I folded, unfolded, folded, unfolded the watermarked, ribbed writing-paper with embossed letter-heading, neat typescript and florid signature. Hedda? That sister from whom I was separated—separated just after the last world war. It felt as if I were gathering memories—not from having lived through them but having learned them parrot-fashion.
I slapped my face as if stirring myself from the convolutions in my head. I had no idea that Hedda was still alive until I received this letter from a Solicitor’s firm called Creme, Creme and Wickerstaffe, a letter written on behalf of a branch of the family with which I had previously no contact. Great Britain was never a large realm—especially in modern times—so how such genealogical offshoots could hide unbidden was a mystery of the first water in itself.
Hedda was not a real sister because she had been adopted as a refugee from Old Europe by my erstwhile parents. We had been dubbed half-brother-and-sister, an acceptable term in those days when race was a determinant of social status and love was something owed to everyone without fear of creating upstarts. Hedda was not a real foreigner but merely a girl who had no discernible pedigree—having been cast out of an ancient empire into the mutually serendipitous care of a couple called Mr and Mrs Worsley who needed to love and love and love and love. And I, Andrew Worsley, their only blood child, was never capable of receiving all that love of theirs. I was a boy who needed hate to feed my own propensity to hate more than I was hated. Despite such hate, I was and still am a hero…
So, surely, it was never I who had killed my parents, all those years ago. What year had it been? 1948? Was not 1946 the first year of autonomous memory, as far as my conscious mind was concerned? The past was one huge question mark.
Surely, it was not the present Andrew Worsely who could have killed in such a wild manner. But was it the Andrew I had once been? Perhaps he was the culprit, bearing in mind that everyone is a different person, a different ‘I’ each day, with the regular sloughing-off of snakeskin.
In human beings, minds always remember themselves during sleep and bodies merely grow older even if those very bodies renew themselves by gaining fresh molecules and skin cells and blood corpuscles … and re-engineered muscles and…
Instead of slapping my face this time, I thumped my head several times on the bed. I was still sensible enough not to attempt this upon a hard surface such as stone or bone.
Muriel would come in and wonder why her Andrew was so uptight these days.
But I’d always been uptight. I now merely concealed tension under loose skin.
With the arrival of the Solicitor’s letter about Hedda, even my silky balloon of cool laid-backness was punctured. I gazed into the mirror.
Yes, my eyes are red boils, my tongue lolling out like a reptile flannel, my still healthy head of hair oiled into a horn shape, ears pointier…
A normal looking man most of the time … but I often felt myself to be an alien. Not that I was a pukka alien. More a human being with a switched soul. A foundling father. A changeling with most of the original substance of mind-and-matter still intact … just with that added ingredient of fever from the stars.
Yes, a father, too. Father of Louise. Our daughter … Muriel’s daughter as well as mine.
I moistened my lips with the tongue before tucking it away. The eyes deflated, having been on the point of bursting…
Muriel called from the kitchen:
“You’re late for work, Andrew!”
And the mocking tones of young Louise followed:
“You’re late, you’re late, you’re very very late.”
“What was that in the post?” asked Muriel as she faced me from the bottom of the steep stairs.
“Oh … nothing, only an advert.”
“It didn’t look like an advert. It looked … official.”
“Said I’d won first prize in a multi-million pound competition,” I answered, smiling.
“Oh, one of them! ”
Muriel returned to the kitchen. She must enjoy being a housewife. In the circumstances.
She used to be a woman one would have picked out from a crowd—I remembered—for her beauty and large bowlfuls of shining eyesight. But now she was cowed and—the worst thing of all—ordinary looking.
Little Louise was beginning to retrieve signs of her mother’s erstwhile glamour, albeit a sinister glamour when seen through the medium of her daughter’s embodiment. Indeed, Little Louise’s face was too pointy and legs too short. She was peering from round the toilet door.
“No paper!” she screeched.
Muriel rushed off to find a replacement roll, eager to solve her daughter’s complaint before it became an unstoppable whining and grizzling that would, in turn, become that day’s over-riding theme, if not the next.
I loved Little Louise, loved her more than I could love anybody or anything. It was a strain to love her so much, often bringing knotted veins to the temples of my head as I shouted for her to be more polite to her mother.
By this time, Louise had withdrawn into the toilet to finish the process that needed very little volition.
Murdering someone in an uncontrollable passion of anger was not dissimilar, I thought. But strangling two people one after the other? Anger was a powerful force, especially in childhood…
Hedda was, of course, the only loophole in the otherwise tight mesh of history.
My memory of the past would flood through if I concentrated too hard, since thinking about something made it seem larger than it was. My mind frayed at the edges, at the best of times. Andrew’s mind.
What had the letter said? The Solicitor, on behalf of some distant cousins in Wales, had stated that Hedda had been in contact; she was trying to trace some valuable “possessions”, keepsakes from the old days, keepsakes that belonged to her, stemming from her ancient roots in Europe. Yet how had she managed to regain contact? And why with this dubious branch of the Worsley dynasty in Wales? What keepsakes? Some of her superstitious trinkets, no doubt, ones that I had discovered in my parents’ bedroom after the murder.
I recalled feeling the ornaments’ edges, following the lines of curves, digging into crevices, fondling the chunky weightiness.
Almost the same way as the necks of my parents were fondled. The gentle touch of bare hands.
Most of the family’s possessions had been confiscated by the Authorities, after parcelling Hedda off to a local Home, whence she must have been farmed out to Foster parents and then God knows whither. That she was blind must have made at least someone love her more than she deserved.
I still had a few of those old “possessions”, the choicest ones that I had managed to stow in my short trousers and school blazer, as I escaped through the maze of suburban back-gardens towards the school library where I was supposed to be learning to read.
The mystery still remained, however. How had I never been missed by that stern form-mistress who sat at the tall sloping desk in the beams of Autumn sunshine, etched against the black-board wall of the reading-room? And how had she not noticed my return to the reading-room some time later?
Anger surely could never be so targetted and so—what is the right word?—smooth. Rage was rough. Inefficient.
The loophole continued to rip wider, as, back in the present, Muriel ran down the stairs towards little Louise in the toilet, trailing Andrex loo-paper as it unravelled behind her.
I stared and I imagined Hedda staring too. Into the distance. Or at it. Blackness was nothing but distance.
Hedda could still hear the shrieks. First a woman’s, separate and cold. Then a man’s, more passionate but equally held with a note of control. Over the years, the shrieks had become stylized … then stifled. More a nightmare than an actual memory of a real event.
Where she had been ever since, nobody would know. Not even did she know. Not a foundling as such, more a lostling. A changeling who had never had a counterpart to replace her in real life, so she only had herself to make ends meet. I knew all this from an instinct even deeper than memory.
And if she had been with the elves in the woods or wafting with the spirits in the stars, nobody could tell. The Welsh branch of the Worsleys were probably ignorant even of where she fitted in within the mechanics of the family … a family that had been outspreading disordinately since the late forties.
Hedda was blind because she had always been blind, believing, as she did, that some miraculous emergence of sight at some future time would not reflect back and allow her to be called something other than blind now. Her dusky complexion and black hair strangely suited living in Wales.
When she was first taken to see the Solicitor in Swansea—utilising a car’s disabled badge to secure a very convenient parking place—there had been many confusions as to her intentions, because the intentions themselves were confused coupled with the fact that she was unable to check various documents for herself nor sign a Power of Attorney until an appropriate Braille version had been obtained.
She kept saying: “There’s Devil’s work in it”—and, thus, a Power of Attorney was not only necessary due to her blindness but also because she acted so strangely, bordering on lunacy.
There was no doubt, however, concerning the intrinsic value of the ornaments she sought to repossess, ornaments in the hands of the Worsley clan in Essex.
“With my bare hands … I wanted to feel them with my bare hands,” she said again and again.
I laid awake in bed, thinking about Hedda and Mr Creme the Solicitor. Muriel was snoring more loudly than ever with occasional groans—groans which reminded md of her response to sex when she was much (much) younger; but now they were in a rhythm which betokened a nightmare more than anything else, a nightmare, no doubt, deriving from her job as a schoolmistress. Drugs and ill-discipline made the job a nightmare in itself, factors which could only be put at Society’s door in general…
Suddenly, a different grade of darkness took shape above me—a human configuration.
I felt cold fingers digging at my pyjama flies…
The shapen shadow rode me sluggishly then at a quicker pace, with a silence that was more akin to death than deafness…
Then a relief, a gush of guilt mixed with seed-fed passion, as I relaxed back, this time into what seemed unadulterated sleep, before looking up at the whip-wielding teacher in the ancient library and the endless sooty tunnel of the blackboard shimmering behind her …
“Well, Hedda,” Mr Creme said, pulling out the syllables as if they were joined with elastic. His office was too big for one person and Hedda would no doubt have been bemused by the Solicitor’s leather-topped deak which glinted in a sudden sunny interval between thunderstorms.
She smiled. A sighted companion sat in the other chair and made as if to interrupt before Mr Creme continued –
“Can you describe the … objects you have in mind claiming to be within your rightful ownership, that you wish to re-possess…”
Mr Creme raised two hooked fingers either side of his head around the word ‘objects’, an act with which he need not have bothered as far as Hedda was concerned.
“Well, Mr Creme, there was a Tarot pack, a companion-set in the form of a knight-in-armour, a gold thimble and, yes, a scrimshaw horn…”
“So the horn is decorated, is it? So we shall be able to establish proof of ownership more easily,” this being a thought the Solicitor said aloud, not asking Hedda the nature of the scrimshaw designs on the horn.
“It was decorated with snakes entwining, Mr Creme,” she proffered nevertheless.
Being a Solicitor, he did not pursue the point, did not ask the obvious question and evidently made assumptions.
“You were brought up with Andrew Worsley from an early age, Hedda?”
“Yes I was. Andrew was my brother. Still is.”
“But not a brother by blood, of course.”
“Well, as good as, I should say. We did everything together.”
“And you were sent to a Home after the … event?”
Mr Creme used his fingers again around ‘event’ and a flicker of his eyelid indicated the capital H of ‘Home’.
“I never saw Andrew after I was age 6 and he me neither.”
“Yes, of course, of course. Well, with there being no documentation proving ownership and the intrinsic value, both sentimental and financial, in the objects…”
There was a crack of thunder.
“We know, Mr Creme, the difficulties,” said someone from the shadows of the Solicitor’s office, “but Andrew Worsley has merely been a custodian all these years. Hedda has explained to me the importance of the missing possessions and belongings and we felt it worthwhile to seek advice…”
“Yes, yes, naturally, but to obtain lost things, one needs some sort of proof … unless, of course, the custodian as you put it is willing to relinquish them, in which case you’d no need of a Solicitor…”
“Well, just the fact we’re consulting you may persuade Andrew Worsley…”
“Yes, that may be something I can work on. Merely a letter from me may suffice. But it would be useful to have some proof, some backing, some—what shall we call it?—provenance.”
“I am a great believer in serendipity,” announced Hedda with a blush.
“Yes, yes, I see, I see, well, we cannot live by bread alone,” said Mr Creme with a stern laugh.
Creme wondered why he had not asked the obvious questions. Like Have You Actually Asked For These Things Back? And, If So, What Was The Response? And How Do These Objects Stand Vis A Vis Your Blindness, Hedda? Scrimshaw Decoration Must Be Etched On The Brain If You Have Always Been Blind…
Creme would muse the night away; no other client had previously preoccupied him to such an extent out of hours. He was normally such an efficient, logical, painstaking lawyer. Now that he was wallowing in innuendo and suggestion and pointless repetition, he was enjoying it or, rather, shuddering with fear that he was enjoying it. Creme’s laughter was tentative…
I was back in my own head. My little Louise stood with the Remote Control clasped in her hand. I looked at my watch and guessed it was time for Neighbours or Home-and-Away.
“Yes, I’ve got this thing”—Louise nodded at the handheld Control—” but I’ve looked everywhere for the TV set—and it’s nearly time…”
“Well, have you had a good look for it, Louise?” I asked, evidently ignoring her word ‘everywhere’. But fathers are meant to be patronising, I guess.
She stormed off, without deigning to give a reply. I vowed to have a heart-to-heart with her about her behaviour, or one with Muriel so that, as a mother, she could do it instead. And, at that moment, Muriel happened to come into my Study, evidently bursting with something important.
“Someone’s here—with someone else. And there’s a Mr Creme, too.”
“A Mr Creme?” I said absentmindedly, half-recognising the name, half-remembering an appointment that had previously been made, a vicarious journey from Wales and a sorting-out of unsort-outable things.
Louise later stared at the wall, listening to the inarticulate voices mumbling from her father’s Study. Probably some boring business meeting. And a blind woman had just been led through the parlour.
Louise projected images upon the wallpaper with her eyes, batting the eyelids to change from one to the other. This was her favourite game; a form of day-dreaming whereby she often didn’t have control over the dreams like at night.
There were ‘things’ in the parlour which—since first knowing herself to be a child—she had taken for granted. ‘Things’ she had grown up with. The armour-suit in the fireplace stared with vizor-hidden eyes…
Her favourite ‘thing’ was a fleeting projection of a horned beast that reflected off the wallpaper more like a shadow than a picture, or a cross between the two. She assumed it was the Devil come to teach her a lesson—how to behave better—how to sympathise with her mother’s professional fight against drugs and ill-discipline—or simply how to pretend to be good, which was better than being just plain bad with no shame in showing how very bad she actually was.
The Devil had a dimpled thimble protruding for one eye and flickering images as oval miniatures in the socket for the other…
She switched off … and picked up an annual.
On the return train journey to Wales, two shapes hunched back into the seats, their mission-impossible having turned up unlikely stones.
Creme was the first to speak –
“Well, I hope we have sorted it all out. But perhaps, if we had simply sent a second letter, we might have accomplished more, not stirred up unwelcome memories with real faces and we may have retrieved the ‘things’ rather than vice versa.”
The other was tacit in his replies—
“You should never have left it so long. You were tempting more than just Fate.”
“I suppose so.”
“You know, I’ve always considered that there are undercurrents to every household under the sun. Everybody thinks that everybody else is sane, straightforward, wholesome, call it what you will … while the whole time, everybody else is as unsavoury, crime-ridden, dubious, plainly unstable. Look at these countless windows all lit and curtained over…”
Creme pointed from the speeding window, but his companion did not follow the finger.
“…There are unnatural acts or murderous events or evil rituals or something of all three—and more, all going on in every one of them! Why else would they have curtains?”
The other nodded.
“We were lucky to get away with it, in the circumstances,” continued Creme. “They seemed to believe without rhyme or reason that I was not really a Solicitor but something else altogether.”
“The war did strange things, making the years following more unreal,” said the other. Now that he had the bit between his teeth, he wouldn’t let go as he bombarded Creme with his own random thoughts, but thoughts not so random inasmuch as their very act of statement (as opposed to their meaning) was at the core of the repercussions following the visit to the Essex Worsleys. “People stopped being people, as if they’d been rationed out of existence. Every family harboured at least one murderer—soldiers, gunners, sailors, airmen—so murder became a habit. Now it’s a plague. A crimewave. It’s even lessened the suicide rate…”
The train vanished into a tunnel together with the random thoughts. It crossed beneath the River Severn, entering a Principality where Creme became a Solicitor again and the other resumed being whatever it had been in the first place…
“Louise is quieter these days,” said Muriel.
I combed Muriel’s hair with my fingers. I kissed her gently on the lips, moistening both mouths in the process. Then I playfully brushed her eyelids with my own.
“Louise’s behaviour has certainly improved, if that’s what you mean.”
I closed my eyes as if in empathy with blindness itself and hoped for Muriel to get closer. We had not done it for years. The last time had been when I’d come home in that Government-issued demob suit, a suit still hanging in their wardrobe like a folded bat, where it had originally been stowed in mothballs. Wars could take, wars could give back, wars, indeed, could make you forget…
And Louise sat bolt upright in the bed staring at the blacked-out window. She primed her lips and awaited the first sign of the night’s approaching goodnight kiss—preceded by a gentle prod upon one eyelidded haven. She wondered if a lifetime’s blindness made blind people doubtful even about their own existence, let alone anybody else’s.
Then, something in the head, like one of those childhood games where each cartoon image was a frame from a flicker of cards—or like the end-of-the-pier “What The Butler Saw” and “Who Killed The Lantern-Show”, turned by a flickering handle.
Another remote handheld memory in the head.
I sobbed quietly to myself, disgusted by my own memory of dreams. Even the guiltless need to bear the torment of guilt. My pyjamas clung to me like a starchy woven skin.
“I’m late, I’m late, I’m very very late,” came the spittly whisper of the shape coming through between the closed edges of my bedroom curtains.
And, except for the now crumpling pyjamas themselves, I became exquisite nothingness under the gentle touch of bare hands.
Later that night, the Devil rode the Night Sleeper, shuttling past the windows of dream.
And now no paper!