This is the prologue and first chapter of my latest book. After years of estrangement, three siblings return to the family home after their mother’s death. The novel explores the effect of a traumatic childhood event on each child. They have three days in which to make sense of the past. The conclusions they reach will shape the whole of their future.
WHEN WINTER COMES
I hated Bournemouth when we first arrived. I was four and we left behind us everything I had ever known. There was a stream in our Shropshire garden, full of fat rainbow trout. A group of minnows nestled under the far bank, splitting and flashing silver like a drop of mercury whenever I poked them with a stick, stupidly regrouping almost at once. The orchard was full of damson trees, my Grandfather’s particular favourite. The oval fruit lay among the acid green leaves like ripe amethysts and every year my mother made pots of glowing, purple jam.
Until, without warning, my father returned from a business trip and told us we were moving to Bournemouth, a distant and exciting town by the sea. I was once stung by a jellyfish in Hunstanton and now harboured a deep mistrust of oceans and their treachery. But my father, flushed with the triumph of a new and better job, produced fat sticks of bright pink rock, miraculously shot through with, ‘A present from B’mth’ in shaky green letters. I was four and had no real conception of the future or ‘forever’, so I sat and listened to the excited talk while the peppermint sugar dissolved on my tongue.
I was lonely during that first winter. We walked by the sea at weekends because we were still strangers. I kept a wary distance at first, watching the grey waves crash against the promenade, foam gleaming under a watery British sun. I still missed the sea I had known before, where the bright green heads of wheat, shining after the light spring rain, would bend their heads to the warm breeze.
Our first summer was less lonely than the winter. I made new friends and grew familiar with the maze of roads, of which our house was the centre. There was an apple tree in our new garden, which had casually draped itself in curtains of white blossom in the spring. The fruit that followed was no real substitute for the tart headiness of the damson but satisfyingly streaked with red and holding the promise of apple pies. One branch was low enough for me to to climb and I rode it for hours, its head turned hopefully towards Shropshire. But however many hours we galloped through the counties of England, we never reached home and hunger always drew us back through the woods and fields to Bournemouth.
I looked forward to my first birthday in our new house with particular eagerness. It arrived at last, as clear and hot as only the birthday of a five-year-old can be. We ate strawberries in the garden and I fired my new bow and arrow at my brother. He collapsed, mortally wounded, onto the hot grass. He would usually push my face into the dirt until I apologised but there was an unwritten rule for birthdays and he honoured the code.
Later, as the scented dusk settled around our heads and the mosquitoes drifted down through the cooling air, my father told me to fetch my cardigan. We set off together up the hill, my hand gripped tightly in his. Music curled through the warm darkness above us and bright lights danced among the trees.
I had never been to a circus. The huge tent was already very hot and the lights hurt my tired eyes. I remember magical people flying above us and shining white horses, saddles studded with real jewels, with a shimmering pink figure skipping lightly from one to another. When the horses galloped out, a pack of glossy poodles took their place. They formed a pyramid and barked the notes of the national anthem so perfectly that I wondered why no-one stood.
And through the brightness of these memories, one figure stands out more vividly than any other. His name was Rocco. As the drums rolled, he swung into the ring and dropped neatly into the elephants’ water bucket. His drooping mouth grew more mournful with each new catastrophe. One moment, he was piling cans of paint far, far too high and I was shrieking at him to be careful. The next, the pyramid crashed down on him and I was screaming at him to build it again.
I know that my father carried me home that night but I have no memory of it and was deeply puzzled the following morning when I woke in my pyjamas. Over breakfast, I tried to convey the wonders of the previous night but my incoherence was annoying and my brother told me to shut it. His amiable mood had vanished with the sunset. I would have be uncomfortable if it had not.
My sixth birthday came more quickly than I bargained for. In Bournemouth, I learned to measure time through the changes in the sea. The water, soft and blue in the summer, grew brighter and livelier as the sun sank daily lower in the sky. By Christmas, it turned the same grey-green as the lead sheets on our church roof and menacing swells surged around the pier. I leaned over the edge to terrify myself, before retreating from the ominous suck of the undertow. The days I liked best were in the coldest part of the year when the water faded to pale emerald under the hard sky and the waves slapped playfully against the iron struts. Within weeks, it would be spring and I could start counting the days until my birthday.
The day was again hot and still and the only difference was my newfound awareness of the passing of a year. As evening drew near, I hung around my father in anxious silence until he smiled and raised an eyebrow and I could run to fetch my cardigan.
The circus was even better this year. I was a whole year older and able to stay awake for longer. The horses were still light as drifting snowflakes, the lady in pink as entrancing and Rocco, as anticipated, was perfection, from the first roll of the drum to his final arrest by the ringmaster. When he tipped the paint cans over himself and regarded us with rueful bewilderment, I laughed even harder than last year. When he stretched up to replace them and his trousers slipped down, revealing tattered, scarlet-spotted shorts, my father threatened to take me out unless I could be quiet.
The circus became a fixture in my yearly calendar, made all the more special as the one event not shared with the rest of the family. We climbed the hill together each year. My legs grew longer and the colour of my cardigans varied but the circus, and more importantly Rocco, remained gloriously the same. As double figures approached, my father suggested I should expand my birthday repertoire and I agreed, though not without a mild feeling of regret. I had always created my own private structures and calendars and it was difficult for me to move on.
That birthday, we visited my first restaurant and the following one, the ice rink. There was an unspoken agreement that the family would join us now, and I resented it. As my twelfth birthday approached, I struck for the right to reclaim both the circus and my father. After months of irritable persistence, he agreed.
The tent was as hot as ever and still scented with sawdust and candyfloss. The first act was new, a family of contortionists who appeared to be innocent of bones. I knew the second act very well. A blast of music ripped through the tent and my beautiful white horses galloped in. A stout lady in a tight, netted dress jumped breathlessly from one to another. The saddles were festooned with chunks of coloured plastic and needed a clean. My father stared intently at the ring, his lips moving, as though in prayer. The horses galloped out again to loud applause and I knew who must come next. His drum roll sounded and I jumped from the bench and fled.
My father threaded his way carefully after me. Outside, he laid a hand on my shoulder and we stood and listened to the muffled cheers and laughter from the tent. When he turned at last and strode away across the field, I followed him. We walked home through the darkened streets in silence, alternately swallowed by the shadows and illuminated by the shining patches beneath the street lamps.
The funeral over, we scatter along the path, jackdaws beneath spiky black umbrellas. I slide between clusters of mourners, hoping no-one will notice me, dreading being asked for the details I do not have.
The vicar seems to recognise me as I walk past. His smile is pleasant, standard-issue Anglican and he has the obligatory slight stoop. He had not the pleasure of meeting the deceased, he told the congregation, but had talked to neighbours and friends since her passing. He carefully refrained from using the word family, the omission so blindingly obvious I wondered why no-one stood to point an accusing finger at the three of us. Of course he had not known her. Mum was never one for organized weekly religion. She was simply one for doing things properly, which accounts for the meaningless ritual we have just been forced to endure.
She always took us to church on Christmas Eve. We would not go again until Easter Sunday, after which we went home to hunt for the eggs she always hid in exactly the same places. I was dispatched to Sunday school long after Cath and Daniel had won their independence, left to walk there resentfully and alone and alternately sulk and complain throughout our Sunday lunch. My arguments ranged from a stridently-assumed atheism I did not actually feel, to chippy accusations of parental hypocrisy. I finally won an amnesty, on the condition that I did not disturb Dad’s Sunday lie-ins, dearly cherished after a week of pre-dawn rising.
He added that I would still accompany my mother to church whenever she saw fit. This was fine with me. I suspected correctly that her sense of fitness would never extend beyond Christmas, Easter and Mothering Sunday, when Cath and Daniel would be there too. I secretly enjoyed walking three paces behind her through successive frosty Christmas Eves, and the melodic bells that summoned us through the sweet Easter air – chimes heralding the spring, if not necessarily the Resurrection.
I was more ambivalent about Mothering Sunday and hugely embarrassed by the public presentation of daffodils. Our parents hated the Americanism of Mother’s Day, although Mothering Sunday cards felt more appropriate to a funeral than a celebration. The obligation lifted when I left home and could compromise with spring landscapes and no message. It struck a small blow for the inner child, without resorting to the knockout punch that would demean us both. Dad came to church on Mothering Sunday and cooked the Sunday roast and the children washed up. The soapy liquid split and shimmered on the greasy water, setting a million rainbows dancing. It was the only day on which we might wash up unsupervised. Mum was finicky and precise in her kitchen but she had a great sense of occasion.
During the funeral, Cath and Daniel sat alongside me like three magnets, all with opposing poles. As the service creaked past, I thought I might slide away from them down the slippery pew and fly into the aisle. Watching the three of us now, standing together so separately, the vicar seems to sense something of our relationship. He winds up his chat and shepherds Cath expertly into the first funeral car. I step past him on a black wave of resentment and ignore his damp hand. I am still angry that any stranger to the deceased should speak so urbanely at her final service, skating slickly over her life and closing its final cover. I should, perhaps, reserve some of that anger for those who lived with her and still knew nothing of her. Cath does not shift her gaze towards me as the car slides silently from the kerb and drifts towards the crematorium.
Three hours later, I watch the rain trickle in dreary streaks across the window. The gaggle of strangers has thinned, full of undercooked pastry and gory details. The women were the worst. Their sympathy, in the cases of those who actually knew me, was underpinned by a faint, lavender-scented disapproval. I could not place most of them. They looked so similar. They even smelled the same.
By four o’clock, there is no one here except our family and Mum’s friend Cynthia, who has watched me grow from a small child into whatever I have become. I suspect she preferred the earlier version. Dad’s older sister hovers in the doorway. Bella has been determined to be a forty-something redhead for as long as I can remember. As with so much of what she does, it makes no sense. Dad would be nearly seventy now. Bella and Mum never got along and we children dreaded the ritual monthly Sunday lunches, with their charged, almost menacing atmosphere.
I start to collect the plates and Cynthia sees me. ‘You mustn’t do that, my love. Leave it to me.’
She pulls me towards her and hugs me. I freeze slightly at the contact, until I remember the thousands of similar embraces she has given me since childhood. She waits until I relax against her before patting my shoulder approvingly. ‘It’s alright, love. You’ve just lost your Mum. You can cry,’ she orders. Amazingly, I almost do.
She follows me to the kitchen. As we pile the plates into the sink, I look despairingly at the mess. ‘Why didn’t we book proper caterers? They’d have cleaned up afterwards – and the food would have been so much better.’
‘You know she would have hated that. She’d have said it was a waste of money.’ She turns the subject smoothly. ‘How long are you staying, darling?’
I feel my face pucker into a predictive frown, simply thinking of the weekend ahead. ‘Only until Monday morning. I’ll help Cath and Daniel with Mum’s things, but after that, I really must get back to work. We’re opening a branch in Paris in April and I need to meet the new buyers. I was going to fly out there this weekend but they came over here instead, seeing as …’
‘Goodness, you do have fun at work. I’d have loved to have a job like yours – travelling, meeting interesting people.’ Then, quickly enough to show her strand of thought, ‘How’s your social life? Anyone special yet?’
‘No-one special,’ I say tightly and stare her down.
She takes the hint and moves on. ‘This will will be a wonderful opportunity for you all to catch up. You don’t see each other very often nowadays, do you?’
For ‘not often’, read ‘never,’ but Cynthia was always the soul of tact, separating us so deftly at the height of our younger quarrels that we would all have sworn she had taken our individual side. I pull a mental face at the thought of spending a whole weekend in close proximity to my siblings. We have long since shrugged each other off – probably to Mum’s unexpressed distress. I wonder how she feels to see us all back under one roof, as she surely does. She has not left. Her presence still fills the place. We have opened the doors she always kept closed and the whole house is scented with the ghosts of Chanel and lemon furniture polish.
Bella appears in the doorway. ‘I think we must go. Henry can’t take much stress. He isn’t getting any younger.’ She bares her orange gums in amusement at the thought of Henry’s decrepitude and blows cheap sherry fumes into my face.
I agree, a shade too much concern in my voice. ‘Indeed he isn’t. And this must have taken a lot out of you. You’re three years older than Henry.’
She twists her lips into a farewell grimace. ‘We’ll see you all soon, I have no doubt.’
I have not seen Bella in ten years and will be delighted if it is as long again. ‘Oh, you can count on it.’ I say.
She shepherds Uncle Henry down the hall and I smile to myself, feeling mildly avenged for years of wasted Sunday afternoons and the birthday cards with a Buy yourself something nice fifty pence piece slipped grudgingly inside.
Cynthia watches me closely but her face is unreadable. I shrug, consigning her to the group of disapproving elderly women I have suffered all afternoon. I will release her when I’m ready.
‘I’ll leave you all to it, my love,’ is all she says and I instantly melt and wrap my arms around her. I think she understands. She hugs me back. ‘Bye, my poppet. Have a good weekend.’
‘Oh, you can count on it,’ I say again.
I bump my blue case up the stairs and stop outside our old room. It may not recognise me. It has not seen me in over a year, since Mum was first diagnosed.
Cath is already there, staring down into the garden and holding a piece of curtain against her cheek. I throw my case down by my old bed and she spins around. ‘That’s not mine.’
‘It’s mine and this, in case you’ve forgotten, is my bed.’
‘You can’t sleep in this room,’ she says more quietly.
‘Where do you suggest I sleep for the next three nights?’
‘I don’t really care. This is my room.’
I thought that the shell I have so painfully acquired during my adult years was impenetrable but it splinters under her assault. I try to smile. ‘The last time I checked, which was four whole years after you left home, this was my room.’
Her face is contorted with an emotion I thought we had left behind when the hair-pulling and neck-flicking subsided into an uneasy, late-teenage truce. Apparently, I was wrong. I sling my pyjamas onto my bed and, for good measure, sit on them.
‘Does it really matter?’ she asks.
‘Not at all, so why don’t you get out?’
Daniel opens the door. He is wearing a shabby backpack and half a beard. ‘God, here we go again.’
I study him closely. ‘Why did you choose the week of the funeral to start growing a beard? Mum would have hated it. You know that.’
He disappears and I turn back to my other fight. Cath has tucked my pyjamas back inside my case and is fumbling with the zip.
‘What the … ?’ I snap.
Her face is turning pink. ‘You can easily sleep in Mum’s room for three nights.’
‘Why don’t you grab that room for yourself? It’s a symbol of authority. You can boss me just as well from there as here.’
‘Is it possible that you’re still this immature, Jennifer?’
‘Quite possible. Why not be the grown-up, Catherine?’
I am stunned by the speed at which the cracks are showing. The veneer of years and apparent adulthood has been stripped away, leaving two teenagers glaring at each other, with a string of ten-, nine- and eight-year-olds shadowed behind them.
‘You’re the oldest. You ought to sleep in Mum and Dad’s room,’ I say.
‘Mum’s room,’ she corrects me.
‘She’d want you in there. She’d never have trusted me.’
‘Yes, she would.’
I smile again, poisonously. ‘You can argue all you want but there’s no lock on this door and you can’t keep me out. We’ll have to share. It’ll be just like old times.’