Robert James Berry
My brother is a caveman. He has no subtlety. Boys can be so tiresome. William adores his stupid gadgets. He plonks himself at his desk, he sticks to his screen like adhesive, he plays inane games for hours and hours, until his eyes are scarlet and puffy. It’s not as if these things have a heart, a soul. I avoid them like the plague they are.
Let’s cut to the introductions. I’m Natalie. As you’ve probably realized, I am older than my brother William. According to my Mother, I have bad attitude. I show no respect. My teachers deplore my uncouth manners. My name regularly showcases in the school detention book. I have few friends. My classmates say I’m a ‘bolshy, sullen bitch.’ They steer well clear. If only they understood how fragile and brittle I am. Like all of our crummy species.
Father abandoned us when I was four. After an alcohol-fuelled argument, he just upped, and left. Mother has heard no word. Father simply vanished. For a decade I’ve wondered about him. But now I’m tired, of having my heart busted, of loving a shadow. Father’s name was Derek. He’d rock me asleep, crooning in a sugar-coated deep baritone. I’ll never understand why he deserted us. Like I was no more than a pile of frowzy rags.
Mother is Paula. Everyone calls her Paulie. She is an absolute control freak. She is harsh on me. William gets it cruisey. Whilst I am permanently nagged. Everything I do is wrong. She criticizes the way I wash up a plate. She is especially appalled by my table manners. ‘Natalie, you bolt your food like it’s the last morsel you’ll ever see! Do try to act more lady-like,’ she’d invariably growl. I was done with her snide comments. I despised her bullying.
So you get the picture. Home life wasn’t plain sailing under a beautiful sky. It was miserable. I longed to turn a loaded gun on myself. But I didn’t have the guts for suicide. Once I’d glided a kitchen knife across my wrists, but I never pressed down deeply, or drew any blood. I was just horsing around. Mother had dozens of pill bottles lying everywhere. I read the strange names. I googled them. This was surely a better way to go. To slip dreamily out of this world. Without saying any sugary goodbyes.
I kept all my gloom well hidden. It was best to get on with the whole sordid show. I’d forgotten how to cry. I don’t think I ever knew how. Mother would have a field day if she cottoned on about my fragility. So I swore to become a hard case. One of those unspeakable bitches who sneer at the whole world.
I decided to write down my gripes. It would be too corny to keep a diary or host a blog. Instead I’d scribble down my random thoughts, or compose occasional impassioned poems. I’d show my writing to nobody. I had a desk drawer that could be locked. I’d stash my work inside. It would be taboo to even gaze upon my creativity. My filthy brother was a nosey wretch, Mother was always prying. But this would be my gorgeous little secret.
I should say something about where we live. It’s a revolting old council flat. When it rains, mould burgeons on the walls and condensation rolls down the greasy windowpanes. The kitchen floor is coated with dirty cracked linoleum. The living room smells rank. We can never get warm. Mother has tried lighting roaring fires, but they choke, and fizzle out. She likes to say we’ve been condemned. There is a tall pile of newspapers by the fireplace, but they’ve gone damp, and won’t catch. We always have colds.
Mother was shoutier than usual. There was this ugly edge to her usual hectoring tone. She paced the room, throwing up her hands. I wondered what hidden problems were harassing her. She boiled over at William, slapping him, when he went all sulky after a tirade. This was peculiar. At first I thought it must be money. But there was this desperate lunacy in Mother’s eyes. Like nothing I had seen before.
Mother started rambling. Incoherent words spilled from her mouth. She would converse with invisible people. It was incredibly alarming. She’d forget to make our meals. She’d wring her hands abruptly. She’d weep joyfully. Her eyes were glazed over. Then, suddenly, she’d listen intently. ‘Natalie, my love, I can hear the angels sing,’ Mother said, ecstatic. It was then I knew she needed help.
I was at a loss. Who could I call? At first I considered Mother’s doctor, but she was just a general practitioner, and Mother always said she only knew about curing colds. I trawled the internet and found a crisis hotline. I rang. I explained the situation. I was put on hold. A different voice came on the line. I was compelled to explain all over again. Once the person figured I was sixteen, that my Mother had cracked, that I had a younger brother too, things began to move. A crisis councillor was appointed to my case. I was to hold tight. Help was on the way.
Mother had strayed across the road. She was stood under the chestnut tree, gesticulating wildly. A white van had pulled up. A bearded man stepped out. He approached Mother cautiously. She began to scream. I’d never heard anything more terrifying. It was a thin, unearthly, disembodied cry. The bearded man was guiding Mother towards his van. I ran outside and stood by the gate. There was nothing I could do. Mother was being hustled into the rear seats. The hatch was firmly shut, and locked. They were driving away.
William had witnessed everything from the window. When I came inside, he was sobbing on the couch. ‘Nat, what are we going to do?’ he mouthed piteously. His tiny shoulders shook. I struggled to compose myself. I said we’d have breakfast now. William nodded. I didn’t like to think too hard about what we’d do. So I made some scrambled eggs. My brother sat moodily at the dinner table. We ate in silence.
‘Nat, do you know where they’ve taken Mother?’ William asked plaintively. I told him not to fret, we’d visit her very soon. I’d discovered the authorities were holding Mother in a mid-security unit just outside town. She was being constantly monitored, in case she self-harmed. William and l, however, had fallen through the cracks. No one had deduced we were alone, without adult supervision, without money. Thankfully Mother always kept the cupboards well-stocked, in case of dire emergency, so food wouldn’t be a problem. Also I’d found a crumpled fifty pound note hidden deep in the tea caddy. William and I were going to survive.
The neighbour was an extremely snoopy crow who loved to gossip with Mother. Mrs Eames was always pushing her beak into our concerns. Each morning I saw her hovering by the hedge. She was simply dying to cross-examine me and find out the truth about Mother. I deplored the sight of Mrs Eames’ wrinkled face, and was determined to say absolutely nothing. We wouldn’t be hanging out our dirty laundry, as Mother liked to say. Then, when I was preparing some simple sandwiches for lunch, Mrs Eames’ curiosity overcame her and she tapped lightly at our door.
I invited Mrs Eames into the kitchen, where she sat heavily, literally bursting with questions. She gazed horrified at the small pile of sandwiches I’d made. ‘Natalie, where’s your dear Mother gone? I’m worried sick pet, thinking of you both so alone, fending for yourselves like this.’ I tried not to tear up. I asked if Mrs Eames would like some tea. ‘Yes my dear, that would be grand.’ She strolled over to me, and hugged me massively in her arms. I melted into sobs.
Mrs Eames, who was a widow, with three grown-up sons, had time on her hands. She promised to bake us hearty shepherd’s pies and mouth-watering roasts. William, once he heard, perked up considerably. The question of visiting Mother now pressed on me. Mrs Eames didn’t drive, so we’d need to find our own way. There was a bus to the outskirts of town, then it was a short walk. William and I googled the facility. It was a stark gothic place. It looked like the mental asylums of popular imagination. My heart sank.
A cold blast of air followed William and I down the bleached corridor. We were guided by a duty nurse, who swiped his card, unlocking the double doors ahead. At the nurse’s station, staff worked assiduously, scribbling into thick patient files. Nobody looked up. Someone pounded their fists on a hidden door and moaned out to be released. No one took notice. I asked at the desk about Mother. She was sleeping, although it was past midday. An obese man, stood on his tiptoes, was performing a languorous dance. He was shouting out crazily. No one cared. The nurse went to fetch Mother. I was afraid. William whimpered beside me.
We were ushered into a small room. There were boxes and boxes of puzzles piled high in a corner. Dust has settled over everything. I presumed there weren’t many visitors. After an interminable time, Mother came. She wore a long white nightdress, she was heavily sedated, her hair was beautifully combed. She seemed confused, she didn’t recognize us, she spoke no words. I guided her to a chair, but she wouldn’t sit. ‘Mother, it is us. Please say something,’ I said desperately. A ward orderly came. It was time for Mother’s medications. ‘Come along, dearie,’ the man coaxed gently, and Mother was shuffled away.
Mother didn’t return. I expected a doctor, even a nurse, to come and discuss her condition, but nobody appeared. So William and I wandered through more double doors, into a small ornamental garden surrounded by high electric fences. A large long haired woman in a nightie was casting her arms into the air, screaming at the shrubbery. There were no medical personnel anywhere. The patients were wild, neglected, sky-high on their medication. It was blatantly clear. You couldn’t get better in this place.
Eventually I went up to the nurse’s station and asked to be let out. I felt nothing had been achieved. I struggled to pry some information from the duty nurse, but clearly he knew nothing about Mother’s care. William and I were buzzed through the bolted doors. We walked back down the bleached corridor, into the bright sunlight. I felt cheered by the afternoon, by the sudden liberty. The next thing was to seek out a bus. My money was dwindling badly. But Mrs Eames would be making us dinner.
As we walked up the pathway, a gust of wind caught some leaves and sent them spinning into the air. William covered his face like they might scratch. Mrs Eames stood hulking in the doorway. A fabulous aroma wafted into our noses. Suddenly I realized I was ravenous. Poor William was positively salivating. Mrs Eames hurried us inside, to get it hot. For a marvellous moment all my grief was forgotten.
‘It’s time to wish you both goodnight, my dearies,’ Mrs Eames said. ‘If there’s anything you need whatsoever, just remember, I’m only next door.’ She handed me a card with her phone number on it, and kissed me tenderly on the forehead. She then bear-hugged William, who giggled helplessly. Mrs Eames was our fairy godmother in a horrible world. I thanked her warmly. ‘Please call me Meg,’ she said simply. I nodded, and pecked her cheek. That meant we’d be inseparable.
I slept late, having no impetus to rise. Mother had usually heckled us out of bed at the crack of dawn, so this was a rare freedom. William was up, sitting at the breakfast table, looking disconsolate. ‘Nat, there’s no cereal, and the milk’s gone sour.’ I checked our funds. I figured we could safely spend a couple of pounds at the corner shop. I told William to go and buy some eggs and fresh milk. He leapt up, and was gone. I didn’t want to dwell on our misfortune, so I brewed some black tea, which I sipped at thoughtfully. When William returned, two of the eggs were cracked. I said nothing. I went to the stove and scrambled up some breakfast. We ate together, until we were comfortably full.
William complained he was heartily sick of lingering at home. I wracked my brains for something entertaining to do. William was too old to be fobbed off with a childish visit to the park. But we had no money for anything lavish. I suggested we go and stroll around the mall and do some window shopping. William agreed to this. We could have hot chocolate at some fast food joint, that wouldn’t cost the earth, and maybe a double serving of French fries. I told William to put on some fresh clothes. He made an ugly face at that. I grabbed the house keys, and we skedaddled into the empty street.
I licked my oily, salty fingers with glee. William was beaming, massively satisfied. The crowded restaurant buzzed with small talk and canned music. I’d have loved to place another food order, but my mind swarmed with lurid scenes of starvation. I needed to raise more cash. I thought of selling some items at the pawnbrokers. Mother had taken me along when I was younger. I still remembered the drill. I’d be able to pawn some of Mother’s jewellery, maybe her special dress watch. We wouldn’t raise much cash, but we’d be able to eat. The matter was settled. Feeling reckless, happy, I ordered more fries.
When we went home, I ransacked Mother’s jewellery box. There was the watch, sitting deep in the felt, wrapped in tissue paper. It sparkled valuably. I imagined the big wad of cash that would be coming our way. I knew pawnbrokers were notorious villains, but I vowed to be firm, and demand a fair deal. There were some rings and bangles too, but they were clearly lesser trinkets. I wrapped everything in a fresh hankie, and stuffed the swag deep in my coat pocket. Tomorrow we’d visit the pawnbroker.
The shop was down a gloomy, beat-up lane, in an obscure part of town. William was with me. I pushed open the battered door, and we moved inside. A curious toad-like man was sitting at the counter. He looked up. His fishy eyes, behind huge bottle-top glasses, expressed only mild interest. ‘How can I help you?’ he asked, in a bland, slippery way. He showed absolutely no curiosity about our ages. I placed Mother’s watch on the counter. ‘So, what have we here?’ he asked, his skinny eyebrows beetling with professional excitement. ‘I want a fair deal,’ I said firmly. The negotiating had begun.
The man gave me three hundred pounds. It seemed an astronomical sum. I couldn’t help smiling. All along I was certain he’d fleece us. I knew Mother’s watch was special, but not like an heirloom. We strode out of the dilapidated shop. William was beaming. I told him we’d have a slap-up lunch, whopping-big burgers, fries, frothy milkshakes too.
We roamed the main street for a while, imagining what glorious things we’d buy. I decided I simply must have a phone. Something cheap, functional. We entered a big warehouse store. I gazed at the staggering array of mobiles. My eye was caught by a device with a huge screen. It was dirt cheap. It came with some calling. William was red, jealous as I marched to the desk and pulled out a fifty pound note. The assistant handed me a plain brown box. I keyed Mrs Eames’ number into the phone. She would be my first call.
Letters began to fall regularly onto the doormat. Some were sealed in imposing red envelopes. I decided to open them. They all demanded money. Some of the sums were slight, but the outstanding rent alarmed me. William and I didn’t want to be tossed into the streets. Action was needed to avert a crisis. I thought about calling the housing office. I could plead, say money was coming soon, just to give us some breathing space. I’d put on my biggest voice, and slowly explain. I pulled out my mobile. I dialled the number on the letter.
I was placed on hold. For a considerable time. Muzak filled my ears. The case manager had been gruff, uninterested in my woes. I’d explained how Mother was in hospital. She’d clearly heard every sorry story in the book. I had failed to capture her imagination. Suddenly she came back on the line. ‘My team leader has granted you four weeks’ grace, to sort out your family problems. After that, we will be pressing for full restitution of rental arrears.’ She clearly relished voicing these threatening words. I thanked her, and hung up abruptly. I had won my breathing space.
The house telephone line was dead. Only clicks emitted from it. I concluded we’d been cut off, for not settling the bill. This would mean more hassle, maybe even severe suited men thumping at our door. Fortunately I had my mobile and I could always text Mrs Eames. Nobody else had rung anyway. I felt embittered. Mother needed to get better fast, and rescue us from this godforsaken mess. I felt nettled. So I sent William out to the corner shop, for more milk and eggs. Our money was dwindling again.
The hot-water boiler had exploded. There was a massive flood. The carpets were swimming. I dialled Mrs Eames. ‘Put towels on the floor, darling,’ she said calmly. ‘I’ll send my nephew Martin around to your place.’ Soon there was a heavy thud on the door. I opened it, and a lanky young man about my age stepped inside. He sized me up. I felt myself flushing. ‘First, we’ll need to turn off the mains.’ He spoke brashly. It was thrilling. The situation was soon under control. I asked Martin if he would like some tea. He said yes. William was making stupid faces.
I had a thousand questions for Mrs Eames. All of them were about Martin. Meg Eames smirked, and brushed away my burning curiosity. She wasn’t going to divulge any state secrets. ‘Our Martin has always been popular with the lasses,’ is all she would say. My chances seemed slim. The broad smile slid off my face, and came crashing down. Beside me, William was amused. I told him to shut it, and cast a withering scowl his way.
Martin came to visit often. We sat together in the snug kitchen, having companionable chats and endless tea. Martin liked to natter. I watched his firm jawline chew over all manner of topics. He loved to fish, ride fast bikes, paw over books about space. He was never lost for words. I began to forget about Mother and our terrible plight. Martin was staying with his aunt Meg for the whole summer. He took to William. They sometimes played ball in our overgrown back garden. I felt Martin wanted to impress me. He did.
‘Nat, how would you and William like to come fishing?’ Martin asked, one blustery day, as we all sat together in the kitchen. I was fascinated, and said yes, we’d love to come. I wondered if it’d be deep sea fishing. My imagination rioted. I thought of hauling in immense catches. Menacing sharks swam in my head. Until Martin said we’d need warm clothes. Because the canal bank could be cold, even in summer. Deflated, but happy, I donned my scarf, my Wellington boots, and packed some sandwiches for us all. While Martin snuck off, to retrieve the fishing rods.
It was drizzling. I cast my line into the murky water, just like Martin said. We sat on a ropey old blanket, getting wet, nibbling at our curling sandwiches. Nothing happened. For a long time. I stared at the rain falling on the water. It had some magic. I waited for a tug on my line. For my float to disappear. Nothing happened. I grew restless. But Martin was clearly relishing things. ‘We may get some eels,’ he whispered, up close to my ear. I could feel his excitement. The drizzle grew heavier.
We straggled home, sodden through. We hadn’t caught a thing. ‘Maybe next time, Nat, the fish will bite,’ Martin said, clearly unperturbed. William sneezed. His fringe dripped. He was shiny as a water rat. As soon as we stepped through the front door, we peeled off our drenched clothes. The hallway swam. Martin stood in a puddle he’d made, glowing with delight. My heart did enormous somersaults. I wanted to kiss him.
Our money problems had entirely slipped my mind. Until there was an alarming thud at the door. I opened it. It was the electricity company, come to disconnect our supply. Fearfully, I asked what sum was owing. It was over three hundred pounds. I didn’t fancy being plunged into darkness, so I ran off to Mrs Eames, to ask for advice and help. Martin was there. He came and sweet-talked the surly official into giving us more time. He tactfully explained how our Mother was hospitalized. The man melted at this, made some swift notes, and drove away. I smiled my thanks at Martin, and hugged him impulsively. He hugged me back.
My phone buzzed. It was Mother’s doctor from the hospital. There had been an incident. During her regular supervised outdoor walk of the hospital gardens, Mother had fled. The nurses had tracked her to the local primary school. Where she had stripped naked and danced in the junior playground. It was a scandal. The Headmaster had covered her up and called the ward. I thought of those poor children, exposed to such craziness. I felt shame. Mother was now sedated, but she’d been asking for me. I would go.
William, Martin and I boarded the bus to the hospital. We bounced along to the end of town, then briskly walked the final stretch. Martin held my hand. He was my firm support. We entered the locked ward. I asked for Mother at the nurse’s station. We were ferried away to the waiting area. After a long while, Mother appeared in her nightgown. Her hair was dirty, unkempt. It flowed like a black river down her back. She looked like a crazy witch. There was no recognition in her eyes. ‘Listen, are you the big doctor around here?’ Mother spat out, gazing at Martin. He looked alarmed, but answered no, in a sympathetic voice. ‘Paula, this is your daughter and son,’ said the lead nurse kindly. Mother huffed. ‘I have no children,’ she declared emphatically. She tossed her hair back, and flounced from the room.
There were no signs of a recovery. Mother was entirely crazy. Going back home, we were all silent. Martin seemed embarrassed, he looked at his big hands, not knowing what to say. William was the most disconsolate. I thought he might cry. ‘Mother isn’t coming home, is she, Nat?’ he lamented. I nodded my head sadly. It was all a sorry mess. I fished in my pockets for bus money. I had no coins.
It had begun to rain when we got home. The walk back had been a long one. A nasty gritty wind had assailed us, tousling our hair, dirtying our souls. I felt parched, numb. Martin made some scalding tea. It hit me like a shot of adrenalin. ‘I shall make us all some nice scrambled eggs,’ I chirped, feeling heartened. William pulled a face. Because this was the only dish in my culinary wardrobe. Once we were all sat at the big kitchen table, eating silently, the world seemed a kinder place. Martin complimented me on my cooking. Madness retreated to the shadows. I didn’t even fret about money.
‘Natalie, it seems to me like your Mother will be sick for some time. What are you doing for money?’ Meg Eames asked briskly. I explained about the pawn shop. She sighed heavily. ‘We’re going to have to do better than that. I reckon you might qualify for some government support. Let me do some asking around.’ Mrs Eames grabbed the telephone directory from her table, and thumbed through its slim pages. Finding the number she wanted, she yanked her phone from her cardigan pocket, and dialled. After an interminable time explaining the same thing over again, Mrs Eames finally got some traction. An appointment was made. Huffing with satisfaction, she hung up abruptly. ‘Natalie my dear, we shall all go. Martin too. It’s only proper that you get some assistance at this difficult time.’ I was impressed. Mother always said these government agencies were tighter than old misers. This was a victory.
The woman was a haughty old bat. She drilled me with impertinent questions. She even questioned William, suggesting he might go into state care. Mrs Eames sat placidly throughout. Nothing could ruffle her perfect feathers. I gazed at the stained walls of the welfare office while the bat typed vigorously on her computer. ‘Well, I believe we can offer you a regular food grant, but we shall need to sight proof of your Mother’s medical condition, before we can issue full emergency support.’ She seemed glad at this hurdle. Mrs Eames butted in, to say a doctor’s statement could easily be procured. The interview was over. I stood up and stretched my weary limbs. This was another win. The food money was going to help.
Mrs Eames contacted Mother’s psychiatrist and soon a letter arrived, verifying her condition. We took this to the social welfare office. A sullen, spotty man pawed over it warily, then stamped it. Soon money began to appear in my savings account. Juicy sums that I blew, grocery shopping for us. William and I craved for more than stupid scrambled eggs and toast. So we went to the supermarket. I was dumbfounded by the mind-boggling choice. We stood in the chilly aisles and just stared. Gradually, we filled up a small trolley with nonsensical things and went to the checkout. The bill was shockingly large. I swiped my card, and prayed. It went through. A greasy, half-starved attendant loaded up four brown paper bags. We left, dazed, triumphant.
Still feeling flush with money, I ordered an Uber. In any case our flimsy bags were much too awkward for the bus. The driver loaded our shopping into the boot, and we drove. I reclined in the back seat, and watched the world fly by. After ten minutes, we swung into our lane. I felt swell. I tipped the man one pound. He was tickled. In the kitchen, William and I unpacked the bags. I’d bought crumpets. We’d toast and butter them, dunk them in our tea. The world was wonderful.
William had toothache. It was excruciating, he said, having learnt the word from me. I rushed around to Mrs Eames for painkillers. ‘We’ll need to take the young lad to the dentist’s,’ Meg Eames said wisely. ‘That kind of pain only grows worse.’ So she rang her dental clinic and booked William in for emergency treatment. The soonest slot was the following week. I grimaced at the thought of all that untreated pain. ‘We’ll need to dose William up to the eyeballs. I’ll dash to the shop and fetch some stronger medicine.’ She donned her coat, and sped out the door. William sat whimpering at the big table, nursing his jaw. It had clearly swollen. I tried to distract him, but he was immersed in his pain. I remembered how Mother always crushed up the pills, so they’d work faster. I needed her.
I got tired of seeing William clutching his face as if he was mortally wounded. The pain didn’t subside. William began to groan in a ghastly fashion. He didn’t eat or drink. I grew fatigued, and barked at him to quit his noise. His cheek swelled up, until he looked like a misfit. Mrs Eames was kinder, and pampered him, and cooed to him. She reckoned William had a serious infection. If the pain didn’t alleviate, we’d need to rush to hospital. I got on with the days, my empathy ragged. I longed for the peace of my room, away from William’s relentless agony.
The day came when William’s tooth was removed. His root canal was seriously infected. The only option was a laborious extraction. We all sat in the dentist’s chambers and watched, as she manhandled the offending molar from William’s numb jaw. After an epic wrestling match, the tooth came loose, and was dinged into a silver dish. I looked hard at the bloody mess. I felt like screaming into the sterile air. The dentist was perspiring heavily. Her bill would be colossal.
I’d become obsessive over William. Now he was recovering, I needed to loosen my unwholesome fascination. My dreams had been filled with images of his excruciating pain. They had to stop. I turned my mind to Martin. My big crush had petered out. I needed to rekindle the flame. So I invited Martin around, to share a special dinner. Now William could eat again, his appetite was formidable. ‘Nat, cook us a stew, something heavy and satisfying,’ William pleaded. I’d make something with dumplings. I’d wear a flimsy dress and loud make-up. Martin would be enamoured.
I sat by the big window and watched the sun sink, and fizzle out. Sunset always made me maudlin. Dinner had been disastrous. The whole evening Martin had avoided my eyes. He hadn’t said much at all. My dumplings were chewy and leaden. William had a stomach ache. He groaned now, folded up in the corner. On a pretext, Martin had left early. Our once bouncy relationship was on the rocks. I couldn’t understand a thing. I felt degraded, cheap. Darkness settled on the street. Dim street lamps flicked on. I would wrap my grief in its sullen black shawl.
It was a surprise when I received a letter from Mother. The buff envelope was stamped with the hospital crest. Inside were two crisp pages. Mother’s handwriting was beautiful. She explained how she was recovering. How each day the fog bank in her head was clearing. She asked how we were coping. I could feel the tearful guilt in the lines. Mother spoke about her treatment. The medicines had finally kicked in. She said she’d be discharged within a fortnight. She was coming home.
‘Natalie, this is terrific news,’ chirped Mrs Eames. ‘It’ll be so wonderful, to have your Mother back home.’ I felt all teary, and swallowed hard. Mrs Eames really wanted to help. She said we could ferry Mother from the hospital with all her belongings in a rental car. I smiled broadly. Mother’s homecoming would be special. William suddenly spoke up. ‘Is Mother going to be all strange, all weird?’ he asked. I couldn’t answer. I supposed she’d need some gentle nursing, some tender care. I’d be there.
Mrs Eames hired a modest vehicle. We bundled into the car, and drove out to the hospital. Mother was waiting with bulging paper bags at the nurse’s station. She warmly hugged us all. Mrs Eames signed some papers and a nurse escorted us through the locked doors. Once we were in the car park, Mother sheltered her eyes. She said the sunlight was blazing, hurting her. She cringed, moaning quietly. Mrs Eames sat her gently down in the back seat. Mother blinked in a disturbed way, tears filling her eyes. I grew nervous. This was an inauspicious beginning.
Mrs Eames had made a venerable vegetarian quiche. She sliced enormous wedges, and served us all. Mother had calmed. She was drugged-up to the eyeballs. She sat like a troubling statue, pecking at the food like a bird. I didn’t know what to say. I kept thinking I’d soon be Mother’s nursemaid, once the initial excitement was done. William was fidgeting in his seat. He’d flicked his salad to the side of his plate. He’d already demolished his quiche. He was irritating. ‘Paula, you better take an afternoon nap,’ said Mrs Eames slowly. ‘It’s been an eventful day, and you’ll be tired.’ Mother stood up, her legs wobbly, her eyes glazed over. Mrs Eames guided her away.
Mother slept a long time. I thought she would never reappear. Shadows filled the parlour. Outside, street lamps flicked on. William was playing some inane video game, with the volume so loud my head throbbed. But nothing disturbed Mother’s slumber. I figured her medicines must be really heavy-duty anti-depressants. Mrs Eames was long gone. She’d promised to come and check on us next morning. I felt nervous. Mother might have a full-blown psychotic episode. I wouldn’t know what to do. I held my breath, and listened hard, for the sound of her feet coming downstairs. Nothing happened. I told William it was time for bed. We both crept past Mother’s room. She was like an unexploded bomb. I closed my door as quietly as possible. I lay on my bed, fully dressed. The blood pounded in my ears. Silence. Slowly, my eyes grew heavy, my muscles relaxed. I slept.
I rose late. I dragged my weary body downstairs and there was Mother, sitting statuesque on the big sofa. I greeted her warmly. There was no response. Mother sat wrapped in her favourite red and black dressing gown, the one printed with Chinese dragons. Her hands were placed in her lap. She studied them closely. I wondered if she’d taken her medicines. I bustled about with the kettle, then took a coffee over to Mother. As I placed it on the table, she didn’t even blink. Her mouth was a fixed slot. She dribbled slightly. It was horrible.
I scurried out the front door, in search of Mrs Eames. She would know how to handle this. I couldn’t bear to think Mother was permanently vegetative. I felt sure she could snap out it, given some subtle encouragement. I’d seen the movies where a vigorous slap to the face would rouse a fallen heroine. Something firm had to be done. Mrs Eames walked with me, back to our house. Gently, we edged the door open. Mother was still perched on the sofa. Mrs Eames knelt down on the carpet. ‘Paula, my dear, it’s Meg. I’m here. Your Natalie is here. Come back to us.’ Nothing happened. Mrs Eames sighed deeply, exasperated. I wanted to tear out my hair. We’d have to call the madhouse. Because Mother was gone.
They came with a white van to transport Mother back to the ward. She struggled faintly as two burly orderlies manoeuvred her into the back seats. The van rocked on its wheels, and then she was secure. I felt horribly guilty, parting with Mother like this. The haunting image of her sad eyes staring from the back windows would wrack my soul. But she saw nothing. Her mind was in a thousand pieces. Mrs Eames hugged my shoulders and told me to come inside. I glanced back. The van sputtered into life, and revved away. It lurched heavily around the corner. Mother was gone.
It was hard to console William. He’d seen none of the drama. I had to explain why Mother had left us again. ‘She wasn’t sick, she was doing no harm, she was just being quiet,’ William insisted, suppressing the hostile snarl in his voice. It was like I had robbed him. I tried to explain. William was having none of it. ‘It’s that place that’s making Mother sick. You shouldn’t have sent her back there, Nat.’ William’s eyes were swollen and red. His voice quavered. I tried to comfort him. It was futile. His childhood had curdled like bad cream.
Gloom descended on our house. There was little speech. I went through the motions of feeding us, but the meals tasted of ashes and soggy paper. Money didn’t seem to be a problem now. Regular amounts trickled into my account. I didn’t buy flash things. Eggs took their place again, a staple of our menu. Martin had gone back home. Our little thing had fizzled out, and died. Mrs Eames knew not to speak of him. When I thought of Martin, I would flush profoundly. But nobody teased me. We were all thinking of Mother. Locked in that ward. Fragile, loosing her marbles.
I received a call. The details were cloudy. It seemed as if Mother had tried to harm herself. The psychiatrist wasn’t exactly sure, but Mother had been found on the floor of her room, clutching a shard of glass in her heavily bleeding hand. Luckily it was a superficial injury. Nobody knew where Mother had procured the glass, there being no mirrors on the ward. A full investigation would be conducted. Mother had been bandaged up and sedated. She was calling for me. I sighed inside. This was a terrible saga. But William and I would go. Mother needed us.
This time we had no hire-car. There was only the bus, which trundled to the outskirts of town, and dropped us, for a brisk walk to the hospital. Rain tumbled out of the sky, and we got soaked. William began to whimper. We were drenched rats by the time we reached the ward. Nobody cared. I was always astounded by the indifference of the nursing staff. They huddled at their station, heads down, making copious notes. The patients were merely an inconvenience. I tried to rouse one of the senior witches. ‘Visiting hours are long over,’ she barked. ‘You’ll need to return tomorrow.’ I explained how we’d come to see our sick Mother. ‘No exceptions, honey,’ she insisted, gruff, pitiless. Her eyes were empty sockets. I felt like kicking her. There was nothing to be done. We slunk back down the long corridor, out into the rain.
When I told her, Mrs Eames was furious. She wanted to write to the health Minister at once, exposing the hospital’s shoddy ways. Her face grew ruddy, her mouth set into a hard slot. She meant business. ‘This time I’ll take you myself. You children have the right to see your Mother at any hour. I won’t be gainsaid.’ Mrs Eames stomped her left foot, to underline her staunch determination. ‘We shall take a taxi. Paula needs us. And if anyone crosses me, there’ll be hell to pay.’ Mrs Eames was on the war-path. I was impressed.
So next morning we all hopped in a big taxi. I watched the meter spinning like a crazy top, the ride getting ever more expensive, until I thought it would break Mrs Eames’ bank. When we stepped out, Mrs Eames handed our driver a small wad of notes, and thanked him. The surly man nodded, leapt in his car, and shot away. There was something profoundly taboo about mental institutions. We strolled down the long corridor, to the locked gates. A hulking orderly buzzed us in. Two patients danced around the nurse’s station, like sad moths. No one took the slightest notice. The nurses, heads down, worked at their notes. Mrs Eames went to the desk and hemmed loudly. An elderly matron shot her a withering stare, rose laboriously, and came grudgingly to the desk.
Mother was called. She came, escorted by a crabby young nurse. She stepped lightly, like she might break something valuable. Mother’s hair was tousled, her nightgown was grubby. It flapped open immodestly. I looked down at Mother’s hands. There was thick dirt under her fingernails. She had a sour, unwashed smell. Most of all Mother’s eyes disturbed me. Like a frightened bush baby, her vision exploded, she’s stared emptily at us. Carefully, we were directed to the visitor’s room. My stomach lurched inside me. This was hell.
Mrs Eames moved over to Mother and caressed her shoulder gently. But it was like before. There was no response. Something vital had died in Mother. The drugs had eaten away her mind, like insects that will hollow out an apple. I wanted to shout at the psychiatrist, demand to know what terrible thing he had done. We sat in silence, until Mother began to moan. She scrabbled with her hands. She grew agitated. I thought she might scream out. Mrs Eames, sensing danger, summoned the nurse. It was all horrible. Mother was wheeled away, like before. She didn’t even know her children.
Our ride back home was a sad affair. William blubbered quietly to himself, holding down the wracking sobs. Mrs Eames was stern. I felt resigned, but unsurprised. Mother was going to be incarcerated for a very long time, and I had to live with the fallout. I didn’t blame her. I just wished it was otherwise. ‘You two need a pick-me-up. Let’s drive into town and get some shakes and fries,’ said Mrs Eames kindly. William looked up. This was the way to heal his simple heart. I smiled weakly. I had no objection to a strawberry milkshake.
The fast food restaurant was loud. Vulgar music blasted from hidden speakers. The staff scrambled around, hollering out orders. We all sat at a cramped corner table. William chugged at his shake, making ugly slurping sounds. He was clearly in paradise. He crammed fries into his mouth, grinning from ear to ear. I suppressed my revulsion, and tried to feel glad for him, that his sadness had been forgotten. Mrs Eames was perched across from me, like a dainty bird. She’d ordered a coffee and muffin, which she pecked at delicately. My strawberry shake tasted fake. I longed to be alone, in the quiet of my room. Where I could process this tragic day. Devise a way forward.
I slept heavily and late. I pulled myself from bed, and made tea. I’d borrowed one of Mother’s many dressing gowns. It was far too big, but I wrapped it tightly around me. It was printed with fiery red dragons, like all of Mother’s night wear. There was something immensely comforting about wearing her clothes. William stomped down the stairs. He rubbed his bleary eyes. He was getting fat. ‘Nat, what’s for breakfast?’ he whined. I cradled my tea cup, ignoring him. I didn’t like this new role that had been thrust upon me. I thought how there was nothing fresh to eat in the cupboards. ‘Get something for yourself,’ I spat out. And sipped my tea.
It was time to do some serious cleaning. Mountains of dirty laundry had accumulated in the washing baskets. If you looked hard, you could spy a layer of white dust coating all the sofas and chairs. The house was a disastrous mess. I pulled out the hoover, and spun balletically around the rooms. There were scrunched sweet wrappers on William’s floor, and spilled packets of soggy crisps. I couldn’t imagine where he’d got them from. I supposed Mrs Eames must have secretly brought him these fattening snacks. But I said nothing. I squeezed clothes into the washing machine and hunted for pegs. William scoffed at my efforts. He didn’t lift a finger. Spring cleaning was for girls.
Frost crept up the street-lamps. Puddles in the street iced up, and became jagged. Our lounge grew deathly chill. William and I didn’t have sufficient heating. So I dragged big heavy jerseys from the clothes cupboard. We rugged our knees. ‘I’m so cold, Nat. Can’t we start a fire, like Mother used to?’ William cried, his lips nearly blue. There was some kindling beside the fireplace and a little wood piled neatly outside. But I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to light a fire. I’d watched Mother before, but it’d seemed a mystical thing. The way she stacked the wood. Watching the flames rise, leap and lick. The sizzling warmth that made the room glow. I shivered. William sniffed, he was glum. We desperately needed a roaring bonfire. To cheer our wintry world.
It was William’s birthday. Mother had always made a big fuss about birthdays. I felt compelled to make a cake. Mrs Eames had dutifully trotted around with a lavish gift, a battery-powered speed boat, plus plenty of lush wrappered sweets. Now William sucked on his bonbons, fiddling excitedly with his sleek red boat. I got a recipe for mud pie off the internet, and started to whip up a dark batter. Mother had many cake tins and old candles. Once my mixture was ready, I shoved it in the oven. A rich smell filled the kitchen. William smiled. Mother would have been proud. I tried not to think of her sad, crazy eyes.
There was an abrupt rap at the door. It wasn’t friendly. I opened it a chink, and wedged my foot firmly behind. There were two middle-aged women standing there. They were both squat, crusty, plastered in make-up. ‘You must be Natalie. We’re from the Ministry of Education. May we come in and talk?’ I suddenly realised who they were. It was about our truancy. I invited the ladies inside. They perched on the sofa, tense, like they might pounce. ‘Natalie, is your Mother here?’ asked the leader, assessing the messy room with hawkish eyes. I explained how Mother was in hospital. This solicited two churlish nods. ‘The fact is,’ snarled the atrocious woman, ‘you can no longer be missing from school. It is over sixty days since your brother and yourself attended.’ As she explained this, I noticed an unpleasant wart bouncing on her chin. I sniggered. That was fatal. ‘Natalie, this is a matter of the utmost seriousness. Please do not be flippant.’ I tried to look solemn, and offered them both tea.
The two horrible ladies prised an oath out of me. I swore that I would go to school. I would also make sure that William attended too. There were veiled threats if I didn’t comply. They had spoken obliquely of foster care, which had freaked me out, rattled my soul. So after they had gone, I went upstairs to inspect our uniforms. William’s grey shorts were wretchedly crumpled and stuffed in a drawer. His shirt was ink-stained, I’d need to soak it. My own uniform hung precisely from a rail, gathering fine dust. But it was serviceable. I imagined what a guffaw there’d be when I walked into class. Jeers, whoops, the teacher begging for order. I’d be red-faced for a week. But it had to be done.
My school uniform felt starchy. Itches travelled up my arms and legs. My crimson blazer was ridiculous. William looked like a boiled sweet. It was a tidy walk to school. It was raining solidly. We had no umbrella. I didn’t fancy turning up like a bedraggled river rat. I had some coins. We’d take the bus. William and I waited under the shelter. There was no timetable, only a pile of grubby clothes and soggy cardboard boxes. Someone had been sleeping rough. Time passed. No bus showed up. The bell would have rang. School would be starting without us.
There’d be terrible repercussions. The school would report our absence. The two battleaxes would get to know. I couldn’t bear to think of it. William and I being placed in care. Surely we’d be divided. Mother, with her unstable mental history, would never get us back. I wished we’d just walked under the rain, and sat dutifully through the drudgery of school. But it was too late now. The deed was done. I wondered if I might ring and explain, give credible excuses, say William and I would definitely be there the next day. I pulled out my phone. But I didn’t know who to call. Because I’d torn up the social worker’s business card.
I lived in terror. Of a knock at the door. I feared my phone would vibrate crazily, and it’d be them. Or a toxic message might drop into my inbox. But nothing happened. As time passed, I began to think the two social workers had made an empty threat. Surely they were too busy with more serious concerns. We were merely a couple of waifs skipping school. I went out to shop. William came too. When we returned, clutching loaded bags, a business card was pinned to the door. I shivered. It was them. A note was scrawled on the back of the card. ‘Call me urgently,’ it read. My veins turned to ice.
I shared my fears with Mrs Eames. Whilst she thought it important we went to school, she had her qualms. ‘These people shouldn’t be bullying you like this. It’s not decent, threatening young folk in this way.’ She was fuming. She offered to telephone the Ministry. I accepted happily. I admired Mrs Eames. She had backbone. She was never afraid of a brawl. ‘I’ll knock these women down a peg or two. Coming around your house, and scaring the living daylights out of you, it’s not on. Don’t worry dearie, I’ll sort this.’ She picked up her mobile, her face red as a boiled sweet, and dialled the number.
A letter arrived. It was from Mother’s psychiatrist. Mother was going to be transferred to a care unit out of town. Her condition, the doctor explained, had deteriorated. She wasn’t responding to treatment. I wondered if we’d be able to visit. It was a major journey away. I checked online, and discovered we’d need to take an express train, and maybe stay overnight. I had money, but not a great deal. When I explained to William, he looked forlorn. Like the rug had been pulled from under him. I felt very alone. We were truly abandoned children now.
Mrs Eames was suffering from debilitating back pain. She hobbled around, wincing, muttering curses. I offered to fetch pain killers, to take her to the doctor. Mrs Eames would have none of it. ‘It’s my cross to bear,’ she said, through gritted teeth. I’d been wanting to discuss the journey. Our trip up to see Mother. I’d been secretly hoping that Mrs Eames would accompany us. This seemed unlikely now. I couldn’t imagine Mrs Eames sat rigid in an uncomfortable railway carriage, staring out the foggy windows, as the miles rattled by. I’d have to ditch my plan. Mother must wait.
The money was drying up. I had a letter to say our allowance had been reviewed. We would get twenty pounds less each week. It was an appalling loss. After the rent had been deducted, there was very little room to manoeuvre food onto the table. I didn’t tell William. He was an inveterate worrier. The prospect of fewer groceries would have harmed his soul. I did endless pointless calculations. I came up with a solid figure. Thirty pounds a week to spend on food. It was enough to make me cry. There was nothing for it. A diet of scrambled eggs, boiled potatoes and bullet-hard beans. William would be mortified.
My phone buzzed, vibrating wildly. It was an unknown number. That surely meant trouble. I pondered a moment, then picked up. It was a doctor. Dr Stevenson. I gulped hard. What had Mother done now? The doctor explained how Mother had been put on a new regime of medicines. They hadn’t agreed with her. She’d become anxious, dangerous, uncooperative. Mother had been placed in solitary confinement. She’d been there for three days now, hammering on the door to be released. I moaned at this. I hated to think of Mother caged like a savage animal. I told the doctor we would come.
We stood on the busy platform, awaiting our train. I’d roped Mrs Eames into our adventure. She wore a heavy coat and gloves, although it was warm. The air was sooty. William coughed periodically. I thought about his asthma. The train was late. The passengers were getting restless. An elderly man stood perilously near the edge, fascinated by the shining tracks. There was an announcement over the tannoy. I couldn’t understand a word. But Mrs Eames tutted. She’d heard. The train was delayed an hour, due to maintenance work on the tracks. I sat down on my small haversack. This was a poor beginning.
The giant locomotive rumbled over the sleepers, departing the grimy station. We were cramped in a second class carriage, where the upholstery was faded, crumbling. As we rattled over the points, out onto the high-speed rails, I surveyed the other passengers. They didn’t look like they wished to speak to us. Everyone had preoccupied eyes, they were mute. I leant across and opened a small sash window. Air swirled in, hot, metallic. William bobbed in his seat, clearly thrilled. Mrs Eames removed her coat and gloves. We gathered speed. Soon the ugly brick buildings ended and fields were rushing by.
We were slowing. Over the intercom, the conductor announced our destination. The train snaked across a grubby river bridge, and entered a red brick station. Mrs Eames manhandled her unnecessary suitcase to the doors and we alighted. William leapt onto the platform. The train was throbbing like a great spent beast. I strode towards the gates. Soon we stood in the station forecourt. It was a miserable, soulless place. Mrs Eames hailed a taxi. ‘Come on my dears,’ she chirped, ‘let’s find our accommodation.’
We found our way to a sordid quarter of town. Drunks lurched beside burning braziers, warming their filthy hands. Young painted women stood mournfully by the grubby kerb stones. Our hotel was on the first floor of a dismal, crumbly building. A neon light flickered obscenely, some of the red letters were missing. Mrs Eames wasn’t distracted. She cantered up the stairwell to find the manager. Our room smelt sour, like it was never cleaned. The curtains were drawn. They were a lurid orange colour and particularly dusty. William sneezed. Three single beds filled the room. The black carpet was speckled with holes from cigarette burns. My soul sunk into my shoes.
I didn’t sleep well. The bed was like iron, the sheets gritty, musty. William choked softly the whole night. Mrs Eames, however, was out like a light. When a measly sunrise finally swelled behind the curtains, I was exhausted. I sat up and rubbed my tired eyes. Mrs Eames was snoring. Traffic rumbled below in the street. Today we would go to see Mother. I’d read about the facility. It was newly built. The director had enlightened ideas. It nestled at the edge of town.
After a tiresome taxi ride, we walked into the foyer of the mental institution. I was greatly surprised. It was more like the lobby of some swanky hotel. Nurses sat at a beautiful faux marble workstation. Patients filled capacious sofas and armchairs. There was no sign of Mother. Mrs Eames went to the desk to enquire. Mother, it seemed, was finishing lunch. ‘Paula does so love our blueberry cheesecake,’ smiled the kindly nurse. We were directed to the refectory. Where Mother sat alone among a sea of tables, nibbling at a generous wedge of dessert. I swallowed hard, tears stinging my eyes. We approached cautiously.
Mother smelt ripe. Her nightdress was soiled. Her hair hung greasily at her shoulders. She picked fussily at her dessert, clearly savouring every sweet moment. When she sensed us there, she dropped her fork. It clanged loudly to the floor. Mother didn’t look up. She began to tremble. Her whole body shivered. I feared she might have spasms. Mother rose to her feet, overturning her lunch tray. She pressed her hands against her face. A nurse suddenly materialised. ‘Paula, come along my dear,’ she said kindly, escorting Mother towards an observation room. None of us had spoken a word.
We stood solemnly by the nurses’ work station, waiting for news. The resident psychiatrist had been called. It wasn’t like before. None of us were going to flee the scene. Mrs Eames was ashen but she patted my shoulder, to hearten me. Eventually a smiley young nurse wandered over to us. ‘Paula has been sedated, she’s calm now,’ the nurse explained, addressing Mrs Eames. ‘I suggest you all return tomorrow, when Paula’s had some rest.’ There was nothing for it. Mrs Eames nodded. The three of us shuffled towards the doors.
‘Let’s take a twirl around town,’ suggested Mrs Eames. ‘We need to get something warm inside us, after our ordeal.’ For Mrs Eames, a solid meal was always the answer to life’s woes. We strolled through the hospital grounds, and found a bus stop into town. The timetable had been torn down, so we just waited. After a considerable time, a ramshackle vehicle appeared. After twenty minutes of jolting, we alighted in the main street. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Many shops were boarded up. Obscene graffiti was everywhere. Listless, hollow-eyed youths milled around in grubby doorways. ‘Hang onto your valuables,’ Mrs Eames warned.
We ferreted around and found a gloomy café down an insalubrious alley. It was a leftover from another age. I pushed open the door and a faint bell jangled. There were no other customers. A butch woman presided at the desk. Mrs Eames asked nicely for a menu. ‘We only do beans on toast and tea, have it or leave it,’ the woman barked. Mrs Eames said we’d take three plates. ‘I’m supposing you’d all like bleeding butter on your toast,’ the woman snarled. I nodded meekly. Mrs Eames guided us to a rickety linoleum-topped table. William was snickering. He sat heavily and started to play with the messy ketchup bottle and salt cellar. Mrs Eames shot him one of her glares. We waited hungrily for our food.
I ate my beans, which were positively ordinary. The tea, however, was scalding, reviving. The mean lady slammed a grubby chit down on our table. She looked daggers at us. I turned to watch William chomp through his food, head down, unconcerned by anything else. I wished to be like him. I hated how my head was always spinning, picking over scenes. Mrs Eames picked up the bill. It came to twenty six pounds. That was outrageous. I thought we should query it, complain. But Mrs Eames rose nobly and went to the till. I heard her complement the food, and pay up. I felt guilty. Our excursion was costing Mrs Eames a fortune.
It really was the most forlorn place. The main street was dead. A gritty wind blew newspaper and desiccated leaves high into the air. Mrs Eames had thought of window-shopping. But everything was boarded up. Yobbos loitered in doorways, their drug-fuelled faces full of menace. I clutched my purse, though I had barely twenty pounds. There was nothing for it. Mrs Eames guided us back to our dingy hotel room. William bounded up the threadbare staircase. I could see green mould crawling on the walls. We turned the key. It was more sordid than before. I thought of death-row prisoners in their cells. My heart shrivelled up like a raisin and died inside me.
William was mucking around with his stupid phone. While I drifted, dozing on the hard bed. I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm to chatter with Mrs Eames. In any case she was pointedly silent, consumed with her own thoughts. I knew that we’d need to go and search out more food. William would be ravenous soon. I wondered where in this wretched town we’d find sustenance. Returning to the café would break the bank. I grabbed for my phone and searched for a supermarket. There was one out on the bypass.
The supermarket was a tatty warehouse, the concrete floors stained, smelly. There were no other customers around. William insisted on pushing the shopping trolley. Its wheels juddered uncontrollably. William couldn’t maintain a straight line. Mrs Eames said we should shop for picnic-style food. I wondered where in this godforsaken town we might find a pleasant spot to eat our meals. As we scoured the shelves, William’s eyes lingered over the crisps and chocolates. But Mrs Eames insisted upon fresh produce, so we got breads and salad tubs and soft cheeses. William scowled. When the spotty check-out girl, about my age, rang up our things, I was staggered at the cost. Mrs Eames swiped her card. She couldn’t disguise her alarm. We packed our things silently, and slunk out, through the squeaky automatic doors.
We walked through an imposing iron gate, into the Botanic Gardens. It looked like a set from a low-budget horror flick. No one was about, except a decrepit gardener raking leaves. The flower beds were all pruned back. There wasn’t a bloom in sight. I saw only intimidating thorns. Mrs Eames singled out a wide park bench. We’d have our dinner there. The brown light was fading. She unpacked some baps and salad spreads. William looked mortified, there wasn’t a crisp in sight. We ate. Nobody said a word. Leaves swirled around my ankles. Suddenly I felt nauseous. The world was a soulless, dark place.
We were all lying on our beds. The sun had sunk down. William’s socks were beginning to get whiffy. A malodorous guff permeated the room. I could hear traffic grinding in the street below. Mrs Eames was dozing already. She had been complaining of back pain. I had caught her swallowing some serious-looking crimson pills. Her teeth were perpetually gritted. I resisted the temptation to pull out my phone and play some inane game. My eyelids grew heavy. The space-invader beeps coming from William’s stupid gadget dimmed in my head. I felt hot and groggy. Sleep.
Mrs Eames was upbeat. ‘Let’s visit your Mother this morning, I’m sure she’ll be feeling chipper, and more than delighted to see you both.’ This was clearly a comforting lie. There seemed little hope that Mother would be altered for the better. We’d purchased a box of cereal and plastic spoons and bowls. We ate the muesli, which tasted like funeral ashes, perched on our beds. Mrs Eames said she was in dire need of a coffee. We would skirt around town, probably visit our café, then catch the bus. Stepping into the street, we were assailed by a swirl of gritty dust. William choked. I patted his back. Soon we were striding purposefully towards the town centre.
Mother was unchanged. Our visit had been worthless. I was pretty sure Mother was oblivious to our existence. She was securely locked inside her delusional head. It didn’t seem like she’d ever escape. Mrs Eames requested to speak with Mother’s psychiatrist, but he wasn’t available. Downcast, we decided to leave town. I scanned the train timetable and we reserved our seats. We’d depart the next morning. There’d be another afternoon to kill. I’d grown to loathe this gruesome town, and our hideous hotel room.
The train journey back was uneventful. Perfectly manicured fields for miles and miles, with only the soft lines of distant hills. Which gave way to drab satellite towns, then the great smoking conurbation of London. We slowed, squealed over endless points, and rumbled into the terminus. Muddy announcements were made. I didn’t understand a word. So we grabbed our luggage, and strode down the platform. Mrs Eames muscled her way through the milling crowds, and found a taxi rank. It was good, to be going home.
A thin layer of dust had settled over the sofa and armchairs. The house had a dead, glazed look. William and I unpacked our meagre things. I got out a dustpan and brush, and whisked around, until the lounge was respectable. I opened the windows wide, because there was a stale smell. William was sat at the kitchen table, oblivious, playing his wretched game. We’d need to buy some food. I asked William to dash to the corner shop for eggs, bread, butter and milk. He frowned and groaned. So I said he could get a small chocolate bar too. This appeased him. He snatched the ten pound note I held out, and lurched towards the door.
I prepared our usual dish of scrambled eggs. We both sat down at the kitchen table. William chomped his eggs down like a barbarian. Then he licked his knife, and burped loudly. I craved for more refined company. A girlfriend, who would have polished manners. William suddenly pushed his chair back. It scraped alarmingly on the floor. I shuddered. My stupid brother bounded to the sofa, to continue his dumb game. I was saddled with the washing-up. I felt downcast. Things had to change around here, I thought defiantly. I’d devise a roster. Put William to work. Enough was enough. I wouldn’t be taken for granted.
I drew up my chart. William’s name was written in bold handwriting and underlined. His chores were clearly defined. I thought about penalties for uncompleted work, but I didn’t know what punishments I might give. Starving William seemed inordinately cruel, and he didn’t get any pocket money I could dock. Nevertheless I hung my notice prominently in the kitchen, on the fridge door. I waited for the fallout. It didn’t take long. William barrelled up to me demanding answers. ‘What’s this all about Sis, you cannot be serious?’ he screamed, clutching my notice. I said it was deadly serious. William gave me a death stare. I stared back. Then William turned heel, and stampeded from the room, angrier than a bull rhinoceros.
William performed his duties. He hoovered the house, took out the rubbish, cleaned the cutlery drawer. But it was always slapdash, grudgingly done. We didn’t speak. A pall of silence settled over our lounge. I made all the meals. William and I ate them like mutes. Our knives and forks clattered, they were more vocal. Mrs Eames hadn’t been round for days. I dreaded what she’d have to say. William was her special pet. She’d take his side. She’d insist we made up. If I refused, we’d fight. I’d be ostracized. It wasn’t worth it. I had to thaw the deadlock. Show some sisterly love.
Mrs Eames was laid up in bed with excruciating back pain. She called me to ask if everything was OK. I could sense she spoke through gritted teeth. I lied. I insisted everything was hunky-dory. She mustn’t worry. In fact my fight with William had escalated to a cold war. He had dug in his heels, and wouldn’t mutter a single word in my direction. It was comic. I knew he was bursting to pummel me with his little fists. I tried very hard not to snigger. When William saw my amusement, his face curdled. It was too late to patch up things. Irreparable damage had been done.
Mrs Eames hobbled around to our house. She was wielding a crutch, cursing mildly as she came. William hugged her knees, nearly capsizing her, and knocking her to the ground. I knew she sensed his misery. ‘What’s up matey?’ she asked lightly, but William had burst into tears. ‘We can’t have this,’ Mrs Eames said soothingly, shooting me a puzzled glance. I tried to look nonchalant, but failed. Everything would come out now. I’d be accused of bullying poor little William. I flushed, the guilt strewn all over my cheeks. Mrs Eames sat heavily in our best chair. She was waiting for an explanation.
Mrs Eames forced us to kiss and make up. William pulled a hideous face, like he’d drunk a tumbler of dirty dishwater. I thought he was going to retch. I felt humiliated. Mrs Eames went into the kitchen, and took down the offending roster. She scrunched it in her leathery, veined hand, and it was history. I was suddenly glad. ‘Now let’s go out, and celebrate your peace, with a couple of chocolate milkshakes,’ Mrs Eames said. This was welcome. William was palpably thrilled. His face shone like a beacon. He bounced out the front door, all of his terrible psychological wounds miraculously healed.
William slurped his shake. Mrs Eames cast him a dirty look. ‘Really young William, your manners need an overhaul,’ she said, faintly amused. I sipped my drink, lips lightly pursed, ladylike. I couldn’t bear the grossness of boys. The restaurant hummed with happy people. Piped music tinkled in the background. Mrs Eames had become our surrogate mother. I was pleased. She was wrapped in her unnecessary winter coat, clearly relishing our outing. She was wrinkled as a weathered apple. I loved her.
When we returned home, there was a letter sitting on the mat. I recognised the lavish blue crest. It was from the welfare department. Any communication from them always made me shiver. I tore open the envelope and scanned the neatly printed page. Our meagre allowance was to be axed in half. I felt beads of perspiration forming on my forehead. The final paragraph was about an appeal process. But it made no sense at all. I thought of phoning and pleading. Of composing an email begging for reconsideration. But I knew they were inhuman. I was just a number in their crazy system. I didn’t know how I’d break this to William. That there’d be fewer provisions on the table.
I performed numerous calculations. I tried to stretch the money inventively. But it was like juggling disappearing coins. After the rent was taken off, there was this miserable sum, barely enough for a mean tray of eggs, and maybe a carton of milk. I felt like I was going to explode. I didn’t want to busk on the street. I couldn’t demean myself. I thought of making a cardboard placard, and begging for coins. I’d bring William. We’d cut a sorry sight. Passers-by would be moved. Our collection tin would fill rapidly. The image lingered appealingly for a while. Then I put on my boots. I simply had to see Mrs Eames.
Mrs Eames was consoling. She said we’d appeal the decision. ‘It’s ludicrous, expecting you to both live on such a piddling amount,’ she raged. I knew this mood. Mrs Eames meant business. Meanwhile, I wasn’t to worry, because Mrs Eames would tide us over with food, and anything else we needed. She grabbed my hand, and yanked me into her kitchen. High above the sink was a cupboard. I’d never noticed it before. Mrs Eames rummaged noisily inside. She’s pulled out four old cans of oxtail soup. ‘These will do nicely for starters,’ she exclaimed, pleased with her ingenuity. The labels were peeling off the tins, the metal was grubby, rusty. Mrs Eames clearly had no qualms regarding expiry dates. I thanked her. But I’d be tossing these into our recycle bin. I wondered how many eggs were left in our fridge.
In the crockery cupboard, I found two small green ceramic bowls. I cracked a single egg into each one, and whisked energetically. There was salt to add, and a few grains of powdered milk. The resulting mix didn’t look like it’d sustain a starving mouse. I didn’t know how I was going to palm this off on William. He’d be outraged. We had bread. An airy white loaf that turned to stodge when you chewed too hard. I toyed with the idea of retrieving the soup cans from the bin, but we weren’t that hard up, at least not yet. Once it was light, I’d go to the charity shop and beg for a handout. That’d give us three days of decent food. I didn’t dare look too far ahead.
The decrepit lady in the St Vincent de Paul cast her eyes over my face and body. It felt like she was exploring me for protruding ribs, and other indications of starvation. She clutched a tiny notebook, in which she recorded my name and circumstances. She asked weird questions. Did I like liver, would my brother object to tinned beetroot? She simply couldn’t get over the fact that our Mother was in hospital. I was getting impatient. Eventually she hemmed, and pulled out a rubber stamp. My request for emergency food aid had been granted. I was told to wait near the front desk. I felt exposed. Then a triangular grinning woman emerged from a hidden side door, laden with heavy white plastic bags. I spied a box of cornflakes and a roll of toilet paper. This was humiliating. I mumbled an embarrassed thank you. The door bell tinkled as I fled. It was like mocking laughter. I didn’t look back. I knew my face was bright crimson. William would be waiting down the street.
Once home, William and I unpacked a bizarre assortment of food. There were mostly tins, lentils and peaches, diced tomatoes and beetroot. William pulled any ugly face. Also a pack of stale rolls and some plain biscuits, half a carton of eggs, powdered milk and some dish-washing liquid. We didn’t own a single cookbook. I’d need to look up some simple recipes on the internet. I scanned my phone. William was eyeballing the biscuits. I couldn’t imagine he’d take much pleasure in a tomato and lentil stew. Nevertheless I opened two tins and set to work. The smell was disgusting. William kicked the skirting board and slunk away. I noticed that the biscuits were missing.
The earthy taste of lentils lingered on my tongue. It was dire. William had taken a couple of mouthfuls with his nose turned up, then pushed away his bowl. ‘Nat, this stuff is totally ghastly,’ he complained vigorously. I cleared away the uneaten food. I’d have to find a more palatable way to relieve our hunger. The charity shop had included a half packet of instant coffee in their parcel. I’d never drunk the stuff. I boiled the kettle and poured out a full mug. I felt reckless. It was nutty and sludgy and corrosive and bitter. I remembered how Mother had been seriously addicted, downing cup after cup. I smiled to myself. These difficult times had matured me. I wasn’t the dizzy girl I’d been. I was reflective. I was resourceful. I would get the job done.
William had become a real slob. He’d lie on his bed playing computer games when it was broad daylight. He even closed his bedroom curtains at noon. I could hear his squeals of digital delight from downstairs, when I was washing up the dishes. It was so unhealthy, cooped up all day, goggling at a small screen. I asked William if he’d like to go to the park and play some ball. He sneered. ‘No way Nat, that stuff is for babies,’ he barked dismissively. I’d have to make the trip sound more enticing. I promised him an ice cream. Greed flickered in William’s eyes. I had scored a victory.
I decided we’d take regular walks, to improve our fitness. William baulked at this. ‘Sis, you’re acting all weird,’ he said, profoundly unimpressed. But I’d mapped out a route around our housing estate. It was exactly three miles. It was perfectly flat, an ideal circuit. We didn’t have appropriate footwear. William insisted on wearing this baggy T-shirt full of gaping holes, despite the nippy weather. I had an old baseball cap. I thought I looked fetching in it. As soon as we started, William began to pant and wheeze. He was terribly out of shape. I slowed the pace. William was already mumbling and complaining. We hadn’t even done a mile.
I opened the door. It was Mrs Eames. Leaves swirled and gusted high into the air. There was something apocalyptic about it. Maybe I’d seen a similar scene in one of those bog-standard end-of-the-world movies that William so loved. The chilling image lingered in my head. Mrs Eames was talking gently, rapidly. It was something urgent. I struggled to focus. Mrs Eames grew tearful. I understood now. Mother was dead.
The facts were sketchy. Mother’s psychiatrist suspected she’d stolen drugs from a locked medicine cabinet on the ward. How in the world she’d procured the keys he couldn’t explain. Mother was found in a shower cubicle. She’d consumed around sixty pills. Mrs Eames hugged me. My body shook. I could utter no words. I was numb. William would have to be told. Arrangements would need to be made. I’d have to hold back the grief. Otherwise it would swamp me, like a black fog.
Mrs Eames organised everything. She was a tower of logistical strength. I would need to identify Mother’s body. It was a distasteful, archaic ritual. It had to be done. But it belonged in B-grade horror movies. I kept remembering I’d need a black dress, and William would require a perfect black suit. Mother’s body was being transported back to London. I was glad. We wouldn’t need to undertake that horrible journey. Her body would be laid out at the local funeral parlour. Mother was to be cremated. Apparently this was her last wish. A note had been discovered. I wondered what it could possibly say. Had Mother written a final farewell to her daughter and son? I would know soon. Because all of Mother’s belongings were being released to me.
William stayed home. Mrs Eames accompanied me. We sat in a white basement hallway. The morgue was a chilly, sanitised place. After what seemed an interminable time, we were called in. Mother lay on a slab. Balls of cotton wool had been thrust up her nose and into her ears. Her face was entirely devoid of colour. I identified her. The mortician drew up a white sheet, hiding Mother forever. Mrs Eames stroked my shoulder. It was done. It was time to exit.
We visited the funeral home. A sombre man guided us around the floor. He had buck teeth and a fake obsequious smile. There was a peaceful seating area for mourners. My stomach quelled when I saw the curtained alcoves where the cremation ovens were hidden. Mother’s body was already here. She would be lying in one of the chilled back rooms. Mrs Eames and I had chosen a simple coffin, and some appropriate pale lilies. I think all the money came from Mrs Eames’ life savings. I began to shiver uncontrollably. I felt nauseous. Mother’s funeral service was the next day.
A close huddle of mourners occupied the front seats. I knew very few of the faces. William looked immaculate, Mother would have been proud. The priest was whining some shabby, insincere words. He was a complete stranger. Sentimental music tinkled in the background, I thought it was gross. Mrs Eames was weeping, and wiping her nose. After a final morbid prayer, the priest sprinkled Mother’s coffin with holy water. My eyes went misty. My head spun. This was the horrible moment. The coffin was edged into position. I felt sudden heat. And Mother’s body was consigned to the flames.
I stood slurping a soft drink, wishing it would all end. Mrs Eames had insisted we hold a wake, to honour Mother’s memory. She was handing out dainty egg sandwiches with the edges trimmed off. The curious strangers I’d seen at the funeral home spoke together in hushed voices. There was this small, grubby unshaven man who kept throwing me dirty looks. Mrs Eames brought him over for introductions. ‘Natalie, this is your Uncle, Timothy Skerritt,’ she announced very gently. The man held out his hand like a limp fish for me to shake. His eyes bulged horribly. ‘Hello Natalie. Let me offer you my sincerest condolences. It is so sad about Paula,’ he piped in a high, wheezy voice. Mrs Eames nodded and hemmed. Something sinister was going on. I understood. This bizarre man was our nearest relation. From now on, he’d be wheedling his way into our lives.
Uncle Timothy’s eyes released me. They’d crawled over every inch of my skin like horrible spiders. Uncle was telling Mrs Eames how he was staying at a boutique hotel in town. He’d very much like the opportunity to meet William and I in more intimate surroundings. It sounded entirely creepy. Mrs Eames, however, smiled and was obliging, suggesting we all gather the next day. William had sauntered up to us now. Uncle Timothy introduced himself in his slimy effete voice, and squeezed my brother’s hand weakly. William appeared mildly disgusted. I could have sworn that Uncle flicked his red tongue over his lower lip. I knew danger now. I knew that we were in peril.
I tried to raise my concerns with Mrs Eames. But it was extremely awkward. I couldn’t come right out and accuse Uncle of being a child molester. There wasn’t a grain of evidence, just a creepy feeling and some dirty looks. I had nothing substantial. I questioned William to test the waters, but he hadn’t felt anything was untoward. ‘He’s just some old dude, Nat. Don’t get yourself all worked up,’ William insisted dismissively. But I couldn’t shake off my nerves. It was like something evil was burrowing under my skin. I barely thought of poor Mother. Uncle Timothy was hunkered down on my life, like an obscene oily toad.
Uncle Timothy wore a bright green waistcoat. He was scented, his hair was oiled, sleeked back. Mrs Eames offered him some finger food. He smiled, and daintily took a sausage on a stick. I noticed his hand was veiny, mottled with age spots. Uncle Timothy was middle-aged. He couldn’t keep his eyes off me. I prayed it was simply curiosity. Meanwhile Mrs Eames rattled on about little things. She mostly reminisced, steering well clear of Mother’s final madness. Uncle nodded sagely. I was sure he didn’t know all the facts. I watched the way he chewed his sausage. It was repulsive. I longed for him to leave. There was no way this creepy man was going to be mixed up in our lives. But he stayed on, and Mrs Eames was effervescent, charming.
The blazing fact struck home slowly. Finally I saw it. Mrs Eames was interested in Uncle. Her frothy banter when he was around signalled it. I couldn’t believe her poor judgement, her excruciating taste. Clearly the man was a cringing paedophile, who had no interest in older women. My estimation of Mrs Eames’ sensibility came tumbling down. I would have a word with her. Brush away the fog that blinkered her vision. I didn’t know how to broach the subject. So I came right out with it. ‘Auntie, do you have hidden feelings for Uncle Timothy?’ I asked gently. Mrs Eames was panicked. She scrabbled her feet. A hot flush suffused her cheeks. Here was my answer.
Uncle Timothy brought us lavish gifts. For William there was a red motorised speedboat. He could take it to the grubby lagoon behind the gasworks, and race it among the weeds. For me, I got a huge make-up set. It felt like Uncle wanted to tart me up, for his own sick titillation. I blushed profoundly, and mumbled an awkward thank you. Mrs Eames was clearly touched. Uncle lapped up her praise. Mrs Eames went off to make tea. Uncle Timothy ensconced himself in our best chair, and stared at my legs.
Uncle Timothy announced that he was purchasing a house in our neighbourhood. He scratched his hanging jowls and leered at me. He desired, he said, to be near to his favourite niece and nephew. Uncle claimed he would work from his new home. His career would be unaffected by the move. Mrs Eames was deliriously happy. She giggled like a merry schoolgirl, and totally embarrassed me. I felt my whole soul shrivelling up. There would be no escape now, from this horrible pervert. Mrs Eames fetched two glasses of sherry, to toast Uncle’s new direction. He quaffed the sweet liquid down, licking his lips, looking up and down my body. I flushed. I knew I had to run. Run from this revolting monster.
The question of where to go seemed insurmountable. William and I were living off peanuts, and the generous handouts of Mrs Eames. There was absolutely no chance of finding another home. So I decided it was better to stay put, and report Uncle Timothy to child welfare. They would relish an investigation into his loathsome ways. I knew this would break Mrs Eames’ heart, but I didn’t care. I didn’t plan on being a victim of child abuse. I thought it was strange that William had taken a shine to Uncle. But it was probably all the lavish gifts. They simply shut William’s mouth. I picked up my mobile. I scrolled through a list of government agencies. I dialled.
I made a full statement. The lady I spoke with was kind and attentive. I surprised myself by crying softly. Delicate questions were asked. I kept my cool. I made sure my answers were pertinent, succinct. It was like navigating in shark-infested waters. Finally, the interview was over. I was advised to avoid Uncle Timothy. He would be receiving a visit from the police. Two caseworkers were allocated to me. They would telephone me shortly, to organise a home visit. I hung up. I felt shivery and tearful. It was imperative that I tell Mrs Eames. I felt certain there would be horrible eruptions.
‘Natalie, you’ve blown things out of all proportion. I don’t know what’s made you accuse such a kind, sweet man. The whole thing is lunacy.’ Mrs Eames was flabbergasted. She said I was an ungrateful troublemaker. The police had visited Uncle Timothy and taken him in for questioning. This would affect his whole business. People would whisper. A perfectly fine man would take a grievous tumble in the world. I tried to tell Mrs Eames about all the inappropriate creepy stares. But she was adamant I’d made a terrible mistake. I dashed up to my room, and buried my face in my duvet.
Two plain-clothed policewomen called at the house. Mrs Eames was present, but she was all clammed-up and sulky. Uncle Timothy had been cautioned. It transpired that he had a record of harassing young girls. I felt vindicated. My instincts had been right. ‘I don’t think you’ll be hearing from your Uncle Timothy again,’ said the taller, thinner policewomen. Mrs Eames gasped. ‘We went to pay your Uncle a second visit. It looks like he’s scarpered. Guess he didn’t want to face the music,’ she concluded, with obvious satisfaction. It felt like an oppressive weight had been lifted. I was light-headed. I began to sob. But they were tears of delight.
I woke with a start. I’d been having a nightmare. It was early. I drew back my curtains. The street lamps still blared their sickly yellow. There was a dewy mist draped over the whole world. The shadow of a man was standing in the street. He was muffled up in a big dark overcoat. My heart somersaulted into my mouth. I felt quite certain it was Uncle Timothy. I could tell he was gazing up at my window. I wanted to scream.
I ached to share all this with Mrs Eames. But I’d offended her, and she was keeping her distance. I couldn’t bear to think I had a stalker. I would need to report this incident to the police. I turned over the facts in my head. Could I be one hundred percent certain the creepy overcoated man was Uncle Timothy? I spoke to William. But he was blasé. ‘Sis, Uncle is far away. It was just some local perv. Don’t fret yourself,’ he said carelessly, continuing with his computer game. I boiled the kettle and made some breakfast. I suppressed an irrational urge to run into the street, and bawl. Instead I peeped through the net curtains. The morning was still swathed in mist. There wasn’t a soul about.
I missed the company of Mrs Eames. She seemed adamant about staying away. Each morning I’d find a generous hamper of food on the doorstep. She hadn’t deserted us. She knew we’d never fend for ourselves. But Mrs Eames was very angry. I hoped things would boil down soon. Then I noticed something strange. The bags of shopping weren’t from our regular supermarket. There were odd items like brie cheese and wholegrain crackers. Mrs Eames would never choose such things. Suddenly I felt sick in my stomach. The parcels were from Uncle Timothy.
I felt I had to involve Mrs Eames. I went and pounded on her front door. She came, dressed in a ragged brown gown. She said her back had been playing up, and she’d been confined to bed. Mrs Eames grimaced through her teeth as she said this. I explained about the shopping bags. The painful smile curdled on Mrs Eames’ face. ‘This time, Natalie, your Uncle has gone too far. He’s overstepped the bounds of common decency. You need to report this.’ I hugged Mrs Eames gratefully. She was on my side.
William and I were strolling in the botanical gardens with Mrs Eames. There’d been no more parcels, I felt liberated. It was a warm shining leafy day. Mrs Eames, shawled up in a huge brown coat and scarf, looked absurd. We ambled around the flower beds. William was photographing colourful blooms. I clutched Mrs Eames’ arm. She was stumbling, out of breath. ‘Natalie, I need to sit. Guide me to that park bench. There’s a girl.’ Her speech was slurred, she struggled to enunciate the words clearly. Sweat ran down her pallid face. This was something serious. I pulled out my phone with one hand. I called for an ambulance.
We were gathered round Mrs Eames’ hospital bed. Two nurses took her blood pressure, whispering conspiratorially. This was all profoundly upsetting. The registrar had visited earlier. He suspected Mrs Eames had suffered a mild heart attack. Auntie was sedated now. The hospital issue blanket was pulled up tightly under her chin. William was looking mortified. I bit my lip in case I cried. The strong carbolic hospital smell pervaded my nostrils. I thought of poor Mother. I prayed there wouldn’t be another death. I realised how much I loved Mrs Eames. I leant over and kissed her forehead shyly. She couldn’t die.
William and I staggered home. It seemed like Mrs Eames had fallen into a coma. I was afraid to ask more, in case the news was bad. Our kitchen larder was completely bare. There were clear practical repercussions here. We might both starve with Mrs Eames sick in hospital. I rummaged around for some loose change. William stuck his fingers behind the sofa cushions. He found a pound coin. We could stretch to a tin of beans, and maybe a bread roll each. I tried not to think about breakfast. There was a tap at the door. I went to answer. Sitting on our step were two large fabric bags of shopping.
There was no way it could be Uncle Timothy. He’d been cautioned. As far as I knew, he was far away. The whole thing was a puzzling enigma. Whatever the story, I was relieved we had some food. I unpacked the bags. There were the usual glamorous items. William’s eyes bulged in his head. He literally drooled. I sat and munched thoughtfully on a stick of celery. William chomped greedily on oven baked crisps, until his belly was full. He burped loudly and grossly. As we cleared the messy table, there was a gentle rap at the door.
I flicked the net curtains aside. There could be no doubt. Uncle Timothy was slouching heavily at the door. My heart did sickening somersaults. We’d have to play dead, like no one was at home. I turned and signalled William. I placed a finger to my lips. He understood. There was a second rap at the door, only louder, more determined, this time. I prayed Uncle wouldn’t shake the door, because the deadlock was suspect. I was barely breathing now. My heart raced crazily. Cold sweat trickled down my forehead. I clearly heard Uncle’s heels grate on the doorstep, as he turned, and departed. My shoulders shook uncontrollably. Tears trickled from my eyes. This was abject fear I felt.
William had curled himself up like a frightened hedgehog. I was rolled in a ball below the kitchen table. I wondered if Uncle was really so toxic, so dangerous. Surely he meant well by bringing us food. It was such a shame our protectress was in hospital. But Mrs Eames wasn’t going to get well in a hurry. I needed to make the right decisions. William and I would stay hidden. We wouldn’t answer the door to anyone. I would rush out before dawn and buy eggs and bread and milk. I would turn our home into an impregnable fortress. We would hole up, like some fatal disease was scouring the earth.
There were no further raps at the door. It felt stifling inside the house. I dared not open any windows. We needed to give the appearance of being away. It was such a shame that Mrs Eames was all alone in hospital. I prayed she was making a full recovery. There was nothing to prevent me from telephoning, so I rang the ward. After an interminable wait, a sullen nurse explained how nothing had changed. Mrs Eames was comfortably sedated. I thanked the curt woman, and hung up. William was fiddling obsessively with his phone. It was time to make dinner. Money was growing short.
The window to the washhouse had been shattered. Someone had tried to make a forced entry. It was Uncle Timothy. The deed had been done in the dead of night. Uncle must have muffled the sound of breaking glass. I could see there were toe scuffs where a heavy person had tried to scramble in through the window. I felt violated. William stared at the smashed glass like it was some great adventure. There was only one course of action to take. I would report this attempted break-in to the police.
The police were slow to come. When they appeared, it was two impeccable fresh young constables. They sniffed around the back, taking notes, immersed in their work. I gave a description of the offender. More notes. The younger officer cleared her throat. ‘We need to get a protection order in place,’ she said loudly, with absolute certainty. This would surely mean lawyers. I blanched when I imagined the court appearance, Uncle in the dock, his jaw set defiantly, the judge grey and austere. I prayed that Mrs Eames would recover soon. We really needed her now.
William stalked around the house like a sore bear. He couldn’t understood why we were confined inside. ‘It’s not like Uncle is some fatal disease. We don’t have to hide ourselves away like cowards,’ William protested. His fighting spirit was roused. He had a point. There was no further word on the protection order. I felt sure it was just idle talk. The police were simply trying to humour me. As usual nothing would be done. I’d boarded up the broken washhouse window with hardboard. Once shadows filled the house, and night pressed against the bolted doors, my hearing sharpened. I could feel my heart race. I was coiled up inside, waiting for a thud, or an abrupt noise from outside. But there was only silence. It rang in my ears.
I woke. It was night. William was leant over me. I sat up suddenly in bed. ‘Nat, there’s someone in the house,’ William whispered hoarsely. I listened hard. There was a light tapping noise coming from below, most probably in the lounge. I reached over for the cricket bat I’d placed beside my bed. My legs and stomach were jelly. William wheezed hard. We crept to the door, along the creaking corridor, to the top of the stairs. I peered down into the murky depths below. The tapping sound was more pronounced now. It wasn’t human. Impulsively I leapt down the stairs, headlong into the lounge. Fearlessly I flicked on the light. A fat rat was nosing about in the corner. It was disgusting. I picked up a book from the coffee table and slung it at the beast.
Mrs Eames would have been appalled that we had vermin. But she wasn’t here. I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to cope with rats. Calling an exterminator was out of the question. I thought about buying a trap and baiting it with cheese. But that was surely for mice. This had been a big brute. Undoubtedly it had family around, ready to move in and infest our home. The mere thought gave me the shivers. I found it strange that William wasn’t outraged. He merely shrugged his shoulders and went back to bed. Sometimes boys really disgust me.
I had a brainwave. We would adopt one of the neighbourhood stray cats. There were many rakish, flea-pecked toms roaming the streets who would love a home. They would sort out the rodent population and it would cost us nothing. I was mildly concerned about William’s asthma. But the prospect of a house full of rats freaked me more. In the early morning I went to the corner shop, to investigate the price of cat-food. It wasn’t prohibitive. When evening came, William and I would take a stroll down one of the many back alleys, in search of a nice robust ratter. I’d set my heart on a ginger tom. I even had a name.
I never got my ginger tom. But William found a scrawny silver tabby, with a kinked tail. I called her Paula, after Mum. She clearly had fleas and needed feeding up. William managed to tame Paula’s claws and force her into a simple cardboard box. We walked proudly back home. Paula squirmed in her box and cried lamentably. As we came around the corner, I could see a broad man stood under the street-lamp beside our house. My heart froze and somersaulted into my mouth. There was no doubt. It was Uncle Timothy.
In astonishment, William dropped the cat box. The sides split apart and Paula scampered off. That was the last we saw of her. Uncle Timothy grimaced, and lumbered heavily in our direction. It felt like all the muscles in my legs were rigid. There was no escape. Uncle’s body cast a great black shadow. ‘Hello my children,’ he said, in the creepiest way imaginable. William wheezed beside me. I felt shooting cramps in my stomach. ‘Let us all go inside, and have a nice little chat.’ I pushed my key into the door, and turned it. I could have sworn Uncle Timothy flicked his tongue across his lips. It was cavernously dark inside the house. We all moved into the hallway.
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.
As he explained things, Uncle wheezed repulsively. It was disturbing. The man was clearly morbidly sick. He told us that he’d been fired from his job for misconduct. He couldn’t bear the disgrace. He was living in his car now. ‘I have a little money,’ Uncle declared, scratching his horrible ugly stubble. ‘I suggest that I come and live with you both. I can pay for groceries and the things we’ll need.’ This was a thoroughly repulsive idea. I gagged. I couldn’t speak. I thought of manhandling the disgusting brute out of the door, but I knew we were powerless. Uncle made himself comfortable in the deep sofa. He had the gall to ask for some sweet tea. He gawped at my legs. This was all inconceivable.
After making his proposal, Uncle went silent. He shuffled his feet in an embarrassed kind of way. I realised that he was waiting for an answer. An invitation into our home. The revulsion I felt was undiminished. William was saying nothing. I wished Mrs Eames were here, to shoo away this hideous bogeyman. Then I realised something horrible. Uncle was actually crying. His shoulders heaved as he struggled to suppress his tears. I hadn’t seen many adults cry. I was at a loss. I sat down gently beside Uncle. I draped my arm lightly across his shoulder. This was dreadfully creepy. I couldn’t believe I was comforting this monster. Uncle raised his head and looked thankfully into my eyes. He would be staying.
I showed Uncle to the box room. It was a cluttered, cold space. There was a grubby old sleeping bag Uncle could use and a greying pillow. I wished him a curt goodnight. Uncle was pathetically grateful. I was terrified he’d try and hug me. But thankfully he didn’t. I crept back to my room. I closed my door firmly and wedged a chair under the handle. Uncle would have to manhandle the door to get at me. I didn’t worry for William, Uncle liked girls. I clambered under my duvet and pulled it up to my chin. I listened hard. For a while the house was pin-drop silent. Until I could distinguish the deep laboured snoring of Uncle down the hallway.
Uncle left a foul smell in the bathroom. I sprayed air freshener. Nothing would remove the stench. It lingered. When I came downstairs, Uncle was rifling through the kitchen cupboards. He leered at me, and explained he was hunting for a jar of coffee. He simply must have his morning shot of black caffeine. I could see his huge warty hands trembling. He was the most awful ghoul. I explained that the coffee had gone long ago. However there was tea. Uncle’s face seemed to melt like a wax candle. He was distraught. He rattled his big pockets for coins. I told him the corner shop did coffee. Uncle gawped thankfully my way. He said he’d be back in five minutes, and he bounded for the door.
Uncle sat at the kitchen table puffing like a chimney. I hadn’t known he smoked. The nicotine smell made me nauseous. Uncle had bought some simple provisions from the corner shop. There was a block of cheese and fancy wholemeal crackers, as well as a jar of instant coffee. Cheese was something we hadn’t seen for considerable time. I sliced it unevenly and made delicious cheese toasties. William was salivating at the gorgeous aroma. Uncle slurped thoughtfully at his cup of black caffeine. He hadn’t spoken a word since returning from the shop. He lit another cigarette. Uncle had a congested throaty cough and spluttered over his breakfast. He was an unhygienic mess. ‘Children,’ he said unexpectedly, speaking in a creepy gravelly voice, ‘today we must visit your dear Aunty Meg in hospital.’
I wedged my door shut and quickly dressed. Uncle was in the bathroom again, preening his jowls. I could hear him slapping cologne on his cheeks and gargling water. It was a hideous exhibition. We were to ride in Uncle’s car to the hospital. He insisted I buckle myself up in the front seat. I squirmed self-consciously as Uncle drove erratically into town. I could see the beads of sweat popping like popcorn on his forehead. We drew into the hospital multi-storey. Not a single word had been spoken the whole journey. Uncle lumbered out of the car. He was obese, out of shape. He puffed and wheezed whilst we searched for the lift. I strode along the antiseptic corridors. I tried not to run.
Mrs Eames was sat in a hard chair next to her bed. She looked entirely healthy. I hugged her shoulders and kissed her leathery cheek. I was dumbfounded to think she’d recovered perfectly, and I hadn’t known. But Mrs Eames explained that she had only risen from bed that morning. She cast Uncle Timothy some hostile glances. She was clearly wondering what on earth he was doing here. The doctor was due to make his rounds shortly. Mrs Eames would certainly be discharged. This was fabulous news. I would recruit our fairy godmother to fight off the horrible ogre stood behind me, breathing heavily into my ear.
‘I’m telling you Aunty, I can’t bear to have him around. He’s unnatural.’ Mrs Eames scowled supportively, I knew she agreed with me. Uncle Timothy was lagging behind, struggling with Mrs Eames’ awkwardly packed belongings. This gave us the chance to natter secretively. When we piled into Uncle’s old car, the suspension sank. As we beetled heavily from the multi-storey, and wound our way home, everyone was silent. You could have cut the air with a knife. I peeked a look at Uncle. He was perspiring heavily. His car stank. I really had to devise some subtle plan, so we could jettison Uncle from all our lives.
It was Mrs Eames who broke the silence. ‘Timothy,’ she announced firmly, ‘you will need to shift in with me. It is inappropriate for you to be staying with the children.’ Uncle snorted heavily and gripped the steering wheel hard. He drove erratically. I could tell he was mortified. I was so glad Mrs Eames could see our danger, and was spiriting this loathsome man away. Uncle choked loudly, the phlegm rising in his throat, but he said nothing. We pulled into Mrs Eames’ driveway. Her flower beds looked in need of restoration. We all clambered out of the car. I carefully avoided Uncle Timothy’s eyes. I knew he’d be salivating over my legs. I took the house key from my pocket, said my farewells to Mrs Eames, and guided William quickly inside. We were safe for now.
The next day William and I rose late. I pulled back the net curtains and gazed into Mrs Eames’ garden. She was bent over her flower bed, weeding. I wondered if this exercise was good for her, after the recent scare. There was no absolutely sign of Uncle Timothy. I imagined him sitting at the kitchen table slurping a bitter black coffee, a disgusting fag in his other claw. I really hoped Aunty and Uncle wouldn’t become staunch friends. That would shut me out. Soon there was a gentle rap at our front door. I opened up. Mrs Eames grinned widely at me. Uncle was slouching heavily beside her.
Aunty and Uncle looked thick as thieves. This is what Mother used to say about people in league. ‘Well, Natalie, aren’t you going to invite is in? It’s nippy out here,’ chirped Mrs Eames brightly. Uncle Timothy scraped his big boots on the doormat. He was scowling, but in a victorious kind of way. I hurried off to the kitchen, to brew some tea. I got out some of the fancy biscuits Uncle had bought previously. When I came back, bearing a heavy tray, Aunty and Uncle were perched politely and expectantly on the sofa. They looked horribly like a couple. I passed around the mugs of tea. Uncle cradled his cup obscenely. I felt sure he was thinking of me, as he noisily slurped his tea, and dunked a sweet biscuit. I was adamant, I was not going to play happy families.
It was outrageous. Uncle was suddenly holding Aunty’s hand. His huge bear paw swamped her delicate fingers. There was nothing furtive about it. I reeled. It was hideous, it was totally loathsome to think they might be lovers. Aunty was beaming quietly to herself. Uncle looked the same, stern and humourless. They made the most unlikely couple. I froze, and stared down at my trembling hands. My ears were buzzing, they swam with aquatic noises. Then Uncle was struggling up from the sofa. Aunty was muttering something about it being time to shop. William and I were invited along.
Uncle refused to go to our regular supermarket. He wanted to shop lavishly, and get us some memorable food. We drove for some while in his stinky vehicle, crawling towards the centre of town. Finally we parked outside this ritzy boutique delicatessen. I patrolled the aisles, feeling way out of my depth. ‘Natalie, have you ever tried rollmop herrings? They are quite something, simply delicious,’ Uncle rumbled, deep from his throat. I nodded my head, feeling accursed. Uncle tossed three jars into his basket. I had this horrible vision of him hand-feeding me. I felt like retching. Meanwhile William was rifling through some packets of dainty foreign biscuits. Nobody scolded him. Uncle placed two bags into his basket. He was winning over William, who smiled widely, delighted. I felt my stomach curdling inside me. Beside me, Mrs Eames was grinning like the biggest fool in history.
I sat down at the heaving table, an odd assortment of curious foods in front of my eyes. I’ve never been adventurous when it comes to what I eat. This strange spread troubled me deeply. Uncle spooned a huge smelly silver herring onto my plate. It looked positively repulsive. Uncle’s eyes glittered excitedly. ‘Herrings are best eaten with the fingers,’ he announced in his creepiest voice. I curled my nose. I bit sheepishly at the edge of the fish. It was dreadfully salty. I felt like spitting it out. Uncle observed me closely. I was being scrutinised. I swallowed the repugnant thing. This was torture. Suddenly I rose from the table and ran for the stairs.
Mrs Eames chased after me. She squealed my name breathlessly, but I was already in my room, my door wedged shut. Aunty was a collaborator now, she was the enemy. I wept into my pillow, wishing Mother were here. Our lives had gone disgusting since she had departed. Mrs Eames rapped gently on my door, calling my name. I didn’t respond. After a while I heard her tramping back downstairs. She would rather be with Uncle Timothy. They’d discuss my irrational behaviour. They would whisper and posture and croon together. They’d agree how unmanageable I was.
I lay on my bed, my ears pricked. I was waiting quietly for Aunty and Uncle to leave. After some time I heard the front door click, then close softly. They had gone. I felt bad that William had been left to his own devices. I opened my door a crack, and looked out. I tiptoed into the hallway and peered downstairs. I could hear crunching noises. William was still hunched at the table, devouring the last morsels of food. I figured he’d been eating solidly for an hour. He would surely explode. I went down and ruffled his shaggy hair. He didn’t look up. ‘Where’ve you been Sis?’ he spluttered, with a full mouth. ‘You’re missing out on all this fancy food.’ William was clearly in heaven. I sat beside him, smiling. He was an impressive munching-machine. My heart lightened. I grabbed a stray crisp, and crunched it loudly.
A daily bag of groceries appeared on the doorstep. Otherwise Aunty and Uncle kept their distance. I suppose they thought I needed to chill. I began to hope my cellphone would ring, and Aunty’s comforting voice would boom down the line. But my mobile remained stubbornly mute. I imagined Aunty and Uncle’s blossoming romance. It made me cringe to think of them rolling together under the covers. Holding hands, pecking each other’s lips. Eventually I had to go out, to get some air. I walked briskly around the block. The streets were deserted. It began to drizzle. I felt entirely forsaken, absolutely alone.
William’s cellphone was broken. It had taken a tumble down the stairs, and its screen was awfully smashed up. My brother was completely mortified. William wept for an hour, his tiny shoulders shaking up and down. I tried to comfort him. I looked into my bank account. Perhaps I could buy him a replacement. But the news wasn’t good. Our available funds were pitiful. William whimpered, until I became annoyed, and shushed him. At that, he bounded up the stairs and slammed his door. He was inconsolable. There was only one solution I could see. I would need to ask Uncle Timothy for assistance.
I dialled. I could sense Uncle’s gruff, wheezy breath before he even said a word. He knew it was me. Down the line I heard a sharp intake of air. The diabolical man was thrilled. I didn’t beat around the bush. I simply stated how William had broken his phone and he needed a new one. ‘I should be more than delighted to assist,’ Uncle announced after a brief pause, in his creepiest-ever voice. It felt like I was beholden to him now. Uncle asked me a few questions about what kind of mobile William would like. He hummed and hawed in his foul gravelly way. ‘I shall bring it over later today,’ he concluded, and hung up abruptly. My heart was racing horribly. I was nauseous. I tried to focus. I would go and tell William. He was going to be stoked.
There was an imposing thud at our door. It made me suspect social workers were calling again. I flicked the net curtains aside. Uncle Timothy was there, like great big grumpy bear. He was carrying a bag in his massive alarming paw. He saw me and attempted a grin, which curdled on his leathery face. I opened the door. Uncle bent down and pecked my cheek. I shuddered. I could smell his rancid breath. ‘I have something special here for William,’ Uncle announced sombrely, and handed me the bag. I shouted out for my brother, who was lingering upstairs. He came, bounding down the steps. I thrust Uncle’s gift into William’s outstretched hands. He beamed at both of us, and leapt onto the sofa. Very rapidly he was tearing into a colourful box, unwrapping a brand new phone.
I sometimes wish I could lay down the law. Insist William restrict his screen time to an hour each day. But I know this is just a fantasy. Once Uncle had gone, to warm adulation, William started to tinker with his new plaything. He was absolutely enthralled. Apparently it was the latest model, with a super-fast processor. This was all jargon to me. Essentially I thought it was stupid to be so besotted by a piece of plastic, however revolutionary it might be. William downloaded all his games. He sat in the corner, goggle-eyed as a goldfish. There was no prying him away. I could feel my gall rising. I threw up my hands in despair, and stomped out of the room.
After I’d unruffled my feathers, I showered and waltzed downstairs to prepare dinner. William had gone to his room. I could hear the sounds of cartoon people being zapped from behind his door. Tonight I’d microwave some macaroni cheese. Uncle had bought this high-end Italian pasta and an enormous wedge of cheddar. It seemed like his pockets were deep. We hadn’t heard a murmur from Mrs Eames. I wasn’t angry with her anymore. I craved for her cheerful company. I supposed Aunty’s loyalties had shifted. I wondered if she was in love with Uncle Timothy. I was less appalled by the thought of it. It is funny how we adapt. I was even getting used to the hulking creep who fed us. The obscene man who perved over my legs.
Uncle Timothy had bought William a kitten. It was a black and white beauty, fluffy as a cloud. Uncle had bashed on the door in his usual gruff manner, and deposited a box on our kitchen table. My heart thumped in my chest when I heard this sweet, pitiful mewing. William wasn’t really impressed. So Uncle gawped at me, as if the gift were really mine. I opened the box and very gently I extracted the kitten. It was all claws and wriggled madly to escape. I stroked it tenderly under the chin. It had delectable ears. I thought of a name. Merlin. Uncle was staring hard now, salivating over me in this disgusting way. But today I really didn’t care.
I spent that day building Merlin a cosy bed. Despite my considerable efforts, he shunned it, and instead clambered all over me. Uncle had brought some dry food, some cat litter and a bowl, so we were well-prepared. William was totally indifferent, all the chores fell on me. My new friend was extremely affectionate. Merlin kneaded me with his claws, which was painful, and purred excessively. I forgot about all my worries. Merlin and I sat together for the entire afternoon. We were inseparable. I didn’t want to shift an inch. Dinner would be delayed. William could bark for his grub, I wasn’t going to break this beautiful bubble.
I didn’t want to pamper my gorgeous new friend. So I stuck to strict house-training and occasional cuddles. I really wanted to share my joy with Mrs Eames. But she was keeping her distance. I tried to call her once but it went straight to voicemail. I couldn’t imagine what was causing Aunty to stay away. I decided. I would go around and rap on her door. I pulled on a coat, tickled Merlin under the chin, and cantered next door. I knocked. After a while Uncle answered. He was grubby, unshaven. He stank of cigarettes and alcohol. Something fishy was going on. Uncle’s looked decidedly guilty. I pushed past him and went into the hallway, calling out Aunty’s name.
There came a muffled whimper from upstairs. I bolted up the steps. I didn’t knock at Aunty’s door, but went straight inside. Mrs Eames was lying prone on the bed, cocooned in an enormous white sleeping bag. Her wrinkled face was ashen. She was perspiring heavily. Aunty tried to speak but it was just a croak. ‘Unfortunately Meg has full-blown influenza,’ Uncle Timothy said, creeping up behind me. It made me jump. I asked if he’d called a doctor. Because this looked serious. ‘There is little one can do when it’s a virus,’ Uncle explained lamely. I asked for how many days Mrs Eames had been like this. He shrugged his massive craggy shoulders. I pulled out my phone. I was going to call a medic now. But Uncle placed his huge grisly paw firmly on my arm. ‘That really won’t be necessary,’ he said creepily. My whole body felt chills. Something immensely sinister was going on.
Uncle hassled me out of Aunty’s room. I moved unwillingly. There were boxes scattered all over the hall landing, as if Uncle had been rifling through Aunty’s things. In fact the house looked like it’d been ransacked. I could only guess that Uncle was searching for a secret stash of money. He would be pleased Aunty was sick, so he could openly conduct his devilish plot. I wondered if all along Uncle had been playing Mrs Eames for cash. Uncle was almost shoving me down the stairs. He wanted me out of the house. He posed some indifferent dreary questions about Merlin, then ejected me out the door. I felt sullied, scandalised. He wasn’t going to get away with sickening and robbing Mrs Eames.
Uncle was a leech. This monstrous man attached to his wealthy victims and gorged on their life savings. I’d read about devils like him. Aunty was a generous, simple soul. She’d never suspect foul play. Maybe she’d been fed poison, or bleach. Clearly her sickness was unnatural. Uncle would have her bank cards by now. He’d be dipping into her accounts, siphoning off huge sums of money. I felt powerless. I couldn’t report Uncle, otherwise our food would stop. Aunty, William and I had been ensnared in the same vicious web. Uncle was like this revolting spider. We were trussed in his evil net now.
The shopping bags continued to land regularly on our doorstep. It was the same luxury food each time. I was convinced Uncle didn’t shop for these things. It was some kind of online order. Most probably Mrs Eames was paying through the nose for all this. Despite my qualms, I unpacked the food. At once William snatched the ritzy snacks and transported them up to his room. I slaved over the hot stove, preparing freshly made pasta, basil and mozzarella. It made a scrumptious smell. William and I sat down at the kitchen table, forking generous mouthfuls. For some moments I absolutely forgot my tangled life.
There was an alarming pounding at the door. I knew it was Uncle. I edged the door open. Uncle stood there like a black bedraggled scarecrow. He was a train wreck. He barged past me, and sailed into the lounge. ‘Meg is in intensive care,’ Uncle announced without introduction. My heart sank into my boots. I could say nothing. ‘She has contracted pneumonia and is on a ventilator.’ This was the direst news. Aunty was at the local general hospital. She was too sick for visits. Tears welled into my eyes. I stiffened suddenly, thinking Uncle might want to comfort me with a repulsive hug. Instead he collapsed onto the sofa, as if he’d been deflated. I studied his hanging jowls. He looked a hundred years old. I felt sorry for him. All my absurd conspiracy theories, the outrageous plots to defraud Aunty, burst like silly fantasies. Because Uncle clearly cared.
Uncle snored heavily on the couch. It seemed unkind to wake him. I watched Merlin toy with a moth, playing games. William was always upstairs now, obsessing over his stupid gadgets. He had this larder of food under his bed, snacks, fattening treats, so he didn’t need me. I gazed blankly into the growing gloom. Dusk wasn’t far away. I thought of Aunty in her hospital bed. I couldn’t bear to think she’d die, and leave us, like Mother had. I would ring the hospital and enquire after her health. I pulled out my phone to dial. But Uncle was stirring. His great bulk shifted on the sofa and he yawned cavernously. It was time to prepare dinner.
Uncle was enormously grateful when I dished up some simple macaroni cheese. I suspected he hadn’t eaten a square meal for days. Uncle’s talked excitedly with his mouth full, splattering his food across his grubby blue shirt. He spoke tenderly of Aunty. His heavy bulbous eyes lit up. It was all a little cringeworthy, but his affection couldn’t be doubted. I listened uncomfortably. Foremost in my mind, however, was visiting dear Mrs Eames. I desperately wanted to start a bedside vigil. Because she was my only real family. I couldn’t include the ragged scarecrow sat opposite me. Although my heart had begun to warm to his unshaven, honest mug.
I read up about pneumonia. It’s a horribly insidious illness. It can fell perfectly healthy souls and bring them to the brink of death. Sometimes I will chase sufferers right into eternity. This was sobering. I called the hospital but they didn’t divulge much about Aunty’s condition. I could only glean that she was stable, but her recovery was far from certain. Uncle was a mess. Now that I’d made him feel welcome, he’d ensconced himself firmly on our couch. He didn’t speak much, but he drank ruinously. He would pop out and return with armfuls of clinking bottles. I said nothing. After slurping down gallons of cheap whiskey, Uncle would snore obscenely. I found it profoundly disquieting.
Uncle moved himself into our box room. I found him a huge brown dressing gown, which he wore all the time. Soon it was speckled with cigarette burns. It reeked of stale sweat. When Uncle did venture out of the house, he’d return with his usual cache of alcohol. Once I went in to clean up his room. He’d rolled an assortment of empty whiskey bottles under his bed. They stank. The room was irredeemable, so I went out and closed the door firmly. I heard a commotion. Uncle was pulling his weary body up the staircase. I bolted for the safety of my own room. This whole situation was hideous. Uncle was puffing and wheezing outside like a bloated invalid. For one revolting moment I thought he might rap his knuckles on my door. Mercifully he shuffled by, and snorting noisily, slammed his door shut.
I didn’t have a clue when we’d be able to see Aunty. I rang the hospital daily. Hectored nurses always imparted the same grim news. Her illness lingered. She was still hooked up to a ventilator. Aunty couldn’t be seen. Uncle tried to regale me with false hopes. But his words held no conviction and I wasn’t comforted. Most of the time Uncle was woozy from his whiskey. He would clutch his hanging jowls and moan. It was pitiful to see. I suggested that we all go for a drive in Uncle’s smelly old car. But he was too soused to get beyond rattling his keys. I felt imprisoned, helpless. I desperately craved the bubbly company of my Aunty.
I would go to the hospital. Nobody was going to prevent me. I would rant and rave at the nurse’s station, until they let me see Mrs Eames. Uncle was in no fit state to travel, so William and I caught the bus. It was a winding journey. We crawled at a snail’s pace along grubby inner-city streets. The hospital was an imposing old world edifice. Its corridors stank of carbolic. It was difficult to locate Aunty’s ward. By the time we reached the nurse’s desk, my heart had shrunk to a timid mouse inside me. I squeaked out Aunty’s name, expecting an immediate rebuttal. However a kind-hearted junior nurse smiled, and jauntily waved us towards an offset room. For a moment I stood outside, trying to regain my composure. Then I shouldered the door open, and moved inside.
The first thing that struck me was Aunty’s absolutely pallid face. Her mouth was sealed by tubes, she looked like some Frankenstein experiment. Aunty’s hair had been pulled fiercely back, causing her sharp face to appear skull-like. I recoiled from the sight. Shivers travelled down from my stomach, into my legs. My eyes smarted with tears. It didn’t look good. I wondered for how long Mrs Eames would be attached to the ventilator. I wondered whether she could breathe by herself. Was her mind being starved of oxygen? I hated all this. I choked down a wracking sob, and fled for the door.
William had stayed outside, I thought the scene would destroy his head. As I exited Aunty’s room, I pinched William’s arm roughly. He squealed and followed hard on my heels. I was desperate to escape this place, which had the smell of a morgue. Once we were out in the street, I drew a deep breath of sooty air. My heart was still pounding. ‘Whatever has happened Sis?’ asked William, panting, holding onto his knees. I explained how sick Aunty had looked. I tried not to be too melodramatic, but the words just spilled out of me. William listened intently. He was silent for some time. Then he clutched my hand firmly, and dragged me towards the bus stop.
We chugged through the sorry streets, finding our way back home. I felt sullied by the stink of petrol fumes and grime. By the time we alighted from the bus, I was caked in filth. William and I hurried the final lap to our house. It had begun to rain solidly. I turned the key. A pungent aroma of sweat filled the hallway. Loud snoring emanated from the living room. Uncle was clearly soused again. I poked my head in. Uncle’s heavy head was tilted back precariously. His mouth had fallen open, revealing sick yellow gums. I resisted the urge to scream. Overwhelmed by sudden pity, I drew up close and cast a blanket over Uncle’s legs. He would be out cold for hours. Then I edged the door shut, and went up to my room.
Uncle had become a sorry fixture in our home. Mostly he snoozed, or swigged at his horrible whiskey bottles. When I told him about Aunty in the hospital, he whined pitifully, and drank more. I’d begun to think Aunty might never recover. That she’d be put on life support. That she’d slowly, sadly fade away. That I would be asked to flick the switch, which would extinguish her life. This gave me the most awful shivers, and tears swam in my eyes. I picked up my phone and dialled the hospital. After a while the friendly young ward nurse came on the line. There’s was no significant change in Aunty’s condition. She was steady, but comatose. I thought of praying. But no words came. Uncle’s appalling snores shook the room. Everything, our whole world, was intolerable.
I’d taken to sleeping late. There seemed little good in the world to rise for. William started pounding on my door, however, demanding to be fed. This was something I could never ignore, so I staggered up, ungummed my heavy eyelids, and prowled downstairs. Uncle was passed out on the couch. He didn’t often make it up to bed these days. His leathery jowls had blackened with fuzz. I searched in the fridge and found some eggs to scramble for William’s breakfast. I put the fry pan on the stove and clattered with my fish slice. Uncle stretched, mumbled some incomprehensible words, and groaned like he’d been stabbed. I added another two eggs for Uncle. We would eat together. There would be some semblance of normality.
When I woke, and went to the bathroom, Uncle was already there, shaving his scraggy jowls. This seemed an upturn for the better. He was even whistling tunelessly to himself. I slid away and let him get on with his ablutions. After a while, Uncle stomped downstairs. Where I was already preparing breakfast. Uncle suddenly slapped my back. I winced, shocked. ‘Natalie, Meg is sitting up in bed. The hospital just called me to say.’ The tears came. Happy tears. Taken off my guard, I hugged Uncle joyously. I was overpowered by the animal stench of his dressing gown, but I didn’t care. I asked Uncle when we could see Aunty. ‘Let us eat first,’ he said. Uncle was fiddling with his fork, but I could tell that he was brimming with happiness. I spooned down my scrambled eggs quickly, simply dying to go.
We bundled into Uncle’s smelly car and drove. He rumbled along, crunching the gears, jolting us slowly towards the hospital. Despite the chill, Uncle had changed into a garish shirt, printed with psychedelic tropical birds. It was entirely inappropriate. Nothing could disguise his pungent bearish smell. After an interminable journey, we parked up in the hospital multi-storey. My heart was thudding with excitement. I was even a little nervous, scared I might break down when I saw Aunty’s beloved face. The three of us navigated the antiseptic hospital corridors, until we reached the ward. There was no sign of the amenable nurse. A surly old matron guarded the desk. Uncle spoke. After a sour pause, we were given the all-clear and directed hurriedly to Aunty’s room.
The curtains were slightly drawn around her bed. But I could see Aunty was propped up on her pillows, spooning strawberry yoghurt from a big pottle. I had never felt so relieved, so joyful. Aunty was clearly relishing this sweet dessert, like it was something novel, even illicit. Uncle, William and I stood still at the end of the bed, not wishing to disturb this special moment. I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. Then Uncle hemmed. Aunty suddenly looked up and squealed. ‘Oh my,’ she gasped, dropping her yoghurt pot. I cantered to Aunty’s bedside, and wrapped my arms around her head. I would never let go.
Aunty had us pull up chairs around her bed. I sat down woodenly, gazing lovingly into her animated eyes. Aunty nattered freely about life on the ward. She’d woken the night before. The nurses were mostly angels. The doctor hadn’t done his rounds yet, so she was in the dark about her recovery. Aunty couldn’t remember much about her illness. It had crept upon her stealthily. One moment she was bouncing, the next she was stricken with a high fever. After that she remembered nothing. Aunty interrogated Uncle gently about events. When Uncle wasn’t able to rouse her, he had called for an ambulance. Aunty was rushed to intensive care immediately. Her coma had dragged on for over a fortnight. Aunty was quiet, appeased. She seemed to be calculating the days, to make sure everything tallied. For a moment we were all silent. Then the chief consultant and a group of young students marched in.
‘Mrs Eames has had a very close shave,’ the doctor boomed, directing his humour towards Uncle. ‘But I see no reason why she cannot continue her recuperation at home.’ This was fabulous news. The students hung onto their leader’s every word, as if he was dispensing powerful religious truths. I caught Aunty’s eyes. They were glinting. I thought she might suddenly bound out of her bed, and bear-hug me. The doctor was still speaking. Uncle was nodding his head wisely. ‘I will organise for Mrs Eames’ discharge. She must rest up for at least a fortnight. No unnecessary stress.’ He shook Uncle’s hand, biffed William under the chin, ignored me entirely, and swept out of the room, his acolytes close on his heels.
I helped Aunty into the car. She seemed frail, but she couldn’t stop smiling, and nattering small talk the whole time. Uncle drove remarkably smoothly, avoiding every bump. The car stank as usual, enough to make an entirely well-person vomit. But Aunty didn’t complain. She had a new lease of life. She watched the grubby buildings float by like they were miracles of engineering. ‘Natalie, I feel like I’ve been reborn. Everything is so marvellous.’ I began to feel nervous. A hectic flush had appeared on Aunty’s neck. I tried not to gawp. I hoped Aunty wasn’t having a relapse, or some crazed religious epiphany. And then, quite shockingly, Aunty was sleeping. With her mouth wide, emitting little snores. I smiled.
We prized open Aunty’s front door. The smell of mould stuck in my nostrils. The house hadn’t been lived in for some time now. I heard little paws scurrying for cover. It must be mice. We all moved into the lounge. A thin layer of white dust coated the chairs. Uncle went up to brush away some grime and plump up a pillow, so Aunty could sit. ‘Natalie, go and boil the kettle love, there’s a dear,’ Aunty said shakily. I went into the kitchen and turned on the tap. Foul brown water gushed out and the pipes shook and groaned alarmingly. I searched for some teabags and milk powder. When I returned, Uncle had gone off upstairs to turn down Aunty’s bed. No one even sipped their tea. Aunty was going to take a nap. I hated to think what state her bedroom was in. I supported Aunty under the arm and we hobbled together to the foot of the stairs.
Aunty slept for ages. We all sat patiently downstairs while she took her siesta. Uncle began to nod. I thought it’d be nice to greet Aunty with a warm reviving meal. So I went back into the kitchen, to explore the cupboards. Things were pretty bare. Just a few bashed-up tins of dubious provenance. I searched for a can opener. There was nothing. So I went back into the lounge and shook Uncle’s shoulder gently. He grunted sleepily. I explained that we must get food. Uncle yawned obscenely. ‘I shall step out and buy fish and chips,’ he announced. He rose from his seat, scattering dust and bad body odour. Small change jangled in his pockets. Like a man mountain Uncle stumbled towards the door, lifted the latch, and was gone.
The greasy food didn’t agree with my stomach. But I took immense pleasure watching Aunty wade into her battered fish, like it was her first meal after a dire catastrophe. When Aunty had finished, I watched her fold her chip paper neatly, and lick paws, as if she was a deeply contented cat. I was half expecting her to burp, but Aunty was too much of a lady for such gross displays. William and Uncle both digested their meals like savage barbarians. My shameless brother even grabbed at my leftovers. Nobody spoke. I quietly suggested coffee. Aunty nodded her head, and beamed. I smiled widely too. This was fabulous.
Uncle, satiated, was slumped asleep in his chair. I threw a holey blanket across his legs. Aunty and I whispered together. We spoke silly nonsense. It was like I had my wonderful fairy godmother back. Eventually I told Aunty she must rest. Evening was well established in the sky. William was becoming restless. It was time to retire back home. I promised we’d come across in the morning. Aunty pecked my cheek like she always did, and I whispered my goodbyes. The deadbolt thudded after us. To my ears it sounded ominous. Outside the night bloomed with stars. It was so magisterial, so beautiful. Nothing, I told myself, could possibly go askew.
It was late. After a hurried breakfast I rushed next-door to Aunty’s house. Uncle opened up. He was bleary, with a heavy shadow of fuzz over his jowl. I didn’t think he’d been drinking, although he still smelt like a brewery. I rushed upstairs to rouse Aunty. I was surprised not to find her bumbling about, straightening things in the kitchen, or tidying some neglected corner. I edged the door open, just a small crack. Chill air and an ugly musty smell assailed my nose. I could only see a lump under the covers. Aunty, I thought, seemed uncommonly still.
I suddenly felt this terrible sense of foreboding. I moved across the room silently, and gently shook Aunty’s shoulder. I recoiled, like a snake had bitten me. Because Aunty was stone cold, rigid. It was horrible. I turned her over in bed. Her mouth was drooling. She was so dead. I gasped but couldn’t cry out. I checked for Aunty’s pulse, but I didn’t really know how it was done. I couldn’t detect even a flutter. This was such a terrible way to die. There was no one to say goodbyes. With this realisation, I began to shiver, to cry. In a daze I sought the door, and staggered downstairs to alert Uncle.
The ambulance people were here. Aunty was zipped into a snow-white body bag. My stomach cramped, I felt nauseous. The young medic asked me some simple questions, which I stumbled through. There was paperwork to file. The whole procedure was by-the-book. Uncle stood beside me, absolutely silent, like he’d been struck by a meteor, and survived. They were pulling the gurney from the room now. Big tears welled in my eyes. I shook. It seemed only proper to accompany Aunty’s body. But my feet were rooted to the spot. I heard the ambulance people struggling down the staircase. I was still immobilised. Eventually I managed to get to the window. I yanked aside the curtain. I could see Aunty’s body being loaded into the ambulance. It seemed so unceremonious. And then they were driving away. The world went dark.
Uncle had been asked to go and identify Aunty’s body. Mercifully he didn’t plead for me to come along. It wasn’t hard to imagine those chilly, soulless morgues. The bodies ranged on tables, grave under white sheets. I hated to think of Aunty there, her dead body stiffening on a white slab. It was inconceivably horrible. It was the sort of thing that would haunt you for a lifetime. I didn’t know what we would do now. The hub of my world had fallen down. It felt like gravity had been cancelled and I was floating helplessly in space.
Uncle began to prepare for Aunty’s funeral. He ordered enormous wreaths and we wrote messages onto flowery farewell cards. My fingers shook and a lump rose in my throat as I scribbled some inadequate words. The funeral home had taken Aunty’s body from the morgue. A slick, gawky, melancholy man came to speak with Uncle. Aunty was to be cremated. I didn’t like to think of her consumed by flames, but rotting in the ground was worse. There would be few mourners. Uncle asked if I would like to speak at Aunty’s farewell. I teared up, then nodded. Uncle squeezed my hand. The ceremony was set. The black limousines had been hired. Aunty’s coffin was ready.
I stepped into the black sedan. My clothes matched the sombre, stately upholstery. William was similarly attired. Even Uncle had spruced up, his tie perfectly knotted, his jowls clean-shaven and perfumed. We all held hands. Uncle’s paw gripped like a vice. We would send off Aunty in style. The grief I felt had altered. It no longer bit at me, though I was always crying. I would honour Aunty. Not dissolve into a mess of tears. I had my speech written on a sheet of paper in my pocket. The limousine drew into a long verdant boulevard that led up to the funeral home. Aunty would have liked this. I stepped down from the car, and we processed inside. I could see the coffin set on a simple table garlanded with white flowers. Piped organ music filled the hall. It was time to start.
I stammered and wept through my speech. I hadn’t imagined it would be so hard. I kept glancing across at Aunty’s box, entirely unnerved. By the time I sat down, my head swam. Uncle was speaking about Aunty’s kindness, but his words buzzed in my mind for a moment, then fizzled out like grey embers. I looked around. There were just a handful of mourners. I didn’t know half of them. The hall was chilly. The music was fake. Then the pallbearers were moving Aunty’s coffin. She was placed in front of the furnace. I couldn’t bear to watch. I turned my eyes to the floor. I felt a wave of heat. I knew Aunty had been swallowed by the flames. I looked up. White curtains had been pulled across the incinerator’s mouth. By now Aunty was just a pile of ash.
Uncle insisted we hold a wake. Caterers brought lots of dainty sandwiches and snacks, and Uncle got completely liquored. The whole show had me cringing in a corner. Total strangers commiserated with me, then they proceeded to stuff their faces and get merry. The hypocrisy was startling. Afterwards, when Uncle was plastered asleep in his favourite chair, the strays began to leave. Their mess was everywhere, tossed cigarette-butts, half-digested food, it would take me a week to tidy. A simple urn was sitting on the mantelpiece. It was Aunty’s ashes. I was glad to have a quiet moment to reflect. I knew it was customary to strew a loved one’s remains in a special place. I wondered where Aunty would like to be blown away by the wind. She’d never spoken about a cherished spot. Maybe Uncle knew. We would have a final ceremony. Just the three of us. To farewell our beautiful, lost, much-adored relation.
When Uncle sobered, he spoke of scattering Aunty’s ashes. We would all go to Brighton, walk to the end of the pier, and cast handfuls of her into the sea. According to Uncle, this was Aunty’s most beloved place. They had spoken intimately together. When Aunty was a girl, a trip to the beach, eating cotton candy on the sand, was a spectacular joy. Afterwards, she’d roam the cobbled lanes with her father, hunting for gaudy souvenirs. My eyes were opened. I didn’t know this sweet soul like Uncle did. So we changed quickly into our best clothes. Soon we were barrelling down the motorway in Uncle’s stinky car. I held Aunty’s urn gingerly in my lap.
The pier was a rickety, weather-beaten structure, ravaged by countless storms. Its wooden slats were gnarled and slippery from disuse. I stepped carefully. Green slime clung everywhere. The smell of salt and seaweed was rank. Below us the waves churned angrily. I couldn’t have imagined a worse location to scatter Aunty’s ashes. But Uncle was adamant. ‘When Meg was a girl,’ he explained dreamily, ‘this was a place of wonder.’ I smiled painfully, struggling to believe. The end of the pier was perilous. We all bowed our heads. Uncle muttered a few sombre phrases that were caught by the wind. Then he lifted the lid off Aunty’s urn, and cast handfuls of ash into the sea. Sunlight briefly sparkled on the swell.
Afterwards, we roamed in the lanes for a while. The cobbled streets were bustling with tourists and souvenir-hunters. I suspected Uncle was searching for a cosy pub where he could drink away his sorrow. I felt hot in my black clothes. I wanted to get home, to slob around in my pyjamas, and not think. After an hour of pointless strolling, we found Uncle’s car and scraped four parking tickets off the windshield. Uncle grumbled, then he said he couldn’t give a rat’s arse. We bundled inside. Uncle’s vehicle had been stewing in the afternoon sun. It stank worse than ever. Uncle jiggled the ignition and it sputtered into life. We growled along some derelict-looking streets, until there was a sign for London. Gathering speed, we were leaving Aunty behind.
The drive back was a sombre, silent affair. Even William seemed crushed by the inexorable unhappiness of the world. Once we were off the motorway, Uncle wove erratically amongst the heavy traffic. I knew he’d be nursing his whiskey bottle as soon as we were home. I reflected how there was little food in the cupboard. We’d need to order more supplies. Life would be flat without Aunty’s bubbly feminine presence. I couldn’t cry any more. Something had hardened inside me. There had been too much death. I would close my wings like a broken butterfly. I would shun all colour, and let life pass me by.
I was finding it difficult to haul myself from bed. Uncle was spiralling downwards into alcoholism. I observed the empty bottles mount bedside his favourite chair. I could do nothing. Our home was a total shambles. I hadn’t vacuumed for months. Rubbish was strewn in all the corners. Meals were irregular. Sometimes we had no ingredients. I felt bad for William. He was thoroughly neglected, but I just couldn’t rouse myself. When Uncle started vomiting into the sink, and not cleaning up, that was the final straw. This was not the proper way to mourn Aunty. She would have been appalled. I shook Uncle’s shoulder roughly. He didn’t stir, but moaned in his intoxicated slumber. I rifled his pockets, searching out his wallet. It was stuffed with bank notes. I took fifty pounds. I didn’t feel guilty. We would start with a reviving meal. Slamming the door noisily behind me, I stepped out into the street.
I lugged four heavy shopping bags back up the path. I’d been modest, sticking to simple, everyday items. I had none of the flair of Uncle, whose culinary imagination was boundless. But I’d kept within budget, and felt pleased with myself. I unpacked the food. William watched me carefully. I knew he was hoping for a packet of crisps, or some sweet delicacy. I rummaged deep in the bag, and drew out some hula hoops. William beamed gratefully. Uncle hadn’t stirred. I marvelled at how he could sleep so readily. Soused to the gills, he seemed perpetually slumbering. I would wake him with a satisfying, warming feast. Making sure to clatter my pots and pans, I started to prep the special meal.
I began to wonder if Uncle would stay with us now. Aunty was dead. What pull could a teenage girl and her dumb brother exert on a grown-up man? All my previous suspicions that Uncle was a perv had long ago evaporated into idiotic nonsense. Uncle had loved Aunty, and now she was gone. I thought it best not to confront Uncle. I didn’t want to hasten his departure. I had grown to love this seedy, alcoholic mountain of a man. I would miss his hideous ways. And William and I would be totally screwed, starving, left in the lurch. I gazed at Uncle snoring grossly in his seat. I needed him here. His facial hair was spiky on his chin. His bumpy forehead was riven with deep lines. Suddenly I understood why Aunty had cherished him.
I had no direction. This is what bereavement does. It pulls out your heart. It deadens your feelings. A black mist had descended on my soul. The wellspring of my being was cankered and poisoned. It didn’t help that Uncle was similarly decaying, stewing an enormous alcoholic fog. I shook his shoulder, clapped my hands, nothing would rouse him. We both needed therapy. Only William was untainted. Because he was too young to mourn. I marvelled at how he could play his simple games, as if the world hadn’t been broken. It wasn’t resilience, it was innocence. Which I had lost. And could never regain.
I needed a strategy to kick start our lives. I searched my head, but it was all grey, blank. A few brisk walks, a jog around the park, would never cure the malaise I felt. The only option seemed to be a visit to the doctors. Maybe she could prescribe some cheering medicines. Uncle most certainly needed help. He’d been boozed up for weeks, and showed no signs of sobering at all. I picked up my mobile and rang the clinic. An appointment was fixed. It felt good. The problem would be rousing Uncle, and dragging him into the doctor’s surgery. There was absolutely no way I could physically manhandle him there. I needed a plan. Somehow I would devise a robust way to drag this unsteady drunken mess of a man into redemption.
I lied to Uncle. I told him I had dreadful stomach cramps. I needed the doctor urgently. At first, Uncle gazed through me blearily. The words hadn’t sunk in. I waited. Uncle’s mouth was wet, slack-jawed. Then a light brightened in his head. He understood. ‘Give me a moment Natalie, we shall drive,’ he slurred muddily. My plan had flicked into gear. We tumbled into the appalling car. Uncle jiggled the ignition key. The engine spluttered into life, then growled like a sore bear. I sat rigid in the passenger seat, pretending I was in dreadful pain. Uncle kept glancing my way. I made sure to wince. Mercifully it was a short journey to the clinic. As we pulled up outside, I prepared myself. Things were running beautifully.
We sat in the waiting room. Uncle hadn’t smelt a rat. My timing was perfect. We’d arrived precisely for our joint appointment. I gently coaxed Uncle. I suspected he thought my problems were private girl matters, so he didn’t pry. We waited together in an uncomfortable silence. Until our names were called. Uncle was clearly surprised to be summoned. Nevertheless he shrugged his shoulders, and staggered to his feet. The doctor welcomed us. After some introductory pleasantries, she asked how she could help. This was tricky. I briefly explained about Aunty’s sudden death and our subsequent depression. Uncle looked aghast. However he nodded woefully. I spoke candidly about Uncle’s drinking. Still he didn’t flinch. The doctor scribbled some notes. She was serious, sympathetic. ‘I am going to prescribe you both some mild anti-depressants,’ she said, after a pregnant pause. She was scribbling furiously on her prescription pad. I had won the first round.
Uncle and I drove to our local chemist. Embarrassed, like I was doing something furtive, I handed the pharmacist our chit. She didn’t seem put out at all, so I rested my elbow on the counter and waited. Uncle had stayed in the car. I didn’t think he was talking to me. He had thrust his wallet into my sweaty palms, in case of unforeseen expenses. After twenty minutes, our pills came, brightly boxed, like they were fairground candy. The assistant warned of grogginess, diarrhoea and a dry mouth. This sounded completely charming. I only hoped they’d brighten my mood, and save Uncle. I nodded brusquely to the pharmacist, and scurried for the door. A shocking little bell tinkled behind me. Uncle, his huge forearms folded sternly, glared at me through the windshield. Now came the difficult part. I would have to coax and cajole him into taking his medicine.
Returning home, Uncle made an unscheduled stop at the bottle store. As he clambered into the driver’s seat, the glass bottles tinkled musically. I would have to beat Uncle’s boozing, before he could be healed. I was nervous to broach the subject of our anti-depressants. But I didn’t want the moment to slip by. ‘Uncle, you know you’re not meant to mix your medicine with alcohol,’ I blurted out. He snorted. It could have been scorn. Silence. We pulled quietly into the driveway. William was slouching by the front door. He’d be hungry. Suddenly Uncle spoke up. ‘Natalie, I know you mean well. But it’s not a simple thing, to kick this addiction.’ Unexpectedly, big tears welled in Uncle’s eyes. I felt encouraged. We’d talk more.
The capsules were hard to swallow. They got lodged in my throat. I waited for a significant change. Nothing happened. The doctor had said these anti-depressants would take some days to kick in. Then I could expect to feel light-headed, even elated. I wondered if I should confront Uncle. I knew he’d placed his prescription in the bathroom cabinet. The seal was still tightly on. By the afternoon my mouth felt parched. I drank copious amounts of water. Nothing could quench my thirst. Dizziness compelled me to sit. I nudged Uncle’s shoulder roughly. ‘It’s time to take your medicine,’ I almost bellowed. Uncle was startled out of sleep. He belched, and staggered off to the bathroom. I could hear him struggling with the pill bottle. The tap ran. Amazingly, Uncle was having his medicines.
Days passed. I began to feel mellow. The edge was taken off my grief. Uncle rallied too. He slept less. He even spoke to me. I caught him smirking at silly things. I managed to re-establish a routine of regular meals. This pleased William immensely. Uncle and I sat together at his laptop, choosing scrumptious groceries. I vaguely wondered where the money came from. But nothing seemed to bother me much. I knew the powerful drugs were distorting my mind. Tricking me into a false happiness. I hoped they’d never wear off. Uncle spoke about resuming school. Even this didn’t flap me. Uncle called the principal. A meeting was organised. Ordinarily I would have freaked. Instead a numb smile settled on my face.
The whole notion of school never materialised. The principal wasn’t keen to have us back, thinking William and I might be a disruptive element. I can’t say I was fussed either way. My head was too blurry for education. I felt I was getting fat. My clothes were all tightening. I wondered if the medication caused weight gain. I scrolled through the literature. Opinion was divided. There was no way I intended to swell up like beached whale. I put us all on a crash diet. Butter was anathema, oily food was expelled from the menu. William complained vociferously, picking grumpily at his food with a bent fork. There was no flavour in what we ate. My taste buds had been tranquillised too. Uncle was always ravenous. I served him gigantic portions. We muddled by. The fog was cushioning our world.
I was immensely surprised. I gazed out the kitchenette window, my mouth hanging wide. Uncle was outside in the tiny vegetable plot, pottering around with a garden fork. It looked like he was turning the soil, prior to planting some seeds. This was a complete victory. I brushed outside and hugged his enormous frame. ‘Natalie, by summer we’ll be pulling up our own cabbages and swedes,’ Uncle bragged joyfully. He was close to happiness. There was still that lingering odour of whiskey, but it wasn’t half as pronounced. By recent standards, Uncle was entirely sober. I marvelled at the power of our medication. It was clearly a wonder drug. It had drawn Uncle from the brink of ruin. Whatever happened from now on, I promised to myself, we must continue to pop our pills. That was the paramount thing. In summer we would sit together around the dining table, and smile broadly, as we bit into Uncle’s perfect vegetables.
Uncle battered dust out of all the carpets and painted our kitchen cabinets a bright insect green. It was a staggering transformation. Uncle even took to hobbling around the block. He huffed monstrously and sweated profusely. Sometimes I came along, concerned at the beetroot rashes suffusing Uncle’s face. I wondered if he might go the whole hog and find paid employment. After his exercise, Uncle invariably purchased our online groceries and boiled the kettle. The tea he made was black, bitter and scalding. I always refused politely. I liked to watch as Uncle sat in his puffy reclining chair, blowing hard on the surface of his stewed tea. Sometimes I forgot William even existed. He spent long hours upstairs lying on his bed, tinkering with his bloody gadgets, only appearing for meals. It was hard to gauge if he noticed the change in us. The night Uncle miraculously shaved and put on a clean, stiff-collared shirt, I expected William to comment. But the only noise I heard was my idiot brother chomping down his boiled sauerkraut. Some humans, I decided, were simply lost causes.
Uncle had a novel idea. I was to get a job. The options would be limited. I’d most likely be a shop assistant, or a supermarket teller. I’d need a resume. Uncle promised me that we could patch together some convincing lies. It was necessary to look the part. Uncle would accompany me. We’d scout the neighbourhood, call in on all the businesses, ask if anyone needed help. The plan seemed fool proof. I felt certain somebody would offer me work. The prospect of some pennies rolling in would be a welcome addition. I couldn’t be sure of Uncle’s liquidity. I didn’t think he was hard up, but it was difficult to be sure. No one would believe that Uncle wished to exploit me. I mulled it over, I dwelt on the plan. It seemed entirely innocuous. I’d dress smartly. I’d wear lipstick. I’d be amenable. I’d land the job.
There was a card in the tobacconist’s window. It said the owner needed help. The bell tinkled invitingly as I went inside. The proprietor was an old gentleman with spectacles and a hooked nose. He asked my age brusquely. I lied. I had simply no idea how to negotiate. This was my first real interview. The man made some enquiries about my available hours. It meant starting early. I nodded my head continuously and tried to mould a lame smile. The wages were modest. Suddenly the owner was pumping my hand. I flushed. I was to start the next day. Mr Steinberg, that was his name, fished out a neatly folded shop coat. This would be my uniform. We shook hands again. The deal was sealed.
I rose before sunrise. I sorted mountains of newspapers for the delivery boy. He was a gangly lout who kept staring at me. I was glad when he biked off, lugging an enormous load. Customers trickled in. They bought sweets, tobacco, even dirty magazines. Mr Steinberg loomed over my shoulder, looking for faults. He was especially concerned when I operated the till. Maybe he thought I was a petty criminal who’d slip the occasional fiver down my blouse. It all made me nervous, and I feared I might muck up when I gave out change. Around midday Mr Steinberg brought me a steaming mug of coffee. I slurped at the bittersweet beverage, thankful. Mr Steinberg wasn’t much of a talker. Making money was clearly a sombre business for him. I wondered if he had a wife tucked away over the shop. I dared not ask. When it was time to go home, I was washed out, but happy. I tripped along the pavement, chewing an expired bar Mr Steinberg had thrust in my hand, wondering what my two boys were up to.
My feet throbbed, from standing all day long. Uncle suggested I soak them in a bowl of steaming water. This made me feel extremely ancient. It was the sort of thing Aunty would have said. I swallowed hard, and blocked off her memory. Nobody had thought to make dinner. I wasn’t in the least surprised. Uncle had been painting up the corridor into a warm orange glow. He was still tinkering with his paint brushes and pots. I’d half expected to discover him sunk into a drunken lethargy on my return, so this industriousness was pleasing. I went into the kitchen. We’d have couscous tonight. As I mixed the fine grains, Uncle was crooning to himself. It was some old, sentimental lullaby. I could have sworn this was something Mother had sung to me. Gradually, quite certainly, Uncle was healing.
The early mornings wore me down. I dreaded the raucous cry of my alarm clock, which I would thump to snooze. Every second of shut-eye counted. The birds began to sing as I rose. I envied their enthusiasm. I snuck down the creaking staircase to make some tea. Trying to be a quiet church mouse, I powdered my face, and exited the door. The hoar frost slapped me awake. Our street was terribly ghostly. My heels clattered on the kerbstones. When I arrived, Mr Steinberg was yanking up the shutters. He grunted a good morning. A low sun struck the advertising placards. Everything glittered. Today I would get paid.
Sorting the newspapers grew monotonous. My fingertips became blistered, sometimes they bled. To address customers, my face had cracked into a permanent leer. I felt like a complete imbecile. I didn’t know what to do with my money. I wasn’t like other girls. I had no craving for make-up or designer clothes. I thought of a floral bouquet to honour Aunty’s memory, but the cost was shockingly astronomical. I decided to save. The money might be handy, should our precarious world come tumbling down. Mr Steinberg hadn’t thawed. He was less formal now, but the permafrost in his soul ran deep. He was always toting up figures on his beaten-up calculator, then sighing hard. Mr Steinberg rarely spoke more than a dozen words. He still brought me reviving coffee at the end of my shift. I liked him for his serious, no-nonsense leadership. I loathed the gangly paper boy. Once I caught him ogling my backside. I thrust my middle finger in the air.
Eddie, that was his name. He became increasingly interested in me. I think he had a crush. When Eddie spoke, he stumbled, stuttered over his words. He packed his satchel slowly, so he could linger beside me. I felt flattered by the attention. But I still thought him an ugly rake of a boy. Until he handed me a daisy chain one drab drizzly morning. The gesture was sadly desperate, but somehow touching. Eddie was besotted. I shyly thanked him, and placed the tiny string of flowers over my head. Mr Steinberg, who’d witnessed everything, cleared his throat roughly. There was a cheeky glimmer in his eye, but he suppressed it quickly. Eddie flushed, bustled with his newspapers, then shot into the street. I watched his legs pump the pedals, until he was gone.
I was decided. If Eddie asked me out, I’d say yes. I applied mascara and wore higher heels to work. I could overlook Eddie’s scrawniness, because he seemed so kind. But I wasn’t sure Eddie would have the guts to suggest a date. His infatuation was a timid thing. I’d need to nudge him along. But I didn’t want to appear tarty. I needed to make myself subtly alluring. So I added some gentle blusher, and pinned back my hair. I toyed with the idea of nail polish, but by now I was running dangerously late. In my haste, I shut the front door far too loudly. Nobody stirred. I skipped across the cracks between the paving stones, making up time. Eddie was slouching boldly at the shop front. My heart thudded wildly. Eddie was waiting for me.
I was indifferent about movies. Nevertheless Eddie took me to see a high-octane, action flick. I supposed this was his way to get me in the dark, and maybe neck together. I thought it crude. I perched awkwardly in my stalls seat, letting the roaring dolby sound wash over me. This was all a stone-cold bore. I kept expecting Eddie to reach for my hand, but nothing eventuated. He was immersed in the film. I wasn’t even there. I let my hair loose. Surely that would stimulate a response. But Eddie just gawped harder at the silver screen. My man was a lemon. Two more insufferable hours passed. Still it hadn’t ended. Finally the music swelled. The end credits rolled. ‘Natalie, wasn’t that just fabulous,’ Eddie enthused. These were his first words for a considerable time. I shrugged my shoulders. Speech had curdled in my throat. Romance was dead. I wanted to drift home, and die.
Walking home, Eddie’s slender arm encircled my waist. I felt him trembling. Eddie wasn’t a great conversationalist. I didn’t mind. This was so much better than the cinema. We took the long way home. I relished every moment of our intimacy. I vaguely wondered what Uncle would do if he saw us. Maybe he’d reprimand me for being late, and rush me indoors. We were approaching the house. Was Eddie going to kiss me at the door? Suddenly I felt hot and wobbly. Eddie thanked me for a really gorgeous evening. He lurched at my face with his lips, and bumped my teeth. It stung. Eddie apologised profusely. This was completely cringeworthy. A disastrous conclusion to a tepid date. I squeaked a goodbye, hurried inside and cantered upstairs. Mercifully everyone had gone to bed. I was glad nobody would see my blushes. This was a horrid dysfunctional introduction to the world of love.
At work, Eddie was painfully awkward. He flushed, he stumbled over his words, he dropped bundles of newspapers, until Mr Steinberg cursed him. I wanted to help, but my jaw had locked. Each time I opened my mouth, a guttural bark was all I could manage. Gentle, loving speech seemed impossible. I abandoned all thoughts of romance, immersing myself in the daily grind. Fortunately the shop was busy. Business was good. The till was constantly bleeping. Mr Steinberg’s face even thawed into a smile. He stowed his wretched calculator away. He made small talk with me. I learned that Mr Steinberg was a widow. His wife of thirty five years had passed away from cancer some while ago. This was sad. He had three adult sons, but they never came to visit. Mr Steinberg was wedded to his business now. I would follow his lead. Cast aside crazy thoughts of finding perfect love. It was all stupid hogwash. It wasn’t for me.
Uncle enquired if anything had happened at work. He said I seemed a little glum. I couldn’t bear to mention Eddie’s name. His ineptitude had curdled my whole world. So I shrugged, and insisted everything was swell. Uncle dropped the subject. But I caught him smirk, and shuffle in his seat. He knew. The shame was plastered all across my forehead. I thought Eddie might try to hassle me. Instead he kept a respectful, embarrassed distance. When I looked at his drainpipe legs I shuddered. To think I’d harboured feelings for this boy. I was bristly with the customers. Mr Steinberg reprimanded me twice. I shouldn’t let my anger spill over into the workplace. I contemplated resigning, chucking it all in. But I wouldn’t allow Eddie to have that victory. I was made of sterner mettle. I was simply not going to dwell.
I went to work in darkness, and returned as the sun’s last rays kissed the rooftops. Coming home, I found William in the kitchen, grubbing around for a snack. I reckoned he hadn’t bothered with lunch, as Uncle was away somewhere, on a mysterious errand. I put on the stove. I had no idea what to make. Nowadays I just improvised, and some kind of flavoursome mess resulted. There was a confident rap at the door. Annoyed, I threw down my oven mitts, and went to answer it. I opened up a crack. I jumped back, startled. It was Eddie. He shoved the door aside, and cast his scrawny arms around my waist. He kissed me. Properly. Long. Eddie smelt rich, animal. I melted. We went inside.
Because Eddie and I were horsing around on the couch, I barely heard Uncle’s key turn in the lock. The door was thrust open suddenly. Uncle didn’t look pleased to discover the two of us. I introduced Eddie hurriedly. He smirked, and pumped Eddie’s hand. Uncle was clean shaven, dressed impeccably in a light blue suit. I thought this strange. I straightened my skirt modestly, and asked Uncle the reason for his beautiful attire. ‘Natalie, I’ve been to see your late Aunty’s lawyer. She has bequeathed you a substantial sum of money.’ This was entirely unexpected. I struggled to hold back the tears. Any reminder of Aunty caused the waterworks in me. Eddie squeezed my hand sweetly. My whole life had somersaulted in the brief duration of an evening.
I’d never had money. For my entire life, we’d always been poor as proverbial church mice. Aunty had willed me ten thousand pounds and some valuable jewellery. The sum was so astronomical it made little sense. I was virtually an heiress. Uncle had been bequeathed a similar amount, and Aunty had provided William with a generous trust fund. I’d never suspected that Aunty was so flush. She’d always been the epitome of financial modesty, owning nothing showy, always spending wisely. Uncle wanted to celebrate. I feared he might go on an alcohol-fuelled bender. I suggested we have a splash-up restaurant dinner instead, to honour and respect Aunty’s memory. I invited Eddie along. I felt certain Aunty would have approved of my gentle-mannered, serious boyfriend.
The restaurant I chose was lavishly priced. Bizarre things like turtle soup and roasted goose were on the menu. This offended my strict vegetarian sensibilities. But they had a carpeted square for dancing. The waiters all wore creamy white jackets and bow-ties. Uncle had dressed in his best. Eddie looked gawkish, in a bright waistcoat, with his hair brushed back. I’d gone for a backless top, which left me feeling exposed. Uncle ordered wine. We were allowed a sip, to raise our glasses to Aunty. Uncle proposed a toast. ‘To the kindest, the most loving Meg, we will never forget you,’ he declared sombrely. Our starters were brought. There was a confusing array of cutlery to choose from. We ate in an imposing silence, being careful not to clatter our forks. Sorbet was served between courses. William thought it was ice cream, and perked up. After the main course, Eddie asked me to dance. We smooched, painfully aware of Uncle’s watchful eyes.
I was shamefully glutted. My skirt was uncomfortably tight. We drove home in a satisfied silence. We’d drop off Eddie first. Uncle rolled the car into a dilapidated council estate. Suddenly I realised I’d asked Eddie very little about his family life. My normal inquisitiveness was surprisingly absent. Eddie squirmed in his seat, clearly embarrassed by what we might think. The darkness couldn’t hide the shabbiness of the houses. I wondered if Eddie’s parents were still together. Now wasn’t the moment to deluge Eddie with a string of awkward questions. Uncle came to an abrupt halt beside an alleyway. Eddie pecked my cheek curtly, thanked Uncle hoarsely and thrust open the door. I watched Eddie’s skinny body jog away and disappear, swallowed down the crummy street.
I sat Eddie in the kitchen with a mug of sweet tea. Now was the time to pry. Eddie’d been all over me, kissing me, ruffling my hair. He was sweet. So I asked about his Mother. The mood curdled instantly. Eddie made a face long as a horse. ‘There is nothing to say about her,’ he answered icily. I didn’t know where to proceed from here. Eddie stood, and kicked the skirting board unhappily. ‘She’s dead to me,’ is all he’d say, after an embittered pause. It turned out Eddie lived with his Father. They were close. Eddie’s Mother had abandoned them when he was little. He couldn’t even remember her face. Eddie asked if I’d like to meet his Dad. This was serious stuff. I said yes. Eddie sparkled briefly, like a star had been lit inside him. I would come to tea. It’d be swell.
I reflected on what to wear. Something modest, yet becoming. Nothing to suggest to Eddie’s Father I might be a tart, who’d lead his son astray. I roamed the second hand shops. It’d be a long while before Aunty’s behest hit my bank account. I discovered an enchanting dress printed with delicate pastel flowers. It was on the pricey side, but the occasion was special, so I paid up and took my trophy home. I vowed that any make-up I wore would be a muted affair. Eddie wouldn’t need to feel ashamed of me. I clipped up my hair. Eddie was to collect me. My stomach filled with butterflies. I waited in the hallway. Uncle complimented me. There was a soft rap at the door. Eddie was here.
Eddie’s Father was named Edward too. There had been a long string of Edward’s in their family. Edward senior was a great hulk of a man. He had a huge red head shaped like a potato. It was lined with sunburnt creases. Edward senior liked to smile. My natural reserve quickly thawed. Smiling is infectious. We sat in front of a generous spread. There were dainty cakes. Soon my nose was daubed with whipped cream. I smirked. Edward senior roared with laughter. Eddie was delighted. He ate with gusto. Afterwards we drank rich filter coffee. The afternoon was perfect. I found myself divulging secrets. Edward senior was a wonderful listener. When it was finally time to go, he hugged me like a favourite daughter. I was accepted, wholeheartedly approved. There would be no hurdles between Eddie and me.
Eddie escorted me home. It was a long walk in dwindling light. The estate looked really run-down. Hoodlums malingered at the intersections. Eddie held me close. We sped down narrow alleys where the graffiti was lewd. Cigarette butts and crushed beer cans were everywhere. I felt sad for Eddie and his Father, condemned to live in this squalor. Their own home, however, hadn’t been rough. I’d noted how all the walls were freshly painted. The lounge was boxy, but cheerful. Eddie wasn’t some lawless street kid. Yes, he had lost his Mother, but so had I. Once we’d crossed into my quarter of town, Eddie relaxed his grip on my waist. He wasn’t saying much. Complete darkness had swallowed the buildings. Eddie kissed me full on the lips, waved a brusque goodbye, and scampered away home.
Eddie and I were going steady. We’d become an item. I thought of announcing this milestone to Uncle and my brother, but the latter would only sneer, and pull long ludicrous faces. As for Uncle, I supposed he’d give me a lecture, about taking precautions, and other cringeworthy things. It was best to keep us secret. I did want to see Eddie’s Father again. He was such a charming gentleman. But when I raised the subject, Eddie hemmed and hawed. He didn’t seem keen that I cultivate a friendship with his Father. This was mean-spirited. I felt like telling him so. Our dates consisted mainly of strolling around the local territory. Eddie always clutched my hand, then wrapped my waist in his slender arm. We never said much. It was enough. Mr Steinberg knew. Sometimes he smirked over his horn-rimmed spectacles. Mostly he looked wistful and sad. As if love, if that’s what it was, made him feel immeasurably old.
My inheritance came through. There was no question of squandering it. For the life of me, I couldn’t think how I’d spend all that money. I knew I’d be buying Eddie a small gift, maybe a wrist watch, because he was always asking me the time. It was one of his irritating fixations. I hated to think we might become one of those stale couples. Like the losers I saw peppering the town, their arms interlinked, it all meaning nothing. Eddie was no romantic. He never whispered beautiful things in my ear. He didn’t put me on a pedestal. Somehow his gawky ordinariness had become appealing. His high cheekbones, his spindly legs were beautiful. I was swayed by his considerable physical charms. I didn’t think I was in love. That was something different, like an electric current tearing into your body and mind. Nevertheless Eddie was special. He made me feel mellow.
Uncle wanted to erect a lasting memorial to Aunty. He decided on a park bench, with a gold plaque. I had my doubts. Gangs or random thugs might paint spray or desecrate Aunty’s seat with malicious graffiti. I’d seen how all the local landmarks had been despoiled. But Uncle was adamant. He quickly secured council permission, and had an engraver work on an inscription. The words would be simple. Just Aunty’s name and her dates. It was strangely touching. I decided Aunty’s bench would be somewhere I could go and reflect on the world. I wouldn’t invite Eddie along. I’d commune with Aunty’s ghost, make plans. Uncle and I went to the garden centre and chose a richly varnished wooden bench. It was perfect. Aunty’s seat was to overlook the ornamental fountain near the park gates. It was an enviable view. There was to be a simple blessing ceremony. I dug out my black dress and heels, and straitened my face. Uncle would drive us to the gardens.
When we got there, the council workers had just erected Aunty’s seat. The gloss on it shone. The plaque glinted in brisk morning sunlight. It seemed iniquitous to plonk our backsides on Aunty’s memorial. Nevertheless Uncle did. He carefully wiped some moisture off the inscription, then dabbed his eyes, and blew his nose. A speck of dirt settled in my eye. I teared up. ‘Let this be our place of refuge, where we come to think of you,’ Uncle suddenly declared. I bowed my head. The words were fitting. I sat. The fountain had been turned off. Traffic rumbled beyond the park gates. I said a small prayer for Aunty. Then Uncle and I joined hands, and we stepped out of this perfect bubble.
Uncle and I sought solace in fish and chips. The greasy batter was soul-warming. By the time Uncle had screwed up his chip paper, a black cloud of mortality had lifted from his head. He belched, and sniggered. I smirked, and licked my oily fingertips. Uncle said he fancied an ice cream too. We’d get a couple of double-scoops. Take them to the little strip of green by the museum, and savour the flavour. Afterwards we crunched on our waffle cones contentedly, dabbing our mouths. We binned our serviettes and stalked back to the car. William was going to be profoundly jealous if we breathed a word about our culinary adventure.
Life ticked by. Work was generally cushy. I’d got the hang of everything now. I had saved most of my slim earnings. I hadn’t touched my inheritance, apart from buying Eddie’s flash watch, which he treated like a sacred heirloom. I was growing concerned about Mr Steinberg. His face looked perpetually drawn. He’d lost weight. He was never a voluble man, only now he was virtually mute. I plucked up the courage to ask. ‘Natalie,’ he said, his voice laden with pathos, ‘I am a sick man. The cancer has invaded my body. I have only a little time now.’ This was profoundly shocking. I scrabbled with my fingers. I didn’t know how to react. Mr Steinberg’s shoulders began to tremble. He was crying. This was entirely terrible. I reached out and took his hand in mine. Mr Steinberg squeezed my paw so hard I nearly screamed. I wasn’t able to help myself. I wept too. I couldn’t bear to think another soul in my life would be stolen from me.
New duties fell to me. Mr Steinberg didn’t feel up to opening the shop. So I came early, heaved the shutter up and balanced the petty cash. Things ran like clockwork. I was effectively the boss. I missed the cuppa Mr Steinberg had brought me. So I brewed a pot, and took a steaming mug up to Mr Steinberg’s apartment. Eddie hadn’t been told. I didn’t feel at liberty to divulge Mr Steinberg’s confidences. I was concerned at how sallow and lethargic my boss had become. But Mr Steinberg was adamant. He’d see no doctor. They were the kiss of death. He never complained of pain. Mr Steinberg was too noble for theatrical displays. But I knew he suffered. I didn’t wish him to linger on this earth, wracked by agony.
I felt compelled to share Mr Steinberg’s story with Uncle. Uncle was an excellent listener. He was especially concerned that Mr Steinberg sought no medical help. Uncle hated to think the old man might be in unnecessary pain. He offered to come to the shop and have a kindly word. I was surprised at first. All along this had been my realm. But I could see no harm in introducing Uncle. His persuasive words, I felt certain, would carry more weight with Mr Steinberg. Uncle agreed to rise at dawn, and accompany me to work. I set my alarm. It was soon ringing madly. I barely felt I’d slept. I stumbled blearily to the bathroom. Uncle was already there, humming happily, flossing his teeth. I could hardly believe the profound change in him. After crunching on a slice of thickly buttered toast, Uncle and I stepped out into the dark morning, and strode towards the shop.
The sun was sparkling now. Uncle helped me with the awning. Eddie waited outside, stamping his cold feet. I went into the back room and prepared coffee. We all sat in a huddle, slurping our beverage. Afterwards, Uncle and Eddie sorted the papers companionably, while I balanced the till. It was time to open, and rouse Mr Steinberg. I unbolted the side door, and sent Uncle up. He was away for a considerable period. I served a steady stream of regulars until nine. The day’s takings boded well. Then the connecting door opened. I heard fruity guffaws of laughter. Mr Steinberg and Uncle had really struck it off. I looked up from my work, grinning. Now that Uncle was swayed, I felt I could count Mr Steinberg as family.
Uncle and Mr Steinberg began frequenting boutique coffee shops. I was surprised they hadn’t ventured into hard liquor. Uncle, I was impressed to see, had become a committed teetotaller. I hoped Uncle wouldn’t fritter away his inheritance on arabica beans and extortionate club sandwiches. I was a little concerned at how much time William was spending alone. I prayed he wouldn’t burn the house down when we were gone. Uncle had foolishly purchased William a gaming console. William was perpetually glued to its unsavoury, violent graphics. I could see his mind becoming addled, even brutalised. He only spoke in grunts and expletives. At meal times, his phone buzzed beside his dinner plate, it was infuriating. If I scolded William, Uncle merely said, ‘let him be.’ I didn’t wish to become a nag, so I bolted my mouth. Eddie would come around and team up with William. He seemed to find these games more fascinating than me.
I hit a rocky patch with Eddie. He became completely uncommunicative. Eddie was morose. He wouldn’t even hold my hand. I wondered what was troubling him so. I asked after his Father. This only elicited a prickly grunt. Eddie wasn’t generally prone to moodiness. I wracked my brains. I couldn’t remember making a single offensive comment. Let him have his sulk, I thought. I’d put my energies into caring for Mr Steinberg. Suddenly it clicked. Eddie was jealous. He didn’t like the way I fawned over our boss. But Eddie still knew nothing about Mr Steinberg’s cancer. It was time to front up.
I told Eddie it was ludicrous. To think I had a teenage crush on a much older man. I put him straight about Mr Steinberg’s health. Eddie grew serious when he heard the news. I suspected he was relieved too, that his girlfriend didn’t harbour any crazy infatuation. Eddie asked how long Mr Steinberg had. I explained it was a matter of months, maybe less. Eddie heaved a sigh. He apologised for his stupid suspicions. I reached up, flung my arms around Eddie’s shoulders, and planted a kiss squarely on his lips. Our rift was healed.
I got a pay rise. To acknowledge, Mr Steinberg said, the significant extra graft I was putting in. True, there were more hours and earlier starts. But I didn’t feel overwhelmed. The work was pleasant, the customers were polite, the money rang up in the till. Mr Steinberg, I reflected, must be worth a small fortune. I wondered if Mr Steinberg was putting his affairs in order. He was thinner. He’d lost more hair. Sometimes his skull seemed to peep through, his sunken cheek bones were alarming. But Mr Steinberg’s spirit was undimmed. His new friendship with Uncle bloomed. Mr Steinberg proposed a family outing. He’d shut up shop. We’d spend the day sunning ourselves on the coast. We’d share fish and chips on the shingles, and paddle out past the line of surf. The sun would raise red welts on our backs. There’d be starfish, the smell of seaweed and salt in the rock pools. It’d be perfect.
We set out early, and took a train to the coast. The weather was dull, overcast. Rain threatened. No one wanted to put a damper on our expedition. Mr Steinberg was particularly jolly. It came to me that he hadn’t skipped a day off work in years. It was a laborious journey. We stopped at every minor halt, every insignificant station. It was almost noon before we pulled into the seaside terminus. A haughty guard punched our tickets. We exited the smoky building and looked down the steep slope, straight towards the sea, which was a line of brilliant blue. Uncle whooped like a thrilled school boy. There was a shuttle bus available. We boarded, fell giggling into the rear seats. The bus passed gaudy souvenir shops touting bright buckets and spades. Once out on the promenade, we drove into a tight lay-by, slap-bang beside the beach.
Though it wasn’t warm, the beach was thronging with half-clad bodies. There was barely a square-inch to drape our colourful towels. I felt like an impostor in a packed seal colony. The water was churning with holidaymakers. Innumerable youngsters splashing wildly, older people doggy paddling. The shingles bit into my soles. I wished it’d been a sandy beach. I saw some folks with stripey deck chairs up ahead. This was a marvellous notion. Uncle and Eddie went to search for the attendant. Mr Steinberg and I struggled to secure a space amidst the crowd. After a time, on a gentle rise of shingles, William firmly planted his foot. Then Eddie and Uncle returned, heaving and puffing, labouring under a heavy burden of wooden seats. We were all set. We erected our chairs, stretched out our legs, and turned our minds to relaxation and lunch.
The sun peeped out. Mr Steinberg proposed we take a dip. It was inconceivable. Swimming in this would be insane. Eddie was despatched to purchase five generous portions of fish and chips. Mr Steinberg asked for mushy peas. That was gross. William, forever curious about food, wanted some too. Uncle and Mr Steinberg chattered away like two inseparable pals. I contemplated the waves curl and crash on the shore. Eddie was gone a considerable time. Uncle and Mr Steinberg ceased nattering. They were hungry. William began to sling around big smooth pebbles. I told him to stop. He might easily injure a small child. I saw Eddie returning. He was smiling broadly, balancing many white packets, stacked neatly under his chin.
We glutted ourselves. I felt so grateful that I never gained weight. An ice cream was mandatory. We didn’t wish to lose our place on the beach. Uncle knew an old-fashioned ice cream parlour in the back lanes. We’d go there later. William was promised their best chocolate sundae with hundreds-and-thousands. At that, William raced down to the water’s edge and waded in. The tide swelled above William’s knees, engulfing his trousers. William shrieked with pleasure. Like this was a signal, Mr Steinberg and Uncle leapt up. They both cantered to the shore and water-bombed William. It was a riot. Eddie and I sniggered, and hugged. Our day was turning out divine.
We lingered in the ice-cream parlour, shovelling almond-sprinkled, chocolate-coated desserts into our sticky mouths. It was all thoroughly decadent. Afterwards, we ambled in the lanes, exploring tacky souvenir shops like they were fascinating oriental markets. The sun had already dipped behind the buildings. It was time to seek our train and trundle home. Mr Steinberg looked deflated. He limped into the station forecourt, and heaved a massive sigh. The express to London Victoria left in twenty minutes. We hurriedly snatched some coffee, and a small mountain of crisp packets. William was mighty pleased. He would chomp for the entire journey. We found an empty carriage, and piled onboard. Uncle distributed our tickets for later inspection. Grinding metal screamed in my ears. We were off. We rumbled over the sleepers, into a criss-cross of tracks, gathering speed.
The train shot like an exocet missile through the darkening countryside. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the rails were shrieking. Ghostly buildings pressed in on us. We were crossing the river. Opposite me Uncle smiled, and muttered something about sleeping beauty. The tannoy shouted out our arrival. Uncle and Eddie scrambled about for the bags. Mr Steinberg was gritting his teeth. He was clearly wracked by pain. I realised he hadn’t long. I felt my eyes smart, and my throat thicken. I battled to speak consoling words. They never came.
Arriving home, my heart sank. Our house seemed boxy and lightless. The splendour of the sea, the tangy salt foam at the water’s edge, was lost to stale, mouldy smells. We’d dropped off Mr Steinberg, who’d waved a forlorn goodbye, and disappeared behind his shop. Uncle said he couldn’t bear to slave over the stove in our draughty kitchen, so he ordered us late night pizzas. They arrived speedily and we all sat, pulling the stretchy cheese, taking big hungry bites. Eddie was loath to go. Uncle invited him to stay overnight on the living room couch. Eddie winked lewdly at me. I pulled a face and poked out my tongue. I could feel Uncle smirking. I feared William might jeer out loud and shame us both. I felt myself crimsoning. Eddie was splitting his sides. I scrunched up a serviette, and slung it wildly at him.
Next morning Eddie requested bangers and beans. We had some doubtful leftover sausages. I asked if he’d like fried bread and mash too. Eddie shovelled down his breakfast like an absolute barbarian. I understood this to signify happiness. The basic needs of boys still shocked me. After Eddie had mopped up the tomato sauce with his bread, he belched vulgarly, and stretched out his skinny legs. Uncle seemed faintly amused. He was subtle, yet I could tell Uncle was watching us hawkishly, from the corner of his eye. This made me somewhat subdued. My feelings for Eddie were strangely static. I knew I wasn’t in love, because that would surely have been like a fireworks display. Eddie was entirely besotted with me. I felt a bit of a cheat. I would need to tell him soon. But this would ruin our final day off. So I clamped my mouth, as Uncle began to sketch out a local excursion.
Uncle had planned a visit to the local cinema. It was a re-run of E.T. I wasn’t crazy about the soppy extraterrestrial, but I didn’t protest. Uncle claimed to have seen the movie at least twenty times, and cried on every occasion. We purchased outsized boxes of salted-caramel popcorn and hit the stalls. Eddie sat by me. He caressed my fingers lightly in the semi-dark. The picture started. Despite myself, I was sucked in. It was sentimental, outdated, and entirely fabulous. The music swelled, crashed over me like an ocean. When E.T. got sick, Uncle dabbed his eyes with a huge handkerchief. He was genuinely moved. After two hours of cinematographic magic was up, the big audience cheered enthusiastically. I joined in. When we tumbled through the big swinging doors at the back of the stalls, our hearts were warm mush.
We looked around for a chic cafe. I was especially particular about finding a vegetarian-friendly joint, that served soy milk. Uncle and Eddie didn’t give a fig, they respected my curious foibles. In the back lanes behind the cinema, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a vegan place. We piled inside. A big notice proclaimed we remove our muddy boots. In the city, such a thing seemed preposterous. The only customers were a couple of faded hippies, their hair knotted into braids. They had the faintest whiff of soft drugs about them. The young man looked up and made a peace sign. Eddie smirked. Uncle ordered. The glow from our film had worn down. I dipped my tongue into the frothy cinnamon. On a whim I dabbed Eddie’s nose, then regretted it. I didn’t like to think I was leading him on. Uncle proposed we share some of the fat honey scones. At this, William’s ears pricked up. My brother was an incorrigible foodie. I felt suddenly nostalgic. Mother would have been content in this place.
The day dawned dewy and moist. It was back to the grindstone. I ungummed my puffy eyes, threw on a fleece jacket, and stomped into the ill-lit street. I couldn’t face breakfast, not even a slice of plain toast. I strained my back pulling up the shutter. That made me wince. The shop smelt ugly and musty. Mr Steinberg hadn’t opened up for some days. There wasn’t the usual trickle of regular customers. They must have gone elsewhere for their fix of cigarettes. I balanced the till and stood behind the cash register, numb with the chill. Mr Steinberg had a tiny bar heater, but I couldn’t get any life out of it. Eddie appeared late. He seemed depressed. He sorted the papers huffily and whizzed away, before I even had time to greet him properly. It was a slow morning. I sorted some tins of condensed pumpkin soup at the back of the shop. Many had expired long ago, they looked like a health risk. Towards lunch time, I decided to go and check on Mr Steinberg. I’d bring him one of those big rye sandwiches the bakery sold. I turned the sign to closed, and cantered up the back stairs. Eerily, there wasn’t a peep when I thumped on Mr Steinberg’s door.
My heart shrivelled up like a scared mouse, and pounded wildly in my chest. I had this awful, ominous feeling. There was a veritable pall of silence. Then I heard it, the faint rustling of newspaper. I breathed a sigh of relief. Mr Steinberg was preparing his fireplace. I picked out the shuffling of his slippered feet. I bashed on the door again. This time Mr Steinberg came, eased it open a crack, and I could see his framed, wrinkled faced smiling back at me. He unbolted the door. I entered. I pecked his cheek warmly, and said a quiet hello. The apartment was uncommonly cold. A plate of uneaten food had been abandoned on the table. The place reeked of neglect. I told Mr Steinberg I’d make him a hot meal and a fresh pot of tea. I got down to business immediately. I peeked over at Mr Steinberg. He looked especially worn and sallow. I suspected he hadn’t seen a soul since we’d dropped him after our seaside excursion. This was sad. I vowed to spend more time with my favourite honorary grandfather.
I told Mr Steinberg I’d return and prepare a beautiful Sunday roast. At the prospect of a decent meal, he perked up. We spoke on for a while, about trifling things. The sparkle in Mr Steinberg’s eyes re-ignited. It was good to think of him less sad. I promised that Uncle would be visiting soon. Gently, I proposed that Mr Steinberg come down to the shop for a cuppa. His face froze over. This was disturbing. Mr Steinberg’s self-confidence had ebbed away, died in a matter of days. I feared it might be hard to wrench him out of his dreary flat. There was an awkward, prolonged silence. Mr Steinberg was clearly waiting for me to leave. I scrabbled my feet and stood up. Impulsively, I kissed Mr Steinberg’s leathery cheek. It was cold, clammy. Then I knew it, he was in pain. Mr Steinberg tried to mask his discomfort with a blustery smile. It didn’t fool me. When I was home, I’d be having some solemn words with Uncle.
Uncle came up with the perfect solution. Mr Steinberg would come to live with us. There was masses of space and we could keep a constant hawkish eye on him. Uncle went off to broach the idea with his friend. He wasn’t away long. It hadn’t been hard, Uncle reported, to twist Mr Steinberg’s arm. In fact a glow had suffused the old man’s face. I was responsible for prettifying and warming a suitable space for Mr Steinberg. Uncle was planning to bring him over immediately. I went to the linen cupboard and pulled out our best sheets. I flicked on the heater in the box room, which was soon nice and toasty. I plumped two generous pillows for Mr Steinberg. All was ready. I cantered downstairs to wait for our special guest. Soon Uncle’s car crunched into the driveway.
Mr Steinberg scrambled heavily from the car. He was extraordinarily pale and looked exceedingly old. Uncle fussed over him, carrying his luggage, insisting Mr Steinberg take the weight off his legs. I was despatched to brew strong tea. Mr Steinberg was pitifully appreciative. I’d already put on lunch, a nut roast, which was exuding magnificent smells. William was hovering beside the oven with hungry eyes. Uncle showed Mr Steinberg up to his room, and helped him unpack a few favourite belongings, while I fetched some towels and extra blankets. We were all set to eat. Once we sat down, Mr Steinberg picked at his food like a tiny bird. His appetite was nil. Suddenly he tilted his head back and swallowed an array of colourful pills. These, I deduced, must be his pain relief. Nobody had spoken many words. Uncle turned up the heat until it was like a tropical rainforest. Then Mr Steinberg ensconced himself in our deepest armchair, and began to snooze.
Mr Steinberg started to reminisce. He was from a large Jewish family who’d emigrated from Hungary after the war. He refused to say much about those early years, except that they meant hungry persecution. He’d met his wife on Southend Pier, one stormy winter when he was recklessly young. That was nearly sixty years ago. They’d scrimped and saved, doing hard, mundane work no one else would do. After a decade of graft, Mr and Mrs Steinberg had moved in above their shop. They toiled for the next quarter century. Until Annette suddenly died. Mr Steinberg reached into his wallet to fish out a faded sepia photograph. Annette was poignantly beautiful, with big, mesmerising eyes. I thought I might cry. But Mr Steinberg hadn’t come to the saddest part of his story.
Mr Steinberg’s three sons were inseparable from their Mother. After she died, there was a family rift. By some mysterious logic, the boys blamed Mr Steinberg for their Mother’s demise. They were older by then, and brimful of invective. The battles grew horribly acrimonious, until they suddenly left. All three of them. Mr Steinberg, still mourning, was doubly bereaved. His sons severed all emotional ties. This smashed Mr Steinberg’s already destroyed heart. There’d been absolute silence for over a decade now. I asked their names. Aaron. Moshe. Gustav. They were a constant sadness to Mr Steinberg. He knew nothing of their whereabouts. They might even be dead. I would find them. I would reconcile this sad broken family. I would make Mr Steinberg’s last months full of happiness.
I explored all the obvious avenues. I scoured the internet, I searched the telephone directories. There was no sign Mr Steinberg’s boys had ever existed. I drew the conclusion that they must have all migrated. They’d be harder to find that way. I thought of hiring a private detective. Now I had money, this wouldn’t be a difficulty. These private eyes had their ways of looking under every rock, prizing into every bolt hole. I felt certain the brothers were deliberately hiding from their Father. It was unnatural. I already hated them for inflicting such misery on Mr Steinberg. So I picked up my mobile, and dialled the first investigator that was listed. An appointment was fixed.
Looking at Jack Leneman, you’d think he was a fraud. He slouched at his desk in a wide brimmed hat, chewing on a narrow cigar. He took copious notes on a yellowing pad. There was no sign of technology in Mr Leneman’s shabby first-floor office, accessed up a flight of urine-scented stairs. I had my doubts. Mr Leneman’s retention fee was astronomical. I had the birth dates of Mr Steinberg’s sons. Apparently this was a major coup. Mr Leneman could run their details through a government database. I didn’t ask if he had official permission to do this. After twenty minutes were up, I was brusquely dismissed. Mr Leneman had all the necessary information. He would call me to report on progress. I cantered down the repulsive stairwell, into the thrumming street. I wondered if I’d been seriously fleeced.
Mr Steinberg was particularly subdued. Now and then I caught him wincing in pain, but he never complained. I said nothing about the private detective. I figured Mr Steinberg would see it as a breach of trust. I was constantly hoping for a call or text from Mr Leneman. Nothing eventuated. My mobile was stubbornly mute. Just when I’d resigned myself to silence and the loss of hundreds of pounds, Jack Leneman called. He’d been industrious. All three of Mr Steinberg’s sons were living in Cape Town, South Africa. They held down significant jobs in commerce, they were well-respected in their community. They were also very far away. Mr Leneman had unearthed all of the sons’ office numbers. I would ring each one in turn. I would tell them of their Father’s ill health, and cajole them into calling. I would be very persuasive. There would be healing, there would be tears, there would be reconciliation. When his time came, my Mr Steinberg would die at peace.
I shared my discovery with Uncle. He puffed out his cheeks and bristled. He said I was intruding. But I only had the best of intentions. Uncle shrugged his shoulders and asked to hear the full story. I explained about South Africa. This made Uncle’s brow furrow. He couldn’t imagine how such a long distance reunion would work. He made me promise to say nothing to Mr Steinberg, in case the old man’s hopes were roused, then cruelly thwarted. I swore to keep everything dead secret. The whole issue of what I would say to the brothers was haunting me. I asked Uncle for his advice. He said I should be direct. Insist that Aaron, Moshe and Gustav get on a bloody plane and do the right thing. This crystallised my thoughts. Uncle offered to place the international calls. We’d have our tea, then do the deed.
Aaron Steinberg was a hard person to nail down. I singled in on him because he was the eldest and could convey all the necessary information to his brothers. The first time I dialled, Aaron was occupied in some high-level meeting. I tried again. A bluff voice crackled on the line. I introduced myself as a close friend of his Father. There was a painful silence. I thought Aaron was going to hang up. After a significant pause, he spoke. I explained about Mr Steinberg’s terminal illness. Aaron was listening intently now. I could feel the weight of his sadness down the phone. He gulped, then asked for my contact details, and hastily rang off. I couldn’t judge if I’d been successful. My heart pounded fiercely in my ribcage. The only thing to do now was wait.
I was busting to spill everything to Mr Steinberg. I felt like a rat, meddling into his personal affairs. I kept telling myself that my motives were noble. Uncle wasn’t impressed by Aaron Steinberg. He said the brothers were all misfits, they were unnatural demons. Whatever had transpired between Father and sons, blood was blood. The old man deserved better. I was on tenterhooks. I waited for a call. I took my phone with me everywhere, checking for messages and emails constantly. There was only the usual deluge of junk. I began to feel my plan had misfired. It was best Mr Steinberg knew nothing of this botch-up. Shame crawled under my skin, I couldn’t hold Mr Steinberg’s gaze. Until, that is, a heartfelt letter, signed by Moshe, dropped into my mailbox.
Moshe had always been his Father’s favourite. They’d had this special connection, and Mr Steinberg had spoiled his son rotten. The other boys knew their lesser worth, and sulked at this injustice. In his letter, Moshe spoke tenderly of his Dad. He regretted the dreadful rift. He was so sad to learn that Mr Steinberg’s days were drawing to an end. Moshe would do anything to heal the divide. In fact he’d booked tickets to fly to London. He would email me all the details. I told Uncle at once. He warned that it was too early to share the news with Mr Steinberg. Uncle advised extreme caution. Until we knew Moshe’s plane had touched down, not a whisper should be spoken. This was terribly frustrating. But I knew Uncle was right. I’d need to keep my excitement bottled up. Not a murmur should pass my lips, until we were quite sure. I wrote a hasty reply to Moshe, expressing my delight. I felt certain he’d not let us down. My mind dwelt on emotional reconciliations. Mr Steinberg was going to be so thrilled.
Moshe would be landing at Heathrow the next morning. Mr Steinberg had been told. The elation shone in his eyes like a solar flare. Soon it turned to complete nerves. What, after all, could be said to sweeten a decade of silence. Uncle and I would come to the airport for moral support. It’d mean an early start. It was pitch black when we rose. Mr Steinberg had barely slept. He’d dressed himself in a sombre black suit and silk tie. It made me think of funerals. As Uncle pulled the car into the street, I could hear Mr Steinberg softly speaking a prayer. I looked at the arrivals information on my phone. Moshe’s flight was on time. Mr Steinberg adjusted his tie nervously. None of us spoke a word. I could see Uncle glancing at his friend in the rear-view mirror. As we raced down the motorway, the sense of foreboding grew stronger. I bit my nails anxiously.
There was a throng of people in the arrivals hall. They all had expectant faces. I kept my eyes on the information board. It flicked over, showing Moshe’s Cape Town flight. The crowd surged towards the gate. Mr Steinberg was crushed in the swell. Suddenly he appeared. Moshe was a tall man. He had a deep scar on his left cheek. He wore thick-set glasses and was smiling broadly. Father and son embraced, patting each other’s backs vigorously. I couldn’t help thinking that Mr Steinberg looked like a little wizened dwarf. It was an emotional moment. Uncle took Moshe’s hand luggage. We sought the baggage carousel. Uncle proposed breakfast. Moshe stooped over his Father and clutched his leathery hand tightly. I glowed inside.
Moshe was booked into some swanky, high-price bracket hotel. After a hearty airport breakfast, we drove that way. Moshe and his Father sat in the back seat nattering like old pals. Moshe had this endearing way of tilting his head back and roaring with laughter. Once he’d checked in, we all went up to Moshe’s suite. He had some top-notch South African brandy he wished to share with his Father and Uncle. I was treated to a juice from the mini bar. Moshe regarded me as something of a heroine. Aaron and Gustav weren’t spoken of at all. Moshe was married. Mr Steinberg was a Grandfather. Father and son crooned over some snapshots Moshe extracted from his wallet. The boy was six years old. I gazed into Mr Steinberg’s dark tear-stained eyes and felt proud for him.
Moshe needed to rest. He’d barely shut his eyes for the entire duration of the long-haul flight. He would take a shower, draw the curtains tightly, and hit the sack. Uncle agreed that we’d return later and take dinner together in the hotel. Mr Steinberg looked ragged and spent. As he donned his overcoat, his hands trembled violently. Moshe enveloped his Father in a great hug. He said something I couldn’t catch, it sounded like a foreign language. Mr Steinberg smiled a wan smile. Once we’d said our farewells and processed from the room, Uncle proposed we get take-away coffees, and freshen up at home. This sounded swell. Mr Steinberg could take his nap, sort out his complicated medications, and be revitalised for a convivial evening. I was entirely, absolutely satisfied. Father and son were beautifully reconciled.
Dinner was gorgeous. I was perplexed by the dizzying array of cutlery, but nobody else seemed to care, so I forked up the hors d’oeuvres, and spooned down the vegan casserole, it was all scrumptious. Uncle ordered wine. I was permitted the smallest sip, to acknowledge the special occasion. I didn’t feel tipsy, and Uncle’s foolish smirk was totally misplaced. Mr Steinberg and Moshe were burning like a house on fire. They were making up for a decade of silence. The conversation tiptoed away from any mention of the other brothers. I felt compelled to ask. It was like a heavy stone had fallen into a mill pond. I knew immediately I’d committed a terrible faux pas. Moshe cleared his throat noisily, Mr Steinberg looked stern. Then, quietly, quite surprisingly, Moshe began his story.
Aaron and Gustav had both accrued significant fortunes. Their colossal wealth was celebrated on the Cape. Money had corrupted them both. Neither brother trusted a living soul. They thought their Father’s illness was a gigantic fabrication, designed to prize large sums from their offshore bank accounts. Moshe loathed what his brothers had become. Their humanity had been leeched away, until they were cold lizards. Moshe didn’t think either son would attempt to contact Mr Steinberg. Aaron and Gustav were both married. Their wives were blonde trophies, gilded socialites with fake hearts. There were no children. That would have been too messy. Moshe had very few interactions with his brothers. They were worlds apart. Mr Steinberg, who’d been listening intently, groaned like he’d been knifed. Uncle was clearly appalled by what he’d heard. His mouth hung wide in disbelief, then his eyes flared. Moshe took a big scull of wine, and spoke no more.
We reached home late. I had eight text messages from Eddie. He was beginning to feel neglected. I had no time for Eddie’s nonsense. I was consumed by Mr Steinberg’s family woes. I was grateful we had Moshe here. Mr Steinberg trundled off to bed. He was ghoulishly pale. He lent on Uncle’s arm, and hobbled upstairs. I wished Uncle goodnight and went to hit the hay. There was nothing I could do to sway Mr Steinberg’s thankless children. I dwelt briefly on some crazy scenarios. I could fly to South Africa and demand to be heard. It was ludicrous. I thrashed restlessly under my blanket, until I achieved an uneasy sleep.
I shook Mr Steinberg’s shoulder gently. He didn’t stir. Horrible memories of Aunty’s death swamped my head. I began to quiver. I placed Mr Steinberg’s tea besides his bed, and called his name. At this, he stirred. A sense of relief swept through my body. Mr Steinberg looked dreadfully pale. He manoeuvred his spectacles onto his nose, and greeted me. I tried to disguise the alarm I’d felt, but my voice still shook. Mr Steinberg asked me the time. We were planning to visit Moshe at his hotel, and show him the city sights. This would involve considerable walking. My heart quailed inside my rib cage. It was clear that Mr Steinberg wasn’t up to vigorous exercise. I went downstairs to speak privately with Uncle. He frowned at my news, and looked concerned. We’d have breakfast, he announced, and review our plans.
I struggled not to obsess. I knew that I stuck my beak too far into other people’s affairs. I must loosen up. Mr Steinberg wasn’t about to croak. He had Moshe. Nevertheless I insisted Mr Steinberg find his leather gloves and wear a woolly scarf. He did so, to humour me. Uncle agreed to a gentler schedule. We’d visit the London Eye, then seek out lunch in Covent Garden. Wherever feasible, we’d hail taxi cabs. Moshe would meet us in the hotel lobby. Mr Steinberg wasn’t to be unduly strained.
We cartwheeled high above the city. It was a bizarre feeling, which I didn’t totally enjoy. Mr Steinberg, however, was enamoured and Moshe whooped at the stunning views. The outing was proving a success. By midday Mr Steinberg was drooping. We crossed the grey choppy river. Uncle proposed a nip of whiskey in this dinghy pub. I had a warm, flat lemonade. As he drank, Mr Steinberg perked up, unleashing on Moshe a deluge of bubbly words. The three men chortled happily, munching on roasted, salted peanuts. Mr Steinberg asked if a person could still get a fondue in this town. This perplexed me. Uncle smirked happily, something was tickled deep inside him. Outside, we pounced in a taxi, and roared away to seek lunch.
It was like melted heaven. We all sat around a communal pot. A spirit lamp burned under the fondue. Blue fire raged in Mr Steinberg’s eyes, like some old memory had been ignited. I skewered a hunk of bread on my prong, and dunked it into the warm stretchy yellow cheese. I giggled like a doozie school girl. When Uncle ordered a second bowl, William grew scarlet-eared with excitement. We were in the heart of Soho. I’d heard whispers about its lurid reputation. Prostitutes and sleazy artists and serial killers. It stank like a dung heap of iniquity. This was altogether thrilling. Even our day by the sea hadn’t been half as enthralling.
We strolled in the gathering gloom. A boutique cinema in Mayfair was screening Casablanca. It was Mr Steinberg’s favourite movie. It was a black and white film. This surely meant two hours of nail-biting boredom. Instead I was swept away. The corny lines were strangely beautiful, Rick was tragic, complex, dashing. I wished I’d brought a hanky. The grown men were craggily silent. Nobody scrunched their popcorn. When the end credits rolled, there was a lump in my throat. As the house lights came up, I spied a big tear rolling down Mr Steinberg’s wrinkled cheek. He had surely smooched through this movie with his late wife. This sudden realisation brought another shivery moment to this sublime afternoon.
We thrust our way through the cinema’s double-swing doors, out into the glitzy London borough. The magic of celluloid slowly ebbed away. Uncle raised his hand to hail a taxi. Soon we were bouncing down the lanes, heading to the railway terminus. Once on the train, we occupied a whole carriage. Mr Steinberg nuzzled his head into the hard upholstery. He looked spent. As we clanked over the river, I spied a couple of tug boats. They shone like illuminated water beetles. Satisfied, I kicked off my uncomfortable shoes, folded my knees up under my skirt, ready to snooze.
Moshe would return home soon. I feared this might break Mr Steinberg. Instead he started to sketch out a trip to South Africa. I seriously doubted Mr Steinberg’s health was up to a long-haul adventure like this. Moshe, however, humoured his Father. He spoke eloquently about his adopted country, until I could see the frolicking baboons on Table Mountain, and smell the great veldt. Resolution hardened in Mr Steinberg’s dim eyes. It wasn’t some impossible folly. His last excursion, Mr Steinberg vowed, would be a fabulous journey to meet his grandson.
We would all travel to Cape Town. I couldn’t help thinking this would be the most gigantic expense. But Mr Steinberg insisted. He’d been saving for his entire life. It was a unique opportunity. Uncle got online and purchased us economy tickets. Moshe was absolutely thrilled. I borrowed a guide book from the library and read about fabulous lion parks and endangered gazelles. Moshe would reserve us a holiday apartment just outside the city. I circled the departure date vigorously on my calendar. It was relatively soon. Mr Steinberg was to meet his grandson. I strategised perfect reconciliations with Aaron and Gustav too. Nothing was impossible now.
Eddie had sent me a swathe of text messages. He was sore to be excluded from our adventure. I felt pity. But I didn’t reply. Eddie couldn’t really hope that Mr Steinberg would fork out five hundred pounds on him. I was family. Eddie was an employee, who was sort of my boyfriend. I knew I was harsh. But the truth was the truth. Moshe felt less bad about leaving. His Father would be hot on his heels. We would all stay in South Africa for at least one month. Mr Steinberg was no longer vexed about his shop. He’d put it on the property market. Family matters, he said, were paramount. In any case he didn’t need to work. He’d be a free man, at liberty to go where he pleased in his twilight years. As for his health, Mr Steinberg felt swell. I doubted this. I noticed how ashen, how limp he was, after a day at full-throttle. But I didn’t pour cold water on his plans. Because my beautiful Mr Steinberg deserved happiness.
Mr Steinberg said he couldn’t bear any painful farewells. So when it was time for Moshe to leave, Uncle ferried him to the airport alone. After all, it was only a matter of weeks before we’d be reunited in Cape Town. When Moshe had gone, Mr Steinberg was sullen. We sat together in the semi-darkness. It was painful to speak. I thought of making consoling noises, but silence seemed better. After some time, Mr Steinberg announced that he was going to bed. It was early. I nodded my head understandingly. My beautiful friend shuffled in his slippers toward the staircase. He heaved an enormous sigh as he mounted the first step. I wished Mr Steinberg a gentle good night. I blew him a kiss. He didn’t hear or see. He’d been swallowed by a terrible sadness.
Eddie and I were officially history. He was the one to break it off. I felt tremendous relief. Our thing had fizzled away, and got ugly. It was simply an embarrassing encumbrance now. I was glad to devote my time to our forthcoming journey. I’d leafed through every page of the guide book. I had even digested the street map of Cape Town. I felt understood the city’s heart. Moshe had called to report that he was safely home. The telephone line echoed and Mr Steinberg wasn’t able to hear much. Uncle ensured our passports were in order. He booked an airport shuttle. The flight departed late. From our storeroom, I pulled out a battered suitcase. It had once belonged to Mother. I brushed off some dusty webs, and began to pack my smaller items. The case already bulged. I stowed it neatly below my bed. Mr Steinberg did likewise. I could almost smell the aviation fuel now, imagine the immense iron bird throttling down the runway.
Minutes dragged. Hours became insurmountable. I scored deep lines into my calendar, delighted when each day was done. Mr Steinberg didn’t openly show his impatience, although his hands trembled more. Uncle organised our travel insurance and chose our in-flight meals, vegetarian for me. I packed my last bits and pieces, and sat on my suitcase to secure the lock. There were three tiresome days to kill. I felt I might explode. I’d worn out my guide book, the pages were so thumbed that some of the typescript had faded. So I burrowed my head into my pillow, hoping sleep would catch me, and wing me forward a few hours.
We sat in the thronging forecourt. Uncle was away, stocking up on duty-free. Mr Steinberg had a terrible fear of flying. He’d scrupulously avoided planes for his entire life. This was different. I tried to calm Mr Steinberg’s qualms. But his boarding pass trembled in his hand. William was kicking his seat, restless to go. I felt myself losing grip. Suddenly Uncle returned, clutching heavy bags. The bottles clinked like a guilty secret. It was time to seek out our departure gate. William rushed off to find a baggage trolley. I squeezed Mr Steinberg’s fingertips. He stood, straightening his back. You could feel the resolve emanating from his body. Our little party pushed through the crowds. We rode the moving escalator. Our journey had really commenced.
Uncle said the flight attendants were harridans. I figured this was something bad. William had ear ache and Mr Steinberg clutched his arm rest anxiously. After an hour I was bored. Our dinner was served. It was plasticky-looking mush a pig would have declined. Uncle commented that the glamour of flying was long deceased. The cramped seat bit into my backside. After our meal, coffee was served. The aroma of the instant powder made me nauseous. I eyed the sick bag beside my knees. The cabin lights were dimmed. Uncle began to snore. It promised to be a gruelling flight.
I slept sporadically. Eventually the main lights came up. The cabin crew were busying themselves at the front of the plane. Passengers were stretching their cramped limbs, queueing for the toilet. Breakfast would soon be served. I glanced at the big screen showing our aircraft’s progress across Africa. We had reached the southern end of the continent. My geography was lame, but surely this meant Cape Town was close now. Beside me, Mr Steinberg was fishing in his pockets, searching for his morning medicines. William watched eagerly as the cabin crew worked down the aisles, delivering breakfast trays. It was cold scrambled eggs. I raised my hand in a negative, when I was offered coffee. A sign suddenly appeared, asking us to secure our seat belts. There was turbulence. Mr Steinberg clung onto my arm. I felt my ears pop. We were descending.
A huge elephant of a woman scrutinized my passport. She glared at me through a thick glass panel. My skin crawled. I felt like a major felon. The officer questioned me about the purpose of my visit. I stammered out something about visiting relatives. Suddenly she was wielding a heavy stamp. It crashed down onto my passport. I was welcomed to the country. Blood surged into my face. It was time to find the baggage carousel. Uncle led us, guiding Mr Steinberg like a blind man. William mumbled that he was hungry. Everyone ignored him. The crowd swelled as we approached the arrivals hall. Where I spied Moshe slouching beside a pillar, with a broad smile on his face.
Moshe would ferry us to the apartment first. There we could freshen up and dump our bags, before meeting his wife and son. I was inordinately tired. As Moshe enthused about his town, I’m ashamed to admit I shut my eyes. When I woke, William was nestling into my shoulder. We were hurtling along an expressway. The mountain was cowled in cloud. My tummy grumbled. I hoped Moshe’s wife had prepared something vegetarian to wolf down. We took an exit, and slowed at some lights. Moshe announced we were near. The apartment was a mere twenty minute ride from his place. It all seemed adroitly planned. I looked about me. The neighbourhood was privileged. Fenced compounds, modern apartment buildings hiding probable swimming pools. This was glamourous suburbia. We slowed again, and drove into a gated driveway. This, Moshe said smirking, was us.
We stood and chatted in the kitchen. It glittered like an enamel palace. The apartment was airy, spacious and freshly-painted. Mr Steinberg said he’d never seen such luxury. I couldn’t help thinking of our London shack and what Moshe must have thought. All this glitz was out of our league. I threw on a clean tank top, and brushed my hair. There was an impressive view from my bedroom. The clouds still lingered, obscuring the mountain top. When the skies eventually cleared, I knew we’d be in for a treat. My stomach growled. Hunger gnawed at me. I went back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. It was stocked to the gunnels. In the vegetable bin, I spied an appealing stick of celery. I plucked it out and crunched. Like this was a signal, Uncle appeared. We would leave now, and head to Moshe’s house.
Angelique was a woman of colour. She embraced us all warmly. I was mildly surprised. Mr Steinberg, however, was clearly in shock. Moshe’s tiny son hid behind his Mother’s skirts. Nobody could coax him out, or extract a single word from him. There was plentiful spicy food. I let the adults talk while I satisfied my embarrassing appetite. Moshe’s home was relatively modest. There were African carvings placed cunningly around the room. The black elongated faces gave me shivers. Mr Steinberg began to relax and chortle at his daughter-in-law’s jokes. Angelique was a real hoot. Even William looked up from his food to smile. Once lunch was over, we would go to the mountain. I went up to the bathroom to splash my face. Fatigue clawed at my eyes. When I came out, our augmented party was ready. Something about the solemn mood told me we were making a significant spiritual excursion. As if to underscore this, Moshe had booked a big black limousine.
The mountain remained elusive. She hid her head completely in cotton-candy clouds. Moshe kept promising a spectacular view around the next bend, but there was only a solid swathe of mist. I watched out for the rock baboons. But they had also slunk away, and remained hidden. William complained that he felt car-sick. The outing was a failure. But Mr Steinberg didn’t care a jot. He had charmed his grandson out of his shell and they now nattered happily together. Angelique and Uncle were locked in banter. Moshe proposed we halt for coffee and wait for evening. At dusk, he said, the skies could achieve unrivalled clarity. It would be worthwhile, to see such a majestic scene unveiled. We drank coffee from ornately-painted cups. By the second slurp, I just knew we’d get our view.
The mountain never divulged her secrets. A little deflated, Moshe took us home. He asked if I swam, because the apartment had an Olympic-sized pool. I didn’t want to admit a doggy-paddle was probably beyond my abilities. But William’s ears pricked. He excitedly asked if there was a wave pool. Moshe didn’t think so. We were dropped at the main gates, with a promise of more sightseeing in the morning. My mind turned to dinner. There was ample food in the fridge to cook up a storm. I wondered what exotic ingredients I might discover. There was a dark stick of meat I immediately distrusted. It was called Biltong. The stuff looked entirely inedible, like some fatty dog chew. Uncle told me it was a national delicacy. I rummaged around and found some cheddar cheese and pasta. We would remain on safe culinary ground.
To think that Mr Steinberg’s other sons were so close. Surely I could cast a healing spell across all their lives. I tried not to fret. It was better to soak up the holiday atmosphere. Today was lions. There was a safari park just outside the city. Moshe proposed a late breakfast, followed by a leisurely drive into the wilds. Mr Steinberg had slept like a proverbial log, he said, and was much refreshed. He couldn’t wait to chatter with his grandson. As we wound out of the city, up onto the grassy veldt, I felt the immensity of this country. It scared me. Moshe drove like a man inspired by the majesty around him. William dozed, nuzzling my arm. Sleepiness descended on me too. I asked how far. Another hour.
We had a flat tyre. Uncle was struggling with a jack, trying to lever off the punctured wheel. It was clearly a sweaty struggle. The road was flinty now. Dust span in the air, it was unbelievably hot. There were just a few withered bushes, and open infinite space. I wondered how much water we had. Because we’d never get rescued out here. William was grizzling. There’d be no lions now. Our excursions certainly seemed blighted. Moshe hung his perspiring head and kicked the dirt. I felt immensely sorry for him.
Uncle spent a considerable time fiddling with the recalcitrant tyre. While I grilled in the backseat, Mr Steinberg dozed fitfully. Moshe held his phone high in the air, struggling to get a signal. He looked like a desperate clown. Inevitably, William was hungry. There were only fruit lozenges to suck. Not another soul passed us on the road. It was eerie, creepy, terrifying, to think of this immense wilderness pressing in on us. We were such insignificant specks.
Moshe had hiked off in search of cell phone reception. He planned to call a tow truck. It was dark now. A dizzying multitude of stars whirled over our heads. The air throbbed with plangent insect sounds. William had whined himself to sleep. Uncle tried to cheer me. He proposed lighting a campfire and telling ghost stories. The high veldt, Uncle said, had a blood curdling history. I sneered at his silliness. Suddenly a meteor shot across the sky. I gasped, and it was gone. I shivered. I felt bereft. Moshe had already been away for hours.
I was woken by the heavy rumble of a mechanic’s truck. The sky was streaked with high pink clouds. From the van stepped this gorilla of a man, dressed in an oily blue boiler-suit. He tutted aggressively to himself, and spat. Moshe was there, looking sleep-deprived, dishevelled. The problem with the tyre was fixed in less than ten minutes. The mechanic clearly thought we were all retarded. Uncle hung his head, shamefaced. Moshe had brought some hard bread rolls. We ate hungrily. A night in the wild had piqued my appetite. Moshe settled with the surly workman, who grunted his thanks, pocketed the money in his grubby overalls, and spat obscenely. We were free to leave. Moshe manoeuvred the car around. Soon we were speeding after the dust storm raised by the mechanic’s truck. Barrelling back to the Cape.
We limped back into the city. I couldn’t wait to take a shower. As per usual, the mountain was obliterated in cloud. I wasn’t enthusiastic about any more excursions. Mr Steinberg suffered quietly, but clearly in considerable pain. He’d missed taking his medications. We crawled through heavy traffic, heading for the apartment. When we reached home, there was an ornate visiting card perched on the mat. It was addressed to Mr Steinberg. He turned it over in his leathery hands. It was from Aaron, Mr Steinberg’s eldest son.
Moshe telephoned his brother. A rendezvous was organized. We would all meet for lunch at this swanky city restaurant. I wondered what had prompted Aaron to suddenly seek out his Father. There still wasn’t a dicky-bird from Gustav, Mr Steinberg’s youngest son. But I figured we were making some headway. I hoped Aaron didn’t have any insalubrious motives. Such as extracting a final bequest from his dying Father. That would tear at Mr Steinberg’s ailing heart. I dug out my best dress. I would look my grandest for this eldest son.
Moshe warned us about his brother’s bizarre moods. Aaron would be sailing along, then an insignificant, casual comment would spark his rage. We should take special care when addressing personal remarks. Aaron was morbidly obese, and extremely tetchy around the subject. Once Moshe had suggested his brother diet. Aaron had flared up, then ostracized Moshe for over a year. He was still sullen, prone to embarrassing public outbursts. I began to wonder how Aaron conducted his business so successfully. No one grew fabulously rich by being obnoxious. I prettified my face one more time, and stepped into the limousine. It was time to meet Mr Steinberg’s stray son in the flesh.
Aaron was tense. He didn’t hug his Father. Instead he scuffed his calf-skin shoes importantly on the shag-pile carpet. I was appalled. Moshe struggled to defrost the situation. He ordered expensive wine and asked to see the menu. Aaron squirmed in his seat, striking his knife on the table top. He was a sulking hulk of a man. I took an instant dislike to him. Spoilt, that’s the word I would have used. We ordered our meals in icy silence. William knocked over a tall glass of juice. Aaron glared brutally his way. Our lunch order was late. I just knew that Aaron would make some belly ache. He was vile to an apologetic server. The poor man scurried away like a whipped cur. Unexpectedly Mr Steinberg smirked broadly, and reprimanded his son. Aaron pulled a long face, just like a scolded child. Suddenly the chemistry in the room was different. Shyly, awkwardly at first, Mr Steinberg and his estranged son began to talk.
By the time we took coffee, the room was electric. Father and son reunited brought wide smiles to all our faces. There were years to catch up on. Aaron soaked up his Father’s chatter like it was ambrosia. There wasn’t the tiniest suggestion of conflict. Mr Steinberg’s face softened with happiness. His pains and ailments were forgotten. They simply scattered like starlings, and flew away. I didn’t want to be a grouch, but I was concerned Mr Steinberg would tire. I glanced pointedly at Uncle. He took the hint. We would adjourn, and continue this beautiful reconciliation at home.
When Aaron was told about our disastrous excursions, he smirked. No such ill luck, he boasted, would bedevil his plans. He proposed a journey to the tip of Africa. It sounded exotic. I asked if there’d be baboons. Aaron promised boatloads of the mangey pests. I was taken aback by his vulgarity. But the others laughed. I sensed some competitiveness with Moshe. Aaron planned to outdo his brother. The bar, I reflected, wasn’t set particularly high. The next morning, Aaron would swing by in his Mercedes.
I got to ride up front with Aaron. We wound the windows down and turned the stereo to full blast. It felt like a real holiday. I caught glimpses of Moshe’s limousine straggling behind us, before Aaron slammed on the gas, and we were gone. The seaboard sparkled. Aaron told tales of whales and dolphins, and how the Southern Ocean was empty mountainous waves all the way to Antarctica. He drew bold pictures in my head. The man was mesmerizing. He had powerful charisma. I ruffled my hair and pulled a wide smile. Aaron winked mischievously, accelerated irresponsibly, and we bulleted down the motorway.
William was miffed that he didn’t get to race in the sporty car. To compensate for this injustice, he demanded an enormous chocolate sundae. Aaron was amused. He said he knew just the place, down on the promenade. Surprisingly, Mr Steinberg clambered for a sweet dessert. With my usual cheeriness, I immediately suspected diabetes. It felt like all the clouds in the bay had settled on my head. I surveyed Uncle’s eyes. A holiday mood shone from his big pupils. I didn’t wish to throw water on this day. So I buckled my mouth and smiled dutifully.
Aaron’s outing had been a blistering success. He was so pleased with himself that he immediately proposed we visit an historic diamond mine. I’d heard of the legendary riches buried in South African soil. Pretty jewels the size of small cars were still said to litter remote corners of the country. William enquired if we’d be plummeting down a mine shaft, to the earth’s core. I smirked in a superior kind of way, but I felt his raw excitement too. Aaron smiled like a victor, and promised this could be arranged. I’d been utterly charmed by Aaron. He quite overshadowed Moshe. Who had become sulky, withdrawn, petulant. I wondered when the two brothers would knock heads. You could taste the friction, see a massive weather event churning on the near horizon.
It was William’s turn to ride up front in the Merc. I tried not to sulk or pull faces at my brother. It would be a considerable drive across the veldt, to reach the diamond mine. We passed alluring roadsigns, to places like Snake River, before my enthusiasm began to flag. The dust whirled behind our bumper, the sun bled like treacle in the sky. If we broke down here, we’d be boiled alive. I’d never grow accustomed to the immensity of this nation. But should a lion suddenly stroll ahead of us, I would no longer be surprised.
Aaron was panicking. He felt claustrophobic. He was struggling with his tie. Sweat beaded his pasty forehead. His brother said to chill, and take deep breaths. Certainly it was a confined, gloomy space. A throng of people had just stepped from the lift, and milled around in the cramped tunnel. This was hardly an activity you’d choose if small spaces spooked you. A local tour guide appeared. He started barking an awful running commentary. This ramped up Aaron’s anxiety. He was hyperventilating. We needed to leave. Moshe clutched his brother’s shoulder and manhandled him into the emergency shaft. Everyone was staring. I couldn’t help thinking that the two brothers were even now.
Before returning home, Aaron was extremely prickly. He slammed the door of his Merc violently, inviting no-one to ride with him. Moshe’s mood also curdled. He drove madly, accelerating around bends, discomforting his Father. William complained of carsickness. I was terrified he’d barf all over me. The skies blazed in fury, then millions of stars shone out. We would be driving for hours. Mr Steinberg complained of hunger. He craved a big juicy steak. I couldn’t imagine finding any dining establishment out here. Moshe tugged at his glove compartment and pulled out some boiled sweets. I sat jolting in the back seat, sucking on a bitter lozenge. Eventually my head nodded forward, and sleep smothered me.
It was 3 am when we crawled back into Cape Town. William was out blotto, and had to be carried from the car. Aaron had driven on, without even wishing us a good night. Clearly he didn’t like being caught in a vulnerable position. My mild crush on Aaron had soured. I began to think of him as a little person. I wouldn’t have him upsetting dear Mr Steinberg. Moshe was clearly riled by his brother’s behaviour. He was uncommonly silent. Exhausted, only wanting for bed, Moshe swung open the door, and we went straight to our rooms.
The next day, Moshe dialled his brother. The line was busy. Whenever Moshe called, it went to voicemail immediately. Aaron was clearly avoiding us. I thought of driving to his workplace and confronting him. But Mr Steinberg wanted no scenes. He’d ride out the storm, he said, and look forward to fairer weather. To me this seemed inexplicable. But I didn’t want to discomfort dear Mr Steinberg. His spoilt, badass son could go rot. Moshe was the faithful one. I scoured the well-thumbed guidebook. We’d take a simple excursion around the city. Wash our hands of this rotten apple of a brother.
By some miraculous chance, the Mountain was entirely visible. I craned my neck, and marvelled at its imposing, craggy beauty. A single streaky cloud seemed to pirouette at the summit. The mountain was like an ancient God, and the pettiness of our recent family squabbles was quite overshadowed. I peered hard, hoping to spot baboons, but we were too far away. The road seemed to encircle the Mountain, giving us a prolonged thrill. I cast aside all silly thoughts of high street shopping. I barked to Moshe that we should visit the Mountain now. It was the most perfect opportunity. Mr Steinberg was nodding in agreement. Moshe slowed the limousine, shot down a slip road, and we were barrelling straight at the Mountain.
William was making childish wisecracks about the baboons’ pink arses. It was predictably immature. I liked their curious eyes on me. The view was stupendous. This was surely a perch for godly beings. Moshe was grumbling on about the distinguished history of this spot. For me, however, it was about timelessness. The roof of the world spoke a mystical language. I glanced over at Mr Steinberg. I just knew he understood this too.
Our visit was drawing to a close. Aaron had clammed up completely. There still wasn’t a murmur from Gustav. Fortunately Moshe had been a fabulous host, excepting his disaster-prone excursions. I didn’t relish the thought of returning home. Compared to grubby London, Cape Town was a place minted in heaven. I reminded myself that a holiday wasn’t real life. Moshe would drive us to the airport, for our evening flight. We spent a sad afternoon. Mr Steinberg and his son traded nostalgic memories. It was gut-wrenching to overhear. Moshe promised he’d come to London soon. Glumly, I wondered whether dear Mr Steinberg would live to see another visit from his son. All our bags were stacked in the hallway. A skinny black boy would take them to the car. I winked at him. Uncle signalled it was time. Mr Steinberg sculled his tea loudly, struggled onto his feet, sighed heavily, and processed towards the door.
The hostesses were fearsome women, built like sumo wrestlers. The cabin stank, I could barely breathe. You could almost chew on the recycled air. There was zero chance of sleeping. Every seat was occupied. I was right next to the toilets. My legs got shooting cramps. Beside me Uncle whiffled in his sleep. I felt certain he could snooze through a mortar attack. It was so annoying. I did finally drift, but the trolley serving breakfast coffee scraped my seat, and jolted me awake. For a time, I rubbed my sore eyelids. There was this metallic taste in my mouth. We were cruising. I gazed out the porthole. Great sunlit clouds mushroomed below me. It was less than two hours until London.
There was a thin film of dust coating the furniture. My first thought was intruders. But nothing had been moved a millimetre. No sane robber would ransack our dinghy house. It was simply unthinkable. I pulled the curtains but no sunlight broke in. I flicked the switch to boil the kettle. The red light didn’t come on. Maybe the electricity was out. I signalled to Uncle for help. At once he went to investigate the fuse box. I told Mr Steinberg to sit, and take the weight off his legs. Uncle returned. The switch board was fried. That meant no showers, because the boiler would be cold. It was an inauspicious start. Uncle put on a brave face, and ordered pizzas and coffee. Homecoming hadn’t warmed my heart. I thought of the sun-drenched Cape, the mountain cloaked in billowy cloud. It seemed an era ago.
There was a significant pile of letters to open. Mostly final demands that screamed in red. In the past, this would have fazed me completely. Now I didn’t bat a proverbial eyelid. The electrical fault got quickly fixed. I grew rather bored, swamped by simple domestic duties. A gnawing travel bug had been whetted inside my heart. I spoke earnestly to Uncle. He said he wasn’t especially keen to go gallivanting around the globe. I should be thinking of resuming my education, he exclaimed, before I trotted here, there and everywhere. Uncle’s hectoring tone surprised me. He wasn’t usually the one to get all heavy and condescending. I gave it some thought, and concluded that I should definitely aim to gain a serious qualification. In what field, however, I hadn’t the slightest inkling. I trawled the internet and requested some glossy prospectuses. A seed had been sown in my head.
I enrolled for night school at the local college. I chose to study law. It seemed like the sort of subject where I might earn big bucks. Our tutor was called Mr De’Ath. I wasn’t superstitious, but his surname gave me goosebumps. I purchased the textbook, which was a weighty and forbidding tome. Flicking through its pages, my head soon spun. I knew I wasn’t remotely academic. But I figured I could probably scrape through with some dedicated graft. I was secretly hoping Uncle might wish to study as well. So I broached the subject. But Uncle insisted he was way too retarded for college. I could see, however, that he was pleased with me. Uncle muttered something about me fulfilling my maximum potential. It sounded like horseshit, but Uncle’s blessing and encouragement meant the world to me.
My fingers were smudged with ink. It felt foreign to me. Mr De’Ath, however, was an eloquent pedagogue. Chalk dust had settled into his skin. He discussed every meandering turn of the law like he was dissecting an intimate friend. I found myself smiling at Mr De’Ath’s boundless enthusiasm, although I didn’t always comprehend his drift. I counted thirteen other students in our class. They were a morose bunch, stubbornly slow to warm. At break time we all sat apart, immersed in our individual mugs of weak tea. This seemed particularly silly to me. So I waltzed over to a gorgeous young man with a solid jaw and introduced myself. He looked up from his book, removed his neat spectacles slowly, assessing me. He was beyond beautiful. He took my limp paw in his. Immediately I knew something momentous had occurred. There was major chemistry. My ears throbbed loudly. He was telling me his name. I grinned stupidly, breathless, understanding nothing. When I finally comprehended he was called Carlos, I had spilt my sweet tea all over his books. Completely unflappable, Carlos summoned me to sit. Here was a man to melt my soul.
I sat excitedly beside Carlos. Mr De’Ath was discussing the finer points of early English law, and its abominable cruelties. He spoke about dunking witches, and forced confessions. It was graphic stuff. Carlos was scribbling copious notes. I looked across, but his handwriting was so diabolical surely nobody could read it. Carlos had these long, finely tapered fingers. An artist’s hands. I knew he was aware my eyes were on him. I wondered if Carlos thought me forward. I didn’t want to appear like a tart. Suddenly class was over. Carlos was packing his bag methodically. He wished me an abrupt good evening, scraped his chair abrasively, and was gone.
Carlos was absent from our next class. I hated to think I’d scared him away. There was no way to contact Carlos. I’d trolled through social media. There was not a single reference to his name. Mr De’Ath’s lesson seemed suddenly bland. We’d made a start on criminal law. The precedents swirled in my head like dry autumnal leaves. I moved to the back of the room. There I could doodle on my notepad, mull over my infatuation. Forty minutes into our lesson there was a loud rap at the door. Mr De’Ath was clearly discomforted and lost his flow. Nettled, he barked a single word: enter. To my joy and surprise Carlos slunk in. He looked mildly dishevelled. I suppressed an overwhelming urge to rush forward and plonk myself beside him. Carlos, however, looked my way, and strolled nonchalantly to the desk next to mine. I prayed to God I wasn’t flushing. I mumbled a hello. Our eyes met. Something secret slipped between us. I felt certain I’d ensnared my man.
After class, Carlos bought me coffee. I made sure not to slurp. He didn’t speak much. But Carlos’ eyes were supercharged. I avoided a gnawing compulsion to tell him my entire life story. I wanted to blurt everything, but bit hard on my lip. Carlos wasn’t divulging any secrets either. We had considerable time ahead to exchange our personal histories. Carlos exclaimed that he was thoroughly famished. He asked what was my favourite food. I told him I was vegan. This didn’t fluster him. Carlos knew the perfect place for dinner. I agreed. Carlos said I had some milk froth on my lip. With a gentle movement, he brushed it away. My blood pressure soared. Feeling dizzy, I stood. Carlos spoke my name like it was a precious spell. Natalie, let’s go.
I returned home late. Carlos hadn’t tried to kiss me. I liked that, it meant he respected me. Uncle had stayed up waiting for me. I couldn’t hide my glow from his penetrating eyes, so I told him I’d met a boy. Uncle struggled to suppress his curiosity. I could tell he wanted to bombard me with probing questions. Instead, he simply asked where I’d found this new man. I explained. Uncle smiled ever so slightly. He stood, stretched his arms languidly, and announced it was time for bed. I didn’t think I’d sleep. My mind whirled. Life was full of promise. I smirked with pleasure. I would be meeting Carlos the next day.
I found myself telling sentimental stories about my Mother. Confiding in Carlos seemed so natural. I could tell a lump was rising in his throat. He leant across the table and squeezed my fingertips. It was electric. I pushed my hair behind my ears, and spoke some more. We had been crooning over our flat whites for ages. Carlos asked if I’d like to go for a film. He had a passion for dark horror movies. I said yes. The prospect of sitting together in the dark enthralled me. Suddenly Carlos leapt up and settled the bill, despite my smiling protests. He pulled the door open graciously for me, whereupon we were both assailed by a gust of chilly, sooty air. I giggled. In the street, Carlos slid his arm around my waist. I wanted to holler and dance. Could this be love?
Mr Steinberg’s health was on a downhill spiral. I felt immensely guilty. I had been so consumed by Carlos, that I’d neglected to observe my dear friend. But Uncle shocked me one evening. He spoke earnestly about hospice care. I immediately hated the whole idea. Surely Mr Steinberg couldn’t be abandoned and left to die sadly in one of those hideous places. Moshe would be horrified. Uncle said I couldn’t understand the pain Mr Steinberg suffered, because he was such a stoic. I blanched at this, but I knew it was true. I promised Uncle I would make time. Carlos must understand. I rushed upstairs to call him and explain.
Carlos was more than understanding. He had genuine empathy. I spoke for some time about Mr Steinberg. I even talked of his sons in South Africa, and our recent visit there. Carlos listened intently. I couldn’t sense the slightest trace of boredom in his voice. In fact he asked when he could meet Mr Steinberg. It wasn’t just some empty enquiry. I was thrilled. Carlos could come for dinner, and I’d introduce him to my whole family. Uncle would be enthralled to meet and grill my mysterious young man. A date was agreed upon. My relationship with Carlos was racing ahead. After some tender goodbyes, I hung up the phone. I tilted my head back, glowing inside, and thanked God for my good fortune.
I shopped liberally for ingredients. After all, I was no longer on a budget. I wanted to impress Carlos, without making him think I was a reckless heiress. I stuck to my guns, we’d have a vegan meal. The whole family would be invited. If William griped, I’d shoot him down. Carlos had once admitted he had a serious passion for mediterranean olives. I would make a tomato and olive pizza, using my own base. This way the crowd would be pleased. I mixed my dough and left it to rest under a cloth. It rose impressively. Uncle whistled when he saw my finished masterpiece, stacked generously with topping, ready for the oven. It was time to dress.
Uncle didn’t pry but I could see him casting penetrating glances in Carlos’ direction. We were sitting awkwardly at the dinner table, chewing through my deluxe pizza. Mr Steinberg praised my culinary creation. He was warm with Carlos too, clearly liking my young man. Slowly Uncle’s severe mood thawed. I wanted everybody to love Carlos. Uncle asked after Carlos’ family. I realized with shame that I knew nothing. Carlos adroitly explained about his Mother. She was from Brazil. There was zero mention of his Father. I hoped that Uncle wouldn’t press and embarrass my man. Fortunately Uncle’s questions suddenly ceased. William asked loudly if there was more pizza. Everyone smirked. Uncle tousled my brother’s shock of chestnut hair. Carlos had passed the test. We would all be friends.
In the ill-lit hallway, Carlos kissed me. He was both masculine and immensely tender. Afterwards, I pressed my face into his shoulder. Our bond was sealed. I closed the door gently. I could hear Carlos’ heels clacking down the pathway. This was the way love was meant to be. I skipped briskly upstairs, and cast myself onto my bed. Uncle and William could do the washing-up. A kaleidoscopic beauty glowed in my head.
At the breakfast table, Uncle shared some disturbing news. Eddie had come off his bike and landed in hospital. He’d suffered a fractured pelvis. It was a complicated injury. Uncle said he’d be going to visit Eddie and asked me if I’d like to come. This startled me. I said no immediately. I didn’t want Eddie to feel encouraged, when my whole heart was with Carlos. Uncle said he understood, I had new loyalties now. We finished our cereal in silence. I could tell Uncle was nettled. I rose from the table. My chair grated until I clenched my teeth. Grabbing my bag, I bolted for the door. I had to see Carlos. He would smooth the anxiety that welled in my soul.
I told Carlos about Eddie. It wasn’t like I had any guilty secrets. There was no concrete reason for jealousy. Nevertheless Carlos grew grave. Tension rose into his shoulders. His eyes smouldered like fierce coals. For a moment I felt frightened. I finished my story. There was an uncomfortable silence. Carlos played murderously with his coffee spoon. Slowly, very seriously, Carlos asked if I still harboured feelings for Eddie. I tutted and denied it firmly. It was like the sun had risen after a winter of darkness. Carlos reached across the table for my hand. Our first rocky moment had passed.
Carlos took me home. We kissed rapturously at the door. I felt raw electricity surge in me. Locked together thus, the blemish on our day was already ancient history. When Carlos finally stalked away, I observed the curtains twitching back into place. Somebody had been watching us. If it was William, I swore to lynch him. Nobody was going to get a gratuitous thrill out of Carlos and me. I turned the key and barrelled meaningfully into the lounge. Only Mr Steinberg slept in his chair. It was cold. I drew a rug gently across his legs. I was imagining things.
Carlos said he abhorred social media. I tried to engage him in conversation on Instagram and Twitter. He didn’t even have an account. I texted him a number of times. He rarely answered promptly, unless I pressed him, or we’d planned to meet up. I quickly realized that Carlos thoroughly despised his phone. Unlike other teenagers, he never had his device constantly out on show. When we were apart, time dragged miserably. There was a sore ache deep down in my soul. I’d never felt this with Eddie. I wasn’t stupidly sentimental, but I did wonder if it meant I loved Carlos. Did Carlos feel this way too? He’d not uttered a single word about his feelings for me. I didn’t wish to be demanding, or neurotic. Uncle would have told me to bide my time, and let love bloom. So this is exactly what I’d do.
I received a message from Eddie, begging me to visit him. He said that he might lose mobility in his legs. My stomach turned at the thought of this. It was excruciatingly sad. Somehow I felt that I needed Carlos’ permission. I figured he might flare up with jealousy again. This time it would mean a major confrontation, and I hadn’t the nerve for that. Carlos’ sultry silences gave me the shivers. I didn’t feel like a subjugated woman. In fact something about Carlos’ possessiveness thrilled me. It frightened me too. I pulled out my phone, cleared my throat courageously, and dialled Carlos.
Carlos was howling at me. He was calling me whore. I could barely believe my ears. I wanted to placate him. To dash to his side, and stop these terrible words. I never once thought to hang up the call. When Carlos’ wrath had abated, he apologized sincerely. His voice crackled with heavy emotion. It was like a tornado had just passed, leaving a charmed calm. I told Carlos again that Eddie was merely an old friend. It was simply the decent thing to visit him in hospital. I could hear Carlos chewing over this sensible detail. The blood surged wildly in my ears. Carlos granted his permission. Curtly, he rang off. I’d not dwell on what had happened. Shell shocked, I stumbled out of my room to seek Uncle.
I surprised myself and wept as I told Uncle. He was extremely gentle with me. He coaxed me to divulge exactly what had transpired between Carlos and me. I was frank, even repeating Carlos’ painful, ugly insults. I could see the alarm bells shouting in Uncle’s eyes. I thought he was going to forbid that I see Carlos again. Instead Uncle simply warned me to take care. The boy was clearly crazy. He was probably mentally unstable. Suddenly I didn’t feel like defending Carlos. The gravity of his mistreatment was sinking in. I told Uncle I’d come to the hospital now and visit Eddie. Uncle nodded sagely. He was pleased. Carlos could go hang himself.
There was a firm rap at the front door. Uncle, Mr Steinberg and I were taking breakfast in the kitchen. The ornamental plates in the big dresser shook. Nobody moved a muscle. I just knew it was Carlos. The blood throbbed in my ears. There was a second round of knocks. This time the person pummelled the door with their bare fists. Mr Steinberg looked alarmed. Uncle moved his fingers to his lips, to signal for silence. He didn’t like scenes. I certainly didn’t wish to confront Carlos. My knees trembled. I felt sure he could be violent. After what seemed simply ages, I heard solid shoes clacking back down the garden path. An oppressive pall of fear lifted from our breakfast table. Uncle picked up his fork again. Nothing needed to be said.
That afternoon, I received thirty-three text messages from Carlos. Some were pitiful, others were downright nasty. Carlos had suddenly found a voice and it was bitter. I felt hounded and blocked his number. This, no doubt, would enrage him further. I hated to think I’d attracted some crazy nut-job boyfriend. I showed some of the more lurid messages to Uncle. He sighed profoundly and scrabbled with his hands. He wanted to call the police. This thing, Uncle said, was altogether unacceptable, it was harassment. As we sat together in the lounge and sipped our sweet tea, I feared there’d be another rap at the door. This time Uncle would surely confront Carlos. The scene might turn ugly. There was absolutely no way I was going to reconcile with this deranged young man. We were over. I was glad.
Uncle said I was not to go to the corner shop alone. From now on, he would always escort me. That freak wouldn’t get near me, over his dead body. Uncle had drawn the line about calling the police. Nevertheless, he would remain vigilant, no one would be permitted to touch my precious skin. My bonkers ex-boyfriend, he insisted, belonged in the madhouse. I suspected he was correct. The offensive messages continued to pour in, despite blocking Carlos’ number. Uncle said he’d simply buy me a new phone. We sat companionably together online, choosing a new model. I felt protected. No one was going to penetrate the secure ring Uncle had set around me.
There was an imposing thud at the door, but it was only the courier delivery man with my new phone. I breathed heavily, and tore open the package. Carlos’ abusive messages had let up. Now they would stop altogether. Uncle advised that I should seek out another school where I could study law. The unfortunate incident with my boyfriend mustn’t be allowed to impair my educational ambitions. Uncle spoke slowly and sagely about my future. Mr Steinberg hemmed supportively from his chair. He didn’t blame me for attracting a deranged lover. I should put the whole fiasco behind me, and look ahead.
Eddie was sleeping. Rigid in his hospital bed. Fatigue had clawed around his eyes. I felt pity. Uncle gently shook Eddie’s shoulder. He moaned softly. Eddie’s hair was greasy, there was thick grime under his fingernails. Compared to Carlos, he was just a grubby boy. No caged birds fluttered in my heart. Uncle disappeared, in search of coffee. I felt uncomfortable, like I’d been set up. Eddie opened his eyes. Seeing me, he squirmed sleepily and flushed bright red. I asked some standard, polite questions about his health. It was awkward. Uncle returned clutching three styrofoam cups. I glugged down the boiling black beverage and choked on its bitterness. Uncle patted my back. We sat in silence. I was simply dying to go home.
On the way back to the car, Uncle threw me pregnant glances. I did not return his stare. He was clearly hoping I’d reunite with Eddie. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Yes, I was sorry for Eddie, but there was nothing romantic about the way I felt for him. We drove out of the horrible multi-storey carpark in stony silence. My phone buzzed. I glanced down at the huge screen. To my horror it was Carlos. At first I refused to understand. There was no way he could have possibly found my number. I read the message. It was mildly sinister. Like the words had been penned by a stalker. I told Uncle immediately. He was flabbergasted. This time, he insisted, the police should become involved. I felt sullied and shaken. Uncle drove erratically. He was anxious to get home and telephone the station at once. The bad stuff in my life was threatening to swamp me again. Hot tears pricked my eyes. Uncle spoke gently. Be brave, he said. We would get through this. We would nail the rat.
The police dutifully noted my complaint against Carlos. But it was clear that they had bigger fish to fry. Uncle cautioned me. I was never to reply to Carlos’ intimidating texts. However I should keep a log, for evidence. I quailed when I thought of the wrath that must be surging through Carlos’ veins. I tried not to let his awful insults wreak havoc in my soul. He had a peculiar talent for hitting the nerve. Every knock at the door shook me. I stopped leaving the house, unless it was essential. Mr Steinberg tried to comfort me. He assured me that Carlos was just a foolish, harmless boy stricken by an unrequited love. I couldn’t feel so certain. Carlos’ intensity was dangerous, breathtaking. He meant to have my scalp. To fillet me, to eat my organs. To squeeze out my eye balls.
Uncle suddenly proposed we go camping. Something entirely different, to lessen the pressing weight on our minds. I rebelled. Nothing disgusted me more than the idea of sleeping in a tent. Tree roots gnawing into my spine, fatuous camp songs and bloody toasted marshmallows. I’d always skipped such things at school, and didn’t intend starting now. But William and Mr Steinberg were clearly thrilled, so I supposed I’d have to go along. Uncle had chosen some godforsaken site in the Fens. It would certainly drizzle for a week, and be blindingly cold. Uncle announced that he’d already purchased an excellent primus stove. We were told to scrabble around for our sleeping bags. I bit my lower lip, drawing blood, and sulkily assembled some home comforts to fill my rucksack. We were to rise early, and drive away with the dawn.
The car ride was mundane. Tame fields bordering black asphalt, for miles and miles. We didn’t even stop for a caffeine fix. Like Uncle was trying to flee the scene of a crime. Soon the rain barrelled down. My heart sank into my boots. Suddenly William announced we were being followed by a red car. Uncle peered into his rear view mirror. My fingertips trembled. It was too horrible to imagine Carlos was tailgating us. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of the driver. Uncle slowed. It was a thickset hulk of a man at the wheel, wearing expensive shades. The epitome of a hitman. We moved into the slow lane, to let him pass. But he stayed glued to our bumper. Until Uncle dramatically veered off down a tiny slip road, and the scary red vehicle whizzed by.
I was totally shaken. Uncle had his fingers in his hair. He drove with one hand, crawling like a snail, beside a raised dyke. William started making whooping noises next to me. Naturally he couldn’t see the gravity of the situation. We limped along, into the heart of the rainy Fens. Uncle briefly pulled over onto the grassy verge, to consult Google maps. Our campsite was close by now. I felt the need of something reviving and sweet. I wondered if we might pass any village pubs, or even a small grocery store. It seemed unlikely. The rain was bucketing relentlessly upon us now. I wondered how we would erect our tent in this wet morass. Uncle slowed again. Through the windscreen wipers, I saw an uninviting gravel track and a weather-ravaged sign. We were here.
We parked beside an imposing shower block and waited for the rain to lessen. It never happened. Uncle said he would erect the tent alone. I watched him driving tent pegs into the swimming earth, brushing the water from his eyes. It took twenty minutes. Long enough to catch pneumonia. Uncle signalled that we leap from the car, straight into the tent. Mr Steinberg was understandably slow. I couldn’t imagine what this was going to do for his health. Uncle had laid the ground sheet, but I could still feel the squelch of mud beneath my knees. It promised to be an uncomfortable night. The canvas flapped whilst Uncle lit the primus stove. A hot meal would cheer us. Uncle sneezed. He needed to change out of his sopping clothes. They steamed in the muggy claustrophobic space.
At night rainwater oozed into my sleeping bag. Mr Steinberg coughed hoarsely, preventing real rest. I slept a little, just before sunrise, when the rain finally eased. Later, quietly, I unzippered the tent, and stepped outside. The whole world was glazed with grey puddles. I seriously doubted we’d be able to dry all our clobber. There wasn’t another soul about. Nobody was lunatic enough to camp in this flood. Suddenly I resented all the ridiculous drama, and wished we could have stayed safely at home in our beds. It was mizzling now, in a forlorn, spent-up kind of way. Uncle was suddenly standing beside me. He draped a surprisingly dry blanket around my shoulders, and smirked. I knew he was thinking about coffee and breakfast. He was a stalwart man. He would fight for me. I felt safe. No deranged boyfriend was going to breach his guard.
Mr Steinberg had cracked a pill bottle, scattering his medicines everywhere. We’d need to seek out an emergency doctor, who could write him another prescription. I scrabbled about inside the tent and recovered half a dozen capsules. This would tide Mr Steinberg over, until we could get to a doctor’s surgery. I pleaded with Uncle. We must go into a motel. These conditions were simply too hostile for Mr Steinberg’s health. He’d already developed a nasty bronchial wheeze. I told Uncle this whole thing was a foolhardy endeavour. He bristled for a moment, then nodded resignedly. We would pack up our gear and seek more clement quarters.
It was so good to be dry, and to get a hot shower. The sheets on my bed were crisp and smelt of soap. I had to share with William, but even that was welcome. I suspected that Mr Steinberg was heartily pleased. He and Uncle were in the adjacent room. Outside, the rain still deluged down, but it was toothless. When the windowpanes grew misty, I turned the heating up a notch. Uncle had ordered takeout. There was boisterous rap at the door. I felt nervous. But it was only the delivery boy. William grabbed at the brown paper bags. I slapped his fingers and said I’d serve. There were chopsticks and plastic spoons. Opening the tinfoil carton was divine. We dug in, like malnourished street urchins. William glowed.
Beside the reception area, a tall, swarthy youth slunk in the semi-darkness. My heart flapped wildly. He looked remarkably like Carlos, the whole lazy posture, the brooding intensity in the shoulders. But there was absolutely no way Carlos could have followed us here. Uncle guessed my mind, and tugged at my elbow. We’d paid up for the night. It was exorbitant. The next thing to consider was breakfast. Despite the heavy evening meal I’d devoured, my stomach gnawed. William would surely be feeling ravenous. The motel manager had recommended a simple cafe two miles down the road. I was gagging for my fix of strong, bitter coffee. I felt burning eyes on me. The disturbing youth was looking me up and down. Could he be spying? I brushed away the absurd idea. Uncle hurried me towards the car. Mr Steinberg and William sat in the back. We edged from the kerb, and Uncle steered into the deserted street.
Uncle wanted us to enjoy the ultimate wetland experience. We would go to the Fenland capital, Ely. The name spoke everything; mud, water, slithery things. I hated all these mundane, submerged places. Uncle enthused about Ely’s historic cathedral. I couldn’t have been more indifferent. I only hoped our accommodation would be comfortably dry. On cue, the rain started to haemorrhage from the skies. The wiper blades swished madly and all windows fogged. William complained loudly of car sickness. Uncle drove valiantly, statuesque at the wheel, his fingers gripping tightly onto the worn leather. Nobody uttered a syllable. Only the rain spoke incessantly, tapping away like a mad metronome. I thought I might become mad.
The opportunities to sightsee were negligible. Even with sturdy umbrellas and serious hiking boots, we’d soon become bedraggled river rats. Uncle suggested we take our time over an early lunch. We’d select some cosy accommodation. I leapt impulsively from the car, meaning to dart under cover. However, I took a tumble on a slippery flagstone and smashed my lip. Uncle fished me up, supporting me under the armpits. I was a sopping mess. My upper lip stung. I pulled out my compact to survey the damage. I looked like an abused child. Uncle told me to swallow some painkillers he had. I was so glad it wasn’t Mr Steinberg who’d fallen. My face began to feel numb. I felt sure strangers must be looking at me curiously, mumbling shocked asides. The ugly food court was teeming. We sat at a corner table, away from the throng. I felt bilious. I ordered sparkling mineral water, and watched my family eat. The nausea inside me raged and my disfiguring injury throbbed.
I was dizzy. My whole face felt swollen. Uncle said it was simply hunger. I must eat. I ran my forefinger across my upper lip. It had ballooned up even more. I began to shield my face with my whole hand. In the city centre, we checked into a luxurious hotel. I had my own room. Uncle drew the curtains and insisted I rest. I had a horrible crunchy headache. Apparently I looked pale and drawn. Uncle left me, promising to organize a doctor’s consultation. I could hear Uncle fussing with the Do Not Disturb sign outside, before sleep swamped me like a flood.
When I awoke, the swelling had abated. I inspected my face carefully in the mirror. It was passable. I had a ravenous appetite. I figured I’d be able to eat, with only minor discomfort. I rang the switchboard and asked for Uncle’s room. His groggy, dishevelled voice came on the line. Uncle was delighted to hear I felt so much better. He’d throw on some clothes and we’d all go down for breakfast. I had this overwhelming craving for grilled bacon. My vegan sensibilities were severely challenged. Flushed with shame, I squeezed on my sneakers, and took the lift to the lobby.
I ate immodestly. Although I never touched any meat. At the last moment, it repulsed me. Uncle was still piping on about the magnificent cathedral. A visit seemed unavoidable. I regretted that rain was no longer tumbling from the heavens. As we stood in the foyer, Mr Steinberg was complaining of a sore back. He’d stay back in his room and recuperate. I wondered if I might concoct some tall story about facial pain. But I didn’t think anyone would believe me, after my glutinous display over breakfast. Suddenly, William asked if there’d be gargoyles. This surprised me. My mind simmered with devilish images. With a considerable spring in my step, I bounced into the cobblestone street. Uncle led the way.
The cathedral was an unmitigated bore. We stood by the sombre altarpiece, it chilled my bones. Uncle insisted we scrawl our names in the visitor’s book. He popped a five pound note in the donation box. There was scaffolding everywhere. It detracted from the spiritual experience. William said his stomach was chewing at him. I prayed the rest of Ely wasn’t such a complete drag. Suddenly some choristers were singing in treble voices. They’d materialized out of nowhere. The unearthly melody reached out and kissed my heart. It made me want to cry uncontrollably. Sunlight caught in the achingly beautiful stain-glass window. I understood everything. A thousand years of prayer. And then the music died.
We found a faceless restaurant not far from the cathedral. I barely noticed when lunch was served to us. Small talk surged and swam around my ears. I couldn’t listen. I’d had a higher experience. I wanted to share it with Uncle, but he was burbling some tiresome football nonsense with William. Mr Steinberg was eyeing me curiously. I could tell he knew. Only he was in touch with his spiritual side. I didn’t want the glow to subside, or get swamped below all the mundane stuff. I wondered if I’d become religious now. Attend church services. Give praise. No, my bright chip of heaven would simply sink deeper into my soul. I’d never ever forget it.
When we got back to the hotel, Mr Steinberg immediately collapsed into his plush leather chair. He was clearly shattered. Mr Steinberg’s room was nicer than mine, although I was disturbed at the number of pill bottles on his dresser. I whispered softly to Uncle. This trip was unnecessarily tiring our dear grandfather. We should pack up now and head back to London. It was hard to judge if Mr Steinberg was hiding his pain, but I suspected it was so. Uncle was aggrieved to pack-in our holiday so soon, when we’d only touched the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. According to him, the Fens were a wonderland of earthly delights. However Uncle agreed, glancing tenderly at Mr Steinberg now asleep in his chair, snug as an oriental cat. Suddenly a startling image of Carlos leapt into my head. I felt my blood pressure soar. Carlos was reclined moodily beside our post box at home. His hair was wildly dishevelled. Rain dripped from his black jacket. It was like a vigil. He would be waiting there for me.
We checked out quickly, and Uncle drove us to London by the speediest route. It was all flat green broads, without even the slightest suggestion of a hill. When the urban sprawl began to hem us in, the city girl in me rejoiced. I hadn’t shared my troubling vision with Uncle. My stomach was cramped up with jitters and nerves. The traffic ahead of us slowed, and ground to a halt. The last twenty miles would be a hideous crawl. Mr Steinberg was surprisingly jaunty. I think it was relief. He told spooky stories while Uncle tapped the steering wheel in frustration, and the car’s radiator heated up. When we finally snailed into our lane, I looked around nervously for signs of Carlos. The street was completely deserted. Relief washed over me. It had been a harmless spectre I’d seen. Carlos wasn’t so mad after all. I helped Mr Steinberg prize himself from the back seat and turned my key nimbly in the door.
Something in me expected to find the house trashed. But everything was perfectly in its place. The only addition was a fine layer of white dust which coated everything. Uncle went off to relight the boiler, whilst I made hot tea. The tent gear had been haphazardly stacked in the hallway. I felt certain it would languish there for some time. I boiled the kettle. To my horror, a maroon envelope was balanced beside the teapot. My name was printed on the back and front, in a bold calligraphic hand. There could be no doubt. The writer was Carlos.
There was no sign of forced entry. Uncle double-checked all the doors and windows. I came to a horrible conclusion. Carlos must have the key. Uncle immediately telephoned the locksmith. He’d have everything changed. Carlos must have burgled my pockets and made a duplicate key. It felt like a violation. I opened the envelope. Inside was a beautifully ornate card. A single rose, frozen by winter. There were no words, excepting a large C and three exact kisses. I shivered. Uncle was saying how he’d get me some pepper spray. I knew this would not deter Carlos. Because he was crazed.
Uncle was resolved. He would give Carlos a serious clobbering. I thought the idea was immensely foolhardy. Uncle underestimated Carlos’ insanity. I told him so. But the police were lame. Matters, Uncle insisted, would need to be taken into his hands. Uncle would employ a rough, to lend credibility, and really rattle Carlos. I didn’t like to think where such a pair of fists would be procured. I had real qualms about this bloodstained venture. However I gave Uncle the address. I had no pity for Carlos. He’d dirtied my soul, and drowned me in fear. I craved for revenge.
I waited up for Uncle. It was past midnight when his key turned in the lock. Uncle was nursing his left hand. I asked him to open it out. His knuckles were caked with blood. They looked horribly beaten up. I rushed upstairs to get some antiseptic cream, so I could salve Uncle’s wounds. I felt certain Uncle’s fist had collided with Carlos’ jaw. Uncle was craggily silent whilst I tended the injury. I delicately bandaged his hand in some soft gauze. Uncle cleared his throat and mumbled gratefully. The matter was dealt with, he suddenly announced, in a dark, brooding voice. Our eyes met. Something bloodstained passed between us. I was glad.
A pall of silence hung over the house. Like some dirty secret that couldn’t be shared. I listened carefully to news hour on the radio. I waited to hear shocking stories about the discovery of a body. However no such report came over the air waves. I dared not ask Uncle directly. I was morbidly curious about the accomplice. I imagined some meat-headed villain with blood-splashed knuckle dusters. Carlos’ face would be mashed. I struggled not to feel sorry for him, reminding myself of Carlos’ unhinged behaviour. I never wished to see the boy again. Uncle had done right. He was my saviour.
I expected the police to come thumping at our door. Images of Uncle handcuffed, being thrust into the back of a squad car, infested my head. I simply had to ask. How badly did Uncle maul my crazy ex-boyfriend? At first, there was only a painful, protracted silence. Then Uncle scrabbled with his feet, cleared his throat hoarsely, and stared straight into my eyes. I knew this meant bad news. Carlos, Uncle said, had been punched to the floor by the tough, then subjected to some brutal kicks. They’d both exited the flat at that stage. Uncle had spied blood spilling from Carlos’ open mouth. I insisted that we go now and investigate further. Carlos might be lying dead in a pool of blood and vomit. I couldn’t have this hanging over our heads. We weren’t thugs or murderers. We were decent law-abiding citizens. I grabbed my light coat. Uncle and I would rush to Carlos’ flat right now and ascertain that he was alive. It was a mercy mission, a necessary evil. Nothing more.
I buzzed the intercom. Uncle was clenching his teeth. My stomach had hardened into a block of ice. Unmistakably, there were feet on the staircase. Behind the frosted glass, I could clearly see Carlos outlined in silhouette. This was the only proof I needed. It was time for Uncle and I to flee. I broke into a tremendous sprint, turning the street corner before Carlos had even edged his door open. Uncle was more tardy. He’d certainly be spotted. Carlos should be given absolutely no encouragement. I was a brief episode in his sick life. We’d never ever be resurrected. I bent, to ease the stitch in my side. Uncle appeared beside me, panting rapidly. He nodded a breathless affirmative. Our task was achieved.
The constriction in my chest was gone. I felt I could breathe easy. Nobody would be arrested, or get carted away to jail. Uncle, however, feared he’d been seen. With some luck, Carlos would be too afraid to pursue matters further. He might even think Uncle was there to inflict more injuries. I couldn’t accept this, as Uncle was clearly escaping the scene. In my soul, I was certain we hadn’t seen the last of Carlos. Carlos was smart. He would deduce things. The merest inkling of my pity would be bait to him. He would think he could hook me. A spasm of fear shook me. The nightmare wasn’t over.
We sat in the dining room together. I was extremely restless and scrabbled my fingers. Expecting a spooky rap at the door. Even screaming, bloodshed. I gazed vacantly at Mr Steinberg. He was rugged up in his favourite chair. I focussed, and spied a ripple of pain flicker across Mr Steinberg’s face. Uncle hadn’t told him about our recent drama. The poor man mustn’t be worried unnecessarily. Secretly I wished I could tell sensitive Mr Steinberg everything. He would empathize, and put things into perspective. Mr Steinberg caught me gawping his way. Embarrassed, I asked if he’d like some hot tea. That’d be just the thing. Mr Steinberg’s antique phrases made me smile. I was safe now. The storm couldn’t encroach on us here.
At first, I didn’t wish to leave the house. I couldn’t imagine Carlos would hold me hostage, but I did think he might be lingering around outside. Uncle, I could tell, suspected much the same thing. He eagerly took out the washing, went to the corner store, did everything, so I was safe inside. I began to feel cooped up. I knew the danger, but this awful incarceration clawed at my soul. I grew positively ratty. I blasted at William, for playing noisily with his computer games. I even pinched Mr Steinberg’s arm, when he snored like a construction site. I paced the hallway, until I ploughed a track in the threadbare carpet. Surely, when covering darkness fell, it’d be safe to take a stroll around the block. Uncle could chaperone me. I fitted on my most comfortable boots and waited for nightfall.
Uncle and I circuited the darkened neighbourhood. Occasionally street lamps shone brightly on us. There wasn’t a soul about. We tramped back over the common. Shadows of trees towered over me, until I was petrified. Uncle clutched my hand. I felt like I was going to need victim counselling. Panic was building in my throat. I tore my hand away from Uncle. Palpitations overcame me. I was running wildly. I could hear Uncle shouting. It didn’t matter.
I had no recollection of how I limped back home. I was collapsed by the front door, when Uncle came jogging up, scarlet-faced, clutching his side. Breathlessly, Uncle enquired after me. He was worried sick. I’d scared him to death. Uncle looked positively ghastly. I think I was pale as a spectre too, because Uncle draped his jacket across my shoulders, and gently coaxed me inside. When Mr Steinberg saw my shivery, shaking self, he embraced me tenderly. This started the waterworks. The tears welled from my eyes like they would never cease. I wondered vaguely if I was having a mental episode. Of course Uncle made hot sweet tea. Slowly I was composing myself. The worst was over. My heart, which had been thumping like a wild jack rabbit, calmed. Mr Steinberg cocooned me in his favourite blanket, and kissed my forehead. It would be alright now.
Uncle surprised me. I thought he was going to demand I take an immediate psychiatric evaluation. Instead, he was bluff and non-judgmental. He even ordered me a special tofu basmati curry, instead of my usual Friday veggie burger and chips. Uncle emptied the tin foil carton himself, and placed my favourite oriental blue bowl in my lap. My face stopped burning with shame. When William came in, he took a long critical leer at me, but he spoke no cruel words. My embarrassing episode would be overlooked. Uncle, however, insisted that my protection be upscaled. Carlos was a toxic cockroach. Not even his shadow would be permitted to cast its obnoxious influence over me.
Uncle loaded our larders with premium foods. I knew this was his way of alleviating stress. Uncle didn’t expect me to slave over the kitchen stove. In fact I caught him studying some complex recipes online. Mr Steinberg was constantly nattering when I sat myself in the lounge. His beautiful son Moshe was planning a trip to London. We could all expect to see him here pretty soon. This warmed my soul, and for a while I forgot my disgraceful weakness. But wild imagination nagged at me. Carlos lurked like a dirty secret in my soul. Sometimes I’d hear his hoarse, chiding voice inside my head. It was hatefully alarming. The kind voices of my family were dimmed. Carlos grew menacing. He was so angry, shouting.
It slowly became evident that Carlos didn’t plan to bother me. There were no moody shadows lurching in the porch, no menacing phone calls. Uncle had truly scared him off. I could get my life back on track now. Something deep inside me had been unsettled, but surely I could be restored. My family were supportive, in fact over-protective. Even William was chipping in, washing the dishes, pegging the laundry up. I looked on in amused amazement. Uncle asked that I remain in the house with him. We didn’t want to rattle my nerves, bring on a panic attack. I agreed. Small steps, Uncle gently encouraged, would bring me on the road to full recovery.
Mr Steinberg ventured out one morning and purchased me a huge puzzle. It must have had a million pieces. Ordinarily I’d have frowned at such trivial things, but this one captured my imagination. It depicted a craggy lighthouse, perched atop a beetling cliff. Mr Steinberg was an old veteran when it came to puzzles. We set up an appropriate table, and I emptied out the contents of the box. It was completely befuddling. Mr Steinberg told me to look for edges first. Slowly we built up a frame, before sifting through the other myriad pieces. I was completely consumed. Uncle came across and gazed at our project. It was nightfall when Mr Steinberg cast a white sheet over our work. This was the most fabulous therapy. We’d barely completed an eighth of the puzzle. Already I longed for tomorrow.
I was wide awake, before grey light even crept behind the curtains. I tiptoed downstairs, but the staircase creaked, and I heard Mr Steinberg turn in his slumber. I drew back the white sheet and gazed hard at the puzzle. I swore to solve twenty pieces before anyone came down. I needed strong black coffee. The kettle boiled noisily and I mixed myself a scalding beverage. I took it cautiously to the table, and threw an assessing glance over the board. I’d snapped in three pieces when I heard Uncle padding downstairs. This was disappointing. I had wanted to impress Mr Steinberg. Quickly I cast the white cloth back over the puzzle, and leapt into Mr Steinberg’s favourite chair. Uncle was alarmed to see me. I promised him I’d slept beautifully. Uncle shot me a probing glance, before he was satisfied. He asked what I’d like for breakfast. I said avocado and vinaigrette on rye toast. Uncle’s eyebrows shot up. But this would buy me enough time to click a couple more puzzle pieces. Because I really wanted to wow Mr Steinberg.
When breakfast was ready, I had fourteen puzzle pieces in place. This was scintillating stuff. Mr Steinberg would be so proud of me. He hadn’t appeared yet, so Uncle and I tucked into our elaborate meal. I craved for another strong brew. My focus was ebbing. I needed a firm pick-me-up. I could sense that Uncle was nervous. Surely he was pleased that I was consumed by something wholesome. He kept itching his thumb and finger, and picking at the tips of his nails. Finally I asked. It seemed a suspicious package had arrived late yesterday. It was addressed to me. From the smouldering fire in Uncle’s eyes, I could tell it was something bad. I didn’t need to ask. I knew who the sender was.
Uncle disposed of the parcel immediately. I was curious, however, and wanted to fish it out of the bin. What could Carlos possibly have sent me? I prayed it wasn’t some body part, like Van Gogh’s ear. That would be too gross. It chilled me. Soon I was tearing at the brown tape. Inside were dozens of soft red fabric hearts. Each one was skewered by a large pin. Uncle gawped over my shoulder at the loathsome thing. I dropped the box back into the garbage can and fled inside.
Uncle announced we would have a bonfire. The offending article would be tossed in the flames. William ached to throw the unspeakable parcel into the fire. All afternoon Uncle broke up old cardboard boxes stored in the garage. He collected some dry tinder from the reserve. We would have a rare blaze. When night fell, Uncle sprinkled gasoline over the wood pile and threw in a lighted brand. Blue tongues crackled and popped, until bright flames leapt into the black vault of the sky. William stood ready. He swung his arms and the battered package spun into the fire. It was instantly consumed, burning with a red rage. I stepped up triumphantly, and warmed my hands, by the dancing conflagration.
A pile of dirty ashes was all I could see in the morning. There were no charred red hearts, like grotesque runny marshmallows. Even the gruesome pins had melted away. Uncle raked carefully through the dirt with me. He wanted the disturbing episode put behind us. Never once did Uncle mention the police. Noon came. I wondered what Carlos planned to do next. Surely he would try to talk with me. Plead for my heart. The idea was repellent. I hated to think he’d come and stand by the door, and beg pathetically. He would grow desperate, then violent. Uncle wouldn’t be able to contain Carlos’ rage. Blood would flow. My blood.
I grew insomniac. Lying tense in my bed, sleep evaded me. When I’d nearly nodded off, Carlos was bending across me. I could smell the malice wafting from his body. Startled, I sat up abruptly in bed, my heart pounding, tears springing into my eyes. Uncle got me some heavy-duty sleeping pills. I took them resolutely. They didn’t work. A bitter flavour in the mouth was their only legacy. My hands began to tremble. I couldn’t control the shakes. I’d sit over breakfast and eat nothing. My eyes had become red and vacant. If Carlos came now, the mere pressure of his fingertip would have made me disintegrate.
The stranger was coaxing me to go with him. It was a trick. My head swam and voices reverberated. I thought there was a nurse. Her clenched teeth were terrifying. I fled, but strong arms grasped at me. I felt a savage stabbing in my arm. I went limp as a fish. Blackness. Paralysis. Gradually, like a movie reel flickering on. An ambulance. My wrists and ankles strapped down. I couldn’t cry out. I knew now. It was the funny farm for me.
The cream painted walls were peppered with disgracefully obscene graffiti. There wasn’t any window. The plank bed was biting viciously into my back. My wrists were still strapped firmly down. Nobody was coming. I listened hard, but I couldn’t hear a single sound behind the padded door. They must all think me mad. I needed a qualified medical professional right now. I would persuade him of my sanity, and go peacefully home. In the broody silence, I dwelt miserably on what a life of incarceration might be like. The tears began to flow. I needed Uncle desperately. What dire things must he be thinking now?
The psychiatrist released my hands. He had shrewd, knowing eyes. His questions were basic. How was I feeling today? Did I want to self-harm? I explained how I was much recovered and wished to go home now. Dr Strong, that was his name, scrawled notes on a big yellow jotter. He nodded wisely, as if to himself. I would be observed for a fortnight initially. My restraints could be removed. A course of powerful anti-depressants had been prescribed. Dr Strong encouraged me to tell my story. But it was muddled in my mind. I struggled to explain and got hopelessly lost, until my tale guttered into abject silence. Dr Strong patted my shoulder understandingly, and smiled a sympathetic smile. A nurse entered briskly. The doctor must continue his rounds. I was given a sedative. The padded door slammed shut behind them. Big keys grated in the lock. Panic rose in my throat. Until the pills quelled my anxiety and I could sleep.
Dr Strong told me to take my meals in the communal dining room. I was mostly bilious from the drugs. Eating was far from my troubled mind. The other patients were heavily sedated. None of them spoke. They shuffled to a seat with their trays, old and insane. Some just stared emptily, until a nurse brought their food. I wasn’t allowed visitors. This seemed unnecessarily cruel. Dr Strong said it would interfere with my recovery. I didn’t feel mad anymore. I would plead to be released. Surely I couldn’t be forcibly kept. A bespectacled nurse came over to me. I should eat at least a little of my custard tart, she urged. I barked no. She backed away. Instinctively I knew this would be held against me. Notes would be taken.
I sought refuge in the TV lounge. It was cheerful and freshly painted. However an obese scraggy patient took up the entire sofa. He stank. Drool hung from his bottom lip. I could tell the man was on the brink. He was mouthing gibberish and growing ever louder. He beat his flat palm on the arm rest to a crazy rhythm. It wasn’t safe here. I turned on my heel and left the room. My psychiatrist was stood there smiling. Like he’d been expecting me. With a beckoning finger, he summoned me to his consulting room. The thought of another two-hour long consultation was unendurable. Nevertheless I followed him like a lamb. I knew I’d be scolded for my bad attitude. I was invited to sit and the door clicked shut behind me.
Did I remember how I’d struck my grandfather? I had broken his nose. Dr Strong adjusted his spectacles awkwardly. This couldn’t be true. It was appalling. I hadn’t the foggiest idea why Dr Strong would tell such whopping lies. Aghast, the tears flowed down my cheeks. But this would explain why I’d had no visitors. They were frightened of my rages and what harm I might do. I was sobbing hysterically now. Dr Strong was asking if I’d like a tranquilliser. I just wanted to dash back to my room and howl. It was the worst moment of my life. I was a crazed bitch. Everyone would hate me. Powerful arms were guiding me. Restraints were being placed on my wrists. The world swam. A black fog fell out of the sky.
I felt certain that I’d been knocked out for a considerable time. I wouldn’t have been surprised if days or weeks had passed. My wrists were red and sore. I’d thrashed around, until it was clear there could be no escape. Dr Strong never once came. Nurses took my vitals. They rarely spoke. I was ravenous. No meals were delivered. It felt like I was being punished. I craved for decadent cream pastries. Uncle would have found me some, only he hated me now. He’d be nursing Mr Steinberg’s broken nose. Appalled at the hideous thing I’d done.
Dr Strong put in a brief appearance. He was going to adjust my medication. There might be some unwelcome side effects. I should expect to feel nauseous. I must be prepared to experience extreme fatigue. I knew I was Dr Strong’s guinea pig. Clearly he had a powerful professional interest in my case. I asked if visitors were permitted. He was categorical. I must allow for some time to recover without external distractions. It would be a week before my new regime of medicines kicked in. Freedom receded into a murky future time. My restraints, however, would be removed. Dr Strong made me promise not to take advantage of these new privileges. He was risking his career. If I ran amok, his colleagues would slaughter him. I swore to behave appropriately. Dr Strong smiled benignly at this. He gave me an appraising look-over, buttoned his white coat thoughtfully, and was gone.
An inept student doctor struggled to find a vein. Eventually she jabbed the back of my hand, and drained her phial of blood. She apologized profusely. She had cold trembling fingers. Then came the relentless questions. Always probing, often impertinent. I just wanted this inquisition to end. I really wasn’t so enthralling. It was not necessary to compile volumes about me. After a gruelling hour, I was released. I plonked myself in the foyer to recuperate. The other crazies milled around me. Hospital was exhausting. Dr Strong would be starting his rounds shortly. More questions. I simply had to get discharged.
A nurse chided me. She was an old sour apple. I should launder my clothes. I must go into the games room, and socialize. I felt compelled, in case she reported me. There was a ping-pong and snooker table. In a threadbare chair a bedraggled man was painting the black cue ball white. It was a rebellious statement. Two heavily-medicated females in their nighties played a lifeless game of table tennis. Their movements were rigid and joyless. I felt repulsed. The TV was blasting. Nobody was even watching it. Lunch would be coming soon. I could sense it was on people’s minds. A nurse poked her head around the door. We were summoned. I heard the metallic lunch cart trundling down the narrow corridor. I formed a line with the other slippered zombies. It was time to dine.
I had earned a new privilege. The right to walk in the enclosed garden. It seemed like a fabulous freedom. There was a dewy loveliness about the manicured lawns. Bees hummed among the foxgloves. You could forget here. However there were electric fences behind the neat box hedges. It would be impossible to slip away. One thing tainted the scene. All the patients smoked like industrial chimneys. Instead of a beautiful sundial, there was an ash can spilling stinky butt ends. It smelt obscene. Briskly, I returned inside. Dr Strong’s back was hurrying away from me. Some emergency. I went to fetch a hot chocolate from the kitchen. I felt relieved. There’d be no tiresome consult today.
I stepped out of the lift, and nearly trod on a tall young man. The soles of his feet were immensely filthy. He lay rigid like a wooden plank. The nurses were sat at their stations, entirely ignoring him. I thought it must be some outlandish prank.
Until I sneaked a look into the young man’s eyes. They were blown, expressing absolute horror. His beautiful face was smeared with grubby tears. He couldn’t be much older than me. I wanted to understand the madness that rioted in his mind. He fascinated and frightened me. Suddenly a nurse barked my way. This wasn’t a side show. At that, I hopped adroitly over the young man’s legs, and waltzed down the shabby corridor, going to my room.
The woman who always wore a paint-splotched boiler suit was screaming. It was a thin lamentable wail, like she was in acute agony. As usual, the nurses were utterly indifferent. Heads down, nothing stopped their obsessive note taking. I hammered on the desk of their work station, pointing urgently at the suffering patient. Frostily, I was instructed to hush up. The crying got louder. The poor woman had urinated on the floor. This place was a hell hole. I didn’t think I could console the lady. So I hurdled a chair, and went to hide in my room. My nerves were absolutely frayed. My illness had deepened. The insufferable bedlam was destroying my soul.
Dr Strong thought my recovery had slowed. He upped my medication, to quell the rabid fire inside. I felt dreadfully woozy, detached from the world. My favourite thing was to sit in the kitchen and slurp tepid tea. I always had a companion. A middle-aged woman who constantly wore pink and thought herself pregnant. She spoke to the air. I didn’t mind. Strewn across the table were worn puzzle books. I glanced inside them, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the clues. I would surely degenerate here, until my mind became a hollow kernel. The most appalling thing was that nobody was going to rescue me.
I was to be transferred to another ward. The news blighted my day. Just when I trusted Dr Strong, and I could tolerate the disturbing quirks of my fellow patients. The plan seemed wholly nonsensical. My new psychiatrist was named Dr Manson, like the killer. He already gave me the shivers. Dr Strong would introduce us. I knew I was a fascinating curio. The two doctors would share knowing glances and dismember my broken life. Dr Strong cautioned me gently about the new ward. It was older, strangely quaint. The clients there were comparatively mellow. I disliked the entire notion of a change. It would be galling to repeat my whole history to a new quack. Dr Strong, however, told me to assemble my few belongings. The transfer would take place that evening. He stamped an official document, squiggled his signature, and politely showed me the door.
Dr Manson was marginally obese, bespectacled, and very gentle. His cubby-hole office didn’t reflect his seniority. Dr Manson was chief-of-staff. He asked me how I was adapting to the new ward. Frankly the place was a slum, but I didn’t say that. I nodded obligingly and struggled to look sane. Mercifully Dr Manson didn’t ask me to retell my story. He’d read my notes, he said, and had a grasp of things. I only needed to fill in the gaps for him. He was chill, amenable. I took a strong liking to his double chin and kind piggy eyes.
I liked the shabby kitchen area. In it sat the most bizarre man. He always wore a smart corduroy jacket and absurd khaki shorts. He carried a tan briefcase at all times. He’d park himself in the seat opposite me, and scan through the financial pages of the newspaper, noting down stock market fluctuations. I felt certain he had no shares. He never spoke to me. Once I accidentally went into his room, which was right next to mine. There was a huge blasting TV and scuba gear on the floor. He lay on his bed, consumed by some silly sitcom. I apologized profusely and shuffled back into the corridor, closing his door softly. I didn’t even know his name.
I had gained many insights into the human condition. What I saw was mostly alarming. Obsessiveness, downright strangeness, enormous vulnerability. I didn’t think I had ever been crazy. I could still rationalize, and conduct sensible intercourse with my kindly psychiatrist. The pills no longer fogged my head. I grew immensely bored of my incarceration. There were no flashbacks. I began to think the story about Mr Steinberg was some terrible mistake. I wondered if I might telephone Uncle and get some clarity. I didn’t know why I hadn’t considered this earlier. I would ask Dr Manson. The whole thing must be resolved. My life was ebbing away in this hideous dungeon. I needed my freedom urgently.
I provided Dr Manson with Uncle’s cell phone number. I watched my doctor key in the digits on his dial pad. I listened breathlessly, and clearly heard a canned message. This number was no longer in service. It couldn’t be. Uncle always boasted how he’d kept the same number for decades. Dr Manson dialled again. The same thing happened. I felt squeamish about calling Mr Steinberg. He probably hated me now. I thought about my brother. But he wouldn’t answer an unknown number. In any case, it seemed cowardly to involve him. What about an email, Dr Manson chipped in. This seemed the next best possible course. Wording it proved to be an emotional minefield. I tried not to be too formal, or sappy, or simply pathetic. Dr Manson hemmed. He said he was satisfied. We clicked SEND. The email wasn’t returned. Dr Manson promised to let me know immediately, should there be a reply. I was dismissed.
Uncle wrote that he didn’t wish to speak to me. I was unprepared for this, and wept. Dr Manson handed me a tissue and stared. My misery was complete. Ostracized from my family, I was nothing. I might live out my meaningless existence in a one-bedroom council flat, never breaking a smile, speaking to no one. I had seen these sorry communities. The sad deranged women in horrible woolly hats, their faces clawed by unbearable emptiness. This could not be me.
As the vacant days passed, I felt my resolve dwindle. Shamefully I’d started taking an afternoon nap, something I only associated with decrepit old grannies. After my upset, Dr Manson had prescribed stronger medicines. They made me nastily woozy. I felt my waist thickening. The food was greasy and revolting. I piled on the pounds. There was a fractured mirror in my room, the glass in the bathroom was utterly smashed. So it was hard to judge exactly, but my tightening clothes didn’t lie. The glossy sheen in my hair was dying. My eyes felt like lead weights. I wondered when the institutionalized dribbling mouth would come.
Dr Manson wanted me to transition into the community. I would be allocated emergency council housing. A wellness plan was drawn up. A mental-health nurse was put on my case. A slot was fixed for us to meet. Dr Manson clearly thought this was an event of biblical magnitude. My nurse’s name was Roseanne Donaldson. She sounded like a fool. She would visit my new home, and monitor me for lapses. I didn’t welcome this kind of scrutiny. I already regretted the inevitable need to recount my whole life story. Like he saw my mutinous thoughts, Dr Manson made me promise to be an exemplary patient. Reluctantly I swore to behave beautifully. Dr Manson smiled, and dismissed me.
Fortunately my bank cards were intact. I remembered all my online passwords. My available balance was more than healthy. There were small necessities to buy, and I needed a new phone. I couldn’t recall what had befallen my old mobile. I asked Dr Manson if I might visit a supermarket before my discharge. He readily agreed. The place was heaving with rushed customers. I felt panic reach up into my throat. My nurse Roseanne guided me along the aisles. I found it difficult to choose. I dithered for ages by the cheeses. I couldn’t remember what variety I liked. There was a slim choice of phones. Finally, I selected the most expensive one. In the car, Roseanne grappled with the tiny SIM card, until I was finally connected. Roseanne keyed her number into the empty contacts list. I was ready. We would go now, and investigate my new digs.
Roseanne warmed me that the flat would probably be shabby. These properties, she explained, were all built in the 1950’s and weren’t properly maintained. The walls were usually scrawled with graffiti and spider mould clung to the cornices. Invariably the rooms would feel refrigerated. Damp would blacken the crumbling plasterwork. It didn’t sound like the ideal spot to recuperate and mentally heal. Roseanne had some surplus royal blue paint tins at home, she said, if I felt like home-decorating. The whole idea was repugnant. I wasn’t the kind of girl who shimmied up ladders and got her jeans and hands blotched. I would rather sit among the sordid mess and dwell on my broken world.
When I returned to the ward my lead nurse told me I’d had a visitor. A young man. My heart shrank and throbbed wildly. Carlos. But she was quick to allay my fears. The boy had left a note. It was Eddie. I was touched by his indestructible loyalty. No matter how I rebuffed his multiple kindnesses, Eddie was always there for me. I was so sad to have missed him. Fortunately Eddie had scrawled down his phone number and promised to come again. I felt the tears prickling my eyes. I would ring Eddie after dinner. Maybe he could shed some light on Uncle’s indescribably cruel silence.
Eddie had no information. Uncle had been particularly tight-lipped. Almost like he was nurturing some distasteful secret, that is what Eddie said. Eddie wanted to come round immediately, but visiting hours were over, and the nurses were most fastidious. I felt certain he’d be here the next morning with flowers and candy. It touched my broken soul. If Eddie kissed me now I wouldn’t reject him. I went to rinse my face before bed. There was some disturbance at the nurse’s desk. It barely bothered me. I shrugged off these crazy scenes now.
I waited in the visitor’s lounge all morning. Eddie never appeared. This was perplexing. I was sure I exerted romantic leverage in Eddie’s heart, and he wouldn’t miss a chance to meet up with me. I began to suspect Uncle had said something to discourage Eddie. I had a strong urge to boot the skirting board viciously. My only ally in this shocking mess had slipped out of reach. Suddenly a nurse scurried in. She was looking for me. My man friend, she smirked breathlessly, was stood down in the lobby. I should go to him now. I collected my thoughts and ambled up the passage. Lunch had just started in the dining hall. I didn’t wish to miss a meal and hoped they’d keep mine aside. I spotted Eddie hunched by one of the ornamental metal sculptures, looking rather sheepish. I prepared a big smile, and went over to address him.
Eddie had hammered on Uncle’s door. It was some time before it was edged open. Eddie had spied boxes piled high in the hallway. He felt sure Uncle had sold up, and was moving on. Uncle knew I was sick. It was despicable cowardice, Eddie said, to run away thus. He suspected Uncle was after money. Uncle could make a tidy pot of cash out of the sale. It was an unforgivable betrayal. Was this really the doting fatherly figure I knew? What could possibly have happened in Uncle’s soul? Eddie had no explanations. I could lose my entire family. For all I knew, they might be shifting abroad. In my distress I clutched hold of Eddie and wept. He held me tight. He was everything I had.
I lay on my bed, pondering things. Suddenly I had it, the solution to the riddle. Uncle was going to South Africa. He was taking Mr Steinberg and William. Mr Steinberg’s final days would be lived out quietly with his sons. Uncle and William would stay on. I was altogether excluded. They were leaving me behind. My shoulders trembled violently. I cried. I felt certain my deductions were correct. I had Eddie now. I could make a stab at a normal life. But the shame of being abandoned would linger and mar my days. I would be like an orphan. I pressed my face into the lumpy hospital pillow and wept some more.
Dr Manson discharged me. It had taken a mountain of bureaucracy, he said, and many squiggles of his fountain pen. In an off-hand manner, he wished me well, scrunching up his small eyes into something resembling a smile. Eddie stood beside me. Eddie would ferry me to my new flat and help me settle in. I thanked my favourite nurses in a perfunctory manner, and prepared to leave. The lift opened and out trundled the lunch trolley. I’d miss the regular meals, prepared goodness-knows-where by mysterious hands. Eddie and I would need to shop. The endless business of living would continue. I didn’t have much enthusiasm for the future. Eddie, however, was clearly thrilled. I would drum up some energy for his sake, and try to dismiss insidious thoughts of my disloyal family.
Eddie offered to bunk down on the floor. To watch over me, to provide some companionship, on my first night. I readily agreed. The flat was less repulsive than I feared, but mightily like an icebox and scantily furnished. There was a mattress in the main bedroom and a dated dresser that’d seen too many summers. I just had a few belongings to unpack. Our food shopping amounted to more things. Eddie said he’d rustle me up a cheese sandwich. He was so kind. There was an open grate in the living room. Eddie thought it’d be cool if we lit a blazing fire. He could collect a few dry twigs from the overgrown back garden. It’d be like a christening. In no time, flames were casting huge red shadows. I was defrosting. Eddie draped his arm across my shoulders. He was sweet. It felt homely. This was a new beginning. I could be happy.
There was a soft rap at my door. Light was barrelling through the skimpy curtains, it must have been late. Eddie came in, stirring a mug of coffee. He’d just nipped out, he explained, for a carton of almond milk. I sipped the silky drink, blowing gently on its surface. I realized Eddie was scrutinizing me. He was looking out for irregular twitches or telltale signs that I was potty. This grieved me. Eddie saw this, flushed, and gazed away. I wanted him to trust me. I finished my coffee in awkward silence. Suddenly, Eddie announced that breakfast was underway. I felt profoundly fortunate. I could have been entirely alone, pottering around pathetically in threadbare slippers. Tenderly, I reached up and pecked Eddie’s cheek. His face glowed brighter than a solar flare. It was beautiful. In that moment, I honestly loved him.
After breakfast, which heartened my soul, Eddie suggested we stroll the neighbourhood. We could get ice creams, take in a movie. I wanted to shop for a bedside alarm clock, so I’d wake on time. Eddie said he knew the perfect place. Eddie drove an old beetle now. It smelt far from wholesome. The windows didn’t wind down. It was stuffy inside. Eddie hadn’t taken advantage, but I knew he wanted to kiss me meaningfully. The torch he held high for me blazed brightly. I wouldn’t discourage him. I only hoped he didn’t choose to maul me in his car. I fastened my frayed seatbelt, and Eddie pulled into the traffic. It felt like I’d never been bonkers, and we were just your everyday couple out on a regular excursion.
We sat in the stalls nibbling our salty popcorn. I had no idea what the film was about, I’d got lost in the first thirty minutes. Eddie, however, was enthralled, and didn’t even try to hold my hand. Eddie goggled at the silver screen, he was oblivious to the outside world. I was hoping Eddie might lean over and kiss me, so the deed was done. All he squeezed, however, were the red, cigarette-burned arm rests. I was mildly disappointed. When the lights came up, Eddie suddenly clutched at my hand. He was trembling. Manfully, he pressed his mouth to my lips. A thrill surged through me. Our union was sealed.
Eddie lived in a crummy boarding house in Elephant and Castle. We could pool our resources, he urged, and get something pretty nice together. I wasn’t ready to move in with him. Eddie knew about my comparative wealth. He was no freeloader. Nevertheless things were moving too fast. One kiss didn’t mean matrimony. I was grateful to Eddie. I didn’t love him. Eddie grew tetchy and morose. He promised he wanted to help me. I knew this was true. Let’s take things gradually, I said, lying. I couldn’t lose my only friend.
It was wearing, having Eddie constantly by my side. I felt like suggesting he return back home for a while. That, however, would show ingratitude. Instead I let him cook for me. Eddie prepared simple meals which needed more seasoning. I said nothing. There could be no question that Eddie was head-over-heels with me. I felt so guilty. Unforgivably, I was leading him on. I simply had to admit that I didn’t love him. Our situation was untenable. It must cease.
It was wanton destruction. Eddie blanched, then he began to tremble. I felt like a complete bitch. I wouldn’t insult Eddie with banalities about remaining firm friends. It could see he was crushed. I’d led him by the nose and accepted all his gentle attentions. Eddie stood and patted his trouser pockets. He looked a hundred years old. He cleared his throat and bid me farewell. I would be absolutely alone now. There was still time to recant and hug Eddie desperately. Instead I stayed silent, and watched him prepare to leave. Goodbye Natalie, Eddie said simply, gently closing the door. I stood blinking in the hallway, the gravity of my complete isolation sinking into my soul.
Blurry vision. Shouting headache. His face became clearer. The room I knew. I just couldn’t place things, like I was hungover or totally disorientated. I had no notion how I’d got here. The last few hours were an impossible jigsaw. Through the fog I could see the familiar face smiling at me. The bookshelves behind his head were laden with heavy volumes. Something I knew lay untidily on his desk. It was a stethoscope. The man was calling me by my name. I was Natalie. He was Dr Strong.