Marianne asked for a separate bedroom. Quite proper, of course, but there was a hint of panic in her voice which unsettled me. As though the thought of finding herself alone in the same room as Ellis filled her with dread. He, on the other hand, took me through to the sitting room, and asked if I had any Scotch. While he “fixed a drink” I sat down on the sofa and counted the hours back to Anneston, wondering if I should call our mother. Ellis had said she disapproved – but he had not specified that it was Marianne she disapproved of.
I remembered then the time I felt a surge of nostalgia for an old favourite book – The Mysterious Affair at Styles – one I had bought with birthday money as soon as it was released. The cover had spoken to me from the window of the booksellers that I passed on my way to school. Dimly lit figures in an old room. It felt as if it was my first “adult” book, and I became so captivated with it that I read it cover-to-cover that very evening. I feigned illness in the morning, having not slept a wink. Mother made a show of keeping me company, making teas and sandwiches cut into triangles, and told me how inconvenient it was for one to be ill. In between her visits, I took the book out of my nightstand and read it all over again in short, delicious bursts. Then, years later, I rediscovered the book when my husband and I divorced, and we were picking over our belongings. To comfort myself, I read it again, and was disappointed to find that I hated it. I watched Ellis sit down at the other end of the sofa. He smiled at me and drank, and I realised that in the time since I last saw him – about two years or so, since he started university – he had grown up and out of himself. He was now a beloved book revisited, only to be found unpleasant and not at all the way I remembered him.
‘You don’t seem to be entirely happy with Marianne.’
‘What do you mean?’ he said, his face drawing back from his glass. It seemed to me to be another false gesture.
I tilted my head as a reproach. ‘Or rather – Marianne doesn’t seem to be entirely happy with you.’
Ellis drank the rest of the Scotch in one and got up to “fix” another. ‘She saved my life. How else could I repay her?’ He said this without warmth.
‘What has happened to you?’
‘Whatever do you mean, Corda?’
‘Oh will you stop with that accent. You’re turning into mother.’
‘Perhaps Marianne and I have children I’ll send them back to you, too.’ His eyes were humourless. I retreated into the back of the sofa.
‘Is this what all of this is about?’
‘What all of what is about?’
‘The drinking. The insomnia. The – dare I say it? – bitterness – you seem to have developed.’
Ellis laughed and sat back down. ‘I realised – a few years after father died and I was brought back home for good – that I wasn’t truly loved. I was somebody that somebody asked for, whenever they felt alone.’ He looked down into his glass and for a moment he was a little boy again. The love I had for him – the love that I knew had somewhat diminished that evening – filled me with sadness.
‘You are loved.’
‘By whom? Mother wanted me for company, Marianne wants me for her research, and you – well, you have Ada.’
‘I have never loved Ada.’ Those words had waited years to come out of my mouth and as quick as they came I tried to put them back in. ‘That is to say,’ I fumbled, ‘not beyond the normal, maternal, dutiful love.’
‘You never sent for me to come back. For good.’
‘You weren’t mine to send for.’
‘You could have visited.’
‘I have never visited our mother. The thought of being on an aeroplane frightens me. The thought of being in America frightens me, let alone with –. Besides, I did have you back now and again.’
‘To see Ada.’
‘Mother would always say – you’re going to Corda’s. Ada wants to see you.’
‘Well, Ada did want to see you.’
‘No, she didn’t. She never wanted to see me. She never wanted to play games with me. She never even wanted to fight. We would just sit in silence together.’
‘As you seem to do with Marianne.’
Ellis chuckled. ‘As I seem to do with Marianne.’
‘You shouldn’t marry somebody just because you want to feel loved.’
‘Isn’t that why you had Ada? To feel loved?’
‘Well –.’ I teetered on the edge of upbraiding him and changing the subject, but I live alone with my thoughts, and the postmistress or the waitress at the fantasy café will never hear them. ‘Yes. Yes, I did.’
‘To replace me.’
I became frustrated and stood up. I went and leaned against the mantelshelf and stared at myself in the mirror. I looked my age, the age my mother was when she had Ellis. Quite unexpectedly. But Ellis wasn’t Ellis any more. For a brief moment, I wondered if I had time to try again.
‘Look. I’m not bitter about it, like you said. I just see the world for what it is now.’ He got up to get another drink.
I bolted and grabbed his arm. ‘No, Ellis. Go to bed. I have some sleeping tablets – why don’t you try one of those? And may I suggest you and Marianne go for a walk in the forest tomorrow, to – to sort things out between you. Marriage isn’t a simple thing. Love isn’t a simple thing. You can’t simply “see the world for what it is”. The world isn’t anything – it’s constantly changing. You’ve changed and I’ve changed. But for God’s sake there’s still the boy I knew inside you somewhere, and he wouldn’t take very kindly to you ruining his life.’
Ellis looked stunned. Perhaps I was shouting. Perhaps I had got through to him. I took the glass out of his hand and placed it on the mantelshelf, then I took Ellis upstairs, unspeaking, to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I dispensed the pills, I led him to his room. I told him there were towels in the airing cupboard and a spare pillow in the wardrobe if he needed it. As I turned to leave, he said – ‘Corda.’ He sounded a little drunk. ‘You think I’ve become this way because I’ve realised that nobody loves me.’ I began to interrupt him, but he went on – with a malicious look in his eyes. ‘Truth is I’ve also realised that I don’t love anybody, either.’
I don’t remember what I said to him then. Perhaps I said nothing. Did I shrink from the room? Did I shout at him? I know I lay awake for many hours, thinking I should be crying myself to sleep. But I did not cry. I felt hollowed out. It’s the drink, I told myself. It’s the sleeplessness that’s got to him. We all have our moments, in late adolescence, of feeling dejected and unwanted and confused about our feelings. But that look he gave me – as though he was determined to hurt me – plunged me into a muted grief that I couldn’t express. Who could I express it to?
I was finally drifting off to sleep when I was distracted by a shuffling sound accompanied by heavy, tortured breathing. In my drowsiness I thought perhaps it was some animal – a badger? – snuffling around in the forest, for the noises do carry in the country at night-time. It had been a long time since Ellis had had a seizure in my presence. As a young child he had them often and on each occasion I had been too petrified to deal with it. My husband would step in, while I would step out of the room.
I was at Ellis’ door. The shuffling and the heavy breathing – how I imagine drowning to sound – grew louder. I trembled. I couldn’t turn the handle. So I turned around and went to fetch Marianne.
She did not wake at first. She looked serene; sleeping deeply. I prodded her and called her name at different pitches. And then I woke her at last by taking the sheet from under her and rolling her out of bed. She cursed and spat and rubbed her head, and I grabbed her hand and pulled her across the landing.
We stood outside the door. She said nothing. I stared at her as she looked down at the doorknob, and in a flash of anger I turned it for her and flung the door into the bedroom. Marianne gazed into the darkness. Ellis yelped and convulsed while Marianne stood motionless.
Marianne did not move.
She did not even blink.
I started forward and before I could think I said – ‘Marianne you spiteful little bitch.’
‘Shut up, Mrs Drab. It’s best not to disturb them when they’re like this. He has the pillows.’
‘Oh,’ I said – shrinking back. ‘I’m so sorry. You’re quite right, I–.’ I looked away from her and caught sight of him. He was quivering in the way the dying rabbit had been. I closed my eyes. I counted the seconds. I counted the hours back to Anneston, and wondered if I should, at last, tele-phone mother. I should have tele-phoned for the doctor, but for some reason – some child-like reason, I thought only to call my mother.
Marianne stood about so long – doing her research – that Ellis was rendered brain damaged. By the dawn, I was asking the operator to connect me to Anneston. All I can remember of the conversation with mother – if you can call it a conversation – was me saying over and again that Marianne should have known better, that Marianne stood about too long, that Marianne should have known what she was doing, that Marianne worked in medical research, for-the-love-of-God.
In the end, Marianne was sacked, and mother took her in. To keep her company, she said. I thought it perverse. After some time, she managed to persuade an old friend of my father’s to find Marianne a position at the university. Clerical, I believe. Even so, it meant that mother was brought back into academic society. She reminds me, whenever I choose to listen, that Marianne still pays to have Ellis looked after.
For a time, I was too spooked to stay in the house alone. I asked Ada to come and stay with me for a little while. She arrived with suspicious restraint, and for the first few days our dialogue was stilted, as it always had been. We would sit with one another in the sitting room listening to the radio, reading magazines, in muted companionship, as though we were two old maids. But I had so much to tell her. I hounded myself to speak, until it all tumbled out in one go.
‘I don’t want you to end up like Ellis. There was a time – for much of your childhood, I suppose – when I did. But he’s changed now, and I don’t want you to become embittered towards me. I want you to feel loved. And able to love.’ At last I cried and told her everything that had happened. She stared at me, tense at first. Then she drew in a long breath and burst into tears.
I don’t dare to imagine that she’s forgiven me entirely, but she visits me more, and when she can’t we write to each other. I am often in town now to drop letters off at the post office, and to have a cup of tea at the café on the corner. It’s an indulgence, but I do what I can now to not be alone.
When the weather is awful, when Ada isn’t due, when everything about the house is in order, I call Ellis. I pick my words carefully. Sometimes I plan entire conversations before I’ve even lifted the receiver. There’s not much he can understand now. It’s almost as if I’m speaking to a child.