This is a love story, of sorts. Perhaps passion play is more
accurate, except that the classic passion play finishes off with a
clear, ringing moral, which is missing here.
I was not present that Halloween night in Connecticut, nor the
following morning. I was not inside Melanie's head, nor Jared's, so
what you've just read is the view from my mind's eye: Jared,
isolated in his fury, frightened; Melanie, frightened as well,
struggling to control her own instincts. I think I've gotten it
right. I believe this partly because recording shards of human
behavior is my job, partly because I know these particular people
in my blood and bone. They are (and the cozy oatmeal-and-bananas
feel of the word can still turn to glue in my mouth) my
When it happened, I was an ocean away from them, six years out of
contact. I'd constructed a life insulated against strong feeling
for anything but my work. Since passion had, in my hands, inflicted
deep damage, I abstained, much like a so-called recovering
alcoholic or gambler, supported by an Anonymous organization
of one. Safer for everyone, or so I'd thought...
The cold, wet key slipped from my hand, and since the bulb above my
front door had burned out weeks ago, I found myself on all fours in
the rainy dark, panning for a bit of metal, to the accompaniment of
more metal -- eighties rock -- blaring from above. The volume rose
as the parlor window swung open. "Charades, is it, Lex?" Colin
shouted. Half his face was painted green, his lower lip a luscious
purple. Not Halloween any longer -- past the witching hour two
nights later, in fact. Apparently, the boys had decided to extend
the revels. "Pig after truffles, that what you are?" David, this
time "See, I've guessed, so you can quit snuffing about the ground
and come on up for a pint."
We lived in St. Augustine's Road, Camden Town. Colin and his band,
Sussed Out, shared the main house; I lived alone in the basement
flat. Nice boys. Oxford and good lineage, all five, which they
tried intermittently and unsuccessfully to obfuscate with multiple
orifice rings, working-class accents, and Australian beer binges.
"Thanks, no," I hollered back. "And it's not truffles. I'm
searching for my inner child."
Not altogether untrue. I'd been working a straight eighteen hours
and had my own sort of binge on tap, if only I could lay hands on
the damned key. I groped the ground faster as my nose caught the
fragrance of the wet plastic carry bag on the ground beside me:
doner kebab, pilaf, poori, and the hottest of the onion
chutneys. It was overeagerness for the food that had made me drop
the key in the first place. Furthermore, if I did not find it very
soon, I knew I would sit my bottom down on the muddied concrete
step and, drenched in front of a locked door, scoop Indian takeout
into my mouth with my bare hands. That's the thing with passion:
leaves you in the mud every time.
My thumb touched a serrated edge. My hand pounced to grab the key
before it could escape. I barely managed to get inside the door
before ripping open the bag and teasing my mouth with a chunk of
the kebab, prelude to an ecstasy of tastes and textures, strong,
I've examined these eating orgies not only because they're mine,
but because, as I've mentioned, observing odd human behavior is
what I do -- not cataclysmically odd human behavior, not wars, or
genocide, or even serial killing, but small, offbeat aberrations,
which seem to beckon and draw me inside them. And there I shelter
myself, entirely absorbed for the months it takes to complete my
work, something like a camper in a sleeping bag. I'm not in the
business of passing judgment or dispensing remedies; I try to
record accurately and comprehend what it is I'm recording. To be
more specific, I make my living producing short films about, for
example, grannies who cover their bodies in erotic tattoos, men who
hunt crocodiles in sewer systems, children trained to commune with
long-dead ancestors. This is fare for which British television has
a reliable, if not voracious, appetite.
My own appetite, only sporadically voracious, is equally reliable
in its way. Since childhood, it has come roaring in, usually to
mark certain endings. I well remember being twelve, becoming
ravenous on the train home from school for summer holiday,
beginning to think of treats to stockpile; equally so twenty years
later, following final-cut editing sessions, like tonight, and
other endings, too, less neutral ones with consequences far more
devastating. I eat at home alone, and urgently. I eat highly spiced
food, aggressive food. I eat until I'm stuffed and faintly ill and
thoroughly exhausted. Then I sleep for many hours. When I can keep
from it, which is only some of the time, I do not throw up. In my
grogged, overstuffed state, it seems to me like an unspecified win
of sorts if the food stays put.
The panel of experts who have written on the subject judge me to be
the classic "overinvestor," one who is emotionally decimated when
her portfolio of hopes vaporizes. I gorge myself so as to fill the
void, which turns out to be unfillable. Let me mention that I have
never sought to cure myself of this "eating disorder."
Though in some essential but unspecific way I feel American, most
of my attitudes are English, and so I give a wide berth to
therapies that claim to heal anything other than a broken bone or
infected appendix. Besides, I'd grown to find my binges useful, as
well as troublesome: I would write finis to the teenaged
mediums or the tattooed elders and go home to eat myself into
oblivion; then, it would be over until the next time -- usually
some months later. The useful bit was that each occasion worked as
a kick up the arse, a sharp aide-mémoire to mind my
graver disorders and keep my emotional valuables tucked safely in a
Now, as I sat on a flowered sofa, shoveling food into my impatient
cavities, it occurred to me how futile is the action of clean logic
upon murky need. Trying to match the two resembles arranging a bad
blind date -- the couple engaging perhaps for the length of an
introductory drink, before realizing they could never dine
When the phone rang, it was as though the interruption had come
during sex -- if I remembered sex well enough to be accurate. I
likely would not have answered, except that I thought the caller
must be Clive, whom I'd left two hours ago, still bent over a
viewer at the editing studio. Though food was a sometime addiction,
work was my rock and redeemer: life jacket and teddy bear; mate,
lover. So when it called, no matter what, I responded.
The voice wasn't Clive's, though. "I need you to come. Don't you
read your...?" Then a cutoff, as though someone else had taken the
phone and hung it up.
Just those few words, a child's voice, a boy's. No way to recognize
it, not after six years. Not likely he'd even know how to reach me.
But despite those odds, my pounding heart insisted this was not a
chance wrong number. A mouthful of curried meat barely made it
through my constricting gullet and landed hard. The appetite went
stone cold, shoved aside by surprise and apprehension and the
tickling of my recalled feeling for a little boy, lost to me
through my own fault -- a boy who'd suffered because of my
When I first met my nephew, he was three. I fell for him instantly.
How could one not fall for a three-year-old who'd look up at a
stranger dispensing preserved fruit at Fortnums, a stranger he'd
just been told was his aunt, and greet her by asking if she knew
the difference between eternity and infinity? But shortly after
falling for Jared, I fell for his father. That's the précis.
There is, of course, a longer version, complete with mitigating
details: Melanie and Tom's souring marriage; her obsession with the
hard-born baby girl; Jared's increasing dependence on me; my
absorbing late-night delves with Tom into film and journalism
turning into delves far more personal, causing us before long to
dive at one another like suddenly impassioned snails.
Oh, I could go on and on, but why? The unseen jury has ruled:
Reckless abandonment. I plunged straight ahead, no thought for
anything but my own cravings -- certainly none for Melanie, who had
taken me into her home while her husband sent me to film school in
New York, nor for Jared, who had every reason to count on me.
At the end of my great love affair -- three years, start to finish
-- the field was strewn with more wounded than the last act of
Macbeth, and I hied myself back home to London, alone. As I
said, when the fit is upon me, I wind up in the mud every time.
Don't you read your...?
Don't I read my...what? I stood and began to pace the flat.
It was a space tailor-made for an isolate, streamlined, nothing
hidden from view, no secret enclaves: a few pieces of functional
furniture for sitting and lying about; a great many books spilling
out of shelves to cover tabletops; computer rig and file bins
occupying pride of place on the longest wall. Don't I read my
And then I knew, or felt I did. Jared was twelve, his birthday last
March: the ninth. I'd thought, as I did every year, about sending
something, something that would intrigue and delight him, that
would make him laugh -- he'd had such an uproarious hoot of a
laugh. But, same as every year, I didn't. This was a kind of
self-imposed penance. A long-delayed, palliative gift would be
self-indulgent, no more, no less. I'd failed to provide what he
really needed from me, had left him with barely a good-bye and no
reason he could understand for why I'd gone -- why I couldn't come
In any case, the gift I'd fantasized sending Jared this time was a
just-released computer game with gorgeous animation and the
astronomy theme he'd always cottoned to. He would be a real hacker
by now, of course he would. I rushed to switch on the computer and
dial up. "You've got mail," it announced. And so I did, dated
stared at the screen, but the message didn't change. Calista
killed. It must have only just happened, or I'd have heard. Tom was
well-known, you might say a celebrity; the death of his child would
certainly...Then again, I'd been incommunicado for most of the past
two days -- no television, no newspaper, no Web.
Melanie's little girl dead. She'd be ten now -- just -- but what my
mind flashed was a butter-blonde toddler, amazing at cartwheels,
remarkable at memorizing song lyrics, singing them out more or less
on-key, but most notably, rendering songs of lost love with a
bluesy, seeming comprehension that was unsettling. There were other
things about Calista I'd found unsettling as well, not the least of
which was her uncanny resemblance -- not simply in features, but in
a kind of intrinsic magnetism -- to my mother. I wondered whether
Melanie saw it too, but never summoned up the nerve to ask.
I stared at Jared's words, but didn't fathom them. A moment, half
an hour, out of Melanie's sight, what calamity might have struck
Calista? Hit and run? Freak fall? Botched kidnapping?
My mouse darted and clicked a few times and there was the answer,
worse than anything I was prepared for. Much worse. The E-mail had
been matter of fact, artless truth-telling from a child up to his
eyes in a horror that required no embellishment. It's been my
experience that, by and large, children are straightforward. They
dramatize only when they intend to manipulate or deceive, in which
case they play an audience like veteran troupers.
The words on the screen began to sink in, my sense of unbelief
evaporating with each new headline. I scrolled through a welter of
news stories, some stark, others deeply purpled. I read them all.
Absent the tabloid tinting, this is what they said:
At seven forty-five A.M., November 1, local police had responded to
a call from Tom reporting Calista missing, apparently as of
sometime between two A.M., when he arrived home and looked in on
the children before going to bed, and seven-fifteen that morning,
when Melanie found her bed empty. Melanie had a look round the
house and then awoke Tom and Jared. There seemed to have been no
break-in, nor had anyone in the family seen or heard anything out
of the ordinary. The previous evening the children had been out
together trick-or-treating and returned home at about nine-thirty,
after which they'd spent about half an hour with Melanie's
Halloween guests, before going up to their rooms. The guests --
four: Calista's gymnastics coach and his wife, Calista's fourth
grade teacher, and a family friend who was an educational
psychologist -- stayed until just before midnight.
At about noon, in a more thorough search, Calista's body had been
found in the initially overlooked basement wine cellar, half-hidden
behind a rack of cabernets. She had been strangled with an
improvised garrote. She was fully clothed in red gym shorts, white
T-shirt with a gold star on its front, and tiger-striped slippers,
one half off her foot. No obvious signs of sexual molestation, but
the autopsy had not been completed and preliminary findings had not
been released. A broken bottle of cabernet was found on the floor
close by; bits of glass had inflicted minor cuts on her legs, and
the wine had stained the seat of her shorts.
The journalistic brotherhood was taking little pain to conceal its
collective schadenfreude over Tom's turnabout position. Tom
was a newsman with a fuck-you bearing and a blemished past. No,
he'd been a newsman, but that term did not accurately describe his
current occupation. If one admired the host of Inside
Straight, he was the keenest of bold investigative reporters;
if one didn't, he was the most abrasive of crass television hacks.
Now he had become a quarry on his own preserve. A New York
Post columnist, in a piece thinly cloaked in requisite
sympathy, pointed out that since most murdered children die at the
hands of their nearest and dearest, if an outsider was not arrested
promptly, Tom was about to bask in some of the brightest lights of
The coverage mentioned that the McQuades lived in a sprawling
fourteen-room house on four acres in Westport; that Calista was an
accomplished gymnast with a shelf full of trophies and Olympic
aspirations, and a good student, besides; that there was an older
brother with some reported school problems; that the family was in
seclusion and unavailable to the media.
Oh, and that Calista had done her trick-or-treat rounds as a
mermaid. A spiky, sequined headband, part of the elaborate costume
made by her mother, was in place crowning her long fair hair when
Suddenly, the smell of the food in the flat was pervasive and
sickening. I stuffed the carryout containers back into their bags,
twist tied them neatly, and walked them out the door, down the
alleyway to the garbage bin at the curb. The rain was coming down
steadily -- the kind of unlovely rain that derives its bullying
power from insistence: seeming to be without beginning or end. I
stood awhile, glad to submit to its chilly sting.
Excerpted from THE HOUSE ON SPRUCEWOOD LANE © Copyright
2002 by Caroline Slate. Reprinted with permission by Pocket Star
Books. All rights reserved.
The House on Sprucewood Lane