Proposition

Uncle Timothy flicked on the lights.
Instantly the shadows fled. I looked
into Uncle’s enormous riven face.
I was surprised at how dishevelled
and grubby he was. It was almost as
if he’d been sleeping rough. He was
wrapped in a huge crow-black raincoat.
He looked entirely evil. I seriously
wondered what he had to say. Nothing
could dispel the nausea I felt when I was
around him. William had also lost his
tongue. Uncle asked us to be seated.
I perched tensely at the edge of the sofa.
Well, this is much more pleasant, Uncle
began. I have a proposition to make,
he continued. This was sinister. My
heart raced wildly. Uncle had my
complete attention.

+2

Fishing in my pockets for blue marbles

Fishing in my pockets for blue marbles

A novel

Robert James Berry

for Ahila

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 gripe.

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 to gawp.

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 Alice.

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 sealed.

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 number.

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 back.

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 wasn’t true.

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 new knowledge.

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 again.

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 we left.

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 felon.

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 them.

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 door.

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 everything.

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 Beatrice.

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 me wildly.

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 me.

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 me.

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 listening.

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 just Uncle.

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 away.

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 invincible.

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 life.

‘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 didn’t probe.

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 clean.

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 Beatrice too.

‘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 dreams.

‘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 wasn’t coming.

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 doctor.

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, inconsolable.

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 back.

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 circle.’

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 didn’t care.

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 nurses.

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 suddenly magnificent.

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 inside.

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 proving effective.

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 was nerves.

‘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 drove.

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 me.

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 wasn’t disastrous.

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 breathtaking.

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 Davenport.

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 by Imogen.

‘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 to fly.

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 appeared.

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 Beatrice’s fingers.

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 the way.

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 prepared.

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 failure here.

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 reckless, foolhardy.

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 was paramount.

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 invincible.

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 quietly.

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 drownings.

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 helplessly.

‘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 wonderful.

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 out Beatrice.

‘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 on time.

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 said.

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 walkover.

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.

0

Darkest Peru

Darkest Peru

A Novel

Robert James Berry

for Ahila

With special thanks to Hermione Dryden, for her excellent suggestions, her constant encouragement & enthusiasm, whilst I wrote this book.

WILL

I

Father is making this embarrassing fried bread – he’s going to pay for it. Mother is in her room, knocked out. I don’t care what they do, so long as they don’t shout, or bother me. I am Will. They named me after a prince. My family is unravelling. I can tell, they think I can’t. I like dragons, all that Farthest Shore stuff about golden hordes and destruction. It relieves the pain. But don’t feel sorry for me.

My sister is a plastic bimbo who stays in her room; I disown her. There’s also a brat beneath my contemplation. I have my favourites – the cat – slinky, sleepy, indifferent to me.

It’s time I brought up my girlfriend. She’s liberated me from hell. Though we’ve never spoken. In the school library, we gaze at each other over encyclopaedic journals. She is sublime, with hair like autumn. Her name is Bella. She has acuity, I like that word. And slim, poetic fingers. I try not to watch when she puts up her hair.

I’m less smitten with my parents. They’re drearier than snails. They love long narratives about the long ago. I don’t even pretend to listen. I know Mother is sad. It shows in her cooking.

II

Today, Father said he is leaving. He announced it over breakfast. We rarely have that together. ‘I’ve had a guts-full of this family’, he said. That was wounding. Mother went teary, but I could see she was relieved.

Father is Stefan. He runs a photo studio. He posts pictures of tall models on his Instagram. I’ve blocked him. He talks about his models’ ‘beautiful clavicles’, but I think he means other things. My Mother, Alice- but I never call her that – turns her head, and hides. I know she’s mortified. But she has her refuge. Tim. The brat. He claims we all live in darkest Peru, retard. Why is everything about him? And Alicia, who likes horrible music. My head is pounding.

III

I know they malign me. Once I go to bed the bickering starts. It can get noisy, mean. Dragging up all their shit from the past. Father likes expletives. Mother, silence. I bet Bella never hears this crap. I imagine her in a post-modern home with perfect architecture. Her family have no feuds. She is never beleaguered by noise.

Today I spoke with Bella. It was awkward. My eyes pounded. I was red. Three words. ‘Hi, I’m Will’. ‘I know’, she said. We’re an item. I’m writing a poem for her.

IV

My Aunt once said we’re all fragile. That has stuck with me. Mother certainly is. She is drinking heavily. Secretly. I shan’t explore her drunkenness yet, because it saddens me.

Tim has a friend who’s always coming around. I call him Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader. They are both chubby, inscrutable. Tim loves him. And the iced cakes and dainties Mother always makes.

That night I heard Mother crying, sobbing her soul out. I loathed Father, who made her so sad, who made her down so much gin, until she was indescribably numb. I slept fitfully, dreaming of perfect homes and Mother’s fingers wiping away her smudged mascara.

V

I don’t believe you can breakdown taboos. Mother will always be a slattern woman because of her drinking, the kind who cries into her cooking, makes a scene. But I can see her truly, how beautiful she is with her streaming eyes and puffy complexion. She’s the one who made me.

VI

Tim, like his Mother, is a phenomenal chef.  His baking is imaginative, it defies definition. I only know we all swoon, when he makes one of his desserts. He may be the most irritating sprog, but I admire his kitchen skills.

Tim doesn’t understand Father’s antics. He worships him. He is horribly mean to him. I like that.

VII

Let’s talk about school. It’s excruciatingly dull. All the teachers are old pervs. The Rector is a tiresome fossil. But Bella is there. She walks up the hill from the Girls’ school, for our metalwork classes. I have developed a passion for hard materials.

And I have stalked you, watched you glide back down the hill with your oversize backpack, a little breathless, returning to your school, the perfect architecture of your cheekbones set, your hair rippling in the wind like a Botticelli painting, oblivious to my disturbing world, its sorry music.

VIII

Stefan has packed his bags. He’s being melodramatic, moving very slowly, wanting an audience. Stefan murdered my childhood. He’s a horrible old bastard. He loves to undermine me. Sneer. Scoff. Deride all my projects. I go queasy when he stares, share nothing with him. When we must converse, he has this way of sighing, a weary wish-you-had-never-been-born tone. Total bastard.

Tim fares better. Stefan is besotted. He gives Tim extra pocket money.  ‘I’ve always loved the young’, Stefan croons. Patronizing bastard.

IX

I’m neglecting Alicia. The plastic one. People say she is beautiful. I don’t see it. Aunt Emilia raves about her. It’s nauseating. She leans over her garden fence and spouts to her neighbours, the glory of Alicia. She makes loathsome shortbread. It’s hard to smile with broken teeth.

STEFAN

Alice gets asthma. It’s become quite serious, and the miscarriage has torn out her heart. She wakes terribly early. There’s a slice of light under her door and I can hear her pottering around, making tea, preparing breakfast, trying to mask the racket the kettle makes.

But I’m awake now.  I sleep in a king-size bed, alone. I have brought this upon myself. I never dreamt infidelity could be so raw, that it would stamp itself on my whole being as clearly as a lipsticked kiss, or a strange perfume. Because Alice knows. That much is certain.

My Chloe is young. We sort of tumbled into bed, after a photo shoot. I call her poppyseed. We hold hands, snatch stealthy kisses, walk in the park. I never meant to cheat on Alice but these urges are overwhelming, ungovernable.

I’ve noticed how Will looks at me. He has an appraising eye. He was always his Mother’s child. I don’t think young Tim knows, or that Alicia much cares.

Poppyseed wears buttercup-yellow dresses. They hug her figurine ballet dancer’s body. I am a big fan. She has this way of twirling on her heels, which is mildly obscene yet unutterably lovely. Some people might learn some grace from her. It is what’s absent in my life. Some true culture.

People have called me sinister. Misunderstood would be better. Alice is scared of me. I shall keep it that way.

ALICE

We have a drawer full of bent spoons. Tim. I have seen Tim talk to them, focus hard, manoeuvre the metal like he’s making origami. It is clear that should I disturb him he’d deny all knowledge, so it has become normal in this house to stir one’s beverages with twisted teaspoons.

Stefan would say I’m stewed again.  I do admit I live for the taste of gin, the tinkle of ice, the first gulp, like barbed wire in your mouth. I get woozy, numbed to the world. I slur. I disgrace myself.

Will understands me. I’ve always felt that. Because our veins are intertwined. He has insight. Whereas Stefan is full of profanities. ‘You are a shameful boozer, pull yourself together’, he pronounced last night. He always talks about reconstruction, but he doesn’t realise I’m broken. That I want oblivion.

Tim is my bright light. We used to go to the playground, when I had my sobriety. It was by the sea. I’d watch Tim. The surf boomed behind us, sea salt tousled our hair, we were happy. That was long ago. I’m getting maudlin.

TIM

Syrupy pancakes. My favourite. And snowy meringues. I like to sing when I make. Papa says it’s beautiful. ‘You have a gift’, he booms. I crave presents, big yellow parcels with my name on them. I’m waiting. For my big brother to leave. For the naggy goat to buzz away, far away from me. Mother is always so serious, sad and she doesn’t make sense. She goes all slurry, so the words don’t have shapes, like when I was young. I think she might have some disease and isn’t saying. I’m scared.

They fight when I’m in bed. They think I don’t know but I lie awake, listening to Papa’s big voice booming at the world. The walls are thin. And I have ears. In the morning Papa ruffles my hair and asks how I slept. ‘Bad’, I say. But he isn’t listening.

ALICIA

I’ve had a sip of Father’s whiskey. Secretly. It is toxic. I take this stuff to my room. I hate my family. They are all losers. I brush my hair often. I think I’ll go insane. Stuck here. With these people.

I am writing a log of Father’s foot-in-mouth moments. They are many. Sometimes he just stands in my doorframe and leers stupidly at me. He has no cool. Doesn’t know what I’m going through. I slam the door. Once I’m eighteen I’m totally out of here. They can go boil their heads.

Mother is more drugged up than a pharmacy. She is positively sad. I will not be like her. Although she has a kind of broken beauty. A past-its-sell-by-date tragic loveliness.

It breaks my heart to see my little brother run wild. They don’t see Tim, or hear him, or love him enough. They are too obsessed with their own dysfunctionality. Will is Will, he will always be OK. It is Tim I worry for.

WILL

I

Stefan is staying. That’s disappointing. ‘I’ve made a commitment to this family, for better or worse’, he’s announced. He always sounds like he’s preaching, and I loathe men of the cloth, rectors, all those turgid big-mouths.

We are going on holiday. Family healing time. Which means dinners by the sea where we shuffle our cutlery, barely eat, watch the tasteless walls.  And I watch Mother pickling her mind, so she doesn’t have to talk with the man who’s broken her soul. Because there is no way to mend her. She’s too badly munted for that.

After the awkward silences, the clinking of ice, there is bickering. The waiters gawp. They love scenes. Stefan is generous with his tipping. Like he wants to pay for their discretion. Tim loves the way the waiters glide around, black-suited penguins, in darkest Peru.

II

Bella’s family dinners will be ebullient. With a wooden bowl of dressed salad, shared around. Bella isn’t picky, like Alicia, who skewers her food like she hates it. Bella’s parents have meaningful conversations. They don’t mutter.

Stefan loves beach walks. I hate sand. The way it gets between your toes. A funereal beach walk, taking the air, and wetting your toes in the tide. Hardly fun. Stefan gets excited by sea shells and breaking surf. He has this horrible way of pointing out landmarks, full of himself, like he was the creator of coastlines. But who gives a hoot?

I know Stefan is keeping secrets. He goes out  for ice cream and takes an hour. Tim is appalled. Because who likes sludgy cookies-and-cream. I’ve seen Stefan on his phone. Crooning into the speaker. Sniggering when he texts. Getting all smiley when he hangs up his call. Something fishy is going on.

III

My sister Alicia is stuck-up. She bites. She bears grudges. There is no humouring her. We swim in the sea together. She won’t speak. She looks dangerously skinny. Sports a belly-button stud that’s hard to ignore. She breaststrokes like she’s so angry. Her enamel skin is as salty as she is.

Tim isn’t allowed to swim. Because of his asthma. He sits on the sand, cocooned in beach towels, growling about his human rights. Mother lavishes on the suncream, which is clearly tickly. Tim says this place is a shit-hole. There is no sun. There never has been any sun. This is darkest Peru.

IV

Aunt Emilia has joined us by the sea. She has closeted herself with Mother and Alicia. I’m thinking there’s trouble. I bet it’s Stefan.

Their conflab has been protracted. Ending with liberal hugs. I think Mother plans to go with Aunt Emilia. Then Mother tells us all to quickly get our things. We are leaving. Tim looks scared. Mother has already packed a shabby suitcase. We scramble to grab our stuff and bundle into Aunt Emilia’s car. This is radical.

The drive along the motorway is cramped. But I shall remember it. Because it is the first time I’ve seen Mother smile for simply ages. Even Alicia has cracked her perpetual scowl. Aunt Emilia has barley-sugars, so Tim is pacified, if a little car-sick. I’m wondering what Bella would make of this all.

V

I like the nomadic lifestyle. Aunt Emilia’s house isn’t exactly a Bedouin tent, but it has its thrills. A ramshackle rumpus room never used, and rows and rows of dusty books. Aunt Emilia is a widow. She couldn’t have her own children. Which lends a sadness to her peculiar beauty.

Tim and I are sharing a musty bedroom. There are weird porcelain heads on the dresser, it spooks Tim. The bedding is damp and the patchwork quilts give bad dreams. The house has old pipes that vocalise all night, clunking and wheezing like a bad case of asthma. I suppose it’s better than homelessness. I have heard Mother thank Aunt Emilia for taking us in. ‘You are most welcome, and you all stay for as long as you need’, lies Aunt Emilia, adjusting her glasses.

VI

Stefan knows we’re here. Mother looks alarmed. Tim wants to speak to him. But there is nothing to say. He has chosen, and it wasn’t us. I can’t believe I didn’t see it. All the sneaking around and Stefan’s big fat smiles. He’s welcome to his new girlfriend, only don’t come bothering us. Mother is drinking less, I see her holding Tim’s hand, stroking his pudgy fingers. Even Alicia looks prettier.

VII

Stefan has called his lawyer. Things may escalate into a witch-hunt. A document arrived by courier. Mother looked distraught. Her hand shook when she signed for it. She spilt her tea. She’s going to be hauled through the courts. Her drinking will emerge. Stefan will testify that she’s an unfit mother. We’ll become one of those families who visit a hated parent on weekends, and for holidays. How obnoxious. We will even have to befriend his new woman. It makes my skin creep.

STEFAN

I’ve rung and rung. Alice will not take my children. They are dear to me. She is not competent to care for them all. Her mind is addled. Emilia is scuppering my attempts to talk, to reason with my wife. But Chloe, my darling poppyseed, is being very supportive. I have moved some nick-knacks into her dreary flat.

I miss my Tim. It hurts. I should love to ruffle his hair. I remember when Tim was born. The yellow crocuses in the hospital grounds. Twenty hours of labour. A sense of wonder, cutting the cord. His fantastic tiny pink toes. It all saddens me.

AUNT EMILIA

I never understood why Alice fell for Stefan. I always thought him a bully. I never liked him. And now he’s a cheat. I would have thought philandering was beneath him. But men are so impressionable and Alice is sadly past her best, especially since she’s been drinking. I’ll treasure this time, my special talks with Alicia. After all the silence, the house is like a buzzing hive, with Tim nattering away. I know it is selfish and sorry, but I wish they’d never leave.

ALICE

I don’t like imposing on Emilia. But there is only that moth-eaten motel or the Women’s Refuge. Because Stefan has frozen my accounts. All my cards have been declined. Emilia, dear soul, is buying my gin. She judges no-one. But it is a cheaper brand, and less befuddling. The fog is lifting. I begin to see clearly. How the children are jollier. How I am happier too.

ALICIA

Aunt Emilia is taking us shopping. Because Father has hijacked all our clothes. Aunt E. likes boutique stores, and rummaging in bins full of scarves. She thinks I need feeding up, but I don’t mind her. ‘Look at this lovely peachy colour’, she enthuses, singling out a particularly hideous frock. I wouldn’t be seen dead in it. Nevertheless Aunt E.’s heart is big. She makes me break into smiles. I thought I’d forgotten how to do that.

TIM

When I dream it is like I’m climbing in sand dunes, the ground slipping away. The sun glows like a great chandelier. I’m an explorer. Then we are called for breakfast. The vision evaporates like the dew. Aunt is whispering furiously to Mother. Something is happening. They never tell me.

WILL

I

Stefan is at the door. We can all see him through the net curtains. Tim is excited. For me, it is like I swallowed some stones. Stefan is thumping his fist on the window. We are not answering. Mother is quaking. ‘Just let me see my children’, he pleads. He sounds appeasing, only mildly annoyed. He has slightly more emotion than a cardboard box. Aunt Emilia is sprinting down the staircase and putting the latch on the door. ‘Go away Stefan, you’re not wanted here’, she shouts feistily. I can hear Stefan’s expensive shoes clicking into the distance. He doesn’t have the balls for a street brawl.

II

Bella has texted me. She wants to know how I’m ‘holding up’. Better, since she asked. I’ve been skipping school since the break-up. People are too preoccupied to care. Aunt Emilia has called her lawyers, and is getting a protection order in place. Mother is drinking more. This kind of pressure-cooker fear, thuds on the door, the postman ringing the doorbell abruptly, has scrambled her mind. Only Aunt Emilia has nerves of steel.

III

The judge has ruled in favour of Father. We are to go to him. Undoubtedly the law is some old sick-minded bugger, swayed by money and flash suits. Mother was inconsolable. It is like a nail in her. She shall stay stupefied. After the verdict, Stefan looked smug and his tie spoke of victory. Once the judge has filed the paperwork, we must leave Mother and go with him. Case dismissed.

IV

Who can comprehend how Stefan got custody? I know he bad-mouthed Mother shamelessly, painting a picture of perpetual drunkenness. That was low. I have never seen Alicia so angry, and that is saying something. She is the queen among door-slammers. But it is inevitable. We pack our slim belongings and head back up the motorway. Mother is tragic. She shall not recover. Tim looks pleased.

V

The car draws up at a crumbly apartment. It looks more like a grocery store. Are we truly going to live here? It’ll be like a menagerie. There is a loud young woman standing with Stefan, ready to greet us. I am getting this sinking feeling. Tim is squealing in Stefan’s arms. Alicia and I are daggers.

VI

It was the most surreal evening of my life. Dinner with Stefan and Chloe. Conversation was murdered. Maybe the overcooked pasta silenced us. I wasn’t planning to say much, I felt scowly, and Alice squirmed beside me, stabbing her food. I can’t deny it, Chloe is graceful, she moves like a dancer on stilettos. There isn’t much to dislike about her, but I’ll find something. Stefan grinned like a half-wit and apologised all the time. He hopes we’ll ‘settle in nicely’, that we don’t feel like ‘human shuttlecocks’. Absurd. Only Tim bubbled and burbled, enjoying the food, loving his father, flirting with Chloe. When we left the table, our chairs grinded on the stone floor. Bed has never seemed more inviting.

VII

All over the walls there are studio portraits of Chloe. Mostly she’s naked. Stefan has a fine eye for vulnerable poses. The wet look. He sickens me. I slept badly, sharing with Tim. A lumpy mattress, too much moonlight and my mind ticking overtime. What would Mother think. Bella would be aggrieved for me. I am going down to breakfast. Stefan has fled to his office. I am alone with Chloe. This is awkward. She is making French toast, it is extremely good. She pirouettes between the stove and table, serving hearty portions. I find myself smiling. This is not good. Encamped with the enemy, fraternizing over a meal. Alicia comes down. The smell is enticing. She cannot hold her scowl in place. Tim, when he wakes, will be enchanted. Chloe knows how to woo us.

CHLOE

Stefan was all bristly this morning. He said dinner didn’t go well. I remonstrated with him, but he was on a downer. I hate it when he gets that way. I can see his children need some serious loving. Stefan has a considerable ego. I don’t think he understands their plight. Clams could be more eloquent than them. Only Tim is unfazed, because he’s twelve. I do empathize. I shan’t be the evil Stepmother figure. Though it will be hard to shake off the stigma surrounding women like me. Who have sneaked into the affections of older men, ransacked families, eaten up their happiness.

ALICE

Emilia has taken me for a walk. To clear my mind. We came to Happy Valley as children. I loved how the mists rose off the hills. Now it means nothing. First the humiliation in court. Then watching them leave with Stefan. Childbirth was less agony. The rain is coming down. Emilia says we must shelter. What for?

TIM

It is better being with Father. Mother was so sad. And Aunt Emilia could get picky. She made me eat my Brussel sprouts. I don’t dream so badly at Father’s. He smiles when I speak. I like Chloe, she’s such fun. I’ll ask if I can cook for her, maybe snowy meringues, or peanut cookies. They are loud at night, I knock on the wall, but nobody much minds. The duvet is quality. I am snug. I shall dream of lions.

STEFAN

The photo shoot with Ghislaine has gone well. She came with just a small rucksack and a to-die-for smile.  Once I’ve edited and censored the images, I’ll upload them to my site. Business is good. I shall call Ghislaine again.

Work is a release. I feel summoned away from the mess that’s drowning me. Alice has called, three times. Her messages are desperate. I have kept them for my lawyer. My poppyseed is marvellous with the children. Especially Tim. I do hope she’ll take a leave of absence and prettify the apartment. I should like that. So will Tim.

ALICIA

Chloe is losing her rag. She was that close to striking Will today. He has been beautifully impertinent, I’m proud of him. Stefan is never here to manage the bouts. This creepy apartment is making me mad. We never go out. Chloe sits hunched in an old chair, doing endless crosswords. She makes me spit. I’ve called Aunt E. on my mobile. She told me to ‘hang on in there’, she’ll get me out soon. I imagine Mother is having kittens about all this. She needs to get stirred up, quit the drink, rescue us from here.

WILL

I

We are back at the family home to collect some things. A layer of chalky white dust coats the sofas. No-one has fed the cat. There is a dead bird in the bathroom. All of Alicia’s lurid shower-gel bottles have been toppled. Chloe isn’t coming in. She tells us don’t be long. She is sour. I haven’t been peaches and cream.

Someone is here. Mother is sitting in the dark. She startles us. She fills her favourite upholstered chair with sadness. I think the electricity maybe out. She doesn’t move or acknowledge we’re here. This is creepy. We try to rouse her. Nothing. We’re leaving.

II

‘Is she sick?’, Tim asks. I say yes. It has rattled us all. I wish I had scooped her up but I froze with fear. None of us were expecting that. We’ve decided not to tell Stefan or Chloe, in case they gloat. It would be more ammunition for the lawyers. I shall call Aunt Emilia and explain. She is unshakeable.

III

The school authorities have contacted Stefan. He is disappointed with me. Truancy is shameful. But not so shameful as him. Instead of school, I like to walk by the canal, along the towpath, under urine-scented bridges. It blends with my mood. Sometimes Bella walks with me. We say little, but I crush her hand in mine. We walk into the countryside, where the larches sadly drip with winter. I think of Mother in her hospital ward. How Stefan put her there.

IV

She is sitting in the day lounge wearing hospital scrubs. There is a fresh paint smell, combined with carbolic. She doesn’t raise her head when we come in. I suppose she’s dosed up with anti-depressants. There is a small man muttering and wringing his hands by the snooker table. ‘Your children are here, Alice’, pipes a kindly nurse. Nothing. I gaze out through the barred windows at the institutional garden. It is cold, all the trees are bare knuckles. I shan’t forget this.

V

Chloe is dicing tomatoes, crushing garlic. She sees we’re all in shock, but she hums to herself as she works. Her good mood is inappropriate. Stefan is nowhere. Tim sullenly stabs his food. Tim’s childhood is broken. I feel most sorry for him.

BELLA

Will doesn’t say much. He doesn’t need to. I know his Mother has melted down, the whole school talks. They found her stark naked in the street, garbling rubbish, and they just whisked her away. When Will holds my hand, I know all this. That it is hurting him. School might be a welcome diversion, once the gossip has abated.

I’ve never cared much for dramas. Ours is a mild family, we don’t make scenes. There is no friction. I’m good for Will. If he asks me to leave with him, I shall simply say yes.

STEFAN

The prints of my Ghislaine are ready. There is little I can do about crass censorship rules, but I’d like to be daring. Unsettle my audience. Like Alice has shocked me. Detained under the Mental Health Act. Getting on the police radar, disgracing herself publicly. She will never be a fit Mother, not after this blemish. My job is done. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better downfall. My poppyseed thinks I’m heartless. I just want what belongs to me.

ALICE

Grogginess. The carpets. Threadbare. The smell. Sweat. Mealtime. Like the burial of the dead. Pills. All the time. It is worse in here than outside. Discussing everything. Sympathetic, bespectacled faces. It is like learning how to speak again. The drooling man has befriended me. I think Emilia came. Or was it him?

ALICIA

I’ve had my share of scrambled minds. It’s like I’m being victimized. I owe Father an apology. He’s the only one who’s level. But he is absent. From dinner, from trouble. I’d not be surprised if he were pursuing some fresh slut. Chloe has become short with us. Her dangly earrings aren’t a match. Tim is about to cry. This is totally off world.

TIM

I am making yeasty rolls for Mother. That, surely, will make her well. Chloe is worse than health and safety, always cleaning up after me. Father is never here. The sun is setting like a whole orange outside the kitchen window. I feel tearful. But I shan’t ever cry again.

WILL

I

Bella has said, let’s go away, just for a while. She has enough money. I can’t tell Stefan, he’ll have stuff to spout. So it’s a biology field trip. We decide on the sea. A sort of last century hotel with a crumbly charm. The intercity bus, it’s WiFi not working, takes forever. I am nervous. We look out of the bus windows at orchards passing, at the chalky downs rolling by, and feel butterflies.

II

The hotel is twee and old-fashioned. More penguin-suited staff who are very eager to help. No awkward questions. The lift has iron grilles and chugs up to our room. On the bed there are so many cushions we laugh. A fruit basket. Dial 1 for room service. I like this. We lie on the bed together and snog. I like this even more.

III

It is morning. We walk on the golf links, admiring the sand bunkers. What a night. I squeeze Bella’s hand, watch her hair ripple in the salty air. I don’t think about Stefan, or Mother, or anything. Bella shares my bliss. She is so strong, husky-voiced, striding purposefully over the perfectly-groomed turf. This is living.

IV

Stefan is onto us. He keeps calling and texting. Wants the end of our ‘little tryst’. Bella is supremely unflappable, I’m impressed. Her parents don’t make sordid ultimatums. They take things in their stride.  Stefan has ordered me home. Bella says let’s walk, taste the wild sea spray, for a little longer.

V

Bella and I eat sushi. We are near the train station, heading back. Raw fish makes me smile. Bella wields her chop-sticks like a pro and she has this way of pushing her hair behind her ear that is entrancing. The rolling stock rumbles across the sleepers, our idyll is ending. The orchards look stark, rolling by. But I have Bella.

STEFAN

Will and his girl are disembarking the train. She is very photogenic. When they see me, the grins fall from their faces, clatter onto the platform like broken crockery. I have spoilt their goodbyes. She is mature and polite. Hardly in Will’s league. But you can feel her fierce loyalty. I wish her well and head to the multi-storey with Will. He is tighter than an oyster. We shall be having words.

ALICIA

Father has confiscated Will’s phone. There is a scene. Will is like a stampeding elephant, good for him. I think it was really heavy-handed. I don’t imagine Father can comprehend the glowering hate in Will’s eyes. I have given Will my old mobile. There will be trouble. Father thinks he can waltz in here, and dictate. He is virtually an absent parent. What a loser.

EMILIA

Alice has recognised me. We have drunk some hot chocolate together. I’m going to take her home. They’ve been kind to her, but it’s dehumanising here and the drugs have been worse than the alcohol. Alice will need to rest, before I call the lawyer. Stefan, that obnoxious man, won’t let me see the children, though Alicia calls to say they’re fine. I can hear her voice quiver but she’s a brave, fearless girl. I’m going to rescue them. For Alice.

ALICE

The cherry blossom outside my window says winter is ending. I want my children back. My few possessions and prescriptions are in brown paper sacks, waiting for Emilia. I am gaining weight, the fog banks have receded. The horizon’s murky but it may lift. If Stefan came into the room I would crumble, but not entirely. There is much work to be done.

TIM

There is loud door-knocking going on. It alarms me. It’s a suited man with a fancy briefcase. We don’t let him in. When the racket dies down, Chloe gingerly steps outside to get the package he’s left. When she comes back in, she’s scowling. There’s a big official red stamp on a heavy wodge of printed papers. I don’t ask. I feel myself quaking. I know it’s more trouble.

WILL

I

Stefan won’t let me see Bella. He should mind his own business. Thanks to Alicia we can message, and I sneak out late. Even Mother had dimmed for me. I get sweats, I pine away, I floss. Bella is quietly supportive and bad-mouths no-one. We walk by our canal. Even that seems lit by an inner loveliness.

II

Chloe is becoming really crabby. She doesn’t like that Mother is out. Or that Stefan is barely around. A new court date has been fixed. Where they can wrangle over our souls. Alicia says they’re screwing with our lives. But I should like to be with Mother. She’d love Bella. Because Mother’s no curmudgeon. Bella taught me that word.

III

Court is in session, Judge Deacon presiding. Mother looks queenly, so much more in control than before. She never slurs, or gets tangled. She seems entirely sane. I’m beginning to think we have hope. Alicia, beside me, broods like a gothic storm. Tim has been excused. The cross-questioning is firm but human. Then Stefan speaks. Dressed in his Gucci, he is looking rattled. He speaks haltingly, with undisguised malice. I think the Judge finds him loathsome. We all rise for the decision. Which is reserved for two weeks. But I can’t help thinking Mother has won this time.

IV

We shall be going down the motorway. Because we won. Mother is elated. We’re all to stay at Aunt Emilia’s. She’s been stalwart. I have few belongings to pack. Alicia’s old mobile phone, some mellow sketches Bella did for me. Chloe is sour, uncommunicative. Stefan has gone somewhere. I feel buzzy, slightly headachy, glad. We pile into Aunt Emilia’s old jalopy and drive. Good riddance, Stefan.

EMILIA

Well, they’re back. Alice and my lawyer certainly flummoxed Stefan, good for them. Alice has a transcendental smile etched on her face. She can’t quite believe her good fortune. I have told her I’ll help with things, with the food, the gin, with her medications. I held Alicia in a bear hug. I could feel her trembling. Will was pleased, but now he’s in love, I suspect he’s immersed in other things. Poor Tim looks shell-shocked, I worry most for him. For myself, it’s like the colour came back. Like all the crocuses bloomed.

Stefan will appeal. We shall be ready. Coaching Alice in courtroom etiquette has been draining, but she learns. How to look on the stand, a self-assured Mother of three, with financial backing, the soul of reason and sobriety. Alicia fears her Mother has lost her fizz, that she is worn. I’ll be their guardian angel.

STEFAN

I am dumbstruck by the stupidity of Judge Deacon. I know she’s their mother but she’s incapable of providing for them, materially or emotionally. That meddlesome woman Emilia is behind this. Well, I won’t just stand back and lose them. I will fight. Poppyseed backs me. Ghislaine empathizes. I will nail that mad woman’s heart to a post and throw stones. No-one wins over me.

ALICIA

Aunt E. has got a restraining order, since Father started pounding on the door like he’s satanic. He can hammer till he is blue in the face, we’re not open. I do believe he’s ditched Chloe for another model, with longer legs and more perfect skin. He is a menacing predator.

It’s good to see Will walking on clouds. Apparently his girl is coming for tea. Tim wants to bake. I shan’t be calling my new friend, it would be too weird. Mother fawning over him, Aunt E. smiling all the time. Too cringeworthy.

ALICE

I have my moments, when everything seems blanked out. When voices crowd, and threaten to consume me. But my rehabilitation is coming along. I need less drink.  I can look into Tim’s eyes and feel hope.

Emilia has been magnificent. She’s warded off Stefan’s brutal onslaughts and kept us safe. I am afraid,  but mostly at night. Emilia says it’s my demons. But my demon is the beautifully suited, designer-stubbled monster who married me.

TIM

Aunt Emilia’s house always smells bad. I don’t much like that we’re back. Will said Mother ‘went off her rocker’, whatever that means, but she’s better now, which is good. When Mother first hugged me, I knew I was really home. But all this mess is inexplicable, that’s how Will explains it. I feel like I’ve been riding a fairground bumper car, only I’ve got damaged. Badly.

WILL

I

While we were at school, Stefan broke a window, stole into the house, and struck Mother. Emilia called the police and they carted Stefan away. Mother has a perforated ear drum. And shiny bruises on her throat. This is unforgivable.

II

It’s becoming commonplace, visiting Mother in hospital. Her ears are ringing. She looks like a victim, with her sheets pulled up under her chin. I never thought she was so tiny, so frail. I will mash Stefan for this. Cheating on Mother, and now abuse. Some time in the cells will humble him. But I expect his lawyer will set him free. Aunt Emilia is apoplectic. But I figure we’ll be staying with Mother after this episode. Because battered wives and bashed mothers are invulnerable in court.

III

When we return to Aunt Emilia’s house a glazier is fixing the broken window. Home invasion leaves a queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach. We are all rattled. It’s like everything’s been dirtied. Aunt Emilia is calling her dead husband’s brother to stay over and watch us. Because Stefan is out. And he will be vengeful.

IV

Finally, our feline Puddles had joined us. He is a bundle of distracting warmth. Tim is elated. Aunt Emilia has rescued Puddles from the RSPCA. Puddles is looking arrogant, war-wounded, well-fed. Once he’s staked his new turf, Puddles will never loosen his absolute ownership of us. Stefan thinks this way. We are his chattels. He must make his claim.  Bella loves cats. She shares their grace. Their equipoise. She is coming for tea. She will be perfect.

V

There is a soft tap on the door. Not Stefan’s style. It is Bella. She is radiant, in a cashmere jumper. After the pleasantries, Mother shuffles her inside. Mother hopes Bella will spill her whole history, over handmade eclairs and chai latte. I know Bella is no fan of chocolate, but she eats politely. Even Alicia is charming, without a hint of satire. The small-talk is warm. Bella is family-approved. I see the wedding bells in Mother’s eyes.

VI

I am to meet Bella’s parents. This is serious. They live in the up-market quarter of town. Bella’s Father is a university professor and her Mother runs a small IT business. Maybe they dress for dinner. My head hurts and my fingers shake. I shall wear a tie and blazer. Floss. Try not to look like I was fathered by a thug. That I love, respect and treasure their daughter.

VII

Mother plants a kiss on my forehead, and says I look swell. That is extraordinary. I’m off to visit the Molyneuxs. Bella has prepped me. She makes it sound plain-sailing. So why is my stomach more knotted than a boa-constrictor. When we arrive, and I see they are normal people, living wholesome lives, I relax. They put me at ease. The meal is splendid. The small-talk diverting, with nothing compromising. They ask if I’d like wine. I decline. They really are swell.

STEFAN

I  mustn’t be within fifty metres of my wife and children. Otherwise I face arrest, and subsequent imprisonment. So I have hired a private detective. To watch over them. Billings has little to report. All I get are tales about school runs and shopping trips, and a big fat monthly invoice. Sometimes I have this urge to batter at their door, but prison is for losers. I hope to amass some dirt about Alice, and use it. Ghislaine and I are renting. She is the only peachy thing in my life.

ALICIA

There is a small bespectacled man stalking us. I suspect he’s one of Father’s cronies. I’m not intimidated, and Aunt E. scoffs at danger. Father is cheap enough to dog our steps, having already bulldozed our lives. I have seen Mother swallow hard, when the postman knocks. But we shall not be pitiful. We have the court order. It is pinned behind Aunt E.’s writing desk. It shall ward off evil malicious men. I think I’m becoming sour about the male species. Let it happen.

EMILIA

Last night Alice was completely blitzed. I found her slumped in the chair she likes, her liquor bottle emptied. Fortunately the children didn’t see her. I wiped away the drool and rugged her up, to sleep it off. It is morning now. She is still comatose. I should hate for Alicia to see her Mother this way. I expect it’s the murderous letter she’s had from Stefan. That obscene man could unnerve the dead. I shall haul Alice into a hot tub, pour her some extremely black coffee, and contemplate our next step.

ALICE

The spring flowers are blooming, and Tim’s allergies spiral out of control. I am sober. But fragile. The doctor has upped my dosage, making me hazy. Emilia has passed on the offending letter to her lawyer. He says it can be produced in court. When it comes to terrifying people, Stefan is artful. The stuff about acid baths still chills me.

GHISLAINE

I now realise I’m just one in his string of younger women. Stefan comes with enough baggage to sink a small flotilla. He is good to me, but he talks in his sleep, and it isn’t pretty. I think he has control issues. He clearly means to punish his ex-wife. I find it creepy, the things he asks of me. There is a pent-up hate in his plastic smiles. I have packed up my things twice now, but Stefan has always seduced me into staying. This shall not last. 

TIM

There is a fluttering bird trapped in the bathroom. Aunt Emilia to the rescue. I don’t like her stinky house that makes me sneeze. Aunt herself is more starchy than the strange lacy blouses she wears, but she loves us. Aunt lets me cook, whenever. And she adds my desired ingredients to the shopping list, without a grumble. Aunt says we’re better off without Father, but I often wonder. I miss the prickly feel of his stubbly beard when he hugs me. Now that is beautiful.

WILL

I

Mother is missing. She went to the corner shop last evening for tonic water, and never returned. We are worried sick. Aunt Emilia has telephoned the local hospitals, wrung the ears off the community constabulary, nothing. Mother was wearing just her doggy cardigan and slippers. Hardly the attire for an all-night binge. Aunt Emilia suspects foul play. She wants the authorities to dredge the canal. She leaves us alone, to file a missing person’s report. That is when the door pounding begins.

II

We peek through the net curtains. It is Stefan, looking straggly and unkempt. I believe he has engineered this. It is so incriminating, his appearing now. ‘What have you done to Mother!’, screams Alicia, thinking like me. Alicia hurls open the door and Stefan wedges a big fat boot in the gap. We are sunk.

III

Mother has been struck by a motor vehicle. She was walking up the central reservation of the motorway when she was hit. She was wearing no clothes.

IV

At 10.32 PM, April 23, Mother dies of her injuries. The doctors can’t stop the internal haemorrhaging. We are in the relatives’ waiting room with Father when the news is broken. Verses run through my head. It is drizzling outside. Now it will rain always.

V

My abiding memory will be of black umbrellas and stormwater rilling into her open grave. The cemetery on the hill; only a small gathering of mourners weep. I know the Priest is muttering some bland redundancies, but I still cry. Aunt Emilia is beautifully stoic, crushing my hand. It is an insult to the dead that Stefan is here. We can’t shake him off. We process up the hill, past innumerable headstones blurred by the rain. I am shaking hands with the Priest. Tim is crying. I am crying. In the chapel driveway, the door of a black limousine is open. Stefan beckons us. We get in.

VI

It is inappropriate that I should be so ravenously hungry at my Mother’s wake. Clearly Stefan has organised the catering, because it is sumptuous. Although I think the sushi is in poor taste. There is a petite beautiful blonde woman fussing over the finger food and coffee. She must be Stefan’s new thing. It was unseemly, to invite her along. A distant uncle delivers a moving speech, fondly remembering Mother. I imagine we all are going to remain here, in this plush renovated studio, with Stefan and his woman. Mother’s death has not sunk in. I expect it will creep upon us like winter, and never be shooed away.

ALICIA

I hear Aunt E. is gutted with grief. To me it is all unreal. Like some horrible farcical mistake that shall be corrected. Father is a murderer. I don’t want to live in his house, eat his food, speak to his plastic doll. It is all too messed up. I am so angry I could combust. I’m worried for Tim. Since Mother’s death he hasn’t spoken a word. These are haunted times for us.

STEFAN

Well, Alice is out of the equation and the children return to their rightful Father. I expect Emilia is also silenced, and I never had to do a thing. Events have the habit of going my way. But they do look damaged. Alicia is embattled, Will has fled to the Molyneuxs, and Tim seems absent, offering not a word. That is Alice’s most hurtful legacy. Poisoning them against me. I shall have to rebuild bridges. Ghislaine has promised to assist. I should like our family happy, now that the snakes are out of the way.

EMILIA

Alice is gone. It’s like the life has been leeched out of me. My fighting spirit has guttered and died. I watched lamely when Stefan took the children. I felt immobilised. I don’t even answer Alicia’s calls. I stare into my stewed tea, not thinking of the future. Whatever ails me is like a fog bank eating up the horizon. Alice felt this way. I must seek help, cast off this old woman’s malaise.

TIM

She shall not be here, looking into my soul. The world has shrunk. I shall not speak to Father, or anyone. They could not save her. Father says I am dishonouring the dead, that I should snap out of it. My eyes well, but not for him. If Aunt Emilia was here, we could all cry. I shall write some words, and pin them on her funeral flowers. I shall tell her my heart. She will listen.

WILL

I

The Molyneuxs are relaxed around death. Bryan Molyneux, Bella’s Father, lost his Mother young. He is full of genuine empathy. He has spoken on the phone to Stefan, confidently and discreetly, to say I’m here. Bella is stellar. Her bedroom is across the landing from me. We make beautiful consolation. I am made so welcome. Like one of the family. I have no thought of ever leaving. Stefan has said ‘we must all rally together, in this time of grief’. Sod him. Liar.

II

I know Stefan is agitating behind the scenes. To bring me back into the fold. Apparently he wants us all to take a family break. In Bali. He’s had the largess to invite Bella along. Never mean-spirited, Bella has gracefully accepted. We are to go on the one month’s anniversary of Mother’s death. I don’t know if he has the sensitivity to realise this. We are flying business class. Stefan likes to impress.

III

Stefan and Ghislaine, Alicia and Tim, Bella and I, are checking-in. For some long-haul luxury. The catering will be something. Plenty of leg room mellows us. By the time we’re flying over the Indian Ocean, looking down on archipelagoes in a turquoise sea, I’ve become more reflective. Descending into Denpasar, I imagine painted fishing boats and palms. The arrivals hall is hell, full of imposing, slouching immigration officers. Then the tropical heat, like a hot wet flannel over your mouth. Tumbling into the resort’s transfer car, the noise, the bustle, the singing minarets and psychedelic temples, the colours turned up, the swaying palms, just for Bella and me.

IV

We’re in a hotel complex by the sea. Stefan likes propriety, so I am sharing with Tim. Tim is worried about tsunamis. The pool looks inviting, the pale yellow beach is like a perfect film set. We get our biggest towels and sunscreen, and prepare to roast. The ice cream hawker has a monkey, which tries to bite Tim. Stefan shoos them away. He is sizing up Bella’s long tanned legs, shameless perv. We go for a dunk. It is heaven. Alicia is screaming. I go to her. She is doubled over with pain. Stinging jellyfish. Another casualty.

V

Alicia is on crutches. Ghislaine, who clearly has heart, says we must return home. Stefan wants to hold on, suddenly believing in miraculous recoveries. Ghislaine is an odd fish. Surprisingly likeable. I do believe that she feels Alicia’s pain. She is so young it makes Stefan appear disgraceful. I have noticed the flab around Stefan’s stomach when we swim. A middle-aged lothario with a dead wife and buckets of money. Not wholesome.

VI

Sightseeing with Stefan. We hobble into a Hindu temple, first removing our shoes. It is indecently colourful, the priests are almost naked. We wash our feet and approach the altar. This is deeply spiritual. I think of Mother. Bells are rung and we are garlanded with flowers. I feel very clumsy. Stefan gives a weighty donation, in honour of Alice. My mood sours. He is a total hypocrite. The priests specially bless Bella and Alicia, who are both dreamy and radiant. Stefan thanks the men, and makes some patronising remark about local culture. Alicia cuffs him with her crutch. That is the signal to leave. I bow awkwardly, stepping backwards, clutching Bella’s hand. Stefan makes a bountiful gesture with his open palms. The magic fails. I watch the incense sticks gutter, and feel shame.

VII

The stars are headier here and the nights are velvet. Holding hands on the promenade is sweet. Food hawkers fan their charcoal fires, and the smell of satay is everywhere. I remember our canal walks with bittersweet grief. Here the moon is a bright silver penny to spend on love. We shall be sad to leave here. Our flight is tomorrow.

ALICIA

We shiver. London. Turbulent weather. Will and Bella wangled themselves a whole aisle in which to stretch and chill together. Whereas Tim and I were like sardines. Stefan is sulking at Ghislaine, I don’t know what trivial issue has got his goat. I hate to be back. Rain-saddened streets. Leeched-out fat people. I loved the East, bubbling over with colour and warm encounters. Aunt E. wants to meet me. I don’t know if that will be allowed. Judge Deacon has made it plain that Father pulls all the strings. I mailed a dozen postcards to my friend. He’ll think I’m just some mushy girl. I’ve told Bella. Because she has both tact and wisdom. I trust her like a sister. We are going to be the grandest of mates.

STEFAN

The getaway was a success, although we returned economy class. Which was when Ghislaine sprung her news, that she is leaving me. It is just her style, to throw a spanner in the works. She has pulled this trick before, and I don’t appreciate it one bit. I have just splashed out a small fortune, she should be grateful to me. I hate these women who wheedle your cash, and flounce away. She is another beautiful user. I shall deal with her.

EMILIA

The doctor has put me on depression medication. I am feeling ready to fight this custody battle. Whereas I was always blue, I now have these highs. I know how the drugs work, but I feel empowered. Alicia hasn’t called me. My messages were definitely delivered. I suspect Stefan has told her, don’t talk. I know that man would like to stopper my mouth, but I shall fight. The lawyer says I don’t have much. Stefan has the paternity, the money. I am just hoping his lust for young women will undo him. Be his downfall. I shall cite that Stefan is a pernicious influence on young minds. That I have this warm house bigger than a barn. That my love brings stability.

TIM

No one seems to remember that Mother is gone. They are all too busy with their lives. Father does an expert frown, I think he’s sad. The cuisine of his new woman is miserably bland, without sparkle. They never notice me. They do not wonder where my childhood has gone. I wish we had Aunt Emilia to fuss over us. We must get back to her. I know she calls Alicia. That encourages me.

WILL

I

Aunt Emilia has won an interim court order, granting access. It is an unexpected victory. When we were told, I saw warmth flicker in Alicia’s eyes. Tim is already packing a bag. The plan is to see Aunt Emilia on Saturday afternoons. Stefan is smoking with fury. He has fired his lawyer and will retain a celebrity advocate. I hate the law. It bamboozles its victims and is slower than doomsday. It did in Mother’s head. It will have sucked the cash from Aunt Emilia’s nest egg. The judges all look like fat cats. But today a small justice is done. I have told Bella. She is coming to visit our indefatigable Aunt.

II

The ride up the motorway is full of nostalgia. I wonder if Mother haunts Aunt Emilia’s house. Which looks ramshackle as ever. Aunt Emilia is slouching in the doorway, ready to dispense enormous hugs. She has baked special bath buns. My stomach churns. Tim looks alarmed. Alicia and Aunt are giddy, it is touching. Aunt gracefully takes Bella’s hand, guiding her indoors. She has lots of warm, interested questions. I have this feeling Aunt has emptied her heart to no one, since we were last here. Tim’s allergies are going to ignite in this dust. But they’ll be happy sneezes.

III

There has been laughter and hilarity at Aunt Emilia’s. We’ve felt allowed to cry. Alicia is decamping. She shall not return with us to Stefan’s place. That will create an unholy stink. I expect Stefan will hit the roof. He thinks we’re his pretty toys, to be brought out when the whim takes. Like some jealous dictator, he rages if he’s crossed. Court may bust Aunt’s inner tenderness. Whereas Stefan is a creature of the law. The blackhearted troll is litigious. I quake for Aunt Emilia. Stefan will also spit-roast Alicia. His anger will not be brooked. For him, betrayal is a crime that demands revenge.

IV

Taking into consideration Alicia Stephenson’s tender age and feelings, the court has ruled that she may reside at Aunt Emilia’s. This is quite something. Stefan is wrathful. Now that Ghislaine has fled, I expect he’s sticking pins into a doll of Aunt Emilia. Immersed in work, looking for new woman flesh, we never see him. Tim is doing all the cooking. Bella comes around. She is close with Alicia. Tim and I dream of absconding. Maybe to the Molyneuxs. In the meantime, mealtimes are jolly. When Stefan does crawl home, he hands me money and fills the jar of biscuits. Such exemplary behaviour, such good parenting.

V

We have heard that Aunt Emilia is hatching plans. For our immediate rescue. Her lawyer, a big square man, has filed a lawsuit citing neglect. That would be true. I’m beginning to think the law is insightful after all. Last night Stefan dragged another gutter rat home. There was a lot of inane giggling, then moaning. I am ashamed for Tim. If Stefan weren’t such an inveterate bloodhound, we’d leave now.

STEFAN

I’ve never liked to be alone. But I am alone. I feel dirtied, despondent, but not beaten. When I came back, and the boys had cleared out all their things, I was bereft. I shall try to lure my Celia, who is thin and intellectual, to set up home. That impudent witch Emilia has had her victory. I shall lick my wounds in the dark, live off microwaved meals, scheme. The court of appeal was founded for men like me. It is time to be slippery, poisonous. I shall get even with that bitch.

EMILIA

All my birds are here. This would have moved Alice. Tim twitters like a sky full of starlings, as if speech was something brand new. The house is alive with talk. Boyfriends and girlfriends are welcome. It is a beautiful thing. There hasn’t been a peep from that brutal man, I wonder what plot is twisting in his mind. I hear yet another woman has moved in with him. It’s thoroughly disgraceful. What do they all see in such a hand-me-down man. It must be money. I read in the newspaper that his nude portraits have won a substantial prize in Venice. That will mean more leverage in court. The legal rollercoaster is not over. I will be ready.

ALICIA

Simon can come, and Tim shall do the catering. I won’t have Aunt E. fuss. Or Will smirk. We will be refined. I shall make a silver sheen of my high cheekbones, until I am imperial. Staying with Aunt E. has raised my self-esteem. If I so much as sneeze, she is there. Bella is coming too. It’s been like summer arrived, since she stepped into our lives. If Father hadn’t poisoned me against marriage, I’d matchmake shamelessly. I do worry that we’re going to be ricocheted back to Father’s. That would maul our lives. But his influence is wide. He never surrenders. Aunt E. better keep on her toes, or he’ll drag the rug from under us all.

Aunt E. is thinking of selling her big musty house, and settling us all by the sea. Her legal expenses have sky-rocketed and she needs to trim down. Also if we moved there’d be no more door-knocking incidents that wake the dead. Simon is here. I must hurry.

TIM

I am weaving among a million packing cases. Aunt is administering the finishing touches. The moving truck is throbbing in the street. We’ve stirred a whole desert of dust, I shall sneeze forever. This time we’ll drive to the end of the motorway, to beside the sea. Aunt has rented an old Victorian house on the promenade, with ceilings so high. I hope there’s no dust. She claims we’ll be safe there. Aunt says we shall scrunch down pebble beaches eating sticks of rock. It sounds lovely. We are driving now.

WILL

I

In my new room I have a round window, overlooking the sea. Almost like stained-glass, in the corner, there is a blue and white gull motif. It is especially haunting. Bella and I have walked on our beach. It is hardly Bali, being moody and windswept. But it is better for holding hands, and for shivery kisses. Bella is sixteen. We can marry soon. I know she’d like. We don’t talk much serious stuff, but it’s exchanged between our eyes. I shall never look at another girl. Why would I. It seems only natural that Bella is universally adored. She and Alicia are fast friends. Aunt Emilia embraces Bella like she’ll burst. Tim makes Bella almond kisses. Bella’s parents shelf out on expensive rail journeys, and smile. Bella is family. I shall keep things this way.

II

There is the minor matter of schooling. Aunt Emilia has arranged all that. The starchy uniform pinches. I can’t face the prospect of new friends. But Aunt Emilia believes in education. Betterment through study. Our new school has a Latin motto. It smacks of privilege. It’ll translate as some encouraging goody slogan, pure hogwash. It is a brisk walk from the promenade to the school gates. My headache has come on. But I will do this, for Aunt Emilia.

III

Our new town is a place of cobbled streets. When I navigate its many alleyways, I can’t shake off the suspicion I’m being followed. Stefan has pulled this stunt before, he is the prime suspect. I think abduction is unlikely, Stefan will be trying to rake muck. I am bottom of my class. I have missed nearly a year of school. Aunt Emilia has offered me private tutors, but I can’t stir up enough enthusiasm. Instead of maths, I commune with the old town and think of meeting Bella on the station platform. That is the sweetest algebra I know. I shall be going up to London for Bella’s school ball. I have this beautifully embossed ticket she sent me. Aunt Emilia has rented me a dinner jacket, frilled shirt and bow tie. A corsage for Bella has been arranged. We shall look swell.

IV

As the train rocks over sleepers, I realise that I’ve always scorned lumpy upholstery. The carriage is a museum piece. The only other passenger is a man in a black raincoat, reading. I settle into my seat, and through grubby windows, watch the downs fly by. They soon give way to a suburban sprawl. The man is watching me. He has the penetrating eyes of a policeman. I look away. As we rattle by the giant chimneys of Battersea, the train slows, and a yawning steel terminus moves into view. Over the muddy river, tame, idle, brown, and he is still looking. He is Stefan’s man.

V

In the bustle on the platform, I lose him. I am to meet Bella under the station clock. It is our place. We will change at her parents’ house and hail a taxi cab. Bella’s mother has made her dress. It is diaphanous, mother-of-pearl, ravishing. I feel like a boy out of a tale, who’s won a fairy princess. The taxi driver is gallant and smiley. Bella’s perfume is subtle, entrancing. A magical rain is falling, soft as lace. The lights of London seem lit for her. I am afraid to kiss Bella, in case the moment vanishes like a holy miracle.

BELLA

Will is a fine slow dancer. He holds me like I’m Tang dynasty china. I can feel him quivering. I like that. At midnight, when the doors close, my Father will collect us. He likes Will. We drive home, in our beautiful bubble of silence. I nestle into Will’s shoulder. Neither of us mentions the neat bald man who’s been following us.

ALICIA

Aunt E. wants to plait my hair, which has become long, alluring. Simon did a double-take when he saw me last, which made me smirk. It was all Bella’s idea. It is common knowledge that Father has hired a private detective. The man is none too clever. He doesn’t have the charisma or the blunt manner of a real spook. Father is throwing his money. We only go to school or beach walk after supper. Aunt E. is an exemplary guardian. I love her to bits. If I have a crisis, she is all ears, and tender consolation. Even Will is amenable to me, since he’s been walking in the clouds. Aunt E. is covering his spanking rail fares. She has told me she’s almost broke. I do hope our beautiful escapade by the sea isn’t imperiled.

EMILIA

The bank has refused to extend my overdraft. My cards have been declined. My resources are drained, because of Stefan. Soon there shall be more legal action. My lawyer has explained, kindly, that he’s not a charitable organisation. I am in financial quicksand. How do I tell Will that he can’t go up to London? Or Tim that his baking ingredients are over budget? It is the plight of women to fret. I must pawn my jewellery, and the gold watch my husband gave me when we were married. We will go on.

STEFAN

My man Billings has been inspecting the letter box at Emilia’s. There are a lot of bills delivered. They are red and pressing. This is good. I think Emilia’s resources are drying up. Now is the time to land her with a new lawsuit. I believe Billings has finally earned his pay cheque. If he can smear more dirt, even better. He has been stalking the children around town, and tailed Will up to London. Billings says Will and Bella are behaving like newly-weds. I don’t disapprove of their happiness, but I find them indiscreet. Will needs to focus on study, not flirting around. It is a shame Bella is so eye-pleasing. I should invite her for a photo shoot. Although that may be inappropriate. I am off to Copenhagen, for another prize-giving. The contracts are rolling in. I need to hire a secretary. I am so flush with money and I have no time to spend it. Maybe a second lawyer would hasten us on to the kill. Because I will have that bitch bleeding on the floor.

TIM

I don’t like to be in last place. Last to know Mother is dead, last to hear that our ship by the sea has holes in it. I have seen Father’s man tampering with the post, that shall be my secret. I should like to horse around with Father, like we once did. But I know he gotten angry, serious. I hope we don’t become street children, rifling in bins for food. That would spoil things. School Sports Day is happening tomorrow. I hate that. It is another event where I shall come in last.

WILL

I

Aunt Emilia has been hassled by a man at the shopping mall. She is a little shaken. I think maybe it’s Stefan’s stooge. If Stefan has sunk to bullying, he must be desperate. That is disturbing. Alicia makes Aunt Emilia a sweet tea and telephones the police. Alicia is impressive. I believe she’s quite capable of roughing up our neat bald friend. In the dust-up, Aunt Emilia has lost a favourite sentimental earring. She is crying now, but I think it’s more about our desperate financial circumstances. When the community constable does come, Alicia makes more tea, and the incident is painstakingly dissected. We are made to feel dirty and complicit. Bella has heard and is coming down

II

Aunt Emilia has called a family conference. We sit at the big table in the bay window overlooking the sea. We are all on tenterhooks. Aunt explains how she is burdened with debts, like we didn’t already know. She has taken a job at the local liquor store, this is new to us. We must tighten our belts. Aunt is a little nervous leaving us alone in the evenings, with the neat bald man around. Aunt will apply for legal aid. Which seems sensible, considering the thick brown padded registered envelope that arrived yesterday. We all breathe a big sigh. I thought we were being evicted at the least.

III

Bella has bought me a monthly rail pass up to London. She has such a gracious way with gifts that I am unembarrassed. I am a little concerned about leaving Aunt, Alicia and Tim. But Aunt smirks, and says they’ll be fine. She cannot hide her trembling hands. Once my misgivings have evaporated somewhat, I shall take the express, and spend a weekend with the Molyneuxs. Alicia will call me if anything eventuates. Kidnapping is too crude for Stefan. But I think him capable of doing grievous harm. That one’s own Father might be a club wielding maniac is disconcerting.

IV

We are all having cocoa when Alicia calls. Aunt has not returned from her evening shift. She is usually like clockwork. Bella’s face is suddenly drawn. After a brief consultation, Bella’s Father offers to drive us down, though it’s so late. The three of us bundle into his Jeep and join the motorway. We do not speak. The illuminated mileposts punctuate our anxious journey. I know Bella is enacting horrible scenarios. It is well past midnight when the promenade wheels into view. We all see the ambulance lights.

V

Aunt Emilia has been mugged, her wallet and jewellery stolen. You can see the fist marks of the perpetrator below her eyes. It is not pretty. Was this a random attack, or something more sinister, orchestrated by Stefan? Aunt was found in the gutter near our house; she’d struggled to get back. The general hospital wants to keep her in, to observe. When Aunt went down, she cracked her head. It is heavily bandaged. It will be some time until Aunt is pronounced well. Alicia is beside herself. We are all shaken.

VI

The police investigation is going nowhere. They don’t suspect foul play. Aunt was not able to give a full description. It was dark. She is lucid now, even buoyant, but badly battered. She agrees that we all go to the Molyneuxs for a few days. They have been so kind. Bella and Alicia can share a room. Aunt has two broken ribs and she’s lost a front tooth. She will be laid up for some time. I expect Stefan has heard and is overjoyed. Maybe it was his paid thug. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure. It is always a difficult thing, to pin the crime on Stefan.

STEFAN

When I asked Billings to put the wind up Emilia, I didn’t expect him to hire a tough. Fortunately I was in Cork, receiving a prize. There is no trail back to me. Although the police have been sniffing around, and asking impertinent questions. Alicia rang me, and screamed abuse. It might be amusing to send Emilia a floral bouquet, wishing her well. It would only be proper to wish your adversary in court a full recovery. The woman who has stolen my children. I heard Emilia was found grovelling by the roadside.

EMILIA

My bruises are dark purple like grapes, they ache. My temple bandage is itchy. I seldom cast aspersions, but this is Stefan’s handiwork. It has his smell. Like an ugly nicotine fog, full of vice. But there’s no proof, only an old woman’s intuition. Hardly concrete testimony. I hold Stefan accountable for Alice’s death. The man needs to be cast behind bars, kept well away from young impressionable minds. I do not say this lightly. Stefan is evil.

ALICIA

Only a monster would bash a middle-aged woman. That is what Father is. I don’t believe his slippery self-defence. That he was out of the country. When I screamed at him, I sensed his guilt over the phone. We visited Aunt E. yesterday. Father has made a mess of her face. I tried to smile but I cried. When Aunt E. winces, I feel it. If I were the law, I would castrate Father. Because of her broken ribs, Aunt E. will be in pain for some while. Bella’s parents have been so supportive, driving us everywhere. It is a tidy hike up and down the motorway. I want us to be back, in our house by the sea.

TIM

We are visiting Aunt Emilia. I hate the hospital smell. I have a neat bunch of irises that Mr. Molyneux got for me. He is chiller than Father. He listens when I speak. Aunt gives me a shock. Her face is smashed-in, badly purple, swollen. But she greets me like she’s normal. She will be coming home next week. I smile. We talk. I try not to stare at the gory bits. Aunt’s mind is sharp, though she looks broken. If Father did this, I shall not forgive him.

WILL

I

Somewhat like with Mother, Aunt Emilia’s terrible ordeal has left her shrunken. There is a new frailty about her, which has affected her speech. But her bruises have healed. She has removed her bandage, exposing a brown scar. We all sit at the table in the bay window, eating the welcome-home chocolate eclairs Tim has made. It is a happy homecoming. Alicia is speechless and smiley. The Molyneuxs are here. Our family has expanded.

II

The police are here again, to interview Aunt. They are close to a breakthrough and need to verify some information. I do believe Stefan may be arrested. He is ever so close to prison. There was an article about Stefan in a national newspaper, praising his daring eroticism. It seems the establishment honours perverts and sickos. There is an inset photo, a mugshot, of his smug murderous face. Stefan won’t be so lauded when he’s languishing behind bars.

III

There is excellent news. Stefan has been taken into custody, for the violent assault of Aunt Emilia. Stefan was reprimanded without bail. The police are sure of their man. Obviously some big-shot defence lawyer will be retained. I have long wished to see Stefan imprisoned. He has lost even the favour of his twelve year old son. I should love to watch Stefan read his rights, processed, fingerprinted. Hunched in his cell next to a stinking lavatory. Thoroughly demeaned.

IV

Stefan’s court appearance has been fixed. I plan to go and gloat. Bella thinks I need counselling. Fact is, I’m a revengeful son. This man has beaten my most beloved Mother and Aunt. He is an abomination. I don’t think Stefan can wrangle his way out of his current incarceration. May he rot in his cell.

V

For a fortnight we have been at the High Court. Today Judge Brody is summing up. The jury will retire for their verdict. In the dock Stefan has been suave, uncooperative and arrogant. He has alienated his jury. Aunt Emilia was staunch, she gave her testimony bravely, although I could see it hurt. The charge of violent assault carries a five year prison term. Two hours pass. The court usher is asking us to stand. Judge Brody enters. He asks the foreman of the jury if a decision has been reached. Guilty. Stefan is going back to the cells. Judge Brody will deliver his sentence in due course. I feel a sense of warm satisfaction.

VI

Out on the Court steps, we all see the police van turn and drive away. Aunt is tearful. It is like the end of an era. I understand what is meant by closure. Before today, there was always the nagging suspicion that Stefan would wriggle himself out of things. I am pleased to see that buckets of money can’t extricate wicked men. Riding in the back seat with Bella, my arm around her shoulders, I feel everyone’s elation. The future will be breathtaking.

STEFAN

I was handed down the maximum sentence. Five years, with no early parole. It is an old, inner-city jail. I am not ready for hardened criminals and queers. When we drove through the prison gates, and my new life started, I felt a wave of panic. When my jacket and belongings were taken and fastidiously itemised, a sickening surge of fear. The other prisoners are surly, expressionless, I feel their hate. I am sharing a cell, with this bulldozer of a man. He has not spoken. Five years. This is nightmare. This is inconceivable.

EMILIA

As court proceedings ground him down, Stefan grew like a man possessed. It was horrible to witness. Though he’d beaten me to a pulp, I begun to feel pity. I’ve heard how victims can feel for their attackers. He was my sister’s husband. I wept when he was led down those stairs. It shocked me. But when we were all outside, and his van drew away, I was suddenly relieved. All of us smiled. Alicia hugged my sore bones. I shall buy us a special meal tonight. We can sleep soundly.

ALICIA

I am not Aunt E. Forgiveness does not work for me. As I bite into a spring roll, wrath somersaults in my stomach. It will not be stilled. Although Aunt E.’s bruises have faded, my memory has not. Tim doesn’t understand, rabbiting on about prison visits. They will never be on my agenda. I cannot forget the dead weight of Aunt E. as we all carried her to the stretcher. That does not fade.

BELLA

Will has been moody and broken. I know I’ve soothed him. Tonight he is high like I’ve never seen him before. He is talking so fast and bolting his food. Emilia is looking concerned. Will is rattling on about justice being served. Tim looks alarmed. Alicia is a study of gloom. I hate how their Father has damaged their lives. It is really unforgivable. I don’t get heated, but I am profoundly sorry for them. Stefan’s prison sentence isn’t long enough for them all to heal. I shall be there to hold Will, when all the anger is over.

TIM

Aunt Emilia is to receive compensation. We shall be rich. Only I want to visit Father. He shall be sad. Like when we all left him. Only worse. I’ve heard prison food is terrible. That even Christmas dinner is nothing special. That it is served in your cell. I know Father hurt Aunt Emilia, but she is better now. I forgive him. I need him around.

WILL

I

I have been feverish this last week, but it is passing. Aunt and Bella have cared for me, but both of them have been strangely silent. I think I have raved in my sleep. I have dreamt of Stefan in his cell. It is pleasing. I think of him, on a hard bed, in his prison-issue clothes, desperate for time to pass. Eating the foul slop ladled up to him. Scrounging smokes off nicotine-stinking inmates. Bella says that I obsess. That Alicia has also fallen dumb. We have lived amid persecution and violence too long. It shall be some time before the crackling fires of our sickness burn low.

II

We have heard, through the legal grapevine, that Stefan is appealing against his sentence. He wants it thrown out, quashed. Aunt says this was to be expected, considering the money Stefan has at his disposal. Stefan is always over-determined to win. Aunt says we must shrug off this foolhardy bid for freedom, because it shan’t materialise. ‘The man will do his term’, Aunt pronounces, oracle-like. I hope she is right.

III

Today Aunt Emilia received her compensation cheque. The pay out involves a significant string of zeros. I am pleased for her. Aunt has suggested we move to grander lodgings, but we all love our house by the sea. Certainly Alicia will get some designer clothes and Tim the stoneware pans and chopping knives he so craves. I would like a newer phone to message Bella. It’s like Christmas has come. Aunt plans to settle all outstanding bills. She wants us to take a speedboat trip from her Sussex hometown, something she enjoyed enormously in her youth. Alicia smirks, but doesn’t deride Aunt’s plan. Tim is thrilled, thinking about bouncing over waves at great velocity. He is the least damaged of us. An unexpected letter has arrived for Tim. A single sheet of prison-issue foolscap, in a franked brown envelope. In the brief epistle, Stefan asks for Tim’s forgiveness. I am extremely surprised.

IV

Tim is obsessing about paying Stefan a prison visit. He’s been gnawing the ear off Aunt Emilia. Aunt is rightly nervous about taking Tim. I see her tremble and get flustered. But she doesn’t like to deny her young nephew anything. This is an impasse. Until Aunt looks up, and gazes searchingly into my eyes. Will I do this thing? Take Tim? It is repulsive to me. I say yes.

V

Tim and I take the slow train up to London, stopping at all stations. Off the rails, we thread our way down dilapidated streets into a forgotten underworld of gothic buildings. This is the perfect place to reprimand evil. I can see that Tim is alarmed, so I hold his hand. We arrive at a pair of sombre bolted gates. This is it. Visiting time starts shortly and there is a motley crowd already gathered. The door warden cracks a cheap joke about our ages, and buzzes us in. The frisk-search is demeaning and unnecessarily prolonged. Down institutional corridors, through more barred gates. Into the visiting area. Where Stefan is sitting, at his own table.

STEFAN

My Tim came to me. When I wrote that letter, I was inspired. I meant it all. I asked for his forgiveness. And now Tim’s here. Tim and Will sit across from me. Touching is not permitted. We talk about small things. Prison food, the other inmates. Only twenty minutes are allowed. I am saying how sorry I am. The lump in my throat, the shivery hands are real. Will is unmoved, but Tim looks hard at me, and smiles, beautifully. His smile must sustain me, until the next visit. They are leaving now. The guard summons us, and we file back to our cells. Big keys jangle. We are being bolted in.

EMILIA

My boys are back. I keep thinking I was a coward, sending Will. But the thought of seeing Stefan was so repugnant. Enough to chill my marrow. Tim needed to see his Father. I think no damage has been done, somewhat the opposite in fact. Tim is all bubbles and fizz. But for Will it was certainly appalling. I blame myself. He has not phrased a coherent sentence since returning. Alicia is mad at me. I don’t know how to placate her when she gets this way. Whatever we might wish, Stefan is still in our lives.

ALICIA

For once I think Aunt E. has misjudged. Letting Father back into our lives. Tim said Father looked well, filled out on prison food. He has a long stretch ahead, in which to reflect, upon the horrible hurt he’s caused. I hope Father will grow mellower, and full of reconciliation. In four years nine months, I should like to greet an altered man at the prison gates. It seems a tall order. We shall undoubtedly see.

TIM

When we were leaving jail, Father whispered into my ear, ‘You’re mine’. This is true. I didn’t think it strange. Will said not to linger, so we hustled out sharply. I’ve been thinking about that moment. When Father is released, I shall go live with him. I know that he needs me. He is surviving jail so we can be together. I would prefer a more spacious house. Away from sand, salt breezes, sneezes. Aunt would call ours a special relationship. Though others may betray Father, I will stay faithful.

WILL

I

Seeing Stefan was profoundly sinister. It was an episode in my life that shall haunt me. Stefan’s bond with Tim is disturbing. They are inseparable. Tim has a tremendous loyalty. Bella doesn’t think it will fade. It defies logic. But I have noticed the big things do that. No science can quantify the perverse nature of love.

II

The neighbour at Aunt Emilia’s old place has been caring for our cat Puddles. Tim wants him back. We need to take an excursion up to London, to redeem our feline friend. I like to think we can be regular, normal kids. Because of Aunt Emilia’s windfall, we can now afford to feed Puddles. When we reach town, Puddles is already in his cage, looking prosperous, sleek-furred. It would be too much to expect Puddles has missed us. Bundling back into the car and driving south, we are treated to soft purring. Tim is beguiled.

III

Tim has been bending our minds. It is urgent, he says, that he visits Father. Sometimes I would like to bump my brother on the head, but I know that won’t stop him. Once he has a notion spinning in his brain, he’s unquenchable. Tim has been trying to decipher railway timetables, to plan his own trip. He won’t say why it’s so vital we go. Aunt agrees to fund our expedition. I should like to confront Tim, to ask him kindly, what’s the rush. I think he senses some kind of calamity that he can’t articulate. And then we hear the news. Stefan has been physically assaulted in jail.

IV

From what we can gather, Stefan was accosted coming from the kitchens, where he was scouring pans. He has a dislocated shoulder, one broken rib, and a gouged forearm. In the prison community, our lawyer explains, Stefan is universally despised. Inmates are saying he’s stuck up, that he was crying out for a bashing. Stefan is now licking his wounds in the prison infirmary. Tim’s moment of illumination was spot-on. It is quite something, having a brother who can divine catastrophes.

V

The summer holidays are upon us. School has been erratic and consistently overshadowed by graver things. I’ve learnt absolutely nothing. Anyway, Puddles is in the cattery, and we are all in Aunt Emilia’s new car, heading for her childhood town. We have a date with nostalgia. The village is twee, clinging to a big muddy estuary. The speedboats have been broken up for scrap, so we settle for big ice-creams. Tim is disillusioned. Sails swell in the afternoon warmth. I am holding Bella’s hand. I agree with Aunt, it is idyllic. The bed and breakfast where we’re staying has a thatched roof. It is as remote from prisons as is possible. The tap water tastes sweeter. I could grow fond of here.

VI

The hills behind us form a big green bolster. Aunt says the lanes will be bursting with berries, so we should walk. I don’t think we’ve ever taken a country ramble. Such a wholesome activity would never have flickered through Stefan’s sordid mind. I think Mother was allergic to nature. Tim believes it’s an explorer’s tramp, and is quite content. The mythical realm of Darkest Peru maybe just beyond the next ridge. The sun is out. We ford a little stream, intoxicated on fresh air. Our limbs are delightfully achy. This is novel.

VII

The village is a quaint collection of narrow lanes to get lost in. Alicia makes a sigh of unutterable boredom, but I like it. I can see Bella does too. Aunt shows us the cottage where she was born. It is a little dilapidated now, but there are pretty trailing flowers in window pots. The day is clouding over, promising rain. Tim asks if Mother played in these streets. Aunt says yes. I suppose I had never considered that. That this was Mother’s place too.

STEFAN

I am out of the infirmary. No one visited me. I’m still sore to the touch. I have made some enemies. They are crude men. It is unimaginable, to be spending five years in their company. There is no news on my appeal court date, the law is grindingly slow. Meanwhile, I must protect my precious skin. With money. I have one consolation. Tim is out there, thinking of me. I have had a letter from him. It is so touching. I almost had some tears.

ALICIA

I was waiting for the holidays to begin. Now I’m unbearably bored. We are pottering down the back lanes, returning to Brighton. Aunt E. is immersed in memories. Flying by the bijou properties of the filthy rich, I feel envy. For their uncomplicated lives. I have a Father in prison, a mad dead Mother and an indifferent boyfriend. Enough misery to screw you over. Too many bends in the road to see over the brows of hills. I can’t even confide in Bella. When I’ve collected a few more years, accumulated some fabled insight, I may laugh it off. But not right now. Now it galls.

EMILIA

I am worried by Alicia’s black moods. Then I tell myself she’s just an angsty teenager, who’s had a very bad ride. I can make her better. I need to give her room, in which to work through things. The young can rebound wonderfully. The boys have processed events more simply, I don’t fret for them. But Alicia is a complicated girl, prone to gloom. I must be vigilant.

TIM

I was sad when we couldn’t visit Father. Throughout our brief holiday, I found it vexing that we couldn’t go. I have this connection with Father. I feel his pain. When we wandered down leafy lanes, and Aunt spoke about Mother, I was moved. I became suddenly interested in the places where we walked. The sun seemed brighter, the lanes shone, once I knew. Now we’re home, there is no more drama. No-one bangs at the door, no scary-looking letters come, Aunt has stopped trembling and growing pale. But I feel how angry Alicia is. I have heard her screaming in her room. Something bad is coming.

WILL

I

Aunt Emilia found her. There was an empty pill bottle on her dresser. Thirty tablets. Aunt’s painkillers. Not enough to kill. Alicia was found in a pool of her own vomit. There was no suicide note. The ambulance has come, and carted her away. Alicia will have a stomach pump, and a psychological evaluation. We are sombre, wondering how this could have happened. Sitting together in the relatives area, waiting for news, the smell of hospital corridors will always be something I fear.

II

Alicia won’t speak to us. She is going to be moved to a psychiatric unit, specialising in teenage trauma. She is still wearing the horrible holey t-shirt that she so loves. It is stained. I wonder how long they’ll keep her there. A counsellor is interviewing Aunt Emilia. It sounds like the man is apportioning blame. Aunt is distraught, she is beside herself. None of us understood how wretched Alicia felt. Aunt is coming through the swing doors, crying. We have been sent home. Alicia will be sedated, and moved in the morning. This is horrible.

III

Bella has successfully made a visit. The unit is modern and minimal. Alicia sits all day in big, loungy chairs. According to Bella, they hugged and spoke for an hour. Alicia is fragile, embattled. She finds opening-up difficult. She’d rather speak about the awful food at the unit. Bella thought it best to veer away from loaded issues. After an hour, they hugged, and Bella said she’d return. When Bella left, Alicia was rugged-up and reading a tatty old magazine. Like nothing much had happened.

IV

I think Alicia’s doing well. She’s had a change of heart and invited us all to visit. Aunt is beaming like a little girl. Tim is asking some difficult questions about Alicia’s illness, why she’s not in the regular hospital. We all hop in the car and drive. I have butterflies in my stomach, which is strange. We arrive. Alicia has her feet up in the dayroom. She’s chatting animatedly to another girl. When she sees Aunt Emilia she glows. The two of them embrace. It is touching. Alicia will be coming home.

V

The psychiatrist has prescribed Prozac for Alicia, Aunt told me. Alicia is acting high, as we drive back home. There is this glazed vacancy in her eyes, but I maybe imagining it. Welfare services have informed Stefan, which is somewhat alarming. But he can’t make a stink from jail. Tim has baked a special welcome cake, piped with sky-blue icing. He has figured out that something is askew with Alicia’s mind. We are opening the front door, and going in. Another drama seems like it’s over.

STEFAN

The one they call Slimey Mike is harassing me. He was the ringleader when I was beaten up. Slimey Mike screams that I’m a ponce and a pedophile. I wonder if he’s heard about my daughter. There is no privacy in here. The warden has his eye on me. He’s not partial to educated men. He thinks we’re all troublemakers. Since the brawl, he has suspended my writing privileges. No more letters to Tim. We shall be disappointed. There is no word about my appeal hearing. I expect Emilia thinks she’s won. I have noticed some thickening around my waist, and distressing hair loss. I should like to wear a suit. When I can sleep, above my cell mate’s farting and snorting, I dream bizarre things. That are gone, once we are woken. In a more golden age, I would walk free. I am getting callouses on my hands. My contraband razor is blunt. Some arsehole spat in my breakfast. This has become insupportable.

ALICIA

I’m feeling positively perky, sky-high. Like someone turned off the sadness. My anger, which used to crow and rage, is uncannily silent. I think I like this. But it is synthetic, it is not me. I can see Aunt E. distrusts my jovial mood. Even Tim looks flabbergasted when I waltz to the dinner table, and eat. I wonder if these feelings will fade. Because I do think about addiction. And I certainly like this lovely medicated beach ball of a world.

EMILIA

I wonder if Alicia’s dosage is too high. I must consult her psychiatrist. The girl is clearly not herself. You couldn’t fly a kite higher than her. Alicia’s social worker says she hasn’t grieved properly, for her mother, and her lost father. I think that’s all rot. Although Stefan has been unspeakable, Alicia’s malaise began before any of that. On my own Mother’s side, all the girls were suggestible and sad. I have no golden apples of wisdom for Alicia. But I can be some comfort. I shall be there for her. Always.

TIM

My sister is nuts, that much is clear. They can’t keep that from me. She’s been flouncing around in long skirts and acting weird, it is disturbing. Aunt and Will are treating her like she might break, so I get no attention, which is normal. Perhaps I should pull a mad stunt, just so they notice me. Now we’re all back home, I hope things can be calm. Like the beautiful summer sea.

WILL

I

I do believe Aunt Emilia has a new man friend. According to Alicia they met at the supermarket, choosing organic vegetables. Aunt was flushed and giggly as a school girl. His name is Ralph Hollingworth, and he is coming to tea. It is hard to imagine Aunt Emilia with a man. It is the perfect chance for Tim to make some pretty dainties. We have had little experience of adult men, with the exception of Stefan. He should not jade our preconceptions. Then one Sunday Aunt dresses snappily, and we know Mr Hollingworth is coming. He is exceedingly tall, quite young, and smiley. I immediately dislike him. In her corner, Alicia has grown all scowly and squirmy, so I suspect she feels the same. Unabashed, Tim serves his enticing bonbons with chai latte, which amuses Mr Hollingworth greatly. My wrath steps up a notch. Aunt knows things are going badly. Really Bella should have been here to smooth the friction. Quite soon, Mr Hollingworth pecks Aunt’s cheek, and wishes us goodbye for now. It has not been an auspicious first meeting.

II

Bella has been talking about our babies. I must admit the whole subject makes me alarmed. Bella wants a big family of strapping lads. Quite soon. Our wedding day should be intimate, maybe on the beach. Alicia will be maid-of-honour. This is all petrifying. I sincerely adore Bella, with all my heart, but marriage is scary. I had hoped we’d travel, do liberal things. But I always knew Bella was a nest-builder. Her absolute devotion makes me feel warm and whole. Maybe I should be glad it’s this way.

III

I have been up in London for the last week, building castles with Bella. Zooming back on the express, Brighton is mired in rain. I think of Alicia. Aunt Emilia texted me mid-week, to say my sister is acting more like her ordinary self. That is sweet. I have missed Alicia’s broody, sullen moods. The new school term is upon us. Aunt has bought us outstanding leather satchels. I am going to look like a dork. The crisp white shirt, blazer and house tie are constricting. Aunt is making a big hullabaloo about my seventeenth, which is coming up soon. There is not so much as a squeak from Stefan. This is utterly delightful.

IV

Bella is on the phone. She sounds elated. She has done a pregnancy test. It is positive. When the shaking stops, I’m unexpectedly happy. I shall rush up to London. I have this keen image of Bella in a floaty dress, like a beautiful galleon in full sail. I am not thinking far beyond the square. The train deliberately crawls through suburban stations, but my heart is still pounding. I know Bella will be a gorgeous Mother. When I step onto the platform, there is a pronounced spring in my stride. I breaststroke through the crowd, looking out for Bella.

V

We go to our favourite cafe and buy espressos. It is quiet there and we talk excitedly. Bella’s parents are extraordinary, but this is going to stretch their liberality. I have no idea what Aunt Emilia will say. But this is our decision. I get Bella some black forest gateau, and we smile as we fork decadent mouthfuls. We swear our love, and Bella dabs some chocolate cream on the tip of my nose. Maybe it’s a grossly inappropriate comparison, but I haven’t been so happy since Stefan went to jail.

BELLA

I am having Will’s baby. This is a thing of wonder. When I was born, my mother said, the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as the Scilly Isles. I think, this time, it shall be like that too. Of course we are very young. And have no clue. Maybe it’s the hormones, but I feel like the North Star has risen in my little patch of sky.

EMILIA

I have tried very hard to be angry, as one ought to be. I know I should be livid, spoiling to deliver a big lecture about irresponsibility. Only Will and Bella look so obviously delighted with themselves, it would be curmudgeonly to ruin their joy. We sit in the new deep seats, overlooking the sea, and speak about innocence. Bella will tell her parents tonight. I don’t expect they will give trouble. I only wish Alice were here to share in this. I suppose I’m going to have to inform Stefan. He may reply with something grubby and trite. But I wish Will and Bella well, and shall welcome our new family member. This old lady is fundamentally glad.

STEFAN

The warden has called me in, to share some news. It must be my high court appeal. No, he has something to say about my son. I shiver. Is Tim sick? No, it is Will. He has got his Bella up the duff. I am allowed one letter. How will I live this down with Slimey Mike and his associates? The posh toff, and his bastard grandchild. That Bella is a nice piece of work, lumbering Will into teenage fatherhood. I haven’t heard anything more sickening since my own sentence was handed down.

ALICIA

Bella glows, she is breathtakingly lovely, even I can see that. We are all trolls beside her. I never saw my brother making a woman happy. I’ve had it up to here with comments about how young they are. It misses the whole picture. The indefinable thing they have knows no boundaries. I would kill for it. I know Bella and Tim are unshakeable. If our local star went supernova, it wouldn’t glow brighter than them.

TIM

There’s been a lot of muttering, and many wide smiles. They think I don’t know. But I do. It’s just a natural function, what’s all the fuss. We’ve all got to be born, somehow. My brother isn’t thinking of the noise, the smells. They are both dreamy and unreal. It is slightly silly. Father is going to have something very mean to say.

WILL

I

I have spent the week mollifying the Molyneuxs. They were tougher than I thought they’d be. I suppose I understand. Their only daughter is their prize. We can expect a lot of moral support from them. I have received this horrible letter from Stefan. Itemising how I’ve ruined his life and how I’m a walking disgrace upon humanity. Stefan also bad-mouths Bella, painting her as a lurid, grasping woman. I am so glad Stefan is rotting in jail. Bella insisted I show her the letter, but she says she is only saddened. Aunt Emilia is compiling a comprehensive list of our baby needs. I think she plans to buy the cot and all manner of mysterious things. Bella says we’re having one lucky boy.

II

We have been reading a parenting manual. I look forward to the ultrasound. We are agreed, our baby shall be born in London. Bella will have her mother. Aunt Emilia shall be there. Bella is ten weeks. She has cravings for outlandish foods. She has these colourful dreams. She has developed an unusual passion for Scrabble. I am regularly trounced. I don’t know where life is leading me, but it’s bloody nice.

III

Aunt Emilia was saying about always having a packed suitcase ready. That seems a little premature. Pregnancy is like an enchanted bubble. I am wondering when he or she will show. Who will this person be, who’s now floating like an astronaut in zero gravity? These are compelling thoughts. This is a learning curve like no other.

IV

Bella has fallen and gouged her knee. Her balance is gone. She is crying. To be sure, we race to the maternity clinic. Where we jump the queue. The doctor is comforting. She says Bella should have an ultrasound, in case of any complications. The gel makes Bella shiver. We watch and listen. There is a thumping heart. It is racing, like a wild hare. The image is very grainy. The doctor announces all is well. She dresses Bella’s knee and prescribes special antibiotics. We both heave a great big sigh. A tragedy is averted.

V

I am seventeen now. We have celebrated marvellously. I am wondering how school fits into this new world. The answer is, it doesn’t. Despite Aunt’s remonstrances, her vigorous pleas, I shan’t be completing my education. Aunt says it is a rash, ill-conceived decision. I just can’t see how algebra or quantum mechanics have any bearing on Fatherhood. I shall get paid work, provide for my new family. Bella and I can always attend university as mature students, when the time seems apposite. Now is the time to knuckle down. To learn about real things.

BELLA

Will and I have had our first serious disagreement. I think that we should finish school. I can’t accept it’s insignificant. We mustn’t throw away our education. I certainly wish for our child to be well-schooled. Undeniably it will be awkward, moving between classes with a baby bump, but I shall be proud, determined. I know Will’s school life has been erratic, through no fault of his own. I shall try to talk more with him, convince him. This is major.

EMILIA

Strangely, I am far more appalled by Will’s school plans than I was by the pregnancy. It seems altogether without foresight. I will not have Will as a petrol pump attendant or a collector of supermarket trolleys. I forbid it. Fortunately Bella has some sense, and can bend Will’s ear. I plan to invest in a small apartment and then let it to Will and Bella at an absolutely nominal rate. That way they will have some future. I must make sure I’m not swamped by these concerns, thereby neglecting Alicia. She is bathed in her usual gloom. I must stay wide awake around her.

ALICIA

All this endless chatter about babies is nauseating me. I am pleased as punch for Will and Bella, and can see Aunt E. as a doting grandmother, but, please, let’s move on to other things. It looks like I’ll be walking to school alone. Will is quitting, so he claims. Aunt E. is mad. She says Will is squandering his future. I can’t see that. The only thing school ever taught me is how to hide your grief. How to smile when your mind is broken.

STEFAN

The Venice committee have revoked my photography prize. I received a terse letter saying felons do not qualify for funding. Fortunately I still have a significant sum in my savings account. There has been no other news. I am wretchedly fat on crappy food. I can’t sleep. The years are unspeakable obstacles to me. Many inmates have regular visitors. Not me. My stony-faced lawyer came once with a bundle of papers. My appeal has been denied. When the guards fumble with their keys and we are locked in, the whole wasteful tragedy hurts. I have been allowed one family photograph, that curls on the wet concrete wall. I am studying it now. The colour is fading. Like I shall dim from their lives.

TIM

There’s a storm coming, I feel it. The wind is up, the sea churns like a beast that can’t sleep. I roll over in my bed. The sheets are tangled and damp from nightmares. I imagine Father is awake. He thinks of me.

WILL

I

Last night’s storm dismantled the potting shed and dislodged a number of loose roof tiles. I slept through it all. The sea has had carnage with the shore, tossing up much seaweed and driftwood. Tim is talking about tragedy, which alarms me. I ring Bella. She is fine. I’m perplexed. I think of Stefan. He has been silent for so long. Maybe Tim senses trouble for him. My brother is the prophet of bad news.

II

Aunt Emilia has received a brown paper envelope from prison. We open it. The warden explains how Stefan has been attacked with a cutthroat razor. His throat is slashed. He is making a recovery in the infirmary, but cannot speak. Thereafter, Stefan will be kept in solitary confinement, to prevent any recurrence. I feel queasy, and look hard at Tim. He is perfectly composed.

III

I have dreamt of Stefan. The jagged cut through his vocal chords. I wake sweaty and disturbed. I wonder if he’ll ever speak again. His silence is gnawing at me. I thought when he was put away, that this was an issue solved. It is not the case. Bella says, whatever, he is still my Father. She is wise. When Tim crows out for his prison visit, I think I shall come along. There are hungry ghosts I need to lay to rest.

IV

I have absolutely no inkling of what I shall say to Father. That I am going at all still flabbergasts me. Tim and I make the same winding trek as before. Bella has offered to come, but I say no way. My stomach is full of butterflies when we reach the prison. Tim has been smiling silently, like he’s a freaking weirdo. It is the same as last time. We are buzzed in and frisked. The same ageist jokes are made. This is all hard to believe. But something buried inside me knows this is right.

V

When Stefan is marched in, I am galvanised by the bandage around his throat. He is carrying a white notepad, meaning he can’t talk. After shuffling our chairs about, we sit, in a painful silence. The warm-hearted buzz from other families is jarring. We are off to an awkward start. It is hard to utter earnest words in this awful place. Stefan was never very expressive with his eyes. He writes that he’s delighted to see us. The arrogant loops of his distinctive handwriting are gone, replaced by a blotchy scrawl. Stefan has learnt some humility. Something inside me is moved. For twenty minutes, Stefan writes lucidly about his attack and dreadful prison life. I feel more sorry. I write that I am sad for him. My Father leans across, and squeezes my hand.

VI

The visit is over. Something momentous has happened. All my senses are reeling. As we’re guided back through the maze of locked doors, my hand still tingles from his touch. It is our closest encounter for years, and truly moving. Tim senses a sea-change in my feelings. He looks glad, and I feel liberated. The lead weight of hate I’ve borne for Father is fizzling away.

EMILIA

Will and Tim have returned. They are totally flaked out. There is a subtle change in Will, like something that was wrong for a long while has been addressed. It may be Stefan, it may be nothing, we shall see. I have been spending some quality time with Alicia. She has taken a liking for boutique cafes and designer clothing. I find it mildly odd but Alicia is pleased as punch, hitting the glitzy malls and spending big. She has chosen for me a Paisley knit. I must admit that it looks fetching. But Alicia is sylph-like and supple, and can wear anything. Returning home with far too many branded bags was warm and satisfying. We shall venture another outing like this.

BELLA

I wait. To feel fleet ripples in my belly. Magical fingers light as early morning rain. This will happen soon. Will has told me what transpired with his Father. I believe in healing. It would be good fortune for our child. There is this new glow about Will, like he’s been released from pain. Will is moving his hand over my stomach. The doctor says babies get the hiccups, so your belly shivers with life. We wait. Nothing. It is not time yet.

STEFAN

My neck remains sore and I cannot speak. I wonder if my voice will ever return. The infirmary doctor is an absolute moron. When he stitched me up, he made a godforsaken hash of things. I should sue for gross incompetence. When Tim and Will came, we had something special. A lot of hurt got healed that day. I felt such a great tenderness for Will, like I haven’t experienced since he was very young. I know he was moved as well. When I get my release, perhaps we can be a new family. Maybe I am doing my time in hell, so that I can gather up some credibility, and reclaim my amazing children.

ALICIA

Aunt E. has been spoiling me something rotten. I know she has her eye on me. It would be better to look out for Will, who’s gone all weird. I think Will’s recent encounter with Father has done in his mind. Will has taken to sitting in well-lit alcoves and smiling beatifically. I am mightily disturbed. Bella is also on a different planet. This is understandable, but I miss my friend. I just have Tim, who is sagacious beyond his years, our resident seer of strange, fucked-up events.

TIM

Puddles is lying on my pillow and won’t move. That cat is very bad for my asthma, although I love him to pieces. He has this earthy, dubious smell. Aunt is darning woollen socks in the front room, something she greatly enjoys. My sister casts enquiring glances my way, then continues with her graphic novel. I’ve never enjoyed Sundays, even though macaroni cheese is for dinner. If I start sneezing, or talk about Father, they will shoo me to my room. It is something of a curse to see the future. I continue with my restless foot-tapping, and pretend nothing big is coming our way.

WILL

I

We were loading bags into the car, in the supermarket multi-storey, when Aunt Emilia fell. She simply shrieked with pain, and toppled over. At the hospital, the attending physician orders blood tests. It is shocking to see Aunt so gravely ill. The test results are back within two hours. Aunt has an unusually high white cell count. It may be a sign of leukaemia. Cancer.

II

Aunt Emilia is being kept in for observation. Her condition has noticeably worsened. Not since she was beaten up has Aunt seemed such a frail old lady. Alicia is keeping a constant bedside vigil. There are more tests, and an array of needles and tubes are stuck into Aunt Emilia’s arms. The doctors discuss, they take copious notes. They tell us nothing. The nurses are used to us all camping in the family room. I have never witnessed how health can be so quickly compromised. How complete robustness can spiral down into infirmity and helplessness.

III

Aunt Emilia will have to spend a considerable time in hospital. Bella is coming down, to help with things. We are all terribly shocked. Tim has designed a dinner roster, but I don’t expect we’ll be home much. The physician has finally spoken, he doesn’t think Aunt is going to make it. Her leukaemia is too advanced. Hearing the news, I bite down hard on my middle finger. The pain is nothing to what I feel for Aunt Emilia.

IV

When the cancer moves to Aunt Emilia’s brain, she will most probably lose her mind. It is an iniquitous ending. No one can be sure how long she’s got. Even her physician cannot be definitive. None of us would wish Aunt Emilia to linger on in pain. The black marks under Alicia’s eyes are a testament of her love. Like my chewed middle finger, like Tim’s tearful muteness. They are moving Aunt. To a hospice. It means the end.

V

After a fortnight in the hospice, Aunt Emilia contracted pneumonia. She died. Her last action was to grant me power of attorney, so that we could all survive. Being a minor, however, I am uncertain of its legal validity. Aunt Emilia will be buried next to Mother. The funeral is tomorrow. Afterwards, the Molyneuxs are taking us up to London. Our idyll by the sea is over. I am numb. I shall inform Father and explain.

ALICIA

Like with Mother, the rain came. The earth was awash with grief. Black umbrellas freak me. And the vomit of priests. This is the darkest day of my brief history. My black shoes fill with water. Aunt would have groused at the inclement weather. In the future, whenever there is rain, I shall be cast back to your graveside. Throwing earth and flowers onto your casket. Whilst I live, I shall always mourn for you.

BELLA 

When the empty hearse moves away, Alicia wipes her mascara-stained eyes, and grabs my arm, as if for support. After the wake, she speaks about her last days with Emilia. Her voice is cracked, and tears flow. Everything is unbearably sad. The elation I feel at the little flutters in my belly is forgotten. I’m tired, my feet are swollen, Will is missing. The whole tragic heartache of grieving won’t be shut away. We are getting into the cars. To travel to London. 

STEFAN 

I am summoned again, to appear before the warden. By now I know this means there’s bad news. Still I am shocked by what I hear. I cannot deny that having Emilia out of the way clears a difficult path to my children. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have wished this upheaval upon them. No one with a shred of decency would be glad of this. The warden explains how my family will be living in London with Will’s girlfriend’s parents. That is uncommonly kind, and they shall be physically closer to me. Foster care would have been cruel. When my next letter is permitted, I will write to the Molyneuxs. This string of deaths is going to wound my children’s souls. 

TIM

How are we meant to survive without Aunt Emilia. She was our bright patch of clover in a confusing world. She always let me get my way. The smell of this new house is disturbing. It is larger and airier and, in the corners, there are menacing wooden statues taller than me. The Molyneuxs must be fabulously rich. I don’t know if I shall like it here.

BRYAN MOLYNEUX

It is good to have the house full of young folk. Luckily we can offer everyone a room. They’ll need some space. This is an appalling trauma for them all. I am very taken with Alicia, a tall, moody girl, so unlike our Bella. By special arrangement I spoke at some length with Stefan, who seems in cheerful spirits. After a few days, we shall pay him a family visit. I can see Tim is troubled by his new surroundings. From what Bella has told me, I know him to be a deeply sensitive soul. After some adjustment time, he’ll be bright as warm sunshine. Our maid Ivy is back with take-out dinner. We all eat from cardboard cartons. Even grief must be fed.

ELAINE MOLYNEUX

I have received an unsettling call from Child Care Services. They want to come and interview the children, to see if they are happily placed with us. I would hate for the kids to be moved into foster care, so Bryan and I will make sure we shine. I’d imagine this is a process the department must observe, and I’m not especially anxious. I have broken the news. Alicia, who scorns authority, has some curt remarks to make, but Will and Tim are unfazed by their impending interview.

WILL

I

Two enormous women, two fierce old buzzards, have come to talk. They are over curious about our lives at the Molyneuxs. They ask a succession of cringeworthy questions. Alicia is outraged and throws a sulk. It’s like the two of them hope we’re abused. When they point their smutty fingers at Bella, I am rude. This provokes some feverish note-taking. The appalling couple stand up, shuffle their thick files, and announce that they are satisfied. The Molyneuxs meet their criteria. Bryan and Elaine are all smiles, as they hustle these unspeakable social workers off the premises.

II

It is time to turn my mind to Father. The Molyneuxs want us to visit him. Bella says this time she’s coming. I still feel that warm glow for Father. Not even Aunt’s death has diminished it. This time it shan’t be a labyrinthine hike through gothic streets. We shall drive to prison, in the Molyneuxs’ Range Rover. Tim, who has been reserved, suddenly bubbles with fizz. We bundle ourselves into the car, and glide.

III

Father’s bandage has been removed, leaving a ragged scar. It is extremely hard not to stare. Father’s voice has returned, with only the merest hint of a croak. He fondly greets us. The prison guards prevent any greater expression of affection. Father is passionately thanking the Molyneuxs for taking us in. They are gracious, and say it’s been such a privilege. Alicia squirms awkwardly, but I know she likes Bryan. Father says that he wants to make amends. He is fiercely adamant, genuinely repentant. Our visit has reached its warm fuzzy conclusion. These twenty minute meetings stir my soul.

IV

Life at the Molyneuxs runs smoothly. They seem to live on muesli and smiles. Once I was creeped out by their taste in tribal art pieces, but that has waned. The Molyneuxs effortlessly co-exist with us all; we never come in each other’s way. There has been discussion surrounding school. Nothing is yet finalised, but I feel I have no choice. The Molyneuxs firmly believe in education and plan to enrol us at the local secondary school. In readiness, the Molyneuxs have purchased us fetching bottle-green blazers. Mine doesn’t pinch.

V

Bella has arranged my blazer, tie and trousers in a beautiful way. She hasn’t coerced me to go to school, but she clearly supports her parents’ wishes. I dress quickly, and feel less bedraggled than my usual self. The school is a gentle hoof up the hill. Myself, Alicia and Tim, sartorially elegant, set off. The Molyneuxs have packed us tempting, nutritious midday snacks. Tim has a tremendous spring in his step, and Alicia is winsome in green. Their relaxed mood is contagious. When we reach the gates, I try not to draw the obvious parallels with prison. There is a buzz about this place. I am feeling less bereaved, like I really could enjoy myself.

ALICIA

I have a spacious bedroom and super-fast broadband. It cannot compensate for the ache in my soul. The absence of Aunt Emilia hardly distresses my siblings. The little events of their lives mean they can sidestep grief. Not so for me. Aunt’s final illness is written large in my head. The rain is tapping on my window panes. I am back at her graveside. My heart sinks like a clot of earth. When there is a knock at my door, it is hard to control my trembling shoulders, my crying eyes.

BELLA

Will shares his first day at school with me. He seems like an untroubled boy again. I am crocheting a sky-blue bonnet, Mother taught me how. I want to share these things with Alicia, only she is sad and angry. The fleet ripples in my belly are becoming stronger. Will and I are dreaming over names. I am a quite convinced he’s a boy. I have a loose back molar. Mother says you shed a tooth with every child. I plan to have many gaps in my smile.

TIM

Puddles doesn’t care for his new home. I share his opinion. The maid Ivy has no passion for cooking. Her bland, salt-free food is without charm. Her signature hot-pot doesn’t stir your soul. I have considered offering her my culinary wisdom, but Ivy is not in love with me. Like Aunt Emilia was. So Puddles and I shall sulk. He is my only consolation. When I tickle his perfectly sleek fur, my troubles are gone.

BRYAN

I know Tim is unsettled and unhappy. This upsets me. He has taken refuge in his room, and even meals displease him. Elaine has asked if he’d fancy an outing, but she gets the stubborn cold shoulder. With Alicia being understandably morbid, an air of gloom has descended on the house. My Bella and Will are impregnable in their bubble, but Elaine and I are feeling morose and a little ragged. Then, suddenly, Tim announces he wants kitchen time, with Ivy out of the way. This is all delightfully simple. We have heard from Bella that Tim is quite the wizard when in the kitchen. Soon he is singing, and juggling over a dozen ingredients. When the meal arrives, it is first-class, gourmet. Tim smiles at our enthusiastic praise. The young man has truly discovered his vocation.

ELAINE

The estate of their Aunt has been settled. Will benefits handsomely, with a sizeable cash sum. This is all good news for their child. Emilia has also bequeathed to Will a small investment property, in an outlying suburban development. Together with the gift Bryan and I intend, our lovebirds will be beautifully established. This gives me a warm ambient glow.

WILL

I

My Mother would have said we’re landed gentry. Aunt Emilia’s behest has solved the problem of where to go, when our child is born. Of course we could stay with the Molyneuxs, who are more than cool. But just lately I’ve felt that Bella wants to build her own nest. I am hardly a guru when it comes to pregnancy, but it seems infinitely wise to create our own space. All the giddy manuals we’ve read say babies overturn your whole world. Elaine and Bryan should be with their daughter, but we don’t want a whole caravan of well-wishers steaming in with golden advice. If I was an able carpenter, I expect I’d be building a cot around now.

II

Bella and I take the tube, to inspect our new abode. It is inordinately far, and Bella gets sore feet. When we arrive, our first impression is that the estate is incomplete. Boxy houses with slag-heaps of mixed concrete. Muddy gardens newly turfed with grass. It all looks like a battlefield, but it is home. We turn into a brief cul-de-sac where the houses seem even tinier. We are turning the front door key.

III

The first thing we notice are the concrete bootprints trailing across the brand new carpet. This is a shame. Bella is visibly narked. Nevertheless the kitchenette is modern and gleaming. After we’ve assessed the master bedroom, Bella heads for the nursery. The new paint smell is overwhelming, my head reels. I have brought a tape measure. To calculate the space available for a cradle and rocking chair. The Molyneuxs have been generous. I wouldn’t say the room is cramped, but you couldn’t pace with ease. I have a fleeting vision of an insomniac me burping our baby. This makes me smile.

IV

Returning to the underground station, we discover an old Italian coffee shop. I order a tall espresso, and hot chocolate for Bella. It is blisteringly warm and beautiful. As we wait for our drinks to cool, we discuss how we’ll arrange each room. We feel uncommonly fortunate. As we talk, the proprietor sings an enchanting melody. He polishes his tiny monogrammed coffee cups. We are his only customers. This shall be our special place.

V

We had an exhausting return trip through grimy tunnels and patches of open sky. The new house is really very far. I don’t expect we shall see a great deal of Alicia and Tim, but they can always sleep over. We should throw some kind of house-warming party, to christen the place. I shall take my siblings for hot chocolate at our special Italian café. The Molyneuxs share our enthusiasm, but they both ask about our education. We can hardly continue at our current school. In the greater scheme of things, book learning is scoring very low. I’m sure my son shan’t care if his Father is a helpless ignoramus.

ALICIA

Since Aunt E. passed I have eaten less and less. Mercifully there is no one to nag me; the Molyneuxs don’t seem fazed by my untouched plates. I was always a fussy eater, and now the taste of red meat has become truly repellent to me. I have shed seven kilos since the funeral. Tim notices. I have yet to shove three fingers down my throat, but it is coming. My once hugging jeans are baggy, I often feel I may faint. They will say it is a cry for help. But I don’t think I can ever cry again.

BRYAN

Eating disorders need the most delicate handling. The weight is dropping off Alicia. This matter needs real kid gloves. Alicia thinks we don’t notice. But how can we fail to worry, when she looks like a starved twig. Elaine will go up to Alicia’s room, and make some gentle overtures. With a teenager who’s both so fragile and ballsy, I wonder what we can achieve. In my opinion, only the intervention of a medical practitioner can keep Alicia’s cheekbones from sharpening ever further. This is a deeply worrying development. Bella has always been so even-keeled. We are quite out of our depth.

STEFAN

The opportunity has arisen to do some study. To put some letters behind my name. I am able to make use of the small prison library, and complete my course by correspondence. This is considerably healthier than stewing in my cell, although the other inmates loathe my initiative and new-found drive. I am already a hated figure, now I shall be the over-educated stuck-up bastard too. But I should like to see Will, Alicia and Tim proud of me. To speak honestly, that is my guiding motivation.

ELAINE

My gentle discussion with Alicia grew into a confrontation. That girl has a fearsome temper. I must admit I was shocked at her florid language. Of course Alicia vehemently denied she was anorexic, and called me a spiteful, meddling bitch. She then turned on the waterworks, and slammed her bedroom door. This is a sore outcome, and when I told Bryan, he looked plain scared. We knock our heads together, but are at a loss what to do. Bella has always been so respectful and gracious and never even mildly moody. I’m against doctors and suggest psychiatric counselling. I shall call up some respectable names tomorrow. We must act quickly.

TIM

They are in a stew about my sister. I could have told them she wasn’t eating. Alicia wants to experience death. As far as I can tell, it’s been on all our minds. We are not the ones to blame. There is no need to pay a doctor to discover these obvious truths. I have told the Molyneuxs this. They looked aghast and nodded their agreement. There is something I really wish for. That I could unpack my new wok, mix in sesame oils, and see if I can entice Alicia.

WILL

I

The Molyneuxs have gifted us money to buy some sturdy second-hand furniture. There is a shop Bella knows which specialises in wicker chairs and sofas. I can’t say I’m smitten by the idea, but Bella is inspired. When we reach the store, the proprietor, who is older than the sea, greets us vigorously. He is an enthusiast. He and Bella are soon in a warm discussion about how to furnish modern dwellings. Within twenty minutes our generous budget is blown. Bella glows, delighted.

II

The Molyneuxs are deeply concerned for my sister. They think she has anorexia. Elaine is very emotional when she recollects their conversation. She asks if Bella has noticed any telltale signs. Bella looks alarmed, and says no. Her friendship with Alicia has been fraught recently. I think they no longer talk like they once did. Nevertheless Bella says she’ll speak privately with Alicia. Nobody has any real idea what to do. I feel particularly daunted by Alicia’s legendary rages. Medicines seem to be the only solution. I say so. I promise to convince Alicia that a doctor’s appointment would be good. I hope I can keep to my word.

III

Alicia spat and hissed. After considerable soul-searching, she admitted to a problem. We wait in Dr. Shu’s expensive rooms. The Molyneuxs recommend him. Alicia squirms on the faux leather couch. Dr. Shu then asks a series of beautifully-framed personal questions. Alicia opens like a bud, divulging her entire history in purple prose. Dr. Shu is more magician then medical professional. Alicia agrees to weekly consultations and a course of appetite-enhancing drugs. I will admit to feeling slightly discomforted in the presence of miracles.

IV

When we reach home, elated, Tim has created a Thai meal par excellence. There are seven elaborate courses and I can tell Alicia plans to join us. Even Ivy is grinning. The food is of course magnificent and beautifully fragrant and light. Across from me, Alicia suddenly smiles. Bella rushes to hug her and their reunion is a wonderful thing. I know my sister is fraught and messed up, but she is completely irreplaceable.

STEFAN

Barely a soul uses the prison library. It is pokey and ill-lit, but I have found my space to think. The degree in art history takes me away from petty prison politics, so I can focus on the bigger things. The loathing and bullying of the other inmates has lost impetus, with me cocooned behind a wall of books. The warden, impressed by my academic study, has promised additional funding for the principal scholarly texts. The silence of my children disturbs me. After our breakthrough, nothing. I shall write to Will. The warden has granted me some stationery and pens.

BELLA

We’re back at the new house. It is really at the edge of nowhere. Will has lit some scented candles to counteract the paint smell. We’ve scrubbed at the offending boot marks, but can’t shift the stubborn stains. Our furniture will be arriving soon, although I’m not allowed to move a thing. That shan’t stop me from making sure everything is positioned perfectly, and to my liking. After the men have gone, we lounge together on our beautiful wicker couch, and think of dinner. It must be pizza, for new beginnings. Tomorrow Mum and Dad will bring all the baby things. Will will assemble the cot and we’ll buy some cans of blue paint. The candles may be burning low, but we’ve just started.

BRYAN

I still catch myself casting nervous glances at Alicia. She seems on the mend, but who can really tell. On reflection, we’ve had an easy ride with Bella. I need to break the news to Stefan, about his volatile daughter. I expect this whole episode will ring some alarm bells at Child Welfare Services. I have shared this fear with Elaine. We shall be prepared.

ELAINE

Bryan has a nose for trouble, although he can’t foretell the future. At exactly 10am my mobile rings. The child welfare office wants to meet with Alicia, to gauge her mental well-being. The woman cannot keep the element of blame out of her voice. She will come for tea on Friday afternoon. There never seems any urgency in this department’s plans. When Friday arrives, a short red woman, wrinkled as a walnut, is shaking my hand, asking for Alicia. Who skips in, all accommodating and disturbingly smiley. After a terse interview, in which banalities flow freely, the woman hands Alicia her business card, and prepares to leave. She is hostile, clearly unsatisfied. She is deaf to my cheery goodbyes. This is not the last we’ll see of her.

ALICIA

For someone who’s fifteen, I’ve seen a lot of melodrama. People die around me. I have self-harmed and flirted with starvation. I’ve messed up the privileged calm of my caregivers. I am bad. Some people are just born to wreak havoc. I’m one of that number. I feel glee when all faces are turned towards me. My social worker says I blur the boundaries. I shall mess with her too.

TIM

Since my sister’s last meltdown, she’s changed subtly. I don’t think her sickness is cured, despite all the smiley faces. This new Alicia gives me goosebumps. Like someone stole my original sibling, and a new creature is impersonating her. The crabby old dragon who comes to talk with Alicia on Fridays is a real nosey parker. Always giving me sidelong glances, and asking if I’m happy here. Like the Molyneuxs are doing these sordid things. Anyway, Alicia draws rings around her and she goes away looking mad and mystified. I am not so easily befuddled. Somehow I shall loosen my sister’s tongue, and get her to explain exactly what’s going on.

WILL

I

The social worker wants to interview myself and Bella. I don’t see how prying into our private lives will help Alicia. Who seems even weirder than ever, like she’s just discovered how to crack smiles. Aunt Emilia’s will has been finalised. I am the handsome beneficiary of a substantial cash sum. This will pave the way for our child’s early years. We are going to the house tonight. The Molyneuxs will drive us, as the tube is very tiring for Bella. She has become otherworldly, although she’s always practical about money. We will spend lightly, when we decorate the nursery. It is easy to be imaginative with blue.

II

The boot marks still oppress Bella, so I’ve suggested we take up the carpet, and have bare floorboards. Bella embraces the idea. So Bryan and I manhandle some stubborn carpet nails and, after an hour’s steady graft, we have exposed some beautiful grainy timber. Bella says we should varnish the wood, until it is a mellow mahogany brown. I point out that a polished floor is great for driving toy cars. Bella is joyous. We have shifted a pile of dust and Bryan is sneezing badly. It is dark. We draw our new drapes. The street lamps blaze warmly behind their heavy fabric.

III

We don’t know what’s happening with Alicia. The social worker has diagnosed stage-one schizophrenia. This sounds frankly ridiculous. It is a label medical professionals like to bandy around. It has no relevance to my sister. Nevertheless, Alicia will be admitted for observation. The Molyneuxs have signed the forms. It seems like a betrayal. I can tell that Alicia is relishing all the attention. I predict another round of wretched hospital visits.

IV

The social worker who shut up Alicia has just concluded a smug counselling session with the Molyneuxs. They look bemused, like their world has been ransacked. Alicia has been placed in a high-risk ward, subject to review. She has been prescribed Prozac. She is eating adequately, socialising well, taking her medication without protest. I am concerned that visits are forbidden. But that is just a precautionary detail, which can be lifted. I imagine Alicia like a caged zoo creature, her every lazy slouch analysed, her blood regularly drawn, free to wander a single corridor for her evening leisure.

V

The Molyneuxs don’t handle stress well. I believe they’ve not endured much. Dinner is like treading on eggshells. Alicia is a taboo topic. The metallic clatter of knives and forks rings in the dining room. Ivy’s cooking is hard to swallow. I try to broach the subject of visiting Alicia. It is met with an astonishing silence. Bryan looks up from his boiled peas and touches a single finger to his lips. It’s Elaine who’s not coping. I must confront the social worker myself, and get access to my sad incarcerated sister.

VI

I am at my computer, drafting an email to Alicia’s social worker. I insist I see my sister. I struggle to cobble together some convincing phrases, but nothing flows. Eventually I loose my rag, demand to see my sister in no uncertain terms, and click send. I am taken by surprise when a reply arrives in my inbox. I had assumed correspondence with a government agency would be torturously slow. The social worker can empathise with my concern, but psychiatric treatment cannot be hurried. She will request for Alicia’s files to be reviewed and contact me within an approved time-frame. The social worker’s language is slippery and evasive and it stinks of more delay. I find it hard to accept this bureaucratic nonsense. I shall travel to the facility, hoodwink the shrinks and nurses, see Alicia.

ALICIA

After the breakfast clutter has been cleared away, the dayroom is mine. It is a modern space, bathed in sunlight. It is hard to feel much anxiety here. I’ve been told my diagnosis. It has been explained to me in mammoth consultations. They imply I’m special. I am allowed no visitors. I’m under constant observation. I don’t care. The nurses are watching me now. It is time for my medication. Which I shall hold gingerly, stare at, and take like the princess I am.

ELAINE

I know that I’ve been cowardly. Will is rightly agitating for a visit. I will support him. When he goes to meet his sister, I shall be there. I was feeling bedraggled and careworn, but that has passed. Bryan and I have never experienced the heartache that has beset Alicia. This has all felt out of my emotional comfort-zone. Alicia would probably sneer at my cosy suburban confession, but I care for her. I know that Bryan is smitten too.

BRYAN

I don’t think we should make our visit until we have the proper authorisation. We don’t want any awkward scenes. From my understanding, Alicia is confined to the ward. Elaine has had some qualms, but is now on-board. Will’s naturally desperate to see his sister, but I don’t think bullying our way in will achieve results. I have told him so. The facility where Alicia’s held is apparently modern, set in leafy grounds. It is a considerable hike from here. As soon as we get word, I will drive us down.

TIM

Will says we’ve been granted permission to see Alicia. My screw-head sister is in a hospital that’s far away. The Molyneuxs know I’m a barley-sugar fan, so we load up for the journey. All the sweets are soon eaten, and I feel hyped-up for our visit. Driving into the hospital, over a million speed-bumps, I’m struck by the cheerful park land and trees. Alicia can grow well here. We negotiate dragons at the reception desk, and tread the corridors towards Alicia’s ward. There she is, ghost-thin, pressing together her narrow fingertips. I am feeling concerned now.

STEFAN

The warden has endorsed my application for extended study time. This will further divorce me from the hum-drum callousness of prison life. I have become obsessed with my study, devoting long hours to simply gazing at the great, old masters. The Renaissance painters most fascinate me, with their flamboyant colour and gorgeous nudes. They sweeten my predicament. My first assignment has been returned with a glowing commendation. My children will be proud for me.

WILL

I

We weren’t allowed to stay for long, but that business with Alicia’s hands got to me. Aligning her fingertips, pressing them together, discharging an imaginary gun. At the beginning, I’m not sure she even knew who we were. When she spoke, her words were slurred. I figure they’d drugged her up, so she’d cause no trouble. This is a common health care practice. It is inhuman. When the duty nurse comes in, our foggy conversation has already curdled. We exchange some parting pleasantries and fond stay-wells. Our visit is over.

II

I don’t know what we could have achieved with a single visit. Alicia is clearly ill. How much of her illness is psychosomatic I cannot tell. The ward nurses are clearly caring, so she is in a good space. I am reminded how Mother was. Maybe Alicia’s condition is something she’s inherited. Back home, it all seems less surreal. Bella has made sweet tea. She looks radiant.

III

I don’t believe in conducting emotional autopsies on the living. We need to give Alicia some space to heal. Bella, who is always gently philosophical, says she will come together. Bella and I are almost ready to settle into our North London home. It is generously furnished, thanks to the Molyneuxs, and we shall make it our nest. We have decided on Saturday, when the mattresses are due for delivery. It is an adult step. We shall need to raid the supermarket, and I must learn some cooking skills. I will make sure it’s all perfect for Bella.

IV

Bella is sad to leave her mother, something that has never happened. Elaine and Bryan are emotional and tearful, driving us north. We stop for lattes and hot chocolate, which heartens us all. It is mid-morning when we reach our new home, and the delivery truck is parked outside. We move inside, across the bare floorboards, and ensconce ourselves in deep wicker couches. Bella makes sweet tea. This moment feels historic. As the Molyneuxs’ car swings away, we wave from our front porch like a long married couple. It is strange, and immensely pleasurable. We kiss passionately, and go inside.

STEFAN

I am allowed into the exercise compound now. This morning there is heavy rain, and I feel refreshed. My study period will be after morning fitness. I have had on-going pain in my throat, and find it difficult to swallow anything. I have alerted the prison medical team, but they will be slow to act on anything. There is no news from my family. I am totally in the dark. There has been no recent offer of a letter, but I shan’t push it, seeing how the warden has been so generous with my study materials. The rain clouds are scudding someplace more fortunate. It is time to go back in.

ALICIA

There has been a haziness about the last weeks. They have taken me off some heavy-duty medicines, and things are becoming clearer now. I still sit and dream in the dayroom, but my mind is ticking over now. I feel bad pulling this drama, when the Molyneuxs have been so good to me. I’m not sure I can face their kindness without some tears. The head nurse tells me Will and Bella came, but I have no memory of it. I don’t believe I have schizophrenia, it’s just a glamorous label mental health people like to throw around. There is no talk of discharging me. I’m scared I’ll become institutionalised. I cannot think of the future.

ELAINE

Bella rang me on my mobile. She is doing well, but missing me. Will is a particularly stable boy. He takes good care of my girl. Apparently they while away their time doing home improvements, and drinking endless hot chocolates at their favourite coffee shop. I cannot disapprove. I don’t wish to be an old nag about schooling, although I’m very bothered. Bella and Will visited Alicia at the rehabilitation centre, but she was still glazed over and numb. She never said a single word. It chills me. Bryan and I shall go this coming weekend.

BELLA

Will is cooking for me and the baby. Our beautiful kitchenette is a mess of greasy fry pans, although I do admit Will’s breadcrumbed fish is exceedingly good. After the birth, I shall quietly regain control of culinary matters. Living with Will is pretty simple. He is lovable, funny and especially attentive. Sometimes he goes a tad remote, when he thinks of Alicia or his Father. I feel heavy now, and can detect the smallest of toes digging into my ribs. The baby is active and hiccups all the time. Will won’t discuss names, believing it to be too early. The truth is my last trimester has begun.

TIM

I am alone at home with the Molyneuxs. They are making a big fuss over me. My looby loo sister is still away with the birds, and Will is off home building somewhere. Ivy, who hates me, looks terrified I may steal her kitchen space. Whip up something grand to show up her bland lunches. I am liking the quiet, but wish we could visit Father. Our connection has become weak. Once I felt him in my head, I could imagine his days; that has gone. I hope that he’s not sad, sitting out the day in his dreary cell, thinking of escape.

BRYAN

Tim is an absolute live-wire, we love having him here. More energy than a turbine motor, and endearingly cranky. I often wonder at the resilience of the very young. My own childhood was so plain and moderate, I could never have endured what Tim has suffered and come out unscathed. Alicia, however, a little older, is dreadfully scared and faces a lifetime of psychological hurt. Will is rock steady, though I think he mulls. He is often somewhere else, in a pained space. When their Father is released, we would want to stay connected, like honorary godparents. I believe Stefan will grant us that.

WILL

I

The days pass swimmingly. If it wasn’t for Alicia and Father, I would call this happiness. Bella glows brighter than a supernova. She is clearly content. The only downer is that some idiot is tossing glass bottles into our tiny backyard. They explode like incendiary devices around midnight. We jump up, startled, curse the morons, then snuggle deep in our duvet. There is an element of black comedy, I am beginning to think, in even the most heartbreaking things.

II

There have been abrupt raps at the door, heavy-breathers on the phone. Always at midnight. We are persecuted. I have reported these incidents to the police, but the constable was bored and unimpressed. I can’t imagine we’ve offended our new neighbours, it’s just some sick prankster on the loose. Bella, as always, remains composed and waves away the issue, saying it’s most probably troubled adolescents. She makes me smile, she’s always so assured and wise. My preferred method would be to stalk behind the door with a baseball bat and exact a vigilante justice. I will not have my girl and unborn child disturbed.

III

I was going for a carton of milk when I was set upon. I’d felt I was being followed, then there was this excoriating pain between my shoulder blades. I fell to the ground, where they kicked viciously at my stomach and face. As my vision blurred, I couldn’t define their faces but felt their animal glee, as I writhed on the pavement. I know it was over quickly. I bled quietly, then an old lady found me, and rang for help. I am perplexed by such a vicious random attack. At the clinic they patch me up, hand me a prescription for painkillers, and I’m off to break it gently to Bella.

IV

Back home, I realise my face is more messed up than I’d first thought. I should have spruced up in a mirror, before terrifying Bella. But she is all calm practicality and soon has warm poultices out, and is dabbing my inflamed cheeks gently. I think I’ve lost a tooth, but that seems little matter. My eyes are a puffy-purple and my stomach’s sore. I hope nothing has been permanently disfigured. We talk for a while, speculating about the culprits. Bella wonders if there’s any link to Stefan and prison, as we know Father’s hated there. It seems far-fetched and I say so. I put it down to hoodlums and thugs, who enjoy mindlessly inflicting pain. I wonder if our new neighbourhood is rawer than it seems. Bella rings the police station. They will send an officer, to take down my statement.

V

It’s slowly dawned on me that Bella is in danger. From now, I shall shadow her every step. If she goes to the shop, I’ll be at her heels. If she craves hot chocolate, I’ll be sitting across the table. I have spoken to Bryan, who also believes there may be a prison connection. I need to see Father and fathom all this. Bryan has suggested we return to their home, just until we’re safe. But I know Bella is settled now, and awaiting our huge event.

STEFAN

Slimey Mike is on my case. He has associates outside prison who will hurt my son. There is no tangible reason why he hates me so. But he wants to harm my family. I shall press for an immediate letter, and warn Will. I am distracted by this burning soreness in my throat, which has been escalating. My requests for medical assistance have been met with a brick wall of indifference. Slimey Mike is spreading malicious rumours that I’m gay, have aids, am infectious, so I’m shunned by everyone. Now I get my own table in the dinner hall, which suits me fine. I wouldn’t have these retards put my children in peril. I shall put a stop to this.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

That bastard is a snivelling runt. My stooges ‘ave been spiking ‘is food for a fortnight. He suspects nuffin’. I’m here for bashin’ an old biddy. She ‘ad it coming. Ten years. So I needs some recreation. There is no especial reason I ‘ate the bastard. Maybe it’s because he stinks of privilege. They makes me want to vomit. My rage builds up. Until I need to lash out. I shall ‘ave his son’s ‘ead.

BRYAN

We were alarmed to hear of the attack on Will. We heard it was a salubrious area, but we were obviously misinformed. I am particularly concerned for Bella in her delicate condition. We have encouraged her to come home, but she’s a stubborn, loyal girl. These mindless assaults are becoming all too common. Elaine is in a nervous flap and wants the police thoroughly involved. Realistically however, they’ll be swamped with more pressing cases and won’t take too much interest. It is up to us to protect our kin. Elaine and I shall drive up and have a frank discussion with Bella. She must be home.

ALICIA

There have been no visits. Life is overtaking people, while I’m holed up here. The constant round of taking blood pressure, consultations with my shrink, is wearing me down. I would say I’ve now recuperated, although the world seems a little shaky, dry as dust. I’ve befriended a girl with terrible scars across her wrists. We talk, big things. If they ever release me I shall liberate my friend too. The hours drag interminably and they’re painting the dayroom, which is off bounds. I wish Will would come. The nurses know nothing. It is time for evening meds. I feel desolate. The fog will come. Nothing happens here.

ELAINE

Bella has dug in her heels. We spoke, I pleaded. But Bella’s adamant, she wants to stay put with Will. Once Bella has committed, nothing can change her mind. So Bryan and I will pay our visit. We’ll drink and eat their organic beverages and sushi crackers, and try not to look distraught. I do admit Will is guarding my girl like a ministering angel. His loyalty is commendable, and I hope he shall become my son-in-law. We are getting in the car now, to drive the short leg north. I realise I haven’t thought of Alicia for a while. I will do hope the girl is rallying.

TIM

I am in the back seat of the car going to Will and Bella’s, although no-one notices me. I understand the Molyneuxs are thinking of their daughter. I’m unsure if Father still thinks of me. I’ve been waiting patiently for his letter, standing by the door when the postman calls, but nothing drops on the mat for me. Our family is truly screwed up. I even miss my life sister’s long sour face, and acid comments. I wonder when she’ll be home. But most of all I long for Mother and Aunt Emilia. I speak with them at night, when the house is still.

WILL

I

The aches and general soreness in my body are largely gone. I rather like my role of bodyguard, although Bella gets riled. The Molyneuxs just texted to say they’re on their way, with Tim. I do understand that they want to protect Bella. But what we really need is a surveillance officer watching us round the clock, the Molyneuxs are way too mild. The more I dwell on it, the more I believe there’s a connection to Father. It is like a nagging suspicion that won’t be dispelled. I know Father’s prison enemies are fierce sub-human men. I shall bring this up with Bryan.

II

When the Molyneuxs’ car draws up, there is a tall thick-set man loafing around in the street. I don’t like the look of him. There is something unsavoury about his demeanour. When I point him out to Bryan, the man pulls a black hood over his head, and sidles away. He moves slowly, with measured steps, and is gone. I take a deep breath. Bryan thinks he’s a vagrant, and Bella is unimpressed. But I know he was waiting for me, that he has me in his cross-hairs, that he means to harm me.

III

I’d thought the Molyneuxs were here to bend Bella’s ear. However, they are surprisingly low-key and all smiles. I wonder if this is a strategy. But Bella has been plain about it. She says her place is beside me. Bella is due fairly soon, and she wants to stay put. We have an appointment with the midwife tomorrow, who’ll be coming to our home. I chat with Bryan and Elaine. The small talk that they’re best at. The subjects of Alicia and Father are carefully avoided, although they dwell on my health. I can’t help feeling that a crisis is beyond the Molyneuxs’ emotional scope. Maybe I’m too battle-hardened. But Bella is happy, talking baby clothes with her Mother, inspecting the freshly painted nursery, and giggling awkwardly when I chip in. For potential in-laws, I am blessed with the Molyneuxs, and so is Tim. Thus I wonder why I suddenly feel so saddened about them.

IV

The Molyneuxs and Tim stay with us overnight. It’s a bit of a squeeze, but relatively painless. I wake early and go to make some tea. As the kettle boils, there’s the chink of disturbed bottles in our yard. I pull the net curtains, and see a broad man climbing out over our fence back into the street. My heart rate soars, and I’m dizzy. I feel violated and numb. I stagger to the lounge to call the police. The clock says 06.20. A unit has been despatched and will be here in ten minutes. The intruder shall be long gone. I have no adequate description, just a terrible sinking feeling and this desire to lash out wildly. There is no safety. We are now victims.

V

Waving goodbye to her Mother is clearly hard for Bella. I have shared the news of our intruder, but Bella is strangely serene. I put it down to soaring hormones, and that feeling of elation she’s described to me. I am, nevertheless, profoundly unsettled by our new problem. Not so much for my own safety, but nervous that the Molyneuxs will whisk my girl and child away. However, they were surprisingly contained when the police came, and made no scene. Bryan has offered to install a burglar alarm and security lighting, which we’ve gratefully accepted. But I cannot help feeling this felon is very determined, eager to taste my blood.

ALICIA

I am truly forgotten. I may need to go on hunger strike, to get some recognition. It is hard to accept that even Will is off my case. The Molyneuxs cringe when there’s something raw to handle. Father, despite his weirdness, knew me better. I cannot idle here much longer. The dayroom has become an insufferable dungeon. My friend has been shifted to the high-security wing, after she attacked an orderly. I think I’m mortifying from the inside. If I get fat, I shall end it all.

STEFAN

Another less hardened inmate has warned me to watch my food. I don’t know if he’s insulting me, or alerting me to something more sinister. The throat pains continue to plague me, and I can keep nothing down. I spent last week in the infirmary, but they threw me out and said I was faking it. Slimey Mike has got into this revolting habit of leering obscenely at me, like he’s got some titillating secret, tapping his fat, crimson nose, then slapping me painfully between the shoulderblades when he and his filthy cohorts pass by. I daren’t make a complaint, or they’ll break both my legs and roar about it. I have written my letter to Will. It incriminates a number of the prisoners, most of all Mike. I pray Will takes my warning to heart.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

I’ve procured some toxic weedkiller from outside. It was ‘ard to smuggle past the screws, but it’ll work a treat on his fuckin’ majesty. If I spend more time inside for this, the satisfaction of seeing him squirm will outweigh the extra years behind bars. Because I’m essentially made for prison life. When I was young, killin’ scrawny cats in the park, I thought my empire would grow grand. It ‘as. Men bow at me feet. They admire me. Except ‘him. I shall ‘ave ‘im writhing on the cement and his precious family chewing shit. This ain’t over by ‘alf. Nobody will walk prouder than I, when they cart out the corpse of this sickening ponce.

BRYAN

I’ve just had a call from the contractors to say the security suite has been installed. This will give Elaine and I some piece of mind. Bella and Will have been hooked up to the national security network, who will drive out and investigate if the alarm is triggered for any reason. The outside lighting is more precautionary, although it’s unlikely to scare off any really determined offender. I’ve been swayed by Will, and now agree prison is at the root of this. We are truly nervous for our girl. However, Bella is swathed in the hormones of coming motherhood, and cannot fret. Even Will’s injuries provoked only mild concern, although I know she’s absolutely besotted with him. Tim says we should all stay in North London. The young has impeccable instincts. He fears a coming storm and much blood, he has said this to us. We are not superstitious. Neither is Tim to be ignored.

ELAINE

I’ve had a call from Alicia’s psychiatrist to say her spirits are flagging, and could we visit immediately. I must admit Alicia has been out of my mind since Bella’s run into trouble. I begin to feel the strain on my emotional resources. My sleep is ruined, I spend the night wide-eyed and brooding, while Bryan snores. I know he is engaged with Bella’s safety, but I still feel she should be staying with us. So much has happened this last year. It is like we’ve been sucked into a vortex, and left to learn our new circumstances without help. I begin to think of my own Mother. I need counsel. I have noticed my hands now tremble. This is all too much.

TIM

It’s not that I’m neglected. It is rather that I’ve become invisible. The Molyneuxs drive me everywhere, feed me well, spoil Puddles too, but it’s like they’re going through automatic motions. They certainly don’t speak to me, and Elaine has developed this awkward twitch, and she tugs violently at her hair like a crazy person. When I speak, the whole world goes deaf. Except for Ivy, who’s worse than a spitting cat. She hates me. I can see it’s a worrying time for the Molyneuxs. They merely toy with their food at mealtimes. If the phone rings, they pounce at it. They hum and haw. They startle easily. I am beginning to think the long honeymoon is over, and I feel very lonely. Even Alicia’s bullying beneath-me face would be welcome now. Nothing has been done about schooling. I sit in the kitchen for hours and read recipes on the internet. Something must change. I need Father to come.

WILL

I

I wake. It is the burglar alarm ringing hysterically. It is 5.15 AM. I leap from bed, and grab the cricket bat standing by the wall. Bella moans and sits up. This is a home invasion. I hear a glass smash below, and the scrunch of booted feet. Bella is on her mobile now, dialling emergency. The operator has logged our address within moments. I creep to the door and listen hard. The intruder is shuffling about in our kitchenette. Then he moves heavily towards the stairs. My stomach collapses. Bella whimpers. I draw my breath and pray to hear police sirens. The alarm still jangles madly. I can imagine the offender’s gruff breath on my face and the crunch of my breaking bones. The tension is explosive. Bella is weeping now.

II

Heavy steps ascend the staircase. The door is thrown open. In the shadowy doorframe stands a six-fold hunk of inhuman muscle. My bladder loosens. Bella screams. I wield the cricket bat, which feels like a pathetic twig against this hulking brute. He is breathless, unshaven and he stinks of stale sweat. He carries a huge Bowie knife and I sense he wants to gut me. Suddenly I am strangely calm. I notice his boots have left a trail of grime, and Bella shall be mad. It is then we hear the police car sirens. A perplexed look visits the savage face. He turns heel, and tramps noisily back down the stairs, slamming the front door brutally. I move over to Bella and hold her tight. She is hiccupping tears, complaining of pain through broken sobs. I reach across for my mobile and call the ambulance. The police are already in the house.

III

We are badly shaken. I’m completing an incident report with the constable, and the ambulance officer is using a portable ultrasound to check our child’s heartbeat. Bella has somewhat recovered, the pains are gone, but she is ashen and silent. There is no sign of the felon, despite two junior officers scouring the vicinity. I have called the Molyneuxs and they’re on the way. The security company have also sent their representative. I feel we have little choice now. We must lock up the house, and stay with Bryan and Elaine. It is the only safe option. Bella nods at this. Her scan is all clear, but the paramedic says she must take bed rest, and stay clear from stress. Apart from trembling hands and a growing misanthropy, I am relatively unscathed. I go to comfort Bella and outline our plan. I have a horrible suspicion that the home invader will know where the Molyneuxs live.

IV

The Molyneuxs are here and there’s much hugging. They ask us to pack light bags and be ready as soon as can be. Elaine is clearly distressed, her face is riven and sallow. This is a Mother’s worst nightmare, and I’m certain she must blame me somehow, for dragging her daughter into this mire. Bryan asks me to recount the whole incident, and to remember the smallest detail. I am trembling by the end of the story. Then we take our keys, prime the burglar alarm, and deadbolt the front door. Our bitter-sweet home-making is over for now. Tim waits in the car. I take a last glance at our love nest, now defiled, and the Molyneuxs’ car growls into life and sweeps us away.

STEFAN

I was admitted into the prison infirmary last night. My throat was on fire, like a burning bush, and I was choking, struggling to breathe. The doctor sedated me, the pain has passed, and I feel calmer. The doctor will make his rounds soon. I am absolutely certain of foul play. This all happened immediately after dinner, and I remember a particularly acrid taste to my food, way beyond the usual foulness. I believe this is a case of deliberate poisoning. Slimey Mike must be the prime suspect. I shall report this to the authorities, even though his little gang of thugs break all my bones. I should have listened harder to the subtle tip-offs from the other prisoners, who clearly meant well. Lying here in bed, I sincerely hope that Will has received my warning letter, because the threat to him is clearly real.

ELAINE

My Bella is clearly relieved to be home. She’s peeved to be restricted to bed, but agrees, we must follow professional advice. Will is being beautiful. He brings Bella fruit teas and delicious little dainties from the local delicatessen. We don’t speak of their ordeal. Bryan is pumping up security at our house, but this isn’t really the neighbourhood for home invasions. I am quite horrified to think my child was threatened by that uncouth monster. Will’s lurid description curdled my blood. But they shall be safe here. It is our parental obligation. I shall watch my girl like a hawk. No stranger will even breathe near her.

ALICIA

This is such a coop. If you complain or struggle, the doctors increase your medication. I don’t wish to become a zombie again, now I have my mind back. I only wish the Molyneuxs would be more pro-active in getting me released. What has happened to them, it’s like they’ve fallen off the face of the earth. Without their help, I’m going to be incarcerated here for eternity. The food makes me vomit, everything is filthy dirty, the other patients are all raving bonkers and hate me. The psychiatrists toy with me, and speak in hushed voices, like I’m a fragile doll. Someone please come and rescue me. Something big must be happening in the wide world, for my family and guardians to so neglect me.

BRYAN 

I have just returned home, after an extensive discussion with the chief constable at our local station. He is not very encouraging, and says it’s unlikely that they’ll apprehend the home invader. Nevertheless he took my full statement and promised to review our case. I have been busy installing more security systems at our home. Elaine feels our desirable location precludes serious crime, but I’m not so sure. I have fixed an appointment with the prison warden, where I shall raise my very real concerns. There is no evidence, except the hunches of our wards, but I shall work with that. Bella is almost due. I will not have her at risk. If we have to, we shall keep vigil. The safety of Bella and her baby is paramount.

TIM

I find it all bemusing. We bounce around like yo-yos and get into terrible scrapes. For a big brother Will is setting a thoroughly bad example. He is here now, doting on Bella like lovesick poodle. The Molyneuxs say they’ve been through the mill, whatever that means. The new security equipment is really cool, and I’ve watched Bryan arm it, like he’s a real big-shot hero. I am amazed no-one mentions Alicia or Father, as if they’re both dead and long buried. I have taken to confiding in Puddles, because nobody has time for me. I think even Ivy feels some sympathy. I’m like a lost glove somebody may remember and call for one far-away day, when all the fuss has died down. I call this a shameful childhood. I may report it. That’ll open their eyes. I want to be listened to, and seen.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

I ‘ad a right little chuckle when I ‘eard he was in th’ infirmary. His med’cine didn’t agree with ‘im. My man big Tommy Watkins must ‘ave put the wind up his son too, and that pretty little morsel the boy’s got up the duff. Tommy says they’ve scarpered back to the girl’s parents, in some toffee-nosed nook of the big smoke. I’ll ‘ave the toff’s ‘ead on a stick, and ‘is spoilt brat son for a matchin’ trophy. Nobody sneers at Mike. Let’s see ‘im strut around like a stuck-up faggot when Tommy’s disfigured ‘is spawn.

WILL

I

It is good to feel safe again, and Bella is relishing her queen-bee status. The Molyneuxs are delighted to satisfy Bella’s every whim, and it is likewise with me. Even Tim gravitates to Bella’s bedside with his special creations, and he beams when she bites delightedly into one. Bella is bored silly, but happy. We no longer listen out for suspicion sounds. The noise of the wind among the detritus of the backyard holds no fear. My nagging concern is that we’re being complacent. The Molyneuxs are not hard to find. We cannot suddenly disappear into anonymity, or hope our home invader is incapable of consulting the internet, or even flicking through the telephone book. We are still his target. I can imagine him, crouched on a grubby sofa, leafing his way through the London directories, glugging down cracked tumblers of cheap whiskey, honing the flame of his terrifying, silent hate.

II

I was mooching around outside, sort of idly, when I felt I was being watched. Like these detestable eyes were upon me. I can’t be certain it’s the thick-set offender, but my heart and head tell me it’s so. I fear the cycle of persecution will start anew, and Bella is now so close. Out of frustrated anger, I kick the kerb and stub my toe. I must go inside and share this with Bryan. Elaine will have a hysterical meltdown. I know she felt assured this couldn’t happen in her perfect leafy suburb. I am afraid our feral intruder has caught the scent. That he plans to clamp his jaws over our lives. That he shall take pleasure doing it.

III

There are two men under the street lamp. Though it is misty, I know one of them is our assailant. I try not to disturb the drapes, and alert them to my presence. It is a nail-biting moment, and my breath comes raggedly. Bella can see my agitation and moves over to my side. She makes a frightened mewl when she spies the men. They are smoking cigarettes and tapping the paving stones with their heavy booted feet. They look comfortably engaged and companionable, despite the chill evening air. I wonder should we call the police, and walk across to confront them. Bella has gone to fetch Bryan. We all gaze down while I call the police. The mist is thickening. When we look again, the men have melted away, and the street is empty. It is creepily intimidating.

IV

The fact is I’m hounded by thugs. It has made me very insular. It is time to reflect on the plight of my Father and sister, who are both incarcerated, sorry people. I’ve just received Father’s letter, which took a roundabout route to me. It confirms what I’ve long thought. That our persecution has its roots in prison. I don’t know what arguments Father has embroiled himself in, I only know his enemies are toxic beings. We shall go to prison and gather information. Bryan, now he knows, is spoiling for a meeting. As for Alicia, we must also visit. I have read her psychiatric evaluation and she seems stable now. Elaine is nervous about having her here. Worried that she might unsettle Bella. Elaine is something of a coward. My sister isn’t even mildly dangerous, merely mixed-up and sad. She has lost the two most precious women in her life. I think she deserves some slack. Bryan will see that. He is fond of Alicia. He will want her with us. I must work on him.

TOMMY WATKINS

I’m brassed off with loiterin’ outside their ‘ouse, watchin’ ’em twitch the drapes, turn off the lights and go to their stinkin’ snooty beds. It’s bloody freezin’ these nights, and Jono is mighty ugly company, when all we do is tap our frozen mitts and chain-smoke. Mike wants us to put the fear of God into the boy, before goin’ in for the kill. I nearly ‘ad ‘im before, before that fuckin’ burglar alarm shrieked blue murder. Mike’s goin’ to pay us ‘andsomely, he’s a swell bastard, and ‘e keeps ‘is word. These people must ‘ave messed with ‘im somethin’ rotten. I pity ’em. Mike’s like a rottweiler, ‘e never lets go once ‘e’s got a grouse in ‘is ‘ead. Tonight we’ll smash some windows, get some adrenalin pumpin’. It’s time we ‘ad some real sport.

ALICIA

Will, Tim and the Molyneuxs are here. Surely I’ll be discharged now. The chief consultant has been paged. I feel light-headed. Will is explaining, less gruffly than his normal self, how he and Bella have been assailed by home invaders. How the Molyneuxs’ home is no longer safe. Will looks askance at me, and says should I come home, it’ll be to an uneasy place fraught with tension and the threat of attack. To me, it all seems like a rebuttal, that they don’t really want me back. I reply that I must escape from here, to preserve my sanity. That the persecution of criminals is preferable to the constant hounding of psychiatrists. Will smiles. I have won my case. Elaine shifts her shoulders nervously beside me, she is not convinced, but nods her head moodily. Then suddenly Bryan is hugging me. Now I am really out of this place.

ELAINE

Driving home in the car, Alicia complains of bright lights. Having been locked inside for months, the city must seem glaring, garish. I hope the sudden change doesn’t topple her back over the edge. Our lives are already unstable and stressful, we want no more scenes. I am terrified for Bella and fear she may miscarry, if these offenders get to her. Never in my life has the world seemed so frightful, and its people so distasteful. I am frankly shocked that the police are so blasé. We pay our taxes, we deserve better. Bryan has spoken to me about hiring a private bodyguard, who’ll watch our girl around the clock. It seems highly advisable, and I’ve said so. These last few months have acquainted me with pure evil. I tremble to think how we shall ride this terrible wave of violence.

STEFAN

There is some sensational news. The warden has called me in to say my sentence has been overturned. New evidence has emerged, which proves I never laid a finger on Emilia. I was the mastermind behind the attack, yes, but that is not the same as wielding the instrument that maimed Emilia. I can expect to be released within six months. The private detective in my pay, Billings, has been apprehended and he’s made a full confession. After a brief court case, he will be imprisoned. I am reeling, as if from a heavy blow. I never expected liberty. When I walk free, there shall be money. It’s like a ghastly haze has lifted. I feel deeply empowered. When I swallow, it is like taking great gulps of freedom.

ELAINE

The letter from the prison warden explains how Stefan has been exonerated. I must admit to being greatly surprised. It seems like Stefan is likely to receive significant compensation for this miscarriage of justice. The warden’s timeline points to a release in around six months. I have gathered his three children around our dining table, and broken the good news. They are relieved and happy, most especially Tim. I don’t know what this means for our future caregiving arrangements but, in the present dangerous circumstances, nothing will alter. Those two brutes still harass us below the streetlamp nightly, and there seems nothing we can do. The police take not an iota of action. It is menacing. The doctor warns that my blood pressure is high. Bryan has interviewed an ex-serviceman who seems well-suited to be Bella’s bodyguard. I expect the two offenders will make their move soon. It shan’t be pretty, so we must take precautions. Our girl is close to full-term. I am afraid. Nothing must derail Bella’s happiness.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

The news ‘as spread like wildfire, the trumped-up bastard is gettin’ out. ‘E’s as innocent as I is. The way stuff moves ’round these parts, ‘e won’t see a blue sky for months. So I’ll ‘ave some thinkin’ time to work my magic, and break ‘is balls. We’ve ‘ad plentiful fun spikin’ ‘is grub, and watchin’ the cunt writhe. Now it’s time for more traditional thuggery, some busted bones and a broke scalp. I’ll do it meself, and wear the spiked footwear I keep for such special occasions. If they add another five years to me sentence, it’ll be worth the satisfaction of havin’ ‘is blood all over me boots. ‘Caus I mean to fix ‘im and ‘is kid. It’s me callin’. I’ll crack me face in a massive smile, when they wheel out ‘is mangled body. ‘E shan’t be so snooty with a brain injury, and crippled legs. This ain’t just rough talk. It’s’ appenin’.

BRYAN

These two ruffians clearly plan to intimidate us. When they hurled a small rock through our kitchen window in the dead of night, I was alarmed, but not at all surprised. Elaine leapt out of her skin, and Bella’s slumber was disturbed, but my own nerves stay relatively firm. From tomorrow, Allen Anderson will be here around the clock, to protect my precious family. I know Allen, who’s a big man, carries a registered firearm, although I hope it shan’t come to that. I think he’ll be enough to scare off these predatory thugs. When Stefan is out of prison, and we have a clearer idea of the grudge these men hold against him, I think the courts will take a more active interest in our predicament. The police have repeatedly shrugged off my complaints and they see no clear danger. I find it staggering, but things will change. Taking matters into our own hands might seem to make us culpable, but at least we’ll be safe this way. I shall sleep better now. Tomorrow we will have a well-built professional to guard us and our home.

TIM

I can’t help feeling this is all extremely exciting. The two roughs on the road, staring in, the midnight raids, it’s just like the movies. My sister has returned to a hot-bed of intrigue and danger. The only mystery is why these people would attack us in the first place, we, such ordinary people. Will says they’re enemies of Father, but that doesn’t explain why they hate us so. Elaine is quivering in her boots, it’s just like her to be a pathetic coward. This huge, serious man is coming to guard us all. He never smiles out loud, but yesterday, he winked at me. It was menacing. He’s going to sleep in the basement room, like some cave-dwelling animal. I have seen his holstered gun. We shouldn’t be having such men in the house, although I don’t deny it’s thrilling. Bryan has spoken with me, in his this-is-important and mildly creepy voice. I must stay out of Allen’s way, he has a job to do. I stare out of the window. Dusk has set in, the two chilling men shall arrive soon. They will stand under the streetlamp and act threatening. I’m fearful that this shall end very badly.

WILL

I

Bella gets breathless now. Our child weighs heavily against her ribs and abdomen. The mystic look I noticed earlier has left Bella’s eyes. She now seems like she’s poised to act upon a command. The rock incident shook Bella up a bit, but she maintains her usual grace and unflappable sang froid. She’s packed a small case, which she keeps under the bed. It is full of cold creams, facial cleansers and modest nighties. We are ready, if assailed. Allen, the bodyguard, lets us wander in the house, but he accompanies us on all outings to the corner shop or bank machine. Allen looks fearsome, but he is reticent and well-groomed, and Bella likes him. When evening falls, Allen sits in the dining room alcove, which has a wide panorama upon the street. He takes endless photographs of our persecutors, and logs especially detailed notes. I’m not sure if these men know they are being scrutinised. Allen is certain there will be a break-in very soon. Allen is ready. Bryan is ready. I stay with them in the chilly, shadowed corner-seat, and keep night-vigil.

II

I was profoundly asleep. Until Bella shook me. Fire. She is shouting fire. We both leap up, and scurry downstairs, where the lounge is already blazing. Flames are running up the curtains, this is a full-blown inferno. The smoke is bitter, acrid, and the heat breathtaking. Elaine is just stood there, mesmerised by the licking tongues of fire. We must get out. I charge back up the staircase to Tim and Alicia’s rooms, but Bryan’s already roused them, and they’re moving downstairs, covering their mouths. This must be arson. There is no sign of Allen. Bryan ushers us all to the front door, and we’re suddenly outside, into the cool night air. I notice how the sky is studded with innumerable silver stars. The house is burning like a haystack now, it shall be utterly consumed. There is quite a street crowd when the fire brigade finally arrives. By which time the house has caved in upon itself. It is a rouge, smouldering cinder. We are homeless. Elaine is weeping. Allen is missing. Tragedy has struck.

III

Bryan is consoling us, by underlining how everyone is safe. Elaine is grimy and shaky and horribly tearful. The rest of us are are more relaxed, and Tim is positively buzzing. After we’ve all made a detailed statement, Bryan drives us to a nearby motel. I expect none of our things can be salvaged. As we are checking-in, I think of all my precious sentimental treasures gone up in smoke. We have reported Allen missing. I’m beginning to wonder if he was associated with our persecutors, and whether he actually torched the house, and fled. But that’s maybe just my jaded, cynical self, because he did seem perfectly kosher. Bella is worryingly subdued. Her childhood home is in ruins, so I understand. The motel is basic and we share facilities. I hope Bryan’s insurance policy is rock-solid. Elaine has begun to whimper, it is very pitiful. Alicia and Tim head off to bed. I don’t think I shall sleep. Our family has brought distress and ruin to the Molyneuxs. It makes me wince.

IV

Next day we visit the charred remains of the Molyneuxs’ home. The fire department are still damping down hot-spots. A fat insurance assessor is making his inspection. It is all very maudlin. I recognise the heat-warped entrails of the living room sofa, this is sad. A blackened picture frame scorched onto a retaining wall. If Elaine had felt strong enough to be here, she’d have been mortified. The police have rounded up no suspects. But they have confirmed that the fire started within the house. The finger is pointing squarely at Allen. We could have all fried in our beds, it is chilling. Elaine has said the motel is inadequate, that Bryan must rent a bigger place until insurance matters are resolved. So we’ll go to a rental agency next, and start asking about the nicer areas. Elaine is particular about that. I’m still feeling that my family have brought this mayhem upon the Molyneuxs’ lives. That it is better we are cast off like the toxic parasites we are. It is a heavy guilt to bear.

V

A grisly discovery has been made. In the burnt-out basement of the house. The carbonised skeleton of a man, hunched up into the foetal position. It is Allen. He will have died horribly, of asphyxiation and flames. I feel terrible about my misdirected blame. Allen, the police explain, was most probably sealed in by noxious fumes and heat. There would have been no chance of escape. This is now a murder inquiry. Arson, resulting in death. Elaine is leaning over a low hedge, and vomiting copiously. We all took Allen into our hearts, although he was with us so briefly. Even Bella is flustered. She begins to totter and weep. I can imagine what shell-shock must feel like. The police are talking to Bryan about deploying an officer to watch over us. Our persecution has been acknowledged, and its seriousness moved up a notch. Hardened criminals have tarnished our lives. I wonder how Father would act. We are clearly imperilled, and the Molyneuxs are targeted too. Bryan is shaking the sergeant’s hand and we drive away. Allen’s funeral shall have to be a arranged. He had no family. I expect it shall rain. We are all pros at bereavement.

ALICIA

When I returned from the hospital, I thought there’d be oodles of luxury and calm. Instead I’ve got arson, murder and homelessness. Not a good mix to aid a girl’s recovery. Father has really corrupted our lives, by getting these unsavoury hoodlums tangled in our business. I expect to be emotionally scarred by this. It’s been floated around that we’ll be moving into grander quarters. Because honestly this motel is well below expectations. Tim might love the chintzy-coloured curtains and the bespoke coffee tables, but they’re not for me. I’ve been throwing my medication down the sink, and everyone’s too preoccupied to be much bothered. My head is clearer. I had a nasty scare when poor Allen was found, but I’ve felt solid since that gruesome moment. It is like this tide is rising, and I may get swamped, only nobody cares. Aunt E. would have put this mess in order. The dead have this clarity when it comes to straightening things. I shall sleep now. Tomorrow may be less muddled.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

Me lads ‘ave done us proud, burnin’ down that fuckin’ swanky palace. Shame the bastard’s runt got out, and his lah-de-da surrogate family too. We may ‘ave gone too far, their security snitch got wasted, and the cops’ll be sniffin’ ’round th’ scene like randy bitches. I’ll act like me nose is squeaky clean, and back away a bit from ‘is ‘ighness. Least till the fuss blows over. There’ll still be time to mash ‘is ‘ead proper bad, and screw over ‘is son. Since ‘e’s known ’bout his release, the cunt thinks ‘e’s all invulnerable like. ‘E’s seriously misguided. Don’t ‘e know we’re deadlier than bloody rattlesnakes. Me people are everywhere, fanged, set to bite. It ain’t the end of our fun. Tommy and Jono are ‘avin a bloody bawl, and ‘ave more rough stuff planned. The son’ll ‘ave no place to ‘ide. It makes me proud, thinking what mess we’ll make.

ELAINE

I’m a shivering disgrace. These children have brought a terrible turmoil with them. Our lives are in tatters, and I can’t help blaming Bryan, for his foolish charitable gesture, when he took these waifs under our wing. It has made us homeless, and my beautiful daughter a sad teenage mother. This breaks my heart. My doctor has prescribed sleeping pills and rest, but how is that possible. I begin to loathe the sight of Alicia, who is a pampered, precious thing, clearly enjoying the distress we’re in. The insurance company wants us to compile an inventory of our lost belongings. The thought makes me weep. All my beautiful things, so lovingly collected, reduced to a pile of cinders. Where will I get the nerve to believe in life again. It is all horrible. There is no suitable rental property. Our money is dwindling. Allen’s funeral looms. Something must snap. I think it’s me.

TOMMY WATKINS

When Mike found out what we’s did, ‘e was proper pleased. ‘E’s put us in a ‘otel down the street, ready for the next strike. The pigs’ll be scourin’ the derelict ‘ouse for somethin’ they can use. They’ll find nothin’. We was right professional. I’m sorry we burnt the wrong guy, but ‘e should never ‘ave got mixed-up with Mike’s prey. ‘E clearly ‘ad it coming. Jono’s spoilin’ for a brawl. ‘E suggests we duff up the kid real nasty. I say we wait. Till it’s luvly and dark, and the fuss ‘as died down, and they ain’t ‘xpectin’ no attack. We get ‘is fat tart too, bootiful and messy. I ‘ave this gorgeous shiny knuckleduster. I got it as a pressy. I ache to christen it. We know where they are. There’s this seedy alley off the motel car-park. Like it was made special. We’ll smear it with their blood.

STEFAN

It’s all around the prison. Slimey Mike likes to gloat. At first I thought it was a hoax, designed to taunt me. But the warden has confirmed it’s real. What must the Molyneuxs be feeling. All they have worked for, incinerated into embers. Thank heavens my children are safe. When I’m out of here, I’ll guard them better than the crown jewels. I’ll be a paragon, a model Father. I shall shrug off my addiction for younger women, get deeply immersed in all my children’s lives. This has made my impending freedom seem bitter-sweet. Slimey must be sorted. This has escalated into madness. It has no sense. It must stop.

TIM

The flames damn near erased my eyebrows. It was like a furnace, so exciting. Of course it sucks that we’re homeless. The motel is cramped, Alicia is permanently hacked off. It’s like sharing a room with a five-foot six-inch scowl. Everyone is salty, and won’t tell me where we go from here. I feel particularly sad for Allen. It is too horrible. When Father is out, he’ll straighten all this up. He has this inner power no-one else possesses. I can trust in him. Bryan and Elaine are way too nice, people take advantage. Look at the mess they’re in. Will is strangely calm, when you consider they’re mainly after him. The Molyneuxs want us to stick together like clams. I’m not even allowed to go for an ice cream alone. That sucks. If I argue, the Molyneuxs look like they’ll break, so I say nothing harsh. Elaine is always crying secretly, it is really awkward. If a dog barks outside, she leaps off the couch in a panic. This is no way to live. I want forceful people. I want Father. He’d handle this.

WILL

I

Elaine has discovered the ideal rental property. It is in an affluent leafy suburb, quiet but close to the tube, and it comes fully furnished. Its design is modern and angular, Bella loves it. We have tried to keep our movements secret, so we don’t give away our new location, but I’m sure these felons have their ways of discovery. We have no luggage or heavy suitcases to make us conspicuous, everything was burned. When we slip up the cul-de-sac, it is twilight and terribly quiet, no neighbour stirs. Bryan turns the deadbolt, and we’re all in the lobby. It is homely, airy and bright. Elaine bustles around hanging our coats, she is clearly rejuvenated. If it weren’t for a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I’d share her enthusiasm. I imagine our oppressors have successfully watched our arrival here.

II

Bella and I like to amble around our new district. It is really up-market, and rich roast aromas emanate from its many bijoux coffee shops. I haven’t felt we’ve been followed, but I know these men are smart as nails, and they won’t easily incriminate themselves. Chances are they’re scrutinising us from the shady margins, planning their next move. They can hardly raise our new home to the ground, that would be too obviously bizarre. I think they’ll try a new strategy, something we shan’t expect. Bryan has decided it would be tempting a bad fate, if he hired another private security man. But we have noticed a new and subtle police presence in our street. An unmarked squad car draws up outside our house around dusk. Two beefy fellows in mufti watch like hawks. It is comforting. Bella wonders if they’d intervene, should someone try to harm us. I say yes, most definitely. Elaine finally seems more relaxed. She’s been so highly strung, her health is shot. Organising new lounge drapes, choosing stoneware pans to complement the Italian stovetop, has brought her comfort. Alicia is silent and scowly, I feel like she wants more limelight, and resents that the focus is on me. I hate eyes always watching. I want Bella and I to return to North London, and be simple new parents. Unhounded, ordinary, happy.

III

Bella is in considerable discomfort. She is breathless, she says she looks and feels like a whale, and she wishes it were all over. The midwife has visited us at our new address. She confirms everything is progressing happily. I feel guilty that my love has done this to Bella. We’re unprepared for the birth, as all our stuff remains at the North London flat. We need to retrieve all our baby things and bring them here. For Bella it’s been a terribly troubled pregnancy, and I do hope this doesn’t impact on our child. I have read the books which advocate for calm, and I’m so guilty that Bella has been denied this. Considering the trauma she’s suffered, Bella is still beautifully composed. Her glow is intact, and even her silly nervous Mother is impressed. If circumstances were less fraught, I believe this new home would be ideal for raising babies. Alicia continues to be weird. Really her attention-seeking sulks have become unbearably childish. The Molyneuxs are too preoccupied to bother much with her. Bryan is hoping for a substantial insurance payout, but he says we’ll be staying put, certainly until the baby is born. Bryan’s resilience is inspiring. The whole sorry mess has brought out the best in him.

IV

Tim is bouncing a ball in the street, unusual for him, when he recognises two men striding purposefully towards our house. Tim dashes inside, and garbles out the news to Bryan. Elaine and I rush to deadbolt the doors, whilst Bryan phones the police. The duo are loafing around at the end of our garden path, familiarly unshaven, sneering in at us, like the bad smells they are. It’s not even dark, they are audacious. One of them is tossing what looks like an old baby doll high into the air. Then he deliberately drops the doll, and proceeds to stamp on its head. This is chilling, provocative. I am very glad Bella is upstairs. The second man then picks up the ruined head, and stubs his burning cigarette into its plastic eye. This has been rehearsed. Elaine, slow on the up-take, finally understands, and screams. The two men appear to snigger, then they amble away back down the street, moving deliberately slowly. When the police eventually arrive, the horrible scene is long over.

V

I don’t tend to pussyfoot when it comes to Bella. The undiluted truth is what she likes. However, the scene we witnessed was especially graphic, and Bella is so close now. So I water down the mens’ murderous piece of street theatre, and make no mention of baby dolls. I’m not sure if Bella has swallowed my lies. Elaine has been inconsolable since the incident. It is a major setback and she’s hysterical again. Surely Bella will see how traumatised her Mother is, and wonder at the reason. But this doesn’t happen. Bryan has advised that we all stay indoors. He is thinking of ways to end our persecution. The obvious solution would be to silence these hoodlums with money. I’m certain we could buy them off, pay them excessive sums, to make them go away. All thugs respond to hard cash. I suggest this avenue to Bryan. Clearly he finds it appealing. The police would never approve of such a plan, but, honestly, what use have they been in remedying our dilemma. Let’s pay big, and make it all disappear. It’s the only way.

TOMMY WATKINS

Our trick with the doll was bleedin’ inspired. Mikey ‘as the most fabulous notions in ‘is ‘ead. I reckon me and Jono pulled it off real sinister like. It definitely put the wind up the old bag, I could ‘ear her bloody stupid screams. Shame the preggie whore weren’t ’round to see our little drama, it’d ‘ave tickled ‘er pink. We’re waitin’ on Mike’s next brainwave, to see where we goes from ‘ere. Doubtless it’ll be somethin’ rib-ticklin’. Till then we’ll stand on their street, and act real threatenin’, like the gorgeous charmers we are. Jono really wants to use ‘is boots on ’em, me’s somewhat more subtle, though I’m itchin’ for some action. Nights are too fuckin’ chill to spend them loafin’ away on street corners, listenin’ to old dearies scream. Nevertheless somethin’ is ‘appenin’ soon. I feel it comin’. And it is rotten mean.

ALICIA

Will has confided to me the horrible act those devils performed. Thank heavens Bella doesn’t know, that would rattle an angel. I’m beginning to feel sickened at how much trouble we’ve brought the Molyneuxs. Soon they shall despise us all. I already feel Elaine has altered. She’s not so involved, she is always remote, glazed over. There is a hardness when she looks my way. As for myself, I’m less angsty, I love this new house. When I gaze at its walls, I don’t feel grey or imprisoned. We all spend a substantial time simply mooching around between rooms. Because outside seems hostile, insecure. I do wonder what shall happen when Father is released. I know he’ll have money, and want to sweep us away to some exotic haven, far from troublemakers. I’m not certain if I want all that. I don’t have suppose I’ll have any choices in the matter.

BRYAN

We are powerless to fight off the enemy. Will’s idea of paying these thugs a substantial cash sum, to get them out of our world, seems highly desirable. Only there are no guarantees that they will stay away. They may well blackmail us further into parting with more money. I am concerned Elaine is not holding up well. She doesn’t have the resilience of our young folk, and she’s always been delicate, prone to hysteria. That hideous baby doll incident has scared her badly, she doesn’t sleep, she doesn’t eat, she’s a mess. In fact Bella, who knows the full gory details now, is far less shaken up. Our daughter has always been cool as a cucumber, l have rarely seen her discomforted, I’ve few fears for her. I have considered whisking us all overseas on an extended holiday, but this seems like acknowledging defeat. But just now the draw of sitting on a warm tropical beach is overwhelming. Both Will and Alicia have approached me with similar ideas. London has never seemed so suffocating and full of ghouls. I fear something may go mightily askew if I don’t act now. I think these hoodlums mean to scare the living daylights out of us, but ultimately, their damage is intended to be more psychological than physical. I may well be very wrong. I don’t want to misjudge this. I keep thinking there’s a new life at stake here too.

ELAINE

I can’t hide from the terror. It’s overwhelming me. It wells up inside me, and consumes me like a great wave. When I stare into the bathroom mirror, I see a small, frail, frightened face. We must flee from here, get to a safe place. Bryan is procrastinating, while our world falls to pieces. I’m no longer young, I can’t shrug off these terrifying attacks. I believe these men are planning our murder. I lay awake in bed seeing tall shadows, while Bryan sleeps like a log beside me. Men are immune from the fears we feel. They don’t see the future, laying in tatters, like I do. I shall see the doctor and get some tranquillisers, before my mind implodes. These children have destroyed our world. I can’t help feeling this. I wish I could go back to our tidy life, before all these woes started. Something big has broken inside me. I feel flushed, my ears are singing, I teeter on the edge. This is blind panic.

BELLA

I’m worried for Mother. She’s not handling this well. I don’t think Father realises how close to the edge she is. I’ve always known Mother is fragile and can’t withstand many knocks. Admittedly these men are pretty scary, and perhaps I should be more concerned. But I have Will. He’ll protect us. I’ve absolute faith in that. He’s going to be an incredible Father. Despite this, I still think it’s unwise to stay here, and accept this criminal harassment. I would be happier for Mother’s sake if we were well away from London. I’ll also know my baby is truly safe that way. We need to pile into Father’s car, and drive just like we did when I was young. Leaving no trail that these bullies can follow. I’ll speak privately to Father, he listens to me. We wouldn’t be running away, just taking sensible precautions. I have only a month and a bit to go. As long as I’m near a modern hospital, and Will is holding my hand, and they have painkillers, I shall be more than fine.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

Me boys reckon they’re ’bout to scarper. I needs to dream up somethin’ full o’ malice, quick-sharp. Somethin’ that’ll stay in their ‘eads till they’re old and wrinkly. A h’inspired piece o’ genius. I ‘ave it. Tommy’ll carve me initials on the young slut’s belly, that’ll stay with ‘er. The boy can watch. Me name will be with ’em forever. I think ‘is ‘ighness shall be proper impressed by me novel idea. A nice little baby shower for th’ young ones too. I’m plannin’ doin ‘xtra time for this stunt. But the pleasure will be worth every ‘our in the lock-up. So let’s get the ball rollin’, let’s ‘ave a big belly laugh.

TIM

Bryan has told me to pack a sizeable bag, we’re going on a mystery excursion. It’s hard to plan, when you haven’t the foggiest idea about your destination. Also Puddles and Ivy aren’t invited, which dims the excitement a lot. Since our latest troubles, I’ve grown to cherish my long hours with Ivy. She consoles me. She reckons these men are all talk, she’s met their type, and the Molyneuxs are unduly concerned. However Bryan clearly believes differently, hence were legging it to some mysterious far-flung corner of the globe. I know long-haul flights are involved and ritzy hotels with huge pools, because I’ve spied on Bryan’s browsing history. But I’ve absolutely no idea what country or continent were aimed for, because all the names looked so weird. I only hope Bella will be safe, and its not some lawless cowboy kind of place, where we’ll be abducted, and left for dead. I have this hunch it’ll be hot. I may pack my bushman’s hat. I pray Elaine isn’t all tearful, it’s so embarrassingly uncool. Bryan has just ducked in to say we’re leaving tomorrow, in the dead of night, like secret agents. I’m to be ready. This is a big thrill.

STEFAN

I’ve had an urgent letter from Bryan. He fears for my children’s safety. He is taking them away to an undisclosed location, until the threat is gone. This is for the best. Bryan doesn’t go into details, but clearly their persecution has been very great. I can imagine Slimey’s thugs have been immensely and inventively cruel. I’ve a strong suspicion Bryan will travel someplace very far, literally off the maps. He has the means to disappear completely. It’s horrible to be so powerless, so shackled here. My liberation from jail isn’t hurrying any closer. I bide my time, avoid trouble, barely eat. I meet Slimey’s men, mostly in the long ill-lit corridors, and I don’t respond to their vulgar heckling. I shan’t be much help to my children if I’m broken into pieces. I can imagine them now, flying above the cloud base, the sun going down blazingly, Alicia squirming for leg-room, thinking of the awful long-haul, Tim and Will already asleep, the nautical miles rushing by under enormous wings, until they are a blip, only radars can

detect.

WILL

I

After nearly forty hours of flying and generic airport terminals, we have landed. Broome, Western Australia. Our jet-lag is going to be monumental. I’m not sure what day it is. Walking out from the airport lounge, the air is scorched, it is glaring, the people are red. Our taxi driver, a burly, loud-mouthed man, welcomes us to Broome, and proceeds to drive like a maniac to our beachfront hotel. We check-in, a group of exhausted strays. The desk clerk is bubbly, outspoken, red-headed. I already feel they need to turn down the brightness and the volume in this country. The seaview from our room is immense. I can see the earth curve and the ocean is electric blue. It makes you feel like an exile. Bella has visited Australia before, when she was very young. The Molyneuxs can mould themselves into any scenario with comparative ease. Although Elaine is still blinking like a disorientated owl. I wonder how long we shall be hiding. I’m concerned that Bella may deliver here. In that case, our baby will be Australian. I hope the hospital facilities are up to scratch.

II

Now that we’ve slept off our fatigue, this begins to look more like an adventure. I cannot imagine our thugs tailed us all the way out here. That is unthinkable. We have a late breakfast by the pool, like it’s a family holiday. Elaine still has that pinched look in her eyes, but she rabbits on happily about the glorious weather and the friendly hotel staff. Bella is wearing her favourite hat and she sips her juice slowly and exquisitely. Despite the doctor warning us how flying can be dangerous for heavily pregnant women, Bella seems in the rudest health. I am relieved, and suggest we stroll the gloriously pristine beach after breakfast. Alicia says she must buy shades, her eyes are stinging with all this sun. It crosses my mind that a good dose of bright light will do wonders for Alicia’s sallow, ghoul-like complexion. But Bryan insists we must all get beach sandals, that it’s obligatory footwear here in Australia. I’m worried Bryan’s bank balance has taken a major hit bringing us out here. I don’t think his fire insurance claim has been settled, although he is always cagey when money’s the subject. I wonder how long we can be here, before our resources dry up, get as parched as the red-brown hills behind this end-of-the-world town. I have my inheritance, that’ll stretch us a few further weeks. But I feel our safe haven here can’t be too protracted, what with the baby coming. At some stage we shall need to return to England, and confront our demons.

III

Alicia claims she’s been stalked by two huge men. When she was returning to her room, they eyeballed her pretty threateningly, and jeered like creeps. It is hard to believe there’s a connection to our persecutors, who would surely focus on me. It’s probably two coarse Ozzies hoping for some teenage horseplay. However, I have shared it with Bryan, who looks worried, and asks me not to tell Elaine. I’d be surprised if Stefan’s enemies have the funding necessary to reach Australia, but who knows. Other than this, we’re having a splendid time swimming, eating, lounging on sun-beds and sand. The locals have curious habits that amuse, although their culinary preferences, like kangaroo steak, outrage Bella. I could never spend my life under such relentless sun, it bakes your mind. I miss the little things. I don’t imagine a simple bluebell is even possible in this arid place. I hope we’re not all forced to become nostalgia-bitten ex-pats without a proper home. Bryan has spoken to Ivy in England. She reports that the two men have gone. I can’t believe this is anything stellar. They’ll have tracked our movements. They’ll have their snoop at the airport. Our whereabouts shall soon be known.

IV

When I wake, I have three missed calls on my mobile. I listen to the messages, they are all the same, wheezy breathing and animal grunts. The calls came in the middle of the night, from an unknown number. I know it’s them. I should have changed my cellphone before the journey, that was lax of me. I’ve read that all handsets emit a signal, which gives their exact location. It would be simple to employ some tech-savvy nerd, and have him triangulate my precise whereabouts. They will do this, I feel it in my veins. When I tell Bryan, he blanches, and instructs me to keep my phone turned off. I imagine these men with our exact co-ordinates, they shall be booking air tickets, packing dangerous weapons into their luggage, they shall be talking together about Western Australia, this is a disaster.

TOMMY WATKINS

I ‘ad me doubts ’bout that pimply turd, but ‘e come up with the goods. Why the fuck they ‘ave to choose Australia, it’s so bleedin’ far. But me and Jono ‘as our tickets, courtesy of Mikey, and we’re away tonight. This time we’re goin’ to do ’em proper, and fade away. I chuckled when I ‘eard Mike’s plan, ‘e ‘as a taste for the finer points. She’ll be maimed for life. I ‘ope the onboard meals is good, ‘caus I’m ravenous. Violence gives me a bold appetite. We travels light, I only needs me knife and a change of togs. I’ll book a taxi to the airport. We lives in a global village now, there ain’t no escaping me and Jono. We will ‘ave our blood.

ALICIA

I took pleasure in my ashen complexion. This place has made me red and blotchy, I hate it here. There’s no point running, we have to stand up to these thugs, and exact our own justice. If Bryan wasn’t so yellow-bellied, I wouldn’t look like a ghoul. I hate the retards here. Always leering after me, they’ve no sophistication. The town looks like a derelict film-set, there are stray mongrels patrolling the seedy streets. There is a half decent park with some bizarre vegetation, but who’d stay here, and get their brains baked in the back-of-beyond. For how long does Bryan wish us to stay here and ruin our skin. His hotel bill must be astronomical, this is the only half-decent pad in town. Yesterday, when I was returning. I felt unpleasant eyes on my back. There was something horribly familiar about the feeling I got, and I broke into a sweat. When I had the guts to look back, the street was empty. It may be nothing, just my persecution complex. I’ll say zilch. The others are lapping up their holiday in the sun, why wreck their oblivious pleasure. Even Elaine is ruddy and relaxed now. If it’s anything, we’ll know soon enough, without my telling stories.

BRYAN

Since Tim read there are dinosaur footprints visible at low tide, he’s been demanding we go visit the Point. We’ll need a rental car, but it’ll make an ideal daytrip for the young folk. Elaine has opted out. She fans herself in the stuffy bedroom, complaining of dizziness. I know Bella will be game, although she jokes she looks ridiculous, like an oversized watermelon, and she puffs at the slightest exertion. Alicia has shared her creepy moment with me. I must admit I was alarmed. I’m hoping it’s merely her over-active imagination. That business with Will’s mobile makes me think Stefan’s enemies have a long reach. They are professional criminals, and tenacious as wild dogs. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t believe we’ve shaken them off. I wonder if we ever will. One morning, when the huge southern sun rises from the ocean, we shall spot them, wearing tropical-patterned shirts, idling by the kiddy pool, relaxed and spruce, and menacingly evil.

BELLA

I’ve asked Father how long he intends to keep us here. He says indefinitely. I’m a fan of the spectacular sunsets and relaxed culture, but it’s not home. If my child is born here, there’ll be citizenship wrangles to face and bureaucratic hassles to fix. I don’t think Father sees these obstacles clearly. He is obsessed with our safety, to the exclusion of all else. Soon I shan’t be able to travel back. Will has arranged to see a local doctor, and put hospital care in place. Baby may decide to come early. The heat makes me dizzy and breathless, and Will wants my blood pressure monitored. But I still feel elated and happily expectant. The hormones have been kind with me. Mother’s behaviour grows more and more disturbing. She’s developed this thing with her fingers, pulling them, and poking them at strangers. When I try to talk with her, she brushes me away like I’m a horrible, clingy cobweb. This is upsetting. Father knows. Should those bullies return to plague us, I believe Mother may go mad.

STEFAN

I was being jostled in the long main corridor, when Slimey lurched up to me, and landed a heavy punch right in my gut. I crumpled, gasping for air, before he thumped me again. Slimey was long gone when the guards scraped me off the concrete. But not before he’d mumbled in my bleeding ear, ‘Your snivellin’ kid’s in Australia. My lads shall ‘ave ‘im’. Slimey has never been so direct with me. This is bone-chilling. I fear to think what they will do. If Will emerges from this with all his limbs intact, I shall be surprised and glad. I don’t believe telling the warden can lessen Will’s pain. My children are way out of his jurisdiction. The warden might involve Interpol, but these lawless thugs have a way of performing their deeds, and melting into the background. It is still a month until my release. By which time the damage will be complete. I feel like crashing my knuckles into a wall. Never have I been so compromised. I must expect the worst.

ELAINE

My heart is racing, I’m labouring here. Bryan and the children have gone on some madcap adventure under the midday sun, so I’ll have some silence, for a time. I’m lying rigid on the bed, hoping the feeble air-conditioner won’t conk out, and abandon me to suffocation and sweating. Coming here has brought illness upon me. I know I should be more concerned about Bella, but I’m worried for my sanity. Bryan believes I’m having mild panic attacks, and I need to stay calm. It is worse than this. I have whole patches of days where I’m missing. I have no recollection how I arrived beside the pool yesterday. I was in my nightie and people stared. There is a thud at the door. It must be cleaners. I shall ignore it. Another thud, only louder. I feel anxious now. There is a real hostility about these thumps. Someone runs their fingernails over the slatted window panes. I feel sick. I’m certain they’re here. Then silence. My stomach is doing somersaults. I can’t catch my breath. My lungs will burst. Scream.

TIM

It was low tide. We were fortunate. The dino prints were truly awesome, you could see the weight of the beast, like it’d just ambled past and left fresh impressions. Alicia was surly, unimpressed, but the rest of us felt a sense of history, and how tiny we were. I thanked Bryan from the bottom of my heart. I think he was touched. When we get back to the hotel, Elaine is in a big flap. This is her usual state now. She spouts off about intruders and talks a whole pile of gibberish, until she’s crimson-faced. Finally we understand. She’s speaking about our thugs. It goes very quiet in the room. I feel cold. If this is real, our troubles will start afresh. Will and Bella hold hands. Elaine is shaking stupidly. Bryan tells us to go to our rooms, so Elaine can rest. Everyone shuffles out sheepishly. The nightmare will return, these evil men have us. There are going to be broken limbs this time, I know it. I am scared.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

The littl’ game of ‘ide and seek is over. When Tommy’s on th’ scent, ‘e’s like a fuckin’ blood’ound. ‘E’s locked ‘is jaws ’round their lives, an’ bit down ‘ard. Just like ‘is master tells ‘im. Since I’s forked out a small fortune discoverin’ these tossers, we’ll ‘ave our monies worth. Carve up a right proper platter o’ carnage. First, they’ll put the wind up that clapped-out old broad. Next, Tommy’ll use a ‘ammer on the boy’s knees, maul ’em up real bad. Then to our trophy girl. Shame Tommy ‘as such messy ‘andwritin’, ‘e’s goin’ scar that young whore’s belly so bad nobody’ll dare look. Then it’ll be ‘ard to play pretty new Mum. I’ll ‘ave me gutsful o’ joy, an’ ‘is ‘ighness’ll ‘ave a rare, gorgeous ‘omecomin’. The wheels are in motion, nothin’ can stop them now.

WILL

I

As far as I can tell they came up behind me, spun me around, then they had me on the ground. The short one laid into my ribs with his boot, until the agony blurred my vision. Then the chief thug swung what looked like a mallet above his head, straight down onto my knee. I remember nothing else. Until I wake in a strange hard bed, woozy, heavily sedated. Both my knees are generously bandaged, and I have no feeling below my thighs. Bella is there, sleeping in a high-backed chair. I wonder if I’ll ever walk again. My ribs feel busted too. A dull fire is growing in my knees. I need morphine. It is urgent. Those devils have maimed me. I don’t think anyone else is hurt, yet. A tiny nurse comes in lightly and checks my dressings. They have a bright red tint to them. She injects something into the cannula in my right arm. I’m immediately drowsy. I’m drifting away.

II

The consultants think I might not walk again. I’m slated for urgent double knee replacements. The drugs no longer dull the agony. I’m drained, desperate, in excruciating pain. Bella has a beautiful faith in my full recovery. Sadly I think it’s misplaced optimism. I’m going to be a cripple. Bryan is talking about an air ambulance and London specialists, but it’s all pie in the sky stuff. Now I’m conveniently immobilised, what will these monsters do to Bella. If I could even raise myself from bed, I would hobble by her side, day and night. I’ve said to Bryan she mustn’t ever be alone. He agrees. My body is screaming out for morphine, I’m a painkiller junkie, I can’t even dream of crutches, the pain is so jagged, this is destroying me.

III

Alicia has been here. The news is absolutely numbing. Bryan is dead. Defending Bella. That big creep went for Bella with a knife, and Bryan intervened. Bryan was stabbed in the neck, and bled horribly. He died gasping for breath, in Elaine’s arms. The police have arrested the perpetrators after a chase, and Alicia explains how they’re both in detention, pending a full trial. I forget about my pain. This is the most horrible end to things. I am directly responsible for Bryan’s death. I have brought unspeakable evil to his family. This will kill my relationship with Bella. Thank goodness the bastard didn’t touch our baby, that was surely his plan. Our lives here are in tatters, my knees remain wrecked. I genuinely don’t know what we will do.

IV

Elaine and Bella have made arrangements to return Bryan’s body to the UK. They will accompany him. Elaine is more together than could be imagined. Grief can do strange things. Elaine is sickened by us, she has finally said it. Tim, Alicia and I will remain here temporarily. We have nobody, and I can’t walk. I have my inheritance money, to tide us by for a while, and when Father is released, we can think about creating a new life for ourselves. When she cries goodbye, Bella hugs me, then looks away, confused. I can only hope she and baby may come back to me, when her hurt has blunted, when she can forgive again. The guilt has muddled my feelings, the morphine fogs my mind. Then they are gone. What we have had has fallen to pieces, and Bryan is dead. I cannot process this horror.

BELLA

We’ve been in the air so many hours, and we’re still flying across Europe. Mother’s crying has become more heart-rending, as we edge closer to home. I’ve asked the cabin crew if they have any sedatives for her. I can hardly believe Father is gone. That I have left Will, when he really needed me. My whole world is in ruins, nothing makes any sense. All that I believed was strong, has crumpled and failed. It’s not really safe to travel in my condition, but I’m physically well, and there’s no alternative. Father’s brutal death sinks in. I shiver, when I think of him, his struggle to breathe, his eyes clouding over, the pouring blood, Father’s body becoming still in Mother’s embrace. These images will be decades of nightmare. I also think of Will’s mangled knees, his complete resignation when we said we were leaving, propped up in his hospital bed, hating himself, loving me.

TIM

I can’t believe they’ve left us. I know they couldn’t bury Bryan here, so far from home, but surely we should have all tagged along. My big brother is a mess. Still laid up in his hospital bed, in heaps of pain. His knees fascinate me. They are completely wrecked and ooze yellow pus. The doctors say he shan’t walk again, it shocks me. We visit Will each day, Alicia and I, taking the long walk under the roasting sun, before it gets rabidly hot. We’ve moved to a cheaper motel in town, which is all Will can afford, and frankly it’s gross, I’m sure there are bed bugs, even snakes in the walls. I want England, I want Father. Will has spoken to the prison people, who say Father will be out in a matter of weeks. This is good. The plan is we go to him, as soon as Will can fly. I wonder how long that’ll be, my brother’s in bad shape. I can’t like Elaine any more, or Bella. Bryan was a warm man, I miss him. Father will fix things, all this would never have happened, if he’d been in charge.

ALICIA

It’s hard to believe Elaine has dumped us in a foreign country. We’re only teenagers, and Will is paralysed. It’s unspeakable of her. The old crab has shown her true colours, she always hated us. I’m sad for Bryan, I thought he was kind. Under this dreadful sun, my skin’s become like elephant hide, I’m so ashamed to be seen. Every day we traipse through the town like vagrants, and I’m exposed to ridicule. I shall be so glad when we’re back in England. Will needs to get better first, but I don’t reckon that’s happening soon. His injuries are very severe, the doctors have made no bones about his poor chances. Father is going to be shocked, when we show up, crippled and homeless, looking for care. He’ll be newly out of prison, when this will hit him in the face. Once Elaine has buried Bryan, she’ll be jaunting around with her two-faced daughter, like everything is hunky-dory. Will shouldn’t waste time on Bella, she’s a fair-weather sort of girl, no good when there’s trouble. It’s a shame there’s a baby, it complicates things. If I meet the Molyneuxs again, I’m likely to hit someone. Meanwhile our funds are dwindling. I shan’t tell Tim. Will reckons there’s enough cash to last us a few weeks at most. By which time Father can rescue us. When we’ve seen big brother for the day, Tim and I wile away our time watching retarded Australian TV and walking the beach. It’s a colossal bore. The motel owner makes faces because we’re young and alone, but she minds her own business. Let this end soon, before some Australian childcare service sniffs us out. That would be another major headache.

STEFAN

Mike came personally to share his news. He got up close, so I could smell his tobacco-soaked mouth, and he told me all about Will. At the end of his chilling summary, he offered to buy some crutches, and chortled with glee. I nearly vomited. Then he explained how my children have been abandoned in Australia, he knew all the facts and relished them. When Mike left me, he blew a big fruity kiss, and laughed obscenely. I am absolutely certain he spoke the truth. He is unadulterated evil. I need to think fast. I’m out next week. I have money. I shall fetch my children, get Will the best specialists. I cannot believe Bryan is dead. That Elaine deserted my poor kids to fend for themselves. It is monstrous. The Molyneuxs were always weak and complacent and fat with money. That Bella will be the same. Pray, let the week pass quickly, I have a mercy mission to make.

ELAINE

Bryan’s funeral was beautiful. In the churchyard where we were married, as he wished. The priest spoke sincerely, until Bella and I could cry no more. I’m so glad the Stephensons weren’t there. They and their Father have murdered my Bryan. We’ve been dragged into a mire, ever since we took them in, out of charity. My beautiful girl is a teenage Mother. It’s all too horrible. I felt guilty leaving them overseas, but that has been replaced by a dull rage. Especially against Will. Bryan’s act of kindness has killed him. My daughter should divorce herself from that boy, and we can bring up the child together. Will should have no access into our lives, I don’t care that he’s the Father. He has made me a widow. Our little social experiment has disastrously misfired. When Stefan is out, he can take back his vagrants. I wash my hands. I have the right to grieve quietly. I will not be contradicted.

MICHAEL SAVAGE

The feud’s over, I’ve ‘ad me victory. Shame me boys are in the slammer, but they did nice work. Now we waits to see what th’authorities makes o’ all this. Tommy ought’na ‘ave wasted the old geyser, that weren’t in the plan. Once the pigs trace it back to me, I’ll do another term in ‘ere, for a nobody. What gets me narked is that ‘is ‘ighness walks tomorro’. But I’ve’ ad me fun, ‘is boy’s damaged goods now. I ‘fink I’ll ‘ave meself a fat Cuban cigar, to celebrate this one. Nobody rubs Mikey up the wrong way, wif’out consequences.

WILL

I

Father has phoned me, he is a free man, he’s coming for us. There were some complications accessing Father’s funds and passport, but they’re sorted now. He’ll be on the next available flight. We are all relieved to be getting out of here. My pain has lessened, but I’m still bedridden. The doctors say I must start physiotherapy very soon, if I’m to have any chance of walking again. But how is that possible, when I can barely move my legs. Alicia and Tim visit me daily, although I know they’re restless and bored sick. When Father arrives, he’ll whisk us back home and we’ll stay together in my London flat. There’ll be heaps to organise. I need to speak to Bella urgently, talk with her candidly about our future together. I know that Elaine will hate me, I understand that. That Bella will be torn in two about us and baby. There is a further complication. I need to pay for my hospital care. It’s going to clean me out, and there’s been some talk that I need a qualified nurse to accompany me home, it’s some legal requirement for totally dependent travellers. I cannot accept that I will be disabled. It just seems so far-fetched. Alicia has read in the local paper that my attackers face twenty-five years for Bryan’s homicide, and a further ten for maliciously maiming me. Apparently our case is much discussed, we are hot property here.

II

Father is here. He is fatter, especially around the belly, and his face is deeply lined. It’s fantastic to see him. Alicia and Tim bring him in, like they’re walking on clouds. Father hugs me tenderly, a model of concern. He is apologising for all that’s happened. The man I knew before prison, with an inflated ego and so much self-regard, is gone. Father wants to get down to the business of bringing us home. He scoots away to speak to my consultant, while Alicia, Tim and I remain quietly and contentedly together. I realise that I’m crying. I try to shift my legs, but nothing happens. I really cannot figure out how I’ll be able to fly in this pitiful condition. My mind is clear, now the morphine has stopped, but I’m a total cripple. Father returns. The consultant takes a dim view of things. He thinks it’s ill-advised to move me yet, let alone fly me half-way across the globe. Father says we’ll stay put, and see. Alicia heaves her shoulders. My life is slipping away from me, while I lay here.

III

I’m to have an urgent operation on my knees. The doctors say the antibiotics aren’t having the desired effect, and I’m getting infections. They need to bring things under control quickly. Potentially I could lose both legs. The surgery will be long and complicated, and there are many forms to sign, which makes me nervous. Father has sorted out the astronomical hospital bill. England has some kind of medical agreement with Australia, so it looks like Father will eventually see some money back. I wish Bella were here to hold my hand, that we were still callow school children without cares. This whole disgusting mess has poisoned our lives. When they’ve prepped me for the procedure, and I’m wheeled out to theatre, I get this sinking feeling. Something transforming is happening to me. I saw the look in Father’s eyes, it is not good. The nurses are full of cheer, as they rally around. The chief surgeon is now here. I’m given a general anaesthetic. I’m told to count backwards from ten. Ten, nine, eight …

IV

The procedure was successful. My knees are swathed in enormous bandages, but I feel strangely comfortable. The burning sensation is gone, the raw meatiness in my legs has been replaced by a pleasant tingling. I wonder if I’m healed. Soon Father is led in, followed by Alicia and Tim. They have spoken with my surgeon, who is quietly optimistic. Father is thrilled, he says a terrible weight has been removed from his chest. Alicia is grinning. They all think I’ll walk again. When the consultant finally appears, he talks a lot of big language which mostly goes over my head, but I deduce the news is good. I can expect to walk, at first just a few painful steps on crutches. My body must re-learn the most basic movements, so my rehabilitation will be very slow. I shall be started on a programme at once. The paralysis has been cured, although I’ll probably always need crutches. This is a godsend. Like I’ve been mercifully reprieved from a death sentence.

V

I’ve recovered some partial mobility in my legs. I have stood beside my bed, clutched parallel bars, and edged a foot tentatively forward. This is a great victory. The doctors have confirmed that I’ll be ready to travel in a fortnight, and can continue the rehabilitation in my home country. Father has re-booked our flights, everyone is relieved. Alicia’s literally tearing out her hair from boredom. Tim claims Australian cuisine is coarse, bland, and the nation leaves him unimpressed. I’m haunted by Bella’s face. We’ve had no contact in three weeks, although I’m sure she thinks of me. I’m planning what to say, how to deal with Elaine, how to be a caring part of our child’s life. It all bends my mind. For the long haul home, Father has booked me a first-class seat, so I can take advantage of a reclining bed. Economy cabin room would probably kill me. Alicia and Tim aren’t even sore about this. It is good to be a family again. Father is so clearly sorry and he wants a fresh start. We have freely given it to him. I didn’t believe people could change. I was wrong. I have been wrong about many things.

STEFAN

To be reunited with my family is the greatest thing. They have suffered, but proven themselves mightily resilient. I worry for Will, who has taken only a few tentative steps on the long road to recovery. Each time I see him wince with pain I blame myself. I really don’t know how he’s going to endure the long haul home. I’ve organised for an ambulance to take him to Perth, where we’ll all board our international flight. Once we’re home, I’ll need to decide if Will recuperates in a private clinic, or at home, with a hired nurse. I’ve scanned Will’s eyes but I see no flicker of blame. In fact the children have all been so warm, there’s not been an ounce of reproach against me. I find this extraordinary. It is like our lives have restarted on a clean page. I hope this isn’t simply a honeymoon period, and the remorse will set in when we’re home. I have much to be guilty for. Will doesn’t speak about his girl, I find that strange. There’ll be big hurdles for him, getting back with Bella. I hear the awful Mother’s created a stink, which is hardly surprising, considering she’s lost her husband to this appalling fiasco. But freedom is good, I feel bolder each day. Let things fall into place.

ALICIA

We are finally on the move. Will looks in a sorry state, as his ambulance steers away. The rest of us are taking a hire car to Perth, which is a tidy two-day trip away. I can’t wait to be home. There’ll be some respite from this hideous sun, which has annihilated my complexion. I think it’s likely I’ll stay in my new room for a month, and adopt a vampire existence. No-one seems concerned that Will’s flat is smaller than a rabbit hutch, and what if Bella returns. Father shall have to arrange more spacious accommodation, but he’s so changed, I’m sure he’ll have this all planned out. I don’t relish the prospect of twenty-five hours in the air, cramped in ugly, smelly economy. But it’ll be sweet to walk on English tarmac, to even think about kick-starting my education. I categorically refuse to share a room with Tim. I’m too old for that nonsense. Father says we may have to bunk down on the floors, and buy Will a special hospital-style bed. I’ve asked Father about our assailants. He guarantees they won’t trouble us again. The feud is over. I still have nightmares about poor Bryan, he was very kind to me. I’ll get even with that deplorable witch who abandoned us to our own devices, a world away from home. It was a heartless act, however barmy and tragic she felt. The drive is long. Tiresome desert, scalding sun, the road winding on forever. I shall age before we even see England. Tim, as usual, is asleep.

TIM

Hundreds of eyes, including mine, stare at the luggage carousel. A digital clock says 06.48 AM, though my head thinks otherwise. We are home. Father is all stubbly and puffy-eyed, the way I like him. It is chilly in here, there’s a tiny trapped bird flying up near the steel girders, the people look angry. We have our bags, and walk from the terminal building. It is drizzly outside, the sky’s slate-grey, and I wonder who stole the brightness. Father hails a taxi cab. Alicia and I pile in the back-seat, while Father gives instructions. I wonder where Will is. I haven’t seen him since Australia. We are moving down the motorway now, flying by enormous billboards. Everything is familiar, dusty, damp and cold. Alicia frowns approvingly. I cannot gauge Father’s mood from the back of his head, but I know he’s happy. He must be seriously spent-up. I hope we’ll have breakfast soon. London always makes me hungry.

ELAINE

The rented house is way too big for Bella and I, and it has such sad associations with Bryan. We must downsize, Bella agrees. We’ll need a nursery for baby of course, but I really must limit my expenditure. Bryan’s last will is locked up in red tape, and after all the bills are settled, I don’t imagine there’ll be much to spend. We face an uncertain future, my nerves are bad again. There have been unknown callers on my mobile, they won’t leave a message, and I worry it’s something bad. It’s unlikely to be Will or Stefan, although I understand the Stephensons are back in the country, all jammed into the boy’s inadequate flat. Bella is moody, brooding. I can’t figure out what’s happening in her head. She casts these withering looks my way, something she has never ever done. I believe that she plans to desert me. I shan’t be cast away, like trash. I am her Mother, some trifling liaison with a teenage nobody shan’t separate us. Bella is a good girl, but far too loyal. She is drawn in by these useless down-and-outs. I know he’s the Father, but look at his prospects, crippled, unemployable, and probably gang-affiliated. Bryan was too mild, he should have seen the boy off from the start, then we wouldn’t be in this appalling quandary. I must watch Bella for signs of flight. She can’t continue to ruin her life, I won’t allow it. I shall confiscate her phone if need be. With Bryan gone, I must be firm.

BELLA

I want to be with Will, I shall be with him. Mother’s become dictatorial, I know she’s suffering pain, but she can’t govern my life, like I’m still a little girl. I love Will, it is simple. I was muddled when I left him, but the fog has lifted. Mother made a big scene and took my phone, but I’ll call a taxi to Will’s place, and be with him. Father would have agreed with me, he was a loyal man. I know nothing about Will’s impairment, whether he can walk, or if he’s in a wheelchair now. I shall nurse him, until he’s happy again, and we’ll have our baby to heal us. Mother is sleeping heavily on the sofa, I think she’s taking far too many pills. This is the perfect moment to go. I have a light bag packed. I shan’t leave a note, because Mother knows where I’ll be. There’s an old payphone at the street corner, where I can call a taxi. I know Will loves me, I am doing this. When I pull the front door to, it slams noisily, but I’m in the street now, walking away. I feel the blood surge in my veins, this is the right thing.

WILL

I

Alicia is shaking my shoulder. I was dreaming there’s no pain. Alicia says Bella is here. At first I think it’s my medication speaking. But Alicia doesn’t melt away, and she’s smiling. I’m unshaven, grubby and wheelchair bound, I feel ashamed. Then Bella is framed in the doorway, and my fears evaporate. She is incredibly lovely, carrying a light bag. I have butterflies. ‘Hi’, she speaks shyly. ‘Hey’, I reply. The next moment Bella is hugging my knees, I don’t mind the pain. Gently, I touch her belly, which is taut and very round. Once we’ve disentangled ourselves from a beautiful kiss, I know we’re healed. Bella is crying sorry, but I don’t need to hear.

II

We’re squeezed in like sardines, but happy. With the help of the nurse and Bella’s encouragement, I’ve been ambling around with success and little discomfort. Father is organising more physiotherapy and he’s bought me a beautiful ash cane with a carved owl’s head. I treasure it. Alicia, Will and Father are searching for a rental property in the near vicinity, so that Bella and I can have privacy when baby comes. I’m concerned that Bella will have too much work with baby and myself. Bella’s due date is very close, her energy wanes by evening, when she gets sad about her Mother. Bella has called, but Elaine is fiercely angry and unreasonable. I can only hope things will mellow down. All the nursery things have been wiped clean and stand ready. I’m ready, Bella is too. Bella says she’ll refuse painkilling drugs during the delivery. I make a face. I hope Bella’s labour pains are over quickly.

III

It’s just after 2 AM when Bella’s waters break. She is calm, but I’m trembling like a leaf in a gale. We have all this rehearsed, but it still feels terrifying. Father will take Bella to the birthing unit, while I’ll follow along. I want to be present at the birth, but I can’t risk slowing proceedings. Father takes Bella’s hand gently, and guides her to the waiting car. Bella does not even hurry. She’s asking Father if he’ll call Elaine and explain. Father nods, says to leave it with him. So, it’s starting and I still don’t have my head around Fatherhood. It crosses my mind that nothing in the last months of turmoil can compare with this precious, tingling moment.

IV

She’s beautiful. We’re calling her Emilia. It all happened way quicker than I was expecting. Bella is tired, but very well. Her Mother has sent a huge colourful bouquet, and will be coming soon. I’m glad. Emilia sleeps profoundly, like a porcelain doll. She’s swathed in a big woollen blanket, and doesn’t mind my stares. I shall read to her soon. Something about dragons.

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