous in here Augustus! It is like a blessed realm!’
Alice was back to her usual self. I didn’t want to burst her happy bubble, so I
put off asking her about her crazy Father. The man was clearly insane, and
quite likely to thrash out, and hurt someone. I could understand how a Father
might feel, losing his daughter, but there was a mad, unreasonable edge to Leo
Mannheim’s behaviour. I felt he was capable of extreme violence. As Alice
twittered on about the beautiful canopy, my mind conjured up distressing
bloodstained scenes. Suddenly Alice tapped my nose gently. ‘Augustus, you are a
terrible worry-guts. Enjoy the moment!’ She wrapped me in a huge embrace. For a
moment my fears entirely dissolved.
There was the awkward
matter of school. My heart had long since cast away any educational
aspirations, but I didn’t want Alice’s future to be bleak. Somehow, she had to
continue with her schooling, despite what seemed like insurmountable
difficulties. As she wouldn’t be able to retrieve her uniform, Uncle offered to
buy Alice an entirely new set and all the necessary bags, sports wear and
stationary. Also Uncle would chauffeur Alice and I each day. Inwardly I quaked
at the prospect that the Mannheims might abduct their daughter during school
hours. It would be the perfect time to pull off this kind of heist. I prayed
that I was being paranoid, but 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.
School went swimmingly,
without a peep from Leo Mannheim. This got me deeply suspicious. Surely the man
was stewing up some sinister plan. And then one muggy afternoon, when we were
picked up from school, Uncle had some news. ‘Mr Mannheim is taking legal action
against us. He claims that we have kidnapped his daughter.’ This was
outrageous, but not unexpected. Alice quivered beside me.’ I believe Mr
Mannheim intends to drag us through the courts.’ Uncle was muttering something
about settling things amicably, but I was too shocked to listen. ‘Mr Mannheim
has also alerted Child Support. We can expect an unwelcome caller soon,’ Uncle
added, in a resigned kind of way. ‘Alice.’ Uncle lowered his voice and spoke
cautiously. ‘I feel it is high time we all paid your Father a visit.’
There was an abrupt rap
on the door. Uncle went to answer and I followed him. Two enormous bespectacled
women in badly crumpled dresses stared up at us. ‘My name is Sara Johansson. I
am a child liaison officer. And this is my colleague, Terri Braithwaite. We should
very much like to have a word with yourself and Alice.’ Uncle shook both of
their hands woodenly and invited them inside. Alice was sprawled out across the
sagging sofa, biting a fingernail. ‘I won’t go back to them, you can’t force
me!’ Alice bawled unexpectedly. ‘Hello Alice. It is lovely to meet you. This is
your decision entirely. We are simply here to make certain that you are safe,
and clear in your mind,’ replied Mrs Johansson appeasingly. She seemed entirely
reasonable and impartial. ‘If you both wouldn’t mind, we’d very much like to
speak with Alice privately.’ My heart jumped but Alice nodded my way, meaning
that it was OK. Uncle and I went into the kitchen where Aunt was preparing a
simple lunch. ‘So they’re here. How do they seem?’ Uncle explained that they
appeared to be completely civil. ‘I imagine they’ll want a tour around the
house,’ Aunt mused thoughtfully. After fifteen nail-biting minutes, Alice’s
face appeared around the door. She was guiding the social workers our way.
Their faces were smiley and plastic. Aunt escorted them up to Alice’s room. ‘So
what is the outcome?’ I asked nervously. ‘Augustus, it is all good,’ Alice
beamed. ‘I’m under no obligation whatsoever to see my Father. They made that
very clear.’ I felt relieved. Just then the two frightening crows poked their
heads into the kitchen, to announce they were satisfied and leaving. Uncle
vigorously pumped their hands, and harried them both towards the front door.
When he returned he looked content. ‘Well, we have won the first round. But I
think it’s going to be a messy fight!’ Alice and I hugged emotionally. Today,
at least, we weren’t about to be prized apart.
I expected the social
workers would report back to Leo Mannheim, and he’d be mad. But there were no
signs of him coming around again, to pummel us with his fists. Alice was a
touch subdued, but she spoke gently to me, about our ‘inseparable bliss’.
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
uncanny ability to steamroller my soul.
I was basking in the
relative tranquillity of things. That is, until Uncle was slapped with a
mountain of court papers. We were having our tea when there was a thunderous
knock at the door. A corpulent bearded man, who announced that he was a court
bailiff, shuffled a folder of documents importantly. ‘You are summoned to
appear before the Judge two weeks from today. Consider yourself duly served.’
Uncle blinked weakly and nodded his head. I leant over his shoulder and read
the title page. In big bold script the words ‘Abduction of a minor’ screamed
back at me. This sounded alarmingly serious. I was concerned it might be an
imprisonable offence. Alice, who’d been mooching in the back room, took one
look at Uncle’s queasy face, saw him clutching the heap of papers, and ignited.
‘It’s my wretched Father again, isn’t it? What’s he done now?’ ‘Alice, my dear,
don’t alarm yourself. But I believe we are going to need a lawyer,’ my Uncle
announced thoughtfully. Matters, like Beatrice said, were getting messy.
Uncle’s lawyer was a man
named Roland Baines. We went to his crumbly chambers for an introductory
meeting. Mr Baines was a big beefy man in a shabby blue suit. He sat at an
immense desk piled with bulging files. ‘So my friends, what’s this all about?’
he asked eagerly. He seemed delighted at the prospect of sinking his teeth into
a juicy new case. Uncle spoke, explaining everything with a beautiful
succinctness. I scrabbled my feet under the table, awkward to have our story
dissected so publicly. ‘Well, this is a pretty pickle!’ Mr Baines sighed, once
Uncle had stopped speaking. Together, they went over the finer points at some
length. Eventually Mr Baines seemed satisfied. ‘Leave all the documents with my
secretary. I believe we have a solid defence,’ he pronounced. Alice hadn’t said
a word. We rose. Our chairs scraped on the floor. We all shook hands. ‘Have no
fear, I shall see to it that this whole ugly case is dismissed,’ Mr Baines said
as we parted. I felt heartened.
It was nice to have Leo
Mannheim out of our faces. But as the court date loomed, a growing anxiety fell
upon me. Mr Baines had made convincing assurances, but they didn’t factor in Mr
Mannheim’s unpredictable nature. I wondered what sort of legal representative
Mr Mannheim had retained, or whether he intended to prosecute the case himself.
Alice didn’t seem especially alarmed, and I was glad of this. On the evening
before our appearance, Uncle sat us both down, and outlined precisely what he
thought would happen. The judicial process could be frightening, he explained,
but he didn’t want us to worry ourselves. ‘Stand tall when you are questioned,
and don’t let yourself feel intimidated by your Father,’ Uncle said, addressing
Alice. She nodded, strangely nonchalant. In bed I tossed and turned. It was
difficult to sleep. It felt like a terrible doom was descending on us all. When
the alarm finally jangled, I ungummed my heavy eyes, and pulled myself from
bed. D-day had arrived.
The courthouse was a
formidable Gothic building that made my stomach churn. After being frisked down
by security personnel, we sat and waited in a cramped ante room, until our case
was called. I looked about me. The smell of nicotine was strong. The whole
place was foggy. There was a reek of unwashed bodies. Maybe from the other
offenders who sat with their heads in their hands. I couldn’t see the
Mannheims. Mr Baines strolled in, smiling broadly, clearly in his element.
‘Believe me, we shall be called soon,’ he told Uncle, and planted his big body
beside Alice, who was painfully silent. We waited awkwardly for a considerable
time. Finally a court usher came into the room. She summoned us. We were guided
down an ominous, musty corridor until we reached a pair of huge swing doors.
This was it. We moved into the court room.
‘All rise for Judge
Hastings.’ We stood. The Mannheims were to our right. The court clerk announced
some procedural matters, and Leo Mannheim was summoned to the stand. His full
grievance was outlined in graphic language. The Judge, high up on his bench,
nodded solemnly throughout. My heart sunk into my best shoes as Mr Mannheim
elaborated on the fateful loss of his beloved daughter. Beside me, Uncle
twitched, crestfallen. After what seemed an interminable, crushing time, Leo
Mannheim stood down. Uncle was called. ‘Alice has suffered terribly at the
hands of unloving, restrictive parents,’ he stated. ‘They’ve been entirely
blind to her growing up. It is completely understandable that she wanted to
escape from the clutches of her overbearing Father.’ I had never heard Uncle
speak so convincingly. I felt proud. The Judge had no questions. I was next. I
cannot remember what was asked, or what I said. I tried to speak boldly but my
throat muscles constricted unhelpfully. The blood vessels pounded in my neck.
Then Alice was up. She carefully avoided the vulgar, hungry gaze of her Father,
and answered all the questions impassionately. The Judge listened carefully.
‘Let me say that I have no intention of returning home,’ Alice concluded, with
impressive robustness. Then the Judge shuffled some papers and cleared his
throat. ‘We have had some compelling evidence. I will reserve my judgement to a
later date.’ And that was it. We all stood, and slowly cleared the court. Leo
Mannheim and his wife ambled out like scolded bloodhounds. Mr Baines shook
Uncle’s hand, and said he was pleased at the outcome. I couldn’t see how.
All that week I was on
tenterhooks, waiting to hear the Judge’s decision. I had visions of Alice being
carted away under my very nose. Then Uncle had a call. Immediately I knew it
was Mr Baines. Uncle pressed his phone firmly to his ear, raising a finger for
silence. ‘Will you repeat that again for me, Roland.’ There was a long
agonizing pause. ‘Well, that is marvellous news! Thank you so much,’ said
Uncle, and hung up abruptly. He was glowing delightedly. ‘Well, Alice, the
Judge has ruled that you can remain with us. There is a proviso that you try to
re-establish amenable contact with your parents, but that is secondary. This is
truly fabulous news!’ Uncle lurched across to Alice and bear-hugged her warmly.
I joined the scrum. ‘I think this calls for a celebration dinner.’ Just then
Aunt ambled from the kitchen, hearing the big hullabaloo. She looked thrilled
at the prospect of preparing a lavish feast. Beatrice sauntered idly into the
room. ‘So what’s all this blather about?’ Uncle explained. Beatrice was the
only one who didn’t act entirely chuffed.
When we had all banqueted
and washed away the mountain of dirty crockery, Uncle gave us a small crystal
glass of red wine, to raise as a toast. ‘I give you Alice. The latest addition
to our family.’ We all lifted our glasses and chinked them together. Alice
fizzed brightly. However I took notice of Beatrice’s sardonic grin. I began to
feel aggrieved that she couldn’t share in our wonderful victory. I thought of
cornering Beatrice afterwards, and thrashing it out, but I knew it would only
spoil my mood. From the first Beatrice had been anti-Alice. Nothing I could say
would overturn her bias. If everything turned to custard, I could imagine
Beatrice gloating over the wreckage. I hated to think how addled our once
beautiful relationship had become. Despite this aching thorn, I downed the
abrasive wine and asked for more. Uncle winked conspiratorially, filling me up.
Alice chortled gaily.
During the week my mood
changed. I began to feel nervous. I feared reprisals. I couldn’t believe Leo
Mannheim would accept the court ruling. From what I’d seen, he was a violent,
bullying man who’d place himself above the law. I didn’t want to alarm Alice,
so I kept my anxieties to myself. She seemed remarkably unbruised by recent
events. She chattered away happily, ebullient as a boiling kettle. Alice had
struck up a firm friendship with Uncle. The pair were inseparable. Uncle looked
twenty years younger. Beatrice, however, had grown peculiarly sullen and kept
to her room. Boldly, I went to speak with her. I asked what was eating her.
‘I’m not pleased,’ she said baldly, ‘that my own Father has been hijacked by
your freaking weirdo.’ After that, I couldn’t extract another word from
The days passed in a
whirl of wonder and still nothing untoward had occurred. I consistently checked
the locks when we all went to bed, and latched every open window I could find.
I was busting to share my anxieties. When I finally confided in Uncle, he
looked profoundly serious. After some deliberation Uncle answered me. ‘Be
assured, Augustus, that the full weight of the law will descend on Leo
Mannheim’s head, if he were to try any monkey-business.’ Although spoken with
real gravity, Uncle’s guarantee couldn’t appease my doubts. I was so
discomforted and jittery that Alice enquired if I was alright. I simply had to
spit out my fears. ‘I’m worried that your Father might come round and do
something dreadful.’ ‘Ha! That bloody man is an absolute coward,’ she scoffed.
‘He wouldn’t dare to dip his toe into our territory now. He has a criminal record
you know! If he breaches this order, he’ll be straight back in the slammer.’ I
was mildly shocked by Alice’s language, I’d never heard her talk like this
before. ‘So don’t fret yourself Augustus,’ she smiled broadly. ‘We are one
hundred percent gorgeously safe.’ Then she stood up on her tiptoes, and kissed
And then, quite
unexpectedly, Uncle received a letter. It was from Mrs Mannheim. In a
shambling, crabby script Rachael Mannheim explained that she needed to see her
daughter. She wrote totally reasonably, so unlike her incensed husband. Alice
was clearly moved. As she put the letter aside, she ran her fingertips through
her hair, something she always did when she was troubled. ‘I should like to see
Mother,’ Alice said simply. Uncle nodded his approval. Alice fished her phone
from her pocket, and fired off a quick text. After a brief time, she got a
reply. ‘It is Mother, she can come on the weekend,’ Alice said huskily. I could
feel the emotion welling inside her.
The day Rachael Mannheim
was due, Aunt was busy in the kitchen baking scones. ‘We must make her feel
welcome. This is important for Alice. Every girl needs her Mother around.’ I
felt a certain distrust, but nothing approaching the scale of my disgust for
Leo Mannheim. Rachael Mannheim was almost certainly the oppressed victim of her
husband’s moods and tantrums. She deserved understanding. I knew I would be
kind. When the doorbell rang, Alice was composed. Together with Aunt, she
skipped to the door, and swung it open wide in welcome. Mrs Mannheim face was
alarming, blotchier than ever, and she looked almost mousy. I had the distinct
impression that she’d been crying. ‘Alice, my darling,’ she crooned, hugging
her daughter emotionally. It was a moving reunion. I thought Alice might
crumple into tears, but she stayed proud and firm. The two of them huddled off
together to the big lounge, for a private mother-daughter chat. I thought I’d
amble to the warm kitchen, and nibble on one of Aunt’s delicious scones.
Mrs Mannheim and Alice
emerged after an hour. They looked sparkly and happy. I couldn’t help wondering
what mysterious subjects had consumed them for so long. Rachael Mannheim’s skin
looked markedly less hectic and flushed. ‘I will come again Alice, when Leo is
away.’ I felt pain for her. Clearly, she was horribly beholden to her loutish
husband. I wondered whether Rachael Mannheim was abused. Alice kissed her
Mother fondly, and guided her to the door. Uncle came out, to say his goodbyes.
Alice’s Mother stalled for a moment, then she walked away briskly, without
looking back. My eyes lingered after her. There was tragedy written in her
gait. I heard Alice suppress a tearful gasp beside me. I understood now. It was
all immensely painful.
A new empathy surged in
me. It was like a benign virus in my bloodstream. I began to view Alice in an
entirely new light. She was an heroic survivor. Whilst her sad Mother was a
beautiful, tragic victim. I had to help Rachel Mannheim escape the bonds
ensnaring her. When I spoke to Alice of this, her answer was surprising.
‘Mother will never leave my Father. He’s cast some kind of spell over her.
Despite everything, she really loves him.’ Alice said this sadly. ‘But it makes
me want to weep, thinking how badly Father treats her.’ After this openness,
Alice clammed up and I couldn’t extract another word. It was not like I could
take matters into my own hands. So I asked Uncle what avenues were open to
abused women. Initially he looked shocked, but he recovered his composure, and
explained all about women’s refuges. ‘Augustus, you are thinking of Mrs
Mannheim, are you not?’ Uncle said very gently. I nodded. ‘I don’t think it’s
our place to intervene. We don’t want Leo Mannheim gunning after us,’ Uncle
declared. I shrugged my shoulders, thrusting my hands deep into my pockets. Of
course Uncle was right.
‘Augustus, I need to warn
you.’ Beatrice breathed hard. ‘That girl is a complete fake! I’ve caught her
chatting away to her Father on the phone. They sounded positively chummy.’
Clearly Beatrice wasn’t jesting with me, because she seemed genuinely outraged.
‘Their whole family have been stringing us along. Alice is a deceitful cow!’
Very quietly, struggling to keep myself together, I asked Beatrice what could
be their possible motivation. ‘It must be money. It is always money. They want
to bleed my dear Father for every pound he’s got!’ I broke out in a cold sweat,
and played stupidly with my fingers. I mumbled something about this being a
serious allegation. ‘Open your eyes Augustus,’ Beatrice continued relentlessly.
‘You’re being taken for one hell of a ride.’ I started plaintively into empty
space. Suddenly Beatrice bounded out of my room. She would certainly tell
Uncle. I had this clear image of an ugly iron wrecking ball destroying my life.
I had to get the truth out of Alice.
I’d never been much good
at confrontations. My heart quailed at conflict. I shied away from messy
scenes. But I screwed up my courage, and challenged Alice outright. ‘Don’t be
absurd Augustus! That man is anathema to me.’ I wanted to believe her, but
there was something rehearsed about Alice’s reply which didn’t ring true. ‘Your
darling Beatrice doesn’t much like me,’ Alice sulked. ‘She’s always sticking
her big beak into our intimate affairs.’ I made no comment. ‘Augustus, you
don’t believe me!’ She stamped her foot petulantly. ‘Our relationship has
always been built on a beautiful trust. So trust me now.’ Alice reached up to
my lips, and kissed me ever so gently. I melted. I was completely taken in. I
dismissed all of Beatrice’s envious lies. She’d always hated the thought of
Alice and myself. It was simply vindictive of her. Uncle came suddenly into the
room. He looked furious, devastated, betrayed.
‘Well, young lady, do you
want to explain to me exactly what’s going on?’ Uncle said starkly, not trying
to soften the hard edge from his voice. Alice looked aghast, as if she’d been
caught red-handed in some shameful act. Quickly, however, she regained her
composure. ‘What’s all the big fuss? Can’t a girl have a civil chat with her
Father now? I’ve done absolutely nothing wrong.’ Uncle relaxed at this, and
seemed somewhat placated. There was no sinister plan to fleece us all. It was
just a sick fantasy concocted in Beatrice’s jealous mind. ‘I am sorry to have
accused you Alice. I have got the wrong end of the stick,’ said Uncle, backing
down. Alice nodded quietly, and ran her fingertips through her long auburn
hair. It was as if she were preening her ruffled feathers. I tried hard, but I
just couldn’t shake off the nasty suspicion that it was all play-acting.
Beatrice was in the
doghouse. Uncle said she’d stirred up an ant’s nest of lies, and he wasn’t
impressed. He insisted Beatrice make no more wild, unfounded allegations. Uncle
demanded that Beatrice make an apology. ‘I will not dirty myself in that way,’
Beatrice replied haughtily. ‘I stick by my word. That girl is a scheming vixen,
and, make no mistake, I will expose her!’ Uncle grumbled dejectedly, but he
didn’t pursue the matter. Beatrice scowled at me. Being Alice’s boyfriend, I
was tarred with her horrible corruption. ‘You seriously need to wise up,
Augustus. You’re living in an embarrassing fictional world.’ Her piece said,
Beatrice stormed from the room, and slammed the door violently, scattering a
neat pile of Uncle’s business papers.
From that time, Alice
turned cold towards me. She wore a permanent frozen expression, like she’d been
deeply wronged. She no longer kissed me in her eager, affectionate way. We
barely spoke a word. I felt a glacial wind blowing in my life. As if all the
joy in the world had turned to permafrost. I blamed Beatrice. Who kept to her
room, clearly simmering with rage, regularly slamming doors, to express the
profound contempt she felt for us all. Uncle was miserable. Our whole family
was in tatters. We were a sorry little tribe.
Aunt was the one who
thawed our wretched unhappiness. She gathered us together, explained how we
were all being complete silly-buggers, then she poured us scalding, healing
tea. Alice threw her arms around my shoulders, and hugged Beatrice, who was
mightily surprised. We all spoke at once. Uncle looked relieved. ‘It has been
so tragic, I thought my heart would shrivel and die,’ Alice sniffled
theatrically. Beside me, I could feel Beatrice cringe inside. Alice tittered
away like a small bird, holding Uncle’s huge paw. I could sense his
rejuvenation, as if life was suddenly a circus again.
This time it was me who
overheard Alice on the phone. She was squeezed up near the broom cupboard,
having an in-depth yak with her Father. I knew it was Leo Mannheim. Alice was
saying something about it all going her own way, to which I could clearly hear
her Father snort with pleasure. Alice had the phone pressed up hard to her
lips, adding to the sense that something illicit was going on. The two were
clearly conspiring together. I choked. Alice was immediately alert to my
presence. She hung up, and bounded at me from her corner. ‘ You’re not spying
on me, are you, Augustus?’ she chided gently, with mock alarm. I said no. But
my face reddened, and I knew I must report this to Uncle.
Uncle and I sat in close
cahoots while I detailed Alice’s latest misdemeanour. He was tickled by the
image of Alice telephoning from the broom cupboard, but he grew nervous when I
repeated what I’d heard. ‘Well, I expect it’s all harmless talk. Nobody is going
to get their hands on my money. It’s tucked tidily away, where no light fingers
can reach.’ Uncle spoke flippantly, but I sensed a genuine disquiet about him.
More and more I began to feel that I’d introduced, with Alice, a dreadful peril
into the house. Beatrice hated her, Uncle was deeply disturbed, Aunt was
fearful, and I was cooling rapidly to her charms.
‘Alice is sleeping rather
late,’ Aunt said over breakfast. ‘Go up and wake her, Benedict. She won’t want
to miss my special French toast.’ Uncle headed off upstairs, whistling like an
aviary. Minutes later, he was back down, looking exceedingly pale. ‘Alice isn’t
in her room. Her bed hasn’t been slept in.’ We all shot up to the attic room to
inspect the scene. Alice’s clothes were gone, the hangars still swayed, as if
she’d only recently left. I searched for a note, but there was nothing. She
must have sneaked away in the night, like a common thief. I felt appalled.
‘Well, what do we do now?’ Uncle asked, cracking his fingers nervously. ‘Alice
is still officially in our care, but I rather suspect she’s gone back to her
Father.’ I had this overwhelming urge to shout and rage at my absent
girlfriend. Beatrice, sensing my distress, patted my shoulders supportively. I
looked sternly into her eyes. But she hid her feelings well. Because there was
only the faintest trace of ‘I told you so.’
As the day wore on, I
began to pine for Alice. I kept checking my phone and started to devise a text
message to her in my head. It gnawed at my whole being. In the end, I just
couldn’t hold out, and I asked her bluntly where she darn-well was. I tried not
to dredge up all our great times in my memory, or think too nostalgically. I
had begun to understand that Alice was deceitful and disloyal, and that I
shouldn’t forgive her for absolutely everything. My love for Alice certainly
impaired my vision, but it didn’t make me wholly blind and stupid. I asked
Uncle what his plans were. He shrugged his massive shoulders and declared
himself totally at a loss. ‘Really, that girl is a complete mystery to me.
Let’s just ride the storm, and see what happens next.’ This seemed solid
advice, but I continued to cradle over my phone, desperate for it to bleep,
vibrate with at least one brusque notification.
It was at this time my
cousin Tom made a reappearance in our lives. Mid-semester break at university
brought him home. He was reading engineering, thoroughly enthralled by his
studies. Tom, so much my senior, liked to rib me. ‘So, Augustus, I’ve been
hearing you’ve got woman troubles,’ he chided, when we were all having supper.
I never liked the tone Tom used when he spoke to me. Uncle came to my aid,
explaining how Alice had seemed like such a nice girl, and they’d all been
hoodwinked. ‘Well my advice, Augustus,’ said Tom, labouring the point, ‘would
be to steer well clear of difficult females.’ Beatrice nodded her head
approvingly. She’d always hero-worshipped her older brother. Fortunately Tom
dropped the subject after this, and we all ate eagerly, as he expounded
amusingly on university life. While Tom was describing a raucous,
alcohol-fuelled party, my phone pinged in my pocket. My heart pounded wildly.
It was Alice.
‘Augustus, please find it
in your heart to forgive me. I acted rashly. All my love, your Alice.’ I read
over her text, relishing its simple heartfelt sentiments. Beatrice was craning
her neck, leaning precariously across my shoulder. ‘Augustus, don’t be taken in
by all her mushy nonsense. She plans to ensnare you, and then ruin you.’ I was
about to fire off a giddy reply to Alice, but Beatrice’s warning made me
reconsider. ‘I think you should veer on the side of caution,’ Uncle blurted
out, until I put down my phone, and sighed hard. ‘Good move, young man. Let her
sweat a bit. You don’t want to be a complete walkover.’ Tom spoke with
prodigious authority, as if he understood every whim and turn of a young
woman’s mind. Beatrice nodded at him, in awestruck wonder. It seemed like my
relationship with Alice was now public property. Anyone might come along and
dissect its dysfunctional character. I knew, like it was a force of nature,
that Alice, could she hear our words, would simply revel in this discussion.
No more texts came, and
the edge dulled on my anxiety. Beatrice was suddenly bubbly and charming, and I
was pleasantly distracted by the fascinating tall stories that tumbled from her
mouth. Now that the shadow of Alice was removed, my relationship with Beatrice
healed rapidly. Generally she seemed in better spirits, especially now that her
brother was home. I was the butt-end of all Tom’s tasteless jokes. We only met
at mealtimes, but his impression of me as a swooning lover was greeted with
delight. ‘Leave the poor boy alone,’ cautioned Aunt, who nevertheless giggled
breathlessly. This rankled me.
As Aunt was pouring tea,
there was a heavy rap at the door. Uncle clumsily got up, scraping his chair
noisily. ‘Bother,’ he said. ‘Who would be disturbing us at this time?’ He
lurched away towards the front porch. I heard the deadlock turn. I couldn’t see
Uncle open the door, but I could feel his surprise from a room away. My heart
did a violent somersault. I felt certain it was Alice. ‘Well, you had better
come in, my dear,’ Uncle was saying mousily. Beatrice stiffened. I sensed the
temperature plunge in the room, although I was sweating profusely. And then
Alice’s exquisite, chiselled face appeared around the door. ‘Surprise!’ she
said jauntily, with only the merest hint of awkwardness.
Aunt and Beatrice
bristled beside me. ‘I think it is wrong for you to be here, Alice,’ Aunt
stated coldly. I put my head between my hands. Uncle shuffled his feet
nervously. Beatrice scowled murderously. ‘I think you had better leave!’
Beatrice barked, her voice bulging with wrath. Alice stood her ground. I
couldn’t help thinking how impressive she was. ‘I will have my word with
Augustus, and then I shall depart,’ Alice said calmly but firmly. She breezed
to the table and took my hand. I stood. Alice guided me like a blind man.
‘Augustus and I shall go upstairs now, for a little chat.’ Everyone was struck
dumb by this. Then Aunt nodded. I moved mechanically to the banister. I didn’t
look at Alice. Like a lamb going to the slaughterhouse, l ascended the stairs.
Alice perched at the end
of my bed, gazing into my palms, as if she were a soothsayer in a circus. She
raised her gorgeous eyebrows, and flicked back her long auburn hair. I was
mesmerized. ‘Augustus, you and I so belong together,’ she crooned huskily. ‘We
mustn’t let these little difficulties hinder our love.’ Whereas once I would have
melted, something in me hardened now. Alice was a fake. She was a marvellous
performer who left a trail of carnage. I stood up and said it was over. I was
surprised at myself. Alice looked mortified, I thought she would cry. She was
speechless. Her shoulders tensed, she almost hissed, then she fled the room,
slamming the door wildly. I heard Alice stumble blindly down the stairs, and
exit the house. The muffled sound of clapping, surely Beatrice, rose from down
below. I could hear Aunt’s heavy footsteps on the staircase, coming to console
Alice didn’t return, nor
did she text. I was desolate. Knowing that it was the right thing didn’t
alleviate my pain. I mooched around like a sorry bloodhound, wondering what to
do with my life. Beatrice was kind to me, poking her face into my room, asking
if I wanted anything. Aunt made copious amounts of strong tea. Tom, seeing that
I was genuinely hurt, restricted himself to sanctimonious banter about the
grief of loving women. Uncle told him to shut up. At mealtimes I jabbed at the
food with my fork, hardly listening to the flow of inane conversation. I kept
mostly to my room. The urge to write sad, heartbroken poetry had come over me.
I would memorialize Alice, then burn all my words.
Although my days settled
down, my dreams were still plagued by images of Alice. In matters of love, I
decided, I was no more than a bungling fool. My emotions had been through a
thresher, and I didn’t know if I’d recover. I tried to pour my energy into school
work, but I just couldn’t get at all enthused. Uncle eyed me with concern. I
felt he was always just about to say something profound, but he thought better
of it, and bit his tongue. On our school run through the morning traffic, Aunt
rambled on about new pastures, and novel opportunities. I couldn’t get terribly
excited, but I grunted in agreement anyway, just to shut her up. When we
arrived, I slung my heavy rucksack across my shoulder, waved my goodbyes, and
lurched through the gates. The noise of squealing, excitable juniors hurt my
head. I’d grown-up too much for such juvenile nonsense.
‘You had better remove
that ludicrous ring she thrust on you,’ said Beatrice, looking angrily at my
finger. Instinctively I withdrew my hand. This would be like the final severing
of Alice from my world. ‘But I don’t reckon you should return it to her, that’d
only fire up the crazy banshee,’ Beatrice warned. When I’d taken the ring from
my finger, and it sat in the palm of my hand, Beatrice handed me a small manila
envelope. ‘Pop it inside,’ she said more tenderly, and we sealed it up. It was
as if a lunatic episode in my life had now concluded. There was no turning
back. ‘And next time, Augustus, choose a girl who isn’t completely cuckoo in
the head.’ I smiled meekly, and promised to that.
Uncle insisted I must get
a hobby. I’d never been much excited by making model aeroplanes, or other
ludicrous activities such as stamp-collecting, or bee-keeping. Aunt, however,
having noticed by penchant for literary things, bought me an extravagant
fountain pen and a calfskin notebook. She strongly recommended I put my recent
terrible ordeal into words. She said this would bring me catharsis. Once I’d
looked up the unfamiliar word, I begun to think she might be correct. My first effort
was a gushy poem which lingered for too long over the beauty of Alice’s eyes. I
thought of sharing it with Aunt and Beatrice, then rejected the absurd idea.
They were probably more inclined to jab pins, rather than gaze, into Alice’s
pale blue irises. So I let my composition languish in my desk drawer, thinking
I might compose a major sequence of grief-stricken love sonnets. I would be a
celebrated writer. I would immortalize Alice. She would read my work, and adore
As we were loading our
weekly shop into the car, Aunt collapsed. She’d been complaining of dizziness
as we went along the crowded aisles, tossing food into our trolley. Aunt had
fallen badly, going down like a sack of coal, knocking her head on the tarmac.
I froze. Some concerned onlookers came across to help resuscitate her.
Beatrice, tearful, called an ambulance. They came promptly and Aunt was placed
on a stretcher and wheeled inside. She hadn’t come around. The paramedics
looked anxious. Beatrice and I clambered up into the vehicle. At once we set
off for the hospital. The sirens blared. We raced through the choked streets,
ignoring traffic lights. This was bad.
Aunt was placed in the
critical care unit. Beatrice and I perched by her bedside. Nurses waltzed in
and out, performing routine procedures. Beatrice phoned Uncle, who flapped
terribly, then said he was on his way. A junior doctor, barely older than
Beatrice, came and fussed around. No one told us anything. It was as if we were
invisible, unworthy of consultation. As Beatrice bit hard on her fingernails,
Aunt was attached to a drip. She looked particularly sallow. Suddenly Uncle
swept in like a desert sandstorm. ‘O Judith,’ he said emotionally, his knees
buckling, as he moved to her side. Aunt had not regained consciousness. Uncle
crushed her hand manfully. ‘Has she said anything?’ Beatrice shook her head,
the tears streaming down her cheeks. There was nothing we could do but wait.
Night came on. We slept
unevenly, ranged around Aunt’s bed, in hard, uncomfortable chairs. Nurses came
in and out, took Aunt’s blood pressure, monitored her vitals. Uncle snored
quietly. We hadn’t been able to reach Tom, who was back at university. I began
to wonder if Aunt was in a coma. Whether her vegetative condition might not
last for years. I had read about brain injuries fundamentally changing a
person’s character. The doctors were particularly cagey about making an
outright diagnosis. This, I felt, didn’t bode well. I couldn’t sleep anymore.
For a while I sat fascinated, watching the fluids drip steadily from Aunt’s
intravenous bag. Then I went into the ward corridor. It was chilly. I shivered,
wrapping my blanket tightly around my shoulders. There were no medical staff
about. I was disconsolate.
Two nurses barrelled past
me, clearly en route to an emergency. It was Aunt. I pelted back into the room,
where Uncle and Beatrice stood back from the bed, clearly in shock. A nurse was
straddled over Aunt’s chest, performing CPR. It was like the world had
collapsed under my feet. A senior consultant wandered into the room. The
curtains were swished back around Aunt’s bed. I could see nothing. Beatrice was
crying. Uncle hugged her. I went across to them both. All we could do was wait.
After an agony of
minutes, the consultant opened the curtain a chink, and popped out to speak
with Uncle. His face was impassive as a brick wall. I could glean nothing by
looking into his empty eyes. ‘Well, she is stabilised, Mr Bercow. We shall need
to be careful, however. Her heart has been greatly compromised.’ Uncle nodded
sagely, clearly relieved the news wasn’t worse. ‘Thank you doctor,’ he managed,
gulping down a rush of emotion. Beatrice smiled tearfully, and hugged me
hugely. The consultant scurried away. The curtain was opened fully. Aunt was
laying completely comatose, she was disturbingly ashen, some tubes were coming
from her mouth. I felt suddenly nauseous. A big monitor bleeped beside her.
Slowly, the nurses departed. Uncle took his wife’s hand. ‘You will be alright
now, my Judith,’ he said, his voice breaking. I felt less certain.
It was official. Aunt was
in a coma. Uncle set up camp at her bedside. He told Beatrice and I to go home,
get some rest, and have a solid meal. We could both return later. So we munched
bleakly through bowls of muesli. I thought Beatrice was going to gag. Then I
took a shower and felt partially revived. Beatrice was in the bathroom for a
considerable time. I suspected she might be crying again. We both decided there
was no way we could lie down in bed whilst Aunt suffered, so Beatrice called
for a cab. The traffic was snarled up. It took ages to reach the hospital. The
ward was busy and stunk of ammonia. Beatrice had grabbed Uncle a coffee and
Danish pastry, his favourite. We moved into Aunt’s room. Uncle was flaked out
in a chair by her side. There had been no miraculous change. The monitor
bleeped out its regular pattern. Aunt looked exactly the same, although her bed
had been changed, neatened up. A dreadful thought leapt into my head. That Aunt
would always be like this, a human vegetable. Then Uncle opened his eyes, and
stretched. ‘Hi guys. Everything’s the same,’ he said, trying to be upbeat.
Beatrice and I pulled up our chairs. The vigil continued.
Aunt’s condition remained
unchanged. Uncle finally came home. Hope had fled from his eyes. He’d developed
bad insomnia, and roamed around the house at night. I heard him scraping
chairs, opening doors. Uncle slouched around in his dressing gown, never
bothering to shave. He was falling to pieces. Beatrice cooked us simple meals, but
we toyed with our food, never really having the heart to eat. I thought of
those horrible tubes down Aunt’s throat, and gagged. We went to the hospital
during visiting hours, and sat silently at Aunt’s bedside. We were a miserable
group. The doctors had little to say. She was stable. I wondered how long a
person could remain in a coma, and whether brain damage was likely, but I never
asked. As Uncle drove us home, Beatrice asked the question that haunted me.
‘What if she’s always like this?’ Uncle didn’t reply.
Uncle insisted I go to
school as normal. He said he didn’t want my education compromised. I couldn’t
see the point in this, seeing as it was so lousy anyway. But I dutifully donned
my uniform, trying to please Uncle. He never woke early enough to take me now,
so I sauntered through the woods like old times. I had this vision of Uncle
rising at midday, brewing himself some foul-tasting instant coffee, before
dragging himself together. In the afternoon he would motor to the hospital to
sit piously with Aunt. He never cried, but I knew he suffered. Our lives had
altered irrevocably. Sometimes I missed Alice terribly. I wanted to share my
grief with her. I composed text messages, but in the end I never pressed send.
Beatrice was tighter than a clam. I was scared to talk with her, in case she
crumpled, became hysterical. ‘What do you want for dinner, Augustus?’ she asked
absentmindedly every evening. I mumbled something vague, but she wasn’t really
So we muscled together,
and continued with our lives. I missed the big pot of tea around the dining
room table, and cosy chats in the kitchen with Aunt as she prepared beautiful
meals. Uncle had a full scale beard now. I thought it made him look dirty,
untrustworthy. He seemed transformed. I didn’t wish to confide in him anymore.
Beatrice was always nagging him to shave it off. ‘Father, it’s a monstrosity,
it really doesn’t suit you,’ she railed, but Uncle was stubborn, and stood his
ground. Anyway, no razor could have ploughed through the jungle of Uncle’s
facial hair now. When at home, he was permanently glued into his dressing gown,
which was stained with tinned tomato soup, and stank of old sweat. Uncle, as
Beatrice phrased it, and readily told her Father, had truly ‘gone to the dogs.’
It was at this difficult
time that Beatrice’s friend Esther came to visit. She was unusually loud and
tall. I instantly disliked her. The two went up to Beatrice’s room and played
dreadful, vulgar music. This seemed disrespectful, inappropriate. I thought of
thumping on the wall. Uncle, however, didn’t seem to care. He was taking
sleeping pills now, and slept for hours, like a big elephant. Esther, it must
be said, was very pretty, with unusually glossy black hair. Her voice, though,
was horribly scratchy, and prone to cracking. She giggled overmuch, letting off
high-pitched squeals. When I came from my room, and she saw me, Esther tossed
her great black mane, and stomped past me like I was nothing. This riled.
Beatrice pulled a big face, clearly unable to control her friend. However, the
two were inseparable. Esther began to sleep over at our house. I started to
sneak secret glances at the girl, and caught myself day-dreaming about her
pearl-black eyes. I wondered if I was on the rebound. Alice would have been
mortified, only I didn’t care now.
Beatrice and I dutifully
visited Aunt every weekend. At her bedside, I tried to converse naturally, but
it was hard not to feel self-conscious. Aunt’s vegetative state was unchanged.
There was talk about moving her to a different hospital specializing in coma
treatment, but it was miles away, and it would be hard to visit her. Uncle
didn’t see Aunt quite as often as before. He was usually hung over from his
sleeping pills, and it wasn’t wise for him to drive. Our family life had caved.
I hadn’t felt so like a waif since my parents died. Beatrice and Esther were
out of control. They loafed around all day, playing their loud music, hooting
like barnyard animals. They were skipping school. Next it would be binging on
alcohol, then recreational drugs. I felt thoroughly alone.
My fingers grew
increasingly itchy to text Alice. I knew it was blatantly absurd, and could
only cause pain, but it became a dire obsession with me. Once I even tossed my
phone into the rubbish, to try and overcome the terrible urge. But I fished it
out again, and stared aggressively at it, loathing its mute silence. For all I
knew Alice had already progressed onto a new boyfriend, and would no longer
give me even the time of day. ‘Augustus, why don’t you ask Esther out, she
thinks you’re really cute.’ Beatrice announced this unexpectedly. I found it
hard to believe, and dismissed it, thinking Beatrice was having some fun at my
expense. But there was no silly tittering to be heard from the next room, so I
toyed with the idea of knocking at the door and asking Esther. But it was
ludicrous. She was older than me, and haughtily indifferent to my charms. It
was all just a tease. Then my phone rang. My heart hammered madly. But it was
It was the saddest news
imaginable. Aunt had died. She’d suffered a massive brain haemorrhage. Uncle
was at her bedside. She had never woken. I could hear Beatrice weeping through
the thin walls. My whole soul had fallen into my shoes. To be told over the
phone was awful. I shook myself, and went to Beatrice’s room. The two of us
hugged, crying freely. Beatrice was inconsolable. Esther stood beside her
awkwardly. ‘We must get a taxi to the hospital, and support Uncle,’ I said,
suddenly understanding the proper thing to do. Uncle would be devastated.
Esther took Beatrice’s hand and guided her downstairs. Where I rang for a taxi.
My voice broke as I gave the destination. Quite soon, we heard a car pull up.
It was cold, damp, grey outside. We hadn’t taken our coats. I didn’t care.
Uncle sat with his head
in his hands. Aunt’s body had been moved to the mortuary. He raised a
tear-stained face to us, and asked gently whether we’d like to see Aunt. At
this Beatrice sobbed helplessly. I had never seen a dead person, and felt oddly
squeamish. Nevertheless I thought I must do this, so I nodded my head. We were
taken down a porcelain-white corridor, and asked to wait outside a locked door.
After a time, a dry bespectacled man in a white coat guided us into the morgue.
It was chilly and antiseptic. At the centre of the room, Aunt was lain out. Her
eyes were glazed like those of deep sea fishes. A white blanket had been
modestly drawn up under her chin. This was not the person I knew. There were
large cotton wads up her nose. It was appalling. Beatrice shrieked, then broke
down. Uncle drew her away kindly. I stood rooted to the spot, goggling
helplessly at this dead woman. This would haunt me. After some time Uncle came
back in, and he manoeuvred me out of the terrible room.
I remember little of the
funeral. It was wet. I recall rain, weeping, clods of earth. Distant relations
dressed blacker than crows. Uncle, like a monolith, squeezing my hand. The
vicar’s monotone, which no one believed. Afterwards, Beatrice cried that it was
a lovely ceremony, but I didn’t understand. Long black limousines ferried us
home, where there was a wake. Tom drank overmuch, and disgraced himself. I
prayed for it to be over.
For the following week I
survived on charred toast and bitter black coffees. I only ate because I felt
Aunt wouldn’t want me to starve. Uncle kept to his room. I think he had
nothing, only his sleeping pills, and some old bottles of malt whiskey.
Beatrice tried to rally us once or twice, but her heart wasn’t in it. Esther
had disappeared, mourning was clearly too much for her. We didn’t go to school.
The phone rang. Nobody answered it. I lay on my bed, fiddling with my stupid
phone, the curtains drawn, my eyes leaking miserably. I’d not encountered death
since my parents passed, and then I was too young to properly comprehend. It
was something raw, bleak, dark, and it felt like it would never heal. I had
this overwhelming image of Aunt happily bumbling around kitchen, stirring her
bubbling pots, singing to herself, generally dispensing happiness. It stung. I
couldn’t imagine Uncle getting up after this blow. Our little family was in
ruins. I seriously wondered if it could ever be like before.
Uncle finally emerged
from his room. He was unkempt and dirty, his beard was wild. But he embraced
Beatrice and me. I was almost suffocated by his earthy, unwashed smell. ‘Your
Mother wouldn’t have wanted us to mourn for too long,’ he said, addressing
Beatrice. ‘We shall go and place flowers at her graveside today, and then we
shall tidy up our act, and plod on.’ I thought this was a sterling plan and
said so. Beatrice was teary, but nodded her head. So we went to the florist,
and bought a huge bouquet of Aunt’s favourite irises. Then Uncle drove us to
the cemetery, and we walked among the austere, lichened gravestones. It was
strangely comforting. Aunt’s plot still looked raw and new, and her granite
headstone glistened with the morning rain. I read the epitaph, but I struggled
to understand the harsh chisel marks that commemorated her life. We were all
sombre. Uncle said some words, but I didn’t hear. The rain became heavier, so
we walked back to the car.
At home, Uncle began to
put in an appearance at the dining table. He had washed, shaved and fitted
himself out in clean clothes. This lightened my heart. Beatrice cooked, simple
fare. She scrupulously avoided Aunt’s recipes, not wanting to upset her Father.
Dinners were mostly silent affairs, but I welcomed the companionship. It was
good not to suffer alone. Esther had reappeared. She was a little cowed by our
gloom, but she helped out Beatrice, and seemed to buoy up her mood. I threw the
occasional glance at her stunningly glossy hair, but I thought it was
inappropriate to flirt, and kept my eyes firmly on my food. We didn’t really
talk about Aunt, but I felt her presence keenly. She’d certainly want us to
master the lassitude that came with bereavement, and get on with our individual
lives. Through the thin walls I still heard Beatrice crying, but in the daytime
she was more upbeat, and even giggled with her friend. Uncle only really spoke
to the two of us, but he seemed less brittle. Somehow, we would endure.
‘Augustus, I need to talk
to you about Beatrice,’ said Esther, in a tone of unusual gravity. She never
normally spoke with me, maintaining a sneering, haughty silence. ‘Beatrice has
been saying lot of stuff about harming herself. I think you should have a word
with her.’ I found this difficult to believe. Compared to others, Beatrice was
the stablest girl I knew. I had thought she was coping well with her grief. I
thanked Esther, who lingered by my door, waiting to be invited in. I summoned
her inside, and we sat together on the edge of my bed. There was a breathtaking
intensity about Esther. It made me squirm a bit. I kept my eyes averted from
her beauty. We spoke softly together for a while. She even asked me if I was
managing. I promised to talk with Beatrice urgently. I felt glad my cousin had
such a caring friend. Esther stood up, preparing to leave. Suddenly she took my
hand in hers. ‘Augustus, you are a sensitive soul,’ she said, pushing her
gorgeous hair back, swishing out of my room.
I thought it was best to
be direct. In a gentle voice I asked Beatrice if she was feeling suicidal.
‘Gosh, no. Where do you get such silly stories, Augustus?’ I nodded solemnly,
relieved. ‘I’m about as good as a girl can be,’ Beatrice continued, ‘who’s just
lost her Mother.’ This seemed entirely reasonable, and I felt foolish for
probing. ‘Augustus, you’re not contemplating topping yourself?’ Beatrice
suddenly asked of me. She said this in all earnestness. ‘I understand you’ve
been having a tough deal of it, what with that sociopath girl you got snarled
up with. But nothing can be that bad.’ I said I wasn’t feeling that way. The
air seemed cleared, and we spoke about small things, until Beatrice announced
that she was going out for the evening with Esther. Did I want to join them?
She was all smiles. I declined politely. I would play chess with Uncle. If I
allowed him to thrash me, he’d surely feel less sorrowful.
I began to look forward
to Esther’s visits. I tried to quell my absurd romantic impulses, but I
couldn’t help feeling thrilled when I heard her giggle at the door. She was
strikingly lovely, smelt of subtle perfume, and I was stricken badly. Esther
had started to come to my room for chats. It became a regular feature of my
day. I would hear her gossiping with Beatrice through the thin walls, and wait
for her knock. My heart see-sawed in my chest as she breezed in. I had stopped
thinking of Alice long ago, which I found somewhat surprising. I didn’t think
of myself as a love tramp, but knew I could easily be enchanted by beautiful
girls. Esther was a year older than I. She made a big deal of it. We spoke of
nothing earth-shaking. But it felt entirely natural.
Uncle kept a hawkish eye
on me. I got the feeling he didn’t want me to disgrace myself again. Uncle was
clearly tougher now, but more family turmoil would be something he wanted to
avoid. During our spartan meals, I felt Uncle’s eyes boring into me. I was a
little self-conscious eating with Esther around. More and more she seemed to be
living permanently at our house, and I wondered about her parents. The topic
hadn’t come up, and I didn’t like to press her about private matters. However I
did begin to speculate whether they might be fruit loops like Alice’s folks. I
tried to crush the unworthy suspicion, but it wouldn’t go away. Having lost my
own parents, I suppose I was inordinately curious about other people’s
circumstances. Beatrice was highly amused by my new infatuation. But she didn’t
discourage it. In fact I suspected she had long in-depth conversations about me
with Esther, who always seemed to understand, or already know my mind.
‘It is high-time you
asked Esther on a date,’ Uncle suddenly declared to me. I hadn’t thought he was
observing matters so closely, or that he could be so shrewd. ‘Really Augustus,
you are pretty slow on the uptake these days.’ I blushed crimson, like I’d been
discovered in some lewd act. ‘Here’s twenty pounds,’ announced Uncle, fishing
deeply in his wallet. ‘Go and treat the girl.’ After my disastrous passion with
Alice, I was surprised at this. But Uncle was a diehard romantic, and nothing
could quench his enthusiasm for young love. I thanked him warmly. I could hear
Beatrice and Esther guffawing upstairs. Soon she would come to my room for our
chat. I would be ready.
‘Of course I’ll go out
with you, Augustus. What took you so long to ask?’ said Esther grinning.
‘Although of course you are very young,’ she added, as if to herself. I stopped
trembling. Esther held my face, and pecked my lips. I thought how nice it was
to have a sane girlfriend. ‘So where are you taking me?’ she asked cheekily. I
rummaged in my head for someplace that hadn’t been tainted by Alice. I couldn’t
possibly sit holding Esther’s hand in some old haunt where the memories were
sore and sad. So I suggested the cinema. This seemed like solid neutral ground.
I’d never been one for the movies, but Esther had once said she loved lavish,
sentimental blockbusters. We agreed to meet the following evening. And then
Esther was gone. She moved quietly downstairs. I heard her wishing Uncle
goodbye. I should have liked to stalk after her, and learn something about her
mysterious family life. However I discarded the creepy idea, and dwelt on my
new, unexpected happiness.
We came out of the sultry
theatre into the mizzly cold. I stretched my limbs. The film had been dull.
Esther, however, had lapped it up, and jabbered on happily about its various
sensational scenes. I was beginning to feel the lack of chemistry between us.
It was hard not to compare her to Alice. Alice hadn’t been one to spout inanely
at every eventuality, although she had certainly led a high-octane existence.
As Esther enthused, I found I wasn’t really listening. I was even clenching my
jaw, and suppressing a yawn. I wondered what was wrong with me. Esther was a
beautiful, graceful, intelligent girl. I tried to shake off these silly qualms.
‘Augustus, shall we go for an espresso?’ Esther suddenly asked. At this time,
there was only one place open. The café where I used to go with Alice. I felt
like a haunted man.
So we blew on our boiling
espressos together. I decided to ask Esther the question that was most on my
mind. ‘So tell me about your family,’ I said transparently. Esther scowled at
this. ‘Well if you must know,’ she replied ‘they’re separating. They’ve been
squabbling since I was a young child. And now it’s finally over.’ There was a
tone of profound, nettled boredom in Esther’s voice. My attention was riveted,
but she’d clammed up on me now. I thought it would help if I shared something
about my own background. So painfully I recounted the story of my parents’
death, and my subsequent adoption. Clearly this wasn’t news to Esther. Beatrice
must have been blabbing. After this, I couldn’t resurrect the conversation, and
we slipped into an awkward silence. I paid, and we mooched together down the
darkened road. The street lamps always cast a feeble glow at this end of town.
Esther took my hand. There was no electricity. I reflected sadly how we were
all dysfunctional beings.
After our disastrous
evening together, Esther chilled towards me. She still came around to see
Beatrice. I heard them giggling happily through the thin walls, but Esther no
longer came to visit me for a chat. I felt regretful, but it wasn’t good to
mislead Esther. I think my heart had been too badly broken by Alice, and no
other girl could fill those peculiarly weird shoes. The urge to contact Alice became
overwhelming. I locked my phone away in my desk drawer, to avoid temptation.
But my fingers itched, they burned. I considered walking onto Alice’s housing
estate, and lingering by her front door. But the truth was I didn’t know how
welcome I’d be, and Alice’s parents would certainly despise any suggestion of
my reappearance. Alice’s misdemeanours seemed pale now, even irrelevant. I
wondered if she thought about me. Alice was surely the grandest passion I’d
ever have in my life. I couldn’t let that flame dwindle.
I could no longer
restrain myself. I borrowed twenty pounds from Uncle, and purchased a startling
bouquet of red roses. I told no one my plan. They would have gone ballistic. I
walked over the rail bridge, and climbed down into Alice’s estate. I knew I was
doing a radical thing, but the compulsion was too strong to resist. I wore my
best clothes and squeaky-clean shoes. It was all constricting, my heart raced.
My hair was brushed back and gelled, I felt like a complete prune. The familiar
air of oppressive gloom lay over the flats. Always it seemed so dark here. I
approached the shabby door and knocked firmly. I couldn’t see any lights on
inside. I stood blinking like a dork for some time. Then the neighbour’s door
opened a chink and a large, grisly woman leaned out. ‘They’ve gone away, dearie,’ she said, her voice charged with
regret. ‘Went without paying their rent too,’ she added, as a sort of bitter
aside. It was some while before I could gather myself and ask the obvious
question. ‘Sorry lovey, no idea where they’ve gone. Disappeared off the face of
the earth,’ she continued, seemingly outraged. I hung my head. I stupidly
clutched the wilting flowers. It was some while before I could drag myself
Of course I scoured the
internet, desperate to find out where the Mannheims had disappeared. I
discovered nothing. Alice had made all her social media accounts private, there
was absolutely no way to track her down. I thought of enrolling Uncle in my
search, but soon dismissed such a crazy notion. He would be appalled, and
Beatrice would be vulgarly vocal. I had no allies in this. I wracked my mind to
think where the Mannheims might be. Leo Mannheim was a truck driver. A solution
came to me. I figured I might approach his haulage company. This was inspired.
I remembered the name from the logo-embossed shirts he wore. It wasn’t hard to
locate their physical address. I was delighted with my sleuthing. I’d skip
school the next day, and catch the bus into the city. If I put my case
convincingly, I was sure they’d hand me Leo Mannheim’s details. I would say I
was a distant family relation, come to seek urgent help. My plan was
The bus wound down
filthy, overcrowded city streets. The driver crunched the gears and revved
pointlessly, clearly relishing the grinding noise. I thought we’d never get
there. My head pounded, the petrol fumes made me reel. This place was truly
hell. I alighted at a big junction, and strode off down a grubby alley. The
haulage company’s administrative office was located in a basement apartment. It
looked to be a shady operation. I stumbled down the dirty cracked steps, and
rang the buzzer. A surly voice asked for my name, and I went in. An old
battle-worn crow in horn-rimmed glasses guarded the desk. She looked like a stickling
bureaucrat. Nevertheless, I cleared my throat, trying to sound bold. ‘I have
come to enquire after one of your employees.’ I explained my difficult
predicament. ‘It is not company policy to divulge personal information about
our staff,’ the crow retorted haughtily, as if reading from a manual. I didn’t
know if I would get any leverage, but I tried a softly sentimental approach.
‘My Uncle would be mortified to know I was here, and he wasn’t able to help.’
She softened, and cracked a tepid excuse for a smile. I had won. She gazed into
her computer screen, and scribbled an address on a small scrap of recycled
paper. ‘Thank you,’ I said, in a whining grateful voice. I crammed the sheet
deep into my pocket, said my goodbyes, and fled the building.
Safely outside, I
uncrumpled the paper, and read the precise handwriting. Instantly I recognized
the address as one of the slummiest, run-down quarters of our town. It was so
rough, I’d heard, that police patrols were frightened to venture inside. When I
was younger, Aunt had warned me to stay clear. Hoodlums, she said, hung around
the sordid apartment buildings selling hard drugs. Needles could be seen
everywhere. I hated to think that Alice was a part of this world. I had this
sudden intense vision of her walking rapidly away from a group of thugs, who
shouted vulgar taunts after her. I suppose it was only a protective thing, but
it seemed so real. I decided that I must go immediately and rescue her from
this iniquitous life. I hopped onto a passing bus, and climbed to the upper
deck. Folding my arms, struggling to block out the grinding noise, ignoring the
other seedy passengers, I began to formulate my plan.
I would dispense with
flowers this time. I was dressed in pretty crummy clothes, but that was
immaterial. I had this exultant feeling Alice would be delighted to see me. She
would probably be expecting me. I knew I’d get short shrift from her parents,
but I suddenly felt empowered, able to handle their shenanigans. I imagined
Alice in an insufferably dank bedroom, with mould crawling up the curtains. It
would be a poor setting in which to make up, but I didn’t care. The light was
beginning to fail when I reached the notorious estate. Spaced-out boys hung
around by a dilapidated playground, clearly up to nothing good. I avoided them
carefully. My knees began to shiver. The thought of Alice always made me
tremble. I consulted the map on my phone. I was nearly there.
The door of the
Mannheim’s new flat had been cast open, and bright light shone out. From afar,
I could see Alice slouched comfortably in a narrow hallway. She was flirting
shamelessly with an anaemic skinny boy. They were perilously close, almost touching
bodies. My heart broke. Clearly the two were intimate. Suddenly Alice turned,
becoming aware of my presence. I was still quite far away and she squinted into
the dark, to see who was there. She recognized me, and froze. ‘Augustus, is
that really you?’ she asked, her voice choked with emotion. But I had turned
heel and was striding away.
My head sang. The blood
pounded in my temples. I clattered across the ill-lit paving stones, desperate
to escape. My shoulders shook. I found myself crying. The thought of that
little squirt smooching with Alice sickened me. Who was he? I felt profoundly
nauseous. A sudden choking claustrophobia made me stumble. I prayed that
there’d be footsteps following behind me, but no such thing happened. I had
this urgent wish to get home, and spill my whole heart to Beatrice. Somehow I
reached a bus stop and staggered onto the first vehicle I saw. The bus lurched
and swayed, but it was veering assuredly in the right direction. I tried not to
re-enact the abysmal scene. I wondered if Alice and he would be talking and
smiling together, discussing poor, sad Augustus, who couldn’t kick the
beautiful girl out of his head.
‘Augustus, what did you
do such a dunderheaded thing like that for?’ said Beatrice, thoroughly aghast.
‘You do not want to attract that mad minx here. Before you know it, she’ll have
her crazy tentacles all over you.’ Though Beatrice was brusque with me, I knew
she was deeply concerned. ‘Honestly, be grateful she’s sunk her claws into some
other boy. You don’t want to get entangled again in her beastly quagmire.’
Having said her piece, Beatrice went silent. I knew her warning was well-meant
and mostly probably correct, but my sore heart spoke otherwise. I had this
mission now. Alice and I would reunite. She would cast off the anaemic skinny
boy and come to me. It all ate at me like an obsession. I thanked Beatrice
gratefully, and exited her room. I would no longer be downcast. I had serious
planning to do.
I tried to deflect Uncle
away from what was burning up my mind. But he was a shrewd man. Soon he was
casting penetrating glances my way. He seemed to look right into my head.
‘Augustus, if I’m not mistaken, you are up to something underhand with that
difficult girl.’ I acted dumb, as if he meant Esther, but I couldn’t throw
Uncle so easily off the scent. ‘Mark my words Augustus, it would be foolish to
get ensnared with Alice again. She is extremely high maintenance. I don’t want
you to get hurt.’ I said I appreciated Uncle’s concern, but I had things firmly
under control. He didn’t look convinced and squirmed awkwardly in his chair. My
head was bursting. I hadn’t resolved to do anything. Except murder that anaemic
skinny boy. I didn’t think Alice could possibly be besotted by such an abject
human specimen. It must be some kind of rebound thing. There was only one real
course of action. To go again, and thrash it out, using my knuckles if need be,
with Alice’s new beau.
So I donned my favourite
denim jacket with the fur-lined collar, and went off in search of a bus. I was
armed with a further twenty pounds, courtesy of Uncle, although I hadn’t
explained why I needed the cash. The bus trundled like a lame dinosaur through
increasingly shabby streets. Finally I alighted from the vehicle and strode
purposefully over the familiar worn paving stones. The sun never shone here. A
blight was permanently upon the area. Suddenly my resolve wavered and I didn’t
know what I could achieve. Was I coming here to fan the flames of a mortified
love? The usual huddle of louts hung around by the disused playground. You
could smell the nicotine, the cannabis, the despair. It was all appalling. I
tried to imagine Alice sitting alone in her bedroom. She was just a few
footsteps away. But I’d lost my nerve. I turned tail and slunk away. The
fireworks had died. No beautiful reunion was going to explode in my sky.
I went to drown my sorrow
in a seedy coffee shop. My drink was tepid, wishy-washy, bitter. It perfectly
reflected my mood. I sat there for some time. I wasn’t normally prone to depression,
but now my spirits had really flagged. I stared into the dregs at the bottom of
my cup, hoping for illumination, but it never came. Romance wasn’t all it was
cracked up to be. I ached to hear the door tinkle open, eyes burning on my
back, and Alice smouldering there. But no such thing happened. I heaved myself
up, paid, and went for the door. A brutal, sooty wind greeted me. I cast my
eyes down and slouched outside, contemplating the cracked pavement. I would
walk home. It was a tidy hike. I vowed never again to entangle myself with
unbalanced women. All my future relationships would be squeaky clean and
transparently normal. I wondered if I might patch the rift with Esther, but
soon discarded the idea. I would start afresh. There was absolutely no hurry to
throw my heart away.
I lingered in my room. I
was reticent at mealtimes. Uncle didn’t press me, but Beatrice cast probing
glances in my direction. Alice’s name was anathema, though she was still on
everyone’s mind. It was hard work rebuilding my life. I tried writing more
poetry, but the verses turned out lame, wretchedly sentimental. The anaemic
skinny boy prayed on my mind. Without more information, I couldn’t hope to give
him a name. I tried to exorcize these unwholesome jealousies. I played with the
idea of wishing Alice well, of forgiving her, and moving forward, but these
were simply dishonest words. The disease I had was incurable. I could only hope
to grow old quickly, and thereby be free of it all. ‘Eat up Augustus, you will
wane away, my boy,’ said Uncle, breaking my train of thought. I jabbed at my
food, knocking a pea onto the floor. Beatrice squirmed.
A surprising silence came
from Beatrice’s room. I suddenly realized Esther was no longer visiting. I
hoped I had no part in this new development. Perhaps Esther and Beatrice fallen
out, but this seemed unlikely, considering how thick as thieves they’d always
been. I hated to think how my shambolic world had fallen down, and possibly
crushed Esther too. I was failing at school. Lessons never hung together.
Textbooks were just shameless scrawl. When the teachers yelled, it sounded like
they spoke in some muffled foreign language. The only aspect of my education I
truly enjoyed were my morning and afternoon walks through the woods. These cleared
my head. Afterwards, it was like I had shifted a whole pile of painful lumber
out of my skull. ‘Augustus, you are looking ruddier, altogether less sallow,’
Uncle mused thoughtfully, offering another one of his embarrassing personal
commentaries. But it was true, I was starting to feel like I’d emerged from the
darkest phase of my purgatory. Maybe it really was possible to assemble a new
‘That pervert in the
woods is back!’ shouted Beatrice, bounding into my room. She spat out a torrid
tale of a breathless, bald, fat man pounding after her. It had been a close
shave. The creature had made a grab at Beatrice’s hair. I recoiled in disgust.
Once Beatrice had given her father a detailed account, the two of them drove to
the police station, to file a report. Uncle was clearly rattled. He awkwardly
bear-hugged Beatrice, and then they were gone. There was an evil presence
lurking at the boundaries of our world. But this individual didn’t bear any
resemblance to the man who’d chased me. It was chilling to think our town was
so full of deviants and weirdos. I waited in silence for Uncle and Beatrice to
return. It was a long time. Night fell. It grew very dark. Finally I heard
Uncle’s keys turn in the deadlock.
The prowler was already
in custody. Beatrice had been asked to identify him in a line-up. Without
hesitation, she’d pointed her index finger firmly at the offender. Two other
girls had been pursued, both of them were apparently safe. They were at the
police station too, giving their evidence. One of them was Alice. When I heard
this, my heart ceased functioning. Beatrice explained how she’d felt extremely
uncomfortable, and Uncle had been struck literally dumb. Why was Alice walking
in our woods in the first place? I could only assume that she was coming to see
me. At this thought, my heart restarted. My face grew hot and flushed. Far off,
an owl hooted in the wood. Suddenly I needed to know that Alice was safe.
Hastily I excused myself, and went up to my room to message her. But the damn
text wouldn’t go through. Fiddling clumsily with my phone, I tried to call her.
I got some imbecilic recorded announcement. Alice must have changed her number.
I was probably too late to catch her at the police station, but I thought I’d
dash down nevertheless. I grabbed my thickest jacket, and slipped secretively
out through the back door. Uncle and Beatrice mustn’t know. The cold air caught
in my throat. The owl was still hooting. I felt electric again.
When I arrived, Leo
Mannheim was shoving his daughter into a waiting taxi. Alice looked pallid,
small, badly shaken. I waved my hand high in the air, and hailed her gently. To
my dismay, Mr Mannheim strode over. He was like a rottweiler with a stick.
‘Look, buddy, Alice wants none of your nonsense. So get your grubby paws off,
and hop it!’ He spat viciously, and spun on his heels. But Alice had seen me.
She leapt out of the throbbing taxi, and deftly thrust a scrunched note into my
hand. Our eyes connected. ‘Get in the car, now, young madam!’ snarled her
Father. Alice obeyed. She’d spoken no words, but that didn’t matter. As their
vehicle drew away, I unscrunched the note. It was Alice’s new phone number.
I thought it would be
intelligent if I didn’t text Alice until she was back home, so she could hide
away from her Father. I would give it an hour, to be sure. So I walked briskly
back, and snuck up to my room. My heart was breaking with excitement. I began to
construct what I’d say to Alice, but my feelings were way too complicated. Soon
I was biting my nails, desperate for the allotted hour to pass. When the
agonizing minutes were finally over, I fired off one simple word. ‘Hi.’ I
didn’t think two silly letters could be charged with such emotion. Alice’s
reply was instantaneous. It was like floodgates had been opened. We texted long
into the night. Alice said it was best I didn’t call, because her Father was
alert now, and he had horribly sharp ears. I didn’t care. I was glowingly
happy. Alice and I were charmed.
A gorgeous bright morning
dawned. I felt like crowing. A blaze of texts flared on my phone. I’d need to
hit Uncle for a loan, so I could top-up. I was itching to ask Alice about the
anaemic skinny boy, but restrained myself. Instead I lavished in the ardour of
our beautiful exchanges, after such an awful, prolonged separation. I knew
Uncle would go off his nut if he knew, so I planned to be sly. Also Beatrice
shouldn’t know. Meeting up with Alice was going to be fraught with difficulty.
She said her Father stuck to her side like a mollusc, and he never loosened his
stranglehold. I’d already had a taste of his overbearing possessiveness. If Mr
Mannheim discovered his daughter with me, I could imagine my blood would be
staining the floor. His horrible explosive fury scared me. None of Alice’s past
dishonesties seemed to matter now. They were inconsequential blips. I could
scarcely remember why I’d felt so aggrieved. Because ours was an intangible,
indestructible love. It soared above the humdrum issues of other people. My
heart throbbed wildly. I thought it might burst, and shower down, like a
fabulous firework display.
My desire to see Alice in
person became overwhelming. Whenever I broached the subject of a meeting, Alice
grew evasive, nervous. She seemed dreadfully scared of her Father’s reaction,
should he discover us together. So I didn’t push hard, not wanting to upset
her. But it was tough leading such a phone-centric
relationship. My mobile was always vibrating rudely at inappropriate moments,
like it would be glad to give the game away. Uncle and Beatrice sat
tight-lipped at the dinner table, whilst I struggled to muffle deep vibrations
coming from within my pockets. I was certain they knew. My lovesick manner must
have spoken volumes. ‘Augustus, can’t you mute that darn thing, it’s buzzing
like a locust!’ Beatrice suddenly said, clearly nettled. But thankfully she
Uncle announced he wanted
a private word. This was highly irregular. My heart sank stone-like into my
shoes. I just knew he was going to bad-mouth Alice, and insist we disentangle
ourselves. But he took me completely by surprise, and asked how I’d feel about
moving cities. At first I thought he was jesting, but his grave expression told
otherwise. ‘What do you mean?’ I stammered, completely thrown. I couldn’t
possibly contemplate going anywhere. Uncle saw my confusion. He explained that
a juicy job opportunity has arisen in Yorkshire, which offered him a
considerably higher income. I nodded encouragingly, but felt absolute terror.
Uncle said Beatrice was content with the plan, but what did I think? My tongue
grew thick. No words came. I wracked my head for some formidable obstacle
preventing our relocation. No answer came to me. I had to tell the truth.
‘Uncle, don’t make me leave here. I love Alice. We are together. I need to be
near her!’ Uncle nearly dropped his coffee mug. This was clearly news to him.
‘Augustus, what’s going on? I think you’d better explain.’ It was time to come
Rapidly, I ran through
what was happening with Alice. Uncle listened hard, nodding, making no comment.
I explained how desperate I was to see Alice. He sighed heavily. ‘Well, I don’t
think it’s healthy, Augustus, to be so enamoured by this girl.’ Uncle wasn’t
fuming at all. I’d thought he’d combust on the spot, but no such thing
happened. This was mildly encouraging. Then Uncle was patting my shoulder.
‘Tread cautiously, Augustus,’ he said gently, ‘take care of your heart.’ This
was a wonderful turnabout. I wondered if I should go and open my heart to
‘What on earth are you
playing at, Augustus, you’re bloody well bonkers, boy!’ Beatrice spat out her
disapproval. I immediately regretted making this confidence. My cousin would
always hate Alice. It must, I concluded, be some competitive female thing.
‘Well, don’t come asking me for cash to fund your ridiculous pranks, I won’t be
your bank this time.’ Beatrice was bitter, aghast. Clearly, she thought I must
be a complete simpleton, even a sadist, to go anywhere near Alice again.
‘Frankly, I wouldn’t touch that duplicitous hellcat with a barge pole.’ I let
her insults wash over me. My mind was made up. We didn’t need Beatrice’s
approval. At least I had Uncle firmly on my side.
I’d dithered for far too
long. I must persuade Alice to defy her Father, and come out with me. I was
intoxicated by the thought of holding her hand, and strolling around town, like
we once did. I knew Alice felt the same. But she was afraid. Each day was torment.
The constant stream of beautiful text messages couldn’t salve my soul. I
suggested the park, the coffee shop, the cinema. Alice rejected them all. I had
this sneaking suspicion that she’d romanticized us into star-crossed lovers.
I shared my frustration
with Uncle. ‘Don’t let Alice muck you around, Augustus,’ he warned. ‘You’ve had
your heart broken by her too many times.’ This was true. Warning bells began to
ring in my head. I was being eaten alive by new doubts. This wasn’t the
beautiful reconciliation I’d hoped for. It was torture. I’d stopped eating
meals, surviving on ashy-flavoured crackers and sour coffee. Beatrice scowled
at me, but she didn’t press me at mealtimes. I kept to my room, forever
checking my phone, nervous when it vibrated. I was a ruin. I dreamt horrible
‘Augustus, you can see me
in the skate park at five.’ It felt like I’d been granted a magical wish. I
mused briefly that this was a peculiar place to meet, but I soon cast aside any
qualms. Finally, I’d hold Alice. The day burned away, obstinately slowly, like
a decrepit old mule. It felt as if the evening would never come. I fussed over
what clothes I’d wear, before choosing a simple white shirt and jeans. Uncle
had loaned me another twenty. Only he knew of our meeting. At four, I stepped
out of the house, and walked rapidly across town.
I waited in the brittle
grey chill, my hands sunk deep in my pockets. Alice was late. A couple of kids
were performing perilous routines on their skateboards. I noticed they had no
helmets or knee pads. This really was an extraordinary place to meet Alice. I
knew she took no interest in such frivolous sports. Twenty minutes passed. I’d
grown numb. Suddenly the kids stopped their play, and lurched away, their
boards tucked proudly beneath their arms. As they left, they cast distrustful,
sneering glances my way. After that, it became terribly silent. Not even a
small bird strutted over the paving stones. I was left entirely alone. Alice
Alice had butchered my
heart. This time, I didn’t feel very forgiving. Whatever dire issues she had
with her Father, surely she could have snuck out and spent ten minutes with me.
Was I unreasonable? I loved Alice unreservedly, but sometimes I found it hard
to like her. Of course she wasn’t responding to my text messages. I’d had
enough of high drama. I’d seek for a more peaceful life. Uncle saw the
resignation in my eyes. I didn’t need to explain. ‘Augustus, you really
shouldn’t be encumbered by that girl. It’ll be the death of you.’ Suddenly I
wished Aunt was here, to heal us with sweet, scalding tea and smiles.
An hour later my phone
rang. I pounced at it. It was the hospital. An officious voice was speaking.
‘Miss Mannheim has requested that I call you.’ Alarmed, I asked what was wrong.
‘I’m not at liberty to discuss my patient’s health over the
phone,’ the voice
continued coldly. I said I’d come to the hospital immediately. Abruptly I hung
up, and raced downstairs to tell Uncle. We would drive to the hospital. ‘I
wonder what on earth can be wrong,’ Uncle mused, fumbling with his shoes. My
pounding heart was performing somersaults. I tried not to shake. The journey to
the hospital was agonizingly slow. Finally we parked up, and went in search of
the ward. The smell of carbolic scared me. I went to the nurse’s station and
enquired. Alice was in a small private room. I caught my breath, and strode in.
Alice was lying rigid in bed. Her face was swollen with ugly blue bruises.
Who could have done this?
I was sickened, mortified, outraged. My first suspicion fell squarely on her
Father, Leo Mannheim. Alice had been sedated. Her whole body was immobilized. I
didn’t think she was in pain. Uncle spoke quietly with the doctor. I would get
to the bottom of this. I’d make the culprit pay. The police would be called. I
had a sudden, powerful vision of Leo Mannheim in handcuffs, being led away.
Uncle called me over. Luckily Alice’s injuries were mostly superficial. She’d
be sore for some time, but she hadn’t sustained any lasting hurts. Her alarming
bruises would soon disappear. Alice had torn ligaments in her left shoulder,
but this was also minor. I exhaled deeply, much relieved. I planned to sit by
her side until she woke. Uncle stomped off for coffee. Alice’s hand was above
the coverlet. I held it.
I’d nodded off in my
chair. ‘Who has been doing this to you, Alice?’ Uncle was asking gently. Alice
had sat up in bed, her pillows plumped. She was looking distinctly subdued. I
stretched my weary limbs. My eyes lingered on Alice’s frightful bruises.
‘Augustus, you came,’ she exclaimed, suddenly aware of me. I stretched over,
clutching her hand. ‘Yes, I am here.’ Alice began to sob. ‘It was my Father,’
she said huskily, her shoulders quaking violently. I felt rage. ‘Alice, we need
to report this to the authorities,’ Uncle was saying. I became aware someone
was standing behind me. I turned. It was a policewoman.
Shakily, Alice made her
statement. It was harrowing. It was totally incriminating. Leo Mannheim was
scum. The officer kept her eyes on her
notebook, scribbling hard. After an interminable hour of cross-examination, she
finally seemed satisfied. ‘Miss Mannheim, your Father will be called into the
station for questioning. In the meantime, I recommend you have no contact with
him.’ Uncle quickly offered to care for Alice when she was discharged from
hospital. I was thankful for his kindness. The policewoman took our details,
nodded, and departed. She’d be in touch. Alice was calmer now. Clearly it had
been cathartic to tell her story. I marvelled at Alice’s resilience, and felt a
real gush of love for my beautiful, eccentric soulmate. ‘You must rest yourself
now, Alice,’ Uncle said thoughtfully. Alice lay back. She was exhausted. I
kissed her forehead. Uncle and I would have dinner in the hospital canteen. We
would return later.
As Uncle and I ploughed
through a bland institutional meal, I grew increasingly concerned that Leo
Mannheim might show up. I could imagine him stomping into Alice’s room and
committing more violence. I didn’t share these anxieties with Uncle, but I ate
rapidly, eager to finish up. I vowed to stay overnight with Alice, and protect
her from further harm. Uncle clearly approved of this plan, and nodded sagely.
We returned to Alice’s room. She was sleeping again. I couldn’t keep my eyes
away from her disfiguring bruises. I silently prayed that she’d heal soon.
Pulling a chair up beside Alice’s bed, I wished Uncle a hushed goodbye. He’d
return in the morning. My vigil had begun.
All through the night,
nurses drifted in and out, taking Alice’s blood pressure, monitoring her
vitals. She’d taken a sleeping pill earlier, and was only vaguely aware of me
sitting there. My chair was fiendishly hard. I squirmed about, vainly trying to
get comfortable. A kindly nurse draped a rug across my knees. I drowsed
occasionally, but always woke with a start. There was an unpleasant crick in my
neck. I gazed at Alice sleeping there. I vowed to be her protector forever.
Uncle and I would fend off her brutal, mad Father. Beatrice might even be
persuaded to care. When dawn finally crept in through the venetian blinds, I
was utterly spent. I stood up, stomping my feet, stretching my aching limbs.
I’d seek out some coffee. But I wouldn’t leave Alice for more than five
minutes. I would be there for her, when she woke.
I stirred. My head was
foggy. Uncle was coming into the room, bearing a tray of take-away coffees.
Beatrice was with him. Despite my drowsiness, I registered this as a
significant happening. I whispered good morning. Uncle winked, handing me a
nasty styrofoam cup. Alice was still sleeping, her delicate hand now propped
beneath her head. I asked for the time. It was late morning. A hectored-looking
nurse suddenly bustled in, wheeling a noisy trolley. Alice sighed, turning. I
jumped up to give the nurse some space. Uncle, Beatrice and I then moved into a
corner, sipping at our outrageously horrible coffee. ‘Any change?’ Uncle
enquired softly. I explained how Alice had been given a sleeping pill, and was
totally wiped out. ‘That is probably for the best,’ Uncle mused quietly,
nodding sagely. Beatrice was staring openly at Alice. She was clearly both
fascinated and repelled by her sadly transfigured face. With unexpected
violence, a stocky man burst into the room. He was like a raging bull elephant.
It was Leo Mannheim.
‘What are you bunch of
fucking bastards doing here?’ Mr Mannheim snarled. He barged past, making a
grab at Alice’s arm. She startled awake, gasping in confusion and fear. This
was enough for the nurse. ‘Back away from my patient now,’ she said fearlessly.
There was a red button above Alice’s bed. She pressed it. ‘I’m this girl’s
bleeding Father,’ Leo Mannheim was protesting, gnashing his teeth, but the
nurse’s expression had hardened. In strode two enormous security guards.
‘Remove this man,’ the nurse said to the beefiest fellow. It was impressive.
Uncle stood back aghast, as Leo Mannheim was frogmarched to the door. I heard
him hissing some spiteful, vengeful curse as he disappeared.
It took some while before
Alice was calmed. I went across and clutched her hand. She was trembling. Her
shoulders quaked. This was a terrifying ordeal. Uncle and Beatrice hovered in
the background. Uncle’s face was etched with concern. I wondered how we could
guarantee Alice’s safety. Leo Mannheim was an aggressive, dangerous thug. He
shouldn’t be permitted anywhere near his daughter. There should be some kind of
protection order made. Once Alice was sufficiently comforted, I went over to Uncle,
to broach my idea. ‘I should think we could get a trespass notice in place,’
Uncle said, thinking on his feet, ‘so Leo is barred from hospital grounds. I
shall speak to the doctors, then I’ll ring my lawyer.’ I felt immensely
relieved. We would put a stop to this shocking persecution.
Uncle and Beatrice were
speaking about going home. It didn’t seem proper to leave Alice alone, so I
said I’d stay. I felt grubby and unkempt. I really craved for a shower. ‘Go,
Augustus, I’ll be fine here for a while,’ Alice assured me. I went off to the
nurse’s station in search of a towel. They were extremely obliging there,
handing me a small bar of hospital soap as well. I had a sudden warm feeling
for humanity, barring, of course, Leo Mannheim. I lingered under the shower for
a considerable period. The water pressure was suspect, but I felt cleansed.
Alice had nodded off when I returned. She was moaning gently, like she might
talk in her sleep. Her bruises already looked less startling. They would surely
discharge her soon.
Beatrice was standing
beside me. I blinked sleepily, and stood up, too quickly. There were spots
before my eyes. Beatrice was clutching a brown paper bag. An inviting smell
emerged from it. ‘Augustus, I’ve brought you some lunch. How’s our poor patient?’
she asked simply. There wasn’t a hint of her usual scathing irony. I was too
surprised to be pleased. I sat down, opening the bag. I offered Beatrice a
chip. She declined. For the next fifteen minutes I chomped my way through a
reviving meal. Alice didn’t stir. I marvelled at how she could sleep so much.
It must be the shock, I told myself. Beatrice pulled a chair up to the bed. We
sat silently together.
An hour later, Uncle
bumbled in. He was balancing another full tray of that dreadful coffee. He
seemed pleased with himself. ‘I’ve secured an injunction against Leo Mannheim.
The man cannot legally come within fifty yards of Alice.’ This was good news, although
I did wonder how watertight the order would be. Alice’s Father, I suspected,
didn’t take much heed of the law, not when the anger struck him. Nevertheless,
I congratulated Uncle. Alice still hadn’t woken. I began to feel alarmed by her
extraordinarily profound slumber. Maybe she’d sustained a concussion, or
something worse, from her Father’s brutal beating. Very gently, I shook her
shoulder. Alice didn’t move. Her lips were shockingly pale, nearly blue. I
froze for a second. Then I was charging into the corridor, screaming for a
The medical staff fumbled
around for some time. Then Alice’s curtains were pulled. I could see nothing.
Nurses breezed in and out. A big-shot doctor arrived. None of us spoke. A
terrible twenty minutes passed. Finally, the consultant emerged to speak with
Uncle. Alice had been placed on a ventilator. Her breathing was irregular. The
doctor suspected a possible brain injury. ‘I believe Miss Mannheim may have
suffered a head trauma,’ he mused, clearly relishing his diagnosis. ‘We will
keep her comfortable, and run some tests.’ Then he was gone. My life lay
shattered on the ground. Uncle got me to sit down. ‘We must be patient,
Augustus, and pray hard,’ Uncle said, hugging my shoulders. I was broken,
Uncle insisted I come
home, to get some rest. ‘Alice is in able hands,’ he urged. I nodded my head,
looking down at the ground, unable to protest. ‘Come on, Augustus,’ Beatrice
chipped in kindly, but I didn’t need convincing. I was dead-beat. I felt like crawling
under the covers, hibernating from this awful grief. Dire thoughts plagued my
head. I imagined Alice living her life in a vegetative state. But I would stay
by her side, whatever. Leo Mannheim was a monster. He needed exterminating. He
was no better than a rodent. Beatrice made me a silky hot chocolate. I
showered. I threw myself into bed, and dreamt horrible things.
When I woke, my head was
throbbing insanely. With a rush, the whole sorry story of my life flooded back.
I cringed, groaning inwardly. It was late. Uncle and Beatrice had let me sleep
in. I leapt from under the covers, bent on only one thing. I would go to the
hospital immediately, to be with Alice. Dragging on some grubby clothes, I
grabbed my wallet and phone, preparing to shoot out the door. Uncle, however,
waylaid me. ‘You better get something to eat, Augustus, before you go to the
hospital. You need to keep your strength up.’ He said this kindly, but firmly,
so I went back inside. He made me some brunch. ‘I’ll drive you,’ Uncle was
saying, as I munched at my food. ‘Beatrice is already there.’ This surprised
me. I could only think it was some kind of girl solidarity. Having
eaten, Uncle got his
keys. We pulled out of the driveway. I prayed that the traffic would be kind.
Alice had declined
overnight. She lay comatose in bed, entirely still. When I looked into her open
eyes, there was only a glassy absence. From her mouth came a frightening
assortment of breathing tubes. It broke my heart. A nurse came in to give her a
simple bed bath. I turned away. Beatrice tapped my shoulder, and whispered that
we should withdraw. Alice’s physician would be here soon, so we would have more
definite news. Uncle sauntered in, flirting shamelessly with a pretty young
nurse. I felt suddenly enraged. He should really treat matters with more
gravity. When Alice’s doctor eventually breezed in, it was not good. ‘We have
reviewed the scans. Miss Mannheim has suffered a significant blow to her
frontal lobe. When she comes around, there may be complications. Her memory
could be impaired, she might have trouble with speech.’ This was ghastly. I
couldn’t bear to think Alice might be irrevocably changed.
We went back home. Uncle
convinced me it was unnecessary to stay for long hours beside Alice’s bedside.
The medical staff would call us immediately, if there were any change. I no
longer feared that Leo Mannheim would appear, and whisk Alice away. The foul
man wouldn’t want to trouble himself with a sick daughter. On the journey home,
Beatrice tried to cheer me. She was certain that Alice would recover
completely. I didn’t have such complete faith, but Beatrice’s kind words were
welcome. A part of me was shocked that Beatrice even cared, but I didn’t delve
into the matter. Uncle was subdued. I understood him. He was thinking of Aunt’s
final illness. There had been too much sadness in our world.
At breakfast, Uncle’s
phone rang. He’d set a truly cringeworthy ringtone. He was too much. Beatrice
and I shuffled uncomfortably. It was the doctor. Uncle hemmed, nodding his
head. The call was concluded quickly. ‘Well, excellent news. Alice has woken.
She is breathing by herself, but she hasn’t spoken as yet.’ I was so glad, but
this latter detail worried me. Uncle said we’d shoot to the hospital right now.
I grabbed my things, trembling with excitement. Beatrice and Uncle got ready,
and we clambered into the car. Uncle drove. The usual traffic snarl slowed our
progress, it was vexing. Once we’d parked in the multi-storey carpark, and
walked up to the ward, it was already midday. I cast my eyes over the wilting
flowers in the long white corridor. I should have brought a bouquet. Alice’s
door stood ajar. We went in. She was propped up on her pillows. She seemed
puzzled and confused. ‘Hello, Alice,’ I said simply, choking with emotion.
There was no reply.
Alice simply didn’t
recognize me. Her bewilderment turned to fear, until I said gently ‘Alice, it
is us.’ At this, her shoulders relaxed a little, although her eyes remained
glazed. It flitted across my mind that Alice couldn’t speak. That she’d become
a simpleton. I stood rooted. Until Uncle came to the rescue. He moved
cautiously to Alice’s bedside, and introduced himself. At this she smiled
vaguely. But there were no words. ‘Can we stay with you for a while?’ Uncle
asked, extremely softly. Alice nodded her head once. She was different, less
emotionally fuelled. Suddenly she was scrabbling awkwardly with her fingers,
then she turned on her side, away from us. Uncle spoke to me. ‘Let’s not push
the girl,’ he urged gently, kindness in his eyes. Our chairs scraped as we
stood up. Alice moaned. Beatrice looked mortified. It was all appalling.
We slunk off home with
our tails between our legs. Nobody spoke. I wanted to die. No one could stir up
an appetite. Beatrice made tea, but even that didn’t soothe. I needed Aunt. She
would have known how to heal me. Uncle attempted some small talk, but it fell
flat. I just wanted to go to my room and dwell on this awful misery. My mind
made clangourous noises. ‘Have faith, Augustus,’ Uncle said quietly. ‘I’m
certain Alice will recover in good time.’ But my optimism had plunged to an
all-time zero. I knew these were just empty words.
I was late to wake. There
was an ashy taste in my mouth. I knew it was fear. Thinking of Alice lying
there in bed, I was certain nothing had changed. We would make our dutiful run
to the hospital. The doctors would make their non-committal diagnoses. Alice
would stare into space, seeing nothing. She had turned away from the bleeding
ruin of my heart. I wondered if there was any therapy she could commence, to
restore her shattered memory. That thought briefly gave me hope. I pulled
myself out of bed, and tramped downstairs to question Uncle. But he was on the
phone, tense, pacing the room. ‘Augustus,’ he said, once he’d hung up, ‘Alice
has taken a turn for the worse. We need to go in immediately.’ Uncle couldn’t
disguise his alarm. I grabbed my coat.
Alice was awake, but she
was using an oxygen mask, her breathing laboured. She didn’t acknowledge us as
we entered her room. We were total strangers to her. This hurt. Uncle went into
the hall to round up a doctor. Soon I heard him discussing Alice’s condition in
hushed tones, but I couldn’t distinguish much detail. Alice didn’t seem much
surprised at Beatrice and I standing there, in her private room, which I
thought peculiar. The natural response would have been to question who we were,
but maybe she just felt too ill. I stood like a complete prune, squirming my
shoulders, trying to catch Alice’s eye, until Beatrice drew me away. It was all
a dead loss. Uncle came back in, to share the doctor’s synopsis. Alice’s
ability to breathe independently had been compromised. It sounded serious. It
was likely that she’d have to go back on a ventilator. This affected the proper
functioning of her organs. It would be a downhill slide from now. I only hoped
she’d know me before the end.
By the time we reached
home, I was maudlin and blue. There seemed little hope that Alice would ever
recover. Uncle told me to be less downhearted, but I knew he was a hardened
optimist who ignored facts. Beatrice was strangely afflicted by the bad news. I
found it hard to fathom her peculiar compassion for Alice. From the start she’d
loathed my girlfriend. There was something mysterious and indefinable going on
here. I took a long hot shower, and slunk away to my bedroom. It was still
early, but only sleep could rescue me. I wished I could get my mitts on some of
Uncle’s hard liquor, to numb my head. The bathroom cabinet was still crammed
with Uncle’s old sleeping pills, but he’d already warned me they made you feel
zonked out and foul. There was nothing to do but bear the pain.
Light was blaring in my
eyes. Uncle was shaking me awake. He was determined, urgent. ‘Augustus, we have
to go. Alice’s doctor just rang. She has stopped breathing on her own. We need
to be there now.’ Quickly I stripped, tossing my crumpled pyjamas in a heap.
Uncle helped me fish out some half-respectable clothes. He hadn’t woken
Beatrice. We tiptoed downstairs, and went quickly for the door. Uncle scrawled
an illegible note for Beatrice, and placed it on the coffee table. I felt the
adrenalin surge in me. ‘Buckle up, Augustus,’ Uncle prompted, once we were in
the car. ‘This is going to be a hair-raising dash.’ He reversed wildly into the
deserted street, and drove.
The ward was glaring,
chilly, antiseptic. Nurses sat at their work stations, profoundly involved with
writing up their patients’ notes. Quietly, Uncle enquired about Alice. She had
been moved to the intensive care unit. This was not good. We took a lift to the
top floor. Alice had been shoved into a sterile corner room. I strode in. She
was hooked up to a ventilator, and a dizzying array of plastic tubing. I nearly
retched. It was hard to distinguish the girl I loved beneath this maze of
machinery. Uncle went out to seek a consultant, but it was too early. The
doctors would make their rounds in a couple of hours. We’d need to wait. I
suggested we seek out some coffee. Part of me was relieved to be away from the
scene. Uncle and I found a drinks machine and slurped from plastic cups, in a
deserted waiting area. We didn’t speak. There was nothing to say. This, I
reflected, was the graveyard hour in which sick people died.
Although the coffee was
gross, I felt somewhat revived. Light was beginning to percolate through the
iron-grilled windows of the hospital. We took the lift up to intensive care. The
unit had shaken off its early morning sluggishness, and was abustle with
industry. Nurses were darting here and there. There was a big kerfuffle at
Alice’s door. I suddenly realized something was amiss, and ran. An enormous
orderly was straddled across Alice, punching her chest. He looked insane, like
he might smash her ribs. The monitors droned. At once I knew she’d flatlined.
The next twenty minutes was nightmare. I stood rooted, watching everything. No
one asked us to leave. Uncle clasped my hand. Alice could not be revived. When
they pronounced her dead, I already knew she was gone.
‘Come Augustus, we need
to give the medical staff some space,’ Uncle was saying kindly, but I couldn’t
listen. I needed to clasp Alice’s hand once more. A sheet had been pulled up,
covering her almost completely. But I could still see her lovely
cornflower-blue eyes. She looked strangely peaceful, very beautiful. I walked
up to the bed. The nurses stood aside for me. Alice’s hand was still warm. I
felt like saying some big powerful words, but nothing came to me. Uncle stood
beside me. ‘Say your farewells, Augustus,’ he said emotionally, ‘and then we
must leave.’ I wouldn’t be dragged away, not for all the money in the world. So
I thought it best to go graciously, honouring Alice. I turned, inwardly saying
my goodbyes. My shoulders were trembling, my hands shook. Uncle guided me away.
Somehow, Uncle got me
home. It was all a terrible blur. I don’t think I understood anything he said.
He parked me on the lounge sofa, and went upstairs to tell Beatrice. Soon I
heard sobbing. It seemed remote, not my business. My head spun wildly. I
thought I’d vomit. Uncle came and sat beside me. ‘I am going to have to call
Leo Mannheim. He needs to know.’ This I heard. But I wasn’t angry. It was the
proper thing to do. Beatrice appeared. She hugged me tightly. I almost
crumpled. She was tear-stained, trembling. No one suggested tea. I was grateful
for that. Uncle grabbed me a woollen blanket, and I wrapped my knees. I felt
suddenly frozen, like a polar blast was ripping through me. I had suffered when
my Mother had passed on, when Aunt had suddenly died. But this was worse. It
was like steel knives cutting out your heart. I curled up. Uncle and Beatrice
tactfully withdrew. My grief was beyond mere crying.
Uncle had given me a
sleeping pill. When I woke, monstrously groggy, I didn’t at first remember.
Then like a tsunami it struck. I moaned in dreadful desperation, turning my
face to the wall. But I’d have to confront the day, because Uncle was making
plans. There was Alice’s funeral to consider, also the wake, and how we’d
handle her dreadful Father. I thought Uncle must have spoken with him by now. I
dragged myself from bed, and moved downstairs. Leo Mannheim was sitting on our
sofa. Uncle was perched beside him. They were speaking together in hushed
voices. There was no anger in Mr Mannheim, only a startling, slouching grief.
For the first time, I felt sorry for the man. They were planning Alice’s
funeral. When Leo Mannheim saw me, he did the most surprising thing. He came
up, and hugged me savagely. He stank of whiskey and cigarettes. I hugged him
The funeral was a
rain-sodden affair. The sky wept bitterly for Alice. Beatrice balanced a black
umbrella above my head. I didn’t care. I was drowning in grief. As the priest
rolled out his familiar phrases, I stiffened. No decent God would take my girl
like this. I would shake a fist at heaven. I couldn’t bear to think of Alice
cold in the ground. Over from me, the Mannheims were leaning heavily against
each other. They looked stricken, innocuous, small. The priest threw a clod of
earth on Alice’s casket. The ceremony was concluding. It didn’t seem nearly
enough to express my despair. Uncle indicated that we should come away from the
graveside. I stumbled, but Uncle caught my arm. Our sorry party, Beatrice too,
wound down the hill, back to the vehicles. It was horrible to leave Alice alone
in this awful, frowning place. I had placed a single white rose on her coffin.
It was hardly adequate.
The wake was a
small-scale affair, held at our house. Myself, Uncle, Beatrice, the Mannheims,
and a motley selection of Alice’s immediate family. Leo Mannheim drank heavily,
quickly disgracing himself. Soon he was slumped on the sofa, snoring, his
cavernous mouth wide open. I pecked at the catered food, but it was just for
show. Alice’s obscure relations didn’t mix or speak to us, instead they got
more rowdy and vulgar. This was clearly a chance to party for free. I couldn’t
help thinking they shamed Alice’s memory. Then some obscure uncle of Alice
walked over to us. Within moments he was hitting on Beatrice, it was
disgusting. He was red-faced, leering, outrageously drunk. I pulled my cousin
away to safety, leaving Uncle to handle the fallout. Beatrice and I strolled
into the garden. The noise of the revellers subsided. ‘This is not what Alice
would have wanted,’ Beatrice said firmly. I nodded. We went back in. Uncle was
turfing out the last of Alice’s ugly relations. Only the Mannheims were
staying. Alice’s mother had always been a mystery to me. She lay sprawled
beside Leo Mannheim, also the worse for drink. ‘Well, that is over,’ Uncle
said, relieved, having escorted the last disorderly relative from our house.
‘These old rituals always bring out the worst in people,’ Uncle mused
resignedly. I was grateful this unholy farce was over.
There was an appalling,
distracting mess to clean up. Uncle didn’t wake the Mannheims, who slept on,
oblivious. Scattered beer cans, ashtrays heaving with stubbed, lipsticked
cigarettes, piles of uneaten food, it all smelt sour, sickly. Beatrice fished out
a small dustpan and brush, while Uncle got a black trash sack for the bottles.
But my life couldn’t be normal. I was damaged goods. Uncle seemed to understand
I needed to go to my room and rest. He hugged my shoulders, and told me to keep
up my spirits. Only a drug-induced sleep could possibly comfort me now.
Uncle procured another
batch of sleeping pills for me. I’d always thought doctors were particularly
cautious when dispensing such drugs, giving only a niggardly supply. But I
didn’t question Uncle’s source, and popped a pill nightly. They gave me some
relief, although when I woke the world was hazy and gloomy for many hours,
after which a full-blown depression set in. Sometimes I wished I could sleep
away my life. I hadn’t contemplated suicide, that really wasn’t me, essentially
I was far too cowardly for that, but any oblivion was certainly welcome. I
began to see myself as an addict. I didn’t want to shake my drug dependency,
because, otherwise, I might unhinge, and go mad with grief. ‘The choices we
make in life, Augustus,’ as Uncle always philosophized, ‘are like a vicious
I tossed off my grubby
covers. I felt grim. Beatrice was standing there. ‘Augustus,’ she said, with no
introduction, ‘what poison is my Father feeding you?’ I knew immediately that
she meant the sleeping pills. I gazed at my watch. It was late afternoon. I was
sure that I had tired, crumpled eyes. ‘Augustus, you need to ditch these pills.
You’re fading fast. I’m scared you’ll become some raving addict.’ Instead of
storming out, in her usual dramatic fashion, Beatrice stood her ground, waiting
for my answer. But I was too foggy to construct a coherent sentence. Beatrice
kicked her heel impatiently. ‘Well, I am going to be having serious words with
my irresponsible Father.’ And with that she turned, and was gone.
‘Augustus, we’re going to
have to wean you off these pills,’ Uncle was saying. I felt mildly alarmed.
Clearly he had been speaking with Beatrice and was swayed by her. I didn’t know
if I could put up much of a fight. My mind was fog-bound, my responses
impaired. Uncle waited patiently, peering hard into my eyes. ‘Well, I think we
should see the doctor, Augustus, and figure out the best way to deal with this.
Obviously you just can’t suddenly stop. These things need to be done
gradually.’ I was glad to know Uncle wasn’t going to suddenly deprive me of my
medicines. I would be allowed to take my pills tonight, that was all that
mattered. Our interview was over. I crawled back upstairs, and climbed into
bed. The bottle of pills, nicely full, sat on my bedside table. I opened it and
stowed a big handful away, under my mattress. I felt clever. Then I reached
over for my glass of water, and downed two pills. It was still afternoon. I
Uncle had set up an
appointment with an addictions specialist named Dr Stokes. He operated from
some swanky practice in the moneyed part of town. It all made me feel rather
ill. I was trying to cope with my grief for Alice. I didn’t like to be labelled
as a pill junkie too. We motored down grand, hedge-lined avenues, finally
parking down a narrow mews. In the sumptuous waiting room, Beatrice grabbed my
hand supportively. It was some time before they called my name. I didn’t know
what to expect. Maybe some bespectacled freakshow doctor, who’d be so very
understanding, so prying. My head still felt leaden. I stood slowly, my eyes
swam with dots. Beatrice supported me. Uncertainly, I inched towards the
consultant’s oak-panelled door.
The doctor was a thick-set
man with myopic eyes. He sized me up with a penetrating stare, asking me to
take a seat on his plush couch. Then he introduced himself to us all. ‘I am
sorry to hear that you’ve been having such a difficult time, Augustus.’ His
voice was rich, creepy. I didn’t answer. ‘It will not be easy to liberate
yourself from these pills,’ he continued, ‘but this is something we can work
on.’ I gazed at Uncle, looking for help, but his eyes were fixed on Dr Stokes.
He was tilting his big head in agreement. I felt boxed in. Beatrice shuffled
her feet, remaining silent. It was like the temperature in the room had
suddenly plummeted. I shivered uncontrollably. I was wracked by a seizure. The
doctor’s eyes were coldly assessing me. He clearly took this as a sign of my profound
psychological instability. ‘Augustus, I think it’s best that we admit you into
our little clinic,’ he announced softly, but with disturbing finality. I had
never imagined this. I thought of padded cells and straight-jackets. Of cruel
nurses and lobotomies. The urge to run, and run hard, gripped me. I stood up,
almost hissing, like a cornered animal. But there was no help. The doctor was
pointing to a side door. I was being guided inside.
There were no iron
grilles on the windows, or heavily bolted doors. In fact it all seemed highly
civilized. A huge vase of flowers cheered the foyer. I felt less like a
psychotic patient. Uncle and Beatrice had followed. They hemmed approvingly,
clearly impressed. ‘Augustus, this will be a good space for you to get treatment,’
said Beatrice kindly. I was shown to my room. It was brutally stark, but not
depressing. I couldn’t see myself strapped down to the bed in this facility, or
forced to have electric shock therapy. The nurses I’d seen looked animated,
smiley. ‘Well, Augustus, it appears that you’ll be comfortable and well cared
for here,’ Uncle said. ‘Beatrice, it’s time for us to get moving.’ They were
leaving so soon. I was alarmed. Dr Stokes pumped Uncle’s hand vigorously, and
encouraged me to settle in. I felt panicky once they’d all gone. Where were my
pills? But a cheery nurse popped her head around the door, summoning me to
lunch. I went.
I was led into a large
hall where a number of patients were eating from heaped trays. It looked more
like a school refectory, because the people were mostly young. I went to the
counter and got some decent-looking food. It was regular institutional fare,
but it looked edible. I went over to a crowded table, and sat down beside an
extremely thin, nervous-looking girl with plaited hair. As I was new, in need
of a friend, I introduced myself. She looked a little shocked at my
forwardness, but replied, saying her name was Imogen. As I ate, we talked
pleasantries, and I found myself warming to this girl. I was curious what had brought
her here, but I didn’t ask. She was probably wondering the same thing about me.
When the meal was concluded, Imogen shuffled away, saying she’d see me at
dinner. I nodded. After a while I stood up, took my lunch tray to the hatch,
and walked back to my room.
‘So you’re chatting with
Imogen Davenport,’ said the burly nurse taking my vitals. ‘Lovely girl that
one, but a little messed up. But aren’t we all?’ She chortled vulgarly at her
own witticism. I couldn’t disagree with the statement, but I found it rather
intrusive. Evidently I was being watched hawkishly. ‘So, Augustus, tell me how
you’re feeling?’ she probed. Instead of making a long, agonized answer, I said
simply that I was fine. The nurse nodded, easily satisfied. The doctor had
prescribed some new pills for me. She quickly ran through the side effects,
which didn’t sound pleasant, and asked if I had any questions. ‘Will they help
me to sleep?’ I enquired nervously. ‘To a certain extent,’ she answered. And
then she departed. I was left alone to dwell on my new predicament. Images of
Imogen Davenport flitted through my head. I thought this odd. I told myself not
to be silly. Then there was a nervous rap at my door.
I opened it a crack. It
was Imogen. I ushered her in, welcoming her. I was a little mystified as to why
she’d come, but pleased. She perched at the end of my bed. This was awkward. I
waited for her to speak. ‘Augustus, they are watching me. Always. Everything I
do is noted. This makes me so frightened.’ Imogen spoke softly, as if she might
be overheard. I shared with her my own observations. I told her how my own
nurse was overly inquisitive. ‘But they write everything down, Augustus. They
chart my every move. They discuss me.’ Imogen spoke as if it was all some
appalling conspiracy. This was a little alarming. I tried to comfort her. ‘We
must stop them, Augustus. This isn’t right. I won’t have my life interrogated
like this!’ She sobbed, suddenly hugging me. I didn’t know how to react, or
what to say. I only knew another chapter of my weird life had begun.
Dr Stokes was doing his
rounds. Imogen had left, leaving me shaken, confused. As the doctor consulted
my notes, I couldn’t shift the image of Imogen’s trembling body, and her
beautiful braided hair. Observing the impeccably-groomed Dr Stokes, Imogen’s
fear of persecution now seemed irrational, even absurd. I wondered what
substances had provoked such anxious fantasies. ‘So, Augustus, how are you
settling in?’ the doctor said, with a probing look. ‘I understand you’ve
already made a friend.’ Imogen was right. They were creepily prying.
Uncle and Beatrice hadn’t
been to see me. This was curious. They didn’t even text. In fact I’d never seen
a visitor at the clinic, which was extremely disturbing. I vowed to ask Imogen
when she next came. My days were mostly drab affairs, punctuated only by meals,
and the welcome visits of Imogen. I was sleeping now. The new medicines were
helping. I no longer felt permanently zonked out. Nurses constantly took my
blood pressure and vitals, creepy Dr Stokes did his prying rounds. Imogen and I
were more relaxed together. She was less nervy, although she still spoke
wildly. I asked her about visitors. ‘Oh, we aren’t allowed contact with outside
people,’ Imogen replied simply. ‘They think it will ruin our rehabilitation. I
haven’t seen my family in eight months.’ My heart sank. We’d become social
lepers, the ill who must be hidden away. I wondered whether I’d be permanently
incarcerated. Imogen saw my distress, and gave me her hand. I squeezed it gently.
Sometimes I felt I was
betraying Alice’s memory. I knew instinctively that she would have despised
Imogen. Alice had been a jealous girl who didn’t share. I would have loved to
spill my troubled heart to Beatrice, but that seemed impossible now. Nothing
could stop my burgeoning relationship with Imogen. We shared a difficult
history, and suffered here together. Although Imogen was pretty bonkers, I felt
that exciting chemistry between us. I think she felt it too. We spent longer
and longer in each other’s company. The nervous tension had disappeared. The
nurses made no comment, but they grinned obsequiously. I was never invited to
Imogen’s room. She said it was depressing there. I didn’t push it. We were
happy just talking, at the end of my bed.
‘Well, I think we’re
going to need to start you on a different regime of medication,’ said Dr
Stokes, with professional relish. ‘You are not responding as we had hoped.’
This was disturbing, as in all honesty I felt one hundred percent better. At
first I feared Dr Stokes planned to discharge me, because I wanted to be near
Imogen. However it appeared now that Dr Stokes planned to tamper a little more
with my head. ‘Augustus, I’ve noticed in you a tendency to romanticize things.
Would that be a fair observation?’ he stated, gazing hard into me. I was
puzzled as to where this bizarre line of questioning was going. But I replied
that he was probably correct. ‘Well, my plan, Augustus, is to bring you a
clearer picture of life,’ said Dr Stokes, with chilling arrogance. Then he
scribbled something on my chart, indicating that the consultation was over. I
watched him glide from the room, wondering nervously at this new development.
The new medicines
slaughtered my mind. I peered through a fog bank at the world. My mouth was
dry, I couldn’t articulate my words. They were keeping me away from Imogen.
She’d stopped coming to my room. I staggered along the corridor to find her,
but she wasn’t around. I asked the nurses where she could be. They didn’t
answer. Eventually I found Imogen sitting all alone in the dayroom. She was
delighted to see me. ‘They said I wasn’t to come to your room. That you were
too ill for visitors.’ I told her this was nonsense, but explained how the new
medicines made me groggy. I think I slurred my words, even dribbled a bit. It
was embarrassing. But Imogen didn’t seem to mind. She stood up, and hugged me.
We walked together back to my room, ignoring the impertinent stares of the
After this, Imogen and I
were inseparable. We always ate together in the big hall, oblivious of other
patients. I spoke to no one else, and no one troubled us. There was much
frowning from the medical staff, my own nurse liked to tut in mock vexation,
but nobody attempt to scupper our beautiful relationship. Even Dr Stokes
controlled himself, and refrained from making loaded statements. I was
beginning to relish the institutional life, which was somewhat disturbing. I
hadn’t asked Imogen directly the reason for her own incarceration. I felt
probing too deeply might spoil our precious bond. But it did nag at me. My mind
began to clear as I became used to the new medicines. It worked overtime
imagining Imogen’s mysterious affliction. My presence had certainly calmed her.
Imogen no longer raved. She’d cast off the paranoia which characterized our
first encounters. Imogen never asked about my own family, as if the subject
were taboo. Then suddenly, after a particularly bland dinner, Imogen invited me
to her room. ‘Augustus, you had better come and see my quarters,’ she said,
shocking me. My heart performed somersaults. We went together, holding hands.
Imogen’s room was stark
like mine. But she’d alleviated the antiseptic gloom by pinning some rather
good pencil sketches on her noticeboard. They were mostly drawings of me. I
felt abashed at this. However, I told Imogen that she had a real artistic gift.
She shrugged her shoulders awkwardly, but looked pleased at my compliment. We
perched self-consciously at the end of Imogen’s bed. She had a big patchwork
quilt which brought a cheer to the drab paintwork. A much-graffitied writing
desk stood in the corner, something I sorely lacked. Then Imogen lent across,
and kissed me. It was a sparkling, joyous, long kiss we both revelled in. I
felt profoundly healed. Gently, Imogen pulled me onto the bed.
Beyond the iron grilles,
I could hear rain tap at the window. It was beautifully comforting. Imogen
slept. Our bodies were intertwined. The door couldn’t be locked. I had expected
some beefy nurse to barge in, but mercifully we’d been left alone. Imogen’s
hair tickled my face. This was heaven. I’d never felt such inner calm, not even
with Alice. Imogen stirred, stretching her limbs. ‘Good evening,’ I said, and
kissed her mouth. She smiled. Our paradise was indestructible.
We dressed quickly, aware
the doctor’s rounds would soon begin. I fumbled buttoning up my shirt, and
Imogen giggled. There was an aggressive knock
at the door, and in stormed Imogen’s lead nurse. She looked formidably
large, humourless. The temperature in the room plummeted. ‘Augustus, I ask that
you leave now, whilst I examine my patient.’ She was not to be queried. I
wished Imogen goodbye. Our eyes lingered over each other. It was understood
we’d meet later. I took my leave, gambolling into the corridor. Life was
Before I reached my room,
I was assaulted by Dr Stokes. He said I had a visitor. My Uncle. This was
surprising. I walked quickly to the dayroom. Uncle was seated in a generous
chair by the window. When he saw me he stood up, and embraced me in an enormous
bear-hug. ‘How have you been keeping, Augustus? You are looking well.’ I said I
was surviving, that things were tolerable here. I think I flushed, but Uncle
didn’t notice. ‘Well, my boy, I’ve been speaking with Dr Stokes. He thinks it’s
time you came back home. He says that you’ve made excellent progress under his
care.’ This was totally unexpected. Just as my life had become beautiful again,
I was about to be robbed of Imogen. Uncle was saying he would collect me at the
end of the week. His words sounded muffled, my temples pounded, I began to
sweat. This couldn’t be.
I had to share this
immediately with Imogen. We couldn’t be parted. I needed to come up with a
strategy. My first thought was to stage a relapse, something that would get me
institutionalized for longer. Because I didn’t imagine Imogen would be discharged
anytime soon. There was a gentle rap at my door. It was Imogen. I must have
looked stressed out, because she asked if I was alright. I explained. ‘Surely,
Augustus, you don’t want to stay locked in the the place?’ Imogen questioned. I
said that I must be near her. ‘Augustus, that is sweet. But hardly the best
idea. You mustn’t sacrifice your life for me.’ I insisted Imogen was now my
life. She glowed, and hurled herself into my arms. We would devise a plan.
I didn’t know if I’d be
able to fake a seizure. Instead I’d claim I was having panic attacks around
people. I couldn’t imagine Dr Stokes would be easily hoodwinked. I’d need to
put on the performance of a lifetime. I ran through some phrases that would
startle, and practiced making a long, sickly, forlorn face. By the time Dr
Stokes finally appeared, I was genuinely a shivering mess. The doctor stalled
in his tracks, and considered me hard. ‘Augustus, are you not feeling well?’ he
asked, full of professional interest. I explained my symptoms, saying my vision
was blurred, that the whole world was closing in on me. I trembled like a young
leaf, sweating profusely. Dr Stokes took my pulse. ‘Well, your heart is racing,
Augustus. When did these signs manifest themselves?’ I said that I’d been
feeling out-of-sorts for some while. ‘Well, rest, Augustus, and we’ll run some
tests. I’d like to monitor you for a little longer. I don’t think you should
return home until we have stabilized your condition.’ It was working. I glowed
Dr Stokes prescribed a
sedative. He scrawled furiously on my chart. I felt genuinely indisposed. At
the same time I also wanted to brag about my success to Imogen. We wouldn’t be
separated now. I knew I was dicing with danger, but I wasn’t afraid. I would tell
Imogen all, when we took our evening meal together. For the benefit of the
medical staff, I needed to appear wobbly on my legs, dazed, confused easily. I
found myself enjoying the idea of this deception. After an appropriate, ailing
pause, I shuffled frailly into the dayroom, and sat glassy-eyed under the big
window. The nurses didn’t question me, they let me be. My subterfuge was
The dining hall was
nearly empty. Imogen and I sat together. I felt very conspicuous. So we spoke
in hushed voices, afraid some passing nurse might overhear. I didn’t want to
appear animated, so I dampened my responses, acting wooden. Imogen quickly
understood. We whispered like conspirators, agreeing to meet later. I knew it
would be hard to stay undiscovered. Once Imogen had gone, I stared into space,
and played idly with my remaining food. There was nobody around. After a heavy
pause, I got up wearily, and slouched theatrically back to my room.
Dr Stokes had completed
his rounds. He’d asked some probing questions, which I think I handled
adequately. The ward grew hush. I waited for Imogen. There was a gentle rap at
my door. I knew it was her. We embraced passionately. ‘Augustus, do you think
there might be surveillance cameras?’ Imogen fretted, full of concern. I said I
thought that it’d be unlikely, and also illegal. ‘Dr Stokes asked me some
curious questions tonight. I think he suspects.’ I asked her to clarify this,
but Imogen was hesitant to repeat the doctor’s words. She would only say there
were a lot of enquiries about me. I prayed Dr Stokes hadn’t cottoned on to our
little game. We’d need to be cautious. Imogen and I spoke softly together. We
kissed. We lay together. We were just perfect. Inwardly, I scorned the din
created by the nurse’s trolleys beetling down the corridor.
Dr Stokes explained how
Uncle and Beatrice were lobbying to have me discharged. ‘Augustus, I see little
reason to keep you shackled up in here. I do understand this may spoil your
designs on Miss Davenport, but that is something both of you will need to
solve.’ I was speechless. I couldn’t believe he’d seen through my deception so
easily. I wondered if there really were surveillance cameras. I felt deflated,
out-manoeuvred. How would I break this news to Imogen? Inwardly, I pledged to
get her out of this place, so we could be together. Once Dr Stokes had signed a
discharge slip, he left, clearly pleased as punch to have exposed my bluff. I
dwelt on this new misery. I thought it improbable that I could extricate myself
from this mess, and still have Imogen.
Imogen was weeping. It
was agony to watch her. My bags were packed. Apparently Uncle was on the way.
This was pure heartache. I’d tried asking Imogen about when she hoped to be
discharged, but she was vague, and flung her hands up in despair. ‘It won’t be
soon, Augustus. I have no one coming for me.’ I’d never been able to learn much
about Imogen’s family circumstances, but they sounded dire. ‘We will stay in
touch. I shall visit you every day. We will get through this.’ I held Imogen
tightly. She quivered. My assurances sounded hollow, even to myself. I wasn’t
sure Dr Stokes would welcome such visits. I’d mastered an addiction to sleeping
pills. But I didn’t ever want to kick this beautiful thing with Imogen.
So, Augustus, tell us
about this new girl.’ We were sat around the big kitchen table drinking tea,
munching chocolate biscuits. There was no point in dissembling, so I told Uncle
and Beatrice the full story. I think Uncle was flabbergasted that I could
launch into another relationship, so soon after Alice’s death. But he spoke no
words of condemnation. ‘The main thing, Augustus, is that you’re happy. But
bless me, I don’t know how you’re going to meet up with this Imogen.’ Beatrice
was tight-lipped, although I felt she wanted to scream. ‘Well, Augustus, you
certainly have a passion for troubled young ladies.’ I said nothing.
I didn’t have to cajole
Uncle. He offered to drive me to the clinic, so that I could see Imogen. Uncle
was such a huge romantic soul at heart. I knew that seeing Imogen would be
fraught with difficulty. Dr Stokes had never been happy for his patients to have
visitors. He’d certainly make no exception in my case. I’d tried to pull the
wool over his eyes, and failed. I wouldn’t be popular. So I was genuinely
surprised when the desk clerk guided me through to the familiar dayroom. Uncle
waited tactfully in the foyer, immersed in a battered magazine. Imogen had been
summoned. My pulse raced. Somehow, I had to get her out of here.
She came after ten
minutes. The way Imogen glided in made me think she’d been heavily medicated.
There was that vacancy in her eyes I’d noticed in many other patients. We held
each other close, and Imogen kissed me feverishly. ‘You came, you came,’ she
said, as if awestruck. I replied that I was going to get her out of this place.
Imogen beamed, then she shrugged her shoulders hopelessly. I had no plan. I
think she could tell I was just spouting hot air. We spent a beautiful hour
together. Until a grave nurse poked her head in, and called Imogen to lunch. I
watched her glide out of the dayroom. I’d sworn to come the next day.
As we drove back through
the snarled traffic, I asked Uncle how we could free Imogen. He hemmed, and
looked troubled. ‘I think the biggest obstacle would be Dr Stokes,’ Uncle
mused. ‘I imagine,’ he continued thoughtfully, ‘that if we agreed to take
Imogen into our care, the good doctor might feel more inclined to release her.’
Uncle’s generosity staggered me. He didn’t even know my new girl. After all, he
might be inviting a crazy woman into the house. Uncle’s trusting nature was
both naive and something beautiful. Timidly, full of joy, I asked whether he
meant this seriously. ‘Certainly, Augustus. I’d like to chip in and do my bit.
But we better keep this hush from Beatrice.’ We had reached the motorway. Uncle
put his foot down, and the car accelerated past nearly stationary traffic. I
felt like I might fly.
Uncle would need to be
very persuasive. Dr Stokes was no walkover. This thing would have to be done in
person. I wished I knew more about Imogen’s family background. Would there be
possessive relations keen to derail our plans? Uncle telephoned the clinic. He
secured an immediate appointment with the doctor. ‘Augustus, I shall be direct
with Dr Stokes. I shall offer Imogen sanctuary at our home. He will know about
the both of you. I can make you no promises. But we shall try.’ I thanked Uncle
ardently. ‘And now we shall drive,’ he declared, all stoked up. We were on a
mission. I felt sure we couldn’t fail.
Dr Stokes’ office was
full of clutter. He beckoned us, struggling to find chairs under the mountain
of junk. The doctor seemed mildly exasperated. But Uncle wasn’t distracted at
all. He launched into a long speech, detailing how Imogen would have marvellous
care if she came and lived at our house. Dr Stokes was only slightly surprised.
I think he’d seen this coming. I could have sworn he smirked at me. ‘It is not
impossible, what you ask,’ he reflected after some time, when Uncle had
completed his pitch. ‘Imogen’s parents are overseas, and frankly unconcerned
about her recovery. I shall give this some thought. There may be some legal
documents we need to have drawn up.’ I was frankly amazed at Dr Stokes’
amenability. I wasn’t sure if it was even lawful, hijacking Imogen like this.
But I was overcome, brimming with delight. I asked if I might go to the
dayroom, and break the encouraging news to Imogen. Dr Stokes smiled, and said
this would be fine. I floated to the door, leaving Dr Stokes and Uncle to iron
out the finer points.
Imogen was summoned. When
she rambled into the dayroom, she looked dishevelled, as if she’d been
disturbed from deep slumber. When I broke the incredible news, Imogen seemed
genuinely baffled. I realized she was heavily medicated. Slowly, I explained
that we could be together. She stirred slightly at this. ‘But my parents, they
both want me locked up in here forever,’ Imogen suddenly protested. It was the
first time she had spoken their names. It was like a fog bank had lifted.
‘Imogen, as we speak, my Uncle is organizing your discharge.’ I spoke these
words very gently. A fleeting smile flickered across Imogen’s face, and died. I
hugged my girl. She was like a limp fish in my arms.
Riding back in the car, I
described Imogen’s nebulous condition to Uncle. He assured me this was only
natural, given the strong medicines she’d been prescribed. I was nervous that
Imogen’s mind had been permanently impaired. Uncle brushed this off. ‘Dr Stokes
explained to me that Imogen needed some help after you were discharged. So he
put her on a gentle course of sedatives.’ This sounded entirely reasonable, but
I couldn’t shake the crazy suspicion that Imogen was being poisoned against her
will. I told Uncle I would go clear the junk from the spare room. Undoubtedly
there’d be some poignant reminders of Alice, but I could dismiss all that. I
was determined Imogen would feel loved by our whole family. I tried not to
dwell on the thought of Beatrice’s aghast face, once she’d been informed of
these new developments. Because Imogen and I were just perfect. Everyone would
see that. Only the most hardened sceptic could deny our beautiful bond.
A simple legal document
was drawn up. Imogen became our ward. Dr Stokes was satisfied. He explained
Imogen’s strict regime of medicines. It would be Uncle’s responsibility to make
sure the plan was followed. Dr Stokes warned us that Imogen could become
unpredictable, if she wasn’t properly cared for. This seemed far-fetched,
because the Imogen I knew was a gentle, beautiful soul. Her room had been
prepared. It was a cheerful place. Beatrice had been told. She was sour and
prickly at first, but quickly grew resigned. ‘Another one of Augustus’s crazy
strays,’ was all she said, clearly not amused. Then Uncle and I bundled into
the car. We were going to collect Imogen. My stomach swam with tiny fish. It
‘Am I really getting out
of here?’ asked Imogen, her voice husky with incredulity. She had packed a tiny
battered suitcase. ‘Surely your Uncle will object to this?’ she queried
nervously. I comforted Imogen as best I could, saying we would all make her
feel most welcome. ‘You will like my Uncle, he is an extremely considerate
man,’ I answered. I didn’t mention Beatrice, praying she’d not disgrace the
delicate situation. I took Imogen’s bag. We strode towards the exit. Dr Stokes
was there to wish her farewell. I could sense Imogen’s heart thumping. Then we
were out in the foyer. Escape seemed a certainty. Imogen was dazzled by the
bright sunlight. I guided her, almost blind, over to Uncle’s waiting car. Where
Uncle greeted her warmly. Smiling, Imogen buckled herself up in the back seat.
We sat together, drinking
tea. Imogen had warmed to Uncle. Both of them chatted eagerly. The pills made
Imogen drawl, but her mind seemed sharp. Uncle was good at garnering
information. I learnt a lot about Imogen’s family as they talked. Her father
was some kind of foreign ambassador. He wandered the globe. Her mother followed
in his footsteps, like a trophy wife. They were rarely in the country, too busy
to consider Imogen, or her fragile health. She’d been institutionalized,
discarded long ago. When Imogen spoke, it was without casting any blame. This
was simply how matters stood. I felt moved, profoundly sorry for her.
We prepared to turn in
for the night. Imogen seemed relaxed, at home. Dr Stokes had warned us of her
sleepwalking. It could, he stressed, be quite alarming. I was worried Imogen
might tumble down the stairs, break her neck. So I pledged to stay alert,
listen out for untoward noises in the early hours. So far things had gone
better than smoothly. Of course Imogen hadn’t met Beatrice. That would happen
the next day. My heart sunk when I imagined the likely friction between the two
girls. But perhaps things would be different. Imogen was not Alice. She didn’t
bewilder other people’s souls. I lay down on my bed. So much had changed. My
eyes closed. I couldn’t help myself. I struggled against exhaustion. Sleep swallowed
I was woken by a scraping
sound at my door. I shuddered. It was pitch black. No light entered my room. I
groped for my bedside lamp, but couldn’t find the switch. I knew it must be
Imogen. I’d read somewhere that it was dangerous to wake sleepwalkers. I rose
from bed, and opened the door. There she was. Somehow I’d expected Imogen to be
stumbling like a zombie, her hands outstretched into empty space. Instead she
stood at the head of the staircase, ghost-like, perfectly still. My job was to
guide her safely back to her room. I dared not touch her, or startle her, so it
was extremely difficult. As I contemplated my predicament, Imogen stirred, and
started to walk. I followed. She was returning to her room. The door was ajar.
She glided in. Suddenly Imogen groaned, and garbled some incomprehensible
words. I made my exit. She’d be safe now. But I couldn’t help reflecting that
Imogen must be a profoundly troubled girl.
At breakfast, nothing was
said about the previous night. But I felt thick-tongued, self-conscious. Imogen
was rabbiting happily away to Uncle. They were already thick as thieves. Uncle
had this way of enchanting young women. Then I heard Beatrice stomping down the
stairs. She saw Imogen. She looked perplexed, mortified, angry. ‘So who is
this?’ Beatrice queried loudly, curtly. I introduced her to Imogen. Beatrice
looked sour, outraged. It galled me. But Imogen wasn’t fazed by this display of
iciness. She replied that she was so pleased to finally meet Beatrice, that
she’d heard many good things, and she was certain they’d be close friends. At
this, Beatrice thawed somewhat. She took her seat noisily, and started
crunching on a big bowl of cereal. Uncle looked at me, and raised his eyebrows.
Imogen sniggered. I felt appeased. For a first meeting with Beatrice, this
Beatrice wanted a word.
This sounded ominous. My heart sank. ‘Augustus, precisely how dumb are you?
Entangling yourself again with another mentally unstable girl. I blame my
foolish Father for encouraging you.’ I was silent. I thought it best that
Beatrice let off some steam. ‘Augustus, I just don’t understand, why this
bizarre fascination for seriously crackpot girls?’ she ended, overflowing with
exasperation. I was worried she had a point. I couldn’t answer. Beatrice, true
to form, stood up suddenly, and flounced to the door, slamming it behind her.
She’d delivered her warning. It was like a swarm of bees had stung me.
‘Augustus, I don’t think
your cousin likes me very much.’ Imogen didn’t seem inordinately troubled, she
was simply stating a bald fact. I promised that I’d speak to Beatrice, and
encourage more sisterly feelings. Imogen nodded whimsically. ‘Your Uncle and I,
however, are getting on like a house in flames,’ she continued
enthusiastically, clearly charmed by Uncle’s notorious banter. I smiled, and
said I was glad. ‘You know, Augustus, I’m feeling less crushed, more alive.’
She gave me a spanking kiss on the lips. We’d need to go down for dinner
shortly, so I unhooked myself tenderly from Imogen’s arms. She didn’t complain,
but moaned endearingly. Imogen had set this brushfire in my heart, and it
wasn’t burning out. I didn’t think it’d ever decline.
Uncle broached the
subject of Imogen’s parents. ‘I feel that we owe a duty of care to Imogen. We
should attempt to contact her family, and heal the rift,’ he explained nobly.
Uncle was so idealistic, forever casting himself as a great healer of
suppurating wounds. I’d grown fearful, however, of parental wrath, ever since
Leo Mannheim tried to trash all our lives. But I listened to Uncle’s glowing
idea. He planned to make contact with the British High Commission, and track
down Imogen’s wayward Father. I didn’t think we should tell Imogen at this
stage. It would unsettle her, maybe topple her back into mental disorder. This
secrecy troubled me. Uncle made some calls. It turned out Mr Davenport was
pretty high profile. He wasn’t hard to find.
Jack Davenport and his
wife Sarah were posted in Kuwait. I don’t think Imogen even knew this much.
Uncle had unearthed a diplomatic e-mail address. We both thought this was a
fine way to begin communications. Uncle composed a slightly florid account of
their daughter’s health, telling them her new circumstances. He introduced us,
wisely saying nothing about my own relationship with Imogen. The message was
sent. We didn’t wait long for a reply. ‘No time for this now. Big conference in
Dubai upcoming. Regards to Imogen. JD.’ I was staggered at the abruptness.
Uncle rubbed his eyes, struggling to believe what he read. Mr Davenport
expressed no interest, no humanity. He clearly had the heart of a small
bureaucrat. I didn’t feel we deserved to be brushed off so officiously. This
high and mighty Father would be forced to take notice of his girl. Uncle and I
would be heard. Imogen deserved her share of parental love. I wouldn’t allow
her to be so neglected, so scorned.
Travelling to Kuwait was
out of the question. Uncle didn’t like to fly in any case, and I felt sure
Imogen would become ill, if she was unduly pressured. I wracked my brains as to
what course we should pursue. I thought we might lay a trap for Mr Davenport
and his wife, to lure them both back to England. I wanted to share this plan
with Beatrice, to brainstorm the situation, but she remained non-committal,
aloof. ‘Augustus, it is bound to be some dirty stuff about money,’ was all
Beatrice would say, before she dismissed the subject, and flounced away. But I
wouldn’t be discouraged. I would work with Uncle. Imogen would be kept in the
dark. Defeat was not an option.
I dwelt on the emotional
ruin Imogen’s parents had done. It was, I reflected, surprising that Imogen
wasn’t more screwed-up. I wondered for how long she’d been shunned. Although
Imogen had spoken to Uncle about her family, she’d swept the heartbreaking
stuff under the carpet. I couldn’t even be sure Imogen wanted to see her
Father. My meddling might be some misdirected attempt to heal what was already
fatally broken. Uncle and I could be so naive. I had escalating doubts about my
plans to build rainbow bridges. I shared these qualms with Uncle. He listened
hard, nodding appropriately. ‘Well, Augustus, I think you may be right. We need
to stand back, and mull this over.’ I nodded in agreement.
‘My Father has always
been married to his work. He has never had time for anything, or anyone, else.’
By degrees, Imogen was opening up to me. We sat together at the end of her bed,
sharing memories. I didn’t probe too much, in case she closed up like a clam.
Her family life had been bittersweet, sad. At fourteen, Imogen had grown bleak,
depressed. She’d tried to slit her wrists. Mr Davenport called in the best
doctors, and had her institutionalized at once. Then a promotion lead her
Father overseas, and Imogen was effectively abandoned. I enquired about Sarah
Davenport. Imogen made a scornful noise. ‘She’s always been a spineless woman,
nothing more than a pretty toy, like an accessory hanging on Father’s arm.’ I
was surprised by the ferocity of Imogen’s description. There was no love lost
between Mother and daughter. After this outburst, Imogen seemed spent,
exhausted. I spoke about my own dead parents for a time. Imogen listened with
fascination. Our relationship had reached the stratosphere.
Beatrice was getting
annoyed by Imogen’s presence in the house. She kept complaining to me, that
Imogen left the bathroom in a mess, that the toothpaste tube wasn’t closed
properly, that Imogen’s long hair was everywhere. Beatrice tried to blacken
Imogen’s name with Uncle, but he shrugged it off. ‘It can be challenging,
adapting to a new person in the house,’ was all he’d commit to. Beatrice
scampered away, clearly peeved. I didn’t feel Imogen had any peculiarly
annoying habits. She was graceful, beautiful, sincere, in love with me. At
first I wondered if we were just having a honeymoon period. But our chemistry
seemed more robust than that. And Imogen never bragged, or spooked me, like
Alice had done. We hadn’t talked about Alice. It was too recent, too raw. I
didn’t mention her name. I tried not to compare the girls. What I could not
deny was that Imogen made my heart glow like a kernel of fire. It was
My dream was graphic.
Imogen and I were walking in the woods. Snow had settled on Imogen’s eyelashes.
It was a gorgeous moment, she was so beautiful. I brushed away the fine white
flakes, and kissed her mouth. Suddenly we were arguing. I was shouting, hurling
obscene taunts. Imogen ran. I bowled after her, sliding in the wet mushy snow.
I could no longer see her. It was over. The full calamity struck me. I was
crying. Sobbing helplessly. I woke.
I shared my dream with
Imogen. She was glad she was so entrenched in my head. She loved snow. But she
hated breakups. ‘Augustus, it isn’t going to happen. We’re solid.’ Imogen
pressed her lips to mine. I felt consoled. I didn’t believe dreams could
predict disasters, but it had been peculiarly vivid, and I was shaken. I was
not one to reflect on the future. I lived for the day, in the maelstrom of
events. ‘Augustus, I think we should make a formal commitment to each other,’
Imogen announced suddenly and very seriously. She couldn’t mean marriage, I
shivered at the thought. Being careful to phrase things sensitively, I asked
what she had in mind. ‘A special ceremony, to celebrate our love, our beautiful
bond. Your Uncle can preside.’ This seemed a lovely idea. I tried not to recall
Alice’s crazy ring-giving union. I cast it far from my mind. Because Imogen and
I were different. We would endure.
Uncle and I wore neat
white corsages. Beatrice had categorically refused to attend. It felt
uncomfortably like a celebrity wedding. Imogen was making the last touches to
her new dress, then we would begin. Uncle loved these glittery occasions. He’d
insisted on a lavish caterer and armfuls of flowers. Our modest verandah could
have doubled as a botanic gardens. Mercifully there was no mention of rings, or
Imogen and I exchanging significant love tokens. We would simply speak some
appropriate bonding words together. It seemed innocuous horseplay. Uncle and I
waited nervously for Imogen. I wondered what starry attire she’d wear. I was
outfitted in a standard black tuxedo. Uncle said I looked swell. The minutes
crept by. And then Imogen appeared.
What struck me most was
the pallor of Imogen’s face. Her make-up was extreme. The spectral whiteness of
her skin was disturbing. Her eyes were heavy with mascara, bloodshot, like
she’d been crying bitterly. Her hair was pinned up severely, gorgeous as ever.
I couldn’t help myself thinking of painted ghouls. Though I was flustered,
Uncle had the presence of mind to tell Imogen that she looked divine. She came
forward and held my hand. Uncle fumbled with his script. He began to speak.
‘Let us celebrate together the marvellous friendship, the beautiful love, of
this special couple.’ Uncle spoke with gravity, like an accomplished celebrant.
Beside me, Imogen glowed, feverishly pale, impressed. It was a brief ceremony.
Afterwards Uncle kissed Imogen warmly. He gave us both a lavish gift, bulging
red envelopes of money. It felt uncomfortable, like we were newlywed.
Uncle had received an
e-mail from Mr Davenport. The man was in the country on diplomatic business. He
said he had a window of opportunity to meet with his daughter. It was unclear
whether Imogen’s Mother had accompanied him. He wanted to meet for lunch at a
swanky Central London hotel. When I broke the news to Imogen, she was not
thrilled. ‘I expect he’s feeling guilty. He must be curious how I bolted from
his perfectly planned imprisonment.’ After this bold statement, Imogen clammed
up. She wouldn’t say anymore. But Uncle wrote back to confirm the meeting. We’d
see this cold fish of a man. It would surely explain many unspoken things.
There was the usual snarl
of back-to-back traffic. Uncle had allowed two hours to negotiate the city, and
reach our engagement on-time. I hoped it was enough. Imogen and I sat in the
back seat, marvelling at the road rage around us. Beatrice had declined to
come. She’d been appalled by our little love ceremony, and hadn’t be scared to
say so. ‘Augustus, what are you both playing at? This is madder than the
ridiculous pranks you pulled with Alice,’ she spat out, aggrieved. The memory
of Beatrice’s dumbfounded consternation was riling. I wanted everything to be
perfect. Imogen and I would be blissfully happy. Nobody could endanger that. I
wondered what ulterior motives had prompted Imogen’s Father into this sham,
hypocritical reunion. It smacked of falsehood. I hadn’t questioned Imogen
regarding this. I didn’t want to spoil our beautiful bubble. The car was
pulling up to an imposing stone edifice, the hotel. As we opened the car doors,
liveried footmen sprang upon us. Uncle handed over his keys, and our car was
chauffeured away. We strode up huge steps into an ornate lobby. The enormous
chandelier was glittering beyond reason. We sat, intimidated, waiting for Jack
Mr Davenport was rakish,
tall. He wore an immaculate suit, and was perfectly groomed. He had the air of
a man preoccupied by higher things. Throughout our meeting, his phone buzzed
wildly in his pocket. He clearly had bigger matters to attend, and our little
party was holding him back. ‘So, tell me Imogen, how’s life? How are these fine
people treating you?’ He spoke in a faraway, emotionless voice. Clearly he
didn’t much care what Imogen had to say. Beside me, Uncle was awkward, moody.
He played angrily with his food. Imogen fidgeted in her seat, profoundly
discomforted. ‘Imogen, your mother sends her kind regards. She’s been swamped
by social engagements in the Gulf. You know how these things are.’ I squirmed.
Lunch was rapidly turning into a disaster. Mr Davenport hailed a waiter. His
whole manner was commanding. I couldn’t wait for this agonizing trial to be
over. I was certain that Imogen felt the same.
Lunch was soon concluded.
Jack Davenport didn’t really have much to say, beyond the superficial
pleasantries. We all declined dessert, despite Mr Davenport’s insistence that
the profiteroles were to die for. Imogen and Uncle were prickly. ‘So look after
yourself, my girl. And thanks again, you two, for taking such sterling care of
this special lady.’ It sounded like a rehearsed speech, hurried, shallow. ‘Must
rush now. Afternoon meeting and all that,’ blustered Imogen’s Father. We stood
in the street. It was chilly. A black limousine crept up beside Mr Davenport.
He didn’t hug Imogen. Instead he gave her a condensing wave from the hip, and
scuttled busily into the backseat. He was gone. It was all a shameless fiasco.
I felt profound pity for Imogen. I stroked her hand, saying we should get
going. Uncle looked aghast, beyond words.
It had been a horrible
experience. Over the next days, Imogen grew somewhat surly. One morning I
discovered her weeping secretly. I sympathized. Public parental rejection was
hard to shrug off. I wanted to help brush away the dark clouds, because I
feared Imogen was spiralling into depression. This was all dangerous to her
mental well-being. I shared my concerns with Uncle. ‘Well, Augustus, I think we
should write off Imogen’s Father as something of a dead loss. I wonder if we
would get any traction with her Mother?’ The idea simulated my mind. It was
time to broach the subject with Imogen. She’d said very few words regarding
Sarah Davenport. I thought it unwise to probe too deeply, so I hazarded some
gentle enquiries first. Imogen became stone. ‘My Mother is an unnatural witch!
Don’t meddle with that sick hag. Nothing can be accomplished there.’ Imogen
bubbling with years of suppressed wrath. It was all a hornet’s nest. I’d need to
ponder things, to strategize.
I was determined that
Imogen should get the recognition she deserved. What I’d gleaned from Imogen’s
Father was that Sarah Davenport was a high-profile social butterfly. I trolled
the internet for clues. She wasn’t hard to find. It turned out Mrs Davenport
was constantly hosting lavish parties for the expatriates of the Gulf. Her
timeline was a glittering calendar of privileged events. She dressed like
royalty, and hobnobbed with the obscenely wealthy elite. It was a foreign world
that felt empty to me. It was totally alien to Imogen’s current circumstances.
I didn’t know how we could reel such a woman in. I shared my findings with
Uncle. ‘Well, Augustus, by the look of it, I think Imogen’s Mother is likely to
frown upon our humble situation,’ was his first response. ‘But I’m happy to
write to her, if it would help.’ I said that it would be excellent. For
Imogen’s sake. Uncle opened his old laptop. We sat together like conspirators,
and drafted a simple, civil letter of introduction.
No immediate reply was
forthcoming. We all had dinner. There came no startling bleeps from Uncle’s
MacBook, which stood open nearby. I considered the time difference between
England and Kuwait. It would be late now, for Sarah Davenport. I tried to
imagine what she would be thinking. Was she at all concerned with her
daughter’s well-being? Imogen was half-heartedly munching at the salad placed
in front of her. Beatrice sat stiffly beside her. There was a horrible wall of
silence between them. It was sad. I struggled to think how I might ease the
antipathy in the room. And then Uncle’s laptop shook loudly, and let forth an
alarming ping. I ached to go over and check his inbox. But I needed to act
cool, and not give the game away. There was no dessert, so the girls took away
the dinner plates, leaving Uncle and I alone. As nonchalantly as possible, my
heart racing, I went over to investigate the new email.
‘How simply lovely that
my Imogen is with you!’ wrote Sarah Davenport. ‘Send her my sweetest hugs. I’m
at full speed here. The Emir and his wife are over for dinner tomorrow, a
stroke of genius for all us Brits. You’d simply adore Kuwait! Come over
anytime. Really must dash. Appalling amount of prep to do. Big kisses. Sarah
D.’ I reeled. Mrs Davenport was even more false and lightweight than her
obscene husband. I was so glad their emotional hollowness hadn’t been passed
onto Imogen in her genetic DNA. My bile rose.
As I was keeping Imogen
in the dark, I simply had to share my frustration with someone. I chose
Beatrice. I barged into her room, and spilt my whole heart. I presented her
with a lurid picture of the heartless Davenports. She listened carefully, a
model of rectitude. I asked for Beatrice’s input as to how I should proceed.
She threw up her hands despairingly. ‘Augustus, it sounds like a real fucked-up
situation. Clearly the Davenports don’t give a flying fart about their
daughter. I wouldn’t get yourself entangled in this emotional quagmire. It is
bound to end badly for you. Augustus, I do wish you’d chose girls with less
baggage. Simpler, more wholesome females.’ Of course Beatrice was right. But
there was no magical trapdoor to liberate me. Because I was completely besotted
‘So, Augustus, Beatrice,
Imogen, how would you like to take in the sights of the Middle East?’ I was
shocked. The girls contemplated the backs of their hands awkwardly. ‘It’d be a
big cultural opportunity, and Imogen can meet up with her Mother.’ Aghast,
Beatrice pointed out how much Uncle hated flying. ‘Well, I can overcome my
squeamishness of air travel, for the sake of new experiences and
reconciliation.’ Uncle’s generous spirit always took my breath away. Imogen
seemed completely shocked. It was hard to gauge if it was happiness or sorrow.
Uncle had put some forethought into this journey, and explained to us the
route, and likely hotel accommodations. The whole adventure sounded exotic,
lavish, thrilling. I’d never left the country, neither had Beatrice. The urge
to travel suddenly stirred in me. ‘So that’s settled,’ Uncle was saying,
meeting no further hostility, only an awed silence. ‘Then I shall book the
tickets and arrange our passports.’ He fetched his laptop, and started pounding
on the keys. Within minutes the whole crazy excursion was organized. We’d be
leaving for the Gulf. In ten days’ time.
Check-in was complete. We
stood waiting in the teeming, bustling departure lounge. I stared in awe at the
huge jets parked up at their air bridges. They oozed glamour. Imogen was
subdued. She’d told me that she had little hope of a meaningful reconciliation
with her Mother. I tried to remain upbeat and consoling. Though in my heart I
felt it was a futile endeavour. We were summoned to the gate. Beatrice’s mouth
hung open. I marvelled at the magnificently attired Middle Eastern passengers.
They looked suave, royal. A loud tannoy invited us to board. Uncle rallied us.
Clutching our boarding passes and hand luggage, we moved down the tunnel, ready
We’d been in the air for
four long hours. Any romantic notions I’d harboured about flying had long since
evaporated. I was cramped. My legs hurt. Tinned sardines had a better life.
Imogen and Beatrice clearly felt the same way. I couldn’t even enthuse about
the food, which was bland and weary, served by exhausted, hectored air
hostesses, all caked in false make-up. One had spilt boiling coffee on a
passenger sitting behind us. There was mayhem. Even Uncle found the flight
wearying. But he kept up a running commentary, reminding us that we’d soon
reach our destination. I felt my ears popping. The aircraft was descending.
Imogen clutched my hand. There was an announcement in Arabic, then a peachy
English voice told us to secure our seatbelts. The ground temperature in Kuwait
City was 4O C. It sounded like some ridiculous miscalculation. Uncle had warned
us it may be hot, but this was absurd. How did people live? My stomach swam
with jittery nerves. I tried to focus my mind on Imogen’s feelings. The descent
was bumpy. Uncle explained that it was turbulence. I eyed the sick bag in front
of me. It would be a shameful disgrace if I was ill over everyone. Imogen was
clearly unconcerned, so I gritted my teeth. I could see skyscrapers and glitzy
towers. The city below us looked like a fantastic desert mirage. We thumped
clumsily onto the runway. The enormous reverse thrust of the engines was
awesome. A glittering terminal building swung into view. ‘The eagle has
landed,’ Uncle announced facetiously. Passengers stood, retrieving their hand
luggage from compartments above. We were here.
We navigated customs,
retrieved our suitcases, and left the terminal. Outside the heat was a monster.
It cuffed us, it pawed you like a beast, you could feel the air was laden with
scorching desert sand. Uncle hailed a taxi. The cool black limo glided along
wide boulevards, between towering fairy tale buildings. New construction work
was happening everywhere. You could see many labourers, black dots beavering
away under the torrid sun. I felt pity. Uncle explained that our hotel was
nestled close beside the Persian Gulf. The view would be thrilling. Beside me,
Uncle and Beatrice were gobsmacked by the splendour. But Imogen seemed wholly
unimpressed. ‘It’s all a big white elephant,’ she whispered to me mysteriously.
Our limousine drew up outside a sparkling edifice that lurched into the sky. It
was our hotel. The lobby transcended imagination. We stood under an obscenely
huge chandelier, whilst Uncle checked us in. Our suite of rooms was located on
the twelfth floor. The conspicuous display of wealth was making me dizzy. We
climbed into a glass elevator and sailed up to our quarters. Imogen tutted,
nettled by my gasps. Never before had my head been spun so completely.
Uncle and I were sharing,
the girls were across the hall. I was too thrilled to unpack my things. Any
thought of jet lag was quickly cast away. I rinsed my face in the beautiful
gold sink, and went over to Imogen’s room, while Uncle rested. Beatrice and
Imogen were organizing their clothes, hanging T-shirts and skirts in a big sumptuous
wardrobe. They were relaxed, friendly together. This warmed my soul. I sat on
the edge of the bed, leafing through some glossy brochures that told of
interesting places to visit during your stay. Apart from mosques, shopping
malls, and some tiny inner city garden, there was precious little other
entertainment. It struck me that the locals must like to spend big-time on
their credit cards. Imogen and Beatrice were ready to explore. There was a
boutique shopping precinct adjacent to the hotel. It looked chic and seriously
overpriced. We’d go for a stroll, for afternoon coffee and cakes.
I’d stepped outside for a
moment, and nearly withered in the heat. I sought the beautiful cool of the
air-conditioning. Uncle was speaking with Beatrice and Imogen. They were
planning their visit to the Davenports, who lived in a swish expatriate compound
behind the Embassy. It wouldn’t be hard to find, but an official appointment
would be necessary. Uncle had tried to ring but the government complex was
already closed. Imogen looked spooked by the whole endeavour. I had this sudden
overwhelming feeling that all our plans would be futile. So the three of us
went down for dinner. The restaurant was all glitter. Uncle twitched nervously.
I couldn’t help thinking that his bank balance was in dire peril. We were
escorted to a gorgeous corner table, and left to dwell over the lavish menu.
‘Well people, let’s tuck in,’ Uncle enthused. I chose modestly. Imogen, used to
such splendour as a child, didn’t bat an eyelid when we were served. I
marvelled at the simple, fresh beauty of the plated food. We ate. It was spectacular.
We’d had to walk the
final mile to reach the diplomatic compound. My shirt was sticking to my chest.
We were all perspiring heavily. It was like a hot glove had been placed over my
mouth. There was a queue of crusty-looking expatriates at the turnstile, all
similarly overheated, short-tempered. We joined the line. Uncle got ready to
explain our business. The guards looked extremely officious. Imogen was
absolutely silent. Beatrice made annoyed tutting sounds beside me. Finally,
after some humiliating questioning and a thorough frisk down, we were admitted.
I was so pleased to go inside, where the air-conditioners purred beautifully.
We were asked to take a seat. Time passed. Nobody came. Uncle went up to remind
the desk clerk of our existence. He barely raised his eyes, scornful. Then a
loud buzzer rang. A great panelled door swung open. A small hard bespectacled
man was ushering us inside.
‘How simply delightful
you came all this way, to our little corner of the globe.’ Jack Davenport oozed
insincerity. He reclined in his plush leather office seat. He was a fat cat in
his realm. ‘I shall ask my assistant to bring refreshments.’ He buzzed his
intercom, and gruffly requested a pot of Arabian coffee and cakes. ‘So do be
seated, make yourselves at home,’ Mr Davenport encouraged. He didn’t rise from
his chair, to embrace Imogen. That would have been too normal. His desk was
uncommonly tidy. I imagined he was a methodical, no-nonsense man. ‘I expect
you’re simply dying to meet our Sarah. She’s just breezed out on one of her
little shopping sprees. But she’ll return in time for luncheon. I suggest we
all go to my club. They do a simply divine local menu.’ It was agreed. We drank
our coffees in uncomfortable silence. Next to me, Imogen squirmed. Even Uncle was
strangely muted. It would be a long, awkward hour before Sarah Davenport
Mrs Davenport barged in,
wearing an immodest skirt and hugely absurd sunglasses. She looked like a
parody out of some low-budget soap opera. Imogen wriggled wretchedly in her
chair. ‘My darling,’ she shrieked effusively, ‘what’s brings you to our special
corner of heaven? Jack, I trust you’re pampering our girl,’ Sarah Davenport
said loudly, leaning across, planting a wet, lipsticky kiss on her husband’s
cheek. Her sun-bleached strawberry blonde hair was pulled back in a butterfly
clasp. I could detect finely disguised wrinkles. The woman was a shocking,
disgraceful sham. Imogen grew ghost-like beside me. My stomach was cramping up.
I felt suddenly bilious. ‘So let’s go for lunch darlings,’ Sarah Davenport
enthused. The prospect sickened me.
The Davenports were
accomplished hosts. This didn’t detract from the fact that they barely spoke to
Imogen. For the entire meal, Sarah Davenport cackled empty-headed nonsense, the
latest social scandals, Kuwait’s glittering royals. It was banal, disquieting.
The English Club was a mock Tudor building nestled between towering
skyscrapers. There was a perfectly groomed cricket field out front. The whole
show smacked of colonial relic. Jack Davenport, having glutted himself on
stuffed lamb with spiced rice, a local delicacy, now puffed ostentatiously at a
Cuban cigar. Uncle had declined. He wasn’t duped by the high life. Imogen spoke
no words. She was being treated worse than a doormat. I fumed inside. Beatrice
writhed volcanically in her seat. A showdown loomed.
‘Well, Mr Davenport,
enough of these pleasantries,’ announced Uncle suddenly. ‘The question is, how
do you intend to help Imogen in her life?’ Jack Davenport didn’t look embarrassed.
He simply fished in his waistcoat pocket for his cheque book. ‘I wasn’t meaning
financially. That is not the issue here. I mean emotionally.’ Uncle was
impressive. Jack Davenport was flummoxed. His wife looked aghast, as if some
crude words had been spoken. Mrs Davenport retorted, clearly nettled. ‘As you
can see, we’re up to our eyes here. We simply don’t have the luxury of
gallivanting after emotions.’ She stressed the final word, as if it were some
horrible disease. Jack Davenport twisted in his seat. An appalling faux-pas had
been committed. Then a coughing fit struck him down. It was pitiful. Once he
recovered himself, he announced that he’d heard enough. ‘Come, Sarah, it is
time to leave these fine people. More pressing matters are at hand.’ I was incredulous.
A magnificently attired waiter appeared. Mr Davenport signed some kind of chit.
We all rose. The excruciating moment was already been swept into a closet. The
Davenports had regained their composure, and they uttered perfect goodbyes.
This was tantamount to disowning Imogen. As the Davenports swept from the
dining room, Imogen started to cry softly. I comforted her. The whole thing was
a cruel unspeakable farce.
Uncle proposed we all
visit a camel sanctuary, to cleanse the bitter taste luncheon had left in our
mouths. Uncle was a clown. I loved him dearly. We all rode in a limousine to
the edge of the desert. The sun burned like a demon. All I knew about camels
were that they were foul-smelling, ill-tempered, ruminating beasts. They
belched and grumbled like rotten-toothed old men. We got down from the car into
a sand-blasted courtyard. Behind a high picket fence, some tired,
emaciated-looking camels sat soaking up the torrid heat. There were only a
handful of bored, unimpressed visitors milling around. Imogen and Beatrice
bounced over to the compound. I wasn’t sure you could pat or stroke camels, but
the girls clearly intended to try. Uncle advised caution. ‘Be careful ladies,
I’ve read that they can have nasty tempers,’ he warned. Beatrice was attempting
to entice a ragged-looking beast over to her. She called seductively. The camel
struggled up onto its hind legs, and walked over. Beatrice and Imogen were
delighted. My cousin extended her hand in greeting. The great beast bellowed
loudly, grinding its huge molars. Suddenly, shockingly, it bit down hard on
Blood was gushing from
Beatrice’s hand. She was clutching her injured fingers, wailing piteously. The
camel had brazenly sauntered off. Uncle leapt to his daughter’s aid. ‘Augustus,
we need to staunch the blood flow. Imogen, run and find something we can use as
bandages. Go to that office over there,’ he exclaimed, pointing dramatically.
Imogen ran. I didn’t think we could heal Beatrice’s injuries. She needed a
hospital urgently. Uncle consoled his daughter. Beatrice was ashen, hunched
over her mutilated hand. A mob of local men now rushed across to us, hearing
the pandemonium. ‘Ambulance,’ Uncle mouthed. It was understood. A
weather-beaten looking elder wearing a traditional costume reached deep into
his pockets. He dialled, spoke incredibly rapidly, loudly, using theatrical
gestures. Then he made a lavish thumbs-up to Uncle. It was done. Help was on
We were taken to a
private medical centre, where Beatrice’s injuries were assessed. An X-ray
revealed that her crushed bones would need immediate specialist care. Beatrice
was given a shot of morphine, and bandaged expertly. The thought of amputation
had plagued my mind, so this outcome seemed merciful. The doctor advised we fly
back to England straight away, for emergency treatment. There was no valid
reason to remain in Kuwait, now the Davenports had shown their true colours
towards Imogen. Uncle proposed we go to a travel centre and re-book our flights
home. We’d need to keep Beatrice comfortable, tanked up on a cocktail of
painkillers and antibiotics. But she said she could manage. Uncle called for a
limousine. We walked out into the sweltering heat. The city trembled like a
fantastic mirage. It was early evening. We bundled into the luxurious sedan,
and sped away. We were going home.
The travel agent was most
accommodating. He quickly, very efficiently rescheduled our London flight to
the next morning. Uncle had to pay a colossal rebooking fee. It made me wince.
Beatrice had planted herself in a capacious corner sofa. Imogen was tending
her. Beatrice looked dangerously pallid. I watched fascinated, as my cousin
crooned over her mutilated fingers. Outside the immense glass-paned office,
darkness had descended on the city. We’d need to return to our hotel soon, and
get a wink of sleep, before the long journey home. I didn’t hold out much hope
of Beatrice resting. I wondered if she’d be wracked all night with pain. Uncle
pocketed our plane tickets and thanked the travel clerk. It was time to leave.
I was surprised to realize that I was suddenly hungry. Under the circumstances,
this seemed callous, improper. Another black limousine whisked us back to our
rooms. I shuddered to think of Uncle’s out-of-control expenses. Our whole sorry
excursion to the Middle East had been an unmitigated disaster.
I slept like a log. Uncle
had to rouse me from deep slumber. It was dreadfully early. Immediately I
wondered how Beatrice’s night had been. I felt guilty, when she’d probably
spent the night in considerable agony. Imogen tapped on the door. She was
dressed, ready to go. ‘Beatrice is perkier, I think her pain is less.’ This was
welcome news. Uncle sighed heavily. He told us to assemble our bags. We would
leave for the airport in twenty minutes. We went down to the foyer, to settle
the bill. The immaculate desk clerk printed our account. Uncle gulped as he
presented his credit card. Beatrice was subdued, her eyes glazed. But I saw her
wince and grit her teeth. Imogen hovered beside her. The two were inseparable
now. Our luggage was taken to the hotel’s airport limousine. Soon we were
gliding down a beautifully-groomed highway. The sun, like an immense boiled
sweet, rose out of the Persian Gulf. I was glad to be going home.
We were airborne. The
wings dipped. We hurtled upward, into perfect, azure desert skies. I was seated
beside Uncle, who was clutching his armrests. Two rows forward, were Imogen and
Beatrice. I could only see Imogen’s long dark hair, which she’d piled up in a
severe bun. For her, this holiday had been an unmitigated, embarrassing
shambles. But now her heart and head were thoroughly consumed with Beatrice’s
problems. In a perverse way, the incident with the camel had blunted the
private pain Imogen must be suffering. I was glad for that. Uncle had decided
that, upon landing, we proceed directly to Hammersmith Hospital. It would be
home turf. I imagined all kinds of ghastly, permanent disabilities. But I knew
my mind was overwrought. I was prone to dramatize, to exaggerate things. Uncle
seemed curiously unperturbed. He ordered a double brandy, and enquired about
his in-flight meal. We didn’t talk. Soon I fell asleep. Turbulence woke me.
Uncle was buckling his seat belt. ‘Where are we?’ I enquired, bleary-eyed. ‘Over
the English Channel. It shan’t be long now,’ Uncle stated simply. I closed my
eyes again, comforted. All was going to be well.
The arrivals hall was
bland, it was damp, it smelt musty. Grey, overweight people scurried about.
Outside I could see a louring sky. It weighed down on our heads. All the
glitter had gone out of the world. A wave of nausea broke over me. We had
passed through customs. Next was to retrieve our luggage. Beatrice complained
that her hand throbbed, but the pain was under control. She clutched at it like
a treasured infant. I heard rain patter on the steel roof. This was a sterile
homecoming. Uncle suggested we take the underground to Hammersmith hospital. It
would be quicker than negotiating the snarl of rush-hour traffic. Clutching our
cumbersome suitcases, Uncle also carrying Beatrice’s things, we descended into
the ground. I could hear grinding metal in the depths. The stale air was
stifling, gritty. People shoved vulgarly. In a crush of bodies, we boarded an
antique, grubby carriage.
We stowed our bags in a
left-luggage office, they were simply too hard to trundle around. The hospital
was an historic gloomy building, poorly maintained. We all clambered up a
narrow, bleach-scented staircase, to Accident and Emergency. The milling queue
of sick patients, all desperate for a consultation, was shocking. We took a
number and sat down in the shabby waiting room. Uncle was eyeing the vending
machines. ‘Let’s have some warm drinks to cheer us all,’ he announced breezily.
My heart sank. Imogen offered to help Uncle. They went off to coax some
horrible potion from the innards of the dispenser. Beatrice was in a
drug-induced haze. I think her pain was minimal, but she was beyond speech now.
Nurses busied themselves about us. But we were neglected. The afternoon wore
on. My hunger mounted. Finally, Beatrice’s name was called. We were ushered
into a small cubicle. The doctor was on his way.
‘Your daughter will need
to be admitted overnight. There is a strong likelihood she has septicaemia. The
blood tests will tell us more. In the worst case scenario, we will need to
remove her middle digits.’ This was my nightmare. Having delivered his piece,
the doctor nodded abruptly at Uncle, and fled. I wasn’t sure that Beatrice had
digested this news. She’d been given another shot of morphine. Her hand had
been freshly bandaged. Uncle suggested we leave Beatrice to get some rest,
whilst the hospital staff organized her a bed on the ward. We would go find
some dinner. I was hungry. But the prospect of a meal now repulsed me. Imogen
didn’t look too thrilled either. She wanted to stay by Beatrice’s side. ‘We
must keep up our strength, for the difficult times ahead,’ Uncle explained
sagely. So we went to seek out the hospital cafeteria.
Which was closed. We
crossed the gritty, deafening street, in search of a simple place to eat.
Uncle’s eye was captured by an old-style eating house. They served all-day
breakfast. I couldn’t believe Uncle craved a disgraceful fry-up, when his
daughter lay across the street, at risk of a disfiguring amputation. I was
woefully wrong. Because Uncle ordered a full English, with extra sausages. He
rubbed his hands gleefully. Imogen and I opted for simple macaroni cheese. It
seemed more fitting. Uncle ate like a possessed bear. Nobody spoke. Imogen
toyed with her dish, taking the occasional dainty mouthful. When Uncle had
devoured his plate, he ordered three coffees. He pushed his chair back, clearly
replete. ‘Well, that was much needed,’ he announced, greatly satisfied. My own
hunger was assuaged. We spoke softly of Beatrice’s ill-fortune. Uncle thought
she was likely to need extensive surgery. ‘Well, let’s go back to hear the
doctor’s prognosis. The blood results should be in now.’ We settled the modest
bill, and returned to the hospital. Imogen cast me a nervous, sidelong glance.
I was having serious qualms. Was Beatrice going to lose her hand?
Beatrice’s blood work was
not encouraging, the doctor explained. She’d developed an aggressive bacterial
infection in her fingers. This made me think of gruesome flesh-eating bugs. The
doctor had prescribed a new course of potent medicines, but he clearly didn’t
think the rot could be stopped. ‘You should prepare yourselves for the worst,’
he said kindly, but discouragingly. Beatrice hadn’t been told. She was still
heavily sedated. I felt suddenly squeamish, thinking of prosthetic hands.
Standing beside me, Uncle groaned for his poor, maimed daughter.
Nothing further could be
done. Wearily we whispered about going home. Uncle kissed Beatrice squarely on
the forehead. I felt he wanted to caress her sick hand too. With effort, he
restrained himself. ‘We will come back in the morning. Hopefully there will be
some good news,’ Uncle said. But he sounded crestfallen. Imogen took his hand,
and stroked it comfortingly. We gathered our coats, preparing to leave. I
turned and gazed back at Beatrice frozen in her bed. She looked immensely
frail, vulnerable. She was like Alice. Uncle patted my shoulder, summoning me
back. We walked.
I slept heavily. I had
bizarre dreams about the desert. Sand ran through my mutilated fingers. Camels
bellowed loudly, though I couldn’t see them. Alarmed, I jumped up. An anaemic
light was edging between the drapes. It was early. I wrapped my gown about me,
and went downstairs. Uncle sat at the breakfast table. He was tousled,
red-eyed, unshaven. Clearly he hadn’t slept. I boiled the kettle, and brewed
strong-black coffee. The aroma soothed. I placed Uncle’s favourite mug in front
of him. He grunted an acknowledgement. Then his mobile rang. Uncle pounced on
his phone like a wild cat. It was the hospital. Beatrice was to have urgent
surgery. Uncle needed to sign some forms at once. Just then Imogen came down.
She was fully dressed. I explained everything. Gulping a mouthful of caffeine,
I sprinted upstairs to change. I splashed cold water over my face. I was
The aggressive infection
had spread into Beatrice’s lower arm. The only solution was to amputate. As
this was explained to Uncle, I felt nausea rise in me. This was butchery of my
teenage cousin. It was unspeakable. Uncle signed the papers. His hands were shaking
wildly. Imogen had an arm firmly around his shoulder. Beatrice had already been
wheeled into the operating theatre. I could imagine the puddles of blood, the
hacksaw humour of the surgeons. The dreadful stump, which would repel family
and friends. I closed my eyes, praying fervently for my tragic cousin.
There were no
complications. Within two hours, Beatrice was out of surgery. She was shunted
into the recovery area. We were invited in. Beatrice was heavily anaesthetized.
Her bandaged arm, grotesquely severed at the elbow, was propped up on a blue
coverlet. My nightmare was true. The surgeon was speaking to Uncle about
prosthetic limbs and Beatrice’s general rehabilitation. She would be well now.
But I couldn’t help feeling these medical men had destroyed her life. Yes, they
had saved her body. But now Beatrice had to bear a dreadful burden. A
life-altering disfigurement which could never be brushed away. People would be
cruel, they’d shun her, stare. I tried to curb the ripples of disgust rising in
my stomach. I had to be brave for my ill-fated cousin.
A week had passed. I
still felt raw, aggrieved. Beatrice, however, was growing strangely reconciled
to her loss. She had an upcoming appointment with a private limb specialist.
She was feeling upbeat. Uncle lavished his daughter with generous care and profound
concern. Nothing was too much. Imogen readily joined the bandwagon. She proved
to be an excellent chef, a skill I’d never suspected she possessed. She would
only make vegan meals, but the novel change was welcome. Uncle was happy to
fork out on organic produce, if it cheered his daughter. I couldn’t help
feeling squeamish when I looked at Beatrice’s arm. It was a spellbinding,
macabre thing. I felt ashamed to be so fascinated, and hoped Beatrice didn’t
notice my unwholesome curiosity.
Because of events, I
hadn’t really spoken to Imogen about her parents’ disgraceful behaviour in
Kuwait. They had sent Beatrice a fabulous bouquet and their ‘earnest
sympathies’, which had surprised me. ‘The nasty beast has been put down,’ they
added as a postscript, referring to the infamous camel. When Beatrice heard of
this, she cried, and was sad. In their note, the Davenports didn’t once refer
to their daughter. I expressed my surprise. ‘Augustus, they are dead to me,’
Imogen said dryly. I tried to probe, but she had clammed on me. I’d struck an
absolute dead-end with the Davenports. No amount of emotional massaging could
resurrect ordinary, nurturing feelings in them. I’d need to reconcile myself to
Uncle had received an
astronomical credit card bill. He emerged from his study looking blanched. I
enquired what was wrong. ‘Augustus, we shall need to tighten our belts. Our
Middle Eastern jaunt has raked up a formidable
new expense. And Beatrice’s doctors don’t come cheap.’ Uncle never spoke
about money. This must be serious. Suddenly my mind was inventing bizarre
images. I was busking on the main street. Beatrice was displaying her freakish
arm to gawping passers-by. In a lamentable voice, Uncle chanted some awful
sixties ballad, stamping a foot to keep rhythm. The picture was fleeting,
disturbing, intense. Was our safe, affluent world going down the drain? I told
Uncle that I’d get part-time work. I’d contribute to the household bills. He
was touched by my offer, but said it wouldn’t be necessary, at least not yet.
‘Augustus, I shouldn’t have deluged you with my financial problems. Don’t
breathe a word of this to Beatrice. I won’t have her worrying now.’ I promised
secrecy. ‘We shall get through this difficult patch,’ Uncle was saying. I
nodded. But it was just bluster. We’d hit hard times.
The telephone in the
hallway was ringing wildly. No one was about, so I answered. It was Uncle’s
bank. An officious recorded voice demanded Uncle ring them as a matter of
extreme urgency. The voice said Uncle’s cards had been suspended. This was
serious. I went to search out Uncle. He was in his study, scribbling down a
long list of figures. I told him about the call. He sighed heavily. ‘Well,
Augustus, the vultures are already circling. But I shan’t let them peck at my bones,’
he said defiantly. ‘Let’s keep this under wraps. I don’t want Beatrice
worrying,’ he added as an afterthought. Then Uncle fished in his blazer pocket
for his battered wallet. He extracted a foreign-looking credit card. ‘This will
tide us over for a while.’ I groaned inside. Because Uncle was fundamentally
Uncle proposed we go for
a major food shop. To build up emergency supplies. This seemed a desperate
endeavour, but I offered to help. Each of us took a huge shopping trolley and
wheeled them into the supermarket aisles. Uncle rapidly filled his cart with
random produce. He chose expensive, unnecessary brands. I recommended tinned
food, but Uncle would have none of it. In the end we both had full trolleys,
mainly superfluous items. We proceeded to the check-out. Uncle was clearly
nervous that his card would be declined. It went through, however, and the
grinning teenager at the desk printed out a colossal receipt. The final cost
was well over six hundred pounds. ‘Augustus, this lot shall keep the wolf from
the door,’ Uncle jested, as we loaded up the car. There was barely room for all
the heaving bags. My energy was spent. I wondered how long our impractical
rations would last. After we had exhausted all the Portuguese anchovies, the
organic muesli, the buffalo mozzarella, what then?
Imogen was perplexed by
the mountain of food we brought home. She unpacked all the bags, gasping at the
lavish items. She asked Uncle what had prompted such magnificence. ‘I simply
want to spoil my favourite people in the world,’ he replied cheesily. Imogen
smiled, suspecting nothing. The food was all shelved away when Beatrice came
down. Which was good, because she would certainly have smelt a rat. ‘I think
we’ll try those marinated nut cutlets tonight,’ mused Imogen. Fortunately
Beatrice wasn’t listening. She was nursing her arm. She crooned over it, like
it was her darling infant. ‘Beatrice, have you taken your evening medications?’
Uncle asked. She nodded. Imogen strode away to prepare dinner. Uncle and
Beatrice went silent. Which left me to contemplate our new problems. My anxiety
over money was escalating.
The twice-daily calls
from Uncle’s bank became more intimidating. I would invariably answer.
Deadlines were mentioned, serious action would be taken. I sweated for Uncle,
but he seemed curiously unperturbed. Then I realized this wasn’t the first time
he’d had financial problems. I cajoled him to reply, ‘Augustus, that really
isn’t necessary. It’s just some kind of computer-generated thing. These
business machines are programmed to auto-dial. The banks have absolutely no
humanity. They’re toothless as well. So don’t fret yourself,’ he said, brushing
away my anxieties. Then the letters started to arrive. The postman would
request a signature. I felt embarrassed; he knew we had troubles. Uncle would
come breezily downstairs, and carry the letters back to his study. He never
commented further. The girls began to be concerned. Beatrice asked if Uncle was
hiding bad news. Something from the hospital. He denied it fervently, and
muttered a lame story about some new insurance policy. ‘You can’t pull the wool
over my eyes! I’m not dumb!’ Beatrice shouted, storming off. It was surely time
for Uncle to come clean.
‘Well girls, I have an
admission to make,’ Uncle announced. We were all gathered around the dining
room table. Imogen and Beatrice twitched nervously, clearly concerned. ‘Well,
the truth is, I’m stony broke. The bank is breathing down my neck, they’re
after my blood. That’s what all the letters have been about. I’m in a right
pickle. I can’t find a solution.’ Uncle glared moodily at the table top. Nobody
spoke. Beatrice sucked her teeth. A storm was brewing inside her. ‘Why did we
go on that insane holiday, Father, if we had no money?’ she asked. It was a
reasonable question. Uncle shrugged his shoulders like a guilty schoolboy. I
thought he was going to snigger. This was disastrous.
‘So, we’re going down the
drain, and you buy all this luxurious food? Father, it makes no sense at all,’
Beatrice fumed. ‘I suggest we see a budget advisor immediately. Because you’re
clearly on a crash course to ruin. Precisely how much are we in debt?’ Beatrice
tutted loudly, appalled at Uncle’s blatant stupidity. She could always be
depended upon to give a person a good roasting. Uncle looked appropriately
hangdog, like he’d been spanked, sent into a corner. Imogen made no comment,
shuffling awkwardly. I suspected she felt culpable. The trip to Kuwait had been
Uncle’s financial downfall. Beatrice wasted no time, scouring the telephone
directory for a free money consultation. She rang. She spoke succinctly. It was
soon arranged. ‘We will all go,’ Beatrice declared. ‘We shall try to extricate
ourselves from this frightful mess.’
We went to a shabby,
inner-city office to consult with a bald, myopic man named Simon Bates. He
choked and spluttered when he saw the sums involved. ‘Sir, it is my opinion,’
he declared after studying the figures, ‘that you should file for bankruptcy
immediately. This has gone beyond what’s fixable.’ Uncle gulped hard, then
sighed. I felt cold shivers running up my spine. This would mean public
disgrace. Uncle could lose his nebulous job. Across from me, Beatrice looked
heartbroken. Imogen was deathly silent. ‘I’m sorry not to sound more optimistic,’
said Mr Bates. It was clear, however, that he relished the powerful,
discomforting effect of his words. He bundled up Uncle’s incriminating
paperwork and handed it to me. Mr Bates stood abruptly. He made his parting
salutations. He’d effectively washed his hands of us. We were shuffled to the
door like lepers.
Uncle drove wildly back
through the choked streets. Like a badge of shame burned on his forehead.
Beatrice tried to soothe him. It wasn’t working. ‘These things are made common
knowledge. My name shall appear in the local papers. I’ll never live this down,’
Uncle raged. There was a jagged despair in his voice. It alarmed me. I hadn’t
thought public disgrace was something our family would have to bear. I hated to
think of Uncle’s mug-shot being drooled over by the upstanding hypocrites of
our local community. ‘Father, let them all gloat. We shan’t be demoralized by
such filthy busybodies,’ Beatrice said forcefully. Uncle calmed, slowing the
car. ‘Thank you Beatrice, for your loving support,’ he said, struggling to
recover his battered pride. ‘We shall take stock, and consider the next step.’
This was less disturbing. Undoubtedly we’d all need a hearty meal, Uncle would
say next, to map out our future strategies.
I helped Uncle print the
endless forms necessary to file for bankruptcy. He took them to his study. When
I brought him tea later, I saw him hunched over pages and pages of small print,
filling in a mass of fiddly boxes. The bank still rang twice-daily, but even I
could see it was just procedure. My initial fear of finance houses had
evaporated long ago. I suggested to Uncle that we yank the phone cable from the
wall, and have some peace. This was done. Soon Uncle’s mobile began to throb
with unregistered numbers. They never left a message. It seemed like a campaign
to persecute Uncle. The paperwork was finally completed. There was a
significant fee to lodge the application. This seemed illogical, given the
circumstances. In a final defiant gesture, Uncle paid by credit card.
I became nervous for
Imogen. I began to wonder if her sleepwalking might reoccur, or if she might do
some foolhardy thing to herself. My eyes were constantly upon her, scrutinizing
her, for signs of aberrant behaviour. Uncle’s bankruptcy had taken a back-seat
in my mind. It didn’t look like we’d starve, or become suddenly homeless, so it
couldn’t really be that significant. The frightening edge of the last few days
had evaporated away. The stigma, the shame, dwindled to zero in my head. Imogen
Dr Stokes returned my
call. He was brusque. ‘Augustus, it is imperative that Imogen takes her pills.
She has the tendency to become delusional. We don’t want her condition
spiralling into a full-blown psychotic episode. Believe me, I have seen the
harm that this can wreak on families.’ I was appalled. I asked the doctor how I
might cajole Imogen into taking her meds. ‘Augustus, you need to underline the
dangers. To both herself, and her caregivers.’ It was a stern warning.
Imogen showed no
immediate signs of falling into a morass. In fact she was upbeat, bouncy,
constantly nattering about small, happy things. My fears began to dissipate.
The persecuting phone calls to Uncle had also abated. Since he’d declared
himself insolvent, the bank had loosened its iron stranglehold. They were going
to wipe his debts. We no longer had to live in abject fear. Things were
relatively hunky-dory. Until, wholly unexpectedly, Uncle received a brief,
excitable e-mail. Sarah and Jack Davenport were back in the country. They wanted
to see their daughter.
When Imogen heard the
news, she curled up her lip, and grimaced. The Davenports would be residing at
their favourite Mayfair hotel. I prayed hard they wouldn’t invite us to some
excruciating, embarrassing luncheon. They did. After consulting Imogen, Uncle
declined their offer. He suggested the Davenports instead come to our home.
Sarah Davenport clearly thought this was quaint, and accepted delightedly.
‘It’d be simply marvellous to see you all in your native habitat,’ she wrote
animatedly. This made me feel like some bizarre zoo animal. Imogen was appalled
at her mother. She cringed inside. A date and time was set. Uncle wanted to
shop for luxurious produce, only he had no ready cash. So we’d need to
improvize. The days passed quickly. Imogen grew rigid with apprehension.
Sarah Davenport was
scrutinizing Beatrice’s baby pictures hung in the hallway. Whilst Uncle took
the coats. ‘What a simply divine infant,’ Mrs Davenport was cooing. ‘It must be
so saddening that poor Beatrice has lost a limb.’ Uncle’s face hardened. He
didn’t answer. So I ushered the Davenports into our front room, where Imogen
was waiting. There were no hugs or warm greetings. Instead the Davenports made
absurd waves at their daughter, grinning horrible plastic smiles. ‘Darling
Imogen, how has life been treating you? I’m certain these lovely folk are
spoiling you rotten.’ Imogen squirmed awkwardly. She didn’t reply. I suggested
drinks. ‘I would kill for a crème de menthe,’ Jack Davenport bubbled. This was
absurd. I went to the kitchen to make some instant coffee. Where Beatrice was
struggling valiantly over pots and pans. I had a sudden beautiful idea. It
would be simply lovely to spike our visitors’ meals with arsenic.
When I returned bearing
coffee, Uncle was involved in earnest conversation. ‘We should both like it if
Imogen were to receive a quality education. Such as offered by our
International School in the Gulf,’ Jack Davenport was saying. This sounded
horribly ominous. Were they conspiring to steal away my Imogen? I felt an icy
stalactite clutch at my gut. ‘Of course you’ve been terribly kind to our girl.
You won’t be forgotten.’ I had this disgusting feeling Jack Davenport was going
to offer Uncle financial compensation. ‘But I’m so happy to be here, Father.
Don’t take me away again,’ Imogen blurted out. There was a twang of desperation
in her voice. ‘But sweet-pea, you belong with your doting parents,’ Sarah
Davenport protested. This was ludicrous. I wouldn’t have it. Uncle suggested
that such a radical change would upset Imogen’s recovery. At this, the
Davenports beamed like creepy, horror-movie dolls. ‘Of course, it will mean some big changes for
Imogen. But they would all be positive adjustments,’ Jack Davenport said,
sneering openly at our drab living room walls. I hated the man. And his
grotesque wife. I couldn’t believe she’d borne Imogen.
The Davenports were
leaving. They made their lingering cheesy goodbyes. ‘I shall instruct my
assistant to enrol Imogen for next term. It’ll be absolutely perfect. Imogen
shall be able to commence school during the cooler months,’ Mr Davenport
announced brightly. It was totally outrageous. I gazed at Imogen. She looked
cowed. Her shoulders were slumped forward. As if she’d been struck. My world
was spinning wildly, like a busted gyroscope. Next to me, Uncle sighed heavily.
There seemed little he could do. Imogen was their rightful daughter. ‘Let’s
have some tea, and chew this over. I need to ruminate,’ Uncle said defiantly.
Hope flared in me. Maybe he could formulate a watertight scheme that would
liberate my Imogen.
A huge dossier of
paperwork was delivered the next day. It included a glossy brochure of Imogen’s
new Gulf school, and a business-class air ticket. My soul withered inside me.
We would need to act fast to prevent this catastrophe. Imogen sat with the
documents balanced on her lap, numb. The Davenports had achieved a coup. I felt
cornered, desperate. Uncle was surprised at how quickly the Davenports had
acted. ‘They must have been keeping this up their sleeves for a while,’ he
mused aloud. Imogen suddenly began to cry. A whole series of shuddering,
heart-breaking sobs. I felt powerless. ‘Uncle, we can’t sit back and let this
happen!’ I almost screamed. ‘No, Augustus, we can’t. Clearly Imogen would like
to remain here with us. I shall ring my lawyer immediately.’ He shuffled off to
make the call. I comforted Imogen. No flash heartless bastards were going to
steal my girl.
‘But they are my parents,
Augustus,’ protested Imogen. ‘Isn’t it proper that I should wish to stay with
them? But I don’t. I want to be with you, and your beautiful Uncle and scatty
cousin. Am I so abnormal?’ she asked, almost crying. I assured Imogen that
there was nothing improper about her feelings. I didn’t like to bad-mouth her parents,
but frankly they’d done little to deserve their daughter’s affections. We sat
close together. Imogen clasped my hands. I couldn’t imagine us ever apart. The
chemistry between us bound our very souls. The Davenports would lose this
battle. Because they hadn’t reckoned on the gravity of our love.
Uncle shared his
understanding of our legal position. It wasn’t good. Imogen was a minor. Quite
simply, the Davenports were her rightful guardians. They called all the shots.
This didn’t surprise me. But I wanted to fight. Surely Imogen was entitled to
make her choice. Nobody would allow her to be forcibly bundled onto a plane,
against her will, and delivered into the hands of indifferent, ghoulish
parents. This would be cruel, preposterous. In our modern age, no Judge would
tolerate such vandalism of a young adult’s rights. ‘If we want to fight this,’
Uncle warned, ‘it could get very ugly, messy, grubby. Imogen, I’m certain your
parents would contest our claim on you. After all, they have the resources to
put up a long, spectacular fight.’ This didn’t sound encouraging. But I could
tell that Uncle was spoiling for a scrap. Imogen nodded. ‘I want to stay here.
My mind is made up.’ I hugged her, feeling inwardly victorious. We would be
A formal, type-written
letter arrived for Uncle. It was from Jack Davenport. In it, he outlined his
future plans for Imogen. There were strong hints that our family was blocking
his best intentions. Uncle read out one of the more lurid passages. ‘Undoubtedly,’
Mr Davenport began, ‘Imogen has blossomed under your watch. But it is now
high-time to let her come to full fruition, in a more salubrious environment.’
It made me think of hothouse plants. There were further snide references to our
modest resources. Jack Davenport was hellbent on undermining our credibility.
At no stage did he consider Imogen’s feelings. She was just his pawn. I still
couldn’t fathom why the Davenports suddenly wished to retrieve their daughter,
after years of abject neglect. Something was fishy, it didn’t add up.
I brainstormed. I
speculated. I remembered what Beatrice always said. That the ugly spirit of
money was at the root of almost every dispute. May be Imogen was heiress to a
fortune, and her grasping parents were after her cash. But this seemed too
far-fetched. Imogen had never mentioned any other relations. I asked Uncle.
‘Well, Augustus, I feel the Davenports are probably feeling guilty. They want
to make amends. And Imogen may spice up their social calendar. She would be an extremely
eligible young girl in their kind of society.’ This was horribly sinister. I
imagined my girl being bartered off to some Arab prince. I wouldn’t have it!
They must be stopped.
It wasn’t nice, waiting
like sitting ducks, for the Davenports to make their next move. The date of
Imogen’s supposed departure loomed. She seemed resigned to her fate. Once or
twice I caught her leafing through the brochures her Father had sent. She was
settling her mind for a big life change. I felt powerless, desperate. Gloom had
descended on my world. It was corrosive. It wound itself like a fat snake
around my heart. Beatrice wouldn’t accept things. She grew apoplectic. ‘Father,
why are we all idling about, doing nothing? Imogen is going to be carted away
at any moment, and you just lounge around doing bugger all! It’s not right.’
She stormed dramatically from the room, slamming the door. Uncle sighed. He
looked brow-beaten. He had no answers.
An airport limousine was
scheduled to come for Imogen. We’d sworn that nothing would break our
love-bond. We’d be in constant contact. Imogen had packed a slim suitcase of
odds and ends. I wheeled it to the door. I felt revulsed, that this thing could
be happening at all. We moved outside. It was mizzling sadly. Uncle patted his
hands inanely. Beatrice was scowling like a crazy woman. The Davenports had
already returned to the Gulf to await their daughter. I’d wanted to go to the
airport, but Imogen said that would just be too sad. She hated tearful goodbyes
in crowded, impersonal spaces. But I couldn’t cry. My heart was too broken. I
didn’t even kiss Imogen. We were both shell-shocked. As she clambered into the
car, I actually looked away. The rain had become harder. The limousine pulled
away, disappearing around a blind corner. ‘Let’s go inside,’ said Uncle
A sense of outrage
burgeoned in me. I’d had my girl spirited away by wicked parents. I was alone,
bereft. I checked my phone constantly. No messages came. I knew Imogen’s plane
had landed safely. I’d checked its arrival on the internet. She had sworn to
text me. It was as if Imogen had been swallowed by the desert. I began to think
the Davenports were restricting her freedom. Discouraging Imogen to contact me.
I asked Uncle what he thought. ‘Give the girl some time,’ he said in a
throwaway tone. ‘It’ll all be new to her. Augustus, I’m sure Imogen is missing
you like crazy.’ This was consoling. I would suppress my terrible anxieties,
wait a little longer.
No word came. I checked
the signal on my phone, it was working fine. I tried calling Imogen’s old
number. It was disconnected. I wondered if Imogen had fallen sick. I became
prey to ghastly fantasies, in which a ghoulish Imogen haunted me. Had I
offended her in some mysterious way? Was Imogen punishing me? I lay on my bed,
balancing my mobile on my chest, like in the old Alice days. It was absolutely
mute. It crossed my mind to call all the Kuwaiti hospitals. But I didn’t think
I could make myself understood. I despised all this uncertainty. It was
wreaking havoc in my head. My stomach was knotted like a horrible python. I
couldn’t eat a thing. ‘There is sure to be some reasonable explanation,’ Uncle
said. But he couldn’t disguise the unsettling edge in his voice. My heart sank
like a heavy pebble. This was unbearable anguish.
A big manilla envelope
arrived by urgent courier. Uncle signed, opening it. I could tell at once it
wasn’t good. He read. His jawline fell. After a time he sighed. He passed the
letter on to me. ‘We have instructed our daughter,’ wrote Jack Davenport, ‘to
sever all connections with your ward Augustus. Their relationship is
inappropriate. Imogen is a vulnerable young girl, who is being dragged into an
unwholesome communion. We absolutely forbid it.’ My head reeled. I felt
nauseous. I groaned aloud. The Davenports were destroying everything.
I didn’t know how to
respond. It had been some while since I’d been brandished as an undesirable
person. It wasn’t like I could retaliate. The Davenports were an invulnerable
world away. Their Imogen was safely removed from my clutches. I was shattered.
I put my phone on a high shelf in my room. It wouldn’t be ringing now. I didn’t
imagine Imogen had access to e-mail or the internet. She would be a virtual
prisoner, in a foreign country. There would be no rose-coloured outcome for us.
‘Augustus, I’m so sorry. There are no remedies here,’ Uncle said forlornly.
‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to let Imogen go. It’s out of our control.’ I
had to acknowledge that Uncle was right. Unless Imogen fled, and came searching
for me, our gorgeous romance was at an end.
This was a ragged end to
a beautiful time. Beatrice and Uncle consoled me with scalding tea. We didn’t
say much together. I knew Beatrice would be sad to lose her friend. Uncle had
been over the moon about Imogen. It was like happiness had derailed in our
lives. Uncle toyed with the idea of e-mailing Jack Davenport. Persuading him to
be more reasonable. But I said it would only open an appalling can of worms.
The man was completely inhuman, one hundred percent fake. I shivered to think
how Imogen would fare. I had nightmares. The desert, sandstorms, bellicose
camels. Imogen crying, hunched over a guttering candle. Then darkness.
I tried to summon some
new enthusiasm for life. I’d lost all passion I ever had for education. I’d
skipped so much school I suspected I was no longer on the register, and nobody
cared in any case. I turned to poetry as a consolation. I wrote red-bloodied,
rhyming sonnets for Imogen, then crammed them away at the back of a drawer. I
would write her an epic novel instead. The dedication would be wrenching. I’d
melt the collective soul of the world. Fame would be incidental. I imagined
Imogen flying back to me, dazzled by my mastery of language. Jack Davenport
shaking my hand. It would be a gigantic redemption. But the words simply
withered on the page, like so many broken leaves.
I still cast sidelong
glances at my phone. But it never rang. My misery was complete. The urge to
create had abandoned me. I went to Beatrice. ‘I’m sorry Augustus, but Imogen is
gone. We all miss her. But you just have to snap out of it, and get on. Some
strenuous woodland walks will clear your head.’ I appreciated Beatrice’s blunt
advice. She always dished out the truth. She could be relied upon. Uncle, however,
mooned about, silently lamenting the loss of his teenage friend. Avoiding him,
I put on some thick boots. The sun shone brightly. A vigorous stroll was just
the thing. The flinty stones of our road bit through my soles. I scrunched my
way to the stile, and plunged into the trees.
Stretching one’s legs was
futile. The heartache wouldn’t go away. The woods didn’t soothe, they had their
own business. I thought of taking sedatives again, anything to numb this agony.
I had done nothing to deserve such absolute misery. I’d heard of stowaways
climbing up into the landing gear of long-haul jets. At high altitudes, they
would go into suspended animation, and fall out like frozen popsicles on
landing. I could be one of those daredevils. Imogen and I would be
spectacularly reunited. I entertained notions of a grand life in the Gulf. But
the ghoulish spectre of the Davenports curdled my fantasies. They would surely
scupper all my crazy plans. They despised me, and my middle-class
sensibilities. It would be best to forget everything.
Uncle was proposing
another holiday. ‘A sort of pick-me-up, Augustus, to help you navigate these
challenging times.’ Given that Uncle was now bankrupt, I wondered what he
possibly had in mind. Something altogether small scale I hoped. ‘I’ve been
leafing through a few glossy brochures. I must say I’m smitten by the beauty of
the Lake District. We can enjoy an inexpensive break in the fells and dales. We
will camp under the stars.’ I really couldn’t muster up much enthusiasm for the
English countryside. Also the idea of camping, insect bites, tree roots
drilling into your back all night, repelled me. Beatrice, however, was
thrilled. We had a huge family tent somewhere. It had never been used. Uncle
dug out an old Primus stove. ‘We’ll simply stock a couple of coolers with some
prime produce, and then we’ll hit the road.’ Uncle clapped his hands
delightedly. We would be leaving on the weekend.
Beatrice and I scrambled
into the back seat of the heavily-laden car. Uncle had traded in our old
vehicle to raise much needed funds. The new motor was an altogether more modest
affair. It smelt bad. It had rips in its ugly beige upholstery. The suspension
was shot. It was going to be a disagreeable ride. We spent two hours
negotiating the snarled city traffic, before we were moving north along the
motorway. I cringed when I thought that Uncle might drum up some hearty
travelling songs. Mercifully the moment passed. I became drowsy. Beatrice
stared disconsolately out of the window, watching the misty green fields pass
by. When I woke, we were chugging up the M6, with a hundred miles still to go.
We were to camp beside
Lake Windermere. It was a long sliver of silvery water between pastel-green
hills. The lake had an opaque look, like
it might be haunted by water monsters. I didn’t quite trust its gentle surface.
We drove through a picture-postcard village, searching for directions to the
camping grounds. The narrow hedge-lined lanes were surprisingly busy. Beatrice
squealed out. Uncle slowed the car, and pulled off down a gravel track. We had
arrived. There was a small, quaint lodge straight ahead. We all got down from
the car, stretching our stiff limbs. ‘Well, this must be where we check-in,’
Uncle guffawed heartily, clapping his hands. I espied a small village of
erected tents in the misty distance.
After an hour of
hammering pegs and stretching canvas, our tent was up. Uncle was thrilled. He
fished among our things for the Primus stove, exclaiming that steaming mugs of
tea were in order. ‘I understand we can hire canoes up at the office. It would
be beautiful to ply the lake in this subtle evening light.’ I hadn’t the
foggiest clue how to handle a canoe. I was thoroughly inept when it came to
outdoor pursuits. I slurped my tea anxiously. Beatrice’s disability meant it
would be just Uncle and me. I couldn’t imagine there’d be any alchemy between
us, when it came to working the oars. ‘Augustus, I propose we have dinner
first, and then we organize a boat.’ Uncle was smiling brightly. He was
unquenchable. But my mind lurched with dreadful images of sinkings and
Two red canoes bobbed on
the water. Uncle rubbed his hands together. We strode along a brief pier, and I
scrambled inside. It was a rocky business. But I didn’t overturn my boat. Uncle
made sweeping gestures, instructing me how to handle the paddle. It was
surprisingly simple. I pushed off, and we were floating on the gentle current.
There was a lot of traffic on the lake. A big pleasure steamer, many smaller
leisure craft. I didn’t much like rowing. The paddle bit into the sore
callouses on my palms. But Uncle was having a ball. He sliced through the water
like a magnificent swan. The shore grew far away.
Suddenly I was caught
between two paddle steamers. The huge wash threatened to capsize my tiny craft.
I struggled to right myself with the paddle. I could feel my heart crashing
inside me. In the distance, Uncle was making ridiculous gestures. I signalled
back, and lost my balance. I was tipped into the lake. It was like an icicle
had knifed me. The water was frigid. After an eternity, my life-jacket buoyed
me up. I spluttered and snorted and shivered all at once. Uncle was beside me,
fishing me from the opaque depths. I scrabbled at the bobbing hull of my
overturned canoe, but I couldn’t get a foothold. Uncle righted my boat. ‘In you
climb, Augustus,’ Uncle encouraged, and I was there. I was trembling
‘You poor bedraggled,
sopping thing,’ Uncle sympathized, forcing my shivering body to climb the bank.
I was a quivering ruin. We’d abandoned our canoes on a shingle beach. ‘We need
to get you dry and warm, pronto,’ Uncle fussed, encouraging speed. I hadn’t got
my bearings, but Uncle guided me confidently. It was a considerable walk. I
staggered feebly. Somehow we reached the campsite. I was numb. I scrambled to
the shower block, while Uncle fetched towels and fresh clothing. I stood under
the shower head, letting the tepid water trickle down my back. It was a
heavenly thing. I felt strength surging back into my limbs.
It felt like an authentic
baptism. I was subtly changed. Like my life had reached a turning point, and
I’d successfully hurdled some sinister obstacle. I shook myself, pleased as an
eager puppy. Out of nowhere, Beatrice appeared. ‘I heard you had a proper
dunking,’ she said, clearly entranced. ‘Augustus, you look like you’ve had a
bit of a shake-up,’ she continued, assessing me shrewdly. ‘Yes, I feel
different now,’ I replied quixotically, not wishing to give too much away.
Uncle was preparing a warming stew on the Primus stove. ‘Something substantial,’
he said, ‘to hearten you.’ I was ravenous. I sat at our rickety makeshift
table, and ate, until I was replete. I would cast off the gloom that hunkered
down on me. Henceforth I would be cocksure. I would revel in life.
I slept heavily and late.
I was oblivious to the tree roots gnawing into my spine, and the earthy smell
pervading our tent. When I unzipped the flap and stepped outside, Uncle and
Beatrice were preparing breakfast in bright sunlight. ‘Good, Augustus, you’re
awake. I hope you’re not suffering any agues after last evening’s drama.’ I
assured Uncle that I was perfectly well. ‘That is good to hear. Because today,
the weather being so fine, I had thought we might all climb that peak across
the water.’ Uncle pointed to a cloud-capped hill. ‘The view from the summit
will be absolutely incomparable.’ Beatrice chuckled, then smirked. It was
agreed we’d go.
I didn’t have suitable
hiking boots. Sharp flints chewed through my flimsy soles. The track was
rugged, precipitous. The small mountain frowned hostilely down on us. From
across the water, it had looked so thoroughly benign. I could understand why
these hills were called fells. The weather was altering rapidly. The peak was
swathed in heavy cloud. This was a stark place. It was easy to imagine obscene
monsters in dark meres. All the spooky bugbears of English folklore lived up
here. ‘Father, I think we should abandon our walk. The bad weather is closing
in,’ Beatrice said, alarmed. Uncle scoffed at this. ‘A little bit of mist
shouldn’t hex our plans. Guys, let’s toughen up, and climb.’ But soon icy hail
was biting into my inadequate clothing. I could no longer feel my fingers or
toes. Uncle toiled on valiantly. But Beatrice was lagging. The light was
dwindling. Images of rescue helicopters rotated in my head. Our whole
expedition was blighted.
Beatrice had disappeared.
She’d been trudging along behind me, but the mist had cowled her completely,
and she was gone. I thumped Uncle’s shoulder. We both shouted Beatrice’s name,
but there was no reply. The weather was worsening. We’d need to raise the
alarm, call a search party. Uncle tried his mobile phone. There was no signal.
‘Augustus, you will need to go down the mountain, and summon help.’ I nodded.
The mounting wind caught our hurried farewells, tossing them around, until they
were indistinguishable nonsense. I straggled back downhill. Soon, Uncle’s
stocky figure was swallowed by the flying mist.
I scrambled down the
rocky slope, losing my footing, stumbling often. The mist never abated. Some
bleary lights grew visible. It was a sizeable farmhouse. I hurried up the path,
and pummelled my fists against an oak door. It was opened by a homely old lady,
clearly confused by this rude intrusion on her privacy. I stuttered out that my
Uncle and cousin were lost on the mountain. We must call for help. ‘What on
earth possessed them to climb the fell, in this most treacherous season?’ I
made no comment. The old lady rang. Search and rescue would come. She scuttled
off to brew me some reviving tea. Soon I heard the unmistakable sound of
scrunching boots and commanding voices moving up the footpath.
We found Beatrice
crouched behind a big black rock, shielding herself from the buffeting wind.
Her lips were ghostly blue. Her speech was slurred. I thought it must be
hyperthermia. There was no sign of Uncle. The mist was dissipating. Two burly
men wrapped Beatrice in a tinfoil blanket, and escorted her slowly down the
mountain. The rest of our group moved on, in search of Uncle. The light was
fading. It was almost dark. What if Uncle had wandered from the path, or
stumbled into a crevice? The leader halted, and debated with his colleagues. My
stomach sank inside me. The men patted their big hands, stomped their cold
booted feet. Our search had been called off. Until the morning.
I couldn’t bear to think
of Uncle alone on the mountain. The temperature would plunge. He was wearing
only a summer jacket. The team set up headquarters at the old lady’s farmhouse.
Beatrice had been transported to the hospital for observation. By all accounts,
she was hysterical about her Father. Once Uncle had been found, I would go to
her. I imagined Uncle curled up like a small vulnerable creature. The wind
howling among the boulder fields. Uncle’s core temperature becoming critical. A
fatal coma. The old lady, Vivienne, forced me to eat. But Uncle would be
hungry. It was all inconceivable.
I didn’t sleep a wink. I
lay rigid in my makeshift bed, desperate for the dawn to come. When a measly
light finally fingered the drapes, I was thoroughly fatigued. I thought how the
day would caress Uncle’s stubbly chin, shine on his cold, cramped limbs. I
wondered if he’d found shelter, behind a rock, or down a craggy gully. I heard
soft, gruff voices below. The rescue team were stirring. I dressed. The men
were donning their gear, slurping at mugs of black coffee. Vivienne was
rallying around, preparing an impromptu breakfast. We ate hurriedly. It was
time to set out.
Not far from the main
path, we found Uncle seated beneath a gigantic boulder. He was slouched forward
awkwardly. It looked like he was sleeping. I called his name. He was
unresponsive. Uncle’s face was scratched up, like he’d fallen in brambles, but
there was no undergrowth at this elevation. His lips were a sickly, unearthly
blue. The team worked hard to revive him, shawling him in heavy blankets,
urgently taking his vital signs. But Uncle had critical hypothermia. He would
need to be airlifted off the mountain. The men manoeuvred him onto a simple
stretcher. Soon I heard the chopper circling. My eyes smarted with tears. The
team were shouting for me to stand back. Uncle would be comfortably
hospitalized within forty minutes.
I wasn’t permitted to
travel in the helicopter. As it span away, we moved slowly down the mountain.
The morning was beautiful. I could see the lake stretched out below, like a
gorgeous shining ribbon. It was hard to believe yesterday’s misery had ever
happened. Vivienne said she’d drive me to the hospital. It was in Kendal. The
name sounded familiar. We motored along windy lanes. Vivienne cursed the blind
bends, driving erratically. I wondered whether we’d become another casualty.
I’d become inured to
white, antiseptic walls. To me, hospitals were places of death, not healing.
Uncle was in the intensive care unit. Beatrice had been transferred to the
ward. Vivienne accompanied me. Uncle lay prone in his bed, an assortment of
machines bleeping gently beside him. He looked peaceful, ruddier. I had no
qualms that he’d recover. He was, as he liked to say, a tough old bird. A
survivor. The unpleasant gashes on his face had faded. I squeezed Uncle’s
outstretched hand, warm on the coverlet, then we went to find Beatrice.
Beatrice was propped up
on hospital pillows. She was anxious, fiddling with her freshly bandaged arm.
She sprung at me for information. I assured her that Uncle would be fine. ‘I
have been so worried! Poor Father alone all night on that horrible mountain. It
must have been unspeakable.’ The colour had fled from Beatrice’s face. She was
re-living her Father’s horror. I said something inane about this being the
holiday from hell, but Beatrice wasn’t listening.
Vivienne and I sought the
hospital cafeteria. I ordered myself a smooth consoling hot chocolate. ‘Don’t
you worry, Augustus, your family are going to be just fine,’ Vivienne chimed.
‘I should like it very much if you were to stay at my home, whilst Benedict and
Beatrice recuperate. I imagine the doctors will wish to keep them in for a few
days yet.’ I hadn’t considered my own comfort. I’d been expecting to doss down,
unnoticed, in some obscure corner of the ward. Vivienne observed my hesitation.
‘We’ll be able to visit them every day. I drive into Kendal regularly, and it’s
really no bother.’ I thanked her warmly. It was agreed. I’d taken a big shine
to this noble grandmotherly lady. ‘So, what do you say, let’s go home, and get
ourselves cleaned up? I expect you’d welcome a hearty meal, Augustus, and a long
comfortable sleep.’ She wasn’t wrong.
I had a glorious restful
night. Vivienne was preparing a cooked breakfast when I came down. ‘Augustus,
it had slipped my mind, but my granddaughter Laura is coming to stay. I don’t
like to say no, at such short notice, as we’ve had this planned this for quite
some time.’ I said I didn’t wish to interfere, it was cool by me. Laura lived
in London. She was making her regular holiday excursion to her grandmother’s.
She loved canoeing on the lake and hiking in the fells. I spluttered when I
heard this. She was sixteen. Despite my atrocious experience with girls,
despite everything, I was curious.
A slick, spanking-new,
four-wheel drive pulled up. Out stepped a tall teenage girl. I gasped. She was
the spitting image of Alice. She pranced around in the same self-adoring
manner. A brow-beaten man, presumably her Father, went to retrieve the bags. Vivienne
came out to greet her. Laura squealed with delight. The two hugged
theatrically. Vivienne introduced me to her gorgeous granddaughter. I couldn’t
control my pounding heart. My palms poured with sweat. I prayed I wasn’t
blushing like a loser.
We ambled inside. I
struggled with Laura’s weighty luggage. She directed me precisely, as to where
she’d like it set down. She would take the small bedroom next to mine.
Downstairs, Vivienne was brewing a big pot of herbal tea. ‘You know I am
exclusively vegan,’ Laura said, engaging me in polite banter. ‘I do hope you’re
not one of those abominable carnivores. It would spoil our budding friendship.’
I was both flummoxed and enchanted by Laura’s direct manner. The ground rocked
beneath my feet.
I recounted our ill-fated
expedition up the mountain. Laura was rapt, listening intensely. When I
concluded, she exhaled profoundly. ‘The mountain is a frowning god. You need to
approach her with respect.’ I didn’t find this comment odd. I found it spiritual,
insightful. My impending visit to Uncle and Beatrice was utterly forgotten. I
was bewitched. I sipped at my herbal tea. I seriously entertained ideas of
becoming vegan. Vivienne let us jabber on. I could have gazed at Laura until
evening fell. ‘Let us walk by the lake,’ she suddenly announced. This was
Laura and I had this
amazing chemistry. We walked the shingle shoreline like the eldest of friends.
When she stumbled, I caught her hand. She didn’t retract it. Laura asked the
oddest questions. She wondered whether I believed in reincarnation. I chortled.
It was preposterous. Laura dwelt lovingly on macabre things. She was fascinated
with death. Strange ideas tumbled from her mouth. I was spellbound. ‘Augustus,
we have this awesome connection,’ Laura suddenly stated. I nodded. I felt it
too. It was a beautiful, natural intimacy. I placed my arm around Laura’s
waist. We were conjoined.
A magical rain had begun
to fall. We floated home like two blessed spirits. Vivienne smirked broadly
when she greeted us. Our intimacy was written in bold italics. ‘Look, you’re
all wet, you two. I’ll put on some tea, whilst you both dry yourselves,’
Vivienne fussed. Laura glowed. She went to the laundry cupboard to fetch
towels. She dried her auburn hair vigorously. My heart thumped wildly in its
cage. The tea was sweet and reviving. This had been a momentous day. When
Vivienne spoke about Beatrice and Benedict, at first I thought she meant the
two Shakespearian lovers. My mind was seriously muddled. I felt like being
reckless, inappropriate. I swigged my hot beverage, and smiled.
Vivienne proposed we
visit Uncle and Beatrice. Laura was eager to come along. ‘Augustus, I should
like to meet your family. I’m sure we’d have oodles to say.’ We negotiated the
windy lanes, reaching the hospital around midday. Uncle was propped up in bed
reading a car magazine. He caught his breath when he saw Laura, but recovered
quickly, and acted normal. We discussed his health. Uncle was perfectly well.
He was to be discharged. Beyond a few facial grazes, he was his old self. I
felt relieved. But I wondered if this meant Laura and I might be parted soon.
It was a heart-breaking prospect. Leaving Uncle to his reading, we went to seek
‘So, who is this
Augustus?’ Beatrice demanded. She bristled with hostility. I suppose I had to
expect that Beatrice would growl. At least she didn’t blurt out that Laura and
Alice were absolute lookalikes. Laura knew how to be charming. She coaxed some
grudging, unexpected smiles from my cousin. But Beatrice was tetchy. ‘Augustus,
really, you need to get me out of this place, I’m going spare,’ she barked. I
explained that Uncle needed a little longer to recuperate. ‘Well, he’s fine,’
she scoffed. ‘Happy to be leafing through the pages of those inane motor
magazines. Whereas I am stuck here, thoroughly hacked off.’ Laura grinned, and
said she’d find Beatrice some suitably diverting reading material. Beatrice
beamed gratefully. A fragile bond was forming.
Laura spoke frankly.
‘Augustus, nothing shall divide us. When this holiday is over, I will see you,
in London. We shall be inseparable. Always.’ And then she kissed me,
ecstatically. It was like a thousand volts had shot through me. Afterwards, we
embraced. I held her very close. Vivienne blundered into the room. Laura
delicately unhooked herself from my arms. There was no embarrassment. It was
understood. We were one.
Uncle and Beatrice were
being discharged. The three of us drove to the hospital. Uncle was perky,
Beatrice relieved to escape her pointless incarceration. Vivienne insisted that
everyone stay at her home. Before embarking on the long drive south. This was
happily agreed. Thankfully Laura’s Father would be collecting her the following
day, so we wouldn’t be parted for long. We exchanged mobile numbers and social
media details. Laura promised to be a stellar correspondent. My heart told me
that she would keep to her word.
Vivienne embraced me,
Laura kissed me passionately, and we said our poignant farewells. Uncle thanked
Vivienne from the bottom of his heart. We tumbled into the car, beeped the
horn, and crept out into the lanes. Uncle raced the engine. The windy country
roads sped by. Soon we were on the motorway, heading south. It was like an
episode in my life had closed. Laura and I would change, adapt. From now on,
we’d play out our burgeoning love in the big city.
Toxic engine fumes
swirled on the gritty streets. It was a snarling, bloodshot evening in London.
I found it hard to re-accustom to the grinding din, the choking pollution. I
craved to stroll among serene lakeland beauty with Laura. Uncle dodged and
weaved among the backed-up traffic, until we were home. Our suburb, with its
ancient woods, was leafy, relatively peaceful. I tweeted Laura to say we were
back. She’d already showered and was unpacking. Tomorrow we’d meet.
Uncle lent me thirty
pounds. ‘Treat Laura to a slap-up meal. Don’t hold back,’ he said. I thanked
him. We’d agreed to meet in Green Park. I didn’t know the place well, but it
had this air of glamour. It was a tortuous train journey up to town. I gazed
out of the grimy carriage windows, at sooty brown buildings. We crossed the
river, and rattled into a brick-roofed terminus. I sought out the Underground.
It always made me nervous. I was gulped under the earth, then vomited up, just
The park was gorgeous.
Black swans glided across a small ornamental lake. Willows hung down into the
water. Everywhere families were scattering bread for the ducks. I spotted
Laura. She was sitting in a deck chair by the rippling pond. She gleamed. She
wore a simple washed-blue denim jacket. She looked stunning. The fluffy,
marshmallow clouds in the perfect sky weren’t fresher than she. Laura spotted
me. She rose, and leapt headlong into my arms. We kissed, we laughed.
‘Augustus, my parents
wish to meet you,’ Laura bubbled. ‘For a casual luncheon.’ My experience in the
adult realm was totally jaded, but I said I’d be delighted anyway. There was no
other choice. From my memory of Laura’s Father, he seemed relatively innocuous.
Even under his daughter’s thumb. Mothers, however, always alarmed me. I
imagined she’d be ballsy and beautiful, just like Laura. There would be probing
questions. Awkward hiatuses. We went to get ice lollies. Laura giggled
delightedly. The forthcoming appointment was forgotten. The sun shone, melting
our pleasure. But we didn’t care.
When the sun fell behind
big buildings and the blaze went out of the day, we went in search of dinner. I
didn’t care if I never got home. Because it was just perfect now. I wondered
briefly if Laura and I might get a hotel, but I knew my funds wouldn’t stretch
to that. We found a quaint pizzeria, and giggled our way through a large
Margherita. Everything was amusing. The stringy cheese sticking to our mouths
was hysterical. The Italian waiters were out-and-out clowns. Nobody else in the
world existed. It was all fabulous. I was sure Laura felt the same way.
When I stumbled off the
train, it was entirely dark. Uncle was waiting in the car park. ‘Well,
Augustus, how was your day?’ I think the big fat smile still lingered on my
face. I said it had been swell. Uncle was thrilled for me. ‘It is good to see
you happy,’ he said kindly, without prying further. As we drove, a contented
silence settled upon us. I tweeted Laura. She was home. She signed her tweet
with three kisses. It was magic.
It was time to meet the
Smallwoods. I wasn’t nervous. I was an old pro. Laura was simply my destiny. It
was immaterial whether they liked me or not. Nevertheless I dressed
smart-casual, and flossed. As I came downstairs, Beatrice grinned approvingly.
‘You’re becoming something of a heartbreaker,’ she said, and flicked my nose
mischievously. I was feeling too mellow to mind. Uncle was to drive me to the
Smallwoods’ home. We had travelled a long way since the Mannheims and the
Davenports. This was sure to be a breeze.
‘So tell me, Augustus,
what are your pleasures in life?’ Mrs Smallwood chirped. She was an amenable
soul, the sort of person who put you at your ease. Mr Smallwood sat silent and
awkward in his lazy-boy, a mute, hen-pecked man. I was tempted to say that
Laura was my main life pleasure, but this would have been misjudged,
inappropriate. Instead I told her I wrote. Mrs Smallwood was taken aback. I’d
curdled the conversation. I was hastily offered more reviving tea, another
chocolate digestive biscuit. I declined.
Laura invited me to her
bedroom. Mrs Smallwood frowned. Laura’s walls were covered with striking pencil
sketches. They were mostly self-portraits, with a smattering of harsh urban
scenes. There was anguish in the way she’d imagined herself. It didn’t tally with
the bubbly confident girl I thought I knew. I complimented Laura on her
artistry. ‘They’re just to wile away the tedious hours when I’m not with you.’
Then she asked if I’d sit for a portrait.
Laura drew. Her
concentration was immense. She lavished an hour of hushed intensity on my
portrait. I wasn’t allowed to see. She tutted if I shifted an inch. Afterwards,
she covered up her creation with a white sheet. ‘I shall work a little more on
it, and then you can look,’ she teased. I was intrigued. It would have been
simple to pull away the cover, and take a peek. But something told me Laura
would have been mortified. This was serious stuff. ‘Augustus, let’s go down
now, and talk with Father. He doesn’t get much of a look-in these days,’ she
Paul Smallwood was
reading the paper in his lazy-boy. He worked in a tiny insurance office. It
sounded inordinately dull. He’d been with the same company for thirty years. He
had never been promoted. As Laura recounted her Father’s employment history, the
man looked downcast, embarrassed. It was hard to prise any conversation from
him. He gave me a myopic smile, and returned self-consciously to his newspaper.
I supposed this mildness was preferable to the disgusting vanity of Mr
Davenport, or the shocking thuggery of Leo Mannheim. Laura’s parents were a
So Laura and I spent the
next weeks visiting beautiful parkland, going to the movies, which thrilled
her, and eating at high-end restaurants. Our relationship had burgeoned into
full-blown love. We spoke about the future together. Laura wanted the whole
package, marriage and many many kids. Her ambitions were strangely
conventional. I didn’t disapprove.
I wanted to come clean
with Laura. I had to tell her about Alice and Imogen. I didn’t want my colourful
past tainting our perfect romance. I wondered if Laura had any messy secrets.
It seemed far-fetched to think she’d entertained a string of insalubrious
boyfriends. I would choose an appropriate moment, and spill everything.
‘So where is this Alice
now?’ Laura said, clearly nettled. I explained that Alice had passed away.
Laura’s expression softened. ‘That is harsh,’ she shivered. Laura didn’t know
death like I did. I hadn’t even begun to explain about Imogen. For a moment I
considered leaving it. But I wanted to keep no secrets. Laura flushed angrily.
‘How many women have you got tucked away, Augustus?’ she screeched. I explained
that Imogen was far away, in the Middle East. We were long over. This appeased
her. We sat silently together. Then Laura clutched my hand. Our first rocky
moment was fading.
‘Augustus, don’t forget,
you’re all mine,’ Laura smirked, cuffing me lightly. She had become possessive.
I was flattered. We were staying at my house. Uncle was a marvellous host,
making sure Laura’s room was well-ventilated, that all meals were strictly
observed. Beatrice was put out, she tutted pertly, but managed to avoid any
openly hostile displays. I wondered how long it would be before she had a
boyfriend. Beatrice exhibited no interest in the opposite sex. She was a
hardened loner. Even her buddy Esther was history. My happiness must have
galled. Uncle chomped on a celery stick, flirting with Laura. He was
incorrigible. Laura burned warmer than a bonfire. You could feel the glow.
Laura and I settled into
a domestic bliss. We took regular rides up to town, where we sunned ourselves
in royal parks and ate generous meals. Nothing could ruffle our happiness. We
never squabbled, we were the perfect fit. ‘Augustus, I think you’ve found your
ideal match,’ Uncle said one overcast evening. He was right. There was no
blemish on our relationship. Quite simply, I was the luckiest man.
It was five years later.
Laura and I were married. We had a little girl. We’d called her Alice. I had a
steady job in the city, in the financial sector, nothing thrilling, but it
sustained us comfortably. Laura had chosen to stay home and raise our daughter.
She walked on air, always bubbly. Beatrice had finally come out, and was living
with a girl in Shoreditch. Uncle, alone, bumbled about, piling adoration on his
granddaughter. Alice doted on him. Like a magician, he would fish in his deep
pockets and pull out these beautiful blue marbles.