We went through a door marked private, past a set of offices, and to a door marked storeroom. ‘This is where Izzy normally goes at these sort of things,’ Katie said, not looking back at me. Inside was dark, and Katie had not turned on the light switch before the door closed on us. I stood silently in the dark, waiting for whatever game of chicken we were playing to end, for us to have either a normal conversation or an argument. Instead, I felt her hands on my hip. My déjà vu moment from the pre-Christmas museum then turned into another déjà vu moment entirely. I was back at Christmas Day, under the mistletoe, with my eyes closed, surprised and in awe, as I felt her kiss me.
It was like all the pent-up frustrations of the last month were flowing out of me as I kissed her back like I can’t recall kissing anyone for years. Perhaps it was sensory deprivation but all I could think of was how much I wanted her. I felt the fabric of her dress – her hips beneath it – and wanted ever so much to raise it over her head and take my own clothes off too. But then, the kissing stopped.
‘I can’t do this,’ she whispered.
We had found a quiet spot sitting on a fire escape in an alleyway behind the gallery. I had just returned from the main event with two full glasses of champagne and handed one to a depressed looking Katie, hunched on the steps.
‘That was unfair of me,’ she sighed, taking the glass.
‘I was using you to get back at Izzy. And Ethan.’ She then screwed up her face and looked at me. ‘And you come to mention it.’
‘You were using me to get back at me?’ I frowned, sitting down on the cold metal stairs. I was still feeling the effects of an array of hormones rushing through me as if I was a teenager. I had just kissed – or been kissed by – the girl I had set my heart on, however unlikely as that was. She had stopped and looked thoroughly miserable at the experience, which both changed the mood yet still left its mark on me. Looking at Katie, as with Izzy, it seemed like I too was her rock bottom.
‘With Izzy,’ she seemed to grit her teeth, ‘I think I’ve taken all I can of this get-under-someone-to get-over-someone goading, implicitly saying there’s something wrong with me for not being up for an open relationship and how constantly prudish I am. Looks like she was right! I can’t even snog someone while newly single without feeling I’m cheating on Ethan!’
Her body sank, her chest resting on her knees.
‘And with me?’ I said, unable to resist a quick smirk. She then sprang up, depression turning to accusation.
‘And you! This whole leave Ethan for me, you fucking idiot declaration. I know it was cruel, but hey, if everyone else is so up for casual sex, why can’t I?’
She rolled her eyes, exasperated. I was still trying to get my body temperature under control after those two minutes in the storeroom.
‘Because it’s not you. Unfortunately for me.’ I smiled. We both sipped our champagne. I could hear music coming from the gallery as we sat overlooking the bins of fellow businesses lined up down the alley. Katie seemed to be making a conscious effort to stretch Izzy’s short dress as far as it could go over her knees.
‘This is humiliating. You acknowledge that, right?’ she then said, still looking just as pissed off as she was that day at Ruskin Park. ‘Both for me and I assume for you. It’s like the world’s biggest hypocrite, whose personal life has been a self-styled train wreck ever since I have known her, is now telling us both to get our heads out of our arses. You understand why I’m annoyed, right?
‘A little, perhaps.’
‘Okay. Then perhaps you’ll understand that I resent having to apologise to someone who I should have apologised to ages ago – on my own terms – without my so-called best friend having to intervene and force me?’
The question was rhetorical. I could have replied but Katie then looked away, back into the stillness of the alley. When she next spoke, her voice was softer.
‘I liked your letter.’
‘Well, calling you an idiot in public wasn’t exactly my finest hour.’ I gave her the briefest of smiles. ‘I seem to be not very good at not screwing things up with you.’
‘Or I with you.’ She gave a tired, groan of a laugh. ‘I liked kissing you. More than I should have at the time. Considering Ethan. Considering the weirdness.’
I couldn’t help a louder, more genuine blurt of laughter. I cradled my champagne, hunched too, listening to her, while staring blankly at the bins.
‘We were meant to go dancing tonight. Izzy told me – ordered me – to wear this dress, and we were going to drink enough free champagne until our heads spun and then follow her gallery lot to some club where I would finally stop being a stick-in-the-mud and let myself go.’
‘You can still go dancing. Lorenzo seems fun. Certainly outgoing.’
‘Yes, very. But then you walked in and reminded me that rather than let some gorgeous, wealthy young man rock my world in the sack, I would rather be at home in my dressing-gown drinking warm cocoa and watching trash television shows on my laptop.’
Katie put her glass down to the side and then slumped further, her head on her knees.
‘It also means I should be more honest. Both with myself and with you.’
She sat up, pushed her light auburn bob from obscuring her face and turned to look me in the eye.
‘I like you, Scott. It is seriously weird, but I do. And part of me being so pissed off that day at the park was because you wanted me to do something that part of me really wanted to do. But that’s the whole thing. Part of me also wanted my relationship with Ethan to go back to normal and forget this whole stupid year had ever happened.’
I was beginning to lose feeling in my fingers, holding the champagne in the cold air. But I didn’t want to move, knowing this moment would never come round again.
‘And part of me also wants to grab Izzy and scream that open relationships are not normal. Having to pretend to be up for a threesome with female college friends just to make you more desirable to some pervy guy is not normal. So not wanting to have sex with anyone right now does not make me a prude.’ Her eyes shot to the heavens and she flung her head back, looking like she wanted to explode. She then let out a deep sigh and looked at me slightly more hesitantly.
‘This is where I say it’s me, not you.’
Katie looked so apologetic. After the Ruskin Park incident, I took some consolation in that it was difficult for my heart to break when it was already broken.
‘I want you to know that I do like you. I have feelings for you. But, all I want to do is put on my most hideous pyjamas and eat my own body weight in ice cream. And I don’t think that’s going to change for at least the foreseeable future.’
‘I think that’s the nicest brush off anyone’s ever given me.’ I half-smiled, and she gave me a friendly shove.
‘I meant what I wrote about missing you. I feel a bit lost, to tell the truth, not having you to talk to when I come home.’
Both our hands had fallen to our sides and were touching. She then squeezed mine.
‘Rock your world in the sack?’ I found myself smiling.
‘See!’ She shot me her first natural smile of the night. ‘I don’t even know what they call it anymore.’
It felt like a last ode to Loughborough Road. We sat on the fire escape, slowly drinking the now flat champagne, in the neo-romantic setting of bins and litter. But at least we were finally able to talk to each other, just like we did before. Largely about her and Ethan.
‘We’re arguing about the flat. He says he was the one who found it, so he should get to keep it. Eight years in a relationship and that is his only sticking point.’
‘It’s probably more than just that,’ I tried to offer my worldly advice, a little more cautiously than I had done on previous occasions. ‘If you’re arguing about the flat that kind of keeps you together. I think they call it transference.’
Despite my months of therapy, I was not exactly sure I had done justice to the term. She laughed an ironic-sounding laugh.
‘A bit like how I’m mad at both you and Izzy for sleeping together. That you both can jump into bed together without even seeing each other out of the house and then go for coffee weeks later like it’s no big deal.’
‘I’m sorry about Izzy and me.’ I snorted another small laugh.
‘No, you shouldn’t be, though. If anything, I’m jealous. Of the fact you both felt free to go with it, and I’ve spent the last year in an open relationship being loyal to someone I’m not even sure I liked that much. I loved him. I think I do still love him, in fact. But, I don’t know, I was pissed off at you because I was pissed off at him, so I’m sorry for always making it difficult between us.
I think I do still love him. Like with Vicky, it was bittersweet. I had said I wanted to be friends but I knew that was a distant second to what I really wanted. When I finished my champagne I put down the glass on the alleyway tarmac. I stood up and took a deep breath.
‘I don’t really fancy going dancing,’ I grinned, as Katie also got up.
‘Probably best. Me stopping off to throttle Izzy is going to put a dampener on the mood.’
Silently and slightly awkwardly we moved closer to embrace each other.
‘I’ll give you a call in a bit after I sort my head out. We can go for coffee or something?’
And that was all I knew it would be. All my cards had been played and Katie was far too bright to think anything otherwise. Christmas and that kiss under the mistletoe was embedded in my mind, though it all suddenly felt hollow as I fake smiled and turned to leave, hearing the loud, excitable voices of Lorenzo and his friends enter the alley from above. I gave Katie one more smile before turning on my heel and headed for the main road.
Chapter 30: Auntie Pam
It would be unfair to say that Auntie Pam had terrified us as children. Yes, we did dread those visits and joyless sleepovers at her house and, growing up on Disney, she was the wicked stepmother to mum’s Snow White or Cinderella. Or perhaps she was the wicked witch, and Ellie and I were Hansel and Gretel. These are only analogies at the end of the day, and only a fool would try to realistically draw meaning.
Auntie Pam was Dad’s only sibling. Mum’s sisters had both married and emigrated to America and Australia when we were little, so she was effectively our only aunt. I think it was because I had stayed and Ellie had left that my relationship with her matured into something a little less dread-filled. I could see the kind side to her military-style organisation – how she would drop shopping off for us while Dad was coming to terms with his role as a single father, and check in on me when Dad was at a conference. We’d also have conversations over a cup of tea, initially while Ellie was still living with us, when some petty quarrel would result in Ellie slamming the door of her room. I remembered Auntie Pam’s exhausted sigh and then how she would seem to pick herself up, smile at me, and ask if I wanted a biscuit.
She was strict, but I grew to like that about her. I never really associated Dad as being sad or the cliché of the jilted husband when Mum left, but he was definitely more preoccupied in that first year. Less jovial and chatty and spent a lot of time in his study. I think it was her influence that got Dad out of himself, maybe a little too late for Ellie to see, but she was the one who instigated those Sunday lunches and did become a steady presence in my life over a roast chicken and a few glasses of red wine.
But for Ellie, quality time with Auntie Pam seemed to remain very much consistent. She and Mike had collected her from Gatwick and her stay in Brighton was documented in WhatsApp messages every four and a half minutes.
We were searching for her for bloody ages! Why can’t she buy a bloody pay-as-you-go FFS!!! She’s been having coffee with a colleague. Who does that when they know someone is waiting for them?! We’ve had to give her our room so I’m in with the kids and she’d given the kids half a kilo of baklava so I’m now dealing with sugar rush comedowns and tantrums before bedtime!!!
And that was just a small sample. It did amuse me, receiving each update one after the other, but it also felt a pleasant distraction from thinking about Katie. Do not get me wrong, I had not returned to my duvet, nor was I moping – or at least I did not believe myself to be doing so, it is all relative, I guess. It just felt final. Terminal. Katie was starting out on a new journey and I didn’t see an ex-flatmate having a place in it.
The small army of Ellie, Mike, Auntie Pam, and the kids arrived in the early afternoon, Millie bombing through the door fuelled on E-numbers. Ellie was next to enter the house, her eyes half-closed and teeth gritted. ‘She went to meet a friend in Worthing. That’s why we’re late. Her whole stay with us was just so she could get a door-to-door taxi service.’
‘Scott, my boy!’ called Auntie Pam over Ellie’s hissed whisper, and joined us as Mike was last down the path with Ed and enough bags to last them a month.
‘Uncle Scott, Uncle Scott!’ cried Millie, back with us in the hallway after a lap of the house. ‘Where’s Auntie Katie? Can she play with me?’
Oh fuck, I thought, and what resilience I thought I had built up seemed to waiver.
‘She’s at her own little house,’ Ellie interrupted crouching down to talk to Millie, whose face fell. ‘Because today is about you and Eddie spending time with Daddy in Grandad’s old house while Mummy and Uncle Scott have a nice cup of tea and a boring grown-ups chat with Auntie Pam.’
Auntie Pam wanted pretty much to get back to hers straight away and drop off her suitcase. ‘There’s a jolly new little café popped up in Alexandra Park. I have nothing for you in the house, so we might as well have a cake while we do this.’
She led us into the park which was blissfully sparsely populated on that gloomy February day. The grass looked damp underfoot and those few braving the conditions wrapped themselves in scarves and hats. Ellie and I were being led by a determined Auntie Pam, as if we were members of her expedition parties, to what looked like a glass conservatory just beyond a children’s playground.
I volunteered to get the drinks and cakes while they took the only spare window table, giving us at least some privacy from accidental eavesdroppers. I was surprisingly less anxious than I thought I would be. Well, at least less anxious than Ellie. I think this sprang from anxiety fatigue. Seeing Orletta, the idea of her being in poor health instinctively didn’t ring true. Instead, I was beginning to think Auntie Pam’s mysteriousness was more a way to get Ellie and me running around after her – after all, we had neglected her since Dad’s passing, enough to have her take up the travel bug and leave us for warmer climates.
When I arrived at the table, Ellie was already getting out our folder of documents from her bag.
‘Auntie Pam, we found these invoices amongst Dad’s things – ’
‘I know what they are, dear,’ she replied, disregarding the papers Ellie was thrusting at her. Ellie gave her that wide-eyed glare she reserved for when she felt slighted, usually by Auntie Pam.
‘Then perhaps you can tell us why we are here, why I’ve had to chase around the country after you, and we could not do this over the phone.’
Again, Auntie Pam looked completely unaffected as she poured each of us our tea from the communal pot.
‘You have chased around the country because you are my only living family and I very much wanted to spend an evening in your company.’
I felt a jolt. The impressive comeback by Auntie Pam also felt a dig at me for those lack of visits.
‘I take it you have not spoken to Orletta regarding this?’
I confirmed we had not while Auntie Pam sliced her cake into smaller pieces. Around us, people were warming themselves with their hot drinks as heavy coats lay over the backs of chairs. Prams and buggies were tucked into tables, and I faced the window overlooking the children’s playground where cold-looking parents pushed wrapped-up toddlers on the swings and mini-roundabout.
‘What you are asking of me is not straightforward,’ she said, suddenly putting down her cup with an agitated sigh. ‘I was asked to keep confidences, and now that George has passed away that should make these confidences more sacred, not less.’
It was all very solemn of Auntie Pam, I thought, and together Ellie and I gave each other a sideways look.
‘We’re not asking you to break a vow. We’re just asking what the significance behind these pieces of paper is.’ Ellie picked up and showed the invoices again, failing to hide the exasperation in her tone.
‘But you are,’ Auntie Pam said. I felt a coat brush my arm, and a tall woman with a buggy gave me an apologetic wave as she left her table. After chewing a mouthful of cake, Auntie Pam then set it aside looking somewhat more retrospective.
‘I have to say firstly, I did respect – even admire – your mother but we did not gel at times as much as I would have hoped. Largely my fault, I have to admit. I can be a little set in my ways, so encountering a free spirit with all that glamour does not come readily. But your father loved her, and that was more than good enough for me.’
She took a quick refresh of tea and I huddled a bit closer, not wanting her to have to raise her voice.
‘There were things you were not likely to have seen as children. To be honest, most of us adults selectively close our eyes to these things, significantly more then than we do now. But even now, you do tend to assume this is the way a person is.’ Ellie and I both furrowed our brows again. We were not following her.
‘Orletta was the life of the party amongst our social set. The room would light up when she would enter and she could bring a smile to even the most hardened sad-sack like myself. But when everyone had gone home, it would sometimes – not all the time – be a different story.
‘There would be those long walks of hers, there would be those times she would retreat into her art and you would not hear a peep out of her for hours. And there were times when you both would be dropped off with me so she could have some peace and quiet. Lord, I’m not saying you were a burden. No more than any other child or teenager – ’
‘Oh thanks a lot, Auntie Pam,’ Ellie scowled.
‘But there it was. She would take to her bed, with one of her heads, she would call them. She’d never call for a doctor and, to be frank, never did seem in enough pain for me ever to consider it more than an artist’s temperament. And when the divorce came – or what should have been the divorce – well, I have to admit I thought she had acted selfishly and appallingly.’
Auntie Pam grimaced and made to top up her tea. Outside the window, children were happily chasing each other around the roundabout, looking thrilled, joyful and everything I remember being at that age. Auntie Pam stabbed her fork into another small piece of cake.
‘Her career had taken off. She was invited to parties and asked to attend all these exhibitions, and George always made allowances for her exhaustion when something she found inconvenient came up.’
From revelling in Orletta’s shortcomings, Auntie Pam suddenly sighed. As if someone had just turned a valve to let the air out of her vitriol.
‘But what I have not said is that, despite all of this, she did cast a spell. Yes, we did not gel, but she was my sister-in-law and I loved her as a sister. She was kind and genuine, not false like I would have imagined her arty type to be. And I let her down.’
Ellie and I shot each other another look. I don’t think Auntie Pam had ever said a nice word about our mother in all the time we had been alive, let alone said she had loved her. She just sat there nursing her teacup, temporarily lost in something. She then seemed to pull herself back to the present.
‘Your father did try to win your mother back. There were trips to Devon and back in a single day, and each time he would return a bit more broken but still, infuriatingly, with never a harsh word to say about her. I accused him of allowing his blind spot for her to overlook all those cancelled visits, and how she expected you to be dumped at the doorstep of some gallery. That was meant to be quality time with her children. And do not let me start on those months abroad. And then, one day, she vanished. Just like that.’
Now the look Ellie and I shared was one of panic. I think we both assumed we were here to receive something trivial. There was then a clatter behind us. Something had dropped to the floor, but I blocked it out, just focusing on my aunt.
‘She stopped calling. She and your father had arranged check-ins, and suddenly, no phone calls, no letters, no postcards to either of you. She was meant to have been abroad that summer taking Orletta Roberts on tour – drinking champagne standing alongside a painting of hers being told how wonderful she was. But she had not gone. Your father called mutual acquaintances, found hotel numbers, and she had never turned up. That Conrad fellow was just as elusive. He was off the grid as well, however as he ran a multimillion-pound business did mean your father was eventually able to get in touch with his secretary and be assured neither were missing persons.
‘George had to travel to Devon to that retreat of hers. They had shut it up for the summer, and George told me there was not a soul. He received no answer at the house and had to wander empty cattle sheds or whatever they were meant to be until he found her in a barn, sitting on a stool, easel in front of her and staring at a blank canvas. She had paints but no paintbrush and just sat blankly staring, not responding as he called her name. That man of hers told George later that she had been like that for weeks.’
‘She was catatonic?’ said Ellie, eyes alert in alarm.
‘George said she did eventually acknowledge him. As he tried talking to her she ultimately said ‘do shut up, George’ and returned to her staring. Apparently, it had begun at the start of that grand trip. Well, not begun exactly – there were warning signs – but as she led some circle of artists painting at some chapel, she got drawn to another’s work and was suddenly preoccupied. From what that Conrad told your father, that evening she just flipped out. Paints thrown across the room, brushes in bits, and she took to her canvases destroying any work she had completed that week, crying what an embarrassment it was.
‘They came back to England, mothballed their retreat thingy and tried to ride out the storm, as Conrad had put it.’
I was trying to visualise it. My mother sitting alone in the same barn that the redheaded Sylvia had walked out of, or slashing up paintings in some French château. But neither was in keeping with the woman I had either known or seen recently. Ellie was leaning forward, her mouth open, looking very much like she needed to ask questions, but Auntie Pam carried on.
‘That man of hers thought it would blow over. Or hoped it would. So George intervened. He knew too well the mood swings – her me-time – and how when a painting was not quite right she would apparently go into her shell and get so dispirited she could not bear to see a soul. Even the two of you. Your father would ship you off to me for a night or so and that would usually be all it took to get your mother back on her feet again. But I guess the highs and lows of fame do come with quite the emotional burden.’
Auntie Pam let out a big exhalation of breath, allowing an increasingly agitated Ellie to jump in.
‘Sorry, but this is ludicrous. You’re saying Mum had some kind of breakdown, which no one told us about? It’s not possible. We lived with her, for Christ sake. We would have noticed if she was suffering from depression.’
‘You probably did, dear.’
Ellie scowled at our aunt, like it was one personal insult too many.
‘She was a fabulous woman. A success. A fucking success!’
Auntie Pam took no notice of Ellie’s deliberate swear and went back to focusing on refilling her cup with tea. I had hardly touched any of my own and wished I had bought a bottle of water instead – my mouth was dry and I felt uncomfortably warm in that greenhouse-like room.
‘She was the life of the party. Any party! She occasionally would get a migraine and need some peace and quiet, but I would hardly call it depression.’
Again I was a passenger in the conversation, as I stared out of the glass. The playground was now deserted as the light grew dimmer. The image I had of Orletta was this vain abandoner of a woman. Strong and ruthless. The confidence, the flow, the hangers-on, and the glamour.
Auntie Pam told us that together Dad and Conrad had found Mum a clinic. I could vaguely recall an afternoon at sixth form when I had come home to find Auntie Pam in the house telling me Dad had been called to some urgent writers’ conference or something which, in hindsight, was hardly plausible. ‘He said it was more a hotel than, God forbid, an asylum. A country house with large grounds and woods and a doctor chap explained to them about individual sessions, group sessions, and even horse riding! He said it was the break she needed and though that man of hers could pay for it many times over, George was adamant he contributed half. She was still his wife, and despite the papers all being drawn up, they were unsigned, and he had no intention to do so until she was well again.’
There it was. At least, there was something. The reason why Auntie Pam had uncharacteristically kept her opinions to herself this last year.
‘And did she?’ I asked, finally finding my voice. ‘Get well again?’
‘I’m not sure if it is ever that simple, dear,’ said Auntie Pam, a little the wearier. ‘I have to say, I did not ask. I’m ashamed of that. Your father told me about each visit, and each time he would convince that man of hers to get her down to that fancy clinic as an outpatient, so she didn’t keep bottling things up. But to answer your question, she was always Orletta, just sometimes she would get the occasional bad day, so said George.’
The light outside was quickly fading. Around us, there was less chatter or rattling of crockery. My tea was stone cold and I had not touched my cake. Neither had Ellie, who had turned her head to the side staring down at some patch of floor.
‘She was okay,’ mumbled Ellie in a low voice, her hand obscuring her mouth. ‘I visited, and she was okay. She would have told us.’
‘Eleanor, dear.’ Auntie Pam then surprisingly reached for both our hands. ‘I didn’t want to be the one to tell you. George promised Orletta he would allow her to do so in her own time – she apparently got quite distressed and made him swear to it – and by that, I was sworn to the same vow. Back then, none of us were well versed in all this mental health. All I knew was that Orletta needed time to get back on her feet which, yes, she did. But all this is not my story to tell. All I can say is that I had held a grudge because of how she had left your father, and I’m ashamed to say that I never once made a telephone call to her to tell her she was loved.’
We walked Auntie Pam back home as dusk descended on the park. Ellie called Mike to tell him to feed the kids as we were to do some shopping for Auntie Pam so she would not have to leave the house again. Inside her sitting room, the grand space which was so intimidating and forbidden to play in as children, she looked thoroughly exhausted. I took it for granted that she had more energy than the rest of us combined, but today had drained her, and for the first time I saw a frailty that suddenly scared me. I did not have much family left, and I very much did not want to lose her.
Ellie too made no sighs of exasperation, but instead heated up some soup for her on the stove while I stocked the fridge. We had asked her if she had wanted to join us for some Chinese food, but she just wanted her chair and a night in front of the television, the two things she missed most about home. We sat with her into the evening watching Saturday night telly, and when we returned to Dad’s, Mike had long since put the kids to bed, and Ellie and I were ready just to crash out on the sofa.
Ellie said they would make an early start back to Brighton in the morning as we ate in the living room, the TV on and cartons of Chinese food laid out on the coffee table.
‘Do you want to do it, or should I?’ I eventually said.
‘I’ll do it. It’s better coming from me.’
We did not need to discuss it further.
Chapter 31: Devon – again
‘You know there are these things called dating apps? Apparently you get sent someone you might like and just press yes or no. Not exactly the height of romance, but definitely sounds an upgrade from your current love life.’
I was on the back seat of Mike’s Volvo and he and Ellie were in the front. Mike was driving and Ellie had duped me into handing her my phone and was scanning through web pages and available apps.
‘How do you know?’ grinned Mike, as we travelled on an A-road through the heart of the Devon countryside.
‘Hey, I’m just saying. This is beginning to look like some kind of complex. A compulsive attraction to the messed up and unattainable. That’s all.’
‘Err, thank you, Dr Eleanor?’
It was to be the three of us and just Orletta this time. Perhaps Conrad, but Ellie relayed that he would most likely be working in his study. She had brokered the meeting with our mother over text messages as we looped out Maxwell and solicitors and told her we only wanted to talk. We were not there to discuss the house, settlements, or legal notices. We would not be staying overnight, either at her house, which did seem a very unlikely offer, or in the village, and there were to be no stunts or gimmicks like last time’s coincidental meeting of the Board. Not even lunch had been mentioned.
‘Please tell me you didn’t do the whole ‘I’ll wait for you, take as much time as you need’ thing. Because that always works.’
‘I’m glad someone finds it funny.’
‘Well it’s difficult not to,’ she smirked and then spun around, slapping my knee with a big childlike smile. ‘Oh, cheer up, sad-sack!’
I had had a week to dwell on both what Auntie Pam had revealed about our mother, and what had happened with Katie, and I still had no idea how I was meant to feel. Part of me felt I should be moping about Katie, as I had done, and revert to type. But part of me was also still a little mesmerised by that bittersweet final kiss and needed to accept it for what it was – closure.
We had reached a wooden sign saying we were a mile away from the Colony. The journey seemed to have gone far quicker that Saturday morning, and there seemed a lot more energy about us than was probably appropriate. ‘Well, I actually feel relieved,’ Ellie had told me when we were arranging the trip. ‘I know I should be angry that we were kept in the dark for so many years, but I thought she… Well, I thought I had done something wrong or disappointed her. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still fucking pissed off and confused, but I’ve got so much shit on with the kids and everything I’m too tired to be angry or self-reflective.’
I could not have summed it up better. For me, it felt a little bit strange. There was something in how she looked at me when she had called me handsome that afternoon at the Colony. And when we stood together in front of the Turner at the gallery. Had she known? Could she see that sadness in me? Was it something she recognised in herself? I knew Ellie was both angry and shocked at finding out about Mum. But with me, I just felt I kind of got it. I understood why she wouldn’t say anything, and it wasn’t about a stigma. It was because it was part of her. If the modern world was now telling her that she should not feel ashamed about it, why should she even acknowledge it? With mental illness, I think we automatically feel we need to get overly understanding and bring out the kid gloves, emphasising the importance of talking about it and telling people how normal it is. Obviously, I am a walking example of the benefits of therapy, but I would also go as far as saying we need to start recognising that mental illness is an everyday part of life FOR EVERYONE. We will all have it, and we should anticipate it in others much like we would anticipate seasonal flu, and stop being so English about it.
Taking the correct route this time and risking neither the wrath nor flirtations of Sylvia De Vale, the Volvo was back on the cream-gritted driveway. This time only a silver BMW four-by-four and a sleek racing green Jaguar sat outside our mother’s home. No fighting for space like last time, or chaotic fanfare with Orletta greeting us the moment we stepped out of the car. Instead, the three of us heard the crunch of our footsteps on the gravel as Mike gave us both an encouraging double thumbs-up as we made our way to ring the doorbell.
Conrad greeted us with firm handshakes and escorted us through their grand foyer and into the conservatory, exactly like we had done on our first visit. However, this time it was not holding a social event. Instead four chairs sat around a large circular glass coffee table, one of which was already occupied.
‘Mike,’ smiled our mother, looking up from the newspaper she was reading. ‘What a surprise.’ She rose gracefully to her feet and gave Mike a warm embrace, followed by the same with Ellie before lastly coming to me. As she said my name and again looked at me with those calm, forgiving eyes, I felt part of me crumbling. But I did not know which part. We had not embraced at the gallery. Our conversation was that of two strangers observing the same artwork. Now there were witnesses to my coldness. My brokenness. My inability to know what I should be feeling.
The embrace lasted just a second, but instantly a dozen or so memories came rushing back. I saw the numerous galleries I had been dropped off at over the years, and I saw a teenage boy waiting alone in the corridors, his mother otherwise occupied. I then saw a railway station in the middle of nowhere where that same boy, now approaching thirty, sat in the steady drizzle waiting for the train back to London.
‘It is good to see you,’ she whispered in my ear.
‘You too,’ I mumbled just as softly.
‘Please, sit down. And help yourselves.’ Coffee was laid out on the table in a silver pot with accompanying cups, saucers, and mini-milk jugs as if we were in the lounge of a fancy hotel. ‘We also have biscuits baked in our local village. Fudge and toffee too – I remember how you both would love buying a little selection with your pocket money from those Natural Trust gift shops.’
‘Scott spent all his on those stupid rocks we could have got for free down at the beach.’
Our mother glanced up as if playing the memory out for herself on that glass ceiling above us, a faraway smile on her face. She then grinned and began pouring coffee for the four of us.
‘Maxwell tells me that you have been working very hard putting George’s affairs in order.’
I tried not to groan. Maxwell’s helpfulness did seem too good to be true. I wondered how much our mother’s spy had divulged.
‘I’m very impressed. When you were both little it was a chore to get you to be diligent about just about anything. Scott, you were always playing with those toy soldiers of yours, and, Eleanor, we would have wars even getting you to sit on that piano stool of yours.’
‘Orcs,’ I replied to three puzzled faces. ‘They were orcs and warriors. And druids.’
Orletta smiled politely.
‘I assume this visit is about the estate? My solicitor informs me that you would like to proceed with adjudication. You will have no objection from me. It does seem silly to drag this all out and perhaps we might even become friends if somebody else takes the wheel.’
It was like a micro-aggression bundled with a naïve thumping address to the elephant in the room. Did she think Ellie and I would jump up like a character in Mary Poppins and say ‘yes, let us all become friends and never have another silly twenty years of hostilities ever again’?
‘It’s not about Dad’s estate,’ I said. I held my coffee cup and saucer at my lap. ‘We wanted to ask you some questions about Dad. About you and Dad and why you never got divorced.’
‘Oh,’ she said, sounding a little surprised, a little intrigued. ‘Please go on.’
Her formality and genuine composure stopped me. Who was I talking to? The artist, Orletta Roberts, or my mother from twenty years ago? Ellie also was surprisingly hesitant, so it was Mike who got us on our way.
‘Ellie and Scott have been sorting through George’s old paperwork, deciding what’s important and needs to be kept, and there are a few questions that keep coming up about the divorce papers and why they were drawn up but never signed. I guess you can see their point.’ Mike sat forward, both businesslike and amiable, casually gesturing to both of us. ‘Everyone assumed you were divorced, even your family lawyer. This may have been a question for some time back, but I think they both would like to know what happened.’
The silent Ellie seemed to fold herself within her chair, all limbs crossed. I sat forward, mimicking Mike, and gave a small nod.
‘For two people with a lot of questions, you both are remaining remarkably quiet.’ She said it with a smile – a warm smile, contrary to the words actually said. However, it might have been the final straw for Ellie.
‘Perhaps we shouldn’t have to ask the questions?’ She had one of the looks she reserved for Auntie Pam when she was beyond exasperated. ‘Perhaps we kind of expected our sole surviving parent to reach out to us to explain what was going on and not just send solicitors or Conrad or anyone rather than have a fucking conversation.’
She’d never sworn at our mother before. No matter how angry or hurt she might have been. Orletta placed her coffee and saucer back down on the glass table.
‘I guess it did not matter at the time. Everyone seemed happy with the arrangements. What did one piece of paper signify? Only that something had failed, which it had not. Those were wonderful years with your father – I have two wonderful children. I guess neither of us wanted to diminish that.’
‘That’s not what we’re asking. Why didn’t Dad sign the papers? He went to the effort to have them drawn up, but something stopped him signing – please stop treating us like children!’
Ellie’s hand went to cover her eyes and pinch the bridge of her nose. Mike reached over to grab her other hand. Orletta gently adjusted her seat and took a breath.
‘I loved your father. Every bit as much as he loved me. The only thing that changed was that I needed to start writing the new chapter of my life. There was always tomorrow to sign those papers. Until… well, we always think we have more time than we do.’
‘But the house,’ I said, quickly so we would not get lost in another reflection. ‘If the papers were signed then you would have no claim on the house, so why not just act like he did sign the papers? Why benefit but make out it was just a paperwork error?’
‘Because, Scott, it was my house.’ Her voice had changed. It was sharper, not as flowery. ‘It was your father’s and mine. We bought that house together, we made so many plans in it, and I have now made promises regarding that house that, to be completely frank, keeping it as a mausoleum does him no credit and neither does it help either of you.’
The sharpness was still there, but so was the smile, like she had also finally realised the softly-softly approach – like the great American poet once said – ain’t getting us nowhere.
‘I am not stealing your inheritance. You and your children will be more than provided for when I depart this world. But there are things you would not understand about your father’s and my relationship after our separation, and believe me, as unlikely as it would seem, he would want this.’
‘But that’s the thing,’ I said, leaning forward, feeling more animated. ‘We would. We would understand.’
Above us, a thick cloud rolled over the conservatory casting a shadow. Orletta Roberts? She was certainly speaking with the confidence of a renowned artist who chaired board meetings of famous galleries. But there were still those non-judgemental eyes that, as sappy as it was to say, did hold a mother’s love and were staring at me calmly, allowing me to finish what I meant.
‘Ell, could you give me and Mum a moment, please?’
My sister scowled at me like leaving me alone for negotiations would be the last thing she would even contemplate. ‘It’s about Watership Down,’ I said.
Mike had led Ellie outside through the conservatory doors, both with coffee cup in hand, leaving only two of the wicker armchairs still occupied. I stretched over the coffee table to refill my cup and then did the same for my mother. I shuffled in my chair, feeling for the best position from which to speak. My mother just waited, a small intrigued smile upon her face, not even asking why I had needed the room cleared.
‘I was ill last year,’ I began. ‘I can’t pinpoint when it started, a couple of months after Dad died perhaps. I had a brief friendship with a girl that got a little confusing, and suddenly I was unable to think straight. And it would not stop.’
My mother looked back at me, her poker-face relentless. There was not even a twitch to betray her.
‘It got worse. I didn’t do anything about it. And then I felt like something broke, and I could not function anymore. I was no longer me. So I started talking to someone. Every week. Month after month, and I still don’t feel ready to stop. I’m still not…’
I shrugged. I blew out my cheeks and frowned, not sure where to go next. My mother was still giving me her undivided attention and still giving nothing away.
‘What made me start seeing someone about – what was going on that I could not explain – was this one night where everything in my head was so loud I needed to get it all out. I was at Dad’s, breaking our agreement and staying there over Easter. I was in his study, at his desk, I took out his writing paper and wrote him a letter about everything. All that I had not told him while he was alive. Everything I was ashamed about. And I put it in an old copy of Watership Down.’
I felt I was rambling. My monologue was falling on someone with deaf ears. Orletta neither nodded along nor gave me a hint that she understood what I was saying. Just that poker-faced stare while I tried to untangle my words.
‘Ellie knows. She found the letter a few months later. But her knowing was this massive wave of panic like I couldn’t cope with another person finding out that was how I felt. Like the shame would cripple me. But it didn’t.’
I looked out through the glass doors, watching Ellie and Mike side by side standing over the vines below.
‘If anything, it actually got us talking for the first time in our lives. We seem not to be so… resentful of each other. We tell each other things. We’ve started acting like brother and sister and not like two strangers who were forced to spend their childhoods together, and from my perspective it is a whole lot easier not having this constant guard up.’
Light was breaking through the clouds above us. I knew it was still not warm outside and I should tell Ellie and Mike it was safe to come back in. My mother still sat there watching me, listening. But then she leaned slowly forward and fixed her eyes on the coffee table picking up a plate of biscuits. She offered me one.
‘They are awfully good.’
I took one and we both sat crunching through them.
‘I guess you do take after me more than you had realised.’ Orletta smiled. This time not looking at me but like a flicker of memory had come to her and she was temporary elsewhere.
‘If you wouldn’t mind calling your sister back inside, there is somewhere I should show you.’
Mum asked Conrad to show Mike the gardens leaving Ellie, me and her alone in the house. She led us back to the foyer and up the stairs. We followed her along the hall and past a number of spacious, immaculate bedrooms. At the end was another less grandiose set of stairs leading to another floor.
‘No need for alarm. It is just my studio.’
We were in an attic room far more spacious than mine at Loughborough Road. A large skylight allowed a lot of light to flow in, giving the pale wooden beams and white walls a glow even on that grey February day. A solitary easel and chair sat at the centre, and all along the perimeter of the room were canvas upon canvas, the majority unfinished.
‘I say this is my studio, but most of the time I only sit here to admire the view.’
My mother glided to the chair, resting her hands on its back while gazing through the skylight. As though we were alone with a cornered tiger, Ellie and I kept to the outside of the room, treading gently and silently in opposite directions past her paintings, careful not to invade what felt a private space.
‘Your grandmother taught me to paint. She had me wielding a brush since I was not much older than a toddler. I suppose I did have those aspirations of becoming that unearthed talent and doing one thing of artistic note, but I progressed in life very much like every other friend of mine at art school – dream the big dream and then slowly replace it with more down-to-earth pursuits. When you have children, you realize how truly blessed you are and those old dreams fade in comparison.’
She momentarily turned to each of us and smiled politely. Ellie had made her way around to the other side of the room and was looking at another unfinished canvas.
‘But painting was always part of me. An outlet, or more precisely, something I had to get out. When I began exhibiting, and the Italian suits and French shawls began to take notice and pay compliments, it was like a fire igniting in me. It seemed to erode everything else. And I’m not talking about the recognition itself. More, the recognition that I could do it.’
Ellie seemed determined to find something worth looking at in the canvases as she stared at her feet rather than our mother, who in turn was talking to the skylight. I found I had gravitated back to the doorway.
‘I could be the one to paint that great work. The piece that would hang in the Royal Society. That I had a purpose. For once all those voices in my head chastising me for not being good enough ebbed away and suddenly, poof! There I was, Orletta Roberts.’
She gave us both this little ironic smile. I couldn’t help wonder what Ellie was thinking as she had stopped staring at every half-finished canvas in her vicinity and was now just staring down at the floor.
‘We call it the Dip. The feeling just before you paint your final stroke when you question whether what you are about to complete has been a waste of time. If anything you have done or will do will ever demonstrate any originality or amount to anything at all. You see nothing but flaws. The faker, pretending to be something you will never be.
‘I believed my so-called success,’ she then spun to her left and wandered closer to Ellie, ‘would win over the Dip. After all, those fancy suits and shawls could surely not be wrong. All I had to do was devote myself fully and completely to my work, but alas,’ I saw her put her hand on Ellie’s arm, ‘it does not work like that.’
She picked up the canvas upon which Ellie had her eyes fixed and held it up. It was a Van Gogh-style cornfield somewhere sunny and picturesque. ‘I would meet fellow artists on my tours of Italy and France who said my work inspired them, and I would sit being guest of honour at these workshops where we would paint together. Oh, the hubris! My benevolence on the world. This is from Burgundy. My unfinished masterpiece.’ There was a snarl to her voice as they continued to stare. ‘Everything I despise about my work on one canvas. Derivative. To have thought I was there to inspire others.’
She scoffed again, putting it down.
‘It wasn’t just that particular day in Burgundy – everywhere there were artists with real talent who made you feel with their use of light and colour, and could truly capture grief in the face of a passer-by. So I abandoned my tour determined not to be one of those who lived off undeserved prestige, and we came back here, to this room, so I could find what I was missing.’
Orletta put down the painting. She turned, looked at me, and smiled.
‘This became my private space.’ She gestured around the room. ‘Like with our conservatory. Here, I locked myself away, hoping to drive away those demons and let my talent shine through. Though this time it didn’t. I would shut myself up here for days. Days then suddenly became months.’
She again glided across that smooth wooden floor, back to her chair and the skylight.
‘When did it start?’ I asked. My voice sounded strange. Too loud, compared to what had only been my mother’s.
‘Who knows. It either materialised or was there all the time, and I did not give it the respect it deserved.’
‘How did you make it stop – ’
‘Is this going to be your excuse now?’ muttered Ellie. ‘Why you left and stopped picking up the phone?’
‘For fuck’s sake, Ell.’
‘Oh you’re allowed to wish her dead, but I can’t say I’m a little bit pissed off that no one in this family tells me anything and thinks their problems are so important they can just go off and leave me…’ Ellie’s voice cracked. Her lip didn’t even have a chance to wobble. It was just a deluge as our mother ran to embrace her.
It was like being taken out of the rain and huddled under a large towel. We were in a small sitting room, perhaps another private space of our mother’s. Orletta lit a fire in the fireplace and we sat on armchairs surrounding it.
‘People were less open about those things back then, even in the 90s.’ Orletta sat down, her chair opposite mine and Ellie’s. ‘The terms mental health and psychotherapy were not ones we bandied about. It was all very much a legacy from our parents’ generation of keeping calm and carrying on. Very English.’
She had brought with her into the room the biscuits from the conservatory and offered us the plate.
‘I did not choose art over you both. It was not why I left, and God knows I have wanted to tell you so many times over the years. I left because I was afraid. Very much afraid of being a failure. As a wife, a mother, a person. I would be terrified that someone would look into my life and see the real me – an empty space. An imitation. I would have these bouts of sadness I would not be able to explain, and my only form of escapism was my painting, so I did the easy thing and chose escapism over reality. And because I did that, I was ashamed.’
The fire crackled and I could feel its warmth at my shin. Ellie still looked shell-shocked and was staring into another mug of coffee our mother had made her. Mine sat on a little side table between our chairs as Orletta calmly relayed her story.
‘I threw myself into my work. And any talent I did have began to dwindle. All I could think of was what I had given up. That shame would grow until… well, I’m sure I do not have to repeat what you have already surmised, but I was very lucky to have some wonderful people around me, most notably your father.’
She exhaled and glanced into the fire. I followed her eyes, almost expecting to see Dad’s image appear in the flames as a hint of a smile drew across her face.
‘I was adamant I did not need help, and when I received it, I did not want a soul to know, especially you both. I had already let you down. I couldn’t have you see me at what I deemed my worst.’
‘You didn’t let us down,’ a croaky voice said from Ellie’s chair.
‘Yes. Yes, I did. Not for the illness. For hiding. I told myself I would tell you when I had invited you to the Colony for our little gathering. Then with you, Scott, I thought if we stood together long enough at the gallery some words would find their way out. But it was not the case.’
‘Why wait till now?’ Again, my voice came out a little strange. Too soft this time. Ellie looked very much like she did as a child, emotionally spent, curled up in that chair.
‘Why go off-grid completely with us? Why go through Maxwell this last year and not just let us know you’d spoken to Dad? Why let us lose a year of our lives trying to sort all this out?’
‘Are you bringing up the fucking house?’ Ellie barked at me. I could not help the bubbling resentment I was feeling.
‘It’s not the house. It’s that we did need you, and we would have been there for you. We should have been there for you. And you should have let us.’
My mother again smiled knowingly into the fire.
‘Because I could not face you.’ There was a warmth to her eyes in that glowing light as it began to darken outside. ‘I would ask George about you. We’d speak most weeks. Strangely we spoke more after it all than we ever did when we were married. He would tell me about your travels, Scott. And, Eleanor, he would tell me all about your life in Brighton and those beautiful children of yours. I am so proud of both of you, and with George, I had still had a dear friend and routine where at least I knew everyone I loved was happy. But then, the worst happened.’
The smile faltered. Her face seemed to sink and to look weary.
‘I do not expect you to believe me, but I have missed him enormously. He would visit, especially at the start of my illness. This all – the Colony – it was my vanity project. Where I could bestow my benevolence at home. When I became unwell, we shut it down for the summer and retreated to my studio. But we reopened, if only to save face and quash any rumours. And on my return from the fancy clinic the second time, it was George who suggested I leave the house and walk with him around the barn and just watch the students at work. He remarked how he would watch me like that, in peace, lost in what I was doing.
‘He then had me do something I had never done before. Sit with them – as a participant rather than mentor. George began asking the other artists about their work and their backgrounds. I just listened, realising it was the first time I had done so. Everyone had a story and a reason for being in that barn. I was not the only one trying to escape. We soon stopped painting and we all just talked. And laughed. It felt like the first time I had laughed in years.’
Orletta sat up and reached for another biscuit, looking at Ellie and me to see if we wanted one. I tried to smile politely, wondering how she managed to stay so calm, so many more questions running through my head. Ellie again was quiet, looking so much younger without her sarcastic fierceness.
‘My art changed that day. I painted less aspirational masterpieces and more of the everyday. Depictions of our little colony. My circle of fellow painters. In fact I stopped being an artist and reverted back to a painter, one who would share their stories with those around them and listen in return to life stories of hardship and courage that left me awestruck, not just at their heroism, but the fact I had known some of these people years and had never bothered to ask. We have survivors of domestic abuse, I have friends who have fought addiction, and there are people like me who get a little sad from time to time.’
My mind started to wander back to when I was a boy and would literally run into my mother’s arms. I remembered when she would have those heads of hers. I would sneak into her room and curl up next to her, hoping a cuddle could soothe her pain, much like it would my knocks and scrapes.
I did not know how to process what was, after all, a story I had gone there somewhat expecting to hear. Twenty years was a long time not to forgive someone. Still, I felt this underlying animosity towards the older woman sitting in the chair opposite me, with the kind eyes and subtle patient smile, for taking away the younger one. I wanted to blame someone for losing my mother, and the only person I could blame was that shadowy spectre who hid in the dark corners taunting me, who didn’t actually exist. All I had was the familiar-looking stranger sitting opposite me with my mother’s eyes.
‘And Dad knew all this?’ I said. My mother smiled. She placed her hand on the arms of the chair and gently rose.
‘I have something of his for you.’
‘We’d better get going,’ Ellie suddenly said, quickly but still a little apologetically. ‘Mrs Rawlins has the kids and it's super late already.’
‘Then I shall meet you at the door with it.’
She again smiled and left Ellie and me to silently steady ourselves.
‘Mike must want to be getting back too,’ she said as we got to our feet, both of us looking like it took considerable effort. But no sooner than we had stood, than Orletta had returned.
‘But you both must be starving. And Mike too. Please let me at least feed you a sandwich before you go. We are very good at ploughman’s in these parts.’
When I worked at the bank, we would have an away-day once a year where we were sent to a forest somewhere in Hampshire to be put through our paces by former SAS survival experts. Drill sergeants had us clambering through obstacle courses, over walls and through tunnels on our bellies, all under the pretext of team building, but really just a yearly form of humiliation to put us in our place and have us appreciate the fact we did a tedious desk job. Needless to say, at the end of it all, when we washed away the layers of mud and convened in the bar, we met each other with a smile of enormous relief. And that was exactly how I felt when I saw Mike outside the conservatory overlooking the vines.
‘Let you out for good behaviour?’ he grinned.
‘Time already served.’
I joined him at the top of the slope and let out a breath overlooking the green and yellow stretching as far as the eye could see.
‘You must be in your element out here.’
‘You’d be surprised what we get in Brixton.’
Mike jumped down the hill to one of the vines and examined it, much like I had done on my first visit.
‘You must know all the technical names and that? Circumstantia Von Aliolis?’
‘I think it’s called a grape, mate.’
‘Here.’ He threw me one. We both pulled faces at the intense rancid sourness.
‘Maybe they taste better in liquid form.’
‘I can assure you they do.’ Conrad emerged from the house with a glass of wine in one hand and a tall drink in the other.
‘Can’t have you come all this way and not sample our vintage. Perhaps, Mike, you can permit yourself a sip?’
We were handed drinks, and I passed mine to Mike to try. Conrad was right. It tasted heavenly. Perhaps because I needed alcohol.
‘Mike tells me you’re a dab hand at all this.’ Conrad nodded to his vines and crops.
‘Kitchen gardens mainly. And not so grand a scale.’
‘They’re grapes, mate,’ grinned Mike. ‘Surely not too different from that plantation you worked on back in Burundi?’
‘Yes, Scott, it’s rare to meet someone over here, or even outside the vineyards of France, who has that kind of experience.’
‘Why do I feel I’m late to the party here?’ I said, looking at them both suspiciously and then looking back down at the tall plants winding themselves around their sticks. They were now both grinning.
‘Conrad was just giving me the tour. Telling me he was expanding.’
‘Thinking about it. A neighbour is considering selling some land with a similar slope. I was telling Mike that when we first put down roots here I was a younger man. I’ve had some offers of support from friends in Burgundy who know their onions, but I’d need a hand. There would be a lot of work – technical work – I won’t be able to bring in anyone just to dig the odd trench – ’
‘You’ll need to measure each out, depending on the slope, and run your irrigation channels,’ I found myself quietly adding. ‘I can let you know how busy I get with the landscaping, but, yeah I could give you a hand for a week or so if you decide you want to do it.’
‘I think we’re talking a bit longer than a week.’
Conrad then ushered us back towards the house, where he said our sandwiches were waiting. When we returned, Ellie was having a conversation with our mother about Millie and whether she was too young to start learning to play the piano. We joined them around the coffee table and, for an hour, forgot ourselves. Ellie told stories of the kids, my mother asked me about my gardening business, and we just chatted for an hour about everything that was not houses, wills, or settlements.
Perhaps it was tiredness after what had been an emotional day, but we began the car journey in pretty much silence, until Mike tried to start a conversation.
‘It was a pretty good ploughman’s.’
‘Hmm,’ mumbled Ellie. ‘And it only cost us around two hundred and fifty grand each.’
Chapter 32: Normal
‘It’s not easy,’ said Camille as we were back in the more normal surroundings of her office. ‘I know a lot of people say that, but what they don’t say is that it also does not come naturally either.’ After so many months of therapy and having heartfelt discussions with flatmates, sisters, mothers, I was pretty much exactly where I had started – in a soft fabric armchair opposite Camille in the safe space of therapy.
‘We build these walls throughout our lives to keep residual trauma at bay and get through the everyday, so when it comes to grief, there are no rules of how long it should take to process or even when.’
I had had a solitary few weeks since the trip to Devon. Not solitary in that I hid myself away under my duvet again. More like everything had simply gone quiet. Or, that everything for everyone else had gone back to normal. Ellie and Mike were getting on with the all-consuming job of raising two small children. My mother and Conrad had travelled to France and we agreed everything would be put on hold until they returned. As for my friends, well, we did live in London at the end of the day so radio silence for the entire gloomy, damp and dark month of February was not unexpected. I had my work at least. I even had a new garden – just some light work a street away from Mrs Elsop’s but additional work nonetheless. In truth, there was only one aspect of my life that did stretch beyond the mundane. That was a series of WhatsApp conversations with Izzy, who had not only taken me up on my offer of friendship but also seemed to be utilising me as a dating consultant.
Dullard again tonight. He’s been very kind and patient especially considering my No Sex Until Date Six dogma. If he only knew how desperately in need I am of some form of shag. Positively bursting! ;-)
While that was at least entertaining, the woman whose name I had hoped to see pop up on my phone remained unsurprisingly quiet. I did message, and she did reply, but the interaction was polite and far too enthusiastic and considerate to be anything more than superficial. All good over here! Hope north London is treating you well. Thanks and have a good week!
In a way, it hurt more than when she told me to go fuck myself.
But what came unexpectedly in that month of quiet reflection was just how much I missed my dad. I was no stranger to staying at the house during the year after his death, so living there full-time should not have triggered this overwhelming sense of loss that had me having to take a seat and wait for the wave to pass.
‘I was very close to my grandmother,’ said Camille, holding the warm cup of coffee between her palms. ‘When she passed away it wasn’t her death which hit me hard. Or the funeral. It was the day after. When we were supposed to carry on.’
It was late afternoon at the end of the week. I could see the sun already falling in the sky. Camille crossed her legs and flicked her blonde hair to the side as she stared up at the ceiling as if trying to bring down that memory.
‘Previously, I had to arrange flights, comfort my mum, greet distant cousins and help with the service. There wasn’t any space to sit with nothing else on my mind. And then there it was. All that time. All that space. And I found it hard to breathe.’
I pressed my hands around my mug, feeling the chill now the sun was setting. For a moment, I questioned whether another coffee that late in the day was a good idea. Then I remembered the reason why I had asked Camille to have our session on that day, at that time.
‘After we came back from Devon, I would have these dreams – none that I can remember but vivid ones featuring ex-girlfriends like Vicky and Sarah and us being happy before it all melted away and I realised I was alone. And then I would think of Dad and wonder what he would say. And I’d go down to his study and expect him to be there.’
‘That is normal,’ she smiled. ‘Even years later. Grief is not a simple thing that can be modelled by that so-called five stages approach. Each does play their part, but loving someone does come with a lot of pain and heartache, and if it didn’t, it probably would not be as wonderful as it is.’
Camille smiled again. This time it was that big encouraging smile of hers.
‘And let’s not forget that positive side of love. Scott, you have made huge strides this last year. And a lot of that is due to letting people in despite the cost it comes with. You’ve learned to deal with situations. Sure, each of us needs time to hunker down when a storm comes in, but you’ve come out of those moments. You’ve been honest about your feelings with Katie, you have a friend in Izzy, you have what seems a strong relationship now with your sister, and you’re talking to your mother. That’s a lot! You should not be discouraged by a little bit of quiet time where you can now mourn your father in your own way.’
On the way home, or I should say back to Dad’s, I collected a few more storage boxes and arrived back at Wood Green after dusk, ready for the evening task. Entering the front door, I received a message from Izzy.
Fancy a girls’ night out? You’re pretty much one of us, considering our strange comradery. You might even have fun.
I smirked. Our friendship had not yet stretched to an evening out together, especially as part of a group. It did sound kind of fun. Unless Katie was going to be there. But then, obviously, they would never have a night out separately. Either this was another poorly conceived setup that would embarrass and annoy Katie, or perhaps it was Izzy’s way of telling us to get our heads out of our arses again and go back to being friends. Either way, if one of the above was going to happen it probably would have by now, and, besides, I was unable to take her up on the offer anyway.
I actually really would but I’m packing up the whole of my Dad’s house. Have family coming over tomorrow so it does need to be done by then.
So boring. But fair. By the way, things with dullard are going okay. My No-Sex pact is still intact but he was so very sweet and gentlemanly last night so… let’s just say I gave him something your moral compass denied. From his reaction it was very much your loss ;-) I quite enjoyed it too actually. Nice to have someone appreciate my benevolence.
I almost dropped my phone, which I am sure was the reaction Izzy knew she would get. I also laughed, knowing I had gone slightly pink. We did have a strange friendship – it was so inappropriate it felt appropriate. But then I had a sudden flashback to our first night out together. I saw Katie sitting on a barstool at Joan’s birthday years ago when we first met. How stunning she looked in her black dress, her legs crossed, smiling. Well, smiling initially. Luckily the home movies in my mind decided to replay no more of that night and instead shifted to where I was standing with my packing boxes. I saw Katie and me in the doorway to the living room kissing under the mistletoe. I let myself have that moment as after almost a whole year of therapy, I didn’t see the point of either denying it had happened or that I had feelings for her. But I did need to accept those feelings were not reciprocated. I needed to break the habit of a lifetime and stop dwelling on what might have been.
‘So I guess the only thing left for us to do is sort our own lives out,’ Ellie had said after we had come back from Devon, not quite echoing this specific philosophy but that we had finally made our decision regarding Dad’s house and will.
We were letting go. We both knew we would that afternoon with Auntie Pam. And we confirmed this to each other after spending the day with Orletta and Conrad. No need for Notices, no need for solicitors, just one word to Maxwell and it would be over. And that word would take place the following afternoon as we planned what would be an impromptu goodbye party of sorts. We had asked Orletta and Conrad to meet again, this time at Dad’s, and they were travelling directly to meet us from the airport after they arrived back in the country. We had not yet told them what our plan was. ‘Is it sketchy?’ Ellie had said. ‘To see if we could guilt her into upping that settlement offer? Perhaps if we asked her to meet us at the shithole you were living in or to come round to my shoebox-house, she’d pity the mess we’ve made with our lives.’
Ellie was joking. Kind of. Yes, neither of us were in a position to turn down money but nor had we remotely made a mess of our lives, despite my self-pitying to the contrary. After all, we still had so much of them to go. But we did have a slightly sneaky plan to get first dibs on Dad’s worldly goods and prevent anything entering an auction house or going to the highest bidder. When our mother arrived, everything would be in boxes which would be divided between not just Ellie and me, but also Auntie Pam, Jane and Maxwell – whom we conveniently forget was Dad’s best friend – all according to sentiment and who would appreciate what most. And how could Mum argue against that, especially if it was all done prior to telling her she could have the house? Even if some of the sentimental items were first edition novels worth a couple of thousand pounds each.
I assembled half a dozen of the storage boxes in Dad’s study and acclimatised myself to the enormity of the task. So many books, and I was the decision-maker as to who received what. Ellie also asked me to assemble boxes in the living room for all the photo frames and ornaments. Finally, as Ellie put it, my biggest task was to pack away and dispose of all my Games Workshop crap.
By early evening each room had a box containing one item. Not the quickest of progress. It was not the most systematic approach. I roamed from room to room, hoping the living room might be easier than the study, and then my bedroom might be an easy win compared to the living room. In the end, I reverted to the study and soon decided the best course of action was to treat myself to fish and chips.
In a plastic carrier bag I had not only a piece of cod the size of my stomach and a mountainous portion of chips I knew I would never finish, but also a bottle of merlot from the newsagents, hoping that wine might offer me greater inspiration. As I walked back to the house my mind wandered to the following day and my mum being in our house for the first time since before I left for university. Her house, I should say. We would be putting it on the market soon, I assumed, and then an array of strangers would be trampling through it, seeing none of the memories that flooded back to me when I step into each room. But as I reached halfway down the street, the prospect of strangers trying to seek entry seemed to be taking place sooner than I expected.
I was two houses away when I saw the shadow in the front garden. It seemed to be peering through the windows. By force of habit I had switched the lights off, so the house did appear unoccupied. It was far too late for it to be Jane or any post, so there was only one likely possibility. Automatically I clutched the merlot and walked slower, eyes fixed on my burglar.
‘Hello?’ I called out. Was it like the films? Did intruders scarper at the first sign of detection, or did things instead turn into a violent mugging? My burglar didn’t scarper. Instead, they moved out of the shadows. They were smaller than I expected. They were holding a phone to their ear and had a stylish canvas bag over their shoulder, and looked remarkably like my ex-flatmate.
‘I was just calling you,’ beamed Katie.
‘What are you doing here?’ I might have said this more severely than I intended as her smile faded.
‘Oh, I just heard you were having to sort through your dad’s things tonight. I thought I’d pop by and see if you needed a hand.’
‘But you live almost an hour away?’
The fading smile then began to look surly.
‘I can go if you like?’
‘No!’ I backtracked. ‘I’m just surprised. I didn’t think you wanted… I mean, I thought you were busy, and I wouldn’t see you for a while.’
‘Well, you know, you were there on my moving day, so I thought it was only fair I act like a friend and return the favour.’
She gave me this little quarter smile. I took out my keys and tried to give her a proper smile back.
‘I’ve got more chips than I know what to do with.’ I held up the package of faux newspaper in which the chip shop had wrapped my dinner. She reached into her bag.
‘Well, I’ve brought wine.’ Katie grinned and brought out a bottle with a fancy embossed label.
I opened Katie’s wine and showed her into the study.
‘Oh, you weren’t kidding,’ she said, staring gobsmacked at the mess. However, this was the woman who had turned Loughborough Road from a derelict squat into somewhere I referred to as home.
‘Tell you what, why don’t we have the chips in here? We can sort through things a little more… systematically with a bit of sustenance and some wine.’
Returning with a plate and two glasses, I had a flashback to Loughborough Road, seeing Katie sitting on the floor wearing the same pink hoodie and jeans she would do when cross-legged on her bed.
‘You changed your hair back.’
‘The new look wasn’t really for me. When the roots started to show I just asked them to colour it back like it was. Not quite the same and not a lot I can do about the length.’ She frowned and pulled a handful. It was a little longer than it was but not quite beyond shoulder-length.
‘Scott, can we talk for a sec?’ She looked a little more serious – well, more anxious.
‘Last time, that whole kiss and secluded storeroom, that was out of order. I keep saying I want us to be friends and then I practically Mrs Robinson you. It was a weird time. A weird, weird time.’
‘Weird seems to be our thing.’
‘Yes!’ she laughed. ‘Definitely sums us up.’ She reached for a chip looking a little more relaxed. ‘And to make things probably more weird I just wanted to say you don’t have to worry about any more of the same. On my best behaviour.’
She bit into her chip and then smiled at me, probably the first normal smile I had seen from her in months.
‘And besides, Izzy’s told me about that chastity belt of yours,’ she winked.
At last, we were getting somewhere. It was easier with two, or perhaps it was simply easier with Katie. She was more systematic than me and she took to sorting Dad’s books between the boxes much like the curator she was. She asked me about Jane and Auntie Pam’s tastes and their relationship with Dad, and about what Ellie might have been expecting. She arranged neat piles alongside each box while I felt confident enough to take each of the one thousand or so books down from the shelves lining the four walls.
‘Oh wow, we’ve finished the bottle,’ she said, picking it up as she stood carefully looking through an old copy of Down and Out in Paris and London. The wine had given me the delusion that I was lithe enough to balance one foot on Dad’s desk chair and the other on a shelf so I could reach the dusty top shelf.
‘You can throw that in my pile, most apt and that,’ I said.
‘You’re doing fine. Besides, you’ve not done Paris yet.’ She gave me a wink and then bent down to pick up her wine glass, draining the last few drops. ‘Are you going to think me a lush if I suggest opening up another bottle?’
It felt like the old days of Loughborough Road. Actually, not the old days – those would have seen Katie and me politely avoiding each other’s company. The middle days of Loughborough Road, then. Us, opening bottles of wine, and sitting at our little square dining table, talking well into the night.
‘Here you go.’ She came back with the bottle and refilled our glasses. I had jumped back to the relative safety of the floor.
I took a sip, noting the quality difference between the wine Katie had brought and my cheap merlot. While I did, Katie took a far larger sip. Like she was trying to drain a quarter of the rougher tasting wine in one gulp.
‘Do you mind if we sit down for a sec? There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.’
We sat on the floor opposite each other. A pile of cold chips to our side and books and boxes lining the wall.
‘It’s about you and Izzy,’ she said. I automatically sighed. It was beginning to become a drag that my past sins with Izzy would dictate every conversation I was to have with Katie.
‘Nothing is going on with me and – ’
‘No, it’s not about that – well, kind of about that. Oh, this is not easy.’
She put her glass down, covered her face with her hands, and took a deep breath.
‘I am so pissed off with you.’ Contrary to her words she had a big smile across what were suddenly very pink cheeks.
‘And I don’t want to be friends.’ Again, the big smile making me feel highly confused.
‘And I don’t think you want to be just friends either?’
‘Just friends?’ I said, staring at her carefully as she smiled.
‘It hurt, you sleeping together. And I didn’t want to be around you when it happened again, even though I had Ethan. It’s not fair. It’s not that nice of me. But I was pissed off that you would have a relationship or sleep with someone else while being friends with me. There, that’s it. That’s me being honest.’
My eyes nervously flicked to the bottle of wine and then to her glass. I had no idea what she was saying. She seemed sober when we were standing up, now she was telling me she didn’t want to be my friend if I slept with another person?
‘Katie, I really don’t understand what you’re asking me here. You only want to be friends with me if I stop seeing other people?’
She rolled her eyes. She picked up her wine and took another sip before stretching behind her and placing the glass at the wall. She then rose to her knees, leaned toward me and placed a kiss on my lips. With her face close, she looked at me. She then looked down at my mouth again and closed her eyes. This time I kissed her back. She then stopped, gave me a smile, and knelt back down.
‘I’m saying friends don’t snog each other three times.’
‘At Ruskin though, you said – ’
‘Yes! I did. And it is weird! And at the gallery it completely wasn’t the right time, and I wasn’t in the right place. But I like you. And it still feels too soon after Ethan, but I also wanted something to happen with us while I was still with him.’ She then gave a big shrug and began laughing.
‘I am not selling this well, am I? I would completely understand if you wanted me to go.’
‘No, I’d like you to stay.’ I reached for her hand, more as a test than a romantic gesture. She beamed and took it.
‘So,’ she half-smiled and then looked around us. ‘Should we try to get some more of these packed away, or…’ She raised her eyebrows and bit her lip. I leaned over and kissed her.
We were entwined on the floor. My right arms cradled the small of her back, and my left lay just under her head. Her hands were running under my t-shirt and up my sides. Both Katie’s legs were hooked around my waist, allowing us to press together. It was like we were teenagers – kissing and rolling around on the floor un-choreographed like it was both the first and last night of our lives.
‘Scott,’ Katie said and stopped kissing me. She took a breath. ‘Do you think we could stop for a second?’
‘Oh. Yes. I didn’t mean to – ’
‘It’s not that.’ I climbed off her, and she sat up. ‘I guess I want to be consistent, and when I say we should take it slow not just pick and choose the fun stuff.’
‘Fun stuff?’ I couldn’t help but grin as a warm smile shone across her face. Trying to savour the moment, I sat back down and picked up my glass, as did Katie.
‘And if something does happen between us, I don’t know if your Dad’s study with all his things piled around us is the best location.’
Again, I felt a bit of a schoolboy smile rising. I was not sure what we had done was classed as a drunken fumble or was us finally breaking the ice. I had no idea what we were supposed to do now or what taking it slow meant in practice. I just felt this bubbling of elation, like I was about to get everything I wanted, and then this sinking dread that surely I would miss out again. But then they both seemed to dampen down as I watched Katie. She looked so cute in her pink hoodie. It reminded me of her oversized dressing gown. I suddenly felt this huge sense of relief. I was not a competition winner. Katie was not a prize, and my happiness was not tied to whether or not she chose to have feelings for me. I had my friend back. Someone I cared about was now sitting opposite me, sipping a glass of bad merlot and helping me pick up old books to place into boxes. I should allow myself just to enjoy that moment. But before that, I did need to address one last elephant in the room.
‘How are things between you and Ethan?’
Katie made a snorting noise and puffed out her cheeks.
‘Is he being any more reasonable about the flat?’
‘I’m kind of ignoring him, to be honest. With him living over in Berlin and not showing much interest in doing any of this face to face, it’s actually been a relatively civilised breakup. But I’m not sure how much I like him as a person. Or me when I was with him. Does that make any sense?’
She scrunched her face up, perhaps trying to understand what she was saying as much as look for understanding.
‘Do you still… have feelings for him?’ It was not the question I wanted to ask, but I did anyway. Katie let out a sigh.
‘I’m not going to lie to you, Scott. I’m not a sociopath. There is always going to be something there for someone I was with for seven years. But…’ She paused to put down the books in her hands. ‘But last time. If I’m being completely honest that kiss was because of Ethan. I wanted to feel sexy. Prove to myself I didn’t need him and ended up making a total fool of myself.’
She shrugged. But with a small smile.
‘Who knows. I’m surrounded by rare, amazing books, drinking wine and eating chips, and am in the company of someone with whom I enjoy spending time. Not much room in my head for much else.’
She then leaned over and planted another kiss on my mouth before grinning and getting to her feet.
‘That’s your lot, for now. We’ve still got a lot to do and it’s not getting any earlier. Perhaps we should switch rooms, go for a quick win.’
The quick win was my army of Games Workshop models and figurines. I told Katie that was Ellie’s main request and as long as those were not still upon every shelf and surface we could get away with the other rooms being works in progress. She seemed to find this new bolt of energy, and I followed her upstairs and stood in the doorway watching her survey my bedroom.
‘Scott, you’ve not even started!’
‘I was trying to get the study done!’
She rolled her eyes and found herself again picking up my model of Estella, Warrior Queen.
‘Really? Nothing to do with not wanting to say goodbye to this young lady? Or her little girlfriends? Says a lot for female empowerment that women can serve in battle just as long as they have slender figures, large breasts, and only fight in their underwear.’
‘They have some armour,’ I said a little defensively.
‘We’ll do these first. There’s a half-empty box with your name I just started downstairs, we’ll add Queen Whatshername and her – I assume – bi-sexual minions to that.’
I smirked at the newfound bossiness and did what I was told. I left the room and went back downstairs to the study. Collecting said box, I returned, expecting to either see Katie still making fun of my collection or decluttering all my comics and graphic novels.
‘Okay, I’ve got it. Now, where would you – ’
Bizarrely, the first thing I noticed was the little pile of neatly folded clothes on my bed. A pair of jeans way smaller than any I owned, a pink hoodie, and two purple tiny socks. Then standing at the end of my bed was Katie, dressed just in a black bra and underwear, still holding Queen Estella.
‘What do you think?’ she said, as I very much stood open-mouthed, staring at every inch of her, like I was in a dream.
‘I saw this at a store while shopping with the girls.’ So casually, she gestured to her smooth black bra and matching pants. ‘Made me think of our little friend here. Am I appropriately attired to wage wars and join the Sisterhood of the Not-Wearing-Much?’
She smiled and put Estella down. I felt a little light-headed as my blood was rushing somewhere else.
As I cautiously walked over to her, she bit her lip in a completely seductive way and put her arms around my shoulders.
‘I thought you wanted to take it slowly?’
She nodded and put on an innocent pouty face.
‘Yes, but maybe starting tomorrow?’
I was about to kiss her, hoping my jeans which were positively choking me could quickly join hers on the bed, but she swung her head back.
‘Scott, no one else has been here, right? You’ve still not done anything here with anyone?’
‘You mean Izzy?’ I smiled.
‘That’s exactly who I mean.’
‘Good,’ she smiled and kissed me.
Chapter 32: Mesh
Light was coming through the window when I opened my eyes. It was not a dream. A mesh of wavy brown and gold hair rested on the neighbouring pillow and a bare shoulder had crept out from under the duvet. I yawned, and as I did, she rolled and looked at me.
‘Morning,’ I said. My mouth felt dry from the wine. ‘Have you been awake long?’
‘Just a couple of minutes. Your phone went off. I think you’ve got a message.’
I looked down the bed. Our clothes must have fallen to the floor and with them my phone. Katie rolled onto her back and tucked the duvet up to her chin. It felt appropriate I then lay face up too.
We didn’t say anything. Or more precisely, she didn’t say anything and I wasn’t sure if the silence was comfortable or awkward.
‘That was – ’
‘Oh please don’t, Scott. Let’s not, can we?’ She looked at me pleadingly and then hid her face under the duvet.’
‘I was going to say lovely.’
‘Ha!’ came a muffled laugh. ‘No it wasn’t. It was embarrassing. Very nice from my side, but well, it’s not normally the woman who has to begin the pillow talk with, that normally never happens.’
I couldn’t help laughing. She looked so attractive lying in my bed, her head on my pillow, covered under my duvet. I had no idea how to tell her I honestly didn’t mind.
‘You were just tired.’
‘I can’t believe I fell asleep! While you were essentially in… mid-act.’ Katie let out a large groan, and I saw her hands rush to her mouth. From under the duvet a muffled voice again said, ‘I just want to say I didn’t expect you to do that. You know. The first bit. I don’t want to bring up any names considering where we are and what we’ve been doing but let’s just say no one has done that to me for a while. And with the wine on top… Don’t laugh!’
She flung herself forward, keeping the duvet tight to her chest as she sat up and hit me with a pillow.
‘You should have woken me.’
‘You looked so peaceful.’
‘Oh, you’re such a gentleman.’ Scowling, she lowered herself back down.
‘For complete transparency, I almost called you Ethan. While I was, you know.’
‘No problem, I almost called you Izzy.’
She kicked me in the shin, still not seeing the funny side of the situation.
‘Seriously, if she ever hears about this. I’m picturing her smug face right now as it happens. How’s this for a perfectly normal morning after.’
I lifted my arm and brushed back some strands of hair that had fallen across her face. She flicked her eyes at me and then away again. I then turned over to kiss her. The feel of her lips still felt electrifying.
‘I enjoyed spending the night with you.’
She laughed. ‘Thanks, Prince Charming.’ She rolled away onto her side but took my hand with her, placing it on her stomach. I then felt her wriggle. Only just so slightly. And then again.
‘It’s still early,’ she said. ‘Let’s just go back to sleep, shall we?’
So we both fell back asleep. But not quite at first.
This time it was my phone ringing that woke us. As we stirred the caller seemed determined not to hang up.
‘God, is that the time?’ Katie picked up her watch from off my bedside table, trying both to quickly shuffle out of bed and keep herself covered with the duvet. I clambered naked out of bed and retrieved my phone while looking for my briefs.
‘Where have you been? Why haven’t you answered any of my bloody… any of my messages?’
‘Sorry, just been asleep,’ I told my sister.
‘For Christ's sake, we’re almost there. Seriously, Scott, if you’ve ended up getting pissed again and the house is in a state I’m totally going to lose it.’
‘It’s okay, we’ve done some.’ I turned and looked at Katie. Bizarrely, she was covering her eyes with her hand. I literally could hear Ellie’s eyes roll as she hung up.
‘Are you okay?’ I said to Katie. Her cheeks had gone pink, and she was smiling.
‘Yes. But perhaps we should put on some clothes? It’s just a bit weird suddenly seeing you so… naked.’
I reached down for my briefs. Katie lowered her hand, grinning, and asked if I could pass her clothes.
‘Oh, God, I should have left ages ago.’ Her cheeks had gone bright red.
‘How long do we have before they arrive?’
‘Ten minutes or so.’
‘Shit.’ She swung back into bed and began the cumbersome task of dressing under a blanket. ‘Actually, do you mind if I quickly use your shower?’
As I went downstairs, I expected two things. First, the elation to kick in and feel the need to jump around at how happy I was. And second, those little monsters telling me that it would be short-lived. But neither materialised. Instead, I looked from the living room to the kitchen to the study, seeing the number of still unmade boxes and the number of things left unpacked. Ellie was going to kill me.
I then heard the lock of the front door rattle and it push open.
‘Uncle Scott!’ Millie had managed to burst through the house and into the kitchen in the split second it took me to look up from the kettle.
‘You look funny,’ she grinned. I assumed she was referring to my bed-hair and crumpled t-shirt. Millie raised her arms for me to pick her up and I obliged.
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’ came my sister’s voice from the next room. ‘Seriously?’ it said coming closer, and I quickly held Millie in front of me as a shield. Ellie entered the room carrying what looked like an entire supermarket of bags and glaring at me.
‘It was a bit of a late one last night.’
‘No shit. You had one bloody job.’ She flung the bags on the kitchen table and seeing the empty first bottle of wine, thrust it up accusingly. ‘It’s not like we’ve been up at the crack of dawn or anything getting kids ready and putting all this in the car.’
Her voice tailed away as she left the room, not waiting for me to offer an excuse.
‘Alright, mate,’ said Mike, bringing in a large cool bag and what looked like a sack filled with the kids’ stuff while shepherding a waddling Ed. ‘You look like how I feel.’
He noticed my eyes fall on the bags.
‘Two hours in Morrison’s yesterday. Family outing and a chunk of my life I will never get back.’
‘Why?’ I scratched my head with the hand not holding Millie.
‘Apparently we’re making lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, whatever meal is most appropriate and when – ’
‘FOR FUCK’S SAKE!’ came a bellowing roar from the study.
‘Mummy said a bad word!’ I put Millie down who ran towards the danger while I remained glued to the spot. Mike smirked and then raised his eyebrows like he was saying, good luck! I did, however, have to face the music.
‘You complete…,’ Ellie glared as I joined her in the study. ‘It absolutely reeks in here. Vinegar and old fish. Oh and more wine I see.’ She began trying to force the window open. I had forgotten that the stale chips had remained in paper on the rug while the bottle of wine sat incriminatingly next to it.
‘You had one day not to be a prick.’
‘Mummy, what’s a pwick?’
‘Ask Uncle Scott.’
‘Auntie Katie!’ Millie shouted and ran. I turned around to see Katie nervously emerging through the hallway, now fully dressed and with damp hair. Unsurprisingly she looked hesitant on whether to join us. If I had been her, I would have thrown me a glare about the lack of opportunity she had to make a discreet exit and then ran to the door. But she didn’t.
‘Hello again,’ she said to Ellie and then stumbled back as the juggernaut that was Millie collided into her hip. ‘Sorry, I’ll clean that up – ’
‘Mummy, can Auntie Katie play with me?’
Chaos ensued as Millie began jumping up and down on the spot grabbing Katie’s hand. I looked over at Ellie who was now staring at me, less furious.
‘Maybe later, sweetie, Auntie Katie is going to help Mummy go to the shop and buy some air freshener. You get to be in charge of Uncle Scott.’
‘It’s fine. I want to help,’ Katie whispered to me as I finally got her alone. Well, not quite alone. We were supervising Millie drawing in the living room while Ellie and Mike took over the kitchen.
‘No one would have blamed you if you didn’t come back after Ellie tried to corner you.’
‘Oh she’s fine. Great, in fact. We had a really nice chat. She really gets it.’
Gets what? I wanted to ask. They had been gone a lot longer than it takes to buy one can of air freshener from the newsagents.
‘She asked me how I was after Christmas. A bit awkward considering the circumstances, but super kind of her.’
Katie was drawing a cartoon cat while Millie was apparently focused on creating a piece of modern art. With the amount of crayons she was using, the end result was sure to rival that of Jackson Pollock.
‘Unless you want me to go? I should before your mum gets here. It would be weird if I stayed.’
‘Weird is our thing though,’ I smiled and said I should check if Ellie needed a hand.
The kitchen was like the behind-the-scenes at a restaurant during peak service, with Ed’s occasional screeches a surprisingly accurate impression of a celebrity head chef.
‘What did you think I was going to say to her?’ Ellie laughed, a little scornfully. ‘Scott, for once you’ve done something not entirely stupid and brought us a babysitter while we get all this done and then sit down with Mum.’
It was refreshing to see my sister return to her cynical self.
They were early. We all convened in the hallway with Millie both excitedly and shyly gluing herself to Ellie’s leg, and Ed held by Mike. Katie waited behind us.
‘How was the trip? How was the drive? Was there much traffic?’ There were a lot of polite questions and then some manoeuvring as the hallway was not designed for gatherings of eight or more. Ellie and I tried to do hugs, we tried to pick up a now very shy Millie who understandably seemed a little daunted meeting her grandmother for the first time, and when Conrad and Mike formed a bridge over the rest of us to shake hands it was time to move everyone into the living room.
‘And what’s your name, young lady?’ said Orletta to Millie as the crowd dispersed, crouching down to look her in the eye. I had never seen Millie that shy, still hiding behind Ellie’s legs. ‘You are very beautiful.’
‘Millie, this is your grandmother,’ Ellie said in a gentle voice.
‘Yes I am! And I’m very proud of you. You look just like your mummy.’ She said the first part in the traditional baby voice but her last comment was more in awe. She gently reached to hold Millie’s hand and could not stop staring at her granddaughter.
‘I’ve been waiting a very long time to meet you.’
Orletta remained transfixed by both Millie and Ed as we sat everyone down and laid out the tea and finger sandwiches that Ellie and Mike had prepared. The kids were doing more drawings as we all took refreshments and continued to ask polite questions about Orletta and Conrad’s holiday.
‘More like a busman’s holiday. Conrad had us touring vineyards and speaking to old colleagues who are also producing their own crop.’
Then, at what seemed to be a prearranged signal from Ellie, Katie asked Millie and Ed if they wanted to play outside.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ I whispered to Katie, rushing to intercept her.
‘I want to,’ she said and squeezed my hand. It felt strange her doing that, like it was something we didn’t do. But it was also intensely reassuring.
I watched Millie running in circles on the lawn while Ed tried to catch her at a much slower pace, and then made my way back to the living room to join negotiations.
Orletta and Conrad had the sofa, and Mike and Ellie had squeezed themselves into one armchair. I, therefore, took the vacant armchair.
‘She is beautiful,’ said Orletta. ‘And Edward, of course too, but I can’t believe just how grown up she is.’
Our mother closed her eyes, rubbed them, and when she reopened them they were slightly watery.
‘Apologies, I’m a little overwhelmed, to be completely honest.’
Ellie and I exchanged nervous glances. We had indeed planned to use the family reunion to emotionally blackmail our mother into a slightly more generous settlement, but now it seemed morally repugnant.
‘We don’t have to do this today,’ I said leaning forward.
‘Listen, Mum, there’s a better way to have done this. Let’s just bring the kids back in and we can talk over the phone or something another day.’
‘And what if there’s not another day, Eleanor?’ smiled our mother, giving her eyes a dab with a tissue. ‘Heaven knows we’ve lost so much time already. You have been busy.’ She nodded at the boxes on the dining table.
‘And Katie seems lovely, Scott.’ She sounded almost as surprised as I was.
‘Oh, don’t bring that up. He’ll only say they’re just friends,’ Ellie interrupted.
‘Mum, we’d like to keep a lot of Dad’s things. We don’t want to let them go to auction. If you’re happy to let us, we’ll call off the lawyers and adjudication.’
I don’t know what we were expecting but the response was very civil. Orletta gave a small quarter smile and then placed her tea cup on the coffee table.
‘Eleanor, when I asked the auction house to catalogue your father’s possessions, I did not intend to sell them off to the highest bidders. I called them because it had been a difficult time, and they have experience in dealing with the more painful aspects of an estate. They can sort through each item without memory after memory overwhelming the process. It was not my intention to hurt either of you.’
It seemed a long time ago now that I found Ellie upstairs in the house after our falling out about the Watership Down letter. There had been a lot of fences to mend that year and bridges to rebuild. We could have spoken to our mother rather than go straight to solicitors, but then we assumed she had stopped caring, and as ridiculous as it would sound, we were too scared to speak to her in case it was true.
‘You still want to sell?’ I asked quietly, breaking the silence.
My mother caught my gaze and gave me a small, sad nod.
‘It holds too many memories for me. And we can do so much good at the Colony with the funds.’
Again came that glowing warm smile. The smile that made me feel twelve again. Reassured and safe.
‘We had so many happy years as a family. It seems only right that another family take it on and start their own story.’
Ellie and I looked at each other again. She gave me a quick defeated smile and raised her eyebrows. We might have reached the end of the road.
‘I assume, if you do not want to challenge probate anymore, perhaps we should talk about the settlement?’
Again Ellie and I glanced over to each other. She gave me a half frown and a small shake of the head.
‘Actually, no,’ I said. ‘If you’re happy that Ellie has the piano and we split up Dad’s books, I think he would have wanted you to have the house for your…’ The anti-hippy in me could not bring myself to say the word Colony, ‘… for your project. Your expansion. We think Dad would have liked what you have planned.’
And there ended the mystery of the will. Not that we would truly know Dad’s intentions – the man who filed and kept track of everything so meticulously does not sign his divorce papers or leave a will – but we no longer needed to ask. If the Colony did make a difference to one life and ward off those dark thoughts lurking in the shadows, perhaps Ellie and I could find our own peace.
‘There will be something for you,’ said Conrad. ‘And something for your children – Orletta’s grandchildren.’
‘No need,’ mumbled Ellie. ‘Things will work themselves out. They always do.’ I have to say, my sister did not have the greatest poker face. We had discussed this all, but now that push came to shove, she wasn’t exactly masking a lack of enthusiasm. ‘Scott and I both need to get on with things. After all, if Dad was still here we wouldn’t be going to him cap in hand asking him to bail out our life choices. Best leave that to the Generation Zs.’
It seemed to break the tension. Ellie was probably the only one not to at least smirk as Mike then took her hand and placed it in his. Our mother, the artist Orletta Roberts, then slid forward on the sofa and just stared at us, her head tilted to the side. Like we were the Turner on the gallery wall.
‘Your father was so proud of you. Of both of you.’
I think it was the mention of Dad and proud in the past tense that started Ellie and me off. This time it was not a deluge, rather just a rogue leakage. We both tried to wipe away the tears without them being noticeable, and I felt myself put on a smile to detract from that strange sadness I suddenly felt. It was over. Dad was gone. I had to let go – of him and of the past – and I still did not feel ready to do that. As Ellie went to call the kids back in, my mind landed on the image of Dad in his study leaning back in his leather chair, his record player spinning and a 1950s jazz singer serenading him while he read Fitzgerald for the umpteenth time.
It is fair to recognise that our pasts play a defining role in the person we become, but it is also worth acknowledging that it is always a selected version of the past. Or perhaps that’s just me. My memory would isolate those solitary moments when I was an awkward teenager spending Saturday nights at home to explain why depression would stalk me in shadowy corners at the age of thirty-five. The disappearance of a mother would underpin a pining for female companionship and sense of unworthiness. But then, what about those joy-filled moments as a child aged six or seven, playing games with my sister, running in circles chasing each other, carefree? What about those basement bars aged twenty-one to twenty-five, dancing with no inhibitions, jumping about with my friends around me like I was that young child again?
There were times in my life when I was introverted. There were times when I was weird and wonderful. And there were probably many times in my life – undocumented and I do not have the data to back this up – when I was the same as everyone else. Introverts, extroverts, what does it matter as long as we step out of ourselves now and again and forget about the people we once were, take a deep breath and do something that makes the person we are now happy.
‘What do we do now?’ I asked Ellie as everyone allowed us both a few moments alone outside, not even pretending to smoke.
‘Call the estate agents? Get the For Sale sign. Clear out the rest of Dad’s stuff.’
We both leaned back against the conservatory doors listening to the wind rustle through the bushes and trees lining our garden.
‘After that? With our lives, I mean.’
‘You mean our pact? Who can make their life less shit first?’
Ellie took out a crumpled packet of cigarettes from her back pocket. She had a look at the contents and then deftly threw it into a small metal bin we had out there next to our old brick barbecue.
‘Carry on, I guess. Stop whinging about Ji-Qei being a better pianist than me or Emily Brunswick having a perfect arse when she’s also had two kids.’ Ellie sighed and crossed her arms and I found myself mimicking her – little brother copying his older sister – as we stood resting against the glass doors waxing lyrical, neither of us used to being that emotionally spent. Ellie then gave a small, ironic-sounding laugh.
‘Or I could actually do something about it and take up Perky Tits’ offer of coffee and a chat despite me resenting everything she stands for. And that I know full well it won’t lead anywhere. I should also take some solace in the fact I have two lovely children who aren’t complete monsters like Alice Horton’s, who also has ten grand spare for a boob job and her tits are still smaller than mine.’
I smiled, thinking what Camille would say. Probably, something about there being a critical side in each of us, judging how we are not achieving enough compared to whoever is next door. ‘Hey, standards can be a good thing, they stop us hibernating on our couch all day eating Cheerios from the box in our PJs,’ I think she once said. ‘But they can be unrelenting. Uncontrolled. Insatiable. Being happy and overachieving are not necessarily the same thing. You’re allowed to spend a weekend watching a whole series of Breaking Bad. Very few of us need to become Prime Minister of Norway by the age of thirty-four.’
Letting my head voice spring into a West Coast American accent left me with an inane grin, and it took me a moment to realise that Ellie and I were no longer alone.
‘Hey,’ said Katie, this awkward smile on her face, her canvas bag over her shoulder. ‘I should be making a move.’
Clumsily, I asked to walk her to the station. She said it was fine, that she didn’t want to interrupt the family time, and we continued our exchange in complete awkwardness until Ellie briefly said, ‘For fuck’s sake, just let him walk you to the station. And, Scott, try not to screw this up.’
Ellie also suggested we leave via the back and forgo the chaos of Millie demanding Auntie Katie stay forever. However, sneaking out of the house in total silence did have the unintended consequence that neither of us said a word until we were almost at the end of the street.
Listen, about last night… were the words I was dreading, yet anticipating being her first.
‘We used to talk about you,’ she then said, taking me off guard. ‘The girls – me, Izzy, Tara and Sophie.’
‘About anything… in particular?’ We were on the road leading up to the high street. It was still quiet and suburban, and I glanced suspiciously at Katie.
‘Your arms, mainly,’ she smiled, this pink glow colouring her cheeks. ‘And you’re aloofness. How you would come back from gardening or whatever in sweat-soaked t-shirts, muscles bulging and acting all indifferent. Sophie and Tara giggling and asking you plant-based questions as you tried to run away.’
‘I thought you were taking the piss out of me.’
‘Oh, we were. We still thought you were a creep. Though a cute creep. With nice arms.’
Katie then stopped and looked at me. I needed to get in there first, be less passive for once in my life, stop her from saying it had all been a mistake.
‘Listen, Katie, I know it's difficult right now – ’
‘Scott?’ she smiled. ‘I’m trying to say I like you. That it’s not just since from last night.’
‘And today was nice. Surreal. But nice.’
It was awkward, but in a different way than I had imagined. We were standing opposite each other on a quiet street, just about to reach the main road, Katie’s face now completely red, and I still stared at her waiting for her to say but…
‘I like you too. But I think you might already know that,’ I smiled, looking back at those beautiful eyes and Katie’s smiling mouth. ‘So, what should we do from here?’
‘Honestly?’ Katie scrunched up her face, looking a little uncertain. ‘This maybe a bit prudish and traditional, but I’d quite like it if you ask me out. On a first date.’
I laughed. This rush of relief almost knocked me off my feet as we stood together, and I stepped forward to hold her hands.
‘Would you go on a date with me? Thursday next week, perhaps?’
Katie stared back into my eyes and then, after a moment, frowned.
‘Next week’s not great. I’m meant to be cleaning the flat on Thursday and, oh, don’t get me started on how busy work is. Maybe next month? Actually, July might be more doable – ’
Before she could say any more I leaned forward and kissed her.