Authors: Monica Dickens
‘I thought she was rather sweet,’ the girl said. ‘You’re a bit of a beast you know, Bill. Can’t you see the poor little thing is desperately in love with you?’
The family roared with protesting laughter.
Jo did not feel like going to Denbigh Terrace. She felt strung up, unsettled, comfortless. She suddenly wanted to see her mother.
She was glad that her father was out with Kitty, but when they came in, very jolly, she railed at them for leaving Mrs Abinger alone.
‘Hoity-toity,’ Mr Abinger said. ‘You’re a fine one to talk, for all you come near the place. Your half-day to-day and you don’t turn up till nearly ten.’
‘I couldn’t come,’ Jo said. ‘I’ve been to Lorrie’s wedding. It was ever so lovely Mum. At the synagogue they stood under a kind of gold tent thing, and drank out of a glass and smashed it.’
‘That was careless, dear, in church,’ said Mrs Abinger.
Jo was irritated at her misunderstanding. ‘On purpose. It’s part of the ceremony.’
‘And who,’ asked Mr Abinger, who had been working up this little speech, ‘who gave you permission to enter the malodorous portals of a Hebrew Temple?’
‘No one can’t tell me what to do,’ Jo smouldered at him. Kitty put her head on one side, and looked from one to the other of them delightedly, like a child at a side show.
‘You know I’ll have no truck with that kind of thing,’ he said, ‘nor shall any child of mine. Gold tents, smashed wineglasses – faugh!’ His gesture unbalanced him, and he sat on the edge of the bed.
‘Well, I like it,’ said Jo, ‘and
I was going to marry Norm, which I’m not even sure that I am’ – she ignored her mother’s cry of protest – ‘I’d like to have a wedding like that. I wish I was a Jew.’
‘Don’t ever say that in my house again,’ said her father, staring sadly at the floor.
‘I wish I was a Jew,’ repeated Jo promptly.
‘Tents, top hats,’ he grumbled. ‘Smashed wineglasses.’ He could not get over that. ‘Superstitious mumbo-jumbo. When you get to my age and wisdom, perhaps you’ll see through it and understand why I’m proud’ – he sat up straight and clapped a gingerly hand to his chest – ‘to be an Atheist. Tents, smashed wineglasses – why you might as well be a Papist and have dirty little Irish priests swinging charcoal burners at you all over the place.’
‘I wouldn’t mind,’ said Jo. ‘People seem to like being Roman Catholics. I went into Brompton Oratory once. It was nice. The ceiling’s a long way off; a person could think in a place like that.’
Mrs Abinger held her breath and looked fearfully at George.
‘If I catch you going there again.’ he began slowly, ‘I’ll – ’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Jo, scornfully. ‘What will you do? You never do anything, but talk, talk, talk. I never saw such a washout. I’m off.’ She slung on her fur, and bent over the bed to kiss her mother. ‘Good-bye, Mum. Sorry I spoke, but you never say boo
to him, and he needs it now and then.’ They talked of him as if he were not there.
Mrs Abinger shook her head. ‘You shouldn’t speak to him like that.’
‘He doesn’t mind. ‘Bye, Dad. Don’t let it get you down.’ He did not look up. He sat on the edge of the bed, sagging the old springs, chewing over his grievances with a slight grinding of his teeth.
‘Little birds in their nests agree!’ chirruped Kitty. She put out a hand to stroke Jo’s fur, with a soppy look on her face, ‘nice pussy. Pretty pussy then.’
‘Oh get out,’ said Jo. ‘If you must stroke anyone, stroke Dad. I’m sure he’d love it.’
‘That girl,’ nattered Mr Abinger, when she had gone, ‘is getting too big for her boots. Who does she think she is, coming lording over us as if she came from another planet, instead of – well I’ve half a mind to tell her where she
‘George, be careful what you’re saying.’ Mrs Abinger glanced fearfully at Kitty.
‘Oh it’s all right,’ Kitty said, ‘I know all about Jo. Don’t mind me.’
‘You know? Who told you then?’
‘Abbie did of course. Now don’t look cross, dear; silent as the grave, that’s me. You know you mustn’t excite yourself. You must lay quiet there, and Kitty will go and fetch you a cup of tea and a ginger biccy, eh?’
Mrs Abinger hated to be talked to as if she were a child. ‘George,’ she said, when Kitty had gone out to the kitchen, ‘I’m really vexed with you. You promised you’d never tell a soul.’
‘Nonsense,’ he said. ‘Kitty’s like one of the family; there’s no harm. The harm is, to my way of thinking, in you having made such a mystery of it in the first place. If Jo had known who she is, we’d never have had her setting herself up, and coming it over us the way she does.’
‘A promise is a promise,’ Mrs Abinger said heavily. ‘It’s the only thing I’ve really begged of you seriously. You might have studied my wishes in this.’
‘I’ve studied them long enough,’ he said, getting up. ‘The
next time she comes here with her “Stroke Dad”, and “washout”, I’m going to tell her the truth, straight I am, Ellie.’
‘George, I beg – ’ Mrs Abinger put her cards on the table – ‘don’t you see that we may lose her if you do? She’s slipping from us as it is. If she learns there’s no real tie, she may – George, she may never come near us again!’
Her vulnerable, tragic face made him uneasy. ‘Mountains out of molehills, Ellie,’ he said. ‘And you’ll never keep it dark for ever. There’s old Loscoe knows, for one. She’d tell, as soon as look at you, if she thought it would advantage her. Talking of which,’ he changed the subject thankfully, for Mrs Abinger looked near tears, ‘I haven’t seen the old girl this many a day, not since she was in the shop treating poor little Kitty very funny about the liver sausage for her cat. I passed by her place to-day and there was milk bottles going sour all down the area steps.’
‘Oh dear,’ Mrs Abinger was worried. ‘I wish you’d go round there, George, and see if she’s all right. She might want a doctor fetching to her or something. I’d go myself, but he said another week in bed after that last go. Please dear,’ she begged, as he grumbled and grizzled. ‘She is my friend, after all; she’s been good to me in her time. Look how she helped me over getting jo.’
‘Worst day’s work she ever did in the whole of her useless life,’ he said, escaping before she could chide him.
Mrs Abinger kept on at him, until at last he went to the basement flat where Miss Loscoe had lived alone since her mother died. The smell on the area steps made him wrinkle his nose as he went cautiously down, feeling his way as if he expected a booby trap. There was neither bell nor knocker on the door. Only a torn scrap of paper, faded with damp.
‘Go AWAY,’ he read.
Obediently, he started back up the steps, but turned at a sound from within the house. Might be a cat shut up in there. Cats were the only animals Mr Abinger liked. Dusk was gathering outside, and it was already night in the basement-room. He peered through the window, but at first could see nothing but
newspapers scattered everywhere, and a dark mass against the far wall, which he finally made out to be a jumble of piled-up furniture.
It looked as though the flat were abandoned, but the sound came again. This time, unmistakably, it was Miss Loscoe’s voice, but much more like the mewing of a cat than her usual grating tones. He squinted again through the window, and as his eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, he could see something moving among the furniture. Something white – a hand, waving like the drowned hand which held Excalibur, between the legs of an upturned chair.
‘Who’s there?’ she was calling.
‘Mr Abinger,’ he said, then shouted: ‘Can I come in?’
‘No,’ came the answer, and the hand disappeared.
He pushed at the window, but it was fast. His instinct was to turn and run, but he would never hear the last of it from Ellie. He tried the door, and rattled the handle to no purpose.
A head in curl papers looked out of an upstairs window, and called: ‘She’s gone away.’
He looked up. ‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ he began, but the window had been slammed down again.
He banged on the door. Shut up in there, the old girl might be dying, or gone mad. Probably both. Best get the police. But he did not like the police, and if he fetched them, he would find himself giving evidence in Court, and having some wrong-doing pinned on to him, the way they did.
He put his shoulder to the door. To his surprise, the rusted lock gave way, and he stumbled into the dark, reeking passage. His foot touched something soft. It was Miss Loscoe’s cat, shut in and starving, which had crawled as near to freedom as it could, to die.
Ugh! He kicked it disgustedly to one side. He was not as fond of cats as all that. Groping his way along the wall, he found the door of Miss Loscoe’s room. It was not locked, but it was barricaded on the other side and would only open an inch.
‘Miss Loscoe!’ he called through the crack. ‘Miss Loscoe! Open the door. It’s Mr Abinger. Ellie sent me. You know Ellie,’ he wheedled, humouring her.
‘Go away,’ was all she would moan. ‘Go away.’ She did sound really queer. Encouraged by his success with the other door, he put his shoulder to this one. Something creaked, slid, toppled, and the door opened far enough for him to step in over a broken chair and a drawer stuffed full of old rags and corsets.
The air in here was fouler than the passage. As he groped his way across the room, the newspapers clung about his legs like autumn leaves. He kept calling to her nervously. He would not feel so scared if only she would speak and let him know where she was. He touched a table. Peering between the legs of the chair perched on top of it, he felt something warm on his face.
Warm air. It was breath, Miss Loscoe’s feeble breath, and her eyes were only a few inches from his.
With a yell, he sprang back, a sweat coming on his skin like Cheddar cheese in summer. ‘What’s the game?’ he croaked. ‘Are you ill or something? Here – ’ He began to feel his way backwards to the door, watching the pile of furniture. ‘I’m going. You can rot for all I care. I’m getting out of this.’
Now she spoke through the legs of the chair, a little old voice, half sigh, half whisper. ‘I’m in hiding,’ he thought she said. ‘I’m hiding from Them.’
he said his grammar slipping with his morale.
‘Them. You know. They took Mother away, and all the old faces. All the old familiar faces.’ She moaned the ghost of a tune. ‘They shan’t take me.’ Her voice became a little stronger. ‘I’ll fool them yet.’
The old girl was absolutely gone. He would have to get the police. It would be strait jackets and padded cells for her. He began to feel important. The papers might make a story of this, and he would get his name in. Perhaps a picture, he and Kitty at the door of the Stores.
‘Mr George Arnold Abinger, who found the unfortunate woman.’
‘You’ll have to come out, you know,’ he told her. ‘I’ll get help for you. You can’t lay there in the dark like that without a bite to eat.’
Triumphantly came the whisper: ‘I’ve got my charcoal biscuits.’
‘Yes but – oh look here – ’ What was the sense of reasoning
with a mad woman? ‘I’m going to get help,’ he said. There was no answer. He raised his voice, then listened. The stillness was made more eerie by the drip drip of a tap on tin somewhere in the basement.
Cautiously, he approached the furniture, behind which Miss Loscoe was besieged. ‘I’m going to get help,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back with someone to help you. You just lay still. You’ll be all right. Miss Loscoe!’ He sidled nearer as she still did not answer. ‘Miss Loscoe, can you hear me?’
If she did not answer, she might be dead. If she were dead, he ought to look, and he could not do that. She must answer.
‘Miss Loscoe, for Christ’s sake – ’ He bent to speak through the legs of the chair again.
‘Aha!’ The hand suddenly shot through, and with unbelievable strength, had him by the coat. He pulled, but she held him in a death grip. He could not bring himself to touch her claw to prise it open. He knew it would feel like a toad.
She chuckled as he struggled to free himself. ‘I’ve got you,’ she gloated. ‘You can’t go and fetch Them.’
He felt about on the table for something with which to knock her hand. ‘Let go,’ he said. ‘You’re mad. What are you trying to do? Keep me here till I go as raving as you?’
‘You are already,’ she said in a clear voice that suddenly sounded quite sane. ‘You have been all your life. Must have been to let yourself be duped and preyed on. Listen!’ She hissed through the chair at him. ‘I could tell you some things.’
‘Let me go first then,’ he said, trying to keep his voice calm in this nightmare that could not be true. He twisted and wriggled, his feet slipping in the rubbish. He could not push against the furniture without bringing the whole lot down. ‘Let me go!’ His voice rose to a squeak. ‘I’ll have the Law on you for this.’
‘Then I’ll tell them about you and your precious daughter.’ Low and malicious, her voice oozed through the chair. I’ll tell them the lie Ellie’s been acting these many years. Listen – she’s not your daughter.’
‘I know that, you old fool. Let
‘Ah, but you don’t know everything though, that I swear to. Ellie didn’t tell you what happened
‘If you mean about the fire, and Lady Someone-or-other’s baby being killed, of course she did,’ he said impatiently. ‘If you’re keeping me here to tell me that, you’re wasting your time.’ He struggled again, and to his horror, her other hand, which had been creeping through the chair towards him, suddenly shot out too, and had him by the other lapel. As much as he could see of her arms was naked. He had an awful feeling that she had no clothes on. She held him face to face, pulled down towards her, and the smell that came from behind the furniture made him sick and suffocated.
‘There’s something,’ she whispered, her voice failing now. ‘She made me promise not to tell. I’ve carried the secret about with me all my life – and oh, wouldn’t you like to know it!’
‘Know what?’ He stopped pulling backwards. She sounded suddenly sane. Suppose she really knew something queer? If she did not tell him now, the mystery might go with her to the grave, for she would be dead soon, or shut away.