After Patrick Jackson’s death his estranged daughter Jo begins to try to unravel the mysteries that always surrounded him. Why did he never talk about his past in Ireland? Why was he always so moody and bad-tempered in the home while a talkative charmer in the outside world? Why, at one time, did he forbid Jo to do family history research? And why did he seem to have it in for her especially, affecting her life into adulthood?
Why, too, do Jo’s memories of her own childhood differ so starkly from her mother’s?
The more Jo questions and digs, the more the mysteries deepen. Until at last she uncovers a chain of secrets forged in the religious and sexual prejudices of the past, but with the power to affect the lives of Patrick’s family in the present day.
AFTER AND BEFORE
It was the winter I discovered I had a cyst in my belly, grown all without my knowing, and my sister’s heart started banging as if it wanted the hell out of there now.
I went over on the train to the hospital she’d been taken to and rushed down the corridor and into the ward. She was sitting up, dark curls on end, still hooked to the monitor, but they’d given her a shot and her heart rate was back to normal. She was scowling, reminding me of our father, because they wouldn’t let her out of bed and she badly needed to pee.
There was a bed pan on the cover near the bottom of the bed. I said, ‘Use it, I’ll draw the curtains.’ She said, ‘You’re joking! Here?’ and looked around in horror at the drugged or sleeping patients each side and the curtains drawn on the bed opposite.
It’s a small town, of course, the one she still lives in, where our parents settled at long last when we were in our teens, and where she’s been a librarian all her adult life. She has her mystique to keep up.
The nurse came along and said my sister was OK now, her heartbeat had been normal for four hours, she could ring her husband to come back from his work to fetch her. As she took off the last plug my sister jumped from the leash and fled to the lavatory near the nurses’ station, slamming the door with a sound that rang round the ward.
I didn’t tell her about the cyst. And of course, the heart-thump- ing matter of the novel I had written, the novel about our family, wasn’t mentioned. By then the subject was completely avoided.
When I was six and my sister was four, she came down with scarlet fever, the one other time she was ever in hospital, carted off to an isolation hospital in the north Welsh hills.
We had only just moved from south Wales, the first of what would be several moves.
I sat outside the hospital in the car with my father, our baby brother asleep in the back in the carrycot, while our mother went in to visit her. Someone held her up at a hospital window for me to see her, but what I saw didn’t look like my sister, like Cathy: we were too far away and the window seemed to be frosted; all I could see was a pink thing that made me think of a shrimp. I guess we must have gone at bath time and they were in the bathroom.
For years afterwards Cathy would recount the horror of that time, considering it one of her major childhood traumas: the enforced baths in Dettol; the compulsory drink of sickly Ovaltine at bedtime; being made to march beforehand down the central aisle with the other children, with their various strange accents, singing a song she didn’t know in which you claimed to be something called an Ovalteenie, although she had no idea what that was.
Thank you, Elizabeth Baines and Random Things Tours
About the author
Elizabeth is the author of two previous novels published by Salt, The Birth Machine and Too Many Magpies, as well as two short-story collections, Balancing on the Edge of the World and Used to Be. She’s also been a prizewinning playwright for Radio 4, writing both comedy and serious drama, and has produced and acted in her own plays for fringe theatre. She has been a schoolteacher and has taught Writing in universities, but now writes full time. She lives with her husband in Manchester where she brought up her two now grown sons.