Challenging Behaviour is my second novel, just finished the fifth draft – I don’t work fast! And it’s out for editing now.
I haven’t written a synopsis yet but it is about a couple who find themselves living in a derelict asylum and their personal problems bring to life the spirits of the past inhabitants. It’s a paranormal thriller but its underlying theme is the investigation of the subconscious and where it can lead us.
Buildings have long been considered as symbols of the psyche and abandoned asylums especially so.
Just to give an idea of the size of these places. As said in the novel they were complete towns
There is always a moment when, in the night, the beast hears the other beast.
Jack felt as if the door to his life had been left open and a stranger had walked in.
“Well?” Karen asked.
“It’s a shock,” he said.
“It’s what’s happened.”
Jack sipped at his whiskey, let the single ice cube clink on his teeth, felt the irritation rise.
“It’s an accident, not an attack, not a plan. I thought you might be happy, celebratory. I thought you might congratulate me, us.”
“It’s not like I’m blaming you.”
“Blaming me?” her eyes widened.
“Accusing you of anything.”
“What are you saying?”
“Its always been your responsibility.”
“Exactly, you forgot. I’ve never really thought about it. You took it on. I didn’t force you or anything. I’m not saying it was deliberate – a trick; but you’re talking like it’s a done deal.”
“It’s not here is it?”
“Yes, it is.”
“It’s early days it can be…”
“What – corrected – got rid of – killed?”
Jack clenched his fist round the glass.“You’re being overdramatic.”
“We need to discuss it calmly. Right now it’s not anything, just a conglomeration of cells. That’s what you’ve always said, isn’t it? Quote – until fifteen weeks it’s just a conglomeration of cells – .”
“Yes. You’ve said that you couldn’t understand why people got so worked up about it. And it’s how long – eight weeks?”
“Six. So I’d better just hop off down to the clinic then?”
“I’m not saying that but you could lose it and it wouldn’t make any difference. You wouldn’t even notice. It’s no bigger than a lentil.”
“Is that so?”
“I wouldn’t even notice it floating in the toilet – is that right?”
“If you hadn’t taken the test you wouldn’t know that it was there and you could have lost it and just thought you were having a heavy period. ”
“Whatever you say, darling.”
“It’s all in your head.”
“It’s in my womb.”
“Only because you’ve been told it is.”
“It’s real. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.”
“Its got a heart.”
“All I’m saying is if you lost it it wouldn’t make any difference.”
“It would make a difference to me. ”
“It involves me.”
“I’m glad you acknowledge that. It’s not like I did it on my own.
“It will change everything.”
“Maybe for the better.”
“It couldn’t be better.” He spread out his arms, indicated the balcony and the sea and the lights of the Palace Pier bright against the evening sky. “How could it be better?”
“Is this what you want forever?”
“I want things to develop, to go forward. I want our own place. I want a home, I want a family. I want a life. We’re not twenty anymore. You’re not Peter Pa. We’re getting old.”
“So you’re going to keep it?”
Jack watched as Karen turned and went into the flat: her broad shoulders, her flat back, the way the hair on her neck grew in a soft downy anticlockwise whorl that he could trace with his fingertips. Why did this have to happen? It would change everything. He resisted the temptation to hurl the tumbler against the wall, watch the whiskey dribble down the plaster and the fragments of glass scatter across the tiles. He bit his lower lip hard and walked to the balcony rail. He held the whiskey glass cool to his right temple. The last thing he wanted was a baby. Actually the last thing he wanted was to lose Karen, that was unthinkable.
He watched the cars, the people, the sea. Normally he liked standing there. Normally the awareness of the other men below, the other men with partners not as beautiful as his, looking up at him, envying his right of ownership over this life: this flat with its sea-view and balcony and smoked glass windows and granite worktops, made him feel warm, safe, secure, successful, quietened the worm of anxiety; but not tonight, not now.
He turned and after a brief pause followed Karen into the flat. He slid the door across behind him; the smoked glass socketed into the frame, shut out the noise, the approaching darkness.
Karen lay on the bed fully dressed. Her eyes shut, her hands on her belly.
He lay beside her, crossed his ankles, shut his eyes. Let me be safe and free from pain, he said to himself. Let me be healthy and happy. Let me have ease of being.
He fell asleep and dreamt that he was running down corridors in pursuit of a figure that never got closer or further away .
Click clack. Eyes open. Eyes shut. Quiet. Shush. Quiet. Bad boy.
Jack woke to Karen stroking his head, massaging his scalp, her fingers deep in his hair. His mouth was thick with sleep, his tongue swollen. He rolled onto his back, “I love you,” he said, taking her hand, kissing the palm.
“Even when I’m pregnant?”
“It just means there’s more of you to love.”
“You were horrid.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s wonderful news. It was a shock.”
“I hate it when we argue.”
“So do I.’
“We never argue.”
“No. We’re a match made in heaven.”
“At least you didn’t ask me if I was sure that it was yours.”
“If it’s yours it’s mine.” He extended his arm and she rolled into him, her head against his chest. “I love you,” she said and snuggled close. “Do you remember those afternoons in the pub? The sun shining through the windows and us inside while the wage slaves went about their tedious days.”
“Mmm and we knocked back the gin.”
“We are going to be happy aren’t we? You and me and baby. It is going to be alright, isn’t it ?”
He pulled her tight. “Of course it is,” he said feeling the beginnings of a headache. “Don’t you worry. It’s going to be more than alright, it’s going to be wonderful, magical.”
“But I do worry.”
“I know you do and you mustn’t. It’ll all be fine. “
“We’ll look after each other?“
“Keep the world at bay.”
“Babes in the wood.”
“But no witch in a gingerbread cottage?”
“None.” He kissed her palm again.
“I’m the only witch in your life and I’m going to eat you up right now.” She raised herself on her elbow, lent over and kissed him. Her lips were soft on his and her tongue slightly cold in his mouth. He rolled away, sat up.
“Just need a pee.” He sat on the edge of the bed, rested his head in his hands for a moment.
“I do want it,” she said.
“Of course you do.”
“It’s the right time.”
“And you are happy about it aren’t you?’
“Yes.” Jack sat up. “It’s great.” The headache started to pound.“What time is it?”
“In the evening?”
“In the evening.”
“I must have fallen asleep.”
“Indeed. A bit too much whiskey, perchance?”
He stood, bent over, kissed her on the forehead and walked to the toilet. In the bathroom he massaged his temples and took two Ibuprofen. It was fine, he said to his reflection in the mirror. It would be fine. It was what happened: children, families. He would be a dad. He examined his long thin white face. Didn’t look like a dad to him, but then he didn’t know what a dad looked like. He sat on the closed toilet seat. Waited for the edge to be taken off the pain.
Tick Tock. Click Clack.
Karen smiled at him as he came into the living room. She was at the island hob, frying off onions. He came up behind her, put his arms around her, kissed her neck, blew softly on the whorl of downy hair. She shuddered, laughed. He poured himself a drink and sat on the high stool on the other side of the granite top.
“How about one for me?” Karen asked.
“You’re pregnant,” he said stuttering slightly on the p. “No more wild times for you.”
“So now you’re going to become all protective?’
“Of course. Isn’t that what Dads do?”
Karen dropped two steaks into the pan. “I’m going to give up work,” she said. “You have to be especially careful in the first trimester with the first baby and I am thirty five. Pushing it.”
“I thought you enjoyed the job.”
“I used to but not anymore; it’s so boring. “You look lovely in that. It really suits you. How about this colour? Have you ever thought about knitwear?” Ugh, ugh, ugh.”
“So you’ll spend all day making booties?”
“I want a home.”
“What’s this?” He gestured with his glass, a small amount of whiskey slopped out, down the back of his hand; he licked it off.
“This isn’t a home, it’s a pad. I don’t want to live in a pad anymore. We’ve got all those houses. We could take one of them for now, couldn’t we?”
“Until we find the ideal?”
Long afternoons in the pub that was the best, that was the happiest. Long afternoons in the pub followed by lazy lovemaking on a mattress on the floor and then the Sopranos on TV. That’s what life should be. That was perfection. And Karen’s money had almost enabled that, ever since drama school. He’d written and she’d acted and they’d lived off her money: simple, except it wasn’t. There hadn’t been any real parts for her and he’d written with no success. She’d started working in the boutique run by Caroline. He’d got her to cash in the stocks and he’d invested it, bought some houses and sold houses and done them up. Well, got others to do them up while he carried on with the writing, hoping for the big break. Checked on them, rented them out – or not.
“It’s not quite like that anymore.” He poured himself another drink. Karen flipped the steaks onto the two plates, put salad on them.
“How do you mean?”
“We don’t have lots of houses anymore.”
“So what do we have?”
“One big house in the country.”
“We’ll go and live there. Lovely.”
Jack felt the familiar twist in his guts. “It needs a lot of work.”
“I don’t mind. It’ll be romantic, exciting.”
He watched her as she sawed into her steak, shoved squares of bleeding meat into her mouth. He loved her. Was it possible to love someone too much? He couldn’t imagine life without her. He wanted to be inside her, inside her head, seeing with her eyes, thinking her thoughts. It still amazed him that she was with him. And it terrified him that might leave and then what would he do? He hadn’t even got a proper job. She smiled at him, her mouth full.
“Tell me about the house.”
Jack took a bottle of red wine from the rack, opened it. “It’s Grade 1 listed.”
“At least part of it is. The idea is to divide it up into apartments.”
“Are you going to eat that?” she asked gesturing at his steak.
Jack shook his head.
She speared the meat, dragged it onto her plate.
“Do you know what’s weird?” she said. “The cravings. Some people want ice cream, charcoal, mangos, Jaffa Cakes. I want red meat, bleeding meat. What about that?”
“It’s because you’re an animal,” he said. “A wild, ravening beast.”
She opened her mouth, showed the half masticated food, growled. He cowered in mock fear. She laughed, spilled meat down her chin, wiped it off and continued eating.
“There’s land as well,” he said. ”The idea is to do some demolition and build some new units, sell them.”
“Make a fortune.”
“Sounds fantastic. ”
He smiled, massaged his temples. Why wasn’t she angry? Why didn’t she ask him why he hadn’t told her that he’d sold all the houses? Why hadn’t she ask him how it was all going? Why had she assumed everything was fine, did assume everything was fine? Why didn’t she want to see the bank statements that showed they hadn’t got any money left. Why didn’t she realise that they needed her wages to keep the flat on? Why did she trust him so much? Why did she love him like that? Why hadn’t he told her? Because he loved that’s why. Because he wanted her to be happy.
“Oh,” she said, reaching back, grabbing a little bundle of brown envelopes, throwing them across to him. “These came, for you, they look official, and there’s a few messages on the answer-phone. Isn’t your mobile working?”
He took the letters and put them to one side without looking at them.“What about the acting?’ he asked. “You’re not going to give that up?”
“What about the acting? How long is it since I’ve had a part?”
“Two years ago.”
“But you’re brilliant.”
She smiled, lent back on her stool. “Brilliant doesn’t mean successful.”
He remembered all those conversations in the pub. How she would be a star, how his plays would be performed everywhere. How they would never compromise. How being moral was of more significance than fame. Intense discussions of how to avoid compromise when the world’s eyes were on you. How to avoid being corrupted by fame, by flattery, by sycophants. They’d certainly avoided all that. In fact they’d avoided everything thanks to Karen’s money, everything apart from the ever increasing sense that he was wasting his life, that he was heading towards a catastrophe, that he could see no escape from his current trajectory.
“It’s just that you haven’t pushed yourself.”
“The only pushing I’m going to do is getting this little fellow out.” She patted her stomach.
She could do what she liked. She always had done. Money gave you that possibility. He poured himself another glass of wine. He had to make things work. There was no alternative.
Tick tock. Click clack. Bad boy. In the dark.
The pain in Jack’s head was jagged: the toothed edge of a bow-saw cutting through the centre of his skull, chunks of organic matter clotting on the blade. The young man opposite him, Geoff, his name badge read, ran a finger round his collar, coughed.
“Basically you don’t have enough income to cover your expenditure.”
Jack winced, put his hand to his head.
“The capital sum was exhausted a while ago. We have been trying to contact you.” Geoff looked at Jack reproachfully.
“I have assets.”
“Your wife has assets.”
“We are married.”
“And you have debts.”
“The thing is …”
“Rapidly increasing debts. I regret that we, in the bank, are now considering issuing a bankruptcy order and will be terminating your credit.”
Jack tried to concentrate on what was being said, but the three concentric rings of blue lights that were revolving slowly in alternate directions above Geoff’s left shoulder made it difficult, that and the headache. “Is Geoff your real name? he asked.
The young man looked puzzled.
“I mean were you christened that or is it a nick-name, a shortening?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“Just curious. Carry on.” If only the pain would go away.
“What I was saying is that your credit will be terminated.”
“Why do you want to do that?”
“I don’t want to do it. In fact it’s the last thing I want to do.”
“Then don’t do it.” It was Jack’s turn to look puzzled.
“It’s not me that wants to do it, it’s Mr Cole; it’s not personal or anything. ”
“Why does Mr Cole want to do it? I’ve never met him.”
“He doesn’t want to do it.”
“If he doesn’t want to do it either then it’s not a problem because I certainly don’t want it to happen.” Jack got up. “I’m glad that’s sorted out then.” He said extending a hand. He noticed that Geoff was sweating a lot and that the lights had reversed their directions and he could smell peaches. He looked round the room. His hand still extended “Have you got any fruit in here?” he asked.
Geoff looked at him. “No,” he said.”Why should I?”
“No reason,” Jack rubbed his temples.
“Please sit down, Mr York. We haven’t finished.”
“Ok,” he sat.
“It’s about the money,” Geoff said. “The money you owe the bank.”
“Right. There’s been some problems, with the property.”
“We have written to you Mr York. A number of times and left lots of messages. Your joint account overdraft is standing at £27k, your credit card is on £14K and you’re paying penal interest rates; it’s mounting daily.”
“It’s just too much. Mr Cole has said so, said we can’t advance you any more credit. Things have got a lot more difficult since the crash. Mr Cole says we shouldn’t have let you go so high in the first place. Frankly I don’t understand it either; someone should have stopped it ages ago.”
Jack knew that he needed to understand what was happening, what the results could be of what this youth was saying.
“If you could pay off the indebtedness there wouldn’t be any problem. Have you got any way of doing that?”
“There is a property”
“Can you sell it – quick?”
“End of the week?”
Jack smiled; the boy was a fool. “You can’t sell a property in a week. Particularly not one like this.”
“Right,” Geoff stared at his computer screen.
“So what happens now?” Jack asked brightly.
“All your accounts will be frozen from twelve noon today.”
Jack looked at his watch. “Ten minutes ago?”
“But that’s impossible, that can’t be right.”
Jack felt his heart contract as if a band had tightened round it. He started to pant. A sharp smell overlaid the scent of peaches: gunpowder?
“I don’t like this, Mr York, anymore than you do.”
“I doubt that, Geoff. I doubt that very much indeed.”
“ Mr Cole is our new regional manager and he has red-flagged your case, wants it settled, dealt with, now, governance stuff, sir. They won’t have it. I’m really sorry.”
“I want to see him.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.”
“He’s not here.”
“Geoff would you listen to me for a moment?” The pain in his head was enormous, the lights blinding, the smell of gunpowder overwhelming. He was breathing in great gulps. Geoff licked his lips, started to smile, then stopped, dipped his shoulders, dropped his head. “Of course,” he said.
“I would like you to tell Mr Cole something when you next see him. Can you do that?”
Geoff nodded, began to speak. “I’m terribly …”
Jack held one finger up.
Geoff stopped speaking.
“That if I ever see him,” Jack said, his voice starting at a whisper so that Geoff had to lean forward. “I’ll pull his fucking head off and ram it up his arse. I’ll say “I don’t like this anymore than you do, Mr Cole.” But I’ll be lying because I’ll fucking love it.” He was shouting now. “And if I see you,” he jabbed his finger at Geoff, who pushed his chair back so that it struck a wall and caused the whole structure to shake. “I’ll …”
Jack saw the terror in Geoff’s eyes and breathed deep, stood, clasped his hands tight behind his back. “Give me ease of being,” he said to an uncomprehending Geoff and walked out of the cubicle into the banking hall. The hall was quiet. The ten or so customers stood watching him, the tellers behind their glass partitions at attention.
Jack walked across to the cash machine, took out his card, held it up theatrically and then placed it in the slot. He put his pin number in and the machine swallowed it. “See,” he said to the watching audience, “see; gone.” The saw in his head was now moving so fast that the noise was a high pitched whine and the blade just a blur. “Swallowed by this.” He gestured around the banking hall. “By the corporate machine.” His head jerked back; he gave a thin piercing scream as a series of electric shocks ran through his body and then attacked the furniture in a frenzy of kicking and punching: sending pens, the Financial Times, the Economist and the Daily Mail flying, chairs cannoning across the carpeted floor. A large be-suited man, his name badge said Ken, launched himself at Jack and they rolled across the floor knocking down an old lady, a small child, an aspidistra and narrowly avoiding flattening a Pekinese, which responded by barking shrilly and furiously and attaching itself to the trouser leg of the man. Jack managed to land two scrabbling punches on the man’s ample chest before receiving a serious blow to the jaw, which stunned him. The next thing he knew he was face down on the carpet, his arms pulled hard behind his back, listening to the approaching sirens.
Tick Tock. Click Clack. Turn, twist, shit on the floor.
It was five o’clock by the time he got home. Karen was standing at the worktop chopping herbs.
“There’s something wrong with our accounts,” she said. “I needed some cash and the machine ate both my cards. Could you give them a ring and sort it out ? I’m such a wimp about all that stuff.”
Jack went to the kettle.
“Oh, I phoned Caroline, said I was leaving. She was lovely about it. Said she totally understood and in fact it was a good thing because she couldn’t really afford me anymore. What do you think of that?” She looked up, smiling, dropped the knife. “What happened to your face?”
“I got hit.” Jack put the kettle on. “Fancy a cup of tea?”
“In a fight. Earl Grey or Builder’s?”
“A fight? You never get into fights. You never have.”
“There’s a first time for everything.”
“Are you alright?”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Not as much as I imagined it would.”
“What happened? Tell me.”
Jack placed a teabag into a white mug, poured in the hot water, watched as brown snaked through the clearness, clouded it.
Jack took milk from the fridge, poured it carefully into the tea, concentrated on the colour change: brown to taupe; at least he thought that was what it was called, but he might be wrong; Karen would know. He put the milk back in the fridge, shut the door and went and stood on the balcony. He could just jump off. It was a pleasant day, the sun appearing and disappearing behind soft grey clouds, a fresh breeze from the south west, a few white caps on the sea. Such a contrast from the council flat that he had grown up in with his mum: no light and no air.
“Jack, what’s going on?”
Jack stared out at the pier, watched the ride on its end jerk up and down at irregular intervals, listened to the seagulls.
“Is there a problem with the bank?”
Karen put her hand on his arm; he shook her off. He sipped the tea: the right temperature, perfect.
He hurled the mug across the balcony. It shattered on the wall; tea slid down the render. In the silence that followed he walked into the lounge, lay on the sofa and covered his face with his hands. He heard Karen come in, shut the sliding door, sit. He listened to her breathing.
“That sounds very Victorian.”
“Are we going to be hauled off to a debtor’s prison?”
“There’s no money.” The words were like a punch to the gut. He swung his legs to the floor, sat up. He was trembling.
“How can there be no money?” Her face was white, set.
“The bank has frozen the accounts.”
“Because of our debts.” He stood and went across the room and poured himself a whiskey.
“I didn’t know we had any debts.”
“You never asked did you?”
“No. I thought you had it all in hand.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
The leather-winged creature flapped lazily in the early evening air, its claws skittering across the glass door to the balcony. He resisted the desire to hit Karen, just once, to see her nose flatten and the blood spurt, to prove that he existed outside of her, that he was a man. He breathed deep. He sat at the table, placed his hands carefully palm down on its surface. There was a vastness of black inside him. “I thought it would work out,” he said.
Karen sat on the other side of the table. “What would work out?”
“The scheme of course.”
“Fuck!” He swung his arm across the table, knocked the tumbler of whiskey to the floor. It landed with a thump and rolled quietly under the sofa leaving a dull, damp trail on the carpet.
“Talk to me.”
He was falling into a pit. He was six and he was in the darkest of dark places where his dead father stumbled and fell and cursed and hit.
“Is it to do with the house in the country?”
“I fucked up, that’s what happened.” He jumped to his feet and spun round. “Fucked up,” he repeated and hit himself hard on the right temple. “Ruined it all,” hit himself hard on the left temple.
“Darling”, she was beside him, her arms around him. “It’s all right. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what’s happened.” She led him to a chair, sat him down. “Whatever it is we’ll get through it.” She knelt in front of him rested her arms on his thighs, took hold of his hands. “Just tell me.”
He lent back, rested his head, stared at the ceiling. Where could he start? Those afternoons in the pub is where he should start. Those afternoons when the warmth of false comradeship and false expectations had been allowed to grow and sink its roots deep into them.
She let go of his hands.
She hated Darren.
“Came to me with this idea.” He could feel her arms tense on his thighs. “This opportunity. He’d found a property which he said we could get really cheap and it would be the making of us. The thing was it was going to be selling at auction and we needed cash.” Jack breathed in, tried to be calm. Tried to disappear from this place, tried to be somewhere else where he was the observer of the action, not the protagonist, the victim. “So Darren said he knew someone who would buy the houses.”
“Yes. Quick and for cash so we wouldn’t miss out.”
“How much money did Darren put in?”
“None,” he stuttered slightly on the N.”
“None,” her voice was flat.
“He didn’t have any.”
“Right.” Karen took her arms from his thighs, sat back on her heels. “So what happened?”
“I sold all the houses and bought the other property?’
“Did you get market value for our houses?”
“I got a good price.”
“That’s not what I asked. Did you get market value for our houses?”
“A bit under.”
“Quite a bit. But good for cash, at short notice.” His voice tailed away, his mouth was dry, his tongue sticking to his palate.
“Those were the papers I signed, one night, late?”
“I got enough for the houses to put some aside for us to live off for six months while I raised a loan on the property to pay for the development. There would have been enough money to pay me a salary until we started selling the completed units.”
“Sounds great. And?”
Jack had his eyes shut. There was some technique that he had read of somewhere whereby you could withdraw your consciousness from your body, from the corporeal world and find calmness in an infinite, abstract location where time and therefore consequences became irrelevant.“I couldn’t get a mortgage on the property.”
Breathe, through the nose, it cools the amygdala, calms flight and fight, stills the reptilian brain. “Outline planning permission was turned down and the council issued a notice saying that the grade one element needed emergency works. No one would give me a mortgage without planning or before the emergency works were completed. ”
“I can’t get hold of him.”
“How much do you, we owe the bank?”
“Forty one thousand.”
“And everything has gone into the stately home?’
“Which of course we can’t sell because it’s not got planning permission and its got a preservation order on it? What did you think was going to happen?”
“That I’d get a mortgage.”
“Which you can’t.”
“Which I can’t.”
“So what now?”
“I don’t know.
“Look at me. I need you to look at me.”
He opened his eyes, raised his head. She looked so beautiful. He stood, walked to the work surface and picked up the knife Karen had dropped. He went to her and held it out, handle first. “Stab me,” he said, “now, in the heart.”
She stared at him in amazement and then laughed. “Stab you? Don’t be ridiculous. I mean that would sort everything out wouldn’t it?”
He put the knife back in the wooden block and smashed his fist through one of the wall cupboards.
He moved sideways pulled his arm back again. She was beside him, had her hands round his right bicep. He turned and slapped her open-handed across the face with his left hand. She spun across the kitchen, crashed into the wall and fell.
Tick, tick, tock. Click, click, clack. Push it out.
Frank tapped his pudgy fingers on the smeared desk, rolled his chair back. “So let me get this straight, you sold your properties cheap and then you invested it all in another property which is worth sweet fuck all.”
“It’s not worth fuck all.”
“Well, fuck all at this precise moment, what with planning and listed building and all that shit.”
Frank stared at Jack. Jack stared at Frank.
“And where is Darren?”
“Not answering my calls.”
“There’s a surprise. How much?”
“One million two hundred thirty thousand. It was cheap.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“I’m not surprised.
Jack smiled, began to sweat, to hate himself. “We’ve done a lot of work together, haven’t we?” he said.
“A bit.” Frank shook his head. “I can’t believe that you’ve got yourself into this situation. I mean you’re an intelligent bloke, educated, got the gift of the gab.”
“I didn’t get myself into it.”
“No one else did.”
“The fucking bank did.”
“Whoa, no need to shout.”
“ Sorry.” Jack dug his fingernails into the palms of his hands. “Bit stressed.”
Frank lit a cigarette, didn’t offer Jack one. “So you’re broke?”
“I can’t get at any money. The bank’s shut down my accounts. Like I’m a member of the Mafia or something. But I’ll get by.”
“Course you will, mate. Can’t keep a good man down, eh?”
Frank had a questioning look on his face as if he was waiting for Jack to do something, perform a trick, stand on his head and shoot ping pong balls out of his arse. Jack breathed deep and slow. “The thing is can you wait for the rent for a while?
“You’re over three months behind already, sunshine.”
“Just until I get myself back on my feet.”
“And how exactly are you going to do that?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”
“There’s lots of desperate people out there. Anyway it’s too late.”
“It’s already in the hands of my solicitor.“
“You’re evicting us?”
“Not me personally, the company. There’s a fiduciary duty, it’s a legal responsibility. All decisions have to be based on what’s good for the company, not what’s good for the individual; anyone over three months behind in the rent is evicted. No exceptions. It’s out of my hands.”
“You could change that. It’s your company.”
“A: I’d be failing in my duty if I did and B: I’m not the only director. I can see the others going along with me coming up with some sob story.”
“It’s not a sob story.”
“It is. If we start to make exceptions before long all the houses would be filled with mates and people’s grannies and we’d be broke; like you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I think if you’d bothered to open all that mail I can guess you’ve been ignoring, hoping it’ll go away, you’d have seen they served notice on you two weeks ago.”
“The solicitors. The bailiffs should be round any time soon. Three months behind, out; it’s a rule so don’t go asking me to break it because I won’t.”
“But this is different.”
“No, it’s not.”
“But I need your help Frank. I’m bust.”
“Haven’t you got anything?”
“Nothing,. Nothing at all?”
There’s a lesson in there isn’t there?” Frank sat back in his chair, made himself truly comfortable. “Your missus?”
“Of course it was her money wasn’t it? Trusting soul she must be to give you all that. Does she know?’
“I would have liked to have watched that, been a fly on the wall.”
Jack stared at him, bit his lip, kept quiet, resisted the urge to leap across the desk and throttle him, tighten his hands round his throat until his eyes popped out.
““Remember everything in there belongs to the company. Wouldn’t want to have you pursued by the Old Bill for nicking the carving knives. I suppose you’ll have to go up the labour exchange, sign on.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Millions do.”
“Get rid of it.”
“Talk about a shit storm, Jackie boy; least it’ll move you up the waiting list for a flat, eh?”
Jack dug his nails further into the palms of his hands “Can you lend me some money?”
“You’re having a laugh. Lend you money so you can pay it back to me as rent? I’m not your mum. Would you lend you money? No security, not even a bank account any more. Spread your risks, lesson number one.”
“That’s all right for you to say.”
Frank narrowed his eyes. “Easy tiger, I wouldn’t like to have to ask you to leave.”
“Do you want me to beg? Get down on my knees?”
“You’re embarrassing yourself and me. Just stop.”
“Just put yourself in my position.”
“I would never allow myself to be in your position, ”
“But what am I gong to do?’
“Search me. Evaluate your position and make a decision based on the facts removing emotion from the equation. That’s what they say.”
“You’re not going to help me?”
“No. I’m not in the position to help you. I’m not going to give you money. I could be interested in that property of yours though. What’s it called …?
“Yeah, The Grange, but I’d have to get it looked over, valued in its present state. Take a while.”
“But what do I do until then?’
“Not my problem, sunshine.”
Fingers in the shit. Warm. On the wall. Tick, tock. Click, clack.
“The bailiff was very nice,” Karen said. “Almost apologetic. He didn’t have a bowler hat or anything. He said he’ll be back tomorrow and then we’ll have to leave, that we have tonight to get ourselves sorted out, whatever that means. He didn’t say that bit about getting ourselves sorted out; I did. You hit me. You knocked me over and you ran away. I don’t know which is worse. Faith says I should leave you, now. I thought you wouldn’t come back. Faith loves me. Do you love me? You want me to have an abortion. You’ve lost all my money. You knocked me down. You abandoned me. I could have been dead. I could have lost the baby. Who did you go to? Darren? He going to bail us out? Oh, he won’t answer your calls will he? Frank then. Lovely Fat Frank with piggy eyes and sausage fingers? Did he hug you to his sweaty breasts? Did you offer him me in exchange for a rent holiday? Isn’t that the next step? You’ve lived off me for years and now the money’s run out you’ll have to pimp me, won’t you? You’ve already started beating me up. How much will you charge? How much am I worth? Do you know what the problem is, the real problem? I love you, that’s the real problem. I should hate you, but I don’t. I love you and I can’t do anything about it. I’m stuck with you and I hate it. Why did I trust you? Why did I think you were a man? How can I still love you? That’s a curse isn’t it? I must be sick, sick in the head. That’s what my sister says, that’s what Faith says – you’re sick in the head Karen – and she’s right isn’t she? How could anyone love someone like you?”
“We need to pack,” he said.
“That won’t take long; everything belongs to Fat Frank doesn’t it? Be light on our feet that’s what you said, walk gently on the earth. We’ve certainly achieved that. After fifteen years all we’ve got will fit into a couple of suitcases. It’s your fault. It’s all your fault. It definitely isn’t mine. All I did was believe in you. Why did I ever listen to you? All those afternoons in the pub, all that booze and your nice hard cock, that’s what did me in.”
”Don’t like me talking like that, using words like that? What are you going to do? Hit me again?”
“We need to go.”
“Yes, we do. But where are we going to go?”
“To the Grange.”
There’s something the matter with me. I go to see granddad. I ring the bell. He doesn’t come to the door. I go in – I’ve got a key. I walk down the hall. On the hat-stand, in a little silver frame, is a picture of my nan. As I go in the kitchen there’s a picture of her stuck to the wall beside the light switch. There’s pictures of my nan all over the house, each time he goes past one he kisses it. He’s taken the glass out of any that had glass in so he can get closer to her. He’s kissed them so often that where her face should be there’s just a blur. There’s two cups of tea on the kitchen table and two plates each with two custard creams on them. He’s sat at the table. I give him a kiss on the top of his head. “You all right, Granddad?” He doesn’t look at me. He’s staring across the table, concentrating real hard. He’s listening to my nan. She’s dead of course, been dead for years. I take a little wander round the house, check that it’s all right, that the toilet’s clean enough. Pictures of Nan everywhere: one level with each step of the staircase, one you can reach when you sit on the toilet: all kissed away. I go back into the kitchen. “We were never apart,” he says, not to me, but like to the whole world, to anyone who might be listening. His eyes are filling up. “Not one night since we was married – not one.” He keeps looking across the table. “I don’t feel right Granddad,” I say. “I feel like maybe something’s going to go wrong. That I’m going to do something that’s not right. It’s in my head and I don’t understand it. I feel like I’m in a box and I don’t know how to get out.” He’s not listening. He gets up, goes into the lounge. Video’s on. He never turns it off. It’s a video of my nan walking round the garden. Doing a bit of weeding. Smiling at the camera, at my granddad. There’s no soundtrack. My dad got the cine film copied. The colour’s all wonky. I sit in a chair in the corner. The curtains are drawn. Granddad doesn’t look at me. He watches the video. I talk, quietly. “I don’t understand it, Granddad. I should be feeling fine, shouldn’t I? I’ve got everything you’re supposed to want, haven’t I? I’ve got Lance who loves me, worships the ground I walk on, the pot I piss in. That’s good isn’t it? And the girls. Got them, got my babies. That’s good, that’s what women are supposed to want, aren’t they? Got a house, a car, a garden. It’s all what I dreamed of; why’s it not enough? I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I don’t feel right. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to blow up; I’m going to burst; that I’ve got too much stuff stuck in my head. Other times I think I’m going to disappear; that I’m going to be running up and down the worktop in my kitchen getting smaller and smaller until I’m gone and there’s just this little mark in the air like a full stop. And there’s the cold.” I stop. I look at him. He’s still watching the telly. “Do you know about the cold, Granddad?” I ask and I’d like him to answer but I know he won’t. I want someone I can talk to about the cold that gets right into your bones, into your brains like when you eat ice cream too fast and you get this burning ache that hurts and at the same time is numb, that’s back to front and upside down; but this cold doesn’t go away; it eats into you, takes you over, takes you to a place where nothing matters, where you’re not worth anything, don’t care about anything or anybody. I stand up, look at the pictures on the mantelpiece: pictures of me when I was little. “I thought having the girls would sort me out, turn me into a fat little canary singing in a cage, but it didn’t. Made me fat all right, but I didn’t sing. I thought it would take away the cold, fill me up, make me warm. It hasn’t. There’s got to be some place where I can be a cat in the sun all lazy and loving and satisfied; hasn’t there? Trouble is I don’t know where it is.” I look down at my hands. I want to gnaw my thumbs, make them bleed; I don’t. “When I’m in bed with someone new, someone I don’t know, when everything’s new: their smell, the feel of their skin, the shape of their cock, the taste of their cum; I know what I’m doing, what I need to do, why I’m there and that’s the only time I feel like that.” I look at him, wonder if he’s noticed my using those words, talking like that; I never talk like that, but he hasn’t. I don’t think he hears anything I say. But it’s good to say it out loud instead of just thinking it, for me to hear it even if he doesn’t; it’s better than talking to no one. “I get frightened; I think that I’m going to suffocate or freeze to death or die in the dark. Maybe I should I go out, on the fences, in the night, howling at the moon, and find some bloke who’ll give me a good seeing to, fill me up and then perhaps I could get some sleep; what do you think? You’re not listening are you, Granddad? I’ve got such a lot I can give, such a lot I can take, such a lot I want to do and see. I’m like a kaleidoscope but all my glittery bits are stuck, covered in dust; I need to be shaken up.” I walk across the room, plump up the cushions on the sofa. “They say love makes you free, don’t they? Maybe I need to love a lot more, Granddad, love someone like you loved Nan and then I’ll be all right. If I open up the doors, let all my love flood out then I’ll be out of the dark, away from the cold. But then Nan died, didn’t she and look at you now. Maybe it would be better never to love no one, get used to the cold. Maybe it would be better to be nothing.” I open the curtains, look out at the garden. “When I was little I used to think that if I got up on the roof and opened my arms I’d be able to fly up to the sky, that I’d be up there with the angels and I’d look down and see you all standing in the garden happy to see me go, happy to see me free.” I shut the curtains. “Maybe I’m going mad; I don’t know. What I dream is more real than what I do when I’m awake. It feels like that’s where I belong, in my dreams, not here in these little houses with their little gardens and cars what get cleaned every Sunday. Last night I dreamed I was on a boat: I was waving at the girls who were on the beach and the boat I was on was really leaning because of the wind and the sea was really black and there were white caps on the waves and it was cold but I was all warm wrapped up in my cloak. I’m sad and frightened and excited all at the same time. I turn my back on the shore and look out to the horizon and into the dark and I see this little line of light and then the wind gets stronger and the boat leans further and we’re sailing real fast towards the light and I can taste the salt on my cheeks. And then I wake up and the salt is my tears.” He’s not listening. He’s watching the video. He’s crying. His mouth is open. I kiss him on the top of the head. Leave. I sit in the car and wonder if I’ll ever love anyone as much as he loved my nan. I wonder if I want to. I wonder if that mightn’t be the worst thing of all. I wonder if being loved is a curse. I wonder if all I need is a good seeing to. I think that what I’d like to do is just fly away; then I turn the music up real loud and drive home.
I can’t sleep. I lie in bed beside Lance. He’s out cold making little ticking noises at the back of his nose. I’m sticky between my legs. We’ve had sex. It was rubbish. Light is coming through the curtains from the street lamp lighting up the Artex on the ceiling: looks like the surface of the moon. The machines kick in on the cheap electricity: dishwasher, washing machine, dryer. I get up, wash myself, go downstairs. I go in the kitchen. It’s all clean, all smooth, all shiny, not marked at all. I turn on the tap and fill a big glass with water: the condensation on it runs down. I’ve got no curtains on the kitchen window. I sit at the Formica topped table and watch the light reflecting off the sink, the worktop, the floor. It’s cold in here. The heating’s off. I’m wearing the big T-shirt I wear in bed. My feet are bare. The floor is cold against them. I drink all the water. I stand up and fill the glass again. I drink. I stand by the window. If he was standing out there he’d see me. See my face lit by the street lamp. See just enough of me to know that he fancied me. I’d move back out of the light. I’d disappear. I’d watch him waiting for me. But there’s no one there. No one watching me. No one waiting for Julie. I fill the glass again. I go and sit in the living room. The girls have put all their toys away in the box. I think that I have to do something; I have to change things: buy some shoes, paint the hall, get the girls new dresses, do night classes in cooking, join a gym. I sit on the sofa, feet curled under me, glass of water in my hand. I shiver a little. Maybe I should leave, get on that boat and sail away, but I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to blow all this up, hurt the girls, hurt Lance. Maybe I should leave my job, but I like hairdressing. I like making people beautiful. I like listening to them talk about what they’re going to do, who they’re going to be. Mark said I made him feel like Superman, that he could do anything when he was with me. I liked that. Thing was he couldn’t. He couldn’t do anything. He was useless. He let me down. I take the local paper, open it at the jobs section, spread it on the floor, go down on my hands and knees.
Title Support Worker
Location Newick, East Sussex
Hours 37 hours per week
Salary £16,022 – £17,126 per annum, (based on 37 hours per week)
Application Application Pack – Support Workers – Newick – Jan 15
Could you make a real difference to the lives of people with learning and physical disabilities?
You’ll be helping people live as independently as possible, so it’s a hugely rewarding role – and a chance to build a great future with this growing organisation.
We’ll give you full training so you don’t need experience. That training and support will continue too, giving you the chance to develop your skills and gain further qualifications.
Closing date for applications: Noon, Thursday 5th May 2015
Interviews will be held: Monday 13th May 2015
I could make a real difference to people’s lives.
But I’ve missed it.
The interview’s tomorrow, this is an old paper.
I sit back on the sofa and start to cry.
I can’t do nothing. I’m stuck, in my box.
I think of Granddad watching the video with the curtains drawn.
I sit up straight.
This is a sign.
Usually I’d have thrown the paper away but I didn’t.
If I’d thrown it away I wouldn’t have seen the advert.
But I have.
I stand outside the office. It’s in a big low building, trees and a little river close to it and I think this is really, really stupid. Who do you think you are? Why should they bother with you? Just as I’m about to run away, get back in the car, go to the salon, say one of the kiddies was sick and that’s why I’m late, this woman comes out. She’s pretty; she’s wearing a short tweed skirt, a white shirt, nice little necklace. She’s got a black jacket on. Her hair is brown, glossy, clean. She’s carrying a briefcase in one hand, in the other her IPhone. She’s talking about going to a meeting. She’s got a nice voice: not too posh but posh enough. She’s confident, walking forward like she has a right to be there, like she knows exactly where she’s going and what she’s going to do when she gets there. A bloke comes out after her: jeans, check shirt, jumper. Not super handsome but healthy and moving good. I want to be her; I want her life and I don’t see no reason why I shouldn’t have it. I go in the front door and up to the reception desk. I’m shaking, my voice is wobbly. I say I’m here for the interviews. The lady behind the desk, who looks a bit like I remember my mum looking when I was a kid: cardigan, short hair, asks my name and looks down a list. Says I’m not on it. I say I only saw the ad last night and I’ve come because I really want the job and could they see me. There’s a chubby middle-aged woman in a trouser suit standing behind the desk going through some papers. She looks up. “We’ve had a cancellation haven’t we, Sandra?” The woman who looks like my mum nods. “Right then,” the big woman says. “We’ll see you.” “I’ve filled in the forms,” I say holding them up. She smiles. “I like enthusiasm,” she says.
I wait to go in for the interview. I sit on a chair with my hands together. I look at the window. The glass is dirty. I see myself reflected in it. White face, red hair, really red hair. I watch myself in the window. I like the new colour, not that different from my natural colour but better. It fills me out, fills me in. Sometimes I feel like one of the girls’ colouring books before they start on it, just black lines. I used to have really short hair and then I had a bob and then I got a perm but I like this wave. It suits me. I wonder how I’d look with a fringe.They’ve given me a leaflet. I read it.
Challenging Behaviour refers to culturally abnormal behaviour(s) of such an intensity, frequency or duration that the physical safety of the person or others is likely to be placed in serious jeopardy, or behaviour which is likely to seriously limit use of, or result in the person being denied access to, ordinary community facilities. Hyperactivity. Psychological disturbance.Unacceptable verbal habits. Unacceptable or eccentric habits. Inappropriate personal mannerisms. Stripping clothes off in public. Hitting self or others. Kicking others. Smashing windows. Smearing faeces on walls. Self-abusive behaviour. Sexually-abhorrent behaviours.
Who are they talking about? Abhorrent? I go in for the interview. I’ve never had one before. There’s four of them behind a table; there’s a chair in front of the table. I sit in it. There’s the chubby lady, a tired man with floppy hair, a tough woman about my age with a double chin and a man who’s lying bent over the table. “I’m Linda,” the chubby woman says “and this is Debbie.” She’s the tough one: white blouse, white trousers, white shoes. She has two gold chains round her neck and three gold sovereign rings on her right hand. She chews a pencil and looks at me through little brown eyes. “This is Julian.” The man smiles, he looks shagged out. He’s wearing a corduroy suit and runners. “And this is Jim.” He’s in his sixties, long and thin. He hums. “I’m the Area Supervisor,” Linda says, “Debbie and Julian are Home Leaders and Jim is our resident representative. And you are?” “Julie.” “And you’re very keen?” I nod, blush, get annoyed with myself. “I’ll just say a little about us and then I’d like you to say why you want this job and what you think you could bring with you.” I nod. “We are a charity,” she says, “dedicated to providing supported accommodation in the community for individuals with learning disability. We have a large number of houses and we are interviewing for posts in two of those units in Newick where tenants by and large have moved from a large-scale institution; isn’t that right Jim?” Jim stops humming. “Would you like to tell Julie where you used to live?” “I used to live in The Grange,” he says sitting up. “I had keys on my belt. We put the sheets in the boilers and boiled them.” He stares hard at me then gently rests his head back on the tabletop. “So why do you want this job, Julie?” They look at me. “I want to do something that makes sense. I like to help people. And I think I’d be good at it.” I could say that I think I’m going to die if I don’t change, dry up and blow away. I don’t. “Why,” Julian asks. “Why what?” I ask. “Why do you like helping people?” “Because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel free.” Julian sits back in his chair, looks at me like I’m some sort of specimen. “Is that wrong?” I ask. “It’s not wrong or right. It’s what you feel.” Linda says writing something down. Debbie is watching me, her little eyes all scrunched up. Jim says something but I can’t hear because his head’s on the table. “Sorry,” I say, “Can you say that again.” Jim lifts his head up but leaves his chest on the table; he looks like a tortoise. “Are you kind?” he asks. I think; I want to get it right whatever Linda says. “Well?” Debbie says. “Well what?” “Are you kind?” I don’t like her. I know her type: get you up against the wall in the lav and give you a good kicking because they think you’re after their old man. It goes quiet. “Yes. I think I’m kind.” “Think?” Debbie leans forward, her stomach catches on the edge of the table. “Only think?” “I try not to hurt people.” “Try?” “Sometimes I hurt people without meaning to.” I’m sweating. “How do you do that? Hurt people accidentally?” I could stand up, tell the lot of them to fuck off but then I’d be going back in that cold box, into the dark. “Sometimes I say things without thinking.” “Like?” “Asking someone how their mum is and not knowing that she’s dead. Stuff like that.” “What else do you do without thinking?” “I think that’s enough Debbie,” Linda says and then asks me what I’ll bring. I look at her. What does she mean? Clothes, packed lunch? I don’t get it. “To the job,” she says. “Qualities.” “I get on with people; I work hard.” Jim vibrates and hums. “Why’s she here?” he asks. “Julie’s applying for a job with us.” Jim turns his head on the table so that he is looking at me. “Can you sing and dance?” he asks. “A bit,” I say. “ He sits up; “I can,” he says. Debbie interrupts.“Do you have any experience of this type of work?” she asks. “I’ve got two girls and I looked after my mum when she was dying of cancer.” “That’s not the same” “I know how to clean up shit,” “We all know how to do that, but do you reckon you can deal with people pissing all over you?” Like you are now, I think.
I wait till the girls are in bed. “I want a change.” I say to Lance. He looks frightened. The sun comes in the window. He’s going grey. What am I doing to him? I don’t mean to do anything to him. I know he loves me, but it’s not my fault I don’t love him back. “I’m going to leave,” he goes white, “my job, get another one.” He swallows, smiles, shuts his eyes. “Fancy a drink, darlin’?” he asks and his voice is a bit shaky. I nod, give him a chance to get himself together. He goes to the kitchen. I stand at the window, look out at the garden: the kiddies slide, the swing. There’s something missing. I don’t know what it is but it’s not there. He comes back with glasses and wine. “I told the salon that was it. I’m not going in anymore,” I say, still looking out the window trying to work out what’s missing, what I need. “What did they say.” “Nothing much” “They’ll miss you, darlin. What did your dad say?” I get a flame in my belly, I feel some vomit at the back of my throat. Must be the wine. “I haven’t told him.” “He won’t like that.” I think of the woman in the tweed skirt and black jacket. “It’s nothing to do with him; it’s my life.” I hold out my empty glass, he fills it.”What you going to do?” Get on the boat and sail away. “Something in caring,” I say. “You’d be good at that,” he says. “You’ve got a lot of love to give.” And he’s right; I have. Thing is I don’t know who to give it to. He comes to me, wraps his arms round me and it does feel good. I don’t feel so cold. He’s so gentle. He kisses me just below my ear, just where I like it. “I worry about you, Julie,” he says. He’s a good man, a kind man, as my mum said when we got together, I could have done a lot worse. “I want you to be happy,” he says to me. “I want you to stop worrying and just let yourself be because you’re such beautiful person.” He moves towards the hi fi, doesn’t let go of me, pushes me ahead of him. He switches it on, still not letting me go. It makes me laugh him trying to hang onto me like I’m a kitten and I go with it. It’s Chris DeBurgh, Lady in Red. He dances with me and I rest my head on his chest. What have I done to deserve such a good man, someone who puts up with me, someone who really loves me, puts me before himself? I need to look after him. “You deserve to be happy,” he says. “I went for an interview today.” “About what?” “For a job, stupid.” He stops dancing, moves back holds my hands. I can feel the love coming off him, if he was an electric fire he’d be on full, both bars glowing. “And?” “I screwed it up.” I pull him back to me, feel his cock hard against my stomach. I rub myself against him. I’m good at this; I’m a good fuck; I don’t lie there like a kipper. “How?” He’s got his head bent down on my shoulder. “I didn’t know the right answers and there was this real bitch.” “Their loss,” he says. He’s got his hands on my arse pulling me right into him. I take his shirt out of his trousers, slide my hands up his back. I like feeling him hard against me; I like his skin under my hands. I’m getting wet. Maybe in another life I was a high class whore, pleasing men, giving them what they want and need and getting what I want and need. I put my head back and he kisses my neck. I like this: skin to skin, moving towards the fuck, getting closer to something, to not being on my own. And then the phone rings. And I’m back. Could be my dad, heard about the salon, phoning up to give me a talking to. “Ignore it,” Lance says and I try to but I can’t. I’m not wet anymore. I take my hands down from under his shirt. The door opens. It’s Lucy. “Phone’s ringing,” she says. Lance breaks away from me, smiles at Lucy, picks up the phone, listens, holds it out to me. Is it Dad? I mouth and he shakes his head. It’s Linda. “Sorry to phone so late,” she says but we thought we’d tell you tonight. We’d like to offer you one of the jobs.” “Not with Debbie?” I say without thinking and she gives a half laugh. “No, not with Debbie, with Julian. He and I think you have the right personality to do the very specific work he is involved with. That you have the right combination of qualities. I don’t want you to say yes or no now. I want you to sleep on it. It’s a big step confronting these people, working with them and what I don’t want is someone to arrive and then walk out. We’ve had people who only lasted half an hour. I don’t blame them but it doesn’t help the clients. So the way it will work is that if you are interested we’ll get you up there as soon as possible so you can take a look at the reality and then finally decide. How’s that?” I nod then I realise she can’t see me. “Thank you,” I say. “Phone me tomorrow,” she says and puts the phone down. “I got the job,” I say and I pick up Lucy and dance round the room. “I got the job.”
For the first time ever Jack had slept on the sofa and she’d slept on her own in the big bed, Frank’s bed. She shuddered at a fleeting image of Frank heaving and sweating over her breasts, his sausage-like fingers rummaging between her legs. Her life wasn’t supposed to be like this, had never been like this. It was supposed to be fun. She was built to be happy. It wasn’t possible that she could be involved in something so stupid, so trite, so miserable. She sat on the sofa, opened her copy of Vanity Fair and studied an advert for boots with intense concentration while Jack packed books into a cardboard box. If she was still working in the shop they might have stocked the boots, made inquiries of the supplier. But she wasn’t working in the shop. She was broke. Unbelievable.
Jack dropped a book and as she watched him bend to pick it up she was back at college, in London, watching him walk into the canteen for the first time and thinking this is it, this is the one. He dropped something then, a book, his bag? Bent to pick it up and she noticed his suppleness and his neat tight arse. What was it that did it? It wasn’t just his arse, that was nice but not that spectacular. His aura? He carried a darkness with him but if she was being honest she probably only saw that later. It wasn’t that she chose him or he chose her; it just happened. It seemed the most natural thing, that they were made for each other. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. He was with someone else but that was irrelevant. They’d gone out for a meal in a little Greek restaurant off Charlotte street and she’d taken him home and that was that: he never left. No questions, no doubts, bang, crazy. But he was beautiful and they did look good together. When she saw their reflection in the shop windows it made her stand up straight, flick her heels, smile. They just looked so great. He was tall with a thin white face, an aquiline nose, black hair, broad shoulders, narrow waist. She was blonde, curling hair, six inches shorter than him – just the right relationship, nice figure, breasts noticeable but not excessive, hips swelling but not too much. She bathed in the looks they got, it was like warm milk. And the sex had been great, they knew what the other wanted, climaxed at the same time, perfect. Of course perfection didn’t last long. She looked back down at the magazine. The last time they had come together was in Paris and before that she couldn’t remember. The darkness in him had become apparent within that first weekend. On the Sunday she had gone out to buy croissants and he had stayed in the bed, on the mattress, on the floor. When she came back he was sitting in the little 1930’s nursing chair. He didn’t acknowledge her when she came into the room. It looked as if his forehead had slid down his face. He stared at the floor, a cigarette caught between his lips. He looked impossibly cool: Jean Paul Belmondo. He was Heathcliffe and she was Cathy except she wasn’t going to end up in a freezing grave on the moors, no way, centrally heated flat with all mod cons for her. Romance was ok but not doomed romance, not for real. She was going to be on the inside in front of the fire not scrabbling at the window. She was going to sort it all out, sort him out. They would live happily ever after. She was going to be his saviour, make him happy, enable him to realise his potential so that the two of them would ride high in a world of success and glamour and fame. She threw the magazine onto the floor.
“How could you have done this? How could you have allowed it to happen?”
“I don’t want to go through it all again.”
“Go through it? You haven’t explained anything.”
“I can’t.” He put the last of the books in the box, which he sealed with parcel tape before lifting it up with a slight groan and walking out of the flat.
She felt like a Dalek – this didn’t compute. She spun round on her heels. How was she supposed to behave in all this? Outrage? Understanding? Support? Leave? She took her mobile phone and hit the button for Grace.
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I told you, leave. He’s spent all you money. He hit you. He’s a waste of space.””
“I love him.”
“What does that mean?”
“That I don’t know how to live without him.”
“If I’m not with him I don’t know who I’d be, what I’d be. I don’t exist on my own.”
“Stupid, stupid, stupid. Of course you do. You’re not going to vanish in a puff of smoke. Other people love you. I love you. Come here, now.”
“I can’t leave him.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t. Seems obvious to me. He hits you, you leave. Or have you turned into some battered wife: all floppy tits and milk-stained blouse? ”
“He didn’t mean to.”
“What he didn’t notice you were standing there? He meant to punch the wall?”
“He didn’t punch me, he slapped me.”
“Right, that makes all the difference. That’s fine.”
“He’s part of me, I’m part of him. We belong together.”
There was silence down the other end of the phone.
“You have a choice Karen and now is the time to make it.”
“If Dad was alive.”
“If Mum was all right.”
“What? Think they would have said anything different? “No, darling you stay with him; I mean why on earth would you want to leave a man who’s spent all your money and beaten you up.”
“He didn’t beat me up.”
“Stop trying to justify it, to excuse it. You should listen to yourself. Where’s your self -respect?”
“If I could leave I would. It’s not possible.”
“If you change your mind call me otherwise don’t bother. It’s your decision to stay with him.”
“It’s not a matter of choice.”
“I don’t want to hear anything about how miserable you are or what a shit he is or anything at all. You’re wrong and you’re putting yourself in harms way.”
There was a long silence. “Are you going to keep it?”
“Of course I am.”
“No of course. If you’re going to keep it that’s even more reason to leave. It’s not just you, it’s the baby as well. Jesus, you’d have to be crazy to stay.”
Jack came back into the room and Karen cut the call off.
“Who was that?”
“Telling you to leave me?”
Jack didn’t look romantic, or cool he looked terrible, his face was drawn, his cheeks sunken, his eyes red from lack of sleep. He lent against the wall, slid down so he was crouched on his haunches. “Perhaps it would be better if you did go.”
Karen took a step back, felt her lips pull tight. “Is that what you want?”
“I don’t want any of this. I want what’s best for you.”
“And that’s my being on my own.”
“You can go to Grace.”
“She’s in a student house.”
“She doesn’t have to be.”
“You want me to live off her money?” She watched as his head fell forward. “Why can’t you do something? Why can’t you sort something out? Why can’t you be a man?”
“Your plan is that we get in the car with all our belongings and take off like participants on the Jeremy Kyle show? Dear Jeremy I used to have money but my husband lost it all and now we live in a car. That’s trying?”
Jack pulled himself up from the floor and walked towards the door.
“Don’t you leave, don’t you fucking walk out on me. I’m your responsibility. Me and your baby. I won’t let you dump us. You have to make this right Jack. You have to make it right, not me. No more running. You have to step up, man up, do what needs to be done. Turn round.” He turned. “I need to know what you want.” He looked as if he was dying.
“I want what’s best for you.”
“What does that mean? What does it involve?“
“I think you should leave. It’s not what I want but I think it will be better for you.”
“And easier for you?”
“No. The last thing I want is to lose you.”
“Then fight for me.”
“I hit you.”
He was staring at her tears running down his cheeks. “I can’t believe I did that, but I did and I’m frightened I’ll do it again. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Then protect me.”
“The only way I can do that is by sending you away. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I think I’m going crazy. I don’t know what’s going on.” He gave a wrenching sob and twisted sideways, rested one hand flat on the wall. Against her will, knowing that this was the wrong thing to do, knowing that she should stand alone, she should be strong, she went to him and put her arms around him and he bent to her and wept. She stroked the back of his head and stared out of the window. The sea looked so cold, the clouds enormous.
As they drove in silence, the Audi stacked with their possessions in black plastic sacks, she passed from numbness through rage into an area of ice cold compressed fury. How had she let this happen? She felt that she might explode into a cloud of fragments that would shred the interior of the Audi and flay them, fill the car with blood and small pieces of their flesh. They drove down a narrow lane and came to a stop before a high brick wall. “That is definitely a wall,” she said, her voice breaking the silence before the silence broke her. The wall rose through untended laurels to a height of three metres, impermeable, uncompromising, violent, brutal, redbrick, topped by rusted, coiled, barbed wire. “It is the wall of all walls, the synthesis of walls; if you phoned Central Casting and asked for a wall this would be what they would send you. It is the Oscar nominee of walls. Wow.”
“You like it then?”
“No, of course not. I hate it. When have I ever liked walls?”
Jack craned his neck, looked up through the windscreen. “Do you think it was designed to keep people out or keep people in?”
“Both.” Karen shuddered. “Look,” she said, “the hairs on my arms are on end. It makes me want to get the hell out of here. You said a house in the country.”
“This is the country and behind that wall is a house.”
“Not the sort of house you implied.”
“Maybe not the sort of house that you assumed.”
“With you I never assume anything, not any more.”
Jack ran the tip of his tongue across his upper lip. “It’s grade one listed.”
“They would have listed the House of Usher if it hadn’t slid into the tarn.”
“It’s just a wall.”
“It is not just a wall, it is the wall. ”
Karen breathed deep through her nose.
“What did you say?”
Jack glanced at her, clenched his fingers round the steering wheel. “Sorry, that came out wrong.”
“Yes, it did.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Really? And how do you know that?”
“Because it has to be.”
“I wish I had your faith.”
“So do I.”
Karen turned her head on the headrest, stared at him, her body coiled. “Do you want a full scale row, do you? Because if you do, you can have it. Do you want me to say how you’ve failed me and our unborn baby absolutely? Because if you do, I can. Do you want me to talk about all the promises you made me? Because I can. Do you want me to describe in detail what I feel about our present situation? No? Didn’t think so. I suggest you just shut the fuck up.”
Jack turned left, drove on, following the wall. Branches pushed over and through the coils of barbed wire. “I grew up close to here,” he said. “Newick. Shitty little place.”
“So you’ve said, many times.”
They drove on in silence.
“I should have hit him.”
“Like you did the guy ion the bank?”
“So you could make a bad situation worse?”
The road widened, the wall eased back to an opening. There was an overgrown gravelled semicircle and set at its apex two black wrought iron gates three metres high and two metres wide. The gates were attached to brick pillars each topped by a large lantern with a bell top. On either side railings two metres high led to a set of plain brick pillars, which in turn connected to curved sections of brickwork which led to the boundary wall. Over the gates was a wrought iron arch with Bletchington Grange written in curlicues against the grey rain filled sky.
Jack stopped the car.
“Arbeit Macht Frei,” Karen said.
“Auschwitz; Work Makes you Free.”
“Bit over dramatic.”
“What ever you say, darling.”
Jack got out of the car and Lauren watch him as he fumbled with a padlocked chain on the gates. She did love this man and what it did mean was that she did want to be with him whatever. She remembered him sitting with her as her dad died of cancer. Him supporting her, carrying her down the corridor, taking her outside and just holding her, letting her cry. He had always let her be who she was, never tried to make her into something else. And he had always been there, that physical presence, that animal warmth. How could she think of not having that beside her? And he had tried hadn’t he? God, yes he had always tried, tried to make her happy, tried to protect her. OK so he had got it wrong, been shafted by Lance but then she suspected that an awful lot of people had been shafted by Lance. Jack succeeded in getting the chain off the gate. It swung open with no sound, welcoming them, waiting for them.
Jack got back into the car and reached for the key.
“Wait,” Karen said. “It doesn’t have to be like this. We can do it a different way.”
“We could go away. Treat it as a new start, a positive thing. You’ll be able to sell this place won’t you?”
Jack pushed himself back into the seat. “Eventually, yes. Frank said he would be interested.”
“So we’’ have some money. We’ll lose some but we won’t be broke, not then. So why don’t we just go? I’ve got some money in a savings account.”
Jack stared at her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s my money.” She breathed deep. “It’s not enough to make any real difference, a couple of grand but enough to get us away from all this. To Spain, India. We never did that, did we, travel?”
“I’m not disabled.”
“I don’t want to run away. I want to look it right in the eyes.”
“We could go to Cornwall, sign on.”
“I won’t sign on. That’s giving up.”
“What about me? But it’s not about me is it? It’s about you, as usual. All about you. I don’t want you to go through that gate. I don’t want to go in.”
“I don’t have any choice. “
“I can’t avoid it anymore.”
“What can’t you avoid?”
“Myself. I don’t want to pretend anymore.”
“I didn’t know you were pretending. I wasn’t.”
“Pretending to be a man?”
“Great. Good time to tell me. Maybe you could have told me before I got pregnant.”
“What difference would that have made?”
“Maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to be fucked by someone who wasn’t a man, someone who had given up. But then you didn’t want me to get pregnant did you? Too much of a challenge, too difficult. In fact maybe it wasn’t you, maybe it was someone else: a real man.”
“No.” She looked down at the dash board. How was she turning into such a bitch?
“I know when it was.”
And she did as well – Paris. They’d fought. She’d wanted to go to the anthropological museum on the Seine; he’d wanted to go to Montmartre and sit and drink in bars. They’d gone their separate ways and she had strode along the Left Bank, her collar turned up against a biting wind, her anger shifting into a sense of loneliness and abandonment. Why did he have to do that? Why couldn’t he be with her? Why couldn’t they be walking hand in hand? Why couldn’t they have gone to the museum first and then to the bar? And then mounting the twisting ramp that led into the museum and walking through the half dark of the exhibition galleries where each item was lit from above in its own pool of light, her sense of dislocation increased. She felt she was swimming through the subterranean world of her own sub conscious, of her private mythology. She stopped in front of a small wooden figure with raised arms and ivory teeth. Its eyes were engraved deep into an elongated skull which was decorated with coarse black hair. The face was dotted with mother of pearl. She stood and stared. A sense of loneliness and despair and separation overpowered her. She wanted to reach through the glass and cradle it to her even though she knew that its teeth would bite deep into her breasts. And she had texted Jack and found him and they had eaten and that night in the hotel bedroom she had fucked him and hurt him despite his wish not to be hurt. She had come with a ferocity that frightened her and she had bitten his breast and tasted his blood as he had bruised her thighs and penetrated her deeper than ever before, fucked her in the dark, hurt her when above all else she had not wanted to be hurt. After they had lain together awake, each one’s breath mirrored in the other, not speaking, listening to the occasional car and echoing conversation of people moving along the cobbled street until the sound of the streets being washed warned them of the approaching day. They were two animals entangled and warm in their cave waiting for the dawn.
She nodded. But then it had passed. They had come back to Brighton and the rawness, the animality had been covered up, the distance, the coldness had returned. But the baby remained.
“Where did it go wrong, Jack?”
Jack shook his head.
“Why didn’t you tell me that things were going wrong? Why didn’t you include me? I thought it was real. I thought the money, the houses, the flat, you, were real but now you’re telling me it was pretend, house of cards, a street made of paper. One puff, not even a huff, that was all it took and now it’s fallen down. A week ago it was fine and now its turned to shit.”
Jack stared through the windscreen at the open gates. “I need to do this, to make this work.”
“Are you turning this into some sort of macho challenge? You Bruce Willis now? Going to spit on the ground and give me a a little manly smile?”
“You can go to your mum.”
”How can I go to her? She’s mad.”
“She’s not mad. She suffers from depression.”
“And seeing things and hearing voices and whatever you want to name.”
“She hasn’t had an incident for ages.”
“Yeah, that’s right and that is exactly what this will do to her – cause her to have an incident. I don’t want that on my conscience.
“Then just go, use the two grand.”
“If I could I would but I can’t. I’ve got nothing except you. How did that happen? ”
Jack stared out at the trees, tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.
“Are you glad I came? Are you glad I’m loyal, that I’ve given you a chance.”
“I’ll drive you to the station.”
Karen shut her eyes as they passed under the arch. This was it, the beginning of the rest of her life.
“Not going to shut the gate?” Karen asked.
“There’s no point,” Jack said.
“Because whatever wants to get in has already done so.”
The avenue wound through beech trees that had just broken out into acid green, the gravel was covered in long dead leaves, moss and weeds. There were the occasional fallen branches.
“Babes in the wood, eh?” Karen said.
“With no witches.”
“I’m not entirely sure about that.”
And neither was he. They turned a final corner and the Grange was revealed to them. At the centre was a battered three story Palladian house its stucco blown in large patches with irregular green stains camouflaging the original cream. Stone steps led up to a portico supported by six fluted pillars. On either side of the main building were clumsy red brick three story towers with pointed roofs, then another red brick extension and another tower and another extension and another and another and so on fading into the distance. It was even bigger than the Louvre, and it was his, all of it and it was falling apart: glass broken, tiles missing, plants growing from sagging gutters, stray curtains blowing from empty window frames.
“Jesus?” Karen’s mouth was open, her eyes wide. “It must be half a mile long.”
“Stop the car.”
Karen got out and walked towards the building.
Tick tock, Tick tack. Bang. Bang. Bang. Gentle. Gentle. Bang.
“How could we possibly have afforded this?” They stood side by said at the foot of the steps staring at the studded entrance doors. “And what are we going to do with it?”
“Demolish the wings, turn the house into apartments and build a number of Georgian style executive villas.” It was a mantra he had repeated to himself thousands of times. “There’s guaranteed access through the park land.”
“That doesn’t come with the house?”
“How much land have we got?”
“The turning circle and under the wings.”
“It’s enough, we don’t need anymore.”
“And how many Georgian style executive villas are we building?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Don’t you have architects’ drawings?”
“Couldn’t afford those until we got the mortgage.”
“Have you spoken to any architects?”
“What were you thinking of?”
What he’d been thinking of was her, of her seeing that he was worth it, of her loving him more, of her understanding how much he loved her, needed her, centred his whole life around her. And it was a bit bloody late for her to start getting critical when she had never shown any interest before.
“I thought it was a good opportunity.”
“And Lance convinced you.”
“If you like.”
“I”m not sure I do like.” She sat on the steps and looked out into the park land. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ll have to give me some time.” She rested her head in her hands. “Its all been a bit of a shock but I’m sure I’ll get used to it.”
“I’m going inside,” Jack said.
The hall was smaller than he remembered and more decrepit. It was rectangular, high-ceilinged with two sets of doors. The walls were painted green gloss to waist height, above that a faded magnolia. The paint was scratched, scuffed, dirty. In the ceiling was an ornate plaster circle from which dangled a single light bulb on the end of a fraying cloth flex. A series of cheap coat hooks had been screwed into one wall. There was a stack of plastic chairs in a corner. Against the wall on the left a desk with a telephone and a pile of brown card folders; in the centre of the stone floor and glued down, a dirty, battered square of patterned red carpet; close to the desk a two-bar electric fire. Over everything, like an old woollen blanket, an institutional smell of dirt and plastic and damp and cabbage and urine and vermin. And high between the two sets of double doors a stone tablet, engraved in the tablet:
THIS BUILDING IS DEDICATED
TO THE CARE OF THE INSANE
“How about that,” Karen said. “You’ve bought me a mad house. How sweet. How come you never told me?”
“I thought it might upset you, what with the baby.”
Jack could feel the blood mounting up his neck and pooling in his brain. Bitch. He needed a bolt to penetrate his temple and release the pressure that stopped him thinking. He couldn’t breathe properly. He stumbled forward the weight within him causing his feet to drag, pressing him into the worn flagstones. He was falling, drowning, the air so thick it was an effort to penetrate. He went through one of the double doors and was in a wood panelled inner hall. There was a staircase: two metres wide and ascending to a half landing where it divided and then swung back on itself in a pair of gracious curves. High in the centre of the ceiling was a lantern window from which a cold, thin light fell. Coconut matting had been stuck to the floor and the stairs. There were lists of activities tacked to the wooden wainscoting: details of plays and music groups and gardening rota and staff rota and emergency numbers, yellowing with age. There was a laminate desk stacked high with cardboard boxes, a row of green filing cabinets – all incongruous in the sweeping elegance of the room. There were stark holes in the woodwork where lamps had been torn out. And him: an ape with fingers dragging, pinned to the earth. Another door, ajar: a boarded up marble fireplace, a single unshaded light bulb, walking sticks, Zimmer frames, crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetic boots, callipers, bedpans, commodes, rubber sheets, shoes with built-up soles, a smell of old rubber and stale urine. And him lost in an undergrowth of abandonment. And then some air that he could breathe: a beautiful room, perfectly proportioned: high ceiling, long windows, baroque coving, floor flagged, and for a moment amongst the slow contortions of his clotted brain he pictured the ladies of the house, the weather too inclement to go out into the park, walking arm in arm; the gentlemen, the heels of their riding boots percussive on the slabs, politely escorting them and then it was swallowed. He shook his head , trying to stop the blood in his skull setting. The windows were crudely barred and the room segmented by three files of seven-foot-high walled enclosures, each just large enough to take a bed. He walked past rubber boots, chamber pots, bicycles, sewing machines, garden rakes, everywhere the smell of damp and decay and despair. At the end of the room there was what looked like a tennis umpire’s chair: old, stained, chipped. He climbed up and into it. He sat, mute. He could see over the tops of the walls and into the honeycomb of compartments. A pale light filled the long space, leaching out any colour. And in place of the crinolined ladies he pictured the insane in chains, tearing the air with screams as their keepers patrolled with whips. And then the night warden sitting and watching and keeping his sleeping charges each in their own compartment like so many bees safe and free from harm. Why wasn’t there someone keeping him safe and free from harm? Did he have to be his own gaoler, did he have to wield the whip himself, on his own back? Why hadn’t he found a safe place? He had failed to such an extent that he was in suspension, everything had been torn down and he was floating in a miasma of incomprehension. It was not possible that this had happened, that his worst fears had become true and he was locked with his father in the darkness, crouched in the bottom of the wardrobe. All he had ever wanted was warmth, containment, safety and what he’d got was emptiness, dirt, confusion and hatred. And what could he do? No thoughts came to him through the thick blood, no plan, no neat causal pathway of stepping stones that would lead back to the flat on the sea front and the granite worktops and the heavy crystal tumbler filled with single malt. If only she hadn’t got pregnant, that was what had done it, spun them both out, changed the dynamic, changed everything. If only she had stayed how she had been and realised that what he needed above everything else was for her to put him first, to care for him and if she did that for him he could do it for her; it would be a virtuous circle, they would be invulnerable in their concern for each other building walls higher and higher and higher that would keep everything bad out; but she had let someone in, let someone else in, let the stranger in, betrayed them. How could she do that? Didn’t she understand how much he needed her, how much he loved her?
Jack sensed a movement at the far end of the gallery. He stood and craned forward. A shadow moved across the gangway between the compartments. This was not in his imagination. Karen? There was a faint rustling then a crash and a black shape skittering across the floor. He moved down the steps and then walked steadily towards the origin of the noise. He could feel his heart beating faster, the blood moving and it was good. Anything was better than being caught in the silt of despair, fear was at least clean. If there was something there, something that could consume him, it would be a relief. Perhaps it was the leather winged and sharp clawed creature that had inhabited his dreams since he was a small child. Perhaps finally it would carry him off and then the waiting would be over, there would be nothing more to fear because nothing worse could happen. It would be the end and with the end came release. He bent and picked up a crutch, reversing it so he could use it as a weapon. This was all his, every piece of rubbish, every abandoned bedpan all his to clean up, clear up, make order out of. He would turn this decay into a beautiful place where people would be happy and safe and how could he expect to do that if he was frightened of the first noise, rat, ghost whatever it was? He didn’t know how he was going to make it work but he couldn’t make it work if he ran away at the first opportunity. He would make it work here. He swung the crutch and sent a tower of cracked and bent plastic chairs tumbling onto the ground. A cloud of dust rose and papers fluttered across the flags. He bent forward coughing . “Come on, Jack,” he said into the echoing space. “You can do it, boy. You can make it happen. You’ve got this far. You’re not dead. You will get it all back and better.” A shadow appeared from one of the cubicles. A cat. It stared at the him and then walked slowly and majestically away from him its tail high in the air. After a moments pause Jack took after it hooting and hollering crutch waving in the air. The cat leapt forward; it skittered round a corner and as Jack turned the same corner his shoes lost purchase and he slipped and fell and rolled neatly into into one of the cubicles like a snooker ball going into a pocket coming to rest against a heap of bedding. He lay on his back and laughed. What a moaner, what a wimp. How stupid could he be? It was going to be fine it was a matter of perspective, the angle from which you looked at things. Everything was going to be all right. They still owned the place didn’t they? The worst thing that could happen would be they’d sell eventually to Frank and lose some money. So what, they were alive and happy and in love and there was going to be a baby.
Jack realised that he was lying on a pile of abandoned duvets, soft and damp and not too bad smelling. It was all going to be fine. It always had been hadn’t it? Ever since he had met Karen life had worked itself out. He rolled over in the duvets and felt something beneath him. He caught his breath. It felt like a body of some sort, a small body, a baby? His good humour disappeared as rapidly as it had come. He sat up and moved so that his back was against the wall of the partition. He stared at the duvet, there was definitely something underneath it. It could be anything but it was body shaped and it was small. A dead cat? Too big. A dead dog, wrong shape. A rat? He bit his lip and cautiously lifted the corner of the duvet. It revealed another duvet and an even clearer shape. The cubed, humped shape of a small body. He swallowed. He couldn’t leave it. He could call the police but that was stupid. Call them and tell then there was a lump under a pile of old bed clothes? He stood, then bent, seized the corner of the duvet and pulled it violently towards him his eyes closed. Something came to rest on his ankles. He opened his eyes and forced his gaze down from the peeling ceiling, across the laminate partition, the confused pile of duvets, to his ankles. And there curled around them was a monkey. He laughed out loud. A monkey just like Cyril. Perhaps it was Cyril. He didn’t know what had happened to him. His mum might have given him to a charity shop and he could have ended up here. He sat on the duvets and picked up the soft toy. “Hello Cyril,” he said “I’ve missed you.” How he had loved Cyril, how he did love him and what a sign of good fortune it was for him to find him, here, in his new home. He had lost his red collar but that wasn’t surprising. His tail still bent though. Jack crafted it into a question mark. He was still soft enough to hug but not so soft that he became squidgy and lost his shape. He was a bit dirty and his muzzle was kind of sticky as well but that could all be put right. There was no fur on his right ear: sucked off. Jack resisted the temptation to suck the ear and stood, smiling, the monkey dangling from his left hand, the crutch grasped in his right .
He had to take this on and he would take it on. It was just bricks and mortar. All he needed to do was raise some money and he was sure he could find a way to do that. He could go to a bank and get a bridging loan based on a low valuation of the property. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? He could get the bridging loan, do the essential work and then he would be in the position to get a mortgage and it would all be back on track. Just a few weeks of camping out here. That was all it would be and Karen had enough money so they could eat. They would settle down in the superintendent’s quarters, beautiful rooms, and stay there. Those rooms would become their apartment. They opened out onto the roof of the portico. They would be living in a palace. It would be better than Brighton, quieter and so much better for the baby: countryside to play in.
Jack looked round the gallery. He went to a battered modern door at one end and peered through cracked safety glass. There was a corridor that disappeared into darkness. Pull all that down. What he could do was make this into a leisure area and have a swimming pool. There could be a bar and a restaurant. He closed his eye and saw it. A beautiful space again with the restored flagstones, palm trees, elegant people sipping Martinis. Him in evening dress lent on the bar, charming, mine host. Karen sat watching him, admiring him, besotted with him. He would be the emperor. He opened his eyes. “Steady on old boy,” he said to Cyril, “talk about grandiose dreams, but then where are we without dreams? I’ll tell you where; in the mud.” How could he have been so upset by all this. It was a new beginning. Karen was right. They had been stuck. He had been stuck. Time to grow up and become a real success a proper man.
He tossed Cyril up into the air and caught him on the way down. “It’s going to be great Cyril and you’ll be loved and looked after all over again.”
Karen sat at the battered desk. Grace was right, if she had any sense she would leave, now; but…. Her phone rang. It was Grace.
“Hi, How are you?”
“Where are you?”
“In my country house.”
“What’s it like?”
“In what way?”
“Go on, tell me.” Karen looked round the hall, the peeling paint, the faded notices. “Describe it.”
“Tatty and immense, the biggest building I’ve ever seen, maybe a mile long.”
“Yes way. It’s a mad house. I mean it really is a mad house or was. There’s an inscription in the hall that says “this building is dedicated to the care of the insane.”
“You should fit right in.”
Karen wished Grace was there, Grace with her short hair and checked shirts and solidity. Grace who you could always rely on, who never let you down.
“It must have been some sort of giant asylum. It is the biggest place I have ever seen and it’s completely falling apart, unbelievable.”
“And Jack bought it?’
“Some of it.”
“With your money.”
“And didn’t tell you.”
“I never asked.”
“I would have thought buying a mile long asylum was something you would want to tell your partner about.”
“I’ve never asked him about the business.”
“Make him sell the place, get your money back.”
“I think all the money is in a company.”
“I wanted to show him that I trusted him.”
“You did trust him and look where it’s got you. Where is the place?”
“Somewhere near Newick.”
“Great, very handy. Just take the car and go.”
“He’s got a plan, pull down the wings, turn the main house into apartments, build Georgian style executive villas.”
“Wake up Karen. This is going to end badly. You can’t just wander around in your benevolent, sweet and loveable way waiting for the bunny rabbits and the lambikins to come bouncing in and save you. You don’t seem to know what you’re doing, to have any idea of the consequences of your actions. You’ve never faced up to things. You’ve never had to.”
“I faced up to Mum’s condition and Dad’s passing away. ”
“Mum’s mad, Dad’s dead. You are constitutionally incapable of seeing the world as it is. You distort reality to satisfy your desires.”
“And you don’t?”
“No, I don’t. I’m not beautiful like you. I don’t go round surrounded by a fog of admiration mixed with lust. I’ve always had to stand up for myself. They used to call you Bambi at school, didn’t they? They called me Wrecking Ball. Remember? You need to man up.”
“Like you did?”
“I can’t help not being gay. I can’t help being attractive. You shouldn’t blame me for that. You can’t expect me to see the world like you. People have always been kind to me whereas they haven’t to you. That’s not my fault.”
“People have been kind to you because they want to get inside your knickers. You make me so angry. You go round like a sheep waiting for slaughter. You’ve got a baby now. It’s not just you. Wake up.”
“And do what you tell me to do?”
“I’m not going to abandon him.”
“And I’m not going to abandon you. Do you want me to come out there?”
“No. You’ll upset him, humiliate him. I don’t want that. It won’t help.”
“You’ve always lived in some sort of fairyland.”
“What’s wrong with that? Dad used to say “There’s no point keeping your feet on the ground, there’s nothing down here.”
“There’s nothing wrong until you hit the bottom. As WC Fields said it’s only the last foot that’s dangerous but then it’s deadly.”
“You just look on the dark side.”
“I don’t; I see things as they are. I don’t make things up. Life isn’t a play.”
“Not all plays are nice, some are terrible.”
“But they’re not real. You go home afterwards. When Dad was dying you thought you were in a play, acting a role, Florence Nightingale.”
“That’s not fair.”
“You used it as a defence and now I think you might be doing the same with Jack. With Mum you play the dutiful daughter. I know you are a dutiful daughter but playing it as a role allows you to keep things at a distance. You can’t keep Jack at a distance, there is no theatre to leave, there is no home to go to, you are home. I love you and I’m frightened for you. I want you to listen to me, to think about what I’m saying. Will you do that?”
“No, of course. Will you? We all have some sort of black hole at our centre And I don’t want you to fall into yours. I want you to take a good hard look and then do something about it.“
“Regard the abyss?”
“Jack would never hurt me.”
“He already has. You need to think of the baby. What sort of role model will you be if you just accept whatever happens to you, live in Lala land? Is that what you would want your child to be: a passive fantasist?”
“Is that what you think I am?”
“Yes. I’m only saying it because I think you are putting yourself in harm’s way and if you never speak to me again I’ll be heartbroken but if I said nothing and you were hurt I’d never forgive myself. I love you and I want the best for you.”
“That’s what Jack said.”
“Leave, even just for a while so you can look at what’s going on. You’ve always stayed under the duvet with him since you first met, the two of you like children, but children do terrible things. You need to come out into the light and it can be cold and lonely but its real and under there you may just suffocate or worse.”
“Do you think I’ll go mad like Mum?”
There was a silence.
“You do, don’t you?”
“No. I just think you are very precious and you need to guard yourself.”
“Mum would love this place. She’d imagine herself back in the past like Blanche in Streetcar. She can come and live here when it’s done. We’ll build a little flat for her.”
There was a silence down the phone.
“What? We can. I can. That’s perfectly possible.”
“I’m going into a lecture now; phone me tonight. Promise.”
“I can’t live your life.”
“And I can’t live yours. We’re different.”
The phone went dead.
A black cat ran into the room and came to a clumsy fumbled halt then recovered its dignity and went back out of the door as if nothing had happened.
Karen stood and followed; perhaps it was a guide, a familiar of the place. Was she welcome here? Was she wanted? Had it been waiting for her? Was she the one to bring light and wonder into it; sprinkle it with fairy dust? And not everybody had a black hole inside them, that was ridiculous, just plain wrong. Grace had had a bad time and it affected her. People were basically good. Get through the defences and the horrible things that had happened to them and underneath they were kind and helpful and considerate. You just had to look, admittedly sometimes quite hard, but it was there, that spark of humanity, of goodness, of light. She wanted to find Jack, tell him about her idea of making a flat for Mum. He’d screw up his face at first but then he would agree and Mum would be so happy here; it would be perfect.
The woodwork in the inner hall, on the staircase was beautiful. She peeled off some pictures of stick people and smiley faces and studied it. If you looked at the panelling from a distance there was a a large scale design of shields that were made of a lighter wood than the background but if you went closer to the surface you saw that within each shield there was a replication of the design which continued on down in scale until she realised that the heads of the dowels that held each of the pieces of wood in place were themselves cut into the shape of a shield. She smiled and looked up into the double height space. It was entirely covered by inlay. There must have been thousands of individual pieces. If you didn’t look closely all you saw was a big pattern but look closer and you discovered order, symmetry, like the Fibonacci sequence. Beneath the apparent chaos was perfection. That was like life, but you did have to look.
She climbed the battered, beautiful stairs. The pattern was even repeated in the risers and the treads. She stopped at the half landing and looked back down into the stairwell and out through the open doors into the ante-hall. The relatives of the mad would have come here and filled the hallway with what they could no longer deal with: damage and distortion and incomprehensible black chance. But they would have felt re-assured that their loved ones would be safe here within the oak panels and high walls. She ran her hand along the bannister; it was soft and smooth: alive, ready to curve and twist and caress. The anguish must have been terrible but then the relief profound. The wonder of finding a safe place. That was what we all wanted and it was there if you searched hard enough. The deal had always been that Jack would keep her safe and she would keep him warm. Simple, straightforward, to the point, but now it had gone wrong and she would just have to sort it out. She must remember that it wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t done it deliberately; she had to keep that flame of rage firmly under control, use it constructively to forge a new life for her and Jack and the baby. She stroked her tummy. The baby. She couldn’t wait to be able to feel it move within her; the stranger within. The quickening. And this was what was at her centre, not a black hole but the future: innocence, infinite possibilities.
The stairs split and turned round on themselves and faded into a landing which spanned the building: on one side oak doors, on the other high arched windows and two sets of French doors that led onto the portico roof. The windows and the glass doors were covered with rough wrought iron grills. At the ends of the landing were lobbies, low roofed, contemporary, violently out of proportion. Each lobby had a heavy reinforced door with a vision panel. Karen walked to the one to her left. She looked through the glass and saw a long, low ceilinged corridor painted with light green gloss paint to picture rail height, red Lino on the floor, windows to the left, doors to the right; below the windows a continuous line of office swivel chairs: a jumble of contrasting colours: orange, blue, red, yellow, green. The door had a heavy, sliding, retaining bar that was sunk deep into a socket. Karen sighed, placed her hands flat on the soiled surface and pushed herself back into the hallway. The ceiling had delicate coving running round its edge and acanthus leaf encrusted central roses from which hung, on frayed cloth flex, lights with yellowed plastic shades. Coconut matting ran down the centre of the oak floor. The cat was stopped at the door to the left of the stairwell. Karen bent to stroke it, then paused. The cat did not lend itself to affection, there was an impermeable quality to the light reflected from its coat, an air of grandeur in its expression that took it out of the domestic. She put her hand on the round china handle to the door; it was warm to her touch. She turned the handle, pushed the door open. The cat walked in, tail high, purring loudly; Karen followed. The room was darkened, light filtered round tattered red plush curtains, there was a deep red carpet in the centre of black painted floorboards. It smelt of dust and paper and card and ink. In the centre of the room two cheap desks back to back, on the desks piles of files, loose papers. Around the walls bookcases that reached to the ceiling and were filled not with books but more cardboard files. Across the room a bank of green three drawer filing cabinets. She opened the curtains, sneezing in the shower of dust. The cat jumped onto one of the desks. Over the black marble fireplace was a framed section of a periodical. Karen read it aloud to herself; the cat listened.
The Lancet 26 March 1805
THE GRANGE, near LEWES
An establishment for the reception and cure of a limited number of insane patients of either sex
The above, as a residence for those mentally afflicted, presents many peculiar advantages. The beauty and seclusion of the locality, the extensive and highly cultivated grounds to the house, and the contiguity of Bletchington to the South Downs and the English Channel, afford, in themselves, a guarantee of its cheerfulness and salubrity. Being adapted expressly for the purpose of a Private Asylum and suitable therefore, in every way, for the due Classification of the Insane, the arrangements of the entire household, general and domestic, are carried through with but one object – viz. the personal well-being of the invalid inmates of the Establishment. Horse exercise, cheerful society, and a variety of amusements, such as reading, billiards, &c, &c, are provided and exercise out of doors is much encouraged. Dr ALLEN resides with his family at Bletchington, and devotes the whole of his time to the care, comfort and amelioration of his patients.
“It actually started in 1780 but it wasn’t a business as such then, just a place to hide an idiot son.” A man in his early seventies was standing in the doorway. He wore a neatly pressed suit and highly polished black toe capped shoes; his hair was a perfect white, shorn hard to his skull. He stood with an absolute confidence. He looked at her with dark lustrous eyes. “This is private property you know.” Karen stared at him. “And you shouldn’t be here.”
“I know that.”
“Then why don’t you go?”
“Because I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“Yes, it is.”
The man smiled, rocked on the heels of his shoes, pushed his hands into the pockets of his double breasted suit. The smile didn’t reach the eyes. “Because I shall have to ask you to leave.”
“And who are you?”
“That is nothing to do with you.”
Karen lent back on the desk. “Maybe it is everything to do with me?”
“How did you get in?”
“Through the gates and then the door.”
“Who gave you the keys?”
“I think I’ve answered enough questions.”
The man smiled again. “I’ve hardly started asking the questions, there are lots more.”
“What gives you the right to ask these questions?”
“This is my place.” The man opened his arms.
“I’m not sure Jack would agree.”
“Mr York, the owner, my partner.”
“The fact that Mr York bought this place doesn’t make it his.”
His skin was lined but smooth, his chin slackened but not soft. He examined her with interest, with a possibility of ownership.
“If you don’t own this place how can it be yours?”
“By history, by right, by blood.”
Karen breathed long and deep, dust caught at the back of her throat and she experienced a sudden cramp in her left calf. She bent to massage it and as she did her ears rang. There was something wrong. She straightened up. It wasn’t just him This room was wrong. This encounter was wrong. It was taking place in a language that she only partially understood. The cat rubbed itself against her thigh. Nothing quite made sense here, the perspective was subtly wrong, the air thicker or perhaps thinner than normal, the light either bleached or clotted, the balance gone. As a seven year old she had sat at her mum’s dressing table, the dressing table with the three part mirror, where, if she got the angles of the side mirrors right and if she looked without looking, she could see an infinite number of Karen’s and wonder what would happen if one of her half-observed selves distinguished itself: waved to her, mouthed unheard pleas, tried to communicate mysteries. If she turned to it would she become that Karen, be lost in the world behind the mirror, in the world of reflections? Was that where she was now; had she slipped through, would she see her dad come into the room and sit on the stool in his dressing gown, which was now the wrong shade of brown? She felt dizzy.
“I’m in the wrong place,” she said
“Indeed you are. Why don’t you go to the right place?”
“Because I don’t know where it is.”
“Maybe I could help you find it?”
“I doubt it.”
The man walked across the carpet, round the filing cabinets, shut the curtains. “I prefer to keep them closed,” he said. “Seems more respectful somehow.”
Karen slid into the office chair at the desk, swivelled herself around to face him, she needed to keep a grip on this situation.. “The staircase is beautiful,” she said. “Where did it come from?”
“Austria, 1720. Two brothers from Vienna made it. They constructed a replica of the hallway and built the staircase in it. Then they took it down and numbered it piece by piece, brought it over here and put it back together. It cost £10,000, over a million in today’s money. And this is the library,” he said. “Well, was the library, then it was the records office and now it’s a mausoleum. Thousands of lives in here. All under my care, my tutelage as they said.”
“Many people. They were my family, still are in some way I guess. I could give you permission to stay here, but I’m not sure I want to do that. Perhaps I’d prefer to order you to leave.”
She lent back in the chair. “You don’t have the authority to do that.” She found her body was moving in response to his. It wasn’t a large shift, hardly noticeable, a slight change of the angle of her hips, the lie of her arms, the shape of her shoulders, but enough to indicate that there was a connection between him and her. Shame he’s so old, she found herself thinking, they could have had an enjoyable tussle, one that she would have won. “I think Jack has that power.”
“But he’s not here.”
“Is that a threat?” She uncrossed her legs beneath the desk, spread her thighs.
He shook his head. “Of course not. Just my little games. I’ve always enjoyed games.” The cat jumped off the desk wound itself around his legs. He pushed it away with a foot. It turned its head, bared its teeth, spat, then slowly walked across the room and jumped up onto a shelf.
“No fear, that one,” he said. “Not of anything or anyone, real or imagined, from this world or the next.”
“I never even knew this place was here.”
“A little Eden it was. Totally self-sufficient we were: produced all our own food even had our own slaughter house, and mortuary for that matter. The only thing we had to bring in was coal and if we’d had a mine we wouldn’t have needed that. We brought it in by train, the coal, our train, on our tracks. Made clothes we did, everything. Didn’t need anything from outside and then they ruined it by not allowing them to work. So what did they do instead of work? Sat in chairs in the corridors and stared at the wall. And we couldn’t afford to keep them, couldn’t afford to keep it going. Brought it all tumbling down they did. Do you know what I miss the most? The noise. There was a hum the whole time and now there’s just silence. Still mustn’t get too melancholy must we?”
“Why are there bars on the windows on the landing?”
“We had an incident. Ellen Andrews got in there from the high grade ward. The mayor was coming to open the new entertainment hall – six hundred seats it had – and Ellen threw herself out of the window. Just missed the mayor. So we put in the bars and the security doors.”
“What happened to Ellen?”
“She died. It was a whole world and now your Jack is going to try and pull it all down and build houses, turn this place into apartments.”
“Try? What could stop him?”
“Things. He’s not doing too well at the moment is he? And he’s not the first. We’ve been shut for nearly ten years. Your Jack’ll be the fourth.”
“Why did Ellen throw herself out of the window?”
“Mad. They weren’t all mad here, not then. It was Learning Disabled, Cretins we used to call them but we weren’t allowed to after 1980 or so. Silly if you ask me, just confuses people. Best to tell things as they are even if it makes people uncomfortable. You should call a spade a spade, a cretin a cretin and a trollop a trollop. Anyway why are you here – inspecting the property?”
“We’re coming to live here.”
“I don’t think so.”The man took his left hand out of his jacket pocket.
“Jack said the Superintendent’s rooms or something. In this building anyway.”
“Why do you want to do that? You can see what state it’s in.”
“Jack is very hands on and so am I.”
“I’ll bet you are. ”
“We want to be here to get the work started then we’ll leave, we won’t be here for long. And why are you here?”
“The agent employed me as a caretaker. Try and stop the worst of the damage. But they stopped paying me and your Jack didn’t start.”
“Can you show me where we are going to stay?”
“Of course. I just hope it meets with your satisfaction.” He held the door open and Karen walked out onto the landing. “Other side of the stairs,” he said. “The door’s open.”
There was a small hallway. At the end of the hallway was an open door and beyond it a double aspect room with a stained white marble fireplace, wide sash windows, a discretely ornamented ceiling. The room was painted with cream gloss paint, the floor covered with coconut matting. An antiquated gas fire rammed into the fireplace. No bars on the window.
“Used, once upon a time, to be the director’s rooms,” the man said standing in the doorway, “Then it became the superintendent’s rooms, my family’s rooms.”
“You lived here?”
”Not for many years. I have a house in the grounds.”
“You were the superintendent?”
“My family has been chief nurse, superintendent, warder, whatever you want to call it, for eight generations.”
“And you’re the last?”
“Maybe. It used to be a lot more elegant, but at the end it was being run down. Used to be proper antique furniture here but they took it all away.”
“The council.” He rested a blunt fingered, scrupulously hard manicured hand on the back of a green leatherette settee, which had two blackened half-circles where countless heads had rested. “No sense of history, no sense of the flow of things, of dignity and power. The bedroom is down here.”
He opened a door into a large room which contained orange carpet, a single bed, the mattress partially torn, a bundle of nylon sheets and a stained counterpane. “Used to have a mahogany bedstead. Be a bit tight for you and your Jack.” He put his left hand back into the pocket of his tailored jacket, smiled the smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Mind you there’s plenty of stuff around the place if you have a look. They only took the good pieces. Left everything else. But, if I was you, I’d leave now, go and stay in a B&B or something there’s a nice one in Newick; you expecting as well.”
Karen turned to face him.
“How did you know that?”
“Years of experience. It would be hard for me to put my finger on it, but it’s to do with the way you walk, the way you stand, the way your hands refer back to your belly, the way your hips and breasts look.” He stared at her body. “There was a lot of women I was responsible for here: hundreds. And, while we tried to stop them consorting, nature is nature.”
“How many people did live here?”
“With the Learning Disabled and us: the keepers, the wardens, the nurses, whatever, over a thousand and now there’s just me and you.”
She put her hands on her belly. She looked round the room registering the large brown stain in the corner, the windows fogged with dirt, the sweet smell of abandonment.
“Just like you most folk said they wouldn’t be here for long and most of them spent their whole lives here. Died here. Buried here. Trouble is once you’re here its very difficult to get out. And then after a while you discover that you don’t want to leave. My family’s been here for over two hundred years. Came in one day on a temporary job and look at me now. This place holds people, people get stuck to it. Staff still come and see me. Say it was the best days of their life.”
“Perhaps it was?”
“More than likely. Certainly was mine. It was my whole life, still is. You don’t stop loving something just because it’s not what it used to be, because it’s dying, because it’s dead.” He walked to the window, stared out at the trees. “Your Jack should have let me know you were coming, should have warned me.”
“So I could have been prepared.”
“Would you have baked a cake?”
“If I was thirty years younger it’d be more than a cake I’d bake for you,”
“My names Karen,” she said ignoring his remark, trying to push him back. “Karen Armstrong and you’re?’
She held out a hand which he shook. His palm was dry and hot.
“A lick of paint will sort this out,” she said standing looking out of the other window. “And it has got a lovely view.” The house was in a deep valley, beech trees protected it, down the valley were soft green hillsides.
“You should leave. It’s not a good place.”
“You said it was Eden.”
“Depends on your definition of paradise, depends who you are, depends what you like. I don’t think you’d like what is here.”
“There’s only rubbish here.”
“You’re wrong about that. There’s generations of life and death here, you can’t cover that up with a lick of paint or get rid of it with a wrecking ball.”
“My sister used to be called a wrecking ball.”
“I’ll lay odds you weren’t. Karen you should leave. I mean it. This is not a place for the likes of you.” He turned to her, took her hands in his and for a moment she saw a kindness behind the polished shoes and the pressed suit and the tightly tied tie and shorn hair, a real concern for her and her well-being. See, she said to herself, it’s there in everyone, you just have to look.