Let me tell you about Kate. She's slim and has a small round face with a pointed chin and freckles over the bridge of her nose. Her hair is light brown and straight and she keeps it cut short, usually with a fringe. Her eyes are hazel and, when she smiles, a little dimple appears in her right cheek. Niker says she looks like a cat. She's my idea of an angel.
It took me two terms to pluck up courage to invite her to my house. I chose a Friday, because that's a day I know she’s normally free. Both times she went back with Niker it was a Friday
“Thanks for asking, Robert,” she said. “But I can't. I'm busy.” She smiled and I watched the dimple appear.
“Fine,” I said. “Another time maybe.”
But I didn't ask again. When someone says they're busy, you never know if they're really busy or just busy for you. And I thought if l asked again I might find out. And perhaps I didn't want to find out. Besides it was clear I had left the door open. She could invite herself any time. But she didn't.
So you can imagine how I feel when, next time we get onto the minibus to visit the Mayfield Rest Home, Kate chooses to sit by me. OK, so it's not exactly a free choice. She's late and there are only two seats left, one next to student teacher and damp sponge, Liz Finch, the other next to me. On the other hand, I have the seat over the wheel with the restricted leg room and Miss Finch has the front seat with the view. So if Kate's just looking for somewhere to sit, Finch's seat is closer and comber. So I reckon it has to be significant that it is at my feet that she dumps her bag.
“Hi,” I say
“Hello,” she replies.
I once set the dream alarm on Kate. Lay on my back in bed and asked myself how to make that dimple come more often for me. At 3am I was dreaming that a boy was throwing stones in a lake. Every time he hit the surface it made a dimple. The water was radiating dimples. But the boy wasn't me. I left it alone after that.
Hey - but who cares about the past? Right now Kate Barber is
sitting next to me. The journey to the Mayfield Rest Home is ten
minutes. I spend two of those ten minutes trying to open my mouth,
which seems to have got stuck on dosed. I want to say stuff like:
did anyone ever tell you how insanely beautiful you are, Kate? But
even I can see that's nerdy, and I don't want her opinion of me to
drop from woodlouse to unicellular organism. So, after four minutes
(Kate's reading her book now) I say:
“Chance House, twenty-six St Aubyns.” It's not such a wild remark.
Kate lives on Oakwood, which is just two roads from St Aubyns. “That
big house all boarded up?”
“Spooky. Spooky, spooky, creepy, spooky.” Wesley Parr's face appears around my headrest. “Boy died in dat dere housie, Norbert No-Chance.” He looks at Kate.
“Norbert No-Chance-at- all.”
“Oh, that house,” says Kate.
“Boy about your littlie, littlie age, Norbert,” says Weasel.
“So about your age too then, Weasel,” says Kate smartly.
“Oh Creepy, creepy bye, bye, spooky.” Weasel's head disappears.
“So you do know?”
“Not really,” says Kate. “Or only as much as everyone knows. That a boy is supposed to have died there. And that it's never been much of a lucky house since. Keeps changing hands.”
“Who was the boy?”
“I don't know. It was ages ago, Robert.”
“How many ages?”
“Thirty years. Forty years. I don't know. Why are you so interested anyway?”
“My Elder, Edith Sorrel. She lived there.”
“Oh right. Why don't you ask her then?”
“Mm. Maybe I will.”
But of course I won't. Can you imagine it?
Me: Oh hello, Miss Sorrel, would you mind telling me about the boy who died in your house? I mean the one that fell out of the top-floor window? The plenty strawberry jam one?”
Her: (giving me that witchy look where she appears to be able to see right through me and out the other side) “No.”
End of conversation. But not end of story. Miss Sorrel picks up silver-topped ebony cane, bangs it three times on floor and kazzam! I'm a frog. That would be the happy ending. The miserable one would be the ending where…
The bus has stopped. Almost everyone has got off.
“Robert Nobel, you are a dreamer.” Liz Finch is waving her hands in front of my face. She looks almost animated.
I pick up my bags and follow the others into the lounge of the Mayfield Rest Home. Today Catherine has arrived in advance of us. She has see up trestle tables with paper, paint, pencils, scissors, magazines and glue. The protective newspaper she's laid on the carpet is already rucked up with the traffic of wheelchairs.
“Hello, hello,” she says. “Come in. Find your Elder, everyone. Sit down.”
There is a hubbub of greetings.
“Afternoon, Mr Root,” says Kate.
“Eh up,” says Albert.
“How you been, Dulcie?” says Weasel.
“What?” says Dulcie.
“Hi,” says Niker, tapping Mavis on the chicken-wing shoulder.
“Please explain,” says Mavis. “Don't keep me guessing.”
“It's me,” says Niker. “Me, moi, myself. Niker. Jonathan Niker. Double O one and a half.”
“Oh,” says Mavis. “Is that a poultice??
“Could be,” says Niker.
“Sit down, sit down,” calls Catherine gaily. “Sit down by your Elder please, everyone.”
But I have no Elder. Edith Sorrel is not in the room. I remain standing.
“Sit down, Robert. It is Robert isn't it?”
Behind me Niker sets up a soft hum. Do, do der doo, do der do der do der doo. It's a funeral march. “Never mind, Norbie.” he whispers. “I'm sure it wasn’t your fault.” Do, do der doo…
“Quiet now, please. Well, today I hope we’re going to move on to actually making some work,” says Catherine. “Some little illustrations of the wisdoms that we were talking about last week. I was speaking to Albert before you all arrived and he mentioned paths to me…”
“Primrose path to hell,” squawks Mavis.
“Right on,” says Niker.
“Well,” says Catherine, “I think Albert was thinking more of paths of wisdom. And path as visual image. Which I thought was a very good idea. Because paths are things that lead us on, take us from one place to another. So perhaps that could be our starting point for today. We might think of an individual paving stone, perhaps with a wisdom inscribed on it, or something growing round it, or something or someone treading on the stone… You can use any of the materials here and…”
People begin to drift towards the tables. In the noise and movement I slip away into the corridor. I remember exactly where Edith Sorrel's room is. Third on the right. I knock softly, in case she's asleep. There is no answer. Quietly I ease open the door. The room is small and institutional. There is a bed, a chair, a wardrobe, a basin and a bedside cabinet. Except for a toothbrush, flannel and soap, these are no personal items at all: no photos, no china, no knick-knacks, not even a book.
Miss Sorrel is asleep, breathing quietly and evenly. Sitting in the chair at the bottom of her bed is a man.
He rises, as if startled by me. He's tall, white-haired and, despite the heat of the room, he's wearing a full-length black overcoat. There's something bunched about him, something glittering, that makes me think crow, hooded crow. He stares like I owe him an explanation, so I say:
“Hello, I'm Robert. I'm on the project.”
“Ernest,” he replies edgily “Ernest Sorrel.”
“Oh,” I say. “You must be her brother then.”
“No. Not exactly.” His eyes bore into me. “I'm her husband.”
I try to keep my face neutral but, as Edith Sorrel told me quite emphatically that she didn't have a husband, it isn't easy.
“No doubt she didn't mention me?” He smiles, or maybe it's a grimace, and then he sits again, his coat curling around his legs.
“I'm sure she would have done,” I say uncomfortably “I mean if we'd have talked about things like that. But we didn't. We just sort of talked about the project.”
“Oh. And what project's that, Robert?”
“The art project. About your lives and ours.”
“The similarities or differences.”
“Stories.” I'm burbling. Why don't I just quit? Leave? He's obviously not interested. So why are my feet stuck to the floor? “Wisdoms. You know.”
“She said about Chance House.”
“What!” His detached tone vanishes instantly. He appears astounded. “She spoke of Chance House?”
“Oh.” He turns towards her. “Oh, Edith.” He stretches out, as if to touch her, but his reaching hand falls short.
“What did she say?” he asks me.
“Just sort of mentioned it.”
“Mentioned what exactly?”
“No.” He gives a violent shake of the head. “Edith could not have ‘just mentioned’ Chance House. It's over thirty years since she was last able to say the words ‘Chance House’.”
I shrug. He doesn't look like the sort of person you contradict.
“Thirty-four years and three months, to be precise.”
“I ought to go.”
“No. No...” And then he adds, “... please.”
His desperation is sudden and disconcerting.
“I need to know. What did she say? Exactly. You have to tell me.”
That's when he goes flimsy. Or that's how it seems to me. As if his huge coat is just a piece of black cloth wrapped around nothing. As if, were I to blow at this moment, he would simply collapse inwards, disappear. Which is why I try to remember for him, to be as exact as I can.
“Well, I asked her what the most important thing in her life was. I had to ask, it was part of the project that...”
“Yes, yes, and...”
“And she said, without any hesitation; ‘Chance House’.”
“No. Top Floor Flat. Chance House. Twenty-six St Aubyns.”
“Did she seem...” he pauses, “agitated at all? Upset?”
“No. She just said it normally. Like it was just the place you lived.”
“No. We never lived there.”
“We never lived in Chance House.” He laughs a low, miserable laugh. “Never lived there.”
“I ought to go. They'll be wondering where I am.”
Ernest Sorrel stands up. “Is there anything else? I have to know.”
Again that look - both demanding and needy.
“OK then. Yes. She asked me to go there.”
“To go to Chance House?”
“How old are you, Robert?”
“Twelve. Nearly thirteen.”
“His age,” Ernest Sorrel whispers. “And his height.”
“Whose age? Whose height?”
“Robert,” he puts his hand on my arm, “please don't go to the house.”
“But, she asked me to.” I say, suddenly stubborn. “And I said I would.”
“Edith is ill. Has been ill a long time. But now it's different. It's serious, Robert. She could… she could… I don't want her hurt any more. I don't want her to hurt. You understand me?”
His hand is still on my arm. It looks like a claw. “She said she didn't have a husband,” I say
He releases me. “Yes. And she probably said she didn't have a son
In the bed Edith stirs. Now it is Ernest's turn to be caught out. He gathers himself quickly. “Goodbye, Robert.”
He's almost out of the door.
“Do you want me to tell her you were here?”
I think he shakes his head, but I can't be sure because of how quickly he closes the door.
“Robert,” she says. Lying down she doesn't seem so witchy. Her
white hair is mussed and the lines on her face gentle. She smiles at
me. “It's my Robert, isn't it?”
“Hello, Miss Sorrel.”
She pulls herself upright. She's wearing a pale pink negligee with ruffle of pink ribbon about the neck.
“I'm sorry to barge in.” I continue. “Only it's the project and we're supposed to be making some work today and...”
“Have you been to the house? She interrupts, nice Gran suddenly going hard round the edges.
I pause. “Sort of.”
“And?” She leans forward.
“It's all boarded up.”
Her still dark eyebrows knit across her brow. “So?”
“You can't get in.”
She gives me that see-right-through-you look. “You can do anything,” she says, “if you want to enough.”
I'm not fast enough to say, “But do I want to, do I really want to go into that house?” So she says:
“Pass me my stick!”
I hand her the ebony cane with the silver top. She throws back her covers, swings her feet to be edge of the bed and bangs the stick on the floor. I check my face and hands. No scaly throat. No webbed lingers.
I find the pink quilted affair in the cupboard. She refuses my help to put it on. Pulls it around her angry body. Jerks and twists at the belt, while I watch uselessly. “There!” Finally she has some sort of knot. She smiles triumphantly
“I could have been a singer,” she announces, as though we're in the middle of an argument about the subject. “I had a beautiful voice. Everyone said so. ‘You must train that voice,’ they said. But he wouldn't let me. Said it wasn't a suitable occupation for a woman. I wasn't to do it. Even though I had a place at college. I had to give it up. Wasn't to sing.” She turns to me, eyes ablaze. “But I did.”
“Right.” I say. And then, “Who wouldn't let you?”
“Who didn't want you to sing?”
“Ernest, of course. My husband.”
Well, that figures. “I thought you said you didn’t have a husband.”
“I don't. Not any more.”
“Oh - you divorced.” Then Ernest's claw dissolves into Ernest's tender, reaching hand and I suddenly feel the way I do when my dad rings me from some far away place and tries to make conversation, and it all sounds false and forced and I want to be able to do something about it but I can't.
“Yes. We parted. He went away”
“But you still see each other,” I say tentatively.
“Of course not.”
“He doesn't visit?”
“Why should be? I haven't seen him for thirty years.”
And then I think she must be ill and that's what makes her forget. Because she can't not know that he sits at the end of her bed watching and...
“So you'll go then?” she says.
“You'll go to Chance House, go to the top, Top Floor Flat?”
“Miss Sorrel, what is it you want from the house?”
“Want? I want you to go in.”
She looks suddenly bewildered. “Because...”
“It’s boarded up. I told you. It's derelict.”
“But you can go in,” she says with slight desperation.”
“Yes. OK. You’re right. There is a way in.”
“And I did go in. But I was afraid. I was terrified. In fact I didn't even get past the kitchen.
“Robert,” she stretches out a bony hand, clasps it over mine. “You must not be afraid. Do you understand me? You are a wonderful boy. An extraordinary boy. You can do anything you want. You can fly, Robert.”
I snatch my hand away. “What?”
“I said, you are the sort of boy who can fly.” She smiles. “So you will go for me, won't you?”
“But you must. I beg you.”
“What's in there, Miss Sorrel? What do you expect me to find?”
“Find?” The confusion is back. She concentrates, draws in her lips.
“I don't know.”
“I don't know.” She says this coldly, shutting me out. “I don't remember.”
Out in the hall a clock strikes. In the silence that follows I hear Catherine’s voice from the lounge beyond
“Shall we finish with a song, then?”
There's some mumbling and scuffling and clearing of throats. Then it begins, a few cracked old voices, led by warbling Albert, and the stronger but not necessarily more tuneful tones of my classmates:
“One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow...”
“Who's doing that?” demands Edith.
“Went to mow a meadow, two men, one man and his dog, went to mow a meadow...”
The song is lifting now, louder as more voices join in.
“I told them to stop. Make them stop.” Edith is banging her cane. Banging and banging. “Tell them to stop, Robert!”
“Does it hurt your ears?”
“No! It hurt, it hurts… I don't know! I don't remember!”
She drops her cane and puts her arms over her head. I'd like to
think she's hiding. But actually I think she's sobbing. Big silent
sobs. And I don't know how to comfort her so I just stand there. And
then the crying gets worse, or maybe it doesn't get worse, it
She lifts her head. “You are such a dear boy,” she says.