How to Find Your Way Home336
How to Find Your Way Home336
A warm, uplifting novel about the unshakable bond between siblings, and what happens when a sister discovers her long-missing brother in the most unexpected place, from the author of Little Big Love.
Emily has been looking for the same face in every crowd for more than a decade: her brother’s. She’ll do anything to find him, she just never expects that one day he will walk through the door of the London housing office where she works, homeless and in need of help.
Emily’s overjoyed to see Stephen—her older brother, her hero, the one who taught her to look for the flash of a bird’s wings and instilled in her a love and respect for nature’s wonders—and invites him to live with her. But the baggage of the day that tore them apart, more than fifteen years before, is heavy. As they attempt to rebuild their relationship, they embark on the birding adventure they’d always promised to take when they were just children running wild in the wetlands of Canvey Island. And so, amid the soft, familiar calls of the marsh birds, they must finally confront what happened that June day—and in all the days since—if they are to finally find their way home.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There's me, standing at the open bathroom window again, the ladder up against it, so close I can touch it, a figure halfway up it. There's a storm brewing. I can feel the wind picking up, the air growing cooler; I can sense it rolling in from the estuary, across the marsh edge-lands before me, which lie under a blanket of leaden sky, the dark clouds contrasting with the grass, making it seem a brighter green, like a football pitch under floodlights. And now the swifts . . . I can hear their screams from far away, but getting nearer. They are just black dots at first, but then their scythe-shaped wings come into focus, and soon they're so close I can make out their individual feathers. They come thick and fast, a black cloud, flying past the ladder and into the bathroom, as if fleeing from the storm. The wind is making the ladder shudder, the glass of the open window shake. "Stop!" scream the swifts. "You're going to kill him." Then the ladder falls backward, in slow motion. An almighty thud as something hits the ground. The figure at the bottom now, blood seeping from a wound I can't see. I watch it, spilling outward, spreading over the marshes, turning the hay russet like the fur of a wounded animal, creeping like a trickling brook, out toward the sea.
Canvey Island, Essex
Whoosh! Stephen woke to the sound of his bedroom curtains being pulled open.
"Well, Stevie, you've got a new sister," Dad said. "Emily Adele Nelson-born three hours ago. She's absolutely perfect."
Stephen pulled himself up on his pillows, his legs jiggling already, his chest feeling as if something was trying to get out, he was so excited.
Outside, the sky was gold and pink over Canvey Marshes, and there was a beam of sun across his duvet cover. The birds were singing, too, but extra loud, as if it were a special hello to the baby: Welcome to your first day in the world!
Four days later, Stephen stood at the front room window with Grandma Paradiso, waiting for Mum and his new baby sister to arrive back from hospital.
"When will they be here, Grandma?"
"Anytime now, Stephen, just be patient. That jiggling your legs won't make her come any faster."
While they waited, Grandma explained how a stork had brought his new sister, how babiesÕ souls about to be born lay in the marshes where storks made their nests, and waited patiently until a stork came, picked them up, and delivered them to their new family. Stephen wondered if the stork would still be there now, with Mummy and Emily-that's if they ever arrived.
Less than ten minutes later an ambulance came trundling around the corner. Not with a blue light or a nee-naw, but calmly like an ice cream van. It had to go slow because it was carrying precious treasure. Grandma Paradiso came with Stephen outside. There was a man in a green uniform opening the back doors of the ambulance. He asked Stephen if he'd like to come and look inside and Stephen looked up at his grandma, who smiled and said, ÒIt's all right, love,Ó and gave him a gentle push. ÒOff you go.Ó
The inside of the ambulance looked how he imagined a spaceship might look, with tubes and pumps and switches everywhere. There was a bed on wheels with a green blanket over it that looked itchy and, at the back, a big blue chair, where Mummy was sitting, holding the baby, beaming. She was wearing no lipstick, her hair was unbrushed, and Stephen had never seen her look more happy or beautiful.
"Hello, sweetheart," she said, quietly. "Come and meet your new sister."
The baby was wrapped up like a caterpillar cocoon, and she was crying, like a kitten. Daddy helped Mummy and the baby out of the ambulance and inside. Mummy sat down on the couch, holding Emily; Stephen sat beside them. He couldn't stop looking at this precious present the stork had brought. Grandma Paradiso was saying "aah, aw," and Daddy was going back and forth, bringing cups of tea, saying "hee-hee!" to himself and rubbing his hands together. He put down steaming cups for Mummy and Grandma, then all of a sudden grabbed Stephen and hugged him so tight it was hard to breathe, but Stephen didn't care; he'd never felt happiness like it.
"Stephen, do you want to hold her?" he said and Stephen wanted to, badly, but looked at Mummy, who said, "I'm not sure that's a good idea, sweetheart. Maybe in a few days when she's a bit bigger." So Stephen had to make do with just stroking her head instead, which wasn't hard like his, but squishy on top like the blow-up mattress he slept on at Grandma and Grandad Paradiso's house, which was called "El Paradiso," hence the name he'd assigned to his maternal grandparents.
Grandma Paradiso slapped her knees. "Oh, Alicia, come on. It's not every day he gets to meet his little sister, is it? As long as he's careful. Maybe with cushions on the couch?"
And so, Daddy helped him get propped up on the cushions. He had to sit really straight and still, with his back against the couch.
"Oh, Stephen, look at that, the moment of truth!" said Grandma. Then Mummy passed the baby to him, as carefully as if she were Jesus. She was much lighter than he expected-as light as putting a teddy on his knee-and she made funny, squirmy faces, and when she yawned, the bright red inside reminded him of a picture in one of his nature books that he loved so much, of a baby thrush, waiting to be fed. All these things together made him giggle with delight and look up to his mother, who drew in a breath. "Be careful, Stevie, she's not a doll, you know. If you drop her . . ."
"I won't drop her," he said, never more certain of anything in his life. He was the big brother now, after all, and it was his job to love and protect his little sister, to keep her safe forever.
If you'd looked through the window that Saturday evening in early March, what would you have seen? A warmly lit open-plan space for living and dining. In the foreground, a vintage leather sofa, a '60s floor lamp emanating a cozy orange glow. Further back, a dining table, tastefully laid with Moroccan-inspired eclectic crockery and flickering with tea lights.
Finally, at the very back, the kitchen area; bijou but chic with its metro tiles and aluminum pendant lights over the kitchen island and hob, on which there is a tagine bubbling and, beside it, a man: tall, boyishly chiseled and fair-haired, the sleeves of his navy-blue shirt rolled up to reveal toned forearms, stoning fresh lychees, a cocktail shaker at the ready.
Does he live alone? You might wonder. Perhaps too many feminine touches for this to be a bachelor pad. And you'd be right. Although you wouldn't have seen me, owner and sole official inhabitant of this apartment, chief orchestrator of this picture of aspirational living-thirtysomething urbanites preparing to entertain. That's because I am upstairs, up the polished slatted staircase to the right, still in a towel after my shower, hair in a turban, sitting on my bed in the light of my laptop. I've got Facebook open, my heart up somewhere near my throat, where it seems to live permanently these days, as I type the name into the search box:
I haven't done this for a while, but it's my birthday next week, another year further from that June day he was taken from me. Almost twenty years ago now. And the gravitational pull toward him becomes inescapable around this time. I always step up the search.
I click on "show all" and press my palms together, fingertips to my lips in an unconscious praying action. Facebook reveals sixty-one of them. I scroll down to where I left off yesterday: ten Stephen Nelsons down, fifty-one to go. Why couldn't he have been called Xavier or, I dunno, Piers? This would all have been so much easier.
Stephen Nelson number eleven is a Man Utd supporter (that's him out, then) and appears to have met Barry Manilow several times (that's definitely him out). Number twelve went to Preston Poly but has somehow found himself living in Kazakhstan. Moving on. Number thirteen, though? "Artist," it says, avatar of an eagle-my stomach seems to float. I click on it, my pulse drumming, but this Stephen Nelson must be seventy if he's a day, and so I close my laptop with a defeated sigh just as my boyfriend, James-the handsome lychee peeler with the nice forearms, I'm sure you guessed that-pops his head around the bedroom door, face full of affection and, I know it, lust. We've only been together five months and are very much still in that stage. The stage I don't ever seem able to get beyond, before things fizzle out, for reasons that currently baffle me.
"Hi." I smile.
"Hi," he says. "I brought you a little livener." And he puts a martini, complete with lychee pinned to the glass rim, on the bedside table. I thank him. He tips his head to the side and smiles at me. He has very sexy dimples. Then he frowns. "You on Facebook again? Em, you know it makes you feel crap, and anyway, shouldn't you be getting ready, sweetheart? They'll be here in twenty minutes . . . In fact, just enough time . . ."
And he hops onto the bed.
"Just enough?" I tease. "You'll be lucky to last half that."
"Right!" And with that he burrows and growls into my neck, pretending to eat it as I squeal with laughter, pulling my towel tighter. "Get off! I'm joking! We do not have enough time!"
So he flounces off in a mock huff and the smile drops from my face as I put my laptop on the floor, my chest tight because I know that's it until tomorrow now-and I set about getting ready quickly. I leave my hair to dry naturally wavy and put on mascara, lipstick, and the outfit I chose a week ago: a light-gray pleated skirt and hot-orange scoop-back T-shirt with the slogan "Happy Days" across the middle. Silver hoops. Bare feet. It's an ensemble I hope hits just the right note on the effort scale, that says I'm totally at ease in my own skin, my own home.
Ten seconds later, the doorbell rings and I go downstairs to find James is already greeting Dan and Vanessa, who are ebullient, excited to have been invited for dinner at their best friend's new girlfriend's flat at last, laden with gifts of orchids and botanical gins. This will be the third time we've met and also marks one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.
ÓHey, big fella!Ó I can hear the man-slap Dan gives James from the kitchen, where Vanessa and I are doing the female greeting equivalent, which is complimenting each other on our outfits. (I am dismayed to see she is as groomed as Meghan Markle, whereas my hairÕs still damp and I havenÕt got shoes on.) I'm glad of that livener martini and thankful to get stuck into more, get everyone relaxed and having fun. You never know, I think, wryly, maybe even you . . . I bring out the canapŽs I've made.
"Oh my God." Vanessa reaches enthusiastically for a mini chorizo toad-in-the-hole with her impeccably manicured hands. "You got a takeaway curry when you came to ours. I feel awful! You've gone to so much effort."
"Don't be daft. I have not." I tut while ignoring the look on James's face, and the fact that his eyebrows have shot up somewhere by his hairline. He got up at two this morning to find I was still awake, poring over my cookbooks and the weekend food supplements I rip out for inspiration.
"Darlin', you do know it's just my mates coming, don't you?" he'd said. "Not Marco Pierre White."
Dan is James's best friend from university and works as a property developer. I'm a housing officer in the council's homeless department, so you could say we work on opposite sides of the same coin. James is an architect. That's how we met, at a residents' meeting about an estate that was up for demolition. He seemed as passionate as me about people being kicked out of their homes, funnily enough.
Dan, on the other hand, operates refreshingly shamelessly from the dark side. Not conventionally attractive, maybe, but what he lacks in looks he makes up for in charisma and flamboyant shirts-tonight, a gecko-covered Hawaiian number even though it's still very much winter, and pouring with rain outside. Vanessa, his wife, is the kind of woman so confident in her own skin, she doesn't need an Adonis on her arm to make her feel good anyway.
She looks around. "This flat is gorgeous. You have such good taste."
"It is a super flat," adds Dan.
"Oh God," I say. "It was dirt cheap and an eyesore when I bought it. I had no furniture. Luckily, I love rummaging in charity shops. I'll take any old crap from a skip and upcycle it."
Vanessa looks perplexed at my total inability to take a compliment. "Well, it's beautiful," she says, simply.
"Yeah, she's got great taste, haven't you, babe?" says James. "Especially in men."
"I'd say it's questionable at best." Dan chuckles and I laugh along, simultaneously feeling he's hit a nerve. As I've said, I don't have a great track record in that department-no one seems to stick. Please, God, let this be different, I think, enjoying the warm feeling the alcohol is giving me, looking over at James. He's certainly handsome and he's kind. Too kind sometimes; it makes me nervous. Makes me feel like I don't deserve it.
"So, our news," says Dan over dinner, "is that we're moving to the country!"
"Bloody hell, people." James laughs. "Four beds not enough for you?"
"I know, we're just disgusting," says Vanessa, unapologetically. (That, I realize, is exactly what they are-unapologetic-it's kind of refreshing.) "But we want more space. I want to try for another baby soon, and as everyone knows I want at least one more after that."
Dan rolls his eyes affectionately. "Only if I can have my Porsche Cayenne, honey, that was the arrangement!"