BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

The Comet Seekers By Helen Sedgwick

There’s something so seductive and satisfying about parallel-paths fiction (One Day and its ilk) I feel it could be a new genre in its own right. Helen Sedgwick’s debut novel takes a familiar premise – the stories of two lovers and how their paths come to meet – but weaves it with family back story against a magical backdrop of comets and their appearances throughout history. Astronomer Roisin and chef Francois meet working on a research base in Antarctica – she has been comet-watching since a child in 1970s Ireland; Francois’ mother, Severine, grew up listening to her grandmother’s beliefs in ghosts appearing when comets are in orbit. As the novel unfolds, it moves backwards as well as forwards in time, and deals with loss, love and the choices we make, all anchored in a mesmerising sense of the mystical. Beautiful, haunting novel. ER

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THE COMET SEEKERS

Helen Sedgwick

£12.99, Harvill Secker

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There’s something so seductive and satisfying about parallel-paths fiction (One Day and its ilk) I feel it could be a new genre in its own right. Helen Sedgwick’s debut novel takes a familiar premise – the stories of two lovers and how their paths come to meet – but weaves it with family back story against a magical backdrop of comets and their appearances throughout history. Astronomer Roisin and chef Francois meet working on a research base in Antarctica – she has been comet-watching since a child in 1970s Ireland; Francois’ mother, Severine, grew up listening to her grandmother’s beliefs in ghosts appearing when comets are in orbit. As the novel unfolds, it moves backwards as well as forwards in time, and deals with loss, love and the choices we make, all anchored in a mesmerising sense of the mystical. Beautiful, haunting novel. ER

Chapter:

One

2017

Comet Giacobini

They arrive on the snow during the last endless day of summer. Forty-eight hours of light and then, they gather outside to watch their first sunset of the South. The ice shelf they’re standing on is floating, slowly, towards the coast – will one day melt into the sea. There is nothing permanent about this never-ending white. 

Róisín stamps her feet, watches the sky for the full twenty minutes of night, not that it ever gets dark. Dusk is the most she can hope for, this week at least; everything turning a golden red, the sun’s rays like torchlight through the curved walls of a child’s tent, the full moon opposite. It shines like a second sun but fainter, its reflected light a ghost of the star below the horizon. 

During the day, some people run a marathon around the base – eight laps of the research station at minus ten degrees. Róisín joins them on their final lap. Her legs feel heavy; gulps of air chill her lungs. The winner is lying at on the snow at the finish line. When he sees her looking he smiles up at her, says: You should try it. 

Maybe next time, she says.

His name is François.

He holds his hand over his eyes, trying to shield the glare. He looks so young. 

***

One hour, forty minutes of darkness, and someone is behind her. Five days she has been here, five days she has searched the sky alone. Róisín turns around. 

What are you looking for? 

François is here, wanting to see what she’s doing, to join in. She’s not sure how she feels about that; she did not come here to make friends. Róisín thinks about telling him so, asking him to leave, but for some reason she decides to let him stay. Beside her, François looks at the sky and exhales. 

There’s a comet predicted, she says. It’s going to be very bright. But it’s too early. I mean, we’re too soon. 

Because it’s not dark enough yet?

Yes. Well, that and other things.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it?

Above them, colours swirl like sea mist.

François stays where he is, doesn’t ask any more questions. He doesn’t take his eyes from the sky. 

***

Róisín finds she has walked into the kitchen. She says she wants to help – it doesn’t feel right with François in there on his own, cooking for sixteen, even though he’s the chef. She offers to slice onions and retrieve diced meat from the freezer, watches his hands as he works. The smell is of roasting tomatoes and rosemary. 

This was one of my favourites, he says, when I was a child. 

Abbey Road is playing on the tape deck. 

Róisín thinks of soft-boiled eggs and soldiers. The sun is setting again. 

***

Three hours, twenty minutes of darkness. The night is increasing by twenty minutes each day. It is building up to 21 March, when things will be perfectly balanced and there will be twelve hours of light and twelve hours of dark. 

Every day, Róisín marks the calendar with a cross. Turning over the page – a photo of lights, traffic, people, noise, the cityscape a world away. She checks the footnote. It is Cape Town, and underneath Cape Town a day, three weeks away, is circled in blue. 

She stands outside and listens through the muffled layer of her hood to the absolute silence of snow and ice dust and rock. Sometimes François comes outside to stand with her, but she never asks what they will be cooking the next day for dinner. 

***

They hear on the radio that a group of sea lions have been spotted off the coast. The research team goes to investigate, Róisín and some of the others, taking cameras with long lenses, notebooks and food enough for two days. They’re not far from the coast but it still feels like a hike from the base; four hours’ walk in snow boots, pulling the sleigh, is not easy. There was training for this job, a series of tests you had to pass: physical, survival, psychological. 

As they approach the coast they can see kelp gulls circling; something must have died. On arrival they see that something has. One of the sea lions has been killed in a fight, over territory or perhaps a female. They take photographs, look for any tags from other research teams, keep their distance. The red of its blood seems like the most vivid, most deeply coloured thing Róisín has seen for years. 

There is a building by the coast, a square, basic sort of place, where they can sleep, or at least rest, before making the hike home tomorrow. Lying down, Róisín turns to face the wall and cannot see the concrete two inches from her eyes in the dark. 

***

She’s alone. She’s walking towards the dead sea lion even though she knows it’s wrong; they are not allowed to get too close, not allowed to touch or interfere, but she sees the blood and has no choice – how did this happen? she asks the sea lion corpse, how did this happen? She tries to pick him up, but his skin is like whale blubber and she is repulsed. 

She wakes, sick and longing, and full of guilt. 

When they get back to the base she sees François in the kitchen. He turns, sees her; there is a look of wonder in his eyes that she wishes she understood, that she wants to share. 

***

The door is only half closed and Róisín’s eyes only half shut when she hears a quiet tap tap at the window before sunrise. A rope has come loose from the sleigh they were using, snaking in the wind. 

I heard it too, François whispers from the doorway, hardly making a sound. He is wearing thermal underwear and indoor boots, bobble hat and knitted gloves. She would have laughed, if her throat hadn’t been so dry. 

He lies next to her on the bed and together they listen to the whip of the rope on glass, through snow. As the light dawns, she pulls off his hat. 

***

Sometimes, late at night, François writes to Severine, notepaper balanced on bent knees, head propped up on pillows. He describes the white, the snow, the sky so open he can see it curve around the Brunt ice shelf and meet the horizon in a swirl of frozen blue. 

He describes the Halley VI research station, each module standing self-sufficient on legs that keep it elevated above the floating ice, a strange caterpillar of research labs and sleeping quarters with a central red hub where they all meet to talk and wait for snowstorms to pass. As the days edge closer to winter the pages of his letter take on a chill. He asks her how she is, if the sun is warm in Bayeux. 

He pulls the cover over his legs, rubs the scar on his thumb and looks down at red fading to silver; the two colours of this world. 

I hope it’s peaceful there, Mama, he writes.

It is peaceful here, but I think a storm might be brewing. 

***

What am I supposed to see? he asks, taking the binoculars from his eyes. 

Róisín smiles. 

Well, at this magnification, all you can make out is the comet’s nucleus, which is the bright bit at the front . . . 

He puts the binoculars back to his eyes, thinks about telling her he is not so young as she imagines. 

. . . and the tail, which is the stream of dust and ice that gets blown out behind as it accelerates towards the sun. 

So, it’s ice? 

Ice and rock and maybe some bits of molecules, you know, the interplanetary junk that gets picked up along the way. 

It’s not junk, he says, it’s extraordinary.

You remind me of someone from a long time ago.

He turns to look at her; she hasn’t mentioned her past before, and he doesn’t know if he should ask her questions about it now. 

I used to watch the comets when I was a child, he says, with my mother.

She was a scientist?

No, he laughs, no. She just loved them. Do you think it’s strange to love something you don’t understand? 

Róisín shakes her head. Just human, she says. 

Why is next Monday circled on the calendar? 

The comet will be at its brightest.

Is that all? 

He puts the binoculars down. His tone changes. 

Róisín? 

***

François leaves his room and goes in search of something to dull his restlessness. They are playing cards in the central hub; he lingers by the door then retreats back the way he came. He doesn’t know why he’s behaving like this. He has been knocked off balance; and worse, he didn’t notice it happening. 

When he looks back at his letter to Severine, the smudges of the words make it look as if he’s been crying on the page. It doesn’t matter. Of course it will not be sent, not any time soon – there is no airlifted postal service here. The next delivery is six months away. But even so, he describes the comet he has been watching, with Róisín, in the sky. I have seen its nucleus, he writes; I could make out its tail. It is a different colour to the stars, isn’t that miraculous? I feel so close to home today, and so far away. 

***

He folds his letter, written over weeks, and seals the envelope. Presses a first-class stamp to his tongue. The taste lingers long after the letter has been safely stowed at the bottom of his case. He heads outside; he needs to sleep under the stars tonight. 

***

Róisín opens the zip to François’s tent slowly, not wanting to wake him if he is asleep. She’s not sure what he’s doing out here, but she saw the red tent in the starlight and knew that she had to join him. 

Are you sleeping? she whispers. 

Yes, he replies. 

That’s good, she smiles, though it’s so dark she knows he won’t be able to see that. I’ll just talk, and you can sleep, she says, and we’ll both feel better for it. 

She talks about Liam, because she feels now that she has to speak about it, if she has any chance of letting it go. 

And she suspects that François might have lost somebody too. 

There is a gust of wind that makes the taut fabric of the tent resonate like a string; ripple with harmonics. 

He closes his fingers around hers, but there is only a second of this closeness before she pulls away again. 

I think I need to say goodbye, she says. I’m sorry. 

He follows her outside as she leaves, but not back to the base – he has his own past to remember, or to forget. Instead he turns away and starts packing up the tent by the light of the morning stars, under the glow of the comet. 

***

The next night François dreams there is a strange woman sitting on his bed, with a voice he knows but has never heard before. 

So you found me, then, he says. I knew you were coming.

It’s cold, she replies. You’re on the wrong continent.

Could you take it easy on me, please? he says. I know why you’re here.

He opens his eyes to an empty, watery room. He blinks; the water in his eyes clears for a second, and then returns.

He is surprised by the conviction of it – it is not logical, but undeniable nonetheless. He’s been waiting for news even though the news couldn’t reach him. He doesn’t know what else he can do so he drinks, and cries, and lets his heart break because he knows – somehow he knows – that tonight, a world away, his mother has died. 

***

Róisín hikes through the night, now and then stopping to take out her notebook from the side pocket of her jacket, mark with pencil where the comet is relative to the stars. She keeps walking until the base is no longer visible – she doesn’t want any signs of humanity on the horizon. There is only one person she wants to see tonight. The wind is starting to get strong, biting at her skin even through her layers of protection – it is incredible, the way wind can do that. Soon it will be too dangerous to continue; she can see the swirls of ice ahead, where the wind is so strong it can lift the top layer of the ground. 

Róisín chooses her spot carefully: a cave of sorts, an overhang of rock and ice that will provide some shelter from the wind. She looks up at the comet – still visible, still daring her on – then looks more precisely through her binoculars and marks it again on her map before starting to unpack the shelter. 

Her highest marks in the Antarctic Survey were in the survival test. She has seen worse than this. 

***

The shelter is red, bright red, the colour of something that can’t be missed, should anyone look for it. Inside, by the light of the torch, everything is rosy and golden; tent torchlight is beautiful. The storm is getting louder though. She steps outside and is almost knocked off her feet, but she struggles to stand upright, facing the wind, and watches the comet on this, its brightest night. No storm will stop her. 

Some say that comets seed life on lifeless planets. She finds that hard to believe. The comet is ice, it is burning with wind; wild, inhospitable, stunning. It is not unlike where she is standing. This is, perhaps, the closest a human being can get to travelling on a comet as it approaches perihelion. Clinging on for life. 

***

The first time she wakes, she thinks something is trying to get inside; a big shape – a bear? – is pressing against her tent. It takes her a moment to realise it is the snow piling up outside, and that there are no bears here. Perhaps there is nothing here. 

The next time she is back on so , dandelioned grass; she is wearing pyjamas and lying in the open air. Liam is beside her. No, this can’t be right. There is no grass on the comet. Wait. 

She finds the torch, turns on the light. It helps. She wonders if the sun will rise soon. Perhaps François will come in the morning and unbury her from all this snow. Perhaps the snow itself will melt as they hurtle through space, towards the heat of the sun. Perhaps Liam will come home from wherever he wanted to go; he will have seen enough light, and she enough snow, and together they will lie on the farm grass and look up to the comets overhead and pretend like they don’t need to breathe; and in secret, they will breathe. 

Two

1976 

Comet West 

Róisín keeps looking out of the window as they eat their boiled eggs. Liam knows why; sundown is coming and she wants to be out before dark. Every night this week it has been the same; the comet was predicted, but still it hasn’t arrived. There’s only two days and a weekend left of the half-term holidays, and then she’ll have to go home. 

If he knew how, Liam would stop the time from moving forwards and stay in this week – this exact one – for all his life. He looks at the clock on the kitchen wall and Róisín looks at the dusk beyond the window, out to the red tent that is pitched up in the field. 

The red tent was a present from his mum the year before she died. Liam knows it was from her because his dad would never have chosen something red, although it had both of their names on the label. His mum wore red; yellow and gold and red and purple, all the colours of the rainbow. She never seemed quite in the right place on their farm, so far from everywhere. Maybe that’s why she left it so early. Inside the red tent, the light is different to anywhere else in the world; it is like being inside a balloon that is flying up into the sun. 

***

Can I bring Bobby with me tonight?

Róisín rolls her eyes.

Liam’s not really this young – he’ll be seven later this year – and most nights he forgets about Bobby altogether, but if he’s going to try to stay in this week forever, without time moving forwards, he’d quite like to keep Bobby with him. 

Pandas don’t live in tents. 

Bobby does. He likes the red. Anyway, pandas don’t live in Ireland either. 

Róisín made Bobby stay in the house last night because of the risk of rain, although it didn’t rain in the end and there was no comet either, so it was a bit of a waste. Liam thinks that maybe Bobby will be a good omen for them tonight. 

If you like you can bring an omen too, he says. 

I don’t need one – Róisín zips up his coat by the back door and puts Bobby in his big coat pocket – I’ve got you. 

***

While Liam arranges everything in the tent in the field, Róisín starts work on her maps. She’s been drawing them every night. Maps of the night-time sky, so that she can see how each thing moves, how near and far from each other they get. It was one of the first things she learnt to draw when she was little, and she still think it’s the best. Why draw a square house with a triangular roof when you can draw the patterns in the stars? Liam thinks her maps look a bit like join-the-dots – that if he just knew how to read them properly something extraordinary would appear. Maybe the comet will help, like the code key he has in his colouring books. Yesterday he did a tractor. 

Liam! 

He puts Bobby in his sleeping bag and unzips the tent. The dark comes quickly; he’s noticed that this past week. 

I think it’s come.

The comet?

Of course!

That’s grand.

Róisín doesn’t look at him the whole time; her eyes are fixed on the sky. 

***

The comet is more like a blur really. Like someone has dropped a silver pen on a page of black paper and then smudged it with their thumb. 

Is that it? Liam says. Why’s it so small? 

Because it’s far away. But what you mean is why is it so faint. And that’s because it’s far away too, but it’s moving towards us so it’s going to get brighter. 

When?

Maybe later tonight.

Are you sure?

Maybe tomorrow.

So what are we going to do tonight?

He’s getting cold already, out here in the dark, what with it not even being spring yet, not for a few weeks anyway.

Tonight we’re going to watch it move, Róisín says, as she pulls her sleeping bag from inside the tent. If we lie here, we’ll be able to see the sky all night long. 

***

Liam crawls inside the tent. He’s cold. He thinks that Róisín will follow him in, but he knows that’s a stupid thing to think – she’s never followed him anywhere. It’s always the other way round. 

He takes Bobby out of the sleeping bag, brushes away at the bits of grass on the floor of the tent and sits him up in the corner instead. 

But it’s not fun being in the tent on his own, even with Bobby, so he forces himself to count to one hundred and then he unzips the door again and looks out. Róisín is lying on her back in the sleeping bag. 

He drags his sleeping bag out of the tent, lays it along the grass next to Róisín and wriggles inside. 

I’m back, he says, although she doesn’t reply and even if she did all she’d say is that he is stating the obvious. He always seems to be doing that. 

Hold your breath and count, she says. If you count long enough, and hold your breath long enough, you’ll be able to see it move. Because it’s flying. 

No it’s not. 

Yes it is. It’s flying so fast and so far away it can change the whole sky in the time you can hold your breath for. It’s the fastest thing in the solar system. You just have to hold on, and then you’ll see. 

Liam lies as still as he’s ever been and watches, and waits, and holds on. The grass bristles against his skin, the night breeze blows his hair into his eyes but he doesn’t move to brush it away. His face gets hotter the longer he goes without breathing; his lips purse into a tight wiggly line, eyes wide and gleaming, his hand grasping onto his cousin’s. 

Can you see it? she asks.

You breathed!

Liam lets out his breath, gasps in more night-time air – it’s the kind of air that smells of ice and fresh grass and pyjamas. 

Róisín’s hand is clutching his, and they look at each other and breathe in unison, a big open-mouthed breath to sustain them for another thirty seconds, or sixty, as they turn their eyes back to the sky. 

Nothing moves. 

***

They both know what they want to be when they grow up. Liam is going to be a farmer like his dad and Róisín is going to move far away and become an astrophysicist. She knows the names of all the constellations, and the different shapes of the moon, and the order of the planets, and she knows when the comets are going to be in the sky. That’s why she persuaded Liam to camp out in the field with her tonight, the night when it will be at its brightest. She stares up at the sky and then, still lying on the grass, holds the notebook high over her face and starts drawing. 

What are you doing? He wants to understand. 

Astronomy, she says. I’m mapping the sky. I have to mark where the comet is now in relation to the stars. So that we can see how far it moves. Otherwise we might forget. 

It’s not moving.

But it will. Have patience.

Liam rolls his eyes. This astronomy takes too long.

Look. She shows him her map. See those stars? I’ve marked them here. And the comet is in between those two right now. See? 

He nods, reluctantly.

You can go inside if you really want.

I don’t want. 

She tears o a blank sheet of paper and gives it to him, along with one of the spare pencils from her pencil case. She takes it with her everywhere, so she can always map the sky. 

What should I draw?

Whatever you want to draw.

She always talks to him like this, as if she’s the grown-up, even though she’s only two years older than he is. 

He frowns in concentration; he’s not going to ask her any more questions tonight. His pencil hovers over the page. 

***

Liam falls asleep while the comet is still between the two stars overhead, buried deep into his sleeping bag with the zip done up to way over his head. 

On the dew-damp grass in the early hours of the morning his drawing blends into indecipherable marks. The farm, the field, his house, the cows and sheep, his dad, the lack of his mum, and Róisín staring up at the sky: dots and lines that have been smudged out of context by a careless thumb until their meaning is lost. 

***

Yes, of course I went to the priest. You’re a nosy old man, you know that? I went on account of the dirty books I’ve been reading. Severine’s granny has walked into the room, mid-sentence, un-invited; she has started talking to her ghosts again.

I said to him, in the confession, now, Father, there’s no point in you telling me to stop reading them because I’m not going to stop reading them and that’s that.

People say that Severine’s granny is mad in the head. Severine can see they’re thinking it now, in the way they look at her mother as if she should do something about it this time. 

They’re my books now, I told him, they were given to me by my dead husband – God rest his soul – and I like reading them. 

The ladies from the village sip silently at their tea and let their china cups rattle in their saucers. 

Severine’s granny has finished saying what she wanted to say and is now turning her back, but before she leaves the room she looks at Severine with a wink and a nod of her head. 

Severine understands. She waits five minutes then follows her granny upstairs, so she can talk to the ghosts as well, and maybe get a read of her granny’s books. She’s not sure why her mother seemed so embarrassed but she’s fairly sure that means the books would be worth a look. 

***

Who’s here today, Granny?

Announce yourselves.

Her granny is not theatrical; her delivery is dry. A quick swipe of her hand in the air shows her impatience with the ghosts. Come on then, who’s here? 

She stops still for a moment, listening, then begins the register in a voice not entirely unlike Severine’s schoolteacher. Severine is in quatrième but already the middle school feels too small, she can’t wait to start at the lycée. 

We’ve got your uncle Antoine – hello, pet – Henri from the 1750s and the sisters in lace dresses, then there’s Ælfgifu, her soldier boy, and your great-grandpa Paul-François of course. And Brigitte. Over in the corner. 

Hello ghosts, Severine says and curtsies to the room. She’s fourteen now and wants to make a good impression, behave like a grown-up; not like the last time they were here, when she was a child and ran around the room trying to catch them like moths in her palm. 

***

Tell me about Mama, from before I was born.

Severine talks to Antoine, and her granny tells her his reply: 

Your mother used to lead him into trouble, so he says, she says. 

Severine can’t imagine her mother leading anyone into trouble, not ever. Her mama’s not fun like that.

Was Mama clever?

She was the cleverest, he says. But he thinks you knew that already— Oh! Do be quiet, you da old man. 

What? Granny! Tell me what he said! 

He says they were best friends. That they used to camp out in the eld past the stream, stay awake all night and watch the stars. 

But what did Great-Grandpa Paul-François say? When you told him to be quiet?

He’ll tell you himself when he’s good and ready.

It’s not fair; her granny knows that Severine can’t hear the ghosts, and Severine doesn’t really believe she’ll ever be able to. 

Maybe in their next visit, her granny softens, speaks kindly. 

But that could be years from now.

Severine purses her lips, listens as hard as she can. Tries to believe. 

***

What Antoine can’t believe is how old she’s got; the last time he saw her she was skipping between the grown-ups’ outstretched arms. But now: almost a woman. And so like her mother, who still refuses to see him. 

What would he say to her, if she could hear? 

He doesn’t know the answer but he wishes this comet would stay for longer. He can feel himself being pulled away already, feel the earth slipping beneath his feet. 

***

Severine!

Her mother is calling her from downstairs. Maybe she wants her to go and play the piano for the ladies. 

Severine! 

I’d better go, Severine says to the room. Please excuse me for a moment. 

She quietly shuts the door behind her and heads back down the stairs. 

Her mama wants to know if she’s done her piano practice yet, tells her she should be doing that instead of encouraging her granny’s nonsense. 

Ten minutes later, Mozart morphs into ‘Mr Moonlight’ and her mother doesn’t even notice. She finishes with a flourish and leaves the piano. There are more important things to do today. 

***

Severine passes the bookcases and looks out of the window, steps closer to peer up at the sky and measures the length of the comet’s tail between a thumb and forefinger held up close to her eyes. 

Her granny says the ghosts will only stay for as long as she can see it in the sky. The brighter it is, the more they have to say. It’s already bright this evening, and it’s not even completely dark yet, so she still has time. She has to learn to hear them, if they do exist – she wants to know the truth, and her granny says they don’t come o en, the ghosts and their comets. What would ghosts really talk about? she wonders. 

But when Severine gets back upstairs, her granny is having her afternoon nap and the ghosts, so far as she can tell, are resting in the corners of the upstairs study; Great-Grandpa Paul-François’s ghost is probably curled up under the desk like a tabby cat. 

Severine thinks about waking them, but her granny is always talking about her aching bones and she thinks maybe she should let her sleep, for a little while at least. 

***

At school in needlework they are making a tapestry; well, really it’s more of a quilt. Everyone in her year has to embroider a square, stitching in colours and people, sewing on sequins and beads and small patches of fabric. The theme is Bayeux. It is their home. 

Some of her classmates have stitched outlines of their houses, family members looking out from windows or standing in front gardens, wool and thread dyed especially for their hair. Others are making the countryside, with blue chiffon for a river, red beads hanging from cherry trees. Severine’s is full of faces – her granny in the middle, sitting on a chair that looks more like a throne, the room around her hidden behind all the faces of all the ghosts (at least the ones she knows about); there is Great-Grandpa Paul-François with cotton wool for his beard, Uncle Antoine who died when he was only a boy, Henri from the 1750s standing in between the sisters with lace dresses, Great-Great-Grandma Bélanger (she thinks that’s her granny’s granny), and behind them are others whose names she can’t remember, but whose stories she has heard; there’s the woman who originally built their house in Bayeux – Brigitte, she remembers, and looks out some orange fabric for flames. 

Ça alors, you must have a big family, the teacher says, looking over her shoulder. How many of you are there, in your house? 

It’s me, my mama, and my granny, Severine replies, needle in hand, lips pursed again in concentration as soon as she has spoken. There is a scattering of laughter from along the row but Severine ignores that. Behind her, the teacher owns to herself but says nothing; moves on to the next girl embroidering the next version of a family. 

Now – the teacher claps her hands to get their attention – how many of you have visited the real Bayeux Tapestry? 

***

Granny, why do the ghosts come to visit? Severine asks, as she watches her granny beat the so dough for the brioche. 

Because they like to be seen – pass me the butter.

How am I supposed to see them if you won’t tell me how? Her granny smiles, scrapes the dough from the sides of the bowl. Not everything is about you, sweetheart.

Severine goes quiet, but her granny doesn’t.

Now tell me, what are you learning about at school?

The Bayeux Tapestry.

Her granny’s eyebrows rise and fall; she looks to the corner of the room and smiles. That’s good. 

Severine runs to the corner of the kitchen and smacks her hands into the wall, leaving palm-prints of flour. 

Are they here? she asks, spinning around. She’s getting impatient – who cares about school when there are ghosts to talk to? 

They’re misbehaving today. No place for young ladies. 

Granny. 

The dough has to rise now. You know for how long?

Ninety minutes, says Severine. Maybe two hours.

Good, says her mother from the door. That means you can do your homework while you wait.

Severine looks up at her granny, who winks and nods. We’ll try getting some sense out of these crazy ghosts later, chouchou. 

Her mother beckons her from the door, and reluctantly she leaves the kitchen and the ghosts, and her granny. 

***

But why does Antoine come to visit? Severine asks later, as they spread the warm brioche with butter and redcurrant jam. 

Her granny smiles. I think my son is here for me. Or perhaps your mother. 

Mama? Severine asks, surprised, but her granny doesn’t respond. 

And why does Brigitte always stand on her own?

Later. Stern, but softening again. I’ll tell you later, Severine. Have patience. If you want to see the ghosts, you have to be able to wait. 

***

Severine does not finish her assignment about the Bayeux Tapestry; she spends the evening going through the old photo albums she’s found in the bookcase in the piano room. There are only a few of her mama from when she was really young – one when she was a baby and her granny had curly dark hair and a knowing smile. 

Then a family holiday – with the only photo she knows of Great-Grandpa Paul-François. They’re on the beach with bucket and spade, Granny, Great-Grandpa Paul-François, and her mama and Antoine, in swimming costumes that go down almost to their knees. 

There’s the one with her mother and father together, smiling at the fifties as they slipped into the sixties and everything was soon to change. 

And then the final page: on top is a wedding photo, her mama in a white lacy dress that her granny had made by hand, and her dad in a suit, with the best man beside him. 

Below that, the last in the album: a hospital photo, her mama smiling at newborn Severine, her father beside the bed. He was smiling too, maybe, but he is blurred and out of focus and her mother’s eyes are looking up, out of the room, straight out of the photo, as if searching for something hidden behind the camera’s lens. 

Three

Wake up!

Liam’s on a dark beach, full of crashing waves and salt that stings his eyes; he’s trying to shout but he can’t, trying to run but he falls and the rocks scrape away at his skin. He scrambles up from his knees, there is only fear and panic and the ground dissolving beneath his feet and he has to find his mother. 

Come on. Róisín pulls the sleeping bag down despite his hands clutching it up above his head. You have to see this. 

Is it daytime?

It’s morning, but it’s amazing now, it’s so bright. 

What?

Wake up! I don’t know how much time we have! 

***

Two countries, two channels away, Severine stands in front of a tapestry, the laughter of the others from her school all around her. The tapestry is behind glass – if it wasn’t she might have reached out to touch it. Instead, she just stares and stares. 

In the corner of the panel, embroidered in shining thread, is what looks like a shooting star, all yellow and gold, like a child’s drawing of a comet-chariot, powered by the sun and the wind. 

And there’s something she’s trying to remember, one of her granny’s stories from years ago; there was a girl who was in love with a soldier, a boy who died on a battle field. And their names, she was told their names once, strange-sounding names; not French, nor English – something else. And there’s something pulling at her mind, at her heart, that dissolves when a boy from school pulls on her ponytail. 

Hurry up, he says. The teacher told me to get you. Everyone’s leaving. You’re out of time. 

***

As it turns out, there’s all the time in the world for Liam and Róisín, that morning. The sky is orange peel and baled hay; clouds are gathering over towards the hills but the air is fresh as lemon juice. They are lying side by side on opened sleeping bags on the damp grass and staring at the comet that can be seen in the daytime sky. 

It’s so rare, Róisín says, but she doesn’t need to explain, not really. Liam might not know so much about the stars but he knows that there is something special in what they are seeing. A comet so bright it can be seen in the daytime sky; that has to mean something. That has to be something worth watching. 

How are you going to mark it on your maps?

I don’t know.

She sounds despairing.

You could draw it next to the farm. Between Dad’s shed there and the fence around the cows’ field?

Liam can see how that would work – when he imagines the world it is always somehow relative to the farm.

It’s not about the farm, says Róisín, a little stroppily. He can’t answer that. 

But it was a nice idea, she says, softening.

He looks from the comet to his cousin and back again. 

***

The comet gets dimmer as the morning passes. Liam’s dad trudges around the farm, feeding, checking, clearing, talking to himself, or sometimes to the memory of his wife beside him. 

Don’t you want to leave here? Róisín whispers.

No.

How could Liam leave his dad, when it’s just the two of them?

Not now, obviously, I get that . . . You’re still a kid. But when you’re a grown-up?

You’re still a kid too.

But there’s nothing left to explore on the farm.

I don’t want to go away.

But you can come on an adventure. With me.

Maybe one day.

Liam doesn’t like lying to Róisín, but he doesn’t know how to make her understand.

Well, I’m going to explore the universe, she says.

Liam knows that they should go in soon, for breakfast. His dad will be waiting for them. It seems like his dad spends all his time waiting for people to come home, though most of them have gone for good. 

That’s what astronomers do, says Róisín; they go and explore the universe. 

Liam looks up at his cousin – she is spinning round and round now with her arms spread wide – and he forgets about his dad. 

I know, he says, with a cheeky smile – he doesn’t usually talk back to her – you’ve already told me about the universe. 

She stops spinning and looks surprised for a second, then pulls his bobble hat down over his eyes. 

Glad you were paying attention, she says, before grabbing the sleeping bag from the ground and running inside. 

***

That afternoon, Liam’s dad drives them to the village fete – Róisín stares out of the truck window at the sheep watching them pass, then into the woods where the trees hide weasels and badgers. As they wind through the outskirts of the village she waves at her house, even though she knows her mum is still away. 

You OK, pet? asks her uncle.

Did you know that there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy? 

Look, he smiles, we’ve arrived.

Róisín is up and out of the car, waiting impatiently for Liam to undo his seat belt.

There are stalls lined up along the high street; sweets and candy-floss, wooden figurines painted in bright colours, so rugs of sheepskin that Róisín can’t help but touch, knitted dolls and, on the green, an assortment of engines and tractor parts that have arrived on a huge truck. 

Róisín grabs Liam’s hand – come on – and leads her cousin, running, up to the toffee-apple stall. 

Can we have one? she asks, fishing in her bag for this week’s pocket money. The coins spread out on her palm when she shakes her hand, a jangle of silver and copper, pennies and a ten-pence piece. We’ll share. 

She passes it to Liam and smiles at Mr Toffeeapple (actually it’s Mr Morris that runs the toffee-apple stall) and they go to the green and sit on one of the benches by the trees. 

He’s my Latin teacher, Róisín says, nodding at Mr Morris. 

Róisín is in a different school to Liam, though when they’re older they’ll go to the same school in the town, because that’s where everyone goes. 

Do you want to know Latin? she asks. 

He doesn’t answer; he is preoccupied with the toffee apple, so Róisín starts reciting for him anyway, or maybe for herself. 

Amo, amas, amat, she says.

Ama-mus, ama-tis, am-ant.

Lego, legas, legat. Lega-mus, lega-tis, leg-ant.

The textbooks they use in her Latin class tell stories, and actually Róisín likes the stories more than she likes amo amas amat. There is a Roman man called Caecilius who lives in Pompeii, and he has a wife called Metella, a son Quintus and a dog Cerberus. 

She knows that Vesuvius will erupt by the end of the year, but the whole family will refuse to leave their home. She’s flicked forward in the book and read the final chapters; she likes to know how things will turn out, but she doesn’t like the fact that they stayed in Pompeii. They should have run away when the ash started to fall. For now, Caecilius is going to do business in the agora and his son is playing with the dog in the garden. They are quite rich Romans; they used to have a slave but soon Caecilius is going to make him a freedman. It’s a very moral textbook. 

We could run away, she says. We’ll go on an adventure. 

Liam takes a bite of the toffee apple, smudges caramel on his chin. 

Down to the river, how about that? We can make a secret hut where no one will find us and we can explore all the country and you can bring Bobby. 

I don’t need to bring Bobby, he says, momentarily sounding older than he is; he can’t always be the baby. 

But we can build the secret hut?

She takes a bite of the toffee apple, still clutched in his hand. 

***

Liam’s dad is looking at the tractor pieces on the green, but every now and then he turns round to check on the kids. They’re like brother and sister, those two, he thinks; it is good for Liam not to be on his own all the time. The last year has been hard, on them both. 

***

The toffee-apple stick is thrown in the bin and Róisín’s on her feet again. 

Right, let’s go.

It’s starting to get dark.

But she’s pulling him along beside the green and heading for the river that runs by the village, through the woods.

Then Liam’s dad is beside them, and he’s saying, where are you two off to?

Just playing, Uncle Aedan.

Time to go home, he says, taking Róisín’s hand and trusting Liam to follow along. Your mum asked me to look after you while she’s away, he says to her, and that’s what I’m doing. 

He’s not normally strict, Liam’s dad, he’s too preoccupied, and Róisín is surprised that he even noticed they were running away. 

So, he says, fish fingers for tea?

Can we watch the comet again later?

Liam’s dad looks up; he can’t see anything so unusual about the sky. She’s a funny girl, Róisín. Head in the clouds. And always staring at the stars, just like his brother, searching for something – not that that’s any excuse for running off the way he did. Taking Róisín in for the week was the least he could do. 

Of course you can, pet, he says kindly, wondering how a father could ever leave his child. 

***

At dusk, the stars begin to appear around the comet one by one. Tonight’s the night, Róisín says; she seems more excited than ever. They’re back out by the tent and she’s arranging the sleeping bag for them to sit on.

But I’ve already seen it. 

That’s not the point. It’s not enough to just see it. You have to see it fly. You have to see it change. 

All right then. Liam looks up but her hands are suddenly clasped over his eyes. Not now. Not like this. Wait. 

She starts digging around for her maps and a sigh escapes his lips. 

***

She’s insisting he pays attention to the dots and lines on her sketch pad; some constellations are named, and they are the ones she points out to him. 

See this shape?

Yes.

OK, good, now remember that. And see here? That’s where the comet was last night. OK?

Yes, yes, yes.

Grand. I think you’re ready. And it’s nearly time.

Her ponytail has come loose in the breeze and a strip of hair is caught in her mouth. He reaches to her face and brushes it away. 

Of course I’m ready, he says, and she looks at him as if she’s pleased. 

***

Liam wonders how his cousin got to be so bossy. He likes it though, in secret. It’s not often someone tells him what to do; it’s not often that someone even notices him. He once heard his dad talking about the farm to one of his great-aunts that came to visit from Dublin. It was just after the funeral, on the day everyone came for cake. He said that the world didn’t need the farm, but that his heart wouldn’t let him leave. 

When Liam remembers that, he wonders if it was really the farm his dad was talking about. 

***

Now, I’m going to prove to you that the comet is flying faster than anything else in the sky. 

But it’s still not moving. 

She puts her notebook down on the grass and squeezes his hand tight. 

I’ll help you.

How are you going to help?

Don’t look up, look here. Remember?

She puts her map on his lap and he stares at it, trying to memorise the shapes, biting onto his bottom lip in the expression that he’s had when concentrating since he was learning to read and write; learning to build a farm with wooden blocks. 

This is exactly what the sky looked like last night, at exactly this time. Now close your eyes. 

But I’ll miss it moving if I do that. 

You won’t miss it moving, you’ll notice that it has moved, and that’s different. 

OK, Liam says with a bit of trust, and a bit of uncertainty, and a bit of something else that he’s not able to describe. 

Go on, she insists. Close your eyes. For me. Please?

This time Liam closes his eyes.

He feels Róisín moving, but keeping hold of his hand. He can tell she’s sitting up. Next, he feels the air get warmer, his shivers stop, the breeze dies down. And then she plants a kiss on his lips. It is the swift, soft kiss of children, of cousins and best friends; of someone who has known you since the day you were born. She lies back down and the breeze picks up, the smells of the farm brush over his skin. His lips feel tingly. He keeps his eyes closed as he listens to the sound of her lying back down on the grass, and listens for the sound of the comet flying overhead. What kind of sound would that make? The sound of running out past the horses’ shelter, past the stream that winds along the bottom of the field and up the hill, up to the highest point of the village, to look back at things that are small and big and that make up everything he has known in his life. 

OK. You can open your eyes now. 

Liam opens his eyes. 

***

At first he can’t find it. He looks back to the bright star it had been next to, then sideways to Róisín. He looks for the constellations, but the comet’s not where it should be. Róisín has her hair in a sideways ponytail so she can lay her head at on the ground, and she’s grinning at him like she knows a secret she’s not quite decided to share. 

It’s there now, she points. 

And it’s true. The comet has moved on. It really must be the fastest thing in the whole of the sky. It has passed by stars and through the transparent scattering of clouds and even though it looks like everything is completely still overhead now, even though he hasn’t actually seen the comet moving, he knows that it has moved. Róisín’s hand is still holding his. 

He doesn’t want to take his eyes o the sky. He doesn’t want to move. He watches the comet for a long time – longer than ever before. They lie side by side and stare at the sky and Liam wonders if staying perfectly still is the way to live in one week, in one moment, for the rest of his life. 

But when he looks back down to the farm everything has moved. He can feel the rush of the wind as the Earth races around the sun. He feels like he needs to cling on, or he will go flying off into space. Things shifted while he wasn’t looking at the ground and now the world is different; everything is beautiful, and wild, and precarious, because now he knows how the sky can change. 

Four

1759

Halley’s Comet 

In Bayeux, two sisters in lace dresses read to one another as their husbands play cards and drink cognac. The family home was once deserted, so the story goes, burned down to its stone foundations, but it was rescued by twin sisters, like them, and now it is filled with books and flowers and laughter. They read in the paper about the naming of a comet after an astronomer who did not live to see it arrive, but they are not saddened by this. They know that their house is filled with more than children – sometimes, when a comet flies through the sky, they see generations past and know that their family is tied to the skies and to their home and they are glad. 

***

That evening as the sun starts to dip they look for it in the sky, Halley’s comet – it is flying low, over the sea to the north. So the sisters take the carriage out past Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, with their three daughters and Henri, the youngest, the only son. He loves the beach, Henri; he runs along the coast exploring the caves and collecting sea-urchin shells. Don’t stray too far, his mother calls, and he turns back and waves before racing on – his mother likes to stay near Bayeux, he knows, but Henri wants to go to sea. 

The sisters watch the sky as the night falls and the stars begin to shine from the dark, but they don’t notice that the wind is building up and the waves are crashing closer to the shore. They point out constellations to their daughters and teach them to read the skies, to follow the patterns of light in the dark and watch how the comet moves between them. But then they look down. 

Where is Henri? A question at first, changing to a shout, his name called by his mama and aunt and sisters, but Henri doesn’t hear – he is trapped by the waves along the coast, the ground sinking beneath his feet as tides pull him further out to sea. He tries to gasp in air, to shout, but his mouth fills with water and his eyes sting with salt; he can’t see through the dark, through the crash of the waves, but then a hand is holding his, an arm pulled around his waist, and he is lying, coughing on the rough sand of the beach. 

Mama? he says, as soon as he is able, with his eyes still scrunched up from the salt and his sisters running to him. 

He forces his eyes open, sees the whites of the waves crashing on the rocks beyond the sand. His sisters are crying and his aunt is running deeper into the sea – why is she in the sea now? Her lace dress is ghostly as it catches the light of the stars, disappears beneath the waves, and reappears again. As she walks, falls, crawls back to the beach, her hair is soaked and sticking to her face like seaweed. She wants to collapse, but doesn’t. 

Mama? 

She shakes her head, looks down. 

Henri rushes towards the sea but his sister grabs his hand and his aunt pulls him into her arms, holding him through his cries. 

Overhead the comet continues on its journey, speeding towards the sun before circling round to race away. It travels from light to dark, from intense heat to the frozen edge of the solar system, until reaching its limit half a century later and turning, again, towards the warmth. 

***

1986

Halley’s Comet 

The fair arrives overnight; trucks and lorries and motorbikes moving snake-like through the high street, a multi-parted centipede of bright red and yellow, sparkling silver and plastic creatures and scenes of snow and forest and the Wild West. 

They set up during the day, the carousel, the twirly thing with swings that Róisín doesn’t know the name of, the rotor that spins so fast you can stay suspended against the walls after the ground disappears from below your feet. 

And that evening they open, and all the town arrives, and suddenly there are more people on the green than there have ever been. Róisín’s there with girls from school, all short skirts and coloured tights and trainers, jumpers that stop at their midriffs and hair blowing crazy wild in the wind. Róisín’s in skintight jeans, DM boots, silver hoop earrings that jangle down to her shoulders and catch the moonlight when she scoops back her dark hair. 

Is your cousin coming? they ask, all giggles; Liam has become the boy they want to impress. 

Róisín shrugs as if she thinks their latest crush is absurd, as if she couldn’t care less, but she scans the crowds as they move through the rides, past stalls, as they take turns to form a protective circle so one by one they can sip cider from the bottle concealed in her friend’s bag. And at the same time, she is somewhere else, she is above the clouds, waiting for Halley’s comet to get closer; and for Liam to find her. 

***

From the big wheel there’s a view over the trees, past the school, over fields and woodland and all the way to the farm; she thinks she can make out the sheds and stalls even in the dark, even with the fairground lights casting the rest of the world in shadow. Some kids in the carriage behind are swinging as hard as they can, screaming as they nearly overturn, almost make a full three sixty. Róisín doesn’t do that. She lets the carriage rock slowly in the wind and enjoys the world getting smaller beneath her. 

***

As she gets down she nearly trips on the metallic slats they use for steps but Liam catches her arm, steadies her. 

Didn’t think you were going to come, she says. 

His hand stays on her elbow for a moment. 

We all make sacrifices.

His face is serious but his eyes dance. 

Want to go on the rotor? 

She steps closer, lets her hand brush against his leather jacket, enjoys the way he is so much taller than her now; and without taking his hand she leads him through the queues to the only ride she really wants to go on, the only ride she thinks he might enjoy. 

Just this one, she says, then we can get out of here.

A smile is playing about his lips; they know each other so well. 

He hands two tokens to the girl by the entrance and they step inside. 

***

There are ten of them in the circular room painted red and silver. She recognises another boy from the year below at school, smiles at how young he looks compared to Liam, how Liam already seems too old for this scene. Then at the last minute Rachel comes in as well, waves at Róisín from the opposite side of the circle, although it’s Liam she’s staring at – trying to get him to notice her – but then they all go quiet and wait for the room to move and the floor to drop. 

It starts slowly; someone laughs to break the silence but not Liam or Róisín, they are both waiting for the world to spin. They put their hands at against the curved wall behind them, close to one another but not touching. Liam looks at the ground beneath their feet. It’s getting faster. He keeps his hand perfectly still but Róisín doesn’t, she moves it a few centimetres closer until her little finger touches his. It’s getting faster. And now the walls are starting to blur; red seeping into silver until they see ashes of light rather than stripes of colour, and they are pressed back hard into the wall and the floor starts to move. She can feel it sinking below her feet but she doesn’t sink with it, she stays suspended, weightless, needing nothing to stand on, closing her eyes so she can feel like she is able to fly and her hand moves again, presses over Liam’s and she doesn’t even hear the screaming and laughing of the others in the circle with them; she is soaring over the world. 

Beside her, Liam keeps his eyes open, although he wants to close them; he is afraid that if he did he would forget there are people watching. He can feel each one of her fingers over his own and as they spin faster the palm of her hand is pressed harder into the back of his and he moves his thumb in closer, holding her there, and he wants to do more than that and at the same time he likes this feeling, wants to stay in this moment of being together in a blurred world of colour and light. 

When the floor rises up to meet them he feels too heavy; it is difficult to lift his feet and walk to the exit. Everyone else has gone and they are the last, alone, in this circle of faded paint but her hand is still in his, until she steps away, reaches out for the wall to steady herself and glances back at him, over her shoulder. Her eyes are not smiling; they’re saying something else now. It’s time to move on from the rotor. He stumbles, makes it look like he is dizzy from the ride, not that the contact of her hand on his hand is still enough to make him feel like he could fall. 

***

Behind the metal fence of the carnival, behind the bikes chained up on it, there’s a row of trees that they used to climb on when they were kids. That’s where she leads him to, not running; people would see them running, but walking together without talking, still feeling the ground unsteady below their feet. She gets there a pace ahead of him, leans against the tree facing away from the carnival and as soon as she’s there he is there too, standing in front of her as she puts her arms around his waist, hooks a finger through the belt loop of his jeans; pulls him closer. 

Liam forgets to look up, to see if anyone can see them. He’s never cared what people might think, not when he feels the warmth of her hands through his shirt and is pressed so close he can feel her breath on his lips. But he pauses there, allows himself the time to enjoy the seconds before they kiss. For years now, everything has been different when they are alone. 

They hear a noise; some of the local kids are unchaining their bikes and Liam and Róisín freeze, still holding each other, breath racing in unison. The seconds drag into minutes. Róisín hides her mouth in his shirt collar to stifle a laugh; he holds her tighter, smiling too, lets his lips graze the top of her ear, lets his body press closer towards her. 

When the coast is clear she says, come on, we should get back. 

His eyes meet hers, playful, daring.

Should we?

He doesn’t want to let go, moves his face next to hers. But she places her hands on his hips.

My mum said she was coming down later, with Neil.

He takes a step backwards, swallows, then nods. He wonders if it would have made a difference to him, had his dad found someone new. 

The sounds of the funfair return, and the lights come into focus again. 

***

They stroll through the crowds like cousins, talking about the farm, about school, about nothing in particular, as Róisín nods and smiles at all the friends she sees. It’s a warm night; the clouds are keeping the heat close to the ground, shielding them from the cold of the sky. Róisín sees her mum in the distance, raises her hand in a wave when she is noticed; asks Liam with a look if he wants to come and say hello. He replies with a smile. 

Róisín’s mum asks how his dad is getting on. 

He replies about the year’s crops and the newborn calves, about the second-hand turntable his dad tinkers with every evening and the roof needing repaired. 

She suggests a roofer he already knows and he doesn’t mention that he already knows about him, thanks her. She says that he is looking well. 

The moon appears between the clouds and people from the village say hello as they are passing, and Liam, for a second, wants to put his arm around Róisín, to be able to stop feeling like he is hiding all the time except when he’s with her, alone. 

Dad says Róisín can come for dinner tomorrow, if she wants. 

That would be grand, Róisín’s mum answers, like she is encouraging her to be polite. 

Yes, Róisín smiles, of course.

She knows what he is really suggesting.

We must all get together some time, her mum is saying, a proper family Sunday lunch . . .

I’ll tell Dad, he says, though he won’t – they haven’t had a proper family Sunday lunch since his mum died. He shifts on his feet, faces Róisín, see you at school tomorrow I guess, he says; hands tucked into jean pockets, a shrug of his shoulders, and he is gone. 

Róisín looks round the funfair. It is suddenly so small, already like a memory from her childhood. 

You’ll miss all this next year, her mum says, smiling like she expects to be contradicted. 

Róisín struggles to find the words to reply. 

She’d almost forgotten she was leaving. 

Five

Severine holds her granny’s arm as they walk; she hopes her granny will interpret it as a show of a affection rather than a physical support. Her granny never much wanted support, unless it was to counter an argument with her imaginary ghosts. Severine gets a cramp in her stomach thinking about them, about her granny and her visitors; about the way her hand flew around her head last night as if brushing away a pesky mosquito, not the memories of a lifetime ago. She hadn’t seen her do that since she was a teenager. 

Not far now, she says. 

I’ve been making this walk for sixty years, I’m not going to forget the way now. 

Severine loosens her grip. 

That’s right, her granny says. I’m the one who should be helping you. 

I’m fine, Granny. 

Her granny’s face dissolves into a scowl, sweet rather than bitter on her old face, as Severine rubs her stomach. 

You do help me, she says, and her granny takes her hand in a gesture that says she always will. 

***

At the entrance, Severine pays the fee for one adult and one OAP as her granny sniffs at the price. 

It should be free for you and me, she says. You should tell them who we are. 

Who’s that then? 

The woman on the till smiles kindly at them as they pass the ticket office and head for the long, wide display room of the Bayeux Tapestry. 

***

Severine can see how other people edge around them. She wants to explain that her granny’s not dangerous; in fact, she wants to shout at them for being so bloody insensitive – this could be you, one day, you know? But she doesn’t. She pretends not to notice their stares and whispers as her granny carries on conversations with memories, only gently taking her hand to try and bring her back to reality. She brushes away the thought that they might be staring at her too, so heavily pregnant. 

Great-Grandpa Paul-François wants to see the green horse with red legs. 

Great-Grandpa Paul-François died, Granny, a long time ago. 

Now, where is that panel? 

The horses are all dark blue and yellow, you see? 

Her granny pulls away, begins pressing her face close to the glass as she sidesteps around the room. 

There, see? Oh, do be quiet, old man. She’s young; she’ll learn. Won’t you? 

What’s that, Granny?

Bright green horse, just like I said, see?

I told you there is no . . . Severine begins to say, until she sees the green horse with red legs, prancing in mid-air, dancing rather than running, oblivious to the spears and axes that surround it. The words catch in her mouth. 

She’s not convinced by her mother’s memory-loss idea; her granny’s memory seems to be sharper than the tip of an arrow. She feels that mild pain in her stomach again. No, pain is the wrong word, it is just a pressure, a reminder of what she’s carrying. 

Some tourists move behind them, abandoning their view of the green horse for someone altogether more important on the next panel; someone with a crown. 

She should talk to her mama, persuade her against sending Granny away. Not that her mama is speaking to her much these days. This is not what she had planned for her daughter. Severine suspects she’s always been a bit of a disappointment to her mama. 

Do be quiet, you great fool! Nobody wants to hear you sing. 

Severine turns. Her granny is poking at something in mid-air, and Severine can’t help but smile. 

No! her granny continues. Not even me! And she clasps her hands over her ears and begins to sing – I can’t hear you, old man – je dis que les bonbons, valent mieux que la raison . . . 

***

Let’s have a sit-down over here, Severine says, conscious of her granny’s stooped back as well as her singing; as well as the queue behind them. 

Not yet, I’m not ready yet, her granny says, calming down. I haven’t shown you what I brought you here to see. It’s important. 

You have to be more careful, Severine says. Try to concentrate on the people who are really here. 

Do I embarrass you, just like I embarrass your mother?

I think we’ve both embarrassed my mother, Severine says. 

Her granny chuckles.

Well, that’s true, God knows. 

***

What are you going to call him? her granny wants to know. 

Severine sighs; she doesn’t want to have this conversation yet. 

It’s not me that wants to know, you know.

She raises her eyebrows.

Your great-grandpa Paul-François has been asking.

Severine smiles.

I bet he has.

She tilts her head to one side, nods a few times, then holds her granny’s stare. You know, Great-Grandpa Paul-François is very keen for you to have a sit-down. 

Mais non. What he actually said was that I should hurry up and show you what I brought you here to see. And he’s quite right, too. 

Is it the Halley’s comet border? Because I saw that when I was a girl. 

No, no, not that old thing. There’s something much more important for you to see. Now, let me think. 

***

When, at last, the ghosts quieten down enough for her granny to find the panel she needs, she doesn’t even look – she points from halfway across the room and says: There. Go. Look. See for yourself. 

Severine does as she is asked, leaving her granny behind. She goes to look, and she looks carefully, and she looks for a long time. 

Two red pillars are spiralled with gold. At their tops, two dragon heads breathe tongues of fire. Between the pillars a woman stands; she is wearing a long robe of gold with a red scarf covering her head and neck. A cleric stands to her side, beyond the pillars, and he is reaching out; touching her face, no, perhaps striking her. Below them is a naked man, a dagger, a winged monster fleeing to the right. Above them, the words: Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva. She doesn’t know what it means.

Severine can see the texture of the cloth, stains that take it in patches from beige to brown, each thread of colour, the wonky lines of the pillar’s spirals, the shading on the cleric’s cloak. His fingers look long; his thumb is pointed where it reaches her face. The top of his head is bald. 

What does it mean? Granny?

She turns around.

And then there is a rush of people trying to help – tourists, schoolchildren, the security guard who sits by the door and hands out the laminated information cards. So many people that Severine doesn’t even move, she just watches while all these eager hands help her granny, check her pulse, feel for her breath, and finally go running to the phone for an ambulance. 

***

He waits for her by the closed brown gate, like he always does at lunchtime. They squeeze through the broken slats in the fence, her first, then him. The rain is floating instead of falling; Liam likes the way it lingers in the air; Róisín would prefer it to fall, like pumice instead of ash. 

Shall we go to our island? 

She nods. 

Róisín knows it’s going to be difficult to tell him the truth. She’s been putting it off for a while now. Maybe another day won’t hurt. 

***

The stream is low. They could have waded across in bare feet, but instead they balance on the fallen tree trunk like tightrope walkers, unobserved. 

They made the hut when they were still children; neither of them wants to mention how it’s too small now. They crawl inside and sit on the old sleeping bags they zipped together to make a padded floor mat. They end up with their feet sticking out of the entrance – they never got round to making a door, so it’s always been three-walled, with some rocks in the front. When all the wooden walls are gone, rotted away to more earth and soil and mud, the rocks will still be there, outlining a door-shaped gap on the ground – Look, you can see the remnants of the front wall, and here: this must have been where the door was. Can you imagine what it would have looked like? Can you imagine the people who lived here, all those hundreds of years ago? 

Róisín feels sorry for the archaeologists of the future who will get their hut so very wrong. Sorry, and also glad. It’s only fair. 

He unbuttons her shirt slowly while she talks about Rome – she’s studying ancient history as well as science; the teacher calls her a contradiction – he kisses the nape of her neck, touches her right dimple when she smiles. Her woollen tights are navy blue today, like her skirt, which unbuttons at her waist and then has to be unwrapped from side to side. She rolls over along the ground and he gently pulls the fabric until she reaches the end of the sleeping bag; still lying on part of the pleated skirt she rolls back over towards him. This is what they do – roll away and roll back again, meet in the middle of their secret childhood hut with their clothes half off and their hands damp from the stream’s spray. His hand rests on her hip; hers on his shoulder. 

You have stubble today, she says, her cheek brushing his chin. 

He pulls her closer; the sleeping bag scrunches up underneath them until they are lying on an island within an island. 

Theirs is not an urgent love; it is undoubted, whispered rather than shouted. 

Stay there, she says. Stay inside me.

She kisses him, fleetingly, inhales the warm air next to his neck. 

***

Liam rummages in his rucksack, his bare back white, patterned with criss-crossed lines from lying on the ground. 

Look; no, wait. You’ll never guess. He throws her a smile over his shoulder. OK, look. 

He has brought binoculars with him; he’s holding them out towards her, like a gift. 

Do you know what day it is today? 

She does know, but she doesn’t want to spoil his moment – she feels guilty enough already. 

Today is the day that Halley’s comet will be at its brightest in the sky. 

She smiles. However much he grows up, he will always be younger than her. 

So I thought, you know, we could look for it.

We can try, she says, but it might be better to wait till later. He looks disappointed, but it’s too faint to be seen during the daytime; she knows it’ll be masked by the sun. It is the dimmest appearance of Halley’s comet for centuries. It’s usually so bright – it’s one of the Great Comets, one of the greatest – but this year it will be invisible to the naked eye. If you don’t make a special effort to look for it though telescopes or binoculars, you would never even know it was there. It’s keeping its distance; losing interest in the Earth. 

Later then? Will you come to the farm? 

OK. 

There is a change now; a restlessness in the hut that he doesn’t want. Róisín’s getting dressed. 

Where are you going?

I have to get back to school. We can’t lie here all day. 

***

Róisín gets back to the school gate on her own.

She slips through the broken slats of the fence and into the science block before the bell goes.

She stays after class to tell her science teacher about her acceptance to Imperial College, London. He was the one who recommended she apply there; without that push, she might have stayed in Ireland, continued orbiting her home on the same path. She’s grateful. 

You’ll love London, he says. It’s a bigger world, so it is. 

His arms are wide, palms open, like even he can’t grasp how big it is; bits of London leak out from between his splayed fingers and dance on the lab bench. 

And he’s right, that is exactly what she wants – the promise of a bigger world, a cosmos, an expanding universe. She’s too tall to lie in an island hut forever. She knows it. 

As she leaves the room, she blinks, brushes impatiently at her eyes. 

***

Liam lies in the hut for the rest of the day.

The smell is of damp wood, the rush of fresh water over moss, cloud cover, familiarity, longing, loss. 

Tagged in:
BEDTIME BOOKCLUB
Books
Helen Sedgwick
Love

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