When Winter Comes

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

 

PROLOGUE

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.

 

CHAPTER ONE

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.’

‘Do I?’

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.’

 

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Pom Pom the Great

Obsolete Vernacular

Pom Pom is finally available to read. Who is he? He’s the monkey who came to live with us several years ago. He is messy, unpredictable, self-centred, energetic, resourceful, over-confident and has an idiosyncratic way of wrestling with the English language. His arch enemy is a Teddy Bear, against whom he wages an unceasing and increasingly bitter war.

Over the years I have come to be very fond of him and his antics. He was brought to life by Lynelle O’Flaherty, an Australian artist and illustrator. It took her quite a while to produce the portrait because he wouldn’t sit still.  The second book is about to be published and I am halfway through the third. As Pom Pom himself would say, he is the gift that keeps on giving.

Pom Pom’s very most favourite things

Bananas, Climbing, Exploring, Bananas, Demonstrating his extreme cleverness, Swimming, Ice Skating, Bananas.

Pom Pom’s…

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When summer seems to be the hardest word

In Denmark, we look forward to the summer. We really do. We endure six hour days in December and the sort of vitamin D deficiency that could only be properly cured by eating a whole raw seal. So we watch anxiously for the first spring rays. And occasionally the sun does actually appear. I suspect the locals have some secret spring ritual that they perform in the quiet of their living rooms, one involving candles, animal sacrifice and possibly some special dance. I’ve never asked. I don’t really want to know.  If there is such a ritual, it only seems to work for one year out of three, so the Danes need to up their game. It worked last year so this year should mean the deluge. Unless global warming kicks in to help us out. There’s always a silver lining.

And the one thing I always forget, while eagerly counting the days until May and the brief feeling of thawing hands and feet, is that for expats, summer means all-change. Many of us have children so the summer holiday is the natural time to move on and settle into a new location before school starts. Looking back, I can’t remember a summer over the past two decades that has not been punctuated with the word goodbye. Quite frankly, I have grown to hate it. Promises of keeping in touch don’t often materialise, at least in the long term, and that’s really how it should be. No one can fully establish themselves in a new life if they are always looking back to the old one.

Of course we don’t let go all at once. We glance over our shoulders for a while at what we have left behind us. We check that the old life didn’t suddenly get more fun just as we left. We make sure we haven’t been entirely and instantly forgotten in the influx of new and possibly more exciting people into what was our old life and now is their new one. But time intervenes and the new life becomes the real one and the old life becomes a ghost. It has to, or we could never live the life we do.

So the word goodbye is one I now avoid completely. I used to use it dutifully and emotionally every summer as old friends left and at the end of each assignment, as I was the one to leave. And the word weighed more heavily every year. Eventually, I simply quit. I refused to say the word at all, or even think it. After all, I reasoned, people emerge from the woodwork all the time and in the most unexpected places. One friend who left me in Denmark and went to England, wrote to me when I had moved to Australia and said they were coming to live near us in Canberra. Our goodbye in Denmark had hardly been necessary.

Really, though, I stopped saying goodbye because it’s a painful word and associated with difficult emotions. Nowadays I duck the farewell parties, try not to think about any casual school gate conversations possibly being the last ones and generally make myself scarce as summer approaches. Perhaps we all have only so many goodbyes in us and I am reaching my limit. Perhaps this means I am also coming to the end of my capacity to live this kind of life. I have roots in so many places and in none.

It’s a great life, travelling the world, seeing new places, experiencing new cultures. It’s a privilege and generally one for which I am grateful. The benefits for me have always outweighed the negatives, just as the summer brings brings more fun than pain. I am, however, beginning to look forward to the time when the first spring days mean nothing more than a summer to look forward to and then a winter and another summer, all in the same place and with the same people. I’m not quite ready yet but that time is quickly coming, a time when summer will once again become the easiest word.

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Pom Pom the Great

Pom Pom is finally available to read. Who is he? He’s the monkey who came to live with us several years ago. He is messy, unpredictable, self-centred, energetic, resourceful, over-confident and has an idiosyncratic way of wrestling with the English language. His arch enemy is a Teddy Bear, against whom he wages an unceasing and increasingly bitter war.

Over the years I have come to be very fond of him and his antics. He was brought to life by Lynelle O’Flaherty, an Australian artist and illustrator. It took her quite a while to produce the portrait because he wouldn’t sit still.  The second book is about to be published and I am halfway through the third. As Pom Pom himself would say, he is the gift that keeps on giving.

Pom Pom’s very most favourite things

Bananas, Climbing, Exploring, Bananas, Demonstrating his extreme cleverness, Swimming, Ice Skating, Bananas.

Pom Pom’s very most least favourite things

Teddy, Going to bed, Running out of bananas, The word No, Not winning at everything, Waiting in line, People who don’t understand his extreme cleverness.

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Pom Pom the Great

Anne of Green Gables had one who lived in a glass bookcase. James Stewart had one in ‘Harvey’. Gerard Depardieu actually was one in ‘Bogus.’ Several of my children have had them. It’s great to have friends. They enrich every part of our lives. But what if they’re invisible? Do they exist if others can’t see them? And are they the first sign of madness?

Mr Nobody accompanied one of my children through the first eight years of his life. He squashed in the car between the children and fastened himself in with his invisible seat belt. He had strong opinions when arguments broke out. He had to be swung on his own swing when we visited the playground. He even demanded his own piece of cake when I baked, although he got short shrift with that one. He never caused trouble, went off on his own ploys when it wasn’t convenient for us to attend to him and appeared immediately when summoned. In that way he was actually better than most friends. And then one day he wandered off forever, never to be seen again, at least not by our family.

Many years later, when we told our youngest son about Mr Nobody, he tried to make him appear but it didn’t work. However often Mr Nobody was summoned, he never came. His loyalty was clearly to our older child and him alone. Months passed and one day an invisible monkey came to stay. He is still with us a year later. His name is Pom Pom and he has a well-defined personality. When he heard I was a writer, he demanded a book about himself, which is in the process of being written. His stories and jokes make me laugh. His demands for bananas are endless. His inability to settle in bed without yet another story is legendary. I hope it is a long time before he leaves us.

I have often wondered what space these invisible friends fill in our children’s life. Real friends abound for them so it isn’t that. I have come to the conclusion that there is comfort in a companion who never questions us, finds all our jokes funny, is firmly on our side when others don’t understand us and appreciates us for exactly who we are, not who we aren’t. Certainly, when I have to tell my youngest off for various high crimes and misdemeanors,  Pom Pom is the first to come to his defence, articulating the arguments my child is too upset to make. And when my child goes to his room to nurse his grievances, Pom Pom goes with him and listens to a list of my wrongdoings with great sympathy. He is also a bridge between us when my son wants to come out. He may not want to talk to me but Pom Pom always does and usually has something funny to say that breaks the ice. I can also pass on the message through Pom that I’m not cross and would love to see them both when they are ready to come out.

I know he won’t be with us forever, which makes me sad and pleased in equal measures. Sad because I will miss the stories about him and his sense of mischief. Glad because I know that his leaving will be one further step along the path of maturity and independence that every child must tread.

When he does finally leave, I’ll miss him. I’ll miss this wonderful part of my son’s life before his sense of magic fades. I know Pom won’t come for the grandchildren, even if summoned, but I will tell them all about him and I look forward to meeting whoever it is that walks with them through that wonderful part of their lives.

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Frame of Reference

FRAME OF REFERENCE

It is surely the worst kind of betrayal to watch these grey-clad women, knowing they can never stare back through the one-way window and pass judgement on me in return. They sit in chattering lines along the two wooden benches, ripping through piles of fish and tossing away the entrails. Their fingers flick as swiftly as their tongues and they rarely pause to gaze down, so practised are their hands. The gloomy hut is rank with the smell of newly-dead herring. As I watch the women work, I breathe a swift thanks for my cavalier location in the twenty-first century.
What draws me most is the gush of light at the far end of their cramped room. It floods through the crude window in a dazzling arc and splashes onto the floor beneath. I have never seen paint this luminous and I wander past the picture several times, hoping to catch it off guard and fathom the secret of its liquid brilliance.
I am here in the art gallery in the nothing time of a Copenhagen Sunday afternoon, to avoid the nothing time of an empty apartment. I take one last look at the painting and step away. Two doors and eighteen steps lead me to a small statue gallery, where a young woman steps confidently across the honeyed wooden floor in the warm spring sunshine. She shakes her parasol into flirtatious folds, delighted to be walking beneath the creamy blossoms again after a long, cold winter. I stand in the shade of the nearest cherry tree and watch her noiseless glide across the grass. She drapes her skirt folds attractively as she sinks onto a wooden bench and observes the passers-by under shaded lids. I shelter helplessly under my branch, no more able to move towards her than opposing poles on magnets.
Three pre-school children tumble through the far door in a flurry of giggles and half-unzipped snowsuits that remind me spring has yet again been reluctant to arrive this year. Their carers marshall them wearily along one side of the gallery and I leave by the far door, propelled unresisting on the current of their vitality, to look for Andreas. I met him last night in a bar, hitchhiking defiantly all the way from Sweden to Spain to recover from the break up with his girlfriend and unable, he told me, to pass an art gallery without exploring it. I am generally more ambivalent about the half-life of galleries but the morning drizzle and the city’s being draped in Sunday slumber tempted me to accept his invitation to join him here.
I find him sceptically inspecting an ornate gold frame and frowning. He turns when he sees me and smiles. ‘I did not see you before, but what have you found?’
‘There’s an amazing picture through there and a statue I’m not quite sure about. What about you?’
He shrugs. ‘The architecture of the museum is definitely worth travelling all this way from Kiruna but I have found no picture yet that speaks to me, so you must show me what you have discovered.’
I am not at all sure I want to share my finds but the exhibits are public and anyone can see them. I turn and lead him reluctantly towards the gallery where the girl waits for us. I stop in the archway. He takes my elbow and edges me closer. We stand in silence as the clock inside my head breathes off the seconds and I watch him rather than the statue. I already know all that I need to about her.
‘You are right, she is indeed very beautiful,’ he says.
‘I didn’t say that. I said I wasn’t sure about her.’
‘Seriously – you don’t think she is beautiful?’ he asks.
‘Maybe on the outside. Perhaps a little too perfect. But you can never tell what’s on the inside.’
‘And we are to assume the worst?’ he asks, looking genuinely curious.
‘No, of course not, but appearances aren’t everything, are they?’ I force myself to resist the easy jibe simply because he is a man.
‘Appearances can of course deceive us but in real life you can come to know someone, to see what is underneath. This is a statue, not a painting, Whatever is there is all on the surface, surely?’
‘Not necessarily. The artist must have wanted us to look deeper than that or there’d be no point in all his effort.’
He stretches out his hand and allows one thoughtful finger to trace her eyelid as he considers my statement. He opens a waterlily palm and cups her pale cheek more sensuously. My visceral reaction shocks me – a sudden violent urge to slap his hand away, to scream at him for his male blindness.
‘God, she’s a bitch!’ I exclaim, to purge the bitterness surging through my mouth.
His shoulders erupt into shocked laughter. ‘No, indeed, you cannot seriously think that. She is just as you or me.’ He turns my shoulders and forces me to face her full on.
‘She’s nothing like me, that’s for sure,’ I say, flatly. ‘Look at that smirk. She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt, but all the time she’s watching …’
‘So?’ He interrupts my venom.
I change tack, not wanting to appear any more irrational. ‘You can tell that she doesn’t work for her living. She’s rich, just look at her dress. I’ll bet she’s never had to get her hands dirty in her life.’
He is shaking his head in bewilderment. ‘She is not smirking, she is trying to please those around her. And have you noticed she is all alone?’
‘Aren’t we all?’ I snap, regretting it as his face folds instantly closed. ‘I’m so sorry, Andreas. I didn’t mean this to get personal. But you can’t know that she’s alone, not for sure. She’s probably waiting for someone.’
‘Aren’t we all?’ he says and grins at my discomfiture. ‘OK, I’m sorry, but I think you’re being a bit hard on her. It’s not her fault she is so beautiful and to me she simply looks lonely. Is she perhaps waiting for someone who never turns up?’
‘Because he’s with his wife.’
I say it reflexively and he smiles and tips his head to look more closely.
‘He is not free to be with her you think, so they are to meet one last time to say goodbye?’
‘Not with that smirk. No, she’s waiting here for him to tell his wife it’s over and then he’ll come to her.’
He shrugs and spreads his hands. ‘I’m not helping, am I?’
‘I didn’t ask for help.’
It is my turn now to take his elbow and I draw him back through the gallery to my picture.
He stares at it for a few moments. ‘It is certainly … interesting,’ he says at last.
‘Isn’t it? But what about it, exactly?’
‘Not the picture itself, I mean, but it is interesting that you would be drawn to this one when it seems so … colourless.’
‘Colourless? But look at the light,’ I urge, dragging him forward as though this one tiny step will make a difference to his perspective. ‘Doesn’t it give you hope?’
‘Hope for what?’ he asks and pushes his hands deeper into his pockets.
‘For … them … for their situation … you must see it,’ I insist, half laughing at his frustrating obtuseness.
‘I would hate to be in their situation, working all day in a cold hut for a few kroner, pulling the insides out of fish with my bare hands.’
I consider his viewpoint for a second. The sun is lower in the sky now and no longer tumbles through the window to warm their pale cheeks. The hut dims as I watch the youngest woman heave the last of her pile of carcasses onto the pallett and wipe her red hands on her woollen dress to dissipate the stench. She tugs at the splintered latch with raw hands and scrapes the door back in its frame. She and I look up at the sky outside where the late afternoon sun shines in golden bars through the grey. The November air whips coolly around her ankles and the exposed skin of her neck and she shivers.
‘I saw it as a summer’s day,’ I tell Andreas. ‘You’re spoiling it for me.’
He stands his ground. ‘For that I am very sorry,’ he says, quietly. ‘But I am looking at it with my own eyes and I see what I see.’
‘I think I’ve seen enough. You know, this is exactly why I don’t like being taken to museums – the burden of other people’s self-expression.’
‘Maybe because you only see through other people’s eyes? Next time you should come alone and make your own judgements.’ He glances at his watch. ‘I am sorry but I really do have to go now. My train is leaving.’
‘Good luck.’
I will him to leave quickly. He lifts his hand in a casual salute and we smile goodbye. As soon as I hear his footsteps rap lightly through the gallery and flick away to silence, I turn back to my picture. I stare at it for a long moment until the summer sun climbs higher into the sky and pours back through the window onto the captive workers. I turn away quickly before the light can change again and move reluctantly back across the gallery. I walk right around the statue and this time look directly at her face. I am surprised to see a faint blush on her cheek and nervous fingers clutching the yellow-ribboned handle. Instinctively I reach towards her, then lower my hand and leave her standing, trapped in her marble moment, cherry blossom tumbling softly down around her head.

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Writing about friends and family

I have long written about friends and family. What writer hasn’t? The description doesn’t need to be perfectly specific to anyone but how could we possibly write about people in general without including those we have met over the course of our exemplary or misspent lives? People are not a homogeneous mass, to be written about in one lump while we consider those things that make us all human. They are a glorious mish-mash of quirks, eccentricities and downright oddities. As a species we certainly want pretty much the same things, something I have learned very clearly during the years I have moved around the world and lived in different cultures, but by gosh we go about getting them in very different ways.

If Aunty Mabel makes sure she gets her nightly sherry by playing up her palpitations and the medicinal benefit of a small glass, whereas Uncle Matthias simply grabs the bottle and takes a slug at will, they both have a similar objective in mind, which is pure self-interest. But they both demonstrate characteristics on which any writer would leap gleefully and quickly parcel out to various characters in their newest novel.

Even when I have not intentionally put a friend or family member into a novel, resisting at times the very strongest of temptations, I am wasting mental energy in deciding not to. They will see themselves there anyway. ‘But why did I have blonde hair in your book?’ a friend will ask, having decided that the overdrawn caricature of a shrieking, hysterical woman is based entirely on their introvert, retiring self. I have learned not to respond in detail. Denial only gives offence. People would rather be immortalised in print than not, however unflattering the portrait. Everyone is convinced that any writer they know will naturally have included them in their work . They see themselves everywhere and are rarely insulted, however awful the portrait. As long as you get their hair and weight right, of course. Woe betide the character I write as a size twelve who faintly resembles a friend who wears a size ten. No amount of, ‘But you aren’t a Spanish portrait painter,’ will ever convince your German PE teacher friend that you haven’t grossly misrepresented them. Friendships have been shattered for less.

I wanted to use a particular acquaintance for a character as she had informed every line I wrote, and not that flatteringly, I must admit. I hesitated for a while and then changed her hair and gave her glasses. She loved the book and never once saw herself in it. My latest book is about a family of three children. I have based it physically on myself and my siblings, used our childhood home and written about some of the things we used to do. But these are simply the skeletons of people, the structure of a family. My three characters are not us. Not that anyone will ever believe that, least of all my siblings. They have even had me change the names of their fictional partners because they don’t like them. As far as possible I have obliged but am resigned to giving offence, even though I have to my mind been quite flattering and the characters I have created are pleasant enough.

The only time I have ever had a trouble-free experience in writing about loved ones is when I have mentioned my cats. They remained just as loving and unruffled as ever when I wrote about them as fat, duplicitous, greedy and self-centred. In point of fact they were all these things and I loved them to distraction. My life without them has never been the same. But I appreciated their pragmatic approach. Did my writing about their defining characteristics meant they received one less bowl of food or cuddle? No. Then what did they care? If only people were as simple to deal with.

Perhaps Dick King Smith was onto something when he decided to write about animals. My next plot line will perhaps be about a cat, with a dog for a best friend, who opens a pet food store. No feelings will be hurt, no sensibilities ruffled. No delegation of local felines will turn up on my doorstep with a petition for me to rewrite them as slimmer and less fluffy. And you know the Man Booker people are going to want to talk to me when it’s finished.

In the meantime, I will continue with my career of giving offence to those to whom it was never intended and insulting others with impunity. I should also finish this post quickly. I have a phone call I need to make to a writer friend, whose one-eyed, nearly bald South American mass murderer needs a little work before I will accept it as an entirely accurate portrait of me. Though I must say I’m very flattered that she has cared about me enough to put me into print.

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