Sweetness and Light, chapter 23

1975.

A queen bee that is weak will be replaced by the workers in a procedure that is known as supersedure. The workers will kill the inadequate queen by clustering tightly around her and stinging her. That process is known as balling.

I think longingly of fleeing – thoughts of virgin bees setting off from the mother hive with their own swarm and starting again. But I’m tied to this place – at least until a suitable replacement is found. And, of course, we are further from that than ever.

Another nightmare last night. I stood, looking down at a hunched, pathetic creature in a wooden box. It was thin, cowering, disgusting. A wretch. Its skinny, weak legs were trembling, its lips pulled back against its thin skull. The sight of it filled me with fury and disgust. I stepped closer to it, my hands twitching and itching to shut it up, to stop its snivelling. The nearer I got, the more it cowered. Finally, I stood over it and reached down to snap bones and throttle flesh. My disgust was like a boil that needed lancing. Finally, breathing heavily, I straightened up and looked down, vision clearing. I was looking at my own young body, a small child in the old sled bed, broken and still. I stepped back and lifted up my black hood with clawed hands.

Enough of nightmares. There is enough to concern us in the real world!

Poor Albert. So little time in this world. As I stood looking at his body in the darkroom yesterday I felt that he was already looking less human, already seeming more like mere matter. His soul had departed. That such an event should occur in our close knit, loving community. I was horrified.

I knelt down to stroke his cold cheek.

‘You could have had it all, Albert,’ I whispered. ‘You could have been my heir, could have been the hub of this beautiful building and its worker bees. You could have had it all.’

The thought of what poor Albert had missed out on suddenly filled me with immense sadness. There was so much love to be had in this building. My thoughts turned to dear Annie and Jenny and how much love they had shared with me.

Notes for a sermon: if all borders and walls are porous – if, indeed, we are all one collective consciousness – then why not take our love to its logical conclusion and share it as one, in one bed?

I gave Albert’s poor cold cheek a last stroke.

I wondered at the coppers in his hand. Was Albert so badly off that he was stealing money? Hiding it in his developing fluid? It was all so strange and mysterious that it deepened my pity for his poor, timid soul.

I left him on the floor, his hand still clutching those few coins, and went to find my comrades.

Jenny was the first person I came across, striding down the corridor, pencil and notebook in hand.

‘Jenny,’ I said. ‘The worst has happened. The worst you can possibly imagine.’

She stopped dead and turned to face me. I swooned against her a little in my shock.

‘What?’ she asked crisply.

‘Albert.’ I couldn’t say anymore. I gestured towards his darkroom – his poor, barely used, darkroom.

Jenny pushed open the door and screamed.

‘Oh, dear God!’ she said shakily.

It wasn’t like Jenny to invoke God’s name. Not out of prissiness, more fastidiousness – she doesn’t believe in God, so why use his name in moments of extremis?

‘What on earth has happened?’ she said. ‘Have you called an ambulance?’

‘I think it’s too late for that,’ I said, indicating Albert’s frozen grimace, his stiffly clutching hands. Once more, I sat down and stroked his cold cheek, held that icy hand. The sight of those coppers clutched in his grasp was pathetically poignant.

‘Call the police, then!’ she said. ‘Ralph! He’s dead!’

‘I know. It’s horrifying.’

‘Ralph. The police. You need to call them now.’

Clive slid into the room, eyeballing Jenny and I jealously.

‘Where’s Annie?’ he said.

‘Clive!’ Jenny pointed at the floor.

‘Fuck,’ he said. ‘Fuck! Fucking hell Jesus Christ Almighty.’

 ‘We need to call the police,’ Jenny reiterated.

‘What the fuck happened?’

‘Clive,’ I reprimanded gently. ‘You are swearing over a corpse, barely cold. Have some self-restraint.’

‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Look at his face. It’s disgusting.’

We heard another set of footsteps in the hall outside the darkroom.

‘What’s all the… oh my God!’ Annie clutched her hand to her mouth. ‘I’m going to be sick!’ she said.

‘Be calm, Annie, be calm,’ I said, wrapping a consoling arm around her waist. ‘Be calm. The end of life is as natural as its start.’

‘It’s not natural,’ she said. ‘Look at him! How did he die? I don’t understand. He was so young.’ She started to cry. ‘Where are the police? Oh my God.’

‘You might find it helpful,’ I said, ‘not to think of it as a life cut short, but as a life completed.’

‘Easy for you to say,’ said Clive, ‘when you’re in no immediate danger of completion.’

‘I certainly hope not,’ I said. ‘One death is unfortunate; two is a little harder to explain.’

‘The police,’ said Jenny, ‘need to be called. Now.’

Clive said nothing. Annie wailed. I held her a little more tightly.

‘Come here, Annie,’ said Clive, with a characteristically minimal approach to charm and grace. She unwound my arm and went to his side.

‘I’ll be right back,’ said Jenny. I suspected that she was going to the telephone in the common room.

‘One second,’ I said. ‘Let’s just take a moment to think about this. Albert’s going nowhere. There’s no rush.’ We all looked at his stricken, twisted face. The abyss that we all teeter on the edge of daily. ‘Let’s think about this,’ I reiterated. ‘A death – of a young man, at that – in our house. An unexplained death. It looks suspicious by anyone’s reckoning.’

‘It may not be unexplained,’ said Jenny, ‘after a post mortem.’ This sort of clear-eyed rationality was typical of Jenny, though not wholly welcome at that particular moment.

‘He always had a nasty cough,’ offered Annie, between sobs.

‘How will it look?’ I said, ‘to a policeman? Here we all are, a bohemian community, living apart from society’s usual rules…’

Clive coughed sarcastically.

‘Living apart from society’s rules. A young man dies in what may be seen as suspicious circumstances. Where will the finger point?’

‘Could have been TB,’ said Jenny, again with unwelcome rationality. ‘His mother died of it. He lived with her till the end. He never seemed well. That hacking cough, as Annie said.’

‘Could have been,’ I agreed. ‘What do you think, Clive?’

‘I’m no doctor,’ he said. ‘Personally, I thought people stopped dying of TB back when we all stopped wearing breeches.’ I glanced at my own, rather natty, tweed trousers, buckled below the knee. ‘But what do I know?’

‘His mother,’ wailed Annie. ‘Poor thing. At least they’re together now.’

‘Martha,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ Martha as a small girl putting the kettle on the stove at breakfast. Martha making a daisy chain and crowning me with it. Martha standing between me and father and begging him not to hit me. Martha stroking the blood from the corner of my mouth with a tiny, soft hand. I pushed the thoughts away.

 ‘It seems likely,’ said Jenny, ‘in the circumstances. What other explanation could there be?’

‘I don’t know. Any ideas, Clive?’

‘Why do you keep asking me?’ he said. ‘What am I, Poirot?’

‘I just thought you might have some insights,’ I pointed out. ‘Your father is a chemist, after all.’

‘What’s that got to do with it?’ he said. He was so touchy that I wondered if I’d inadvertently touched a nerve.

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I’m just wondering what sort of questions a policeman might ask, when a young man unexpectedly dies in a darkroom full of chemicals.’

‘Yes,’ said Clive. The red sea that spread across his face spoke a thousand words.

‘Photography chemicals aren’t dangerous,’ said Jenny, somewhat impatiently.

‘Well, I’m no expert. Clive could probably tell you more.’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘My dad’s the chemist, not me.’

‘Why are there coins in the developing fluid?’ asked Jenny. ‘That’s odd.’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Something foul’s at play.’

‘There’s not much ventilation in here,’ said Jenny.

‘Alright, alright,’ said Clive, ‘let’s not get too morbid.’

‘How much more morbid can it get?’ sniffed Annie. ‘There’s a dead Albert at my feet.’

‘I’m just thinking on my feet,’ I said. ‘As the leader of this group…’ Clive grunted. ‘I need to protect us. Protect us from querying and questioning. Think about it. Albert’s in our care. He dies suddenly, unexpectedly, in strange circumstances, surrounded by chemicals. Clive’s father is a chemist…’

Everyone was silent. We all looked at Clive. Then at Albert.

Eventually Jenny said, ‘but what would we do with his body?’

We all looked at Albert again. Then Clive said, quietly, ‘he has no family or friends.’

‘Just us,’ said Annie and sniffed.

‘Don’t be sentimental,’ said Clive. ‘He’s dead now.’

‘For once,’ I said, ‘Clive’s right. Nothing will undo the sad fact that Albert has passed. It’s how we now deal with it sensibly that’s in question. How we protect what we have here.’ I didn’t need to say, how we protect Clive. He understood.

‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ said Annie. No one replied.

 ‘I suggest,’ I said, ‘that Clive and I tidy up in here.’ I gestured towards Albert. ‘And you girls go and relax and try to cleanse your mind of what you’ve seen.’

‘God,’ said Annie, ‘it’s too much.’ She started crying again. ‘Poor Albert. We’ve killed him.’

I took Annie by the shoulders and shook her. ‘Never,’ I said, ‘Never say that again.’ She just stared at me dumbly, tears running down her face. I shook her again, harder this time. She nodded. ‘Jenny, take Annie off and give her that cup of tea.’

‘Jenny,’ muttered Clive in a sing song voice. ‘Stupid pet names.’ I ignored him. He was just trying to irritate me.

Jenny led a shaking Annie out of the room and I was left alone with Clive.

I gave Clive a man to man look.

‘You realise,’ I said, ‘what this means? What it means for us as a group?’

He didn’t reply. I didn’t need to expand on it. We were jointly implicated.

Clive took Albert’s legs and I took his arms. We took him upstairs, through Clive’s room and into the passageway to the back stairs. There we lay his body in the dry, cool dark where nature would do its duty in dismantling the flesh.

We both stood over his body for a few seconds. I couldn’t see Clive’s face, couldn’t tell what guilt and fear riddled it, but I said a quiet, Godless prayer for Albert’s soul.

‘Now,’ I said, ‘onto practicalities. These doors,’ I indicated the door to Clive’s studio and the door to the rear staircase, ‘are far too obvious. Far too inviting of exploration.’

He thought for a second. ‘Not us,’ he said slowly, ‘but future generations. Whoever might inherit my studio.’

‘Exactly.’

‘We should conceal them.’

‘Seal them,’ I suggested.

‘Perhaps a hidden catch,’ he said. ‘Just in case. You’re a carpenter.’

I am, though my leanings are more towards the aesthetic than the purely functional. Leaving Albert in peace, we made our way forwards, towards the rear staircase.

‘What about that?’ said Clive, pointing upstairs at the attic door.

I sighed. It seemed I would have many hours work ahead of me.

On reflection, I’ve chosen to seal up the door from my old room too. The greater good calls. Never mind. The rear stairs will still be accessible if one knows where to look.

Later that day I gathered my companions around me again. Clive’s face was red and tense, his jaw set, his red-gold hair seemingly standing on end through the sheer force of his thoughts. Jenny’s face was pale as setting plaster of Paris; Annie’s, pink, swollen and muddled under her mouse brown hair.

‘Comrades,’ I said. ‘Despair not!’

‘Spare us,’ said Clive.

I ignored him. ‘We have encountered something terrible,’ I said. ‘And we have survived. Our close bond has saved us, bound us even tighter than before.’

‘Can I sit down?’ said Annie. ‘I feel faint.’

Annie’s feebleness is an irritation. I’m beginning to tire of her, if I’m honest. Jenny’s strength has a more lasting appeal. Just us, I thought, and it will stay just us. There were no descendants in the offing and opening our house up to civilians was now even more unlikely than ever. Only people who have a vested interest in the maintenance of our privacy can ever live here now.

Annie reiterated, more forcefully this time, ‘can we all sit down? I feel sick, too,’ she added. ‘It’s the thought of his face. His hands. Where is he? Where have you put him?’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Clive. ‘It’s done now.’

Jenny said nothing. I understand her well enough to know that any uncertainty about our chosen course of action would now have been replaced with a pragmatic determination to preserve us.

‘Let’s sit down,’ I said.

We were in my old room – Albert’s room, more recently. It seemed a fitting place to convene and re-establish our bonds, under the gaze of those double height windows that slipped the northern light onto our skin.

Clive and Annie sat on the sofa, Jenny took the armchair. I was standing.

I’d asked everyone to dress for a formal occasion. Clive’s thick frame was squeezed into a cerulean blue suit, flaring out from the knee, and a frilled, white shirt. Annie wore a brown velvet dress, gathering under her bird-like bosom and flowing down to the floor. Her feet, as usual, were bare. Jenny’s blonde hair was tidier than ever and she was neatly dressed in a blouse and skirt. Her only concessions to fashion were cuffs that flowed over her capable wrists. I wore a shirt, tie and narrow tweed trousers.

‘I’d like,’ I said, ‘us to remember all the ties that bind us and be grateful.’

‘Oh God,’ said Clive under his breath. ‘Another sermon.’

‘Pardon?’ I said, although I’d heard him perfectly well.

‘I just wondered whether the preaching side of things could be left for the Great Hall downstairs?’ he said. ‘Or left altogether,’ he added, under his breath.

I wasn’t offended.

‘I’m not preaching,’ I said, though I do see myself leading them towards the light – not of Christianity, but of spirituality through art, as a worker bee dances to show his companions the direction of the good nectar. ‘I’m sharing a few words about our brotherhood.’

‘Go on,’ said my ever-faithful Jenny.

Annie sniffed. I noticed that she was looking a little fatter than she had. Only eighteen and already past her prime. So it is with some women. They flower so briefly. Jenny was still slim and upright as a daffodil, despite being a few years older. If only the fates were more even in the favours that they bestow.

I reached into my pocket and took out a piece of charcoal.

‘I thought,’ I said, ‘I’d draw all of your portraits. Embed them into the very fabric of the building,’ I pointed at the bare plaster of the walls, already embellished with a few of my working drawings – a nose here, a chin there. ‘Tattoo you onto her, as it were.’

‘Sheer egotism,’ remarked Clive, quietly again.

‘Clive,’ I said, ‘I do wish you’d voice your opinions to the group or not at all.’

In fairness to Clive, he was no doubt harbouring some very complicated and uncomfortable feelings at that time.

‘I don’t want to be embedded,’ Annie said. ‘I hate it here now he’s dead. He’s watching me, I can tell already. I don’t want to be in the walls.’

‘Go ahead,’ said Jenny. ‘I’m fine with it.’

One might hope for greater enthusiasm for the scheme, but nevertheless I accepted the group feeling in favour of my plan and began to sketch Jenny’s profile.

‘Let’s get this straight,’ said Clive. ‘What are you exactly? A painter? A carpenter? A sketcher in bloody charcoal?’

‘I’m all of those,’ I said, finishing Jenny with a fine sweep of charcoal. Onto Clive. How to capture his essence? A potato with a wig on it might suffice. However, I attempted to outline his features in sooty black. And finally little Annie.

Clive sighed heavily and took a hefty intake of breath. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Let’s just come out with it. We’re through with you and your dominating ways, your fucking insanity.’

I didn’t like to say that I’d already heard his plans and his crass  speech held no surprises.

‘Let me just come out with it too, then,’ I said. ‘I’ve written a letter outlining poor Albert’s demise, describing the circumstances, clearly presenting the knowledge of chemistry that certain inhabitants of this house have; their likely awareness of the poisonous emissions from copper when added to developing fluid. Let me be clear: the letter is lodged with my solicitor alongside my will. It also outlines a certain nervousness about my own safety. Let’s be direct about it. My death wouldn’t suit you.’

The letter is, of course, still in the process of being written. However, Clive isn’t to know this.

‘Jesus!’ he ejected. ‘You live in your own little world. This isn’t a fucking Wilkie Collins novel.’ A surprising literary reference from the potato-skulled goldsmith-cum-murderer.

 ‘I can’t cope,’ said Annie. ‘I feel sick.’ And she was sick at her feet. So very fragile.

‘Let’s calm this down,’ said my Jenny, leaving the room with the air of someone who planned to wipe up vomit.

‘I am calm,’ muttered Clive.

Jenny returned with a bowl of soapy water, a sponge and a glass of tap water.

‘Why don’t you go and lie down?’ she said to Annie, handing her the glass.

Annie nodded, stood up unsteadily and tip-toed out of the room.

Jenny knelt in front of the sofa and sponged at the parquet flooring.

‘It’s insufferable,’ said Clive, his head in his hands.

‘The point is,’ I said, ‘that we’re all in this together now. You’re stuck with me.’

Clive sighed deeply and pushed at the wrinkles on his brow with his fists. Jenny sponged Annie’s sick into a beige plastic bowl of warm water. This was not the fellowship that I’d dreamed of; not the artistic community I’d hoped for. Not by a long shot.

As Jenny sat back on her heels to survey her work and Clive shook his head and left the room without a word, I took stock of my situation and wondered whether, in fact, there was another way. A different solution.

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