© Anne Goodwin
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Halfway down the staircase, I sink to my haunches, hugging my dressing gown across my breasts.
Below me, Simon reaches up towards the row of coat hooks along the wall. His hand hovers above the collar of his black fleece and then falls, brushing against the nap of his jacket as his arm flops to his side. "This is ridiculous, Di. We should at least talk about it."
Can't he see this has gone beyond talking? "It's late. You've got a long day tomorrow."
"Come to Cairo, then. Whatever it is that's bothering you, I promise, I can help."
"We've been through all that."
"Yeah, and all you've given me is a string of excuses, each one more feeble than the last. Don't you trust me, Di? Is that it?"
Staunch as sculpted granite, Simon exudes reliability from every pore. Over the past five months, I've let myself dream it might lead to him sharing my duvet, my toaster, my council tax bill. On good days, I imagined I could summon up enough maternal sentiment to be a second mother to his kids. After tonight, I can't even envisage the occasional meeting for coffee. Only children and fools believe their dreams will come true.
Yet Simon keeps on pushing, rubbing my nose in the pain. "Come to Cairo, Di. Come for a long weekend if that's all you can spare."
If I could explain, if I could open my mouth to speak, even, he would come to me. He would spring up the stairs and cradle me in his arms. If I could cry, perhaps, as other women can, and let my weakness make him strong. But tears don't come naturally to me: I haven't cried for thirty years.
* * *
I'm sandwiched between my parents in the back seat of a taxi, beetling along the Corniche with the Nile to our left. I'm fifteen years old and this is my first and only foray out of Europe.
We've wound down the windows but there's not even the promise of a breeze. The driver hits the horn with the heel of his hand. Every time he does it my mother flinches and he hits the horn almost as much as he curses the other drivers, which is practically all the time.
My father takes a handkerchief from the pocket of his drip-dri nylon trousers to wipe the sweat from his brow. It's not too late to change your mind, he says. We won't think any less of you if you do.
My mother breaks off from raking through her patent leather handbag. Honestly, Leonard, she says. You certainly choose your moments.
I try not to squirm on the tacky plastic seat. I've heard the quiver in my mother's voice often enough, but I've never heard her call my father by his Christian name.
Our driver waves his fist and growls in throaty Arabic as he pulls past a camel cart weighed down with builder's rubble. I don't cry right then -- crying is my mother's prerogative -- but later, when she's flown home to escape the heat and it's just me and my dad, I weep the whole time. Those last few days in Cairo when all we're doing is passing time till I'm well enough to travel, I don't know how to stop. What's wrong? says my dad.
What are you crying for? He speaks so gently, the tears come all the more.
I don't know why I'm crying. I don't even know if I'm sad. But I sense the loss of something. Perhaps it's that now my father's able to listen, I don't have anything to say.
* * *
The front door slams behind him. I stay where I am, crouching neither up nor down the stairs, mesmerised by the grey inner panel of the door. Dark pressure, thick with nothing, starts to worm its way inside me, dispatching me to a plane that's neither past nor present, a state of emptiness beyond sensation, shape or colour, beyond meaning or language or thought. I ought to fight against it, but there's a seductive sweetness in letting it take charge.
I rise stiffly and stumble down the remaining stairs. Dragging my fingertips along the dado rail, I make my way to the kitchen and flick the light switch on the wall. I note, with academic detachment, the chill of the tiles on the soles of my feet and the lustre of the sunshine-yellow cupboards lining the walls.
I pull out drawers and rattle through the contents, assembling my best knives along the worktop. I line them up like a toddler might arrange her toys, lengthwise: breadknife, carving knife, the whole gamut of anonymous but versatile blades, right down to the fruit and veg knife with the yellow handle, still smeared with dried threads of pumpkin from our supposed romantic meal. Pushing back my sleeve, I test each one against the skin of my forearm. None of them up to the job.
I dart back into the hallway and reach into the cupboard under the stairs. I find the torch just inside the doorway and beam it around until it lights up the brown shoebox where I keep my screwdrivers and other small tools. I drag it out, place it on the carpet and lift the lid. The Stanley knife is a work of art in its simplicity, with its green plastic casing and the satisfying heft of it in my hand. I test the blade with my fingertip: it's sharp enough but freckled with dirt-coloured paint. I scrabble in the box for a crossed-tip screwdriver to unleash the blade and swivel it round. When it's done, I have an artisan's sense of accomplishment as I examine the triangle of pristine steel peeping out from the sheath.
My ears are abuzz with white noise as I fold back the cuff of my dressing gown and push the sleeve up to the crook of my arm. I flex my wrist, the blood vessels revealing themselves below the surface like waterways on a map. With the pads of my fingers, I trace a raised blue-green vein through crossings of taut white scar tissue all the way from the middle of my forearm to the base of my thumb where it branches with arteries and purple capillaries in a sanguineous river delta.
I locate a patch of clear skin amongst the tangle of old scars and apply the blade. At first, there's nothing more than a puckering at either side. As with sex, I'm sorely out of practice. I press harder, digging the tip of the knife so deep by rights it should reach bone. Still nothing. I try again and I'm rewarded with a tiny red bauble bubbling up around the blade.
Maintaining an even pressure, I scrape the knife along my arm. The bauble clones itself over and over, beads on a rosary that multiply and merge into a glistening red band. I drop the knife and bring my arm to my mouth. The vibrant colour, the taste like hot coins, the pain as sharp as vinegar: it spears the fug of nothingness with the promise of peace.
When Simon left, I was drowning. Now I'm floating on a sea of calm. I get up, rolling down my sleeve and pressing it to the wound. In the kitchen, I fold a tea towel lengthways into four and bind it round my forearm, gripping one end in my teeth to brace the knot. I'm as secure as a swaddled baby as I mount the stairs to bed.
Somewhere between sleep and memory, regret sneaks in. The jab-jab-jab of guilt, the rumbling shame. Part dream, part reminiscence, I look down on my eleven-year-old self sprawled on the bathroom floor. Blue pyjama bottoms draped across the rim of the bath, blood pooling between my legs, staining the chess-board lino. My mother screaming What have you done? What have you done?
This pain, however, is in my arm. I tuck it across my abdomen, hunching my shoulders and pulling up my knees as if to absorb it into my body. My mind wants to dive down to oblivion but my arm is throbbing me awake. I pat the pain beneath the bedclothes and my fingers come away sticky and damp.
I peel open my eyes. The digital alarm shows three-seventeen. I reach across and turn on the bedside light. The palm of my hand is streaked with red.
I steel myself to push back the duvet. The tea towel looks like it has been pelted with rotten tomatoes, and not only the towel, but the sheet, the duvet cover, my entire torso from my breasts to my pubic hair. Oh, Simon, if only I could show you what your leaving means.
Before I lose myself completely, my practical side kicks in. I shake a pillow from its case and bind the fabric around my arm. The night chill slaps my bare skin as I shuffle along the landing to the bathroom, fingers pressing on the gash in my left arm. I fill the basin and, unwrapping the makeshift bandage, submerge my arm. The pain makes my eyes sting as the water flushes pink. I lift it out and inspect the damage.
The wound doesn't gush, but it dribbles blood the moment I let the pressure ease. The sides cleave apart like the crevice in a cartoon earthquake, picking out layers of skin like bands of rock in cross-section. No more hiding it, this arm will have to be stitched.
I can't call for an ambulance. Even without the siren and blue flashing light, one of the neighbours would notice. I could cycle the two miles one-handed, but the exercise would pump the blood out quicker and I don't know how much more I can afford to lose. It's too early for the Metro and, besides, they'd complain if I got blood on the seats. I can't ask Venus to drive over and collect me without fielding a barrage of questions; ditto any other of my friends. As for Simon, it wouldn't be fair to dump this on him only hours before he's due at the airport. Even if last night hadn't happened, it would be too much to ask.
I patch myself up, throw on some clothes and ring for a taxi. I hope for a driver who isn't inclined to chat.
At first glance, the A&E department is like all the others: the same weary people on the same jaded chairs. The same hiccupping lighting and ragged magazines. The same tang of coffee and antiseptic, triggering the urge to pack away my feelings, to put them someplace the medics can't get to, safe from their condescension and distaste. I thought I knew how to handle it, but tonight there's an extra layer I'm not programmed to expect.
Compassion. It greets me in the soothing voice of the triage nurse who takes my details at reception. I pass it off as down to youth and an incomplete apprenticeship in cynicism. But that can't explain the eyes of his grey-haired colleague, who lays a gentle hand on my shoulder as she ushers me through the swing doors to a couch in a curtained cubicle, apologising for the wait. It lurks again in the form of the bleary-eyed doctor, a petite woman sporting a crimson sari beneath her white coat, who won't move an inch without first explaining what she's doing. It's as if they don't realise they're dealing with a self-inflicted wound.
The grey-haired nurse helps the doctor ease her hand into a latex glove. She places my arm on a pillow and peels back the sodden cloths.
Under the glare of the angle-poise lamp it looks like I've been attacked by a madwoman.
"We could arrange for you to talk to someone about this." The stick-on bindi between the doctor's eyebrows brings to mind that first bauble of blood. "Entirely up to you, Diana, but it might help."
I smile noncommittally as she injects anaesthetic into my arm. I have no intention of talking to anyone, but the doctor is so well-intentioned it would be churlish to be upfront about it. I soothe myself with thoughts of NHS bureaucracy: all those letters shuttling back and forth just to scramble onto the bottom rung of a very long waiting list. Simon would be back from Cairo before my appointment came through.
"It's a lady called Pammy," says the doctor. "They tell me she's very good."
"Tammy," says the nurse, handing her colleague what look like a pair of slim-line pliers. "Tammy Turnbull. She's a psychiatric liaison nurse."
The doctor eases a black thread through my skin with the pliers, double wrapping it round the tip to form a loop.
The nurse passes her a pair of scissors to finish off the stitch. "Don't let that put you off, though. There's no stigma in psychiatry these days."
"Comes on duty at eight, isn't it," says the doctor.
"Seven thirty," says the nurse. "Even less of a wait."
"You want me to see this liaison nurse here? This morning?"
The nurse strokes my knee. "Try and relax for doctor if you can, Diana. Won't be much longer."
* * *
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went with my mother to Lourdes. "Don't let on what we've come for," she told me as we took our seats on the coach.
So many people, so many queues. Lining up for breakfast in the hotel. Pilgrims and penitents waiting to be dipped head-to-toe in the water, one queue for the cripples and another for the rest. The candlelit procession weaving through the night-time streets. Buying holy water and souvenirs, always slightly anxious I'd join the wrong line.
"What have we come for?" I said.
"A miracle of course," said my mother. "Why else would I bring you?"
* * *
With my left arm in a high sling, I prepare to tackle the vending machine one-handed. I feed it some coins and punch a few buttons and the machine responds with some serious whirring and gurgling. I haven't decided whether I'm passing the time till Tammy Turnbull comes on duty or I fancy an ersatz coffee before I leave.
The drink almost scalds my fingers as I extract the styrofoam cup from the machine. I take it to a seat in the far corner of the room. I could walk to the university in ten minutes, be at my desk before my colleagues are out of bed. Another five would take me down to the Haymarket, three stops on the Metro and I'd be home with the milk float. Put the bedclothes in the washing machine and mop the blood from the bathroom floor.
What would I say to a liaison nurse? What possible help could she be?
I picture an earnest woman leaning towards me from the opposite chair. Sun-streaked hair parted down the middle and hanging loose around her shoulders, clanking jewellery, flower-power clothes. What made you do it, Diana? Let's start with that.
I feel foolish even thinking about it. I take a sip of bitter coffee and leave her to guess. She may be just a figment of my imagination, but I'm not giving up my secrets without some effort from her.
Boyfriend trouble, is that it?
I wouldn't have thought I had enough blood left in my system to blush, but I do. I'm forty-five years old for Christsake. Even my first-year students wouldn't be so gauche.
Simon is off to Cairo for six months and he wants you to go out and visit. Lucky you!
That's exactly my problem: no one else can see anything wrong.
You don't feel you can go?
Of course not. The liaison nurse I've dreamed up bears a striking resemblance to the social worker they gave me after Cairo. Yet Ms Thompson would have no need to ask why I can't go back.
You can't tell Simon the real reason but, if you don't, he'll think you don't care. You're caught between two stools, scared of losing him if you don't go ...
And losing myself if I do.
The phantom Tammy Turnbull-Thompson looks pensive. Her bangles clatter as she pushes her hair back from her face. I must admit, it's a tricky one, but if we put both our minds to it, perhaps we can find a way through ...
I come to with a jolt. My arm is throbbing and there's a coffee-tinged damp patch down the front of my fleece.
A middle-aged woman looms before me. "Diana Dodsworth? I'm sorry to startle you, but I believe you wanted to see me. I'm Tammy Turnbull. The liaison nurse?"
She looks nothing like Ms Thompson, in her sombre skirt suit and tamed hair. Her eyes are brimming with well-meaning confidence as she offers me her hand. She reminds me of those Home Counties girls at boarding school, raised on gymkhanas and tennis lessons and tea on the terrace at half past four. They were always very jolly and willing to have a go, but real life with all its pain and contradictions would've sent them careering into a tailspin.
How could I be so naive as to imagine anyone could even begin to understand? If we both put our minds to it! What an ass to let my guard down, to leave myself open to perfidious hope. Like a dance-floor buffed to a silky sheen, hope looks inviting, but it's riddled with risk: let yourself go and, sooner or later, you're bound to slip.
I first met Simon five months earlier, 17th April 2004 to be precise, the date clear in my mind because it was Venus's birthday. It was she who brought us together: she who deserves the credit, or the blame.
It was the Saturday after Easter. She phoned as I was having breakfast to thank me for the card. "You're still on for tonight?"
"Of course," I said. "Half past six at Pizza Hut."
"Slight change to the programme," said Venus.
I looked down at my plate, butter congealing on the cooling toast. I'd been an integral part of Venus's birthday celebrations since she turned nineteen, except for when she was doing post-doctoral research at Harvard and the time Paul whisked her away for a romantic weekend before the kids came along. I didn't relish hearing the word change. "Oh?"
"No need to get so het up, you goose," said Venus. "I just fancied doing something without Josh and Ellie hogging the limelight."
The strange warbling I could hear in the background shaped itself into Ellie singing Happy Birthday. "Won't they mind?"
"Not so long as they still get to tear open my cards and blow out the candles on my cake. And we can go to Pizza Hut any time."
I plucked a mouldy grape from the withering bunch in the fruit bowl and set it down on the edge of my plate. "So what's the plan? Is Giles's daughter going to babysit?"
"Nothing so outlandish," said Venus. "A little supper party chez nous. A few close friends: Giles and Fiona, Mohammed and Mumtaz, and you."
My gaze drifted from the unwashed pots by the sink to the heap of dirty laundry on the floor below it to the stack of marking on the table before me. I'd been planning to pick up something cheap and cheerful for Venus from Acorn Road when I went to do my grocery shopping. But if she was having a dinner party with official guests I'd have to venture into town for a proper present. I forced a note of cheer into my voice. "Sounds lovely. What time do you want me?"
"Half-seven for eight. Bring your toothbrush and stay overnight if you can bear to leave that bally cat for once."
Right on cue, Marmaduke clattered in through the cat flap and padded across the tiles to her bowl, without even a glance in my direction. "I'll think about it."
"Make sure you do," said Venus. "I hate you cycling across the Town Moor in the dark." Her voice tailed off into Just a minute, Munchkin, Mummy's on the phone, presumably meant for other ears than mine. Then she was back: "Got to love you and leave you already. See you tonight ... and Di, make sure you wear something nice."
Battling the hordes on Northumberland Street felt more like preparing for an interview than for a celebration of friendship. So many ways to get it wrong. If I bought the apricot cardigan, would it not be obvious to Fiona that I should've gone for the duck-egg blue? If I plumped for the fifty-quid designer vase from Fenwick's, might Mumtaz see a tacky affair I might have picked up in the Grainger Market for little more than a fiver? Venus would gracefully accept whatever I gave her, the way she welcomed a bunch of dandelions from Ellie or a cheap box of chocolates from Josh, delighted in the giver if not the gift. Yet I couldn't kill the fear I'd disappoint her, or the snip of hope that one day I'd surprise her with something she genuinely liked.
So I took a deep breath and delved into the throng, closing my ears to the thumping Muzak. Yet I was as feckless as ever, picking things up and putting them down again, dashing back to the shop from which I'd fled only minutes before. I thought I'd cracked it when I found an Italian-leather handbag edged with gold filigree only to realise it was perfect for Venus because Paul had given her the exact replica the previous year. I steeled myself to queue for the till in Waterstones only to remember, on the point of being served, that the celebrity memoir had stuck in my mind because Venus despised its author with such passion.
The more I tried to calm myself, the worse it got. If I told myself it didn't matter, I was paralysed by shame for the fuss I was making. If I put myself in Venus's shoes and tried to visualise what she'd want, my panic escalated. Just choose, you goose! It's hardly quantum physics. Venus could be just as critical as Fiona and Mumtaz. I'd seen that side of her when we met in the student halls of residence nearly thirty years before.
When I found myself in Bainbridge's basement reaching for a pack of chequered tea towels with a trembling hand, I had to concede defeat. Making choices wasn't my forte; I'd exhausted my decision-making capacities the year I was fifteen.
Flopping onto a vacant seat on the Metro, squeezing in alongside an obese woman with a howling child, I wished I could spend the evening curled up on the sofa with Marmaduke, nursing a gin and tonic and watching rubbish on TV. Bolt the front door and not speak to anyone again till Monday. Of course I wouldn't. I could as soon turn down an invitation from Venus as I could fail to show up for a scheduled lecture or neglect to feed my cat. Venus might be frustrating at times, but our lives had been intertwined since we'd met as fresh-faced students and I wouldn't be me without her.
* * *
It was my first Sunday night at university, and I was en route from the bathroom to my study-bedroom in the student halls, clutching a damp towel and my quilted wash-bag to my chest like a shield. My gaze was at the level of my fluffy primrose slippers peeping out from under the hem of my stripy galabeyah as I shuffled along the corridor. I didn't notice the other girl until I'd almost bashed into her: tall with a cascade of ebony hair and skin the colour of butterscotch.
I made to move on, but the girl blocked my path, looking down her long nose at me from beneath heavy eyebrows: "You do realise that's a man's galabeyah you're wearing?" Her voice was as haughty as the girls at Dorothea Beale, with an exotic lilt that brought to mind the rhythms of Cairo.
No doubt I blushed. At boarding school I'd kept it hidden in my trunk. But university promised another chance and, besides, who was going to be able to tell the difference between a traditional Arab shift and an ordinary nightgown? Who apart from this arrogant girl who was scrutinising me like I was an exhibit in the Egyptian Museum?
I glanced down at the loose cotton gown I'd picked out with my dad at the Khan el Khalili three years before. "That's what I like about it," I told the girl. "A dress that's meant for a man."
A wide smile softened her features. "Fair enough, although I prefer a dash of frill myself." It was only then that I recognized that her floor-length lilac robe was another galabeyah, trimmed with lace around the neckline, with pearl buttons where mine fastened with bobbles of cord. "I'm Venus Najibullah, by the way. Come back to my room and I'll make you a coffee and you can tell me how an English girl came by such a thing already."
* * *
Turning into their street later that evening, I could see lights glowing in Venus and Paul's front lounge. The curtains had been left open and, as I snaked my bike through the wooden gate, I saw Paul standing with his back to the bay window, a fluted glass in his hand. I veered away from the porticoed front door and followed the path round to the back. Parking the cycle against the battered shed, I knocked on the kitchen door and, without waiting for an answer, stepped inside, blinking at the light. I hadn't felt hungry till then, but the smell of sizzling meat had me salivating like Pavlov's dogs.
Venus was crouched at the cooker, a khaki apron and giant oven mitts clashing in both style and hue with her taffeta dress. Behind her, at the far end of the room, Ellie and Josh sat at the pine table, bedtime scrubbed and angelic-looking in their Magpie football-strip pyjamas. The little girl noticed me first: "Di, Di, I've got a wobbly tooth."
Venus turned and, shedding her gloves and apron, grabbed me in a mother-bear hug and planted a kiss on my cold cheek. I felt her dangling earrings brush against my neck and caught the familiar scent of sandalwood.
Ellie clambered onto the seat of her chair. "Look, Di, look!" Pushed from behind with her tongue, her front tooth swung towards the horizontal.
"Well, isn't that something?" I said.
Josh dipped a ginger snap in his milk. "She's trying to force it out herself, when everybody knows the Tooth Fairy won't come unless it drops out natural."
"Is that right?" I said.
Venus clapped her hands. "Hurry-scurry, you two, Di's here already, therefore you can finish off your milk and scoot upstairs to bed."
"Can I have a story?" said Ellie.
"Only if you promise to go straight to sleep afterwards and let Mummy see to her guests."
Ellie bounced back onto her seat: "Can I have the one about when you went to school on a camel?"
Josh groaned: "For the zillionth time!"
Venus reached into the fridge for a bottle of wine. "We'll see."
I shrugged off my Gore-Tex jacket and hung it by its hood on a hook at the back of the door. I took an envelope from the pocket and handed it to Venus just as she was reaching across to me with a glass of fizzy wine. "Happy birthday!"
"Good to see you, Di."
The collision of words sparked laughter in us both. Yet I sensed an awkwardness as Venus scanned my outfit before ripping open the lavender envelope. "Lovely!"
"I thought, you know, with a gift card you could get whatever you wanted."
Venus was beaming, but there were a stiffness about her as she leant forward to kiss me once more. "Of course," she said, "that's marvellous! Thank you so much!"
It was obvious now that even the tea towels would've been more welcome. Could I redeem myself by complementing Venus on her earrings? They were unusually pretty with their double helix of metallic blue. But the more I studied them, the less sure I felt. What if they weren't a special birthday gift from Paul, but something she'd been wearing every day for years?
"Di, Di, which pwincess does my mummy look like?"
Venus wore an electric-blue dress with a collar right the way round but no sleeves or shoulder straps. It was pinched at the waist with a knee-length flared skirt and, on anyone else, would have seemed old-fashioned. Her thick dark hair which, ordinarily, hung in a loose cataract to her shoulders, was pinned up above her face and neck, not in any ordered manner, but in dribs and drabs, as if she wanted the best of both worlds. Her high-heeled sparkly mules might've been nicked from Ellie's dressing-up box but, of course, princesses could get away with anything. "I suppose she must be Princess Venus."
Ellie narrowed her eyes, the moustache of milk on her upper lip hardly belying her disdain. "Don't be silly, Di. There isn't no Pwincess Venus."
"All right, Munchkins, that's enough already," said Venus. "Why don't we let Di go and join the party while we go up and do your teeth? You don't mind introducing yourself, do you, Di?"
As Ellie slid from her seat and scuttled towards me, I had a sinking sense that tonight was to be more than a casual supper party with close friends. Somehow, I'd failed to rise to the occasion and not just in the impersonal birthday gift. Wear something nice, she'd said as a coda to that morning's phone call, and I thought I had. Back home, checking my outfit in the wardrobe mirror, with Marmaduke supervising from her perch on the bed, the rosebud-patterned blouse, with its pin tucks on the bodice and ruffle at the wrists, had seemed so dressy -- so girly -- I'd had to tone it down with a pair of stonewashed jeans. "I'm supposed to introduce myself to Giles and Mohammed?" Was it my outfit that had disappointed her or that I hadn't made a grand entrance through the front door?
Venus merely curved her cinnamon-painted lips into a smile, while Ellie tugged at my arm. I bent down and the girl whispered loudly in my ear: "She's all the pwincesses. Every one."
A buzz of voices welcomed me into the lounge, the other guests rising from their seats and hovering around me, waiting their turn to meet lips or hands or cheeks. Giles, dressed reassuringly as always in chain-store sweatshirt and chinos, squeezed me somewhat overzealously to his chest, upsetting my balance and making small waves in my wineglass. Mohammed, more dashing in a black shirt and trousers with a slim white tie and two-tone shoes, met me equally warmly but with more poise. Their wives were less effusive but friendly enough, Fiona kissing the air above each shoulder and Mumtaz grinning broadly as she squeezed my hand. Both had bare arms, although summer was still a long way off: Fiona in a floor-length backless shimmering grey gown and Mumtaz in white silk evening trousers and glittery sleeveless top. They'd understood the dress code better than I had.
Paul greeted me with a bit of everything: arms, lips, hands, the lot. Then he put an arm around my shoulder and led me towards a man in a crisp pink shirt. "Let me introduce you to Simon!"
Smiling, the man rose from his seat on the buckskin sofa. "Pleased to meet you, Di." His handshake was as warm as a hug. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Really?" Gazing helplessly at the others, I thought I saw Fiona smirk. "Nothing bad, I hope."
"Nothing you wouldn't want your students to know," said Giles, "if you get my drift."
"Take no notice, Di." Fiona dragged her husband back into a coterie with Mohammed and Mumtaz.
Saturday nights were so much simpler spent lounging on the sofa with Marmaduke. I shuffled my feet and swigged my wine, looking anywhere but at Simon. I noticed a clutter of packages and torn wrapping paper on the coffee table and, among them, a matchbox-size carton stuffed with cotton wool. I wondered if I'd get a second chance to complement Venus on her new jangly earrings.
The silence was becoming embarrassing. I braced myself to go through the niceties with Simon. "How do you know Venus?"
"I don't, actually, unless you count being in the same conga line at Giles's wedding."
"So you've gate-crashed her birthday party?"
"Not exactly. I came with Giles and Fiona. I think I might've been invited to make up the numbers."
Surely it wasn't going to be man-woman man-woman round the dinner table on top of wear something nice and come in through the front door? "I can't see Venus being hung up on numbers."
"Then she must be the first mathematician who isn't."
Ha bloody ha! I scanned the room for a partner for Simon, the woman who had pressed his pink shirt perhaps. Yet it was obvious he was unattached. It left a sour taste in my mouth to think of Venus and Paul seeking out an extra male to rectify the imbalance in the sexes I'd so inconveniently engendered.
The door opened and Venus sashayed across the room. "Mega apologies, Simon, but may I borrow Di a moment? Di, would you do me a humungous favour? Ellie's asking for you to read her a story."
"Me?" It seemed a long time since the little girl had sat on my lap, checking my pronunciation of Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin.
"In fact she's being an obnoxious little minx already, but sometimes it's easier all round to let them have their way. Would you mind? It needn't be a long one -- five minutes and we could all be sitting down to supper."
"Of course." I might enjoy revisiting my inner Cinderella. And it would get me away from Simon.
"Thanks a million," said Venus. "You know which room is hers. I'll look after Simon for you while you're gone."
I could hear the tinkly music as I mounted the stairs, Ellie's little-girl voice bouncing above it, colliding intermittently with the tune. Passing her brother's door with the Lord of the Rings poster peeling away at the corners, I stepped into her room. It was bulging with possessions like a student study-bedroom: rows of dresses hanging in the wardrobe; shelves crammed with books; hordes of dolls and stuffed animals framing her pink bed. Ellie stood at a pinewood desk with her back to me, tapping out a rhythm on a purple CD player with a sparkly fairy wand. My voice was hardly better than hers as I joined in the refrain: "Today's the day the teddy bears have their pic-nic!"
Ellie spun round. "Di, did you go to the teddy bears' picnic with my mummy?"
I wasn't sure how to answer that one. "Come on, get yourself into bed and I'll read you your story."
Ellie snapped off the music and jumped into bed. I surveyed her bookshelves while she arranged the teddies and dolls around her. "Which one would you like?"
Ellie danced a furry orange rabbit across the duvet. "I don't need one of those stories."
"You've got some lovely stories here." I pulled out a book with a ragged spine. The cover showed a boy and girl snuggled up under a weeping willow. "How about Babes in the Wood?"
"I don't need a made-up story."
"What do you mean?" I imagined Venus's guests downstairs, stomachs rumbling as they waited to tuck in to their starters. "All stories are made-up."
Ellie pushed her tongue against her loose tooth. "I need a real story. About when you were a little girl."
"When I was a little girl?"
"When you were a little girl going on adventures with my mummy." Ellie shuffled herself and the ginger-haired rabbit towards the wall to make space for me on the bed. "Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Venus, and another little girl called Diana ..."
I hovered by the bookcase. "I'm sorry, Ellie, I didn't meet your mummy till we were eighteen." We might as well have been geriatrics as far as a seven-year-old was concerned.
Ellie bit her lip. It was as if I'd just told her Father Christmas didn't exist, or the Tooth Fairy. "Would you like Babes in the Wood? Or should we get your mummy to come up and tell you about riding to school on a camel?"
Ellie sniffed: "It's all right, Di. You can tell me about when you were a little girl going on adventures with another friend."
It seemed I was destined to disappoint her. "You expect an old lady like me to remember her childhood? It's practically ancient history."
"You're not as old as Granny, and she's got millions of stories about when she was a little girl."
I skimmed my fingers along the ranks of day-glo coloured hardbacks. Flanking one end, the Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare I'd given Josh for his ninth birthday. It looked as if it had never been opened. Ellie looked so determined as she lay staring up at me, her dark hair spread across the pink pillow, the bundle of orange synthetic fur clutched to her chest. I could've insisted it was Babes in the Wood or nothing, but children are so unpredictable when they're tired and I dreaded sparking off a tantrum with Mumtaz and Fiona standing by to pronounce on my childcare skills.
"Please, Di. Once upon a time there was a little girl called Diana ..."
As she spoke, a girl burst into life in my mind. She was bounding down the street in a green seersucker dress with puffed sleeves and smocking on the bodice, and her curly red hair bounced against her shoulders as she hopped through the looping skipping rope. A little girl I remembered vividly from Bessemer Terrace almost forty years before: Geraldine Finch, the girl who ruled my childhood.
Ellie wobbled her tooth with her tongue as she patted the space on the bed beside her.
My thigh nudged her shoulder as I took my seat. Her hair smelled of lemonade. "Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Geraldine ..."
Ellie giggled. "Gelatine?"
"Geraldine. She was my best friend when I was your age."
"Like my mummy's your best friend now?"
"I suppose so."
"So ..." Ellie wriggled closer. "Once upon a time there was a little girl called Geraldine, and another little girl called Diana."
"Geraldine and Diana went everywhere together."
Ellie pushed her warm hand into mine. "Did they go to school together? And the park and Brownies?"
"They spent as much time as they could together." My story was running into complications before it had even begun, but I took courage from the fact that Ellie had given it her approval. "Although their parents were constantly trying to keep them apart."
"Never mind why. Stop interrupting and let me get on with the story." I didn't realise I'd spoken so sharply until I saw Ellie's bottom lip wobble.
It was hardly Ellie's fault that my dad considered Geraldine a bad influence. I squeezed her hand and continued more gently. "Now, the two friends loved dressing up in their finery." In my mind's eye, Geraldine dragged the dressing-up box out from the cupboard under the stairs. I could almost smell the musty skirts and dresses, but I wasn't sure where the story was leading. I glanced across at the bookshelves. Geraldine wasn't into reading the way I was, but she loved performing. I'd read the stories and together we'd act them out. Snow White, Babes in the Wood and, later, Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. Purely for our own entertainment; it was never discussed, but there was an implicit compact between us to ensure our antics wouldn't get back to my dad. "But like I said, their parents didn't like them hanging around together. They threatened to keep them locked up in their bedrooms unless they promised they'd never meet again. Diana knew she couldn't bear this so, one day, she concocted a plan that would allow them to be together for evermore. She'd read in an encyclopaedia at the library about a magic potion ..."
"Di, Di, my tooth's really really wobbly now ..."
"A magic potion that could mimic death. And Diana thought, if she took this drug, and her parents believed she was dead, they'd feel really sorry for how they'd treated her. They'd wail over her coffin saying, If only by some miracle our beloved child would come back to life, we'd give her everything she'd ever wanted. We'd let her eat chocolate for every meal and play with Geraldine from dawn to dusk. The idea was that, while they were at home weeping and gnashing their teeth, the drug would wear off and Diana would leap from the coffin to find Geraldine waiting for her in the graveyard. And the two of them would run away to live happily ...."
An insistent digging at my ribs punctured my reverie. Looking down at the little girl in the bed, I was startled to see her hair was not red, but black, her skin not freckled cream but deep caramel. "Ooh, sorry Ellie, I got carried away."
Yet Ellie had other concerns. "Look, Di, look!" Inches from my eyes, she held out her baby tooth between thumb and forefinger. "I said it would come out tonight."