Curious Brown- Chapter One


I know you were satisfied with the last draft, and so was I at first. I actually thought it a pretty fine effort. On another read-through, however, I’ve changed my mind; she’d hate it. You know she would.

I’ll send you this in lumps. I hope it goes some way towards dispelling the last of the rumours.



I didn’t grieve for my mother, and in the end that only made things worse. Granted, the state of my blood family (largely, dead) is by no means the focus here, but it goes some way towards accounting for my state of mind. Some thirty years on, my family history is brought up over and over, almost as much as Curious’s; there seems to be some kind of vague, Oedipal consensus regarding the effect of my mother’s death on my decisions later on.

It’s become exhausting to explain things on repeat. So here’s the full extent of my failings as a son, and no doubt they’ll be cooed over for a while, and then forgotten about; and let that be an end to it.

Odette James followed my father into limbo in the May of my fifteenth year. On her discovery- she was found mostly passed out with her head down a toilet- I was pulled out of a riveting lesson on ox-bow lakes and ferried off to London. She was pronounced before I arrived. At her funeral, my calmness was attributed to shock.

I suppose they weren’t quite wrong. I don’t mean to give the impression that I’m some kind of sociopath; I was sad, but it was the sadness that you’d feel for a distant and little-known great-uncle who’d died of liver disease and left you all his money. It was my own indifference that frightened me. I managed to squeeze out one tear at the funeral, but that was more by dint of poking myself surreptitiously in the eye with the edge of the hymn-book than by any deep and harrowing loss.

Decades on, I’ve managed to reason myself into blamelessness- I hardly knew the woman, she sent me off to that nasty posh school, etc., etc. Back then, I looked at the sobbing bulk of my second aunties twice removed (one of them flanked me on either side), and made up my mind that yes, the grief just hadn’t sunk in yet, I must be in shock. But even when I probed around my own mind I could feel no real pain, and that was the source of my only true horror.

Since none of the Aunts at the funeral particularly wanted my company (I was fine with this arrangement), and all my mother’s fashionable friends had inexplicably vanished along with the cocktail sausages, I was packed back to boarding school until they could figure out where to put me. Thus followed several rather relaxing weeks, since no teacher could look me in the eye long enough to ask me for my prep work. Leo, of course, was all concern, and Fat John made a few enquiries, looking terrified that I might throw a chair at him for doing so. I didn’t, and so the rest of the spring passed fairly harmoniously.

It wasn’t until the first of June- I remember it quite distinctly- that I first heard about Auntie Jo. Well, when I say first- I’d met her when I was small, and I knew she’d been among the funeral crowd, but she hadn’t entered my head as a possible foster-mother. It turned out that since I, aged five, saw her at a Christmas party, her own daughter had turned thirteen, and her adopted ones fifteen and seventeen respectively.

After a lot of emailing, and much earnest questioning from a man called Dave, Auntie Jo took me up to London for a day out one weekend.

‘We like waifs and strays here,’ she said, as we looked out from a carriage of the London Eye. Then she put a hand over her mouth. ‘Oh- I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry.’

‘It’s fine,’ I said. I liked her. She was kind.

We made a couple more such outings over the next weeks, in which I must have divulged the academic minutae of my entire school career, down to every book I’d studied from the age of twelve onwards, and the quadratic equation I’d had for breakfast that morning. In a coup de grace, I managed not to reveal a single thing about my social life. Perhaps I’d’ve been prouder of this had I had a social life to reveal.

But all this seemed to please Auntie Jo. She was motherly and bustling, always talking about her daughters, and how much I’d like them, though without really saying what they were like; but maybe my motherlessness appealed to her. She offered me their spare room. I don’t believe she thought it a big deal at all, beyond being very much concerned for my state of mind during such an upheaval.

I was left with a choice. Now being officially In The System, I could stay on at Warstein until I was of age, or I could have a kind of trial period, staying with the Brown family. And honestly I nearly chose to stay at school. I was settled there, and I had friends, an affectionate hatred for one of my French teachers, a particular slot for my toothbrush, et cetera.

In fact, I don’t remember my precise reasoning for choosing to leave. But looking back, I think it was the idea of having to re-mould myself to fit into new surroundings that persuaded me. A couple of years ago, on the anniversary, some bitchy journalist suggested that if I’d never come to the Brown family, a certain event would never have come to pass; I denied that vehemently, and continue to.

But in my heart of hearts- if I could re-make the decision- I’d stay. I’ve puzzled over that long and hard, in the event that time-machines are ever invented. The decision would tear me up- just thinking of it hurt- but I’d’ve stayed at school. On the off-chance that it would make enough of a difference.

But- of course- it wouldn’t have changed anything. Everyone who really knew what happened agrees on that, and anyone who says differently is either publicity-grubbing or stupid.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Quincey James; these days I’m infamous as that man from the court case, but at fifteen I was a daydreamer and a procrastinator. I was a virgin, but pretended otherwise. Of course I had a girlfriend; the only trouble was that she was in Canada. If I’d ever gone to Canada, no doubt she would have turned out to be in Egypt.

It would be some years before I overcame my own spindliness- a recent growth spurt had left me an inch off six feet, which, given the lowness of Wiltshire doorframes, was more trouble than it was worth- and I didn’t have the confidence of movement to be mistaken for popular. The day I packed my bags to leave for —shire, was the day I discovered how few really valued possessions I had- though I still had to make Fat John sit on the case before it would close. Since I was twelve I’d been peculiarly good at eating, but otherwise I was a steady B student. I’d been drunk once, and tipsy once, and would occasionally still slip into contemplative reveries of the first and only time I kissed anyone.

Leo, as my closest friend, had extracted a promise from me to email every day. Though I was under an unwilling suspicion that he would do so scrupulously for a while, and then forget by degrees, I agreed readily; our pact felt like a safety net.

Still, I went alone to the train station. From the platform, I could distantly see Warstein’s spires, and when my train pulled out I stood at the window and tried to fix them in my mind. After a few moments the train gathered speed, and they were lost out of sight, but I was sure they’d appear in my sleep that night. I don’t remember if they really did.


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