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Authors: Cassandra Golds

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BOOK: Pureheart
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For a moment Gal stared at her, trying to hold himself together – and, as he stared, that strange, rhythmic, buried sound that had been thud-thudding throughout the building ever since he entered grew louder and faster and more insistent, as if it were trying to tell him something.

If only she would leave them. If only she would die.

He did not want to follow her, this dead child whose final, desperate grip would not loosen. He did not want to keep playing this awful game.

And yet – he had a doomed feeling that she was about to show him something he needed to know.

It was so hard to keep his bearings; his own sense of reality. She was so good at confusing him. He knew they had to keep exploring, keep looking for what they had lost. He also knew that she had hijacked their journey almost before they had begun it. And yet they had to face everything – there was no other way but through her obstacle course. He knew most of her power lay in shapeless threat. He knew that if they kept refusing to run from her, she would run out of things to throw at them and her power would be spent.

But he also knew that time was running out, and that she was using her own story as a way of distracting them from theirs. She had been doing it all their lives.

He was still staring into her strange little face when it happened. He was willing himself not to look away as her features shifted from old woman to small child and back again. He was looking directly into the eyes of his enemy when suddenly those eyes became large and glassy and overflowing and before he had time to collect himself the ghost-child grandmother had burst into tears.

She was sobbing with abandon, without pride, abject in her misery, her little face distorted with woe.

‘I'm so afraid!' she wailed. ‘So . . . so . . . so . . . afraid!'

And nothing could have disoriented him more completely. Now he could not have looked away if he'd wanted to. He felt a sudden, powerful ache in his rib cage.

Helpless, he searched for a response.

‘But – what are you afraid of?' he said.

And the tears kept filling her eyes and overflowing – more tears, he thought, than he had ever seen in his life before. The ache in his rib cage intensified.

‘What I want to show you!'

Gal did not know what she was talking about. All he knew was that a horrified pity was overwhelming him, and that he could not fight it.

She was the monster he wanted to free Deirdre from. But it was as Deirdre had said. She was also the defenceless, grieving child, whose suffering was impossible to withstand. What could he do?

He wavered for a moment, then shut his eyes and bowed his head.

‘So I can show you?' said the ghost child eagerly.

‘Yes. Yes,' Gal muttered.

She cheered up immediately, smiled a wobbly smile and took his hand. And as she did so, an electric shock of icy cold passed through him, as if the marrow in his bones had been frozen solid by her touch.

But he could not pull his hand away.

Still snuffling, she led them both along a labyrinth of corridors, all new, all unfinished, all part of the extensions they had never explored. Finally, without warning, she turned into a doorway that seemed no different from any other. But as soon as they entered it they knew they were in a room from the old Corbenic. It was a room they did not recognise, a room without windows, some kind of storeroom or cellar in the bowels of the old building, below street level.

Gal stared ahead of him, trying to make sense of what he was seeing. His first thought was that they had walked in on an operation – a perilous, old-fashioned one, done at home, in desperation, by lamplight. There was a patient on a table, draped in a sheet. The head was covered – perhaps it was a corpse? The patient seemed small – surely it was a child. The doctor had his back to him.

But the doctor was a silver-haired woman, dressed from a time much later than such an old-fashioned operation would suggest, and her back was familiar.

It was Deirdre's grandmother.

And, standing beside her, was five-year-old Deirdre.

Suddenly Deirdre's grandmother lifted her arms, and Gal saw that she was holding a knife, an old knife, like a dagger, with a strange design on its hilt.

The blade was pointed down.

The knife fell.

And he felt rather than saw a wounding and a tearing, a plunging and a seeking, a finding and a clasping, and finally a receiving of something into Deirdre's cupped hands from the hands of her grandmother.

The ghost-child grandmother kept pulling on Gal's hand and pointing at the patient on the table. She was looking up at Gal weirdly; she wanted him to come closer. Confused, he began to move forward, allowing her to lead him.

‘You trust Deirdre, don't you, Gal?' she said, still looking up slyly into his face.

‘What?' he said.

‘You would trust her with your life. Wouldn't you?'

‘I don't know what you're –'

But now he was almost within arm's reach of the body on the table. He was so close, and yet he did not understand; the scene made no sense to him. Everything else had been scenes from the past; but he did not believe, this time, that he was seeing something that had actually happened. He thought he was being shown a nightmare. Deirdre's grandmother's nightmare.

The ghost-child grandmother pointed again at the head of the body.

‘Lift the sheet,' she said. ‘Go on.'

She wanted him to see its face.

Tentatively, he reached out his hand.

And then all at once, from behind him, he heard Deirdre begin to scream.

He span round to look at her.

She was cowering where he had left her, her hands over her head, staring at the scene before her and screaming, screaming, screaming.

He ran back to her and as he did so the scene melted around them, and the ghost-child grandmother disappeared, and they were left alone on the landing outside Mrs Dark's flat, as if they had never embarked on their journey at all.

‘It's all right, it's all right, it's all right,' said Gal softly, trying to calm her. She was huddled on the floor, rocking and sobbing, he was on one knee beside her, his hand hovering near her shoulder. He wanted desperately to touch her, to put his arms around her; but it was forbidden, it was forbidden, and it would have frightened her more, for nothing frightened her like the thought of disobeying her grandmother.

‘It wasn't real. It was a nightmare,' he said.

Curiously, because it made so little sense to him, what they had just seen hadn't frightened him at all.

But when Deirdre looked up at him it was with an expression, not only of terror, but of profound doubt.

He could tell – as she tried so hard to calm herself – that she did not believe him. He could tell that she thought that what they had just seen was as real as everything else had been. But he could also tell that if she had been there in that room with her grandmother, as a five year old, she could not remember it.

‘Oh, Gal,' she said at last, searching his face. ‘I feel so lost! It's like I'm wandering down halls and across landings and up staircases and through empty rooms and I'm trying to find the way back to myself but I can't. Because it's my own life I'm lost in! I can't remember what I should be able to remember, and none of it makes sense. Because of the gaps. In my memory. Like places where the stairs are missing. Or the floorboards have fallen through. Do you know what I mean?'

Gal sat down suddenly beside her.
Like places where the stairs are missing.
Suddenly he was outside again, alone and palely loitering, suspended, belonging nowhere.

Still rocking, hugging her knees, she pursued, ‘I can't tell the difference between what's real and what's not, what I dreamed or imagined, and what really happened. How could I, while there are so many gaps?'

Gal stared gravely into the space in front of him.

She paused, seeming to search her mind. It was as if she was retracing her steps in her imagination. After a moment, she seemed to identify the source of her confusion, and then to make a decision, as if she wanted to face something she had been avoiding.

‘But maybe,' she said with some hope, ‘maybe you can help me to get things straight. And maybe, if I remember, it will all fall into place. For both of us.'

He looked at her apprehensively.

‘Gal,' she began slowly after a moment, ‘when I first saw you tonight, standing under the streetlight, I thought we hadn't met since we were twelve . . .'

Gal's face went still. He could feel himself tense, waiting for what she was going to ask.

She was silent for so long that he said, ‘Yes?' But his voice was unsteady.

‘I thought I hadn't seen you since the day you saved me from being burnt at the stake. But pictures keep coming into my head; pictures and feelings . . . and I can't make sense of them. Have we met since then, Gal? And if we have, why can't I remember it properly?'

Gal gazed at her with infinite sadness. Then he said gently, ‘We never stopped meeting, Deedee. I remember all of it.' He stared at the opposite wall, as if what he saw there was the most poignant thing in the world. ‘But I think I know why you had to forget.'

It was true that Deirdre had known Gal twice in her life. It was true that they had been friends for a while when they were five, and then had met again when they were twelve. That much she remembered. That much made sense.

But the second time had not ended with that last terrible day at the high school. In fact, it had gone on for six years. When finally it ended, it was in a series of events so traumatic, that Deirdre's mind had been wiped clean of them. Her last day at the high school was the last day she could bear to remember.

That day, the day Deirdre was almost burned at the stake – when Gal was expelled and Deirdre went back to studying by correspondence – Deirdre did not think she would ever see Gal again. It was sad of course, but everything was sad; she did not expect happy things to happen to her. Such things, when they occurred, seemed to be graces almost too great to receive; too undeserved to be accepted. She felt as if they needed to be returned, as if she were a lady in a historical film who had received an improperly extravagant gift from an admirer. A diamond bracelet, say. A silk dress.

So when, not a week after his expulsion, she saw the note under the brick in the cave – the little storeroom in the side of the building where they had played and sought refuge so long ago – it was so unexpected, so unlooked for, she began to cry for sheer, abject joy before she even read it.

I must see you
, he had written in his odd script, which always looked vaguely medieval to her.
Can you meet me here tomorrow, just for five minutes, when she is having her nap?

He had remembered about her grandmother's three o'clock nap.

He had guessed that Deirdre still visited the cave – for she did, every day.

He had even left a pen.

She took it and wrote beneath his,

Yes.

When Gal had been banished seven years ago, the cave had been forbidden. Mrs Dark had declared it out of bounds on the day she found them there, asleep in one another's arms, after they had discovered the dead rabbit.

But Deirdre had not kept her grandmother's commandment. Her need was too great. After a little while, whenever her grandmother was asleep or safely occupied, she had begun, tentatively, to visit it again. And gradually, it had become her refuge: a place she could visit to be alone – to be herself.

And yet, she wasn't alone, because the place was suffused with Gal.

And that was really why she went there. To feel close to Gal.

It was hard to feel his presence in her grandmother's flat, even though he had lived there. Her grandmother and the photographs crowded him out. Sometimes, when she was with her grandmother, it was hard to believe he had ever existed.

But the warmth of the cave was his warmth – its quiet his quiet, its protectedness the protection he had tried to give her.

All her favourite things migrated down there; books, pictures, anything she could lay her hands on that gave her comfort. The little picture of Mary with the motto,
Ma vocation, c'est l'amour
, had been there since the beginning. It had yellowed now, and was frayed around the edges. She pinned it to the inside of the door; perhaps, she thought, it watched over her.

But she had never hoped to see Gal in the cave again.

She could hardly believe he had been there, that he had come in quietly to leave the note, without her knowing. He had trespassed; he had dared this for her. She felt afraid for him; but now his presence in the cave was so strong, it overwhelmed her.

The next day passed slowly; she thought it would never pass; she thought this would be that rare day on which her grandmother decided not to have a nap. There had not yet been time for the correspondence school to start sending her new lessons for her to resume her school work, so she haunted her grandmother's flat like a ghost, trying to read but unable to concentrate, staring out the window at the street.

Once, perhaps, Deirdre's grandmother would have noticed that Deirdre was agitated; once she would have ferreted the secret out of her, for Deirdre was not a good liar, and easily moved to guilt. But over the years since she had banished Gal Mrs Dark had changed. Slowly, steadily, she had retreated further and further into herself. It was almost as if she had secured what she needed to secure, set in train what she needed to set in train, and now needed only to wait and watch until her plans came to fruition. It was almost as if Deirdre did not exist any more, except as a witness to the stories she told about her past.

And she told them every night. The same ones, over and over.

During the day she would be busy, obsessing over the extensions – which were still underway, seven years after she had embarked upon them – arguing with the architect or the builders, phoning tradesmen, changing her mind.

But at night she would sit opposite Deirdre in front of the fire, not looking at her, staring into the flames, poking the blaze of her own resentments and grief into a white heat, building her own Hell, and guiding Deirdre through it.

‘He was the most beautiful child anyone had ever seen,' she would say. ‘Everyone said so. People would come up to me in the street – strangers – and say,
What a beautiful child! How proud you must be!
His eyelashes were so thick and black that sometimes, when he was asleep, I would get a fright because I would think two spiders were resting on his face. When he died I couldn't believe it. He looked like he was sleeping. I was sure he was going to wake up. Even after he was buried, I kept thinking he would wake up. And it worried me, because he always hated the dark. And there is nothing darker than the inside of a coffin . . . I know that darkness. That's what it is to be abandoned. I didn't want him to be taken from me. I was afraid he would feel I had abandoned him. Like I was abandoned.'

Or, ‘They used to put me to bed early, while it was still light, and leave me alone in the flat while they went out to some party or other. I could only have been six or seven – my brother had gone to boarding school and I had no one. And I would beg them not to go, but Father wouldn't listen to me. He would say that if he gave in I would grow up to be a coward. So they would leave me, and gradually it would get darker and darker, and I would hear noises, and I would be too afraid to go to sleep. One night I was so frightened that I got out of bed and ran out of the flat and down the stairs and out on the street in my pyjamas looking for them. A lady found me and took me back inside and waited with me in the vestibule until they got back. And when they did, my father was furious with me. He said I had disgraced him. He didn't care that I was afraid. He didn't understand that I just wanted to be near him . . . He didn't speak to me for days. I was so miserable, creeping around the flat, ignored, that by the end of it I would have confessed to anything, just to be back in his favour. That's what I mean about the coffin. I know what it's like.'

Or, ‘When they came back from Paris they brought two beautiful bottles of perfume – one for Elaine and one for me. But one of them broke on the journey . . . they didn't realise until they unpacked. And what do you think my father said? He said the broken one was mine. They were identical. I could see that even at six. He could have given the unbroken one to me. I was his daughter. He hadn't seen me for months. I had missed him so much! It would have meant that he loved me. But no – the broken bottle was mine. And every time Elaine wore that perfume, I remembered how she'd got it. She always wore too much. I've hated French perfume ever since.'

Deirdre still loved her grandmother. She thought that if she listened patiently to these stories, one day her grandmother's wounds would heal, and her grandmother would forgive her and love her as she used to do. She thought that was her mission in life.

It never occurred to her that the old woman was nursing her wounds deliberately. It never occurred to her that her grandmother didn't want to heal. It never occurred to her that those stories were her grandmother's justification for a crime she'd committed – a crime Deirdre knew of, but could not remember.

Except every night, when she walked in her sleep.

When three o'clock came at last, Deirdre's grandmother lay down for her nap, as usual. To Deirdre it seemed almost too good to be true, that this routine had not somehow been disrupted. Life, it seemed, was smiling on her. Life was her friend. She made her way apprehensively down to the cave, expecting to be stopped at any moment by her grandmother's child-like, imperious voice. But she was not.

She had to pass through a building site to get to it now. The whole backyard had been dug up so that new foundations could be laid. The framework of a vast new extension – as big as the existing building – had gone up. But the section of it that was closest to the cave had been left unfinished years ago, and the builders were working some distance away, on the other side of the building.

As the renovations had progressed, Deirdre's grandmother had kept changing her mind about what she wanted done first and, even more strangely, coming up with new ideas that she insisted ought to be begun immediately. It was a standing joke around the town that she kept the local builders in business, especially as she kept becoming dissatisfied with one firm's work and switching to a new one. She had already been around the merry-go-round of available tradespeople twice. She was running out of money, but did not seem to care.

At thirteen, Deirdre did not understand why her grandmother was extending – the understanding came later. But she did not question her grandmother's decisions. She never had.

She did not even recognise that her grandmother was mad. She regarded what her grandmother said, did and believed as a kind of creed, to which she had to give assent in order to avoid excommunication. She didn't agree with her. And yet she thought she was right, about everything.

Except Gal.

He was waiting for her when she came around the corner – into the laneway between Corbenic and the building next door. He was there. And even though she had been anticipating this, her heart leapt so far when she saw him that for a moment she stopped dead in her tracks, unable to take another step. Neither of them could speak. They stood looking at each other, trembling.

‘You saved me!' she said at last. ‘You saved me from being burned at the stake! I had no one, everybody hated me, nobody cared, not even the teachers, not even Grandmother, but you still came and saved me!'

‘I want to save you from everything,' he said quickly. ‘I always have. It's like it's the whole reason I was born. But I can't, I can't, we're too young, they wouldn't listen, they wouldn't let me. But I'll save you one day, if you'll let me.'

They stared at one another again, and trembled.

‘It's hard,' he said at last, ‘to see you, Deedee. But it's harder not to.' Then he went on in a rush, ‘It's like I have this pain all the time – right here, in my rib cage – and when I see you it goes away. It's been like that ever since I left when I was five. It's never got better. I know I said five minutes, but the five minutes is to ask you a question. Could we meet like this every day? If you can't come, if she doesn't have a nap, that'll be okay; I'll wait for a while and then come back the next day. But I can't never see you, Deedee, not anymore. I don't know why; I don't understand it. All I know is that we belong together and when we don't see each other I feel like I've been cut in half.'

Deirdre stared at him for a long time. She didn't understand it either, but he had just voiced exactly what she felt.

‘It will mean disobeying my grandmother,' she said aloud, although she was really talking to herself.

‘It's not always wrong to disobey,' said Galahad carefully.

‘Isn't it?' said Deirdre.

‘Not when someone is telling you to do something wrong. Or forbidding you something they have no right to forbid.'

‘But hasn't she the right?' said Deirdre.

‘To forbid you to have a friend? No!'

Deirdre gazed at him mutely, unconvinced. But he wasn't looking at her. He was staring at the mossy brick wall, thinking. After a moment he said, ‘Do you know what blasphemy is, Deirdre?'

Deirdre was startled. She opened her mouth – but no words seemed to come.

‘It's what your grandmother does,' Gal went on. ‘She behaves towards you as if she were God. And you obey her as if she were God. Forbidding you something good and harmless is blasphemy. Obeying her when she does that to you is blasphemy. She's your grandmother, fine, but she doesn't own you. You're not her creature. And you're not a slave. You know what I mean, Deirdre?'

His conviction was so intense that she felt a kind of awe towards him. She always felt so uncertain. About everything – everything.

She could see the sense in what he was saying. And yet – she couldn't quite bring herself to believe it. It was as if she was a special case. Granddaughters might not ordinarily be their grandmothers' slaves, but she could not quite convince herself that it wasn't so in her case – that it wasn't right, justified, in her case. Other people might have rights, but she felt like someone who had no right to anything. She felt like someone who didn't really exist. She felt like the only person in the world who had no rights because she did not really exist.

BOOK: Pureheart
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