Once again, I have nothing for you. What I laughingly refer to as ‘real life’ has been hectic for me lately, full of obstacles both expected and unexpected which have required some heavy duty navigation. Plus, in terms of my online career, I’ve been working on so many projects simultaneously that none of them have come together on schedule. Bad time management, thy name is Jack. So, to fob you off again, here’s the second chapter of the novel I kid myself I’m writing.
Oh, and in case you missed it, I was recently a guest on the lovely They Must Be Destroyed on Sight movie podcast again, this time talking with Daniel and Lee (two of the nicest, smartest movie podcasters you could ever hope to listen to) about both versions of Nosferatu. Spoilers: we all like both of them. Get that here. Quite pleased with my showing, though there were times during the recording when tiredness and alcohol consumption made me only semi-coherent. But I’m often told I’m more palatable that way.
“You got the book then.” said Iza’s father. “Good. Happy birthday darling.”
The massive man was sat in his massive chair behind his massive desk in front of his massive window. Iza could see the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater, the Gherkin and the Shard behind him, all glittering wetly in the drizzly sunshine like freshly-washed utensils on a drying wrack. He seemed entirely at home amongst them. Anybody else would’ve been dwarfed by the office and the furniture and the window, let alone the view. But Iza and Ria’s father was big. Broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, shaggy-bearded. His gigantic hands were like strange five-legged animals which seemed to have decided – for some reason best known to themselves – to live on the end of his arms. They moved almost constantly, as if they might conceivably decide at any moment to simply detach themselves and wander off to explore the rest of the world on their own.
“It’s not my birthday,” said Iza.
“Isn’t it?” His wide, sun-browned face crumpled into confusion. “Are you sure?”
“I know when my own birthday is,” she said. “I thought maybe you did too. Perhaps that was optimistic of me.”
“I do know,” he said, and recited it. He looked down at his desk calendar. “Why did I think…?” he asked himself. He looked like someone who’d just walked into a well-lit room and automatically flicked the light switch, and was now standing in the dark, wondering what had happened.
“Um, sorry,” he said. It was almost a question, as if there was an unspoken ‘Will that do?’ appended. For all his vastness, he seemed lost and helpless. Iza had seldom seen him this way before. She always thought of him as a great enthusiastic sheepdog of a man… which wasn’t a comparison original to her. His nickname in his world was ‘Dulux’. Her mental picture of him was of a great hairy thing, filling every room he bounded into, taking up everyone else’s space and air and light without a qualm, emitting confidence like a radiator emits heat, and dismissing doubts or worries without fuss, as if they were a type of biscuit he was constantly being offered but didn’t especially care for. So it was disturbing to see him dither and frown and fret.
“You sent me this?” asked Iza, incredulous, waggling the book at him.
Again, he looked unsure. For a moment she thought he might backtrack and deny it.
“Er… yes, I suppose so.”
“You suppose so?”
Somehow she seemed to be in the parent role. This was not a new experience for her, but it had never really been this blatant before.
“I did,” he said, sounding surprised.
“Well, as I say, somehow I got it into my head that it was your…”
“So you sent me this?” She waggled it at him again. “Unwrapped. Without a tag or a card. A book about the tube.”
There was no reason for her to explain why she found the subject of the book so surprising.
She softened as he looked at her, almost apologetic, and obviously utterly befuddled.
“Look,” she said, sitting down opposite him on the other side of his desk, “I’m not angry or anything. I’m just confused.”
“So am I, sweetheart,” he said, shaking his head and slumping back into his chair. The bright, slick panorama of London behind them turned him into a dispirited silhouette.
Iza looked across at Ria, who was slouching around the office peering at blueprints that might as well be art and art that might as well be blueprints, at awards from organisations that existed to give awards to the kinds of people who’d set them up, and at photographs of their father shaking hands with, or slapping backs with, or playing golf with Tony Blair, David Cameron, Richard Branson, Donald Trump, Bob Geldof…
Dad, of course, couldn’t see or hear Ria. And she wasn’t looking at him. It was the first time she had been in his presence in years, since she had last stopped haunting Iza. Iza had thought that Ria had wanted to see him again. And yet here they were, in his office, having had the rare luck to find him in, and Ria seemed disinclined to even look at him.
They’d walked together out of the house in Maude Square side-by-side, down the concrete steps, out from under white pillared portico, into the rain-drenched street, past the ambulance, past the little crowd on onlookers, past the paramedics who were tending to the jogger who lay prone on the pavement just outside their door.
“How many this year?” Ria had asked.
“I think that’s the second one since Christmas,” Iza had said under her breath. “Someone told me the ambulance crews have started calling this Coronary Street.”
“Thinking about it, does that seem strange to you?”
“Can we prioritise the strange things going on in our lives we need to think about please?” Iza had muttered as she’d waved her hand at a taxi.
To the people in the street, it had just been Iza walking alone, hailing a taxi alone, getting in alone. To the taxi driver it had just been Iza alone asking to be taken to the offices of Park International Development. He hadn’t questioned why a teenage girl wanted to go to the business offices of an international property development firm in the city. Maybe he’d thought she was some young entrepreneur or prodigy, on her way to a job that paid more in a day than he made in a year. To the receptionist it had just been Iza alone asking to see Mr Park, and being told that he never saw anyone without an appointment, and saying that she was Mr Park’s daughter, and being told – after a pause in which official-looking people had awkwardly conferred with each other – to go on up. To the security guard in the elevator it had just been Iza alone, voyaging up to the top floor, and nervously fingering the temporary pass clipped to her jacket lapel. And to Mr Park himself, it had just been Iza who had walked into his office, accompanied by his secretary, refusing tea or coffee or lemonade or mineral water, and holding a book at him accusingly, and asking why it had been sent to ‘Miss Elizabeth and Miss Victoria Park’.
But Ria had been there all the way, walking alongside her in the street, sitting next to her in the taxi, tapping her foot impatiently in the lift, frowning, folding her arms, grumbling about the delay as they waited in reception, peppering Iza with remarks that irritated her, but which she knew she needed to hear. She wanted to say something to Ria about not knowing how she’d coped without her all these years. If she’d have been able to say it her tone would have been sarcastic but the sentiment would’ve been real. But she couldn’t say it – not when there were other people about. Ria just had to hover unseen and unacknowledged. Iza wondered what it was like to wander through the world and never be seen, looked at, addressed, touched. It made Iza feel guilty, like she was dragging a misused servant around with her. But it also made her feel angry; because it made her feel followed and watched, and judged.
Iza realised, looking at Ria now, that Ria looked like Dad. She, Iza, had taken after Mum. Or rather… Ria had inherited their father’s bigness, if on a smaller scale, and Iza their mother’s smallness. Ria and Iza had the same face in many ways, but Ria’s version was arranged in the paternal square, whereas Iza’s was in the maternal oval. Only in one respect had Ria taken after their mother: her habitual unconscious frown. Their father’s face tended naturally towards grins. Though he wasn’t grinning now, for once.
He started looking downright scared when Iza brought out the envelope.
He stared at it and thought. Iza thought for a moment that he was trying to come up with something plausible… but she soon realised, looking at him peer and frown, that he was trying to remember something, something on the edge of his memory that kept slipping away from him.
“You… had an imaginary friend,” he said at last, “when you were little. You always said her name was Elizabeth. You called her Iza.”
Iza stared at him.
“I’m Iza,” she said quietly. It was almost a whisper. And she heard a hairline crack in it.
He blinked at her like someone being unexpectedly asked their opinion on a recent news story by a passing dachshund.
“Yes,” he said, as if she had confirmed his own statement. Then he noticed her still staring. “What did I say?” he asked, as if implying that forgetting his own daughter’s name was no more than a momentary and understandable lapse, the sort of thing that happened to everyone all the time.
“You… are you drunk or something?”
He looked affronted.
“That’s no way to talk to your father,” he said.
“So you remember that you are my father then?”
He made an infuriating ‘Oh come on!’ face at her, suggesting he thought she was the one being unreasonable.
His iWhatever pinged at him. Suddenly brisk, clear-eyed and efficient, he snatched it up and spent several minutes talking incomprehensible business gibberish with someone called Antonia. He set it down after saying “Ciao for now” seven times and looked at Iza expectantly.
“Ciao for now?” she asked, raising an ironical eyebrow.
“That’s where we’re having the meeting,” he said.
She blinked, not understanding the response.
“The meeting with Antonia.”
“Oh, let me guess,” said Ria from across the room, “C-H-O-W for Now. Name of a restaurant, right?”
“C-H-O-W for Now. Name of a restaurant, right?” said Iza.
“Clever girl,” he said, gathering things and putting them into his briefcase. “Always said you were clever,” he remarked, oblivious to the implication that the claim had been controversial.
“So clever I can even remember the first names of a my close relatives.”
“I’m Elizabeth,” she almost shouted, “Iza.”
“I know that darling,” he said absently.
“So who’s Victoria Park?” she demanded, standing up and leaning over the desk, and getting as close to nose-to-nose with him as their differing heights would permit, which was not very, “Who’s Ria?”
Behind her, she could sense Ria’s tension.
“How should I know?”
“You should know because you addressed a package to her!” she said, waggling the envelope at him again.
He let the things in his hands fall and clatter on the glass-top desk, and sat down again. He had instantly stopped being the ebullient business-sheepdog and turned back into the befuddled, out-sized schoolboy.
“You had an imaginary friend when you were little,” he said in a small, vague voice, “you called her ‘Ria’…” he looked up at her furtively as he said this, checking her face to see if he was getting it right this time, “…and we always thought that if we had another daughter… if you ever had a sister… she would be called…”
He swivelled away from her and stared out of the panoramic window at the clutter of tall, strange, glass monsters looming over the city. The arc of the London Eye protruded from the horizon, like a great cogwheel poking out from the city’s hidden subterranean clockwork.
“No,” he murmured to himself, slowly, closing his eyes and shaking his head as if carefully piecing something together, “that’s wrong… that’s the wrong way round… our first daughter was going to be called Victoria and it was our second daughter, if we had one, who was going to be called Elizabeth… they were Mary’s choices…” He tailed off.
“Dad,” said Iza, walking around the desk and reaching up to him, “are you okay?”
He touched the hand she’d put on his shoulder.
“I really haven’t seen much of you these last few years, have I sweetie?” he said quietly, “I’ve been so busy. The firm has been doing so amazingly well… ever since you started school really, things have been taking off and never stopped. Even the recession didn’t slow us down. We just kept on getting bigger and bigger, busier and busier. There was the Portsmouth thing, then the Canary Wharf thing, then the Dubai thing, then the Indonesia thing, then the Joburg thing… all one after the other… And now it looks like Korea might come through…”
Iza looked behind her at Ria, who was staring at them, stricken. With her eyes, and a tilt of her head, she told Ria to come closer. Ria started to move and then shook her head and crossed her arms. Iza frowned a ‘Why not?’ at her. Iza just glared at her, then at the big man, then down at her own folded arms.
“How’s school?” Dad asked distantly.
“Look,” she said to him, trying to make her voice steady and serious, the way his always was when he talked turkey with one of his fellow suit-wearing businessoids, “I need you to tell me why you sent me that book… and I need to know about the photo in it…”
“The photo. Of me and…” How to phrase this? “…and another girl.”
Ideally she’d be waving the photo at him now, but she’d realised, soon after arriving in his office and brandishing the book at him, that she’d left the photo at home. It had been the thing she’d put down in order to pick up her phone.
“I look about four in the photo,” she continued, “It’s my birthday. There’s another girl there. There are two cakes. One for her and one for me. I remember that birthday party, in the restaurant… just about… and I remember there were two cakes. I always did remember that. Even when I told myself I’d imagined it, I still remembered it. And there they are in the photo! And there’s another girl in the photo, Dad. She’s wearing the same dress as me. And she looks like me. And she looks like you too Dad.”
In the corner of her eye, Iza had seen Ria react to this. Dad hadn’t even twitched. She might as well say it.
“She’s my sister,” she stated. “You can see she is. We’re wearing the same blue dress. It’s a photograph of that birthday. I think you remember it. I think you took the photo. Did you put it in the book?”
He screwed up his face, and she couldn’t tell if it was with pain or an effort of memory.
“Bookmark,” he said at last, sounding relieved, as if he’d just worked out the solution to a crossword puzzle clue that had been bothering him all day.
“I bookmarked a chapter for you,” he said brightly, seemingly happy to remember at least one thing clearly, “a chapter I thought you’d be interested in. I put a bookmark in the book at the right page. Sent you the book for your birthday. Can’t remember what it’s about… you know how busy I am, always ten million things to think about… but I know I thought you’d find it interesting. I think someone sent it to me or something. So I thought I’d send it to you. You always did like reading. Or was that the other one…?”
“Dad,” she interrupted, “where did that photo come from? I’ve never seen any photos of myself that young before. Did you…?”
“No photos,” he said, sounding distant again, “had to get rid of them all. Your Mum… Mary… she said… but I kept one, I think… I had to keep one… couldn’t bear to not even have one. I can’t remember where it went though… or why I wanted it especially…”
He fell silent.
“Dad,” said Iza, “did I have a sister? A sister called Victoria, called Ria, who… who died?”
“Imaginary friend,” he muttered.
“No,” said Iza firmly, “I’m not talking about that. I want to know if I…”
His iThing pinged again and he stood up, making her jump backwards.
He was all business, briskness, and brusqueness again. He started gathering up his files and stuffing them into his briefcase for the second time. He wasn’t trying to escape. He’d just turned back into the business sheepdog.
“Iza, darling,” he said, his voice brimming over with complacency, as if he regularly had bizarre conversations in which he talked nonsense and struggled with half-remembered memories, “I really don’t know what you’re talking about. I think you’ve been imagining things again. All I remember is that you had an invisible friend when you were little. You said she was called Ria and she was your sister. I really don’t know anything else. I don’t have any memory of the real Ria. And as for her being in the photo of the birthday party despite being older, that’s easily explained: you were born on the same day, just two years apart. Pure coincidence, but there you go.”
Iza gaped at him. She was aware of Ria doing the same, uncrossing her arms and approaching from the other side of the room, slowly, as if stalking prey.
“Now, sweetie, if you don’t mind, I really need to get to this meeting with Antonia and her crew. We’ve got a shedload of stuff to thrash out with Drumlins Westmore about the new development in South Korea, and…”
He wittered on like that as he slid out of the door, apparently unaware of what he’d said.
Iza and Ria were staring at each other in mutual astonishment when he poked his head back round the door and said, very seriously, “Talk to your mother. I think she remembers. I think I chose not to. She said that might happen. You choose, you see. Not consciously. You don’t know what choice you’ve made until later. If you choose to forget then you forget that you chose. And that you forgot. Most people do that, I think. I seem to remember every now and again. But it always goes away.” He smiled at Iza. “Happy birthday, Ria… I mean Iza. What was I talking about just now? Never mind. Enjoy the book. As I say, I bookmarked the chapter you need to read. With the photo.” He beamed, then said “Sorry, what photo?” as if she’d been the one who had mentioned it.
She decided not to bother going through all that again.
“I took it out,” she said instead.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said breezily, “Just put it back in.”
“But I didn’t see which Chapter it was on.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said again, “Just put it back in.”
And with that he was gone, and Iza and Ria were alone in the office.
London seemed to be peering in at them through the huge window, as if the office were a bowl and they were a pair of particularly strange goldfish.
Iza suddenly dashed for the office door after her father.
By the time she made it out into the hallway he was already in the lift. He always moved quickly on his long loping legs, but this was fast even for him. He was running away from her now, though she wasn’t sure he knew it.
“Must go darling,” he called, “If I keep talking like this I’ll remember properly, and then I expect the South Korea deal will fall through. Nearly remembered all this stuff once before and lost a very big contract. Don’t want that to happen again. Your school fees won’t pay themselves, will they? Ciao for now!”
And then the lift door was sliding closed. He waved and was gone.
“Did any of that make any sense to you at all?” asked Ria from over Iza’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” said Iza.
“Don’t know what, dear?” asked the secretary, looking up.
“Nothing,” said Iza.