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Family, Family, Family

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The police took Darren Beg-Chetwynde, nursing a sizeable bruise at his temple, in for questioning. After some deliberation, as they all heard later, he would eventually decide to confess. “The frigid cow kept rejecting me,” he was rumoured to have said when asked about his motivations.

“Of course,” Rachel commented when she heard of it. “He decided he’d rather be known as an incel than expose his uncle’s dealings in..."

"...Fiji."

She and Julian chorused that last, with facial expressions and inflections so identical, it made Alison burst out into startled laughter.

Beg-Chetwynde wasn’t likely to face any serious, long-term consequences for any of this, Rachel reckoned. Maybe he’d have to lay very, very low for a bit, and he wasn’t going to be invited to very many conservative shindigs. But eventually the family would throw money at anyone responsible and get the whole affair swept under the rug. A part of her couldn’t wait for them to get on it already, so that she could move on from this and go on with her life.

She was healing a bit more every day now, it felt like, and slowly regaining the use of her leg. Button House was a very peculiar environment for this: far off of the bubbling cauldron that was London’s political scene, a tiny self-contained world inhabited, mostly, by the dead. Days went by. The ghosts kept her entertained. She invented a "How we'd paint each other's nails if we could" game with Kitty. She let the head of Humphrey tell her jokes until her mending ribs ached. She listened to the Captain's war anecdotes, and Fanny's stories about the house. Twice a week, Nadia came over and drove her to physical therapy, and it was always an almost jarring little reminder to Rachel that the outside even existed.

She was now learning how to play chess – “another failing of your mother’s” her father sneered when he found out that she didn’t know how. He protested at first when he saw Rachel pick up one of the pieces, insisting that he and Robin – 10000-year-old stepdad? Investigation into the matter was pending – always played by memory. They relented eventually, since Rachel was only a beginner, and let her move the pieces around. She wasn’t sure whether they truly were called ‘prawns’ and ‘lighthouses’ but the important thing was that she gained a comprehensive understanding of the game.

As she began to take more, longer walks again, Thomas took her for a turn around the grounds, which he most likely considered romantic. It was even unchaperoned, or would have been, if Rachel hadn’t spotted her father lurking in the topiary giving Thomas sour looks.

Thomas attempted to make stimulating conversation, and the most stimulating topic to his mind was poetry. He started upon a lengthy discourse about not only his own works but poets of his time, and where they fell short in his estimation, and Rachel abruptly remembered that she couldn’t tell a poem from a restaurant menu.

But she had to be diplomatic about things. It was ingrained.

“Why don’t you tell me more about the Regency?” she offered, just to keep the conversation going. “That’d be so interesting to me. What was the country like then?”

“Well…”

“What of Parliament? Foreign relations? Stuff like that.”

“I really couldn’t tell you, Miss Rachel,” Thomas said with a little sniff. “I wouldn’t know. As a poet, my spirit was far removed from the fetid squabbles of politicians – a riff-raff of slimy opportunists, lacking any semblance of appreciation for what truly enriches the human condition. Alas my soul was meant for higher purpose!”

Rachel came to a halt on the garden path, staring at Thomas in what he might have dubbed ‘wide-eyed surmise’. “Making love poems,” she said.

“Precisely! Matters of the heart, the pure expulsion of emotion. I recoil from the mundane.”

“I think I see my father in the topiary there,” Rachel decided. “I should probably go to him and see what he wants.”

“He still not leaving off?” Julian asked, without preamble, when she caught up with him. “I can box him round the ears for you if you need it.”

Rachel had to smile. The daddy-gets-the-shotgun-act was certainly a hoary old set-piece, she presumed, but mostly so to people who’d always had fathers. “I don’t know. Maybe he realized now that we’re just not clicking.”

Julian chortled. “Reminds me of that berk I worked with back in ’89. That was when they had that fox-hunting bill again…”

“Oh, god—”

They were quickly off on another debate, because naturally the hunt was still a polarizing issue, but at least, Rachel thought, no one was trying to recite poems to her anymore. At least, now, she was talking to somebody on her wavelength.

 


 

“Okay, so now I’m going to move the, um… the penis… guy…?”

“Bishop. It’s a bishop,” Julian interjected. “Don’t let Robin tell you what he thinks the pieces are called.”

“Okay, fine, so I’m going to move him over here to D…5. Is that okay, dad?”

“I’m not always going to be there to backseat-play, you know,” Julian reminded her with a lopsided smirk, “but yes, I’d call that a decent move.”

He watched as Rachel moved her bishop, Robin across from her deliberated his next move, and eventually requested Rachel to “put prawn over there” for him. It was a very different kind of game for the movable pieces, Julian found. He and Robin had gotten so used to playing by memory that paradoxically, moving the pieces became distracting rather than helpful. But Rachel was still learning, this would make things easier on her.

Thank god he was only watching the game, controlling it.

“Right,” he said, leaning in to inspect the board from where he stood behind the armchair that was usually his, which today he’d ceded to Rachel. “Okay, Trouble. Now, the options open to you are—”

“Rachel?” Alison shouted from the doorway. All three of them turned to face her.

“Yeah?” Rachel asked.

“You left your phone downstairs,” Alison said, holding it aloft. “I just noticed you have two missed calls from your staffer, and one from your girlfriend, in case you want to know?”

“Oh, shit, hold on—”

“And Mike said something about baking brownies, and that you’d wanted to help with that? So that’s going on in the kitchen now, if you—”

“Of course! Of course, I’m coming!”

“…We were in the middle of something,” Julian said to the empty doorway as both women’s steps receded into the distance.

After a moment of consternation, he sat down in the chair that Rachel had just vacated. “Hm. Rude. Kids these days, I tell you.”

Robin leaned forward with a grunt and reached across the chessboard to lay a hand on Julian’s arm. “Is her way to be going.”

Julian furrowed his brow. “What?”

“She belong to world of living, Julie. You have to let go, let live.”

“But I’m not…”

“Can’t stay here forever. Hm? Here with us dead people.”

Julian threw up his hands. “But she just got here!” He knew he was whinging. He couldn’t help it.

“She have things to do, out there.” Robin pointed at the window, encapsulating somehow the entire world outside the grounds, the living world, running on and on without them.

Julian nodded. “Of course. She’s going to be Prime Minister someday.” Even with all he now knew about the Green Party, this was clear as day to him. “But she has time, so much time.”

“What is time anyway?” Robin shrugged. “Living people, they no have eternity like us. Have to go out living now. Only one chance at it, hm?”

“Yeah, yeah. Never let it be said that I’m holding my child back. But still.”

“Is not your way, eh? Let go of thing you like.” Robin sighed in a way that told Julian he was feeling the weight of his however many thousand years. “Is never easy, but all learn. I forgot faces of my children 10000 years ago. They here a moment, then time… go on.”

Julian groaned, burying his face in his hands. “This is hell. We’re in hell.”

Robin was patting his arm now. “I older than hell. Is fad, like Christmas, or man on sticks.” He drew a wonky sign of the cross to illustrate whom he meant.

“You think you’re helping, Robin,” Julian said. “But you’re really not.”

 

That night, nestled into Robin’s warm and slightly smelly furs, he cried. It wasn’t so uncommon, he’d learned over the years; there was no ghost in this house who hadn’t sobbed a little over their fate every once in a while. Oh, during the day they all put on their various facades, but nights were different. They lent room to introspection, and with everyone else sleeping, it was harder to distract oneself from the bleak truth that one was trapped in an eternal in-between-world, with no certainty of a way out, while all around, the living were forgetting about them, and their relevance to the world faded with every passing year. Julian did what he always did in those situations: he allowed the moment to pass, wiped his eyes on his sleeve and went for a walk, careful to leave the room quietly to avoid waking Robin. Keep on keeping on.

What, he wondered as he walked, could he give to his daughter, when she would inevitably go away? He owned nothing now but the clothes on his back, and even of those, an insufficient amount in the downstairs department. Everything he had possessed in life was already Rachel’s by will and testament, what with her being the only person who could claim without a doubt to most definitely, legitimately be his child. He had no power to get or do or influence anything for her. What else was Rachel in need of, with her budding political career? She’d certainly not listen to the advice of an old, dead Tory.

Having just wandered into the common room, Julian noticed that Alison had left her laptop here. It was even still on, charger plugged in. It gave him an idea…

He sat down and thought for a while. Then he concentrated, gritted his teeth and placed his Touching Finger onto the trackpad. Slowly, very slowly, he opened a blank document, and began to type…

 


 

When her PT told her that within the next two weeks, the cast on her leg might be coming off, Rachel was awash with excitement. Slow healing was something she found she didn’t have the patience for, and she was eager to get moving again. When she told the household, they reacted with joy for her but there was a subtle wistfulness in the air, because it was felt all around that their time together was coming to an end.

Button House fascinated Rachel endlessly, this space so contained within itself, with the ghosts that couldn’t leave and the living that kept them company. News was carried in as dispatches from a faraway land that the ghosts grew less connected to as the decades and centuries crept by, while history was constantly relived, reenacted, reexamined and regurgitated. The younger (in terms of years dead, not lifespan) ghosts still possessed a keen interest in and some connection to the real world, but they too were being left behind. Rachel spent an evening explaining climate change to her obstinate conservative father, and, after five repetitions of “Now, Trouble, that can’t be right” considered taking up the traditional Fawcett family alcoholism.

The point was, this place was nice, but it wasn’t where she needed to be. Her actual life, with its actual work, was waiting for her, and it wouldn’t wait forever.

She was just in the guest room that was fast becoming ‘her room’, pondering this as she got dressed for the day, when Julian stuck his head in through the wall.

“Pspsps,” he said, “come with me, girl.”

Rachel only barely shrieked anymore at his sudden appearance. Still she shouted, “Dad! I could have been in my underwear or something! Can’t you knock?”

“No,” her father replied, looking not the slightest bit sorry, phasing his hand in through the wall to demonstrate how little, indeed, he could knock. “Come on, I have to show you something.”

With that cryptic remark, his head disappeared the way it had come.

“I can’t go through the walls like you do,” Rachel reminded him.

Julian huffed. “Living people and their limitations. So pedestrian. Fine, meet me outside the door, I guess.”

Wondering what was going on now, Rachel followed her father to the common room, which was empty of anyone else living or dead at the moment. A laptop stood on a coffee table, all by its lonesome. This, Rachel was ushered towards.

“There!” Julian said, something like pride and anticipation in his voice.

It appeared that Rachel was being invited to look at the screen. There seemed to be nothing extraordinary on this desktop that had to belong to Alison, judging by several shortcuts to documents related to event-planning and a folder titled “Mike Christmas Pics” and Rachel wondered if her dad just needed help looking something up, but then she spotted, among the clutter of different icons, a document simply labelled “For Rachel”.

“Oh! Did Alison make that for me?”

“No, I did,” said Julian, tugging on his lapels and visibly preening. “Took me most of two nights to type, too. Go on.”

Rachel blinked at the screen, not knowing what to anticipate. What on earth was so important that Julian would sit down and type, with his one finger that was occasionally tangible, for two consecutive nights?

He gestured now, impatiently. “Well, open it, then!”

Rachel did so, with the same cautious air as someone tearing off the wrapper of a dodgy-looking Christmas present offered up by a relative.

The document that revealed itself to her seemed to be some kind of list, and it was large – many pages of tidy columns of, as far as Rachel could tell at first glance, information about… people. A huge compendium of who with whom, and when, and where, and how much money had changed hands, and which ones had made the taxpayer fund it, and where the bodies had been buried afterwards. Names and dates, constituencies and party allegiances. Commons, Lords. Even some from abroad. Every party was represented, but the vast majority were Tories. Of course, Rachel thought. They act like the oldest bosom chums, all of them have known each other for ages, but they’re constantly poised to stab all the others in the back at the slightest provocation. Some of the columns chronicled merely embarrassing little scandals that someone might be interested in keeping out of the press. Others were potentially career-ending.

“Of course it’s not to date,” her father was saying behind her. “Been a while since I could go looking for these things. But I’m sure at least some of these people are still active, and if not them, then their sons or grandsons or whatnot. Because, you know, same boys, really. So I hope it’s at least a bit useful.”

Rachel nodded. “I do know many of these names.” She pointed one out. “This one, here. Right pain. Constantly lobbying against me.”

“He must be well past seventy!”

“He’s 76 and showing no inclination to retire. We’ve been hoping he’ll just die. You’re telling me he’s, what…” Rachel scanned the corresponding column. “…using a charity for kiddies in Africa to launder money? That’s cartoonish, that is.”

“Yes, he’s also in with the one who’s running an orphanage as a tax shelter. I’ve cross-referenced that there, see?”

For a moment Rachel just scrolled, and looked at the mosaic of corruption that unfolded itself to her. The gamut ran from harmless things, like affairs and MPs who secretly frequented drag bars, to tax evasion, insider trading, bribes, legitimate sex crimes, drug dealings, murder… murder? Even the information Rachel had already possessed, that got her into such trouble with the Beg-Chetwynde clan, paled in comparison.

She looked up and turned towards her father. “Dad… what am I supposed to do with this?”

Julian shrugged. “It’s up to you. Go advance your career.”

“I… would have loved to do that on my own merits. Not through blackmail.”

Julian chuckled. “That’s cute. My funny little girl.” He tried to noogie her, but his hand went right through. He pulled it back with a disgusted expression. “Eugh. Not going to try that again.”

Rachel sighed. “You think I’m naïve for that?”

“Well, see here, Trouble, I’ve looked into your party lately. How many seats do you have again?”

Rachel crossed her arms. “Don’t make me fucking say the number.”

“Right. So if you want results, you need any edge you can get, yes? And you want results, don’t you?”

The thing was, Rachel did want results.

She was a Fawcett. They were not known for their hesitating attitude, or their strict adherence to morals.

Besides, as a gesture, this touched her heart. Her dad wanted to give her a gift, and he was doing it the only way he knew how. This was the only way he could influence the world still, through all this knowledge that had died with him, and had uselessly haunted this house with him.

“Alright, I’ll take this,” she said. “Would be a shame to let it go to waste. And… thank you.”

Julian nodded. “But for the love of god, be careful this time. Keep yourself safe. I’ve added some names at the bottom there of people I could trust with these things, people who will do you a favour if you call on them.”

Rachel scrolled all the way down the list. “Who’s Lindsay Ballantine?”

Julian cleared his throat. “Well. She was the woman who was with me when, you know, when I died. Met her when she was just an exotic dancer, but she became a real confidante.”

“And… Samantha Mayberry? The fashion designer?”

“Is she, now? She was a model in my day. Samantha Fox, was her stage name.”

“I think I own a cocktail dress by her. Small world.” Rachel gave her father a lightly sceptical look. “So you want me to confide in… the women who used to be your side-pieces?”

“Trust that I picked my side-pieces very carefully. Cunning women all, rivalled only by your mother.”

“I’ll take it under consideration.” She’d have to download that list as soon as possible. Surely Alison wouldn’t want to have it in her keeping any longer than necessary. “But, dad, why would you show me this now?”

For a moment, Julian glanced off into the middle distance, and Rachel almost thought he was going to ignore her question. Then he said, “You’re going away soon. I think we all know that.”

Oh. So this was a going-away-present?

“About… that,” Rachel said. “Dad, do you think Alison and Mike would let me come over again? I mean, just to visit? I know I’ve already made a lot of trouble, but… I’ve grown awfully fond of everyone here, even Thomas, and I thought… maybe we could, er, try doing some family stuff together? I know our options are somewhat limited, with the whole ghost thing, but I want to see…? I just, I never had the chance before. Look, stop me if this is a stupid idea—”

“No, no, I’d… please, do visit lots,” Julian said awkwardly, then tacked on, “It does get so boring around here. And I don’t see why that would be a problem. Alison’s the devil for family, really she is.”

“Is that true?” Rachel asked.

“Oh, yes. One time, she almost fell for a scammer pretending to be her sister, she was that eager. Let me tell you…”

 

Oh yes, she would leave soon. But for this moment, singular, golden, the kind of moment that dug itself deep into memory, she had a father.

And she knew now that her father could use a keyboard, which meant e-mails, and texting, and phone calls. She knew now that she had somewhere waiting for her, a house full of people wanting to become her family. She was beginning to understand that if she should ever need it, this place would always be here, waiting. There were people now whom to text Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, and birthdays and yes, death days, to remember: things that families did.

And as she realized this, something within Rachel, that had been aching for so long she hadn’t even noticed it anymore in quite awhile, was beginning to heal over.