The Butterfly Collection by Christine MacFarlane (3rd)

 The Butterfly Collection by Christine MacFarlane

The child enters his study without knocking. Silenced by indoor gloom and shadow after the bright summer sunshine, she stands in the centre of the Persian rug, her blue eyes wide as she catches sight of the famous butterfly collection.

Crossing the room, she stares up at the first case and moves slowly round the walls inspecting each glazed frame. Every box holds six insects; bright, delicate and pinned to a board. Each butterfly is labelled in neat italic script in English and Latin: Fritillaries, Peacocks, Hairstreaks, Swallow-tails, Whites and Meadow-blues. She sounds out their names in a whisper.

From behind his mahogany desk, Duncan adjusts his lined face into a smile.

Well then, there you are. Perfect, aren’t they?”

Butterflies! She thinks of them living, weightless, fluttering in the sunlight. She remembers watching, in her own tropical garden, how their black tongues, coiled like spiral siphons, could unfold until they disappeared, deep into the red throat of a Hibiscus flower to sip nectar. Why would anyone want to catch such beautiful creatures, stab them and keep them imprisoned in this dark, nasty room?

You’re horrid,” she says and stomps out.

Her Grandfather snorts: funny child, this; bloody rude too. He reflects that all girls may be like this; sulky, obdurate. Still, she has guts, taking him on like that. They were wiser, the little boys, more circumspect, in his time as Headmaster. They wouldn’t dare engage him with more than the usual, polite Yes sir. He clears his throat as if to clear his head of memories. He misses his wife at times like this. Emily understood children; she would have known how to cope with this one. Patience, he supposes. Poppy’s spent the first years of her life on the other side of the world; bound to be different.

Dinner, later that evening, is a meal of small coughs and silences. The child,

he notes, does seem able to be quiet. After the trifle, Harry Denham turns to his daughter.

Poppy, do you want to go outside? Mummy and I can chat to Grandpa. I’m sure you’ve got exploring to do?”

Without speaking, Poppy stands, picks up her plate and disappears in the direction of the kitchen.

I hope to God she’s at least civil to Mrs B,” says Duncan.

Her mother laughs.

Oh don’t worry, Duncan, Poppy and Mrs Banes are already good friends.”

Come on Pa. It’s an age since we last saw you; you’ve not met Poppy until today –she’s seven years old; you can’t expect her to get on with you just like that!” Harry snaps his fingers and look across to Carla for support. She seems strangely focused on the fruit-bowl. He thinks she might start a row.

It must be strange for you Duncan, now that the School’s closed?” Carla asks. Harry breathes out in relief.

Miss the little chaps, of course but life goes on” says Duncan. “You’ve got to know when to stop. Things have changed Carla. Education, boys; none of it’s the same.”

In what way, changed?” She asks.

Harry stiffens. Carla, too, is a teacher with strong views about boys’ prep schools. Gauntlets had been a distinctly traditional example. He sends Carla a warning look and changes the subject.

You seem well Pa, keeping fit?” Asks Harry.

Fine, thank you.”

Duncan makes no mention of his health problems; he believes that it’s nobody’s business but his own. Doctor Jenkins, good sort, nags him about his heart; that’s what doctors do. He takes his tablets when he remembers.

Do your old pupils keep in touch, Duncan?” Carla persists.

One or two used to, in the early days. But they grow up, move on; wouldn’t expect it.”

Harry interrupts,

What, not even that little kid –what was his name? Pee Gee, we used to call him; Paul Gregory –Paying Guest; blond boy. He seemed to spend all the short holidays here –always tripped over the kid when I was down from College. You and he spent hours together with the butterfly nets, Dad.”

How could Duncan forget Paul? Paul with the heart-stopping smile and wide eyes; Paul, needy, beautiful; Paul, ignored by parents too busy, too far away to fetch him home for the short holidays. Duncan closes his eyes.

God, Harry, I expect he’s grown; be an adult now.”

So,” continues Carla, “school took over your life after Emily died?”

Harry reflects that school was always Dad’s life. He, Ma, they got little of his time. His father gave more attention to other people’s boys. He remembers that Pa had been pleased when he got into Oxford and later when he secured a job in the Bank. But when he was given a posting abroad, his father seemed unconcerned that his only child was moving to the other side of the world. Harry met Carla in Singapore and Poppy was born a year later.

He remembers his parents coming to Malaysia for their wedding. They stayed for only a week in spite of the weather, the sea and the fabulous butterflies. Harry had hoped that the butterflies might tempt him to stay longer. Were the exotic creatures too gaudy, too large; too foreign? They seemed to confuse rather than excite him.

Harry recalls one night on the veranda; Duncan with his pipe, Ma with her embroidery. They seemed so English, so out of place. His memories are vivid: the humidity; the electric hum of insects in the darkness beyond them; chit-chats scampering across the

walls; how the sultry, deep purple dust on the wings of the giant moths, made him want to stroke the soft skin on Carla’s shadowed throat.

In the kitchen, Poppy puts her plate in the sink and flings her arms around Mrs Banes’ waist. Mrs B laughs; surprised at this show of affection. Since their arrival, the child has seemed quiet, reserved.

You’re a one, Poppy! What’re you up to this evening, finished your painting, have you?”

Grandpa sticks pins in butterflies. Why does he do that?”

Ah, well… Your Grandpa’s a lepidopterist, Poppy, studies moths and butterflies; knows a great deal about them.”

He’s cruel.”

Well, it might seem like that to the uninitiated.” Mrs B wipes a pan and stacks it with the others.

What does that mean: uninitiated?”

It means that, it may appear cruel to someone who really doesn’t understand…”

What’s to understand? It is cruel, that’s all. He must really hate them. Why does he hate them?”

No, Poppy, not at all he…”

But Poppy’s gone, out into the garden followed by Rex, Duncan’s aged black Labrador.

Having a dog around is a new experience for Poppy. She throws a chewed tennis ball across the darkening lawn and waits for Rex to retrieve it. Rex takes his time. She sighs. It’s a lovely garden, plenty of room to play, trees to climb but it’s miserable having no one to play with.

She watches the adults come from the house and wave to her from the terrace. Mrs B follows with a tray of water, a bottle and glasses. Duncan helps place it on the garden table. It’s all very dull and she wishes it were still a school. She slips back indoors.

Thank you Mrs B. You get off home now, we’re fine, all done; grand meal, thank you.” Duncan settles into an old cane chair and pours whisky.

Do you need any help with Poppy, Carla, before I go?” Mrs Banes asks.

No thanks! She’s quite self-running. She’ll be fine.”

I suppose you won’t want me too early tomorrow Mr Denham?” She turns back to Duncan.

No, Mrs B, give them a chance to lie-in. It’s been a long journey, long day.”

Mrs Banes turns back to the house,

Goodnight then, all.”

Fetching her coat from the hall, Jenny Banes hears rustling noises coming from the morning room; a small, sunny room which Emily had used for sewing. She steps towards the open door and looks in. Poppy is sitting on the carpet with Emily’s old work-box open before her. She’s laid out all the brightly coloured embroidery silks, like a rainbow, on the carpet and now she’s happily occupied sorting things in the box. Mrs B shrugs on her coat and calls from the front door,

Goodnight then Poppy!”

The child calls a Goodnight back.

Soon, Poppy is tired and creeps out through the French windows to listen to the grown-ups. She hopes they’re not staying in this house too long. Apart from Mrs B, everyone is boring; the dog can’t even run.

On the terrace, old-fashioned storm-lanterns are lit and the adults are chatting. This surprises Poppy because Mummy seemed to think Grandpa wasn’t much fun. She’d called

him an ‘Old Fart’ earlier and was clearly planning him some harm. They had stopped in the village on the way here to get something for Grandpa.

What’s Duncan’s poison then?” Mum had asked through the car window on her way to the small shop.

Malt, Carla –if they’ve got one.”

Her mother had returned with a large bottle tightly wrapped in blue paper.

Poppy curls up on a pile of cushions on the wooden bench. If she’s quiet, no one ever notices her; she’s good at being quiet.

Moths flutter around the lanterns, coppery eyes bead-bright, as they hurl themselves at the light. Why do they do that? Grandpa’s watching them too, muttering a litany of moth names.

Don’t get the same number of varieties here anymore, Harry.”

Poppy’s not surprised. Why should moths come near enough to be caught, like their day-time cousins? Caught and pinned to boards by a horrid old man? Poppy watches her grandfather pour more amber liquid from the poison bottle. She falls asleep.

Sometime later, her father carries her upstairs and her mother tucks her into bed.

He’s not such a bad old stick, Dad’s Pa. We’re only staying a few days, Poppy, do give him a chance.”

Down in the garden, the night is still warm. Duncan pours another whisky and relaxes back into his chair. Thank God they’ve all gone to bed. Harry’s a good man really and his Carla seems okay, as far as women go.

He puts them out of his mind and remembers his boys instead. All those years, all those boys: their familiar fair heads, the smell of carbolic soap on their soft skin; their bony, vulnerable knees; boys and butterflies; odd bloody thing, life. Duncan stares on into the

darkness and a thousand tiny eyes stare back.

Much later he wakes feeling cold and damp. Shaking himself he turns out the lanterns and goes stiffly indoors with the whisky. In the kitchen he puts Rex into his basket. He’s still cold, shivering now. Emily would have scolded him for sitting out so late, getting chilled. He swallows an extra tot of whisky and pours himself another; a nightcap, to take upstairs.

On his way through the hall he notices lights on in Emily’s work-room. He can see that the child has been playing here. Reaching for the switch he notices that Poppy has made elaborate coloured patterns on the floor with Emily’s embroidery silks. There’s a large painting on the table. He crosses over and bends to look, adjusting his glasses. His eyes are drawn to the bright border. The girl has carefully painted as many as thirty butterflies, around the page. They seem anatomically accurate, apart from the childish addition of a grin on the head of each. He’s astonished. In the centre however, more crudely done, a large, prone figure lies, Gulliver-like, on a fair representation of his Persian rug. The picture has been pinned to the table by a number of glass-headed dressmakers’ pins, arranged like small stakes through the body; his body.

Duncan stands for a moment, shocked. But as he looks again at the picture he begins to laugh. Tomorrow he must take her out with the nets. They’ll go down to the field; he’ll take the magnifying glasses too. They can look at a few Meadow-Browns or Fritillaries close up; then let them go. The child, Poppy, she’ll like that; letting them go. He looks at her picture again and laughs and laughs until tears run down his cheeks and he begins to choke.

Mrs B arrives late, as planned, the following morning. She waves to Poppy sitting up in the oak tree by the field gate.

Indoors, she hears Rex. The dog is sitting outside Emily’s work-room, whining; his tail thumping against the door. She rubs his ears.

What is it, old boy?”

Pushing him gently aside, she goes in.

Jenny Banes gasps, clutches her throat. Duncan is dead. The whisky bottle lies near his hand and a broken glass. As she reaches for the phone she looks in confusion at the way he’s lying. Duncan’s on his back; his face is purple; his eyes are open, glaring at the ceiling. His jacket, sleeves, trouser-legs; all his clothing is pulled tightly outwards, away from his body and fixed to the carpet with coloured, glass-headed pins.

She’s aware of Poppy standing beside her.

See how he likes it,” she says.

The Butterfly Collection by Christine MacFarlane

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