A loss in the family preys on Bella’s mind – not because she’s grieving, but because she’s not. Against her better judgement, she risks a young relationship and returns home with her girlfriend for a break from hectic city life. What she finds there is more confusing and strange than she could have imagined.
Bella flicked through the menu listlessly, her eyes moving across the words but not taking in their meaning, no closer to a decision about what to eat than the moment she’d walked into the restaurant or for that matter when she’d woken up this morning. Lara watched her from across the table. She’d made her mind up minutes ago. “Bella?”
“Hm?” She looked up, staring at the other woman as if surprised to find her sitting at the same table.
“Have you decided?”
“Um. No.” She rubbed her temple and frowned down at the choices. “What are you having?”
“The salmon to start and then the sea bass.”
“That sounds fine.”
“You don’t eat fish, Bella.”
Lara laid her menu down on the table. She was halfway through her glass of wine, Bella’s was untouched. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Her voice betrayed her irritation though. Not with Lara specifically, but with that question; the same question she’d been asked over and over again for the last month, always in the same tone, always with the same weight of meaning behind it. And every time the same answer. Well what was she supposed to say?
“We can do this another night if you want.”
“It’s been a month, Lara,” Bella sighed, “if I can’t do this now, when can I do it?”
“There’s no rules about this. It takes as long as it takes for you to…you know…”
“To what?” she snapped. “To be okay with it? To get over it? To move on?”
Lara’s expression was sympathetic, but Bella could tell she’d gone too far. She hadn’t raised her voice but some of the other patrons on neighbouring tables were giving them sideways looks now. There was a palpable tension. Slowly she sighed and put down her own menu. She rubbed her eyes, heedless of the mess it was probably making of her makeup. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not. This isn’t fair on you.”
“It’s not fair on anyone. This situation…you know…there’s no etiquette here…”
“No, there isn’t. You’re right. I’m just sorry you’ve been caught up in it. You didn’t ask for this.” They’d only been dating for four months. They were still in that heady rush of a new relationship, when it went from that sudden infatuation to actually being a real thing, but was still fresh and exciting. It was too early to talk about the future, but too late for either of them to get distracted by somebody else. Commitment without the hassle; the perfect middle ground, at least as far as Bella was concerned. But the events of the last month had changed the game, and now things were becoming complicated. She felt like crying again. Truthfully, she didn’t want to be here. It was a good restaurant, one of her favourites, and she’d told herself all week she was excited about this date. She’d actually almost convinced herself. On an intellectual level, she knew she needed to do this, to get out of the house and pick her life up again, and she’d spent a long time honing herself into someone who was concerned only with pure, mercenary rationality. She knew what she wanted out of life, and no one was going to stop her getting it. But, as Lara had said, there was no etiquette for this, and no avoiding reality.
“Are you ready to order?” a waitress asked, hovering uncertainly by the table. Bella looked up in surprise again.
“Just a couple of minutes,” Lara said.
“No, it’s fine.” She flicked open the menu and chose the first thing her gaze alighted on. “I’ll have the soup and then the lamb cutlets.”
Lara watched her again, then smiled up at the waitress. “The salmon mousse and the sea bass for me, please.”
“Any side orders?”
“No, thank you.”
The waitress took their menus and left them alone. Bella’s shoulders slumped. “I am sorry though.”
“You don’t have to keep apologising. Look, I’m here for you.” She reached across the table.
Bella eyed her girlfriend’s hand. It was too early for all this sort of talk. They both knew that. It was all just terrible luck, and now she felt guilty for focusing on how it was affecting her and not on the actual problem, and guilty for feeling guilty even, and on and on in a recursive spiral of guilt and depression. Which was normal. She knew it was normal. But it had been a whole month, and wasn’t that enough time? The funeral was already receding into hazy grey memories of immediate, chest-wrenching grief, and everything that needed to be taken care of was. There were no more excuses. Almost reluctantly, she took Lara’s hand and squeezed it affectionately. She plastered a smile across her face, tried to do justice to the hours she’d spent getting ready, applying and reapplying makeup, trying on different outfits, suddenly completely discombobulated about what was appropriate, what looked nice, what was the right tone to strike. She’d never battled that kind of indecision before: never spent more than fifteen minutes worrying about that sort of thing. That wasn’t the kind of girl she was. But now it was all different.
“It’s going to be okay,” Lara told her.
“I know.” And it would be. It would have to be. Life goes on. They were both still here, and so was everything else, with everyone sitting around, talking and laughing, acting as if, one month ago to the day, her little brother didn’t take an overdose and kill himself. Like it was any other day.
She spoke with a counsellor once a week now. She’d arranged it herself, because it seemed a sensible thing to do in the wake of such a personal tragedy in her immediate family, but she’d started out pretty sceptical of the whole process. It was just another box to tick. It was only her third session, and she’d already begun to find it beneficial though. She’d been expecting something cold and clinical, something medicinal she could fit into a neat place in her head. You go to the doctor or the hospital, you put it in its own little space, because it smells different, and there are different rules, and you can cope with submitting to a smear test or a mammogram or whatever invasive procedure it might be in those circumstances. But the counsellor was different. The sessions just took place at her house in a chintzy little front room with no TV anywhere to be seen. The counsellor herself – Anne – was a middle-aged woman with a matronly air about her. She was not at all like Bella’s own mother, but there was something universal about women of a certain shape and demeanour that was comforting.
“How are you doing?” she asked her.
“Um…okay…I kind of ruined a date last night I think…”
And so it began. Just a freeform discussion, again not at all what she’d been expecting. They talked about whatever cropped up, delving into events from her past, even back to her childhood, that she’d never even considered traumatic, but which she now saw had a lasting effect on her life. And there was no judgement. Everything she said was taken at face value. It was just her getting stuff off her chest.
“I’m not sure how my parents are coping,” she said, eyes flicking to the godawful china dog that stared at her from the hearth, “we’ve never been that close.”
“Why’s that do you think?”
“Well. Um. I don’t know.” She sat on the too-plump sofa, incessantly folding and unfolding her hands. She was uncomfortable being in this place talking to a virtual stranger, but there was a release in being able to be so open with someone, a person who was professionally disinterested in her, who was only there to listen. “I mean, the fact that I’m gay has always been an issue. Not that they were against it or anything. They were totally supportive. But…you know…there’s this distance.”
“What sort of distance?”
“A kind of feeling that my experiences are necessarily different to theirs, I suppose? I’m not going to do the stuff Mum did. I’m not going to get married, at least not in the same way. I won’t settle down and have kids. Not like she did. And, you know, moving to the city, having a career. I wouldn’t say I’m not what they wanted, just that I’m…I don’t know…” She struggled to express her thoughts. It hadn’t come easily, this openness. “I’m not what they expected.”
Anne nodded thoughtfully. “And does that bother you?”
“I…no…I mean, I’m happy with who I am. I wouldn’t change anything.”
“What I mean,” the counsellor smiled, “is does the distance they have with you bother you?”
“Oh. Well, I suppose. It makes times like this hard. And I’m all they have now.”
“So do you think that’s why they’re not coping?”
“I don’t know. It’s just different, I suppose. My brother lived at home. We weren’t alike at all. He was…well, okay, I don’t know because he never got a diagnosis or anything, but maybe a little bit autistic? Or Asperger syndrome? I can’t imagine he’d have ever left home. He wouldn’t have managed out in the real world. He was messed up.”
“He committed suicide,” Anne reminder her.
She swallowed. It was never easy to hear it outside her own head. “Yeah. He had problems. Obviously. I just wish he’d told someone. He was close to Dad.”
“Tell me about your father, Bella.”
“He’s intelligent. I mean, he has to be – he’s an academic. A professor. He’s a nice guy really, but he’s sort of hard and uncompromising.” She waved a hand around the room. “He’d never put up with this sort of thing. I don’t know, maybe he’s got some problem too, because he and my brother always seemed to be on the same wavelength. They’re both obsessive about things.”
“What sort of things?”
“All sorts of things. My father’s a professor of English Literature. He wrote his PhD thesis on comparative mythology. My brother loved all that stuff. He’s got bookshelves full of all these, you know, trilogies and things. Dragons and knights and all that Lord of the Rings shit. You wouldn’t think a proper academic would encourage it, but he and Dad used to talk for hours. It was odd.”
“So they had something in common,” Anne said, moving her hands in the way she always did. It was a meaningless motion, circling her fingers in her palm, but there was something oddly comforting about it. “And that’s what you felt you lacked with him?”
“With your brother.”
She nodded slowly. “We were very different people. I’m ambitious. I left home, went to university, made a life. He never went anywhere. I don’t think he ever even had a girlfriend. Or, fuck, a boyfriend for all I know.” She wiped her eyes where tears were starting to form again. “I don’t think we’d had a real conversation in years. He didn’t understand me, and I didn’t understand him. I never even thought it was a problem.”
“And what about your father? Have you spoken to him?”
“We don’t speak,” she shrugged.
“Why is that?”
“He’s like my brother. He doesn’t really understand me.” She made her mind up suddenly. She’d been back for the funeral, but left the same day. It was all too much, that small-town crap, too many questions from aunts and uncles she hadn’t seen in a decade, too many whispers behind hands. She was the lesbian with the dyed bob, the glamorous London career girl in her heels and pencil skirt, the one who went away and never really came back. She’d felt like a freak-show exhibit, a floating conjoined foetus staring emptily from a jar as the yokels gawped at her. Home was not a safe space. Home was alien. “I think I need to take some time off,” she said, “get away from the city for a bit. I need to go and see my parents, figure out how they’re dealing with this. I haven’t been fair to them.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Anne warned her.
“I need to do this for myself as well.” And she did. It wasn’t feasible to try to throw herself back into normal life after all this. She had to decompress, like a diver coming up from the ocean floor. She needed to find some kind of resolution, and she couldn’t do it here.
Against her better judgement, Bella asked Lara to come with her. The only one of her girlfriends she’d ever bought home before was Mae, her partner of almost two years. They’d gotten as far as buying a flat together before everything had gone pear-shaped, so it’d seemed prudent to at least introduce her to her parents. They’d never warmed to her, which in retrospect was probably a good thing. She hadn’t been expecting Lara to agree to the trip – she was planning to go home for a week – but she’d actually seemed excited and booked the time off right away. Again, the thought that things were happening too fast crept in. She liked Lara a lot, and could more or less envisage a future together, but she preferred to avoid the whole question as a general rule. And now events were conspiring to artificially accelerate things. A fun new relationship was being forced into unpleasantly grown-up territory by the inexorable grown-upness of this tragedy.
That’s how they found themselves driving into Bella’s little hometown, passing by shops and houses at once familiar and yet strangely different. She was the better part of fifteen years removed from living here, so while the basic outline was still as she remembered it, there was a new façade. Businesses changed hands and signs were updated, people moved house and the new owners wanted to paint the door a different colour, whatever. And yet as they turned on the corner by the church and she saw the bench by the memorial with four teenagers lolling around, not-so-surreptitiously smoking, it all came back to her. That had been her once, a long time ago. Last time she’d been here, she was still numb with shock. She’d had no time to take any of it in. “Looks like a nice place,” Lara said conversationally, peering out of the windows at the shop fronts of the high street.
“Yeah, it’s all right.”
They drove through the town and then out a little way, past the station and the rugby pitch. The old pub on the corner was now just a house, but the pole for the sign remained outside, looking naked and forlorn without its swinging picture of a duck that she always thought looked confused to find itself there. It was a blustery cold day, the back end of January, and in her memories the road that led to her childhood home was a leafy avenue, sunny and green. Today it looked bare and grey. The houses here were a little larger, detached, with big drives and garages. Her parents weren’t wealthy, but they were comfortable. She indicated and they pulled into the drive, stopping just behind her dad’s BMW.
“Wow,” Lara said, looking up at the house, “you’re rich!”
“I’m not. For one thing, this is my parents’ house. And for another, they’re not either.” But, secretly, she wondered what a place like this would cost her in London, and she thought Lara was thinking the same thing.
They got out of the car and grabbed their bags from the boot. Separate bags for each of them. A week would be the longest period Bella had spent with her girlfriend so far. They didn’t live too far apart and saw each other most days, stayed wherever was most convenient after dates, but they hadn’t even reached the having-a-toothbrush-at-each-other’s-flats stage yet and the suspicion was growing in her that Lara was thinking of this trip as a prelude to more commitment. She didn’t know how she felt about that possibility.
At the door, her mum was waiting for them. She walked up and gave her a perfunctory hug. Her mother was very unlike her: short, a little overweight, quite traditional. And there was still a distance between them that was about more than her brother. Lara came up behind them holding out a hand. Her mother took it gingerly. “Hello, dear, you must be Lara.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs Constable,” Lara smiled.
“Oh please, call me Jan.” There was an awkward moment on the doorstep, but then her mother clapped her hands and said, “I’ll put the kettle on. Come and get your things inside.” They bustled in after her. The hallway was as pristine as Bella remembered it. The cream carpet ought to have picked up its fair share of mud and dirt by now, but it was as spotless as ever. “Is that all you brought?” her mother asked as she eyed their two small bags.
“Yes.” Bella looked around. “Where’s Dad? His car was in the drive.”
Her mother looked conflicted for a second. “He’s outside.”
“What do you mean?”
“In the garden.”
“Huh? Why?” She walked through into the living room, where the French doors looked out over the garden. It had always been mostly lawn, with an outdated rockery on one side and a few flower beds here and there, sporadically maintained by her largely disinterested mother. Now the whole thing was transformed, dug over and replanted, and she was amazed to see the stork-like figure of her father, thinning grey hair tousled by the wind, trundling a wheelbarrow full of compost up towards a brand new shed against the rear fence. She blinked a few times. “What the fuck’s going on?”
“I think it’s just his way of coping, dear,” her mother said at her elbow. “You still take your tea with sugar, don’t you?”
“Not for about ten years, Mum,” she said absently. She watched her father for a few moments longer, fascinated by the awkward way he wielded the spade he was carrying, and then turned away, more confused than ever.
She gave Lara the tour. Her girlfriend’s delight with the house was starting to grate on her as she exclaimed at every new room. Yes, it might be five times the size of either of their flats, but so what? This was the countryside. She had to remind herself that Lara had never lived outside of London. This must all be even stranger to her than it was to Bella. “This was my room,” she said as she opened the door.
“Sorry, not much to see. Everything good was packed away and sold years ago. No embarrassing stuffed toys to dig out.”
“Aw shame.” Lara smiled and squeezed her arm.
“Yeah. Anyway.” She led her across the landing. “This is my dad’s study.” The door was closed but not locked so she opened it and they both looked inside. The little room was just how she remembered it, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves covering most of one wall, the cramped desk by the window with an antique typewriter set on it and, tucked away discreetly underneath like an embarrassment, the modern laptop. Normally it was the very definition of organised chaos, but all his papers seemed to have been stacked up neatly to one side, and the drawers were shut. It bore all the trademarks of her mother’s handiwork, but the room was cold and felt unused. “Strange,” she murmured to herself.
The next door along was also closed and she paused as her hand rested on the knob. “You okay?” Lara asked.
“This is James’s room.” She didn’t know if she wanted to look inside. She’d gone into automatic host mode, forgetting it might not be appropriate to go wandering around at will any more. But where was the harm? She pushed the door open and flicked on the light switch because the curtains were closed. It was just as it had been when he was alive. She felt her breath catch as she looked around.
Lara followed her in. “Wow,” she said softly.
“I know.” James had been eight years younger than her, but by any measure he was a man grown. This was the room of an adolescent though, and it was almost completely unchanged from her own childhood. From the posters on the walls to the shelf of fantasy schlock and even the dinosaur toys on the stand by the window, it was all completely untouched. Not a shrine exactly, but certainly kept at arm’s length, at least for the time being.
Lara walked around the room, looking at things. She pulled a book from the shelf and started to leaf through, a smile on her face. “I used to read all this stuff.”
“Yeah?” Bella crossed to the window and pulled the curtains open, letting in the cold wintry light. She had a view of the garden again, and could see her dad pottering around still, even as it started to drizzle. The lawn had been turned into a construction site, but there was a vague sense of order to the work going on. As she tilted her head, she thought she saw a kind of pattern to the lines of turf that had been dug up, and the patio slabs laid down.
“Yeah. Funny, your brother and I would probably have had a lot to talk about.”
She turned from the window. “What?”
Lara replaced the book on the shelf. It was one of a set, like most of them, one of those thick doorstoppers with a map at the start. Fairy stories. She’d always made fun of him for reading that kind of trash. “I had an older sister too,” she said, “and she was horrible to me about being such a geek.”
Bella blinked at how closely her girlfriend’s words followed her thoughts, then shook her head firmly. “He’d probably have been terrified of you.”
She laughed. “Why?”
“He couldn’t talk to girls. Whenever he met any of my girlfriends before, he just turned bright red.”
“Bless.” Lara looked around the sad little room. “Do you miss him?”
“Um.” She didn’t know how to answer that question. She’d spent her whole life not really having much of an opinion on her only sibling. But his death had hit hard, if only because of how it’d happened. The senselessness of it, the sadness of knowing that he’d been feeling what he’d been feeling and none of the people closest to him seemed to have noticed. But there was another aspect to it. Bella bent down and picked up one of the plastic dinosaurs. He wasn’t really a child – this was just a keepsake he’d held onto. It was dusty, and probably had been for years. She turned it over and examined the name on the bottom almost reflexively. When he was little, he used to ask her to test him on the names of all the creatures. They all had them moulded along the bottom, so kids could learn about them or whatever. He was one of those boys always desperate to demonstrate his knowledge, always wanting to expound on whatever dull subject he was currently obsessed with. “Pachycephelosaurus,” she sounded out carefully. She remembered him then, seven- or eight-years-old, on holiday, her dragged along with the family, a bored teenager beginning to chafe at the limitations placed on her. That’s when he’d got this toy, and when he’d learned to pronounce the name, saying it syllable by syllable as he read aloud from his dinosaur book. He’d been so happy about getting it right, and somehow it had wormed its way into her head too. The summer of pachycephelosaurus.
“Bella?” Lara was at her side now, looking down at the toy with interest.
“I don’t miss him,” she said finally, “but I miss who I thought he was going to become. That’s the sad thing. He never grew up, not really. He was always stuck like this, living at home, surrounded by toys, not paying any bills, getting all his meals cooked for him. Arrested development. And I guess on some level I was waiting for him to be a real person, and for me and him to have a proper relationship. Now…we won’t.”
“Oh this is where you two have got to,” said a voice at the door and they turned to see her mother looking at them, “come out of here.”
“Sorry,” Bella said, putting the toy back, “just showing Lara around.”
“It’s time for dinner.”
It was still light outside and she looked down at her watch. “It’s a bit early, isn’t it?”
“Blame your father.”
Downstairs, the dinner table was all laid out, but there was something a little askew about it. Her place was set next to Lara’s, and Mum was opposite, and Dad always sat at the head of the table, but that left a space at the other end unoccupied. She didn’t think it was intentional, but there was something oddly ghoulish about it. Her mother was already serving up when her father finally walked in. He looked surprised to see her, and she was equally surprised upon getting a close look at him for the first time since she’d come back. He was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, clothes that looked completely wrong on his spindly frame. His nose and cheeks were blasted bright red from the wind and he had watery eyes. But strangest of all were his hands, normally kept fastidiously clean, now calloused and brown with caked-in dirt. Bella stared at him.
“Bella? Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you’d arrived.”
“What are you wearing, Dad?”
He looked down at himself, then back up at her. “My work clothes.”
“You’re a professor. Your work clothes are a tweed jacket and chinos.”
“Well I’m on sabbatical. And I’m working on the garden.”
“You’ve never cared about it before…”
Her mother dropped a bowlful of potatoes down in the middle of the table with enough force to make everyone jump. “Whoops! Bella, have you introduced your father to your…uh…”
“Oh right. Dad, this is Lara. My girlfriend.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr Constable,” she said politely, rising slightly to shake his hand.
He took it absently and nodded. “Yes, yes.”
Dinner was served. They were never much for table chat, the Constables, since her father and brother had been of the school of thought that eating was something of a necessary evil. Her father shovelled food into his mouth mechanically, first cutting everything up and then mixing it together like it was stew. He’d always eaten that way, and James had been the same. Like two human JCBs, they used to say.
“I need to lay some of those slabs before it gets dark,” her father said between mouthfuls.
Her mother nodded. “Okay, dear.”
“It’s getting dark now, Dad,” Bella said.
“You want to be careful out there. It’s been raining too.”
He shrugged as he scooped up another forkful of food. “Needs doing.”
“So get a man in to do it.”
“They’ll only bugger it up.” He was already done with his dinner, chasing around the last few errant peas and then popping them into his mouth. He grunted something and then got straight up without another word. He stomped through the kitchen then out the back door. The clouds outside were heavy and dark now, and it was one of those evenings that would fall suddenly, she knew. “Is he okay out there?” she asked her mother.
“He’s fine.” They had a bottle of wine open, but only the three women had poured themselves glasses. Her mother sipped hers delicately, not looking out of the window at the dim shape of her husband loading up the wheelbarrow again.
Later, Bella helped her load the dishwasher. She thought about what she’d seen since coming back. “How long’s Dad been working on the garden?”
“Ooh, about three weeks now I suppose?”
That made sense. She hadn’t noticed it looking any different when she’d been here for the funeral. She rinsed off a plate and stacked it in the rack with the others. “He’s done a lot in that time.”
“Yes, he’s been very busy.”
“He must have been out there at all hours…”
“And in all weathers,” her mother sighed.
Bella rolled the rack into the dishwasher and leaned against the counter. “That doesn’t sound healthy.”
“He’s fine. You know what he’s like when he starts a project.”
“He hasn’t been in his study in weeks though.”
“It’s a different kind of project I suppose. It’s harmless enough, and I’m sure it’ll be lovely when it’s done.”
“Did he even ask you about it?”
She shrugged as she pushed the dishwasher door closed. “You know how he is.”
“Do you think he’s using it to deal with…with what happened?”
“On some level, maybe. I don’t know.”
“But James never cared about the garden. What’s the connection?”
“You’d have to ask your father, dear.”
“Do you know what he’s planning to do out there? It looks like total landscaping. Pretty ambitious.”
“He’s an ambitious man. He has plans, I suppose, all drawn up.”
She nodded towards the dark kitchen window. In the distance, at the bottom of the garden, was a faint glow from the shed. “In there. That’s his study now, I suppose.”
Bella shook her head. “Weird.”
“It’s harmless,” her mother repeated, “now let’s talk about something else. Does your…friend want a drink?”
Lara was in the living room and Bella craned her neck to see. Her wine glass was still half full. “She’s fine.”
“She seems nice.”
“Yeah, she’s okay I guess.” It was making her uncomfortable, this forced proximity, this sudden immersion of a new person in her very personal family neuroses. She felt embarrassed, introducing her to this mess. Back in London she was on firm ground, with definite limits that she could control. Here she was lost, feeling like she was regressing by the second, surrounded by people who’d somehow become strangers to her in the last fifteen years. It occurred to her that, even if things with Lara worked out and they ended up spending the rest of their lives together, she’d never invite her back to her family home for a week. If not for James killing himself, this would be unimaginable.
“Where’s she from?”
“What? Um…Croydon I think.”
“No, I mean originally.”
She stared at her mother. “Croydon,” she repeated, “born and raised.”
“But she’s a bit…” Her mother swished a hand around her face, a depressingly universal Middle-England gesture.
Bella could feel a headache coming along and she rubbed her temples gently. “Um…I think her dad’s Lebanese maybe? I don’t really know.” She’d never asked. Why would she? It was London, and nobody cared, but she thought she remembered Lara saying that.
“Ah well, you two make a nice couple.”
“I suppose so.” Feeling suddenly tired despite the relatively early hour, she picked up her own glass of wine and went back into the living room to join her girlfriend.
After a restless night in the bed that occupied what was once her room, Bella rose early, leaving Lara snoring softly. She put on her old dressing gown and walked downstairs. Her parents were always early risers and she wasn’t surprised to find her mother in the kitchen making tea. “Oh,” she said as Bella walked in, “I was just going to bring these up to you!”
“It’s fine. Lara will probably be down in a minute.” She had no idea if that was true, but she couldn’t be bothered to take one of the mugs all the way back upstairs and liked even less the idea of her mother awkwardly waking up her girlfriend in a strange house. She took her own mug – the red one she always used to use when she lived here – and turned to look out of the window. It was another grey, dismal day, not quite wet but not quite dry, and she was perplexed to see her father still out in the garden, now turning over compost in one of the flower beds. “How long has he been out there?”
“A little while I suppose. What do you want for breakfast, dear?”
“We’ve got bacon and things.”
“Oh. Oh, I don’t know. Whatever.” Still holding her tea she opened the back door and winced at the blast of chill air. It wasn’t cold enough for there to be frost on the ground but the wind was biting and blew flecks of drizzle into her face. She blinked it away and watched her father opening another compose bag. It was surreal.
“Can you take this out to him?” her mother asked her. She nodded and took another mug of tea from her hand. She stepped out onto the patio barefoot. It was old-fashioned concrete crazy paving, contemporaneous with the rockery. The lawn was essentially gone so she stood at the edge of the patio and called to her father.
He turned and frowned. “What?”
“Tea,” Bella repeated.
He seemed unwilling to stop his work, but after a few seconds of indecision he wiped his hands off on his jeans and walked over to her. He already looked dirty, but whether it was from the night before still or it had accumulated just this morning, she couldn’t tell. His hair was still wild in the wind and he looked tired. Exhausted even. “Thanks,” he said as he took the mug from her. He sipped it as they both looked out over the carnage.
“So…what’s the plan?”
She waved a hand. “With the garden. What are you doing to it?”
“Oh, well, you know…” He trailed off a little uncertainly.
She pushed a little harder. “A new lawn? A pond? What?”
“It’s, well, it’s a bit complicated I suppose.”
“It’s a garden, Dad.”
“Yes, I know. I have some ideas.”
“Okay then.” She was growing bored of the conversation so she left him to it and walked back indoors. Her mother was rooting through the freezer. “Now I know we had some sausages,” she said.
“It’s fine. We’ll just have toast or something.” Bella wasn’t much for breakfast. She took a seat at the kitchen table and looked up as Lara entered. She looked sleepy but bright and cheerful enough. Bella was suddenly annoyed by her. Annoyed by her presence in this place, by the incongruity of a person from her real life invading this weird childhood sanctum, intruding into their private business of grieving. And the fact that she was the one who invited her only made it worse. What had she been thinking?
“Morning,” Lara said, walking over to her and planting a kiss on her cheek.
“You were tossing and turning all night.”
“It’s okay.” She was dressed, unlike Bella, but had just pulled on jeans and a t-shirt. Her hair was quickly tied back and she wasn’t wearing any makeup. It was the morning-at-someone-else’s-house costume. Too early to be properly dressed, too unfamiliar to hang out in pyjamas.
“Do you want some toast?” Bella asked her.
She got up and busied herself with breakfast stuff, moving around her mother, not talking except when necessary and somehow finding her way around a kitchen in which everything seemed to have moved. When was the last time she was here properly? She didn’t come home much. Her mother had visited her in London only a handful of times, her father, and James for that matter, never. They weren’t that sort of family.
“What are we doing today?” Lara asked over the toast.
“Um.” Bella chewed thoughtfully. The idea had been to relax, to get her head straight. She felt worse than ever though. She hated the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar that this house represented. She wanted to be somewhere she was comfortable, but coming here made her realise that place was her flat in the city. She’d decided she’d made a mistake in returning. “We can go into town I suppose.”
“That sounds nice.”
She bit of another mouthful of toast, chewed and swallowed. “Not really.”
Lara laughed. “Well I’d be interested to see it anyway.”
“Okay then. Let’s do that.”
When they’d finally made themselves presentable, they took a walk. The weather was no better than it had been earlier, or last night for that matter, and the streets were not attractive in the grey half-light. Lara seemed happy though as Bella talked her through every anecdote that sprung to mind as they wandered around, just trying to think of things to say really. They walked past her old school. Lara looked through the gates with interest. “It’s small,” she said.
“It seemed big at the time. They’ve built new blocks and things now too.”
“You never talk about that stuff.”
“School. Your childhood.”
“You’ve only known me four months,” Bella reminded her. They walked past the playing fields. It was a Saturday and some kids in football kits were running around, possibly warming up for a game.
“Still. If it was anything like mine I can see why you wouldn’t want to talk about it.”
She shrugged. “It was fine. I fitted in okay, despite everything.”
“You were lucky then.”
They lapsed into silence as they entered a housing estate that was mostly bungalows. It had expanded since Bella had lived heer and she saw signs for unfamiliar housing developments here and there. There were whole swathes of this town she’d never recognise now. She ought to feel upset about that or something, but on that overcast morning she couldn’t summon up the energy to care.
“What’s the deal with your dad?” Lara asked suddenly.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s been out in that garden every hour since we’ve arrived. Is that normal?”
Bella thought about it. “Well, yes and no. He’s never cared about the garden before, but he’s very obsessive about his projects. I guess for some reason he’s decided to focus on this now.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with what happened to your brother?”
“Um. Maybe. I don’t know. That’s what Mum said. About him using it to cope. He didn’t start until after it happened. So yeah. I guess.”
They walked a little further, past well-tended front gardens and neat little family homes. “You don’t like it here, do you?” Lara asked.
“Because…it’s boring.” But that wasn’t it.
“Is it your brother?”
She shook her head. “No. This is what it’s always like.”
“Because I thought, you know, your parents were acting a bit strange and maybe it was because of that…”
“No, that’s how they are.”
She was leaving something unsaid, probably because they hadn’t been together long enough for her to feel comfortable talking to her about these kinds of things. It wasn’t her place to get involved in family business. But she was here, and she’d be around for a whole week. That was a long time. “Listen, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” she said.
Lara stopped and frowned at her. “What?”
They were in front of a nice house with a tree growing in the middle of the front garden, bare this time of year. There was nobody around. “Coming here.”
“Do you want me to go?”
“No! No, I don’t mean like that. I mean both of us coming here. I think I was looking for something I’m probably not going to find.”
“I don’t know. But I feel worse than ever being here.”
“Because it reminds you of your brother?”
There was that flash of anger again. It wasn’t that at all, and she was irritated at Lara for always assuming it was. As if this mess could be caused by anything as neat as simple grief. Who was she to come in and try to diagnose her problems like this? But she pushed it down, reminding herself again that it was her who’d invited her to stay. “Maybe,” she said diplomatically.
“Are you sure coming here wasn’t more about them then you anyway?”
“C’mon, it’s obvious your folks are having a shit time, even if you say they’re always like this. Maybe you need to spend a little more time with them. Try to figure out what your Dad’s up to for a start.”
“Maybe,” she said again.
They made their way back to her parents’ house and by the time they crunched up the drive it was raining properly and they dashed to the front door. Inside they quickly made a mess of the cream carpet and then found her mother in the living room again, watching some black and white movie on the TV. Bella turned to the French doors. “Is he still outside?”
“Yes, of course he is.”
She thought about Lara’s advice. “I’m going to talk to him.”
“If you think that’s best, dear.”
She didn’t, necessarily, but she was determined anyway. The rain was insistent as she stepped outside and her father was nowhere to be seen. The door of the shed was slightly ajar and she tramped across the muddy ground towards it. As she reached it the door was almost flung open in her face as her father backed out with the wheelbarrow. “Oh!”
“Fucking hell! Watch what you’re doing, Dad!”
“Sorry,” he mumbled, “I didn’t expect anyone to be there.”
“All right.” She stepped to one side and let him come out. “You should come inside.”
“Because it’s raining. It looks like the Somme out here. What can you do in this weather?”
He scratched at his head and looked around at the muddy nightmare unfolding in the garden. Bella didn’t know the first thing about horticulture, and she suspected the same was true of him. What was he trying to do here?
“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” she offered.
“No, I should really crack on.”
He gestured vaguely. “Got to lay some slabs over there.”
“What for? Another patio?”
“No, it’s a sort of…” He was moving his hands again, miming out the vague shape of a circle.
Bella leant around him to look into the shed. It was hard to make out much in the gloom but there seemed to be plans and sketches pinned to the walls and a big stack of books on a shelf along one side. “What have you got in there?” she asked.
His hand moved to the door. “Nothing.”
“Are these the plans?” Knowing how he could be, she put her foot in the door to stop him closing it on her and forced her way past. The interior of the shed was cramped and it smelt of wood rather than the musty scent she associated with this kind of place. It was almost brand new, of course. She squinted at the plans pinned to the wall. They were rough, but clear enough. It was a drawing of the garden, but instead of the lawn, the patio, the rockery and so on, it was all taken up by an odd spiral design that looped around on itself several times. She tilted her head to try and make sense of it. “What is this?”
“It’s nothing, like I said.” He seemed annoyed. “Come out of there.”
“This is a pretty weird garden, Dad.”
“Well what’s it to you? It’s my bloody garden, isn’t it? You don’t even live here.”
The anger in his voice left her taken aback, but she recovered herself and responded in kind. “What about Mum? Has she seen this?”
“It’s just some designs I’ve been sketching,” he grumbled. He moved to pull the plan down from the wall but his hand paused a couple of inches away and she realised he couldn’t. What was going on here?
Seeking some other explanation, she turned and examined the books on the shelf. She picked the top one up and read the title aloud. “The World of Faerie in Medieval English Literature.”
“What’s wrong with that?” he asked, taking it from her hand and putting it back on the pile.
“Nothing at all.” She could see the other books were on more or less the same topic, along with some source material that she knew, from osmosis more than anything, were stories about people encountering magical beings from other worlds. Fairies, elves, that kind of thing. There was a collection of Celtic myths and legends and even some Norse stuff.
“Maybe you should come back inside, Dad,” she said, “do something normal. I think it might make you feel better.”
“I feel fine. And I’ve got work to do.”
“Sure. Okay.” She backed out of the shed, leaving him to whatever he was doing, but as she crossed the ruin of the garden she took note of the paving slabs that were already set out, and the pegs marking the positions of others. The design was just as it had appeared on his plans in there, and she couldn’t see that there was much to recommend it aesthetically. It was weird, and she started to feel worried. Back inside, she asked her mother about it. “Have you seen what he’s doing?” she asked.
She barely looked away from the television. “I’m just letting him get on with it.”
“I don’t know where he got his ideas for garden design, but he doesn’t have any books about it in there. It’s all stuff about magical creatures and shit.”
“That’s what he knows, dear.”
She exchanged an exasperated glance with Lara. “Yeah, but what’s that got to do with gardens?”
Her mother threw up her hands. “How should I know? What does it matter?”
“Well it’s your garden too and…”
“I told you last night I don’t want to talk about this, Bella.”
She shut her mouth instantly at that. She’d never known her mother to get angry before. Not ever. She was the most patient woman in the world – she had to be with her father and James in the house after all. She was so stunned she sat back in her chair and didn’t say anything to break the awkward silence as the three women stared at the television.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. She wasn’t sure if it was the effect of being back in this house, or the crap weather, or just the general boredom. What did her parents do all day? Her mother had only ever worked part time and retired years ago. Her father, as far as she knew, had only ever occupied his time writing literary criticism interspersed with occasional bouts of teaching. Before the garden that was. She found herself making endless cups of tea for her and Lara until dinner, and that proceeded much as it had the previous evening with her father only showing up to shovel his food down before disappearing outside again. It was bizarre. And mind-numbing. At night, she peeked out of her window at the garden below. The clouds had finally cleared leaving a moonlit night. There was a light in the shed, but otherwise the construction work was picked out in stark contrasts. She could make out the shape better. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said to Lara.
Her girlfriend looked up from her book. “What?”
She turned from the window. “We can go home tomorrow if you want.”
“Why?” She laid her book down.
“Because…this is awful. I’m sorry I brought you here.”
“No. It’s horrific. I never realised before.” She came and sat down on the bed.
“What did you say to your dad?”
“Nothing. I never do. I just looked in his shed and got a bit freaked out.”
“What do you think the deal is with the books?”
“How should I know?”
“You said they were about…what? Myths and legends and stuff?”
She nodded towards the door. “Sounds like what’s on your brother’s bookshelf.”
“It’s something they had in common. Dad was into all that stuff, weirdly.”
Lara smiled and rubbed her arm reassuringly. “Well that makes sense then, doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You thought this was his way of dealing with what happened to James, right? If he’s reading the books they enjoyed, maybe that’s part of it?”
“Yeah, okay.” Bella rubbed her head. She kept getting these headaches now. It was starting to make her tetchy too, but then that could be caused by almost anything at the moment. “But I don’t get the connection with the garden.”
“What’s he building?”
Bella drew a spiral in the air with her finger. “A spiral. I don’t get it.”
“Ask him then.”
“Why should I?”
Lara looked at her like she’d said something strange. “He needs your help, Bella.”
“He’s never needed anyone’s help.” She stood up and went back to the window. Twitching the curtain to one side, she looked out and saw her father emerging from the shed in the moonlight. He had a book in his hand and she watched him pace around the garden, following the arc he’d laid out with the paving slabs, moving with careful, precise steps, like he was practicing for a dance recital. He looked so strange out there, rake-thin, tall and almost skeletal, doing these silly, quasi-ritualistic movements that she nearly burst out laughing. But it wasn’t funny, she realised. It was strange. And it took an outsider to spot it. She’d have been content to let him carry on forever. “I should help him,” she murmured to herself. For whatever reason, this garden business had become important to her father, and she felt some heretofore dormant familial affection stir. He needed her, and while she was here she should do something about that.