Authors: Clare Chambers
Esther Fairchild's past is about to catch up with her ...
When Esther recognizes a face in the crowd, it brings back a past she's been trying to forget. And memories flood back of
her eccentric childhood â the large, shabby house, her adored elder brother Christian, and their parents' rich collection of feckless âguests'.
Into this shambolic world came Donovan â regularly deposited by his unreliable mother â and Penny, Christian's girlfriend
and Esther's idol. Until tragedy struck and shattered all their lives. But now, it seems, their lives are about to become intertwined once more ...
Clare Chambers was born in Croydon in 1966 and read English at Oxford. She wrote her first novel,
, during a year in New Zealand, after which she worked as an editor for a London publisher. She is also the author of
Learning to Swim
A Dry Spell
. She lives in Kent with her husband and three children.
LEARNING TO SWIM
A DRY SPELL
YOU NEVER GET
over a happy childhood, according to Donovan. What we all need is a little disappointment. I think I know what he meant. But this isn't about Donovan. It's about my brother, Christian. And Penny, of course.
It's funny, because I hadn't given Penny a thought for years, but on the very day Christian made his announcement I had an odd experience which made me remember.
It was a Friday in late February. There was a soapy smell of hot-house hyacinths outside the front door when I went to fetch in the milk, and in the kitchen there was the musky smell of Elaine, Christian's carer, preparing his breakfast. She doesn't actually need to do that. He's quite capable of making his own. Everything in the house was designed so that he can manage in his wheelchair. He's what they call a T2 paraplegic, which is nowhere near as bad as it could be.
Elaine's the latest (and the least agreeable) in a series of people whose job it is to come in daily to help out. Christian's
not an especially demanding employer, but it's heavy work and doesn't pay well, so naturally staff turnover is high. I preferred the last chap, Mike. The three of us used to sit around and play Scrabble in the afternoon; he had a good vocabulary for a home help. You wouldn't catch Elaine playing Scrabble, not that I've asked her.
She didn't come through the usual channels. She was passing the house one day when Christian was out front salting the driveway in case of frost, and she took the trouble to stop and talk. In the course of their conversation it emerged that she was looking for work as a carer and had some experience, so Christian took her number. A fortnight later Mike handed in his notice and Christian got straight on the phone. No references: her last patient couldn't oblige as he was dead.
When I saw her standing at the hob stirring a pan of scrambled egg that morning it occurred to me that Christian must have given her a front door key. That made me feel rather uneasy. I didn't like the thought of her coming and going as she pleased â in fact, I'd been considering asking Christian if we couldn't advertise for somebody new, even though it would mean some short-term upheaval. I've nothing against Elaine, but when she's around I feel as though I'm an intruder in my own house. I can't relax. There's so much of her. I don't object to her size â a waif would be no good in a job like this â but she always has so many bags and hats and scarves and appurtenances; it's as if she's trying to fill up as much space as possible.
Conversation is another sticky area. It's a choice between long, haunting silences and a bombardment of unwanted advice on everything from pedicures to pensions. It's something I've often observed about members of the caring
professions: they tend to interpret jovial self-deprecation as a cry for help. I think Elaine sees me as someone who needs taking in hand. The other day she even suggested it was time I got a foot on the property ladder. I said I was afraid of heights. She said, âAre you really?' So I had to explain that it was a joke. She said, âOh. Your sense of humour,' and gave me one of her caring smiles. Naturally Christian hasn't picked up any of these signals. Men are notorious for not seeing what's under their noses and he is no exception.
I suppose what annoyed me about Elaine's remark was the implication that I must be just dossing here temporarily until I've sorted myself out, when in fact this is my home. I've lived here since it was built in the mid-Eighties. My studio is at the back of the house, facing south-east, so I get the sun in the morning, and the box room is quite adequate as a bedroom. I've always been able to sleep anywhere. Sometimes, when I've been watching a late film in the sitting room, I can't be bothered to go to bed at all. I just flop over fully dressed on the couch â another big advantage of not sharing a bed.
I suppose our domestic arrangements might strike an outsider as odd. Living with your brother wouldn't be everyone's idea of fun, but we know each other better than anyone else alive, and if he needs me I'm always there to help. In fact we're happier than most married couples I come across. I suppose that's why none of my boyfriends have outlasted the initial surge of euphoria; it would take a truly exceptional man to compete with Christian.
On this particular Friday I was dressed more formally than usual because I was going to give a talk to a group of primary school children in Surrey about my work as an illustrator. I'd never been asked to do anything like that before,
but my latest book had just won a prize so in the miniature world of children's publishing I'm suddenly somebody. I should say âour' latest book, since it's a collaborative effort. Words by Lucinda Todd. Pictures by Esther Fairchild. Lucinda Todd bashes out the text in about a week and it takes me the best part of nine months to do the illustrations. This inequality of effort is supposed to be addressed by a forty/sixty split of the royalties. I'm no mathematician, and I'm not saying I've been stitched up, but someone has and it's not her.
âYou look smart. Are you going somewhere?' said Elaine, glancing up as I hovered in the doorway, wondering whether to retreat to my room until she was out of the way. I was wearing a linen trouser suit, fresh out of the dry cleaner's. I could still feel the stapled ticket grazing the back of my neck.
âOh, just to a primary school,' I said, advancing into the kitchen and slopping milk into a glass. âI don't know why I've dressed up for a load of eight-year-olds.'
The newspaper was on the table, still folded. I sat down with my milk and started to read the headlines.
âFor a minute I thought you had a job interview,' she said. This wasn't the first time she had implied that in her opinion painting by day and waitressing by night did not constitute a proper career path. âThat colour suits you,' she went on. âYou should wear it more often.' With Elaine even a compliment comes welded to a piece of advice.
I decided to play along. âDo you think so? I'm not sure.'
She tipped the scrambled egg onto a slice of toast and ground pepper over it with a vigorous wringing action that put me in mind of someone killing chickens. âDefinitely. It goes with your eyes.'
The suit was green. My eyes are blue. It occurred to me she was either colour-blind or having a laugh, but her expression was sincere. Before I could think of a suitable reply she was off again, with another suggestion. âI've got a friend who could do your colours for you. She holds up these fabric samples to your face and works out what season you are.' She poured orange juice into a tumbler and put it on a tray with the plate of scrambled egg. âShe did me before Christmas and it turned out I'd been wearing the wrong colours for years. Everything was fighting with my skin tone. Where do you keep your napkins?' she said, opening and closing drawers on cutlery, teatowels, pegs and balls of garden twine.
âI don't think we've got any,' I said, which was not quite the truth. I
we didn't have any. âWe're not big on napery,' I added, in case she was after a tray-cloth next.
âOh well. He'll have to do without,' she replied, in a voice as crisp as new linen.
âWhy are you taking him breakfast in bed, anyway?' I asked, watching her balance the tray in one hand while she swept up the newspaper that I'd been reading and tucked it under her arm. âYou don't need to indulge his every whim, you know.'
âIt's just a one-off treat,' she explained. âI won't be making a habit of it.' And she shook her long, copper hair back, rather like a horse flicking off flies, clip-clopped down our wooden hallway in her Dr Scholls and disappeared into Christian's room, closing the door behind her.
It took me about an hour to get to Weybridge by car. I don't like driving on the motorway, but I had my portfolio of paintings and a box of books which was too heavy to carry.
It was breaktime when I arrived and the kids were all out in the yard. I could hear the high, echoing shouts as soon as I opened the car door. I'd have been happy to stand and watch them all day: the boys charging around, colliding with each other like a herd of maddened sheep, the girls decorously skipping, or sitting on the benches in little huddles. And the loners, standing with their backs to the wall or, worse, plum in the middle of a football game, petrified or oblivious.
âAll in together, girls,
Never mind the weather, girls,
When it's your birthday
Please jump IN,'
went the chant as I staggered past the skippers with my boxes. A teacher with a whistle round her neck stood on the steps leading to the entrance, hugging a coffee mug, while a group of girls stood around her, very close, clamouring for her attention. I wouldn't have admitted it to Elaine, but I was extremely nervous at the thought of addressing a classful of eight-year-olds. People always assume that children's authors must have a natural affinity with children, and understand just how their minds work. It's not an unreasonable assumption I suppose, but it doesn't apply in my case. I don't even know any children. When I get to work on a book it's myself as a child I'm thinking of, not modern children, real or imagined. In truth I find them a little scary, as if they might somehow unmask me.