Alfred Twist won his wife in a game of cards. Huddled hump-backed around a crooked table in a corner of the Three Pigs, the players had wagered thick into the night, stakes rising with the measures of gin they slopped into their glasses. Yes, that was how Alfred won his wife, not with sweet words or tentative touches, but with a drunken royal flush.
Or, that was how he won his girl. The fool made her his wife nine weeks later, when, having thrust a baby into her belly, he was forced to submit to his pride: no boy of Alfred Twist’s was turning out a wastrel, and where could the child’s mother go, but to the streets, if he abandoned her now? Certainly not back to that dolt who’d fanned his straight flush over the table top with a smirk and, cupping his hand about his girl’s hip, winked at Alfred, thinking his possession safe.
Alfred heard, in the commotion that followed, that the man had thought he’d spotted a queen of diamonds amongst Alfred’s straight run of hearts. He’d accused Alfred of cheating, with his fists, but the scrap—hindered as it was by the other gamblers, the barman, the drinkers protecting their sip of peace—had not lasted long, and Alfred had been able to stand, snatch up the girl’s hand, and step slowly outside, where he spat blood into the gutter.
Alfred’s wife would never admit that it was she who instigated the revolution by whispering the queen of diamonds into her man’s ear. She had hoped she would be passed into kinder palms.
She would be proved both wrong and right.
They married the same week she realised her pregnancy: she in a friend’s altered dress, he in his only good suit. As she vowed her name away, Alfred’s wife noticed that his eyes had at their middle a glorious, pine-green halo, and it caused her to smile through her promises: there was so much still to learn about this man; there might yet be goodness to haul from beneath the swirling surface of panic and booze. She determined then to love him and, as they walked along the corridor as husband and wife, she held tight to his hand, the same way he had hers the night he’d claimed his prize.
Stabbing grey rain met them at the registry office door.
It continued to pour for a solid fortnight. Alfred’s wife curled up indoors, watching rain-slants spear the windows, and complained about how cold she felt. The house itself was cold, she said; and smelled like mouldy bread; and had so many cobwebs hung in its corners that she couldn’t even begin to clean it. Alfred only huffed, pulled on a coat, and steered himself to the pub. No matter to him what the place looked like. It was she who had to sit there all day, getting rounder and colder and angrier. The pub was wood-warmed.
Gossip spread about his peculiar procurement, and soon, Alfred’s wife became the punchline to his funniest joke. Every time he told it, with a table-tapping ba-ra-bum, she dimmed a little. Alfred’s wife was beautiful, undeniably so, but she was also fading. Fast. Her husband’s laughter was expunging her, one detail after another.
She felt, as she wandered about her husband’s house month upon month, growing his baby, that she could hardly remember how to stand with poise, or conduct a pleasant conversation, or what housewifely duties even consisted of. She’d got lost amid the sharp turns her life had whipped through; she was a school chalkboard that someone had taken a duster to.
Henry was born into the scooped-out darkness of a night awash with drizzle and screams.
Alfred’s wife lay in bed, wound painfully round her new bundled baby, waiting for him to open his eyes so that she could search their matching pine-green halo. Buoyed by the sudden honesty of love, she began to hope for the deepening of her marriage. They could love each other, she and Alfred, if they tried at it. Here, in her arms, was the proof. This little boy was half Alfred’s and entirely good and he would, she was certain, transform his father.
Henry was barely two days old when they flung their first argument back and forth across his cot.
‘If God had wanted men to sit around nursing babies, why didn’t he give them tits?’ Alfred spat.
‘I’m not asking you to nurse him, am I? I just wanted you to stay home with us tonight.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Well, no. Why would you? You don’t even know us!’ Alfred’s wife hurled Henry’s rattle at the base of her husband’s skull as he stepped out through the front door. Her aim was poor. The rattle connected with the wood of the architrave and cu-cu-cushed to the ground, where it rolled back and forth with the approximated regularity of sea waves: shush-shush, shush-shush. Henry fell asleep to its rasping lullaby.
It was not so very long before Alfred’s wife started appearing at the window of the Three Pigs; banging through the door of the Dog and Bear; traipsing London in a pair of scuffed opera slippers to track him down at The Swan, the Three Hammers, the Smith’s Arms. Seeing or hearing her approach, Alfred would stand from his chair, buy her a finger of gin, instruct her to finish it in one slug, then escort her to the door.
‘Go home and look after the boy,’ he’d say. And if she was feeling low enough, Alfred’s wife might leave without a fight.
More often, though, she stood her ground: she clawed at the door frame, or cavorted around the pub with her skirt hitched to her knees, or lifted a glass and swung it at those pine-green eyes. She wanted him to love her, that was all. She wanted him to see her. But she didn’t know how to say it. Alfred’s wife had been someone’s girl since she turned fifteen; how her own thoughts sounded, she could not recall.
‘If God had intended a different husband for you, he’d have dealt me a worse hand of poker,’ Alfred said. ‘If God had made you more intelligent, perhaps you would’ve held my interest.’ And how could Alfred’s wife form a response to that? She had not been raised to know how to argue against God.
Henry was two when she started sleeping with other men. It mattered very little who they were, or whether or not she found them attractive, she simply collected them where she could and tempted them home: a tall fellow with a neck like a bull; a wheezy chap with greying hair and a cane; a moored sailor on his nightly hunt; the barman at the Dog and Bear; a local widower. Henry was old enough to remember the face of the one who beat her afterwards. He watched from the stair top as Alfred returned to find her bloodied, sprawled, unconscious. He noticed how carefully his father wrapped his coat around his mother and, lifting her, conveyed her to their bedroom. It was the first time he saw him act gently. Alfred nodded in collusion at Henry as he passed.
And that was the most communication anyone ever mustered in the Twist household. Mr and Mrs Twist spoke through beer bottles: the ones left on the bedside table; the ones smashed against the living-room walls.
Alfred’s wife drank away her good looks, then mourned them in another glass of firewater. Within five years of marriage, she appeared ten years older. Gullies formed around her mouth and ears, to drain away the drink and the tears. The men she brought home grew rougher, more difficult to turn loose. Henry listened from upstairs to bangs and yelps and thuds, and Alfred spent more time at the pub, holding a newspaper in his lap, pretending he could still see the letters. He could not admit that his sight was failing. Instead, he shouted louder, punched harder.
Alfred could have beaten his wife to death any time he saw fit. He was a broad slab of a man, with a sculpted back and knuckles swollen by his work and the amateur boxing he’d taken part in as a youth. But he could not bring himself to deliver a final blow. Even when he willed it, he found himself holding short. Some part of him loved his wife, if only for her tenacity.
She was his wife, she reminded him over and over again, and that meant loving her no matter what. Alfred couldn’t help but admire such a simplistic demand. Why should he love her? She’d provided him with nothing but the boy, and Alfred didn’t know what to make of him and his quiet ways; his large, round eyes; his contemplative expression. Henry belonged to a different family. Henry belonged to a different world.
‘I want another baby,’ Alfred’s wife informed him, from the dirty dent she’d worked into the couch. In her right hand, an emptied beer bottle; in her left, a crumpled cigarette, mostly smoked. Her feet were positioned sole to sole, so that her knees fell apart.
‘You’ve had plenty of opportunity to acquire one,’ Alfred answered.
She rolled her head slowly over the arm of the couch, to glare at him.
‘I’m not going to have another man’s baby, am I? Henry needs a brother or sister, to bring him out of himself.’
‘Henry needs a mother to bring him out of himself.’
‘What am I, if not his mother?’ Alfred’s wife demanded, heaving herself up.
Across the room, Alfred watched her struggle like an invalid. She was soft-drunk. He did not move to assist her. ‘If God had wanted you to have another baby, he’d have given you one. But even He knows better, and that’s the truth.’
‘What’s the truth?’ Alfred’s wife asked, sucking on her now extinguished cigarette.
‘The truth is, even if God did put another baby in your belly, that used-up body of yours would spit it straight back out!’
Alfred’s wife managed to tremble upright and sway barefoot across the room to slap her husband’s face. ‘Used up by your fists,’ she hissed. She slapped him again. ‘And your mucky words.’ She raised her arm for a third strike, but this time Alfred caught it by the wrist and lowered it back to her side. ‘And your… neglect,’ she finished, quietly.
Alfred nodded, then looped his arms around her and pulled her to his chest.
‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘I have neglected you. I didn’t know what else to do with you.’
Alfred’s wife lifted her chin and fixed him with the same, quick brown eyes she had watched him play cards with, a child’s lifetime ago. ‘You could have done this,’ she said.
Their marriage was punctuated by flares of tenderness, which faded as fast as they flashed into existence. And Henry saw the bad and the worst of it, but Alfred’s wife always ensured that he witnessed these lightest touches. She tried to, at least. It was hard, as the years revolved, to distinguish one incident from the next. The beatings, she considered, had muddled her memory.
But she did not stop chasing them down. It became an addiction of sorts, to sleep with some chump or other and then taunt him or her husband into delivering her punishment with their fists or their boots or their foreheads. It was the explosion she sought; that taut instant, just before they struck, when their attention was set entirely on her. It was different from the screwing: it was unthinking, and more intense for it; it was purer. Since Alfred’s wife could not persuade anyone to love her, hate became her second choice.
Indifference, she could not tolerate. She doted on Henry, or she ignored him entirely. She smothered him with gifts and kisses, or she smacked his legs and ordered him to bed without dinner. There was nothing in between but the drink and the silence of a deserted house. Henry lived in the in-between. And the instant he grew big enough, he started caring for his mother.
It began small: he’d sneak downstairs after her latest lover had stormed away and, finding her collapsed on her back, roll her onto her side; he’d scrub at the stains her vomit left on the floors; he’d bring her a glass of water and urge her to drink it. Before either of them noticed, Henry was running the house. He cleaned, he washed, he shopped, he cooked. His mother watched him over the quivering line of gin in the glass she held ready, forever, at her lips.
By the time Henry turned fifteen, they had established a routine that impelled Alfred’s wife steadily closer to destruction. Once she had driven Alfred, or her next lover, or the occasional well-meaning neighbour out, she would slump in the hollow of that old settee and drink until she tipped into darkness; then Henry would descend the stairs, ease her into his arms, and carry her silently to bed. And there was something about that contact, about her boy’s placid touch, that Alfred’s wife came to yearn for. That was why she teased her men more violently, why she drove them away earlier, why she battered Alfred back to the pub with her foulest words, why she drank her gin faster —because then, she could float in the black sea behind her eyes and wait for her boy to come. And Henry, she came to understand, could be relied upon. Henry would always come.
She woke as he climbed the stairs one heavy night, her shrinking body draped across his strengthening arms. Beneath his cautious feet, the floorboards groaned. Outside, hail drummed the streets, bounced off the roofs, threatened to shatter the windows. Henry turned at the top of the stairs to bear her, head first, into her bedroom. He lowered her easily onto her bed and, when he stood, Alfred’s wife realised that her boy was almost as broad already as his father. So, she thought, that’s where all my might has gone: I’ve given Henry my life.
He turned to leave the room, but Alfred’s wife slurred out a messy sentence to stop him. She needed him to stay, at least until she was sleeping.
‘Do you know…’ she started, before stumbling into silence. Henry waited. She rallied and tried again. ‘Do you know that I made a wish once to be passed into kinder hands?’
‘Did you? I didn’t know that,’ Henry answered, bending to tuck her into her bedclothes.
‘Yes, I did,’ Alfred’s wife replied. And with that, her eyes rolled away and she snorted out a few gurgled breaths. She drifted in and out of a disrupted sleep as Henry placed a bowl beside the bed and crept towards the door, but she managed to finish the thought before she submitted to the dragging nothingness. Her words were little more than a murmur. ‘I did make that wish,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t realise the hands would be yours.’
Illustration by The Haunting of Henry Twist / Serpent's Tail