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The Chemical Formula for Hope

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What do normal men dream of, I wonder. Are there abstract images that float in their minds? Symbols of security and safety that envelope their comatose brains and are forgotten the minute they awaken. Or do they dream of adventure—of the residual scraps of boyhood, of football matches won, pirate ships and war games? I myself occasionally have a sense of a mango-coloured sun, of gardens of basil, wild nutmeg and magnolia. Of mint green waters and paper boats sailing on them. Of sweat so thick that it foams on the neck. Of happiness. Of Before.

No doubt there are dreams of a hormonal nature. It is endemic to our sex and even I am not immune. There are rare mornings of a few hours of bliss, of returning to actualisation with a flush and vague urgings of a warm presence that was pressed to my body. But I am of course ashamed when these occur and sufficiently penitent.

But I hope the majority of men dream of family. Those lucky enough to possess one of keeping it well and happy. And, like me, those who do not of someone...someone worthy...

Are we such stuff as dreams are made on, as the Bard said?
Perhaps some of us deserve only nightmares.

*
She is five years-old when I arrive. A little she-mouse creature with fur askew and wildly inappropriate teeth that in a few years time will need to be contained in metal. She has the slightest of interdental lisps that small children are want to possess and when she comes forward to welcome me, with a sticky paw to shake, she says ‘Welcome to Buckthaw, Dogger.’

She is not incorrect. “Buckthaw” is perhaps apt. The massive estate is without warmth, frozen in time, cracking to icy pieces under the weight of an entire world’s grief. Some sort of nanny, a fearsome mountain of a female, roughly the size of one of His Majesty’s destroyers (upon which I hitched a ride on my repatriation), pokes the child viciously until she squeaks. ‘Manners, girl. Manners. That’s Mr. Dogger.’ She turns to me. ‘You’ll have to forgive this one, sir. Her two sisters are manageable, but this one here is a bit of a trouble-maker. If I may say so.’

My mind is already sinking. The palpitations are beginning. My hand is starting to tremor. I clench my fist so tightly I can taste bile awash at the back of my throat. I know that I shall need a quiet place away from decent company very shortly.

‘You just did say so, madam.’ My voice is too calm. Too reassuring. It is a doctor’s voice. At that moment, I would rather it be venomous, like the bite of a komodo dragon.

I take the little imp’s hand and shake it cordially. ‘Just Dogger will do, Miss Flavia. And thank you.’

The maloccluded smile that I receive in return is the first sunrise that I have been blessed to witness in three years.

*

The nights are an endless string of ghosts. Colonel de Luce’s home has been my own for more than a year now, but still I sleep little. To close my eyes into darkness is to have my body filled with the poison once again, my lungs and brain drowning in it. I can’t waste all of my employer’s electricity, of course. I have tried a torch but that only creates shadows. Candles as well. So the only solution seems to be a constant motion. I roam the house. To keep moving seems to head them off. It is only a trick but sometimes the frailest of strings is what keeps a man alive.

I am moving from the west wing to the unused east wing when I see it. A shape in a window swaying like a tiny corpse. My body and tongue freeze. I feel a whimper but I fight it off. Logic and reason. That is what I am told will guide me back to the light. You’re alive, man! Show some gumption! Show some gratitude! Anything else is all in your mind. I have tried to heed that advice of well-meaning physicians. God above, I have tried.

Hand in pocket, clutching my knife (I refuse to handle firearms), I sweep the curtains aside, as assured of my own death now as I am at most points during a given day. What dangles there has two unravelling pigtails, a knapsack and spindly, fearless limbs clutching at a window sill twenty feet above the ground.

‘My foot’s caught,’ she tells me, and there is no panic in the voice.

She is through the window and upon the carpet in a matter of seconds. She rises, brushes herself off and says to me, ‘Thank you, Dogger. I was nearly in a pinch there.’

‘Nearly so, Miss. Might one inquire as to what you are doing descending the building after dark?’

She hesitates, a delay of conscience she will soon learn to control. ‘Well, it is such a lovely evening. I guess I wanted a breath of air. And...and I am fond of climbing.’

‘Hmm...yes I see, Miss.” I motion to her sack. ‘I nearly was under the supposition that you were attempting an escape of some sort.’

‘Oh, no! Never that!’ Her chin trembles slightly.

‘I am very glad to hear it.’

‘You are?’

‘Of course. Your family would be distressed to hear of your departure.’

‘No. I don’t think they would.’ She pauses. ‘Father has room in his heart only for Harriet, I think.’

I blink. This is a child. She has yet to spend seven years on this Earth and already she is more perceptive than I was at thirty. I have come across generals and politicians, doctors and philosophers who have not gained enlightenment at fifty. Her father’s face floats into my mind, a conversation had just prior to our arrival:

You must help me with them, Arthur. Especially Flavia. From what I hear, what the governesses and nannies tell me. From what my sister tells me... He closes his eyes, rubs his moustache. Even together, we two would not make a complete man. Yet the fortunate are lost and Haviland de Luce and Arthur Dogger remain to draw a weary breath, as it were. She is special, he continues, hand on my shoulder. She will need help. Help I cannot provide.

I make sure I have his eye. This is not easy for me, looking someone in the eye. The Colonel is the only man I feel secure enough with that I can perform this small service. The use of my Christian name is so odd that I nearly feel bemused. I tell him

I will watch her.

‘And I know Feely and Daffy wouldn’t,’ she continues. ‘Do you have sisters, Dogger?’

Do I? It is hard to remember such details. There is only what floats to the surface, the bits of personal carrion that I was allowed to keep, that were rejected by the predators. But I think I can recall their faces, mounds of dark hair atop faces of ivory. ‘Yes, two. And a brother as well. Like you, I was the youngest.’

She does not ask why I say “was.” ‘Are they horrific snake-headed Gorgons like mine?’

‘I don’t believe so. But I cannot say that I really knew them well. This was a time of segregation between the sexes, and I was sent away to school whilst they remained at home and learnt to be ladies.’ I clear my throat. ‘Have Miss Ophelia and Miss Daphne been abusive of late?’

‘Those hateful sows said I’m the reason’—she pauses and her eyes are pink. ‘Never mind.’

‘Well, Mrs. Mullet would miss you. And your Father. And myself, Miss Flavia.’

‘Would you?’

Her voice is nearly invisible. Hopeful.

And I remember

Seeing him is almost a dream, but no, Colonel de Luce is the most existent phenomenon that I can imagine. His mere presence proves that, if nothing else, I am not mad. The last three years.

Happened.

We are outside, a warm day with a sky of altostratus clouds the colour of ground grey glass. There will be a nice drizzle within the hour. An autumn rain that reminds one of England, hearth and home. If it is soft, I will enjoy hearing it ping off the windows of the hospital.

‘Keep in the present,’ he is saying. ‘That’s what you told me. When I thought I was done.’

I blink. That is what I said.

‘You must never think of the future. Too dangerous. It distracts the mind. It makes a man afraid to think the future’s hopeless. Concentrate on the moment only.’ His hand flinches closer to his abdomen. The action is just perceptible. ‘That advice kept me alive, Dogger.’

I smile. At least it feels as though I do. Then I begin to shiver.

‘I owe you my life.’ He adds.

‘No.’

‘Please. You can make a home at Buckshaw. You can rest. The grounds are extensive. Plenty of fresh air. You need never feel,’ he grimaces. ‘Trapped.’

I try to hide the whimper by clearing my throat. But I fear I fail.

He reaches over and taps my elbow. ‘All is not lost, my friend. We will find hope. Wherever she may be.’

It is a curious statement. The anthropomorphizing of hope.

I say

Yes.

*

I awaken in a glass room. Supine, upon the floor, squints of yellow light pressing upon my eyelids. There is a child’s cardigan folded under my head. A smell of bergamot infuses the air. I am surprised to find I am still expelling oxygen. Every time. I never expect that I will be allowed another day.

She is sitting seiza style, munching on a biscuit. ‘I made tea,’ she says, motioning to something above me that I cannot see. ‘It’s nearly morning. How are you feeling?’

‘I...I am afraid I don’t recall what happened.’

‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ She sets down a steaming cup next to me. ‘I swept it up. You know, it’s odd this room. I’ve had a squint at it before—Feely says some doddering relation
of ours used to hold up here, but I’ve never realised how much brilliant stuff is here.’

I sit up and my head feels as though it has shuffled off its mortal coil. But my hand has ceased shaking and the china cup barely rattles as I gulp the Earl Grey. I am filled with sweet orange familiarity.

She holds out a tin of McVitie’s. ‘Would you like one? They’ve gotten a bit crushed, I’m afraid.’

‘Miss Flavia,’ I put my hand to my temporal lobe, which also feels crushed, ‘I don’t like to force a confidence. But as it concerns me I think I’d better know what I’ve done.’

‘Well...first you caught me dangling from the window. You told me you’d miss me and started to lead me to bed. Then you...started moaning and...’ she screws up her mouth and is trying desperately to phrase my shortcomings in the best light possible. ‘You ran in here and I heard a smash. Then you just sort-of crumbled. I made sure you weren’t bleeding. I thought it best just to let you sleep.’ She bites her lip. ‘You know, Dogger, you look quite peaceful when you’re asleep.’

There is a crunch under my boot as I force my corpus corporis into a vertical position. A shard of glass shudders and lies still. A small trail of pieces leads to a broken retort haphazardly piled in the corner. I rub at my swollen eyes.

‘It’s alright,’ she reiterates. She climbs atop a chair to reach a hissing Bunsen burner and turns the gas off. She’s set a tripod over it and a battered old kettle pinched from somewhere is still steaming slightly. ‘You didn’t mean it. It was just rotten luck you ran in here.’

My hand is itching. I look down at it and a dozen thin cuts mare its leathery surface. They aren’t bleeding and appear to be superficial but I can’t help the slight whimper that escapes my throat. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Flavia. That you had to do for me. It’s not right for a child to see that. Next time, you best fetch your father.’ Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars

‘Ok, Dogger. I’m sure you’re right.’

I’ve no idea how she has taught herself the use of a Bunsen burner.

‘It’s not really fair though, is it?’

‘What, Miss?’

‘That you have those, well, spells. Hard-lines, Dogger. I really am sorry.’

Before I was re-united with Colonel de Luce in hospital, I was unable to get out of bed. The floor was a live grenade; the corridor a snake-filled pit. One exasperated doctor finally grabbed my shoulder and shouted For God’s sake, man, you’re alive! How many are not? You’re desecrating their memories with your cowardice!

‘Many never came home at all,’ I say softly.

‘Yes.’ She blinks and I’m sure she’s thinking of her mother. She, too, never came home. ‘But still. You being such a good man and all... did you know it’s my birthday in three days? I think seven sounds so much more impressive than six.’

She offers me a gap-filled smile. I exhale. Then again. And again. My hands feels so useless—I should have something to occupy them. I want to say something, but I won’t. There is nothing I can say, nothing I should say. She has the benefit of innocence and of age, of being female and of not understanding the way of the world. The sympathy of a child easily turns into the disinterest and distancing of a young adult. It would be better for her. She’ll not need to concern herself over the likes of me. But.

‘I’ll have to show you the proper function of that Bunsen burner, Miss. And it’s not for making tea.’

Part of me hopes that she won’t.

‘I know that. It’s for...heating up chemicals? Or something like that.’

‘Perhaps you’d like to see an experiment. I think I recall that copper and nitric acid go well together. As do hydrogen peroxide and potassium iodide.’

She jumps up and down. ‘Oh, yes! That would be wizard!’

‘I think after breakfast would be more appropriate, however.’ I hold the door open and she prances through it, the room that in a few years, when she has attained a bit more maturity will become her sanctum sanctorum. Where she will develop the passion that will become her life’s work.

Where, as a teen-ager, she will infuse a certain substance from the bulb of a common flower, a small vial of it, wrap a piece of hair-ribbon round it and leave it on the threshold of my door one early morning. The tiny card attached says C13,H24,O11—Liquid Hope. Happy Birthday Dogger.

She and I remember the snowdrops. Galanthus Nivalis. The first flower of spring. Also called death’s flower. They symbolise purity and a clean start after a hard winter.

‘Why are they called death’s flower, Dogger?’ Miss Flavia plucks a single bloom and twirls it between two fingers.

‘I think because they are so often found growing in graveyards. The bulbs, too, are poisonous. One hears stories of unfortunate people who mistake the bulbs for onions.’

‘Poison! From something so beautiful.’

‘There are numerous examples in nature of simple, beautiful plants that are actually filled with toxins.’ I grip my gloved hand tighter around the trowel. Some mornings it will not cease its tremor. ‘It seems a cruel trick. It would be easier if only the vile, ugly things were decreed by nature to be left alone. But that isn’t the way of the world, I expect.’

I turn to her and she is studying me carefully, like a specimen in a laboratory. I don’t much care to be observed so closely; in my experience eyes that watch one’s every move lead to pain and suffering. But I don’t have the heart to tell such a young child to look away.

‘Do you know the legend of the snowdrop, Miss?’ She shakes her head. ‘Well, it is said that when Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden, there were lost in a land of eternal winter where nothing would grow. Just when they were about to give up completely, an angel appeared and blew on some of the falling snowflakes, turning them into these very flowers. They are meant to show that even in the direst of predicaments there is always hope.’

*