Today I write to draw this long letter – a love letter, I now see – to a close. It’s a love letter to my beloved building – to our hive. It’s also an insurance policy. A copy shall go to my solicitor, as promised. It’s also a farewell letter. I stand at a crossroads, at an ending and at a beginning, and I contemplate both directions with sadness.
I last wrote about the meeting where I sketched Clive, Jenny and Annie onto the walls. I realised that one face was missing and wondered whether to add it, but I decided against it. I’m already a part of this building; I live and breathe it. It’s not necessary.
Since then, much has happened to shake me to the very core. I’ll hesitate no longer in getting it all down on paper and then securing this letter ready to be passed onto the right people. Certainly my solicitor; perhaps, I now think of it, someone else entirely, in the fullness of time.
In the days following poor Albert’s disposal we have all lived like mice within these walls, nervous of each other, wary, jumpy. It seemed as though we were in a sealed container, a submarine if you like, drinking in each other’s breath and treading each other’s footsteps. The air seemed to grow warmer and thicker with each day, the only energy in the house being the crackle of Clive’s nerves. The streets outside – hot, bustling, fashionable Kensington – seemed a world away. We moved around in the soup-like atmosphere slowly and lethargically, not meeting, barely thinking, all of our minds on Albert’s shoulder blades and calves sinking gently into the floor. Or so I thought – it now turns out that some of our party had thoughts of other matters too.
Tomorrow I plan to busy myself with carpentry. I’ve stumbled upon Clive’s tense frame a number of times, shuffling through the corridors towards the door where Albert’s remains had last seen daylight. Picking at a scab. Another good reason to leave a catch on the doors. I see no harm in Clive continuing to worry over the issue – to do penance, as it were. Tempting him to revisit his crime over and over again. Clive’s jangling nerves make him a natural candidate for the strongest and most torturous forms of guilt. Know thy enemy. Who knows what effect this will have on him over the years, the slow repetition of a dark complicity relived again and again? I suspect not a positive one.
Today, however, I’d had enough of the creeping about, the warm breath of guilt on our hive’s walls. Today I felt the need to shake things up, to get some energy back into the air. I called a meeting – this time in the common room. For it was our commonalities that I wished everyone to remember. It was time to move on from poor Albert’s fate and once again go about our true business – to begin to make art again, to begin to make the world into a better place, one small step at a time.
Unfortunately, others had rather different ideas.
Once we were all in the common room I was ready to begin. Annie and Jenny took the sofa. Clive sat in the armchair, a Viking gone to seed. I stood.
Before I could speak, Clive stood up.
‘Sit down, Ralph,’ he said. ‘You’re not running this meeting.’
‘Yes,’ said Jenny – my Jenny, my dear, little Jane, ‘sit down, Ralph. You need to hear this.’
I laughed again. ‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘Now, before we move to the first item on our agenda, a few words of inspiration.’
‘Ralph,’ said Jenny, more firmly now. ‘Sit down.’
Clive stepped away from his chair. Rather than cause a ruckus, I accepted his seat with good grace.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Do take the floor, Clive. Another time, it might be preferable to notify me in advance so that I can add you to the agenda, but do please go ahead and address the room.’
How I now wish that I hadn’t invited Brutus to pick up the knife!
‘Thanks, Ralph,’ he said.
He stood, not in my usual position underneath the window, but instead in the middle of the chairs where a coffee table might be placed, addressing us in the round.
‘Now,’ he said, ‘here’s the thing. We’re all agreed – Annie, Jane and myself – that we don’t wish to have you as our leader. That the leader of any group must be democratically elected.’
‘Contractually…’ I murmured.
Clive pulled a sheaf of papers out from his back pocket. He thumbed through them.
‘Contractually,’ he said, ‘you’ll find that we are obliged to ‘follow the principles of goodwill and fellowship and mutual agreement’ and,’ he thumbed forward a few pages, ‘to continue in fellowship so long as there is mutual accord and contentment.’ In other words, unless there’s agreement, there is no fellowship. There is no agreement in your favour. Therefore, there is no fellowship.’
He gathered the papers into a tube and slapped them triumphantly into the palm of his other hand.
‘No fellowship, Ralph,’ he reiterated. ‘Without agreement, it crumbles to dust.’
How unlike Clive to descend to metaphorical allusion.
Annie said nothing. My Jenny said, ‘it’s true, Ralph, unfortunately. It has been checked.’
Was she my Jenny or just plain Jane? I wasn’t sure anymore.
‘And yet,’ said Clive, ‘we all have the right to be here under a rather stronger legal framework – that of inheritance. That’s a bit more sturdy than your funny little contracts.’ His face said the words that his mouth didn’t need to: so, what are you going to do about it?
‘I won’t go quietly,’ I said. ‘I would rather die than be evicted like a common squatter.’ I glanced at Clive. ‘To be clear,’ I said, ‘I don’t mean that entirely literally.’
‘It may be better for everyone,’ said Jane, ‘if you do renounce your right to leadership, Ralph. It may be the simplest solution.’
I didn’t speak. I wanted to wait, to get my thoughts straight before I let them loose upon the room.
But before I could gather them, another revelation, perhaps even more shocking than the last.
Annie’s tears had been gathering in force since we sat down. To be honest, she appears to have done very little but cry since Albert died. It’s not as if they were close. The constant fluid about her face has been irritating, to say the least. Now she began to sob.
‘I can’t keep it in any longer,’ she bawled. ‘I can’t do it on my own.’
‘What, dear?’ said Jane, placing a maternal arm around Annie’s shoulders. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘My dad will kill me,’ she said. ‘I’m supposed to be going to university next year. My life’s ruined.’
The penny dropped. Her weight gain, her sickness. Though pregnancy cannot explain a general tendency towards feebleness of spirit.
‘Are you sure?’ said Jane. ‘In this heat, you might just be feeling wobbly.’
‘I’m sure,’ said Annie. ‘I’m so late.’
‘When was your last period?’ asked Jane.
The meeting appeared to have degenerated into some sort of schoolgirls’ gym talk. I looked to Clive to restore order, since this was apparently no longer required of me. Needless to say, he was standing there, mouth agape, singularly failing to establish any sort of control over the situation.
‘February!’ wailed Annie.
I did some swift mathematics.
‘Annie,’ I said. ‘Could this be the fruit of my loins?’
She just sobbed all the harder.
‘Well?’ said Clive, hair on end like a cockerel’s comb. ‘What’s it to be, Annie?’ Never have I seen someone’s face so adequately illustrate the concept of an expression being like thunder. He moved a little closer to her and jabbed his finger at her shoulder. ‘Well?’
‘Leave me alone! It can’t be happening. I’m not ready to be a mother. My dad will kill me,’ she repeated, as though her father’s approval was everyone’s main priority.
‘I’m sure he’ll come round to the idea,’ said Jane, ever the pacifier.
‘He won’t,’ she said, sniffing great globules of snot back into her nasal passage. ‘Never. He won’t let me in the house if he knows. God. What am I going to do?’
‘Remove yourself of the thing,’ offered Clive.
‘That’s against nature,’ I reminded the room. ‘And I suspect that Annie is too far gone, as you ladies say, for such a solution anyway.’
‘Oh, God,’ she said and started wailing again. ‘I don’t want it! I want to go to university. I want to be normal.’
‘What’s done is done,’ said Jane. ‘What we need now is a way of managing the situation. She’ll have to stay here if she can’t go home.’ The last point was directed at Clive, as if his leadership was now a given.
‘But I don’t want it,’ sobbed Annie. ‘I want it out.’ She pushed angrily at her stomach. ‘Why can’t I have a miscarriage? Why don’t I ever have any luck?’
‘There’s always adoption,’ said Jane.
‘Or,’ suggested Clive cheerfully, ‘a back street abortionist.’
‘If you don’t mind,’ I said, ‘this is my progeny you’re proposing to spike with a rusty knitting needle.’
Jane ignored me. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Clive,’ she said, ‘it’s far too dangerous.’ He just snorted. ‘And surely the child could be yours?’ she said. ‘Not Ralph’s?’
Annie put her face in her hot little palms and sobbed.
‘We were careful,’ Clive said icily.
‘Condoms are the work of the devil,’ I reminded them. ‘A man’s spermatozoa are his energy, his life force, his creative spark. They should not be imprisoned in rubber. Stop them from running free at your own risk. No wonder,’ I offered Clive, ‘your little bits of tin are so lacking in verve.’
Clive raised his fists. ‘I’m going to kill him!’ he said.
As if further proof were needed of Clive’s murderous temper! I shall just leave this point here, without further comment, for future eyes to read.
‘Calm, Clive, be calm,’ said Jane.
‘Stay here forever,’ cried Annie, ‘with this thing?’ She pushed angrily at her stomach again. ‘I can’t. I’ll go mad. Oh, just when I was ready to go and make a new start at university, this happens. I’m trapped, forever.’
‘Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,’ said Jane. ‘There’ll be a solution, there always is.’
‘Ralph will leave, for a start,’ said Clive.
‘That would be, quite literally I fear, over my dead body, Clive.’
‘Stay, but without being our leader,’ suggested Jane.
‘He’s not capable of that,’ said Clive. ‘He’s psychotic.’
A psychologist would perhaps consider Clive’s insistence that I’m mad to be a projection of his own murderous tendencies.
Annie began to sob more loudly.
‘No child of mine shall be spirited off in the night to be murdered, either,’ I said. ‘Not if I have a say in it.’
Jane sighed. ‘We’ve all agreed,’ she said, ‘that it’s too late for that. I think that the best option for Annie would be to stay with us till the baby’s born and then, if she still feels the same, to look at having it adopted. That way, she can start university just a little bit late and her life can get back to normal. Your dad need never know,’ she added. ‘We have plenty of time to think about this. There’s no rush.’
I was experiencing a startling sensation. It was as if my brain cells were involved in a complex, formal dance. I could see the individual thoughts weaving and darting, creating patterns and fusing new connections, but I couldn’t yet see the final picture they were making. It was like watching the brush strokes of a great artist and waiting for the form to emerge from the chaos.
‘Hold on,’ I said, ‘just one second.’
Everyone waited, staring at me.
‘Here,’ I said slowly, the idea still wet in my head, ‘here’s the plan. Annie has the child here. Then off she goes to university, free of us and other ties that bind. And I bring the child up here. My son and heir.’
‘Or daughter and heir,’ said Jane.
There was a look of horror on Annie’s face. ‘A child? Here?’ she said. ‘Brought up by you?’
‘I’d say Annie was correct,’ said Jane. ‘I’m not sure you’re capable of bringing up a child.’
‘Christ, no,’ said Clive. ‘The rusty knitting needle was the more humane option.’
‘Adoption,’ said Annie. ‘A nice, normal couple.’
‘Fine,’ I said, crossing my arms, ‘then I stay and continue to exercise my right to power.’
‘There is no bloody right!’ This, of course, was Clive.
We had arrived at an impasse. The room was silent, the only sound a car noisily backfiring outside and the un-tuned white noise of Clive’s new black and white television in the corner. An entirely inappropriate addition to a house built and maintained in the name of creativity and handcrafting.
‘What do you want?’ said Jane. ‘The child or the heir?’
I considered this point – a pertinent question.
‘The heir,’ I said.
There was a long pause. Then Jenny said, ‘I’ll take it and bring it up until you’re ready for an heir.’
‘Until he’s thirty,’ I said. This seemed a suitable age. Older than this lot – time to have reached a reasonable maturity. ‘Or she,’ I added.
‘Not here though!’ Annie said. Jane shook her head.
No-one spoke. Clive’s beady eye scoured the room and ended up on my face.
‘If,’ he said, ‘you get the hell out of here and leave us alone.’
‘I told you,’ I said. ‘Over my dead body.’
‘Take a back seat, then,’ said Jenny-Jane, ever the placatory influence. ‘That’s fair. Everyone gets what they want.’
Except, I realised later, Jenny. Or did she want a child? Perhaps.
‘I’ll draw up a contract,’ I said.
‘No,’ said Clive. ‘A gentleman’s agreement. I’ve had enough of your bloody contracts to last me a life time.’
‘So be it,’ I said.
And so the fellowship ends.
This letter is three things.
It’s a record of what happened here – Albert’s murder and Clive’s motives for this horrible crime. It clearly implicates Clive, should the matter ever be investigated.
It’s an insurance policy. Clive is a dangerous man. If he’s killed once, he could kill again. Here, as he knows, is a record of his methods and motive in the disposal of poor Albert and his guilty fretting and mithering over the grave. Here, in a safe place, is the amulet that will save my skin from that man’s violent schemes.
Perhaps most importantly it’s a missive to the future. Perhaps one day the child will read it – progeny; heir; emission from my loins. Here’s the truth. Here’s what’s important. Are you an heir in the truest sense? I’ll find out.
As I type the last few words of my letter, I realise that it isn’t the leadership of this mottled association that I need. Just as I don’t need the child, I need the heir. I don’t need the trappings of leadership, I need to be at one with the hive. A queen bee isn’t the leader, she is simply a reproduction machine with a smaller brain than a worker bee. Perhaps I was never the queen. Annie was. Albert could have been the link to a new generation, but he was too weak to do the job. The swarm will disperse while we wait for a new queen to arrive. I’ll go away for now – let them all see what they’ve lost. But in time I’ll return temporarily. When the new queen arrives I’ll be free to leave. Provided she is strong enough for the job, that is. I’ll wait and watch. That’s my duty. And then I’ll retire to Sussex – finally to be at peace with my bees and my woodworking.
What comes next? I’ll depart this house and begin a period of self-imposed penance, a retreat into silence, a humble removal of my ego. There’s a monk like quality to this new phase in my life that isn’t unappealing. I have a leaning towards the ascetic and spiritual that’s been dampened by years spent trying to make these monkeys dance. Let them concern themselves with their own problems. I’ll spend the coming months and years alone with my thoughts. I will be nurturing the inner fire.
Let that fire burn brightly and let it sear away all that is extraneous. Let my thoughts and deeds rise upwards. Let the work of my hands be forged by the pureness of my thoughts.
Let there be sweetness. And let there be light.