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Muckilly Gog – The tale of a monster

Since I’m reading at a fabulous monster-themed event this week in Cambrige, I thought I’d get into the right frame of mind (and hopefully get some readers into the right one, too 😉

So I’m posting a short story called Muckilly Gog. It’s  a children’s story, but it isn’t just for children. Because monsters come in many guises.

 Muckilly Gog

Muckilly Gog first came into our lives the summer Dad came back to live with us. I didn’t pay a lot of attention or worry much at first. When you’ve got something to really worry about, your brother’s imaginary friends don’t seem to matter that much.

And I guess when I say “worry about” I mean “be so frightened, you have a hard time sleeping or concentrating.” That kind of worry. Which is the kind that blocks everything else out, so when people talk to you it’s like it there’s a big wall of thick plastic between you and them and their words aren’t making it through.

A lot of people later on tried to blame Mum for letting him move back in. I was sort-of angry with her too, but mostly I was angry with the government and the economy and all the people who wouldn’t give her a proper job. I was angry with the right people, because I understood what it was like to be poor all the time. It was my life, too. Never being able to have the clothes or the shoes everyone else had, or to have chocolate or takeaways after school.

I also know it was worse for Mum than it was for us. By the time I was fourteen, just before Dad came back, I understood the tight look on her face when a bill or a bank statement came through the door, and how she would put it aside for later because she was terrified. Sometimes, if she wasn’t working that day, it’d still be there when I got back from school, and she’d be rushing round the kitchen trying to ignore it, doing anything she could to distract herself. I could see the panic getting bigger and bigger and I wanted to tell her just to open it, but it was never going to be good news.

So even though Dad drank half of what he earned, and even though sometimes a monster seemed to borrow his face, and came at us wild-eyed and frothing and awful, I couldn’t blame her. She’d just given in, really, after all his begging and pleading, wanting to believe he’d changed so she could let him smile and pick up the bills and tell her not to worry.

So I understood. But that didn’t make me any less afraid of him. When I was little, it used to be all fear for myself. I used to actually want my mum to make him angry, because then at least he would only hurt her. That’s the horrible thing about being frightened all the time. It makes you selfish and hard.

But after he moved out, we had four years of peace and quiet. I was one of the bigger ones in my year and played a lot of football. When he came back, I wasn’t so frightened for me. I mean, I still shook when I realised something I’d done had annoyed him. There was this slow turn of the head he’d do which made me feel sick. But at least I knew I could outrun him if I really needed to. I was more frightened for Mum, and I frightened for Joshua most of all.

Being four and a half is not good when your Dad sometimes goes on benders which last days, not caring if he turns up to work drunk and in yesterday’s clothes. The manager at work didn’t seem to care either, and I think looking back that he was just as frightened of Dad as we were.

At four years old, Joshua was helpless, and worse, he wasn’t at school all day. Josh only had a childminder half-days when Mum worked cleaning. She wouldn’t have been able to afford that if it hadn’t been for a new childcare scheme which was the only thing she thought the government had done right.

But the rest of the time, when Mum wasn’t at work, Josh was at home with her. In the mornings, she tried to get him out of the house, out of Dad’s way. Dad worked as evening shift manager at one of the city-centre pubs and he’d usually have drunk six or seven pints in that time, then stayed out for a few more before rolling in at 3 or 4. That time was dangerous, but so was the morning after, when he’d have a fierce hangover and be simmering away with anger.

Mum couldn’t always take Josh out, though. Sometimes she was too exhausted, or the weather was too much for Josh, or she’d need to do laundry and mend clothes and clean the house.

Every day I would feel a squeeze in my stomach as I left the house. Josh would usually give me a hug, but he wouldn’t screech and ask for a tickle any more. He’d learned to keep quiet in the morning, even if later, when Dad had a few drinks in him and had eaten enough, he’d sometimes play in the garden with him like a proper Dad or set up his Scalextrix on the living room floor.

Dad moved back in at the beginning of May, and by June Josh had changed. He wasn’t the little monster he’d been. He was quieter, more watchful. It was then that he first mentioned Muckilly Gog.

It was an afternoon when Mum hadn’t worked, and I came back from school to find Dad all apologetic and Mum looking like she was trying not to cry. I could tell something had happened, but Dad just slung an arm round my shoulder and asked how school was, then promised to take me to a Premier League game over summer.

I tried to pretend I was keen, like I normally would have been. But I still asked him where Josh was.

“He’s in the garden,” Mum said quickly, tightly. “Your Dad bought him a new model plane and he’s been whizzing it around.”

I nodded, looking at Dad’s smiling face, and then went out to go and find my little brother.

I caught him just sneaking back into the garden through the gate, and the sight of his face was enough to stop me having a go at him for having run off. His lip was strawberry red and and there was dried blood all up his nose. My heart started pounding when I saw that, and it wasn’t just fear. I wanted to go back in there and smack Dad one. But I knew he was stronger than me, and would take it out on Mum and Josh after he pounded me for it.

I picked Josh up for a hug. “All right, mate?”

“Luke Luke Luke!” he shouted, and tried to blow a raspberry on my neck.

He was happier than I thought he’d be. I guessed the violence had happened that morning and he’d almost forgotten. Sometimes being four can have its good points.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked him.

“In the woods with Muckilly Gog,” he told me. “We played soldiers, but then he said I’d better go home.”

“Who’s Muckilly Gog?” I asked him. I wondered if it was a nickname. Or maybe a cartoon character he’d seen.

You know,” he said.

“Ummm… Off TV?”

He wriggled until I let him down, and went to pick up his plane.

“Josh? Is he off TV?”

“No,” he said, and started zooming around. “The one who lives in the woods.”

I felt a bit sick then. Someone who lived in the woods? Was Josh playing with a homeless stranger?

We were lucky with our house, Mum said, and I always agreed. It was just a council house, provided for us because Mum couldn’t earn enough for anywhere else. But it was at the edge of the town and had a long stretch of narrow garden with a small stream. The stream separated the house from Waddersham Woods, and the woods had been my favourite playground until I’d started hanging around with the kids from school instead. I’ve never found anywhere as good for hiding and den-building as Waddersham Woods. They’re old, and overgrown, and on chalk, so there are hollows and pits and bushes to hide in. When Dad first started to get bad, back when I was seven, they were the place I went to hide until he calmed down.

Josh wasn’t supposed to go in the woods, and Mum had put a fence up next to the stream to stop him falling in. But there was still a gate, which wasn’t too difficult to unbolt, and sometimes Josh would sneak through. Mum once spent half an hour looking for him, getting more and more frightened, and then it turned out he was crouched just inside the woods in a hole, giggling to himself. She gave him a rocket when she caught him.

“Is Muckilly a man?” I asked Josh.

Josh stopped to give me a look. He had those looks sorted. He could make you feel like you were just the most clueless person on the planet.

“He’s a Gog.”

“Oh, right.”

Josh gave a look towards the house windows. I could see Dad inside, looking out, checking that Josh was playing like he should be, and Josh saw him too. He suddenly started running again, with a big, pretend smile on his face.

I felt really sick then, but I still wasn’t sure about this Gog thing.

“I can’t remember what a Gog is,” I said. “Is it like a dog?”

“No,” Josh answered, and rolled his eyes. “You know. It’s tall like a tree. And black and soft. Big loud whispers. A Gog.”

All that made me feel a bit better. I was pretty sure this thing wasn’t real, which meant Josh had just been playing by himself.

“Oh, one of them,” I said. “Well, make sure you’re polite to it. And Josh – you aren’t supposed to go into the woods. Do you think Mucky Gog could play with you here?”

Muckilly,” he corrected. “Yeah, he said he’d come and play this evening. He can come inside if I ask him. But he can’t leave the woods until it’s dark.”

That all sounded ok to me. Playing inside after dark was safe enough, and I reckoned Mum would have a pretty good eye on Josh the rest of the time.

“OK. Just be careful of strangers, all right?”

Josh went on playing until Dad stopped watching, and then he very quietly went inside, where Mum folded him up in a hug. She caught my eye, and looked guilty, like I should be angry with her. I gave her a small smile and an awkward pat on the arm. It wasn’t her I was angry with.

We heard more about Muckilly Gog over the next few weeks. On Saturday afternoon, I heard Mum’s voice raised, and went into Josh’s room. His walk-in wardrobe looked like a bomb-site, with all the clothes on the floor and most of the hangers broken and a big mark on the inside of the door where it looked like he’d kicked it.

“It wasn’t me!” Josh was saying, red-faced and with tears in his eyes. “It was Muckilly Gog!”

“Josh, I don’t want to hear that again. What am I going to do with all this? Oh, look!” and she was holding out his favourite t-shirt (which was really Mum’s favourite of all the clothes she’d found second-hand for him, because it was a blue which made his eyes look huge). It had a great big muddy mark and a tear across the front. Mum looked like she was about to cry.

“What happened, Josh?” I asked him gently, crouching down.

“Muckilly had to hide,” he told me, his chin out and his lip wobbling. “Dad came in.”

He didn’t change from his story, despite gentle prodding, and I ended up almost as frustrated as Mum.

“Wait till Dad hears about this,” I said, which was just annoyance talking and a really unfair thing to say. I looked at Josh and he looked positively white with fear, which was enough to make me feel awful.

“We’re not telling Daddy,” Mum immediately said, scooping him up into a hug.

“OK Joshy? Nobody’s going to tell him, are they, Luke?”

I shook my head, and could feel my cheeks on fire. It made me feel a whole lot more angry realising I shouldn’t have said it, but I took it out on the broken coat-hangers. Between us Mum and I managed to sort out the mess and I told Mum I’d find Josh a new t-shirt.

“I’ve got a fiver to pick up from the Post Office for the paper-round,” I told her.

“You said you were saving up for a jacket,” she argued.

“Don’t be silly. Josh needs clothes. And I don’t blame him if he’s a bit frustrated at the moment.”

Mum said nothing. She kept her eyes down as she carried all the dirty clothes downstairs.

I thought that might be the end of “Muckilly Gog” doing silly things, but it wasn’t. I started to realise that Josh had a lot of anger stored up. At least, that’s what Mum told me was going on and I believed her. Things started breaking around the place, most of them Dad’s, and Mum and I were beside ourselves trying to cover up.

After Dad’s leather jacket got dumped in the river, I knew Josh was really for it. He knew he was too, and despite Mum shushing and cooing to him, it took until eleven to finally get him to go to sleep. He was too frightened to sleep well even then, and woke up three times with a nightmare about a monster coming to get him. He didn’t say if the monster was really his Dad, but I thought it might be.

Downstairs, while Mum and I waited up in fear for Dad to come back, I made a decision. Josh wasn’t going to be in trouble for this, even if it meant lying.

Mum looked even more frightened when I told her what I planned on saying, but as she went on making dinner, I could see her deciding I was right. So actually it was Mum who worked herself up into a pretend outrage and immediately spoke up once Dad got back.

“Stevie, baby,” she said, “I’m so glad you’re back. Some pikey kid snuck in earlier and tried to nick a load of stuff. Luke caught him halfway up the road with your jacket and iPod and chased him, so nothing’s gone, but what if he comes back with his mates?”

I saw my Dad’s hard blue eyes, which were dazed but not any softer with the drink, focus on the jacket on the back of the chair.

“Little git threw it in the river when he realised I was going to catch him,” I told him. “I had to leave it while I got the iPod back.”

It was a good thing the iPod had been lying on the counter. It was a good distraction.

I was still terrified, though, when he snatched up the jacket and swore. Just because it wasn’t apparently my fault or Mum’s didn’t mean he wouldn’t take it out on us. But when he swung on me, it was to ask, “What kid?”

“Skinny, dark-haired one with an earring and a big mole on his face,” I told him, sure I’d never seen anyone from the travellers’ site who looked anything like that. “Probably fifteen. Don’t think he goes to school.”

But Dad nodded. “I know the one,” and my heart sank as he grabbed his car-keys off the hall table.

“I’ll teach him a lesson he won’t forget,” he said.

“Stevie -“ Mum said, her face almost as frightened as it had been when he got home.

“Stay here, Jools,” he told her, angrily. “This needs sorting out.”

We looked at each other once he’d gone, and neither of us was able to go to bed. We took it in turns to comfort Josh when he woke up, but we were waiting again for a return that was worse than last time, probably. I wanted to be sick. What if some poor innocent kid got hurt because I’d lied? I should have just taken the blame. But I knew really that my Dad still frightened me too much for that.

He didn’t get back until five fifteen, and I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw him. He was tired, but calm and a little bit smug. As he told it, he’d gone down there and woken up half the site until he found the kid’s dad, when he told him what for. And then he’d gone to the police and reported them.

“Gave a full statement and they promised to sort it out. We won’t have any more trouble from them,” he told us, and put an arm round Mum as if he was her big protector.

Of course, he was wrong. Making a group of people who live on the edges of everything angry wasn’t a good idea. Two nights later, someone slashed his tyres, and a week after that someone threw what was trying to be a petrol bomb through the window. It was a good thing they had no idea what they were doing, and it went out and just made the room stink of diesel, but Mum was more terrified than ever. We had to endure the rages brought on by all of it, including some of the kids spitting at Dad in the street, and the lie came back to us three times over with when he came at us. Josh had a black eye twice that week and I was counting down the days to the end of term when at least I could be there to get in the way sometimes.

On the twelfth of July, which was only ten days before the end of term, Josh went down with an ear infection on the morning of one of Dad’s  most vicious hangovers, and I almost pretended I was sick too, except that Dad bawled at me to get out of the house and quit moving around before he thumped me. I knew Josh’d cry a lot, and wail and whinge, like he had last time. Mum had booked him in to the doctor’s first thing, but I knew from experience that they didn’t always give out antibiotics and if they did, they’d take a couple of days to sort it out. In the meantime, Dad would be there, getting more and more angry, and Josh wasn’t really well enough to leave the house.

I texted Mum at lunchtime, to see if things were ok, and I could tell by her reply

“All right. Just hope Joshy gets better quickly,” that Dad had stayed in the house with his hangover.

I was shaking by the time it got to hometime, and I ran all the way back. I found Dad on the sofa, smoking and watching motorsports, a black look on his face and an empty can of beer next to him. That made me uneasy, because one beer didn’t usually do enough to sort the hangover. Three or four was best. And then seven or eight got dangerous again.

“Is Mum out?” I asked quietly.

“Taken that brat out to get some more beer in,” he told me. “How did a child of mine end up such a snivelling, selfish idiot?”

My heart started drumming in my chest. If Mum had gone for beer with Josh when he should have been in bed, it meant she was worried, and Dad’s mood was dangerous. I knew what comments like that meant. He was back to his paranoia again, when he was sure Mum had been cheating on him with one of five men he’d been angry about her even meeting up with. That started a bit before Mum had Josh, and I knew that when he was at his worst he thought my brother was somebody else’s.

It was crazy when you looked at the two of them. Same curly hair, same blue eyes. Just really, really different people. I hoped. The thought of Josh ending up like Dad made me want to scream.

Mum didn’t come back for a while, and when she did, I could see that Joshy was really ill. He was red and feverish and crotchety, his eyes too bright, and everything upset him.

“Didn’t they give him antibiotics?” I asked Mum quietly as I let her in.

She shook her head, looking a bit desperate. “I got Dr Smartass and one of his lectures on how antibiotics don’t really help kids.”

“But look at him,” I told her. “He’s not well at all.”

And probably exhausted from being dragged out to the shops, I thought, but didn’t say so.

We made it through dinner, which Dad had on the sofa with a few beers as he wasn’t working, without anything going wrong. But Josh hardly ate, and sat looking dazed most of the time. When bedtime came he started crying pitifully, and when I touched his forehead it was like a kettle.

“Shouldn’t we take him to that out of hours place, Mum?” I asked, but Dad heard.

“He doesn’t need a doctor, he needs a good walloping. Stop being such a little whimp, you spoiled brat.”

“He’s not being a wimp,” Mum said, cradling Josh to her. “He’s being very brave.”

“Don’t argue with me, Jools,” Dad said, sitting forward slowly. There was something dangerous in his voice. “He’s being a whiny little brat and he needs to grow up. Put him down.”

Mum hesitated, which I knew was just going to make things worse.

“Put him down!” Dad yelled, and Mum gently stood Josh on the floor.

His face immediately crumpled and he started to cry, mouth open and dribble coming down his mouth.

Dad surged to his feet, not gracefully but scarily anyway.

“Shut your face!” he shouted, which only made Josh cry harder.

“The neighbours’ll hear, Stevie,” Mum said, looking at the open French window behind him, but Dad was beyond caring now, and it wasn’t like they hadn’t heard him yelling before.

“I don’t give a rat’s ass about the neighbours! I’m going to teach this little turd of yours to toughen up and stop annoying everyone with his whining!”

He went to grab him, but I moved in his way, and was faced with my three-inches-taller, much heavier Dad looming over me. I knew he was going to hurt me, but it was worth it to keep him off Josh. But instead of getting mad at me, he just lunged past me and grabbed Josh’s arm and dragged him towards him.

“Get off me!” Josh shouted, and I tried to pull him out of Dad’s grip.

But he’s a strong man, my Dad, and he whacked me across the head so I was dizzy and reeling, and whilst I stumbled, he backhanded Josh across the face.

The poor little boy was a mess now. He fell onto his bum, snot dribbling out of his nose and a big red mark already coming up on his cheek.

“Stop crying!” Dad yelled.

Josh scrambled up to his feet and backed away down the room.

“You’re – not – my – Daddy!”

Josh shouted, and I felt like my stomach was falling out through my feet. It was the worst thing Josh could have said. The worst thing. And Dad was already in a towering rage.

He lunged for Josh, but I grabbed at his feet and tripped him. I felt his foot come down on my arm, and it hurt more than anything I can remember, until that got wiped out as he kicked me in the face.

“Don’t you protect that little turd!” he said.

Through tear-filled eyes, I saw see Josh’s little form vanishing down the garden, and Dad staggering up to get him.

“Stop, Stevie!” Mum shouted, hysterical. “Come back!”

“I’ll teach him! I’ll teach him!” Dad was shouting.

I got dizzily to my feet, and realised that my nose was pouring blood, but I had to go after him. I was faster, even with a head which felt like it was exploding.

I nearly fell three or four times going down the garden, and didn’t catch him as quickly as I should have, but I could see Josh already through the gate and heading over the little footbridge while Dad was still running down the garden. My little brother was running for all he was worth, and I prayed he could stay ahead long enough for me to do something.

I caught up with Dad on the bridge, and grabbed at his shirt. He half turned and swung a fist at me, but missed. I realised I was going to have to fight him as much as he was fighting me if Joshy was going to make it away, and so I kicked him in the leg. It slipped out from under him and he started to topple into the stream. But he grabbed at me, and instead took us both in.

I fell half on the bank, winded, and then felt myself rolling as Dad pushed me down into the water. The stream was freezing, even in summer, and I gasped half a lungful of it in as I hit out of shock. For a horrible, frightening moment, he leaned his weight on me and I thought he was going to drown me, but there was a scream from near the trees, and the weight let up.

I pushed myself out of the water, coughing what felt like most of the stream up from my lungs, and looked through blurry eyes at where Josh was standing just under the trees. There was a defiant kind of look on his face, and I knew he’d stopped to help me.

Dad was closing on him, not running now, just slow and threatening and terrifying.

“Run!” I croaked through the coughs, and tried to stagger up after him.

Mum was coming down the garden by then, too, begging and pleading him to leave Josh alone. She could see what I could, that he was going to really hurt him this time. There was too much rage for him to do anything else and it had found its target.

But as he stepped up towards the forest, something seemed to go wrong with my vision. The shadow of the trees looked like it was moving out into the moonlight, and then Dad had stopped in his tracks.

I heard him say, “What?” and then there was a noise like a whispering rumble made into words.

“They call me monster,” it said, “but I would never harm a child.”

I could see Dad trying to back away, but what looked like a huge hand and arm made out of darkness came and grabbed him. It lifted him up clean into the air, and I couldn’t do anything except watch it.

“There is only one place for something like you,” the whispering rumble said, and the huge form turned, with Dad caught up in its hand like he was a child.

“Get off me!” he yelled. “I’ll tear your head off!”

But the great big shadowy thing didn’t stop, and Dad’s flailing fists did nothing. I watched the shadow thing carry Dad away into the woods, where his white shirt was quickly swallowed in shadows. For a few seconds, I could still hear him, shouting and threatening, until a rush of wind came, and then there was absolute silence.

Josh looked at me then, a funny little smile on his face, which quickly turned into a frown.

“He didn’t say goodbye,” he said, his eyes still all fever-bright and that big red mark still visible in the moonlight.

“I don’t think – I think he was scared,” I said, trying to explain to a four-year-old something I hadn’t understood myself.

“Not him,” Josh said, with such hatred in his voice it made me shiver. “Muckilly Gog. I’ll miss him now he’s gone.”

Mum caught up to us both then, and I saw from her face that she’d seen, and couldn’t quite believe, just like me. But she pulled us both towards her and hugged us and cried and told us it was ok. It was all ok.

In the days afterwards, whilst the police and social services tried to make sense of what had happened and raised sceptical eyebrows (I think they thought Mum had finally done him in, but couldn’t prove it) I was asked quite a lot about whether I was afraid. The counsellor I saw next asked the same. But the truth is I wasn’t scared any more. I knew deep down that Dad wasn’t coming back, and the world has become a better place now I’ve started to believe in creatures like Muckilly Gog.

My Own Destructive Self

Cover Version 2 for My Own Destructive Self - book by Gytha LodgeChapter One

First off, a confession. I am a bad husband, and a worse father. I would struggle to put my finger on exactly why this is the case, but the evidence is all there in a wife who is miserably unhappy and a fourteen-year-old son who looks at me with so much malevolence I sometimes wonder if he’s possessed.

A lot of our friends smile indulgently when we raise our concerns over Danny. They think we’re over-reacting, or finding him difficult because of our own lives. The assumption is that he is an added pressure to the jobs we find stressful enough as it is. They tell us that it’s all perfectly normal whilst reflecting smugly on their own offspring.

There may be a grain of truth in what they say. I remember times before he was this demonic being, and think that there must have been warning signs; signs we were too tired or too busy to deal with at the time. And maybe there is still something we could do now to change him into one of the Waltons, but if there is, it eludes me.

It took me a while to raise the subject fully with Sandy, who’s known us in a vague way for ten years and who, being a child psychologist, I half-hoped might be able to shed some light. I might have raised it earlier had I not seen all too clearly that the poor woman is unable to escape her work. At any dinner party, any gathering, the moment she mentions the magic word “psychologist,” out pours a self-indulgent, inward-looking moan about all that individual’s own or familial peculiarities.

Even Trish – my wife Trish, who is a great deal more self-aware than anyone else in our circle of friends – does it sometimes, and then is racked with guilt for being so self-centred. Sandy tells her it isn’t her fault, and that it’s actually Sandy’s own doing in part. The way she listens, absolutely attentively and without judgement, practically drags it out of people, she says. It’s called Active Listening.

I feel smug about the fact that I’m singularly immune, disliking analysis of any kind. In reality, the secret is probably that I don’t want to examine myself, given that this might mean having to do something about my failings. But there we go: I’m now giving myself pocket self-analysis of the kind that makes me want to hit something. It’s no better than paying someone else for therapy except that it’s probably only irritating me and you.

So I waited to talk to Sandy, until Danny was thirteen-and-a-half (and facing a second suspension for wilfully contributing to his history teacher’s nervous break-down. Score.). She was wonderful about it, murmuring reassurances and smiling sympathetically.  She gave me, and then both of us, encouraging speeches about teenagers. She told us that testing authority was natural, that Danny just happened to be better at it because he was bright. And when Trish admitted, with a rush of tears that was horribly embarrassing to all of us, that he hated her, Sandy rubbed her shoulder and told her not to worry.

“Around eighty percent of teenagers will have a period of months or even years where they suddenly seem to hate their parents. They resent the control, and feel frustrated that they can’t control their lives absolutely. Family life feels stifling, and what’s more, it’s a difficult time hormonally and emotionally.” Slight shrug. “There has to be an outlet for their frustration, and parents are a safe one. They know, deep down, that you aren’t going to stop loving them no matter what they say to you. And the affection they felt as children is still there. Things will get easier when Danny adjusts to the fact that the world is an infuriating place.”

Yes, Sandy was wonderfully reassuring. Until she actually met the fucker.

I avoided it, that meeting, with a small amount of shame. For three consecutive dinners whilst Sandy and Murray came to sit in our leather dining chairs, Danny had been lured out to see his friends with the promise of money for takeaways or even beer if he wanted (and just possibly drugs and sex but I try not to think about this too hard). I am aware that in good parenting books it is not good practice to express shame about one’s off-spring (nor, for that matter, to term them “the fucker” and I get a bollocking about that one every time). But the shame was there, even so, just waiting for Sandy to ask in utter horror: “You managed to bring up THAT?”

And yet, this to be really, really honest – there was also a part of me that was looking forward to it. The modicum of pride I have in my son exists in his capacity to unsettle, disturb, and then in one single python-strike demolish everyone of our acquaintance. And oh, there was something so prick-tinglingly good about imagining that patronising smile of understanding fall off her face and land in her Gucci lap.

Not to get this all wrong to begin with. I like Sandy. She’s one of the few people I actually invite round on my own initiative. Murray too, even though he doesn’t exactly say a lot. Sandy has an endearing way of talking to me with her eyes all lit up, just oozing fellow-feeling, or joining in whilst I rant about something. So in that sense, I didn’t want to see that look of shock, followed by wordless horror. Not when it was Sandy. Not really.

Half-past one, some three hours after curfew. Danny’s head comes through the door first, crown forwards, like a bull on a charge. Sandy and Murray are half on their feet, perched on the edges of their chairs with anticipation, and I actually hear the slightly out-of-synch indrawn breaths as he looks slant-ways into the sitting-room and then straightens up to look back at us all when he sees us staring.

You see, Danny is a strikingly attractive boy, for some reason unknown to either of us. He has hair darker than mine, and skin paler than Tricia’s. Seemingly he also has bones lighter and more delicate, and huge eyes of the palest, most washed-out blue. Which would all be just too appealing if it weren’t for the deep, cold hatred that stared out of all these beautiful features.

Murray and Sandy are shocked by him, blown over by him: and this before he has opened his steaming sewer of a mouth.

“Who the fuck are you?” he asks, the charmer.

Sandy just smiles indulgently, and says, “Sandy and Murray. We’re just on our way out.” That smile is one we’re always encouraged to use by the behavioural specialist Danny sees. I must say I find it horrifically unfair that my son is given absolute tolerance for dredging up words a serial rapist wouldn’t know, whilst I am not, under any circumstances, allowed to refer to him as “the fucker/bastard/little shit,” all of which are at least accurate terms for our child.

“Good.” Danny, 14, Angel.

Sandy, bless her, tries valiantly to engage in some modicum of conversation, inwardly praying, I suspect, for the floodgates to open and for Danny to cry on her shoulder and tell her how unhappy he is. Because although she detests work forcing itself on her at social events, I can see the hungry look that says I can fix him whenever we talk about Danny. It is for hopeless adolescents like Danny that she goes to work every day -and loves it.

“I hope you’ve had a good evening too, Danny?” she tries.

He continues to stare coldly at her. “As much of a good evening as anyone who can’t get fucking served.”

“I remember that,” she says, glancing at Murray. “And I looked about ten years younger than I was, which was rubbish.”

“But great now, though, hey?” Murray slides his arm around her, proudly, and Sandy gives just a little, pleased smile. One that is echoed in slow motion on my darling son’s face.

Oh no, I think.

Neither Murray nor Sandy have realised what they have given him on a plate. Sandy stands with a consciousness of her svelte figure that wasn’t there a moment ago.

“We really should go. I’ve got a seven am pre-hearing.”

Danny straightens up slightly as she approaches the doorway, passive-aggressively not moving. “Yeah, probably bed-time,” he says, softly. “Wouldn’t want you getting tired eyes.”

She is trying to squeeze past, and is right up close to him, so that the soft tone of voice is quite appallingly inappropriate. Murray, behind her, looks torn between jumping to his wife’s defence, and not being sure if he’s heard right.

Sandy is flustered but also, crucially, slightly flattered. This is all clear from her, “No, of course not. So if you’ll give me just a little more room – anyone would think you’re trying to keep me here.”

And that’s it. That’s the moment when Danny’s eyes go like distant road-kill.

“You think I’d want you?” His voice is an oozing, base, primordial soup of contempt. “What are you? Sixty? I’d rather go dig up my gran and fuck her.”

Murray has to physically remove Sandy from the building. She can’t seem to stir from the position, trapped right up near our son, or to stop staring at him as if he’s just shot her.

For just a moment in that scene, for just the fraction of a second, I felt a swell of pride for my obscene son. Who could not be proud of someone with the ability to grossly misuse his intelligence to that extent, and bring a woman with years of such interactions to catatonic shock? Fuck me, but he sounded sincere when he said it, and listening to him, it was suddenly all turned round, as if Sandy were subjecting him to some disgusting crime, throwing herself bodily on his youth and expecting him to respond.

Trish reacted somewhat differently, of course. She was shaking with anger and humiliation, and immediately ordered him to his room, which of course I was compelled to chime in with. Good Parenting does not recommend praising your son for obscenity. Even if it is really clever obscenity.

So I don’t see how it’s possible to salvage much of a reputation as a father. No good parent could have brought up such a specimen, and I suppose that drags Trish down with me however sweet and smart and endlessly forgiving she is. It doesn’t seem to be something either of us can fix. Both of us reading up and striving away, and in my case repressing the sarcasm, the inappropriate pride, the more frequent disgust, the desire to change the locks every time he goes out and occasional wild dreams of just moving away without telling him.

I think it bothers Trish more than it does me, though. The thought that she has failed as a parent; the growing fear that our son is psychotic and not just vicious; the conviction that everyone knows, and everyone thinks we must secretly be monsters with bloated, scaly tails hidden away under the beech-wood dining table; all these things are the bricks of her unhappiness.

And there really is no denying her unhappiness. I did try, for a long while, but after years of a pair of scooped-out-looking, despairing eyes following you around, and of stumbling into too many rooms only just hurriedly vacated by tears, even my quite astonishing capacity for self-deception was beaten into submission.

I keep inadvertently conjuring up Trish as I first met her, and trying to place the image over the top of the gradually-vanishing creature who haunts our too-large house. The youngTrish, who seemed more real and more tangible even in a tracing-paper-thin dress at my cousin Rory’s wedding, beaming as she spun around the room with one man after another.

At some point at that wedding, Trish had taken her shoes off and continued to dance with them clutched in her hand, until an enthusiastic spin had launched one of them in its own pirouette across the room to land with a thump against the leg of the buffet-table. That was all it took to get me over to her, carrying her shoe like a trophy.

She turned that beaming smile on me when I arrived, and let go of her dancing-partner – who I probably knew and yet can’t remember as anything more but an extra in this story – to half-collapse onto me in exhaustion and gratitude.

“Oh, you brought Cinderella’s slipper back.”

I’d been holding it out to her, but she wasn’t hurrying to take it, and the obvious thing to do was to put the shoes on for her. It was an immediately romantic gesture, now I think about it, and probably the most erotic moment of my life. It didn’t matter that I had to fuck about with the craze of straps, or the fact that I could see around her ankle a few hairs missed from shaving. Crouching in front of her, holding her skin and watching her dress slide gradually further up her thigh was solid, hard, pulsating porn to me right then.

She was looking at me with anticipation when I straightened up, and I knew that she was thinking about my skin on her skin as much as I was.

“Thank you. I can’t believe it didn’t hit anyone, and I can’t decide whether I’m disappointed or relieved.”

“I see the dilemma. But you wouldn’t have wanted any mess on them. They are beautiful shoes.”

And that’s when she struck me as more than extravagant and full of energy and fun. She suddenly became something peculiar. Because instead of looking down at them to admire or judge or show them, she kept my gaze and gave a slower smile.

“Yes, they are. I hope you’re going to help me look after them.”

The first words I exchanged with Trish. Well, the second words. The first had been the things you say in passing to a stranger when they’re sitting at a table before anyone else has got there, fascinated by the indestructible nature of the paper napkins and says to you, “You see this? This is the sign of real quality in a wedding. Bollocks to the wine they serve, or the size of the marquee. It’s all about the napkins.”

Of course you respond. You say, “Oh, I’m not sure. I tend to go by the ceremony.” She looks up at you, starting to be disappointed before you go on. “Quality of the wedding being the inverse of the total number of people crying, minus the number of grammatical errors and the length of the readings.”

She laughs, disappointment eradicated, and you go to find your own table with a strange warm feeling and one of those irritating smiles you can’t quite put away.

It’s worth saying here that I was never going to get married. My innate distrust of other people, and my nose-wrinkling hatred of emotional demonstrations had convinced me from somewhere in teenage years that I was going to do nothing more than splash around in the love-pool. Interact with women, fine; take them home, why not? I enjoyed sex as much as the next person. But take things beyond that, where you knew you were somehow obliged to lay your hand over hers and with a totally straight face say “I love you”? The very thought made me want to either snigger or vomit, or a combination of the two which would only have been messy.

And yet, with Trish, I knew within roughly half an hour that I wanted to keep her. I couldn’t stop looking at her, and wanting to, chasing around the reflections striking off her glittering self. I was certain, right then, and I’ve never stopped being certain.

Which is why it’s so ironic that one of the other building materials in Trish’s misery is the belief that I don’t love her, and the suspicion that I’m fucking around. I know this about Trish because of the day everything changed for me. But to keep a modicum of suspense, I won’t reveal any more about that day to you just yet. There’s more to say about the way that things were before. It wasn’t a good state of affairs, or one that I am in any way proud of bringing about. I’m still not quite sure what steps we went through to get there, but I do know that one of them was my job changing.

When I first knew Trish, work was something I did as a combination of fun and bill-paying. I always believed that work should be fun, and had landed up as a corporate insurance claim assessor because it meant a lot of seeing around corners and checking up on factual discrepancies. Plus I was as often out of the office talking to customers, visiting sites and interviewing as I was in it. It was as close to detective work as I was likely to come without the independent spirit to become a PI and without the high sense of morality and/or superiority to turn copper. I enjoyed it, I was good at it, and it didn’t require me to work long hours or myself into the ground. I could have been promoted with a little application, but promotion was something I didn’t want when the pay was generous and I liked the job I had.

That, however, was before the company was bought out by a larger insurance syndicate and merged. I remember meeting our new line manager with a warm smile and a handshake, and keeping it right up to the first minute of our departmental meeting.

The first change was finding that I was suddenly fighting for my job. I don’t think I’ve ever known anything so quickly shake every ounce of my self-confidence. It was no good protesting to the new personnel board that I was smarter than any of my colleagues and frankly somewhat underused, or that I had sniffed out more false claims than any other at the firm whilst still arriving late two days a week from early rowing outings and leaving early once to collect Danny from school.

No, for the new regime, it was all about money, meaning that claim assessment had changed. If checking on a dodgy claim was going to cost more than the claim, we accepted it without question. But if the claim was a large one, then we would wriggle and squirm and do everything technically legal to get out of paying, including using the finest of toothcombs to go over all of the company’s records. And that meant not paying when it was really legitimate if the company in question fortuitously missed some apparently needless piece of bureaucracy.

When it came to money, it turned out that my record wasn’t as good as half of the department’s. The time I had spent ferreting out the details could, it seemed, have more profitably been spent sitting at my desk and weighing up the pros and cons of each case. So when it came to redundancies of fifty percent, I was teetering on the verge of losing my diverting job. And of course, speaking absolutely, I’d already lost it, right there in that first meeting when every goalpost changed.

After my initial shock, I went through a period in which I badly wanted to protest. And in fact, looking back, I should have walked out and found something else to do with my time. But having never failed at anything in my life, I was suddenly terrified of failing here. I could imagine the worry on Trish’s face when I told her, and how she’d sit down and try to work out what we could save without sacrificing the house which was far too large for us, but which I’d convinced her that we needed. Worse still, Danny had just been accepted on a fifty percent scholarship to Surrey’s top prep school, and the thought of telling him he wouldn’t be going after all because his father couldn’t afford that all-important other half of the fees made me cringe.

So I swallowed every protest and got my head down and worked to keep my altered job. I accepted a ten percent pay cut to stay on, and I worked longer hours than ever before. Rowing became a once-a-week thing in the evenings, and after a month of being late even for that I resigned myself to quitting the eight we had spent much of the year winning races in and arranged instead to row a double with a colleague. He wasn’t the best, wasn’t – in fact – nearly as good as I was, but he had the great advantage of understanding if I had to move or cancel our outings, even when they were at weekends.

Worse still, I started to play the political game. I invited Derek, our fifty-something line manager, out for lunch and used every power of manipulation I had both to ensure that he liked me, and to get the inside view on how he thought and what he valued.

“Don’t take this the wrong way, Aaron, but you need to learn to present yourself better,” I remember him telling me through a smile after our third lunch, in which I had made myself amiable and entertaining and made him feel like the greatest wit the world had ever known. “When I walked into this company, I saw a sea of hopeless people. Nobody struck me as having any drive, any entrepreneurial spirit, or any judgement. Not a leadership quality among you all, I thought, and only a few of you who seemed able to cope with the pressure of the insurance world, which was why I had to be pretty hardline in the way I dealt with you all.”

I nodded earnestly, trying not to think of Ned who in his spare time ran a sports centre for underprivileged kids and despite being one of the world’s true inspirations had lost his job. Or Martin, who had left on principle, as I should have done, after two weeks and ended by telling Derek where to stick it.

“Getting to know you now, though, I can see that there’s a lot more to you. You’re one of the smart ones, and you’ve got the capacity to make a real success of yourself.”

I smiled self-deprecatingly. “I think you’re right about self-presentation. Being honest, it’s only with your arrival and the change of focus that I’ve really been inspired. It’s totally changed my perspective on everything we do and I can really see a place for myself in the team now.”

Half an hour later, driving to the office, I tried to laugh about the monstrous lie I’d told but it wasn’t funny.  Nothing was funny about it. It was then, I think, that the little ball of nausea lodged itself in my stomach and never really left me.

I knew Derek inside out within six months. I knew how to make him laugh (always a tale about some idiot I’d got one over on or a put-down to a rival) and how to delight him (calling meetings to point out new loopholes I could work into every insurance contract). Oh, I would lay money that after those first months I could have told you the noise he made when he came, which he very nearly did every time I raked in another large contract he knew he would never pay out on.

Every single one of those lunches, which became rounds of golf and then dinner parties and then weekends away, made me more nauseously certain that I hated the man, and that everything he stood for was the opposite of everything that mattered to me.

From then on, everything began to slide. Every evening, returning either late from work or later from dinner, I would greet Trish with a false smile, because somehow admitting that I had sold myself would have turned it from a seeming bad dream into a reality. And the more she looked at me questioningly with sympathy or worry in her eyes as I worked longer and longer hours and put everything second to that fucking job, the more I felt the shame of it, until I could barely speak to her about anything.

I began populating my dinner-time conversation with invented anecdotes and making spiteful comments on her real ones. She tried to draw me into her sympathetic opinions on friends and colleagues, but somehow all I could see was craven, selfish motivations and stupidity and I found myself voicing every sarcastic comment that I stifled during the working day.

I remember quite vividly finding out that Derek had ascended to the heady rank of Deputy MD, and that I had been gifted with his job. I smiled graciously at the CEO  when he told me (Derek sitting beaming beside him) that I had shown myself to represent every value the firm held. I was an asset to them, and they knew I would carry on Derek’s excellent work in the years to come.

Derek and I shared a delighted backslap outside, and I laughed easily when he quietly told me with a wink that I’d better not be too good at the job and make him look bad.

“I’ll do my best to shame you to the ground, but you’ll be a pretty bloody hard act to follow,” I told him, and watched him walk away laughing to himself. And that was the point when the bitterness embedded itself. I realised that the promotion I had cravenly worked for wasn’t going to change anything. Every private fantasy I’d had about showing them a moral path was going to come to precisely fuck all because I was too much of a coward to do the right thing.

I think that’s now brought things pretty much up to date on the “before” picture. Obviously, I ended up running the department exactly as Derek had run it and in fact fired my former friend and ally Tim who stood up to me and tried to insist that we salvage some business ethics. He called me a heartless, back-stabbing bastard he was glad he’d never have to lay eyes on again before he left.

I smiled at him, thanked him for his opinion and pressed the buzzer for security to escort him out. I’m not sure if he noticed that my hand was shaking on the button. Maybe he thought it was fear.

After that particular incident, I turned my phone off and went out on the lash until four am, at which point I noisily let myself into the house and found Trish slumped in a chair by the hall phone with her head on her arms, sound asleep despite the racket and with dried-on runs of mascara down her cheeks.

Too drunk to deal with the situation, I left my keys and wallet next to her as proof of my safe return and wound my unsteady way to bed.

The row we had in the morning resulted in Trish moving my things into the spare room and installing a lock on the master bedroom door, which I found a little insulting given that I was hardly going to break my way in there and ravage her. Frankly, our sex life had been in a state of serious disrepair for five years and that wasn’t going to change because we’d argued.

Over the following weeks, my beloved wife and I barely spoke to each other, and it gradually became a habit. During those same weeks we were summoned three times into school because Danny had been arguing with his teachers and in so doing used various terms that were unacceptable at Whittaker’s Prep, where he was now supposed to be one of the older boys and therefore setting a good example. Which I thought pretty short-sighted given that he had just become a teenager.

It wasn’t comfortable that first time, sitting there and hearing a number of choice terms that Trish and I had been hurling at each other reported back to us. Particularly when I had always maintained I’d prefer it if Danny didn’t go to the sort of school where he learned filth on the playground before he was old enough to understand it. But there was a certain sort of pride in realising that it was Danny who had been teaching the others, and so was inevitably one of the cool kids.

By the third time we went, I was almost hardened to the whole event. I already knew what Trish would want me to say to Danny, that using your brain for unworthy ends may seem like fun but didn’t help in the long run, and that he should to a certain extent accept that the teachers had their failings and that school wasn’t going to be fair all the time.

In fact, discussing Danny became pretty much our only topic of conversation, and the only time we really spent in some form of physical proximity. I regretted this, and wanted to change it, but my weariness and my bitterness, together with the way Trish tensed whenever I came near her, stopped me from acting when I should have, and after a year of this, I felt the whole issue of our estrangement to be insurmountable. I honestly had no idea where to even start.

So there you are: a scene of absolute domestic bliss amongst Habitat furniture in a large four-bedroom house in Surrey. I can honestly tell you that if everything hadn’t changed, including me, we would have sunk. All of us. I don’t know who would have been the first to raid the bathroom cabinet in a cliché suburban suicide attempt, but I don’t think it would have been me. There’s little justice in this life.

The Butterfly Catcher – Chapter Two of Gytha’s haunting new thriller

This is the most recent extract of The Butterfly Catcher, the haunting new thriller by Gytha Lodge. If you would like to read Chapter One, click here: https://satirespot.wordpress.com/original-fiction/the-butterfly-catcher-novel/

You can read Gytha’s other books online under the Original Fiction tab.

Thursday, May 10th, 1931

Hugo flicked his paper, watched her roll her eyes and then flicked it again with a smile. Folding it up until only the crossword was visible, he picked up a pen with his left hand and a spoon with his right and clunked the spoon absently against his coffee cup as he started looking at the clues.

“Hugo,” she said after a moment.

He looked up, and then smiled once again and looked back at the paper. “Too early for my breakfast sonata in G?”

“It’s always too early,” Elise told him, and sank back onto her elbows with her tea up to her face, inhaling the steam instead of drinking.

“That is positively heart-breaking. Perhaps we oughtn’t to marry after all.” And as an addendum, “They’ve put ‘Gegs’ in again. Which I happen to think displays a marked lack of originality on the part of Mr. Xenophon.”

“I’ve always said it was a bad idea,” she countered mildly, looking past him at the open door and the willows moving in the tiny breeze. She tried to breathe evenly, tried to sit quietly, while a part of her was convinced that none of this was real, that all the colours were wrong and that she needed to somehow wake up out of this life into something else.

She could feel Hugo watching her now, and wondered whether he would mock her again and for a moment thought she might actually cry if he did, which would be awful for both of them. But his voice was warm as he said, “It’s going to be a tough one today, isn’t it?” and his hand as he reached out to take hers was steady enough to keep her still.

The sympathy, she realised with surprise, was actually worse than the mockery. Without any thoughts having a chance to intervene, her eyes were already responding to it, and she turned away from him.

She felt his arms fold around her.

“Are you sure you don’t-”

“I’m sure,” she told him, and tried to smile without looking at him.

“Or if you don’t go, I’ll tell them I have typhoid and we’ll head into town. Or to the coast. Wherever makes it harder to think about.”

She swallowed, and then glanced up at him and was disconcerted to see how serious his expression looked. So unlike him, and the way the two of them were with each other.

“I’ll be fine, Mr. Mendiel,” she said, trying to bring back the lightness and flippancy. It was made easier by the disconnected feeling which was always ready to spring at her. “You have many great artistic pursuits to…”

“Embody? Give life to? Run after, perhaps?” He smiled with a little wickedness, and with relief she smiled back, though not before throwing his hand back into his lap.

“I believe the word I was searching for was ‘ruin,’” she told him, and drew away from him a little. “I would never stand in the way of the destruction of art.”

“There there, darling,” he countered, putting his hand back on hers to pat it. “There’s no need to envy what you can’t imitate.”

She made a noise of outrage and cuffed him over the side of the head, which Hugo somehow saw as a reason to grab her towards him and kiss her. Elise hit him again, but kissed him in return, finding in the kiss at least a sense that it was her being kissed and doing the kissing. She wondered if her kiss tasted like somebody who had been crying.

She heard the steps behind her before Hugo hastily retreated back to his chair. Elise recognised the quick, soft tread. It was only Minchin and neither of her parents. She knew there would be a comment later, but Minchin was well-trained enough to leave his ribbing until their guest was on his way. Anyway, she couldn’t really bring herself to care about that today.

Minchin deposited a plate of buttered toast onto the table and asked, “More coffee, Mr. Mendiel? Or anything else I can bring you of which you might be in want?” Which she supposed could be interpreted as a pointed comment if Hugo were of a sensitive disposition.

Hugo being Hugo, he said instead, “I’m fine, thank you Minchin. I must be off before seven.”

“That is a shame, sir. Mr. and Mrs. Herwood will be very sorry to have missed you this morning.”

“Thank you, Minchin.”

As the butler bowed his way out, Hugo made as if to take up where he left off, but Elise withdrew from him.

“I’m not quite so confident that you will miss my parents if you stay around for that sort of thing,” she said, squeezing his hand briefly and then picking up her teacup again. “And as happy as they are to host you at their house in the modern manner, I suspect they would be less than thrilled at walking in on your carryings on.”

“My carryings on?” he exclaimed. “When you practically jumped me the night-”

“-or any of your inappropriate conversations, for that matter,” she interrupted him, blushing slightly in spite of herself.

“I don’t say I mind being jumped,” he added, looking down at the crossword once again. “Any time you feel the need to do so again is fine by me.” A quick look at her and a cherubic smile.

She sighed slightly and got halfway towards responding before giving up. After a moment or two of muttering to himself over various clues (which he always denied doing whenever she brought the subject up) he said more thoughtfully, “They don’t really like me, do they?”

“My parents?” she asked, without really needing to. She saw the way his eyes rose to her, a little slyly, as they usually did when the topic came up. She was well aware that he enjoyed the idea of being disapproved of, but if she actually came out and told him that her parents disliked him, he would be absurdly hurt. So she soothed him as usual. “You have no worries there. The fact that you’re invited here when there are no parties to show you off at is as close to displaying adoration as they’re likely to come. They’re just – sad. And not used to showing how they feel.”  She shrugged. “And possibly a little shocked by how quickly it’s all happened.”

“They aren’t alone,” he told her, and then lifted her hand and kissed it with that way he had of making it seem like a holy relic. “But I defy anyone not to see that it’s absolutely right, in spite of every other awful thing that’s happened.”

“Maybe because of,” she replied, and squeezed his hand again in return, as much because being reminded about Robert was making her feel disconnected again, as because she wanted to show her affection in return. Which wasn’t the most adoring-wife-to-be thing to feel, she supposed. But she thought he’d probably understand if she got around to explaining it to him.

The sound of a window opening on the floor above the sun-room was enough to eventually spur Hugo into action. Not before he had dragged her to her feet and kissed her and then tried unsuccessfully to tip her over backwards a la Hollywood, which she couldn’t help laughing at in spite of coming into contact with the edge of the table quite sharply.

And then he was gone, and she was not quite sure whether she had left with him, because surely this wasn’t really her, standing in her real home. If she looked hard enough, she must find find an incorrect detail, something to tell her that this was a dream, or an hallucination, or some extraordinary simulacrum caused by the wonders of science. Hadn’t they told her in that first philosophy lecture that it was possible? To set up such detailed projections that it was impossible to tell they were imitations?

But then she wouldn’t be able to feel the texture of the cotton in her dress, and touch the raffia table, which her shaking right hand moved to repeatedly, and then away. The only other explanation was that she wasn’t here herself, and this was all real, but that she wasn’t. Somehow that was easier to believe than that this place existed in absence – forever – of Robert.

Background noises from the house resolved into the sharp sound of her father’s shoes on the granite flooring in the hall and Elise quickly poured herself some more tea, trying not to let her hands shake and concentrating on the tea filling the cup. It was caused by her; it wouldn’t happen without her. She was there, herself, Elise, in the flesh.

“Good morning,” she heard him say.

“Good morning, father,” she replied, and turned to give him a small, vacant smile. “Shall I ask Minchin to fetch more toast and bring your eggs?”

She saw the hesitation, and it made her feel dizzy again. There couldn’t be hesitation in her father. It always had to be the same. Daily, everything in its place.

“Well – perhaps just one egg this morning,” he told her, and she could see wounded pride in what he said, and understood then. He felt nauseous, as nauseous as she had felt week in and week out. But Philip was that inimitable thing, an English gentleman, and English gentlemen could not be weak, and female, and allow their bodies mastery over their wills.

Of course, the easiest way to feel strong was in being stronger than your wife, which was probably why he told her with unaccustomed detail, “Your mother isn’t going to be coming. She dreamed about him laughing in her face last night, and she tells me she just can’t face being there. I told her we’ll be as quick as we can to come back.”

Elise could think of nothing to say, so she nodded. She couldn’t imagine missing this day but it was different for her. Robert hadn’t been her son.

Her father cleared his throat. “And you’re – ah – you’re all right, are you?”

Elise was. She had been all right for ten weeks whenever he asked. Today was the same, except that, in a moment of cruelty, she asked him, “And you?”

He made four inarticulate sounds in a row, trying no doubt to cover up for her embarrassing slip in etiquette. Eventually he managed, “You know me, my dear.” And when she continued to watch him, he added, half-heartedly, “Looking forward to seeing the bastard swing.”

Elise nodded again, and spent a moment or two longer looking at his elderly face before she rose to leave the room, walking away from her pity for him before it eroded the rest of her. One of the most unexpected parts of her grief was how often she disliked herself now.

They stepped straight from the house into her father’s Crossley. The six steps between were enough to make her aware that she badly wanted to walk the distance to the courts, but the press were here even now and there would be no escaping them. She had already tried imagining that it was Hugo’s camera and he was there behind it trying to make her laugh, but it was so very far removed as to be a ridiculous pretence.

Minchin closed the door behind her and as she caught his eye through the glass, he gave her a nod, and she wondered whether the intent way he held her gaze was sympathetic or otherwise. She nodded in return, quickly, and looked away, having to focus on her feet to keep them still. Her father let out the choke and started the engine.

“I hope the insurers don’t know that I’m out driving today, in a state of anxiety and grief,” he said, with only the ghost of his usual indignation. “They might decide that my premium should be increased in case I should run someone down and then flee to Africa.”

It was really just a ritual of Philip’s, this grumbling about the insurance. For fifteen months it had kept him in a state of outrage that the government seemed to think a chap would cause damage crashing his car and then not pay reparations. “A gentleman acknowledges his errors and pays for them,” he had said (with the approximate frequency with which he had climbed into his car). “I resent being treated as some sort of common swindler.”

He seemed to have decided that his rituals should be observed even now, when insurance irritations seemed incomprehensible. Elise nodded her head and kept silent, which was not so very different from how she had behaved before, however cut off from the rest of her life she felt.

They left Sidgewick Avenue, the speed of the car tortuously slow to her. It seemed to crawl past the overwhelming greenery and new life of the Backs, and she felt a surge of nausea at the sickly smell of blossoms creeping in through the window beside her father. She wanted to be past it, and yet stayed watching it all; gazed at the fulsome red tulips and the bees touching each one in term until she imagined she could see each particle of pollen inside them; and then watched a chubby toddler run from his Nanny before being scooped up to his squealing delight. She kept watching until she could no longer see them even by craning her neck, and then stared at a pair of puppies tumbling around in the green grass. It was impossible not to watch such a gorgeous display of mockery, as if the city had brought out its freshest and most fecund sights for a day devoted to killing.

The car moved at last between the stone and brickwork of the colleges, which should have been a comfort, but as she realised how close they were now her every feeling became focused on terror. She didn’t want to see him, would do anything not to see him, but oh how she had longed for this day nonetheless.

The gates of the courthouse appeared, and three uniformed constables were holding the many onlookers at bay whilst they drove into the gloom under the archway. She looked down to gather her things and realised that she was missing a glove, and this became the most important single thing to her as the car drew up. She scrabbled for it in her bag, under the seat, and in the footwell until at last she thought to look in her pocket and drew it out and onto her hand like a mascot.

That was all, and they were inside the glossy oak and shadowy stone of the courthouse. She wasn’t sure it was her that they showed into the room, a vertiginously high chamber with a viewing gallery which reminded her of the Royal Albert Hall in miniature. She knew they were looking at her, could feel the heat of their gaze on her cheeks. She heard a few words as they were ushered forwards. His sister. The model. I didn’t think she would come.

                The whispering continued as they sat in the places they had chosen, four rows from the front and near the aisle in case they needed to leave quickly. She wondered how she was going to bear the wait, trapped here in her place, but then before she was ready they were all standing as the prisoner was led in.

She hadn’t meant to stand, but even with the shaking of her legs it was easier than choosing to sit. They were a noticeable pair, Elise and her father, each of them tall and each of them dressed in stark black. But his eyes were on the judge as he was led in shortly afterwards, and then on the jury at their entrance, so she was free to stare at him and hungrily look for differences.

He was thinner, she saw, despite never having carried much extra weight. And he was pale to the point that he looked ill. But the self-possession was all there. e N

Nothing else on his face would have told her that he was waiting to find out whether he lived or died, or that he felt a shred of regret. He didn’t feel anything, she realised, and it astonished her that he could ever have fooled them all into believing otherwise. The hatred she had been waiting to pour on him almost threatened to spill out then and there in anger. And it was a hatred built nine tenths on shame that she could have been so blind.

The people around her started to take their seats again and she sat with them, hurriedly, still afraid of being seen despite her hatred. The judge was speaking and she swung her head to look at him abruptly, remembering that the words were the most important thing here.

“…to a decision?” she heard. It was a foolish question. Of course they had come to their decision. That was why they were all here, summoned to hear it.

“We have.” The head juror looked like a bank clerk. She wondered if he might work at Fitzsimmons’ and know her father, but she supposed they wouldn’t let someone known to the family be a juror.

“How do you find the defendant on the charge of murdering Robert Herwood?” the judge went on. A ritual. It was all a ritual.

“Guilty,” the little bank clerk said.

She put a hand out to the chair in front of her as a great lurch seemed to come from her stomach.

“You’re happy about it. You’re happy. Vindicated. Revenged,”she whispered to herself, but it didn’t seem to hold the darkly-polished room together as it fractured around her.

“And how do you find the defendant on the charge of murdering Antigone Herwood?”

“Guilty.”

She didn’t want to think about Tiggy. She didn’t want to remember his eyes following the dazzling figure around the room. She didn’t want to think about the three of them together, always together, inseparably.

“And on the final charge of the murder of the infant Ophelia Herwood?”

“Not guilty.”

And immediately, out of all context, there was laughter. It was like being struck across the face. She was suddenly back in that room, on a solid wooden chair with the tweed-clad back of another spectator in front of her and the smell of old law in her nose.

Her eyes locked onto Joel and she saw that it was him. He was laughing, a bleak, bitter laugh, turning to look out into the courtroom as if to share the joke with them.

She felt it the moment his eyes found her. The recently-returned courtroom fell away again and she was alone with him, pinned down by him. It did something to him too. The laughter died in a moment. He seemed to start forward, until the restraining hand of the duty officer pulled him back to stand upright.

The judge wasn’t waiting. He was giving sentence, his voice ringing out like nemesis. “Joel Tremethick, you have been found guilty of two counts of murder by a jury of your peers. Due to the violence of your crimes and your lack of remorse, I sentence you to be taken to a place of execution in thirty days’ time and there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead. May our Lord God have mercy upon your soul.”

But it was almost like the condemned man didn’t hear him. All the while he was looking at her, his eyes boring into Elise’s own with every part of him laid bare for her in supplication. Even when they started to lead him away, he was holding her with his green eyes, tearing into her until she couldn’t bear it any more but could do nothing but stare back.

She watched him all the way to the door, his head still turned and his eyes still on her. And then, as he disappeared and the silence broke into a wave of comment, she curled in on herself, her mouth stumbling over and over the same word.

Philip took a moment to collect himself and blink back the tiniest excess of salt water in his eyes, before turning to the man on his right who slapped his back heartily and told him “I’m so glad the justice system has worked. Good show from Judge Upperton, eh?”

He smiled, and nodded, at first one, then three, five, ten people all eager to offer their fervent congratulations. And he supposed he was relieved. God knew that he had prayed for the viper they had drawn into their family to be punished absolutely. It just seemed difficult to stir himself to feel victorious now. Perhaps when they hanged him it would be better.

It took him some minutes to notice that Elise hadn’t risen with him and wasn’t waiting patiently at his side as he had expected. He looked down and saw her, hidden from the general view by the press of standing bodies around her, and saw that she was hunched over in a manner that indicated a lack of control. He felt a moment of panic. He cast around for someone to pass charge onto, and realised in discomfort that there was nobody. But how was her father the right person when she was clearly upset?

At the moment when he was about to put a tentative hand on her shoulder, he heard a familiar voice calling, “Sir,” and saw with a surge of relief that Minchin was making his way through the press of bodies. How good of the man to come. He must have walked, Philip supposed, and vowed to give him the pay rise which had fallen by the wayside during recent events.

“Minchin,” he called, and then when the man was close to him, muttered, “Miss Elise is not well. Would you be so good as to take her to the car and see her home? I am more than happy to go on foot.”

“Of course, sir,” his butler said and bent to speak to his daughter. Philip hovered for a moment until Minchin had drawn her gently to her feet, and then he pressed his way through the crowd, glad to be able to leave them in peace.

Thursday, October 5th, 1925

                 Evening. The day had stretched out into something limitless. Their coffee had become lunch which had become a long, long walk along streets he had yet to name.  Hers was Antigone, she had told him halfway through lunch, with a rueful smile.

“Why couldn’t they have made me a Janet or a Celia. Antigone,” she said, pulling a small-girl face. “It’s like some sort of disease.”

“It’s glorious,” he told her. “And you could never be a Janet or a Celia.”

“Why not?” she asked, pretending to be offended but waiting for him to like her all the while.

“Because Janets and Celias are everywhere. They’re – everyone.”

“And I’m not?” she asked archly.

He knew that he blushed slightly. It was a strange quirk of their interactions that she was able to make him blush a good deal more often than he could her.

“Of course you aren’t,” he said quietly. “You’re here, and now, and yourself. And quite the most unique person on this earth.”

He watched her intently as she smiled and squeezed his hand where it lay on the table-top, and he saw how his words made her shine. For all their games and for all her teasing, she was hiding an uncertainty which drank his adoration up like nectar and flourished on it. But only when she felt that she had to earn it, he saw plainly and simply. Which meant that his worship had to be shrouded from view as well, and revealed only in glimpses or it would no longer be trusted.

“Antigone,” he said, a moment or two later.

She shook her head. “You can’t go on calling me that, any more than anyone else can.”

“So what should I call you?”

“Always Tiggy,” she said, with a self-conscious, ironic shrug. “I could be a public schoolboy, couldn’t I, with a name like that?”

Joel told her tonelessly that he wouldn’t know, and she gave him a strange look and then seemed happier with him than before.

“Suddenly I understand why you have such wonderful manners.”

She told him about her family, as well, while they crossed the river back and forth on the bridges of the colleges he knew only from Robert’s ridiculous punt tour of the day before.

“Mama wanted a boy,” she said, and leaned over the stonework to watch a punt full of students intent on knocking each other in. “Desperately wanted one. I think she wanted to see if she could improve on my father.”

After a pause, he asked, “What did he think?”

A short laugh. “I think he felt he was as improved as he could be. Still does.”

“About wanting a boy?”

She turned to face him, leaning on the edge of the bridge. “He didn’t mind. Didn’t mind too much about children. So it’s been up to my mother to form me into the woman I am, insist on a man’s advantages and education. Decide that I should be able to make my own decisions and press me into the mould of a son.”

He looked at her tiny frame, her very pink lips and large eyes, and at the tight, elegant coat which allowed just a little of the gauzy dress to show through.

“So how did you grow up to be so much a woman?”

She blushed – a first – and turned away.

“You’re… quite startlingly straightforward sometimes.” She said after a moment, her face still away from him.

He was suddenly terrified that he had offended her and that she would make an excuse and leave.

“I’m sorry. I should-”

“No,” she said, quietly. “You shouldn’t anything. I’ve been brought up to be a boy. How am I to cope with all the misdirection and double-speaking that everyone seems to think a woman needs?”

He found himself without a reply, but she didn’t seem to need one. Just drew him closer to her with her arm and then gently led him onwards.

They parted at dusk in the end, and only then because Joel had agreed to meet Robert and two of his acolytes (as Joel liked to think of them) at Schulener’s rooms on Emmanuel Street and he had yet to change. Antigone sighed when he declared that he had to leave her, and the sound made his stomach squeeze in the same way receiving his acceptance letter had.

“I’ll let you go. But I will tell you now that I think we ought to try Mendel’s Tort class tomorrow. Just to see.”

He smiled like a fool at her. “I quite agree. I believe it’s at nine?”

She pulled a face. “Yes, as if that were a human hour to be abroad. But I suppose we must put aside such considerations in favour of the muse of knowledge.”

She squeezed his hand before she left and he took three wrong turnings on the way back to his rooms only a quarter of a mile away.

He was half an hour late for dinner. By the time he hurried down the stairs onto Trinity Great Court it was already gone quarter-past seven, and he had a fifteen-minute walk across town to complete. He had now woken up a little to the need for haste. Schulener invited him to these things on sufferance, as Robert’s friend, and tardiness was not something he understood.

Joel arrived, out of breath, to find his host holding forth about the pettiness of applying academic marks to a subject like music.

“C’est comme une regime. And wildly inappropriate for the ends of la musica. This place overwhelms me with its boxes and its lines, and its numbers. Where is the beauty? Wo der Schmetterling und der Zephyr? We are young, ragazze, we are young, and yet we may as well be old men and finding our firesides.”

He gave Joel the briefest of nods as he took his seat next to Robert, who immediately sat forward to go through the pretence of berating him.

“Cornish, you are abominably late, and I can only suppose it is due to the disgusting practice of studying. Let us put an end to that now, or I shall go to the examiners and point out your cheating ways.”

Joel smiled at him. “I’m sorry. It will never happen again.”

“Grudgingly forgiven,” Robert replied, rising and going to the sideboard to pour a sherry, “and only because I’m hungry and an argument at this stage will delay dinner.”

“On the contrary,” Schulener interjected, “I’m buggered if I’ll wait for anything else.” He rang a bell and with the smoothness of clockwork, the doors from the hallway opened and Schulener’s two manservants carried in a plate for each of them. Joel had adjusted to entrees involving quail eggs, consommés, or foie gras more rapidly than he felt was quite respectable. Yet a discomfort remained in the back of his mind as the plate was set in front of him. Despite all Robert’s assurances that there was no need for him to host, he was rapidly building up a debt to these people, and he couldn’t escape the nagging sensation that Schulener, whilst tolerating him, thought him a sponge.

At least at present their host seemed to be thinking about other things. Joel watched his long, usually expressionless face grow flushed as he complained (in four languages) about the lack of appreciation for sheer talent. “They school us to mediocrity, comme les enfants. C’est ridicule.”

Joel’s mind drifted to Antigone and the pressing question of whether it would be acceptable to invite her to dinner if the morning went well, so that he was not really attending to Schulener – or to Waters, whose good-natured face had adopted his host’s frowning countenance as he strove to agree passionately. The discussion took them through to the main course, midway through which Robert asked loudly,  “Shoes, you are quite too educated for your own good. Doesn’t he make you feel inadequate, Cornish? He damn well does me.”

Joel looked at him blankly while his memory tried to assemble what had been going on around him. He saw Schulener bow towards Robert, acknowledging the compliment. But Joel shrugged.

“I am interested in the subject-matter, but I don’t feel intimidated by the language used to convey it. Jack and Jill in Mandarin is still, after all, a rhyme for children.”

Robert gave a shout of laughter, one which was echoed by Waters, and absolutely not picked up by Schulener. Joel winced under his glare, and inwardly he regretted the comment. It was always this way around Robert: impossible to resist the clever remark, because he knew how delighted his friend would be.

Seeing Schulener’s expression, Robert stopped laughing and said cajolingly, “Oh now, Shoes, don’t be in a sulk. You know we all think you a wonder. Cornish was just being witty.” He threw a grin at Joel. “And to be fair to him, it was a delightful line.”

Schulener protested that he was in no way offended. “I was merely attempting to follow the remark. I do not believe I have ever heard of Jack and Jill. Perhaps a lack in my international upbringing; or a lack in yours, Mr. Tremethick.”

He gave Joel a cold, tight smile, and the Cornish boy knew that Schulener’s pride would not allow him to forget the slight. Part of him gave in to anxiety, while another element of him which had sprung into being only today was already throwing off the concern and revelling in the memory of someone else’s laughter which seemed to be only for him.

A little while later Robert asked him something else, and he started, this time too far away to remember what he had said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “I was – ” a flick of the hand.

Robert looked at him thoughtfully. “I do believe you’ve been seduced by this institution. Certainly your mind hasn’t been with us all for two moments together, and unless you have entered into an illicit relationship with your charming housekeeper, I can see little other reason than the lure of Athena.”

Joel laughed awkwardly. He was quite desperate to tell Robert about Antigone but it had been only a day. How much could he really read into that day, even if it had been the single most eye-opening day of his existence? He could think of nothing to say, and so shrugged and drained his wine-glass.

Robert gave a frustrated sigh, and then after sitting silently in thought for a moment, smiled in the way Joel had quickly come to think of as the Smile of Grand Schemes.

“I was half inclined to berate you for your fickleness towards us, but in fact this situation is of our own making. Shoes, Waters – who are we to shut ourselves away like hermits? Cornish is quite right to pine for wider horizons; he has simply chosen the dry and dusty plains of learning over the verdant pastures of stimulating companionship.”

“I believe he has been given a good deal of companionship already,” Schulener said, a little out of temper. “More than he can have had in Cornwall I suspect.”

“You are missing the point, Shoes,” Robert replied, with his own degree of impatience. “Cornish is accustomed to the full pantheon of humanity, from humble to lordly, and not this restricted scene we have imposed upon ourselves. And to match that pantheon, we must widen our acquaintance and, if necessary, our guest list.”

“And how do you propose to do that?” Schulener asked, refilling his glass of red with an aggressive clank of glass on crystal.

“For the longer term, I intend to hold a number of soirees, balls and parties and to open the guest list to whomsoever we bump into. But such schemes require planning,” he added, “and so, for tomorrow, I intend for us all to bless the Guildhall with our presence at their October Dance.”

Joel hesitated for a moment, and then said, “I think it a fine idea. I may have another engagement to work around-”

Robert gave a shout of laughter, as if challenged. “And still he won’t be lured in fully! We will have to work hard, gentlemen, to land a Cornish lad.” He leaned across to hold Joel’s wrist, his face comic and earnest at once. “I vow most solemnly that if you come, I will find you people to dazzle and seduce you, and that you will never again want to be out of my company. So if there’s someone else clamouring for your attention, bring them along and let us fight it out, man-to-man.”

He watched him intently, waiting for the response. Joel saw Schulener shake his head, both disgusted and affronted at such pains being taken over someone not himself. Waters was smiling at him encouragingly, falling in with Robert’s wishes as malleably as always.

He thought about Antigone’s impulsiveness, and realised that what Robert was offering was the perfect invitation for her. He would suggest that they try it, and leave if they disliked it, and mention casually that a friend of his was keen to go and might be her sort of person. If she accepted, it would be an informal way of showing her to the man whose opinion meant the most to him. And if she refused, he was free to drown his sorrows with Robert.

Slowly, he smiled, and then nodded, which made Robert rub his head with his knuckles and declare, “You won’t regret it for a moment, Cornish. Not for a moment.”