Authors: Graham Joyce
had been charged with collecting Sam from De
clinic the following
afternoon. De Sang maintained an open-door policy, so that parents need not
feel excluded from some esoteric process going on behind lock and key. The
receptionist smiled at Alex as he passed her desk and stepped inside De
De Sang was seated in a hard-backed
chair in the middle of the room. His hands were tied in front of him, his face
was painted an assortment of vivid colours, and his trousers were round his
ankles. Sam, face also painted, was running round the chair whooping and waving
a paperknife he'd found on De
"Come in! Come in!" De
Sang shouted. "Pull up another chair!"
Sam had already found a chair and,
shrieking with delight, was drawing it alongside De Sang. Astonished, Alex
dropped into the proffered seat. "Hands, Daddy! Hands!" shouted Sam.
Alex looked at the psychologist.
Sam screamed angrily. He'd found more string.
"Better do as he says,"
said De Sang.
"Looks like he's got us.
Sam looked furious with his father.
Alex held out his hands, and Sam wound the string round them so many times he
didn't need to tie a knot. "You don't mess with Peter Pan," said De
Sang, in a stage whisper. His face was a garish patchwork.
"Peter Pan!" yelled Sam.
"Sam made a discovery while he
was here today. He went to the toilet and was so eager to get back in here he
forgot to pull up his trousers. Result: he fell over. We made it a learning experience:
man with trousers round his ankles can't go anywhere."
Alex tried not to blink.
"He's Peter Pan. I'm
"Who am I?" said Alex.
one of the
Peter Pan picked up the paperknife
and waved it menacingly.
"Better do as he says,"
De Sang said again.
"How can I put my trousers
down with my hands tied?" Alex was serious.
Sam looked disgusted. He put down
the knife. "Come here, Daddy.
And no tricks.
"He knows all the tricks by
, "so there's no use trying
Sam unwound the string from his
father's hands. Alex lowered his trousers, sat down again, and allowed his
hands to be bound once more. Armed with greasepaint pencils, Sam set to work on
Alex wasn't too comfortable about
it all. "Made any progress today?" he tried to sound casual.
"Not really. We've been
playing most of the time," De Sang said chattily. "Although we did
have a little sleep earlier on, didn't we, Sam?"
"Sleep?" said Alex.
Then Alex noticed, amid the
children's paintings on the wall, a framed diploma qualifying De Sang as a
. "Oh," he said, realizing.
"Good Lord, no. I mean sleep
. I was a bit tired and so was Sam, so we lay down on
the floor over there and had a ten-minute nap."
Alex felt stupid. "I mean,
were you looking for dreams or ... something."
"No, we just wanted a nap. Good lord, man,"
Alex could see De
grin behind the swirling
clouds of smudged colour, "you don't hypnotize or dream-analyse a
three-year-old. It's all there on the surface. It only gets buried as we get
older. Good lord."
Alex wanted to ask what was there
on the surface. He'd suddenly remembered how much he was paying De Sang for
all of this when they were interrupted by the receptionist entering the room.
If she was at all surprised by the sight of two men sitting with their trousers
down, she made a good show of disguising it.
"Your next clients are here. You
might want to wash your face."
"Thanks Sheila!" chimed De Sang.
to go home!"
"No!" shouted Peter Pan.
"Sam," said De Sang. "Captain Hook."
Sam looked hard into De
eyes before cheerfully resigning himself, and unbound
the psychologist's hands, grudgingly doing the same for his father. Without
being asked, he trotted off to find his coat.
Alex and the psychologist pulled up their trousers.
"Are we making any progress?" said Alex.
De Sang looked hard at
Under the pressure of this smiling gaze,
Alex felt obliged to say something, anything. "He's been a bit better at
That's excellent." Alex wished the man would stop smiling from behind the
greasepaint. Then De Sang touched Alex's elbow and stopped smiling.
"Your wife, Maggie.
She's a very clever, very intuitive
lady. I think she's under stimulated and I think she feels undervalued."
Alex suddenly felt some immense weight shifting
on a delicate fulcrum; an entire burden of blame spilling his way. "So
it's my fault, is it?"
there. Both you and Maggie, like most people, have this incredible ability both
to apportion blame and to feel blame being apportioned to you. This is not
about blame. This is about life. I'm telling you this as a friend might tell
"I thought this was going to be about Sam," Alex protested.
"Of course it's about Sam.
Now: shall we go and wash this stuff off our faces?"
The next day Maggie had the freedom afforded by being
able to leave Sam at the childminder's. She decided to pay a visit to Old Liz.
It was a fifteen-mile drive to Church
Haddon. Maggie found the place easily enough, parking in the street and walking
the hundred yards or so to a grey tile-roofed cottage at the bottom of a cinder
pathway. An old collie came to bark at her from behind a half-closed gate, and
A few yards away, the door to the cottage
stood partially open. Maggie waited for the commotion to summon the householder
from the shadowy interior, but no one came. The dog barked furiously, blocking
Maggie looked the collie in the eye.
"Don't be silly," she said, and the dog stopped barking instantly,
coming from behind the gate to lick at her heels. She scratched it behind the
ears, and it followed her down the path.
In front of the house was a vegetable
patch. The cottage door showed its original wood, greying beneath a coat of flaking
green paint. A rusting horseshoe was nailed over the lintel, horns up. Maggie
hovered nervously on the threshold. She had to fight an impulse to retreat down
the path, get in her car, and drive home. She glanced over her shoulder before
knocking softly on the door.
There was no answer. She tried to
peer inside, but was unable to see past the gloom of the immediate shadows.
Smells hovered in the doorway; kitchen smells of bottled jams, vinegar, yeasty
odours. She knocked again, a little harder.
a further inch under the pressure of her knock. The shadows within
seemed to deepen. Maggie waited. She set a foot on the stone threshold and took
a decision to push open the door.
to be careful."
The voice from behind made Maggie
spin round. An old woman stood square on the path not three yards away. She was
leaning heavily on a stick, evidently having been watching Maggie for some
"You wants to be careful, going places you've no rights to
Old Liz was a skinny, bespectacled woman,
iron-grey hair tied back and folds of loose skin hanging from her face and
neck, making her look like
a turkey in need of fattening.
She was chewing or sucking at something in her mouth.
' in people's houses."
"I'm sorry. I wasn't going in, I was just
"I know what you
"I thought no one was in. I was just about to go."
The old woman said nothing. She leaned on
her stick, chewing vigorously, eyeing Maggie. Her eyes were dull black beads behind
the thick glass of her spectacles.
"Ash suggested that—"
"I knew you
"Oh? Did Ash tell you then?"
Ash, do you?
"Oh?" Maggie said again.
When Maggie took a step toward her,
Old Liz reached down smartly and pulled up a bit of grass or herb from
alongside the path, crushing it and rubbing it between thumb and forefinger.
The gesture stopped Maggie in her tracks. She felt bewildered. The old woman
didn't take her eyes from her for a second. A taste of bile rose in her mouth.
For some reason this awful old woman frightened her. What was Ash thinking of
in sending her there? She wanted to go home.
Suddenly Old Liz seemed to relax.
Then she was pointing her stick at Maggie "I sees it. It's all there, it
is. But you don't even know when-the-day! You don't!
Old Liz fastened the garden gate
and then pushed past Maggie to go inside. "Yes, we knew you
a-coming all right. But it's been a time, hasn't
Maggie didn't know whether she was
expected to follow, until Liz snapped at her, "Come in and shut the door
behind you. You'll be
' all the heat out the
Liz slumped into an armchair
underneath a grandmother clock. Maggie couldn't sense any heat to let out; in
fact it was marginally colder inside than it was outdoors. There was no fire to
see, and Liz wore what must have been five layers of woollens.
Maggie closed the door and turned
to explain. "Ash, when I was in his shop in town, he told me—"
all that," Liz said irritably, "get that kettle a-going."
She waved her stick fractionally toward the stove. Maggie did as told.
The old woman had made the kitchen
her living quarters. A door gave way on to another room behind, but it was
firmly closed. Some kind of larder was curtained off near the sink where Maggie
splashed water into an aluminium kettle. The kitchen had a musty smell, like
bacon curing, plus another scent which Maggie quickly identified. She looked up
and tied to the rafters were bunches and posies of herbs hanging to dry. There
was a huge range oven in the corner of the kitchen, but it obviously wasn't
operational. Maggie put the kettle on a gas stove.
"My grandmother had one of
these ranges in her kitchen." Maggie tried to make conversation.
"They're lovely. They really are."
"She did, did she?" said
Liz, tapping her stick on a floor made up of off cuts and irregular lengths of
ill-matching carpets. "Well, listen to this."
And she sang a verse of song in a
cracked, tuneless voice, tapping her thigh occasionally with her free hand.
I'm a-going on me
way, a-going on me way.
I sees this I sees
that, I sees what I see.
as I'll not tell a soul,
When she'd finished, Liz sat back. Maggie
smiled, but Liz looked as if she didn't want her to smile. They sat in
silence. Maggie wished Ash had been there to
make a proper introduction.
"Ash, that is the man at the shop, in town—"
"Never mind all that," said Liz.
"Two beans, a bean and half a bean, another bean and half a bean again.
Then she spat something from her mouth on to
the rug in front of her. Maggie saw that it was, indeed, a bean.
"I'm sure I don't know."
"Not clever then, are you?"
"I'm afraid I'm not."
those clever ones who pretend as they're not clever. You could be one
Maggie tried to force a smile. Then the
old woman leaned forward out of her chair.
"Two. You've two little ones. Now
then, how do I know that?"
"I'm sure I've no idea. How did you know?"
"That kettle's a-boil," said Liz.
Maggie made the tea. The old woman got up
and stood over her, supervising with silent but intense vigilance. For a second
time Maggie thought she wanted to go home. "Ash thought you might help
"He's no good. He comes here,
as soon as he comes he goes away again. What's the use
o' that? Eh?"
Maggie could think of nothing to say.
"How much will you give me?"
said Liz suddenly. Maggie was taken aback by this directness. Liz chuckled.
' on. I always say that to Ash.
How much will you give me? I always say. And he
says, as much as you want.
that's a good 'un ain't it?
As much as you want.
can say it.
Say: as much as you want."
"As much as you
Liz thought this was hilarious. Then she turned serious, and said sharply,
; I've never had anything as
I haven't earned. So you be careful."