Authors: Araminta Hall
To Lindy & David, my Mum and Dad
‘Wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zig-zags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.’
George Eliot, Middlemarch
a puzzle requiring you to connect a series of dots by drawing lines between them. If the dots are correctly connected, the result is a picture.
Collins English Dictionary
Table of Contents
They were playing a game of hide and seek, as they so often did. Some people might have seen it as a lack of imagination, but as both Dot and Mavis displayed so much imagination in later life, it seems more likely a fact of circumstance. Druith is after all miles from anywhere, sunk in a low, damp Welsh valley, and Dot’s house suggested itself to hide and seek in a multitude of ways. Not that two ten-year-old girls were aware of any of this. They didn’t even find Dot’s house strange: it was still nothing more than a marker in their childhood landscape, and the fact that the floors tipped, cupboard doors opened into secret passages and a concealed turret sprouted out of the side of the house washed over them. The only thing they were beginning to find amusing were the plates which Dot’s grandmother inexplicably chose to hang on the walls. ‘What next?’ they’d whisper to each other. ‘Will we be eating off paintings?’ Although one glance at the heavy oils of permanently displeased relatives and windswept landscapes made this seem very unlikely.
They never played hide and seek when they were at Mavis’s house, not just because she lived in a perfectly proportioned box with no nooks and crannies, but also because her mother looked as if she might cry if you so much as walked on her permanently hoovered floors or breathed on her dustless possessions. Which was in direct contrast to Dot’s mother, who seemed to float through life without noticing anything, and her grandmother, who unfathomably didn’t care about dirt but about most other things. Out of two peculiar options, however, Dot’s house always seemed the most appealing.
Mavis had annoyed Dot that day. She was a fastidious girl, given to huffing and puffing and slapping logic all over Dot’s daydreams. Games of beautiful princesses or magic carpets were never allowed and sometimes Dot was bored by the shops where prices had to be accurate and bills added up precisely. That was usually when she suggested a game of hide and seek.
She left Mavis counting in her attic bedroom, nasally intoning the numbers up to one hundred, and raced down the stairs to the second-floor landing. Once there she weighed up her options and realised she’d used all her best places a dozen times already. Mavis would go straight to the bottom of the laundry basket, the jutting shelves in the larder, even behind the basement door which they both found so scary. The door to her mother’s bedroom was open and the space below her mother’s bed beckoned as invitingly as a pair of outstretched arms. Dot hesitated on the threshold, knowing that Mavis would never enter this room without permission and wondering if this meant she would be cheating. Mavis had already reached sixty-five; she didn’t have much time. Dot glanced behind her but her grandmother’s door was firmly closed, as it always was. Besides, her mother wouldn’t care. It was only her grandma who was mortally offended if anyone entered her room without permission; a peculiar rule which had somehow permeated the consciousness of the house. Even Dot’s mother knocked on her own ten-year-old daughter’s door before coming in to kiss her goodnight. Dot decided that if she left the door open it wouldn’t technically count as cheating.
Dot always felt depressed by her mother’s room, although at that time she would never have used this word to describe what she felt whenever she went in there. She would have said that it made her feel empty, or sad, which is of course a childish way of saying the same thing. Nor would she have vocalised those emotions anyway as, even at the age of ten, she already understood enough about the human heart to know never to articulate feelings like those to her mother, who was so delicate even the slightest thing could disturb her for hours. Besides all of which, Dot couldn’t have told you why it made her feel sad and empty. If pushed she might have said that it was because it lacked so much, which was true. No photos or pictures, no books, no ornaments, no mess; it looked like the spare rooms at the other end of the house and it made Dot worry that really her mother lived elsewhere.
Dot slid her body under her mother’s bed, shimmying as far back as she could against the rear wall, where she was sure no one could casually glimpse her from the door. It was dusty under there, but it still smelt of her mother’s favourite perfume, Rive Gauche, which sat next to her bed in a magical blue and silver bottle and was her only concession to luxury, or maybe even life. The springs which held her mother each night almost touched Dot’s nose and she worried that her mother might come in for a rest and push the springs into her face. Dot would shout, of course, but she knew it would take her mother ages to figure out what was going on, by which time the springs could have dug into her skin.
Mavis was searching now. Dot could hear her in the bathroom next door looking in the laundry basket. She could probably roll out from under the bed before her mother lay down; in fact if she heard her coming upstairs she’d roll out just in case. This made Dot worry that she would scare her mother or not be able to make her understand what she was doing. Only the night before she’d been going up to her room and seen her mother sitting at her dressing table, staring so intently at her reflection that the woman in the mirror seemed more real than the one doing the looking. Dot wished that she hadn’t hidden under her mother’s bed; it had been a stupid idea and was bound to make Mavis cross. Nothing was ever simple. Why couldn’t her mother be more like a proper mother? This mythical woman lived solely as an image in Dot’s mind along with the ponies and princesses: proper mothers did things like bake and pick flowers and ask what had happened at school. A proper mother didn’t drift off in the middle of sentences or rub her temples as if she would push her fingers into her brain if she could. She didn’t cook the most indigestible and weird foods she could think of, she didn’t still live with her own mother. Most of all, she didn’t forget to mention who her child’s father was.
The fact that Dot had never met a perfect mother was not the point. The only other mother she knew well enough to compare was Mavis’s, who was as strange as her own, cleaning a pristine house every day, watching the world through smear-free windows and avoiding speaking to Mavis’s father as if her life depended on it. There was her grandmother as well, who was of course her mother’s mother, but it was almost impossible for her young mind to comprehend her as a mother and she was hardly what you might call normal anyway. Dot listed some of her grandmother’s beliefs as the dust itched her eyes and prickled her skin: do not sit on at least five of the chairs round the dining room table and three in the sitting room as they are too precious, never pick daffodils as they look common anywhere but in the ground, under no circumstances say the words ‘toilet’ or ‘pardon’, stand up when anyone older comes into the room, never sit on the blue velvet chair by the fire or go into her bedroom or touch any of her china. Dot was still too young to decide what she thought about her grandma’s rules, for all she knew they could have been right. And besides, they were related to Jesus, as proved by a family tree which some great-uncle had drawn and which now hung on her grandmother’s bathroom wall. And that surely must give her grandmother some sort of right to preach.
Dot’s arm had grown numb and was starting to buzz with pins and needles which felt like ants running through her blood. She pushed it upwards and her elbow brushed against the smooth surface of what she immediately knew to be a photograph. Unable to turn around she rubbed her elbow over the photograph again and felt that it was trapped against the wall by the head of her mother’s bed. An excitement built inside her out of all proportion to the event: she knew she had to look at something so alien in her mother’s bedroom. It was easy to dislodge and then she was able to pull herself out and reach back in to retrieve the photograph. Dot’s eyes had been made lazy by the dark and it took a minute for them to adjust to the light, for them to focus on the face staring out at her. Then she saw him: a handsome man smiling out at whoever had taken the picture. His face took up most of the frame, but she could see enough blue sky to know that he was outside, as well as the fact that his mid-length brown hair was blowing across his good-looking face with his blue eyes sparkling out and straight into her. Dot felt her whole body tingle like it was Christmas morning. She staggered to her feet and ran to the landing where she shouted for Mavis.
Mavis had been downstairs and it took her ages to reach Dot, although any amount of time would have been too long.
‘Where were you?’ she asked. ‘And why have you come out? I didn’t call.’
‘Under Mum’s bed …’
‘What? But that’s not fair, you know I wouldn’t go in there.’
Dot pulled Mavis into the bathroom and locked the door behind them. ‘Look what I just found under there.’ She handed over the photograph, which already felt like a precious possession to her. She watched Mavis look, studying her face intently, praying that she’d come to the same conclusion. Mavis sat on the side of the bath and Dot copied her so that they could both stare into the face of the handsome man.
‘Where did you say you found this?’
‘Under Mum’s bed. It was sort of trapped against the wall by the bed.’
Mavis looked at Dot and her little face was so serious. ‘Do you think it’s him?’
‘Who else could it be?’
‘I think you’d know anyway,’ said Mavis authoritatively. ‘I mean, you must have some sort of bond.’
‘I was really excited when I felt it. I knew it was a photograph straight away.’
‘Well, you see.’
They both looked again until Dot felt she wasn’t really sure what she was looking at any more, until the colours ran into each other and the background washed over the man’s face.
Eventually Mavis handed the photograph back to Dot. ‘He must be.’
Dot felt as if something was stuck in her throat, but the releasing tears refused to come. Instead she said, ‘I think it definitely is him.’
Mavis switched off her mobile because it was easier to ignore Dot when she didn’t actually have to know that she was calling. The girl did not know when to let something go and if she had to tell her one more time that nothing had happened after the stupid sixth-form disco then she would scream. It had been six sodding weeks ago and still she was having to go through all the ridiculous details on an almost daily basis. Mavis had never lied to Dot about anything before and she wasn’t enjoying it now, it was just that the whole thing with Clive was a lie and she didn’t know how to make Dot understand any of it.