Authors: Cassandra Golds
Other photographs were more interesting for their absence. Gal often wondered why there was no photograph of Deirdre's mother. Where was she now? What had she looked like? But some instinct stopped him from asking.
It was during one of these times spent staring at the photographs that Gal recognised the old lady they had met in the hall â Aunty Lainey â much younger, photographed in old-fashioned clothes and standing arm in arm with a distinguished-looking older gentleman. He had looked at the photograph before. He had known that the gentleman was Mrs Dark's father, but he had not known who the young woman was, although he had felt that he had seen those dark eyes before. But in the end, it wasn't her eyes he recognised. It was her uncertainty.
âLook!' he said to Deirdre. âIt's Mrs Old Lady! When she was young!'
But on this particular day, Deirdre had become so preÂoccupied with another of the pictures that she hardly seemed to hear him.
âDeedee?' murmured Gal.
He drifted over to see what she was looking at.
And it was what happened next that made this time â of all the other occasions on which they had looked at the photoÂgraphs â different. Until now, the photographs had been interesting. From now on they would be fraught with meaning, not only about the past, which could not be changed, but about the living, vulnerable present.
There was a new photograph, one they hadn't seen before, sitting prominently on Mrs Dark's desk. This in itself wasn't unusual â from time to time Mrs Dark would put one photograph away and replace it with another. She had a large collection of them in an old suitcase under her bed and she had a habit of rotating them. This photograph, however, was unusually arresting.
It was Mrs Dark as a child. But she wasn't alone. She was with her father.
He was sitting posed in a chair, wearing a suit with a watch and chain in his waistcoat pocket. She was standing beside him with her arms around his neck. Her cheek was pressed against his. One of his hands was resting on her arm. He looked calm and complacent; but she was gazing at the camera with such ferocity, Gal felt himself taking a step backwards.
He was so involved in the drama of the picture that he did not notice that Mrs Dark had come up beside him, and when she spoke suddenly in his ear it was all he could do to stop himself from crying aloud.
âMy mother died when I was born,' she was saying softly. âSo when I was little, my grandmother looked after me. I loved my grandmother. But then, when I was five, she died too. When they told me, I cried and cried. Nobody could stop me crying.
âThen my father came into my room and sat on the bed and put his arms around me. He told me I was his favourite girl. He said he loved me more than anything in the world. He promised he would never leave me â that we would travel the world together, that he would take me to Paris and buy me pretty things. And I believed him. So I stopped crying, and from then on, he was my whole world.'
Gal could not take his eyes off the photograph. He could not escape from Mrs Dark's quiet voice in his ear. Deirdre was looking at the photograph too. She was still standing next to him on the other side, frozen, and of course she could hear every word. But Gal knew Mrs Dark was talking privately to him, as if what she was saying had a special significance for him alone.
âThen,' Mrs Dark continued more harshly, âhe took up with Lainey, and forgot me. She moved into that beautiful flat and he spent all his time there. He didn't eat with us any more. He stopped sitting in the lounge room reading the paper while my brother and I played. He stopped reading to me. He stopped coming into my room at bedtime to kiss me goodnight. And even when we did eat together, on Sundays, my brother and I had to be quiet, and he only talked to Lainey. Whenever she was in a room, he was looking at her.
âI missed him so much! I was frantic. I had nightmares â sometimes I would run a temperature. But they would just give me castor oil.
âThen they went travelling â all over the world â and it was Lainey he took to Paris and bought pretty things for. They left me again and again, with only my brother and a housekeeper to look after us. And my father didn't even understand why I was so upset. He thought I was spoilt, selfish.
âBut I was only guilty of believing him. I thought he had meant what he said; I thought he had been telling the truth. But he only said what he'd said to stop a child crying. Losing his love was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I have never forgotten it. I never will forget it. You can see how much I loved him. It's all there, in the photograph.'
And it was. He knew it was. Gal knew what it was to be left behind by a father. He did not feel as she did; but he understood, all the same.
âWhen something like that happens, Gal,' whispered Mrs Dark, and she was speaking to him as if Deirdre was not there, although Deirdre was listening, terrified, riveted, âsomeone always pays. Justice has to be done. Or revenge. It doesn't matter. It has to happen. It's built into the scheme of things. But the funny thing is,' and here she leaned even closer, âit usually doesn't happen to the person who deserves it. That's just the way it goes. Little girls cannot pay their fathers back. They don't have the power. But then little girls grow up and get some power of their own. So the revenge happens to someone else, someone they have power over, someone who wasn't even born when it all happened. Someone innocent, like you.
âRemember that, Gal. Someone has to pay, even if it's not the right person. The revenge happens to someone else. One day, you'll understand.'
Not long after that, something terrible happened. It was a bright, cold morning. There was frost on the ground. Deirdre and Gal had pulled on their clothes to go down to attend to Fierce Bad Rabbit: to change his water and fill his little dish with fresh rabbit food and play with him until Deirdre's grandmother called them back in for breakfast.
At first when they got to the hutch, they couldn't see him. Gal opened the wire door carefully and took the water dish over to the outside tap to rinse it out. Deirdre had the bag of food and a stump of lettuce. She leaned over, looking into the shadows, and called softly. Then she saw it. She had not seen it before, perhaps, because she had not known what she should have been looking for.
The rabbit was lying in a shadowy corner of the hutch, somehow dropped or thrown there, as if discarded. He was dead. Deirdre had never seen a dead creature before but one look at his dull black eyes told her. And yet that wasn't all. It wasn't even the worst thing.
The front of the rabbit's rib cage had been opened and his heart torn out. The tiny organ lay separate from the dead animal in a little pool of dark blood. It had been cut in half, neatly, with a knife.
If Deirdre had been a little older she would have been terrified. She would have understood the implications, the full horror of it. But she was not older and she did not understand. She was only appalled with grief â the poor, poor little rabbit, dead, his soft, pretty body riven in two like something hanging in a butcher's shop. She began to wail immediately with sheer overwhelming misery. Gal ran back to her, astonished, saw what she saw, understood, even at five, what she did not, put his arms around her and tried to think.
, he was thinking,
! He glanced involuntarily up at the windows. He and Deirdre were probably observable from a dozen of them. It was like standing in front of a wall of eyes.
But there was no escape. He had a wild impulse to run away, but he knew he couldn't leave Deirdre and he knew she would never come with him. She would never disobey her grandmother and he could never make her understand. He didn't even know where his father was, and it crossed his mind, not for the first time, that he wasn't coming back.
Gal hugged Deirdre more fiercely. What could they do? Then he remembered the cave.
They had to hide, that was all he could think, they had to hide
. Standing out in the open was intolerable, with all the windows, and the very sky seeming to look down on them, accusing them, condemning them, innocent as they were. So he took Deirdre's hand and pulled her away from the terrifying hutch, away from the many-eyed windows, around the corner of the building. Deirdre was still weeping, but she went trustingly where Gal led. Already, there was a bond she had with Gal â like instinct, but deeper; like faith, but deeper â which was too intense for even her beloved grandmother to undermine, although the conflict between Gal and Mrs Dark was beginning to tear her apart. They pushed open the low door â half-door, half-gate â entered the little artificial cave and huddled together in the warmth on a folded sheet of canvas, among the paint tins and tools and rolled-up leftover sections of linoleum and insulation matÂerial. And there, in the half-dark, the terrible panic that had seized Gal quietened down; and he thought, she's not going to win, she's not going to beat me, I'm not going to let her, no matter how much she scares me. And there, after a moment, Deirdre stopped crying, and briefly, unexpectedly, they fell asleep in each other's arms.
âWhat are you two playing at? Come out at once.'
The door was too low for her. She was too tall, also too old and stiff. They saw her standing, bent, on the other side of it, peering into the shadows.
She was old. She was a grandmother. And yet her face, pale, piquant, fierce, was the face of the little girl in the photos.
It wasn't a pleasant awakening, but it was the one both of them had expected. They crawled out blinking into the sunlight, their faces grubby and tear-stained, their clothes rumpled.
âJust look at you both! Don't let me ever catch you in that storeroom again. It's not a playroom. It's for the builders. Now. Deirdre. What did you do to that rabbit?'
Deirdre was startled, but she did not immediately catch the implication. She began to cry again at the memory.
âThe rabbit's dead!' she said miserably.
âI know the rabbit's dead,' said Deirdre's grandmother. âWhat I want to know is why you killed it. And what you thought you were doing with my sharpest kitchen knife.'
The strange thing was that she didn't seem upset. Indeed her attitude was so odd, so incongruous, that Gal was even more frightened than he had been before. It was all he could do to stop himself from running, right there and then. It was as if Deirdre had forgotten to make her bed, or spilt jam on the tablecloth. Gal knew she was lying; he had known from the moment he had seen the rabbit that Mrs Dark had killed it and that it was both a warning and a punishment. But Deirdre was confused. It was terrifying to see how easily she was confused.
âI didn't want it to die!' she said piteously.
âYou may not have meant for it to die,' said her grandmother coolly. âBut that's what happens when you cut something's heart out. Usually.'
Neither of them understood properly what happened next. Or at least, Deirdre never did understand it, and Gal didn't come to understand until many years later. There was a visit to a doctor, and then some kind of specialist. And then there was testing â Deirdre answering questions and playing games in a room alone with a friendly, watchful woman who seemed halfway between a doctor and a teacher. Then there was a diagnosis. And this was how it came to pass that Deirdre did not start school until she was twelve.
She had been classified as Disturbed, because she had killed her pet rabbit and mutilated its body.
And she was supposed to be in therapy, until she was deemed well enough to have contact with other children. But somehow the therapy never eventuated.
Deirdre did not know what her grandmother told the doctors, and she would not have had the confidence to oppose her if she had.
All she remembered, later, were two contradictory things. The dreadful shock it had been to find the rabbit was dead. And the niggling, sick conviction that she had been responsible, even though she remembered nothing.
It was how she started to feel guilty. Always. About everything.
That night, as he lay in his bed in the tiny spare room in Mrs Dark's flat, Gal dreamed that Deirdre was standing beside the bed, looking down into his face with great urgency, as if she needed to tell him something.
Then he realised he was not dreaming.
He sat bolt upright in his bed, panting with shock. But Deirdre did not react to his surprise. She went on standing there, gazing down at him, as if there was room in her mind for only one thought. She was wearing the full-length white nightgown she always wore to bed. Her hair was long and straight and fair in the streetlight that poured through the window â for it was never really dark at night in Corbenic â the building was on the main street of the town. It wasn't quiet either â cars swished past; newspapers were delivered to the newsagency opposite; in the early hours of the morning the garbage trucks trundled their way up the street, stopping outside each building. But Deirdre knew none of this. She just stood there, staring down at him and thinking her one thought.
âI'm sorry, Gal,' she said in a strange, listless way, mournfully, and yet somehow without passion. âI'm sorry.'
Gal swallowed, terrified.
âThat's all right, Deedee,' he whispered.
She inclined her head, very slowly, still staring at him, then she turned and left the room.
He never forgot what she looked like walking away from him, her long white nightdress, her long fair hair. And when she had gone he stayed upright, staring at his doorway, afraid she would come back, until the dawn made it seem safe enough to lie down again.
He didn't ask her about it the next morning, but he knew she did not remember.
It was years before he understood that she had been sleepwalking. At five he did not know what sleepwalking was. But even when he understood that, he could not begin to imagine what it was she was sorry for.