BARRAGE OF STARES

Adélaïde Eleanor Dupont © in this form 2010 © text copyright 2008

Agnetha Lowy stood in the pew of the Szent Istvan church. She was in the front row on the bride’s side, with her parents. There were her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, and her brother and his wife. They were singing hymns for the happy couple. Actually, Agnetha and her parents had been almost late to Szent Istvan, the church that had stood in the community for more than fifty years. There had been a barrage of traffic, which Agnetha imagined her parents liked no more than she did. Her father would occasionally react as if the car in the front was a personal insult. He was one who tended to keep his anger in, all in. Agnetha had had to be pinned in for everything. It was the day before, and her mother still hadn’t finished the sewing. They had bought a fancy machine ten years ago, with all the computer patterns, and still hadn’t the opportunity to do more with it. Some of the mothers Agnetha knew loved to scrapbook their memories and their days. But they never seemed to have enough

room or sharp enough scissors or sticky enough glue. Agnetha thought that would be lovely to give the bride and groom a present. At least she had been able to avoid giving out the programmes, though not avoid referring to the grey and pink flowers constantly. The paper was white vellum – good paper that could wrinkle and get damaged if a person set her fingerprints on it. They stood up and sat, as the hymns told them to do. There was a lot of reading, as well. Mainly the priest read from the Bible. Agnetha suddenly got terrible vertigo and wanted to sit down. She closed her eyes. That way she would think she was respecting God. What if she lost her balance or twisted her ankle? She had been standing so long, it seemed, without a break or interruption. Thank goodness that she did not have eyes in the back of her head. Nicholas was talking pictures with his camera. Sometimes he would show them to her when there was a lull. Agnetha adjusted

her scarf. Her coat was fine. It was the heaviest, lumpiest thing she owned – made out of shapeless pleather. She had worn it over winter, and it still came up to her thighs, like the girls’ school uniforms. Agnetha put her eyes up to the priest. She did not like to think she was not paying attention. But there was a buzz in her head and ears, and she had felt her legs buckle. The other special piece of clothing or footwear Agnetha was wearing were her black calf-high boots. The laces were almost endless. Agnetha had only learnt to tie them the month before. They were somehow thinner and slipperier than her sneaker lace, so her mother went to the store and added grips as a precautionary measure and to help Agnetha out. She had Agnetha could wear them as long as she had a matching pair of tights – she did not approve of girls going bare-legged in church or anywhere people might see them.

Also it was deathly cold. Szent Istvan was a small church; it could not fit more than a hundred and fifty comfortably without some spilling out into the door or on to the floor. There were about five or six to a pew, allowing for some wide spaces. At the front of the church, there were pink and white flowers, as well as orange ones. The orchid and the tiger lily were the most prominent. If you liked showy flowers, then these stood out and grabbed your eye. Agnetha also liked the gerberas, which were orange and stuck around the inside of the arrangement. There were other, more innocent and straightforward, pink and white lilies. They were mainly white with a pink or purple stripe.

Also there were candles – white and gold. They were long and stood there for display. Szent Istvan itself was full of light from the stain glass windows, which showed scenes of history and glory, as well as some plain ones. The windows told a story from tower to

chapel. Agnetha wondered if the bride and groom looked at the stories, or if they knew them so well, without being told. The story she liked best was one about a fair lady, a knight and a dragon. She liked it best, because it was adventurous and even a little bit scary. Nicholas had told her a story about a bishop and his money. It came form a blue book and had a lot of illustrations in it. Agnetha looked more at the pictures and listened to the words that Nicholas was saying. The giddiness had gone now, she hoped. She didn’t want to miss the exciting part of the service. Fiona and Piers would swear, ‘from this day forth, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health,’ to love each other forever. Until they got old and died, like her grandmother and grandfather. Agnetha would stay with her grandparents during the evening reception. Her jolly, merry Aunt, her mother’s sister Ruth – ‘Is

she your elder or younger sister, Mother?’ Agnetha had asked, though she knew that it was not in years that the distinction between mother and Ruth lay – would also be there. Ruth had never been married, and Ruth was the last. And, no, she could not have Babette over to stay as well. Babette was the nearest thing Agnetha had to a great friend. She was two years older, and was a great story teller. ‘Like Walter Mitty?’ said Nicholas, who studied civil engineering because he liked it, and not because he didn’t get the marks for law or medicine. ‘Who?’ her father had asked. ‘Like – Jeffrey Archer,’ Nicholas said. He also liked to stir the possum. Now it was Agnetha’s turn to say, ‘Who?’ ‘I wouldn’t let you read him yet, because he’s full of sex, religion and politics – all things you try not to mention at the

dinner table,’ Nicholas said, ‘but I also wouldn’t mention it to Babette.’ ‘Why not?’ Agnetha said. ‘Because,’ Nicholas said, ‘she’ll get a swollen head.’ Agnetha tried to imagine Babette with a sore head. She wasn’t like any of the other girls in school. Well, they were all different, but … Babette was special. Super sparkly special, like glitter and stickers and stars. Probably especially stars. Babette had wavy brown hair that was almost up to her waist and was the colour of an autumn leaf. It seemed to have natural highlights in the sun. She also had freckles and a strong chin and pointing ears like an elf. Someone had painted it out to her more than once, unflatteringly. But she was the right height and the right weight and clothes seemed to fit her. She looked everyone in the eye and had a firm handshake. She was polite, pleasant and friendly, even when something was

ticking her off. This reminded Agnetha of her father. Babette did not seem to chew your ear off, either in person or on the phone. Yet she was bright and always had something appropriate to say. Every girl, even those who didn’t like her – and they were legion, even those who Agnetha would never have heard of in a million years – had their own favourite Babett-ism to share. They even stole her words, which made Agnetha see red. If the words had power at all, it was because Babette said them. She would just have to be lonely and stay with Grandmother and Ruth. She could lie down and think and dream. Grandmother’s house was quiet, and she always had some project or scheme on the go. Like knitting for African babies. She could tell stories of children in Mozambique, who had flies rushing all around them and sniffly noses. Or the children in Zimbabwe, who stayed in camps until they could find a home away from their cruel leader. All the scarves would be collected into blankets and

sewn up there. Of course, they could be here, for the children who had to be in hospital a long time for operations. Agnetha knew all about being in hospital. People thought she had a weak heart. Often it would beat too fast or too slow after exercising, or for any reason. Her beat was erratic, the doctor had said. She liked her doctor. She had had to sit out most sports and help on the sidelines. The good thing was that she never had to shower in front of the others. Everyone would compare their parts, and it would be like a meat market. Agnetha would have stayed in hospital two or three days out of every month. She had grown used to filling the long hours. She would watch childrens’ television, with bright and colourful characters. Now that was often fun. She would look out into the window, especially if she was on a top floor and there was a balcony with some cheering flowers like pansies and forget-menots. She would play Patience. She would even do her homework

and work on problems or assignments that she had been set. Some of the girls she knew had been homeschooled, or they even did their schoolwork on the Internet, and had it marked and graded there by their virtual teacher. Agnetha didn’t like sitting near a computer all day, but that was because she didn’t get a chance to be near one. Even then, she didn’t dream of computers. She liked to be outdoors, painting or climbing trees. There was one friendly tree, which seemed to be hallowed ground for fairies. It was somewhere in the city, near where Fiona and Piers were going to have the official wedding photographs. The bridesmaids were looking splendid in their pink, which reminded Agnetha of the colour of her pastels that ran into several tints if they were mixed well. Some of the dresses were long, some were shorter. Now that Agnetha had the chance to look at the dresses, she almost forgot about the tree.

Her parents – understandably – were distracted and strained. After months of intense preparation, they were parting with their eldest daughter. ‘Fiona and Piers are so happy, look,’ said Agnetha. It was hard to find her voice again after it had been silent so long. There had been singing, but Agnetha couldn’t hold a tune, which made the lie out of any speculation that she was called after Agnetha, the reclusive blonde from the Swedish supergroup ABBA. Girls could be very mean about names, and Babette told her to tell anyone who asked that it was the European (‘Don’t ever, don’t ever, tell anyone it’s Hungarian,’ she said in a horrified whisper.) form of Agnes. A perfectly respectable Catholic name; even if her mother and father did like to put trimmings on it. All right, so it wasn’t Emily or Elizabeth or Isabella or Sophie or Astrid, but it would do for the rest of her life, and it went well with Lowy, which meant lion or lioness. She tried to feel as strong and as brave as one.

She also tried to catch Fi’s eye. She didn’t know what her parents, in particular, her father, would say. Fi was getting the stares. Her friends and acquaintances were right behind them. Agnetha looked at the flower girl and the ring bearer. It had – mostly – been a small family wedding, on the part of the Lowys, and these smaller people were her cousins. Actually, the flower girl was her niece, Abigail. Abigail – or Gayle – looked like a rose. She liked to twirl her skirts on any dance or church floor ever seen. It had a nice ruffly feeling, even though her mother was embarrassed. It must be nice to have a mother care about your clothes, Agnetha thought. Not in the sense of spending tens and hundreds on a credit card or in notes or vouchers, but to make them yourself. Roberta Levy did try, but while Mr Levy and Agnetha were watching the football, there was a lot of distraction. As it was a cloudy day, the light was not good, and Roberta had had to

work under a hundred-watt lamp. It was a powerful lamp, the globe wasn’t covered at all. Then Roberta could see the stitches better. Agnetha had had to have her sleeves taken up as her arms were too short. That meant nearly wrecking the Laura Ashley shirt they had brought from a direct factory outlet. Thank goodness that there was quiet. Mr Lowy had been too immersed in the game’s tactics and strategies to care. It was simple for him: beg, borrow or steal a suit that represented his status in the community and didn’t crumple up when he made the toast and the speeches about Fi. Fi’s dress was very modern. She was wearing a pearl necklace and the hairdresser had moussed and teased her corn-coloured hair – ‘That could not be natural,’ a gadfly type had the insouciance to point out – ‘and all the rest of you are so dark.’ Actually, Nicholas had light brown hair, which was quite thin and

inconspicuous. Gayle also had brunette hair. It was Agnetha who was the dark one, in hair and skin and mostly in the way she acted. She and her parents were surprised that they did not call Agnetha a gypsy queen. Perhaps that was because she was dressed in black pants, and black everything, including a black skivvy, where every other female was showing skin – light, dark, chemically enhanced or otherwise. At least, the ones under fifty. Nicholas joked, ‘I bet those grandmothers could shimmy in the moonlight.’ If Nicholas wasn’t so much older – he was past thirty – and if he wasn’t married with a child – Mrs Lowy would think such horseplay would be a bad example to her precious Abigail – and if he didn’t have such a quirky sense of humour – which, many considered, consisted of saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time and place to a person who ought not to partake, or at the very least, you wouldn’t think would be likely, because of her

youth or age or impairment – ‘Humour doesn’t discriminiate in that regard, Miss Edmunds,’ was a Nicholas quote – and finally and most important of all, if she didn’t love him so much, Agnetha would have hit him. Instead, Agnetha was torn between chuckling uproariously and insisting with her dignity torn that she did not care what grandmothers did in the moonlight, as long as they did not drink too much and embarrass themselves, their grandchildren and their neighbourhood. Unlike some grandmothers the Lowy family had the pleasure of knowing intimately, but did not lay claim to them in the outside world. Especially this grandmother, who from a distance looked like a relict of some forgotten tribe – ‘And I don’t mean the twelve tribes of Israel,’ Nicholas said. ‘Perhaps you mean the tribes of rugby.’ Mr Lowy said.

Agnetha thought it might be more like pixies or elves or fairies, if there were such things outside of story books. Or maybe something out of history, like the lost queen. ‘Isn’t it funny, that out of all the queens I know, their names are both Elizabeth?’ Agnetha asked. ‘I lived in the time of Queen Mary,’ said this fascinating creature. ‘Now, mind your manners, please.’ ‘Yes,’ Agnetha said, with a gulp in her throat. Unlike her other grandmother, she only saw this woman once a year, if that. Mrs Lowy made a motion to tell Agnetha without words that she should stand up straight, even though she dreaded looking into the yes of this blue-rinsed Amazon, to show her how much she had grown. Agnetha had now grown quite tall, so she would be able to stand up to Mr Lowy, who was considered ‘a beanstalk of nature’.

Shooting straight from the hip, the grandmother said, ‘Well, whoever you got the height from, you didn’t get it from me.’ Nicholas and Mr Lowy winked conspiratorially, as if to say, ‘Women…’ and Agnetha had to admit that was true. Mr Lowy’s mother’s side of the family were not all beanpoles. In fact, some of them had had to starve during uprisings and revolution. And some of the genes for tallness just didn’t pan out. Agnetha thanked goodness that she lived in a country where she could eat as much as she liked, as long as she stopped when she was full and minded her manners so that she didn’t appear ‘like a piggy’ as Grandmother was always telling Ruth. Or was Ruth looking less like a piggy these days? Either way, it was hard to tell. ‘So, Bubby, what did you think of the service?’ said Nicholas. When he had been at the Student Representative Council many years ago, he was famous for cutting off toes of young ones who wished to speak, and in general, breaking every rule of

parliamentary etiquette, including many that had been unwritten to that point. ‘I wasn’t cut out to be a politician – student or otherwise – and student politics in particular is a bundle of insufferable wankery,’ he had said after a chocolate drive went wrong. Anyone else but Bubby might have been put off, but she went on. ‘Like the Titanic’ Babette would have said. ‘Frankly, you have been listening to too many Celine Dion songs,’ their teacher had said when Agnetha, Babette and the rest of the class had been doing the Titanic in a school reading which they had been set. All the students had known was the movie, of which they had snuck various looks at during a sleep-over. ‘The booty of womanhood,’ Nicholas joked. Not that Agnetha and Babette and the others didn’t admit that good learning was not always distillable into three-minute love songs – or in the case of ‘My Heart Will Go On’, five minutes.

They could pay attention and concentrate a lot longer than that, and actually produce some work when their minds were not distracted with friendships and boys and the million demands of the busy day. So Agnetha could acquit herself well when Bubby asked her about the lessons that Ms Gregory gave to the students, and the activities and carnivals she had been chosen for during the last year or so. She was able to talk about her new friend Ellen. Ellen was a bit giggly and inclined to act as if she had drunken red cordial, but that was, as Roberta Levy, in her other life as a paediatrician, ‘within range’, and she was otherwise a fun companion who never went into funks nor furies. Of course she did get sad or angry, when there were things to be sad or angry about, but she was passionate. She liked to go shopping and bike-riding, and even horse-riding on her family’s farm.

Agnetha had been invited to Ellen’s tenth birthday, only because Ellen’s mum came from a kinder, gentler universe where every girl in the class was invited to parties – if they showed virtues and character consistent with a certain ethos. So it was inclusive and exclusive at the same time. This meant that Agnetha had to face the ordeal of going to the party alone, among girls who neither liked nor disliked her but were indifferent to her. Still, parties, especially of this kinder and gentler universe, were essentially all about the host. So Agnetha, for the first time of going to parties for people she hated, people she ‘couldn’t give a lab rat’s tosser for’ – another Nicholas quote – parties she was just too shy for, running out into tears – ‘and traffic’ Babette would add – that she really, really enjoyed this party. And she found herself arranging that she and Ellen could stay with Bubby. She felt quite sure that they would like each other. They shared the same grounded nature. They weren’t swept off their feet when

people said or did odd things, preferring to accept it all as part of life’s tapestry. It wasn’t often that they could get Bubby to take an interest in the outside world. In that respect, she was like Agnetha. They didn’t need the hustle and bustle of the newspapers to make them happy. Just as Grandmother was interested in craft, Bubby was interested in animals. Mrs Lowy – Roberta, not Megan, Nicholas’s wife – had told Agnetha and Babette a sad but interesting story about a woman who had all her china or porcelain animals and a limp in her leg. The story had just enough emotion to appeal to these intelligent girls. It was shown through the eyes of the sensitive brother, who felt himself a failure in life. And then, in the story, one by one, the animals smashed, especially the swan. The girls had different pictures in their heads. Babette imagined a shop with divine, sparkling Swavorski crystal, and Agnetha

imagined Bubby’s homely and disorganized cabinet. Her animals did not even take up all of it, but Agnetha liked to think that the stories associated with each animal or bird did. Bubby, out of all the animal kingdom, was especially fascinated with birds, butterflies and frogs. They had some life or property, apart from their beauty, that made them special and irreplaceable. Every bird seemed to be there, from the seagull – ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, of course. Remember when I told you that story?’ Roberta was speaking to the group, some of whom would have heard her amazing motivational speeches. ‘Yeah, is he meant to be archetypal-‘ Daniel thought he was such a big shot because he was a poet like Ted Hughes – ‘or a unique seagull-‘ but was really a boy from the streets who dressed like a goth, or an emo, whatever they were. Anyway, Agnetha knew she was not allowed near Roberta’s black eyeliner for any reason. And who knew what was in Dan’s heart? Perhaps he had

had a heartbreak? Perhaps he had been cuckolded? Perhaps, like Mr Lowy said about Papa Hemingway – Agnetha had asked at that point, ‘Is he our new-old Paris great-grand-daddy that we don’t know about?’ – he was blustering his way through with a bull and a red rag? But if Dan wanted to write cool poems and show his creative side, fine. ‘Just don’t scare the hell out of my children or anyone else.’ ‘I just want to share the love, man,’ Dan replied, making a statement, that, if not excluding the dominant half of the population, revealed a sense of appropriateness. This was a wedding, after all. But the phrase came off like one of the set shots in football. Megan tsk-tsked in her shoes. They were black platforms, unlike some of the lighter and looser and more colourful things on other people’s feet. Some were various shades of metal or pastel, and one person decided to go the va-va-voom way and carry the

full red shoe effect. Agnetha was impressed. She loved her own boots, which it had taken a whole term’s pocket money to save for and get. Then her father, showing the Lowy perspicacity around money matters, told her not to touch it for six months. At least, one half of the couple would be solvent – pending the pre-nuptial agreement. That was Mr Lowy’s doing as well – he put his hands on it. The couple had a house in the city, in which there had been a midnight potlatch and lifting of various gifts and products. Agnetha had been so tired. The Lowys – mother, father and daughter – loaded themselves and their coats into the car. Thgey would spend the afternoon at a relative’s house, which had enough room for the brood to sit and eat and talk. It was a classic brick fabricated house with chintz furniture and a big pantry and kitchen where most people could congregate and bring whatever they wanted to drink. Food would be supplied, mostly in the form of nibbles like vegetables and

meats from the delicatessen. Then Agnetha would be taken to Ruth and Grandmother. Even in the kitchen, there were something like thirty to fifty people, and each had their own place in relation to everyone else. You had to squick a chair before the others got it, if you wanted to sit down. The only place that Agnetha could remember being this busy was Grandmother’s fiftieth anniversary. Then there had been the funeral. But she didn’t like to think of the funeral, not because her grandfather had died, but because something very rude had been said about her Aunt Ruth. It was absolutely off the pale – the kind of thing the children said at school. Roberta had asked her to repeat it. In a whisper, so that those who weren’t in the conversation couldn’t hear. ‘She said: It’s like raising a twenty-five-year-old child.’ Roberta bowed her head to her daughter, as if she were facing a terrible truth.

‘You and Nick and Fi will always be my children, no matter what you do or how old you get. And I think Ruth is taking as much care of Grandmother as Grandmother is of her. So don’t you listen to your other aunties,’ said Roberta to Agnetha. ‘Ruth and Grandmother loved Grandfather,’ said Nicholas. He was the main male presence in their lives at the moment, especially on his days off. Agnetha felt sorry that she had been too young to know Grandfather as the loving and caring man he undoubtedly was. He had made the Lowy name very well-known in the world of banking and high finance. ‘Well – maybe not such “high finance”,’ Mr Lowy had to admit one day. ‘We’re comfortable and we’re happy. That is what matters,’ Roberta added. That was a very motherly thing to say. And it wasn’t especially to her. Agnetha hated being singled out. Fi and Nicholas so often had been. They were the children of the family that didn’t speak

English. Mr Lowy and the company had been under some squeezing scrutiny at time time, so naturally whatever was passed on to the children would be serious. The general feeling had been – ‘Economic migrants, tut-tut…’ – though there had been more to it than that. By the time – some twenty years later – Roberta had had her third child, she had learnt – more or less – to ride with the punches from all sides. It made her strong, but it didn’t mean that she didn’t occasionally go through the existential equivalent of ‘Why me’? The real question, as she saw it, was: What point is normality in an abnormal situation? And she hoped her children would have courage to ask it in all fields of their endeavour. One particularly hard punch – for herself, her sisters and her parents – ‘As well as for Ruth herself’, said Fi and Nicholas, as they gained insight – was Ruth. Specifically, like other young women, she began to dance and sneak out, putting herself in

danger. To the children, as well as her husband, she would rationalize it – ‘Of course, Ruth was always a good dancer. Her dream was to go to dance school.’ – but as Ruth’s increasing needs began to conflict with the needs of Agnetha, something in Roberta began to revolt. No, she could not be mother, carer and sister at the same time. Something would have to give. And if Mr Lowy began to think of paying off the situation – yes, he could be obtuse that way, and no, it was not the way he was brought up – whatever that had been – then something serious would have to be done. Corporate social responsibility – the triple bottom line – had not been talked much about, much less made part of the culture. Lowy was in those days more of a mouse than a lion, in his grey elephant suits. A little faster and a little further – he might have developed some backbone, in his personal as well as his professional life. He was decent and moderate, on the credit side

of the ledger, he knew where he stood, if he did not always have a sharp sense of where he was going. Who would, in his position and in those times? Very few. This was an exceptional situation. Exceptional, that is, until and unless you were in it. Then it became routine. Roberta had perhaps more – unfulfilled and certainly unresolved (then) – ambition than her husband. Certainly more than her mother and two elder sisters, who were content with their respective status quo. They had settled on dry ground, that did not yet shake, did not break. And yet the fault line was there, which brought with it death, danger and deprivation. The deprivation was of the tangible and intangible kind. In those times the markets were erratic and based heavily on speculation and commodities. This was before ordinary people could get into shares. Roberta then began to read through the lines.

Now, anyone seeing the Lowys would think they were a run-ofthe-mill family, no better and no worse than they were five years ago. There were no seismic changes. Apart from the death of the Lowy grandfather and the Lowy father gaining more responsibility, there were no essential changes. Fiona certainly thought so. She was now thirty-three and a geologist by trade. She had an affinity with rocks and the earth, and a gregariousness which broke out at unexpected times. One would look at her and say, yes, she led a charmed life. Before her studies in geology and earth science, she had worked in bakeries, music teaching and librarianship. She had a light footstep. But in many of her closest personal relationships she did not always tread carefully. Perhaps when she was on a carpet rather than an unmade track, she forgot what Bubby called her manners. Piers and Roberta in particular knew this more than anyone. She could be charming and then abusive by turns. She once did a

graphic art course – depending on who you asked ‘for a whim’ – Piers – or ‘to fill up the coffers’ – Nicholas, who had to overrule her many requests for money when she maxed out her golden credit card – and got Roberta to do the assignments, for that kind of analytical writing was not her strength, and Roberta was then a ‘soft touch’, in part because of hormones and in part because she knew the stresses of academic life, or what pretended to be it in these quasi-vocational courses. ‘Mind you,’ Mr Lowy said – he never ever used a colloquial expression in a language still not entirely his own, ‘there will always be a demand for graphic artists and printers.’ He said this while he was grueling over an annual report. ‘And good copy-writers.’ Nicholas quipped. In those times he was an ambulance boy. ‘Those most of all,’ his father concluded. ‘Without words, what are we?’

‘Grunting animals?’ Nicholas said. Trust him to spread the limit to a rhetorical question – the more silly, the better. Meanwhile, in the present, the girls Agnetha called the Glitter Twins – so called because, together, they would wear the most ostentatious couture seen on a child – would creep their brattish way between the next soliticious adult and the backyard. In her experience, such girls – and they always were girls – were bullies. On this occasion, they were wearing golden dresses made out of expensive material. Not what ninety percent of the mothers in the world would call playclothes. The idea of a clothing allowance was strange to the Lowys. Fortunately, the Glitter Twins were avoiding her. Unfortunately, they seemed to point and laugh at everything at sight range. It was as well they didn’t do that at things out of sight, because then they would have driven everyone else into hell.

Agnetha steeled herself up. They were like animals or birds with a sting. Just ignore them and they wouldn’t hurt you. In the case of the bees, they were going after the sweet stuff, and it helped humans in the long run. And hopefully the Glitter Twins had half a brain each. Meanwhile, some young – or perhaps not so young – person – had let out the family tortoise. This particular aunt, Marian, was the one who kept reptiles and also guinea pigs and rabbits, who in the main, got on well with each other and with people. They had their own special personalities and created a lot of joy for Marian and her family. Aunt Marian was seldom available in the sense of ‘I’ll be there when … in a little tick.’ But when it was something big and social, you could rely on her to make it as comfortable as possible. Agnetha had fun with the tortoise, while some of the boys teased

it by poking it with a straw or their fingers. Some of those fingers were chubby, so made a dent in Lightning’s shell. She was probably the one of Roberta’s sisters that Agnetha felt that she knew the least. She probably had nothing in her experience of relatives to relate or compare. Perhaps none of the four was so outwardly respectable. At any rate, there were so few stories about her. Nor did you see Marian through her husband or her children, neither of which were the Glitter Twins. Perhaps, Agnetha thought, the animals were the clue. Babette always said so. She said that everyone had an animal spirit. Miss Guthrie wondered where she had come out with that remark. She remembered that reptiles were cold-blooded, whereas rabbits and guinea pigs, like humans, were warm-blooded. And – how else could Agnetha have picked it up? – It was whispered and screamed across the discourse – blood made you a great deal of who you were. When Roberta denied that was true, after her younger

daughter had come across it in a certain anime, Agnetha had the guts to disagree with her for once. Perhapos both her mother and Marion were hiding something. Agnetha told her blood idea to Dan, and he seemed to understand. More importantly, he did not laugh it off. Probably it hit into his scene. She was hanging around his literary crowd. Six were sitting around an afternoon fire, and Lightning was wandering between them. She learnt, from them, that literature was as arbitrary as football or finance, but it certainly wasn’t arcane. These guys lived and breathed it. Maybe not necessarily in the traditional way her mother and father and teachers knew – but, hey, these guys were being taught and trained in how poems and stories worked in the 21st century. Certainly the imagery wasn’t all puppies and kittens and whatever was thought suitable. But as much as Agnetha was fascinated with blood, she didn’t think she could tolerate gore. When there were gross-outs, she

could only go so far. These boys – no, these men in the minds of boys – went far, and they loved to top each other in exploit after exploit. Everyone said that there was nothing Dan loved so much to do as push the boundaries of whatever he was doing. He had never really grown out of it, and how it was his full-time occupation. ‘For how long, though?’ Dan was glad that he had friends to care about him, and about whom he cared, perhaps for the first time in his life. He wouldn’t do anything silly – at least, for the sake of being silly. Besides, what were they but ants? Industrious, harmless things, but otherwise? He had reached a state of calm and content. ‘For the last fricking –‘ how harsh was that, to lose your control in front of a little girl – ‘for the last fricking time, I am not an emo. Where do you hear these things? You’re as bad as Marian, as Bertha.’

Bertha was the eldest sister, Dan’s mother. What she had had to wear through the years. No wonder Dan had had to leave home as soon as possible. No, throw out, in her words. No respectable young man acted like a starving artist when he didn’t have to. ‘Yes, every time I have an idea, Mummy calls me to the table.’ Agnetha faced the heckler – he was directly opposite her – and said, ‘It hasn’t got that bad yet. Without food, how can I practice my still lives?’ ‘What about the surrealist painter I showed you – Salvador Dali?’ ‘Remember when you got told off for photographing your sister with her clothes off?’ said the heckler. ‘Your itty bitty sister?’ ‘That was the final straw,’ Dan said authoritatively. ‘Keeping it in the family,’ the heckler said. ‘I mean it. Agnes,’ said Dan, ‘how is your still life going? ‘I’m getting better at the curves of bananas,’ she said proudly.

Dan made a sign to the heckler to shut up. ‘And the oranges are so ripe and round.’ ‘Do you know how to mix grey to give your fruit volume?’ She nodded and added, ‘But I really like printmaking best.’ Dan wasn’t really a joke teller but he did attempt one. ‘I didn’t think Lowys would be into printmaking.’ ‘Oh, but I am. Why don’t you think so?’ She had to tease out the absurdity. ‘It’s full of stereotypes.’ And the crowd busted themselves laughing. ‘Very dry wit, Daniel,’ Roberta said. ‘I’m so grateful for the interest you take in my daughter’s art. Though you need to work on your joke-telling.’ She stopped herself censuring Dan’s friends’ outré sense of humour. They had laughed at much more and much worse, and she wondered: How much was contagion? Certainly,

in this lot and others like them. Not that you could generalize these days. She pointed out to Agnetha that ‘A sense of humour is more than what’s required to make your friends laugh.’ And Agnetha pointed out ‘Mummy, I don’t have any friends’ with more pout than pain and then Roberta said, ‘Tell Dan from me that if your grandmother – the non-Lowy variety – didn’t save so carefully the potatoes, where does he think prints come from?’ and Agnetha answered, ‘From Jenny on the Block.’ When Roberta paused, Agnetha continued. ‘Well, that’s what’s on his I-Pod.’ She did not tell Roberta that Dan had been cutting lectures to look at the pictures on his I-Pod. It would probably give her a cardiac arrest.