In the kitchen at home, there was a plate that Mum bought on holiday in Tenerife with a hand-painted motto: Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
It had never registered with me any more than Dad’s trophy for singing, or the New York snow dome my brother Kevin sent over one Christmas, but that last day of the holiday, I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head.
When I woke up, the inside of the tent was glowing orange, like a pumpkin lantern. I inched the zipper door down carefully so as not to wake Doll, then stuck my face out into dazzling sunlight. The air was still a little bit shivery and I could hear the distant clank of bells. I wrote the word ‘plangent’ in my diary with an asterisk next to it so I could check it in the dictionary when I got home.
The view of Florence from the campsite, all terracotta domes and white marble towers shimmering against a at blue sky, was so like it was supposed to be, I had this strange feeling of sadness, as if I was missing it already.
There were lots of things I wouldn’t miss, like sleeping on the ground – after a few hours, the stones feel like they’re growing into your back – and getting dressed in a space less than three feet high, and walking all the way to the shower block, then remembering you’ve left the toilet roll in the tent. It’s funny how when you get towards the end of a holiday, half of you never wants it to end and the other half is looking forward to the comforts of home.
We’d been Interrailing for a month, down through France, then into Italy, sleeping on stations, drinking beer with Dutch boys on campsites, struggling with sunburn in slow, sticky trains. Doll was into beaches and Bellinis; I was more maps and monuments, but we got along like we always had since we met on the first day at St Cuthbert’s, aged four, and Maria Dolores O’Neill – I was the one who abbreviated it to Doll – asked, ‘Do you want to be my best friend?’
We were different, but we complemented each other. Whenever I said that, Doll always said, ‘You’ve got great skin!’ or ‘I really like those shoes,’ and if I told her it wasn’t that sort of compliment, she’d laugh, and say she knew, but I was never sure she did. You develop a kind of special language with people you’re close to, don’t you?
My memories of the other places we went to that holiday are like postcards: the floodlit amphitheatre in Verona against an ink-dark sky; the azure bay of Naples; the unexpectedly vibrant colours of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but that last, carefree day we spent in Florence, the day before my life changed, I can retrace hour by hour, footstep by footstep almost.
Doll always took much longer than me getting ready in the mornings because she never went out without full make-up even then. I liked having time on my own, especially that morning because it was the day of my A-level results and I was trying to compose myself for hearing if I’d done well enough to get into university.
On the way up to the campsite the previous evening, I’d noticed the floodlit facade of a church high above the road, pretty and incongruous like a jewel box in a forest. In daylight, the basilica was much bigger than I’d imagined, and as I climbed the grand flights of baroque steps towards it, I had the peculiar thought that it would make the perfect setting for a wedding, which was unlike me because I’d never had a proper boyfriend then, let alone pictured myself in a long white dress.
From the terrace at the top, the view was so exhilarating, I felt an irrational urge to cry as I promised myself solemnly – like you do when you’re eighteen – that I would one day return.
There was no one else around, but the heavy wooden door of the church opened when I gave it a push. It was so dark inside after the glare, my eyes took a little time to adjust to the gloom. The air was a few degrees cooler than the heat outside and it had that churchy smell of dust mingling with incense. Alone in God’s house, I was acutely aware of the irreverent flap of my sandals as I walked up the steps to the raised chancel. I was staring at the giant, impassive face of Jesus, praying that my grades were going to be OK, when suddenly, magically, the apse filled with light.
Spinning round, I was startled to see a lanky guy about my own age, standing beside a box on the wall where you could put a coin in to turn the lights on. Damp brown hair swept back from his face, he was even more inappropriately dressed than me, in running shorts, a vest and trainers. There was a moment when we could have smiled at one another, or even said something, but we missed it, as we both self-consciously turned our attention to the huge dome of golden mosaic and the light went out again with a loud clunk, as decisively and unexpectedly as it had come on.
I glanced at my watch in the ensuing dimness, as if to imply that I would like to give the iconic image more serious consideration, perhaps even contribute my own minute of electricity, if I wasn’t already running late. As I reached the door, I heard the clunk again, and, looking up at Christ’s solemn, illuminated features, felt as if I’d disappointed Him.
Doll was fully coiffed and painted by the time I arrived back at the campsite.
‘What was it like?’ she asked.
‘Byzantine, I think,’ I said.
‘Is that good?’
After cappuccinos and custard buns – amazing how even campsite bar snacks are delicious in Italy – we packed up and decided to go straight down into town to the central post office where I could make an international call and get my results so that wouldn’t be hanging over us all day. Even if the news was bad, I wanted to hear it. What I couldn’t deal with was the limbo state of not knowing what the future held for me. So we walked down to the centro storico, with me chattering away about everything except the subject that was preoccupying me.
The fear was so loud in my head when I dialled our number, I felt as if I’d lost the ability to speak.
Mum answered after one ring.
‘Hope’s going to read your results to you,’ she said.
‘Mum!’ I cried, but it was too late.
My little sister Hope was already on the line.
‘Read your results to you,’ she said.
‘Go on then.’
‘A, B, C . . .’ she said slowly, like she was practising her alphabet.
‘Isn’t that marvellous?’ said Mum.
‘You’ve an A for English, B for Art History and C for Religion and Philosophy.’
‘You’re kidding?’ I’d been offered a place at University College London conditional on my getting two Bs and a C, so it was better than I needed.
I ducked my head out of the Perspex dome to give Doll the thumbs-up.
Down the line, Mum was cheering, then Hope joined in. I pictured the two of them standing in the kitchen beside the knick-knack shelf with the plate that said Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Doll’s suggestion for a celebration was to blow all the money we had left on a bottle of spumante at a pavement table on Piazza Signoria. She had more money than me from working part-time in the salon while she was doing her diploma and she had been hankering for another outside table ever since Venice, where we’d inadvertently spent a whole day’s budget on a cappuccino in St Mark’s Square. At eighteen, Doll already had a taste for glamour. But it was only ten o’clock in the morning, and I figured that even if we stretched it out, we would still have hours before our overnight train to Calais, and probably headaches. I’m practical like that.
‘It’s up to you,’ said Doll, disappointed. ‘It’s your celebration.’
There were so many sights I wanted to see: the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Duomo, the Baptistery, Santa Maria Novella . . .
‘You mean churches, don’t you?’ Doll wasn’t going to be fooled by the Italian names.
Both of us were brought up Catholic, but at that point in our lives Doll saw church as something that stopped her having a lie-in on Sunday and I thought it was cool to describe myself as agnostic, although I still found myself quite often praying for things. For me, Italy’s churches were principally places not so much of God but of culture. To be honest, I was pretentious, but I was allowed to be because I was about to become a student.
After leaving our rucksacks in Left Luggage at the station, we did a quick circuit of the Duomo, taking photographs of each other outside the golden Baptistery doors, then navigated a backstreet route towards Santa Croce, stopping at a tiny artisan gelateria that was opening up for the day. Ice cream in the morning satisfied Doll’s craving for decadence. We chose three flavours each from cylindrical tubs arranged behind the glass counter like a giant paintbox.
For me, refreshing mandarin, lemon and pink grapefruit.
‘Too breakfast-y,’ said Doll, indulging herself with marsala, cherry and fondant chocolate, which she described as orgasmic and which sustained her good mood through an hour’s worth of Giotto murals.
The fun thing about looking at art with Doll was her saying things like, ‘He wasn’t very good at feet, was he?’ but when we emerged from the church, I could tell she’d had enough culture and the midday city heat felt oppressive, so I suggested we take a bus to the ancient hill town of Fiesole, which I had read about in the Rough Guide. It was a relief to stand by the bus window, getting the movement of air on our faces.
Fiesole’s main square was stunningly peaceful after Florence’s packed streets.
‘Let’s have a celebratory menu turistico,’ I said, deciding to splurge the last little bit of money I’d been saving in case of emergencies.
We sat on the terrace of the restaurant, with Florence a miniature city in the distance, like the backdrop to a Leonardo painting.
‘Any educational activities planned for this afternoon?’ Doll asked, dabbing the corners of her mouth after demolishing a bowl of spaghetti pomodoro.
‘There is a Roman theatre,’ I admitted. ‘But I’m fine going round on my own, honest . . .’
‘Those bloody Romans got everywhere, didn’t they?’ said Doll, but she was happy enough to follow me there.
We were the only people visiting the site. Doll lay sunbathing on a stone tier of seats as I explored. She sat up and started clapping when I found my way onto the stage. I took a bow.
‘Say something!’ Doll called.
‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!’ I shouted.
‘More!’ shouted Doll, getting out her camera.
‘Can’t remember any more!’
I jumped down from the stage and made my way up the steep steps.
‘Shall I take a picture of you?’
‘Let’s get one with both of us.’
With the camera positioned three steps up, Doll reckoned she could get us in the frame against the backdrop of Tuscan hills.
‘What’s the Italian for cheese?’ she asked, setting the timer, before scurrying down to stand next to me for the click of the shutter.
In my photograph album, it looks like we are blowing kisses at the camera. The self-stick stuff has gone all yellow now, and the plastic covering is brittle, but the colours – white stone, blue sky, black-green cypresses – are just as sharp as I remember.
With invisible crickets chattering in the trees around us, we waited for the bus back to Florence in uncharacteristic silence.
Doll finally revealed what was on her mind. ‘Do you think we’ll still be friends?’
‘What do you mean?’ I pretended not to know what she was asking.
‘When you’re at university with people who know about books and history and stuff . . .’
‘Don’t be daft,’ I said confidently, but the treacherous thought had already crossed my mind that next year I would probably be holidaying with people who would want to look at the small collection of painted Greek vases in the site museum, or enjoy comparing the work of Michelangelo and Donatello, and the other Ninja Turtles (as Doll referred to them).
Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
There was a little twist of excitement and fear in my tummy whenever I allowed myself to think about the future.
Back in Florence, we made a small detour for another ice cream. Doll couldn’t resist the chocolate again, this time with melon, and I selected pear which tasted like the essence of a hundred perfectly ripe Williams, with raspberry, as sharp and sweet as a childhood memory of summer.
The Ponte Vecchio was a little quieter than it had been at the start of the day, allowing us to look in the windows of the tiny jewellery shops. When Doll spotted a silver charm bracelet that was much cheaper than the rest of the merchandise, we ducked through the door and squeezed inside.
The proprietor held up the delicate chain with miniature replicas of the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, a Chianti bottle and Michelangelo’s David.
‘Is for child,’ he said.
‘Why don’t I buy it for Hope?’ Doll said, eager to find a reason to spend the rest of her money.
We were probably imagining, as we watched the man arrange the bracelet on tissue in a small cardboard box stamped with gold fleurs-de-lys, that this would be something my sister would keep safely in a special place and that, from time to time, we would all unwrap it together and gaze upon it reverently, like a precious heirloom.
Outside, the light had deserted the ancient buildings and the noise of the city had softened. The mellow jazz riff of a busker’s clarinet wafted on the balmy air. At the centre of the bridge, we waited for a gap in the crowd so we could take photos of each other against the fading golden sky. It was weird to think of all the mantelpieces we would appear on in the background to other people’s photos, from Tokyo to Tennessee.
‘I’ve got two shots left,’ Doll announced.
Scanning the crowd, my eyes settled on a face that was somehow familiar, but which I only managed to place when he frowned with confusion as I smiled at him. It was the boy I’d seen in San Miniato al Monte that morning. There was a reddish tinge to his hair in the last rays of sunshine, and he was now wearing a khaki polo shirt and chinos, and standing awkwardly beside a middle-aged couple who looked like they might be his parents.
I held the camera out to him. ‘Would you mind?’
The perplexed look made me wonder if he was English, then, his pale, freckly complexion flushing with embarrassment, he said, ‘Not at all!’ in a voice Mum would have called ‘nicely spoken’.
‘Formaggio!’ Doll and I chorused.
In the photo, our eyes are closed, laughing at our own joke.
With a six-berth couchette to ourselves, we lay on the bottom bunks, passing a bottle of red wine between us and going over our memories of the holiday as the train trundled through the night. For me, it was views and sights.
‘Remember the flowers on the Spanish Steps?’
‘Were you even on the same holiday?’
For Doll, it was men.
‘Remember that waiter’s face in Piazza Navona when I said I liked eating fish?’
We now understood that the phrase had another meaning in Italian.
‘Best meal?’ said Doll.
‘Prosciutto and peaches from the street market in Bologna. You?’
‘That oniony anchovy pizza thing in Nice was delish . . .’
‘Pissaladière,’ I said.
‘Capri,’ said Doll. ‘You?’
‘I think today.’
‘Best . . . ?’
Doll drifted off, but I couldn’t sleep. Whenever I closed my eyes, I found myself in the little room I had reserved in the university halls of residence which, until now, I hadn’t allowed my imagination to inhabit, excitedly placing my possessions on the shelves, my duvet cover on the bed, and Blu-Tacking up my new poster of Botticelli’s Primavera which was rolling gently from side to side on the luggage rack above me. Which floor would I be on? Would I have a view over rooftops towards the Telecom Tower, like the one they’d shown us on Open Day? Or would I be on the street side of the building, with the tops of red double-decker buses crawling past my window and sudden shrieks of police sirens that made it feel like being in a movie?
The air in the compartment grew chilly as the train started its climb through the Alps. I covered Doll with her fleece. She murmured her thanks but did not wake, and I was glad because it felt special to have private time to myself, just me and my plans, travelling from one stage of my life to the next.
I must have fallen asleep in the small hours. I awoke with the rattle of a breakfast trolley. Doll was staring dismally at viscous raindrops chasing each other down the window as the train sped across the at fields of Northern France.
‘I’d forgotten about weather,’ she said, handing me a plastic cup of sour coffee and a cellophane-wrapped croissant.
It wasn’t that I was expecting bunting, or neighbours lining the street to welcome me back, but as I walked up Conifer Road after leaving Doll outside her house on Laburnum Drive, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that everything was exactly the same. Our council estate was built in the late sixties. It was probably the height of modernity then with its regular rectangular houses half pale brick, half white render, and communal lawns instead of front gardens. All the streets were named after trees, but apart from a few spindly flowering cherries, nobody had bothered to plant any. Some of the right-to-buy households had added a glazed porch at the front, or a UPVC conservatory to the through-room downstairs, but the houses all still looked like the little boxes in that song. With a month’s distance, it was clear to me that I had outgrown the place.
Mum only had a rough idea of when I’d be getting back, but I was still slightly surprised that she and Hope were not positioned by the window or even sitting on the front lawn, waiting for me. It was a lovely evening. Maybe Mum had filled the paddling pool in the back garden? Perhaps there was too much splashing for them to hear the bell?
Eventually, a small, familiar shape appeared on the other side of the frosted glass.
‘Who’s there?’ Hope called.
‘It’s me!’ she shouted.
It was never quite clear whether Hope was playing games or being pedantic.
‘It’s Tree!’ I said. ‘Come on, Hope, open the door!’
I could tell Mum was responding from somewhere in the house but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
Hope knelt down to speak through the letter box at the bottom of the front door. ‘I get chair from kitchen.’
‘Use the one in the hall,’ I instructed through the letter box.
‘Mum said kitchen!’
‘OK, OK . . .’
Why didn’t Mum come down herself? I was suddenly weary and irritable.
Eventually, Hope managed to open the door.
‘Where is Mum?’ I asked. The house was slightly chilly inside and there was no warm smell of dinner on the air.
‘Just getting up,’ said Hope.
‘Is she poorly?’
‘Dad not home yet?’
‘Pub, I ’spect,’ said Hope.
I manoeuvred my rucksack off my back, then Mum was at the top of the stairs, but instead of rushing down delighted to see me, she picked her way carefully, holding the banister. I put it down to the slippers she had on under the washed-out pink tracksuit she wore for her aerobics class. She seemed distant, almost cross, and wouldn’t catch my eye as she filled a kettle at the sink.
I looked at my watch. It was after eight o’clock. I’d forgotten it stayed lighter in the evenings in England. I started to think I should have found a phone box and rung home after getting off the ferry, but that didn’t seem a serious enough offence for Mum to give me the silent treatment.
I noticed Mum’s hair was unbrushed at the back. She had been in bed when I arrived. Just tired, Hope had said. She’d had four weeks of coping on her own.
‘I can do that,’ I offered, taking the kettle from her.
I felt the first whisper of alarm when I noticed the collection of dirty mugs in the kitchen sink. Mum must really be exhausted, because she always kept the place spotless.
‘Where’s Dad?’ I asked.
‘Down the pub, I expect,’ said Mum.
‘Why don’t you go back upstairs and I’ll bring you a cup?’
To my surprise, because nothing was ever too much trouble for Mum, she said, ‘All right,’ then added, as if she’d only just remembered I’d been away, ‘How was your holiday?’
‘Great! It was great!’
My face was aching with smiling at her and not getting anything back.
She was already on her way back upstairs.
When I took the tea up, my parents’ bedroom door was open and I caught a glimpse of Mum’s reflection in the dressing- table mirror before I entered the room. You know how sometimes you see people differently when they’re not aware you’re looking at them? She was lying with her eyes closed, as if some vital essence had drained from her, leaving her insubstantial, like an echo of herself. For a couple of seconds I stared, and then she stirred, suddenly noticing me standing there.
Her eyes, bright with anxiety, locked on mine, telegraphing, Don’t ask in front of Hope. Then, seeing I was alone, closed again, relieved.
‘Let’s sit you up,’ I said.
She leaned against me as I plumped up the pillows behind her, and her body felt light and fragile. Half an hour before, I’d been walking up the Crescent, hating how familiar and ordinary it was, and now everything was shifting around me like an earthquake and I desperately wanted it to go back to normal.
‘I’m poorly, Tess,’ she said, in answer to the question I was too scared to ask.
I waited for her to say, ‘It’s OK, though, because . . .’ But she didn’t.
‘What sort of poorly?’ I asked, giddy with panic.
Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was pregnant with Hope. She hadn’t had the chemo until after Hope was born, but she’d recovered. She’d had to go regularly for a check-up but the last one, just a few months ago, had been clear.
‘I’ve got cancer of the ovary and it’s spread to my liver,’ she said. ‘I should have gone to the doctor before, but I thought it was a bit of indigestion.’
Downstairs, Hope was singing a familiar tune, but I couldn’t work out what it was.
My brain was trying to picture Mum before I left. A bit tired, perhaps, and worried, I’d thought because of my exams. She was always there for me: in the kitchen at breakfast time, keeping Hope quiet as I raced through my notes; and when I came home, with a cup of tea and a listening ear if I wanted to talk, or if I didn’t, just pottering around washing up or chopping vegetables, a quietly supportive presence.
How could I have been so selfish that I didn’t notice? How could I have even gone on holiday?
‘There was nothing you could do,’ Mum said, reading my thoughts.
‘But you were fine at your last scan!’
‘That was in my breast.’
‘And they don’t check the rest of you?’
Mum put a finger to her lips.
Hope was on her way upstairs. The nursery rhyme was ‘Goosey Goosey Gander’, except she was singing ‘Juicy Juicy Gander’.
‘Upstairs, downstairs, in my lady chamber . . .’
We forced ourselves to smile as she came into the room.
‘I’m hungry,’ she said.
‘OK!’ I jumped up from the bed. ‘I’ll make your tea.’
If I’d needed further evidence how bad things were, it was the empty fridge. Although there was never a lot of money in our family, there was always food. I felt suddenly angry with my father. In our house the division of labour was very traditional: Dad was the breadwinner, Mum was the homemaker, but surely he could have stirred himself in these circumstances? I pictured him in the pub milking the self-pity, with his mates buying him pints. Dad was always moaning about the hand life had dealt him.
I found a can of Heinz spaghetti in the cupboard and put a slice of bread in the toaster.
Hope was staring at me, but my mind was so full with trying to take it all in, I couldn’t think of anything to say to her.
The spaghetti began to bubble on the stove.
I slopped it onto the piece of toast, recalling the bowl of perfectly al-dente pasta we’d eaten in Fiesole the day before, with a sauce that tasted of a thousand tomatoes in one spoonful, and Florence in the distance, the backdrop to a Leonardo painting, so far away now, it felt like another life.
The dictionary confirmed that ‘plangent’ means resonant and mournful. It comes from the Latin plangere: to beat the breast in grief.
I took up distance running after my brother died because it was an acceptable way of being alone. Other people’s concern was almost the most difficult thing to deal with. If I said I was OK, they looked at me as if I was in denial; if I admitted I was finding things pretty difficult, there was no way for them to make it better. When I said I was training for a charity half-marathon to raise money for people with sports injuries, people nodded, satisfied, because Ross had been killed in a skiing accident, so it made sense.
At optimum speed, the rhythmic pounding of shoe on road delivered a kind of oblivion that had become addictive. It was what made me get out of bed every morning, even on holiday, although in Florence, the uneven cobbles and sudden, astonishing encounters with beauty, made it difficult to maintain a pace that made me forget where or who I was.
On the last day of the holiday, I ran along the Arno at dawn, crossing the river in alternate directions at each bridge, then looping back on myself to mirror the route, with the pale gleam of the sun in my eyes one way and its warmth on my back the other. With only an occasional road-sweeper for company, it felt as if I owned the place, or, perhaps, that it owned me. At the level of cardiovascular exertion that freed ideas to float across my mind, it occurred to me that I could come back to Florence one day, even live here, if I wanted. In this historic city, I could be a person with no history, the person I wanted to be, whoever that was. At eighteen, the thought was a revelation.
On my third crossing of the Ponte Vecchio, I slowed to a walking pace to cool down. There was no one else around. The glittering goldsmiths’ wares were hidden behind sturdy wooden boards. There was nothing to indicate that I hadn’t been transported back in time five hundred years. Yet somehow it felt less real than it had the previous evening, heaving with tourists. Like a deserted film set.
I suppose I’d hoped to find the girl there again. Not that I’d have known what to say to her any more than I had on the first two occasions. Handing back the camera, I hadn’t even been brave enough to make eye contact, then, given a third chance, I’d blown that too.
Standing in the queue for ice cream beside the bridge, I’d felt a tap on my shoulder, and there she was again, smiling as if we’d known each other all our lives and were about to go on some amazing adventure together.
‘There’s this brilliant gelato place just down Via dei Neri where you can get about six for the price of one here!’ she informed me.
‘I don’t think I could manage six!’
My attempt at wit had come out sounding pompous and dismissive. I wasn’t very practised at talking to girls.
‘Honest to God, you would from this place!’
Why don’t you show me where it is? Great! Let’s go there! None of the responses I’d like to have given had been available with my parents standing right beside me. Instead, I’d stared at her like a moron, with sentences jostling for position in my head as her smile faded from sparkling to slightly perplexed before she hurried off to catch up with her friend.
On the north side of the river, Florence was beginning to wake up to the mechanical clatter of shutters as bars opened up for the day. As I entered the Duomo square, the sun’s rays lit up the cassata stripes of the Campanile and the air was suddenly full of bells. Florence was a kind of heaven on earth and I thought it would be impossible to be unhappy living here.
I joined my parents in the lobby of our hotel on their way in to breakfast.
‘The loneliness of the long-distance runner!’ my father remarked.
It was what he always said when he saw me after a run, as if it meant something, when it was actually just the title of a film he’d seen in his youth.
I always felt prickly with my parents, like a Pavlovian reaction to their company.
I knew, from overhearing conversations at school, that a proper Tuscan holiday meant renting a villa with a pool, if you didn’t actually own one yourself, surrounded by olive groves and views of rolling hills. My father had instead booked us into this expensive hotel in the centre of Florence. I was never sure how the done thing got established, but I was aware from quite an early age that there was a done thing and that my father often got it slightly wrong. Not having been to a private school himself, but now able to afford to send his sons to one, he would turn up to sports days wearing a blazer and tie, whereas the cool dads, who went to the Cannes film festival, or held offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, wore jeans, polo shirts and loafers with no socks, as if vying for a most-casually- dressed award. As a liberal-minded sixth-former, I upheld the right of anyone to dress as they wished; as his son, I was mortified.
‘Who on earth wants cheese at this time in the morning?’
My father inspected the buffet table. He was the sort of man who made loud statements, as if inviting the room to agree with him.
‘I think it’s what Germans eat.’ My mother spoke in a low voice so as not to be overheard.
‘You never hear about the German rates of colonic cancer, do you?’ Dad mused. ‘All that smoked sausage too . . .’
‘Where are you off to today?’ I asked, as we returned to the table with laden plates.
Included in the price of the Treasures of Tuscany package were excursions to the other principal tourist cities of the region. Since having to stop the coach twice to throw up on the first trip to Assisi, I now spent the days in Florence alone, visiting the galleries and churches at my own pace, enjoying the wonderful feeling of weightlessness that came from getting away from my parents.
‘Pisa,’ my father said.
As someone who didn’t quite believe in travel-sickness, he couldn’t disguise his irritation at my failure to get full value from the holiday and the tour company’s refusal to refund a proportion of the cost.
The city centre was filling with groups of tourists following dutifully behind the raised umbrellas of their guides, but it was easy enough to peel away down a shadowy side street. I’d walked so much in the past week, I had the map of Florence in my head. The covered market near San Lorenzo, its cool air infused with the smoky scent of delicatessen, was my first daily pilgrimage. Some of the stallholders recognized me now. At the fruit stall, the old man’s practised thumb roamed over a pyramid of peaches to select a perfectly ripe fruit. At the salumeria, the friendly mamma paid serious attention to my search for a filling for my single bread roll, offering little slivers of different salamis for me to taste or sniff like fine wine. As it was my last day, I treated myself to un’etto of expensive San Daniele prosciutto. She carefully arranged the wafer-thin translucent slices in overlapping layers on a sheet of shiny paper.
‘Ultimo giorno,’ I told her, attempting a few Italian words. It’s my last day.
‘Ma ritorno,’ I added – but I’ll come back – as if voicing it would make my intention more real.
I had bought a sketchbook, covered in hand-printed Florentine paper, to take with me to the art galleries because drawing made me look more closely at the paintings and feel less self-conscious about it. Art had always been my best subject at school, if you considered it a subject, which my father didn’t. The more I studied the art in Florence, the more I wished that I had summoned the courage to apply for Art History at university. It wasn’t just the skilful application of paint to canvas or fresco, it was what the artist was thinking that fascinated me. Did they believe in the religious stories they made so human, with saints and apostles dressed like Florentine burghers, or were they just doing it to make a living?
I’d been steered towards Medicine, because it was ‘in the family’, as my sixth-form tutor put it, as if it was some kind of genetic mutation. As everyone always said, I could look at pictures in my spare time. Now, inspired by this city where art and science had flourished side by side, I wondered if there was even a way of combining the two. Perhaps I would come back to the Uffizi one day as a visiting professor in Anatomy? At least as a doctor, I’d have the means to return. There was no money in Art, my father always said. ‘Even Van Gogh couldn’t make a living out of it!’
I ate my panino sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, occasionally tapping my foot to the music of a guitar-playing busker to make it look as if I was doing something. Time on my own seemed to pass very slowly and I was pathetically shy about striking up conversations with strangers. I wondered if I’d have been any better at it if my friend Marcus had been there. We were supposed to be Interrailing together, but he’d got off with a girl from our sister school at the end of school prom, and had naturally chosen sex in Ibiza over trailing round Europe with me. Neither of us had any real experience with girls and I think had both assumed that sex was something that wouldn’t happen until university, so I had a grudging admiration for Marcus, but it had left me with the unwelcome decision to cancel our holiday or go it alone.
Around the same time, one of my father’s patients, who’d broken a crown on a slice of panforte, expressed astonishment that my father had never been to Tuscany. The inferred criticism had stung Dad into action.
‘What do you think?’ he’d asked, pushing a brochure across the kitchen table one morning, as I was shovelling down cereal before cycling to my summer job at our town’s new gastropub.
‘Great idea!’ It had been good to see him focusing on a plan again.
‘Want to join us?’
‘Really?’ Somehow, through a mouthful of Weetabix, I made dread sound like surprised enthusiasm.
Being a dentist, Dad never expected much more than a slight nod in answer to his questions, so, by the time I arrived back from work, the holiday had been booked and paid for.
I’d told myself that it would be churlish not to accept my parents’ generosity, but the truth was, I was a wuss.
Scanning the crowds of tourists taking photos with the replica statue of Michelangelo’s David, I began to wonder if I would actually recognize the girl if I saw her again. She was tall, and her hair was longish and brownish, I thought. There wasn’t anything particularly memorable about her features, except that when she smiled her face was suddenly full of mischief and intimacy, as if there was a thrilling secret that only she knew and was about to share only with you.
Via dei Neri was a narrow street winding towards the Piazza Santa Croce and I missed the gelateria on the way down. It was just a single door with a dark interior. For my first cone, I chose nocciola and limone, because that was what the Italian man in front of me ordered, the delicious creaminess of the hazelnut perfectly complemented by the refreshing citrus tang. I walked back down to Santa Croce eating it, then returned and ordered another, pistachio and melon, and loitered in the cool shade of the shop, glancing at each new customer in the hope of seeing the girl again.
In the heat of the afternoon, I made my way through the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens. The numbers of tourists dwindled the higher I climbed, and, on the top terrace, I found myself completely alone beside the ornamental lake. The sun was still very hot but invisible now behind a veil of humidity that muted the view of the city like the varnish of age over an old master. Distant thunder rolled around the hills and the air was thick with imminent rain. Opening my sketchbook, I recorded the smudgy outline of the Duomo.
Suddenly, a bright beam of light broke through the unnatural yellowish twilight, giving surreal definition to the trimmed box hedges, lighting up the greenish-blue water. As I raised my camera, a white heron, which I had perceived as a static element of the ornate marble fountain in the centre of the lake, took off, startling me. It flew across the water, the flapping of its wings the only sound or movement in the still air.
It occurred to me that I had not given Ross a thought since breakfast.
For a moment, I saw my brother’s face glancing back at me through a cloud of thickly falling snow, his teeth white, the flakes settling on his dark, swept-back hair, his eyes hidden behind mirror ski goggles.
A fat raindrop splattered my drawing. I closed the pad and stood for a few moments with my face tilted towards the sky, enjoying a warm drenching, until a splinter of lightning reminded me that I was one of the tallest objects around, and should probably take cover. As I skeltered down the suddenly slippery marble steps, hordes of tourists were emerging from the gardens, shiny guidebooks held over their heads.
There was a feeling of camaraderie as we stood crowded together in the scant shelter of the Pitti Palace walls, one or other of us occasionally extending a bare arm to test the heaviness of the downpour and judge whether to make a dash for it or wait.
Beside me, three American girls about my age, with cumbersome rucksacks on their backs, were consulting their guidebook, trying to work out how to get to the campsite. I knew the route, having passed it on my way to Piazzale Michelangelo on my run the previous morning, but wasn’t sure whether it would be polite or intrusive to show them. One of them was very pretty. I could feel myself going red even before I spoke.
‘I couldn’t help overhearing. Can I help?’
My voice sounded as if it were coming from another person, initially croaky, then far too loud and public school.
‘You’re English, aren’t you?’ the pretty one said. ‘Your accent’s SO cute!’
‘Are you camping too?’
‘No. I’m in a hotel,’ I confessed, unable to think of anything cooler to say quickly enough.
‘Why don’t we all go for an aperitivo?’ the loud one suggested.
‘Actually, I’m meeting my parents for dinner.’
With the rain easing, I set off in a hurry, convinced they were laughing at me. Ross would have known exactly how to behave. Was charm something you were born with, or just a matter of practice?
The storm had driven the crowds from the Ponte Vecchio. I paused for a last look at the view, but the hills beyond the city walls were shrouded in low cloud and the green-and-white striped facade of San Miniato al Monte which I could see floodlit at night from the pool on the roof of the hotel had disappeared.
The essential experiences for every visitor to Tuscany were listed at the front of the complimentary full-colour guidebook that had thumped through our letter box in a stiff white envelope with our tickets. Each evening, when we convened for dinner, my father recapped the day’s activities, counting the completed targets on his fingers, like a conscientious Cub Scout ticking off badges achieved.
• SAN GIMIGNANO’S COBBLED STREETS?
• TUSCANY’S TALLEST TOWER?
• GIOTTO’S FAMOUS FRESCO CYCLE OF THE LIFE OF SAN FRANCESCO?
Seen. (And that was enough religious paintings to last a lifetime!)
• THE EXCITEMENT OF THUNDERING HORSES’ HOOVES IN SIENA’S PALIO SQUARE?
Available only on two specific days of the year.
• A RELAXING APERITIF ON THE FAMOUS FAN-SHAPED PIAZZA? Consumed, despite the extortionate price of a gin and tonic.
‘How was Pisa?’ I asked that evening, as we waited for menus in an expensive restaurant with beams and bare brick walls that gave it the feel of a medieval banqueting hall.
‘Bigger than you’d think.’ My father put on his reading specs although he already knew exactly what he was going to choose.
‘The Leaning Tower was smaller than I thought it would be,’ my mother said.
‘They should sort out their queuing system,’ my father announced, from which I gathered that they had not been able to climb the monument, and could not therefore deem it a mission accomplished.
- THE LEANING TOWER OF PISA.
Photographed but unclimbed.
It was not an entirely satisfactory conclusion to the holiday.
‘There are lots of other buildings,’ said my mother.
‘Cathedral and whatnot. Jam-packed with tourists, obviously.’
Nothing in their description gave me a reason to say that I’d like to go one day, and if I had, it would only have reminded my father of the wasted place on the coach, so I said nothing.
‘Ah, yes, buona sera to you too,’ said my father when the waiter arrived to take our order. ‘We’re going to have the Florentine beefsteak.’
The best place to sample this ‘most famous typical dish’ had been a project from the start of the holiday. Dad had sought the advice of the driver who met us at the airport on our first night and all the receptionists at the hotel. We were now sitting in the restaurant recommended by a majority of five to one.
Priced by the kilo, a bistecca alla Fiorentina was not just a meal, it was a spectacle performed on a raised platform within the dining area of the restaurant. First the rib of beef was held aloft by a chef in a tall white hat; a large knife was sharpened with swift, dramatic strokes; then a very thick slice of meat, a chop for a giant, was severed and weighed before being placed on a trolley and wheeled over to the table for approval. My father swelled with satisfaction as the other tables oohed and aahed obligingly at each stage of the ritual. I didn’t begrudge him this small pleasure, but my insides squirmed with embarrassment.
‘What did you get up to?’ my father asked, as the meat was trolleyed off to the kitchen and we had to talk to each other again.
‘Walking, mainly. I went to the Boboli Gardens.’
‘I saw this heron, actually.’
‘Heron? We’re too far inland, aren’t we? Sure it wasn’t a stork?’ said my father.
‘It was kind of weird, because I thought it was part of the statue at first, then it just took off, as if the stone had come alive.’
My parents exchanged glances. ‘Fey’ was the word my mother sometimes used to describe me. ‘Airy-fairy’ or ‘arty-farty’ were my father’s expressions. In the shorthand descriptions that parents give to their children, I was the one with my head in the clouds.
I made the mistake of extemporizing.
‘It was the sort of thing that might make you think you’d seen a vision, you know . . . I mean, maybe all those visions of St Francis actually have a neurological explanation? Maybe there was something different about his brain . . .’
I realized, too late, that ‘brain’ was one of the words we didn’t say any more. Certain words triggered inevitable associations. Over the last few months our family’s spoken vocabulary had shrunk dramatically.
Now my parents were both staring into the middle distance.
My carelessness had got them thinking about the side of Ross’s head, the thickness of the bandage unable to disguise the fact that there was a bit missing.
Had some of my brother’s brain spilled out into the snow? I wondered. Had the rescue party covered it up with more snow? And when the snow melted in the spring, were there still fragments of skull on the mountain?
If this holiday was an attempt to move on, it hadn’t been a great success. The last time we were on holiday, Ross was with us. A winter holiday, so very different from the sticky heat of Florence, but a family holiday nonetheless. When you remember holidays you think about the sights and the weather, but somehow you always forget the confinement of being together, meal after meal. Ross used to dominate the conversation, bantering with my father and joshing me while my mother gazed at him adoringly. Now, his absence made him seem almost more present.
You know that expression, ‘the elephant in the room’? You’re the elephant, Ross!
I thought he’d quite like that description. Occasionally, I found myself speaking to my brother in my head even though we hadn’t had that kind of relationship when he was alive. I was surprised in retrospect how much we’d had in common just by virtue of being in the same family. Ross was the one person who would have understood how pitiful my parents were in their grief, and yet how annoying they still managed to be.
‘You have to deal with reality,’ said my father eventually. I wasn’t sure whether it was intended as a reprimand to me or an instruction to himself. ‘You have to get to grips with what’s in front of you.’
What was in front of him now was the giant steak, charred and leaking blood onto the wooden board on which it was presented.
My father looked up at the waiter.
‘We’d like Chef to cook it for us if that’s not too much trouble!’ he barked.
I pictured the chef’s face as the waiter returned to the kitchen. During my summer job I’d learned that customers who sent their steaks back to be well done were even further down the hierarchy of contempt than pot washers.
When the steak was returned to us, it was pale brown all the way through, as if it had been given ten minutes in a microwave.
My father doled out the leathery slices.
‘How many for you, Angus?’
‘Angus has never had a huge appetite,’ my mother reminded him.
Ross had an enormous appetite. Was it over-sensitive of me to hear an unspoken comparison?
I was completely different to Ross. My brother was dark, handsome and built; I had inherited my mother’s willowy height, and, although my hair wasn’t orange like my father’s, I had enough of his freckly complexion to be called a ginge at school.
Ross had been captain of the rugby and rowing teams and Head Boy; I enjoyed football and had never been considered for the prefect body. Ross’s summer job after leaving school had been a lifeguard at the local open-air swimming pool. Being a lifesaver was something to boast about, unlike being a kitchen boy. Not that Ross ever actually saved a life, although plenty of girls pretended to be struggling in the hope of being manhandled by him. Ross had starred in his own version of Baywatch. In Guildford.
I was never sure whether the truth was that my parents weren’t very good at disguising their obvious preference, or that I was in fact pretty mediocre compared to Ross. It wasn’t something you could talk about without sounding like a whinger, so I never did, except occasionally to Marcus, who knew what Ross was really like. Was it Ross’s sporting prowess that had made the teachers at our school so willing to turn a blind eye to his other activities, we’d sometimes speculated, or had they too lived in fear of him? Perhaps Ross and his acolytes kept a record of punishable offences committed by the staff as well as the lower-school boys? I’d never know, because nobody said anything remotely critical about him now that he was dead.
We sat in silence, chewing our steak.
‘I expect you’re itching to get to uni . . .’ my mother said.
Was my discomfort so obvious?
The truth was that although I was counting down the hours until the claustrophobia of the holiday would be over, I was also feeling pretty nervous about what was coming next. I thought I’d probably be OK at Medicine because I was good at Biology and interested in how people worked.
‘Which makes you sound like an agony aunt!’ Ross had needled, just the previous November, which now felt like a lifetime ago, because, in a way, it was.
In spite of his ridicule, or maybe because it had made me think harder, I’d performed well at the interview and been offered a place conditional on achieving three As at A level. But I’d always felt uneasy about following in my brother’s footsteps. Over that Christmas holiday, I had actually made up my mind to ask if I could defer a year and use the time to decide if Medicine was what I really wanted to do.
Then the accident happened.
When I returned to school the deadline for acceptances was looming. My father had been so proud at the thought of both his sons becoming doctors. Doing Medicine, or at least, not not doing it, was the only small way I could begin to make it up to him.
Only the previous day, calling the school to get my A-level results, with my parents hovering in the hotel corridor just outside the door, a tiny part of me had still been hoping to be granted a reprieve. But my grades were good enough.
I realized I hadn’t responded to my mother.
‘Yes, really looking forward to it now,’ I assured her.
At least there would be sex. If Ross’s experience was anything to go by, medics were at it all the time.
On Hope’s first day of school, she was surprisingly amenable to getting dressed in her little grey skirt, white polo top and blue sweatshirt. She ran into Mum’s room to get a goodbye kiss.
‘Take a picture, Tess,’ Mum said.
We’d decided that Mum wouldn’t even try to come, because then it would become one of Hope’s routines. Hope seemed to accept that I would be the one to go with her. Perhaps it seemed natural to her, as it wasn’t long since I’d been the one going off to school every morning. I’d been bracing myself for screaming and crying, but as we left the house, and Mum called down, ‘Bye then!’ it was her little voice that was feeble with tears.
Mum and Hope were inseparable. Mum was forty-three when she had her. ‘An afterthought,’ was the way she put it, because she would never have said Hope was an accident. With all the rest of us practically grown up, Mum had had the time to do things like reading library books and baking fairy cakes together. Most people considered Hope spoilt. She’d been a pretty little baby, with a froth of blonde curls, and, with five big people in the house, six if you included Brendan’s girlfriend Tracy, she’d got a lot of attention. We all loved holding her and jiggling her to make her smile. People said that’s why she was a bit late with walking and things, because everything was done for her. Mum had tried taking her to nursery school but Hope wouldn’t be left. She could count to a thousand by the time she was four and could sing all the nursery rhymes, which was probably more than most children of that age.
She walked with me happily enough and marched over to stand in line with the other tiny children in the playground. I waited by the gate with my fingers firmly crossed, praying that everything would be fine, and that school would be her protection from everything that was about to happen.
The perfect silence of those first few seconds after the whistle blew, felt like a gift, a miraculous gift from God who I should not have abandoned. Then a familiar sound tore it apart.
Mum used to say Hope’s carrying-on was what drove my brothers away. I was never sure whether she was joking because she’d always add that it was about time they spread their wings. Mum had a sharp sense of humour. I think it was because of her being intelligent but not very confident, so she’d put something out there, then make out she was joking if she got the wrong reaction.
Kevin was the first to go, to London when he got his scholarship, then America. He and Dad had never seen eye to eye, especially when Kevin refused to go into construction. So it made things easier at home, really. Then Tracy got pregnant, and Brendan dropped the bombshell that they were emigrating to Australia. He’d always felt in Kev’s shadow; this was going one better. So Hope had got her own room, instead of sleeping in mine, but it was still noisy. I used to spend as long as I could in the library at school. Dad used to spend as long as he could at the pub. People said Mum had the patience of a saint.
It was natural for a child to be unsettled, Mrs Corcoran, the head teacher at St Cuthbert’s, told me, when there was so much worry at home. She thought the best idea would be if I came along to school with Hope to reassure her. I could help out with the little ones. The Reception class’s teaching assistant was on maternity leave, so they could do with an extra pair of hands.
I welcomed the distraction. With a class of thirty small children, there was no time to think about anything except getting coats, hats, gloves, painting aprons and gym clothes on and off, tracking lost shoes, monitoring trips to the toilet, making sure hands were clean, and handing out slices of apple at break time.
At home, Mum was sleeping a lot because of the morphine. You’d think that if you knew someone was going to die in a few weeks, or days, you’d try to say everything there was to say, but it wasn’t like that. It was almost like we didn’t want to make it over before it was over and were afraid of getting everything ready and then having nothing to do except wait.
I did tell Mum that I loved her. I told her every day, and then I started saying it every time she went to sleep, or I had to leave the room to cook Hope’s tea or something, until it started sounding a bit silly. You wouldn’t think ‘I love you’ could become meaningless, would you?
Course, I said other things too, like, ‘You mustn’t worry about us, because we will cope.’
To which Mum replied, ‘I know you will.’
We never really talked about what that coping would entail, because I didn’t want it to sound like I was the one with the problem.
On one occasion, Mum held my hand and said, staring me out to show she meant it, ‘You must go to university.’
‘I will, don’t worry.’ Leaving it vague meant that neither of us had to confront the glaring question of how.
I helped Mum make a memory box for Hope. It was a shoebox that we covered with pink gingham offcuts from the curtains Mum had made when the boys’ bedroom was turned into Hope’s. Mum embroidered ‘Hope’ on the rectangle we cut for the top with yellow silk thread from her sewing box. I pasted and stapled the fabric on. The box looked really good; the difficulty was knowing what to put into it. There wasn’t a lot of physical evidence of Mum’s time with Hope. Parents take a lot of pictures of their firstborn, but the novelty seems to wear off with the subsequent children. We did find a lovely photo of her with Hope as a smiling baby. And Mum dictated her recipe for Hope’s favourite trifle. Using the microphone and Hope’s Fisher Price cassette recorder, Mum recorded a message for her. Finally, she took off the gold cross she always wore and asked me to put that in.
‘You wouldn’t want it, would you, Tess?’
I wasn’t sure whether it would make her happier if I said yes, or if she had the consolation of it going to Hope. The cross went in the box. But then Hope noticed Mum wasn’t wearing it and Mum wasn’t going to tell her why before she needed to know, so the cross came out again, and the box went back in its hiding place under the bed. On a couple of occasions, Mum said, ‘Can we think of anything more for the box? How about a CD? ABBA’s Greatest Hits? She loves that one with the children singing . . .’
I wished in a way that we’d never started on it, or chosen a smaller box, because the few items rattling around were such inadequate tokens of Mum’s love.
One of the questions I did ask, while we were stitching and stapling – like Victorian ladies, Mum said – when it was easier to talk because we were both engaged in another activity, was this: if there was an afterlife, could Mum please find a way of giving me some kind of sign, so I’d know.
That made her laugh.
‘I can’t give you faith, Tess,’ she said. ‘It’s a step you have to take yourself, and then everything follows.’
‘But could you try, please? Just a little sign?’
‘If you’d put the imagination you spend doubting into believing . . .’ she said, in that mildly exasperated way she had that made criticism sound like a compliment.
Brendan and Kevin arrived from different ends of the world in suits. Brendan, hefty with success and lurching between the show-off swagger of a prodigal son and the crumpling confusion of imminent disaster; Kevin, toned and dapper, in light brown pointy brogues and tight grey trousers showing his calf muscles through the slightly shiny fabric, and a lot of talk about issues – his own that is, not Mum’s.
After visiting Mum at the hospice, Dad took them down the pub, and there was something strangely jolly about the three of them rolling back home late and smelling of beer.
‘Like the old days,’ Dad said, with an arm draped around each son, recalling a happy tradition that he’d have enjoyed, but had never actually happened.
It was just me by the bed with Mum at the end. I don’t know if she wanted it like that, or if she ran out of time to do all the individual goodbyes. It was almost like she’d waited to see all her children, then was in a hurry to go. Perhaps she was thinking about the boys’ needing to get back to their jobs. Mum always put others before herself.
The curtains around the bed gave a false sense of privacy and we could hear everything the others were saying just on the other side.
Brendan’s ‘Have I time for a coffee, do you think?’
I should probably be grateful to him for the gift of her last ash of smile, conspiratorial – would you listen to him!
One moment she was there, then the light in her eyes went out.
I thought I was prepared for her leaving, but when I realized she was dead, I felt as shocked as if it had happened without warning. I sat holding her hand until it no longer seemed right not to share her with the others.
The men cried immediately. I did not. All their hungover heaving and blubbing felt like blows against my shell of numbness.
Hope didn’t like it either and shouted at them to stop.
‘Sssh!’ she said, finger to her lips. ‘Mum trying to sleep!’
I told her to give Mum a kiss, and then I took her to the hospice cafe for sausage and chips, and, to her astonishment, a whole bag of Haribo.
When I put Hope to bed that night, she asked what time we were seeing Mum the next day (we were doing telling the time in Reception class), and I told her that Mum had gone to heaven.
‘To see the angels,’ I improvised.
‘And Jesus,’ said Hope.
‘And Nana and Granda and Lady Di and Mother Teresa . . .’ Hope listed all the people they’d recently prayed for together.
I had never seen the point of heaven but now I could. Was that a sign?
I waited for the lull that told me Hope was asleep, then began to creep towards the door. ‘Tree?’
‘When Mum coming back?’
What was I supposed to say?
‘She’s not, Hope. She still loves us though.’
‘She’ll never stop loving us,’ said Hope.
Even though it was dark in the room, I could tell she wasn’t crying. For Hope, it was a simple statement of fact because Mum had said it, and would say it again and again on the cassette tape.
A lot of the relations made the journey from Ireland that they’d never made while Mum was alive. Her leaving for England with Dad in the seventies had been resented by her siblings because, as the older sister, she was supposed to be the one who looked after their father after their own mother had died young. I knew my uncles, aunt and cousins only vaguely from sitting in chilly front rooms drinking tea from the good china that was brought out for guests, on the boring part of childhood holidays in Ireland that Mum and Dad had called ‘Doing the rounds’. None of them had met Hope before, but still they claimed the right to pat her on the head with tear-filled eyes, or scoop her up in great hugs, which she didn’t like at all.
‘That enough kissy stuff!’ she shouted, making herself all stiff.
‘She’s a character, isn’t she?’ said my mother’s sister, Catriona, adding, in a loud, doom-laden whisper, ‘You’ll have to watch her, now, Teresa, and yourself as well, because they say it runs in families. It’s a terrible thing for us all to have hanging over us.’
Even with Mum dead, I felt she was still trying to blame her.
I didn’t think Hope should go to the funeral, but Dad and Brendan wanted her to and Kev said nobody ever took any notice of his opinion anyway, which was a good way to get out of giving one. So that was a kind of majority. Except I was sure that Mum wouldn’t have wanted it either.
‘Did she tell you that?’ my father demanded.
It was one of the many things I should have asked her. It was so stupid. All that time we’d had and I’d never dared ask what she wanted for her funeral.
‘Well, then,’ said Dad.
Hope was fine, swaying along to the organist’s slightly slow and tentative interpretation of ABBA’s ‘I Have a Dream’, as we walked in. She stood between Dad and me as we sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ which was Mum’s favourite hymn. We all said the Lord’s Prayer and Hope said that too, with Dad glancing over the top of her head at me as if to say, Told you!
I don’t think she even noticed the coffin until Brendan got up to read his poem.
With hindsight, Kev or I should have stopped him. I think we were both so shocked by the idea of Brendan, of all people, writing a poem, that neither of us thought to ask if we could read it first. In fact, we both probably felt a little bit ashamed for not writing one ourselves.
If you look in the local newspaper at the memorial section, you’ll see that just because something rhymes, doesn’t make it profound, except to the author. It was Brendan’s couplet that had ‘Always there to wash my socks’ with ‘Now, you’re lying in a box’ that caught Hope’s attention.
‘In a box?’ she echoed, her voice ringing through the hush.
‘Sssh!’ said Dad.
‘Tree, is Mum in that box?’
‘You have to be quiet now, Hope, we’re in church.’
It used to work when Mum said it, but there wasn’t enough conviction in my voice.
‘Mum is in heaven with Jesus!’ Hope declared.
Father Michael came creeping across to us.
‘Your mother’s body is in the box, Hope, but her soul is gone to heaven,’ he whispered, breathing his halitosis over her.
The screaming was piercingly loud as I carried Hope flailing from the church. How could such a little person possibly understand about the separation of the body and the soul? I should have trusted my instincts. A funeral was no place for a child. I’d known it. Worst of all, I felt I’d let Mum down.
It was one of those breezy late-September days, with a few white clouds racing across a blue sky and the trees just beginning to turn copper, too beautiful a day for something so sad. Hope stopped screaming as soon as we were out of the church and started struggling to get down from my arms. The tarmac path had little bits of confetti trodden onto it, pink horseshoes, white butterflies, lemon hearts. Hope skipped away from the church, chasing occasional falling leaves. I stood watching her, thinking that if she caught one, it would most definitely be a sign. Of course she didn’t. Autumn leaves have a habit of darting away when you think you’re on to them and Hope’s coordination was never the best. Before frustration could turn to fury, I took her down the road for a McFlurry.
So we missed whatever trite words Father Michael had to say about Mum being a dutiful mother and wife, and Charlotte Church singing ‘Pie Jesu’ on the CD player, and the coffin going into the ground, which you’re supposed to see for closure. I wonder whether that’s why Mum still sometimes appears in my dreams, and I wake up with this lovely moment of relief – I knew it couldn’t be true! – before my brain cells reorder themselves back to reality.
Mum was a popular member of the community and her friends took it upon themselves to organize the wake in the church hall. The small kitchen beside the stage was a production line of women in aprons turning out platters of sandwiches and mini quiches, scones and home-made cakes, great plastic bowls of crisps and trays of piping-hot sausage rolls, while others wielded the big metal pots of tea they used at the Christmas Fayre and poured glasses of sherry for the women and whiskey for the men.
It wasn’t long before the atmosphere shifted from sombre to animated, and people started telling their stories. Mum’s sister Catriona talked about how when she’d heard Mum had passed away she went to the room in the house that had been hers and she’d smelled a powerful scent. Didn’t they say that when people returned, they sometimes brought a fragrance with them? She’d been sure for a moment that Mary was there, before she remembered that she’d put an Autumn Breeze air-freshener plug in the room because it was a bit musty from lack of use.
Dad regaled anyone who’d listen with the anecdote about how they’d met. He’d gone back to his home town in Ireland for his grannie’s funeral and he’d spotted my mother across a crowded room and the light of love was in her eyes.
That phrase, ‘the light of love’, made me think of Mum’s eyes just before the end. It was a good description. Dad could surprise you like that. You’d be looking at him and wondering what it was that had drawn someone as gentle and intelligent as Mum to him, and then you’d get a glimpse.
‘We met at a wake, and now we’re saying goodbye at one!’
His closing line became more tearily indulgent as the evening went on, and people clutched his arm and said wise words like ‘The cycle of life, Jim,’ or ‘You’ve a lot of happy memories to see you through.’
‘Ach, she was a wonderful wife to me!’ he told them, which was true, although I’d never heard him say it to her.
I didn’t think he’d been nearly a wonderful enough husband to her, but Mum had never complained.
‘Your father’s got a lot on his mind,’ or ‘Your father works very hard to put food on the table,’ were the usual excuses for why he was more often at the bookie’s or down the pub than at home. Not that any of us hankered for his presence because there was always an aura of threat hanging around Dad.
‘It’s the drink, not the man,’ Mum had even defended him after the terrible night it came out that she had secretly been paying for Kev’s ballet classes with the housekeeping money, and Brendan had to leap on Dad’s back, kicking his calves to hold him back, and I’d run down the street shouting at the neighbours to call the police because I thought he was going to kill them.
By the time it got dark outside, there was quite a party atmosphere, with that fug of alcohol and exaggerated emotion that you often get at weddings with family members who haven’t seen each other in a while.
Kev pushed the piano out on the stage, and played his party piece, ‘Danny Boy’, which he’d probably sung a few times in New York on St Patrick’s Day because it’s an even bigger deal there than it is in Ireland. Kev’s singing was never as good as his dancing, but he could hold a tune well enough and the performance brought a stunned silence to the room before people started clapping and telling him how proud his mother would have been.
‘Will you give us a song, Jim?’ someone called.
After only a moment of protest, my father said, ‘Ach, go on then,’ and made his way to the stage, where he stood, leaning against the piano, and, with Kev accompanying him, sang the Fureys’ ‘I Will Love You’.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after that. For me, it wasn’t the words so much as seeing Kev and Dad together, and knowing how happy that would have made Mum. At the end, a moment of reflective silence was broken by a small voice, surprisingly loud and clear next to me.
‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are!’
There was something about the seriousness on Hope’s face and her stout little frame, with her fingers doing the twinkling actions she’d learned at school, that would have made it comical if it hadn’t been so moving.
When she finished, everyone clapped, but unlike Kevin and Dad, Hope didn’t bask in the attention. She didn’t actually seem to notice it.
‘What about you now, Teresa?’ my aunt Catriona called out. ‘We haven’t heard anything from you.’
To be fair, she probably only meant to give me the opportunity, but she made it sound like I didn’t want to contribute.
‘I can’t sing,’ I protested.
‘That all right, Tree,’ Hope chimed up. ‘Everyone has things they’re good at and things they’re not so good at.’
Which sounded so much like Mum that everyone except Hope laughed.
‘OK. This was Mum’s favourite poem,’ I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought of suggesting it for the service.
‘“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow . . .’
As I spoke the words, slowly and evenly, trying to keep the wobble out of my voice and do her proud, I wondered whether Mum had yearned for peace and solitude away from the constant noisy chaos of our family. And as I looked around the faces of her friends and relations, I thought that we were all perhaps thinking that the poem described a kind of heaven for her, which made us feel calmer about the whole injustice of it. That’s probably why people talk about the consolation of poetry.
When I’d finished, the room was quiet.
‘Bedtime,’ I said to Hope, taking the opportunity to say our goodbyes before the singing inevitably started up again, along with more drinking and the potential for the mood to switch from affection to umbrage in a single sentence.
Hope spotted the butterfly in the corner of the bathroom window when I was giving her a bath. One of those white ones with a tiny black spot on each wing. Cabbage White.
‘Want to get out,’ she said.
So, without thinking about it really, I opened the window, and the butterfly flew into the dying light.
It was only when I knelt down again and started lathering Hope’s hair that I wondered how the butterfly had got in. There was a buddleia in the back garden which attracted butterflies in the summer, but usually those were orange, and I’d never seen one in the house before. Wasn’t it a bit late for butterflies anyway? Perhaps it had come in to get warm?
Or perhaps the butterfly was the sign I’d asked Mum for, and all I’d done was let it out into the cold.