It's warm during the days but cold at night. I’m sitting in front of an empty grate. Dad used to light the fires. In fact it was something we used to do together. He showed me how to roll the newspaper and tie it into a loose knot, how to lay the kindling and space the smaller pieces of coal. After he left, Mum said lighting the fire was too much trouble. It meant too much clearing up. She didn't have the time. So I laid a fire once. I did it just as he taught me. I thought Mum would be pleased. But when she got home she went mad. What did I think I was doing with the matches! I could have burnt the house down! But she was wrong. The fire wouldn't light. It sputtered and went out. Just charred sticks in the grace.
I want to light a fire now. Or maybe I just want to have a fire lit. Which is different of course, and involves my dad walking through the door and doing it. Which he won't. Not least because he lives sixty miles away and can't visit often. He has a new family now. Jo's two girls (Annabelle who's older than me and Louise who's just younger) and the new baby, Lewis. Lewis must be about one and a half now. My step-brother. I've only seen him once. I sent him a tower of stacking beakers for his first birthday. I bought them with my own money. It's on account of having so many new birth dates to remember that Dad sometimes forgets mine, Mum says. The last present Dad actually gave me on the day was the soldiers for my eighth birthday. I wouldn't swop them for anything in the world now. But then I was disappointed. I'd wanted an aeroplane. One I could make fly. Ride the wind. You see, I've always dreamed of being a pilot. I let that slip to Niker once.
“They don't train blind people for pilots,” he said, wibbling my glasses up and down on my nose.
I asked Mum if that was true.
“I think there are certainly strict medicals,” she said.
I took that to mean they don't train blind people like me. And I haven't mentioned it since. But I still have my dreams and in my dreams I fly. Not in a plane but with my arms outstretched, gliding, swooping, rising and falling with the hot air currents. And it feels good. It feels powerful. I never feel that power when I'm awake. Awake I am something feeble. Something laughed at.
Of course I’m thinking about Edith Sorrel's words: “You can fly, Robert. You are the sort of boy who can fly.”
And of course I'm also thinking of Niker's story of the boy who tried to fly from 26 St Aubyns and fell to his strawberry-jam death. And while I know it's only a coincidence - because Edith didn't mean what she said literally, did not expect me to take off and fly about her room, and Niker's story was just that, a story - I cannot help feeling the connection. And that's another reason why I'm going to go to the top of Chance House. Because it feels personal. Not just Edith Sorrel's story but mine too.
“Penny for them.”
She ruffles my hair. “You didn't hear me come in, did you?”
“You must have a very vivid inner life.” She sits down. “Go on then, what were you thinking about?”
She raises an eyebrow.
“Selective memory, what is it?”
“Selective memory is when I tell you you can have a chocolate biscuit if you tidy your room, and you remember to take the biscuit but forget to tidy yow room.”
“I am being serious. That's what it is. Choosing to remember some things and forget others. And it normally involves remembering the good things and forgetting the bad. Why do you want to know?”
“Someone accused my Elder of having a selective memory.”
“Oh well - there are lots of things between husbands and wives
you’d want to forget.”
“I guess it was difficult to be asleep. Right? Maybe I just wanted you to be asleep. Maybe that's the selective memory bit.” She smiles. “OK?”
“It's normally the really bad stuff that your brain edits out,” she continues. “Shows that the thing between Dad and me wasn't important, see?”
She waits for me to nod.
“Take the war. Men ‘forget’ the terrible killing they saw. Your Great-Granddad - my Granda - it was like that for him. Never wanted to talk about the trenches. He was at the Somme, you know. He lived and others died. It's difficult, being a survivor. You feel guilty.”
She pulls her cardigan tighter about her. “Getting chilly isn't it? Maybe it's the gloomy talk. What would you say to a hot chocolate?”
“Good evening, hot chocolate.” That was one of Dad's jokes. Both of us laugh limply and she goes into the kitchen.
I don't want to compare the Grape Incident to the Great War, but this is what I'm thinking. Maybe I have selective memory about this. Maybe refusing to talk about what happened is my way of refusing to think about it. But the Grape Incident keeps popping into my brain, keeps on nagging. Like Chance House nagged. Then I wonder two things: first - did the Somme nag Great-Grandpa Cutting? Second – what exactly is it that's nagging Edith Sorrel?
I follow Mum into the kitchen and watch the gas hiss under the pan of milk.
“How does old age affect memory?” I ask.
“Generally speaking, you just become increasingly forgetful. Just last week I managed to leave my purse in the house...”
“No. Really old people.”
“Short-term memory,” says Mum. “That's what normally goes first. A person won't be able to tell you what they had for breakfast whereas they will be able to describe in perfect detail an event that happened fifty years ago.”
“Does that mean,” I venture, “that, if you'd tried to forget something, something that happened to you, say, thirty years ago, that you might suddenly “remember” it in old age?”
“You mean a bad memory?” Mum asks. “Something you’d actively tried to suppress?”
“I'm not sure. I think you can bury stuff so deep you never uncover it.
“So if you did begin to remember,” I press, “then some part of you must want to find out, want to examine the horrid thing?”
“What are you getting at, Robert?”
“Nothing. Just asking.”
“Has old Mrs Sorrel got some skeleton in the cupboard?”
“Old Miss Sorrel.” I say.
“I thought you said she had a husband?”
“She has someone who says he is her husband.”
“Oh - and what does she say?”
I'm still considering this when, in the front room, the phone rings.
The milk is on the boil. “Can you get that for me, Robert?”
I go to the phone.
“Hello, Dad,” I whisper. If Mum knows it's him she'll come, milk or no milk.
“Good day at school?”
“Ahem.” Dad coughing.
“All right, Dad?”
Sometimes I blame him. That he never asks the right questions. That we only ever talk at this useless monosyllabic level. Then I think it must be me. That I don't give the right answers. That I should say: Actually I'm not all right because it's cold and you're not here to lay a fire. And school wasn't great either because I met Ernest Sorrel at the Home, and I don't want to believe that the boy who fell out of the Top Floor Flat of Chance House was Edith Sorrel's son, because she said she didn't have a son. But then she said she didn't have a husband either. And I feel quite frightened because I'm going to go to the top of a derelict house and I want someone to tell me not to go, but no-one knows I'm going so they can't. And by the way, does my mind run round in circles like this because I'm mad? Or because Niker really has got an implant in my brain? And Dad, Dad, were you ever frightened of a boy at school? I mean really frightened? And...
“Can you get your mother?”
“Mum - it's Dad.” I put down the receiver. Then I pick it up again. “Are we going to see you Saturday?”
“That's what I want to speak to your mother about.”
Mum comes into the room with two steaming mugs of chocolate. They
smell of the time when Dad and Mum and I used to sit together in
front of a blazing winter fire.
Mum’s mouth goes into a tight line. He's telling her something she doesn't want to hear. And I know what it is. There's some problem about Saturday. One of the children - Dad s new children - is ill maybe. Or there's a clash with an appointment of Jo's, she needs the car. It's all off. He isn't coming.
“Right.” says Mum. “Well, I think it's important for Robert that we make another time, don't you? Have you got your diary?”
“Don't bother,” I say. “Don't bother. It doesn't matter.”
“Robert...” she calls after me.
But I'm away. I'm up the stalls and in my bedroom with the door
shut and wedged.