Albert was, for much of his life, sick. It was the kind of sickness that always seemed to Albert a passing storm, a light drizzle that would move slowly and steadily over the English houses and leave a layer of harmless dampness to be found in the morning; but whenever Albert would go to his mother in the evenings, saying in his small, child’s voice and vocabulary that he felt something sharp and uncomfortable emerging in the back of his head and along the lining of his throat, a sickness. His mother’s eyes would always widen, her lips pulling into a tight, fake smile before she led him down the walnut stairs to his bedroom. Every other night, she would tuck her smooth, gentle hands into the quilts over his small body so that they clung closer to him and read aloud from one of the darkly colored nursery books that ran along a shelf in the hallway. However, on nights like those, there was something more left in her effort, like she was worried she may leave something out that was especially important in that moment. On nights like those, she would even bring in his father (who was usually too busy to come down to tell his youngest son goodnight), and sometimes his oldest sister – if she was home – who was nearly old enough to have children of her own.
Albert would spend all of the next day in his bed. He would be alone save for the company of Nanny, who had always been in the Devereux children’s lives. She bothered the children so, with her scarcity of sweets and fairness (in the children’s opinion), as an old grandmother or aunt would. Before she left for her studies at Cambridge, Arminel would torment her by slipping spoonfuls of castor oil into her soups or tea. Nanny was a very clever woman, and was always smart enough not to consume Arminel’s victims. She understood the children nearly instantly: she knew how to keep Anabel and Ashby’s pranks under control, when to lend a wise, unsolicited hand to Arminel, and to always leave Albert to his books.
These long, sick days of Albert’s generally turned out the same. The Devereux family and Nanny would scutter around him, getting ready for school and work. Albert’s twin sister Anabel was nearly always shouting if anyone had seen a vital homework assignment of hers, followed by her “Got it!” only a couple of minutes later. Ashby would nearly always be arguing with their mother over something only a child and a parent could argue. Arminel would call down to Nanny to hurry up pressing that blouse, today is so important! And Nanny would chide her with a simple “soon, Miss Arminel.” Albert’s father would grumble over and over under his breath that one day they would all be at university and that he could drink his tea in peace. Soon, they would all be gone, and Albert would be left alone to think of his mother and father speaking about him in hushed tones outside his doorway.
Albert’s bedroom was on the first floor of the large Devereux house (his father liked to call it a manor, though it wasn’t nearly big enough). When he was younger, this used to bother him, the superiority of his older sibling’s rooms. Now, somewhat enjoyed it. On ill days like these (there seemed to be more and more of them as he got older), he would lean his chin on the wide window next to his bed and watch the people on the street. He watched the horse-drawn carriages, the filthy boys, younger than he, who were selling newspapers and cigars, and the young women in groups, seemingly trying to out-hat each other. However, what caught the most of Albert’s attention was a little cart that sold toys. The man who ran the cart was slender, like the other peasants that littered the London streets, but he wore a very festive fuchsia suit. He spoke kindly to the children that clouded around his cart, and jokingly to the adults that followed. For all the time he had been selling on Albert’s street, there had been a shiny metal toy racecar on the top shelf. He had always imagined himself racing the car along the hardwood floors of the Devereux home, earning the jealous stares of Anabel and the shouts of Nanny to stop that unless you want a spanking for scratching that floor!
Albert didn’t tell his parents or Nanny of his constant obsession of this racecar – all those days he had leaned his chin on his wrist and let his eyes glaze over in the imagination of the toy were, as he could expect, better than any scratched, tangible toy racecar.
“Why didn’t you ever tell us?” Albert’s father said to him years later, looking down at him, fingering the scratchy hospital blankets. His mother only stared silently at the transparent tubes that were now a part of her son.
Albert shrugged, his big, lanky hands reaching for the plastic water cup on his nightstand. “That part never seemed so important.”