Sunday, 24 January 2021

Lost: Part 1

He was there again: the new man. Crouched on his haunches, as usual, smoke curling from a cigarette held lightly between two fingers, eyes narrowed as he gazed across the village green, over the blue-grey rooftops of the colliery to the sea. Thrillingly, through her binoculars, Nell could see the tiniest of details: there was no wedding ring on his right hand and he wore no watch. His dark hair was in need of trim and was streaked with strands of silver as if he had walked under a spider’s web. His mouth was drawn in a straight, tight line. He’s sad, she thought. And thin. As if the hours spent in contemplation of the sea left him no time to eat. In that way, the new man was the complete opposite of her grandmother. Mealtimes provided the framework for Grandma Annie’s day, as well as a reason for living. While eating breakfast, Annie would rhapsodise about her plans for lunch. While eating lunch, she would scribble a shopping list of ingredients for dinner on the back of an old Christmas card. Grandma Annie was pink and round and soft, as if formed from the salt dough Nell remembered from nursery school. She was always moving, full of busyness and industry. The cushiony, dimpled flesh on her arms wobbled when she dusted a picture rail or rubbed butter into flour. By contrast, the new man was gaunt and still as a December dawn. 

Nell did not accept hugs from her grandmother, or anyone else for that matter, but sometimes she did wonder what it would feel like to be enveloped her plump, creamy arms. From what she had observed at the school gates, grandmothers were expected to hug and squeeze and fuss. Annie did none of those things. Whether that was because it was not in her nature to do them, or not in Nell’s nature to inspire them, Nell could not be sure. Annie showed her fondness through food not fuss. Love was a blackberry pie sprinkled with caster sugar, served with custard that moved with a glacial slowness when poured from the jug, or a tray of crumbly ginger biscuits heady so much syrup and spice the mouth-watering fug would linger in the kitchen for days. Love was the warm crust of freshly baked loaf, eaten over the bread board, slathered with thick yellow butter. The crust was the best bit of a new loaf, everyone knew that. Annie always left it for Nell. Always. The crust of the new loaf, the slice of chicken with the crispiest skin, the piece of cake with the most cherries – all of these wonders were presented to Nell with the silence of sacrament, but their tender message of love was incontrovertible. 

Annie’s colour was red: geranium red. Red could be warming and passionate, like an autumn bonfire or a crayoned love-heart, or could be dangerous and destructive like a warning sign or a poisoned apple. The thing with Grandma Annie was you could never be sure which shade of red you were going to get. Her fiery temper could certainly flash and flare. That was the bad news. The good news was you never went hungry. After two years living with Annie, Nell’s memories of days and weeks blighted by hunger were beginning to fade. In dreams, she occasionally still saw herself as she had been in her father’s house: a filthy child desperately searching through bins, cupboards and fridges for the tiniest scrap of food. Such remembrances faded, they were diminished by sunlight through sparkling windows, by buttered crumpets and line-dried sheets: but they never left completely. They governed from afar like a cold, dispassionate planet, threatening return.

The crouching man, according to Grandma Annie, was their new neighbour. A famous policeman, no less, now retired. The man was grey in colour. Nell had diligently surveilled him for two weeks now. Not once had she seen him smile. Nor had he had any visitors. Annie would certainly approve of that. She said unexpected visitors were as welcome as fleas on a dog. As for expected visitors, well, they were to be despised even more. Annie would spend the hours of anxious anticipation before their arrival fretting and fidgeting and dreaming of the minute of their departure when she could wipe off her lipstick and put her slippers back on. 

Nell would like to see the Grey Man smile. Grey people were curious. She had always thought so. They should never be underestimated. Upon close inspection, grey people were often unexpectedly radiant. They brought to mind pebbles on the beach; drab and dreary at first sight, but shimmery and opalescent when slicked with water from the sea. On her visits to the beach, Nell had often selected a particularly lustrous pebble for her collection, only to discover by the time she had carried it home it was pocket-dry and dull. Still, Nell knew that grey was special. It was the colour of quiet and shyness and modesty, but it was also the colour of withheld beauty and hidden riches. And so the man was interesting to Nell, special. He was new in her world, her familiar landscape. Usually, this would make her jittery and anxious but the longer she watched him and noted his quiet greyness, the more intrigued she became. His stillness and silence was a stage upon which she was compelled to gaze. She would continue her observations. She would learn more. She needed to be sure. She took out her moss-green notebook, glanced at her Snoopy wristwatch and noted: Sunday 1stSeptember: 7.26 am. First sighting of The Grey Man. Today, soft mid-grey – fuzzy like wood-smoke. Looking at the sea again. Checked shirt. Buttoned up wrong. Collar inside out. 

            There was another reason she felt calm, restful even in the grey man’s presence: Ferdinand was utterly undaunted by him. Ferdinand saw people’s true colours even clearer than Nell did. True colours, it was a phrase her grandmother used plenty – especially in gritty muttered tones about Nell’s parents. 

Oh, your mother showed her true colours the day she left you when you were nowt but a bairn.

That jury took one look at your father and saw his true colours, oh yes they did!

When Nell had asked what colour her mother was, or her father (because she could not herself remember) she was astonished to learn from Grandma Annie that true colourswas just a saying, an adage and that other people did not see colours the way she did. Nell made the decision then never to mention to her grandmother her ability to see people’s colours. She expected she would not be believed. Just like she would not be believed about Ferdinand. To Nell though, people carried their colours with them everywhere they went. Their colours glowed like fireflies on the blackest night. Most people had many colours which would change according to mood or circumstance, but usually, one colour dominated. This was their true colour. Ferdinand saw colours too, animals were notoriously more sensitive than humans. He loved yellow and green people, but generally steered clear of blue and red. He tolerated Grandma Annie, but would stay hidden when she was around. Nell once asked Ferdinand if foxes had colours of their own, but he had not replied. He could be a puzzling fox, secretive and wily and sometimes he was just plain mardy. And yet she loved him. She loved him so much that she ached. Her love for Ferdinand had a colour all of its own. A colour that no one had seen before; a colour that couldn’t be seen with the eyes, it could only be felt in the heart, the bones and the blood.

That morning, Ferdinand was sprawled on his back with his legs in the air, exposing his pearly white belly to the sun. Every now and then, he would wriggle and squirm contentedly, cooling himself in the glasslike dew. Nell and Ferdinand sat in middle of the village green, under the shade of the rowan tree planted to commemorate the Queen’s coronation. The pinnate leaves were as pale and dry as parchment, but the branches were laden with clusters of gleaming fire-red berries. Autumn was quietly approaching. Ferdinand loved autumn. All foxes did. They could camouflage themselves in the shimmering hues of russet, gold, ochre and terracotta. Foxes are renewed by autumn the way humans are renewed by the first days of spring. Nell knew this: Ferdinand had told her. He spoke to her sometimes. When he had something to say his dark button eyes would flash like fool’s gold and his words would drop into her mind like postcards through a letterbox.

That morning, both Nell and Ferdinand could sense autumn’s tender closeness. The day had started with a cool, grey cathedral hush. The sea was veiled and hazy, the colour of a grubby mirror. As the sun rose, the day would become golden and ripe and the veil would lift to reveal turquoise waters laced with rolling white caps. Crying gulls would wheel in and out of the waves, up and down, and up and down, like silver needles stitching fabric. September. It was Nell’s favourite month. Or it would be. It would be if it wasn’t the start of the new school year.

School was, in fact, due to start the next day. Nell should be entering last year of juniors, but she had already decided she would not go. Although she was not looking forward to telling her grandma of her decision, she knew Annie would not force her to attend. There would be some harrumphing and huffing and a disapproving clattering of pans and plates, but Nell would get her way. School was a strange world full of rules and routines that made no sense to Nell. All those questions. Stupid, meaningless questions. They were exhausting. They made Nell’s head throb.

Do you want to play rope, Nell? 

No. Why would I?

Do you know what 8 x 9 is Nell? 

Yes, I do, thank you.

What would you like for lunch Nell? 

Cheese on toast with tomato soup, two packets of Quavers and blackberry pie and custard.

But we’ve only got fish cakes or mince.

Then why did you ask me what I wanted?

Nell had once tried to explain to her grandma why she hated school so. It was important that she understand. Nell thought long and hard about how to make her see. Finally, she said that getting through a day of school was like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with all of the edge-pieces missing and no box showing the finished picture: it was frustrating, pointless and quite impossible. The old woman had scrutinised her granddaughter’s face with keen, penetrating eyes. She must have been satisfied with what she found there. She nodded crisply and made no further comment.  

During the long, lazy summer holidays, school appeared in Nell’s consciousness as a looming tower: huge, terrifying and unknowable. It was torture. Ferdinand felt her agony. He could not understand why humans thought it wise to make their kits sit tethered to desks all day. No fox had ever been forced to run eight times around a field in November drizzle or made to endure the toe-curling agony of ‘team sports’ or spelling tests. Foxes valued freedom and independence and solitude. How Nell wished she were a fox!

During school break and lunchtimes, Nell would retreat to the old air raid shelters where she could fold herself up under the canopy of trembling lime trees. The leaves would swell and dance, and the music of the wind would mask the troubling sounds of the playground. Ferdinand would find her there and lie with her, his head resting on his paws, his calculating eyes alert for approaching teachers who would inevitably scold Nell for her aloneness, her stubbornness, her inability to ‘join in.’ 

Recently, she had convinced Grandma Annie that she should be ‘home schooled’, and she had persuaded her grandmother that this would require no effort on her part. Nell would trek down to the colliery library every Monday and check out a pile of books – novels, poetry, atlases, history books, books about geology and astronomy and science. She would read them too. Every one. Every word. Every page. It was true that she did not understand everything she read, but she allowed the words and ideas to wash over her like water, nourishing and refreshing her. If one of those ‘do-gooders’ from social services came sniffing around, she could rely on her grandma to send them away with a flea in their ear. Recently though, over the holidays, Annie had begun to cluck like a fat fussy hen about school. Nell decided a three-pronged attack was best. She had noted down her strategy in her moss-green notebook.

1.     Read twice as many library books now I am ten (double figures = double books).

2.     Keep out of Grandma Annie’s way so I don’t get under her feet.

3.     Do more chores around the house.

She was confident she would succeed. To be doubly certain, she had taken to saying a prayer every night, on her knees, by the side of her bed. She knew it was a wicked and selfish thing to pray for personal gain, for the acquisition of material things like a new set of coloured pencils or a holiday in Scarborough. Nell though was praying notreceive something. She wanted, very much, not to receive an education. That was the opposite of selfish; it was selfless. She was allowing another child to take her school place. Ultimately though, there was just too much to do. She was too busy for school. She had her library books to read, her chores to do and she had Ferdinand to look after. And now she had the Grey Man to watch. She would be busy. Busier than if she was at school, that’s for sure.

            ‘Nell Butler, get in this minute! Breakfast is on the table!’ Nell swung her binoculars to the right. Grandma Annie, a short bilberry-shaped woman in a blue dress and rose-printed apron was standing at the top of the green, her hand shielding her eyes from the morning sun. 

Her heart pounding, Nell swung the binoculars left. Hearing the commotion, the Grey Man had stood up and turned towards her grandma. He waved casually at her, but did not smile. Her grandmother nodded curtly in response. 

            ‘Nell, where the devil are you? Your poached eggs are spoiling.’

Nell watched the man carefully through her binoculars. He dropped his cigarette and squashed the butt with his right foot. Then he looked up straight in Nell’s direction. His face was drawn directly to hers as if pulled by a magnetic force, as if he had known she was there all along. Nell felt an electrifying jolt as their eyes met. She stumbled to her feet, standing on Ferdinand’s tail. Disinterested, the man looked away, back out over the hazy sea, waiting for the veil to be lifted and the day to shape itself. 

Nell cannoned up the bank towards her cottage at the top of the green. 

‘I’m here, Grandma,’ she cried. Her grandmother nodded and melted into the darkness of the cottage. As Nell passed the man, she mustered the courage to glimpse in his direction. Please God, let him not be watching me, she prayed. To her relief, he was not. He was focused only on the sea. Her heart was leaping with adrenaline, or maybe it was just the binoculars that bounced off her chest as she ran. He had not looked at her as she passed. He had not noticed her at all. That was a good sign. That was important. She would add that to her moss-green notebook, she told herself. Later still, she would search where the Grey Man had crouched, looking for his discarded cigarette. It would be a valuable and powerful addition to her collection. She was not hopeful. She had checked every day since he came, without luck. Still, one day he might forget. For the time being, the only memento of her astonishing morning was a sprig of rowan berries, hard and shiny as glass beads. Before she went in for breakfast, she showed the berries to Ferdinand. He grinned at her way that only a fox can, with all of his teeth and all of his big booming heart.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Voices in the Garden: Ending


Esther could never remember her mother’s funeral with any clarity or detail. It was as if that night, while sleeping, the day was erased from her memory like chalk from a blackboard. The dusty images that were left were faint and cloudlike. Years later she would find two photographs of the day, taken in the garden after the service. She would scour the pictures obsessively, looking for clues, trying to remember. 

In the first photograph, family and friends stand in the garden chatting, drinking tea from delicate china cups. In their sombre funeral clothes, they look as stiff and formal as marionettes, controlled by the strings of graciousness and propriety. The focus of the photo though is Esther. Esther is on the garden swing, soaring high, being pushed by Uncle Tommy. The photograph captures joy, freedom, movement. In contrast to the solemnity of the other guests, both Esther and Tommy are smiling delightedly, wildly. Looking at it years later, Esther would remember bumbling Uncle Tommy fondly. He was a shy man, deeply uncomfortable at any social gathering. That day, the swing was a welcome refuge for both he and Esther, she understood. 

The second photo showed just Esther and her father. He looks handsome and uncharacteristically groomed, elegant even, in his dark suit. He holds Esther in his arms, lifting her so she can reach one of the horses in the field at the bottom of the garden. He smiles for the camera. Esther is wearing the much-loathed green tartan dress, but has defiantly personalised it with a huge, garish pink badge, proclaiming ‘I AM 9!’ She is bewitched by the horse, is stretching out to touch its velvet muzzle, staring deeply into its soft, mellifluent eyes. It is a picture full of love and tenderness, as beautiful and heart-breaking as a pinned butterfly. 

The following Monday, Esther returned to school. The earth continued to turn. Night continued to follow day. Soon spring would bloom extravagantly into summer - that mythical summer when walking to the end of the garden felt like wading through hot tea. That endless summer when the air was thick and stagnant, neither refreshed by breeze nor cooled by rain. That barren summer when rivers dried and crops withered. That long, lonely, languid summer when the voices in the garden began.

 One suffocating Saturday afternoon, Esther closed the dusty velvet curtains and sat in the blissfully cool darkness watching a black and white film about Robin Hood. She went to the library and asked Miss Partridge to help her find as many books as she could about the mythical outlaw. After that, her days were spent reading in the speckled shade of the lilac tree. Or she would roam the arid, sun-bleached fields, Bakewell at her heels, imagining herself in a lush, green and shady forest, as one of Robin Hood’s band of merry men. She felt unmoored that summer, as if the ropes tethering her to reality had been loosened and she was slowly drifting away into her own dark and magical world. 

At bedtime, when the lustrous dusk had thickened into deep, quilted night, the voices came. Every night they came, for the whole summer, melodic and blissful. Esther would wait for them, never afraid, only beguiled. The girls sounded so happy, laughing together in the sensuous blackness. Esther opened the window to feel the coolness of the midnight air, to lean closer to hear fragments of conversations, to catch a glimpse of the girls at play. But the girls were always a distant presence, hushed and hidden. 

Eventually, the sweltering air was tinged with wood-smoke and the sharp crispness of Autumn. The summer holidays ended. School started again, with its comforting routines and rituals. The voices simply faded away and never returned. Esther thought about them often. She understood they were a gift. That when she was at her most alone, they came to comfort her, as reassuring and magical as a kept promise.


Sunday, 17 January 2021

The Voices in the Garden: Part 5

As the school day drew to a close, Miss Finch continued her reading of Carrie’s War. Esther was captivated by the book and the adventures of the three evacuee children in wild, beautiful Wales. She lay with her head on her desk and listened dreamily. She pictured herself sitting with Carrie and Nick Willow and Albert Sandwich by the fire in the ghostly old manor house known as Druid’s Bottom. She could smell the buttery golden pastry of Hepziabah Green’s famous cheese pie baking in the stove. It was a blissful moment of peace that transported her from the brutality of her own changed world to the magical and familiar landscape of the narrative. 

‘Esther, your father’s here. You’re going home a little bit early today, my dear,’ Esther had been so mesmerised by the story she hadn’t noticed Mr Gibson enter the classroom. His hand was on her shoulder as he led her down the corridor. 

Her father stood in the school reception, he was distracted, turning his cap round and round in his hands restlessly. She noticed that his shoes didn’t match and that made her heart surge with melancholic tenderness. He was wearing one brown brogue and one tan one. Her mother would have laughed at that. ‘Scuzzball,’ she would have teased, ‘Tramp!’

Esther’s father never cared two hoots about clothes. ‘Brown and tan is close enough, surely?’ he would have said bewilderedly. ‘What’s the problem?’

Now he exchanged a brisk nod with Mr Gibson and took his daughter’s hand as they walked home under scudding clouds. Esther imagined her friends back at school. They would finish the chapter of Carrie’s War and then Miss Finch would play Scarborough Fair on her guitar and they would all sing. At the end of the day, they would put their chairs up on their desks, and say the Lord’s Prayer before rushing out to meet parents and older siblings. She almost wished she was there, but it did feel pleasantly decadent to be out early. Everything looked different. Even the air tasted unusual, she imagined. It was a world unseen by children, hidden. Mr Richardson, the milkman, was coming out of the churchyard with his three prancing, velvet-blue whippets. She never usually saw him on her walk from school. It was thrilling. She was a detective. She wondered what other private curiosities would reveal themselves on her journey home. 

‘Can I go and see the whippets?’ she asked her father. 

‘Not right now, pet lamb,’ he paused. Esther could tell he had something to say. He kept opening his mouth, as if to speak, but words wouldn’t come, only the defeated sigh of expelled breath. She waited. She noticed a fat ginger cat idly washing himself on a cottage windowsill: another treasured moment to capture and store like a postcard in a scrapbook. 

Her father spoke, ‘Esther, your mum’s funeral is going to be on Friday. I’ve seen Mr Gibson to tell him that you’ll be off school that day.’

Esther reeled. This was unexpected. This was terrible. She hadn’t even thought about a funeral. Friday was her birthday. Friday was bread-making day. 

‘Can’t I just go to school while you’re at the funeral?’ she asked. 

‘Why, you’ll be coming to the funeral, Esther. It’s important.’ 

‘But I’m too young. You have to be at least ten to go to a funeral. Everyone knows that. There’s a law about it,’ she said with affected confidence. 

It wasn’t just the fact that it was her birthday, or bread making day, Esther was horrified at the thought of going to the funeral at all. 

‘We’ll all go together, my chick. All of us. Together.’ 

Things went from bad to worse when Esther arrived home to discover Aunt Rose in her bedroom, rummaging through her wardrobe. 

‘Ah Esther, there you are. We need to find something for you to wear for the funeral.’

Piles of discarded ‘Simply Unsuitable’ clothes were strewn on the bed.

 ‘A black lace veil?’ Esther replied, intrigued. She’d seen a photo once of the funeral of a murdered American president. His wife had looked tragic and lovely behind her black veil. ‘I would quite like a veil.’

‘You are certainly not wearing a veil, Esther.’ 

Aunt Rose was inspecting a drab, green tartan dress. Esther had never seen it before. She decided it must have been a present and that her mother hadn’t liked it very much. It certainly had never been worn. There was a Marks and Spencer tag hanging from the sleeve.

 ‘This will do,’ Aunt Rose proclaimed, although the expression on her face seemed to imply otherwise. ‘I’ll have to press it of course.’

Esther sat on the bed and foraged through the mounds of clothes her aunt had cast aside. Most of them had been made by her mother. She picked up a pale green dress printed with tiny lily of the valley flowers. It was trimmed with velvet ribbon in dark emerald green. It had secret pockets in which to store hankies or pretty pebbles or pennies. 

‘All dresses need pockets, Esther,’ her mum would say. ‘I mean, imagine if you found some buried treasure or a magic key, and you had nowhere to put it? Wouldn’t that be a dreadful?’ 

Esther longed to wear one of the dresses her mum had made for the funeral. She would stuff the pockets with treasures and mementoes for the occasion: pretty buttons from her mother’s sewing box, shells they’d collected from the beach, a pearl necklace, a pressed flower, a swallow’s feather.

‘Can I wear this?’ Esther asked, holding up the green dress with the velvet trim.

‘It is very pretty Esther, but it is certainly not suitable for a funeral.’

‘But I don’t think I’ve ever even worn that awful dress before. I don’t think mum liked it. Mum made this one.’

‘No. You can’t wear a summer dress to a funeral, Esther. Don’t argue please.’

Esther sighed. She didn’t have the energy to protest. 

‘Now, we need to check that you’ve got some tights that don’t have holes in. Highly unlikely, I know. I don’t want you in socks. I don’t know how you do it, Esther, but you always have one sock up to the knee and one crumpled round your ankle. It’s really very trying of you,’ Aunt Rose sighed, obviously believing Esther’s sock outrages were deliberate acts of sartorial rebellion. 

As Aunt Rose began a ferocious excavation of an underwear drawer, Esther leant over to pick up her Nancy Drew book. She’d go and sit in the kitchen by the AGA with Bakewell and read. She craved peace and privacy. 

‘No young lady. No time for that. Next we need to do something with your hair.’ 

Esther’s hair was shoulder length, golden brown and madly curly. It rebelled against the constraints of clips, barrettes and ribbons so was usually just left loose. Once washed, it would take a whole afternoon to dry. Without her mother’s attention, it had grown matted and wild.

‘Sit down,’ Aunt Rose commanded, pointing at the dressing table stool. She picked up a hairbrush and vigorously went to work trying to untangle Esther’s hair. Esther winced as her hair was mercilessly pulled and raked. Tears were pricking in her eyes, but she refused to let Aunt Rose see her cry. She lifted her chin and stared challengingly at Aunt Rose in the cloud shaped mirror. 

‘This is no good. It’s just too tatty. I’m getting nowhere with this. We’ll have to cut it off. Don’t scowl, just a trim. I’ll go and get some scissors.’

Within a minute, Aunt Rose returned brandishing her mother’s sewing scissors. 

‘Don’t worry. I cut your Uncle Duncan’s hair all the time,’ she brayed. 

After a few minutes of manic hacking and snipping, Aunt Rose stood back to admire her workmanship. Esther leaned forward to examine herself. She felt like weeping. Her hair had been cropped brutally, like a boy’s. She looked as scrawny and vulnerable as a baby bird; as bald and ugly as a newly cut field of wheat. Her wildness had been tamed. 

 Aunt Rose, on the other hand, looked triumphant. ‘Now, put on the clothes I’ve chosen and we’ll see how smart you look. Those tights are the wrong shade of blue, but they’ll simply have to do.’ 

Esther obediently got changed. She felt depleted. Empty. All her singularity and assurance was gone. She looked in the dressing table mirror. She did not recognise the sad girl in the drab dress who stared back at her with hollow eyes. 

‘Yes. You look like a very smart young lady. I’ll go and get the Ewbank to sweep up all that hair.’

The carpet around Esther’s feet was scattered with barley coloured curls. While Aunt Rose was downstairs, Esther picked up a lock of hair. She stroked it against her cheek. She sniffed it deeply. It was imbued with the cleanness of the day’s gusty air and a soft hint of apple shampoo from her Sunday night bath. She would tie the lock of hair with a ribbon and keep it in her dressing table drawer. She went to slip it into the pocket of the tartan dress before Aunt Rose returned. 

‘For fuck’s sake!’ she raged, blushing. She’d never said that word before. She hadn’t countered on saying it, but it felt wonderful. 

‘For FUCK’S sake!’ 

The tartan dress didn’t even have pockets.

Saturday, 16 January 2021

The Voices in the Garden: Part 4

 The May morning after learning of her mother’s death, Esther woke and found their one-eared cat, Bakewell on her bed. He was a shaggy black and white stray they’d taken in; a wily old tomcat, battle-scarred and ragged but very much loved by everyone. Esther stroked him under his chin and he rolled on his back rakishly, purring like a tractor. Esther thought about last night’s knock on the door, the conversation in her brother’s room, her father’s flailing vulnerability. She felt a darkness creep over her, like ink spilling on a clear white page. What would she say to Miss Finch now? 

She got out of bed, picking up Bakewell and burrowing her face in his warm fur. He smelt of the night, of scurrying creatures and the richness of the earth. 

‘I hope you’ve been a good boy, Bakewell. No more mice.’

The cat was a prolific hunter. Her father called him ‘Baby Herod’, although Esther didn’t really understand why. It was something about slaughter and innocents from a story in the Bible. She snickered to herself as she remembered the time Bakewell had left a dead mouse in each of her father’s work shoes. 

‘I mean, one would have been bad enough!’ he had cried. ‘I really wasn’t expecting the second one. These socks are ruined and I’ve only had them since 1955.’

‘He’s just paying his way. He’s thanking us for giving him a home.’ Esther laughed. 

Standing on the landing, with Bakewell squirming in her arms, Esther could hear voices downstairs. A woman’s voice and her father’s. She noticed both doors were closed to her brother’s rooms. She stood in the doorway of her father’s room. The bed was neatly and crisply made. The chrysanthemum patterned curtains, sewn by her mother, were open. Sunlight glimmered in the room, dappled by the heart-shaped leaves of lilac tree outside the window. The window was open too and the room was heady with the sugary perfume of the blooms. All was bright and fresh. All was ordered and neat: except for the wardrobe. Her father had neglected to close its door. Esther could see her parents’ clothes hanging like limp ghosts: the greys and blacks of her father’s work suits, and next to them, the earthy, September-hued dresses lovingly made by her mother. Her mother had diminished even further now. The cruel, black-caped magician had had his wicked way. She had shrunk and shrunk and shrunk and now had quite disappeared altogether. All that remained were the wraiths of her dresses stirring sadly in the spring breeze.

In the kitchen, her father stood slumped with his hands on the sink. He was not dressed for work, Esther noticed. At the stove, Aunt Rose was stirring a pan of spitting porridge. Aunt Rose always reminded Esther of the ladies in her mother’s Good Housekeeping magazines: she was always glossy, always elegant, always appropriate. She was an illusion of polished perfection. While her mother had been ill, Aunt Rose had taken to visiting to help with housework and cooking. On these days, she would coquettishly knot a silk scarf over her hair in preparation for the exhausting hours of selfless drudgery spent at her brother’s house. As far as Esther could see, Aunt Rose rarely did anything more taxing than wafting a limp duster over the coffee table or half-heartedly straightening a cushion. Most of her time was spent tutting disapprovingly at her mother’s housekeeping arrangements or narrowing her gimlet eyes at Esther’s scuffed knees and unbrushed hair.

‘Well, Esther, that’s everything ship-shape for now. They say I’ll get my reward in heaven,’ she would simper as she elegantly slipped into her fur trimmed coat. Heavenly rewards were all very well and good, but truthfully Aunt Rose was more interested in payment in a much more worldly, narcissistic currency. On her way home through the colliery streets she would gleefully stop and gossip with all who passed. 

‘I’ve been to Bill’s. . . Yes, dear me it is a tragic situation, simply tragic but I do what I can. . . I’m absolutely exhausted. The house is in such a state, well you can imagine, can’t you? I’m just breaking my heart over those poor children, simply breaking my heart.’

Esther’s heart sank to see Aunt Rose in the kitchen that morning in May, her coral-slicked mouth pursed meanly as she stirred the porridge, her frilly pink apron (brought from home for the occasion) knotted tightly to show her tiny waist. 

Aunt Rose was a tiger in a twin set. 

‘Oh, my angel, Esther! Come here and give me a hug. My goodness, put that filthy cat outside first! He’s always crawling with fleas.’

‘Bakewell’s here for his breakfast,’ Esther replied stubbornly, but the wayward cat was in no mood to be used as an aunt-repelling shield and he wiggled out of her arms and shot out the back door.

‘There now, he’s gone. Come here sweetheart,’ Rose smiled, stretching out her arms theatrically.

‘Your porridge is burning,’ Esther said flatly. 

She crossed the room to stand next to her father at the sink, and tentatively leaned against him, her cheek brushing the warmth of his rumpled flannel shirt. For a few delicious seconds, he rested his hand on the top of her head. They stood sadly together in the soft, sunlit silence, broken and voiceless in grief. Suddenly, the moment passed. He was gone, briskly leaving the room. ‘I’m going to wake the lads. They’ll be late for school at this rate,’ he said, his voice cool and toneless.

Esther was astonished. ‘We’re going to school?’ she repeated? ‘Today?’ But her father was already striding up the stairs and did not answer. 

Aunt Rose was ladling sticky grey porridge into bowls. 

‘We never have porridge,’ Esther thought bitterly. ‘Where’s she even got porridge from? She can’t even get that right.’

            Rose set the bowls neatly on place mats set out on the kitchen table. Place mats? At breakfast time? And napkins too? Esther seethed. It was an insult. 

‘Now you come and sit down. I need to talk to you, Esther. Just us girls.’ Aunt Rose sat at the table and pulled a chair out for Esther, tapping it with a frosted pink nail.

Esther sat, crossing her arms mutinously. ‘We have crumpets with butter and honey for breakfast. We don’t like porridge. We NEVER have porridge.’

‘I know you’re going to be heartbroken. Your mother was a simply wonderful lady, so beautiful, . . . . naturally beautiful.’

Esther stared straight ahead at the clock on the wall. She focused intently on the minute hand, trying to catch its tiny incremental movements. ‘Sometimes we have bacon and eggs,’ 

‘You need to be very brave and very good. It is what Winnie would have wanted.’ 

How dare she even say her mother’s name! Esther concentrated on the minute hand of the clock, clenching her hands under the table, her nails digging into her palms so forcefully she was sure they would bleed. She tried to distil the bubbling, surging fury inside her into a black force strong enough to stop time, to turn back time. She pictured the clock hand magically winding back, back to the safety of yesterday. It was useless. With an amiable click, the minute hand moved forward. It was half past seven exactly. 

Esther boldly looked at Aunt Rose ‘Why are there stupid napkins on the table? It’s not Christmas,’ 

Aunt Rose grasped Esther’s hands in her own. ‘I don’t want you running wild, acting like a little hoodlum. Soon you’ll be a young lady. I think we need to start acting that way, don’t we?’

Esther had to make this conversation stop. She had to. She was a catapult being pulled tauter and tauter. She gently pulled her hands away from Aunt Rose and smiled her stickiest, syrupiest smile. She genteelly smoothed a napkin on her knee, picked up her spoon and dipped it into the porridge. 

Aunt Rose smiled approvingly. ‘I knew you’d understand, Esther. Winnie always said you were a clever girl.’

Esther nodded graciously, accepting the compliment. She lifted the spoon to her mouth, glancing at it as she did so. 

‘Ugh!’ she screamed loudly, scrunching up her face in violent disgust. She gagged forcefully and flung the spoon down. She observed, with immense satisfaction, that some greasy grey sludge had splattered on Aunt Rose’s cream cashmere cardigan. 

‘This porridge has BLACK bits in it. This porridge has LUMPS in it. This porridge looks EXACTLY like the hairballs Bakewell coughs up.’ Esther stood up defiantly. ‘WE have crumpets and honey for breakfast. WE have bacon and eggs. We don’t have VOMITROCIOUS HAIRBALL PORRIDGE!’ And with as much shaky dignity as she could muster, she swept out of the room.

Left alone in the kitchen, Aunty Rose sighed piously, glided to the sink and dabbed her cardigan with a damp dish cloth. She’d feigned wounded disapproval in front of Esther of course, but she was surreptitiously storing away another 24-carat nugget of calumny to share with her audience of captivated neighbours. 

‘My goodness, the girl Esther can be such a little hellion. You won’t believe how she spoke to me today! I was only there to help, you know. I’d made breakfast. I’d the set table beautifully for them all (believe me, I don’t think that had been done for quite some time.) I mean, I’m devastated too. That’s what people don’t see. I am simply devastated.’

She would pause momentarily, dabbing her eyes with her embroidered hanky, benevolently allowing time for empathetic titters and nods. ‘Of course, I understand why Esther is lashing out. She is in pain. One must make allowances. One must be charitable.’

As Esther climbed the stairs, she congratulated herself for her retort about Bakewell’s hairballs, it was genius, she thought. Simply genius. 

Aunt Rose though, as ever, was about to have the last word, devastating it its barbed cruelty.

‘Anyway, Esther dear, I think we’d better steer clear of crumpets and honey and bacon and eggs from now on. Us girls have to watch what we eat,’ she called with icy cordiality. ‘Your poor mother always battled with her weight, you know.’ 

Matthew walked Esther to school that morning. Their house was on the edge of the oldest part of the village where cottages and allotments gave way to wind-blasted fields. Their street, which was comprised of neat suburban semis and tasteful bungalows with generous gardens, felt oddly misplaced. There was nothing unusual about it except its location; one lonely street on the road out of the village, cut adrift. It had a desolate feel, as if the planners had the intention to build a whole community of comfortably appointed homes there, but lost heart after building Burnside Lane.

Matthew strode ahead of Esther, his army-green school bag swinging from side to with the momentum of his lanky stride. He was a tall, thin boy. His whole body seemed permanently tensed, imbued with a resentment and fury that could explode at any moment. He and Esther rarely spoke. He rarely spoke at all. This morning neither could find any words to say. 

They were walking uphill, past blossoming allotments to their right and small white-washed cottages to their left. At the top of the hill stood a solemn, grey Norman church. Its graveyard was lush with whispering oaks and elms, but they gave little shelter. The biting wind from the North Sea had eroded the tottering grave stones, giving them the hollowed appearance of cinder toffee. From the church, looking east, the colliery spread out below; a maze of narrow terraced streets. The colliery was a claustrophobic clutter of modest, grey-roofed, red brick ‘two up, two downs’ and dark, twisting ginnels. Pale smoke drifted spectre-like from chimney pots giving the view a blurry, soft focus effect. The bleak, industrial architecture of the pit, its metal towers and wheels and monstrous slag heaps loomed where the land gave way to the sea. 

Esther and Matthew approached the school gate, the silence throbbing between them. 

‘There’s no one there,’ Esther said, panic rising in her throat. The school yard was completely deserted: no children, no teachers, no cars.

‘Aye, well, it’s not even 8 o’clock yet, man,’ her brother replied, turning to head off towards the village green where he’d get a bus to his secondary school in the next town. 

‘Are you going? Have I got to wait on my own?’ she asked, her voice quivering.

Matthew stopped. She saw his shoulders rise and fall as he sighed. He turned back to face her. Esther tried desperately to stop the tears from falling. She hated seeming weak. With an uncharacteristic tenderness and grace, he knelt in front of her and put his hands on her shoulders. He was so close she could see the flashes of amber in his eyes and smell the toothpaste on his breath. She wondered that she had never been so close to him before. 

‘Listen, it’s OK. Go and sit on the steps. The teachers will be here soon. I don’t think he realised what the time was when he sent us out. He’s got stuff to do today, you know, for her. Anyway, I’ve got to go.’

It was more words that he had ever spoke to her. The use of pronouns was typical of Matthew; names seemed too awkward and intimate to him, so Dad was always ‘he’ or ‘him’ and mum was always ‘she’ or ‘her’. Esther understood clearly then that he wastelling the truth, he did haveto go. He hadto go before people arrived with their questions and good-wishes. 

Her brother stood up and ran hand through his wayward hair (which was far too long, according to Aunty Rose, who claimed it made him look like some sort of low-grade beatnik.) He looked up the street, embarrassed, a cornered animal desperate to escape. Benevolently, she released him. 

‘It’s OK. I’ve got a book in my bag. I’ll go and read.’

He nodded, relieved.

‘Good lass. See you tonight, you,’ and with that he tramped off, head down, moving with the clumsy inelegance of adolescence. Esther watched him till he disappeared past the church and then nervously went through the school gate.

A playground on a school day is not meant to be empty. Although the trees that surrounded the little school and its neat, square yard were blooming with new leaves, the day held touches of winter in its breath. The wind was rising. Tree tops churned and thundered like a ship at sea. The scene felt desolate. Eerie. 

The small church school for village children was built with rough grey stone. It contained three classrooms and a hall with a polished wooden floor shone like amber in the morning sun. In front of the school, nestled against the church wall, rose four overgrown mounds, each the size of a small garage. These were the old air raid shelters. The shelters were strictly out of bounds to children and were damp and deathly with nettles and brambles. On the brightest, sunniest of days the shelters were dark and shadowy, situated under the murmurous canopy of trees. For the pupils at the school, the shelters were both magical and terrifying. They had become folkloric: the setting for many spine-chilling sagas and harrowing dares. Children would huddle together to debate how to get inside one of the shelters. The entrances were invisible now, concealed behind the jungle of undergrowth and thorns. Some of the older boys boasted that they had spent the night in one of the shelters, but no one truly believed them.

One myth persisted about the old air raid shelters. It was said, some years ago two little girls managed to find their way inside, to shelter from a thunderstorm. Alice Moore said the girls were trying to get home from Brownies, which made the story hideously plausible, as Brownies was held in the church hall every Thursday night. Access to the church hall was through a leafy cut that ran parallel to the shelters, everyone knew that. Alice said when the girls’ parents came searching for the them with torches, they found a Brownie’s promise badge outside one of the shelters. Its door appeared to have been forced open, but the girls were nowhere to be seen. Alice swore (on the bible) that she knew this to be correct as her aunty worked in the ice cream parlour with the one of the girl’s mothers.

Stephen Greenbank, on the other hand, said Alice’s version of the story was untrue. He knew for a fact that the girls’ bodies were found in the shelter and that they were naked and covered in blood. He accepted, magnanimously, that Alice was correct about the badge alerting parents to the crime scene, but hypothesised that the parents had to be drawn to the shelter by something else (a lost Brownie badge being almost impossible to spot on a stormy night in the overgrown wildness of the shelters). 

Esther, who adored animals and was desperate for a pet dog, suggested that if one of the girls had a dog (possibly a greyhound she speculated) it could have led the families and police to the murder site. This addition to the tale was accepted enthusiastically by everyone, as it allowed for further narrative developments in which the loyal and lovelorn hound, refusing to leave his mistress’s grave, pines away and dies. 

‘I suppose when it thunders, the ghostly hound will come back to look for his mistresses. I bet we’ll be able to hear him howling,’ Esther added knowledgably. 

Of course, whenever a storm broke out, a delectable titter of excitement and dread would circulate round the classrooms of the school. Eyes would widen, lips would quiver and girls would grasp each other’s hands tightly. 

‘I hear the hound,’ someone would inevitably whisper. 

‘Nothing to worry about, boys and girls.’ Miss Finch would say brightly as the thunder boomed. ‘God is having his coal delivered today, that is all.’ 

It seemed an appropriately pragmatic metaphor for colliery children. Odd that it never seemed to comfort them, thought Miss Finch, who was oblivious to the legend of the ghostly greyhound. 

On the morning after her mother’s death, Esther eyed darkness of the shelters suspiciously as she passed. She tried not to think about the legend of the missing girls and the ghostly greyhound. She resented her father for sending her to school that day. It seemed cruel, thoughtless. She did not know how she would find the words to tell her friends or teachers what had happened to her mother.

Esther settled on the steps leading to the entrance. She’d lied to her brother. She didn’t have a book with her at all. She wished she had. Her Nancy Drew was still on her bedside table. She sat and watched as the day began to unfold itself around her, slowly and unsteadily at first, like an old dog standing up after a long nap. First, the road began to hum with passing cars and the occasional bus. From the houses opposite the school, an old lady came out in slippers and a dressing gown to sweep her front step. A man in a suit wheeled out a bicycle and wobbled off towards the village green. To her left, a woman was struggling to hang washing on a line as the bold wind whipped and snapped at the sheets and pillowcases. It was incredible to Esther: the abundant life teeming around her, the beautiful, humdrum life full of buses and chores and bicycles. Esther’s world ended last night, yet here the world continued, robust and dispassionate. She struggled to understand and order her thoughts; they were as nebulous as smoke. The language to articulate them had simply not been invented. What she did feel was that the surge of ordinary activity around her was obscene. Obscene, but also miraculous. It seemed to promise that one morning soon, Esther would be an ordinary girl again doing ordinary things. That her mother, who started shrinking months ago, would eventually shrink to the tiniest black dot and then disappear completely, as if she had never existed. Esther closed her eyes to try to blot out such treacherous thoughts.

‘Esther, you’re very early this morning, pet,’ Miss Finch was smiling in front of her. Miss Finch lived on the village green and walked to school every morning. She was carrying her usual macramé bag which was crammed with the class’s English books and sandwiches wrapped in brown paper. She wore a long peasant dress in cobalt blue cheesecloth and had large golden hoops in her ears that shimmered with tiny turquoise beads. Her wavy brown hair, which almost reached her waist, was braided, tied with a blue velvet ribbon in a perfect bow. She was a lovely woman, a kind woman. She taught the names of flowers and birds, she introduced her children to wonderful books and stories, she loved art and played the guitar. She was as bright and serene as the North Star and Esther worshipped her.

‘My brother dropped me off. Maybe he didn’t realise the time,’ Esther said, shrugging. She began to wonder if it was possible to simply pretend nothing had happened at all. Avoiding Miss Finch’s gaze, she methodically untied and retied her plimsolls’ laces while she prayed that the daily question about her mum would not be asked.

The silence was broken by the furious rumble of a failing exhaust. Mr Gibson’s decaying sunflower yellow Hillman Imp spluttered and clattered up the drive. Mr Gibson was the benevolent and befuddled headteacher of the tiny school. Esther and Miss Finch watched his clownish arrival. Stumbling out of his front seat, he wrestled his briefcase from the cluttered car and slammed the door. Next, he began patting and emptying the pockets of his tatty tweed jacket, an expression of benign bewilderment on his rosy face. Miss Finch supressed a smile and affectionately called, ‘They’re still in the ignition, Sir,’

‘Success!’ he cried joyfully, on discovering the keys. ‘Thank you, Miss Finch! You’re a blessed angel sent from heaven.’

The strange thing about Mr Gibson was that he looked exactly like Esther’s father. They had the same noble, if slightly threadbare appearance, like a down at heel aristocrats from some crumbling country pile. They were the same height and build, and had the same perpetually windswept white hair. They both adored walking and were often seen striding around the village or fields, dressed casually in their sagging cords, wellies and ubiquitous flat caps. They even shared the same first name, Bill. People were always getting them mixed up. Esther’s father would be stopped in the street and asked about sports days, nativities and reading books. Mr Gibson would be cornered to explain the perplexities of Coal Board payslips and pension deductions. The men were good friends. It occurred to Esther that maybe Mr Gibson had been told what had happened. She hoped that was the case. Then the responsibility of telling people would not be hers.

‘Well ladies, and so another week begins. Esther, you are most prompt today, which is wonderful, of course, but I don’t like the idea of you sitting here by yourself. Miss Finch, is there anything Esther could help you with in class?’ 

‘Of course. Why don’t you come and help me give out the maths books, Esther?’ Miss Finch held out her hand and helped Esther up. They walked through the heavy glass doors together.

‘Have a wonderful day, Esther! Send my regards to your dad. I had to explain National Insurance contributions to some blighter in the Co op on Saturday. Wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t your father! I did my best, but I fear I may have got into a terrible muddle and made the poor chap think he owes thousands! Don’t tell anyone, but maths was never my strong suit,’ he tapped his nose conspiratorially, his blue eyes twinkling. ‘Now, I’m off for a nice cup of tea and a custard cream, good day ladies,’ and with a stately bow, Mr Gibson ambled off to his office.

Esther loved her classroom. It seemed to be endlessly flooded with sunlight from huge sash windows that overlooked the school field. Along the windowsills, Miss Finch grew geraniums and marigolds in terracotta pots, making the room smell sweet and peppery. That term, the class had been studying Cezanne’s still life paintings. The walls were covered with cloudy angular pastels of apples, pears and grapes in rich, golden colours. 

‘Could you water the plants please, Esther? The watering can should be by the sink. Then if you could give out the maths books. It’s a times table test today, I’m afraid.’

Miss Finch had opened one of the sash windows and was now writing the date on the blackboard in her elegant cursive script. Esther hung her coat and bag on her peg and started to fill the watering can. The sounds in the classroom were soothing: water whooshing into the silver can, the gentle scratch of the chalk, the flutter of the pastels in the crisp green breeze.

‘I’m going to tell you a secret, Esther. On Friday, we’re going to be baking our own bread. Isn’t that exciting? It’s Science really, but what could be better than a Science lesson that finishes with warm bread and butter? Have you made bread before?’

Esther moved to the windowsill and began feeling the dry soil in the geranium pots with her fingers. 

‘Mum makes bread sometimes,’ she said. She flushed, stumbling. ‘Mum madebread sometimes,’ she corrected. 

Miss Finch stopped writing on the board and smiled sympathetically.

‘Well, when she’s feeling better, I am sure she’ll bake bread again. It is all bit of a palaver, to be honest. Lots of waiting. In the meantime, I know I’ll have to call on you on Friday for your expertise.’

Esther looked at the date on the blackboard: Monday 10thMay 1976. She thought ahead to Friday, and for a second she forgot the lava of pain and anger that boiled and bubbled inside her.

‘It’s my birthday on Friday too!’ she cried. Over the weekend, her birthday was all she could think about and all she could talk about. That morning though, it had slipped her mind completely.

Miss Finch clapped her hands joyfully. ‘Well, that’s just perfect, Esther. You’ve got a lot to look forward to this week,’

Esther walked calmly back to the sink with the watering can and began refilling it. The geraniums were really very parched; their leaves were curling and brown. Maybe Miss Finch would allow her to water the plants every morning. It could be her special job. She would like that. Without warning the air seemed to buzz and crackle, as if full of electricity. She could hear the sweet chirruping of Miss Finch’s voice, but she could not make out the words. They seemed to be thick and furred, and they wavered as if heard through a tin can telephone. Then the classroom seemed to tilt and spin. Suddenly Esther was on the floor with the upturned can bleeding cold water into her dress. At last, the tears came. It was a relief. Such a relief.

Miss Finch rushed over, kneeled down and helped her onto a chair, ‘Esther, what on earth happened? Are you alright? Where are you hurt?’

 ‘My mum is dead,’ she replied simply. ‘My mum is dead. My mum is dead. My mum is dead.’

Esther spent the first lesson in the secretary’s office with a glass of cold milk and a couple of Mr Gibson’s beloved custard creams. When the bell rang for morning break, Miss Finch came and spoke to her gently. 

‘Esther. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve told the class about your mum. They would very much like you to join them outside for playtime, but that’s your choice. I’ve got your coat here. You can stay here if you prefer. Or you can go to read in the library.’

Esther was craving fresh air and weightlessness. She wanted to run and run until she was too tired to think about her mother. She wanted to be deafened by the noises of the playground: the kick of the football, the snap of a skipping rope, the laughter of her friends.

‘I’ll go out, thank you, Miss Finch,’

She walked quietly along the corridor. She could feel Miss Finch watching every step. She wondered if Miss Finch thought going out was disrespectful somehow, inappropriate. Would she think Esther didn’t care about her mother? She would hate Miss Finch to think of her badly. As soon as she left the school building though, she started to sprint. The wild spring wind pushed against her, filling her lungs and blowing out her yellow cagoule like a parachute. For a few wonderful seconds, she felt completely free. 

From the office window, a mug of tea in her hand, Miss Finch watched Esther race around the trees in the front playground. Her class mates, one by one, began running with her, whooping joyfully. Finally, Esther stopped and collapsed on the grass, her friends falling with her. They sat together, the girls with their arms around their wounded friend. The boys, gawky and embarrassed hugging their knees shyly. Miss Finch saw Stephen Greenbank pull a chocolate bar from his pocked and offer it to Esther. She snapped it in half to share with him. The innate kindness of children was humbling, Miss Finch thought. The newspapers were wrong, all those horror stories about the young people of the day. In her opinion, children had a boundless potential for empathy and good. Their love was as pure and true as a flower.