A Different Alice
Alice walked out of the kitchen into the sunlight, shutting the door carefully behind her. She stepped delicately along the mossy path towards the end of the garden where an old stone wall hid another, smaller garden. Overgrown and choked with garden detritus – old flowerpots, abandoned sieves, an old-fashioned cylinder lawnmower, rusted solid and missing part of its wooden handle – it remained her favourite place. A secret garden; a place of dreams.
The sun sparkled on the small clear plastic gems that spangled the black velvet band that kept her long white-blonde hair in place. As she reached the gate she smoothed the front of her blue pinafore dress, lest she enter her magic kingdom in a manner other than immaculate. Neatness was important, she knew. Neatness of dress, body and mind.
She pulled a large key from the pocket of her dress and put it into the lock. With a satisfactory click the gate opened as she turned the handle, breathless with anticipation. Would everything be as she had left it? Undisturbed by the interfering hands of adults – her parents or Old Dewey, the gardener? She leaned through the doorway. Her feet, shod in black patent leather fastened with a buttoned strap, held back, seemingly independent of her body. Her white ankle socks, stark against the curve of black patent, were adorned with little red stars.
She breathed deeply, feeling her chest strain against the constricting material. Alice frowned. What were they? The swellings made her uncomfortable, as if she had been stung by two enormous bees. Perhaps, if she was patient and behaved well for a few weeks, they would go away. She determined to be good. Extra-specially good until she returned to normal.
As she stepped through the doorway she banged her forehead on the lintel with a sickening thump. It shoved her head backwards, making the vertebrae grind in her neck. “Ow!” she cried.
“Shit shit shit!”
She immediately clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes wide in fear. Looking around to see if anyone had heard, she wondered. Where on earth had she learnt such a rude word? It was a good thing Daddy hadn’t heard her outburst. He would have been upset. Very upset indeed.
Gingerly, she ducked her head and passed through the doorway. With one last look behind her, she shut the door and locked it. Safe at last. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Studying the doorway, she puzzled at the height of the lintel. Surely it hadn’t been so low the last time she had entered? She could not recall having had to duck before. Ever. What had happened? Was this some kind of magic?
The thought brought her to her senses. Familiar smells and sights greeted her. The earthy, mouldy aroma of dead things rotting. Of mushrooms and toadstools and wet wood and composted creatures. Overgrown jungly grass and shrubs, a dogrose strangling the wall, ivy and brambles entwined in an eternal embrace of silent, deadly conflict. Bits and pieces of broken terracotta, lumps and lathes of wood, some with bits of plaster attached to them like fungus; in the corner, the remains of a potting shed, collapsed in upon itself like a diseased lung. It was all there. Nothing had changed.
She took it all in, revelling in her secret kingdom. A place of her own, where she was queen, empress, ruler without subjects. Of course, there were always some unwelcome courtiers hanging around, attempting to petition her or deflect her dreams with their unwanted attentions. She saw a snail on the wall, its antennae probing in slow motion towards the sun. She tapped the tiny swaying buds with a delicate finger. The snail immediately withdrew into its shell, shocked by the unaccustomed contact. Alice plucked it from the wall and peered at its underside.
The slimy foot of the snail pulsated gently as it attempted to crawl even further inside its shell. Gently, she breathed on it and it shrank away from her girl-scented breath. She dropped it on the ground and walked into the garden, crushing the creature beneath one of her patent leather shoes.
Carefully, she picked brambles and vines out of her path as she made her way across to the single enormous flowerpot that rested in the corner of the garden, on the back wall and in front of the former potting shed. Soon she would be home.
Alert now to every cracking twig beneath her shoes, every rustle in the undergrowth, she felt a delicious thrill course through her entire body. It was so strong it made her wriggle and was particularly strong in the delicate, almost invisible hairs on the back of her neck and under the white cotton knickers between her legs. Ooooh. Lovely….
It was that feeling that she used to get at the hairdresser, at the first chilly touch of the scissors on the back of her neck, which sent little spasms of sensation running through her.
She wanted to keep the feeling going, to hang on to it for ever. But it always passed. Even when Daddy made her feel the same way, when he called her Little Doll and touched her hair and she danced for him, the feeling always passed.
“Dance for your Daddy, My Little Lassie, Dance for your Daddy, My Little Lamb,” he sang.
Daddy often sang to her, or told stories, and she would reward him with a dance. Sometimes he would change the words or the name, so that it said “Alice” instead of “Mary” like “Alice had a little lamb” and that made her laugh. Sometimes he would change “Boy” to “Girl” for her benefit. That way, she thought, it was as if every song that ever there was had been written just for her.
Daddy had read Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass to her many times. Ever since Daddy had been staying at home he had had more time to be with her, to entertain her and read and sing and play with her. Mummy was delighted that he seemed so happy, especially since she had to spend so much time away from home, going to meetings and trips abroad. She had her company, whatever that was, and it left her and Daddy more time to be together.
Alice preferred Daddy. Mummy got cross more often and told her off about things. Daddy got cross, too, but never with her. On the contrary, Daddy treated her like his most prized possession and often took her side when Mummy told her off. This made Mummy crosser than ever but somehow Daddy always managed to calm things down.
Sometimes, she saw tears in Daddy’s eyes. This upset her terribly. She would wipe the water away and Daddy called her his little piece of purity. Like ice cream and sunlight, he said.
Alice looked up. Thinking of sunlight made her happy and the way the sun lanced through the gnarled branches of the ancient apple tree looked like shiny, shimmering blades. Suddenly she felt cold, in spite of the fact that the sun was high overhead. She reached the giant flowerpot and peered over the edge. A lovely soft gathering of leaves and things lay in the bottom, her own natural cushion. She climbed over the rim and crouched down inside, feeling the rough sides scrape the white skin of her thighs.
It was cool there. Cool and secret and lovely. The sounds of the world outside faded into a comforting murmur, the way they did when she used to play with the dogs under the dining table when all the adults were still eating dessert or drinking their horrible coffee. It was comforting to be away from the world, yet to know it was still there.
Occasionally, she had to put her hands over her ears and shut her eyes very tightly to try and block everything out, but she didn’t like that. Better was to press her hands over her ears, then let go; press, the let go. Press and let go. It was like the sea, the sound of the sea that she definitely could hear, oh yes, when she had put a big shell to her ear at the seaside once.
It was very tight inside the pot. She felt squashed up. She couldn’t remember feeling this squashed before. She looked at the rim, at the edge of the world outside and put her hands over her ears. The gentle sighing of the leaves and the trees sand the insects and the light breeze stopped. Instead, there was a quiet roaring inside here head. She let go and the roaring stopped, giving way to the light spish swish of the air. She began to feel better.
It didn’t matter now about the little alterations, the changes she had noticed. The fact that everything seemed to have got smaller around here, her banged head, her big lumps, squashed up inside her pretty blue dress that made a deep cleft in the middle of her chest where there hadn’t been one before.
She put her hands over her ears again. The roaring came and, with it, another sound. Screaming. She pulled her hands away sharply, grazing her knuckles on the sides of the pot.
“Ow! Fuck shit cunt”
What was that? That scream. It sounded like Daddy. Very carefully, as if she might break herself, crack her head like an egg if she squeezed too hard, she put her hands back over her ears.
She pulled her hands away, heedless of her bleeding knuckles. She began to shiver and hugged her knees. It was Daddy’s voice, yes it was.
Perhaps she was having an attack. She remembered having them sometimes. She would feel faint and dizzy and voices would talk in her head. Daddy always held her when it happened. But Mummy said she was ill. She said it was like there was another Alice inside her struggling to get out. It frightened her when Mummy said that and Daddy told her not to. After a while, Mummy stopped saying things like that.
She leaned against the rough terracotta of the pot. It felt good, rubbing her head on the curved, abrasive surface. Through her blonde hair on the back of her head she felt a wonderful itchy sensation. She liked it so much she rubbed harder and harder, hearing the rasp of her skull against the baked clay. It filled her ears like a saw or the restless buzzing of some bizarre insect, rubbing its legs together inside her head. She stopped when it began to hurt. Something tickled the back of her neck and ran down the back of her dress. She shook her shoulders and it trickled faster, further down her spine, making her shudder with pleasure.
She reached behind and touched something wet. When she looked at her hand she nearly screamed. The tips of her fingers were wet with shiny red blood. She tried to wipe it off with her other hand but it just spread. It looked as if her hands were bleeding. She closed her eyes in an attempt to block out the sight. But the tighter she shut them the more red she saw, as if she was bleeding from inside her eyelids. She was hurt.
Daddy had always taken the hurt away. He had always been ready with some soothing words, an antiseptic kiss and an Elastoplast. Why wasn’t he here? Why wasn’t he here to kiss and make it better? She wanted her Daddy. But he wouldn’t come, not now. Why not? What was she thinking about? Daddy was in the house. All she had to do was shout and he would come running to her rescue. All she had to do…
But he was a world away. The house was at the end of the garden and the garden was shut off from the secret garden by a wall and a locked door. A world away. She had come from the house just now, years ago. She had left Daddy in the house. Why didn’t she call him?
Because it was Daddy who had hurt her, she thought. It was Daddy who was responsible. How could someone who had hurt you then make it better? That would be like going for a ride on a pony after it had bitten you. It did not make sense. When something hurt you, you hurt it back. You made sure they could never hurt you again.
That was why she had had to hurt Daddy. Daddy and that woman. She wished Mummy would come back from Manchester so she could explain. But Mummy was at a conference and wasn’t expected back until the end of the week. Who could she tell? Who could she tell about Daddy and that woman who came to the house?
They had spoilt things, the two of them. They didn’t want to know her. That woman had turned Daddy against her. And Daddy didn’t care. She could see it in his eyes. The way he looked at her, the way he looked at the woman. She wasn’t included in the game. There was an intruder and she was on her own. She took my Daddy away, thought Alice. Now I’ve taken them both away. I’ve taken them away and now I’m lonely.
It serves them right. Alice gritted her teeth and snarled. It serves them right for shutting her out. For closing the door on her. The bedroom door, where Mummy and Daddy usually slept.
Go and play in the garden, they said. As if she were a little girl, or a dog. Go and play in the garden and leave us alone. We have things to discuss. What could be so important that you had to discuss it without any clothes on?
In the kitchen, the knife had felt as light as air in her hand. Light as air and as bright as sunlight. Carefully she carried it upstairs, afraid that it might blow out, like a candle. But it didn’t. It stayed alight all the way until she reached the bedroom door. Stayed bright and shining while she softly turned the handle and saw her Daddy on top of that woman without any clothes on. It stayed pure and blinding as she stood over the two of them, oblivious to her in their game, as they squealed and moaned and banged their bodies against each other; stayed bright as she held it above them and plunged it down into her Daddy’s back, pulled it out and punched it down again into the woman’s white and shining breast.
Then it was red. Bright and red. Shining and red. Red as the colour behind her eyelids.
Alice opened her eyes. The sun still streamed in over the rim of the pot. The back of her head was stuck to the side. She was getting cramp. Why hadn’t they let her play, too? They should have let her play. The least Daddy could have done was to sing her a song.
Perhaps, she thought, there was another Alice after all. Perhaps there was the one that Daddy loved and the one that he didn’t.
But if that were true, how would she know which one she was?
She tried to get up and couldn’t. She was stuck. Her head fell forward and she could see her white knickers between her legs. Only they weren’t white any more. They were red, red and shiny and soaking. She thought at first that she must have hurt herself. But soon she realised that that wasn’t it at all. No.
Her sins were coming out now, leaking out through her girl place. Maybe that was what should happen. Maybe now she would be all right. Very softly, so as not to disturb the tranquillity of the secret place, she began to sing.
“Far and few, Far and few, are the lands where the Alices live. Their heads are white and their hands are red and they went to sea in a sieve…”
Illustration by Michael Faraday.