For weeks she shas been living here, barely a mile away, and yet it was only today that she said, as if it had just occurred to her,
“What do you say we take a stroll down Wathcote Road?”
Strange how knowing our destination transforms the streets we have been walking every day. A returnee’s self-consciousness is upon me, so I see these front gardens through memory’s filter, with the ornamental chimney pots spilling lobelia and phlox, and the air teaming with thistledown and tense summer light, the wood pigeons cooing like a stuck record, a dolls’ picnic set out on the earth-streaked rug, and maybe a lolly from the van if someone’s mother thinks that you’ve been good. Summer reverts to archetype in memory, like everything past. In reality, it is another of those narrow grey winter days characteristic of this place, the rain held off by a wedge of cloud like a swaddled iron bar. The eye may be hungry, but there is nothing to see; the houses have learned the bourgeois trick of privacy, the gardens reduced to a bed of stunted twigs and a mudded square of lawn. A thread of second cars along the kerbside, hatchbacks and urban jeeps, none more than three years old. We brought them here, all those years ago, we started the changes that were to make this neighbourhood a motor trader’s dream. A community house full of crazies may not be the most conventional fillip to property prices, but Darwin gave Wathcote Road its bohemian cachet, and things escalated from there. When I was twelve the garden furniture started appearing, and fabric blinds in primary colours, and Volkswagen camper vans and 2CVs with candy-stripe sunroofs, and you could get Private Eye in the local newsagents, and rye bread in the bakers’ and I knew without asking it was all on account of us, though if they hoped to become his friends they were to be sorely disappointed. Darwin was a psychiatric revolutionary but his salons were highly selective; deep down he was a bit of a snob.
And now we turn the corner, and Sam turns to catch my eye, and the street mocks us with empty familiarity. I recognise the rock garden at number twenty-three, but cannot retrieve the face of the woman who tended it. Number forty-six is now a shiatsu massage clinic, number fifty-seven a rainbow-painted nursery and creche. Our end-terrace with its L-shaped extension has been turned into a granny farm. “Heartlands” the signs says, in navy and gold.
The man at the door looks too young to be the owner. I lean sideways to see behind him, into the hall, which is designed for first impressions with a claw-footed occasional table and a sheaf of pensioner-friendly magazines. The cornicing and picture rail that Darwin ripped out have, bizarrely, been replaced. From the new ceiling rose dangles a brass and candle-bulb chandelier. Hunting prints hang in pairs on the Bourbon lily wallpaper.
“Can I help you?”
Apparently not. This is a residential home, its occupants are not animals at the zoo, and he is very busy.
“It’s just that we were born here.” A lie, but he can’t tell. “Simon Malleus was our father.”
No flicker of recognition in those dull brown eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, unregretfully shutting the door.
Sam sniffs extravagantly. “Lavender polish,” she says loudly. “They use it to cover the smell of piss.”
We slouch back down the path, coming to terms with the bathos, but slowly. One last look before stepping on to the pavement. A figure is waving to us from next door’s front window. Stepping over the flowerbed, I’m in her garden. She pushes open the sash and stoops to direct her voice through the four-inch gap.
“What day is it, love?”
Perhaps I only imagine Sam’s snigger behind me.
“Friday,” I say.
And then the clock strikes noon and, turning, I see from Sam’s face that she has heard it too: Oranges and Lemons, followed by the relentless twelve-stroke chime, and so I say, though she was ancient even then,
“Mrs Woodhouse? It’s the Malleus girls, Tracy and Samantha.”
The face turns suspicious and the window closes. Foolish in the middle of the lawn, I retreat to the path; Sam waits on the public side of the garden gate.
The front door opens and on the threshold stands one of those shrink-resistant old ladies: thick-ankled, barrel-hipped, that solid bosom still riding high. Her hair, which should be white by now, is dyed the colour of dead leaves.
“Get yourselves in for a cup of tea,” she says, and the years fall away.
She puts us in the front room, with the mantelpiece photographs of her grandchildren in South Africa and the red vinyl three-piece suite with the white plastic piping and the swirling cosmos carpet in burgundy and brown. Before, she always took us to the kitchen.
Sam swivels her eyes towards the sideboard with its cardboard Christmas crib. Three wise men, two shepherds, the donkey, Mary and Joseph, the manger left empty until midnight on the twenty-fourth.
“Here we are then.” She brings the tray through, clinking with best china, a doily on the biscuit plate. The hands gripping the tray handles are so liver-spotted as to seem uniformly brown, three gold rings on her wedding finger holding down the folding skin. There is a pale yellow stain on her polyester skirt. Back then she wore a pinny, a sleeveless overall in gaudy cotton with a couple of utilitarian frills.
The tea is weak and greyish, the cups it sits in not quite clean. There is a cat hair on Sam’s chocolate digestive which, surreptitiously, she flicks away.
“It’s all changed round here,” I say, recklessly depleting my stock of small talk. She nods and sips her tea and I realise she still doesn’t know who we are. “The last time I saw you, you gave me a five pound note for passing my A-levels.”
Irritation flits across Sam’s features.
“I went off to university, but Sam was still around, with our dad, Simon. You know: he ran the Two-Way House next door.”
Her face sours with old annoyance. “A right show-off he was, always ont’ telly, up on his high horse, telling us where we were going wrong. As if he knew owt about it. All those loonies next door, howling and carrying on day and night, and those poor little girls in the middle of it all.”
Beside me, I feel Sam’s pulse quicken. She leans forward. “That’s us Mrs Woodhouse: Tracy and Samantha.”
Funny how she still gives me priority.
“Millie and Mollie,” the old lady says confusingly, her voice warm with recognition. “Tom used to come back from his work and if that biscuit tin were empty there were hell to pay. He’d say: ‘you’ve been feeding that Millie and Mollie again’ -”
I don’t remember the husband, just a blue budgie that banged against its mirror in demented fashion and once every six months, for no apparent reason, suddenly started to talk.
“– his wife had taken off. I don’t blame her, but she should never have left those children. Tom used to say I were interfering, but there were summat funny about whole set-up. All his fancy women. And that Paki he had staying, moaning and droning and all sorts at four o’clock in the morning, and his stinking bonfires blowing ower my washing.”
Poor old Ravi, stirring up the wrath of the house-proud. I haven’t thought of him in years.
Sam is prompting again, that second-sister deference forgotten. “Do you remember you made me a nurse’s doll, when I was poorly? You gave it to Tracy in case he wouldn’t let me keep it. And he didn’t when he found out.”
But Mrs W isn’t listening. “I wanted to ring the council, get the authorities involved; it weren’t right, all three of them with no clothes on day and night, and all them funny folk around…”
I admit I’m surprised by this accumulation of bile. Despite the small subversion of that smuggled rag doll, I always assumed Mrs Woodhouse belonged to the club of adoring old ladies. Though their enthusiasm dwindled after the Post ran the story about the shit-eating.
“Tracy were his favourite,” she says unexpectedly. Sam suddenly seems larger, as if the cells in her body were expanding with vindication. “He were always at her. It were a shame.”
Of course I’m aware of Sam’s suspicions.
“Never let her settle to owt. Calling her in, then he’d lose interest, she’d be trotting round after him like a little dog. I said to Tom ‘that child dun’t know if she’s coming or going’.” She seems to have forgotten that we were those children, a mistake easily made. I too see them as separate, strangers with unguessable thoughts. “Showing her off, making her jump through hoops. Always on about how she were special, before she were old enough to know what she were herself.”
I remember in the school hall watching other children playing. I was always aware that I was different. Better, I suppose, but worse too. Children are meant to be innocent. Darwin built a whole career on this belief. But I never was. I always knew more than I was supposed to and I always hid it to keep him happy, to keep his system intact, so he need never realise that he had spawned a freak. Which meant I was not merely knowing but deceitful as well, corrupted to the core. And still he found it in his heart to love me. It seemed like the only shred of hope I had.
“She used to watch his face, poor little lass, trying to work out what he wanted before he had to ask.”
Sam’s expression clouds with sadness, a shadow in her eyes that almost makes me want to cry, and in the sharing of her sorrow I find the child that she is grieving for is me.
“Sam was the one who had a hard time.”
The old lady smiles. “Oh she had a temper on her, a right little madam. You could hear her screaming her head off. I told Tom: one day that child’s going to come back and kill him.”
Sam returns her teacup to its saucer. “And here I am,” she says.