Bold As Love is a fantasy about a rock and roll revolution, set in a near future England. The Saltbox is the childhood story of Fiorinda, one of the young rock musicians caught up in this revolution, and tells how she first met her father, Rufus O’Niall
The Salt Box
The Christmas that she was nine years old, Fiorinda's gran gave her a strange Christmas present. It was a box, of plain, polished birch. It had a snug fitting lid, which opened to show a space inside about as big as a turkish coffee cup, lined in darker apple-wood and full of sparkling white grains. Gran handed this over, unwrapped, when Fiorinda brought her breakfast tray down to the basement on Christmas morning. Gran was not bedridden, but she liked to spend much of her time under the covers, tucked up like a nesting animal.
'Is it drugs?' asked the little girl.
'No! It's salt. Taste, go on, try some. And look here.'
Gran turned the box over, and twisted off the base to reveal another cavity, contain a soft mass like yellowish cotton wool, and things that looked to the child vaguely like the dismantled workings of a mousetrap. 'That's so you can strike a light without matches.'
'Is it magic?'
The old lady chuckled evasively. 'Why would I waste magic on you, you little heathen?'
Gran was a witch, a Wiccan. Her damp rooms in the basement of Fiorinda's mother's house were hung with magical things: glitter balls, crystals, plastic dolls, sequinned scarves, bunches of herbs. People came to her for spells or to have their fortunes told -discreetly using the garden door, so they didn't have to meet Fiorinda's Mum. The child viewed her grandmother's profession with indifference. Already, Fiorinda didn't believe in anything.
'Is it old?'
'No, it's new. I had someone make it for you, one of my associates. It's for your future. You must take it with you, when you set out to seek your fortune.' She closed the child's hands over the box, covering them with her own. 'You are the salt of the earth, that's what you are. I've seen it. And the world will love you as meat loves salt. Now put it away, Frances dear, and don't let your mother know.'
The child was used to being told, by her gran, that she mustn't let her mother know. Most of gran's secrets were pointless: either things Mum knew about already (like gin and sherry taken from Mum's sideboard, like probably-stolen goods accepted in barter for magical services); or things she wouldn't care about, like spells that didn't work, or scraps of highly flavoured gossip. The salt box seemed different. She hid it carefully. In time she would come to see it as a double symbol, a threat and a promise. The promise was that she would escape: that winds of change would blow away the chill, hateful tedium of her childhood. The threat was that she would never free herself from an embarrassing set of old fashioned values. She would be in the new age but not of it.
When she was eleven her periods began, and she decided to call herself Fiorinda. This was the year in which her mother was operated on for breast cancer. It was while Mum was in hospital that Fiorinda's aunt Carly turned up. Fiorinda had a step-father, her mother's ex-husband. She had two grown-up half-sisters and a half-brother, and there was gran of course. But she'd never known that her mother had a sister until Carly appeared on the doorstep, with a taxi driver carrying her suitcases. She looked young, incredibly much younger than Mum, and she was dressed in the height of fashion. She moved in and switched on the central heating, although it was only November. She brought with her a regime of hot showers, scented foam, music videos and channel hopping, takeaway food and glossy magazines. Gran stayed in the basement. She didn't seem to like her younger daughter much. Probably she was thinking of how angry Mum would be when she saw the bills for all this. But Fiorinda, who lived for the moment, was thrilled.
Carly explained that there had been a big family quarrel, years ago, and that was why she hadn't been in touch. She said she'd last visited this house for Fiorinda's third birthday party. 'You don't remember, but I was here. You were a very bossy, precocious little girl, do you remember that? I gave you a pink wooden horse.'
Fiorinda wished she could remember, or that any sign of the pink horse remained.
The cancer was defeated, at least temporarily. Mum came home from hospital. Once she came into the kitchen, (actually warm, under Carly's regime) and found Fiorinda resplendent in her aunt's expensive cosmetics. She stared for a moment, and Fio braced herself for the storm, but all Mum said was, 'I'm going to turn the heating down'. She left the room, without a glance at her sister: head lowered, arms wrapped around her changed and vulnerable body. Carly was blushing, Fiorinda was surprised to see. 'She thinks I'm a child stealer.' 'Is that why she hates you?'
'No... It's because of things that happened long, long ago. Why don't you have lodgers, Fio? She can't maintain this place on her salary.'
Fio's Mum was a university lecturer. 'We did have lodgers. But they either didn't pay the rent; or they were junkies and trashed their rooms; or they had dogs that shitted everywhere; or they had babies that screamed. I don't think it would work, whoever they were. My mother hates people, any people.'
'What was she like? I mean, years ago?'
'She was a journalist. She was chic and sexy, she was demanding, she had tons of style-'
'I can't imagine it. What kind of journalist?'
'Mainly music... Rock music. Didn't you know? What does she teach, now?'
'Contemporary culture,' said Fio, with a grimace: contemporary meant something for old people.
'But what happened? Why did she give it all up?'
'She didn't give it up, it gave her up. She fell from grace, it happens. Sue took it hard.'
'I can imagine that. Oh. I suppose that's why she hates me to play- '
Fiorinda was forced to play the piano. In secret she had taught herself to play acoustic guitar and to sing, a little (the secondhand guitar came from gran, and the basement black market). She wasn't ready to tell Carly about this. 'Oh, you know: she hates any kind of music but Beethoven, that sort of thing.' Until Carly came, Fiorinda's only access to non-classical music had been through her ancient radio alarm, on which she listened to chart shows, secretly, late at night.
Carly started putting the make-up away. The house had become cheerfully untidy under her rule, but she was careful about her own possessions: she left no hostages. 'You can play Beethoven, wow. What a talented niece I have. But I'd have to introduce you as just a friend if you came to see me, because you look so grown up. You'd put ten years on my age.' She surveyed her handiwork. 'You're prettier than Sue. You don't have ginger eyebrows. She made herself beautiful. You won't have to try.'
Life in the cold house became doubly miserable through that long winter. Mum refused to accept Fiorinda's new name, which led to pointless friction. Every evening she sat marking papers at one end of the 'dining table' that stood in the back of their chill living room, her profile sour in the lamplight. The idea of Fio having a telly of her own that she could use in another room was vetoed, no reason given. So she listened to books on tape, at the most muted volume because Mum hated headphone-leak. She never read books in Mum's presence, because it would have pleased her. Every time her mother called her 'Frances' it was another flick on the raw. In the night she devoured her mother's library, relishing the privacy of the old relationship; and wrote songs, both words and music, which she hid inside the split in her mattress.
When Carly invited Fio to visit her, Mum tried to stop that too. Fio heard them arguing on the phone. (There was one, fixed phone in the cold house. It lived in the front hall, at the foot of the stairs, by the living room door, for maximum inconvenience and minimum privacy). 'She's a child, Caz. She's a little girl. Leave her alone- '. But Fio pleaded and Carly persisted and in the end Mum gave way.
Fiorinda travelled on the Underground by herself (she had to do this anyway, to get to secondary school) into the centre of London. She ate in a restaurant for the first time in her life, she stayed the night at Carly's tiny flat in Kensington Church Street. Carly took her shopping, gave her clothes, makeup and a mobile phone. (The phone didn't work after the first day, but it looked great). True to her word, she introduced Fio to the people she met in Kensington as 'the daughter of a friend of mine'.
In the summer, Carly invited Fiorinda to stay for a whole week. This brought renewed resistance, but Carly wouldn't take no for an answer. 'And when you're tired of this game,' said Mum, 'You'll dump the poor kid and I'll be left to pick up the pieces. That's what pisses me off.' Fio, eavesdropping from the landing, heard the defeat in her mother's voice and exulted.
Mum would have been furious if she'd known that Carly let Fio smoke dope. But nothing else remotely shocking happened: no stronger drugs, no vice. People came around and chatted, Fio was mostly ignored. She spent much of her time on her visits to the first floor Kensington flat alone in the cubbyhole Carly called her study, drinking diet coke and playing computer games. She didn't mind. It was paradise compared to life at home. But this time Carly had been invited to a country house party, and she was going to take Fiorinda with her. They were going to stay with Rufus O'Niall, the rock star. Of course this had to be kept secret from Fio's mother.
Rufus O'Niall had been a megastar before Fiorinda was born. He was practically retired now, even from special guest stadium sort of occasions. She'd have been more excited if she'd been going to meet Glasswire, or Aoxomoxoa and the Heads. 'I wasn't invited,' she said, uneasily. 'Won't that be weird?' 'Rufus is a billionaire or something, darling. He doesn't count the spoons. And he's a very private person, but he never goes anywhere without this huge entourage- ' Carly laughed. 'Don't worry, you'll be lost in the crowd. But you'll meet people. You want to be a singer, don't you?' Fio had by now confessed her secret ambition. 'You'll need contacts. You can't start too soon.'
The journey and the arrival passed in a blur. Carly had been right, there was a crowd of people, the kind of people she had met in Kensington only more so. Fio was shown to a room by a servant. The house must be five hundred years old -half timbered, spartan, smelling of beeswax and lavender and dried oranges. The portraits on the walls were not of Rufus O'Niall's forebears, obviously not, since his skin was chestnut brown, and the pictured faces were as white as Fiorinda's. But the sense of dynasty was right. Rufus was old money in the world of rock and roll. He and his band The Geese had reached that rare plateau of truly unassailable fame, and solid wealth. Fiorinda began to feel thrilled. Later, when he took some of his guests on a tour of the manor grounds, she tagged along and tried to get next to the master. What was most incredible, was that Carly's friendship with genuine celebrites seemed to prove that Fio's Mum had once been on intimate terms with the famous. But she'd been warned not to mention her mother. Whatever it was Mum had done, apparently it still rankled in the music world.
She was trying to be cool, but feeling very uncomfortable. Used to the modest habits of her North London, mainly Hindu, neighbourhood, she felt terribly exposed in the clothes she was wearing. She was glad Carly had warned her how to dress, but she kept wanting to put her hands over her bum, to fold her arms over the outline of her breasts. And the men were no better. She supposed that if you were rich, walking about in your own private grounds was the same as being out at a fancy club. As they climbed a flight of steps, from the fishponds to a rose terrace, Rufus turned and glanced at Fio: who had managed to reach the centre of the group. He at once resumed his conversation with the fat, florid woman beside him (a movie producer). But a few moments later he turned again, and handed her a sprig of rose leaves. 'Put that in your pocket, sweet-briar,' he said, with a tender smile. 'Keep it for a souvenir.'
She hadn't known you could have rosebushes with scented leaves. She didn't have a pocket. She held the sprig in her hand, awkwardly, all the way back to the house. She was deeply flattered and excited. She started trying to think of the names of some of The Geese's hit singles, so that she'd have something to say if he noticed her again.
In the evening, after dinner, some guests disappeared. The rest sat around with Rufus in the great hall. People had been drinking quite a lot, and sniffing coke, but they were quiet about it. Fio had half expected them to be naked except for jewels and make-up, after the way they dressed in daytime, but they were wearing the same as in the afternoon. Carly was there, but she seemed to have decided to leave Fiorinda to her own devices, which was fine. Fio did not want to be shown off, or looked after like a baby. She had changed into her best scarlet teeshirt and a shiny long pink skirt. The teeshirt was printed over with little naked male figures, labelled jokily things like "French Polish" and "Turkish Delight", though you couldn't see much difference between the faces; or the sets of wedding-tackle. She had tried it on in the exclusive shop where Carly bought it for her, baring her tiny budding breasts without shame: they could stand up for themselves. 'Well,' the attentive assistant had said, impressed. 'I thought that colour wouldn't suit you, dear, but it certainly does.'
Scarlet gave Fiorinda's creamy skin the pure glow of a candleflame, it made her strongly marked brows and lashes look made-up, which they were not...for some reason, Carly had forbidden her to wear make-up on this visit. There was talk, and silence; someone strummed a guitar. It was oddly like an evening in the cold house, except that the setting was ancient instead of merely old fashioned, and there were more people. Fio felt ignored. She went over to the hearth, where there was a fire of cherry logs because the June night was chill. She gazed into the flames and then sat down, as if by chance, with her back against the couch where he was sitting, the rock-lord in state surrounded by his courtiers. She hoped that she would think of something intelligent to say: somehow contribute to the conversation and get noticed. Instead, Rufus began to stroke her hair. She felt his fingertips on the nape of her neck, and then circling her ear.
She was half stunned at the liberty he was taking. How did he know that he could do this? How could he just stroke her, as if she was a cat or a dog? But of course he could do what he liked. For Rufus O'Niall, everything was allowed. 'Can you do magic?' he murmured, so that only she could hear. 'You look as if you could.'
'My gran's a witch. Not me. I think it's a recessive gene. You need two copies.'
Rufus laughed very quietly, like a rumble of soft thunder. 'What about your parents?'
'Oh, they're dead. My gran looks after me.' Dead parents were simpler. Someone challenged him to a game of chess, and he left the couch.
Fiorinda's room was next to Carly's. When Rufus came to find her in the night she was sitting by the bed, still wearing her scarlet teeshirt and her pink skirt. She hadn't wanted to take them off. She'd have felt stupid waiting in her pyjamas, especially since she was half convinced that she was imagining the whole thing. But here he was. Rufus said, 'I thought you'd be tucked up under the covers by now, sweetbriar.' He took her in his arms and carried her off to his own room: which was sumptuous, but she didn't get a chance to take much in.
In the morning she woke in her own bed with no clear idea of how she'd got there. Carly was shaking her gently. 'I've got to go back to London,' she announced. 'Right now. I'm sorry sweetheart. Something desperately important's come up, it means lots of money.'
Fio was hazy about how her aunt made a living, but she nodded. 'You'll be all right, won't you darling? I'd hate to drag you away.You know Joel, and Mittie.'
These were Carey's neighbours, a gay couple who lived in the flat upstairs. 'They'll look after you, and bring you home tomorrow, or Monday.'
Fiorinda had been told by her school friends that she would never get a husband, because her Mum was a depressive and had had breast cancer. In the comfortable bourgeois community that surrounded her mother's house, it was taken for granted that people with bad genes would not reproduce themselves. (It was easier for the community to accept this idea, since it was equally taken for granted that bad genes were almost unknown in people of Indian ancestry). The well-to-do Hindu girls weren't being cruel. They meant that she should prepare herself for another kind of life, and they were concerned that she showed no sign of doing so. Fiorinda didn't mind. She liked the feeling of being one of a kind. She liked the feeling that she had nothing to lose. She'd been very surprised at what had happened, but she'd had no qualms about losing her virginity. It might be a big break, and anyway it was worth a shot. In the entertainment business, most people have to start out working for free.
She went back to London with Carly's friends, but she knew it wasn't over. Sure enough, about two weeks after half term, Rufus came to find her. He was waiting in a taxi one afternoon, discreetly parked down the road from the school gates. He took her to a flat, a luxurious but poky little place which he used 'sometimes-' he explained vaguely. She knew he'd used it with other girls: she didn't mind. It was the start of a regular affair. Sometimes he was waiting in the morning, waylaid her and carried her off, and she never reached her classes: sometimes he only 'borrowed her' as he put it, for an hour or so. He gave her presents, which had to stay in the flat as she couldn't take them home, but there was never any suggestion that he would offer her money. She felt that was a good sign. The rewards she'd get for this would be of a different order.
Weeks passed. In August, Mum thought Fiorinda was going into school to the holiday-homework club; but she was meeting Rufus. She found that he would talk to her, and plagued him with her insatiable, devouring curiosity. He said she asked more questions than a three-year-old. The sexual part of the experience wasn't very sexy for Fio: but she didn't mind that. The strange and important thing was that she was actually getting to know him, getting to know this big, flamboyantly handsome grown up man as a person. Rufus was lagging behind her, but that would change. He would come to recognise Fio as a person, instead of a forbidden pleasure. He would like her, instead of feeling addicted and guilty the way he felt now. She began to think with impatience of the years -at least three years, to be reasonable- that must pass before they could be seen in public together.
Then in September, without warning, he vanished. She didn't know the address of their flat. When he stopped coming to pick her up she took the Tube to the approximate location and walked around trying to find it; but she couldn't. She realised, then, why she'd paid no attention to details like street names. She must have known, though her daydreams had seemed so real, that this was how it would end. He would simply be gone.
Since the country house party she had hardly heard from her aunt Carly. She guessed that Carly had found out about her going with Rufus, and naturally didn't want to get involved. But she had nowhere else to turn so she went to Kensington Church Street. She still had her entry card for the front door, but when she got upstairs there was nobody in.When she'd been knocking and ringing at her aunt's door for a while Joel came down from the floor above.
'Hi, Fio. Long time no see. Carly's gone away for a few days. Can I help?'
'It's private.' But though she knew she could not chase Rufus, she was too weak to resist this opportunity. 'I don't suppose you know how I can contact Rufus O'Niall?'
Joel had a key to Carly's front door. He opened it and hustled her inside, into Carly's tiny, smartly furnished living room. 'Rufus has left town,' he said, folding his arms and glaring at her. 'He suddenly rushed back to the Seychelles, which is where he more or less lives these days. With his lovely wife and kids. You don't want to contact him. How old are you?'
She bristled. 'D'you think I'm too young to have sex?'
'With someone your own age, maybe that would be different. Rufus O'Niall is a low down dirty dog. He's old enough to be your grandad, and you are well young enough to get him arrested, except that it won't happen. Maybe he actually took pity on you, kid: he can't have fled the country for fear of discovery. His sad taste for underage totty is something everyone knows and nobody tells... Do you hear what I'm saying? You have nothing on him. Go home, don't come here again.You do have a home?'
'Thank God for that. How did you get involved with Carly Slater, anyway?'
'She's actually my aunt,' quavered Fiorinda, frightened by his anger.
Joel frowned. 'Your aunt?'
'Yes!' Fiorinda had been forbidden to mention this, but she was stung by the term 'under age totty'. 'She's my aunt. Her mother is my gran and lives in our basement.'
He stared for a moment, in silence. 'Remind me, what's your name? Your real name.'
She was so intimidated she confessed the hated truth. 'Frances. It's Frances Daniels. But that's my mother's ex-husband's name: she uses it but he's not my father. My real name is Frances Slater. Carly is my mother's sister.'
'So, that makes you... your mother must be... Sue Slater? The journalist?'
'Oh my God.' Joel came up close and looked into Fio's face intently. He backed away again, looking stunned. 'Wow. Your aunt is really something.'
Fiorinda wondered what was going on. Probably he'd guessed why she was here. But though she knew she'd been stupid, her problem wasn't that weird.
'Why did you want to see her? Did you think she'd give you Rufus's private number? Because you can forget that- '
'No! I don't want him involved! Not really, not at all. But I need help. I think I'm pregnant.'
'My God,' said Joel. 'What a mess.'
The sisters had a confrontation, in the kitchen where Carly had one day painted Fio's face, and remarked, 'I'd have to introduce you as just a friend'. Naturally, Carly denied everything. She insisted she'd been trying to help, trying to give poor Fiorinda a life. She was as appalled as anyone at the way Rufus had behaved, she'd had no idea he would do that, she was devastated, it was awful, a really horrible coincidence, she felt terribly responsible... But before the denials started, Fiorinda, who was present at this meeting, had seen the gleam of triumph in her aunt's eyes. She wondered what her Mum had done to Carly, in the long ago, to lay the fuse for such a savage, cold-blooded, long-planned revenge. But she wasn't curious about the details. She decided, then and there, never to see her half-siblings again: never to have anything more to do with them. If this was family life, the hell with it.
She refused to have an abortion. Having an abortion would make it all too real. Her gran provided cantrips and potions that didn't work, her mother seemed too sunk in her own despair to take much notice. She stopped going to school in the fifth month and completed the pregnancy in deep denial, trying to stay thin and hoping to the last minute that it was all a bad dream. The baby was born surprisingly strong and healthy. When it was three months old it caught pneumonia and died, after which Fiorinda left the cold house forever.