Sunday, 22 December 2019

Always bow when you see a fox

You must always bow when you see a fox, for the fox is a gentleman.

Every countryman knows that, and every countrywoman too. But the farmer’s young wife was not yet wise to country ways. She was a daughter of the town, that the farmer had spied when he drove his stock to market, and smitten by her shy smile in the crowd across the pens, determined that she should be his. And the girl, tiring of the work her father put her to keeping house and scrubbing pots and brushing the hearth since her mother was taken from them, determined the same. For the farmer, though rough in his country ways, was a prosperous man, and proud. And when the new bride made her way to the farm sat high on the back of the hay wagon, as was the custom in those parts, all the folk that came out to see her and cheer her on her way agreed that the farmer had made a mighty good match and a lasting one, for her belly was full and round for all to see.

Beauty was there, and a will to work, and they knew that wisdom must come with time. Surely when the child she bore brought forth his own sons and daughters, it would be she who would verse them in the names and uses of the herbs that grew thereabouts, and the signs of the air and sky that mark the changes of the weather and the seasons, and the tracks that each beast will leave in a new-driven snowfall. But as yet the girl was young and fresh, and knew little of country ways.

So it came that on an evening late in the harvest, when the light that still lingered stained the sky with red, that the goodwife stepped outside of her kitchen to admire its colour. Though she knew not what it portended, she was filled with joy to see it nonetheless, for good day’s work was behind her, and she had not yet tired of keeping a new house, and scrubbing new pots, and brushing a new hearth. Besides, there was a bright bonny new baby sleeping in his cradle by that very hearth, and it seemed to her that all was good in the world.

All save for one thing. For into that farmyard at that moment, skulking low along the great black wall of the cow byre where the farmer nailed up the corpses of each mole and crow that dared trespass upon his pasture as a warning to their brethren, came creeping a fox. And when he saw the farmer’s wife stood in her doorway he did pause, as a fox will do, and stand his ground wary, waiting to see her move.

She made no bow. And she, poor silly girl, did worse: for she let her disgust show upon her face, and spoke out loud, saying “get away, you dirty thing,” and she stooped, picking up an old boot of the farmer’s that lay upon the doorstep, and she flung it across the yard at the fox, shouting “be off with you, go on.”

Well, fox he was too quick for her, and beside, the boot fell short, and he received no hurt from it, but as he darted into the lee of the barn and lost himself in shadows he fixed the goodwife’s face and actions in his mind, and he determined that he should have his revenge.

“Ho,” said he, “so that is how it is upon this farm.” And he said to himself, “So as it is, so shall it be.”

No sooner was the fox gone from the goodwife’s view than he was gone from her thoughts, and she never would think to speak of him to her husband when he came in from the fields once the land was fully lost to the dark. Great was the joy with which she greeted him, and soft the kiss, and she ran to stoke the fire and laughed to see her husband pluck the baby from his cradle to dandle on his knee.

But old fox was out there in the night, and he was brooding on the injury that had been done to him.  

The evening’s red sky brought a bright, sunny morning as it will, and the heat grew great through the day, until the men in the fields ran with sweat as they toiled and the goodwife threw open every window in the house to try to find a breath of air. But deep, deep beneath the ground where fox he slept, all was dark and cold, and the coldest thing of all was the ice in his heart.

And that night fox again comes creeping and creeping, this time not sticking to the shadows but bold out across the middle of the yard, and up to the farmhouse, dark and silent, where every soul is asleep. And quick as fire leaps foxy up and in at the open casement, and picks his way across to the hearth where the baby lies contented in his cradle. And fox with quick and clever mouth he gathers up the shawl and blankets and he carries baby gentle as a gentleman can be – for a fox, when he puts his mind to it, can carry an egg unbroken in his mouth from the henhouse, though seldom he does, for a fox loves chaos and destruction most of all – up and out at the window, and back across the yard and through the fields to the top of the hill and down, down, down into the heart of the earth where creatures of his kind do dwell.

“Ho ho,” says his vixen when she sees what he carries. “This is a pretty chicken you have brought me.”

And the pair of them roll back the blankets and pluck back the shawl and they watch the baby stir where they have laid him on the damp earth. And they watch as he wakes and blinks into a darkness the like of which his young eyes have never seen before.

“Well,” says mother vixen, licking the baby’s head as a mother fox will do to put her scent upon him, and calling to her cubs to come and meet their strange new brother, “here you be, and here we be, and here you stay, my pretty.”

A child that grows in the country air, with the sun on his face each day and the wind to sing him to sleep of a night, he will grow into the best kind of a man, happy and healthy and hearty and hale. But a child that grows in the darkness of the ground, never seeing the light of the sun or feeling the breath of the wind, well, he will grow up into a strange and stunted thing: a child of earth. And so it was with the farmer’s child. His arms and legs grew long and thick as roots, and if he lay in one place too long they would creep out and wind themselves into the soil, so when he woke he must pull and shake himself free. All rosiness faded from his skin until it was as dark as deepest loam, and his wide blue eyes for want of seeing became dark and glinting like the water in the deepest well. Yet he grew big, for the soil in that part of the country was a good and nourishing one, and soon he was of such a size that his brother and sister cubs feared to tumble with him, as fox cubs will at play, lest they be crushed beneath his weight. For want of space to stretch and stand upright, he became a crooked thing, his head hanging low beneath his shoulders and his back bent double. Yet the den beneath the earth was the only world he knew, for though when his cubs grew old and strong enough fox would let them each up into the fresh air of the fields to gambol in the evenings and learn the hunt beside him, he forbade the child of earth ever to follow.

So he remained down, deep beneath the ground, beetles and worms his only playmates. And though his voice, through lack of use, had become as strange and ragged as the rest of him, he would sing a lullaby to himself in the darkness for want of company. And there is many a countryman and woman thereabouts who has stopped still as evening draws in, frighted by a sound that seems to come from deep beneath the earth, a strange, mournful song that chills their blood and sends them hurrying home to draw their loved ones near, and make sure to fasten every door and every window against what the night might bring.

Save for one woman, who would seek the sound out, and walk the fields each night until the darkness took them, ever crying for her baby that had been taken away.

Though mother vixen did treat him kindly enough in her animal way, the child of earth knew in his heart that he was not of their world. And a part of him, buried deep inside, that was still a child of men, remembered his mother up above, and he felt how she would never give up searching for him. So each autumn, when his brother and sister cubs grew old enough to take their leave of the den, he would ask the fox why he might not follow. And at first, the fox would reply: “when three summers pass, and three times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown this den, then you may go up into the world of sky and air and seek your family.” So the child of earth bided his time, and when three winters had passed, cold and drear, and three summers with their harvests too, he said again to the fox “Now may I go up into the world of sky and air and seek my family?”

But the farmer had laid cruel snares that year to catch the rabbits that feasted on his crops, and fox’s favourite daughter had been caught in one and died most painfully, and he was filled with anger towards the world of men, and one man especially. “When three more summers pass, and three more times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown, then and only then you may go up into the sky and air and seek your family,” said fox baring cruel teeth, and he would say no more.

So the child of earth bided his time for three more winters, and three harvests and three summers more, though by now he was grown so big that he could no more move about the den, and his arms and legs had stretched and grown and spread into the earth around him. And, because he could no longer go to the fox, he cried and called until the fox came to him, and he said, “three more times my brothers and sister cubs have grown and flown: now can I go up into the world of sky and air and seek my family?”

But the farmer had enjoyed good fortune those past three harvests, and he had grown rich and fat, and as men do when such times come upon them he had clad himself in hunting pink and ridden out with hounds that had driven down fox’s favourite son in the thicket and torn him in pieces. And fox bared his teeth again at the child of earth, and said “when thrice three times your brother and sister cubs have grown and flown, and only then, that is when you may go up into the world of sky and air, and not before.”

When nine full years had come and gone, the child of earth was grown so at one with the soil that slugs crawled on his skin and worms burrowed deep within him. Yet deeper within there was still a part that remembered his life above the ground so long before, and the sound of his mother’s voice as she sang over his cradle. So he cried, and he called, until fox came to him, moving himself much slower now, for he was old and lame, the bright fire of his coat patched with grey, and his vixen dead and gone, and he was weary.

“Now thrice times three your cubs have grown and flown,” said the child of earth in a voice that was hoarse from lack of use, “may I go up into the world of sky and air, and be free?”

And old fox he looked at what he had made, and he smiled with sharp teeth. “You may go up into the world of men,” said he, “though you will never again be of that world.” And with that, he dropped his front legs in a bow, and with a sigh he sank to the ground, and never got up again.

The child of earth flexed limbs that had not moved for many months now, and he felt the strength that had flowed into them through rich soil that had been nourished by nine summers’ sun and nine autumns’ rain. And he stretched, and he felt the earth begin to crack around him and the soil crumble away, and he raised his head up, up, up for the first time until it broke full free of the frosty ground and burst into the cold darkness of a winter’s night. He felt the wind icy upon his face, and the stars that twinkled so far above burned his eyes, for they were the first light they had seen for longer than he could remember.

The child of earth heaved his shoulders, and he thrashed his long arms, and he pushed with thick, strong legs, and bit by bit he fought his way free of the earth and came up into the world of sky and air. And though there was no moon that night to see him by, so great was the child of earth that when at last he stood not within but upon the land, you could make out his shape by the stars that were hidden behind him.

Slow and heavy, he stumbled through the fields, and clods of earth fell from his body as he came, and worms and beetles scurried from his footprints. Every living creature fled at his path, and the only eyes that would look upon him were those of the old hare deep in the thicket. He had seen much in his travels between worlds, and he knew what the passing of the child of earth portended, and he too was sore afraid.

The child of earth came to the top of the hill, and what part of him that had once been a head turned, and what was left of eyes squinted towards the lights of the farmhouse piercing the darkness in the valley below.

The dogs set up a howling in the farmyard, but no human ear could hear them. It was Christmastide, and the house was filled of revellers, for the farmer was keen for his good fortune to be seen and appreciated by all. The wassail cup was being passed from hand to hand, and a hearty carol was being sung by every man and woman present, save for the farmer’s wife, who sat alone on the hard settle by the fire, her face pale, her hair white, and old beyond her tender years. But the company took little note of her, for they were used to her ways by now, and she had refused to join the festivities for nine long Christmases gone by.

The child of earth feared the lights and the noise, but they drew him to them too. As he made his way down the hill, more soil cascaded from his body, and it began to seem a little less monstrous: the roots that were his arms seemed to draw back a little, their ragged ends stiffening into shapes like splayed and bony fingers. He left a long trail of wet black loam behind him as he crossed the yard, passing the barn with its grim warnings displayed, and he came to the farmhouse step just as the carol came to its end and the crowd, after giving a great cheer, fell silent. Slowly, for he was only now learning how, he raised a thick arm and knocked once, twice, three times upon the wooden door.

There was a moment’s stillness before it was thrown open, and the light that spilled out suddenly blinded the child of earth and sent him reeling back, raising both broad arms before his face. The sound of screams startled him: his ears, long plugged with earth, were not ready for the hubbub of shouting and shrieking that erupted from inside and he let out a loud moan of his own, which only served to frighten the revellers all the more. He knew no language with which to offer comfort: his mouth was like a jagged crack in the dried-up bed of a stream at summer’s height, and the noises that came from it were like the shrieks and howls of foxes in the fields in spring, and just as unwelcome to those who heard them. There were cries of “bar the door”, and indeed the light of the house had almost been snuffed out before he heard another voice rising above the tumult, one that he knew at once as his mother.

“Stand aside, all of you,” she commanded, more words than most of the guests had heard her ever utter. “Let me see him. Let me through.”

The child of earth was still blinded, confused, fearful, huddled in the shadows beyond the light that spilled from the now wide open door. But he lowered his branch-like arms to peer at the woman who stood on the step before him, and though she was almost as much changed as he was, he knew her just as she knew him.

“Fetch the wassail-bowl,” she commanded in a trembling voice. “Our son is returned to us.”

A low, fearful murmur spread through the crowd inside, but the bowl was swiftly filled and passed hand-to-hand, forward to the brave souls who lingered nearest the open door.

“Here,” said the woman, taking the bowl and offering it to the figure that shivered in the yard. “Take, and sup, and return to us.”

Slowly, hesitantly, the child of earth reached out its arms towards its mother, and as it did so, its back straightened and the last clods of mud that stuck to its body fell away. Fingers like twigs stretched out, but as they touched the proffered bowl it seemed to those watching that they curved and swelled, and began to resemble something not so much different from the hands that held it by its other side.

“NO!” roared the terrified farmer, bursting forward from the crowd in the doorway. “This is no son of ours, and never can be.” And with a great fist he dashed the wassail bowl from his wife’s hands, to shatter on the stones of the farmyard. “Begone with you, and the devil take you, for you’ll never be welcome here.” The child fell back with a howl as his mother was dragged back into the house and the door slammed and barred against him.

When after some time the guests plucked up the courage to go to the casement and look out, nothing remained save a black, puddled trail that stretched from the open field gate to the doorstep, and then back from whence it came.

No one that lives has seen the child of earth again. But there is one that will always be searching for him, walking the fields each night until the darkness takes them, ever crying for her bairn so cruelly snatched away. And there is many a countryman and woman in those parts who has stopped still as evening draws in, frighted by a sound that seems to come from deep beneath the earth, a strange, mournful song that chills them to the marrow and sends them hurrying home to draw their loved ones near, and make sure to fasten every door and every window against what the night might bring.

And you must always bow when you see a fox, for the fox is a gentleman.



Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2019

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

All You Can Eat

Adam Macqueen
New Year 2019

She slept much better than she had expected to, and woke up ravenous the next morning.

“I hope you’re hungry, dear!” trilled the landlady as she walked in to the hotel’s small dining room just after seven. It was crowded, not with guests – Maddy seemed to be the only one up – but with chintz, every surface a riot of pattern and ornament. The rule of the establishment seemed to be that if anything stood still for long enough, it got a doily and a china animal plonked on top of it. And if an edge was capable of bearing a frill, it got one.

“I am, actually.” Maddy threaded her way between the tightly-placed tables to the  one in the bay window, where a view of the neat garden and the hills beyond could just be made out between the heavily-swagged curtains. 

“You’ll want the full English then,” said the plump woman. It wasn’t a question. “Cereals are the side there, dear!” she added as she disappeared through the swing door to the kitchen.

I can forgo that at least, thought Maddy, but as she sat there looking at the view her stomach gave a rumble of disagreement. Two thoughts followed in quick succession – Just this once can’t hurtand Ooh, they’ve got Alpen– before she found herself over at the sideboard and cracking a thumb into the perforated corner of one of the dinky little boxes while simultaneously reaching past the jug marked semi-skimmed for the full-fat one beyond.

What’s wrong with me? she wondered briefly as she resumed her seat in the window, a spoonful of the cereal already downed before she had even got back to the table. It wasn’t as if she had gone wanting the night before. The prospect of a sad supper had vanished almost as soon as she had checked in the previous morning: no sooner had she asked about takeaways in the village than the landlady had assured her that they would run her up something themselves, all she had to do was let them know what time she would get in.

“It’s no trouble,” the blousy woman had assured her as she bustled out from behind the  desk in the hallway and commandeered Maddy’s wheeled case to lead her towards her room. “Cooking’s hubby’s hobby, and it’s justas easy to run up something for three as it is for two. Besides, we do prefer guests not to have food in the bedrooms,” she added with an air of finality.

“Well, if you’re sure,” said Maddy doubtfully as she followed her around the ornate staircase and through a fire door into a modern extension on the back of the Victorian villa.

“Of course!” the woman beamed back over her shoulder. “Now you don’t have any special dietary requirements, do you dear?”

“No, no,” Maddy assured her, thinking that under the circumstances she would probably disavow them even if she had.

“Good, good. Not that it would be a problem, of course. We’ve a vegan in at the moment, as it happens.” The landlady pursed pink lips and nodded towards a door on one side of the corridor as she stopped to unlock one on the opposite side. “We can cater for all sorts here. ‘Never let an unsatisfied guest leave’, that’s our motto. This is you, dear.”

“Oh – thank you,” Maddy had said, flustered, as she took in the room, which was slightly larger and a lot louder than she had expected. She had counted four different patterns of wallpaper once she was safely alone inside. And the flowery bedspread clashed with every single one of them.

But if the d├ęcor left something to be desired, you certainly couldn’t complain about the service. There had indeed been a meal waiting for her when she got back from the office after nine that night, a great steaming plate of delicious meat stew she suspected might be Lancashire hotpot, though she could just have been assuming that for geographical reasons and it was too awkward to ask. Even better, it was served up at a table laid just for one. She had spent the drive back from the city centre worrying  she would be expected to eat with the proprietors themselves when the last thing she needed was to have to make yet more conversation with more strangers: as it was they left her alone save for the occasional check-in to make sure she didn’t want seconds (“there’s plenty!”) and supply her with suet pudding for afters. The husband was an almost identical shape to his wife, with the same smiling demeanour: the pair of them couldn’t have been more welcoming. She must write something nice on TripAdvisor, she thought to herself now as she chased the last of her cereal round the bowl with her spoon. She knew how important such things were to small places like this. They even had their own feedback forms in the room, with their motto printed at the top in Comic Sans. She hadn’t bothered to fill it out yet.

“Oh wow,” she couldn’t help saying as the kitchen door swung open again and the landlady bore down on her table carrying a plate piled high with everything you’d expect from a full English and a bit more besides. As well as two sausages and several fat-marbled rashers of bacon there were slices of black pudding and another meaty concoction she didn’t even recognise: the egg, which was slightly pallid and crammed in on the very edge of the plate next to a fried slice oozing lard, looked like an afterthought. She could feel herself starting to sweat just looking at it.

“Best start to the day there is,” the woman said cheerily as she plonked the plate down on the table in front of her. “Every bit of it locally-sourced, too. We have a personal relationship with every one of our suppliers. Now, d’you want tea or coffee, love?”

Much to her surprise, Maddy managed to polish off the lot. She even got some entertainment laid on during her meal, when another guest turned up in the dining room and made a great show of fiddling with the cereal boxes and sighing before going over to knock on the door of the kitchen.

It was the landlord who eventually opened it, wearing a grease-spattered apron and letting out a cheery “good morning!” which wasn’t returned. He stared at the newcomer through steamed-up specs for a moment before saying “Oh yes, I’ve some special milk for you, haven’t I? Hold on,” and letting the door swing to again.

That’ll be the vegan, then, thought Maddy. She watched the man silently make his way to the furthest table rather than wait, so that when his host returned carrying a carton of almond milk which he’d placed on a saucer specially he was obliged to carry it the length of the room to deliver it. He got the barest of “thank yous” in return, and she noticed that the guest immediately pulled his phone out and started typing away on it before he even deigned to pour the stuff on to his cornflakes.

--

She was grateful for her big breakfast later on, because things at the office were so hectic – she turned up a whole load of VAT records that Damien hadn’t even filed, let alone dealt with – that she didn’t manage to grab any lunch. Actually Maddy was quite glad of the excuse. She didn’t really fancy the look of any of the sandwich places near the office (they didn’t seem to have heard of Pret A Manger up here, let alone sushi) and bumping into any of the staff on their lunch hour could have been awkward. She had already decided several of them were going to have to be let go, and having to make idle chit-chat in the meantime was not a prospect she relished.

It did mean she was starving by the time she got back, and as she pulled into the last available parking space on the hotel’s gravel drive she was pleased to see the windows of the dining room illuminated and the landlady laying out her place at her usual table. She met her in the hallway as she was going in. “Go straight in and sit down, love, it won’t be a minute. Got a beautiful bit of meat for you tonight, fresh in today. Corn fed!”

Maddy quite fancied changing her clothes, or at least getting out of her bra which was killing her, but it seemed rude to make them wait, so she went straight in. She wasn’t disappointed. The meal was incredible: the meat was just falling off the bone.

“Now I’m afraid we’re going to have to move you tonight,” said the landlady apologetically when she came to take away her empty plate. “We’ve had a bit of a problem in the room across from yours, and it means there won’t be any hot water in the annexe while we’re sorting it out, so I’ve put you in the main house with us. You just pop back and pick up your bits and bobs after pudding, and we’ll get you settled in.”

After a generous helping of some sort of mincemeat tart that she guessed was another local speciality, Maddy did as she was told. There was a toolbox open on the patterned carpet in the corridor and the landlord was just emerging from the room opposite hers when she got there: he pulled the door to with an apologetic smile. “So sorry about this,” he told her. “Bit of a mess in there, I’m afraid.”

“It’s no problem,” she beamed back. She was amused to see that he kept his toolbox as spick and span as his house: he was even using a little rag to wipe down the head of the hammer he was holding before he put it back in its allotted place.

--

The breakfast the next morning was, if anything, even better: the bacon was a cut she had never seen before and much tastier than the stuff they usually got from the supermarket, even the Taste the Difference one. “We cure our own,” the landlady told her proudly when she asked about it.

It was all so good that when she had a spare five minutes that morning she logged on to TripAdvisor to say so. She got as far as the hotel’s page – the vegan man had left a very snitty review that not only said they wereclearly unprepared for guests with allergy issues or food intolerances but that the staff were set in their ways and rather surly, which was so unfair it needed correcting straight away – but at that point Louise put a call through from a supplier who was ranting about not having been paid for over three months and demanding to speak to Damien, and she had to close her laptop and deal with that instead.

She did manage to get away at a decent time that afternoon – she’d sent out an email calling an all-staff meeting for the following morning, and she couldn’t bear to sit there looking at their long faces while they wondered which of them was for the chop – and it was still daylight when she arrived back at the hotel. Her way to the parking spaces at the top of the gravel drive was blocked by a pick-up truck which was busy loading a car onto its back, a yellow Golf she recognised as having been parked outside ever since her arrival. “Oh dear – problem?” she said through her wound-down window as the landlord emerged around the side of the vehicle.

“No, not really: we’ll be out of your way in a couple of minutes,” he said with his customary smile, and she drew in close to the hedge so that the truck would be able to get past her when it was ready. The landlady came out of the side door by the kitchen with a couple of heavy-looking plastic coolbags and gave them to the driver before he went, seeing him off with a kiss on the cheek and a wave. That’s nice, thought Maddy as she watched: they’ve got a whole local economy going on here. It certainly looked as if the hotel owners had enough to go round: through the door behind her she could see what looked like an entire carcass hanging up in what must be the larder.

--

“So sorry to disturb you, dear, I just wanted to check how you felt about liver?”

“Oh – er – fine!” trilled Maddy, pressing the open door into her shoulder to ensure her body blocked as much of the gap as possible. She was only in her dressing gown, about to jump in the bath, and she was slightly embarrassed about the smell that might be coming from the bathroom. The unaccustomed diet was playing havoc with her insides.

“That’s good, then.” The landlady gave her a beaming smile, revealing what looked like lipstick on her teeth. “Only some people are funny about offal, aren’t they? Personally hubby and I can’t get enough of the stuff – waste not, want not! – but there’s no accounting for taste. I’ll leave you to it, dear. Shall we say half past seven?”

That was just over an hour away, which gave her plenty of time for a proper soak. “Lovely!” she said to the broad back as it disappeared down the stairs.

After her bath she tried to call Greg again, but he still wasn’t answering.

--

The next morning she got up and put on her most fuck-you power suit – the one that made her feel like Sigourney Weaver in Working Girl– ready for the staff showdown. It felt a little tight around the waist. For heaven’s sake, she thought to herself, I am supposed to be dieting. Although, come to think of it, what she had been eating over the past few days came pretty close to Atkins.

She took the jacket off and tucked a napkin into the front of her shirt before tucking into her breakfast. It wouldn’t look very professional to be firing people with meat juice splashed all over herself.

She usually felt all sick and nervous when she had to sack someone – normally she wouldn’t be able to manage any more than a cup of coffee on a morning like this – but today she was actually relishing the prospect. HR had offered to take care of the individual exit meetings, but as she mopped up the very last drops on her plate with a triangle of fried bread, she decided she would actually like to see each of them one-on-one herself.

--

She had just seen off the last of them, and was sitting in the empty boardroom using one of the toothpicks she had been obliged to buy from Boots on the way in to the office, when the call came through from head office.

It went on for a while, and the conversation was somewhat circular, but what it boiled down to was that they couldn’t get rid of Damien. A formal complaint he had put in about management not responding to repeated requests for extra resources made it too awkward to sack him: the last thing the company needed at this point was another tribunal. They were still hopeful that he could be managed out over time – a “promotion” to one of the other regional offices, as far away from his kids’ schools as possible, was mentioned – but for the moment, they were stuck with him.

“You mean I’m stuck with him,” Maddy said grimly.

“If anyone can find a way to make it work, you can,” came the reply. “Alvin and the board have every confidence in you. There’s just not the appetite for a showdown here.”

“Speak for yourselves,” said Maddy, and put the phone down.

She sat for a while, ruminatively working the toothpick into the difficult gaps between her incisors and canines and listening to the rumble of her hungry tummy. Then she picked up her mobile and called the hotel. First of all she wanted to make sure they had seen the rave review she had given them online after dinner the night before. And then, although she knew she was being cheeky, she had a big favour to ask them.

They said it was no problem at all, they would be delighted.

The second call she made using the office landline. “Damien?” she said when he finally picked up. “It’s Maddy. Yes. Well, the important thing is to find a way to move forward. I thought we should meet up. No, not the office. I’m staying at a little hotel outside town. Could you come tonight for dinner?”

Friday, 21 December 2018

Lumpus Grumpus

By Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2018

The house felt different with only one of them there. It wasn’t a lack of noise – that was never an issue, given the way the pipes in the old place clanked and the doors squeaked and the floorboards creaked and the old lady next door had her telly turned up so loud you could follow the evening’s entertainment from The One Showright through to the News at Ten through the wall and know if there was anything worth bothering to switch on your own set for. It was more that every sound took on a different quality: in the absence of Maddy clattering about the kitchen, or tapping on her laptop at the table as he took his turn making the evening meal, and they caught up on each others’ days in a companionable wine-glugging hubbub, things seemed to echo in the emptiness with a significance they didn’t deserve. More than once Greg paused the TV to marvel at things he couldn’t believe he had never noticed before: the click of the thermostat and the hiss of the hot water cylinder as it made itself ready for the evening bath that Maddy never took but insisted she might want to one day; the way the fan on the cooker racketed on for the best part of a quarter of an hour after he had switched it off and withdrawn his sad single dinner of battered fish and oven chips; the shuddering roar with which the fridge-freezer periodically announced it was still busy doing what fridge-freezers do.

Everything felt different, too. Although he automatically went to his usual spot at the left hand end of sofa, where the sagging cushions had moulded themselves to the ever-increasing mass of his buttocks and the coffee table was positioned at optimum foot-resting distance (close enough to provide decent support to the calves and ankles, not so close that Maddy would complain about having “your dirty socks where we put our food”), without her reassuring counterbalance at the other end, gradually pivoting to the horizontal as the evening wore on, somehow he couldn’t get comfortable. Even the cat, who usually splayed himself out in the warm space between them, seemed to have found better things to do with himself. Greg had heard the flap going a couple of times through in the kitchen, but he hadn’t seen him all evening.

And there was a draught he had never noticed before, which played insistently across the back of his neck however high he stoked the wood-burner. So persistent was it that he eventually gave in and went upstairs to swap his work pullover for the scruffy old hoodie that was reserved strictly for round-the-house-and-even-then-only-when-Maddy-would-let-him-get-away-with-it, pulling the hood so close around his face and tying the drawstrings so tight that on catching sight of himself in the bedroom’s full-length mirror he felt obliged to essay a brief impersonation of a hijab-wearing woman so breathtakingly racist he was quite glad Maddy wasn’t around to see that either.

He kept checking his phone throughout the evening, but there was nothing from her, which was disappointing but not surprising. She’d said she’d be putting in the hours, trying to get as much done each day to ensure her stay up north was as short as it could be. “After all, it’s not like I’ll have anything else to do in the evenings, is it?” she’d told him over her half-packed suitcase. “I specifically asked work to find me a hotel with a pool, or at least a gym, but they’ve booked me into some tiny little place in the middle of nowhere. So I’ll just be sitting on the bed watching telly and stinking the place out takeaway pizzas every night, probably.”

“You never know, they might have a porn channel you can put on expenses,” he had joked, earning him a t-shirt flicked viciously in his direction and the entirely unjustified complaint “now look what you’ve done, I’d just folded that up.” The memory prompted him to pick up the remote control and thumb through the Babestation channels, but even that wasn’t the same when Maddy wasn’t in the house: it took all the thrill out of it.

Finally, with Emily Maitlis offering him the same depressing grimness he had just watched on the news only at greater length and with added arguing, he decided he might as well get an early night himself. Which of course was the point when Maddy decided to call. He slid the green icon across his phone with his thumb as he finished brushing his teeth, and answered with a fresh bright smile: “How is it?”

A frustrated sigh. “Even worse than I thought. It’s like they’ve had no one managing the place for months. God knows what Damien was up to.”

Greg clenched the phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he leaned over to switch on the bedside lamp and arrange his glass of water and reading glasses the way he liked them. “Well, they said he’d let things get out of hand, didn’t they? That’s why they got rid of him.”

“Yeah, but they let him carry on messing things up for another six months after his first written warning. They’d have saved a hell of a lot of work if they’d parachuted someone from head office in then, rather than let him go on making everything even worse.”

He smiled, counting back the months in his head. “By someone, d’you mean you? I can imagine how you would have felt if we’d had to cancel Greece so you could head for the frozen north.”

She gave one of those grunts, just the right side of non-committal, that long-term couples employ when they can’t be bothered to argue but aren’t in the mood to concede a point either. “At least it wouldn’t have been quite as frozen then. It’s bitterhere.”

“Yeah, it’s got chilly here, too.” The bedroom felt about ten degrees colder than the downstairs, with the log burner pumping out its miasma of heat. He might have to wear pyjamas tonight.  

She responded as if she had read his mind. “And I haven’t got you to warm me up in this big strange bed.”

He grinned, shucking off his shoes and working his belt loose. “Likewise. I won’t know what to do with the whole bed to myself.”

“Oh, I’m sure Grumpus will keep you company. Is he missing me?”

“I don’t know: he’s not speaking to me. Maybe that answers your question. I’ve not  seen him all evening.”

“Has he eaten his dinner?” He could hear the twist of anxiety in her voice. The cat was very much her department, and now he was old, she worried about him constantly.

“I think so. I put it out for him.”

“Can you check?”

He sighed. “Hang on.” With his trousers already undone, he needed to slide out of them before going anywhere. Divested, and even more aware of the chill on his bare legs, he padded back out of the bedroom and across the landing to the top of the stairs, from where, once he flicked the light on, he could just make out the cat’s bowl in the hallway below. “Yeah. All gone. Looks like he’s licked it clean.”

Relief and affection mingled in her response: “Big fat greedy catpuss.”

“He is that.” Greg flicked the light off and scuttled back to the bedroom. The cat had arrived from the rescue centre as Teasel, which perfectly suited a tiny tabby kitten but not so much the vast thuggish tom he had grown into as the years went by. Now, at the grand old age of fifteen, he rejoiced in a number of names, most of them lengthier than his given one, few of them complimentary. Lumpus Grumpus, they called him most frequently: Grumpus or sometimes Lump for short. He was, as observed, very much Maddy’s cat, but Greg was quite fond of him in his own way, and Grumpus, provided Greg understood his position as an equally subservient member of Maddy’s pack and never attempted to challenge it, was usually willing to put up with him too.

“Oh, hold on, here he comes now.” Greg could hear the soft click-clack of claws on the tiles downstairs. The cat could seldom be bothered to withdraw them, preferring to live in a permanent state of battle with jumpers and soft furnishings instead. “Must have heard us talking about food.” Keeping the hoodie on for the moment – it really had got freezing – Greg lifted the duvet and slid beneath it, propping himself up on one elbow to continue the phone conversation.

“Probably been out hunting.” From Maddy’s voice he could tell she was settling down at her end too.

“That cat’s never been hunting in his life,” he scoffed, pulling the duvet up tight and wrapping it round his shoulders. With the hood still pulled tight around his face, it felt agreeably like being cocooned.

“Has too. Remember that mouse he brought in and let go in the kitchen, and it ran in behind the cupboards and we never saw it again?”

He chuckled. “He probably ordered it in. Got a Deliveroo. Or Uber Eeks.” It was a pretty weak pun, but he was glad to hear it raised a laugh at the other end. The sound of claws, briefly muffled on the carpeted stairs, redoubled in volume as they crossed the polished boards of the landing. Right on cue the bedroom door, which they always left ajar because otherwise Lump just sat outside meowling all night, creaked open. There was a pause, and then the bed quivered violently. “Bloody hell, Lump! Did you hear that? He just jumped up and practically catapulted me off the other side of the mattress!”

“At least you’ve got company,” grumbled Maddy.

“I suppose he does at least function as a decent hot water bottle,” he conceded. And indeed, he could feel the heat coming off the creature as it settled down, pressing into the small of his back.

“Give him a stroke from me.”

“Will do.” He reached an arm backwards until he found warm hair, and twisted his fingers through it. “God, his fur’s getting manky in his old age. Are you going to be there all week, d’you think?”
“At least, I think. Sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am. Is the hotel decent, at least?”

“It’s ok. Bit weird. I’ll tell you about it when I get back. Is that Grumpus I can hear?”

“What, the asthmatic wheezing? It’s not me!” Greg redoubled his rubbing of the hairy body behind him, and the rumbling growl grew louder in response. “Be surprised if I get any sleep with that racket going on. Might have to shut him out in the garden.”

“Don’t you dare!” she admonished, but they both knew he was only joking. Or at least, half-joking. A nasty odour seemed to have entered the room along with the cat, bad enough to have Greg turning his nose further towards the fresh air on the opposite side of the bed as they talked. Smelled like something decomposing. Bloody thing must have been in the bins.

“I should go. Early start tomorrow,” Maddy was saying in his ear.

“Don’t overdo it,” he told her. “And don’t forget to eat properly.”

“Oh, no danger of that here,” she assured him. “But I need to get on top of the paperwork by the end of tomorrow: I’m calling a team meeting for Thursday. I’d better get my head down.”

“Alright. I love you.” The smell was getting worse, he was sure of it.

“Love you. Sweet dreams. Speak soon.” She rang off, and he put the phone down and scooted it as far as he could along the polished top of the bedside table. He had read something about microwave radiation ages ago, and even though he knew it was probably rubbish – it had been in the Daily Mail– he had kept his phone well out of reach while he was sleeping ever since.

That was when he saw Grumpus. The cat was on the far side of the room, beneath the chair strewn with the clothes Maddy had thought better of taking with her. It was transfixed, back arched, the hair all along its back standing up like bristles, its tail a bottlebrush. Its ears were pressed back to its head, mouth open in a terrified hiss, eyes wide as they stared past Greg at what was behind him.

It took Greg a paralysed moment to make sense of what he was looking at, to reorder the scene in his mind, to put the pieces together. And in that moment, a long arm – a dark-coloured arm that looked almost, but not quite human, reached over and past him, pressing him down into the pillows and at the same time stretching out a long, clawed finger to switch out the bedside light.


Friday, 23 December 2016

The Elf-Kin

Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2016

In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go.

The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. The mothers call their children in from play the moment that twilight begins to draw out the shadows and thread them together, and there is not a boy or girl who does not heed their first call. Each tries hard not to be the last in the crowd as they hurry back across the snow, and the unlucky soul who finds themselves the hindmost must fix their eyes hard upon the footprints of their playmates, follow as fast as their little legs may carry them, and never, never look behind.

The bolts are drawn across every door in the village before the dusk has even dimmed the snow to grey. All hands in every house rush to light the candles and test the casements before the blackness can thicken and fill the windowpanes. And in each home the fire is stoked till it roars in the hearth. Each father knows he must keep it fed through to dawn and flaming beneath the chimney’s great black mouth. Every mother knows she must keep her candles trimmed and her windows rubbed with whale-oil so nary so much as an icy draft can find a crack to come creeping in. And every child knows that if, in the depths of the night, they should hear a cold, small hand tap, tapping at the glass they must turn away and wrap their blankets tighter round themselves and stop up their ears. For they must never, never, listen to the voices that whisper out on the wind and the whirling snow.

There was a family that lived at the heart of that village. The father was a huntsman, like all the men in those parts, and his son a strapping lad already near six feet tall and fast approaching the age when he too would be blooded in the hunt. The mother had been a beauty in her day, and she kept the remnants of her beauty still, though life in the north land was not easy, and hers had been harder than some. They had a daughter too, as beautiful as her mother had ever been, and already when she would walk out through the village the boys would laugh and blush to see her, and some of the grown men too.

Her father knew this, and he was proud to see it. And he knew too that the day was coming when a suitor would take him from her, as he had taken her mother from her own father, and as that man in turn had taken his own wife, for this had been the way in those parts for as long as anyone could remember. And earlier that year, when the bite of winter was but something that hovered between a memory and a suggestion on the north wind, he had strapped on his boots and his travelling-coat, loaded up the sled with bearskins and wolfskins and barrels full of smoked meat and left his family for the long journey to the trading post with a special purchase in his mind. Returning after three long weeks he brought with him the usual provisions of oil and spice, of liquor and linen, and musket pellets, tobacco and trinkets that his family fell to cooing-over, but he brought back a special package too, one which stayed wrapped in its waxed paper and ribbon and was even now tucked away in the topmost drawer of the linen press where only he knew. A beautiful gown all stitched in gold, the finest he could buy, and a pair of silk slippers with beads of coloured glass that sparkled in the light.

For it was fast approaching the low time of the year, when the villagers would exchange gifts and good wishes for the return of the sun and the summer when it was at its most distant. But the shortest day cannot come without the longest night, and that, in that village at the heart of the great dark forest, was the time of most danger.

For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to pull down unwary travelers to join them. And they seek out the places in ill-kept homes where the wood is rotten and bad, and they push themselves into the cracks and bring sourness and blight in their wake.

But the longest, darkest night of the year is when the lord of all the elves himself rides out, looking for children to snatch from their homes. And though no man, woman or child alive can say they have caught so much as a glimpse of him, they say you will know him by his wild white hair and terrible laugh, and by the cloak he wraps tight around himself. For it is as red as blood.

That family were well prepared for his coming that year. The father set to chopping wood all day, his axe flashing red in the light of the dawn and the sunset too. The son trudged back and forth from axe-block to house, his arms filled with logs, so the fire would be well-stocked all through the long night. The mother busied herself at the stove, and the daughter helped her to butcher the deer that had hung in the cottage for seven full days now, and she set to mixing the blood that had gathered in the bucket beneath it for the puddings herself, for her father insisted she learn the skills that would make her a good wife when that day came.

The peaks of the snow were still sparkling rose when the father closed their door and pulled the great bolts across it, and he carried the largest midwinter candles himself and set them in their places on the window ledges as the light beyond faded to blue and on into blackness. Then he bade the mother and the daughter take off their bloody aprons, and the son take off his boots and his cap, and all kneel at the hearth with him at prayer.

“Let this our family circle be joined, and never rent asunder,” he said, “and if any of us have sins to confess, let them confess them now.” And the candle in the left-hand window sputtered and went out.

“Mother, you have not trimmed your candle-wicks well,” he scolded, getting to his feet and snatching up a taper to relight it. But though there was a good length of wick, and more when he took his knife to the candle-tip to shave it, it would not light again. It would only spark, and give off a foul smell.

The father bade them kneel again, and bow, forcing his children’s heads down with his rough hands. Again he said in a louder voice “if any in this family have sins to confess, let them confess them now, lest the elf-kin take them.” And though the mother and the daughter tried to keep to their prayers they could not help but open an eye to look to the candle in the right-hand window, and so they both saw it flicker as if caught in a great gust of wind, and go out.

This time the father did not leave the hearth, though he leaned forward to hurl a fresh log into the heart of the fire. He pushed his children’s heads down until they were brushing the floorboards, and he said once more, in a voice which echoed throughout the darkened house, “confess to your sin.” But his family said nothing, and all that could be heard was the wind.

So the family knelt on in silence, as the flames that had leapt up towards the great black mouth of the chimney but minutes before fell back and sank back into the glowing ashes. And the embers themselves began to lose their glow, and a cold blackness began to close on the room.

The father’s voice was hoarser now. “Speak!” he ordered. “For surely one of you has sinned.”

And at that moment a spark seemed to catch in the dying fire, and a glowing ember loosed itself and floated out into the room above their heads. It was not orange, as would issue from an ordinary fire, but a bright white. And it did not dance in the air like an ordinary ember, but bore steadily out across the room, and up to the linen press on the far wall where it lingered at the very topmost drawer.

The father let out a roar, and he strode to the press and yanked it open. Inside lay the package, still in its waxed paper, and tied with a ribbon, but even with his rough ways he could see that the paper was crumpled and the ribbon re-tied by a clumsy hand that belonged to no shopkeeper. He caught up the package in one hand, and took his daughter by her hair with the other, pulling her to her feet as she let out a scream.

“Confess!” he urged her, brandishing the package in her face. “You have sought out the gift that should have been thine, and been looking upon it with covetous eyes! Well, for your pride, you shall not have it!” And though it had cost him dear, he made to throw the gown and the silk slippers, paper and ribbon and all, onto the fire which let out a little heat still. But his hand was stopped by another scream, and this one came from his wife.

“What is it?” he hissed as he looked at her in the light of the low flames. But the woman had clamped both her hands to her mouth, as if to stop any further noise issuing from it.

The man let loose his daughter, who fell sobbing back on the hearth. And he crossed instead to his wife, and hauled her up by the shoulder. “So, it is you, is it?” he demanded. “Could you not bear to see your own daughter’s beauty? Are you so envious? Did you think you should have it yourself?” And he drew back his arm, and gave her such a blow across her face that it swelled and blackened her eye and she fell sobbing to the floor.

At that the light of the fire dipped yet lower, so that the family could barely see one another. But the father’s rage was still blazing. And he spoke to his son without looking at him, telling him “fetch my whip, boy.”

But his son’s voice came back from the darkness. “I will not.”

Still the father did not turn, for he was looking down at the sobbing women at his feet. “What did you say to me, boy?” he said in a voice that was low like the growl of a bear.

“I will not fetch your whip, father,” said the son in a voice that quavered between the reedy treble of a boy and the boom of a man, but was ever firm. “For it is I that have sins to confess.”

“Speak them then, boy,” snarled his father, who knew full well that for many long years he had been the only one tall enough to reach the topmost drawer of the linen press.

“It was I who was covetous, father. For I looked upon the package, and I wished that it should be mine.”

There was so little light in the room now that all the boy could see was the shape of his father towering over the women where they lay in front of the fireplace.

“It was I who was envious, father. For I took out the gown, and I ran my fingers over its golden stitching, and I wished it could be mine.”

The very last light of the embers showed the black mouth of the chimney gaping wide.

“It was I who was proud, father. For when I took down the silk slippers, with their beads of coloured glass that sparkle in the light, they fitted me perfectly.”

And at that the father turned, and whip or no whip he raised his arm to strike down upon his son with all the force that was in him. But the boy did not flinch, and though the tears ran down his face he stood firm, and shouted into his father’s face in a voice which cracked and fluted:

I have listened to the voices on the wind, father. And they are full of music. And there is laughter!”

And at that very moment the cottage was plunged into a blackness so total that the father could not tell up from down or which from what, and a great whirling wind and choking ashes filled the air around him, and a terrible roaring laughter that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The boy felt a pair of arms fasten about his waist, as strong as knotted oak branches, and as he was pulled backwards and upwards it was all that he could do to reach out in the darkness and clutch his sister’s hand in his left and his mother’s hand in his right and hold on to them as tight as never-let-go.

******

In that far north country the nights are dark and they are long, and when winter fastens its jaws about the great forest it feels it may never let go. The men of that land are hardy, and they are strong and they are brave, but there is not a soul amongst them who would let himself be caught beneath the knotted boughs of the trees after darkness has fallen. For that far north land is riddled with the elf-kin. They hide themselves in the gnarled trunks where the trees press close in the forest, pursuing a hunt of their own. They bury themselves deep in the slippery leaf-mould beneath the crust of the snow to tempt unwary travellers. You may hear their music and laughter on the wind and the whirling snow. And though no man alive will admit that they have caught so much a glimpse of them, they say that you will see them sometimes in the distance, in the shadows of the trees or just beyond the candle light that spills from your window.

They say that their lord wears a cloak as red as blood. And they say that amongst his retinue there are two ladies, an old one and a young one, both of whose beauty is beyond compare. But the tallest and most beautiful of them all is clad in a gown with golden stitching, and when he passes over the snow his silken slippers leave no footprints.


Tuesday, 22 December 2015

The Gift That Keeps On Giving


Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2015

Darling Lucy,

I don’t have very long. But I can’t go without trying to explain to you. There’s so much you still don’t know. I can see you rolling your eyes at me when I write that: you think you know everything. You do when you’re 17. Believe it or not, I remember how it felt. Before life knocked the certainty out of me.

There’s one thing I have always been a thousand per cent sure of, though, and that’s how I feel about you. From the very first moment I saw your scrunched-up little angry face, bellowing at me as the doctors laid you on my chest, I felt a fierce, fierce love for you. It was so white hot it seemed to burn my insides. And believe me, despite everything that’s happened since, I’ve never stopped feeling it for a single moment. I would do anything for you, my darling. I have done things for you that most mothers would never be able to imagine. And I will again. Because it will keep you safe. And that is the only thing in this world that matters to me.

I know you hate talking about when you were little, but maybe tonight after what has happened – and I am so, so sorry my darling girl, I wish it could be otherwise – you can understand a little of what it was like. Sitting by the side of your hospital bed, holding on to your tiny hand. Carrying you to the bathroom when you were too weak to make it. You used to protest that you were too big to be carried, and I would pretend to stagger under your weight to make us both laugh, even though you were less heavy than a child of half your age should have been. Watching how brave and unquestioning you were with the needles and the pills even when I could see how much you had to struggle to swallow them and fight to keep them down, and not even being able to promise you that everything was going to be alright because I didn’t know whether that was true.

Because by then it had turned out not to be alright so many times. Because you weren’t just small for your age. And whatever the chances probably were, it had turned out not to be nothing. And you weren’t bringing up your dinner because of allergies, or food intolerances, or any of those other things that kids eventually grow out while their awful parents without a clue strut about wearing it like a badge, as if it’s something to be proud of. And you weren’t even lucky enough to be one of whatever percentage of kids it is that don’t react badly to the chemo, and your hair – your beautiful chestnut hair, with that heartbreaking baby smell I can still summon up to my nostrils even now – came out in clumps on the brush that I had to drag over your head as you sat patient and brave and unquestioning on my lap with me trying to avoid your bewildered eyes staring back at me in the mirror. Both of us pretending for each others’ sake that this was ok, it was fine, this was just something we were going to get through and come out the other side.

I don’t think you’ve ever known how close you really were to dying. Sure, you used it as a playground boast – “I nearly died,” I used to hear you saying to your friends after you started hanging out with the sort of kids that think that kind of thing is cool – but it was just words you were using in the way children do, words they’ve learned the sound of but not the true meaning. That only comes in all its clarity when you’re a parent, wide awake in the early hours of the morning and staring sightlessly into the darkness. Or at the emptiness of a long hospital corridor, with its harsh, antiseptic overhead lights melting away all euphemism and flattery to expose the skull beneath the skin.

That was where he found me, all those years ago. I couldn’t tell you what day it was, or what time, only that it was an hour when everyone is fast asleep except for the best and the worst in the world.

He looked like just another doctor. He was dressed like a doctor. A surgeon, in fact, though his loose blue scrubs were so spotless and uncreased that they made me suddenly aware of my own tired grubbiness and wonder just how long had passed since I had even managed to rub a finger over my teeth or a paper towel beneath my armpits in the Ladies, which was about all I could manage by way of hygiene at that point. But he was a lot younger than Dr Woodville, the surgeon who did your first operation, and who had assured me that they had almost certainly succeeded in locating all of the tumours and there was a very good chance little Lucy will be up and about in no time, something else which turned out to be more empty words. And he didn’t look much like the junior doctors I’d seen dragging themselves from ward to ward in the early hours either. His face was as fresh and unlined as an airbrushed model in a magazine, not a strand of his slicked black hair was out of place, and he had the most incredible green eyes that seemed to look right into me as he sat down opposite me and asked the only question that mattered.

“How is she tonight?”

It took me by surprise. You’d be amazed how many people in those weeks had come up to me to ask me “are you alright?” even though most of them had more than enough medical qualifications to know there was no possible way on earth I could be. I told him all the answer that I could fit into words, which was that you were sleeping. Pure exhaustion was doing at last what the drugs no longer seemed to be able to. And I was trying to make myself comfortable – no, that’s another empty phrase, I was slumped on a hard plastic chair trying to relish how uncomfortable I was because that way I could kid myself I was somehow taking some of your suffering for myself, even though I knew the world doesn’t work like that, however much it ought to.

Except that that night it turned out that maybe it could.

“Dr Ramakrishnan is a very good doctor,” he told me. That was the paediatric oncologist in charge of your treatment. “I’m sure she’s doing all that she can for Lucy.”

I could barely hear my own voice as I trotted out another of my practised phrases. “Everyone’s been very good to us.”

He nodded, and he seemed to know that I couldn’t manage a conversation, so we just sat together for a while. I suppose looking back, that was another thing that should have given me a clue that he wasn’t a junior doctor, because when do they have the time to just sit around? But right then what I needed most was some company from someone who seemed to understand, and I was long past asking questions. After a bit I realised I was crying, and he took out a handkerchief – a proper, white cotton handkerchief, all folded neatly into quarters and then diagonally again to fit in his breast pocket – and passed it over to me as I nodded my thanks, and we sat there in the corridor opposite each other, the only sounds my sniffling and the quiet hum through the door of the machines that were keeping you alive.

After some time had passed he leant forward, steepling his fingers – he had long fingers, I remember, with perfectly manicured nails – and looked at me like he had come to a decision.

“There is… one thing that we haven’t tried yet for Lucy.”

It was like a little jarring jolt of hope had gone off somewhere deep inside me, where I thought nothing was left but emptiness. I suddenly felt more awake than I think I have ever been. “What? What is it?”

He explained that it was an experimental treatment. Not one that was on offer to everyone. And that there was a risk involved. But I wasn’t interested in any of that. If it gave you a chance, I would take any risk there was.

He asked me if anyone had talked to me about donors. Of course they had. Even back then you could barely get out of a GP’s surgery without them trying to push one of the little red and blue cards on you. But they had also told me it would be no use in your case, even though I had said again and again how happy I would be to give up any one of my own organs in place of your tiny ones as the tumours worked their way through each of them in turn. And I told him as much, again.

He gave me an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid that wouldn’t be suitable in this case. The process does not leave the donor in a… functioning state. And Lucy would need you after the treatment to look after her and nurse her back to health. Unless… there’s anyone else?”

The tears were coming back again. His handkerchief was sodden through. “I’m on my own.”

“Ah. Lucy’s father isn’t -?”

I shook my head. He nodded sympathetically. “Naturally it’s every parent’s first instinct to do anything for their child. To be prepared to give up everything for them. At least, that’s how it should be.”

It felt like I was being given hope, just to have it snatched away from me. Although at least now I had someone to blame for it.

I told him all about your dad. How we hadn’t had any contact with him in years. How you didn’t even remember him. I told him things I’ve never told you, my love, although I think you always understood more than you let on. I always wanted to protect you from the details. But you need to know them now. To understand.

Your dad and I met too young. And although I’ve never regretted it for a second, we definitely had you too young. When you’re only a teenager you’ve barely got enough love for yourself, let alone anyone else, and your dad had a big problem even liking himself. I don’t even know what he thought he felt for me. And then you arrived, and there was never any question where all the love I had to share was going. Which I suppose, looking back, left him feeling even more on the outside, just like he was always saying he did. But that’s not to make any excuses for him. He had more than enough of those for himself. 

I should have spotted the signs so much earlier than I did. On our second or third date he tried to batter some lads from the college rugby team who were making laddy remarks at me in the bar, but somehow at the time I made myself think it was romantic – my own knight in armour, defending my honour. Only after he came off the worse in the encounter, and I was left doing DIY first aid in my bedroom because he flatly refused to go to A&E, he somehow managed to turn it back on me and tell me that he wouldn’t have to risk getting a kicking on my behalf if it wasn’t for the way I dressed and acted. And after it happened a few more times I started to believe him, which is why I started wearing all those drab jeans and baggy t-shirts you used to laugh at in my old photos. But I never minded you laughing: you were right, they were terrible, and old-fashioned even then, and secretly I loved the fact that once you were interested enough to want to look at them.

But gradually I realised that I was growing apart from all my friends, and stopping doing the things I used to love to do – do you remember years ago how amazed you were when I told you I used to act in the drama society at college, and you said You? No way! I kept telling myself that it was just part of growing up and discovering who I really was when actually I was being turned into the person he wanted me to be. And it turned out he didn’t like her much, either.

And then I got pregnant. You don’t want or need to know the details but it’s the reason I’ve tried damn hard all your life to make sure you’re not the sort of girl who’d let something like that happen to her. And he insisted he had to drop out of college and get a job to support me while I carried on studying, and then devoted himself full-time to resenting me for both those things.

You know he used to hit me, because I’ve been honest about that ever since you first traced the scar on my forehead with a tiny finger and asked me in a solemn voice how it got there. But the bit I couldn’t explain to you, because as a child you wouldn’t understand, was that it wasn’t the violence that hurt the most. It was the way he always looked at me and talked to me. Like I was some kind of vermin that somehow had got into his house and was fouling the place up. Something like a slug, that however successfully it manages to stay hidden and out of your way can’t help but leave a disgusting trail behind so you know it’s been there. The slaps and pushes and dragging grips on the arm only happened when he had been drinking, and I got to be an expert at spotting the signs and finding excuses for getting you out of the flat then, whatever time of the day or night it might be. But that look – that contempt – that was there was there all the time. And I lived with it right up until one day when I came into the front room when you were playing happily in your playpen, gurgling away without a care in the world, and I saw him looking at you with exactly the same expression. He didn’t do anything else, just sat there looking down at you in utter disgust and resentment, but the next morning as soon as he left for work I packed a bag for you and one for me and walked out of that grotty little flat and never once looked back.

I told the stranger this, and much, much more, right there in the hospital corridor. The words just came tumbling out of me, maybe because I’d been keeping them pent up inside for so long. And by the time I’d finished he couldn’t have been in any doubt exactly how I felt about your – no, he doesn’t deserve to be called your dad, he never did anything to earn that title.

At least, he never had until that night.

I said I didn’t even know where he was these days. It had been years since I’d heard anything about him. His mother knew better than to include any mention of him in the Christmas cards she sent each year if she wanted there to be any chance of you getting to read them.

He reassured me that wasn’t a problem. “We never have a problem finding donors. Our register is very comprehensive. All we need is your consent to proceed.”

I could kid myself that I didn’t know what I was signing up for, that he somehow tricked me into it, took advantage of my vulnerable state. But we talked for a long time that night. And I understood.

He held out his hand, and I passed him the wringing wet handkerchief. He took it, and he folded up neatly like before, but before he tucked it back into his pocket he pressed it hard to his lips, and those green eyes were looking right into mine the whole time.

“Go in and see your daughter,” he told me, and I nodded dumbly. My legs had stiffened beneath me and it took me a moment to find my balance and cross to the door of the room where you were still sleeping soundly, the machines beeping and whirring around you. And when I turned to look back, the long hospital corridor stretched away empty in both directions.

You stayed asleep for a long time that night, and well into the next morning, and when you woke up you looked more refreshed than you had in weeks, with a little colour creeping back into your cheeks. Your test results still weren’t good, but by the next day they had crept up, and they carried on rising all that week until Dr Ramakrishnan gave the first genuine smile I think I’d ever seen her give and told me you really did seem to be making progress. By then you had managed to sit up and eat a whole meal – chicken pie and vegetables, I’ll always remember – and most of your jelly for afters, and the nurses were so pleased with you that they even managed to persuade me to go home and sleep in my own bed for a night, and when I got back not long after seven the next morning they were laughing and telling me I wasn’t going to believe it but you’d already had your breakfast as well.

From then on there was no stopping you. You were scooting around the place on a walking frame before we knew it, making friends with the kids on the other wards, and getting cross with me if I tried to come in to the bathroom with you because you said you didn’t need me any more. After a few weeks I was taking you off the ward every afternoon for walks in the park, or out for pizzas, or trips to the cinema, whatever you demanded. And the mornings I spent talking to doctors and social workers about the care and support package we would need in order to have you home for Christmas. And we managed it, too. And after that, except for regular outpatient checkups that became less and less frequent as the years went by, you never went back.

In the midst of it all I was too busy to notice that we didn’t get a card from Nana Barnes that year. She wrote me a letter towards the end of January, to say sorry but she had some bad news: her son had passed away. He had been found with knife wounds in an alley behind a pub in Portsmouth, where he’d apparently been living. The police thought he must have got into a fight with someone – he’d been barred from the place earlier in the evening, which sounded like him – but they didn’t have any suspects, and they thought in the end it wasn’t the stabbing that killed him, he froze to death out there by the bins. She said that although she understood how things were she thought I would want to know.

She was wrong. I didn’t want to be told that at all.

I put the letter away. I wasn’t such an irresponsible mother that I wasn’t going to tell you, but with everything else that was going on you didn’t need to know right then. And somehow, like a lot of other things, I never did quite get round to telling you. So that’s what this letter is for now. To make sure you have the full picture. You might have stopped listening to anything I say a long time ago, but you at least deserve to have my side of the story.

When people ask me how the teenage years are going, I tend to say things like “ooh, we have our ups and downs.” But we can’t kid ourselves, can we Lucy? There have been a lot more downs than ups, especially lately. At first I was so relieved and happy just to have you home and well again that I didn’t see it, or I just told myself you were catching up on all the things you’d missed out on because of your illness, and everything would settle down. And of course, I blamed myself, for all the usual reasons single mums do, convincing myself there was something missing in your upbringing that should have been there. But that wasn’t true. It was actually the opposite, wasn’t it?

“She’s got the devil in her, that one,” my mum once said in exasperation after you’d pushed her right to her limit. It was after that awful incident with the kitten that you insisted till you were blue in the face was an accident, and we said we believed you because we wanted to so much. But it wasn’t the devil. And I know, because god forgive me, it was me that put it there.

I wasn’t sure at first. Not for a long time. I made excuses for your behaviour, apologising endlessly to the parents of other kids at your school, begging your teachers for extra chances and pleading special circumstances right up until you finally got yourself permanently excluded. And I made excuses for the bruises too, hardly believing the same words could be coming out of my mouth again. You were so little when it started. I told myself you were just lashing out, that you didn’t know your own strength.
 
Maybe you didn’t. Is that how it works, Lucy? Is there still a frightened little girl somewhere in there, terrified of the brute she’s forced to share a body with and unable to control him? Is that maybe the reason for the boozing, and now the drugs? Are you trying to blot him out, escape from him?

If that the case, I can’t blame you. I don’t resent all the money you’ve stolen from me over the years to pay for it all. I’d gladly hand it all over, and more. Because the alternative is even more awful. If you’re telling the truth, that means you really do hate me. That I’m worthless, the worst mother in the world. And I know that’s not right.

And so will you, now. I’m proving it to you.

This shows you how much I’ve been clutching at straws lately, but I even thought Charlie might be the one to save you. Because I could see how much you cared about him. Alright, I don’t think much of him – you could do a lot better than a drug dealer, and I know that’s what he is, Lucy, I’m not stupid, however often you tell me I am. And I hate the way he’s treated our home like a dosshouse from the very first time you brought him home, and me like the hired skivvy, but I suppose he was only picking that up from you. And I wouldn’t trust him not to hurt you, or cheat on you, or break your heart sooner or later. But there was one time, when I got back from a late shift and found that the pair of you passed out on the sofa in the front room in a stinking haze of weed, and the look you had on your face while you were cradled in his arms was one I thought I’d never see again. You looked happy. Content. So full of trust. I’d forgotten you could even look that way. It was the same expression you used to have when I was carrying you in the hospital all those years ago. And for once it made me not mind that you’d used up all the food I’d got in for my dinner and left most of it crusted onto the pans and the plates with half-crushed roaches in them that were scattered all over the kitchen for me to clear up as usual.

So you were so wrong when you screamed at me after the accident that you hoped I was “happy now”. Yes, I was always going on about his bike and how dangerous it was, especially when he was stoned, but surely you can see that was because I knew something like this might happen? And when I said thank god you weren’t on the bike too, that was pure relief speaking. And when you yelled at me that you wished you were, that if he died you would rather be dead too, it was like a knife going in to me right then. Because I could tell that you actually meant it.

So what I’m telling you, Lucy, is I get it. I understand. And you have my blessing. Because you see I came back after the nurses told me it was best for me to leave. I waited outside the Casualty department at the edge of the car park, watching the ambulances come and go, until I thought you’d have had enough time to calm down. Until after the last of the office party drunks had been bandaged up and sent home, and the waiting room had emptied, and the nurses had gone off their night shift and the cleaners arrived, though the sky was still black as could be. And then I crept back. I got as far as the doors, stopping just outside the circle of light that spilled out of them, not close enough to trigger the sensor that sets them sliding open. I looked in through the glass, and I saw you sitting there with your back to me, looking so vulnerable, and so young, and so broken. And I saw who was sitting there opposite you. He was dressed just the same as before. And when he spotted me, his green eyes locking on mine over your shoulder as you sobbed into that neatly folded handkerchief, I realised something else. He didn’t look a single day older.

I know how it works, Lucy. It has to be someone you’ve loved, once. He explained that to me, too. Otherwise everyone would be doing it, wouldn’t they? If you could just pick some awful criminal, or a politician, and wipe them out just like that to save someone who mattered, think how much better the world would be. But that would be too easy. No, it has to be someone who cared for you, who did their best to love you in their own way, and made mistakes and didn’t always get it right. And it also has to be someone who you’re now prepared to sacrifice without a second thought.

And I accept it. I’ll go happily. Because I know I can make you safe, my darling girl. Charlie may not be all you need him to be, or love you as much as you need him to, but I can. I can straighten him out, make him behave like he ought to. With me pushing him, he can become the man that’s good enough for you. Who can save you from yourself.

And I won’t ever have to let you go.

That was a knock. It’s him, or maybe some of his people. I must go and open the door to them.

I don’t know how it will happen. I think we will go for a walk together, somewhere far away from the house. It’s a cold night again, but I won’t bother with a coat. I will leave this letter here on the kitchen table for you. You sit tight at the hospital and wait for news of Charlie. It should not be too long now.

I will see you very soon, my darling girl.