Set in a splendid country house in England, this rich and absorbing novel begins as Leonora, daughter of a famous Edwardian painter, is about to throw herself a huge house party to celebrate her 75th birthday. Guests will include her two grown daughters and their spouses (and lovers), a film crew making a movie about Leonora's father, and numerous family legends. Even happy families have their secrets, and Leonora's stunning revelations make for thrilling reading.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||6.34(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.45(d)|
About the Author
Adele Geras was born in Jerusalem. Her first book appeared in 1976, and since then she has published many acclaimed books for children and young people, both here and in England. Facing the Light is her first book for adult readers. She lives in Manchester with her husband, and they have two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Facing the Light
Wednesday, August 21st, 2002I'm allergic to my mother, Rilla thought. She leaned back in the bath, closed her eyes, and let the vanilla-scented foam and the hot water cover her. It happened every single time. The snake had come back. She could feel it, uncurling from where it lived, so deep in her head that for most of the time she forgot it was there. A white snake, that was how she imagined it, twisting and uncoiling and somehow winding itself around the separate parts of her brain to give her the only headaches she ever had. Tension headaches was what the doctor said when once Rilla had mentioned the problem, but of course she hadn't told him what caused the pain. She knew exactly. It was Leonora, her mother, and not just her. I'm allergic to the whole package, she told herself; Willow Court, Gwen, the entire set-up. Every time I have to visit the place, it's the same: the white snake tightens the scaly loops of his body around bits of my head, and I can feel my heart beating strangely too. She smiled. Usually, after only a few hours in her mother's presence Rilla recovered sufficiently to function in a more or less normal manner, but there was no getting away from it: the prospect of visiting Leonora filled her with something approaching dread.What was she afraid of? She looked around her bathroom, her haven, her lair. It was the room she loved best in the whole world. Her small house (How clever of you, darling, to find such a sweet little place. And in Chelsea! Leonora had said at the time) was, depending on your point of view, either sadly in need of total redecoration or the height of bohemian chic. Rilla herself thought that she and her house went well together. We're past our best, she often thought, but we've still got what it takes, oh yes. At least she had managed actually to buy a house of her own, which was more than could be said for Gwen, herelder sister, who had never lived anywhere but at Willow Court, under Leonora's gaze. Rilla couldn't for the life of her understand how her sister survived. She seemed happy enough, but you could never really tell with Gwen. Maybe she'd been dying to get away for years and not said a word. The martyrdom involved would have been typical, but in all probability Gwen had grown used to her own captivity. If anyone had asked her why she and her husband chose to spend their days in the depths of Wiltshire, she'd doubtless have murmured something about what a privilege it was to be entrusted with the care of the paintings of their grandfather, Ethan Walsh (the Walsh Collection was what she called it) and so boringly on and on. She wouldn't mention that her constant attendance on Leonora and her lifelong devotion to the house and property made it the most natural thing in the world for her to inherit Willow Court when Leonora died. Well, Gwen was welcome to it. Rilla would have regarded having to stay there forever as some kind of prison sentence, but was aware that most people didn't share her taste.For most people, she thought, read my sister and my mother. Why should I care what they think? I'm forty-eight years old and my bathroom is my business and no one else's. She looked at the candles on the long shelf beside the mirror. There were half a dozen of them, and she lit them every time she bathed, night or morning. The small, plain candlesticks that held them were made of opaque glass: blue and pink, and a pearly white that Rilla liked best of all. No one else saw the point, and how could she ever explain the lift in her heart when she stared at the moving flames, or how the shapes of the coloured wax growing into weird encrustations on the candlesticks pleased her, and how their faint fragrance spoke to her of peace and beauty and every sort of soothing? And the plants. There was a jungle of them above the basin and on the windowsill, and the greens (with almost every leaf a different shade, some blueish, some tinged with yellow, or brown, some striped, others streaked or blotched or spotted) made a garden for her, and one, moreover, that needed little attention because she let it run riot deliberately, revelling in the fronds and tendrils that spilled over the sides of their pots and trailed down past the tiles, touching the side of the bath.Gwen had been the first to see the bathroom after it was redone,and she hadn't needed to say a word. It's me, Rilla thought. There must be something wrong with me if I can remember it all so clearly from years and years ago. How she'd stared at the bath and basin in silence, then turned and said, 'Are you sure it's not just a little too much?'Rilla had been madly in love with Jon then, just about to marry him, and everything she did was exuberant, happy, full of passion. Jon Frederick was a pop star, and while he was never, even at the height of his fame, quite at the very top, they'd been one of London's bright young couples in those days. She'd just been in a movie, Night Creatures, which was a silly sort of thing but at least it had paid well, and urged on by Jon she'd commissioned the artist Curtis Manstrum to paint the bath and basin. He was famous for his fountains and had perfected a technique of covering basins with highly coloured decorations which could withstand years of water falling on them. He'd done such a splendid job on Rilla's bathroom that a magazine came and photographed it and for a while it was the talk of London - the talk, anyway, of those people in London who made a habit of talking about such things.'What's the matter with it?' Rilla had answered Gwen, and for the first time she saw everything through her sister's eyes: blue and green and pink in Matisse-inspired swirls that made you feel dizzy just to look at them, covering every inch of porcelain, dazzling the eye with their singing brightness.'Well ...' Gwen hestitated. She doesn't know the right words, Rilla thought. She's the granddaughter of a famous artist and she still hasn't a clue. She has all those paintings all around her every day and she can't bloody think of a single intelligent thing to say. In the end, and only because she'd been asked directly, Gwen murmured, 'The colours are rather strong, aren't they? And all those patterns look a bit fussy to me. Over the top. Don't look so crestfallen, Rilla! You did ask. And it's not me who is going to be bathing here, is it?''No, right,' Rilla said. 'I saw what you had done in your ensuite bathroom. Peachy pink as far as the eye can see; peach basin, peach bath and peach His and Hers towels folded neatly on the heated towel rail.''There's no need to be nasty,' said Gwen.Rilla had bitten back the 'Fuck you, too,' which came into her head and quickly led the way out so that her sister's delicate tastes should no longer be affronted. To this day she could remember how Gwen's words had made her feel in the wrong, exposed as someone altogether too noisy who called attention to herself. Disapproved of.So why did she keep visiting? Why did she not distance herself from the whole damn thing? Love, as usual, was the answer. Twined in among all the other feelings that filled her whenever she thought of her family, entangled in everything, bound in so strongly that to try to cut it out would destroy her utterly, was the love she felt for her mother and her sister. She couldn't help it. All that nonsense about blood being thicker than water was, it appeared, no more than the truth. It was as though Leonora and Gwen were parts of herself, parts that she found difficult and irritating most of the time, but still pieces of the fabric. Also, there were things she remembered from her childhood which still shone, after everything, and you didn't throw such memories away in a hurry. You kept hold of them as a kind of talisman to guard against the others, the things you couldn't bear to think about.Rilla sat up and squeezed a spongeful of water on to her shoulder. They love me too, she thought, even though they disapprove of me, Gwen and Mother. Even if I'm not quite the sort of person they'd mix with if I wasn't their blood relative, they, too, probably need me in their lives. She wondered whether or not Gwen still recalled an earlier bathroom incident from when they were little. Rilla hadn't forgotten. She'd taken her felt-tipped pens one day and drawn all over the white walls. It wasn't an accident. She could remember thinking: the walls will be prettier with fishes all over them, and she'd gone and taken the felt-tips out of the nursery and brought them into the bathroom and spread them out on the side, by the sink, and then she'd set about making lovely fish outlines and colouring them in carefully with her best shades of turquoise, purple and orange. They looked beautiful. How happy Mummy would be when she saw them swimming there, across the wall! Rilla was only seven and she couldn't reach very high up even if she stood on the chair, but there were lots and lots of fishes and she'd added some seaweed too, otherwise it wouldn't be the proper sea. When she'd finished she called Gwen to come and have alook. Gwen went white all over. The colour left her face, then came back again, all red and blushing, as though she were ashamed.'She'll be angry, Rilla. You've spoiled the whole wall.''No, I haven't,' Rilla laughed. 'I've made it pretty. Look at the fishes! Don't you like it?''It's horrible and I'm going to tell Mummy. You're going to be in such trouble. Wait and see.'Rilla got out of the bath and found one of the enormous soft towels that covered her from head to toe. She smiled. I was in trouble too, she thought. No supper that night, and then no visit to the circus, and watching out of the window as Gwen went off with Mother in the car to see the clowns and the elephants. How I wept and sobbed and begged, but Mother was quite unmoved. You have to learn, Rilla dear, she'd said. Before you go galumphing into things and being naughty because you haven't thought properly. Even after all this time, the injustice rankled. So often, things she'd done to please Leonora were somehow misunderstood. Rilla wondered sometimes whether her highly-decorated bathroom was a way, after all these years, of getting her own back at everyone who thought her childish fishes and seaweed did nothing but spoil a nice clean wall.'Galumphing' was the word which really hurt, the one that got under the skin and stayed there for more than forty years. Galumphing, which came trailing implications of bigness and weight and excessive clumsiness. Rilla made her way into the bedroom. Ivan was awake, humming tunelessly as he looked at the paper. She had to get ready. She wanted to be at Willow Court as early as possible and definitely before dinner.Sitting in front of her dressing-table, Rilla peered into the triple mirror and saw far too many reflected images of her lover, lying already fully dressed on the bed behind her. She couldn't decide which was more depressing - looking at him, or contemplating the wreck that she'd suddenly turned into. Back in the bathroom, it was easy to pretend that she was still the creamy-skinned, gorgeous creature in the photograph that mocked her from behind the massed bottles of perfume. More fool me, she thought, keeping a movie still from more than twenty years ago. I must be a masochist. That hair, rippling over a pillow trimmed with lace, and those perfect shoulders in the satinnightie ... no wonder the monster, or whatever it was in Night Creatures, was tempted. The rings she was wearing in the photograph were still around somewhere, ornate silver set with moonstones and opals. She'd been allowed to keep them, for a wonder. Vaguely, Rilla thought about whether it would be worth turning the flat upside down to find them. Probably not. Half the photograph was white roses, spilling off the bed and almost out of the frame, like an avalanche. David, the director, had spent such ages piling them up, arranging the fur rug over her feet, and making sure she was leaning back against the bedlinen at just the right angle. I should take it away, she thought. It's ridiculous to keep it there as a reminder. Maybe I could cover it up completely with a scarf or something.She stared at herself and sighed. She smiled. That was a mistake. Could all these wrinkles and dark circles and general sagginess of neck and chin have sprung up overnight? I'm only forty-eight, she thought. Sod's Law, that was what it was. There was Gwen, two years older and all milk and roses with never more than a spot of powder and a dab of lipstick on special occasions. No bloody justice in the world. She could hear her mother's voice saying, as she always did, Fairness has nothing to do with it, Cyrilla darling. Your sister is one person and you are another and you are both precious to me. Leonora was the only person in the whole world allowed to use the really too silly name she'd saddled her younger daughter with at birth. Her sister only had to contend with Gwendolen. It wasn't brilliant, but at least people had heard of it. When Rilla first went to school, everyone asked, is Cyrilla a family name? But they could barely suppress their laughter whenever it was spoken, so she very quickly shortened it, and short was how it had mostly stayed.Of course, if her father had lived, he might have tried hard to suggest something more sensible, but Rilla was willing to bet that her mother would have carried the day as she usually did. Peter Simmonds, Rilla's father, had died in a car accident six months before she was born. Rilla knew it was quite irrational, but she'd always felt faintly guilty, as though she herself were to blame for the crash, which, according to Leonora, had been the indirect result of telling Peter she was pregnant again. The subject wasn't one Rilla haddiscussed with Leonora, but both she and Gwen grew up with stories about the relationship that had existed between their parents. By all accounts, this love was like something out of a fairytale: transcendent, immutable and deeper by far than the rather ordinary passions experienced by other people. Certainly it took Leonora some years to recover from her husband's death. Rilla thought she recalled the house being quiet, and her mother in black weeping at the breakfast table, but didn't know whether the silence and sadness in her head were truly memories or only stories that had been told to her later by Leonora and which she was imagining. Photographs of her father, a tall, rather military-looking man with reddish hair and an unsmiling gaze, were there in albums which were hardly ever looked at these days.'What for do you look so sour, beloved Rilla?' came Ivan's lazy tones, husky partly from last night's cigarettes but mostly from well-rehearsed affectation.
'Nothing,' said Rilla, 'only it's going to take a hell of a lot of slap to reconstruct something resembling my face.' She kept her voice light, so that Ivan shouldn't know her true feelings. She had no intention of trying to explain the fear in her heart at the prospect of the days ahead.'You are beautiful, my darling,' said Ivan. 'You have a twilight beauty.''And you are full of shit,' said Rilla, applying rather more foundation than Monsieur (or possibly Madame) Lancôme would have recommended to her cheeks and forehead, and making sure to blend in thoroughly around the neck and chin line.That was one thing you could say about working (or in Rilla's case most often not working) in the movies and the theatre. It did teach you all about the possibilities, the magic, the transforming power of make-up. Everyone was busy constructing selves that they thought might appeal to others. Ivan, for instance, had a really rather remarkable resemblance to a vampire and played it for all it was worth. He was foreign, he was tall and skinny, he had lots of teeth and very pale skin and eyes he himself described as 'hypnotic'. He went in for Hammer Horror decor in his flat, which Rilla tried to avoid as much as she possibly could by managing to contrive that they always ended uphere. She smiled again at her own reflection in the mirror. Her house was not exactly Ideal Home, but even if it was as flamboyant as Ivan's, it was also cosy and there was nothing remotely Gothic about it.'You are happy now,' he said. 'You are remembering last night.''Don't flatter yourself, sweetie,' Rilla said sharply, and instantly regretted it. He wasn't the best lover in the world, but he was better than nothing. 'I'm sorry, Ivan. It's just that I'm a bundle of nerves about going back to my mother's house. I can't help it.''You smile,' Ivan continued, 'while I am weeping. What will I do without you? How will I bear it? How will I live?''Oh, do grow up, darling, honestly! It's only a few days. There's no need to be melodramatic about it.''You do not love me. You could not speak so if you had love in your heart.'She couldn't deny it. She didn't love him, of course she didn't, but it was quite sharp of him to have spotted it. Rilla thought she put on a reasonable show of affection and certainly she was always wholehearted about the sex, but her heart, well, that was foreign territory, and had been out of bounds for years. It was sometimes hard to square the way she was now with how she'd been in the days of Hugh Kenworthy, her first love. Months would go by and Hugh would simply never enter her mind, but when she did turn her thoughts to that time (sixteen years old, feeling everything so passionately that it seemed as though her skin were missing) she experienced something like a flood washing through her, a mixture of that old desire that made it hard for her to catch her breath, and vestiges of the rage she felt towards Leonora for what she had done. Rilla pulled her thoughts round to the present.'It's nothing to do with love,' she explained patiently. 'I've told you all about it. Mother's seventy-fifth birthday party is strictly a family affair, otherwise of course I'd take you. You know that.'Rilla outlined her mouth with a colour called Sepia Rose, and added lipgloss, believing that one couldn't glitter and shine too much. She had no time at all for matte and beige and the whole less-is-more philosophy. Cream cakes, red wine and Prawn Bhutans with extra naans were what she craved. She hadn't been quite truthful about the family affair. Partners, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends were allinvited, but Rilla never for a moment considered taking Ivan. She knew exactly how her mother would react to him. She'd be oh so polite, and smile the smile that made the Mona Lisa look positively open by comparison and say something like, Welcome to Willow Court, Mr Posnikov, but her greenish eyes would take in the slightly grubby fingernails, and her nostrils would dilate almost imperceptibly and her eyes would strip away all the pretences and discover who knew what awful truths about poor old Ivan. What would be made entirely clear to him, without so much as a word being spoken, was the feeling that he was not, to coin another of Leonora's phrases, one of us.'Do get up, Ivan, please,' said Rilla. 'I have to decide what to take. I really want to get to Willow Court as soon as I can.'She began to throw garments from the wardrobe on to the bed. Why was almost everything she owned either silky or satiny or feathered or beaded or somehow like a costume from a show? Whenever she visited Willow Court, she felt the need to find a disguise, a costume which wouldn't instantly make Leonora wrinkle her mouth. Why couldn't she manage neat skirts and crisp blouses? She would probably spill something on them if she did wear them.'I choose for you!' Ivan declared. 'I know what you need. I am dress designer, no?''Okay,' said Rilla. 'Imagine you're dressing me for a three-act play set in a country house. French windows, drinks on the terrace. You know the sort of thing.'She moved to the chair by the window and sighed. 'You can't possibly do any worse than I did.'With surprising care, Ivan picked up one garment at a time and laid most of them aside with the merest hint of a despairing sigh. Finally he said, 'I think this will be enough, no?'Rilla looked through what he'd chosen and saw that yes, indeed, the green chiffon might do nicely for a summer party, that the claret-coloured gypsy skirt could conceivably pass muster with the white linen blouse, that the black trousers and several silk jersey T-shirts might not be too hideous for morning strolls in the garden. Ivan added a couple of rather fine scarves ('Georgina von Etzdorf ...' he breathed reverently as he laid them gently on the pillow) and thenturned to choose a necklace from the ones looped over a corner of her dressing-table mirror.'This, I think,' he said, picking out a long string of obviously fake pearls. 'Never before have I seen this - pearls which are not round!' He made the sound that was the nearest thing to a laugh he allowed himself.'Yes, I love those,' Rilla said. 'They're from America. Square pearls! They'll do.'She closed her eyes, and let Ivan rummage around in her earring box. What did it matter, really, when it came down to it? However she was dressed, the whole visit was going to be excruciating. The one thing she tried every minute of her life not to think about, to thrust into the darkest, most secret corners of her heart was known to everyone who was coming. What if they spoke of it? How would she bear that? Rilla closed her eyes and drew a deep breath to steady her thoughts. Willow Court. So many ghosts, so much pain, and her mother, Leonora Simmonds, monarch of all she surveyed, especially the paintings. Oh, my God, Rilla thought. What did we do to deserve those paintings in our family?
Rilla let the sound of Billie Holiday's voice fill the car: blue and velvety and freighted with pain. Sweet, but with an edge of darkness all around it, like a border. From time to time she joined in with the lyrics, filling the spaces in her head with the sound of her own voice. She knew that the landscape was streaming past the window, but she didn't even glance at it. She'd seen it far too many times before, on her way back to Willow Court. Gwen'll be walking round from room to room, she thought, checking that everyone has the right towels. She'll have made sure the paintings are newly dusted. And I'll be in the Blue Room, where Mother always puts me because it faces the back. No view of the lake. Rilla shivered in spite of the heat. She hadn't been down there for years but in her worst dreams she still saw the water shimmering with a sort of fluorescence. No, think of Gwen. That's safe. Tidy and organized Gwen, who wore well-cut trousers in proper material that cost a small fortune but nevertheless just looked like common-or-garden trousers. Her shirts, too, were the very best, and Rilla knew for a fact that each one cost an arm and aleg, but whatever was the point when the colours were so self-effacing? Apologetic pink, wishy-washy blue, and minimalism's favourite shade, cream, which did nothing for Gwen, did she but know it.It wasn't that her sister wasn't attractive. She was. She had the figure of a young girl, and not a chubby young girl either. Her dark hair had greyed to the kind of elegant salt-and-pepper others paid a fortune for in salons, and her skin was like ivory. Rilla longed to put her in burgundy and peacock and old gold, but Gwen wouldn't hear of it. Perhaps all her poor brother-in-law had been looking for when he'd pursued other women during the early years of their marriage was a bit of colour. Rilla felt a pang of shame even thinking such a disloyal thought, but that didn't stop it being at least a possibility. James Rivera, who'd probably started life as Jaime, was wasted on her sister. He was handsome and dashing and just Spanish enough to have an exotic surname, but educated in this country, so not foreign enough to scare the horses. 'What if ...' was a stupid game to play at the best of times, but Rilla had sometimes wondered rather idly what would have happened if Hugh Kenworthy hadn't been occupying her every thought, asleep and awake, in those days. Would James's eye have fallen on her? Would she have wanted it to? She hardly ever thought about this any more, but in the old days one of the main items of family gossip, whenever two or three of them got together away from Willow Court was, does Gwen know? Almost from the day her sister married, Rilla could tell James was unfaithful to her. He was always 'up in London', or 'away for the night', and there was the occasion, which Rilla had never spoken of to anyone, when she'd seen him and what was her name? Milly? Molly? Something like that one of the young girls employed to help with the children in any case, looking flushed and dishevelled, coming out of the gazebo holding hands with James. And he'd seen her seeing them. Milly, or Molly, didn't last long after that. Gwen must know, Rilla thought. She can't not know. How typical of her to say nothing. Rocking the boat was not her thing. Her stoicism appeared to have paid off. Nowadays, James seemed to be as good as gold, though he was rather too fond of alcohol, and Rilla had often noticed her sister's worried frown and pursed lips as her husband helped himselfto yet another drink. Order, that's what Gwen was interested in. Order and the Walsh Collection. Thank Heavens Leonora had at least one of her daughters to carry on after she'd gone. Being stuck in that enormous pile surrounded by more spooky pictures than you can shake a stick at was Rilla's idea of Hell.And then she was there, at Willow Court. The wrought-iron gates were standing open. The leaves of the scarlet oaks leading up to the house were still green. Rilla's mouth suddenly felt dry. She slowed the car right down. She knew that Leonora and Gwen would have been looking out for her and would be waiting for her on the front steps and sure enough, there they were, like figures in a tableau. She could see them from quite a long way away: Leonora upright and self-possessed, standing one step above Gwen. Rilla stopped the car and got out as elegantly as she could, conscious of her mother's eyes on her. She ran up the steps to kiss her sister.'Darling,' she said, and threw her arms around Gwen, suddenly filled with affection. Perhaps she ought to make more effort to see Gwen on her own. Maybe she should invite her up to London to stay? 'How super to see you! I'm early, aren't I? Hardly any traffic at all, amazingly enough.'She went up to the next level to embrace her mother.'Rilla!' Leonora was smiling, but she stood quite still as her younger daughter kissed her. Powder smelling like icing-sugar, Rilla thought, and soft skin, and somewhere in her core something that doesn't want to bend, to relax. Something frozen.'Mother, you look wonderful. As usual.' And it was true. Leonora's skin was hardly wrinkled at all, and her green eyes undimmed, it seemed. As for the bone structure, well, as Ivan was forever telling her, there was no better basis for beauty than good bones. Rilla knew that any bones she had were rather too well-covered, and she waited for her mother to make some sort of allusion to any weight she might have put on since the last time, but no, on this occasion Leonora said only, 'You look lovely, too, Rilla darling. It's been such a long time since I've seen you. I've missed you, so I'm very pleased you've come down a little early.' Leonora paused, andscrutinised her daughter more carefully. 'And you do look a little tired, too. Never mind. You can have a nice long rest now that you're here.'Rilla only just stopped herself from saying, Fat chance! Leonora did love her, she realized with the familiar pang of guilt she felt whenever she had to remind herself of this fact. She just found it hard to communicate her affection in a normal way, that was all. Rilla mumbled something about getting her bags out of the boot and taking them upstairs.'You're in the Blue Room, darling,' said Leonora. 'I know you feel comfortable in there. Gwen will help you settle down, and then you've got plenty of time to change for dinner. I shall be dealing with letters in the conservatory, but do come down when you're ready. I'm longing to have a chat, if you're not too tired after such a long drive.' She smiled at Rilla, then turned and went inside, walking as she always did slowly, and as though people were looking at her. Which, Rilla reflected, they very often were.She walked to the back of the car with Gwen. Together they took out the luggage and went into the house carrying one bag each. Tangles of television cable snaked over the black and white tiles of the hall.'They're here already, then, are they? The TV people?' Rilla said as she followed Gwen upstairs.'Sean Everard, he's the director, he's coming tomorrow,' said Gwen, turning her head to talk over her shoulder, 'but the rest of the crew's here. They're doing what they call "establishing shots". They're very good, really. We hardly know they're around most of the time. They're staying down at the Fox and Goose, and they have all their meals there too.'She almost bumped into a man squatting on the landing with a camera over his shoulder.'Oh, gosh, Ken!' Gwen said. 'I didn't notice you there. And I'm very sorry, but I thought it was understood that this part of the landing is out of bounds. I discussed it all with Sean and I'm sure I mentioned it to you.'Ken said, 'Sorry, sorry. I was looking for Mrs Simmonds's bedroom. There's a picture in there of some swans, I believe ...''Oh!' Gwen relaxed a little. It was obvious to Rilla that if Leonorahad said he could be up here, that was different. 'That's fine, then. Only it's along the other corridor. You turned right instead of left at the top of the staircase. It's easily done.''Right!' said Ken and wandered away. Rilla noticed that they were outside the old nursery.'The dolls' house is still in there, isn't it?' she asked.'Oh, yes. But Mother's absolutely adamant that they mustn't film that.' She strode along the corridor to the Blue Room with Rilla close behind her. Nothing in it had changed since the last time she'd visited, but Gwen had put buff-coloured roses in a vase on the table by the window.'Lovely Buff Beauty, Gwennie, thank you so much.'Gwen blushed at the childish nickname. 'You like the ones that go on flowering all through the summer, I know ...' she murmured and put down the bag she was carrying. She turned to go, started saying something like, 'I'll see you later,' but Rilla interrupted her.'I'm going to have a look at it. At the dolls' house. Come with me, Gwen, go on. Surely there's time? You don't have anything to do exactly now this minute, do you?'Gwen hesitated, then said, 'Oh, all right, then. But only for a moment.''Good.' Rilla stepped out of the Blue Room and looked along the corridor. 'I'll make sure no one catches us.''Stop teasing, Rilla.' Gwen laughed and sounded all at once much younger. 'We're allowed in the nursery. It's just the TV people Mother wants to keep out.''Can't imagine why ... has she said? The dolls' house was Ethan Walsh's crowning achievement if you ask me.''She likes to keep it to herself for some reason,' Gwen said. 'She's always adored it, and of course it brings back memories for her. I can't stay long, I'm afraid. James will be back from the wine merchant very soon and you're supposed to be unpacking.'Rilla had always loved the nursery. In the old days, it had been Nanny Mouse's domain, but for the last few years the old lady had been living in a cottage down at the end of the drive by the gates, looked after by a nurse-companion. She would have been sad to see it all quiet and echoey, stripped of toys, its bookshelves empty. It wasnot the room it used to be; the room Rilla had for years considered the centre of her world. Gwen's grandson, Douggie, Efe and Fiona's son, could have slept there whenever they visited, but Fiona liked to keep him near her still. He was only two and a half. Perhaps when he was older, he'd bring the room to life again.Gwen opened the door and there was the dolls' house in its usual place against the wall. Rilla smiled. Mother was not a sentimental person, but when it came to this, which she often referred to as almost my only link with my mother, she behaved in ways which could only be described as somewhat eccentric. Okay, Gwen was right, and it had been made for Leonora by her father, and her mother had decorated every room. Perhaps she didn't want everyone in the world peering and poking at it, but still, not allowing the film crew to see it was taking matters a bit far. Also, only older children were actually allowed to play with it. Leonora would never permit toddlers to smear their grubby fingers over the wallpaper, or mistreat the tiny pieces of furniture. Everyone in the family knew that it was still very much Leonora's own possession, and if they thought there was anything at all strange about a woman of over seventy being attached to what was, after all, a child's toy, they never said so.Making the house had been a labour of love, that was clear. Rilla found it hard to imagine her artistic grandfather, who'd been a bit of a Tartar by all accounts, getting down to child level, as it were, to create this most beautiful residence. Grandmother Maude, who was hardly mentioned in anything written about Ethan Walsh, had decorated it throughout, with exactly the same care that she had lavished on Willow Court. She had also made three little dolls to live in it - exact copies of herself and her husband and daughter. They were tiny rag-dolls, but so carefully stitched together that every feature was not only clearly visible, but recognizable too. Ethan was the biggest of the dolls, with a dark moustache and heavy eyebrows over piercing blue eyes. Maude had nut-brown hair drawn into a bun at the nape of her neck, and wore a blouse with a high collar made of lace. The Leonora doll was in a dress cut from the same lilac fabric she wore in one of the portraits, the famous one which showed her sitting on the edge of a bed. The dress was trimmed with the lace Maude had used to make a collar on the figure of the mother. Each doll had asmile embroidered on to its face in pink silk. When she was a little girl, Rilla often said that you could see they were a happy family.'She used to let us look at them at Christmas time,' Gwen said. 'Do you remember?'Rilla nodded. 'That's right. Didn't we have some miniature holly or something that we decorated some of the rooms with?''Wreaths,' said Gwen. 'They're in a box in the attic, I think. With all the other Christmas stuff.''She didn't let us play with them at all, though, did she?' Rilla could remember Leonora saying, I can't let you have them for your games, darlings. They're so fragile, don't you see? But you like the new family I've bought for the house, don't you? 'She gave us our dolls as a sort of distraction, I suppose, but we did love them, didn't we?''Of course we did,' said Gwen. 'I can't remember it bothering us at all that we couldn't play with the ones Grandmother Maude made. I don't even know where Mother keeps them these days.'Because hardly anyone came into the nursery, there was a quality of chill in the silence that filled the whole room. Rilla thought that the dustsheet covering the house looked a little like a shroud. God, she thought, I'm letting my imagination run away with me.Gwen nodded in the direction of the dustsheet and smiled at her sister. 'Go on then,' she said. 'Let's have a look at it.'Rilla stared at the tall, rather narrow shape of the house under its white draperies. The roof was at the level of her waist. She reached for a corner of the sheet and lifted it, raised it up and folded it over, so that the dolls' house was revealed.'I used to call it Paradise Mansions,' she said. 'Do you remember?''That really annoyed me,' Gwen laughed. 'I played with it first when you were no more than a baby. I called it Delacourt House. And the family were the Delacourt family. That was their proper name.'Rilla said nothing, but she could still see herself, kneeling down in front of the dining-room, picking up the mother doll and pulling off her shawl and throwing it on the floor, and making her lie down on one of the upstairs beds. How furious Gwen used to get! She knew that even now Gwen was feeling a shadow of the outrage she felt then, at the violation of her things, her dolls.'You used to want to murder me when I changed things round that you'd already decided on, didn't you?''Oh, nonsense,' said Gwen. 'We were only children, weren't we? Children are all little savages.' Her voice was light, casual, but Rilla knew she was right. Gwen came and knelt beside her on the floor. Rilla knew that however much her sister pretended that all this dolls' house nonsense was ancient history, it wasn't really. Bits and pieces of the past lay just under the skin, like buried splinters.Rilla crouched down to look at everything more carefully. There were three floors, with the rooms arranged on either side of a long staircase. Kitchen and dining-room on the ground floor, drawing-room and study on the second floor, and two bedrooms and a bathroom on the third floor. In the attic space under the roof, Ethan had squashed in a tiny room for the maid. He'd made all the furniture, with beds for everyone and chests-of-drawers to stand beside them. Downstairs, the sideboards and the tables and chairs were intricate masterpieces of carpentry. Every wall was covered with some of the paper that Maude Walsh had chosen originally to hang in Willow Court. It was faded now, but you could still see the patterns: William Morris's Willow, of course, and some by Walter Crane of a pomegranate tree with white birds in it. The sloping roof was a masterpiece of painstaking craftsmanship, and this, surprisingly was Maude's own work. She had painted sheets and sheets of thick paper with an intricate pattern of rooftiles in water-colours and these had been skilfully glued to the plain wood. Leonora had often told them the story of how the new roof had been a birthday surprise from her mother, just before her eighth birthday, just before Maude's tragic death. Over the years, the greys and browns and pale saffrons had faded so that now it looked just like the real thing: weathered and rough; the authentic slatey-yellow of proper tiles.Rilla suddenly thought what a sensation it would cause among art critics if they could see it. It must be worth a small fortune. How come her own stepdaughter Beth never spoke about it these days? Why didn't Gwen's children, particularly Efe (who was very mercenary, it seemed to Rilla, always fascinated by the price of things) realize what a treasure was stashed away up here? The dolls were all present and correct. Queen Margarita (whomGwen called Mrs Delacourt) and her husband, and the two children, Lucinda and Lucas (Dora and Dominic for Gwen) and the maid, who was called Philpott by both of them. They were all peg-dolls with painted faces and unmoving bodies, but what life they'd breathed into them! Rilla had known what they thought and felt and wanted to do. She tidied their house, and arranged meals for them on their little table, but Gwen always said she did everything wrong, and once she pushed Rilla out of the way so roughly that she'd bumped her head on the runners of the rocking-horse and cried for hours. Serve you right. Rilla could remember to this day what Gwen had shouted at her then. You shouldn't have moved them. I put them where they're supposed to be, and you moved them. You mustn't, that's all.'We did have fun with them, didn't we?' she said to Gwen.'Yes, of course we did.' Gwen stood up again. 'Even though I seem to remember I always thought you got things wrong constantly. I suppose I wanted it all to myself. Didn't want to share it. Aren't children horrible a lot of the time?''Not me! I was totally loveable!''That's what you think!' Gwen was laughing. 'I know I've just denied wanting to murder you, but what is true is that you could be a real pest. But I suppose I was a bit bossy, wasn't I?''A confession! Wonders never cease, Gwen.'Rilla stood up and lifted the sheet to cover everything again. The outline of the roof was sharp against the dark paper of the wall, and under the white avalanche she'd just created the dolls lay quietly. For a split second, Rilla found herself wondering what they thought of the whiteness blocking their windows. She laughed out loud, wondering whether this could be the onset of the menopause. You're losing it, Mum! was something Beth sometimes said to her, affectionately.'Come down when you've unpacked,' Gwen said, 'and I'll go and see to the drinks. It's going to be such fun, Rilla, isn't it? This party?''It'll be great,' Rilla answered, and felt that she was telling no more than the truth.
'And where,' said Leonora, turning to Gwen, 'are you putting Chloe and her young man? What's his name? Philip something. Smart, that's it. Doesn't he do something rather fascinating for a living?' She took asip of wine from her glass and applied herself to buttering a Bath Oliver and arranging dainty crumbs of Stilton on it.'He's a picture restorer. He works at the V & A, I think, though of course, he's very young and junior. Chloë says he's longing to see the Willow Court paintings.'The last of the evening sunshine found its way into the dining-room, glancing off the yellow velvet curtains and falling on to the window seat where Gus, one of Leonora's two cats, lay curled up like a furry marmalade-coloured cushion. His brother, Bertie, was fond of soft duvets and only came downstairs when hunger called him to the kitchen.'In my old room,' said Gwen. 'Chloë's always liked it.'Rilla concentrated on peeling an apple. It had only been her and Gwen and Leonora at dinner, after all. There was no sign of James anywhere. As though she were reading Rilla's mind, Leonora said, 'James, I take it, is still in town?'Gwen nodded. 'Yes, he phoned me just before dinner. He's chatting with wine merchants and so forth, and seeing about the marquee, I think. Liaising, he calls it. In any case, he said he'd pick up a sandwich or something on his way home.'Rilla laughed. 'James would never chat to anyone if he could possibly liaise, would he?'Gwen smiled, rather half-heartedly it seemed to Rilla. A dreadful thought suddenly occurred to her. Is it possible that Gwen thinks James might have slept with me, all those years ago? Could she honestly believe I'd sink as low as screwing my own brother-in-law? Surely not! Rilla dismissed this thought and helped herself to another cup of coffee. James might actually be liaising on this occasion, but on the other hand he might not. She glanced at Gwen. In all the years since their marriage, she and James must have worked out a way of coming to terms with his past infidelities. Nowadays, she was a little tense when he came home late and somewhat the worse for wear, but she had put her foot down about driving right from the very beginning, so at least that was not a worry.'That's how my father died,' Rilla remembered her shrieking at James during one blazing row she'd witnessed between the two of them. Gwen had been pale with fury and her voice sounded quiteunlike her normal measured tones. 'I'm damned if you're going the same way.'Why did Gwen put up with it at all? She must love him, Rilla supposed. She wondered briefly whether she could stand life with James and knew she couldn't. She wouldn't have been able to overlook the women, right at the start of the marriage. As far as she was concerned, it would take only one tiny slip, one kiss even, and she'd be off. Or send him, the man, whoever he was, packing. Fidelity wasn't surely too much to ask for. Or was it? Did people nowadays even care? She had no idea, and on her present form, she wasn't likely to find out. Who the hell found true love at her age? She bit into her apple and turned her attention to what Leonora was saying. Something about her work. Rilla sighed inwardly, opened her mouth and prepared to make two cameos on afternoon soap operas sound like star parts for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Talking yourself up, it was called, and she'd grown rather good at it over the years. She tried not to sound defensive. There was nothing wrong with a mother showing some interest in what her daughter was doing. Grow up, Rilla, she said to herself, and launched into an account of the last commercial she'd been in.
In some cupboards, wire hangers made a sound like wind-chimes when you hung your clothes up, but not at Willow Court. Leonora didn't believe in wire hangers. You might just as well take your best dresses and shred them at the shoulders, she used to say, with typical exaggeration. Still, Rilla had to admit that padded hangers covered in material that felt satiny to the touch were both pleasurable and oddly comforting. At least my garments will be in good shape, she thought. Even if I'm not.She'd been here for some hours and everything was all right. She had managed to look out of the window, earlier on, and there was the kitchen garden in the afternoon sunshine, looking restful and pretty and not a bit threatening. She had to be careful of some places, of course, even in the house. If she wasn't on her guard all the time, he'd appear in front of her eyes and the pain of that was too much to bear.If there was one thing in the whole world you never forgot, not ever, it was a dead child, and Mark was always with her, contained inher flesh and in every atom of her body, gathered more closely into her than he'd been in the months before his birth. There was no way that he could not be, but it was only here, at Willow Court, that she sometimes heard his voice, and even actually saw him, behind the curtain in the drawing-room where he loved to hide, or sitting on the bench in the Quiet Garden with a cat on his lap. This, she thought sleepily, is a haunted house. I should be used to it by now, but I dread it. I dread the sight of him, the impossibility of it actually being him. And of course she couldn't sleep in her old room.Rilla wondered who would be sleeping there. She'd ask Gwen. Dinner had been quiet and peaceful tonight, but from tomorrow everything was going to be different. Gwen's younger son, Alex, was getting a lift down with Beth. Efe, her eldest, would arrive in the afternoon with his family and Sean Everard, the TV director, was expected before dinner. There would hardly be time to turn round, and no time at all for heart-to-hearts of any kind. Not too much time for Leonora to interrogate her even further about work (How long is it since you've been in a film, darling?) or the current state of her love life or ask her in a roundabout way what she intended to do about her weight. (Efe goes to the gym every day, you know. Even when he's busy.)Well, bully for Efe, Rilla thought, and reached into her enormous carpetbag to find her secret supply of chocolate bars. It was going to be a long time till breakfast. She peeled the wrapping off a Crunchie and lay down on the bed, biting into the gorgeously yellow honeycomb filling, feeling the sweetness fill her, feeling her mood lift. Dinner had gone much better than she'd feared. Nothing contentious, nothing difficult had come up at all. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, this time here with the rest of the family. Leonora would be as nice as she possibly could be and make the effort to show some affection, and I must as well. Maybe everything would be fine, or better than fine. Maybe.FACING THE LIGHT Copyright © 2003 by Adèle Geras. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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Her two daughters, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren are arriving at Willow Court to celebrate the seventy-fifth birthday of the family matriarch Leonora Simmonds. While her kin pays homage to her, TV film director Sean Everard is doing a special on Leonora¿s father, renowned Edwardian painter Edwin Walsh......................................... As undercurrents swirl amidst the gathering family, Leonora dreams of being eight years old back in 1935 when she was sick with the measles and her mother died. Her dream is different than her memories. Soon other events as she remembers them begin to unravel and a dark secret surfaces that if revealed will change a family basking in legendary fame to one hiding in shame................................... This engaging family drama uses a cast that would please De Mille, but author Adele Geras gifts each key player with a distinct personality that remains consistent throughout. Though the pace is quite leisurely, the story line hooks the audience from the moment that Rilla knows she is coming home to see her mom and her sister. The plot never lets go until the final revelations about the past and present emerge leaving the extended Simmonds brood and the audience in shock...................... Harriet Klausner