Monday, 14 May 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter Twelve

(Mid 1990s to the Present Day)


“What does ‘adopted’ mean, Daddy?” asked the little girl.
“It means, Pip, that mummy and I weren’t able to have children the way other mummies and daddies do so we went out and chose you. We were lucky. Most people get no say in what kind of children they have. They just have to accept what God decides to give them. But Mummy and I were able to choose you and that’s what’s called adopting. We adopted you, just like you adopted us.”
The toddler concentrated very hard. “So why didn’t God want me?”
“Of course He wants you darling,” said the child’s mother.
“Why did He give me away then?”
“It wasn’t like that, darling. Every child needs a mummy and daddy to look after him or her. God can’t look after every child, so He looks for people like Mummy and me to do the job for him,” said Nathan Sparrow.
The child, Pip, was confused. “So why aren’t all children adopted?”
“Because some children grow in their mummy’s tummy and only come out when they’re ready to be born,” Jane Sparrow tried to explain.
“So why didn’t I grow in your tummy?” Pip wanted to know.
“Because you’re special and God had other plans for you, for us too,” said Nathan Sparrow.
“But now there’s a baby brother or sister for you growing in my tummy,” said Jane with a wide smile.
“Are you going to keep it?”
Jane and Nathan Sparrow laughed aloud. “Yes darling, we’re going to keep it!” cried Jane and tried to give Pip a big hug, but the child pushed her away and ran out of the room.
Nathan made as if to follow her but his wife laid a restraining hand on his arm. “Give her time to think about it. When she gets used to the idea she’ll be as happy as we are, you’ll see. The less fuss we make about the baby, the more natural it will all seem to her.”
“We shouldn’t have told her about the adoption, she’s too young,” her husband murmured, frowning.
“You know what other children are like and she starts school next week. Far better, surely, that she should hear it from us? A mother at the nursery was asking me about it just the other day. It only takes one child to hear the parents talking…”
“I suppose you’re right. But I’m going to her now anyway. She needs a cuddle.”
“She needs to be left alone, Nathan. Even children need their own space sometimes. She knows she can ask us anything she likes and she will, you’ll see. If we make a big issue out of this so will she.”
“She’s a very sensitive child.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? She’s my daughter, too, Nathan.”
“She needs her daddy and I’m not going to let her down,” he insisted and almost ran out of the room. Jane listened to his footsteps on the stairs, heard the creaky door of Pip’s room opening and closing and wished her husband would, sometimes at least, credit her with some common sense.
“Daddy…?” said Pip. She was sitting on her father’s lap and enjoying the unexpected hugs and kisses.
“Yes, my darling?”
“When the new baby comes, will it live with us in our house?”
“Of course….”
“Well, I don’t mind if it doesn’t. I mean, let it be adopted like me. It’s got to be better to choose one you really, really, want than be stuck with what comes out of Mummy’s tummy.”
“It’ll be alright, you’ll see,” Nathan Sparrow laughed and gave his daughter another squeeze.
Pip wriggled in his grasp, flung both arms round his neck and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek. “I love you Daddy,” she sobbed.
“I love you, too, darling. Now, don’t cry, there’s nothing to cry about. We’re going to be one big happy family…mummy, me, you and baby…and it going to be wonderful, just you wait and see.”
Pip, though, was not reassured.
The child was a boy and they called him John. He was a noisy, boisterous baby and toddler, always up to some mischief or other. Nor had he changed much by the time he was eight years old. Jane and Nathan Sparrow adored him. Pip would sometimes snap at him for constantly teasing her or going into her room and playing with her things…or whatever, there was always something. The Sparrows, Jane and Nathan both, did their best to explain how this was what little brothers the world over loved to do, tease Big Sister. “He only does it because he loves you,” Nathan would say.
“In that case, I wish he didn’t love me,” Pip would invariably retort and find a quiet corner to sulk.
“Leave her, Nathan,” Jane would say at first, but finally gave up trying to get him to see that Pip was only attention-seeking.  She did her best to stop John teasing his sister so, but his only response was a cheeky grin few people could resist.
“He’s a lovely lad. You must be so proud of him,” Mary Pike, a next-door neighbour would often say. The Pikes had a son, Billy, only a few months younger than John and the two boys were close friends.
An apple tree grew in the Pikes’ garden. As soon as they were old enough to climb, there was no stopping the two boys in spite of protests and recriminations from their parents. One sturdy branch stretched almost to John Sparrow’s bedroom window and it did not take the boys long to take advantage. On many an occasion, unbeknown to their parents, young Billy would take the apple tree route to his best pal Johnny’s bedroom and the two lads would delight in sharing a late night feast, usually comprising lemonade and bars of chocolate, while they played a game of cards or Scrabble. Later, Billy would clamber back down the tree and let himself in by a kitchen window he was always careful to leave ajar. The very first time, he had let himself out by the kitchen door, but when he returned, someone had locked it. Fortunately, the downstairs toilet window had been left open, but that proved to be a very tight squeeze, even for a small boy.
On the night of the fire, Billy let himself into Johnny’s room in the usual way and the two boys passed a happy hour giggling over various silly words they had laid out on the Scrabble board. There was no school the next day, and it was nearly midnight before Billy left. He was climbing down the tree when a light went on in the Sparrows’ sitting room. For a minute or two he stayed put. But the curtains were drawn so where, he asked himself, was the risk? He continued his descent until he was directly opposite the window.
Through a chink in the curtains, he could just make out Pip Sparrow. She was standing by the sofa, holding something, but he couldn’t quite make out what until she raised a lighted cigarette to her lips. Pip was smoking. The child’s eyes widened with a mixture of disbelief and admiration. He watched, fascinated, as the girl removed the cigarette and casually let it slip from her fingers. Puzzled now, Billy continued to watch as,a sheet of flame caused Pip to jump backwards and beyond his line of vision. He waited to hear her shout the alarm, scream even. But the only sound was that of flames starting to roar and take hold with a rapidity that was as astonishing as it was terrifying. The back door opened and Pip emerged in her nightdress. She glanced behind her at the blazing building only once before moving slowly to the side of the house and out of sight.
Billy’s only thought as he scrambled to the ground was that he must get indoors and into bed before his parents realized he was missing. They would be furious if they knew where he’d been.  His heart began to pound against his chest so hard it hurt. Barely had he carelessly discarded the outdoor clothes he’d pulled on over his pyjamas earlier and jumped into bed when his father arrived looking flushed and frantic.
Seizing Billy in his arms, Dan Pike tried to sound reassuring. “We have to go outside, son. There’s a fire next door. It’s only a precaution but…” They were already half way down the stairs and Billy could make out his mother and sisters in the front garden, their faces lit up by a weird glow. He could distant hear sirens too. A fire engine was on its way.
At the front door, a thought struck young Billy with all the force of a sledgehammer. “Johnny!” he yelled, wriggled free of his father and ran through the house into the back garden. Dan Pike ran after him and scooped him up in the middle of the lawn. Two pairs of eyes darted instinctively to the rear bedroom window of the blazing house. They saw John Sparrow’s face pressed against the pane, his expression one of sheer terror.
“The tree,” Billy yelled, “Climb down the tree!”
“Billy’s right, son, get yourself out of there…now!”  Dan yelled.
But for reasons they would never know, the face at the window vanished and never reappeared.
“Johnny!” Billy opened his mouth to yell again but, try as hard as he might, could not utter a sound. Nor did he have any way of knowing then that it would be years before he spoke again.
A crowd quickly gathered in the street to stare at the burning house. The police arrived and began moving people back, away from the roaring inferno. One officer told a young girl to move back for her own safety. She did not even acknowledge his existence but continued to watch the house burn, her mother and brother still inside.
“That’s Pip Sparrow,” a buxom woman in a dark blue flowing dressing gown told the policeman. She followed his gaze to Pip’s face and, like him, mistook the bright eyes and strained expression for signs of shock.
As they led her away, Pip turned her head only once. Fire-fighters had already turned their hoses on the blaze and she saw two of them enter the building. It occurred to her that if they were hoping to rescue anyone, it was already far too late for that. 
Her father would be devastated. It would be up to her to comfort him. Common sense, though, warned her to hide the smile of satisfaction that sprung to her lips.
Nathan Sparrow was more than devastated by the loss of his wife and son; it left him an emotional cripple. Somehow he got through the inquest, double funeral, a token wake at his parents’ house with everyone tiptoeing around each other not knowing quite what to say and words like ‘sorry’ sounding bland, inadequate and making everything harder than ever to endure. Endure it he did, though, if only for Pip’s sake. She was a little treasure, a tower of strength, invariably acting the proper little hostess and fussing over him like a mother hen. It was hard to believe that she would not be a teenager for a few months yet. They had always been close but she seemed to have grown up overnight whereas he could only go through the basic motions of living, feeling like a zombie.
They stayed with his father until the insurance came through and moved soon after into a new, smaller house only a few streets away from the burnt-out shell of the old one. It was important, he thought, to give Pip as much continuity as possible. Not that he gave it much thought if the truth be told, but left most of the thinking to his father. The two men had never been close, but they made an effort to get along passably well for Pip’s sake. 
The inquest verdict on Jane and young John had been “accidental death” since it appeared that the probably cause of the fire was a cigarette left smouldering in the through-lounge.  How could Jane have been so careless, so stupid, Nathan kept asking himself? She had only recently given up smoking. Why had she taken up the habit again so soon?  How could she have done that? Had his going away on business for a couple days made any difference?  Did she miss him?  Is that why she’d felt compelled to smoke a cigarette? But that was no excuse. There was no excuse for what she’d done. Much as he loved her, he had the most awful feeling that he would end up hating her.
For two years, Nathan Sparrow got through the each day, week, month, on autopilot. He’d get up, have breakfast with Pip, go to work, come home, ask Pip about her day at school, go to bed, get up again - and so it went on, a cycle of daily routine broken only by birthdays, anniversaries, parent evenings at Pip’s school that his father always insisted he attend and half-hearted attempts to make something of bleak, interminable Christmases.
Pip was his rock. Sometimes, when she thought he was asleep, she’ creep into his bed and snuggle up close to him. He told himself he hadn’t the heart to send her back to her own room, but the truth was her presence was a comfort and he clung to it as a drowning man might cling to a straw. But for her, he’d have upped and left, gone somewhere, anywhere, to get away from memories that should have been happy ones, easier to bear with the passing of time if practically everyone he spoke to were to be believed. Instead, they became more, not less, nightmarish. It got so he could not sleep until he knew Pip was there with him in the double bed he should have been sharing with Jane. At the same time, he began to think less and less about Jane, it was too painful. No family photographs had survived the fire. His father had offered him some, but he’d refused them all but for a snap of himself, Pip and Johnny enjoying a picnic on Hampstead Heath. Even so, it took a superhuman effort on his part to all but obliterate the fact from his memory that it was Jane who had taken the picture.
Then, out of the blue, he met Nina.  She was reading a magazine and sitting opposite the only seat available in a crowded café where he, too, had dived in out of the rain. He only vaguely recognized her as someone he’d seen on TV. In some quiz show or other perhaps? It struck him that Pip would be tickled pink if he were to get her autograph. Completely out of character, he leaned across and whispered, “Excuse me, but do you give autographs?”
The young woman looked up, smiling broadly, and he saw that she was even prettier than he had at first thought. “Do you have a pen?”
“Err no…” he mumbled, feeling foolish.
“An autograph hunter without a pen has to be a first.” She laughed and the sound was like a breath of fresh air on his face.
“It’s for my daughter,” he explained.
“And there was I thinking you were a devoted admirer who hasn’t missed a single episode of my show,” she said, rummaging in her bag and finally producing a biro.
The blank expression on his face sent her into more peals of laughter as she reached for a paper serviette and scrawled her signature.  “You haven’t the faintest idea who I am, have you?” Nathan Sparrow shook his head and fervently wished the dull linoleum covered floor would open and swallow him up. “Does April Showers ring a bell?” Again, the hapless Sparrow shook his head. “Well, for its worth, I’m April. And you’re forgiven because it’s only been on the box a couple of months and I, for one, wouldn’t bet on it seeing out many more.” She handed him the serviette.
“Nina Fox,” he read.
“And you are?”
“Nathan Sparrow.” They shook hands across the table and he imagined a current passing between them, coursing through his veins…hers too, he was sure of it… like a massive surge of electricity.
“May I have my hand back please?” She was laughing again as, apologetically, he released her hand.
They started seeing each other now and then, usually at weekends. Now and then soon became more often. Sometimes he’d even pick her up from the television studio in his car since she didn’t enjoy driving in London so relied on taxis most of the time. Invariably, he would have to wait until filming had finished for the day but no one minded and he quickly got to know several other members of the cast who treated him as one of their own. A television studio was worlds apart from the offices where he worked as a partner in a small but reputable firm of accountants. It fascinated him and gave him almost as much of a buzz as being with Nina.  For the first time since the fire he began to relax and enjoy life again. “I must seem very boring after all this TV stuff,” he put to her once.
“Darling,” she purred with a mischievous grin, “after all this TV stuff, you’re a haven of peace and tranquillity.”
“Not boring?” he wasn’t convinced.
“How could a tall, handsome, sexy man possibly be boring, even if he is an accountant?” She giggled and hadn’t resisted when he took her in his arms and kissed her with a depth of passion he’d never known before, even with Jane.
It was some time before he managed to tell Nina about the fire. She listened quietly, without interruption. It was the first time he had spoken about it in any detail to anyone, even Pip. Afterwards, they sat in silence. Yet it was neither a strained nor awkward silence. He felt uplifted, as if an enormous burden had been partially lifted from his shoulders. She seemed to sense this, smiled sweetly and took both his hands in hers. Not one word passed between them. Then, at last, the floodgates burst and he fell into her arms crying like a baby. 
Oh, he had shed tears before and plenty of them. But none like these. Those others had been for wasted lives, lost opportunities, the sheer tragedy and travesty of a perverse fate near choking him, like smoke, with every breath he took… as if he’d been there himself, caught up in that terrible inferno. Now, for the very first time, he wept for the reality…for them all, as a family…Pip, John and, yes, Jane too. Most of all perhaps, he wept for himself, Nathan Sparrow, and the more a wall he’d built around himself crumbled, the closer he felt to Nina Fox.
The same evening, they left Nina’s little flat in Brixton and he took her to meet Pip.
“Pip, darling, this is Nina. You and she are going to be the best of friends, I just know it.”
Nina smiled and held out her hand to the pretty but oddly prim looking child while feeling considerably more nervous than she had ever felt at an audition. Neither did the stiff hand in hers or the girl’s expression do anything to make her feel more at ease.
Pip’s mouth was smiling but her eyes darted daggers at this strange woman around whose slim shoulders her father was already clasping a protective if not possessive arm.  Did they take her for a fool?  Her father’s bringing this Fox woman home was an admission of intent. The woman, too, was well aware of this. Pip could tell at once by the way she was trying too hard to conceal the fact she was nervous and kept flinging Nathan intimate looks.
“I’m sure we’ll get along just fine, won’t we Pip?” If Nina’s voice shook a little, Nathan gave no sign he had noticed.
Pip’s heart skipped a beat. It was as if the Fox woman had read her mind. “I’m sure we will,” she lied, coolly withdrawing her hand from Nina’s and flinging her father a broad, reassuring smile.

To be continued on Monday