Sunday, 13 November 2011

Second Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

He held her shoulders, looked her straight in the eye and choked out ‘Hi you.’
‘Hey, John. It’s been a long time.’
‘Too long. Too long. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Let me look at you.’
She was uncomfortable under his gaze and her ghost of a smile, which had faded the longer he held her, now disappeared altogether. He could see her face had become more like her mother’s. It had lengthened, become slightly fleshier. She was not at all heavy set but he thought she might become more voluptuous in middle age. She was taller than he had expected, even in her loafers. About five six he guessed. Her green eyes were flecked with brown, a throwback to his own hazel colouring.
‘Come on up to my room. Let’s not hang around out here. It’s freezing. Can you walk ok? What’s with the crutches?’ She refocused on his injury.
‘Oh that. Nothing too serious. Managed to pop something in my calf playing tennis before I left London.’
How he had cursed his brother-in-law for roping him in to a late season doubles match at Campden Hill. He hadn’t warmed up sufficiently and fell down like he had been shot, reaching up on only his fourth serve. It had been an annoyance to have to be helped from the court, an annoyance compounded at the Westminster Hospital when his leg had been strapped up and he had been handed the crutches by a kindly nurse.
‘No. It’s not too serious,’ Hilary admitted in a flat, matter-of-fact voice once she had heard the details.
‘I should be off the crutches in a few days time. Just have to keep the weight off the leg. Before I left England they told me I could put twenty per cent of my weight on it, whatever that means. Was a bit awkward getting up here.’ No, he realised too late he shouldn’t have said that.
‘You could have postponed the visit.’
‘Not likely. It’s been a long time coming.’
‘But now? Why, after so much time?’
‘Let’s talk about it when we get up to your room, may we?’
‘Robin’s got classes all day, as I think I told you on the phone, so she’ll be with us tonight. In thirty minutes we can go down to the cafeteria for lunch, if that’s ok with you? Then later on I want to do some work. So you can go on over to the hotel and check in. Ok? Make sure they don’t give you a room in the annex. The main part of the inn is genuinely colonial but the annex is fake. It’s just a modern building dressed up as old. They seem to place new parents in there unless they know what to ask for.’
‘Thanks for the advice.’ He thought he might have figured it out for himself. He was getting over the shock of hearing how Midwestern her accent was, with even a few traces of a southern drawl, no doubt the legacy of her high school years in Atlanta, and an occasional tendency to end a statement in a rising pitch that suggested the speaker was unconsciously questioning its veracity. The early years on the East Coast seemed to have left little vocal impression. There was also a throaty lack of inflexion about her voice, as if it was the product of some professor’s invented automaton. He’d noticed it on the phone but reasoned that the connection was partly responsible. Now hearing it in person he knew he had been wrong in his perception.
He looked forward to seeing Hilary’s top floor room in the dormitroyit with a sense of expectation. He knew at a glance it would give up more clues to his daughter’s Weltanshauung.
It was inevitably a small, narrow oblong in a residence hall that was one of the more recent additions to the two hundred year old campus. But she had made the most of the space by doing away with the bed and putting her mattress on the floor. The pillows were strewn with a haphazard collection of stuffed animals. To his throat-clenching delight John noticed that a pudgy, lambswool teddy bear, which had been sent over from England by his aunt after Hilary’s birth, seemed to have pride of place. Her mother had derided it as too heavy and unwieldy for a baby and put it up on a shelf. There it had stayed, to be later joined by a sibling, with the arrival of Robin, some two years later. But, by the time Hilary was five, John had reintroduced the bears as robust playmates that could withstand all sorts of physical punishment, not the least of which was catapulting them to the ceiling of the girls’ bedroom. It was a game they loved called bears in space.
Above the makeshift bed a large collage of images and text attached to a corkboard with coloured drawing pins. Extracts from Nature, press cuttings from the college newspaper showing sports tables with Middlebury highlighted in green felt-tip, a magazine page showing the bejewelled, oily alien leader in Stargate clipped to a large poster of the pyramids, a couple of sayings from The Prophet written in a flowing script, a poem in Elvish and Roman lettering from Tolkien, and a facsimile of the matrix taken from the film of that name with its lurid letters and numbers glimmering menacingly against the black backdrop. Higher up the wall a couple of shelves carried textbooks, a few sci-fi and fantasy novels and a couple of photo albums. Between the bed and the door the cupboards were all closed, revealing nothing of Hilary’s wardrobe, or sports equipment, save for two pairs of skis, one alpine and one cross-country, stacked in the corner.
Her desk was positioned in front of the window, through which could be seen, round the corner of an identical building next door, the wooded farmland stretching down towards the southern reaches of Lake Champlain with the purple haze of the Adirondack Mountains beyond. On it’s top was an untidy conglomeration of books, folders, writing pads, a frog mug, which contained a variety of pens and pencils and other stationery necessities, a desk light and a framed photograph of Hilary, Robin and their mother, all in parkas on a beach, their hair blown every which way by the wind, laughing at the camera. He noticed that Brenda looked very young with her daughters on either side, almost like their elder sister.
‘You’d best sit here,’ she said, offering John the only chair, and removing from it a pile of books.
He handed her his coat, which she put over her parka on a hook behind the door.
‘I’d prefer it here,’ he said, releasing his crutch and lowering himself painstakingly onto her mattress beside the stuffed animals. ‘That’s better.’ He stretched out his left leg across the floor. Better, he thought, to allow Hilary the high ground, sitting on the chair.
‘You sure you’re comfortable?’ she asked, leaning her bum against the edge of her desk.
‘This isn’t going to be easy.’ She had kicked off her shoes and was twitching her toes impatiently.
‘It’s alright.’ He wished he’d also taken off his jacket. The room was too warm.
‘I don’t mean that,’ she riposted quickly, indicating his leg with her foot. ‘I mean what happens next.’
‘Go on.’ John had braced himself for this. He’d heard it, rehearsed it, and never resolved it in his mind.
‘I just want to have my say. When you left I didn’t exactly even get to say goodbye.’
‘Not exactly.’
‘Please, John,’ she demanded firmly, pent up anger making her speak through tightly controlled lips. ‘Hear me out. I was seven; Robin was five. I didn’t understand. Brenda told us that you had gone away and left us. I was ashamed to go to school. It was the start of a new school year and I didn’t have a daddy. It was not until I tearfully fessed up to my teacher that I realised that lots of kids didn’t have one. Lots of kids I knew. It was like a secret society within the school. Suddenly Robin and I were reluctant and unwitting members.
‘It was not until years later, when you had ceased to exist for us, you may as well have been dead, that we began to get cards from you. Out of the blue. It was like a message from the grave. You can’t imagine. We had a complete family by then. And we’d moved to Georgia. We didn’t like it as much there but Mom was happy. Steven was our daddy then and for a while he did a very good job.’ She looked penetratingly at her father as she said this, as if to ensure she was inflicting pain.
‘You were not in our minds. The cards were an intrusion. That’s how it felt. We opened them, read them and put them away. Out of mind. And, like with this visitation now, what suddenly spurred you to send them? What are you doing here? A sudden whim?’ This last rhetorical question she uttered with as great a combination of disgust and contempt as she could muster. ‘Then all that stuff about college. Why did you think you could suddenly come into our lives by suggesting we should go to an English university? What was that all about? We’d been brought up in the States. By our mother. We’re American, and we wanted to go to college here. All those prospectuses you sent us. They went straight in the garbage.’
Only half American, he thought, immediately repressing the temptation to open his mouth to make a cutting retort. He decided to take another tack.
‘I only thought it might be good for you to broaden your horizons. A summer school in Brittany is not the whole wide world you know,’ John protested feebly.
‘When we’re ready we’ll take off I suppose. And I wouldn’t mention Brittany. Not a good idea.’
The girls had spent a summer in Brittany on a French immersion course. It followed Hilary’s high school graduation, to which John had not been invited. Despite a note from Brenda letting him know when and where they would be in France, in a fit of pique he had used the excuse of a commitment to a dig at a recently discovered Inca site at Choquequirao and refused to change his plans. So the one opportunity he’d had to meet them in Europe had gone begging.
‘And now?’
‘I’m coming to that.’
But the core revelation of her thinking was cut short by a knock on the door.
‘Hey, Lar. You in there?’
A young male voice with a Jersey accent straight out of the mean streets prompted Hilary to pitch forward from her perch against the desk and walk over to the door. She opened it and pulled the student in by the arm.
‘Hi Brad. Come in and meet my father.’ Her aggressive tone was switched off in an instant.
‘I won’t get up if that’s alright with you.’ John offered his hand.
Brad, with his curly dark hair surmounting a swarthy bespectacled face and dark day’s growth of beard, bent over to shake it.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Swift.’
‘And I you, Brad.’ Not just for yourself, John thought, but because you have successfully defused the bombshell Hilary had been preparing to detonate.
‘Sorry to disturb you, Lar, but I need that math text you borrowed.’
‘You didn’t disturb anything, Brad. Just having a go at John here.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Mr Swift.’
‘John, please.’
‘Don’t worry about it, John. She has a go at all of us.’ Brad smiled ingenuously at his joke.
‘Brad’s very much one of us. He doesn’t talk very much about his father.’
‘And being in construction he doesn’t talk very much about me.’
A New Jersey builder, Brad’s father had declared Middlebury a total waste of money for his lazy, untalented wastrel of a son, knowing all too well that this description would never win out against his wife’s devoted indulgence. Brad was no jock, the only type of student to impress his father. Nevertheless he looked quite muscular, if short, under his red and white madras shirt.    
‘So how is the math?’ John enquired, eager to change the tack of the conversation.
Hilary held her nose and grimaced. Brad chuckled.
‘I don’t know why she’s acting strange like that, John. She’s cruising to ace it.’
‘Yeah, yeah, so you say. I hate it, but it’s gotta be done, if I want that bio major.’
‘Such a talent, Lar, you should have gone for physics.’
‘That’s even worse for me.’
‘Not from what I’ve heard you say, debunking this quest for the theory of everything.’
‘Oh, sure. You’re the geek physicist amongst us, Brad.’
‘As long as you get the math done.’
‘Well, I won’t get it done as long as you have my text.’
They smiled at each other as if it was a private joke. In any courses they shared they split the cost of textbooks to save money. She handed him the heavy volume.
‘While she’s out drinking her beer I’ll be slaving over this.’
‘I’ve told you the drinking’s part of our training regime.’ She laughed at the thought.
‘Training? Ha! I wouldn’t like to run into your gang after training.’ He informed John that Hilary played outside centre for the women’s rugby team, and that a keg of beer completed their training programme for the week. And they topped off their matches with yet another keg. ‘Bacchantes of the oval ball.’
‘Oh really? The only reason that you know all this is that you come along to matches to perve after Natalie Wolff.’
‘What? Get outta here! That six-foot Amazon who catches all the lineout ball? You wouldn’t get me near any of that pack of yours.’
‘Me neither, if I can help it.’ She grinned playfully at him. ‘I try to keep running well away from trouble.’
Clearly, Brad went along to support Hilary but neither of them would let the other admit it.
‘You coming over to Atwater?’
‘I’ll just drop this on my desk and see you there. I’m starving.’
‘No way! You’re so predictable, Bradley. We’ll follow you down.’
Brad helped John to his feet, and led the way out of the room. Hilary stopped the elevator at the third floor to go and see if by any chance Robin had returned while Brad and John descended to the lobby. Robin’s room, two floors down from Hilary’s, faced south towards the centre of the campus. Brad hustled off and in a moment Hilary had returned skipping lightly down the stairs.
‘Just as I thought. She’s gone missing. There’s a note stuck to her door saying she’ll be back at five.’


  1. You have a refreshingly original style, which is desperately needed in the current day and age. I'm an avid reader, and as such I can tell you that this simply needs to get published ASAP. Instead of mere words on a page that lull you to sleep, your prose lures the reader into the world you have created for us. Within a few sentences, I left my version of reality behind, and embraced your characters, as if they were long lost friends. Congratulations on being remarkable.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Michael. I will be posting the third part of this opening chapter shortly. The issues that estrangement often brings to the surface in relationships is one of my special areas of interest. Here they are treated with a sympathetic but very much comic touch. If you like this you will also likely enjoy The Cushion Effect, my debut novel, now available on Amazon.