"A perfectly heartbreaking tale of royalty, lies, and friendship."Kristin Harmel, author of The Room on Rue Amélie
Australia, 1920. Seventeen-year-old Maddie Bright embarks on the voyage of a lifetime when she's chosen to serve on the cross-continent tour of His Royal Highness, the dashing Edward, Prince of Wales. Life on the royal train is luxurious beyond her dreams, and the glamorous, good-hearted friends she makeswith their romantic histories and rivalriescrack open her world. But glamour often hides all manner of sins.
Decades later, Maddie lives in a ramshackle house in Brisbane, whiling away the days with television news and her devoted, if drunken, next-door neighbor. When a London journalist struggling with her own romantic entanglements begins asking Maddie questions about her relationship to the famous and reclusive author M. A. Bright, she's taken back to the glamorous days of the royal tourand to the secrets she has kept for all these years.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Brisbane, Australia, 1981
I heard a thump that at first I took for a possum in the ceiling. They remind me of my brothers when we were children in this house, pounding across the wooden floors, screaming at one another over some game or claim. At night I might hear one fall from the jacaranda branches onto the roof-a possum, not a brother now-with a thud you'd think would kill any living creature, and yet I knew they survived because after the thud there was a pause, and then the scurry of feet. I should do something about them, get the possum man to set traps, but I don't have the heart. I still miss my brothers.
Ed from across the road says they bring fleas. The possums again, not my brothers, who are all dead; boisterous noisy boys, gone too soon. Only me now. Women live longer. It's not necessarily better.
I heard the noise again, louder, and realized it wasn't a possum. It was the front door, someone pounding now on the door with what I took for impatience, which irritated me mightily. My hearing's not as good as it used to be. It can't be Ed, I thought. Too early in the day for Ed, and Ed would never be impatient with me.
Last night's news has altogether discombobulated me. I keep seeing her in my mind's eye, more helpless than the possums in my ceiling, more helpless even than my little boy brothers, in a trap of her own hapless making. After the letter last week, it's almost too much to bear. I am too old for this. I want to die quietly in my sleep. It turns out this is quite a lot to ask of the Lord, who knows every hair on your head and could pluck them all out at once if the mood took him.
Other than Ed, no one knocks on my door but religions and electricals, peddling wares or schemes for redemption, and it's too early for either of them. They don't tend to make such a racket either. I used to like the Pentecostals. Their prayer books have pictures and they don't have a uniform. I joined them the year before last, but I didn't know any of the songs, so I went back to the more ordinary Catholics, whose songs have straightforward melodies. Even if you don't know them at the start, you have them figured by the second verse.
I live in a house that attracts a particular kind of religion, one whose followers are nutty for it. Last week, I had the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Latter-Day Saints on the same day, which is a record. Swindle is what religions specialize in, according to Ed. He is cynical. It won't make life any easier, I want to tell him. Whereas believing in a hereafter-where my brothers and I, my parents, and others I've lost will be reunited-might be a comfort when I need one.
"I'm coming!" I called toward the door as gruffly as I could manage. I was in the kitchen at the back of the house, and although I've weaned myself from the walker, I'm still slow, ginger when I'm first on my feet, as if I broke my balance when I broke my dumb leg.
The leg itself has healed entirely, the doctor told me when he sawed the cast off, stressing that word entirely, but perhaps next time, he said, I might ask the gardener to clear the leaves from the gutters rather than getting up on the roof myself. He was one of those doctors who'd have been pointing a finger at me if all his fingers hadn't been on duty for the sawing. As it was, he was shaking his head, a smug smile stuck to his face like it was a regular visitor. He can't be older than fifty, and he's not my usual doctor, Dr. McKellar, who would never be so condescending and would likely encourage me to get up on the roof if that's what I felt like doing, which I did, obviously, or I wouldn't have been up there and I wouldn't have fallen off. Not only that, the assumption I have a gardener is offensive to me.
I felt like giving him a piece of my mind, the young doctor, but I refrained for the sake of ensuring he finished the job at hand without taking my leg off. It's harder to assert your authority when the object of your irritability has an electrical saw in his hands.
I passed the television in the sitting room. It had turned itself back on-something that should probably worry me-and there again was the picture: a willowy scrap of a girl arm in arm with what I could only describe as a wolf in sheep's clothing. Her suit was the worst of it, a sky-blue two sizes too large, as if she'd only bought it that morning for the afternoon's announcement and had a false impression of her own size in the world. It's more innocent than wedding-white will be, the enormous jewel on her finger shown to the waiting horde like a brand on a heifer. They flashed back then to that other picture, the one that might frighten her, her skirt made see-through in the morning sun, her long legs exposed for all the world to gawk at. Of course it frightened her. That was the point.
"Run!" I shouted at the screen. "Scream your head off!" But she couldn't hear me and wouldn't know what I was talking about if she could. That was all yet to find her.
Helen. Is that who she reminds me of? Helen, whose adventurousness people mistook for sophistication or some Machiavellian nature that was not Helen, not in any way. Is this what the world does to women who pretend to be worldly, buy suits two sizes too big? Cut them down to size, shrink them?
I reached the front door just as the pounding resumed. "Lord save us, I'm coming!" I called out again, exasperated now, for, having reached the door, I had to negotiate the locks, three of them, and the chain bolt. Ed says if there were a fire in this house, I would burn before I could get myself out. Minutes, he tells me. These houses burn in minutes. I tell Ed I'd see it as an early but hardly premature cremation. He doesn't find that funny, which I can well understand-he's young yet-but when you get to my age, death looms, an unwelcome guest but a guest all the same, one your very living has invited. Your humor can't help but be gallows. The gallows are what's left.
Forgiveness. I know I will be seeking forgiveness. That's what I like about the Catholics, in addition to songs I know the tunes of. Forgiveness appears to be in plentiful supply. Ed doesn't understand that.
I'm still thinking of Ed and smiling as I open the door, and when it's not him, I'm confused momentarily. It's not Ed. It's a tall, strong young man with blue eyes and wavy blond hair parted on the left. Behind him is a perfect sky, which frames those eyes. Sky eyes. I look again at his face, trying to work out if I'm supposed to know him.
"Can I help you?" I say, in a way that suggests helping is the last thing on my mind. Big brown boots, I notice, and navy work shorts, the ones with hip pockets, a short-sleeved shirt, a pocket there too, a pen clipped to it, Bic, black, the cap on. Building. He looks like a building. A builder, I mean. He looks like a builder.
"I'm Andrew Shaw," he says gently. He has a quiet voice you want to hear more of. "I'm doing the work next door? I'm here to do the inspection. We spoke on the phone." He's two steps lower, bending his body closer as he looks up at me, nodding.
"Did we now?" The inspection. Trust the inspector to turn up today, after the news.
It was not my idea, as I'd said to Ed when he brought in my bin this week. "Ed, do you know what they've done?" I said.
Ed had looked toward the house uphill from mine, not unlike my house, with the sign out front we'd read together, which said its purpose was to give notice of a development application, along with the name and address of someone with whom I could lodge objections. Ed was as close to scowling as Ed ever gets. He's a sweet boy, so a scowl is not his first favored facial expression.
They moved in three months ago, the neighbors, before I broke my leg, and they worried me from the start. He's a solicitor, he made a point of telling me, in a big city law firm. I don't remember the name of the firm just now. She was a teacher, she said, as if you can just stop being one, but she was taking time out to raise their children, two noisy beasts, six and eight. I am a teacher, I wanted to say, despite not having been in front of a class for more than a decade. I retired-it wasn't my idea. I'll always be a teacher.
Based on my early interactions-you would be forgiven for using the word spoiled in relation to those children-I decided it would be best to discourage early and with firm resolve. I waited until they were playing in their backyard then went out to my own yard and began howling like a wolf-at least that's what I was trying for-in my singlet and slip. The children looked over, not so much afraid as curious. I redoubled my efforts in an attempt to establish an advantage.
How was I to know their mother was standing on the back porch out of view? She stepped forward and looked at me, smiled, and waved weakly.
"A building inspection will be a big headache for you," Ed had said after he'd read the notice, and Ed should know because, before he was fired for drunkenness, he used to work on building sites.
"Can they do that, order your house be inspected?" he asked me then.
"Apparently," I said, looking at the notice again for some exit strategy the council hadn't thought of.
"I can do the inspection," Ed said, swaying a little.
"No, you can't," I said. "You're not a builder." And you're drunk most days, I didn't say, because it wouldn't change anything if I did.
"S'pose not," he said. Ed had been a little drunk that morning, to be honest, and overestimating himself. He'd lost his last job three years before, when someone stole his bag while he was at the pub. Inside the bag was his ticket for the forklift he drove. The next morning, they didn't let him in at the building site. I pretended to believe the story, knowing full well you only had to look at his poor, tortured eyes to know he'd been drinking, was always drinking. You wouldn't let him within a mile of a forklift if you had any sense.
Ed had been unemployed ever since he lost that job, sitting on his front steps and drinking. He didn't go out much, only to take his father, another drinker, to medical appointments in a taxi. His mother had already passed.
Ed takes my rubbish bin out every week, brings it in after the rubbish man has been. He's never forgotten, not once in more years than I can recall. That amounts to something in my mind.
"I'm not paying you," I say to Andrew Shaw now. I notice my arms are folding themselves, a habit I don't much like but don't always have control over.
"I wouldn't think so," he says. "Your neighbors are paying." He's moved up a step now so we are eye to eye, but he's still leaning toward me in the way some young men lean, disarming rather than threatening.
"Why?" I say. "Are they worried about my safety?"
He smiles and not sheepishly. He has the loveliest smile, straight white teeth, and those eyes you want to look at.
My neighbors, who are not kind, have ordered an inspection of my house and sent this boy of a builder.
"You know they've announced their engagement?" I say.
He looks confused then. "Simon and Alice?" Simon and Alice are the neighbors, Simon the lawyer, Alice the teacher-taking time, she said, while the children were small. "I think your generation was right," she said to me. "My grandmother"-as if I'm old enough to be her grandmother-"raised my father and his brothers. I'm going to be there for Atticus and Scout." Atticus and Scout! Those are the names of the children, both boys, although Scout was a girl in To Kill a Mockingbird. I wondered if I should tell them. I doubt they've read it.
"No!" I say to Andrew Shaw. "Diana Spencer. This morning. She's going to marry H.R.H. the Prince Charles."
"Well, I guess you could see that coming," Andrew Shaw says.
"Indeed," I say. "She's nineteen years old. What do you think of that?"
He looks unsure. "Young?"
"Exactly," I say. "Did you see his face?"
"No?" he says, eyeing me more carefully.
"Good. You seem a nice young man. Don't be like him."
"Not much chance," Andrew Shaw says.
"For a start," he says, "I'm not a prince."
"Well, I suppose not, but neither is he," I say. "We live in a world where a dog snatches a baby." I bared my teeth. "In its jaws."
I can see that smile forming at the edges of his eyes. "Ayers Rock," he says, nodding. "The dingo. I saw it on the news last night, the inquest." He grins widely. "And yes, it was right after the engagement announcement."
We both turn our heads then, because the fledgling crow that's been making a branch of my front jacaranda its favorite perch has started squawking fit to frighten a cat. "Don't mind him," I say to Andrew Shaw, who appears to be looking around for an ambulance. "He's just a stupid baby crow who wants his mother to feed him. He's been running that routine since the spring. It's high time you grew up!" I yell at the bird.
"Oh," Andrew Shaw says. "He is just a baby. Down feathers." He smiles at the bird. I start to think he's always smiling, odd in a builder, odd in anyone really. "Look at that eye."
I look at the crow, see what he means; an eye of milky lapis looking not at us but at the future. I'm about to say as much when I realize I can see. Without my glasses, I am seeing. I am seeing Andrew Shaw's smiling face and the crow's milky blue eye. I'm blind as a bat without those glasses. Andrew Shaw has been sent by a goodly spirit, I decide, to help me with what's to happen next, even if what's to happen next is unclear. A beautiful girl like her; she has no idea what happens next either. But I know. Or I know more than she does.