My New Novel (Serialised fortnightly on Fridays).
Chapter 3. Send Me A Girl.
The Story So Far: From the ‘Advanced Psychotherapeutic Facility' in upstate New York to which her father, Mack, has admitted her, Mel McIntyre mines family history and her own memory for details of a 20-year-old tragedy: the death of baby sister, Tara. Mel has reason to believe the mysterious circumstances of this death connect in some way to the recent suicide of her twin, Jamie. Previous Chapters Can be Read Here. Now Read On:
Ah the girl breaking out of the box. That classic image of the flamboyant 1920s: femininity dressed up as liberation.
When planning this scene to tickle Mack’s nostalgia bone, Scottie and Zelda had originally intended to deliver a cake. But they didn’t have the utensils to bake one big enough and they couldn't afford to pay a baker. (And what if it broke en route? And anyway, how did a girl get to breathe in there?)
It was Scottie who had the idea of using the Saks crate that masqueraded as a side table under a cloth in their apartment. Zelda's bursting out, not what she would burst out from, was what would do the trick, invoke the spirit of those flamboyant years between the Great War and the Great Depression, the Roaring, jazzed-up 1920s through which Mack's own twenties had unfolded.
And yes, it had worked. Here they were, with Mack clearly diverted by the diversion, dismissing Hagan and O’Mara. Ushering the two girls, his hand on the small of Zelda's back, to sit at the boardroom table. Grinning at them and breaking out the cigarette box.
So: phase two. Scottie declined the cigarette. ‘In fact, Sir, I have to be going. I have another delivery to do.
‘Have you indeed?'
‘Unfortunately yes. But my sister can stay and explain.'
‘I don't think so, dear.'
Zelda stopped in the act of filling her cigarette holder. Mack noted the quick questioning glance she sent her sister. ‘Thanks for the entertainment, girls. Now I have to get to the work you have delayed.
‘But what, dear? You thought I'd be so charmed by your sister's little act that I'd cancel my morning?'
He took a long drag of smoke, indulging his own dramatic side now. ‘You can – both of you – go out to Miss Delaney in reception and wait until I’m free to listen to whatever it is that brought you here. Or you can – both of you – leave now.’
Oh Mack. I know something of what my father was feeling in that moment, beyond his need to regain control and beyond his physical response to Zelda's beauty. Something else was stirring, something he'd never felt before. He told me about it once. It was years and years after it had been corrupted but the memory of it still lit him up. As the memory of seeing him like that now lights me.
They had their time, my mother and father, their love moment. I want to make it live again. That is what I think about, here in the hospital that pretends not to be a hospital, when I sit down with the notebook I'm told to write in or when I walk by its lake. How it began.
Mack knowing he wanted to sit down, one-to-one, with this young coquette, hoping she might be the answer to the prayer he had called out into his bathroom that morning, feeling how his need made him vulnerable. It made him suspicious of what she and her sister might have planned for him and even more wary, even more careful to dominate, than usual.
As these two people circle round each other, I am coming to be born. This is the beginning that led to here.
The hospital has a fence around its little lake, a mesh see-through affair which allows us to enjoy the sight of water without getting too close, like our blinds have no cord and our food is the kind that can be eaten without a knife. Yes, the lake does remind me of Jamie – how could it not? – and yes, it calls me, but that doesn't make it a postcard from Mr Death, as Dr Life-and-Light seems to think.
It's soothing, actually.
After the rising ritual, the breakfast, the exercise, the writing therapy and the lunch but before the session with Doctor Lee, the tea, the indoor recreation, the dinner and the bedtime routine, this is what I do. This circumambulation, around and around this perimeter fence, is the hub of my hospital days.
I do not do group therapy. I have a dispensation. That was part of the deal. Instead I join the languid afternoon air, the wafting smell of grass, the drone of buzzing insects, the flutter of butterflies. And throw a pebble or two over the fence and into the lake.
Have you ever looked at water that has just accepted a stone, at the indentation it makes, like the pupil of an eye. A hole that seems open but isn't. Other people see the ripples but I always look for that spot where the stone has plopped, breaking the skin of the water. I follow it in my imagination, as it sinks, as low as it can go, down to the mud at the bottom.
A stone can live down there where we humans cannot. Not any more. When we crawled out of the primaeval gloop, on our march to improvement, we said goodbye to that possibility. A stone can…
But Mack, back to Mack. What a morning he'd had, even before the sisters showed up. He'd woken to deep blue filling his eyes and a cold hardness against his knees and elbows. After some confusion, he'd united these sense impressions into the tiles of his en-suite bathroom floor upon which, it appeared, he was lying, facedown.
Had been lying on for hours, from the feel of it.
Using the smooth edge of the porcelain sink above, he hauled himself up and almost crashed into an intruder lurching toward him, pushing his head into his, ugly and unshaven. He recoiled so hard he was almost floored again. He heard himself scream in a weak faraway voice, like a girl’s, and then groan as he realised the interloper was himself, his own image in the bathroom mirror.
Then came another realisation, from the noise coming up from the streets below, the pressing, river-rush of traffic, its hoots and siren-screams, that this Manhattan morning was up and running, well and truly dawned. That he’d missed his normal rising time by maybe as much as two hours. That downtown, at the head office of MacIntyre & Associates, Charlie Pender, his financial controller, would have been sitting, waiting for their 7am meet, scratching his big, bald head in that way he had, which made him look like an idiot from some godforsaken Irish village, a manner the two of them had used to their advantage many a time.
He became aware of the wires of tension tangling out across his shoulders, the dread that lined his stomach, the heat of his head, electric with confined thoughts, barred from surfacing.
‘You’re exhausted,' he told his haggard image. ‘You are completely fucking shattered.'
It had been a gruelling six months, even by the standards of MacIntyre & Associates, week after week of applications and arguments, of lawyers and accountants, of finely judged ‘incentives' to grasping politicos… And paperwork. The paperwork was the worst of it, eating up fourteen-hour days and still coming back for more.
A girl was what he needed. That was the conclusion he’d come to as groped for a pill from the phial in his pocket and swallowed it with a swig of water from the tap. Not Dana, a new girl. The name of his latest companion cracked open another memory from the night before: him forgetting to feed her the necessary quotient of compliments; her storming an exit, shouted insults and invective.
He had been boorish with Dana, he could admit it. Overwork didn’t put you in the right frame of mind for the niceties and he was tired of her demands, that was the truth. It was over and he was glad of it. He pulled at his eyes in the mirror, made a face, tried to make himself feel better by making himself look worse. Eyes red with blear and bloat/Tongue lined with foul white coat. That was another thing he had to stop, the rhyming thing, it was getting on his own nerves.
His Nan used to do it. It was her vehicle for a fund of rhyming rules and morals, some in bits of language from the old country. Mo Ash Ling Bawn/I hear you yawn.
Lay down your head/it’s time for bed. Oh Nanny m'love, send me a girl. A fresh start. Someone young who'll invigorate me. Forgive me for not wanting to marry — and send me a girl anyway. Not for the great-grandchildren you're never going to get, but to help me deliver that book I promised you.
Time was the excuse he kept making for not having come up with the goods — but he knew time was just another word for energy. He needed reinvigoration. There was enough time for everything if you had the right mental attitude. And he knew how to spark that in himself. It always worked. Send me a girl, Nan.
He straightened. A small lingering dizziness, a tightness at the temples, but nothing too sinister. The pill was working. He brushed his teeth. Combed his hair. As he addressed some nose hair, her voice spoke loud and clear in his head: Stupid jerk/Go to work.
She was right, as always. He dropped the tweezers, with a clang, into the porcelain sink and headed out into the Manhattan morning.
And now it was after ten and he still hadn't got started on his work. He escorted the sisters to reception, regretting how his officiousness was stripping Zelda of her glamour and Scottie of her pep, how it was turning them from stars in their own drama into a pair of naughty schoolgirls. But life isn’t a movie script, girls. It's a poker hand and if you don’t hide your cards, you're quickly out of the game.
So he deposited them in reception with an instruction to Miss Delaney to give them tea and went on into his own office, sat to his desk, and with the discipline that only comes with years of self-direction, immediately dismissed them from his mind. He called Charlie Pender and had the necessary conversation and made the necessary decisions, then turned the laser of his concentration to the dreaded paperwork.
Observe it, the quality of my father's concentration. It's unbreakable by anyone but him, I learned that when I was very young. It’s the quality, even more than his cunning or ruthlessness, that underwrites his success, that levered him off the mean streets of Manhattan up to the top of this skyscraper which he owns, from which he runs his real estate empire.
See how he still pushes himself as hard as he did when he was 20. If you asked why, he would say that money is as easily lost as won. He did, after all, lose a decade’s worth of accumulation in the great crash.
That's not it though. He knows he has enough money for the rest of his life in MacIntyre Properties alone, never mind the other investment vehicles, from Greek shipping to French wine. He knows the only thing that could take him belly-up again would be a world-shaker, and that even then, Charlie Pender would probably know how to make money out of it.
Still he needs to make more. If it's there to be made, then he must make it. And at that time, more than any time since the crash, opportunities were beating down the door. America was launching itself again on a consumerist binge. Growth was everywhere. Mack knew it would be followed, as it always was, by a contraction and by the time the next boom swung round, he’d probably be gone. This was his last hurrah and he wanted in. So he worked, on automat, while Zelda waited. As he will work and she will wait out so many future hours to come.
It was almost three hours later before he emerged, with a smile more appropriate to a wait of three minutes. “All right girls, let's see what you have to say for yourselves.”
He told Delaney they were going to Barney's and they'd be back after lunch, waved the girls ahead of him towards the elevator. From behind, the sister looked good too. Taller and not as neatly made but well able to walk the walk. A fine figure of a girl as they like to say in Ireland, until she'd turn around and show what over there they'd call there her “cross”.
Hard on her but truth to tell, she was now of minimal interest. The morning's work had strengthened him, the bathrooom floor seemed very far away and all he now wanted was to have Zelda to himself. So when they got to the ground and the elevator pinged open, he said to Scottie: “You can go now.”
‘But you said…'
‘I thought that was what you wanted?'
‘But…' That was Zelda, also trying to object, but he had taken her elbow and was steering her through the revolving doors, without looking back.
I'm taking a break for summer holidays. Next episode, “Brought to Book”: Friday September 16th 2011. And fortnightly thereafter, until further notice.
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