We can never go back, that much is certain.The past is still too close to us. The things we have tried to forget and put behind us would stir again, and that sense of fear, of furtive unrest, struggling at length to blind unreasoning panic – now mercifully stilled, thank God – might in some manner unforeseen become a living companion, as it had been before.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
Thomas Osbert Mordaunt,
quoted by Mr Justice Marshall
in his summing-up at the Stephen Ward trial,
30 July 1963
Part One: February 2009
Part Two: July 1963
Part Three: February 2009
Part Four: March 2009
By the same author
About the Publisher
If you close your eyes, perhaps you can still see them. As they were that sundrenched afternoon, the day everything changed.
Outside the house, in the shadows by the terrace, when they thought no one was looking. Mary is in the kitchen making chicken salad and singing along to Music While You Work on the Home Service. There’s no one else around. It’s the quiet before lunch, too hot to do anything.
‘Come on,’ she says. She is laughing. ‘Just one cigarette, and then you can go back up.’ She chatters her little white teeth together, her pink lips wet. ‘I won’t bite, promise.’
He looks anxiously around him. ‘All right.’
She has her back to him as she picks her way confidently through the black brambles and grey-green reeds, down the old path that leads to the sea. Her glossy hair is caught under the old green and yellow towel she has wrapped round her neck. He follows, nervously.
He’s terrified of these encounters – terrified because he knows they’re wrong, but still he wants them, more than he’s wanted anything in his life. He wants to feel her honey-soft skin, to let his hand move up her thigh, to nuzzle her neck, to hear her cool, cruel laugh. He has known a couple of women: eager, rough-haired girls at college, all inky fingers and beery breath, but this is different. He is a boy compared to her.
Oh, he knows it’s wrong, what they’re doing. He knows his head has been turned, by the heat, the long, light evenings, the intoxicating almost frightening sense of liberation here at Summercove, but he just doesn’t care. He feels truly free at last.
The world is becoming a different place, there’s something happening this summer. A change is coming, they can all feel it. And that feeling is especially concentrated here, in the sweet, lavender-soaked air of Summercove, where the crickets sing long into the night and where the Kapoors let their guests, it would seem, do what on earth they want . . . Being there is like being on the inside of one of those glass domes you have as a child, visible to the outside world, filled with glitter, waiting to be shaken up. The Kapoors know it too. They are all moths, drawn to the flickering candlelight.
‘Hurry up, darling,’ she says, almost at the bottom of the steps now in the bright light, the white dots on her blue polka-dot swimming costume dancing before his eyes. He clings to the rope handle, terrified once more. The steps are dark and slippery, cut into the cliffs and slimy with algae. She watches him, laughing. She often makes him feel ridiculous. He’s never been around bohemian people before. All his life, even now, he has been used to having rules, being told when to wash behind his ears, when to hand an essay in, used to the smell of sweaty boys –
now young men – queuing for meals, changing for cricket. He’s at the top of the pile, knows his place there, he’s secure in that world.
He justifies it by saying this is different. It’s one last hurrah, and he means to make the most of it, even if it is terrifying . . . He stumbles on a slippery step as she watches him from the beach, a cigarette dangling from her lip. His knee gives way beneath him, and for one terrifying moment he thinks he will fall, until he slams his other leg down, righting himself at the last minute.
‘Careful, darling,’ she drawls. ‘Someone’s going to get killed on those steps if they’re not careful.’
Shaken, he reaches the bottom, and she comes towards him, handing him a cigarette, laughing. ‘So clumsy,’ she says, and he hates her in that moment, hates how sophisticated and smooth she is, so heedless of what she’s doing, how wrong it is . . . He takes the cigarette but does not light it. He pulls her towards him instead, kissing her wet, plump pink lips, and she gives a little moan, wriggling her slim body against his.
He can feel himself getting hard already, and her fingers move down his body, and he pushes her against the rock, and they kiss again.
‘Have you always been this bad?’ he asks her afterwards, as they are smoking their cigarettes. The heat of the sun is drying the sweat on their bodies. They lie together on the tiny beach, sated, as the waves crash next to them. A lost sandal, relic of someone else’s wholly innocent summer day, is bobbing around at the edge of the tide. The cigarette is thick and rancid in his mouth. Now it’s over, as ever, he is feeling sick.
She turns to him. ‘I’m not bad.’
He thinks she is. He thinks she is evil, in fact, but he can’t stay away from her. She smiles slowly, and he says, without knowing why he needs to say it, ‘Look, it’s been lots of fun. But I think it’s best if—’ He trails off. ‘Break it off.’
Her face darkens for a second. ‘You pompous ass.’ She laughs, sharply. ‘“Break it off”? Break what off? There’s nothing to break off. This isn’t . . . anything.’
He is aware that he sounds stupid. ‘I thought we should at least discuss it. Didn’t want to give you the—’ God, he wishes it were over. He finds himself giving her a little nod. ‘Give you the wrong impression.’
‘Oh, that’s very kind of you.’ She stubs the cigarette into the wet sand, and stands up, pulling the towel off the ground and around her again.
He can’t tell if she’s angry or relieved, or – what? This is all beyond him, and it strikes him again that he’s glad it will be over and that soon he can go back to being himself again, boring, ordinary, out of all this, normal.
‘It’s been –’ he begins.
‘Oh, fuck you,’ she says. ‘Don’t you dare.’ She turns to go, but as she does something comes tumbling down the steps. It is a small piece of black slate.
And then there is a noise, a kind of thudding. Footsteps.
‘Who’s there?’ he says, looking up, but after the white light of the midday sun it is impossible to see anyone on the dark steps.
In the long years afterwards, when he never spoke about this summer, what happened, he would ask himself – because there was no one else he could ask: Who? His wife? His family? Hah – if he’d been wrong about what he’d seen. For in that moment he’d swear he could make out a small foot, disappearing back up onto the path to the house.
He turns back to her. ‘Damn. Was that someone, do you think?’
She sighs. ‘No, of course not. The path’s crumbling, that’s all. You’re paranoid, darling.’ She says lightly, ‘As if they’d ever believe it of you, anyway. Calm down. Remember, we’re supposed to be grown-ups. Act like one.’
She puts one hand on the rope and hauls herself gracefully up. ‘Bye, darling,’ she says, and he watches her go. ‘Don’t worry,’ she calls. ‘No one’s going to find out. It’s our little secret.’
But someone did. Someone saw it all.
It is 7:16 a.m.
The train to Penzance leaves at seven-thirty. I have fifteen minutes to get to Paddington. I stand in a motionless Hammersmith and City line carriage, clutching the overhead rail so hard my fingers ache. I have to catch this train; it’s a matter of life and death.
Quite literal y, in fact – my grandmother’s funeral is at two-thirty today. You’re al owed to be an hour late for dinner, but you can’t be an hour late for a funeral. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
I’ve lived in London al my life. I know the best places to eat, the bars that are open after twelve, the coolest gal eries, the prettiest spots in the parks. And I know the Hammersmith and City line is useless. I hate it. Why didn’t I leave earlier? Impotent fury washes through me. And stil the carriage doesn’t move.
This morning, the sound of pattering rain on the quiet street woke me while it was stil dark. I haven’t been sleeping for a while, since before Granny died. I used to complain bitterly about my husband Oli’s snoring, how he took up the whole bed, lying prone in a diagonal line. He’s been away for nearly two weeks now. At first I thought it’d be good, if only because I could catch up on sleep, but I haven’t. I lie awake, thoughts racing through my head, one wide-awake side of my brain taunting the other, which is begging for rest. I feel mad. Perhaps I am mad. Although they say if you think you’re going mad that definitely means you’re not. I’m not so sure.
7:18 a.m. I breathe deeply, trying to calm down. It’l be OK. It’l al be OK.
Granny died in her sleep last Friday. She was eighty-nine. The funny thing is, it stil shocked me. Booking my train tickets to come down to Cornwal , in February, it seemed al wrong, as though I was in a bad dream. I spoke to Sanjay, my cousin, over the weekend and he said the same thing. He also said, ‘Don’t you want to punch the next person in the face who says, “Eighty-nine? Wel , she had a good innings, didn’t she?” Like she deserved to die.’
I laughed, even though I was crying, and then Jay said, ‘I feel like something’s coming to an end, don’t you? Something bigger than al of us.’
It made me shiver, because he is right. Granny was the centre of everything. The centre of my life, of our family. And now she’s gone, and – I can’t real y explain it. She was the link to so many things. She was Summercove.
We’re at Edgware Road, and it’s 7:22 a.m. I might get it. I just might stil get the train.
Granny and Arvind, my grandfather, had planned for this moment. Talked about it quite openly, as if they wanted everyone to be clear about what they wanted, perhaps because they didn’t trust my mother or my uncle – Jay’s dad – to fol ow their wishes. I’d like to believe that’s not true, but I’m afraid it probably is. They specified what would happen when either one of them died first, what happens to the paintings in the house, the trust that is to be set up in Granny’s memory, the scholarship that is funded in Arvind’s memory, and what happens to Summercove.
Arvind is ninety. He is moving into a home. Louisa, my mother’s cousin, has taken charge of that. Louisa has taken charge of the funeral, too.
She likes taking charge. She has picked everything that Granny didn’t leave instructions about, from the hymns to the fil ings in the sandwiches for the wake afterwards (a choice of egg mayonnaise, curried chicken or cucumber). Her husband, the handsome but extremely boring Bowler Hat, wil be handing out the orders of service at the funeral and topping up drinks at the wake. Louisa is organ-ising everything, and it is very kind of her, but we feel a bit left out, Jay and I. As ever, the Leighton side of the family has got it right, with their charming English polo-shirts-andcrumpets approach to life and we, the Kapoors, are left looking eccentric, disjointed, odd. Which I suppose we are.
Cousin Louisa is also in charge of packing up the house. For Summercove is to be sold. Our beautiful white art deco house perched between the fields and the sea in Cornwal wil soon be someone else’s. It is where Granny and my grandfather lived for fifty years, raised their children. I spent every summer of my life there. It’s real y the only home I’ve ever known and I’m the only one, it seems, who’s sentimental about it, who can’t bear to see it go. Mum, my uncle Archie, Cousin Louisa – even my grandfather – they’re al brisk about it. I don’t understand how they can be.
‘Too many memories here,’ Granny used to say when she’d talk about it, tel us firmly what was going to happen. ‘Time for someone else to make some.’
Finally. The doors wobble open at Paddington and I rush out and run up the steps, pushing past people, muttering, ‘Sorry, sorry.’ Thank God it’s the Hammersmith and City line – the exit opens right onto the vast concourse of the station. It is 7:28. The train leaves in two minutes.
The cold air hits me. I jab my ticket frantical y in the barrier and run down the stairs to the wide platform, legs like jel y as I tumble down, faster and faster. I am nearly there, nearly at the bottom . . . I glance up at the big clock. 7:29. Like a child, I jump the last three steps, my knees nearly giving way underneath me, and leap onto the train. I stand by the luggage racks, panting, trying to col ect myself. There is a final whistle, the sound of doors slamming further along the endless snake of carriages. We are off.
I find a seat and sit down. My mother doesn’t drive, so I know the ways of the train. The key to a good journey is not a table seat. I never understand why you would get one unless you knew everyone round the table. You end up spending five hours playing awkward footsie with a sweaty middle-aged man, or surrounded by a screaming, overexcited family. I slot myself into a window seat and close my eyes. A cool trickle of sweat slides down my backbone.
This is the train I took every summer, with Mum, to Summercove. Mum would bring me down, stay for a few days and then leave before the rest of her relatives arrived, and sometimes – but not often – before she and Granny could row about something: money, men, me.
It was always so much fun, the train down to Penzance when I was little. It was the anticipation of the holiday ahead, six weeks in Cornwal , six weeks with my favourite people in my favourite place. Mum would be in a strangely good mood on the train down, and so would I, both of us looking forward to diluting our twosome for a few weeks, away from our dark Hammersmith mansion flat, where the wal paper peeled away from the wal s, and in the summer the smel from the bins outside was noticeable. Bryant Court didn’t suit summer. The noises inside and out got worse, scratching and strange, and the cast of characters in the building seemed to get less eccentric and more menacing. The hot weather seemed to dry them out, to make them more brittle and screeching. We were always euphoric to be out of there, away from it al .
Once, when we were on our way to Paddington and my mother was dragging me by the wrist towards a waiting cab, bags slung over our shoulders, Mrs Pogorzelski hissed, ‘Slut!’ at Mum, as she opened the door. I didn’t know what it meant, or why she was saying it. Mum bundled me into the black cab and we sat there grinning, surrounded by luggage, as we rol ed up through Kensington towards the station, both of us complicit in some way that I couldn’t define. That was also one of the times Mum forgot her purse, and the cab driver let us have a ride for free after she cried.
She forgot her purse quite often, my mother.
She is at Summercove already, helping Cousin Louisa sort out the funeral and the house. She is convinced Louisa has her eye on some pieces of furniture already, convinced she is control ing everything. Archie, Mum’s twin brother and Jay’s dad, is there too. Mum and her cousin do not get on. But then Mum and a lot of people don’t get on.
The train is flying through the outskirts of London, out past Southal and Heathrow, through scrubby wasteland that doesn’t know whether it’s town or countryside, towards Reading. I look around me for the first time since col apsing into my seat. I want a coffee, and I should have something to eat, though I’m not quite sure I can eat anything.
‘Tickets, please,’ says a voice above me. I jump, more violently than is warranted and the ticket inspector looks at me in alarm. I hand him my tickets – thankful y, I col ected them at Liverpool Street, knowing the queues at Paddington would be horrendous. I blink, trying not to shake, as the desire to be sick, to faint, anything, sweeps over me again, and slump back against the scratchy seat, watching the inspector. He raises his eyebrows as he checks them over.
‘Long way to be going for the day.’
‘Yes,’ I say. He looks at me, and I find myself saying, too eagerly, ‘I have to be back in London tomorrow. There’s an appointment first thing – I have an appointment I can’t miss.’
He nods, but already I’ve given him too much information, and I can feel myself flushing with shame. He’s a Londoner, he doesn’t want to chat.
The trouble is, I want to talk to someone. I need to. A stranger, someone who I won’t see again.
I haven’t told my family I’m coming back tonight. Growing up with my mother, I learned long ago that the less you say, the less you get asked.
The one person I would like to confide in is being buried today, in the churchyard at St Mary’s, a tiny stone hut, so old people aren’t sure when it was first built. In the churchyard there is the grave of a customs officer, one of many kil ed by desperate smugglers. There is a lot about Cornwal that is stil kind of wild, pagan, and though the fish restaurants, tea shops and surfboards cover some of it up, they can’t entirely conceal it.
Granny believed that. She was from Cornwal , she grew up near St Ives, on the wild north coast. She saw Alfred Wal is painting by the docks, she was born with the cry of seagul s and the wind whistling through the winding streets of the old town in her ears. She loved the landscape of her home county; it was her life, her job. She lived most of her life there, did her best work there, sitting in her studio high at the top of the house, overlooking the sea.
There are so many things I never asked her, and now I wish I had. So often that I wished I could confide in her, about al sorts of things, but knew I couldn’t. For much as I loved my granny, I was scared of her too, of the blank look she’d get in her lovely green eyes sometimes when she looked at me. My husband Oli said once he sometimes thought she could see straight into your soul, like a witch. He was joking, but he was a little scared of her, and I know what he meant. There are some things you didn’t ask her. Some things she wouldn’t ever talk about.
Because for many years, Summercove was a very different place, centre of a glittering social whirl, and my grandparents were wealthy, successful, and it seemed as if they had the world at their feet. But then their daughter Cecily died, two months short of her sixteenth birthday, and my grandmother stopped painting. She shut up her studio, at the top of the house, and as far as I know she never went back. I learned from a very early age never to ask why. Never to mention Cecily’s name, even. There are no photos of her in the house, and no one ever talks about her. I know she died in 1963, and I know it was an accident of some kind, and I know Granny stopped painting after that, and that’s about it.
We’re going past Newbury, and the landscape is greener. There has been a lot of rain lately, and the rivers are swol en and brown under a grey sky. The fields are newly ploughed. A fast wind whips dead leaves over and around the train. I sit back and breathe out, feeling the nauseous knot of tension in my stomach start to slowly unravel, as a wave of something like calm washes over me. We are leaving London. We are getting closer.
My grandparents met in 1941, at a concert at the National Gal ery. When the war broke out, Granny was nineteen, studying at St Martin’s School of Art in London. She stayed there, despite her parents demanding she return to Cornwal . Not Frances, oh no. She volunteered to man the first-aid post near her digs in Bloomsbury, she was fire watch officer for St Martin’s, and when she had a spare hour, which was not many, she went to the National Gal ery, around the corner from the col ege, to listen to Dame Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts.
Arvind (we have always cal ed him that, Jay and I don’t know why except he’s not someone you’d ever think of cal ing ‘Grandad’, much less
‘Gramps’) was born in the ancient Mughal city of Lahore, in 1919. His father, a Punjabi Hindu, was a teacher at Aitchison Col ege, an exclusive school for sons of maharajahs and landowners, so Arvind was entitled to a place there. Arvind was bril iant. So bril iant that the headteacher wrote to various dignitaries, and to people in England, and after two years of studying philosophy at Lahore’s Government Col ege (there’s a photo of his matriculation on the wal of his study, rows of serious-looking young men with arms crossed and neat cowlicks), Arvind was given a postgraduate scholarship to Cambridge, and it was on a research trip to London during the height of the Blitz in 1941 that he wandered into the National Gal ery.
I have a very clear image of them in my mind; Arvind, short and dapper, so politely dressed in his best tweed suit, his umbrel a hooked over his arm, his hat clutched in his slender fingers, his eye fal ing briefly on the girl in front of him, watching the performance with total absorption. Granny was beautiful when she was old; when she was younger, she must have been extraordinary. I keep a photo of her from around that age in my studio: her dark blonde hair careful y swept into a chignon, her huge dark green eyes set in a strong, open face, a curling, smart smile, perfect neat white teeth.
Frances and Arvind were married three months later. Bizarrely for a man who has outlived most of his contemporaries, Arvind was told he had a weak heart and couldn’t fight. He went back to Cambridge and finished his degree, where he and several other students were cal ed upon to try a variety of code-breaking formulae. He also knitted socks – he rather took to it, he liked the patterns – and volunteered for the Home Guard. Granny stayed in London, to finish her studies and carry on driving the ambulances.
Though Granny and Arvind never said anything, I often wonder what her parents must have made of it. They were respectable quiet people who rarely left Cornwal , with an elder daughter who had recently become engaged to a solicitor from a good family in Tring, and suddenly their wild, artistic younger daughter writes from a bomb shelter to let them know she’s married a penniless student from India whom they’ve never met. This was seventy years ago. There was no one from France, let alone the Punjab, in Cornwal .
After Granny and Arvind were married, they rented a tiny flat in Redcliffe Square. Mum and Archie, the twins, were born in 1946 and then a couple of years later, Cecily. Money was tight, Granny’s painting and Arvind’s writing did not bring in much; he was writing his book for years, paying the bil s with teaching jobs. The book became something of a joke after a while, to al of them, so the aspect of their married life that always took them by surprise, I think, is the money that came in when The Modern Fortress was final y published, in 1955. It argued that post-war society was in danger of reverting to a complacency and ossification that would lead to another world war of the magnitude of the one we had only just barely survived. It was translated into over thirty languages and become an instant modern classic, debated and argued over by mil ions, fol owed ten years later by The Mountain of Light, which initial y sold even more, though it is now seen as the more ‘difficult’ of the two books. When I was fifteen, we had to read The Modern Fortress for GCSE History, as part of the course was about post-WW2 Europe. I am ashamed to say I understood not very much of it; even more ashamed to say I didn’t tel the teacher at school that Arvind Kapoor was my grandfather. I don’t know why.
While The Modern Fortress was sel ing thousands of copies a week, Granny’s paintings were becoming more acclaimed too and suddenly Frances and Arvind were richer than they’d ever expected to be.They could afford to buy the house they’d rented for a couple of summers in Cornwal for Frances to paint in, a dilapidated twenties art deco place by the sea cal ed Summercove. They could send the children to boarding school. They could keep the flat in London and a housekeeper for Summercove, and they could have their nieces and nephews to stay, and provide a degree of largesse to al they knew that meant, for the rest of the fifties and the early sixties, Arvind Kapoor and Frances Seymour, and Summercove, were bywords amongst artistic and intel ectual circles in London for an elegantly bohemian way of life, post-colonial poster children: the couple that seemed to have everything.
* * *
In Granny’s bedroom at Summercove, there is a curved dark wooden dressing table, with a beautiful enamel hairbrush set, old glass crystal perfume bottles and two jewel ery boxes. The dressing table has little drawers with wrought-iron handles on each side, and once when I was little and I’d crept upstairs to surprise her, I found my grandmother sitting at that table, gazing at a photo.
She was very stil , her back straight. Through the long suntrap windows you could see across the meadow down to the path, the bright blue-green sea glinting in the distance. I watched her as she stared at the photo, stroking it with her finger, tentatively, as if it had some talismanic quality.
‘Boo,’ I’d said softly, because I didn’t know what else to do, and I knew it wasn’t right to jump out at her now. I didn’t want her to be angry with me.
She did jump though, and she turned to me. Then he held out her hand. ‘Oh. Natasha,’ she said, as I stood looking at her.
I adored my grandmother, who was beautiful, funny, charis matic, in charge of everything, always in control: I found her hugely comforting, thril ing too, but the truth is she was also a little terrifying. Compared to her happy, open relationship with Jay, I felt sometimes, just sometimes, she looked at me and wished I wasn’t there. I don’t know why. But children like me – with an overactive imagination and no one with whom to exercise it
– are often wrong. And I knew that if I ever tried to talk to my mother about it she’d tel me I was making things up, or worse, confront Granny, and have a row with her.
‘Come here,’ she said, looking at me, and she smiled, her hand outstretched. I walked towards her slowly, wanting to run, because I loved her so much and I was so glad she wanted me. I stood in front of her and put my hands on her lap, tentatively. She stroked my hair, hard, and I felt a tear drop from her eyes onto my forehead.
‘God, you’re just like her,’ she said, her voice husky, and clutched my wrist with her strong fingers. She twisted the fingers of her other hand over to show me the photo she was holding. It was a smal , yel owing snap of a girl about my age; I was then around seven or eight. I wish I could remember more, because I think it was important. I remember she had dark hair, but of course she did, we al did. She looked like Mum, but also not: I couldn’t work out why.
‘Yes, you’re just like her.’ Granny drew a great shuddering breath, and her grip on my arm tightened. ‘Damn it al .’ She turned, her huge green eyes swimming with tears, her lovely face twisted and ugly. ‘Get out! Get out of here, now!’
She was stil gripping my arm, so hard it was bruised the next day. I wrenched myself free and ran away, feet clattering on the parquet floor, out onto the lawn, away from the dark, sad room. I didn’t understand it, how could I?
Later, when we were having tea and playing hide-and-seek, she came up and gave me a hug.
‘How’s my favourite girl?’ she said, and she dropped a soft kiss onto my forehead. ‘Come here, let me show you this brooch I found in my jewel ery box. Do you want to wear it tonight, at supper with the grown-ups?’
I didn’t know it then, but I saw a side of her that day that she rarely showed anyone any more. She kept it locked away, like the photo, like her studio. I tried to push it out of my mind that summer, and when I got back to London. And now. It’s not the way I want to remember her.
We are heading further and further west, the landscape is wilder, and though spring feels far away, there are tiny green buds on the black branches fringing the railway tracks. We go through southern Somerset, past Castle Cary and the Glastonbury Tor. I stare out of the window, as if wil ing myself to see more.
Oli and I went to Glastonbury last summer, because of his job – one of his clients gave us VIP tickets, with backstage passes. We were very lifestyle that weekend – I wore my new Marc Jacobs city shorts and some Cath Kidston polka-dot wel ies, Oli was in his best Dunhil shirt: we felt like a low-rent Kate Moss and Jamie Hince. We saw Jay-Z, and Amy Winehouse, and the Hoosiers, who I love but Oli thinks are crap. It was great, of course, although I remember going in a camper van when I was nineteen with Jay and my best friend Cathy, the year of the legendary Radiohead gig, not washing for three days and being stoned the whole time, and that was better somehow, less complicated, no one in a mood, no one looking dissatisfied because there are only two free beers in the wanky hospitality tent where everyone’s terrified they’re less important than everyone else. Oli complained when they wouldn’t give him another one. Oh, Oli.
I look out of the window, blinking back tears, and nod: there is the perfect little vil age with a beautiful house and golden-yel ow church, plonked seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that I kept my eyes glued to the window looking for every year when I was little. The fields are flooded; there are confused ducks swimming in the water, not sure what to make of it. Up on the banks by the tracks, cobwebby Old Man’s Beard covers everything, the beautiful tracery concealing the hard branches beneath. Thankful for the distraction, I stare, wondering where my sketchbook is, anything to take my mind off it al .
Granny loved jewel ery. I’m sure that my interest in it stems from the hours I spent with her looking at her pieces, holding them up and thril ing to the sensation of metal and stone on my skin, against my face. The two big jewel ery boxes on that dressing table were neatly stacked with al kinds of wondrous things: a chunky jade pendant, worn on a thick silver chain, tiny diamond dangly earrings that she bought for herself when she had her first show (it occurs to me now that these were valuable; she kept them quite blithely with the costume jewel ery), delicate strings of creamy coral, a gold Egyptian-style col ar necklace that she got from the Royal Opera House, a prop from Aida which she used on a model for a painting, a large amethyst ring that was her mother’s, and final y the two that were never in the box, because she was always wearing them. The thick gold-linked bracelet studded with turquoises which Arvind gave her for her thirtieth birthday, and the pale gold ring she always wore on her right hand, of three sets of two intertwined diamond flowers, like tiny peonies. It is a family ring: Arvind’s father sent it from Lahore when they were married. That was my favourite piece of them al , a link with Arvind’s family, the country he left long ago. Because I vaguely remember Granny’s father, but I never met Arvind’s father, nor any of his family. Two of his brothers died during Partition, and his father stayed in Lahore. He never saw his son again.
So Granny’s jewel ery box was like an Aladdin’s cave for me, and now, when I sit in my studio, sketching out designs, working out different ways to coat something with gold leaf, searching for an enamel er who won’t demand payment right away, often I am reminded where I first got my inspiration from: Granny’s jewel ery box, the almost terrifying pleasure of being al owed to look inside it.
Now, gazing at the bare branches black in the grey light, I let my mind drift. I think how lovely a silver necklace linked with tiny branches would look, and I wonder how easy – or extremely difficult – it would be to replicate the delicate, sugar-spun tracery covering them. I should make a sketch, in the ideas book I used to carry with me, always. I haven’t drawn in it for ages. Haven’t come up with anything for ages.
Five years ago, when I had a stal of my own and was making just enough money to afford the flat share in West Norwood and the occasional item from Topshop, life was simple. Now, we live in a trendy apartment off Brick Lane and I have a flashy website and a husband who earns enough money tel ing clients that their toothpaste’s branding is too male-oriented to keep us both.
So real y, it shouldn’t matter that tomorrow I might lose my business, should it? Lose everything I’ve worked for and dreamed about, ever since the long-ago days when I’d climb onto Granny’s stool and open her jewel ery box, my mouth gaping in wonder. Strange, that the two things are so close together. Her funeral, my summons.
I shake my head, and the cold, clammy fear that, lately, always seems to be with me grips me again. No. I’m not thinking about that today. Not today, Granny’s funeral, not today. They’l tel me tomorrow. I just have to get through today.
My phone buzzes and I look down.
Missed you again last night. When are we going to talk? Ox
Now I am going to be sick. No sleep, no breakfast, on top of everything else, and this time I know it. I stumble towards the lavatories, pushing open the rank, sticky doors, and I vomit, retching loudly, bile flooding out of me; it feels almost cleansing. People must be able to hear.
I’m trying not to cry at the same time, pushing my hair out of my mouth. I stand up and look in the mirror, tears running down my cheeks, because I feel so awful, so sad, every protective layer I cover myself with ripped off and suddenly the almost cartoon terribleness of it makes me start to laugh. Suddenly I remember Cathy saying to me, ‘Has anyone ever explained to Oli that when he signs off with his initial and a kiss he’s writing the word “Ox”?’
I smile, I look dreadful, lank brown hair hanging about my sal ow face, dark brown shadows under my startlingly green eyes. People at school cal ed me alien because of my eyes; I hated it. I hadn’t thought of that for ages either and it makes me smile again. I wipe my mouth on a tissue. I wil go to the canteen and get a coffee, a banana. I feel better, purged.
Slowly, I open the door, embarrassed in case someone is outside and has overheard, and I hear two voices, approaching briskly.
‘My best guess is we’l be five mins late, no more,’ the first, a male voice, is saying.
‘I’l cal Mummy. God knows she’s got enough to do without us holding her up today.’
I freeze. No way.
‘Bloody good thing Guy’s already there,’ the male voice says, languidly, but with a hint of menace I remember of old. ‘We need someone to sort through that house, make sure the valuable stuff gets treated properly. I mean, those paintings must be worth a bob or two . . .’
Julius and Octavia. I shrink back against the door as they march past, catching only a glimpse of Octavia’s sensible brown flat boots and grey wool skirt and her hand, clutching a twenty-pound note, as they stride purposeful y past on their way to the buffet car, a Leighton phalanx of aggressive righteousness. I don’t know why it surprises me – this is the only train from London that gets to Penzance in time for the funeral, but of al people Julius and Octavia are not who I would have chosen to bump into, post-vomit, outside the First Great Western lav.
They are Louisa’s children, and so they are my second cousins, and though I spent almost every summer of my life with them, there is no emotional connection to show for it. If you knew Octavia and Julius, though, you might understand why. They have even been given Roman names, I think to reflect their parents’ passion for discipline and order. I hear Julius’s posh voice again. ‘Bloody good thing Guy’s already there.’
My skin prickles with silent rage. Guy is their uncle on their father’s side. He is an antiques dealer. I never knew he was close to Granny, or our family. I grit my teeth at the thought of Guy going through Granny’s paintings, her jewel-lery box, with Louisa standing behind with a clipboard, ticking stuff off on a list. They are very definite people, the Leightons. I love Louisa, she’s kind and thoughtful, and she does mean wel , I think, but she can be dreadful y bossy. The four of them, her, the Bowler Hat, Julius and Octavia, are al terribly – not hearty exactly, more – confident. The confidence that comes from living in Tunbridge Wel s, being a civil servant, going to a public school, being a unit of four, a proper family. Al things I am not.
I wait until their voices have faded into the distance and cautiously, I creep back to my seat, a little shaky stil , and stare out of the window again. Two fat crows are picking away at the mossy roof of a disused barn. Above them, the skies are opening wider and wider, and birds wheel through the air. We’re getting there, we are nearly in Exeter. My phone buzzes again.
I can’t keep saying I’m sorry. We have to talk. Thinking of you today. When are you back? Ox Ox. I switch my phone off and close my eyes, turning my head to the window in case the others walk past, and, thankful y, I drift off to sleep.
It’s always been me and my mother. I don’t know my father. Mum met him at a party, he was a one-night stand and she never saw him again. I found this out when I was a teenager; I had no idea where he was before that. When I was about ten, and impressionable, I saw The Railway Children, and it al suddenly became perfectly clear to me: my father was away, somewhere, but he would come back one day soon. He had been wrongly imprisoned, like Roberta’s daddy, he was on a ship sailing around the world, rescuing people, he was a doctor helping famine victims in Africa, he was a famous actor in America and couldn’t tel people about me and Mum. He was a person in my life, absent for the moment, but he would come back.
One summer, Granny drove me to Penzance; she said she had a surprise for me at the station, and I knew it then with absolute certainty, the kind of certainty that has got me into trouble my whole life. We were going to meet my dad off the train, and he would fling his arms open wide and smile, and I would run towards him, crying, ‘Daddy! My daddy!’ He would hug me tight, and kiss my forehead, and come home with me and Granny, and then he would take me and Mum away from the damp Hammersmith flat to a beautiful castle in the countryside, and we would live – yes, we would – happily ever after.
Under my breath, the rest of the way there, I tried the unfamiliar words out on my tongue. Dad. Daddy. Hi Dad. By the time we got to the station, I was jiggling my legs up and down, I was so excited. Granny had a watchful, sparkling look in her eyes. She kept glancing at me as we waited for the train to pul in to the platform, holding my hand in hers as she was afraid I’d simply run off, mad with anticipation. She was right, I remember it, I felt as if I might.
When the train arrived and the teeming hordes of passengers had hurried off, when the platform was emptying and my neck was aching from craning forward, desperate to see who he was, she final y squeezed my fingers.
‘Look, there he is.’
And there was Jay with Sameena, his mum, walking down the platform, also hand in hand, only he was straining with excitement to see me, and I just looked at him, my heart sinking, sliding my hand out of Granny’s.
‘He’s come early,’ she said. ‘So you’l have someone to play with now.’
I couldn’t tel her she’d ruined everything, that I’d rather be on my own with dreams of my dad than playing stupid Ghostbusters with Jay. I couldn’t explain how sil y I’d been. How could I? She never knew, I never told her, but I couldn’t ever think about that day again. How I tried to picture what my father would look like as he got off the train. From that day on I stopped looking for him. Like Granny’s beauty, it became one of those things that’s just a fact, rather than a changeable situation. The sea is blue. Granny has a scar on her little finger. You don’t know your dad.
The sea isn’t always blue though. Sometimes it’s green. Or grey. Or almost black like tar, with roiling, foaming white waves.
* * *
The sound of movement around me wakes me and I look up, startled. St Michael’s Mount looms up in the distance, the battlements and towers of the old castle rising out of the water, glinting in the midday sun. When I was a child the holidays were one long effort on my part to persuade whomever I could to take me, walk across the glittering causeway to the castle at low tide, climb up to the turreted towers, and look out across the bay to Penzance or out to sea.
‘Welcome to Penzance. Penzance is our final destination. Thank you for travel ing with First Great Western. May we wish you a pleasant onward journey,’ a voice intones over the loudspeaker, and there is the usual rush around me as I rub my eyes, tasting something sour in my mouth.
Stil in a daze, I jump up, stretching, and climb off the train, nearly bumping into someone on the platform. I look up and around me. I am here.
You can smel the sea in the air. It is warmer than London, though it’s stil February and the wind is sharp. I huddle into my coat as I reach the end of the platform, wondering who’s come to meet me. Mum said she or Archie would. People saunter past; there’s no bustling and jostling like Paddington. It stil does always remind me of The Railway Children.
‘Nat?’ A voice floats across the hordes of people. ‘Natasha!’
I glance up.
‘Natasha! Over here!’
I look behind me and there is Jay, my beloved cousin. He is striding towards me, so tal , smiling sort of sheepishly. He folds me in his arms and I close my eyes, sinking into his embrace. When Jay is here, everything is always a bit better. He’s one of those people who leaves a gap when he exits a room.
‘It’s good to see you,’ he tel s me, dropping a kiss onto my head.
‘You were on the train?’
‘I looked for you, then I fel asleep. I had a late night, we were working through.’ Jay is a website designer; he works crazy hours, but he stays out crazy hours too. ‘I had to get some sleep.’ He squeezes me tight. ‘This is a sad day.’
I nod and link my arm through his as we walk outside, into the fresh air.
The car park is next to the harbour, where ships and boats of every kind over the centuries have arrived and disem-barked, spil ing out silks and spices and foods and wines from the furthest corners of the world. The riggings clatter against the masts, tinkling loudly in the gusting breeze.
Seagul s shriek overhead.
‘Jay! Sanjay! Over here!’ We look up to see my uncle Archie, leaning against his car, waving cool y at us.
I always forget when I first see him how much my uncle reminds me of those older male models, the kind you see in ads for cruises and dentures. Like my mother, he was very handsome when he was younger: I’ve seen the photos. Now, he’s like someone from a bygone era; suave, inter national, at ease in any situation. Today he’s in a dark suit but his usual uniform is a blazer, dark trousers, immaculate pressed pink or blue checked shirts with big gold cufflinks. He has a signet ring. His Asian father and English mother have given him a dual citizenship, also like my mother, with which he struggled when he was younger, but has now embraced extremely enthusiastical y. It’s almost his badge. He speaks with a posh English accent but at home his wife Sameena cooks the best Indian food you’l find in Ealing, a mil ion times better than most of the ropey curry houses on the main drag of Brick Lane.
Jay and I are very similar, but I love how his dad and my mum, the twins, half Indian, went different ways. With me, my Indian heritage is hardly visible beyond my dark hair and olive skin, thanks to a mother who uses it in a lazy cross-cultural way when she wants to show off, and thanks to a father who I assume is white, although who knows? Whereas Jay goes the other way, the reverse of me. He is almost whol y Indian, and slips easily back into that culture, thanks to Sameena, then back into the world of Summercove, as if he’s changing from one pair of comfortable shoes to another. I envy him that ability, and I love him for it.
Jay is waving back at his father. ‘Look at him,’ he says, as Archie sneaks a look at his reflection in the car window, staring intently at himself for a brief second. ‘He’s looking more and more like Alan Whicker every day. Hey, Dad,’ he says.
‘Aha, Natasha, my dear.’ Archie hugs me enthusiastical y, gripping my shoulders. His moustache tickles my face as always and I have to tel myself not to shrink away. ‘It’s wonderful to see you. Jay. Son.’ He gives his son a wal oping great slap on the back. Jay rocks back against me.
‘I’m sorry about Granny,’ I tel him. ‘I am too,’ Archie says soberly. ‘I am too.’ He scratches the bridge of his nose vigorously, suddenly, and turns away. ‘Let’s be off.’ His hand is on the boot of the car. ‘Bags?’
‘No bags,’ I say.
Archie looks at me as if I’m insane. ‘No bags? Where are your things?’
I take a deep breath. ‘I can’t stay tonight, unfortunately,’ I say.
He stares at me. ‘Not staying? Does your mother know? That’s crazy, Natasha.’
‘I know,’ I say, trying to sound calm, col ected. ‘I’m real y sorry, but I’ve got a meeting tomorrow I can’t get out of.’ I wish I could tel them why. But I can’t. They mustn’t know, not yet.
‘I should have thought . . .’ Archie mutters, trailing off. Jay, who is watching me intently, jumps in.
‘The sleeper’s much better and if you have to get back for a meeting, there it is.’ His father frowns at him, opens his mouth to say something, but Jay presses on. ‘Come on, Nat,’ he says, slinging his rucksack into the boot. ‘We’re cutting it fine anyway, aren’t we? Let’s go.’
Suddenly, I remember Octavia and Julius. ‘I saw Octavia and Julius on the train. I mean, think I saw them,’ I amend. ‘Should we—’
‘Oh,’ Archie says, ruffled, he hates any interruption to his plans, to being told what to do by anyone except my mother. And indeed, our cousins are emerging from the station and looking around. ‘I’m sure they’l have made their own arrangements . . .’
But they haven’t, it turns out. Octavia and Julius are the kind of ruthlessly efficient people who expect others to be at their beck and cal . They’re like the answers to those survival guide questions: both of them could survive on a raft floating on the Indian Ocean with only a mirror and a comb for days, I’m sure. But they’d never think of getting round to booking a car or a taxi. They assume that someone else wil have got the train down too and wil furnish them with a lift. And they assume rightly, of course.
‘I must say, it’s extremely strange we didn’t bump into either of you on the train,’ Octavia says, as Archie drives off along the harbour. ‘I suppose you two were sitting together.’ She makes it sound as if we were planning a high-school shooting.
‘No,’ Jay says simply. ‘Meeting you al is a lovely surprise on this sad day.’
‘Jol y sad. So,’ Julius, already red in the face, looking more than ever like a fatter, less patrician version of Frank, his father, asks, ‘what’s the order of things today? Straight to the church? Or nosh first?’
Squashed next to Octavia in the back of the car, Jay and I dare not exchange looks. It’s as though we’re children again.
‘Hrrr.’ Archie clears his throat, self-importantly. ‘The funeral is at two, so we’re going straight to the church,’ he says. ‘Don’t have time to stop off beforehand and we couldn’t have it any later, some people –’ he raises his eyebrows – ‘ some people came down last night and are going back to London this evening.’ I nod politely.
‘We’l meet the others there, then?’ Jay says. ‘Yes, yes,’ Archie says briskly, as though he’s got it al under control and supplementary questions are ridiculous. ‘Father’s going with Miranda – with your mother, Natasha – to the church. Then we’re al off back to Summercove afterwards, for some food.’
‘I know Mum’s done an awful lot of cooking,’ Octavia says slowly. ‘She’s been flat out al week, poor thing. It’s been pretty stressful for her.’ She sighs. ‘And clearing out the house, getting poor Great-Uncle Arvind settled somewhere new – I mean, we al know he’s a bril iant man, but he’s not exactly easy, is he!’ She laughs.
Don’t let Octavia wind you up, I chant to myself. She signed up for an Oxbridge-graduates-only online dating service and she fancies George Osborne. That is the kind of person she is.
I would stil quite like to smack her though. I hope the feeling doesn’t stay with me al day. I wish I could. I wish I could get real y drunk at the wake and start a fight, EastEnders style. Perhaps I should. Archie and Jay are silent. I make a non-committal sound.
‘Your mum’s been wonderful,’ I force myself to say instead because it’s the truth, despite being annoying to admit. Louisa is the one who gets things done, she always has been. She is the one who’d take me into Truro to buy me new socks and shoes for the autumn term at school, muttering al the while about how someone had to do it, mind you, but stil . ‘Oh, Louisa, she is wonderful,’ is sort of her shoutline. That’s what you say about her, in the absence of anything else to say.
We are climbing up and out of Penzance. Below us, the sea is frothing and churning. There are dark, restless clouds on the horizon. We drive in silence for a while, going further inland. Here on the south coast the country is wild, but lush, greener than the rest of the country, even though it’s February. We pass Celtic crosses, their intricate decorations long worn away by the wind from the sea, and soon we are driving past the Merry Maidens, the ten girls who were turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday. They’re al so familiar. It is so strange to be here when it’s not high summer, but it is so wonderful al the same, and then I remember why I’m here. Granny would have loved a day like today, walking through the winding lanes and over the high exposed fields, a silk head-scarf covering her hair, her eyes alight with the joy of it al .
In the front, Archie turns to Julius. ‘So, Julius, how are the markets?’
‘Weul l l –’ Julius begins, in his low, blubbery voice. ‘Patchy, Archie. Patchy . . .’
I am spared the rest of his answer by Octavia turning to me.
‘How’s your jewel ery stuff going then?’ she asks, curiously. As ever I grit my teeth at this question, which makes it sound as though I’ve been to the Bead Shop and threaded a few plastic hearts onto a string for a friend’s birthday, rather than that it’s my job.
‘Fine, thanks,’ I say. ‘I’m just finishing a new col ection.’
‘Wow, how great,’ Octavia says. ‘Where wil you sel that, on a stal , or . . . ?’ She trails off, almost embarrassed.
It has been about two years since I sold my jewel ery on a stal , first in Spitalfields Market, then at the Truman Brewery nearby. I got lucky when one of my pieces, a gold chain made of tiny interconnected flowers, was featured in Vogue a couple of years ago, and a minor but quite trendy pop star wore it in a magazine, after which a boutique in Notting Hil and one just off Brick Lane started stocking my stuff. That’s how it works these days. Someone I’d never heard of wore a necklace of mine and I ended up hiring a PR to promote myself and paying someone to set up a website.
Now I sel online through the website, and through a few retailers. But Octavia, a bit like Louisa, stil likes to think that I’m standing behind a stal wearing a hat, gloves and change belt, shouting out, ‘Three pound a pair of earrings! Get your necklaces here, rol up rol up!’
There’s an implied snobbery there too which is hilarious. I made as much on the stal as I do now. In fact, often I’d sel more there in a day than I do in a month online. Plus the stal was a great way of meeting customers and other designers, seeing what was sel ing, talking to people, finding out what they liked. Pedro, who used to have a veg stal in the old Spitalfields market and upgraded it to an upmarket deli stal in the new, updated, boring Spitalfields, has a house in Alicante, a timeshare in Chamonix and drives an Audi TT. Sara, the girl whose stal used to be next to mine, bought her mum a house in Londonderry last year and paid for the whole family to go on holiday to Barbados. I thought taking myself off the stal would move me to the next level, and I suppose it did.
But increasingly I’ve come to wonder whether I was right. Things have been difficult, the last year or so. The recession means people don’t want jewel ery. And even though Jay designed my site for free, bless him, other costs keep mounting up – hiring the studio, paying for materials and for the metals and stones, the PR who I hired, the trade fairs which you pay to attend . . . It adds up. I haven’t heard of the pop star who wore my necklace since, incidental y. Perhaps that explains it.
A few months ago, it didn’t seem to matter. We had Oli’s salary too. Mine was ‘pin money’, as he cal ed it, which I found super-patronising. But it’s true. It used to be joyful, exciting, stimulating. Lately, it is almost painful. I’m no good. My thoughts are no good, my head seems to be blank. And it shows.
‘On the website, through some shops,’ I tel Octavia. ‘The usual.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘That’s good – wel done.’
I sink lower down into my scarf and look out at the dramatic, wind-flattened black trees, the yel ow lichen, the startling green of the sea, crashing against the grey rocks, as the car bowls through the empty, muddy lanes, deeper into the countryside. I chew my lip, thinking.
I wonder if anyone has opened her studio since she died? I wonder, for the thousandth time, how Granny could have stopped painting al those years ago when I know how much the landscape around her meant to her, how it inspired her. But though no one ever says it, it’s obvious something died inside her with Cecily, and it never came alive again.
Archie slows down, and al of a sudden we’ve arrived at the church, perched high on the edge of the moor. I squint, and see the hearse pul ed up outside the door. They are unloading the coffin. There, twisting an order of service over in her hands, is Louisa, and next to her, ramrod straight, stands my mother. The pal bearers are sliding the long coffin out – Granny was tal – and it hits me again, that’s her inside the wooden box, that’s her. Archie turns the engine off. ‘We’re here,’ he says. ‘Just in time. Let’s go.’
Granny always knew what she wanted and so the funeral service is short and sweet. We slip into our seats and the coffin is carried in, my mother, Archie and Louisa walking behind it. I stare at Mum, but her head is bowed. We sit and listen to the minister in the smal chapel with big glass windows, no adornment, no incense, everything plain. Outside, the wind whistles across the moors. There are two hymns, ‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer’ and ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’. The col ection is for the RNLI. Louisa reads from Exodus. Archie reads an extract from A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf. At Granny’s request there is no eulogy. That’s the only thing that is weird. No one gets up and speaks over Granny’s body, there in its oak coffin in the aisle of the church, and it feels strange not to talk about her, not to say who she was, how wonderful she was. But that was her instruction and, like al the others, it must be fol owed to the letter.
As we are al bashful y singing the second hymn, accompanied by a worn-out, clanging old piano, I look past my mother, to see if Arvind is OK.
There’s no space for his wheelchair in the pews, so he sits in the aisle next to the coffin of his wife. It is rather ghoulish, but Arvind doesn’t seem to mind. He is the same as always; shrunken to the size of a child, his nut-brown head almost bald but for a few wispy black hairs. His eyes are sunk far into his head, and his mouth is pursed, like an asterisk.
He stares at me, as if I am a stranger. I smile at him, but there is no reaction. This is Arvind’s way, I’m used to it. It was only when I was old enough to know that a ‘That coat is lovely on you!’ means ‘That coat is garish and vile’ or a ‘Wow, I love your hair!’ means ‘Good God, who told you you could carry off a fringe?’, that I began to realise how lucky I was to have Arvind as my grandfather. He simply cannot dissemble.
Ignoring the hymn, he holds up the flimsy order of service and waves it at me. ‘Is it recycled?’ he says, in his incredibly penetrating, sing-song voice, which stil has a strong Punjab accent sixty-odd years since he came to the UK. ‘Is their carbon footprint reduced? This is very important, Natasha.’
Separating us is my mother, in her sixties but stil ravishing, in a long black tailored coat with an electric blue lining, her thick dark hair cascading down her back, her green eyes huge in her heart-shaped face. Now she looks down at Arvind.
‘Be quiet!’ she hisses.
‘We must al recycle everything, every little thing,’ Arvind tel s me, leaning forward so he can catch my eye and speaking completely normal y, as if it were just the two of us taking tea together. ‘China can carry on emitting more CO2 than the rest of the world put together, but it wil be MY
FAULT if the world ends, because I did not recycle my copy of PLAY. BOY.’ He finishes loudly, his voice rising.
‘Dad, shut up,’ Mum grips the top of his arm in rage. ‘You have to be quiet.’
‘Father,’ Archie says, rather pompously, behind us. ‘Please. Be respectful.’
‘Respectful?’ Arvind shrugs his shoulders, and waves his arms around in a grand gesture. ‘They don’t mind.’
I turn around, partly to see if he’s right and catch my breath as I see for the first time how many people are here. I hadn’t real y noticed as we hurriedly took our seats, and more have arrived since then. They’re standing at the back, three deep in places, crammed into the smal space. They are here for Granny. I blink back tears. Who are they? A lot of them are rather advanced in years. I guess some are friends from around here, some are people down from London, old friends from the golden days. I don’t recognise many of them. They are al watching this scene at the front of the chapel with interest.
Around me, my relatives are unamused. Archie is furious. Octavia looks as though a nasty smel is troubling her. Louisa is flustered, staring beseechingly at Arvind; her lovely brother Jeremy and his wife Mary Beth, who have flown in from California for the funeral, are studiously stil singing. The Bowler Hat is officiously, soundlessly, opening and shutting his mouth, like a minister for Wales who doesn’t know the Welsh national anthem. Arvind catches my eye, winks, and goes back to the hymn. I stare at the sheet, unable to concentrate on the words, not sure whether to laugh or cry.
As the service ends and we process out to the churchyard for the burial, fol owing Granny’s coffin, I realise I am leading my mother who has Archie by the arm while Jay pushes Arvind next to us. Louisa, the architect of this, has respectful y dropped behind, and it is just the four of us, my cousin and our parents, who have their arms around each other. I don’t know what we should be doing, other than fol owing the minister. I grip Mum’s arm, feeling strange, and wishing someone else was here with us. I especial y wish Sameena were here, but she’s in Mumbai visiting her sister who is not wel , and she’s not flying back til next week.
Wel , real y, it’s Oli. I wish Oli were here, holding my hand. But of course he’s not, because I asked him not to come.
The graveyard looms, our smal family totters towards it, disjointed and odd, and behind us comes Louisa, the de facto leader of her branch of the family, clutching her brother Jeremy’s hand.
‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’
My mother sobs, loudly, a great shuddering cry. Archie hugs her closer. Jay is watching the hole in the ground, intently, as if it is moving. Arvind is gazing into space, he doesn’t look as if he’s here at al .
They lower Granny’s coffin into the ground, and I look around again to see the congregation now assembled behind us, scattered in and around the lichen-covered gravestones on the edge of the moor. Suddenly I think of Cecily. Where’s her grave? I look around. Wouldn’t she have been buried here, too?
Granny was from here. But we, my mother and uncle, my grandfather and my cousin, we are from many other places as wel . With a sudden flash of pain in my heart I long to be back in London, walking through the cobbled streets round Spitalfields and Bethnal Green, feeling the centuries of history in the city under my feet.
But now I’m away from it, now I see the emptiness of my life there, in a way I haven’t before. It is empty. A job I can’t do, a marriage I might lose, a life I don’t recognise. They are throwing more earth into the grave now, it patters softly on the wood, like rain. I feel my throat closing up.
When the crowd starts to disperse, gathering outside the church, getting into cars that are clogging up the tiny lane, we are al left around the grave.
No one speaks. I look at their faces: Mum’s is a mask, smiling and staring into space; Archie has sucked his lips in and is bouncing on his feet.
Louisa sniffs, and puts her hand gently to her mouth. Behind her, the handsome Bowler Hat has bowed his head, his face serious. Next to him, Louisa’s brother Jeremy looks out of place. He is sleeker than them al , tanned, his hair is good, his clothes are pressed, his teeth are white. He is standing a little apart from his sister and cousins, holding Mary Beth’s hand. I look at them al , and then down at my grandfather. Arvind is staring into the grave, and his thin fingers are gripping the plastic arms of his wheelchair.
Something strikes me then: it’s funny, but they look total y unconnected. There’s no likeness between them al , no sense that we are one big family gathered together for a funeral. My friend Cathy and her mother and sister are like peas in a pod. Whereas Mum, Jeremy, Louisa, the Bowler Hat – they might have just met, you’d never know they spent every summer down here, four and five weeks together at a time. I’ve seen photos – not many, I suppose because of Cecily they don’t keep many here at Summercove. But Mum has a couple in her room at the flat, her and Archie, posing on the terrace, Archie like a young film star, raising his eyebrows, my mother Miranda pouting beautiful y, Louisa and Jeremy smiling, their arms crossed. And there’s one of Archie and the Bowler Hat, and Guy, gurning down on the beach. I suppose that was the summer the Bowler Hat and Guy came here for the first time. In Granny’s room, she had a picture of Louisa and Mum, demure in halter-neck swimming costumes, lying on the lawn together when they were about twelve or so.
You’d never know it to look at them together now. They seem like strangers to each other.
Arvind clears his throat and the spel , whatever it was, is broken. The sun has gone in and it is very cold. I sway on my feet, a combination of grief, hunger, fatigue. Suddenly, an arm is wrapped round my shoulders, and Jay whispers in my ear, ‘Come on, let’s go back to the house. You need a drink.’
We walk in tiny steps towards the car, behind other mourners who are chatting and gossiping as they stand around waiting for us to drive off.
Our progress is slow. Oli likes to col ect sayings, things that you say and then realise afterwards are a cliché. Is it just me, or are policemen getting younger and younger? is one of his favourites – I said that to him without thinking last year. Now I want to say, We are moving at a funereal pace. I look at Jay, but I know he won’t get it.
‘Everyone,’ Louisa is saying loudly, her voice floating across the ranks of mourners in the watery sunshine, ‘Frances’s family would like to invite you al back to Summercove for some refreshments. Please, do fol ow us. Thank you.’
With her pink and white complexion, her halo of greying-blonde hair and striped padded jerkin over sensible country-woman’s attire, she looks like an organised angel. One of the admin assistants helping St Peter at the Pearly Gates. People nod respectful y – you always do what Louisa says. They smile at her. My mother walks on ahead, and I notice the glances she gets in contrast. The curious stares, the sighs. Louisa fol ows Miranda, her beautiful, wicked cousin, and we make our way to the cars. We are going to Summercove.
Without the setting, Summercove would stil be a beautiful house. With it, it’s – wel , it’s jaw-dropping. To me, at least. Maybe it’s not to everyone’s taste. I don’t care. To me, it’s the place I’d rather be, more than anywhere else. Always.
Off a smal lane, covered in foliage in summer so green and dense it’s almost dark, you turn down a driveway and suddenly the house is there, at the edge of a lawn that slopes gently towards the cliffs. There is a proper garden at the back, manicured grass, rows of lavender, rose bushes climbing up the side of the house, a table and chairs for tea or for lounging in. There are even palm trees – they grow everywhere in Cornwal . But at the front of the house is a terrace with simple stone steps leading to the lawn. At the other end is a beautiful tiny gazebo, like a glass carousel, where you can sit and look out to sea. Next to the house by the lane is a gate, which opens onto a tiny path with high hedgerows that in summer are smothered in orange kaffir lilies, ivy, brambles, ful of noisily chirping crickets. The path gives way to grassy moors and stony rocks, from where the rest of the coast suddenly opens up in front of you, the foaming cerulean sea, the blue, blue sky, the wild flowers dotted al around, and if you’re lucky and it’s a clear day, you can see across to the Minack Theatre one way, and almost to the Lizard the other. You have to be careful as you clamber down, holding on to a rope chain, as the path has been cut through the rocks and is frequently slimy and damp. You must move slowly, surely, taking care not to slip. You climb down, down, down, and you’re on the beach, where the sand is custard yel ow and there are flat black rocks to lie on. And there’s no one else around. Just us, our own private beach, leading down from the house.
Summercove was built in the 1920s, for a mil ionaire’s son who wanted to be an artist (along with roughly twenty per cent of the people who come to Cornwal ). It wouldn’t look out of place in Miami – a low square art deco house with round edges, studded with big rectangular suntrap windows and graceful y settled in the incline of the land before it dramatical y drops away to the cliffs. The sitting room has French doors which lead out onto the terrace, the bedrooms upstairs have wide window seats.
It is not a mansion, but it is big, and airy, and light, and always warm, built in concrete and brick to withstand the rough sea winds. My room, which I shared with Octavia for the week or so that our holidays coincided but usual y was lucky enough to have to myself for most of the summer, was smal and would have been pokey had it not looked out to sea. It was my mother’s room when she was younger. The curtains were 1950s, Heal’s, pale grey, tiny patterns dotted over in blue, green, yel ow, red. The furniture is darling, two smal beds with dark wooden frames pale pink silk goose eiderdowns, a bookcase also in dark wood stuffed with my mother’s books from when she was little: My Friend Flicka, Swallows and Amazons, the Narnia books, Jane Austen, and – my favourite of al – a tiny low armchair on brass wheels, covered with a sturdy navy hessian studded with pink polka dots. It is worn in parts but stil intact, and I used to sit either there or in the window seat for hours.
I was a dreamy, withdrawn child, extremely awkward, a sad contrast to my glamorous, confident mother. I don’t have time for people who claim special privileges because they suffer from crippling shyness. We al do, I believe, we just learn to carry it off in different ways. My mother is, I think, also shy and awkward, but she gets past it by assuming a persona, that of the mercurial beauty. But I remember in particular that when I was twelve or so, and life seemed overwhelming – at my new scary secondary school, with my mother, with my growing awareness of my place in the world –
my room at Summercove was an absolute refuge to me.
The Hammersmith flat was boiling in summer, freezing in winter, with paper-thin wal s that meant everyone knew your business. Here, by the sea, I was private. Even for the brief time that Octavia and I were both there together, she’d spend most days outside, down on the beach and in the garden. Whereas I could sit in my room and sketch for a whole afternoon, or stare out at the horizon, or write terrible poems about how no one understood me, al the while flicking my hair from one side to the other, eyes fil ing with tears and sighing about the awfulness of my life. I was probably ghastly, I’m afraid to say.
Poor Octavia. I’m so sure I’m right and she’s the ghastly one, it has never real y occurred to me that it’s most likely the other way round. I don’t remember her ever having a tantrum or gazing moodily out of the window for hours on end.
Now, in late February, the branches are almost bare and so the lane leading to the house is lighter, though the road is muddy and ful of mulch. The huge wheels of the car crunch as we turn into the drive and I crane my neck to catch a first glimpse of the house once more. A curving, white shape slips into view before us, and I see the green of the field and the blue of the sea beyond. I steel myself for what’s coming.
‘So, Natasha, what time is your train tonight?’ Archie says loudly. He turns off the engine. ‘Have you heard this?’ he says, looking at my mother.
‘Tonight?’ my mother squeaks, climbing out of the car, one long leg at a time. She peers into the back where we are sitting with Arvind. ‘You’re not going back tonight.’
‘I am, I’m afraid,’ I say, sounding ridiculously formal. ‘I’m sorry. I have to – I have a meeting tomorrow.’
‘Natasha! You can’t!’ Mum’s mouth is pursed like a child’s.
‘We are here,’ Arvind says suddenly. ‘We are at home again.’
‘Yes, Dad,’ Mum pats his arm briskly, as if pushing him away. She is stil pouting. ‘Natasha?’
‘I know it’s ridiculous,’ I say. ‘I’m so sorry. But I real y can’t miss it. The meeting.’ I know I sound as though I’m lying, and I can’t help it.
‘What, it’s so important you have to leave your grand-mother’s funeral early?’ she demands, her voice stringent and high. ‘You can’t stay with us for just one night? Natasha, honestly.’
She’s right, and I don’t know what to say. I look away from her and up at the house, tears stinging my eyes. I should have cancel ed, I know. But if I cancel, that’s my last chance gone, real y.
If Oli were here . . . things would be different. Everything would be different if Oli were here, but he’s not, because I asked him to stay away from Granny’s funeral, screamed at him to, in fact, laughed at him for daring to make the request in the first place. If Oli were here I wouldn’t hate myself, for wondering about money, for wondering what’s gone wrong and where, for how I’m going to get myself out of it. The truth is, I’m not wondering about money so much as worrying about it, frantical y, obsessively. If Oli were here with me I wouldn’t need to. At our wedding, in a sunny garden by the Thames, the registrar asked us, For richer, for poorer? In sickness and in health? Forsaking al others, til death do us part? Yes, we said. Yes to al of that, yes yes yes and I remember looking over his shoulder, at my mother, my grandmother, in shade under the canopy, watching with pride, and thinking, I’ve done it, we’ve done it. We’re our own family now.
And now that Granny is buried, in the ground, the earth piling up over her as we stand here and talk, everything looks different. It is strange how often I’ve caught myself wondering if she’d like something I’m doing, these last two weeks. Makes me realise how much I wanted her to like it to begin with.
‘It’s for work. It’s—’ I can’t tel her. ‘It’s real y important.’
‘More important than this?’ Mum waves her arms around the car. I don’t take her bait, though she’s right to be confused, upset. My voice sounds childish as I say, ‘No, of course not, but I’m here, aren’t I? I just have to go back early.’
‘It’s bad enough Oli not being here as wel ,’ my mother says. ‘Now you’re racing off as soon as you possibly can, and—’ She drops her hands by her sides, as if to say, This daughter of mine, what can I do with her?
There is a pain in my heart. I wish I could tel her. I wish she was the kind of mother I could tel .
‘Help me, Archie,’ Arvind tel s his son, and this creates a diversion, as Uncle Archie gently helps him down from the car. They walk behind us, slowly, Jay fol owing in silence, and we walk towards the open front door. The wind creaks around us, but there is no rustling sound from the bare trees.
Mum is stil staring at me. She says slowly, ‘You know, Natasha, I’m real y very upset with you.’
I nod, unable to speak suddenly as we walk across the threshold. The lovely fifties Ercol sideboard has flowers on it, white lilies that are just starting to die; the smel is cloying. Granny must have bought them. Her presence is stil here, the last tasks she performed stil evident.
There are clanging sounds as we turn left into the kitchen;
Louisa is already in residence, assisted by Mary Beth and Octavia, who are taking out trays, fetching glasses, spooning out hummus from plastic tubs into my grandmother’s favourite porridge bowls. Again, it looks al wrong, this activity. Normal y it would be Granny, pottering slowly but surely about her kitchen, calmly putting things together, in her domain. This whirlwind of activity is for her, for her funeral. I close my eyes.
‘And there’s another thing.’ Mum is stil talking furiously. I am the one who has ignited the smouldering grief and anger she has been suppressing al day. ‘While we’re on this subject, Natasha. How come your own husband can’t even be bothered to come to Mummy’s funeral, doesn’t even write or ring to apologise? Doesn’t he care at al ?’ She turns and faces me, her cheeks flushing dark cherry, her green eyes huge in her lovely face. I stare, she is so like Granny, so beautiful, always has been. ‘ At all? ’ she repeats.
Louisa looks up. ‘Miranda,’ she says briskly. ‘Ah, you’re here at last,’ as if Mum had stopped off for a facial and a manicure on the way. ‘Can you please unpack the nibbles in those cartons there?’
Mum simply ignores her; if this were a different situation I would love how much my mother and her cousin loathe each other, real y so much that sometimes it’s a wonder they don’t simply take their shoes off and wrestle on the floor. Mum turns to me again. ‘Real y, darling. I mean, he’s your husband.’
There is a rushing sound in my head again. I look up to the ceiling.
‘He’s not any more,’ I hear myself say. ‘What?’ she says. ‘What?’
The rushing is louder and louder. ‘I’ve left him. Or rather he’s left me. That’s why he’s not here.’
They al turn to me. I feel myself going red, like a child caught doing something they shouldn’t. It’s weird. They look at me, Mum’s jaw drops open and the silence stretches out til it is overwhelming, until Mary Beth helpful y drops a glass on the floor. It shatters, which at least gives us al something to do.
Mum flattens herself against the wal , away from the path of glass which has splintered closest to her, and pushes shards towards the centre of the room with one velvet toecap. ‘Oh, my gosh,’ says poor Mary Beth, her hand flying to her mouth. ‘Darn it.’ She crouches on the ground and Louisa flies in with a dustpan and brush screeching, ‘Don’t touch the glass! Careful!’
There’s a brief moment’s silence. I watch them, watch the splinters and the stem of the glass, rol ing slowly around the lino on its side.
‘Nat?’ Jay is stil behind me, I hadn’t seen him. ‘You’ve left Oli? What? Why?’
‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ I say, and then helpful y, the floor feels liquid beneath my feet and is rising up to meet me. I step back, away from the glass, and shapes and colours swim before my eyes and it is almost a relief when gradual y, everything goes black, and I sink to the ground in a dead faint.
When I awake, I’m not sure where I am, or what’s going on. It’s dark. I sit up and look around me, blinking in confusion, and slowly, it al comes back to me.
The first thing I notice is that I’m in my old bedroom. The curtains are half drawn. They took me up here, Jay and the Bowler Hat lugging me up the wide staircase, and I fel into bed and fel fast asleep – a sort of narcolepsy, I could barely keep my eyes open.
I look at my watch; it is a quarter to five but I don’t know how long I’ve been up here. I stretch and yawn, running my hands through my hair. I have a throbbing feeling, as if I don’t have a headache but am about to get one. I run my fingers slowly, experimental y, over my skin. There is a plaster on my forehead, and underneath a swol en lump forming, hot to the touch. Perfect. A massive bruise should be there by tomorrow. Just in time.
Oh dear, I think again. I fainted like a lunatic. My elbow is very sore, from where I must have hit it on the way down. As is my thigh. I feel dreadful, as though I’m hungover and I’ve been beaten up, but more than that I am embarrassed, mortified, even.
I didn’t want to tel my mother my marriage was over, not like that. She didn’t deserve that – none of them did. At Granny’s funeral too – I wince; it’s awful.
There’s a soft tap at the oak door. ‘Come in,’ I say.
The door opens slowly, and Jay’s handsome face appears around it. ‘How are you?’ he says.
‘You want the truth? Pretty rotten,’ I tel him. I crane my head, to see him better. ‘And sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean you to find out like that.’
‘What the hel , Nat? What’s going on with you?’ he says, advancing into the room. He sits down heavily on the bed next to mine and switches on the bedside lamp, his body casting a huge shadow on the opposite wal . ‘You’ve left Oli? But you guys were – he was your life!’
He is looking at me as if I’ve just kil ed his pet rabbit.
‘Yeah?’ I say. ‘Right.’
‘Yeah!’ Jay says, almost angrily. ‘What’s up with you?’
‘It’s not me,’ I say. I laugh. ‘Wel , perhaps it is. He – he slept with someone else.’
It sounds so weird when you speak those words. They’re such a cliché but you never expect to be saying them out loud, and in relation to your own life.
‘He what?’ Jay looks blank, as though he doesn’t understand the words.
I swing my legs off the side of the bed. ‘She’s a client. It was after a conference.’ I am looking for my shoes. I can say it out loud if I just disassociate myself from it, completely pretend it’s not happening.
‘But . . .’ Jay is frowning. ‘But it’s you two. You’re like my perfect couple. You can’t split up.’
‘We’re not a perfect couple.’ I want to cry. He looks bewildered. I say gently, as though it’s him I’m breaking up with, ‘Things . . . things have changed. I don’t know him any more.’
‘But – you’ve known him for ever, Nat. He hasn’t changed.’ I met Oli at col ege. He was the first person – the only person – to tel me my green eyes in my sal ow skin were beautiful. We were already friends by then. It was in the student union bar; we were both in Dramsoc, celebrating the end of our successful run of HMS Pinafore with a themed nautical party Oli had organised. I think I fel in love with him a little bit then, though we didn’t get together for years after that. Six years, in fact. I hugged him, when he said it. He looked so pleased, he was easily pleased back then.
I have to remind myself of this now, but Oli wasn’t a cool kid when I met him. Over the years, he transformed himself from an earnest young man from a smal Yorkshire vil age with a spluttering manner of speech and a terrible habit of blushing. Now his enthusiasm is much more high-octane.
He likes doing the deals, meeting the clients, pressing the flesh; he wants people to like him, I guess. He always did. I used to find that intensely endearing. Until the way he got them to like him turned into shagging them. That I don’t find endearing.
‘But that’s just it,’ I say. ‘I don’t think I do know him any more. Even before he told me about . . . about it. Things haven’t been right. With either of us.’
Jay stares at me. He looks as if he’s about to say something, and then stops. We’re both silent, listening to the rumble of conversation from downstairs.
It seems such a long way away from here, that London life we have, ful of expensive meals and hospitality suites, the cool flat with its seventies film posters on the wal s and the bright red Gaggia espresso machine. From our disinte-grating marriage and secrets that we – both of us – have been keeping from each other. Smal secrets, biting the lip here and there, not talking, not tel ing the truth, the kind of secrets that grow and grow until they fester within you, and you can’t go back and make them right. We started lying to each other too long ago for that. I see that now I’m here, far away from it al .
I draw my legs up and hug my knees. ‘Open the curtains,’ I say.
‘It’s getting dark, you know.’
The light is fading and the moon is just appearing, ful and yel ow. The sky is gun-metal grey, the sea an oily lavender-black. It feels too soon for it to be dark; we’ve only just got here. Suddenly I wish with al my heart I could stay, that I didn’t have to go back to any of it, to tomorrow. We are silent for a moment, Jay sitting next to me, and above the voices downstairs I can hear the faint roar of the sea outside, like a shel against my ear.
‘We should go down,’ I say. ‘Sure, in a minute.’ Jay wrinkles his nose, and takes his watch off his wrist, holding it in his hand, an old habit of his.
‘What you going to do, then? Are you going to kick him out?’
‘He’s gone already, that was the night he told me.’ Two weeks ago.
‘Seriously? And you didn’t tel anyone?’
‘He wants to come back, he didn’t want to leave. He keeps saying how sorry he is, what a mistake it is.’ I drum my fingers on my forehead, and wince as they touch my bruised flesh. ‘I didn’t . . . know what to do.’
‘You could have talked to someone about it. So – no one knows?’ He looks incredulous. I take a breath.
‘Cathy knows. And – wel , Ben.’
‘Ben?’ Jay makes a loud clicking sound with his tongue. ‘You told Ben but you didn’t tel me? Or your mum?’
Ben has the studio next to me. He’s a photographer, an old friend of Jay’s from col ege, that’s how I heard about the studio in the first place.
We have tea most days. Ben wears wool y jumpers and loves Jaffa Cakes, like me; he’s a very comforting person to be working next to al day, like a shaggy dog, or a nice old lady who runs a sweet shop. I cried al over him the day after Oli left.
‘You should have told us about this, not Ben,’ Jay says. ‘Should have kept it in the family.’
Jay does have a tendency to talk like a Corleone. ‘Oh, Jay, honestly.’ He is frowning. ‘I couldn’t! And then Granny died, like, a week later. I’m hardly going to email everyone and go, “See you at the funeral, and by the way? I’m separated from my husband, fil you in then!”’
Jay shakes his head. ‘You’re mental.’ He gets up and stares out of the window, then turns to me. ‘Nat, it’s me. OK? It’s me. Of course you should have told me. I – I’m here for you, you know that?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I know you are. I just couldn’t.’ My eyes are fil ing with tears. Jay squeezes his watch in his hands; I hear the links of the metal strap clinking together.
‘Sometimes . . . I just feel like I don’t know you any more,’ he says, after a pause. ‘You’re a different person these days, Nat. Quiet, subdued.
You’re not yourself.’
I don’t look at him. I don’t want to talk about it, to acknowledge that he might be right, how wrong everything is. ‘I spend a lot of time on my own,’
I say, blankly. ‘In the studio, at home.’
He shakes his head. ‘That’s not it. I feel like you . . . you’re sad, and I don’t know why.’ He puts his finger under my chin. ‘Nat. What’s the meeting tomorrow about?’
I’m silent. He looks at me, and the kindness and concern in his eyes are like pains in my heart. It’s just easier if he doesn’t care. If he leaves me alone.
‘It’s with the bank.’ I stare back at him, hugging myself. ‘It’s not good.’
My voice is croaky. ‘I’ve defaulted on my loans. They want to take me t-to court.’ Jay opens his mouth, shocked. ‘I’m probably going to lose the business. It’s not working. Wel – it’s me. I’m not working.’ I swal ow.
‘Yes – yes, you are!’ Jay says, in outrage. ‘You’re bril iant, Nat!’
‘I’m honestly not,’ I say. ‘Not any more. Don’t think I ever was. I haven’t drawn anything for months.’
‘But you’re always – you’ve always had your pencil going, sketching something –’ he waves his hand round, indicating, here, here – ‘coming up with some design for a tiara when you were a kid, some earrings, a ring – you love that stuff! You’re bril iant!’ He says it again, and it just sounds hol ow.
I touch his hand. ‘I can’t do it any more. I don’t know why.’ I look down, I can’t bear to meet his gaze. ‘I’ve got no new ideas. And the stuff that’s out there already – no one’s buying it. The business, me, it’s al –’ I take a deep breath, to steady myself – ‘it’s screwed. Not that the website doesn’t look beautiful, Jay.’ I want to reassure him of that. ‘It’s just we’re in a recession. People aren’t treating themselves to a nice bracelet from some jewel ery designer they’ve never heard of.’
Jay looks bewildered. ‘But you’re going places, you’ve had your stuff in magazines, that celebrity girl wore your necklace thing? I don’t understand.’
‘That was ages ago. And I got too big for my boots,’ I say. I am trying to sound chipper, but I am very scared. This is my job. I don’t know how to do anything else, and it terrifies me that I’ve let myself come so low. ‘Oli’s been keeping both of us, the last couple of years,’ I say, and my eyes fil with tears again. ‘It was fine, at the start. We knew it’d take a while. I’ve had to buy gold, and materials, and pay for the business cards and the stationery and everything – and the rent on the studio. Plus the accountants and al that, to do with the company accounts. But . . . I’m about fifteen grand in debt.’ I breathe in . . . I hate saying it out loud. I hate it al .
It’s the look on Jay’s face I can’t stand, this is why I don’t want to tel people, to see the disappointment, the surprise in their eyes. He shakes his head, as though he doesn’t understand it, as though I’m an idiot, which I have been.
‘I didn’t know things had got that bad,’ he says eventual y. ‘What wil you do?’
‘I have no idea,’ I say. ‘But I have to do something. I’ve known it for a while, and then Oli – Oli told me about the girl, and then Granny died, and it’s al I can think about, how disappointed she’d be, how I’ve let her down . . .’ My throat is closing up; I don’t want to cry. ‘I never used to think I’d find someone, or be able to do something I’d like. I thought I’d end up like Mum, you know? In a horrible flat, lying about everything and pretending she’s in a film, not reality. I thought I’d got away from it . . . me and Oli, the two of us, my job, you know . . .’ I bal my hand into a fist and push it into my stomach. ‘Oh, God.’
‘Granny dying was always going to do this, unleash a lot of crap,’ Jay says. He puts his arm around me. ‘Oh, Nat. Man, I’m sorry.’ He squeezes me tight. ‘Hey, why don’t you come and stay with me? I’ve got that little study, I hardly use it.’
I smile. ‘That’s real y kind. No . . . I hope – I don’t know what’s going to happen.’
‘You mean you hope he’l come back?’
‘I think he wants to come back,’ I say. ‘He keeps texting, asking to talk about it some more, wanting to meet up. I just don’t know if that’s right or not. I don’t know anything any more.’ I look up at him. ‘What’s going to happen, Jay?’
‘It’s going to be OK.’ Jay pats me on the back. ‘Come on,’ he says. ‘It’s getting late. You need to show your face back downstairs, especial y if you’re running away in an hour or so.’
‘Yep,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have put al this on you now.’
‘I’m glad you did, Nat,’ he says. ‘You should have earlier.
I’ve been worried about you. Look, you’re talented, OK? This meeting tomorrow, it’s going to go fine. And then you can talk to Oli, work things out . . . it’s going to be al good again. Promise.’
I nod. ‘If you say so.’
‘Trust me. Family.’ I give a mirthless laugh, pul on my boots and we head towards the light, out of the dark, echoing corridor downstairs to Granny’s wake. Arvind’s chairlift is at the top of the stairs; he must be up here, having a nap. I hear a noise next to us and look round, half-expecting to see Granny in the shadows, standing behind the banister, cool y enquiring where we’re off to, what we think we’re doing? But she’s not there. No one’s there.
The gathering in the sitting room has a desultory, unreal air. There aren’t as many people as there were at the funeral. I suppose most have gone by now. The large room looks odd; people don’t usual y stand around in knots, talking softly, politely. I scan the room, checking off the members of my family. When was the last time we were al together, in the same room? I honestly cannot remember. Her seventy-fifth birthday? It’s been years, and even then infrequently. This – this formal, tepid tea party – it’s not Granny. It’s not anything.
This feeling of absence, of something being strangely wrong, is also because Granny’s not here. Normal y, you’re waiting for her to come into the room. It wasn’t that she was an especial y gregarious person – she wasn’t. More that you felt she and the house were linked, in a fundamental way. Without her, knowing she won’t come in, ever again, is sad and unsettling, too. I look around, touching my hand to my throbbing forehead.
In the old days, back when Summercove was a mecca for the young and bohemian, it wasn’t like this either. I look around, wondering, Are they here, any of those people, today? They’d be old, too, if they were. There are several people I don’t recognise along with my family, al the varying parts of it. Mum’s cousin Jeremy and his wife Mary Beth stand in the furthest corner, as if they’ve backed away from everyone else as far as they can and ended up there. They look tired, weary of this long, strange day. By the French windows, my mother and her brother also stand, talking intently to each other, as ever. They don’t look at each other, they never do when they talk. My mother is staring into space as Archie hisses closely into her ear, and her gaze sharpens, focusing on me. She looks me up and down, nodding as Archie talks, and holds up a hand to me, questioning.
What’s going on with you?
Octavia and Julius are talking to an older man in glasses who seems vaguely familiar. Over by the buffet, their mother is col ecting up empty bowls and used plates loudly, so that the china clanks together. My mother and uncle turn to her, Mum with an imperious expression on her face, but al that’s visible is Louisa’s sturdy, wide bottom, clad in its crêpey black bias-cut skirt. The Bowler Hat stands by the fireplace clutching a glass of wine, his stil -handsome face a mask of polite boredom. Though he’s watching his wife he seems impervious to her, clearing away next to him, tucking her greying blonde bob, which keeps fal ing in her eyes, behind her ears. Again, I remember and it occurs to me that Louisa was lovely when she was younger in the photos I’ve seen. Now, she’s . . . I don’t know. I suppose your life doesn’t turn out the way you’d expected, that’s al , and I should know.
A couple comes up to say goodbye to Louisa. She raises her head from wiping the table and smiles briefly at them. They are old, around Granny’s age, and they smile back, kindly, at her. As they are leaving, the wife nudges her husband, and whispers something, pointing at my mother and Archie. I see the queer, sharp look she gives my mother, this old woman whom I’ve never seen before. I hear her voice, hissing.
‘That’s the daughter,’ she says. ‘The other daughter, dear. You remember?’
‘Oh . . .’ says the old man curiously. He stares at my mother who I know can hear them but is pretending not to. ‘Yes. The one they—’
‘Shh,’ his wife admonishes. ‘Come on, Alfred. We’re late,’ and she practical y pushes him out of the room. I watch them go, and rub my eyes.
‘Natasha, dear,’ another old lady says, handing me a glass of champagne. ‘It’s so wonderful to see you. Now, let me tel you a story about one of your necklaces. I bought it in London. A lovely silver flower on a chain, dear, do you remember that one?’
‘Yes,’ I say, nodding politely, trying not to look over her shoulder at Mum.
‘The clasp didn’t work properly. And I took it back to the shop – because, dear, I did want to support you, and I was so glad to have bought it –
and do you know what they said?’
‘Oh, Jeremy,’ I hear Louisa say behind me to her brother. ‘Do you have to go already? Oh, dear.’
‘Wel , let me know if they don’t give you a refund,’ I say as the old lady pauses for breath, as if I’ve listened to and understood every word she’s saying. ‘Excuse me, wil you?’ I make my way over to the table, and grab some crisps. Jeremy is hugging his sister, Mary Beth is kissing the Bowler Hat.
‘Ah,’ Jeremy says, as he turns and sees me. ‘Natasha. I’m so sorry I haven’t had a chance to talk with you today.’ He squeezes my shoulder and nods, his kind face creasing into a smile. ‘But you look wel .’ His eyes rest on the plaster on my forehead and he hesitates a little. ‘And – er, I hear al ’s good with you, you and Oli, and the business, that’s real y great.’
‘Um – thanks.’ I don’t know what to say. Louisa gawps a little, and the Bowler Hat just smiles urbanely at us al – I want to hit him.
‘Jeremy,’ Mary Beth says, at his side. ‘They just split up.’ She kisses me on the cheek. ‘I’m so sorry, dear. We’re worried about you. Are you feeling OK? How’s the head?’
‘Um –’ I begin again, wil ing myself not to cry, it would be too awful. Mary Beth is pretty, with fluffy brown bobbed hair with bangs, as they say in the States, and she is dipping her slender hands into her pockets. She stands next to her husband, slightly tense. I can’t read the body language.
‘Oh, my goodness, I’m sorry,’ Jeremy says, looking taken aback. ‘I had no idea – wel , gosh, I’m not back very often, I suppose, I hadn’t heard.’
‘It just happened, don’t worry,’ I say to him. His forehead crinkles up, like concertinaed folds of paper. ‘Are you – are you real y off? I haven’t seen you at al .’
He nods. ‘I’m awful y sorry. We have a crazy early flight from Heathrow and we’re staying in a motel close by tonight.’ I’d forgotten, because I haven’t seen him for a while, how he has a curious turn of phrase, a combination of British time-warp gent and regular American guy. But he says things people here don’t say any more, like Austin Powers. ‘Need to get there and get some sleep, I guess,’ he says. He looks around the sitting room, his eyes scanning the paintings, the people, the old familiar things. ‘Lovely to be back here again, even if the reason’s a sad one.’ Mary Beth pats his arm.
‘How long’s it been since you were here?’ I say. ‘Erin and Ryder were stil at school, weren’t they?’
Jeremy glances round. ‘Oh, about five years,’ he says. ‘Just been busy, you know? And now my mum and dad are both gone, have been for ten years now, there’s been less reason to visit Franty and Arvind. It’s just Mary Beth’s family’s in Indiana. We spend time with them in the summer. It’s so far to come, when we don’t have much vacation.’
‘Of course,’ I say.
He looks relieved that I understand. ‘Wel , yes. That’s the way it’s been. Very sadly.’
I can’t help it, I give a ragged sigh. ‘There’s nowhere quite like Summercove, is there? It’s paradise down here, especial y in summer. Oh, I’m going to miss it so much. I expect you wil too, now it’s going.’
Jeremy looks quickly from left to right. ‘No,’ he says. I’m not sure what he’s saying no to. There’s a silence and then he says, ‘Actual y, I don’t real y think about the old days, if truth be told. It was al a long time ago.’ And then he takes Mary Beth’s hand, clutches it hurriedly, wincing as if he’s getting a headache. ‘So, we’re going . . .’ He kisses his sister again. ‘Bye, love,’ he says, and he hugs Louisa, hard. ‘Thank you . . . thank you for everything, Lou. You’re wonderful.’
He nods briefly again at me. ‘Lovely to see you, Natasha.’ Mary Beth raises her hand, and they are gone.
Louisa stares after them. ‘Oh, dear,’ she says, and her eyes are ful of tears.
I go to her, put my arm round her. ‘You’l see him soon,’ I say stupidly.
‘I won’t,’ she says, her smile sad. ‘He never comes back any more. Especial y now Mummy and Dad are dead, you know.’
I nod. Their mother, Pamela, was Granny’s sister, a rather starchy old lady. She died about seven years ago, her husband before that. They’d come to Summercove, not as much as Louisa, but they were there.
Louisa’s face creases. ‘He only came back this time for me. Darling Jeremy.’ A tear rol s down her cheek. ‘Oh – oh, this is awful,’ she says.
My arm is stil around her. It feels weird. Louisa is the mumsy, organised one. Seeing her cry for the first time is wrong. like everything else today.
‘Oh, Louisa, I’m sorry,’ I say. Her head is bowed and she is properly crying now, tears flowing easily down her crumpled face. She looks up at me then, and almost flinches. And then she blinks.
‘No, I’m sorry, Natasha dear,’ she says, moving away, so that my hand fal s to my side again. She presses the Bowler Hat’s arm. He kisses her on the head, briefly, tenderly and pul s her against him, and she looks up at him, grateful y happy. I watch them with interest – I see the Bowler Hat so rarely, and any interaction between long-standing couples is fascinating to me at the moment. I turn away, to pick up some more crisps from behind me.
‘She looks so like her, doesn’t she?’ Louisa says, her voice stil a bit wobbly. ‘I’d forgotten.’
‘Cecily,’ says the Bowler Hat, slowly, not troubling to keep his voice low. ‘Yes, she does. You’re right.’
No one ever mentions Cecily. It’s like a bul et fired into the conversation.
Perhaps I would have pretended not to hear Louisa, but the Bowler Hat’s voice is loud. ‘I look like Cecily?’ I say, turning back with a bottle in my hand.
Louisa is facing her husband, plucking at a piece of fluff on his jacket. He meets her gaze, briefly, and then looks back into his drink again. I can’t decide if he’s uncomfortable, or simply tired. They ignore me, it’s as if they’re in a world of their own. ‘She gave you your name,’ Louisa says.
‘Don’t you remember?’
He nods, his chin sunk onto his chest, I can’t see his face. ‘Yes. She did, didn’t she?’
I close the gap between us, by reaching forward and fil ing the Bowler Hat’s glass, and they both look up at me. ‘I didn’t know that,’ I say. I’ve never real y thought about it, strange to say. That’s just how he’s always been referred to. ‘Real y, that’s how you got the name?’
He nods and switches his wine glass to his other hand. There are smeary finger marks on the glass. He pul s at his col ar.
‘Yes,’ he says, and he smiles. ‘You know my brother Guy?’ I nod. ‘He and I came here for the summer, that was the first time I met the rest of the family. 1962?’ He turns to his wife, and for a second he is younger, his craggy strong face unlined, his colourless hair blond again, a stil handsome, strapping young man.
‘’63,’ she says quickly. ‘’63.’
‘Of course. Profumo – the trial had just started when we arrived.’ He smiles. ‘Yes! We got the train from London. Read about it on the way down. And after we’d arrived, Cecily took one look at me and said I looked like I should be wearing a bowler hat, not shorts. She could be very funny.’ He shakes his head. ‘Tragic. So sad.’ He is silent, Louisa is looking down at the floor.
I never hear them talk about when they were younger, probably because of Cecily. Never heard anything about the summers down here when they were children. It’s hard, now, to believe they hung out together for weeks on end, had picnics, swam together, lay in the sun. Sure, there’s the odd photo, and the odd reference – ‘That was the year Archie broke his arm, wasn’t it?’ But that’s it. Louisa comes – came – for a week to Summercove every year with the children, that’s how I know them better, but the Bowler Hat never real y came, he’d stay up in London, working.
Mum and I would sometimes be down here for Christmas, but not often. Mostly it was at home, or with Archie and Sameena in Ealing. We didn’t make jol y family visits to Tunbridge Wel s, and I don’t recal Mum ever entertaining Louisa and the Bowler Hat to dinner in our tiny damp Hammersmith abode. They don’t socialise, when I think about it. They’re so different now and there’s no intimacy between them al . And apart from that photo of Cecily that Granny had and I saw only once I know nothing else about her. Cecily simply doesn’t come up. What happened doesn’t come up.
So the three of us stare at each other, unsure how to proceed: we’ve gone down a conversational dead end.
‘Natasha’s right, though,’ the Bowler Hat suddenly says, unbending. ‘It was like paradise, Summercove. So laid-back and free. That day we arrived, Guy and I, and you were lying out on the lawn in those great tight-fitting black trousers, remember?’ He smiles, wolfishly. ‘Yes, we were young then.’
‘Frank,’ Louisa says, through gritted teeth. ‘That wasn’t me. My shorts ripped, remember? That was bloody Miranda.’
‘Your memory, dear,’ Bowler Hat says. ‘Incredible. Hah.’ He looks around him airily. I will not be embarrassed by this mistake, don’t try me.
‘Is Guy here? I haven’t seen him yet,’ I say hastily. ‘Though it’s been so long, I don’t know if I’d recognise him.’
‘Oh, you would,’ says Louisa. ‘He was at Julius’s wedding. Guy!’ she cal s. ‘Guy!’
Last year, Julius married a Russian girl, a trader he’d met through work. He was thirty-seven, she was twenty-three. It was a smart hotel in central London, in a huge room with gold panel ing on the wal s, and red-faced, huge-handed Julius and a stick-thin beautiful young woman in acres of tul e posing for endless photos. They had a huge row – at the reception – and she stormed off. Jay says he heard she ended up at the Rock Garden in Covent Garden with one of her bridesmaids, snogging a Russian guy. I don’t believe him, though I’d love it to be true.
Al I real y remember about that night is that Oli and my mother got real y drunk; they’re a bad combination, those two. Oli managed to offend one of Julius’s ghastly City friends: unintentional y, he can be a bit ful on when he’s had too much to drink. I had to take him home. Julius’s wife isn’t here today. Neither’s my husband, though.
‘Ah,’ Louisa says. I turn around. ‘Hi, Guy,’ I say, holding out my hand. Again I hear Julius’s words on the train. ‘Bloody good thing Guy’s already there.’ I grip his hand, suddenly angry, and pump my arm up and down a little too hard. Guy is nothing like his brother, he is mild-looking and rather thin, wearing a tatty checked shirt with a corduroy jacket. He smiles at me.
‘It’s nice to see you again, Natasha. It’s been a very long time.’ He nods, his grey eyes kind.
‘Hi,’ I say. I haven’t seen him for ages. ‘I was in a shop where they were sel ing your bracelets the other day,’ he says. ‘Nearly bought one for my daughter.’
‘I wish you had,’ I say. He stares at me. ‘Guy’s an antiques dealer,’ Louisa says behind me. She crumples a tea towel up in her hand. ‘We thought it’d be useful for him to come to the funeral, you know? Get started on the work ahead. Because of course, there’s some interesting things in the house too.’
Interesting. ‘Has anyone been into her studio yet?’ I say. ‘It’s locked, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ Louisa says, her face tight. ‘Your mother found the key and went in, a couple of days ago. She started taking things out, but I managed to stop her. Someone should be making sure it’s al properly done.’
‘Arvind wanted to go in,’ the Bowler Hat says. ‘In fairness to Miranda.’
‘Wel , fine,’ Louisa says crossly, but she doesn’t seem convinced. ‘Anyway, it’s al in there.’
Louisa is brisk. ‘A few paintings, which is wonderful. That’s it though. And her old sketchbooks and paints. Why, what were you expecting them to find?’
I shake my head, feeling stupid. ‘It’s time we sorted everything out.’ Louisa narrows her eyes. ‘Is that Florian leaving? Yes.’ She turns to me. ‘I mean, they weren’t wealthy in other ways, not for years now. But there are a lot of valuable paintings, letters, books, that sort of thing. And we need to decide what’s best for them al . For al her work, and everything else they’ve got here.’
I know about the signed first editions by Stephen Spender, Kingsley Amis, T. S. Eliot, which line the shelves rising from the floor to the ceiling either side of the fireplace. About the Ben Nicholson print in the hal , the Macready sketch with its white frame in the dining room: ‘Frances at the Chelsea Arts Club, 1953’. They lent that one for his retrospective at the Tate, a couple of years ago. It was the cover of the catalogue. I hadn’t thought about al of that. To me, they’re a part of the house, as much a part as the doors and the taps and the floors.
It makes sense that there’s some kind of trust to look after Granny’s paintings, but I can’t help feeling uncomfortable. I barely know Guy and I don’t think Mum and Archie do, either. Sure, they al spent a summer together years ago but that doesn’t real y count. Does it? And I wish I didn’t, but I object to the idea of him eyeing up these things in the house at the funeral. Poking around in Granny’s studio. Picking up the pair of Juno vases on the mantelpiece, the Clarice Cliff teapot, and clicking his tongue with pleasure. I glare at Louisa, but she is oblivious, and so I glare at Guy instead. He smiles at me in a friendly way, and I want to hit him. Now is not the time to be picking over the house for the juiciest bits, like the carcass of a chicken.
‘Where’s your mother gone?’ he asks. ‘I haven’t seen her for – gosh, ages. It’d be good to catch up with her about al of this.’ He pauses. ‘And Archie too.’
‘They were there—’ I look round for them but they’ve disappeared. Instead I see Jay in the corner, now talking to Julius. ‘They’re probably in the kitchen. Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Good to see you again.’
‘Oh,’ Guy says, obviously surprised at my abruptness. ‘Right, see you soon then.’
I reach Julius and Jay, who are standing against the wal , clutching their glasses, not real y saying much.
‘How you feeling?’ Jay asks me. ‘Fine, fine,’ I wave him away. ‘Hi, Julius.’
‘Er—’ Julius scratches his face. He is looking bored. ‘Sorry about you and – er – Oli.’ I don’t know if he’s shy or if he genuinely can’t remember his name. ‘So – what happened? He slept with someone else?’
‘How did you know that?’ I say.
Julius shrugs. ‘Good guess. That’s usual y why, isn’t it?’ Jay, standing next to him, rol s his eyes. Julius is our relative, it’s weird to think of it. He is kind of vile.
‘Yes, he slept with someone else,’ I say. ‘But—’
But what? Exactly. I look over at my mother and bite my lip. I stil haven’t even talked to her about this, and it feels wrong. Not because I usual y tel her everything, in fact, I usual y tel her nothing, but she’s my mum. I should talk to her first.
‘Anyway.’ I change the subject. ‘I was just talking to your uncle. Do you think it’s appropriate he’s here?’
‘Why shouldn’t he be here?’ Julius says, unperturbed by my question. ‘He was her nephew, you know. He flew al the way from San Diego for the bloody funeral, damn nice of him, considering.’
‘Not your uncle Jeremy,’ I say, annoyed. Julius flusters me. ‘Your other uncle. Guy. Your mother’s brought him down here to – to basical y do a valuation on al the stuff in the house. Just think it’s a bit rich.’
Julius doesn’t even blink. ‘You’ve got to pay for the nursing home your grandfather’s going into,’ he says.
‘Come on,’ I say. ‘That’s rubbish. There’s – there’s money. Mum and Archie can sort it out.’
‘With what?’ Julius says. ‘With al the money each of them has floating around?’ Jay stiffens and I frown. ‘There’s nothing, they’ve spent it al ,’
Julius says flatly. He sticks his thick, rubbery lips out, like a child, and like a child I hate him again. I am sharply reminded of how he would push me against the rocks down on the beach, and laugh, and my back would be grazed with a repeating rash of brown beady scabs, for the duration of our holidays together. In truth I didn’t real y know him or Octavia that wel , we didn’t see each other for the rest of the year and I wasn’t used to aggressive, boisterous boys like him. He scared me, it wasn’t the picture of Summercove I wanted in my head. I watch him now. He hasn’t changed al that much. ‘You’re bloody lucky my mother’s sorting al your crap out for the lot of you, you know.’
‘What business is it of hers anyway, al this—’ I wave my hands round, trying not to get angry. ‘She’s acting like Granny was her mother, like it was her house, she’s organised it al , it’s completely . . .’ I trail off, not wanting to go on, surprised at the force of the rage I’m feeling.
‘Who the hel do you think would have done it if it wasn’t for her?’ Julius says, half angry, half laughing, aggressively. You stupid little girl, the tone of his voice says. ‘Your mother? Oh, yeah, sure. There’d be no funeral and your grandfather would be out on the streets, or dead in a couple of weeks after your mother forgets that he can’t actual y get up the stairs or buy food himself any more.’ He is working up a head of steam, and he turns to Jay. ‘And hey. At least Guy won’t try and sel the stuff himself and pocket the profit.’
There is a terrible silence after he says this. What’s worse is Julius doesn’t look at al embarrassed by what he’s just said. As though he knows he’s right. Jay and I stare at each other, then at him. A dark red blush stains Jay’s cheeks.
‘Fuck off, Julius,’ he says. ‘You’re real y out of order. OK?’ Julius doesn’t look abashed. ‘Come on. They’ve always been like that, the pair of them. Everyone knows it.’
And he walks over to where Octavia is chatting to an old lady.
Jay and I are standing there staring at each other. Jay breathes out, whistling slowly. ‘Nice to see Julius again, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ I say. I put on a faux-serious BBC announcer voice. ‘And it’s a sad day, but it’s lovely to see the family again. Al gathered together, reunited once more in the same place.’ I’m trying to sound jokey, but it’s scary. This is what we’re like now Granny’s not here. It’s al changed, and I don’t know how, or why.
It’s a while before the final cluster of guests starts to leave: old neighbours, a few artists who have retired down here, a magistrate, a wel -known writer and her husband – they know each other and aren’t in a hurry to get back anywhere. I stand at the door of the sitting room, watching people disperse, looking around, thinking. A draught of cold air whistles past my back and I shiver, turning to see Jay waving goodbye to Mr and Mrs Neil who live up the lane. They have been there for thirty years and wil miss Granny as much as us, I don’t doubt. They saw her every day which is more than I did. Yesterday, as I was trying to sleep, I realised I hadn’t seen her for three months, since November, when she came up to go to an exhibition at the Royal Academy and we had lunch in the café, where other old ladies and gents gather for a cup of coffee before getting their trains back to the Home Counties.
I wondered, as we sat there, if any of them realised who this stil strikingly beautiful old lady was, that she had exhibited here, was in fact an RA, a Royal Academician. That she was sort of famous, in her day, appeared in the Picture Post and Life magazine, the famous bohemian painter and her exotic husband in their house by the sea with their mixed-race children, though everyone was too polite to mention that, of course, and if they did, they said it was terribly interesting. I wonder if they knew, if Granny knew what Mum once told me in an unguarded moment, that before the train left every term, my mother would dash to Boots the chemist in Penzance to buy a pack of disposable razors, to shave the black hair on her dark arms.
Jay comes towards me. ‘Hey.’ He looks round the empty hal way, the dresser and table littered with paper plates and half-empty champagne flutes, and says cautiously, ‘Thank God, those people are starting to go.’
We both look at our watches. It’s seven and the sleeper leaves at nine. ‘How are you getting to the station?’ he asks. ‘I’l drive you.’
At this exact moment, as if she’s been waiting for this conversation, Octavia appears in the hal way. She strides towards us, her heavy, sensible black shoes loud on the floor. ‘Are you talking about the trains?’ she says. ‘I’m going back tonight actual y too. I have a meeting at the MoD
tomorrow, just found out.’ She waves her BlackBerry authoritatively, her thick ponytail swinging out behind her head as she nods at us.
‘Should you be tel ing us this information?’ Jay says. ‘Won’t we have to kil you now?’
‘Ha,’ says Octavia, ignoring him and turning to me. ‘How are you getting to the station?’
‘I’ve booked Mike the taxi,’ I say. ‘He’s coming in an hour.’
‘I’l get a lift with you then,’ Octavia says. She adds, almost under her breath, ‘If that’s al right.’ There is no way I can say, No, it’s not al right, I hate you and your horrible brother! I don’t want you coming back with me! Which is kind of what my eight-year-old self would want me to say to her.
I nod instead. ‘Of course,’ I say. ‘Have you booked a cabin?’
‘Yes, just now,’ she says. ‘Don’t worry, Natasha, I won’t make you share with me like the old days,’ and she runs her hands awkwardly through her fringe and I feel a pang of guilt, for that is exactly what I was thinking.
‘Wel , that’s great. I’m just going to find Mum then,’ I say, and I touch Jay on the shoulder and dash towards the kitchen. Mum is talking to Guy, the Bowler Hat’s brother. Her hands are on her hips, she is leaning over him as if she’s about to spit at him. They both jump as I stride in.
‘There you are,’ Mum says, standing upright. Her jaw is set, her green eyes flinty; she is staring at Guy with something approaching loathing and I know the signs. She’s about to blow. She blinks, rapidly, as if calming herself down, and she says, ‘Nat – darling, my darling, how are you?
We need to talk, don’t we?’ She winds some hair round her finger.
I look suspiciously at Guy. ‘Everything OK?’
‘Yes, absolutely,’ Guy says smoothly. ‘It’s fine. I was just asking your mother about the . . . stuff in the house.’
‘The stuff in the house,’ I say careful y, because I don’t want to be rude. ‘Look, I said this to your brother already, and please don’t take this the wrong way, but do you real y think now’s the time to be poking around valuing things here?’ He is turning red. ‘It’s not great timing.’ I’m surprised to hear my voice shaking. ‘Perhaps you should come back another day.’
Guy turns to my mother, who is staring at her feet. There is a chicken vol-au-vent on the linoleum floor. ‘Why doesn’t she know?’ he says.
Mum says nothing.
‘Know what?’ I ask.
‘That’s why it al seems rather abrupt, Natasha. Your grandparents agreed it years ago, that when Frances died something should be established in her name. A charitable foundation, or a gal ery. You know, she hasn’t had an exhibition for years. It’s a disgrace, a painter of her stature. But she’s never let them. There was a big show planned for the autumn after Cecily, after she died.’ He stops and col ects himself, and I remember he must have known her too, that summer. I hadn’t thought of that before. ‘The country hasn’t seen Frances Seymour’s work, apart from the two in the Tate Modern and a few in America, for wel over forty years.’
I blink, trying to take it in. ‘So?’
‘Now she’s dead, the terms of her wil say the foundation should be established as soon as possible. Miranda,’ he says crossly. ‘You should have told Natasha. She’s one of the trustees, for God’s sake.’
‘ Me? ’ I say. ‘I don’t know anything about painting. I never saw her paint, anyway.’
‘It’s nothing to do with that. She wanted you to be one of the trustees. You, your mother, and me—’ He clears his throat, awkwardly. ‘I – I don’t quite understand what I’ve got to do with it, but—’
‘Look,’ says my mother, her throaty voice cutting across Guy’s. ‘I get it, OK? I get the whole thing. Al I’m saying is, Archie and I would also like to make sure that the house and furniture are sold in the right way. You know, we have got bil s to pay out of al of this. And Arvind’s nursing home.’
She twists the big jade ring she’s wearing, and this seems to give her momentum. ‘You know, Guy, you’ve got a bloody nerve, showing up here, trying to tel us what to do, after al these years. I was going to tel Natasha, but you know it’s been a busy day.’ She shakes her hair, pursing her lips and staring at him in fury, and she does look rather magnificent. ‘After al these years,’ she says, more quietly. ‘You should know that.’
‘Fine,’ Guy says. He holds his palms up towards her. ‘I understand. You’re right. We’l discuss it another day.’ He looks up and chews his little finger. ‘Look, I’m sorry – I didn’t think—’
‘It’s fine,’ I say, looking to Mum for confirmation. ‘Thank you, Guy.’ She is staring at me, but I interpret this as tacit approval of my actions. She’s useless at confrontations, though she acts like a diva the whole time.
‘Goodbye, Miranda,’ Guy says, turning to her. ‘It’s been a sad day, but it was real y lovely to see you again.’
‘Wel —’ Mum blinks slowly, her long, soot-black eyelashes brushing her smooth skin. There is a crumb of mascara on her cheekbone; I stare at it. ‘It was lovely to see you again. It’s been a long time.’
He nods, and bows his head at me. ‘Natasha, you too.’ He clears his throat. ‘Once more, I’m sorry if you’ve thought I’ve been inappropriate, or anything like that. Let me—’ He fumbles in his pocket and takes out a card. ‘If you’re ever up this way—’
Antiques & Rare Books
‘I’m sure we’l be in touch, about the foundation at the very least.’ I take the card. ‘Wel , thank you, Guy. Thank you.’ As if I am a dowager duchess whom he wil never be fortunate enough to meet again.
‘Goodbye, then,’ he says, and shuts the door quietly behind him, with one last apologetic look at my mother.
The room is silent. ‘Are you OK?’ I say. Mum is blinking back tears.
‘I am,’ she says. ‘I’m just rather tired. It’s been a long day. Lots of memories, you know? And I’m worried about you, Natasha.’
She says it quietly, without tossing her hair or rol ing her eyes or trying to get something. She just looks rather beaten, and it hits me in the solar plexus. I put my arm round her. ‘I’m sorry, Mum,’ I tel her. ‘I wanted to explain about me and Oli, but it was . . . too hard. And then Granny died – I couldn’t just drop it into conversation, could I?’
‘So what happened?’ she says. ‘Do you want to tel your old mum about it?’
Mum isn’t very good at being a mum out of an Oxo ad. She’s better when she’s just being a person.
‘He’s been sleeping with someone else,’ I say.
‘An affair?’ Mum’s eyes are wide open now.
‘No.’ I shake my head. ‘A girl at work. It was a couple of months ago. He says it’s nothing. It’s over.’
‘Ohh!’ my mother says, her voice high, as if that’s that then. ‘Right.’
I look at her.
‘That’s absolutely awful,’ she adds. ‘You poor thing.’
I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with her; in fact I remember one of the reasons why I dreaded tel ing her in the first place. Mum absolutely adores Oli. They get on real y wel . I often think they’d have a better time without me there. He thinks she’s hilarious, wonderful, and she plays up to it, and they get drunk together and egg each other on, like old boozers in a pub, and I sit there, wearily watching them, feeling like a beige carpet in a Persian rug shop.
There’s a frown puckering her forehead. I say, ‘I think he wants to come back, but I don’t know what to say if he asks. I just don’t know if I can trust him.’
‘Hmm,’ says my mum, one finger on her cheek as if consider ing this point seriously, and I remember the times I’d ask her when she’d be back home from a party or dinner with friends. ‘Hmm . . .’ she’d say, finger on cheek, and after a long pause, ‘not late, darling. Not too late.’ And then, when I’d final y got to sleep, worn out by being terrified by noises inside the flat that I thought were rats or sinister intruders, and of being terrified by noises outside the flat that I knew were masked robbers or deranged psychopaths, in the dark stil hours of the early morning I’d hear the creak of the door and the soft tap on the parquet floor as she crept past my room to her bed. ‘Hmm . . . I’m just not sure.’
‘I am,’ I say. ‘I can’t trust him. I can’t have him back if I don’t trust him.’
‘He’s your husband, and he looks after you, and you don’t have to worry about anything,’ Mum says sharply. ‘I think you need to look at it like that instead, Natasha. I mean, he didn’t kill anyone, you know. He slept with someone. He’s a good husband.’
‘What?’ I am momentarily stunned, as though this is a modern-day version of Gigi and I am Leslie Caron and should just put up with it. ‘He pays for our nice life, for my new boots, I should just shut up, right?’
She stares at me defiantly. ‘Sometimes, darling, I think you just don’t get it at al . I’m just saying it’s hard, being on your own.’
I can’t answer this, as I know she’s right, but I can’t agree with her without hurting her feelings. ‘I just don’t know, Mum,’ I say. ‘I look at our life together and I—’
She interrupts me. ‘Relationships aren’t perfect,’ she says. ‘They’re not. You have to work at them. You were the first of your friends to get married, weren’t you?’ This is true, and I’m surprised she’s aware of it. ‘Perhaps you just don’t see your other friends in the same situations as you.
And I’ve certainly not been much of a role model in that direction, have I?’ She grimaces, blinking rapidly.
‘He slept with someone, Mum. He didn’t forget our anniversary. It’s a bit different.’
‘Like I say. People make mistakes.’ She pauses. ‘Your grandparents are a good example. But they got over it.’
‘How? What do you mean?’
‘I mean –’ Mum begins, and then she stops. Her mouth is open, as though she’s not sure how to continue, and then we hear a noise.
‘Hel o?’ someone cal s from upstairs. ‘Hel o? I think your grandfather needs help.’ I push open the swinging kitchen door. An old lady is standing at the top of the stairs, peering out of the dark. ‘I just came up here to use the lavatory and I heard him . . . he’s cal ing for someone.’
I see Louisa breaking away from her husband and Guy and hurrying towards the hal . I step out.
‘I’l go,’ I say suddenly, watching my mother’s face. I can hear Arvind’s voice, growing louder.
‘Someone needs to come up here!’ he is squeaking. ‘Immediately!’
‘Thanks,’ I say to the old lady, who is waiting at the bend in the staircase. ‘See you later, Mum,’ I say, and I run up the stairs, my hands running along the smooth, dark wood of the banisters.
‘I do hope he’s al right,’ the old lady says, looking anxiously towards the closed bedroom door. I push it open and go in.
‘Hel o, Natasha,’ Arvind says. He is sitting up in bed, smal as a child, bald as a baby, his hands wrinkled and lying on the crisp white sheets. The wheelchair is parked neatly in the corner; a metal stand is next to the bed. They don’t go with the room, these metal hospital items. They don’t match.
I love this room, perhaps more than any other in the house. But here on this dark February evening the heavy brocade curtains are drawn, and it is gloomy, with only the light from a lamp on Arvind’s side of the bed. On Granny’s side the sheets are smooth, and the bedside table is empty except for a blue plastic beaker; there’s stil water in it. I wonder how long it would take for it to evaporate al away.
‘What’s up, Arvind?’ I say. ‘Are you al right?’
‘I was bored,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to sleep. I wanted to put some music on, but I was prevented by your wel -meaning relative.’ He nods. His teeth are on the side, in a jar. His voice is muffled.
‘Music?’ I say, trying not to smile. ‘I like Charles Trenet, so does your grandmother. When is a better time than at her funeral to play a compact disc of Charles Trenet? But that is not important.’ He taps the sheets with his fingers. They are etiolated and dry, dead twigs scraping the smooth linen. His mind is working away though, looking at me. He screws up his face. ‘Sit down.’
I sit down on the edge of the bed. ‘Do you know what the col ective noun for rooks is?’ Arvind asks.
‘What?’ I say.
‘The col ective noun for rooks. It has been annoying me. Al day.’
‘No idea, sorry,’ I say. ‘A rookery?’
‘No.’ He glares at me in annoyance. ‘I would ask your grandmother. She would know.’
‘She would,’ I say. I glance at him. ‘It is sad,’ my grandfather says. His hands work away at the sheet. He stares up at the ceiling. ‘So, how is the atmosphere downstairs? I must admit I was not sorry to have to retire. I was finding it rather exhausting.’
‘Most people have gone,’ I say. ‘But there’s stil a hard-core group left.’
‘Your grandmother was a very popular woman,’ Arvind says. ‘She had a lot of admirers. The house used to be ful of them. Long time ago.’
I say, trying to keep my voice light, ‘Wel , you may find a couple of them sleeping on the sofas tomorrow morning.’
He smiles. ‘Then it wil be just like the old days, except they are al greyer and not that much wiser. Are you staying tonight?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I have to get back. I have a meeting with the bank. They want their money back.’
‘Oh? Why is that?’
‘Wel , I’m going out of business.’
I don’t know why I tel Arvind this. Perhaps because he is not easily spooked and I know he won’t start wringing his hands or sighing.
‘I am sorry to hear that.’ He nods, as if acknowledging the situation. ‘Again. Why?’
‘I’ve been stupid, basical y,’ I say. ‘Listened to people when I should have just done my own thing.’
‘But perhaps it wil give you back some freedom.’
‘The ties that bind can often strangle you,’ Arvind says, as if we were chatting about the weather. ‘It is true, in my long experience. How is Oli?’
‘Wel —’ It is my turn to start smoothing the duvet down with my fingers. ‘That’s another thing, too. I’ve left him. Or he’s left me. I think it’s over.’
Arvind’s eyes widen a little, and he nods again. ‘That is more bad news.’
I put one hand under my chin. ‘Sorry. I’m not doing very wel at the moment.’ My throat hurts from trying not to cry. ‘I’m sort of glad Granny doesn’t know. She was . . . wel – she wouldn’t have screwed everything up like this.’
Arvind says slowly, ‘Your grandmother wasn’t perfect, you know. Everyone thought she was, but she wasn’t. She found things . . . hard. Like her daughter has. Like you.’ He gazes at the curtains, as if looking through them, out to sea, to the horizon beyond. ‘You’re al more alike than you think, you know. “The sins of the fathers shal be revisited upon the children.”’
I can’t real y see what he’s talking about: Mum looks like Granny, but apart from that two more different people you couldn’t imagine. Granny, hard-working, charming, interested and interesting, beautiful and talented, and my mother – wel , she’s some of those things I suppose, but she’s never real y found her own niche, her own place, the way her brother has. Granny was sure of her place in the world. Wasn’t she?
A thick, velvety silence covers the room. I can hear faint noises from downstairs. A door slams, some murmured voices, the sound of crockery clattering against something. I wonder what time it is now. I don’t want to leave, but I know I wil have to, and soon. Arvind is watching me, as if I am a curious specimen.
He opens his mouth to speak, slowly. ‘You look just like her,’ he says. ‘Did you know that?’
‘No.’ He shakes his head. ‘No. Like Cecily. You look just like Cecily.’
‘That’s funny – Louisa just said that,’ I say. ‘Real y?’ A memory from long ago begins to stir within me.
‘Oh, yes.’ Arvind scratches the side of his chin with two thin fingers. ‘I thought you understood. That’s why.’
‘That’s why what?’
‘That’s why your grandmother, she sometimes found it hard to be with you. She was so proud of you. Said you had her blood running in your veins. She loved your work, loved it. But she found it very hard, at times. Because, you see, you are like twins.’
‘I – I didn’t know that,’ I say, tears springing into my eyes. ‘It’s not your fault.’ He wiggles his toes under the duvet, watching them dispassionately. I watch them too. ‘But you did look very like her. Perhaps her skin was darker, so was her hair, but the face – the face is the same .
. .’ He gives a deep, shuddering sigh, almost too big for someone so tiny, and his voice cracks. ‘Cecily. Cecily Kapoor. We don’t talk about you, do we? We never do.’
He is nodding, and then he mutters something to himself. ‘What did you say?’ I ask. ‘No, it doesn’t matter. Here. Wait.’
Suddenly, like an old crab, he shuffles over and pul s open the top drawer of his bedside table. He is surprisingly agile.
‘It’s right.’ He leans forward and takes something out. ‘What’s right?’
Arvind moves back to his side of the bed again. I move forward, to plump up his pil ow, but he shakes his head impatiently. His face is alive, his dark eyes dancing. ‘Have this. It was your grandmother’s. She wanted you to have it. I think you should take it now.’
Like a magician, he opens his fist with a flourish. I peer down. It is the ring Granny always wore, twisted diamond and pale gold flowers on a thin band, Arvind’s family ring, the one his father sent over for his son’s new bride al those years ago. I know it so wel , but it is stil startling to see it here, on my grandfather’s palm and not on Granny’s finger.
‘That’s Granny’s,’ I say, stupidly. ‘It’s yours now,’ he tel s me. ‘Arvind, I can’t have this, Mum should, or Sameena, or Louisa—’
‘Frances wanted you to have it, she told me quite clearly.’ Arvind’s voice is devoid of emotion, and he’s staring out at the thick brocade curtains. ‘You’re a jewel er, she was very pleased with your work. She knew you loved this. We planned everything, we discussed everything. You are to have it.’
I don’t know what to say. ‘That’s very sweet,’ I begin, falteringly. Sweet – such an insipid word for this, for him. ‘But I’d rather not take it from you.’
‘You are to have it, Natasha,’ Arvind says again. ‘She gave it to Cecily. Now it is for you. This is what she wanted.’ He puts it on my hand, his thin brown fingers clutching my large clumsy ones, and we stare at each other in silence. Arvind has never been the kind of grandfather who whittled toy soldiers out of wood, or mended your tricycle, or let you try the sausage on the barbecue. He is frequently obtuse and it is hard to understand what he means.
But while I don’t know what his final aim is, in this moment, looking at him, I know each of us understands the other. I put the ring on, sliding it onto the third finger of my right hand, like a wedding. My granny had strong, large hands, so do I. It fits perfectly. The flowers glint gently in the low light.
‘Thank you,’ I say softly. ‘It’s beautiful.’
‘Would you be very kind and please open the curtains,’ he says, after a moment. ‘I would like to see the sea. The moon is also out tonight. I don’t like to be shut in like this. They must understand this, in the new place. I want to see the moon. It wil remind me of home.’
I get up and draw the heavy fabric back. The moon is out and it shines, like the midnight sun, low and heavy on the black waters, golden light rippling towards the horizon. It is calmer now, but as a dirty cloud scuds across the surface of the moon I shiver. Something is coming. A storm, perhaps.
I open the window, breathing in the scent of the sea, fresh, dangerous, alive. The gold of Granny’s ring is warm against my fingers. I stare into the water, into nothing.
‘It’s a mild night,’ I say after a silence. ‘There’s something brewing,’ he says simply. ‘I can smel it in the air. That’s what happens when you’re old. Peculiar, but useful.’
I smile at him, and go back towards the bed. I notice the drawer of his bedside table is stil open, and I lean over to push it shut. But as I do, I see something staring up at me. A face.
‘What’s this?’ I say. ‘Can I see?’
I don’t know why I say this, it’s none of my business. But the idea that Louisa is going to go through this room, that everything is ending here at the house, emboldens me, I think.
‘Take it out,’ Arvind glances at it. ‘Yes, take it out, you’l see.’ I lift it out. It is a smal study in oils, no bigger than an A4 piece of paper, on a sandy-coloured canvas. No frame. It is of a teenage girl’s head and shoulders, half-turning towards the viewer, a quizzical expression on her face.
Her black hair is tangled; her cheeks are flushed. Her skin is darker than mine. She is wearing a white Aertex shirt, and the ring that is on my finger is around a chain on her slender neck. ‘Cecily, Frowning’, is written in pencil at the bottom.
‘Is that her?’ I am holding it up gingerly. I gaze at it. ‘Is that Cecily?’
‘Yes,’ Arvind says. ‘She was beautiful. Your mother wasn’t. She hated her.’
I think this is a joke, as Mum is one of the most beautiful people I know. I look again. This girl – she’s so fresh, so eager, there’s something so urgent about the way she is turning towards me, as if saying, Come. Come with me! Let’s go down to the beach, while the sun is still high, and the water is warm, and the reeds are rustling in the bushes.
‘Where did – where was it?’
‘It was in the studio,’ Arvind says. ‘I took it out of the studio, the day after she died.’
‘You went in there?’
Arvind puts his fingers together. ‘Of course I did.’ He looks straight through me. ‘I never did before. She never went back in there, either. The day after she died, yes. I told myself I had to. She asked me to. To get what was in there. But it wasn’t al there any more.’
‘Get what was in there?’ I don’t understand.
I look at my grandfather, and his eyes are ful of tears. He lies back on the pil ows, and closes his eyes.
‘I am very tired,’ he says. ‘Yes, I’m sorry,’ I say. But I don’t want to put her back in the drawer, out of sight again, hidden away.
‘I’m glad you’ve seen her,’ he says. ‘Now you can see. You are so alike.’
This is patently not true, this beautiful scrap of a girl is not like me. I am older than she ever was, I am tired, jaded, dul . I stand up to put the painting back. As I do, something which had been stuck to the back of the canvas – it is unframed – fal s to the ground, and I bend and pick it up.
It is a sheaf of lined paper, tied with green string knotted through a hole on the top left corner, and folded in half. About ten pages, no more. I unfold it. Written in a looping script are the words:
The Diary of Cecily Kapoor, aged fifteen. July, 1963.
I hold it in my hand and stare. There’s a stamp at the top bearing the legend ‘St Katherine’s School’. Underneath in blue fountain pen someone, probably a teacher, has written ‘Cecily Kapoor Class 4B’. It’s such a prosaic-looking thing, smel ing faintly of damp, of churches and old books. And yet the handwriting looks fresh, as though it was scrawled yesterday.
‘What is this?’ I ask, stupidly.
Arvind opens his eyes. He looks at me, and at the pages I am holding.
‘I knew she’d kept it,’ he says. He does not register surprise or shock. ‘There’s more. She fil ed a whole exercise book, that summer.’
I glance into the drawer again. ‘Where is it, then?’ Arvind puckers his gummy mouth together. ‘I don’t know. Don’t know what happened to the rest of it. That’s partly why I went into the studio. I wanted to find it, I wanted to keep it.’
‘Why?’ I say. ‘Why, what’s in it? Where’s the rest of it?’ Suddenly we hear footsteps at the bottom of the stairs, a familiar thundering sound.
‘Arvind?’ a voice demands. ‘Is Natasha in with you? Natasha? I just wonder, isn’t the cab going to be here soon?’
‘Take it,’ he says, lowering his voice and pushing the diary into my hands. The footsteps are getting closer. ‘And look after it, guard it careful y.
It’l al be in there.’
‘What do you mean?’ I say. ‘Your grandmother, she must have kept it for a reason,’ he says, his soft voice urgent. He drops his voice. ‘This family is poisoned.’ He stares at me. ‘They won’t tel you, but they are. Read it. Find the rest of it. But don’t tel anyone, don’t let anyone else see it.’
The door opens, and Louisa is in the room, her loud voice shattering the quiet.
‘I was cal ing you,’ she says, accusatory. ‘Didn’t you hear?’
‘No,’ I say, lying. ‘I was worried you’d be late for your train—’ She looks at the open bedside table, at the painting at the top, the girl’s smiling face gleaming out. ‘Oh, Arvind,’ she says briskly, closing her eyes. ‘No, that’s al wrong.’ And she shuts the drawer firmly.
I slip the sheet of paper into one of the huge pockets of my black skirt and clench my fingers so she can’t see the ring. ‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I’m just coming.’ I bend over and kiss my grandfather. ‘Bye,’ I say, kissing his soft, papery cheek. ‘Take care. I’l see you in a few weeks.’
‘Perhaps,’ he says. ‘And congratulations. I hope that you can enjoy your freedom.’
‘Freedom?’ Louisa makes a tutting sound, and she starts smoothing the duvet out again, tidying the bedside table. ‘It’s not something to congratulate her on, Arvind. She’s left her husband.’
I smile. ‘Freedom,’ he says, ‘comes in many guises.’
My hands are shaking as I leave the room. I walk to the end of the corridor, to the staircase, past my room, which was also Mum and Cecily’s room, down the end, to the alcove that leads to the door of Granny’s studio. I stare at it, walk towards it, push it open, quickly, as if I expect someone to bite me.
It’s al glass, splattered here and there with seagul crap. A step at the end. The faintest smel of something, I don’t know what, tobacco and fabric and turps, stil lingers in the air. The moon shines in through one of the great glass windows. The world outside is silver, green and grey, only the sea on view. I have never seen the garden from this viewpoint before, never stood in this part of the house. It is extremely strange. There is a thin layer of dust on the concrete floor, but not as much as I’d have thought. A bay with a window seat, two canvases stacked against the wal and wooden boxes of paints stacked next to it, neatly put away, and right in the centre of the room a solo easel, facing me, with a stool. A stained, rigid rag is on the floor. That’s it. It’s as if she cleared every other trace of herself away, the day she shut the studio up.
I look round the room slowly, breathing in. I can’t feel Granny here at al , though the rest of the house is almost alive with her. This room is a shel .
Shutting the door quietly, trying not to shiver, I go downstairs, feeling the paper curve around my thigh in its pocket. There they are, gathered in the sitting room, the few who are left: my mother on the sofa next to Archie, the two of them sunk in conversation; the Bowler Hat, hands in his blazer, staring round the room as if he wishes he weren’t there and next to him his brother Guy, also silent, so different from him, but looking similarly uncomfortable. On cue, Louisa appears behind me, pushing her fringe out of her face.
‘Al OK?’ she says, and I notice how tired she looks and feel a pang of guilt. Poor Louisa.
I should just say, Look what Arvind’s given me. Cecily’s diary. Look at this.
But I don’t, though I should. It stays there, in my pocket, as I look round the room and wonder what Arvind meant.
Jay stands in the doorway of the house as Mike waits outside in his large people carrier, engine purring, and Octavia hugs her parents goodbye. ‘I wish you weren’t going,’ he says. ‘Cal me tomorrow and let me know how the meeting goes. And everything. Maybe meet up over the weekend?
Get some lamb chops?’
‘Sure,’ I say. I can’t see further than the next five minutes at the moment; the weekend seems like an age away, there’s so much to get through before then. ‘Lamb chops would be great, though.’
We are both obsessed, perhaps because of the birthplace of our grandfather, with the Lahore Kebab House, off the Commercial Road.
Neither of our parents wil eat there – it’s not posh enough for them. But we took Arvind once, when he was in London to receive an honorary degree, and he loved it. It’s huge and opulent, ful of lounging young men with gel ed hair in leather jackets scoffing food, eyes glued to the huge TV
screens showing the cricket. Jay often knows them. ‘Jamal!’ he cal s, as we sit down. ‘Ali . . . ! My brother!’ And they al do those young-men hand clasps, hugging firmly, patting the back. They look me up and down. ‘My cousin, Natasha,’ Jay says and they nod respectful y, slumping back down into the chair to eat the food. Oh . . . the food . . . Tender, succulent, chargril ed lamb chops . . . Peshwari naan like you wouldn’t believe, crispy, garlicky, yet fluffy . . . Butter chicken . . . I can’t even talk about the butter chicken. Jay jokes that I moved to Brick Lane so I could be near the Lahore.
One week, Oli and I ate there three times. It didn’t even seem weird.
As I stand outside Summercove, the wet Cornish air gusting into my face, the Lahore seems a long way away. ‘It would be great,’ Jay says. ‘I might have to go away for work but sometime soon, yeah? You’re not . . . busy?’
‘No,’ I say. Of course I’m not busy. I don’t do anything much these days. I go to the studio and stare at a wal , then go back home and stare at a TV.
Octavia moves towards me and we stop talking. ‘Are you ready?’ she asks briskly.
‘Yep,’ I say. ‘Bye, Jay.’ I hug him again. ‘Good luck, Nat,’ he says. ‘It’s al going to be OK.’
With Jay I feel calm. I feel that if he says it then it real y must be true. It wil be OK. This cloak of despair which I seem to wear al the time, it wil lift off and disappear. Oli and I wil work this out, and come through this stronger. The bank wil extend my loan and I wil have a means to live.
Someone wil give me a break.
And then I think about the diary in my bag. I frown. I nearly mention it to him, but I remember what my grandfather said. Guard it carefully.
Jay doesn’t see, he doesn’t know, how could he? He kisses me on the cheek, and I climb into the large vehicle. We’re right at the back. It is dark and it’s been raining.
‘Are we ready?’ Mike cal s in his soft, comforting voice. ‘Yes,’ Octavia and I say in chorus, and then someone thumps on the window and we both jump.
‘Nat darling, bye.’ My mother is standing in the driveway, her hands pressed against the wet windows of the car, her hair hanging in her face, peering through at us. ‘We’l speak. Keep me posted.’ She is speaking much too loudly, and I wonder if she’s drunk; she looks a bit hysterical. ‘I’m sorry.’
I have already said goodbye to her, in the sitting room. I press my hand up to the glass so it mirrors hers. ‘Bye, Mum,’ I say. Behind her, Jay comes forward and puts his arm around her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says again. ‘Take care, darling.’
And the car pul s away as she stands there with Jay, watching us go. I can’t see the house, it’s too dark, and I’m relieved. I realise I’m glad to be getting out of there.
There’s a silence, broken only by the ticking of Mike’s indicator as he waits to turn into the main road.
‘Is your mother OK?’ Octavia asks, smoothing her skirt over her knees.
‘What do you mean?’ I say. ‘She’s been acting strangely al day, even for her.’
I don’t like her tone and I’m not in the mood for Octavia and her ‘my family grievances’ corner. ‘It was her mother’s funeral today,’ I say. ‘I think that’s reason enough.’ And then I add, unwisely, ‘We’re not al robots, you know.’
‘Are you talking about me?’ Octavia says. She is facing forward, doesn’t look at me. ‘Do you mean my family?’
Oh, dear. I am too tired and my head’s whirring with too many thoughts to keep a hold of what I say.
‘We’re al family,’ I tel her. ‘I just mean it’s hard for her today, that’s al . We should cut her some slack.’
At this Octavia turns to me, her long nose twitching. It is dark on the quiet country road, and her face is marbled with moonlight, giving her a ghoulish appearance. I remember suddenly, I don’t know why, that she played a witch in her school play when she was twelve. Jay and I found it hilarious.
‘We’re not family,’ she says. ‘Er –’ I say. ‘We are, Octavia. Sorry about that.’
She smiles. ‘You have such weird ideas, Natasha. We may be related – our mothers are cousins, that’s al . We spend the occasional holiday together. We’re not proper family, I’m thankful to say.’
I stare at her. ‘If you’re not proper family,’ I say, ‘how come your mother’s been bossing everyone around and drafting in people to value the house before Granny’s even in the ground? If you’re not family how come she dragged you down here every year to have a lovely holiday? I don’t remember you complaining about it!’ I am laughing. She’s so stupid.
Octavia purses up her lips and sighs, but her eyes are glittering and I know, somehow, I know I’ve walked into a trap.
‘Like I say,’ she says slowly, as if I’m an idiot. ‘We are not family, Natasha. My mother is very fond of – was very fond of her aunt. She—’ She pauses. ‘She loved her. She felt Franty needed someone to look out for her, to take care of her after Cecily died. After al , no one else was. Your family certainly wasn’t.’
‘They were –’ I begin, but she holds up a hand. ‘You’re living in a dreamworld, Natasha,’ Octavia says, icily calm. ‘Your grandfather lives in his own head. He doesn’t notice half the stuff that goes on right under his nose. Your uncle pretends everything’s a big joke and waits to see what his sister tel s him to do, and as for her, as for your mother . . . Wel . Your mother’s the last person she’d ask for help.’
I think of Mum’s sad face, pressed up against the glass, of her defeated expression during our conversation about Oli, and I feel protective of her. It’s so easy to paint her as difficult, as a flake, and it’s not fine any more, especial y not today. ‘Look, Octavia,’ I say, as patiently as I can. ‘I know my mother’s not like your mother—’
‘You’re tel ing me!’ she says, with a cruel shout of mirth. ‘Just because she’s different, doesn’t mean she’s – she’s evil.’
Evil. Where have I heard that word recently? Octavia is stil smiling with that patronising look on her face and suddenly I get angry. I’m sick of her and her ‘family’, with their smug we’re-so-perfect ways, her boring bored father, her interfering uncle and her eager-beaver mother Louisa, sticking her nose in, trying to show us al up . . . ‘Just because Mum didn’t move to Tunbridge Wells,’ I say, as if it’s the most disgusting place in the world. ‘Just because she hasn’t worked in the same office her whole life, just because she doesn’t have a stupid special compartment in her sewing box for name tags, OK? It doesn’t mean she’s a bad person, Octavia.’
I’m shaking, I’m so angry. ‘You don’t get it, do you?’ she says. ‘I didn’t realise, you have absolutely no idea about your mother. No idea at al !’
She stares at me, faux concern on her face. ‘Oh, Natasha.’
‘What do you mean?’ I say. ‘You al right in the back there?’ Mike cal s to us.
We freeze. ‘Oh, yes!’ Octavia says quickly, smilingly, and then she turns to me, lowers her voice, and hisses, ‘ Do you really not know the truth about her? ’
Her face is right next to mine. I shake my head, trying to look unconcerned.
‘Whatever, Octavia. I’m not interested.’
Octavia’s face is pale, so close to mine. I can see her open pores, the down of hair on her cheek, smel her warm breath on my skin. Her voice is sing-songy. She says softly, ‘She kil ed her sister, Natasha. That summer.’
At first I think I’ve misunderstood what she’s saying, and I listen to the words again in my head. ‘No,’ I say, after a few moments. ‘That’s not true.’
Moonlight flickers into the car through the branches of the trees, as if a light is being turned on and off. I blink.
‘Think about it,’ Octavia says. ‘Haven’t you always known something strange happened?’ And then she’s silent, watching me, as I furiously shake my head. ‘Look, I’m sorry,’ she says, after a pause, as though she knows she’s gone too far. ‘I didn’t mean to—’
‘I knew you were talking rubbish anyway,’ I say, thinking she’s apologising, that she’s made it up to hurt me, but she says, ‘I didn’t mean for you to find out like this. I thought you must know by now.’
This family’s poisoned. The diary’s in my pocket. ‘I don’t think she planned it out,’ Octavia says. ‘It’s not like she poisoned her or anything.’ Her voice is almost pleading, as though she wants me to be OK, as though she feels bad. ‘But – you know, they had a row about something – I don’t know what it was. I don’t think Mum knows. They had a blazing row and Miranda pushed Cecily, and she slipped on the path and broke her neck.
That’s what happened. Archie saw them. Ask – ask Guy,’ Octavia says suddenly, wiping her nose with her hand, very unlike her. ‘He knows it al .
Your mother tried to seduce him. She tried to seduce my father, too.’
‘Look, this is just so stupid –’ I say. She ignores me. ‘Wel , he saw straight through her, they both did. That’s why no one likes her.’ She gets out a tissue and blows her nose. ‘That’s what the row was about.’ She sniffs loudly. ‘Everyone knows what your mother did, but they didn’t want to upset your grandmother. They weren’t even al owed to mention Cecily in front of her, were they?’ I nod. We weren’t – it was the only rule at Summercove.
‘But now Great-Aunt Frances is dead, wel – things have changed, haven’t they?’
The bubble is burst. It’s cold in the cab and I squeeze my arms to my side. ‘I – I just don’t believe you.’
‘Have you ever thought that explains quite a lot about her?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Absolutely not. And frankly, Octavia—’
‘Maybe she didn’t plan it, but she kil ed her al the same. Ask Guy. He was there,’ Octavia says again, flatly.
‘That’s such crap – how the hel do you know that’s what happened?’ I sit up, ful of righteous anger. ‘How do they know? Why hasn’t anyone ever said anything to me about it before? Why hasn’t Mum ever said—’
‘She’s not going to, is she?’ Octavia says, genuinely pitying. ‘But your mother – oh, I don’t know what was going on that summer,’ she says.
She scratches her forehead. ‘I don’t think Mum knows, even. Just – al I’m saying is, your mother wouldn’t tel anyone what the row was about, and there’s no way of finding out, is there?’
‘No,’ I say, and I think of the diary again, and then remember how thin the outline of it feels between my fingers, how childish. But I don’t touch it again. I don’t want Octavia suspecting anything. I look at her, and think how strange it is that I know her real y wel , and yet I don’t know her at al .
Never been to her house, don’t know any of her friends, or about her romantic life, or her favourite books to read or anything. She’s just always been there. I thought we were family, and it turns out I don’t know her at al either.
She’s right. I’ve been living in a dreamworld. ‘Look,’ she says, as though she’s regretting speaking so hastily. ‘I hope – I’m sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything.’ She clears her throat. ‘But you had to know. I can’t believe you’ve never heard an inkling of it before.’
There’s a lot I could say to this, but I don’t. I raise my hand. ‘It’s OK. Look, let’s just not talk about it any more.’
We slide into an awkward silence for the rest of the journey, but I’m glad. I don’t know what on earth we’d talk about.
The sleeper train from Penzance has a special platform to itself, outside the main station. I like that; it accords it a proper position. In summer, it can be a trying experience. It is always crowded, frequently extremely hot (the air conditioning is temperamental), and it gets light so early that, as a child, I would wake at three-thirty and never be able to get back to sleep, lying there on the top bunk under the scratchy blue blankets, tossed about by the motion of the train.
Mum would come down again at the end of the summer to take me back to London, unless Granny was coming up herself, and I always hated it when Mum arrived because I hated leaving Summercove. It was like leaving a fairytale palace behind, a warm, airy, sweet-smel ing palace where I was free, where my grandmother was always there so I never got lonely, and where the sun shone and Jay and I were together. Back in London we knew September would be racing to catch us, damp-drenched mornings when the sun rose later and colder, and winter lay just around the corner, putting me and especial y my mother into a funk that would last til spring.
On the train back I would always go over the holiday in my head, committing it al to memory. The walk to Logan’s Rock, and the terrifying winds that threaten to blow you off to the treacherous waters beneath. Sitting outside at the Minack Theatre, an amphitheatre carved into the cliffs, screaming with laughter at A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jay and I clambering down through the rocks to the beach below the house; the astonishing green and blue of the water, the ginger beer that was sharp and sweet, at the same time, on your tongue. The warmth, the wet, the wildness, the knowledge that being in Cornwal is like being in a different country, and that every mile you draw away from it is like leaving a part of you behind. Yes, I thought it was like something out of a fairytale.
After we’ve paid Mike and waved him off, Octavia and I stand on the blustery quayside, at the entrance to the station.
‘Do you know what carriage you are?’ I ask, my tone almost formal.
She shakes her head. ‘I have to go and pick my tickets up from the machine.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Right.’
We are silent. I look down at my black boots. I pul ed them on this morning, at five-thirty, in the dark. It seems like a lifetime ago.
‘So, I’ve already got my ticket,’ I say, waving the orange card at her. ‘I think I’l —’
‘Yes, yes,’ she says, a touch too eagerly. ‘Wel , it was . . .’ she trails off. ‘Er, good to see you.’
Someone hurries past us, dragging a suitcase on wheels. It crackles loudly over the tarmac. ‘Look, Natasha,’ Octavia says, after another silence. ‘I’m sorry. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said it like that.’ She holds her hands up. Don’t blame me. ‘I just thought you’d have heard. You know, everyone’s always . . .’ She trails off again, and crosses her arms defensively. ‘It’s al water under the bridge, I suppose.’
‘It’s clearly not though, is it?’ I say. ‘It’s anything but that. It explains a lot, anyway.’ I’m trying not to sound angry. ‘Look, your mum’s always had it in for my mum and I’ve never known why, and now I do. That’s why I’m not surprised.’
‘You understand why now.’ Octavia nods, as if to say, Good. She’s final y getting it.
‘No, I don’t believe it, Octavia. What I mean is,’ I say, breathing deeply, ‘I understand why you’ve always been so vile to us now. I mean, did your mother tel you this herself?’
‘Not in so many words,’ Octavia says. ‘You don’t sit down and explain something like that – we just always knew. Dad, too. And Uncle Jeremy.
That’s why he never comes back.’ She shrugs.
‘Wel , as you like. I don’t believe for a second, a second –’ and I raise my voice so I’m speaking as loudly as possible without shouting, and I can hear myself, high above the clinking masts in the harbour, above the train engine – ‘that my mother kil ed Cecily, or anyone. I don’t know what happened, but I know that much.’ I sling my bag over my shoulder.
‘Hey –’ she begins. ‘That’s just what they say. I’m just saying—’
‘No,’ I interrupt. ‘Let’s not go into it again, OK? I think I’m going to get on, now. See you around then. Thanks for—‘ I don’t know what to thank her for, but since I’ve started I think I’d better finish. ‘Er – thanks for sharing the taxi fare with me.’
Octavia nods back – what else can she do? – and says, ‘No problem.’
I don’t look back at her as I walk towards the train. I pray I don’t bump into her again, but I’m pretty sure she’l steer clear of me this time. She thinks she’s done me a favour. That’s what upsets me most of al . Pointed out how stupid I’ve been.
In the summer the buffet car is always ful ; people arrive as early as possible to get a seat so they’re not shut into their cabins, which are initial y cute but soon become claustrophobic. In winter, the car is nearly empty, and after I have dumped my bag in the single-bed cabin and admired the free set of toiletries, I settle down into one of the single seats by the window, with a table and a lamp, and put my bag in front of me. I look around hastily again, but Octavia hasn’t appeared. The diary pages are stil in my pocket. I sit there, and the train pul s slowly away from the station, and I don’t know what to feel.
There’s a Times on the opposite seat – the guard obviously missed it – and I pick it up. I order some tea and biscuits, even though I’m not hungry, and I start reading the paper. The news absorbs me. I read about a cabinet plot to oust the Prime Minister, the flooding al over the country, the travails of a minor sportsman and his ‘celebrity’ wife, what’s happening in a reality TV show, which MP has tried to claim an antique rug on expenses. I feel as if I’ve been away for a long time, and I am gathering information to piece myself back together, bit by bit.
I know before I turn the page to the Obituaries section that I wil see a photo of my grandmother, scarf in her hair, a broad smile curling over her perfect teeth, brush in hand, a mug of tea and painting paraphernalia – palette, brushes, rags, turps – cluttered around her, in the studio I was standing in over an hour ago. It looks completely different, crammed with canvases, postcards stuck on the wal s, pot plants, a gramophone.
Something catches in my throat. She is smiling out at me. It’s like Cecily’s face, shining out of the drawer.
Highly acclaimed observer of Cornish landscape who never painted after 1963
Frances Seymour, who has died at the age of eighty-nine, was what one would cal a star. Not for her the flamboyance, the tantrums and temperamentality, clichés of the artist: she was universal y beloved, charismatic and beautiful, a magnet for men and women alike; her house, the beautiful Summercove near Treen in Cornwal , open to al and a haven for friends and family. She lit up every room she was in and her company was a rare gift.
Because of her charm and force of personality it is easy to forget, therefore, the gap Seymour created when she abandoned painting after the death of her youngest daughter Cecily, in a tragic accident. Frances never forgave herself for her daughter’s death, and some have speculated this was her form of penance, for the events of that summer in 1963. This is not established. What it is important to establish, however, is the role Frances Seymour played before that in sealing the reputation of British painting in the mid-twentieth century.
Frances Seymour was not a Cornish painter, or a female painter. She was simply one of the most talented artists of the last century.
This was my grandmother, I want to shout. I want to wave the paper out of the window, like the Kind Old Gentleman in The Railway Children.
Look how clever she was, how bril iant!
Tears come to my eyes, and I’m crying, I can’t help it. I don’t understand anything any more. I keep hearing Octavia’s voice, and when I close my eyes I can see her large grey eyes, her pointy noise, looming at me in the dark, as she oh-so-careful y stabs my mother in the back, over and over again. I want to hate her, to laugh at her, but I can’t. I ask myself why I can’t.
Because, despite what I said to her only an hour before, I’m terrified that she’s right.
I look out of the window, as if I expect to see someone’s face there. We have been going fast, through a blur of nondescript-looking vil ages, but suddenly it is dark, a landscape with no lights at al . I can see my own reflection in the window, nothing more. My neck and the newspaper are both startlingly white against the blackness outside, the blackness of my coat and dress. I stare at myself; I can’t see the tears; I look like a ghost. In the black and white of the light, I look like Cecily.
Careful y, I tear the obituary out of the paper and fold it. The tearing sound is loud, and the couple at the table next to me look up, curiously. I stand up and smile, backing away towards my room and when I get there, I fal onto the familiar old scratchy blue blanket and the smooth white sheets. I take the pages out of my pocket and sit on the lower bunk, holding them in my hand, gazing at them, at the scrawling black handwriting, my finger and thumb poised to turn the first page. I close my eyes.
And now I can see myself, suddenly, back at Summercove. There are voices I recognise, but they’re different somehow, thinner, higher. Bright sunshine is streaming into the living room, the smel of sea and grass and something else, something dangerous, almost tangible, rushing towards me . . . And Cecily’s face, as it was in the oil sketch. Come with me! Come with me, she is saying. And I do. I take a deep breath and I fol ow her, down to the sea.
The Diary of Cecily Kapoor, aged fifteen. July, 1963.
St Katherine’s School for Girls
If lost please return
Saturday, 20th July 1963
First day of holidays. That is – count it, my dears, count it –
SEVEN WEEKS of blissful beautiful no school!! !!
My summer project starts NOW.
I am writing this sitting on my bed at Summercove. On the patchwork quilt Mary sewed me when we first moved here and I was scared at night. One of Mummy’s sketches is on the wall, of our little cove down on the beach. There is a cupboard for our clothes built into the wall with sweet little plastic handles dotted with stars. What else? There are two shelves painted white with all my books on them (I share this room with my sister Miranda. But she only reads Honey magazine). I have everything from My Friend Flicka to Pride & Prejudice & they are all mine.
Today is the first proper day of the holidays. I got home yesterday. I love the luxury of the beginning of the hols, where time seems to stretch out before you, for ages & ages. We go back 8th Sept. It seems a lifetime away.
I have never kept a diary before. Two days ago, the last day of classes, Miss Powell gave everyone in our class ten pages of paper, tied together with string and our names on, and told us to keep a record of our summer holidays: she said to write down what we did, who we saw, and what happens. Everyone groaned when Miss Powell said it, but I was glad. I want to be a writer when I grow up & this is good practice.
No one else was that excited about it, only me really. Annabel Taylor, who can barely write in joined-up writing, looked completely appalled.
I have laid a wager with myself. It is that she will write 2 pages over the summer, and those will be about the boys she knows.
(that is not very nice of me).
Miss Powell says she will not look at our diaries herself, but she wants us to read some sections out to the rest of the class when we come back in the autumn. She says, in years to come, we will find them and read them and remember the summer of 1963. She says it is a year we will want to remember. I thought she meant because of Mr Profumo and the scandal. We’re absolutely not allowed to talk about it at school. Still, I hoped she might mention it. She just said something instead about the wind of change blowing. I like Miss Powell. She is younger than most of the teachers, and she has fantastic cropped hair, and she likes Bonjour Tristesse. Rita dies for Miss Powell, she cries about her at night.
Anyone’s better than Miss Gilchrist, say I. Awful woman with meaty hands, I’m sure she used to be in prison. Miss Powell isn’t like that.
Anyway, enough of silly school. It’s hard sometimes, to get back into the swing of life here after being away at St Kat’s for months on end.
One’s head is full of drear things like plimsolls and kit bags and hymnals. I’m back now. It’s over! (for a while).
So what shall I tell you, diary? I shall start by describing where I am and what’s happening.
It is after tea & the house is quiet, but there are sounds, all dear & familiar to me after months at school. Mary is in the kitchen, cooking supper; I can hear her feet on the floor & the pans clattering.
Dad is humming in his study. It sounds like wasps, buzzing. Dad is a famous sort of writer. He wrote a book people always want to talk about, called The Modern Fortress. I haven’t read it. But lots of people have. It is an IMPORTANT BOOK. Miss Green, our headmistress, said that to me last year. ‘IMPORTANT BOOK CECILY.’ That means she hasn’t read it, I absolutely bet.
(must be kind & what if they do read it even though they said they wouldn’t?) My cousins Louisa & Jeremy arrived today. They are playing with Claude, our dog, on the lawn. Louisa is wearing a beautiful striped bathing costume, I covet it. She has a new lipstick and she is terribly pleased with herself, for she has been offered a scholarship to Girton, and she is dreadfully ambitious and clever. Jeremy is at medical school in London. Jeremy is my favourite cousin, there are only two of them that I know, I don’t know my cousins in Lahore, in Pakistan, but perhaps I would like them more than Jeremy. I doubt it. He’s awfully nice.
Jeremy has been for a swim & carried the table outside for supper after the rain. That’s enough about them for the moment.
My sister & brother (Archie & Miranda other way round) are gossiping in their secret annoying way, about who knows what as they walk round the edge of the lawn together, like Jane Austen heroines taking a turn about the garden. They are twins, 2 yrs older than me. They have just finished at school. Though Archie is staying on an extra term, to do the exam for Oxford and Cambridge, though he says he won’t go.
Miranda is not doing that exam. She is not doing anything.
They are strange, the twins. I am not sure if My hand hurts already. But I must go on!
Finally Mummy. Mummy is painting. She is in her studio, down at the end of the corridor. She is a famous painter. ‘Famous painter’ – I am not sure if that is a good thing or not, but it is how she is always referred to by people. The Picture Post did a spread on us a couple of years ago.
‘Famous Painter at Home with her Family’. As if her fame is as important as her painting. I wonder if it annoys her. Mummy has an exhibition this autumn & she is making me sit for a portrait. I don’t like sitting for her except we talk, which I like. I sat for her this morning. The exhibition is soon & she is painting furiously, she is behind. She is short with Dad, but he doesn’t notice. She smokes & looks out of the window a lot, & I hear her pacing up & down in the studio when I’m in my room. She’s doing it now.
Anyway, I will write more about them all I am sure. We are to be joined in a few days by Frank and Guy Leighton, Frank is a schoolfriend of Jeremy’s & he is Louisa’s boyfriend. Guy is his brother. Mummy loves having people down. I do too, it’s more fun when there are more around.
There are so many things I want to read & see & do, so many thoughts I keep having. I want to write it all down, to experience things I haven’t (please excuse me Diary, I will try & write as much as possible). I want to Broaden my Mind, & summer holidays are the time to do something about this, & I undertake it in earnest. I shall read the papers & comment on them so this diary is also a well-informed record of the times.
For example, I was interested to see that the memorial service of the Rev Cuthbert Creighton took place yesterday near Worcester, & that Miss BP Hards (that is a funny name) has got engaged. Also that the Duke of Edinburgh will be attending a lunch of the Heating & Ventilation Engineers next Tuesday at Grosvenor House in London.
The bell for dinner has not gone yet. So here is some more information, this time about me.
Name: Cecily Ann Kapoor
Age: 15 (16 in November)
School: St Katherine’s School for Girls
Favourite Subjects: English! Drama, Art, History, Latin.
Best Friends: Margaret, Jennifer, Rita. (NB. I should like Linda Langley to also be my friend but she is not, as she is the year above.) Favourite Teacher: Miss Powell
Favourite Book: Bonjour Tristesse, Francoise Sagan
Favourite Poem: The Prisoner, by Emily Brontë
Favourite actress: Kay Kendall RIP. Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse the film, I want my hair cut short like her, so chic & gamine but Mummy says NO.
Favourite actor: Stewart Granger in Moonfleet, SWOON! Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird DOUBLE SWOON, also Dirk Bogarde & Rock Hudson.
Favourite film: It used to be Moonfleet but it’s a bit babyish for me now. Bonjour Tristesse, I LOVE that film, & the book, it is all so chic glamorous. And To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a marvellous & extremely wonderful evocation of the Deep South & its problems.
Favourite song: NOT The Beatles, everyone likes them & it’s so dull! Miranda & Louisa practically weep every time they come on the radio.
They play Please Please Me every day on the gramophone. They only like them because they are boys & from Liverpool ie dangerous, according to my Aunt Pamela, Louisa’s mother, but she thinks the bin man on her road is a dangerous communist because she once saw him reading the Tribune. Miranda & Louisa are silly when it comes to B.O.Y.S. anyway. I don’t like boys (apart from Gregory Peck & Stewart Granger
& they are men). I am concentrating on becoming an interesting & accomplished person because one day I want to be a writer & writers don’t become writers by sitting around listening to Please pleasezzzzzzzz me. Or Frank Ifield. Can you believe it, Louisa actually has an album by Frank Ifield. zzzzzzzzzz again.
Anyway my favourite song & album is Juliette Greco. I also like the Four Seasons, & the Beach Boys. She is French, they are American, & I like that, it is something different. Not boring old England, all the time. Sometimes you would think it was the only country in the world.
Other interesting things about me: My father is from what is now Pakistan. My skin is darker than the other girls at school & so I don’t need to lie in the sun to tan, which is good. Some of the girls like Annabel Taylor make me feel awful about it & say nasty things, I wish they wouldn’t, I am as English as them. Mrs Charles, the Deputy Head, called me a clumsy little wog when she was cross after I dropped all the blackboard dusters
& made chalk cloud fly in her face & make her cough. I asked Archie what it meant & he was very cross with me.
Dear diary, (the truth is I really don’t like writing about this) but they are worse to Miranda, her skin is darker than mine. I feel sorry for her but I don’t tell her, she gets cross. We are the only girls like it in our school. Dad came with Mum to drop us off last year & I don’t know why he did, he barely knows we exist. I shouldn’t say this diary but I was embarrassed of him. He is small & quite eccentric & doesn’t make sense when he talks, because he talks in riddles. Even though he is a famous writer, the girls at school don’t know that, or at least they don’t care. I wish they did, but they don’t.
Thank god for Mummy. She looks like a film star, always has done. She is very beautiful, I’m sure Miranda & I are a sad disappointment to all who gaze upon our visages. Mummy has ‘it’ – I don’t know what ‘it’ is, but she can put on her overalls or an old shirt & look stunning. I just look like a boy.
No dinner bell yet, what’s going on? I’m ravenous.
Sometimes I wonder about where Dad came from, too, I imagine palaces made of gold & the burning heat & markets with silk & exotic foods, like in The Horse & His Boy by C.S. Lewis. Dad says it is a bit like that but not really. He is from Lahore. It is a fortress town, Akbar lived there, he was one of the greatest Indian rulers, we did him in school & I could say that was where Dad came from. It was in the Punjab, now it is in Pakistan. It is because India is not ours any more. I love the idea of it, the Mughal emperors & the forts & bazaars. I want to go to India. I will one day, when I am grown up & a famous writer. I shall have a scarf from Liberty, & smoke those Russian cigarettes, and do my hair like Juliette Greco –
We have been called for supper, I must go. I have been writing for well over an hour, it is nearly seven & my left hand hurts, a LOT.
I will add my exercises after I have done them tonight.
Bust exercises: 30
Nose squashing exercises: 5 mins
Love always, Cecily
Sunday, 21st July, 1963
After yesterday’s writing marathon my hand STILL hurts so I will be brief. I feel we have made a good start. It is lovely being home but it is funny how the things you forgot about that are always there start to come back after a few days. It is even funnier, reading them as you write them down. Perhaps I shouldn’t, but if I didn’t record what happens and what I think about my family I wouldn’t be being truthful, would I.
I was out all day at the beach & then went for a long walk with Jeremy to Logan’s Rock. Very tired now. We talked about his walking holiday in Switzerland, it sounds most interesting. I tried to sound like an interesting person back, but I have never really been anywhere and done anything, and it’s hard. I expect Jeremy is all the time with wonderful interesting girls up in London. I rather hate to think about it.
Had another sitting with Mummy this morning. We are in her studio, I never go in there so it’s interesting only from that point of view. It’s very white & quiet & she wasn’t like my mother when we were in there.
I can’t explain it. She is much more . . . definite. Tells me how to sit & what to do. Doesn’t care I’m her daughter. She asks questions to be polite, like Sandra, the hairdresser we go to in Penzance. It is uncomfortable after a while, staying still like that. I like it because I get to wear the ring I love so much round a chain on my neck. It is Mum’s ring, she let me take it to school last year and look after it. She says I can have it one day, if I’m good.
The only thing I should record is that Mummy kept asking about Miranda. If there was anything I thought we could do about her that we weren’t doing, as she has left school & has nothing in sight. I don’t know what to say as it’s been decided that Miranda is a ‘problem’. By Mummy.
(I don’t think Dad has noticed any of us is actually back from school, let alone that M has actually finished school & needs something to do).
They think she ought to know what she’s doing, but to be fair to Miranda they’ve never asked her before, I don’t know why they’re worried about it now. I said they should make her join the French Foreign Legion. Mummy didn’t laugh.
She plays jazz up there, Chet Baker & John Coltrane & she smokes while she paints, which is strange because she doesn’t anywhere else.
And she is different. I can’t explain it.
Very tired & not making awful lot of sense so going to bed or as Jeremy always says, Off to Bedfordshire. Oh Jeremy. xxx Bust exercises: 5
Must try harder with this & all things. Tomorrow!
Love always, Cecily
Monday, 22nd July 1963
My dearest Diary,
I hate Miranda. Sometimes I think I would like to smash her face in, carve my nails down her skin till it bleeds. She is ugly & nasty & I HATE
HER. She makes me feel stupid and tries to make me look like a baby. She is the stupid one. I HATE her. Today, she stuck a leg out while I was coming back from my bath, just because I told her what Mummy had said yesterday. I was trying to help! I tripped over, and fell in a sprawl on the floor, & she just sat on the bed and laughed at me, and then called me a baby for crying. She is always saying I’m a baby for my age. I’m not, I’M NOT. I’m just not a vamp like she is.
Oh thinking about her puts me in such a bad mood. She makes me not like our family, or being here, she makes it all rotten. She doesn’t like it here. She hates the holidays. She wants to leave home and go to London. Well I wish she would.
I left off my proper favourite book off my list. It is very important. Emily Brontë is amazing. This summer term, we read Wuthering Heights at school. It is a most wonderful novel, full of insight into that most miraculous of emotions – that of human love. (I must say though, if I met Heathcliff I would just hide in a cupboard. He is frightening). The story is terribly, terribly sad, & I felt, when he saw her lifeless dead body, that I should cry so much my heart would break.
It’s much better than Jane Eyre, I thought Mr Rochester was boring & I wanted more descriptions of how the first Mrs Rochester drooled & everything.
After my bustup with Miranda I didn’t do very much today, swam by the sea & read, sat for Mummy again. We talked about our favourite films. She loves Gregory Peck too. It was a bit better today but she still snapped at me when I scratched my arm and goodness gracious me, I’m allowed to scratch my arm, aren’t I?
We had jam roll for tea today which was delicious. I read about the autumn fashions in the papers outside while the others went swimming. I do not want to wear a hat shaped like a cone, whatever anyone says. Miranda has some nice clothes this summer. I don’t know where she got them from, but she’s started trying them on in our room. Mummy hasn’t noticed yet, but she will. It’s funny. They’re expensive, and they’re grownup, and they . . . I think they suit her. Miranda gets them out when she thinks I’m not looking. Where did she get them from? There’s a black gros-grain dress I am particularly in love with, she’s hung it at the back of our wardrobe but she keeps opening it to stare at it. She is pretty stupid.
Yesterday was the sixth Sunday after Trinity. I wish it wasn’t like this any more. I am starting to think everyone is in an awful mood this summer, apart from Jeremy.
Bust exercises: 45!
Nose squashing exercises: 5 mins
Love always, Cecily
Tuesday, 23rd July 1963
I fear I did not make a good beginning to this journal. There is too much silliness and feeling sorry for oneself in it. I need to show everyone eg Miss Powell, Jeremy, Miranda & others that I am a grown-up young woman, because sadly some people still treat me like I am five years old and when I am dead & they read this I want them to know how wrong they were.
It is a bit like that at our school, but not as bad, because everyone is nearly the same age. I don’t actually mind school, Miranda hates it. I like English, Drama & History. Also I can’t wait to see Miss Powell again in September because she treats you like a person. However I am also dreading having to listen to awful Annabel Taylor’s descriptions of her ghastly family’s holiday in St Tropez or wherever it will be. She is such a show-off. Miss Powell says one should never advertise one’s wealth or status & I agree. I don’t go around school boasting that my father is an OBE & writes extremely important books, & lectures at the Sorbonne, & that my mother has had an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, do I? No, I do not. AT is so vulgar too. What matters to her is how blonde your hair is, or whether you have a tennis court at home & are allowed to drink champagne by your family. She calls me & Miranda names, too, because of the fact our skin is darker than hers. She has thick, dark blonde beautiful hair & huge green eyes with thick black lashes & pink cheeks & sweet little freckles, it’s fine for her at a school like ours.
AT really is horrible. I shall refer to her as 21 (A is 1st letter of alphabet, T is 20th, add them together.) through the rest of this diary, bc I can’t bear to write her name.
And there is a secret about her & even though we row terribly, the Kapoor sisters do stick together about some things: Miranda is in awful trouble because of 21. Mummy & Dad don’t know it, but Miranda nearly got expelled this term because of 21. She lost her rag with her, two weeks before we broke up. Miranda was changing the water for the flowers, it was her turn. We had just heard from Mummy in a letter that these two strange boys would be coming to stay at Summercove & we were giggling about them, talking about the holidays, for once having a good old chat. ‘Maybe one of us will marry one of them and be very rich & have lots of children,’ Miranda said. 21 walked past & heard Miranda. She called her a horrible name again & said her children would be like monkeys. Out of the blue.
Well Miranda just went potty. It was so strange. She said, ‘I’ve had enough, I’ve had enough.’ She put her (21’s) head in a desk & banged it up & down on her, so hard I honestly thought 21’s skull would crack & her brains spill out onto the floor. 21 was screaming, ‘Stop it, stop it!!’ & Miranda just kept shouting, ‘I don’t care, I don’t care!’ & her teeth were gritted in between speaking. Her eyes were huge, she was flushed, she almost looked like she was enjoying it. 21 had to be in the san. for the night. She had bruises on her cheekbones for weeks. And ringing in her ears.
Miss Stephens, the headmistress, had Miranda in her office for ages. She was going to be expelled, I was sure of it. They said they were going to send M home early but she somehow persuaded Miss Stephens not to. I will never know what she said or how she did it. 21 never bothered her again, she didn’t like people knowing she’d got beaten up like that.
I don’t like thinking about it much, because it scares me. I am glad she did something, I was proud of her in a very strange way. But Miranda scares me, if I’m honest. She has a weird streak. Vicious. And I can say it here but I do think she & Archie are strange, they look like me, but I don’t get them.
When Mum was upstairs working this afternoon I went into the living room & read the Times with no one looking, because I knew from Archie & Jeremy talking about it at breakfast something juicy was happening in the Profumo Scandal case & I am very curious.
This is the trial of Dr Stephen Ward, who they say caused the whole thing. Well I must say I hope I am a broadminded young person but good grief. It uses the word ‘intercourse’ ten times. Every time they ask Christine Keeler if she had intercourse with someone, the answer is always ‘yes’. I’m not even sure what that means, I think sex, but the whole way or just a part of sex? (feels weird to write that word) . . . Darling diary, I wish you could tell me. Dinah Collins at our school has had sex with her boyfriend, in his car at Christmas. She is such a slut. No one talked to her for all of the Spring term when they found out. I don’t know why. I wanted to ask her what it was like, does it hurt, isn’t it embarrassing? It seems such a strange thing to do, when you think about it. People walk along the streets all smart & suave wearing new suits & yet they do that in the evenings with each other . . . I don’t understand it.
My hand hurts! I have been writing for an hour. The bump on my finger from writing in exam time is coming back. I feel very virtuous. It is supper soon & I should go & change, or at least comb my hair. We are having fish pie for supper; Dad says that’s stupid in July & we should float the pie back out to sea where it belongs.
Bust exercises: 25
Nose squashing exercises: 10 mins
Love always, Cecily
Wednesday, 24th July 1963
My Darling diary
I reread what I have written so far of this diary once again, & once again it makes me want to blush. I am a horrible person with a base mind.
Also, I don’t hate Miranda. Well, some of the time I do. She is just a bit difficult sometimes. She doesn’t really have a weird vicious streak. I was going to tear these pages out & burn them, but I want to be a writer & you have to be truthful. So I will keep them, to remind myself, & then burn them maybe later, because GOSH I WOULD DIE if eg Jeremy knew I loved him or what I have been thinking about. I have nearly filled up these pages. I don’t want to stop now. The boys haven’t arrived yet and I want to write about them, too. It’s exciting. I must get an exercise book from Penzance so I can carry on writing for the rest of the summer.
President Kennedy has signed a nuclear test ban treaty & he has promised to change the US immigration laws – but I don’t know how, I only read the headline because Archie took the paper. I like President Kennedy, & he looks a bit like Jeremy though he is not as handsome as Jeremy (though he is still handsome).
I want to be a better person than I am. I want to look better too. I am so ugly, my nose is too big. I spent a long time in the bathroom yesterday doing my exercises: I squash my nose down so it doesn’t stick out as much. I don’t know if it works, like doing ‘I must increase my bust’
fifty times a day, but I am doing them in case. It is awful to have a small bust. I hate it. Mummy says it will grow, but I hate talking about all that with her. She always wants to, & she is always wanting to have convs. about being a ‘woman’, it makes me want to be sick. Sometimes I think I am a disappointment to her, I don’t ever know what Mummy wants.
Anyway, today I said please could this painting be the last time I sit for you. She said Why? I said Sorry Mummy I just don’t like it very much. She was quite cross. Miss Powell says women should stand alone & fend for themselves, like Elizabeth I, but I’m not good at saying to Mummy what I want. Mummy can stand alone & fend for herself though that’s for sure. ‘Though I have the body of a weak & feeble woman, I have the heart of a king, & a king of England too.’ Miss P made us declaim this at school this summer. I absolutely love it. Here are my top ten list of favourite pieces to read out loud:
10. ‘Make me a willow cabin at your gate’ from 12th Night
Thursday, 25th July 1963
Sorry I was called for tea & then we played games. I will finish the list soon.
Today was a funny day. Frank and Guy Leighton are here now and everything feels different. I don’t know why. Because I feel confused.
Louisa said something on the way to Penzance to get them. She said my brother is a peeping Tom. He watches her get undressed. I’m sure it’s not true. It’s disgusting if it is true. I don’t know . . .
But I am racing ahead and I should tell the day as it happened. In the morning I sat for Mummy & we talked about Profumo. I went into Penzance with Louisa and Jeremy, to pick the boys up. And I bought a new exercise book from Boots, so I can write as much as I please which is good, I’m on the last page as you see!
Silly Cecily. Perhaps this holiday is going to be all right after all, I am glad that the others are here now anyway. Help – I am about to run out of space! I have written far too much already. Now I transfer to my beautiful new bk and I can carry on from there Love always, Cecily
‘So, what time does Louisa’s new boyfriend get here?’
‘He’s not my boyfriend, shut up, Cecily.’
‘He is! You’re going to kiss him on the lips! And Miranda’s never kissed anyone before. Doesn’t that make you feel sick with envy, Miranda?’
‘Honestly, Cecily, you’re such a baby. You’re fifteen. When are you going to grow up?’
‘Poor Wardy. It doesn’t look good for him. Filthy old bugger. I say, Archie, have you read this morning’s Times?’
‘I went straight to that page, natural y. I must say, she’s a real goer, that Keeler girl. No better than . . . Wel , anyway. Fruity stuff, isn’t it?’
‘You’re disgusting, Archie.’
‘Louisa, don’t talk about my brother like that.’
‘I wil . He’s completely disgusting, and he knows why.’
‘Why, what do you mean? What’s fruity?’
A melodious voice spoke from the end of the table. ‘Jeremy, Archie, please. Not at breakfast.’
‘Sorry, Franty. It’s nothing, Cec. Have you got the lime marmalade? Jol y nice stuff, Franty.’
‘Thank you, Jeremy.’
* * *
I’m going to scream. I’m going to scream. Yes, I am.
Frances Seymour looked around the room, trying to keep calm.
Lately, the old feeling had started to come back. She had kept it at bay for many years now, she had thought the house in Cornwal was the answer, but increasingly it was as if she was not in control: of her children, of her home, of her own mind. She wished she were anywhere but here, presiding over breakfast with this loud, mucky troupe of young people, being the grown-up, sensible one. It was wrong.
There was a lot on. Too much, perhaps. She had a portrait of her youngest daughter, Cecily, to finish, for a big upcoming show in London. She had three teenagers of her own, two more staying with her, and two more on their way at this very minute, as wel as a husband who didn’t care whether you looked after him or not; she had once found Arvind absent-mindedly chewing a piece of paper, and when she’d asked him why he’d said, vaguely, ‘I was hungry. I thought I would try the paper. I don’t need it any more.’
The neighbours had just arrived for the summer, she should visit them, and the damn church fete was the week after, and Mary kept asking her what she wanted her to make. Didn’t the woman realise she didn’t care? She simply didn’t bloody care?
Frances pressed a cool hand to her forehead. Then the Mitchel s were coming to stay the week after, she’d have to get a fun crowd up for them, lots of booze in, Eliza needed constant entertaining and young men to look at. The crowds were descending; only a few days before the children came back from school she’d just said goodbye to a huge party, some old friends from art col ege, Arvind’s publisher and two couples from the old Redcliffe Square days. She loved entertaining, loved seeing old faces, loved the praise, the company, the conversation, the stimulation
– Frances had to be stimulated in order to be able to paint. She couldn’t do it unless there was something burning within her, stoking her thoughts, firing her up.
And yet daily life had to go on too, and she was the one who made it go on. There was Cecily and Miranda’s room to turn out – Cecily had grown so fast this last term, there was plenty the clothes stal could have. She needed to take them both into Penzance, or maybe even Exeter, to get some new clothes; Mary never got it right. Cecily could have Miranda’s cast-offs, but Frances, a younger child herself, always thought it was unfair she never had anything new, she deserved a party frock of her own, some shorts, a few summer shirts.
She frowned again and looked at Miranda, wondering where she’d got that rather nice cream linen top she was wearing; had she seen that before? It suited her; that in itself was unusual, Frances thought, and then felt guilty.
I don’t care about their damn clothes.
There had been a time when she had worn new clothes, put her hair up, slipped into satin heels, nursed a glass of champagne as she laughed with handsome young men at the Chelsea Arts Club, or drank long into the night in some underground shelter, thick with cigarette smoke. There had been a time when she was young, desirable, with the world at her feet, and now . . . She sighed. She had become staid. Boring. Ordinary. A staid wife and mother of three, a painter of staid, boring, repetitive landscapes. And so the old furtive unrest was beginning to creep over her again.
‘Leave me alone!’ Miranda squawked loudly. Frances looked up, startled, as Cecily smirked in triumph at some childishly won point and Miranda slumped back down against the high-backed dining chair. Across the table, Arvind carried on eating his kipper, staring into space as if he were alone.
Frances smiled at him, but he didn’t see. He never saw. That was one of the things for which she had always loved him. Arvind wasn’t suspicious. He wasn’t trusting either. He was just in another world most of the time, and they worked wel together because of it. Frances could stil remember the first time she saw him, at that concert in the National Gal ery, quiet and neat in his tweeds, impervious to everything else around him except the music, his short frame tensing at the swel ing rhythm of the piano. She had smiled slowly at him, but he had focused shortly on her and then back on the music again, looking straight through her as if she weren’t there. In years to come, Frances would always wonder if that was when she was hooked: he’d looked past her, not at her. She wasn’t used to that.
She watched him now, her gaze flicking from him to their son Archie, a young Louis Jourdan: beautiful y turned out, his hair careful y combed, his shirt immaculate. He made her uneasy though. She didn’t . . . what was it? She didn’t trust him? Her own son? He was peeling his apple, oh so precisely, with a smal knife, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt. There was something going on behind that charming smile; Frances didn’t know what. Why was Louisa so furious with him? What had he done this time? Was it the old problem again? Or was it he and Miranda, up to mischief?
Miranda – Frances sighed. Miranda was being particularly vile at the moment, and she didn’t know what to do. She never knew what to do with her.
She had been such a cross baby. She was thin and fed badly, a tiny, hairy thing, feet turned outwards, like a little monkey, her expression always stormy, and from the moment she could walk her posture was almost comical in its teenager-gait: defensive, shoulders hunched, eyes glaring and, years later, she had barely changed at al . The funny thing was that Frances, with her painter’s eye, could see that Miranda had an idiosyncratic kind of beauty al her own. She was gamine, boyish, her eyes were startlingly intense and her dark, beautiful skin glowed. When she laughed her face lit up, but she seldom did, except with her twin Archie.
Since Miranda had got back from her final term at school she’d been even worse than usual, Frances thought. She had no plans, unlike Archie who was staying on at school for an extra term to take his Oxbridge exams. Miranda was trying to drag him down, Frances knew it. She had taken A-levels, but wasn’t expected to make any mark on them. She was always saying how much she loved clothes, and fabrics – Frances was sure it was true, but to what end? That wasn’t a job. The one thing Miranda had expressed any interest in, only the day before, was a finishing school in Switzerland. Should they send her off again, pay some elite establishment to round off her rough edges a bit? She could certainly benefit from it, but Frances loathed the idea, it was so . . . oh, just ghastly. So suburban!
Frances knew her mind wasn’t ful y on the twins and it should be. When the show was over, then she’d have more time to think, be a better mother, think about what to do with them both. Soon.
Her eyes drifted round the room, to where her niece and nephew sat at the other end of the table. She stared at them, helplessly; it was unsettling to her, how much they looked like her, like her sister, like their parents. Her own children were Arvind’s children – dark, intense, complicated – and they were moody. Arvind wasn’t moody, neither was she, where did they get it from? Cecily aside, she often thought she could see nothing of herself in her children. But Louisa and Jeremy were blooming, hearty, firm and lithe, like adverts on the side of packets of Force cereal.
Her head buzzing, Frances looked at her watch; it was after nine-thirty. She got up. ‘I’m going up to the studio.’ She looked at Miranda.
‘Darling, can you make sure the table’s cleared?’
‘Oh, why me?’ Miranda sank down into her chair, scowling. ‘I was going to go to the beach.’
‘Because it’s your turn. And besides, the others are going into Penzance,’ Frances said, trying not to scream. But giving two reasons with Miranda was always a mistake. ‘Get Archie to give you a hand.’
‘Why can’t Louisa?’
‘As I said, Louisa is going into Penzance.’ A great weariness swept over her. ‘Oh, my God. I don’t care,’ Frances said crossly, turning away from the table. ‘Tel Mary to save me some chicken salad for lunch.’
‘Do you want someone to bring you up a tray?’ Louisa said, col ecting up the plates and putting them on the sideboard. Frances turned to her grateful y. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘That would be lovely. Come on, Cecily.’ She looked at her youngest. ‘Off we go.’
‘Oh, no, ’ Cecily said, slumping against the wal . ‘Please, Mummy, do I really have to?’
Frances shut her eyes, briefly, blinking hard. ‘Don’t you want to?’
Cecily chewed her nail. ‘Wel , you know. It’s so boring, just sitting there for ages and ages, and it’s so hot in your studio. I think I’l die sometimes, and you don’t even care.’
‘No,’ Frances said. ‘I simply could not care less if you dropped dead in the studio because of heatstroke. It would not matter to me one iota.’
She batted her daughter lightly on the rear. ‘Come on, Cec. We’re nearly there.’
‘Oh, but I wanted to go to Penzance!’ Cecily said. ‘I want to meet Louisa’s boyfriend!’
‘You’l meet him at lunch,’ Frances said. ‘Come on.’ Cecily’s expressive eyes fil ed with tears, and her dark bobbed hair fel into her face. ‘But I have to get my new book out of the library and get a new exercise book from Boots – I want to spend my pocket money, Mum, you said I could buy that. I need it for the rest of my diary, I’ve nearly run out of space. Miss Powel says . . .’
At the mention of the sainted Miss Powel Frances, wanting to scream, gave in. ‘They’re not leaving for a while. Come up til then. Louisa wil fetch you.’ Cecily jumped up, her eyes shining. ‘Is that al right with you, Louisa?’
‘Yes, of course, there’s room for her,’ Louisa said. She cleared her throat and said, going rather pink, ‘Aunt Frances, I hope I’ve said it already, but thank – thank you for having Frank and Guy to stay. It’s awful y kind of you.’
It must be easy, being Louisa, Frances thought, looking at her niece. Or pleasant, at least. A classic English rose, huge blue eyes, flaxen blonde hair, endless legs and a big smile. Virtual y guaranteed a place at Cambridge, wealthy parents, and a young, handsome boyfriend, son of an old family friend. Al so correct and proper. Frances often thought Louisa was like the heroine from a novel. Emma, maybe. What a nice life.
Purposeful. Hearty. Rooted in tradition. She thought back to herself at that age, eighteen and on her way to London. She smiled. She’d worked as hard as she could to not be like that, to throw off the shackles of this boring, complacent, English way of being. Sometimes she wished, however, she could be content with a life like Louisa’s. Without the need to . . . feel, whatever it might be, danger, sadness, happiness. Without the need to feel everything, al the time. What was it? Frances didn’t know, she only knew she had to keep it to herself.
‘Our pleasure,’ Frances said, smiling at her. Out of the corner of her eye through the French windows she saw Arvind walking across the lawn.
He was holding a jar of lime marmalade and talking to himself.
She was enjoying her sessions with Cecily, more than she cared to admit. Normal y, Frances saw sittings as a chore: you had to do them to get the result you wanted, but it was tiresome, having to put the subject at ease. She was used to painting the landscape, marvel ing at the ways it could change, rather than getting someone to sit stil for an hour.
But this was different. She loved talking to her younger daughter. Cecily’s mind was like a waterfal , endlessly bubbling over with new ideas and thoughts and she had no filter, no sense that something was wrong or right. One day, she would be cured of this, be more self-conscious but for now, Frances loved it. Cecily was like her father in that respect: an original thinker, untrammel ed by popular opinion. She was refreshingly, blessedly unlike her sister, in temperament, in ambition, and in looks.
This morning, they talked about the news. Cecily always wanted to talk about the trial of Stephen Ward. It seemed as if it was playing out, with hitherto unseen levels of lurid detail, as near-perfect summer entertainment for the whole country.
‘What’s he done wrong, is what I want to know? He just introduced the girls to Mr Profumo. He’s not the one who’s . . . met with the girls and done al those things, is he? It’s Mr Profumo who did that. And he lied to Parliament, and he’s not even on trial. And –’ Cecily’s voice lowered – ‘Mr Profumo was married!’
Frances, seated at her easel, smiled. The sun was flooding through the large windows into the white room, il uminating her daughter’s face and casting it into shadow as she talked. She’d long wanted to capture Cecily’s mercurial quality, however fleeting.
‘Cec, stay stil for me, darling, just a few moments,’ she said. ‘Stephen Ward is a . . . scapegoat, I think. They accuse him of living off immoral earnings – don’t move! That means making money out of girls who are prostitutes. Stay stil .’
‘Wel , he doesn’t sound like a particularly sound fel ow to me, I must say,’ Cecily said. ‘Very odd way to behave.’
Frances laughed lightly. ‘How very censorious you are, Miss Kapoor!’ She felt her heart beating fast; Cecily was so innocent in so many ways, had no idea what grown-ups could be like. When she thought of herself at that age, she wanted to laugh. ‘I simply don’t think he’s as guilty as they’re making him out to be. Profumo, too – it’s al a big storm in a teacup, real y.’ She looked again. ‘Stay like that. Just a while longer, please.’
They were silent for a few moments. Outside, the faint sound of the sea crashing on the rocks beneath the house, and desultory conversation between Miranda and Archie outside on the terrace. Inside, people were moving about the house, and Frances could hear humming. That meant Arvind was working; he always hummed when he worked. She smiled.
‘What’s proscuring a miscarriage?’
‘Proscuring a miscarriage. They had a man in the paper yesterday sent to prison for doing it to two ladies.’
Frances sighed. She hated censorship, hated lying to children about the world they were growing up in. She couldn’t stop Cecily reading the newspapers, therefore, but it was sometimes hard to explain things. Cecily was rather unworldly – she’d been at a convent boarding school for four years, after al – but it pleased Frances that she was showing signs of being surprisingly sophisticated about things, too. So awful to have a bourgeois child, a Jeremy or a Louisa! ‘Procuring, not proscuring. It’s helping girls get rid of a pregnancy they don’t want. An abortion.’
‘Why don’t they want it?’
‘Lots of reasons, I suppose,’ Frances said, after a pause. ‘They’re poor. It’s the wrong time. There’s something wrong with it. The man has run off and left them. The girl didn’t want to have sex, sometimes she was forced into it.’
‘Yes,’ Frances said. She glanced up at Cecily, but her daughter’s face was impassive. ‘This is an extremely pleasant conversation for a Thursday morning, isn’t it? Prostitution, rape and abortion. Now, stay stil . I’m nearly finished.’
A faint voice floated high up to the sunny studio at the top of the house. ‘Cecily, if you want to come, we’re leaving in a couple of minutes.’
‘Fine,’ Cecily cal ed, her long legs twitching on the stool, swinging wildly from side to side. ‘Coming.’
‘You know, because I real y don’t want to be late for Frank,’ the voice continued. ‘Cecily?’
‘Yes!’ Cecily yel ed back. ‘Oh, Mum,’ she said softly to Frances. ‘I know I shouldn’t say this, but Louisa is turning into a real bore.’
Frances hid her face so her daughter couldn’t see her expression, and then she looked up reprovingly. ‘You can go, darling. Thank you. Be nice to your cousin.’
Cecily jumped up, hitching down her blue Aertex shirt, and came and kissed her mother. ‘I am nice, Mum, I’m the nicest of the lot, honestly.’
She paused, and said dramatical y, ‘Apart from Jeremy. Jeremy’s really nice. I like him.’
She opened the studio door and charged down the stairs, her shoes clattering erratical y as she cal ed, ‘Louisa, Jeremy! Don’t go without me!’
Frances picked up a cloth and started cleaning her brushes, half-heartedly, the silence of the big glass and concrete room echoing in her ears.
She looked down at her tanned, slim hand; there were flecks of vermilion paint drying on her arm. She picked them off, her fingers tracing the smooth, freckled skin, up and down. Frances closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation of her own touch, feeling the whorls of each fingerprint lightly brushing the hairs on her arm . . . She breathed in. It was hot, and she was tired, that was al . There were new people coming this afternoon. That’d help. Two young men, to vary the party a little, add some excitement again, push the feeling of being trapped here in this glass studio away again . .
She stood up and went over to the window, gazing out at the garden, down at the gazebo, where her husband sat reading a book. She stared at him. She was forty-two, but she felt as if she could be twice that age. She was tired of it al . One day, she promised herself, she’d leave them behind and just walk down to the sea by herself, slip into the clear, cool water, and swim away.
She gave a snort of laughter as she heard the car drive off. One day.
‘Archie’s been looking at me again,’ Louisa said, as Jeremy’s blue Ford Anglia (for which he had saved for two years and of which he was inordinately proud) trundled slowly away from the house, towards the less direct coastal road that led to Penzance. They were taking this road at Cecily’s request, bowling through the rol ing green countryside with its hedge-rows ful of orange kaffir lilies, blooming pink and purple rhododendrons in every garden and driveway, and palm trees visible in the distance, down towards the sea.
It was hot in the car, and the engine made an ominous spluttering sound which shook the frame.
‘What’s happened with Archie?’ said Cecily, from the back. In the front, Louisa ignored her. ‘What shal I do? He’s disgusting, Jeremy.’
Jeremy eased the car around a treacherous bend. He was silent for a moment; Jeremy was often silent. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure about what?’
‘Sure he’s been . . . peeping.’
Louisa laughed. ‘Of course I’m sure. I caught him at it once. I can hear him. And he smiles at me. These disgusting smiles, like he knows I know. As if it’s our little secret.’ She shuddered. ‘Horrid . . . I hate him.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Cecily demanded. ‘I can’t hear properly in the back. What’s Archie doing?’
‘Archie’s annoying Louisa,’ Jeremy said loudly. ‘Nothing to worry about, Cecily.’
Louisa’s sharp, pretty face appeared suddenly between the seats. She said viciously, ‘Your brother kneels on the floor outside my room and looks through the keyhole to watch me while I’m . . . getting undressed. I’ve caught him doing it twice now. And when I’m getting changed to go swimming.’
‘Oh,’ said Cecily quietly. ‘Oh.’ She paused. ‘That’s not very nice of him.’
Louisa ignored her again. ‘It’s the way he looks at me, Jeremy.’ She lowered her voice even more, and Cecily made an annoyed sound. ‘That’s what I can’t stand. Can you do something? Have a word with him? Especial y with Frank and Guy arriving.’ She sighed and bit her little fingernail. ‘I have to say, I always forget how jol y odd they al are, but it’s worse this year. Arvind’s mad and darling Franty’s in a strange mood this summer, I don’t know what’s up. I don’t want the Leightons thinking we’re part of it. Don’t you agree?’
‘Er . . .’ Jeremy paused. ‘Sort of. Look,’ he said, trying to sound cheery. ‘Don’t worry, old thing. Archie’s been away at school for too long, he hasn’t seen enough girls. He’s just . . . wel , he’s a curious chap.’
Cecily, watching Jeremy, opened her mouth to say something, and then shut it quickly again. Louisa made an exasperated sound.
‘You can say that again. He’s a – a pervert.’
‘I mean he’s curious about the world.’ Jeremy blinked. ‘Perfectly natural. But yes, you’re right. Shouldn’t be spying on people, sneaking around.
It’s not on.’
‘You shouldn’t be talking about people behind their back,’ said Cecily loudly. ‘Especial y when you’re guests in their home. I’m going to put it al in my diary.’
‘Oh, shut up, you little idiot,’ said Louisa. ‘What do you know? Nothing.’ She wound down the window and adjusted the metal ic side mirror, so she could see her reflection.
‘Here, I say,’ said Jeremy. ‘I can’t see what’s coming if you do that.’
‘Just for a second, Jeremy.’ Louisa took out a rose pink lipstick and expertly applied it, winding a stray blonde curl around one finger as she did. She pushed the mirror back into place. ‘There,’ she said, leaning back in her seat and closing her eyes. ‘Gosh, this day is exhausting already.
I’m quite nervous, I must say.’
She was young and beautiful, reclining in her seat, and she knew it, the wind rippling through her hair, her lightly tanned smooth skin, her long slim thighs clad in apple-green linen shorts.
Cecily was watching her. She said admiringly, ‘You do look lovely, Louisa.’
‘Thanks,’ said Louisa, who knew this to be true. ‘Like a princess – hey, look at the Celtic cross!’ Cecily shouted suddenly, and Louisa winced.
‘Someone’s hung a garland on it, isn’t that strange? Jeremy, can we get out and see?’
‘No time, Cecily, not if you want to change your book and go to Boots,’ Jeremy said, as they drove through a little green val ey and the turn-off to Lamorna Cove, busy with daytrippers and cars turning in towards the beach. A car hooted at them as they passed by, people waving gaily. The weather was infectious.
‘Some people,’ Louisa said, annoyed, as if modern civilisation were on the verge of col apse.
The fields off to their left marked the beginning of the stark, wilder moorland of northern Cornwal , rich in tin and coal. In the distance was a chimney stack, a remnant of the once-great tin-mining industry that was al but extinct these days.
Cecily sighed, drinking it al in. She was her mother’s daughter, the landscape of the county was thril ing to her, no matter what the time of year.
She settled back and gazed out of the window as Jeremy turned to his sister and said, ‘Between you and me, sis, it’s Miranda I’m sometimes not sure about.’
If Louisa was surprised at this sudden confidence from her brother, she didn’t show it. ‘She is rather a funny old thing, isn’t she,’ she said casual y. ‘What do you mean exactly?’
Jeremy took one hand off the wheel and scratched his head in an unconscious Stan Laurel gesture. ‘I don’t know, real y. Feel she’s out to cause trouble.’
‘That’s Miranda for you,’ Louisa said with some satisfaction. ‘She’s always been the same.’
‘That’s just it, though,’ Jeremy said. ‘She – wel , she’s different this summer.’
Jeremy was lost for words. ‘I don’t know. More – grownup, in some ways. But worse, if anything. She stares at you, as if she’s got a message for you.’
Louisa misunderstood. ‘ She stares at me too? Oh, goodness gracious.’
‘No, not – sorry, sis, wasn’t being clear. She stares at one,’ Jeremy explained. ‘As if she had a message for one.’
‘Oh,’ Louisa said, running her hand over her hair again. ‘Yes, of course.’
‘No one likes Miranda,’ Cecily said. ‘It’s just awful. No one likes her at school, either. It’s because she’s so moody,’ she added informatively.
‘The girls at school know how to wind her up. She got into real trouble—’ She clamped her mouth shut suddenly.
‘For what?’ Louisa, alive to any possible scandal, turned round, intrigued. ‘What did she do?’
‘I can’t say,’ Cecily said. ‘Oh, I bet it was nothing, and you’re just making it up.’
‘I’m not, it was very serious,’ Cecily said furiously. ‘Very. I promised I wouldn’t say. They nearly chucked her out – gosh, I mustn’t say more.
Mind you,’ she added, as if trying to be fair, ‘she isn’t very nice. I, for example, don’t like her. And I’m her sister.’
There was a silence from the front of the car. ‘Oh, dear,’ said Louisa lightly, curling a blonde lock around one slim finger, secure in her position as family member adored by al . ‘Oh, dear. You shouldn’t hate your sister, you know.’
‘I can’t help it,’ Cecily said. ‘Oh, look, the Merry Maidens, I love them. Do look. I always mean to write a story about them. I might start it later.
After I’ve written in my diary, of course.’
She sighed, and was silent again, as they approached Newlyn. Louisa raised her eyes at her brother, but he did not respond. Already Cecily’s diary was turning out to be a wearisome feature of the holiday, with pointed references to one person’s inclusion or not in its pages, the lists it contained, and its role as a worthy receptacle for Cecily’s world view. Last night, over fish pie, she had treated the table to a lengthy description of some girl at her school and how one day, she would definitely be sorry for being mean to her, Cecily.
‘Why, Cecily?’ Arvind had asked. ‘Why wil this girl be so terribly afraid of your diary?’
The others around the table were surprised. Arvind normal y didn’t speak at meals. Cecily had turned to him, brimming with excitement.
‘Because, Dad, one day I’l be a writer and this diary wil be famous. And she’l be so sorry she was mean to me. And cal ed me names.’
Louisa and Miranda had snorted loudly in unison, and looked up, surprised, at each other.
Now Louisa said to her brother, ‘We should plan some things for the boys. For the chaps. Ask them what they want to do.’
Jeremy nodded. ‘I thought we could go to the Minack Theatre one night.’
‘Yippee, yes, please,’ Cecily shouted from the back. ‘Oh, do we have to?’ Louisa sighed. ‘Theatre’s so incredibly boring.’
‘But the Minack is great,’ Jeremy said, laughing at his sister. ‘They’re putting on Julius Caesar. We can walk to Logan’s Rock, they’l like that.
Go to the pub for lunch, maybe. And I wondered if Aunt Frances would let us have a midnight picnic on the beach, cook some food on a campfire.
It’s the last year we’l al be together for a while, you know. Seems a shame not to make the most of it.’
‘What do you mean? The last year? Summercove’s not going anywhere, is it?’
Jeremy was looking in the mirror. He didn’t reply immediately. After a while he said, ‘Just – I just sometimes think, it might be different next year. We’l al be off doing different things. And Franty won’t want us coming down every year.’ He looked uncomfortable. ‘Just don’t know if we’l go there every year.’
Louisa looked slightly alarmed. ‘I can’t imagine us not coming down here every year,’ she said. ‘I love it.’ Cecily’s face appeared again between the seats.
‘I used to think that, now I don’t,’ Jeremy said. ‘That’s why I want to make the most of this summer.’
Cecily opened her mouth and shut it again. Her eyes were huge. But Louisa was watching her brother, who never expressed an opinion about anything. She patted his arm.
‘I think the Minack’s a great idea,’ she said. They were on the outskirts of Penzance now, every other house a B&B or a café. Holidaymakers were walking along the harbour front, carrying buckets and spades. The outdoor seawater pool behind the harbour was in ful swing, girls in bikinis and perfect hair demurely dangling their feet into the water. A group of boys lounged against a few motorbikes, parked up by the boats. They were smoking, in black leather jackets, their hair slicked back, and they stared at the car as it shuddered past them. Cecily stared out at them, fascinated.
‘Mods are so passé. Honestly, Penzance is so out of date,’ said the worldly Londoner Louisa, glancing scornful y at them as they drove past.
‘Bet they’ve never even heard of Bazaar.’ She smoothed her hair behind her ears, anxiously, as Cecily watched in fascination. ‘Come on, Frank.
Hurry up.’ She corrected herself. ‘Jeremy, sorry.’
Jeremy laughed, and his brow cleared. ‘Don’t worry. Look, here we are now.’
Cecily got out early while Jeremy parked the car. Louisa was by this point actively anxious, looking at her reflection in every window they passed, even the glass of the ticket office at the end of the platform, much to the bemusement of the bulbous-nosed ticket officer who stared at her. It was a hot day, hotter in the station than outside, where there was a cooling breeze from the sea.
‘It’s strange being in a town on a boiling day like this, after a few days at Summercove,’ said Jeremy, running his forefinger around the col ar of his shirt. ‘Actual y does make you realise how lovely it is to be there.’
‘I know,’ said Louisa. ‘It is the most beautiful place. And we are lucky. I shouldn’t be rude about them. I do love Franty. I love being there. Joining in – al of that.’
‘Such a little homemaker,’ Jeremy said, nudging her. ‘Love it when everyone’s al together having a wonderful time, don’t you? Even when they’re not?’
Louisa put her hands on her hips. ‘Be quiet, Jeremy. That’s rubbish. I just like . . . I like the idea that we’re al together. And then we get here and . . . it’s not how I expected.’ She shrugged. ‘But hey-ho – let’s go onto the platform, shal we?’ she said, squinting at the train track.
They waited in the covered station until the train chugged slowly into view, past St Michael’s Mount in the distance, the granite castle out to sea glowing strangely gold in the midday sun.
‘There it is!’ Louisa cried. ‘There it is!’ She stared at the black engine hoving into view, as if she expected Frank and his brother to be standing on top of it, waving placards. ‘I can’t see them!’
‘Of course you can’t, you ninny,’ Jeremy said, shaking his head at his sister. Goodness, girls were such idiots about chaps. There was Frank, a perfectly decent sort, nothing wildly eccentric or unusual, and Louisa was completely gaga over him. It made him almost uncomfortable, he didn’t know how to talk to her about him. She’d even used the word ‘marriage’! Louisa, who he’d always thought was a sensible sort of girl, the kind of sister one didn’t mind having, the sort who got scholarships to study sensible things like biology . . . And it turned out she was just like al the others, obsessed with weddings and babies after al . Jeremy didn’t know what Frank would think about that at al . Yes, girls were odd sometimes, even one’s sister.
The plumes of thick white and grey steam cleared, the doors opened, and there was mayhem. Porters scurried to help the first-class passengers, elderly gentlemen in tweeds and their immaculate county ladies in neat hats and gloves carrying crocodile travel cases. Cross, important-looking City gents in bowler hats, their starched col ars wilting in the heat, clutching furled umbrel as and briefcases.
Louisa and Jeremy peered past them as the first-class section gradual y dispersed, but then instead of two young men came endless hordes of families, struggling with battered, heavy suitcases and screaming children, lots of boys with Beatles-style mop-top haircuts, sweating in polo necks, girls in pretty cotton dresses and low heels, cardigans draped over shoulders, housewives in headscarves, carrying their shopping in wicker baskets, farm workmen, officious men in suits with efficient moustaches, lounging men, old men . . . but no sign of Frank and his brother.
As the masses subsided into a trickle, and then to nothing, so that the platform was empty once more, Louisa and Jeremy looked despondently at each other. ‘Perhaps they missed the train?’ Louisa said, her mouth turned down. ‘But wouldn’t they have at least telephoned, to let us know?’
‘I should have thought so,’ Jeremy said. ‘Not like old Frank to leave us waiting.’
Louisa glanced desperately down the platform once more. ‘Perhaps they’re . . . perhaps they’re chatting with the driver.’
‘Lou, I don’t think so,’ said Jeremy. ‘They’d know we’d be waiting. Old Frank wouldn’t leave us hanging here while he swapped horror stories about Dr Beeching with some railway bod. Perhaps their old man’s been taken il again, he wasn’t wel before Easter, I wonder if that’s it . . . Hul o!
Who’s that? Frank!’ he said with relief, as someone poked him in the ribs. ‘Oh, dammit, it’s you. Hul o, Cecily.’
Cecily’s face fel as she saw his expression. ‘Hel o, Jeremy,’ she said in a smal voice, blushing to the roots of her hair. ‘I got my book and my new diary. Look.’ She held up a Georgette Heyer in one hand and in the other, a simple red exercise book, with a stamp on the front: Name, Class, Subject.
‘ The Toll-Gate,’ Jeremy read aloud. ‘Right. Sorry, Cec. Thought you were Frank,’ he added, not seeing the look of anguish on her face. He turned back to his sister. ‘I’l just check with the chap at the ticket office. Perhaps there’s a message for us, but I doubt it. Wait here.’
Louisa’s keen eyes missed nothing, and she nudged Cecily after he’d gone. ‘I can’t believe you’re blushing, Cecily. You’ve got a pash for Jeremy. Ha!’
‘I haven’t!’ Cecily cried, hitting her on the arm furiously. She stamped her foot, her face stil red. ‘Shut up, I haven’t!’And she crossed her arms, blinking back tears of mortification, like every other teenager before and since.
‘Sorry, Cec,’ Louisa said, feeling guilty. ‘That’s your new diary, is it? Gosh, you’ve written a lot, to be getting a new one already. Are you enjoying it?’
‘Yes,’ Cecily said, standing up straight again. ‘I love it. This new bit wil be even more private, I can say what I like because I’ve finished the school project.’ She hugged both books to her.
‘No sign,’ said Jeremy, appearing again. ‘I must say,’ he repeated, ‘not like him, leaving us high and dry. I thought old Frank—’
‘Oh, shut up about damned old Frank,’ said Louisa, turning on her heel. ‘They’re not coming. Let’s just get back home, for God’s sake.’
‘Yes,’ said Cecily, imitating her with a flounce. ‘I want to go home too.’
Jeremy sighed and fol owed them.
Louisa was silent on the journey home. Jeremy took the quicker main road through the open countryside, driving fast because he was hungry now, and he’d heard Mary mention chicken salad for lunch.
‘I don’t understand what happened,’ Cecily said, equanimity restored, sticking her head between their seats. ‘Why wouldn’t they have come?’
‘Perhaps we got the wrong time. Or the wrong day,’ Jeremy said.
‘Perhaps they just changed their minds,’ Louisa said. ‘I bet they did.’
‘Frank wouldn’t do that,’ Jeremy said. ‘I’ve known him for eleven years, he wouldn’t just not turn up. Guy either.’
‘How do you know him?’ Cecily said. ‘I thought he was Louisa’s boyfriend.’
‘Honestly, Cecily,’ Louisa said through gritted teeth, ‘if you say that again, I wil ram this down your throat.’ She turned around, brandishing a battered old Shell Guide to the Roads of Britain with some force. Her lipstick was slightly smudged, her hair out of place.
‘We were at prep school together,’ Jeremy said. ‘Known him for years. Lives near us. We used to play tennis together, the three of us. And Guy. You’l like Guy,’ he told Cecily. ‘He wants to be a writer too.’
‘I bet he’s not as nice as you,’ Cecily said quietly. Jeremy didn’t hear her. ‘They’re good sorts. They like playing tennis, swimming, joining in with things, al of that.’ He turned the car off the main road, onto the dark, leafy lane above Summercove.
‘Wel , if they’re such bloody good sorts, why— oh, hell!’ Louisa cried. ‘This stupid car, Jeremy! The spring’s come through the damned seat, look, it’s torn my shorts! My beautiful shorts . . . oh, God.’ She squirmed around in the car.
‘Maybe if you put the Shell Guide over the spring it’d stop it tearing anything else,’ Cecily offered helpful y. Louisa shot her a look of pure loathing.
They drew up outside the house. ‘I’l put the car in the garage, if you want to hop out,’ Jeremy said, and the girls got out. Cecily opened the gate while Louisa, stil grumbling, fol owed behind her.
Cecily breathed in as they walked across the lawn towards the house. ‘Oh, it’s lovely to be back on a day like today, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘I can smel the sea, I can smel the sea . . .’
Voices drifted across to them from the terrace on the other side of the house. ‘I expect they’re having lunch already,’ Louisa said rueful y. ‘Bet they didn’t wait.’
They walked around the side to the garden, and Louisa let out a cry.
‘Oh! Oh, my goodness.’ She stared in amazement across the lawn.
There, kneeling on a blanket, in slim black trousers, a white T-shirt and a black cardigan slung over her shoulders, a white ribbon tying back her dark hair, was Miranda and, with her, two young men, one in meticulously pressed linen shorts and a navy polo shirt, a cricket jumper tied round his neck, the other in jeans and an open-necked shirt. They were laughing at something Miranda had said. She looked up.
‘Oh, here!’ she said, her cat-like face breaking out into a smile as the girls walked towards her. ‘Louisa’s back from the station! I’m sure she can explain what’s happened. Louisa, look!’ she said sweetly to her cousin. ‘Frank and . . . it’s Guy, isn’t it?’ she added shyly. ‘They wired yesterday to say they’d be down early, but it obviously never arrived. Isn’t that strange?’
Frank and Guy sprang to their feet as Louisa and Cecily, on the edge of the lawn, stood there, mouths open. ‘Hel o!’ Louisa said, desperately clutching the flap of material on her bottom. ‘My goodness! What a lovely surprise! We’d quite given up on you two. How strange!’
‘Are you al right?’ Miranda asked, watching her cousin anxiously. ‘Is something . . . wrong?’
‘No, no,’ Louisa said hastily. ‘I tore my shorts, that’s al . Very annoying!’ she added heartily, one hand stil holding the ripped material. ‘Hel o, Guy, Frank—’ She patted both of them awkwardly with her free arm, bowing her head in mortification.
‘Hel o, Louisa,’ Frank said, kissing her on the cheek. ‘Very – very nice to see you.’
‘Oh, we are glad you’re back,’ Miranda said. She unfurled her legs from underneath her and stood up graceful y, stretching her long arms, and Guy gave her his hand to help her up.
‘Wow,’ said Cecily, in admiration. ‘Miranda, you look pretty today.’
‘Thanks,’ said Miranda. She tugged at her ponytail and looked sympathetical y at her cousin. ‘Poor Louisa!’ she said, in honeyed tones. ‘You’d better change your shorts before lunch, it’s in five minutes. Guy, Frank – are you al settled in? Do you want a wash and brush-up?’
‘When did you get here then?’ Cecily asked. ‘How strange that we never got the wire!’
‘About an hour ago,’ Guy said. He smiled at Cecily. ‘We got a lift from a fel ow who was going to Sennen Cove. Very decent of him. We were a bit stuck, we didn’t know what to do. We weren’t sure which bus would take us to Summercove, and a taxi would have wiped us out.’ He leaned forward. ‘I’m Guy,’ he said, shaking Cecily’s hand.
‘Hel o,’ she said, pleased. ‘Hel o, Cecily,’ Frank said, also stepping forward. ‘I’m Frank, I’m Jeremy’s friend.’ He cleared his throat. ‘It is a pleasure to meet you.’
Cecily stared at him. ‘Hel o, Frank,’ she said.
He nodded. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said awkwardly. He pointed to his shorts. ‘We’re al kitted out for a summer holiday, as you can see.’
She didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him. ‘It’s funny,’ she said after a while. ‘You don’t look like you should be wearing shorts.’
‘Aah. I am not that used to them, it’s true,’ Frank said. ‘You look more like you should be . . .’ Cecily paused. ‘Wearing a bowler hat.’
There was a silence. ‘Cecily, that’s rude,’ Miranda said, pushing her. ‘Say sorry.’ But Frank laughed. ‘No, it’s not rude. She’s right.’ He fiddled with some imaginary cufflinks, a smile on his handsome face. ‘I’m usual y more happy in smarter kit, it’s true.’
Cecily rubbed her cheek. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to be rude, Mr Bowler Hat.’
Guy gave a shout of laughter and Frank joined in. Louisa, however, looked mortified.
‘I’m sure we passed you on the way,’ Frank said to Louisa. ‘We got our friend to sound the horn, and we pul ed over, but you didn’t seem to spot us.’
‘Oh, my goodness,’ Louisa said. ‘Of course. I remember now . . .’ She bit her lip, annoyed, and then clutched her bottom again. ‘I real y should go and change,’ she said, blushing. ‘Sorry. Wil you two be OK out here while I go off?’
She looked at Frank, but he was listening to Miranda, who was saying, ‘How wonderful you’re here. Ah,’ she said, turning towards the house,
‘there’s Jeremy. Now we’re al present and correct.’ She sighed and smiled happily at the new arrivals, coiling her hair around one finger.
Suddenly a shadow passed over her. ‘Hel o there,’ said a voice behind her, and Miranda and the two boys turned to see Frances walking towards them, her hand outstretched.
‘I’m Frances Seymour,’ she said, pul ing the headscarf that had been tying her hair back off her head. She shook her honey-coloured hair out, scratching her scalp. ‘What a terrible welcome you’ve had.’ She smiled at them both, eyes sparkling, her clear, tanned face glowing with pleasure.
‘Not at al ,’ said Guy, shaking her hand, clearly taken aback. ‘It’s wonderful to be here.’
‘Yes,’ said Frank, wiping his hand on his shorts and then holding it out to her. ‘Thank you, Mrs Kapoor.’
Frances looked up at the tal , blond, godlike Frank, and smiled, almost in amusement. ‘Frances, please,’ she said.
‘I’m Frank,’ he replied. ‘Wel , so that means we’ve got almost the same name!’
‘Ye-es.’ There was a look on her face that he found rather disconcerting. ‘Wel , let’s get you a drink.’ She laughed, her green eyes glinting in the sun, and patted Miranda on the shoulder. ‘Stand up, darling. Isn’t this wonderful? I feel as if the holidays can properly start now.’
‘More tea, vicar?’
‘Tea? Ha – very good. Yes, please, Louisa.’
‘Guy, more champagne?’
‘Thank you, that’s very kind.’
Louisa turned to her aunt. ‘Franty, is there anything else I can do?’
‘No,’ said Frances, smiling. ‘You’ve been wonderful. Sit down and enjoy yourself, darling.’
They had gathered on the lawn at the front of the house for drinks before dinner. There was no wind, not even the faintest breeze from the sea.
The scent of lavender and oil from the lamps outside hung in the stil air. ‘My One and Only Love’, and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman floated out to them from a gramophone.
Louisa, resplendent in mulberry-coloured silk, was making the rounds with champagne, but it was Miranda who was the star of the show that night. She appeared after everyone else had gathered on the terrace, in a black grosgrain cocktail dress, extremely simple and obviously expensive, with a tulip skirt and tight bodice which clung perfectly to her gamine figure.
‘That is a beautiful dress, Miranda,’ Louisa said generously, handing her a glass. ‘You look like Jackie Kennedy.’
Miranda flushed, her olive skin mottling red. ‘It is a beautiful dress,’ Frances said, curious. ‘Where’s it from, may I ask?’
Miranda turned her face to her mother. She was glowing. ‘I didn’t tel you, Mother. So please don’t be cross. But Connie sent me a postal order to school. For ten pounds. I bought this in Exeter. And some other things.’ She was pleading.
‘She gave you TEN POUNDS?’ Cecily screeched. ‘I didn’t know it was that much!’
The shirt that morning. The lovely blue pumps she’d been wearing yesterday. Of course. Frances nodded, appraising her daughter again.
She definitely had style, she’d give her that much.
Not for the first time, Frances regretted making her old school friend – married to a wealthy industrialist and without children of her own –
Miranda’s godmother. She was absentminded but very generous – when Miranda was ten and a half she bought her a pearl necklace from Asprey’s – but it wasn’t fair on the others.
‘Feel how gorgeous it is,’ Miranda said, taking her mother’s hand and running her fingers over the thick, beautiful fabric, her eyes sparkling with excitement. ‘The capri pants today, too – the cut! It’s so perfect. They’re the nicest things I’ve ever owned.’
Frances didn’t know what to say. Funny, what a difference the right clothes and a sparkle in the eye made to the girl. Al these years of struggling to make Miranda happy, and it turned out she should have just taken her to Harrods and bought her some nicer clothes.
She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Even as she chided herself she looked again at her daughter, laughing with Cecily for once instead of snapping at her, tucking her shining black hair behind her ear, eyes shining. She hadn’t seen her like this for a long time. She, Frances, as much as anyone else, was responsible for making Miranda feel smal , and she was suddenly overcome with guilt.
Miranda turned back to her. ‘Is it real y al right, Mummy?’
‘Did you write and thank Connie?’ said Frances, taking a sip of her champagne.
‘Of course I did.’ Miranda stared at her mother, her green eyes unblinking. ‘I wrote her a real y long letter tel ing her al the lovely things I could buy for ten pounds. And then she sent me another pound in the post, just like that! In case I went over it.’
Frances sighed. How very Miranda. ‘Darling, that’s awful of you.’ But she couldn’t help smiling at her.
Cecily sipped her champagne, gingerly holding the stem of the flute. It was a special night, so she was al owed a glass. ‘Mm,’ she said, wrinkling her nose as the bubbles tickled her. ‘It’s so fizzy.’
‘Don’t get drunk and make a fool of yourself,’ Archie told her. He was himself beautiful y turned out, his dark hair gleaming with bril iantine like a matinee idol. Next to his sister, they made quite a pair.
‘What, like peeking at people while they get undressed?’ Cecily said sharply, turning away from him.
Archie’s expression darkened and he stammered. ‘What?’ Cecily’s face flushed, but she was saved from responding by a clinking sound.
‘Welcome, al of you,’ said Arvind, addressing the assembled group, much to their surprise. He took his wife’s hand. ‘We are glad to have you al here.’
‘Yes, cheers,’ Jeremy said, raising his glass. ‘Thanks, Uncle Arvind. We love being here.’
Next to him, Miranda rol ed her eyes. Frances, seeing her expression, tried not to smile, shaking her head at her instead. Dear, staid Jeremy.
Arvind gave Jeremy a polite smile. ‘Your good health, al of you. You are the future. I salute you.’
He stepped forward, raised his glass, and then frowned, as if he was surprised he’d spoken.
‘Daddy is pretty eccentric,’ Miranda whispered loudly to Guy, who was standing next to her. ‘Just ignore him.’
Guy nodded. ‘Excuse me a moment, would you? Sir –’ he said, moving determinedly towards Arvind and leaving Miranda standing alone. ‘I’m extremely sorry to bother you with work, but I felt I couldn’t stay here and not tel you how much I enjoyed The Modern Fortress.’
‘You enjoyed it?’ Arvind said. ‘How extraordinary.’
Guy was nonplussed. ‘Wel , perhaps enjoyed isn’t the right word.’ There was a silence. ‘I – er, it’s a very interesting book, anyway.’
‘Thank you,’ said Arvind, staring at him through his smal round glasses. ‘You wear glasses too.’
‘Yes, I do,’ said Guy equably. ‘Sometimes. For reading.’
‘What do you do?’
‘Er – me?’
‘Wel , yes, you.’ Arvind looked around, as if there was someone else there.
‘I’m up at Oxford,’ Guy said. ‘I’m doing PPE.’
‘What’s PPE?’ Cecily, who had materialised next to them, asked softly.
‘It stands for Philosophy, Politics and Economics,’ Guy told her.
‘That sounds pretty dire,’ Cecily said. ‘I mean very interesting. Sorry, Dad.’
‘Ah,’ Arvind said. ‘The child rejects the parent. Very disappointing.’
‘The child rol s her eyes at the parent,’ Cecily replied gravely, but her eyes were twinkling.
Watching them with surprise on his face – in most of the homes of his contemporaries, you cal ed your father Sir and you certainly didn’t cal his work ‘dire’ – Guy coughed. ‘You’re nearly tal er than your father,’ he told Cecily, flushing slightly as he couldn’t think of what else to say.
‘Thank you, young man, for pointing out my lack of inches,’ Arvind said. He jabbed Guy in the stomach and smiled, and Guy laughed, his nerves suddenly gone.
‘Sir, I wonder if you read Dr King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail?’ Guy asked hurriedly. ‘Because there are several points in it which you touch on in The Modern Fortress. How oppressed people cannot remain oppressed for ever. It is not possible. The desire for freedom always manifests itself and works its way through, even though it may take a long time.’
‘Ah –’ Arvind said, his eyes lighting up. ‘The danger of the white moderate, greater than the white extremist. Yes, I found that very interesting.’
‘What are they talking about?’ Miranda whispered to Cecily. ‘Real y boring stuff. Someone cal ed Dr King.’
‘Martin Luther King, that is,’ Archie said. He was standing next to them, one hand casual y resting in his blazer pocket. ‘The head of the NAACP. He’s a great man.’
‘NAACP?’ Cecily said. ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,’ Archie said, enunciating each word. He took a sip from his drink, turning his handsome profile away from them, towards the setting sun.
‘How do you know who he is?’ Miranda asked scornful y. ‘You don’t know anything, Archie.’
She looked at her brother crossly, as she always did when Archie showed any signs of having a different opinion from her, or an opinion about which she knew nothing.
Archie licked his lips as if he were nervous. ‘I know al men were created equal. But we’re the only different people we know,’ he said suddenly.
He looked around; his father was engrossed in conversation with Guy, Louisa and Frank were laughing together on the edge of the terrace, and Jeremy and Frances were sitting on the bench by the steps. ‘And I get cal ed a Paki at school and told to go home by boys whose parents can barely read or write, when my father’s one of the cleverest people in the world, and his family lived in a palace in Lahore.’ There were bubbles of spit in each corner of his mouth. ‘You’re stupid, Miranda. You don’t stand up to those girls who bul y you because your father’s Indian. You should tel them you’re better than any of them.’
‘They don’t bul y me,’ Miranda muttered, hanging her head, her hair fal ing in her face. ‘Shut up, Archie.’
‘They do bul y you,’ Cecily said softly. ‘They’re horrible to her,’ she told Archie. ‘They cal her horrible things.’
‘We don’t talk about it,’ Miranda hissed, grabbing Cecily’s arm. She was bright red. ‘Remember?’
‘We never talk about it!’ Cecily said loudly, wrenching her arm away. Frances looked over at her three children, questioning. They huddled back together again, mutinous but quietened. Don’t break the pact.
‘There’s nothing to talk about anyway,’ Miranda whispered. She stood up straight again. ‘Al right? So shut up.’
‘Anyway,’ said Cecily. ‘I don’t think it matters if Dad grew up in a palace or not. He could have grown up in a hut. They shouldn’t do it in the first place.’
But Archie wasn’t paying attention. ‘Dad went to one of the best schools in India. With Maharajahs and – and English boys,’ he said. ‘Much posher than the pit I go to.’
‘Only because his dad was a teacher there,’ Cecily pointed out. ‘That’s what I mean, it doesn’t matter either way. Just tel them they’re bigots.’
‘No,’ Archie said. ‘I don’t want to do it like that. I want to show them I’m better than them. That I’l make more money than any of them, be more English than them, beat the faggots at their own game.’ He nodded, as though he was talking to himself. ‘I’ve got a plan, you see. We have to have a plan.’ His eyes rested, briefly, on his twin. ‘You have to understand that, both of you. They’re not going to help you. That’s al .’
The other two stared at him blankly, like he was speaking another language. And through the open window inside the house somewhere a tinkling, silvery bel rang suddenly, as if signal ing the end of something.
‘I think that means it’s time for food,’ Frances said. Miranda turned away from her siblings. She put her hand gently on Guy’s arm. ‘Guy, would you like to go in to dinner?’ she said in a husky voice.
Guy turned. ‘Oh, hel o, Miranda,’ he said. ‘Yes, I’d love to. Shal we?’ he said, turning to Arvind.
‘Wel , if we don’t,’ Arvind said, patting him on the back, ‘it’l go cold. Dinner, my friends. Let us eat.’
‘So, you’ve got two weeks,’ said Frances. ‘Is there anything you’d like to do while you’re here? Beyond relaxing and having a holiday, of course.’
Guy paused in the action of handing the salad bowl to Miranda and looked down the table at his brother, who was seated next to Frances.
‘We don’t real y have any plans,’ Frank said, staring ner vously into Frances’s amused green eyes. ‘We’d like to go to the beach. Obviously!’
He laughed, a little too loudly. Cecily, next to him, watched him in amazement. ‘Um—’ He looked at his brother for help. He was nervous, he wished it would go away. Across the table, Louisa smiled gently at him, and he looked rueful y at her. I’m not normally this much of an idiot. He had hardly said a word since he’d arrived. He’d never been anywhere like Summercove before.
The windows were open, the curtains drawn, and it was a stil night. Occasional y they could hear an owl hooting in the woods behind the house.
‘I’d like to go to the Minack Theatre,’ Guy said. ‘I’ve always wanted to.’
‘Wel , if we can get tickets,’ Louisa said, looking at Frank to see if he registered any interest in this activity. ‘But it’s often booked up.’
Frances waved her hand. ‘That’s fine. I know them. I’m sure if we motor over tomorrow there wil be some available. Terrific!’ She looked pleased. ‘I love the Minack, Guy, I hope you wil too. It’s such a wonderful setting. So dramatic. You feel as if at any moment the whole thing could be swept away into the sea.’
‘Is it very dangerous, the sea around here?’ Frank said. ‘We’ve lived here for eight years, if you count when it was just our holiday home,’ said Archie sagely. ‘We’re al pretty used to the sea.’
‘The rocks can be treacherous,’ Frances said, staring at her nails. ‘But you just have to be careful. Sensible.’
Yes, be careful. Be sensible. Don’t rock the boat. She smiled, her teeth gritted together behind her lips.
‘Wel , I’d like a picnic on the beach,’ Frank said suddenly. ‘With food.’
‘Yes,’ Jeremy said, pleased. ‘We thought we’d do that. At night, if that’s al right with you, Aunt Frances?’ He turned to his aunt, next to him.
‘Don’t want to leave you high and dry without company for the evening.’
‘So we’re not invited to the picnic on the beach, I take it?’ she asked him, amused.
‘Oh,’ said Jeremy, flustered. ‘Of course, if you’d like to – if you’d want to. How rude of me . . . I just thought, when Mother and Father arrive, you’d want to . . .’
‘I’d rather be on the beach,’ Arvind said.
Archie jumped in. ‘I say, Guy, Frank, have you been fol owing the Ward trial?’ he said. ‘Pretty juicy, isn’t it?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Guy. ‘I can’t believe they’re serving it up like this, every day.’
‘Profumo lied to Parliament, he deserves everything he gets,’ Guy said. He drummed his fingers on the table. ‘The times are changing. You can’t have this Establishment covering everything up as it suits them any more.’
Archie nodded, pleased. ‘What do you think, Frank?’ Frances asked the silent man next to her.
‘I’m afraid I don’t real y care much,’ Frank said, his handsome face set in a frown. ‘It’s just jol y entertaining, that’s al .’ He looked around, shamefaced. ‘Expect that’s an awful thing to say.’
‘I think that’s what we al feel,’ Guy said. ‘It’s terrible, but I want to read it.’ He turned to Miranda. ‘Do you read Private Eye?’
‘Oh, yes,’ Miranda said. ‘We sneak it in to school, I think it’s awful y funny.’
‘That’s rub—’ Cecily began, but bit her lip suddenly as Archie, next to her, kicked her.
‘Seems to me it’s the only paper or magazine tel ing the truth. There’s so much hypocrisy out there, in public life, it’s disgusting.’ Guy’s quiet face was animated. ‘L-look at the Argyl divorce case, it made me absolutely sick. We scrabble around to feast on the bones of these people, just so we can say how decadent and awful they are over our breakfast cereal, and then we bow and scrape when a lord or lady comes into the room.’
His voice rose as he came to an abrupt halt.
Silence fel as they al nodded politely, awkwardly. Frances looked at her nails again, and Guy sank back into his chair, embarrassed. Mary appeared in the doorway. ‘Shal I clear away?’ she asked. ‘Ooh, there’s not much left of it, is there?’
‘Thank you, Mary,’ Frances said. ‘That was delicious.’ The others murmured their approval, smiling, and Mary looked pleased. ‘You can go up afterwards, if you like. We can make the coffee.’
‘Behold, the symbol of our bourgeois repressive regime,’ Arvind said to Guy, after Mary had gone into the kitchen. ‘Mary. She cooks Beef Wel ington and cleans for us and we give her money.’
‘Sir, I didn’t mean –’ Guy began, looking mortified. ‘Please don’t—’
Arvind waved his hand. ‘Please. I was making a joke. You are quite right, young man,’ he said. ‘Things are changing, and we are wise to recognise it. Only I don’t think any of us knows how they wil change, not yet.’ He looked around the table, at his son Archie staring into space, at Louisa gazing at Frank, at Miranda watching them with a curious fury, at Guy, methodical y eating his cheese, at Cecily, careful y peeling a grape and looking across at Jeremy under her eyelashes, and final y at his wife. She nodded back at him, but a little frown creased her brow.
They retired one by one that night; Arvind went early, fol owed by Cecily then Jeremy. The others stayed up, sitting outside on the terrace, talking quietly over coffee. Guy was next to go up. He said he was tired, and he was fol owed by Archie soon after. Frances, Miranda, Louisa and Frank were left, until Frances took the hint and got up, with a look at Louisa and Frank and at her daughter.
Frank leapt to his feet. ‘Goodnight, Mrs . . . Mrs Kapoor.’
She held her hand in his, smiling at him playful y. She’d forgotten how touching these boys could be. How bloody pompous, too. ‘Goodnight, Frank. And please. Cal me Frances. It’s like Frank. Not too hard to remember.’
He gazed at her nervously. ‘Yes . . . yes, of course.’
She turned to Miranda, and her gaze flicked lightly back to Frank and Louisa, who was gazing shyly down at the flagstones.
‘You leaving these two to it, then, Miranda dear? See you tomorrow.’
Miranda, defeated, shot her mother a furious look. She got up from where she’d been artful y sitting on the ground. ‘Yes, I’m off too. Night, you two. Don’t be too long. It’s dangerous for the rest of us, you leaving the front door open,’ she said, somewhat obscurely.
Miranda didn’t come up immediately. Cecily was kneeling up in bed when she final y appeared, her diary beside her, and she was looking out of the window.
‘Are you peeping?’ Miranda said. ‘Watching what’s going on with the young lovers? Are they stil down there?’
‘No,’ Cecily blushed, and shut the window hurriedly. ‘Oh, you smel ,’ she said. ‘Is that where you went? Have you been . . . smoking? Urgh.’
‘Oh, shut up, you baby,’ said Miranda, flinging herself on the brass bedstead. ‘I’m eighteen, for God’s sake, I’m a bloody grown-up.’ She stared at the wal . ‘Not that anyone like Mummy seems to appreciate that fact.’
‘That’s because you don’t behave like a grown-up,’ Cecily said automatical y. ‘You don’t have a plan, unlike Archie.’ Miranda ignored her, and began unzipping her dress. Her younger sister watched her. ‘What are you going to do now? Do you know?’
‘I don’t know,’ Miranda said. ‘So leave me alone.’
‘You must have some idea,’ Cecily said, but her sister held up a hand.
‘Don’t start on me, please, Cecily. I’m not in the mood. Archie’s an idiot sometimes. A swot, with his ideas about making money and al of that rot. It’s so boring of him. I’l be fine. I’l work something out.’
‘Miranda,’ Cecily began. ‘Can I ask you something?’
‘As long as it’s not about me.’ Miranda was struggling with the zip of her dress.
‘It’s not.’ Cecily leaned forward and tugged it down. ‘Thanks. Go on.’
‘Do you think it’s bad, if people . . .’ Cecily stopped. ‘A man and a woman. Do they—’ She flopped back against her pil ows. ‘Oh, never mind.
‘A man and a woman?’ Miranda was intrigued. ‘What?’ she said. ‘Are you trying to spice up your diary? What?’
‘Nothing,’ Cecily said firmly. ‘I’m going to sleep now. Goodnight, Miranda.’
The next day, at breakfast, when Frank appeared at the table, tal and handsome in shorts and a slightly crumpled polo shirt, Louisa pursed her lips and looked down at her toast.
Frank cleared his throat. ‘Hel o, Louisa,’ he said.
Louisa blushed, ignored this and turned to Guy. ‘What do you want to do today, Guy?’ She popped a strawberry into her mouth and smiled at him.
Miranda sat down at the table, shooting a sideways glance at Cecily, who was bright red and munching her toast furiously, as if it had done something to offend her. So that was what had been troubling Cecily last night. She smiled.
‘Yes, Guy,’ she said, also ignoring the hapless Frank, who clutched his plate and sat down. ‘What do you want to do?’
Guy put down his knife. ‘I thought perhaps the beach? I don’t know, real y. Whatever anyone else wants.’ He looked at Cecily. ‘What do you like doing when you’re down here, Cecily?’
‘Me?’ Cecily looked astonished that anyone should ask her opinion. ‘Um – I like swimming in the sea, and playing card games and reading my book.’ She stretched out her legs. ‘And not having to pose for Mum, which I don’t have to do today, thank goodness.’
‘She’s painting you?’
‘Yes.’ Cecily glanced around, to make sure Frances wasn’t near the breakfast room. ‘It’s pretty dul ,’ she confided.
‘Your mother’s a wonderful painter,’ Guy said. ‘Who knows, one day you could be hanging in the National Portrait Gal ery.’
‘That’d be nice,’ Cecily admitted. ‘I just can’t see anyone wanting to gawp at me, that’s al .’
‘Nonsense, Cec,’ Jeremy said, walking behind her. He patted her head. ‘You’re a looker, isn’t she, Frank?’
As Cecily glowed, Frank, stil watching Louisa, said, ‘Oh – ah. Of course. Yes.’
‘Frank . . . Franty, your name is just like Mummy’s,’ Cecily said, flushing with exhilaration. ‘I think we should just cal you Bowler Hat from now on. To avoid any confusion.’
‘Yes,’ Louisa said, looking up suddenly, giving a thin smile. ‘Bowler Hat’s the perfect name. Because I’ve been thinking about it and Cecily’s right. You do look as if you should be wearing a bowler hat. Shorts real y don’t suit you. Your knees are awfully thin.’
Into the silence that fol owed this statement came Mary. ‘Now, does anyone want some more coffee?’ she said, wiping her hands on her apron.
‘Eggs? Frank, how about you?’
‘No – no, thanks,’ Frank said. He smoothed his hands nervously along his muscular arms. He looked too big for the smal seat, the cosy dining room.
‘We’re cal ing him Bowler Hat now, Mary,’ Louisa said. She pushed her chair back from the table and stood up, her long legs clad in a pristine pair of shorts, this time pale blue. She languidly stretched her arms above her head. ‘Not Frank. It’s too confusing.’
‘Bowler Hat, eh?’ said Mary, col ecting up the empty scrambled egg dish. ‘Right you are.’
When Miranda and Cecily were cleaning their teeth in the little sink in their room after breakfast, Miranda said carelessly, ‘So, was Frank asking Louisa something a bit . . . rude, last night, Cec? Is that what you overheard?’
Cecily’s mouth was ful of toothpaste. She stopped, toothbrush in hand.
‘Wha’?’ she said. ‘Something about sex.’ Miranda mouthed the last word. ‘Something she didn’t want to do.’
Cecily bent over the sink and spat, and when she stood up again her smal face was red.
‘I wasn’t eavesdropping. Honestly. I wasn’t.’
‘I know you weren’t,’ Miranda said. ‘I don’t think the Bowler Hat’s very nice,’ Cecily said. ‘What did he do?’
‘Wel .’ Cecily spoke in a whisper, and turned the square tap so the water was running. ‘I was watching them, because I heard them say my name. I had the windows open ’cause I couldn’t sleep. They were sitting on the floor, and he . . .’ She paused. ‘Oh, my goodness.’
‘What?’ said Miranda, nearly mad with curiosity. ‘He . . . wel , he put his hand on her . . . chest.’
‘Oh. Is that it?’
‘Come on, Cecily. You’re such a baby!’ Miranda turned the tap off. ‘What did Louisa do?’
‘She pushed him away,’ Cecily said. ‘Quite hard.’
‘What did he do then?’
‘He asked some other stuff. I’m not saying.’ She was bright red now. ‘And he was angry. He said, “For God’s sake, Louisa. Don’t be so frigid.”’
‘Gosh,’ said Miranda. ‘The Bowler Hat is real y Stewart Granger. Who’d have thought it?’
‘He is not Stewart Granger.’ Cecily was furious at this impugning of her idol. ‘Stewart Granger is tal and handsome, and a gentleman. And Frank is . . . tal . That’s it.’
‘Oh, he’s handsome. And I think he’s rather sweet, in a buttoned-up way,’ Miranda said, musing, looking out of the window. ‘And the brother, too.’
Cecily frowned. ‘Oh, goodness,’ Miranda said in irritation, turning round and catching her sister’s expression. ‘Do grow up a bit, Cecily. You’re such a baby. Life’s not like bloody boarding school, you know. One of these days you’l realise it’s normal for men and women to want to be with each other, you know.’ She looked in the mildew-spotted mirror above the sink and ran one finger careful y over a silken dark eyebrow. ‘It’s going to be hot again today. Very hot. I hope the others don’t get hideously sunburnt at the beach.’ She smiled at Cecily, and ran one hand over her smooth, coffee-coloured skin. ‘Have you ever kissed a boy?’
‘Me?’ Cecily said pointlessly. ‘No.’ She turned away. ‘Stop making everything about boys and girls, Miranda.’
‘That’s what life is about, Cec darling,’ Miranda said. ‘Look at Mummy, flirting with every man that comes her way. Look at Louisa, sticking her bum out at the Bowler Hat, like she’s an ape in the zoo – even you, Cecily dear. It’l happen to you one day—’
‘You’re vile,’ Cecily said, pushing past her. ‘I’m not listening. Stop it.’
She picked up her swimming costume and threadbare towel, and ran downstairs.
The path down to the sea from the house was narrow, impassable in winter. Every Easter, the overgrown brambles that threatened to strangle the high hedgerows were cut away. In late July, the brambles had crept back, tangled together with goosegrass, wild roses and ivy and croaking with grass-hoppers. Cecily led the way, fol owed by Guy and Frank. Louisa and Jeremy said they’d pack up the hamper.
‘It’s only eleven, and it’s baking already,’ Cecily said. She jumped over a trailing bramble. ‘The sea wil be gorgeous, it’s lovely and warm but it doesn’t get too hot. We went to Italy a couple of years ago,’ she added airily, ‘and already by now the Mediterranean is like a bath. So warm and soupy, it’s disgusting.’
‘Where in Italy?’ Guy asked. ‘I’m going in August, for a month.’
‘I love Italy, you are lucky,’ Cecily said. ‘We went to Florence, and Siena, and then on to the Tuscan coast. I wasn’t actual y there with friends, you know. Daddy was doing a lecture,’ she explained.
‘I understand,’ said Guy gravely. ‘But I want to go back one day. When I’m a student myself.’ She slowed down a little, and turned back to look at Guy. ‘I want to travel al over Europe. I’ve drawn a map of where I’m going to go.’ She stopped. ‘Here’s the path. It’s a bit tricky, so be careful.’
The steps were only a couple of feet wide, through the cliffs. ‘Good God,’ Frank said, as they started climbing down. ‘I’m a bit unsteady.’ He looked back. ‘Wil Louisa be al right, carrying that huge great hamper down the steps?’ he asked.
‘Oh, she’l be fine,’ Cecily said blithely. ‘She’s been doing that walk since she was a toddler, Bowler Hat. Calm down.’
But Frank said he’d stay back and carry the hamper with Jeremy, so Cecily and Guy carried on down.
‘Ye gods and little fishes!’ Guy exclaimed, when they reached the bottom. He rubbed his head. ‘This is al ours? You’re sure?’
Cecily ran across the sand. ‘It’s not strictly speaking our own beach, but who else comes down here? No one!’ She grinned at him, holding her hair back from her face. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
‘It’s great,’ Guy said, setting down his pack. ‘Everything here is great.’ He smiled at her. ‘I don’t know how you can bear going back to school, when you live in a place like this.’ His gaze roamed back towards the fields. ‘And your parents are marvel ous people, too. So interesting, so relaxed.’
Her smile grew a little more rigid. ‘I suppose. So what are your parents like?’ she asked.
‘Oh, you know.’ Guy sat down on one of the huge black rocks. ‘They’re more Bowler Hat than . . . than your parents. Very correct. Think Weybridge is the centre of the universe. Very kind, rather strict.’ He grimaced, a bit helplessly. ‘We don’t often see eye to eye, put it that way. They certainly don’t watch TW3. And as for discussing the Profumo scandal . . .’ He laughed. ‘My goodness, if they had a daughter like you and she knew some of the things you know I think they’d have a heart attack.’
Cecily was picking up stones, but she stood up at this and looked at him. ‘Why?’ she said simply. ‘What’s wrong with a daughter like me?’
‘Nothing,’ Guy said, shaking his head at her. ‘Absolutely nothing. You’re not like most other girls, that’s al . You think for yourself, not for others.
It’s great. Wel , I think so, anyway.’
‘That doesn’t sound very al uring,’ Cecily said, scratching her arm. ‘Girls don’t want to be told they’re a bit odd, Guy. I jol y wel hope you don’t say that to girls at Oxford. No wonder you’ve had to tag along with your brother for the holidays, if that’s the way you normal y speak to your hosts.’
Guy gave a shout of laughter. ‘Come here, you vile child,’ he said, getting up and racing towards her. He grabbed her and tickled her, pinning her arms above her head while she screamed.
‘Stop it!’ she cried breathlessly, but he carried on. ‘Stop it, Guy, stop it!’ Suddenly her mood changed, as if she wasn’t finding it funny any more.
She leapt up. ‘I’m sorry,’ Guy said, standing up, breathing hard. ‘Cecily – sorry, I didn’t mean—’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, and moved away from him, towards the sea.
Louisa appeared at the bottom of the steps. ‘Here,’ she cal ed, as Jeremy and Frank emerged behind her, gingerly carrying the hamper. They were fol owed by Archie, who was wearing tortoiseshel sunglasses. Louisa looked at Cecily and Guy in a rather disapproving manner. ‘You’re making such a racket, you two.’
Cecily turned away, biting her lip, as Frank lifted the hamper clear above his head and carried it the last few steps onto the beach. ‘Whew,’ he said, laying it down on the sand. ‘That path is pretty hair-raising.’
‘Thanks, Frank,’ Louisa said, glancing at him. ‘Now, what have we got in here?’ She knelt down on the ground, and he gently pul ed her head towards his crotch as she opened the hamper. Her fingers fumbled on the leather straps as Frank stroked her hair, softly, looking down at her flaxen blonde crown, his fingers working their way through her scalp. ‘Um,’ Louisa said, faltering. ‘Wel —’
‘Is there anything other than ham for lunch?’ a voice behind her said, and Miranda stepped onto the beach, in a bathing suit of blue and white vertical stripes that accentuated every bump and curve of her body. She gave Archie a half-wave. ‘It’s just I don’t real y like it, especial y the way Mary cures it. It’s awful y soapy.’
‘Yes,’ said Louisa, not blinking. ‘There’s tomato, with some lettuce and mustard.’
‘Oh,’ said Miranda, her expression unreadable behind her large black sunglasses. She shrugged her shoulders. ‘Wel , that’s fine. I’l just pick out the tomatoes.’
Louisa opened her mouth, but Jeremy said hurriedly, ‘Thanks so much, Louisa, that al looks wonderful. Anyone fancy a game of rounders before lunch?’
‘Games?’ said Miranda. She spread her towel delicately on the sand. ‘Oh, no, thanks. I’m going to sunbathe. And read my Private Eye.’ She lay down, leaning up on her elbows, and, making a tiny moue with her lips, produced a magazine from a canvas bag.
Cecily opened her mouth to speak, and then closed it rapidly again. Louisa gave a loud snort. ‘How amusing,’ she said. ‘Let me know if you need any explanatory notes. Or let Guy know, rather.’
Frank cleared his throat. ‘Louisa,’ he said, placatory. ‘Why don’t we go for a walk along the path? We can play rounders later.’
‘Yes, please,’ Louisa said. She looked up at him and smiled. ‘I’d love that.’ She took his hand. ‘Let’s go.’
They disappeared up the steps. Miranda looked around. ‘Oh, has Louisa gone off to play with Frank?’ she said, after a moment. ‘I was hoping she’d get me a drink. He’s forgiven, I take it.’
‘Miranda,’ Archie said, under his breath. ‘Stop it.’ He turned to the others and rocked on his feet. ‘We can play rounders with four, can’t we?
Improvise a bit?’
‘Of course,’ said Guy. He looked up at the path and then back at Miranda. ‘Sure you won’t play, Miranda?’
‘Oh.’ Miranda was rather trapped. ‘Um – no, thanks, Guy dear. I think perhaps later? I do so want to read my Private Eye.’
‘I feel sorry for Miranda,’ Cecily said, as the four of them moved across to where the beach was smooth. ‘It must be awful, being so bad at whatever it is she’s trying to be.’
‘Shut up, Cecily,’ Archie said automatical y. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He spun the cricket bat around in his hand. ‘Hi!
Leighton, Jeremy, what do you say we play cricket instead? I fancy trying out my new fast bowling technique. It puts Wes Hal to shame.’
‘Great idea,’ said Jeremy, whose bulky frame was better suited to rugby than cricket. ‘Cecily, do you want to bat?’
‘Yes, I do,’ Cecily said. ‘Miss Moore said I was a great batswoman this term. I’ve real y come on, apparently. Perhaps I’l play for England one day.’
The three men were silent. She looked at them, smiling slightly.
‘Oh, sorry, I forgot. I’m a girl. How ridiculous of me.’
‘Right,’ said Archie, handing her his bat. ‘Show us what you’re made of.’
A rather hilarious game of cricket ensued, as Cecily demonstrated on a tiny pitch that she was, in fact, a talented batsman. The tennis bal landed in the sea so many times the game had an extra added spin to it, but this did not daunt Cecily in the slightest.
‘My hand-and-eye co-ordination is excel ent,’ Cecily said immodestly, when Guy congratulated her. She smiled at him. ‘I’ve often been told so.
‘So I can see,’ Guy told her. He looked up at Louisa and Frank, back from their walk. ‘Hi, you two.’
‘Where did you go?’ Archie asked, as Louisa opened the hamper.
‘Oh, just around, up along the rocks,’ Louisa said. ‘There are loads of tourists on the beach behind us.’ She lifted out a large package wrapped in greaseproof paper. ‘Isn’t this fun, a picnic like this on the beach?’ She gave a great contented sigh. ‘Oh, it’s lovely when everything’s lovely. Here are the sandwiches,’ she said, suddenly practical Louisa again. ‘Frank, can you give them out?’
‘We walked pretty fast,’ Louisa went on. ‘It’s lovely, there’s a good breeze when you’re up on the path. I saw a lovely flower, quite unusual. What did we think it was, Frank?’
‘You thought it might be a Meadow Cranesbil ,’ Frank said. ‘Wow,’ said Miranda, gingerly inspecting the pile of sandwiches Frank was offering her. ‘Fascinating. What japes.’
* * *
After lunch, Jeremy, Frank and Louisa lit cigarettes, and sat back. The occasional light spray of water hit them, but otherwise everything was stil .
‘I want to get as boiling as possible, and then dive into the sea,’ said Cecily, closing her eyes and stretching out. ‘So that my skin feels hot to the touch.’ She slid one slim leg across a smooth black stone. ‘It burns!’ she said.
‘It’s great,’ Frank said. ‘We could be in Greece. Or India.’
‘Or France, it gets jol y hot in France,’ Jeremy said. ‘I want to go to India one day,’ Cecily said. ‘Go and see where Daddy’s from. Except it’s Pakistan now, Lahore.’
‘I want to go to India,’ Guy said. ‘Some friends of mine thought they’d go after they’ve come down from Oxford.’
The others were silent. ‘It’s a long way,’ said Louisa eventual y.
‘Wel , but we’ve got the rest of our lives,’ Guy said easily. ‘I want a bit of adventure before I settle down. In ten years’ time, I’l be a boring old something-or-other. I want to be able to look back and say, “Oh, yes. I did that.” Before I go back to sleep by the fire.’
‘You’l never be a boring old something-or-other, Guy,’ Frank told his brother. ‘I wil be. Not you. You’l be living in a flat on the Left Bank, wearing a beret and smoking Gitanes, talking about the summer you spent with Arvind Kapoor.’
Guy gave a short laugh. ‘The Bowler Hat’s right,’ Louisa said. ‘You’l be up at the Moulin Rouge every night, hanging out with cancan dancers and drinking absinthe—’
‘I say, when is this?’ Guy said, amused. ‘1890? Is Toulouse Lautrec my best friend?’
Louise looked rather stumped. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said.
‘Where wil you be in ten years, then?’ Guy asked her. ‘Not one of the cancan dancers, I’l bet, Louisa. Not you.’
‘Oh. I don’t know. Where do you think I’l be?’
Guy put his coffee cup down and stared out to sea. ‘I think you’l be in New York, running the UN.’
‘Oh, Guy! Come off it!’ Louisa said. ‘He’s right,’ Frank said. ‘I think you wil .’
‘Yes,’ said Archie. ‘Hundreds of men underneath you. You’d like that, Louisa.’
‘Shut up, Archie, you little pig,’ Louisa said. ‘I didn’t mean—’
‘God, you’re vile, you real y are.’ Guy and Frank watched her, puzzled. She turned her back on Archie and swivel ed round to face Frank. ‘You don’t think that, real y, do you?’
Frank was stil staring at Archie in confusion, but he stopped and wrinkled his nose. ‘Don’t know, but I can imagine it, Louisa. You’re a terribly organised girl. Awful y clever, much more than me. You’re a real go-getter.’
‘Wel , I don’t know if I want to be a go-getter,’ Louisa said archly. She seemed a little disturbed by this. ‘Perhaps I just want to be at home. Have some children, look after them. Be a good wife.’
‘Urgh.’ Cecily made vomiting sounds behind her. ‘Please, Louisa.’
‘You could do both, you know,’ Guy said. Louisa looked at him blankly.
‘What about you?’ she said, gently nudging Frank. ‘Where do you think you’l be in ten years’ time? What wil you be doing?’
‘Oh. Um.’ Frank looked uncomfortable. ‘Don’t know.’ He picked at the embroidered logo on his polo shirt. ‘Sounds rather boring, if you say it out loud.’
‘Say it,’ Guy said quietly. ‘It’s not boring, old man, not if you real y want it.’
Frank stretched his arms above his head, faux-nonchalantly, and said, ‘Wel , it’s not much, real y. Think about having a nice house somewhere.
With a little drive, some hedges.’
‘Hedges?’ Cecily said, almost in disbelief. ‘Why—’ Guy nudged her.
‘And you know – I’d have qualified as a chartered surveyor. Be working at a good company. I’d get the train into town every day. Work with some nice chaps. I suppose, I never thought about it much. And – and wel ,’ he said, getting into his stride. ‘There’d be a . . . a family at home for me when I got back.’
‘You real y are the last of the great romantics, Bowler Hat,’ Cecily said. ‘Who is this family, a load of gypsies you’ve welcomed into your home?’
Frank took Louisa’s hand. ‘No,’ he said, squeezing her fingers. ‘My own family. My wife, and our children.’
There was a silence as the others digested this and Louisa’s eyes shone.
‘If she’s back from work, of course,’ added Frank, breaking in again. ‘Er – she might stil be working, of course. Perhaps we’d even get the train back together,’ he said, real y into his stride now.
Cecily got up. ‘I’l buy you both matching bowler hats for the wedding,’ she said. ‘Goodness, I got you quite wrong, didn’t I?’ She stretched herself out, languorously. ‘What about you, Archie?’
‘Don’t know,’ Archie said simply. His eyes roamed round. ‘Here’s Miranda.’ He cal ed out to his approaching sister, ‘You going for a swim?’
‘I thought so, yes. I’m boiling. Come in?’
‘Sure,’ said Archie. ‘Miranda’s a bril iant swimmer.’
‘She’s pretty amazing, actual y,’ Cecily told Guy. ‘She can do a somersault in the air off the diving board at school. She swims like a fish. It’s—’
She stopped as Miranda reached them.
‘Are you talking about me?’ Miranda said suspiciously. ‘Yes,’ Cecily said. ‘Just saying what a great swimmer you are.’
‘Don’t lie,’ Miranda said. ‘We were! Weren’t we?’ Cecily said, turning to Guy. ‘What about you, Miranda?’ Guy asked. ‘Where do you think you’l be in ten years’ time? What wil you be doing?’
Miranda looked taken aback. ‘I’m going to be running the UN,’ Louisa said. ‘Guy’s going to be living on the Left Bank wearing a beret, Frank’s going to be wearing a bowler hat and going into the City every day and Jeremy, we didn’t do you, or you, Cec.’
‘Oh, I’m boring,’ Jeremy said. ‘I’l be a doctor. I know what I want to be.’
‘That’s wonderful.’ Cecily looked at him with adoration. ‘Archie, what about you?’ Miranda asked her brother quickly.
‘I don’t know,’ said Archie helplessly. ‘I’d like to live in a hotel. You know, Monte Carlo or somewhere. Drive a fast car, see a bit of life.’ He crossed his arms. ‘But I’d be successful. Have my own business, sel ing cars or something. Studying’s a waste of time.’
‘But you’re going to Oxford, I thought,’ Cecily said. ‘No, I’m not.’ Archie shrugged. ‘Don’t see the point. Whole world out there ful of fun and excitement, I’m not going to moulder away in some old building for three years studying things people don’t care about any more.’
‘But—’ Cecily’s mouth dropped open. ‘Did you know that, Miranda?’
‘He can do what he wants,’ Miranda said. ‘But have you told Mummy and Dad?’
‘Cross that bridge when I come to it,’ Archie said, turning his face to the sun and closing his eyes.
‘So that’s the plan,’ Cecily said, nodding at him. She looked at her brother and sister, from one to the other. ‘Right. Wel , it’s none of my business.’
Louisa, ignoring this exchange, said, ‘What about you, Miranda?’
Miranda shrugged her slim shoulders. ‘Never real y thought about it,’ she said, adjusting the rubber strap around her goggles which were on her head.
‘You don’t know what you want to do yet?’ Louisa said. Miranda turned on her, and said vehemently, ‘Oh, shut up, Louisa. Just because you’re perfect and know exactly what’s going on with your stupid boring life. Leave me out of it. I don’t know, I tel you. I’m not good at anything, and that makes it rather hard.’
‘You must be good at something,’ Guy said, not unkindly. ‘Wel , I’m not,’ Miranda said flatly. ‘I’m ugly. I’m too thin, too hairy, too stupid to go to university. The only things I like doing are buying clothes, and sunbathing and swimming, and last time I checked you couldn’t do that as a job. I’m the lame duck of the family, and I know you al despise me. So – so just . . . just fuck off.’
She spat out the last three words and stalked off towards the sea, leaving Archie to run after her.
‘Poor girl,’ Frank said, watching her costume-clad figure as she slid into the blue-green sea.
‘Oh, she’l be fine,’ Cecily said, with a sister’s impatience. ‘She just wants to go to finishing school and learn how to get out of cars properly and she’s furious Mum and Dad won’t let her.’
‘How do you get out of cars properly?’ Guy asked, intrigued. ‘No idea but we’re al doing it wrong apparently,’ Cecily said. ‘She’l learn, and teach us, and then she can marry a rich husband and spend al day in Harrods buying al the dresses she wants. I suppose that might make her happy.’ But she didn’t sound sure.
Jeremy nodded. Louisa was silent. The little group was stil , for a moment, watching the twins as they bobbed in and out of the clear water.
‘What about you?’ Guy asked Cecily. ‘What wil you be doing in ten years?’
‘Thank you for final y asking, Guy.’ Cecily pointed one foot delicately in front of her. ‘Working on the script of the film of my best-sel ing novel about Mary Queen of Scots,’ she said. ‘Living in Hol ywood with Stewart Granger. Buying my second silver Rol s Royce because the first one wil be worn out with driving me to film premieres and parties. And eating al the cream eclairs I want.’ She stood up. ‘OK?’
‘Yes,’ said Guy, taken aback. ‘You’ve worked it out, haven’t you?’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ Cecily said pragmatical y. ‘But I’l have time to go to India with you before, if you want. Come on, let’s swim.’
That night, at dinner, a party atmosphere set in. Perhaps it was because of the sun but it became clear, when they gathered on the terrace that evening, that there was something in the air. The holiday was real, it was happening. It was theirs to enjoy.
Yes, they were al on good form that evening. Louisa, like Grace Kel y in a blue Grecian dress, shyly touching Frank’s hand; Frank, tal and more assured dressed for dinner in a jacket, shirt and trousers than he ever was in shorts, dutiful y meeting Louisa’s smiles. Miranda, the last one down, eventual y appeared model ing another of her recent purchases, a crisp cotton black and white gingham shift, with a sash tie behind, her hair pushed back with a black silk Alice band.
Her mother stared at her, Frank and Guy swal owed, and Cecily whistled.
‘Wow, you look great, Miranda,’ Jeremy said. He stared at her with admiration. ‘You look like a film star. Doesn’t she, Franty?’
Frances nodded. ‘Absolutely. You’re like a swan, darling.’ Guy whistled. ‘Why, Miss Kapoor, you’re ravishing,’ he said, in a terrible American accent.
‘Thank you so very much, darling,’ Miranda said, in a husky film-star voice. There was a little throb in her throat, almost as if she was nervous.
‘So very kind of you. So kind.’ She accepted a drink from Jeremy. ‘You look lovely tonight, Louisa,’ she said in a loud voice.
Louisa, visibly touched, stil looked startled. ‘Oh, Miranda . . . thank you.’
‘No one has complimented me on my dress,’ said Arvind, who was sitting in a chair on the edge of the terrace, admiring the sunset. ‘No one has said, How nice you look today, Arvind.’
‘Daddy, you look ravishing,’ Miranda said, wanting to bestow compliments on everyone now. ‘Mummy, you too.’
‘Very heartfelt, Miranda,’ Frances said drily. ‘I’m not quite ready for the bath chair and the nursing home yet, you know.’
‘Mother,’ said Miranda, in a wheedling tone. ‘Can I ask you a huge favour, please?’
‘Er—’ Frances said. ‘What is it?’
‘Can we put on the Beatles? Please? Your record player’s so much better than the one upstairs.’
Louisa clapped her hands. ‘Oh, Aunt Frances, please. I think you’d real y like it,’ she said. It was so far the only thing Miranda and Louisa had found they had in common.
‘I know it very wel ,’ Frances said drily. ‘I’ve heard that dratted album wafting down the stairs about ten times a day for the past week. And over Easter. I’m sick of it.’
‘Oh, go on,’ Miranda pleaded. She drank some more of her gin and tonic. ‘Listen to it properly. Please. Please Please Me!’ she said, and Frances laughed, and unbent.
‘Al right,’ she said.
So they ate supper to the strains of ‘Please Please Me’ playing on the old gramophone from the sitting room, and Louisa sang ‘Love Me Do’
softly in Frank’s direction, and even Cecily (who was secretly rather keen on John Lennon), sang along to ‘Twist and Shout’. ‘Because they didn’t write this one,’ she explained, when Miranda looked at her cool y and asked why she was singing, if she hated them so much?
Arvind and Frances were not censorious parents, and they al owed wine at the table, though Cecily was only al owed a glass. This night, perhaps because of the wine, or the heat coming off their sun-kissed skin, or the heady, late summer smel of lavender and sea and sun oil, the wine disappeared faster than it might have done.
‘Another bottle?’ said Mary, when she came in to put down the peach melba.
‘Oh—’ Frances, who had been working in her studio al day, was tired and rather drained. She waved her hand. ‘Yes, a couple more, please,’
she said. ‘My glass is empty.’ She looked around the table. ‘I do feel old,’ she said, to no one in particular.
It was stil very hot outside, humid and stil , and Frances went to bed after supper, pleading a headache, fol owed by Arvind. The younger generation moved out onto the terrace where they sat for a while, too tired to move, not real y saying much. Frank and Louisa stood at the edge of the group, he with one arm round her waist, a glass of wine in the other. He was rather drunk.
‘This time next week, your parents wil be here,’ Cecily said into the silence. She smoothed a hand over her brow, to the scarf she had tied back her hair with, and stood up. ‘I’m going to bed,’ she said, as if realising she was not in the right frame of mind for the party. ‘Goodnight, everyone.’
With her departure, it was as if the spel had been broken, and the party was deflating.
‘I’m actual y quite tired,’ Louisa said, moving Frank’s arm which was creeping up around her waist towards her breast. He drained his glass, and she moved away from him. ‘It must be al that sun.’
‘Wel , I’m off,’ Jeremy said. ‘I’l take the glasses through.’
‘I’l help you,’ Louisa said. She turned to Frank, and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Night, Frank. See you – tomorrow.’
‘Oh.’ Frank blinked. ‘Yes, tomorrow. You’re – going.’
‘Yes, I am,’ Louisa said.
Frank’s lips drooped. ‘Oh, right then. I suppose I’d better be off soon as wel . Night, Louisa.’
He stayed on the terrace as, one by one, the others filed into the house, saying goodnight. He was swaying slightly, but after a minute he shook his head and looked around him, as if noticing for the first time that the party was over. He stared contemplatively into the darkness.
Someone appeared around the corner, making him jump. ‘Mrs Ka— Frances, hel o,’ Frank said, his eyes widening. ‘I thought you’d gone to bed.’
Frances leaned against the wooden table, her eyes dancing. ‘I was having a cigarette down by the gazebo. It’s such a beautiful night, I couldn’t quite bear to go inside just yet.’
She hugged herself, wrapping her slim, bare arms round her black-silk-clad body. Frank stared at her.
‘Do you have a cigarette, Frank?’ she said, and held out her hand.
Befuddled by wine, but mesmerised by her, Frank gave his hostess a cigarette. She put it to her mouth and watched as he lit it.
‘Don’t worry,’ Frances said, her voice rich with amusement. ‘I won’t bite you.’
‘We’re having such a jol y holiday, Frances,’ he told her. ‘I’m glad to hear that,’ she said, smiling in the darkness. ‘I hope there’s more to come.’
She rol ed her head from side to side, listening to the vertebrae crunch slightly. ‘Ouch,’ she said.
‘You al right?’ Frank asked. ‘Just – it’s been a long day,’ she said. ‘My back’s stiff. You’re lucky, you lot. You’re young. You sleep wel , you eat wel , you have fun . . . And then you become a proper grown-up. And it’s different.’
Frank, holding his glass at an angle, appeared to have realised he was a little too drunk for this conversation. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
‘It’s not your fault.’ Frances bit her lip, sat down on the terrace and was silent for a moment. ‘But that’s for another day. I don’t want to puncture the golden dreams of youth.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Ah, when I was younger, we used to come to this part of the coast for picnics, to swim.
Pamela and I, and our friends. I’d see this house, up on the hil , and wonder about it.’ She brought her legs up so her chin was resting on her knees.
‘I always wanted to live here. And now I do.’
‘That’s great, isn’t it?’ Frank sat heavily down next to her. ‘Yes,’ Frances said softly. ‘Yes, it is. I’m very lucky. I have to tel myself that. It’s just sometimes I wish I was anywhere . . . anywhere but here.’
He was silent, as was she. Upstairs, a window opened quietly, but otherwise the house was completely stil .
Over a week passed, but it could have been a year: time seemed to stop, wrapping them in a cocoon. The days were fil ed with warm weather, fresh cold seas, lazing, reading, listening to music. By night they watched each other on the terrace or over dinner, watched as they grew more tanned, more at ease, knew each other, for better and for worse. It felt as if it had always been like this, a kind of heightened reality where everything was more exciting, colours were sharper, people were more beautiful, life was there to be taken. But of course, it wasn’t real y like that.
Perhaps it was the summer wind, blowing off the sea and through the house, sweeping them up in its path. But none of them was un affected by it.
They left Summercove, too. Frances got them tickets to the Minack Theatre and they saw Julius Caesar: sitting out in the refreshing night breeze on the theatre at the edge of the sea. They ate pasties in Marazion, and Cecily and Guy walked across the glittering silver causeway to the beautiful fortress castle of St Michael’s Mount.
Some of them went surfing in Sennen Cove; one morning the others stayed behind while Guy, Louisa and Cecily went with Frances to St Ives to see her dealer and talk about the London show. As they were leaving, Frances stumbled and stepped on Frank, who was kissing Louisa goodbye; she pierced his foot with her stiletto heel, and was horrified as he sank to the ground in agony. They bought him sickly pink sticks of rock from St Ives to say sorry, the sweet candy already stuck to the striped paper bags by the time Frank returned that afternoon from the beach, hobbling and supported by Miranda and Jeremy. One evening, they went into Penzance, to see Doctor in Distress playing at the Savoy. Guy took photos with his old box Brownie: Cecily on the beach, standing on a rock, her bobbed hair blowing about her face like a glossy brown halo; games of cricket, the bal flying into the sea; Frances at her easel (after he’d asked permission, of course); Frank (by now recovered, no more than an angry red stigma on his foot) snoring on the lawn like a slumbering blond god, the view of the path down to the sea blinding white in the midday sun.
It would seem from the outside as if they were in a blissful, untroubled holiday bubble. It would seem, too, as if the Leightons fitted in perfectly with the household, though of course it was their very outsider status which gave the summer its frisson of excitement, of fun, of them – al of them –
feeling as if they were watching themselves in a film, that it was unreal.
The longer their stay the hotter the weather became, night and day. Frank was happiest when he was outside, playing sports with Jeremy and Archie, trying to flirt with Miranda and Frances, and trying also – it would seem unsuccessful y – to seduce his girlfriend. His wandering hands became something of a feature, the fingers creeping across Louisa’s wel -upholstered, neat figure, only to be pushed briskly away, much to his dis appointment. Guy, on the other hand, just seemed to get on with everyone. Everyone except Miranda.
‘He’s so damned pleased with himself,’ she said to Cecily one Friday, a week after the Leightons had arrived.
Cecily had just returned from sitting for her mother upstairs and was in a bad mood; she disliked being stil for so long. She was slumped in one of the worn-out damask armchairs in the cool of the living room, flicking through a recent Country Life. ‘Look at this girl,’ she said, slapping the back of her hand in annoyance onto the page. ‘“Lady Melissa Bligh”. Why do they always have these photos of boring English girls with awful teeth?’ She gazed longingly at Lady Melissa’s black lace dress and swanlike neck. ‘Anyway, Guy’s not pleased with himself,’ she added after a moment.
‘Yes, he is,’ Miranda said, also flicking through a magazine. ‘He thinks he knows it al . What’s wrong and right. He’s very pleased with himself, if you ask me.’ She looked out through the French windows onto the lawn, where Guy was playing cricket with Frank and Jeremy, practising his bowling action. ‘I don’t like the way he acts as if he knows us al so wel .’
‘That’s what I like about him, actual y,’ Cecily said. ‘I feel like I’ve known him for ever.’
Miranda rol ed her eyes. ‘You would say that, because I said the opposite. Of course.’
‘I mean it, honestly,’ Cecily protested. She looked awkwardly at her sister. ‘Please. Don’t let’s row again,’ she begged. ‘Last night was so awful. I said sorry for it. You know I did.’
‘Al right,’ Miranda said crossly. She touched the glowing red scratch on her cheek, and Cecily too; they were almost identical. ‘We’re al right now. Let’s leave it, for heaven’s sake.’
There was a silence. The magazine slid off Cecily’s lap onto the floor; she ignored it. ‘Wel , I don’t like Frank,’ she said after a while. ‘I just don’t.’
‘Why don’t you go and play cricket, Cecily?’ Miranda said icily. ‘Burn off some of that energy before lunch. Little girls need to behave if they’re going to eat with the grown-ups.’
‘Wel , I’m going to go and play cricket,’ Cecily said, as if her sister hadn’t spoken. She shot out through the French windows, cal ing, ‘Hi! Can I play?’
‘Of course,’ Jeremy said, smiling fondly at his youngest cousin as she ran up to them. ‘Do you want to be a fielder?’
‘Oh,’ said Cecily. ‘Um yes, why not?’
‘Cec,’ said Guy, handing her his bat. ‘I was about to go up and wash my hands before lunch, why don’t you take over?’
Just then, there was a scream from upstairs. ‘Oh! Oh, my God!’ There came a muffled thud. ‘Leave me alone, you vile, vile little shit!’
‘What’s that?’ Frank looked up in alarm. ‘That’s Louisa. Louisa? Are you al right?’
There was no answer. Frank began to run, fast, towards the house. ‘Louisa? Hel o? I say, what’s happened?’
Jeremy fol owed him. ‘Louisa?’ he cal ed, breaking into a sprint. ‘Hey!’
‘Archie again,’ said Cecily softly to Guy, who was looking up at the house.
‘Archie what?’ he said quickly. ‘He’s a peeping Tom,’ Cecily said flatly. ‘Come on, let’s go and see if she’s al right.’
But it was Archie who needed the attention when they reached the top of the stairs. Through the open door Frank could be seen with his arms around Louisa, comforting her while she cried. And on the landing, rocking backwards and forwards, was Archie. Blood dripped from his nose onto the green carpet, staining it black. His careful y groomed hair was messy, the quiff bobbing loose over his forehead, and his beautiful white short-sleeved shirt had blood on it.
‘What happened here?’ said Guy. He leaned down. ‘Oh, my goodness. We need Jeremy, where is he? I think you’ve broken your nose.’
Cecily ran back downstairs to fetch him, her eyes wild, staring at her brother.
‘She hit me,’Archie said. ‘Sil y bitch.’ He shot Louisa a look of hatred, his hand clasped to his nose. ‘I was just walking back from the bathroom and she came out of her room and hit me. I’ve no idea why. She’s hysterical. She’s a hysterical bitch. Bitch!’ he repeated, as if that was the worst thing he could say. He wiped one hand on his jeans, smearing them with blood, and swore again. That was what was almost as shocking, seeing him so dishevel ed. Archie never had a hair out of place, he never showed any emotion other than amused detachment or careful watchfulness.
Cecily reappeared with Jeremy, who grimaced. He put his finger under Archie’s chin and looked at his cousin, who had blood pouring down his face into his shirt. ‘My goodness,’ he said. ‘How did you do this?’
‘I’l tel you how,’ said Louisa, breaking away from Frank and coming forward. ‘He spies on me, I told you, Jeremy! I was just changing out of my bathers, and I heard a noise again, and I looked towards the door. There’s a gap at the bottom, you can see shadows moving. So I pretended to be going to fetch my hairbrush off the dresser.’ She swal owed. ‘And then I opened the door and – I shoved my knee right in his face. Hard.’ She came up to Archie. ‘You disgusting, disgusting little dirty bastard,’ she spat. ‘What is it with you? What’s wrong with you, with you and your damn sister?
You’re both disgusting!’
‘I didn’t do it!’ Archie cried, looking around for support. His gaze fel on Miranda, who had arrived and was standing at the top of the stairs, watching them. ‘Miranda, I didn’t do it. You know I wouldn’t do it.’ He looked imploringly at his sister.
Guy said quietly, ‘What were you doing there, then?’ Archie was silent. ‘Exactly,’ Louisa said triumphantly. ‘Look at you.’
Frank put his arms around her again. ‘Poor honeybun,’ he said into her hair. ‘Why don’t we get you a drink.’ He looked at Cecily. ‘Where are your parents? You’d have thought they’d have heard.’
‘Mum’s stil upstairs working I think, she doesn’t real y hear anything when she’s in the studio. Dad – oh, who knows. He probably didn’t notice either.’ Cecily knitted her fingers together, as if the unconcern of her parents was an embarrassment to her. She turned to Guy. ‘What shal we do?’
‘Why are you asking him?’ Miranda said scornful y. Guy looked at Jeremy and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
‘I’m going to take you into the bathroom downstairs and get you cleaned up,’ Jeremy said calmly to Archie. ‘And then let’s have a chat.’
‘I’m going to tel your parents,’ Louisa said. Her expression was vicious, ugly. ‘I’ve had enough. This whole holiday, the two of you . . . if it’s not your sister like a dog in heat, it’s you.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Archie said. ‘I mean, this house is . . . Oh, God, I don’t know!’ Louisa threw her hands up in the air, almost in despair. ‘I hate it! The two of you together, you peering and spying, and Miranda, getting up to God knows what at night-time, I’ve heard her, I know what’s going on . . .’ She trailed off. ‘You should both be locked up, what is it with you two? Is it something in your blood? The other side of the family, I mean.’
There was an awful silence. ‘I wouldn’t say anything more if I were you, Louisa,’ Miranda said, facing her cousin, her hands on her hips. ‘It’s not your house, it’s ours. You’re lucky to be here.’
‘Don’t speak to me like that.’
‘I’l speak to you how I like.’ Miranda was shaking, her voice low, bursting with venom. ‘You’l be sorry, Louisa. I tel you. Don’t – don’t cross me.’
There was a silence, and they were al stil , frozen to the spot, staring at each other, as if seeing each other for the first time.
Louisa broke the spel . ‘I’ve had enough of this,’ she said in a shaky voice, and turned back into her bedroom, Frank holding her hand. ‘Of al of this.’ She shut the door, leaving the others on the other side of it, Archie stil bleeding, Miranda gazing almost in astonishment at the closed door, and the other three standing there, unsure of what to do next.
The atmosphere was charged with tension, bursting out everywhere, as if it had final y found a release valve.
‘Let’s go,’ Jeremy said uncomfortably, handing Archie another tissue, and their strange procession trooped downstairs. ‘I think we should find
‘Hel o?’ A thin, rather querulous voice came from the sitting room, and as they got downstairs a figure appeared in the hal way. ‘Hel o? Is anyone there?’
‘Oh, my God,‘ Jeremy whispered. ‘Jeremy? Is that you? My goodness, what on earth has been going on?’
‘Mother?’ Jeremy said, emerging into the hal way. ‘We weren’t expecting you til tea-time!’ He strode forward, a smile on his face.
Pamela James, Frances’s sister, was standing in the hal , holding a pair of immaculate white gloves. She offered her cheek to her son. ‘We left earlier, to avoid the traffic. Hel o, dear,’ she said. ‘Daddy’s just parking the car. Where is Frances? No use asking for Arvind, I suppose.’
She was like a figure from another world, in a deep fuchsia tweed suit and sensible black patent court shoes, her handbag tucked into the crook of her elbow. Her calm, rather distant gaze took in Cecily, Guy and Archie, a handkerchief pressed to his nose. ‘Again. Can someone explain what has been going on?’
Jeremy took charge. He said, ‘Archie walked into a door. I’m just going to get him cleaned up now, Mother. Cecily, why don’t you go and find Franty – Aunt Frances, I mean?’ Cecily nodded and ran towards the back staircase to her parents’ room.
‘Wel , it’s good to be here, even if no one seems prepared for our arrival,’ Pamela said, putting her gloves down on the table and looking around, while Archie, Jeremy and Miranda stood transfixed in the corridor. ‘It was a very long drive and I’m rather tired. Is lunch soon, do you know?’
‘I think so –‘ Jeremy said, and just then, much to their relief, Frances appeared. ‘Hel o, hel o,’ she said, rushing towards her sister, pushing her hair back up into her head-scarf. ‘Pamela, darling, how wonderful to see you. We weren’t expecting you til tea! You have made good time!’
‘Thank you,’ Pamela said. ‘Yes, we set out early. I hope this doesn’t throw your plans off.’ She pronounced it ‘orf’. ‘I did say we might be here for lunch.’
Frances waved her hands. ‘No, of course not! It’s wonderful to have you here.’ She linked her sister’s arm through hers and they stood there, both tal and similar in looks, but utterly different people: Frances barefoot in cropped trousers and a bil owing smock, a patterned scarf tying back her hair, glowing with sun and a smudge of paint on her shirt and her long slim neck: and Pamela, perfectly dressed, not a hair out of place even after a six-hour drive.
‘I’l go and help with the bags,’ said Guy, glad to have an excuse to disappear.
‘We’ve been overrun with young people,’ Frances told her sister. ‘Absolutely overrun with them. I’ve been feeling terribly old and dowdy, and now you and John are here, we can redress the balance.’ She smiled manical y at Pamela, as if she wasn’t sure who she was.
‘I hope the children have been behaving themselves,’ Pamela said. ‘That they’ve not been too much trouble.’
‘The children?’ Frances tugged at a blue glass necklace hanging round her neck. ‘Oh . . . goodness, no. They’re wonderful. Terrific to have them al here. And the Leightons are lovely boys. I think they’ve been getting along fine – I’m afraid we’ve been terribly lax hosts,’ she said, scratching her head and smiling vaguely as Guy reappeared, carrying two suitcases, fol owed by John James, who was taking off his driving gloves as he entered the house. ‘Ah, John, how lovely!’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘I was just saying to Pamela, I’m sure the children have been getting up to al sorts of mischief. It’s a good thing you’re both here, I’m sure!’
Only then did she catch sight of Archie, and she ran her hand rather helplessly over her brow. ‘Goodness, Archie, you have been in the wars, darling.’
They were al silent. Pamela and John stood there, watching them. From upstairs came the sound of Louisa’s weeping.
‘Is that crying?’ Pamela said, as if she’d never heard it before.
‘Oh, dear,’ Frances said, looking almost annoyed. ‘What have you al been up to?’
‘You real y didn’t hear, did you?’ Cecily said quietly to her mother.
‘No,’ Frances said. ‘Have you al gone wild? Started beating each other up? Is this Lord of the Flies?’ She laughed, but it sounded odd, harsh.
‘What have we let ourselves in for, dear?’ John said, rocking on his feet. His face was stern; he was only partly joking.
There was no answer to this. The others were silent. Frances went over to the front door, pushing it shut. ‘Come in,’ she said, taking a deep breath. ‘I’l find out when lunch wil be ready. I’m sorry. Welcome, welcome.’
There would be no ‘Please Please Me’ blaring out of the sitting-room record player into the dining room now that Pamela and John were here, that much was obvious. There would also be no smoking after dinner, and Cecily would not be given her customary glass of wine. And there would be no lazing around on the terrace afterwards. Something in the atmosphere had shifted that day.
When Pamela and John came into the living room that evening, Guy was saying to Frances, ‘The Stratford by-election is soon, isn’t it? I bet old Macmil an must be terrified. The way things are going, that Monster Raving Loony party could win it, you know. They’ve certainly got my vote.’
‘I don’t think that’s a suitable subject for discussion,’ said Pamela, stopping in front of him. ‘And I don’t think one should refer to the Prime Minister of one’s country as “Old Macmil an”, Guy.’
Frances jumped up. ‘No, of course not,’ she said cravenly, shooting Guy a glance of apology. ‘Quite right. Jeremy, wil you get your mother a drink? Pam, wil you have a gimlet? Darling, that’s a beautiful dress, you put me quite to shame.’ She patted her sister’s arm and turned, catching sight of her daughters, who were looking bored on the sofa. ‘Miranda, Cecily, you look like vagrants,’ she said, her voice sharp. ‘Go and change, for God’s sake.’
Looking slightly surprised at her mother’s harsh tone, Cecily said, ‘But Mummy, Guy and I were picking the blackberries, you said it was al right.’
‘Not like that,’ Frances said. ‘Look at you.’ She waved a hand, encompassing her youngest daughter’s stained yel ow shorts and crumpled white cotton top. Cecily’s hair was in knots where the wind had caught it. ‘Guy changed, why on earth can’t you?’
Cecily turned to her, mystified. ‘Mother, you are very very annoying.’
‘Cecily!’ Pamela said, scandalised. ‘You shouldn’t talk to your mother like that.’
‘She is annoying,’ Cecily said. ‘In the mornings when she paints me she’s always trying to get me to be more ruffled up and dirty, and when I am, she tel s me to go and change! Come on, Miranda.’
‘I’m not changing,’ Miranda said. She crossed her arms and stared defiantly at her mother, thick hair tossed to one side, her rosebud lips pouting.
‘Oh, yes you are,’ Frances said, her voice quiet.
Miranda squared up to her. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to. And you know you can’t make me.’
She carried on staring at Frances, her jaw set, her eyes blazing. Cecily watched them.
‘Fine,’ Frances said eventual y, turning away from Miranda, but not before she’d given her a cold, hard look, quite chil ing. ‘How did you get that scratch on your cheek?’ she said suddenly. Miranda covered her face with her hand, blushing.
‘Did it myself,’ she mumbled. ‘Where’s Archie?’ Frances asked. ‘Early night,’ Guy said. ‘Stil a bit shaken.’ Frances looked as if she would ask something else, but then a voice behind her came from the corridor. ‘Ah. So, the outsiders are inside.’ Frances turned around grateful y.
‘He lives!’ she cried, trying to keep out the harshness she could hear creeping into her voice. ‘Darling, hel o. Get a drink. How’s your day been?’
‘Unpleasant,’ Arvind said. ‘Troubling. Disrupted.’
He advanced gingerly into the room; he was uneasy around his tal , brash, far too English sister-in-law.
Frances went over to him, smiling suddenly. ‘Poor darling,’ she said. ‘Have a gimlet. Thank you, Mary.’
‘Welcome,’ Arvind said, raising his glass to Pamela and John. They nodded politely.
Silence threatened to engulf the room. ‘How – how is your work going?’ John enquired, looking vaguely from Arvind to Frances, both of whose professions, if you could cal them that, were a source of mystery to him. John was a solicitor of the old school. Philosophers and painters were outside his remit but, unlike his wife, he thought you had to ask to find out.
Frances and Arvind looked at each other, like naughty children caught by a teacher.
‘You first,’ said Arvind. ‘Oh, wel . I’m preparing for a show, at the Du Val on Gal ery, in September,’ Frances said.
‘How interesting.’ John nodded. ‘Thank you.’ Frances smiled. ‘We’re having a party! They’re sending out invitations soon.’
John nodded again. ‘Delightful.’
There was an awkward pause. ‘Did you – did you hear about Ward taking an overdose?’ Miranda said. Her mother frowned.
‘They say he won’t make it through the night,’ Jeremy added.
‘This whole case,’ John said, shaking his head. ‘The state of the country after this trial is over – the damage wil be incalculable.’
Pamela nodded. ‘Oh, yes. I agree. Some of the details—!’ She shook her head.
Frances batted her husband playful y on the arm. ‘Go and see if Mary’s ready for us, wil you, darling?’
‘Of course!’ Arvind exclaimed with relief. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, exiting for the kitchen.
Guy was watching this exchange when a movement by the French windows caught his eye. Cecily had reappeared, in a simple black linen dress, her hair smooth and gleaming, her cheeks flushed. She was leaning against the door frame, staring at them, smiling, her eyes ful of tears.
‘Hey, I say.’ He went over and nudged her. ‘What’s up?’
‘Nothing!’ she said quickly, brushing away something on her cheek. ‘I’m just a bit tired. It’s almost too hot, isn’t it? There’s a storm coming, I think, there’s no breeze at al .’
Guy ignored this. ‘Cecily? What’s wrong?’
She smiled. ‘Darling Guy. Nothing. They’re so funny, my parents, that’s al . I don’t understand them. I look at them and I think I don’t real y know them at al . That must sound sil y.’
‘You never sound sil y,’ Guy said, his voice ful of warmth. ‘Trust me.’
‘You’re being nice.’ She turned to him, her face glowing, and Guy was taken aback; she was so beautiful in that moment, her clear coffee-coloured skin covered with a smattering of dark caramel freckles from the sun, her green eyes so dark they were almost black, and the evening breeze ruffling her hair. He caught his breath; the smel of lavender from the bushes next to them was almost intoxicating. She breathed in too, with a shudder. ‘I sometimes think I’m too emotional. Most of the girls at school, they’re quite happy to leave their parents and brothers and sisters behind, for months on end. And their homes. I hate it, you know. I love them and I love it here, it’s awful being away. And then I come back and I forget . . . how things are.’
He was touched. ‘Why don’t you tel them?’
Cecily shrugged her shoulders. ‘Oh, it’s good for me to toughen up, I’m sure. I just – I wish I didn’t feel things so much. Al the time.’
She stared at him. ‘I – I can’t say.’ She gave a little laugh. ‘Oh, Guy, I wish I could. To you of al people, I wish I could. But I can’t.’
‘It’s a good thing, feeling too much, Cecily,’ he said. ‘It means you care . . .’ He touched her bare arm and was surprised when she jumped.
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’
‘You didn’t,’ she said. She caught her lower lip in her teeth, and raised her eyes to his, slowly.
‘God . . .’ Guy heard himself saying. ‘You real y are beautiful, Cecily.’
They stared at each other, blankly, for a moment. He held out his hand – she held hers out too. For a split second their fingers touched, and then she stepped away, hastily, and Guy was left standing by the window, watching her as she picked her way towards her mother. Something strange, fundamental, was shifting within him. He cal ed to her, in a low voice, ‘Cecily—’
But she ignored him.
He did not take his eyes off her until they were cal ed in to dinner.
Louisa linked her arm through Frank’s as they walked towards the dining room.
‘I do hope Daddy isn’t too boring,’ she said in a quiet voice. ‘He can be rather . . . old-fashioned. He’s furious about the Profumo affair, I don’t quite know why. He tends to expound, once he’s had a glass of wine. It’s rather mortifying.’
‘Oh, I’m used to it.’ Frank yawned, and nodded. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Awful y tired. Don’t mind me, Louisa. Not on very good form tonight.’
Louisa squeezed his arm in jokey exasperation. ‘How can you be tired? You had a nap this afternoon while we were al swimming and picking blackberries, didn’t you?’
‘Perhaps that’s the problem,’ Frank said. ‘Oh, too much sleep, I suppose. It’s – I’m much better now, promise.’
She looked up at him. ‘Are you . . . al right, darling?’
‘I am.’ Frank squeezed her arm back. ‘Been on rather subdued form, I’m sorry. I am very al right.’ He kissed the top of her head. ‘Listen, I’ve been rather a brute this holiday, I know. Trying to persuade you to do something you don’t want to. Wil you come for a walk with me, after supper?
Steal away when the grown-ups have gone to bed?’
‘There’s something we need to talk about,’ he said. He took her hand and squeezed it tight and Louisa smiled, her eyes fil ing with tears.
There came voices from next door and suddenly her expression changed.
‘Oh, dear,’ Louisa said. ‘I think I was right.’
‘About what?’ Frank sounded alarmed. ‘Right about Daddy.’
‘Absolute rubbish,’ John James was saying, as they sat down. ‘I tel you, the woman is a common prostitute, nothing more. The men she was associating with. Black men, in Notting Hil . That Edgecombe fel ow, turning up and shooting people. Those are the people Mr Powel is talking about and I for one can’t blame him. What are we coming to? It’s al very wel , and yes, people must be al owed to come into the country, but when they set up enclaves like this . . .’ He waved his wine glass in the air. ‘Whole system starts to go to pot.’
‘What system?’ Miranda was sitting opposite him, in between Guy and Cecily. She was examining her dirty fingernails. She barely raised her voice; it was the disdain in her tone that was most surprising of al . ‘The system of white men oppressing everyone else for hundreds of years? Or the system of raping countries and people so you can make money?’
Al of a sudden, the atmosphere in the room was electric. ‘Miranda –’ Frances said, in a warning tone. ‘There’s coronation chicken and salad,’
Mary said in a bright voice. ‘If that’s al —’
The others were al sitting stil . No one got up. John said, ‘Young lady, you are confusing the argument. It’s a question of how our own great country has been pol uted, is being pol uted, with the question of immigration, with this lax – lax behaviour in public life . . .’ He trailed off, cleared his throat, and then said, ‘With al respect, I don’t think you know what you are talking about.’
‘Of course I don’t,’ Miranda said scornful y. ‘I’m just a girl, what would I know? After al , girls are pretty stupid, aren’t they?’
‘Miranda –’ Cecily hissed desperately, next to her. Her uncle was watching her, imperturbable, one eyebrow slightly raised, cold grey eyes in a thin, sculptured face.
‘I don’t think,’ said Pamela, ‘this is appropriate.’ She turned to her daughter. ‘Louisa, have you been keeping up with your tennis? Frank,’ she said, ‘do you know that Louisa’s tennis instructor says she’s—’
‘No,’ Miranda’s voice cut through, biting and clear. ‘Girls aren’t nearly as clever as boys, of course not. They’re born with fewer brain cel s, did you know that? They can’t drive properly or do science or maths, you know? Al they’re real y good for is . . .’
‘Yes?’ John looked disdainful y at his niece. ‘Do enlighten me, Miranda.’
‘Fucking and cooking,’ Miranda said, standing up and throwing her napkin on her heaped plate, which Mary had just set down. Louisa gasped, and Guy screwed his napkin into his fist. ‘That’s al we’re good for, wouldn’t you say?’ She stopped and looked round then, as if realising there was no turning back, she took a deep breath and ploughed recklessly on. ‘Even someone like me, though, that’s the question? Me, and my sister, and my brother, and my dad, do you real y want us, pol uting the country?’
‘ Miranda! ’ her mother hissed furiously. ‘Miranda, apologise to your uncle!’
‘Oh, don’t you dare talk to me,’ Miranda told Frances, her eyes blazing. ‘You of al people, don’t you dare! You’re the biggest hypocrite of them al , tel ing me what’s best for me, how worthless I am!’ Frances looked as though she’d just been slapped. ‘Yes, we’re in such an honest country too, aren’t we?’ Miranda’s voice shook. ‘Not hypocritical at al , oh, no. Definitely worth preserving the old way of life. Essential.’ Her face was pale; her eyes were huge. ‘I wish Archie were here. He’d say it better. Oh, hang it al .’
She took Cecily’s hand in hers and gripped it. Cecily wriggled away, embarrassed. She could not bear to look up at her sister, as if she were a leper on the street.
Into the stunned silence a voice spoke from the end of the table.
‘No, Cecily, take your sister’s hand,’ Arvind said. ‘Wel said, Miranda,’ he told his eldest daughter. ‘Very wel said. You don’t need to swear, but you are absolutely right in everything else you say.’
Miranda looked from him to her mother, who was looking down at her plate, not meeting anyone’s eye, and then back again at her father, smiling very faintly at him, almost in shock.
‘Wel –’ Pamela began. ‘I must say—’
Frances put her hand over her sister’s. ‘No, Pamela,’ she said. ‘You mustn’t.’ She seemed to be wrestling with something inside herself. ‘This is al wrong,’ she said. She tried to catch Miranda’s eye, but Miranda stared straight ahead.
‘Let us eat,’ Arvind said, lifting to his mouth a huge serving spoon that had ended up on his plate. His authority was, as ever, absolute. ‘We wil not discuss the pol uting of this great nation in my house. We wil give thanks for it instead. Enjoy your coronation chicken curry.’ His expression was grave, but his eyes twinkled.
They ate without noise, in the airless room.
It came to an end for them not long afterwards. The fol owing day, Saturday, was hot and muggy, and over the next few days the winds seemed to drop as the temperature increased.
The atmosphere had changed inside Summercove, too, since Archie was caught peeking, since Miranda’s blow-up with her uncle. The cousins eyed each other with greater suspicion; they fel into their own ranks, only Jeremy on the sidelines. Louisa barely spoke to Miranda or Archie, and was extravagant in her affection for the Bowler Hat, who was himself perfunctory in the repaying of it. Miranda and Archie were together even more. They would barely speak to Cecily, whom they considered to be some kind of pariah. And Cecily – Cecily changed, suddenly, almost overnight. Something had got to her. Whatever it was, she wasn’t the same in the days that fol owed.
On the Tuesday morning, four days after the James’s arrival, the thermometer in the kitchen read 91 degrees, and Mary said it was the hottest she’d known it. At the breakfast table John did what he’d done since he’d arrived, taking first the Express and then The Times and reading them in silence, digesting every last dirty detail of Stephen Ward’s death three days previously and his upcoming funeral, while the others waited, resentful y, for their chance to read, eventual y giving up and going outside to sit in the relative cool of the morning shade.
Arvind had taken to having his breakfast in his study, these last few mornings. Guy had got up early, gone for a long walk, the Bowler Hat said.
No one had seen him. The others drifted outside, one by one, hoping for some relief from the heat.
Pamela passed her napkin delicately over her upper lip. ‘It is extremely close, isn’t it?’ she said to Frances. ‘Too close. I should have thought the breeze from the sea would provide a little relief, but no.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Frances said. She was drumming her fingers anxiously on the table; there were dark circles under her eyes. ‘Perhaps the cloud wil burn off later, you know. It’s stil early.’
‘Hm,’ said Pamela. ‘It’s getting to be unbearable,’ she said, standing up. She nodded at her sister as she left the room.
‘I agree,’ Frances said mirthlessly. She turned to Cecily, who was sitting further down the table by herself. ‘Cec, darling, wil you be ready to start at ten?’
Cecily was picking at her placemat. She looked up. ‘Oh,’ she said, in a smal voice. ‘Of course, Mummy.’
‘You look rather pale, darling. Are you al right?’
‘Ye-yes.’ Cecily stared back down at the bowl. ‘Yes, I’m fine. I didn’t sleep very wel , that’s al . Our room’s awful y hot.’
‘I know, I must do something about it. I’m sorry, darling. The studio wil be baking too, I’m afraid. We could do it in the evening, when it’s cooler.
Why don’t you and Guy go for a swim again?’
‘No. Not Guy.’
‘What’s wrong with Guy?’ Frances stared at her daughter. ‘Cec darling, what on earth’s the matter?’
‘Nothing’s wrong with Guy,’ Cecily said. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it. Let’s just get it over with.’
She looked so wan and sorry for herself that Frances leaned forward and put her hands together. ‘Darling, are you sure you’re al right?’
Cecily looked intently at her mother. ‘Mummy . . .’ she said after a pause. ‘You would love me no matter what I did, wouldn’t you?’
‘Of course I would,’ Frances said. ‘And Miranda, and Archie. You’d stil love us, even if we did something terrible.’ She glanced down, picking strips of raffia off her mat. ‘That’s the way it works, isn’t it? We have to love each other no matter what?’
Frances paused. ‘What’s going on, Cecily?’
Cecily said, ‘Not sure.’ She looked wildly around the room. ‘I’m not sure any more. Everything’s changed.’
Frances turned towards the open door. There was no one there. Out in the garden, Jeremy and Louisa were lying on the grass, The Times spread out like a huge, sand and black coloured towel, in front of them. They were reading intently.
‘What’s going on?’ she said again. ‘Cecily?’
Cecily got up. She took a deep breath. ‘Nothing, Mummy. I’m just being sil y. Look, can I go and brush my teeth and my hair? And write my diary up before that? I’l only be a few minutes.’
‘Of course,’ Frances said. ‘I’l go and set everything up.’ She took something out of the pocket of her embroidered top. It was the ring Arvind had given her, the ring his father had sent over from Lahore after he’d proposed. Cecily loved it. It was her favourite thing, and Frances had even let her take it to school last year. She had her wearing it on a chain around her neck in the painting she was working on. ‘Here, have this.’
Cecily stared at it blankly. ‘What, put it on now, instead of later?’
‘No,’ Frances said. ‘I want you to have it to keep. From me. Because . . . because I want you to.’
‘But it’s yours.’
‘Now it’s yours,’ Frances said. Her eyes fil ed with tears. ‘Why?’ Cecily said. ‘You love it, don’t you? You’ve always said you did.’ Cecily stared at the ring, lying flat on her smal palm. ‘Yes. But why do you want me to have it now?’
‘I just do,’ Frances said. Her voice was thin. ‘I like the idea of you having something of mine, darling, some jewel ery to wear of your own from me. Like a talisman.’ She smiled. ‘Why, you’re practical y a woman these days, it’s time we thought about this kind of thing.’
Cecily didn’t even smile. She just said, ‘Thank you.’ Frances didn’t know what to do next. She came round to her and kissed her daughter’s silky head. ‘I’l see you soon, my darling.’ She added, ‘It’s going to be fine, honestly.’
Cecily paused at the door. ‘Is it?’ she said quietly. ‘I don’t know that it is.’
Frances watched her daughter go. She didn’t know why, but she knew that Cecily had grown up in some way, that the lanky-legged teenager who ran ahead of the others down to the beach, chattering nine to the dozen, had gone for ever.
‘What’s for lunch?’
‘I don’t know.’ Louisa stretched out on the grass. ‘You’re so greedy, Jeremy. It’s too hot to think about that now.’ She turned on her side. ‘Do you know where Miranda and Archie went?’
‘Think they’ve gone off round the cliffs.’
‘They might bump into Guy,’ Louisa said. ‘Gosh, everyone’s in a bad mood today.’ She rol ed her head from side to side. ‘I’m starting to look forward to leaving, you know. Like I’l be glad to get away from here.’
‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ Jeremy said uneasily. ‘Don’t see why.’
Louisa glared at him. ‘You’re the one who said you didn’t like it down here, before the Leightons arrived.’ She chewed a nail. ‘It’s – I don’t know. How’s it ever going to be right again after what Archie did?’ she said pragmatical y. ‘I mean, he could go to prison. And Miranda – what she said to Daddy, I can’t believe she hasn’t been punished for it!’
‘I think Franty and Arvind aren’t such sticklers for dis cipline,’ Jeremy said diplomatical y.
‘Wel , and look where it’s got them,’ Louisa said tartly, but lowering her voice. She looked at her brother. ‘Don’t you think Miranda went too far?
I mean, I think she was awful, and no one’s real y done anything about it.’
‘Er –’ Jeremy said. ‘I think she was a bit rude. But – wel , I think she meant, wel , what she was saying. P’rhaps she didn’t quite say it right.’ He plucked at the lawn. ‘Dad’s a bit outmoded. He doesn’t understand the way things are these days. Or the way things are going, if that makes sense.’
‘I know,’ Louisa said. ‘I mean, we’ve got Indian cousins, we know what it’s like.’
‘Er –’ Jeremy said again. ‘I suppose so . . .’ He looked at his sister. ‘I’m just suspicious of Miranda’s motives, that’s al . Think she had a point to prove rather than moral outrage.’
‘Wel , that’s Miranda, isn’t it?’ Louisa said lightly. She leaned her head back, face held up to the sky. ‘It’s so humid, I can’t even see the sun.
She’s an awful drama queen. And she’s been so much worse, the last few days.’
‘It’s true.’ Jeremy rol ed over. ‘It’s al rather . . .’ His shoulders slumped. ‘I’m a bit tired of her and Archie, to be perfectly honest. Al that sneaking around together and whispering. Odd behaviour. What Guy and Frank make of it al I don’t know. Old Frank’s a sound chap though,’ he added reassuringly.
‘Ye-es.’ Louisa spoke slowly. ‘Yes, he is.’
She didn’t sound overwhelmingly sure and Jeremy was not the type to pry. He was silent, and a few seconds later Louisa said, ‘He’s asked me to marry him.’
‘My goodness!’ Jeremy said. He stood up. ‘Louisa, old girl, that’s wonderful news! Where is he?’ He looked around. ‘I say—!’
Louisa sat up and pul ed him back down. ‘Oh, sit down, Jeremy, you big fool! Shut up a second!’ She gripped his arm. ‘I said no.’
‘What?’ Jeremy’s mouth dropped open, and he appeared lost for the right thing to say. ‘You said no to Frank? Thought you were keen on him.’
‘Yes,’ Louisa said. ‘I was surprised, too. But—’ She rol ed onto her stomach and stared at the grass. ‘I just don’t know if that’s what I want.’
They were both silent for a moment. ‘Real y?’ Jeremy said. ‘Old Frank?’
‘Frank, yes – wel , no—’ Louisa shook her head. ‘I don’t know. He’s been different, these holidays, rather off. But I do think I love him, I suppose. Before they came here, I was so sure.’ She looked at Jeremy, her huge blue eyes wide open. ‘I thought we had an unspoken sort of agreement, that we were to be engaged, even if it wasn’t talked about. And now – I just don’t know any more.’
‘Why?’ Jeremy asked softly. ‘Something Miranda said, if you can believe that. About women, about us and what we can do with our lives. I – I do love Frank, but oh, Jeremy—’ She hit the bal of her palm against her forehead. ‘Can you possibly understand? I don’t know if you can, Jeremy. I think if I marry him, my life wil be over.’
‘Oh, Louisa, come off it.’
She shook her head, smiling, and stood up. ‘You don’t understand, I knew you wouldn’t.’ She put her hand out to reassure him. ‘Don’t worry, it’s me. I have to decide. Go to Cambridge, study hard, get a good job afterwards.’ She brushed her shorts down methodical y.
‘Can’t you do both?’ Jeremy stood up too, looking mystified.
‘I don’t think I can,’ Louisa smiled. ‘I rather feel that if I marry him, my identity, me, it wil be gone.’
Jeremy looked upset. ‘I don’t—’
Louisa put her hand on his. ‘Don’t worry, big brother,’ she said. ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’
As they turned towards the front door, Frances appeared at the bottom of the side staircase.
‘Gosh, it’s hot. Where’s Cecily, do you know?’ she asked. ‘I’ve been waiting for her for ages.’
‘She’s with you,’ Louisa said stupidly. ‘Isn’t she?’
‘No,’ said Frances. ‘She was supposed to be, but she went to brush her teeth and write her diary up. That was half an hour ago. She’s not in her room.’ She stared impatiently across the terrace. ‘Where on earth’s she got to? I know she hates it, but it’s so very nearly done.’
And then there was a scream, and hol ered shouting, from the path towards the sea. ‘Help! Help!’
‘What on earth . . . ?’ Jeremy darted forward. ‘What’s that?’ They ran to the bottom of the terrace. Miranda was running towards them, fol owed by Archie and another figure behind them.
‘Help! Get help! Ambulance!’ she screamed. ‘Get the . . . get the ambulance!’
‘What?’ Louisa said, running towards her cousin. ‘Miranda – what’s wrong?’
Frances stood stock-stil , as if frozen to the spot. ‘It’s Cecily, Cecily.’ Miranda was racing like a madman, her hair whipping round her face. Two circles burnt red on her cheeks. ‘She fel – she stepped back and she slipped . . . Oh, God.’ She stopped and looked up at them imploringly. ‘What have I done?’
‘You didn’t do anything,’ Archie said.
Guy appeared behind them. ‘What’s happened?’ he was shouting as he approached them. ‘I heard screams – who is it? Where’s – where’s Cecily?’
‘I’l get the ambulance,’ Miranda sobbed. ‘Oh . . . Cecily . . . oh, my God.’
‘What?’ Guy stood stil . Sweat ran down his forehead. ‘Cecily?’
Frances was running towards the sea. ‘Where is she?’ She was opening the gate, but Archie stopped her. He put his hand on her arm, blocking her path. ‘No, Mum,’ he said, his face unreadable. ‘I don’t think you should go down there.’
‘Why?’ Frances’s voice broke. ‘Get off me. Why?’
Archie said very quietly, ‘I don’t want you to see her like that.’
They knew, then. As Miranda’s voice came out to them: ‘Yes, Summercove. Parry Lane. It’s the Kapoors. No, dammit, Kah poor. Come quickly!’ Her voice was breaking. ‘Please, hurry up!’
‘I’m going down there,’ Guy said, breaking away and running towards the gate. ‘I’m going . . . she might stil be al right, we have to do something.’
Miranda, emerging from the house, her pale face stained with tears, just looked at him, and then at Archie, and shook her head.
‘What happened?’ Frances said, watching her daughter. ‘What did you do, Miranda?’
Her son tightened his grip around her. ‘Mum. Don’t say that. She didn’t do anything.’
Miranda, who had opened her arms to her mother, let them drop to her side. She looked back at her, and sank onto the stone doorstep like a broken dol .
They brought Cecily’s body back up from the beach late that evening, as the sun was setting and the grey moths were fluttering around the candles they had set outside to light the way, just as the storm broke and it began to rain.
The police came, too, of course: they had to know what happened, had to see where she’d fal en, take measurements and photographs. And what happened, it would seem, is that Archie and Miranda were out walking when they bumped into Cecily, at the end of the path on her way down to the beach. Guy was walking in the opposite direction, towards the cliffs, and he heard raised voices, shouting, and then screaming. Apparently Cecily had turned and slipped, a little of the rock breaking away with her.
She had fal en down the steps, her neck broken in the fal . It had rained the day after the James’s arrival, and even in the height of summer, the steps, cut into the rock and without any sunlight, were often dank and slippery. Arvind and Frances had been advised to get them resurfaced. It was one of those things they’d been meaning to do, but the pair of them – when did they ever do what they were supposed to do?
She should have taken greater care, even Cecily who knew the path, the steps and the beach so wel . She should have been more careful. She should not have died. And though no one said it out loud, and though at the inquest a verdict of accidental death was recorded, it wasn’t enough to silence the rumours that al was not what it seemed, that it wasn’t, in fact, an accident.
There was something in the air that summer, like a poisonous cloud, growing in strength. And when it broke, like the storm that raged al that night after her death, nothing was the same again.The day after Cecily’s funeral, when they had scattered her ashes out to sea (Arvind’s idea), and everyone had gone – the mourners, the rest of the family, a stunned Guy, a teary Louisa – Frances locked her studio door behind her, and went into her bedroom. Arvind was in his study, of course.
It was a dul , wet evening, mid-August. The nights were noticeably earlier. There was a chil in the air, a suggestion for the first time that summer was drawing to a close. She held the key in her hand, staring out of the bedroom window. She gazed at the gazebo where her son and remaining daughter sat, huddled together, looking out to sea. Her eyes narrowed as she watched them; hatred, she told herself it was hatred, squeezed her heart.
‘It’s over,’ Frances said to herself.
She clutched the key tightly and shivered. Then she opened her bedside drawer and dropped the key in, next to the ring she’d taken off Cecily’s damp, cold finger a week ago. She shut the drawer and went downstairs, and sat in the big, empty sitting room until the light faded and she was alone in the dark. Miranda and Archie came in separately, and went to bed. Arvind too. None of them knew what to say to each other, so they didn’t say anything at al .
‘So. Miss Kapoor. Thank you for coming today.’
‘Not at al ,’ I say. ‘I’m as anxious as you are to sort this out?’
Unfortunately, I raise my voice at the end of this sentence so that it sounds as if it’s a question, not an answer.
There is silence from across the grey plastic desk. I wipe my sticky hands on my skirt and I blink wearily; I’ve had not quite four hours’ sleep.
This is good for the sleeper train, where things fal onto the floor as the carriage judders suddenly or drawers fly out as you round a corner, rousing you from your too-light slumbers. But it’s stil not much in the grand scheme of things and I am very tired. I can’t escape the feeling that I’m stil there, lying in a rocking berth. The office in Wimbledon – where my business account manager is located and thus where I have to go if I want to stop the bank cal ing in debt col ectors – is warm and my eyes are heavy. The bump on my head from my Victorian heroine-style fainting fit is stil swol en, and has turned an impressive purple colour during the night. I haven’t been home yet; I’m stil wearing my funeral outfit, ironical y appropriate for today as wel as yesterday.
Yesterday seems like a world away. The pages of Cecily’s diary are stil in my skirt pocket. They make a crumpling sound as I shift in my seat.
Ten pages, that’s al , and then – what? Nothing.
When I climbed wearily off the train this morning, I wondered if I’d dreamed the previous twenty-four hours. It would make more sense, somehow. These scant pages in Cecily’s scrawling, cramped handwriting, al too little an insight. I keep thinking of them al after the funeral, in the living room at Summercove. My family, standing around in knots, not talking to each other. The taxi ride with Octavia, the near-pleasure with which she thought she was tel ing me the truth about my mother. Was she?
I can’t think about it now. I shut my eyes again. Opposite, Clare Lomax, Local Business Manager, stares impassively at me, her hands clasped neatly on the desk. Her suit jacket is slightly too big. It looks like a man’s.
‘So. We’ve been trying to contact you for a while about your overdraft, Miss Kapoor.’
‘Yes.’ I shift my focus back to the present moment. I nod, as though we’re in this together.
‘We’ve become extremely concerned about your ability to sustain a viable business. As you know. That is why we have decided to withdraw your overdraft facility and request immediate repayment of the amount in question.’
‘Yes,’ I say again.
Clare Lomax glances at her sheet. She reads, in a sing-song voice, ‘You are five thousand pounds overdrawn at this time, and you have defaulted twice on repayments for the loan you took out with us last year, also for five thousand pounds. I see you also have considerable debt on your credit card, also held with this bank. And despite several letters requesting repayment we have not been contacted by you with regard to these matters, which is why you’ve left us no other option, I’m afraid, Miss Kapoor.’
‘Yes,’ I say again, stil nodding, so hard now that my neck is starting to hurt. It is such a huge amount, it doesn’t seem real. How has it come to this? What have I been doing? And the answer comes back to me, clear, booming, Octavia’s persistent voice in my ear. Living in a dreamworld.
‘If we look at the company’s bank statements –’ a flick through the sheaf on her desk, before one almond-shaped pearlescent nail smoothly drags the offending sheet of paper into the light – ‘wel , we can see what the problem is. Too many outgoings, not enough incomings. In fact the last payment into the company account was October 2008, for one hundred and thirty-five pounds.’
Bless Cathy. Those were Christmas presents for her mother and her sisters. But I flush with shame that these were the last payments into the account: I am being propped up by friends, by my husband. There have been no website sales since then.
‘Miss Kapoor.’ Clare Lomax shuts the folder with a flourish and puts her fingers under her chin. She stares at me. ‘It’s not good, is it?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘And in the meantime –’ the same nail scratches down a long list – ‘we’ve got payments coming out of the account regularly, driving you further into debt.’ I gaze down. ‘Website hosting . . . three hundred pounds . . . Two hundred pounds to Walsh and Sons, Hatton Garden?’
‘They make tools. Er – pliers and things.’ It’s the truth, yet I sound whol y unconvincing.
‘Right. This payment here, for six hundred and forty-three pounds, in September, to Aurum Accessories.’
‘That was for materials.’
‘What kind of materials?’
My voice sounds high, like a little girl’s. ‘Um . . . gold wire, earring studs and clutches, that kind of thing?’ I try to remember. ‘I’ve got the receipts in my folder here, I’l check.’ I’ve got every single piece of paper I could possibly need, neatly filed away, carried with me to Cornwal and back in preparation for today. I’ve documented the failure of my business meticulously.
‘It’s fine.’ Clare Lomax scribbles something on her pad. ‘Have you thought of using cheaper materials?’
‘What, like string?’ I smile, but there’s a silence and I realise she’s serious.
‘I’m just saying there are some very nice necklaces and bracelets made out of waxy thread and beads. You know, you see them in Accessorize, Oasis. And so forth,’ she adds, pul ing out the ‘th’ of ‘forth’ on her tongue, as if to give weight to it. ‘I’m just saying,’ she repeats. ‘You need to look at some other options, Miss Kapoor.’
‘I don’t make jewel ery like that,’ I explain. ‘I work with metals, enamel, laser cuts mainly, it’s different—’
‘Miss Kapoor.’ Clare Lomax raises her voice slightly and shifts her arms forward and then back into their clasp. I see the flash of a tattoo on her wrist, quickly hidden again by her polyester jacket. I wonder how old she is. ‘We are here today to discuss your business and to work out a way to keep you from going bankrupt, which at the moment is looking likely.’ Her voice is clipped, brisk, precise. ‘You have defaulted on your loan repayments twice. You have refused to respond to us about your overdraft. If you want to avoid a consolidation repayment plan, where we charge you twenty per cent interest and demand repayment of the overdraft beginning now, we need to work out how you can change your working practice so that you don’t accumulate debt.’ She gives a thin smile. ‘Otherwise, you wil have no business. Is that clear?’
I nod. ‘Yes. It’s very clear.’
‘Do you want to change the way things have been?’ She’s staring at me. I sit up straight and meet her gaze. This woman, girl real y, whom I’ve never met before, is cal ing me out, pointing out my flaws in a way no one else has, in a way I could never do. If she can see them, they must be pretty obvious.
I clear my throat. ‘Yes,’ I say softly. ‘What?’ She leans forward. ‘Yes,’ I say again, more loudly. ‘Yes. I real y do want to. I want to change the way it’s been. I don’t want it to go on like this.’
As I hear my voice, soft and tentative, saying these words out loud, it gives me a jolt, and I realise again how true it is. I nod, as if confirming it.
To her, and to myself.
Clare Lomax folds down a smal corner of one of the bank statements in front of her. ‘Right.’ She permits herself a smal smile and I want to smile too. ‘Let’s carry on, then. So – five hundred and fifty pounds paid out in November. To Aird PR Limited. There’s a couple of payments to them last year. Who are they?’
‘It’s a PR firm. I hired them to publicise my jewel ery.’ She looks at me blankly, as wel she might. ‘They’ve worked with a few designers I know.
People who have gone from having a stal or sel ing stuff through just a couple of shops to being featured in magazines, in blogs, so people write about you, look you out at the trade shows, and so on. It helps you to get a name for yourself.’
‘And have they done that for you?’
‘No,’ I admit. ‘Not real y. They got me a mention in the Evening Standard, but they got my website wrong. So I didn’t real y get any uptake from it.’
Clare Lomax says, suddenly kind, ‘You have to ask yourself if your product is right for the general public. If there’s more you can do. We see this al the time with smal businesses.’
Now I’m feeling more confident, I take a deep breath, to try and stick up for myself. ‘Miss Lomax – we’re in a recession. Two years ago I was getting interns to help me, I had orders for shops here and in Japan, the Far East, for fifty necklaces, a hundred bracelets a time. But that’s al gone now.’ I try to sound as though it doesn’t bother me. ‘People are stil buying jewel ery, but not like they used to. And if they are they won’t take a punt on some random girl they’ve never heard of. It’s real y hard.’ I sound as though I’m trying to talk her out of lending me more money.
‘I can see that,’ she says drily. She leans forward, so that a lock of her thin brown hair fal s over her face. ‘But if you’l al ow me to say it, it seems to me you’ve been burying your head in the sand, Miss Kapoor. You’ve failed to keep up the repayments, you’ve not explained what’s happening and why you’re in difficulties, and most importantly you’ve failed to communicate with us despite many attempts on our part. And that makes you a bad risk in my book. You’ve got to face up to it. As it is, you’l probably lose the business if you go on at this rate.’
You’ve got to face up to it. I stare at her, my heart hammering in my chest. ‘Right. Right.’
She says, not unkindly, ‘I just don’t understand why you’ve let it come to this.’ She sounds for a second like a concerned friend. I blink. I can’t stand it if I start to cry. Don’t cry.
I clear my throat noisily and sit up. ‘I don’t understand either,’ I say softly. ‘I’ve had a lot of other shi— stuff going on. And it’s been a hard time.
Loads of my friends are going out of business. But I’m hopeful. I’ve got a new col ection I’ve just finished designing.’
‘Yes,’ I say. This is a lie, but it’s a hopeful lie. ‘I’ve just got to get the cash together to get it made up. And take it to the shows. And I have to start doing the market stal s again. That brings in the money.’
‘I don’t understand why you haven’t been doing that al along,’ Clare Lomax says. ‘According to my notes when you opened the account you were sel ing at a stal at least twice a week, and always Sundays.’
‘I don’t do that any more.’
Why not? Vanity, greed, wanting to spend time with Oli, his jealousy at not having me on Sundays, believing the hype of Joanna, the PR
person I hired, who told me I didn’t need to stand in the cold on a stal next to lots of other jewel ers al vying for attention and space. After the up-and-coming pop star was photographed wearing my necklace the orders started flooding in, and the website was launched a few months later. I listened to them, to Oli and Joanna, when they said I didn’t need to do that any more. And it was expensive – eighty quid a day for the stal , and the Truman Brewery near where I live has too many stal s anyway, and not enough customers, I told myself. I – Oli and I – decided I could live without it, that it’d be a better use of my time to take myself out of that scene, try and move up a level.
I was so wrong. I was wrong about that, about overpaying for the website, about the people I listened to, the way I changed my focus. Ben, in the studio next door, warned me but I didn’t listen.
‘You love the stal , Nat,’ he’d say. ‘You like meeting the people, it keeps you fresh. It’s not good for you, sitting at home or in the studio al day.’
I started trying to become a brand. A brand like the ones Oli promotes. He thinks everyone is their own brand and I’m sure he’s right, but al I can say is, I was better off when everything was simple, when I could sketch in my book, pay the nice old man off Hatton Garden to make up my gold and silver pendants, and sit there in my studio happily making up the necklaces, cutting the chains, choosing the right pair of pliers from my set to bend gold and silver wire, researching suppliers, thinking up new ideas and just trying them out, listening to my iPod, and chatting to Ben and Tania, his girlfriend, who works with him. The trouble is, most of the time I’d prefer to be in their studio with them, instead of on my own. Everything’s OK
when they’re around. There’s a distraction, someone to talk to, instead of sitting alone amidst the accessories and pliers, staring into space, wondering what on earth comes next. It’s so easy to pop next door and ask for a cup of tea, or bring them biscuits.
Ben never seems to mind. He’s one of those open, friendly people who can work in Piccadil y Circus and stil concentrate. He likes chatting and so do I. We like the same humour, the same old films, the same biscuits, we were meant to be office buddies, as we continual y say. I think Tania is not quite so keen on me hanging around like a bad smel al the time while she’s trying to mark up contact sheets or negotiate with a magazine. I think she knows I’m lonely. She wants to tel me to back off and go and do some work. And so I’ve started limiting myself to one knock on the door a day.
When I realise I’ve started thinking about it like that, I suddenly see that I have to control my loneliness – that crying al over Ben when Oli left, while Tania made some tea and went and got Jaffa Cakes (and she is French, so Jaffa Cakes are unfathomable to her, so I appreciated the gesture even more) is something you do once, because it’s a crisis point, not every week, every day.
The new strong confident me looks at Clare Lomax to see if she’d understand this, the mind that has too much time to think. She wouldn’t. I wouldn’t either if someone else explained it to me. It’s as though my life has veered way off track, and although I stil can’t quite see where it began, at least I can recognise this. I put my hands on the desk and take a deep breath.
‘Look, Miss Lomax,’ I say. ‘I have real y screwed up, but I can show you how and why, and how I’m going to change things. I know I’m good at what I do, and I want to work hard. I’ve just taken bad advice, and I know how to fix it.’ I look at her imploringly. ‘Please, please believe me. I’ve ignored you and I’m real y sorry, but I’ve been an idiot, keeping my head in the sand. I’l get the money to repay the default loan payments, I can pay them with my credit card today. But please, please don’t withdraw my overdraft facility. I just need a bit more time, but I’m going to pay it off.’
She narrows her eyes. ‘I am,’ I say. ‘I don’t want it to be like this any more. You need to trust me.’ I smile and I can hear my voice is shaking. ‘I know you’ve got no reason to, but I real y hope you do.’
I sit back in my chair and clutch the papers again.
Clare Lomax sighs. ‘OK, look, there’s a way out of this.’ I hold my breath. ‘You wil have to pay us back a regular amount each month and if you default just once more, that’s it. We’l cal in debt col ectors. You’l have to cut back on your company expenditure. And I see you’re married, right?’
‘The flat is in both your names?’
‘Just my husband’s.’
‘So they can’t take that.’
‘They can’t take what?’
‘You won’t lose your flat.’
My head is spinning. ‘Lose the flat? No, of course we wouldn’t . . . would we?’
She says musingly, ‘Miss Kapoor, I honestly don’t think you realise how serious this is.’
‘I do,’ I say, my voice practical y begging. ‘Absolutely I do.’
‘Your husband’s working?’
‘Yes – yes, he is. But—’
‘You’re lucky,’ she says, pul ing her papers together. ‘You can live off him for a few months while you sort yourself out. We’l draw up a payment schedule for the overdraft too and then work out a new way for you to go forward with the business.’
I nod numbly. Maybe I’l have to, but I don’t like the idea. I want to get back together with Oli, but not because he’l pay for everything. I’d rather lose him, and the business, than feel that I’m taking him back so I can ‘live off him’ the way Clare Lomax suggests. But I don’t say anything. After al , what choice do I have? I’ve got to make this work for myself. I’ve got to change the way things have been. I quiver with purpose, I’m surprised Clare Lomax doesn’t notice.
‘And then we’l ask to see that you’re conducting your business more profitably. So it’s viable.’ She clears her throat. ‘Does that sound like a way forward to you, Miss Kapoor?’ She looks down at her pad. ‘I’m sorry. Is it Mrs Kapoor then?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s Mrs Jones.’ I hate being Mrs Jones, for al the obvious reasons. I shift in my seat again, and the papers in my pocket wrap around my thigh.
‘Oh. Sorry.’ She isn’t real y paying attention. ‘Don’t be,’ I say. ‘It’s fine. So—’
‘I think we’re going to be able to work this out,’ she says, pul ing the keyboard out in front of her and swivel ing round to face the computer. ‘Like I say, Miss Kapoor, things are going to have to change. The question is, are you wil ing to make those changes?’
‘Yes, I am,’ I say, nodding, and this time I hear myself speak and it’s clear, low, confident and I believe what I’m saying, for the first time in ages.
‘I real y am.’
It is a cold day but sunny as I walk down from Liverpool Street towards the studio, hands in my pockets. I’m the other side of the City, heading back to my beloved East London. Pushing past me on either side are bustling City workers in black and grey, enlivened only by the flash of a red tie or the glint of a gold earring. I shiver in the icy wind, walking briskly.
I hug the papers to myself, trying to keep warm. Now I’m out of it, the meeting seems almost funny, it’s so awful. And one thing’s clear: though Clare Lomax and I are not destined to be friends who meet in unlikely circumstances and form a life-long bond, she’s completely right. She could see it. Things need to change. I’l be thirty-one in May. I’m a grownup, for God’s sake.
Five minutes later, I am opening the door of the Petticoat Studios at the bottom of Brick Lane. ‘Studio’ is a euphemistic name for the room I rent. It is basical y an old sixties warehouse that has been roughly divided up into different spaces of different sizes. My aunt Sameena says that when she was over visiting relatives in the seventies, she’d come to Brick Lane and see row upon row of Bangladeshi men asleep on the floors.
They’d wake up in the morning and go to work on a building site nearby, and their beds would be taken by the night-shift workers who’d come back as they were getting up. Now it has exposed brick and steel girders, and Lily the textile designer has stencil ed huge patterns onto the wal behind the erratical y manned reception desk. Being bohemian and cool does not necessarily mean the heating works or the loos flush al the time, I’ve found.
‘Hel o!’ I say to Jamie, one of the two receptionists whose salary is paid for by our extortionate rental fee. Jamie looks up and moves part of her blonde fringe away with her finger. She is wearing a black velveteen hoodie with the hood up, and is flicking through Pop magazine.
‘Hiya, Nat!’ she nods perkily. Jamie is very perky. She’s pretty and sweet and kind, like an East London version of Sophie Dahl. ‘How was the funeral?’
‘Fine,’ I say, reaching into my pigeonhole and pul ing out the post. ‘Wel , you know.’
‘Oh, of course.’ She nods understandingly. ‘It’s real y hard, isn’t it?’
I am in no mood for trite funereal conversations, and I’m in no mood for beautiful sunny Jamie, whom I sometimes want to punch in the mornings, she’s so upbeat. I smile and nod, then trudge up the cold concrete circular stairs and unlock my studio.
It’s only been two days since I was here, but it feels longer. It’s very cold, and the big square windows don’t keep in the heat, though it’s always light. My own studio is about twelve square feet. It’s al painted white. There are floor-to-ceiling shelves next to the window and an alcove with a safe in it, covered with a curtain, a red, lemon and grey geometric fifties material from one of the bedrooms at Summercove. I keep my unsold pieces in there, and any metals I’ve bought. There’s a smal wooden table with an old, battered, paint-spattered radio, a kettle and a few mugs on one of Granny’s old trays, and the rest of the room is taken up with the workbench with al my tools on it. A hammer, pliers, dril s, wire and chain cutters, sharp knives, al covered with tiny pel ets of old copper or gold wire, my apron which makes me feel super-professional, and my sketchbook, where I used to be constantly scribbling down ideas. I haven’t drawn or written anything new in it for months.
Above the work table six big cork tiles are glued to the wal , onto which I have stuck photos – the one of Granny when she was younger; me and Jay at Summercove when we were five, squinting into the sun, both dark, fat, smal and serious; and Ben and me last year when we went as Morecambe and Wise to the Petticoat Studios Christmas drinks. Tania didn’t get it, but as she grew up on the Left Bank that’s excusable. No one else did either, though. Their average ages are about twenty-three. The photo makes me smile every time I look at it; there’s such panic in our eyes as we realise what a mistake we’ve made, and behind us are grouped our effortlessly trendy fel ow studio-renters in a variety of super-cool fancy dress outfits, from Betty Boo (Jamie, of course) to Johnny Depp as Captain Sparrow (Matt, one of the writers in the writers’ col ective in the basement). I never remember that about fancy dress: that you’re supposed to look bril iant, but gorgeous as wel . I always just look insane.
Final y, there’s a picture of Oli and me on our wedding day two years ago at the Chelsea Physic Garden, he in a light khaki summer linen suit, me in white Col ette Dinnigan. We’re in profile, black and white, laughing at each other, and we look for al the world as though we’re in a photo shoot in Hello! . Sometimes, in the middle of the afternoon, I’l glance up from my work and catch sight of that photo, and I’l have to remind myself it’s me. There are clippings from magazines, lots of pins just in case I have ideas for things, a cartoon from Private Eye about artists, and a Sempé cover from the New Yorker which Oli had framed for me on our first wedding anniversary.
I have to cal Oli now I’m back. We need to talk again. It’s been nearly three weeks, and coming back from Cornwal , from everything there and the meeting this morning, has made me see one thing clearly: this state of in-between nothingness can’t go on.
There are window boxes outside with pansies and geraniums which have died. I need to sort them out now spring is nearly here, take a trip to Columbia Road and buy some more. Cheaply, of course. There’s nothing to be frightened of. I can get on with things. I want to channel my new-found, urgent sense of purpose, of the need for action. But stil there’s something stopping me, I don’t know what. It’s more than Oli. It’s Granny’s funeral, it’s what Arvind and Octavia both separately said, this casual crumbling of the wal I’d always thought was around us al . It’s the scant pages of the diary I’ve read, enough to make me want to read more, desperately read more.
Where’s the rest of it? Cecily didn’t just write that first chunk, that much is clear. What happened that summer, after the boys arrived? I’m holding the post in my hand and I feel myself screwing up the letters as I screw up my eyes, trying to think. To go from never hearing her name mentioned, to being able to hear her voice so clearly that it’s almost as though she’s talking just to me, is incredibly strange. To go from thinking that your family is sane and happy, if distant, to realising you don’t real y know anything about them at al – where’s the rest of it? What happened afterwards, with my mother, with her, with al of them? I have to find out, but how? I have to find the diary. And I have to find some way of talking to my mother about it.
I put the post down on the table. The letters fan out by themselves. At least two are from the bank. I can stop ignoring them. There are two more window envelopes, which always means a bil or a reminder. And there’s an invitation to a new trade fair, in June, in Olympia. I’ve been ignoring those for a while too: what’s the point? But now, flushed with enthusiasm, I feel as though anything’s possible. I realise that if I’m ever to make my own business work, I need to start designing again. Come up with a new col ection that’s so amazing I’l be on every fashionista’s blog, sold in Liberty’s in a year and have my own diffusion line in Topshop by next year. But more importantly, get it right. Do it because I love it, not because I have to. So what . . . what col ection? What wil it be?
Then, as if someone else is tel ing me to do it, my hand steals slowly but surely to my neck. I feel the thin chain and Cecily’s ring hanging on it. I walk over to the tiny mirror hanging by the fridge and stare at myself. There are dirty brown circles under my eyes.
The ring nestles against my skin, the almost pink gold soft against my skin. The twisted metal flowers are beautiful. I think about this ring, about Granny, about my dead young aunt. And suddenly, I hear my grandfather’s voice, as his dry fingers push Cecily’s diary towards me: Take it . . . And look after it, guard it carefully. It’ll all be in there.
I take the pages out from my skirt and look at them, wondering what comes next.
‘Nat,’ a voice cal s outside. ‘Hey! I’m early!’
Of course she’s early. It’s Cathy, she’s always early. Quickly, I shove the pages into my bag as Cathy pokes her head round the door.
Cathy is very short; I am tal . It is one of the many differences that brought us closer together, since we were eleven-year-olds negotiating the nightmarish, unforgiving terrain of the al -girls West London grammar school. She is holding up a brown paper bag.
‘I went via Verde’s,’ she says. ‘I bought quiche. Terrible morning. I think I lost someone fifty grand.’ Cathy is an actuary, she works in Bishopsgate, the financial district on the edge of the City which encroaches daily ever further into Spitalfields, bringing glass office blocks and Pret a Mangers into the once-ramshackle, historic streets. ‘I’ve got salad. And cakes. And some real y expensive fruit juice.’ She comes towards me and kisses me on the cheek. ‘How are you, love?’
I lean down and hug her tightly, feeling her cold, silky, thick hair against my skin, her reassuring Cathy smel – I think it’s a combination of Johnson’s baby lotion and Anaïs Anaïs. She’s not one to experiment with new things, our Cathy. If she’s happy with something, she sticks to it. She found Anaïs Anaïs when we were sixteen and she’s worn it ever since. She likes Florida and goes there every winter with her mum, to the same hotel in Miami. If Horrific Ex Boyfriend Martin hadn’t chucked her out and changed the locks three years ago she’d stil be with him, which is worrying to me, as he was a bona fide psychopath. She doesn’t like change.
She sets the bag down on my workbench and pats my hair. ‘I kept thinking about you yesterday. How was it?’
‘It was OK. Awful, but you know what I mean.’ I kick my bag further under the table.
‘What’s that on your head?’ She points to the purple bump on my forehead and frowns. ‘Did you have a fight with someone? Did your mum behave herself? Or did she try and snog the vicar and you got in the way?’
Cathy knows my mother of old. She remembers our parents’ evening of 1991. She actual y saw Mum with Mr Johnson.
‘It’s fine.’ I laugh, though I feel a stab in my side as I think of my mother. I remember how jumpy she was al yesterday, see her distraught face as she remonstrated with Guy, waving me and Octavia goodbye, hear Octavia: ‘ Do you really not know the truth about her? ’
‘Just a bump.’ I don’t want to, can’t, get into that at the moment, not even with Cathy. ‘They’re al pretty mad, my family. You know that.’
‘They are,’ Cathy says briskly. ‘It’s a wonder you’re not a complete mentalist, Nat, I’ve often thought that. Or even more of a mentalist than you are, if you know what I mean.’
‘That’s so kind of you,’ I say. ‘I want to know how you are, though. What’s up with work? Why’s it terrible?’
‘I think my boss hates me. Genuinely hates me.’ Cathy is stil staring at my head. ‘Look, forget about that. How was the meeting this morning?’
There’s a noise in the corridor and my eyes dart to the door. I don’t know why I should care; I’m paranoid about anyone, apart from Cathy and Jay, knowing how stupid I’ve been. Even Oli doesn’t know the ful extent of it. I hid it from him, just as he hid things from me. I don’t want Ben, for example, to walk past and accidental y hear the reality of my idiocy. Why should I care what he and Tania think? I don’t know. But I don’t want him to feel sorry for me. I’m sure he already does, and I wish he didn’t. I don’t want him to know how stupid I am either.
‘Um—’ I put the cutlery and plates on the bench and reach for some napkins which I keep in my apron pocket. ‘It was pretty awful.’
‘No, it’s fine,’ I hasten to explain. ‘I have to find a thousand quid now to pay back the defaulted loan payments. But I can put that on my other credit card.’ Cathy whistles. ‘And I have to pay off the overdraft, two hundred pounds a month plus interest. And they won’t, like, cal the debt col ection agencies in, or the police, or take me to court.’
‘Ha-ha,’ says Cathy. She pul s her ponytail tight with both hands, as though she’s flexing her muscles. ‘Right.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m serious. They were going to.’
‘Jesus,’ she says. She looks genuinely shocked. Cathy has never been in debt, always pays her credit card off each month. She never even gets the ticket gate beeping at her because her Oyster card’s run out. That’s how organised she is. ‘I didn’t realise it was that bad.’ Then she asks awkwardly, ‘How did it – er, how did it get to that stage then?’
‘I know how it got to that stage,’ I say. I gesture to the one chair and give her a plate and fork. ‘I’ve been a fool. Sit down. Eat some of your food.’ I pour her a glass of apple juice into a navy chipped mug that says ‘Tower Hamlets Business Seminars’. ‘Drink.’
Cathy cuts some of the quiche away with her fork. ‘It’s been a hard time for you though, Nat.’
‘Maybe, but it’s my fault. I haven’t been doing it properly,’ I say simply. ‘And I’m fucked as a result. If Granny knew she’d be horrified – she was so proud of me. Man alive.’ I shake my head when I think about Granny now, I think about her in the diary, her impatience with Miranda, her daughter, as though she knew she was a bad seed. Did she know?
No. I shake my head. I have to stop these thoughts, at least til I know more. ‘If she’d had any idea I’d be leaving her funeral early to come back for a business meeting to stop me being taken to court by the bank . . . if she knew how much I’ve screwed it up . . .’ I think of her and how much she loved me, how I felt that love al through my childhood. It’s hard to admit it but I plough on. ‘She’d be so disappointed.’
Cathy is concentrating on her quiche on the plate. She says after a pause, ‘I don’t think she would be.’
I laugh. ‘Bless you. But I think she would. She was real y proud I did fine art at uni. She was so disappointed when I didn’t become an artist, and she was OK with the jewel er thing because she thought it was arty. She didn’t expect me to go bankrupt, did she.’
‘I think you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s real y tough out there at the moment, apart from anything else,’ Cathy says. She swal ows and clears her throat. ‘Not to be rude, but you know, I always thought . . .’ She stops. ‘Actual y, forget it.’
I’m laughing. ‘Come on, Cathy! What?’
‘I always thought she was pretty hard on you too, if you want me to be honest.’
‘Who?’ I don’t understand her. ‘Your granny, Nat.’
I scoff, it’s so unlikely. ‘No, she wasn’t!’
Cathy says slowly, ‘I just remember, when we went to Summercove, the summer after we’d finished our A levels before you went off to col ege, she’d make you paint instead of coming down to the sea with me and Jay, and then she’d critique you. When she hadn’t painted herself for like thirty years, and you were only eighteen!’ She winces, as though she doesn’t like the taste of what she’s saying. ‘I think it was unfair. Like she wanted you to be something your mum wasn’t. Or Archie wasn’t. You know?’
That’s so outlandish I goggle at her. ‘Cathy, it real y wasn’t like that!’ My voice is rising. ‘I wanted to learn from her.’
‘I know, I’m sorry.’ Cathy is a bit red. ‘I just think sometimes she was using you to make up for disappointments in her own life. Please, I didn’t mean anything by it. Forget it. I’m just glad you’ve sorted it out. You have, haven’t you?’
I think of my already huge credit card bil ; I’ve been putting things for the business on that, too, of late, instead of putting them through the account. I am going to be very poor. These last couple of weeks without Oli to split the bil s for food and cabs and toilet rol s have already taken their tol . I nod. ‘I have. It’s going to be tight, but I think I have.’ I touch the ring around my neck. I’m going to start sketching tonight. I take another sip of apple juice and lean forward, patting her arm. I am perched above her on the stool, she is in a low chair, so this is more difficult than it might be. ‘I’m sick of talking about me, though. How’s tricks? Tel me. I haven’t seen you for ages.’
‘Oh, OK.’ Cathy shrugs, so that the shoulder pads in her suit jacket shoot up, almost to her ears. ‘Had another date with Jonathan on Friday.’ I raise my eyebrows.
‘Hey, how was it?’
Just then the door opens and a thick head of hair pokes round. ‘Nat?’
‘Ben!’ I stand up. ‘Hey, come and have some food.’
The hair advances into the room, fol owed by its owner, my neighbour. He looks quizzical y at the meagre quiche, half-eaten, on the table, and the smal salad next to it. ‘No, thanks. I’m on my way out anyway,’ he says, scratching his head. ‘Hi, Cathy. I just came to see how you were doing, Nat.’ He hugs himself. ‘It’s freaking freezing in here.’
Ben is wearing his usual uniform, which is a large wool en sweater. He has an endless supply of them, mostly bought from junk shops or markets, and they are al extremely thick. His hair is curly and long. It bounces when he’s enthusiastic about something. I am glad to see him, as ever. I’m sure I have a Pavlovian response to Ben, because he represents company of some sort during the day, so it’s normal y lovely to see him.
I’m sure if we went on holiday we’d fal out on the first evening. ‘It’l warm up soon, hopeful y,’ I say. ‘Hey, man. Stay and have a cup of tea.’
‘I won’t,’ he says. ‘Just popped by to say hi.’ He looks at me. ‘So you’re doing OK?’
‘I’l come by later,’ I say. ‘It was quite something.’
‘The funeral? Or the meeting?’
‘Oh – both.’
Ben nods. ‘Wel , I’ve got a shoot this afternoon, but I’m not sure when. Knock me up, chuck.’
‘Nice to see you, Cathy,’ he says. ‘Nat – see you later. I want to hear about it.’
I nod, and turn back to Cathy as the door closes. ‘I’m sorry about that. Blithely inviting him in when you’re in the middle of tel ing me about Jonathan. Go on.’
‘He’s so lovely.’ Cathy gazes at the shut door. ‘Who, Ben? He’s got a girlfriend,’ I say. ‘I don’t mean like that.’
‘No, I don’t. He’s just lovely.’ She sighs. ‘Why can’t al men be like him, eh? I don’t get it.’
I think about Ben, who I’ve known vaguely for years because of Jay, and his floppy hair and thick jumpers. I’ve never real y thought about him in that way. ‘He’s adorable. But he’s a bit like a big sheep, don’t you think?’
‘What?’ Cathy laughs. ‘You’re insane. I think he’s real y cute. Those big brown eyes. That smile. He’s got a lovely smile. If he had his hair cut . . .
Wow, he’d be absolutely gorgeous. Pow.’
She mimes an explosion with her hands. I sigh. Cathy has such weird taste in men. ‘Come on. Tel me. I’m sorry. You and Jonathan.’
‘Yes.’ She sighs. ‘It was odd. I don’t get it.’
‘OK, so what happened?’
‘OK. We had a good dinner. Good conversation.’
‘Where did you go?’
‘Kettner’s. I don’t like it there now though, since the makeover. They’ve done it up like a whore’s boudoir. It used to be so great.’
I nod, a shiver running down my body. Kettner’s, in Soho, was our favourite place. Oli and I, I mean: we used to meet there al the time when we lived on opposite sides of the city. Cheap beautiful pizzas and a lovely champagne bar. Chintzy, seaside-hotel decor, old-fashioned service and a pianist playing jazz standards. Now it’s been ‘done up’, the menu’s been changed, and I think it looks awful.
Oli and I went there in November, and had a bad evening. Terrible, in fact. It was our first night out for a while and, to cut a long story short, it began when, during a conversation about the merits of our flat, I used the phrase, ‘because we might want a bigger place some day, if we have children’, and it ended with me leaving the restaurant and taking a very expensive cab al the way home on my own. Oli wasn’t ready for the ‘if we have children’ conversation, you see. Apparently, being married for two years doesn’t mean you’re ready to even talk about it.
‘Kettner’s did used to be so great. But anyway. Did anything happen?’ Ah, did anything happen, possibly the most-asked question in London.
Cathy shifts in her low chair, looking down at the ground, so I can’t see her face. She is bad at the details. ‘Wel , I mean, it was unsatisfactory.’
‘Wel , we had quite a lot to drink. And we kissed, outside Kettner’s. And he lives in Clapham too, so we got a cab home. But it was odd.’ She wrinkles her nose. ‘We got to his and he could have asked me in, and we’re in the back of the cab, you know –’ she mouths the word snogging –
‘and we’re kind of –’ again, she mouths what I think is doing stuff under each other’s clothes, but I don’t want to check and interrupt the flow – ‘And he chucks a twenty-pound note at me and says, Oh, thanks for a lovely evening, and then gets out!’ She’s practical y squeaking in outrage at this.
‘He chucked a twenner at you?’ I say. ‘Like you’re a prostitute and he’s paying you in cash for letting him feel you up?’
‘Exactly!’ she shouts. ‘I mean, I think it was for the cab, but you know – wow, way to make me feel cheap!’
‘Who paid for dinner?’
‘We split.’ There’s a silence. ‘I don’t think that means anything though.’
‘Me neither. What does he do?’
‘He’s a . . . wel . He’s a dancer.’
‘He’s a what?’
She takes a bite of her quiche. ‘He’s a dancer.’
‘What kind of a dancer?’
‘He’s in The Lion King.’
‘He’s a dancer in The Lion King,’ I say. ‘You snogged a dancer in The Lion King.’ I’m nodding. ‘What part does he play in The Lion King?’