Skin & Bone. Flesh & Blood.

Posted on October 1, 2018

SKIN AND BONE.  FLESH AND BLOOD.

 

 

‘Very nice,’ said Francis, ‘very nice indeed. This place is like a hotel.  Personally I think they should stick you in a padded cell.’

 

She looked worse than last time.  She’d been there a fortnight, why weren’t they doing anything?

 

She was in bed for a start.  Surely she shouldn’t be allowed to stay in bed all day.  Didn’t they lay on activities and stuff?  Shouldn’t she be basket weaving or something?

 

‘I bring gifts,’ he said, holding up a plastic bag and giving it a shake.  She looked terrible. ‘Don’t get over excited, it’s just what they had on offer at the station.  Then I had to get three buses.  Three!  If I leave now I should make it home some time tomorrow evening.’

 

God it was hot in there.  Stifling.  He wanted to throw open all the windows.  Why was she so smothered up?  She was wearing the socks he’d sent her, cashmere, the softest he could find and wasn’t that their father’s jersey?  It must have been ninety degrees in there.

 

‘Can I put my coat over here?’ he said, flinging his jacket over the back of a chair.  ‘Someone won’t come in and have it incinerated for not matching the colour scheme will they?’

 

She looked so fragile; angular, translucent, almost grotesque.  Her eyes were too big for her head, her mouth too wide, her fingers like an old woman’s; tapered, thin and slow-moving.

 

‘Did you get some bacci and rollies?’  She asked looking into the bag. ‘Let’s get one on the go.’

 

‘Shall we go outside?’

 

‘No, they follow you around the grounds.’

 

‘They used to let you smoke at the last place didn’t they?  I thought that was very

civilised of them.’

 

‘Yes, they did.’

 

‘Why didn’t you go back there?’

 

‘Oh you know Phil and Liz, why have a bit of continuity when there’s a new bunch of miracle workers to take your dosh.’

 

‘Have they been in?’

 

‘What do you think?’

 

‘Where are they?  Don’t tell me.  Glacier skiing?  Truffle hunting?  Truffle hunting whilst skiing down a glacier?’

 

‘Chicago.  Working.’  Hennie’s tongue poked out from between her lips and she delicately licked the edge of a rolling paper.  The skin on her fingers was cracked and chalky and her knuckles looked swollen and arthritic.

 

Francis looked away.  ‘Have you heard from Nanny?’

 

Hennie turned and took a card from her bedside table.  It was pink and covered in roses.  Francis opened it and read out loud.

 

‘’May Jesus watch over you and protect you during your time in hospital.’’  Where does she even find these cards? ‘To Henrietta. Francis says he’ll bring me to see you when you’re on the mend, won’t that be nice? Love and big kisses Nanny.’’  He noted that Nanny’s handwriting had deteriorated – it was shaky and almost unintelligible – and this made him feel quite dizzy.

 

He sat down.  He put his feet up over the end of the bed and pivoted his chair back and forth on its hind legs.

 

‘How’s Oxford?’ Hennie asked.

 

‘Grim,’ he replied.  ‘Now open up your pressies, there’s a good girl.’

 

Hennie put her roll-up to one side and withdrew from the bag a packet of Wagon Wheels, some ready salted Hula Hoops and four tubes of Wine Gums.

 

‘You didn’t find Wagon Wheels at the station,’ she said, eyeing her brother suspiciously.

 

‘OK, well those did take a bit of finding.’

 

They had been sent to prep schools in the Home Counties when he was nine and she eight.  Their parents loved them dearly but they’d married very young and never really knew how to parent effectively, having never been parented effectively themselves.  The children would spend the holidays chasing their parents around the globe.  Before they had even reached their teens, they would trudge onto a long-haul flight, yawning and ignoring the perky airline employee whose job it was to accompany the unaccompanied, rejecting the natty rucksacks of in-flight puzzle packs and uniformed teddy bears, in favour of napping and poker.

 

Alternatively, they would spend the holidays at Nanny’s in Swindon.  She had looked after their mother when she was growing up.  She used to give them Hula Hoops and Wine Gums for the journey when they left, and warm milk and a Wagon Wheel before they went to bed.

 

Francis could tell that just holding the food in her hands was making Hennie tense.  He stood up and took it from her.  ‘I’ll put these over here shall I?  You can eat them later.’

 

‘Yum,’ said Hennie and the reference to eating lingered heavily in the space between them.

 

‘I’ve been looking forward to this,’ she murmured and turning towards the window, picked up the roll-up and a small, plastic lighter.

 

She opened the window.  There was an elaborate restraint on it that someone had simply cut through so Hennie could open the window wide and thrust her entire torso out of it.  Francis felt alarmed and wanted to grab her and heave her safely inside.

 

Hennie lit the cigarette and took a drag.  Francis joined her and their hips rubbed uncomfortably against the window frame.  Hennie passed the roll-up to Francis and he too took a long drag.  The view from the first-floor window was of fields and paths and the South Downs.

 

‘Do you get any weed in here?’ he asked.

 

‘Well some kid called Horatio-‘

 

‘Horatio?!’  Francis coughed as he painfully exhaled a cloud of tobacco.

 

Hennie began to laugh too.  ‘Horatio Lemon.’  She chuckled loudly as if the name had only then struck her as funny.

 

Francis scrunched his features into an expression of deep scepticism.  ‘Horatio Lemon?  It sounds like a character from Dr Suess.  Seriously?  Horatio Lemon?’

 

‘Yes!’  Hennie wrapped her arms around her chest as if laughing hurt her ribs.

 

‘Or Hilaire Belloc; ‘Horatio Lemon Who Smoked A Fat One and Came to a Sorry End,’ said Francis.

 

‘Poor Horatio Lemon,’ she said eventually, ‘who is going for an Olympic medal in self-harming apparently – got stuck in here when his housemaster found him trying to eat drawing pins –‘ Francis winced as his sister continued. ‘Horatio got a visit from his father who bought him some weed in the shape of a house brick.  I’m not kidding you, his own father!  Anyway it got confiscated and the staff couldn’t believe their luck.’

 

‘What a bunch of hypocrites,’ said Francis.

 

‘Oh no, l don’t blame them.  Who’d want to work in a place like this – with all us fuck-ups?’  The energy seemed to have seeped out of Hennie and she was weary again.

 

‘Do you like them then?  Are they helping?’ Francis asked with what he knew was too much urgency, and Hennie shrugged, her mouth fixed in a joyless smile.

 

‘Yeah, they’re great,’ she said.

 

‘Well there’s no way I’m spending Christmas with Phil and Liz again without you.’  Francis flicked the cigarette butt out of the window.  ‘If I have to drag you out of this place by your hair on Christmas Day, I swear to God I am not going through one second of parental Yuletide hideousness on my own.’  Their parents were Felipe and Beth. They called them Mum and Dad to their faces but always referred to them as Phil and Liz when together.

 

‘Shit!’ Hennie thrust her bottom down and hid below the line of the windowsill.

 

‘What?’ said Francis who had joined her but didn’t know why.

 

‘It’s one of the staff, Kurt,’ she whispered.  ‘He must have seen you throw the butt.  Shit, they’ll take my phone off me again.’

 

They both sat with their knees drawn up to their chests.

 

‘Hello?’ said a voice from below.  ‘Hello, Henrietta?  Look I don’t want to get all heavy but are you shmoking up there?’  Francis and Hennie looked at each other wide eyed and started to snigger.  They didn’t move.

 

‘I know you’re there, Henrietta, come on, we should talk about this.  It’s not about punishment, it’s about undershtanding.’

 

Francis snorted and Hennie told him to ‘Ssssssh!’

 

‘Shall I come up?  Shall we talk about this?  Do you have someone with you?’  Francis went to stand up and Hennie grabbed at his arm to try and pull him back so that he almost over-balanced.

 

‘Hi,’ said Francis waving to Kurt and disentangling himself from his sister.

 

‘Hi,’ said Kurt looking confused.

 

‘I’m Francis, Henrietta’s brother.’

 

‘Oh OK. Hi, nice to meet you.’

 

‘Nice to meet you too.  Look, that was me smoking.  I’m really sorry.  Henrietta absolutely refused to join me in a cigarette and she begged me to go outside.  My behaviour has been appalling.  What must you think? ‘

 

‘Well you know, we have a really clear policy about shmoking here…’

 

‘I know, I know.  Henrietta made that very clear.  Where are you from?’

 

‘Finland.’

 

‘Wow, now that’s a place I’d love to see.’

 

Henrietta stood up and waved at Kurt too.

 

‘Hi Kurt,’ she said.

 

‘Hello Henrietta.  I see you have a visitor.  Will you bring him to the group later?  You would be most welcome, Francis.’

 

‘I’d rather scoop out my eyeballs with a teashpoon,’ Francis said to Hennie barely moving his lips before shouting: ‘Great!  See you there.’

 

‘It is a forum for therapeutic sharing,’ said Kurt.

 

‘Even better,’ said Francis.  ‘See you there.  And no more shmoking I promise.’

 

‘OK, Francis, thank you for your undershtanding.’

 

‘Not a problem, byee.’

 

‘Goodbye.’

 

They folded themselves back into the room.  ‘What a sweetheart,’ said Francis.

 

‘He is actually,’ said Hennie.

 

‘Look, I can come to the group if you’d like.  I just assumed-‘

 

‘God no.  I can’t imagine anything worse.  You’d hate it.’

 

‘No I wouldn’t.  Not if you wanted me there.’

 

‘I don’t.’  Hennie looked horrified. ‘Believe me.’

 

‘OK.  I just thought that maybe… forget it.  It’s fine.  Are they all like him?’

 

‘Pretty much; kind, patient, earnest, utterly ineffectual.’

 

‘I thought this place might be better.’

 

‘Not really.  Same dance, different partners.’

 

‘So would you like me to talk to Phil and Liz about somewhere else?   I was reading about a place in Yorkshire and I thought it might be right for you and I know they think the NHS is a waste of time, but maybe a more mainstream approach might actually work.’

 

‘Yeah OK,’ Hennie said.  ‘That sounds great. I’m up for anything.’  But the whites of her eyes were reddening and her chest made a fluttering motion inside her sweater. Why couldn’t they just feed her?  Funnels and rubber-tubing, suffragette style?  He didn’t care how.  Christ, he’d help them hold her down if needs be. How could they talk about therapeutic healing and curative understanding when she was so patently starving herself to death? Why was there no sense of urgency?  Were they just going to let her become invisible? To have a heart attack in her sleep and never wake up?

 

‘When are you going back?’ She asked

 

‘I’m not sure.  I’m going to spend a couple of days in London with Tommy and then I’ll probably head back at the weekend.’

 

‘Have you got exams?’

 

‘No, not for months, so it’s pretty relaxed.’  Neither spoke and Francis found himself willing his sister not to ask the question that inevitably began to pervade the silence.

 

‘Have you seen him?’ she said.

 

‘No.’

 

‘Not even in the street?’

 

‘No, well maybe in the bar but not really to talk to.’  Francis clasped his hands above his head and pressed them down onto his skull.

 

‘How was he?’

 

‘I told you, we hardly spoke.’

 

‘Was he with her?’  Francis went to the window and stood with his back to her.

 

‘Jesus Hen, leave it.  He’s so not worth it.’  He turned back to her.  ‘He’s not worth all this,’ and he threw his arms to the side to take in the room and the fields beyond.  ‘You were so much better.  How can you let some creep like that make you stop eating again?  You saw what happened to Sophie Reece.  I’m so fucking scared that’s going to be you and all over him?  Yes, Benedict was with Tilly.  Yes, they were all over each other.  Happy?  Is that what you wanted to hear so you’ve got an excuse to go another month without eating?’

 

‘Stop it,’ Hennie was angry. She shrunk away from Francis and irritably wiped her hand across her eyes.  Her wrists were skeletal.  Blue, bulbous veins snaked over her joints beneath parchment-thin skin.

 

‘Do you ever look at yourself?’ Francis said.  It was breaking every rule to speak to her like this and he’d promised himself that he wouldn’t, that he’d leave it to the professionals. But now he was here, the thought of getting back on the bus having said nothing was unthinkable.  ‘Honestly Hen, do you ever look in the mirror?  I can’t stand to look at you.  You look as if you’re dying and I can’t stand it.’

 

Hennie put her hands over her ears.  ‘Stop it Fran.  You said you wouldn’t.  You promised.’

 

‘You look as if you’ve got some terrible disease, some awful, cruel disease.  But there’s nothing wrong with you.  All you have to do is eat something.  Just eat something.’  Francis went to the table and ripped open the sweets and spilled them onto the bed.

 

‘I will.  If everyone would just leave me alone, I will.’

 

‘Go on then, if it’s so easy.’  Francis threw a handful of sweets across the room. ‘Go on then.’

 

Hennie started to panic. ‘You have no idea,’ she howled.  ‘I want to, of course I want to. It’s just-‘

 

‘What? Just what?”

 

‘I don’t know!’

 

‘You don’t know?’

 

Francis swept the rest of the sweets off the bed and onto the floor.  ‘Have you any idea how fucking selfish you are?  What this does to me?  And all the time I’m told I’m not allowed to say anything.  I’m not allowed to upset you, draw attention to the fact that you look half-dead already.  Well what about me?’ He jabbed his chest with his index finger.  ‘What about upsetting me?  Well, I’m not coming again if this carries on.  I’m not getting two trains and three bloody buses to come here and see you looking like some famine victim.  Why should I?  Have you any idea what this does to me?’  Francis turned and stared out of the window again.  He looked down at his hands and clasped his fingers together to stop them from trembling.

 

‘I want to eat,’ Hennie said quietly.

 

‘No you don’t,’ Francis laughed, still with his back to her.  ‘You want to be left to wallow in your misery here.  You want to withdraw from the world and indulge your own wretchedness and pine away for some twat who can barely remember your name.  You’re just an embarrassment to him now.’

 

‘Don’t say that…’

 

He refused to turn around.  He continued to stare angrily out of the window as Hennie sank to her knees and then toppled forward onto all fours.  She picked up one of the sweets from the floor and slowly put it in her mouth and then another and another.  She tried to chew.  Her saliva – dyed red now – spilled from her mouth in a long, shiny thread.  She crawled on and picked up another sweet and another, but as she tried to swallow, her body convulsed and she wretched like a cat choking on its own fur.  Francis turned to look at her.  Hennie sat back and looked up at him, the sweets spilling out of her mouth, a lipstick-purple gash, and she wretched again.  Try as she might, she could not swallow.

 

Francis dropped onto the floor beside her.  ‘It’s OK,’ he said.  ‘It’s OK.  I’m sorry.’  He took her head and pressed it into the nape of his neck and then withdrew it and put his hand out for her to spit the sticky mess of sweets into.

 

‘I’m sorry, Fran,’ Hennie whispered.  ‘It’s just so fucking hard.’

 

‘I know.  I know.  I’m sorry too. I know you’d eat if you could. I know you can’t help it.’ Did he?  Francis thought.  Did he really believe that all this was out of her control?  He didn’t know any more, but he held her head and kissed the crown of it.  ‘Will you promise me that you’ll stay here for as long as it takes to get properly better this time, for good?  I can’t go through this again, Hen, I love you too much and I can’t take it.  If anything happened to you….’  Francis stood up and put the sweets into a tissue.  He took another one and gave it to Hennie, who blew her nose.

 

He looked out of the window again.  ‘The sun’s come out,’ he said.  ‘Fancy a walk?”

 

Hennie nodded, stood up and shuffled her feet into a pair of old sneakers, pushed down at the back so the laces didn’t require doing up.  She put on another sweater, the arms of which were overlong, so she cupped the rims of the sleeves with her fingers and hunched her shoulders.

 

They walked around the grounds and after a while began talking more easily again.  They slagged off their parents and Francis went into hilarious detail over a party he’d been to where an ancient don had tried to feel him up.  Eventually they returned to the room so that he could collect his things and head back.

 

Hugging Hennie goodbye was an awkward affair as Francis was afraid of hurting her, that she would crack like a little egg.  And yet he wanted to squeeze her, to somehow leave an imprint of himself on her, of his strength, of his vitality, of his devotion, so that she would remember that she was loved.

 

‘So you promise?’ he said as he stood with his hand on the door handle.  ‘You promise to get well for me?’

 

‘I promise,’ Hen said and smiled.  She looked exhausted but more like her old self.

 

‘Good,’ said Francis.  ‘I should hope so too.  You do have something to get better for you know?’

 

‘I know,’ Hennie said.  ‘I know I do and I will, I promise,’ and she swished her finger across her chest.  ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’

 

‘Well you’ve said it now, so you’ve got to.  Even if it’s just a diet of cigarettes and Wagon Wheels.’

 

‘Now you’re talking…’

 

Francis gave a little wave and pulled down the door handle.  Although it had been painful, he was pleased he’d said what he’d said.  He felt it had opened a new chapter for Hen and for him and that it would be a good one.  They could be more honest with each other now and perhaps he could help her in a way he’d failed to do the last time.

 

‘Just before you go,’ said Hennie, ‘just one thing.  Don’t be angry.’  She crossed the room and began searching through the contents of a draw.  She eventually withdrew an envelope, fattened by its contents. The name Benedict was written on it.  She was sheepish.  ‘Will you give it to him.  I just want him to know…’

 

‘Sure,’ said Francis.  He looked at the envelope for a moment and then stuffed it into his bag. ‘No problem, I’ll see that he gets it.’  And he left the room and shut the door gently behind him.

 

+++

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SKIN AND BONE.  FLESH AND BLOOD.

 

 

‘Very nice,’ said Francis, ‘very nice indeed. This place is like a hotel.  Personally I think they should stick you in a padded cell.’

 

She looked worse than last time.  She’d been there a fortnight, why weren’t they doing anything?

 

She was in bed for a start.  Surely she shouldn’t be allowed to stay in bed all day.  Didn’t they lay on activities and stuff?  Shouldn’t she be basket weaving or something?

 

‘I bring gifts,’ he said, holding up a plastic bag and giving it a shake.  She looked terrible. ‘Don’t get over excited, it’s just what they had on offer at the station.  Then I had to get three buses.  Three!  If I leave now I should make it home some time tomorrow evening.’

 

God it was hot in there.  Stifling.  He wanted to throw open all the windows.  Why was she so smothered up?  She was wearing the socks he’d sent her, cashmere, the softest he could find and wasn’t that their father’s jersey?  It must have been ninety degrees in there.

 

‘Can I put my coat over here?’ he said, flinging his jacket over the back of a chair.  ‘Someone won’t come in and have it incinerated for not matching the colour scheme will they?’

 

She looked so fragile; angular, translucent, almost grotesque.  Her eyes were too big for her head, her mouth too wide, her fingers like an old woman’s; tapered, thin and slow-moving.

 

‘Did you get some bacci and rollies?’  She asked looking into the bag. ‘Let’s get one on the go.’

 

‘Shall we go outside?’

 

‘No, they follow you around the grounds.’

 

‘They used to let you smoke at the last place didn’t they?  I thought that was very

civilised of them.’

 

‘Yes, they did.’

 

‘Why didn’t you go back there?’

 

‘Oh you know Phil and Liz, why have a bit of continuity when there’s a new bunch of miracle workers to take your dosh.’

 

‘Have they been in?’

 

‘What do you think?’

 

‘Where are they?  Don’t tell me.  Glacier skiing?  Truffle hunting?  Truffle hunting whilst skiing down a glacier?’

 

‘Chicago.  Working.’  Hennie’s tongue poked out from between her lips and she delicately licked the edge of a rolling paper.  The skin on her fingers was cracked and chalky and her knuckles looked swollen and arthritic.

 

Francis looked away.  ‘Have you heard from Nanny?’

 

Hennie turned and took a card from her bedside table.  It was pink and covered in roses.  Francis opened it and read out loud.

 

‘’May Jesus watch over you and protect you during your time in hospital.’’  Where does she even find these cards? ‘To Henrietta. Francis says he’ll bring me to see you when you’re on the mend, won’t that be nice? Love and big kisses Nanny.’’  He noted that Nanny’s handwriting had deteriorated – it was shaky and almost unintelligible – and this made him feel quite dizzy.

 

He sat down.  He put his feet up over the end of the bed and pivoted his chair back and forth on its hind legs.

 

‘How’s Oxford?’ Hennie asked.

 

‘Grim,’ he replied.  ‘Now open up your pressies, there’s a good girl.’

 

Hennie put her roll-up to one side and withdrew from the bag a packet of Wagon Wheels, some ready salted Hula Hoops and four tubes of Wine Gums.

 

‘You didn’t find Wagon Wheels at the station,’ she said, eyeing her brother suspiciously.

 

‘OK, well those did take a bit of finding.’

 

They had been sent to prep schools in the Home Counties when he was nine and she eight.  Their parents loved them dearly but they’d married very young and never really knew how to parent effectively, having never been parented effectively themselves.  The children would spend the holidays chasing their parents around the globe.  Before they had even reached their teens, they would trudge onto a long-haul flight, yawning and ignoring the perky airline employee whose job it was to accompany the unaccompanied, rejecting the natty rucksacks of in-flight puzzle packs and uniformed teddy bears, in favour of napping and poker.

 

Alternatively, they would spend the holidays at Nanny’s in Swindon.  She had looked after their mother when she was growing up.  She used to give them Hula Hoops and Wine Gums for the journey when they left, and warm milk and a Wagon Wheel before they went to bed.

 

Francis could tell that just holding the food in her hands was making Hennie tense.  He stood up and took it from her.  ‘I’ll put these over here shall I?  You can eat them later.’

 

‘Yum,’ said Hennie and the reference to eating lingered heavily in the space between them.

 

‘I’ve been looking forward to this,’ she murmured and turning towards the window, picked up the roll-up and a small, plastic lighter.

 

She opened the window.  There was an elaborate restraint on it that someone had simply cut through so Hennie could open the window wide and thrust her entire torso out of it.  Francis felt alarmed and wanted to grab her and heave her safely inside.

 

Hennie lit the cigarette and took a drag.  Francis joined her and their hips rubbed uncomfortably against the window frame.  Hennie passed the roll-up to Francis and he too took a long drag.  The view from the first-floor window was of fields and paths and the South Downs.

 

‘Do you get any weed in here?’ he asked.

 

‘Well some kid called Horatio-‘

 

‘Horatio?!’  Francis coughed as he painfully exhaled a cloud of tobacco.

 

Hennie began to laugh too.  ‘Horatio Lemon.’  She chuckled loudly as if the name had only then struck her as funny.

 

Francis scrunched his features into an expression of deep scepticism.  ‘Horatio Lemon?  It sounds like a character from Dr Suess.  Seriously?  Horatio Lemon?’

 

‘Yes!’  Hennie wrapped her arms around her chest as if laughing hurt her ribs.

 

‘Or Hilaire Belloc; ‘Horatio Lemon Who Smoked A Fat One and Came to a Sorry End,’ said Francis.

 

‘Poor Horatio Lemon,’ she said eventually, ‘who is going for an Olympic medal in self-harming apparently – got stuck in here when his housemaster found him trying to eat drawing pins –‘ Francis winced as his sister continued. ‘Horatio got a visit from his father who bought him some weed in the shape of a house brick.  I’m not kidding you, his own father!  Anyway it got confiscated and the staff couldn’t believe their luck.’

 

‘What a bunch of hypocrites,’ said Francis.

 

‘Oh no, l don’t blame them.  Who’d want to work in a place like this – with all us fuck-ups?’  The energy seemed to have seeped out of Hennie and she was weary again.

 

‘Do you like them then?  Are they helping?’ Francis asked with what he knew was too much urgency, and Hennie shrugged, her mouth fixed in a joyless smile.

 

‘Yeah, they’re great,’ she said.

 

‘Well there’s no way I’m spending Christmas with Phil and Liz again without you.’  Francis flicked the cigarette butt out of the window.  ‘If I have to drag you out of this place by your hair on Christmas Day, I swear to God I am not going through one second of parental Yuletide hideousness on my own.’  Their parents were Felipe and Beth. They called them Mum and Dad to their faces but always referred to them as Phil and Liz when together.

 

‘Shit!’ Hennie thrust her bottom down and hid below the line of the windowsill.

 

‘What?’ said Francis who had joined her but didn’t know why.

 

‘It’s one of the staff, Kurt,’ she whispered.  ‘He must have seen you throw the butt.  Shit, they’ll take my phone off me again.’

 

They both sat with their knees drawn up to their chests.

 

‘Hello?’ said a voice from below.  ‘Hello, Henrietta?  Look I don’t want to get all heavy but are you shmoking up there?’  Francis and Hennie looked at each other wide eyed and started to snigger.  They didn’t move.

 

‘I know you’re there, Henrietta, come on, we should talk about this.  It’s not about punishment, it’s about undershtanding.’

 

Francis snorted and Hennie told him to ‘Ssssssh!’

 

‘Shall I come up?  Shall we talk about this?  Do you have someone with you?’  Francis went to stand up and Hennie grabbed at his arm to try and pull him back so that he almost over-balanced.

 

‘Hi,’ said Francis waving to Kurt and disentangling himself from his sister.

 

‘Hi,’ said Kurt looking confused.

 

‘I’m Francis, Henrietta’s brother.’

 

‘Oh OK. Hi, nice to meet you.’

 

‘Nice to meet you too.  Look, that was me smoking.  I’m really sorry.  Henrietta absolutely refused to join me in a cigarette and she begged me to go outside.  My behaviour has been appalling.  What must you think? ‘

 

‘Well you know, we have a really clear policy about shmoking here…’

 

‘I know, I know.  Henrietta made that very clear.  Where are you from?’

 

‘Finland.’

 

‘Wow, now that’s a place I’d love to see.’

 

Henrietta stood up and waved at Kurt too.

 

‘Hi Kurt,’ she said.

 

‘Hello Henrietta.  I see you have a visitor.  Will you bring him to the group later?  You would be most welcome, Francis.’

 

‘I’d rather scoop out my eyeballs with a teashpoon,’ Francis said to Hennie barely moving his lips before shouting: ‘Great!  See you there.’

 

‘It is a forum for therapeutic sharing,’ said Kurt.

 

‘Even better,’ said Francis.  ‘See you there.  And no more shmoking I promise.’

 

‘OK, Francis, thank you for your undershtanding.’

 

‘Not a problem, byee.’

 

‘Goodbye.’

 

They folded themselves back into the room.  ‘What a sweetheart,’ said Francis.

 

‘He is actually,’ said Hennie.

 

‘Look, I can come to the group if you’d like.  I just assumed-‘

 

‘God no.  I can’t imagine anything worse.  You’d hate it.’

 

‘No I wouldn’t.  Not if you wanted me there.’

 

‘I don’t.’  Hennie looked horrified. ‘Believe me.’

 

‘OK.  I just thought that maybe… forget it.  It’s fine.  Are they all like him?’

 

‘Pretty much; kind, patient, earnest, utterly ineffectual.’

 

‘I thought this place might be better.’

 

‘Not really.  Same dance, different partners.’

 

‘So would you like me to talk to Phil and Liz about somewhere else?   I was reading about a place in Yorkshire and I thought it might be right for you and I know they think the NHS is a waste of time, but maybe a more mainstream approach might actually work.’

 

‘Yeah OK,’ Hennie said.  ‘That sounds great. I’m up for anything.’  But the whites of her eyes were reddening and her chest made a fluttering motion inside her sweater. Why couldn’t they just feed her?  Funnels and rubber-tubing, suffragette style?  He didn’t care how.  Christ, he’d help them hold her down if needs be. How could they talk about therapeutic healing and curative understanding when she was so patently starving herself to death? Why was there no sense of urgency?  Were they just going to let her become invisible? To have a heart attack in her sleep and never wake up?

 

‘When are you going back?’ She asked

 

‘I’m not sure.  I’m going to spend a couple of days in London with Tommy and then I’ll probably head back at the weekend.’

 

‘Have you got exams?’

 

‘No, not for months, so it’s pretty relaxed.’  Neither spoke and Francis found himself willing his sister not to ask the question that inevitably began to pervade the silence.

 

‘Have you seen him?’ she said.

 

‘No.’

 

‘Not even in the street?’

 

‘No, well maybe in the bar but not really to talk to.’  Francis clasped his hands above his head and pressed them down onto his skull.

 

‘How was he?’

 

‘I told you, we hardly spoke.’

 

‘Was he with her?’  Francis went to the window and stood with his back to her.

 

‘Jesus Hen, leave it.  He’s so not worth it.’  He turned back to her.  ‘He’s not worth all this,’ and he threw his arms to the side to take in the room and the fields beyond.  ‘You were so much better.  How can you let some creep like that make you stop eating again?  You saw what happened to Sophie Reece.  I’m so fucking scared that’s going to be you and all over him?  Yes, Benedict was with Tilly.  Yes, they were all over each other.  Happy?  Is that what you wanted to hear so you’ve got an excuse to go another month without eating?’

 

‘Stop it,’ Hennie was angry. She shrunk away from Francis and irritably wiped her hand across her eyes.  Her wrists were skeletal.  Blue, bulbous veins snaked over her joints beneath parchment-thin skin.

 

‘Do you ever look at yourself?’ Francis said.  It was breaking every rule to speak to her like this and he’d promised himself that he wouldn’t, that he’d leave it to the professionals. But now he was here, the thought of getting back on the bus having said nothing was unthinkable.  ‘Honestly Hen, do you ever look in the mirror?  I can’t stand to look at you.  You look as if you’re dying and I can’t stand it.’

 

Hennie put her hands over her ears.  ‘Stop it Fran.  You said you wouldn’t.  You promised.’

 

‘You look as if you’ve got some terrible disease, some awful, cruel disease.  But there’s nothing wrong with you.  All you have to do is eat something.  Just eat something.’  Francis went to the table and ripped open the sweets and spilled them onto the bed.

 

‘I will.  If everyone would just leave me alone, I will.’

 

‘Go on then, if it’s so easy.’  Francis threw a handful of sweets across the room. ‘Go on then.’

 

Hennie started to panic. ‘You have no idea,’ she howled.  ‘I want to, of course I want to. It’s just-‘

 

‘What? Just what?”

 

‘I don’t know!’

 

‘You don’t know?’

 

Francis swept the rest of the sweets off the bed and onto the floor.  ‘Have you any idea how fucking selfish you are?  What this does to me?  And all the time I’m told I’m not allowed to say anything.  I’m not allowed to upset you, draw attention to the fact that you look half-dead already.  Well what about me?’ He jabbed his chest with his index finger.  ‘What about upsetting me?  Well, I’m not coming again if this carries on.  I’m not getting two trains and three bloody buses to come here and see you looking like some famine victim.  Why should I?  Have you any idea what this does to me?’  Francis turned and stared out of the window again.  He looked down at his hands and clasped his fingers together to stop them from trembling.

 

‘I want to eat,’ Hennie said quietly.

 

‘No you don’t,’ Francis laughed, still with his back to her.  ‘You want to be left to wallow in your misery here.  You want to withdraw from the world and indulge your own wretchedness and pine away for some twat who can barely remember your name.  You’re just an embarrassment to him now.’

 

‘Don’t say that…’

 

He refused to turn around.  He continued to stare angrily out of the window as Hennie sank to her knees and then toppled forward onto all fours.  She picked up one of the sweets from the floor and slowly put it in her mouth and then another and another.  She tried to chew.  Her saliva – dyed red now – spilled from her mouth in a long, shiny thread.  She crawled on and picked up another sweet and another, but as she tried to swallow, her body convulsed and she wretched like a cat choking on its own fur.  Francis turned to look at her.  Hennie sat back and looked up at him, the sweets spilling out of her mouth, a lipstick-purple gash, and she wretched again.  Try as she might, she could not swallow.

 

Francis dropped onto the floor beside her.  ‘It’s OK,’ he said.  ‘It’s OK.  I’m sorry.’  He took her head and pressed it into the nape of his neck and then withdrew it and put his hand out for her to spit the sticky mess of sweets into.

 

‘I’m sorry, Fran,’ Hennie whispered.  ‘It’s just so fucking hard.’

 

‘I know.  I know.  I’m sorry too. I know you’d eat if you could. I know you can’t help it.’ Did he?  Francis thought.  Did he really believe that all this was out of her control?  He didn’t know any more, but he held her head and kissed the crown of it.  ‘Will you promise me that you’ll stay here for as long as it takes to get properly better this time, for good?  I can’t go through this again, Hen, I love you too much and I can’t take it.  If anything happened to you….’  Francis stood up and put the sweets into a tissue.  He took another one and gave it to Hennie, who blew her nose.

 

He looked out of the window again.  ‘The sun’s come out,’ he said.  ‘Fancy a walk?”

 

Hennie nodded, stood up and shuffled her feet into a pair of old sneakers, pushed down at the back so the laces didn’t require doing up.  She put on another sweater, the arms of which were overlong, so she cupped the rims of the sleeves with her fingers and hunched her shoulders.

 

They walked around the grounds and after a while began talking more easily again.  They slagged off their parents and Francis went into hilarious detail over a party he’d been to where an ancient don had tried to feel him up.  Eventually they returned to the room so that he could collect his things and head back.

 

Hugging Hennie goodbye was an awkward affair as Francis was afraid of hurting her, that she would crack like a little egg.  And yet he wanted to squeeze her, to somehow leave an imprint of himself on her, of his strength, of his vitality, of his devotion, so that she would remember that she was loved.

 

‘So you promise?’ he said as he stood with his hand on the door handle.  ‘You promise to get well for me?’

 

‘I promise,’ Hen said and smiled.  She looked exhausted but more like her old self.

 

‘Good,’ said Francis.  ‘I should hope so too.  You do have something to get better for you know?’

 

‘I know,’ Hennie said.  ‘I know I do and I will, I promise,’ and she swished her finger across her chest.  ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’

 

‘Well you’ve said it now, so you’ve got to.  Even if it’s just a diet of cigarettes and Wagon Wheels.’

 

‘Now you’re talking…’

 

Francis gave a little wave and pulled down the door handle.  Although it had been painful, he was pleased he’d said what he’d said.  He felt it had opened a new chapter for Hen and for him and that it would be a good one.  They could be more honest with each other now and perhaps he could help her in a way he’d failed to do the last time.

 

‘Just before you go,’ said Hennie, ‘just one thing.  Don’t be angry.’  She crossed the room and began searching through the contents of a draw.  She eventually withdrew an envelope, fattened by its contents. The name Benedict was written on it.  She was sheepish.  ‘Will you give it to him.  I just want him to know…’

 

‘Sure,’ said Francis.  He looked at the envelope for a moment and then stuffed it into his bag. ‘No problem, I’ll see that he gets it.’  And he left the room and shut the door gently behind him.

 

+++

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SKIN AND BONE.  FLESH AND BLOOD.

 

 

‘Very nice,’ said Francis, ‘very nice indeed. This place is like a hotel.  Personally I think they should stick you in a padded cell.’

 

She looked worse than last time.  She’d been there a fortnight, why weren’t they doing anything?

 

She was in bed for a start.  Surely she shouldn’t be allowed to stay in bed all day.  Didn’t they lay on activities and stuff?  Shouldn’t she be basket weaving or something?

 

‘I bring gifts,’ he said, holding up a plastic bag and giving it a shake.  She looked terrible. ‘Don’t get over excited, it’s just what they had on offer at the station.  Then I had to get three buses.  Three!  If I leave now I should make it home some time tomorrow evening.’

 

God it was hot in there.  Stifling.  He wanted to throw open all the windows.  Why was she so smothered up?  She was wearing the socks he’d sent her, cashmere, the softest he could find and wasn’t that their father’s jersey?  It must have been ninety degrees in there.

 

‘Can I put my coat over here?’ he said, flinging his jacket over the back of a chair.  ‘Someone won’t come in and have it incinerated for not matching the colour scheme will they?’

 

She looked so fragile; angular, translucent, almost grotesque.  Her eyes were too big for her head, her mouth too wide, her fingers like an old woman’s; tapered, thin and slow-moving.

 

‘Did you get some bacci and rollies?’  She asked looking into the bag. ‘Let’s get one on the go.’

 

‘Shall we go outside?’

 

‘No, they follow you around the grounds.’

 

‘They used to let you smoke at the last place didn’t they?  I thought that was very

civilised of them.’

 

‘Yes, they did.’

 

‘Why didn’t you go back there?’

 

‘Oh you know Phil and Liz, why have a bit of continuity when there’s a new bunch of miracle workers to take your dosh.’

 

‘Have they been in?’

 

‘What do you think?’

 

‘Where are they?  Don’t tell me.  Glacier skiing?  Truffle hunting?  Truffle hunting whilst skiing down a glacier?’

 

‘Chicago.  Working.’  Hennie’s tongue poked out from between her lips and she delicately licked the edge of a rolling paper.  The skin on her fingers was cracked and chalky and her knuckles looked swollen and arthritic.

 

Francis looked away.  ‘Have you heard from Nanny?’

 

Hennie turned and took a card from her bedside table.  It was pink and covered in roses.  Francis opened it and read out loud.

 

‘’May Jesus watch over you and protect you during your time in hospital.’’  Where does she even find these cards? ‘To Henrietta. Francis says he’ll bring me to see you when you’re on the mend, won’t that be nice? Love and big kisses Nanny.’’  He noted that Nanny’s handwriting had deteriorated – it was shaky and almost unintelligible – and this made him feel quite dizzy.

 

He sat down.  He put his feet up over the end of the bed and pivoted his chair back and forth on its hind legs.

 

‘How’s Oxford?’ Hennie asked.

 

‘Grim,’ he replied.  ‘Now open up your pressies, there’s a good girl.’

 

Hennie put her roll-up to one side and withdrew from the bag a packet of Wagon Wheels, some ready salted Hula Hoops and four tubes of Wine Gums.

 

‘You didn’t find Wagon Wheels at the station,’ she said, eyeing her brother suspiciously.

 

‘OK, well those did take a bit of finding.’

 

They had been sent to prep schools in the Home Counties when he was nine and she eight.  Their parents loved them dearly but they’d married very young and never really knew how to parent effectively, having never been parented effectively themselves.  The children would spend the holidays chasing their parents around the globe.  Before they had even reached their teens, they would trudge onto a long-haul flight, yawning and ignoring the perky airline employee whose job it was to accompany the unaccompanied, rejecting the natty rucksacks of in-flight puzzle packs and uniformed teddy bears, in favour of napping and poker.

 

Alternatively, they would spend the holidays at Nanny’s in Swindon.  She had looked after their mother when she was growing up.  She used to give them Hula Hoops and Wine Gums for the journey when they left, and warm milk and a Wagon Wheel before they went to bed.

 

Francis could tell that just holding the food in her hands was making Hennie tense.  He stood up and took it from her.  ‘I’ll put these over here shall I?  You can eat them later.’

 

‘Yum,’ said Hennie and the reference to eating lingered heavily in the space between them.

 

‘I’ve been looking forward to this,’ she murmured and turning towards the window, picked up the roll-up and a small, plastic lighter.

 

She opened the window.  There was an elaborate restraint on it that someone had simply cut through so Hennie could open the window wide and thrust her entire torso out of it.  Francis felt alarmed and wanted to grab her and heave her safely inside.

 

Hennie lit the cigarette and took a drag.  Francis joined her and their hips rubbed uncomfortably against the window frame.  Hennie passed the roll-up to Francis and he too took a long drag.  The view from the first-floor window was of fields and paths and the South Downs.

 

‘Do you get any weed in here?’ he asked.

 

‘Well some kid called Horatio-‘

 

‘Horatio?!’  Francis coughed as he painfully exhaled a cloud of tobacco.

 

Hennie began to laugh too.  ‘Horatio Lemon.’  She chuckled loudly as if the name had only then struck her as funny.

 

Francis scrunched his features into an expression of deep scepticism.  ‘Horatio Lemon?  It sounds like a character from Dr Suess.  Seriously?  Horatio Lemon?’

 

‘Yes!’  Hennie wrapped her arms around her chest as if laughing hurt her ribs.

 

‘Or Hilaire Belloc; ‘Horatio Lemon Who Smoked A Fat One and Came to a Sorry End,’ said Francis.

 

‘Poor Horatio Lemon,’ she said eventually, ‘who is going for an Olympic medal in self-harming apparently – got stuck in here when his housemaster found him trying to eat drawing pins –‘ Francis winced as his sister continued. ‘Horatio got a visit from his father who bought him some weed in the shape of a house brick.  I’m not kidding you, his own father!  Anyway it got confiscated and the staff couldn’t believe their luck.’

 

‘What a bunch of hypocrites,’ said Francis.

 

‘Oh no, l don’t blame them.  Who’d want to work in a place like this – with all us fuck-ups?’  The energy seemed to have seeped out of Hennie and she was weary again.

 

‘Do you like them then?  Are they helping?’ Francis asked with what he knew was too much urgency, and Hennie shrugged, her mouth fixed in a joyless smile.

 

‘Yeah, they’re great,’ she said.

 

‘Well there’s no way I’m spending Christmas with Phil and Liz again without you.’  Francis flicked the cigarette butt out of the window.  ‘If I have to drag you out of this place by your hair on Christmas Day, I swear to God I am not going through one second of parental Yuletide hideousness on my own.’  Their parents were Felipe and Beth. They called them Mum and Dad to their faces but always referred to them as Phil and Liz when together.

 

‘Shit!’ Hennie thrust her bottom down and hid below the line of the windowsill.

 

‘What?’ said Francis who had joined her but didn’t know why.

 

‘It’s one of the staff, Kurt,’ she whispered.  ‘He must have seen you throw the butt.  Shit, they’ll take my phone off me again.’

 

They both sat with their knees drawn up to their chests.

 

‘Hello?’ said a voice from below.  ‘Hello, Henrietta?  Look I don’t want to get all heavy but are you shmoking up there?’  Francis and Hennie looked at each other wide eyed and started to snigger.  They didn’t move.

 

‘I know you’re there, Henrietta, come on, we should talk about this.  It’s not about punishment, it’s about undershtanding.’

 

Francis snorted and Hennie told him to ‘Ssssssh!’

 

‘Shall I come up?  Shall we talk about this?  Do you have someone with you?’  Francis went to stand up and Hennie grabbed at his arm to try and pull him back so that he almost over-balanced.

 

‘Hi,’ said Francis waving to Kurt and disentangling himself from his sister.

 

‘Hi,’ said Kurt looking confused.

 

‘I’m Francis, Henrietta’s brother.’

 

‘Oh OK. Hi, nice to meet you.’

 

‘Nice to meet you too.  Look, that was me smoking.  I’m really sorry.  Henrietta absolutely refused to join me in a cigarette and she begged me to go outside.  My behaviour has been appalling.  What must you think? ‘

 

‘Well you know, we have a really clear policy about shmoking here…’

 

‘I know, I know.  Henrietta made that very clear.  Where are you from?’

 

‘Finland.’

 

‘Wow, now that’s a place I’d love to see.’

 

Henrietta stood up and waved at Kurt too.

 

‘Hi Kurt,’ she said.

 

‘Hello Henrietta.  I see you have a visitor.  Will you bring him to the group later?  You would be most welcome, Francis.’

 

‘I’d rather scoop out my eyeballs with a teashpoon,’ Francis said to Hennie barely moving his lips before shouting: ‘Great!  See you there.’

 

‘It is a forum for therapeutic sharing,’ said Kurt.

 

‘Even better,’ said Francis.  ‘See you there.  And no more shmoking I promise.’

 

‘OK, Francis, thank you for your undershtanding.’

 

‘Not a problem, byee.’

 

‘Goodbye.’

 

They folded themselves back into the room.  ‘What a sweetheart,’ said Francis.

 

‘He is actually,’ said Hennie.

 

‘Look, I can come to the group if you’d like.  I just assumed-‘

 

‘God no.  I can’t imagine anything worse.  You’d hate it.’

 

‘No I wouldn’t.  Not if you wanted me there.’

 

‘I don’t.’  Hennie looked horrified. ‘Believe me.’

 

‘OK.  I just thought that maybe… forget it.  It’s fine.  Are they all like him?’

 

‘Pretty much; kind, patient, earnest, utterly ineffectual.’

 

‘I thought this place might be better.’

 

‘Not really.  Same dance, different partners.’

 

‘So would you like me to talk to Phil and Liz about somewhere else?   I was reading about a place in Yorkshire and I thought it might be right for you and I know they think the NHS is a waste of time, but maybe a more mainstream approach might actually work.’

 

‘Yeah OK,’ Hennie said.  ‘That sounds great. I’m up for anything.’  But the whites of her eyes were reddening and her chest made a fluttering motion inside her sweater. Why couldn’t they just feed her?  Funnels and rubber-tubing, suffragette style?  He didn’t care how.  Christ, he’d help them hold her down if needs be. How could they talk about therapeutic healing and curative understanding when she was so patently starving herself to death? Why was there no sense of urgency?  Were they just going to let her become invisible? To have a heart attack in her sleep and never wake up?

 

‘When are you going back?’ She asked

 

‘I’m not sure.  I’m going to spend a couple of days in London with Tommy and then I’ll probably head back at the weekend.’

 

‘Have you got exams?’

 

‘No, not for months, so it’s pretty relaxed.’  Neither spoke and Francis found himself willing his sister not to ask the question that inevitably began to pervade the silence.

 

‘Have you seen him?’ she said.

 

‘No.’

 

‘Not even in the street?’

 

‘No, well maybe in the bar but not really to talk to.’  Francis clasped his hands above his head and pressed them down onto his skull.

 

‘How was he?’

 

‘I told you, we hardly spoke.’

 

‘Was he with her?’  Francis went to the window and stood with his back to her.

 

‘Jesus Hen, leave it.  He’s so not worth it.’  He turned back to her.  ‘He’s not worth all this,’ and he threw his arms to the side to take in the room and the fields beyond.  ‘You were so much better.  How can you let some creep like that make you stop eating again?  You saw what happened to Sophie Reece.  I’m so fucking scared that’s going to be you and all over him?  Yes, Benedict was with Tilly.  Yes, they were all over each other.  Happy?  Is that what you wanted to hear so you’ve got an excuse to go another month without eating?’

 

‘Stop it,’ Hennie was angry. She shrunk away from Francis and irritably wiped her hand across her eyes.  Her wrists were skeletal.  Blue, bulbous veins snaked over her joints beneath parchment-thin skin.

 

‘Do you ever look at yourself?’ Francis said.  It was breaking every rule to speak to her like this and he’d promised himself that he wouldn’t, that he’d leave it to the professionals. But now he was here, the thought of getting back on the bus having said nothing was unthinkable.  ‘Honestly Hen, do you ever look in the mirror?  I can’t stand to look at you.  You look as if you’re dying and I can’t stand it.’

 

Hennie put her hands over her ears.  ‘Stop it Fran.  You said you wouldn’t.  You promised.’

 

‘You look as if you’ve got some terrible disease, some awful, cruel disease.  But there’s nothing wrong with you.  All you have to do is eat something.  Just eat something.’  Francis went to the table and ripped open the sweets and spilled them onto the bed.

 

‘I will.  If everyone would just leave me alone, I will.’

 

‘Go on then, if it’s so easy.’  Francis threw a handful of sweets across the room. ‘Go on then.’

 

Hennie started to panic. ‘You have no idea,’ she howled.  ‘I want to, of course I want to. It’s just-‘

 

‘What? Just what?”

 

‘I don’t know!’

 

‘You don’t know?’

 

Francis swept the rest of the sweets off the bed and onto the floor.  ‘Have you any idea how fucking selfish you are?  What this does to me?  And all the time I’m told I’m not allowed to say anything.  I’m not allowed to upset you, draw attention to the fact that you look half-dead already.  Well what about me?’ He jabbed his chest with his index finger.  ‘What about upsetting me?  Well, I’m not coming again if this carries on.  I’m not getting two trains and three bloody buses to come here and see you looking like some famine victim.  Why should I?  Have you any idea what this does to me?’  Francis turned and stared out of the window again.  He looked down at his hands and clasped his fingers together to stop them from trembling.

 

‘I want to eat,’ Hennie said quietly.

 

‘No you don’t,’ Francis laughed, still with his back to her.  ‘You want to be left to wallow in your misery here.  You want to withdraw from the world and indulge your own wretchedness and pine away for some twat who can barely remember your name.  You’re just an embarrassment to him now.’

 

‘Don’t say that…’

 

He refused to turn around.  He continued to stare angrily out of the window as Hennie sank to her knees and then toppled forward onto all fours.  She picked up one of the sweets from the floor and slowly put it in her mouth and then another and another.  She tried to chew.  Her saliva – dyed red now – spilled from her mouth in a long, shiny thread.  She crawled on and picked up another sweet and another, but as she tried to swallow, her body convulsed and she wretched like a cat choking on its own fur.  Francis turned to look at her.  Hennie sat back and looked up at him, the sweets spilling out of her mouth, a lipstick-purple gash, and she wretched again.  Try as she might, she could not swallow.

 

Francis dropped onto the floor beside her.  ‘It’s OK,’ he said.  ‘It’s OK.  I’m sorry.’  He took her head and pressed it into the nape of his neck and then withdrew it and put his hand out for her to spit the sticky mess of sweets into.

 

‘I’m sorry, Fran,’ Hennie whispered.  ‘It’s just so fucking hard.’

 

‘I know.  I know.  I’m sorry too. I know you’d eat if you could. I know you can’t help it.’ Did he?  Francis thought.  Did he really believe that all this was out of her control?  He didn’t know any more, but he held her head and kissed the crown of it.  ‘Will you promise me that you’ll stay here for as long as it takes to get properly better this time, for good?  I can’t go through this again, Hen, I love you too much and I can’t take it.  If anything happened to you….’  Francis stood up and put the sweets into a tissue.  He took another one and gave it to Hennie, who blew her nose.

 

He looked out of the window again.  ‘The sun’s come out,’ he said.  ‘Fancy a walk?”

 

Hennie nodded, stood up and shuffled her feet into a pair of old sneakers, pushed down at the back so the laces didn’t require doing up.  She put on another sweater, the arms of which were overlong, so she cupped the rims of the sleeves with her fingers and hunched her shoulders.

 

They walked around the grounds and after a while began talking more easily again.  They slagged off their parents and Francis went into hilarious detail over a party he’d been to where an ancient don had tried to feel him up.  Eventually they returned to the room so that he could collect his things and head back.

 

Hugging Hennie goodbye was an awkward affair as Francis was afraid of hurting her, that she would crack like a little egg.  And yet he wanted to squeeze her, to somehow leave an imprint of himself on her, of his strength, of his vitality, of his devotion, so that she would remember that she was loved.

 

‘So you promise?’ he said as he stood with his hand on the door handle.  ‘You promise to get well for me?’

 

‘I promise,’ Hen said and smiled.  She looked exhausted but more like her old self.

 

‘Good,’ said Francis.  ‘I should hope so too.  You do have something to get better for you know?’

 

‘I know,’ Hennie said.  ‘I know I do and I will, I promise,’ and she swished her finger across her chest.  ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’

 

‘Well you’ve said it now, so you’ve got to.  Even if it’s just a diet of cigarettes and Wagon Wheels.’

 

‘Now you’re talking…’

 

Francis gave a little wave and pulled down the door handle.  Although it had been painful, he was pleased he’d said what he’d said.  He felt it had opened a new chapter for Hen and for him and that it would be a good one.  They could be more honest with each other now and perhaps he could help her in a way he’d failed to do the last time.

 

‘Just before you go,’ said Hennie, ‘just one thing.  Don’t be angry.’  She crossed the room and began searching through the contents of a draw.  She eventually withdrew an envelope, fattened by its contents. The name Benedict was written on it.  She was sheepish.  ‘Will you give it to him.  I just want him to know…’

 

‘Sure,’ said Francis.  He looked at the envelope for a moment and then stuffed it into his bag. ‘No problem, I’ll see that he gets it.’  And he left the room and shut the door gently behind him.

 

+++

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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