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Chapter 1: Caroline

 

I do my best not to mind about the hole. Strictly speaking, it’s not a hole anymore; it’s a rough patch. When you walk into the study, your eyes gravitate towards the knee-high vomit-textured rectangle of wall. Perhaps I should say ‘I’ instead of ‘you’; Michael claims he can’t notice it. I suppose it’s because the episode with the Grangers got to me more than it did him. Nothing ever does get to him.

 

When I look at that patch, I see Jazz Granger crouching on the rubble-strewn floor, with that ancient cigar box in his hands. I’ve just switched the light on. He’s staring at me with a face that is half frightened rabbit, half the lorry that is doing the frightening. A few specks of plaster have settled on his nose and just as I hear Michael grumbling out of bed, he says: ‘I can see through your night dress.’ Then I see Michael flapping at him with the belt of his dressing gown and shouting words like ‘bloody outrage’ and ‘police.’ I want to tell Michael that he’s just a boy, but when I open my mouth no sound comes out.

 

I swerve into our bedroom. I sit down. Take a few deep breaths. Then, pushing aside all that has happened since that unfortunate bump in the night, I go right back to the beginning.

 

It was a few months ago – in May. I was stuck with my seminar paper on the late Victorian women’s movement. All I could do was stare out of our front window, watching as the wind blew the petals off of the council tree on the pavement, across our garden wall, slowly covering what is an earthy excuse for a garden the rest of the year. One day, I was jolted awake by the sight of a little girl crouching there. She was scooping up the petals into an old LIDL bag. Poor child, I thought. Her parents shop at LIDL; I’d better let her have my petals.

 

The mind works in mysterious ways: seeing that girl enabled me to swoop right to the heart of the motives and actions of those placard-bearers and marchers and school mistresses. I dreamt I was trapped inside one of their long dresses. Whenever I was talking to Michael, or any of my colleagues, I was conducting a secret conversation with my women.

 

A few weeks later they ceased to communicate with me. Perhaps I overwhelmed them, as I have a tendency to do. Perhaps my heart was holding back. Either way, I returned to the window. The girl was there again, sitting on our garden wall. She was swinging her legs wildly and scribbling on a piece of cardboard on her knee. The wall had been past its prime when we moved in and we hadn’t had it repaired in the three decades since; worried that some disaster would occur for which I would be blamed – oh, the irony! – I went and asked her to get down.

 

‘Why?’ she said, in a brittle little voice.

 

‘Because it’s dangerous.’

 

At this, she threw her head back and cackled.

 

‘This is nothing,’ she said. ‘My big brother once let me climb over the fence of the park with him and his mates and I was the third fastest.’

 

‘That’s all very well,’ I said, ‘But I still think,’ –

 

I walked towards her but she swung her legs round and jumped down onto the pavement before I could get too close.

 

I asked about her drawing. She suddenly made a show of being shy, sticking her thumb in her mouth and hiding the paper behind her back.

 

‘I’m sure it’s a beautiful drawing,’ I persisted.

 

Lowering her reddening face to the ground, she handed me a segment of one of those techni-coloured cereal packets Oscar is forever pestering me to buy. On the plain interior side, she had made a most remarkable likeness of the front of our house – the Georgian ratios were beautifully rendered, right down to the details, such as the window boxes and the brass lion door knob.

 

‘This is really a most remarkable drawing,’ I told her. ‘Especially for a child of your age. What did you draw it with?’

 

She held out a chewed-up biro.

 

‘Even more remarkable!’ I said. ‘You are really talented. I am sure you will be a famous artist one day.’

 

‘No, it’s rubbish,’ she said. She was trying hard not to smile, however.

 

‘I need it back now,’ she said. ‘It’s for my gran and she’s ill.’

 

When I didn’t move, she added: ‘She is going to die soon. She might be dead now.’

 

I handed it to her, and she ran off.

 

A few weeks later I returned home, triumphant at how well my paper was received at a seminar, to find Oscar and the girl sitting on the wall.

 

‘Oscar, get down from there this minute!’ I said.

 

‘Sorry mummy!’ he said. He jumped down immediately.

 

‘Mummy, this is my new friend Treasure.’

 

My heart sank. ‘Treasure? Treasure, yes of course – the budding artist.’

 

‘Well, it’s time for Oscar’s tea now, so let’s say goodbye,’ I said.

 

‘Oh, but mum, Treasure was telling me a story,’ he said. He crossed his arms and stuck out his bottom lip, which is about as close as to contrariness that he gets.

 

He crossed his arms and refused to move. This was most unlike him. I’m usually very gentle with him, but on this occasion I pulled him inside by the wrist. Just before I closed the door and said goodbye to Treasure, I noticed that she was peering into the hallway with an intensity that was beyond her years. An urgency. It wasn’t until Michael was halfway through plastering over the hole made by her brother that he told me he’d seen her standing behind the wall later that night – she must have stayed there for hours.

 

I had to go into the university a lot more in the weeks that followed. Michael, however, was doing some freelance work, so he watched Oscar after school. Treasure became a regular appearance. Oscar talked excitedly about the games they played together – all wholesome, old-fashioned games that involved the exercise of the body and of the imagination. Michael and I were thrilled: these were the aspects of childhood we’d been afraid he’d miss out on, growing up in twenty first century London.

 

After a month or so, it occurred to me that Treasure was probably dying to be invited in for supper. Indeed, when I held open the door for her, she was unable to suppress her smile.

 

As soon as she put her rubber-clad toe on the doorstep, her babble ran dry. Oscar ran around showing her the piano and the art box and the game cupboard and the photographs of the tigers he helped his dad take when they went on holiday to India. Treasure kept her thumb in her mouth the entire time, nodding silently.

 

Treasure was unimpressed with Michael’s spinach and potatoes; she pinged her fork on and off her plate until Michael asked her to stop. I don’t want Michael to think that I don’t appreciate him trying to do his share, so I ate mine up. (Although the fish was rather dry, the potatoes underdone, and the spinach watery). Anyway, Oscar had stopped babbling, Michael was absorbed in an article, and I was exhausted, so there was a long, awkward silence, into which Treasure spoke: ‘how comes you’re the same age as my gran but you’re not a gran, you’re a mum?’

 

She looked so serious that I nipped my laugh in the bud. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘People have children at all sorts of different times. For all sorts of reasons.’

 

‘Oh…’ She looked at her uneaten fish, disappointed.

 

‘Where’s your mummy?’ said Oscar.

 

‘She’s on holiday,’ said Treasure. ‘She’s been there for years and years.’

 

Michael and I exchanged The Look.

 

‘She writes us letters sometimes,’ she continued. ‘Gran reads them to us. Jazz never wants to listen and Ben is too young to understand, but I do. I like letters and so does Gran.’

 

‘She’s not… too sick, then?’ I asked.

 

Treasure shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Jazz told me she wants to die but he just said that to be mean. She doesn’t want to die. She wants to get one of her letters in the paper. She’s sent them one every month for years but they never reply.’

 

Michael jerked into action. ‘What’s this… what paper?’

 

‘The Daily Mail.’

 

Michael gulped. ‘Well, I can’t say I have all that many connections there, but I do have lots at the Guardian. Bring me her letter next time you come round, and I’ll see what I can do.’

 

Treasure’s face scrunched up with fear. ‘No, no that’s OK. She wants to do it herself, you see. She doesn’t want anyone to help her – she wouldn’t even let me check her spellings…’

 

Although her reaction struck me as odd, I thought nothing more of it. I cleared up the plates and unearthed some organic choc ices from the freezer. (Which were received enthusiastically by the children.) 

 

After that, the children disappeared into Oscar’s room. Michael and I whispered over the washing up. (Well, I did the washing and he, the drying. He says he’ll wash up but somehow I always get there first. Most men don’t bother at all, so I’m lucky, really.) He said he wasn’t sure if this Treasure was a suitable playmate for Oscar. I told him he might as well throw his socialist theory books in the bin.

 

‘Yes, but have you heard the words she uses when we’re not around? Have you heard the things she tells him? Sex, drugs, you name it – she knows…’

 

‘Oh, but she’s a lovely girl,’ I said. ‘And very talented. And besides, aren’t all kids like that these days – frothing over with misplaced wisdom gleaned from the television.’

 

Michael raised his eyebrows. ‘You can’t tell me there’s no difference between her and his friends from school.’

 

We’d managed to get Oscar into the nice state school in the area. The other school is full of estate kids. And ones who’ve just arrived in the country. Oscar’s school gets excellent SATs results and is crammed with kids from the terraces. We’re not racist or classist or anything – a skim of our academic and career interests would disprove any accusations of that – but, like any parents, we wanted the best for our child.

 

‘OK, I take your point. But I do like Treasure.’

 

At the sound of her name, he winced.

 

‘And it’s not her fault about her name,’ I said. ‘And let’s face it – Oscar isn’t the most sociable of children. We should do all we can to support him in making new friends.’

 

That night, Oscar ran into our bed with a nightmare. This was his first one in years. When we asked if he was scared of anything in particular, he said no.

 

Over the next few weeks, Treasure spent more and more time at our house. Oscar had nightmares nearly every night. Treasure relaxed around me and Michael, telling us stories of the injustices she’d suffered at school. She asked a lot of questions – mainly about the house. (‘Is this a vase from the olden days? What are all those books for? What were the walls like before you painted them?’) Now, it seemed perfectly obvious this was not normal behaviour for a ten year old. But I assumed she was one of those children who dreams of being an adult – as opposed to a fairy or a Power Ranger. She never said one word about where she lived. Or who she lived with. And – to my shame – I never asked.

 

One day, I got a call from Oscar’s school, saying that he’d disappeared at lunch time. I said that was ridiculous, he must be hiding in a cupboard or something. The gormless thing cleared her throat. One of the front gates had been left open, ‘by mistake, it was, honest,’ she confessed. I really lost it, and after she told me – in a tone that suggested I was the imbecile – that shouting would assist no one, I hung up. I rang Michael, and we agreed to meet at the school at once. There was still no Oscar, so we called the police.

 

We spent the afternoon on the front room sofa, staring out of the window. We did not talk. We did not even drink tea. It was as if everything – time, space, proportion – was closing in on us, suffocating us, and there was nothing we could do. This sort of thing wasn’t meant to happen, and yet… It was. It was happening. Control was a fragile illusion.

 

Just as it was getting dark, there was a knock on the door. A policeman was standing with Oscar. We were so pleased to see him that we squashed him between our chests, part of me wishing him to remain there, a warm and wriggly ball of energy between us, forever. We examined him for signs of hurt; luckily we only found a few scratches on his shins and a slightly sunburned nose.

 

I made him his meal of robot-shaped pasta and melted mozzarella cheese and peas. When he’d finished, we asked what had happened. He said it was a secret.

 

Michael seized him – a tad too firmly, in my opinion – by the shoulders.

 

‘Mummy and daddy were very, very worried about you today,’ he said. He put on his baby voice, which I have always found rather sinister.

 

‘We thought that something bad might’ve happened to you. We hoped you weren’t dead,’ he continued.

 

Oscar looked like he was about to cry.

 

‘Michael,’ I began –

 

‘No, Caroline! I’m putting my foot down. He must understand that running away from school is a very naughty thing to do. Very naughty indeed.’

 

‘I’m sorry daddy. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’

 

Oscar’s eyes expanded and contracted with fear. This happened every time we had an issue with him. I hated it, but I was powerless to make something else happen.

 

The best I could do was to give him an organic choc-ice and pat him on the shoulder. What a lucky boy! Wouldn’t he like to tell mummy and daddy ask ‘a teeny weeny titbit’ about what happened?

 

After nibbling off the chocolate coating, he confirmed our suspicions: Treasure had ‘fetched’ him out during break.

 

‘And where did you go?’ asked Michael.

 

Oscar took a tremendous bit into what was left of his ice cream. He made a noise that suggested pain and flapped his hands about. I couldn’t help laughing, but Michael was determined to remain serious.

 

‘Sorry,’ said Oscar, ‘Sorry, daddy. I got a brain-freeze. Me and Treasure just went around the high street, to the park and stuff.’

 

‘I see,’ said Michael, ruffling his hair. ‘Well you’ve had a big day. It must be time for bed.’

 

We did not have to say anything to one another to agree that Oscar would not be seeing that girl anymore. We didn’t want to upset the children by telling them this, however. We simply banned Oscar from ‘playing out.’ We also enrolled him in a plethora of extra-curricular activities, something I’d been meaning to do for a long time, in the hope that it would make him a bit more out-going. Treasure knocked on the door a few times but we told her Oscar was out. We didn’t invite her in, as we would have done previously. Oscar didn’t complain, and his nightmares stopped.

 

Then it really was the holidays. Our life was back to normal. Having almost had it ripped away from us, we appreciated it as we never had before; watching Oscar arrange his cereal around the edge of his bowl brought tears to my eyes on a number of occasions; this life was so precious. So precious.

 

Then came that bump in the night. We woke up, stumbled into the study, and saw Jazz there, clasping the box in his hands. I was scared, but after our ordeal with Oscar, I knew we’d get through it. Michael didn’t deal with it so well; all the veins were popping out of his forehead and as he shouted at the boy, he clenched and unclenched his fists. 

 

‘I haven’t done anything wrong,’ said Jazz. ‘I just came to get this.’ He waved the box. ‘And it’s ours anyways.’

 

‘But it’s in our house,’ said Michael. ‘How can it possibly be yours?’

 

Jazz tried to push past Michael but Michael grabbed the box out of his hand.

 

‘Hey, give it here! It’s ours!’

 

Jazz pawed at the box but Michael’s arm was so long that he had no hope of reaching it.

 

‘I’ll give it back,’ said Michael. ‘I just want to see what’s inside.’

 

There was a spine-curdling scrape as Michael rammed open the box. All sorts of papers flew out. Jazz threw himself to his knees, and scrambled around for them, saving them from falling down the cracks between the floorboards.

 

‘What is all this?’ I asked.

 

Jazz didn’t reply; he was reading one of the letters. His lips were wobbling. He looked up at me and he knew that I knew that he was crying. I suddenly felt that we were the intruders.

 

‘Come on,’ I said to Michael, ‘Let’s go next door for a moment.’

 

Michael tightened the belt of his dressing gown. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ he said. ‘We’re going to get to the bottom of this.’

 

He towered over the crying boy:

 

‘Well young man, are you going to tell us what you’re doing here or not?’

 

Jazz looked up at him with wet, frightened eyes; his irises were swamped with Michael’s reflection. He slumped his shoulders and stared forlornly at the nest of tea-coloured pieces of paper surrounding him.

 

‘OK, whatever. We – my gran used to live here, before you.’

 

‘What do you mean?’ I asked, in my softest voice.

 

‘She was born here. Her parents lived here since before the war. Their aunts and uncles lived down the road. Before the war, everything was good. After, it all went to shit. The landlords let the place get so damp. They put the rents up. People started moving out – into the new council houses and all that. But not my gran – she loved it here and she wasn’t going to move for anything. When her parents died she sold some of their stuff and moved the rest into this room.’

 

‘What?’ I was astonished. ‘But it’s so small.’

 

He knocked on the wall with the hole – a hollow sound.

 

‘Ah,’ I said, smiling.

 

His body and his face sprang to life; he trusted me.

 

‘They put this in later, see?’ he continued. ‘This was part of the next room. Sometimes, the memories made her sad but she had a job in Boots and she had to work there a lot to pay the rent so there wasn’t much time for that. Then she met my granddad. He had just come over from Jamaica. He job was to sort post at night. One day he took her back to his flat. When she saw how damp and cramped it was, how he ate only dry bread and cheese and had one loo to share with twenty other people, she demanded that he moved in with her. They were in love, you see.

 

'When she got pregnant, they were delighted. But when she got so big she couldn’t work, they had trouble paying the rent, even though my granddad was working so many hours they hardly saw each other anymore. The baby was actually two babies – twins. A few days after they were born, granddad came home very angry. He said he wished he’d never come to this country; he’d been sacked from his job. They hadn’t been paying him what they were supposed to; when he complained, they said that he would have to learn to control his temper now that he was in a civilised country. He got angrier after that; they said he had to leave.

 

'They were both very sad for a while; he wandered all around London looking for work and she was up all night with the twins. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the landlord started hassling them for rent. He sent round some Bouncer-types to threaten them. Then he sent round builders – to build that wall. She tried to stop them, of course she tried, but what could she do with a baby in each hand? Granddad didn’t come back that day. He didn’t come back the next day, either. The builders were building this wall, getting dust everywhere, and she was just sitting there with the babies. Babies but no money. She didn’t know what to do; her family were either dead, or refusing to speak to her because she’d gone with a black man.

 

'Eventually, the bouncers moved her stuff out into the street – just like that. They let her have a few minutes in there alone. She emptied the cigars out of the box granddad had left behind. Into it she put all the letters they’d written each other when they’d been living apart; the letters he’d received from his family in Jamaica; the letters her family had sent her before they’d stopped talking. She put it in the half-finished wall because she knew that that life was over now.

 

'After that she moved into a hostel. One of the babies got a really bad cough from the dust; it died. The other one, well… it turned into my mother. Not that that’s saying much.’

 

The boy looked up. He winced as if expecting a telling-off. I had a lump in my throat and Michael looked dreamy, which is not at all like him.

 

‘I’m sorry if I’ve talked too much,’ he said. ‘But you asked. I didn’t know any of this myself until gran got ill. She seemed to kind of slip underneath time: she could only see things that happened a very long ago. But when Treasure told her about her visits to the house, and what it was like now, she sort of came back. She liked those stories. When you stopped her coming, gran got worse. I was so angry. But I wouldn’t have done anything, if I hadn’t seen the front door key Treasure had nicked off you. Gran had changed her mind; she wanted those memories back, and this was the one thing I could do to get them for her.’

 

‘Well, that’s sweet of you.’ 

 

Jazz looked at me with frightened accusatory eyes – as if somehow, this was all my fault. At some point during the boy’s story, Michael had slipped into our bedroom; I went to retrieve him, certain he’d know what to do, or at the very least, what to say.

 

In the glow of our ancient bedside lamp, his face looked like melting wax. He was hunched over, his chin on his hands and I thought: he looks old. He is old. We sat in silence for a few minutes and then he said that we’d better take the boy home. He stood up, took a few steps forward, then stumbled back onto the bed.

 

‘Everything’s black,’ he said. ‘Too much blood in my head.’

 

I told him he couldn’t go out of the house like that. I tucked him under the covers, kissed his forehead and turned off the light.

 

In the car, Jazz put the box on his lap and tapped his fingers against it. I always snapped when Oscar did things like that. Hardly knowing the boy, I asked about school instead.

 

When he said that he was sixteen, I tried not to let it show that I’d assumed he was several years younger. I made a casual reference to GCSEs.

 

‘Already done them,’ he said. ‘Although I didn’t really do them. I’m meant to be doing some again at college, but it’s boring. And I’m rubbish.’ 

 

‘Oh, I’m sure that’s not true,’ I said.

 

‘It is. All my teachers said.’

 

Before I could find some words of solace, he instructed me to turn off the main road. A few minutes later, I was parked outside a tower so high that I could not see the top; I realised it was the ugly grey protrusion Michael and I frequently cursed for ruining the view from the loft.

 

‘Well, I hope your gran is ok,’ I said. ‘Have you… got anyone to help you?’

 

He looked up at me. ‘Do you… want to come and have a look? I – we… Gran said not to tell anyone, but…’

 

‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘Of course.’

 

I parked the car. We walked up a shadowy, smelly stairwell, whose walls were decorated with misspelt graffiti.

 

The smell in the flat was worse. In fact, it was putrid. When Jazz switched on the light, I gasped. I’d never seen such a dump. I followed his snaking path through the mounds of broken chairs, old magazine, toys, and god knows what else. I discreetly put my hand over my nose.

 

Jazz disappeared through a doorway, calling, ‘Gran, I got your box.’

 

I followed. The smell worsened. The room was so cluttered with junk and so dingy, that I could not discern the source. I peered over a dusty plastic kitchen unit, to find a narrow bed in the corner. When I saw what was inside the bed, I had to put my hand over my mouth to stifle a horrendously inappropriate laugh. I knew it wasn’t funny. I just couldn’t believe that this raisin, this mummy, a museum exhibit, a Halloween costume, a corpse, had once been a living, breathing, feeling human being just like me. I forced myself to look long enough to take in the skin had been stretched taught over cheekbones, the pinched-in nose, the greasy hair, the eyes that were not quite closed. So this was the woman who had inhabited our house before us, this the famous ‘gran,’ and she had ended up like this, at the very same age as me, a hair’s breath from sixty. My urge to laugh was replaced by an urge to vomit.

 

I looked, instead, at Treasure, curled into a foetal, cat-like position at the foot of the bed. Something crunched underfoot: cardboard. The floor was covered with her cereal packet drawings. I suddenly remembered the first time I’d seen her, crouching among the petals: that concentration, those desperate, yearning eyes. And all this time she’d been clinging to death, breathing it in, pretending with all her might that it was life.

 

Jazz placed the box on the blanket that covered the dead woman’s body.

 

My eyes were rebels; they looked and looked at that face, just as they look and look at that hole in the wall. The face was shrunken and horrifying. It was a strange, strange colour, but it was still, somehow, irrepressibly human.

 

‘I think,’ I said quietly, ‘That your gran should go to the hospital.’

 

Jazz nodded. ‘I know. I knew that. I just… I didn’t want to move her. She always had to move about. I thought she might like a break. She might settle here after all. Or go back to her – I mean your – house.’

 

Things moved very quickly after that; the ambulance people came; I drove the children to the hospital; I stayed with them until the morning, when the social workers came. The social workers told me it was OK, I should go now; I wasn’t a guardian or a relative so there was no more I could do. When I asked what would happen to them they said that Treasure would be taken into care. Jazz was sixteen, so could live on his own, although he’d get assistance. I should have argued. I should have refused to leave them. Or offered to adopt them. I could at least have arranged a funeral. But they were so resigned, zombie-like, to their fate, that it was easy to give them each a quick hug and leave, telling them they could visit us any time. The last I saw of them, they were turning back to watch me go down the hospital corridor, each holding that box with one hand. What they did with it, I don’t know.

 

A few days later, we were off to France. We had a lovely time, cycling and canoeing and eating in quaint old Bistros. I didn’t think of Treasure at all; there were no reminders. No bumpy patches. I suppose I could get a handy man in to smooth it over. Or I could just refrain from going into the study. But even then, I’m not sure how far that would go; Oscar doesn’t have nightmares anymore but there have been many times when I have woken up, sweating, certain that old sunken face is in the room, watching. I am overwhelmed with the sensation that somehow, I got this life on the sly. I got it on the sly and its foundations are subsiding. Michael doesn’t like it when I tell him such fears. He says that you can’t save everyone. Sad things happen, bad things happen – there is nothing you can do. He’s right, of course – he does, come to think of it, have a much stronger practical streak than I do. This may not stretch to being able to cover over holes with his hands, but he can certainly do it in his mind. I’m different; I’ll avoid the rough patch all day and it still gets me. When I feel it coming, I know there is nothing I can do; not even tea will do the trick; it will scorch and parch my mouth with its bitterness. Sometimes the tea is just going to taste bitter and using a gourmet brand or doing better DIY is never going to change that; you just have to wait for it to pass. 


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