Authors: Charity Norman
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #FIC000000, #book
‘It’s not getting her,’ I sobbed, as Frederick patted and soothed.
‘What’s not getting her?’ He touched the whorl of copper hair on Zoe’s mushroom-soft head. Her veins pulsed beneath the fontanel.
‘Life,’ I said. ‘Death.’
But it did.
I think I shall start with the letter.
It arrived the day they let him go. It lay there, making the kitchen table filthy with its very presence, with a rash of purple stamps from the censors. Perhaps we’d dropped off the list of forbidden correspondents, or perhaps the authorities had slipped up. We’d already had two from his solicitor, so I had a fair idea what this one was about.
I wouldn’t open it. The thing could go in the bin.
I cast it into that dark pit and heard the satisfying click-clack of the plastic lid. It would be sinking helplessly into a glob of leftover porridge.
That’s what I think of you!
It had been snowing since lunchtime, and the garden was already a white wilderness. The heaviest fall had passed, but miniature wagon wheels of lace still waltzed and swirled. Frederick and Ben were out there, trying to make a snowman. I could see them through the kitchen window. Ben took three steps to each one of his Gramps’ as he shovelled snow into the tiny wooden wheelbarrow. Frederick made that barrow for Zoe, when she was small. He and she used to weed the flower beds together. I’d hear her chattering—yabber yabber yabber, without a pause for breath—and his delighted laughter. We wanted more children, expected more, but after three excruciating miscarriages I got the message and poor old Frederick got the snip.
I opened the oven to find my scones smoking merrily. Damn and blast Joseph Scott, he even made me burn the scones. I rescued the best of them before tapping on the window. Frederick and Ben were bent low over the winter-bare cabbage patch—examining some life form, for sure. Frederick would be speaking in rich, enthusiastic tones like David Attenborough, and Ben would be staring up into his grandfather’s face with a look of total absorption. Four years old, and seventy-six. Those two had a love affair going on.
I opened the kitchen door, warbling names to the tune of ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Frederick Ben, Frederick Ben, would you like some tea and scones?’
The warmth of the kitchen billowed out, hanging like a heavy eiderdown in the frozen wastes. Freddie took his grandson’s hand and the two figures headed towards me—one tall and too thin, each step taken cautiously for fear of a slip on the icy path; the other small, plump, with a jerky quick-walk. Flotsam, one of Zoe’s Birman cats, pattered behind, tail high.
They were letting him out today. He’d probably be free by now. We’d had a letter from the authorities to tell us so. Nice of them, I suppose. I certainly didn’t want to meet him face to face with no warning. I didn’t want to meet him face to face at all; but one day I would turn a corner in the supermarket and there he’d be, bold as brass, leering at me like the psychopath in a bad film. I could feel the familiar hatred stirring inside me. It burned. What would I do, when confronted by my daughter’s killer? Perhaps I’d find his car and cut the brake cable. Nobody would blame me.
Ben and Frederick burst into the house in a flurry of slush and Tarzan calls, hanging up their coats on pegs, peeling off wet woollen gloves and—in Ben’s case—plonking down onto the doormat and tugging at his wellingtons. His right foot was by his nose. I don’t remember ever having that India-rubber flexibility.
‘Put your gloves on the radiator,’ I ordered. ‘And your horrid wet socks.’
They weren’t listening. They were two artists, planning an installation. ‘So we’re agreed on bottle tops for buttons, and . . . What about eyes, do you think?’ asked Freddie.
Ben pulled the boot off his other foot. He had a revolting running nose, and squirmed as I wiped it.
‘Here—give that snowman one of Gramps’ caps,’ I suggested, taking down an old one from a peg. It was a tweed flat cap, and the silk lining was torn.
‘It’s a snow
,’ cried Ben, guffawing indulgently at my density. ‘Not a
! Can we have one of your great big wedding hats?’
‘I’m surprised at you, Hannah,’ added Frederick, white brows twitching. ‘Making assumptions based on gender stereotypes.’
‘Oh, shut up.’ I stuck out my tongue, and Freddie put his arm around my shoulder, as he must have done a million times over the past forty years.
I was twenty-four when I met and married Frederick Wilde. I had no intention of falling in love—not then, not ever. I was absorbed in my doctorate in York, and Not the Marrying Type. One evening, a fellow postgrad called Laura talked me into going to the last night of
. Apparently the production had garnered rave reviews (
in Frederick Wilde’s hands, humour
and darkness intertwine with shocking sensitivity
). I sat through the play, thought it ugly and didn’t care two hoots whether the director was Frederick Wilde or Donald Duck.
Laura was having a fling with the stage manager, so we were invited to a last-night bash afterwards. They were an entertaining lot, I had to admit, and I began to enjoy myself. A lanky, tweed-jacketed chap seemed to be the centre of attention.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked Laura’s boyfriend.
He glanced around. ‘That’s Freddie Wilde!’
‘C’mon, I’ll introduce you. You’re going to love him.’ And with those unwittingly prophetic words, he led me to my destiny.
It was Frederick’s humility that struck me first. People in the theatre hung on his every word, yet he always seemed to regard their stories as more interesting than his own. I found in him everything I admired, perhaps everything I lacked—creativity and humour and forgiveness of human nature. God knows what he found in me. He was twelve years my senior, though that seemed ludicrously irrelevant. My parents fretted and fussed about the age gap but they soon fell under his spell. We married within a year, and were still married forty years on. Laura and her stage manager parted company a week after
That wretched letter. The lid of the bin seemed agitated, as though some animal was scavenging in there. Who knew? Perhaps Scott was writing to say he’d never trouble us again. Perhaps the letter was a suicide note—just the kind of thing he’d do, try and load his guilt onto us.
Flotsam settled in the armchair in the corner, close beside his sleeping twin sister. Ben climbed up onto his tall stool at the table and grabbed a scone, legs swinging. Frederick sat opposite. ‘Scones! How lovely,’ he declared, tactfully ignoring the whiff of incineration.
‘There’s a review of Scarlet’s play in the local,’ I said, passing him a copy of the
. ‘Take a look.’
He put down his cup, lifted his glasses onto his nose and studied the paper.
The Bootham amateur dramatic society’s
production has much to delight . . . lighting, music . . .
I watched him read, knowing that he was getting to the best bit. ‘Oho!’ He cried in trumph. ‘
Scarlet Scott has commanding presence as
Puck, and steals every scene she is in.
Oh, that’s marvellous. Well played, Scarletta!’
‘I’m not surprised,’ I said, rereading it over his shoulder. ‘She lights up any stage. So did her mother. So do you, when you act.’
‘Are we going to see Scarlet’s play, Hannah?’ asked Ben.
‘Hm.’ He considered this information as he reached for more jam. ‘Will Theo come too?’
‘Definitely! It’s just the sort of play he’ll like.’
‘Will it be boring?’
‘No, it’s wonderful. It’s about fairies.’
‘More to the point,’ added Freddie, ‘if you sit still and keep quiet, we’ll take the three of you out for pizza afterwards. And ice-cream.’
‘Okay then. Gramps, d’you think tee-ran-a-saw-us ate pizza?’ asked Ben, whose twin preoccupations were food and dinosaurs.
‘Meatlovers was his favourite,’ Freddie replied seriously.
The pair of them began to witter absurdly about prehistoric pizza while I wandered in aimless little circles, fretting about that envelope in the bin.
‘All right, my darling?’ asked Freddie. ‘You’re not eating.’
‘I’m watching my weight . . . trying to keep the rate of inflation under control.’
He knew me so well. ‘It’s today, isn’t it?’ he asked quietly. When I nodded, he seemed to age another ten years. He looked like what he was—an elderly man who would never stop grieving. He reached out and rubbed my arm. His own hand was crisscrossed, indigo rivers under the thin skin. ‘They have to let him out. He’s served his time.’
‘If I see him anywhere near here . . .’ I muttered.
‘He won’t come here.’
‘Who?’ asked Ben, scraping his knife around in the jam. ‘Who won’t come here?’
‘Nobody you know, sweetheart,’ I said. And it was true. Ben hadn’t seen his father since he was a year old.
‘Shall we go back outside now, Gramps? Let’s get it finished before Theo and Scarlet come home.’ Cramming the rest of the scone into his mouth, Ben slid from his stool.
I dug out a straw sunhat for their snowlady and promised to pay a state visit as soon as she was ready. ‘I’ll bring the camera,’ I said, as they pulled on their boots.
‘And a woolly scarf?’ wheedled Ben. ‘Even snowladies wear scarves.’
‘What are you calling her?’
As Ben tugged at the door, winter swirled in with a long, cold gasp. ‘Snowmummy,’ he replied without hesitation, and I could have wept for him.
Once they’d gone, I cleared the table and poured myself another cup of tea. It was still there, fossicking around in the filthy depths. I couldn’t stand it. So I reached into the bin—tea bags, porridge, revolting sticky bits of toast—and lifted out the envelope between finger and thumb. It oozed menace.
I ripped the thing open and read the letter fast as I could, feeling polluted.
Dear Hannah and Frederick,
Already, four words in, I was disgusted.
I don’t know whether you’ve received my solicitor’s letters,
but as he has had no reply I thought I would send one of my
own. I expect to be released very soon now. As you know, I haven’t seen the children for over three years and I’ve missed
them more than I can say. I didn’t ask, and you didn’t bring
them. The visiting area isn’t a great place for families. I didn’t
like the idea of them being searched and prodded, and anyway
it wasn’t how I wanted them to think of me.
But soon I’ll be out, and that’s very different, as I hope
you’ll agree. So I was wondering, where could I see them and
‘You’ll see them over my dead body,’ I said aloud.
They need to know me. They need to know that their father
is a human being, not a devil, and that I am bitterly sorry for
what I did. If wishing would change things, Zoe would be
alive and I’d be the one dead.
At least we could agree on that. In a perfect world, he’d be the dead one—or, better still, expunged from history.
Please write to me at this address, but put my prison number
on the envelope or it won’t get here. Or else to my solicitor,
Richard O’Brien in York. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll have to
apply to the court. I hope it won’t come to that.
With my genuine best wishes,
The letter was dated two weeks previously. It must have taken some time to get through those useless censors, out of Armley and into the postal system. Didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be replying to him or his blasted solicitor. The mere sight of his handwriting—the image of his murdering hand holding the pen—made my knees shake. Letter and envelope were hurled back into the bin.
Then I sat at the table and pressed my hands against my mouth. I wouldn’t cry. Joseph Scott wouldn’t make me cry, not ever again. I’d cried gallons of tears; I’d wept until my eyes were bruised. I’d lived in darkness, even flirted with the idea of ending my life. All because of him.
More than anything else in the world, I longed for Joseph Scott to disappear forever.
I hope to be an actor when I’m older. It’s my greatest ambition. A lot of girls say they want to be actors, and most never make it. But I’m different. It’s in my blood.
We’ve got videos of Mum on the stage and even on the telly. The most famous thing she did was playing the anti-heroine, Melinda, in a mini-series called
The Last Postman in Bosnia.
Girls at school haven’t heard of it because it was on years ago. My English teacher, Mrs May, saw it when it first screened and she says my mum’s portrayal of her character was superb. She actually said Mum was ‘the best thing about that production’. I think she was trying to tell me she hated the rest but loved Mum’s acting.
People say I look a lot like her. On my thirteenth birthday, I had all my hair chopped off. Gramps was horrified because he used to love brushing my hair. He and Hannah and the hairdresser all went on about how it was such a glorious colour, all the way to my waist, and it was a crime to cut it off. They made a monumental fuss, but Hannah had always promised I could have a haircut once I was thirteen, and I held her to it. I got a pixie cut like Mum’s, with a longer fringe and little triangles in front of my ears. It was much easier to keep tidy.
I’ve also got green eyes, and people say I’ve inherited Mum’s sharp chin, so in some ways I really do look like her. There’s one big problem: she was very,
slim. There wasn’t a bit of anything saggy about her. All her ribs showed. When she wore hipster jeans, her hipbones showed too. She didn’t look like other people’s mothers. Other mothers are mother-shaped. Some have massive bums, and most have stomachs that stick out no matter how much they wear Spanx or try to suck them in. My mum looked young and skinny enough to be their daughter. People used to tell her she needed feeding up, and that really pissed her off. ‘What right have they got?’ she complained. ‘It’s so rude. I don’t comment on their bloody great bingo wings.’