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Authors: Cassandra Golds

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BOOK: Pureheart
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Deirdre looked sadly at him. But he was still staring at the crack. ‘You know what we have to do, don't you?' He was calm, and he spoke softly.

‘No.'

‘We have to find it.'

Deirdre looked alarmed. She knew immediately what he was talking about: the shared, forgotten memory. But she shook her head. ‘No –'

‘We have to, Deirdre. Don't you see? This is our last chance. If we don't, she'll have won, and it'll be lost forever, and so will we.'

For a moment, despite herself, Deirdre dreamed a beautiful dream. Then it died.

‘It's too late.'

‘It's not. The building's still here, isn't it?'

‘But – she won't let us. She'll hurt you. You're not even allowed to be here. We'll only anger her. Anyway –' She stopped, and started again. ‘What if we were wrong, to find it? What if finding it – whatever it was – was . . . wicked? What if this is my punishment – and the punishment is just?'

‘You don't believe that,' said Gal. ‘Please don't believe that.'

‘Why do I feel so guilty when I think about it?'

‘You feel guilty about breathing.'

Deirdre shut her eyes. Gal studied her face. I remember that, he thought. That's what she looked like when she was sleeping.

‘Sometimes,' he said softly, ‘I feel like it's the only thing I know for sure. That the thing we found was good, holy even. If it wasn't, I'd have nothing to live for. I don't know what it was, but it was ours, Deirdre, not hers. The sin would be not looking for it. If we look for it, we'll find it, I know. Or it'll find us. And she'll be forced to let go.'

‘She'll never let go,' said Deirdre.

Just then there was a splintering sound and some plaster fell from the ceiling. At first they thought the crack had deepened.

But it wasn't that. Not exactly. There was a word scored jaggedly into the ceiling, just where the crack tailed off. It was:

NO

And the sound, the sound they knew so well but could not name, swelled in a distant, thumping crescendo.

Deirdre was five years old when she first met Gal.

‘Galahad,' she repeated slowly when his father introduced him. It was a big word, a storybook one. And she had never met a boy her own age before.

Mrs Dark was standing behind her with hands resting lightly on Deirdre's shoulders. In those days, things between Deirdre and her grandmother were simple. Deirdre adored her. She had not yet learned to fear. That came later. Mrs Dark leant down and placed her cheek against Deirdre's, as if she were the same height. Sometimes Deirdre felt that, in her heart of hearts, her grandmother was just a little girl, the same age as Deirdre. Only, Mrs Dark knew everything; Deirdre nothing.

‘Do you know who Galahad was?' asked her grandmother.

‘A knight in shining armour?' suggested Deirdre.

‘He was the perfect knight. He found the Holy Grail. He was the only one of all King Arthur's knights who was worthy, because he was the only one whose heart was pure.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
 . . . But he was illegitimate. Lancelot's love child. This little boy is my godson, Deirdre. They let me name him, so I chose Galahad. It was what you might call a private joke.'

Deirdre was used to not understanding what her grandmother said to her. Mrs Dark could never have been accused of talking down to children. She had a peculiar way of talking to Deirdre as if she were a contemporary. So actually there were two possibilities. Either Mrs Dark was really five, or Deirdre was really her grandmother's age.

Still, Deirdre knew what her grandmother was trying to teach her. She was telling Deirdre that this boy, that all boys, were of no account. But Deirdre was not listening.

‘Hello,' she said.

‘Hello, Deedee,' said Gal. It was as much as he could manage of her name – for hers was difficult too – but it stuck. ‘I've got a rabbit,' he added.

‘All right if I bring the bunny in?' asked Gal's father.

Mrs Dark smiled brightly and made a welcoming gesture. She didn't ordinarily like visitors, but she seemed so pleased about these ones that she could hardly stop smiling. She was shifting her weight restlessly from one foot to the other, a girlish habit of hers. Gal's father had left the cage outside the door of the flat; he brought it in and put it down in the middle of the lounge-room carpet. Gal opened the cage door and out limped the rabbit.

Deirdre held her breath. The rabbit was the most wonder­­ful thing she had ever seen. Deirdre was an indoors child. Animals were a kind of miracle to her. They went by themselves, with­out batteries or cords or any need to wind them. How she admired this boy Galahad for being a keeper of rabbits.

‘Do you know all about rabbits?' said Deirdre.

‘Just this one,' said Gal modestly.

‘What's his name?'

‘Fierce Bad Rabbit,' said Gal.

‘Can I pat him?'

Gal nodded.

The rabbit, who was soft, warm and tolerant, took no notice of Deirdre whatsoever. It seemed to exist in its own world; it brought a meadow with it.

So did Gal.

Even at five, he seemed to dwell so far back, so deep beneath the surface, that it was impossible to reach him by the usual means. It was almost as if he was not really present, or dwelling simultaneously in another dimension that took most of his attention. Or as if he really belonged in another story.

And yet, to be looked at or smiled at by Gal was to feel that no one had ever really seen you, or liked you, in all your life before that moment. He had a way, when he smiled, of welling up through his eyes, as if the cup of himself were running over, and as if that cup were full of goodness. It was as if he knew a secret, a very important one, and as if the secret gave him a reason to be happy, no matter what.

Mrs Dark knew a secret, too. Deirdre had always known that. But her secret made the whole world sad.

‘If he could stay here with you for a while,' Gal's father was saying as they played with the rabbit, ‘just while I find my feet, I would be so grateful. Aunty Lainey would love to have him but she's really too frail. Anyway, he doesn't remember her – she hasn't been out to the farm in years. And he'll see her round the building, I suppose. You must see her all the time.'

Mrs Dark just smiled.

‘There is nothing to be grateful for,' she said. ‘He is my godchild. He can stay as long as he needs to.'

And she looked at Gal as he played on the floor with Deirdre and the rabbit. She had the oddest expression on her face. The casual observer might have mistaken it for tenderness. But someone who knew her better might have thought she looked as if she simply couldn't believe her luck.

Come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly.

‘Funny to think they'll be starting school soon,' said Gal's father.

Mrs Dark frowned suddenly. Deirdre glanced up at her, and thought that she looked like a little girl who had placed her hands over her ears so that she couldn't hear a rule she did not want to obey.

Gal's father built a hutch for the rabbit down the back before he went away. Then he went, and Gal stayed.

For as long as she could remember, Deirdre had longed for another child to play with. Of course, if given the choice, she would have chosen a girl. She would have been shy of any stranger, but a boy presented extra unfamiliarities.

And Gal was not just any boy, or even a boy who had grown up, like Deirdre, in a block of flats. He was used to a very different life from the one Deirdre led with her grandmother at Corbenic. He had lived all his life on a small farm down the valley, where he was supervised, casually, by an extended family of aunts and uncles and older cousins, none of whom paid him much attention, although none were unkind. He was used to going barefoot and climbing trees and looking after animals. His mother had walked out when he was a baby, his father drifted in and out of his life, a pleasant man who seemed incapable of staying in one place for very long. All in all Gal had an air, even at five, of cheerful, lonely independence, as if he expected nothing from no one.

Gal had interesting scars – on his knee, on his elbow and under his right eye, and a hair-raising history of accidents he seemed lucky to have come through intact. He was not afraid of dogs. And he could make friends with anything.

Even a little creature as wild and shy as Deirdre.

In those days, the days when Deirdre and Galahad were five, Corbenic was still a going concern. It was not the thriving establishment it had been in Great-grandfather's day, of course. Its glory days were over – half the flats could not be let. Still, there were tenants, and the tenants paid rent – notes folded up in envelopes and pushed under Mrs Dark's door – and Mrs Dark paid a cleaner to vacuum the halls and a painter to paint the walls and a handyman to fix the holes in the roof – although her upkeep was always grudging and minimal, more a patching up than fixing. She seemed to have a grudge against the building, to resent it and any money that had to be spent on it. Deirdre understood that even at five. Children and animals were generally not allowed. But the proprietor's granddaughter and godchild and his rabbit were an exception.

And so it was that Corbenic began to be Deirdre's and Gal's domain.

It happened tentatively at first. They liked each other, instinctively, from the moment they met, but it took a while to work out how to play together. At first the restrictions discouraged them. All play had to be as quiet as possible, so that the tenants would not be disturbed. And of course, although the space indoors was vast, no running or laughing was permitted. There was outside with the rabbit, but apart from the rabbit hutch the backyard was an unpromising place for play. It was bare and stony and uneven and it doubled as a car park. Once, long ago, there had been rosebushes planted along the sides of the buildings, but, strangely, Mrs Dark had had them pulled out and their roots poisoned. Deirdre and Gal were too young to play there unsupervised and somehow Deirdre's grandmother, standing at the window, robbed them of ideas. Deirdre did not even have play clothes; she was always dressed in pleated skirts and cardigans and tights.

Deirdre was uncomfortable doing the things that seemed like good ideas to Gal – for example, seeing who could jump farthest from the third step of the fire escape or trying to catch insects. And Gal was perplexed by paper dolls.

Then one day they happened upon something they both liked doing, and Corbenic opened its heart to them.

It must have been at about the time that Mrs Dark began her renovations, because Deirdre remembered being with Gal while her grandmother talked to a builder.

The builder, thought Deirdre, had rather an odd look on his face.

‘How do you mean, you don't want it to end, Mrs Dark?' he asked.

How do you mean, you don't want it to end?

‘What's down here?' said Gal to Deirdre.

They were all standing in a kind of intersection in the building. There was a hall in front of them and one behind them. And there were halls leading to the right and left. The hall behind them led back the way they had come, to Deirdre's grandmother's flat and, beyond it, down the stairs, to the main entrance. The hall in front of them led eventually to a stairway that took you down to the back entrance and the yard with the rabbit hutch. The hall to the right of them ended quite quickly, with a door to a flat marked
11
. But the hall to the left of them didn't end; or at least, it ended in a darkness that obscured what lay beyond.

‘I don't know,' said Deirdre, but Gal had already ventured some steps away from her. He was always so fearless, so optimistic; he acted on his impulses. But Deirdre always hesitated. She glanced at her grandmother. Mrs Dark was talking to the builder. She seemed caught up in the discussion. But she always knew what Deirdre was doing, and Deirdre knew she would be stopped if it were not allowed. So rather than interrupting her, she followed Gal.

The hall ended in a blank wall and two more halls, one to their right and one to their left. The one to their right was dark, and seemed to end in some kind of storeroom; they could see the shadows of broom handles behind the frosted glass panes. The one to their left was dimly lit with soft electric lights along the wall on either side. At the end was a door. It looked like the door to a flat, but oddly, it wasn't numbered and it was slightly ajar. A warm light came from the other side.

Gal looked back at her, delighted. He crept curiously towards the door. Deirdre followed him. They were about to peek inside when suddenly an elderly lady – some twenty years older, perhaps, than Deirdre's grandmother – appeared from the other side. She was dressed to go out, in a hat and coat and gloves, with a handbag over the crook of her arm, and seemed in a mild hurry. Her silver hair was done in a neat French roll, and she had large dark eyes and was wearing a bright shade of lipstick. An aura of perfume floated around her. When she saw them she was startled. Then her face softened and she smiled at them.

‘Well!' she said. Her smile was warm, eager even, but there was something sad in it. ‘It seems I have two visitors!'

Gal and Deirdre stared at her, big-eyed.

‘Two special visitors,' repeated the old lady. ‘I must give you both a present –' and she nipped back inside her flat, where they could hear her opening a drawer and rustling through it. The door was half open now and they could see a beautiful, richly furnished flat with an air of the exotic to it, painted screens and embroidered shawls spread over tables and chairs. And everything inside seemed old. The air was filled with perfume. ‘Here we are,' said the old lady, returning. ‘You must be Deirdre,' she said warmly, handing Deirdre a card. ‘And you,' she added, looking at Gal with unmistakeable love, ‘must be Galahad.' She handed him a card too, then said, ‘I must be going. I will be late for Mass.'

She shut the door to her flat, touched them both lightly on their hair and their cheeks, and set off almost guiltily up the hall.

‘Who are you, Mrs Old Lady?' ventured Gal.

The old woman turned back and laughed sweetly. But still there was that tinge of sadness.

‘You must call me Aunty, Galahad,' she said. ‘Aunty Elaine.'

The cards she had given them were French holy cards. Deirdre's had a picture of Mary, Galahad's of Jesus. They both had the same little motto written on them in French; it wasn't until many years later that Gal had enough French to make it out.
Ma vocation, c'est l'amour.
My vocation is love.

They did not see what happened when the old woman passed Mrs Dark and the builder – that took place further along the halls ahead of them. So they did not see the old woman's deference and Deirdre's grandmother's cold hostility. And being five, they did not wonder at the fact that the two women lived in the same building without speaking to each other, or even seeing each other unless it happened by accident. Or why Deirdre had never even been introduced to her.

BOOK: Pureheart
7.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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