Twenty years since
shed seen him. He looked both as she remembered him and completely
different; not just older but as if he were someone else.
Alice, he said and the strangled gasp of
his voice made her shiver. There was no doubt. This was her father.
Alice. Mums voice sounded as if she were a long way away, maybe
even buried underground. But she was on her bed wearing underwear.
Please come downstairs. Weve made a play
specially for you and even Robbie is in it.
I know. Ill try. Tomorrow.
Alice looked at her mother lying with her legs stretched out and crossed at the
ankles, her eyes closed and her hand on her forehead.
Is it because of Daddy? Alice
Dont be silly, Mummy said but Alice
could tell she didnt mean it.
Maybe Daddy doesnt like you, Alice
Mummy groaned. Of course he
Well, why is he rude to you?
Hes mostly nice to me.
Mummy could be lying, but grown-ups didnt lie.
They told children not to lie.
Anyhow, he doesnt like us. Me and Simon
He loves you, Mummy said. Now
please, leave. I want to sleep.
Its daytime, Alice whispered.
Mummy had put on
make up and had used hairspray and perfume. Now she
was dressed in her new blue suit and hat, which was little, like a pie, with
blue net that came over her face, just to her eyes. There were sparkles of blue
stone in the net.
You look pretty. Alice was happy that
Mummy was happy.
Thank you, Mummy said, music in her
voice giving Alice a glad tingling in her throat. Mummy picked up her handbag
and did a twirl. All dressed up and somewhere to go. Come and kiss me
goodbye. Alice obeyed.
She, Robbie and Simon stood outside the front
door with Susan, who came most days to clean the house. She also looked after
them when Mummy wasnt able to or had to go away. Daddy was in the car.
Bye, darlings, Mummy called. She only
called them darling when everything was all right. Im
off to have a lovely day in town. And I might never come back. She
Will Mummy never come back? Simon asked
Susan after the car had left. His lips were trembling.
Silly boy, Susan said. You
shouldnt believe half the things grown-ups tell you. Simon went on
looking up at her. She hadnt exactly said that Mummy would be back, Alice
How can I live a normal
life? Daddy shouted. Mummy might be about to cry, thought Alice, who was
lying on the carpet behind the sofa.
Its time you pulled yourself together.
Looked after your children. Made sure that Susan does her bit.
Hearing Mummy give a soft sigh, Alice pulled Rabbit
closer and rubbed his velvety fur on her cheek.
She does what I ask, Mummy said.
Lately she hadnt been talking much. Shed told Alice that words made
her feel tired. Both the ones she used and the others that were spoken to her.
We may have to consider hospital again,
No, Edward. Ill be fine.
Will you though? Daddy shouted. He walked over
to the cupboard where grown-up drinks were kept. Alice crawled from behind the
sofa and watched Daddy opening a bottle and pouring some brown-coloured liquid into a glass.
I couldnt bear to leave the children
again, Mummy whispered.
Youre no use to them the way you are. We
might have to send Robbie to boarding school a year early.
Not that. My poor little boy. Ill be
Whats boarding school? Alice asked.
Daddy turned to look at her.
Whats the child doing here? I thought she
was in bed, he shouted.
Im going now, Alice said. She stood
and left the room, defiant and a little scared.
Alice ran into the
brightness of the afternoon, feeling the heat after the coolness of the large
living room with their closed curtains. She sat on the lawn watching Robbie and
Simon playing cricket. Robbie was batting, commentating as he did so,
pretending to be a famous sportsman. Alice lay on her stomach, put her face
close to the grass and saw a caterpillar climbing a leaf. If Robbie saw it, he
would pick it up and squash it. Sometimes Robbie was horrid. And bossy. She
began to roll over and over thinking about how funny Mummy had been just now.
Alice had gone inside because she didnt want to play cricket.
Whos that? Mummy had
Its me, Alice said.
Come here. Alice obeyed and went into the
living room. Ill be better soon, Mummy said. Well
have nice holiday together.
Even him. Mummy closed her eyes. My
life would be perfect it werent for your
father. He has made me ill. He has taken away my
Alice bit her finger. She liked the feel of it in her
mouth, and the painful sharpness of teeth on skin.
Are you better? Alice asked when her
mother opened her eyes. There was no answer. After a few minutes Alice stood up
and went back outside again.
Youre rolling onto our pitch, Robbie
called and Alice stopped.
I dont want to play anymore. I never get
to bat, Simon whined.
Because you never get me out, Robbie said.
You need to improve your game.
Im going to see Mummy, Simon threw
the cricket ball to Robbie and ran towards the house.
She wont talk to you. She doesnt
make sense and she doesnt care. Shes mad and she doesnt love
us, Robbie called.
Shut up, Alice said. Stop saying
those silly things.
Its what Dad says, Robbie said. He
was trying to sound grown-up, Alice knew, even though he was only
The house was quiet when
Alice woke. Sun shone through the curtains as she sat up, trying to remember
what had happened. Maybe it was a dream. She climbed out of bed and, because
she wanted to be good, put on her slippers and dressing gown as she had been
told to do. On the landing, remembering the night before, she began to feel
scared. The world was a mysterious and often scary place. She wished that
someone would help her not to feel so alone. She headed for the lavatory,
knowing that she must make no noise.
In the dark a loud noise had come from outside:
an ambulance or a fire engine. Coloured light had
swirled into her room, even with the curtains drawn, and Alice had pulled her
blankets over her head. She lay smothered in the warm woolly smell and after a
while she thought that the noise and the lights had been a dream. She tried to
go back to sleep but eventually, feeling too hot and finding it difficult to
breathe, she pushed her bedclothes aside. The light still circled around her
room and there were noises on the landing, a bumping sound and some whispering.
The noise went down the stairs. Someone shrieked. It sounded like Simon. Alice
thought shed heard Susans voice, but she went home after bedtime so
it couldnt be her. She wanted the dark to be gone and morning to be here.
Now the morning had come. Back in her bedroom,
Alice looked at her watch a present for her last birthday. It was time
to get up. She drew back the curtains and looked out onto the garden, almost
expecting to see a large vehicle. There was nothing there: just the sun and the
lawn and the tops of the trees swaying in the wind. It must have been a dream.
She went back onto the landing; the whole house was holding its breath. The
silence was thick, like fog. Slowly she went into Simons room. He
wasnt there. His curtains were closed and his bed unmade, but his clothes
were piled neatly on the chair and the shoes together under it. Something
wasnt right. She stood by the window, opened the curtain and leant on the
sill, looking out as if she would be able to see something extra in the garden
from Simons room. But she couldnt. Next she went into Robbies
room. She knew he wouldnt be there: he was at boarding school.
Nonetheless, she felt compelled to go in and look at the garden through his
window. His room smelled of emptiness.
Alice sat at the top of the stairs and waited for
something she wasnt sure what to happen. When nothing did,
she went down and into the dining room. The table was laid for breakfast but
there was nothing to eat except for cereal; the packets sitting on the
sideboard. Usually thered be the smell of toast and either Susan or
Mummy, if she was well, bustling about.
In the living room Alice sat on the sofa feeling
that she was all alone in the house. Maybe her family had been kidnapped. Or a
spell had been put on them. Perhaps shed been asleep for a hundred years
and everyone had died. Alice shuddered and lay down, curling into a ball.
When she woke, Daddy was looking down at her.
Alice blinked, and sat up. When he didnt move or say anything she was
scared. She tried to ask a question but couldnt speak.
What is it? Daddy said.
Staying with Susan.
Is Mummy there, too?
No. Your mother
Your mother has gone
away, Daddy said, not looking at Alice. She didnt understand what
hed said but she knew something bad was happening.
All morning Alice had
been swinging, backwards and forwards, aiming for the sky, singing a silly
nonsense song as she worked her legs and her body to keep the movement strong
and fast. She clung tightly onto the ropes and the roughness cut into the palms
of her hands. She liked the almost painful rub of that, the scariness of
feeling the jerk as she tried to go higher, too high. Simon and Robbie came to
watch her. She ignored them, looking away, pretending she was flying and would
live forever in the cloud with no brothers and no dad. But absolutely
definitely, with a mum.
I want a go, Simon said. He would be
crying again soon, Alice thought, so she slowed down to give him a
Aunt Diana called: Alice! Simon! Robbie!
Alice took no notice. Sometimes Aunt Diana was
silly. She held her hands together and said oh when she didnt
know what to do. Sometimes she cried. Then shed take a deep breath.
I mustnt give in for their sake, dear Teddy. That was what
she called Dad. Mummy had called him Darling and, when she was cross, Edward.
And sometimes nothing. Sometimes Mummy hadnt spoken to Dad at all. Dad
was Aunt Dianas brother. It was strange to think that once Dad and Aunt
Diana had been children like Robbie, Alice and Simon.
Mostly Alice liked having Aunt Diana living with
them. The problem was the bit that made Alice rude when she didnt
want to be was that her aunt was here because Mummy wasnt.
Alice saw Aunt Diana coming down the path from
the house. Her feet in their loose flat shoes were flapping.
Alice, Aunt Diana said and Alice
carried on swinging. Alice. Lunch. Her voice had started to go
high, like it did when the children wouldnt do what she asked.
Not hungry, Alice said and pushed her
legs out in front of her to make the swing go faster and higher. Then she felt
bad; she didnt want to upset her aunt. She let the swing slow down,
jumped off before it had finished and ran to Diana, throwing herself at her.
Sorry, sorry, Alice mumbled.
Later, Robbie sat cross-legged using his penknife
to make a point at the end of the stick. His mouth was a hard line and his eyes
were squeezed in concentration. Simon wouldnt stop crying.
Shut up, he said. Only babies cry
for their mothers.
Simon snivelled. He had been crying on and off
ever since the day when Dad had told Alice that Mummy had gone away. Susan said
she was dead. Alice had heard her talking about it to George, the gardener.
His Lordships in a right state, now
Madams dead, she had said. And as you and I know,
theres more to whats happened than meets the eye. Once, a
long time ago, Alice had asked Mummy why Susan called Dad His
Lordship even though he wasnt a lord.
Its irony, she had said, sounding
tired. She had often sounded tired before she went away.
Is it because Susan does the ironing?
Alice had asked. Mummy laughed and turned away from Alice, who was waiting for
something that she wanted but could not explain.
Robbie poked Simon with the point of his stick and
Simon yelped. Ill tell Aunt Diana, he whined.
She wont do anything, Robbie said.
Ill tell Dad then.
There was silence. Alice thought about Simon
complaining to their father; she wondered if he would even hear what he was
saying. Simon and Robbie were probably thinking the same thing.
That evening, supper was baked beans on toast
that stuck in Alices throat. Just before bedtime was the worst part of
the day. She gagged, swallowed and drank some milk. She heard the sound of
Dads car as he parked, footsteps in the hall, the bang of the living room
His lordships home, Susan said,
sniffing. Aunt Diana said nothing.
More cars came up the drive. The bell rang and
Susan went to answer the door. It sounded as if an army of men was walking into
the house. Alice wanted to scream. Instead she held her breath and screwed her
eyes shut. She opened them when she felt her aunts hands on her
Its all right, Alice, she said. But
her voice meant something else.
Later, through the landing window, Alice watched
the police come out to their cars. With them was Dad. His hands were fastened
behind his back. His head was bent and his legs moved as if he were finding it
hard to walk.
Oh my. Down in the hall Susan was wailing.
Alice waited for him to
touch her, hug or kiss her. She waited for him to tell her how sorry he was
that hed spoiled her life. Something. Something to show that he was
capable of love. Instead he frowned at her and cleared his throat.
They are all wrong. I did not kill your mother.
It was suicide.
Alice turned her head, unable to look at him anymore.
It had been a mistake to agree, at last, to see him.
Either way, you were responsible, she said
and walked out of the room. She was not crying.