The Long and Spectacular Life of Agnes Magnusdottir 11
"She is, how shall we say, different."
Mary and Edmund sat side by side in front of Miss Quillen, their daughter’s teacher.
"Quite brilliant in some ways and in others..."
"Yes?" Edmund ran his hand around the collar of his shirt. He had already had quite a trying day at work. Smithers, a relatively new chap, slick and oily like a sardine, had been promoted above him and he had had to stand there along with the others and join in the round of applause.
"Different how?" asked Mary. Her tone was querulous, challenging. The years had been good to her. She was, if anything, more beautiful. It was the kind of beauty men couldn't help but stare at. Since she had been back at work, now a proofreader in the same publishers she had used to be a secretary at, she had had three spontaneous offers of dinner and dancing from visiting authors. These she had turned down, politely, showing off the slender ring on her finger.
Behind Mary and Edmund the other parents stood in line waiting for their turn with the teacher.
"Well, her reading is very advanced for her age but at break-times she always plays alone. If at all. More often than not she has her nose stuck in a book."
"And what is wrong with that?"
Edmund put out a hand to steady his wife.
"We are a very self-contained family," he said calmly. "We are quite alone in the world you see. There are no cousins. No aunts or uncles. No grandparents even. We have, at the end of the day, only each other."
"Why did you have to say all that?" said Mary later. "You made us sound like a ragtag of refugees."
"London is full of people like us," said Edmund. "Why be ashamed of it? And besides, we have more than most. Some people have no one. The recent war was very cruel. No, more than cruel. Why, at work..."
The years hadn’t been quite so good to Edmund. His hair had started to recede, accentuating his widow’s peak, and he had put on weight around his belly, all those pie and chips at lunchtime, not to mention the pints he still indulged himself with when he met up with his old group of friends at the weekend. Not that he went out so much these days.
His habit of always sleeping in pyjamas had extended so that he found himself slipping into them as soon as he got home from work, the jacket of which he would button up right to his chin.
The previous Christmas Mary had bought him a smoking jacket to wear over the top of them and slippers and a pipe. If the gifts were meant to be ironic then he had completely missed the point.
There was nothing he liked more than to sit up at the kitchen table long into the night leafing through one of the manuscripts Mary had brought home from work, slippers on his feet, puffing on his pipe.
"You're wasted in your office," Mary said as she found him once at three a.m hunched over a manuscript. She had woken needing to pee. "Why don't you do something where you use your brain."
"I do use my brain," he said. Then, holding the pipe out in front of him, "I say, I do like this book." He tapped at the cover with his free hand, Junkie by William Lee.
"Oh, we shan’t be publishing that one," said Mary, "altogether too risqué for us. But I thought you might like it. That's why I brought it home."
They lived in the suburbs now. They had a house with an outside toilet and a small yard and a coal shed. The neighbours had been there for thirty years and when they moved in they brought round a cake that both Mary and Edmund found almost completely inedible.
"Eggs," said Mary. "How can you make a cake without eggs?"
They should have been perfectly happy. They had a beautiful intelligent loving child. And they had jobs and a house. Many things were still scarce but the austerity and the pain of the war years were beginning to recede.
There was a sense of hope for the future and also a determination, that what had come to pass should never come to pass again.
Edmund, however, still found he was haunted by nightmares which were populated by demons. Every morning he opened his eyes with a feeling of foreboding. There was a sense that things were coming to a head.
The previous summer Edmund had bumped into Vickers, his friend from school, quite by chance. At first he hadn't recognised him. Vickers had lost the weight that Edmund had gained and this had brought out the features on his face so he looked like someone who should have been on a Roman coin. They had been at Victoria tube station, both waiting at the same platform.
"I say old chap," Vickers had said. "It's you, isn’t it? Do say that it's you."
They had gone for a drink together. Money was tight for Edmund but Vickers seemed to have an endless supply of fresh crisp one pound notes. They had got rather pissed, this was Vickers’ word, and when the pub had shut they had gone on to a club that Vickers was a member of. It had high backed leather chairs and copies of The Times on the tables. It was all quite different to Edmund’s regular life.
With the child he didn't think was his. With the wife he didn't feel he deserved. In order to somehow level the balance Edmund had told Vickers he was a spy. He didn't say it outright but he implied it with veiled references to trips to Berlin, the balance of power, and the ugly threat of the spread of communism.
He had recently seen Joseph Cotton in The Third Man and although Cotton didn't play a spy he found himself copying his mannerisms, looking over his shoulder and speaking in clipped animated tones.
When it came time to say goodbye Vickers pressed him up against the wall outside the club and said it had been simply splendid to see him, simply splendid, and they must do it again.
That night Edmund didn't sleep. At two o’clock in the morning he went into his daughter’s room and sat by her bed. "I am a very weak man," he said. "A very weak man indeed." He thought, not for the first time, about killing himself and he even imagined what he would put in the note, some words of comfort for Agnes. "You’ll be ok without me. You're like your mother. You can look at a situation and work out how to make the best of it. You’re a survivor."
The next time he saw Vickers, two weeks later and by arrangement this time, Vickers reminded him of a game they used to play. It was called ’operations’. It wasn't as bad as it sounded, there was no actual cutting. One of them presented themselves to the other with some malady or another and then the one who was the doctor had to decide what was wrong with his patient and perform the operation. They even had a proper green hospital gown that didn't meet at the back and a pair of rather tight fitting doctor’s gloves, items which Vickers had quite daringly stolen from matron’s room at school. That was as far as it went. It was innocent fun and yet something they had kept secret between themselves because they understood how the rest of the world would view it.
"I'd completely forgotten about that," said Edmund. He wasn't lying. He had. Or his mind had. And what of it? He was suddenly filled with a kind of righteous anger. There were people who'd gone off to fight in the war. They'd seen all manner of atrocities. People shot right next to them and worse. This modern mania for rectitude and a certain proscriptive behaviour was abhorrent. Why shouldn't people do what they want? Who knew what was around the corner?
Edmund asked Vickers if would like to come to the cinema with him. Over the next few weeks they saw The Searchers, Around the World in Eighty Days, The Man Who Knew Too Much.
"I bet that is like your life, isn't it?" said Vickers after the last one. "Running around. Being chased by bad guys."
Edmund had forgotten that he said he was a spy. He had been drunk at the time. But he couldn't very well back down now.
"It's all quite boring actually."
He thought about the Argentinian Wolf. They had met on a few occasions now and there was something about him he didn't like. It was the way he looked at him and was always probing him for information. Wolf was like a double agent, that was it. That was what had made him think of him now. Given half the chance he would sell you down the river.
"It's mostly trawling through papers," said Edmund. "Looking for connections. We’re trying to flush out all those old Nazis. The ones who made their escape. The idea is is to bring them to a proper trial."
Since that first occasion Vickers hadn't pushed him up against any further walls or indeed made any other spontaneous declarations of affection. He was both glad of this and disappointed. He couldn't understand himself. Sometimes he spent hours and hours looking at himself in the mirror. Who was he and what exactly did he want?
"You'll never guess who we had in the office today?" said Mary to him one evening. Before he had chance to answer she said, "T S Eliot."
"Do I know him?" Edmund was sitting at the kitchen table reading one of the latest James Bond novels, Moonraker. It wasn't really his kind of thing but he was reading it as research for his life as a spy. When he met Vickers he would have all these facts ready at his fingertips. Sir Hugo Drax, the bad guy in the novel, was in actual fact a former German commander. Wasn't that the thing he was supposed to be looking out for?
"Do you have to smoke that smelly old pipe in here?" said Mary obviously annoyed at Edmund’s lack of interest. "T S Eliot is a very famous poet. He's going to do a forward for us for one of our poetry books. He was actually sitting opposite me at my desk."
"Is he handsome?" asked Edmund. "And I bet he smokes a smelly old pipe."
"Well..." said Mary. She supposed he did, hadn’t she seen a stem poking out of his pocket, but that was hardly the point.
Since Edmund had taken up with Vickers again he had started to ask Mary if any of the men she mentioned were handsome. While Mary was pregnant they had stopped making love and then after Agnes was born they hadn't started up again. It wasn't that Edmund didn't want to, it was just that it was almost that he didn't know how to.
Sometimes he put his hand flat on Mary’s bare behind or he would cup one of her breasts and she would push back into him and say that she loved him but that was as far as it went. It never went any further.
"It's your turn to read to Agnes tonight," said Mary. "I think I can hear her calling."
She was. Her voice was ringing down the stairs as clear as any bell and by the time Edmund had got up to her room he found her sitting up in bed with her book of choice already on the covers in front of her. Although she was quite able to read any of her books easily enough herself she still liked to be read to at night and both Edmund and Mary agreed it was good for her.
"You want this one again?" said Edmund picking up The Island of Adventure, one of the many Enid Blyton books Agnes owned. "We must have had this one a squillion times."
"Oh please daddy," said Agnes. "I do love it so."
Edmund turned to the first page and began to read. The truth was this was one of his favourites too. There were the good guys, or good children in this case, and the bad guys and after some thrills and spills the good won in the end. That's what life should be like. He carried on reading even after the sounds of her breathing indicated she had fallen into a deep sleep.
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