Dark Places (Albion's Story): Extract

Chapter One

I WAS ONCE long ago a fat boy, and in the privacy of the bath I investigated my rolls and folds with interest. 'It is all muscle.' Father said. 'Do not slouch, Albion, muscle is nothing to be ashamed of,' and I said nothing, for if Father wished to have a son of muscle, I would do my best to please him.

I knew I was a disappointment to Father. He was a man of unbending lip, his fob-watch never far from his hand: stern reminders of how I must one day fill his shoes were never far from his lips, although he made no secret of his inability to imagine me doing so.

I was Albion Gidley Singer, son of George Augustus Singer, and had a position to maintain under so many eyes.

But who was Albion Gidley Singer?

He was a boy who learned early on how to tie his own bootlaces and not to cry when he spilled his milk. He was a boy who had learned to call his father Sir, and his mother Mama, who had learned how to conceal the various sounds and discharges of his body; he was a boy who learned to say thank you to servants in just the right way, and to say his prayers for the poor people. He was a boy who knew all this: his various skills and knowledges armoured him so that life could never flummox him.

But Albion Gidley Singer was also a large and cumbersome suit of armour wheeled around the world, made to speak and smile and shake hands, by some other, very much punier person within: some ant-like being who did not know any- thing at all, an embattled and lonely atom whose existence seemed suspected by no one.

The only comfort in the existence of that microscopic Albion Gidley Singer was the certainty of facts. In bleakness of spirit, a fact was a rock to cling to. As other boys collected stamps, my joy was in the accumulation of facts: I cherished and polished my collection, poring over The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, Incredible But True, and Every Boy's Encyclopedia until I ran at the mouth with greed for facts.

What a wealth of facts were in the world! When I was dispirited, or confused by my sister Kristabel's long green eyes and way of making me feel clumsy, facts were my best friends: in the uncertainties of childhood, facts alone could be depended on never to change, never to betray, and never to lose their charms.

How it comforted me to know that the average human skin measures seventeen square feet, that there are forty-nine thousand words in the English language, that a single pair of rabbits can produce three hundred and twenty-four more rabbits in the space of a year, and that a man can live for a hundred and thirty-three days without food but only forty- one without water!

Before I knew better, and reluctantly abandoned the scheme, it had been my hope to know every fact in the world by the time I died. This did not seem to me impossible: even the Encyclopaedia Britannica held a finite number of facts. I envied those who had lived before me - ancient Greeks, for example, who seemed to know almost nothing, and who could therefore easily digest the entire store of facts in existence.

But I began to see that there was one fact I would never know: the fact of myself. I watched myself in mirrors, and saw how broad of shoulder, deep of chest, imposing of height I was, how utterly solid within all my fat, or muscle: I was a well-built young fellow, and anyone looking at me would have been sure I was as solid as I looked. They could not know that for all my massiveness, I was as insubstantial as a dan- delion: and for all my appearance of strength, I could be reduced at any moment to a failed pair of bellows wheezing and squeaking.

I did a lot of watching of myself, and told my reflection its name: 'You are Albion Gidley Singer, you were born on the twelfth of January eighteen seventy-five, you have brown eyes and a mole under your fourth rib, you live at Rosecroft, 7 Palmer Street, Bayview, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, the Southern Hemisphere, the World, the Galaxy, the Universe.'

This did not help: the reflection in the glass was unmoved, but the speck within was thrown into turmoil by the thought of all those stars, and the spaces between them that made the human brain reel to measure. There seemed no way to attach any kind of fact to that speck: the fact of its existence - the fact of myself - could be deduced only from my reflection in others.

From Mother, for example. She brought comfort to my hollowness, filling it slyly every night. 'Here, Albion,' that lavender-fragrant mother would say, and bring a bag of fairy-cakes from behind her back. 'I know these are my boy's favourites.' I sat up in bed, watching her over my nose as it moved, set in motion by my chewing jaws. She watched every mouthful and sighed when I had used a wet finger to pick up the last grains of sugar in the bottom of the bag. 'Sweet dreams, darling,' she murmured, 'the night-light will keep the ghosts away,' and she tucked me in as I lay down, queasy from such an engorgement of cake taken too quickly late at night.

Mother was something I never seemed to get quite enough of, delicious but unsubstantial like those cakes she offered, for it was borne in on me early that a manly sort of boy does not wish to spend time with his soft mother. I read and re-read the thick pages of the Boys' Own Annual, thos of Chums and Ripping Yarns, soaking this knowledge into my pores like a stain. I could not have pointed to the page where I learned this, but it was very clear: females did not feature in the world of boys except, now and again, as objects to be rescued.

I knew that the correct sort of behaviour for a manly young chap was winning blue-striped marbles from other lads, poking cats with sticks, and swashbuckling around with a wooden sword. Boys shouted each other down, boys jeered if you gave them a chance, boys could not wait to tell you what a dill you were, what a thick-head, how yellow, and how you couldn't run for nuts.

Mothers, on the other hand, did not wish to engage in any kind of bold action: they were people always sitting down, with a bit of tatting in their hand or a silver teapot, and soothing phrases always on their lips: Never mind, not to worry, it is not as bad as it seems. Mothers were people who spent their time in the company of other women, and if sons wished to be near their mothers it seemed it could happen only in those private moments when the world had its back turned. But oh, there were times when I longed to be spared all that marble-winning, all the cat-poking, and all that swashbuckling, all that puffing-up of yourself like a frog, to impress the others with how big you were, how fierce, how fearless.

No one needed to tell me that Mother's cakes were one of the things that were not to be spoken of to the other boys. No one needed to tell me - somehow it seemed I was born with the knowledge - that they would mock. Had Mother ever said, 'Do not tell your father, Albion,' as she handed me cakes, or had I always known this was a secret between us? Those cakes were the currency of the love between us: sweet but flimsy, a private transaction of which the evidence soon vanished.

When Father was present, Mother suppressed her sighs as well as her smiles, and only watched when Father prodded me in the chest and exclaimed, 'No mollycoddling for you, Albion. I will not have you malingering, it is just a matter of will-power.' So I straightened up and tried to please by being board-like in erectness and blankness of feature, and kept my eyes on the middle distance, concentrating on keeping the breaths steady in and out of my chest, and on not letting Father see that his poking of me made me want to cough.

I certainly had no wish to be a cissy, in spite of that longing to feel Mother's arms around me now and then. Father said, 'No cosseting, Angelica, the boy will become a milquetoaste!' and Mother would agree, 'I would not dream of it, George,' but later there would be a bag of cream puffs, or bull's-eyes, and her soft eyes watching while I ate.

Then there was my sister. Had we been a pair of brothers, Kristabel and I might have got on, for we were alike, but as it was she could not forgive me. I was the boy, so I was sent away to one of the top schools, and was given the benefit of Greek and Algebra, and I would be groomed for the business, later on.

Because she was a girl, Greek and Algebra were kept from Kristabel, and she did not have to master anything more baffling than a little polite French chit-chat, a few Kings and Queens, and a tuneful tinkling on the piano. Perverse as she was, she did not see her good fortune. 'Why does he get to do all the interesting things?' she would demand loudly of Mother. 'I am better at sums than he is, any day of the week,' and she sulked for all that Greek and Algebra, and did not believe when I told her she would not want to have anything to do with it. She envied me, and was sure she could have done better than I. 'Say something in Greek, Albion, go on,' she would say, and sneer when I tried.

Mother did not seem able to warm to her eldest, that skinny girl with her scrawny freckled arms and bumpy elbows, who had nearly killed her in coming into the world so reluctant and awkward. 'Just look at the state of you,' she exclaimed, and tweaked and tugged at Kristabel's skirts. 'And what in Heaven's name have you done with your hair?' Mother and Kristabel spent long hours with Morgan the dressmaker (Kristabel surly, standing sullen while they circled her with pins), and she made her lie in darkened rooms with slices of lemon all over her face and arms, and walk around with books balanced on her head.

But Kristabel remained all sharp angles, rough elbows, lumpy-knuckled hands: her skirt always hung awry on her angular hips: she remained unalterably plain, and so much lemon seemed to make her freckles darker than ever. All Mother's labour and worry - hurrying home from a tea-party with a new kind of poultice that Mrs Adams swore by, to try on freckles, or a flesh-increasing diet recommended by Mrs Phipps, and all the calling to the kitchen for bowls of cucumber and oatmeal, or the yolks of four eggs in stout - poor Mother: after all this, her daughter was as bony and freckled as ever. Into the bargain she was now sulky, sullen, grizzling: 'Let me be, Mother, it is just the way I am made, it cannot be helped.' There was never a soft look for her poor mother, or a smile.

Although so plain, skinny, and short, she never had a day's illness, and could run and climb and jump with nothing worse to show for it than a red face and wild hair. Just breathe, Albion, she would say. Look, like this, and would demonstrate with her own fieshless chest how to breathe.

But Kristabel, for all her inadequacies, was a female, and shared with Mother the underworld of women, from which I was forever excluded. What were those secrets they shared, Mother and Kristabel, murmuring away on the corner of the verandah, that made them fall silent when they saw me? 'Some things are just between us girls,' Mother might murmur, and wink at Kristabel. 'We girls must be allowed our little secrets. Mustn't we, Kristabel dear?'

They seemed to think they had some sort of superiority to me with their women's vapours. For no visible reason, without being feverish, or wheezing, there were days when Kristabel would not play tennis, would not even walk, would do nothing but lie on the chaise-longue saying, I am a little indisposed, Albion, just at the minute. She would whisper to Mother, and disappear mysteriously below-stairs with some little bundle in her hand. They made me feel frumpish and stupid, with their secret knowing glances at each other - We know, but he does not. I was made tiny by their freemasonry of femaleness.

To spoil Kristabel's poise, then, was a necessary relief. She might be as smug as a coiled cat, but I could cause her complacency to crumble, oh yes indeed! The calm and pallor of my skinny sister could always be transformed by her brother Albion, and Albion could deduce the certainty of his existence from his sister's frenzies under his fingers.

'Albion,' she shrieked throughout our childhood, 'Albion, let me go!' She was a wanton one, with a red mouth full of teeth gasping for me, and her eyes lost in flesh when she cried out. 'No! No, Albion, or I will tell!' She loved nothing more than my hands tickling her, under the pinafore, into her ribs, under her arms, her belly. 'Albion, stop, I cannot bear it!' she shrieked, and I heard the passion in her voice that made a lie of her words, and I would not have thought of stopping until the tears ran down her red blotched face, and her voice became reedy. Sated, crazed with pleasure, she sat doubled up over her crumpled pinafore, breathing hard, hunched over on her own pleasure.

'You love it, Kits,' I whispered into her hot red ear. 'You love it more than anything.' Kristabel would shake her head -'No, no, no' - and I would laugh at her game of pretending to hate it, and tickle more if I had energy to spare. She, the wanton, gasping and crying out, arching and writhing under my hands: it was her pleasantry to tell me it was no pleasure.

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