Christina Randall’s sudden death shatters her family. As they react in their various and sometimes shocking ways Jaques, her eldest son, an actor and narrator of the book, finds that his own grief is enough without having to take her place as the person everyone confides in and trusts to fix their troubles.
To distract himself, Jaques helps an Australian historian who is researching the 1967 disappearance of one of his mother’s childhood pen-friends. As the action moves from England to South Australia and back Jaques discovers a new love and the long shadows of old secrets. He has to keep family ties intact, but not everyone is being honest. Is there more than one mystery? And who is in danger?
I am happy to be able to give you an excerpt. Enjoy!
Silvia had come to meet us, and she looked as if she was glad to have something positive to do. Like Toby, she’s got Dad’s blue eyes and black hair, like me she’s tall and thin, and she’s so beautiful that people walk backwards to gaze at her. Working from north to south she was wearing a spangled black lace head-scarf, no make-up, a fake fur jacket over a red and black Doris Day dress, her baby son in a silver sling, black tights, and pointy stilettos.
She said, “Oh I’m glad you’re here!” and kissed us. Then her eyes slid over Toby’s big suitcase, my overnight bag, Mum’s laptop bag, the flight bag. “Where – I mean, have you got – did you –”
“The ashes. Yes. In the flight bag.”
The undertaker had put the urn containing the ashes in a smart, solid box neatly wrapped and sealed. Silvia gave the bag a helpless, terrified look, then slung one of the bags over her shoulder. “Toby, you’ve got taller!”
“Be odd if I’d gotten smaller,” he said, but he was pleased; he’s always resented being the short-arse of the family, and now he was nearly of a height with her. “How’s Hugo?” he asked, touching the sleeping baby’s cheek.
“He’s fine. He can almost crawl now. Shall we go?”
“Let’s. How are things at home?”
She gave a weird, manic laugh. “How would you think? Granny keeps forgetting what’s happened, Dad’s stoned, people keep ringing up and crying, and Hugo’s teething. If it weren’t for Matt I’d be in the loony bin by now, barking.”
Well well: openly appreciating PoorMatthew. “When you say stoned –”
“Prescription stuff mostly. Eyes like wallpaper. He hasn’t got out of bed since – since it happened.” She turned to me, apologising: “He made me send that loony fax. Sorry. I didn’t dare not.”
“It’s OK.” We were at the car, and what worried me was that she had Dad’s beloved Jag. Usually he never lets anyone else drive it, not even Mum.
Hugo woke up as Silve put him in his safety capsule. He took one look at us and started to roar. She looked at him helplessly. “Oh please, darling, don’t, darling, please…Oh God, I knew I should have asked Matt to come.”
But Hugo liked someone else. Toby, beside him, said, “Hey, Hugo, be nice,” and stroked the baby’s cheek again. Hugo’s round dark eyes studied him, and he stopped bawling. He grabbed Toby’s finger
and shoved it into his mouth. Peace reigned. We all stared at Toby as if he’d pulled off a conjuring trick. He smiled modestly. Silvia said blankly, “Matt said I should get him a dummy. My milk dried up the night Mum died, I’ve had to put him on a bottle –” Toby’s face, and probably mine, said: Too much info. – “and he does cry a lot.”
Silvia slid behind the wheel and started the car. I fell asleep before we’d left the car park, and only woke when we were home.
Home is Williamscourt, near a tiny village in Hertfordshire. It’s an unremarkable but pretty Georgian house with the fine proportions of that era, trim and well-kept, in the garden Gran made beautiful. But now it was where Mum would never be again. As we opened the front door Toby called, from habit, “I’m home,” and I saw his lips start to form the M of Mum. His face crumpled. I moved to gather him to me, and his eyes widened and he made a weird almost-cry. I turned to follow his gaze, and nearly passed out.
A small woman with ash-blonde hair was coming down the stairs towards us.
I’d barely had time to remind myself I don’t believe in ghosts when Silvia said, “Oh, doctor. What are you doing here?”
Dr Feelgood came lightly down the stairs, her hand tapping the banister at every step. In her kitten heels she was way shorter than us and had to tip her head back to look at us. Of course she was not really like Mum at all and only that moment’s shock made me think so; that and the light from the stained glass window on the landing tinting her brown hair. “There you all are at last! I’ve been looking in on Lord Randall. He’s going to need a great deal of care and sympathy.”
“That would never have occurred to us,” I said gravely.
“I suppose making jokes is your way of coping – classic deflection technique, of course. But don’t use it on your father. He needs care and understanding, not other people’s demands.”
“He’s our father. I think we can manage.”
“I hope so,” said Dr Hook, so doubtfully that I wanted to smack her. “Well, I’ll pop in again tonight to check on Lord Randall.”
“No,” said Silvia, “we will call you if you’re needed. Goodbye.” She held the door open, and Dr Spock took the hint and scurried off. “I am so sick of that woman underfoot. Toby, Jaques, you’ll want to see Dad.” Then she too bolted, heading for the kitchen.
Moving like old men, Toby and I climbed the stairs and trudged to the end of the corridor, to our parents’ room. No – to our father’s room. The door was shut, and hesitantly we knocked. Over the sound of TV from inside we heard what might have been “Come in.” Or, of course, “Fuck off.”
Dad did this bedroom up for their 25th wedding anniversary. He kept their four-poster bed with the ivory and silver inlay, and had curtains woven to his own design to match the pattern of that inlay. He found a 1930s set of furniture made of looking-glass, bought a perfect Aubusson carpet, and covered
the walls with pleated sea-green silk. Quad speakers are hidden in the ceiling cornice, the stereo gear is invisible, the big TV at the foot of the bed slides down out of the way. As well, Dad had cut a door through to the next room and made it into a dressing room and walk-through wardrobe, and on the far side of that is a huge bathroom, the last word in luxury. He did all this in secret while Mum was away, and for her return he filled the rooms with flowers and put Cole Porter on the stereo. She was speechless with delight, she cried. I remember her walking though those rooms touching things, pulling out drawers, turning on taps, all the time saying “O Jon! O Jon! It’s so beautiful…”
Now, in that pretty room Dad lay in the middle of the bed, windows shut, curtains drawn, duvet slipping, sheets trailing, all the silky pillows wadded into lumps. Both dogs were asleep at the foot of the bed, and the air smelt of dog farts, and also of cigarettes; Mum had never smoked in this room or allowed Dad to.
Dad was in grubby pyjamas and hadn’t shaved. His hair was greasy, and seemed more grey. He was ashen and his eyes red-rimmed and, Silvia was right, like blue flock wallpaper. Seeing us he cried, “My two boys!” and held out his arms. We kissed him and he said, “No no, come here, Toby, come around here,” and we settled one on either side of him, as if we were children come to hear a bedtime story. For a moment we all stared at the television screen. It was showing (of all things) Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole was running nancily around in his new Arab robes. He reminded me of that picture I’d found in Mum’s locket.
Very quickly I said, “Dad, we’re so very sorry about Mum. Are you, um, all right?”
“Of course I’m not all right. Nor are you two.”
“No,” we agreed.
“We were married more than thirty years. And I loved her.”
“So did we,” Toby said bleakly, and as if in comment Kingsley, the bulldog, woke up and farted. Mum had never allowed the dogs in here, either.
“But we have to get through this,” Dad said. “Don’t know how, mind you. You should have brought her home.” Toby and I – and, I could have sworn, Kingsley – exchanged a glance. Toby said, very gently but firmly, “Dad, we could not have flown home with Mum – with her body in the cargo hold. You’ve got to understand that, Dad.”
He blenched, and swallowed. I thought he was about to vomit, and reached for the wastepaper basket, full though it was of ciggie butts, sodden tissues and food scraps. But he gulped again and said, “I hadn’t quite thought of it like that. Oh fuck, she really is dead, isn’t she. How dare she die on me! I need her and she’s dead. Tia’s dead.”
For a moment he stared at us blearily, then he said, “You’re good boys and I love you. But leave me alone now. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. But leave me alone.”
We found Granny in her hydrangea-coloured sitting room, watching racing on TV and reading a gardening magazine. She said “Hello, darlings,” quite cheerfully, and kissed us. But then: “Where’s your mother? Wasn’t she coming with you?”
“Granny –” I began, but her face crumpled and she said,
“I forgot. My dear Tia is dead, isn’t she.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I keep forgetting, you see. How did you find your father?”
We gave an expurgated description, and she sighed. “I’ll allow him one more day, then I’ll deal with him. He was like this as a child, you know, I’m afraid his nanny was much too indulgent. But he was a very sensitive child, poor little chap, much more than the others, and his father would never let him show any emotion – not manly, you see. But just the same, he has to draw a line. So he can have one more day, then I’ll get him up. Put up with it till then, darlings. Of course,” she added, switching to the Home Shopping Network, “with Jon it’s partly guilt.”
“Survivor guilt?” Toby asked, and, pleased, she said,
“Oh, is there a word for it? I suppose the Americans invented it, did they? Like ‛closure’. I’ve had that tedious little GP here offering me pills and talking about ‛closure’ and asking if I wanted counselling. I told her I went through the war, and have outlived my husband, my parents, my brother, my in-laws and most of my friends, without needing to talk to some hippy. She didn’t like that, and off she went with her nose in a sling. I suppose she meant well, poor girl. But guilt, yes. We all do feel guilty, don’t we, always, when someone dies?”
Toby and I looked at each other, and nodded.
“Silly, of course,” Granny went on, “but we feel it, and in Jon’s case, silly boy, he’s feeling guilty because he couldn’t meet Tia in New York. They were going to… who’s that dead boy?”
I could feel my mental wheels spinning, but Toby said, “John Lennon?”
“That’s the one! Yes, they were going to… his grave? Something. Penny Lane. So odd, I used to know a girl called Penny Lane. But Jon had a meeting with one of his authors and couldn’t go, he was so angry about it but everyone says this author will be the new Will Self although frankly I would have thought one would be enough. So Jon couldn’t go, and he feels guilty. But that wretched accident might have happened even if he’d been there, mightn’t it, in fact they might both have been killed. Not that that is any comfort to Jon just now, of course.”
“I felt guilty because Mum was on her way to see me but I wasn’t in,” Toby offered.
Gran put her arm around him. “See what I mean? It’s so silly. We might as well blame Tia for not wearing her specs – New York traffic, you know, and she’d got rather short-sighted, you know, usually you get longer sight as you age but she was short-sighted, and she hated wearing her specs in public.”
This was as much news to me as that Gran had apparently not just heard of but read Will Self.
“So don’t let’s have any guilt,” she went on, giving Toby a kiss. “We’ll grieve, but we don’t need guilt. Goodness me, this shopping thing is silly, I had no idea.”
“Why are you watching it, then?”
“I’m not really. I suppose I’m just distracting myself, I did a little too much in the garden. But I have to think about flowers. We must have all Tia’s favourites.” Suddenly her faded blue eyes filled with tears. “I did wonder – did she have flowers? In New York? She loved flowers.”
“Yes, Gran, lots of flowers. Look.” I flipped open my phone and called up the photos I’d taken at the service. Gran was enchanted, both with the flowers and with the idea that you could take photos with a phone.
“I had no idea!” she kept saying. “So handy. Could I have one?” I said sure, I’d download and print all the photos she wanted. She looked at me as if I were a bit mental. “That would be lovely, darling, but I meant a dear little phone that takes photos. Or is it very difficult? Because I must say I’ve thought of getting a little phone, all my friends in the Bridge club have them so I feel quite old-fashioned without one, and they say you feel so safe with one. And now I think of it some of theirs take photographs, all those ugly great-grandchildren they keep showing me.”
And so, incredibly, we spent our first morning at home taking Gran to buy a mobile phone, and teaching her to use it.
Thank you, Meredith Whitford and LoveBooksGroup
About the author
With humour and unforgettable characters, Meredith Whitford uses her experiences as an adopted child, a writer, a publisher and a synaesthete to weave a heartfelt, gripping novel of the many different kinds of love.