Clemence was born in the Summer of Love, and died a week before her thirtieth birthday, in the City of Dreaming Spires, of the Kissing Disease.
She was an Autumn gift to her parents, who had long since given up expecting a child, and as is the way of only children with only the aged for companionship, she grew up to be quiet and serious and precise in all her speech and actions.
Her mind was sharp and hungered for knowledge, and she quickly devoured all the books in her parents’ little cottage and all of those in her tiny village schoolroom, and all who knew her said that she would be famous one day for the breadth and depth of her knowledge. And she wanted to please all who knew her, so she studied to the exclusion of all else, and grew pale and thin and seemed not to belong to the real world any longer but to a world made up of densely written pages from books.
But her hair was fiery red, the red of seething volcanoes and exploding stars, and although her mind hungered for knowledge, her heart hungered far more for love. The time came when there was no more she could learn in the village of her parents, and they sent her away to the distant city, to the grand academy there where she could mix with people her own age and learn from books no-one in the village had ever seen.
When she arrived at the grand academy, Clemence was frightened of the noise and bustle of so many young people, and hid herself away in her neat study, working harder than she had ever worked before so that her parents would be proud of her and she would become famous as they wished. But she could not hide away from everyone, and one of her teachers, a tall man with silver hair and breath that smelt of chocolate, told her that she was wrong to bury herself in books and that she was so beautiful that his calloused heart melted at the sight of her. And Clemence, her body surging with feelings she had never known, let the teacher take her in his arms and mask her eager face with kisses, and carry her to his bed where she lost herself in a tsunami of ecstasy that none of her dog-eared school books had ever come close to describing.
After that, her hunger for knowledge seemed like the pursuits of a child, and all she wanted was to lie with the soft-spoken teacher and share with him all the secrets of her body. But the teacher was afraid that he would grow to love her as fiercely and as desperately as she loved him, and that he would thus become her slave, so one day he turned her away and told her he could never care for her.
Nothing ever seemed quite real to Clemence after that, and she gave herself to one panting man after another so that one of them might give her back the love she had so freely given away. But none of them did, and one of them instead unwittingly gave her something invidious and cruel that drained away her life so that she slept for three days and then drifted away altogether from the world where she was to have become famous.
And when the teacher learnt that she had died, he wept for a year, because he knew then that he had always loved her as much as she loved him, and that he had already become her slave. And now that she was gone, he had no purpose, like a compass without a needle or a bow without an arrow. Every morning after that, for the rest of his life, the moment he woke he would utter a silent prayer then turn his head on his pillow to see if it had been answered and if Clemence lay smiling beside him.
She had been a big star once, twenty years before, when her TV series was on every week and game shows and chat shows and magazines could not wait to ask her to grace them with her glamorous presence. But nothing was ever truer than that fame was fickle, and nothing was ever truer than that time changed all things, and now she was twenty years older and few people knew who she was.
But a few people did know who she was, and a letter arrived one day asking her if she would be kind enough to appear at a charity auction of TV memorabilia, where people might pay to have her sign pictures of herself for them. Most of the money would go to the charity, but there would be generous expenses. The word generous was underlined, as if the organisers did not want her to think for a moment that she would not make a profit from being charitable. It was to take place in a sprawling church hall in a village close to where she lived, and she reflected for a moment on how far she had fallen from the days when she was whisked to plush hotels by limousines and had never even seen a sprawling church hall.
Then she looked again at the word generous underlined, and she thought how nice it would be to do something for charity. And she thought how nice it would be to be famous again, even if only for an afternoon. So she wrote back and accepted the invitation.
On the day of the charity auction, she drove to the village and parked by the church hall and banged on the heavy wooden back door until a surly caretaker opened it a crack and told her to go round the front and pay like everyone else. He shut the door in her face before she could tell him she was a star, so she did as he had said and paid her entrance fee at the front door like the ordinary people who were drifting in, and then sought out the organiser who had written to her. He apologised profusely for not being there to greet her, and for the embarrassment of her having to pay to enter. He brought her a plastic cup of volcano-hot coffee and smiled as if that made everything all right.
There was a side room where the organiser had placed a trestle table and a chair. On the door of the side room were pictures of her from twenty years ago, many of them showing her in skimpy clothes, and one in no clothes at all. There was also a sign saying it was £5 for her autograph. She sat at the table with a pile of old pictures of herself that she had brought, and a few copies of her autobiography that she had found gathering dust in her attic, and she waited for her fans to come and see her.
Outside, in the main hall, the charity auction began, and a muted hubbub of noise droned on through the afternoon. Every now and then, a face would appear at the side-room door, its eyes momentarily touching her as if surprised that anyone would be in such a place, but no-one came inside.
After two hours, she lost patience. She picked up the pen that the organisers had placed on the table for her, furiously signed all the pictures and autobiographies she had brought, and went home. Only one person noticed. A man had been standing outside the door, a man who had once been a young teenager who loved her more than he had words then or since to express it. He had come especially to meet her for the only time in his life, but she had changed so much that he wasn’t sure if it was her when she arrived, and he had remained trapped in frozen uncertainty until it was too late and she was gone.
When no-one was looking, he unpinned the picture of her with no clothes on from the side-room door and took it home, where he spent the evening copying onto it her signature from a printed letter he had received from her short-lived fan club a long time before.
Before the auction was finished, and the organisers realised the star had left, the surly caretaker swept all her signed pictures and books into a rubbish bag without looking at them.
The Practical Joke
I must have been about six or seven years of age, and had just got home from school. In those happy days, children could safely make such journeys on their own, and our front door was never locked until everyone went to bed, so I was often indoors before anyone knew I was there.
On this particular occasion, I came in through the front door as always, and heard my mother doing the washing at the back of the house. She used to sing while she worked, and was gently crooning Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” in time to her rhythmic turning of our old-fashioned mangle, while an odour of strong soap drifted as far as the front room where I stood silently listening. I don’t know why or how it came to me, but something put it into my head to play a joke on her. I decided to hide behind the door which led to our enclosed staircase to see what she would do when she thought I was late.
I did not know then the panic a parent feels when a child goes missing. I’d assumed this would just be a prank which would make her laugh when I jumped out at her. She didn’t laugh much, but when she did, it was like the whole world was momentarily warmer and brighter.
I opened the old wooden door stealthily, and crept behind it, closing it with equal care and wishing it would not creak so loudly. For a few minutes, nothing happened, and I started to get bored, feeling chilly and far from comfortable sitting on the threadbare stair-carpet. But then, peering gleefully through the cracks in the wooden partition which separated the stairwell from the front room, I saw her walk past and stick her head out of the front door. She went back to the kitchen, but repeated her trip to look out two or three times, at successively shorter intervals.
When she began to cry, I realised I had gone too far, but by then was too scared to reveal my hiding place. In terror at the severe punishment which I felt sure would befall me, I sat and watched as a neighbour was called and dispatched to fetch my father from the nearby factory where he worked, another went and brought the local policeman, two or three others scurried out to search the streets, and all hell broke loose. The front room filled up with people, all talking at once, my mother alternately sobbing and shouting at my father, the neighbours bustling about trying to be helpful but just getting in the way, and the fat old policeman standing there with his notebook open vainly trying to quieten everyone down.
In my mind, I tried to think of something to get myself out of this. The best plan I came up with was to creep upstairs, then climb out of my bedroom window down to the ground and walk round the house to come in the front door as if nothing had happened. But I knew it was impossible. Even if I had been able to open the heavy sash window, it was a sheer drop outside with no footholds or anything to cling onto. In any event, I was frozen to the spot with fear, and even if there had been a way out, I could not have taken it.
“I’ll walk as far as the school,” my father announced, although several people had already done that and come back again saying I was nowhere to be seen. The front door was wide open, and a few unseasonable snowflakes danced in the early evening gloom. “I’ll just nip upstairs and get my heavy coat. Don’t worry, Maggie, love. I’ll find him.”
I shall never forget the expression on my father’s face when he pulled open the door and saw me sitting there, my hands shaking and tears streaking my grubby face. For a moment, it was as if time stood still, and I could have sworn I saw tears start in his own wrinkled eyes. He took a step backwards. “Well, I’ll be …” he murmured. “He’s here!”
I did not get the severe punishment I had expected – and deserved. My parents were so pleased to see me that they scarcely said anything, although the old policeman wagged his plump finger at me admonishingly as he left and some of the neighbours seemed quite disappointed that all the anticipated excitement had come to nothing, and that they were robbed of their chance to be staunch and supportive in a time of trouble. I watched my mother for the rest of the evening, hoping that maybe she would eventually see the funny side of it, and that she would suddenly break out into one of her magical laughs.
But she never did.
The child sat alone, in the centre of a vast empty plain. The plain was barren and icy cold,
and winds and sleet buffeted the child. The child wept, and turned his awkward head from
side to side, but there was no-one there. And so he wept even more piteously, but the wind drowned his sobs.
And as he sat there, alone and uncared for, little specks of ice began to settle on the naked skin of his face and his arms and his legs, and on his thin back as he hunched forward to try and shelter between his own limbs. More and more ice settled on the child until, in time, he was encased in it from head to toe.
And then he stumbled to his feet, and, shielded from the whipping pain of the wind by his armour of ice, he started to search for someone to take care of him.
He walked until the barren plain was far behind him, and he came to a great cold city where crowds of staring people rushed back and forth like the wind. He tried to reach out and touch some of these people, but the ice that encased him was too hard and too cold, and the people he reached out to fell back bruised and bleeding from his touch.
So he continued to walk. He walked in search of a warm place, a place where the ice which encased him would melt allowing the child within to touch other people without hurting them. But the longer he searched, walking against the cold wind and the unfeeling sleet, the thicker the ice which encased him became.
In time, the ice became so thick that it crushed the child inside it. Then there was nothing left at all, except a block of ice, in the shape of the child.