She turned as her courage drained away and her face seemed to fold in on itself. Dougie picked up the big bright green bag and stood holding it out to Lucy Groves, and in the end, she took it without saying anything else at all, got up and walked from the room with him close behind her. He thought if he hadn’t kept his arms folded he might have pushed her out of the door.
The house was always shady. Only the kitchen got the sun for much of the day. The study was the coolest room in the house, so Magda had spent the hot days there. She had tried to work but it didn’t amount to much. Her usually clear, concise thoughts seemed to have gone through a shredder and she was appalled by the feebleness of what she had written.
Now, she lay on the couch half reading, half dozing. The window was open on to her small garden and a blackbird was hopping about on the mossy paving stone. The garden was in shadow from the high wall, apart from a wedge of brightness at the far end.
She closed her eyes. She felt weak and when she’d woken that morning she had been tearful. In hospital she had felt safe and had company, not so much people to talk to as to watch and think about. She had also been fed and nursed and now she realised that she had come to depend on that, which was why she had wept earlier. Daily life had become a slow and tedious struggle. In half an hour she would like a cup of tea but the effort of getting to the kitchen to make it would probably defeat her.
I am not like this, she thought. I have become a stranger to myself and it frightens me.
She had been in control all her life, an achiever, a strong, vigorous woman, independent in mind and body. Now, someone else lay on her couch and dozed and was lonely and dreaded the dark.
The blackbird came closer. She had never noticed birds. The garden was a secluded green space but she had never cared about flowers or plants. Animals took from you and gave nothing in return, she had always said. As a child, Jane had wanted hamsters and rabbits, a cat, a dog. “Animals are not equal companions for intelligent human beings.”
Now she watched the blackbird with fascination. Its whole life was a quest for food, without guarantee that food would be found. Perhaps it had come upon a reassuring supply here. She had no idea what blackbirds ate. Other people put out breadcrumbs and nuts for birds, a thing it had never occurred to her to do. But she felt a sudden surge of feeling for the blackbird. She had a few bits of food in the pantry and the fridge and she was never very hungry, but when supplies ran out she would somehow have to get more. Did grocers still deliver? Who could she ring and ask to shop for her? What had always been straightforward was now an impossibly complex challenge. Everything was a challenge, going from room to room, dressing, undressing, washing, bathing, sorting out clean clothes. She was a pathetic old woman and it angered her.
But the deep green shade of the garden was soothing to look out on. She closed her eyes and opened them again at a slight sound. The blackbird had gone.
The movement in the room was quick and soft so that by the time she had registered what had happened, he was standing beside the couch. Magda started to shift about, trying to pull herself up.
“Hello then, Miss,” he said quietly. “I’m hoping you remember me.”
She stared, trying to place him. He was very tall and he wore jeans and a T-shirt with Atlanta Olympic Games 1996 stamped but barely still visible on the front. Something about him, something … she managed to sit almost upright. But not enough.
“Come on, come on, Miss, you have to remember me.” His voice was both threatening and pleading. “It’s no good telling me you forgotten, Miss.”
“How did you get in?”
“Ah, that’s our secret. Only if you don’t remember me, which is a sad thing and all, you’ll remember my mate Jiggy, he come here not long ago, Miss.”
“The one who broke in and took things and hit me, is that your mate Jiggy?”
“Sounds like you do remember him then, so you try and remember me. I think I’m sitting down a bit here.” He did so, in the chair opposite her, but he pulled it across the room first, so that he was closer. “Now you look into my face, Miss, and tell me you remember? That’d be something.”
She found that she had to look into his face. She could do nothing else.
“Remember now, come on, Miss.”
“Why are you calling me Miss? I don’t remember you, not at all.”
“OK, OK then, Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. Doctor. Now you’ll remember me.”
She put her hand to her eyes and closed them, blotting him out. He had huge teeth, wide-spaced, with a broken one at the side. Huge hands.
“If you’ve come to take things, take them … whatever Jiggy left. Just take and go.”
“No, no, no. I’m not taking anything. No, no.” He laughed. He had his knees apart and his huge hands resting on them. “That’s not my idea. No.”
“What is your idea? What are you doing here? Please go. I want you to go. I’m not well and I need to sleep. Please, just leave that way.”
“I know the way. The way in, the way out. Only I’m for staying here. Till you remember me, which you should, which you’d better.”
“Why should I remember you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“Oh yes, oh yes, Miss Doctor, Miss Doctor, you’ve seen me, you’ve seen me a dozen times, maybe more, in your room, in your office, where you wore glasses. No glasses today. No glasses.” He laughed.
She looked into the tiny pupils in his egg-white eyes. “You were a patient? You came to my clinic?”
“Hey yes, now then, you see? Hey. Good. Now we’re getting along fine, a lot better. OK.”
“I don’t remember you.”
His face tightened and he suddenly slapped his fist on to his knee. “You better tell me you do.”
“It must have been years ago.”
“Many, many years. Many years. I was six or seven … or eight years old. You see, now I don’t remember. Remembering is hard, isn’t it, Miss Doctor? A little boy then. But I remember everything else. I remember you talking and talking and talking and I remember the writing you did, writing and writing, and the questions and questions and questions. I remember. I didn’t know the answers all the time, I just heard the questions and the talking and saw the writing. Then I was sent away. You remember now maybe?”
“Nobody forgets being sent away.”
“But I didn’t send you away.”
“You did so. You asked questions and wrote stuff and wrote stuff and I kept being back in your room and then one time I got sent away. I don’t forget that.”
“What’s your name?”
“You pretending you don’t remember that now?”
“No, I don’t remember. What is your name?”
“I didn’t send you away. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the authority to send children away.”
“Maybe you told someone else then. Maybe that. I only know what happened. I remember that OK … that’s why.”
He got up and came to stand over her so that she shrank back. He smelled of something sweet, but it was not a sweetness she recognised.
“Where I went, Miss, I remember that. I remember everything. You remember nothing. That’s too bad. I know what I remember and who made it happen and that is you, Miss, you, Doctor Doctor, and I’ve waited to come and help you remember and here I am.”
He was speaking more and more quickly, the words running together. Once or twice she felt his spittle on her hand and then on her cheek.
And suddenly, she saw him, a stick-thin boy with huge hands and scabs on his head, bruises round his neck and on his arms. He was sitting on a straight chair in her room looking at the floor, touching his ear or his leg now and again in a gesture that was more than random, that was as someone touches a talisman. He was shocked into silence, malnourished, angry with a confused, hurt, pent-up anger, too frightened to release even a whisper to her. She saw him time after time and, once, only once, she heard him speak, but she could not catch what he was saying. A word she had never caught.
“I remember,” Magda said. “Mikey” His smile was triumphant, wide, gap-toothed, a mouth of a smile which opened into a roar of what she thought was delighted laughter, a second before she recognised it as rage.
In that second, she lifted up her arms to shield her face before he came down upon her savagely, roaring still, as the light shrank to a pinpoint behind her eyes and then went out.
He had thought he would wait until it was dark but he felt in pain with the frustration of waiting, of the heat, of being able to do nothing else, of having it bang against the inside of his head. He rinsed his head under the cold tap in the kitchen and went out just before seven. The pavements radiated the heat of the day back up and the tarmac was melting at the sides of the road. He turned to take the canal path. It was a longer route but shady, pleasanter. No one was about except one old man on a broken bench, whispering to himself.
They had come here a few times to walk, in winter, in spring. Lizzie had longed to see a kingfisher and someone had told her kingfishers occasionally flashed blue from bank to bank of the canal and nested under the willows, but she had died and the kingfisher remained unseen. Now he stood staring at the willows, still in the early-evening heat. Nothing.
He passed the lock-keeper’s cottage and the warehouses. Lizzie had come there for him but when he had reached out to her she had run away, tripped, fallen, cried and sent for the police. It had been a confusion and a misunderstanding but he had not been able to explain adequately, they had seemed obtuse. But then, he had always believed that policemen were obtuse, overtrained and undereducated, without subtlety or fastidious intelligence.
The cathedral bells rang the hour.
Lizzie’s death was someone’s fault. Whoever had once fed her contaminated meat. Doctors who had diagnosed her disease too late. Doctors who had failed to treat her. Doctors who had stood by watching her symptoms crawl into her brain and eat it away. Nurses in the hospice. People whose prayers were useless. God. God. God and God’s priests.
He crossed the canal at the narrow iron bridge on to the town side. Here, the backs of terraced houses overlooked it; people might look out of their bedrooms on to the green-black surface of the water, on to the cardboard carton bobbing against the base of the bridge, on to the supermarket trolley embedded in the undergrowth, on to the peeing dogs and the narrow boats and the willows and the secret kingfishers.
He pushed his way through a patch of nettles and briers, through a broken-down gate and up a long tube of a garden without grass. No one saw him. No one came. A dog barked somewhere.
He was sweating. He smelled of sweat.
The house was in a mess, a honeycomb of let-rooms with dirty curtains. The house on his left was the same, but on his right, someone had a garden. He went across and looked through the broken fence panels. Marigolds. A wooden archway with trellis and a rose climbing up it, peachy-coloured. The path was lined with tiles like hoops. There was a bed of vegetables—onion tops, potato tops, a cane bean-wigwam. A couple of nut holders swung from a laburnum tree. There was a tiny pond. At the far end, behind a privy, he could just see a birdcage set against the brick wall and a flash of canary yellow. He tried to push his way through the fencing but it would not give. He wanted to be in the garden, beside the tiny pond, near the birds, among the potato tops and marigolds.
Abruptly, Max began to weep, resting his head against the broken fence, and his weeping turned to a torrent of anger, making him shake the wood panels violently until someone shouted from a house. No one came. Just the shouting, then silence again.
His hand had blood on it from a piece of broken wood which had punctured the pad below his thumb.
And then he saw her. She was sitting with her back to him on a bench near the archway. Her hair was fairer, as if she had been in the sun for a long time. He pulled at the fencing slats and this time a half-rotten one snapped and when he kicked at the space it opened enough for him to crawl through. He stood still, amazed that he was inside the garden as close to Lizzie as breathing. She was there. She had not stirred or turned. She might be waiting, though he wondered why it should be here, where he had found her quite by chance.
He wiped the back of his wet hand across his face. The cut had stopped hurting but still bled. She would know what to do.
“Lizzie,” he said.
It was very quiet. He waited.
“Lizzie.” She did not move and so he went forward a step or two, reaching out his hand to her, to touch the slightly fairer hair.
“Lizzie.” He realised that he had been saying her name but silently, saying it in his heart and in his head but not out loud. Now he spoke it clearly into the still garden.
She turned round then and screamed and the screams were like knives tumbling and falling through his brain and he lunged forward, desperate to reach her and stop her, to show her who he was and that she did not need to scream, but when he felt her body and looked into her face and the open, screaming mouth, Lizzie had gone. It was not Lizzie and his brain caught fire.
The small hands were slightly damp. Like a clammy sort of sea anemone on her arm.
“Bloody hell, Kyra!”
Natalie woke up completely and leaned across Kyra to switch on the lamp.
“What you done?” She sounded weary. She was weary. This was the fourth night in two weeks. “You wet your bed again or what?”
The small hands were pulled away.
“You bloody have. Honest to God, Kyra, how old are you? Wetting the bed is what babies do, little kids, you’re six years old, nearly seven. OK, tomorrow morning, we go to the doctor, first off, and you don’t go to Barbara’s till you’re sorted.”
Kyra curled up on the farthest side of her mother’s bed. She didn’t mind about not going to Barbara’s. In the holidays she was there eight till six. She only minded about the doctor.
“Shut up, it’s me should be crying, you’re wet at both ends these days, you. Come on, get out of there, you want a clean nightie, I’m not having you make this bed wet and all. I’ll sort yours tomorrow. And if you stop in here you stop still, right?”
It only took five minutes but then of course she couldn’t get back to sleep. Kyra slept. In the morning, she’d barely remember any of it.
Natalie lay on her back, arms behind her head. She knew why she wasn’t sleeping and it wasn’t only that Kyra kept waking her, if not because she’d wet the bed then because of bad dreams. There was something wrong and Natalie knew it, only Kyra was like a bloody oyster, clammed up tight. She hadn’t said anything at school, she wouldn’t say anything to Barbara, and Natalie had given up. She’d tried talking, tried asking questions, tried pleading, screaming, shutting her in her room, giving her treats, confiscating her toys, forbidding television, taking her out, making her stay in. Nothing. All Kyra said was, “I want to see Ed,” and sometimes, “Where is Ed?”