Authors: Isabel Ashdown
‘Isabel Ashdown’s storytelling skills are formidable; her human insights highly perceptive.’
Mail on Sunday
‘Isabel Ashdown writes with clarity and grace, using spare, deceptively straightforward prose to tackle complex, some-times taboo issues.’
‘Intelligent, understated and sensitive.’
Best Debut Novels of the Year
‘A heartbreaking redemptive tale of family secrets that will take you on an emotional rollercoaster.’
‘An immaculately written novel with plenty of dark family secrets and gentle wit within. Recommended for book groups.’
‘A disturbing, thought-provoking tale of family dysfunction, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, that guarantees laughter at the uncomfortable familiarity of it all.’
Best Books of the Year
‘Isabel Ashdown always manages to capture a real sense of Britain’s past without resorting to rose-tinted glasses.’
‘A perceptive and engaging writer.’
‘Engrossing and moving.’
Fay Weldon and Paula Johnson,
Mail on Sunday
‘A genius at nailing the drama of the humdrum, Isabel Ashdown is a natural storyteller and a keen observer of human nature and its foibles.’
‘Isabel Ashdown’s writing style is lovely… and she’s very good at capturing the nuances of the time in her writing.’
The London Diaries
‘Isabel Ashdown writes with an incredibly perceptive style. Her characters are well-rounded – at times amusing and at times intense… Just when you think you know what is going to happen, [she] subverts your expectations.’
We Love This Book
‘Isabel Ashdown handles big themes and period details with heart.’
The Simple Things
‘Isabel Ashdown has her finger on the pulse of adolescent/adult relationships… She’s great too on how families interact – that volatile mixture of openness and deep secrets, honesty and dishonesty.’
‘Adept at portraying the bickering normalcy of ordinary family life… [Isabel Ashdown] effortlessly transports you back.’
For my children,
Alice and Samson, with love
‘I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.’
A Room of One’s Own
Wren sits on the sofa in her softly lit lounge, her shadowed eyes fixed on the television, her baby at her breast. Her husband is beside her, one hand cradling a glass of red wine, the other loosely resting on his wife’s shoulder, a ticket smoothed out across his knee. His toes stretch and press into the deep pile of the new carpet, and Wren’s eyes are drawn to them as they flex up, flex down. Flex up, flex down. It’s a little tic he’s had ever since she first met him, something that, until now, she’d long since stopped noticing.
It’s the first ever National Lottery draw, and this evening Robert returned from a squash match with a ticket, bought at the petrol station on the way home. With each number called, he expels an exaggerated grunt of disappointment. His thigh presses hot against hers and she can barely stand the intimacy of it. She resists a strong desire to pull away, to retreat into the cool corner at the other end of the sofa. When the last number is finally called, he sighs, neatly folding the ticket in half, once, twice, three times, four, then casually drops the paper nugget on the lamp stand beside him. He leans in to kiss the baby’s soft crown, to kiss Wren.
Wren is frozen in position, incapable of movement, the infant having long dropped from her nipple, milk-drunk. She knows the numbers on the screen – recognises the birth dates and anniversaries as the ones she marked on her own ticket stub just this morning – and she dares not speak for fear of giving herself away.
Cautiously, she watches her husband from the sides of her eyes, as he pushes himself up from his seat and crosses the room.
‘Oh, well, better luck next time,’ he says, cheerily enough, and he heads upstairs, to run the shower, to wash the squash game from his skin. Wren studies the space he passed through, stares mutely at the gaping door, pulse hammering, muscles contracting beneath the broken wall of her softened stomach, and she knows she won’t tell him. Not now, not tomorrow, not ten years from today.
Instead, she’ll quietly pack her bags and, when the moment is right, she’ll leave. Alone.
Laura is drinking tea at the large oak table, watching Phoebe butter toast, when the phone rings. It sounds three times before she really hears it, so entirely captivated is she by the sight of the girl’s thickening waist, her newly plump bosom.
‘Are you going to get that?’ Phoebe looks over her shoulder, holding up the knife. ‘My hands are greasy.’
Laura puts down her mug and sprints into the hall, reaching the telephone just too late. She pauses to read the
list marked on the notebook by Robert, running her fingers over the swirling indentations of his clear handwriting:
Car tax due 1st December. Change internet provider. Order logs for next winter. Call builders re leaking gutter
. She picks up the pen and adds to the list in her own scrawl:
Book romantic getaway to the Maldives. Stock up on champagne. Run naked through Piccadilly Circus
‘Who was it?’ Phoebe calls from the kitchen, her mouth full.
‘Don’t know. They rang off before I got to it.’ Laura returns to the table. ‘They’ll call back if it’s important. So, what’s the plan for today? Your dad said you need to start thinking about a job – or another course.’
Phoebe sighs heavily and flops into the seat opposite. She takes another bite from her toast, then reaches across to pick up Laura’s glass of orange juice, drinking it down in one, and smirking as she does so.
‘Phoebe! How many times? Get your own drink, you lazy mare!’ Laura rises to fill the kettle, kissing Phoebe on the top of her head as she passes. ‘Listen, I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Not the uni stuff – something else.’
Phoebe frowns, making a show of licking the crumbs from her empty plate, hiding her face.
‘The thing is, you and Esteban – you became very close over the summer, didn’t you?’
Laura gets up to pour the tea. ‘Come on, Phoebs, you’re twenty now. I don’t need to talk to you like a child any more, do I?’
‘S’pose not.’ Phoebe shifts position, wrapping the zips of her hoodie across her body.
The phone rings again; Laura raises a halting hand as Phoebe pushes her chair out to stand. ‘Leave it – let it ring.’
Phoebe looks exasperated but sits down all the same, placing her palms down on the table, impatiently rippling her fingertips against the wooden surface. The caller rings off.
‘So. I’m assuming you and Esteban slept together?’
‘Bloody hell, Laura! That’s a bit personal, isn’t it?’
‘You were going out with him for, what, four months? And you spent every waking hour together during that time. It seems likely, pumpkin.’
Phoebe is doing her best to look offended, but weakens at Laura’s use of her pet name. ‘So what?’
Laura looks out through the glass doors of the kitchen, to the frosty sunlit garden beyond. A cluster of house sparrows dances beneath the feeders that surround the patio, bobbing and pecking at the fallen seeds and millet. ‘Is it completely over between you two?’
‘He won’t say as much, but it is – you know he went back to Barcelona at the end of the summer, and there’s no way he’ll want to keep it going with me stuck over here. I’m not stupid. I mean, have you seen him? He could be a model. He’ll have found a new girlfriend within a week.’
Laura places a hand over hers. ‘Phoebe, love, were you careful when you were together? I can’t help but notice that you’ve, well, filled out a little over the past few weeks, and – ’
Phoebe snatches her hand away.
‘Oh, my God, Laura – so I’m fat now? Christ, as if I don’t feel shitty enough already.’ She marches across the kitchen to bang her plate down beside the sink. ‘And you and Dad putting all this pressure on me to get a job – it’s no wonder I’m comfort-eating!’
‘Give me a bit of credit, Phoebe. It’s not that kind of weight I’m talking about and you know it.’
The colour rises to Phoebe’s cheeks, her left hand instinctively drifting to her abdomen, the fingers resting there for a brief pause before she rushes from the room. Moments later the front door slams shut, and Laura is left alone in the stillness of the large, bright kitchen. Out in the hallway the telephone starts ringing again.
Robert was her first real love, though she barely knew it at the time. They lived on the same street in Surrey, a small suburban bore of a place, and their parents were passing acquaintances. Robert wasn’t like the other boys in their little primary class, the boys who hung round the park in provincial packs; she could talk to him for hours about
– about poetry, conkers,
, hair nits, first crushes, fast cars, James Bond, the Bay City Rollers. It was like having
another version of herself along the street; a better, cleverer, kinder version of herself.
At eight, so incensed was she that she couldn’t join the Cubs with him that she would sneak along to the village hall each Tuesday evening, to hide among the cobwebs beneath the stage, watching through a dislodged wood-knot until the session ended an hour later.
I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and to the Queen, to help other people, and to keep the Cub Scout law
. Laura knew all the mottos, all the secret hand signals – she even persuaded Robert to steal a Navigator Badge from Akela, in acknowledgement of her secret missions beneath the hall stage. ‘Good work,’ she told him when he handed it over, and she rushed home that night to attach it to her duffel coat with small, careful stitches, one of the few skills she’d gained in her own short-lived career as a Brownie, along with boiling an egg and making a cup of tea without getting scalded.
Each Friday, they would walk home from school via Mr Wilkinson’s sweet shop, spending an age dithering over the multicoloured jars and row after row of chocolate bars and prohibited gum. Their favourite combination was two ounces of sherbet pips and two ounces of fairy drops; Sweet and Sour, Laura called it, and before long they would ask for the mix by name, knowing that Mr Wilkinson would understand their request. ‘The Terrible Twins,’ he used to say when they appeared in the doorway with a ring of his shop bell. And it was true: they could pass for brother and sister despite Laura’s brick-red hair. Robert’s was dark and
with a fringe that grew too fast and subsequently hung across his left eye at all times, but beneath the fringe were a pair of amber-green eyes, so perfect a match for
Laura’s that their mothers might have ordered them from the same catalogue. They barely spent a day apart, whether at school or at home, each becoming an extension of the other’s family, free to come and go as they pleased. When Rob went into hospital to have his tonsils removed, it was Laura he asked for.
‘Would you like some ice cream?’ his mum had asked him from the side of his hospital bed.
‘No,’ he croaked. ‘Want Laura.’
Lily, his older sister, was sent up the road to fetch her, and so when Rob returned home that evening Laura was already waiting at his bedside with the latest copy of
Whizzer and Chips
. His mum said it was the first time he had smiled since waking from the anaesthetic, and Laura felt like the most important person in the world. ‘My throat is sore too,’ she whispered into his ear as his mother tucked up the ends of his bedspread.
‘How about some ice cream now?’ his mum asked again as she left the room. They nodded in unison and Laura clambered on to the bed beside him, where they could sit shoulder to shoulder and pass the comic back and forth.
Despite his childish need of her throughout their youth, Laura was always the driving force, the one to make things happen. She wonders now if it was she who did all the running, she who kept them tethered together across the years, setting more store by their friendship than Robert ever did, chivvying him into joint adventures. ‘You’ve got to have things to look forward to.
things,’ Laura would chide when Robert wanted to take a more serious approach to their life ahead.
At the end of their final year in junior school, Rob was heading off to Norfolk for a two-week family holiday, whereas Laura had a long summer to endure at home in Gatebridge with her parents. ‘I’ll die of boredom,’ she said. ‘We
write every day.’ The day before he set off, she turned up on his doorstep and provided him with seven notelets, seven envelopes and a strawberry-scented pen to ensure that he had no excuses.
‘What about stamps?’ he asked, looking as if he’d just been handed the burden of a school project.
Laura was furious at his lack of enthusiasm and returned home immediately to lift a fistful of change from her mother’s purse, with which she bought seven stamps and a packet of Tic Tacs. The Irvings were eating dinner when she knocked at Rob’s front door for a second time. She knew this because their dining table was located in the front window, where they ate every evening at six pm on the dot, in full view of the residents of Green Street.
‘For the letters,’ she said, holding up the stamps with one hand. With the other, she rattled the Tic Tacs underneath his nose and slapped them into his palm. ‘For the journey.’ Pointing her nose skywards, she made her way home without a backward glance, knowing she could expect a lilac-coloured envelope through her door within the next forty-eight hours.
Even now she can recall that first letter.
Wish you were here. Norfolk is boring and Lily is annoying as usual. Will write again when something interesting happens.
Not even a kiss at the end. She wrote back immediately.
You win the award for the most lazy letter ever written in the history of letter-writing – ever. If nothing interesting is happening, then make something up!
Lots of love,
ps I saw Tanya Sole holding hands with Grubby Greg this morning. She had her skirt tucked in her knickers hahahahaha.
pps Now that’s how you write a letter.
ppps It’s true, she really did have her skirt tucked in her pants.
Robert’s second letter arrived by return, containing concocted tales of celebrity sightings and puppies saved from drowning, and Laura was happy with his progress, in particular with the inclusion of a small
at the foot of the page.
, she told him when she wrote back, and she counted off the days until he would return to their street, so that she might feel whole once again.
The voice at the end of the line sounds young, boyish even.
‘We’re trying to trace a Mrs Wren Irving, last known at this telephone number.’
Looking out across the leaf-blown panorama of their smart suburban street, Laura stands at the bedroom window and finds she has lost the power of speech.
‘Hello? Am I speaking to Mrs Irving?’
The suggestion propels Laura to answer, though her reply comes out tongue-tied, her voice uneven. ‘No – she doesn’t – I mean,
. She’s not here. She’s no longer at this address – hasn’t been for years. No.’
‘You don’t sound very certain,’ the young man says; Laura detects the hint of a smile in his voice, and hates him for it instantly. ‘Are you sure I’m not actually
to Wren Irving?’
‘Who did you say you were?’ she asks, sudden anger rearing up.
‘Mike Woods. I’m a reporter. We’re looking for Mrs Irving in connection with her Lottery win in the 1990s. Could that be you?’
‘The Lottery? I’ve told you,
I’m not her
. The person you’re looking for hasn’t lived here for twenty years – and I can tell you she certainly wasn’t a Lottery winner when she did. I’m sorry I can’t help you any further.’
Irving is available?’
‘So, I take it he still lives at this address?’
‘I’m not answering these questions – I don’t even know who you are.’
. Now, as far as I can establish, they
still married, aren’t they? Are you and he – ?’
Laura picks up a pen, flipping open a magazine to find a blank space to write in. She jots down his name, underscoring it fiercely. ‘OK, Mike Woods. I’ve told you Mrs Irving no longer lives here. Her husband hasn’t seen her for two decades, and really – the last thing he wants to do is have a conversation with some journalist about her last recorded movements.’
‘Has she ever been reported as a missing person?’ Mike Woods asks. ‘Do you think she’s dead or alive?’
Laura is almost floored by the question. ‘
,’ she replies, and she returns the handset to its cradle, her heart hammering against the cage of her chest.
Without realising it, Laura had been on the lookout for a female friend for years, even before she first laid eyes on Wren in the college refectory on that grey day in October 1982. She had Robert, of course – she’d always have Robert – but she’d never really experienced the deep kinship of a sister, and she knew it was a missing part of her, something that ought to be filled. Just like the girls in her primary school, the girls in her senior years didn’t really
her, not the way Robert did – and, to be fair, she didn’t get them either. Theirs was a foreign language to her, and while she was never bullied, not really, neither side was interested in the other.
But then, there was Wren, alone and birdlike, in her black china doll slippers and tweedy overcoat, with her gentle wise smile – and Laura recognised her instantly as the missing piece. ‘I like her,’ she told Robert as they took their table by the window after chatting to her in the lunch queue. ‘She’s different.’
‘Rob, she’s like us.’
‘What does that mean?’
Laura couldn’t think of the answer. It wasn’t a tangible thing; it was just a feeling, a sixth sense, if you believed in that kind of thing. It was the same feeling she had when she spent time with Rob: the comfort of profound familiarity, of security and warmth, of