I’d like to tell you that, after spending the night in Chance House, I was never frightened of anything - or anyone - again. Especially not Niker. But that wouldn't be true. I think fear can become a habit. And I'd been afraid of Niker for so long, it had become as natural to me as breathing.
So when, the following morning, Niker and I stand on the Concrete outside the kitchen of Chance House and he says, with his face very close to mine: “What happened in there was private. Just between the two of us. Understand?” I do understand. It isn't a threat of the old sort - the one where the tile shard would have been in my throat. But it is, nevertheless, a threat, a statement about the fragility of our new relationship. The tile shod will remain in his pocket, but only if I play the game by his rules.
The first test of the new status quo comes at school on Monday
Niker says: “There are ducks.”
And I add, without so much as a blink: “Mrs Sorrel mentioned the duck paper, when we were talking about home furnishings. The sort of things that were fashionable in her day compared with what we have now.” Then I smile a goofy smile.
Kate raises an eyebrow. She swings suspicious eyes from Niker's
face to mine.
“Norbert!” Kate exclaims, exasperated.
And OK - it makes me miserable. But not that miserable. You see, deep down, I'm not sure that this is Norbert lying on the floor and allowing himself to be tramped on all over again. It occurs to me that maybe this is Robert speaking. Robert saying what he's saying to protect the weaker party. And that weaker party is Niker.
Wesley overhears the conversation.
“You stayed in dat spooky, spooky place?” he says, incredulous.
“Got it in one, Weasel,” says Niker.
“And you didn't go no stir-crazy scaredy-cat?”
“No,” Niker says, “I did not go no stir-crazy scaredy-cat. Generally speaking, I'm not the scaredy-cat type. Am I Norbert?”
“No,” I say.
Letting him get away with this is less forgivable. Because he was scared that night. Scared of the dark, scared of sleeping by himself, just plain scared. But if I challenge him, who would believe me? Certainly not Wesley. After a while, I barely believe myself. No matter how many times I go over it in my mind, I can't identify the one moment where I can point the finger and say: “It was then, there, that's when Niker freaked, lost it completely.” Because you see, when the batteries died, he could just have beep angry with me, just as be could have been genuinely concerned about me sleeping alone. But if things shift in my mind, they don't in Niker's. He was right about the ducks. He was not scared. If you say things loud enough and long enough they take on a life of their own. Or that's what I find, listening to Niker, hero of Chance House.
But none of this matters when it comes to Wednesday. On Wednesday we return to the Mayfield Rest Home. All the Eiders are gathered in the lounge. All that is, except Edith Sorrel. Catherine begins by saying how delighted she is with the work that everyone is making. I who have made no work, hide behind a plastic palm tree. Catherine smiles, she expects to begin assembling some of the pieces on to the triptych boards next week. In the meanwhile she wants to tell a story A story told to the Prince, to try and make him throw off his curse of silence.
“There was once a man…” she begins.
It is time for me to slip out. I turn as if I was heading for the
toilet and then double back on myself and make for Mrs Sorrel's
room. I feel a strange elation. At last I have something to report.
And even if I'm not bearing the treasure Mrs Sorrel might have hoped
for, I have fulfilled my promise. I have been to the Top Floor Flat,
“You can't go in there,” she says.
“I'm Robert,” I say, “I'm on the project.”
“Even so,” says Matron.
“But Mrs Sorrel's my Elder. I'm making work with her. We're working
This seems, for Matron, to be the end of the discussion. She smiles. I think quickly: choice one, slink away and creep back when she's not looking; choice two, face it out right now.
“Why?” I say, drawing myself up to my full height, which is somewhere near her shoulder. “Why can't I go in?”
Matron tsks. “Mrs Sorrel is resting.”
“She was resting last week. I was very quiet. I didn't wake her. But when she woke up herself, she was glad I was there. She likes me being there.”
“This week's different,” says Matron. “Mrs Sorrel is ill.”
I haven't taken my hand from the door handle. I tighten my grip. The twist is involuntary, just my wrist twitching, but she hears the click of the catch.
“Come with me this minute,” she says and she almost pushes me down the corridor into her office. She shuts the door.
“Now young man,” she says. “You are going to be off this project if you don't respect the rights of my patients. I repeat, Mrs Sorrel is ill. She needs to rest. She cannot make any work. I'm sorry.”
“She was ill last week,” I counter. “Her husband told me she's been
ill for ages.”
“What ill?” I ask.
Matron pauses. When a person is talking about illness and they don't look you in the eye, my mum says it's always cancer. “Is it cancer?” I ask.
“You're a very bold boy,” says Matron.
“It's important,” I say.
“To me.” And when I say it I realise it's true. Edith Sorrel is not some batty old woman in an old people's home. Edith Sorrel is part of my life. “Is she going to die?” I ask.
Matron looks at me. “Yes,” she says. And then she smiles. “But we're all going to die someday aren't we, Robert?”
“Thanks. Can I go now?”
“Yes, but not to Mrs Sorrel's room.”
“Understood,” I say. I go out, close the door and go straight to Mrs Sorrel's room. One silent twist and I'm in.
They have moved Mrs Sorrel's bed into the middle of the room. Later Ernest tells me it's so the staff can lift her more easily, turn her. She looks marooned in the bed, pale and drawn and in the wrong place. As though she were some tiny bird who should be out flying round a summer garden but got caught short by winter.
“Mrs Sorrel,” I call softly. “It's me. Robert.”
“Robert,” she says, but her eyes don't open. “Robert.”
“Matron says I can't talk to you. Can I talk to you, Mrs Sorrel?”
“I don't like Matron,” says Edith.
“I don't like her either.”
“Well, that's that then.” Edith Sorrel opens her eyes. She peers. “Lift me up,” she commands.
I dither. I feel strong enough to lift her, but I don't dare because she looks so fragile. I fear to break her.
“Come on,” she says, “pillows!” She begins struggling. So I put my arm behind her and try to get her into a more upright position. With her own efforts, and a cushion from the chair, we manage some sort of sitting. As she moves pain passes over her face, but she says nothing.
She scrutinises my face. “You're different,” she says.
“No, no, it's just me. Robert.”
“You've got bigger.”
“Maybe you’ve got smaller,” I joke.
“No,” she says. “Not your height. You're bigger inside. You've been, haven't you? I can see it in your eyes. You've been there. Top Floor Flat, Chance House. You've done it!”
“You're such an amazing boy. You’re a brave, brave boy. I knew you could do it. I knew it.”
“But there's nothing there,” I say quickly “I looked and looked. I spent the night there. But there's nothing. Nothing at all. Unless you count a broken window, some duck wallpaper and a bunch off feathers.”
“Feathers?” she says.
“Only pigeon feathers. Nothing special.”
I take the three feathers from my trouser pocket. As well as being grey and scrubby, they are now squashed. She takes them in her bony fingers, begins a rhythmic smoothing of the flights.
“Once,” she begins out of nowhere, “there was a man who dreamed of Firebirds. One midsummer day, as he rested from his labours in the forest, a beautiful creature came down from the sky It was hot and, needing to bathe, she slipped off her coat of golden feathers and dived, naked, into the forest pool. The man thought he had never seen a more beautiful woman in all his life. And, as she swam, he took her coat of golden feathers and hid it. When she emerged from the pool she was distraught at the loss. But the man said, ‘Come with me. I will give you shelter.’
“Knowing she could not fly away, the woman went with him. He was a good man. Gentle. In time they had a child together. A son, whom the woman loved with all her Firebird heart. When the child was about twelve, he called to his mother; ‘Mother, mother, come quickly. Look what I have found while playing in the forest.’ And she followed the sound of her beloved's voice and discovered him holding the coat of golden feathers.”
She tells the story, not as Catherine would have done, with eyes open and alert, but as if she's in a trance, telling the story from inside out, as if it were something she knows only because she's lived inside it all of her life.
“Get me my pink jumper,” she commands then.
“My pink jumper,” she repeats irritably. “Second drawer down.”
And I remember how she called for her pink dressing-gown after she told me how Ernest had stopped her singing, and how angry she seemed then too.
“Quickly!” she says.
There is only one pink item in the drawer. It's not really a jumper, more a short sleeved cardigan buttoned, with tiny pearls, to the neck. The colour is pale, delicate, flesh-toned.
“Bring it here.”
I take it to her.
“Make me a coat of feathers,” she says.
“Make it,” she says. “Sew it. Sew the feathers on.”
“I can't do that!”
“What do you mean can't'?” she says. And, all of a sudden, she doesn't look quite so frail.
“Can't sew,” I say helplessly. “I can't sew!”
“A boy who can go to the top of Chance House can do anything,” she says.
“Except sew,” I say solidly.
“Get a needle,” she says. “Bedside cabinet.”
I don't know who’s pulling my strings but I go to the bedside cabinet. On the bottom shelf is a small blond straw basket decorated with bright red raffia strawberries. It contains scissors, needles, thread.
“Use white.” she says.
Then I say it: “This is mad,” I say
She gives me the witchy see-right-through-you look. “It's work,” she replies. “Our work. We're supposed to be making work, aren't we?”
“But that work is supposed to be something that makes a connection between the past and the present, between your life and mine. A wisdom.”
“Exactly,” she says, triumphantly. “Now thread the needle.”
“Do it, David!”
“Just do it.”
“David, you called me David. My name's Robert.”
“You know it is! David is the name of your son. Your dead son.”
“Dead? David's dead? Who says David's dead?” She looks utterly stricken. A little bird with an arrow in her heart.
“No,” I cry. “I mean - not now. Not recently years ago. Thirty years. He died when he was twelve. Yes?”
“No,” she says. “Oh no. No, no, no, no. Don't let David be dead. Don't let my baby be dead.”
And this is how Matron, coming in bearing a small plastic pot of pills, finds us. Me, sitting mute and horrified on the bed. Edith Sorrel in it, howling like an animal. I look at Matron and Matron looks at me. I have never been more grateful to see anyone in all of my life.
“You!” splutters Matron. “How dare you! Get out of here, you lying little…”
Mrs Sorrel rises. She towers. She stops crying. “Don't you ever speak to him like that,” she says. “Do you hear me?”
But I'm not waiting for a second chance. I’m right off that bed, I'm going wherever Matron tells me.
“Sorry,” I mumble at Mrs Sorrel.
Mrs Sorrel makes a Herculean grab. She has my hand. Her grip is bone to bone.
“Don't go,” she says. “Don't leave me.”
“What exactly is going on here?” asks Matron.
“Robert is making work,” says Mrs Sorrel. “He's making me a coat of feathers.”
“You're supposed to be resting,” says Matron.
“I haven't been able to rest for thirty years,” says Mrs Sorrel.
“Then take these,” says Matron quickly, and she presents Mrs Sorrel with the pills in the plastic cup. From the jug by Mrs Sorrel's bed, she pours a glass of water.
Mrs Sorrel lets go of me and beats her bird hand at Matron. Plastic cup and pills go flying. But she has over-reached herself and the effort makes her wince.
“The pills are for the pain,” Matron observes. “They'll help.”
“Nothing helps,” says Mrs Sorrel. “Nothing has ever helped with the pain.” She looks at me. “Except Robert. Robert helps. Robert's a brave boy. Robert's a wonderful boy. Robert is going to make me a coat of feathers. Aren't you, Robert?”
“Yes,” I announce then. “Of course.”