Living in the Dark
by Jane Seaford
Twenty years since shed seen him. He looked both as she remembered him and completely different; not just older but as if he were someone else.
Alice, he said and the strangled gasp of his voice made her shiver. There was no doubt. This was her father.
Im sorry, Alice. Mums voice sounded as if she were a long way away, maybe even buried underground. But she was on her bed wearing underwear.
Please come downstairs. Weve made a play specially for you and even Robbie is in it.
I know. Ill try. Tomorrow. Alice looked at her mother lying with her legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, her eyes closed and her hand on her forehead.
Is it because of Daddy? Alice asked.
Dont be silly, Mummy said but Alice could tell she didnt mean it.
Maybe Daddy doesnt like you, Alice said.
Mummy groaned. Of course he does.
Well, why is he rude to you?
Hes mostly nice to me.
Mummy could be lying, but grown-ups didnt lie. They told children not to lie.
Anyhow, he doesnt like us. Me and Simon and Robbie.
He loves you, Mummy said. Now please, leave. I want to sleep.
Its daytime, Alice whispered.
Mummy had put on make up and had used hairspray and perfume. Now she was dressed in her new blue suit and hat, which was little, like a pie, with blue net that came over her face, just to her eyes. There were sparkles of blue stone in the net.
You look pretty. Alice was happy that Mummy was happy.
Thank you, Mummy said, music in her voice giving Alice a glad tingling in her throat. Mummy picked up her handbag and did a twirl. All dressed up and somewhere to go. Come and kiss me goodbye. Alice obeyed.
She, Robbie and Simon stood outside the front door with Susan, who came most days to clean the house. She also looked after them when Mummy wasnt able to or had to go away. Daddy was in the car.
Bye, darlings, Mummy called. She only called them darling when everything was all right. Im off to have a lovely day in town. And I might never come back. She laughed.
Will Mummy never come back? Simon asked Susan after the car had left. His lips were trembling.
Silly boy, Susan said. You shouldnt believe half the things grown-ups tell you. Simon went on looking up at her. She hadnt exactly said that Mummy would be back, Alice thought.
How can I live a normal life? Daddy shouted. Mummy might be about to cry, thought Alice, who was lying on the carpet behind the sofa.
Its time you pulled yourself together. Looked after your children. Made sure that Susan does her bit.
Hearing Mummy give a soft sigh, Alice pulled Rabbit closer and rubbed his velvety fur on her cheek.
She does what I ask, Mummy said. Lately she hadnt been talking much. Shed told Alice that words made her feel tired. Both the ones she used and the others that were spoken to her.
We may have to consider hospital again, Daddy said.
No, Edward. Ill be fine.
Will you though? Daddy shouted. He walked over to the cupboard where grown-up drinks were kept. Alice crawled from behind the sofa and watched Daddy opening a bottle and pouring some brown-coloured liquid into a glass.
I couldnt bear to leave the children again, Mummy whispered.
Youre no use to them the way you are. We might have to send Robbie to boarding school a year early.
Not that. My poor little boy. Ill be alright soon.
Whats boarding school? Alice asked. Daddy turned to look at her.
Whats the child doing here? I thought she was in bed, he shouted.
Im going now, Alice said. She stood and left the room, defiant and a little scared.
Alice ran into the brightness of the afternoon, feeling the heat after the coolness of the large living room with their closed curtains. She sat on the lawn watching Robbie and Simon playing cricket. Robbie was batting, commentating as he did so, pretending to be a famous sportsman. Alice lay on her stomach, put her face close to the grass and saw a caterpillar climbing a leaf. If Robbie saw it, he would pick it up and squash it. Sometimes Robbie was horrid. And bossy. She began to roll over and over thinking about how funny Mummy had been just now. Alice had gone inside because she didnt want to play cricket.
Whos that? Mummy had called.
Its me, Alice said.
Come here. Alice obeyed and went into the living room. Ill be better soon, Mummy said. Well have nice holiday together.
Even him. Mummy closed her eyes. My life would be perfect it werent for your father. He has made me ill. He has taken away my personality.
Alice bit her finger. She liked the feel of it in her mouth, and the painful sharpness of teeth on skin.
Are you better? Alice asked when her mother opened her eyes. There was no answer. After a few minutes Alice stood up and went back outside again.
Youre rolling onto our pitch, Robbie called and Alice stopped.
I dont want to play anymore. I never get to bat, Simon whined.
Because you never get me out, Robbie said. You need to improve your game.
Im going to see Mummy, Simon threw the cricket ball to Robbie and ran towards the house.
She wont talk to you. She doesnt make sense and she doesnt care. Shes mad and she doesnt love us, Robbie called.
Shut up, Alice said. Stop saying those silly things.
Its what Dad says, Robbie said. He was trying to sound grown-up, Alice knew, even though he was only nine.
The house was quiet when Alice woke. Sun shone through the curtains as she sat up, trying to remember what had happened. Maybe it was a dream. She climbed out of bed and, because she wanted to be good, put on her slippers and dressing gown as she had been told to do. On the landing, remembering the night before, she began to feel scared. The world was a mysterious and often scary place. She wished that someone would help her not to feel so alone. She headed for the lavatory, knowing that she must make no noise.
In the dark a loud noise had come from outside: an ambulance or a fire engine. Coloured light had swirled into her room, even with the curtains drawn, and Alice had pulled her blankets over her head. She lay smothered in the warm woolly smell and after a while she thought that the noise and the lights had been a dream. She tried to go back to sleep but eventually, feeling too hot and finding it difficult to breathe, she pushed her bedclothes aside. The light still circled around her room and there were noises on the landing, a bumping sound and some whispering. The noise went down the stairs. Someone shrieked. It sounded like Simon. Alice thought shed heard Susans voice, but she went home after bedtime so it couldnt be her. She wanted the dark to be gone and morning to be here.
Now the morning had come. Back in her bedroom, Alice looked at her watch a present for her last birthday. It was time to get up. She drew back the curtains and looked out onto the garden, almost expecting to see a large vehicle. There was nothing there: just the sun and the lawn and the tops of the trees swaying in the wind. It must have been a dream. She went back onto the landing; the whole house was holding its breath. The silence was thick, like fog. Slowly she went into Simons room. He wasnt there. His curtains were closed and his bed unmade, but his clothes were piled neatly on the chair and the shoes together under it. Something wasnt right. She stood by the window, opened the curtain and leant on the sill, looking out as if she would be able to see something extra in the garden from Simons room. But she couldnt. Next she went into Robbies room. She knew he wouldnt be there: he was at boarding school. Nonetheless, she felt compelled to go in and look at the garden through his window. His room smelled of emptiness.
Alice sat at the top of the stairs and waited for something she wasnt sure what to happen. When nothing did, she went down and into the dining room. The table was laid for breakfast but there was nothing to eat except for cereal; the packets sitting on the sideboard. Usually thered be the smell of toast and either Susan or Mummy, if she was well, bustling about.
In the living room Alice sat on the sofa feeling that she was all alone in the house. Maybe her family had been kidnapped. Or a spell had been put on them. Perhaps shed been asleep for a hundred years and everyone had died. Alice shuddered and lay down, curling into a ball.
When she woke, Daddy was looking down at her. Alice blinked, and sat up. When he didnt move or say anything she was scared. She tried to ask a question but couldnt speak.
What is it? Daddy said.
Staying with Susan.
Is Mummy there, too?
No. Your mother Your mother has gone away, Daddy said, not looking at Alice. She didnt understand what hed said but she knew something bad was happening.
All morning Alice had been swinging, backwards and forwards, aiming for the sky, singing a silly nonsense song as she worked her legs and her body to keep the movement strong and fast. She clung tightly onto the ropes and the roughness cut into the palms of her hands. She liked the almost painful rub of that, the scariness of feeling the jerk as she tried to go higher, too high. Simon and Robbie came to watch her. She ignored them, looking away, pretending she was flying and would live forever in the cloud with no brothers and no dad. But absolutely definitely, with a mum.
I want a go, Simon said. He would be crying again soon, Alice thought, so she slowed down to give him a turn.
Aunt Diana called: Alice! Simon! Robbie! Lunchtime.
Alice took no notice. Sometimes Aunt Diana was silly. She held her hands together and said oh when she didnt know what to do. Sometimes she cried. Then shed take a deep breath. I mustnt give in for their sake, dear Teddy. That was what she called Dad. Mummy had called him Darling and, when she was cross, Edward. And sometimes nothing. Sometimes Mummy hadnt spoken to Dad at all. Dad was Aunt Dianas brother. It was strange to think that once Dad and Aunt Diana had been children like Robbie, Alice and Simon.
Mostly Alice liked having Aunt Diana living with them. The problem was the bit that made Alice rude when she didnt want to be was that her aunt was here because Mummy wasnt.
Alice saw Aunt Diana coming down the path from the house. Her feet in their loose flat shoes were flapping.
Alice, Aunt Diana said and Alice carried on swinging. Alice. Lunch. Her voice had started to go high, like it did when the children wouldnt do what she asked.
Not hungry, Alice said and pushed her legs out in front of her to make the swing go faster and higher. Then she felt bad; she didnt want to upset her aunt. She let the swing slow down, jumped off before it had finished and ran to Diana, throwing herself at her. Sorry, sorry, Alice mumbled.
Later, Robbie sat cross-legged using his penknife to make a point at the end of the stick. His mouth was a hard line and his eyes were squeezed in concentration. Simon wouldnt stop crying.
Shut up, he said. Only babies cry for their mothers.
Simon snivelled. He had been crying on and off ever since the day when Dad had told Alice that Mummy had gone away. Susan said she was dead. Alice had heard her talking about it to George, the gardener.
His Lordships in a right state, now Madams dead, she had said. And as you and I know, theres more to whats happened than meets the eye. Once, a long time ago, Alice had asked Mummy why Susan called Dad His Lordship even though he wasnt a lord.
Its irony, she had said, sounding tired. She had often sounded tired before she went away.
Is it because Susan does the ironing? Alice had asked. Mummy laughed and turned away from Alice, who was waiting for something that she wanted but could not explain.
Robbie poked Simon with the point of his stick and Simon yelped. Ill tell Aunt Diana, he whined.
She wont do anything, Robbie said.
Ill tell Dad then.
There was silence. Alice thought about Simon complaining to their father; she wondered if he would even hear what he was saying. Simon and Robbie were probably thinking the same thing.
That evening, supper was baked beans on toast that stuck in Alices throat. Just before bedtime was the worst part of the day. She gagged, swallowed and drank some milk. She heard the sound of Dads car as he parked, footsteps in the hall, the bang of the living room door closing.
His lordships home, Susan said, sniffing. Aunt Diana said nothing.
More cars came up the drive. The bell rang and Susan went to answer the door. It sounded as if an army of men was walking into the house. Alice wanted to scream. Instead she held her breath and screwed her eyes shut. She opened them when she felt her aunts hands on her shoulder.
Its all right, Alice, she said. But her voice meant something else.
Later, through the landing window, Alice watched the police come out to their cars. With them was Dad. His hands were fastened behind his back. His head was bent and his legs moved as if he were finding it hard to walk.
Oh my. Down in the hall Susan was wailing.
Alice waited for him to touch her, hug or kiss her. She waited for him to tell her how sorry he was that hed spoiled her life. Something. Something to show that he was capable of love. Instead he frowned at her and cleared his throat.
They are all wrong. I did not kill your mother. It was suicide.
Alice turned her head, unable to look at him anymore. It had been a mistake to agree, at last, to see him.
Either way, you were responsible, she said and walked out of the room. She was not crying.
More stories from Winamop
Copyright reserved. Please do not reproduce without consent.