NWR Issue 110

Mr Wolf

I was only one person, and even that was often too many. Sometimes I just had to walk downstairs and my father would break out of his study, demanding to know who had let a herd of elephants loose, or I had only to sit at the table and eat my breakfast to be told that it was no wonder half the world was starving.

My father was two people, and he was adored for it. John Walton was the name his parents had given him, and the name he gave to me, sort of: I’m Timothy John Walton. My mother called him John, although I don’t think I ever heard him call her anything in return, and nor did he ever use my name with me. Henry Wolf was the name he chose for himself, the name on all the covers of his books.

The whole time that Glenda worked for us, she called him Mr Wolf. My mother never corrected her. I never saw Glenda address my father directly, but she would ask my mother: which shirts does Mr Wolf want ironed? Should I clean Mr Wolf’s study? What time do you expect Mr Wolf to be home? Dusting the bookshelves, she moved more slowly over the shelf with my father’s books, dusting each one individually and very lightly, folding the cloth first to make sure that the part she used was clean. The first time, I stood on the sofa cushion to watch her, and when she reached that particular shelf I shouted, ‘Those are my dad’s books!’

She jumped. I explained: ‘There are really only seven of them, but there are two copies of some and three of others, so altogether there are,’ I couldn’t remember, and had to count them again, ‘seventeen.’ She stared warily at the row of books as if they might throw themselves at her. The shelf was too high, so that whenever I wanted to look at his books I had to pull over a chair from the window. I was always careful to lift each volume out with two hands in case I dropped it. The same black-and-white photograph was on the back of each cover but the man in the photograph was clean-shaven and young. His gaze through the lenses of his glasses was straight and sure, with no suggestion of a smile.

‘He was handsome, your dad, when he was young,’ Glenda said. ‘He doesn’t look like that now.’

‘No, I know.’ We both glanced across the room to where my mother sat with a lapful of beads in the bay window: her malachite necklace. The stones clicked dully against each other as she slid them onto the new thread.

‘Do you like books, like your dad?’ Glenda asked.

‘Very much, yes I do.’

‘My daughter does too. She’s about the same age as you. You know,’

Glenda paused in her dusting and turned down towards me, ‘when I told her I was going to work in the house of a real
writer, a famous author, she didn’t believe me at first. Now she’s always asking if I can bring her here.’

I thought about it. ‘I don’t think my mum would mind.’

‘I’m not sure.’

But she didn’t mind: in fact, it would be nice for me to have a friend, and so Lexie arrived beside me on the sofa, a china plate in one hand and a ginger biscuit in the other, crumbs tumbling over the cushions and onto the floor.

‘Lexie!’ said Glenda. ‘Who do you think is going to have to clean those crumbs up?’ Lexie turned her head to look at me.

‘Not Timothy, Lexie: me. You promised you would behave.’ We never, normally, ate biscuits in the sitting room. My mother looked uncertain whether to offer Lexie another, and without being asked, Glenda collected all of our plates and carried them into the kitchen.

I showed Lexie my bedroom, the television room, the back garden and the stream, the hollow in the bank where it was possible to sit without being seen from the house, but she only wanted to see my father’s books. After Glenda had handed them down to her, she wanted to see inside his study.

No – never, no way. We can’t. Because.

I was almost in tears by the time she reached out a hand to the doorknob. The door whispered open over the carpet, and a shrewd, dark smell – of coffee, cigarette smoke, sweat – edged out onto the landing. Sunlight fell through the net at the window as though through a mangle.

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Anna Lewis is the author of two poetry collections, Other Harbours (Parthian, 2012) and The Blue Cell (Rack Press, 2015).


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