Sandy Bay, Tasmania, early February 2012
It begins exactly as Gerald had predicted it would, but much sooner than either of them had anticipated. It begins a few days after the funeral, on the morning of the day they plan to scatter his ashes. Connie, back from her usual early-morning walk, opens the side gate and lets Scooter off his lead. The dog pricks his ears at the sound of voices and darts around the side of the house towards them. Connie pauses to listen; the children are up – Andrew and Kerry, and their respective spouses, Linda and Chris. There is laughter, the chink of crockery, the softer voices of her grandchildren and the thud of a ball against the wall. She hesitates, feeling she should join them but, wanting a little more time to herself, takes a deep breath and slips in through the laundry door and up the stairs.
When she’d called she’d feared that they might not make it in time, that despite what she said about urgency, Gerald had been dying for so long they might think there was time to spare. But they had come at once – Andrew, Linda and Brooke on the first available flight from Melbourne, and Kerry, Chris and the kids driving down from Launceston that same afternoon. They were all there with him at the end and since then they’ve been on their best behaviour; the minor spats and jealousies, the scuffles for supremacy that flare at other times, have been stilled by grief and replaced with meaningful hugs, bursts of crying and conversations scattered with tender reminiscence. Gerald would have been proud of them.
Peeling off her shorts and t-shirt Connie perches uncomfortably on the edge of the bath, remembering conversations she and Gerald had had about the children, their fine qualities and their frequently inexplicable and irritating habits. Then she steps into the shower, turns on the taps and lets the hot water stream over her as though it might wash away more than just the sweat raised on the steep climb back to the house.
Back in the seventies they had chosen the Sandy Bay house for its location, perched high in the hills with unbroken views across the water – Hobart to one side, open water to the other, and the reassuring bulk of Mount Nelson in the background. Andrew had just started school; Kerry was a robust, fractious toddler. The big, two-storey house, white-painted and with curves instead of corners, had been built in the early fifties. The rooms were flooded with daylight from windows that captured every vista, and there were more cupboards than Connie had thought she could ever fill. And up a narrow staircase from the second floor there was a sixth bedroom with its own tiny bathroom. She’d thought it impressive.
‘It looks like it’s meant to belong to important people,’ she’d said, awed by the style and size.
‘It will if we buy it,’ Gerald had said.
And Connie had known then that he wanted it. Important. Gerald was determined to make a name for himself, to stand out from the crowd. That was why he had wanted to come back to Tasmania, where he believed he could become a big fish in a fairly small pool, and do it quickly. The competition in London was fierce, but here his old family connections gave him a head start. Gerald’s parents had moved back home to Hobart from England a few years earlier when his father retired from the Australian diplomatic service. His more than twenty years at the London embassy meant they were financially comfortable and when Gerald had written that he and Connie were thinking of joining them, his father had stumped up a very generous deposit for a house, in a glorious location.
‘You might as well have the money now, when you need it,’ he’d said. ‘No point waiting ’til we’re dead.’
But for Connie, it wasn’t ever about status – she loved the house for itself. It was in many ways an oddity at the time, an impressive, elegant oddity. And she loves it more now because she has made it her own, and among the mix of homes that have sprouted up nearby it seems like a slightly worn but grand old lady; solid, safe, a little run down but still stylish.
Connie wraps herself in a towel and wanders into the bedroom, pausing by the open window to look out across the river glittering in the sharp morning sunlight. The mild air is heavy with the scent of the old roses she planted in her first spring here. Out on the lawn Brooke, elder stateswoman of the grandchildren by six years, is lying in the hammock reading, while her cousins Ryan and Mia argue over a ball. From the paved terrace beneath her window, the raised voices of her two adult children and their spouses drift upwards and Connie, who can hear but not see them, realises they’re talking about her. She leans further over the windowsill to eavesdrop. And so it begins.
‘She’ll need to move of course, she can’t stay here on her own.’
‘Yes, a smaller place, easier to manage.’
‘Has she said that? Have you asked her?’
‘No. Not yet . . . obviously not.’
‘She should move nearer to us,’ Kerry says. ‘She could see more of the kids – in fact she could have them in the holidays and after school.’
‘That’s typical, Kerry,’ Andrew says irritably. ‘Near you! Has it occurred to you that Mum might not fancy Launceston? She loves Melbourne, she’d be better off nearer to us. She could get a little unit in Fitzroy or Carlton.’
‘Your ma loves it here,’ Chris, Connie’s son-in-law, cuts in. ‘She loves this house. Don’t you think she might like to be left alone to do her own thing?’
‘It’s not practical. It’s never been a practical house,’ Kerry says, her voice rising an octave. ‘And anyway, she hasn’t really got a thing. We should talk to her, while we’re all still here.’
‘But do you even know what arrangements Gerald made about the house?’ Chris asks.
‘The house is in Mum’s name,’ Andrew says. ‘Dad told me that years ago.’
‘So Connie could sell it and get one of those places that are going up just near us,’ Linda says. ‘You know, Andrew, those townhouses on the corner. Downsizing at Connie’s age makes a lot of sense for her and, well . . .’ she hesitates, awkwardly, ‘well, for all of us, I mean financially . . .’
Connie hears Kerry give a snort of derision, the one that she seems to save for her sister-in-law. ‘I hardly think a townhouse is the answer,’ she mutters.
‘Nothing wrong with a townhouse,’ Andrew says. ‘We live in one in case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Oh give me a break! Stairs, Andrew, stairs! Mum’s only a few years off seventy, she shouldn’t be moving to anywhere with stairs.’
‘She’s used to the stairs here,’ Chris points out, ‘and that back-breaking walk up the hill. This is her home and, anyway, she might have plans of her own.’
‘It’s just not practical for her to stay here,’ Kerry snaps back at him. ‘And she won’t have plans, she doesn’t do plans, we’ll have to do them for her. And how come Dad told you about the house, Andrew? Why did he tell you and not me?’
‘I don’t know, Kerry, he just did. It’s not like he made a thing of it, just mentioned it and said he’d done it for tax reasons.’
Connie steps back from the window. So much for peace and goodwill, she thinks, things are back to normal already – Andrew and Kerry, both so strong-minded and opinionated, and Linda too, although her opinions are always identical to Andrew’s. Connie runs her hands through her wet hair and plugs in the dryer. Chris is different though, far more reasonable. Why, she wonders, switching on the hair dryer and drowning out their voices, is her son-in-law the only one who thinks she has a mind of her own?
She has known for years that this time would come but, now that it is here, it feels quite sudden. Three, maybe four years, the consultant had said when he’d delivered his diagnosis of motor neurone disease, but that was nine – almost ten – years ago. He hadn’t counted on Gerald’s legendary tenacity, which, in the last couple of years, had begun to feel more like sheer bloody-mindedness in a man who could do nothing, signal nothing, say nothing, not even blink his eyes in recognition. And so it’s over at last, but Connie has been focused on Gerald for so long that, although there is an element of liberation, she really has very little idea how to use it. What is she supposed to do now? There is just one thing she’s sure of, sure that she will do as soon as she can. And she finishes drying her hair, pulls on her clothes and hurries downstairs to email Flora about it before she starts on breakfast.
‘I think it all went very nicely,’ Andrew says as they sit down for lunch later that day after scattering the ashes at Gerald’s favourite spot on Mount Nelson. He strips the gold foil from a bottle of Moët. ‘And isn’t it typical of Dad to want us to celebrate his life rather than mourn, even down to the champagne?’
‘Absolutely typical, he was always so thoughtful,’ Kerry says, her eyes brimming with tears again. ‘You were so lucky, Mum.’
‘I said you were so lucky to have married Dad, he was so thoughtful.’
Connie, in whose opinion thoughtfulness had not been particularly high on Gerald’s list of good qualities, wondered why they thought Gerald had decreed the nature of this event when he hadn’t been able to communicate anything to anyone for years.
‘That’s one interpretation,’ Chris murmurs, and Kerry flashes him a warning look.
She’s edgy this morning, Connie thinks, even more so than she has been through the years of watching her father deteriorate. Kerry had idolised Gerald, constantly craved his attention, but too often saw it turned elsewhere: on his work, on her brother, then on his grandchildren, and finally, on nothing at all. So much effort for so little reward.
Andrew fills the last of the adults’ glasses and then pours cordial into two champagne flutes. ‘Come on, kids,’ he calls, ‘come and drink a toast to Granddad.’
The ‘littlies’, as Connie thinks of them, though with Ryan nine and Mia six they aren’t really that little anymore, race towards the promise of something they are not normally allowed, and Brooke sighs, closes Hunger Games and saunters slowly over to join them.
‘Right then,’ Andrew says, ‘on your feet everyone.’
And they push back their chairs and raise their glasses.
‘To Dad,’ he says. ‘The best father in the world. A magnificent life – you’ll always be with us. To Dad!’
And they chorus his words, drink the toast and then fall into awkward silence.
‘Is there cake?’ Mia asks. ‘Did Granddad want us to have cake too?’
‘I’m sure he’d want that, darling,’ Connie says, drawing Mia towards her. ‘There’s a passionfruit cake, but we’ll have lunch first. Come and sit here with me.’ And Mia clambers onto a chair and unfolds a paper napkin.
Connie leans back, watching her children talking together, passing food, clinking glasses, and wishes that she could freeze the moment. Andrew, so much like his father, tall and rangy, the same grey-green eyes and the clear golden skin that both he and Kerry had inherited and which she, with her pale English complexion prone to blushes, has always envied. He leans over to talk to Ryan, heaps some ham onto his nephew’s plate and gives his shoulder an encouraging squeeze. She watches as Chris tops up Linda’s glass, then turns to Kerry, holding the bottle out, gesturing her to hand him her glass. He is such a blessing, Connie thinks, a warm and loving man who thinks the world of Kerry and his children. Kerry pushes her glass towards him; her expression is tense, her manner stroppy – it seems to be her default setting since the early stages of Gerald’s illness, and it’s worsened as time has dragged on. But Connie, exhausted by the task of keeping Gerald alive and as comfortable as possible, has lacked the physical and emotional energy to try to talk to her about it. Kerry has inherited Gerald’s stubbornness, that’s for sure.
Here they all are, her family, unobscured now by the blurring lens of Gerald’s condition. For more than half of Brooke’s life, most of Ryan’s and all of Mia’s, Connie knows she has been a semi-detached grandparent; too exhausted and distracted to participate in their lives in the way she had wanted. Lost years that can never be recaptured. Connie feels a lump in her throat as reality bites. And it’s not just about the grandchildren; Gerald’s illness has driven over all of them like a bulldozer, leaving them crushed and resentful, the family ties fraying and disconnected. Love has been numbed in the face of so many other painful emotions, it has slipped too often between the cracks of time and distance, and the wanting, all of them wanting so much from each other, but unable to give or receive. Time to rebuild all that, she thinks, but I can only start on it once I’ve rebuilt myself. That’s why she needs to be with Flora, the only person still living who can take her back to her youth, to the time before Gerald moved into her life and made it his own. Flora, who can remember who she was and who she might have become.
It’s an hour or so later, when they’ve finished lunch on the terrace, that Connie emerges from the kitchen with the coffee pot, that the conversation takes the turn she’s been dreading. ‘We’ve been thinking about you, Mum,’ Kerry says. ‘About your situation. Now that Dad’s . . . well . . . now he’s no longer with us, you’ll need to think about what comes next.’
Connie opens her mouth to speak but Kerry cuts across her.
‘We’ve had a family conference and we all agree . . .’
‘Er, excuse me,’ Chris interrupts. ‘A family conference?’
‘Yes, to decide what’s best for Mum.’
‘Do you mean that brief conversation this morning?’
‘Well, yes, but there was a conference after that.’
‘And who was at this family conference? Not me, for a start,’ Chris continues.
‘Me neither,’ Brooke chips in.
Kerry’s expression is all irritation, she sighs and rolls her eyes. ‘Of course you weren’t there, Brooke, it’s none of your business.’
‘Well, I am part of the family, Auntie Kerry,’ Brooke says. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed.’
‘Brooke, cut it out,’ Andrew says. ‘This is serious.’
‘What about you, Connie?’ Chris asks, turning to her. ‘Were you at this family meeting?’
‘Well, no . . .’
‘So it was just you, Kerry, and Andrew presumably? When you hopped in the car this morning and said you were going to Battery Point for a coffee.’
‘And you, Linda? Were you there?’
Linda shakes her head. ‘Um . . . not exactly. I wanted to look in the antique shop so they dropped me off, but Andrew told me what he thinks and I agree entirely.’
‘Right,’ Chris says in a soft and steady voice, turning back to his wife. ‘So just before you go on, Kerry, there was a general conversation this morning while Connie was out walking the dog, and then you and Andrew chewed it over in the café. There hasn’t actually been a family meeting.’
‘For goodness sake, Chris . . .’
‘Well, has there?’
Kerry sighs. ‘I suppose . . . no . . . not exactly . . .’
‘Right, just as long as we’re all clear about that.’
Kerry hesitates and Connie’s stomach clenches. She loathes conflict. As an only child she never had to compete for anything at home, never had to negotiate with siblings, and survived school by keeping a low profile. Politeness, good manners, never putting oneself first, deferring to the opinions of others and never saying outright what you think, had been the ruling code. Once, in anger, she had told Gerald that it was the ideal training for the job of being the wife of a control freak like him.
‘Well, you’re saying what you think now,’ he’d replied.
‘And you simply haven’t a clue how often I hold back.’
Kerry leans forward in her chair, fixing Connie with a steely gaze. ‘Anyway, Mum,’ she begins again, ‘it’s like this, we all . . .’
‘You mean, you and Dad?’ Brooke says.
‘Yes, okay, Brooke,’ Andrew intervenes. ‘Kerry and I think that you should consider moving somewhere smaller, Mum.’
‘You’d enjoy it,’ Kerry says. ‘You can move nearer to us. It’d be lovely. We can help out . . . it’d be more convenient.’
‘D’you mean it’ll be more convenient for us, Kerry?’ Chris says, leaning towards her, putting his hand on her arm. ‘And, Connie, just so as you know, the helping out probably means that you could help us with the children.’
Connie’s throat has gone dry. ‘Look, I don’t . . .’
‘That’s not it at all,’ Andrew says. ‘We all want what’s best for you, Mum. Linda and I think you should come somewhere nearer to us. You know how you love Melbourne.’
‘You should stay here, Nan,’ Brooke cuts in again. ‘It’s where you were with Granddad.’
‘Granddad’s ghost might be here,’ Ryan says, and he begins some ghostly howling.
‘Stop it, Ryan,’ Kerry snaps. Her cheeks are fiery red and Connie is reminded how much her daughter hates the flush that rises when she’s agitated. ‘And, Brooke, this isn’t up to you. Keep out of it.’
‘Actually, Kerry,’ Chris says quietly, leaning across the table, ‘I think it’s up to Connie to decide what to do, and personally I think it’s pretty insensitive to be talking about this right now.’
Kerry shakes her head irritably. ‘We’re just trying to help, Chris, stop being so difficult.’
A great surge of something hot and fierce, something stronger than the anxiety, rears up in Connie and she pushes back her chair and gets to her feet. ‘Stop it, at once, all of you,’ she says, in a voice that sounds entirely unlike her own. ‘We’ve just scattered your father’s ashes, for heaven’s sake. How do you think he’d feel if he could hear you arguing like this? How do you think it makes me feel?’ They’re looking at her now, Kerry and Andrew, visibly shaken and embarrassed, Linda flushed and awkward while Chris studies the tablecloth with a deadpan expression on his face. The silence is deafening.
‘Woohoo, Nan! You rock,’ Brooke says, a huge grin spreading across her face.
‘Shut up, Brooke,’ Linda hisses.
‘No!’ Connie says. ‘Don’t shut up, Brooke dear. I do indeed rock and now I’m going to rock on upstairs for a rest which will give you all time to sort yourselves out and do the washing-up.’
‘We’re just trying to help . . .’ Kerry cuts in, crimson-faced. Connie holds up her hand. ‘Kerry, I said, stop! Stop it now.
If this is your idea of help, I don’t want it. Remember why you’re here.’ And she turns into the house away from the mix of anger and hurt that Kerry has carried with her since childhood and which nothing – not love, or encouragement, success or motherhood – ever seems to resolve.
It’s Brooke who wakes her, tapping on the bedroom door. ‘It’s me, Nan, can I come in?’
‘Of course, dear.’ Connie struggles to sit up.
Brooke opens the door and crosses the room clutching a mug. ‘I made you some tea.’ She puts it down on the bedside table and perches on the edge of the bed.
‘Thank you, darling, just what I need.’ Connie yawns, resting her head against the bedhead. ‘I must have fallen asleep. Have they stopped arguing?’
Brooke nods, twisting a strand of hair. ‘Just about.’
‘And have they stopped making plans for me?’
She grins conspiratorially. ‘Not really. They’re so bossy, Dad and Mum and Auntie Kerry.’
‘Except for Chris.’
‘No, but he’s not one of them really, is he? Like he’s not . . .’ she pauses, turning her fingers into inverted commas, ‘not a blood relative, as Dad says.’
‘Your dad said that?’
Connie looks at her, searching for something of herself in her granddaughter. Brooke certainly has the Hawkins gene – the height and the strong, rangy build – but her dark hazel eyes belong to neither of her parents nor her grandfather. Those are my eyes, Connie thinks, as she reflects on how surprised she’d been when Brooke had spoken up so bravely during the earlier argument between the adults. She had grown up a lot in recent years; years Connie has largely missed due to nursing Gerald.
‘Anyway, they all reckon they know best. Are you coming down soon?’
‘In a minute. Did you mean what you said – about my staying here?’
‘’Course I did. It’s your home, you wouldn’t like living in a townhouse. It’s like living in a big posh box and everything has to be tidy all the time.’
Connie laughs. ‘Well, I’d be hopeless with the tidy bit, but I think that’s more about who’s living there than the place itself.’
‘Yeah right! Mum and Dad are so anal . . . it’s like they’re always expecting a magazine to turn up and photograph them.’
‘Well, your father’s changed. He was an absolute grub as a kid. I never knew what I’d find when I cleaned under his bed or tried to tidy his cupboard.’
‘Mum’s worse though,’ Brooke says. ‘Anyway, you were cool down there today, Nan. I never saw you do that before, like, tell people off.’
Connie swings her legs off the bed and crosses to the dressing table to brush her hair. ‘I used to do it quite a bit when they were younger,’ she says. ‘I thought I’d lost the knack but perhaps I haven’t. What are Ryan and Mia doing?’ ‘Ryan is in the big tree throwing stuff at Mia, and she’s screeching, but standing right under the branch he’s on and won’t move away.’
‘Oh dear, it never stops, does it?’
‘I’m never going to have children,’ Brooke says. ‘They’re evil.’
‘You’re not,’ Connie says, picking up her tea.
‘Well, I quite often am, really,’ Brooke says, turning to face her. ‘When I’m feeling really, you know, shitty and stuff.’
‘Knowing that is a good thing,’ Connie says, following Brooke out of the bedroom. But then what do I know about it, she thinks, giving in all my life and mostly not minding about it, too comfortable to take a stand, happy to leave everything to Gerald. And she wonders suddenly what her granddaughter really thinks of her.
‘Mum, I’m sorry,’ Andrew says as they reach the kitchen. ‘Really, it was unfair, today of all days.’
‘It was,’ she says, smiling but determined to resist the temptation to tell him it’s okay and not to worry. And she walks on out to the terrace, where Kerry jumps immediately to her feet. ‘Mum,’ she holds out her arms, ‘very bad behaviour, really sorry, you need more time, of course you do. Big hug?’
Connie allows herself to be hugged but refrains from hugging in return. ‘Ryan!’ she calls sharply over Kerry’s shoulder. ‘Come down from that tree immediately. I will not have you throwing things in my garden. Mia, stop snivelling and go and wash your face.’ Mia complies immediately. Connie had forgotten what it was like to have people do as they’re told. How long can she keep up this assertiveness, she wonders. Long enough to tell them about her plans? She has a horrible feeling that they’re not going to like them at all.
An hour or so later it’s clear she was right.
‘Going away? But why?’ Kerry says before Connie has begun to explain. And before she has time to answer continues, ‘Shouldn’t you be sorting things out here? Making plans for the future? And why France, why Auntie Flora? Dad didn’t want anything to do with her. I don’t think it’s . . .’ she stops, colours up again and looks away.
‘And after that,’ Connie continues, ignoring her, ‘I’m going to England. I’ve never been back, not since Dad and I moved here.’ She waits, hoping they’ll show an interest, but there is just an awkward silence.
‘So I suppose you’ll be away for about three weeks?’ Andrew asks eventually.
She laughs, irritated, and hurt by their lack of interest in what she wants and needs to do. ‘Oh for goodness sake, you think I’m going to do that horrendous journey, spend time in France with Flora and then go back to places in England that I haven’t seen in decades, and be back here again in three weeks? I’ll be gone a couple of months at least.’
‘Sounds good, Connie,’ Chris says. ‘You need to go back and touch the past. You could go to Ireland too, you’d love the west coast, Galway – I can just see you in Galway.’
‘But you’re not used to doing things alone, Connie,’ Linda says, ‘and that’s a very long time . . .’
‘Far too long,’ Andrew agrees. ‘I think you should . . .’ he stops abruptly. ‘Sorry I . . .’
Connie gives him a long and steady look. ‘I’ve been waiting to go home to England since before you started high school, Andrew. Gerald went back for work but I couldn’t go with him because I couldn’t leave you two. This is my time now and I’ll take as long as I need.’
There is another awkward silence.
‘I can understand that you’d want to go to England,’ Kerry says, ‘but really, Mum, I hope you won’t mind my saying this, but staying with Auntie Flora hardly seems very respectful to Dad considering that he had virtually disowned her.’
‘Is Auntie Flora my auntie?’ Mia asks.
Connie takes a deep breath. ‘She’s your great auntie, Granddad’s sister.’
Chris gets to his feet and takes Mia’s hand. ‘Come on, sweetheart, let’s go and see if the goldfish are awake. You too, Ryan.’ And he leads the children away from the table towards the overgrown pond.
Kerry gets to her feet. ‘Well, I’ll go and make some fresh tea.’
‘Sit down please, Kerry,’ Connie says, struggling to keep her voice low and steady, and she waits until Kerry is back in her seat. ‘First of all, I do mind your saying that, in fact it’s really offensive. Flora and I go back a long way, back to before I met your father; we were at school together. You know nothing about what happened between the two of them, so I suggest you keep your opinions to yourself. I’ve spent years looking after your father with very little help from any of you, and now that it’s over I feel absolutely free to do what I want.’
‘Oh yes, and you were wonderful, Mum,’ Kerry says, ‘we all knew that. I was always saying to Chris how wonderful you were looking after Dad, I . . .’
‘Absolutely,’ Andrew joins in. ‘Kerry’s quite right. We all thought you did an amazing job.’
‘Stoic,’ Linda adds.
And Chris, poised halfway between them and the fishpond, says nothing, just turns to look back at her over his shoulder.
The silence is tense. No one exchanges even a glance. Andrew clears his throat. Kerry’s cheeks flame crimson and she stares down at her feet.
‘So . . . er . . . what about Scooter, while you’re away, Nan?’ Brooke asks.
Connie turns to her. ‘My friend Farah will stay here and look after Scooter. She and her children live in a flat so it’ll be nice for them to have a bit more space for a while.’
Kerry straightens with the sort of bristling energy that Gerald always said reminded him of a fox terrier. ‘Farah? You mean that woman who, the one who . . . ?’
‘Exactly, Kerry, the one who was here, and who did help me, who made it possible for me to have a day to myself sometimes.’
‘But she’s . . .’
Andrew sucks in his breath. ‘Kerry . . .’
But Kerry is quivering now. ‘She’s an illegal, isn’t she? Came in on one of those boats?’
Connie waits, wondering if her daughter is going to dig herself in further or back down. She loves this daughter, loves all of them so much that it hurts, but right now she just wants to smack Kerry, as she had frequently wanted to smack her when she was a troublesome toddler. She wants to tell them all to go home and leave her in peace.
‘Farah’s husband was drowned when the boat they were in sank offshore. They left Afghanistan in fear of their lives, she and her children are refugees.’
Kerry is silent for moment. ‘And she’s . . . well, she’s . . .’
‘A nurse?’ Connie asks, deliberately misinterpreting. ‘Yes of course.’
‘Well, I really don’t think it’s right . . .’ Kerry says. ‘After all . . .’
‘After all what?’
‘Well . . .’ Kerry draws up her shoulders. ‘Well, I just don’t think Dad would’ve liked it, you know . . . being . . . well, she’s not one of us . . .’
Silence. Kerry’s blush deepens and she looks around as if for support. ‘What I mean is, she’s not one of the family.’
Connie pauses, poised between disgust and disbelief. She knows her daughter well enough to know that she is free of racial and religious prejudice, but for some reason Kerry seems determined to win this battle of wills whatever tactics are required. It seems so ridiculous that she throws back her head and bursts into laughter. ‘Well, Kerry,’ she says, ‘Dad was happy to have her sit with him, play chess with him, wash him, shave him and clean him when he soiled himself.
And anyway, I make the decisions about who gets to stay here now, so you’d better get used it.’ She gets to her feet. ‘Would anyone like any more tea? Brooke dear, come and help me fetch that cake, Ryan and Mia must be desperate for it by now.’
Port d’Esprit, Brittany, Northern France, early February 2012
here is a collective sigh of relief from the pews as the priest genuflects, picks up the altar vessels and departs to the sacristy. He is young and inexperienced, a locum filling in for Father Bertrand, who is in hospital in St Malo recovering from a triple by-pass. This one seems barely old enough to be out of high school, let alone ordained. Flora, irritated by his trembling hands on the chalice, the dropped wafers and most of all the torturous fumbling as he lost his way in the litany, waits impatiently for the right moment to leave. It’s not unusual for her to come and sit in the church but it’s a long time since she attended a service. This morning, however, she had come to the six o’clock mass and to her own surprise had taken the sacrament, although she had wondered whether she was entitled to do so after such a long absence. It was thinking about Gerald that made her want to do it, and she’d told herself that God would be more concerned about her intentions than in checking up on her dismal devotional record. She’d thought she’d stay on after the service – make the most of the silence for a while – but the young priest took so long that her time has run out, and now she needs to get back home. Silently Flora slips out of the pew, nods to the altar and walks quickly down the aisle and out into the square, letting the church door swish softly to a close behind her.
It’s daylight now and as she pulls her bike from the rack the market traders are unloading their vans, and a waiter in a long white apron is setting up tables on the pavement outside Café Centrale. Flora weaves her way between the stalls and heads for the tabac, glancing at her watch. The breakfast trade back at the hotel ramps up well before seven as the fishing fleet finish unloading the catch. But while being late is bad, being late without Suzanne’s cigarettes would be a cardinal sin. Flora queues for the cigarettes, then squeezes her way out of the crowded little shop, drops the two packets of Gitanes Bleu into the bike basket and freewheels down the hill to the post office, where she collects the mail from the post box, and doubles back past the square heading for home. Outside the church the young priest, hands tucked nervously into the sleeves of his cassock, is chatting with members of the congregation. Flora flashes him a killer look; she should have stayed home, practised some yoga as usual, before cycling down for the mail.
As she turns the corner onto the quay, the wind whips into her face tugging at her hair and making her eyes water, but she pedals on along the curve of the harbour where the leisure boats are bobbing at anchor on the high water. At nine she had fallen in love with this place, this harbour, the stone houses that line the quay, and behind them the rocky pineclad backdrop of the cape stretching out beyond the curve of the sea wall.
It was the fifties; their first ever visit to France, and her father, who had driven the Morris Oxford confidently onto the ferry at Southampton, suffered an obvious loss of confidence as he steered his way off at St Malo and pulled out onto the street where traffic was hurtling towards them on the wrong side of the road. What should have been a forty minute drive to Port d’Esprit had taken two hours because Flora’s mother had a problem reading the map.
‘For god’s sake, Margaret, give the bloody map to Flora,’ her father had shouted when they found themselves back for the third time at the same roundabout, ‘then we might get there before midnight.’
There were just the three of them that year – Gerald, by then fourteen, had gone with the family of a school friend to Switzerland. Port d’Esprit was smaller in those days, just a neat fishing port with stunning sandy beaches, nothing like the steep and stony ones of the Sussex coast, or the coarse and crowded sands of Southend where the school had once taken them on a day trip. Their father had been posted to London when Flora was five and by the time they made that first trip to France her memories of life in Hobart had all but faded away.
As she cycles on against the wind Flora remembers that first day, more than half a century ago; remembers the moment they pulled up outside the Hotel du Port. She had fallen instantly in love with it, the rough stone walls, the blue shutters and the pavement tables, their blue and white striped sunshades swaying in the wind from the sea. A wave of nostalgia takes her by surprise and she stops abruptly, one foot on the ground, marvelling that despite all that has happened in the intervening years so much about this place remains unchanged.
There are more buildings along the quayside now, several other small hotels, many more leisure boats, a much larger fishing fleet, and both the harbour and the town have been smartened up and their boundaries extended in all directions. But it is still essentially a small fishing port with a good tourist trade in summer. The hotel too has been renovated since the days when Flora and her parents arrived for their holiday and were greeted by Suzanne’s parents. White paint, white linen, pale timber floors and furniture have transformed the bedrooms, and a complete renovation of the café–restaurant has almost doubled its size. While still instantly recognisable from the outside, the interior of the hotel is very different from the dull and poky rooms where she, Suzanne, and in subsequent years Connie too, had played hide and seek in the wardrobes and behind the heavy curtains. Suzanne has lived in this place all her life, helping her parents and eventually, with her husband Jacques, buying them out, taking over the business and moving into the big top floor flat.
Flora takes a deep breath of the salty air and starts pedalling again, along past the seaweed coated steps where she and Suzanne had sat that first summer navigating their way to friendship with Flora’s schoolroom French and Suzanne’s slightly better English. Further on, where the sea wall stretches out away from the land to enclose the port, the fishing boats are returning, the fishers unloading their catch, spreading nets, piling up lobster pots, just as their fathers and grandfathers have done for decades. Fishing has a long and respected tradition along this coast and in this little port, the hotel is part of that. Not simply a haven for holidaymakers, it is also home to fishermen and women, who come here after a night’s work, hosing themselves down at the far end of the quay before heading inside for their breakfast.
As Flora slows her pace outside the hotel and swings into the side alley, she can see through the window that the first of the fleet are already ensconced at the tables waiting for their coffee. Suzanne will be racing frantically between the café and the kitchen, cursing Flora’s lateness. In the backyard, Nico, the baker’s son, is unloading trays of bread, croissants and patisserie from the back of his van. Flora leans the bike against the wall, opens the kitchen door for him, and carries one of the trays into the kitchen.
‘En fin!’ Suzanne is harassed and irritable, her face flushed. She is in that hyperactive state that she thinks is efficiency but actually just makes her short-tempered and accident prone. ‘Problems with the coffee machine, Nico is late, you decide to go to church.’
‘Sorry,’ Flora says, pulling off her jacket. ‘There was a queue at the tabac.’
Suzanne looks up from the tray she is unloading. ‘But you got my cigarettes?’
Flora tosses them to her across the table. ‘I’ll take over here while you get out there.’
‘The German couple from room six are down already,’ Suzanne says, putting four croissants into a small basket and adding it to her serving tray. ‘What is the matter with these people? They’re on their honeymoon but they’re up and dressed before seven.’
Flora shrugs. ‘That’s the master race for you.’
Suzanne balances the tray on the flat of her hand with the ease of one who has grown up waiting tables. It’s an enviable skill that in all the years they have run this place together, Flora has never managed to acquire. She ties on an apron, rinses her hands at the sink and begins to slice the baguettes and place them in baskets for the tables. In winter the breakfast trade is easy – mainly the men and women off the fishing boats – and in the last couple of years they have saved money by managing it themselves, bringing in Gaston the chef and Pierre the kitchen hand at eight to start on the lunches. The tourists begin to arrive at the start of spring and that’s when they need the full staff on duty from six.
Flora makes up more baskets of the still warm bread, decants preserves into dishes, and rolls butter into balls between the old wooden pats that belonged to Suzanne’s grandmother and which she won’t consider replacing. She piles pastries onto a cake stand, replaces its domed glass lid, carries it through to the café, sets it down alongside the coffee machine, and heads back to the pleasant silence of the empty kitchen.
The café is Suzanne’s comfort zone. It’s what she does best, socialising with the locals and the tourists, keeping the coffee coming, pouring shots of cognac for the fishers who have returned on the tide. And it is Suzanne who maintains their relationships with the other harbour traders, and generally keeps them connected to the heart of Port d’Esprit. She is part of the town, more so even since the night of the terrible storm when Jacques went out to help secure the boats and was swept off the sea wall and crushed against it by a boat that had broken free of its moorings. Flora had been here on holiday at the time; the friendship that had begun on that first trip had lasted decades. She was almost fifty-two and had just resigned from her job in the sprawling north London school, where she’d been teaching for years, to accept a cushylooking job as principal of a small, rather posh girls school near Eastbourne. It was the start of the summer holidays and she had planned to spend the first three weeks in France, before going back in time to prepare to take up the new job in the autumn term. But that freak storm came out of nowhere and caught the town by surprise.
‘I’ll stay on for a bit,’ she’d reassured Suzanne in the dark days after Jacques’ death. ‘And I might be able to negotiate something with the school for a couple of extra weeks.’ She had stayed for five weeks and the day before she was due to leave Suzanne had burst into tears.
‘I don’t know how I’ll manage,’ she’d said. ‘I am désolé that you leave. Stay, Flora, please stay. You say always how much you love it here. We can run the hotel à deux.’
It had taken Flora only hours to decide. She did love Port d’Esprit. Gerald and Connie, her only remaining family, were on the other side of the world and she hadn’t seen them for years. Suddenly, taking charge of a school full of assertive, uppity girls and opinionated staff seemed distinctly unattractive. She had withdrawn from her newly signed contract, gone back to London, packed up the contents of her flat and was soon back again, working full-time in the hotel, and sharing the top floor apartment. That was fifteen years ago, and here she still is.
They’ve had their problems, she and Suzanne. Negotiating the boundaries of live-in friendship with a working relationship has taken patience and tolerance. Most of the time it has worked well, but sometimes Flora burns with discomfort at what feels like an imbalance of power. Suzanne depends on her and says she couldn’t run the business without her. She frequently points out that Flora is the one with the freedom to pack her bags and leave. But Flora knows that she has cut off most of her options by staying here. Now in her late sixties and with dwindling savings, starting over is a challenge that she frequently contemplates but may not be able to summon the fortitude to risk. And she often longs for quiet, for solitude, and for a place of her own.
It’s after ten this morning before the breakfast crowd thins out and Flora has a chance to draw breath. By now, Suzanne is at a corner table in the café, meeting with people from the Bastille Day organising committee, among them her late husband’s younger cousin Xavier. Flora, tidying the stack of menus on the bar, watches the animated group from a distance. She sees the way that Suzanne leans slightly towards Xavier, sees him stretch his arm along the back of her chair, sees their thighs pressed close together under the table. Perhaps, Flora thinks, she is not indispensable after all. She turns away into the kitchen where Gaston and his staff are peeling and chopping. In the backyard laundry Prudence has the washing machines on the go and is ironing as if her life depends upon it. Flora heads through to the office, flops into the chair by the desk and switches on the computer. There is the usual mix of advertising material, some email reservations, e-bills and last of all a message from Connie with an attachment, both of which Flora opens first and prints immediately.
The funeral went well, Connie tells her, lots of people, lovely flowers, Andrew and Kerry both spoke very nicely, and the priest, who had been very fond of Gerald, did everything beautifully. Strange that, Flora thinks; they had been brought up Catholic and in his twenties Gerald had been particularly devout, but later he had become a fierce critic of the church. Had that changed, she wonders now, had illness and the proximity of death made him think again, or was he just hedging his bets?
There is a tap at the door. ‘Excusez moi, Flora.’ Gaston sticks his head into the office. ‘The charcuterie, they send the ham and the pâté but no saucisson . . .’ he hesitates. ‘You are all right?’
‘Yes,’ Flora says, looking up. ‘Just thinking. No sausage?’
‘Non. I think if you are going into town you can bring some? If not I send the boy . . .’
Flora sits looking at him, trying to focus her thoughts. ‘I’m not going into town,’ she says, taking Connie’s email from the printer and getting to her feet. ‘By all means send Pierre, he can take my bicycle. I am going out for a while though. When Suzanne’s finished with her meeting, would you tell her I’ll be back later?’
‘An hour, maybe.’
He looks at her with obvious concern. ‘Vous semblez un peu . . .’
‘I’m fine,’ she says, and she picks up her jacket and heads for the kitchen door. ‘Don’t forget to tell Suzanne.’
‘D’accord! You want I tell her where you go?’
‘No,’ she says. ‘I really don’t want that,’ and closing the door behind her she sets off across the yard where the steam from Prudence’s ironing machine is puffing the scent of freshly laundered linen into the crisp air. It’s a smell that always transports Flora back to childhood, to Mrs Peacock, her mother’s daily help, ironing in the large, rather chilly laundry off the kitchen of the house in Tunbridge Wells, the sheets and tablecloths, and everyone’s clothes, all laid out in neat piles on the long shelf, ready to be returned to the linen cupboard, the bathroom and bedrooms. She pauses, savouring it briefly before opening the back gate and heading briskly along the path that runs the length of the cliff behind the buildings, to the steep track that leads up to the cape.
She presses on up to the first outlook point, putting height as well as distance between her and home, and stopping only briefly to catch her breath before slowing her pace as the climb becomes steeper. When she reaches the final section of rough stone steps cut into the rock face she drags on the hand rail to pull herself to the top, where she stops, doubled over, hands on her knees, lungs bursting, her heart pounding so hard she can feel the blood thumping in her ears. She leans against the signpost that points out the pathways to the various coves along the cape, her head spinning, waiting until her heart slows to a more normal rate. Ignoring the side paths she presses on along the unmade road that leads to the sharp promontory of Cap d’Esprit.
The wind is colder here and stronger, and that’s all she thinks of as she strides on: the fierceness of the wind, the shafts of brilliant sunlight slicing through the pines, the steep drop of the cliffs and, metres below, the surging blue-green waves crashing against the rocks in dazzling bursts of white foam. The fierce beauty of the landscape, the rush and cut of the wind, the roar of the sea below, blot out everything else as she walks on over flattened earth and pine needles and sinks down on the wooden bench that faces across the bay and beyond it to the next headland, carved sharp and clear in the sunlight.
Leaning back Flora closes her eyes, her own heartbeat pounding in her ears beneath the roar of wind and water. Eventually, she straightens up, reaches inside her jacket, takes out the email and begins to read it again.
Gerald’s death hadn’t really come as a surprise but when Connie had called with the news a couple of weeks ago Flora was taken aback by the sudden and intense grief she felt. She’d come to terms with her feelings about Gerald years earlier – laid them to rest for her own peace of mind. He had cut her out of his life and she had decided to cut him out of hers. Her attachment was to Connie, and to the idea of her nephew and niece whom she had known only briefly as children. She and Gerald had fallen out for the first time when, a year after leaving school, she had decided to enter the convent and a year later was expelled before taking her final vows. And they were at loggerheads again in the late sixties when she’d turned her attention away from God and onto the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and announced she was going to India. Gerald had been horrified, angry and disdainful; he called her irresponsible and shallow, and accused her of breaking their parents’ hearts. But two years later she came home to find he’d forgiven her, and she’d surmised that his own happiness about his surprising engagement to Connie, originally Flora’s closest friend, had made him a more generous and forgiving person, although she was far from happy about this proposed marriage. When he and Connie had been back in Tasmania near their parents in the seventies, Gerald had urged her to join them.
‘Come back to Tassie,’ he’d said. ‘Stay with us.’ He’d even sent her money for a ticket. And so she had gone there, to that strange, enticing white house that he and Connie had furnished with second-hand furniture, and some handdowns from the parents, and where every day was tainted by her unease over how much Connie seemed to have changed – she’d abandoned her planned career in the opera, and committed herself to domesticity.
Still, she’d stayed with them for almost a year and it was starting to feel like home again, she was even thinking of settling back permanently in Australia. But then she and Gerald had the row to end all rows, and she’d moved out to a tiny bedsitter in Hobart where she stayed for a few weeks trying to decide what to do. This time there was no generosity or forgiveness; he treated her as an alien, as though she had committed some unspeakable crime, and drew their parents into the argument, so that the whole family – with the exception of Connie – had virtually disowned her. Banned from both houses, and cut out of their parents’ wills, she finally gave up on her family, bought a ticket and headed back to London by sea. By then she was in her thirties and had lived most of her life in England, so she had felt as though she was going home. Only Connie had stayed in touch, their letters, emails and more recently online conversations had been Flora’s only connection to her family. There were many times when Flora found it hard to accept that Connie didn’t put up more of a fight for her and their friendship, that she let Flora’s estrangement from the rest of the family go on for so many years, but despite that they have always been in close touch. And now Gerald is dead.
Flora returns to the email, and the copies of the death notices that Connie has scanned for her, most of them placed by people Flora has never heard of. But she pauses longest at her own. ‘In loving memory of my brother Gerald, who always tried to do his best.’ How ridiculous! How could she have written it? Loving memory, my foot, she thinks now, trying to remember what had been going on in her mind when she filled in the form on the newspaper website, added her credit card details and pressed send. In no way does it represent the utter chaos of her feelings about him that had erupted with the news of his death. Flora sees Gerald now as she did all those years ago, as a ruthless and selfish man who only ever did his best in his own interests.
A biting wind stings the salty tracks of the few tears that have trickled to her cheeks, and wraps itself like an icy scarf around her neck. Flora shivers, turns up the collar of her jacket and returns to the email. They will scatter the ashes later today, Connie writes. Flora glances at her watch – the time difference means they will have done it by now and she pauses, thinking of them somewhere up in those tree-clad slopes on Mount Nelson, standing together, taking turns to send Gerald on to wherever he was destined. She turns back to the email. Connie writes that she needs to get away for a while. Do they have a vacancy at the hotel at the end of March? Flora stuffs the email back into her pocket and gets to her feet. Connie is coming! Connie who goes back to schooldays, to fish and lumpy mash on Fridays, to hopscotch in the playground, to hockey and netball, to grazed knees and learning to use tampons, and whispering over fan letters to Tommy Steele and Adam Faith. Connie, who has for so long been a distant but emotionally reassuring presence in Flora’s life. Connie is coming. And Flora pushes her windswept hair back from her face and sets off along the path and down the steep steps home to tell Suzanne.
Excerpted from Family Secrets by Liz Byrski. Copyright © 2014 by Liz Byrski.
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