Gideon walks out of the house, an army kit bag slung over his shoulder. I wonder if there’s someone just out of sight, pleading with him, or maybe even cursing, but the doorway is in shadow and it’s impossible to tell. Gideon steps into a patch of sunlight; the light catches in his hoop earring. He looks over, and I see his right eye is badly bruised. I turn to Anouk in the driver’s seat. Her large, red-framed sunglasses make her look like a magnificent tropical bug.
“It’s never been his face before,” I say.
Anouk is edgy. She’s gripping the steering wheel. It’s like a scene in one of her shows, just before everything is transformed by a glance or a gesture. “Go and help him with his bag, Edie.”
I get out the car and walk up to Gideon. His bag is lighter than my tote. In addition to his black eye, there’s a dried blood stain on his paisley chiffon blouse. Anouk winds down her window. “I’m over here.”
“Like we can’t see her,” I say.
Gideon smiles, then flinches. “Let’s go,” he says.
He hands me his bag and climbs into the back seat. Anouk lights up a cigarette and passes it over. Gideon doesn’t speak during the journey back to our house, just smokes. His bag is wedged behind my seat. When we get home, we find the woman who owns the fish and chip shop around the corner has taken our parking spot. We remain stationary in the middle of the road whilst Anouk swears vengeance. Gideon leans over. “Park further up,” he says. “She’s a cow. End of.”
Anouk revs the engine. “Honest to God, one day, I swear, I’ll drive through her shop window.”
For a split second, everything feels like it was before, but then I help unpack Gideon’s bag and discover his worldly goods consist of two T-shirts, some underpants, a pair of black jeans, a toothbrush, and a battered copy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Gideon sits on the edge of the bed in the spare room, crouching over his bag like it’s a dead baby seal. He starts to cry. I’ve never seen Gideon cry before. He’s seen me cry, and he’s seen Anouk cry a thousand times, because she’s theatrical by temperament. But today, it’s Gideon who cries, and my mother doesn’t. She stands in the bedroom doorway, arms folded, her lips pinched. Anouk is angry, very angry, but not with Gideon.
“Tea in five,” she says, and heads downstairs.
I stay where I am, sat on the floor, stroking Gideon’s feet.
“Anouk will fight him, you know. Just let him try anything, and she’ll slay him.”
Gideon lifts his foot and gently pushes me over. “I’m done with him, Edie. I don’t want to fight anymore.”
Tea is a plate of crumpets topped with triangles of Dairylea cheese. After eating, Gideon swaps his blouse for one of his T-shirts. Anouk puts the blouse into a basin of salt water to soak.
“At least with this pattern the blood won’t show so much.”
“I like that blouse,” he says.
“It suits you.”
“Not everyone agrees.”
“Only those who agree will come through my door, Gideon.”
Anouk invites him to join us in the front room, where we are working on a new puppet called The Birdman. I put on a tweed overcoat and pull the collar up over my head. Anouk places a pair of bellows on top and asks Gideon whether it looks right for the Birdman’s head. He makes some minor adjustments.
“You know, I’ve an idea how to pay you back. You can take me on as an intern and I’ll help you with your show.”
“You don’t need to do that,” Anouk says. “We’re just glad you’re here. Besides, I’ll need your help because Edie’s exams are coming up. She’ll be way too busy.”
In the morning, Gideon is first up. I find him in the kitchen, scrambling eggs. We eat in the courtyard garden, a square of gravel, hemmed in by concrete walls. Gideon is subdued. I have to wait until after we finish eating, before he gives a hint of what is troubling him.
“What if he comes here, Edie?”
“Unlikely. I mean, does he want the police involved?”
“It’s not that. It’s just the idea of arguing with him all over again.”
“What more does he need to know?”
“The everything I haven’t told him.”
I lean over and squeeze his hand. Gideon has large hands with long, tapered fingers. Anouk makes plaster casts of them. There are half-a-dozen lined up by the back door, spray painted gold and decorated with astrological signs. Gideon stares at his hands.
“You know, I never hit back. I could if I wanted to, but I don’t.”
I miss my chance to ask more because Anouk appears at the back door to inform me that I’m late for college. “Get out of here now, or else!”
Gideon leans over and hugs me tight. “Best friends still,” he says.
Anouk throws me a Kit Kat as I run past her in the kitchen. I don’t think she’s ever made me a packed lunch. But Anouk is Anouk. When I was little, she sent me to school in a mix of regular school uniform and pieces of outlandish theatre costume. It didn’t matter. I changed schools frequently. But now I have exams, and Anouk has seen fit to anchor us in a rented house, within walking distance of the Tivoli Theatre where she’s creating her new puppet show. The Tivoli is a Victorian building in the middle of Eastbourne. It still has its original gas fittings and a peeling stucco exterior. I pass the Tivoli on my way to college. It’s where I first met Gideon. We’d just started our A-levels. From day one, he’d stood out. It’s partly because of his height – he’s six feet, four and I’m short – and partly because of his distinctive silver hoop earring (the college bans jewellery). But mostly, it’s because he’s detached from those around him, as if he walks in a parallel universe. There are rumours he’s in a band, and counter-rumours he’s been signed up by a top modelling agency. Gideon isn’t part of any clique and that intrigues me; I’m not in one either, although in my case it’s because I’ve learnt to be self-sufficient after all the school swapping.
We first spoke when he spotted me in the lunch queue, reading A Clockwork Orange. He asked me what I thought of the book, but I was tongue-tied. It was a while before I felt confident talking to him. The problem with Gideon is this: he’s very hard to keep track of. He’s always losing his mobile. For a while, I didn’t even know where he lived. And then one day he turned up backstage at the Tivoli with his arm in a sling. He said it was the result of a stupid accident. Then a fortnight later he called me from A&E to say there’d been another accident and could Anouk and I come and pick him up. We found him sitting on a bench near the main entrance. It was raining heavily. He didn’t find it easy to get up on his feet. Anouk wanted to know his address, but he asked to come to our house instead.
“I’m tired of the view at home. I want new things to look at, and there are always so many wonderful things in your house.”
On that occasion, Gideon stayed with us for a week. This time, he takes over the front room to recuperate on the leather sofa. He says he’ll be up and running by the weekend, but neither Anouk nor I are confident that will happen. He borrows Anouk’s jewellery, her wigs, and her treasured Art Deco-style dressing gown. I come home from college one afternoon and find him asleep on the sofa, a wig on his head, and my mother’s dressing gown tied tightly around him with a gold scarf, like an obi belt. I take a photo and send it to Anouk who is still at work. She texts back to say Gideon reminds her of the silent movie star Louise Brooks. I don’t know who she is, so I google. Anouk is right. Later that evening, my mother sits at Gideon’s feet as he plaits her hair, adding in little pieces of jewellery. I’m supposed to be revising, so silence reigns. Gideon is the first to break it.
“I’m not going back.”
“Have you told your parents?”
“It’s not possible, Anouk.”
“But – “
“I mean it. My parents haven’t got an ear between them.”
Anouk gives way, and Gideon stays put in the spare room. He’s turned eighteen, he says, and he will make his own choices. His number one choice is to leave home. Then he abandons his A-levels to take up a job as an assistant in the Tivoli workshop. Anouk soon discovers he has a talent for turning everyday objects into the most extraordinary puppets. His first success: he transforms two Edwardian coat stands into a magical seahorse, which moves across the stage with the aid of wires. It begins to feel like he’s been with us forever, but it’s just an illusion. Gideon’s other family has not gone away.
His mother is the first to track him down. I’m at the Tivoli reading in the stalls when she’s shown into the auditorium. Mrs Walker looks like a sugar mouse; she’s very petite and dressed from top to toe in pink. She heads straight over to Gideon, who is sitting at the production desk. He doesn’t look very happy to see her, but Mrs Walker seems oblivious to the fact.
“Dad and I have been discussing things, and you know, we think it’s just fine if you want to pick up on your A-levels at a later stage… “
“Please, go away.”
Gideon’s tone is cold, so much so Mrs Walker can only concede. Even Anouk seems unsettled by his manner. Shortly after this encounter, Gideon leaves to visit a friend in Brighton. He texts to say he will be gone for a while. Gideon has secrets, which Anouk and I guess at but don’t fully agree upon. We know questions have been put to him in the Walker household, which he’s supposed to know the answers too, but doesn’t, and that has had consequences. Anouk suspects Mrs Walker avoids asking her son much about anything, unlike his father.
“Gideon’s blouse used to belong to her,” Anouk says. “And he’s borrowed other things too. It was all a big secret, but not any longer.”
She leaves the dressing gown hanging up behind Gideon’s bedroom door. “He’ll be back for this, if nothing else,” she says. But I know she’s as worried as I am by his absence. In the end, Gideon stays away for a week. On his return, he’s reluctant to talk about anything except the new show. He promises not to go AWOL again. Anouk agrees to take him back, and I’m relegated to revising at home. It feels like a relegation, because before my A-levels, I not only helped to make the puppets, I sometimes appeared in my mother’s shows. I made my debut as a cygnet when I was just fifteen months old, lying inside a giant papier mâché egg, my wings attached to the back of my baby grow. When Anouk plucked me out of the egg, the audience had gone wild. I have a newspaper photograph of me sat inside my egg, pinned above my desk. Gideon has always liked this photograph. Shortly after his return to the workshop, he stops by my room. He asks about my revision, but he’s more interested in talking about the photograph and my stage performances.
“I envy you,” he says. “Growing up in the theatre.”
“It’s not all applause and fancy dress, you know. Right now, we need this new show to work or else we’re back living in grandma’s caravan.”
“I’m still envious. I like caravans. I stayed in one the other week when I was away.”
“I thought you were in Brighton?”
“Adjacent to. My friend can’t afford to rent anywhere which doesn’t have wheels.”
“Are they from school?”
“No. He’s a full-grown adult. But it’s not like that, Edie. He’s just helping me think through a few things.”
“Isn’t that what we do?”
“Yes, but some things I need to think about with someone else, that’s all.”
“Oh, you know, things. My friend’s studying law. And no, I’m not the guilty party in any crime. There’ll be no sirens at dawn. More’s the pity. It might rustle up some publicity for the show.”
Gideon doesn’t seem to want me to pursue my line of questioning. By way of diversion, he asks if he can borrow the photograph. “You know, I think it’s time to resurrect this little tableau. I like the idea of making a puppet baby. And the show is all about a missing baby boy. Besides, you’re way too big to play the role now.”
Gideon isn’t being cruel. I’ve read Anouk’s script. It’s based on a fairy tale my grandma used to tell me about an orphaned baby prince whose life is threatened by a wicked uncle who covets his crown. A kind wizard hides the baby inside a magic egg and protects it using a spell which none can break if their intentions are evil. This story originally inspired Anouk to turn me into a baby swan for a show’s encore, but now she’s using it to create a full-length drama about a missing baby boy. I tell Gideon I think his idea might well work. He sets off to find Anouk to convince her of his plan, and I return to my revision. When the doorbell rings, I assume it’s Gideon, and he’s forgotten his key, so I am surprised to find a tall man in a blue suit on the doorstep. He doesn’t look like a bailiff, and Jehovah’s Witnesses usually come in twos. Anouk and I don’t really know anyone else who wears a suit in the daytime. The man smiles, but his manner is awkward and that’s when I spot the resemblance to his son.
“Is Mrs Claudel in? I’m Gideon’s father.”
“Anouk is at the theatre.”
He shows no sign of leaving, so I offer to accompany him to the Tivoli. “You’ve not met Anouk yet, have you? I’ll introduce you.”
At the theatre, we find Gideon working downstage, attaching Anouk’s plaster cast hands to the fly system. I think Mr Walker should be interested in what his son is doing so I explain that when the lights are set, the plaster hands will be transformed into a shower of surreal rain. He ignores me and strides on to the stage. Anouk appears from the wings. For a minute, it looks as though the three of them are in a play and Mr Walker has forgotten his lines, but then he springs into action, snatching Gideon by the arm. “You’re an embarrassment. Hanging around with these people – I mean, who are they?” Gideon doesn’t reply, and this makes Mr Walker angrier still. He grabs him by the collar of his boiler suit. Gideon tries to release his grip, but it turns into a vicious wrestling match.
“Stop that! Right now!”
Anouk’s voice rings out, and father and son freeze. I’m about to run on to the stage, but Anouk cautions me to stay back. Mr Walker holds up his hands, a gesture of defeat.
Anouk orders him to leave and follows him into the wings. I’m left alone with Gideon. His boiler suit has been ripped open in the struggle, revealing the web of scars across his chest.
“This is what happens,” he says.
Later, Gideon traces his scars for me. They are cigarette burns, which possess a hidden pattern. Each scar marks a transgression on his part: wearing his mother’s paisley blouse, or her wedding veil, or her costume jewellery. My fingers follow his, and I learn his stigmata by heart.
“There was a time when I didn’t want to live,” he says. “My father has been trying to use that against me ever since. Says I’m a vulnerable adult in need of protection. But he doesn’t know the meaning of the word. And right now, he doesn’t know how much I want to live.”
It’s why he went to see his friend in Brighton. He’d thought about challenging his father in court and was seeking legal advice. But after this public confrontation with his father, Gideon chooses to bury himself in his work. His father doesn’t reappear, although Anouk puts Stage Door on standby just in case. Gideon spends long hours designing his egg, which must transform into a variety of obstacles to defeat the villains hired to assassinate a baby prince. He sketches his designs over my revision notes and then animates them on his iPad. The eggs appear like a shoal of prehistoric creatures swimming along an ocean bed. I watch these ethereal mutants morph in and out of each other; their spines like salt-crusted zips, and their antennae a blur of sea green strokes. I imagine being Gideon must be like living inside one of these fantastic entities; the very core of him, a kaleidoscope of different selves. A fortnight before the show’s opening, Gideon’s predominant self is tense, moody, and totally insufferable.
“The egg is the problem,” he says. “I don’t think I can pull it off.”
He works late, and so does Anouk. A great deal is riding on this production. Anouk has invited producers and theatre programmers to come and see the show during its week-long run. The prospect of being out on tour again is a tantalising one for all of us, but there are no guarantees. Ever since I can remember, our lives have swung between feast and famine, waiting on the verdicts of harassed producers or too-small grants from cash-strapped funding bodies. This time is no different, except I’m revising whilst Anouk sits at her sewing machine in the front room making costumes into the early hours. I do what I can to contribute: I leave trays of drinks and snacks on the floor by her work table. They are often left untouched.
In the week leading up to the opening night, Anouk and Gideon practically move into the theatre and our paths rarely cross. I have no idea how things are shaping up until I take my seat in the auditorium for the first night, which takes place the week before my first exam. The audience is small, consisting mostly of Anouk’s friends who work in the theatre and a gaggle of early summer tourists. Tom, the Front of House manager, has told me there are two producers in, one from France, the other from London. I assume one is the tall woman in a green baker boy cap who keeps her sunglasses on even in the auditorium. To my relief, there’s no sign of the Walkers.
Gideon’s egg makes its appearance half-way through the show. It’s been constructed out of sheets of metal, stuccoed with industrial cogs and bolts painted in iridescent colours. A series of projections play across it, transforming it into a fortress, a flying spaceship, a forest, and a desert. (The wicked uncle meets his end in the desert, killed by the creature Gideon created out of the Edwardian coat stands). Finally, it reverts to being a magical sanctuary for a baby prince. Two hinged doors swing open and reveal him, a silver figure also made of industrial parts. He waves his tiny fists at the audience and receives a round of applause. As the audience hollers and whoops, the baby sprouts a pair of multi-coloured wings; they grow and grow, spiralling up to the theatre’s roof, like a column of tropical birds making a flight to freedom. I take another look: they are tiny model birds threaded together to create a pair of giant wings. The audience are on their feet, cheering. I join them.
The show over, I hurry backstage to find Gideon has already been mobbed by Anouk’s friends. The show is a success. The producer in the sunglasses has whisked Anouk off for a drink. I wait for the crowd to melt away before offering my congratulations. Up close, Gideon looks shattered.
“Did I do you proud?”
“Couldn’t be prouder. I’ll buy you a drink at Giovanni’s.”
Gideon smiles a wan smile. “I think I’ll give it a miss.”
“But you must celebrate.”
“I’m not sure I’m feeling all that celebratory.”
“Come for one drink at least.”
He pulls on his coat. “Okay. Just the one. And remember, you’re buying.”
We head for the stage door and find some crew lingering by the reception desk, sheltering from the heavy rain outside.
“Let’s make a run for it,” I say. “Bet I can beat you there.”
Gideon pulls a face. It’s not much of a challenge, but I don’t want him to use the rain as an excuse to stay away from Giovanni’s. We push through the doors and take off down the street. Giovanni’s trattoria is at the far end. We arrive, soaked through.
Giovanni hands us towels and we take off our shoes and wring out our shirts. Gideon seems to have recovered his spirits. He jokes with Giovanni and threatens to remove his clothes. Giovanni feigns shock. He hands Gideon a tablecloth and suggests he wear that instead. And so, it is we arrive at the first night party with Gideon resplendent in a toga improvised from a tablecloth. The assembled guests spontaneously applaud. Gideon hesitates, but only for a moment, before he takes a bow and twirls before his audience, milking the applause for all its worth. Eventually, he comes to a halt, smiles, and blows me a kiss which I catch and return.
Penny Simpson is a novelist and short story writer. Currently, she is devising and running a series of creative writing workshops for NHS Wales, part of an initiative supporting patients living chronic pain.