Read an Excerpt
Flicking through the pages of an old sketch book it was strange to find drawings of my husband. The contours of Ezra's face had once been so familiar. But as I ran my fingertips over the sketched pencil lines I could barely remember drawing these pictures of him. His features were foreign; he was a stranger. Yet the house we had shared was still my home and his things were all around me. But our house was no longer filled with love and care, and Ezra would have chided me for the dust and mess I had let accumulate.
I'd spent the last few years drawing nothing real only doodling patterns as though I could order my life with the geometric shapes I laid on the paper. On finding a blank page in the sketch book an unusual urge to draw a living thing took me. Before I could question it I went outside to pick one of the flowers that had survived in my neglected front garden.
With the solid stem of a lilac-blue daisy in my hand I was about to return inside when a sigh of wind caught my cheek. I turned my face into the breeze as though there was something of interest in the air. The flower fell from my fingers as I saw a figure walking down Redferne Lane. It was not Noah or Josie coming from Redferne House, but still a familiar form I recognised straight away.
Torin, Ezra's brother.
He raised his hand in greeting but he did not speak until he was at my gate.
'Alright Gracie?' he said, rolling the 'R' in my name with his Scottish burr. He looked me up and down slowly before speaking again. 'Are you going to invite me in?'
Ezra and Torin had looked similar; the same reddish tint to their brown hair, the same dark, near black eyes, a well-moulded torso, and they each had an energy they brought to a room that lit it up with intrigue. But where Torin had a beard and moustache that seemed to pull his mouth down into a serious line, Ezra had been clean shaven and it had lent a lightness to his demeanour.
'What are you doing here?' I asked.
'I've come to see you Gracie.' He spoke as though it was obvious, and I suppose it was. I just didn't know why he'd come now. I hadn't seen him since the funeral. Josie and Noah had mentioned he was coming to stay at Redferne House, but they hadn't said when. And I hadn't really believed he would actually ever come.
Torin pushed open my small blue gate, like he was a giant come to steal all I had. He let it bang closed.
I thought about staying in the doorway of my cottage for a moment, not letting Torin in, but it wasn't really an option so I turned and walked inside allowing him to follow.
Torin shut the front door with another bang.
He stood in the doorway of my sitting room and surveyed it, rubbing his bearded chin with thick knuckled fingers.
'Ach Gracie, you live like a pig,' he told me with a small chuckle.
'And?' I said, affronted.
'And you should clear up.' His Scottish lilt lessened as he said more.
'I wasn't expecting anyone,' I mumbled. I felt jittery.
There were piles of books and magazines, dirty plates and mugs, cushions slumped on the sofa and a dusty film covered the surfaces. Sketch pads full of my doodles lay wherever I'd left them. Pens and pencils littered the table, the window sill, the floor; dirty smudges on the door frames and the arms of the sofa. Ezra had been the tidy one.
'So how are you?' Torin said, pushing the sleeves of his checked shirt higher up his arms, revealing the swirls and patterns of his tattoos.
'Fine,' I said, as I sank down on my shabby sofa. I wore one of Ezra's T-shirts over myjeans; it was big and had holes in places and I imagined it still smelt of him. It had when I'd started to wear it. I hugged myself, gathering in the soft fabric.
Torin finally came into the room. He made it feel crowded. He moved a sketch book off the armchair, glanced at it for a moment before placing it on top of the debris on the low table and sat down.
'Is that work?' he asked, nodding toward the sketch book.
'No.' I couldn't earn a living with patterns I drew, their purpose was purely to occupy my hands and mind in the solitary hours; I did not draw people any more.
'Are you working?'
'Yes.' I frowned and leaned over to close the sketch book.
'What you doing?'
'Where you doing that?'
I shrugged. 'In an office.'
'Wow, well it's great of you to tell me all about it Gracie,' he said, raising his reddish eyebrows.
I regarded him on the edge of the chair, elbows on knees clad in black denim. His gingery brown hair had begun to recede into a widow's peak, but a wave of a few inches disguised it well enough. I was sure there must be some grey hairs too, but I couldn't see them. Torin looked around the room, his eyes flitting from the Indian wall hanging to the gilt-framed mirror, to the dusty and broken paper lampshade.
'I'd love one,' Torin said, looking back at me.
'A coffee. Black with a wee bit of sugar,' he said with a smile, crow's feet gathering at his eyes.
He never used to take sugar. I sat for moment contemplating whether I could just tell him to leave. But there was a part of me that didn't want him to go. I got to my feet and padded to the kitchen.
I tipped two scoops into the coffee machine then stopped. I so rarely made coffee for anyone but myself any more.
'You'll wash a mug for me Gracie,' Torin said.
'You can wash one yourself.' I turned to him. He leant against the doorframe with his arms crossed, smirking at me.
I felt heat in my cheeks. I was being rude. I should apologise. But I was angry. He looked so smug, and he'd just turned up; I'd not seen him in nearly two years. He was acting as though that was fine. It was not fine with me.
'I'll wash one for you too,' he said, coming into the kitchen and opening cupboards. 'Got any biscuits?' he paused. 'Where's your food?'
'In the fridge.'
He opened the fridge, then looked at me, 'No wonder you look like shite. You must just live off white wine and fancy yogurt.'
I pushed the door of the fridge from Torin's hand and closed it. 'The mugs are over there.' I pointed to the sink.
The coffee machine bubbled and hissed behind me as I watched Torin.
He put a squirt of washing-up liquid into a dusky pink earthenware mug that Ezra and I had bought when we'd gone to Appledore for our honeymoon. Ezra had teased me for wanting to buy a pink one and a blue one. But I'd laughed and told Ezra the pink one was for him. I wanted to tell Torin to put the mug down. I wanted to tell him he shouldn't touch it. He had no right. But the words wouldn't come. Torin rinsed the mug and put it upside down on the draining board before picking up the blue Appledore mug.
I could hardly contain my anger. How dare he just turn up at me house?
'Coffee ready?' Torin asked. He turned and caught me watching him; my cheeks burned again.
I wished he'd just leave, but I poured the coffee anyway; Torin had the blue mug. Back in the living room, I curled myself onto the sofa, my feet tucked underneath me and held the pink mug with both hands. Torin perched back on the armchair, regarding me with a slight frown before he looked away.
He began a monologue about work, detailing the events his company had staged over the previous two years, as if this was excuse enough for his absence. He'd spent a lot of time in Canada and at home in Scotland. I said nothing. Could he not have even visited once in those two years? Or even a phone call? Yet I was not surprised; it was not the first time he'd disappeared without trace from my life.
'Noah and Josie send their regards,' Torin said.
I heard the accusation in his tone; I suppose he knew I'd not seen them for a few weeks. It riled me even more that Torin should accuse me. Why should I make the effort to see the family when he had not bothered himself? I'd never been close to Ezra's other brother Noah, nor his wife Josie. And although they lived only a few minutes' walk up Redferne Lane, weeks could go by without us meeting. They were kind to me, Josie had tried to welcome me into their lives but I didn't like to see their pitying eyes. Nor did I want to know that they hurt too. I didn't care if they missed Ezra. It didn't help me. Nothing did.
'They thought you might like to come for dinner tomorrow?' Torin said.
'I told them you'd want to come,' Torin said, 'that you'd want to see us.'
I didn't want to go.
'Now don't look like that Gracie, you'll have a nice time.'
'I'm busy tomorrow.'
I couldn't think of an excuse off the top of my head.
'Then you can come.' He stated, his black eyes shone with amusement. 'You can have a few drinks, eat some good food. Christ, it's not you that's dead.'
I blinked, stung by his words.
'Besides, I'll be there. You'll want to see me of course.'
I did not respond but glared at him instead, incredulous.
He stared back. 'Why'd you cut off your pretty long hair?'
I floundered and put my hand to my head as though I'd only just realised my waist length hair was all gone. I would not tell Torin I'd hacked it all off four months ago. There was no way I'd tell him I'd stood at the kitchen sink and picked up a knife from the draining board. I held the blade against the white skin on the underside of my wrist. I thought to run the point of the knife along the blue vein. I don't know why I didn't. Instead I took hold of a clump of hair and sliced the knife through the strands, close to my scalp. I didn't stop until the sink was full of locks of my long brown hair. My head had felt light and cool.
Mum and Dad had come down from Surrey a few days later. They'd been worried about me. I hadn't answered my phone or e-mails for days. Dad wrote me a new prescription and Mum took me to a hairdresser in town. She asked the young woman if she could make me right. It was a lot to ask of the hairdresser, but she'd managed to make me look like more of a lesbian stereotype and less like an escaped convict. My hair had grown a little since then, lending something of the pixie to me. But I hated it. I missed my long hair.
'Well, you failed if you thought it would make you look ugly,' Torin said, without humour.
'Why are you here Torin?'
'I told you Gracie, I just came to see you.'
'But why now?'
'I have some work around here. I'll be staying with Noah and Josie for a time. Up at the house.' He paused. 'It'll be good to see you with the family tomorrow,' he said, and I noticed his Scottish accent had grown heavier again.
'They're not family,' I pointed out.
He rubbed his beard. 'Are they not? Do you not have Redferne as your name same as me? Am I not family?'
'Oh aye Gracie, I see.'
I licked my lips, turning away from him and swallowed. 'I have things to do.'
'Right, well I'll come and get you at seven then,' Torin said, making me look at him again. He placed the blue mug on the table and smiled.
'You don't need to come and get me.' I tried to tell him in my most assertive voice but I just sounded whiny and childish.
'You're going to come on your own?'
I shrugged, thinking I wasn't going to go at all.
'I'll come and get you when you don't turn up.'
'Good,' he said, 'and wear something nice.'
'I'll wear what I want,' I snapped, unable to contain my frustration.
'You'll feel better if you wear something nice Gracie. I couldn't give a shit if you rock up in a bin bag, but I don't suppose you'll feel all that good about yourself.'
'I really do have things to do Torin.'
'Aye some cleaning I should think.' He chuckled.
'You should go.'
'Aye,' he said, 'I'm going. But I'll see you tomorrow.'
I didn't get up, only watched him walk out of the living room and waited for the bang of the front door. The bang of the gate.
I was glad that he was gone.
* * *
My next door neighbour, Sam stood outside her house, hands on hips, looking down Redferne Lane towards the railway bridge. Had I realised she was there I would have waited to return Ada's plates.
'Hello Sam,' I forced myself to say, and paused on the other side of her garden wall.
Turning she gave me a tight lipped smile.
Sam was only a year or so older than me. She must have had her teenage son Jerome when she was a teenager herself. Sam wore tight jeans and a cerise halter neck that showcased her breasts. She was not a large woman, but she was blessed with more than a handful of soft tissue in front. Her blonde hair was twisted up into a do on top of her head and secured with a large blue tropical silk flower. Her face was perfectly made-up; she had something of a china doll about her.
Although we'd lived next door to each other for nearly two years we exchanged little more than vague pleasantries every once in a while, when required.
I readjusted the little stack of Ada's plates I held in my hands as Sam asked, 'Alright my love?' She and Jerome both spoke with the rounded brogue of the West Country; they were Somerset, born and bred.
I gave a stock reply not letting on that I'd been in bed most of the day with a terrible hangover that had forced me to call in sick at work. My response to Torin's sudden arrival the day before had been a long night alone with a vodka bottle. But now my hangover was subsiding and I felt the calming effects of one of my little white pills that Dad prescribed for me.
Jerome came under the bridge wearing the St Mary's school uniform and even through the tangle of dark hair that hung over his face I noted the roll of his eyes when he saw his mother. As soon as Sam noticed Jerome her attention was immediately snapped away from me to her son. I could almost see the waves of rage coming off Sam as Jerome approached.
'What've you done now?' she said.
'I haven't done anything,' Jerome replied.
'Then why's I got school phoning me to come in and see them again?'
'I dunno.' He pushed open the gate and stood before his mother so she had to look up at him.
'Why can't you behave yourself?'
'I didn't do nothing,' Jerome said, but without conviction.
'Don't you start with me,' Sam said.
Jerome muttered something I couldn't hear. Sam gave her son a stinging look and barred his way as he tried to enter the house.
I was not part of the conversation but neither did I feel as though I could just walk away, so I stood feeling awkward, watching Jerome being told off by Sam. I often heard her raised voice through the wall but rarely heard Jerome reply.
'That woman needs a bra,' Torin said, into my ear, startling me as I hadn't heard him approach. I dropped Ada's plates. The white porcelain hit the old tarmac with a high pitched crash, followed by a cascade of noisy tinkles as the fractured pieces of china bounced and fell again.
'What did you do that for?' I snapped at Torin.
'Sorry, didn't mean to make you jump.'
I bent down in the vain hope of salvaging something of the plates but they were beyond repair.
'Why are sneaking up on me?' I asked with a spiky voice, unable to contain my irritation.
Torin bent down next to me. 'I wasn't. I just came to see if you were ready to walk up to the house for dinner?'
'It's too early.'
'Aye, I know.' He paused. 'Actually, I wanted to clear the air. I'm sure it was a surprise to see me yesterday, I shouldn't have just turned up and barged in.'
'No, you shouldn't.'
'But you don't need to be so prickly.'
I shot him a look.
Jerome had disappeared inside their house but Sam lent over the wall and passed me a dustpan and brush. I thanked her but Torin took it from my hands and cleared up the mess. I felt another crest of rage as I watched Torin putting Ada's broken plates in the bin. He was onlyjust back, and he was already making a mess of things.
Sam took back her dustpan and brush, gave Torin a disapproving look, then went back inside her house.
Torin followed me to Ada's door. He wanted to see her too.
'I haven't seen her for ages,' he reasoned.
'Since the funeral?' I threw at him.
Torin paused before answering but looked directly at me as he said, 'Aye, since the funeral.'
Ada opened her front door wearing an anxious frown, but once she saw me her face relaxed into a smile, her old loose skin gathered in powdery folds about her eyes.
'Hello Ada,' I said. My voice raised, and I enunciated carefully. 'How are you?'
She explained about a doctor's appointment she'd had that morning to check her blood pressure. Ada was deaf in one ear since she'd had mumps as a child. It affected her voice. Her words came out too loud as if she were speaking across a swimming pool.
'And you've brought your lovely young man to see me too.' She said looking at Torin.
'This is Torin, Ezra's brother?' I said, flushing at Ada's mistake.