Authors: Susanna Jones
In Memory of Mike Jones
She wanted something to delay the start.
After a few minutes of waiting, the telephone rang. There it was. She edged her way around the study walls and descended the stairs. A stripe of sunshine from the kitchen window cut the staircase in two and she stepped into the light. She sat in the sunny half of the bottom step, in the place where the carpet was worn. She sniffed the air; the hall smelled of old orange peel. Occasionally she was able to recognize this house as being her own and her husband’s but more often it seemed to belong to the people who had come, stayed, and gone over the years. They left traces and they left odours. The carpet on the bottom step had always been thin, but she had not been eating oranges.
She lifted the receiver.
This is Maggie speaking. Hello?
No one answered but someone was there. There was effort in the silence, the tightly held breath. She sensed quivering tips of hair, an unsteady hand. Somehow she knew that the person crouching in the void was female.
Leila, is that you? Is that Leila? Hello? Will you speak?
Her fingers twitched.
No? Who is it, please?
The silence rippled for a few more seconds, and the line went dead.
She returned to her study. She shut the door and saw that two of the screws on the handle were loose. She should find a screwdriver and fix it but she’d had her postponement for the day and there was nothing for it now but to get on with her work. As her hand rested on the back of her chair, she remembered something from her childhood and stopped. She held the wooden chairback for balance – as they used to do in the church hall – and took up first position, then second.
Plié. Grand battement.
bras bas. Rond de jambe.
It was still inside her.
Plié. Bras bas.
First position, second position, third and fourth. Her limbs seemed to remember them all. In fifth position, her legs shook. That never used to happen. She gripped the floor with the soles of her feet and checked her posture in the window. Perfect, almost. Bend from the waist and sweep the arm to the floor.
It might have been her sister, not Leila, on the phone. Bess hadn’t called for more than ten years. She might have dialled the number, then been too shy to speak. Bess had always been afraid of everything. She hid her fear behind pious disapproval but fear it was. If Bess hadn’t been such a prig and a coward, Maggie thought, and lived as though all that mattered was keeping safe from sin, Satan and danger, then I wouldn’t have had to be quite so much the opposite and I might have had an easier life, when all is said and done. I would not have had to be fearless just so as not to be Bess. Maggie twisted to the wall and raised her arms above her head. Not that she blamed Bess, not at all. Arms down. Rest. Bess had lost almost everything.
She felt better. Never mind the phone call. It made no difference. She didn’t want to talk to Bess or Leila now. Leaves were falling outside the window, almost as graceful as she was. She stretched her arms behind her back, said, ‘Mmmaaa,’ as they released. She moved to her table, sat at the computer, ready to begin righting. That was what she called it. Her day of righting the wrong that once happened. But her body was still dancing around the room. She saw it flit from wall to wall. She was wearing a tutu now. White and slender, she was a lily.
She tried to concentrate on the girl who had died. She drummed her fingers on the table edge. But what to think about her? The sweet girl appeared all around the room, photographed, framed and lightly coated with dust. Could the dead girl, somehow, have been the silent person on the phone? Was it possible?
Don’t be an idiot,
Stop getting ahead of yourself and calm down. There is work still to be done and there will be time to listen to ghosts, but we are not there yet. You know you have hardly thought of anyone but the girl for years. You may as well be honest. You can’t put it off another day because tomorrow you are going back to the place where it happened.
The ceiling made a crackling sound. She looked up. The mice were chasing each other under the attic floorboards, playing tag or Hunt the Crumb. One day soon she would go up there and lay a few traps, but not yet. The window-pane wobbled in the breeze. A curled sycamore leaf brushed the glass and came to rest on the sill. Now she was ready. She pressed the button on the CD player.
by Blondie began to play.
Almost the end. It’s past midnight, and in the morning I return to Istanbul. The room is cold. A wind sometimes catches the curtains and they billow over the dressing-table mirror till the empty window-frame sucks them back and holds them for a moment. Each time it happens I think someone is trying to creep in from outside and my breath stops in my chest, but I want the window open. I pull the covers up to my neck and tuck them under my chin. The bed is cosier and cleaner than the guesthouse bed I should have slept in tonight and I am glad. I have a friend on the other side of the wall, an old friend I found again this evening, so that is something good. In this sense, at least, my journey has not been wasted but I wonder if I have made any other progress today. My investigations have not led me to the answer I wanted, or indeed any useful answers, and I cannot see that I shall have another chance to find out the truth. If I leave tomorrow – I
leave tomorrow – I shall take the bus away from the village, down from the moors to London and the airport, and journey back from the past to the present. Mete and Elif will be waiting for me and we’ll be a kind of family again.
In the lamplight, I can see the books on the shelves. It is a comfort, in this unfamiliar room, to see books whose covers I know so well. There are several by Eva Carter, the pen-name of my aunt Maggie.
Goose Island, The Missing Girls' Club, The Hotel on the Moor.
I don’t think I’ve read any of these, not all the way through, but if I wake in the night, I may pick one up. They are romantic thrillers, all set around here, on the moors and in villages like this one, though Maggie moved to London years ago. When I was a teenager, she would press one of her books on me each birthday, with a gift of lacy underwear or a bottle of perfume. ‘Always a happy ending, in my books, Isabel,’ she’d say. ‘It always turns out well for the girl.’ And then I’d get a thickly mascaraed wink, so I guessed she was referring to sex, though I was never sure. I was embarrassed that my aunt wrote such racy stuff. Later, when I was working in Maggie’s second-hand-book shop in London, I used to hide in the basement thumbing through old copies of Anaïs Nin and Erica Jong, and I was no longer interested in Maggie’s romances of the moors. I avoided them for I had left the area, had no friends here and never wanted to think about the place again.
Now I’m back. One day has chewed up fifteen years and left them ragged. It’s almost as if I never went away, almost as if every year I have lived since then has been pretended, as if Mete and Elif were some preposterous and beautiful dream I once had before I was an adult, the perfect man, perfect daughter who would be posted into my life one day, gift-wrapped with a bow. Early this morning I was touching them with these hands and lips. Then we were separated, and for the next few hours I was lost. My fingertips, every moment, were itching to reach through the air and find the soft top of Elif’s dark head, and my voice ached to whisper her name. But time has passed. It is night, and I can hardly believe that she is even real any more. She is not with me and not away from me. Her essence is in the air outside the window, a membrane stretched across the black sky. It’s as if she is waiting some distance in the future, not ready yet to enter my life and so hers. This should feel wrong but it does not. When I think of things this way, it is a huge relief to me.
I should be sleeping at the Lake View guesthouse – my bag is there, next to the bed where I dropped it, and I’ll have to collect it in the morning – but, thank God, I’m here and not there. For one thing, there was no view of the reservoir. I had booked a room at the Lake View especially because I wanted to see the water. Since there is no other lake in the area, I took the hotel’s name to be a genteel reference to its situation. The reservoir was to be the starting-point of my search and I had imagined that it might be helpful to keep a distant eye on it, to look down from time to time, allow it to seep into my thoughts and bring fresh ideas. Everything that happened here, I believe, happened near the reservoir and I would find the answers nearby. I saw rooftops, telegraph poles, the ugly backs of dressing-table mirrors blocking bedroom windows, but not the water.
But what have I achieved even now that I have escaped the Lake View? I went to Owen’s funeral, said goodbye to my old schoolfriend. I breathed within centimetres of his coffin. I spoke to his mother and managed, more or less, to be polite, knowing that she would still like to kill me. What good it would do her, I don’t know. I cried through the hymns and smiled through the eulogy. I have spoken to many people during the day and asked the questions I could think of, for what use they were. I took a spade and dug a big hole in the ground, certain I had found the answer. But the mystery is still there, a black fingerprint smudge over every thought I have of Owen. I don’t know whether I am nursing a ludicrous suspicion, or holding the answer to a secret that everyone would like to know yet no one but I have understood.
Owen’s death was an accident. He was in his car on the way home from a sales meeting and was hit by a drunken teenage driver who tried to do a U-turn on the M62 near Pontefract. There is no possibility that it was suicide or anything more sinister. I’m not sure why I need to reassure myself on that point but I found it odd, at the funeral, that the mourners appeared to accept Owen’s death with a kind of ease. There were tears, of course, but other than his mother no one seemed shocked and no one was angry. I am sure they should have been angry. Owen’s family and the vicar spoke as if an elderly person had died, not a young man in his thirties. They could not have expected him to die. Or am I wrong? Perhaps you don’t need to be sickly for people to assign you a short life. Perhaps they looked at Owen’s life, saw how difficult he had found it, and simply thought that he could not last a full seventy or eighty years. He had screwed up so many times, he was bound to die young.
However, this was just a feeling I picked up in the church and I may be wrong so there is no point in dwelling on it now. I came here to find out what happened not last week but almost twenty years ago. There are two deaths to consider tonight and Owen’s is only one of them. The other, the one that interests me more, is the death of Julia Smith. Julia was another school-friend – my friend and Owen’s girlfriend – and she vanished at the age of fifteen.
I have always been able to picture the scene of Julia’s disappearance with clarity. She was doing her paper round, visiting the cottages near the reservoir. A bright light shines over the landscape of that afternoon like the round beam of a torch in darkness, and I feel as if I must have been holding the switch when she opened and shut the brightly painted gates, slipped the evening newspapers through the letterboxes, reached bitten fingernails deep into her bag for the next copy. Of course, I saw nothing and this vision is based only on what we learned later. I finished my own round, returned to Grimshaw’s, the newsagent, to collect my weekly pay and wait for Julia. We usually bought sweets and ate them on the way home. After twenty minutes Julia hadn’t shown up so I left. I wasn’t worried. We didn’t hang around for each other every week. Mrs Grimshaw put the money aside for her at the back of the shop. Later the newsagent’s big canvas bag, almost empty, was found by the reservoir. Julia’s post-office savings never went down. She had had no belongings with her. At school, people – police, teachers, Julia’s relatives – started taking us out of our classrooms, one by one, to ask if Julia had told us anything, dropped any hints about being unhappy. It made us feel guilty, though we did not know why. A few weeks later, Mrs Grimshaw slipped the two pound notes into a brown envelope and dropped it through Julia’s letterbox for her parents.
We liked to make up stories among ourselves that gave Julia a happy ending. We invented relatives, penfriends, secret pregnancies. We exaggerated the postal romance she’d had with a soldier fighting in the Falklands. We reported sightings of her, saw her in city centres when we went on holiday, in photographs in magazines. She became outrageous and exciting to us: a junkie, a spy, a prostitute, a model in a photo-story. We were optimistic. The adults in the village understood what the rest of us wouldn’t accept, of course, that Julia had not run away and that she would never come back.