Authors: Joanne Harris
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers, #Psychological
And so, Nigel was angry. Angry at Ma; angry at Ben; even angry at poor, fat Brendan, who tried so hard to be quiet and good, and who found increasing solace in food, as if through the comfort of sweet things he might provide himself with some measure of protection in a world too full of sharp edges.
And so when Nigel was playing outside, or riding his bike around the estate, and Bren was sitting watching TV with a Wagon Wheel in each hand and a six-pack of Pepsi at his side, Benjamin was going to work with his Ma, a duster clutched in one chubby hand, eyes wide at the opulence of other people’s houses; at their broad stairs and neat driveways, sprawling sound systems and walls of books; at their well-stocked fridges and hallway pianos and shagpile carpets and bowls of fruit on dining-room tables as shiny and broad as a ballroom floor.
‘Look at this, Ben,’ she would say, pointing at some photograph of a boy or girl in school uniform, grinning gap-toothed from a leather frame. ‘That’ll be you in a few years’ time. That’ll be you, at the big school, making me so proud of you—’
Like so many of Ma’s endearments, it sounded eerily like a threat. She was in her thirties by then – already worn down to the canvas by the years.
Or so I thought when I was young. Now, looking at her photographs, I see that she was beautiful, perhaps not in the conventional way, but striking with her black hair and dark eyes, and the full lips and high cheekbones that made her look French, though she was British to the bone.
Nigel looked just like her, with his dark espresso eyes. But I was always different: blond hair that faded to brown with time; a thin and rather suspicious mouth; eyes of a curious blue-grey, so large that they almost ate up my face –
Would Mal and I have been identical? Would he have had my blue eyes? Or do I have his, as well as my own, looking for ever inwards?
In oriental languages, or so Dr Peacock used to say, there is no distinction between blue and green. Instead, there is a compound word, something that expresses both shades, and that translates as ‘sky-coloured’, or ‘leaf-coloured’. It made a kind of sense to me. From my earliest infancy, I’d always thought of blue as being primarily ‘Ben-coloured’, or brown as ‘Brendan-coloured’, or black as ‘Nigel-coloured’, without ever stopping to ask myself if others perceived things differently.
Dr Peacock changed all that. He taught me a new way of looking at things. With his maps and his recordings and his books and his cases of butterflies, he taught me to expand my world, to trust in my perception. For that I’ll always be grateful to him, even though he let me down. Let us all down, in the end: me, my brothers, Emily. You see, for all his kindness, Dr Peacock didn’t care. When he’d had enough of us he simply threw us back on the pile.
understands, even though she never makes any reference to that time; pretends, in fact, to be someone else –
Still, recent events may have changed all that. It’s time to check on
. Although she may not know it yet, I can read all her entries. No restrictions apply to me; public or private, it’s all the same. Of course, she doesn’t know this. Hidden away in her cocoon, she has no idea how closely I’ve been watching her. Looks so innocent, doesn’t she, with her red coat and her basket? But as my brother Nigel found out, sometimes the bad guys
wear black, and sometimes a little girl lost in the woods is more than a match for the big, bad wolf . . .
You are viewing the webjournal of
20.54 on Saturday, February 2
I’ve always hated funerals. The noise of the crematorium. The people talking all at once. The clatter of feet on the polished floor. The sickly scent of flowers. Funeral flowers are different from any other kind. They hardly smell like flowers at all, but like some kind of disinfectant for death, somewhere halfway between chlorine and pine. Of course, the colours are pretty, they say. But all I can think of as the coffin goes into the oven at last is the sprig of parsley you get on fish in restaurants: that tasteless, springy garnish that no one ever wants to eat. Something to make the dish look nice; to distract us from the taste of death.
So far, I hardly miss him. I know it’s a terrible thing to say. We were friends as well as lovers, and in spite of everything – his black moods, his restlessness, his ceaseless tapping and fidgeting – I cared for him. I know I did. And yet I really don’t feel much as his coffin slides into the furnace. Does that make me a bad person?
I think that maybe, yes, it does.
It was an accident, they said. Nigel
an appalling driver. Always over the speed limit; always losing his temper, always tapping, rapping, gesturing. As if by his own movements he could somehow compensate for the stolid inactivity of others. And there was always his silent rage: rage at the person in front of him; rage at always being left behind; rage at the slow drivers; rage at the fast drivers, the clunkers, the kids, the SUVs.
No matter how fast you drive, he said – fingers tapping the dashboard in that way that drove me crazy – there’s always someone ahead of you, some idiot shoving his back bumper into your face like a randy dog showing its arse.
Well, Nigel. You’ve done it now
. Right at the junction of Mill Road and Northgate, sprawled across two lanes of traffic, overturned like a Tonka toy. A patch of ice, they said. A truck. No one really knew for sure. A relative identified you. Probably your mother, although I have no way of knowing, of course. But it feels like the truth. She always wins. And now she’s here, all dressed up, weeping into the arms of her son – her one surviving son, that is – while I stand dry-eyed, at the back of the hall.
There wasn’t much left of the car, or of you. Dog food in a battered tin. You see, I am trying to be brutal here. To make myself feel something –
– but this eerie calm at the heart of me.
I can still hear the machinery working behind the curtain; the swish of cheap velvet (asbestos-lined) as the little performance ended. I didn’t cry a single tear. Not even when the music began.
Nigel didn’t really like classical music. He’d always known what he wanted them to play at his funeral, and they obliged with the Rolling Stones’
‘Paint It Black’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’, songs that, whilst dark enough in this context, have no power over me.
Afterwards I followed the crowd blindly to the reception room, where I found a chair and sat down away from the mill of people. His mother did not speak to me. I wouldn’t have expected her to; but I could sense her presence near by, baleful as a wasps’ nest. I do believe she blames me; although it seems hard to imagine how I could have been responsible.
But the death of her son is less of a bereavement to her than an opportunity to parade her grief. I heard her talking to her friends – her voice staccato with outrage:
I can’t believe she’s here
,’ she said. ‘
I can’t believe she had the nerve
Come on, lovey
,’ said Eleanor Vine. I recognized her colourless voice. ‘
Calm down, it isn’t good for you
Eleanor is Gloria’s friend as well as her ex-employer. The other two in her entourage are Adèle Roberts, another ex-employer of Mother’s, who used to teach at Sunnybank Park, and who everyone assumes is French (because of the accent in her name), and Maureen Pike, the bluff and somewhat aggressive woman who runs the local Neighbourhood Watch. Her voice carries most of all; I could hear her rallying the troops.
That’s right. Settle down. Have another piece of cake
If you think I could eat a thing—
Cup of tea, then. Do you good. Keep your strength up, Gloria, love.
Once more I thought of the coffin, the flowers. By now they would be blackening. So many people have left me this way. When will I start caring?
It all began seven days ago. Seven days ago, with the letter. Until then, we – that is, Nigel and I – existed in a soft cocoon of small daily pleasures and harmless routines; two people pretending to themselves that things are normal – whatever
means – and that neither of them is damaged, flawed, possibly beyond repair.
And what about love? That too, of course. But love is a passing ship at best, and Nigel and I were castaways, clinging together for comfort and warmth. He was an angry poet, gazing from the gutter at the stars. I was always something else.
I was born here in Malbry. On the outskirts of this unfashionable Northern town. It’s safe here. No one notices me. No one questions my right to be here. No one plays the piano any more, or the records Daddy left behind, or the Berlioz, the terrible
that still haunts me so. No one talks about Emily White, the scandal and the tragedy. Almost no one, anyway. And all that was so long ago – over twenty years, in fact – that if they think of it at all, it is simply as a coincidence. That one such as I should move into this house – Emily’s house – notorious by association, or, indeed, that of all the men in Malbry it should be Gloria Winter’s son who found himself a place in my heart.
I met him almost by accident, one Saturday night at the Zebra. Till then I had been almost content, and the house, which had been in need of repair, was finally clear of workmen. Daddy had been dead three years. I’d gone back to my old name. I had my computer; my online friends. I went to the Zebra for company. And if I still sometimes felt lonely, the piano was still there in the back room, now hopelessly out of tune, but achingly familiar, like the scent of Daddy’s tobacco, caught in passing down a street, like a kiss from a stranger’s mouth –
Then, Nigel Winter came along. Nigel, like a force of Nature, who came and disrupted everything. Nigel, who came looking for trouble, and somehow found me there instead.
There’s rarely any unpleasantness at the Pink Zebra. Even on a Saturday, when bikers and Goths sometimes come through on their way to a concert in Sheffield or Leeds, it’s nearly always a friendly crowd, and the fact that the place shuts early means that they’re usually still sober.
This time was an exception. At ten a group of women – a hen party from out of town – had still not cleared the premises. They’d had a few bottles of Chardonnay, and the talk had turned to scandals past. I pretended not to listen to them; I tried to be invisible. But I could feel their eyes on me. Their morbid curiosity.
‘You’re her, aren’t you?’ A woman’s voice, a little too loud, divulging in a boozy stage whisper what no one else dared mention. ‘You’re that What’s-her-name.’ She put out a hand and touched my arm.
‘Sorry. I don’t know who you mean.’
‘You are, though. I saw you. You’ve got a Wiki page, and everything.’
‘You shouldn’t believe what you read on the Net. Most of it’s just a pack of lies.’
Doggedly, she went on. ‘I went to see those paintings, you know. I remember my mum taking me. I even had a poster once. What was it called? French name. All those crazy colours. Still, it must have been terrible. Poor kid. How old were you? Ten? Twelve? I tell you, if anyone touched one of
kids I’d fucking kill the bastard—’
I’ve always been prone to panic attacks. They creep up on me when I least expect them, even now, after all these years. This was the first I’d suffered in months, and it took me completely unawares. Suddenly I could hardly breathe; I was drowning in music, even though there was no music playing . . .
I shook the woman’s hand from my arm. Flailed out at the empty air. For a second I was a little girl again – a little girl lost among walking trees. I reached for the wall and touched nothing but air; around me, people jostled and laughed. The party was leaving. I tried to hold on. I heard someone call for the bill. Someone asked:
Who had the fish?
Their laughter clattered around me.
Breathe, baby, breathe!
‘Are you OK?’ A man’s voice.
‘I’m sorry. I just don’t like crowds.’
He laughed. ‘Then you’re in the wrong place, love.’
. The word has potency.
People tried to warn me at first. Nigel was unstable. He had a criminal past, they said; but after all, my own past could hardly be said to bear scrutiny, and it was so good to be with him – to be with someone real, at last – that I ignored the warnings and plunged straight in.
You were so lovely
, he told me later.
Lovely and lost
. Oh, Nigel.
That night we drove out to the moors and he told me all about himself, about his time in prison and the youthful mistake that had sent him there; and then we lay for hours on the heath in the overwhelming silence of the stars, and he tried to make me understand about all those little pins of light scattered across the velvet –
, I thought. Now for the tears. Though not for Nigel as much as for myself and for that starry night. But even at my lover’s funeral, my eyes remained stubbornly dry. And then I felt a hand on my arm and a man’s voice said:
‘Excuse me. Are you all right?’
I’m very sensitive to voices. Every one, like an instrument, is unique, with its own individual algorithm. His voice is attractive: quiet, precise, with a slight pull on certain syllables, like someone who used to stammer. Not at all like Nigel’s voice; and yet I could tell they were brothers.
I said: ‘I’m fine. Thank you.’
”,’ he repeated thoughtfully. ‘Isn’t that a useful word? In this case, it means: “I don’t want to talk to you. Please go away and leave me alone.” ’
There was no malice in his tone. Just a cool amusement; maybe even a touch of sympathy.