Authors: Lesley Glaister
My father is dead. It is night. The phone rang. I did not answer it, I was dressing. We were going out to eat tonight, Foxy and me. And to talk, we had to talk, she said. She was going to tell me that she was leaving, that is what I think. Before the phone-call I was lying in the bath looking at my body in the greenish water, breathing in the scent of limes. Refreshing soak. Foxy was downstairs dressed already, her Biederbeck
on, getting in the mood. We were going to Buster's where there is jazz on a Friday and they do chicken in a chilli crust and a searing red wine for next to nothing. Foxy and I are vegetarian except for Buster's chicken. I was lying in the bath, wet and sad, imagining what she might say and how she might say it.
Sorry Zelda, but it's over
I do not love you any more
. No, not that. More likely she would say,
I need space, a temporary separation, see how it goes
. She is kind, Foxy. That's how she'd choose to do it, by gradual let-down, slow realisation, the actual moment of separation blurred. Because there must be an actual moment, an actual tear in the fabric: one minute you're a couple, one minute you're not.
Lying in the bath in the green scent of limes, I did not cry. She hadn't said it yet, she might not. She is older and that worries her. She was one of my lecturers and although our affair didn't begin until after I'd graduated she still thinks it's wrong, well
, she says. She is only fifteen years older, only forty-four, but you'd think she was Methuselah the way she goes on. She thinks I am very young for my age.
I hauled myself out of the bath and the misery, got dried and perfumed and started to dress â in my silky 40s' camisole and knickers. I was hesitating between dresses when the phone rang. I took no notice â Foxy there to answer. I paused by the mirror arrested by my reflection oh so pretty, so enticing, my skin pink from the bath, against the ivory silk.
The music suddenly switched off. And more than that â somehow a stilling of the air. I don't know how else to describe it. What was missing? Foxy's loud and cheerful voice or â¦ I don't know, but I shivered. Only September yet a real chill in the air: my green dress, then, with its long sleeves â or maybe the red? Foxy's voice too quiet. My mind spinning on to jewellery and hair and chilli chicken and tonight, after, if everything's all right and tomorrow â¦ what tomorrow? A lipstick trembling between my finger and thumb. And then Foxy's feet on the stairs, pausing by the bathroom.
She entered the bedroom; I flirted for a desperate second, thrust one hip towards her, pouted my lips, fluttered my eyelashes. But she didn't smile.
âWhat?' Almost afraid. She put her hands on my upper arms. She is taller than me. She looked down at me as if I was a child.
âThat was your mum,' she said.
âWhat did she want?' Still with the smile hitched to my lips though my heart like a bird falling.
âIt's your dad. Sorry Zelda.'
âWhat?' Frightened, angry at the slump of time, the way a beat can stretch for hours, the way a heart can plummet.
âHe died. He is dead. He â¦'
What got into me then? I do not know. I have never been violent. I beat her with my fists, I kicked, lucky my foot was bare so I did not badly hurt her shin. âNo!' I pulled away from her arms. I was on the bed. I screamed, I really screamed, not a strangled dream scream, a real hurting scream that raked my throat raw. Then I was still. We were sitting on the edge of the bed. Foxy put her arm around my shoulder.
âI thought you were still in the bath or I'd have called you.'
âDidn't she ask for me?'
âShe didn't want to speak she only wanted to say.'
âShe got the answerphone â but she couldn't say
âRinging him next.'
âI'd better go â¦' I stood up, looked around for clothes, caught my own eye in the mirror, thought my hair is a mess, thought
âZelda.' Foxy took my hand and pulled me down again. âShe said not to come tonight, wait till morning.'
âBut I must â¦'
âNo. Wait till morning. I'll drive you.'
âDaddy â¦' I felt my heart moving in me again like a stunned thing returning to life.
âOh, poor love.' Foxy's arms tight around me, her hair soft on my shoulder.
âWhat?' I pulled away realising what she hadn't said. âI mean â¦ heart attack â¦ or what?'
Foxy's fingers dug into my arm. âYour mum found him hanging in the garage, Zelda. It was suicide.'
She is asleep now. In the light from the landing I can see her face quite clearly. Her hair is spread out on the pillow to one side as if it's blowing in a gale, thick brown hair. Round her temples there is some grey. I lean over her to smell her breath, faint cigarette smoke and the mint of toothpaste. She has the most perfect nose I have ever seen, small and straight, a nose so perfect you want to pinch or pull it, or bite it off.
Anything, I had thought, almost prayed, lying in the bath. Please make something happen, anything, so she cannot finish it. Finish with me. Please God. Anything.
But I did not mean this.
Suicide. I did not believe it for a moment. No, that is a lie. Before she said the word I knew. Can that be true? I felt anger before the stun kicked in. Anger? Yes, to do
. Suicide is so utterly selfish. What is it? It's a last
to everybody, a last flounce out, the only sure way to have the last word.
If I did it that's what it would be.
But not my dad. That's not it. That is not good enough.
Nights. It was not just one night, it was many nights all through my growing up. Daddy's dreams were the worst thing. Asleep, head on my cool pillow, my sleep childish and sweet, pastel colours to float in, all ripped apart by a sudden scream. A man's scream â Daddy's â but not like Daddy's voice which was quiet and grey in the everyday, this scream like the bellow of an animal, shapeless, or like the cry of a man without a tongue. He had bad dreams often. Sleep became less pretty as I grew more aware, knowing that this could happen any night.
I slept in the top bunk. Hearing the scream I would jerk up, my nightdress suddenly damp, my neck prickling cold. Underneath I would hear Hazel stirring. The scream woke me up so completely that I could not sleep again, not for hours. My heart would skitter and in the feverishness of my mind stupid rhymes would jump about, skipping rhymes thudding like feet in my head:
Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn around, Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear touch the ground. Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear say good-night, Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn out the light
We had a night-light in our room in the shape of a red toadstool with white spots. It stood in the corner and I'd fix my eyes on it whenever I was awake, the red-and-white spotted glow a babyish comfort that Mummy sighed about but let me keep.
Hazel would have her head under the pillow. I could never understand how she could do that, why she did not suffocate or die from the heat, but that is what she'd do and she'd go to sleep again quickly and leave me horribly awake, my thumb jammed in my mouth, my mind sharp â and always, urgently, needing to pee. But I would have to wait.
Because after one of Daddy's dreams, after the screams, there would be footsteps on the landing, running water in the bathroom, Mummy's voice crisp and rustling as paper, talking to him sensibly. Not quite the words, but her tone of voice. And then, after a while, the click of a light switching off, and silence.
And then I'd climb out of my bunk, my feet damp and slippery on the metal rungs of the ladder, quietly,
, because if I made the bunk beds shake or creak Hazel would be furious and would pretend I'd woken her and she would hate me. She never would admit that Daddy had woken us. She'd say I made it up. She never would admit she'd heard him screaming too.
And in the bathroom a horrible sweetness, air-freshener hiding the smell of sick so that I had to hold my breath.
Being awake at night, the only one awake at night, is a terrible thing. I am frightened of the night. I do not sleep well. I want someone to talk to, someone to hold me, someone to tell me it's all right. But I also want to be alone so I do not disturb whoever that someone is. It is so hard to be sprung with energy, with thoughts like a whirling flock of starlings in your head, and to have to be still. In the winter in the town centre as it is darkening the starlings flock and squeal like a million rusty wheels come loose. And I don't like that. That is what my thoughts are like, my night thoughts.
Foxy is deeply asleep, turned now, her arm flung over her head, a surprisingly solid arm for such a slim woman, white like marble, little wisps of darkness underneath. How can she sleep tonight of all nights? My father is dead. I do not know which way to turn. I must not wake her but I cannot keep my body still, my mind, I cannot still it. How can she sleep? Doesn't she love me? Doesn't she care?
Yes, she loves me. Yes, she cares.
It is only the brandy that makes her sleep.
Oh, my dad. Oh Daddy, Daddy.
Our house was called âThe Nook' and the garden was big and full of trees. The apple tree had a swing slung from a horizontal branch. There was a flowering cherry too and a silver birch â but the best tree was right at the bottom of the garden. Its branches reached up and pressed almost against the upstairs window of the house behind. The tree was special because of its colour â it was a copper beech â but also because, high up in its branches, was our tree-house.
The tree-house had not been built for us, it had been there when we moved in. It had a rope ladder that you could haul up once you were inside so you could not be reached. Its floor was made of planks cut to fit round the trunk and incorporating one smooth grey limb that made a kind of sloping bench, quite comfortable with a cushion on it. The walls had been woven from willow branches, like a basket, and lined with cardboard. Hazel and I Sellotaped the walls with postcards and pictures cut from magazines. We had half the wall space each â hers full of ballet dancers, mine of ponies.
The two windows were round. We'd tried taping polythene bags over them to keep out the draughts but that meant you couldn't see properly, so we left them empty. From one window you could spy on the house â keep an eye on the back door to see who was coming out; the other was only a few feet away from the window of the house behind. One day I looked out and saw a face gazing out of that window, staring straight at me in the tree-house. That was my first sight of Puddle-duck, a thin, wedge-shaped face, yellow as cheese, staring out from between two curtains, staring, just staring it seemed, for hours.
I kept my pets in the tree-house. My pets were ants, big brown ones, wood ants. Because Daddy hated insects, I wasn't allowed to keep them in the house. He didn't even know about them. The formicary had been in my classroom at school, a plastic aquarium in which lived a whole colony. When we had finished studying them, Miss Bowen asked if anyone would like to take them home to keep. Mummy said I could as long as I never brought it into the house, and never mentioned it to Daddy. So I smuggled it straight up into the tree-house, a place where he never ventured.
At one end of the tank was the nest, a heap of soil and leaf fragments laced with holes and tunnels and secret chambers. A ramp led down to it from the rubber-teated feeder bottle from which dripped a sugar solution for my ants to feed on. I used to drop leaves in for them and sometimes treats, a shred off the Sunday roast or the corner of a biscuit which they'd negotiate, cleverly, three or four of them together into a hole they'd widened for the purpose.
I felt like God giving gifts when I dropped things into the tank. I almost felt love. They were so busy my ants, so clever. I delighted in watching them scurrying up and down the ramp from the feeder to the nest, sometimes making forays up the sides of the tank, walking upside down on the lid. Sometimes on their journeys they'd meet other ants and stop, heads together, feelers waving. A whole colony of ants, of lives going on, in a plastic aquarium in a tree-house. The ants didn't know they were imprisoned and balanced in a tree for the amusement of a child. They thought that they were free and that their tank was the whole wide world.
The night is terrible. Thoughts are more urgent, fears are greater, the darkness muffles me, it makes me helpless, breathless. The landing light is on. Foxy likes it dark but she lets me leave the landing light on and it shines through the little strip of glass above the door. The door is closed. I would have it open â but for the landing light to be on and the door closed is a compromise. The stuff of our relationship. I would prefer the window and the curtains to be open, she'd like both closed. So we have the window open a little, but the curtains pulled.
It is midnight, just gone. All the hours of the night. I keep my eye on the strip of light. Foxy is beside me, I can feel her warmth, the feathers of her breath, but she is sealed away in sleep. I must not wake her. When someone is asleep they are not
. It is not fair. Was she going to tell me it is over between us? I do not know if this is better.
The swing was made of thick twisted rope with a slab of wood for a seat. The rope was greenish in its twist as if the green from the apple tree had run down it. I would hardly have been surprised if the rope had sprouted leaves and apples. The apples from the tree were sour and covered in scabs. Mummy made chutney from them and apple sauce and baked apples sometimes, from the biggest of them. I did not like to eat the skins, the scabs were like the crusts of grazes on our knees but inside the flesh fizzed soft and hot and sweet with golden syrup.
Food was complicated. Daddy was funny about it. He ate too much. He'd get fat, diet until he was gaunt, get fat again. He took pills to help slim and when he was taking the pills he was angry. He'd roam round with a spanner looking for things to tighten up. I preferred him fat. When he was fat he was quiet, unless he'd been drinking then he was scary. At least I was scared of him, Hazel too, I think, although she'd never admit it to me. Not scared because he would hit us or hurt us, only scared because â¦ just because the air crackled and we sat on the edges of our seats and our nails dug into our palms â¦ just a feeling â¦ just because.
Daddy liked spice. Chilli powder, curry powder, hot-pepper sauce. âI can't taste it,' he'd complain, trying one of Mummy's concoctions and putting down his fork. Mummy would get up sighing and fetch the Worcester sauce, the chutney, the Tabasco, and watch him smother his food.
But Mummy had her own funny ideas about food. She is Swedish, so we used to eat things with dill and soured cream, raw pickled herrings, gravadlax, things that no one else I knew would ever eat. Sometimes we went vegetarian, but none of us could manage without bacon for long so that would founder. Food should be fun, she used to say when we would not eat as children. Once she got us to eat our dinner blindfolded to see if we could tell what it was by taste and smell alone. It was something with red sauce I remember because of the mess on the tablecloth. Daddy was not there that time. He didn't believe that food was fun. He was often away when Mummy had her ideas, but if he was at home he'd eat alone, boiling up something from a tin and sloshing in half a bottle of Tabasco.
Tonight we didn't eat. I cannot believe the rage that swept through me, the way I flew at Foxy and beat her to try and beat away the truth: as if the news of my father's death was a buzzing thing, a dreadful fly, and if I screamed enough and fought enough it couldn't settle on me and his death could not be true.
We didn't go to Buster's and we didn't eat. We sat on the bed, her arm round my shoulders, until I was shivering. She helped me out of my underwear but we did not make love. I almost thought we would. I almost wanted to but she pointed out that I was chilled and made me put on my white satin pyjamas. We went downstairs and sat by the gas-fire drinking brandy. Metaxa, bought with the last Greek money at the end of our holiday, hot gold. Foxy brought in a tray of cheese and biscuits but I could not think of eating. It was like Christmas night after too much lunch, the brandy glasses warmed by the fire, the cheese, the crackly wrappings of the biscuits. Only no joy and no presents and no tree in the corner winking.
âI feel useless,' Foxy said, rolling yet another cigarette. âI don't know what to say.'
âThere's nothing.' The first shock was like the sea, like waves rolling in like I suppose labour to be. Engulfing waves of grief, of physical trembling and sickness and then a lull, a moment of reflection, even momentary forgetting as the mind gathers itself for another wave of grief. In one of these lulls I studied Foxy's face trying to read her thoughts. If she had been planning to finish with me, then she'd be feeling thwarted, frustrated. Because how could she finish with me now? Maybe that hadn't been in her mind at all. Maybe she loves me, maybe she needs me as much as I need her. But her face was inscrutable and all I could read in her eyes was concern.
I had tried to ring my mother back but every time there was just the engaged tone. Later on I rang Hazel, just in from dinner with Colin, and I had to tell her. I just said it straight: âDad's dead â¦ Mum found him hanging â¦ it looks like it â¦ yes â¦ no.' Hazel's voice faint, a little drunk, already thickening with tears. Hazel wouldn't rage or beat Colin with her fists. Hazel would accept. We made arrangements. Both of us would go to Mum first thing. I'd be there by lunchtime, Hazel, who lives further north in Durham, by mid-afternoon. We said good-bye.
âWhat did she say?' Foxy, avid for detail, as ever.
And that is so. She'd said nothing much and nor had I. And nothing of any significance had been said between Foxy and me. The only significance, my violence and the tenderness of her response.
But there should be significance in words. There should be words that are profound. There should be more than train times and the beep beep beep engaged-tone of a mother's phone. There should be more.
All so ordinary and so strange. Foxy eventually giving way to hunger and snacking, apologetically, on biscuits and cheese. Both of us drinking too much Metaxa. The sound of next door's television through the wall, a commercial jingle, the sea-roar of laughter.
After seeing his face between the curtains peering at me in the tree-house, I met him. He was the new boy at school: Vassily Pudilchuck. He stood in front of the class, narrow shoulders hunched, a frightened smile on his yellow face, long teeth crossed at the front as if they were too tightly crammed in his mouth. His jumper was too big, rolled up at the wrists. Because he was deaf he had to sit at the front to make sure he could at least see. He had a funny smell, and big hearing-aids in each ear with wires going down his neck to a bulky rectangle under his sweater.
âBecause Vassily is hard of hearing', Miss Bowen said, âyou must make sure he can see your lips when you speak to him. And enunciate your words clearly', she stretched her own lips as she said this to demonstrate, âso that Vassily can lip read. Perhaps Vassily would teach us all a bit of sign language?' She looked at him but he had his head bent over the lid of his desk.
âWhat's sign language, Miss?' said someone from the back.
âIt's a system of hand signals,' Miss Bowen explained, and there were sniggers as some boy did a V sign.
My desk was behind Vassily's. The knobbles of his spine showed right through his jumper and shirt as he leaned over his desk. The hearing-aids were pink and stuck out so that from behind he looked like some kind of robot with wires in its head. Later I was to learn that he hated the hearing-aids â that did little good anyway, but then they seemed an absurd, deliberately peculiar part of him. I didn't recognise him, then, as the face that stared out of the window into our tree-house, down into our garden. But I disliked him in the fierce way children can dislike weaklings or misfits â with a sort of fear.
By the end of his first day he had been christened Puddle-duck, a name that suited him because of the way he walked with his too-big feet splayed outwards and his head down. He was ten but he couldn't read properly. Not hearing makes reading harder, Miss Bowen said, but still, he
ten. When he spoke it was very loud and sounded as if he had a bath sponge stuffed in his mouth soaking up the edges, the points and angles of his words. By the look of it, he never washed his hair. It looked solid like brownish clay and sat on his head like a dull corrugated lid. He made friends with a boy called Simon, or maybe not
, but they stood together in the playground and shivered. Simon had eczema absolutely all over him and wore glasses with pink sticking plaster over one lens. He'd never had a friend before. But even Simon called Vassily Puddle-duck.
I didn't recognise him as the boy who spied on us from his upstairs window until, a few days later, something terrible happened. Something that jolted me into recognition.
Puddle-duck hadn't got a PE kit.
âNever mind,' said Miss Bowen, leaning towards him and enunciating, âjust strip down to your underwear.' It was a rainy day and we were doing indoor PEâthrowing bean-bags, climbing ropes and apparatus, jumping over wooden horses on to spongy green mats. If we had no kit we were not let off but made to show off, to all the other boys and girls, our pants and vests. Fear of this humiliation ensured that we never forgot. Miss Bowen was wearing a short navy skirt and white ankle socks for the lesson. She jogged up and down on the spot waiting for Vassily. Her big red legs were haloed with white fuzz. He handed her his hearing-aids, great handfuls of pink plastic and curly wires that seemed horribly a part of him. Miss Bowen took the aids and stopped running.
âTake off your jersey, Vassily,' she said. He looked down at the floor. Miss Bowen put a hand under his chin to make him look up. âTake it off.' She plucked at his sweater. His face went dark red. I thought he would refuse, but he took off the sweater. Everyone was ready now, gathered round him watching and that made it worse. Under his sweater he was wearing a crumpled and much-too-big shirt tucked into his shorts. âAnd this,' said Miss Bowen, touching his shoulder. I think Miss Bowen was cruel,
I think that. Everyone was staring at Vassily. She should not have let us all stand and stare at him like that. He undid his shirt and took it off. He had no vest on and what we saw, we could hardly believe. Nobody said an audible word but there was a stunned murmur.
âGriselda, perhaps you'd be kind enough to fetch Vassily an Aertex shirt from Lost Property,' Miss Bowen said. I hurried off, important. I was picturing his chest as I went down the gloomy, dinner-smelling corridor and I can picture him now. A puny boy with a flaming face and six nipples on his skinny concave front. It looked like the belly of a dog. Among the odd plimsolls and the rain-hoods in the Lost Property box I found a shirt for Vassily and took it back to the hall. Miss Bowen was holding Vassily's hand and peeping her whistle between her teeth as my oddly quiet classmates scrambled on the apparatus and queued for the ropes. I handed Puddle-duck the shirt and made myself smile. He smiled back, a grateful narrow smile that made me queasy. And that is when I recognised him as the spy.
If nobody liked Puddle-duck very much before, that day confirmed it. Puddle-duck was scarcely even human.
The brandy has given me a thirst. It's hot in the bedroom with the door closed. The window is open but muffled behind thick curtains. So the air in the room is still. The room is filled with breath. Foxy's breath is slow and even and rises up the walls until I fear I will drown in it. My own breathing is fast. I should relax. Breathe deep, breathe slow. But all I am inhaling is old breath. It is stale air. The room is full of dead air. Now I am starting to panic. Stop that. Stop. Breathe. The air is fine. The window is open. You cannot drown in Foxy's breath. You will not drown. Lie still. Oh my heart.
Like the nights of Daddy's dreams. Having to be still, hearing that scream but having to be still for Hazel. Having not to speak of it at all.
Breakfast after those nights was awful. My father would sit with his hands clasped round his cup of tea as if he thought someone might snatch it. His chin would be rough and his curly hair wild. There would be a greasy sheen on his glasses so you could not see his eyes. The breakfast room was sunny with windows on two sides, but however much sun streamed into the room on mornings after a dream, the room would contain a cloud, a chill. My mother would be the same as ever, serving up poached eggs or bacon or kippers, the sun bright on her blonde hair, but she would seem like an actor on those days, someone on the stage with rouge and spiky lashes while the rest of us were grey. But even she didn't speak to Daddy, just topped up his cup with tea and kept a nervous eye on him as she chatted to us.
I am angry with my father for dying. For choosing to die. How dare he? It is the most selfish thing.
Dad! How dare you? Eh?
I was going to know him. There are things I do not know, secrets. There are things I wanted to ask him. I wanted his story from him. I wanted to know what was in his nightmares, what was the fear behind the screams, the fear that threaded itself into my own sleep and into me.
The nightmares were never spoken of. Until I talked to Foxy I didn't think that strange. They were a part of my childhood, not normal perhaps, but not strange. No stranger than my mother's food fads, or the time she made us go barefoot for weeks to strengthen our arches. No stranger, I suppose, than the things that happen behind the curtains and the doors of every house in every street in every town.
But Foxy said âWhat? You never asked him what he dreamed about?'
âNo,' I said, âyou couldn't.'
I shook my head.
âWhat about your mum? What did she say?'
I tried to think. My father had been a prisoner of the Japanese for five years. He'd worked on the building of the Burma-Siam railway. I didn't think that was a big deal. I had seen the film
The Bridge on the River Kwai
and vaguely associated it with Daddy. Strong men, sweat and stiff-upper-lips. Daddy as Alec Guinness. Did I know the nightmares were about that? No, I didn't. Terrible things happened in the war, but the war was over. It was nothing to do with me. It was history. He was whole. My dad.
A holiday: the beach, Llandudno, North Wales. I noticed hollows on my father's legs, the fleshy calves, deep hollows big enough to cup an egg in. I put my finger in one of the hollows. I must have been very young. It was warm and smooth inside, purplish like the skin on a newborn mouse, not hairy like the rest of his legs. I wanted to ask him what the holes were but he jumped up and pelted down the beach, ran splashily through the shallows until he reached deep water and then he swam. He swam out and out like always, arm over arm over arm. I was afraid when he swam out like that, out towards the middle of the sea, towards nothing. His dark head grew smaller and smaller, sometimes vanishing altogether. When I could see him no longer and I thought he had drowned, I did not scream or shout or point, I turned over on to my tummy on the beach-towel, fear beating in my veins. I lay still on the beach-towel, eyes shut, the chill of the sand striking up through the towel, shutting out the voices of Mummy and Hazel who were oblivious to the danger, until I felt the sprinkle of cold that meant that he was back. I turned over and looked up at him, towering against the sun above me, all the hairs on his body cradling glittering drops. I got up off the towel to let him use it. I didn't say a thing but I was so relieved that he was safe I needed to pee. I walked down the beach and into the sea until the cold water gripped me by the waist and then I peed blushing as the invisible heat flowed out between my legs into the cold.
âI can't believe you didn't ask your mum about his dreams,' Foxy frowning at me, an edge of criticism in her tone.
I shrugged. Close as you are to someone, up to your eyes in love, it doesn't mean that they will understand you. No one from outside can really understand a family: it is a culture it takes a lifetime to acquire.
âIf that was part of
family history, I'd have to know,' she insisted. Foxy is a historian, her special interest oral history, family histories, the quiet stuff, the detail. She still teaches a little but most of her time and energy are concentrated on writing and research. Her study is piled with boxes of tapes, faint crackly voices recounting memories from the beginning of the century, Victorian and Edwardian voices. She gets quite frantic sometimes when she thinks of the dying resource, the most direct primary evidence. But skewed, I say, for how can a memory not be skewed that is eighty or ninety years old, that has either lain dormant or been continually embroidered for the best part of a century? It's Foxy's turn to shrug at this and talk about intelligent and selective interpretation, about empirical corroboration. I criticise, but I think it's wonderful, what she does. I think she is wonderful, asleep now, awash in the tangle of her hair.
She is so much cleverer than me. Cleverer and more patient. My degree â not a bad one, 2:1 in history and philosophy â has fallen off me like so much dust, all that learning. I prefer the day-to-dayness of my business, selling second-hand and period clothes. Second Hand Rose is the name of my shop, a popular shop in the centre of York. I spend much of the week travelling to markets and auctions collecting stock. I wash and press and mend while listening to the radio most evenings, turned down low so as not to disturb Foxy when she's working at home. I open my shop five days from midday to six. Connie works in the shop and lives in the upstairs flat. My guard-dog she calls herself, giving a big husky bark of laughter. I can't pay her much but she has the flat rent free, a pokey hole, admittedly, and the odd outfit. And I mean odd. When I'm buying I keep Connie in mind. She's in her mid-fifties. âMutton dressed as lamb, I know me duck,' she says cheerfully, though I wouldn't say lamb exactly. She likes spiked heels and patent leather mini-skirts, tight neon-coloured satin blouses. She wears her hair in an orange beehive and her legs are sensational. She has a stream of lovers, thirty years her junior at least, whom she treats kindly â âI give them the time of their life, darling' â and then in the nicest possible way discards before they become attached. Her voice is a deep sexy purr and we fight constantly but amicably over the Gauloise she will smoke from a long tortoise-shell holder so that the clothes, when you shake them out, all have a faint reek of France.
My working life is markets and motorways, the shop and Connie and clothes. Image. It is all surface, unlike Foxy's working life which is earnest and burrows beneath the surface. But clothes are important, they are part of it, Foxy says so herself. She likes to get her subjects to talk about their clothes, the fashions, the costs, the difficulties, it is a rich seam to mine, she says. Oh Foxy. She is glamorous â even naked. The clothes she wears are severe, her spectacles too, stern ovals, but her chestnut hair, that is long and slippery. She wears it in a French pleat that will not stay properly in. She is often to be seen, both hands behind her head, her mouth full of hair-grips, recapturing it. She wears too much lipstick and it never quite matches the shape of her lips. It is always bright â vermilion or cherry or scarlet â and always too big, slipping over the edges of her mouth. It is her only design fault and I love it. All our cups and glasses have red grease-marks on the rims, because unless you scrub, it will not come off. Still, I don't mind, I like to drink from the very place where her lips have been. God, I am besotted! No wonder she wants â¦ no! She has not said she wants to go and she is sleeping so sweetly beside me, how could she sleep so sweetly if she was not happy? If she did not want me beside her?
My mother has met Foxy, although I did not introduce her as Foxy. That name too pungent and feral to be taken into my family. My friend, I called her, my friend Sybil. It makes me laugh that she is really called that, Sybil â prophetess, fortune-teller, witch. She is none of those things â except in her capacity to bewitch me. She is the most rational and pragmatic of beings. Sybil Fox. It is only me who calls her Foxy, to most of her other friends she is Syb, quite inappropriate: a numb little snippy snub of a name. And she calls me Zelda. She has made me Zelda, a desirable grown-up woman when before I was a child, Griselda, known to my family, and even a lover or two, as Grizzle.
I have never told my mother, in so many words, that Foxy, Sybil, is my lover, but I know she knows. She is not shocked. She has an open, Scandinavian, streak in her. She has visited me, us, three times in this flat. Christmas shopping in York has become a new ritual. We wander round the shops until our feet are aching and then have lunch followed by tea and wicked cakes in Betty's, her treat. It is the most mother-and-daughterish thing we do.
She has seen the bedroom with the double bed, the double wardrobe, the two pairs of slippers on the floor. Foxy's study has a single bed where she sometimes snoozes in the afternoons among her papers so Mummy
think she sleeps there, if she wants to think that then she can. But I know she knows we are a couple because last year her Christmas card to us read:
To Griselda and Sybil with love from Mum and Dad
as if we are a married couple.
Mum and Dad
. That is the last time and I did not treasure it. This year the card will read only
to her family,
to everyone else. How will she do it after forty-two years? How will she stop her hand writing
I wish I had got through to her tonight. Why was her phone engaged so long? Who was she talking to? She should have been talking to me or Huw or Hazel. I could get up. I could get up quietly and phone her now. At this time? On a night like this?
My father is dead. This is the only day that he will die on. September 9th. No. It is past midnight, the 10th. Yesterday he died. Already it is yesterday, the past. September 9th. Last September 9th he didn't know he only had a year to go. You have a deathday just like you have a birthday, the only difference is you do not know it. It is a secret like so much else.
Daddy never knew about Foxy and me, of course he didn't. I never said to Mum, don't tell him. I couldn't, since it was only tacitly known by her. But as well as that it is implicit in our family code that we don't tell Daddy things he wouldn't like. Didn't tell. Soon the past tense will catch up with him, but, despite midnight, today is still his deathday, he can still be present tense today.
âWhat did he tell you about his war?' I asked my mother once, egged on by Foxy. Until I knew Foxy I had never noticed my mother's reluctance to talk or think about my father's past.
She moved her hand in a dismissive gesture. âHardly a thing. He used to try and talk but â¦ oh, I really don't remember. Best not to dredge up the bad memories, best to bury them. Look forward not back. That's what Ralph does. You should respect that, respect his privacy.'
I repeated that to Foxy.
She choked on her coffee. âRespect his privacy!'
She wrinkled her nose so that her spectacles rose up indignantly. âIt's like letting gold flow down a drain,' she said. âIt is treasure, Zelda, it is part of you.'
I wonder if Foxy would feel differently if she knew who she was? She was adopted at the age of six weeks. She tried once to discover the identities of her natural parents, she found only that it was a private adoption; her mother a young girl, her father an American GI. That's all she knows. Her adoptive mother told her on her sixteenth birthday. I thought that must have been traumatic but, âNo,' she said emphatically, ânot in the least. I
to know that. I always felt I didn't belong.' I didn't say that nor did I. I didn't feel I belonged to my family either. I am short and solid and dark haired while Mummy and Hazel are tall and slim and blonde. If someone had told me I was adopted I would have been delighted, excited to shed part of my identity.
A fantasy: my mother rings me up. She confesses that Daddy wasn't my real, my biological, father, that she had an affair with someone â oh, Paul Newman, say. That used to be my fantasy. How would it make me feel? I don't know. I am so tired. And anyway it's stupid because although I haven't inherited my mother's Scandinavian looks, I
Foxy still loved her parents after they told her the truth although she started, immediately, to call them May and Reg instead of Mum and Dad. May is her best friend. They talk on the phone for ages every Sunday night, gossiping and guffawing with laughter and often meet in London for a drunken lunch followed by a stagger round Harvey Nichols or Harrods, daring each other into ever more extravagant purchases. May knows about Foxy and me, treats me like a daughter-in-law. I am Foxy's third live-in female lover. Third time lucky, I say, and Foxy flicks her eyes to heaven. Even the slightest allusion to superstition gets up her delectable nose. And it
lasted longest. Five years almost. I wonder how many women she has made love to? And men too. None of my business.
But, an anomaly: although Foxy is almost obsessive in her plundering of other people's pasts, while she salivates at the combination of a Zimmer frame and a memory, she has not bothered with the background of May or Reg. When I ask why, she bats the question away with her hand and will not say. Why is she not interested in their past when she's fascinated by everyone else's?
I have not told Foxy about the envelope. I don't know why, it's just â¦ I needed to dwell on it alone, let the idea settle. I am afraid of her eagerness, what she will do. I was afraid to let her loose on my dad. Not only because she would have doubtless given the game away, somehow, about the nature of our relationship, but because she would have tried to turn him inside out, upside-down, shake all the memories from the pockets of his mind and â¦ And I feared what would happen to him, then. What would be left.
Foxy has such tenacity, such fierceness â she is more of a hound than a fox when on the scent of the past. I cannot imagine her in the same room as my father. Her energy would suck his out. They are like different species.
Now I exaggerate! The night is getting into my head. How I hate the night. I would like to live in the land of the midnight sun, but all year round, to have no division between night and day, no boundary, never a time when you look out of a window into the dark to see that every door is shut, every pair of curtains drawn, every light extinguished.
âYou could train to be a nurse,' Foxy suggested once, âand work nights.'
It made sense, but I could never be a nurse. I'm squeamish and I don't like touching people, except people I choose to touch. And working nights, whatever the job was, would rob me of Foxy for whom night-time is luxury. She is the deepest sleeper I have ever known and the quickest to switch. She is rarely sleepy, either awake or asleep as if there is a very efficient valve in her, no leakage either way.
The envelope. A fortnight ago my mother rang me. âI've had a letter,' she said.
âWell, since you seem so determined to waken the dogs â¦'
âThe sleeping dogs. All this pestering about your father's war â¦' I gasped at the unfairness of this, I had only asked her once or twice. âI've had this letter. I don't know what to do with it. Should I send it to you?'
âWhat is it?'
âIt's from a Mrs Priest writing to tell me of her husband's â who incidentally I don't know from Adam â death. The Reverend Priest would you believe! He knew your father in the war.'
âA letter about Daddy?'
âShe's been through his papers and found some things. To do with, you know, the Japs and so on â¦'
âShouldn't you give them to Daddy?'
âI don't want him all stirred up unnecessarily. Night after night of it I'm getting at the moment. He's worse. I don't want him more upset. And I don't want to open it. Shall I send it to you? You see what you think.'
âYes do,' I said. I was touched that she had chosen me, not Hazel, touched that she had taken me seriously when I'd asked about Daddy. I'd thought she only considered it silly, and me a childish nuisance.