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Authors: Araminta Hall

Dot (6 page)

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On the day of the introduction it felt ridiculous to Tony that at his first meeting with the mythical Clarice he was going to be telling her that he was marrying her daughter and she would be a grandmother in six short months. It was the first time he’d been to Alice’s house and he even had to bloody write down directions, standing in a cold phone box with the phone wedged under one ear as he scribbled the route on to an old receipt. It all felt wrong.

Alice of course hadn’t warned him that she lived in a castle. He’d known she outclassed him and presumed that she came from a bit of money, but not the huge house that towered over the village and had a turret tacked on to its side, for Christ’s sake. He’d recently bought a shitty three-hundred-pound Renault 5, which smelt of petrol so you had to drive with the window down, even in the cold February air, which obviously wasn’t going to work for a baby, but was the best he could manage right now. He parked down the road and fortified himself with a fag before going in, wishing he had something stronger. A strange need to see himself overtook him and so he flicked down his sun visor and looked into the mirror, which was tiny and cracked but still showed the sweaty, white face looking back at him.

Eventually there was nothing to be done other than get out of the car and ring on the baronial bell. It was self-evident that this afternoon would put paid to his dreams, pathetic as they were. He’d have to get a proper job, probably cut his hair, start wearing a suit. He’d come home to his tea cooked and, if they were lucky, look forward all year to two weeks on the Cornish coast. His money would go on nappies and milk and Alice would never work because it was simply impossible to imagine her doing so. His hand hovered over the bell. It could be easy to forget this had ever happened. The baby wasn’t even real yet. Alice might miscarry. But his father’s red, bloated face swam before his eyes and so he pressed hard on the brass ball.

Alice opened the door so quickly he wondered if she had been standing behind it. Her eyes were shining and she pulled him into the house, which seemed dark and cold.

‘Bloody hell,’ he whispered, ‘you didn’t tell me you lived in a mansion.’

She looked around her and it seemed to Tony that she was seeing it for the first time, which made him feel even colder. She shrugged. ‘Mum’s in the drawing room. We’ve got the fire lit.’

At least that sounded nice and friendly, so Tony let himself relax slightly. He touched her arm to hold her back for a second. ‘What was she like when you told her?’

‘Told her?’

‘Yes, you know, about us, the baby.’ Very occasionally Tony wondered if Alice was simple, because even when she said very clever things she didn’t seem to know what she was talking about.

‘Oh, I haven’t said anything yet,’ she answered, smiling brightly, as if it was completely normal to get him to come here with their news without preparing her mother in advance.

‘You’re joking, right?’

She looked puzzled. ‘No. I thought that’s why you were coming.’

‘Christ, Alice.’ He really wished he’d had a drink now.

‘Come on,’ she said, taking him by the hand and leading him into one of the rooms off the hall.

The drawing room – or lounge as he would have called it, although he could immediately see why the word was all wrong to describe such a room – was not nice and friendly. It was too big for a start, with a massive fireplace surrounded by what looked like marble, supporting a huge gold mirror. And the paintings, Christ, he’d never seen so many paintings, all worth a fair packet in Tony’s estimation and all of such peculiar subjects, like dogs and old women sitting by fires and country paths leading nowhere. The walls were the deep red of blood that has been exposed to the air for a while and the carpet was lush, folding over his feet. Disconcertingly there were also things everywhere; a multitude of silver and china perched like butterflies on little tables so that his head spun with all the reflected light.

Then there was Clarice Cartwright herself, the woman who was going to become Tony’s mother-in-law and grandmother to his child. The thought ran into his feet and he wondered if he was going to faint. She was sitting very straight in a high-backed blue velvet chair, with a china cup and saucer on her lap. Tony hadn’t known that people actually used them outside of the TV costume dramas his mother had favoured; he couldn’t imagine drinking tea out of anything other than a mug. And the expression on her face was so – what was the word? – unforgiving, as if nothing he could say or do was of any consequence to her.

‘Clarice,’ said Alice, ‘this is Tony.’

Tony jerked his gaze away from Mrs Cartwright for a moment. Surely he’d misheard? Surely she’d said Mum or Mother or Mama even?

‘Hello, Tony,’ said Mrs Cartwright. ‘And to what do I owe this pleasure?’

Tony held out his hand. ‘Pleasure to meet you, Mrs Cartwright. I’ve heard lots about you from Alice.’ He knew he was getting everything wrong because her smile was too small and flat.

‘Please sit down.’

Alice put her arm out to stop him. ‘No thanks. We won’t be long.’

They wouldn’t be long? Tony looked at Alice again and saw a broad smile on her face, as though she was going to burst with the excitement of a child. He looked at his hands to give himself a sense of perspective, he couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t in the middle of an episode of
The Twilight Zone
. He looked back at Alice’s mother and she didn’t seem to find this behaviour strange, she simply sat waiting, twirling the expensive-looking brooch at her neck.

Alice ploughed on. ‘We’ve just come to tell you that we’re getting married.’

At least this seemed to ruffle Mrs Cartwright. Her hand clasped the brooch now and Tony estimated that it was probably worth more than he got paid in a year. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘Why would that be ridiculous?’

The absurdity of their words washed over him and he realised that he barely needed to be there. He felt Alice’s enjoyment of the situation radiating out of her like heat. All of this was some sick game to both of them, one they’d probably been playing for ever and Tony recognised himself as nothing more than the hand which would win Alice this round.

‘It would be ridiculous because I’ve never met this man before. And you’re only nineteen.’

‘But we love each other.’

‘Oh come on, Alice. You don’t know what love is.’

‘And you do, I suppose.’

‘Tony,’ said Mrs Cartwright, shocking him out of his thoughts. ‘Do you love my daughter?’

‘Yes, I do.’ It was the only possible answer, apart from also being close to the truth, but he would have liked to add that of course he knew she was right and they were too young, but that they had a reason to get married. Somehow though he knew that would be denying Alice something.

‘And how long have you known each other?’

‘About six months.’ His mouth was dry and he heard his tongue click as he talked.

‘Where did you meet?’

‘In Cartertown.’

‘Yes, but where?’

‘On the street. We sort of bumped into each other.’

Clarice sighed and Tony hated himself for wanting to impress her.

‘Alice,’ she said, ‘you are not getting married.’

Tony wished she was right, but he heard Alice draw in her breath, he heard her say, ‘Oh, but we are, Clarice. You see, I’m pregnant.’

Tony saw Clarice shrink from the news, her head actually rocked slightly on her neck. ‘You silly girl,’ she said. ‘How far gone?’

‘Twelve weeks and I’m not getting rid of it so don’t bother suggesting that.’

Clarice stood up – Tony imagined she wanted to be on the same level as them – and walked over to the window. Her eyes looked moist.

‘We don’t want anything from you,’ Alice was saying. ‘Tony’s got a room, we’ll live there and we’ll be fine.’

Tony stepped forward at this: he had to stop the madness. ‘Actually, we can’t live in my room, Alice, I’ve told you that. I’m going to get a job, Mrs Cartwright. I’ve already started looking. I mean, I do work now, but it’s just in a record shop and I know I could do better than that. I think Alice should stay here for now, I don’t think she’d do very well in Cartertown.’

‘Well, at least one of you has an iota of sense,’ said Clarice. She motioned to some chairs. ‘Please, let’s sit down and discuss this.’

Tony moved forward even though Alice had put her hand on his arm. He turned to her and she shook her head. ‘Come on, Alice. If we’re going to do this we need help.’ And Alice looked so upset he wondered if really he had just lost her this round.

Later, as he sat in a pub in which he knew he wouldn’t meet anyone, Tony thought he had to give Mrs Cartwright some credit. If his parents had had a daughter and some bloke had turned up with the news that he’d got her pregnant, his dad would have flattened him. But Alice’s mother had mostly seemed concerned that they made as little mess as possible out of a situation she clearly understood to be catastrophic. They’d agreed to live with her. Or, to be accurate, he had agreed they would live with her, while Alice sat and fumed like a baby next to him. Do you think I want to live in this freak show of a house? he’d wanted to shout at her. I’m doing this for you, everything is for you.

He was going to move in after the wedding, which Clarice wanted to happen as soon as possible. Alice was going to get on to the Register Office the next day. No one, him included, wanted to invite anyone, so it was hardly going to be an organisational task.

‘What about your parents?’ Clarice had asked.

Tony had shaken his head. ‘I don’t talk to them any more. Honestly, there’s no one.’ And the words had sounded so desperate and lonely he’d almost stopped at a phone box on the drive home to call his mum. But he hadn’t because that would mean admitting something to his dad, something he didn’t yet understand, but felt sure he soon would.

Three weeks later Tony woke up on his wedding day and couldn’t tell himself how he’d got there. He even felt nostalgic shutting the door of his pokey room and saying his final goodbyes to his landlady, whom he’d never even liked. Good luck, lad, she’d said as he was walking out of the door and he wanted to cry on her shoulder and ask her what he should do. Not that there were any choices, he knew that.

When he arrived, hot from the bus in his charity shop suit which smelt of death, Alice and Clarice were waiting outside the municipal council building, even though Tony had made sure he was early. Alice looked absurdly beautiful. She was in a white silk dress with flowers in her hair and a tiny bump, which you would never know was a baby, rounding her stomach. His heart lurched involuntarily at the sight of her, at the knowledge that the girl everyone was looking at wanted to be joined to him. He’d never seen the dress before and he wondered if she’d bought it especially for the occasion, which touched him, until he checked the ridiculousness of his thoughts. What bride didn’t buy a dress especially for her wedding?

Tony and Alice stood side by side in a room which was much nicer than he’d feared, despite its fake wood panelling and formulaic flower arrangements. The registrar had to get two members of staff to come in to witness their vows. Clarice stood behind them and Tony could feel her poker straight even though he couldn’t see her. The witnesses smiled at them, probably thinking they were so romantic and young and full of hope. Tony stole a look at Alice and she smiled at him, spots of colour high on her cheeks. He smiled back and took her hand and a flash of what felt like love shot through him. The sun was out and they were going to be fine.

It was only words after all and Tony had said enough words in his life that he didn’t mean. Not that he didn’t mean this. No, it wasn’t that, it was more that it was hard to take completely seriously. Laughter bubbled up inside him, puffing out his cheeks and the registrar nodded at him because she’d no doubt seen many men overcome in the same way. ‘I do’ were hardly even words. Three letters, that was all.

They left the room at the same time as the couple next door, whose room was overflowing with guests, all dressed in their finery. Women in parrot-bright colours tottering on high heels and rosy-cheeked men with flowers in their buttonholes, slapping each other on the back. And a bride and groom with their arms around each other, the woman too fat for her dress which strained at the sides, but still beautiful in her happiness. All of Tony’s meagre party stopped and stared at this marital vision as they tripped down the white marble stairs, built no doubt for a duchess hundreds of years ago. The photographer at the bottom was waiting for them, moving them around to look their best. Give her a kiss, mate, he was shouting and the crowd surged, excitement on their lips, bubbling over everything. Tony realised he’d forgotten to buy a camera, even though that had been on his list of things to do. He looked at his tiny, impersonal party and saw that even the witnesses were leaning over the balcony, wanting to be part of these strangers’ happiness for as long as they could.

Tony suggested a drink because it seemed too tragic for them to go straight home. All his money from his new job at the call centre had to be saved for the baby and Alice hadn’t even mentioned a honeymoon. She was amazing like that – unlike any woman he’d ever met – in her lack of desire for anything material. Clarice politely declined the offer of a drink and hailed a taxi, wishing them goodnight. So he sat with Alice in the garden of a wine bar with a bottle of champagne they couldn’t afford as the sun set over their wedding day. Tony wondered what they must look like to the other people in there, a group he had been part of but now felt so separated from. He looked at the men in their shiny suits and the women with their big shoulders and permed hair, he saw their mouths moving in conversation, saw them laughing and wondered how many of them would be going home together that night. He knew the mind-cleansing pleasure of a warm body you could forget in the morning and a great longing welled up in him that felt like a sadness, but he pushed it down and stared at his new wife, who was easily the prettiest person there.

They were home by eleven and in bed, across the hallway from Clarice. Alice rolled into him and he knew it would be wrong for them not to have sex on their wedding night. But it took an act of concentration on his part, not because he didn’t find Alice attractive – you’d have to be blind for that to be true – but because he felt so strange it was as if he was removed from himself. Their love-making was silent as he supposed it would have to be until they had enough money to move out, which in his estimation would be in at least five years. Afterwards Alice cried and said she had never been happier and Tony put his hand on her stomach and imagined the part of him already in there, swimming in its own dreams. The thought was magical and surprising and made him smile like a fool in the dark.

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