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Chapter Thirteen

She had bought the bathroom mirror soon after moving into the flat. It hung the length of the wall. As the bath ran, a fog of steam began to cling to its surface. Rachaela wiped it away. Through the frosted window blazed the cold light of winter morning; sidelight, the most harsh. Rachaela examined her face and body.

She was forty. She did not look it. She looked the same as when she had been twenty-nine, before the birth of the child. Even that had not touched her. No stretch marks, no cellulite, the belly and thighs firm and white and smooth, the breasts full and yet high, the nipples small and rosy. The neck was unlined, the face unlined, the brow and cheeks. The chin was firm. No pouches about the mouth or under the eyes. The face and body of a young, young woman. And in the black hair, the black hair of the groin, not a single silver coil.

It did not please her. She tried not to let it unnerve her. She was used to it, saw it every day. She accepted such remarks as Jonquils, But youre only a kid. Even Denise had aged a little, got heavy and puffy in her thirties, from the big cooked dinners she made for hungry Keith. Jonquil had not herself changed very much, her skin had only grown harder and more obdurate, she had swapped the steel earring for an earring of bone, and all her hair was grey.

Probably Ill age suddenly.

That might happen. It happened in books.

People did not notice youngness when they saw you constantly, the same as the alteration into age went largely unobserved, only picked out in sudden revelations.

What are you, you must be about twenty-eight now, Jonquil had said last year, not bothering with an answer.

The child had changed, of course.

Ruth grew out of all her clothes with punctilious regularity. She had breasts and two small brassieres that must be hand-washed.

Rachaela had explained to Ruth about her periods, sitting at the table with her while Ruth drew, asking if she understood. Rachaelas mother had not told her anything but had given her a rather serious book. The blood had come in the middle of the night and she had still been appalled. She had had to wake her mother up to ask for sanitary pads, and her mother had grumbled, Rachaela put pads into Ruths drawer, among her underclothes, in front of her.

Ruth showed no resentment, no excitement. I heard about it at school.

From the teachers?

From a girl.

Tell me when you start, Rachaela felt bound to say.

All right.

What did Ruth look like, unclothed? Rachaela never saw her. She would go nightly into the bathroom in her skirt and blouse and come out in a cotton nightshirt.

Rachaela slept in a nightshirt, too. Ruths decorum had somehow imposed it on her.

The bath was full.

Rachaela let the mirror veil itself in steam and stepped into the water.

Hi, youre late, said Jonquil airily as Rachaela entered the shop. That kid of yours mess you up? Is she at her secondary yet?

Next year, when shes eleven.

I suppose youve got that all mapped out.

It will depend on some test, said Rachaela vaguely. She was used to answering occasional questions about the child, who perhaps Jonquil did not really think existed after all.

I see, said Jonquil. Used to be the old eleven-plus, but thats all different now. You wouldnt remember.

Rachaela made coffee, and tea for Jonquil with one of her herbal tea bags. Jonquil fussed round her. When they sat down, Jonquil stood up again.

Youve been here a long while, havent you, Raech? What is itfive years?

A little longer.

Denise too. Poor old Denise. That bloody awful feller shes with. I hoped hed leave her in peace but he knows when hes on to a good thing. Jonquil drank some tea and sighed gustily. Im afraid were going to have to shut up shop.

Rachaela looked at her. This had been on the cards from the very beginning. She was only surprised Isis had lasted so long.

Im sorry, she said.

Yeah. Its a shame. But theres never been much interest around here. Dozy hole. Ive got a chance to go in with a womens group up Manchester way. So Im all right. But it means curtains for Denise and you. Will you be OK?

Oh, Ill find something else.

Some skivvys job. Or running round after some bloody male in an office.

Probably.

I wish I could do something.

How long? said Rachaela.

End of this month. Its rotten timing. Itll be Christmas next. But it will give you a bit more time with the kid.

Yes.

Relieved by unloading her bombshell, Jonquil began to move about the forlorn little shop, examining books.

The hot water pipes gurgled as they had done for ten years.

It was not the end of the world. Thanks to Emmas years of extreme beneficence, Rachaela had managed to save a little, and now there was some interest which would tide her over, perhaps until the new year. The child was an expense, of course, but she seemed up to date with her garments, her school trips.

Lyle and Robbins were advertising for staff again. Perhaps that would do. Or there was the antique shop in Beaumont Street, only one flummoxed woman who was always shutting for ten minutes.

Not a problem.

Rachaela remembered how Mr Gerard had fired her, and how relevant and ominous it had been.

Things were different now. Or she was.

On Thursday, her half-day off from the shop, as Rachaela was sitting in her chair listening to Tchaikovsky ballet music, the door sounded.

Yes?

Oh Mrs Day. Its Miss Barrett. Perhaps you remember me?

No, Im afraid not.

From Ruths school.

Yes?

I need to see you about something.

Rachaela recalled Miss Barrett, just over a year ago, the scrubbed clean face and essential glasses. Terry Porter and his knee.

Youd better come up.

Miss Barrett entered the flat in a strawberry-red coat with a white fur collar, a yellow wool hat and brown fur gloves without fingers. She carried a pink umbrella.

Oh, Mrs Day. So glad to catch you in.

Please sit down.

Miss Barrett sat in the chair, and Rachaela sat down on one of the hard chairs by the table.

Miss Barrett shed her gloves and hat.

What a nasty day. I shouldnt be surprised if we were in for some more snow.

What has Ruth done now? said Rachaela.

Oh dear. Its always such a worry, this sort of thing, said Miss Barrett. Mr Walker thought, as Id come to see you before, it would be best if I came again. We dont like to make too much of it. Unless it goes on, of course.

What has Ruth done?

Its really what she hasnt done. She hasnt been coming to school, Mrs Day. I take it you havent been keeping her at home and just not sent a note? We must always have a note, you see. Theres a lot of colds about, I know.

Ruth never gets colds.

No. Well then I take it she isnt here.

She isnt.

Mrs Walker thinks that she saw Ruth in Woolworths.

What a mundane place for the escapee to be. Why Woolworths? Sometimes when Rachaela shopped in the Saturday lunch-hour, Ruth went with her, and into Woolworths too, never showing a symptom of interest in the toys, sweets or loudly drumming music section.

Mrs Walker thinks that Ruth was trying on makeup, said powderless Miss Barrett, her unpainted eyes and lips wide with shock.

Perhaps she was, said Rachaela, for a moment almost intrigued. She herself had done something similar when she had played truant, but then she was thirteen or fourteen.

The thing is, Mrs Day, this is very serious. You must speak to Ruth and impress upon her that she has to come to school. Shes been absent several days this month. She has an important test next year, and she needs to pay attention. Shes very much a dreamer. A lot of talent in art, though some of her paintings, well. But she needs to pull her socks up. She must attend.

Ill speak to her.

Ruth must come to school. If she doesnt, Mr Walker will have to take further steps.

I see.

Miss Barrett was rouged after all by indignation.

Throwing her chances away, she said. School was very important, a life jacket in chaos. She looked actually frightened.

Rachaela had not offered her anything to drink, and let her go to the door unaided, pulling on her ridiculous gloves, until she looked like a parody of a bear.

And if she has to stay away, said Miss Barrett, we really must have a note.

Rachaela ate tomatoes on toast for lunch, and pictured Ruth eating her sandwiches on some wall or in a park.

She must finally have become bored with school. Rachaela knew she could read well but was virtually innumerate. This had been so in Emmas day, and was so still, for once or twice Ruth had asked Rachaela some arithmetical question which Rachaela also found impossible to answer. Ruth had trouble even in adding up. How many apples are there left? Rachaela had recently asked her. Ruth studied the bowl. I dont know, Mummy. There were seven. The child paid for things in shops by giving always a large coin, or a note. She would bring her loose change to Rachaela for translation into fifty-pence pieces and pounds.

Perhaps it was wrong to feel empathy with Ruth simply because she too had played truant.

Yet Rachaela saw the brief daylight ebb with a slight amusement, waiting for Ruth to appear punctually, as if just coming home from school.

The child manifested in the cold street. Rachaela thought of the day she had seen her in the snow, the day Emma had bowed out from their lives with urgent smiles. Poor useful Emma.

How different, now, was Ruth.

Her hair was no longer confined in plaits, but hung down her back to the base of her spine. It was thick and almost crudely black, with a shine on it like molasses. No hat any more, or gloves, the white long-fingered pianists hands playing with the buttons of her dark-blue coat. The satchel still there, incongruous. Despite this school bag of deceit, the white knee socks and little-girl shoes, Ruth was like a tiny woman on the street: a midget, quick rather than graceful, and with that strange white face of an elf.

When the flat door opened, Rachaela was sitting at the table.

Hallo, Ruth.

Hallo, Mummy.

Put your bag down, take off your coat, and come and sit here.

Whats for tea?

I havent thought about it.

Can I have chips?

You had chips yesterday.

Ruth came to the table in her charcoal skirt, blue jumper and scarlet blouse. Rachaela allowed her to choose her own colours. She had, certainly, better dress-sense than Miss Barrett.

You havent been to school, said Rachaela.

Ruth looked at her, assessingly. She did not attempt to lie.

No.

Why not?

I dont like it.

Did you like it before?

It was all right.

And now it isnt.

Ruth said nothing.

Are the other children, said Rachaela, bothering you?

No.

A woman came here today from the school. A Miss Barrett.

Batty Barrett, said Ruth.

You were seen in Woolworths.

Oh, said Ruth, Why Woolworths?

It was raining.

What do you do when it doesnt rain?

I walk about, said Ruth. She paused, then said, I go in the big graveyard and look at the stones. She added, Sometimes I take a bus. I get lost. I always make sure I get back in time for tea.

Yes I know.

Are you going to say I have to go? said Ruth. She looked blank. She did not suspect Rachaela of complicity with the authorities, recognizing her as a fellow, though alien, outsider.

It depends what you want, said Rachaela.

I dont want anything, said Ruth.

Youll never get a smart job, said Rachaela. I expect theyve already told you about those.

They said what did we want to be.

What did you say?

I said a library lady.

Is that what you want?

No.

If you really dont care, said Rachaela, Im not going to force you. She recollected her mothers furious wobbling face: Youve got to pull yourself together. Youll end up in the gutter. You go to school, do you hear me? I wont be disgraced like that again, you bloody little beast.

But we have to work something out, Rachaela said. Youll have to go in some of the time. When you want a day off tell me, Ill write you a note.

Ruth considered. Her privacy had been penetrated, but she seemed to accept the inevitability of this.

Will you?

Yes.

All right, said Ruth. Thank you, she said.

Rachaela sat looking at her eldritch elfin child. Was Ruth also like her?

Will spaghetti on toast do for tea?

With cheese.

With cheese.

Rachaela got up and went to set out tins on the work-top in the kitchen. Ruth followed her and stood in the doorway.

What would my dad say about me not going to school?

Rachaela checked. I dont think hed give a damn.

Ruth said, Will I ever see him?

Rachaela made herself look back at the white face of her child.

No.

Why not?

He wouldnt be interested, Ruth. Im sorry.

How do you know?

Because I knew him. He wasnt interested in me, either.

But the grandfather and granny, said Ruth.

Your grandfather is also your father.

There isnt any grandfather or granny. Its just a big shapeless family of old people. You wouldnt like them.

But how could she be sure?

Ruth was in their image. Ruth had done what they did.

She must not try to picture Ruth in that house. The house which had faded to a ghost with the years, but still lingered there, a lump of fog, on the edge of her mind. The mirrors, the windows.

Ruth said, I might like them. I dont mind old people.

Theyre very far away.

Couldnt I go?

No, Ruth.

But I want to.

How had the conversation veered into this? Rachaela put down the can opener and emptied the spaghetti into the saucepan.

No, Ruth.

I dream about them, said Ruth.

Rachaela stopped what she was doing.

What do you mean?

I dream of them in a big house. And I walk down a corridor and I go in a door, and theyre there.

Obviously, through the years, Rachaela had let things slip. She must have done. The child had her fantasies, like any child.

I dont want to talk about it, Ruth. I dont want you anywhere near them, and thats that.

Keep away from the Scarabae.

Rachaela saw again her mothers congested face.

Ruth said, Why cant I? Why not?

Rachaela said, Theyre mad. Theyre mad people. And theyre a sort of vampire. Or they think they are. Dont say any more.

Vampire, said Ruth. Like Dracula?

Not like Dracula. Theyre bad people.

She stirred the saucepan, waiting for the next assault, which did not come. When she looked back, Ruth had retreated again, behind the screen.

I shouldnt have said that.

Too late.

She had a vision of Adamus walking up the wall of the house in the black of the moon, his pale face lifted and a trickle of blood running from the corner of his mouth. A sexual pang shot through her core, amazing her. After so long, after so much that was base and stupid, after Ruth.

She put the bread under the grill, and her hands shook. From a decade of cobwebs and dyed glass she felt old leaf-like hands reach out and brush her.

The shop was bare, the books packed in boxes or sent away.

Denise was crying softly and fuzzily.

Come on, come on, said Jonquil. Have some more wine.

They sat drinking, perched on the wonky stools, as outside the non-customers, now excluded for ever, stalked past on the wet, dark pavement.

Do you remember that old lady who kept coming in for Roald Dahl, saying he was a woman? sobbed Denise.

What about that man who kept buying copies of Fight the Good Fight by Angela Truebridge?

And the Angela Carter fiend?

And that girl who never knew the author?

They nodded reminiscently.

Its been a funny old job, said Denise, and blew her nose. I start at the Co-op next Monday, just till Christmas. Keiths furious. Hell have to get his own breakfast.

Lazy sod, said Jonquil, do him good.

But hell make such a mess, wailed Denise. And he never washes up.

You want to get shot of him.

Well, I met this really lovely bloke on the bus last week. I see him every night.

Out of the frying pan, said Jonquil. You never learn.

What are you going to do, Rachaela?

I havent decided yet.

If you want to come up to Manchester, said Jonquil, just drop me a line. You can doss on one of the girls floors till you find somewhere.

Outside two young men peered in at the lighted women with their bottles and Jonquils cans of Carlsberg. They leered and made signs until Jonquil strode towards the door.

Rubbish, said Jonquil, as they fled. There ought to be some sort of dustbin for them.

Ill have to go, said Rachaela, slipping down from her stool. I have to get Ruths meal. I told her Id be late but its already seven.

Yes, OK, Raech. You whizz off.

Denise embraced Rachaela, wetting her with fresh tears. Drop in at the Co-op. Ill get you a discount.

Jonquil shook Rachaelas hand. Her pale grey eyes were resigned. If ever youre Manchester way, look us up.

They saw her off into the splashed black and rainy yellow night.

Spears of light, long aprons of neon reflected in the pavements. Beyond the block of shops the street-lamps spread like broken egg in the puddles.

The rain was dense, trying to turn to snow. The wind flurried.

Lit windows in the flats, the houses made into fiats. How often she had passed them, in rain and shine, on the summer evenings in the dust and diesel, on the white snow where every step portended a snapped ankle.

Already one or two trees with garlands of coloured bulbs. There in that blue window the same old Merry Xmas which appeared doggedly year after year.

Soon a birthday present for Ruth, and then a Christmas present. Jonquil had pressed some books on Rachaela, unsuitable for anyone. Oxfam could have those.

Someone behind her.

Nothing in that.

One night a drunken man had staggered after her the length of Rosamunde Street. He had taken her arm and she had thrust him off. Whats the rush, darling? he had said, and she had pushed him hard. He lost his balance and fell against some railings. Bloody tart! Fucking whore! he had warbled, but no more than that.

There were generally people about, harmless people, perhaps concealing lives of molten depravity but offering no threat to the single woman on her way home.

A man with a dog now, coming up the road. Cars zoomed by in wings of water.

The one behind her did not fall back, or pass her.

His step was very soft. Somehow she knew the stepnot its author, but its meaning.

Her stomach tightened. She was being silly.

The man with the dog drew level and went by.

Ahead, the traffic lights at the end of Beaumont Street were in sight. Green, amber, red.

Black snow drifted over her face.

It was like before. It was like the time when she had been hunted.

No, that was absurd. How could they find her now?

She reached the lights, had to wait. The shops showed a blaze of colours. She could turn, look up the dark road, and see who had come after her.

There he was. A man standing about forty feet away. Hesitating, as if trying to make out the numbers on the house fronts, which were perfectly clear.

Her heart tumbled down a stairway.

A short man in a dark overcoat and woollen hat.

It was frighteningly stupid. For people did not keep on wearing the same garments, not for eleven, twelve years. People did not stay the same.

She had. The mirror had told her.

She had not changed.

She thought of the green before the flats and the sudden figure. You must go, you know.

Go away, she said. But later he had come back and handed her the letter, the letter Adamus had typed, from the Scarabae.

He was too far off to be sure, the foreign face which maybe had not aged by another line, the gelid eyes, invisible.

She needed to see him more closely, to be sure. And even then, could she trust her memory?

It was impossible they could have found her this time. Even if they had been trying all the years between. She refused it.

The lights changed and the cars grudgingly screeched to a halt.

Rachaela crossed over the road.

She looked back and saw the man stop dithering before the houses, and cross further up the street, just before the cars took over again.

He came on, walking in the same direction as Rachaela, the dilute snow sparkling in his hat like sequins.

Rachaela walked along Beaumont Street. The garish front of the Pizza Eater blossomed. Should she go in for a drink? No, they would not serve only a drirtk, she should recall that. Where then? Somewhere to halt, to see what he would do.

It was a coincidence. He was some stray who had reminded her of the Scarabae agent. That was all.

The launderette was open, lit dead-white and empty.

Rachaela pushed open the door and went in.

She sat down on one of the seats, and waited for the man in the woollen hat to come up, see her, and check.

A woman emerged from the insides of the launderette.

Do you need any help?

Im just waiting for a friend.

The woman looked at her suspiciously.

Not doing any washing then?

No.

Well I suppose you know what youre doing.

She began to fiddle with some clothes from an open machine, dropping pairs of briefs and socks on to the floor.

The man appeared. He went by the window, without a glance, and moved on into the night.

The light from the launderette had shone upon him like an arc lamp. He was the man she had seen all those years before. She was sure of it. Sure.

Rachaela got up.

Off now then? chirped the woman, dropping another sock.

Rachaela went out into the shiny black, the confusion of slanting lit rain, streetlights, headlights.

Where was he? He had vanished.

She had imagined the likeness. He was just some man. The Scarabae had been preying on her mind, as in patches they always did, and so she had conjured up the memory to fit a stranger.

For they could not have gone on haunting her. They could not still want her now.

She trod cautiously along the street.

Knots of people scurried in the snowy rain.

Rachaela turned left and walked more briskly. She was borne away from the lights, and on the stretch of darker pavement, she stopped and looked all round. But no one was there save for a woman with an umbrella, a cyclist going wearily along by the kerb. Overhead a red window concealed some ordinary pleasure or wretchedness. She too began to hurry home.

When she opened the door the flat was in darkness, but sometimes Ruth, alone, would sit in the dark.

Rachaela crossed to one of the windows. It was open, the curtain wet and blowing.

Rachaela shut the window.

She stood in the darkness, gazing out at the street.

Traffic went by now and then. A man passed, but not the man she had seen.

No one, so far as she could tell, hugged the doorways, folded into the shadows. No one was there, watching, ready.

She turned and switched on a lamp.

A sort of sleepy stirring came from behind Ruths screen.

Hallo, Ruth.

Ruth came out.

Rachaela was startled; wholly, disconcertingly unnerved.

Ruth was draped in the blue and green shawl, leaving her legs, her snow-white shoulders bare. Through eyelets of the shawl, white flesh stared. Beneath this thin covering she was naked. Her hair poured round her, strands sticky with electricity.

Her face was made-up, not inexpertly as one would expect, but like a painted doll. Coal-black lids, mascara sooty-thick, the Ups exactly shaped and red as holly berries.

She looked drowsy, as if she had been asleep. Yet a kind of current emanated from her, she was like a live wire. She had not been sleeping.

Rachaela found her voice. Is that the make-up from Woolworths?

Yes. Ruths own voice was mild. She was neither embarrassed nor uneasy.

Youve done it very carefully.

Yes.

What were you doing?

Waiting, said Ruth.

Of course she had been waiting, Rachaela delayed at the shop, later than she had intended.

But did Ruth mean that? Waiting for her mother?

Why was the window open?

Ruth said, To let in the night.

Perhaps it was a line from a book. Ruth did not lie to Rachaela, neither was she speaking all the truth. Yet the truth was somehow self-evident.

Vampire. Ruth had made herself up like a vampire from a horror film she had perhaps contrived to see, or some illustration in a library book. She looked the part.

And then she had lain down in the dark, naked but for her flimsy shawl, the window open to let in the night, and waited.

Rachaela had, again, the image of a man in a black cloak walking up the house wall. This time no sexual clenching moved in her loins, she went cold.

Was this Ruths fantasy? Dracula walking up the brickwork to claim her?

She switched on the electric fire, the room was freezing as if hung with icicles. She went into the kitchen, washed her hands, and began to put bacon on to the grill.

Ruth went silently back behind her screen.

When she emerged she was wearing her nightdress and dressing-gown. She walked into the bathroom and Rachaela heard the clink of the pot of cold cream.

When Ruth came out, she was wiped clean of all colours but her own black and white.

You could have kept it on, Rachaela said.

I was finished with it.

Rachaela fried an egg for Ruth.

Im home from the bookshop now, said Rachaela.

Can I have a day off tomorrow?

Yes, if you want. You can have another bilious attack.

Thank you, said Ruth.

She sat at the table, eating bread and butter.

Rachaela served the food and they ate it.

Outside snow began to fall in large fat flakes.

When they had finished, Rachaela got up and walked to one of the windows. She drew back the curtain with her hand and looked both ways along the deserted street.

When youre out and about, Rachaela said, you know you mustnt talk to anyone. I remember Emma telling you about that. It still matters.

I sometimes ask the way.

Thats all right. But dont get into conversations. Always speak to women, not men.

Yes, Mummy.

Rachaela closed the curtain. She looked at Ruth drinking a mug of tea at the table. She seemed like an average child, a little unusual, wonderful hair, very composed.

Never, said Rachaela, speak to men.

Christmas came. They did not celebrate it, although with Emma they always had. Rachaela gave Ruth three books and some multi-coloured paints. Ruth gave Rachaela one of her Ruth-type presents, this time a long candle shaded through vermilion to orange, and this they burnt as their one festive token.

For Ruths eleventh birthday, a week or so before, Rachaela had given Ruth a dress she wanted, scarlet and apple green, and Ruth wore it on Christmas Day.

They ate chicken, peas and chips, apple Danish and cream.

Outside the rain, which had taken over again from the snow, fell in grey torrents.

The day was otherwise normal. Rachaela played music, Ruth painted. There was a play on the radio about the Three Wise Men lost on the Ml.

On Christmas night Ruth went for her nightly bath and came out in her nightdress.

Mummy.

What is it?

You said I was to tell you.

What?

Ive started.

Rachaela took a moment to catch up. Then she said, Youve got a period?

Yes, Mummy.

Did you manage all right?

Yes, thank you.

Does it hurt? Do you want a paracetamol?

No, it doesnt hurt.

Thats good.

Ruth stood looking at her. Rachaela could imagine Emma would have been all congratulations and the joys of womanhood. Ruth had begun early as she, Rachaela, had done. She thought, inadvertently, Bleeding.

Im different now, said Ruth.

Yes. Rachaela could think of nothing more to say.

Ruth walked behind her screen and was gone.


Chapter Twelve | Dark Dance | Chapter Fourteen