George was feeding a gaggle of
geese and talking reassuringly whenever one ventured to take the bread from his
hand. He obviously discounted the steady drizzle for his soft-felt hat was
squashed into the pocket of his Barber jacket. Much good will that do him,
Gentle thought, as she huddled into her paisley umbrella. Leaving the path, she
stepped across the grass to where George was shooing the geese away. Canada
'That's all, boys and girls,' he said, bestowing Gentle with a sheepish grin. 'Hello, m'dear. Wasn't sure you'd wander out on such a miserable day, especially after my discourteous exodus.'
In spite of Gentle's determination to keep her cool, she thrust her hand in her pocket to bring out the grey wallet. Stitches popped as she wrenched it out.
'Brilliant,' George exclaimed. 'You found the wallet. I couldn't think what had happened to it. Didn't realise I'd left it behind. Thought I'd lost it in the bank, but the manager said not. At least he said no-one had handed it in.'
An unbearable wave of disquiet circulated Gentle's internal system. There was no question it was Gilbert Mellish's wallet; the initials confirmed it. So what was George doing with it? George was holding out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for her to hand it over. Idiotically, she thought how deeply-etched his life-line was and how red the flesh embedding the shank of a gold signet ring.
'Are you all right, m'dear?'
By degrees, Gentle's wits returned. Indubitably, there was a lucid explanation. 'I thought it belonged to Gilbert Mellish,' she said, offering the wallet. 'He was ... is my benefactor. There was a photograph of you. I thought ...'
George reddened, and there was a lull so intense that Gentle thought his malady had recurred. 'It looks as if I have been found out,' he said, and Gentle was surprised to see him grinning. He plucked the photographs from the wallet and leafed through until he came to the one of him. Perusing it briefly, he inserted it behind the one of the woman and child. He pressed his lips firmly together as though subduing an additional comment.
Gentle was exhaustively flummoxed. She tilted the umbrella and tested the air with her hand. The rain had stopped. A military jet streaked through the sky, observed by children in a nearby school-yard. It was home-time for them. They knew where their homes were. Gentle wasn't so sure. She wasn't convinced of anything any more.
George stowed the prints in the wallet and snapped it shut. Thoughtfully, he contemplated Gentle as if deliberating what to say, while Gentle furled the umbrella and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to envisage what the eventual upshot would be.
George confessed: 'My real name is Gilbert Mellish. Gilbert George Mellish.'
The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak. She simply gawked.
'I hoped you would never find out.'
'Why?' she whispered, meaning why did he give her the house, but George thought she was responding to his last statement and he replied that, rightly or wrongly, he had reckoned it in her best interests not to know.
'Come,' he said, examining the dull sky. 'Let's take shelter before the next deluge. He picked up the paisley umbrella, took her arm, and escorted her to the deserted bandstand. It smelled damp. Puddles lay where rain had filtrated the punctured tarpaulin cover. The floor was littered with sweet papers, ice cream cups, and a pizza box. A baby's pink bootee was wedged in the rails. The perimeter bench was cluttered with crushed Carlsberg cans and George had to dispose of them before they could sit down.
IT WAS AT THAT DESOLATE SITE THAT GENTLE APPLEYARD'S ENTIRE EXISTENCE WAS PULVERISED AND REBUILT, THE SCRIPT REWRITTEN WITH A CHANGE OF CHARACTERS. IT CAME TO LIGHT THAT GILBERT GEORGE MELLISH, ALIAS GEORGE TENSING, HAD A BIGGER ROLE TO PLAY IN GENTLE'S LIFE THAN SHE COULD EVER HAVE GUESSED.
George had got to know Gentle's parents at a local youth club. They played table tennis and participated in tournaments. Matilda had been the strongest player and pretty soon outdistanced her artistic boy friend. She progressed to champion level, but did not win a title. Her head at that time was filled with ideas of betrothal and her concentration lapsed. She was unable to resist the attentions of the handsome academic.
'Seems like a hundred years, looking back,' George said.
Gentle listened intently, unaware that she was corkscrewing her handkerchief, damp now from continual swabbing of raindrops in her hair. She did not interrupt. She was anxious for details of her parents' early lives, for neither had shown an inclination to air their past. Both were unresponsive to their children's curiosity. It was as though mortality had not commenced until they met. They were orphans, she knew that; they met in an orphanage in
. Perhaps that was why they didn't
recount their exploits, or describe their romance, or spoke of friends,
electing to forget the lamentable events. Birmingham
'We lost touch when I went abroad,' George said. '
. Five years, sketching the
scenery and the people. Remiss of me not to ....' He broke off as two breathless
juveniles appeared at the entrance, piloted by a heaving Alsatian puppy on a
well-chewed lead. India
'Sorry, mister,' the tallest boy said, intimidated by George's menacing glare. 'Majorette wanted a pickle.'
'Well, take Majorette elsewhere. There's enough moisture in here without adding more.' George winked at Gentle as the boys were led sharply away by the rumbustious hound. 'Majorette indeed. Ridiculous name for an animal. So, where was I?'
At Gentle's prompting, he continued his account. 'George and Matilda were married by the time I returned,' he said, wincing as he said it. He fell silent, hanging his head as if ashamed. 'I shouIdn't be discussing them with you.'
Gentle urged him to go on.
'They weren't as happy as one would have expected them to be considering how ardent they'd been at the start of their engagement.'
Gentle reflected on her parents' unhappiness, hearing once more the nocturnal arguments. Separately, they portrayed as kind, tolerant, and caring parents, leastwise to the outside world, but those characteristics could only be attributed to her mother. At other times, one sensed the sparks waiting to ignite. To their merit, they struggled to sustain near-normal behaviour so that the children would not be affected, maintaining an atmosphere so harmonious that no outsider would suspect anything was amiss. That was daytime. At night, things went terribly wrong. That was when, in the seclusion of their own space, their disputes ricocheted like exploding shells. That was when, converged in gloomy recesses, Gentle and her brothers encountered the qualms of insecurity. Notwithstanding, regardless of their trepidation and revulsion, Gentle and the boys respected their father and adored their mother. That's why their deaths were so painful.
With echoes of the past occupying her mind, Gentle missed a lot of George's nostalgic narration and by the time she tuned in he was reminiscing about the dinner he laid on for Matilda's birthday. 'I gave her a brooch. A butterfly. She prized it like it was a crown jewel. How radiant she looked when she opened the box. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight. The shawl collar of her chiffon dress encircled her throat like a soft cloud.' George moaned at the memory. 'She gave me permission to pin the butterfly to her lapel. I thought I would go insane with affection for her.'
'Where was this, George?'
'Why, at home, m'dear. Tensing House.'
A presentiment took shape in Gentle's overactive imagination, an inkling that it was because of her mother she had been given the house. Restraining herself from babbling, and willing now to receive whatever clarification came, she enquired if it was on account of her mother that he entrusted the house to her.
'I gave you the house, m'dear, to salve my conscience, because you are your mother's child. I would have provided for her and her family if she would have allowed it, but she dreaded the disgrace. No matter that your father's knowledge of her disloyalty converted him to a brute, or that he beat her unmercifully, she perceived that her children's innocence was of paramount importance.'
Finding the revelation distressing, Gentle twisted away and peered through the sheeting rain. A courting couple were canoodling by a broad oak, heedless of the inclement weather. What a pity her mother had not seen fit to turn a blind eye to her principles, thought Gentle, wondering how she hadn't discerned that she was a victim of domestic violence, or even that her mother had a paramour. Nor had she grasped the worthiness of her values. Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as she embraced the dawn of understanding, and recognized the forfeits her mother paid. She had trodden a principled path in her denial of love and all for the sake of moral standards. Gentle challenged her mother's prudence in enduring beatings when a man like George abided in the wings, a man who idolised her, who would have comforted and sheltered her, and cherished her to the end of time.
Gentle's imagination was operating at such a pace she was losing the thread of George's revelations and missing significant details. The picture was almost complete, but she needed to backtrack, to the year her mother's birthday was celebrated in Tensing House. She swung round and asked. 'When was the birthday dinner? Was it long before she died?' She was thinking about poor baby Caroline.'
'Oh no, m'dear. It was forty-four years ago. The year before you were born.'
Confounded by the startling announcement and totally unprepared for its implication, Gentle was devoid of rational speech. She could only gape in astonishment. She'd had the notion that Caroline was his daughter, instead it seemed... Gentle swallowed. This was a new slant. It suggested that her creation was due to him and not the man who raised her. An echo of shouted words ascended from the past, when she and her brothers were sheltering in the dark, quietly querying what their father meant when he labelled their mother a whore, and why he was ordering her to pack her bags and go to her fancy man. And mother, exhausted by the years of bickering, insisting she would not leave the kids; and father, refusing to let them go. And the subsequent screams, their father bellowing, for some strange reason, his own name: George. Bloody George.
Gradually, as recollection faded, Gentle returned to consciousness. George was indulgently contemplating her.
'Are you telling me…'
'You are ... my father?'
That night, while sipping a beaker of hot chocolate, George's leather-bound chronicles abandoned beside her on a mulberry chaise longue, Gentle finally admitted that, subconsciously, she had known from their first meeting that they were related. The fire was ebbing, the last fragment of charred timber ready to cave-in. Great-grandfather Mellish smiled benevolently from his gilt frame. The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six. As an accompaniment, someone's car alarm rang out. The lounge was lit by a single lamp, ample to read by without disturbing George, who was dozing in the fireside chair. A velvet cushion supported his head. She had covered his knees with a tartan travel rug in case his slumbers deepened. He was worn out and no wonder, having borne the burden of confession that should have been endured by her mother. Gentle had begged him to stay, and they laughed when she did. Enjoining a man to stay in his own house had seemed hilarious. He had a singular sense of humour. He didn't deserve to have been so unfairly rejected.
Noiselessly, she slithered from her seat and kneeled alongside him, reaching up to stroke the edge of his beard. A whit more silky growth and he could play the part of Saint Nick and deliver gifts at Christmas. But his gift to her, the gift of belonging, could never be equalled or accepted so emotionally. Gentle searched his countenance, scanning the laughter lines and the minor imperfections: liver spots and a tiny scar on his brow. The affinity was so strong, so vibrant, it was surprising he didn't wake and catch her out.
She was thrilled with him. It was as if the other George, her pseudo Dad, had not existed. She wished her brothers could have known him. They, like her, would not have deduced that he had sired the entire Appleyard stock. What would they have said if they had known? Peter, the noisy one, often conceded his disgust for their father's arguing and yelling, sometimes mimicking the seething rages so well that Gentle fretted they could become immutable. Graham was a mystery, quiet and uncomplaining. Outwardly reacting as if the situation was ordinary family conduct, except that Gentle habitually heard him crying in the confines of his room. Caroline, poor mite, hadn't had the chance to learn any of it.
Returning to her seat, Gentle cupped her beaker and sipped the chocolate, letting the steam drift up her face. She lowered her eyelids and mused about her family, whose ghosts had taken alternative identities. Mother: a sweetheart and a mistress; siblings: all bastards; and father: a barbarous impostor. Primarily, Gentle understood his attitude. He must have thought the assaults were justified even though, according to George, the marriage was never consummated. Equally, she appreciated that her mother's frustration had driven her into George's arms. That she worshipped him there was no doubt, she had gleaned that from George's diaries, each entry infused with elements of rapture and delight, passion and enchantment, and the melodrama that accompanied each welcome birth - barring Caroline who died with her mother, she, too, a victim of George Appleyard's brutality.
Gentle drained the last mouthful of chocolate and selected another diary. The only one in white leather. Raising the cover, she saw more photographs of her grandparents and George in his knickerbockers. There was also a duplicate portrayal of the woman and child. She extricated it from the protective film and turned it over. A dedication was penned in black ink. At the foot, a squiggly arrow had been inserted to draw attention to a block of kisses the size of a postage stamp, below which was written: To dearest Bertie, with all our love, Matilda and Gentle. The date was Gentle's first birthday. With tears in her eyes, she looked at George and saw that he had stirred. He was smiling, and his smile depicted a contented soul, personifying a man who had, at last, achieved his rightful place in his daughter's heart.