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Whispers in the Sand
By Barbara Erskine
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Barbara Erskine
All rights reserved.
May there be nothing to resist me at my judgement; may there be no opposition to me; may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him that keepeth the scales.
* * *
It is thirteen hundred years before the birth of Christ. The embalming complete, the bodies of the priests are carried back into the temple in the cliff where once they served their gods, and they are laid to rest in the shadows where they died. A mote of sunlight lies across the inner sanctuary for a moment, then, as the last mud brick is pressed into place across the entrance, the light is extinguished and the temple that is now a tomb is instantly and totally dark. Were there ears to hear they would distinguish a few muffled sounds as the plaster is smoothed and the seals set. Then all is as silent as the grave.
* * *
The sleep of the dead is without disturbance. The oils and resins within the flesh begin their work. Putrefaction is held at bay.
The souls of the priests leave their earthly bodies and seek out the gods of judgement. There in the hall beyond the gates of the western horizon, Anubis, god of the dead, holds the scale which will decide their fate. On the one side lies the feather of Maat, goddess of truth. On the other is laid the human heart.
* * *
"What you need, my girl, is a holiday!"
Phyllis Shelley was a small, wiry woman with a strong, angular face which was accentuated by her square, red-framed glasses. Her hair cropped fashionably short, she looked twenty years younger than the eighty-eight to which she reluctantly admitted.
She headed for the kitchen door with the tea tray, leaving Anna to follow with the kettle and a plate of scones.
"You're right, of course." Anna smiled fondly. Pausing in the hall as her great-aunt headed out towards the terrace, she stood for a few seconds looking at herself in the speckled, gilt-framed mirror, surveying her tired, thin face. Her dark hair was knotted behind her head in a coloured scarf which brought out the grey-green tones in her hazel eyes. She was slim, tall, her bones even, classically good-looking, her body still taut and attractive, but her mouth was etched with fine lines on either side now, and the crow's-feet around her eyes were deeper than they should have been for a woman in her mid-thirties. She sighed and pulled a face. She had been right to come. She needed a good strong dose of Phyllis!
Tea with her father's one remaining aunt was one of the great joys of life. The old lady was indefatigably young at heart, strong—indomitable was the word people always used to describe her— clear thinking, and she had a wonderful sense of humour. In her present state, miserable, lonely, and depressed, three months after the decree absolute, Anna needed a fix of all those qualities and a few more besides. In fact, she smiled to herself as she turned to follow Phyllis out onto the terrace, there was probably nothing wrong with her at all which tea and cake and some straight talking in the Lavenham cottage wouldn't put right.
It was a wonderful autumn day, leaves shimmering with pale gold and copper, the berries in the hedges a wild riot of scarlet and black, the air scented with wood smoke and the gentle echo of summer.
"You look well, Phyl." Anna smiled across the small round table.
Phyllis greeted Anna's remark with a snort and a raised eyebrow. "Considering I'm so old, you mean. Thank you, Anna! I am well, which is more than I can say for you, my dear. You look dreadful, if I may say so."
Anna gave a rueful shrug. "It's been a dreadful few months."
"Of course it has. But there's no point in looking backwards." Phyllis became brisk. "What are you going to do with your life now it is at last your own?"
Anna shrugged. "Look for a job, I suppose."
There was a moment's silence as Phyllis poured out two cups of tea. She passed one over and followed it with a homemade scone and a bowl of plum jam, both courtesy of the produce stall at the local plant sale. Phyllis Shelley had no time in her busy life for cooking or knitting, as she constantly told anyone who had the temerity to come and ask for contributions of either to the church fete or similar money-raising events.
"Life, Anna, is to be experienced. Lived," she said slowly, licking jam off her fingers. "It may not turn out the way we planned or hoped. It may not be totally enjoyable all the time, but it should be always exciting." Her eyes flashed. "You do not sound to me as though you were planning something exciting."
Anna laughed in spite of herself. "The excitement seems to have gone out of my life at the moment."
If it had ever been there at all. There was a long silence. She stared down the narrow cottage garden at the stone wall. Phyllis's cat, Jolly, was asleep there, head on paws, on its ancient lichen-crusted bricks covered in scarlet Virginia creeper. Late roses bloomed in profusion, and the air was deceptively warm, sheltered by the huddled buildings on either side. Anna sighed. She could feel Phyllis's eyes on her and she bit her lip, seeing herself suddenly through the other woman's critical gaze. Spoilt. Lazy. Useless. Depressed. A failure.
Phyllis narrowed her eyes. She was a mind reader as well. "I'm not impressed with self-pity, Anna. Never have been. You've got to get yourself off the floor. I never liked that so and so of a husband of yours. Your father was mad to let you get involved with him in the first place. You married Felix too young. You didn't know what you were doing. And I think you've had a lucky escape. You've still got plenty of time to make a new life. You're young and you've got your health and all your own teeth!" Anna laughed again.
"You're good for me, Phyl. I need someone to tell me off. The trouble is I don't really know where to start."
The divorce had been very civilised. There had been no unseemly squabbles; no bickering over money or possessions. Felix had given her the house in exchange for a clear conscience. He, after all, had done the lying and the leaving. And his eyes were already on another house in a smarter area, a house which would be interior-designed to order and furnished with the best to accommodate his new life and his new woman and his child.
For Anna, suddenly alone, life had become overnight an empty shell. Felix had been everything to her. Even her friends had been Felix's friends. After all, her job had been entertaining for Felix, running his social diary, keeping the wheels of his life oiled, and doing it, so she had thought, rather well. Perhaps not. Perhaps her own inner dissatisfaction had shown in the end after all.
They had married two weeks after she graduated from university with a good degree in modern languages. He was fifteen years older. That decision to stay on until she had finished her degree had been, she now suspected, the last major decision she had made about her own life.
Felix had wanted her to quit the course the moment he asked her to marry him. "You don't need all that education, sweetheart," he had urged. "What's it for? You'll never have to work."
Or worry your pretty little head about anything worth thinking about ... The patronising words, unsaid but implied, had echoed more and more often through Anna's skull over the ensuing years. She kidded herself that she had no time for anything else; that what she did for Felix was a job. It was certainly full time. And the pay? Oh, the pay had been good. Very good! He had begrudged her nothing. Her duties had been clear cut and simple. In these days of feminist ambition, independence, and resolve, she was to be decorative. He had put it so persuasively she had not realised what was happening. She was to be intelligent enough to make conversation with Felix's friends but not so intelligent as to outshine him, and, with some mastery, she later realised, he had made it seem enormously important and responsible that she was to organise all the areas of his life which were not already organised by his secretary. And in order to maintain that organisation uninterrupted it was made clear only after the fashionable wedding in Mayfair and the honeymoon in the Virgin Islands that there would be no children. Ever.
She had two hobbies: photography and gardening. On both he allowed her to spend as much money as she liked and even encouraged her interest when it did not conflict with her duties. Both were, after all, fashionable, good talking points, and relatively harmless, and she had allowed them to fill whatever gaps there were in her life. Indeed, in combining them she had become so good at both that her photographs of the garden won prizes, sold, gave her the illusion that she was doing something useful with her life.
Strangely, she had put up with his occasional indiscretions, surprised herself at how little they actually upset her and suspecting, but never admitting that this was because, perhaps, she did not, after all, love him quite as much as she ought to. It did not matter. No other man came along to whom she was attracted. Was she, she sometimes wondered, a bit frigid? She enjoyed sex with Felix, but did not miss it when it became less and less frequent. Nevertheless, the news that his latest girlfriend was pregnant hit her like a sledgehammer. The dam, which had held back her emotions for so long, broke, and a torrent of rage and frustration, loneliness and misery, broke over her head in a tidal wave which terrified her as much as it shocked her husband. He had not planned this change in his life. He had expected to carry on as before, visiting Shirley, supporting her, and when the time came paying, no doubt through the nose, for the child, but not becoming too involved. His instant and genuine enchantment with the baby had shaken him as much as it had pleased Shirley and devastated Anna. Within days of the birth, he had moved in with mother and child, and Anna had consulted her solicitor. After the uncontested divorce, Felix's friends had been strangely supportive of her, perhaps realising that something unplanned and unexpected had taken place and feeling genuinely sorry for her, but as one by one they rang to give her their condolences and then fell into embarrassed silence, she realised that in fact she had very few friends of her own and her feeling of utter abandonment grew stronger. Strangely, the one piece of advice they all passed on before hanging up was that she take a holiday.
And now here was Phyllis, saying the same thing.
"You must start with a holiday, Anna dear. Change of scene.
New people. Then you come back and sell that house. It's been a prison for you."
"No, Anna. Don't argue, dear. Well, perhaps about the house, but not about the holiday. Felix used to take you to all those places where you did nothing but sit by swimming pools and watch him talk business. You need to go somewhere exciting. In fact, you need to go to Egypt."
"Egypt?" Anna was beginning to feel her feet were being swept from beneath her. "Why Egypt?"
"Because when you were a little girl you talked about Egypt all the time. You had books about it. You drew pyramids and camels and ibises and you pestered me every time I saw you to tell you about Louisa."
Anna nodded. "It's strange. You're right. And I haven't thought about her for years."
"Then it's time you did. It is so easy to forget one's childhood dreams. I sometimes think people expect to forget them. They abandon everything which would make their lives exciting. I think you should go out there and see the places Louisa saw. When they published some of her sketchbooks ten years ago, I was tempted to go myself, you know. I'd helped your father select the pictures and worked with the editor over the captions and potted history. I just wanted to see it so much. And perhaps I still will one day." She smiled, the twinkle back in her eye, and Anna found herself thinking that it was entirely possible that the old lady would do it.
"She was an amazing woman, your great-great-grandmother," Phyllis went on. "Amazing, brave, and very talented."
Like you. Unlike me. Anna bit her lip and did not say it.
Frowning, she considered Phyllis's words, aware that the old lady's beady eyes were fixed unswervingly on her face.
"Well?" Anna smiled. "It's very tempting."
"Tempting? It's a brilliant idea!"
Anna nodded. "I did actually suggest once or twice to Felix that we go to Egypt, but he was never interested." She paused, aware of a stirring of something like excitement deep inside her. After all, why not? "You know, I think I might just take your advice. I haven't exactly got a lot of pressing plans."
Phyllis sat back in her chair. Closing her eyes, she turned her face to the sun, and a small smile played across her features for a moment. "Good. That's settled then." There was a pause, then she went on, "This is heaven. There is no nicer time of the year than the autumn. October is my favourite month." Her eyes opened again and she studied Anna's face. "Have you spoken to your father yet?"
Anna shook her head. "He hasn't rung me since the divorce. I don't think he'll ever forgive me."
"For separating from Felix?"
Anna nodded. "He was so proud of having Felix for a son-in-law." She couldn't keep the bitterness out of her voice for a moment. "The son he never had."
"Silly man." Phyllis sighed. "He's gotten more and more impossible since your mother died, and that's a good ten years ago now! Don't let it upset you too much, darling. He'll come round. You're worth ten of any son he might have had, and one day he'll realise it, I promise you."
Anna looked away, concentrating as hard as she could on the drift of scarlet creeper on the wall on the edge of the terrace. She was not going to cry. She should have got used by now to her father's insensitivity and his blatant lack of interest in her, his only child. She sniffed hard and turned her attention to the York stone slabs at her feet. Old lichens, long dried to white crusts, had formed circles and whorls in the stone. She realised suddenly that Phyllis had levered herself to her feet. Glancing up, she watched as her great-aunt disappeared back through the open French windows into the house, and, groping for her handkerchief, she mopped hurriedly at her eyes.
Phyllis was only gone two minutes. "I have something here which might interest you." She did not look at Anna as she sat down once more. She had dropped a package onto the table in front of her. "When I was going through Louisa's papers and sketchbooks, I despaired of ever finding anything personal. If there were letters, she must have destroyed them. There was nothing. Then a few months ago I decided to have an old desk restored. The veneers had lifted badly." She paused. The restorer found one of the drawers had a false bottom, and inside he found this." She passed the packet over to Anna.
Anna took it. "What is it?"
"Really?" Anna glanced down in sudden excitement. "But that must be incredibly valuable!"
"I expect so. And interesting."
"You've read it?"
Phyllis shrugged. "I had a quick look at it, but the writing is very difficult, and my eyes aren't so good these days. I think you should read it, Anna. It's all about her months in Egypt. And in the meantime I think you should ring your father. Life is too short for huffs and puffs. Tell him he's being an idiot, and you can say I said so."
The diary was on the back seat of the car when it was time to leave. The last crimson rays of the sunset were fading as Anna climbed in and, reaching for the ignition, looked up at her aunt. "Thank you for being there. I don't know what I'd do without you."
Phyllis shook her head in mock anger. "You would cope very well indeed, as you know. Now, ring Edward tonight. Promise?"
"I'll think about it. I'll promise that much."
She did think about it. In the queue of heavy traffic making its way slowly back into London after the sun-drenched weekend, she had plenty of time to reflect on Phyllis's advice and review her situation. She was thirty-five years old, had been married for fourteen years, had never had a job of any description whatsoever, and was childless. Letting in the clutch, she edged the car forward a few yards as the streams of traffic converged from the motorway into the clogged London streets. Her mind glanced sideways, away from that last particular memory. She couldn't cope yet with the idea of Felix as the father of another woman's child. She had few friends, or so it seemed at the moment, a father who despised her, and a terrifying vista of emptiness before her. On the plus side, there was Phyllis, the photography, the garden, and whatever Phyllis said, the house.
Excerpted from Whispers in the Sand by Barbara Erskine. Copyright © 2011 Barbara Erskine. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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