“Funny Little Snake” (2022)

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The child was nine years old and couldn’t fasten her own buttons. Valerie knelt in front of her on the carpet in the spare room as Robyn held out first one cuff and then the other without a word, then turned around to present the back of her dress, where a long row of spherical chocolate-brown buttons was unfastened over a grubby white petticoat edged with lace. Her tiny, bony shoulder blades flickered with repressed movement. And although every night since Robyn had arrived, a week ago, Valerie had encouraged her into a bath foamed up with bubbles, she still smelled of something furtive—musty spice from the back of a cupboard. The smell had to be in her dress, which Valerie didn’t dare wash because it looked as though it had to be dry-cleaned, or in her lank, licorice-colored hair, which was pulled back from her forehead under an even grubbier stretch Alice band. Trust Robyn’s mother to have a child who couldn’t do up buttons, and then put her in a fancy plaid dress with hundreds of them, and frogging and leg-of-mutton sleeves, like a Victorian orphan, instead of ordinary slacks and a T-shirt so that she could play. The mother went around, apparently, in long dresses and bare feet, and had her picture painted by artists. Robyn at least had tights and plimsolls with elastic tops—though her green coat was too thin for the winter weather.

Valerie had tried to talk to her stepdaughter. It was the first time they’d met, and she’d braced herself for resentment, the child’s mind poisoned against her. Robyn was miniature, a doll—with a plain, pale, wide face, her temples blue-naked where her hair was strained back, her wide-open gray eyes affronted and evasive and set too far apart. She wasn’t naughty, and she wasn’t actually silent—that would have been a form of stubbornness to combat, to coax and maneuver around. She was a nullity, an absence, answering yes and no obediently if she was questioned, in that languid drawl that always caught Valerie on the raw—though she knew the accent wasn’t the child’s fault, only what she’d learned. Robyn even said please and thank you, and she told Valerie the name of her teacher, but when Valerie asked whether she liked the teacher her eyes slipped uneasily away from her stepmother’s and she shrugged, as if such an idea as liking or not liking hadn’t occurred to her. The only dislikes she was definite about had to do with eating. When Valerie put fish pie on Robyn’s plate the first night, she shot her a direct look of such piercing desperation that Valerie, who was a good, wholesome cook and had been going to insist, asked her kindly what she ate at home. Eggs? Cottage pie? Baked beans?

Honestly, the girl hardly seemed to know the names of things. Toast was all she could think of. Definitely not eggs: a vehement head shake. Toast, and—after long consideration, then murmuring hesitantly, tonelessly—tomato soup, cornflakes, butterscotch Instant Whip. It was lucky that Gil wasn’t witness to all this compromise, because he would have thought Valerie was spoiling his daughter. He and Valerie ate together later, after Robyn was in bed. Gil might have been a left-winger in his politics, but he was old-fashioned in his values at home. He despised, for instance, the little box of a house the university had given them, and wanted to move into one of the rambling old mansions on the road behind his office. He thought they had more style, with their peeling paint and big gardens overgrown with trees.

Valerie didn’t tell him how much she enjoyed all the conveniences of their modern home—the clean, light rooms, the central heating, the electric tin opener fitted onto the kitchen wall. And she was intrigued, because Gil was old-fashioned, by his having chosen for his first wife a woman who went barefoot and lived like a hippie in her big Chelsea flat. Perhaps Marise had been so beautiful once that Gil couldn’t resist her. Valerie was twenty-four; she didn’t think Marise could still be beautiful at forty. Now, anyway, he referred to her as the Rattrap, and the Beak, and the Bitch from Hell, and said that she would fuck anyone. When Valerie first married him, she hadn’t believed that a professor could know such words. She’d known them herself, of course, but that was different—she wasn’t educated.

On the phone with his ex-wife, Gil had made a lot of fuss about having his daughter to visit, as a stubborn point of pride, and then had driven all the way down to London to fetch her. But, since getting back, he’d spent every day at his office at the university, even though it wasn’t term time, saying that he needed absolute concentration to work on the book he was writing. Robyn didn’t seem to miss him. She looked bemused when Valerie called him her daddy, as if she hardly recognized him by that name; she’d been only three or four when he’d moved out. Valerie didn’t ask Gil what he’d talked about with his daughter on the long car journey: perhaps they’d driven the whole way in silence. Or perhaps he’d questioned Robyn about her mother, or ranted on about her, or talked about his work. Sometimes in the evenings he talked to Valerie for hours about university politics or other historians he envied or resented—or even about the Civil War or the Long Parliament or the idea of the state—without noticing that she wasn’t listening, that she was thinking about new curtains or counting the stitches in her knitting. He might have found fatherhood easier, Valerie thought, if his daughter had been pretty. Moodily, after Robyn had gone to bed, Gil wondered aloud whether she was even his. “Who knows, with the Great Whore of Marylebone putting it about like there’s no tomorrow? The child’s half feral. She doesn’t look anything like me. Is she normal? Do they even send her to school? I think she’s backward. A little bit simple, stunted. No surprise, growing up in that sink of iniquity. God only knows what she’s seen.”

Valerie was getting to know how he used exaggerated expressions like “sink of iniquity,” whose sense she didn’t know but could guess at, as if he were partly making fun of his own disapproval, while at the same time he furiously meant it. He stayed one step ahead of any fixed position, so that no one could catch him out in it. But Robyn looked more like him than he realized, although she was smooth and bland with childhood and he was hoary and sagging from fifty years’ experience. He had the same pale skin, and the same startled hare’s eyes swimming in and out of focus behind his big black-framed glasses. Sometimes, when Gil laughed, you could see how he might have been a different man if he hadn’t chosen to be this professor with his stooping bulk and crumpled, shapeless suits, his braying, brilliant talk. Without glasses, his face was naked and keen and boyish, with a boy’s shame, as if the nakedness must be smothered like a secret.

Gil’s widowed mother had owned a small newsagent’s. He’d got himself to university and then onward into success and even fame—he’d been on television often—through his own sheer cleverness and effort. Not that he tried to hide his class origins: on the contrary, he’d honed them into a weapon to use against his colleagues and friends. But he always repeated the same few anecdotes from his childhood, well rounded and glossy from use: the brew-house in the back yard, where the women gossiped and did their washing; the bread-and-drippings suppers; a neighbor cutting his throat in the shared toilet; his mother polishing the front step with Cardinal Red. He didn’t talk about his mother in private, and when Valerie once asked him how she’d died he wouldn’t tell her anything except—gruffly barking it, to frighten her off and mock her fear at the same time—that it was cancer. She guessed that he’d probably been close to his mother, and then grown up to be embarrassed by her, and hated himself for neglecting her, but couldn’t admit to any of this because he was always announcing publicly how much he loathed sentimentality and guilt. Valerie had been attracted to him in the first place because he made fun of everything; nothing was sacred.

She didn’t really want the child around. But Robyn was part of the price she paid for having been singled out by the professor among the girls in the faculty office at King’s College London, having married him and moved with him to begin a new life in the North. There had been some quarrel or other with King’s; he had enemies there.

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As the week wore on, she grew sick of the sound of her own voice jollying Robyn along. The girl hadn’t even brought any toys with her, to occupy her time. After a while, Valerie noticed that, when no one was looking, she played with two weird little figures, scraps of cloth tied into shapes with wool, one in each hand, doing the voices almost inaudibly. One voice was coaxing and hopeful, the other one reluctant. “Put on your special gloves,” one of them said. “But I don’t like the blue color,” said the other. “These ones have special powers,” the first voice persisted. “Try them out.”

Valerie asked Robyn if these were her dollies. Shocked out of her fantasy, she hid the scraps behind her back. “Not really,” she said.

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“What are their names?”

“They don’t have names.”

“We could get out my sewing machine and make clothes for them.”

Robyn shook her head, alarmed. “They don’t need clothes.”

Selena had made them for her, she told Valerie, who worked out that Selena must have been their cleaner. “She doesn’t come anymore,” Robyn added, though not as if she minded particularly. “We sacked her. She stole things.”

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When Valerie tied her into an apron and stood her on a chair to make scones, Robyn’s fingers went burrowing into the flour as if they were independent of her, mashing the butter into lumps in her hot palms. “Like this,” Valerie said, showing her how to lift the flour as she rubbed, for lightness. Playfully, she grabbed at Robyn’s fingers under the surface of the flour, but Robyn snatched them back, dismayed, and wouldn’t try the scones when they were baked. Valerie ended up eating them, although she was trying to watch her weight, sticking to Ryvita and cottage cheese for lunch. She didn’t want to run to fat, like her mother. She thought Gil refused to visit her mother partly because he worried about how Valerie might look one day, when she wasn’t soft and fresh and blond anymore.

Robyn had hardly brought enough clothes to last the week—besides the dress with the buttons, there was only a gray skirt that looked like a school uniform, a ribbed nylon jumper, one spare pair of knickers, odd socks, and a full-length nightdress made of red wool flannel, like something out of a storybook. The nightdress smelled of wee and Valerie thought it must be itchy; she took Robyn shopping for sensible pajamas and then they had tea at the cafeteria in British Home Stores, which had been Valerie’s treat when she was Robyn’s age. Robyn didn’t want a meringue but asked if she was allowed to hold her new pajamas, then sat with the cellophane package in her lap and an expression of conscious importance. The pajamas were white, decorated with yellow-and-blue yachts and anchors. “Can I keep them?” she asked tentatively, after a long, dull silence. Valerie had grown tired of chatting away inanely to no one.

She had been going to suggest that Robyn leave the pajamas behind, for the next time she visited, but she didn’t really care. Every child ought to want something; it was only healthy. And, packed into Robyn’s suitcase along with the rest of her clothes—all freshly washed, apart from the dress, and pressed, even the socks, with Valerie’s steam iron—the pajamas would be like a message, a coded reproach, for that mother in Chelsea. She imagined Marise unpacking them in some room of flowery frivolity she couldn’t clearly visualize and feeling a pang for the insufficiency of her own maternal care. Valerie knew, though, that her parade of competence and righteous indignation was a lie, really. Because the truth was that she couldn’t wait for Robyn to go home. She longed to be free of that dogged, unresponsive little figure following her everywhere around the house.

Gil was supposed to be driving Robyn back down to London on Wednesday. On Tuesday evening, when he came home early, Valerie knew right away that something was up. He stood behind her while she was preparing meat loaf at the kitchen counter, nuzzling under her ear and stroking her breast with one hand, determinedly jiggling the ice cubes in his Scotch with the other. He always poured himself a generous Scotch as soon as he came in: she’d learned not to comment. “You’re so good to me,” he said pleadingly, his voice muffled in her neck. “I don’t deserve it.”

“Oh dear, what’s Mr. Naughty’s little game now?” Valerie was long-suffering, faintly amused, swiping onions from her chopping board into a bowl with the side of her knife. “What’s he sniffing after? He wants something.”

“He knows he’s so selfish. Causes her no end of trouble.”

These were two of the roles they acted out sometimes: Valerie brusquely competent and in charge, Gil wheedling and needy. There was a truth behind their performances, as well as pretense. Gil groaned apologetically. A problem had come up at work tomorrow, a special guest coming to dinner at High Table, someone he needed to meet because he had influence and the whole game was a bloody conspiracy. He’d never be able to get back from London in time. And Thursday was no good, either—faculty meeting; Friday he was giving a talk in Manchester. They could keep Robyn until Saturday, but the She-Bitch would never let him hear the end of it. He wanted Valerie to take her home tomorrow on the train. Valerie could stay over with her mother in Acton, couldn’t she? Come back the following day?

Valerie had counted on being free in the morning, getting the house back to normal, having her thoughts to herself again, catching a bus into town perhaps, shopping. She was gasping for her solitude like a lungful of clean air. Biting her lower lip to keep herself from blurting out a protest, she kneaded onions into the minced meat; the recipe came from a magazine—it was seasoned with allspice and tomato ketchup. Certainly she didn’t fancy three extra days with the kid moping around. She thought, with a flush of outrage, that Gil was truly selfish, never taking her needs into consideration. On the other hand, important men had to be selfish in order to get ahead. She understood that—she wouldn’t have wanted a softer man who wasn’t respected. She could squeeze concessions out of him anyway, in return for this favor. Perhaps she’d ring up one of her old girlfriends, meet for coffee in Oxford Street, or even for a gin in a pub, for old times’ sake. She could buy herself something new to wear; she had saved up some money that Gil didn’t know about, out of the housekeeping.

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