On my last day, the day that is upon me, the big lady with the flowery apron will arrive and bustle about, preparing the room, making every surface shine white. She will leave without talking to me. I will never know her name. She will never speak mine.
I will lie comfortably on the bed in my nightdress, as I do today, looking at the cannula in my hand; smaller than I was, as small as I once was. Summer will reach me from the courtyard through the window’s narrow opening on the slow moving scent of the gum trees.
Out of the inner dark they begin to show themselves.
Daddy is wearing his long black overcoat and stands turning his hat in his hands. Mummy’s perfume arrives next, tea rose, and then I see her in a yellow summer dress, her hair pinned up in loose rolls. She moves forward and the bag that she holds crackles. Daddy takes the loop handles and begins to remove small parcels neatly wrapped in shiny gold and brick red paper.
‘For later,’ he says.
Mummy hugs me, presses me, speaking close to my ear so that I cannot understand her.
‘You’ve been gone such a long time,’ is all I can say at first. ‘Where did you go?’
Mummy stands back from me.
‘We’ve missed you too.’
She sits on the bed and smoothes down the coverlet.
They become still, so quiet that I think they might go away again.
Then Daddy speaks.
‘Don’t you remember? Mummy and I took the train from Victoria to Dover Marine and caught the ferry. We were going to France. We rented a car in Calais and made for Paris. The hotel was seedy but charming. The perfect place. We went dancing; the floor was so small that we filled it on our own. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so close to your mother as on our last evening in Paris.’
The colour leaves Mummy’s face, her features fade away; her large brown eyes gaze into mine.
‘We began to drive south heading for an appointment with an agent at Toulouse to discuss properties in the Lot Valley. We had received advance details about a number of places and your mother and I were particularly keen to look at an old mill house near a village called Vayrac. There was a small cottage with several large buildings with potential for conversion, a generous stand of walnut trees and, as one might expect, a tributary of the Lot river running through the grounds. The surrounding area, we knew, was beautiful and, as yet, unspoiled by people like us grubbing around for rural idylls. I was sure that we would spend many happy summers there.’
Daddy reaches into his coat but finding nothing he withdraws his hand and pats his chest at the empty pocket.
‘I was driving down a long poplar-lined road when I noticed the sky changing colour and a hissing began that I thought for a second was the radiator overheating, but which, I soon realised, was a fine orange dust skittering over the windscreen. I could feel the wind pick up behind us, and the hiss turned to a gush and the wheels’ revolutions began to soften. The fields, the farms, the fences began to blur and sink and the trees sagged under their colourful burden. The air in the car remained cool and fresh but the world outside grew wilder and redder. Eventually we could see nothing through any window and I had to accept that we were no longer moving.
‘The steady patter of falling dust soothed and lulled us, and your mother and I fell asleep, separating into our dreams. On waking we found that we were buried, the car packed in a warm mass of fine desiccants. Your mother turned on the overhead light and I rummaged in the glove compartment for something to eat, though neither of us was hungry. I found a travellers’ tin of boiled sweets. I suggested that we talk about something, Paris or you, and your mother said…’
‘I believe this is a marvellous opportunity for us not to speak, Darling.’
‘Admirable woman. So we sat and listened to the slight shiftings of the dust, breathed the dry air and waited. I ventured that it might be a good idea if we were to turn the light out to conserve the battery but your mother said…’
‘I can’t see what difference that will make. We’re not going any farther.’
‘Yes. You see, it didn’t matter. I had a hip flask filled with a good, single whiskey, which I’ve always preferred to malt, and we dined on that and boiled sweets whenever the desire came on; which wasn’t often. Nature didn’t impose any further inconveniences on us and I began to be aware of how very tired I had become, and when I was certain that I was free, I submitted to a feeling of blissful release that I had never before experienced, and I slept and slept.’
‘So very tired,’ says Mummy.
‘We were woken by a rushing, collapsing sound. Straight ridges were appearing in the matter pressed against the windows, visible by the yellow light that still flickered above. The wind had risen and was, in turn, raising our car out of its sandy captivity. The air grew frantic all around us and the particles lifted and flew, who knows where.’
‘Heavenwards,’ says Mummy, her mouth twisting but not smiling.
‘I started the car and we continued on our way to Toulouse but when we reached the agent’s offices we found that they were closed. It was then that we turned around and came back home. I’m sorry that we missed so much. There was nothing that we could do, Darling.’
Daddy takes out his pipe and sucks a few times to check the air flow before getting a floppy leather pouch from which he brings out rough pinches of tobacco that he pushes into the pipe’s bowl. His teeth click on the stem as he focuses on the crossed red circle of a sign that reads ‘No Smoking.’ Daddy slips the pipe into the side pocket of his overcoat. I turn my head with some difficulty and I smile at him and he grins back like a naughty boy.
‘What happened was more like this, Sweetie,’ starts Mummy.
‘We ran for the balloon which was rocking in the wind, despite the guy ropes, as if it were being pulled by an invisible hand. The rain lashed down. I was so glad that I was wearing the sou’wester that your father bought me. The mud was sucking at my boots and slowing me down. Your father pulled me by the hand and I nearly fell over but we reached the basket and clambered inside before, with one enormous heave, the balloon leaped off the ground and lunged for the sky leaving the pilot—or whatever they’re called—waving on the ground. I did feel sorry for the fellow.
‘The sky grew bigger and bigger as we fell towards the clouds that tossed icy rain onto us, and then suddenly we broke through, still rising, out into brilliant sunshine. I can’t tell you how marvellous it was to be bathed in that warm, buttery light. But before long the sky grew paler and weaker, turning white then darkening blue before we came up into the outer blackness where the stars shone all about like… like nothing but stars. It wasn’t nearly as cold as you might imagine and we continued to fall towards the moon.
‘We landed softly enough but in a tangle so that it took us a while to crawl out. We had the place to ourselves. At first I thought that everything looked the same, but once my eyes became accustomed to the conditions I began to discern, in the seeming uniformity, a captivating variety of form. Your father and I went for long walks, there wasn’t a whisper of air and the land was easy under foot. We camped under the basket on a tartan rug, which was adequately comfortable, and time passed in that manner.
‘One morning we were standing facing home when a light breeze rose up and began to play around us. Your father realised what was happening sooner than I and began to untangle the ropes and set the basket straight, and by the time the gale was truly up we were crouching inside, braced for the ascent. The balloon re-inflated like a great red lung and pulled us back to Earth. The air gyred as we plunged into the atmosphere and I lost my emerald cloche hat; a favourite of mine, such a pity. The storm abated, the balloon floated down pacifically and we debouched onto the strand. Your father and I were ravenously hungry so we walked up to the old hotel and ate breakfast; kedgeree and everything. I can’t tell you how delightful it was. Then we walked home and here you are, my darling. Home without us. Waiting.’
Mummy never cries so I am shocked when I see her open her clutch purse, take out a perfect white square of linen and dab her eyes and cheeks. Daddy puts his arm around her and kisses Mummy once on the ear. She stops sobbing and returns the handkerchief to its proper place and Daddy talks.
‘What your mother meant was that we were at Dotty’s summer house party…’ ‘She does so hate it when you call her Dotty,’ says Mummy.
‘… and we were all gathered in the sitting room after the outlying guests had gone home and Victor suggested that we play hunt the trophy. Now Dorothy and Victor had set up all the clues beforehand as a special treat so we didn’t want to be spoilsports but we did insist, against bitter opposition, that your mother and I would not be split asunder. We took our sheaf of clues and our brandies and set off into the house. We bumped into Gerald and Sylvia in the kitchen, which I understand wasn’t supposed to happen, and, of course, Gerry started to moo on about his printing business so we fled to the library where we quickly gathered our wits.
‘The theme was fairy tales with each clue taken from a different colour of those marvellous books that, as luck would have it, my mother used to own, and which I had read backwards and forwards before I knew that they weren’t for boys.’
Mummy looks as if she might cough.
‘Of course, your mother knows the books too. So the upshot was that we romped through the trail, the yellow dwarf, the troll’s daughter, Drakestail, the glass axe and so on, until we came to the last clue which came from The Silver Fairy. This was the story of the Sunken Princess who is betrothed by her wicked guardian to a handsome prince who lives in a moss-covered castle deep in the Broken Mountains. The princess travels alone through the swaying trees of a misty forest, her wedding dress shining white, scattered with perfect pearls that glitter like a scattering of tiny tears. The brave girl climbs up the slippery slate ramp and into the castle, her breath curling white through the air and rising away into the darkness. She mounts the steps that spiral up to join a long corridor that leads to another corridor that leads to the icy, airless room that is her bridal chamber.
‘The girl approaches. Before her is a vast bed dressed in mildewed yellow satin, surrounded by flickering candles resting in shivering bowls of water, their surfaces starting to crisp over with ice. She sits on the bed then swings her legs up and reclines on the mattress, her chestnut hair fanning over the pillow. The handsome prince enters through a hidden panelled door and as he walks towards her his grey livery falls away, his skin and flesh slop to the floor revealing the livid form of her guardian. The princess looks around for anyone, anything to rescue her but there is no one. ‘room, help me!’ she cries, but the room cannot help her. ‘Candles, help me!’ she cries, but the candles cannot help her. ‘Bed, help me!’ she cries and the bed begins to ripple and soften, the mattress rises slightly before sinking down, down into the world through the roots of the mountain, down and out and up into a bright orange world and out of the story. The wicked guardian jumps onto the sunken bed and falls down and down and is caught in the fiery heat at the centre of the world where he burns still.’
Daddy coughs and runs his hand through his shining hair.
‘So after searching into the dimmest recesses of the house your mother and I finally found a musty bedroom with a four-poster bed, hung around with moth-eaten drapes. We searched for some time but couldn’t find the answer and then your mother, the clever thing, suggested that we try the bed. We lay down on the dusty covers, and high over us pinned to the canopy was the answer; must’ve used a stepladder. I’m sorry to say but we’d had the best part of a bottle of wine each, Darling, and the brandy must have finished us off, because we fell into the deepest sleep, and when we woke up I remember a delicious smell of toasted cinnamon and an unaccountable soft warmth under my back. We sat up and saw the old house fallen, scorched and broken down all around us, and your mother and I lying on a bed of ash without a scratch on us. There wasn’t a soul in the grounds and only our car was left of all the partygoers’. I immediately started her up and we came home to you as quickly as we could.’
Mummy turns from Daddy and presses my knee gently; she smiles slowly, her eyes glittering, the colour rising on her cheeks, her face radiant, limitless. I can see the shape and meaning of the whole world hovering over me; loving me. Daddy puts his hat on and takes it off again. I look down at my hands withered and veiny, small and smooth and pink.
‘Darling, I would have thought that you’d remember what happened,’ said Mummy. ‘It had been a dreadful winter and we’d all been stuck inside far too much for our own good and we’d managed to clamber up to March, but instead of the first feeble rays of the blessed dawn of life reaching down to warm our clammy bones, all that came was rain. Torrents, sheets, buckets and bathtubs of icy, dreary rain. Then one Sunday your father put down his pipe, stood up and said…’
‘Are we not men? To cower thus squinting under a few pale drops of water. Let us go forth,’ says Daddy.
‘Magnificent, Darling,’ says Mummy. ‘So we rugged up and ventured out into the wind-bent world and struggled up to the park. Umbrellas were useless and despite our best efforts we were all soaked to a mush. We made for the Pavilion, squelched in and ordered tea and buns from the poor soul whose office it was to provide for waifs like ourselves. I can’t tell you but that it was the most delicious tea I’ve ever tasted and we felt fortified, emboldened even, to take you outside and attempt some proper fun. Daddy and I brought you to the boating lake, unsurprisingly there was no attendant in view, so we took matters into our own hands and located the most stable looking vessel and your father and I climbed in. One of us must have knocked the bank with an oar because we started to pull away from the shore and by the time we had fitted the oars into the rowlocks we had drifted quite a distance from you. I saw you waving, my angel, and it broke my heart, but no matter how hard we rowed the boat kept moving further away. There was water stretching to every horizon and the only dry land in sight was the bank where you stood and the path that led up to the Pavilion. A current had gripped the boat and was dragging us towards the lowering sky. Your father had had the foresight to bring a bag of toffee bonbons with him so we didn’t starve.
‘The rain stopped eventually but the water took a long time to fall away. When the flood subsided we found ourselves forked high in the top of a tree. The leaves were fat and glossy, and purple fruit hung in clusters close to hand but we didn’t trust them, Darling. We climbed down through knotted boughs and branches, past founts of mistletoe and nests filled with spoons and medals and pocket watches, before shinning down the trunk onto the path. We were immediately jostled by a group of schoolboys in blue jerseys running towards a playing field but in doing so they had turned us in the right direction for home. We walked on and here we are.’
‘Here we are,’ says Daddy.
The clock ticks with a suck-suck, suck-suck and the light dims outside and I close my eyes and remember the day that I stood in the parlour, still and cold, my uncle telling me that they were never coming home. And I open my eyes and they stand there smiling, smiling, and the night will come on and the moon will come out and traverse the sky and the dawn will return and we will stand there together smiling, smiling.