Jane came back into the room with the tea tray. Two institutional off-white cups and saucers, half a pint of milk in a glass bottle, and the brown betty teapot to pull it all together and make it art. She sat carefully in the visitor's chair next to the bed.
"Oh, Michael, I asked you to clear off the table," she chided. He slid a look at her, seemingly delighted at her vexed tone, and pulled the sprig of flowers, ticking alarm clock and dirty tissues towards him. Most of the tissues went on the floor. Jane caught the flowers before the water spilled.
She decided there wasn't any point in telling him off again. "Shall I be Mother?" she said brightly.
Michael started to speak but she put up a hand, and he subsided.
"She made us tea, too, remember," Jane said, in a way that showed she'd said it many times before. "Damn sight more times than the other one."
Michael pulled a face, then covered his mouth with one hand. Cigarettes had turned his first two fingers a yellowy brown. Jane poured his tea and added a generous amount of milk. He took it from her, said, "Thank you, mum," and drank it down like medicine. Jane poured him another. He repeated the action, said, "Rrrrrrum punch," and busied himself looking in his pockets.
"Michael, for heaven's sake," she said. "It's just tea. Revoltingly milky tea."
He found what he was looking for, a cigarette. He stuck out his lips to reach for it, rather than just bringing it to his mouth like normal people. Jane averted her eyes. Michael smirked around the cigarette. He opened a drawer for matches and then reached behind him to open the window. Once his head was safely outside, he lit up and took a contented drag.
"They're going to catch you," she said, unnecessarily, because that was what he wanted. The nurses called him 'a naughty boy' and made to whack him with their clipboards. Whenever he got released he did something to put him back in here. He was too intelligent to be here, and too insane not to be. The clinical, school-ish atmosphere of the hospital appealed to him.
Jane drank her tea and thought about biscuits. One more Rich Tea and she thought she'd scream, but that was all they had here. Next visit she would have to ask Bob's mother for something to bring. Mrs. Connor wouldn't approve, but Jane was getting desperate. The entire room was like a Rich Tea: pale and dull and bland. The walls were white, the bedframes were white, the blankets a blue washed to grey. The bedside tables were grey metal and the lamps dull pewter. A bracing religious quotation had been cross-stitched into a small picture that disappeared into the expanse of the wall at the end of the ward.
Other men lay in beds at regular intervals under the windows. One or two of them were enviously watching Michael kneeling on his bed with his head out of the window. Pale blue curtains occasionally blew across their pillows. The men matched the room: washed to grey by the War to End All Wars.
Jane had always had to take care of Michael, even when they were small, before she came. They had had rotten nannies, a mother too distracted to notice them, let alone care about their welfare, and a father the epitome of Victorian distance. Even afterwards, when he finally began to look at them, to laugh and sing with them on holidays, to listen to their stories of school, he still felt that the correct way to bring up children was to mold them into perfect young Victorians (the fact that George V was now on the throne notwithstanding). So Jane was put to the household accounts within a year of her leaving, and Michael was sent to Westminster like all his peers.
Then the War came.
Mrs. Banks, with her habitual disregard for her family's welfare, volunteered with her friends at the field hospitals and was killed by a whizzbang. Mr. Banks shut down. The house went cold and colourless within the day. Much later, Jane read a novel by Virginia Woolf that described exactly what had happened: Mr. Banks walked along the corridor with his arms stretched out, but (Mrs. Banks having died the day before), they remained empty.
Jane's hands weren't empty. They were immediately filled with everything, even the small things Mrs. Banks had taken care of. The boy who brought the coal went to the Somme and didn't come back. The man who ran the stable and kept their carriage lost two sons and two other groomsmen at Ypres. Michael, safely at Westminster and only thirteen, wrote to her of how he and his friends were making plans to lie about their ages to the army. The housemaster found them halfway up the gate one night after lights out and caned them within an inch of their lives, as he said. Michael's description of the event was almost indecent. After that he was always in trouble, and it was Jane who had to go and get him when he was finally sent down. Mr. Banks barely noticed. He stayed at work as long as possible, and ate cold dinners when he got home.
Jane asked him about getting Michael a job in the bank. With his father as a contact, Michael began quite high up, as a cashier, but needed constant instruction, and after his accounts were wrong three weeks in a row, they suggested he do something more physical. He pushed the money around from the safes to the front desks. This seemed to make him happy for a few months, but then some money went missing. He swore he was just joking, but the board could not find room for him at the bank any more. The war was over then, and his position was needed by the men coming back from the front.
Jane ran the household and tried not to let Michael know that they had enough money to keep him if he didn't work. It hardly mattered; there was a lack of jobs for anyone, let alone a young gentleman of little education and no experience. He found a group of older men, back from the war, so scarred that they thought of nothing but living life as loudly and violently as possible. When Jane would bail Michael out from another overnight stay at the gaol, she soon learned to keep her face impassive. Any hint of disapproval on her face made him orgasmic with pleasure.
He took drinking to a new level of artistic debauchery. The Decadents were his role-models: he would find the rarest absinthe (doubly enjoyed because of the 'spoonful of sugar' with which it was drunk), wore exquisite silk scarves, and grew his hair à la Oscar Wilde, before heading out into the Roaring Twenties and the bars and restaurants that welcomed the shell-shocked, semi-suicidal young officers. Jane stopped herself from wondering which of the men were his friends, and which were his lovers. Then there were the girls, hair newly cropped and skirts showing ankle and even quite some shin, so happy to have the men back and so desperate to catch one of them they would follow them anywhere, do anything.
Mr. Banks allowed the bank to force him to retire. Jane tried to get him to take an interest in Michael's life, but he saw the absolute hash of it and gave up before he could even begin. The servants that had gone were not replaced. They moved to a smaller house in Maida Vale, so they could keep just the cook and a maid. Jane bought a car, which Michael crashed. Repairing it was still cheaper than keeping a horse and carriage, though, so she learned to drive it, and gave herself one of the few pleasures of her life. She would drive her father into the Cotswolds and take gentle walks with him, trying to forget what Michael was doing.
On one of these trips she met an ex-officer. He had worked his way up the ranks and now ran his father's farm with his mother and three sisters. Tentatively he and Jane began to write to each other. Jane told him that she knew nothing about farming. He told her he knew nothing about London. They kept on writing to each other. On one visit, Jane and her father were invited to lunch at the Connors' home. Mr. Banks marveled over the home-made stew and admired the chickens in the barnyard. Bob took Jane to the horses' paddock, told her that he was going to be buying the house they could see on the other side of the valley, and asked her if he could come and visit her and her father in Maida Vale. He made a point of the fact that there would be plenty of bedrooms in the country house.
Michael had thrown his cigarette end out of the window and now turned back to the room.
"Michael, I want to tell—"
"How bad," he interrupted, "do things have to be before she comes back?"
That was what he'd been doing out of the window: searching the sky. Jane sighed; obviously they weren't going to be able to avoid this conversation. "She wasn't real, Michael."
"What about the hatstand?" he snapped, immediately angry when she contradicted him on his favourite subject.
"It was just a trick."
"What about the songs? What about all the toys that put themselves away?"
"We put the toys away. She just made us enjoy it."
"What about the castor oil?"
"She must have had something in the spoon. Michael, it wasn't real. She was a nice lady who told you what to do for six weeks, and you've been looking for that for the rest of your life."
Michael sat down on the bed, his long, thin legs stretched out in front of him. Without shoes or socks he looked hopelessly vulnerable. To her he had always been so. "She loved us," he said petulantly.
He would just leap on Jane with certainties if she pointed out that they had only been a job to her. "Probably she did, in her way," she said instead. "The purpose was for us to learn how to be a family, and we were, for a while."
"Speak for yourself," he muttered. "You weren't sent to the bloody front, also known as Westminster." He pulled another cigarette out of his pocket, and did the mouth movement thing again.
"Father didn't know any better, and don't smoke again. And don't call your school the Front, for heaven's sake, you know full well it was nowhere near as bad as that. I would have thought your so-called friends would have made that clear to you by now.
"I have to tell you something." She moved the tea tray to the floor, buying a little time. "Bob Connor has asked me to marry him."
Michael only twitched his shoulders and looked away from her.
"Did you hear?"
"Yes, I heard. Presumptuous little oik." He had taken the cigarette out but now it went firmly back in and he leapt up to the open window, almost toppling out. Jane grabbed the back of his dressing gown to steady him. She got no thanks, and that broke the last of her patience.
"He's a decorated officer and a very intelligent businessman," she snapped. "More importantly, he cares about me, about what happens to me, which is more than anyone else has done in my entire life!"
She was getting too loud: heads were turning from further down the room. Her voice lower, but shaking with frustration, she went on. "Michael, I'm sorry that the only affection you were able to respond to came from a woman who was only in our lives for six weeks. I'm sorry that you get a thrill out of being told you're naughty. I'm sorry that you are no longer eight years old and were supposed to start living a life by yourself ten years ago. I'm sorry that I'm stuck taking care of Father, who is also a child and requires all my attention all of the time without any return. I'm sorry that I'm not her. But Bob doesn't know about any of this and I will not have him enlightened. You will recover and get dressed up and be at the wedding, and you and Father will not give any speeches, and then you and Father will go and live somewhere together with a nurse and bars at the windows. And frankly, if Father dies of nostalgia or you escape and drink yourself to death, then I will cry for you, but I will continue on with my life. Because I deserve one. And this fine man wants to give me one. So." She got off her chair and bent down to pick up the tea tray.
Michael had kept his face turned to the window at first, but gradually had turned to her and now sat on his pillow, mouth open, cigarette forgotten between his fingers. Perhaps it was the first time he'd really looked at her since she'd left.
Jane would have loved to have had one straight look from her brother in the past, but now it was too late. She felt old, dried up, and had to run to the Connors before she lost the ability to love at all. "Goodbye, Michael. I'll send you a letter when we make the arrangements."
She had reached the door, reached the end of it all. Then, in a tone she had never known him use, the tone of a grown-up, she heard him say, "Jane."