Read Past Online

Authors: Tessa Hadley

Past (8 page)

Guilty, Alice was aware of overacting her delight. She jumped up from the dressing-table stool to kiss her sister, feeling how Harriet stood stiffly in her embrace, not knowing how to yield to it.

— Oh Hettie! I'm so pleased! Thank you! she exclaimed. — And I know I don't deserve you doing anything nice for me – I'm a grumpy old stick. I'm sorry.

— I didn't do it for you, Harriet said. — It's good for me to have a break. I'm enjoying myself.

She didn't much look like it, Alice thought. She looked strained and there were purple stains on the fine skin under her eyes, as if she hadn't slept – Alice hoped this wasn't because she'd been put in that awkward, poky bedroom. She had some clever concealer which would work wonders with those under-eyes, but she was wary of offering it, thinking Harriet would only despise her.

Harriet prodded around among the bottles on the dressing table.

— I've never gone in for any of this clobber, she said. — What is it all?

Alice was watching her closely.

— Look, she said. — Sit down on the stool. Let me try something on you, just the least little thing. It's only the teeniest smudge of cream. No one will notice, you'll just look prettier.

Harriet's expression as she hesitated brimmed uncharacteristically full with mixed reluctance and yearning. She gave way and sat submissively with her back to the mirror. Alice rummaged in her make-up bag and then very carefully, tenderly, stroked on the concealer, and after that a very light foundation, eye pencil, eyeshadow, mascara. Their two faces for once drew uninhibitedly close without any antagonism, Harriet's vulnerably proffered, Alice absorbed in what she knew supremely well.

— Oh no, Harriet said with horror when finally she looked at her reflection. — It isn't me. It isn't right. Take it off, Alice.

Four

FRAN AND ALICE
drove into town with the children – Fran wanted fish from the farmers' market, to make a pie. When they'd finished shopping, at the market and in the Co-op, they bought ice cream from the lemon-yellow-painted Esplanade Café, which had endured from the sisters' childhood even though it looked as provisional as a summer house, in its little park of flower beds and crazy golf. In their childhood the ice cream would have been Wall's, between two wafers – now it was made locally, from sheep's milk. Fran and the children had two scoops and Alice had one, then Ivy dropped hers and wept, and needed a replacement. — She always does, Fran said. Leaning on the sea wall to eat theirs, the sisters looked out across the estuary while Ivy and Arthur played on the beach below, turning out buckets of sand decorously and warily because they were latecomers among the family encampments. The air was filmy with heat, blue with stale frying-fat and candy sweetness. The shouts of children ricocheted against the packed sand and the sea wall and the long rock groynes built down onto the beach against erosion.

This seaside town wasn't quite the true seaside, for all the old-fashioned holiday jollity on display in the shops down at that tail end of the high street: buckets and spades and windbreaks and polythene windmills on sticks. The sand was imported from further down the coast; if the tide was out then anyone wanting to swim had to wade, ankleor calf-deep, for what seemed like miles into rich estuary silt and a disorienting glinting light, laid in long, flat planes across the eye – so that the shore, on turning round to look back, seemed more than left behind, seemed lost. After a rough night the water, opaque with silt, could be as brown as milk chocolate; oystercatchers and curlews and rarer birds fed on the many species of worm left in the mud when the tide slid off it. You saw easily across to Wales – blue hills and the white ghost of a power station at Aberthaw – so that the watery expanse could only ever feel domestic, a known quantity, though notoriously treacherous.

Fran and Alice's gossip rambled luxuriantly around the family – when it was Molly's turn, Fran remarked that she seemed very young for her age.

— She's a bit blank, isn't she? Alice agreed.

— She seems to get on all right with Pilar.

— But have you noticed that although Roland's supposed to adore Molly so much, he never actually talks to her – I mean, about ideas or books? But then, she's very sweet natured.

— She's sweet with the children, bless her. But can she cook an egg?

— And terribly pretty. Kas is smitten. Roly can't bear anyone looking at her in that sexual way, can he? He smoulders whenever Kas comes near. Though I don't suppose Kas has laid a hand on her. He's quite an innocent, though he thinks he's so wicked and sophisticated.

— I should think he hasn't laid a hand on her, Fran said primly. — She's still a child.

— She's sixteen. What were you up to at sixteen?

— Well exactly.

Fran always maintained that she wouldn't allow any child of hers to get away with what she once did: Alice protested that this was eating your cake and stopping anyone else eating theirs. — Anyway, when it's Ivy's turn, you'll have no idea what she's getting up to. She won't actually
tell
you.

Fran groaned at the idea of Ivy's turn.

— I'm reading through Mum's old letters, Alice said, — written to the grandpees in her first year at Oxford. All she tells them is about lectures and funny things happening – but who knows what she was actually in the thick of?

— It's not healthy you know, Alice, poking around through all that old stuff. It's too depressing. There's no point in looking backward all the time.

— Why not? I like looking backward. It's amazing to imagine her when she was just a girl, and her life hadn't happened to her yet. The sixties and revolution and flared trousers and everything – all that was still to come. Dad was still to come.

— Don't start ranting about Dad, Fran said, — blaming him for everything.

She was the only one of the four siblings who kept up contact with their father; she had taken the children more than once to visit him in France.

— I stopped ranting about him years ago. Now I hardly think about him. What's really striking is that Mum knew so much. Apart from just Latin and Greek – an awful lot about history and literature, much more than we do. Perhaps people just knew more in those days. A whole lot more than Molly, that's for sure.

— Oh, Molly doesn't know anything.

Fran's phone rang then and she turned away from her sister to walk along the seafront while she spoke into it, hunched intently, lost to the scene around her, the sauntering families eating chips and candyfloss and the supervising glassy-eyed herring gulls on the wall, beaks spotted with ketchup-red. Alice knew it must be Jeff. Mostly Fran's face was bright with a willed confidence, the blue eyes shallowly recessed, fair eyebrows hardly visible. When she spoke to Jeff her expression contracted to a sharper point.

— Any news? Alice asked when she came back. — Is he coming down?

The light seemed particularly insolent at that moment to Fran, flashing from Alice's sunglasses – she saw that people turned their heads to look, wondering if they knew her striking sister from television somewhere. In London Alice didn't show up against the general background of striking people.

— I don't even want him here, I told you, Fran said. — I'm finished with him. What does he ever give? It's always me, giving everything.

— But you love him, you do. He's the one. Don't fight him all the time.

— I'm not going to take any lessons from you, Alice, on how to manage my love life. You don't seem to have made such a brilliant job of yours. Harriet's right, you're such a romantic.

— I'd rather be romantic than jaded. At least I've
had
a love life. Even if the romance does seem unreal sometimes, in retrospect. All that hard work of falling into love and falling out of it again. None of it leaves any trace, not visibly.

— Well, you should have had children then, shouldn't you? Children are real enough. They're a trace.

— Fran, how can you? It hasn't been a
choice
, not to.

— Hasn't it? When did you have time for children, between all your adventures?

Both sisters managed to be offended. They sulked for five minutes and couldn't forgive each other, until they forgot about it and went back to their gossip, which circled eternally. All the siblings felt sometimes, as the days of their holiday passed, the sheer irritation and perplexity of family coexistence: how it fretted away at the love and attachment which were nonetheless intense and enduring when they were apart. They knew one another so well, all too well, and yet they were all continually surprised by the forgotten difficult twists and turns of one another's personalities, so familiar as soon as they appeared.

When Roland took Pilar for a drive across the moor, Harriet asked if she could come. He would rather have been alone with Pilar, which made him more punctilious in his kindness to his older sister. Just because he felt Harriet's life was dreary, he mustn't let her glimpse this. She wasn't stupid and had read a lot: she turned out, for instance, to be up to date in recent developments in the Argentinian economy. And of course Roland admired what she did at work. But her life seemed so small to Roland, she had no outlet for her thinking in the wider world. She was supposed to have Christopher to talk to, but he was always off cycling. Roland was profoundly unsporting and couldn't take bony, middle-aged Christopher seriously, flaunting himself in in his skintight Lycra.

In the sunlight the moor's distances were harmless, bland lovely tobacco-brown and mauve: they had to explain to Pilar how austere the place could look in winter or bad weather. They got out of the car to see the view, exploring along the bleached dry brush riddled with paths, where the sheep dropped shiny dark pills and left their wool caught in the coconut-scented gorse. Harriet picked a purple sprig of heather, telling Pilar to keep it because it was lucky. Then they drove on to an ancient river crossing, where flat-topped boulders made stepping stones across the water and cream teas were served in a garden. When he set down the laden tea tray on their table, Roland knew that Pilar was drawing glances from the other tourists in her tight trousers and dark glasses.

Roland had wondered whether Harriet would disapprove of Pilar, because of her class and background: no doubt in the past Harriet had belonged to committees protesting the abuses of the Argentinian military. But Harriet seemed more animated and more tentative these days, less judgemental; she was wearing a scarf knotted around her neck too, and had something shiny on her eyelids. Because of her white hair and the way she held herself so stiffly upright, with her bird-like evasive glances, she probably seemed to Pilar more like an elderly aunt than a sister. Now she was expressing an almost exaggerated interest in life in Argentina, which Pilar was reluctant to talk about.

— England must seem very parochial to you, after the sheer scale of things over there: the politics and history as well as the landscape.

— My life is here, Pilar said sharply. — I've chosen England, I've been here ten years, I'm married to an Englishman. People who've chosen to come here don't always want to be looking back.

Harriet blushed, desolated. — Of course you don't. I didn't mean to say you weren't at home here. It's your home as much as it's ours.

She touched Pilar on her bare shoulder to reassure her, and her veined, freckled hand, its unpainted nails bitten as short as a little girl's, was amphibian against Pilar's even-pored brown skin. Pilar accepted the little gesture of obeisance and lifted the heavy teapot, pouring graciously for Harriet first, forgiving her. — Shall I be mother? she said. Assiduously she had set about acquiring these idiomatic English gestures. Yet it was her difference from the Englishwomen Roland knew which attracted him, just as it interested Harriet. He wondered whether mutual incomprehension might not be the most stimulating arrangement in a marriage.

He was touched that Harriet seemed genuinely to like his wife – though he had made up his mind that it didn't matter if his sisters didn't like her. Pilar didn't have the slippery ambiguity which was Alice's specialty. Latin women, he thought, were encouraged to develop more conventionally than English ones – consequently their personalities had firmer and more resilient outlines and they appeared more certain of what they wanted. Of course, his sisters were odd partly because of the oddity of what had happened to them in their teens, when their mother died and they had all managed on their own in the house. Harriet had been in charge when she was only seventeen.

After tea they strolled along the path beside the river. Pilar kicked off her sandals and waded in from a little pebbled strand, squealing and gasping at the cold, trousers rolled up to her knees, sunglasses pushed up onto her hair. — It's nice, she said. — Come on in! Harriet hesitated on the brink, then joined her. When Pilar staggered in the force of the current, which was strong even though the water hardly came halfway up their calves, she had to grab hold of Harriet's arm and hang onto her, laughing; Harriet stood steadily, braced to support her. In the rushing noise of the river, they were cut off from Roland. — My life in Argentina is full of complications right now, Pilar said swiftly to Harriet. — Things are going on with my family, horrible things. I'm happy to be far away from it all.

— Have you talked to Roland about it?

— It's so ugly. He doesn't need to know. He's got more important things to think about. Please, don't say anything to him.

Harriet was stirred by this unexpected confession. In her work with refugees her sympathetic responsiveness was strained continually to the point of pain, and she was ashamed when she thought how she'd come through her own life more or less unscathed. Her own sufferings she counted as nothing. She reassured Pilar: no, of course she wouldn't say anything. Gruffly, not wanting to seem greedy for more, she added that if ever Pilar wanted to talk, she'd be pleased to listen. Under the surface of this decency, though, she was dazzled by Pilar's choosing her to confide in; a breath of drama rose from the fast-flowing water swirling past them.

Watching from the bank, Roland thought he could imagine what Pilar had been like as a domineering, flirting teenager, with a gang of girlfriends. He took a photograph of the two women embracing in the changeable light reflected up from the river. He wouldn't go in himself, he hated putting his feet in cold water and didn't mind presenting a comical target, the Englishman in his linen summer suit, socks and shoes, flinching and smiling benignly on the bank while they flicked water at him.

Kasim sat cross-legged in the garden, smoking and watching Molly in the distance. Ivy and Arthur were nearby, also cross-legged and watching Molly. Silhouetted, slender, far off against the sky, perched on the gate at the top of the field, she was lost to them, intent upon her conversations, rocking forwards around her phone or throwing her head back in laughter, her body twisting in delighted appreciation. She was frustrated occasionally if her signal failed. They could just about hear her voice, but not her words. The thin trail of her laughter was somehow entrancing and soporific, creating a rapt silence around the three of them who were shut out: she was as mysterious as if she was talking to herself, hallucinating. In the garden the afternoon was still and hot. Arthur was sorting out the contents of his money box, which Kasim had showed him how to open, though Ivy had protested that he wasn't supposed to open it.

— It's mine, anyway, said Arthur, frowning over his calculations, tucking his long hair out of the way behind his ears. Apparently he was adept with the plastic pennies in the play-shop at school.

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