Liberty. From SUGAR HALL, a novel
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 this boy 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; 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. She was unwrapping white tissue paper from small objects he had forgotten were theirs.
Dieter’s words jumbled as he tried to tell his mother and sister what he’d seen. It was hard. There was a boy; there was a small boy and the boy appeared out of thin air in one of the sheds in the red gardens, 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.
For a start the boy wore something bright round his neck: it was a silver collar. There was writing on the metal but it had glinted in the sun and Dieter couldn’t make it out.
His older sister, Saskia, interrupted, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do than make things up?’ She shook those things she called her ‘heavenly-hips’ (Dieter had once heard Saskia say her hips were more heavenly than a Knickerbockerglory).
‘I’m not making it up. He just popped into the air, from nothing, and he stared at me and didn’t say a thing, 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 that it was home now. London was his place to be. South of the river: Churchill Gardens.
‘He just appeared, and he did wear a silver collar around his neck’- Dieter’s voice tailed off.
Saskia 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 room was called The Reception Room and it 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 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 (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 –well- green.
‘Dee, you must listen to your sister.’
His head tilted at the sound of his mother’s voice: its tone had altered so much since they’d come at 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, he 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 Road, SW1. That was such a long thought away. It made him 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: he had worn no clothes; the boy was naked. Dieter couldn’t quite tell his mother this, so he said, ‘Ma, listen, 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 these stories.’
He 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, from one day to the next these things just disappeared.
And Ma’s laugh: that had disappeared too.
His Ma, his beautiful Ma was so scruffy now. She wore 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 flew up the short sleeves and flocked at the little belt at the waist –dresses 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 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 first -‘gla’- and then they made you blow a kiss on the ‘mour’.
Dieter liked the thought of that. He liked it so much he once practiced the word in the bathroom mirror wearing Ma’s siren red lipstick.
It was London that had made Ma glamorous. Ma told them before the long ago war she arrived in London with nothing but the clothes she stood up in, and it was London that made her someone else. Back at Churchill Gardens Dieter had run 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 pretty slips and dresses. Even Ma’s name was glamorous: she was ‘Lilia’.
Now her heart 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 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. He 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 the lime green upholstery of his grandfather’s chair and Dieter tried to picture his friends back home. He thought of his best friend Cynthia Nurse, he thought of Levi Bloom, of Bill and Tommy Foley, he thought of the twins, Deuteronomy and Comfort Jones and how they ran through the Wasteland crying ‘weeeeeee-hoooooooo!’ 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 they’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 truly concentrated Dieter could hear Bill and Tommy make spacemen ray-gun noises; he could hear Cynthia 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 murmured to no one in particular, ‘he did wear a silver collar and you’ll see, I’m going to make him my friend.’
Tiffany’s novels Diamond Star Halo and Happy Accidents were shortlisted for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize. She grew up in haunted houses in Scotland, Wales and Herefordshire. Sugar Hall is her third novel.