“She cursed your life?” Zelda lit her fourth roll-up and inhaled deeply. “But she was wrong. You did marry again.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “But she said that I’d never marry again and be happy. And I wasn’t. Happy, I mean. My third marriage to Peregrine, ended in an acrimonious divorce and my second husband…” I blinked furiously. Even after all these years, a lump started gathering in my throat when I tried to say it out loud.
“What?” she looked at me quizzically.
“Oh, shit, Dora!” Zelda’s eyes widened. “I didn’t know.”
“Neither did I.” said Ralphie. “You merely told me that your second marriage came to an end. Allow me to offer my belated commiserations.”
“Thank you,” I bit my lip.
“And that’s him, isn’t it, in that photograph, over there?” Ralphie pointed across the room with his death’s head walking stick.
“Yes,” I said. “How did you guess?”
“Oh, it wasn’t difficult. There’s a silver frame. It’s in pride of place in the centre of the book shelf. There’s a single red rose in a cut glass, stem vase beside it. And the young man in that picture, dressed in the fashion of twenty years ago and with such long, sun-kissed blond hair, is an Adonis.”
I could feel the tears pricking at the back of my eyes as Ralphie spoke. I’d kept that photograph in a drawer for years, unable even to look at it at first, and then, hidden away from Peregrine. It was only a year ago that I’d taken it out, and put it on display, wanting to Seb to have a reminder of his father.
“That’s your second husband?” Zelda peered at it from across the room. “But,
Dora, I thought that was just a fan photo. He looks just like Dave Dellow!”
“That’s because he was Dave Dellow,” I said.
“Dora, that’s amazing! I loved Chappaquiddick and Josh is a real fan! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Forgive me,” Ralphie said. “I seem to be a little out of touch here. Was the late Mr Dellow famous in some way?”
“He was the rhythm guitarist in a band called Chappaquiddick,” Zelda explained excitedly. “They were great,” Zelda told him. “Highly brilliant and original. Their first album was out, John Peel was backing them, and they were just about to make the big time, when…”
“Stop!” I grabbed the photograph off the bookshelf and held it close to my chest. “That’s enough!”
Zelda looked guilt-stricken. “Oh, Dora, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s OK,” I said. “I’m just tired. I’m sorry. I don’t want talk about any of this right now. I’d like to get to bed.”
I was bone-achingly tired, but I couldn’t sleep. It had been too disturbing, revisiting so much of my painful past. And I just knew that tomorrow, when I got into school, . Zelda would waiting for me, wide-eyed and curious, ready to bombard me with questions about the band. She’d be like all the other Chappaquiddick fans that managed to track me down, demanding to know if I’d got any memorabilia, if I knew where the ‘lost’ tapes were, if I still in touch with Dingo and Mad McArthur and Loon, and whether there’d ever be a reunion. And they’d want to talk about Dave,
about his music and his contribution to post-punk rock, and about what a tragedy his death had been for the band, and that was the thing I hated to hear the most. The band might very well have lost one of the most brilliant guitarists of his generation, but I’d lost something else. I’d lost the posthumous father of my son, and the only man I’d ever really loved.
With a sigh, I switched on my bedside lamp, and picked up a book from the pile by the bed, a British Film Institute monograph on German Expressionist Cinema. Perhaps a hearty whack of pretentious prose would send me to sleep. I began to read:
‘The Structuralist exegesis of Dr Mabuse is informed with a perpendicularity of intention that belies the interface of the pre-war fabric and the Weimar legacy. In the ‘Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, we see the Expressionist ethic without being conscious of the influence of Formalism…..”
So far, so soporific, but I was wide awake. Too many troubling thoughts were buzzing through my brain like wasps caught in a jar. Was that Talisman of Raphael that Ralphie had painted on the front door really going to protect me from Gertie? How was I going to explain Ralphie’s presence in the house to Caspian when he returned? And what about 9X? Suppose something had happened to one of them, and it was my fault for leaving them with that man Tel? Surely they couldn’t have come to any harm, surely by now, having roistered around the games arcades of North London, climbed over the security fences into the zoo, frightened a few OAPs and floated down the canal on home made rafts, they must be safely tucked up in their beds. I turned over a page of my book:
‘Fritz Lang’s Metropolis offers a synaesthetic format which we may regard the over-arching template of diseased democracy without succumbing to the intellectual trap outlined by Marx---not to mention Engels……
This was making me feel worse, as I realised just how many of my brain cells
must have died off since I took my degree. I couldn’t understand a word. I dropped the monograph on to the floor, swung my legs out of bed, and stepped into my black velvet slippers. Then I went downstairs to make myself a large mug of camomile tea.
I stood in the kitchen, sipping my tea slowly and staring at the cork notice board on the wall next to the fridge. All the usual memos and notes were there, trade cards from plumbers and electricians, holiday postcards from friends, my latest pay slip, a list of important telephone numbers, a Post-It note reminding me to book a dental appointment, the term dates for Caspian’s school, a recipe for aubergine and pimento dip, a cutting from Time Out about a new child-friendly restaurant, a drawing that Seb had done when he was eight, but there also, pinned up in the middle, was a faded piece of vellum with the words, Order more plasma inscribed on it in ancient brown ink. Oh dear. What on earth was I going to do about Ralphie?
I’d always thought of myself as a practical woman. I kept my fridge scrupulously clean, wiping it with an anti-bacterial cloth on a daily basis. I never wasted food. I always whizzed left-overs through the blender to make stocks, soups and sauces. I folded linen neatly and I kept drawers and cupboards tidy. When both Seb and Caspian were born, I’d put in a bulk order of embroidered name tapes, enough to last them until they were eighteen. I grew plants from avocado stones and pips. I was never late paying bills. I kept files of recipes, household tips, and leaflets covering everything from stain removal to serious litigation. But now I was at a loss. I had absolutely no idea how to deal with the undead.
The phone rang and I jumped, spilling hot camomile tea down the front of my Victorian-style nightie. Ouch! I dabbed at my chest with a tea towel. Who the hell was calling me at this hour? I lifted the receiver, and took a deep breath, ready to give a drunken pervert at the other end of the line an ear blasting.
“Hello?” I snarled.
“Dora!” It was Peregrine. “What do you think you’re playing at?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Did you send all these aged plebs here? I’ve got a bunch of crazy old women in floral print dresses and cheap trainers, drinking Pina Coladas and singing The Green, Green Grass of Home out on the patio. They’ve been at it all night!”
“I don’t know why you think this has anything to do with me.”
“Don’t you? Mother says they’re friends of Agatha Dellow. In fact, one of them even looks like Agatha Dellow!”
“Perhaps it is Agatha Dellow,” I said.
“What are you talking about? Agatha Dellow is dead!”
“I know, but she wouldn’t let a little thing like that stand in the way of good knees-up.” I was feeling light headed and reckless now. So not only had Cynthia taken Nanny Barrel Hips back to Lanzarote, as Ralphie had suggested, they’d managed to pick up all the other plane disaster victims on the way, and now they were driving Peregrine frantic. The thought of his anguish was cheering me up enormously.
“Have you gone completely mad, Dora?” Peregrine asked.
“Then why are you telling me Mrs Dellow’s on the patio? How can she be? She’s dead! She’s pushing up the daisies, along with her sainted, I.Q- challenged son!”
I took in a sharp intake of breath, so sharp that I felt a stabbing pain slicing
right through my solar plexus.
“Don’t you ever,” I could feel my lips quivering as I spoke, “Don’t you ever talk about Dave in that way. He was worth ten of you! He was talented and beautiful and simple and kind, and just because you were always jealous of his memory…”
“You bitch, Dora!” There was a sharp click, following by the dialling tone.
Oh hell. Now I’d done it. Peregrine was bound to want to get back at me for that.
Cynthia was dancing on a beach balancing a pineapple on her head. There were brightly coloured birds flitting through luminous green leaves, and then I saw that they weren’t birds at all, but bats. Multi-coloured bats, a new species, with wings as iridescent as butterflies. The sky was dark and a river flowed past me, and there on the river was a boat, with a kind of tent on it, lit up by flickering candles.
There was a man in the boat. He was dark-haired and oddly familiar, and he was wearing a white shirt slashed open to the waist. He was sprawling seductively against a bank of gold cushions and he looked like the sexiest thing imaginable. He beckoned to me.
“Dora,” he said. “You’re beautiful, make love to me.”
I was in the boat with the man, and he was kissing me passionately. His hand moved down my back, caressing me, and I felt so aroused that I...
Grief! I sat up groggily. My head felt as though it had been stuffed with barbed wire and my eyes were smarting. Well, at least I’d managed to snatch a few hours sleep after my nasty phone call from Peregrine, but did I have to dream about making love with Aidan Lang, and in such corny technicolour? What on earth was happening to me? Before I could even consider this troubling question, there was a knock at my bedroom door.
“Who’s that?” I clutched my duvet to my chest.
“It is only me, my dear lady.” The door creaked open an inch. “I have taken the liberty of preparing you a breakfast tray. May I come in?”
“Um...yes.” I hoped I didn’t sound too ungracious, but this was all too much.
As Ralphie entered the room, I saw that he was wearing an exquisite lemon silk dressing gown embroidered with peacocks and temple minarets. He was carrying a vast, silver tray, definitely not something he’d found in my kitchen.
“Shall I place it here?” he indicated the bedside table with a nod of his head.
“Yes, thank you,” I said, “That’s really kind.”
“I hope you won’t mind,” he set the tray down, “but I have borrowed your spare key. I found it on the shelf in the hall. Now, you probably think that I can re-enter your house in the form of mist coming under the door or through the keyhole, or that I can come through the window transformed into a bat. Alas, I’m afraid that kind of thing is merely the invention of some highly imaginative, but entirely inaccurate, film directors. So I will need a key. Is that all right?”
I looked at the breakfast tray. Ralphie had gone to so much trouble that I didn’t feel I could tell him that it was very far from all right, at least not just now. There was some tea in a bone china cup, a silver toast rack containing three tiny triangles of lightly tanned bread, two boiled eggs in a double egg cup, a gold-rimmed saucer containing some delicate curls of butter, some fresh fruit, and a lead crystal glass filled to the brim with a thick red liquid.
“Um, what’s that?” I pointed to it tentatively.
“Home squeezed cranberry juice,” Ralphie told me. “With just a dash of angostura bitters! So good for the kidneys.”
“How nice,” I said, trying not to make my relief too obvious.
“It’s the least I can do,” he murmured. “The eggs are free range. Georgia has them delivered by a man who keeps his own poultry in Cricklewood. Now, let us welcome the day!” He walked over to the window and took hold of the curtain cord.
“Ralphie--don’t!” I yelled. “It’s day-light out there!”
“Ah-hah!” he turned towards me with a smile. “Let me guess! You think I am risking my person? No, no, let me assure you that even if I let in the full blaze of June, nothing serious would ensue. I would not burst into flames, or crumble into dust, making a mess of your pristine, understated, taupe carpet. The dangers of sunlight to my kind have been much exaggerated. The worst outcome would be a rather extreme suntan, and a gradual loss of tissue, which at my age, I agree, is not desirable. But I would need to go out in strong sunshine for at least twenty years before there would be any real damage. Some of the younger members of our kind are quite happy to walk around in the daylight hours. I do prefer the night, so much more glamorous. And today, as you will soon see, it’s another foggy day in dear old London town.”
He pulled open the curtains, revealing a dense murk. The orange street lights were still lit, and the effect of their glimmer in the fog was really very atmospheric. If a hansom cab had rattled past, transporting Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson to the scene of a heinous crime, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place.
“Curious, don’t you think?” Ralphie mused. “All this mist and far from mellow fruitlessness? It seems as though this entire area of North London has been bathed in dry ice for days. And yet I understand the sun has been shining in Kensington.”
I took a sip of the cranberry juice and was surprised by just how restorative it was. All the same, I wasn’t feeling good.
“I’m afraid something cataclysmic is in the offing,” Ralphie continued. “The
fog and the appearance of spirits indicate a crisis. The dimensions are shifting. The process can be compared to the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates. Think of it as paranormal seismology. We are sitting on the paranormal equivalent of the San Andreas fault.”
“I see.” I broke the shell of one of the eggs with my spoon.
“Do take care when you leave for your place of work,” Ralphie warned me.
“There could be some very strange entities walking abroad. Well, I will leave you to finish your breakfast in peace. Good day, my dear lady.”
He went silently from the room. I dipped a corner of toast into the egg. Goodness, it was delicious. I really couldn’t think about shifting dimensions right now. I had other things to worry about. Maybe I was about to get sacked from my job at Havelock Ellis High School. Although, now that I came to think about it, maybe that would be a relief. I could get plenty of work in other schools, and at least I wouldn’t have to have any dealings with that annoying man Aidan Lang.