HELEN SMITH is a member of the Society of Authors and the Writers' Guild of Great Britain. She writes novels, children's books, poetry, plays, and screenplays, and was the recipient of an Arts Council England award.
Alison Wonderlandby Helen Smith, Alison Larkin
After Alison Temple discovers that her husband is cheating on her, she does what any jilted woman would do: She spray-paints a nasty message for him on her wedding dress and takes a job with the detective firm that found him out. Being a researcher at the all-female Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation in London is certainly a change of pace from her… See more details below
After Alison Temple discovers that her husband is cheating on her, she does what any jilted woman would do: She spray-paints a nasty message for him on her wedding dress and takes a job with the detective firm that found him out. Being a researcher at the all-female Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation in London is certainly a change of pace from her previous life, especially considering the characters Alison meets in the line of duty. There’s her boss, the estimable Mrs. Fitzgerald; Taron, Alison’s eccentric best friend, who claims her mother is a witch; Jeff, her love-struck, poetry-writing neighbor; and — last but not least! — her psychic postman. Together, their idiosyncrasies and their demands on Alison threaten to drive her mad…if she didn’t need and love them all so much. Clever, quirky, and infused with just a hint of magic, Alison Wonderland is a literary novel about a memorable heroine coping with the everyday complexities of modern life.
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My name’s Alison Temple and I used to have this line when people asked me if I’m married. I’d say, ‘I’m waiting for Mr. Wonderland and when I find him I’ll get married. Until then I’m staying single.’ The kind of people who need to know whether or not you’re married don’t see the humour in a joke like that.
I was married once, for a while. I thought my husband was cheating on me. Sometimes he was late home and I’d stand at the bedroom window and watch the street. I’d lean against the window frame and press my forehead against the window in despair and I’d wonder, Who do you love more than me? In darkness, in silence, I’d wait until I saw him turn the corner on his way home. Then I’d go and lie in bed— waxwork, expressionless features; heavy, bloodless limbs. It was like one of those hospital nightmares where you have enough anaesthetic to stop you moving or screaming, but not enough to stop you feeling pain. I would just lie there, closing my eyes to stop the giddy feeling that I supposed was anger but was really relief that he was home at all. I was never sure which of us I hated more. Nothing tied me to him—not money, children, or even much of a shared history. Just a sunny day and a white dress. I stayed because I didn’t want to leave, but I hated him for not loving me more than anyone else. I stood at the window and I wondered, Who do you love more than me? I never asked the question out loud.
I thought if I knew he was seeing someone else, then I’d have to leave. I wouldn’t need to lie there anymore, waiting until he was asleep to touch his skin to see if it felt different, if someone else had touched it. I was twenty-four and I felt debilitated loving someone who didn’t love me enough. I didn’t want to leave him over a suspicion, but I didn’t want to stay. I waited for a sign, something that would settle the matter for me.
One morning as I looked through a local paper while I was waiting for the kettle to boil to make myself a cup of coffee, I saw an advert for a female detective agency, and that’s how I found this place: ‘Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation. Discretion assured.’
I hired someone to follow my husband for two weeks, and I felt comfortable that a woman was doing it; I thought she’d understand. Was he unfaithful? I suppose I knew the answer in my heart a long time before it reached my head. I didn’t hire the agency to prove that he was cheating; I wanted them to show me I was wrong. Yes, he was unfaithful.
The woman who had him followed was called Mrs. Fitzgerald. A tidy, authoritative woman in her late forties, she has slightly curling hair, cut severely short at the back in an old-fashioned crop. She calls her glasses spectacles. They’re on a chain that she never puts round her neck. She waves them around or sets them down on the desk in front of her. Mrs. Fitzgerald has small, dainty feet and a large bosom and bottom. If you overheard a conversation about her in a butcher’s shop, you’d catch a note of admiration when the men behind the counter called her a ‘big woman.’
She handed me a colour photo that answered the question I’d never dared ask out loud.
‘Do you really think he loves her more than me?’ I peered at the photo in Mrs. Fitzgerald’s office. From my experience of detective movies I’d expected it to be in blackand- white, but of course it’s much cheaper and quicker to use colour film and get it developed in Boots.
‘No, I don’t suppose so, she looks rather bony and ordinary to me.’
That settled things for me. I just packed up and left him. I could have clung to him and wept, charmed him, fought with him, tried to hurt him or save him, if he’d been captivated by a bewitching, superior beauty. Perhaps the photo didn’t do her justice, but I was rather disappointed in this thin girl he was fiddling about with in the evenings. Apart from a fleeting impulse—which I resisted—to call his girlfriend with some hair and makeup tips, I chose to ignore them both and faded spectacularly out of my husband’s life.
That’s not the whole story, of course. I wanted to get a can of red spray paint and write, ‘You ruined my life, you bony bitch’ all over the walls of her house and the place where she worked. I wanted to shred his clothes and castrate him. I wanted to call the police and get him into trouble. I mean, I really wanted someone to tell him off so he’d be sorry. I walked round and round town crying with shock and self-pity while I considered these options. In the end I compromised. I took half the money from our bank account, I bought a can of red spray paint and I went home. I packed everything I wanted from the house (not necessarily the things that were mine, just the things that I wanted, like his records), and then I put my wedding dress on the bed and I sprayed red paint on the bodice and I left a note by it: ‘You broke my heart, you cunt.’ He’s never approved of women swearing. I didn’t want him to feel sorry for me, I wanted him to be angry. Then I faded out of his life.
I work at the agency now. I’ve stopped waiting for Mr. Wonderland. I don’t need him anymore.
One of my first jobs was for a woman who was worried that her husband was having an affair. They’d been married for years and they loved each other but they started having money troubles. He’d become withdrawn and secretive, going out in the evenings without telling her where he was going or who he was meeting. He’d come home late at night smelling of a brand of soap she didn’t recognize. She thought he must be having sex with another woman and showering at her house before he came home.
I followed him to Clapham Common one night and tracked him as he sneaked through the men who gather there after nightfall in the hope of meeting a stranger, in spite of or perhaps because of the danger. They, like me, were warned as children never to talk to strange men, and now they want to meet them on the common and suck their cocks. They shot me furtive, guilty glances as I passed them, but I wouldn’t meet their eyes in case they thought I was judging them.
I hung back in the trees as the unfaithful husband met a younger man he appeared to know. They greeted each other brusquely and moved away from the cruising area towards the pond. An island in the middle of the water is dedicated to the preservation of wildlife. There’s a heron in Battersea Park, but the most exotic bird I’ve ever seen in Clapham Common is a Canada goose, which I believe is classified as a pest, along with grey squirrels.
The water is surrounded by concrete. There’s a paved lip from which parents with toddlers persevere in throwing stale bread, even though they must know it will choke and constipate any delicate-stomached ducks that might stop here en route to more glamorous locations. I’m not sure what the alternative is to feeding them bread. You’re supposed to give hedgehogs dog food, but I can’t see it working for wildfowl. Perhaps sunflower seeds, or perhaps, as the notice in the pond advises, you should leave them alone.
As far as romantic locations go, I’ve seen better. Swirls of greenish goose shit decorate the concrete surround of the pond. Ugly fish breed in the black water. Crayfish whose parents were plucked from a tank in an upmarket restaurant and released into a downmarket freedom here, where there is little else to do except feed and multiply, sit on the mud and open their mouths to let the plankton trickle in, oblivious to the sexual charge in the nearby cruising area.
The unfaithful husband and his boyfriend strode towards the ponds. Intrigued, I stood behind a tree and watched as they crouched at the water’s edge. The foliage that hid me masked their activity but the urgency of their movements was unmistakable, so I moved closer. They were removing crayfish to return them to restaurants in the West End at market price. They worked quickly, stacking them in baskets in a dark blue van parked on the public road that runs through the Common along the edge of the pond. They need a permit to do this, and they didn’t have one, which is why they met in secret. The husband washed the traces of pond and crustacea from his body at his friend’s house before he went home to his wife so she wouldn’t know the shameful things he’d been doing to make ends meet. As I was new to the detective game I found the story quite touching, and I didn’t charge the wife for the time I spent following him, although she insisted I take the £7.99 it cost to get the photos developed. I still keep a picture of a crayfish in my wallet as a reminder that not everything is what it seems.
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