The Queen of Bloody Everything, страница 1
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Hansel and Gretel
The Princess and the Pea
A Christmas Carol
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
Third Year at Malory Towers
What Katy Did
A Little Love Song
The Big House
The Swish of the Curtain
The End of the Affair
Lessons for Children
The Bell Jar
The Treasure Seekers
The Tiger Who Came to Tea
The Chocolate War
The Incredible Journey
Snow White and Rose Red
So how shall I begin? With Once upon a time, maybe. The tropes of fairy tale are here, after all – a locked door, a widower, a wicked stepmother, or a twisted version of one at least. But those words are loaded, tied; they demand a happily ever after to close our story, and I’m not sure there is one, not yet.
Besides, Cinderella was never your scene: ‘Don’t bank on a handsome prince, Dido,’ you would sneer through the cigarette smoke that trailed permanently in your wake; that cloaked you, tracked you, like a cartoon cloud in Bugs Bunny. Like Pig-Pen’s flies. ‘If they do bother to show up it’ll be late, and then they’ll only beg or borrow. Or worse.’ And the twelve-year-old me would roll her eyes, like the girls in books did, and think, Those are your princes, Mother, not mine. And I’m not you.
But I am, aren’t I? Though it’s taken me four decades – half a lifetime – to admit it.
I used to rail against my inheritance, the pieces of genetic jigsaw puzzle that make up half of me. I thought I could overwhelm them, drown them, if I found him – the man who’d given me his pale skin, his plumpness, his pathetic hope in one true love. When he failed to show up on the doorstep or in any of the faces I followed in town, I turned to friends to fill the gap – stole their habits, their hair colour, their hatred of soul music. I turned too to characters I borrowed from books in the hope I could carry off their courage, their capability, or at least their slick, smart one-liners. But acting was your forte, not mine, and one you failed to parcel up and pass along, offering me instead small ears, an extended second toe, and a lifelong dislike of marzipan. Amongst other things.
But back to the story. I know how it begins now. And where. This, the first words will spell out in black-and-white Times New Roman, is the story of us, of you and me. And how we got here – to this strip-lit room on the fourteenth floor of a hospital in Cambridge. Some parts of the tale you will not know at all, or even be able to spot yourself in the cast. But, as Pied Piper, that is my prerogative – I can dance a merry dance to other houses and other cities to show you scenes that shaped our path. And, though you might not take a starring role, you are ever-present, your influence reaching across years and oceans. I know that now.
Some parts you will recognize, though they will appear distorted, skew, as if seen in a fairground mirror, or through time-thickened glass, told as they are from the haze of memory and my myopic gaze. If you asked Tom, or Harry, they’d give you a different version: a shrunken picture, like a view through a wrong-ended telescope; or rose-tinted, perhaps, embellished with sequins and a glitterball that dapples the scene with some kind of magic.
But this story – our story – has no enchantment. There is no fairy godmother, no genie, no amulet or grail.
There is just us. Me and you. And a tangle of secrets and lies, of second guesses, of half-formed hunches Chinese-whispered into tangibility; of poorly timed honesty, and misplaced blame.
But I am getting too far ahead of myself again.
Let’s go back to the start, to the seed of it all.
Are you listening carefully, Edie? Then I’ll begin.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
It begins in a back garden in Essex in the long, hot summer of ’76. The summer you inherited a set of keys from an otherwise estranged great aunt, and we moved from a single bedroom in a South London squat to a ramshackle red-brick semi; if not in the country, at least in the leafier part of small-town Saffron Walden.
‘Small town, small minds,’ you say, as now-to-be neighbours watch us through twitching nets as we drag dustbin bags and old crisp boxes from the back of Maudsley Mick’s Transit. I stare back defiantly and march up the path, ignoring the trail of tampons, tubes of paint, a potato masher that I leave in my wake. I am still, of course, happy to style myself as you – my swearing, cigarette-smoking slip of a mother. Because you – and Mick, and Toni, and the revolving cast of misfits, dropouts and almost-damned that bed down on borrowed floors – are all that I know.
But that is about to change.
Mick leaves as soon as the last suitcase is pulled down onto the pavement.
‘I don’t have to go,’ he offers. ‘I could stay to help. Unpack and stuff. I don’t mind.’
But you do. ‘We’ll be fine,’ you insist. ‘Won’t we, Di?’ You look over at me, teetering along the neat flint of our new garden wall.
I nod, and hop down from my tightrope, insinuate myself around your legs, under one arm; a determined barrier between you and this man-boy who has shared your bed – our bedroom – for the last four months.
‘If you’re sure,’ he says.
‘Oh, we are,’ you reply.
Mick shrugs and turns to go but you, feeling sorry for him, maybe – or yourself, more like – pull him back and into an embrace. I feel his leg nudge me aside, hear the wetness of his tongue against yours and think of the eels we saw once on the Old Kent Road. I shiver despite the heat.
The kiss lasts for two minutes and twenty-three seconds. Enough time for my right foot to go numb. Enough time for the peeping Toms and Tinas over the road to have raised their eyebrows and formed clear opinions of just who is moving into number twenty-seven.
‘Something to remember me by,’ you say as you gently push him away, then haul me up onto your hip in one practised movement.
‘I’ll see you again, won’t I?’
Even I, aged six, can sense the desperation in his already speed-jangled nerves.
‘Maybe,’ you say. ‘But this is a different world out here.’
And I watch triumphantly as Mick, defeated, retreats to his van and reverses down the mews and out towards the A11.
‘Just us now,’ you say.
Just us. And at those words I feel the air crackle with possibility, with the attention I might now get, the adventures we might have. Overcome with this unnameable electricity, I hug you hard, my arms enclosing skinny ribs, my face buried in Mick’s sweat and your patchouli that forms a damp patina on your neck.
‘God, you’re getting heavy,’ you say, dropping me down onto tacky tarmac. ‘I’ll be inside.’ And you walk, hips swinging, towards the house. ‘Fuck it’s hot,’ you add under your breath. Then louder, for me, ‘I wouldn’t stay out too long. You’ll burn.’
‘Fuck,’ I repeat when you have disappeared into the gloom. The word feels delicious in my mouth, and dangerous too. Like the liqueur chocolates that the skinny ginger-haired man let me have last Christmas, then laughed as I danced with him around the front room in my tinsel hat and boa. ‘Not so funny now,’ you said when I threw up on his shoes.<
I swallow the word down, then check to see if our audience has heard me. But the curtains are pulled against the noonday sun now, and so, sighing dramatically, hips swinging in imitation, I take thirteen steps up the path and into our new life.
‘It’s smaller than I remember,’ you say, your voice tinged with a disappointment that threatens to seep into me via a special osmosis, a gossamer thread of connection that, despite its apparent lightness and fragility, seems forged of an element so unbreachable it could form a wall to block munitions or stop mighty armies in their tracks; could fell, even, their monstrous number.
I feel my face fall, even though this is more house than I have ever had, or even imagined. Though in my conjurings, there was markedly less dust, fewer paintings of naked ladies, and more zoo animals. However, one of the ladies has no pubic hair, like me, and I am filled with a sudden hope that I will be spared this strange, animal fur.
‘I like it,’ I say, hoping words will make it so.
And, abracadabra, they do.
‘Oh, so do I, Di,’ you say. ‘It’s perfect. It always was. Though any place where my mother wasn’t was bloody paradise back then.’
‘God, nineteen-fifty-something. Fifty-six? Fifty-seven? I don’t remember. I was six.’
Six. My age. I feel a prickle of delight at the symmetry. A barley-sugar sweetness swallowed by wonder at what kind of paradise could be had without a mother.
‘Christ, I’m starving,’ you announce then, a change of subject swift and effective: a speciality of yours. You open the fridge, a hulking, humming behemoth of a thing that lights up like a stage as the door opens and closes, a feat of unfathomable magic that will continue to amaze me well into my tenth year. You, however, are less easily impressed, regarding the empty shelves with disappointment rather than disbelief. ‘They could have at least left some bloody butter,’ you opine.
‘Maybe she ate it all before she died,’ I suggest, trying to lighten your gloom myself. ‘Or maybe she preferred margarine.’
‘No one prefers margarine,’ you say. ‘No one worth knowing, anyway. And not the point. Someone’s been in and had away with it, and the fucking Hockney.’
I have no idea what a Hockney is, but it cannot possibly be as delicious as the lunch you eventually assemble – crisps and a hunk of sweaty cheese from the corner shop.
‘I’ll get real food tomorrow,’ you say.
But I’m not complaining. After a diet of sloppy stews and stir-fries cooked with stolen electricity, the tingle of salt and vinegar on my tongue is luxury, a feast fit for a princess. I flick the light switch next to the table on and off, on and off, my finger circling the smooth Bakelite.
‘All right, Di, it’s not a bloody disco.’
I pull my hand away, leaving us bathed in a sodium glow.
You sigh and snap the light off. ‘Don’t,’ you say. ‘That stuff costs money now. Besides, it’s giving me a headache.’
Within half an hour the headache has forced you upstairs to ‘lie down for a minute’.
‘You must be tired too,’ you insist when my face falls at this disappointing news.
I shake my head. I’m not tired at all, and besides your room smells of old person.
‘Well, explore, then,’ you say. ‘But don’t go too far.’
‘How far?’ I ask, wondering if this new house – this new life – comes with a frontier.
‘Timbuctoo,’ you reply.
‘The end of the road.’
I listen to the tread of your bare feet on the narrow staircase, counting the steps as you turn left on the landing into the front bedroom. Seventeen. I hear you flop inelegantly onto the bare mattress of your bed; the sheets and duvet still stacked on shelves or wrapped in black plastic, where so many things will remain for weeks, months even, until you finally admit this is home. Then the house is silent but for the insistent buzz of the fridge and the flies that hover lazily over our leftovers.
I am alone.
The realization is both thrilling and terrifying, and the urge to race after you and cling to you like a raft from a sinking ship immense. But you are ill, or your version of it, and I can already imagine your groan as you push me off: ‘Not now, Di.’ So instead I sit on my hands and cross my legs until the need has passed. And then I hop down, pick up a crisp that has hidden itself under my chair and, with the sliver of potato dissolving on my tongue, explore the four rooms that make up our downstairs.
After five minutes the possibilities have been exhausted. There is no cellar, no secret passageway to France that wolves might slink through in the night, and, worst of all, no Narnia at the back of the larder, just two tins of pineapple, though admittedly these hold an exoticism all of their own. The mantelpiece offers up no genie lamp, just a dust-dirty ashtray that fails to emit anything more than filth when I rub it. On the other hand I have found a glass marble that looks like an eye, two old pennies, and a dead beetle, all of which are now rattling satisfyingly in the pocket of my purple shorts.
Maybe there’s something outside, I think to myself as I press my face to the downstairs lavatory window. But the glass is ridged, cobbled, and all I can make out are overgrown shrubs, a tangle of green repeated in fisheye circles. A forest, I decide with delight. Because a forest is where all the best stories begin: where Red Riding Hood meets the big bad wolf; where Hansel and Gretel find the gingerbread house; and where Max makes mischief of one kind and another and sets off to find the Wild Things. And so, out of the back door and into the woods I go, my flip-flops slapping against my heels, my tongue clacking out my horse’s hooves, off to seek my fortune, rescue my damsel in distress, and meet my handsome prince.
And within minutes I manage all three.
The stretch of land nearest the house is clogged with slowly browning rose bushes and the desiccated heads of overgrown hydrangea. There are no wolves here, I think, no dragons. But at the end of the garden rise beanpoles and beyond them hang the low-slung branches of someone else’s chestnut tree, the ground beneath brindled with light. This, this is my secret garden, I think, and, bold as Mary Lennox, though not half as belligerent, I head into the thicket to investigate.
I have never seen fruit on a tree before, understand even less about harvest times, though I know a plum when I see one. I reach up and pull one from a branch, bite into it and, gagging, quickly spit out the shrivelled, bitter flesh. Then I watch, fascinated, as ants swiftly colonize the bolus, swarming over it as if it were a careless drip of jam.
I look up. The garden is darker here, cooler, overshadowed by the houses behind the wall. Show-off houses, Mick called them when we drove past earlier; fat mansions with their own serried ranks of look-at-me leylandii standing sentinel over their wide, well-stocked land. ‘Still got burnt lawns same as everyone,’ he said. You ignored him, so I did too, and instead stared, mesmerized by their smart red brick, their singularity. Now I am staring again, and want to see closer. There is a wall between us and, astonishingly, thrillingly, a gate. But when I rattle the rusted handle I find it locked. I make a mental note to hunt for the key in the house, buried as it might be beneath floorboards, or guarded by a troll.
But, for now, there is another way in. From where I stand I can climb, nimble as a monkey, into our apple tree, then haul myself higher into their horse chestnut until I am peering out through a crackle of papery leaves onto enemy territory. And that is when I spy them, from my crow’s nest aboard the Hispaniola. Not pirates though, or Indians, or any foe I have come across, but a boy and a girl, completely naked, their sunlit skin tanned and shiny, their hair spun from straw into pure gold as if by a miller’s daughter. This in itself is treasure enough, but the real diamond in my discovery is that they are sitting in the makeshift blue lagoon of a plastic paddling pool: a thing even I know is contraband in this drought.
She, my age or thereabouts, is sitting sideways, one hand on her hip in the manner of a diffident merma
Their heads turn and mouths gape in perfect synchrony.
‘Who are you?’ the girl asks first.
‘I—’ But my bravery is used up now and I can barely stammer out a ‘D-Dido.’
‘That’s not a name,’ she says, matter-of-factly. To which I have no answer. ‘Anyway, what are you doing here?’ she asks. ‘This is our garden.’
I look sideways at the boy, whose eyes are wide but his mouth closed now, holding in a smile.
‘I asked you a question, young lady,’ the girl demands. She is standing now, both hands on her hips, a perfect miniature mother, or the ones I have read about.
‘It’s hot,’ I say, pointlessly, face reddening as soon as I’ve said it.
‘You can sit in our pool if you like,’ the boy says. ‘There’s room.’
I feel the ball of want, of hope, fragment and scatter; butterflies soaring into my throat and down into my very toes. ‘Thank you,’ I manage to whisper. And without another word, I kick off my flip-flops, pull down my purple shorts and Wednesday knickers, slip off my vest top and climb in.
The water is warm and milky.
‘It’s from the bath,’ the boy says. ‘The news said you could use that.’
I wonder whose water it is, or was, as I raise and lower my legs, watching my pale thighs shrink and grow in the deceptive opacity.
‘You’re fat,’ the girl observes.
‘Shut up, Harry,’ the boy urges. ‘You’re not allowed to say that.’
‘Well, she is,’ the girl – Harry – replies. ‘You can buy slimming drinks. It’s in my mummy’s magazine.’