An internal lore exists within every family. Stories so often recalled and rehearsed that they seep down the generations, persisting long after any of its original characters have departed. They may fall in and out of favour, but they are of a cyclical nature and never stay down long. Frequently the more popular tales imbed themselves into the everyday language of jokes and shorthand, becoming further abstracted as time goes on.
When my brother and I inherited the story of our great uncle Sullivan it was in a bad way, well worn by our elders. It was not until our mother died that I felt us to be in full possession of the tale, and with her went the last person we knew who had any memory of Sullivan. Because of this when we came to describe him we would be forced to embellish, to lie a little. But we were also free, in a way my mother never was, to be truthful.
Our first opportunity to take the tale in hand came fast on the heels of our mother’s funeral. Charles and his wife had moved back to our family home to help care for her in the last year, (our father having drowned long ago while we were still adolescents). I occupied a modest house nearby but had spent the last few weeks in my childhood bedroom, smoking and flicking through the yellowed pages of boys’s adventure books. Now my mother had passed, Charles would buy me out, but I was staying on a little longer to help him host some of the relatives who had travelled over to pay their respects.
The long dining table was laid for seven. Over it was draped a white silk table cloth, as white material is sometimes draped over the furniture of the dead in films. Two aunts, sisters of my father, sat on either side of me. Around their necks hung long strings of beads that tangled together as if they were never taken off. Next to the aunt on my right was kindly Pamela, who was an old school friend of my mothers. Opposite sat my brother Charles with his wife Lisey. And beside Lisey was our uncle Edgar, our mother’s brother whom we had met for the first time only the day before.
Maids appeared, furnishing the table with an assortments of dishes and refreshing our drinks.
The aunt on my right said “What was that you were saying in the eulogy Charles? About that cousin of Lillian’s?”
Charles shot me a short sharp smile before turning to her. “Oh about old Sullivan? He was our mother’s uncle, quite the stuff of legend in the family. Completely mad.”
“Oh, how terrible.” winced the aunt on my right.
“Dreadful. Dreadful.” wheezed the one to my left. They worried at the beads around their necks with identical sets of wrinkled hands.
“Yes.” I agreed. “You see he suffered from strange delusions. Somewhere down the line he got it into his head that he was being followed. For years he was convinced there was a man who shadowed him wherever he went. Apparently the man always wore a lime green waistcoat.
Pamela put down her knife and fork. “I remember your mother talking about a strange uncle. She never went into detail. Of course, I didn’t like to pry.”
“Well, no, none of us want to pry dears.” said the aunt on my left greedily. “But then again we are among family, you all must all have heard this story many times.” Here both aunts looked at Edgar who had been sitting in silence throughout these negotiations.
The fact was that I had no idea whether Edgar knew about Sullivan or not. He had been something of a black sheep in the family it seemed, leaving home at an early age not to return even when his own parents fell sick and died. I knew however, that he and my mother had been in the habit of writing to one another. Charles and I exchanged a look of unease before he continued.
“The thing is Sullivan went into the army when he was very young, lied about his age in fact. Then right away was caught up in the war. I suppose he was never the same after that.”
Suddenly Edgar laughed. It was not a pleasant sound, a little maniacal giggle coming from one who had appeared so stoic just a moment before. “It didn’t take a war to make Sullivan what he was.”
Edgar was unflinching as each one of us turned to look at him. “Well I don’t like to speak ill of the dead, especially when they’re family, but if there ever was a bad seed it was was our uncle Sullivan.”
An aunt gasped on either side of me. Lisey regarded Edgar. “Lillian always described Sullivan as simply mad, not immoral.”
“Lillian was a good woman. She was good from the moment she was born, I can always tell that. Anybody who looked at my uncle could see his heart was black. It’s no wonder he was so quick to find a place that would let him murder innocent people.”
“Now, Edgar,” Pamela soothed, “I’m sure it can’t have been like that. Why the poor man was suffering from delusions.”
My lefthand aunt leapt on this, “So he believed a man in a green waistcoat was following him? What did he think the man wanted?”
Eager to get back on track I turned my full attention to her, “Well it was never clear. One day he would say the man was spy who was poised to abduct him, the next Sullivan would swear he had heard the man mutter that he was going to eat him.”
Pamela covered her mouth and shut her eyes, Edgar looked on impassively. The aunts were hanging on every word.
Charles jumped in.
“Well eventually he became truly insane. The doctors were called and by all accounts he was going to be sent away to an asylum, but he took his own life before they came.” Lisey rose to her feet made her way through to the kitchen. Even her shadow was beautiful after her figure departed. She did not like the Sullivan story, I knew from previous performances.
The rest of the meal turned to trivial chatter and I was relieved when it came time to retire. That night I slept badly and wandered downstairs during the night to fetch some water. In the kitchen I found Edgar, sipping a glass of milk and reading Peter Pan, a children’s copy that he must have found in Charles’s old room. After filling my glass I sat with him for a while. He asked me questions about my mother, if I thought she had been happy in life, had my father been kind to her, how she was at the end. Before I went back upstairs I asked him “What did you mean about Sullivan, Edgar?”
He gave me an appraising look. “You know, there are many stories about Sullivan. You have this one about the man in the lime green waistcoat, fine, but there are people out there who have different stories.”
“Stories about what?”
“Do you know what a mother sounds like when she’s begging for her child’s life? Her screams when the child is killed anyway and roasted within the belly of a pig by a group of soldiers? The sobs from a little boy locked in the cellar while his parents are gone? The terrible things a man says to himself when he’s alone?”
He patted me on the back. “I’m going upstairs, thank you for your hospitality tonight. Your mother would have been proud.”
Dazedly I went upstairs also and slept soundly for the rest of the night. In the morning I took a mug of coffee to the study and spent some time searching for the letters from Edgar that I knew my mother had kept. There were many of them. “My dearest Lillian,” they all sung out. With the haste of a thief I rifled through the papers and found that the topmost one was written in a different hand.
It is terrible not to have seen you in so many years. I think of you often, and of your two boys whom I know give you great pride. That we have never been blessed with children has been a source of great disappointment to us both. Over the years I have managed to find joy in other things, the garden, our friends and their sons and daughters. I know that Edgar thought of you often and took comfort in thinking of your beautiful family. Know that you were in his heart until the end.
As I walked upstairs my vision blurred and the sweat that ran down my back was ice cold. On the landing I paused, wanting to go and wake Charles in the master bedroom. But Lisey was there too, and what could I say? I knocked on Edgar’s door and heard nothing. Slowly I pushed it open and found it vacant. On the desk was a note: ‘Sorry not to say goodbye’ and on the perfectly made bed was a waistcoat, lime green and neatly folded.
Amelia Dickens lives in Cambridge, England and is currently working for Evi Technologies. For university she studied abroad in Louisiana and continues to spend time there whenever possible. She loves to write and of course to read, as well as cook, listen to audiobooks and grow vegetables.
If you enjoyed The Sullivan Story, leave a comment and let Amelia know.
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