Authors: Frances Fyfield
‘Yes, we can … Oh, I do love you. And the babies we’ll have …’
‘Oh, you and your babies,’ she said. ‘That’s all you want from me.’
‘No. But we
have a baby,’ he said. ‘We
. I’d die for the chance and I’d die for you both.’ He wanted to climb inside her for safety; he wanted the baby to prove
what he was.
The light was suddenly blinding: he felt he heard it rather than saw it, coming at him like a monster and assaulting his eyes.
A torch shining straight at his face, catching his white skin and making it glow red. Then the beam played over the length
of his body, with hers curled inside his coat, and dropped, modestly, to play around his feet. Instinctively, he curled his
feet beneath the bench, clutched his wife closer and, for a moment, forgot to breathe until he heard her whimper. He clutched
too tight for comfort. The light snapped off. There was movement away from them before the light clicked on again, illuminating
the linoleum floor and another pair of feet that were clearly not his own. They were half covered by black cloth.
‘No,’ said a voice, whispering like their own, but
louder and far more precise. ‘No, you can’t. I’m awfully sorry, but you just can’t.’
Cannon felt a jolt of sheer relief run through him like an electric shock. Julie shivered in embarrassment and a similar relief,
struggling to sit upright, if not quite detach herself: she could not bear to do that.
‘I’m sorry, Sister. We were c-c-c-c-carried away.’ Her small voice was apologetic.
The torch illuminated a pale hand, waving a gesture of dismissal. There was a flurry of shushing sound as the woman sat down
beside them, arranging the folds of her robe with one hand and adjusting the rosary beads that hung from her waist. She must
have held them as she moved, put them in a pocket. Such silent creatures they were, these nuns; only the beads gave away their
presence with the polite clatter they made in movement, like a version of a motor horn. So silent, he wondered how they knew
the presence of each other.
Sister Pauline was sighing gustily. ‘Oh, Lord. It wasn’t apology I was wanting,’ she said. ‘It’s I who feel I should do that.
We aren’t very hospitable at this hour of night, are we? But you can’t take your clothes off in the house of God to make babies.
Quite apart from anything else, you’ll catch your death.’
They were silent.
‘Mind you,’ Sister Pauline continued, ‘I doubt if He would mind. If you’ve created man in your image and liking, you can hardly
be surprised if he behaves in the way you designed him. I’m not attempting to speak up for God, you understand, only for the
sisters in this order who would not like it at all. And
they’d know, of course.’ She adjusted her robe. ‘Imelda can detect a fingerprint in here at fifty paces, let alone anything
else. Although I suppose if she were to put sins in categories it would be the discovery of a cigarette end would really give
her the vapours. I had a hard time with that, I can tell you.’
Last week, a cigarette in here. Cannon shook his head. He had never been more ashamed of smoking in his life. If his presence
in this place was going to be revealed by something so venal and stupid, he did not deserve the fulfilment of any wish.
‘I imagine we all grade sin in accordance with our own understanding,’ Sister Pauline mused. ‘Imelda was probably tempted
to smoke once. As for sex, I doubt it somehow. She grinds her teeth instead. And now, I suppose,’ Sister Pauline went on,
‘I’ll have to pretend I made a bonfire in here. You must do something about that coat, Mr Cannon. Get a new one from Oxfam.
I don’t know how your wife puts up with it.’ She sighed. ‘I knew I was right to choose God. He never snores either.’
Julie giggled softly. ‘Oh, Sister …’ Her voice trailed off into uncertainty. There was a tiny rattle of the rosary beads.
Light from the window caught Pauline’s features. A large hooked nose and a wide, mobile mouth, slightly sunken eyes with bushy
grey brows, and a bony forehead. The contours of her face predominated over the detail.
Cannon thought how much he would like to paint that face, but this was not quite the time to suggest it. An idea formed. He
could present himself as
travelling artist, offer to paint the whole order one by one … No. He could do nothing that in any open sense connected him
to this place because Johnny would find out but, all the same, he liked the idea of painting a face like this, so bereft of
vanity that its owner would not even have been able to define what the word really meant. How old was she? Seventy? Difficult
to tell: they were ageless.
‘And now will you tell me, Mr Cannon, how much longer is this charade going to go on? I think I know why you can’t arrive
by daylight like any other visitor. My niece told me, and I don’t doubt her since she’s not exactly subject to paranoia. I
must say, a visit from you in the parlour would be nice. You could pose as Julie’s long-lost suitor. The sisters would be
totally delighted. They adore the very sniff of romance. But not, however, in the chapel.’
The silence was companionable. Cannon bowed his head deeper into his chest. It was difficult to meet the intensity of Pauline’s
gaze and he was grateful for the gloom. Seen in sunlight, he imagined her eyes would have the effect of lasers and her voice,
ascended from its current whispering murmur, would probably stop a herd of elephants with a single order. She would not need
to fire a shot. Her teeth were very white, whiter even than his own.
‘Only I know it’s all very well for God to be relied on to provide,’ she said, ‘but the devil flourishes on ignorance. I,
on the other hand, do not.’
‘It’s better that way, Sister,’ Cannon muttered, and Julie nodded agreement.
‘Oh, is it, I wonder? Or do you and my niece persist in the sweet belief that a nun cannot comprehend the wicked ways of the
world without fainting from shock? You really should know better. And so should she.’
Julie squeezed Cannon’s arm, reminding him not to argue. ‘
don’t think that, Sister.’
The nun laughed softly, and leaned across Cannon to pat Julie’s hand. ‘No, I shouldn’t think you do.’
Julie shook at the touch, remembering, as she always would, that it had been Pauline who had first seen her naked state when
Sarah brought her here, her back scored as if she had been flogged through her torn clothes, ribs cracked from a kicking,
the lacerated arm dragged across concrete, not an inch of her unbruised. She had mended quickly with tender, loving care;
the eyes had lost the emptiness of terror, but if ever this child were to be tortured in any such fashion again Pauline doubted
that she would survive it. It had crossed her mind to wonder why the torturers had not used a more subtle approach, if it
was mere information they had wanted. Tricked her, persuaded her, fooled her, perhaps. Julie was disposed to see goodness
even where it did not exist, Pauline thought, wryly, but she was not cunning. She might prove harder to conquer than subvert;
persuasion or deceit might have been more effective. The sight of that skinny body, like a plucked chicken, covered with bruises,
haunted her still. There was no other rhyme or reason for taking the child in, except that appalling need and the persuasive
powers, as well
as the purse, of a niece. And a very tall story about a psychopathic brother-in-law and a husband still in prison. An insistence
on a ludicrous degree of secrecy.
Sister Pauline raised her eyes to the dim outlines of the crucifix on the wall to her right. Forgive me, Lord. If she asked
them both to get down on their knees and beg for the same thing, they would do it only to please her and because, for that
minute, they were in her power. Such power was corrupting: she doubted the Lord would approve, so she contented herself with
a question. ‘Why, Mr Cannon, did your brother go after her and not after
? Why are
free to roam the world at dead of night and Julie isn’t? Why does he hurt her if it’s you he hates?
Put like that, he wasn’t sure, or at least not sure of an entirely correct answer, which he knew the question demanded, and
he struggled with some approximation, unable to explain:
He doesn’t think he hates me, he loves me
Intelligent he certainly was, Pauline surmised, but that was not the same thing as good with words. She stared ahead, composed,
her hands in the long sleeves of her robe.
‘Because my brother doesn’t want to hurt me, on account of him being blood, and all,’ he said. ‘Inhibits him, see? Besides,
he’d tried that before, tried it for years, and he knows what it does. He’s beaten me more times than either of us could count.
Makes me so dumb, like I’ve lost any command of my tongue first and my bowels next, and he’s squeamish, see?
He’s not as squeamish with a woman, provided he doesn’t have to look at her. He thinks women are the very devil … Easier to
hurt me by hurting her, believe me. That’s why we’re both hiding, but not for much longer, and—’
!’ Pauline whispered. ‘Shuttit,’ she hissed, for emphasis. ‘
Lord help us
.’ They sat in wordless silence, hearing nothing. But she had heard with those antennae that decoded convent sounds, nodded
to herself in confirmation. ‘Quick, in here,’ the command reinforced with gestures that steered them back into the sacristy
with a speed neither thought possible. Not a mutter from the beads.
Cannon thanked his trainers for the lack of sound over the wood floor, Julie her slippers.
Pauline drew the door closed behind them with a soft click. No doors were ever slammed. She glided back to the place where
they had all sat, spread her habit around her, knelt with her bony thumbs pressing into the side of her nose, wishing to God
there was no lingering smell. Gradually, the sound became clearer.
Shuffle, shuffle, rattle, shuffle, shuffle, rattle
, rhythmic but slow, so slow, in fact, she was tired of waiting for the sound to take form,
Oh, hurry up and get it over with, for God’s sake
, forming at her lips as she waited. Imelda moved like a snail, slowed by a sense of duty. Imelda woke in the night as a result
of grinding her teeth; she wandered and she gossiped. Pauline saw her now as an elderly pig, hunting truffles. The thought
was not charitable.
Why should a man want to destroy his brother
Pauline sighed, manufacturing out of it a massive yawn.
Or his brother’s wife
? The corridor entrance to the chapel was by means of a swing door, supposed to be soundless in the interests of latecomers
but it still made a wholesome creak.
Sister Imelda saw the empire and the sanctuary of
chapel arranged before her, with Pauline, sunk in an attitude of abject prayer, in the
bench, taking up plenty of space. Not that there wasn’t space to spare, especially at midnight and beyond. Imelda hesitated
for a moment, sniffed the air and moved forward, with her usual infuriating hesitations. Pauline was forbidding: although
one could never fault her perfect manners, she was difficult to touch, even in the best interests of friendship. Pauline detested
those she managed to intimidate; she had said so, and Imelda remembered that. She did not pause to consider her identification
of the robed nun in the wrong pew. She knew who it was, and if ever interrogated about identification would be mystified by
the questions. There were only three in the order who still wore the full robes, with the rosary; but, with or without them,
they all knew one another by instinct.
‘Sister? Are you all right?’ Imelda sniffed again as she asked. Strange smell: foreign. Her sniff was loud.
I shall never understand, Pauline said to herself, why someone with such dreadful halitosis and a teeth-grinding habit can
be so sensitive to smells. She sat upright with dramatic flurry, moaning and gripping the front of the pew with two surprisingly
fists, which glowed an unearthly yellow, like bleached bone. ‘Is that you, Imelda?’ she asked faintly.
‘Yes, of course.’ Imelda sniffed yet again.
‘How nice. I came down to pray. Only I don’t feel so well. Could you help me back to my room?’
‘Oh, my dear, of course. Do you know, I thought I heard noise?’
Pauline accepted an arm, leant on it heavily and awkwardly, propelling Imelda towards the door.
‘It is a sin, dear Lord, to take advantage of kindness,’ she murmured. ‘Really, it is.
I am so sick of kindness
Back inside the sacristy, Cannon wanted to weep. ‘She humbles me,’ he said. ‘She protects you, exactly as she’s been asked
to do. She accepts. She doesn’t insist on knowing why. How can she be like that?’
‘Faith,’ Julie said. ‘It’s called faith. Don’t question it. But d-d-d-don’t ask it to do the impossible. And please don’t
leave me with her much longer. I’m chch-ch-ch-changing, Cannon, and I d-d-don’t want to change. I love you.’
Making love through all these clothes was a fine art, almost perfected and still imperfect, full of longing for nakedness
and warmth and row, instead of mouths clamped shut against noise. ‘I adore you,’ he whispered. ‘I adore you.’ And then, as
they rearranged themselves, he said, ‘I’m not a bad man, am I, Julie? Am I? Not any more. Would their God forgive me?’
She whispered, ‘You are not your brother, Cannon; you owe him nothing.’
He kissed his wife’s hand, passionately formal in his leavetaking. The skin was rough with housework.
Oh, yes, I do owe him
Perhaps, he prayed, they had made a baby.
Nobody knew John Smith. Andrew Mitchum made a guess that no-one could. Smith was a man of brief appearances, strong aversions
and no loyalties.
Seven in the morning: bleak and cold outside, overheated indoors, and they seemed to be discussing the brotherhood of man.
‘I am not my brother’s keeper, sir.’
It was disconcerting to be called ‘sir’ by someone older. Andrew, a twenty-five-year-old solicitor flirting with dishonesty
in this extra-curricular work, had never been called ‘sir’ in his life and recognized this as more of a conversational tic
than anything to do with respect for his opinion, but it was uncomfortable all the same, especially with someone not even
a decade older bearing all the gravitas of middle age. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Of course not. Sir.’ It stuck in his throat to reply
in kind and he realized, too late, that he might be mistaken for a mimic. There was no jauntiness or sense of irony in John
Smith. This man had neither
logic nor humour, which did not mean to say he lacked charisma; only that he looked as if he had never laughed, except as
a private and derisive reaction to something horribly personal, which Andrew did not like to consider. Aside from that, he
was attractive, if only as an acquired taste. A folded face was what he had, jowled and lined in a way that might make a sallow
French film star attractive and a pale pink Anglo-Saxon resemble a certain kind of pedigree dog with a long tongue and plenty
of spit. There was a faint scar leading from the left corner of his lip. Imagining John Smith in the privacy of his bedroom
was not therapeutic; neither was it sufficient to stop Andrew Mitchum from being afraid. Or to prevent him from wondering
how it was that a man as rich as this should have such terrible teeth. The better to eat one with. One ceased to notice after
a while. One never ceased to be surprised.
‘What I fail to understand’, he found himself saying, with deferential but genuine curiosity, ‘is why it matters.’
‘Why what matters?’
‘Finding your twin brother. If you aren’t his keeper. Sir.’
‘You miss the point entirely.’
‘Perhaps I do.’
John Smith emerged from behind his desk and stood by the window with his back to Andrew, looking out and jingling coins in
his pocket. The window overlooked a large garden, level at this height, with the branches of a horse-chestnut tree festooned
the tattered remnants of a few orange leaves. Andrew imagined the ground below littered with conkers. Noone would collect
‘If ever I leave this house,’ John Smith was saying to himself, ‘I’ll leave it empty and let it
This announcement was entirely irrelevant to any that had preceded it. Andrew allowed himself to be differently distracted.
The house already seemed wasted. Nobody, surely, needed so much space or so much ornament. The curtains drawn away from the
vast windows were as opulent as something borrowed from a theatre – the opening of them demanded an overture. The carpet yielded
to every step: he felt as if he was walking across a sand dune inside a house unnaturally quiet. If the statue of a preying
eagle, carved in silver and standing guard on the mantelpiece, were to fall from its prominent position to the floor, it
would make no sound – and it would take a very long time indeed for this house to rot. As for the pictures on the walls …
The paintings were all reproductions, highly coloured to the point of being inflammatory. Above the fireplace, cornered by
the eagle, there was a battle scene,
The Charge of the Light Brigade
or something of the kind; men with muskets and red uniforms, many contorted in dramatic attitudes of death while non-specific
Hottentots appeared to be on the winning side. On the opposite wall, in similar, massive scale, two battleships of 1914 vintage
were engaged in furious combat on the high seas, one sinking in scorching water. They were vivid enough to make Andrew
imagine explosions and screams, without being subtle enough to stir his emotions. The canvases were extraordinarily shiny.
In the hallways were Andy Warhol-style posters, huge heads and one-dimensional faces heavily framed as if they were Victorian,
looking odd against flock wallpaper and Edwardian picture rails. The whole house was a riot of garish acquisition.
‘It would be perfectly easy to find your brother, even though he is … a trifle elusive. I
manage to get access to his prison records.’
‘Part of them,’ John Smith barked. ‘What did you do? Pose as his doctor? You found the fucking
they gave him. That’s all.’
Andrew had to concede that it was not a lot, just as much as he could achieve with the chance phone call of an amateur, but
it did not explain why John Smith should go into such spasms at the mere mention of the word
. ‘The question is, why do you want him found?’ he queried, opting for the holistic approach.
‘He stole from me.’ It was a flat statement, without undue emphasis.
You have plenty left
. The obvious remark was on the tip of his tongue, but Andrew refrained from making it. From lawyer to client – albeit one
in strictly unofficial consultation, moonlighting and currying favour without the knowledge of his employers – that would
have been impertinence, and John Smith, man of mystery, was a perfect client. A cow for the milking, with an undefined business
that seemed to consist of acquiring and selling. Others collected newspapers, conglomerates, manufacturing plants, shops;
Smith, on a lesser scale, collected houses. Started life as a builder, Andrew recalled, not the first to reach such a pinnacle
of reclusive respectability, which made it even odder that he should spend so many of his waking hours now thinking of nothing
but his twin brother. He, Andrew, would never be like that. Once he was rich (a state of life devoutly to be wished, by any
means whatever, and soon), he hoped he would abandon all resentments, relinquish all tedious family ties and realize when
enough was enough.
Smith gestured to the wall above the fireplace. ‘All my life I tried to get Cannon to paint something like
,’ he said carefully. ‘But would he ever? Like shit he would. He wanted to paint tables and chairs and draw silly little patterns
, for God’s sake. Mind, he was good with a bomb, I’ll grant him that.’
‘Good with a
John Smith sat. ‘You heard me. A bomb. If you’re going to build anything, you nearly always have to clear something away first.
Trees, earth, another building. Besides, a small blast late at night can bring down the price of a house wonderfully. I’ve
had a few bargains that way. Lord, we had such fun. Raised in Belfast, you see. Bombs are only toys, and boys are boys and
they play with them. My daddy taught us how so we could wreck places and he could make money building them up again. Taught
us everything, the bastard. You could always find a use for a bomb. Don’t ask whose side we were on, I can’t tell you. A shame
you couldn’t find his lovely wife.’
John Smith was not a conversationalist. Andrew
knew he was privileged. He remained silent. For a moment he had relaxed, but the creeping feeling of unease was back, like
a breeze round the nape of his neck, making him feel as if someone else was in the room, the other persona of polite, respectable
Mr Smith, stalking behind him like a tiger. Andrew Mitchum told himself, with the wisdom of his over-qualified years, that
a gangster. But gay, for sure, in the current use of the word; not at all the same sort of thing as being festive, in the
other sense. This was homosexual screaming for release, and then another appalling thought crossed Andrew’s mind. Perhaps
that was why John Smith wanted to find his brother. No, no, no. Incest had gone out with the Middle Ages.
‘He stole from me,’ Smith repeated.
‘Yes, he used the business to make things for other businesses. He siphoned off some money,’ Andrew said impatiently. This
was old ground.
. He stole
. As if it were simply a commodity. He stole
.’ The shrill, unnaturally high voice rose to a shout.
‘What will you do if you find his wife,
‘Hurt her so much that this time she’ll run. Thought I’d done the worst I could, but no. This time she’ll really scream. He
won’t want her back. He’ll come home to me. But I’ve only got a couple of weeks more. I promised him, fool that I am. We always
played games, but you have to have rules. Like a boxing match. She
Suddenly Andrew craved to be beyond these doors
in the street, jogging for a bus, home to his lover or back to his office. Out. Instead, politeness ruled hysteria, so instead
of taking his leave he laughed nervously. The sound was subdued by the room. There was nobody else in this house, except the
silent fat man, the house servant and factotum who opened the door. The one Andrew knew had been deputed to track down the
dentist and find out, casually, what the damn dentist did with his weekends. Smith had mentioned that over dinner.
I want to get a look at him
, he kept on repeating,
measure him up, the cunt, see if he’ll do, but I don’t want him seeing me
. What strange and pointless preoccupations he had. This client was warped, but rich. Exceedingly rich. Too rich to be needing
love. ‘Love? Oh dear, if that was all, everybody would be suing,’ Andrew spluttered. ‘For
? I mean, suing like mad.’
Smith had opened one of the windows, which led on to a small balcony. ‘I bought him a house,’ Smith said, with a hint of sadness.
There was never more than a hint of any emotion. Spread across the desk was a double-page article about someone who had won
the lottery, and bought seven houses with the proceeds for members of his family. It was possible to imagine Smith doing that:
there were houses enough, although only God could guess at his motives. It takes the average family man twenty-five years
to pay for a house, Andrew thought, with contempt.
‘I’m grateful’, Smith was saying over his shoulder, ‘that you were able to get here so early in the morning. Even if there
is so little to report.’
Andrew shrugged modestly. ‘He’s gone to ground.
The wife entirely so. I, er, didn’t tell a soul about my researches, like you said. Or this meeting,’ he added.
There was an approving nod.
‘Do come and look at the view.’
Mollified, Andrew approached. After all, they had
together the week before. Hadn’t that been some sort of overture? Smith, asking questions, eliciting hopes and fears, apparently
confiding his own. Telling him about a deserting mammy and a builder daddy, who had sent him and his brother away to make
good here when they were fifteen, and hadn’t they just? Well,
had. Told him about the freakish brother who had somehow learned to paint, even when all they had been was a pair of urchins,
abandoned by women, abandoned by everyone.
They stood together as the sun rose, slowly dispelling the mist. The view from here might be tremendous on a good summer day.
It was an area of vast older houses: on his way down the long road, Andrew had passed a convent and two nursing homes, suitable
uses, he thought, for houses of that size. He felt John Smith’s massive hand, tracing with a gentle touch the cleft of his
buttocks, under the flap of the jacket, one finger only along the smooth fabric of his new Marks & Spencer suit. Thrilled
to the touch. Stared ahead, muscles tensed, not even suppressing the thought that this could be the way to
money; a house, perhaps. The man had plenty of houses and he, Andrew, was a very handsome boy. Then John Smith put his right
hand onto Andrew’s left shoulder, turned him to face himself, the jowled face lit with a
smile, the powerful body bent. ‘Andrew? You’ve been a great help, a real comfort to a fool like me. Really.’ The charm was
sincere; felt like a breath of summer.
‘Whatever you want, sir.’
They seemed to have arrived at an embrace. John Smith was touching him with both hands, grasping for hold; Andrew suddenly
floppy, preparing himself for his own reaction to a kiss … And then, in a shade of second, he went over the balcony, hoisted
by his groin and his shoulder as if he were a lightweight. Two floors down, crashing softly through the branches of the tree,
bouncing from each to each, clutching at twigs, first suspended by his jacket, then snarled by his tie, at once upside down,
then scrabbling for purchase until he clung by his hands, more by luck than by judgement, oblivious to the scratches and the
grazes, looking at the ground. The branch dipped; the buttons on his shirt ripped. He swung like an ape in a cage, a child
at play the way Mother said, ‘
,’ and finally plumped to earth on a damp, dark lawn, before he had time to scream. The seconds had felt like minutes. There
was blood on his forehead, razor grazes on his hands, and nothing he saw fit to notice yet. The last drop had been a mere
ten feet from the last, dipping branch. A game, that was all, with a tree especially designed to save him.
He told me too much. If I repeat it, he’ll kill me
The mist drifted back. He watched it in a peculiarly disinterested way, as he lay on his back, stunned by the sky and the
omnipresence of the branches rustling angrily, as if scolding, shaking themselves in indignation.
He moved his limbs slowly, propped himself up on his elbows, had some dim, unpleasant memory of where he was. Including the
realization that if John Smith thought this was a game he did not care about the consequences.
He shuffled forward until he was in a kneeling position. Felt the first surge of relief that he was whole, if not entire.
Then saw the man looming above him.
at me, boy. Don’t you
. What do you think I am? Some
? Such lovely
you have, my boy, you useless little
. All the better for smiling with. Now, go and tell your boss how you were moonlighting. See how long you keep your job and
how long it takes to buy your house. Greedy little faggot.’