He was more, and less, than he appeared. And who was 'Vic'?
There was, Ruby thought to herself, something sublimely naughty about thick cream and maple syrup on porridge. Especially first thing in the morning. She placed the bowl of steaming oats on a tray, leaving her special spoon to sink up to its thighs. With a little wriggle, she made room for a mug of tea, the bag still floating, still building the brew to somewhere between strong and tar. Her second indulgence of the day was to take the lot through to the sitting room and click on the TV. With no more than a rueful grin, she imagined her sister's pursed lips and frown. There was an echo in her ears of Barbara's starchy voice, lecturing her about sugars, fats and unnecessary calories.
'Good morning, I'm Bruce Farley and this is Supna Patel. You are watching Breakfast At The...' The familiar words drowned the memory of Barbara's catechism on healthy eating, balanced intake, the morals of free range farming and superfoods. '...the Prime Minister has appointed a new Minister for....' A blob of sticky porridge made a snail's trail down the front of her dressing gown. Ruby dabbled at it, smearing it into a slimy skid mark. '...the time is eight fifteen and now over to Karel for the weather.' Ruby's attention wandered, rain or sun, or both? Today it did not matter.
A heavy clunking of the door knocker made her spoon slop the last gobbet of oats. It slide down inside her pyjamas. Cursing, she limped to the front door as the caller summoned again. Security chain on, she opened a crack and squinted at a stubbled face topped by a red baseball cap.
'Delivery.' He sounded foreign and held out an electronic device. Squeezing out her arm, she made a signature that closely resembled a random ant's wandering and had a fat packet thrust into her hand in return. As the man shot off down the garden path, the parcel swung downwards and jammed in the gap. If she let go, whatever it was would drop to the top step and, maybe, smash. But her grip made it too fat to pull inside.
'Monkeys and bananas.' She muttered as she bit her lip. A monkey wanted a banana from a jar, so he put his arm in and grabbed it but he could not pull it out through the narrow neck. The answer to his dilemma was to shatter the jar. Ruby sighed. She wanted an intact front door and seriously doubted that she would ever have the strength to door more than scratch the paintwork. The parcel slipped a bit more. Grumbling, she flexed her creaking knee and lowered the wretched thing to the ground. Now all she had to do was to get up again.
Ten minutes later, she was sitting at the kitchen table, one leg propped up on the other chair. The scars were itching and the whole area was swollen. One slight twist was all it had taken and she was back to square one. She glared at the surgery. 'Square one and a half.' She told it. There was no way she was going back into hospital. A bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a tea-towel, a day on the sofa, her knee up on a pile of cushions and painkillers. And chocolate. That would fix it.
Her mother had called it a 'hostess trolley, dahling', for when she had little tete-a-tetes, or more guests for dinner. Ruby called it the 'profanity perambulator' or, when the wobbly wheel fell off, 'George'. The said George had a loose wheel upstairs and a gift for lurching sideways into anything breakable and expensive. His hands wandered where they should not and his eyes had the kind of leer that a slug has. How mother tolerated him and still lived in the same house with him, was beyond Ruby's comprehension. Over the years he had progressed from a distant stepfather to a creepy old man. No wonder that Barbara was so prim and proper. Ruby stopped the memories and sunk onto the sofa, the profanity perambulator next to her, loaded with enough bits and pieces to see her through the morning.
The parcel was wrapped around and around with brown tape. Only her mother could use a reel and a half on something not much bigger than a box of chocolates. Ruby shook it and sighed. If it was edible, then it was a solid lump of something worthy. She attacked it with scissors. Cutting off the end, she peered inside. There was another taped up box and a bright orange envelope. Why did her mother never seal a letter? Even when she posted it. Ruby shrugged and pulled out a large sheet of paper, folded over and over. Opened up, she could see that it had been ripped off the end of a roll of wallpaper. Weird. Even for mother.
'Hello my darling Rubiana.' No one ever called her by her given name. Not ever. Except mother. When she wanted something. 'My darling Georgie Porgy has gone to live in a darling little home in the country, with some darling nurses to care for him.'
'About darling time.' Ruby eased her aching leg and put the packet of frozen peas back on the trolley. They were too cold. It was only as she fished the taped-up box out of the delivery wrappings that her eyes were grabbed by a hastily scribbled addendum.
'Read all of it.'
The box was not a box. It was a stack of thick notebooks tied by ribbon as if it were a Christmas present. The first one had a cover that was grubby and stained with greasy marks. Once, it had been a dull red, like dried blood. Frowning, she opened it. From the marbled frontispiece there wafted a faintly exotic, spicey odour. Italic lettering identified it as the property of George Aloysius Collingwood and the date as August 1950. So the slimeball had kept a diary? She slapped the cover shut. So what? Then opened it again.
'Cats die of curiosity.' Ruby was almost unaware of her comment as she turned to the first page of tiny, crabbed, writing. 'Korea, disembarked Aug 3. My birthday. Hot, sticky and stinks. Same old bully beef. Sergeant Dixon gave us salt tablets and lecture on not going with local girls. No chance there. Up the jungle for five day patrol. Chalky White got bit by snake. Lasted four hours, screaming the last bit. Oh God.'
How old had he been in 1950? Nineteen? Twenty? Conscription had still been in force then. A young lad from the factories of Sheffield, shipped out to fight in the jungles of Korea, in a war that he did not understand against people he had never heard of for political ideologies that meant nothing to him. She read on. He believed in what he was doing. He believed in the British Empire. He was scared. He was brave. He caught malaria. He was cured. He went back to active duty. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry and 'being a bloody fool'.
Ruby swallowed down the lump in her throat. She still did not like the old creep he had become but back then he had done his bit. He had fought because that was what was expected of him. He had sampled the local food, the local booze and the local girls. Then had reported sick. There was a pair of wriggly lines. Underneath them, in capitals, POW, and then another pair of wriggly lines. The entries continued, but there was a long gap in the dates.
Ruby bookmarked the place with a piece of ribbon and stared up at the ceiling. Hot sunlight was tracking across the plaster. George had been a prisoner of war for at least a year in Korea. It must have been an horrific experience. In those days you never spoke of it. She regarded the rest of the diary and the others stacked on the floor. There was a coldness gripping her stomach and a pressure band tightening around her head.
'Read all of it.' She knew she had to. But first, a break. And tea.
When George was demobbed in England, Queen Elizabeth was recently crowned and the country was changing. He was there when rock and roll burst open society and he dived into it with a frantic enthusiasm. Ruby closed the diary on the last page. George was on the road, touring with Jimmy and the Hurricanes. By 1961 he was a session musician, living in a shared house and waiting tables to make ends meet.
The next book started off with dates, places and names. He was touring again, part roadie, part guitarist, part procurer for the famous bands. As the diaries became filled with more scribblings, they became disjointed, then incoherent. Another pair of squiggly lines and 'cold turkey' in capitals. Heroin was off the menu but in the 1970s there were other drugs of choice. A bad trip on lsd was shaky note. Followed by a thick, black comment that the nightmares had started again and were worse than ever.
Another gap in the dates, for no apparent reason, led to a new entry for 3 August 1978. 'Happy Bleeding Birthday,' She could hear the grate in his voice, 'a bed in the looney bin and Frankenstein watching in case I top myself.' There was a picture of a noose. 'Clean sheets. Showers. Food.' A smiley face. 'Must go mad more often.' Ruby thought that the icon he drew was similar to Munch's 'The Scream'. There followed page after page of writing, some dated, some not. Some lucid, some not. Some after electric shock treatment, some not. Ruby read every word, tedious, or not.
Ruby had a somber evening meal. She did not want to read on but knew she would. Wheeling the trolley, with George's life, her medication and a bottle of water into her bedroom, she was thankful that she lived in a ground floor flat. If there had been stairs, she would still be eating solid rice pudding and cheese sandwiches in hospital. The long summer day was darkening, the sky an angry red as she picked up the story again.
After being released from the mental hospital, George went from hostel to prison to hostel again. He always had one diary with him but the rest were posted to 'Vic'. Ruby shifted uncomfortably. 'Vic' had first appeared in the late 70s, she scrabbled back through old entries, but could not find him. Then he had disappeared before re-surfacing with increasing regularity.
'I asked Vic to marry me.' Her eyes were sore. She switched on the bedside lamp and re-read the sentence. It was the same. George had been gay. She glanced at the date again. February 14 1999. It must have been shortly before he had met mother and wound her round his little finger. Ruby turned the page. 'She said YES!' Vic? Who was this Vic person? This Vic woman?
'Ohhhh nooo.' Ruby was detached from the groan. She knew who 'Vic' was. Mother had been the Vicar of Grinnold back then. That was before she had fallen out with the bishop and they had been forced to move to a run down cottage in Northamptonshire. With George. A total stranger to Ruby but, obviously, not to mother. A new place to live, a new stepfather, a new school and, very shortly, a new sister. They had a christening and a wedding on the same day.
'That explains the row with the bishop.' Saying the words aloud did not help.
The next dairies were patchy in content. George tried to be a dad but he was confused by children. He did not know what to say, how to behave or what to do. His nightmares kept him awake and sweating. Exhausted, he could not hold down a job. They lived on state benefits and a few gigs where he backed groups and an unreliable income from Vic's writing. As Ruby turned page after page, she saw her childhood through his eyes. She and Barbara were always his daughters. Both of them. No step involved.
It crept up on her then. George was not her stepfather. There was no step involved. Barbara was her full sister. The tension in her stomach, the stone in her throat, the acid burning her eyes condensed into a rainstorm of furious grief. She wanted to turn over and beat the pillow until it burst in a feathered snowstorm. But her knee kept her on her back.
The pillow was wet. Her muscles ached. Her head throbbed. A black dragon was galloping up and down her spine, it's scales crashing thunderously. Ruby jerked awake, skewering red hot knives through her knee. Her head pounded. The room dipped and swayed. The noise was louder. It was real. The back gate was being thumped out of its frame. A crash as the bolt gave way.
Someone was in the yard. Someone was shining torch through the window. Ruby forced herself into a sitting position, eyes squinting in the beams, one hand reaching for something, anything that could be a weapon. The torch beams swayed and changed direction, pointing upwards. A weird and scary face looked in, through the glass.
'Barbara!' Ruby yelled. 'What the hell?'
'Are you alright? You didn't answer the phone.'
'I didn't hear it.' She had left it on charge in the sitting room. 'I'm OK.' The truth was that she felt like death warmed up.
'Mum sent me her diaries.' Now Barbara was being confusing. 'You've got to read them. It's unbelievable!'
'I know.' George's life had been a long disaster. 'Mother's diaries?' What? Feeling her heart sinking yet again numbed the agony in her knee. 'Get the key from under the bin.' Barbara knew the hiding place. 'Get in here. This is not good.'
When her sister stumbled through the bedroom door, Ruby had managed to haul herself into a sitting position. Their eyes met. Blue on blue, both red-rimmed, both wide and wild. They knew their mother. They knew George. They knew it was too late. But they rang the police anyway. And the ambulance service. And the care home.
Clinging to each other as they had never done before.