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Authors: Clare Furniss

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The Year of the Rat

BOOK: The Year of the Rat
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First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Simon and Schuster UK Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Clare Furniss

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.

The right of Clare Furniss to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
1st Floor, 222 Gray’s Inn Road

Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney
Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

HB ISBN: 978-1-47112-027-5
PB ISBN: 978-1-47112-028-2
EBook ISBN: 978-1-47112-029-9
TPB ISBN: 978-1-47112-171-5

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY


For Marianne, Joe and Ewan, with love


‘I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.’

Virginia Woolf’s diary, 17 February 1922















In conversation with Clare Furniss



The traffic light glows red through the rainy windscreen, blurred, clear, blurred again, as the wipers swish to and fro. Below it, in front of us, is the hearse. I try not to
look at it.

My hands fidget as though they don’t belong to me, picking at a loose thread on my sleeve, stretching my skirt down so that it covers more of my legs. Why did I wear it? It’s way too
short for a funeral. The silence is making me panicky, but I can’t think of anything to say.

I sneak a sideways look at Dad, his face blank and still as a mask. What’s he thinking? About Mum? Maybe he’s just trying to find something to say, like me.

‘You should do your seat belt up,’ I say at last, too loud.

He starts and looks at me in surprise, as though he’d forgotten I was there.


I feel stupid, as though I’ve interrupted something important.

‘Your seat belt,’ I mutter, cheeks burning.

‘Oh. Yes.’ Then, ‘Thanks.’

But I know he’s not really listening. It’s as though he’s listening to another conversation, one that I can’t hear. He doesn’t do his seat belt up.

We’re like two statues, side by side in the back of the car, grey and cold.

We’re nearly there, just pulling up outside the church, when he puts a hand on my arm, looks me in the eye. His face is lined and pale.

‘Are you OK, Pearl?’

I stare back at him. Is that really the best he can do?

‘Yes,’ I say eventually.

Then I get out of the car and walk into the church without him.

I always thought you’d know, somehow, if something terrible was going to happen. I thought you’d sense it, like when the air goes damp and heavy before a storm and
you know you’d better hide yourself away somewhere safe until it all blows over.

But it turns out it’s not like that at all. There’s no scary music playing in the background like in films. No warning signs. Not even a lonely magpie.
One for sorrow,
used to say.
Quick, look for another.

The last time I saw her was in the kitchen, an apron tight over her enormous bump, surrounded by cake tins and mixing bowls, bags of sugar and flour. She would have looked quite the domestic
goddess if it hadn’t been for the obscenities she was bellowing at the ancient stove, which belched smoke back at her.

‘Mum?’ I said cautiously. ‘What are you doing?’

She turned on me, pink-faced, her red hair wilder than ever and streaked with flour.

‘The tango, Pearl,’ she shouted, waving a spatula at me. ‘Synchronized swimming. Bell-ringing. What does it look like I’m doing?’

‘I only asked,’ I said. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist.’

Which wasn’t a wise move. Mum looked like she might actually explode.

‘I’m baking a frigging cake.’

Except she didn’t say frigging.

‘But you can’t cook,’ I pointed out reasonably.

She gave me a glare that would have peeled the paint off the walls, if it hadn’t already flaked away a hundred years ago. ‘That oven is possessed by the devil.’

‘Well, it’s not my fault, is it? You were the one who insisted on moving into a falling-down wreck of a house where nothing works. We had a perfectly good oven in our old house. And
a roof that didn’t leak. And heating that actually
instead of just clanking.’

‘All right, all right. You’ve made your point.’ She examined an angry red stripe down the side of her hand.

‘Perhaps you should run that under the tap.’

‘Yes, thank you, Pearl,’ she snapped, ‘for the benefit of your medical expertise.’

But she hoisted herself over to the sink anyway, still swearing under her breath.

‘Aren’t pregnant women supposed to be all serene?’ I said. ‘Glowing with inner joy and all that?’

‘No.’ She winced as she held her hand under the cold water. ‘They’re supposed to be fat and prone to unpredictable mood swings.’

‘Oh.’ I suppressed a smile, partly because I felt sorry for her, and partly because I wasn’t quite sure where the spatula might end up if I didn’t.

There was a muffled snort of laughter from the hallway.

‘I don’t know what you think you’re laughing at,’ Mum shouted at the kitchen door. Dad’s head appeared from behind it.

‘Laughing?’ he said, eyes wide and innocent. ‘No, not me. I was just coming to congratulate you on mastering the mood swings so magnificently.’

Mum glared at him.

‘Although, from memory,’ he said, keeping well out of reach, ‘you were pretty good at them before you were pregnant.’

For a moment I thought she was going to throw a saucepan at him. But she didn’t. She just stood in the middle of the dilapidated, egg-shell-strewn, cocoa-smeared kitchen and laughed and
laughed until there were tears streaming down her face and none of us were really sure whether she was laughing or crying. Dad went over and held her hands.

‘Sit down, will you?’ he said, leading her over to a chair. ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea. You’re supposed to be taking it easy.’

‘Bloody hormones.’ She wiped her eyes.

‘Are you sure that’s all it is?’ Dad sat down next to her, looking anxious. ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’

‘Don’t fuss,’ she said, smiling. ‘I’m fine. Really. It’s just – well, look at me. I’m already so huge I practically need my own postcode. God only
knows what I’ll be like in another two months. And my ankles look like they belong to an old lady. It’s most disconcerting.’

‘It’ll all be worth it,’ Dad said.

‘I know,’ she said, her hands on her bump. ‘Little Rose. She’ll be worth it.’

Then they sat smiling at each other nauseatingly.

,’ I said, grinning. ‘All those sleepless nights and smelly nappies. It’ll be well worth it.’

I pulled my jacket from where it was hanging on the back of a chair and turned to go.

‘Are you off out?’ Mum said.

‘Yes. I’m meeting Molly.’

‘Pearl, wait,’ Mum said. ‘Come here.’

She held her arms out and smiled, and it was just like it always was with Mum. However unreasonable she’d been, and however much you tried not to forgive her, she’d sort of dazzle
you into it.

‘Sorry, love. I shouldn’t have shouted at you before. I’ve got a splitting headache, but I shouldn’t have taken it out on you. I’m a miserable old crone.’

I smiled. ‘Yes you are.’

‘Do you forgive me?’

I dipped my finger into the bowl of chocolate cake mix on the table and tasted it. It was surprisingly good. ‘Definitely not.’ I leaned over her bump and gave her a peck on the
cheek. ‘Put your old lady feet up. Watch some crap telly, will you? Give the poor baby a bit of peace and quiet for once.’

She laughed and took my hand. ‘Stay and have a cup of tea with me before you go.’

‘I really can’t. We’re going to the cinema. Molls has booked the tickets.’ I gave her hand a squeeze. ‘I’ll see you later.’

But I was wrong.

It’s cold in the church. I hide my hands inside my sleeves to keep warm, but as the service goes on the chill starts to feel as though it’s inside me. I imagine ice
crystals forming in my veins. All around me there are people crying, but I can’t feel anything, except cold.

It’s all wrong. Mum would have hated it: the solemn music, the droning voice of the priest. I don’t listen. I’m still trying to work out how I got here: how the world tipped
and I slipped out of my comfortable, predictable life and landed here, in this cold, unfamiliar place.

At last it’s nearly over. Everyone’s singing the final, dreary hymn, but I can’t join in. I just stand, jaw clenched, wondering why I’m still not crying, panic rising
inside me. Why can’t I cry? Will people notice and think I don’t care? I untuck my hair from behind my ears and let it fall like a long dark curtain around my face. The coffin goes
past, all shiny brass and lilies, the smell of them sweet and overpowering. Why lilies? They look so stiff and formal. Mum loved flowers that grew wherever they pleased. Honeysuckle tangled pink
and yellow in hedges. The neon flash of poppies on motorway verges.

And suddenly I know that she’s here. I
that if I look round I’ll see her all alone in the middle of the furthest pew, and she’ll wave and give me a big grin and
blow me a kiss, like I’m five and in the infant school nativity play. My heart pounds till I’m light-headed. My hands are shaking.

BOOK: The Year of the Rat
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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