Authors: Kathryn Haig
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For Hugh and Rachel
It all began and ended in a garden.
I have dug the holes, good and deep, deep enough for a couple of spadesful of manure, wide enough to spread out the fan of roots without cramping. I have had a good teacher. Shrouded in sacking, the saplings are propped against a growing tree, waiting for me to make up my mind. No hurry. There’s another hour of daylight yet. And I’ve waited for such a long time.
It’s good planting weather – Tom would have looked out of the window and rubbed his hands together with anticipation – soft drizzle, no frost, no gales. Drifts of fallen leaves have banked in corners, deep and soggy, blown down before they could change colour. The earth is still sufficiently warm to encourage a little tree to establish itself before winter.
Little, bare, twiggy things. They look nothing now. You wouldn’t guess that in a few months’ time they will burst into a pink and white froth of blossom. Well, not quite, not yet. That’s an exaggeration. There will be only a few blossoms, but each one will be perfect, rosy-tipped. Then there will be apples, one or two only, perhaps, to start with, but the next year there will be more and then more.
My feet are cold, though, and my hair is wet, misted finely at first, but now beginning to drip down my collar. Silly to sit here much longer. It’ll be a long, cold journey home, even though the blackout has been lifted and there are lights again, headlights and streetlights and station name plates and road signs at last. It’s been so long. Suddenly the night world looks naked, exposed under an unfamiliar glare, shameless. It’s harder to see the stars.
Time to go home, then. Soon. Not quite yet. Please. I’m not quite ready yet to begin. There are ghosts. The air is buzzing with them and I have to sit and listen while they whisper to me.
I sit here in the rain and the silence and think back to that other garden and to that other Laura. Not so very long ago, a lifetime. I feel as though I’m watching her from a great distance. She is a stranger to me.
* * *
I can remember the smell of smoke, bitter and blue, and the pungent ripeness of the manure heap, turned and watered, Tom’s pride. I can remember the creaking shift of the glasshouse as the wind leaned against its warped frame, dislodging sodden wads of rag that Tom had hoped might plug the cracked panes. I can feel the way the splintered bench seat snagged my khaki lisle stockings. Everything past its prime, rotten, broken, worn out past mending.
I can remember reading my mother’s letter over and over, not understanding a word of it, a foreign language I had never learned, yet recognizing the unmistakable sound of truth. I watch a younger Laura spread the pages covered in bold, loopy writing across her knee and I can still feel the prickle of the serge skirt and the ferocity of her pain.
My darling Laura
We’ve always been such good friends, you and I. We’ve always been able to talk, haven’t we, about anything. Not many mothers and daughters can say that …
This time, I can’t talk to you. I don’t have the courage to face you …
We didn’t mean to keep secrets from you. We just thought, your grandparents and I, that you didn’t need to know … I wish I didn’t have to tell you now. Please, please, please … don’t try to ask me about it. I don’t know any more. Maybe I don’t want to …
Don’t let this change your thoughts of your father. He was quiet and kind and strong and he would have adored you. Let that be enough.
And at last I understood. Those annual silences. My grandmother’s frozen stare during the two minutes on Armistice Day. The fact that my father’s name was missing from the village war memorial and from the brass plaque above the lectern in St Michael and All Angels, although all the dead boys of Ansty Parva were remembered there. I used to think they were Michael’s angels, khaki angels for a soldier saint. There were Ruggles and Blackdown, Colebeck and Kimber, a brace of Shellards, three Attwoods – all the families of the village, people I knew. I knew their mothers and fathers, their brothers and sisters. But Ansty was not there.
I hadn’t understood then and, as I grew older, it still didn’t make sense. Nothing was straightforward. Nothing was the way I wanted it to be.
My grandmother was Lady Ansty of Ansty House, who lived all alone among endless corridors and shrouded rooms and ugly portraits of men in uniform and framed sets of medals and crossed swords that hung on the walls, their outlines drawn in dust, while Mother and Tom and Kate and I all crammed into the old gardener’s cottage with the piano from Ansty House. She was doubly an Ansty, for she had been some sort of cousin, convolutedly removed, of her husband.
Sometimes, she’d take me for a walk along the portrait-lined corridors. I’d dawdle along behind her, lumpish and resentful, grudging every moment not spent kicking fat old Barney over makeshift jumps in the home paddock.
She’d point out the great-uncle who’d died at Sebastopol and the great-great-uncle who’d been mutilated in an unmentionable manner by Pathans during the retreat to Jellalabad (if they were really such distinguished soldiers, why hadn’t they managed to die of old age?). My great-grandfather was there, portrayed wearing the star and medals that were kept in a little glass-topped table in the library: Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire; the Punjab Medal, with bars inscribed Mooltan and Goojerat; the Indian Mutiny Medal with its bars, Defence of Lucknow and Central India. Framed above a display of his collar and star of the Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath was my grandfather, looking far more ferocious than the mild-mannered old man I vaguely remembered, a generation older than Grandmother, shuffling around on gouty feet, not recognizing me when we passed on the stairs.
My father was not there.
My father was nowhere, not watching me from the walls, not enshrined in dusty display cases, not even tucked into the maroon leather photograph album that was so heavy I could only comfortably look at it when sitting on the floor. I didn’t know what my father had looked like.
‘Like you,’ Mother said, vaguely, and quickly: ‘or rather, you are like him, because he was there first.’
I’d look in the glass, wondering, but only myself looked back. Did he have that thin, straight nose? That stubborn chin? Did he look cross all the time, so that people called him cross-patch, when really he was just thinking?
Mother must have been fibbing. Her answer had been ridiculous. How could a little girl look like a grown man?
What was he like? I still didn’t know.
Who was he?
Grandmother Ansty would click along the polished floors, pointing out the portraits of people who didn’t matter any longer, in her little, high-heeled shoes, not looking in the least like anyone else’s grandmother, not at all cosy and cottage-loafy. Other people’s grandmothers had bosoms, solid, stately, encased shelves, all of one piece, that never moved, no matter what. My grandmother had – I realized with surprise when I grew old enough to notice – breasts. There was no getting away from it. Two of them, small and quite separate, they moved of their own accord.
She was my father’s mother, but not Kate’s grandmother. I’d queried that once.
‘You are an Ansty. Kate is not an Ansty. She is no relation to me,’ Grandmother had explained, quickly and briefly, as though she found the subject embarrassing. Children are very quick to recognize an adult’s embarrassment. She answered the way she had done, long before, when I had asked her why her pug, Buller, was trying to cuddle the leg of the table.
‘But why isn’t she?’ I’d persisted.
‘Tom is her father and your mother’s second husband. It’s quite simple.’
‘And why isn’t my own father on the stone cross with all the other dead soldiers?’
‘A mistake,’ Grandmother had said, in her usual, brisk fashion. She turned her back on me to fiddle with a flower arrangement, so I couldn’t see her snapping, bright eyes, only her tiny, trim figure in its fashionable short frock and the corrugated waves of marcelled grey hair. ‘Your father was a hero and died for his country. Never forget that. I’ll see that it’s put right.’
Then she had changed the subject. No-one – certainly not I – had the nerve to persist once Grandmother decided that enough had been said. But the name of Edwin Ansty had never been added to the base of the granite cross in the churchyard.
And now I knew that it never would be.
When I was twelve, a fortune teller told me I would find myself behind bars one day.
‘Laura! You’re going to go to prison!’ gasped Kate.
None of her business. I hadn’t wanted her to follow me, anyway, tagging along, grumbling and whining. She had no right to be listening to my fate. It was private, like going to the doctor and discussing your waterworks. If she wanted to find out the future, it should be her own future, not mine. I didn’t mind Pansy coming in. No-one ever minded Pansy. But Kate was Kate and she was there too.
‘Don’t be silly,’ I snapped, trying not to show that I was shaken. Behind bars?… murder?… blackmail?… fornication? That was really bad, it was in the Bible. ‘Don’t tell me you believe in all that fortune-telling nonsense.’
‘Well, if you don’t, why did you waste sixpence on it, eh?’
‘Because – well…’
‘… because the fête’s supposed to be raising money for little black babies,’ Pansy lectured, in her vicar’s-daughter voice, that she only used when she really meant it. Her thin, fair-skinned face was flushed and earnest, all red and white, no normal coloured bits at all. ‘And if no-one spent any money, there wouldn’t be any to send to Africa, so there wouldn’t be any point in having a fête in the first place, so we might as well all pack up and go home. Besides, Daddy’s been working frightfully hard persuading everyone to come – Mummy always used to do that, when … when she was able.’ Pansy stopped, looked down, looked up and began again. ‘So it’s our duty to spend as much as we can.’
‘And that includes you, meanie. You’re such a miser, Kate. I know you’ve still got at least ninepence left, even after pigging out at the sweet stall.’
‘Didn’t, didn’t, so there … anyway, I’m saving it for something special … Laura – what do you think you’re going to do – murder someone?’
‘Probably you … but they wouldn’t send me to prison for that. I’d get a medal from the King! Anyway, that wasn’t a real gypsy. Everyone knows it’s only Mrs Pagett being mysterious.’
‘She looked really gypsyish to me. You never know…’
I thought of the dim tent lit by a red lamp with chewed-looking fringes, of the velvet curtain sprinkled with faded stars, of the veiled woman with the husky voice, the sweet-and-sickly scent that seeped from her robes when she held out her hand to take mine. I didn’t know anyone who smelt like that, like a vase of chrysanthemums when the water hasn’t been changed.
‘Of course it was Mrs Pagett. Didn’t you see her shoes – no-one else has bunions like that!’
But I shivered as I spoke. You never know …
‘“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” It says so in the Bible. And my father definitely wouldn’t allow any witches at the church fête. So it was Mrs Pagett. So there.’
‘Did you know that all the soldiers who died in the Great War had crosses on the centre of their palms?’
‘How d’you know?’ I scoffed.
‘Abbie told me.’
‘And how does Abbie know – did she look at them all?’
‘She read it. It was in that black book of hers – you know the one with the red hand on the cover, the fortune-telling one, so it must be true.’
‘Just run along and play, won’t you,’ I said, in a pretty good imitation of a superior big sister, ‘like a good little girl.’
Kate whisked her fat little hand from mine and spiralled off, her plaits spinning out like a chair-o-plane, chanting ‘Laura’s going to prison … Laura’s going to prison…’
‘Shut up!’ I hissed, as though anyone could possibly hear her above the racketing of the steam organ.
But she was gone, irritating as a gnat, stinging and flying. The faded pink and blue flowers of her frock blurred and blended with all the other flowery cotton frocks. As acutely as though I could hear them chinking, I knew that there were three silver threepenny bits in the pocket of Kate’s matching pink-and-blue-flowered knickers. And I knew how she was going to spend them. The knowledge gave me a fierce little pain round about the place where Abbie said her indigestion always bothered her something cruel.