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No Secrets Now

by Sandra Crook

“What have you been doing in the shed?” demanded his mother, propelling her wheelchair quickly towards Kevin as he entered the kitchen.

Kevin backed smartly out of her path and grabbed the handles of the chair as she shot past him on a collision course with the back door.

“I was just checking. I thought I heard something in there when I came past. A cat or something...” he finished lamely.

His mother laughed harshly. “Cats wouldn’t dare,” she said, “not under my nose.”

Kevin sighed. There wasn’t much that could go on under Maureen O’Ryan’s nose, long as it was.

“I’ll make you some tea, shall I?” he asked, hoping to divert her from her interrogation. “Maybe a sandwich? I got a nice crusty Hovis for you.”

“I’ve gone all afternoon without a cup of tea,” his mother grumbled, “I thought you’d come straight home after getting the bread.”

Kevin, spooning tea into the pot, didn’t answer. His errand had taken him across the common, where he had made an interesting discovery. One that he had just secreted away on a high shelf in the shed until he could retrieve it later.

The box had been half-hidden beneath some gorse bushes, and might have gone unnoticed if he hadn’t scrambled down the embankment to relieve himself there. The lid was open, with papers, notebooks and photographs spilling out onto the muddy bank. His curiosity had been immediately sparked.

A few minutes later, after kicking the now empty box further into the bushes, he’d hurried home, head down against the wind and rain, the pockets of his anorak stuffed with his haul.

He brewed the tea, and sat down to listen to her tirade of complaints until she said she was tired and ready for her afternoon nap.

Having seen her to her room next to the kitchen, the one that they’d converted to a bedroom since her accident, he quietly let himself out and brought his find indoors. He paused in the hallway, listening to her snore, before he tiptoed up the stairs and spread the pile of damp, mud-splattered documents and photographs onto the dressing table.

Then he began to comb through the photographs, straightening curled edges, carefully blotting away rain and mud with a tissue. He worked carefully, tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth like a little boy.

Gradually, beneath his careful fingers, a montage of someone’s life unfolded on the chipped dresser top; pictures of a baby girl, a toddler, giving way to a tiny schoolgirl, a blossoming adolescent, and now a beautiful young woman.

He carefully sorted them into rough chronological order, inserting later discoveries into the trail of photos which now spilled off the dresser and along the bedroom floor. Thank God, he thought, that his mother couldn’t make it up the stairs to his bedroom.

Engrossed as he was, tea-time came and went and he was startled when a rapping at the foot of the stairs summoned him.

“What are you doing up there?” his mother demanded angrily. “It’s time you made my tea.”

Kevin sighed, and hurried downstairs. Throughout dinner he fielded his mother’s questions, ignoring her incessant carping and attempts to provoke a row to break the monotony of her day. Realising that she would get no diversion from him, she eventually told him to help her to bed.

“You’re no company anyway,” she grumbled, “I might as well watch television in bed.”

He helped her to the bathroom, thanking his lucky stars that as yet she could attend to her personal hygiene unaided. She could stand for a minute or so, and could take two or three tottering steps, but that was about the limit of her abilities. He couldn’t bear to contemplate what unspeakable chores would fall to his lot when this was no longer the case.

Once she was safely in bed he took her some milk, and handed her the remote control.

“I might have a bit of an early night myself,” he said, affecting a yawn.

Back in his room, as darkness fell, he worked on by the light of a desk lamp he’d positioned to illuminate the scene. Finally, by ten o’clock, the photographs had been placed in a time-line which skirted all four walls of his room, and he broke off, surveying his work with satisfaction.

He glanced across at the notebooks and papers, but against all his instincts, decided not to investigate them further tonight. Examination of these would be a task to look forward to.

There was little enough to provide a diversion in his life; a job as a filing clerk in a dingy bolt-hole above the office where the two old bats who generated his work-load got their kicks from baiting him; long evenings spent with his mother; the weekly trip to the supermarket. He would save the rest of his haul for another evening. For once in my miserable life, he thought, there’s something to look forward to.

On the bus to work next morning he brooded about his find. It seemed unlikely that anyone would discard such a collection of memorabilia. The box must have been stolen. It looked as though it might contain valuables, and the lock on the lid had obviously been forced open. He could imagine a disappointed thief tossing it away in disgust on discovering the contents were of little value.

Valuable to him though. He could scarcely wait to resume his explorations.

The next evening, after leaving his mother watching television downstairs, he stepped over the lines of photographs on the bedroom floor, pausing for a while to examine them again, removing the odd one from its place to insert it elsewhere in the dateline.

They couldn’t remain on the floor like this, he thought, and after a while he began taping them around the walls of his bedroom, starting with the infant photographs on the north wall, and working clockwise round until the most recent were on the west wall, facing his bed.

“Goodnight,” he whispered when he settled beneath the quilt that night.

The following evening he decided to explore the paperwork.

The notebooks turned out to be diaries, and with a thrill of guilty anticipation, he laid them to one side. He wasn’t sure what he’d do about them. Reading them seemed both compelling and yet abhorrent at the same time. He needed some time to examine and wrestle with his conscience.

God knows, he thought, I’ve got nothing but time in my life.

The other papers were examination certificates, school reports and the general run of paperwork that somehow people can never bear to throw away. The filing clerk in him dictated that these too be assembled in date order, and gradually, as he worked, the young woman in his bedroom began to assume characteristics, not just a physical presence.

Julia — for that, he discovered, was her name — was good at English but struggled with maths and sciences.

Just like me, he mused.

She’d taken piano lessons, but given them up later.

As did I, he thought, warming to her.

And she displayed an aptitude for art.

“We could be soul mates,” he whispered.

She was an above-average athlete.

That ruffled him; he’d never had any aptitude for sports, and he felt disappointed at this first indication of incompatibility between them. He laid the reports aside, and got ready for bed, where he lay, surrounded by pictures of Julia.

By the end of the week he’d thought he’d learned all he could about Julia from the documents; only the diaries remained unopened, almost taunting him.

The two women at work started teasing him. “You’ve smartened up, Kevin. Got yourself a girl, have you?” sniggered the younger woman.

Kevin viewed her with distaste, taking in her spiky hair, the low-cut T-shirt displaying her ample cleavage and her ridiculous platform-soled shoes.

The tiny office, which the women shared, reeked of cheap perfume and a hint of body odour. His lip curled. Julia was a world away from this, he thought.

“So where do you take her?” teased the older woman. “Back home to meet Mummy?”

They both shrieked with laughter and Kevin flushed angrily as he slammed the door on his way back to his cubby-hole.

He was tempted to take a photo of Julia into the office, but decided against it. She was his secret life. And besides, the old bats might even know her.

As he engrossed himself in the drudgery of his working day, he began to fantasise about meeting Julia. There would be so much for them to talk about it, so many questions he wanted to ask her about various events in her life, her relationships, and her family.

He’d seen pictures of her parents, snaps of the house and garden. Her father was tall and well-built but looked like a kindly chap. Kevin could imagine sitting on that terrace overlooking the garden, talking to him, man to man. He could scarcely remember his own father, who’d left home years back, and he’d missed that figure of authority in his life. He thought they’d probably get on well together.

One night, as he pored over the photographs yet again, he thought about what the old bat had said. Where could he take Julia? What would she think when she met his mother? A cloud dimmed his daydreams.

Perhaps he’d investigate whether he could arrange a carer for his mother, so that he could get a place of his own. Then he could have Julia round for dinner, cook for her. He’d become a passable cook, though he wouldn’t be making liver and onions or jam roly-poly, which was about the extent of his mother’s epicurean horizons.

There would be more exotic meals, seafood tagliatelle perhaps, or even steak with a green salad. And wine. He’d need to brush up on his knowledge of wines; his mother wouldn’t tolerate anything but sweet sherry in the house.

Later that week, he obtained some leaflets about home help from the council offices, and went round a few estate agents to see about the availability of rented accommodation. There were several likely properties, a bit more expensive than he’d hoped, but still worth pursuing, so he obtained the details and hid them, together with the social services leaflets, beneath his bed.

There was a new spring in his step, and for the first time in years he felt a strange thrill of optimism about the future. He bought a book about French cuisine, and a wine catalogue.

The diaries were still unopened beneath his bed, and it was a couple of months after his discovery that he settled down one night, uneasy with guilt, and opened the first one. He knew that once these contents were revealed to him, there would be very little more for him to learn about the object of his attentions. The gradual unveiling of Julia had occupied every waking moment. How would he cope when there were no further revelations to be experienced?

He started to read.

The diaries spanned the years of her adolescence with a frankness that often made him blush. He suffered with her at the slights and rejections, commiserated with her disappointments, and raged with jealousy at her encounters with the opposite sex.

He tossed and turned at night as he digested the ups and downs of her teenage years and was almost relieved when, some weeks later, the last diary had been read and placed on the carpet at the foot of the appropriate wall of his bedroom. As he’d read her secrets he’d sat on the floor beneath what he guessed were the photographs relevant to that time. It was as though he was living her life with her.

By now his room was a shrine to Julia. He went to bed earlier each evening so that he could spend time in her life. Sometimes he wanted to stay in bed all day, staring at her photographs, sharing the ups and downs of her dreams and aspirations. The yearning to meet her in the flesh, for her to be something other than an inanimate object on his bedroom wall, gradually began to consume him.

The diaries had revealed so much more to him.

Above all, they’d revealed where she lived.

* * *

So here he is, six months after finding Julia’s life scattered under a bush; sitting in a cell at the police station, robbed of his belt, tie, shoelaces and dignity, having spent an uncomfortable night on a narrow bunk.

He’s been apprehended lurking in a doorway opposite Julia’s house, something he’s been doing for several weeks. The police are investigating a series of attacks on young women, one of whom is seriously injured. He’s praying it’s not Julia, but they won’t say.

It seems someone has reported seeing him hanging around. There are CCTV images of him following Julia along the route to her work-place.

He’s protested his innocence. He’s told them he just saw her one day, and has been following her around trying to pluck up the courage to ask her for a date. He can see it cracks them up to think that he’d believe he could stand a chance with someone like Julia, but then they don’t know her like he does.

Though the questioning continued most of the previous afternoon, it seems now that they are beginning to believe him.

All except for one detective. The surly one. He came in this morning to tell him the bad news.

They’re applying for a search warrant for his home. He can imagine what conclusions they will draw when they enter into his room and find Julia’s life and times adorning his walls, her diaries stacked around the room.

God alone knows what his mother will think when they tell her.

He puts his head in his hands and groans; things are not looking so good right now. His heart pounds in anticipation of the detective’s return and tears sting his eyes. How could it have come to this?

* * *

Later that day, a police car deposits him on the pavement outside his house. The curtains at several of the other houses on the street twitch, as the neighbours watch him go up the front path.

Kevin still doesn’t understand why the police have let him go, even though he knows he has done nothing wrong. He lets himself into the house and finds his mother sitting in her wheelchair in the kitchen.

“Back then,” she remarks, her yellow face crinkling into a grimace of welcome. “I missed you, son.”

He wonders why she’s being so pleasant with him. He’d expected anger, possibly even hysteria. This feels surreal, almost creepy.

“Why don’t you go up and shower, and then we’ll have a nice cup of tea and a little chat,” she says evenly.

He turns and climbs the stairs, wondering what he will find in his room. What will the police have done with the photographs, the diaries and all the rest of the evidence?

He stands in the doorway, surveying his room. There is no trace of Julia anywhere. No photos on the walls, just torn wallpaper where the sticky tape has been pulled off. He peers under the bed. No diaries, no school reports. Even the social services booklets and the estate agents’ leaflets have gone.

If the police have taken them, why would they have released him without asking any further questions? Feeling dizzy with confusion, he makes his way slowly back downstairs.

His mother stares at him. “Everything all right, dear?”

What is wrong with her? She seems different, more confident, empowered in some way.

“Did the police take anything from my room?” he eventually manages to ask, as he fills the kettle for their tea. He can see breadcrumbs on the worktop, and there is a cup, saucer and plate in the sink. He briefly wonders how they got there, who would have helped her with her breakfast.

“No, dear,” she says. “There was nothing there for them to take. At least, not by the time they arrived.”

He spins round.

“Now,” she says. “Let’s talk about where we go from here.”

She wheels her chair closer to him.

“There’ll be no more of this nonsense about you finding a place of your own. And certainly no more about finding a carer for me. I wouldn’t like that at all. You’re my carer. We belong together.”

She opens the lid of the biscuit tin on the kitchen table, poring over the contents like a little squirrel, licking her lips in anticipation.

That’s my biscuit tin, he thinks, the one I keep on the top shelf.

His mother has always regarded chocolate biscuits as an excessive indulgence, and has insisted on him buying rich tea biscuits every week. Now she is sifting through his secret tin, pawing them all, extracting the odd one to sniff at, her thin lips curving in anticipation.

“You’re a good boy really,” she says. “Now that you’ve got over this nonsense about girlfriends, we’re going to settle down into our old routine again. Just you and me. Things will be just as before, only maybe a little better. You can spend more time down here with me, instead of cooped up in your room like you have been. We can play cards, listen to the radio, maybe watch a spot of television together.”

She rubs her long nose thoughtfully, and smiles at him almost coquettishly.

His stomach turns.

“And you know what, Kevin, I might even try to walk a bit. On the days when the pain isn’t quite so bad. We could maybe go on holiday together, a few days at the seaside. What d’you think?”

“Where is the stuff from my room?” he says, his voice sounding unnaturally high and panicky.

She lays a liver-spotted, claw-like hand over his. He notices her grimy fingernails.

“In a safe place, dear. For now.”

Copyright © 2012 by Sandra Crook

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