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Authors: Cassandra Golds

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BOOK: Pureheart
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No, it wasn't until much later that they understood.

She died not long afterwards. Her flat was never let again. Gradually, through the years after her death, Mrs Dark collected all the best of its furniture and ornaments and crammed them into her own.

She felt entitled to it, considering it was her father who had bought it all.

But that was not the only secret contained within the walls and the doors and the halls of Corbenic. In fact it was only the beginning.

After that they spent most of their time exploring. Deirdre could never work out why her grandmother didn't seem to mind. Most things were not allowed; Deirdre's grandmother said the word
no
more often than any other. And yet she allowed them the run of the building. Perhaps she was already too obsessed with her building plans to give much thought to anything else. Or perhaps, perversely, she
wanted
the thing she most feared to happen. Or perhaps she needed an excuse for what she already knew she was going to do.

Every day the builders would invade Corbenic, starting work in the early morning and leaving mid-afternoon. They were cheerful men in overalls with belts full of tools, and conversation punctuated by short bursts of laughter, and Deirdre and Galahad liked them. Often there would be deliveries of timber, bricks, mortar, boxes of nails and roofing materials – all manner of interesting things, arriving in trucks that had to inch their way carefully down the side laneway and out to the back. And during the day you could hear the irregular sounds of their work – hammering, drilling, sawing, the sudden clang of tools dropped – in a slightly muffled way, all over the building.

For – although she could not find tenants for half of the flats as it was, and although the existing building needed renovating – Deirdre's grandmother had decided to have a large new wing built on to the back.

Deirdre and Gal were too young to understand how strange that was.

There had always been a good deal of land behind Corbenic. In Great-grandfather's time there had been a landscaped garden where the original guests had strolled and sat, and even a grass tennis court for them to play on; later this had become a car park in front of a neglected wilderness.

Now it was as if Corbenic was having a child.

The builders were friendly. Every time they saw the children they joked with them, and they gave them nicknames – they called Deirdre
Princess
, and Galahad
Pup
. But although they often passed the men in the hall as they came inside to use the bathroom or make a cup of tea, the children were not allowed onto the building site. So they explored the old building instead.

One of their favourite places was the gap between Corbenic and the next building in the street. Between the two was a narrow paved path, mossy and mysterious, like the secret border to another world. It was not accessible from the front, only from the yard near where Fierce Bad Rabbit lived, and nobody, except perhaps a plumber or builder, had any reason at all to go there. There were gurgling pipes snaking down the wall and mysterious grated drains beneath them. And near the corner of the outside wall, a little door led to a kind of cave, half inside and half outside, which cut into the side of the building. The builders used it as a storeroom, and it was one such builder, opening the door and bending to throw a pile of canvas inside, who alerted them to its possibilities.

‘This'd make a top cubbyhouse for you two,' he said, looking a little enviously through the door. It was almost too low and too small for him to fit through.

He left it ajar invitingly, winked at them, and went back to work.

Deirdre and Galahad looked at each other. Then they went over to look.

Peeking inside, they saw in the dim light an alluring jumble of paint tins, tools, rolled-up leftover sections of linoleum, insulation material and folded sheets of canvas. The doorway, though awkward for a grown-up, was the perfect height for a five-year-old child. They entered, charmed, and found that the dim little room was as warm as a tea cosy, or Fierce Bad Rabbit's flank. This was because it shared a wall with the room that housed Corbenic's hot water system. But the warmth seemed magical.

It was as if they had found a house within a house, especially for them.

Galahad seemed moved. It was as though he had just been given the Christmas present he had always wanted. His eyes glowing, he gazed around him, his head full of plans. If the room was magically warm, he was more so, the sheer living hopeful light of him spilling out like sunshine through his eyes.

And suddenly, looking at him, happy in his happiness, Deirdre's heart overflowed and she said, ‘I love you, Gal.'

Gal looked at her, brought suddenly out of his dream. For a moment his expression was mysterious and there was pain in it.

Nobody has noticed him except me, thought Deirdre in a flash of understanding. He is not special to anyone except me. And she loved him so much, she found this astonishing. Why didn't the whole world love him?

‘I love you too, Deedee,' he said gravely, and they threw their arms around each other briefly, like two puppies tumbling over one another in a basket. Then they began to explore their cave.

That night, when Deirdre's grandmother was putting her to bed, Deirdre said to her, ‘I love Gal.' She adored her grandmother and wanted to share everything with her. And she had not yet learned how important it was to hide such things. ‘I love him,' she said again, because saying it made her feel happy.

‘I know,' said her grandmother quickly, as if to prevent her from saying it again.

And then an expression crossed her face that frightened Deirdre so deeply, it was as if the light in the room suddenly dimmed. All at once, she knew what a mistake she had made in telling her.

And yet she did not know what she had done wrong. How was it that Mrs Dark could misunderstand so completely? Mrs Dark thought Deirdre meant that now she loved Gal
instead of
her – Deirdre could see it all over her face. She seemed to think that Deirdre could only love one person, that there was no room in her heart for any more. Dismayed, Deirdre opened her mouth to explain – although she hardly knew how to begin – but before she could get a word out her grandmother's expression changed again and she snapped, contradicting herself, ‘Don't be silly. You don't love him. You don't know what love is.'

Deirdre felt as if she had been slapped. She stared, her eyes round. Her grandmother no longer looked hurt. Now her face was harsh, but underneath the harshness was fear.

‘That's not love,' her grandmother went on scornfully. ‘Not real love. Real love is what I have for you, Deirdre. It's not the easy feeling you might conceive for some little urchin, some little lost puppy you pick up off the street and like playing games with. You will never find my kind of love again, believe me. Certainly not from any boy. I am the only one who will ever love you with a true love, an unselfish love. Boys are not capable of such a thing.'

Deirdre was confused. She had heard her grandmother on this theme before and of course she did not doubt her grandmother's love. She had looked after her when Deirdre's own mother had run away and left her, as Deirdre had been told many times. And Deirdre's father had never even been worth mentioning. Of course her grandmother loved her. But was it really true that what she felt for Gal was not love – and that no one but her grandmother was capable of loving her – no one at all?

‘Anyway, you don't imagine Gal loves you, do you?' Deirdre's grandmother added. ‘He's
nice
to you, of course. He's not stupid. You're his meal ticket.'

It was the cruellest thing her grandmother could possibly have said, although she didn't seem to recognise this. Deirdre's eyes filled with tears. She didn't know what a meal ticket was; she only knew that her grandmother had somehow pronounced her unlovable to anyone but Mrs Dark for her own sake. And Deirdre did not doubt that her grandmother had the power to make such a pronouncement. She stared at her miserably, tears shining in her eyes, her face as vulnerable as a baby's. She believed her. She believed her grandmother was right.

From that moment on, Deirdre could never quite bring herself to believe that Gal loved her. She knew she loved Gal – nothing could have changed that. But her grandmother's dismissal of her love was crushing, and impossible for Deirdre to defend herself against. Who was she to claim that her love was real, when her grandmother declared it was not? She was so hurt, so disappointed, and her life and hopes seemed to have changed so completely in such a short time that it took her a while to realise that Gal was standing in the doorway.

Mrs Dark had known all along.

He was staring at her grandmother fathomlessly. His face, as usual, looked peaceful, but as always there was something beneath the apparent calm, although Deirdre did not yet understand what it was.

‘You're a liar,' he suddenly said to Deirdre's grandmother.

‘How dare you,' she snapped back, and it was not an old lady talking to a child – it was as if the argument were between equals.

‘You said that on purpose and you know it's a lie. You know I love Deedee. I'll always love Deedee.'

‘
I'll always love Deedee
,' Deirdre's grandmother mocked.

‘That's not funny,' said Gal simply.

‘It's funny to me. As if anyone could trust anything someone from your family said!'

‘We're from the same family.'

‘Yes, but you're from the funny side of it, aren't you? The wrong side of the sheets. Little bastard, poking your arrogant little nose in where it's not wanted. Get out of my sight.'

And that was how Deirdre first came to know about her grandmother's hatred for Gal. She had not known it before. Perhaps she would never have known it if she had not told her that she loved him.

And yet life went on. Mrs Dark made Gal breakfast, lunch and dinner and put him to bed at night. She washed his clothes and bought him new ones when he needed them. He was only five, after all, and he was her responsibility. And no one could have accused Deirdre's grandmother of irresponsibility.

One rainy day, Deirdre's grandmother, Deirdre and Gal were eating macaroni cheese for lunch in front of the midday movie. The film they were watching was
Waterloo Bridge
.

Strangely, perhaps, Mrs Dark loved old movies, particularly romances. They were the films of her own era, it was true. She had seen them all before when she was younger, in palatial cinemas with statues of Ancient Greek goddesses holding clocks that were softly illuminated in the darkness, so that you could leave early to catch your train if you needed to. But the movies she loved seemed to enshrine all the things she disapproved of. It was odd; it was as if she drew a very thick line between life as depicted in movies and life as she and Deirdre lived it. Or as if, when she was watching movies, she was more truly herself, and most of what she said about life wasn't true, was not even a genuine opinion; but was said only to make a point or to advance some private strategy.

Waterloo Bridge
was black and white and very sad. Robert Taylor was a dashing young officer who fell in love with Vivien Leigh, a fragile, melancholy little ballet dancer. He came to see her out the front of her boarding house the morning after they met. It was pouring with rain and they kissed under his umbrella. It was the first time Deirdre had seen two people kissing. She was so young when her parents had abandoned her that she could not remember them, and she was only five, and her life had been a sheltered one, spent within a tiny family circle of her grandmother and herself.

‘Do people kiss on the lips in real life, Grandmother?' she asked. She thought that perhaps such things only happened in films.

Mrs Dark looked sideways at her.

‘Of course not,' she answered roundly. ‘Ugh! Can you imagine? The germs!'

Deirdre had not known what a kiss was, but she knew what germs were. Her grandmother had always been very concerned about them. It went without saying that no sensible person would do anything likely to involve germs. So it looked like kissing was out. She was not too dis­appointed; she knew the world of films and stories was a different world to this one. Nicer things happened in that world all the time.

Deirdre had never really taken her eyes off the movie, that beautiful, black-and-white, impossibly romantic world. So she did not see Gal looking at her grandmother and her grandmother looking back at Gal.

This time he said nothing, but Gal's life had not been as sheltered as Deirdre's and he knew propaganda when he heard it.

That afternoon, while Deirdre's grandmother was having her daily three o'clock nap, Deirdre and Gal played
Waterloo Bridge.
But they only kissed the air, the strangely sweet air, in front of each other's faces. Kissing properly was out of the question. Because of the germs.

Deirdre and Gal often looked at the photographs in Mrs Dark's flat. In fact, after exploring, looking at the photographs was their favourite thing to do. They would linger around them in the window of time between being called in from play and sitting down to a meal. They would gaze at them, one after another, like pictures in an exhibition, while Mrs Dark was working next door in the kitchen. Often they would enter so deeply into that black-and-white world of pleading faces – each with their stories, each wanting so badly to tell your their side – that she would have to call them twice before they noticed that she had brought a meal in. And then she would smile secretly to herself.

Mrs Dark liked it when they looked at the photographs.

Some were more compelling than others. There was a photograph of the little boy Mrs Dark had lost many years ago to pneumonia, her two-year-old son James. He seemed a happy little fellow, smiling mischievously at the camera, but he was also hauntingly beautiful, with large, blue eyes and black lashes. He had never got any older. Gal thought a lot about that. And there was a photograph of Mrs Dark's mother, a young, carefree woman despite her prim high-necked dress and upswept hair – her eyes merry, a smile playing around her solemn mouth. She had never got any older either.

BOOK: Pureheart
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