Authors: Adèle Geras
First published in Great Britain in 2003 by Orion
This ebook edition published in 2013 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright Â© AdÃ¨le Geras 2003
The right of AdÃ¨le Geras to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.
All the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN 978 1 78206 611 8
You can find this and many other great books at:
AdÃ¨le Geras is the author of many acclaimed stories for children as well as four adult novels:
Facing the Light
Made in Heaven
A Hidden Life
. She lives in Cambridge.
Also by AdÃ©le Geras and available from Quercus
Made in Heaven
A Hidden Life
The Magnificent Seven:
Jane Gregory and Jane Wood Laura Cecil and Laura Watson Linda Newbery and Linda Sargent and Broo Doherty
Thanks to friends who encouraged me during the writing of this book: Jon Appleton, Eileen Armstrong, Jane Barlow, Annie Dalton, Anna Dalton-Knott, Anne Fine, David Fickling, Mary Hooper, Dan Jones, Alison Leonard, Helena Pielichaty, Celia Rees, Rosie Rushton, Ann Turnbull, Jean Ure, Frances Wilson, Jacqueline Wilson.
As always, I'm grateful to my family: Norm, Jenny and, especially, Sophie for her excellent advice throughout. This book would never have been written without her belief and enthusiasm.
What you don't know can't hurt you but she does know and she must forget what she knows. It is secret secret secret. She must pretend she doesn't know and never did or it will hurt her. The houseÂ â¦ that's where the secret lives and all she wants is not to know somewhere far away.
She is standing at the window. There's not even a breath of wind to move the white curtains and the grass outside lies dry and flat under the last of the sun. Summertime, and early evening, and she isn't in bed yet. She's nearly eight and it's too soon for sleeping. Everyone is doing something somewhere else and no one is looking. The shadows of trees are black on the lawn and the late roses are edged with gold. There's a piece of silvery water glittering through the weeping willow leaves. That's the lake. Swans swim on the lake and she could go down to the water to see the white birds. No one would know and what you don't know can't hurt you.
She has to go, to flee, across the carpet woven with flowers and twisted trees, and then the door opens and she's in the corridor and it's dark there always, even when the sun is shining outside, and a thick stillness takes up all the space and spreads down the staircase and she moves from step to step on tiptoe so as not to disturb it. Paintings on the walls stare at her as she passes. Still lifes and landscapes spill strange colours and their own light into the silence and the portraits scream after her and she
can't hear them. The marble floor in the hall is like a chequerboard of black and white and she makes sure to jump the black squares because if you don't something bad is sure to happen and maybe she just touched one black square on her way to the garden but that wouldn't count, would it?
Then she's on the grass and the air is soft, and she runs as fast as she can down the steps of the terrace and over the lawn and past all the flowers and between high hedges clipped into cones and balls and spirals until she reaches the wild garden where the plants brush her skirt, and she's running and running to where the swans always are and they've gone. They have floated over to the far bank. She can see them. It's not too far away so she starts walking.
Something catches her eye. It's in the reeds and it's like a dark stain in the water and when she gets a little nearer it looks like a sheet or a cloth and there are waterplants and grey-green willow branches with skinny-finger leaves hiding some of it. If only she can get nearer to where the water meets the bank she can reach in and pull it and see what it is. The water is cool on her hand and there's something that looks like a foot poking out from under the material. Could it be someone swimming? No one swims without moving.
Suddenly there's cold all around her and what she doesn't know won't hurt her but she knows this is wrong. This is bad. She should run and fetch someone but she can't stop her hand from reaching out to the dark cloth that lies on the surface of the lake. She pulls at it and something heavy comes towards her and the time is stretched so long that the moment goes on for ever and ever and there's a face with glassy open eyes and pale greenish skin, and hair all loose and sliding like a terrible spreading growing billowing weed that drifts across the silvery water and moves in and out of the open mouth
and she feels herself starting to scream but no sound comes out and she turns and runs back to the house. Someone must come. Someone must help, and she runs to call them to bring them and she's screaming and no one can hear her. Wet drowned fingers rise up from the lake and stretch out over the grass and up into the house to touch her and she will always feel them, even when she's very old, and she knows the fingers and she knows every fold of the sodden cloth and the unseeing eyes streaming with silver water and the hair undone. Now she knows them all and she can't ever ever stop knowing them.
I'm allergic to my mother, Rilla thought. She leaned back in the bath, closed her eyes, and let the vanilla-scented foam and the hot water cover her. It happened every single time. The snake had come back. She could feel it, uncurling from where it lived, so deep in her head that for most of the time she forgot it was there. A white snake, that was how she imagined it, twisting and uncoiling and somehow winding itself around the separate parts of her brain to give her the only headaches she ever had. Tension headaches was what the doctor said when once Rilla had mentioned the problem, but of course she hadn't told him what caused the pain. She knew exactly. It was Leonora, her mother, and not just her. I'm allergic to the whole package, she told herself; Willow Court, Gwen, the entire set-up. Every time I have to visit the place, it's the same: the white snake tightens the scaly loops of his body around bits of my head, and I can feel my heart beating strangely too. She smiled. Usually, after only a few hours in her mother's presence Rilla recovered sufficiently to function in a more or less normal manner, but there was no getting away from it: the prospect of visiting Leonora filled her with something approaching dread.
What was she afraid of? She looked around her bathroom, her haven, her lair. It was the room she loved best in the whole world. Her small house (
How clever of
you, darling, to find such a sweet little place. And in Chelsea!
Leonora had said at the time) was, depending on your point of view, either sadly in need of total redecoration or the height of bohemian chic. Rilla herself thought that she and her house went well together. We're past our best, she often thought, but we've still got what it takes, oh yes. At least she had managed actually to buy a house of her own, which was more than could be said for Gwen, her elder sister, who had never lived anywhere but at Willow Court, under Leonora's gaze. Rilla couldn't for the life of her understand how her sister survived. She seemed happy enough, but you could never really tell with Gwen. Maybe she'd been dying to get away for years and not said a word. The martyrdom involved would have been typical, but in all probability Gwen had grown used to her own captivity. If anyone had asked her why she and her husband chose to spend their days in the depths of Wiltshire, she'd doubtless have murmured something about what a privilege it was to be entrusted with the care of the paintings of their grandfather, Ethan Walsh (the Walsh Collection was what she called it) and so boringly on and on. She wouldn't mention that her constant attendance on Leonora and her lifelong devotion to the house and property made it the most natural thing in the world for her to inherit Willow Court when Leonora died. Well, Gwen was welcome to it. Rilla would have regarded having to stay there for ever as some kind of prison sentence, but was aware that most people didn't share her taste.
For most people, she thought, read my sister and my mother. Why should I care what they think? I'm forty-eight years old and my bathroom is my business and no one else's. She looked at the candles on the long shelf beside the mirror. There were half a dozen of them, and she lit them every time she bathed, night or morning. The small, plain candlesticks that held them were made of
opaque glass: blue and pink, and a pearly white that Rilla liked best of all. No one else saw the point, and how could she ever explain the lift in her heart when she stared at the moving flames, or how the shapes of the coloured wax growing into weird encrustations on the candlesticks pleased her, and how their faint fragrance spoke to her of peace and beauty and every sort of soothing? And the plants. There was a jungle of them above the basin and on the windowsill, and the greens (with almost every leaf a different shade, some blueish, some tinged with yellow, or brown, some striped, others streaked or blotched or spotted) made a garden for her, and one, moreover, that needed little attention because she let it run riot deliberately, revelling in the fronds and tendrils that spilled over the sides of their pots and trailed down past the tiles, touching the side of the bath.
Gwen had been the first to see the bathroom after it was redone, and she hadn't needed to say a word. It's me, Rilla thought. There must be something wrong with me if I can remember it all so clearly from years and years ago. How she'd stared at the bath and basin in silence, then turned and said, âAre you sure it's not just a little too much?'
Rilla had been madly in love with Jon then, just about to marry him, and everything she did was exuberant, happy, full of passion. Jon Frederick was a pop star, and while he was never, even at the height of his fame, quite at the very top, they'd been one of London's bright young couples in those days. She'd just been in a movie,
, which was a silly sort of thing but at least it had paid well, and urged on by Jon she'd commissioned the artist Curtis Manstrum to paint the bath and basin. He was famous for his fountains and had perfected a technique of covering basins with highly coloured decorations which could withstand years of water falling on them. He'd done such a splendid job on Rilla's bathroom
that a magazine came and photographed it and for a while it was the talk of LondonÂ â the talk, anyway, of those people in London who made a habit of talking about such things.
âWhat's the matter with it?' Rilla had answered Gwen, and for the first time she saw everything through her sister's eyes: blue and green and pink in Matisse-inspired swirls that made you feel dizzy just to look at them, covering every inch of porcelain, dazzling the eye with their singing brightness.