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There was a gate where there hadn't been one before. I think that was what made me forget my resolution. I got out of the car and gave the gate a push, just to make sure it was locked, but to my surprise it yielded, and so, without pausing to think, I swung it open, got back into the car and drove into the village I had once assumed would be my home forever.
I parked between the two cottages. How many years had it been? Six going on seven. Someone had mowed the communal lawn, but our old flower beds were strangled with nettles. The rosebushes had intertwined with the ivy to cover the walls, choke the windows and wrap around the mesh that covered the thatch. The tennis court was no longer—the concrete had buckled, the fencing had disappeared, the poles teetered at precarious angles over what appeared to be the remains of a bonfire.
It was only with difficulty that I was able to fight my way through the long grass to the walled garden. Here the gate was padlocked, but to no avail, because it had rusted off its hinges. Inside I found more nettles, and the raspberry bushes threatening to smother the grape arbor, but rising above the weeds and the thorns were my magnolia trees in full blossom. I couldn't resist the idea of taking a branch or two home with me. There would be no need to tell anyone where they came from. While I was choosing my trophies, I noticed a ladder propped up against the northern wall, and, again, I'm not quite sure what prompted me to take it as an invitation. There was a baby bird learning how to fly in the upper branches. Its desperate chirpsdisappeared, then merged with a chorus of other baby birds. My first thought must have been to find the nest, but when I had, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world to climb to the top of the ladder and look over.
I knew what to expect, but it was still a shock. There before me was the field of daffodils, the orchard, still pink with blossoms, and the bluebell wood leading up to the charred remains of the manor garden's outer wall. But beyond it, nothing—or rather, just another slope of trees, tall grass and daffodils spilling past their prime over the crest of the hill into the marsh in the distant horizon.
It was like looking at a picture with the center ripped out. Where was the proof that the house had ever existed? I felt afraid, as if there were someone else in the walled garden, watching me, and so I hurried back down the ladder, took my branches and retreated, went home and put the whole thing behind me. That was four days ago—Wednesday, to be precise. Then last night, in a dream, I returned to Beckfield again.
This time the manor was back where it belonged, rising tall and grey over its implausible emerald lawn. It was early evening as I walked down the drive. There, at the top of the steps, were the bronze lions, unsinged and intact. I paused in front of them to watch the last glints of sunlight fade from their eyes.
I surveyed the windows. They were dark except for the one looking into the little sitting alcove. Here I saw a man I did not know—a weekend guest, he had to be—doing the crossword in front of a tame but glowing fire. The mantelpiece was as usual cluttered with engraved invitations. The tables and chairs were still covered in their old paisleys, and there, next to them, was the stool I had once, to the embarrassment of all present, said resembled the lid of a sewing basket. Standing on the sideboard was a silver drinks tray that held six tumblers, a bottle of vodka, a glass jug of tomato juice and—proudly, emphatically—no ice. Looking beyond into the unlit entryway—and even as I use that word, I remember that they had another, better word for it—I could just make out the dark outline of the grand piano, and sitting on it, but in this inconstant half-light seeming to float in midair, the contours of Bea's peacock feathers rising out of their slim ceramic vase.
And there, I noticed, as I moved to look through the little window to the left of the doorway, was that other table where she kept her guest book and her African basket for outgoing post, except that this evening it was filled with those strange black and white dolls she used to knit whenever she felt her nerves unraveling. Had anyone ever dared mention to her how undemocratic they looked, how very much like black and white minstrels? Someone must have, because, as I remembered now, during those last months, she had switched, with a telling refusal to explain or apologize, to knitting black cats and white mice.
I turned my back on the window and continued walking along the wall past the offices. These were too dark for inspection. All I could see through the Venetian blinds was the occasional green or red glowing electronic button. I paused at the folly to watch a purple mist creep up the hill, and when it had overtaken most of the garden, I used my memory to keep to the path leading into the courtyard, where I found the magnolia trees draped in fairy lights, and beyond them, in the bright, tiled kitchen, the housekeeper and the caterer standing over the Aga, the butler Bea hired for dinner parties inspecting a crate of wine.
I knew they couldn't see me but I felt awkward standing there envying their inaudible gossip, their offstage excitement, their pleasure in their unnecessary uniforms, and so I continued my journey around the edges of the house. The round table in the dining room was, I counted, set for twelve, with three crystal glasses standing at the head of each place. The only light in the room came from the candles inside the transparent pyramid that stood at the table's center. This highlighted the gold-lettered spines of the books while at the same time obscuring the shelves that housed them; emphasized the gilt frames on the walls at the expense of the dour ancestors in the portraits. A collar here, a pair of beady eyes there—that was all that I could see, but it was a different story, I now saw, in the sitting room next door. There, over the mantelpiece and another fire, was the painting that had brought about my downfall—or my reinstatement, as some would say—the painting of the young girl on her way to a ball, wearing the black gown with the ribboned sash.
Except that this evening the gown was white. And there, just a few feet away from the French doors, striking that odd rocking-horse pose that people fall into when they are trying to give the impression of being uplifted by great art—there, with her forefinger poised on her raised chin, was an intently gazing Bea. Standing next to her was the crossword man from the alcove. I recognized him now. He was the art historian whose third wife was Bea's oldest childhood friend, and he had just noticed a detail in the painting, somewhere in the lower left-hand corner, that he was now telling Bea he found perplexing and exciting. What a good thing she had thought to have it cleaned, he proclaimed to her in his—to me, somewhat muffled Etonian trumpet. "It could well turn out to be an unsigned work by G himself, instead of just a study by one of G's students."
"Hmm," said Bea. Then her eyes darted to the door. Enter the butler, with two glasses of champagne on a tray. "Oh, thank you so much, Frith. You are kind. Yes, that will do very nicely."
The butler retreated and closed the door behind him. Bea and the art historian took their first sips of champagne. Bea told the art historian how pleased sine was to see him again. The art historian told Bea how sweet it was of her to have invited him. Bea apologized for the invitation having been "at such short notice." The cuckoo clock behind the photograph of Queen Mary on the side table struck seven, and two cars rolled into the courtyard.
Out of the first stepped two of Bea's long-necked, aquiline-featured nieces—the one who used to be an obituary writer, and the one who used to belong to a repertory company somewhere in the Midlands. Out of the second car stepped a flashily dressed blonde woman whom I recognized as the Merry Widow. Audible groans from the nieces as she approached them. "Oh no, not that again," said one, and the other hissed, "Just pray she hasn't brought her friend!"
But she had. Out of the darkness came lumbering a large man in a kilt. He didn't see me as I walked past him. He looked drunk, and sounded ungracious as the Merry Widow presented him to the nieces. "You've met before, I'm sure," said the Merry Widow, in a loud voice clearly intended to compensate.
"Yes, of course we have," said the obituary writer brightly. "It was at Giles's sixtieth birthday party."
I left them to it and moved on in the direction of the cottages.
I skirted the tennis court—as usual, it was lit but empty—and was heading straight across the lawn toward the cottage that had once been my home when suddenly I stopped, as if in response to a shouted warning. Looking over my shoulder into the brightly lit sitting room of the other cottage I thought I saw the reason why, because there, panting at the window, was Jasper the dog, and at his side, brushing her short ginger hair with those slow, exaggerated strokes of hers, strokes that would have been excessive even if her hair had reached to her waist—there, staring vacantly through me, was Danny.
Now she seemed to see me. Her lips curled. She sucked in her breath as if to prepare for speech, but then she let it go again, shrugged her shoulders and moved away from the window and out of my view. An old hatred passed through me. But why? I asked myself. What did she matter? When had she ever mattered?
I moved on to the cottage that had been our first marital home. I looked into the long room, and the scene I saw was familiar, or so I first thought, down to the last detail. But I paid no attention to the books, the pictures, the carpets or even the toys, because there, sitting on the sofa in the far left-hand corner, were the children. They were dressed in their pajamas, robes and slippers, their hair wet and recently combed and parted. Their eyes were on the television, which I could not see. At the other end of the room, sitting at the head of the dining table, his head bent over an open book, was Max.
He looked the way he used to look, the way he would still look, I suppose, if I hadn't tried to save him. By this I mean to say that there was a spring to his gestures that made him look younger, or at least more hopeful. His hair was longer and fairer than it is now. He was dressed in a dark-blue shirt I did not recognize, and an unusually baggy pair of black trousers. He kept looking toward the low-beamed door that led to the back of the house, but because I was looking at him, I saw the startled smile that brightened his face before I saw the cause, before I realized that the scene predated and so could never include me—that the family I saw inside, the family I had been so convinced was my family, did not want or even need me; it was complete unto itself.
The woman who had entered the room, for whom Max now rose with such pleasure, for whom the children now abandoned their television program with eager cries, was Rebecca.
As she wrapped her arms around them, she looked over her shoulder, locked eyes with me and gave me a triumphant smile.
That was where the dream ended, but it reminds me of the curse that caused it, and so brings me to the beginning of the story I now have decided the time has come to tell. I don't know what will become of me once I've told it. Some would say that it was not mine to tell. But there's nothing worse than living inside someone else's story. Let them talk you out of believing your own story, and you might as well bury yourself alive. Here's how I found out: I fell in love with a man, only to find myself in a book written by another woman.