Harry said he was late to look at a boiler breakdown on the other side of the town and cut her off before she could go into any more detail.
Forgetting who you were. Remembering who you are. It’s hard. You wake up in the night for months after, sweating because it’s all gone, everything – names, places, the way to your old house, the way to your new one.
Only then you remember something else. Why. And then you laugh.
You have to laugh.
‘WHERE WERE YOU?’ Cat said as she walked round the kitchen putting shopping away. The thaw had set in and the supermarket home delivery had reached them. She had made it to Emma’s book group the previous evening, but Judith had not, which was surprising as she had been one of the first and most enthusiastic members, had never missed a meeting, and the book they had discussed was her choice.
‘Things cropped up, you know how it is.’
Cat took the hint and did not pursue the subject. But things did not just ‘crop up’ to keep Judith from the book group.
‘What are we reading next?’
‘Wide Sargasso Sea . . . I’ve got a spare copy somewhere if you need it.’
‘I’m pretty sure there’s one here, thanks. I have read it, but years ago.’
Cat bent to put cheese into the fridge, the phone to her ear.
‘By the way, we went to the Italian for supper last week, the night before it thawed. Pretty hairy journey into town mind.’
‘Worth it though. It’s a comfort place, that restaurant.’
‘I needed a bit of comfort. Simon was there.’
‘Well, it’s his local. On his own?’
‘No, with Rachel.’
Cat sighed, heaving cat food tins up onto the shelf. ‘For him, yes.’
‘But . . .’
‘Do you know, I just can’t worry about Simon and women any more. I’ve had so many years of it, I’ve picked up so many pieces – not his usually – I’ve decided to stay out of it. He’s a grown-up for heaven’s sake. No, hang on . . . maybe that’s going a bit far.’
‘I have a theory. Serrailler men never grow up. I know they seem to manage to hold down quite grown-up jobs, but they themselves are fatally underdeveloped.’
‘Wonder if mine will inherit that. Sam sometimes seems to be going backwards. He had quite a lot of sense when he was nine.’
‘When does Hannah hear about this film part?’
‘Final choice on Thursday. It’s down to two of them and to say nerves are frayed would be the year’s understatement.’
‘Do you think she’ll get it?’
‘I know she wants it. We’ll see. But listen, Judith –’
‘Darling, I must go, something on the stove . . . Talk later and ring the minute you hear anything.’
There was nothing on the stove, Cat was certain. Judith had not wanted their conversation to veer back in her own direction, nor had she been prepared to answer questions. ‘Something’s up’ – that had been Chris’s catchphrase, and he usually had good antennae for what, but even Chris wouldn’t have been able to get over the barrier Judith seemed to have erected recently. Hannah fell in through the door, arms full of homework bag and sports kit, expression alert and anxious.
‘Have you heard anything?’
‘No, and we won’t until Thursday – you know that. Do you want cheese on toast or eggy bread?’
‘Marmite.’ The bags fell in a heap on the kitchen floor.
‘Han . . .’
‘OK, OK, sorry, but I’m so wound up I think I might go ping.’
Cat laughed. ‘It’s no good saying try and forget it because you can’t but at least try and practise diversion tactics. Such as what’s for homework?’
‘English essay but I’ve got three days.’
‘Read the first three chapters of Jewish Feasts and Festivals and be ready to discuss.’
‘Yes, did you know . . .’ She hitched herself onto the worktop counter stool, ate a slice of toast and Marmite until her mouth was stuffed full, then began to explain how Passover was celebrated. Usually, Cat would have prompted her to swallow first. Now she said nothing. Hannah was indeed liable to ‘go ping’. Cat looked at her daughter, a Serrailler in features but not in colouring, whereas Sam was as blond as Simon and Felix was the carbon copy of his father, chunky, dark-haired, square-faced.
Hannah was on the cusp of adolescence, grown tall, slender and long-necked. It was possible to see what she would look like as an adult. Interesting, Cat thought, trying to be dispassionate, she will be interesting and intelligent, but with every emotion and passing thought visible on her face, every joy and sorrow chasing one another like clouds across a bare hill. Her desperation to get the film part was obvious and painful. Don’t let her be disappointed, Cat thought, as she had thought so often in the last couple of weeks. Please let her have this or she will be beyond devastated. Was she praying then? Not exactly. She always had the sense that prayers ought to be about serious matters, not trivialities, so she would pray with and for patients in Imogen House every day, but hesitated to ask for anything for herself. Was asking this for Hannah trivial?
Not to Hannah.
She sent up a quick prayer, a proper one this time, as the car bringing Sam home pulled up outside.
‘LOOKS HALF FINISHED,’ Muriel said, opening a couple of cupboard doors and shutting them, then inspecting the join in the worktop. ‘See, the underside of this, it’s ragged, never been stuck down properly.’
‘Seems all right to me.’
‘That doesn’t surprise me, you’ve never paid attention to detail.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? You say some very odd things.’
‘Is that all you’ve got?’
‘It’s a very nice sherry.’
‘No, I mean those Twiglet things. Far too salty and I have to watch my blood pressure. I’m surprised you don’t, being the same as me.’
‘Yes, well, so far as I’m aware my blood pressure is what it should be. Let’s go into the sitting room.’ Elinor carried out the tray with glasses, sherry bottle and bowl of Twiglets.
‘That dresser looks too big in here.’
‘Muriel, please . . .’ Elinor set the tray down and turned to her twin. She was on the verge of tears. The move into her new bungalow had been exhausting. The snow had thawed so rapidly that the gutters could not cope and had overflowed, the double glazing was faulty and had steamed up between the panes so that it was impossible to see out of any window apart from the bedroom, the central heating had broken down twice, the electricity was playing up and some of her furniture was too bulky to come through the front door. At present it was in the removal firm’s stores, awaiting her decision. The dresser had been manoeuvred in with millimetres to spare and Muriel was right, it looked too big in the room.
‘Mu, I think we should make a pact –’
‘Don’t call me Mu. I hate Mu. Nelly.’
Elinor sighed. They were six years old again. They were always six years old, competitive, argumentative, jealous, angry. But she was determined to make one last effort. And it would be the last. She had come to live here in order to spend whatever years she had left closer to Muriel, and to try and be reconciled once and for all. She had even talked to a counsellor about it and learned what they had called some ‘strategies’.
‘Muriel, sit down and have this sherry. I want us to talk.’
‘No it isn’t, it’s just sense. Cheers.’
Muriel lifted her glass a fraction and sipped. ‘It isn’t poisoned’ was on the tip of Elinor’s tongue but she bit the words back. That was what would have to stop, that quick sarcastic or hurtful retort, one of them always trying to get a rise out of the other. She said as much now. Muriel looked at her over the top of her glass and looked away again. Said nothing.
‘It’s daft, all these years, quarrel, quarrel, quarrel, we’re sisters for heaven’s sake. Twins. What could be closer than that? People would give a lot to have someone as close in old age.’
‘Not so old.’
‘Muriel, I am the same age as you and, whatever you want to think, we are in our old age.’
‘I should know, I’m four minutes older than you.’
‘Does that really matter? You’ve tried to use that to patronise me and put me down and lord it over me all our lives. Four minutes. It has to stop. I want it to. Why do you think I’ve made this move? Come all this way?’
‘You’ve never said. Seems odd, if you want to know. All your friends being up there.’
‘I’ve precious few left, I’ve told you that. I think we’re very lucky to have one another.’
‘I’ve friends. A lot of friends.’
‘I’m very pleased to hear it. And I hope to make my own here. We don’t have to live in one another’s pockets.’
‘I should hope not.’
‘Just be friends, if we can’t be closer than that.’
Muriel looked into her empty sherry glass, not actually commenting on how small it was. Elinor got up and refilled it without a word. Her own was barely touched.
‘Maybe we should put it on a bit of a formal basis,’ she said. ‘Make a plan. Say, you come to lunch here one day a week, I come to you another.’
‘I might be doing something.’
‘Well, then we change it of course.’
‘Make an appointment to see your sister?’
‘You don’t have to sound like that. And of course you’d be welcome to come any time, drop in when you like. Oh, Mu, don’t always start arguing, it makes me tired.’
‘I wonder how friendly you’ll actually find the people here. It’s not the North.’
‘I know that. I shall make an effort though. You have to make the effort.’
‘Of course, I’ve known most of the people round me for thirty years. Or I did. There’s been changes. Always are. I still know quite a few but we don’t just drop in without notice. That’s what you’ll find different.’
‘You needn’t worry, Mu. I’ll never drop in on you without notice.’
They sat in silence then, sipping their medium sherries, looking out of the window at the bare branches of the tree on the other side of the fence.
‘You’ll stay and have a bit to eat with me?’ Elinor said eventually.
‘No, I’ve got a lasagne to finish up from yesterday, it won’t keep.’
‘Chuck it out then, what’s a bit of heated-up leftover lasagne?’
‘Money. I don’t know about you of course but I have to watch every penny.’
Elinor let her go. Nothing had changed, and nothing had been agreed and there was no truce between them, nor ever likely to be, she thought, taking out cheese and eggs from the fridge to make an omelette. There were lamb chops. She had planned those if Muriel had stayed but the heart had gone out of her to bother with them tonight, or to bother with anything else much. She could see what was on television, she could read, she could sew up the hems of her new bedroom curtains, which trailed onto the floor. She put away the sherry bottle and washed the glasses.
The bell rang.
The electricity had cut out twice that day, but come back on again before long.
‘It shouldn’t go off at all,’ the electrician said, when Elinor let him in. ‘I take a pride in my wiring.’ She was unsure where the switchboard and fuses were but he knew. ‘I ought to,’ he said, opening the cupboard.
‘Is there anything I can get for you, Mr . . .?’
‘Matt. No thanks. If I drank all the tea and coffee I was offered . . . Right, let’s have a look-see.’ He shone a powerful torch.
Elinor hesitated, then went back into the sitting room. She switched on the table lamp, which promptly went out again with a small flash.
‘Gotcha!’ Matt said from the cupboard.
Twenty minutes later, the electricity was sorted to his satisfaction and he left to check two other bungalows.
‘I never expected this sort of attention, you know,’ Elinor said, watching him walk down the path on his way to number 1. ‘You still working at this time to make sure we’re properly fixed.’
Matt nodded, not looking round.
MURIEL SAT IN front of the television, which was showing a documentary about families who had emigrated to Australia, a tray of supper on her lap – the warmed-up lasagne and two slices of bread and butter. She had barely eaten any of it. The television was talking to itself.
She was angry, angry with Elinor and angry with herself. She had not intended to let her sister get the upper hand. But somehow Elinor contrived it. She did not try to win arguments, as she had when they were young, nor did she try to gain by possessing some item Muriel hadn’t got or having more money left over at the end of the week. In the past, Elinor had gained the moral high ground simply by being what she was and Muriel was not – a wife. Marriage had been Elinor’s triumph. She had never gloated about it. There had been no need. The very fact of Bill’s existence and of her own changed name had been enough.
Since he had died things had evened up, but now Elinor had discovered a new way of seeming superior to Muriel. She had become sweet, forgiving and sisterly. She had moved four hundred miles, from the place where she had lived all her married life, to be near her twin, so that they could spend their last years trying, as she had put it, ‘to mend bridges’. So far as Muriel was concerned, there had never been any bridges, so they couldn’t very well be mended.
She had come away from the bungalow in Duchess of Cornwall Close feeling wrong-footed yet again. Elinor had been reasonable, affectionate, resisting the slightest disagreement. Muriel was cross with herself because she had intended to turn the other cheek, to admire the bungalow and approve of the new life, to sound pleased about everything and envious of what would clearly be a friendly and neighbourly community. Instead, she had not bitten her tongue, she had retorted, been sarcastic, pointed out all the pitfalls and shortcomings of the place.
Since early childhood they had disliked and been jealous of one another and that was now inextricably part of their deepest nature. None of which was her fault. Elinor had brought it all about. Elinor gave her the rope, playing it out eagerly until Muriel hanged herself. Perhaps it had been a game when they were children. It was no game now.