Working on my retelling of the Three Wise Men today, and possibly tomorrow.
For now, here are three ghosts from a distant past when, for a little while, poetry and music were the same thing.
Working on my retelling of the Three Wise Men today, and possibly tomorrow.
For now, here are three ghosts from a distant past when, for a little while, poetry and music were the same thing.
Done – my Shepherds story for my new Angels & Other Occurrences sequence, which I’m scheduling to start on 1st December. The Shepherds should come in on the 7th.
Also – in the bath – along with driving, my best place for plotting – I suddenly ‘received’ the plot for my version of the Three Wise Men. Typed it out quick, before it disappeared. I looked at this plot outline thinking – that’s bizarre. That’s really weird. Can I really write something that weird? Yes, I think. If anyone can write something weird it’s probably me, and it’ll take my mind off the endless merry-go-round of upsets and complications that seem to breed in my family around Christmas.
Sometimes it pays to procrastinate, I’ve found. If you resist the temptation to start writing at once, often – it’s that Synchronicity thing again – see previous post: Synchronicity in Writing – a tiny new bit of information comes along and it’s that tiny new bit of information that the whole plot ought to have hinged on. Then of course you have to rewrite the plot but that’s all part of the fun.
This morning I was watching Countryfile and Adam Whatsisname, the handsome red-headed farmer chappie, was doing a piece to camera. He was telling us that, sadly, his father had passed away a few weeks earlier and this had reminded him of the Lock of Wool superstition. Once upon a time, he said, a Shepherd would be buried with a Lock of Wool clasped in his right hand; when he arrived at the Pearly Gates the angels, seeing the Lock of Wool, would let him in. They would know that a shepherd couldn’t get to church of a Sunday. He said he had done this for his Dad.
I was thinking, what a lovely story, and then I thought – I see – now I see how my Shepherds post is going to work, and how the Lock of Wool will be central. I see the characters, I see how many of them there are, I know their characters and their tragedies and why they are out on that hillside; I see who or what it is who will tell them…
That’s the joy of writing – sudden inspirations. More of a battle when the time comes to get them down on paper!
In my last-but-one post I managed – finally – by accident to embed a YouTube video – I mean the actual video not just a naff old link. And couldn’t for the life of me work out how I did it. Sigh!
So I’ve been mining the WordPress Codex – whatever that might be – to discover the secret of embedding videos, and might just have cracked it.
So, if this works, it will be Spem in Alium, 40 voice motet by Thomas Tallis.
Heaven on earth.
Yay!! Turn up the volume.
I remember this song being rattled out over the radio when I was a child. For non-British readers I should mention – though it’s probably fairly obvious – that the lyrics are slightly saucy, and would definitely have been so in 1910 when the song was written, since Willie is the common term for a gentleman’s naughty-bits.
(My Polish vet accidentally managed to amuse me by enquiring of William, one of my many ginger moggies “And how’s my Leetle Willy?” I kept a straight face – inherited from Grandad, see below.)
It was written in 1910 and originally sung by music hall star Harry Champion. He must have made a record of it since even I am not old enough to have been to the music hall, although my Grandfather did. My Grandfather was a silent, dour sort of chap. You had to know him well to tell when he was being humorous. No twinkle appeared in his eye. He never smiled, or particularly looked in your direction. There might have been no one in the room with him. He just went on, puffing at his pipe, staring into space and suddenly you’d find yourself thinking – that was funny!
But obviously he couldn’t always have been like that, since he once told a story about sitting up in the balcony with his mates at the music hall –a rather risqué place to go in those days – peeling oranges and aiming the peel down the collars of the people in the seats below. I suppose he may have had his pipe clenched between his teeth like Popeye even then, since he told he started on the old St Bruno Flake at nine. Or was that also a joke?
Anyway, that was the sort of song he would have heard, and probably enjoyed singing along to. And some of the songs lived on, long after music hall itself had faded out, overtaken by the new cinemas of the 1920s. My father used to come out with a scattering of semi-nonsensical verses to amuse us. Most of them required a cockney accent, but then most of us in the C1 to E demographic can do a fairish cockney accent, if encouraged and in cheery mood. (Unlike Dick Van Dyke who in the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins perpetrated absolutely the worst cockney accent of all time):
It’s difficult to explain how very comforting these silly old tunes and daft words can be if you’re British, especially in beleaguered times when disgusting diseases, criss-crossing warplanes, random shootings and chemical weapons feel as if they’re coming out of the woodwork at us. They act as a kind of charm and a litany – akin to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 every night. The announcer starts: And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at [time of issue] today – then embarks on his measured, methodical progress, clockwise around the waters around the British Isles.
And somehow you feel… it’s OK. We’re still an island, safely surrounded by tracts of water we can’t imagine and which the majority wouldn’t recognise if we saw them, and over which it might currently be hailing or snowing, blowing a gale, threatening rain. There they all are: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber…
Nothing bad can have happened –Radio 4 is still talking to us and we’re still wrapped in our blanket of sea. It’s not the words themselves it’s the sound and the rhythm, like poetry. In a world of nuclear weapons, random shootings and dire diseases, they are a charm and a litany. They comfort us greatly.
As, of course, do a few special pieces of music. And this is one of them:
South Korean violinist Julia Hwang, then aged 15
The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams
It was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828–1909) which begins:
I have to say I’m not convinced this picture, which was listed as ‘lark’, is actually a lark, or a sky-lark. I thought they were plain brown and speckled. No doubt bird-watchers the world over have been muttering to themselves throughout this piece either ‘That’s not a lark!’ (if it actually isn’t) or ‘What a pretty lark’ (if it actually is). Whatever – it’s meant to be a lark. It symbolises lark… It represents lark…
In this courtyard, overborne and
Cramped by shuttered rooms,
The leaded panes grown cataracts of light,
Moss grows between the stones
And a marble fountain plays.
It is small, unremarkable,
Nobody in here to view it, just a sparrow
Thirsting in the furnace of July;
Nobody in here and yet
The bowl is full of coins.
Maybe each of us comes alone
And again discovers what queens and princes knew;
Maybe they too, in their moments of distraction,
Trailed their finger-ends beneath the water
And, feeling it cool and simple,
Sighed and threw silver, leaving behind
Battered portraits of their ancestors,
Distorted by refraction
And by motion.
I will not throw a coin.
For all their praying, those who threw before
Are no less saved or lost. I would rather just
Recall them, these unknown dreamers, feeling
The benediction in the sun, the wish in the stone,
Their lives and mine
In the sound of
This is apparently the only statement of note uttered by me during my infancy. As far as I recall I was walking down our street after dark with Mum – no idea why – and happened to look up at the moon. Observing it surrounded by a circular, brownish haze I exclaimed Oh look, the moon’s on a biscuit. It is not a clever statement. It is not even a poetic statement. I have since written poetry, some of it rather good if I say so myself, but that night I was being drearily literal. I had never seen the moon surrounded by brownish haze before and a biscuit was the only half-suitable circular object I could think of to liken it to.
I think what depresses me is that so much was made of it. Did I never say anything else, that anyone can remember? I believe my niece’s first words were something to do with the stock market having declined by three points. Or maybe that was somebody else’s niece… no, I think it was mine. Now that was spectacular, though I doubt if she actually understood the risings and fallings of the stock market. Who does?
I can also remember my mother confessing to mistakes she had made in parenting which had resulted in my ‘turning out the way I did’. Apparently as a young first-time Mum she had been very much under the influence of Dr Benjamin Spock’s book Parenting and Child Care which had advocated not picking a child up when it cried – ever, according to my mother. So when I was a baby she had stood outside my door crying because I was crying, not daring to open the door and pick me up for fear of incurring the Wrath of Dr Spock. This is a particularly stupid idea and I wouldn’t be surprised if its implementation did cause a great deal of damage, but that wasn’t what bothered me. It was her saying that I had ‘turned out the way I did’. Until that moment I had assumed I was more or less normal and that it was my parents who had ‘turned out the way they did’. After that I felt like a mug with a missing handle or a toy soldier with only one arm.
Anyway, moons. This post was going to be about full moons. It is early evening as I write this and I keep going to the back window to look out, since tonight is the night of the November full moon known as Moon Before Yule according to Old English almanacs. It is the last full moon before Christmas. The dates vary from year to year.
Full moon names have also varied over time and from one hemisphere to another, since seasonal changes take place during ‘opposite’ months in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. The sequence for this particular calendar for 2015 has been running:
and 2016 goes on:
I found Wolf Moon in a Witches’ Date Book earlier this evening – which is what started me off on the moon-post thing. I bought the Date Book for a friend of mine, who is a witch. I try not to read people’s Christmas present books, but never succeed. As least this one is spiral-bound, so it won’t be all creased around the spine when she gets it. If she gets it. At the moment I’m too fascinated to wrap it up.
Naming full moons was a good way of recalling the passage of time and important events in a time before clocks and calendars. The Algonquin tribes of New England and westward to Lake Superior, had their own names. For example January was their Wolf Moon, February the Snow Moon, March the Worm Moon, April the Pink Moon, March the Flower Moon, June the Strawberry Moon, July the Buck Moon, August the Sturgeon Moon, September the Harvest Moon, October the Hunter’s Moon, November the Beaver Moon and December the Cold Moon.
Most seasons have three full moons but occasionally a season will have four full moons, and the ‘spare’ one is known as a Blue Moon.
And, apropos of nothing, the Matala Moon referred to in Joni Mitchell’s 1971 song ‘Carey’ refers to a place called Matala on the Isle of Crete, where hippies hung out in Neolithic caves for a while, in the 60s.
A few days later, Penelope and I were on a ferry to see what Matala was all about … Most of the hippies who had traveled there slept in small caves carved into the cliff on one side of the beach.
After we arrived, Penelope and I rented a cinder-block hut in a nearby poppy field and walked down to the beach. As we stood staring out, an explosion went off behind us. I turned around just in time to see this guy with a red beard blowing through the door of a cafe. He was wearing a white turban, white Nehru shirt and white cotton pants. I said to Penelope, ‘What an entrance—I have to meet this guy.’ … He was American and a cook at one of the cafes. Apparently, when he had lit the stove, it blew him out the door. That’s how Cary [Raditz] entered my life—ka-boom.
I wake up this morning with a very clear concept in my head but can’t access the word for it. For goodness sake! I grumble as I stumble about in my slippers and dressing gown searching for my glasses – under a cat – glasses and the TV remote are a hundred percent certain to be under a cat – gathering a teetering stack of licked-clean cat-dishes, refreshing bulldog-sized water bowls and hitting the power button on my computer.
Word, word, what are you? I implore as I fill the washing-up bowl with hot water and squirt in some of that red Tesco washing-up liquid (can’t stand the green, even though it’s exactly the same substance with different colouring added).
I shall get really, really cross in a minute! I inform my brain.
Yes dichotomy. Dichotomy is good enough.
Not good enough. Doesn’t at all mean what I was thinking. Well, something like what I was thinking, but not.
Well, I don’t know then, says brain in that long-suffering voice it tends to adopt with me nowadays. Why don’t you just focus on feeding these hundreds of cats?
Because I need that word!
That word. The word I’ve just been asking you to supply.
No, not dichotomy. Something similar.
Dichotomy is dichotomy is dichotomy. There either is or isn’t a dichotomy. No other word means dichotomy.
Something similar, I said.
Beginning with K?
For God’s sake, why should it begin with K?
It just sort of came to me that it might. Call it intuition.
You don’t have intuition. I have intuition. You – you have the little grey cells that are all supposed to fire at once and supply me with words as and when I want them and not THREE WEEKS LATER.
And why do you require this particular word at seven o’clock in the morning?
I do, that’s all. I woke up requiring it.
Beginning with a K?
Why should it begin with a K? No, don’t think so.
Well, what does it mean then? Try talking around it, or maybe just give up and feed those cats. Or maybe pull the curtains or fix yourself a bowl of Weetabix?
Don’t want Weetabix. Want the word for… for when two contradictory or opposing conditions exist at the same time and both are in some sense true.
Much later that morning, driving towards the traffic lights at the crossroads, which as usual are out of order – meaning that some cars are gingerly intersecting the computed trajectories of others whilst other cars are merely launching themselves at great speed in the general direction they want to achieve because everybody knows if you accelerate hard enough a path will perforce be cleared – the word finally surfaces with a sudsy ‘plop’ in the washing-up bowl of my working memory.
Paradox, paradox, paradox. I shall write it down before it escapes again.
You can’t write it down since you’re currently accelerating towards these broken traffic lights; and anyway you forgot to put a new little notebook in that mysterious tiny compartment just past the gear stick, the one with all the dead car park stickers in it, and a mutant hairgrip and a 2p piece that has somehow managed to remain shiny even though it has been in that same mysterious tiny compartment for the past two and a half years. And anyway, what have you done with the pencil? There was a nice sharp one trapped in the fold of the passenger seat all last week. Why must you keep tidying things away? If only you’d just let them rest where they landed instead of officiously…what was that word again?
Kitten’s been on ‘permanent loan’ to my mother for the past five years or thereabouts, keeping her company and giving her something to focus on after Dad died. This morning I got a telephone call from my Godmother to say that it was time to collect Kitten, and I drove across to my mother’s early this afternoon. ‘Kitten’ is a huge misnomer since this little cat celebrated (though she’s not a great one for celebrating, I have to say) her twentieth birthday this September.
I found a handy little paragraph online:
To convert cat age to an equivalent human age, an accepted method is to add 15 years for the first year of life. Then add 10 years for the second year of life. After that, add 4 years for every cat year. This means that by year two, a cat has matured to about the same as a 25 year old human.
So she’d be 97.
She is a poor old thing to look at now, thin and wobbly, and as grumpy as ever – but she seems to be settling in. She’s eaten a surprising quantity of Gourmet food and has now relocated herself to the bedroom. I just found her in the wardrobe, sunk into the spare duvet. She looks cosy enough, if not exactly full of the joys of spring, and after all these years alone with an old lady the other cats don’t seem to be bothering her. I’ve noticed that whilst she was almost completely silent with Mum, who is stone deaf – even ‘miming’ her miaows to save energy – after a few hours here she is using her voice again. She’s got a fearsome growl on her.
I’ve been desperate to retrieve my old moggie for some time. Mum hasn’t really been up to caring for her for the past year and has become increasingly anxious about the responsibility. I was hoping against hope that she would herself come to the decision to give Kitten back, rather than my having to step in and take her furry companion away when things got just too bad. In truth things have been just too bad for many months now; I was delaying out of cowardice, weighing and re-weighing the welfare of the cat against the potential distress to my mother. Overnight, unexpectedly, and thank goodness, Mum did decide. It can’t have been easy for her.
I suppose the thing with cats is that they are the custodians of various chunks of our lives, the keepers of our memories. Which is why it hurts so much when, inevitably, they have to leave us. It’s not just losing the cat it’s losing our route back to all the things that happened over all those years, the houses we shared, the various crises we weathered. The past is another country, as they say, and when a cat dies the last bridge dissolves with it.
I remember the first time I saw her – as one of a whole litter of flying kittens in a supply teacher’s scruffy back garden, in an unfamiliar town a good hour’s drive from where I lived. I was supposed to be on a date with him – I think I found him in the newspaper! I suspect he had only dated me because I’d mentioned liking cats and he saw an opportunity to get rid of one of the litter his own cat had suddenly produced. Kitten’s a tabby and at that time she was called Stripe. In order not to become attached to them he had not named them, merely identified them by appearance – Stripe, Spotty, Dotty or whatever.
It was never going to work between him and me: he was shorter and totally un-fanciable – in fact not even likeable – but I needed to keep seeing him at least until Stripe was ready to leave her mother. Also, of course, he had to keep seeing me if he wanted to home a kitten. I don’t know which of us found that convenient pretence most irritating. The man had ginger hair, I remember; most of it growing out of his nose and ears.
(I don’t suppose he’s reading this.)
How strange to have her back with me again. How strange to be a thirteen-cat household, if only for a short time. I expect one morning I’ll discover Kitten curled up somewhere, apparently asleep but in fact gone to the land of Endless Purrs.
All this reminded me of a Wordsworth poem. It’s quite a long poem; this is just part of it:
I remember when we were driving / In the summer of seventy-three, / We were talking, but of nothing, / That’s the way it would always be; / And how much I longed to touch you / And to say I understood. / But I never did, my dearest / And like you, I never could.
For months it had rained on England, / There was green in every tree, / And we flew along those country roads / Beneath the canopy, / In our second skin of metal / And our third skin of words, / Pretending to be human, / Unnaturally birds.
I wonder when you die, my dear, / Will I see you as you are, / Or will you drift away again / To perch on a different star?
In films, when people’s marriages end and they get divorced, it seems to be a short, sharp, dramatic affair. She catches him cheating with his secretary, say. Terrible, terrible rows. Bitterness and recriminations all round. Terrible, terrible divorce. Loads of screaming and shouting. Then they never see each other again and Good Riddance.
It wasn’t really like that for me. I left, after anguishing, and after twenty-two years of knowing I needed to. There wasn’t that much anger, from what I can remember, just conversations and negotiations. Long, patient, sad negotiations. A second try and a second failure. More negotiations, this time long, weary and patient. Eventually, my solicitors, his solicitors, paperwork, more weariness, more sadness.
I remember particularly the List you are forced, or at that time were forced, to make out when petitioning for divorce on grounds of unreasonable behaviour – the only option open to me. I couldn’t think how to explain it; didn’t even want to explain it, really. Twenty-two years of shared experience and shared unhappiness somehow wouldn’t resolve themselves into twenty-two neat bullet points.
Does he squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle, for example, asked the solicitor. That’s always irritating. I couldn’t remember whether he did or not, and didn’t really care. In the end I was forced to come up with this list of invented, exaggerated, petty but passable examples of his Unreasonableness. It would have been easier to make a list of my own faults.
I knew his solicitors would be posting him a copy of the List and I was thinking, that’s it. When the list arrives he will hate me. There’ll be no more popping over to his (that was formerly our) house for a pot of his over-strong tea; no more saying hello to the cats and finding out how he’s getting on. No more strange half-evenings by the fire, half at home, half not; talking, but mostly not; half safe again, half never-again-safe. Just drinking over-strong tea, not pulling the curtains and watching the garden get dark. No more running to him in a panic when I mislay my credit card wallet or don’t know what’s wrong with the car. We’ll need to stop talking to each other, which will please my solicitor who finds the whole pots-of-tea/comparing notes thing confusing. Once he gets that list…
Time went on and he still didn’t mention that List. Eventually I couldn’t bear the suspense any longer and asked him about it. Oh that, he said. It arrived weeks ago. Load of old rubbish! It was never mentioned again.
Since then we have stayed in touch, but less and less. He found someone else, sold the house that we had lived in, moved on. I ran through a few more lovers. None of them were him. I’m one of those strange people, I suppose – like baby ducks imprinted on their mother – once a wife always a wife, even when not one. Always true, after my untruthful, unfaithful, unreliable fashion. Nowadays he calls me once or twice a year. They have Skype, I gather. I think how old his voice is sounding now and no doubt he’s thinking the same about me. Probably best without the visuals!
He tells me in detail about the work they’re having done on the roof, his skirmishes with the builders; he complains of the perfidy of bank managers. I tell him very little: it used to be impossible to get a word in edgewise in any case but he listens better nowadays than he used to do. We compare elderly parents – his, mine and his partner’s – living and dead. Well, all but one dead now. And numbers of cats – ten for him right now and twelve for me. That’s one little contest I’m winning, at least for a while. Whatever ailment I have, he’ll have had the same but worse, far worse, and longer. I post him birthday and Christmas cards, usually with cats on them, which I spend some time selecting. His new lady sends me e-Christmas and e-Easter cards from them both – those things in emails that start doing stuff when you click on them, and go on interminably. I must admit I delete them. A card is not a card unless made of card. IMHO.
But I am glad to hear his voice on the phone every so often, if only to confirm that he’s still in the land of the living. Sometimes I wonder whether anyone will let me know, when one day he no longer is. I suppose they probably will. Unless, of course, it’s me that Goes Under the Bus; can’t take it for granted that being nine years younger will mean living nine years longer. In that case I wonder whether anyone will think to tell him – that I’m Under the Bus. And I sometimes wonder whether death will constitute any greater change in our relationship than divorce did, if what we now have can be called a relationship. Once connected – to anyone, in this way – come hell or high water you tend to stay connected. IMHO.
I always got on better with boys. Boys were not nasty. They were not evil. If you said a thing to a boy, he tended to believe you. First confession – Walter Wheeler, if you’re reading this, I told you in the playground that day that I was an Indian Princess: you believed me, and you have no idea how affectionate I have always felt towards you because of it. I said you could tell Indian Princesses because they were given little coloured dots to wear in the middle of their foreheads. I had probably seen a picture in Odhams Encyclopaedia, which I read as avidly as Charles, my boy detective, reads Wikipedia (A Study in Cerise 1/7 to 7/7). The item almost in the middle of my forehead was a boring, bog-standard mole, of course, but then, logically, someone would have had to get the boring brown one.
That wasn’t actually true, dear little Walter Wheeler, and I do hope you have not gone through your whole life believing that you went to school with an Indian Princess. It was the first lie I can ever remember telling and it didn’t seem like actually a lie at the time, know what I mean? It was what I wanted to be. It was how I imagined myself. I was just accidentally letting you in on my dreams. PS, Walter Wheeler. I also remember that you were the only one faster than me at Spelling. Respect! Also better at Maths, but then so was the whole class.
But the real Luv of my life was Adam Kozlowski. I was reminded of him by my previous post, Secrets and Lies, when I mentioned the Polish community in my town as I was growing up.
Adam Kozlowski was simply beautiful. The moment I first saw him, at five and three-quarters, I could see that. Adam Kozlowski was an angel come to life and I lusted after Adam Kozlowski in a weird, five and three-quarters way that I still don’t, and would honestly rather not, understand. He had white-blonde hair and pale brown, freckly skin and he was full of confidence – a real boys’ boy. Most of the time he ignored me. He liked playing Cowboys and Indians, which was a boys’ game. It involved a lot of galloping around on imaginary palominos and shouting Bang Bang You’re Dead and I’ll Tie You To That Tree, You Varmint.
Occasionally he would condescend to play Doctors and Nurses with me behind the canteen. On one memorable occasion he demanded that I show him Mine if he showed me His. He did show me His, but I can’t remember what it looked like – apart from small and pink. I chickened out and things started going downhill after that.
I suppose as time went by, being ignored whilst worshipping from afar wasn’t quite enough. I don’t know why I did it. I’d never done anything like it before and of course, never since. I carved I LUV ADAM KOZLOWSKI on the inside of one of the girls’ toilet doors. I even remember what I carved it with – a penny coin. It just seemed – as far as I remember – that I had to memorialise it.
Now, I was under the impression that no one but me knew that I Luv’d Adam Kozlowski but as it turned out, they did. A pair of scratty, self-important little girls (I can see them now – they were never seen apart) immediately went to one of the teachers and ‘reported’ that it must have been me wot dunnit, because I was only the one who Luv’d Adam Kozlowski.
No doubt I was shamed and embarrassed by my one and only act of vandalism. I got into trouble, which of course I deserved, but I can’t remember what the punishment was. It wasn’t important. The real punishment was knowing that everybody knew I Luv’d Adam Kozlowski.
Also Adam Kozlowski coming up to me in the playground the next day and jeering ‘I hear you Luv me, tee hee hee!’ before running off sniggering for yet another game of Cowboys and Indians.
‘So you see it couldn’t have been Ursula, officer. Look, the evidence is here in my notebook. I wrote it down just as Mrs McManus told it to me:
One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
Three magpie-coloured beads for a wedding, officer. In the bride’s room. Four magpie-coloured beads for a death, in my room. It’s like a confession.’
‘I see that, young man. Yes, I do see. But why would the McManus woman choose to confess to you, in particular?’ Charlie thought carefully about that and the best he could come up with was this.
Mrs McManus possessed a dark sense of humour. It had amused her, in a strange way to make boy-detective Charles a gift of a real piece of evidence. She knew she wasn’t coming back. Patrick and weird Jorge had run away together – to Brazil, probably, since apparently Jorge was related to one of Rio’s biggest gangster families – and Mrs McManus had run away as well, probably in the same general direction. Charles couldn’t imagine Mrs McManus letting her beloved Patrick out of her sight. She would find somewhere to live within spying-on distance of her son, even if Patrick didn’t realise it. She would be keeping a beady eye on him and his pal Jorge. Charles didn’t much fancy Jorge’s chances of remaining un-digitalis’d or belladonna’d in the long run, whether he decided to carry on being best mates with Patrick or decided to branch out and make new amigos. To be honest, Charles’s interest in the whole McManus/Jorge triad was rapidly being overtaken by anxiety that the police or somebody, anyway, should hurry up and find poor old Ursula; tell her the coast was clear.
Surprisingly, the police had been able to tell that it was only red ink on the dress. Besides, Christina hadn’t been stabbed. According to the coroner she had been poisoned with digitalis (which came from foxgloves according to Wikipedia). There were a great many foxgloves growing the hotel grounds, but the police told Charles that Mrs McManus had probably brought the poison with her, in tablet or in liquid form, rather than going to all the bother of brewing up witchy potions in her room. This was a disappointment.
Ursula would have assumed that her sister was asleep when she crept in to attack the dress with her nail-scissors, but in fact Christina was already deceased! It occurred to Charles that, passport or no passport, Ursula might have chickened out of going abroad at the last minute. Ursula was a timid sort of person inside, for all that she was enor…quite biggish on the outside. His guess was confirmed a few days later when a postcard arrived from the Helford River, Cornwall, addressed to him. There was no message and it wasn’t signed, but it had a picture of a quiet, wooded creek and a sailing boat.
Ursie was safe, though probably without French pirate.
And either way Jorge was toast, in Charles’s professional opinion.
I’ve lived a long time, though not nearly as long as my mother who this afternoon informed me (for the umpteenth time) and her doctor (for the first but probably not the last time) that she was nearly a hundred and had been through four World Wars. Also that her ancient cat had been eating the giant slugs that live and multiply under the house, and the slugs are growing inside her. Also that… oh, I could write several thousand words of Also that’s. None of it is true, of course.
All my life I seem to have attracted secrets and lies of one sort or another. I must be the human equivalent of the pots of marmalade-and-water people used to put out to drown wasps in the summertime – paper over the top held with an elastic band, and holes punched in it. Once in, the wasps swam around desperately for what seemed like hours, slowly, slowly drowning. It was considered a kind of picnic entertainment. I think the War must have coarsened people.
Me, I’m post-War, so I let wasps out. I let everything out – birds, ants, flies, butterflies, spiders; they all get shunted onto slips of paper, caught in wine glasses, cradled in paper tissues or gently encouraged towards the gap at the window’s edge. My mother (when she still remembered things) once reminded me of an incident from my youth. On one of our Sunday drive-abouts in the car, she, Dad and I had stopped at a roadside café, where there were picnic tables. My Dad bought us one of those polystyrene cups of coffee each and we were sitting at the tables with them.
‘A wasp landed in yours,’ she said, ‘and do you know what, you tipped the whole cup of coffee away into the grass just to save the wasp!’ And I’m thinking – you mean, you wouldn’t have? You’d have watched him drown to death in steaming hot liquid?
But where was I? Lost the plot again. Oh yes, secrets and lies. You sometimes end up thinking in a demented kind of way when you’ve spent an afternoon trying to decode the conversation someone who has it – and then it lingers!
Secrets, for example. Shall I tell you the saddest secret anybody ever told me? As a young teenager I would walk up the road every day to catch the train to school with one of my classmates. Another of my classmates came from a different direction and tended to walk up the road on the opposite side, not speaking to us. Both had what sounded to me like German surnames. This didn’t strike me as strange. Our particular small town was full of Polish people – perhaps soldiers who had fought with us then stayed, imported their families or married local girls. So I just assumed there had been a few German people stranded too.
Then one day these two girls had a fight – a verbal fight, but a violent one. They chased each other up the road, screaming abuse from one pavement to the other. I remember their high-pitched voices echoing off the shop windows, off the walls, it seemed.
Afterwards I asked the one I usually walked with, what was that all about? She was obviously shaken, still. She looked around her carefully and, when she could be absolutely sure no one could hear, whispered ‘I’m Jewish.’ I was mystified. It sounded like some sort of disease. When I got home I asked my parents what exactly Jewish was, and why someone should be so ashamed of being it.
Now for a lie.
When I was at infants school the yo-yo was all the rage. I had been given an orange and yellow one for Christmas and was very pleased with it. I liked the colour combination – like sweeties – I liked the magical way you could flick the string and the yo-yo went up and down (easily pleased) and most of all I liked the fact that I could walk around the playground looking pleasantly occupied – having fun in my solitary, weird-kid way – which meant teachers would be less likely to swoop on me and place me in the middle of terrifying rings of children engaged in some game or other. As soon as the teacher’s eye was off them, the rings of children would expel me, or I would wriggle out and run off. Then one lunch hour I got hauled by the collar to see the headmistress, who told me another girl had accused me of stealing her orange and yellow yo-yo. I think I made a big, terrible fuss. She’s not having my yo-yo. My Daddy bought it for me for a present, it’s mine and so ad infinitum. They had probably expected a stuttering, shame-faced admission and what they got was a major hissy fit. They let me go, but traumatised, scarred for life.
Oh yes, credulous teachers. Oh yes, evil-lying-little-girl whose orange and yellow yo-yo my yo-yo was not, I’ve got your numbers. It’s all written down in my little black book.
He retreated to his room to digest the news. And because of the chaos. Noise, people wandering around clutching mobile phones, people shouting and sobbing. Cars arriving. Police sirens. He supposed, eventually, someone would come to tell him, ever so gently, that he had been bereaved. Not for a while, he suspected. They had forgotten about him.
‘Charles, have you by any chance seen my passport?’ Ursula’s voice was casual but Charles was not fooled. She had been crying, and in her hand he glimpsed a screwed up tissue. He felt a bit ashamed of himself.
‘Charles, sweetheart, it’s urgent. I don’t care why you borrowed it, I really don’t. I just need it. Now. Please. Where did you put it?’
‘Where have you put it for safe-keeping, my little magpie?’ Magpies again. He’d pointed magpies out to Mrs McManus, then she’d given him the new magpie rhyme, and here was Ursula calling him a magpie. It must be synchro.. synchro… that thing about coincidences. Wikipedia had a long section on it. A new thought struck him. Had he inherited magpie genes, too? Could he be a mixture of Mynah, Magpie and Boy?
‘In my evidence drawer,’ he said, fetching it from the drawer of the bedside cabinet.
‘Thank you, Charles.’ Her voice was getting shakier. ‘I may be away for a while. I am going – on holiday. For a while. Be a good boy, won’t you? Look after yourself.’
‘But you hardly ever go on holiday, Ursula. I mean, there was that once when you went to Cornwall, but that was because of that soppy Frenchman’s Creek, wasn’t it? You quite liked the idea of pirates sailing their boats up the river to carry you off to France.’
‘How did you know that?’
‘I know lots of things, you’d be surprised.’
‘What was it called, that boat?’ he asked. He realised he was trying to stall her.
‘La Mouette.’ A large tear appeared at the inner corner of her right eye and trickled slowly down.
‘Oh yes, The Seagull. I looked it up in my French Dictionary at school.’
‘Charlie, dear, I want to explain something. I probably shouldn’t, but I don’t want to leave you thinking…’ Another tear started down her cheek. Charles could never bear tears. He went and put his arms round her waist.
‘Don’t cry, Ursie. Please don’t cry.’ She took a deep breath, obviously attempting to pull herself together.
‘I didn’t kill Christina. I wanted to – oh, at times I could have – but whoever it was, it wasn’t me. But I did – oh dear, I’m getting this arse about face as they say at the zoo – I did do something wrong. I stabbed her wedding dress. She’d foisted this giant cerise bridesmaid number on me at the last moment…’
‘Yes, I saw it.’ Charles had felt nothing but sympathy for Ursula when Christina showed him the hideous thing, laughing. He hated their sister too, he realised. It had been at the back of his mind ever since Suit Lady accidentally informed him of Christina’s death – guilt. He should be wailing and screaming. What did they say, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Yet he hadn’t gnashed a single one of his.
‘I stabbed it with my nail scissors in a fit of rage, and because I knew I couldn’t wear the pink dress, and because I knew she was marrying him for the wrong reasons…’
‘She told you that?’
‘Yes, it’s the trust, isn’t it? He gets all this money when he’s twenty-five. What I can’t understand is why he’s marrying her. I mean, he isn’t of that…’
‘It’s something to do with a waiter called Jorge. I read her diary.’
‘You read -? Ah, that makes sense.’ It still didn’t make sense to Charlie.
‘But that isn’t all, Charlie. I did another awful thing. I took a bottle of red ink and I – I threw it at the dress. I suppose I wanted it to be really ruined, you know, beyond repair. I wanted her to know just how much it hurt, being fat, being plain, and being mocked. Being expected to wear a cerise bridesmaid gown with puffy sleeves that show off your blubbery bingo-wings. I wanted – ‘
‘Don’t worry, sis. I know you wouldn’t kill her.’
‘But somebody has! And by now they will have found the wedding dress hanging behind her door, all stabbed and everything, and ink all over it and all over the carpet and…’ She took another deep breath and untangled his arms from around her waist.
‘Now I must make my getaway too, Charlie. Like La Mouette. Right now. You remember that pirate? He had to flee or they would have hanged him at the Assizes in… Bodmin, or wherever it was. Look after yourself, Charlie. Have a good life. Oh no, that sounds…’
And then she was gone. And the moment he had gone Charles knew why his instincts had told him to stop her. If you run away people always assume you are guilty. Christina had always been horrible to Ursula, and Ursula hated her. Everyone knew that. And if someone told the police that, and then they learned that Ursula had run away, with her passport…
It was as good as a confession.
He had to get into Christina’s room. It had been a game before, now Ursula’s good name – maybe her life, or at any rate her freedom – depended on it.
Distractedly, he went to close the evidence drawer, and only then did he notice it had been burgled. Well, not burgled exactly, but the things in it had been looked through and rearranged. In particular, something had happened to the black and white necklace he had bought at the junk shop yesterday. It was still in the drawer, but someone had cut the thread that held it together. Four beads had been removed, two black and two white. He knew that because they were laid out in a neat little row on his pillow. Black, white. Black white.
It transpired that Ursula was not the only missing person. Mrs McManus and her son Patrick, for a start, together with Jorge the Brazilian. Charles scouted around, ears flapping. Still no one had noticed him or thought to tell him his sister was no more.
From what he overheard he gathered that the police were temporarily at a loss. It was no wonder, really. In Agatha Christie novels and suchlike all the suspects would lurk conveniently around in the library afterwards so that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot could explain, often at incredible length, which of them was in fact the murderer. There wasn’t a library, of course, but not a single suspect had had the decency to lurk, anywhere in the hotel. Had they been in league with one another? Had the bride been murdered by a committee?
Christina’s bedroom was now a crime scene, and a uniformed policeman had been posted outside the door. Charles’s mind seemed to have gone into overdrive since the murder. No more daydreams and digressions into Mynah bird beaks and the various languages of the sub-continent. His sister’s actual body, he knew, had been taken away by the police. Everyone was still clamped to their mobile phones and shouting, so he kept overhearing things whether he wanted to or not. He had to get into her room.
What would Sherlock do, he wondered; manufacture some kind of diversion to lure the policeman away from outside the bedroom door? He peered round the corner at the policeman. The man was large and solid, with a granite face. Not the type to be diverted by an eleven year old boy, Charles decided.
The rooms on either sides of Christina’s were empty. This was because they had been inhabited by Mrs McManus, on the right, and Patrick McManus, on the left, and both now had ‘departed’. Charlie made a mental note of the floor they were on, and also counted the number of rooms from the far end of the corridor up to Mrs McManus’s room. Then he took an elaborately casual stroll outside the hotel and cast an equally casual glance upwards. He counted windows from right to left (since he had counted them from left to right inside the building) and noted that whilst all the rooms on this floor had access to a balcony, each of the balconies were shared between two rooms with some kind of division in the middle. Mrs McManus’s room shared a balcony with Christina’s whilst Patrick’s balcony shared with the room next to that. Which meant that he only needed to get into Mrs McManus’s room, open the window and climb out, get over the barrier (hopefully it wouldn’t be too high) and sneak into Christina’s. Which is what he did. The policeman, though still on duty, seemed to think it was his duty to face the wall in front of him, never wavering, like one of the sentries outside Buckingham Palace. Charles tiptoed along the wall. He was light on his feet, and had occasionally practiced tracking, which someone had given a book about last Christmas.
His sister’s corpse had been removed, naturally. Her wedding dress had also been removed (‘evidence’ he thought) although a puddle of dried red stuff on the carpet attested to Ursula’s version of events. He bent to inspect it more closely and touched it with his finger, which came away stained a watery bluey-red. Ink, no doubt about it.
It was under the bed that he found what he had been looking for. Three beads from his necklace, laid out in a row. One white, one black, one white. He left them undisturbed, just as he had left the four he found on his pillow. Finally, things were beginning to make sense.
I was just emailing my friend about Arthur, who isn’t very well at the moment. She emailed me back, you’re a sucker for an undercat – and I suppose I am. Poor Little Arf – he can’t breathe very well, he keeps sneezing and licking his lips, and his eyes have gone all small.
First I fed him and then I rescued him. He didn’t put up much resistance. Cats tend to revert to the wild when they’ve been straying for so long. It can take six months to a year before they even let you touch them, and longer than that before they let you pick them up. Sometimes, just sometimes, you never can. I fed a hideous old tomcat called Frodo for many years – as did the whole neighbourhood – but I only managed to stroke him once, when he was dying.
First you put out food for them and keep watch from indoors. After a while you go quietly out and sit, at a distance, just watching them eat, sending out kindness. I have sat on my back door step for fifteen minutes at a time, sometimes, watching a stray cat eat, saying a few words – just things like There you are, are you ok? What’s your name, then? Do you have a name? and getting no reply. I have sat on that step in the snow with no coat on because there wasn’t time to fetch one. I have sat in the rain and waited, making no sudden moves.
And sometimes I find that their name has arrived in my head. It was like that with Arthur. Could you be Arthur? Are you my Little Arf? I think he decided fairly quickly that he was. Of all the cats I have rescued, Arthur probably had the least to lose by giving up on the wild. When he came indoors I discovered that his two canine teeth had been snapped off at exactly the same level, as if somebody had kicked him in the face. Now the vet says he’s got a larynx like a cauliflower from repeated throat infections. He may need to be antibiotics for the rest of his life or it may be something worse but Arthur and I, we are hoping for the best. We are keeping our paws crossed.
So many years he was out there on his own, running around looking for food in all weathers. So very long before he came to me. I wish I could heal his past as well as his present illness. I wish I could go back and revise his little life, give him a second chance – to be young again, to sit by the fire; to curl up for a nap in the sun, well fed; to be loved as all cats should be.
Somebody once told me there is a special prayer or church service known as The Healing of the Memories. If only such a thing worked, and not only on cats: on people, on nations, on cities.
Update 29th November:
Hopefully Arthur is over the worst now. Still sneezing all over me, and the other cats, who are also sneezing, but there’s been no practical way of segregating him. He has started eating and drinking again, and got a bit of his “shine” back, and the others seem to be going through/have gone through a lesser version of – whatever it was. Most of the “cure” I suspect comes from purrs: lots and lots of time on the lap, and purrs. The laying on of hands.
Update 9th December:
Arf continues to improve, with the occasional splashy sneeze inches from Mummy’s face to remind her he’s still not quite better and requires an awful lot of fuss to make sure he doesn’t fade away again. He’s now back to head-butting me out of the way to get to a new plate of food. Out of the woods, I think.
Charles fished a stub of pencil out of his pencil, and wrote on the first page his new green notebook:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth…
He was glad Mrs McManus had gone, but now began to worry because she had made him late. His mother and sisters were in a tearing flap over this wedding, and lateness on his behalf had become a greater than usual misdemeanour. And what about wimpy Patrick – wimpy by nature if not in appearance – and that ferocious-looking Brazilian of his? Would they be lying in wait for him? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Not this afternoon, at least. So why did he feel he had?
He needn’t have worried. About that, anyway. When he got back to the hotel all was in uproar. People were screaming and crying. Behind the reception desk harassed-looking woman in a black suit and strange fish-net-looking tights was phoning the police. Her nail-varnish, he noticed, was a kind of green colour. He tugged at her sleeve. She whirled round. Her hair was coming loose from its grips, and she was very pink in the face.
‘Who’s been murdered?’
‘The Bride, of course! Where have you been? Stabbed to death, right through her wedding dress. Oh! Oh dear, I shouldn’t have…You wouldn’t be from the local press, would you?’
Charles, for one inappropriate second, felt rather pleased. A woman in a smart black suit and green nail varnish had mistaken him for a grown up, a Man. And then the information hit home. The Bride was his sister.
Christina had been stabbed.
But the wedding wasn’t till tomorrow. Why had she been wearing her wedding dress?
‘And what are you up to, young man?’ Patrick’s mother – Mrs V McManus according to the little brass plates on her pale blue leather luggage – fell into step beside him. He had been following her, on and off, for the past twenty-four hours but it was something a shock to realise that Mrs McManus had also been following him. How could that have happened?
‘Oh, just keeping an eye on proceedings, Mrs McManus’ he replies. In his head Charles-the-detective had been puffing reflectively on an imaginary briar-root pipe. Charles-the-boy was not sure now whether he had also mimed the pipe-puffing ‘out loud’, an embarrassing thought.
‘Eye on proceedings, eh?
Me too, little Charlie.
Call me Veronica.’
Charles didn’t like being addressed as Little Charlie, and he didn’t think he could bring himself to address Mrs McManus as Veronica. She was more or less old for a start; you didn’t call old people by their first name. And she had a bullet point way of talking which, though undoubtedly efficient, seemed to leave all the hard work to the listener. It was difficult to think what to say back.
Away with the fairies, Veronica McManus decided. Brainless, but could be useful.
‘Oh, look, two magpies!’ blurted Charles. He had a tendency to blurt, when he was nervous. He pointed to two magpies, sitting on adjacent lamp-posts just ahead of them.
‘Do you know the rhyme, Mrs McManus?’
Did you know that, Mrs McManus? So two for joy. That means the wedding’s going to go really well. It’s a good luck sign. Had you heard about magpies? They were in Wikipedia.’
On the TV screen inside Charles’s head, a storm of black and white birds flapped out of his favourite website, through the screen, into his bedroom, somehow becoming three-dimensional in the process, flapping around his head, squawking. If only the pavement would open and swallow him up, or Mrs McManus would disappear…
‘Tell me about your sister, Little Charlie.’
‘Oh, the large … no, not that one.
The little sl…Miss Congeniality.
The one who thinks she’s marrying my son.’
‘But she isn’t – is.
I mean, it’s all set.
Church in the village.
Charles had noticed he tended to pick up people’s accents and verbal peculiarities; in fact the more nervous a person made him, the less he wanted to annoy them, the more likely he was to start imitating them. Mynah birds did this, he knew. He had read it on the internet. I must have some Mynah bird genes, he thought. Maybe I’ll start growing a beak. Hopefully when I’m quite old. It would be very inconvenient to start growing a Mynah bird beak just as one was looking for one’s first girlfriend. Charles felt there were a few years yet before he needed to obtain an actual girlfriend, but lately he had begun to consider the idea. What would happen if you had already proposed to a lady, and the lady had accepted, and the marriage was all arranged, and then the great yellow-orange beak started to sprout? Could you have a beak amputated? Wouldn’t that hurt? And would your mouth still be there underneath?
Her voice broke into his thoughts.
Why is she marrying my son?’
‘For the money.’
Had he said that out loud?
‘She has mentioned the money?’
In her diary.
I read it.
Had he said that out loud too?
Curses! It seemed he had.
Charles was usually pretty expert at white lies where his parents and sisters were concerned and yet seemed quite impossible to lie to Mrs McManus. It was as if she was hypnotising him. It wasn’t as if rainbow-coloured circles were going round and round in her eyes. What was it? He decided it was something in the voice. Something about the way she barked questions out kind of compelled you to bark answers back, immediately, before you’d had time to think. Curses! Would Sherlock have said Curses!? No, Sherlock didn’t swear. And Sherlock wouldn’t have blurted out to the groom’s mother that the bride was more interested in her son’s trust money than his magnificent personality.
‘I – I’m sure she loves him too.
Apart from that.
‘That rhyme about magpies,’ said Mrs McManus.
‘There are many other versions of that rhyme. For instance:
One for sorrow
Two for mirth…’
It felt like some kind of spell. The words seemed to be going round and round in his head. Like the eyes. Except that the eyes were not. Going round. By the time the rhyme ended she had vanished, as quickly and silently as she had appeared.
He thought he might walk down to the village, same as yesterday. It was a fifteen minute walk away, down the hotel drive, turn left onto the main road and then just plod as the traffic rushed past. He supposed this was the country, but not the interesting sort with rolling hills and woodland. The village was disappointing too. Rather than village green, horse troughs and quaint old inns, it had a junior school, a grim, flat-faced pub with a weedy car-park called The Black Swan and a second hand shop which sold rusty mangles; salt and pepper sets in little glass holders; bisque dolls with broken faces; plastic popper beads and thin gold rings from dead old ladies’ dressing tables; books about the Nazis, and celebrities who died twenty five years ago. Yesterday he had gone in there and bought a string of black and white beads. He didn’t know why. He was bored, and they were black and white, and there was something about black and white that interested him. Like chessboards. The man said they were a sixties throwback.
People were always saying stuff to Charles which he felt he ought to understand but didn’t quite. Had the beads belonged to a sixty-year old lady who – in her devil-may-care youth, perhaps – had been in the habit of ‘throwing them back’ over her shoulder? Or perhaps they were the sort of necklace ladies wore dangling down the back of low-backed evening dresses, often with a knot in the middle? That was a possibility, but these beads were extremely large and clunky. If you ‘threw them back’ surely it would be painful when they landed. For want of anywhere else to put it, he had put it in his evidence drawer.
Today he was heading for the village’s only other attraction – the minimart, which sold chocolate bars and interesting items like tap nozzles, skipping rope handles, boxes of golden safety pins, pencils with erasers on the end (did anyone write with a pencil nowadays?) and Sudoku quiz books in recycled paper. It was run by an unhappy Asian lady and her ancient, equally unhappy mother. Even when giving change or putting stuff in plastic bags the two women’s eyes never entirely unglued themselves from the tiny TV set beside the counter, within which cavorted pretty Asian ladies with many bangles and smirking Asian gentlemen in white robes, round and round big trees, in colourful parks and so forth, singing the whole while but never quite getting round to kissing one another.
By the time he reached the outskirts of the village a chill breeze had sprung up, and a large grey-black cloud had appeared overhead. Charles decided to take a short cut over the village ‘rec’. He had discovered yesterday that this was a short cut to the main street with its handful of uninteresting shops.
The recreation ground had no children in it. This time of day, of course, they would be in school since unlike him they had not been given half a week off for a wedding (smirk!). A row of three swings swayed half-heartedly in the breeze; an ornamental flower-bed displayed it rows of purple and yellow pansies like soldiers on parade to nobody in particular and a red and yellow slide was collecting a sheen of raindrops as the grey-black cloud began to do as it had threatened.
Charles had been so sure the park was empty that didn’t spot them straight away: two young men sitting on a bench in the far corner, somewhat overhung by a silver birch tree. Charles deduced at once that this was the sort of bench people would normally avoid on account of where it was. When the sun was blazing down there would be insufficient shade from that excuse for a tree; and when, as now, the sun went in, it would be a dank, chilly spot. Charles didn’t take much notice at first. His gaze was unfocussed, for he was still pondering the problem of the throwback beads. He did notice that one young man was dark, almost swarthy, the other fair. And then something odd happened. For a moment Charles didn’t think it odd, and then it came home to him, that the dark one, whose arm rested along the top of the bench, had just leant towards the fair one and they had ‘almost kissed’ exactly like the Indian couples in the film. But of course that couldn’t be right. It was just this dim grey light, like you get when it’s trying to rain.
And then the fair man looked up, and both men spotted him. And then, oh horrors, they were calling him over. And then, oh no, he realised who it was he had been staring at this past minute. The fair one was Christina’s fiancé Patrick, and the dark one was one of the wedding waiters. He had seen the dark, swarthy chap in the dining room this morning. They had been having some sort of rehearsal for the Big Day; this one had caught Charles’ attention because he was swarthier than the rest, and grim-faced, a bit scary-looking. In a few microseconds Charles escalated from feeling rather stupid to feeling rather clever, as one realisation after another rained down on him. Now, suddenly, he also knew that the waiter had to be Jorge, the weird Brazilian. He was just so weird-Brazilian-looking. Unmistakeable, and too much of a coincidence. Perhaps Jorge hadn’t been invited, but followed Patrick down from London anyway, getting himself taken on as a temporary waiter, just to be able to share in the wedding experience.
They were gesturing for him to come over. Automatically he started towards them. No reason to run away, after all; not as if he’d done anything wrong, apart from accidentally spotting them almost-kissing, which they couldn’t have been doing anyway. So why did he feel so much like running away? And the next minute he was running away, across the rec and into the village, not looking round to check if they were following him, just heading for the minimarket. They couldn’t do anything to him in there, he reasoned, thinking of all those little stacks of baked bean and soup tins. Not without knocking stuff over, and not without the Indian ladies witnessing – whatever.
Once inside, he made for his favourite bit at the back, the bit with the plastic gadgets and the outdated stationery items. Already weird Jorge’s menacing face had begun to fade from his memory. He risked a sideways glance through the shop window. No sign of them. Probably they hadn’t seen him come in – he was running quite fast. Maybe they hadn’t followed him at all. It was probably nothing, he thought, picking up a glossy green exercise book and puzzling over the word Avoirdupois on its glossy green back. It had complicated-looking tables of Weights and Measures too. What were rods, poles and perches, he wondered. Were they the same thing, and if so why?
They probably only wanted to ask me the time or offer me an extra-strong mint, he told himself. He bought the exercise book. The tiny Indian ladies and gentlemen were still dancing round trees in the tiny TV, singing away. The Indian lady watching them looked even unhappier than yesterday.
‘Maybe you should get out for a walk every now and again,’ he suggested kindly. I have read that fresh air and daylight are good for your mood. It’s the ultra violet.’ She did not look up. Silly of me, he thought. She probably doesn’t speak English. I wonder what she does speak. Would it be Hindi or Urdu or one of the others? He recently discovered on Wikipedia that there are a hundred and twenty-two major languages in India. How could you fit all those languages into one country, even a big one? Britain had only Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic and Cornish – and nobody much spoke them, except Welsh. He suspected even the Welsh didn’t really understand what they were saying. It was just something they pretended to be speaking to annoy English tourists about, the equivalent of rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb, carrots and peas, watermelon cantaloupe, watermelon cantaloupe’ and natter natter (to which the appropriate reply is grommish, grommish) that actors make when they are pretending to be crowds. Charles spent a lot of time on Wikipedia playing a game of his own invention, codename: WikiDip.
He decided not to return to the hotel via the recreation ground, all the same. The sun had come out again; no need for short cuts. Patrick and weird Jorge were probably on their way back to the hotel by now. It was getting on for evening and Jorge must be due back on shift soon. But just in case.
Ursula and Christina had a younger brother. He was called Charles and he had recently been reading the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, not so much because he liked it as because he had mislaid the charger to his e-reader, and the battery indicator was now down to one bar. There were a few ‘real’ books in the house, but they had been randomly and miscellaneously acquired and were uninteresting. There was How to Cheat at Gardening by some crumpled-looking woman in a cardigan and a floaty skirt in deckchair. There was Pilgrim’s Progress sandwiched between water-stained blue cardboard covers. This Charles finds incomprehensible. There was The Forsyte Saga in a hundred and two (well, perhaps not quite that many) paperback volumes, black. It had very small print, on paper so thin as to be almost transparent – about Victorians or some such. And there was A Study in Scarlet. The book was fairly short and Charles read it from end to end, but he didn’t enjoy this one either. He disliked pompous old Watson and that pointy-nosed, pipe-smoking smartarse Holmes. He did not enjoy the wordiness or the great long diversion to Salt Lake City in the United States, where people called Mormons were doing good things and then, incomprehensibly, bad things in connection with one or other of the characters who might or might not be the murderer that Holmes has, in his smartarse way, known about all along. Charles couldn’t remember which character, or why, and, after wading through so many tedious chapters-worth of Salt Lake City Mormons he no longer cared.
However, the story had influenced him. He had begun to picture himself as a detective in the making. Charles imagined real detectives to be like the detectives on TV, in those series commonly described as ‘gritty’; middle-aged men who lived on take-away food, drank cheap whiskey, fell asleep in their cars and would lean forward to shout in their suspects faces whilst carrying out interrogations. He was not interested in being like them. Neither was he interested in being like Sherlock Holmes, whom he detested. He had invented a new kind of detective. The kind that was really Charles, but cleverer, and unsuspected by all.
Charles in his detective persona had taken to following people about, flattening himself against the wall, round corners so as to overhear their conversations, and transporting small items of ‘evidence’ to the safety of his bedroom. Currently, his ‘evidence drawer’ – actually the drawer of his bedside cabinet – contained a rusty corkscrew with a knotted-pine handle. He had filched his sister Christina’s diary from under her pillow and from Ursula’s dressing table drawer her passport, which for some reason she had left out.
Charles glanced briefly at the photo in the back of Ursula’s passport, which made her look even plainer than she did in real life. Charles was a trifle muddled at this stage of his existence and had overlooked the fact that removing and hiding other people’s possessions was theft, technically. Initially he was not much tempted to read Christina’s diary. Having been only too closely associated with her for the past eleven years he suspected that whatever she had scribbled in this twinkly Day-Glo orange book of hers would be rubbish; but he was bored so he opened it anyway.
Christina’s spelling was even more atrocious than he had expected, but what she wrote was interesting:
‘ Patrick doesn’t luv me, of corse, but I don’t mind about that. He is of course a famus film actor. All the girls fancy the pants off him. Who culd guess from his burly good luks the actual situashun? That Brazilian weirdo Jorge lurking around him all the time. What a peece of luck it was that I twigged their little secret!!! Now he knows he has to marry me now or I’ll tweet it, I’ll bleat it, I’ll – what else has got EE in it? Dunno. Ideal husband, and it’s not as if he’s gonna get jealous and cramp my style, luv-wise.’
Charles flicked forward a few pages.
‘Better still, Paddy Boy is rich. Or at least he will be when he gets to 25 an that’s only 2 years away. Some sort of trust thing, wch he was stupidly showing off about when we first met. I don’t understand and don’t care about, except he – we – I – am gonna spend, spend, spend, spend, spend.’
Charles was shocked, in spite of himself. He knew Christina was greedy, but marrying someone just for their money? Even knowing they didn’t love you?
What exactly did she mean about this weird Jorge? Why should being friends with weird Jorge mean that Patrick had to marry Christina? ‘Why would his lady fans mind? And what did Christina mean by ‘their little secret’ and ‘the actual situashun’? I’m missing something here, he thought. All the same, I’ve learned a quite a bit.
HER bridesmaid frock lay in wait for her when she arrived at the wedding hotel which Christina, flaunting her supermodel earnings and recent TV contract for the cosmetics giant EverGold, had hired exclusively for three days. It meant the guests were arriving in undisciplined dribs and drabs, far too early, eager to take full advantage of the free accommodation, excellent food, filchable toiletries, complementary white fluffy towelling bathrobes and ‘extensive grounds with lake, swans, boathouse and nine-hole golf course with resident professional’. Presumably the resident professional offered lessons or tips to any nine-hole golfers who might happen along. Even bearing in mind Christina’s lengthy guest list, this was overkill. It was tacky and tasteless, but Christina liked to live it large these days.
There it was, lurking behind the door with a dirty little satin (more likely polyester-satin since intended for Ursula) snigger. It was a particularly disgusting shade of cerise, too, reminding Ursula of the engorged sexual organs of female baboons when in heat. Baboons were something she happened to know about, since she worked at a zoo. ‘Always a hands-on person, Ursula,’ her father liked to say. Parents said things like that about their disappointing children. ‘He’s good at swimming and does very well on the school allotment’, or ‘She’ll probably turn out to be something creative.’
Ursula actually worked with tapirs, anteaters and capybaras but passed the baboon enclosure several times a day, often wheeling a wheelbarrow or hefting a sack of smelly, overripe fruit. Tapirs, in particular, liked fruit. Ursula knew, although she would never have been able to explain how, that her sister had picked this shade with baboons in mind – had actually gone to the zoo and researched it. Probably even took pictures on that all-singing, all dancing phone.
Christina was a bitch, of the subtle, successful kind. Were you to accuse her, she would swivel those über-blue eyes in your direction and with a sweep of those meticulously-fanned lashes smugly acknowledge her guilt whilst demonstrating to all other occupants of the room her innocence, her sweetness and your own lumpy neuroticism. I am lumpy, thought Ursula. My face is not my fortune; I have a tendency to pimples; I sweat quite noticeably when I’m hot; I am a size twenty, on a good day, but this dress is at least a twenty-four. I am lumpy and probably neurotic too.
She lifted the cerise monstrosity and held it up, still on its hanger, against her over her jodhpurs and blue shirt, which smelled of tapirs, anteaters and capybaras. She turned to look at her reflection in the mirror.
Christina stood there, smirking.
‘It rather suits you, Ursie.’
Ursula whisked round.
‘I will not wear it.’
‘You didn’t really think I was going to let you fade into the background as requested, Ursie? Some classic, long-sleeved number in ivory silk? That was just a joke. The wedding’s the day after tomorrow, anyway. Even if I decided to change it, there would be no time.’
Which was why she had kept the dress under wraps until today.
Many years of suffering had taught Ursula not to follow the many diversionary rills and streams of Christina’s covert attacks, but to stick doggedly to the point. She did not say, for instance, ‘It wasn’t a joke. You lied to me straight-faced’. Neither did she say ‘You know full well it will make me look like an inflated globe with that nominally-cinched waist forming the equator.’ Neither did she waste energy pointing out what Christina already knew, that those hugely-puffed yet dreadfully short sleeves would draw attention the swaying pads of flesh beneath her arms.
She simply said, ‘I will not wear it’ and this time knew she meant it. Something had snapped inside her and she knew that this would be her first and last stand. Whatever she had to do to make not wearing the monkey’s-bum-coloured frock happen – be it incurring the wrath of her entire extended family, running away to Scotland to live forever in a caravan or worse – and she suspected it would be worse – that was what she was going to do.
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