A RETURN TO THE HIDING HOUSE
THE PINK OF the strip was irrefutable. It was a pointing finger, a whisper that would leap from mouth to ear, over and over, until everyone in the village had their own embellished version of events. But no matter the truth, the conclusion would inevitably be the same: Elise Montgomery was just like her mother.
Perhaps the test was wrong. It was a home kit after all, not an official test performed by a doctor. And she might have believed it if this had not been the third test she’d done since yesterday. Perhaps if she stared long enough and channelled her will hard enough, she could make the pink fade to blue.
“Let them talk,” Elise huffed.
She flushed the toilet, dropped the indicator into the waste basket and then moved over to the sink to lather her hands with soap. The water was hot against her skin, almost unbearably so, but she held her hands there, rinsing and scrubbing. When they were red and raw, she raised her scalded digits and presented them to the bathroom mirror. Her reflection stared back, sharing the same strong features that had carried over from adolescence to burgeoning adulthood. Elise placed a hand on her stomach and pushed a curious finger into her gut. Her gaze moved up to her breasts and she tried to imagine them swollen with milk. A strange, awkward giggle escaped her lips and floated up to the ceiling.
Outside in the yard, cyclones of dust spun and danced in an icy wind. Forest branches moved in unison, swaying to a silent rhythm while leaves rustled polite applause. A group of young kittens huddled beneath the rusty bones of a pickup truck, their fine fur providing little protection from winter’s chill. At the edge of the yard, a large ginger tom named Red emerged from the foliage, a freshly slaughtered rat clamped tightly in his jaws. He was old now, his joints a little creaky, but as he made his way towards his mewling children, he held his head up high. Halfway across the yard, Red came to a sudden stop and sniffed the air. There was something new there. Something indefinable. The kittens whined, impatiently waiting for their morning meal, but Red remained frozen. Tiny vibrations rumbled up through the ground to tickle the pads of his paws. They were quickly joined by a low, undulating growl.
Clenching his jaws around his kill, Red looked towards the potholed lane that connected the house to the outside world. The rumbling intensified, the growl grew louder. Sensing it too, the kittens ceased their complaining and nervously stared towards the mouth of the lane.
A glint of metal dazzled them. The growl became a roar and the rumbling erupted into tremors that rocked the ground. The car slid around the curve of the lane and pulled into the yard, gravel crunching beneath its tires. Startled, the kittens called to their father, whose eyes were fixed firmly on the vehicle. The engine cut out, and then there was only the wind whipping the tree branches.
Red sniffed the air. A familiar, welcome scent made his tail flick playfully back and forth. Moving quickly, he dropped the rat at the paws of his young then emitted an excited, kitten-like cry.
“You’re early.” Elise stood in the doorway of the old white house, her arms folded tightly across her chest. “We weren’t expecting you until at least three.”
Stepping out into the biting air, she took a few steps towards the car. Goosebumps teased their way to the surface of her skin and she rubbed her bare arms to keep warm.
For a moment, the young man at the wheel stared at her with awkward indignation. Then a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Elise stamped her feet in the cold. Red, who had tucked himself between her ankles, let out a startled screech and leapt away.
“Well, hurry up,” Elise complained. “It’s bloody freezing out here!”
The car door swung open and the young man stepped out. His black hair was longer than the last time she had seen him. She watched it fall across his face like a mask, only to be whipped away by the wind. He had lost weight, too. The dark green t-shirt he wore fluttered against his bony shoulders.
They stood staring at each other for a while, absorbing the transformations that time had caused. Red now sat in between, curiously observing the exchange, willing the boy to look at him. For he was still a boy in Red’s mind.
“Come on,” Elise said, beckoning with a hand. “I’ve made some tea.”
Sebastian nodded as he looked up at the house. A shadow passed over his eyes and for a moment, his body grew rigid and swayed slightly from side to side.
“Come on,” Elise repeated, gently this time.
Still staring with round, haunted eyes, Sebastian stepped towards the house.
RICH BAKING SMELLS teased his taste buds while he hovered in the doorway, his gaze flitting from one end of the kitchen to the other. It was exactly as he had left it; the same as it had always been, freeze-framed like a Polaroid picture.
Elise had gone through the other rooms of the house with paints and rollers and a thirst for change. The walls of the living room were now burnt orange, the furniture replaced with old antiques that she’d salvaged from junk shops in town.
The bedrooms had all been painted brilliant white. Threadbare carpets had been torn up and the floorboards restored to their former grandeur. Even their grandmother’s room, long since vacated, had finally undergone a complete transformation. Yellowed bed linen had been replaced with clean white sheets embroidered with yellow daisies. The sturdy oak wardrobe that had once stood in the corner had finally succumbed to woodworm and now a slimmer wardrobe carved from elm stood in its place.
Stepping into this particular room spooked the memories that haunted there, and Sebastian quickly retreated back into the hallway. Elise had been arduous in her effort to paint over the past, but no amount of paint and paste could cover up the ghosts that followed Sebastian wherever he went. Walking through this house then was a strange, unsettling experience: memories half-papered over, the rest keeping a steady foot behind him as he moved from room to room. And yet, now, standing in the kitchen doorway, he could feel familiarity and comfort baking his skin like the heat emanating from the old coal oven, which had provided them with warmth and sustenance since before they could remember.
Sebastian allowed a smile to grace his lips. He was glad that Elise had at least left this room untouched. The kitchen was the heart of the house. It kept the siblings breathing while all those who had gone before them danced between the flames of the furnace and left footprints in the ashes on the flagstone floor.
Elise stood next to the large oak table, their grandmother’s teapot held between both hands. Sebastian scuffed a shoe against the door jamb; a childhood habit that refused to grow up. He glanced at his sister, and then looked towards the back door. He could just make out the heads of the remaining flowers, bobbing up and down in the breeze, attempting to peer through the door glass like curious children standing on the tips of their toes.
Elise watched as darkness fell across his eyes.
“Ghosts?” she asked, her voice involuntarily betraying her maintained calm.
Shrugging his shoulders, her brother stepped into the room and took his usual place at the table. He watched as Elise poured tea into two ceramic mugs and methodically added milk and sugar. Her head was bowed as she worked, as if weighed down by years of thought. When she was done, she slid a mug towards Sebastian, then lifted her own to her lips.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, once the silence had seeded and taken root. “Cat got your tongue?”
Sebastian shrugged. “About the time I pulled up in the yard.”
There was a sliver of challenge in his voice, of accusation, and each word punctured her skin like a needle. That smile she had seen earlier had not been one of resolution after all. Shifting in her seat, Elise nodded and put the mug back down on the table with enough force to spill some of its contents.
“Well,” she breathed, attempting to dampen the fire that had caught alight in her belly, “it’s been a while. You’ve gotten used to not being here.”
Sebastian looked up and his eyes were black and wet. “But that’s the trouble with this house. It’s always here, waiting for you to come back.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never left.”
“There’s nothing stopping you.”
Elise thought about it. “True.”
But she knew it wasn’t true at all. There was always a reason. As if reading her mind, Sebastian stared at his murky reflection on the surface of his tea and asked, “When did you last hear from her anyway?”
The words floated there between them. Elise replied with a quiet heaving of her shoulders. “Does it matter?”
Sebastian blew a steady stream of cooling air over his tea. Regardless of the season, the absence of their mother, Catherine Montgomery, swirled around them like winter winds. She had abandoned them long ago, taking the siblings to their grandmother’s house for a weekend visit and never returning to collect them. Fourteen years had passed since, and for Sebastian, the likelihood of seeing his mother again had faded like a dream. At first, for Elise, the anguish of abandonment was a tidal wave, flooding her lungs until she drowned. Slowly, she learned to control the pain, to give it shape and form, to transform the aching into the belief that their mother would one day return to them. Even if Sebastian had long-since abandoned hope, she had enough for the both of them, and she clutched it to her chest as if it was the very essence of what kept her alive.
Their mother still sent letters, had been doing so for years. Not once had she left a return address so that Elise could write back; not that the letters had ever been intended for her eyes. Nana May had been gone for ten years now, laid to rest beside her husband in the church grounds where they had married. With no return address, it was impossible for Elise to tell Catherine that her mother was dead. Lying awake at night, she imagined her mother’s return, of their awkward yet heartfelt reunion, and then the sobs and wails as she told her of Nana May’s death.
Ten years. So much time had passed and yet here sat Elise and Sebastian, in the same chairs they had sat in as children, as if they had blinked and inexplicably transformed into their adult selves. Time passed in fits and starts, but it passed all the same. Soon, it would be Sebastian’s twentieth birthday. Soon, it would be the first anniversary of Uncle Edward’s death; that gentle, loving man who had taken responsibility for the children after Nana May was gone, who had given up all that he had in order to take the pieces of their shattered childhood and reassemble them into something that was as close to a normal life as they were ever going to get.
It was his heart that had failed him in the end. Old Tom Elliot, who had become a family friend and who, like Sebastian and Elise, had outlived almost everyone he had loved, said that Uncle Edward had been killed by kindness. He had meant it in a good way.
Yes, Elise thought, time was fleeting. Lives came and went. And soon, there would be new life. If she so chose. She didn’t know what to think about that; the news so fresh her mind had barely acknowledged it. She chose not to think about it for now. Instead, she asked a question.
“How is university life? Are you enjoying it?”
Sebastian shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess.”
“I see. And you’re making friends?”
Elise nodded. “That’s good. And you’re still seeing … I’ve forgotten his name. Is it Matt?”
Flushing, Sebastian stared into his now empty cup.
“Henry,” he muttered, “and no, I’m not.”
“Oh.” Elise shared her brother’s sudden awkwardness. “I’m sorry.”
His tone indicated that this particular conversation had come to as abrupt an end as his relationship. Feeling his cheeks burn, he picked up the empty cup, wishing it was full enough to distract him from the sudden tightening of his chest.
“Well, I know just the thing to heal broken hearts and bad memories,” Elise chirped, sliding back her chair and moving towards the pantry door.
As Sebastian watched her disappear, a hot tear escaped from his eye and slipped down his cheek. Angrily, he wiped it away. Elise watched him from the pantry doorway, holding a large red tin.
“Chocolate cake,” she smiled, but her words were like deflated balloons.
Sebastian turned his head away from her.
“Perhaps something a little stronger,” his sister nodded. Placing the cake on the table, she left the room. Sounds of cupboard doors opening and snapping shut bounced between the hallway walls, followed by the chink of glasses knocking together. Elise returned carrying a half-empty bottle of gin.
“Mother’s ruin,” she smiled wryly, and the irony was not lost on Sebastian. He smiled slightly as Elise filled a glass and dumped it down in front of him. She moved to serve herself, then hesitantly placed the bottle in the centre of the table.
“You’re not making me drink alone?” Sebastian asked. He took a sip and his face immediately crinkled with disgust. “Jesus! How do people drink this stuff?”
“Which is exactly why I’m sticking to cake,” Elise said, although she made no move to cut a slice. She watched Sebastian drain the glass, wincing as he did so, and then reach for the bottle to pour another.
“How long are you staying for?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“You don’t have a class on Monday?”
“Oh?” Elise was unable to hide her concern. “Well, it’s nice to see you. I was beginning to think I wouldn’t.”
Sebastian held his glass, frozen beneath his mouth.
“The train goes both ways, you know.”
Elise dragged the bottle of gin towards her, pretending to read the label. “I know. I was just saying it’s nice to have you home.”
Sebastian finished the drink in one swift action. He could feel the alcohol already at work, warming his insides, softening the edges of his mind. But he wanted more, the allure of its medicine too strong to resist.
Sensing his need, Elise unscrewed the cap and poured. The tips of Sebastian’s fingers turned white as he swept up the glass and greedily drank down its contents. An alcoholic flame ignited deep in his guts and arcs of fire shot from it, racing along his arteries until his entire being flushed with heat. His mind was a little hazy now; a bed of cotton wool had been lain to soften the blows of all those falling, unwanted memories of little Sebastian Montgomery, quivering and weeping like a mummy’s boy – except this boy’s mummy had not wanted him. And he had the scars to prove it.
What did Elise have? After all that had happened to them, where were her scars? He looked across the table, at her downcast face. Elise choosing to stay in this house was like wedging an anchor firmly in the past. How could they ever forget? His sister’s stubborn refusal to move on was dangerous and malignant, and it made Sebastian want to scream at her. But there was the gentle wave of alcohol once more, washing over his anger, numbing him from the awkward stillness that had settled over the table like a fine layer of flour.
Sebastian closed his eyes and for a fleeting moment he was nine years old. Nana May was effortlessly shifting her portly frame between table and stove as she readied another tray of sugar coated cookies for baking. Then, just like his grandmother, the image was gone, and he was at the table once more, gin in hand. Elise sat across from him, staring into space.
Outside, the sun was already slipping behind the treeline and casting long shadows that stretched across the floor tiles. Another memory clawed its way into Sebastian’s mind and it was most unwelcome; a tall, sloping figure pressed against the kitchen door.
“I hate winter,” Sebastian muttered, suddenly springing from his chair to draw the curtains on the back door and windows. Now, the only light to illuminate the kitchen was the wavering, tangerine glow spilling from the grills of the hearth.
Alcohol and movement did not sit well together and Sebastian found himself unsteady on his feet. His tolerance had always been low, much to his chagrin and the amusement of his peers. But it was just as well, considering his love for the stuff. Just like their mother. That was what Elise had screamed when the mourners had departed from Uncle Edward’s funeral. It was the last thing she had said to him before he’d leapt into his car and sped recklessly away, whiskey bottle in the passenger seat and his sister’s words chasing after him like angry dogs.
This was his first visit since. A muddle of fury, guilt and grief had kept him away. He had wanted to punish her for speaking those words, for casting him in the same shadow as that wretched woman. He had not deserved that, no matter the mistakes he had made. Sebastian switched on the kitchen lights. Elise blinked away black spots and waited for her eyes to adjust to the glare.
“So, tell me about you,” Sebastian said, sitting back down and helping himself to another generous glass of gin. “What’s been happening in the wonderful world of Elise Montgomery?”
Elise hesitated. “Not much. Nothing changes around here.”
Sebastian raised a questioning eyebrow as Elise’s cheeks appeared to flush with colour. “No great surprises? No great love affair?”
“Nothing to write home about.” Her gaze was now purposefully blank.
Across the table, Sebastian shook his head.
“Don’t you get bored? Don’t you ever want to leave?”
“Just because you choose to lead a different life to mine does not mean that my life isn’t interesting.”
“But is it though?” Sebastian asked. “Is it really? Seriously, how do you live like this? Spending every day stuck in this house, sitting at the table, waiting for her to come waltzing through the door! What’s the point? What are you trying to prove?”
Glowering, Elise leaned forward in her chair and Sebastian could see her eyes were wide and dark.
“You don’t know anything about what I do every day. You don’t know anything about anything.”
“Well, I’ll tell you something, Elise. I’ll tell you what I do know. I know that I’m not sitting in the past, deliberately holding onto ghosts that left the building years ago. I’m not wasting my life while everyone else passes me by. You could do anything you want! You could go anywhere, be anyone. But you just won’t let us get over it, will you? Why not? Why do you sit here and rot?
“Because I choose to!” she spat. Elise suddenly stood up, as if the action hadn’t been her own, and her chair clattered noisily to the floor. Brother and sister glared at each other and although Elise’s eyes brimmed with tears, they were not born from sadness.
“I made your bed for you,” she said, her voice shaking. “Help yourself to towels.”
Before Sebastian could utter a reply, Elise marched out into the hallway, her mane of curls trailing behind her like fire. The young man at the table listened to the quick, heavy thuds of his sister’s feet on the stairs and then winced as a door slammed, sending a wave of anger shuddering through the house. It was quiet then, save for the welcome crackle and fizz of coal burning in the furnace. Sebastian stared into his empty glass and then at the dribble of gin left in the bottle. He felt like a stranger in his own home.
THE SUN CREPT over the trees just after seven, bathing the garden in hazy winter light. A soft sheen of frost had coated the lawn and now Elise watched it slowly melting. She stood by the back door of the house, wearing rubber boots and dressed in patterned green pyjamas and an oversized navy parka with its hood pulled up. She sucked on a cigarette, blowing out smoke in a steady stream. Smoking had become her one adult vice. Although she limited herself to two cigarettes a day – one with her morning coffee and one after dinner at night – she knew it was a bad habit and one she should probably quit. But Elise liked to smoke. She enjoyed the ritual of it, and the solitude of smoking alone, lost in thought in a quiet world.
This morning, however, her cigarette brought no comfort. Nor did the steaming mug of coffee that failed to warm her hands. Taking one last puff, she extinguished the cigarette against the wall of the house, then dropped it into a flowerpot that contained a mass grave of orange stubs.
Through the glass of the door she could see the kitchen and the hall beyond. Not quite ready to go inside, Elise began a slow walk through the garden and around the side of the house, frost crunching beneath her feet. Near the edge of the woodland, leaves drained of their autumn colours lay rotting in mushy piles. The trees from which they fell stood naked and shivering, their modesty partly protected by the outstretched arms of neighbouring conifers. Inhaling their minty scent, Elise stooped to pick up a pine cone.
Ahead of her was the apple tree that Uncle Edward had planted a week after Nana May’s funeral. It had taken many years for its branches to bear fruit, but now, every year, Elise would fill a basket with small red apples and bake pie after pie to sell to the cafes in town. She loved making those pies. She loved rolling out the pastry, cutting and shaping it, over and over, as clouds of flour burst like fireworks in the air. She loved the scintillating aroma of baking apples, sugar and cinnamon.
Every year, as summer turned on its heels and autumn took its place, patrons of the local cafes would smack their lips in anticipation of a slice of home grown deliciousness.
“Just like your grandmother used to make,” Tom Elliot would say, scraping up every last crumb of the first pie of the season (a yearly tradition since the tree had first grown fruit), and Elise’s chest would swell with pride. It was a good compliment; one that made her feel better about the past.
“Well,” she would always reply, “plenty more where that came from.”
A handful of apples remained on the branches – late bloomers this year. They would fall any day now and would quickly turn brown and pulpy as they began to rot. Elise thought about picking them to make one last pie for the year, but a rush of despair overcame her.
Was her life really so pointless? She had never given it much thought before. Days came and went. Weeks grew up into months and yet she barely noticed. Time had no place down here in the woods, and inside that house the clocks had stopped ticking years ago. Inside her womb though, time had been reborn, and it would soon grow, moving faster and faster until she would hardly be able to keep up with it.
Deciding to head inside, she turned to see Sebastian standing behind her. His skinny frame trembled in the morning chill. He wore knee-length shorts that exposed his sinewy calves and a long flannel jacket that was half-buttoned across his bare chest. He held up an open packet of processed cookies.
“Trade for a cigarette,” he said, teeth clattering together.
Elise fixed him with a steely gaze. Tentatively, she plucked a cookie from the packet with thumb and finger and took a bite.
“It doesn’t taste of anything,” she observed. She fished inside her coat pocket and brought out her cigarettes, holding them just out of Sebastian’s reach, making him step forward to take one.
Elise was still furious about last night’s drunken tirade; that was obvious. He hated how she could make him feel like a petulant child with just one glance. Although, through the mist of his hangover, he was sure that, even if he could not recall his exact words, he was most definitely deserving of his sister’s icy reception. He should apologise he supposed, if only to rid himself of the guilt that was nestled uncomfortably in his conscience.
“About last night …” he began, but the look Elise shot him told him now was not the time. Shrugging, he turned away and smoked his cigarette.
They stood in silence a while, then Elise said, “I suppose you’ll be wanting breakfast.”
Sebastian shook the packet of cookies. “Already got it covered.”
His wiry frame and appalling diet troubled Elise. Sebastian had always been slim and as a child was the first to catch a cold, or indeed any other germ that happened to be circulating, but as he grew older she had assumed he would fill out and grow meat on his bones. If anything, he seemed to grow thinner. Even now, she imagined that underneath Sebastian’s coat, his ribs were protruding through his flesh like osier.
Long ago, Nana May had taken the children into her kitchen and taught them how to cook all kinds of recipes.
“If a person can’t cook,” she had told them while wagging a fat finger, “then a person can’t eat. And if a person can’t eat, well … a bag of bones is only good for throwing to the dogs.”
Looking at her brother, Elise was relieved their grandmother had preferred cats. A little of her anger dampened. Sebastian was all that she had left now and she could not lose him. Perhaps not all that she had left. Suddenly the need to share her secret was as overwhelming as the tide.
“Hmm?” He half looked up, preparing himself for further chastisement.
All of her upset washed away and was replaced by an anxious knot in the pit of her stomach.
“I think I’m pregnant.”
Sebastian choked on cookie crumbs. When he had recovered, his wide eyes could not contain his surprise.
“What do you mean?” he stammered. “How?”
He looked at her cigarettes and Elise offered him the pack. She watched him fumble with the lighter, then exhale a plume of smoke in an unsteady stream.
“Bloody hell,” he said. “Who’s the father?”
Cheeks flushing, Elise kicked her boots against the frozen soil.
Sebastian could not help himself. He collapsed into throaty laughter.
“Greg Trelawney? Lamorna’s ex? Since when were you into skinny Goths? Does Lamorna know?”
He had clearly not registered the seriousness of the situation, nor did it seem he was about to at any time soon. Her nostrils flaring, Elise snatched back her cigarettes.
“Lamorna moved away last summer,” she growled, as she pulled one from the packet. “They haven’t been together for five years.”
She lit the cigarette. Sebastian snatched it away from her lips.
“Hey, you can’t be doing that!” he said, his laughter cut short.
Sebastian stared at her. “Because smoking shrinks the foetus. Come on Elise, everyone knows that. Why do you think I was the runt of the litter? Mum was probably getting through two packs a day when she was pregnant with me.”
“It explains the brain damage.”
Elise held onto the cigarette packet, flipping it over in her hand. She didn’t like what Sebastian was insinuating. His words grated on her conscience like skin on concrete. Suddenly, Elise was freezing, her skin tinged blue.
“I need more coffee,” she grumbled, and she thought she had never needed something so desperately.
THE COFFEE WAS black and syrupy and it burned his throat as he swallowed it down, but already Sebastian could feel his hangover beginning to subside. He watched Elise with a scientific-like interest as she busied herself with making breakfast. Eggs and bacon sizzled in a pan and the combination of oil, meat and salt in the air reminded Sebastian that he had not eaten a proper meal in two days.
He thought about Elise’s news. A strange feeling settled over him.
“Does Greg know?” he asked, following a breakfast ate in silence. “I didn’t know you two were going out.”
His sister stared at the grooves of the tabletop. “We’re not.”
She watched Sebastian’s confused face as he worked out the possible interpretations of her answer. For a supposed scholar, he certainly was naive.
“Oh,” he said, realisation dawning upon him. His face flushed with embarrassment. “Are you going to tell him?”
“I don’t know,” Elise mused. “It depends.”
“Maybe I won’t keep it.”
Sebastian shook his head. “Why not?”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be good to.”
“Who cares what people around here say? They’ve had enough gossip and scandal from this family to last them a lifetime. What’s a little bit more?”
“I don’t care about them,” Elise muttered.
“Well, what then?”
“You sound like you want me to have this … like you want me to keep it.”
Sebastian’s thoughts churned and collided. “Maybe I do. I don’t know. Do you think Greg would want to keep it?”
Elise glared at him. “I’m twenty two.”
“Mum was younger when she had you.”
There it was again. The insinuation. The comparison. Only now, she could not fathom if it was coming from Sebastian or from her own mind. What she did know was that it made her feel hollow inside, like an abandoned vessel. Sebastian was still talking and his words drifted in and out.
“I mean, it’s not that she did a good job or anything, God knows she didn’t … but you wouldn’t be like that. You’re nothing like her.”
“What if I am?” The words were heavy, forming a pile of stones on the table. “What if I am like her?”
Sebastian shook his head. “No. If you were like her then I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
“But you’re a mess. We both are.”
“Call it fall out from shitty beginnings. Dust settles eventually.”
“And mud sticks.”
Sebastian smiled at the familiar words. “So does shit, but you don’t go traipsing that over your carpet.”
“Or Nana will wear your guts for garters!” Elise exclaimed, emitting an unexpected giggle.
But then a great sadness filled her being and she held onto the table with both hands as it threatened to sweep her away.
“I miss her so much.”
“I miss her too. Every day.” Sebastian felt a tear escape. “If you’re like anyone, you’re like her.”
He absent-mindedly wiped his face with the back of a hand, then a mischievous look took hold of his features. “Just like her. Stubborn, loud and like a bull in a china shop!”
They both laughed. Elise reached across the table and slapped him playfully on the hand.
“I could help you,” Sebastian said. “I could help you take care of it.”
Elise smiled. “It’s a nice thought, but you have university. You have your whole life ahead of you. So do I. I just don’t know if it includes being a mother.”
“But I could study from home. And so could you. We could take care of the baby together. Think about it, Elise. It would be a brand new start.”
The girl at the table shook her head. “You already had your new start. You moved away, you went to university. That’s your new beginning, right there. Away from everything that came before.”
Sebastian suddenly looked forlorn. Unable to meet his sister’s gaze, he stared at the floor.
“I quit,” he said. It felt good to say it aloud.
Elise drew in a sharp, shocked breath. “What? Why?”
Sebastian shrugged. He hadn’t known why himself at the time. He just hadn’t felt engaged. Perhaps Psychology had been the obvious choice, but perhaps it had also turned out to be the most inappropriate. Too much self-analysis. Elise startled him by piercing the air with a high-pitched cackle.
“I’m sorry,” she eventually breathed. This morning she had been woken by an overwhelming feeling of failure. Her life had not amounted to much so far, but it hadn’t mattered because Sebastian was doing so well. He had escaped their ugly past and she had helped him to do it, taking the money that had been left to her by Nana May and using it to put towards his education, an apartment for him to live in, food and sustenance. She was so very proud of him and relieved that he had had the opportunity to reinvent himself. A new place and new people meant he could tell anyone anything he wanted to. Anything that was not the truth.
And it had not mattered that she was left behind, trapped inside this house with only ghosts and faded letters to keep her company. It had not mattered that the people of the village still remembered what her mother had done, that they would always treat Elise differently because of it. Because mud really did stick and in the countryside, mud was everywhere you went. None of that mattered though because she had achieved what she had set out to do – she had set Sebastian free. Or so she had thought. This was why, upon hearing his news, Elise could not help but laugh. Neither of them would ever be free. Instead, they would have to learn to live with a wound that could be patched up and dressed but was never going to heal.
“I’m sorry,” she repeated.
Sebastian drummed his fingers nervously against his coffee cup. “Are you angry?”
“Oh Sebastian,” she finally said. “Sometimes I think we should take a match and burn this house right down to the ground.”
They stared at each other, both contemplating the outcome of such an action. Temptation flashed across both of their features.
“Or we could just sell it,” Sebastian suggested. “Split the money, do whatever takes our fancy.”
“I have always wanted to see the world,” Elise nodded, and for a moment she imagined cooling herself under an Italian sun as she strolled through a ripening vineyard. Her young daughter’s hand was loosely clasped in hers and she watched as she popped grape after juicy grape into her small round mouth. The little girl had a mane of golden girls, just like her mother, and eyes the colour of emeralds that pierced everything she looked at with a questioning gaze.
Elise found herself smiling. But then clouds formed and blotted out the sun and the vineyard fell into shadow.
“Don’t,” Sebastian said, recognising the tired expression that fell across his sister’s face whenever escape was mentioned. “If she was going to come back, she would be here by now.”
Elise nodded. “I know.”
She had always known it. It was the first thought to wake her each morning and the last to bid her goodnight. But all these years she had still remained.
“Well,” said Sebastian, determination hardening his voice. “Let’s not waste any more of our time.”
HE LEFT THE next morning, with a promise to return soon. There were things he needed to take care of, endings that needed proper resolutions. Doctor Michael confirmed what four pregnancy tests had already told Elise, and she left his office in a disoriented swell of panic and dread.
Days passed by. Elise sat at home, watching December snow fall in a silent blanket over the garden. She brought in the cats from outside and let them warm themselves in the glow of the living room coal fire. She read books about childbirth and pored over holiday brochures that she had picked up from the travel agent in town.
Three weeks passed and Sebastian did not come home. His phone calls became infrequent and short, punctuated with periods of blatant ennui. He asked her about the baby and she asked him when he would return. His answer was always the same: “Soon, Elise. Soon.”
Eventually, he told her that he had met someone new, a photographer named Wesley, and that the two of them were heading to Asia for a while.
“But don’t worry,” he urged. “I’ll be back in time for the baby.”
With that he was gone. Of course, Elise thought. It makes perfect sense. He’s so young and has his whole life ahead of him. By then, her belly had begun to swell and winter was heaving its final, shuddering breaths. She had decided not to tell Greg about the pregnancy, but eventually he had seen for himself; along with all the other villagers. His awkward, uncomfortable silence told Elise everything she needed to know. It came as no surprise when two weeks later, he had found himself a job over in the next county. Arthur Scroggins, who ran the post office and convenience store, choked on his words as he excitedly told her of Greg’s sudden departure. Well, Elise thought, I suppose that is that.
One crisp morning, Elise stood in the centre of the gravel yard, staring at the rusty pickup truck that had sat there since before she’d been born. She looked at the mouth of the lane that cleft the woods in two and led to the world outside. She moved forwards until she stood at its edge. The lane curved in the middle, obscuring her view of the road beyond. But she knew it was there and always had been.
Without thinking, she began to walk. As she weaved her way through rain filled potholes, birds sang from the branches, announcing their return from their winter retreat. The lane turned and she turned with it. Now, a hundred metres away, she could see the tarmac of the road, which stretched invitingly in two directions. A movement in Elise’s stomach brought her to a sudden halt. It had been small, barely noticeable, like the fluttering of butterfly wings. Yet it had been there all the same.
Tears filled Elise’s eyes. She stood in the middle of the lane, perfectly centred between the road and the old white house, elated and terrified, and unable to move.
Copyright © 2014, 2021 Malcolm Richards