They say everyone has a book in them, and Alice Clarissa d’Averel was afraid that she’d used up her quota with her book on the iconography of the reliquaries of Thomas Becket. She would, she felt, prefer to be the heroine of a romantic novel than to write one, so one morning, about 11.30 when her colleagues were beginning to look at their watches and wonder how soon they could go for lunch, she picked up her capacious handbag from underneath her desk and walked out of the British Museum for the last time.
She never returned, either, to the comfortable Bloomsbury home she shared with her father and brother. Her father was already losing his memory and soon forgot that he hadn’t seen her for a while; her brother, a somewhat unworldly man, tried in a desultory fashion, to find her when their father was dying in a nursing home, but she had no intention of being found.
She claimed, as a child, to hate her name, but rather liked being called Alice. She longed to fall down a rabbit hole, or step through a looking-glass into a different world. Her own world was, in many ways, like that of the real child Alice – comfortable, conventional, constrained. Maybe this was the rabbit hole – a refuge from the real world of love and loss? When you have a comfortable bed to sleep in each night, who needs the passion-tossed sheets of a love affair? When there is always plenty of food on the table, who worries about money? Alice left her looking-glass world, a world that mirrored the real world but never engaged with it, to explore the real world. She left her home and job and went out into the world, onto the streets of London, to find love and romance. She found love, and lost it and realised that the currency with which she had to pay for romance was her body and that soon became devalued. There came a time when she could no longer afford the small flat, then the bed-sits and hostel rooms in which she lived. She continued to use the ladies’ rooms of posh hotels long after she could afford to drink in their bars, until she was barred. She continued to use the libraries she knew so well, but the librarians no longer heard her educated voice, they saw only her dirty and dishevelled state.
She never went back to the house in which she, and three generations of her family, had lived, nor to the British Museum, but her wanderings of the streets of London took her past them, and she watched the great redevelopment of the museum and saw the ‘For Sale’ boards go up outside her house after her father died. She never claimed her inheritance – by then, she had lost all sense of money except the need to beg for change from passers-by to buy a hot cup of tea and maybe a bed for the night. And so she continued to wander the streets and parks of London. The capacious handbag had long since been replaced by carrier bags in various states of disintegration in which she carried all she possessed.
Alice was sitting in a park – which one is irrelevant, they were all the same to her – day-dreaming of her childhood. At about the same time, solicitors for her brother, who had moved to the Cotswolds after their father’s death, where he had invested in the hotel and restaurant of a colleague which made him enough money to pursue the dilettante life he enjoyed, writing occasional book and restaurant reviews and enjoying good food and wine with acquaintances without having to go to the trouble of making real friends, were drafting a notice for the newspapers. It announced the death of Charles Edward D’Averel and asked for information about his sister, Alice Clarissa D’Averel, late of . . .
Alice would have been unrecognisable as his sister; she was an amorphous mass on the bench, all her clothes bunched up around her, her face falling into creases, her greying hair messy round her shapeless head. Her bags at her feet. A colourless lump of humanity, scarcely human. She was feeling very sleepy and stupid, for it was a hot day, and wondering whether the pleasure of making a daisy chain was worth the bother of getting up to pick the daisies. A man hurried past her, looking at the time on his wristwatch. It was a Patek Philippe, like the one her father wore – had her brother inherited it? They said you didn’t buy a Patek Philippe for yourself but for your son, and his son. Something about him, though, reminded her of the first man she had fallen in love with after she walked out of the British Museum. Maybe it was the way he walked – as though he owned the ground he trod on. He had owned a Rolex of which he was inordinately proud, though Alice suspected it was a fake, like the man himself. He had claimed to be investing in a big deal – something in the Cayman islands – that would make a fortune. He sounded plausible, or maybe Alice, in love for the first time in her life, just wanted to believe him. She had given him most of her money and moved into his flat in Plaistow. It was a small dingy flat she did her best to make attractive, though he insisted it wouldn’t be for long – soon it would be a penthouse appartment in Mayfair. It wasn’t for long – he left one morning and never returned. Presumably because he could no longer pay the rent. Alice never saw him again – or the money she gave him. But she remembered his smile, the way his eyes crinkled and he looked at you as though you were the only person in the world that mattered.
The man who was walking past her smiled at her, and his eyes crinkled. And suddenly she – and he – were the only people in the world. He smiled at her and she followed him. She stood up and the carapace of her sad old body in its junkyard clothes fell away; it stayed there, slumped on the bench as she followed him. The creases of her face smoothed and her hair regained the colour and shine of her youth. She followed him on long, slim legs. Down the rabbit hole.