I dreamt vividly the night she died. I’ve had this dream before. In it I am running. Always running. My heart thumps in my ears. My breath comes in short, painful gasps. It is dark and cold and the trees reach out to grab at me, as if they are alive, as if they are trying to capture me with their long, twiggy fingers. Their roots are thick and hidden and I trip repeatedly. I think my feet must hurt. I look down to see that I am wearing only one slipper.
When did I lose the other?
Fear has taken hold of me now. A rising panic fills me and I begin to struggle for breath. My chest is tight, like a giant’s hand is squeezing and squeezing, making each gasp impossible. It is getting darker. I must keep running. And then, just when I think it’s all over, there it is, a glorious sunrise appears ahead and forces back the darkness. She is sitting, as she always does, in the pool of light on the forest floor. A little girl in a white nightie, soft, golden curls framing her pale face. I run to her and she lifts her head. When she sees me, she smiles. I wave and she waves back and then I laugh because she is wearing my other slipper. We both have one bare foot and one slipper. How funny! As soon as I laugh, the light begins to fade and so does she. I scream so loudly my lungs feel as if they might split open. I have to reach her before she melts away. But it’s always too late. As I stretch my fingers out to touch her, she vanishes. My hand grasps at nothing, like catching smoke.
Then everything turns black and the ground beneath me disappears. I am falling through a void, into a pit with windowless walls that stretch up for miles, walls that are slippery with darkness and impossible to climb. I am lost forever.
This is what I dreamt the night she died.
‘You should stay in the car and let me speak to him first.’
I don’t reply; it isn’t a question, so requires no response.
I stare out of the half-lowered window at the countryside we’re passing through, the sun flickering through the trees, throwing long, dappled shadows across the single-track lane and the unruly hedgerows. I draw in deep breaths of the air I grew up with, air still scented with rain-dampened grass, a hint of the farmyard a few miles beyond, the pungent cow parsley that swamps the verges. A feeling of foreboding gathers inside me as we round the familiar bends in the road and I wait for the tick tick tick of the indicator that will mean we’ve arrived.
The car slows and turns, then draws to a halt. I wait for The Old Vicarage to appear though the parting gates. But seeing the house is too much and I quickly drop my head to focus instead on my wringing hands. David reaches over and pats my knee, a brief and perfunctory gesture designed to remind me to hold myself together. I lean against his shoulder, wondering for a moment if he might take it upon himself to turn the car around and take me away from it all.
‘I always forget how beautiful it is,’ he says, as he drives slowly through the gates. ‘Your mother might have been nuts, but she was bloody good in the garden.’
I want to tell him not to be mean about her, not today, not with tomorrow still to get through. But I don’t. Instead I say, ‘Yes, she loved the garden.’
He’s right, of course. It’s a beautiful house. A perfectly proportioned grey stone rectory, thickly clad with ivy the colour of wine bottles, set in the middle of a magnificent garden enclosed by a high brick wall. Wild roses clamber around the front door. A Virginia creeper, now green and vibrant, but which glows a fiery red as autumn takes hold, pushes its tendrils into the eaves and guttering. There’s a shabby charm about the peeling paint on the window frames and the weeds that grow between moss-patched pavers on the terrace. Inside are floorboards that have creaked forever and windows that rattle in the mildest of winds. It is a place of heady memories, memories of intense love, of bolted doors and claustrophobic loneliness, and as I reluctantly lift my head to look at it, I’m hit with wave after wave of rolling emotion. The house without her, I can’t begin to imagine it.
Gravel crunches beneath the tyres as we pull up on the driveway. The trees around us seem to bow a disconsolate greeting. I see us then, me with my mother, wandering between them, my hand gripped in hers, as she taught me their names. I glance down towards the pond, at the weeping willow, its delicate branches trailing sadly in the murky water as if in mourning. The trees will miss her too.
‘You’ll be fine,’ David says, tucking the hair that has fallen over my face behind my ear and brushing something off my shoulder. ‘I’m here for you.’
I nod but don’t say anything. My attention is taken by the front door, which has begun to open. My stomach churns as my father walks onto the doorstep. He stands, slightly stooped, arms limp at his sides. As we stare at each other through the windscreen, it strikes me how old he’s become. When did this happen, this dramatic ageing? Was it a slow creep over decades, each day a fraction frailer, a fraction more withered? Or has it happened suddenly, in the last ten days, in the time passed since he greeted me in the hospital waiting room with nothing more than a solemn shake of his head.
I notice his maroon cardigan is pulled together on the wrong buttons. It sits skewed on his shoulders and my heart lurches. If I’d needed proof she was gone his badly fastened cardigan was it. Had she been alive, heart beating, it would have been rebuttoned with an impatient tut and a sigh as she neatened him for our arrival.
David climbs out of the car and I watch him approach the front door. He clasps my father’s reedy hand between both of his and shakes it. He speaks a few words. My father gives a small, tight smile, nods, says a few words in reply. They both glance back towards me and I look away.
I’m not ready, I silently cry. I’m not ready to bury my mother.
When I look back at them, David beckons me to come, as if coaxing a timid animal from a cage. I take a breath and open the car door.
My father sounds beaten. He lifts his arms towards me but then drops them. Maybe he sees my hesitation. Up close he is painfully frail. It shocks me. His eyes are faded, a pale liquid blue, the deep-purple puffness beneath them like a pair of matching bruises. His face is gaunt and wan. My mother’s death has clearly ravaged him. Neither of us speaks and I am aware of David staring at us, aware of him judging our relationship as he always does, our lack of affection, the emotional chasm between us. I force myself a step closer to my father. I should embrace him, that’s the right thing to do, so in spite of my reluctance, I reach out and open my arms. For a moment or two he doesn’t do anything and a self-conscious awkwardness creeps over me; but then, in one swift movement, he steps forward and grabs at me, pulls me into his body, holds me so tightly I grow rigid with alarm. He hangs on and as he does my anxiety seems to ease and I hold him back, clutch at the soft cashmere of his imperfectly buttoned cardigan, breathe him in, his musty bookish study mixed with Imperial Leather soap, the soap he’s used forever. My mother and I use a different brand. Pears Glycerine. I take a kick to my stomach as I remember she’s gone and that now it’s just me who carries the scent of that soap.
As my father and I hold on to each other, everything else fades to nothing – the desolate willow tree, the house that looms over us, even David’s silent judgement – all of it pales as the smell and touch of my father envelop me.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispers, his breath warm on my neck. Then his body stiffens and that rare moment of closeness is over. He steps backwards and gives a curt nod. ‘Please, both of you, do come in.’
I hesitate for a moment or two, bracing myself for the eerie quiet that pervades the space held by the grey stone walls.
Inside, the house is cool and smells of stale air and furniture polish. I feel her all around me, in the worn flagstone floor, in the reproduction oil paintings that hang on the walls, in the absence of flowers on the console table. There was never a day when there weren’t flowers in the house; she’d have hated that he’s forgotten to cut some, and her stern disapproval eddies around us.
David and I walk through to the kitchen as my father locks the front door, first the Chubb, then the chain, then the top and bottom bolts, which clunk loud and familiar as he slides them home. I can hear the house whispering, blaming me for her death.
I couldn’t have stopped it, I want to shout. Even if I’d stayed, she’d still be dead.
It’s not my fault.
The kitchen curtains are open. My stomach clenches. I should like that, I know, but I don’t. It feels wrong, as if my father is somehow being disloyal. I resist the urge to close them and sit at the table. I pass the flat of my hand over the grainy wood, pausing to scratch at an ancient mark from a felt-tip pen. This is where I did my schoolwork, every day, in this very spot, moving only for maths and science, the lessons I had with Henry in his fusty, book-filled study. My mother would sit next to me, her face serious, pencil in hand, using it to point at passages in various text books, her voice calm and firm. I loved learning. I never told her I preferred Henry’s science lessons, of course. She’d have been terribly hurt. She was a good teacher, I think, and nothing gave me a greater thrill than making her so pleased with my work that she’d stick a shiny gold star to the bottom of the page.
I look over at my father as he comes into the room. There is still a part of me that half expects him to break into a wide smile and say, Guess what? It’s only a little joke of mine. Your mother isn’t dead at all, just a bit poorly. Don’t worry yourself. She’ll be down in a jiffy. But he doesn’t. Instead he takes the kettle over to the tap and I watch as he fills it. I want to tell him he’s filling it too full, that it will take an age to boil, but the effort needed to muster the words is too great.
‘All set for tomorrow, Henry?’ asks David. ‘Any last-minute things you need me to help with?’
My father’s eyes stay fixed on the kettle. ‘Oh, that’s kind, David. But I think I’m more or less there. You’ve been so helpful already. She wouldn’t have wanted a large affair. I’ve kept it simple.’
‘Well, I’m here if you need anything. In a way it’s good you’ve managed to sort it all so quickly. I think it’s helpful to get these things over with and not let them drag on.’
Get these things over with? Did he mean to say that? I glance nervously at my father, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed my husband’s tactless choice of words; he merely nods and sets about making the tea.
Watching my father try to perform this simple task is painful. He appears hopeless as he stands in front of the pine dresser. He scans the shelves, then reaches hesitantly for a cup, which he walks to the table and deposits. Then he heads back for another. And again for a third. With three cups on the table in front of him he appears to run out of steam. I watch his confusion grow, hear him mumble that something is missing, that it looks different when she does it. A moment later a flicker of recognition crosses his face and he wanders back to the dresser, returning with a small stack of saucers, which one by one are paired with a cup. There’s an extra saucer left in his hand, which apparently throws him. The kettle starts to boil noisily, spluttering steam and water all over the worktop. He turns to look at it in mild shock, then returns his gaze to his hand, perhaps hoping the redundant saucer might offer salvation of some kind.
He needs help, but I don’t move. I sit there like a cold, mute statue and I loathe myself for it. It’s David who places a hand on Henry’s back and guides him to a chair. My father collapses into it as if he’s run a marathon, shattered by trying to make three cups of tea. I turn my head away from him; I don’t want to think about how difficult his life is going to be.
A few hours later, as David sits in the armchair in the living room and works his way through The Times crossword, I force myself to talk to my father. I find him sitting at the leather-topped desk in his study, the room where he’s spent most of his time since retiring from general practice, reading medical journals and biographies from the Great War, and preparing my lessons. I try not to look at the portrait of my mother that hangs on the wall behind him. It bears little resemblance to her – far too regal, far too thin – and the look on her face, in her eyes, has always scared me.
‘How are you doing?’ he asks, as I close the door behind me.
‘I miss her,’ I say, as I sit down in the sagging armchair in the corner of the room. ‘It feels peculiar without her, doesn’t it? Like the house has no rudder. Does that sound strange?’
‘No, not strange at all.’ He leans back and rubs his face, sighing heavily. ‘I should ask you, really,’ he says. ‘If you want to see her.’
‘Her body. Do you want to – do you need to – see her one last time before the funeral? The undertaker said you could visit in the morning.’
A shot of horror passes through me as I imagine her lying dead and grey in a mortuary drawer next to other dead, grey people.
‘No,’ I say, barely concealing my shock. ‘I don’t need to see her.’ I pause. ‘Thank you, though.’
He nods and a film of tears glazes his eyes. My body tenses; the thought of him crying is almost as dreadful as the thought of seeing my mother’s dead body. We fall into an uncomfortable, stilted silence and, in search of distraction, I let my gaze fall on the bookshelf beside me. On the second shelf are a handful of photograph albums, their spines carefully labelled with gold adhesive letters. I trace my fingers over them and select one that reads Elaine and Henry, Summer 1977.
I open the album and there she is. The photograph takes my breath. I touch my fingers to her face, then her hair, thick and blonde, the colour of honey. In the picture she wears it piled on top of her head, a few loose curls hanging down to brush against her shoulders. Her hair is so very different to my straggly tangle of mousy strands. I went blonde once. It was when I was twelve, after Henry had insisted I take swimming lessons, telling my mother as firmly as he could that me learning to swim was imperative and that she would have to overcome her fear of large groups. The next day, grumbling and griping, she bundled me into the car and drove to the hairdresser.
‘Why aren’t you cutting it, Mama?’ I asked.
‘If you’re going to take blasted swimming lessons you’ll be meeting other children. You need a good cut and some colour. Children can be so very mean. I’ve told you that. We want you looking your best.’
And then in we marched.
‘We need highlights put in,’ she said, too abruptly, to the stylist. ‘Chestnut and copper. And you’re to be as quick as possible.’
‘It takes as long as it takes, I’m afraid,’ said the hairdresser.
‘Just get it done.’
My mother, who rarely went out of the house, sat nervously tapping her foot with her eyes bolted on the door, unaware of the hairdresser conspiratorially suggesting to me that blonde would be a better choice. She made blonde sound so exotic, so thrilling.
‘They have more fun, you know. Apart from that mother of yours. No offence, lovey, but she could do with taking that stick out her arse and getting a bit of fun in her life, couldn’t she? Not blonde enough, maybe.’ The woman laughed and gave me a wink. ‘So? Blonde?’
I shrugged slightly and nodded. ‘Whatever you think,’ I managed to say, through my crippling shyness.
I can still remember the pleasure of looking at my new self in the mirror. Reflected back at me wasn’t a timid, quiet girl with mouse- coloured hair, but another girl, a girl with beautiful blonde hair that lifted her features and drew attention to her eyes. I turned to my mother. I expected to see her smile. But she was crying. At first I thought they might be tears of joy, but they weren’t. She cried all the way home, guttural sobs that shook her body and made me worry the car would spin off the road and kill us. My mother never told me what had made her so sad, so even though I couldn’t be sure it was the highlights – they were her idea, after all – I didn’t ever get them again.
I recall for a moment how her hair used to feel as I twirled my fingers into it while she read to me, wishing aloud that mine was as soft.
‘Well, I wish I had eyes as beautiful as yours,’ she would whisper, before kissing the tip of my nose. ‘Pale green, the colour of sea-glass. Just like my grandmother’s. So unfair you got them and I didn’t.’
Something my mother and I do share, however, is our skin, milk-white and translucent, so translucent you can see the network of blue and purple veins that pump our blood.
Though not hers anymore, I think and my stomach seizes with a fresh bout of missing.
I flick through the rest of the album and there, on the last page, is a photograph I can’t remember seeing before. She’s on holiday, sitting on a towel on a beach. The yellows and reds of the heat and sand are exaggerated by the seventies’ camera film. She wears a white bikini, its thick belt with a black plastic hoop buckle rests on her hip. Her hair is held loosely off her face and is flecked with grains of sand. She leans back on her hands, smiling brightly, her freckled nose ever so slightly wrinkled. I carefully lift the photograph from beneath the protective film and take it over to my father.
‘When was this picture taken?’ I ask, laying the photo on the desk in front of him. He picks it up and squints and the faintest flash of a smile dances across his face.
‘Long before you were born. In Greece.’
‘She looks happy.’ I trace my fingertips across her face. ‘I thought she didn’t like to go abroad?’
He hands the photo back to me without a word.
‘I’m sorry you have to be without her,’ I say, in absence of anything more suitable.
‘You’ll need help with the garden. Maybe a gardener could come in once or twice a week? It would break her heart to think of it becoming neglected.’
‘The garden will be fine,’ he says. ‘I can look after it perfectly well.’ I shake my head. ‘It’s not only raking the leaves and mowing the lawn, you know. I mean, you’ve never pruned a rose and there are hundreds of those.’ I wait for him to say something but he doesn’t. ‘She’d hate the roses to suffer,’ I say softly.
I turn my head to look out of the window. An evening haze has settled in. Night is approaching and soon it will be tomorrow.
Tomorrow we bury her.
I draw the curtains closed and look back at my father. ‘Yes?’
‘There’s something I need to say ... to tell you. It’s ... important...’ His voice is quiet and there’s a gravity about it that feels at odds with his grief. ‘I ... well...’
‘Yes?’ I say again, as his hesitation fades to silence.
His face has become wracked with sadness and he shakes his head. ‘No ... no, not now ... It can wait.’ His words, each syllable, are as heavy as lead, and his head collapses into his hands.
For a moment or two I simply sit there, waiting for him to regain himself. But he doesn’t. There is no movement.
‘Dad?’ I ask softly. ‘Are you OK?’
He doesn’t respond and I stand for a moment wishing I knew what to say to him, what to do, wishing I felt able to help him.
‘Would you like anything for supper?’ The offer sounds thin and insufficient.
‘Thank you, but no,’ he says, finally raising his head to look at me. ‘I’m not hungry.’
I’m shocked by the raw pain that hangs in his eyes. I don’t want to be in his study any longer. I need to get out.
‘Goodnight then,’ I say.
He doesn’t respond and I close the door behind me, feeling relief as I do. I stand outside his study for a while and find my mind wandering back to the photograph of my mother, the one on the beach. I should have pushed him harder about that. She hated the idea of going abroad. I’d always wanted to travel, and I’d been desperate to escape the walls of The Old Vicarage, to experience the world beyond. One day, on her birthday, shortly before I was due to leave for university, I’d bought her tickets to France. She’d cooked a special meal for us and after we’d finished our apple crumble and custard, I slid the card containing my gift across the table towards her. The tickets had cost nearly all of the money in my savings account, money I’d been given by Henry instead of presents for birthdays and Christmases over the years, money I’d never had the opportunity to spend.
‘Happy birthday,’ I said. My stomach fizzed with adrenaline.
But when Elaine opened the card I saw her face drain of colour.
‘They’re for the Eurostar, Mum. We’re off to France. To Paris.’
Henry stood to clear the plates without a word.
‘I know you’re nervous. I am too. But it’ll be great. We’ll go to the Louvre and visit the ‘Mona Lisa’. We can walk down the Champs-Élysées and have a meal in some fancy restaurant where the waiters wear bow ties.’
She didn’t speak. The only noise was the sound of Henry scraping food off the plates with a knife.
‘I paid for them myself. From my savings. I want to do something together. Just you and me. Before I go to university.’
Elaine’s eyes grew wide. Her body shook. I watched as her hand began scratching at her arm, her nails digging into her skin, raking over and over and over, so hard that welts and scratches began to appear.
‘Mum. Stop it.’ I reached for her hand, trying to still it. ‘You’re hurting yourself.’ But still she scratched. Harder and harder. Blood seeped out of the self-inflicted wounds.
‘Mum! Stop it. Please.’
Elaine looked at me as if she didn’t know who I was. ‘I can’t go,’ she said. Her voice was at and gravelly, and shivers cut through me. ‘I can’t ... go.’
‘It’s OK,’ I said. My heart hammered with growing panic. ‘It was a stupid idea. Please don’t do that to your arm. It wasn’t supposed to upset you. I didn’t think. I’m sorry.’
Elaine rounded on me with an anger I wasn’t expecting.
‘Promise me you won’t go. Not ever. You can’t do that to me. Promise me now.’ She grabbed my hand and dug those scratching nails into me. ‘Promise me, Bella!’
‘Yes, I promise,’ I said quickly, as her vice-like grip squeezed harder and harder. ‘I promise!’
Then she pushed away from the table. Her chair clattered backwards onto the floor and she ran from the room. I looked over at Henry, who avoided my eyes as he placed the plate he was holding on to the worktop and followed her.
And there I was, left alone at the table, with only the relentless ticking of the clock on the wall to break the oppressive silence. I picked up the tickets and tore them into tiny pieces, while the walls of the kitchen inched slowly inwards as if trying to suffocate me.
Henry Campbell – 28th July 1977
‘You’re exquisite,’ he said as he kissed her taut brown stomach, his tongue picking up the fine layer of salt left on her skin from their swim.
She laughed and reached down to run her fingers through his hair, her nails lightly raking his scalp and setting his body on fire, overwhelming him with a sudden need to be inside her.
‘Mrs Campbell,’ he whispered, drawing himself upwards, grazing her body with feathery kisses as he went. ‘I must be the luckiest man alive.’
‘Yes,’ she said, looping her arms around his neck, trailing her fingertips over his shoulder blades. ‘You most certainly are. You’re the luckiest man who ever lived.’
They kissed again, this time with more urgency, their skin growing damp with sweat where their bodies met. The heat in the room was intense. The air still and heavy. He’d already paid far more than he could afford for the room, and the hotels with air conditioning were out of his budget. She had assured him the room in the quaint, white-washed guesthouse perched on the cliff top overlooking the harbour was perfect, but he could see by the way her face fell ever so slightly when they arrived that the room was a little disappointing. She had smiled, of course. Told him not to be so silly. That it didn’t matter. That it was about the two of them being together, and anyway they didn’t need anything more than a bed. But he could tell, and it pained him.
After they’d made love, they lay tangled in the sheets, her legs, tanned and smooth, entwined with his, her honey-coloured hair so against his shoulder.
‘Do you think there’s a baby inside me right now?’
Her question took him by surprise. ‘What?’ he said with a laugh.
She propped herself up, a hand supporting her head, and stared at him intently. ‘I’m serious, Henry. Do you think it’s possible? Do you think there’s a child, our child, growing inside me right now?’
‘Gosh, I doubt it, darling. Statistically speaking, it’s highly unlikely.’
Her face fell and she snatched at the sheet, pulling it across herself as she rolled over, turning her back to him.
‘Lainey?’ He reached out to her, but she recoiled from his touch, shimmying herself further away from him, curling an arm over her head as if cowering.
‘Hey,’ he said gently, rubbing her shoulder. ‘What’s wrong? What did I say?’
For a moment she didn’t move and then, very suddenly, she snapped her head round to face him. Her eyes were narrowed and burning. ‘Statistically speaking?’
‘Well, you know, it’s ... well, you’ve just had a period and, these things ... they take time usually.’
She shook her head with contempt and he watched tears forming in the corner of her eyes. ‘Always the doctor, aren’t you? I wasn’t asking for medical facts, I was dreaming, enjoying the moment, and you ruined it. All you needed to do was dream with me, but you ruined it.’
He hesitated, unsure how she had gone from being consumed with love to being this upset so quickly and without apparent reason. He hadn’t seen this before. In fact, this was the first time he’d seen her lose her temper. He watched her face, wondering if she might soon smile and laugh and tell him not to look so serious, that she was playing with him, but instead he saw tears rolling down the sides of her face.
‘Hey, shush, shush, my angel,’ he soothed. ‘I’m sorry. I misread your question.’ He moved over to her tentatively, wiped the tears from her cheeks with the tips of his fingers. When she didn’t move away, he pulled her into him, cradling her head and stroking her hair. ‘I’m sorry, Lainey. You’re right. I was thinking like a doctor, and I can see now you didn’t want that. I’m a fool sometimes. And you know what? I can’t think of anything more fantastic than the idea of a baby, our baby, inside you right now. What a honeymoon that would be. To arrive as two and go home as three.’
He felt her body relax and she hooked her arm over his chest. ‘Oh, yes,’ she whispered sweetly. ‘That would be wonderful. To arrive as two and go home as three.’
His body flooded with relief and he kissed her forehead.
‘It’s all I’ve ever wanted,’ she said then, her fingernail tracing a figure eight on his skin. ‘A baby to care for. It’s what I need, and until I have one, until I’m holding my very own child against my breast, I can never be truly happy.’ She kissed his neck. ‘You understand that, don’t you, my love?’
‘Of course,’ he said softly. But he didn’t and as he held her closely he tried to ignore the unease that pooled in the pit of his stomach.
The following day I am woken before eight by shafts of sunshine streaming in through the window and across the bed. For a moment or two I don’t remember it’s the day of her funeral, I don’t even remember she’s dead, but then the realisation hits and in an instant I’m reimmersed in cloying grief.
David is already up, his side of the bed barely rumpled, just a dent in the pillow where his head has been. He never sleeps past six. It’s something I’ve had to get used to. I don’t like it. Not because I care when he gets up, but because it – no, he – makes me feel lazy. He makes no effort to hide his disapproval whenever I sleep late, and by late I mean anything after seven-thirty. Well, you’ve missed the best of the day, he’ll say, as he shakes his newspaper with a reproachful tut. My mother was the same. She liked me up bright and early, breakfast eaten, teeth brushed, our first lesson under way by half-past seven. I sometimes wonder what it must be like to lounge around in bed all day, mooching and daydreaming to my heart’s content. Even while I was at university, I never did it. Too conditioned, perhaps, to try it. But one day, I will. One day I’ll lock the door to keep him out and lie there doing absolutely nothing until it’s time to go to sleep again.
I climb out of bed and walk over to the window, tying the belt of my dressing gown as I go. Dread gathers in the pit of my stomach as I look out on the day. It’s beautiful. I can hear the birds singing, hidden from view in their treetop shelters. The sky is a deep cobalt blue with not a wisp of cloud in sight, and I can already feel the heat of the sun forcing its way through the single-glazed panes. The weather doesn’t make sense. It should be raining. Rain would be better, rain and dark skies, a miserable down-in-the-dumps day. My mother would have liked that. She adored the rain. Rain rinses the world of its sins, Bella. It wipes the slate clean. I look down towards the lawn and I can see her, clippers in one hand, cut roses in the other, face turned up to the sky, eyes closed as raindrops wash over her skin.
The sun shines beats down on my back as we walk slowly and silently into the church. I note the painfully sparse congregation as I take my seat and my stomach pitches. What was I expecting? I have no idea. Certainly that there might be a few relatives present. My parents never told me why they’d become estranged from their families, but I’d hoped, naïvely perhaps, that her death might be enough to heal the rifts, if only for one day. I’d got used to not having grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins a long time ago, but it breaks my heart to look around the church and see these duty-bound acquaintances scattered in pitiful ones and twos checking watches, looking bored. My mother didn’t believe in friends. The three of us, she would always say, is all we need. But looking around the church I know now she was wrong.
I glance at my father. He doesn’t cry, which both surprises me and fills me with a strange sense of relief. Instead he stares straight ahead, his hands clasped behind him, upper lip firm, his back as straight as it can be. I wonder at his lack of visible emotion. Perhaps this is due to his mistrust of religion. He never went to church despite Elaine’s best efforts to make him. She was very religious, attending church every Sunday, and always leaving clothes outside our gate for the Christian Aid lady. Her visits to church were the only times I remember her willingly leaving the house. I always had to accompany her, however hard I begged to be allowed to stay home.
‘God insists,’ she used to say. ‘He doesn’t ask for much, but if you want to avoid the Other Place – and let me tell you, you certainly do – high-days and holidays aren’t enough.’
As far as Elaine was concerned, if you had Heaven in your sights you had to show due commitment, and she despaired of Henry.
‘When you’re as old and grumpy as he is,’ Elaine would say, buttoning up my smart black coat, ‘you can decide if you’re a Godless heathen, too. Until then, you’re coming with me.’ And off I’d go, dragging my specially polished shoes and wrinkling my nose in complaint, her hand clamped around mine as she reminded me to keep my eyes on the ground and not speak to a soul.
I begin to cry when the music starts and once I start I know I’m not going to stop. David leans close and tells me to be quiet. I nod through my tears as I try to stifle the sobs.
After the service David drives us behind the hearse to the crematorium. He advised my father against a funeral car.
‘I can take us, Henry. No need to go to the expense of a second car.’
I lean my head against the window, my eyes sore and puffy, and wish I’d been more involved in organising the funeral. The whole thing feels pared down. My father even decided against a wake. Unnecessary, he said, not least because she hated the thought of people in the house, which I suppose is a valid point.
‘Can I get you anything?’ David asks, loosening his tie as we walk into The Old Vicarage after it’s all finished.
‘No, thank you.’ I stoop to bolt the bottom lock then turn the Chubb as my father walks upstairs without a word. ‘I think I’ll go for a walk in the garden.’
‘Without a sweater?’
‘It’s not cold—’
‘You need a sweater. Wait here. I’ll fetch one for you.’
I used to complain about him fussing so much, but he’d tell me it was his way of loving me, that I was lucky to have someone who cared, and in the end it became easier to let him fuss than try to battle him. And anyway, she’d always done everything for me, so really it wasn’t so difficult to accept. Sometimes I want to scream at him, to tell him how claustrophobic I feel, but I hate it when he gets angry, when his face closes down and he glares silently, so most of the time I give in.
‘Fine,’ I say. ‘I’ll take a sweater.’
‘Good,’ he says with a smile. ‘I’m glad I’m here to look after you. You’re no good at it yourself. In fact, I’ll grab one too; I’d like a breath of air.’
‘Do you mind if I go alone?’
‘You need company. I—’
‘I’ll be OK,’ I say quickly. ‘I won’t be long.’
He looks doubtful.
I breathe a sigh of relief when he grudgingly nods. I let him fetch me the sweater and then I thank him as I put it on, and quickly slip outside before he changes his mind.
Clouds of midges hang in the air and the hollow calls of wood pigeons ring over the stillness. I walk across the lawn and up to the oak tree. This is my father’s favourite place. Years ago he made the wooden bench that half-surrounds the trunk. It took him a month of weekends. Such care he took. I watched him from the window of my room, transfixed by his banging, shaping, sanding, and, every now and then, smoothing his hand over the wood, caressing it with love. Once I saw him asleep beneath the tree. I’d heard shouting the night before, angry shouting, crying from my mother, and then the back door slamming shut. In the morning I woke and caught sight of him through my window, curled up, hands wrapped around his body. It was summer, but I still remember thinking it must have been a pretty bad argument for him to want to sleep outside. He didn’t even have a pillow.
I sit on the bench. The branches of the oak tree sway in the mottled light above my head, its leaves rustling in gentle, ancient whispers. I scuff a tiny mound of worm casts with the toe of my shoe and turn my face up towards the canopy of the oak. I wish I’d stayed away from the crematorium. The funeral director said we didn’t need to be there, but it had seemed wrong to let her go alone. It was by far the worst part of the day, clinical in its coldness, with fluorescent lighting, wooden chairs in uneven rows and a coarse carpet the colour of burnt oranges. I’d had to turn my face into David’s shoulder as the red velvet curtains opened up to swallow her in a slow, onerous gulp. I couldn’t stop imagining her being spat out the other end, nothing left but a handful of smouldering ash and stubborn slivers of bone that refused to incinerate.
My thoughts are interrupted by a distant cough. I look down in the direction of the noise. My father is making his way across the lawn towards me. I raise a hand in subdued greeting. He doesn’t acknowledge me in return, but continues to trudge nearer, the weight of the world on his fragile shoulders. I wish we had a better relationship. It would be nice to be united in our grief, rather than isolated by it. Despite the odd moments when we’ve been comfortable in each other’s company – biology and maths lessons, primarily, when his face would light up and there’d be excitement in his voice – we’ve never been close. I suppose, looking back on it, my mother never gave us the space to do so. If I needed anything it was she who was there for me. Henry and I circled around her as if she were the sun, orbiting separately, yet both of us drawn to her. That was just how it was. Her family: claustrophobic, reclusive, dependent. I wish I knew what to say to pull us together now, but perhaps that’s not possible, perhaps we’re too old, too set in my mother’s ways. I reassure myself that the fond respect and detached love we have for each other is sufficient, that when our separate grief has ebbed, it will be enough to bring us comfort.
My father sits beside me. I pick up a fallen leaf, brown and skeletal, and crumble it between my fingers in silence. His brow is furrowed with deep, craggy lines and his eyes, clear and rimmed with red from private tears, appear otherworldly.
‘Am I disturbing you?’ he asks.
‘Not at all.’
‘Good.’ He clears his throat. ‘Bella...’
‘I ... I need to talk to you...’ But then, like yesterday in his study, he stops himself.
‘What is it?’
‘Oh.’ He seems caught off guard. ‘Yes ... I...’ His voice trails away and his attention is caught by something unseen and far away. en he turns back to me. ‘How’s work?’
‘Yes, work,’ he repeats. ‘Is everything going well at work?’
I know it isn’t what he wants to ask me but I answer as if it is. ‘Work’s fine, thank you. Not too much drama in a university library.’
‘Good.’ He hesitates. ‘That’s ... good.’
I wait for a few moments in case he manages to say whatever it is that’s on his mind. But he doesn’t. I won’t push him. I’m sure when the sadness of my mother’s death has lessened he’ll be able to tell me.
I glance up at the branches above us. A breath of wind blows through them, sending the shadows of the leaves dancing over me. ‘It’s nice here, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘Under this tree. I can see why you love sitting here. It’s very restful.’
The noise that escapes him makes me jump. It’s a strange, plaintive mewling, as if he is physically hurting from an unseen wound. His face has crumpled. His eyes are tightly closed, tears escaping them as his head shakes imperceptibly.
‘Dad? Oh, Dad.’ I take hold of his hand. ‘It will get easier, I promise. It doesn’t feel like it, but it will. You’ll be alright. We’ll both be alright.’
He squeezes my hand then pulls away as he tries to hold himself together, tries to contain the outpouring of emotion. He shakes his head again then opens his eyes and turns to me. ‘She loved you,’ he says, his voice a quiet rasp. ‘She loved you very much.’
‘I loved her too.’
‘And I’m sorry for the terrible mistakes we made.’ He grips the edge of the seat with both hands as if he’s trying to draw strength from the very wood itself.
‘There were no mistakes. I was happy. I promise you. In the most part, I was very happy.’
He seems to shrink further into himself and wearily rubs his face with his hands. ‘I wish I was a stronger man,’ he whispers.
A sudden gust of wind blows from nowhere and sends the branches above us into an agitated flurry. I wrap my arms around my body as a shiver passes through me.
What is it they say – someone’s walked over my grave?
‘You know, if you want to come back with us for a few days, you’re welcome. If you think you’ll be lonely. It’s a big house for one person.’ I can’t imagine wanting to stay here alone. Too many things that would stop me from sleeping. The creaks of cooling timbers, the terrifying staircase that leads up to the attic room, the shadowy corners and damp walls that seem to breathe.
And now the ghost of my mother.
He doesn’t appear to have heard me. He sits back and smoothes both hands down the length of his thighs. Then he stands.
At least I think that’s what he says. His voice is so thin and quiet, I can’t be sure.
I watch him shuffle back down towards the house. If it’s possible, he appears even older than he did yesterday, even more withered and frail, as if another unexpected gust of wind might lift him into the sky like a kite.
I sit beneath the oak tree until the chill in the air becomes too much. Back in the kitchen, I scoop up my mother’s cat and push my face into his soft fur. There has always been a longhaired grey cat in the house. This one is version number three. I sit down and begin to stroke him, but he refuses to purr and soon jumps off my lap and skitters out of the room.
‘You were longer than you said you’d be,’ David says, as he appears in the doorway.
‘My father joined me. He wants to tell me something but can’t seem to get the words out. Has he spoken to you?’
David shakes his head. ‘It’s going to be hard for him. She was a strong personality.’ He touches the backs of his fingers to my cheek. ‘I’ll heat you a mug of milk while you shower and wash your hair.’
By ‘strong personality’, my husband means difficult. I often tell him he just has to accept the way we are. He might think my parents are different, peculiar, but isn’t that like all families? Doesn’t every family appear strange to the outside world? I try not to let David’s disdain bother me. He and my mother never saw eye to eye, but then I knew they never would. Although they both forced smiles every time they were together, the mutual distrust was palpable. They were in constant competition over who knew what was ‘best’ for me. Being in the same room as them, simultaneously trying to be both loving daughter to her and adoring wife to him, was exhausting.
On my way upstairs I pass my father’s study. The door is closed, a crack of light visible beneath it. I press my ear to the door and hold my breath as I try to listen, but I can’t hear anything.
‘Goodnight, Dad,’ I say through the door. ‘I’m tired. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well.’
I wait for a reply, but it doesn’t come. I should go in, but the thought of having to face his desperate sadness and shackled tongue again stops me, so I turn and walk as quietly as I can upstairs. The house watches each step I take. When I reach the top I turn towards the spare room. I lower my eyes as I pass the staircase that leads to the attic room. My heartbeat quickens. Narrow and dark, the top in blackness, as if the treads are never-ending. I won’t look up. It doesn’t matter how much I reason with myself, tell myself it’s only a staircase to a room that’s filled with boxes and broken furniture and unwanted books, that every house has a space for these things, and it’s only an attic, it still scares me.
David is already propped up in bed by the time I get out of the shower. My skin tingles from the burn of the hot water and it feels good to have clean hair, to wash away the tightness on my face left over from crying. I climb in beside him, wriggling out of my towel when I’m safely beneath the duvet. Even after eight years, I am self-conscious being naked around him. He has this way of looking at me that unnerves me, like a greedy child staring at a chocolate cake. I should be flattered, I know. I wish I wasn’t so uptight, so prudish, that I was the type of girl who could strip off and run through the rain without a care in world. I reach for the mug of milk he’s left on the bedside table. He closes his book and rests his hand on my shoulder.
‘My beautiful thing,’ he says. ‘I have to say, I’m glad you’ve put some weight on. You were getting too skinny. And you know what I say...’ He runs his hand down over my chest. I try not to tense, and stare intently at the patch on the ceiling where the paint is discoloured by ancient damp. ‘Never trust a skinny woman. There’s something wrong about a woman who doesn’t like food. No passion.’ He bends his head and kisses my breast. His greying hair is so against my skin, his day’s growth of stubble is rough. I put the mug down on the bedside table then shift over on my side, moving myself away from his lips.
‘Do you think my funeral will be like hers?’ I ask, hoping to divert his attention.
‘In what way?’ he says, as he presses his body into mine.
‘No real friends; just you, my father, and a handful of unmoved others.’
‘Is that funny?’
‘I’m sorry. No.’ He hooks a finger under my hair and exposes my neck, which he kisses. ‘It won’t be like that.’
‘How do you know? I mean, who would come?’
‘Jeffrey and Barbara for a start.’
‘That’s because they’re your friends. Not mine.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. We’re married; they’re our friends. Anyway, you work in the college library, Jeffrey’s your employer. And some of the college staff, they’ll come.’
‘They’ll be the unmoved others.’
He rolls away from me, his face clouded over. ‘Bella. You’re twenty-eight. Stop worrying about your funeral. You’d be better off worrying about mine. I’m forty-seven in three months.’ He makes a groaning sound. ‘God, forty-seven. How bloody awful is that? Lucky I’ve got you to keep me young, isn’t it?’
‘Why don’t I make friends, David? I’ve never had any. My best friend, no, my only friend, was imaginary. How tragic is that?’
‘It’s not tragic at all. Anyway, you don’t need friends. You have me.’ He kisses me again. ‘And lots of children have imaginary friends.’
He laughs. ‘No, of course I didn’t.’
And then his face gets that look and I know he wants sex. He pushes his lips against mine, his tongue prising my mouth open as he moves his hand beneath the duvet and between my legs.
‘Do you mind if we don’t,’ I say, trying to move myself away. ‘I don’t feel like it, not after today.’
‘But I’d like to. And you don’t mind, do you?’ He rubs it against my thigh. His breath is hot and wet on my neck. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be quick.’ And then he parts my legs and rolls on top of me and I bite down on my lip as he pushes himself into me.
Henry Campbell – 12th February 1983
Henry rubbed the sweat off his neck with a towel and leant back against the squash court wall with a happy laugh.
‘Good game, Fraser,’ he panted. ‘Shame you still can’t beat me though.’
‘Shut up, I nearly had you in the third and if you’d not barged me I’d have taken it.’
‘You should have called a let then.’
‘What? And have you call me a pansy for the rest of the day? I don’t think so.’
Henry laughed. ‘You know me too well.’ He stood and began packing his things into his squash bag. ‘How’s Mum?’ he asked carefully, without catching Fraser’s eye.
‘She’d like a call from you. She doesn’t know what she’s done. Why won’t you go and see her?’
Henry didn’t answer immediately. He hoisted his bag onto his shoulder and moved towards the court door. ‘It’s not like that. I’m not avoiding her. We haven’t found a date that suits all of us, that’s all.’
‘She also wants to know what your plans are for Christmas.’
Henry sighed. ‘Jesus, Fraser. It’s only September.’
‘I know, but come on, Hen, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, it’s early, but she wants to make plans, and so do I, to be honest. Abby and I will take the children to Pembroke to stay with Abby’s folks if you’re not going to be with us. They’ve said Mum and Dad can come too, but Mum won’t say yes until she knows what you and Elaine are doing. I know Elaine won’t want to come to my in-laws, but you’re both welcome, of course. Anyway, if you want to come to Mum and Dad’s, we’ll say no to Abby’s parents. It’s been ages since we’ve spent Christmas with you.’
‘Fine. I’ll talk to Lainey on the weekend. I’ll let you and Mum know on Sunday. Is that OK?’
‘Sure. Thanks. Really hope you’ll be with us. We miss you.’ Fraser patted his brother’s shoulder. ‘Want to grab a drink?’
‘I should get back.’
Fraser laughed and shook his head. ‘She really does have that leash tight, doesn’t she?’
‘Shut up, Fraser.’ Henry bristled at his brother’s comment.
‘Well, she does. Women shouldn’t tell their husbands what to do all the time. You’ve got to stand up to her. Grow some balls, man.’
‘Will you leave it? For God’s sake, you have absolutely no idea what we’re going through.’
‘Look, all I’m saying is I’m sure you can have a drink with your brother every now and then without your wife throwing some sort of crazy fit.’
Henry took a breath to steady himself. Getting cross with Fraser wasn’t going to solve anything. Truth be told, a drink with his brother was exactly what Henry felt like. But Fraser was right. If they went for a drink, by the time he got home, she’d be raging. ‘She’s my wife. I love her and I’m going home because I want to, not because she tells me to. I don’t want you to speak about her like that again. Do you understand?’
Fraser and Henry stared at each other, both of them tense, both prickling with truths they wanted to tell.
It was Fraser who stepped back first. ‘Sure, Hen. No problem. I just thought we could have half an hour for a drink. That’s all.’
The tension in Henry’s body eased ‘I know. Look, things at home are just a bit tough at the moment.’ He sighed heavily. ‘Lainey had another miscarriage, if you must know. She’s not taking it well and she needs me right now.’
‘I see. I’m sorry about that. That’s bad luck. Is there anything I can do?’
Henry laughed bitterly. ‘No, Fraser, unless you can make my wife stop miscarrying, then there’s nothing you can do.’
Henry saw his brother’s face fall and was stung by guilt. Christ, it wasn’t as if it was Fraser’s fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. All the specialists they’d seen over the last five years had cleared them both of blame. There was nothing wrong with either of them. Nothing to explain the devastating losses with which she was having to cope.
When Henry got home he found her crumpled in a heap on the kitchen floor. Her head was bowed, her mane of hair falling over face, legs bent at the knee, hands clutching a disintegrating piece of kitchen roll sodden with tears. When she looked up at him, he saw her face was raw from crying, puffy and blotchy, her usually porcelain cheeks streaked with smeared mascara.
‘Oh, Lainey, sweetheart. I’m here now. I’m home.’
‘Where ... have you ... been?’ she asked weakly, her words coming between snatched breaths.
‘I told you,’ he said, as he sat beside her, putting his arm around her shoulder and pulling her close to him. ‘I went to the club for a game. You remember?’
‘I tried to call you at work. I wanted you to cancel it and come home, but the receptionist said you’d left already. It was only four-thirty. How come you’d left already? And then I thought you’d be home, but you didn’t come. I ... I thought you’d come ... home.’
‘My last patient cancelled, sweetheart. Roger said I could go – he said he’d stay on to see anyone who showed up.’
Her eyes narrowed and a chill set in. He braced himself. ‘Were you with Fraser?’
The diamond edge to her voice cut through him. He would need to choose his words carefully if he was to avoid one of her turns. He took a breath to steady himself. ‘Yes, I was with Fraser. We arranged the game weeks ago. We played squash. But I came straight home.’
‘I can’t believe you didn’t cancel the game! Our baby died seventeen days ago. Our baby died, Henry! How could you not cancel? You know how upset I am. You know how difficult this is for me. You know ... you ... know, Henry.’
‘I’m here now, Lainey. I’m here now and everything is going to be alright.’
‘You know what, Henry?’ She spat the words out as she got to her feet, then she stood looking down on him, arms crossed tightly. ‘Everything is actually pretty far from all right. Nothing is right. I’m going through all this and you can’t even cancel a game of squash? I don’t even know you. I mean, how can you play a game of squash at this time? Do you have any heart at all?’
‘Shut up, Henry. Shut up! You know how much I wanted this baby. I thought you wanted it too.’
‘You don’t! If you did there’d be no way you’d meet up with your brother for a game of squash when another of our children has died. You’d be too sad. You’d be too sad to have a fun game of squash with your brother.’
Henry stood and put his hands on her arms. He spoke softly. ‘I’m sorry. I really am. I should have realised you were too fragile to leave.’ He rubbed her arms, rhythmically, softly, watched her features for signs of softening. Her eyes stayed cold as she considered his words, flicking back and forth, searching his face for God knows what. At last he saw a slight crack in her steeliness, and he breathed out, took hold of her hands. She moved forward and rested her forehead on his shoulder.
‘Will you hold me, Henry?’ she whispered. ‘Just sit on the sofa and hold me in the dark until I fall asleep? I feel desperate. I picked up a knife while you were out. I held it against my wrists and thought how easy it would be to end it. All this pain. Will you hold me?’
‘Of course I’ll hold you. All night if you need me to.’
She nodded and then stepped back from him. Then she smiled and ran her hands through her hair in an attempt to tidy it up and he saw she was back. Her face had relaxed. The episode was over. ‘So how was Fraser?’ she asked. ‘Was he well? And Abby and the children?’
‘He was fine,’ he said, trying to make his voice light so nothing could be read into his words. ‘It was good to see him. He asked about Christmas.’
‘And you told him we’re going away? You told him we’re going to the Canaries for some sun?’
‘It wasn’t the right moment. But I will.’
‘You must. You need to tell him. I need rest, Henry. A break and some sunshine. Just you and me together; we need to be alone. The last thing I need is to be stuck in your parents’ house with those awful, screaming boys. They’re a nightmare and you hate them. Remember how much you hate them? So, you’ll tell Fraser? And your mother? The last thing I need is more stress. Honestly, Henry, I was so close to hurting myself.’
‘I’ll tell them tomorrow.’
He leant forward and took her in his arms. He felt so helpless. Why couldn’t she just stay pregnant? She needed a baby more than anything else. If she had a baby he’d get his wife back. She would return to normal and they would be happy again.
I wake feeling disloyal. Restful sleep seems disrespectful to my mother, all ash and bits of unburnt bone in her cold brass urn.
David is at the kitchen table eating toast and marmalade and reading the paper.
‘We’ll head home this morning,’ he says.
‘Don’t you think we should stay with my father?’
‘We’re on the end of a telephone if he needs us.’ He looks at me. ‘We should give him some space, Bella. I’ll drive you back here in a week or two.’
‘When do you want to leave?’
He glances at his watch. ‘Within the hour. I thought I’d pop to the supermarket first and stock up for him. There’s no food at all in the house and we don’t want him to starve, do we?’
‘No,’ I answer. ‘We don’t want him to starve.’
I call for my father, first in the house and then out of the back door in the direction of the oak tree, but there’s no answer. I knock on his bedroom door, wait for a moment then peep in. He isn’t there, he’s up already, bed made. I hover on the threshold. The room smells of her and is filled with her belongings – her slippers at the foot of the bed, her makeup and perfumes lined up on the mantelpiece, her book and reading glasses waiting patiently on the bedside table – all of them trying to create the illusion she’s alive. I look at the chair in the corner of the room, a small tartan armchair that Henry used to carry through to my bedroom when I was ill. My mother would sit beside me all night, stroking my head with cool flannels if I had a temperature, holding my hair back if I was sick, soothing me with lullabies and rocking me. I remember waking from fitful sleeps, hot with fever, and she’d be there, right beside me, so whispers of reassurance.
I back out of the room and walk along the corridor. I pause at the foot of the attic staircase.
‘Dad?’ I call up tentatively. I listen hard but can’t hear anything. He could be up there. Maybe sorting out some stuff. I put my foot on the first step but hesitate. My heart thumps. I remember her screaming at me when she found me sitting outside the locked room. She screamed so loud I thought my ears would burst. She ran up the stairs, two at a time, and grabbed my arm. She pulled it so hard I cried out in pain.
‘Don’t you ever go up there, do you hear me?’ she said after she pulled me down and we were sitting together in the kitchen. ‘It’s dangerous up there. It’s full of furniture that would fall on top of you and crush you, you silly girl.’
Later I remember Henry moving my shoulder in circles. It hurt so much I fainted and when I woke up he gave me chocolate.
I tell myself not to be so pathetic and I walk up the staircase. I pause at the door. There is no handle. Just a square hole where the handle should thread. I hold my breath and listen. No sound.
‘Dad?’ I say again. ‘Are you in there?’
But there’s no reply.
‘No sign?’ David asks, as I come down the stairs.
‘I suppose he might be out walking.’
‘Yes, more than likely.’
‘Though I’ve never known him go out for a walk before.’
David stands and stretches his back. ‘Well, you go and pack our bag while I do this shop. I might be a couple of hours. The seal’s degraded on the shower head, that’s why it was dripping. I’ll fix it but I need a few bits from the DIY store.’ He walks over and takes hold of my shoulders. ‘And don’t look so worried; I bet you he’s back before I am.’
I wait until David leaves and then shout for my father again, unable to keep the panic from my voice. ‘Dad! Henry! Where are you!’
I walk down the hallway to his study. The door is closed. He could have fallen asleep in his chair. He sometimes does that, and without my mother to marshal him upstairs to bed, it’s possible he’s stayed there all night.
I reach for the handle and turn it slowly. I push the door open. It’s dark inside. The heavy curtains are pulled shut and there’s a strong smell, warm and sweet with alcohol and damp. I walk over to the window and pull the curtains open. The room floods with light.
When I turn around, my heart stops.
‘Dad?’ I whisper. I want to scream, to run, but I’m frozen.
My father is at his desk. He is slumped back in his chair, mouth gaping as if calling out to someone. His skin is bleached. His eyes are wide and glassy and stare at nothing. Two deep gashes run up his forearms from each withered wrist and beneath his flaccid hands is a large pool of blood as dark as molasses. Beside it, lying bloodied and quiet, is a knife that belongs in the kitchen.