Read an Excerpt
Matthew sits across from me on the boards of the empty room. His eyes are not on me at the moment. The side of my face hurts where he hit me. Outside, the sounds of the storm are loud; he keeps glancing at the windows as the plywood nailed up over them shudders and grates. We are in the kitchen of the old house. Shadows from the guttering candle flame dance and flare in the corners of the room, while the garden is torn and swept by the wind. The passages upstairs crick and murmur, as if they were alive with the walking memories of years.
I am breathing more calmly now. I am finding out where the boundaries are, beginning to know what rules we are following. He seems nervous, fidgety. I raise my hands awkwardly to rub the hair away from my face, and he sees the movement, turns his head.
“I’m sorry,” he says. I don’t know how to reply, so I say nothing.
He says, “Sophie? I’m sorry I hit you. I don’t want to hurt you. But we have to stop the—you know, all the lies. We’re past that now. No more games. All right?”
I nod, and he seems to relax a little. There is a splintering shriek as a branch pulls away from one of the trees outside, but he doesn’t give any indication of having heard.
“There should be other things here,” he says. “It feels like things are missing.” I have no idea what he is talking about, but I nod anyway; it has become the easiest thing to do. I have no idea where this is leading, either. I shift my back against the wall, try to focus on the restless flame of the candle.
There is heavy tape around my wrists, but my ankles are free, and I have drawn up my legs so I can rest my arms on them. I am very afraid. He seems unsure of what to do next.
“The important things stay the same,” he says.
“Everything’s changed. The house, the garden, the room. Everything’s different.” He sighs. “The important things stay the same, though. You. Me. You know.” He smiles, and his face softens a little. He looks away.
When Sophie and I were young, our garden was large, stretching away from the side of the house, lined with flowerbeds and tall hedges. When the time of year was right, there were climbing roses and honeysuckle on the trellises. The ground was carved away in one place by a stream, and there were two wooden bridges over the water, leading to a muddy patch of land that had once been an orchard. Now, with only one or two of the original trees remaining, it was a place where the gardener made bonfires, and where the toolshed was. Crossing the stream, then, was to wrinkle your nose at the smell of old bonfire ash made wet. You had to step carefully on the soft ground.
From the house, there was only a small part of the garden which could easily be seen. Even from my bedroom, which was high up, there were places where the bushes and trees screened off the view. Because of this, and because there was so little for us to do in the house itself, Sophie and I made the garden our own. Our father was such a shadowy figure, and seen so rarely that he hardly impinged on our lives, while Mummy occupied the rooms on the ground floor of the house. She moved between drawing room and kitchen intermittently, going about her unfathomable business with a kind of measured precision that was both rather daunting and strangely reassuring. We knew where she would be, this way, and were able to judge our own movements to avoid her. At the time I am thinking of, I was five and Sophie was seven.
“This is going to be frogs,” she said.
“This is. This will be frogs. You know about tadpoles, don’t you, Mattie?”
“That’s frog spawn. First there’s frog spawn, and then that turns into tadpoles. Then they turn into frogs. So this is going to be frogs.” She touched a hemisphere of spawn that had protruded slightly from the surface of the water. “Isn’t that strange?”
“I don’t know. How do you know about frogs, Sophie?”
“I read it in a book. Isn’t it strange, though? These little dots, they’re going to become frogs one day.” She stood up, abruptly tired of the conversation. “You could take some to school in a jar.”
The gardener himself was a very tall, very thin man. His eyes were deeply sunk into the front of his head and he, rather like my mother, had his own pattern of movement. He spent the greater part of his time tending the garden where it adjoined the house, the beds near the driveway, the edge of the lawns. To keep the whole garden suitably trimmed and mown and pruned and weeded would not have been an impossible task, I think; but the tall and silent gardener, in his heavy green coat and heavy brown trousers, was a lazy man. The farther back into the garden you went, the greater was the state of disrepair and decay. The day that we knelt by the stream and looked at the frog spawn, there was frost on the grass and, a few days earlier, the water in the furrows and puddles in the orchard had been crisply rimmed with ice.
Spring came grudgingly that year. There were late frosts for a long time, although no snow fell. The heating in my classroom at school had to be supplemented with a monstrous oil-filled convection heater. Its grimy beige paint was scabbed through in places, and it looked dangerously industrial among the drawings and the “Letters of the Alphabet” sequence pinned to the wall, as if it had the potential to do damage. I did take some of the frog spawn to school with me, just as Sophie had said. We put it carefully in a plastic aquarium on the nature-table. Almost all of it hatched out, and for weeks there were tadpoles to be seen in various stages of their development, before they became tiny frogs and had to be let go. Mrs. Colley was in charge of the junior school; she came into our classroom and was pleased by the tadpoles.
“Where did these come from, then?” she asked.
“Matthew brought them in, didn’t you, Matthew?” Mrs. Jeffries replied.
“They come from frogs,” I said. “The frogs lay the eggs, which is frog spawn. And then that turns into tadpoles and they turn into frogs. And it happens all over again.”
“That’s very good,” Mrs. Colley said. “How did you find that out?”
“Sophie told me,” I said. “She read it in a book.”
“That’s very good, dear,” Mrs. Colley repeated absently.
The banks of the stream were freckled with the inch-long frogs for a time, and then they were gone. The gardener took dead branches and the fallen leaves of the winter, and piled them high in the corner of the orchard. The cold weather and the rain had got into the bonfire, though, and it would not burn. The gardener walked away to his shed and returned after a time with a dusty grey can. He poured diesel over the heap, and set it alight. I expected the diesel to flare out and explode, but it didn’t; rather, it burned steadily, with a strong smell. I watched as the gardener went back to his shed. He saw me looking, and an expression that was something like curiosity twitched in his face before he turned away. I ran off through the dead garden, looking for sticks.
Behind the wall at the far end of the garden stretched fields. They didn’t belong to us, but to a farmer whose house and buildings were out of sight over a curve in the land. There was a scattering of trees that grew denser towards the top of a low hill. If you followed the trees, you found yourself walking along the boundary between two fields, where in summer the crick-ets buzzed and whirred around your ankles as you walked. Just over the skyline, the trees thickened briefly before the ground dropped away into an abandoned quarry. In the shattered rocks at the foot of the quarry walls there were little twisted shells and patterns in the stone. Again, like the garden, the quarry was a place where no one else came, and so Sophie and I went there often when the weather was warm.
March sunlight cut in sharp angles across the classroom.
“All right, children,” Mrs. Jeffries said. “Put your maths books away and get changed for games. Susan, will you collect up the rods for me? Thank you. Matthew, if you find your reading book, you can sit and read until tea.”
The rest of the class trotted happily out into the exhilarating air of the playground.
Throughout childhood, the muddled clutter that clumps itself around most children seemed to have eluded me. It happened not in some clearly defined manner, but instead there were a multitude of smaller things which conspired to keep a small, but noticeable, gap between me and my peers. Some children are afflicted by prodigious intellect, or comical obtuseness, or a remarkable ability or inability at art or sport. Mattie Howard, though, was never really any of these. Instead, I simply found that while I was accepted readily enough at school—even despite not being able to join in games lessons—I nevertheless sloughed off all the trappings of school as soon as I ran out through the gates at the end of the day. It was not, I think, my decision; nor the decision of my friends in class. At that age, a structure of politics exists among parents from which my mother was almost universally excluded. And so, where another child might have been setting off for a friend’s house, or to a birthday party, Sophie and I were instead quite content to shout our good-byes and walk home together. For me, this was simply the way of things. The walk home was a fair length, and if there was no reason to hurry we might talk about what we had done that day, or what we had planned for the weekend or the evening. My five-year-old’s achievements were trivial enough, but Sophie would have learnt astonishing and wonderful things; and these she told me, interspersed with her own questions and conjectures on whatever subject she had chosen. And again, this was simply the way of things.
One evening, after we had washed and done our teeth, Sophie wandered into my room and sat down on the end of the bed.
She frowned. “What do you know about babies?”