Neasden was easier. A little hilly place next to a river and a motorway with nodding trees and one stubby row of shops. One bank, one library, one optician, one pharmacist, one chip shop, one Chinese takeaway, pub, hairdresser, liquor store, cash 'n' carry, greengrocer and two newsagents, a full stop at each end of Neasden Lane. There was also a chocolate-smelling chocolate-biscuit factory said by the older locals to have driven people to madness. Schoolchildren were given unforgettable guided tours through it, the chocolate warm, melting, over freshly baked biscuits on conveyor belts. Georgia and Bessi had been there, and afterward they'd laughed a lot.
The place had clean air and history. Its hills were the result of Victorian golfers who'd whacked their golf balls toward far-off holes that now were tiny memories underneath houses, alleyways, wonky car parks and Brent Council bus stops. It was a place where cyclists' legs started to hurt, where they stopped and swigged water in the summer, leaning on their bikes halfway up Parkview and breathing in the chocolate air (which deepened in the heat). The roads snaked and dipped and wound themselves around the hollows and windswept peaks in dedication to the open countryside, now lost to concrete. Except for Gladstone Park with its ghosts, and the Welsh Harp marsh, where the river rushed on.
Gladstone's house was still standing at the top entrance to the park. It hadn't been his house exactly, Georgia knew, he'd just stayed there sometimes with his friends the Aberdeens when Parliament got too much. But as far as she was concerned, it was Gladstone's house. The duck pond and the lines of oaks, the reams of gleaming green grass had all been his back garden. Bodiced ladies in ruffles and high hats used to sip wine there under their parasols, and children hid in the shade of trees. Gladstone liked parties, but he also liked peace and quiet, a dip in the pond, and lying in his hammock between two trees. Georgia had seen a picture of him. Serious eyes in a fleshy face, a clever mouth, long white sideburns and white wispy hair around his balding crown. He looked nothing like her father.
Last Christmas, when Gladstone's garden was thick with snow, Aubrey had taken his daughters to the park with sleighs. They'd dragged the sleighs to the top of the hill where the ducks were shivering and whooshed back down again and again. Aubrey had decided to join in, even though Bel warned him not to because of his bad back, which he often suffered from in winter, or when he felt particularly agitated. In his long navy trench coat, the thick glasses slipped into an inside pocket, he'd sat down on a sleigh and pushed himself out into the soft slide down. Bel said in a foreboding voice, "He's going to hurt himself ." They all watched and thought about what would happen if
Aubrey hurt himself. At first it was a good thought. But then Aubrey began to scream and despite everything Kemy said, "Don't hurt himself, Daddy!" and the four of them began to run. He screamed a deep, toneless man's scream, all the way down and they ran after him calling, frantic, afraid for his back and even his heart. He looked strange, a grown man on a sleigh with his short legs out in the air. When they reached the bottom, touching his arm, pulling him up, Kemy in tears, he said he was fine, his back was fine, and stop fussing, goddammit. He had stayed in bed for a week afterward drinking Ida's milky tea and not speaking much. This had been a very good week for the rest of the family, who spent it catching up on sleep, not standing in corners, and watching forbidden television.
It might not be that bad, Georgia was thinking now, if they ended up sleeping there, in the park, after divorce. They were driving around the edge of it on the way to the vet in the royal-blue estate with three rows of seats. Ham was next to her with the What is it? still in his eyes. Aubrey was at the wheel.
From 26a by Diana Evans, pages 1-17. Copyright Diana Evans. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of William Morrow Publishing.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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