This is not a story about the Lucas sisters. Or maybe it is, but there’s no way to be certain. After all, this could be a story about black dogs that bark, white doors that wouldn’t open, oak trees that hide you from the rain. This could be a story about an old woman living in a big house. Or this could be a story about a boy who believed in something. Or a story about nothing at all. In the end, how can you ever tell what a story is about? And does it really matter? One thing I know for sure: without the Lucas sisters – this story wouldn’t even exist.
And maybe it’s not a story at all. Maybe it is but a random collection of words arranged in such a way that Sarah would have something to do on a fast train from London.
It was Danny who told us about Eliza Lucas. This was summer, 1997. Danny mentioned her briefly as I was limping towards them after another bad loss. I pulled a muscle and Sam had his face hit by the ball. It was grotesque how much blood could come out of one nose... At first we couldn’t understand why Danny grinned so much and why we should be interested in the first place, but you had to know Danny to know he was on to something.
“Have you seen the old hag with chickens?” he said. I thought I’d seen just the one. “Christ there are things about her you wouldn’t want to know”. This was obscure and annoying, but Danny knew when he had the shot. He knew where the bullets were, he knew how to load them and he knew how to fire the gun. How he came by all that information (a few months ago he told us about snuff movies made in Poland) was anyone’s guess, but we never questioned his authority. This time, too, we just had to wait.
I think it took Danny another week to bring her up the second time. We were standing underneath the big oak tree and smoking cheap cigarettes Sam had stolen from his dad. The cigarettes had this awful smell you couldn’t soap away for two days. Nick once said they smelled like cancer, and that was one horrible thought. Danny had a peculiar way of holding a cigarette (between the pointer and the thumb), and it was after one of those scum-like but effective pulls that he said the old woman was a fascist. “Which one?” I asked, playing dumb for some reason. Danny exhaled into the ground, looked straight through me and said: “The old hag with chickens”.
Nick wanted the details (in fact, we all did), but Danny changed the subject. So we talked about girls for a few minutes. Danny realised you had to be mysterious to be powerful.
Walking home that day, I was of course thinking about the old woman. I’d seen her a few times near one of those wealthy old houses that looked unlivable and smacked of ghosts and ruin. And there were indeed lots of chickens running about the front lawn. Coloured in that movie-like green, the lawn must have seen pheasants and swans in the old days. It looked peaceful and sad and detached from what I believed to be the real world. Just like the old woman who seemed too ordinary to be a fascist. Admittedly, ‘fascist’ was not a word that resonated well with me. It sounded odd and unreal. How could you be an old woman and a fascist? How on Earth could you be a fascist at the end of the century?..
The black dog barked, again. At times, the sound was reassuring. At times, it shocked me like it did the first time. I knew the breed, the colour, the size of its tail – and yet I had never actually seen it because of the high, impenetrable fence... It was already half-dark, and I sneaked into the garage. I sprinkled my hands with petrol to conceal the cigarette smoke and to later tell my parents that Harry (Sam’s dad) let us help him wash his new BMW.
Later still, when in bed and ready to sleep, I reached for a bulky encyclopedia I got for last Christmas and looked for the f-word. It was Hitler and Franco and all those other names I vaguely knew from school or elsewhere.
Danny, Sam (whom we sometimes called Samwise, because he was one of those Tolkien fans who acquired resemblance, both physical and psychological), Nick and myself. I wouldn’t say we were soul mates, but we played football together. We had a team. At that time girls were still a different planet, just these silly and incomprehensible ‘things’ with something dark and nasty between their legs. Football team might be a stretch though. Four players, that’s all there was to it. The pitch was about one-third of a real one, so we were basically multitasking. Each one was a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfielder and a striker, though on closer inspection you would probably see a clearer picture. Danny was the one who did most of the scoring. Sam was too chubby and awkward to leave the goal too much. Nick was too shy (or scared) to move beyond the defensive line he had once mentally drawn. As for myself, I liked to pass back and I liked to pass forward. I loved doing this linking bit which was vital but had no direct effect on either of the goals.
We had different tastes in music. Only two of us liked their parents. Only two of us enjoyed American comic books. We couldn’t even agree on our favourite cars and which girl in Beresfield was a little less ugly and dull than the others. But we smoked our first cigarette together. We drank beer, we almost tried weed once. We beat the best teams, lost to complete muppets. We had the oak tree that hid us from the wind and the rain. In the end, you didn’t need to be soul mates to be the best friends. Not when you’re twelve. At twelve, best friend is someone you do bad things with.
And there was something else. Something beyond football victories and beer cans, beyond stolen cigarettes and heartbreaking last-minute losses. It was the old woman who lived alone in that fading mansion that may have once seen all the wealth of the world. This old woman, as yet unnamed, was meant to bring us all closer together. She was bound to make us inseparable, best men at our future weddings, best mates for life.
But it never quite worked out that way. “Fucking Beresfield”, this was all Sam had to tell me years later when he was a fat man on the verge of hopeless middle age with a bleak solipsistic wife (not the lovely Rosie I had expected to see) and two ugly boys who eyed me with puzzling disinterest. Fucking Beresfield. Somehow, it was all the explanation we needed.
Not a word was spoken for another week, at which point Nick (it had to be Nick) gave up and said he found out about this h-word and it was driving him crazy. “Hitler?” asked Danny. Nick shook his head. I knew which word he meant. I think Sam did too. It was one hell of a word and the more you found out about it the more mad and unsettling it made you feel. “Holocaust?” asked Sam. We were standing behind the oak tree again and Sam had just let out an especially thick cloud of cigarette smoke. The word sounded like a bad tooth or a nasty dream. Nick nodded. I could see Nick better than the others because he didn’t smoke and the air around him was clear. His mouth quivered, adding to the strong sense of our collective unease: we all knew too much.
"Ah yes", said Danny, as if remembering the good old days. "Jews". And moments later, ominous and just a touch crazy: "I think it's the chickens now". We stared at him. Danny didn't flinch: "These chickens are her Jews now, you understand? I bet she tortures them. Gas chamber and shit". Sometimes Danny was one vicious asshole.
"Ah yes", said Danny, as if remembering the good old days. "Jews". And moments later, ominous and just a touch crazy: "I think it's the chickens now". We stared at him. Danny didn't flinch: "These chickens are her Jews now, you understand? I bet she tortures them. Gas chamber and shit". Sometimes Danny was one vicious asshole.
Next day was relentless. One of those showers that kept pouring down as if proving some point you couldn’t prove. Sam slipped (Samwise!), let an easy ball into the goal, and we lost. I ruined my tennis shoes, the pulled muscle was killing me, the cigarettes grew damp and mushy from the rain, September was closing in, and overall life wasn’t looking too bright. We began hobbling back home when Danny said he had this great idea and we should all come to his place. Somehow, we knew what it was all about. Or at least I did.
Danny didn’t have much of a family. We never asked. He lived with his dad, a kind and invisible slump of a man, in a house that was much too big for them. They let a few rooms for the summer, and that may have explained how Danny knew all those things he knew. Guests were spilling things over breakfast, and Danny was listening. At that time, though, we had no idea and simply followed his lead. He told us to come over and we did.
Sitting in his room and wondering what we were supposed to do, we waited for Danny. Five tense minutes later, he brought us a can of coke each and said he had it all planned. We were going to pay her a visit. I tried to concentrate, but my eyes kept wandering to the pin-up girls covering the walls of his room like some gorgeous nightmare. I thought the girls were very pretty and wished Beresfield was half as good as that. One in particular, a striking blonde with a big red balloon and a wicked smile, gave me a hard-on that just wouldn’t go away. I looked around. Sam was flipping through a flimsy comic book, Nick was examining his latest bruises. No, we didn’t want to go. I sucked on the final drops of coke as Danny showed us the most shocking pictures he’d found. Pages torn out of library books and a few postcards of Berlin. We were terrified, though not as much as we were supposed to be. We had already done some research on our own. Those dreadful bodies, mutilated, filthy, emaciated, dumped on top of each other. There was this one small child (girl, boy – you could no longer tell) looking at you from the centre of a crumpled black and white picture. I looked away. What did the old woman had to do with that?
But like I said earlier: Danny knew his shots. And as we were about to scuffle away from his desk, he opened a drawer and dragged out a picture of a man we all recognised. It was a newspaper clipping, yellowish but still perfectly clear. The sinister moustache, the commanding look of utter contempt. And a middle aged lady nearby, looking stately and rather attractive. “That’s her”, said Danny. I looked closer and tried to think of the 80-year-old woman near the grand old mansion on the outskirts of our town. I couldn’t see it. Rather, I saw one of those pin-up girls in Danny’s room. Nick and Sam didn’t say a word. Danny took out a pencil and drew a cross-like symbol on her face. I knew the symbol and wished he hadn’t done that.
Danny’s plan shocked us into silence but both Nick and Sam emerged unscathed. They saw it as a summer adventure, safe but intriguing. Me, I just thought it was stupid.
“Danny”, I said. “What are we going to find out?”
He smiled: he knew but he was not going to tell.
That evening, I didn’t hear the black dog. But maybe that one time, just once, the black dog did not bark.
I guess the oak tree is what comes through as a symbol in later years. We could do so much worse: as far as symbols go, the oak tree was respectable, even bookish. It served its purpose when the rains came or the sun was too high or Sam brought us a new pack of cigarettes. And it can hold this story of mine. We were to meet Danny near the oak tree at 2 o’clock on Wednesday. I can even remember the date: it was August, 23. It sounds terribly official and it should. We were about to make a mistake, commit a crime or, most likely of all, do both. But Danny was glowing. He had been circling the mansion for two weeks prior to that August day, studying her movements and making mental notes. He knew exactly when she was supposed to leave the house and when she was supposed to come back. He knew at what time she went to bed (half past nine) and how many chickens she had (sixteen). He knew she lived alone. He knew what kind of clothes she liked. He overwhelmed us with those details and none of us had the presence of mind to confront him or say one word against.
“Her name is Eliza”, said Danny. “She was born in Beresfield in 1914”.
I didn’t like the look of the oak tree, not that day. The root looked like some craggy octopus buried underground, and the bark was all bulging veins that had no blood or life to them. And Danny’s voice as an unfortunate soundtrack: we had less than an hour to break in, to investigate, to get out of that place.
Nick said she was a nice old woman and he could sometimes see her buy a bottle of whiskey jam, and I thought Eliza was a beautiful name. It sounded English but also exotic. She may have known Hitler back in the day and she may have been his friend. Did that make her a fascist? Did it mean she had to kill Jews? Did it mean she cut off their balls? (Danny’s idea.) You had to see it with your own eyes to make sure. I threw a fag on the ground and pressed it down with my right foot. The imaginary octopus swallowed it. In the end, you had to be in or you had to be out. Fuck it, I was in.
It was a clear day that was half-summer, half-autumn. School was breathing down your neck, but there was still one week to make it go away. We set off in total silence. It reminded me of a silence that followed us after some of our worst games. When Danny missed an open goal, when my passes went astray, when Nick couldn’t tackle, when Sam failed to cover the near corner. There were certain defeats that seemed so cruel we thought we would never win again. Silence was a white patch on the clear day, and Sam broke it off with two questions I wished he wouldn’t ask.
“This could be dangerous, right? I mean, if it’s all true?”
I think we all looked at Danny and I think it was the first time that Danny considered that possibility. I would not say it was fear, but the way he halted for a fraction of a second, the way he bit his own lip – again, I wished he hadn’t done that.
Four kids in a tight line, on a mission to see a house of an old woman. It must have looked silly to anyone who cared to pay attention. Hopefully, very few did. My heart stopped dead each time a car hissed by, but overall I thought we were doing quite well. Danny’s choice of streets was clever and made for the quietest route possible. For all the disturbing pictures we had seen, maybe it really was but a summer adventure and something to remember. We did not speak, we did not slow down, we did not even smoke (outside the oak tree – we never did). But as we approached the house, the feeling of insecurity naturally deepened. Suddenly, the house looked different. Bigger, more imposing, dwarfing anything it looked upon with its grey walls and black eyes carved out as if from a cardboard box. With no chickens outside, the front lawn was cheerless, even sinister. I felt awkward, my blood got gluey and cold. This was the first time I’d come that close.
According to Danny, Eliza was doing her Wednesday shopping and as long as we followed his instructions – we were safe. So we looked around, opened the gate (clanky but way better than a dog) and ran across the lawn like a bunch of amateur spies from an unfunny TV sketch.
The front door was locked. I expected Danny to take a magical master-key out of his pocket and let us all in, but instead he said we were going through the window. For the first time ever I thought I had no idea who Danny really was.
“Stephen”, he said. “You go first”.
You son of a bitch. I could see his point though: I climbed trees better than anyone else in Beresfield. In fact, if there was anything as ridiculous as a world championship in tree-climbing, I could be a genuine contender. Eliza’s window was almost too easy. I simply had to make a reasonable half-jump and push myself inside. No flower-pot, no nails sticking out of the window sill. Just one thought shot through my feet as I dropped onto the floor: God make her a fascist, God make her single-handedly responsible for all that Holocaust stood for. Because there was no getting around it: this was a break-in.
It was dark, way too dark for a summer afternoon. Dust struck me on the nose, I stepped onto something and anticipated a squeak or a wild scream. Nothing came. Remembering an old textbook trick, I closed my eyes, kept them shut for ten seconds, then opened them and found the switch. It must have been a living-room, unreasonably spacious and cluttered with furniture and stuff. I sensed a shiver of excitement as I pulled Sam inside. Nick came next. Then Danny. We all looked at Danny. Danny got down, looked around and delivered his longest speech ever. It was like all the water contained within his lean and sinewy body could burst open any second and flood the four of us – together with this mansion and the whole of Beresfield. This was insane.
“Eliza Lucas. There were three sisters, all daughters of a wealthy landlord. Two others are long dead. One in Germany, during an American air raid, the other giving birth to a stillborn child. Eliza Lucas never had any children. She is living alone. Unlike her two sisters, she never changed her name. She is the youngest. One of them, Harriet, was even briefly married to a German officer. She visited Hitler in Berlin a few times. She even visited one of the labour camps. Holocaust and all”.
We were all stunned by that speech, including Danny himself. I’m now trying to imagine his disappointment at what he saw. Nothing, just weeks of fantasies and wild expectations gone horribly wrong. Like a fake girlfriend, he led us on, built us up and knocked us down. He came to see a room full of German memorabilia. Second World War trophies. Pictures of Eliza Lucas kissing Hitler. Those kinds of things. Instead, we saw a wealthy interior inhabited by a lonely and boring life of an 83-year old woman with no family and nothing to look forward to.
So it was with childish desperation that he said:
“Last week, there were seventeen chickens. Now there are sixteen. One is gone”.
None of us said anything. She may have killed it, that chicken, but my aunt did too. And my aunt never knew Hitler and had nothing to do with Holocaust. My aunt wasn’t a fascist. We did not move, we just looked around sucking it all in and trying to figure out whether we should stay or jump outside and never come back here again. Fifteen minutes ago I was ready to believe the old woman would stay outside until Danny says so. Now I expected that front door to swing open any second and swallow us into the daylight that meant shame, embarrassment, police and my mother’s tears.
Danny could be wrong about something else, too. This was not Eliza Lucas and she never had two sisters born to a wealthy family. She may have been a rich widow with a bunch of grandchildren living in Australia. She may have had any name in the world. The walls were impersonal: oil paintings in huge golden frames, dead flowers, stylish black and white photos of Hollywood movie stars, a couple of dusty mirrors. I’d seen that room before, in comics and on TV. Past glories hidden under the sleepy patina of dust and books. Reality was dumb, nothing but a boring fairy-tale. I saw a silver mask hanging from the edge of one of the mirrors and thought she was once a movie actress. I thought I wanted to sneeze.
“How could anyone live here?” asked Nick. “All this luxury and she doesn’t even have a maid”.
“Nobody has maids anymore”, said Danny. “It’s a thing of the past. There’s just one man who comes to cut the grass once in two months”.
Yes, Danny. Danny was back in it. The evil glimmer returned to his eyes and he looked like a man about to resurrect all the evil of the world. He found a picture book and told us to come over. Yes, there it was. The picture Danny showed us at his place. Bigger, brighter and a lot more tangible than a newspaper clipping. This was the real thing. Eliza Lucas, cross-legged and beautiful, sitting next to Hitler. Suddenly, everything came into place. We followed every picture from her childhood (white pinafore skirt and fluffy hair) to late middle age (all stately looks and long dresses). It did not quite go into older years, but we got the idea. Yes, it was her. We read the tiny inscriptions adorning the pages with old-fashioned, neat handwriting.
Danny was in full control now. “That’s Harriet. The one on the left is Katherine. She was the oldest sister”. He was experiencing the full triumph of a near failure.
We should have stood back. We should have taken a moment to realise what we’d got ourselves into. What kind of woman Eliza Lucas was. We should have run out screaming, never to return or even remember that name. Instead, we wanted more. At that moment, no hungry Jew with hollow cheeks and protruding ribs was staring at me. “Quick”, said Danny. “We only have thirty-five minutes before she comes back”. Quick what, we should have thought. Quick fucking what.
“Look”. Sam was pointing at something. “It’s that thing again”.
Indeed it was.
Two days ago, on the 21st of August 1997, I couldn’t sleep. I was cold and I was hot, and the whole room was rolling around in my sweat. Something was alive in my brain, something sneaky and lizard-like, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. In the end, I got out of bed, sat at my desk and switched on the reading lamp. I took out a sheet of white paper (my mother had this ridiculous notion that I should be a painter) and drew a cross. ‘Equilateral cross with four legs bent at 90 degrees’, that’s the description I had found in the encyclopedia. That day, I did it from memory, and each bent leg took at least twenty seconds to draw. Once I was done, my hair got heavy and thick from sweat that was trickling down my forehead. The cross was a horrifying sight, worse than a half-dead Jewish girl. I scrunched up the sheet and threw it into the bin. And still I couldn’t go to bed. Instead, I fished the lump of paper out of the bin and tried to get rid of the black ink with the help of my pencil eraser. It didn’t work. Then I tore the sheet into a dozen small pieces. Then each piece into a dozen more, until my fingers hurt from trying. I gathered up the pieces and threw them into the bin. Then I went to sleep. This came back to me now as I was staring at the silver cigarette box lying on the mantelpiece. The cross we knew too well. Except you could not erase this one, or even tear it out, as it was engraved into the cigarette box with some deadly finality. None of us touched it, but it did make us realise it was time to leave the room. We turned around and looked at Danny. Danny led us out into a dark hall
Four kids let into a dark secret. The excitement was ravishing us, and we fully expected to see dead bodies everywhere. Hanging from the ceiling, breaking through the floorboards. Dead bodies, dead chickens, anything. We actually wanted to see them, we wanted to hear wild screams slicing through the staggering silence of the mansion and the twelve-year old hearts.
There were rooms everywhere. Many doors did not look promising, some doors were closed. But time was running out and still there was nothing. Nothing, that is, until Sam stopped us and pointed to the door. It was dark and we had almost reached the end of the hall. I think our minds whizzed in unison: that’s it, that’s what we came here for. We didn’t yet know why, and it would take us a few years to watch Apt Pupil (released one year later and giving me chills my first girlfriend could not understand), but we knew this was no ordinary door. If anything, it was a gut feeling, and there is nothing more powerful than a gut feeling shared by four twelve-year old boys. In a way, I now realise, this whole story is about that door. Coloured in disgusting white and having a tiny keyhole we had no use for. The door looked like a stuck-on patch on the wall, and we had almost missed it. It took Sam to see it. Samwise, a fan of Tolkien and hidden doors that can only be seen once in a million years and when the dawn breaks. Sam had just stumbled on a broken chair standing by the wall, and now he was showing us the door to all the mysteries of the world. It wasn’t like we saw a torture chamber with electric chairs and carving knives and all those sickening razor blades used by Spanish inquisition. Nick said it was time to leave and I wanted to kick him in the balls. We were all out of breath, and this room had all the oxygen that we needed.
“Fifteen minutes”. Danny had a big watch that glowed in the dark. “Fifteen minutes”.
We pushed, we pulled, we even tried to slide it to the side. Nothing worked. The door wasn’t heavy. It’s like you had to know some trick and we did not even have a hairpin to push through the keyhole. I tried my house key, but it was way too thick and got stuck. Danny pressed his ear against the door and said he heard something. To this day, I have no idea whether it was a lie or whether he really did hear something. For some reason, I never tried it myself. Even for all the adrenaline – I was scared. And as for Danny…
A few nudges aside, Nick was useless. Nick was worse than useless – he was detrimental. Behind our backs, repeating ad nauseam: it is late, it is time to leave. Nagging mantra. At some point Danny couldn’t hold it anymore, turned around and pushed Nick against the farther wall. Nick groaned briefly and looked about to cry but decided not to. In a weird way, he won the argument. Because the time was running out and being caught ‘in the act’ could have consequences we dreaded to imagine. Because it really was a crime, plain and simple. Danny said it was time (clenched teeth, bulging eyes) and we followed him back through the hall, through the suffocating living-room, through the window and into the lawn. This time, I was the last to leave. We didn’t think about the traces we may have left, we didn’t think about anything only had this rabbit-like desire to run away. Danny’s plan was fictional. Breaking in was an impulse. Escaping, too, was an impulse. Looking back – what am I supposed to say? How stupid we were? How lucky? Well, luck only worked for some of us. Maybe just me.
One thing struck me as I jumped outside. It was daylight, the sheer brightness of the sun and Eliza Lucas’ green lawn. It was enchanting and for a few moments I couldn’t move. “Don’t step into chicken shit”. Danny broke the spell. I wonder now – was there ever a chance to change anything if we knew that it was Danny who’d been put under a spell?.. There is very little left from that evening. We didn’t talk. Before the mansion, we didn’t talk because of the future. After the mansion, we didn’t talk because of the past. The former is salvageable. The latter is not. The dog barked. The rain poured. Danny had pushed Nick against the wall. Was I supposed to make sense of all that?..
My father met me at the front door and said he needed to talk to me. I followed him to the kitchen, looking at his stooped shoulders and hoping he would not beat me too hard. He had never beaten me before, and I tried to imagine my options. In truth, I wouldn’t have any. It had to be his brown belt. I loved that belt and had secretly worn it to school three or four times. I didn’t get the irony. I didn’t get why I would not be punished for stealing petrol and smoking cigarettes. Instead, it had to be that bitch. That goddamned hag. That motherfucking fascist. I pictured her calling my parents and saying – in that croaky old voice I’d never heard – what Stephen had done. No, not Stephen. She didn’t know my name. She would just say your boy. Your son. That fucking bitch. I would expose your shriveled ass. I would tell everyone. Police would crash down your door and all your dirty secrets would be out in the open.
That’s what I thought in the fifteen seconds it took us to get from the front door to the kitchen.
My mother was sitting at the table, sipping coffee, eyeing me with discomfort. I thought it was heartless and mean to let her watch this. Then I looked around, at all the cups and napkins and plates and thought they would all be watching. They were not there for breakfasts and dinners. They were all there to witness my humiliation.
“Stephen”, said my father.
Eyes were searching for the belt. I tried to look sorry but the strange thing was that there was no need for that because my parents looked even more uncomfortable. And sounded, too. I didn’t understand.
“Yes, dad?” weakly, but fully accepting my fate.
“Your mom and I wanted to tell you. Sorry, honey, but we are moving from Beresfield…”.
They both looked at me. What was I supposed to say? The problem was, I couldn’t hold it anymore. My bladder was about to burst. I excused myself and they looked concerned and said yes, of course, honey, we understand.
I wonder what sort of nightmares we all had that night. But I do remember mine. In my dream, Nick stuck a finger into the keyhole and the white door opened. There were just three of us on the outside: me, Nick and Sam. Danny wasn’t there. Danny was inside. He was standing in the middle of this entirely white room, staring at us with glassy eyes. He looked pale and thin, even thinner than he was in real life. It was like he wanted to tell us something, maybe with his eyes. But the glassy surface didn’t let go, so instead he opened his mouth and we saw a screaming flock of bats flying towards us or perhaps through us or perhaps into us.
Whoever designs nightmares, he is there to confuse us. He is not there to make sense of things. The most confusing thing about this nightmare was not even its content (which I could easily do without), but rather its location. Because the white room did not impress me all that much. I imagined a medium-sized cellar with wine and cheese, or I could not imagine anything at all. And now here I was, dreaming about it. Having nightmares.
11 o’clock. You don’t want to be scared in the morning. I was lying there thinking about Danny. It was the look he had yesterday, seconds before he pushed Nick. The nervy shaking of his limbs, the muted fixation of his eyes. I guess it started to happen the moment he saw the white door. We never really knew who Danny was, but we knew what he was not. Danny was not supposed to be scared.
11 o’clock. Nobody tried to make me go downstairs and have breakfast. I was meant to be upset about something, though for the life of me I could not remember what it was.
Rain was running down my face. It was the tree. First it’s the sky and then it’s the leaves soaking up rain water and then releasing hundreds of random drops on your neck and on top of your head. There was not much communication. Yesterday left us with nothing to talk about. Tobacco was bitter and the smoke kept fingering the insides of my mouth. So far, Nick was the only one who was trying to say something. His elder brother, his mom, his fucking hamster? No, it wasn’t that. Nick told us that when he closed his eyes now, he could see airplanes with crosses. Airplanes with crosses. Millions of them. Black. Loud. Exploding. Flying in every direction.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t see airplanes, with or without crosses. But I believed Nick. Sam listened, intently, as if trying to figure out the meaning of those words. Airplanes, crosses. Then he dragged a cigarette out of the corner of his mouth and frowned at what he saw. He said he did not want to smoke that shit. Fast-forward two weeks ago, that bizarre dinner I had with his family. Sam kept swearing in front of his two seven year old sons, barely even lowering his voice. There was no finesse to it, no style, his swearing was as fat and ugly and straightforward as he was. I’m only saying it now because under the oak tree that day he said he did not want to smoke that shit and it was the first time I heard him swear.
Danny was just another crooked tree branch sticking out of the ground. Danny was someplace else. I wish we could read his thoughts that day, but equally I now realise we would not have done anything. I thought about my nightmare. Some dreams came true, and you hated them for that. Some dreams were never meant to come true. This one, the one about Danny and the white cellar and the screaming bats, it was not meant to come true. There was a moment when Danny was about to break the silence. I saw that moment and began talking about my parents and how they told me I was going to move. At that point, I still couldn’t care less, and it was a relief when the boys came and we had a game on.
That day, we played in the rain. The pitch was slippery and we were not trying to do any fancy stuff. We just passed the ball, in deadly silence, shot occasionally and looked at what the other boys were doing. The other boys were scoring goals. They were physical and clinically efficient. They were like a sublime machine with every detail polished to perfection. It was boring and, in a way, rather fascinating. We lost with a score so ridiculous and astronomical it was like it didn’t count. Also, we had no idea this was our last game together. Last ever.
“Where to?” asked Sam.
Again, this was under the oak tree, after the match.
“Where are you moving?”
“I don’t know”.
“You don’t know?” asked Nick. “But that’s, like, the main thing”.
It was, and I didn’t. What was going on with me? Why were Nick and Sam looking so pale? What was Danny saying now? I listened up. The rain was over, and the sun was scorching through the crooked tree branches. It was something about Eliza Lucas (I shivered: the dreaded name) and her mansion. He was going there again today. I tried to let that sink in but the taste was bitter and the sun was getting into my face. Danny put his hand into his pocket and by that point I could be expecting a gun or some ghastly ring of Mordor. It was worse: Danny took out a key. Slim and sneaky, this clearly was the key. And in the meantime, the late August day was getting brighter and brighter still. The rays kept pushing their way through the leaves. Our faces lit up, and it all seemed like a different oak tree and it all seemed like a different world.
Sam, too, was different. He wouldn’t go anywhere. In fact, he would go home. Sam took the cigarettes, put them into his backpack and went away. This wasn’t normal, the whole thing was dreadful and dream-like and not at all like the Beresfield we knew.
“When?” I asked.
“Now”, said Danny. “Right now”.
“How do you know she isn’t around?”
Seventeen years later – writing these four lines doesn’t take any effort. I don’t have to imagine the intonations and the choice of words. Twelve-year old kids learning to be mature and somehow succeeding.
I looked at Nick, Nick looked at me. We didn’t want to go. Sense of adventure gave way to danger and common sense. Danny looked at us with mild curiosity. Like we were some sort of exotic species in a laboratory and he was a scientist about to apply a little force or water or electricity. Sam no longer existed. We followed Danny into the streets. Nick didn’t last long though. He was like a small kid who was twisting and turning in bed and showing to whoever was listening that he gave in and was ready to be smothered, comforted, tucked in. In the end, he clutched at his stomach and said the pain was killing him. Nick wasn’t a natural defender, just like Sam wasn’t a natural keeper. Still, he needed us to actually say that: “Nick, you go home now”. But neither Danny nor I said anything. Danny didn’t care and I couldn’t find it in me to blame Nick.
In silence I walked Danny to the gate. Again, there were no chickens. I told Danny that’s it, I’m not going any further. Then I turned around and went home.
I knew I was not supposed to hear that. And Danny was not supposed to say that. Twenty seconds later, behind my back, the gate clanked softly and suddenly I knew it was all over.
The dog barked and I started. There are certain noises that get to you even if you can predict the moment and the pitch. Your heart is never quiet, and there’s another bullet piercing it all the way through. So yes: the black dog barked and I started.
Danny’s dad. It was two days later and he was buying cigarettes in WHSmith. I was there with my mother who came up to him to say she was sorry and it was all just a matter of time. I looked at him, through faceless magazines and newspapers, and he just seemed so grey. His skin was grey. His hands. His eyes. His clothes. It pained me to remember that for all the arrogance and hatred that was in him, Danny never said one bad word about his dad. I wanted to come up to him, and yet what could I possibly say. That I was the last person to see Danny? That I loved Danny like my own brother? Some of that could be a lie, some of that could simply be not true.
“Thank you”, he said. And went out. I’d never seen a man so big reduced to so little.
We bought a newspaper for my father (he always read the longest and most boring ones, with lots of figures and charts) and left. I don’t think he even knew my mother. And I certainly don’t think my mother had been aware of his existence before Danny disappeared.
We never told anyone. When police came, as inevitably they did, and asked us questions, we only spoke about football and the oak tree. We did not even mention the cigarettes, even though it was the kind of small truth that may have deflected from the bigger lie. Did we know about pictures in Danny’s room? Did we know about his interests? We shook our heads, in blind unison. We did not want to be part of it. The officer, a young man in a very tight suit, was convinced that Danny had run away from home. Peculiar interests. Divorced father with a drinking problem. He only had to push us a little, and we would have confessed more crimes than we had committed. Eliza Lucas, the mansion, Hitler, even the white door. Instead, he looked at me from across the table and asked if Danny was good at football. “Yes”, I nodded. “Very good. He scored goals”. The investigation was muted, even for a small country town like ours. A runaway child, one of many, no need to disturb London. At the end of it, I was fully expecting the police officer to buy me ice-cream and take me to the cinema.
But Nick’s fingernails looked awful. Sam smoked outside the oak tree. Huge black patches under my eyes were the size of tea bags. And the first time we met, the three of us, Danny was a constant presence. However, we couldn’t talk about him until a few boys came up to us and said Beresfield was a shithole and Danny was right to run away. We blanked them with a smile. I didn’t even recognise their faces. And no, we wouldn’t play. Sam gave them a few cigarettes and they left. Then suddenly it was all Danny. Five days had passed and still no news. I told them the whole story, up to the gate. Nick said he could still see crosses and airplanes. Sam said he’d seen her at the market on Sunday. Eliza Lucas was ‘she’ and the mansion was ‘it’. We talked about police and blamed Danny. He shouldn’t have. It was madness. Too dangerous, and he knew it. We blamed Danny so that we wouldn’t have to blame ourselves.
Of course we had ideas. Lots of them. More than the police officer who just wanted to write a quick report and be done with it. Under the oak tree that day, the ideas were like cigarette ash falling on the ground, smouldering for a few seconds, then disappearing forever. Danny entered the house through the window, then opened the white door with his key. She was waiting for him there, in that ghastly living-room. Hiding behind one of the sofas to later creep up on him while he was at the door. She came back when he tried to crawl out of the window. No, she was waiting for him inside the cellar. The secret room. The torture chamber. She tied him to a chair. She let gas into the room. She did some horrifying experiments. She cut off his balls. Danny was bleeding but still alive, waiting for our help. He was dead already. He had a plan (he knew where the bullets were, he knew how to load them, etc.), and he was going to escape.
But was there a way to tell this to a young police officer in a tight suit? And who would believe a twelve-year old? Besides, we still feared for our lives.
We arranged to meet the next day, on the eve of a new school year. It was our shortest meeting ever. It was also our last ever. It ended the moment I suggested that we should go there and search the place. Because the police were not going anywhere and because Danny was our friend. Nick said he had to study and Sam cursed. “Do you think he ran away?” I asked. But they never answered. Suddenly it occurred to me that it was me who was running away. From Beresfield, for good.
“Where?” I asked my parents. And they said London.
I met Eliza Lucas on September 15 and it wasn’t a dream. We were sitting in her kitchen. I was drinking her awful green tea.
That last conversation under the oak tree was long over and gone, and still I couldn’t bring myself to doing it on my own. However, I knew there was no chance I could persuade Nick and Sam to accompany me. I had no idea what was going on in their heads or if they remained friends. Whenever we passed each other in the street or outside the football pitch, it was barely a glance of embarrassed recognition.
All this time the mansion kept tugging at my heart and dreams. When you fall in love with a wrong girl, there’s a torture you cannot resist. School might have distracted me and put my mind into grammar rules and history books and maybe a couple of new friends, but I didn’t go to school that September. My parents, who were currently busy packing and planning and pricing it all up, said I would be going to a London school now. I felt nothing, and when at some point my father suggested jumping into his van and going to London to see our new place and possibly my new school, I said no. It was September 15, and I had other plans.
At the end of Warren street (her street), my feet were filled with saggy water and soft cotton and it was the peaceful pastoral view that dragged me close to the gate. Eliza Lucas was sitting on a small wooden bench feeding the chickens. The sight was bewitching and it somehow excused my listless wonder. I just stood there, inept, watching the chickens, counting them. Fifteen. The number I got was fifteen.
Then she noticed me. She put her plastic cup on the ground and rose from the bench. Her movements were croaky and slow and hypnotic. She approached me, and in all those years it took her to get to the gate –I couldn’t move a muscle. She said something and I couldn’t make it out. She said it again and again and again. I only heard it when she was standing right in front of me.
“Can I help you?” Eliza Lucas, I could see then, was a neat old woman, softly spoken and pleasant in a rather creepy way. She had style and aristocracy seeping through her wrinkles though at the time I was too overwhelmed to notice. Mostly, what I noticed was a flock of red hair that somehow put me at ease. Was it the Eliza Lucas? The fascist and a friend of Hitler? Vague similarities aside, there was no way to be certain. Too many years had passed and I was too young to know. “No, thanks, I was just walking by”. As if someone had taught me to say that. Because the moment she saw me, the moment she rose from the bench, the moment she spoke to me, I was supposed to vanish in a gust of wind.
Eliza Lucas invited me in for a cup of tea and I followed. “You’re a nice boy”, she said, and I thought my parents had no idea where I was. Why wouldn’t I say my stomach was killing me? Why was I going there, why was I following a murderess who had done unspeakable things to Danny? It took me years to answer that question. But that day, that bright September afternoon in 1997, I simply said something about her chickens (the look of warm adoration on her face, like I was a friend for life for saying that) and watched her unlock the front door.
We went past the sickeningly familiar living-room and what struck me most was how steady my heart was. I was infused by dust and the calmness was overwhelming. It was carving things on my face, words, movements. We entered her kitchen, and immediately I thought how ridiculous it was to believe, or even to dream, that there could be a room in her house that was totally empty and white. Her kitchen was just like the living-room, only even more absurd. Because among the books and the candles and the mirrors and God knows what else, there were pots and cups and pans and forks hanging from the walls and the cupboards. While I was sitting there waiting, she was moving slowly about the kitchen making tea. She poured water into the kettle, she put it on the stove, she gave me a huge yellow cup with some strange name on it. All was done in silence. I was sitting against the wall, watching her. Whatever she wanted to do with me, now or later, she would not hit me at the back of my head. I followed her with my eyes: could she hit anyone?..
The tea was awful. Dark yellowish liquid, bitter and filled with a strong smell of herbs. I thought of my mother who made perfect tea. I thought of Danny and wondered if he was in this house now and was I here to save him?..
We didn’t talk much, just your average small town small talk. It must have been awkward, though I was holding pretty well. And yet so hard to shake it off, the idea that the tea was so bitter and spicy because of the poison she had dropped into it. Five minutes ago, when I wasn’t looking.
What does your father do and how well do you study and do you have many friends and on and on it went. I mumbled and sipped my way through monosyllabic replies and asked very little. I had to be specific and talk to her about Danny and Hitler and Jews and maybe blackmail her with all that fascist stuff, but instead it was chickens and Beresfield and my parents. She told me her name was Eliza, Eliza Lucas, and my front teeth hit the painful edge of the cup. Also, she asked me my name and I said my name was Stephen. Even though now, years later, I wonder if I should have told her my name was Danny.
“I’m alone, Stephen”, she said even though I never asked. “But I’m quite content with my situation”.
This was from a Jane Austen novel, as I was later to learn. Her taste in literature made sense, what with this house and its decrepit luxury. She did not fit in, not anymore, and I listened, bemused, knowing full well I wasn’t getting anywhere.
“I’ve heard about this boy”, she said at some point. I stared at her, thinking if there was a moment to run away, this was it. But I just stared. “The boy who disappeared? You don’t know him?”
I tried to picture her, holding Danny by the wrists. Strangling him, tying him to a chair, torturing him. I could not see it. The green tea was bad but it wasn’t a crime. At school we often talked about killing someone. When that moment arrived, when the push came to shove, would you do it? Could you do it? Some boys said yes, they could, and that meant they probably could. Some boys said no, they couldn’t, and you just knew they were lying. But that’s boys. As I looked at her face, at the way her hands shook when she was pressing the cup against her lips, I knew she couldn’t. Maybe in Germany, maybe a million years ago, but not anymore. Not now.
“Yes”, I said. “A little”.
“Yes”, I said, averting my eyes.
I could say the tension was rising, I could say my mouth was dry despite the tea, but was that really so? Maybe this was all just a polite exchange of niceties that was at that time taking place all over Beresfield. And yet I did ask, not about Danny, but about something else.
“…do you have any sisters?”
“Why?” she said. I blushed. “Indeed I have. Had. Two sisters. Both dead now”. And then, as if remembering some story she had once read: “Lucas Sisters”.
“I just thought…”
She followed my eyes.
“The picture? Yes, that’s us”.
On the window-sill, by a mirror, in a frame shaped like a sunflower. Three young women in big straw hats in front of what appeared to be a huge house. Another mansion, at least twice as big as Eliza’s place. I could see they were beautiful and blushed even more. Because I was not supposed to think that and because one of them was once sitting cross-legged not one metre away from the worst man I could think of. That was the mansion, I then realised, of the rich landlord and Eliza’s father. And also: I was not supposed to feel the way I did. I felt calm and I just knew she wouldn’t hurt me.
It started to rain, and through the dim glass of her windows the rain looked like days. The kitchen grew dark, but she switched on the light before I could feel scared or sad. Then she poured me another cup of her disgusting green tea, and my chance of asking her whether she knew Hitler and killed any Jews was gone with a swift plop of sugar. Eliza asked me why I wasn’t at school and I explained about London. “London”, she said wistfully, the way a few minutes ago she said “Lucas Sisters”. Eliza said she liked London but that she would probably not recognize it now. She was there a long, long time ago and I thought she meant a different century or a different life.
We talked about Beresfield and how sorry she was that I was leaving and would never come to visit her again. I liked being in her kitchen. I liked talking to her and there was a sharp lightning going through my heart and my lungs when she said it was time for me to leave. I looked at the clock, that grotesque wooden box that should have been in a grand living-room or nowhere at all, and saw that two hours had passed.
In the hall, I tried to locate the white door and saw nothing. It was too dark and I only had three seconds. Danny? Holocaust? Hitler? We must have dreamt it.
“Sorry about the tea”, she said. “Horrible, yes? I wouldn’t know. It’s the only kind of tea I drink”.
I told her I liked the tea and I liked her living-room. It was hard to say which was more of a lie. And then I thought I’d finally said something wrong. Her wrinkled face twitched and she looked at me searchingly. I remember the feeling. As if there was a small, barely visible insect crawling all over my face and she tried to follow it with her eyes. Those hazel eyes, so huge and so incredibly round. I thought of the front door. The front door was closed, and what could I possibly read into those eyes? Confusion, suspicion, threat?
“You like it?” she said eventually. “I know it’s a mess but that’s how I like it. That’s how Harriet liked it”.
I didn’t want to know and I didn’t say anything. I only saw her approach. Something was about to happen and yet deep in my hard I believed I could still avert it.
“I know exactly where everything is. But a month ago someone was here”.
It’s not that she sounded ominous. It’s that tiny spider rolling around my face. She was catching him with her eyes.
“Here, in this living-room. You see, Stephen, they took something”. I almost cried no, we didn’t.
“A picture that was very dear to me”.
“Well, miss Lucas, I really have to go now…”
“My parents will be worrying”.
“Oh of course, Stephen”. Now suddenly she was all nice and apologetic. And she came even closer, so close that I could smell her breath filled with old age and herbal tea. She opened the front door to let me out. “Nice talking to you. And good luck in London”.
Indian summer, relieved of rain, breathed at me from the outside. The green lawn was slippery from the rain and glistened in the autumnal sun. I couldn’t see any chickens.
I changed the street this time, so there was no black dog barking at me from behind a tall grey fence. But even if I did choose my old street and the dark did bark, could I hear anything through the confused clattering of my own thoughts? Was she evil and why did she let me go. Why did she look at me the way she did. And who were they, these Lucas Sisters.
Three days later the investigation was over and the case was closed. On September 19, Danny was found.
Shortly before leaving Beresfield and long after arriving in London, I kept trying to make sense of the meeting with Eliza Lucas and her green tea and her sudden change of mood. Sometimes I believed she was innocent and sometimes I thought she knew exactly why I was standing near her gate. She knew I’d been there, in her living-room, and she knew I came for my lost friend. And so perhaps I can credit myself with Danny knocking on the door in the middle of the night and crashing at the feet of his drunk, demented father. Three days later.
The general idea was that Danny had indeed run away from home. Bad crowd, no money. Beaten. Maybe raped. Nobody could really know because Danny didn’t talk. Covered in bruises, with huge black patches on his face, Danny was no longer the boy he used to be. He was now living indoors with his dad, learning how to sleep and hold the toothbrush and eat with a fork. Things seemed to be moving on and even his dad looked happier now. He gained weight, quit drinking, told his tenants not to bother him ever again and devoted all his time to Danny. Accompanied him from bed to bathroom and then, later, read him short stories by O. Henry. Or that’s how I saw it in those lonely and confusing days of wandering through the streets of London. A city so drab and colourful it made me lose sleep for weeks on end.
I did see Danny again, though, a couple of days before leaving Beresfield. My mother wanted to throw one last party and asked me if there was anyone I wanted to invite. Nick? Sam? For some reason, I could not tell her we were no longer friends. Nick’s hamster died, I said, and Sam had a sore throat. Then she mentioned Danny, and I still remember how the air got stifling and sick and my words never fell on the floor. They were suspended in the air like those fine drops of rain after a heavy storm. My mother said something about best friends and how I should go and see Danny. Best friends. To this day I don’t know what that even means. Friendship is fake and only love makes it all worth it. But I did got to see Danny, with crisps, coke and a packet of cigarettes. All the way to Danny’s house, I was trying to think of what I was supposed say. Tell him about Eliza Lucas? Tell him I was going to London in two days’ time? Tell him about Sam and Nick and that I missed him and wished we could play football again? In the end, I didn’t say any of that. His dad closed the door and left us alone. The silence went on forever.
It was the first time I saw Danny since the day we parted at Eliza Lucas’ gate. Physically, he looked the same – if maybe a little thinner. But something was different. It wasn’t that he didn’t talk and it wasn’t even the way he looked. Danny was now just a boy. Any boy from the street... I thought he recognised me. There was a momentary flash in his eyes, for a second or two, and then it was gone. But in that flash, in that dying second, he knew who I was.
I approached him as cautiously as if he had cancer and the cancer was infectious and brought instant death. I placed the crisps, the coke and the cigarettes on the small table by his bed. There were a few thick books on the table, a huge round apple as well as a glass of water. He didn’t like crisps with bacon (he preferred onion) and he wouldn’t tell coke from mineral water and he wasn’t allowed to smoke, but still I put it all on the small table by his bed. Crisps, coke, cigarettes… I even said it out loud, because the pin-up girls looked silly now and I had to say something. Even the striking blonde with a big red balloon and a wicked smile seemed way too pointless in a sick half-lit room. And like me, she glanced at a twelve-year old boy lying on the bed, trying to find out how this boy could once play football and score goals. And fascism? There was not a trace, just silence and bad breath. Police must have taken it all away: the pictures, the postcards, the newspaper clippings.
When you are twelve and something goes wrong – there has to be someone who is responsible, who is guilty, who is sitting there grinning to himself when no one’s looking. I blamed Eliza Lucas. Even if she didn’t do it. Even if she couldn’t possibly.
I don’t think I spent there more than 15 minutes. Silence was bleeding to death and I had to leave. I think I managed to say something about the weather and how no one was playing football anymore but mostly it was just my unease and his vacant stare. I said why the fuck did you steal that picture, Danny, behind our backs, while we were looking at the silver cigarette box? But maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just said goodbye and left the room.
Downstairs, Danny’s dad smiled at me and something cracked inside. I whispered sorry or goodbye or something even more meaningless than that, opened the front door and ran outside. I wept into the yellow grass and the leaves and the dirty pools of water under my feet. And they just stared back at me. They were cold, bleak, uncaring. I mistook a brown leaf for a dead rat and shivered. I knew I’d seen something I wasn’t supposed to see until I was twenty or forty or that ridiculously old age which could not yet exist. I’d seen something I was never supposed to see. I realised I miss Danny, just like his dad missed him a while ago. But he was happy now because Danny was back – for him, if not for anyone else. And what did he care whether Danny could talk or not. What did he care about the Lucas sisters.
The dog? I have no idea if it barked that time. If it did, it blew it. Because it was its last chance and I didn’t even notice.
We were leaving Beresfield in the morning. It was a cold, serene day in early October, and I noticed just how peaceful and motionless it all looked. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep it off, the two craziest months of my life. I closed my eyes and saw Danny lying in his bed. Nick doing his homework. Sam smoking bad cigarettes. And Eliza Lucas on that green lawn, near her mansion, feeding chickens...
My father turned around and told me to say goodbye to Beresfield. I opened my eyes. The wide road was busy and indifferent to who you were or where you were going. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t even whisper it. Because deep in my heart and soul and even the tips of my fingers – I hated to leave.
It was prudish of me, but I didn’t pick up the newspaper. My phone was dead and I had nothing else to do for fifteen stations, from Knightsbridge till Bounds Green, and still I didn’t pick it up. At that point it was nothing more than a paper rag, slovenly stretched on the floor, exposing the cruelty of the Piccadilly line. Someone else picked it up. An old man with bright green socks underneath a grey suit. He sat opposite me and spread it open…
At home, Sarah asked me if I’d had a good day at the gallery but my mind was elsewhere. I was fumbling through my old note book, looking for a telephone number I’d written years ago. Again, in the Tube, completely by accident. I couldn’t even tell Sarah about these two strange men, Mercier and Camier, who came into the gallery and asked me if they could touch a Corot. “We promise we wouldn’t do it any harm”, they insisted. I dialed the number and heard a voice from another time. We arranged to meet at the weekend. It was all very business-like, almost impersonal. There was no connection anymore, other than the fact that we both lived in London.
Sam Johnson came with his family. “You don’t mind? I thought I’d show you my family”. Sam was genuinely fat now, horribly, irrevocably fat. He looked like a hobbit with no charm. I came with the newspaper and wondered if I should have asked Sarah to come along. However, with two kids sitting at the far end of the table, fighting with food and calling each other names and being mean to waitresses, this wouldn’t have worked as a double date. In those circumstances, I didn’t feel comfortable showing him the picture, but equally I wondered if any other circumstances would have been right.
Sam was not interested in the picture. He looked at it from a distance and mumbled something to his wife. He didn’t care for the newspaper photo of the three Lucas sisters, Katherine, Harriet and Eliza, and what the story was about (a few biographical notes that made me wonder if there were other boys who died or disappeared). And he only frowned lazily when I told him about my visit to Eliza Lucas in mid-September 1997 and how I saw this picture in a sunflower-shaped frame, on the window-sill of her kitchen. He did tell me about Nick, though, and for a few seconds we stared at the devastating irony of it all, beyond the sweet wine and the overcooked stake. Fucking Beresfield. I suggested going outside for a smoke, but he said he’d quit years ago.
“I guess you don’t know about Danny”, he said. “They took him to Mad Molly before Christmas that same year”.
“You don’t remember?”
Mad Molly. I remembered. Mad Molly was a mental hospital outside Beresfield.
“Christ”, I said.
“He escaped a few times. From that shithole. Who wouldn’t?.. I’ve heard he tried to escape the day his dad died”.
“His dad died?”
Each time Danny escaped, they caught him and put him back. Sam had no idea what happened next. He left Beresfield in 2003.
Sam did not want to talk about that. He probably thought Danny had made it all up and he didn’t care whether Danny stole any picture that day and he must have believed that day never even existed. I thought of Nick and Danny and looked at the two of us. What did we do to deserve a better fate? What did we do to deserve girlfriends, wives, London restaurants? But we talked about wines and steaks and every small matter we could think of.
“Hang on”, he said, impressed by something, just as I was about to leave. “You met Eliza Lucas?”
This was incredible. Incredible that he even mentioned her name. In such a place, in front of his family, seventeen years later.
“Yes”, I said. “I didn’t want to leave Beresfield, you see”.
Oh the sacred things you say to those who couldn’t care less.
Two months later Sarah made some fancy green tea. No, the taste was not the same. It wasn’t as bitter and even the colour was different. I guess it was just one ingredient thrown in by complete chance. Or, now that I think of that day, it may have been a leg muscle I pulled while jogging earlier that day. It all came back and I told Sarah I was going to write a short story. She asked what about, and I said nothing much. The only thing I knew was that I would call it “The Lucas Sisters”.
Sarah was concerned I didn't like the tea she'd made. "It's from an old recipe", she said. "I hope I got it right. It's from a German website".
Sarah was concerned I didn't like the tea she'd made. "It's from an old recipe", she said. "I hope I got it right. It's from a German website".
I said she got it right. Which she probably did.
Sarah finished reading the story and looked through the train window. She didn't care for the view and I felt a slight tingle of resentment. Maybe she didn’t like the story. Maybe she hated me for doing it to her. Sarah stuck her fingers into the fluffy depth of her hair. She moved her head to the side and her lips parted into a coy smile. It was like she suddenly remembered something. Something pleasant and slightly embarrassing. Then the train slowed down and Sarah turned to me.
“You keep saying ‘fascist’. Not ‘Nazi’”.
“I know. I just wanted to keep it real. We didn’t know the difference”.
“Airplanes and crosses”, she said. “Instead of Luftwaffe and swastika”.
Christ. Girls could be so irrelevant. Even the girls you loved.
“It’s good”, she said. “I mean, for your first story”.
“You liked it?”
“I did. In fact, I’m starting to look forward to seeing it all for real”.
I looked outside. Beresfield hadn’t changed. It was like a sleeping beauty that had never been beautiful in the first place.
“There’s just one thing”, Sarah said. “You say all the girls in Beresfield were ugly and dull.”
Christ. Girls could be so… I leaned closer and we kissed. The train was fifteen minutes from the station, and something kept welling up inside. Kiss by kiss, rail by rail.
We got out and I felt it. I felt them, in one overwhelming gulp of rainy air that was full of those seventeen years I hadn’t been in this part of the country.
September was unkind. One of those nasty days best spent indoors. Wind cut through us like cold razor blades. People with vague, unknown faces were leaving the platform, and we followed. Where will we go? We had either too many options or no options at all. Shall we perhaps start with Nick’s grave? Or shall we go past my old place?
Our train to London would not be leaving until 9 in the evening, so we had the whole day to revive, revisit, explore. For Sarah, it all seemed so new and different, despite my best efforts to describe it in the story. But then it was just as new and different to me. Because I did not want Beresfield to change but it wouldn’t listen. I could recognize certain streets, benches, even trees, but they had nothing to do with me. Pavements were two, three, four inches longer and stones were different stones and even white was different white. I was just an observer now that was faking it as a guide. But Sarah listened. Oh she did. Whenever I turned to her to talk or merely to look, she would be filled with child-like wonder, looking around and then crawling back into her thoughts. Or she would ask me questions, like why did I think the dog was black when the fence was so high (I didn’t, I just assumed it was) and why did Nick die (lung cancer). So far, the day was more sobering than exciting and each signpost was an imaginary box checked and then crossed out.
Sarah pulled at the sleeve of my coat, but I dragged it back with force. I refused to go in. Strange new people were living in my old home now, watching TV, playing computer games, having lunch. I would only be a nuisance; a ghost from the past, too weak and too real to haunt anyone... Nick’s grave was clean and full of sad white flowers that looked more plastic than real. The plaque said ‘1985-2009’. And there were lots of small details, too, that distressed me, excited me, broke my heart. Like a few faces that struggled to be familiar, like a few boys playing football on that old pitch that was one-third of a real one. They didn’t play well, I could see it from a distance, but one of the boys reminded me of Danny. Same fervent dedication, same aloof confidence, and my heart shrunk like a paper cup in the rain. He even scored a goal, that boy, in those ten seconds that I watched. Then Sarah interrupted me, and I woke up as if from a dream. “Where’s that oak tree?” she asked. But there was no oak tree. The oak tree was gone. “Sorry, Sarah”. I almost said it. I was a magician who screwed up his best trick.
The fence was different. It was loose, low, and there was no dog behind it. I didn’t mind. I thought this was better than some mindless cocker-spaniel chewing on a rubber ball and staring at you with innocence and moronic charm. Danny’s house was a family hotel now, and Sarah even suggested staying over for a night. However, we both knew we couldn’t. Because of London. Because of the train. Because of art galleries and a million other things that never existed here, in Beresfield. Besides, we still had to pay a visit to Mad Molly.
Imagine you have a fear of flying. And you go to bed in the evening, and it’s fine. And you wake up in the morning, and it’s fine. And you don’t feel anything when you go through the registration and check in your baggage. And even when you board the plane and fasten your seat belt, it is all fine. But then the plane takes off and your heart starts beating through your eyes and your ears. Mad Molly was the scariest, least reliable airline in town. What if he was still there?..
“Daniel”, said the girl. “Do you remember his second name?”
“Okay. Name of illness?”
“You need a medical term?”
“Well, I guess it was some kind of mental disorder…”
“They are all mental. Okay. What do you know other than his name?”
I told her Danny was twelve when he got here. 1997, around Christmas. He had a father, an alcoholic who died some time later. Bad liver. I told her Danny (Daniel) escaped a few times, but she just blinked at me. She was what, 22?..
“Nobody can escape from here”.
There was a wild but muffled cry from the depth of the building. I looked at Sarah and hoped she hadn’t heard it. She had.
“It would be helpful if you knew his second name”.
My God, what was wrong with these girls?
“I can go look through the records”.
She had better things to do and didn’t even try to hide it. She came back ten minutes later and told me there was currently no patient named Daniel in St. Mary’s Hospital. St. Mary’s Hospital?.. Sarah protested feebly, but that was all just a waste of time. The girl was as nice and unhelpful as they came.
Ugly and dull, I wrote in The Lucas Sisters. Ugly and dull. I looked at Sarah and beamed with my unlikely, annoying, demented triumph.
It was two hours before the train, and we had nothing else to do but sit at the station reading those thick, weightless paperbacks you reserve for travelling and then never read. Sarah’s book had a huge white horse on the cover and I presumed it was some sort of bad fantasy. Mine was a very long-winded autobiography of a former footballer who didn’t have enough money for a decent ghost writer. The book was dull and unnecessary, and I was more interested in a fidgety seven-year old kid who would come close to the edge of the platform and threaten to jump. A hipsterish, phone-talking girl (possibly his sister) would rush towards him, feigning concern. He would get away, laughing. He repeated the trick again and again. At some point I became aware of Sarah’s eyes fixed on me. Hers was that voice from an old detective story I’d read years ago. All the characters are drinking and dancing and having fun until someone asks, so cruelly and so out of order: “But who actually killed Mr. So-and-So?”
Sarah asked me something else:
“And what about Eliza Lucas?”
The name rolled out of her soft lips quietly, almost inaudibly. But even that was enough. Enough for the seven-year old kid not to repeat the trick for the umpteenth time and turn around and look at us with suspicion. Eliza Lucas. Somehow I had forgotten. Or had I. Two hours was all the time we needed and maybe I really was no more than a despicable coward.
“Is this a mansion?” Sarah asked. Strangely enough, I felt relaxed, almost as relaxed as I felt seventeen years ago when I was here for the third time. “It doesn’t look like a mansion at all”.
And it didn’t. Not after London, not when you were 29. It looked like a doll house. The colour was fairy-tale white and not the pallid grey I remembered. Beautifully overgrown garden where once was a bald green lawn. Summerhouse replaced the chicken shack. Swings with a beautiful blonde-haired girl in a long red sweater. New window panes, ones that would not let a boy in. There was also a huge black dog that barked playfully and with no menace. But perhaps the most remarkable thing was that there was no wind anymore. Laughed off by the swinging girl, the wind had vanished, taking the wind with it. I knew Eliza Lucas was dead.
The girl heard the barking, sprang to the ground, waved at us and ran into the house. “Shall we leave?” I whispered to Sarah. But she just squeezed my hand.
A man came out and went straight towards us. Did he have a shotgun in his pocket? Did he think we were reporters, trespassers, tramps? I tried to explain but he didn’t listen. He was friendly and imposing. He opened the gate and let us in. He was so American you couldn’t make him up.
Michael wanted us to come inside, meaning the house, but I explained about the time and the train. Still, it was a great feeling, to sit in the summerhouse in the middle of September. You were cozy and warm and yet one gust of wind – and you were smashed to pieces. It was the best kind of warmth. Michael’s wife, Hannah, joined us with weak black tea and shortcakes. Through the summerhouse window we could see their two daughters in identical red sweaters running around the place, chasing or being chased. “We always wanted twins”, said Michael. “But they are just so different”.
I told them I lived in Beresfield seventeen years ago, and this place held special memories. “This place?” Michael and Hannah exchanged glances. There was no point in holding anything back, not so late in the day, and I told them I knew the lady who had once owned this place. Michael and Hannah exchanged glances for the second time. No, they never met her. They did know, however, that she died in 2010 (96 years old, which was what they said in the newspaper), a few months before they arrived from Chicago and began looking for a country house. “Well”, said Michael, “Beresfield isn’t like a real town, right?” They looked so perfect, these two. Michael, Hannah, their two daughters; this was some cute perfection I had no right to spoil with a few sinister questions about Eliza Lucas. Outside, the girls screamed, and even their screams were idyllic.
Despite a few tweaks in their Chicagoan accent, Hannah and Michael, were the perennial Americans. They would not change. Change never occurred to them. They even retained that gregarious way of talking to you via intense communication with each other. I looked at Sarah a few times. Whenever Hannah said something, it was like Sarah couldn’t believe it.
“Listen”, said Michael. “You really knew that old lady?”
“Yes”, I said. “Eliza Lucas”.
Did I have to say Nazism, Hitler, Holocaust? Was that really necessary?
“Wasn’t she a little… on the odd side?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, where do I start. The price was low. In the States, you would have to mortgage your whole family to get this amount of land. Of course, when we arrived here, we understood why they were giving it away. The place looked awful. A dirty old man was sleeping on the green lawn. He said he used to be a gardener here. We didn’t believe it and told him to leave. Parts of the house were burned down. The estate agent explained that it was all done by the old woman who lived here once. He told us she was insane”.
“Did she die in the fire?” Sarah asked. I liked it that she was interested.
“No, she didn’t. But very soon after that. Maybe she had to destroy some evidence. Maybe she blackmailed somebody. Maybe somebody blackmailed her. Who knows. The fact is, we found a few things that were not touched by the fire”. The tea was hot and I burned my upper lip.
“Those German letters, for example. Remember them, dear?” Hannah nodded. “We don’t read German, but I had a look. That’s when I thought blackmail. Good zero figures with dollar marks”.
“Old letters?” I asked.
“No”, he said. “No, Stephen. Absolutely not”.
“So you wouldn’t say they could date back to, I don’t know, Second World War?”
“Oh no”, he chuckled. Hannah chuckled with him.
“The paper was white. Relatively new. No, no, they couldn’t be very old. And they were all signed by one name”.
“What was the name?” Sarah asked.
“Oh I don’t remember. I thought the name wasn’t German”.
“Was it English?” I said. “Michael, this is important. Was the name English?”
“Sorry, Stephen, I can’t say. I think it was”.
“Was it Daniel?”
“Daniel? You know what… No, sorry. I don’t remember”.
“But can you at least show me these letters?” It was dark outside, and windy again, and I thought we were going to be late.
“I’m afraid not”, Michael was a little taken aback by my interest. “I burned them. Didn’t feel comfortable with them around. After all, it must have been blackmail. And that’s what she wanted anyway. Like I told you, the place was half-burned when we arrived. But some of her stuff is still in the attic. Like that strange cigarette box”.
“Yes”, nodded Hannah. “In the attic. Together with those old English novels”.
“No”, I said. “Thank you. I don’t need that. We were not that close”.
Hannah got out of the summerhouse and shouted something to the girls. The words got lost in the rain but I could hear the girls protesting mildly and then running inside the house. When Hannah got back, I asked them about the white door. It was not that I was interested, it was just that I had to ask.
“White door? Remember anything like that?”
“No”, said Hannah. “Where was it?”
“Ah yes”, said Michael. “I think I know what you mean. But it wasn’t white. It was grey”.
“Did you open it?”
“Of course”, said Hannah. Strangely, they did not mind this interrogation. “We use it as a cellar”.
“And what was inside?”
“Nothing”, said Michael.
“What do you mean, nothing?”
“Nothing. Just a dark, empty room. Again, she could have burned whatever was inside. I think she knew she was going to die and took care of everything. Maybe it was a suicide, who knows?.. Oh and also we found some pictures”, he continued. “She was beautiful in her day. What do you say her name was? Eliza Lucas?”
“Yes”, I said, annoyed and willing to go. World is either too happy or too unbearable and depressing when you can say ‘nothing’ and get away with it.
Interestingly, it was Sarah who got up and said it was time for us to leave.
“Are you sure you don’t want to pop in for a second?” asked Hannah.
“Or take a few of her things?” asked Michael.
The rain grew stronger and the darkness was crowding you like an army of hungry, fearless chickens. It seemed like we’d spent ages in that summerhouse, and Beresfield was no more than a broken piece of decoration from a previous play that no one dared stage anymore. Maybe it was outdated. Politically incorrect. Maybe it was simply boring. I got up and followed Sarah outside. It was too late to miss our train. And besides: Hitler, Holocaust. They no longer existed, in Beresfield or anywhere else. And neither did the Lucas sisters.
“Well, they bored me to death”, said Sarah when we closed the gate behind us and went down Warren street. Sarah was a London girl. “Also, I’m happy you remember the way back to the station. Because I have no idea where we are”.
Our day in Beresfield: it was one defeat after another, and yet there was a strange sense of fulfillment. Like I was done with it, like I knew I would not be coming back. I checked the time. We didn’t have to walk faster, we didn’t have to slow down. The pace was perfect. Our day almost over, there was just one thing that stuck with me: the door was grey. All my dreams, all my nightmares, all fiction now. I smiled to myself. But of course: it was so dark in that hall. White door, what a silly idea.
“You think she did it?” Sarah asked me, fifteen minutes later, on the platform wobbling underneath our feet, hanging on my arm, looking into my eyes. It was the inevitable question and for a moment I thought I had the answer. I said something, but just then the train arrived. It was the train to London, and my words got drowned in the clattering, steamrolling noise. Whatever answer I gave her, whatever I may or may not have said, I did not want to say it again.