Audio: Tessa Hadley reads.
Serena was out in the garden in the early morning, before her two sisters got up. It was the best time. Reflected off the estuary water, the light seemed a blond powder, sifted through the summer air onto grass that grew waist-high, its mauve seed heads heavy with dew that soaked her skirt. She dipped to wash her arms in it, even her face—she was fanciful and ecstatic, and she loved long grass. Earth smells and the pungency of privet and balsam were still acute at this hour, unmingled; the shadows were as bold as in a child’s picture book; swifts and house martins tracked across the pale sky overhead, shrilling in thrilled anticipation. Everything was to come! This unknown day! The garden was so much more lovely now, Serena thought, than in the past, when it was scrupulously cared for. A crimson rambler rose, unmoored from its trellis, had flopped fatally forward into the grass, where it bloomed copiously but mostly unseen; flower beds were knotty with convolvulus and bramble; the dense hedge of blackthorn and holly had grown too thick and high for her to see over the top. She was alone, enclosed with everything enchanting, hidden.
And yet the house itself was unromantic: a stolid Victorian villa, built of massive blocks of red sandstone, on a steep hill overlooking a small seaside town. Beyond the house, the road meandered upward past more villas, then dustily through a cluster of old cottages around the medieval parish church, which had a distinguished rood screen. It opened up, above the town, onto headlands scrubby with gorse and heather, with views of the water all the way across to Wales, before dwindling into a gravel car park, where it ended. Here, on the hill’s lower reaches, the old-fashioned hotels and detached large houses had been intended to accommodate a certain sort of privileged, discreet, unexceptional, unchanging middle-class existence—which had changed after all, because it hardly existed any longer. A number of the houses had been turned into nursing homes. The hill looked across, with a distaste that it mostly kept to itself, at the white faux pavilions of the holiday camp on the other side of the town, which hosted wrestling weekends or heavy-metal or evangelical ones.
When Pippa, the eldest of the sisters, ventured out from her bedroom with sponge bag and towel to use the bathroom, Gillian, the middle one, was also venturing. “Beat you!” Gillian even said, dashing ahead through the door as if they were still fifteen and seventeen. But they were middle-aged now, self-consciously aware, as they performed their jokey girlishness, of the heavy shelves of bosom under their nightdresses. They had outgrown Fern Lodge, the house that had seemed so spacious and gracious when they were children in it. Pippa and Gillian both had adult children of their own, and careers behind them; they lived in two different northern cities and each owned, jointly with a husband still more or less on board, a big house with en-suite bathrooms for every bedroom. Gillian, who was the most businesslike and got on with things, had grandchildren, too. Serena, the youngest sister, was different; she lived alone in London. The three of them were assembled in their childhood home because a week ago their elderly widowed mother had fallen and was now in hospital. They were taking it in turns, two at a time, to drive the forty-five minutes to the hospital and spend the day with her, although she seemed barely to know that they were present.
Waiting in her bedroom for the bathroom to be free, looking out through the gap where the curtains never quite met in the middle, Pippa caught sight of Serena drifting in the garden and was irritated—partly because the neglected garden made her feel guilty. If Serena wanted to commune with nature, she thought, she might as well take the secateurs with her and achieve something. Or the strimmer—Pippa had bought a strimmer at Argos the last time she’d visited, though no one had tried to use it yet. Still, the morning was lovely, and she lifted her face to the yellow light and heat that splashed through the curtains’ gap. Hadn’t she made these curtains herself, more than forty years ago? Unconsciously, her fingers sought out a place where the thread on the sewing machine had snarled under a seam and she couldn’t be bothered to unpick it; she had been too eager to see the curtains’ finished effect. The mustard-yellow Laura Ashley print was peppery with age now, faded almost to white. Pippa met her own eyes in the round mirror that hung above the chest of drawers; those same eyes had once concentrated on themselves in that mirror with keen hope, as she painted on her first eyeliner. Now she was in her late fifties, with a craggy, plain face—which was partly a relief. At least I’ve got that over with, she thought. Her love for certain unattainable rough town boys had been an anguish, she remembered then, surprised, because she was used to thinking of them, if she ever thought of them, with fond condescension, as a bit of a joke.
Meanwhile, Gillian shuddered at the bathroom’s dubious flecks and stains and gritty surfaces, the yellowed toilet brush clogged with paper, the packets of laxatives and Tena lady pads out on unapologetic show. Their mother had a cleaner, but she wasn’t much good; Gillian and Pippa had worked up quite a head of indignant steam, uncovering the signs of her neglect around the house. Gillian had meant, on her days off from hospital visits, to give the whole house a deep clean, and then was taken aback by the depth of her own reluctance to tackle the job—but why should she, after all, if the others didn’t care? Instead, she’d trekked sturdily in the sunshine, pleased with herself, three miles each way along the coastal path, using the expensive boots and walking poles she’d bought last year for a holiday in the Lake District, taken without her husband and with a woman friend—although nothing sexual. In the bathroom now, she managed fastidiously by standing on one clean towel and drying herself with another. How long, actually, had it been since their mother had had a proper bath? She wouldn’t hear of installing a shower, and yet even Gillian didn’t find it easy to climb in and out of the deep tub, its enamel dulled to gray by the innumerable baths the family had run in it over the years. Such thunderous floods of hot water, walls and mirror dripping time and again with condensation; such intimate smells, pleasant and unpleasant; such fun, the bubble baths and slippery, screaming games; then, later, such secret longings and excitement and dread, solitary behind the locked door—hair dye and Tampax and vomiting, girl flesh burgeoning out of control. Thank goodness all that was over with.
“All clear!” she hallooed when she had finished, popping her head, dowagerlike in its wrapped towel, around the door to Pippa’s room. Gillian was quicker and lighter on her feet than her older sister, worked harder on her appearance; she had her gray hair chopped stylishly short, and favored big dangly earrings. Pippa was bookish where Gillian was capable; she wore her hair pinned up, or in a long plait on one shoulder, which someone had once said—long ago, when it was still a rich chestnut brown—made her look like an Augustus John Gypsy. Still, you could see the two sisters’ close likeness: they were big and broad-shouldered like their father, with forthright, open pink faces, long, flat cheeks, an obstinate, set jaw. Both sisters had recently retired. Gillian had done something high up in management for the National Grid, and her husband had a business making thermostats for heating systems. Pippa’s husband worked on the eighteenth century in the history department at Leeds University; she had been the director of an archive at the city museum.
“Bathroom’s empty!” Gillian said. “You should get in quickly before Serena embarks on any aromatherapy. I wish she’d wash the bath out when she’s finished.”
“She’s up already,” Pippa said. “Look! Worshipping in the garden.”
Gillian came to stand beside her, and together they watched Serena dance in the long grass, flitting like a sprite in her tiered black cotton skirt and satiny top, which she had most likely got at a charity shop—she was solemn about waste and recycling. Seven years younger than Gillian, an afterthought in the family, their father’s favorite, fey and fine-boned, Serena had had whatever success she wanted with the town boys and disdained it. She exasperated Pippa and Gillian because she was intolerant and touchy, had no sense of humor; everyone trod carefully around Serena. As a newborn, she’d been very sick, with a hole in her heart; their father, who was the headmaster of the local secondary school and a lay preacher in the C. of E., had prayed over her cot in the intensive-care ward, begging God to save her. No doubt that had affected her character.
Serena lifted her bare feet high and thrust out her arms, and Gillian said that she was doing Tai Chi. Serena must have heard them murmuring, because she turned her face up toward the window and smiled at them, without interrupting the stately sequence of her moves, and they could see that she wasn’t as pretty as she used to be. In the strong light she looked drawn and faded, her arms and neck skinny. The two of them meant to say something dry and funny about their sister, but they were ambushed then by a sadness that had mostly evaded them, in spite of the fact that they were here in their old home, waiting most probably for their mother to die, and for the end of their past. Sadness made its claim on them now, winding through the daily clutter like a long cool note played on a flute.
It was Pippa’s turn to stay behind, while Gillian and Serena drove off to their vigil at the hospital. She got the strimmer out of its box and read the instructions, but recoiled from actually attempting to use it, all that crude noise and violence erupting into the peace of the empty house and garden. There was no hurry, anyway. The others wouldn’t be back till late afternoon—she had all day to cut the grass and make something for supper. Wandering around the downstairs rooms stuffy with heat, their light thick with dust motes, the blinds at their windows lowered to half-mast, as they always were in summer, she pressed down keys—startling herself out of her own reverie—on the out-of-tune piano, which none of them had played with any talent.
In the years since their father died, their mother, Evelyn, hadn’t changed anything in these rooms—less out of respect than out of indifference. The old-fashioned good taste and extreme orderliness had been their father’s idea, it turned out, not hers. Gradually, after he was gone, the place had filled up untidily with her hobbies—oil painting for a while, then weaving, then the University of the Third Age. Photographs of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and the cleaner’s grandchildren were propped at random behind ornaments on the drawing-room mantelpiece; there were sacks of birdseed on the teak sideboard in the dining room. Also, she’d stopped attending church. She’d surprised Pippa recently by insisting that what she’d wanted all her life was to run a farm, though of course there had never been any serious possibility of that—Evelyn’s father’s farm, adjoining the edge of the moor above the town, had been passed on, without even a discussion, through the male line, to her brother first and then to her brother’s son. Anyway, Evelyn had always been vague and shy, thin and awkwardly elegant, with a muffled irony—you couldn’t imagine her in caked boots in the muck or castrating lambs or perched high in the driver’s seat of a tractor. Pippa was embarrassed by these gauche and faintly theatrical eruptions of veiled feminist protest, coming so much too late.
Wandering upstairs to her bedroom, Pippa checked the e-mails on her phone, then succumbed to the desire to lie down on the bed with her George Eliot novel. She couldn’t remember the last time she had lain down to read during the day—it was like being a teen-ager, time stretching out voluptuously in all directions. Dreamily, she even half imagined that she could hear her mother at work downstairs: a consoling clatter of pans and crockery in the kitchen, water running in the sink, voices rumbling on the radio—as if some substratum of ordinariness were so fundamental that it must always be carrying steadily on somewhere, below all the agitation of change. Though Pippa sometimes asked herself what their mother had actually done all day, when she was keeping house. She had seemed so perpetually worn out and preoccupied, yet she’d always had help with the cleaning and ironing, wasn’t much of a cook, disliked entertaining, and had never worked outside the home. Pippa and Gillian had managed bigger households more robustly alongside full-time jobs.
Then Pippa became absorbed in Maggie Tulliver’s forbidden meetings in the Red Deeps with wounded, intelligent Philip Wakeham, her efforts to love him. Pippa urged her on—love Philip, not handsome, conventional Stephen!—though she’d read the book many times before, and knew what must happen. Eventually, she fell asleep, Maggie’s travails merging with her own. She woke only hours later, in the early afternoon, when someone rang the doorbell. With a stale mouth and a ghastly fog in her head, she struggled up and hurried downstairs, blinking, into the confusing shadows of the hall. Its tiled floor was dazzling, spattered with ruby and emerald and topaz light, beamed through the stained-glass picture panels in the porch door—a heron among green reeds, a kingfisher beside a stream, a swan on its nest.
When she opened the door, a man in a sleeveless orange vest and shorts and ragged trainers was leaning against a porch post, chewing, one foot on the ground, the other knee jackknifed up in front of him. He spat out his gum apologetically and held out a hand, said that he was Sean, a friend of Evelyn’s, and he’d come to ask after her. He was lanky and rangy, good-looking, browned by the sun. Although he arranged his face to be exaggeratedly solicitous, the way he sprawled there and sought out her glance sympathetically with his own seemed at first to Pippa provocative and challenging, insolently flirtatious; he had the local accent, slow and suggestive, even when there was nothing to suggest. For a moment, she thought he might be one of those town boys she remembered from her past, but he was much too young for that. Twenty years younger than she was, probably, or twenty-five: more like the age of her oldest son—although he didn’t look after himself the way Toby did. Sean was muscled, but not from the gym, and there was a defiant, leering gap in his grin, where one of his front teeth was missing.
She repeated to him the familiar litany of their news: that their mother was mostly sleeping, and when she did wake she seemed very confused. The doctors couldn’t predict what kind of recovery she’d make—they thought the fall might have been due to a seizure. Sean asked if there was anything he could do. Pippa said she didn’t think so, but it was very kind of him to offer.
“I’m used to doing a few odd jobs around the place for Evelyn.”
“Oh, I see, you mean for money.”
He stood up on both feet away from the porch post, frowning as if he were offended, and said that he was happy to work for nothing at a time like this. Pippa was compromised, sorry. “No, I’m happy to pay, but I don’t think there’s anything. Though I suppose there is the strimmer . . . ”
So it was that when Gillian and Serena arrived home, a couple of hours later, they found the deep peace of Fern Lodge ravaged by the strimmer’s snarling and whining, as Sean, shirtless, went at the long grass in the garden, filling the air with whirling, glinting dust and shards. It had taken some comradely effort between him and Pippa to assemble the strimmer and go through the instructions. Then, while it was charging, she’d made him coffee. Before he attacked the grass, he’d hacked away, with a pruning knife he’d fetched from the shed as if he knew his way around, at the brambles overgrowing the flower bed.
Serena heard the strimmer as soon as she came through the front door, and took in its implications like a blow. She walked straight through the house and burst out again at the back, through the French windows in the dining room, into a scene of devastation: grass lay in heaps where it had fallen on the ragged pale stubble. White-faced, her black eye makeup incongruously gothic in the strong light, she turned on Pippa in impotent fury. “What have you done?” she shouted. “Why did you spoil our garden? It was the only beautiful thing left here, and you’ve spoiled it.”
Sean stopped the strimmer respectfully, seeing her expression.
“It needed tidying,” Pippa said weakly.
Now, when it was too late, she could see how graceful the grass had been as the accompaniment to Serena’s dance that morning, how it had moved with her movement. And she saw, too, how the cutting of the grass might look like a deliberate affront, a contemptuous stroke of brute practicality against imagination and spirit. Serena had a way of construing the most harmlessly neutral acts as provocations. “We couldn’t just leave it,” Pippa tried to explain.
“But why not?”
Her question couldn’t be answered without invoking the whole fabric of everything. Sean looked tentatively between them. “Should I stop there?”
Serena glanced at him, absorbed still in her rage against her sister, scornfully taking in his tan and his naked torso. “You might as well finish it now!” she said. “The place is ruined anyway.”
She stormed off; Gillian and Pippa, left behind in the familiar aftershock of one of her scenes, made wry faces at each other. Pippa told Sean to go on and cut the rest; it was all her fault, not his. Upstairs, clenching her fists, Serena stood confronting the full-length mirror in her room. Her ferocity hadn’t subsided. She couldn’t bear the resumption of the strimmer’s noise, and thought that she had to go out; she painted on a fresh slash of lipstick, changed her heels for higher ones, fluffed up the thick bird’s nest of her rust-black hair, put on dark glasses. The picture panels in the porch door juddered when she slammed it behind her. On her way down through the sloping residential streets to the town’s center, breaking the sleepy silence with the scrape and rap of her heels, she felt at least the relief of escape—anything was better than that hospital. Then she sat solitary at an outdoor table at a café on the main street with a black coffee, lighting a cigarette and smoking it, the cigarette’s poison a kind of bravado in the face of sickness and death.
Since she’d first had any clear idea of who she was, as a teen-ager, Serena had seen herself as set apart like this: dangerous and intriguing, her black clothing outlined against the summer pastels of sloppy holidaymakers in their flip-flops, or the dowdy decency of her own family. To her credit, she’d never been interested in worldly success or fame—though she had been talented, in a minor way, as a singer and an actress. It had been hard enough, she considered, simply becoming herself. She earned a living now as a freelance legal secretary, cared nothing for the work, and was more than competent, easily making herself indispensable. Today, in any case, over her coffee cup—intense, absent, indifferent to her surroundings, not checking her phone or reading—she had an aura that was just as significant as if she were a celebrity, improbably washed up at the seaside, having shaken off her entourage of admirers or detractors, thirsting to be left alone with her luxuriant inner life.
The café was quiet; the town’s morning bustle had long since subsided, its wash of tourists receded. Shops were closing already. The trees’ elongated shadows stretched at intervals across the road. On the beach, the estuary waters ran up across the flat sand, flooding the stale pools that had been left behind hours earlier in cracks in the jutting shelves of shale; any remaining families had retreated to a last redoubt, a bank of pebbles marked with a crusty high-tide line of dried seaweed, cracked plastic bottles, washed-white bones, driftwood, and faded crisp packets. The water was rich with silt, chocolate brown; a few children investigated at its edge with buckets, paddling where it foamed lazily, curling warm around their ankles, sucking under their soles.
After Serena’s performance in the garden, Sean might have avoided her when he spotted her. Having finished strimming, he was making his way home to the caravan where he was living temporarily because his wife had kicked him out; on foot, because his vehicle was with his brother-in-law, who was looking at the fuel pump. But he was intrigued, and drawn to Serena, who was dressed so exotically and looked so concentrated and self-possessed, with her small, heart-shaped face and painted eyes and mass of hair. He thought he recognized in her—in her bearing and black clothes and cigarette, in the sharp point of experience in her expression—the signs of that freemasonry of difference, an alternative life style, to which he also belonged in his own way, though he’d taken out his earring a while ago, finding it childish.
When he was younger, there’d been a passionate frisson between boys like him and certain middle-class girls; those girls had woken up to sex when the boys of their own sort were still playing Monopoly or practicing wheelies on their BMX bikes. Later, the girls left, to go to university or to work elsewhere, and Sean had left, too; he’d travelled around in Europe and the Far East and Australia, and then he’d come home, and got married and had two kids. Serena didn’t look too bad, although he had calculated, from things her mother had said, that she must be fifty at least. Her cheekbones jutted like knuckles under her white skin. But then, he was no oil painting himself these days.
He stood beside the café table, said that he was sorry she was upset, waited so that she was forced to acknowledge him: she looked up as if she, too, felt the nudge of the old freemasonry, only wearily. “Don’t worry about it. My sisters annoy me.”
“You’re like your mother.”
She stiffened at his presumption. “I’m not. Am I?”
“I offered to cut the grass a couple of weeks ago, and she said, ‘No, why bother?’ I think she liked it the way it was, same as you do.”
Serena stubbed out her cigarette thoughtfully, gratified. “So then what did you do, when she said not to cut the grass? Just go away? I suppose you needed the money.”
You had to be careful with the truth when it came to money, Sean knew, although he’d never for one moment have cheated the old lady. He told Serena that he’d done all sorts of odd jobs for her mother around the house: unblocking sinks and changing light bulbs, opening a jammed window, fixing the TV. In fact, though, Evelyn often couldn’t think of anything for him to do; if he just sat drinking tea and talking with her, she insisted on paying him anyway. Sliding between his fingers in his pocket the two twenties that Pippa had given him, he asked Serena if he could buy her another coffee; when she shook her head, he believed at first that he was dismissed. “Just a glass of water,” she added, glancing at passersby in the street as if they were more interesting than he was.
It was a shame about the tooth, she thought, watching him maneuver competently around the tables on his way back from the counter, bearing his own coffee and her glass. Drawing up a chair opposite hers, he sat ripping open little packets of sugar one after another to stir into his cup, which perhaps helped to explain why the tooth was missing. Still, he was good-looking: strong, with wiry shoulder-length hair, burned yellow by the sun and pushed behind his ears, a skewed long nose that might have been broken once, the hazily intent gaze of a weed smoker. A crowned tooth would be expensive, for a casual laborer: though he told her that he was trained as a joiner, with a job coming up soon at the new power station. Serena said that she hated the power station, was opposed to nuclear. Sean shrugged. “We need the work round here.”
“You could go somewhere else.”
“I tried that. Anyway, my kids are here. They stay with me at the weekends.”
She smiled at him warmly, conventionally. “And how old are they?”
Once his children were out in the open, Serena and he could be friendlier; she felt the old tide of flirtation rising between them, promising to lift her from wherever she was stranded. He had a girl, five, and a boy, three. “I never wanted children,” she explained. “Probably because I was born with a hole in my heart: my father prayed all night over my crib in the hospital. I can’t remember this touching scene, but I’ve carried it with me, that burden of hope. After his prayers worked, he thought he owned me. It’s why I’ve got this horrible name, too.”
“It’s not so horrible.”
“Worse than you think. Actually, I’m Angel—Angel Serena. You can imagine why I dropped the Angel part. Mum had nothing to do with choosing it—Dad was the sentimental one. Did you know he was headmaster at Daresbrook? He was an awful bully. I’m glad he was never my headmaster.”
Sean said that he had gone to Daresbrook, but it must have been after her father retired.
“We heard that it went to the dogs,” she said. “But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
Sean tried to weigh his experience at school impartially. “I didn’t react well,” he confessed, rueful, “to being confined in a classroom.”
“You were probably one of the dogs. I mean, that my father thought it went to.”
Wondering whether to feel insulted, Sean said that he regretted it now. “I wish I had my time over again.”
She widened her eyes at him, doubting it, and said that she never regretted anything. Whatever happened had to be that way. As she spoke, however, she was waylaid by a vision of her mother in that hospital bed, so miniature and yellow, her jaw slack, absent from herself, held up between the bleeping heart monitor and the drip and the catheter, the tight knot of her long life loosening. The sadness that had evaded Serena when she’d searched for it, so that she had believed her own heart was a dry husk, found her here in the café when she least expected it. She blotted her eyes with a tissue, sipped her water.
“It’s a difficult time for you,” Sean said sympathetically.
He covered her small cool hand on the table with his own, which was huge and hot, calloused across the palm, black dirt rimming the nails. Of course Serena couldn’t begin to describe all of her private difficulty, not to a stranger. She pulled her hand away and spoke instead about climate change, the political chaos that would follow it. “I should act,” she said. “But I don’t have any conviction. I’m no good at conviction.”
Sean wrote his phone number on the back of his receipt from the café. “Text me,” he said, “so that I’ve got your number, too.”
“All right, I will.”
“No, do it now.”
She smiled, watery-eyed, at his scrap of paper lying untouched on the table between them.
“Go on, you might as well. In case you need anything, any odd jobs done.”
She wouldn’t text him while he watched. But she picked up his number before she left, dropped it into her bag.
That evening, while Pippa and Gillian watched television, Serena went rummaging through the cupboards upstairs, renewed and energized. Her sisters were still jarred by the scene she’d made; she’d always had this trick—of unleashing her worst and then being the first to recover from it. “Look what I’ve found!” she sang out, but the others were reluctant to move from in front of their documentary on Minoan Crete. “Come and see! It’s the Bunty Club.”
“Oh, the Bunty Club!”
Gillian was perplexed. “The what?”
“You remember the Bunty Club! We had those secret club meetings in the shed. ‘We swear not to do good and never to help people.’ ”
“I’ve got no memory of it. Were we horrid?”
“It was just a reaction to Daddy,” Pippa reassured her. “The actual bad things we did were terribly innocent, mostly. I think we hid