Remember to Write by Lindy Viandier
Remember to write. I sit in the corner and stare at the rain. Remember to write. My mother’s parting words pick up the rhythm of the train. The worn seat rubs against my cheek. I bury it deeper into the prickly pile, gaining comfort from the roughness.
‘It’s the pain in life that reminds you you’re alive.’ My mother always said.
I inhale the smoky, musty aroma. Layer upon layer of scents deposited like coal seams by decades of passengers. My breath steams up the window then disappears like a Roman candle. Raindrops chase each other down the grimy glass. I focus on them, and the countryside passes in a green blur.
Outside is silent. Inside, carriages creek, bogeys rattle, doors slide open and slam shut, children chatter and guards call ‘All change’ and ‘Tickets please’.
I stuff my fist into my ear and listen to my mother. ‘Remember to write. Don’t eat your sandwiches before Chester. Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to, and don’t sit on the seat.’ I had no intention of writing. My sandwiches went out of the window at Bangor, and the last time I didn’t sit on the seat I splashed my new sandals. The only piece of my mother’s advice I take is ‘Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to.’ Fat chance.
“Would you like a toffee?”
I glare at the speaker, a small girl with a face as pale, and plain as mine. I shake my head.
“They’re made with Devon cream,” she persists, thrusting the bag of shiny gold discs towards me. I concede, putting one in my mouth, saliva fills my cheeks and escapes from my lips as I smile.
Diana clings to me like a damp leaf when we leave the train, and stays pressed to my side as we board the school bus. She lives on a farm, and smells of hay. Her hands are rough, but her voice is soft, and her bag of toffees bottomless. She’s not like the other boarders whose fathers are Viceroys or Ambassadors or commissioned officers like mine. Her father’s employer is paying for her board. He’s a Lord. Her father manages his estate and when she grows up she’s going to marry his son. When I grow up I’m not going to marry any one even if they do come with a title. The Lord’s son is called Jonathon, but Diana calls him Jack. He bought her the toffees for the journey. So maybe he’s not too bad.
Diana and I share a small room at the end of the west wing. Matron didn’t think it proper to put Diana in the big dorm with the other girls, as she may feel conscious of her position. But even though my mother could afford to buy me nice things, she wouldn’t. ‘Sackcloth is a good as silk in the eyes of the Lord.’ she said. We don’t mind our segregation. Misfits by nature, we gain comfort from proximity, and squash together in Diana’s cramped bunk. Our hair, released from the restraining braids, which bind it by day is free to roam over each other’s faces, our sticky fingers hang on to knots of it for security.
Diana keeps a photograph in her suitcase. It is in colour. It is of two boys and a girl. One of the boys is tall and broad with hair the colour of corn and eyes like chestnuts. He stands with his arms folded across his chest. It is as if the camera has focused on his arms, you can see the tiny blond hairs against his tanned skin. I touch the photograph, half expecting to be able to stroke the tiny hairs.
“That’s Michael my brother,” she says proudly, “he’s going to be a priest.”
Which I think is a shame, because if I did ever consider marrying, he looked a likely candidate. I ask Diana why the girl in the picture does not board here.
She shrugs and says, “Her mother is only the cook. Maybe cooks aren’t worth as much as estate managers.”
I say, “I hate the British class system. As soon as I’m old enough, I’m going to join the communist party.”
My mother sends me boxes of stale biscuits for tuck, and Diana’s mother sends her homemade fruitcake. It is a light golden colour, scented with cinnamon, and packed with currants, sultanas and cherry quarters. We eat it in bed and shake the sheets out of the window in the morning to destroy the crumbly evidence. I share my biscuits with the girls in the big dorm. This makes us popular with them despite the biscuits being soft; their biscuits are soft also. They don’t expect anything from Diana’s mother, because they know she is poor. But the fact is, Diana’s mother is the only one who sends anything decent. Diana gets letters too. Lots of them compared to the rest of us. She gets them from her mother, her brother, Jack, and the girl in the photograph whose name is Scarlet. I think that’s very exotic, Scarlet. When I grow up, I’m going to change my name to Scarlet.
My father has been posted to Germany and my mother is going to join him for a holiday. They’re going to be staying in Berlin. My father usually takes his leave at home, and sometimes comes to see me. We go out for an afternoon and have ice-cream and talk about boring stuff like how my education is coming along. He’s not really interested in me. He just wants to make sure his money is not being wasted. When we return, he has tea with matron to discuss my progress, and of course she tells him I’m coming along in leaps and bounds, when in actual fact, I’m not. I struggle with mathematics, can’t spell, haven’t got a clue in Latin, and am hopeless at French. My Art is good though, not as good as Diana’s, but almost. My father would consider only being good at Art, worse than being good at nothing at all.
I spend my spare time designing posters advertising schools where only bright children can attend, instead of ones like here where only rich children can. Matron found one once and threatened to send it to my father, but I knew she wouldn’t. He would accuse the school of harbouring communist influences and have me removed straight away.
My parents are going to be staying with a friend of my father’s. I didn’t know my father had any friends in Berlin, but I don’t really know my parents. Not like Diana knows her parents. She actually misses her mother. Sometimes she is so homesick that she cries at night. If she wrote and told her mother that she wasn’t happy, her mother would come and take her home. But Diana wouldn’t do that, she would not want to appear ungrateful to Jack’s father. I’m glad Diana is here. I like the way she isn’t like the other girls who are always talking about stupid things such as clothes and hairstyles and pop music. I do like the Beatles though, especially John Lennon.
I’m surprised my mother has agreed to stay with my father’s friend. She’s very funny about stranger’s houses, especially their toilets. I expect she’ll spend the entire fortnight not sitting on the seat.
You’ll never guess what. My mother and father have come to visit. My father has a new car, and my mother has a new hairdo. They are so bourgeois. I ask them if Diana can come with us for ice-cream and they agree. My mother is wearing a mini-skirt, and my father rests his hand on her thigh when he is not changing gear. It’s disgusting I want to die of embarrassment. The car has a soft top and my father puts it down, even though it is blowing force ten. My mother wraps a chiffon scarf around her beehive and I get a fly in my eye. My father asks Diana what her father drives, and she replies a tractor. She is so straight faced that even I do not know whether or not she is being facetious until she gives me a sly wink. We huddle against the wind on the cramped back seat designed more for parcels than passengers, and pick our noises and wipe it on the upholstery.
When we get to the ice-cream parlour my father lets us choose whatever we want instead of the two-scoop sundae I’m usually restricted to. Diana and I both have knickerbocker glories. Neither of us knows what they are, but we like the sound of them. My mother has a peach melba and my father lights a cigarette and launches into his ‘How are you doing at school?’ routine. He’s even less attentive than usual and keeps looking at his watch, then he gets up and says he’s going to see a man about a dog. I ask my mother where he’s gone, and she says never you mind and, eat your ice-cream, Lord knows it cost enough. I feel like asking how much the bloody car cost, but know that would be the fastest route to a public slap, so I dig into my knickerbocker glory, which is sickly and gooey and the chocolate and vanilla ice-cream has melted together into a disgusting mess, and I wish I’d stuck to two-scoops.
My father returns looking very pleased with himself and begins taking an interest in Diana, asking all about her father and mother, then Lord Ramsey her father’s employer. It turns out he was in the military too, during the war. Diana says she thinks he was very top notch, something to do with codes and stuff like that, but she’s not sure what. I think it all sounds wonderfully exciting, like ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’. My father says that it was chaps like Lord Ramsey that kept him alive during the war. When he was a young officer stationed in the desert, they relied on the boys back home to help them stay one step ahead of Gerry. He also asks Diana the stock questions about Latin and French, but unlike when he’s talking to me, seems to be taking a genuine interest. Diana’s French is far superior to mine and they strike up a conversation. I didn’t even know my father could speak French. My mother looks bored and lights a cigarette. I didn’t know my mother smoked. It seems I know my parents even less than I thought I did, but I dislike them just the same.
On the journey home it begins to rain and the top has to go up. If we thought it was cramped before, it certainly is now. Our heads are forced down and our knees, forced up towards our chests. Diana, who is taller than I am, looks like Alice in the lizard’s house. I half expect to see a cake with ‘eat me’ iced on top but doubt if I could manage to eat anything at the moment. The knickerbocker glory has begun to churn in my stomach, it feels as if I have a bubbling mud pool in its pit, effervescing its way to the top. Every curve in the road is exaggerated by my nausea. Each bump and dip brings the dark brown sludge closer to my throat. I try to swallow it back but it is growing like some demon potion from Dr Quatermass’ laboratory. I look at Diana, she is even paler than usual and her face looks clammy, like me she is
“Stop the car” I shout, but it is too late, out with my words comes the knickerbocker glory in its half-digested state. Diana, prompted by the sight and smell, can hold on no longer and sends forth a jet of vomit, which reaches to height of my mother’s beehive. My mother begins to scream, and my father swerves off the road onto a grass verge. We all scramble out, my mother shrieking about her hair.
“Never mind your bloody hair,” snaps my father, “what about my car!”
I give Diana a satisfied look. Ironically, the new hairdo and the new car, the symbols of my parents over indulgence, are the victims of Diana’s and mine.
My mother starts taking the grips from her hair and the most extraordinary thing happens. Instead of her hair starting to tumble down her shoulders it stays in place on top of her head. More and more grips are removed until my mother’s fist is full of them, but still her hair sits there like a beacon. Then she takes it in both hands and lifts it from her head – intact.
“Give me that.” My father says, snatching what we now know to be my mother’s wig. He begins using it to scoop up sick from the back of the car. My mother looks on speechless as load after load is dumped from the car onto the grass, satisfied he can scoop up no more, my father then uses the strawberry blond beehive to wipe down the back of the seats. My mother must tint her hair, because beneath the wig it is fluffy and grey, not the light auburn I thought it was. She reminds me of one of those seventeenth century ladies who would leave their powdered wigs on wooden heads at night and be practically bald underneath.
“I’m really sorry Mr. Taylor,” says Diana.
“It’s not your fault my girl,” he says. “If Joanna hadn’t been such a little pig ordering those bockerglory things none of this would have happened. Eyes bigger than her belly, been like that all her life.”
I would have liked to have said, ‘How would you know! You’ve never indulged me once in my life, until today that is.’ But given the state of the back of the car, not to mention the wig, I think better of it.
My parents don’t stop for tea with matron. They drop Diana and I off at the lodge and leave us to walk the half-mile up the drive to school alone. I haven’t seen them since. My mother sent biscuits mid-term, but there was no note.
Matron has just called me to her study. She is wearing a look of disdainful satisfaction as she indicates for me to sit down. I’m not here for a roasting then, if I was, I would remain standing. The absence of tissues and cordial on matron’s desk means that nobody has died.
“You have no idea why you’re here.” She is not making a statement, nor asking a question, more like making an accusation.
I shake my head. I feel guilty but I don’t know why.
“When did you last hear from your parents?”
“At half-term Miss.”
“You’ve had no contact with them since?”
“My mother sent a box of biscuits a couple of weeks ago.”
“Ah yes biscuits.” Matron narrows her eyes and asks, “Was there any message sent with the biscuits?
“No Miss.” I think what is this? Some new rule not allowing notes to be sent with the Rich Tea. Have I broken the secret biscuit’s act and not even realised?
Matron opens her desk drawer and takes out a copy of ‘The Times’. She places it on the desk in front of me and tells me to look at it. On the front page there is a picture of my father in full military dress. I think my God he must have died.
Then I see the headline ‘Traitor’.
I have to pack immediately, there is to be no ceremony about my leaving. Matron says that if the press track me down here, the school will be under siege, and think what that will do for its reputation. It will probably lose some of its best pupils as it is once this gets out. I ask if I can say goodbye to Diana, and Matron says through pursed lips, that she will be informed of my departure.
There is a letter from my mother; matron takes it from the pocket of her cardigan and hands it to me saying, “Here are your arrangements.” Then she signals for me to leave by a flick of her wrist.
My feeling of guilt intensifies, or is it shame, but I’m not quite sure whom it is that I’m ashamed of. My father, for betraying his country, for aiding and abetting a regime so far removed from his own ideals, and for profiting by it, or the Russians for accepting information from someone who was such a blatant capitalist. Or was the guilt and shame my own, after all hadn’t I profited too. Our whole life style had been supported by his ill-gotten gains, not just things like the house, and the car, but even my place in this school. I think it ironic that it was the communists all along who were providing me with my private education.
The taxi has arrived to take me to the station. Miss Bradshaw the Art mistress helps me with my suitcase. I can feel matron’s eyes boring into my back as she watches me leave from her study window. I have left a hurried note for Diana, along with what is left of the biscuits. My mother will be meeting me from the train and we are going to be leasing a remote cottage in north Wales. Our name is to be changed to Royal to protect our identities; it is a sort of anagram of Taylor, and I think it very fitting when you consider my father is a guest at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Diana found my note just in time, she comes running down the platform, as the train is about to pull away, her face flushed with the emotion and exertion.
I call to her, waving frantically from the window.
She sees me and uses what breath she has left to call back, “Remember to write.”