the invisible ones

stef penney

One

 

 

St Luke’s Hospital

 

When I woke up, I remembered nothing – apart from one thing. And little enough

of that: I remember that I was lying on my back while the woman was straddling

me, grinding her hips against mine. I have a feeling it was embarrassingly quick;

but then, it had been a while. The thing is, I remember how it felt, but not what

anything looked like. When I try to picture her face, I can’t. When I try and picture

the surroundings, I can’t. I can’t picture anything at all. I try; I try really hard,

because I’m worried.

     After some time, one thing comes back to me: the taste of ashes.

 

As it turns out, the memory loss may be the least of my problems. Technically,

I am in a state of ‘diminished responsibility’. That is what the police conclude after

paying me a visit in my hospital bed. What I had done was drive my car through a

fence and into a tree in a place called Downham Wood, near the border between

Hampshire and Surrey. I had no idea where Downham Wood was, nor what I was

doing there. I don’t remember driving through any fences, into any trees. Why

would I – why would anyone – do that?

    One of the nurses tells me that the police aren’t going to pursue the matter,

under the circumstances.

    ‘What circumstances?’

    This is what I try to say, but my speech isn’t too clear. My tongue feels thick and

listless. The nurse seems used to it.

    ‘I’m sure it’ll come back to you, Ray.’

    She picks up the right arm that lies like a lump of meat on the bed beside me,

and smooths the sheet before putting it back.

 

Apparently, what happened was this.

    A jogger was beating his regular morning path through the wood, when he saw

a car that had run off the road and come to a stop against a tree several yards in.

Then he realised there was someone in the car. He ran to the nearest house and

called the police. They arrived with an ambulance, a fire engine and cutting

equipment. To their surprise, the person inside the car didn’t have a scratch on him.

At first they assumed he was drunk, then they decided he must be on drugs. The

person in the car – me – was in the driver’s seat, but could not speak or, apart from

a convulsive twitching, move.

    It was the first day of August, which went on to develop into a breathless day of

milky, inky blue, like August days are supposed to be, but so rarely are.

    This much was relayed to me by someone I don’t remember, as I lay in my

hospital bed. Whoever it was told me that for the first twenty-four hours I was

unable to speak at all – a paralysis locked my tongue and throat muscles, as well

as the rest of me. My pupils were dilated, my pulse raced. I was burning hot. When

I tried to talk, I could only produce a gurgling series of unintelligible sounds. In the

absence of external injuries, they were waiting for the test results that would tell

them whether I had suffered a stroke, or had a brain tumour, or was indeed the

casualty of a drug overdose.

    I couldn’t close my eyes, even for a second.

    During that time I don’t think I was particularly bothered by what had caused

this – confused, delirious, immobile, I was plagued by a nightmarish vision that I

couldn’t pin down. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to pin it down. It disturbed me

because it felt like a memory, but that cannot be the case, because a woman,

however mysterious, is not a dog or a cat. A woman does not have claws or fangs.

A woman does not inspire horror. I keep telling myself this. I am confusing

hallucinations with memories. I am not responsible. With any luck, the whole

thing was – like the first three series of Dallas – all a dream.

 

Now, someone looms over me, her face dominated by heavy black-rimmed

glasses; blonde hair scraped back off a high, rounded forehead. She reminds me

of a seal. She’s holding a clipboard in front of her.

    ‘Well, Ray, how are you feeling? The good news is you haven’t had a stroke.’

    She seems to know who I am. And I know her from somewhere, so perhaps she

has been every day. She’s speaking rather loudly. I’m not deaf. I try to say so, but

nothing very recognisable comes out.

    ‘...and there’s no sign of a tumour either. We still don’t know what’s causing the

paralysis. But it’s improving, isn’t it? You have a bit more control today, don’t you?

Still nothing in the right arm? No?’

    I try to nod, and say yes and no.

    ‘The scan shows no indication of brain damage, which is great. We’re waiting

for the results of the toxicology tests. You seem to have ingested some sort of

neurotoxin. It could be an overdose of drugs. Did you take drugs, Ray? Or you

might have eaten something poisonous. Like wild mushrooms, perhaps ...did you

eat any wild mushrooms? Or berries? Anything like that?’

    I try to think back, to those slippery, treacherous images. I ate something, but I

don’t think there were mushrooms in it. And I’m pretty sure drugs weren’t involved.

Not any I was responsible for, anyway.

    ‘Don’t think so.’

    It comes out sounding more like: ‘duh...n-sah.’

    ‘Have you seen anything strange this morning? Do you remember? Has the dog

been back?’

    The dog... ? Have I talked about her? I’m sure I never called her a dog.

    The name on the badge pinned to the front of her white coat appears to begin

with a Z. Her accent is crisp and loud – East European, of some description. But she

and her clipboard sweep off before I can puzzle out the collection of consonants.

 

I think about brain damage. I have a lot of time to think, lying here – I can’t really do

anything else. It gets dark and it gets light again. My eyes burn with lack of sleep,

but when I close them, that’s when I see things, creeping towards me, stealing out

of corners, lurking just beyond my field of vision, so on the whole I’m grateful to

whatever is keeping me awake. The slightest muscular effort leaves me gasping

and exhausted; my right arm is numb and useless.

    I can see out of the window to where sunlight hits the leaves of a cherry tree.

From that, I deduce I must be on a first floor. But I don’t know which hospital I’m in,

or how long I’ve been here. Outside, where the cherry tree is, it’s hot, with a heavy,

breathless torpor. After all the rain we’ve had, it must be like the tropics. Inside, it’s

also hot; so hot that they finally crack and turn off the hospital heating.

    My temper has been better. It’s like being catapulted into extreme old age –

eating mashed food, being washed by strangers and addressed in loud, simple

sentences. It’s not much fun. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of responsibility.

 

Another now: another face above me. This one I definitely recognise. Soft fair hair

that falls over his forehead. Steel-framed spectacles.

    ‘Ray... Ray... Ray?’

    An expensively educated voice. My business partner. I don’t know how I came to

be here, but I know Hen, and I know he’s feeling guilty. I also know that it’s not his

fault.

    I grunt, trying to say hi.

    ‘How are you? You look much better than yesterday. Did you know I was here

yesterday? It’s OK, you don’t have to talk. I just want you to know we’re all thinking

about you. Everyone sends their love. Charlie made you a card, look...’

    He holds up a folded piece of yellow paper with a child’s drawing on it. It’s hard

for me to say what it represents.

    ‘This is you in bed. I think that’s a thermometer. Look, you’re wearing a crown...’

    I take his word for it. He smiles fondly and props the card on my bedside locker –

beside the plastic cup of water and the tissues used to wipe up my drool – where it

repeatedly falls over, being really too flimsy to stand up on its own.

 

Gradually, I find that I can talk again – at first, in slurry, broken phrases. My tongue

trips over itself. In this, I have something in common with my ward mate – Mike, a

genial homeless drunk who used, he says, to be in the French Foreign Legion. We

make a good pair – both of us partially paralysed, and both prone to screaming in

the middle of the night.

    He has been telling me about the alcoholism-induced stroke he suffered a few

months ago. That’s not why he’s in hospital. The stroke led to severe sunburn on his

feet because he couldn’t feel them burning, but he didn’t notice anything was

wrong until the sunburn turned gangrenous and started to smell. Now they’re

talking about chopping bits off him. He’s remarkably cheerful about it. We get on

pretty well, except when he lets rip in French in the middle of the night. Like last

night – I was jolted out of my sleepless trance by a shrill scream, then he shouted,

‘Tirez!’ Then he screamed again, the way they do in war films when they’re

bayoneting a bag of hay in uniform. I wondered whether I should start making my

escape – with my legs in their current state, it could take me five minutes to get out

the door if he starts acting out his nightmares.

    He doesn’t want to talk much about his time in the Legion, but is fascinated when

he finds out that I’m a private investigator. He badgers me for stories (‘Hey, Ray...

Ray... Are you awake? Ray...’). I’m always awake. I tell him a few in a mumbling

monotone that improves with practice. I start to worry that he’s going to ask me for

a job, although, on reflection, he’s probably past that point. He asks if the work is

ever dangerous.

    I pause before saying, ‘Not usually.’

Two

 

 

Ray

 

It begins in May – a month when everyone, even private investigators, should be

happy and optimistic. The mistakes of the last year have been wiped clean and

everything has started again. Leaves unfurl, eggs hatch, men hope. All is new,

green, growing.

    But we – that is, Lovell Price Investigations – are broke. The only case we’ve had

in the last fortnight is a marital – that of poor Mr M. Mr M. rang up and after much

humming and hawing asked to meet me in a café because he was too embarrassed

to come to the office. He’s a businessman, late forties, with a small company

supplying office furniture. He’d never done anything like this before – he said so at

least eight times during that first meeting. I tried to reassure him that what he was

feeling was normal under the circumstances, but he never stopped fidgeting and

looking over his shoulder while we talked. He confessed that just speaking to me

made him feel guilty – as though admitting his suspicion to a professional was a

corrosive acid which, once unstoppered, could never be put back. I pointed out that

if he felt suspicious, talking to me would not make it any worse, and, of course, he

had plenty of reason to suspect his wife of infidelity: abstraction, unusual absences,

a new, sexier wardrobe, a propensity to work late... I almost didn’t need to gather

evidence; I could have said, look, yes, your wife is having an affair – just confront

her and she’ll probably be relieved to admit it. And you’ll save yourself a lot of

money. I didn’t say that. I took the job and spent a couple of evenings tailing the

wife, who kept a small shop selling knick-knacks on the high street.

    The day after I met Mr M., he rang me – she had just rung to say she would be

stock-taking after work. I parked down the street to watch the shop, and followed

her when she drove over to Clapham, where she went into a house in a genteel

neighbourhood popular with families. I couldn’t say for certain what went on in the

two hours and twenty minutes before she came out, but the next day, the man I

photographed her holding hands with in a wine bar was assuredly not the girlfriend

she had claimed she was going to meet. I called Mr M. and told him I had something

to discuss with him, and we met in the same café as before. I didn’t even need to

start talking; knowing what I was going to say, he began to cry. I showed him the

photographic evidence, explained where and when the photographs were taken,

and watched him weep. I suggested he try and talk calmly to his wife, but Mr M.

kept shaking his head.

    ‘If I show her these, she’s going to accuse me of spying on her. And I have. It’s

such a betrayal of trust.’

    ‘But she’s cheating on you.’

    ‘I feel like a horrible person.’

    ‘You’re not a horrible person. She’s in the wrong. But if you talk to her, there’s a

good chance you can straighten things out. You have to get to what’s behind the

affair.’

    I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I felt I had to say something. And I have

done this a fair few times.

    ‘Perhaps you’re right.’

    ‘It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?’

    He wiped his nose and eyes on a dirty-looking handkerchief. His face was a ruin

of its former self.

    Yesterday, Mr M. rang to say he had talked to his wife. He didn’t show her the

pictures at first, and she flatly denied having an affair, then he brought them out,

and she screamed at him with all the vicious rage of the cornered adulterer.

Adulterers usually blame their spouses, I’ve noticed. Now his wife says she wants

a divorce. He cried again. What could I say? He didn’t blame me, or her, but himself.

In the end I told him that it would be better in the long run; if his wife wanted a

divorce now, then she had wanted it before he spoke to her. At least I didn’t spin

out the process to charge him more; and there are some unscrupulous investigators

out there who would have. Those sorts of cases, which make up the majority of our

work, can depress you if you let them.

 

Today is grey and undistinguished. It’s nearly five o’clock in our offices above the

stationers on Kingston Road. I tell Andrea, our administrator, to go home. We’ve

been killing time for hours anyway. Hen is out somewhere. Through the

double-glazed window with its double layer of dirt, I watch a plane emerge from

the clouds, uncannily slow in its descent. I have drunk too much coffee, I realise,

from the sour taste in my mouth, and am thinking of calling it a day when, just after

Andrea leaves, a man walks into the office. Sixtyish, with grey hair slicked back

behind his ears; bunched shoulders and pouchy dark eyes. As soon as I see him I

know what he is: there’s an air, a look about him that’s hard to put into words, but,

when you know it, you know. Large fists are pushed into his trouser pockets, but

when he removes his right hand to hold it out to me I see a roll of crisp new notes –

deliberately on show. I guess he’s just come off the races after a good day –

Sandown Park’s less than thirty minutes from here. He doesn’t have that nervous,

slightly shifty look that people usually have on walking into a detective agency. He

looks confident and at ease. He walks into my office as though he owns it.

    ‘Saw your name,’ he says, after shaking my hand with a crushing grip, unsmiling.

‘That’s why I’m here.’

    That’s not what people usually say either. They don’t usually care who you are or

what you’re called – Ray Lovell, in my case – they just care that they’ve found you in

the Yellow Pages under Private Investigators – (confidential, efficient, discreet) –

and they hope that you can fix things.

    We have a form, in duplicate – yellow and white – that Andrea gets people to

complete when they come in for the first time. All the usual details, plus the reason

why they’re here, where they heard about us, how much money they’re prepared to

spend... all that sort of thing. Some people say you shouldn’t do this stuff formally,

but I’ve tried it this way and that way, and believe me, it’s better to get it down in

writing. Some people have no idea how much an investigation costs, and when

they find out they run a mile. But with this man, I don’t even reach for the drawer.

There’ll be no point. I’m not saying that because he might be illiterate, but for other

reasons.

    ‘Lovell,’ he goes on. ‘Thought, he’s one of us.’

    He looks at me: a challenge.

    ‘How can I help you, Mr...?’

    ‘Leon Wood, Mr Lovell.’

    Leon Wood is short, slightly overweight in a top-heavy way, with a ruddy, tanned

face. People don’t say weather-beaten any more, do they, but that’s what he is. His

clothes look expensive, especially the sheepskin coat that must add a good six

inches to his shoulders.

    ‘My family come from the West Country; you probably know that.’

    I incline my head.

    ‘Know some Lovells – Harry Lovell from Basingstoke... Jed Lovell, round

Newbury...’

    He watches for my reaction. I have learnt not to react, I don’t want to give

anything away, but the Jed Lovell he’s referring to is a cousin of mine – my father’s

cousin, to be precise, who always disapproved of him, and therefore of us. It occurs

to me that he hasn’t just seen my name – he’s made enquiries; knows exactly who

I am and who I’m related to. To whom. Whatever.

    ‘There are a lot of us around. But what brings you here, Mr Wood?’

    ‘Well, Mr Lovell, it’s a tricky business.’

    ‘That’s what we do here.’

    He clears his throat. I have a feeling this could take some time. Gypsies rarely get

straight to the point.

    ‘Family business. That’s why I’ve come to you. Cos you’ll understand. It’s my

daughter. She’s... missing.’

    ‘If I can stop you there, Mr Wood...’

    ‘Call me Leon.’

    ‘I’m afraid I don’t take on missing persons cases. I can pass you on to my

colleague, though – he’s very good.’

    ‘Mr Lovell... Ray... I need someone like you. An outsider can’t help. Can you

imagine a gorjio going in, annoying people, asking questions?’

    ‘Mr Wood, I was brought up in a house. My mother was a gorjio. So I’m a gorjio,

really. It’s just a name.’

    ‘No...’

    He jabs a finger at me and leans forward. If there wasn’t a desk between us, I am

sure he would take my arm.

    ‘It’s never just a name. You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office

behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us. Where are your family from?’

    I am sure he already knows about as much as there is to know. Jed would have

told him.

    ‘Kent, Sussex.’

    ‘Ah. Yes. Know Lovells from there too...’

    He reels off more names.

    ‘Yes, but as I said, my father settled in a house and left off the travelling life. I’ve

never known it. So I don’t know that I would be of much help. And missing persons

are really not my speciality...’

    ‘I don’t know what’s your speciality or not. But what happened to my daughter

happened with us, and a gorjio won’t have the first clue about how to talk to

people. They’d get nowhere. You know that. I can tell by looking at you that you

can talk to people. They’ll listen to you. They’ll talk to you. A gorjio won’t stand a

chance!’

    He speaks with such vehemence, I have to stop myself from leaning back in my

chair. Flattery, and poverty, are on his side. And maybe there’s a touch of curiosity

on my part. I’ve never seen a Gypsy in here before. I can’t imagine any

circumstances in which someone like him would go outside the family. I idly

wonder how many other half-Gypsy private investigators there are in the

South-East for him to choose from. Not many, I imagine.

    ‘Have you reported her disappearance to the police?’

    Under the circumstances, this might sound like a stupid question, but you have

to ask.

    Leon Wood just shrugs, which I take for the no it’s meant to be.

    ‘To be honest, I’m worried that something’s happened to her. Something bad.’

    ‘What makes you think that?’

    ‘It’s been more than seven years. We’ve heard nothing. No one’s seen her. No

one’s spoken to her. Not a phone call... not a word... Nothing. Now... My dear wife

recently passed, and we’ve been trying to find Rose. She ought to know about her

mum at least. And nothing. Can’t find a thing. ’S’not natural, is it? I always

wondered, I did, but now...’

    He trails off.

    ‘I’m very sorry to hear about your wife, Mr Wood, but let me get this straight –

did you say that you haven’t seen your daughter for over seven years?’

    ‘’Bout that, yeah. Leastways, she got married back then, and I never seen her

since. They say she ran off, but... now I don’t believe it.’

    ‘Who says she ran off?’

    ‘Her husband said so, and his father. Said she ran off with a gorjio. But I had my

suspicions then, and I have more suspicions now.’

    ‘Suspicions of what?’

    ‘Well...’ Leon Wood glances over his shoulder, in case we’re being overheard, and

then, despite the fact that we’re alone and it’s after hours, leans even nearer.

‘..That they done away with her.’

    He doesn’t look as though he’s joking.

    ‘You think they – you mean her husband – did away with her – seven years ago?’

    Leon Wood glances upwards.

    ‘Well, more like six, I suppose. After she had the kid. Six and a half maybe.’

    ‘Right. You’re saying that you suspect your daughter was murdered six years

ago – and you’ve never said anything, to anyone, until now?’

    Leon Wood spreads his hands, turns his eyes back to me and shrugs.

 

I don’t often think about my – my what? Race? Culture? Whatever word the

sociologists are using these days. The fact that my father was born in a field in Kent

as his parents picked hops during the Great War. His parents stayed on the road;

travelling and working round the South-East with his brothers. My one remaining

uncle is now on a permanent site near the south coast, but only because his health

deteriorated and made life on the road too arduous. But after the second war –

during which my father met a gorjio girl called Dorothy, and when he drove

ambulances in Italy, where he was interned and learnt to read – after that he

deliberately drew back from his family, and we didn’t see that much of them.

My brother and I grew up in a house; we went to school. We weren’t Travellers.

Dorothy – our mother – was a brisk Land Girl from Tonbridge who was never going

to be seduced by the romance of the road. She was a fanatical believer in universal

education – and my father was quite an autodidact, in his dour, humourless way.

He even went so far – much too far for most of our relatives – as to become a

postman.

    But, despite them, we knew things. I (especially I, as the dark one) knew what it

meant to be called a dirty gyppo; I know too about the long, petty battles over

caravan sites, and the evictions and petitions and squabbles over education. I know

about the mutual distrust that stopped Leon from going to the police about his

daughter – or to any other private investigator. I have some inkling of what made

him come to me, and I realise that he must be desperate to do so.

Three

 

 

JJ

 

I suppose my family isn’t like most people’s. For a start, we’re Gypsies or Romanies

or whatever. Our name is Janko. Our ancestors came from Eastern Europe, although

they’ve been here for a long time, but my gran married my granddad, who’s an

English Gypsy, so my mum is half Roma and half Gypsy, and then she went off with

my dad, who she says was a gorjio. I’ve never met him, so I don’t know. They didn’t

get married, so my name is Smith, like hers and Gran and Granddad’s. JJ Smith.

Mum called me after her dad, Jimmy, but I don’t like being called Jimmy and now

she calls me JJ. To be honest I’d rather not be called after my granddad, I’d rather be

called after someone else – like James Hunt. Or James Brown. But that’s not the

truth.

    We have five trailers on our site. First of all there’s our trailer – that’s where Mum

and I live. Mum’s name is Sandra Smith. She’s quite young – she was seventeen

when she got into trouble and had me. Her parents were furious and chucked her

out and she had to go and live in Basingstoke, but after a couple of years they

relented and let her travel with them again. They had to really, as she is their only

child, which is quite unusual. And I’m their only grandchild. Our trailer is a

Lunedale – it’s not that big, or that new, but it has oak veneer walls and has a nice

old-fashioned look. It’s not flash, but I like it. Because it’s just the two of us, I

suppose, we’re quite good friends. I think she’s a pretty good mum, on the whole.

Sometimes she drives me mad, of course, and well, sometimes I drive her mad too,

but generally we get on pretty well.

    Mum works as a delivery woman when we stop anywhere for a while. She’s good

at picking up work wherever we are. She works really hard, and apart from that sort

of work, she helps look after my great-uncle, who’s in a wheelchair. We all do that –

Mum and me, Gran and Granddad, and my uncle. They are the other people we

travel with. Gran and Granddad have two trailers between them – both Vickers, and

both really flash with chrome trim and cut-glass windows. They live and sleep in the

biggest and newest one, and then Gran cooks and does washing-up and so on in the

other one. And it’s their spare room, if they need it. Great-Uncle has a Westmorland

Star that has been specially adapted for him, although it’s the same one that he

lived in when Great-Aunt Marta was alive. It’s got a ramp so that he can wheel

himself in and out, and it’s also got something that most people would think is a bit

disgusting: an internal Elsan. He has to; life would be too difficult otherwise. The

nurses said it was either that or live in a bungalow. So it’s that.

    The last trailer is a Jubilee, where my uncle and cousin live. My uncle is

Great-Uncle’s son – his name is Ivo, and his son, my cousin, is called Christo, who is

six. Ivo’s wife is gone – she ran off a long time ago. Gran’s name is Kath, which is

short for Katarina, and Granddad’s name is Jimmy.

    You may have noticed a few foreign-sounding names in our family, although the

strangest name is Great-Uncle’s – his name is Tene, pronounced Ten-er. He and Kath

are brother and sister. The Jankos came over from the Balkans in the last century,

before any of the countries there were fixed or named. Great-Uncle just says the

Balkans. He and Gran say we’re Machwaiya, which are the aristocrats of the Gypsy

world, and we can look down our noses at Lees and Ingrams and Woods. Who

knows if it’s true? No one at my school knows anything about the Balkans. I’m the

only one.

    Gran and Granddad’s number-one trailer is the biggest, nicest one – or at least the

flashest – and Ivo’s is the smallest and least flash. He has the least money, but that’s

because Christo is disabled, and Ivo has to look after him. Everyone helps out with

money and stuff. That’s just the way it is. When I say he’s disabled, it’s totally

different from the way Great-Uncle is disabled: it’s because he’s ill. He’s got the

family disease. I’m lucky cos I haven’t got it, even though I’m a boy, and generally

only boys get it. The boys don’t usually pass it on as, if they have it, they don’t live

long enough. The only exception to this is Uncle Ivo, who had it when he was

younger, but got better. No one knows how. He went to Lourdes, and afterwards

he got better. It was a miracle.

    I’m not religious, personally, but, I suppose, you can’t just rule things out. Look at

Ivo. Officially we’re Catholics, although no one goes to church much, apart from

Gran. Mum goes now and again, and so does Granddad. But sometimes, even

though people who go to church are supposed to be full of Christian kindness and

charity, they’ve been cursed at in church, and Granddad says that once he was

going into a church and someone spat at him. I think that’s awful. Gran said that

they didn’t spit on him, they spat near him, but still, it’s pretty rude. I last went to

church with Mum and Gran at Easter, just a few weeks ago. We were all dressed up

and smart as anything, but some of the people recognised us, and there was a bit of

muttering and shuffling as people tried not to sit next to us. I saw Helen Davies,

a girl from my class, with her family, and she glared at me and whispered to her

mum, and then they all stared. Not everyone was like that, but then not everyone

knew who we were. I sat there in the pew getting really tense, just because I was

imagining what I would do if someone did spit at me. My fists were clenched and

my jaw too, until it hurt. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end – I was just

waiting for some spit to land on it. I saw myself turning round and giving that filthy

gorjio a good leathering, even though I’m not really into violence. Granddad was a

bare-knuckle boxer when he was younger, so maybe he passed it on.

    I didn’t hear a word of the sermon because I was so worried that someone was

going to spit on my neck. No one did though.

    Anyway, the religion thing is important because that’s why I am where I am now –

that is, on the ferry going to France. I’m really excited as I’ve never been abroad

before, even though I’m fourteen. We’re taking Christo to Lourdes, to see if he can

get cured, like Ivo did. ‘We’ is everyone except Mum and Granddad, which seems a

bit unfair, but someone has to stay behind and keep an eye on the site. It’s a good

place, and they need to make sure no one else moves onto it while we’re away.

Gran is here because she’s the one who really wanted us to go. In fact, she pretty

much made us go. Great-Uncle is here because he’s in a wheelchair and gets to do

what he wants. I got to come because I do French at school, so I can interpret. No

one else speaks a word, so I’m vital. I’m glad because I really wanted to come. And

then Ivo, and Christo, of course, who is the reason for the whole thing.

    I said Christo is ill with the family disease, didn’t I? I can’t tell you what it’s called

because no one knows. He’s been to see doctors but they can’t decide what it is,

and because of that, they can’t make him better. I don’t think doctors are much use

if they can’t even help a little kid like Christo. He’s not in pain mostly, but he’s very

small for his age, and weak, and he only learnt to walk about a year ago – but he

gets so tired he can’t do it much, so he mostly just lies there. He doesn’t talk either.

That’s the illness: it’s like he’s just so tired, he can’t do anything. Often he pants like

he can’t breathe properly. And he gets infections a lot, so we have to keep him away

from other kids, and generally keep things clean around him. If he gets a cold or

something, it’s really serious. His bones break easily too – he broke his arm last

year, just from hitting his hand on a table. Ivo used to be the same – when he was

Christo’s age, someone broke his wrist just by shaking his hand. But despite all that,

Christo never complains. He’s incredibly brave. In a way it’s good that he’s so small

and light, because Uncle Ivo has to carry him everywhere. I carry him too

sometimes – he barely weighs more than a feather. We get on really, really well.

I’d do anything for Christo. He’s like my little brother, although technically we’re

first cousins once removed. Or is it twice? I can never remember. It doesn’t really

matter.

    Anyway, I really hope this works. Ivo doesn’t like to talk about what happened to

him, but I know that he was ill all through his childhood – although not as ill as

Christo. After his trip to Lourdes, he slowly, gradually got better. I suppose you

could say it was just a coincidence, but then, maybe it wasn’t. And anyway, it can’t

hurt, can it? I’ve been trying to make myself believe in God ever since we decided to

go on this trip, so that my prayers will make a difference. I’m not sure that I do, but

I’m really making an effort; I hope that counts for something. And if God doesn’t

take pity on Christo, who’s so sweet and brave, and has never hurt anyone, then

I don’t think much of him.

 

For the first half of the ferry crossing I stared out of the window at Newhaven docks

getting smaller and fainter. The crossing to Dieppe takes ages, but it means less

driving. This is the first time I’ve seen England from the outside. It doesn’t look that

great, to be honest. Flattish and greyish. When the coastline disappears and I’ve

stared at the rather dirty-looking wake in the dark grey sea, I go and stand at the

front, looking out for my first ever glimpse of another country. It starts to rain on

me. It’s strange: I’ve never thought that rain falls on the sea as well as the land.

Obvious, really. ‘Il pleut,’ I tell myself. ‘Il pleut sur la mer. Nous allons à Lourdes,

pour chercher un miracle.’

    It’s important to be able to say what you’re doing, even if it’s only to yourself.

    Then Ivo and Christo come and stand beside me. Ivo lights a cigarette without

offering me one.

    ‘Bonjour, mon oncle, bonjour, mon petit cousin,’ I say. Ivo just looks at me. He

doesn’t say an awful lot, my uncle Ivo. I’m the talker in the family.

    ‘C’est un jour formidable, n’est-ce pas? Nous sommes debout sur la mer!’

    Christo smiles at me. He’s got this brilliant, sweet, happy smile that makes you

happy too. You want to make him smile all the time. Ivo hardly ever smiles. He

narrows his eyes and blows smoke towards France, but the wind snatches it away

and carries it back to where we came from.