My New Novel (Serialised fortnightly on Fridays).
Chapter 2. Gaining Entry.
Previous Chapters Can be Read Here. The Story So Far: Mel McIntyre has been delivered to an ‘Advanced Psychotherapeutic Facility' in upstate New York by her father, Mack. The mystery of her baby sister’s death twenty years ago in questionable circumstances has long haunted the McIntyre family and knowing the truth of what happened has become crucial for Mel. Now Read On:
The good doctor doesn’t know it but he has a tree growing out of his head. No, this isn’t what my mother likes to call ‘one of Mel’s phantasmagorias’. For Zelda, having a mad daughter is just another
exoticism to flourish, like her tiara, or feather boa, or her own little incident twenty years ago. ‘After all darling, who’s really sane in this crazy mixed up world of ours?'
I’m not hallucinating. I’m perfectly aware that the tree is outside the window, in the distance, but from where I’m sitting it looks like part of him, makes him look like that picture by that surrealist artist, what's his name? I like the surrealists. They're not afraid of what it is to be human, they don't pretend we're all neat and tidy.
That tree feels like my friend, a defence. The doctor and I recognise each other, though we’ve only just met, and we can't be friendly. He’s had too many a me in this armchair of his and Lord knows, I’ve had enough doctors. I'm uber-aware of his advantages in our upcoming association: his troop of medical lieutenants, his research weaponry, his alleged sanity, in the face of which I'm a tangle of madness, naked under the beam of his searchlight.
The tree helps diminish some of that. A little.
‘Soooooo,' he wants to know, ‘how did you find it, writing to your ten-year-old self?' He can't wait to get at me, like a good housewife facing into the spring-cleaning.
I shrug. I say, ‘Yeah'.
It's my standard doctor response. They can’t call it negative.
‘Most people,' he says, ‘find it very powerful.'
I nod. He frowns. I’ll have to give him something. ‘I felt better,' I say. ‘Afterwards.'
‘Good, good. And was there anything in the content that took you by surprise? No, no, look so worried. You don't have to say what you wrote, that’s between you and the page. I just want to discuss how it made you feel'.
‘I told you, it made me feel better.'
It made me feel good that I could write at all. I wasn't as bad as Mack and Zelda had been claiming. When things are really bad, I can't cough out a sentence. I can’t eat either, and the only sleep I get is the sort that doesn't feel like sleep at all, but a version of this world with lurching pictures and jerky sound. When things are really bad, I eventually find myself running inside the four walls of my brain, where everything is black and blank as a night window, reflecting me, my panicked, cowering uselessness, back at me.
I say: ‘I wrote about my tenth birthday. I wrote about lying in a cornfield in the sunshine, feeling all grown up and glad to be into double figures. The sky was blue, the clouds were fluffy. I was glad to be alive.'
‘Sounds like a nice memory. Was Jamie there?'
‘It was his birthday too, right?' He leans his head to one side, trying to be empathetic but now the tree looks like it's coming out his ear.
I'm laughing the kind of laugh that has a mind of its own. It doesn't want to stop.
‘Why don’t you want to answer that question, Mel?' He writes something in his notebook, the little red one on the table beside him. I've never seen a doctor with so many notebooks.
‘Where was Jamie while you were lying in the cornfield?'
‘I can’t remember.'
‘How does it feel when I mention Jamie’s name, Mel?'
‘Oh I love it, Doc. I totally adore when people talk about my twin’s suicide.'
‘But I didn't.'
‘No, but you were gearing up to it.'
‘Why do you think that?'
What does he want from me, this big fool of a doctor? To admit that whenever I think about Jamie, a rolling wave breaks in me and tosses me up and up and up, high up where there’s no air? Up where I know if I let out the long breath I’ve been holding, I’ll come crashing down, up where I don’t know what’s worse, to stay in the unforgiving, suffocating clouds or to let myself plunge and never rise again? What good is it going to do either of us for me to talk about that?
‘That's a nice tree out there, isn't it?'
‘That tree. From here, it looks like it’s growing out of your head.'
‘What else do you remember about your tenth birthday, Mel? Was there a party?'
This isn't fair. His treatment is supposed to be writing, not talking. That's what Mack promised, that was the deal. I don't want to try for answers, not with him. It will only set my mind whirring off towards the racing pulse, the old terror, the impotent fear… I refuse. No more talking and interpreting, figuring out, wondering what things mean. None of that is any use to me.
All I want now is to know how Tara died. To understand the story of that original sin. All of it, no gaps or evasions, all the way to The End.
That's why I'm putting up with this place and this doctor. I need to get strong, so I can swim out of these swirling questions into some answers.
It amuses me now to think of Mack in the last moments before Zelda swooped into his life, changing everything. I have a picture of him coming up from the unaccustomed subway, at the unaccustomed time of quarter to nine. The band of steel he'd woken with tightening across his forehead as the whine of traffic seems to nag: Hurry, hurry! You’re late, you’re late!
He was supposed to have met Charlie Pender in the office at eight o'clock yet still, he found himself pausing at the top of the subway steps, unable for the dizziness of rush-hour. He dabbed his forehead, took a conscious breath, tried to ease his temples. New York City, capital of the world, he said to himself. But it failed to give him the usual spur.
Then he began to notice the girls. It seemed that at this time, Manhattan gushed girls off every train in Grand Central Station. They came clicking up the stairs out of every tunnel, oozing tight-skirted hips down street and avenue. Girls in pale pink fuzzy overcoats and black suits, in hats and kerchiefs, in racoon collars and kid gloves, carrying overstuffed handbags and diminutive lunchboxes, looking eager or half-asleep or reluctant.
As he walked slowly on, a particularly fine specimen passed him. A redhead, and the sway of her as she turned left down the side alley twisted his head round, so that he almost fell on top of Luther’s newspaper cart.
‘Whoah there, Mister Mack!’ Luther allowed himself a big laugh once he knew his papers and change weren’t going to be upended.
‘Sorry Luther.’ Mac searched his pockets for change. ‘Jaysus. It's as well I don't usually travel to work at this time.’
‘And why’s that Sir?’ Luther folded the New York Times in three for Mac as he did six days a week.
‘Too much distraction, Luther.’ He mimed a face of pain ‘Where have they all come from? Where on earth are they all going?’
Luther laughed again, this time a deep-belly, man-to-man rumble. ‘Why, they’s goin to work, Sir, same as you.’
This, then, was my father on his way to meet my mother for the first time. It was years before what he called Women’s Lib made it unacceptable for men to ogle women half their age. At 53, as he was that morning, and for the rest of his life, Mack thought 30 the ideal age for a female.
If he had time, he would explain to you in detail how almost all women had a few years around 30 where they bloomed again before what he called ‘the withering' set in and why half a lifetime younger was how he liked 'em and how he had no problem saying so.
Mack's pride was to say aloud what he thought others thought too but didn't dare to say. So he would elaborate for you, no matter who you were, (yes, even for his own daughter), the ways in which 53-year-old female flesh was an offence to Mother nature. And how no, no matter what you said, it wasn't the same the other way round — because men were ugly bastards in the first place, so didn’t give the shock of a flower gone to seed. And anyhow, a man's attraction was not in his looks but his wallet.
Between one thing and another, it was 9.12 when Mack swung in through his office doors that morning, straight into a commotion. His Number 2, Hagan, was looking on, grinning like a chimpanzee as a delivery girl, wearing a newsboy cap pulled low in an – failed – attempt to hide an ugly port wine stain on her cheek, was arguing with O'Mara, his unflappable personal assistant. Who who was decidedly flapping.
‘What’s going on?’
The girl turned and jumped with recognition. A flush rose on the white side of her face, until her entire visage was various shades of plum.
O'Mara folded his lips. ‘Nothing for you to worry about Sir.’ Though Mack paid his personal assistant handsomely to take just that attitude, it never failed to irritate him.
‘I’ll be the judge of that, O’Mara. What’s the problem?’
‘This girl is…’
‘I’m just trying to deliver a gift to you, Mr McIntyre. From an admirer.’ On her delivery trolley was a large and, it seemed, a seriously heavy basket from Saks.
‘Young lady, Mr McIntyre does not…’
‘It’s just a gift, Sir.’
‘What’s your name?
‘My father had a penchant for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sir.’
‘Had he indeed?’ A penchant. This was no delivery girl.
‘Yes. My sister is called Zelda.’
‘Zelda O'Regan. Isn’t that the name of the writer girl?' Hagan asked, slowly as a bad actor. ‘The one who’s been sending all those –’
‘Yes, thank you Hagan. Help Miss O’Regan to wheel the basket to the elevator, like a good man.’
The girl's smile grew so wide it nearly walked off her face.
‘But Mack –’
‘Will you accompany them, O’Mara, please? I’ll meet you all in the boardroom in five.’
‘Mack, I really think…’
But he was striding away, leaving them to negotiate the trolley.
As he squeezed into the crowded elevator, he berated himself. Already later than he’d ever been in 40 years of work, what was he doing wasting more time? The events of last night, and in the bathroom that morning, and the girls on the way in: they must all be taking their toll. He was losing it. Pender would have his guts for garters.
But the girl’s accent was so delightfully Irish and… And it all just seemed to fit the strange morning he was having.
Up on the 29th floor, his secretary, Miss Delaney, met him with a notebook and an excess of anxiety. ‘Mr Pender has just left, Mr MacIntyre. He was upset we couldn’t contact you.’
‘I don't think upset is quite the word you want, Delaney.' Mack could be stewing in death juices on his apartment floor and all Charlie Pender would be worrying about was the deal. ‘I’ll call him in a while. Right now, I’m having a delivery sent up.’
He went into the boardroom and took a position against the mantlepiece, leaning on one elbow, his ankle nonchalantly crossed over a straight leg. He lit a cigarette and stood in what he hoped was a picture of relaxation He wouldn’t be able to give this more than five minutes but it looked like they'd be the best minutes of the day.
The girl wheeled the trolley in, Hagan and O’Mara trooping behind her. She placed it, with great care, into position in the middle of the floor.
‘Would you be so kind as to open the hamper for us, Miss O’Regan?’
‘Er Mack, don't you want me to check it out?’ Hagan sounded unconvincing in his new bodyguard role, a response to the supposed assassination threat that endangered all US businessmen these times, especially ostentatious real estate developers.
‘I wouldn't worry too much, Hagan. If Miss O’Regan is a communist-at-large with a bomb in her basket, she’ll be blown up along with us. Which is hardly the plan.'
She was undoing the yellow strap and lifting the lid and the three men drew closer, leaned in to look. Nothing could be seen except shredded newspaper. Then it began to stir, as if something live was in there.
Hagan reached for his holster. ‘Mack!’ He yelled. “Seriously. Watch out!”
‘For the love of God, Hagan,' Mack drawled, voice as lackadaisical as he could make it. ‘Put that yoke away, or I’ll have it taken off you.’
He had guessed by now what was in there and yes, the newspaper clippings parted and a vision emerged, small and slim and perfectly formed, up out of the hamper. A pint-sized, dark-haired, Venus rising.
He stepped forward and offered his hand to help her climb out of the crate. “The other Miss O’Regan, I presume?”
“Zelda,” she said, bouncing his smile back to him. “Just Zelda.”
Next Episode Friday 8th July: Send Me A Girl