First Chapters: 2024 Shortlist

Here are the first chapters of the seven novels shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2024.

WINNER

Trad Wives by Danielle Cahill

Prologue

The body was caught beneath the sodden tendrils of the willow tree, where the river curved to the left, shadowed by the crumbling walls of the ruined Abbey. It was said that, centuries ago, two hundred men had been put to death in that same spot, their blood running in rivulets through the Abbey grounds and dying the river scarlet. After yesterday’s rain, the torrent had pushed his lean frame up through the algae to the surface. The choking reeds lining the bank concealed the pale limbs.

At this rate, he might never be discovered.

In the thin morning mist, I crept as close to the spot as I dared. The fallen stones were uneven underfoot and slippery with moss. I couldn’t afford to twist my ankle, so I had slipped off my heels and put them in my handbag before picking my way through the grassy patches between the masonry towards the riverbank. The dew-lapped blades felt deliciously cool under my bare feet.

From my vantage point, screened by the ruined stone wall, I spotted his left hand sticking out the water. If I squinted in the gloomy dawn, I thought I could make out his glinting wedding ring. He had lain there for a whole week. Fermenting. Was he still handsome, despite everything? I couldn’t resist. I crept closer to make sure. His face was staring up through the cloudy eddies; the hawklike nose and pointed chin I had so often traced with my fingertips. Now, his skin was tinged green: beginning to disintegrate.

A sharp bark sounded from around the bend in the river, then it stopped. I waited, holding my breath. My heart was pounding in the silence. There was only the soft susurrus of the water, and I let out an answering sigh.

The bark came again, louder this time. Too close for comfort.

My pulse thumped in my ears, panic twisting in my chest. I had to move. Ducking behind a fallen gargoyle whose gaping mouth was letting out a silent scream, I ran into the scrubby trees that straggled around the edges of the field, doubling back to reach the safety of the public footpath. I put my shoes back on, becoming just another woman out for an early morning stroll.

As I walked, a smile was playing around the corners of my mouth. Someone had to find him soon. It was only a matter of time.

 

Chapter One

Olivia

The taxi rattled over potholes, as we rounded the corner to Grandma Mae’s cottage. There were more houses than I remembered. They were grand structures set well back from the road and built with the usual sandy Cotswold stone, which made it hard to identify the new from the old. But as the taxi slowed, I spotted the house I had been staring at on Google Maps for the past few weeks in the middle of the night, when I hoped the blue light would not wake my baby daughter.

Of course, Georgia’s house was the largest. Her new-build crowded next to Celia’s home, as if it would push the other property out of the way. I could see the lights on the top floor blazing, but the lower ones were screened by thick foliage. How frustrating. But, moments later, came a gap in the trees, and I caught a brief glimpse into a country-style kitchen. A woman stood by the kitchen island, pouring herself a glass of wine. Her streaked hair was caught up into a top knot, and she was barefoot. Was it Georgia? It might be her. Even though her hair was much lighter than it used to be. I craned my neck, trying to get a better look, but the greenery obscured her once more.

The car bounced over another hole. The judder ran through me, and I put out a hand to check the strap on the car seat. Ada’s face crumpled, but then she relaxed, and I let out the breath I had been holding. If only the peace would last. The quiet of the taxi was bliss after the nightmare of the packed South Western Railway carriage.

My daughter had cried most of the two-hour train journey – her first one – and I had sung every song I knew, from nursery rhymes to Taylor Swift, and recited every scrap of Shakespeare I could remember from my finals. Admittedly, I could only manage fragments of soliloquies, spliced together with lines I made up that held the spirit of the original but definitely not the form. I tried everything to keep her quiet, and to keep us safe.

When we reached Oxford station, a dark-haired man got into our carriage. I bent my head over Ada, curling her into my shoulder and shielding her face from view. As he passed us without a word, I felt a shiver of relief pass over my skin. It wasn’t him.

By the time we arrived at Moreton-in-Marsh, it was six o’clock – The Witching Hour – when Ada would normally wail inconsolably until seven. She wasn’t hungry, tired or gassy, she was simply heartbreakingly miserable. The taxi driver had been treated to a few minutes of desperate sobbing. He had been kindly at the beginning – helping me fold the buggy that I couldn’t collapse, and telling me about his own lads who were six and nine – but that quickly fell away. I kept catching his eye in the rear-view mirror, as Ada’s cries ratcheted up, and I wanted to scream, ‘What’s your problem? All babies cry sometimes. She’s not a robot!’ But I didn’t fancy being put out onto the verge in the middle of nowhere in the dark, so I concentrated on singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star for what felt like the millionth time. 

The taxi slowed and stuttered into stillness. I looked out of the window at the wildness of the dark branches, whipping in the wind. From memory, there had been a small thicket that partially shielded Grandma Mae’s cottage from the elements, like the other houses we had passed, but there were only a few birches left.

I paid in cash, tipping the driver a few pounds extra for his willingness to sit in silence with me whilst I worried, and I collected our things. When all the luggage was piled inside the front gate, I lifted Ada’s car seat out and fumbled in my pocket for Grandma’s keys, which were hanging from a glittering silver St. Christopher: a relic of a long-abandoned religion.

‘Thanks,’ I croaked, straining under the weight of the car seat.

The cab driver raised his hand from the wheel in a half-wave, then he spun the vehicle around in a practised turn, neatly avoiding a grassy ditch on the other side of the road, and he sped off around the bend.

I shifted the car seat into both hands, trying to spread the weight, and I looked down at the pale smudge of Ada’s face in the darkness. A shiver ran through me. She was unusually calm. Was she too still? I paused, watching her, willing her to move. When her left hand twitched, I let out a small laugh. Rationally, I knew the rising panic rushing over me and threatening to engulf me concerning my baby was out of proportion. But I felt powerless to stop it. Somehow, I had been trusted with this tiny, living being, who didn’t come with an instruction manual.

I picked my way up Grandma Mae’s front path, avoiding the straggling weeds and the missing paving stones a few paces from the door. The cottage was dark and even more ivy-choked than it had been twenty years ago. I comforted myself that soon I would have the lights beaming out across the garden and all the curtains drawn, as Grandma Mae used to, and the place would feel much more welcoming.

Gently placing Ada on the doorstep, I inserted the key into the lock. After a few jiggles, I heard a click. As I pushed open the door, it caught on a pile of letters, garden magazines and Aran sweater catalogues: months of post that my grandmother would never read.

A rush of stale air hit me, and I leapt backwards. I wondered if there would be something festering: a dead rat, or long abandoned food quietly rotting. Hopefully nothing worse. I pulled the letters out of the way, and pushed the door open wider, holding my sleeve over my mouth until I could bear the smell.

‘As soon as we get in, we’ll open all the windows,’ I said to Ada. She didn’t stir as I picked up the car seat with both hands and went inside. Flicking on the hall light, I looked around. Dust coated the letters, and Grandma Mae’s knickknacks on the hall table: the Dresden shepherdess with one missing hand and the glass fish next to it, an ornamental cat-shaped teapot, and a crystal faceted sphere which had memorised me as child when I held it to the light, watching the faces turn from rose pink to aquamarine and then bottle green. I rubbed the downy layer away from the crystal ball, then put it back in its place and walked down the hall.

In the kitchen, the stench intensified. Closing the door, I crossed back across the hallway and went into the “good” sitting room, which I had never seen Grandma Mae use, and then into the snug beyond. At least, the snug was more or less how I remembered it: the faded curtains covered with red poppies and a worn but comfortable sofa tucked in next to the fireplace. The snug felt much less grubby than the other rooms, so I put Ada’s car seat down. She was sleeping peacefully. There was something about this house. I had slept so well here when I was a child too: enveloped in the quiet and calm. My hand hovered over Ada’s mouth, checking her breathing. She snuffled slightly. Her fingers curled more tightly around her favourite toy – a monkey-shaped comforter called Lucky. Fearful of losing him, I had stowed two backup monkeys in my bag. We were currently on Lucky Number Two for this trip. Lucky One had disappeared in our mad dash to Paddington Station, and he was probably, even now, still riding the Circle Line.

After making sure the blanket was tucked well away from her face, I braved the kitchen once more. The smell was overpowering: something must have died in there.

I shuddered.

Holding my breath, I went to the cupboard under the sink and grabbed a jumble of cleaning products. I swept them into a blue plastic bowl and dampened a crispy dishcloth that was hanging over the edge of the sink. These would have to do. I shouldn’t really have been surprised that the cottage was a mess; Grandma Mae had been fiercely disinterested in cleaning.

‘It’s not in line with my principles to be donning marigolds on the regular,’ she had told me loftily, when we had last visited her, the night before the accident. My mother had been making jibes about the ‘state’ of the cottage all through the trip. Trying to keep the peace, I did the washing up when Grandma Mae was, I thought, napping, only for her to catch me just as I was putting away the knives and forks.

‘Do you honestly think being clean is anti-feminist?’ I shot back. My grandma loved a debate, and I tried my best to oblige her. Grandma Mae had been famous when she was young for campaigning for women’s rights. Her speeches outside parliament had been uploaded – retrospectively – to YouTube. Last time I checked, they had over three hundred thousand views.

‘Don’t be cheeky, Livvy.’ Her nostrils flared. ‘Your generation don’t know how lucky they are. When I was young, we were all expected to marry and then give up our jobs and breed. Can you imagine?’

‘But you didn’t. You were the exception.’ I shot my grandma a look, and met her dawning smile with one of my own. I knew the winding story of my grandma’s life, but I loved to hear her talk. Besides, I still had a handful of cutlery that I wanted to sneak into the drawer, as soon as she was in full flow.

She pulled out a packet of jam tarts from the cupboard and offered them to me. I carefully picked one topped with raspberry.

‘Don’t tell your mother.’ She tipped me a wink.

I put the cutlery down on the counter and began licking the top of the tart.

She tutted at me. ‘Revolting behaviour.’ Then she smiled, her eyes softening as she turned to my question. ‘No, I didn’t follow the flock like all the others. After Oxford, of course, I was still completely unemployable. I could quote Seneca until the cows came home, but you can’t make any money from that. So, I did a night course in typing, then I knocked on the door of the biggest publishing house in London and gave them my CV. Books were my life’s blood, so I thought it was the only place for me. Luckily, their receptionist had let them down, so I did her job for a while, before joining the typing pool and then up and away moving through the ranks. When I had your mother, I was a Commissioning Editor, but I didn’t stop there. No one – not my family, nor the staid young men who worked next to me with their limited ideas about what a woman could achieve, were going to hold me back.’

‘But who took care of Mum?’ It was strange to think that my own painfully thin and wispy-haired mother had been a child. I couldn’t imagine her chomping on a jam tart, for example. I barely saw her eat at all.

Grandma Mae shrugged. ‘We had a few nannies, and she used to run down to Mrs Harvey’s house most days; she had a boy the same age, and Abigail loved it there.’

I wondered if my mother had felt lonely. It was also hard to imagine her hankering after friends. She was such a solitary person. Until I had started secondary school, she had been a stay-at-home mother, and she spent most of her time cooking and cleaning. I had rarely seen her open a book or sit through a whole TV show. I had not questioned why she had made that choice before, but now, thinking about it, I wondered whether her upbringing had had an influence.

‘The tyranny of household chores ought to be shared equally, along with childcare duties and the responsibility for managing the family,’ my grandma continued, her voice becoming more impassioned as she warmed to her theme. ‘Otherwise, womankind is doomed to forever play a supporting role whilst men go on being the heroes. It’s simply a question of fairness.’

I licked up the last of the jam and put the silver pastry casing down on the counter. The tip of my tongue was stinging from the sweetness of the preserve. ‘I’m going to be like you, Grandma. I’m not going to get married.’ She threw her head back and let out a crack of laughter. ‘I’m serious,’ I insisted. ‘If I don’t get married then I can’t be repressed, can I?’

‘That’s my girl!’

I could still hear the approbation ringing in her voice, as I scrubbed the filthy floor with a broken mop head. Sluicing water over the tiles, I soaked up the dirt as best I could with some ancient tea towels. After I had wiped all the surfaces, thrown away the contents of the fridge and scrubbed the cooker, the kitchen was looking, and more importantly smelling, much better.

I put the sodden tea towels into the washing machine. The small of my back was aching from my contortions. How could Grandma Mae have managed to mop anything without a handle? Although, I guess she probably chose not to try.

A wave of missing her flooded through me. Although I had not been back to the cottage since the night of the accident, my grandmother had written me long letters full of compassionate advice on the writing I shared with her. I wondered what my grandmother would have thought of my current predicament: a baby to care for on my own, the mirror of her own situation. I had no doubt she would have immediately started lecturing me about fighting the insidious pull of ‘the pram in the hall’, with its disastrous effect on creativity, as she had done.

But Ada was never a nuisance to me. My daughter was perfect from her tiny fingernails, to her delicate ears and the thin scar running down her right cheek. I loved every inch of her. So what if I was writing bad poetry and that was all I could manage at the moment? It wasn’t forever. My new story was going to change all that.

A noise came from the snug – not a cry but a small bleat – and I ran to check on Ada. Her tiny mouth was forming the shape of a cry, and I swooped to pick her up, offering a bottle. She settled into my embrace, and I curled up on the sofa with her in the crook of my left arm, snuggling back into the dip where Grandma Mae used to sit.

I felt my eyelids drooping, the seduction of slumber slowly enmeshing me, but I knew I couldn’t go to sleep yet. All the baby books I had read lectured about how dangerous it was to pass out sitting up on a sofa because the baby could easily slip and be crushed under the mother’s weight: a death so horrific I could hardly bear to imagine it. I forced myself to open my eyes. But I could not face going upstairs to assess the state of the bedrooms. I suspected that it might take more than a mop head to make them vaguely habitable. Instead, I leaned my head against the arm of the sofa and watched Ada’s eyelids trembling as she slept.

Suddenly, my eyes flicked open. I had betrayed myself. I must have been dreaming – in a semi-trance – because I had felt Julian’s powerful fingers gripping my shoulder, tight enough to leave scarlet marks on my skin. My heart leapt in my chest. I listened. The place was too quiet. It felt stifling. There were no cars on the road, no buses powering along outside, and no drunk passers-by heckling one another and laughing as they walked to the nearest pub. This was the countryside. We would be safe here. We had to be.

‘I promise he won’t find us,’ I whispered to Ada in the darkness.

I gathered her closer to me, willing myself to believe what I said was true.

 

Chapter Two

Celia

I am ironing in the quiet of the sitting room. Georgia has asked me to take the photographs for her housewife blog again, and a video for her to share on TikTok. Her excuse is that my ironing is so much neater than hers. She is right. Isn’t she always?

This month, the focus for her posts is “finding mindfulness in daily chores”, which I can relate to.

I listen to the steam rush, heating the cotton and melting the creases away. A smile trembles at the corners of my mouth. The smoothness of the white sheet in front of me reminds me of the canvasses I used to stretch for myself, making sure the surface was perfectly flat before I started painting.

I pull the sheet off the board, folding it into a neat square then positioning it on top of the pile of perfectly organised bedding, all in delicate shades of white, cream and shell pink. I take them over to the window seat, and I wait for the light.

There is only one place in the house where the sun hits the river at dusk, creating a mirror image between the water and the sky. On a clear evening, the clouds are drenched in colour: from copper tones on darker days, varying to the lightest candyfloss at midsummer. My favourite nights are the late autumn ones, when the clouds shimmer scarlet before the darkness comes. One day, I would like to fill an oval room with paintings of these skies, so that people can move seamlessly from sunset to dawn and from sky to water and back again. But that is an ambitious project.

I had started three of the cloud paintings when I was pregnant with Archie, but I have not touched them since. He is nearly five now. It is humiliating when people ask me what I’m working on, and I am forced to say, ‘Nothing right now.’ I tell myself that there is not enough time and that I would need more than the scraps of minutes left over between driving the boys around for playdates, to and from school and nursery, and all the other chores. But truthfully, I know that, as my little satellites travel further and further away from me, I could find the odd moment to pick up my brush. I’ve thought about it. Dreamed, even, of going into my studio, closing the door and starting. The impulse only lasts for a few minutes before it fades, and I begin the marathon of stacking the dishwasher, tidying, vacuuming and dusting. The tasks give my days structure: a dance that only I control.


 

HIGHLY COMMENDED

To Let You Go by Jane Mackelworth

Chapter One

I catch Luke only in glimpses, weaving through the pines, a flash of red rugby shirt and that hair, still the brightest blond.

I lengthen my stride, gasping for air.  Sweat trickles down my forehead. As I lift my hand to swipe it from my eyes, I stumble over a tree root.  I cry out as pain tugs at my left knee.

I ease myself down onto the forest floor and draw my knee to my chest before extending it out again. And again. The pain begins to subside.

A pad of trainers on pine needles makes me jump and I turn. Luke emerges from between the trees, backlit by the evening sun, hair glowing.

‘Are you ok, Mum?’

I am not ok. Because he is leaving and I don’t think I can bear it.

‘I’m fine, love. Just jolted my knee.’

Luke crouches beside me and we sit for a moment, our breathing in synch, legs outstretched. The evening air is damp and salty, blowing in from the sea. Perhaps we could stay here for all time, taking root in the forest, preserved in salt.

A flock of geese pass overhead, wings flapping and honking. I read once that geese honk to cheer on the lone goose out front. Yet now the noise sounds urgent, less a cheer of encouragement and more a mournful warning.

Perhaps Luke senses it too because he stands and puts his hand out. I’m tempted to push it away, to tell him I’m not yet an old woman, that I’m capable of standing alone but of course, I don’t. This chance, however brief, to hold his hand again. My beautiful boy. Eighteen, but still my boy.

I hold onto his hand and he hauls me up.

‘Want to keep running?’ Luke says.

I don’t. I want us to walk back to the car together. I want to keep him close on this, the final evening of our holiday. I want him to update me on the minutiae of his life, the stuff he shares less often now. I want to know whether he’s looking forward to St Andrews. To studying Medicine. Whether he’s going to miss us. And I want to remind him that however far he goes, his home will always be with us, with me. But of course, I say none of this.

‘Yes, but you run on, love. And we’ll meet back at the car.’

He presses the side of his watch to set the timer and is gone.

 

When I arrive back at the carpark, Luke is lolling against the car, leaning over his phone. The sky stretches lilac behind him as the sun slides towards the horizon.

‘Laters,’ he says into his phone.

‘Who was that?’ I say, opening the car door.

‘Belle.’

I push away the urge to say, ‘again’ as we climb into the car. The holiday has been punctuated with phones. Downturned faces, glowing with the reflection of a screen promising escape, the opportunity to be elsewhere.

I pull out of the Holkham estate and onto the main road. It streams ahead, fields running flat on one side, dotted with hay bales, and dense hedgerow on the other.

‘So, are you and Belle-?’

I trail off, unable to think of the right expression, one that will make me an ally of their burgeoning love affair rather than an interloper.

He doesn’t answer and I turn to look at him.

‘Luke?’

‘I like her but, -shit, Mum, look out.’

I whip my eyes back to the road. Something flashes golden in front of us, ethereal in the glow of the setting sun. I stamp on the brake but there is a thud. The creature doesn’t reappear.

‘Shit. What was it?’

I yank on the handbrake and climb out of the car.

It’s a miniature deer, a muntjac, not much bigger than a Labrador. Its neck is twisted in on itself and its head lolls over its body.

I press my fist to my mouth.

Its wide brown eyes are without expression, staring at nothing. I place my hand on its chest. It is warm but nothing moves apart from stray wisps of hair fluttering in the breeze.

‘Have I killed it?’

Luke kneels down beside me, putting his hand in front of its nose.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘it’s dead.’

He stands and makes to head back to the car.

‘We can’t leave it here,’ I say, ‘it will get squashed by the next car.’

My throat catches as I stroke the deer’s head, its fur soft as baby hair.

‘Mum, it’s dead already,’ says Luke, ‘what does it matter?’

A jolt of disconnection between us. These moments are rare and so when they come, they bring me up short. My sentimentalism overshadowed by his sense, his composure.

‘What if its’ family come looking for it?’

‘You mean its herd? What are they going to do, send out a search party?’

When he says it like that, it sounds ridiculous. This is how he will be as a young doctor. Making the decisions that need to be made, cool and clear, unclouded by emotion. But, while I know wanting to move the deer is my weakness, I can’t leave it here like this. Alone on the road to be crushed into something unrecognisable.

‘I’m not leaving it here, Luke.’

I lean forwards to take the two front hooves in my hand.

‘There’s no time Ma. Besides, do you want to get covered in deer shit?’

He nods to the trail of faeces that spirals out of the deer, across the road.

Luke pulls open the car door. I let go of the front hooves, lowering them onto the road.

I climb into the car and sit beside Luke. ‘I feel terrible.’

Luke puts his arm around my shoulder. I lean my head against him, breathing in the scent of clothes conditioner and fresh sweat from his run.

‘It’s not like you set out to kill it.’

Does it matter when the outcome is the same?

 

‘So, you missed Mum turn deer slayer?’ says Luke as we walk into the holiday rental cottage.

‘Luke please!’

‘Just kidding.’

The kitchen is seaside themed, bleached white floorboards, blue and white tea caddies and a print of Holkham Sands on the wall.

Will and Lily sit at opposite ends of the pine table, on respective screens, Will on his iPad and Lily on her phone.

Will looks up and slips off his headphones. Dying rays of sun stream through the cottage window, highlighting the slices of grey in his hair. He’s dressed for the pub in a floral shirt and blue chinos.

‘What’s that mate?’ he says to Luke.

‘Mum’s been slaying deer,’ says Luke, pulling off his trainers.

Will frowns.

‘I hit a deer,’ I say. ‘Deer singular. And it was an accident.’

‘Venison for dinner then?’ Will says.

‘Please Will, it was horrible.’

Will stands and kisses me on the top of my head. I catch the amber scent of shaving soap and lean into his chest.

‘Cars are probably their only predators here,’ he murmurs into my hair.

‘Is that supposed to make me feel better,’ I say, pulling back.

‘Well, they’re not endangered at least,’ he says, going over to fridge, ‘G&T?’

Lily is still bending over her phone, chin resting on the heel of her hand. Her hair hangs around her face and I resist the temptation to tuck it behind her ear.

‘Any word from Chelsea yet?’ I ask, as she swipes the screen.

She shakes her head and puts her phone face down.

‘Mum, stop going on about it. She changed her mind. It’s cool. Why do you have to make a big deal of it?’

Because she’s supposed to be Lily’s best friend. Because she bailed out of the holiday at the last minute. Because Lily has been flat throughout the holiday meaning something must have happened that she’s not telling me about.

‘Ghosted by your only mate, twinnie?’ says Luke, unlacing his trainers.

I flash Luke a glance. No conflict on our last evening here. Play ball. He intuits my meaning.

‘Laters,’ he says, picking up his phone and bouncing upstairs.

I sit next to Lily. She bristles although I sense it rather than see her body move away.

‘But it’s odd isn’t it, that Chelsea didn’t come? Odd that she’s not been in contact.’

‘Mum, chill’ says Lily, taking Will’s headphones and clamping them over her head.

Will puts down a G&T in front of me. I take a sip and wince. It’s too strong.

Lily keeps her head down. As always, this mistrust between us. As though we keep missing one another. Her prickly defensiveness makes her impenetrable. It’s my fault. Letting Mum take care of her so much in those early months, the formative months.

I have no idea what’s happened between her and Chelsea but it’s hard not to imagine that Lily’s to blame. It will be something she’s said or done. Or more likely not said, or not done. Lily thinking that things don’t need to be said when they do.

I wait to see if she might yield more. But she is folding back in on herself like one of those origami puzzles she was obsessed with as a child.

I stand and take off my trainers and as I’m about to go upstairs, Lily looks up and rips off the headphones.

‘So, what’s the story with the deer? Is it dead?’

The thud echoes through me.

‘Yes. It ran in front of the car.’

Lily screws up her face.

‘Were you going too fast?’

Of course, it is my fault. Not circumstance. Not a foolhardy deer.

‘No.’

The warmth of the deer’s chest against my hand, at odds with the stillness, comes back to me.

‘So, how come you hit it?’

Because I’m distracted. Because their lives are spiralling away from me. But of course, I can’t say this to Lily. Lily who is counting down the days before she disappears to Bristol. Desperate to completely sever the cord between us that has already been whittled down to a thread.

‘Mum?’

‘I don’t know, Lily.’

Lily shakes her head. 

‘Poor thing.’

Before I can respond she snaps the headphones back onto her head.

I pass my drink to Will.

‘You have it,’ I say, ‘I’m going to shower.’

 

‘Not meeting Belle this evening?’ Will says to Luke.

We are in the courtyard garden of The Bull in Little Walsingham, next to the abbey remains. I glance at Will. I too am surprised that Luke hadn’t wanted to see her this evening. But why does Will have to draw attention to it? To Luke’s choice to hang with us and keep up the end of holiday ritual. Dinner together and making plans for everything that we will each do before our next holiday.

Luke shakes his head.

‘She’s with her fam. I’ll see her when we’re back. But we’re not a thing, it’s just friends.’

‘Special friends?’ Will says, using the old-fashioned term ironically.

‘Friends,’ says Luke.

‘Without benefits,’ mutters Lily, head over her phone again.

‘At least I have friends,’ says Luke.

When they sit side by side like this, the difference between the twins is brought into sharp relief. Luke, with my blond curls. And Will’s eyes. Luminous pale blue irises, edged in violet. And that smile. The smile that charms shopkeepers and teachers. He’s taken the best of us and woven it into perfection, discarding Will’s crooked nose and my long face.

Lily beside him. Hair, somewhere between my blonde and Will’s brown but not quite either. Mouse brown. Soft, and fine, close to her head. Brown eyes the same shade as mine, but smaller. And since she was tiny, the same quizzical expression, eyes furrowed, nose wrinkled.

‘Anyway, Belle’s not that kind of girl,’ Luke says.

Before anyone can ask what kind of girl he means, we are interrupted by the waiter who puts down four burger and chips.

I am struck by the four identical plates of food.

Might this be our last ever holiday as a family? When they are at university the holidays will be filled instead with trips with friends and partners. And afterwards with their own families.

My throat swells and I want to freeze this moment. Cast us into one of those snow domes and keep us here forever in this tableau. Together. Reliving the tiny moments that make us whole over and over again.

Of course, I can’t. They will each inch away from me. One of them might emigrate, almost certainly Luke. He will meet a girl at St Andrews. A girl from somewhere else, from Denmark or Canada.

‘Not hungry?’ says Will, placing a hand on my back. The sensation of his touch brings me up short.

I shake my head. He turns to me and frowns. Is he feeling it too? This sense of impending dread at their departure. Perhaps it’s not the same for him. Perhaps they don’t anchor him in the way they do me. He has weightier anchors bearing him down, keeping him in place.

The twins don’t notice. Luke has his phone out and Lily is peeling a slice of tomato away from her burger.

‘Shall we do it then? Hopes for the next year?’ I say. ‘Keep up the tradition, for my sake at least?’

When they were younger, on the last evening of a holiday we’d look ahead to the next year’s holiday. Cornwall. Scotland. In more recent years, France, Italy. We’d bicker over seaside versus city.

Luke and Lily look up at me. They both open their mouths but Luke gets there first.

‘To slay Uni,’ Luke says, tossing a chip into his mouth.

‘Be more specific,’ says Will.

Luke finishes chewing. More quietly he says, ‘To prove I should be there, I guess.’

He’s not looking at any of us as he says it. I glance at Will across the table.

‘What makes you think you shouldn’t be there?’ I say, ‘You’ve got nothing to prove.’

Lily taps her fingernails on the table and stretches her fingers wide, staring at them in a mock gesture of admiration.

Her nails are uncoated now but the inference is clear. After the exam results came out, she’d had the three middle nails on her left hand, coated in red and each one inscribed in a golden A*, in honour of her results. I tried to tell myself, tell Luke, that it wasn’t out of spite. But seeing her tap her nails now, it’s hard to countenance that theory.

‘Four As is perfect,’ I say to Luke, ‘And you’re in now. The specific grades don’t matter?’

‘Almost perfect,’ says Lily.

‘Lily!’ I say.

Will nudges her.

‘Lils, be kind.’

‘I’m just saying that perfect, mathematically speaking, would be three A stars or four A stars.’

‘Well,’ I say, ‘if you’re really going to play that game, surely, four As trumps three A stars. If we’re talking perfection.’

Lily shakes her head.

‘Not when you’re at the state school that doesn’t let you take four A levels.’

‘Enough,’ says Will. ‘Plans for next year, Lily?’

Lily retracts her nails and leans back in her chair, digging at a groove in the table with one of her nails. She sips from her bottle of cider.

‘You won’t get me.’

‘FFS. So mysterious,’ says Luke.

‘Try us,’ says Will, managing to keep any hint of feeling condescended out of his voice. Lily shakes her head and slouches back. Will touches his bottle to Lily’s.

‘Ok. So, like, everyone says Maths is beautiful don’t they?’

‘No,’ says Luke.

Lily takes another sip of cider. ‘Well, I don’t really get that. Like it’s easy. And I like unravelling something so it makes sense. But it doesn’t feel beautiful to me yet. And I don’t know when that happens. So, like I hope that maybe I get that, at Uni. But maybe it never will seem beautiful to me. Then what?’

Lily stabs again at the table with her nail. She’s such a contradiction.

‘And you wonder why you have no friends,’ says Luke.

Will cuts in.

‘Laura? Where do you want to be this time next year.’

The three of them turn to look at me. I want to be here. Just the four of us. But I know not to say it out loud. Besides, there is one other thing.

‘I plan to sign up for the Curatorial course. It starts in January.’

‘The one you’ve been talking about for five years?’ says Lily.

‘It’s not five years.’

In a house opposite, a light flicks on and a slight figure appears alone at the window, wispish and shadowy. He or she reaches to pull across the curtains. I look back to the table. This whole talk of the future suddenly feels too morbid. I don’t want to think about the future.

I breathe in and sit up straight.

‘Let’s forget next year. I want to say thank you for coming to Norfolk this summer.’

It’s an odd note. Too formal. Lily looks up and frowns.

‘Thanks for coming to Norfolk?’ she repeats. ‘You are being weird, Mum.’

Will puts his arm around my shoulder and squeezes.

‘Because she’s going to miss you both when you’re gone. I, on the other hand, can’t wait. How long is it now? I’m counting the days.’

‘Cheers Dad,’ says Lily, chucking a chip at Will.

It lands square on his shoulder.

Lily and Luke laugh. Sudden explosive laughter, that rushes out, unfiltered. The sound snakes around the four of us, sweeping us all into its grip.

‘And I always thought Mum was the one with a chip on her shoulder,’ Luke says.

Before I can pick him up on the comment, all three of them laugh until I’m forced to join in. An older couple at the next table, two white haired women turn around and smile. Their lurcher barks with excitement. And suddenly, everything is normal again. Will scoops the chip off his shoulder and eats it.


 

After the Rain, Earth Hardens by Kanako Mabuchi

Part 1: Sawako’s Story

The war made me an orphan, then a whore. 

I suspect my story is a common one, one of the very many stories of post-war Japan that were never openly spoken, just known.  Whispered gossips of bored housewives, slipped tongues of drunken men.

All of us survived the war.  We have kept our heads down, worked hard, put our best foot forward.  And here we are.  But as long as we live, or at least as long as I live, the war does not end.  Because my body was a battlefield.  One of the many battlefields. 

You want to hear my story, you say. 

Even if it is just a love story – boy meets girl – that ends in marriage?  Because that is the story I am going to tell - nothing more, nothing less.

Chapter 1

August 1942 – December 1943

The night Mother died giving birth to my baby brother, Father told me to go play outside as if I was still a little girl.  I remember the beads of sweat on his forehead, his body shaking despite the sticky August heat.  As I slid open the front door, I heard a roar from upstairs.

“Is that Mother?”

“It’s nothing.  Don’t worry.  Just… play.”

Father pushed my back, and the door slammed shut behind me.  Uncharacteristically roughly, for Father.  I glanced up at the sky.  It was pitch dark except for the full moon.

“The full moon will bring us a baby,” I said to myself, repeating what Mother and I had been saying to each other over the past months.  An only child, I had been waiting for fifteen years to become an older sister.  There had been many “water babies,” those who slipped away.  With each miscarriage, Mother and I planted a small pot of morning glories.  I walked over to the far corner of the backyard where nine pots of morning glories stood – unopened - and sat down.  Hugging my knees, I glared at the full moon, on a dare.  By the time the morning glories opened, I was motherless, and the baby that the moon brought was just a reflection.

 

There was very little of Father left after Mother died.  It was as if Mother had taken him with her when she passed.  Father was reduced to his mere frame, walking around without his feet touching the ground.  The small children in our street grew scared of him, while the older children called him obake, ghost, behind his back.  Our next-door neighbour, Auntie Reiko, helped me to keep house, occasionally scolding Father back to this world. 

 

One morning that winter, a young man from the townhall came to the house.  I recognized him as the older brother of one of my classmates.  He got off his wonky black bicycle, wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and cleared his throat.

“Is your father home?”

He looked nervous.  When Father came out, the young man took out a pink slip and handed it to Father.  His arms stretched out and his back straight, as if he was made of bamboo.  Seeing the pink slip, Father came back to life again.

“Thank you,” Father said, and he accepted the pink slip with both hands, bowing down his head.  The young man bowed back, his acned cheeks red with what looked like relief.  Years later, he would tell me that Father was the only one who thanked him during all the years when he had to deliver those pink slips that drafted men – young and old – to the Pacific War.  

 

There was less than a week until Father had to leave.  With renewed energy, he went through the house, making two piles: one big and one small.  Once done, he called me over.

“Sawako, these are the most valuable things our family owns.  You can see it is not much, but you might still be able to get something for them when things get tougher.”

Tougher, I thought and stole a glance at Mother’s photo at the altar.  Black and white, I almost did not recognize Mother in the nervous woman with tight, thin lips.

I shifted my eyes to the small pile.  There, I saw a wooden box with the “good” china that Mother had used only for the New Year’s celebrations but had cleaned every month; Mother’s favorite brooch with jade and small pearls; Mother’s best kimonos, carefully folded in washi paper; silver cigarette case he got from his employer before the war; and Father’s wrist watch.  My eyes went to his right wrist, where the watch had been.

“I won’t be needing to know the time at the frontline.  Time will pass as God’s intends, not by those two thin hands of the watch.”

“I will keep it safe for you, Father, until you return.”

Instead of responding, Father reached out for my arm and fastened the band around my wrist.  It was way too loose, so Father found a nail and a hammer from his old toolbox and punched an extra hole.

“There!”  Father smiled down at me.  For the first time, since Mother died.  My wrist felt heavy with the time to come.  Without Mother, without Father.

After dark, Father dug a shallow hole in the garden, under the pots of morning glories, and buried the valuables.

“They will be safe here; Mother will protect them.  Protect you.  If you are ever in need of money, or anything, you shall sell them.  Ask Auntie Reiko to help negotiate a good price for you.  She is young but very solid.”

“We can dig them up together, when you are back from the war, Father.”

I said, knowing it was in vain.  I had seen the content of the big pile he had made: his clothes and other belongings that were not worth much.  He had sold them all for a pittance to a mute man who lived at the end of our street that recycled garbage for a living.  He then put the money he got into an envelope with my name on, in the drawer under the altar where Mother’s black and white photo stood, silently.  There was only one other thing in the envelope except for the money: a faded wedding photo of my parents.  Both of them had looked stiff, neither of them smiling.  Mother had told me that before the photo was taken, Father warned her to make sure to keep her month shut tight, so that the camera would not suck out her soul. 

The next morning, I found Father shaving his head in the backyard, as required by the military.  When he saw me, he beckoned me over.

“Sawako, can you help me get the back?”

I walked over, wearing Mother’s outdoor wooden sandals.  Clank, clank, clank.  The noise fooled us both for a moment, that Mother was approaching.  As I spread the lather of soap at the back of his head, Father closed his eyes.  I placed the blade carefully and gently moved it down his head.

“Shizuko…”  Father murmured, his eyes closed.  I kept silent.  I also felt Mother behind me, her hand covering my moving hand.  I followed the lead.  My hand felt weightless, and my eyes hot.  Father still had his eyes closed, and I prayed for the task to never end.  When the last drop of soap was cleaned off with a warm towel, Mother left us, again.  Father opened his eyes and turned back.  He saw me and nodded lightly.  I wanted to apologize to Father: I am sorry, it is only me.  

 

Auntie Reiko came over and urged me to partake in making Father a Thousand Needles Cloth, stitched by a thousand women to protect our soldiers from enemy bullets.  I followed Auntie’s instruction and carefully stitched a straight line using the customary red thread.  When I finished stitching my line, I left the thread loose at the back instead of tying a knot at the end.  I knew that was what Father wanted, and as a daughter I felt it my duty to respect his unspoken final wish.  Auntie did not notice what I had done and hurried out of the door to find 999 other ladies and girls to do the stitches for Father. 

 

At the platform of the train station that took Father to war, the neighbours and Father’s old classmates gathered:

Banzai, banzai, banzai!”

Three cheers to the Emperor. 

Someone pushed me in front of Father.

“I will pray for your safety,” I said, not meeting his eyes.

His classmates were shouting into his ears:

“You will return.  You must return.”

Their voices cracked.  I looked up and saw in Father’s eyes that he did not intend to return.  There on the platform, I became an orphan.  And three months later, I officially was.

 

After the men, it was the women and children’s turn to disappear from the neighbourhood.  They escaped to the countryside, away from the fear of enemy planes and where there was still meager food to be had.  I had stopped going to school after Mother died, so I was spared from patriotic labour organized by the schools.  After Father left, Auntie Reiko tried to get me back to school.  Auntie Reiko was formerly a teacher, but when she heard from her former colleagues what was going on in the schools under the guise of patriotic education, she changed her mind.

“No point for you to go back to school, not until the war is over.  There’s no learning going on.  The war has infiltrated the schools, so you might as well stay with me.  I can teach you, well, as least Japanese and math, so that you won’t be behind when you return to school after the war.”

Auntie Reiko’s house next door was as small as ours, but it was full of books.  The first day of our private “school,” Auntie Reiko handed me a battered copy of Midaregami (“Tangled Hair”), a collection of poetry by Akiko Yosano.

Midaregami?”  The word “midare” had an inappropriate, no, indecent ring.  The book cover was a beautiful peach washi that paper had a picture of a woman with flowing hair framed in a heart with a cupid’s arrow.  I could not imagine such book to be allowed by the Imperial Government, which had made us sacrifice everything that gave color to our lives.

“This is my favorite book, and it taught me a lot of about love.  This copy was my first gift to my husband.  I guess you could say, it was my declaration of love to him.”

I felt myself blush at the word “love.”  I could not ever remember Mother talking about love, let alone love for Father.  Love was something that remained unsaid, love was a private matter.  I opened the cover, and I realized that I was holding my breath as I did so.

Sono ko hatachi

kushi ni nagaruru kurokami no

ogori no haru no utsukushiki kana,”

Auntie read aloud, without even looking at the page that I had opened.

That child of 20

A comb in the waves of her black hair

Takes pride in the beauty of her spring.

“What does the poem mean to you, Sawa chan?”

“To me?”

“Yes, to you.  Take your time.  Perhaps close your eyes, let yourself feel the words.”

I closed my eyes, a good student.

“The girl, she is 20, and she has long black hair.  Like the girl on the cover.”

“Yes!  And how is this girl feeling?”

“Well, I guess she’s not really a girl.  She’s a young woman.  She’s 5 years older than me.”

“You are right.  She is a young woman, no longer a girl.”

“And… she feels… beautiful?” I said, tentatively.  I was not sure if girls – women – were allowed to feel beautiful.  Was that modest?  I certainly never felt beautiful, in my patched up, earth-colored monpe, the wartime uniform for women and girls.

“Yes, that’s right.  And why do you think she feels beautiful?”

I looked back blankly at Auntie.  Why would she feel beautiful?  In this world, where Mother died trying to bring Father a son that he wanted, where Father was trying to die in the frontline fighting an enemy that he never met when in fact the real enemy he was fighting was grief.  Seeing my face, Auntie gently took the book from my hand and said:

“That’s all for today.  We shall continue tomorrow.”

 

Auntie Reiko had in-laws in the countryside of Nagano, but she chose to stay in Tokyo alone after her husband was conscripted.

“I promised my husband that I will wait for him here, in our house.  That is my duty.” 

That was all Auntie said, and I was secretly relieved that I could stay with Auntie instead of having to go back to the empty house next door.  I did not feel safe on my own in the chaos of the warring city, blasting with military slogans, enforced sacrifices and lost sons.  The markets were empty, but Auntie occasionally received small bundles of vegetables and even dried fruits.  I understood they were from her in-laws.  Some of the root vegetables still had earth on them.

 

On my 16th birthday, Auntie surprised me with a bowl of white rice for dinner.  White rice had been banned since a while back, and I had only seen white rice heavily mixed with other grains for some time.  Each grain was round and shining, and my first feeling was that of fear.  I could swear that the neighbours would smell it, that we would get caught by the neighbourhood watch, who could see the shiny white rice glowing even from the streets outside.  Back then during the war, one could get into trouble even for using the lights in the evenings.

“Happy birthday, Sawa chan!”

“I…  I can’t...  It’s too much.”

I pushed the rice bowl in front of Auntie.  I realized that she did not have her own rice bowl.  Just some pickled vegetables and hot broth.

“I mean…  Maybe…  Can we go half-half?  As it is my birthday.”

“Half-half?  You don’t need to…  Okay, I suppose we can make this our little secret.”

To this day, that was the best half-a-bowl of white rice I had ever tasted. 

 

A few months after my 16th birthday, Auntie received a bulletin, informing her of the martyrdom of her husband in a faraway Pacific island.  It was delivered by the same young man from the townhall who had handed Father the pink slip.

“Congratulations,” the young man said.  His voice was flat.  Auntie did not respond but bowed her head down deeply.

We watched as the young man got back on his bicycle.  His silhouette looked tired from his daily task of delivering sad news disguised as good news. 

Back inside the house, Auntie took her husband’s photo from the top of the wooden chest of drawers in the living room and placed it at the altar.  Then she sat down in front of the altar and stayed there, still and quiet.  When it grew dark outside, I made some miso soup with leftover radish and set the dining table. 

“Auntie, shall we eat while it is still hot?”

Auntie’s head rose slightly.  She paused before turning to face me.

“Yes, let us do so.”

We sat at the small dining table, just big enough for the two of us.  As she picked up her chopsticks, she shook her head and muttered:

“A war widow.”

“And I am your charity war orphan.”

We laughed, and once we started, we could not stop.  We laughed and laughed because we were not allowed to cry.  The war had taken away our right to grieve. 


 

Can I Start From The Beginning? by Sophie Holland

1. This story actually happened

2005

Bea pulls down her sunglasses against the low beams escaping the edge of the cloud. Buxom Devon hills roll around them. Countryside is not her natural habitat and round the many bends she slows to a crawl. The satnav says twelve minutes.

‘Is the pool just for us?’ Clem asks in the passenger seat for the third time, her downy hair gripped to her temples with little butterflies.

‘Yep, just for us.’ Bea took the online tour, the house is palatial: wide staircase, brass bedsteads, rugs all over, cream on dark wood floorboards; a holiday home for a different family. Bea could not think up an excuse. She pulls up at a T junction, in the field ahead a clump of sheep stare at them over the hedge.

‘Will Lonnie be able to go in?’ Clem asks, ‘with her hair?’ Bea’s younger sister used to dye her hair bright pink, like a sweet. Sweet Lonnie.

‘It’ll be something different now.’ Bea adjusts the mirror and the breeze flutters her pale-yellow sleeve. Twice she had changed her top, Clem gave this the thumbs up. Does she look like a daffodil, or worse, a bee? The thought of her father’s chuckle pulls at the knot in her small intestine. Surely she and Dad can get through a weekend. Her face feels hot; she catches herself in the mirror: round sunglasses, windblown hair - the adult version. Good. 

‘Are you sure Frisbee will be alright?’ Clem turns to her, badges clicking on her T-shirt. They almost brought the ancient guinea-pig with them, since every parting could be the last. Bea would have capitulated if Clem had pushed harder, but she was persuaded her dad would stroke and cuddle when he came round to do the feeding.

‘Right as rain,’ Bea says. ‘Gavin will tell him jokes.’ Bea is secretly hoping Frisbee will die on Gavin’s watch, though now she’s wondering if they should have brought him along after all, to boost their shrinking family. She grips the wheel. The bones in her hands stand up, knuckle to wrist, and she pictures her own skeleton, like the Guardians of Death that hang at the back of her classroom, bony legs kicking up the Can-Can when flicked with a ruler by one of her Year Nine’s. The thought makes Bea smile. She loosens her hold and her hands return to the living.

Eight minutes.

‘Is it a party?’ Clem asks. ‘Is there a diving board?’ Anything springy.

    

Moira checks the map on her lap. They really are far from home now; the Friday traffic’s not so bad after all. She’s just not sure about all this fuss. They’ve never before made a thing of anniversaries; a card and a kiss has suited them both fine. It was Ted who insisted on this Ruby wedding weekend and he expects too much, his humming says so. A lorry hurtles past in the oncoming lane and the car shudders; the roads are narrowing, the hedges getting higher. Clem will be a lot taller. What is she now, eight? And lovely Tom ten, and so much like Andrew. Such a bonus grandchildren, a marvellous going-home present at the end of a tiring party. Birds flit across the windscreen between hedges.

‘Slow down,’ she says, and Ted does. Up high, Moira spots a hunter against the brightening sky, wings quivering to keep still. Ted follows her gaze, swerves, straightens up.

‘A hawk,’ she says, accusing. ‘Or kestrel. Watch out small birds and voles.’

‘A lot of effort,’ Ted says, ‘just to hold still.’

‘It’s a good skill,’ Moira muses, ‘my mother used to do it.’

‘Flap?’

‘Hold still. At key moments.’

‘I’m better in motion,’ Ted says.

Moira turns the map over and traces her finger along the black vein of a road that will finally lead to the house. What will they all do? Not swimming, not her anyway, it’s not warm enough. And not Ted either, water’s not his strong suit. She should have brought some packs of cards. With luck there’ll be some, or games, or a big puzzle. Ted won’t have thought beyond the fancy place. She should have talked him out of it, got him to book a little cottage, just the two of them.

‘Gavin won’t be there you know,’ she says suddenly, to warn him.

‘I know,’ he says, throwing her a confused look. ‘They’re getting a divorce. I know that.’ They drive on in silence for a while. Ahead, a camper van rises and dips like hide-and-seek, cows graze in peppered sunlight. Ted glances at the map on her lap.

‘Wait till they all see it,’ he says in a dreamy voice. He pats Moira’s knee and the map crackles.

 

Ted stands on the timber deck with his hands on his hips, surveying the sky - widening stretches of blue - lucky, for September. It matches his sweatshirt, new for the trip, a badge pinned to his chest by Clem on arrival: “Oldie but Goodie” with a winking smiley face. Tom shoots past on the grass peeling off his t-shirt, ribs jut from his milky torso.

‘Coming in Grandpa?’

‘In a while,’ Ted says. He won’t. In pools with his own children he stuck to shallow ends, in the sea only up to his knees. Clem follows in a flash of flesh and swimsuit. They jump in and smash the glistening blue pane, white spray leaps up then fizzes around them. How cracking to be young! Though Ted isn’t one to wish himself back in time. In fact, he might just be coming into his own. Some days he feels something like ease, if he dares to call it that. While his knees and hips grow creakier, at the top end there’s a lifting away.

Through the French doors, he watches Moira and the girls move around in the kitchen. Bea’s greeting was a stiff hug. Ted pats the badge on his chest. Lonnie had read it aloud, laughing, as she planted a kiss on his cheek while Bea just stood there. But Ted will fix this - the weekend will fix it.

He has a good fists-in-the-air stretch. What a place! The showstopper he hoped for, and a great deal, just out of season. Crunchy gravel drive, pillared entrance, sash windows, classy slate roof – pristine, not a chip. A recent refurb, he’d guess; clean. Modern but not gimmicky, rooms intact, none of this open-plan nonsense. A smooth lawn sweeps around the front of the deck. Ted lets out a long sigh. From the pool there’s a loud shout, he turns to give his grandchildren a wave which they don’t see. Forty years of marriage, three children, two grandchildren and here they all are. Champion.

The three Starling women gape around the kitchen.

‘Wow,’ they all say, uneasily, from the end of the table - a huge slab of dark oak flanked with high-backed chairs - at the far end a gleaming, cavernous sink, at their end a vast bay with a window seat and fat peach cushions. Double doors open out onto a wooden deck.  

‘Well,’ Moira says, half-question, half-statement.

‘In case we forget where we are,’ Lonnie nods at a wide, framed painting of sand, sea and sky stretching above the steps to the entrance hall.

‘I’ve got the same in my room,’ Bea says, ‘bit later in the day, sky’s more pink.’

And in the front room.’ Lonnie rolls her eyes. ‘Jeez, we’re at the coast, we get it.’

‘You can see the actual sea from the top bathroom,’ their mother says brightly, then she adds, ‘just.’

‘I can’t,’ Lonnie says with a grin, on her tiptoes, craning her neck. She’s small and curvy next to her mother and sister, both lean and tall.

‘I’ll give you a piggy-back,’ Bea says. Lonnie puts out her tongue and Bea’s surprised to see a tiny silver stud balanced on the pink flesh. That wasn’t there last time (though when was that?). Lonnie’s hair too is new, auburn this time. With her green eyes it might be her best combo yet. At twelve years younger, Bea can never get over her sister being a woman; where did Lonnie the girl go?

‘What about this, eh?’ All three startle as Ted flings open the double doors and stands there with his arms open, as though welcoming them, sleeves rolled up, his freckly forearms catching the light. He claps and rubs his hands together as he walks around the table, sink side, nodding eagerly.

‘Smashing, Dad,’ Lonnie says. Ted beams, skips lopsided up the steps and off for another tour.

‘He’s been really looking forward to this,’ Moira says, her hands clasped, looking hopefully between Bea and Lonnie, and back to Bea who widens her eyes, as Clem might do, Not my problem.

Lonnie and Moira open cupboards, unpack food bags. Moira just passed her first test in Beginner’s French, Lonnie’s working on the set for a modern re-make of ‘The Crucible’. Bea sits on a peach cushion in the window and watches Clem fling herself into the water, doubtful about the re-make of her life: no longer married, teaching biology instead of seeking a cure for cancer. There should be a word for it - a family thrown together through the years, at long intervals - like shedding your skin and trying to squeeze back into it; it’s too loose or too tight, no longer a fit. There’s definitely a word for the shedding. 

Tom skids through the double doors, dripping. Bea thinks of a pale daddy-long-legs.

‘Clem’s gonna teach me to backflip!’

‘You be careful,’ Moira says.

‘You be reckless,’ Bea says, and cuts off her mother’s protest. ‘Flick of the legs, right?’ she says to Tom.

‘Can you do one?’ he asks, incredulous.

‘The younger me could,’ Bea says. A version she would love to re-inhabit; the version of ten years ago: single, working in the biotech lab, planning for a Masters not a child. The life here is the one she’d like to shed. That’s it.

‘Desquamation,’ she announces. They all stare at her blankly. ‘Shedding the outmost layer of skin.’

‘Thanks Miss,’ Lonnie says. Tom shivers and gets an idea.

‘If I make it, if I actually do it, then you have to do one.’ His wet face is so serious Bea almost laughs.

‘You’re on,’ she says. She offers her hand and is surprised to find herself looking into her own bright blue eyes. How has she forgotten their shared eyes? They grin like conspirators and shake on it.

 

Doigdoigdoigdoig-domp. The sound of the diving board as Tom jumps and jumps, his back to the pool, then stops the board with bended knees. Moira watches from the kitchen, and hears Andrew shout ‘Go for it!’ and Tom say something back. She’s not seen Andrew and Lisa yet; Ted took them straight off for a walkabout. Moira hurries up the steps but stops still in the wide wooden entrance hall as she did when they first arrived. She turns a slow circle: a great long sofa in the sitting room, the staircase with thick curved bannister, solid kitchen table; space around you in every room. It brings back her arrival at the farmhouse when she was seven, the final wave of evacuations which she and her brother might not have been part of; a late snap decision by their mother. She almost telephones David to describe this place to him. 

From outside, Andrew and Ted shout to the kids in the pool. None of this would be happening if Moira and David had not gone to Duckworth Farm so long ago. The dark farm hallway, Buffalo the dog, the long kitchen with cold tiles, all of these open up in her mind. All of you she thinks, and it brings rare tears to her eyes. When she opens the front door she almost runs to Andrew and Lisa and pulls them to her, both at once.

Later that evening, with lit candles, the kitchen glows red and gold like Christmas and smells of Italy where none of them have been. Bea presses at the annoying dimmer switch, the room flares bright, she twists and lets go just above dim. Lonnie and Moira serve up bolognaise and garlic bread, the kids are pool-weary, the men have put on shirts, Bea pours the wine. From throne-like chairs they all compare rooms. In their Ensuite, Andrew and Lisa have a bath with curly legs and a shower. Lonnie’s four-poster has slim velvet curtains down the sides.

‘Like bars, or ropes,’ she says, wrinkling her nose, ‘it’s kind of kinky.’ Bea almost launches into who her sister might tie up, then thinks better of it. The kids wolf their food and disappear to the TV room, leaving a gap at the table. Bea has the urge to call them back; she’d like Clem on her lap as a shield, even though she’s too big. Head of the table, Ted talks loft-conversions while Andrew listens, patient, attentive. Growing up, Bea found her brother wet, lacking in opinions; as an adult it turned out to be generosity. Ted’s justifying his costs – Andrew does the accounts.

‘The extra beams are non-negotiable,’ Ted holds up a finger to make his point. ‘No chances,’ he says gravely.

‘Everyone’s safe, Dad,’ Andrew pats his father’s shoulder. ‘It’s not going to fall down.’

Ted winces, then nods, like Eyore. ‘That’s the idea.’ When he looks up he tries to catch her eye, and Bea pretends not to notice. She talks about school, next to her Lisa laughs at her classroom stories. Opposite, and with a lot of hand movement, Lonnie describes the play.

‘It’s a witch hunt, everyone guilty until proven innocent,’ she double-taps her heart, ‘it’s intense.’

‘How does it end?’ Moira asks. A typical Mum question, but a good one. Lonnie has to think.

‘John Proctor dies, it’s pretty sad,’ she waves a hand. ‘For the set it’s more about the beginning, setting the mood.’

‘Oh, well.’ Bea can see her mother isn’t satisfied. ‘And what’s the mood?’

‘Stripping back,’ Lonnie leans forward, ‘right to the emotional bones.’

‘Oh, well,’ Moira says again. Bea wants to laugh, then a familiar squirming starts in her stomach. She read the play at school - isn’t there some illicit sex that gets revealed? Christ. Dad will go weird. Your family remind you who you are, she read it somewhere recently. No, they remind you who they think you are, and you get stuck there. The candles flicker and the walls appear to twitch. She takes a gulp of wine, watches her sister and envies her being twelve years late. Maybe Bea should dye her hair?

Ting ting Andrew taps his glass and gets to his feet. Is he going to perform a magic trick? No, that’s Bea getting him stuck as a teenager. Touché she thinks grimly. Long face, thick eyebrows, ironed shirt, Andrew looks to Bea like a proper grown-up. She needs to go easy on the wine, no repeats of Andrew’s wedding, God forbid. Bea shudders at the memory, sinks down in her chair. Tom and Clem appear at the top of the steps. Bea waves Clem over, but she shakes her head and stays with her cousin.

‘Um. To Mum and Dad,’ Andrew says. ‘Congratulations!’ He sits down quickly, red-faced. Bea feels a rush of affection for him. They all reach for their glasses. Ted stands. He’s stocky compared to Andrew, his jaw square, his pale hair almost completely grey, a patch missing at the crown.

‘Forty years ago, I was at the edge of the dance floor, and with the best luck-’ 

‘Mum flew into your arms,’ Lonnie and Andrew say together.

Lonnie groans. ‘Dad, we know this! Someone called Bert barged her-’

He shushes her with a hand. ‘But it’s true,’ he looks at each of his children in turn as he continues. ‘Some stories are just stories, but this one actually happened,’ and here he meets Bea’s eyes. Before she can decide what look to give him, he moves on to Lonnie, winks. ‘And it’s a good one – the best. There I stood, Duke Ellington swinging the band, and Moira literally flew into my arms,’ he smiles at the memory, closes his arms in front of him, catching her again. ‘And somehow, through better and worse,’ he pauses, and for a horrible moment Bea thinks he’s going to list the details, ‘I’ve held onto her these forty years.’  Ted looks at his wife then with such tenderness Bea finds she has to look away. The feeling is growing inside her as she sits here among them. It’s not the usual defiant fire and light and energy. Tonight it’s a germ, a solid microbe: malignant.

‘To family,’ Ted says, with a thick voice, ‘and to the future.’ He sweeps his glass in a circle to include them all. Moira smiles at him, and lifts her glass bashfully to the group.

‘To you all,’ she says, ‘thank you for coming.’

‘To the Rubies,’ Lonnie says.

‘To backflips,’ Bea says with effort. The kids laugh loudly from the steps, Tom claps. Around the table the laughter is fluty, tentative. They raise their glasses and tip them back.         

*

Day two, and the four women have the sun loungers arranged on the far side of the pool. Bea took an early, unsatisfying swim, five strokes to a length, stymied just as she gathered momentum. It’s not quite sun lounger weather, gusty but bright, tipping towards autumn. Bea squints against the whitewash, she left her sunglasses upstairs. The deck tagged on the end of the house has the look of a lolling tongue.

‘Ted’s been working on a big house like this,’ Moira says, ‘they took out all the walls.’ Her dusky-pink polo neck peeks out from her coat. Always neat, Bea thinks. They’re all fully clothed apart from Lisa who has on a chiffony robe over bare crossed ankles and fuchsia toes like delicate fruit. Bea shivers.

‘Will we do a cliff walk?’ she says, ‘will we leave here at all?’ When no-one answers, she asks, ‘Is Dad still planning a refurb of Granny Dil’s house?’ The little house where Moira grew up. Where uncle David still lives.

‘I don’t think David would appreciate any bashing around,’ Moira says. ‘It’s not really a house, is it,’ she looks around the group, ‘without rooms.’

‘Definitions,’ Lonnie says, twirling her hair around her finger in a way that makes Bea think of Clem. ‘Is a play only a play if it has one, three or five acts?’

‘If I had a wetsuit, I’d go in the sea,’ Bea says.

‘I’ve never been to a real play,’ Moira says, ‘only a pantomime.’

‘A house is just a building,’ Lisa says, hugging her knees, ‘it’s the people that make it a home.’

‘We might have a funeral when we get home,’ Bea says, and the other three look at her. ‘Frisbee,’ she shrugs. ‘You never know.’

 

‘What was Granny Dil like?’

‘And how did she die?’ Clem and Tom have come to Bea for a straight answer. She’s an angel in heaven Moira will have told them, or similar. Goofy Tom, with Bea’s own eyes, Clem all innocence and freckles, hungry for gory details. If Granny Dil were here, all would be well. Bea knows this as surely as she knows the stratum corneum is the outer most layer of the epidermis. If only she had lived a few more years, three or four. Ten, fifteen.

‘Lung cancer,’ Bea says. ‘There was a lot of coughing.’ Then she adds, ‘I wish you’d both known her.’ The words are so true they choke her.

‘Dad gave me a pack of cards that were hers,’ Tom says, ‘with one missing. Eight of hearts. She drew on the hearts, around the joker, but she started too big and they get smaller at the bottom.’ Bea pictures the shrinking hearts, Granny inking them onto the card in her bony hand with all the rings. She clears her throat.

‘She was really funny,’ Bea says, ‘you two would have liked her a lot.’ She feels an overwhelming need to make this crystal clear. ‘And she would have got a big kick out of both of you.’ It’s an outrage she left Bea alone with the rest of them. Preposterous.

‘What does cancer do?’ Clem asks. Maybe her daughter will be the scientist.

‘The cells keep on dividing,’ Bea says. ‘They don’t know when to stop. They grow into a big lump. It comes down to faulty molecules. A protein, p53 for example.’ Bea sighs. ‘Bigger and bigger. And did she stop smoking?’ she puts up a hand. ‘That’s rhetorical.’ She shakes her head, her resentment growing. ‘Nope.’ How could she not have tried harder to stay a bit longer? ‘A lot of coughing. Phlegm for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’

‘Okay, okay,’ Tom says, unsure now.

‘She became thin as a skeleton,’ Bea says. ‘She was in a coma at the end. I talked to her but I can’t be sure she heard.’

‘Were you with her when she died?’ Clem asks, half appalled, half thrilled.

Bea had been with her. She had sat at the bedside and poured herself out. She told Granny Dil everything, because it was the last chance. Never before or since has she spilled herself in such a way.

She looks into her daughter’s face, death nowhere near either of them.

‘I was,’ she says.


 

In the Thunder Air by Fran Brosan

“The spot was made by nature for herself:

The travellers know it not, and ‘twill remain

Unknown to them; but it is beautiful,

And if a man should plant his cottage near,

Should sleep beneath the shelter of its trees,

And blend its waters with his daily meal,

He would so love it that in his death-hour

The image would survive among his thoughts.”

                            William Wordsworth, At Watersmeet, 1800. 

Lynmouth

 

Look down. 

Green.

There’s a magic to this place of peaty streams and standing stones. Of smooth moors that roll towards the sky.  Of freshets you can only hear, hidden by purple sedge, rising among the sprung heather and the sodden moss. Red iron stone, sudden valleys, patchwork fields.  Sheep scattered like pebbles across the landscape.                

Let’s follow this track, which stretches ancient across the moor; down through the tree-lined valley, its river spluttering over dark stones, past the deep pools where salmon and trout flick in the shadows.  Look down the northward-facing combes towards the sea.               

What can you see? 

On the delta, the town, a tiny trinket held in the palm of the river’s hand.  The tourists, disgorged by motor-cars and coaches, raise their umbrellas and pull up the collars of their coats.  They are determined to enjoy themselves, despite the weather.  They have set out to see this Little Switzerland, the Exmoor praised by Wordsworth and Shelley; where Coleridge dreamt of Kubla Khan, and Lorna Doone was shot at the altar. 

At the crossroads near the river, a man stands in a white coat and gloves, the rain dripping off his hat.  He is pointing the visitors to their destinations, as if directing traffic. That road to the right will take you to the harbour, the one to the left leads up the hill to Lynton, Watersmeet is back the other way.  The best view is at the top of the Cliff Railway, follow the road towards the sea.  Shelley’s Cottage?  Bear left at the grocery shop, the one with the striped awning.   

On the harbour wall a small group of people shelters by the Rhenish tower, looking back up the river, admiring the view inland. Follow their gaze upstream now, to where the river runs, fast and brown beneath the white houses, which grip tightly to the bank.  Follow it on, up to the moor and to the thunderous cloud which sits above it, swelling and shifting like a venomous medusa.

The storm is coming, a storm which will smash the accumulated hopes of hundreds of people: wreck homes, ruin livelihoods, shatter lives.  Predicted by nobody, a collision of weather fronts, exacerbated by the shape of the land.  It will behave as it must, run where it must, destroying as it goes.    

But that is yet to come.

This is where we’ll start. 

 

Monday 11th August 1952

 

Hannah’s return to Warren House is not how she had imagined it; the car sweeping up the driveway, hood down, crunching the gravel under its tyres; everyone watching as she arrives with Geoffrey in sunlit glory.

Instead, she is driven round the back so that he can park the car in the garage, out of the rain.  It has been raining solidly on the journey from Barnstable, has rained for the entire month he says.  There is so much water on the road that he has to slow, almost to a stop, on the tight bends.  They hurry in out of the wet, through a rear door and into the back hallway.  They dry their feet on the mat, just as they did when they were younger.  They leave their damp coats exactly where damp coats have hung since before the war.  They pass the kitchen, where Hannah can see Mrs. Webb, the cook, who was always kind to her; but there are other people in the kitchen who she doesn’t know, so she doesn’t go in to say hello.  She is unsure whether this new Hannah will eat in the kitchen, or fraternize with the staff, so she walks quietly behind Geoffrey, who carries her suitcase and her dress box.  Hannah carries a box containing a lampshade, holding it in front of her like a bomb that might go off at any moment.

***

The invitation had been so full of promise; gilt-edged card, the words embossed and glossy. 

 

Warren House, Lynmouth

Sir Charles and Lady Marianne Beaumont

request the pleasure of your company

to celebrate their daughter Mathilda’s 21st birthday

Saturday 16th August

Black Tie

 

On the back, in Tilly’s scrawly writing: Do come down early, it would be so lovely to see you before the hordes arrive!  And you can finally meet Tommy!

Geoffrey’s note, also enclosed, but rather different; simply offering to pick her up from the station.  No kiss.  No words of encouragement.  No indication of their ongoing correspondence, their periodic meetings, the hints he’d occasionally drop as he wrote about his future, his plans.

***

The sound of the post arriving rather unsettled Hannah, a tick she’d learnt from her parents, who flinched at the sound of the letterbox banging, or an unexpected knock on the door.  The more official looking the envelope, the greater their dread.  During the war, an evacuee, she too had anticipated the worst, the destruction of their home, death.  Her father’s handwriting seemed always to deliver bad news: business problems, ill health, internment.  Her mother wrote rarely, so anything she received in her mother’s hand she presumed would contain the death of her father, or Stefan her brother, perhaps both. Only Stefan’s writing on an envelope appeased her.  

The invitation however seemed full of good things, like Warren House itself.  She thought of the immense panelled hallway with its polished wooden floor, the way the light poured, golden, through the stained-glass window which presided at the top of the sweeping staircase.  The view of the bay, stretching across to the Welsh hills, and the sound of the sea. 

Would they serve drinks in the hallway, so that people could admire the staircase and stained-glass, or on the terrace overlooking the bay?  On the terrace, she decided.  It would be August after all.  Long summer evenings, and the smell of warm rhododendrons wafting up from the gardens.  She could see waitresses in white pinafores carrying silver trays, the sway of dresses and the sparkle of jewelry.  She could hear the chink of the glasses and the murmured conversation. 

Inevitably, even in this idealised film reel, Mrs Beaumont loomed large.  She would stand at the front door to watch Hannah’s arrival, would nod and turn away, telling someone else to show Hannah to her room. 

She’d tried explaining it all to Stefan, in her letters.  Not just the space and the light of the house, but the atmosphere, which varied between the friendly and the hostile.  On the friendly side were Mrs Webb, and Tilly; they’d become firm friends, despite being Tilly being two years younger. Also on the friendly side, as she began to know him better, Geoffrey.  Caroline, almost the same age as Hannah, was less welcoming, her mother resentful from the start. 

Maybe Mrs Beaumont simply hadn’t liked having someone foisted on her, Hannah had reasoned with herself.  Your husband is away at war, you are doing your best to maintain your hopes and your livelihood, and suddenly you are asked, maybe told, Hannah was never quite sure what the process was, that you must take someone else’s child into your family. 

Or was it more specific than that? Not that Mrs Beaumont had said anything expressly, but she had looked at Hannah with irritation when she said her father was interned and her brother couldn’t fight because he had been born in Hungary.  The words ‘enemy alien’ hung in the air.

***

The house is even larger than she remembers. It smells of pine trees and the salt air. They climb the main stairs, the ceiling arching over her head like a vault. They pass the stained-glass portrait of the pale lady in flowing robes, pass the master bedrooms with their wide windows and views of the sea. They pass the guest rooms and continue up the second staircase. Geoffrey shows her to the room which was always her room, under the eaves. He puts her suitcase on the stand, the dress box on her bed.

‘Will you be alright in here?’ he asks.

‘Yes, of course.’ 

‘You know where the bathroom is?’

‘Unless it’s moved since I was last here?’  She hopes he will get the joke, but his reply is serious,

‘Actually my parents have done quite a lot of improvements since the war, but they’ve left the bathrooms up here as they were.  The ones on the first floor have been updated though - would you like to see them?’

That is not what she wants. She wants him to shut the door and take her into his arms. Instead they are talking about bathrooms. 

‘I’ll see you downstairs then.  Drinks in the hall at six. Mummy has invited some of her business people, but it’s not formal or anything.  Just cocktail dress.’

‘You can’t stay?’

‘No, I’ve got…’ He hesitates, already halfway out of the door, ‘…things to do.’

He leaves with an apologetic smile.

Hannah drops the box containing the lampshade onto the bed. Perhaps, she thinks, if she puts the lampshade on her head and sashays down the stairs in her underwear, Geoffrey will pay her some proper attention.  

***

October 1940

In the hallway, the notes rose above the piano, floated upwards and rolled back again, tumbling like a river down the staircase.  The boy’s hands were steady, rhythmic, his long fingers reaching easily to the outer notes, his foot raising and lowering on the pedal.  A girl, her hair in a dark plait, sat by the side of the instrument, soaking up the sound, breathing in and out to the music, her eyes cast down, her hands in her lap.  The piano gleamed in its recess, its black lacquer lucent against the oak panelling.  

‘What do you think?’ Geoffrey asked.

Hannah couldn’t think what to say. In truth, she was more interested in leaning her head against the piano and inhaling his smell.  Clean was her first thought.  Was there a hint of tobacco?  She breathed in.   Perhaps.  She watched his fingers travelling across the notes, his knuckles slightly too big for his fingers.  She wondered if he’d grow into them, like a puppy grows into its paws. 

‘Did you like it?’ he asked.

She twisted the end of her plait in her fingers.  She had no views on the piece, didn’t know anything other than it looked extremely complicated to get your hands to move separately like that.

‘Is it difficult?’

‘Well, yes, it is quite difficult, particularly at first, until you get the hang of it.  But the more you practice, the easier it gets.’

There was a pause in which he spread his hands over the piano, his fingers rippling lightly over the keys. 

‘Anyway,’ he shrugged and closed the music, ‘it keeps me from having to study all the time.’ 

He sounded angry, some irritation she couldn’t quite grasp.  Hannah thought of her brother, only a few years older than Geoffrey, of how he spent all his time at the factory, how he studied late into the night. She didn’t think Geoffrey’s life was so bad, in comparison. 

‘Would you like a go?’

‘Me?’

‘Well, there’s no-one else around.’ He grinned at her. 

‘I don’t know.’

‘Come on, try.  Come and sit here.’ He stood and patted the piano stool, giving her no alternative. The stool was still warm when she sat on it, and she flushed, as if his heat had risen up through her body.  He was leaning over her.  That smell again.  She wondered what she smelled like to him.  

He took her right hand in his and placed her thumb on a note. 

‘Press that,’ he said, and she pressed her finger down, gently.  Nothing.  He pushed her finger down for her, more firmly, and the note rang out into the air.

‘Middle C,’ he said, as if satisfied somehow.  ‘That’s where you always start on a piano.  You go up and down from there.  Each of the white keys is a note and each of the black keys is a sharp or a flat.  I can write the notes down for you if you like.  You play each note in turn to begin with, and then, as you get better, you can play chords, like this.’  He pressed several notes down at the same time. 

‘You can learn the differences between the notes quite easily,’ he said, moving her fingers again.  ‘A third is Humpty Dumpty, for instance. Or a fifth is Baa Baa Black Sheep.’  He pushed her fingers down in turn to illustrate his point. 

Why was he teaching her nursery rhymes?  The idea that he thought her a child made her flush again.

‘Geoffrey!’

His mother, coming down the stairs, stood above them.  He jumped about a yard away from Hannah, as if he’d been discovered in some private, despicable act.  Hannah caught the end of Mrs Beaumont’s frown. 

‘I expect Mrs Webb has the tea ready,’ she said. ‘Go and wash your hands.  And Hannah you’ll need to go to your room and do your homework after tea and leave Geoffrey alone so that he can practice, if he is so intent on being able to play properly.’

Hannah glanced at Geoffrey.  To her satisfaction, he was blushing.  

‘You should learn some dance tunes darling, much more popular than that stuff.’ A waved, dismissive hand. 

‘Debussy,’ said Geoffrey quietly.

‘I liked it.’  Tilly ran down the stairs.  She shoved past her mother, span round the end of the banisters and plonked herself in Hannah’s lap. 

She was wearing jodhpurs and gave off a strong whiff of horses.

‘Play it again Goffey,’ she said. 

But Mrs Beaumont stood on the stairs, her hand outstretched, like a male ballet dancer ushering his partner off stage.  There would be no encore.  Pushing Tilly gently away, Hannah rose, slipping towards the kitchen and the back stairs.  She rarely used the main staircase.  Behind her Geoffrey was starting to practice a dance tune.

***

Geoffrey is sitting at the desk in the study, his head bowed. His hands, resting on top of a pile of papers, are joined as if in prayer. His mind is blank, if blank implies having no objective, no sense of direction. He wishes he could pray. His afternoon task is to sign the papers. ‘Acquisition of Hill Farm from the Knight Estate’, he reads on the topmost page. He knows he should read the rest of it, inspect the boundaries highlighted in red, review the prices agreed, peruse the detail of how much, how long, what, when. But not why. Nowhere in the paperwork is there an answer to his question of why. Of course the obvious answer is his mother, as it so often is; the acquisition is her desire, one of the steps she is making to reinforce their status locally, to establish them as major landowners in the area. All the things he knows his mother wants, and he doesn’t much care about.

His mother has plans to develop the land, she’s told him. It’s not enough to let it trickle along unprofitably with a few scant sheep when it could be turned into a proper agricultural concern. England needed food now more than ever, was her argument, even though rationing was coming to an end and the wartime blockades were over.

‘Food is still scarce, Geoffrey,’ she’d said, when she’d told him to sign. ‘Farmers are being looked to, to help put Britain back on its feet, without over-reliance on imported foods.’ She’d sounded like she’d ingested a government policy document. ‘There’s a lot that can be done with that farm, but Julian Harding has given me the heads up,’ she’d continued, dropping the peer’s name casually. ‘It’s likely to be incorporated into the National Park if they get the go-ahead in the next year or two. And then we won’t be able to expand the fields. I want to get on with it.’

He knows his mother. She would move the river if she needed to. She is like that hotelier in Lynmouth, he thinks, the one who changed the course of the West Lyn, boasting that if the river couldn’t make room for his hotel, it would have to get out of the way.

Geoffrey sighs. He’s got to read through this before he can relax. He unfolds his hands and bends his head to the task.

***

Hannah had not, after all, seen Lady Beaumont on her arrival, for which she was grateful. She would have had to present her with the lampshade and was unable to bear the idea that it might be witnessed by anyone else. She had wanted to bring a bottle of sherry, picturing the glass decanters that stood on the sideboard in the hallway at Warren House. But her mother had insisted. Lampshades made a home, they meant safety and belonging. Who would not want to give or receive one?

So Hannah took the lampshade, and the box which held her ball dress, and her suitcase to the station; moving sideways to avoid the people flowing in the opposite direction, keeping an eye on the station clock and the departures board to check and check again that the platform hadn’t been changed. There were plenty of men who were willing to help a good-looking girl struggling with her luggage, so she let a rather spivvy man help her into the carriage, hoping he wasn’t going to join her. She spread the boxes around her protectively. He’d hung around at the carriage door, deliberating, but to her relief a woman panted up to him just before the train left, taking his arm, as she glanced at Hannah, and steering him into another carriage. The idea of a long train journey with his hair-cream had not appealed.


 

Sins of Commission by Caroline Blyth

Prologue

Friday 15th May 1998

She let herself into the house and closed the door quietly behind her. The light was on in the sitting room, and she could hear murmuring voices and bursts of canned laughter emanating from the TV. Her flatmates were obviously still up. She tiptoed along the hallway and into her room, hoping they wouldn’t hear her or ask her where she’d been.

Throwing her bag on the floor, she flopped onto the bed. Despite her nerves earlier that evening, things had gone better than she’d expected. At first he’d looked pleased to see her. But when she started to speak, her carefully rehearsed words seemed to smack him across his slack-jawed face, and he crumpled before her eyes. After she finished saying her piece, she handed him the letter. He read it in front of her, and his eyes filled with tears. As she turned and walked away from him, she could hear his silly high-pitched voice stammering the name of his betrayer, over and over again.

She suspected her friends would be shocked if they knew what she had said to him. She was the quiet one in the group—the one they all teased because she wouldn’t normally say boo to the proverbial goose. But this was an emergency. She really had no choice. Desperate times called for desperate measures. And tonight had been one of those times. With any luck, he’d disappear and leave them all alone.

She turned onto her side and pulled her knees up to her chest. The Baby Bell alarm clock ticked quietly on the bedside table, its phosphorescent arms nudging each other towards ten o’clock. She was feeling cold, almost shivery, and a tiny pinprick of doubt began to needle at her thoughts. Had she done the right thing? Yes, of course she had. What was the alternative? If she hadn’t acted when she did, lives would have been ruined, and she wasn’t prepared to let that happen.

But later that night as she lay awake, unable to sleep, a sense of foreboding began to crawl across her skin like cold, bony fingers. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d set something in motion. Something that couldn’t be halted until it overwhelmed them all.

 

Thursday 8th December 2022

Chapter 1: Dylan

Dylan was in his bedroom, staring at himself in the wardrobe mirror. A short, ginger-haired figure stared back, challenging him to find fault. He should really be getting ready for work, but over the past few years, this daily encounter had become part of his morning ritual. His old therapist would have approved.

Clearing his throat, he began to speak. “I like my life. I’ve come a long way. I think I’m doing just fine, and I believe in myself. I, uh, I’m a beautiful person, inside and out.” He paused. “Apart from my hair. Which is a mess right now. But I’ll get it cut soon, I promise.”

After a quick nod to his reflection, he walked over to his desk. A viola lay in its open case, and he plucked its strings absentmindedly before heading downstairs. His mum was standing by the kitchen table, rifling through her handbag. As usual, she’d left him out a box of cereal and a bowl. One of her not-so-subtle reminders, although, to be honest, he didn’t mind.

“Right, I’m off.” His mum picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Will you be in for your tea tonight? I thought I’d do your dad’s favourite—macaroni cheese.”

“Sounds good.” He nodded. “See you later, Mum.”

As soon as he heard his mum’s car drive off, he put the cereal box back in the cupboard and moved the bowl to the dish rack. He’d get something to eat later. He made himself a coffee and stood leaning against the kitchen worktop, wondering what to do. It was five to eight. He usually caught the bus at twenty to nine, which got him to work with minutes to spare. But if he took the earlier one, he might see Bella. It was Thursday, and he knew she had a nine o’clock lecture.

He made up his mind and took a gulp of coffee, burning his tongue in the process, then he poured the rest down the sink and went to get his coat.

He left the house and walked towards the bus stop, his tongue still tingling. It wasn’t quite light yet, and a thin mist hung in the air, nipping at his cheeks. He felt vaguely ill—he always did at this time of year, as though he were allergic to those bitter night-mornings that overstayed their welcome during the long winter months. He’d start feeling better in an hour or so once the sun had made an appearance and woken up the day.

The St Fillans bus was trundling towards him just as he got to the stop, and he stuck out his hand. The driver slowed to a halt and the doors clattered open. “On you come, son,” he called. Dylan hopped aboard, glad to be out of the cold.

There was only one other passenger, and she was sitting in the seat directly behind the driver. It was Nadia, one of the college’s canteen staff. He gave her a quick smile before going to sit at the back of the bus. Hardly worth it for such a short journey, but he was rubbish at small talk. He laid his head against the window, watching as his breath made a steamy circle on the glass. He drew a frowny face with his fingertip then rubbed it away with his sleeve.

Fifteen minutes later, the bus arrived at St Fillans. Dylan and Nadia got off, but Dylan hung back to let Nadia scurry ahead. After a few moments, he crossed the road and made his way towards a large Victorian house sitting in generous grounds. St Fillans Theological College—his workplace. Veiled in the misty dimness of the dawn light, it looked more like a haunted house than an esteemed place of learning. As he trudged up the gravel driveway, a gang of crows cawed indignantly from their perches in the trees. It sounded as though they were warning him to stay well away.

To the right of the college’s front door stood a small wooden bench. He’d seen Bella sitting on it whenever she arrived early, her usual can of cherry cola clamped tightly in her hand. But she wasn’t there today. He stood, chewing his lip, his eyes trained on the front gate.

Ten minutes passed, and still no Bella. Other students had started to arrive, turning up early to grab tea and a bacon roll in the college canteen before their nine o’clock lecture. They walked up the drive towards him, chattering quietly amongst themselves, their breath hanging like vape clouds in the cold morning air. As they reached the front door, Dylan returned their cheery greetings with an awkward smile, relieved they didn’t ask him why the hell he was freezing his arse off loitering outside.

He waited until five past nine. It was time to go—he was late for work. The day felt spoiled already. He went in the front door and across the foyer, nearly bumping into Jack the janitor who had emerged from the cleaners’ cupboard carrying a bucket and mop. The black and white tiled floor was decorated with a filigree of muddy footprints, and Jack looked at it, shaking his head. “Don’t know why they have to make such a bloody mess, eh?”

Dylan didn’t know what to say. What did Jack expect everyone to do—fly through the air like big birds? No, not birds—this was a theology college. He looked up and pictured the narrow corridors jammed with angelic forms, all beating their wings noisily as they flew from classroom to classroom. Mid-air collisions would be inevitable, though, especially among the older members of staff. Then Jack would likely start moaning about all the feathers he had to sweep up.

Dylan was still smiling to himself as he reached the door at the end of the corridor. He paused for a moment then turned the handle and went in. It was a spacious room, the creamy white walls lined to waist height with thick oak panels. A candelabra-style light hung from the centre of the corniced ceiling, its pale-yellow shades washing the room in a warm buttery light.

To his left, Margaret Aitken, the college administrator, sat at her desk, squinting into her computer screen. She had been at St Fillans for nearly forty years, first as a student then working in the office, and she would remind everyone about this whenever she had the chance. “I’m in with the bricks!” she’d exclaim, and the other staff members would joke with her about life sentences, hard labour, and long-service medals. Dylan, meanwhile, would do his best to laugh along with them, even though he secretly believed that Margaret was overrated. Her official title was Administrative Team Leader, which was ludicrous given that the so-called team comprised of only him and her.

He’d been working at St Fillans for five months now. After leaving school two years ago, he’d staggered from one job to another, never quite sure what he wanted to do or even what he was good at. But so far, he thought things were going okay here. Some of the staff were a bit of a pain—Margaret being the prime example—but he’d surprised himself by sticking it out. And, if he were being honest, he quite enjoyed the daily routine—it gave him a sense of steadiness that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

“Morning Dylan, good of you to put in an appearance.” Margaret lifted her eyes briefly from the screen and gave him a tight smile.

“Sorry, I was, uh, talking to Jack.” He walked over to his desk and sat down in front of his computer. Typing in his password, he brought the screen to life, unveiling the last thing he’d looked at yesterday before he’d left for the day. It was a website called Soul Search, and its homepage was decorated with a picture of Jesus, who, rather inexplicably, was sitting astride a motorcycle and waving a rainbow flag. The tagline read For LGBTQIA Christians With More Questions Than Answers. Dylan closed the window quickly—Margaret had the habit of coming across to his desk and peering over his shoulder while he was working. The website had been useless anyway. He did have questions—lots of them—but the answers were proving elusive.

The office door opened, and he looked up. A tall dark-haired woman walked in, carrying a paisley pattern travel mug. It was Jane Buchanan, deputy principal of St Fillans, doing her morning rounds.

“Good morning, you two. How are you both today?”

“Good morning, Jane.” Margaret beamed. “We’re very well, thanks. And you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Lots to keep me busy. I’m trying to organize a student wellbeing workshop, but it’s more complicated than I thought.” She chuckled. “Not so good for my own wellbeing!”

“Can we do anything to help?” Margaret started getting up from her seat, ready to spring into action.

“No no, it’s fine. I just need a quick word with Dylan.” She moved over to his desk and patted his shoulder. “And how are you doing?”

“I’m fine thanks.” He noticed she’d painted her nails a dark orangey red that matched the cardigan she was wearing.

“I wanted to check the arrangements for Professor Craigie’s retirement party. Did you manage to get the food organized?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so.” He shuffled through a pile of papers lying on his desk until he found what he was looking for. “Here’s the menu.” He held it out to her. “I’ll confirm it with the caterers today.”

Jane leant forward and scanned the sheet of paper. “It all sounds delicious. And I’m glad to see they’ve included chocolate mousse and chocolate cake in the dessert options. You can never have too much chocolate, in my opinion at least.” She smiled at him. “Actually, that reminds me. I’ve got a stash of chocolate biscuits hidden away in my office that I need to get back to before my coffee goes cold. I’ll leave you both to it.” She turned and walked out the office, giving Margaret a wave as she left.

Dylan lowered his head, aware that Margaret was staring at him, but he pretended not to notice. She had asked him to contact the caterers yesterday, but he’d kept putting it off. The thought of talking to strangers on the phone always got him flustered. He waited for the administrator’s rebuke, but after a few moments of silence, he heard her tapping away pointedly on her computer keyboard.

He opened his desktop calendar and checked what else he had to do today. The end-of-semester exams were coming up in a few weeks’ time, and he needed to print off the exam papers. That wouldn’t take him long. He also had to order more Bibles for their newest lecturer, Monica Tate. Monica had arrived at St Fillans five months ago after a brief and unsatisfactory stint at a seminary in Oxford. She taught biblical studies and seemed decent enough, although Dylan found her rather intense. Like with these Bibles. She’d asked him to order some Bibles for the students to use in her class. Dylan had told her that there were boxes full of Bibles in the storeroom—did she want to use them? But no, apparently, she did not. “I want the New Revised Standard Version, not those archaic Authorized Versions you seem to have here. I refuse to teach my students with a Bible that doesn’t use gender-inclusive language.” Dylan wasn’t sure what she was talking about but had agreed to make the order for her.

Andrew Ballantyne, one of the college’s professors, had been in the office at the time and overheard her request. “Bloody feminists taking over the place,” he’d sputtered after Monica had left the room. “Better watch yourself, Dylan, they’ll be burning us both at the stake before long!” Dylan had ignored him. He suspected the professor was secretly jealous of Monica’s Oxford connections, because his eyes would narrow every time she mentioned her old workplace. Which she did, pretty often.

Opening the website for the book supplier, he typed in the college’s account details. After finding the Bibles Monica wanted, he ordered twenty of them for her. Then, after a moment’s hesitation, he typed Ballantyne’s name and office phone number in the box where the recipient’s contact details went. There was no harm in making a little mischief every now and again.

He looked at his watch. Half past nine. He’d take his morning break just before ten. With any luck, he’d see Bella.

 

Chapter 2: Kate

Kate yawned. She didn’t cope well with early starts, especially in the winter. And it probably didn’t help that she’d lain awake half the night, her mind fidgety with fractured dreams. Now, sitting in the nurses’ staff room, her head was aching and she couldn’t get warm, as though the morning chill had soaked through her clothes and attached itself to her skin.

She swivelled in her chair to face the electric heater, but its thin heat and sickly orange glow just made her headache feel worse. Hugging herself, she could feel her ribs beneath the woollen folds of her cardigan. She leaned forward and closed her eyes, wishing she were back in bed.

The staffroom door clicked open, and Kate sat up, wincing as her head thumped in protest at the sudden movement. A woman walked in, her low heels squeaking softly on the shiny linoleum floor. It was Jenny Stratton, the charge nurse of Glenview Mental Health Unit and Kate’s aggravating boss.

“Are you nearly finished your break, Kate? Gus needs to get to St Fillans for his ten o’clock tutorial. You’re cutting it fine as it is.” Jenny sounded breathless, as though Kate’s temporary absence had taken its toll.

“No problem,” Kate said. “I’ll just nip for a ciggie. Should have plenty of time to get to St Fillans by ten.” She stood up, grabbing her coat off the back of the chair. As she headed out the door, she felt the other woman’s eyes graze over her.

“You’ve been working here for over three months, Kate. You should know the Glenview dress code by now.” Jenny followed her into the corridor. “I’ve told you before, nursing staff should not be wearing leggings and Doc Marten boots.” She paused. “And for the last time, would you take that blasted stud out of your nose!”

“Okay, sorry Jenny.” Kate tried to sound penitent. She shrugged on her coat and walked to the back door. Tapping in the security code on the keypad, she waited to hear the familiar whirr and click before butting the door open with her shoulder.

Outside, the air was heavy with wood smoke and the dregs of dawn mist. Kate fumbled in her pocket for her pack of cigarettes, her fingers cold and clumsy. Lighting up, she inhaled deeply and looked across the back garden. In the far corner, a figure in dark blue overalls was raking crunchy leaves into a neat pile. He caught sight of her and gave a wave. She waved back and took another draw of her cigarette.

Had she really been here three months? Since she’d come back to Scotland, the time seemed to have flown by. Then again, so much had happened. A new job, a new house, and, she hoped, a new Kate. She’d been lucky to get this job, especially after taking such a long break from nursing. It had helped that Frederik, her best pal, already worked here. He’d promised to sing her praises to Jenny, and it had obviously worked. Mind you, he hadn’t warned the charge nurse about Kate’s love of Doc Martens. And nose studs.


 

The Exceptions by Frances Merivale

Before

February 1966, Lywood Manor

She’d moved to a corner in the vegetable garden where she could see Lywood Manor, but no one could see her. The flames were just visible now in the top corner of the school. Tess could still feel the heat of it in her chest as she crouched among the rows of runner beans held up by bamboo sticks that gleamed in the moonlight like old bones. She checked the baby’s breathing again. He was squirming so much she had to pull him out of the cloth sling, his body hot and crumpled, his breath flickering as if he’d just been born. She held him over her shoulder and patted his sweat-damp back as she waited for Vinnie to emerge from the house. It killed her to think he’d get some kick out of this – banging on doors, releasing dozens of boys onto the drive fast as smoke.

Now, they all stood there on the gravel like bare saplings after a storm. Was this all of them? She tried to count, but the smoke stung her eyes. How long before anyone realised who was missing? An image of her sister trapped in a top window flew at her, but she swatted it aside. It was just flames coughing up ghosts. The baby had gone eerily quiet, his head twisted towards the action. Waiting.

At last, there was Vinnie, expelled from the door. As he stood upright and looked back, she saw. It wasn’t glory he was doing this for, it was Lywood. It had always been Lywood. And then the enormity of what she’d done engulfed her and it became harder to breathe. She got the baby back into the sling, tying him tight, and pushed through the well-worn gap in the hedge that led to the road. If Vinnie called for her, the sound was drowned out by the wail of the fire engine approaching. She stood back in the scrub out of sight, clasping the baby’s head to her ribs until it passed. The hard rush of the siren stayed in her ears as, up ahead, she caught a last glimpse of Spike Cassidy running away across the opposite field. His gait halting, his white-blonde hair a fallen halo.

She needn’t run. Everyone would believe this was his doing.

 

Now

May 1979, London

The call came after lunch, but they told Tess not to rush. Her son was sitting in the school office with an iced cloth on his head and, apparently, he’d be fine.

It was a ten-minute cycle to the school, but Tess could do it in seven. She pedalled away from the workshop, eying the fat fist of cloud overhead. She should have brought an anorak; her suede jacket would be ruined. The cloud swelled and thunder rumbled. It’d been doing this all week, storms flicking on and off like some God playing with a lighter. Tess pedalled faster and took a left off the main road, thinking how Jonah wasn’t the kind of boy to get punched.

‘Some of the kids have been asking why he doesn’t have a father around,’ Mrs Fenton had told her on the phone, but she wouldn’t expand. ‘A matter best discussed in person,’ she’d said. Tess didn’t like discussing things in person. This was one of the reasons she engraved gravestones for a living.

A bigger clap of thunder and the sky opened. Rain slashed down and Tess was relieved to reach the park and get under the canopy of trees. Up ahead, the Forest School kids were being clipped to a leash, which she couldn’t help feeling went against the ethos of the place. Forest School in Battersea, what a con. There were about five square-miles of untended growth around there, the rest was rows of terraced houses and perfectly well-planned green space. She’d moved here just before Jonah was born, thinking it was suitably anonymous, but then Pink Floyd went and stuck a flying pig over the power station and the progressive rockers moved in. Not perfectly well-planned at all. And now Jonah had taken a hit. Jonah, a boy who kept interactions with his peers to a minimum. Perhaps this was progress. A sign that he’d not gone completely unnoticed.

Another crack of lightning brought hailstones with it. Tess wiped her face and pedalled on, past the homemade-looking woman holding the reins upfront and the swarm of small, wet beings in her wake. Puddles the size of ponds had formed in the dips in the path. The hailstones bounced off Tess’s jacket too, stinging her face but making the rest of her feel momentarily waterproof as she came out from under the trees and turned down the alley towards the school. At the gate, mothers who still had siblings in the primary clustered under umbrellas, clutching car keys and homemade snacks. She glanced around for anyone who might like her enough to share an umbrella. There was Holy Harriet by the wall, her glasses misty. Rosaline had the usual huddle around her, her long golden hair glowing even on a day as dark as this. Tess would have liked to sculpt her, her large, indigo-draped presence and red lips. All drama and no substance. And yet all the mothers were drawn to her, or rather the ones she’d selected were. Tess had not been selected.

She clutched the handlebars, deciding she’d rather be wet than in conversation. The gates opened and children emerged in a gush. Tess propped her bike against the wall and made her way through to the office. What about the other boy? Would his mother be here too? A lot of them walked home by themselves now they’d transferred to the secondary but Jonah still liked Tess to pick him up. She wiped rain off her face and ruffled her hair. She regretted the bob. It didn’t just hang there the way her long hair used to.

‘Mrs O’Connell, thank you for coming,’ said Mrs Fenton, the school secretary.

Miss O’Connell,’ Tess corrected. Jonah hated it when she did that, but she hadn’t seen him yet. Mrs Fenton was a neatly dressed woman with an expression that hung towards disapproval. She too had a bob, but she was dry and married and had the upper hand.

‘How’s Jonah?’ Tess asked.

‘It’s a nasty bruise, but he’ll live.’

‘And the other boy?’

‘Danny Brown. Not too badly hurt, thankfully. It was Jonah who hit out first, he’s admitted that.’

‘After Danny said something about his father?’

Mrs Fenton reminded Tess of her mother, the way her lips were pulled like laces. ‘Honestly, I’m surprised something like this hasn’t happened before now.’

‘Jonah is hardly a violent boy.’

‘I know, dear.’ Mrs Fenton offered a confidential smile. ‘But we wondered if he might benefit from some time with the school counsellor.’

‘But what about Danny? Surely he shouldn’t have been teasing him in the first place.’ He’s the bully here, she wanted to shout, but she knew better than that. Being at Lywood had taught her better than that.

‘We’ll be speaking to Danny’s parents too.’ Mrs Fenton put deliberate stress on the plural ‘parents’, placing the boy’s functional family in the room.

‘Can I see him?’ Tess peered over the reception desk and saw Jonah had been sitting there all along, his hand clutching a dripping cloth at the side of his head. She put her hand to her own head in sympathy. Jonah saw her and got up. Mrs Fenton let him out and he headed straight for Tess and headbutted into her. She grasped him close, his hair at her shoulder, the icy water from the cloth mingling with her rain-soaked clothes.

‘Let me see,’ she said, leaning back from him, but Jonah wouldn’t move the cloth. He let out an involuntary shudder.

‘Be brave now, Jonah,’ said Mrs Fenton. ‘Show your mother how brave you’ve been.’ She turned to Tess. ‘He hasn’t cried at all. This is only coming on because you’re here.’

‘And that’s a bad thing?’

Mrs Fenton tapped her hip. ‘I just worry that without a father around…’

‘He has a father,’ Tess snapped. She pulled Jonah towards the door.

Mrs Fenton cleared her throat. ‘We’ll need the cloth please, Jonah.’

Jonah looked round, holding on to it.

‘You won’t be able to ride your bike one-handed like that, will you,’ she said brightly. ‘There’s a good chap.’

Jonah released his grip on the cloth and Tess tried not to wince as she got a view of the purpling bruise. It was on the side that the sweep of fringe didn’t cover, which was unfortunate.

Outside, the rain had eased. A couple of mothers were trying to persuade their children to stop kicking a wet tennis ball over a puddle and come home.

‘Go and get your bike,’ said Tess, retrieving hers from the wall as she waited for him. It didn’t take him long to join her. ‘What did Danny say to you?’ she asked as they pushed their bikes together towards the alley.

‘He doesn’t believe I have a dad.’

‘So what did you tell him?’

They passed a huddle of younger children and their mothers. Jonah knew not to speak freely in earshot of anyone else. One of the mothers looked directly at Tess, the floaty woman with white-blonde hair she’d seen staring at her a few times. What was with her?

‘Excuse me?’ the woman asked, adjusting a flapping umbrella as she blocked Tess’s path. She was a slight figure with her hair in a plait, wearing a skirt so long it was mopping the pavement. ‘I’m Penny,’ she said. ‘My daughter Bow is in Class 6.’

Bow, yes, the name rang a bell. This was the woman who called her daughter Rainbow and moved her out of the Forest School earlier in the year. The only other single mother at the local Catholic primary.

Rainbow smiled between her white-blonde plaits and something about her was eerily familiar.

‘I’ve been hoping to catch you,’ said Penny. ‘I don’t mean to pry, but did you ever go to a school called Lywood?’

Tess felt as if a match had been lit inside her.

There was a flash of lightning and Penny rolled her eyes at the sky. ‘Sorry, bad timing,’ she said. ‘Tess O’Connell, isn’t it? I’m sure I recognise you. I have these photographs from Lywood -’

‘What photographs?’

‘My brother took them. Michael Cassidy – but everyone called him Spike. No one’s heard from him since the fire. I’m sure you remember the story…’

Tess glanced at Jonah, who was getting impatient. ‘I’m sorry, I have to go.’

Penny took in Jonah’s swollen eye. ‘Golly, is he ok?’

‘He has a piano lesson at 4.’ Tess mounted her bike and Penny dug into her handbag and handed Tess a card.

‘Perhaps you could give me a call,’ Penny said, her eyes suddenly dewy. ‘My family wrote Spike off years ago, but I’ve always hoped to find him -’

Tess glanced at the card. Penny Cassidy, Editor, Battersea Weekly. A journalist? She nudged Jonah’s bike with her front wheel to move him along. ‘I think you’ve got the wrong person.’ She pedalled on.

The rain let up as they came out from the alley and crossed the road to the park.

‘Why didn’t you want to speak to her?’ Jonah asked.

‘I don’t know her brother.’

Jonah studied his mother for a moment, as if he knew she was lying, then pedalled off, spraying through two large puddles, and a memory swept over Tess of Spike’s face just before he took off. The sudden clarity of purpose.

Penny Cassidy. Spike barely spoke about his family, but then nobody did. At Lywood, it was as if everyone had landed on this planet with no relations at all.

‘Jonah, wait!’ Tess freewheeled down the hill and caught up with him outside the park gates where he was waiting by the curb. ‘What did you say to Danny?’

Jonah shrugged. ‘I told him I have a dad, of course.’

Tess waited. Inhaled. Jonah fiddled with his brakes.

‘He went on about me looking like a girl because of my hair so I told him my dad has long hair. Then he laughed and said, ‘What is he, a rockstar or something?’ and all his friends started laughing and I wanted to shut them up so I said, ‘Actually he is.’’

‘Jonah…’

He glared at her from beneath the swelling. ‘I didn’t tell them who!’

Tess was stiff all over, her hands tense from her slippery grip on the bike.

‘They kept asking and going on and on about it. You can’t expect me to say nothing forever.’

‘Jonah, you know why…’

‘What’s the big deal? He’s not even that famous anymore.’ Being angry seemed to increase the swelling around his eye.

‘Let’s get home,’ she said.

‘Maybe I’ll just tell them. Maybe then they’ll back off.’ He kicked a pedal with one foot.

‘Just ignore them, Jonah. They’re idiots.’ She kicked her own pedal too. It was as if she was a new mother all over again, alone with no clue how to handle any of this.

‘They’re not idiots,’ said Jonah. ‘They’re just curious, that’s all. They want to know.’

Tess stared at him. Sometimes having a child was like being hit, the way they surprised you like this. A couple of cars drove past, the wheels spraying the puddles. Jonah blinked and wiped his face and for a second he looked as if he might cry, but he kept it in and pushed his bike off the curb.

‘You can’t tell them, you know that,’ she urged him. ‘It’s for your dad’s sake.’

But Jonah ignored her, his thick hair hanging lopsided just like Vinnie’s as he pedalled across the road.

 

Then

August 1964, Lywood Manor

Tess made sure she sat on the lefthand side in the back of the car so that her father couldn’t catch sight of her in the rear-view mirror. Her mother sat tense in the passenger seat, keeping her eyes on the road. This had been Tess’s idea – to apply to be the first girl at Lywood Manor, a rehabilitation school for some of Britain’s ‘disturbed and disturbing boys.’ Since she’d been expelled from St Margaret’s after a series of antisocial incidents she had to find somewhere to go before her parents sent her to board at Daughters of the Holy Ghost.

On the first pass, Jerry missed the entrance and they had to circle back on themselves until they saw again the overgrown hedge that hid Lywood from view. This time, he turned up the gravel drive that led to a timbered black and white house with gable roofs, a long lawn with a pond at the end that looked large enough to jump into. The older part of the building was Jacobean, the rest a Victorian imitation tagged on. The bay windows overhung, one of them on the verge of collapse so that it had to be supported on struts like an ancient tree. Tess eyed it warily. This was a place for people who were falling apart.

Ahead of them, a scattering of boys glanced up from their horizontal positions on the lawn. They looked like a strange tribe, dressed in tatty clothes with hairstyles that mimicked the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but took it one step further so that they looked like vagrants or – even worse – like girls.

‘Perhaps you won’t be the only girl here after all,’ Tess’s mother remarked, pleased with her own wit. Ever since Tess told her that girls could attend Lywood, Linda had become intrigued by the idea. If there was no hope of Tess reaching her sister’s academic standards, she could at least be a pioneer.

Jerry parked but kept the engine running. Lywood made him anxious and this was one of the reasons it appealed to Tess. A boy he’d been at school with had come here after a nervous breakdown back in the early 50’s – around the time of the Craig-Bentley case. Two boys from an ordinary family in a respectable suburb had gone out one night and killed a policeman. The whole country had been disturbed, not only because one of the boys was hanged for it, but because crimes of this nature were being reported every day. Decent parents read the newspapers and wondered: If it happened in that home, why not in mine? What if I don’t know my own child?

Tess pulled her sleeves down over her hands. To her mind, there was an angle people were missing: What if those boys went off the rails because they couldn’t talk about what was really going on at home?

At last, her father cut the engine and ran his hands through his hair. ‘I’m not at all sure about this,’ he muttered.

Jerry had bushy, brown hair and broad shoulders, a face that looked as if it suffered from water retention. He was the kind of man who wore old jumpers given to him by friends – the kind of man who had friends who gave him old jumpers. Linda, meanwhile, was not the kind of woman to be given anything by anyone except the correct change and a receipt.

‘We can’t go on as we are,’ said Linda, adjusting her cardigan over her shoulders to hide the slight sagging of her arms.

Tess was physically unlike either of her parents. Her figure was boyish, her face slight and triangular. She’d turned seventeen earlier in the summer, but her chest was still quite flat, her hips small, and since losing her sister she’d grown thin. She peered out of the passenger window at the house and a couple of unshaven teenagers peered back through cracked, leaded windows. Out on the drive, a blond boy was sharpening a stick with a hunter’s knife.

‘That looks lethal,’ Jerry murmured.

Linda tutted, gave the door handle a brisk tug and got out. ‘Come on Tess, this is what you wanted.’

But for a piercing moment, all Tess wanted was for Sadie to be alive again, for things to be as they were. Broken, but two of them. Perhaps she was the one who needed to come here, Tess thought as she got out and stood awkwardly beside her mother on the gravel.

The blond boy stopped sharpening his stick to look at her. He was wearing an old leather jacket with tassels on the breast pockets, faded jeans and a flat cap. Tess was in the black shift dress she’d worn religiously since Sadie’s funeral. Her long, black hair was tied back and her eyes were still sooty with yesterday’s make-up.

Linda squeezed her daughter’s arm and went to knock on the front door. Tess felt the imprint of her touch. It was more punishing than tender and she wondered again how much her mother blamed her for what happened to Sadie.

‘Tess, are you sure we’ve got the right day?’ she said.

A kitchen window was pushed open by an older boy who struck Tess as familiar.

‘Are you looking for Doc?’ he asked.

‘Mr Dean, yes,’ said Linda. ‘We have an appointment for my daughter.’

‘He’s with the new kid over by the water,’ he said, pointing beyond the ragged bunch of boys on the lawn to the pond. The new boy, Sydney, Tess later learned, had arrived a week earlier wearing five vests for protection. It hadn’t helped that on his first day a loose tile had fallen on his head, which he’d presumed was part of everyone’s initiation treatment.

When Tess and her mother showed no sign of moving, the boy from the window came round to open the front door. ‘I’m Vinnie,’ he said.

Dressed in some kind of peasant’s blouse over torn jeans, he had dark hair down to his shoulders and deep-set eyes. Tess’s first thought was that he was neither staff nor pupil but something entirely else.

‘Do you work here?’ she asked.

‘Not exactly.’ He had the kind of magnetism that drew the air in around him.

‘He’s Doc’s nephew,’ said the boy with the knife. ‘Special privileges.’

From somewhere deep inside the house, Roy Orbison was singing Pretty Woman on the wireless. It made Tess wish she’d freshened up her make-up.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked the boy with the stick.

‘Spike.’

She glanced at the stick. ‘Are you kidding?’

‘He’s Michael,’ said Vinnie. ‘Or Mike. But everyone calls him Spike.’

Spike glared.

‘I’m Linda O’Connell and this is my daughter, Tess.’ Linda straightened her shoulders in a manner that suggested she wanted Tess to do the same. What Tess wanted was to have a knife like that boy had and something to shape with it. All she could think about was whether this activity was allowed here or whether Mr Dean was about to storm over and expel the boy at once.

‘Are you coming here then?’ Spike asked, tugging the blade over a knot in the wood. ‘I heard they want girls to come here now. But none of them have.’

She took a leaflet out of her pocket. With support from Heathfield Trust, Lywood Manor is opening its doors to girls from September 1964. Please telephone to arrange an interview.

‘Has no one else come?’ Tess asked.

‘Not yet.’


 

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