Ailsa Calder has inherited half of a house. The other half belongs to a man who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago—her father.
Leaving London behind to settle the inheritance, Ailsa returns to the manor, nestled amongst the craggy peaks of the Scottish Highlands, joined by the half-sister who's practically a stranger to her.
Ailsa can't escape the claustrophobic feeling that the house itself watches her—as if her dramatic past hungers to consume her. When the first nighttime intruder shows up and the locals in the isolated community pry into her plans for the manor, Ailsa grows terrified that escaping the beautiful old home will cost her everything.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
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The Manse is watching me.
At first I don't notice it, I'm too involved in my study of the imposing gray stone edifice before me. It's a tall structure-three stories, and the first two must have high ceilings-with a turret and stepped gables like sets of staircases. Grand baronial style, I think, the half-remembered phrase leaping into my mind. I recognize the ground-floor bay windows that frame the wide doorway from the old battered photograph that has traveled as far and wide as I have, but as I squint at them, I become aware of an acute, uneasy silence, as if the whole building is holding its breath. There's a queer stillness to the dark, unreflective granite, to the slate roof; as I lift my eyes upward, I notice that even the sky behind is still-still and leaden and looming. I turn my attention back to the windows, wondering whether the photograph I always keep beside my bed was taken in front of the left or the right one, and as I study them, I have the disturbing sense that whatever lurks beneath the flat, gray surface is stirring; the windows are craning forward, crowding toward me. I blink to try to find a wider perspective, but then I notice that even the turret on the left is peering down; I have the sensation that it's swooping, rushing toward me, and my stomach lurches as if the lawn has dropped away beneath my feet. The house means to swallow me, I think with an irrational flood of panic, swallow me wholeand then what?
"Jesus." It's Carrie, my half sister, pushing her badly cut fringe out of her eyes as she joins me on the mossy lawn to survey the house. Her voice drags me back to normality with a hard jolt. I feel like I'm staggering from the impact. "This is a bloody castle."
"It's not so big inside."
I can feel her slanting gaze on me. "So you remember?"
Do I? Or have I created memories, built on the back of the photograph and the tales of others? Snatches of phrases, half-formed images, crafted in a child's mind into a castle worthy of the Brothers Grimm, the type of castle in tales that have nothing to do with fairies. I weigh my answer. I have an irrational feeling that Carrie isn't the only one listening. The Manse has been waiting a long time for mea quarter of a century, give or takebut I imagine stone can be very patient.
I'm imagining rather a lot today. Tiredness from the long drive, presumably. Stick to the facts, Ailsa.
"Do you?" prompts Carrie.
"Yes," I say finally. "I remember. At least a bit."
Suddenly there is an earsplitting crack. Instantly I'm turning, scanning around, grabbing Carrie's arm with one hand to pull her with me. "Ailsa," I hear her say as I search the area wildly. Then, louder, more urgently, "Stop! It's all right. It's just a branch. On the oak. It broke." She catches me with her cool silver-gray eyes, so like our mother's, the only part of her that is. There's a drumming in my ears. It takes me a moment to realize it's my heartbeat. I take a breath, then another, staring into those pale eyes. "It's okay," she says gently. "Just a branch. Look." I follow her pointed finger. There's a very old oak tree that I hadn't noticed but somehow knew was there, to the right of the house. The lowest branch, thicker than the width of a well-built man, has cracked and is dangling at an odd angle. The twisted wood looks dead and dry. The tree is uncomfortably close to the house; its roots must be irreversibly tangled with the foundation. They must have burrowed into the dank earth, thin tendrils slipping through cracks in the brickwork below, growing and expanding over time, tightening around the bricks and pushing out the mortar, inveigling themselves until house and tree became irrevocably entwined. Rot in one can only lead to the same in the other.
The facts, Ailsa. Stick to the facts.
"Well," says Carrie, drawing in a deep breath. Her thin shoulders rise and fall with the draw of her lungs. "That was dramatic."
I'm not sure if she's referring to the broken branch or my reaction. I turn away to ward off her gaze. "Sorry," I say, looking at the tree instead. Only the broken branch appears dead; the rest seems to be thriving. "It was . . . Anyway. Sorry." I head for my little hire-purchase Golf before she can press her point, whatever that may be. "Time to move in, I guess." I throw a swift glance at the Manse as I open the boot of the car, but it's not watching, breathing, swooping or in any way exhibiting animated behavior. The facts: it's just a rather impressive old Scottish manor in the middle of nowhere that now happens to be mine.
Except it's not. Not mine, not completelyand if you don't completely own a house, you might as well not own it at all, or so I discovered on meeting my mother's lawyer in his smart office in the City of London. I wasn't quite fresh off the boat (yes, boat) from Egypt; I'd slept two nights in my mother's and Pete's house in Surreymy mother's very last abode, but never a home to mebut I was still adjusting to the cool, the lack of sunshine, the muted shades after color so intense it could hurt the eyes. The England I found myself in was lacking, whereas Egypt had been too much.
"Sell it?" The lawyer repeated my question, shaking his head. "Oh no. I'm sorry to say that with this type of joint ownership, there is very little you can do. You can't sell the property without the permission of the joint owner, you see."
"I can't . . ." His words took a moment to sink in. In fact the whole situation was still sinking in. Had I known my mother still owned the Manse? I couldn't say for sure either way. Certainly it wouldn't have been something we talked about. "I can't sell it?" He inclined his head apologetically. "What about renting it out?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Not without the permission of the joint owner."
"And the land?"
"No, not that either. Again, not without the permission of the joint owner."
"Even though that joint ownermy fatherhasn't been seen or heard from for, let's see, twenty-seven years?"
"Indeed." Ignoring my caustic tone, he paused to remove his glasses and rub the bridge of his nose, then went on diffidently. "I don't suppose that you've had some slight contact with your father over the years?" His small myopic eyes blinked hopefully from his round face, putting me in mind of a mole. He must have been at least fifty, and he looked so much like how I would have imagined a probate lawyer would look that I could have believed I was on a film set and none of this was real. "A birthday card or something . . . anything . . . that you might not have wanted to share with your mother?"
I shook my head mutely.
"Ah," he said sadly. "That is a shame." I stared at him, but he was rubbing the bridge of his nose again. The gross absurdity of his understatement appeared lost on him. "Then the avenue that is open to you is to apply to the courts to rectify the situation; that is to say, to have his ownership share transferred to yourself. It would be under the Scottish Courts; you'd have to apply for a Presumption of Death. Our Edinburgh office would help you with that, though." Presumption of Death. I found myself imagining a form with those words in crisp black ink on stark white paper. How neat and tidy and definitive for a situation that was nothing of the sort. He went on, adopting an apologetic tone again: "I have to say that given the precise details of your father's disappearance, I imagine it might not be a straightforward process. It could take quite some months. Years even."
"Right," I said faintly while the Manse in my memory grew, expanding out from the photograph, hijacking my thoughts, my mind, my life. A house I hadn't lived in since my father disappeared and we fled from his absence-at least my mother fled, and I was dragged along, repeatedly bleating, But, Mummy, when he comes back, how will he know where we've gone? The lawyer looked at me sympathetically as I took a sip from the glass of water that had been thoughtfully placed in front of me, next to the square box of tissues. This lawyer was nothing if not prepared, though I doubted he had seen a situation quite like this before. "So what you're saying is that I own fifty percent of a property on which I have to pay one hundred percent of the maintenance bills, but there's nothing I can do with it?"
He placed the glasses back on his nose. "Nothing, I'm afraid." He paused. "Unless you want to live in it, of course."
I didn't. I don't. Yet here I am. Temporarily.
Carrie unpacks the food we bought en route at what Google had told us was the nearest supermarket, whilst I wander through the rooms; I suspect she is trying to give me space to unpack my memories alone. But any such memories, if they do exist, are keen to stay neatly parceled up. The kitchen is large, farmhouse style, and has an ancient-looking range cooker that I leave Carrie to tinker with. There's a boot room, a lounge, a formal dining room with what looks like original wood paneling and another reception room on the ground floor; all are dated, but clean and brightthere is nothing that gives rise to the unease I felt on arrival. The wide staircase up the center of the house with its stained wooden banisters catches at medo I remember tumbling down those stairs to run out onto the wide lawn?but I cannot tell which way to turn at the top to find whichever bedroom had been mine. There are three good-sized bedrooms on this floor, and a large family bathroom with a raised cistern and a chain pull on the toilet that seems fuzzily familiar. All the walls have been painted an off-white, and the furniture is a cheery pine. The impression is of a bright and breezy mid-level bed-and-breakfast. My mother was perhaps unaware of the legal position, or perhaps, characteristically, she chose to ignore inconvenient truths; in any case, according to Pete, she's been blithely renting out the place for years. The master suite is on this floor too, but I leave it for last and head up a much narrower staircase to the top floor, which is far less attractive on account of lower ceilings and small windows. There are three more bedrooms up here, of awkward shape, and another bathroom, and a door which on inspection is locked.
Locked. That puzzles me for a moment until I recall the managing agent telling us when we collected the keys that it's a storage roommost rented houses apparently have a secure area where the owners can leave some things. But what would my mother have left in here? As far as I know, she never came back to the Manse. Did we leave some things behind when we bolted all those years ago?
I try the door again, but there's no mistake: it's most definitely locked. The smooth round knob of the door stares unblinking at me as if it can see through me, right to the center of my unease. I can imagine that dull gold sphere growing in my mind, until it throbs and pulses and burns away other thoughtsbut I won't allow it. I will get the keys and open it right away.
On the way back down the stairs, I hear a snatch of music. Carrie must have found a radio. She likes to have noise in the background, a television or a radio or an iPod with speakers; I'm learning these things about her. I suppose I will learn a lot more as we live together in the coming weeks. If she does live with me, that iswhen I suggested she stay with me in the Manse, I was more than prepared for her to politely decline. I'm still half expecting her to announce that she's actually found a flat in Edinburgh for the duration of the play she's in, which would surely be much more convenient for her. I haven't lived with Carrie since I left my mother's home at eighteen for university, and I've probably only seen her three or four times since she went to university herself four years ago. My fault, entirely. I could have handled things differently. I should have handled things differently.
The master bedroom door is open (was it open before?) and it stops me in my tracks: from the hallway, I can see the spectacular view afforded by the wide windows, over the lawn and the road and out across the stream that's hidden by trees up to the craggy hilltops on the other side of the narrow valley. It's a landscape of moss greens and bracken browns and gray granite, with the occasional splash of bright yellow April daffodils. An ancient landscape: one that makes no attempts to hide its years, stoically unflinching and contemptible of the petty jealousies and small prides of those who walk across it. The house is well suited to itnot this version with its bright pine beds and whitewashed walls, but the one I saw when I arrived. The Manse that lies beneath.
I take a small step into the bedroom, and as I do, I am suddenly absolutely sure the bed will be to the right of the doorway, facing those windows: a memory is slowly unraveling, a memory of entering this room in dim light, of walking all the way around the high bed to clamber onto the other side-a big scramble for a little personwhere my father lay, warm and solid.
But then I stop. The bed isn't where I expect it. It's at ninety degrees, the wooden headboard against the adjoining wall, a cheerful purple throw spread across the white duvet. The smell is wrong, too: there's the vaguest hint of something sickly sweet on top of a suspicion of stale cigarette smoke. I find myself putting a hand on the wall for balance. Florence and the Machine floats up from the kitchen, telling me I've got the love they need. Before I've made a conscious decision, I'm halfway down the stairs heading for the kitchen. Carrie looks up from inspecting the contents of a drawer as I enter. "This place is at least well kitted out for the basics," she says cheerfully, bumping the drawer closed with her hip. "I made you a cup of tea."
Reading Group Guide
The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott
Questions for Discussion
1.The development of Carrie and Ailsa’s relationship is central to the novel. Carrie feels that Ailsa abandoned her when she left home. Is this fair? What responsibility do we have toward our siblings?
2.The novel is set in Scotland, essentially in the landscape of the author’s childhood. Do you think the story would have had the same impact in a different setting? How much does setting contribute to the tone of a novel?
3.Ailsa claims that “to all intents and purposes, Carrie and I had different mothers.” Do you think this can be said of all siblings? Is everyone’s childhood experience unique?
4.What do you think was the most likely cause of Ailsa’s father’s disappearance?
5.The author uses the Manse as if it is a major character in the novel. How did that approach contribute to building suspense?
6.Do you think that Ailsa’s professional career would have been helped or hindered by her relationship with Jonathan?
7.Ben has never told anyone about what they found in the woods out of loyalty to Fiona. Do you think that was the right decision? What would you have done?
8.Glen McCue appears to regret the manner in which he brought up Fiona and Jamie, commenting that he should have “been gentler, maybe. Fewer thrashings and more talking. Like all these modern dads I keep hearing about.” Is it fair to judge previous generations by the moral and ethical yardsticks of the modern day?
9.Ailsa lies to the police under duress from Carrie. Would you have done the same?
10.Who do you think had the most suspicious interest in the Manse?
11.At the end of the novel, Ailsa feels ambivalent as to whether she believes in “Fi facts.” When you were reading the novel, did you have a strong opinion, or did you also feel ambivalent? Do you believe Fi is right about how time can “slip”?