Water closes over the body. Swallows it. The rocking of the boat subsides quickly. Its occupant waits until the surface of the lake is still. Her breathing sounds shockingly loud. She takes the oars and rows away from the site with determined strokes. Her arms ache and she thinks: I can’t believe I had to do this. I hate to have done this. When she reaches the boathouse, the boat glides in gently. She walks back to Lake Hall in silence, taking care where she steps. She is very tired. The water was extremely cold. It’s such a bad end for a person, she thinks, so unfortunate, but so necessary. As she slips into the house, she doesn’t notice the breeze moving the tips of the weeping willow branches, encouraging them to dance in the dark on the water’s surface.
I stare at my reflection, transfixed by it. I am a grotesquely made-up version of myself, distorted like everything else. Which is the real me? This painted creature, or the woman beneath the mask?
I no longer know who or what to believe.
The door opens behind me and I see my daughter’s reflection in the mirror, her face hovering behind mine, round as a coin, with bright, cornflower-blue eyes. Unblemished.
I don’t want her to see me now. I don’t want her to become me.
‘Get out,’ I say.
Jocelyn is disorientated when she wakes up and her mouth is sticky dry. It’s light outside and she feels as if she’s been asleep for a very long time. She studies the hands on her bedside clock and concludes that the time is exactly twenty-six minutes past eight. Usually, her nanny wakes her up at seven.
She yawns and blinks. Curvy, dancing giraffes cavort in pairs across her wallpaper and soft toys carpet the end of her bed. Hanging on the door of her armoire, where Nanny Hannah left it yesterday, is an empty padded clothes hanger. It’s supposed to be for Jocelyn’s special dress, the one her mother bought for her to greet their guests in, but the dress got ruined and now it’s gone. Jocelyn feels guilty and sad about that, but also confused. She knows what happened was bad, but she can only remember little flashes from the evening and she pushes those out of her mind because they come with sharp feelings of shame.
Usually, Jocelyn’s bedroom is one of her favourite places to be, but this morning it feels different, too quiet. The door of the armoire is ajar and she imagines a creature lurking inside it, with talons and long limbs that will snake out and grab her at any moment.
‘Hannah!’ she calls. There’s a band of light underneath the door that separates her room from her nanny’s, but no sign of the moving shadows that usually tell her when Hannah is up. ‘Hannah!’ she tries again, stretching out the vowels. There’s no answer.
She gets out of bed and runs the few paces across the room to Hannah’s door, slamming shut the armoire as she passes by. The clothes hanger falls, the clatter it makes startling her. Jocelyn is supposed to knock and wait for Hannah to answer before she enters her nanny’s bedroom, but she throws the door open.
She expects to see Hannah in bed, or sitting on her chair in the corner, wearing her red dressing gown and fluffy slippers, but Hannah isn’t there. She expects to see a glass of water and a fat, dog-eared paperback on the bedside table. She expects to see Hannah’s hairbrush and make-up, her two porcelain figurines of kittens. But there is no trace of Hannah or her belongings to be seen. The bed is neatly made, the candlewick bedspread smoothed out with hospital corners, the pillows are plump, the curtains are open and every surface is bare.
‘Hannah!’ Jocelyn shouts. It’s not just the shock of the room’s emptiness but also a sudden, terrible feeling of loss that makes her scream so piercing.
Marion Harris, the housekeeper at Lake Hall, pulls open every drawer and door in Hannah’s room. Lining paper curls in the base of the drawers and empty metal hangers jangle in the wardrobe. She flips up the edges of the bedspread to peer under the bed and checks the bedside table. The girl is right, there is nothing of Hannah’s to be seen. She marches down the corridor to the box room. ‘She’s taken her suitcases. I can’t believe it.’ The light cord swings in a wild trajectory.
‘I told you,’ Jocelyn whispers. Her chin wobbles. She’s been holding out hope that Marion would be able to explain the situation or fix it. Marion huffs. ‘It’s so unlike her! She surely would have said something or left a note. She’d never have dumped us in it like this.’
Church bells begin to chime. Marion casts an eye out of the window towards the top of the spire, just visible above the dense band of oak trees surrounding Lake Hall’s grounds.
‘Stay here and play,’ she says. ‘I’ll fetch you a bit of breakfast then I’ll speak to your mother and father.’
Jocelyn stays in her room until lunch. She works on a picture for Hannah, painstakingly selecting colours and being careful not to go over the lines. By the time Marion calls her down she’s bursting to know what’s happening, but Marion says, ‘I don’t know any more than you do. You’ll have to ask your parents.’ Her lips are set in a tight line.
Jocelyn finds her parents in the Blue Room with two friends who stayed the night. Newspapers and colour supplements are spread out all over the sofas and the coffee table. The fire is lit and the air in the room is thick with wood and cigarette smoke.
Jocelyn wants to attract her daddy’s attention, but he’s deep in his armchair, long legs crossed and face hidden behind his pink newspaper. Mother is lying on one of the sofas, her head resting on a pile of cushions, eyes half-shut. She’s stubbing out a cigarette in the big marble ashtray balanced on her tummy. Jocelyn takes a deep breath. She’s trying to work up the courage to speak. She doesn’t want to attract her mother’s attention if she can help it.
The lady friend turns from the window and notices Jocelyn in the doorway. ‘Hello, there,’ she says. Jocelyn thinks her name is Milla. Milla has brown hair backcombed to look big.
‘Hello,’ Jocelyn says. She tries to smile but blushes instead. She knows she was bad last night, but not if Milla knows.
Virginia Holt’s attention is caught by her daughter’s voice. ‘What do you want?’ Jocelyn flinches and glances at her father. He’s still behind his newspaper.
‘Hello!’ her mother snaps. ‘I’m talking to you; he isn’t.’
Jocelyn swallows. ‘Do you know where Hannah is?’
‘She left.’ Two words and Jocelyn feels as if the bottom has dropped out of her world. Hannah is her everything. Hannah cares. Hannah listens. Hannah has time to explain things to Jocelyn. Hannah loves Jocelyn. Hannah is better than Mother.
‘Don’t stamp your foot at me, young lady. How dare you?’
‘Hannah didn’t leave! Where did she go?’
Lord Holt puts down his newspaper. He looks very tired. ‘Mummy’s right, darling. I’m sorry. We’ll find you a new nanny as soon as possible. Mummy will make some calls after the weekend.’
Jocelyn screams and her mother gets to her feet instantly, the ashtray falling to the carpet, its contents scattering. Virginia grabs Jocelyn’s arms and leans down so her face is only inches from Jocelyn’s. Her eyes are horribly bloodshot. Her hair falls across her face. Jocelyn recoils but her mother’s grip clamps her in place.
‘Stop it this instant! Hannah left and you may as well know she left because of you. You are a bad girl, Jocelyn, a very bad girl. Is it any wonder Hannah couldn’t stand to look after you any more?’
‘But I’ll be a good girl, I promise. I’ll be the best girl if you get Hannah back.’
‘It’s too late for that.’
The hotel tearoom has high ceilings and pastel walls. In a far corner, the plasterwork is in need of patching. Rain is falling so hard outside it seems to liquidise the window panes. The room is almost full, and humming with chatter. Crockery and cutlery chink. Live lite piano music and occasional laughter provide cheerful high notes. The room is warm but too large and formal to be cosy. I expect the glowing chandelier bulbs are reflected prettily in my eyes, but behind them, my state of mind can be summed up by that famous painting by munch: The Scream.
However, I’m making a big effort, because it’s Ruby’s birthday.
‘Salmon and cucumber, Jocelyn?’ mother says.
There’s no point in reminding her yet again that I prefer to be called ‘Jo’ now. I must have told her a hundred times already since Ruby and I got here, and still she refuses to accept it. I wish she hadn’t overdone the rouge today. Her cheeks are as pink as a picture-book piggy and her steel-grey hair is teased into a smooth quiff and fixed immovably under a velvet hairband.
Mother reserves the corner table in this tearoom every time she comes into town. It has the best view of the room. She tells me the food has gone downhill since she brought me here when I was a child, which is, she says, a shame. I get the impression the only reason she comes now is because she enjoys talking down to the employees. I hated coming here with her when I was little, and I don’t feel any different thirty years later.
‘Thank you.’ I take one of the limp white triangles and place it neatly in the middle of my plate.
‘Ruby, darling?’ mother has launched an unexpected charm offensive. Her target is my ten-year-old daughter Ruby. They met for the first time a month ago and I thought they would be like oil and water.
My mother: a seventy-year-old relic of the English aristocracy, cold, old-fashioned, snobbish, selfish, greedy and fluent in the Queen’s English.
Ruby: a kid who was born and has been raised in California, whip-smart, kind, an internet gamer, ex-member of a girls’ soccer team and lifelong tomboy.
I was so wrong about their compatibility. I have been the absolute centre of Ruby’s world since her dad died, but I have acquired some serious competition from my mother now. A bond between them is forming right in front of my eyes. I feel as if my mother is manoeuvring herself, uninvited, into the void Chris left in my and Ruby’s lives after his death, and I’m not even a tiny bit comfortable with it.
‘Thank you, granny.’ Ruby treats my mother to a blinding smile and takes a sandwich from the four-tiered cake stand. It’s the tallest in the room. On the menu it’s described as ‘Decadent afternoon Tea’. My mother ordered it with relish although the cost per head is eye-watering. I think she’s done it to shame me for not making Ruby a birthday cake. I did buy one, but it was from the budget range at the supermarket. Needs must.
Ruby’s eyes are bright with excitement and she’s nibbling the edge of her sandwich in an affected way. I don’t like it. Ruby is a gulp-it-down-so-you-can-run-back-outside sort of girl. Or she used to be. I have been amazed by the way she has thrown herself into English life since we arrived here. It’s as if she’s using all the new experiences to fill the gap her dad’s death has left. I wonder how long the novelty of it will last, but for now at least, she fills her Instagram feed with photos of Lake Hall and the surrounding countryside, of curiosities and objects she finds in the house and the people who work there. Since we’ve been in the tearoom, she’s already posted several close-ups of the cakes. She tags her pictures as if they’re curiosities in a museum or props at a British theme park. ‘Sooooo cute!’ her California friends respond.
I guess I shouldn’t fret about such harmless stuff. I should feel grateful she’s coping at all, especially as today is special: not only is it the first birthday Ruby has had since her dad died, it’s a milestone birthday.
‘How does it feel to be ten?’ Mother asks.
‘Same as being nine.’ Ruby speaks with her mouth full and automatically I brace myself to defend her if mother tells her off, but she doesn’t. She smiles, instead. ‘You look very pretty in that cardigan,’ she tells Ruby.
We arrived here after spending an arduous length of time in a department store where mother bought Ruby two bags full of clothes and insisted Ruby take off her favourite hoody and wear her new red cardigan to the swallow Hotel for her birthday tea.
‘I love it,’ Ruby says. ‘It’s so retro.’
‘What?’ mother says and I wonder if she has become a little hard of hearing.
She’s aged remarkably well since I last saw her. The only obvious impairment the years have brought on is arthritis. Her knuckles are noticeably swollen on both hands. It is the only sign of physical weakness, of diminishment, I have ever noticed in my mother. I admit it makes me feel as if I have won a small victory, because when somebody has bullied you for your entire life, when you’ve felt driven to put an ocean between you and your upbringing to try to forget it, then you can’t help it. I’d be lying if I claimed I was above this petty brand of schadenfreude.
Ruby doesn’t repeat her comment because she’s distracted by figuring out how to use the strainer provided for pouring the loose-leaf Assam tea, which she and my mother ordered; they’re sharing a pot.
‘You’re almost a proper young lady now,’ mother says. Her fingers aren’t so bent she can’t efficiently swipe a pistachio macaroon from the top tier of the cake stand.
‘La di dah,’ Ruby sings. Little finger extended, she sips her tea in a parody of gentility.
Again, I expect my mother to scorch Ruby with a reprimand, as she would have done to me, but she laughs, showing gums and long teeth. A macaroon crumb is stuck between her incisors. ‘La di dah,’ she repeats. ‘What a funny little thing you are.’ it’s her highest form of praise for a child.
‘Excuse me,’ I say.
In the tearoom bathroom, surrounded by suffocating chintzy wallpaper and chilled by a draught, I get my phone out. The last texts Chris and I exchanged were two and a half months ago. It was a beautiful California morning. He was at work. I was standing in our light-filled kitchen watching a hummingbird at the feeder in our garden. The blur of its emerald wings was mesmerising.
Got you a present he texted.
Thank you! Exciting!!! What is it?
Wait and see … Back by 7 xx
It was a small Japanese ceramic vase. It had a beautiful deep crackle glaze. I’d been longing to add it to my modest collection for ages. The vase survived the impact that took Chris’s life. As he drove home, a delivery van ran a red light and smashed into the driver’s side of Chris’s car as he pulled out of a junction. The van driver was drunk. A police officer handed me the vase the next day along with Chris’s messenger bag. ‘It was in the passenger seat footwell,’ she said. The vase was giftwrapped.
I scroll back through the texts Chris and I exchanged multiple times every day when he was alive. It’s a compulsion I can’t resist even though I shouldn’t do it because it always hurts. If anybody else looked at the texts they might seem banal, but I can vividly reconstruct moments from our shared life when I read them. They allow me to imagine Chris is still alive. When I’ve finished looking through them I do what I always do. I send a message to his number saying I love you so much, and within seconds I get one back: Unable to deliver.
Sometimes my grief for him is so intense it feels as if I’m bleeding out. When that happens, I am seized by the fear that if I’m this broken, how can I possibly be the mother that Ruby needs me to be? And that thought leads inevitably to the next: if I can’t, does that leave room for my mother to try to take my place? The idea of it is unbearable.