The Wedding Feast by Jonathan Pidduck - HTML preview

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“I mustn’t hug you,” she said to herself, again and again, but she always did, and each time he died in her arms. And there was Daddy behind him, looking prouder and prouder, and she wanted to hug him too so that he would never smile at her again.

 

Once, when she thought she was awake, Mandy was there too. She was holding out a white fluffy thing, as if to put it over her face as she slept.

 

“What’s that?” asked Matilda, drowsily.

 

Amanda and Philip froze. They exchanged guilty glances.

 

“She’s awake!” said Philip, panic-stricken.

 

“It’s a pillow,” replied Amanda calmly. “We thought you might be more comfortable with a pillow.”

 

“No thank you,” smiled Matilda, thinking that maybe Mandy wasn’t so nasty after all. She drifted off to sleep again, back to her recurring hugging nightmare.

 

It was only the following morning that she remembered this “pillow” dream. Nanny had taught her to interpret her dreams, but she could make head nor tail of this one, no matter how hard she tried. Philip had been in it, though, looking very handsome, and she hadn’t been squeezing him to death. Maybe it was like one of those funny dreams Vincent used to get in his teens.

 

#

 

She awoke to find that Mandy had left Philip’s house already. It gave her confidence that her scary love-rival had gone, and she told Philip how she wanted to spend the day. It seemed to catch him off-guard, as he turned pale and sat down quickly on the sofa.

 

“You want to do what?”

 

“I’d like to meet your Mummy and Daddy.”

 

“Why?”

 

“We’re getting married. Nanny said Outsiders always meet each other’s parents before they get married. It’s a tradition. I want to do things properly.”

 

Philip went whiter still, and started blowing into a paper bag, which seemed to her to be a very curious thing to do. Another Outsider custom, perhaps? A thought struck her; a terrible, terrible thought. What if he was having second thoughts about their wedding?

 

“We are getting married, aren’t we, Philip? Please don’t send me back to Daddy!”

 

“No, no,” he broke off from the bag. “You’re definitely not going back to Daddy, whatever happens.”

 

Matilda gave him a huge girlish grin. She went to give him a huge girlish hug too, but much to his relief seemed to think better of it, patting his head instead, though even that hurt a bit.

 

“I mustn’t hug you,” she explained sadly. “I really mustn’t hug you.”

 

He shrugged. She was pleased to see that he seemed to have taken this news quite well. He was her brave little soldier.

 

“Can I call them Mummy and Daddy yet, or should I wait until after the wedding?”

 

The paper-bag came out again, and he spent a few minutes furiously inflating and deflating it before he was able to reply.

 

“Maybe not just yet, Matilda. Let’s take it one step at a time.”

 

Her face fell, but she nodded in understanding. She had hoped to call them Mummy and Daddy straightaway. But at least he had not ruled it out altogether, the wedding was obviously still on, and she could work on him. She assumed that Philip’s father would be scary and might beat her, but if his Mummy was nice then they could tell each other stories and drink from saucepans and do other things that Outsiders liked to do with their children’s wives. As long as she had Philip, what did it really matter anyway?

 

“Okay,” she beamed, having cheered herself up already. “I can wait until we’re married. What’s a week or two anyway? Now come on, Slow-Coach. Let’s go and see them now.”

 

She galloped round him in excited circles. Philip trudged unhappily to the front door. He slid on his coat. He looked so miserable. Matilda wanted him to be happy, but she couldn’t risk hugging him.

 

“Is you Daddy very scary?” she asked, sensing how reluctant he was to take him there. It was endearing in a way. Maybe he just wanted to protect her from harm. But she felt sure that his Daddy wouldn’t be as big as hers, so he needn’t worry quite so much.

 

“No,” Philip replied. “But “Mummy” sure as Hell is!”

 

“Don’t be silly,” she chided him. “Mummies aren’t scary!”

 

He shrugged, and walked out the house, leaving her to follow along behind him. She stepped out the front door, paused for a moment, and went back inside. She grabbed the paper-bag from the coffee-table where he had left it. Her intuition told that one of them might need it again before the day was out.

 

#

 

Philip took a deep breath, and knocked purposefully on the door.

 

He had positioned Matilda behind an immaculately trimmed privet hedge in his parent’s front garden. Best to give them a little notice before springing her on them. Two or three years notice might have been better, but it didn’t seem likely that she’d agree to wait that long.

 

The door opened. Fuck: it was Mother! Father would’ve been the easier option.

 

“Philip! It’s Tuesday! You know I’ve got Bridge Club at eleven, and Pamela does so hate tardiness. You’ve got 20 minutes. And take your shoes off before you come in, there’s a good boy.”

 

Without awaiting a reply, she disappeared back indoors.

 

He hesitated. He couldn’t just stroll in after her with a trolless in tow. Some sort of explanation would be required first. Quite a lot of explanation, in fact.

 

“Nineteen minutes!” he heard her call out from the living room. “And counting!”

 

He rang the doorbell again, even though the door was open. Father appeared this time. Short, placid, horn-rimmed glasses and a Marks & Spencers’ cardigan. Safe as houses.

 

“Hello, Philip. Nice to see you. Come in, why don’t you? Take your shoes off first, you know what she’ll say otherwise.”

 

“Father, wait.”

 

Father stopped, and waited as instructed. What could be so urgent as to keep Mother waiting?

 

“I’ve brought someone round with me.”

 

“Amanda? Oh good, Mother will be pleased. They’re like too peas in a pod, those two. Apart from the swearing. Amanda, I mean. Not your mother.”

 

“Eighteen minutes,” called Mother impatiently from inside.

 

“No, not Amanda. Someone else. She’s-”

 

“Gorgeous?” chuckled Father. “All your girlfriends are. Especially that Spanish girl a couple of years back. She had a lovely pair of - ”

 

“No, not gorgeous.”

 

“-Eyes. She’s what then? Funny?”

 

“Not in the conventional sense.”

 

“Good personality?” ventured Father, running out of ideas as to what particular qualities one of Philip’s girlfriends might have, which he would feel comfortable discussing with his son.

 

“No,” Philip shook his head emphatically. “Not in the least.”

 

“She’s what, then?”

 

“She’s behind that bush.”

 

“Hedge, Philip. It’s a hedge. Mother won’t let me have anything to do with bushes. What’s she doing over there? Is she shy, or does she just like gardening?”

 

Father toddled across the garden in his carpet slippers, determined to re-assure this shrinking violet that he did not bite (though Mother might if she forgot to take her stilettos off before she entered the house). Philip scurried anxiously behind him, wanting to prepare him for the worst, but completely at a loss as to where to start.

 

“Seventeen minutes,” bellowed Mother from inside. “And counting!”

 

“Father, Father, there’s something I need to tell you first.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“You know you asked if she was gorgeous.”

 

 “I thought that was a given, with you,” Father nodded.

 

They stopped on the lawn, a few yards away from the hedge. As Father turned towards him, Philip saw Matilda poke her head up above the hedge. Her big old face protruded periscope like above the top-most branches, turning from side to side as she looked back and forth between Father and the open front door. She wore a delighted smile, like a child surveying the presents Santa had left on Christmas morning. It was only a matter of time before she did something stupid and embarrassing. He had to act fast.

 

He pulled Father close, so they could speak in confidence.

 

“She’s pig-ugly,” he declared.

 

“Oh come now, Philip. That’s not a very charitable way to describe your new girlfriend.”

 

Philip looked back towards Matilda. She was still peering meerkat-like over the hedge. Her slightly crazed eyes were now focused firmly on the front door. For a second, he felt a flush of guilt, as if he had betrayed her by discussing her in such harsh terms. She had saved his life, after all. But then he tensed. All was not well. She was going to do something unpredictable. The fan was on, and the shit was ready for action.

 

“She’s not my girlfriend,” said Philip, keeping Father’s back to her. “She’s my fiancée.”

 

It was then that Matilda ploughed her way through the hedge, pushing her way through the tangled branches as if they were candy-floss strands, and made a break for the front door.

 

“Mummy!” she cried. “We’re going to be so happy together!”

 

Philip charged after her, determined to bring her down. She had too much of a head-start though. He made a despairing attempt at a rugby tackle, but all he got for his trouble was an accidental kick to the cheek-bone and a mouth full of immaculately-mown lawn.

 

She disappeared indoors, still calling out “Mummy!” as she went.

 

“She may be pig-ugly,” declared Father, “but the girl’s got guts.”

 

“Guts?” asked Philip, as he picked himself up and tried unsuccessfully to brush the grass-stains off his jeans. “How do you make that out?”

 

“She’s going to walk mud all over your mother’s new cream carpet.”

 

#

 

Philip followed her inside with a heavy heart, with Father chuckling along behind him.

 

As he was removing his shoes, he heard a Mother-sized scream from the living room, followed by the now familiar sound of breaking china.

 

“Get out!” screamed Mother. “I’ll have the Police on you!”

 

They entered the living room. Mother was standing precariously on the coffee-table, with an armful of cups and saucers. One by one, she sent them flying at Matilda, as hard and as fast as she could. Her aim was admirable; she had picked up a few tips from the fielders at the local cricket club after all those years of making cucumber sandwiches for their tea. They bounced off Matilda’s head, like machine-gun bullets off a brick-wall, fracturing as they struck her skull and shattering as they ricocheted into walls, ceilings and the 42 inch plasma TV that Curry’s had installed in October.

 

Matilda looked distraught.

 

“Help!” wailed Mother, as she saw her would-be rescuers enter the room. “Rape! Murder!”

 

“Rape seems unlikely,” mused Father. “Now why don’t you come down off the coffee-table, Alice, and stop throwing our best china at our guest? You’ll fracture your hip if you’re not careful.”

 

“That thing,” spat Mother, “that Bride of Frankenstein, is no guest of mine. I would never invite that monstrous creature into my lovely clean home.”

 

“That’s rather unfortunate. She’s going to be our daughter-in-law.”

 

Mother came down from the coffee-table. At speed.  Fortunately for both her and her arthritic knees, she fainted straight on to the sofa. Matilda produced his paper bag from up the sleeve of her wedding dress and started waving it towards Mother like a white flag.

 

“That went better than expected,” Father chuckled. “We’ve even got a few saucers left.”

 

Mother lay still. Matilda crumpled.

 

“Mummy!” she screamed. “I’ve killed your Mummy!”

 

“Oh, she’s not dead,” Father reassured her, as Philip hauled her back up into a sitting position. “She always does this when people forget to take their shoes off. She’s just – pining for the fields!”

 

“Sorry?” enquired a confused Matilda, who – having been brought up in a house with no electricity and a pathological hatred of all humankind - was not the World’s greatest expert on Monty Python sketches.

 

Mother groaned as she started to struggle unsteadily back towards consciousness. Father, always the man for a crisis, moved the few remaining saucers out of arms’ reach. He looked around the room. Philip had gone pale, and looked on the verge of fainting himself. Matilda was biting her lip, and trying not to cry. She kept looking at Philip for reassurance, but he was totally oblivious to her. Mother was starting to come to, and it was probably only a matter of time before she was back on the coffee table again. It was just the sort of situation he had been trained for in the Army in the Sixties.

 

“I’ll put the kettle on,” he announced. “Everything will seem much better after a nice cup of Earl Grey. Not sure what I’m going to serve it in though, we seem to have lost all our cups.”

 

“That’s okay,” Matilda smiled at him, responding to the warmth in his voice. “Philip only lets me drink from saucepans anyway.”

 

#

 

They left an hour later. Matilda had spent most of the time in the kitchen with Father, whispering like a Guy Fawkes’ conspirator, much to Mother’s annoyance and Philip’s incomprehension. It’s not like the two of them had anything in common. Philip had to marry an ogre, while Father was married to Mother.

 

Philip had stayed in the living room with Mother, alternating between reassuring her that he had not lost all his senses, and reviving her with smelling salts every time she heard Matilda’s voice in the kitchen. He also spent quite some time batting back texts to Mandy, explaining why he had not yet “manned up” and thrown that “big-ass moose” out the house. These texts took a while to compose, as he wasn’t entirely sure he knew the answers to these questions himself.

 

Eventually, he made their excuses and left. Father felt that there was only so much smelling salts that Mother could take before she risked becoming an addict, and it was clear that she was not going to stay conscious as long as Matilda was tramping around on her carpet.

 

As they walked back home, Philip was conscious of the attention he was getting. It was hardly surprising when he was being shadowed by a giant ogre in a wedding dress. There had been incidents on the way to Mother’s too, but he had been so preoccupied with what to say to his parents that he had blocked the worst of it out. He was now in a very bad mood, and hypersensitive to every look and comment thrown their way. It was bad enough he had to marry her, without becoming a laughing-stock into the bargain.

 

He skirted the town centre to keep as low as profile as possible, but he still had to weather a number of unfortunate incidents. Several people called out “Freak!”, two started barking, and a group of kids outside Aldi’s started throwing Haribos at her. This was awful for him, truly awful. How could he ever show his face in public again?

 

It made things even worse when she started crying, as that just drew attention to them, and people would probably think it was his fault that she was upset. To make his position more uncomfortable still, she kept holding her arms out to him for a hug, muttering “I mustn’t squish you” and then putting them back down to her sides again. Seconds later (usually after a random bark from a member of the public) she would repeat the whole process, torn between seeking his comfort and reassurance, and seeking God-knows-what. It looked weird. Up with her arms, down with her arms, up with her arms, down with them again. It was like she was trying to do a Mexican Wave on her own.

 

“Stop that!” he ordered. “Can’t you see you’re embarrassing me?”

 

“Hold my hand,” she pleaded, as shaven-headed men on the opposite pavement started howling at her. She was totally missing the point. If he was embarrassed now, how could she possibly not realise that holding her hand would make things infinitesimally worse for him?

 

“I’m going to walk ahead of you,” he told her. “Just follow me, okay? Don’t speak to me, don’t keep signalling sixes, and under no circumstances whatsoever do you say or do anything which would give anyone the impression that we know each other.”

 

Matilda nodded sadly, and shuffled a few steps backwards.

 

“Further,” he commanded, and she took another five or six steps back. As she did so, the man opposite called his friends out the pub, and the whole pack of them started howling away at her like a pack of wolves on speed.

 

“Philip?” she called out to him, miserably. He tried to ignore her, but when he glanced over his shoulder she was going the Mexican Wave thing again, and the men opposite started mimicking her, calling out his name as they did so. He would have to move to Sussex now, there was no way he could risk seeing any of these people again.

 

He rounded on her, angry that she had shamed him in front of total strangers (and his Mum).

 

“What?” he shouted. “What the fuck do you want now?”

 

She resisted the urge to tell him that Daddy didn’t like swearing. It didn’t seem the time.

 

“Thank you for introducing me to your parents,” she said politely, as nanny had taught her. “I’ve had such a lovely day. Can we go and choose my wedding ring tomorrow?”

 

#

 

Back home, Philip insisted that she take a bath. She was overdue one. She had never had one before, and the stench was getting on his nerves. It also bothered him that she had shown no sign of using the toilet up until now – maybe human flesh made you constipated? – and he was convinced that if he left her alone for more than a few minutes he would return to find a giant dump on his carpet with human fingers sticking out of it (if not worse).

 

“I’ve heard of Bath,” she declared proudly. “Nanny went there on her holidays once.”

 

“Not that Bath,” he rolled his eyes. “You take your clothes off and sit in hot water until all the dirt comes off.”

 

“Does it hurt?”

 

“Does what hurt?”

 

“Hot water.”

 

“Depends how hot it is,” he replied. “Yours is going to be very hot indeed!”

 

Her face crumpled, but she resisted doing the raising and lowering of the arms thing this time (as he had told her that the next time she did this he would send her home, whatever the consequences). Big wet tears formed in her large blue eyes, and her chins quivered in unison.

 

“I’m scared,” she told him. “I don’t like it when things hurt me. Daddy beats me all the time, and sometimes it makes me cry.”

 

Philip felt guilty. What sort of life had she had in that house? Closeted away, never seeing the light of day, in permanent fear of violence from Clay-Man (of whom – having seen him in action himself – he knew she had every reason to be frightened ). He couldn’t let her go back there, no matter how ugly she was. On the other hand, the prospect of actually marrying her made him heave. Maybe there was some sort of middle ground? He could keep her in the garden to deter burglars, perhaps? Or teach her to juggle severed limbs and put her on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

 

“Will you be in the bath with me?” she asked.

 

“God, no!” he protested. “Absolutely not! No room for two in there!”

 

Outrageously, she seemed to be more relieved at this than he did! There were plenty of girls out there who would love to see him naked. How dare she turn her nose up at him?

 

“That’s good,” she explained. “I wouldn’t want you to see me without my pants until after we’re married.”

 

“Maybe not even then.”

 

She nodded in agreement. Again, this irritated him. He really did not think he could face ever seeing her naked, but the implication that the feeling was mutual was almost too much to bear.

 

“Will you show me what to do when I get naked?” she asked.

 

“Huh?” he squealed.

 

She blushed. “What do I do after I’ve taken my pants off?”

 

“Didn’t Nanny tell you?” The birds-and-the-bees talk was awkward enough as it was, without him having to give it to an amorous troll. Perhaps it was better after all that she didn’t want to see him naked. He felt he might need his paper-bag again.

 

“Sort of,” she replied, “But I don’t know how to make the water hot.”

 

He exhaled a long drawn –out puff of relief. She was just talking about the bath!

 

He wondered whether after all this she would even fit in the tub anyway.

 

#

 

After running her bath (with very little water as she looked as if she would displace a lot) he left the house to buy her some clothes. No point in her washing if she was going to get back into that filthy wedding dress. He figured that a trip to Primark for some extra -large men’s clothes would cost him less than fifty quid if there was anything suitable in the sale section. Failing there, there were plenty of charity shops around with clothes being sold for next to nothing.

 

As he was closing his gate, a V-reg Renault Clio pulled up at the kerb. A man stepped out, looking like an extra from the Blues Brothers; dark suit, dark glasses, bit of a prat all in all. He locked the car, and tested both doors to make sure they were properly shut. He was about fifty, and five foot four at most.

 

“Government cutbacks,” the man explained sourly. “I used to have a 59-plate Astra with central locking, and now I’ve got this heap-of-junk.”

 

Philip shrugged in bemusement.

 

“You Philip?” he asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“I like that. Nice concise answer. No waffle, no back-chat. You and me are going to get along just fine. Can we go inside?”

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Crow. Can’t tell you any more than that. Classified. Need to know basis. Come on. Just a few questions and I’ll leave you in peace.”

 

Crow strode purposefully down the path towards the front door. Philip followed reluctantly behind him.

 

“Have you got a warrant?”

 

“You’ve been watching too much television, Son. Why would I need a warrant to ask you a few questions? Now open the door, and let’s get on with it.”

 

“Proof of your identity, then? You could be anyone.”

 

“It’s the car, isn’t it?” Crow snapped. “You think that just because this guy drives up in a crappy car, that he’s a nobody? Is that it, tough guy? Well I’m not a nobody, you got that? I’m someone big. Someone very big!”

 

Philip smirked. “You don’t look that big to me!”

 

Crow grabbed him by both shoulders and slammed him into the front door. He was pretty strong for someone of his size. He brought his face so close to Philip’s that he could smell the Victory V’s on his breath. He felt intimidated by the agent, so much so that if he had been asked politely he might just have given Matilda up. But he had never responded well to threats, even when he was being roughed up by a midget under-cover officer in his own front garden.

 

“None of your Goddam lip, Sonny Boy. I used to have an Astra, remember that. Now I’m gonna ask you one more time, can we or can we not take this inside?”

 

Philip squirmed uncomfortably.

 

“No.”

 

“No?”

 

“My girlfriend’s in there. She’s – she’s – naked!”

 

“Why’s she naked? Is she some sort of pervert?”

 

“She’s having a bath.”

 

“I’m not planning on using your shower, Son. We can talk downstairs, leave the little lady to sponge herself down in peace.”

 

“She’s downstairs. She – she- likes to dry herself by the fire. You’d see her.”

 

“See her what?”

 

“See her everything.”

 

“Why would I want to do see her everything? You know I said I liked you? I was wrong. I’m not often wrong, but I was about you. You were concise. I thought we were going to get along fine. But when I try to ask you a few questions, you start telling me about your girlfriend’s bath-time routine. What next? You gonna tell me what her favourite position is? She got a strap-on dildo, is that what you like, Soldier? Is that what you’re gonaa tell me about next?”

 

“No. Sorry, Sir.”

 

“You gonna let me in?”

 

“No.”

 

“Okay. That’s fine by me. It means I get to come back here with my buddy. See if the two of us can beat some sense into you.”

 

Philip panicked. He was not good with physical violence. He had been kidnapped, chained up, kicked in the face, pushed up against a wall, and was now being threatened by a short-arse psychopath with a like-minded “buddy”. And all because Mandy wouldn’t let him stay-over the night before she was due to go to Bromley! He should have stayed in the car that night, and left her to it. He would have saved himself fifty quid on clothes, too!

 

“I’m not being awkward, Sir. It’s just that it’s inconvenient for you to come inside right now.”

 

“Because of your pervert girlfriend, so you said. Standing there all dripping and naked-”

 

He tailed off, as if deep in thought for a second, but then shook the image out of his head and carried on.

 

“Do you know why I didn’t bring my buddy along with me today?”

 

“He wouldn’t fit in the car?”

 

Crow took Philip by the throat.

 

“You cheeking me, Son?”

 

Philip tried to shake his head, but Crow’s fingers dug deeper, preventing him from doing so. “No,” he choked instead. The grip relaxed a little.

 

“I didn’t bring my buddy with me, cos he makes me look like a pussy-cat. He eats little shits like you for breakfast, and wipes his hard ass on the body parts he shits back out again. You get the picture?”

 

Philip nodded, though it was not a picture he was particularly comfortable with.

 

Crow released him, and gestured with a sweep of his arm for Philip to lead the way back to the front gate.

 

“After you, Sir.”

 

They made their way back to the road outside. Philip waited while Crow unlocked his car and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Despite feeling shaken, he had difficulty suppressing a smile as Crow searched in vain for the switch for the electric windows, only to find that there wasn’t one. He eventually had to settle for winding down the driver’s window by hand.

 

“I’ll be back,” Crow announced, switching effortlessly from bad-Blues Brothers to even poorer Terminator. “And next time, I’m bringing my buddy with me.”

 

He wound the window back up, and slid the key into the ignition.

 

Philip resisted the urge to flee back home. Crow might follow him, and slip inside when he opened the door. Or Matilda might come bounding out when she realised that he was back home again. Besides, it would look suspicious. Instead, he strolled off along the pavement as confidently as he could, whilst muttering “twat” under his breath as loudly as he dared.

 

He allowed himself the luxury of saying “twat” very loudly indeed when Crow took two or three attempts at getting his car to start.

 

#

 

That night, Matilda sat in the back garden, screened from the outside world by the row of hedges which skirted two sides the lawn and a large bushy area at the far end. Philip’s mother had insisted on him buying a property with hedges, as she was very proud of hers. She wouldn’t have given him the deposit if he had moved in to somewhere with just a back yard.

 

She was wearing her new clothes. They were too small, but Philip had given them to her as a present, so they were just fine. There was a shirt with palm trees and lots of yellows and oranges (she liked colour as she had only seen black all her life); trousers cut off at the knee which had dug into her waist until she had torn them a little at the side; and a hat with writing on it! Philip said that the word was “Relax” and that it had cost him a pound at a charity shop. It must have been quite an expensive hat as nanny had once told her that she had bought her first house for three thousand pounds and it was better to have a house than three thousand hats, even if they all had “Relax” on them.

 

He had told her she could keep her own pants on. The lady in the shop knew him, and he wasn’t keen on buying large lady-pants from her, even if they were fifty pence a pair.

 

She could see Philip inside, through the sliding glass doors which led back into the house. Mandy was there too. She didn’t like Mandy; she kept shouting at Philip and talking down to him all the time. And she kept swearing, too. It didn’t seem to worry her when Matilda told her that Daddy would be cross, but then again Mandy had never met Daddy!

 

She sniffed the air, and a smile engulfed her face.

 

“Vincent!”

 

Her brother stepped warily from the bushes at the far end of the garden, keeping away from the carpet of light which trailed back to the patio doors.

 

They hugged, Matilda clinging on to him desperately, like a child’s last hug with her mother before being taken into care. She loved Philip with all her heart, but his world was alien to her. To have Vincent here with her, familiar and reassuring, gave her a few moments of respite from the almost overwhelming sense of isolation she felt from the moment she had escaped to the Outside. If it hadn’t be for Philip, she would have fled home by now, back to what she knew, even though it meant Daddy breaking every bone in her body. She had come here in search of love and acceptance, but this world seemed even more cold and unforgiving than hers. But now her brother was here now, and everything was going to be okay.

 

She went to take Vincent’s hands but he drew them sharply away from her. She tried again with the same result.

 

“Don’t be cross with me, Vincent. I had to go. I love him.”

 

Vincent snorted.

 

“I’m not cross.”

 

“Then hold my hands.”

 

Vincent held his hands up for her to see. They were badly crushed, the knuckles having crumpled in on themselves. Instinctively, she went to take his hands in hers, but he pulled them away again.

 

“Don’t. It hurts.”

 

She had to wait awhile before speaking, trying to compose herself. She was tired of crying; she had seemed to do nothing but since she had run away. But this was too much. She had done this to him, as surely as if she had crushed her brother’s hands herself. Daddy had punished Vincent for letting her go. And now he was crippled, all because of her.

 

“Can you still forage?”

 

“I’m trying. If I can’t forage, I’m no use to anyone, and -”

 

“They’ll kill you.”

 

Vincent nodded. “They won’t want me eating their food if I’m not bringing any home myself.”

 

“Vincent, I am so sorry. It’s all my fault. I’ll forage for you.”

 

He snorted again.

 

“You’re a girl. Girls can’t forage.”

 

“I could. I’d-”

 

“You’ve never been out here before. You don’t know what it’s like, where to go, which of them it’s safe to take, how to take them without them calling for help. They’d catch you, and beat you, and you’d give us all up to them. Better I die than we lose the whole Family.”

 

“I would never tell them where you are!”

 

Vincent smiled. In spite of herself, she smiled back. They had always been able to cheer each other up, no matter how bad the beatings, how bad their life had been. But this! Crushed hands. Daddy knew what he was doing. By stopping Vincent foraging, he had as good as condemned Vincent to death. His revenge for losing a daughter was to sacrifice his son as well.

 

She took a deep breath.

 

“I’ll come home.”

 

“No. What would that achieve, anyway?”

 

“He’ll beat me, and leave you be.”

 

“You’re not coming home. If he did this to me, what do you think he’d –”

 

He stopped in mid-sentence and melted back into the bushes. She turned, and saw Mandy at the patio door, squinting out at her. Had she seen anything?

 

Matilda waved at her, in an innocent “I’m-not-up-to-anything-at-all-out-here” type way. Mandy held her gaze for a few moments, raised her eyes skywards, muttered something under her breath, and returned to her argument with Philip inside.

 

Vincent returned soon afterwards, when satisfied that the coast was clear.

 

“Will he find me?” she asked, knowing the answer already.

 

“Daddy? Of course he will.”

 

She seemed to shrink into herself. It was all she could do to stop herself collapsing altogether, finding shelter in the safe black nothingness that had since yesterday been creeping inch by insidious inch from the darkest recesses of her mind.

 

“I don’t know what to do.”

 

“You run.”

 

“With Philip?”

 

“No.”

 

“I can’t leave him behind. Daddy would kill him.”

 

“Philip’s dead already. He was dead from the moment you took his manacles off. He knows where we live. That makes him a danger to the whole Family. Daddy would have to kill him, even if you’d have stayed behind in the House.”

 

Her head whirled. There must be a way out of this, some way in which she could save Philip, save Vincent, and maybe even save herself. If Daddy would just leave them all alone, everything would be alright. She could get married, and Vincent could be at the wedding, and she would finally have some happiness in her life.

 

“We could fight him!”

 

“You don’t fight Daddy!” replied Vincent, genuinely shocked. “No-one fights Daddy. Besides, you’re a girl, I’m crippled, and your new boyfriend would hardly -”

 

And then Vincent was gone. There was Mandy, back at the door again, her hands cupped to the glass as she peered outside. Matilda could see the look of triumph on her face. There was no doubt about it; Mandy had seen Vincent!

 

Matilda ran inside, but Mandy was already on the couch next to Philip, whispering her poison to him. She looked up as Matilda entered the room, her face a kaleidoscope of smugness and fear, determined to finish telling Philip what she had witnessed but wary of how Matilda might react to this.

 

Matilda’s thoughts pirouetted. She knew exactly what Mandy would be saying. “They’ve found you. I’ve just seen one of them outside. It’s only a matter of time before they take you back to that place again. She’s lead them here. She doesn’t love you; she’s betrayed you. Beat her, and lock her in the cellar, and come and live with me where it’s safe.

 

What to do? What could she say to stop Philip leaving her? She couldn’t lose him now, not after the price that she and Vincent had paid for him. She would do anything to keep him, anything at all.

 

“That was Vincent,” she told them, as casually as she could. “He’s talked Daddy round. Daddy’s happy for us to get married. In fact, he insists on you making an honest woman of me now we’re living together. Marry me, and you’re safe.”

 

She blushed at the word “woman” as if waiting to be contradicted.

 

Mandy and Philip stared at her. She wasn’t sure which of them was most shocked. She doubted either of them was as shocked as her, though. She had been brought up never to tell lies. If there was one thing Daddy hated more than swearing, it was lying. Beatings were socially acceptable, molesting brides on their wedding day was positively encouraged, but lying was wrong! But now she had started, it was hard to stop. Best to get it all out of her system now, and then she wouldn’t need to tell any more later on.

 

“Daddy wants us to get married straightaway. This week. He’ll be very cross if we don’t. And then he wanst us to move somewhere far away, straight afterwards.”

 

Mandy frowned suspiciously.

 

“Why would he want you to move away?”

 

Matilda shrugged innocently. “I don’t know,” she replied sweetly. “ I  just asked Vincent the same thing, but he saw you peering out the window at us and you frightened him away before he could tell me.”

 

#

 

“Come in. Take your shoes off. You haven’t got that awful creature with you, have you?”

 

Philip took off his shoes, and followed Mother into the house. He took a seat on the sofa, and waited for Father to make the Earl Grey. Mother winced at the cheap Argos tea-cups Father had purchased as a temporary replacement for her lovely broken crockery. That was another thing she had to blame Matilda for.

 

“What is this all about, Philip? Amanda is such a lovely girl. You’re made for each other. Father likes her, don’t you, Dear?”

 

Father nodded obediently.

 

“There you go. But you leave her for that ogre you brought round here yesterday, without so much as a telephone call first! She’s not even human for Heaven’s sake!”

 

“And she didn’t even have the decency to take of her shoes before she accosted your mother,” father added mischievously.

 

Mother gave him a withering stare, before continuing her diatribe.

 

“Amanda is such a pretty girl. But that lumbering beast who broke my tea-set! How could I possibly explain that at the Bridge Club!”

 

She picked up her tea-cup, but her hand was shaking so much that she had to put it straight down again. She was tempted to drop it so Father would have to go out and buy more suitable replacement china, but it might have spilled on her lovely new carpet. She would have to drop it when Father was doing the washing-up instead.

 

“Why marry her when you could have Amanda? Think what my grand-children would be like!” she wailed. “We’d have to send them to the circus!”

 

Philip shifted around uncomfortably, deciding how much to tell his parents about his ordeal from the day before last. If Mother’s hands were shaking now, what would she be like if he told her the full horror of what those monsters had put him through? The alternative, though, was for his parents to think that he found Matilda sexually attractive, and anything was better than that. He knew where the smelling salts were if she fainted again, and his hyperventilation bag was safely ensconced in his pocket in case he felt overcome as well. He took a deep breath, and told them the worst.

 

“I haven’t got much choice. I got kidnapped the night before last!”

 

Mother gripped Father’s arm for support, even though she was sitting down. She gasped. Kidnapped! Surely that only happened in Robert Louis Stevenson novels? But no, that troll had the look of a kidnapper about her, make no mistake. She was convinced that she had been right to accuse her of rape and murder, too. You can always tell these things.

 

“She kidnapped you! I knew it! It’s written all over her evil face. And to think that Father let that creature in my house!”

 

“No, she didn’t kidnap me. Her father did. They took me back to their house, chained me up, and – and -”

 

It all came flooding back to him. The ordeal. The things he had been through!

 

Mother was halfway through making another attempt at the tea-cup, but slammed it back down on to the coffee table at this latest outrage.

 

“She chained you up!”

 

“Her father did,” sobbed Philip.

 

“Id’ quite like to be chained up,” quipped Father, in an ill-advised attempt at lightening the atmosphere and cheering his son up. Mother shot him a poisonous look, but was too busy berating Matilda to find the time to take him to task.

 

“What sort of sick family does she come from? I know Amanda’s parents are dead, but if they had been alive I’m sure they would never have done such a despicable thing to my precious son! Or to anyone else for that matter.”

 

A thought struck her.

 

“Do I know them?” she enquired. “This monstrous family of hers?”

 

“I doubt they move in the same Bridge circles as you,” Father remarked drily.

 

She rounded on him, furious at his misplaced levity.