Excerpt from Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray (Seren - May 2014)
Sunday, Easter Holidays, 1955, in Grandfather Sugar’s House
When Dieter Sugar backed out of the long shed that edged the Hall’s red gardens, when he ran through the graveyard with its tiny headstones to make a stumbling shortcut across the grass meadow where frilled daffodils bobbed like sprung Jack-in-the-boxes, when he sprinted past the black water of the ancient swimming pool onto the yellow gravel that made a sound like crunched sugar between teeth (and ‘Sugar’ was his name after all), when Dieter bounded up those grey steps, into the ancient house that he could never think of as his, when he shot through that cathedral-sized hall that smelled of marzipan (on account of the rat poison and not the cake his mother had told him), when he sprinted past the carved oak staircase and into the long room someone had named ‘the reception’, gliding to a stop on the polished floor, Dieter Sugar knew he was afraid.
He was petrified.
‘What is it, Dee?’ his mother asked as she unwrapped white tissue paper from small objects he had forgotten were theirs.
Dieter’s words came out a jumble as he tried to tell his mother and sister what he’d seen. It was hard to put into words. There was a boy; there was a small boy and the boy appeared out of thin air, and he, Dieter Sugar, was sure this boy was something different, he was almost certain this boy wasn’t like any other boy he’d seen before.
To begin with, the boy wore something bright round his neck: a silver collar. It had writing on it, but it had glinted in the sun and Dieter couldn’t read it.
It was his older sister, Saskia, who interrupted. ‘Don’t you have anything better to do than make things up?’ The sharp snap of Saskia’s voice echoed in the long room and she shook those things she called her ‘heavenly hips’. (Dieter had once heard Saskia say her hips were more heavenly than a Knickerbocker Glory.)
‘I’m not making it up. He just popped into the air, from nothing, and he stared at me and didn’t say a word, and he looked so ill, and I felt dreadfully funny all over. There is a strange boy out there.’
Dieter pointed to the bay window and the wild red gardens. He squinted; it was all too bright in the countryside and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like this house: he hated the fact it was home now. London was his place to be. By the river: Churchill Gardens.
‘He just appeared, and he wore a silver collar…’ Dieter’s voice tailed off.
Saskia latched onto these last words and snorted. ‘Don’t be silly, Dee. Boys don’t wear collars. Vicars do and dogs do.’ She glared at him and Dieter felt his fear settle, a burrowing toad. The points of the toad’s wet, sharp feet, its warty sides, all dug deep into Dieter’s belly; his breath went and he collapsed into his grandfather’s lime-green armchair.
This reception room was green. Green silk wallpaper, patterned with gigantic open-winged butterflies and hairy moths, peeled just below the line of the ceiling; at times Dieter was sure he heard these insects flutter. Green velvet curtains held greener mould in their swags, and there, by the great gape of a fireplace – like a black mouth and such a long way away – was an even greener something Saskia called a chaise longue. It sat directly beneath the dead bulbs of a light Saskia had told him was a chandelier (Dieter was learning so many new words in this strange house, it was exhausting). As for the armchair he sat in, it was as lime green as the Mekon’s face, and how Dieter hated the Mekon: Dan Dare’s deadly adversary from outer space; evil, alien and so very, very green.
‘Dee, you must listen to your sister.’
Dieter’s head tilted at the sound of his mother’s voice. Its tone had altered so much since they’d come to Sugar Hall. Of course it had the same part-English, mostly-German sound but now it was full of something both sticky and stuck, and Dieter didn’t like it. Ma sounded like she was talking through a mouthful of condensed milk.
‘You have to believe me,’ he pleaded, kicking his legs out. ‘A boy was out there, and he did wear a collar. It was silver and it shone in the sunlight—’
‘So you do mean like a dog?’ Saskia snorted again as she hopscotched on the parquet floor; the countryside had brought out the child in fifteen-year-old Saskia Sugar.
‘I don’t know, Sas, I’ve never seen a dog in a silver collar.’ That got her, Dieter thought. ‘And it was real silver, Ma, because it shone like your special necklace…’ Dieter stopped. That silver necklace was sitting in the window of Kinsey’s Pawn Shop, on Lupus Street, SW1. That was such a long thought away. It made Dieter think of walking with their suitcases from Number 52C, Shelley House, Churchill Gardens to the bus stop in the pink morning light because Ma couldn’t afford a taxicab. It made him think of bouncing on the creaking springs of his carriage seat at Paddington Station as the train mushroomed smoke into the thicker smog, shuuuu-tu-shuuuu-tu, and the pistons pumped and the whistle shrieked like a woman falling from a bridge. It made him think of Ma’s egg sandwiches that smelled like farts, and Ma turning and turning her wedding ring on her finger as the carriage rattled all the way to this horrid place.
Then he remembered something else about the strange boy: the boy hadn’t worn clothes. When he appeared the boy was naked. Dieter didn’t know why but he couldn’t quite tell his mother this, so he said, ‘Ma, listen to this, when I saw him he didn’t have a shirt on, can you believe it?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s cold out there,’ Saskia sneered.
‘Please, Dee,’ his mother interrupted, ‘be good, a good boy. Please don’t make up these stories.’
Frills of wood shavings patterned the floor around Dieter’s mother: and such a young mother she was.
At last her children were quiet.
Dieter watched her reach up and unwrap more forgotten things from the tea crate. Dieter didn’t know why it was taking his ma so long to unpack; perhaps it was because things disappeared, things moved, in this house.
Like their shoes: like the figures in the paintings on the walls, like the ornaments on the mantelpieces; like the billiard table, Dieter thought.
And Ma’s laugh: that had disappeared too.
His ma, his beautiful ma, she was so scruffy now. This awful house had done that to her. She wore a pair of Pa’s old trousers with a belt and a dreadful green overcoat that swallowed her up. Dieter was used to her wearing pretty dresses patterned with bluebirds that seemed to fly up the short sleeves and flock at the little belt at the waist – and that dress made him want to sing, There’ll be bluebirds ovah, the white cliffs of Dov-ah!
Not long ago Ma had been so glamorous.
Glamour was a word Dieter loved because he had read it in a thick-as-a-brick magazine called Vogue that Ma kept between her mattress and bedsprings at 52C Shelley House, Churchill Gardens, SW1. ‘Glamour’ was a word Dieter loved because when you said it the words made your face smile at the first ‘gla’ and then they made you blow a kiss on the ‘mour’.
Dieter liked that. He liked it so much he once practised the word in the bathroom mirror, wearing Ma’s Siren Red lipstick.
It was London that had made Ma glamorous. In London, Dieter ran home from school longing to hug her. He wanted to smell the diesel fumes, the newspaper-scent that the city, his city had given her. Dieter wanted to smell this as the thud-thud-thud of her quick little heart beat through the satin and frill layers of her slips and dresses. Even Ma’s name was glamorous; she was ‘Lilia’, she wasn’t ‘Vera’ or ‘Daphne’.
Now her heart had slowed to a dull thud and she smelled like the black damp that lurked behind the green silk wallpaper in this room: she smelled of the spores and the dust that danced busy as the flies in this ancient house; like the foxed pages of the ugly books that lined the bookshelves in the red library, like the silverfish, the earwigs; the living ones and the husky-dead.
Dieter looked across the long room at his newly drab mother and his puppy-fat sister and the toad of fear burped inside him. Saskia had begun to sing, ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, and Dieter
closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about sadness today, about How It Was Before They Came to Sugar Hall, because How It Was Before made his muscles tense and his lungs shrink, and the thing that hung between his legs move back to where it had come from (and Dieter wasn’t exactly sure where that was, he had tried to see in a mirror once, but for now he just knew it was inside).
He let his head drop back against lime-green upholstery and he thought of the Wee-Hoo Gang. That last afternoon in London, Dieter had stood on his dirt mound in the place they called the Wasteland and – as the smog came in from the Thames, and the cranes that were building, building, building chugged in the distance – he shook the dry hands of every member of his Wee-Hoo Gang, just like a grown-up leader would. His best friend, Cynthia Nurse, had cried.
‘See you, Dee,’ Tommy Perrot said as he wiped snot candles from his nose, and when none of them could see a thing because the smog was so bad, they held hands and walked in a crocodile all the way back to Churchill Gardens.
In the long, cold reception room of Sugar Hall, Dieter tried to picture his friends; he thought of the twins, Deuteronomy and Comfort Jones, running through the Wasteland crying ‘weeeeeeehoooooooo!’ at the roofless buildings with their brick steps that led to doors that led to rooms that weren’t there anymore – all because of the war, a war he didn’t know or remember. (It was Mr Hutchins, his old Form Teacher, who had told the class they had a different war now, and this war was about bombs called atom and hydrogen; Mr Hutchins said that if this new war happened there’d be no bombsites because there’d just be nothing left).
How awful to have nowhere to play, Dieter thought. How awful it is to have no one to play with.
If he concentrated, Dieter could hear Billy Foley and Tommy Perrot make spacemen ray-gun noises; he could hear Cynthia Nurse and Precious Palmer flicking their skipping rope, singing,
‘The wicked fairy cast a spell, cast a spell, cast a spell. The wicked fairy cast a spell, long, long ago!’
If Dieter was with them, he’d be kicking about in the dust by the river until the sun set over Battersea Power Station and their different mothers’ different cries and the smells of their different cooking were carried out on the dry wind, all the way from their beloved council flats, the brand-spanking-new Churchill Gardens.
A furry bluebottle hit against one of the tall windows in the long, green reception room and Dieter opened his eyes. If he crushed the fly he knew its guts would be yellow, just as he knew that being back home, in London, would make everything right.
‘A boy was out there,’ he whispered, ‘he did wear a silver collar and you’ll see, I’m going to make him my friend.’