My latest novel is finished. Here is the prologue and first chapter. After years of estrangement, three siblings meet to clear the family home. The novel looks at the effect upon each of them of one traumatic childhood event. They have three days in which to make sense of the past. The conclusions they reach will shape their future.
I hated Bournemouth when we first arrived. We moved there shortly after my fifth birthday, leaving behind everything I had ever known. Our cottage in Shropshire had a stream tumbling through the garden, full of fat rainbow trout. A group of minnows nestled under the far bank, splitting and flashing silver like a drop of mercury when I poked at them with a stick, but stupidly regrouping almost at once. The orchard was full of damson trees, a particular favourite of my Grandfather. The perfect oval fruit lay among the acid green leaves like ripe amethysts, and each year my mother made pots of glowing purple jam.
And then, without warning, my father came home from a business trip and told us we were moving to Bournemouth, an exciting and far-off town by the sea. This was enough to damn the place in my eyes. My only previous visit to the seaside had been North Wales. After ten idyllic minutes floating in a warm rock pool, I was stung by a jellyfish and conceived a deep hatred of the sea and its 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 only four and had no real conception of the future or ‘forever’. So I stood and listened to the excited talk, while the sugar slowly dissolved on my tongue. Even today, the name of Bournemouth fills my senses with the aroma of peppermint.
That first winter, I was lonely. We walked by the sea every weekend because we were still strangers. Initially, I kept a wary distance, but gradually came to love the huge, grey waves that crashed against the promenade, foam gleaming under a watery British sun. But I 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, as I made new friends and grew familiar with the maze of roads, of which our house was the centre. I looked forward eagerly to my first birthday in our new house. We had an apple tree in our garden, the fruit no real substitute for the tart headiness of the damson, but satisfyingly streaked with red and holding the promise of blackberry and apple pies. The tree had another merit, beside the fruit and the curtains of white blossom with which it had nonchalantly draped itself earlier in the spring. One lopsided branch grew at such a peculiar angle from the trunk that it twisted away behind the back of the garage and was concealed from the house. I spent many hours that spring and summer riding that branch, its head always turned toward Shropshire. But no matter how 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.
My birthday arrived, 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, who pretended to collapse, mortally wounded, onto the hot grass. Any other day he would have pressed my face into the cracked earth until I apologised. However, there was an unwritten rule for birthdays and he honoured the code. And later, as the dusk settled and the mosquitoes drifted slowly down through the cooling air, my father told me to fetch my cardigan and come with him. We set off together up the road, my hand held tightly in his. As we reached the top of the hill, music drifted through the warm darkness, and bright lights danced among the trees.
I had never been to a circus. The huge tent was already hot and the lights hurt my tired eyes. For a while, I had to squint through my fingers. I remember trapezes swinging higher even than the length of their ropes and people flying and never coming down. There were shining white horses, their vivid red saddles studded with real jewels. Skipping lightly across their backs was a slight figure, shimmering in pink. A pack of glossy poodles 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 my memories, one figure stands out more vividly than any other. His name was Rocco. Drums rolled and trumpets blasted as he made his entrance. He swung into the ring on the end of a rope and dropped neatly into the elephants’ bucket of water. 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 upon 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. Nor do I remember my mother wiping the candy floss off my grimy hands with a damp flannel. Not even a birthday was excuse enough to stay dirty. I was deeply puzzled when I woke the next morning in my pyjamas. At breakfast, I tried to convey the wonders of the night before but my incoherence annoyed my brother and he told me to shut it. His amiable mood of the day before seemed to have vanished with the sunset. I would have been uncomfortable had it been otherwise.
My sixth birthday came more quickly than I had bargained for. In Bournemouth, I learned to measure the passing of winter through the changes in the sea. The water, so soft and blue all summer, became brighter and livelier as the sun sank lower in the autumn sky. By Christmas, the sea had turned the same grey-green as the lead sheets on our church roof and deep swells surged menacingly around the pier. I would run to the end and briefly lean over to terrify myself, before retreating from the ominous suck of the undertow. The days I liked best came during the coldest part of the year. The water was a pale emerald under the cold, wintry sky and the waves slapped playfully at the pier’s iron struts. Within weeks it would be spring and I could start counting the days until my birthday.
That day was hot and still again. The only change, aside from my new awareness of the passing of a year, was the lop-eared rabbit I had longed for since January. Last year’s bow had long since snapped, much to my mother’s relief, and I had lost my desire for destructive toys. As the evening drew near, I hung around my father in silence. After tea, he smiled at me and raised an eyebrow and I raced off to get my cardigan.
This year the circus was, if anything, better than the last. I was a whole year older and able to stay awake for longer. The horses were still light as drifting snowflakes, the acrobats as thrilling, the lady in pink as entrancing. And Rocco, as I had anticipated, was perfection, from the sounding of his fanfare to his final arrest by the ringmaster. I laughed even harder as he again tipped the paint cans down himself and regarded us ruefully. When he stretched high to replace them and his trousers slipped right down to reveal tattered, scarlet-spotted shorts, my father threatened to take me out unless I stopped screaming.
The circus became a fixture in my yearly calendar, made all the more special because it was the one event in the year not shared with my brother and sister. Each birthday, I would climb the hill with my father. My legs grew longer and the colour of my cardigans varied from year to year but the circus, and more importantly Rocco, stayed gloriously the same. The summer that I entered double figures, my father suggested it might be time to expand my birthday repertoire and visit somewhere different. I agreed, although not without a mild feeling of regret. I had always created my own private structures and calendars and it was hard for me to move on. That summer, we visited my first restaurant and the following year the ice rink. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that the rest of the family would join us. As my twelfth birthday approached, I struck for the right to reclaim both the circus and my father. After months of my irritable persistence, he agreed.
That year, the tent was as hot as ever. It still smelled of sawdust and candy floss. The first act was a new one, a family of contortionists who appeared to be innocent of bones. But I knew the second act. 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 looked as though they could use a clean. I looked across at my father. He was staring 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 fanfare sounded, but I jumped from the bench and fled. My father threaded his way carefully between the seats and followed me outside, where he laid a hand on my shoulder, although neither of us spoke. We stood for a moment together, listening to the muffled cheers and laughter inside the tent, before he turned and strode away across the field. I followed and we walked home together in silence through the darkened streets, both of us alternately swallowed by the shadows and illuminated by the shining patches beneath the street lamps.
The funeral over at last, we scatter along the path in clusters, jackdaws under spiky, black umbrellas. I slide awkwardly between the groups and hope no-one notices me. I hate the thought that some sympathetic group will enfold me, trying to prise from me the details I am embarrassed not to have. The vicar is chatting politely to an elderly woman. He seems to recognize me as I walk past. His smile is pleasant, standard-issue Anglican and he has the obligatory slight stoop.
He never had the pleasure of knowing 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 was so blindingly obvious that I wondered why no-one stood to point an accusing finger at the three of us. He had heard so many lovely stories that now he almost felt he had known her. This was of course ridiculous. Mum was never one for weekly organized religion. She was one for doing things properly, though, which accounts for the meaningless ritual we have just been forced to endure.
When we three were young, she took us to Midnight Communion on Christmas Eve and Matins on Easter Sunday. Afterwards, we solemnly hunted for the eggs that she hid in exactly the same places every year. I was also dispatched to Sunday school for a full year after my brother and sister had won their independence, left to plod resentfully down the street by myself, until my pre-teen mouthiness finally became too much of a challenge. Dad grew increasingly annoyed with the snippy arguments that seeped into every Sunday lunch. My points ranged from a stridently assumed atheism that I did not actually feel, to chippy accusations of parental hypocrisy. I eventually won an amnesty on the condition that I never disturbed Dad’s Sunday lie-in, dearly cherished after a long week of pre-dawn rising.
He also decreed that I accompany my mother to church without grumbling, whenever she saw fit. I agreed at once, rightly suspecting that her sense of fitness would never extend beyond Christmas, Easter and Mothering Sunday, when Cath and Daniel would be there too. In fact, I secretly enjoyed trudging three paces behind her through successive frosty Christmas Eves. Even more, being summoned by melodic peals in the sweet, Easter air, chimes heralding the spring if not necessarily the Resurrection.
I was more ambivalent about Mothering Sunday. I hated walking the length of the echoing aisle for the public maternal presentation of daffodils. Mum insisted we refer to the day as Mothering Sunday. This made it much harder to find her a card, which I felt was a deliberate act on her part. Mother’s Day cards were bright and fun. Mothering Sunday cards were more appropriate, in my private opinion, to a funeral. When I left home, I felt the obligation lift and compromised by sending bright cards with spring flowers and no message. It struck a small blow for the inner child, without resorting to the knock-out punch that would demean us both.
At home, Dad cooked an indifferent meal and we children washed up, watching the soapy liquid split and shimmer on the greasy water, setting a million rainbows dancing. It was the only day we were allowed to 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 poles opposing. As the service creaked past, I felt I might slide away from them down the slippery pew, clutching at the edge to stop myself flying into the aisle.
The vicar seems to sense something of this as he watches us now, standing together so separately. 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 anyone who did not know the deceased should speak so urbanely at her final service, skating slickly over her life and closing the final cover. Perhaps I should reserve some of that anger for those who had lived with her for years and also knew nothing. I plump down next to Cath. She does not shift her gaze as the car slides silently away from the kerb and towards the crematorium.
Three hours later, I swallow a last glutinous mouthful of sausage roll and watch the rain trickle in dreary streaks across the window. The gaggle of strangers is thinning at last, full of undercooked pastry and gory details. The women have been the worst. Their sympathy has been underpinned, in the cases of the few who actually know me, by a faint, lavender-scented disapproval. I can’t even place most of them. They look so similar. They even smell the same.
By four o’clock, the room has been cleared of anyone except the family. And, of course, Mum’s best friend, Cynthia. She has watched me grow from a small child to whatever it is I am now. I often suspect that she preferred the earlier version. Dad’s sister Bella moves towards the door. She has been determined to be a forty-something redhead for as long as I can remember, although Dad would now be nearly seventy. Bella and Mum never got along and we all dreaded the ritual monthly Sunday lunches with their charged, almost menacing atmosphere.
Cynthia sees me scraping gobs of food into a bin bag and comes over.
‘You mustn’t do that, Jen, love. There are plenty of us here to clean up without you.’
She looks at my face, pulls me to her and hugs me. I freeze slightly at the contact. But the remembrance of thousands of similar embraces from her since our childhood makes my nose prickle. She waits until I relax against her and pats my shoulder approvingly.
‘It’s alright, love. You’ve lost your Mum. You can cry,’ she orders. Amazingly, I almost do.
She follows me through to the kitchen and helps me pile plates into the sink. I lean against the beige worktop.
‘We should have got proper caterers in. They’d have cleared up afterwards – and the food would have been a whole lot better.’
‘You know your mother wouldn’t have liked that,’ she reproves me. ‘She’d have said it was waste of money. We’re only doing what she would have liked.’
She turns the subject smoothly. ‘How long are you staying, my darling?’
‘Just until Monday morning. I have to help Cath and Daniel sort Mum’s things.’
I feel my face pucker into a predictive frown simply thinking of the weekend ahead of us. ‘We’re opening a new branch in Paris next month and I’ve got to meet the new buyers. I was supposed to fly out there this weekend, but they’ve agreed to come here instead, seeing as …’
‘Goodness, you do have fun at work. I’d have loved 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?’
‘Nope, no-one special,’ I say tightly and stare her down.
She takes the hint. ‘This will will be a wonderful opportunity for you to catch up with Catherine and Daniel. You don’t see each other very much nowadays, do you?’
For ‘not much’, 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 sides. I can’t help pulling a face at the thought of a whole weekend in such close proximity to my siblings. We have long since shrugged each other off, much, I suspect, to Mum’s unexpressed distress. I wonder how she feels to see us all back under one roof again. If she does see us, of course. I can’t believe she doesn’t. Her presence still fills every room. We have opened the previously shut doors and the house is scented with the ghosts of Chanel and lemon polish.
Bella appears suddenly in the kitchen doorway. ‘Jennifer, darling, Henry’s very tired after everything, so I think we’ll get going now. I’d love to stay, but we simply mustn’t. Henry can’t take any more. After all, he’s not getting any younger.’
She bares her orange gums in amusement and blows sherry fumes straight into my face.
‘Indeed he’s not,’ I agree, with a shade too much concern in my voice. ‘This must have taken a lot out of you too. You’re older than Henry, aren’t you?’
She glares, then twists her lips into a farewell grimace. ‘We’ll be seeing you all soon, I have no doubt.’
‘Oh, you can count on it.’
I have not seen Bella in ten years and will be happy if it is as long again. I watch her shepherd Uncle Henry down the hall and out of the front door, and smile to myself. I feel mildly avenged for the years of wasted Sunday afternoons and the birthday cards with a ‘Buy yourself something nice,’ fifty pence piece slipped inside.
Cynthia’s face is unreadable. I shrug, temporarily consigning her to the group of disapproving elderly women whom I have suffered this afternoon. I will release her when I’m ready.
‘I’ll leave you all to it,’ is all she says.
I melt instantly and wrap my arms around her. I think she understands.
‘Bye, then, my poppet. Have a good weekend.’
‘Oh, you can count on it,’ I say again.
There are six bags at the bottom of the stairs, arranged into size order. I pull my blue case from between my sister’s matching burgundy ones and start to bump it up the stairs. I stop outside our old room and wonder if it will still recognise me. I came up here a year ago, when Mum was first diagnosed, but not since then. I open the door slowly and pause on the threshold. Cath is standing by the window, looking down into the garden and holding a piece of the curtain against her cheek.
I rattle my case to a halt by my old bed and she turns swiftly. ‘That’s not my bag, Jennifer.’
‘No, it’s mine. And this, in case you’ve forgotten, is my bed.’
‘You’re not sleeping in here.’
I stare in bemusement at her clenched jaw. ‘Where do you suggest that I sleep for the next three nights?’
‘I don’t care. In Mum’s room, in the lounge, out in the garden. I don’t give a damn where you sleep. This is my room.’
I thought that the shell I have so painfully acquired throughout my adult years was real, but it is splintering under her assault.
‘Last time I checked, which was four whole years after you left home, this was my room. In other words, I had it last,’ I say.
‘And I came first, before you were even thought of. I’m the eldest, which is why I chose this room for both of us when we moved here. Mum didn’t even ask for your opinion.’
I open my mouth, shut it again, and start unzipping my suitcase. Her face is contorted with a rage 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 the bed and, for good measure, sit on them.
‘Get out!’ she hisses.
‘You get out.’
‘God, here we go again.’ Daniel peers in on his way towards his old room. He has two shabby backpacks and half a beard.
I am easily diverted. ‘I meant to ask you earlier, why did you choose the week before 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, to see Cath tucking a pyjama leg back inside my case.
‘What the … ?’
She is pink but determined. ‘You can sleep in Mum’s room.’
‘Like hell, I can. Anyway, why aren’t you grabbing that room for yourself? It’s a symbol of authority. You should lap that up. You can boss me just as well from there as from here, you know. There’s a triple mirror, too. Surely, you can’t resist seeing that pretty face from three different angles?’
‘Is it possible you’re still this immature, Jennifer?’
‘Yes, quite possible. Why not be the grown-up, Catherine?’
I am actually quite 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. My first manager’s words ring in my ears. ‘Confrontation is a position of failure. We never back our opponents against a wall. Instead, we offer them a way out and help them to save their dignity, while giving us exactly what we want.’
It has been great advice during my years in business. I suppose it must also apply to personal situations, so I smile, falsely. ‘You’re the oldest, so you ought to be in Mum and Dad’s room.’
‘If you like. She’d want you to be there. She’d never have trusted me.’
‘Nice try.’ She eyes my suitcase as though calculating whether or not she can grab it and sling it onto the landing before I can move.
I smile poisonously. ‘There’s no lock on this door, so you can’t keep me out. We’ll just have to share, won’t we. It’s only for three nights. It’ll be just like old times.’