Sunday, October 10, 2010

Prince of Devils


"Hatred," said my mother, "is the Prince of Devils. When you hate like that you are in his power." My mother believed in devils and she wanted me to believe in them too.

It was something she had always said, for as long as I could remember, something that she said to me and not to my brother Alfred. There were a lot of things which she said to me but not to Alfred and I didn’t listen to any of them, which was probably why she kept saying them, over and over again. My mother often repeated herself, as if in the constant spewing out of the same words she could change things. It was either that or she had a terrible memory, although, given her capacity to remember and recycle every mistake I ever made, I find it difficult to think she was merely forgetful.

She always said I was forgetful, conveniently so, as she put it, with a curl to her lips which dragged the skin back across her teeth. She had awful teeth, chalky and pitted across the front with small, black spots, like a sprinkling of cockroach droppings and that was why she never smiled. When she felt a smile coming on she used to pull her lips together in a rigid line so that the teeth remained covered and only the muscles danced on either side of her mouth. Sometimes I thought she would explode with the sheer effort of holding back a smile, but she managed, and as the years went by she got better and better at it, so much so that there came a time when the corners of her mouth no longer knew how to dance.

She used to say that she had nothing to laugh about but I don’t know, even as a child I had a sense that life was more of a laughing matter than anything else, except when it came to hating, that was different. I think she knew that, knew I was deadly serious and that’s why she kept harping on about it, but as far as I’m concerned, hatred is a private matter anyway, something between myself and whoever or whatever I happen to be hating at the moment. You can’t put on someone else’s hatred like a new coat and you can’t take off the one you’re wearing just because someone else doesn’t like it.

The strange thing about it, looking back, is that I never stood up to her, never answered back ... not until that day. I just listened, like the good girl that I was, letting the words waddle across to me, and then sending them on their way. Children have to listen to their parents, or at least appear to listen, but there comes a time when they answer back. I like to think it was a sign of maturity, that the child had served her purpose and it was now time for the adult to take charge. It was a turning point, there’s no doubt about that, if only because I think she knew from then on how much I disliked her but the feeling was mutual and at last we were even.

We were sitting at the kitchen table having lunch ... cheese sandwiches, made with cheap margarine because she was trying to economise. The cheese slices were so thin that any flavour they might have had became irrelevant in the grip of the petrol-like fumes which wafted off the greasy margarine. I opened my sandwich and tried to scrape out as much of the margarine as I could and that put her into an even worse mood. She hated waste, or so she said, but it seemed to me that she was quite happy to throw away most of a lettuce in order to get to the heart, and would never eat bread if it were more than a day old, not even toasted.

We were talking about my brother, or rather, she was talking about her son. It was an interminable subject once Alfred had grown up and was out working, and it generally ran along the same lines, giving me no choice but to try and ignore her. The patterns in the sickly green laminex table were far more interesting, especially when I traced my greasy fingers around them and marked them out with a line of crumbs from my plate. It was really very ugly that laminex table, but practical, said my mother, easy to look after. It was always my job to wipe the table after we had eaten and while it seemed to clean up well enough, I hated the way that small crumbs would get caught in the metal rim. It was a source of secret satisfaction to me, knowing that millions of filthy little creatures were quietly nibbling away at the crumbs beneath the rim of our kitchen table.

My mother was paranoid about cleanliness and would get hysterical if we came in from playing without washing our hands. She was forever washing hers and the skin was always peeling off, falling about her as she worked, in pale, dry flakes. My father bought her some moisturiser but she wouldn’t use it, said it just gave the germs a warm, moist environment in which to breed. I was hoping she would let me use it, but she didn’t, wrapped it up instead one Christmas and gave it to her mother who had skin like silk and the most beautiful hands I’ve ever seen. They were just like the hands of the Virgin Mary that you see on all the statues and that was how my grandmother used to sit, with her hands clasped in front of her breasts as if she were praying. She was proud of her hands my grandmother, said that they were her best feature outside of her hair and her cheekbones. She called my mother ‘lizard-hands’ when she was angry with her, which was more often than not. She also used to make fun of her for worrying about germs, said she was obsessive and the problem was in her brain, not in the dirt. It didn’t change anything, words don’t most of the time, and my mother kept scrubbing and worrying and washing her hands.

I told her once, that the table was really very unhygenic, that it was a secret bed of disease at which we ate every day. It was no wonder that she always had an upset stomach and that Alfred, who did not have a strong constitution at the best of times, was always ill. I knew I had struck home when I saw there was a cloth on the table that same evening, and also the next night, but it didn’t last long. Normally we weren't allowed to use a tablecloth during the week, only on Sundays and when visitors came. It made for unnecessary washing. There was nothing unnecessary in our house, nothing excessive. Except for me. Perhaps that's why my mother hated me. I knew she did and knew too that it was why I wasn't allowed to hate anyone. It was all a bit close to home.

I did hate though, I'd learned it from her and learned too how to get under her skin. She was always talking about my brother, going on and on about how wonderful he was, such a good student, brilliant athlete, wonderful son ... that sort of thing. It was the only time actually, when her face looked calm, when the lines across her forehead just fell away. It was as if the mere act of talking about Alfred could erase all the cares and worries which dragged in deep lines across her face, pulling down her mouth and the sides of her nose into what looked like a perpetual sneer. Alfred could do that to her, make her look young again, and even beautiful as she looked in her wedding photographs. She always used to say that Alfred looked just like his father when he was a boy but thankfully that was the only thing he had inherited.

She and my father had grown up in the same suburb, no more than a street apart, and while they did not really meet until they were well into their teens, they knew each other by sight. People walked a lot in those days, especially on warm summer nights and everyone would say hello to each other or at least nod. I don’t think their parents ever had a real conversation, people used to keep pretty much to themselves unless they were properly introduced, but they were certainly on nodding terms.

My parents also went to the same Sunday School class and they both hated the same teacher, Miss Lillian they had to call her although behind her back she was known as the black witch because she only ever wore black dresses in hard, shiny fabric, buttoned right up into the folds of her wrinkled throat. She was a woman in her forties, a spinster, very tall and broad across the shoulders with a habit of leaning over people when she talked, a habit which was even more terrifying for small children. My father said that Miss Lillian had got the job because she had time to spare and supposedly liked children but she knew nothing at all about children . She was the last surviving child of eleven, most of whom had died in infancy and she inherited quite a bit of money when her parents passed away. She ruled the Sunday School with a rod of iron and the church as well from what I heard. My father used to say that Miss Lillian was responsible for his atheism and he hoped she was turning in her grave because she had made his life a misery. My mother used to say she meant well although there was a tinge of satisfaction to her voice when she added that Miss Lillian had died badly, for a devout Christian that is. At the end she lost her faith and had exited the world in a state of terror. As the story went she had gone out screaming, digging her nails so deeply into the nurses’ wrist that she had drawn blood. My father said it served her right but my mother said that while it might have served her right, the fact was that no-one deserved to die like that.

Even though my parents went to the same Sunday School I don’t think they ever spoke to each other. In those days boys and girls kept pretty much to themselves until they were quite definitely grown up and looking around me now, I’m not so sure it was a bad thing. It was only when they were adults, not long after he came back from the war, that they really met. One of her friends knew his sister and they were introduced at a church dance. My father always used to say he had loved my mother from the day he saw her when she was five years old and the blonde curls had bounced up and down on either side of her face as she walked. While she wouldn’t smile, she always went pink when he said it and pulled at the sides of her hair as if wishing they had remained blonde and curled and bouncing.

They were married very quickly after that first proper meeting, a matter of months, so my grandmother used to say in a less than approving tone, but there were no babies for quite some years so that was not the reason. Sometimes I wonder if they weren’t just seduced by the familiarity of each other, that the shared memories made them feel safe and they mistook that for love.

When my mother launched into one of her lyrical odes to Alfred I would usually think about other things, imagine that I was somewhere else, far away from the small, cream-painted kitchen and its oppressive emptiness. I had this way of getting out of my body, of leaving myself and the world behind and travelling where I am sure no-one else had ever been, especially not Alfred and definitely not my mother. They were both the sort of people, who had, as my father used to say, both feet firmly planted on the ground. When I was very small I used to hear him say this about my mother and wonder if some day the leaves would sprout from the top of her head and fall in a tangle around her ears. She reminded me of a tree in many ways, dark, thick-set, with that dry, flaking skin, which always had a rough, dragging feel to the touch, and she was immoveable in both attitude and opinion. Alfred was a bit the same but he was nicer with it and I think that was because he did have a little of my father in him, a little more than the looks as a child anyway, for my father was very much the dreamer and there were times when I would see the same expression in Alfred’s eyes.

It wasn’t that I truly hated Alfred, not really, not often anyway, it was just that one day I simply couldn’t stand it anymore. For years I had sat and listened to the glory that was Alfred. The way that she used to go on about him, you could have sworn that he was the second re-incarnation of Jesus Christ, it was just that we hadn’t made it public knowledge. No, the glorification of Alfred was very much a family affair and I suspect that it was done more for my benefit than for anyone elses. On that day, which was the end, I like to think, of myself as a child, I listened for as long as I could and then told her he was nothing of the kind and anyway, I hated him.

She sat back as if I'd slapped her. It was wicked, she said, to say that I hated my brother, terribly wicked to say I hated anyone. Then she went on about how evil I was and how my father’s mother must have turned my mind, that I was a child left by the devil in place of her own and that I could not possibly be her own daughter. The fact that I looked almost exactly like her seemed to conveniently escape her notice at this point, and if it had not been for that one particularly glaring piece of evidence I would happily have embraced her theory. Even then I felt nothing for this woman who had supposedly brought me forth from her own flesh.

When I was very young I had sorted through her important papers, the one’s she kept in the big black leather bag in the bottom of the wardrobe, so convinced that I was adopted and the evidence must surely be found. I was only eight and I was so disappointed when I read her name on the birth certificate that I started to cry, but then I read my father’s name as well and that cheered me up. If I had to belong to her then at least I belonged to him as well. If she was the price I paid for being my father’s daughter then so be it.

The thing that really seemed to bother her most about hating was the fact that if we hated someone, then it meant that we wished they were dead. I couldn't see why this was such a problem, of course that was what hating was all about; why make out it was something different? There are many times, when people wish that someone or something did not exist and if the only means to that end is death then of course that is what they wish. Some would say that only children feel this way and that it is something which can be instructed out of the child but I think it is in all of us for all of our lives. Death can be such an effective and simple solution to a problem that one cannot help but be lured by its teasing smile. It was not that I ever actively wished or willed the death of another and that was why I found hating such a convenient emotion. It offered the possibility of solution, that was all, and seemed to appease whatever it was that scratched with lethal claws inside of me.

My mother didn’t see it that way but it was only because she wasn't being honest with herself. For a long time I thought she was simply too stupid to be honest with herself, but she wasn't that stupid. Sometimes she even sounded intelligent, although she was, in the main, a coarse, largely uneducated woman. As the eldest daughter, her mother had demanded that she help around the house when finances became strained and it was no longer possible to keep a maid. My mother became the maid when she was thirteen and her schooling finished at that point, busy as she was, caring for her five siblings and taking charge of the general running of the house. She had wanted to be a teacher she told me once although the thought of it made my blood run cold as she was very strict with children and not at all understanding, and I had suffered under too many such instructors to have wished another on the world.

Her mother had been clever though and educated well it seems, unusual for the times and even stranger to think of her as my mother's mother. I never felt that I knew my grandmother, even though she lived with us for many years, but I've come to realise that she was a lot like me, or rather that I'm a lot like she was. Perhaps it was the name we shared, Pandora, a ridiculous name which my grandmother shortened to Dora. It was a family tradition, or so my mother said when I complained about my inheritance. I rejected all the diminutives, announcing that if I was a Pandora then that is what I would remain. I wasn't prepared to give anything of myself away lightly, not even part of my name.

My grandmother didn't give much away either, kept herself to herself as they say. Oh, she had opinions, lots of them, and she voiced them too, but you got the sense that she wasn’t really in what she was saying. Rather, it was as if she were repeating something she had been told to say, which was strange because she was such a powerful personality. Sometimes I wondered if it was just something that she did with my mother, as if she were playing the part of parent in a mechanical way because she didn’t know how to be anything else with her daughter. She certainly never showed emotion, not that I remember anyway. She was a wrapped up sort of person with hard edges and a cold centre but she must have had a soft heart somewhere because she adored Shakespeare, especially the love sonnets and her favourite music was Handel. She also loved my grandfather and he was a gentle, refined sort of man who adored her in return. “Dora had a hard life as a child, a very hard life,” I heard him say to my father once when he gently suggested that perhaps she was too hard on her daughter. He didn’t say anymore than that but my father was the sort of person who took others at their word and he just nodded and seemed to speak more gently to my grandmother after that. I also heard him talking to my mother, trying to bring her round but I don’t think he was very successful. My mother simply said that having a hard life as a child is no excuse for being cruel to others and that most people suffered in childhood so why should her mother be seen as special? My father nodded his head at that too and seemed to speak more gently to my mother after that, at least for a few days.

Before my grandmother died she asked me to make sure they played some Handel at the funeral service but my mother wouldn’t allow it, said the appropriate music for a church was hymns and that her mother would be sent properly on her way if it was the last thing that she did. My mother liked to think that granny was senile at the end because it made it easier for her to ignore her wishes, but I knew she wasn’t and so did my father. It was an awful funeral and granny would have hated it. The church was a monstrous thing of cream brick, built at a time when people seemed to want to create the ugliest things that they could, so it wouldn’t matter if they lost them.

The wars did that, I’m convinced of it, when so much that was beautiful had been destroyed, when people saw the world they knew reduced to rubble, not once, but twice, it was not surprising that many stopped building things which could and should last forever. When you only have the present and you’re not sure of how much of that there is, then you only need things which are functional and can be quickly and easily replaced if they are destroyed.

The church had that look about it, insubstantial, as if just waiting for the bomb and I have to say I don’t believe that I was the only one who would have been happy to see it reduced to rubble I can tell you. Yes, there were so many ugly things built after the wars that when I look back on it I wonder if it just made everything worse. People had suffered such unbearable pain and all they wanted to do was protect themselves from it. I think it applied to people too in a way, there was a distance to them, a separation if you like from the source of pain. I couldn’t see it then, when I was a part of it, but looking back I can see it now.

Still, I couldn’t help but think that my mother had set out to make granny’s funeral as awful as she could, and if she didn’t plan it, if fate simply handed her exactly what she wanted, then she must have been very pleased indeed. To my mind it was the final insult that granny, who loved beautiful things, should be farewelled from such a place of spartan functionality, with beauty banished and grace humiliated. The food which they served after in the church hall was awful as well, tomato or cheese sandwiches with the bread drying in a slow curl at the edges. They hadn’t even been buttered, as I discovered when I looked, but then that might have been a blessing given the obvious economy of the event. There were fairy cakes too, some with a depressing badge of chocolate icing on top and others with a sickly mock cream which had begun to melt in the heat long before we got to them, sending the blood-red cherry decoration in a deadly slide down onto the plate. A friend of my mothers who prided herself on feeding the largest amount of people for the least amount of money had done the catering and excelled herself as usual.

There was one thing that my mother and grandmother had in common, they were both scared of devils. It was probably sheer pervesity on my part which turned me the other way. I couldn’t stand being like my mother in any way at all and if I could have changed the shape and colour of my eyes then I would have. Looking at her at times it was like looking into a mirror and that gave me a slow, sick feeling in my stomach. It was like watching who I was going to be whether I wanted to be or not. The funny thing is that the older I get the more I look like her, even down to the creases on either side of my mouth. My grandmother had them too, so perhaps there’s no escape from what we are, and all our desperate attempts to be other are no more effective than the frantic flailing of an overturned cockroach.

One thing is still different though, I haven’t handed myself over to the angels . You know where you stand with a devil ... one wrong move and you've had it. Angels on the other hand are much more fickle. It’s all that love which is the problem. We didn't believe in love in my family, not really. We talked about it, used the word when it suited but we didn't really believe in it. My father didn't know how to love, or so my mother said. I can remember times when I found him loving, and my brother said the same but as we got older it became harder to remember. His mother had never kissed him, never hugged him, that was the trouble and then there was the war.

He had lied about his age, like so many, and gone to do a man's work in the shoes of a boy. A lot of them thought that first war was going to be a great adventure, a bigger, more exciting version of the fun and games they had had as boys. The trouble was that a lot of them were still just boys and wouldn’t have been able to see the truth of war if someone had explained it to them very slowly and very carefully. They had to experience it, to find out for themselves that war is only ever what it has always been ... pain and death... with a little bit of excitement and glory thrown in from time to time to soak up the blood. It changed them forever.

My mother said that he even looked different when he came back from the war, that she didn’t recognise him when she passed him in the street and it was only when her brother introduced them that she realised who he was. He had been such a pretty little boy, she said, but after the war, while he was still handsome, there was a hardness to his expression and a brittle edge to his voice. War is no good for loving, especially for boys who have never been kissed or hugged.

So many years have passed since my mother first told me not to hate my brother. She is long dead and so is my father but their words live on. I'm much older, but only a little wiser. I don't hate my brother Alfred anymore and probably I never did, but I still hate those who have wronged me, especially Michael who was meant to protect me, and if that means I walk hand in hand with the prince of devils then so be it. That was probably the one thing that Michael and my father had in common, a hardness of expression and a roughness to the voice although it wasn’t something that I saw or heard in Michael before we were married; it came later.

The way I hated Alfred wasn’t real hating, it was just the worst thing I could think of to say because I knew it upset my mother and he was her favourite. He was everyone's favourite, but then Alfred was that sort of person. It was unfair competition really, him so good and me so bad. And he was good too, most of the time, to his parents, to other people and usually to me. He was a nice person Alfred, sunny-natured and generally kind, at least as long as he got his own way. He didn't think a lot, but then he didn't need to because generally life went the way that he wanted without too many upsets. Things just seemed to work out for Alfred and I can only assume he had more than one guardian angel looking after him. He was, as they say, born under a lucky star and generally the heavens shone upon him. He was good-looking too and everyone liked him and, when I look back on it, I find it hard to see that he put a foot wrong.

I was the opposite, of course, clumping through life loud-hoofed and clumsy, but I got there all the same, even without the help of the angels. I had my devil of course, and that made a difference, but one devil against hordes of angels can only do so much. I know my mother believed that the devils had more power, and so did I when I was younger, but even then I doubted it from time to time and now I'm not so sure at all. I wouldn't swap though, not my life for Alfred’s, no matter how sunny and peaceful it might have been. He came to a bad end, not at all nice and of course he died fairly young but then that's the way it is supposed to happen.

The only time I think I ever truly hated him was when we fought over the horse. Robin we called him, a large, wooden rocking horse which had belonged to my mother and been handed down to us. It was the one possession which we had to share, other than our parents of course, and I suppose that's why we fought over it so much. Robin was a glorious creature, with mane and tail of coarse, cream hair, brown and white flanks and a red leather saddle with real stirrups. That horse took me further than I've ever been and as far as I needed to go as a child. Within the rocking, back and forth, I found my freedom and with eyes closed, head flung back I could ride to the heavens and beyond, tearing past the flames of the sun, thundering across mountainous clouds, feeling the whispered scream of the wind in my hair. He could travel anywhere and take me with him, from the land of the living to the land of the dead; through sun-bright nights and moon-filled days; through the realms of angels and of devils, on and on and back again.

And often I did not ride alone, but at my side would be a boy, his face half in shadow, with skin which shone like the sun and hair, so luminous and golden, it shivered around his temples and cascaded down his back in a halo of light. He rode a horse of purest white with a flowing mane which trailed a line of small, bright, burning stars and it was he who led the way, and even in the darkest forests, black with doubt and fear, I could not lose him, for far ahead would still be seen the spiralling dance of dazzling radiance, reaching back to show me the way. I can remember, clearly, even though I never spoke of them, those fantastic journeys which were threaded so tightly through my childhood.

When Alfred rode it was to a different place, it was to Camelot, the land of heroes and shining dreams, where all was put to rights by those who knew the truth. Alfred knew in the core of his soul that he was born to be a knight and within the moving visions of childhood he could find his way to only one place. Sometimes he wanted me to be his Guinevere, but I preferred to play the Black Knight and Alfred would agree, if only because even good knights must have something bad to fight against. We would battle to the death in innocent fields and whoever won would get to ride Robin for the rest of the day.

In terms of sharing it generally worked out equally because while Alfred was older then me, and of course, bigger and stronger, I had different ways of playing where the way to victory could be found through the undergrowth of bent and twisted rules. It was on those rare occasions that Alfred took exception to my cheating and claimed his right to ride that I called foul. It was then that I hated him, and wanted to tell my mother so; to throw soot upon the brightly polished armour of her heroic son.


It was while she was sweeping the kitchen floor that Pandora found herself craving treacle on fresh, buttered bread. She kept thinking about the letter which had arrived from the retirement home that morning, telling her that a place would become available in two months time. It had been a shock to see the words, written so clearly and precisely upon the page, stark and irrefutable evidence that what she had set in motion had finally borne fruit. It wasn’t that she had second thoughts about moving out of what had been her home for so many years, but rather that it all seemed to be happening much sooner than she expected. It was only when she found herself sweeping the same part of the floor over and over again and thinking about treacle and fresh bread that she realised how upset she was.

But it was Wednesday and she would not shop again until Friday. Pandora toyed with the idea of changing her routine and then told herself that there was bread in the freezer, knowing even as she did that it was not a solution because it never tasted the same as bread baked that day. The craving became so great that finally she could withstand its demands no longer and so she put down the broom, left it leaning against the kitchen table for when the task could be more comfortably completed, and, after putting on her hat and coat, set out for the shops. There was a guilty flutter of excitement in her chest as she walked, for no other reason than that she was embarking upon something which was beyond the regular; something which was not a normal part of her routine. Pandora found that life passed more easily when she maintained an established order to her days. It was something that she had done since Michael left and now that she was getting older, and sometimes even a little forgetful, it proved to be even more essential.

It was just as she turned the corner that she passed the woman who had taken over old Mrs Jessop’s house at the end of the street, some five years before. Pandora nodded and the woman returned her nod. Neither smiled but then neither expected it. They occasionally passed each other this way and since Pandora liked to keep herself to herself and the woman appeared to want to do the same, there was little more than a nod that could be shared. There was a comfortableness about it though, despite the fact that they were passing on a Wednesday and not a Friday. Pandora wondered briefly if the woman always went out on a Wednesday. With that leg of hers it was a wonder she went out at all.

It always saddened her to see the woman because she was so badly crippled. She looked to be about sixty, although she could have been younger, her face merely reflecting the ravages of her disfigurement like some distorted mirror. Pain had a way of re-drawing people’s faces, aging them almost beyond recognition with carefully measured strokes, as had happened with her father before he died.

The woman always made Pandora think of her father but it was only because his sister had also been a cripple and he had loved her so very much. The look of love on his face, that day she had seen him with his sister, was something which remained with her still. At the time it had almost taken her breath away and even now she found herself gasping quietly as the image drew strength and re-fleshed itself yet again. Pandora had been very young at the time but more than old enough to recognise the look of love and she had never forgotten it; could not in fact forget it even if she had tried. It was only the one time that she saw her aunt, although she had heard about her, but no more than muffled whispers and foolishly dropped words. She had not been meant to see her, and neither she suspected had her father because normally his sister was kept in a home. The nuns knew how to care for such people, her grandmother had once said to her mother.

It was only when they walked into the sitting room that they saw her, down on her hands and knees, crawling along the floor. She was a round, fleshy woman with a plump face pitted with acne scars and small, wistful eyes, which grew bright and round like small, hard marbles at the sight of Pandora’s father. In an instant, he too was on his knees, pulling his sister into his arms. When his parents walked into the room it was to find him holding the mute and broken woman in his arms, rocking her back and forth like a baby, murmuring softly into her cheek that she was a lovely girl, his favourite girl. Pandora had been less shocked at the sight of her father than the scream which came from her grandmother’s lips when she walked into the room. Her father had scrambled to his feet and his sister had tumbled like soft-bodied doll onto her side.

Pandora and her father were hurried from the room, told it was not a good time to visit and shown out to the front gate by grandfather who looked both incredibly uncomfortable and terribly sad. “Your mother knows best,” he had said, and Pandora’s father had nodded. It was on the way home that her father told her what had happened to his sister. He did not talk for what seemed an age and Pandora had been desperate to ask but dared not. There was a look on his face which threatened the desperation of either tears or rage and she feared both. When he did speak his lips jerked at either corner, as if the muscles, held tight, were trying to keep the words in order.

She had been a beautiful little girl, he said, born two years after him, with the face of an angel. Everyone had loved her, especially he and his father and they could deny her nothing. It was her father who had given in to her pestering and let her ride the pony when she was four, and it was on that first ride, when she demanded that she let him hold the reins herself, just for a moment, that the pony took fright at a snake and threw her to the ground. Father had been right by her side, holding out his hand to take the rein back, when she had had her way for no more than a moment, but it was not enough.

Gloria was thrown onto the ground and, hitting her head on a rock had lain unconscious for a week. He would never forget the sight of her body, so broken and still, with the bright stream of blood mingling with her delicate, cream curls. When at last she opened her eyes they had all wept with joy but he had seen, before anyone, that Gloria was gone. What was left was a shell, a body constructed of something more like plastic than flesh, which drew no direction from a crippled brain. Gloria had become like one of her many dolls, although they kept their pretty faces and hers stretched and coarsened over the years as her body grew fat and her muscles wasted through lack of use. She never walked again, or spoke and while she was cared for at home until she was ten, it was always known that one day Gloria would go to the nuns.

They sent her away while he was at boarding school and by the time he came home for the holidays there was no trace of her. It was as if she had never been. Her bed was gone, and all of her toys, and while there were some photographs of the family where she was pictured before the accident, there was no other evidence that his favourite girl had ever existed. When she did visit, and it was not often, his mother would always make sure the other children were not at home. He never saw her again, he said, until then.

Pandora had cried at hearing this story, and even now, in the remembering, the tears gathered at the corners of her eyes. It was the saddest story she had ever heard and remained so if only for the pain which was twisted around it, her father’s pain. Her father had asked her that day not to blame her grandmother, that she did only what she thought was right, but it was not her grandmother that Pandora blamed for the suffering but Gloria; the finger pointed firmly at her dribbling, soft-bellied aunt.

It was one of the reasons that she really did not like coming across the crippled woman. Some things are best forgotten. At the same time she found a fascination with her and there was always a terrible urge to turn around and watch her as she walked away and it was one which Pandora could usually resist. But this day was different and she did stop and turn and watch her walk down the street, lurching and loping like a thin, bent cat, because while one leg was sturdy and sound, the other, the left, was like some thin piece of rubber which bowed out at the side with each step. It seemed impossible that the woman could walk at all with such a leg, but walk she did, and regularly, as if to prove that it were the easiest thing in the world to do. Pandora admired her courage but wondered if the woman realised how ridiculous she looked.

It was on the way back from the shop, smelling the damp yeastiness of the bread that Pandora thought again of her father. He had always loved treacle on fresh bread and while her mother had never approved, fearful, so she said, for her children’s teeth, it was what he had fed to them as a special treat when she was out of the house. With mouths full of caramel stickiness they would stand by the window, fearful lest mother and wife should make an early return. At such times her father seemed more of a child himself. As he ate he would laugh and say:”I should hate this stuff you know, I’ve eaten so much of it, especially in the Depression, but I don’t, I love it, love it!” Given the chance, he said, he would eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was all because of his sweet tooth and not his fault at all. Something he had inherited from his father and which could never be satisfied. It was said, he added, that having a sweet tooth also meant that you could never be truly satisfied with anything, not even life. It had been that way for his father and his father’s father and it would be that way for him. Pandora had wanted to ask why but instead had nodded as if she understood what he was telling her. It was rare for her father to share a confidence and any offering was to be treasured.

It wasn’t that he didn’t talk, it was just that he didn’t seem to do it much with his family. At work he talked all the time but then that was what barbers were meant to do. Sometimes, listening to him talk, she would feel that this man who was her father was also someone else. She liked him more, this other person who was her father, but who was not being her father but rather, another part of himself which seemed more at ease, even humorous at times. His face looked different, more composed if anything, and the voice changed too, losing its hard edge and flowing around words, pushing them forward with a gentle touch rather than marshalling them to attention.

Pandora never heard him talk about the war though. She heard other people talk about him and the war, talk about how much it had changed him and she was curious to hear from his own mouth what it was like but she could not form the right question to ask, and knew, even if she did, that she would not have the courage to ask it. It was as if he had within himself a steel box which held all of those stories which could never be told, something which he could not allow to be opened by anyone, not even himself. He used to listen to other men talk about the war though, nodding his head in agreement, but adding nothing, only the slight jerking of a muscle at the side of his mouth. There were one or two men who talked about the war all the time but they hadn’t been in the trenches, they hadn’t been where he had been. Their stories were safe to tell.


My mother cared more about Alfred than she did me and later she cared more about Michael. When I think about it, now that it's too late, they were really a lot alike. It would have been easier if I'd married someone like my father, but then I would have had to deal with the drink. Not that any of it matters now. It's all too long ago and even Michael is dead. I still hate him though. No matter what my mother said, it's not a matter of allowing yourself to hate, such things come easily. I might be old and he might be dead, but the hatred is still young.. young and vigorous. It feeds on rage, hatred does, and rage, if it doesn't destroy you, can be the source of life.

I might have been different if I’d married another sort of man but wishing doesn’t change things and tinkering with probabilities is only a distraction. I have wondered though, if I had married someone other than Michael, if perhaps the hatred would not have stayed with me. But it’s served me well and I can’t imagine who I might have been without it. My mother believed that I had sold my soul to the devil, entered into a pact as she put it. Well, I can’t say that it was ever anything definite but who knows. I'm the only one still alive and they say that only the good die young. Not that they were good, I won't have that, and it was not that they died so terribly young, just that they were not as old as I am now.

It's strange being old. You don't feel any different inside, you just look different and that’s something I never quite get used to. I’ve had all the mirrors taken out of the house because it was just such a shock each morning and since I don’t wear makeup anymore there’s really no need for a mirror. You don’t have to look at your face to wash it and with my hair pulled back in a bun, well, it’s the easiest of things and I’ve been doing it so long I could pin it up with my eyes closed anyway. It’s my hands though, I try not to look at my hands because they seem ancient, much, much older than the rest of me and sometimes, when I do look at them, I get the feeling that they’re not mine, that they really belong to someone else. It’s a strange feeling and I don’t like it but it seems to happen more the older I get, as if whoever I am inside this body has less and less to do with the body that I can see. It's easy to become bitter when you get old. My mother did, although I have to remind myself that I can’t remember her any other way. I've tried hard not to be bitter, but I think I am ... it creeps out, watches me, laughs in that nasty dry way at my best intentions. Yes, I do have good intentions, lots of them, it's just that they seem to get lost along the way, bogged down in something thick and murky which won't let them through, no matter how much I try.

Not that I've done such a bad job of getting old. I've enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I think the most important thing about getting old is accepting what you’ve got. Oh, I know a lot of people would say, if they were still alive, that I’ve never been very accepting or contented with my lot but then none of them really knew me. I’ve made the best of a lot of things in my life and if other people couldn’t see, it was only because I didn’t make a fuss about it. Granny used to say the less other people knew about you the better and that’s the way I’ve done it. She used to say that the more you tell about yourself the more of your power you give away and people only ever talk about themselves because they want approval. I’ve never needed other people to approve of me; I can do that well enough for myself. I like to think that I can see things clearly as well, put life into persepective so I can stay on track. A lot of people can’t do that, they want too much, expect too much.

We're all pretty ordinary when you come down to it. We start out thinking we're special but life soon knocks that arrogant little illusion into shape. I used to think I was special. I used to think I was a lot of things. Funny how we change our minds without knowing we are doing it. Perhaps that's what getting old is about, discovering that most of the things which you thought were important don't really matter so much after all. It's the memories which stay with you, and the feelings ... the strong ones anyway, like love and hate.

I'm all alone now. They're all gone, all dead ... well, not all, my daughters are still alive but I haven't seen them in years. It wasn't that we fought or anything, no, nothing specific like that, it was just that they stopped coming to see me. Not that the visits had been frequent since they left home, but they were regular, birthdays, Mother's Day, Christmas, that sort of thing and then, one year, neither of them came. It was the second year after Christopher's death that the visits stopped. Perhaps that was why I didn't really notice, why it took me three years more to realise that I hadn't seen the girls for more than four years and by then it was too late.

They didn't like the way I talked about their father and I told them I had every right to talk about him in any way that I wanted. He might be their father, but he had been my husband and he had wronged me, and wronged them too. Oh yes, he had wronged all of us but by then they had stopped believing what I said about him. They said my hatred was poisoning them, poisoning us all and that it was time I gave up my anger. I told them that I had every right to be angry, that I knew what I was angry about and that hating their father was my business, not theirs. I tried to explain to them again what he was really like but they’d stopped hearing. It was all true of course, everything I told them, just as true as when I had first said it, but for some reason they decided they wanted to see him and things were never the same after that.

I blame Zoe more than I do Blanche, she is the eldest and should have known better. I warned her about her father and she had listened to me, at least until she was twenty-two she had listened to me, and then it all went wrong. Blanche was only nineteen, far too impressionable and not at all mature. She was always so easily led and Zoe was always so ready to lead. Chalk and cheese those two girls. If I could have mixed them up a bit and evened out the differences it would have been better for both of them, but they were made the way they were made and that was the end of it. I did try though, while they were young, to teach Zoe a little humility and to teach Blanche to be strong. I’m not sure anymore that you can really change things, no matter how much you try.

They shouldn’t have gone to see Michael though. God only knows what he told them. It would all have been lies, but they couldn't tell the difference between his lies and my truth. He had no right to see them anyway since he was the one who walked out on us all. He kept saying to me afterwards that he didn’t understand why I was so upset since I hated him and didn’t want him around anyway, but that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t what he did, it was the way he did it. Michael never understood the how of things, never understood that it wasn’t so much what you did but how you did it.

They betrayed me by going to see their father. Zoe would have known that; she always knew what she was doing. I can’t believe she wouldn’t know how it would hurt me. That was why she wrote to tell me about the visit. She didn’t have to do that; it was only to done to inflict pain. I should have known they couldn't be trusted. They weren't like me, the girls, they were more like Michael and my mother -- they both had a lot of my mother in them. That’s the hardest thing of all about having children, you never know which bits of either side you’re going to get. They have their own natures, I’m not denying that, but there’s so much that comes down in the blood.

My grandmother used to say that it was all in the blood, all the important things which people inherited and that’s why you had to look closely at the family of whoever you married, all of them, because you’d see signs of what was inside them and that was what your children would get, the hidden things, the unexpected inheritances. I didn’t understand what she was going on about when I was younger but I know now, perfectly well ... I’ve seen it all. The strange thing about it was that she liked Michael. She only met him once, when he was a young boy, because she knew the family, but I remember her saying what a nice boy he was. He was much too young then for me to care about but I always listened to what my grandmother said and I’ve wondered since if she was the reason I married Michael.

It was later, when I could clearly see the truth of him that I didn’t understand why she hadn’t seen it either, hadn’t seen the man inside the boy, because you always can see who the child will be and she was good at that, good at picking people, lifting up the facade and seeing who was really inside. Even my mother used to say that granny had a ‘nose for people,’ that she could see who you really were just by looking at you. She could do that with me, knew me inside out, and it was the strangest feeling to be so easily revealed and more than a little frightening. My mother was scared of her and I think that’s why; she could hide nothing. It was second sight alright, the devil’s gift and for a long time I hoped that I would have it too, that it would be passed on to me, but I can’t say it happened, although sometimes I wondered about Christopher.

You can see more as you get older, see yourself and other people more clearly. It’s as if you have reached the end of a long road and can look back and see more clearly the twists and turns. Age gives you perspective, arranges people on the page so you can see the similarities more clearly. If I’d known more about Michael when I married him, and more about his family I would never have done it. The genes on his side were not good and my mother’s family didn’t make it any better. Now that’s the real Pandora’s box when I come to think about it, genetics, who gets what from which side of the family and from how far back. That’s what having children does, opens the box of genes and you’ve no idea what you’re going to get. It’s all in there, just waiting for a chance to escape and you can only hope and pray that it won’t be havoc which is unleashed on the world. I think Zoe would come into the havoc category but Blanche, well, Blanche is just Blanche. She had my aunt’s eyes, the one who couldn’t walk or talk. My father adored her and I was the only one who knew why. It was a bad sign though, I knew even then it was a bad sign.

Christopher was different, he took after my father's side of the family completely. Not that it was all good, they had a weakness with the drink that family and I had seen enough of it in my father to hope that Christopher would escape it. He did, and I was grateful for that, although to be honest I suppose I would have to say it just came out in another way. He drew the same lot at the end of the day, it was just that it dressed in different clothes.