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About the Author
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The Ludds. Artistes of awfulness. I’m one of them. I share the bad blood. And yet I have my softer side – as you’ll see if you stay with me. I am more sinned against than sinning. Some facts. Five years ago, our brother died. Fred was twenty-four, and a soldier. I wanted a party to celebrate him. All were invited, the whole family. It was a chance to make amends. Only our father never showed. He didn’t bother to turn up. Very soon after, Dad was dead. Dad is dead, and I’ve never liked him. Yes, it’s true, I was heard ‘making threats’ – I am a teacher, a deputy head, a respectable citizen of East Kent. I’m a good teacher, I love my job, and I keep violence to a minimum in the classroom. (The kids are splattered with violence every day, internet videos of vile beheadings, blood in London, Paris, Brussels, bodies exploded like burst packages, balaclavaed heads popping up like a hydra, Defend British Values picketing mosques. Every day, another ‘outrage’: Kabul, Nice, Nairobi, Glasgow. Their parents blank them, hugging their phones. Naturally, the kids do violence to each other, compass-points in arms, knives in back pockets, shoves and trips and dark moments in the lavs.) I deploy violence myself, preventatively, you understand, propelling my enemies out of the room with just a hint of pressure on their elbows, but because I’m a big woman, their feet are off the ground, and obviously, afterwards, it never happened. No, don’t judge me until you’ve been there. In the end, there is only survival, under the ice, once you fall through. Then haul yourself back up to the surface. No education without order. The kids need me, Kriss, Deniece, chubby Abdul whose voice broke late. I am their teacher, I keep control. Some of what I teach them makes a difference. Let’s start again. I have a story to tell. There was a day on which bad things happened. That day, it’s true, I was not at my best. I had a hangover. I hadn’t slept. No-one’s at their best when they haven’t slept. Fact: my father was found covered in blood, one eye horribly punched back in its socket, his knuckles raw as chicken-bones. His pyjama jacket was pulled up over his shoulders so his head was like a cracked egg in a bag. I looked at him and almost vommed. Of course, I had to get away. That day I went charging through the undergrowth, swearing, wreathed in blood and snot and brambles, axe in my hand, towards the fields. Who did that to him? Who? Not me, at any rate. Nor Ma, of course. Poor little Ma. Ma is still afraid of him. You don’t need to be, Ma, not any more. 3 ‘Did you ever contemplate violence against your father?’ the policeman asked me, later that day, when upon request, I accompanied him and his doddery colleague into the station. I sat in the back. Someone whistled in the car, which suggested one of them was feeling cheerful. Nobody had noticed the axe in the hall. I was not arrested, I was a witness. This was carefully explained to me, so I would like you to note the distinction. The policeman was one of those smug graduates, making an effort to sound worldly-wise, and failing. He was a detective, or a superintendent, at any rate, he was in charge of things, or thought he was in charge of things. I asked him if I needed a lawyer, and he snorted, an unpleasant habit. I was going to write ‘unattractive habit’, but bizarrely, the man was not unattractive. Testosterone alert, Monica! Yes, I do use exclamation marks – punctuation’s my métier. In the right place they are most effective; and semi-colons are safe with me. ‘You’re here voluntarily, aren’t you?’ He smiled at me. He had a bouncy quality. It started to feel like a fencing match, but I was too tired to fence with him, that day I had seen my father, dead, though I didn’t intend to mention it. ‘Really it depends, Ms. Ludd. How formal do you want this to be?’ What was he saying? Would it be kecks off? He had red hair, which is a defect. And not enough of it, which is another. And pale blue eyes which looked small and polite. Almost grey. Almost friendly. Then when you didn’t expect it, they sharpened. He wore a tie, which was perpendicular, as if he had sewn it to his pants. ‘Did you ever contemplate violence against your father?’ he asked. ‘By the way, I’m not recording this.’ He waved a dismissive hand at the machine. The room was small, and smelled faintly of socks. Not his, I assumed. He was suave and dapper, though I generally prefer fully-follicled men. How tall was he? He was certainly – sturdy. His thighs strained at his moleskin trousers… My concentration must have flickered, because he asked the question again. ‘Did you consider violence against your father?’ ‘Of course I did – doesn’t everyone?’ was certainly too truthful an answer. The police dislike it when you question them, particularly about their own boiling minds. But then, I am habitually truthful. Or in your face, as some might say. For a moment I thought I caught a flash in his eye, a flash of amusement, or even friendship, but no, I must have imagined it. ‘A difficult man, your father,’ he said. ‘So I gather. Would you agree?’ I said nothing. What a fucking nerve! Was he a social worker, as well? But my head was nodding on its own. My head had found Dad difficult. ‘By the way, remind me of your home address. I think I’ll drop by again tomorrow. Don’t bother to tidy up,’ he added. ‘Why, do you want to search me, – officer?’ Something about that sounded arch. Did it suggest ‘search crevices’? He didn’t answer. ‘Your address,’ he repeated, though he’d just been there, he should have known it. I told him, and he wrote it down. (Small intense writing, pudgy hands, bowed pink scalp with that ant-path circling it, a failing stubble of auburn hairs.) The teacher in me wanted to shout at him: ‘No one will be able to read THAT.’ He stopped writing and stared straight at me. ‘I heard that. I’m not deaf,’ he said. ‘I would caution you to change your attitude. ’ ‘I must have been thinking aloud. Sorry.’ Thought is free. No, it isn’t. ‘You could be in trouble,’ he said, with a grin. Something peeked out on the left of his smile, some incongruous dental detail. Did you consider violence? I’d seen Dad battered so many times, in the secret dirty rooms of my dreams, and now I had seen it in broad daylight. My error was writing everything down, and now, oopsy, I’ve done it again, though I mean to hide this so far out of sight that only God and I will read it. I’m not crazy, but I have imagination. No, not crazy, but I do have blind spots. Taking the axe on the bus was crazy. I should have buried it far away. I didn’t expect the police so quickly. So many errors. I had no practice. One chance at it, one: the electric instant when all the detail falls away and you’re there, surfing a wall of desire, black and dazzling, he’s there in front of you, blood is pounding in your head – Sometimes you just have to go over. I left in shock, with my bloodied axe. So much to explain, so little time. Then again, least said, soonest mended. I shouldn’t have said, as we left for the police station, ‘I wasn’t there, I know nothing about it.’ If you never lie, if you’re a bad liar, don’t do it when you’re in a tight corner. In the end, ‘The truth is best’ – Dad’s banal mantra did make sense, though he normally backed it up with a falsehood: ‘I have never told a lie.’ (He lived in a land of perpetual repetition, because Ma never challenged him. His words must have sounded empty to him, bouncing futilely off the mirror.) I have told lies, Dad, since you died. Lie after lie, and then some more. Just to get from breakfast to supper. Just to stop them arresting me, the first time they came round to mine, when they turned up looking all cross and excited, until I said I was a Deputy Head. ‘The truth and nothing but the truth.’ So help me, Dad. Help me, Dad. You know the truth, in the land of the dead.