Chapter 5: I’ll still destroy you
Is it possible to have a soundtrack to depression? The thing about depression is that once you’re out of it, you’re out of it. You’re suddenly like everyone else again. It’s very difficult to describe what it is like at its peak. When you start thinking rationally it is almost impossible to put into words the processes in your mind that make you feel worthless – that you would prefer not to live.
This might just be my experience, but I would not describe what I felt as sadness. It is not like the feeling you get when you listen to a depressing song. We all feel sad and melancholic at times but this was something more. It’s like feeling so empty you can’t bear one more day carrying around with you that expanse of nothingness.
The days before Easter weekend there was this intense paranoia and self-loathing. A voice shouting how worthless I am, how everything is my fault. It was like this switch flipped and I would hear it over and over. Flaws and failings. That’s it. Numbness and supersensitivity because every little thing would be evidence of my worthlessness. I might go out with you if you still had your flat. My friends are everything to me. Throw away comments from Sarah, but I somehow saw them as evidence of my inadequacy and let them ruminate until something in me broke.
When I was transitioning through my teens, from the Games Workshop-obsessed board-gamer to what was effectively a wallflower at the cool kids’ house parties, I traded up my little painted orcs and druids for music – rare albums on vinyl and an acoustic guitar – in an attempt to make myself cool. I had thought an obsessive knowledge of indie and rock music would be the key to getting girls to notice me. After all, did not all women secretly want to be the girlfriend of a budding rock star?
No, not all women apparently, and of those who did, the majority seemed to prefer global superstars to a seventeen-year-old whose greatest musical achievement was covering two Ocean Colour Scene songs.
My bedroom at Loughborough Road was the converted attic. With Katie finally gone to bed, I quietly passed her door and climbed our second staircase. I switched on only my small bedside lamp and put on my headphones. The album on my turntable was Sleep Well Beast by The National. Those not interested in indie music, Pitchfork or post-punk, would not have heard of them, and I have no desire in going all High Fidelity. Let’s just call them an American rock band, now in their 40s, who sport suits and cardigans rather than tattoos or ripped jeans, and won a GRAMMY in the Music for Solitary Men Approaching Middle Age Who Take Themselves Too Seriously sub-genre.
This would be the way I would spend my evenings that summer and into autumn; lying on the bed, letting my stereo play, in my quaint little attic room, which I had converted into an emotional sanctuary. Before Sarah and I had so destructively parted on Easter Thursday, I had already planned to squat at Dad’s house. Technically, the house was meant to stay vacant until probate had been decided – that was the agreement Ellie and I had made with the potential new owner. But at the time I was sub-renting at my fourth Airbnb in a five-person house share. The Sarah situation was already going south and I desperately needed time alone. After our argument, I felt alive with vindication, that she was the one in the wrong, she was the one who had led me on, she was the one with the pathological need to be adored. At least that was what my head was partially saying. Another voice was also telling me what had happened was all my fault. I was in my mid-thirties, homeless, with no prospects, in a job I had no passion for and with hardly any friends or family anymore either. Sarah did not want me because, put simply, I was not good enough for her.
This one’s like your sister’s best friends. In the bath. Calling you to join them.
The song played through my headphones as I looked up at the skylight above my head. It had its blackout blind drawn, but I occasionally saw it flicker as air would get through the seal. I should be too old for transcribing song lyrics and ascribing meaning to them, but please humour me.
We all need something at times. A quirk, a place to go or perhaps a hobby that completely and solely belongs to us, and no one has to understand or needs to know. ‘Scott, I’d like you to make a list,’ Camille said during our first session. ‘Of all the little things that bring you joy. Be it a favourite meal, a place you like visiting, something you used to really enjoy doing. Then give yourself permission to go out and do them.’ I think Camille had meant a walk around Highgate cemetery, or sitting in a Chinatown restaurant at lunch, or watching an old film just to feel something akin to myself again. All these were on my list. But so was this song.
This one’s like your sister’s best friends
Having a popular older sister with a set of pretty, well-developed friends, who would spend countless days sitting around the house, was a source of both fascination and self-conscious anxiety growing up. I’m sure they knew I would stare at them, especially which part of them my eyes would find themselves resting on. Rather than nurture my confidence with women, I became all too aware I was Ellie’s geeky younger brother with thick glasses who built models of orcs and warriors in his bedroom. But it was a homely image. And like many a man growing up with an older sister, I very much related to that lyric. It reminded me of simpler times.
There were other lyrics like it. I have no idea where The National stand on copyright infringement but sometimes depressing songs can be just the antidote you need for battling depression. Each line transported me away from that friendless attic room and back to a part of my life I found altogether more reassuring.
This one’s like your mother’s arms…
When I began sorting through some of Dad’s belongings I found the photographs of all our old holidays. We were at the seaside. Mum looked so young. She was ridiculously beautiful. She probably still is. I guess having one of your parents leave is not overly uncommon these days so that feeling of abandonment and longing can be considered pretty much universal. Perhaps too those feelings of regret and nostalgia when you look back to a simpler time when everything seemed so perfect, or at least compared to those weeks, months and years after when there was an unspoken hole in our lives.
It was only a song. I stared up at the sloping ceiling and the attic skylight. The never completely pitch black London sky kept creeping through the sides of the blind. There was one line though, which reminded me of Dad. I was back at our old house and inside our conservatory. It was a summer night and Dad was scoring into slices of orange peel and dropping them into glasses. ‘It’s the oils, you see,’ he explained, adding a precisely measured amount of gin and topping it with tonic. He did make the best gin and tonics. When I was old enough to join him, we would sit there in these large wicker chairs with the conservatory doors open and look out on the garden as if the world and all its problems were a million miles away; this one’s like the wilderness. Without the world. I’m gonna miss the long nights, with windows open.
I don’t think depression is brought on by one single event like my argument with Sarah. As I would lie on my bed that spring and summer, most notably after my sessions with Camille, I thought back to those memories brought on by that song. What they all had in common was I was a little bit sad in each. The awkward teenager whose sister despised him and lacked friends of his own, let alone a girlfriend. The small boy whose mother was one moment loving and then absent the next. And the thirty-something whose best friend was a man in his mid-sixties who had left him too. It all felt a culmination. Like I said, it’s not exactly rational. The sky is getting white. I can’t find a lighter anywhere, I’m going crazy. But I’m not crazy. Perhaps that was the line in the song that made me love it. It was the only one who told me at the time that I was not crazy.
I was still fully dressed, but I closed my eyes, wrapped my duvet around me and switched off my lamp. I imagined depression as a young child standing with their heels against the wall having their height measured. I imagined it growing with me as I got older, a friend from childhood, in the room as I stood awkwardly staring at my sister’s friends, watching over me in the days after Mum left, at the drinks cabinet as I stared at Dad’s empty chair. Someone familiar, even nostalgic. Each time that little bit taller.
I then saw depression back in April hovering in the shadows at Dad’s house as I took the first of the pills. A mythical Golem, lurking in the corner of every room, waiting, biding its time.
I woke up with a start as my phone buzzed loudly. Since Sarah and I had stopped speaking my phone was largely devoid of messages, especially late-night ones. Reaching over, I wondered if it was her, perhaps one last message, maybe she missed me now I was gone. I am not saying I would have welcomed a reunion with Sarah, but there are times when I did look back at those early days and did miss some form of human connection. Or perhaps it was my mobile network informing me I had run out of data again.
It was not Sarah. Or Vodafone. But a message from Mike, my brother-in-law.
You might want to go to the house tomorrow. Orletta’s been in touch.
Chapter 6: Our House…
When I arrived back in the country for Dad’s funeral, it was Mike who did all the driving back and forth between Brighton and London, helping with arrangements and carrying messages between Ellie and me. It was also Auntie Pam who did her usual stalwart job of seeing us through, getting us into line and somehow knowing the ins and outs of burying not just my father but her younger brother. That was something we took for granted over the years: Auntie Pam’s steadfastness. She was the opposite of Mum in that respect. She had had a distinguished career as a senior anthropologist working all her life for the Royal Society. She was married once, had no children, but seemed far more content to dedicate her life to order and answering the big questions regarding the origins of man.
Growing up, we were the children who were permitted to run wild and free. However, a visit to Auntie Pam had us doing chores and eating pea soup for dinner – all chocolate was confiscated at the front door. ‘I won’t have them running around on sugar and e-numbers. You might as well be feeding them rat poison,’ was one of her popular sayings. She was divorced and, as I said, had no children of her own. Only us, and we were not too thrilled at the time by the association. But what you dread when you were younger becomes a comfort as you grow older. Auntie Pam was always there for us and even more so when Ellie and I drastically let her down that Christmas Eve a year ago.
The service was at eleven o’clock – prayers at St Augustine’s and then to the cemetery. Our family solicitor – Auntie Pam’s first husband – told us Dad had left wishes for such a day, he was to be buried for eternity underneath the ground eight miles from our family home. That was its own relief as making decisions would have involved Ellie and me having to communicate, but, at the time, we seemed to both find comfort in each other’s absence.
It had been six months since we last saw each other. I was in London for a couple of weeks at the start of the summer, and we had spent a weekend at Dad’s taking the kids to parks and then sitting up drinking wine. When Mike had offered to pick me up from the airport, I had assumed Ellie and I would have some time to sit quietly and talk about Dad. Or if that was too touchy-feely just sit together in silence and try to acclimatise. But she had relayed to Mike that with having to get the kids ready it would be easier to all meet directly at the church. She, Mike and the kids would travel up on the day so I would not see Ellie until the funeral service itself.
In hindsight, it was not unreasonable of Ellie, and if I stepped into her shoes I would see the challenges of trying to balance childcare and grief. But at the time, I felt it gave me the moral high ground as it was her way of having yet another dig at Dad. I remembered those teenage years especially those days before she left for university. All she did was goad him and yell at him and do her very best to humiliate him before abandoning him. And he just allowed it to happen. However, I wasn’t going to let it. Not that day. Not on his last day.
That day was never going to be all sunshine and rainbows, but for those attending, it would forever be remembered for one public spectacle. For me, yes, that moment would mark a low point in my quest for emotional maturity, however when breaking down the day’s events, two other probably more significant developments also occurred. The first was seeing the girl I loved.
It’s funny what we remember. And when. Those Proustian moments that arrive when you are doing nothing more than opening the garden gate to your once family home. I walked up the path looking up at the brickwork and the tall windows. I quietly opened the front door and felt a familiar air flow into my lungs. The hallway, always catching the light in the mornings; the staircase which we would come running down; the entrance to our long sitting room; Ellie’s piano still in pride of place and, just beyond, our dining table, chairs tucked in and placemats still laid out. It was quiet, too quiet, no signs of life in those rooms and I didn’t need to venture forwards to either the kitchen or Dad’s study. Instead, I climbed the stairs and made my way across the landing to what I still referred to as Mum and Dad’s room.
I saw her before entering. She was standing at the window looking out, the floor-length voile curtains blowing in the light wind making her look taller.
‘She’s taken the dresser,’ Ellie said without turning around. ‘And the ottoman. And the chest of drawers. But not any of the shit Dad got from Ikea, funnily enough. And she left the curtains. I guess whatever transport she had was already full from pillaging.’ The room was indeed bare. Spacious and tranquil, and Ellie looked like a ghostly vision as the warm light filled the room, bouncing off the champagne walls. ‘I thought you would be at work,’ she said, again still absently staring out the window. I wondered how long she had been like that. There was no doubt she had seen me lingering in the street outside.
‘I took the day off.’ Not quite a lie.
‘Lucky for some. What is it you do again? It’s so difficult to keep track.’ The first dig. It only took her three sentences. She was good – she knew just where to jab the knives.
‘Ha. For a second you sounded just like Mum.’
We’d not even made eye contact and the passive-aggressive point scoring had begun. I looked around at what had been left behind: the bed and bedside tables, and the wardrobe. In the twenty years since Mum left, Dad had not changed the room one bit. And I never thought about questioning whether that was healthy until now.
‘Fuck this,’ said Ellie, spinning around and walking across the room, past me and out of it. ‘I told Mike I would handle it.’
I followed her onto the landing and down the stairs as she went off on her low-level monologue. ‘I didn’t need him to postpone his session work. And that I didn’t need my little brother tagging along while I sort this mess out.’
‘But it’s not really up to you to decide that is it, Ell?’ Ellie ignored me, ducking her head into each room apparently looking for something. We made it to the kitchen and on the breakfast table was an official-looking letter. She picked it up and thrust it at me.
‘Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts requests proceedings commence for the clearance of Number 1 Queen Mary Grove in advance of the sale of property,’ I read. ‘All possessions deemed the property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts will enter auction at Southgate Auction House on January 14th 2019. We ask you to hence remove all articles not deemed legal property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Roberts prior to the aforementioned date. All articles deemed property of Mrs Orletta Imogen Robert are listed as inventory on the enclosed annex and any such removal shall be deemed theft…’ I tailed off towards as Ellie stared at me.
‘Did you know her middle name was Imogen?’
Ellie then grabbed a small collection of papers which had been under the letter and thrust them at me too. It was the enclosed annex. For someone who didn’t want me tagging along she seemed pretty insistent I be kept up to date. There were a lot of pages.
‘Hang on, when did she have this done?’ Ellie shrugged. ‘Like, someone’s come in and looked at everything. This page has all of Dad’s books – all of them. There’s…’ I did a rough count of the rows and columns ‘… nine hundred books. None of these are hers. Why does she…’ I suddenly felt agitated seeing everything in the house listed in black and white. ‘But this is everything. There’s a watch I bought him for Christmas here.’
‘Don’t worry, Scott. There’s some shit in the basement she doesn’t want. We can sue each other over that if you like.’
Ellie walked around me and stood at the sink, her back turned again.
‘But… we agreed to wait. That was the whole point of me moving out and mothballing the house. We’d see what probate comes up with and sort things out then.’
‘Yes, Scott, you having to have moved out is the issue here. God forbid a thirty-five-year-old man should have to fend for himself and not still have to live at his parents’.’
Still surveying the list, I heard the tap running and glanced up to see Ellie at the sink pouring herself a glass of water.
‘I called Maxwell. He’s going to drop by and explain our options. But he said on the phone that if it’s got to this stage then Mum’s solicitors are pretty certain probate is now a formality.’
‘Ell, Maxwell’s not even our lawyer. He’s more or less sided with Orletta this whole time.’
‘You’re right, Scott, why don’t we just pool our fortunes and hire some fancy London barrister? Maxwell’s our only bloody option.’
And so summed up the last year of our lives. The low level bickering, constant but consciously never enough to cause a proper scene. After the funeral we tried to get on. In fact the events at the cemetery seemed to bring us closer together. At least for the one hour before Maxwell sat us down in the study and told us about the will. Since then our only point of conversation had been the house and how to stop Orletta – our mother – getting her hands on it. Ellie then snatched the inventory from me. ‘He’ll be here in an hour. I’m going to Dad’s study and see what’s actually mine on this bullshit list. Oh, unless you want us to search for any more little notes you’ve left lying around? Perhaps something to Grandma confessing to war crimes?’
She did have timing, I had to give that to Ellie. Standing across the kitchen, she delivered sarcasm without a trace of the sardonic. But she had brought up the note and I was obliged not to ignore it.
‘Ellie, we should talk about – ’
‘Save it, Scott. Like I said, I really, really don’t care.’
The church was chaos. We had arrived with Dad before Ellie and Mike. After we had settled him inside, Auntie Pam had me standing outside with the Orders of Service. ‘He never liked ceremony,’ said Auntie Pam at my shoulder as we waited, looking down the path where people would be coming from. ‘He hated being late. Even as a boy he would want that time to himself – to survey the scene before all and sundry. He would be happy with today.’
I didn’t know if Auntie Pam was emphasising that point because I had gone quiet. I was in my black suit greeting people who all seemed to know me and whom I vaguely recollected over the years. The majority of the time I was just staring out into the distance at the park over the road until I felt a body press into mine and a kiss on my cheek. And there she was, after seven years. Her yellow hair creeping out from under her hat, the black dress she was wearing making her look older but in such a good way. A beautiful way. This woman standing before me, an echo of the girl I once loved.
‘I’m so sorry, Scott. My parents told me. I tried calling you but…’
‘I don’t have an English number anymore. I forgot to… I basically… How are you?’
‘Tired,’ she said with a careful smile. It was such a pleasure seeing her smile, even on that cold, damp Christmas Eve when everyone in that church should have been sitting at home with their loved ones feeling joyful and not huddled together waiting to say goodbye to someone they all cared about. She looked down at her stomach and the protruding bump.
‘How many months…?’
‘Is it your…?’
‘Second. One girl so far. I think we’re going to stop after this little one.’
‘Seven. Seven years. When I heard I felt I should come. I hope you don’t mind?’
She looked great. She always used to wear her hair long, ever since school, but it looked like it was cut short under her hat. She looked exactly the same yet completely different. A stranger from a dream. Something about her face was suddenly complete, the cuteness and that sweetness I adored as a boy converted into true beauty. We did not part on bad terms after the breakup. We broke up because she was brave enough to sit me down and tell me it wasn’t working – something I already knew. We were never high-school sweethearts. At school she was the only girl to talk to me, largely because she was the only girl in Maths Club and she had asked me how to solve integrations.
We went to the same university but she slotted in perfectly with the boys and girls who ran societies, attended balls and hosted dinner parties, whereas I found my own niche with friends like Joan. We were still friends but lesser friends than school. And then came the return to London and the great leveller. London treated you as irrelevant irrespective of whether you had won re-election to the Student Union council three years in a row or if you had spent four years playing computer games.
We ended up at the same parties. I was always at my best at my drunkest, and I had a job that instantly meant I could afford a nice place to live and to go out without having to worry about savings or being able to afford rent. It was about then that I stopped deliberately looking for her.
In five years of London, post-university living, there was by no means a conveyor belt of young ladies at my door. But there were drunken fumbles, a few overnight guests, and a French quasi-girlfriend who liked staying at mine and was my first experience of weekly sex with the same person.
And then Vicky broke up with her boyfriend. She was alone at a dinner party, and I saw her in the corridor putting on her coat about to leave. I asked her to stay and for the first time in years we had a long chat. We arranged to meet for coffee the next day and catch up on our diverging lives. Coffee then became drinks the following week. Drinks became dinner. And a taxi back to hers became me believing my life was finally complete.
‘How are you coping?’ she asked. ‘How’s Ellie?’
‘Are you coming to the…’ I did not want to say the word. ‘There will be something after, at Dad’s. It will be nice to talk.’ She squeezed my hand and walked into the church.
The service was lovely. I know everyone says that, but it was. It was astonishing all that Auntie Pam had accomplished without the help of Ellie or me. All I remember about the days before the funeral was sitting on the sofa in the living room, various different groups of people around me, and Auntie Pam talking, organising, while I stared petulantly into space quietly seething that Ellie had got away with not being there too. That probably says everything about me: my father had died and all I cared about was my sister having it better than me. And what did I actually do regarding the funeral arrangements? Nothing. There was so much I should have done but Auntie Pam had to step in at the last minute – telling the vicar about Dad so he could say some words about him at the start of the service; deciding on the readings and then contacting Dad’s friends to ask if they would do the honours. Auntie Pam’s first husband, Maxwell, did the eulogy, and it was perfect. He spoke of Dad’s career, his friends, his interests, and how proud he was of both Ellie and me. Maxwell was an excellent speaker and he had people laughing through their tears, exactly what Dad deserved.
Then, to my right at the opposite end of the aisle was Ellie. All in black, and crying. I had only seen her cry probably twice before in my life. Even at the car, when she and Mike arrived, she was more tense than sad, preoccupied with getting the kids sorted, and we just shared a brief nod, ‘alright’ and just as we were heading in she said to me softly, ‘surprised you could make it. Africa’s loss is apparently our gain.’
And now she was bawling, after all she had done and all she had said to him. All of us – Ellie, Dad, me – had somewhat patched things up in the last few years but there did seem to be a correlation between how broke she was and how often she would call or visit. At least that was what I was telling myself standing in the pew watching her as the church sang ‘Amazing Grace’.
By the grave side, she was the same. Unrelenting. We were throwing in a handful of dirt and she shook her head refusing, obviously wanting people to see how emotional she was. The kids didn’t understand. Mike was holding Ed and, as the vicar said his final words, Millie ran off with Mike having to give chase. People started moving away. Auntie Pam was talking to the vicar and suddenly it was just Ellie and me, next to each other, looking down at Dad’s coffin. She was still sobbing.
‘You can tone it down now, Ell,’ I heard myself say. ‘Nobody’s looking anymore.’ She shot me a look. But I stared straight ahead, determined not to see her.
‘You don’t want to overdo it, after all,’ I said again to my crying sister. In the corner of my eye, I saw her take a tissue to her eye. I then heard her say in a hoarse voice,
‘Scott, why don’t you do everyone a favour and go fuck yourself?’ I turned around. Through our entire lives she would always have the last word. But that’s the thing about grief and anger and trying desperately to hold back this intense rage that seemed to have come out of nowhere to run through my whole body: you say things you would normally keep well hidden.
‘Anyone would think you actually gave a fuck about him.’ I mumbled it and then walked away over the wet grass. The ground was soft and my shoes slid in the mud. I made to walk between the headstones to the cars where the rest had gathered. I then felt myself flying forward, my hands catching me as I hit the damp grass pressing into the mud. Flipping myself over I suddenly had Ellie on top of me.
‘You self-righteous little…’ she hissed. I’m not sure if she punched me. I don’t think she did. I think with the wet grass and the anger it was a push with her whole weight – and grief – behind it causing both of us to tumble. But she definitely winded me as her knee landed into my stomach and I then felt her palm press on my mouth hard as she covered it.
‘Shut up! You poisonous… waste of...’ She looked livid. In hindsight, understandably so. I could feel the cold and wet of the grass soaking into my trousers and suit jacket. I also felt a déjà vu of helplessness lying on my back with my sister trying to suffocate me, but now had the indignity of being a six-foot-tall man who had just been flattened by a five-foot-seven, barely one hundred and thirty-pound mother of two. I felt my hand squidge on a patch of mud. I grabbed a handful. As Ellie pressed her fist into my mouth I smeared soft, runny mud across her face, into her hair, reapplying it to nose and cheeks as she pinned me down.
What happened next was even more embarrassing. If we were brother and brother, or sister and sister, it could have been a watchable punch up, but there was one of us pinning the other down and we both began grabbing handfuls of earth from the side of a grave and flinging it at each other. Ellie tried to push herself off me taking what mud was around her and practically creating a face mask for me. We tried to separate from each other but found our legs were entwined and slipping in mud. As she got up, I also tried to get to my feet, inadvertently pulling her back down as I had to cling to her, my shoes having no grip. I think it was then she did manage to get to her feet, having had to shove me off her in the process – which she did through one short, sharp punch to my eye. There we were, Ellie standing triumphantly over me, her high heels sunk into the mud, her black dress now a shade of mocha, and me flat on my back spreadeagled. She looked down at me panting, her teeth still gritted. I looked up, and rather than seeing Ellie above me I saw the nine-year-old girl who was the sister I once hero-worshipped. I suddenly found I was smiling. She glared at me, and just as suddenly, she began laughing. Then there were people.
‘What the devil?’ Maxwell was first on the scene. Tall, grey-haired and spritely of physique, he must have won the foot race. Then came Mike.
‘What the f…’ He was carrying both Ed and Millie. Maxwell reluctantly offered me a hand and helped me to my feet, keeping my dishevelled body at arm's length.
‘Mummy’s all messy,’ said Millie, grinning happily. Mike just looked at us, dumbfounded. We were facing each other, still panting, smiling. ‘It’s nothing,’ said Ellie. ‘We just slipped.’
‘Mud patch,’ I confirmed, flicking my head and then suddenly having to bend over to catch my breath. I stared up at Ellie. She was covered in earth – face, hair, shins and knees. She looked bedraggled and tired.
‘Let’s just go back to the car,’ she said. As Mike and Maxwell still stood looking like we were criminally insane, Ellie and I turned away and began walking side by side. ‘Sorry,’ I whispered. ‘Me too,’ she said. I felt our hands touch as we walked and, for the briefest second, we held them. Ellie was talking to the kids: Millie walking and Mike still carrying Ed. If you excused the fact our clothes were ruined you would assume nothing out of the ordinary with the scene. Then we saw Auntie Pam. She had not cried that day. She had stayed strong. But I could see the tears in her eyes and in a croaky voice she just said, ‘the children can come with us,’ before she turned away and went to the car.
It was perhaps hypocritical of us chastising Orletta for taking an inventory of Dad’s possessions, as two weeks earlier, Ellie and I had done the same. Since the funeral the house had been mothballed. The only person accessing it on a regular basis was Dad’s friend Jane, a retired government spy from the Cold War era who, in what turned out to be Dad’s last few years, helped him keep the house in order in return for intellectual company.
Ellie and I took great amusement in goading Dad over whether the relationship was sexual company – Jane had been a student of Dad’s, taking up a doctorate in English literature as a pastime for her retirement. Dad would never rise to the provocation but watching his and Ellie’s back and forth did amuse me. Ellie, for all her faults, knows how to master subtlety when it suits her.
‘Dad, it must be a joy for Jane to have her literary professor in such close proximity. I’m sure a lot of girls would get starry-eyed at the prospect.’ Dad, without looking up from his paper, would say, ‘I wouldn’t say that, dear. Having taken charge of our country’s national security for over two decades, I very much doubt that now undertaking a PhD would turn Jane into a schoolgirl.’ Ellie would not reply but take an interest in a book and lightly hum, ‘Mrs Robinson’.
Looking back, it was warming to know that Dad had someone in his life, even if it was just a friend. Auntie Pam was only a few miles away and available for Sunday lunch, but Auntie Pam was, well, Auntie Pam – a former anthropologist and antiquities expert who was not one to suffer fools gladly nor debate the merits of an egalitarian state over coffee. It was nice to know that Dad was not locked away alone in his study and had someone to share a gin and tonic with on summer nights in the conservatory. Dad’s other friend of note was Auntie Pam’s ex-husband, and our family solicitor, Maxwell. Maxwell and Auntie Pam had divorced when Ellie and I were barely old enough to really understand what divorce was. From what I remember, as a couple neither were that child friendly and I have only vague early memories of Maxwell being at Auntie Pam’s when we would visit. I would more associate Maxwell with his visits to Dad and them sitting with a drink putting the world to rights. It was not that Maxwell was unfriendly, or strict like Auntie Pam, rather I don’t think he understood children. When I was the age of eight or so he would be the only person to shake hands with me, followed by a pat on the head as he commenced a bright, enthusiastic conversation with Dad over the copyrighting of one of his books. It was both easy to see what drew him and Auntie Pam together and also why they were apart. Both held successful careers and came across as knowledgeable and worldly. One could imagine the allure of a similarly active mind just as one would see the frustrations and impatience at neither giving ground nor trying to understand the importance of the other’s work.
As we waited for Maxwell, I swapped rooms with Ellie and went to Dad’s study, a small room at the back of the house. Its walls were entirely lined with books, and Dad’s desk sat at the back, still with his handwritten notes and stacks of papers piled up. For his sixty-fifth birthday, I had bought him a whisky decanter and glasses. These were placed next to Dad’s record player on which we’d hear him play classical concertos, operas and, later in his life, jazz.
I sat in his leather chair. It was soft and comfortable as I rocked back. I then felt a jolt of dread. There in front of me was his letter writing pad, the last letter written, not by him, but by me. I could still see the indentions of his name and the first line, and found myself closing my eyes and rubbing my finger over the words to feel the letters I had jotted. Slowly I got up and moved to the door. The shelves next to it housed Dad’s favourite books. Those weeks earlier, Ellie had been checking which were first and second editions and I was upstairs taking mental note of his things and what we should do with them.
It had been both Auntie Pam’s and Jane’s idea. ‘It gives me something to do,’ Jane had said to me when she offered to keep checking in on the house. ‘I would hate to know that all of George’s possessions were sitting dormant gathering dust. Houses are meant to be lived in after all.’ Auntie Pam echoed that opinion in a pale blue air mail letter. I don’t know if Ellie’s or my behaviour was the trigger, but once the funeral was over she announced to us that she was stepping out of retirement to join some expeditions in Ethiopia and the Middle East. She might have realised that retiring to be close to her family was futile when the one she loved most was no longer there. I still remember smiling at seeing the Par Avion label on that very thin paper, which I did not think was still in circulation. ‘It has become my concern that even considering the less than ideal circumstances regarding your father’s probate, you both have left his home as a mausoleum and appear to be waiting on some other person to take charge and organise his effects’.
At the shelves, I found both halves of a torn Watership Down. A novel out of place among the works of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway. I had put it back exactly where I had placed it that Easter weekend. Dad had read it to us when we were little, so I placed my note within its pages. To many it would make no sense, but even now, I feel it was the best way to reach him. I took the book out, the note now gone, and closed my eyes. The way I felt back then, I did not feel now, I told myself. Just sheepish at the state I had got myself into and then having my older sister find me passed out in my own vomit. In a way, part of me hoped we would lose the house. That it would mean Ellie and I could go our separate ways and would have no need to pretend to like each other which I am not sure we ever did. But then, if there was no house, what exactly did I have left? We all need an anchor, don’t we? Mine had been Dad and this house. Now with Dad gone, I felt the wilderness fast approaching. Without Ellie, who else did I have? I then heard a tap at the front door heralding Maxwell’s arrival.
When we arrived back from the funeral, Ellie ran straight up the stairs to wash the mud off and change clothes. ‘My dress is ruined, by the way,’ was the first thing she said to me as Mike drove us back from the cemetery. She then called me a dickhead under her breath and asked me, slightly disinterestedly but asking just the same, what my plans were now the funeral was over. As we got out of Mike’s Volvo, and as Ellie took first dibs on the bathroom, I went to the kitchen, using the sink to clean myself up when Vicky came in with a tumbler of amber liquid in her hand.
‘I thought you could use this,’ she said, handing me the glass.
‘Thanks. But I don’t really drink the good stuff these days.’
‘It’s single malt,’ she smiled. ‘I could get you a gin and tonic if you prefer? I know tequila was more your drink but I wasn’t sure of the etiquette.’ She did have a great smile. I picked up a tea towel and wiped my face and wet hair.
‘Thanks, that’s kind of you. But I just poured myself something.’ I saw her eyebrows rise in surprise as I nodded at my glass of water.
‘Well there’s plenty of wine.’
‘Not today.’ I tried to smile politely. ‘I’ve been experimenting with sobriety the last few days. To be present for a change and not just let things drift.’
‘My, things have changed.’ She leaned against the kitchen counter as I rested a hand on the sink. ‘Scott Roberts, the life of the party, turning down free alcohol.’ She then smiled – tenderly like she had done when we would walk home from school. ‘It’s okay, you know. If you do want to drift off for a bit, today of all days. I don’t think anyone is going to hold a glass of whisky against you.’
‘I’d hold it against me,’ I smiled.
‘You should go back in. I’m sure a lot of your dad’s friends would love to talk to you.’
‘When Ellie comes down. In the car, we said we should show a united front and try to erase everyone’s memory of the floorshow.’
‘It was pretty memorable. Do you mind if I ask what it was about?’
‘The usual. Who loved him more. Who, at heart, is a more screwed up human being.’
‘Scott, I know it’s not the best time but I am sorry about how things ended between us. You were one of my best friends…’
‘Vicky, it’s fine,’ I said, cutting her off. I felt guilty enough at that moment without having to accept an apology I did not deserve. I could not bear to see her standing there, in her graceful black dress, with her bump, looking apologetic.
‘You have nothing to apologise for. I was a waste of space back then. Like you said, life of the party, but not really that equipped for the day to day.’ I smiled again and she looked up at me and ran her hand through my hair.
‘You really need a shower.’
As we both laughed we were joined by Maxwell, carrying his own glass of red wine and looking uncharacteristically agitated. He was not the most patient, but he was always friendly and gave off the air of carefree confidence.
‘Listen, old chap, we really must have a word,’ he said, placing his wine on our kitchen table. He then noticed I was not alone. ‘Victoria, isn’t it? I do remember you.’ He instantly beamed, appearing his jovial self again. ‘Jolly decent of you to be here today. Scott, I’ve just asked young Mike to fetch your sister.’ He then looked around the room. ‘Perhaps we can take this to the study?’
Vicky squeezed my arm and excused herself. Maxwell and I walked through to the study.
‘Apologies, old chap,’ he then said, calmer. ‘But it’s best to do this now before you and your sister start partaking in any beverages. Ah, there she is.’ Ellie, changed out of her dress into a black top and dark jeans, entered the room with Mike. Maxwell perched himself on Dad’s desk as we gathered. ‘Pamela allowed me a quick sift through your papa’s paperwork. As expected, I found nothing.’ We had no idea what he meant.
Maxwell’s resting facial expression was that of an eerie grin.
‘Old George and I go back a long way. I’ve represented him for, what, near forty years – not an easy feat when it comes to writers, publishers, agents and the like.’ He gave a light chuckle, seemingly genuinely proud of himself. ‘So in light of the unhappy event, I pulled out the files.’ From his jacket pocket he took out a manila envelope and he handed it to Ellie.
‘This is effectively George’s will. There are instructions; of what to do in the event of a day like today; provisions for care when you were both children; bequests; it handled the day-to-day so to speak.’ Maxwell waited for Ellie to look through the whole document.
‘Okay,’ she said, appearing to scan the pages like she wasn’t sure what she was looking for. ‘I guess these make sense.’ She shrugged and handed me the pages, sitting down in Dad’s chair while I perched myself on the windowsill.
‘So, what’s the big deal?’
‘That’s everything. Your father left those instructions, but he did not write an actual will.’ Maxwell paused, poignantly looking at us both, as if to make sure we understood him.
‘This, in itself, is not an uncommon event. Not many of us believe the day of our passing is imminent, so we wait. Until we’re on our death bed, and then we plan on calling fellows like myself and decreeing out our legacy. In fact, when there is an obvious next of kin there is simply no need, and even the most sensible of minds find putting it all in black and white rather morose. The simple fact is, we believe we have more time than we do.’
Looking over at Ellie, I saw she seemed as interested in Maxwell’s conversation as she was in mine during our car ride. I couldn’t blame her. Vicky was in the next room, apparently happily married and pregnant with another man’s child, but all I wanted to do was talk to her, look at her, and find out everything that had happened in her life after she had walked away from me that day on Primrose Hill seven years ago.
‘So you’re basically saying that Dad didn’t do his paperwork? So Scott and I now need to fight it out to decide who gets what?’
‘Next of kin, my dear. Not his children.’ Again, Maxwell paused, expecting us to be processing the significance of his remark.
‘What’s the difference?’ As Ellie asked the question, I turned away and stared out of the study window, looking out at our back lawn.
‘If you asked me a few days ago, say, purely concerning this case, I would tell you that there is no difference. I did advise your papa over the years on the merits of drawing up a will and naming beneficiaries, just as I did advise him on the drawbacks: changes in circumstances, grandchildren, a future partner, taxation. And through it all, next of kin would simply result in the house and any funds being left to you both. Unless your father had a legal spouse who would then usurp both of you as the sole recipient.’
I heard a snort of laughter from Ellie.
‘Maxwell, is this your roundabout way of telling us that Dad and Jane eloped? That the two of them ran away together in the middle of the night?’ Ellie clearly thought Maxwell was being ridiculous.
‘Or did he have another paramour we knew nothing about?’
‘My girl, please.’ Maxwell was beginning to sound annoyed. ‘As your family solicitor, I do not act solely on behalf of your father, but have acted on behalf of your whole family. Your father, the two of you and your mother. When your parents separated, your father informed me that the two of them had agreed to handle the matter amicably. And privately’
Through the study window I could see that Auntie Pam had opened the conservatory and a gentleman in a pale blue suit was smoking a cigarette. Gentleman was such an appropriate word for him and a number of Dad’s friends in the house; in their sixties and beyond, white hair, crisp suits, white shirts and traditional tie, and they held themselves in a way that seemed entirely proper. Our lawn and garden was very much winterfied with nothing in bloom and our trees lacking their leaves.
‘Now, I do not know how much you would understand of the process, but there are steps required to legally end a marriage. With all your father’s legal paperwork in front of me over the last few days I noticed something that came as quite the surprise.’ As I continued looking out at the garden there was another pause. Maxwell took a breath.
‘I found no evidence that your papa had formally finalised his divorce from your mother.’
Another pause. I stayed at the window, noticing some red berries on an elderberry bush.
‘Maxwell, don’t be ridiculous,’ Ellie said, this time sounding fed up. ‘Dad was divorced. Obviously. He’s been divorced for almost twenty years.’
‘No,’ Maxwell said, again poignantly, but this time we could understand the significance. ‘No, he was not.’
‘Crikey, my dear, things are finally moving along, aren’t they?’ I heard Maxwell say jovially, like it was a good thing, as Ellie led him through the house. I left Dad’s study and found them both in the kitchen, Maxwell in his typical grey suit grinning brightly as Ellie offered him a seat.
‘My girl, it was likely to turn out like this. They were married and living in this house close to twenty years. The divorce papers were not signed.’ Maxwell was sitting with his legs crossed at our small breakfast table, and Ellie was filling the kettle and bringing out two mugs from the cupboard.
‘But they were divorced,’ said Ellie. ‘Or at least in common law, surely? She had left him for a longer period than they were married. You can’t have someone appear out of nowhere and inherit everything belonging to a husband she left twenty years ago.’
‘I am sympathetic, my dear. And it was worth a shot waiting for probate. But your papa was meticulously organised. If he had signed or processed the decree absolute, there would be filings, either in his records, or he would have sent them to me with his other legal affairs. Your only options are now to have a friendly chat with Orletta, or take the matter to court, which I would highly advise against.’
‘Why?’ I said. They both looked up at me as I lurked in the doorway. I picked up a mug by the sink and placed it next to the two that Ellie had laid out. The kettle had just finished boiling. ‘Why can’t we take her to court? Like Ellie said, it’s common sense. Obviously, she had made some excuse not to sign her papers so Dad saw no point signing his. And, like you said about why he didn’t have a will, he did not think he was going to pass away in his sixties so he never followed up on it.’
Maxwell just sighed and looked at me much as he would a tedious office junior.
‘Firstly, my boy, there is no such legal term as a common law divorce. And secondly, this is not America. She is your mother and it is not the done thing. Roberts and Roberts versus Roberts? I think not.’
‘Maxwell, she wants to sell Dad’s house and use the proceeds to form a cult. Who gives a fuck about social niceties?’
I saw Maxwell wince at Ellie’s use of a swear word. He then gave an apologetic shrug.
‘My dear, we do not have the luxury of asking George what his intentions were. But your best option by far is to sit down with Orletta and thrash this out properly. She’s a reasonable woman – ’ Both Ellie and I scoffed.
‘She is a reasonable woman,’ repeated Maxwell. ‘I’m sure you would be able to keep what is sentimental and who knows, between yourselves, you could negotiate a small sum which I am sure she would agree to if only to solve the matter amicably.’
‘Maxwell, we don’t want a small sum.’
Ellie looked like she was getting more and more wound up as she put down her tea and began to pace the kitchen.
‘This is not some form of negotiation. This is our home. I want my children to have their Christmases in the house I had my Christmases. To play in the same garden that I played in. To have some form of family history and know something about their grandfather, and not walk past this house one day and see it converted to flats.’
‘Listen, my girl. I can see you are bitterly disappointed, but your papa would not have wanted this. If there was ambiguity in the will then perhaps he wanted this feud patched up.’
‘Well, that hasn’t exactly gone swimmingly.’
It was clear to me why Maxwell was so successful as a solicitor. His calm manner and quick counterarguments seemed to have taken the wind out of Ellie. She sat down at the table and appeared to deflate, hunching over her tea, staring down irritably.
With Ellie looking worn down, I suddenly felt it was my duty to step in. Being the younger sibling, I would always tend to let others speak first, having ingrained in me a military-style hierarchy of not speaking out until my commanding officer finished.
‘We’ve done what it says to do on all the various websites, but without a court or a judge, no one is going to understand that this is not normal. And isn’t the whole legal system meant to be built on reasonableness, and interpretation and precedent?’
‘My boy, the law does differ somewhat from what you may have glimpsed on television programmes –’
‘But there’s no other option.’ I seemed to be finding a voice. I glanced guiltily at Ellie, who was still sitting slumped at the table. I then looked to Maxwell, who had begun staring at his watch. Our mum had left our father and us twenty years ago to become an established artist residing in an artists’ colony in Devon. She became an important figure in twenty-first-century British art, and her rare visits would always be proceeded by a fanfare of pomp and ceremony as she would ask Dad to bring us to an exhibit of hers in London. We were never permitted to visit her. She didn’t have time what with running that colony of hers and the European tours.
‘This is our house. Ours, and Dad’s house. How could he have wanted the woman who walked out so many years ago to come back into his life – after he’s gone – and claim his home? None of this makes any sense, so how can we stand by and not do anything?’
‘My boy,’ Maxwell said wearily. ‘If you want your day in court, then yes, you may have chance of contesting Intestacy. However, what all these legal programmes fail to mention is the cost of it all. Going to court even when you have an open and shut case can be a bottomless pit.’ He now sat upright, his hands forming a steeple. ‘Cases like this can get stuck within the framework of our legal system for years, and even if you win, you would most likely have to sell the house anyway to pay the solicitor, the barrister, the juniors, and the court itself. If you are determined to learn more about the law I can suggest one work of fiction that gets the whole process spot on – familiarise yourself with Bleak House. There was only ever going to be one winner in the case of Jandice and Jandice.’
Chapter 7: After the funeral…
I had not spoken to our mother in over four years at the time of the funeral. It had become five by the time we had received notice she intended to put all our father’s possessions into auction. Ellie was three, then four years old. The final straw for Ellie was Orletta not showing up for Millie’s christening.
What summed up the Roberts’ family was that we rarely had fallings out. We simply stopped having conversations. We stopped calling our mother and our mother stopped calling us. No malice, just good old deep-seated resentment.
Our mother sent flowers on the day of the funeral. It was Maxwell who told her of Dad dying, asked to by Auntie Pam, together with numerous of Dad’s friends who had spent their Christmas Eve at the church with us. Maxwell was not the type of man to let the breakup of his best friend’s marriage stop him maintaining ties with one of Britain’s most eminent artists, I sometimes say, rather scornfully, through this whole fiasco. But then, Maxwell was also not the type to let grudges and the taking of sides influence his relationships. How many of us can say that? After the funeral, he spent an hour with us breaking down exactly what Dad’s will, or lack of will, meant for us. Neither Ellie nor I had spoken of it before that day. Nor thought about it. In my head I dissociated Dad with Orletta completely. ‘Dad and Mum’ were the parents I grew up with, and loved wholeheartedly. When Mum left, in a way, she never came back. The artist, Orletta Roberts was born. Mum always painted, and the same conservatory which had become where Dad would sip his gin and tonic was Mum’s studio. Mum had always been exceptional and well regarded in her own circle. But then the Royal Society took notice, and she was off like a shot to somewhere in deepest Devon, to become the queen of some artists’ colony whose benefactor, and her new partner, was a property tycoon named Conrad.
From my impression, and I don’t think just because I was a kid I only saw what I wanted to see, my parents’ split was not the conventional marriage breakup. There seemed to be no discussion of custody – we never spent a single night with Mum once she left. There were no teary goodbyes at the end of each visit. In fact, I had not seen her happier to be on her way and off to which social event had actually brought her to London. It was literally like she went away one weekend and forgot to come back.
The concept of Ellie and me inheriting Dad’s house had blindsided me that day because, to me, it would always be Dad’s. So to be told by Maxwell that in the eyes of the law it would now be seen as Mum’s, was something I could not comprehend – there was no ‘Mum’, only Orletta Roberts. And Orletta Roberts had her own house and fortune down in Devon.
Not that it should have mattered. But losing Dad, and then losing Dad’s house on a technicality felt akin to a betrayal. The only thing was, I was not sure who was betraying who – were we betraying Dad by letting his memory disintegrate into something to be lusted over on Homes Under the Hammer? Or was Dad betraying us by not shoring up his legacy? Either way, leaving it dormant for a year – doing nothing for a year – suited me fine. All I wanted was Dad’s house to remain his. Not Ellie’s, not mine, not Mum’s. Just until I had gotten over my shit enough to realise that this house was an integral part of our family and Ellie and I had the right to call it our home. Unfortunately, Orletta Roberts was not of that same opinion.
Three days after the funeral, Ellie and I were both standing at the window watching our mother pull up. It was a sleek modern Jaguar with tinted windows, and though we could not see inside, it had to be her. We slowly made our way to the door, one last unifying nod and a deep breath setting us on our way to greet a parent who we had allowed to disappear from our lives. But it wasn’t her.
‘Apologies, Orletta is under the weather,’ Conrad, our mother’s partner, answered our puzzled looks as he gravely shook my hand and briefly embraced Ellie. He was very much the same as I had remembered him from my latter teenage years – the last time I had met him. Though with probably less of that snow-white hair decorating his crown, and, if anything, smaller than I recalled.
‘You should have said, old chap. We would have gladly postponed.’ Maxwell had entered the hallway, big beaming smile and towering over the rest of us.
Conrad removed his banker’s coat, revealing a grey pinstripe suit as Ellie and I tried not to look bemused. He did still have that presence, stature, and chiselled face of a man not accustomed to explaining himself or suffering fools gladly.
‘We thought it would be best if I make the journey. George’s death has taken the wind out of Orletta and she very much wanted her respects paid.’
As we led Conrad to the sofa and armchairs of our living room, Ellie screwed up her face to give me a what-on-earth? stare behind his back. I quickly shrugged an I-don’t-know look.
‘I understand this is a very difficult time for you both,’ said Conrad, as we served tea. Ellie had got our old tea set out. It had been a wedding present to Dad and Orletta from Auntie Pam, and over the decades it had only seen the light of day in her presence.
‘I won’t keep you long. Orletta sends her love.’ I shot Ellie another look. Neither of us had commented about our mother’s absence and her sending a proxy.
‘It was quite the shock for her, hearing the news. Even after the separation, she and your father were still very close.’
No they weren’t, I expected Ellie to say. Or at least I hoped she would, as I did not have the courage to voice aloud what was bubbling beneath my silent, listening persona. Conrad then shifted forward, his hands making a triangle, cutting straight to the business end of the conversation.
‘Maxwell has informed us of your father’s will and your mother’s position. As I said, these are difficult times, so I will make this brief, and we can start the ball rolling.’ In my hands was my teacup. I had added three sugars, eradicating the taste of tea and creating a liquid that simply stung my teeth.
‘Your mother acknowledges that she has no need for a house this size in London. We keep a flat more centrally when we do need to stay. She has also been keen to expand the artists’ colony for some years now, so the proceeds can go some way to realising this. The only question is when. I am sure you both would want to free yourselves from all this as soon as possible and move on to mourn your father in your own way.’
‘What do you mean by proceeds?’ I asked, looking up from my teacup.
‘The sale of the house. Your mother’s and father’s house. She has no need for the property as a primary address, and in this present climate it would release significant funds…’
‘But, Scott’s living here,’ interrupted Ellie.
This time it was Conrad’s turn to look bemused. ‘Scott, I understood you were living abroad? The Lebanon, was it?’
‘He came home at Christmas. And this is where he lives when he’s in England.’ It felt very strange hearing Ellie come to my defence, or what appeared to be my defence. Apart from me, everyone was now on the edge of their seat as Ellie moved onto the offensive. ‘It’s also got all Dad’s things in it. And our things. You can’t just sell it. It’s not Mum’s to sell! It’s our home!’
Conrad looked unmoved as if it was a mere token argument from Ellie.
‘Eleanor, I’m sad to say I’m at the age where I am getting increasingly more experienced with the affairs of close friends passing away. It is never an easy time, and financial circumstances always form a distraction to grief. As difficult as it is, decisions need to be made early and not drag on. Scott,’ he then said as he looked at me. ‘Be assured, we will not force you out of the house, but you will need to find alternative living arrangements as soon as is feasible for you. I am sure you would, yourself, want stability and your space after all your travels…’
As Conrad continued, I stared at Maxwell. It felt like there had been crossed wires somewhere.
‘I don’t think we have agreed on anything yet,’ I said. ‘I don’t know if Maxwell’s told you, but Ellie and I want to keep the house. As Ellie said, it’s our home.’
I am not sure what I was expecting as a response. Perhaps an argument where we debated again the legal meaning of next of kin, and what rights our mother would have forgone when she left. But instead, Conrad gave a small, sympathetic smile.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Of course.’
He then also looked at Maxwell. ‘Max, I believe there is a conversation we then need to have. Perhaps some forewarning would have been appropriate.’ For the first time, I then saw Maxwell look flustered as he stammered for an answer. Conrad cut him short.
‘First, please accept my apologies,’ Conrad said to Ellie and me.
‘It seems both your mother and I were under the impression discussions were at a more advanced stage. I assume probate will now come into play?’
Conrad looked again at Maxwell, who again stumbled.
‘In that case, I will leave you both and allow Maxwell to inform you more regarding the complete picture.’ He reached down to pick up his car keys. Hesitantly, both Ellie and I rose with him, negotiations apparently at an end.
‘Again, I am sorry for your loss. George was a very good man.’
I think only Conrad, with his old school demeanour and quiet authority, could have got away with such a line about the man whose wife he had coaxed away.
‘I do have to say, Scott. I know it is a difficult time, but if we are going to continue discussions, it would be beneficial all round not having the prospect of a sitting tenant.’
I handed Conrad his coat as Ellie held open the door. It was all relatively cordial.
‘It may seem rather heartless, but I have seen these situations escalate, as I am sure Maxwell can explain. It would be best if your stay in the house does not stretch too far beyond the New Year – at least until probate has come to a decision. Until then, I am sure your mother will be willing to accept the house as still your father’s. Not hers. Not yours. Your father’s.’
He gave me what I deemed a poignant stare, and then gave Ellie and me another sombre nod as he made his way back up the garden path to his Jaguar.
Chapter 8: The day we caught the train…
Once every month in the years before I left for university, Dad and I would do a trip. It had stemmed from the writers’ conference I had joined him on the day after Ellie gave me stitches for my critique on her piano playing. We would throw tents in the car and head off to a campsite either on the coast or in the New Forest, just the two of us. It wasn’t exactly stepping into the wild and battling the elements for survival, but it was hugely enjoyable and a diversion from our typical personas – Dad, university lecturer George Roberts, and his Games Workshop-obsessed son, now hiking, foraging and gathering firewood.
Over that same period, Ellie studied music at Bristol and completed her degree, and I hardly heard from her apart from the occasional call to check in with Dad. And over the phone all we would exchange was, ‘is Dad there’ and ‘yeah, one sec’.
Ellie would spend the holidays with her new friends, even Christmas, either some trip abroad, a stay at someone else’s home, or a series of festivals. Dad would visit her. I remember the first one barely lasting a few hours – he left mid-morning and was back in the early evening. He never brought me, but I was glad not to be forced to see her. I was resentful about how she had to have everything dictated on her terms. My wild child older sister had become dull and predictable in her determination to be unpredictable and untamed. Life was so much better without her around – no one-way shouting matches at Dad or slamming doors at all hours. No tension or snide comments regarding the ‘bourgeoisie dictatorship’ that was our home. I was glad not to see her for three years.
However, I wasn’t. Not really.
As Ellie and I left Dad’s house, I had hoped the alliance against both Maxwell and our mother had created some form of truce between us. But we remained in silence as we walked up the suburban roads to the main high street.
‘Are you getting the train from Waterloo?’ I asked as we entered Wood Green station.
‘Yeah,’ she muttered, taking out her bank card as we passed through the barriers and made our way to the platform.
‘I was meant to meet Mike, but he has to work late. Every night this bloody week.’
We got on the Piccadilly line heading south. She yawned. Her eyes looked heavy.
‘He’s been in Hoxton at the recording studio. It’s another generation of little bastards who can’t play their instruments and are going to have one minute of fame before getting a one-way ticket to No-One-Gives-A Shit’s-Ville.’
If I ignored the fact she appeared to be talking to the tube map rather than me, it was our first conversation in weeks.
‘I know it’s not his fault – I’m not that selfish.’ She frowned, again looking away. ‘He does fourteen hours’ work for eight hours’ pay, leaves at five a.m. and arrives home sometime after midnight. Today was meant to have been just editing, but he’s had to re-record nearly everything the untalented twats had laid down.’
She leaned on her forearm as she held the rail. I slumped against the tube door as we jolted along through the tunnel. ‘And today I’ve got to be home to get everything done for…’ She cut herself off and rubbed her eyes. ‘Let’s just say this wasn’t great timing.’
‘Is there anything I can do?’
‘Yes, Scott, let’s make this all about you for a change.’ And with that, she turned away.
That was what it was like with Ellie and me since Dad died, even before the letter incident.
At Waterloo, Ellie marched into the main station and I tried to keep up with her.
‘I don’t need accompanying. I know where the trains are.’
‘I thought we could talk. How long till your train?’
‘For fuck’s sake, which part of I don’t give a shit don’t you understand?’
She kept walking quickly. She had a stride that effortlessly took her the whole length of the concourse at pace, while I had to break into a jog to keep up.
‘Let’s just sort the house out. Can we agree on that? I need to make some arrangements for the piano. I don’t care what she says, it’s mine, and it’s coming to Brighton even if we have to sell everything else in our shoebox to fit it in.’
‘What about the letter, Ell?’ I said, panting, as Ellie reached the ticket barriers and went through. ‘My letter to Dad. I want to talk about it.’
Ellie came to a halt eight or so paces ahead. We were halfway down the platform. She turned around smiling – a calm, ironic smile that she saved especially for her enemies.
‘There we are. Life has to be about Scott Roberts. Just like everything else. What shall I do, Scott, stay here with you, leave my kids to fend for themselves, make sure you’re feeling better?’ She walked closer, eyes narrowed, staring at me like she could not believe how stupid I could be.
‘Scott, I’m going home. Back to my life. I suggest you go do the same.’
She shook her head, rolled her eyes, and walked away.
‘Three years, Ell,’ I heard myself call out. She turned around, giving me a what-the-hell-are-you-on-about look.
‘I was fifteen and you left for three years. You didn’t come back once.’ Ellie looked back puzzled, with an undercurrent of surprise or anger.
‘What has that got to do with anything?’
‘We grew up together in the same house for fifteen years. And then one day you go and don’t come back.’
‘I was at university!’ she hissed, cautiously glancing left and right – people had begun giving us a wide berth as they passed, walking down to the far end of the train.
‘You were at university for like six months of the year! You never came back during the holidays, you never wrote, you never asked how I was, the only time we spoke was if I picked up the phone on the rare occasions you bothered to let Dad know you were still alive.’
I did not know where this had come from. I was suddenly so angry with her. She just stood there, perplexed, like I had lost my mind.
‘Scott, I know you’ve got problems but get a fucking grip.’ She grabbed my wrist hard and stared at me fiercely.
‘I was a kid, Ell. You never said why, you never said sorry, and you just assumed we were okay.’
‘Jesus Christ. Scott, that was a long, long time ago. I then spent the best part of my twenties looking out for you. Hanging out with you and your stupid friends. Where was all this fucking self-pity then?’
‘I don’t know, Ell, I think I was too busy developing a drug and alcohol problem in the hope it would impress my older sister.’
People were walking past quicker. It was the start of the Friday commute home and small suitcases were being wheeled along the platform by those in suits or smart winter coats.
‘So this is my fault?’ she said, not quite yelling, not quite not yelling. ‘You’re blaming me for how your life’s turned out?’
‘I just want to know why. What I did to make you hate me so much when we were growing up?’
In that moment I knew the answer. She gripped my wrist tighter. Her nostrils were flaring. I had seen her angry in the past, but this was nothing to the glare she was now giving me.
‘It was your fault that Mum left,’ she hissed. ‘And it’s your fault that Dad’s…’
She didn’t have to say the rest, and I’m not sure if she did. Through a red mist, I could vaguely see her turning around at the same time I did. I walked away, not turning back.
We were not always like that. And Ellie was right about my twenties. It was harsh to lay my problems with drinking and drugs at her door. We had become friends. Or at least drinking buddies. After university Ellie began her new, rather leftfield, career as a music journalist. Rather than composing or playing piano professionally like I thought she was destined to, she would go to gigs, interviewing the bands of our age, and tell Dad and me of life on the music scene when she would finally start dropping by. I was at university by then, but when I moved to London suddenly we found common ground.
‘Fun area,’ she said, sounding surprised when I told her I was living with friends on Exmouth Market. ‘I have friends around there.’
She told me she might drop by and visit when she was next in the area. And to my surprise, she did. She would randomly turn up and drag my flatmates and me down to the Brazilian bar underneath our flat. She bought shots, she met my friends, she regaled us with tales of festivals, drinking with bands and endless travel, and everyone I knew loved her.
Al’s Bar would usually be our final destination, drinking Red Stripe lager in plastic glasses on their basement dancefloor. Those were good years. I even associate getting together with Vicky as partially Ellie’s influence as I was more confident and comfortable with people.
But over that period of belatedly getting to know each other, Ellie and I never really got to know each other. There were always other people around. At the end of a night she would crash on our sofa, and in the morning we would sit around drinking tea, hungover, watching one of the music video channels until she decided to catch the train or meet other friends for lunch. We never talked about the years before, we never reminisced on childhood memories, we hardly even mentioned Dad, and we never, ever, spoke of Mum. We never had an actual conversation, and I can only attribute that to fear – if we dredged up the past, it would break the present enchantment.
Ellie was also right with at least two of her other accusations – that I was self-pitying and that I was making everything all about me. It wasn’t Ellie blaming me for Mum leaving or even Dad’s heart attack that made me feel as shit as I did sitting on the top deck of the bus travelling back to Loughborough Road. It was the total embarrassment at goading her to explode at me. I wanted the argument. I wanted anger, resentment, self-righteousness, anything to end the nothingness and the impasse. I wanted to bring back the wild, militant, angry teenage Ellie who would scream at me and be the bad guy so I would feel something other than emptiness. Regarding those other accusations, I already blamed myself for Mum leaving – did not every child of divorce? (or faux divorce, if there was a term for it) – and for Dad’s death. I never asked when his last doctor’s visit was, and I took for granted that the age of sixty-five was the new forty-five, so I did not need Ellie stating the obvious on that occasion.
I had been lying on my bed at Loughborough Road for no idea how long when I heard the knock at my bedroom door. Miles Davis was playing on the record player as, reluctantly, I got up.
‘Oh, sorry, were you asleep?’ asked Katie.
‘Asleep?’ I ruffled my hair. I must have had bedhead. ‘No, I’ve just been listening to music…’ I stared curiously at Katie. She looked different – her eyelids were a shade of emerald green, and her lips a sparkly red. Even though I would see Katie and her friends getting ready for a Friday or Saturday night out every single week – it was impossible not to with her door constantly open – I would always make sure I was safely cocooned away back in my room by the time they eventually left so I never saw the final result. She had a lot of makeup on. And if I was being overly prudish, not much else.
‘Are you on your way out?’ I felt my brow furrowing as I tried not to look down at her outfit.
‘Maybe. Eventually. Long story,’ she sighed. She then held up a bottle and two glasses. ‘I just opened a bottle of wine and wondering if you fancied a glass?’
‘Err,’ I said, probably unenthusiastically. Reluctantly looking at the bottle and glasses, I then saw her pleasant smile fade with uncertainty.
‘Thanks, but I might not be great company.’
As Katie turned to go, looking somewhat embarrassed, I quickly realised how I was coming across. I was stalwartly guarding the entrance to my room, again turning down my flatmate on the rare occasion she offered to socialise with me. That was indeed the first time one of us had knocked on the other’s door in six months. No wonder I only had one friend left.
‘Actually, wait,’ I said as she was about to retreat. ‘I’m just being an idiot. A drink would be amazing.’
She smiled and handed me a glass. Either politely or cautiously, she stepped forward, looking about the room.
‘Oh wow,’ she then grinned and looked at me, surprised. ‘I don’t know what I was expecting, but I didn’t see you as quite the collector. Are all of this yours?’
The shelves that lined the far wall housed a vinyl record collection that spanned twenty years – vinyl being my vice to replace my Games Workshop models. Wooden storage cubes from my old flat held the overspill and ran along the perimeter, with only my acoustic guitar and a mini sideboard breaking up the domino of records.
‘I like the feminine touches too.’ She nodded to the throws and cushions on my bed, also from my old flat, which now served to help me survive the winter in a poorly insulated attic room.
‘Do you mind if I…?’ Katie picked up the album sleeve that I had ceremonially placed on a ‘now playing’ stand next to the record player.
‘The great Miles Davis.’
‘You’re a fan of jazz?’
I laughed a rather too forced laugh as she examined the record.
‘I pretend to be. I think it makes me seem sophisticated, but most of what I listen to is indie-punk-rock.’
I was trying to act nonchalant like it was every day another human being, particularly a woman, took an interest in my record collection.
‘So no dance or techno, then? And you play guitar!’ She replaced Miles and stepped over to my acoustic, but this time her interest genuinely did surprise me.
‘Yes, most days. Have you not heard me?’
‘No. Unless, well, I do sleep with earplugs, and when I do hear music I assume it’s the wannabe frat boys downstairs. Normally I just turn up my speaker to drown it out.’
I saw the corners of her mouth curl up into a grin.
‘I’m kidding. I didn’t realise it was you. If that’s the case, I once actually turned down my music to listen to you. You were playing Damien Rice, right?’
I smiled vaguely, feeling a blush coming on. I then glanced down at her outfit, which I had been trying so hard not to stare at. She was wearing a small, low-cut white top with a printed red sparkly lipstick mark which matched her own lips. It didn’t quite reach the top of her skirt, which tightly hugged her thighs and, in turn, did not remotely reach her knees.
‘Oh, please don’t. I know, I look ridiculous.’
‘I didn’t mean to stare. I’ve just never seen you dressed up before. Well, apart from…’ I suddenly thought better than to go back to the time we met.
‘You look great. Cool outfit.’
‘I look like a prostitute,’ she said, flicking her hair to the side and sipping her wine. ‘This was Izzy’s idea. We went shopping on Saturday and I got railroaded into trying something new. Per square inch of fabric it’s by far the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned. We’re meant to be going to a party and she convinced me to wear it.’
‘Izzy’s the tall one, right?’
‘Not that tall. Her skinniness and short friends make her look taller.’
Katie then sat on the bed, placing her glass on my bedside table. She lay back, picking up one of my cushions and putting it over her face to stifle a mock scream. She smiled as she sat back up.
‘Apparently, I look too much like a librarian when we’re out. Or so Izzy has hypothesised. And despite telling her that I very much wanted a Friday night in watching crap TV and eating ice cream, she’s got us both on the guest list of some club and has guilt-tripped me into going. Hence this.’ She waved her hand down her clothes.
‘Aren’t Librarians meant to be sexy too?’ I hovered, leaning against the wall with my wine. I did not have another chair in my room and was not sure about the etiquette of joining her on the bed.
‘Now Izzy’s messaged saying she’s at work drinks. A client is there who she’s trying to impress, i.e. sleep with. Some hedge fund type who she says does not know the first thing about the art but has decided he wants to start collecting. So I’m on call, in case Mr Hedge Fund doesn’t work out. Arrgghh!’
Again she picked up the cushion to groan into. She then picked up one of my throws and placed it over her legs.
‘So what happened today? What makes you bad company? Or worse than usual that is?’ Again, another smile.
‘Just family stuff. My sister and I haven’t been getting on recently, that’s all.’
‘Is it because of your dad?’
Unconsciously I shot Katie a suspicious look.
‘Scott, can I say something? I was speaking to Joan a few weeks ago and, I don’t know how it came up, but I had no idea about your dad.’
She bit her lip and stared up at me so anxiously I suddenly felt on the back foot. I had deliberately never mentioned it and was glad Joan had said nothing as the flat was therefore sanctuary.
‘I’ve literally felt terrible since, for not saying anything and being really insensitive when you first moved in.’
‘It’s okay.’ I tried to smile. ‘It’s never been that straightforward with Ellie and me, especially when it comes to our parents.’
‘Well, if you want a sounding board, I don’t think Izzy’s going to call any time soon.’
‘Perhaps,’ I smiled again. I shuffled my position against the wall and decided to instead perch on my bedside table.
‘How is everything with you and Ethan?’
‘Don’t remind me,’ she groaned. We’ll talk properly soon, see what happens. Right now, I’m just done with the whole competition of it all – the nights out and getting myself back out there that Izzy and the girls have had me on. It’s been super supportive of them, but I’ve spent a fortune on makeup and dresses over the last few months. Plus, my work has completely fallen off a cliff. I’m now slightly worried I might get fired.’
She flung herself back on the bed staring at the ceiling. Were we now friends? It felt like a trust was slowly forming – like she now saw me as one of the girls. Though, part of me still held a grudge about the whole moving-in weekend.
‘I thought you loved life at the museum.’
Katie picked up the cushion again and cuddled it against her chest, still staring up at the roof beams and skylight.
‘I had a run-in with my boss. It wasn’t bad or anything. She just said she noticed I hadn’t been quite myself – code for the fact I’ve been stumbling in late and sending things out unchecked.’
‘It’s fixable, though, surely?’
She sighed, slowly sat back up, and reached for her wine.
‘At least I proved two things tonight,’ she said, taking a sip. ‘I neither have Izzy’s confidence nor her impossibly small bum to pull off wearing something like this.’
‘In light of past events, it’s best if I don’t comment.’
She picked up another cushion and lightly threw it against me, smiling. She then narrowed her eyes and bit her lip.
‘I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I don’t think Izzy would mind you commenting.’ She made a small snort and grinned.
‘After all, she’s checked out your bum enough times for it to start getting decidedly awkward.’
My wine went down the wrong way as I coughed and sputtered.
‘The one we’ve just been talking about?’ I frowned. ‘Tall, skinny, and kind of rude all the time?’ I tried to examine Katie’s face for signs that she was winding me up. ‘She glares at me whenever I’m in the same room as her! I’ve never even seen her smile!’
‘She doesn’t like smiling! She says it makes her look goofy.’
‘That’s just weird.’ I could hardly hide my freaked-out smirk. It was both ludicrous and impossibly flattering.
‘Plus she’s not that tall! Or skinny – she plays tennis! Ultra-competitively and is ridiculously toned. In case you’re interested.’ It was now Katie’s turn to smirk at me. Then the doorbell rang.
‘Oh please don’t let it be Izzy.’
Katie sat up, alert and listening.
‘She does this. Changes plans and then turns up without warning. This is a huge favour, and I shouldn’t ask, but could you tell her I’m asleep? Or ill? I really, really don’t fancy being dragged out until four in the morning.’
I quickly descended both sets of stairs expecting to find an unsmiling, severe brunette with an impossibly small bum on our doorstep. Instead, as I opened our front door and looked out onto Loughborough Road, there was a tall, skinny musician with stylishly messy brown hair and the weary smile and dark eyes of someone who had hardly slept in days.
‘Mike? What are you doing here?’
I looked over his shoulder to see if Ellie was somehow with him.
‘Kidnapping you,’ my brother-in-law replied and quickly squeezed past me and bounded up the stairs.
‘Let’s just say I’m making you an offer you can’t refuse,’ he said as I followed. ‘You’re spending the weekend at ours, and you and Ellie can sort this out for good. I’m not having another week with her wandering around like someone had put down her pet Labrador. Let’s get you packed.’ He then began bounding up the steps to my room.
‘Hold on, Mike – ’
‘I take it The Duchess of Bath and Wells is out? What is it tonight? Shooting weekend at Hugo Sloane’s…?’
Mike stopped dead at the doorway. Katie was standing up, glass in hand, and throw set aside back on the bed, about to leave. If possible her skirt looked an inch shorter as she stared at our unexpected guest.
Mike looked from me to Katie, confused. ‘Oh. Sorry. Didn’t mean to interrupt… anything…’
‘You’re not!’ Katie said, somewhat defensively. She then screwed up her face. ‘I, umm, do live here.’
‘We were just talking.’
‘Obviously!’ Katie glared at me, not appreciating my explanation.
‘Well, I guess that living room of yours is a tad on the cramped side to have a proper chat,’ Mike smirked.
‘Oh, grow up, both of you,’ she said, pushing her skirt back down and squeezing past us both before then stopping in front of me.
‘Duchess? Seriously?’ She rolled her eyes and set off back down the stairs.
For Easter that year, I had suggested to Ellie that we spend it together at Dad’s. She declined for what were good reasons at the time. ‘Easter? We never do anything for Easter, and I’m not driving three hours each way just for a glorified Sunday lunch.’ I suggested we could all stay the weekend. ‘That’s a bit morose, isn’t it? And we agreed to leave the house alone, at least until this bullshit probate is done.’ But I did so anyway, against her wishes.
On Easter Monday, livid at knowing I had been staying there, she drove into London to check I hadn’t trashed the place. She found me passed out on the floor of the upstairs bathroom apparently having gone on a bender and having thrown up in both the toilet and the sink.
‘Selfish’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘useless’, and ‘wanker’, were just some of her words as she got me to my feet and bundled me fully clothed into the shower. From then on, she wasn’t that keen on my ideas, thoughts or offers to visit or meet up, apparently not wanting her waster piss-head brother around her children. I thought it was imprudent to say I only had three cans of lager.
‘I thought you didn’t get on?’
‘We probably don’t now.’
‘I’m just saying, if Ellie came home and found a girl dressed like that in our bedroom, divorce proceedings would be underway. That’s if I hadn’t fallen to my death from our bedroom window.’
‘You’re only on the first floor. There’s very little chance the fall would kill you.’
We were on the A3, the lights of the motorway leading us to the coast. I had thrown a bag of clothes in the back of Mike’s Volvo – not the most rock and roll car for a musician, but he said it more than reaped dividends when it came to transporting guitar amps and drum kits to recording studios and gig venues. He also said it came in handy when ferrying around two young children and their plethora of accessories.
‘Millie and Ed are having a sleepover at Mrs Rawlins. We’re having Millie’s birthday party tomorrow so Ellie and I were going to use the child-free time to wrap presents and bake sugar-filled crap to dose up a dozen or so screaming five-year-olds. Rock and roll, man.’
‘Ellie never said she was having a party.’ I had the present I was going to post to Millie in my bag though I felt put out that Ellie had banished me from my niece’s birthday party.
‘You know, your sister’s not the battle-axe she makes out she is. Sure, she’s got her issues with sarcasm obviously, but at heart, she’s a lot more fragile than she lets on.’
A drizzle began to fall as Mike flicked on the wipers and indicated to take the A27.
I knew Mike’s plan was terrible. He had spent all week in a recording studio laying down riffs and guitar solos for a new teenage punk band so the last thing he probably would have wanted was to seek out his waste-of-space brother-in-law. As we wound our way through the traffic-free night roads, he described the band as ‘still a bit raw’. That was Mike’s way of describing them as musically incoherent. As Ellie would say, he was a die-hard member of the Musicians’ Union and would never utter a bad word regarding another musician’s abilities. People liked working with him, so as the music industry declined he was still in demand, though he still had to contend with irregular hours and the long commute.
As headlights and brake lights shone ahead of us, I asked Mike if he had thought about a comeback with his old band.
‘It’s a hobby, now. We never really stopped playing together, we just had our day and I think more bands need to realise that or else madness lies in wait.’
Dual carriageways became a single lane. ‘There are still eight or so folks who remember us,’ he grinned. ‘And that gives us around two gigs a year where we can play what we want. The rest of the time we have weeks like these, and we are lucky. Between this and Ellie’s teaching, we just about keep the wolves at bay.’
‘You must miss it, though?’
We turned off onto a dark side road.
‘We were all pretty done with it ten years ago – the record companies, the touring, having to release utter crap you’ve written in a day without your heart in it. Like I said, man, the band’s a hobby now. And pretty much the best hobby in the world. Now just give me a cold lager, an evening in, and some time with Ell and the kids. That’s the new dream. Rock and roll for the old and knackered.’
And when he should have been at home with his wife and kids, Mike was now having to chauffeur his douchebag brother-in-law around with him, at the risk of triggering his wife’s wrath, because he believed it the right thing to do.
Mike once told me about the time he first met Ellie. We were on his stag do at the time, a weekend on the Cornish coast with ten or so of his other mates, surfing during the day and at night monopolising the bar in a remote country pub. Interestingly, the tale was a completely different story to the one that Ellie told Dad and me. She had said that they had met when she reviewed one of his band’s shows – she had seen him at the bar after and asked for some backstory for the piece. But according to Mike, as he and I sat hunched on bar stools drinking another of the infinite ales the pub had on draft, they did not meet at that gig. Ellie was only at the concert because Mike had invited her the afternoon before.
‘She was auditioning at London Guildhall,’ Mike said while the others were either at the pub’s dartboard or resting their limbs in the big armchairs by the fire. ‘She was in the main auditorium. Just her sitting at the grand piano and a panel of three administrators in the front row. And one shaggy-headed stoner with a guitar case over his shoulder skulking in the shadows right at the back, just out of a meeting with an old tutor. She was sensational. She played something so melancholic, but with these notes of hope, I knew right then I needed to speak to this girl.’
Mike then leaned on the bar looking strangely starry-eyed, as if he was fully picturing the moment or about to doze off after a long day’s surfing and drinking.
‘After she finished, I followed her out and caught up with her by the noticeboards. It had been years since I’d been that nervous. I don’t know what I said, I think I mumbled something about hearing her play and told her how moving I thought it was. She looked amused, probably startled that this random grungy guy had been hiding in the dark spying on her. But I could also see her turning this cute shade of pink so I took that as a good thing.’
I followed Mike into their house. I could see Ellie moving between their little dining area and the kitchen. I don’t think she saw me. She was setting the table and I was standing out of the way, by their sofa and fireplace, with toys and games piled up alongside it. There was also an electric keyboard that had been Ellie’s piano for the last decade or so, crammed into the corner of the cosy room.
‘Jesus, Mike, you said you’d be back two hours ago!’ said Ellie, busying herself with the cutlery. ‘You’re not going to see the kids now. Mrs Rawlins would have put them to bed hours ago. You better not have eaten, I’ve…’ She then saw me.
‘I called Mrs Rawlins on the way. I said I’ll drop round now and look in on the kids. She’s offered sherry and leftovers so….’ He trailed into silence as Ellie just glared. I thought I should say something to take the heat off Mike.
‘I asked Mike if I could tag along. I’ve got something for Millie. I thought I might be able to give you a hand setting up.’ Ellie remained glaring at Mike, who then went over and whispered something in her ear. As he did, I pretended to busy myself looking down at the books laid out on their small coffee table. One of the books was An Introduction to Financial Accounting, which seemed a strange choice for two musicians. My phone buzzed with a message. Looking up to see Mike and Ellie still whispering, I took it out and saw a message from Katie:
Hope all is going okay? K x.
I felt the hint of a smile. I thought the Duchess comment would have irradiated any goodwill we might have built up. We didn’t normally text each other pleasantries – our previous exchanges glancing back up the message history were all regarding the boiler. Ellie then marched out of sight into the kitchen, coming back with a bottle of wine and one glass, which she banged down on the table and poured. Mike then kissed her forehead as he turned to leave.
‘It could be worse,’ Mike whispered to me on his way out.
I heard the door of Mike’s Volvo shut and the engine restart. Ellie then started laying the table.
‘Scott, sit down, make yourself at home. Glass of wine?’ She marched back into the kitchen. Approaching the table I could see black smoke coming out of the oven.
‘Actually, is that wise?’ she said, returning with a steaming, charcoal coloured dish with a substance bubbling out of the sides. ‘I hate to think I’m fuelling your drug and alcohol problem again.’
This was going to be a nightmare.
‘Ellie, any chance we could just fast forward to me apologising?’ Through the journey, I had been getting more and more anxious. We did not do confrontation. That was how our family worked. Ever since Ellie came back into the fold after those oh so joyful teenage years, our relationships were based on a fragile unspoken truce. We’d ride things out, keep the alcohol flowing, until one of us – usually Ellie – forgot why they were pissed off.
‘I shouldn’t have said what I said at Waterloo. It was stupid. Really stupid.’
We were standing at opposite sides of the table. I was leaning against a dining chair and Ellie was holding her wine glass at her mouth, masking her expression.
‘I guess the reason it’s been on my mind is because everything seems to stem from back then. We were close when we were kids. I miss that. I feel sad that we lost it.’
I felt my voice go quieter. She seemed to gulp down her wine and then walked away, but this time came back with a serving spoon and another wine glass. She set it down in front of me and returned to her seat.
‘I’m sorry for what I said about Dad,’ she said, also quietly, not looking up.
She then took the spoon and cut into the dish.
‘You’re going to want to pour yourself some wine,’ she said. ‘This looks truly dreadful.’
Chapter 9: This one’s like your mother’s arms…
When I was ten, Ellie was my hero. She was the world’s greatest older sister, a fact which was emblazoned on a mug I had bought for her from the Muswell Hill card shop. She was bossy and forthright, declared and dictated, but with kindness always being her underlying motive. ‘Tomorrow we’ll go walking in the hills and for dinner tonight we’ll have pizza because that’s Scott’s favourite as last night we had Chinese which is Dad’s and mine.’ That was my overriding memory from our family holiday to Exeter and the coast. Be it on the beach, the moors, or in town, Ellie would march ahead like a general leading her army with me beaming and rushing to keep up, and Mum and Dad laughing.
When we were very small, she would build us a den in the living room out of blankets and sheets. She would make up stories and give recitals on my Fisher-Price Xylophone. She would hug me when I was tired, upset, or scared and tell me she would keep all the monsters away. At that age, she seemed to love having a little brother just as much as I loved having a big sister and protector.
Mum had this tendency of being there but not being there. Even on those family holidays, she would leave us lagging behind with Dad, and head off somewhere saying she just needed some alone time. But she did it in such a way that she’d smile this radiant smile of hers watching Dad pick up Ellie and me, both of us giggling hysterically, and calmly say, ‘Now, George, I’m going to get one of my heads again.’ She’d wag her finger jokingly causing Ellie and me to giggle more, and Dad would give this soft nod and watch her walk away, probably knowing what we didn’t – that it was only a matter of time.
Mum, or Orletta, as I now call her, was beautiful. When they would have dinner parties, Ellie and I would sit on her and Dad’s bed watching Mum at her dressing table delicately applying her makeup smiling at us like Audrey Hepburn, iconic into the camera. ‘Up?’ she would ask, coiling her blonde hair into the shape of a tulip and raising it above her head. ‘Or shall we let it drape and flow?’ She would give a mock quizzical expression as if it was the most serious of dilemmas for us, her stylists, to deliberate, which inevitably caused her small children to start rolling on the bed giggling, so proud to have her as our mother.
During the dinner parties, Ellie and I would sneak downstairs past our bedtime to watch and listen. Mum would sit at the head of the table and have this expression, hanging on every word of another guest. She would then spot us and give us a wide-eyed look of shock, before beaming and then returning to her guests. When Mum spoke it was then our guest’s turn to hang upon every word of hers. Everything she said rang to an easy rhythm. Her passion was art. Her studio was our conservatory where she would paint and sculpt and then at those parties relay her inspirations and aspirations, all those around the table entirely captivated – Orletta, the beautiful artist, George, her intellectual academic husband, and Ellie and me, the doting adorable children completing the perfect family.
And then came the summer I turned thirteen. I walked downstairs and found suitcases by the door. It was still another two weeks before our usual holiday, so I had not anticipated us going away anywhere that day. I then heard Ellie coming out of her room. She was approaching sixteen years old and had transformed from the sweet, bossy, caring older sister to the stereotypical monster, stroppy teenager. ‘For Christ sake, Scott, can you stop leaving your Games Workshop shit everywhere, I almost impaled my…’ Ellie stopped at the top of the stairs, her eyes fixed on the suitcases. She didn’t move, just stayed frozen to the spot and silent. I was simply happy that her rant was cut off and wandered off into the kitchen. That’s when I really knew something was wrong. In our conservatory I could see three large wooden crates. All of Mum’s paints, materials, and canvases were nowhere to be seen.
Ellie was sitting at the bottom of the stairs when I came back, and before I could ask her what was wrong, I heard Mum call, ‘Eleanor, Scotty. Please come upstairs.’ Ellie stared at me, wide-eyed. I had never seen her look scared before. I was the soft one – the mummy’s boy – not her. In their bedroom, Mum was packing a holdall at the edge of the bed, and Dad was standing at the window gazing out. Dad half looked around when we entered and then returned to the window. They had long, draping voile curtains, so it was a little strange that Dad was staring into them rather than pushing them aside to look at the road or whatever he was staring at. Mum looked up from her holdall and beamed at us as if we were wonderfully unexpected guests.
‘Please sit, dears.’ She smiled her dinner party smile and gestured to the bed. I pretty much jumped on, eager to know what the surprise was, whereas Ellie, again, approached it reluctantly. For the last year or so, Ellie had been obsessed with being ‘cool’. Everything we did was boring, and she was not afraid to make it clear to us that she would rather be anywhere else than hanging out with her family when we were all together. But at that moment, she genuinely did look like she would rather be dangling from the edge of a cliff than climbing onto the bed to hear what Mum had to say.
‘Sometimes it is very difficult for a person to spend their whole life only ever being one thing,’ began Mum, sitting herself down on the edge of the bed, smiling calmly at us. I had no idea what she meant, but her tone was soothing and reassuring, natural and effortless. Mum then told us how wild and wonderful the world was, that there were so many incredible people out there we were yet to meet, and that there were adventures we were yet to have.
‘I would never want either of you to feel you have to stay in one small place or that our lovely, lovely home is all there is for you to see.’ She kept smiling, and I became mesmerised. She was just as captivating as I had seen her at her dinner parties.
‘I love you both so truly, so madly, so completely, you will always be the most special people in my life. And I loved your father for years and years and wonderful years…’ Dad still had his back to us, facing the window but not looking out. He seemed to be staring downward, trying to be both present and absent while his wife told his children she was leaving them. As Mum continued to speak I looked to Ellie who seemed to have stopped listening to Mum and was also staring at Dad.
‘As we get older our dreams diverge. What made us happy once can no longer make us happy anymore, and that is absolutely nobody’s fault. The person who was your world can, in turn, become a wonderful friend whom you will always love, but in a different way, and treasure the memories forever.’
I looked over to Ellie again, and she was still staring at Dad, but this time her eyes were narrow and fierce. Mum told us she wanted us to be happy and do what we loved. She smiled contentedly as she described how she was going to become a full-time artist. She was joining an artists’ colony somewhere on the south coast. ‘You can come to visit any time you like,’ she added, beaming. It was run by someone called Conrad – a friend of hers – and they would spend half the year there and then travel all over Europe seeking inspiration. She made it sound like the most wonderful of adventures.
And then that was it. The fifteen-year-old Ellie sitting next to me could not hold it in any longer. She erupted in tears. Streaming down her face, she flung herself into Mum’s arms. ‘Darling!’ exclaimed Mum as if this reaction from her only daughter had come out of the blue. The moody teenager Ellie evaporated in our mother’s arms, her face nestled into Mum’s blouse crying her heart out. Perhaps it was because Ellie was fifteen, whereas I was twelve, that she had seen the warning signs in the months leading up to that day. Maybe she was old enough to see through Mum’s tales of happiness and wonderful adventures. She wailed so uncontrollably that Mum looked visibly shocked. She tried to muffle Ellie, holding her close, rubbing her back, and making soothing shooshing sounds. She shot a look at Dad as if imploring him to intervene. Dad had remained with his back turned. As Ellie’s wails began to calm, he finally turned away from the window eventually. ‘Excuse me,’ he said quietly and softly walked out of the room.
Over dinner, Ellie and I talked mainly about Millie and Ed. To be fair to Ellie, dinner would have probably been dreadful even if it wasn’t burnt. I think it was meant to have been a pasta bake, but I kept finding stray chunks of raw cauliflower and carrots and solid slabs of tuna that had welded themselves to the bottom of the dish.
‘Do you want some more?’ she asked, picking up the spoon.
‘Yes. Thanks,’ I said, hoping she would not notice the reluctance. ‘How do you make it so… creamy?’
When we eventually finished, Ellie got up from the table, pulling a crushed packet from her jeans pocket.
‘I didn’t know you still smoked.’
‘I don’t. Have you tried telling people you’re bored and want ten minutes peace and quiet outside? It spares everyone’s feelings.’ She pulled out one of the Marlboros and a lighter. ‘Come on,’ she then said to me.
We stepped out onto the patio. Ellie and Mike had a small garden with a little area of grass occupied by the kids’ Wendy House. Ellie offered me the packet, but I declined. She then lit up, looking at the half-moon, clear from clouds or whatever it was that caused it to shine a little less bright in London. She took another step forward, away from me.
‘You would spend hours in your room playing with those stupid, model soldiers,’ she said, holding the cigarette away from her.
‘You would make these idiotic sound effects and commentate to an empty room totally in your own world.’
‘Well I was a kid – ’
‘It meant you missed things.’ Ellie took a drag of the cigarette and flicked away the ash.
‘Mum would have these phone calls. I’m not talking about secret liaisons, even though she most likely had those too, but phone calls to friends and she would always sound so radiant and at times so self-deprecating it was charming. So I would hide behind the door listening.’
Ellie paused. She brought the cigarette back to her mouth but instead of inhaling she just dropped it to the ground and stubbed it out. The next voice she spoke was not hers, but our mother’s.
‘‘Oh, Claudia, she should wait until she has two! Two is when it all starts to unravel.’’
Ellie took another step forward, her arms now crossed. Her voice had the overly posh intonation of our mother’s. ‘Two, she would say. ‘The second one takes up everything and more. It is all roses until you have two.’’
She then turned around. ‘That was all complete bollocks, Scott. I know it, you know it, but what the fuck did I know back then? Two was difficult, and then she left. So I went back to one.’
We both started looking up at the moon. It was a beautiful night and warmer than it had been in weeks. I thought quickly of Katie and that our boiler problems would not be an issue tonight. I then walked up to my sister so we were side by side.
‘Scott, I know you were a kid. I know you were only thirteen, I was there, I’m not delusional, you do not need to remind me. But I wasn’t a kid. I was meant to have been a woman. I was meant to have grown up and become not a dependant anymore but instead Mum’s equal, her friend, a mould she could now form something out of and teach me how to be like her. We worshipped her. You know we did. And then I had finally reached the age when I could be taught how to put on makeup, get my ears pierced, try on her jewellery and perfume and even wear one of her dresses outside the house. Instead, all of those things got packed in a crate and sent away.’
I started picturing Ellie again as that girl at the piano. Her hair was straighter back then. Shinier too, like brand new hair. I looked at the Ellie standing there now – the mother of two, dressed in a baggy knitted sweater and comfortable jeans. I then thought back to post-university Ellie – a punk-girl with spiky hair and a nose stud who knocked on the door when I was seventeen and reintroduced herself as my sister.
We were not those kids anymore. All those physical characteristics were long gone, and with them, the people we once were. Perhaps for the better.
We weren’t huggers. The only time we did was in front of other people, such as Mike’s family, to appear normal. But I wanted to hug her. Or her to hug me. Like when we were kids. So I stood there, next to her, and gently let my arm press against hers. Hopefully, she saw it as a symbol of solidarity, not her brother being weird. But we stayed like that, in silence, both just watching the moon, until she said,
‘I’ll let Mike know it’s safe to come back.’