It would be inaccurate to say that my childhood was normal before they came. It was far from normal, but it felt normal because it was all I’d known. It’s only now, with decades of hindsight, that I can see how odd it was.
I was nearly eleven when they came, and my sister was nine.
They lived with us for more than five years and they turned everything very, very dark. My sister and I had to learn how to survive.
And when I was sixteen, and my sister was fourteen, the baby came.
Libby picks the letter up off the doormat. She turns it in her hands. It looks very formal; the envelope is cream in colour, made of high-grade paper, and feels as though it might even be lined with tissue. The postal frank says ‘Smithkin Rudd & Royle Solicitors Chelsea Manor Street SW3’.
She takes the letter into the kitchen and sits it on the table while she fills the kettle and puts a teabag in a mug. Libby is pretty sure she knows what’s in the envelope. She turned twenty-five last month. She’s been subconsciously waiting for this envelope. But now it’s here she’s not sure she can face opening it.
She picks up her phone and calls her mother.
‘Mum,’ she says. ‘It’s here. The letter from the trustees.’
She hears a silence at the other end of the line. She pictures her mum in her own kitchen, a thousand miles away in Dénia: pristine white units, lime-green colour-coordinated kitchen accessories, sliding glass doors on to a small terrace with a distant view to the Mediterranean, her phone held to her ear in the crystal-studded case that she refers to as her bling.
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Right. Gosh. Have you opened it?’
‘No. Not yet. I’m just having a cup of tea first.’
‘Right,’ she says again. Then she says, ‘Shall I stay on the line? While you do it?’
‘Yes,’ says Libby. ‘Please.’
She feels a little breathless, as she sometimes does when she’s just about to stand up and give a sales presentation at work, like she’s had a strong coffee. She takes the teabag out of the mug and sits down. Her fingers caress the corner of the envelope and she inhales.
‘OK,’ she says to her mother, ‘I’m doing it. I’m doing it right now.’
Her mum knows what’s in here. Or at least she has an idea, though she was never told formally what was in the trust. It might, as she has always said, be a teapot and a ten-pound note.
Libby clears her throat and slides her finger under the flap. She pulls out a sheet of thick cream paper and scans it quickly:
To Miss Libby Louise Jones
As trustee of the Henry and Martina Lamb Trust created on 12 July 1977, I propose to make the distribution from it to you described in the attached schedule . . .
She puts down the covering letter and pulls out the accompanying paperwork.
‘Well?’ says her mum, breathlessly
‘Still reading,’ she replies.
She skims and her eye is caught by the name of a property. Sixteen Cheyne Walk, SW3. She assumes it is the property her birth parents were living in when they died. She knows it was in Chelsea. She knows it was big. She had assumed it was long gone. Boarded up. Sold. Her breath catches hard at the back of her throat when she realises what she’s just read.
‘Er,’ she says.
‘It looks like . . . No, that can’t be right.’
‘The house. They’ve left me the house.’
‘The Chelsea house?’
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘The whole house?’
‘I think so.’ There’s a covering letter, something about nobody else named on the trust coming forward in due time. She can’t digest it at all.
‘My God. I mean, that must be worth . . .’
Libby breathes in sharply and raises her gaze to the ceiling. ‘This must be wrong,’ she says. ‘This must be a mistake.’
‘Go and see the solicitors,’ says her mother. ‘Call them. Make an appointment. Make sure it’s not a mistake.’
‘But what if it’s not a mistake? What if it’s true?’
‘Well then, my angel,’ says her mother – and Libby can hear her smile from all these miles away, ‘you’ll be a very rich woman indeed.’
Libby ends the call and stares around her kitchen. Five minutes ago, this kitchen had been the only kitchen she could afford, this flat the only one she could buy, here in this quiet street of terraced cottages in the backwaters of St Albans. She remembers the flats and houses she’d seen during her online searches, the little intakes of breath as her eye caught upon the perfect place: a suntrap terrace, an eat-in kitchen, a five-minute walk to the station, a bulge of ancient leaded window, the suggestion of cathedral bells from across a green, and then she would see the price and feel herself a fool for ever thinking it might be for her.
She’d compromised on everything in the end to find a place that was close to her job and not too far from the train station. There’d been no gut instinct as she stepped across the threshold; her heart said nothing to her as the estate agent showed her around. But she’d made it a home to be proud of, painstakingly creaming off the best that TK Maxx had to offer, and now her badly converted, slightly awkward one-bedroom flat makes her feel happy. She’d bought it; she’d adorned it. It belonged to her.
But now it appears she is the owner of a house on the finest street in Chelsea and suddenly her flat looks like a ridiculous joke and so does everything else that was important to her five minutes ago – the £1500-ayear rise she’d just been awarded at work, the hen weekend in Barcelona next month that had taken her six months to save for, the Mac eye shadow she’d ‘allowed’ herself to buy last weekend as a treat for getting the pay rise – the soft frisson of abandoning her tightly managed monthly budget for just one glossy, sweet-smelling moment in House of Fraser, the weightlessness of the tiny MAC bag swinging from her hand, the shiver of placing the little black capsule in her make-up bag, of knowing that she owned it, that she might in fact wear it in Barcelona, where she might also wear the dress her mother bought her for Christmas, the one from French Connection with the lace panels she’d wanted for ages. Five minutes ago her joys in life had been small, anticipated, longed-for, hard-earned and saved-up-for, inconsequential little splurges that meant nothing in the scheme of things but gave the flat surface of her life enough sparkles to make it worth getting out of bed every morning to go and do a job which she liked but didn’t love.
Now she owns a house in Chelsea and the proportions of her existence have been blown apart.
She slides the letter back into its expensive envelope and finishes her tea.
There is a storm brewing over the Côte d’Azur; it sits dark as damsons on the horizon, lying heavy on the crown of Lucy’s head. She cups her skull with one hand, grabs her daughter’s empty plate with the other and lowers it to the floor so that the dog can lick off the gravy stains and crumbs of chicken.
‘Marco,’ she says to her son, ‘finish your food.’
‘I’m not hungry,’ he replies.
Lucy feels rage pulse and throb at her temples. The storm is edging closer; she can feel the moisture cooling in the hot air. ‘This is it,’ she says, her voice clipped with the effort of not shouting. ‘This is all there is to eat today. This is the end of the money. No more. No telling me you’re hungry at bedtime. It’ll be too late then. Eat it. Please.’
Marco shakes his head long-sufferingly and cuts into his chicken schnitzel. She stares at the top of his head, the thick chestnut hair swirling from a double-crown. She tries to remember the last time they all washed their hair and she can’t.
Stella says, ‘Mama, can I have a dessert?’
Lucy glances down at her. Stella is five years old and the best mistake Lucy ever made. She should say no; she’s so hard on Marco, she should not be so soft on his sister. But Stella is so good, so yielding and easy. How can she deny her something sweet to eat?
‘If Marco finishes his schnitzel,’ she says evenly, ‘we can get an ice cream to share.’ This is clearly unfair on Stella, who finished her chicken ten minutes ago and shouldn’t have to wait for her brother to finish his. But Stella’s sense of injustice seems still to be unformed and she nods and says, ‘Eat quickly, Marco!’
Lucy takes Marco’s plate from him when he is done and puts it on the pavement for the dog. The ice cream comes. It is three flavours in a glass bowl with hot chocolate sauce, crumbled praline and a pink foil palm tree on a cocktail stick.
Lucy’s head throbs again and she eyes the horizon. They need to find shelter and they need to do it soon. She asks for the bill, places her card on the saucer, taps her number into the card reader, her breath held against the knowledge that now there is no money in that account, that there is no money anywhere.
She waits while Stella licks out the glass bowl, then she unties the dog’s lead from the table leg and collects their bags, handing two to Marco, one to Stella.
‘Where are we going?’ asks Marco.
His brown eyes are serious, his gaze is heavy with anxiety.
She sighs. She looks up the street towards Nice’s old town, down the street towards the ocean. She even looks at the dog, as though he might have a good suggestion to make. He looks at her eagerly as though there might be another plate to lick. There’s only one place to go and it’s the last place she wants to be. But she finds a smile.
‘I know,’ she says, ‘let’s go and see Mémé!’
Marco groans. Stella looks uncertain. They both remember how it was last time they stayed with Stella’s grandmother. Samia was once a film star in Algeria. Now she is seventy years old, blind in one eye and living in a scruffy seventh-floor apartment in a tower block in l’Ariane with her disabled adult daughter. Her husband died when she was just fifty-five and her only son, Stella’s father, disappeared three years ago and hasn’t been in touch since. Samia is angry and raw and rightly so. But she has a roof and a floor; she has pillows and running water. She has everything right now that Lucy can’t offer her children.
‘Just for one night,’ she says. ‘Just tonight and then I’ll sort something out for tomorrow. I promise.’
They reach Samia’s estate just as the rain starts to fall, tiny water bombs exploding on to the hot pavement. In the graffiti-daubed lift on the way to the seventh floor, Lucy can smell them: the humid aroma of unwashed clothes, of greasy hair, of trainers that have been worn too long. The dog, with his coat of dense wiry hair, smells particularly horrible.
‘I can’t,’ says Samia at her front door, blocking their entrance. ‘I just can’t. Mazie is sick. The carer needs to sleep here tonight. There is no room. There is just no room.’
A crack of thunder booms overhead. The sky behind them turns brilliant white. Sheets of rain sluice from the sky. Lucy stares at Samia desperately. ‘We have nowhere else to go,’ she says.
‘I know,’ says Samia. ‘I know that. I can take Stella. But you and the boy and the dog, I’m sorry. You’ll have to find somewhere else.’
Lucy feels Stella push against her leg, a shiver of unease run through her small body. ‘I want to stay with you,’ she whispers to Lucy. ‘I don’t want to stay without you.’
Lucy crouches down and takes Stella’s hands. Stella’s eyes are green, like her father’s, her dark hair is streaked hazel-blond, her face tanned dark brown from the long hot summer. She is a beautiful child; people stop Lucy on the street sometimes to tell her so, with a soft gasp.
‘Baby,’ she says. ‘You’ll be dry here. You can have a shower; Mémé will read you a story . . .’
Samia nods. ‘I’ll read you the one you like,’ she says, ‘about the moon.’
Stella presses herself tighter against Lucy. Lucy feels her patience ebbing. She would give anything to be allowed to sleep in Mémé’s bed, to be read the book about the moon, to shower and slip into clean pyjamas.
‘Just one night, baby. I’ll be here first thing tomorrow to collect you. OK?’
She feels the flutter of Stella’s head nodding against her shoulder, the intake of her breath against tears. ‘OK, Mama,’ says Stella, and Lucy bundles her into Samia’s flat before either of them can change their mind. Then it is just her and Marco and the dog, yoga mats rolled up on their backs, heading into the heavy rain, into the darkening night, with nowhere to go.
For a while they take shelter beneath the flyover. The constant fizz of car tyres over hot wet tarmac is deafening. The rain keeps falling.
Marco has the dog held in his lap, his face pressed against the dog’s back.
He looks up at Lucy. ‘Why is our life so shit?’ he asks.
You know why our life is shit,’ she snaps.
‘But why can’t you do something about it?’
‘I’m trying,’ she says.
‘No you’re not. You’re letting us go under.’
‘I am trying,’ she hisses, fixing him with a furious gaze. ‘Every single minute of every single day.’
He looks at her doubtfully. He is too, too clever and knows her too, too well. She sighs. ‘I’ll get my fiddle back tomorrow. I can start making money again.’
‘How are you going to pay for the repairs?’ He narrows his eyes at her.
‘I’ll find a way.’
‘I don’t know, all right? I don’t know. Something will come up. It always does.’
She turns from her son then and stares into the parallel lines of headlights burning towards her. A huge cannon of thunder explodes overhead, the sky lights up again, the rain becomes, if it is possible, even heavier. She pulls her battered smartphone from the outside pocket of her rucksack, turns it on. She sees that she has 8 per cent battery charge left and is about to switch it off again when she notices her phone has sent her a notification from her calendar. It’s been there for weeks now but she can’t bring herself to cancel it.
It says, simply: The baby is 25.