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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

What We Did

A Novel

Christobel Kent

Sarah Crichton Books


Chapter One

The university sat tall and dark above the town: three towers looking across the roofs and out over a gray estuary. Perhaps Rose Hill had been wild once and covered with a pink-petaled tangle of briar roses, but now it was groomed to smoothness, cropped lawn, and concrete in the shadow of the towers.

It could have been a woman’s name—and there had been an incident, far back, decades ago, not long after the towers went up and regrettable, when a young woman from the town gained entrance to the towers, took the lift to the fourteenth floor, and smashed her way through the security glass. Apparently an impossibility, but there are circumstances—the psychotropic drugs popular then, or the more common or garden misery, or rage, or madness—under which the unfeasible can be accomplished. Her name wasn’t Rose, and besides, the hill had been named long before, but her death was now wound into the story, part of the name that was too soft and pretty for the way it looked.

The only relic of a former landscape was an older building that sat at the foot of the hill behind dense hedging, gray brick, and something like the Victorian gatehouse to a grander structure long vanished. Perhaps it had once had a rose garden, but there was no longer any sign of that, either.

Bridget stood at the shop window and looked out, down the cobbled curve, watching the light leave the narrow sloping street.

November wasn’t always a quiet month, but this one had been, for whatever reason—the papers said it was uncertainty, by which they meant everyone worrying about money, and the world turned upside down. The short days and the light dimming to gray so early gave the lane a melancholy look, too, in spite of the strings of lights, their mirrored gleam on the cobbles, and the tinny sound of Christmas music—but Bridget liked Christmas. She’d learned to love Christmas: kids did that for you, just one kid did that for you. Even if he was sixteen now, and a foot taller than her.

Finn, Finn, Finn. Matt, bringing tea this morning, had lowered his voice and said he had a few ideas about what to get him, before sliding back in beside her for those nice five minutes before work. It would involve something for his bike and a lot of stuff for his computer. Bridget would get him clothes: gone were the days when she could work him out, but he didn’t seem to hold it against her. Still planted a kiss, absentminded, on her cheek, shuffling down to breakfast with his hair sticking up and his eyebrows grown thick and dark as caterpillars overnight. Clothes she could do: she knew what logos he liked, nothing bright, warm stuff, practical stuff. Socks. Her mind wandered, down the little cobbled hill, into town.

There was a music shop on the corner, farther down and out of sight, but if it had been there when she was considering the premises, she would have looked elsewhere. The sight of the instrument, the curve of varnished maple, the inlays, the snail curl of the scroll, and something happened in her head, a buzz, white noise. Notes on a page, an orchestra tuning up, did the same thing.

She was on her own in the shop. Her shop.

Four-thirty on a November Tuesday. So quiet she’d sent Laura out to the post office. One of Bridget’s regulars from across the county had phoned for a specific dress and—though Bridget hadn’t really gotten into selling online because she was wary and stood resolute in the face of Laura’s hints and pleas—they’d boxed it up between them as a favor and off Laura had gone, sailing down the darkening street bearing the box high. Close on a grand’s worth of dress: Bridget didn’t want that kind of stock out for two weeks to someone she didn’t know only to come back again, never mind getting lost in the post.

That was the wariness she expressed to Laura, anyway. Just like when she got up at 2:00 a.m. and did her stretches in the living room because she couldn’t sleep: she told Matt she was fretting over the VAT. Who didn’t wake in the middle of the night, these days? If it wasn’t recession it was people out rioting. Matt would reach out a hand to her when she climbed back in, resting it on her until eventually she would get back to sleep. It wasn’t the VAT, though, it wasn’t fretting about stock getting lost in the post. She couldn’t say to Laura, after all, I don’t want people to find me on the internet. She couldn’t say, I don’t want people looking at pictures of me. It’s not worrying, either. It’s terror. Laura would think there was something wrong with her.

It was a relief, sometimes, to have Laura out of the shop. Ten years younger, so certain of everything, so pink and white, so blond and pretty. So pregnant it set Bridget’s nerves jangling, though Laura had told her babies were always late in her family and she wanted to work. Needed the money: Didn’t we all? Perhaps they could close up early; perhaps Bridget could send Laura straight home when she got back from the post. She would take her time anyway, she’d dawdle and look in baby shops and buy herself a chocolate flapjack and pat her belly, anxious and satisfied at once. Bridget remembered that feeling: she’d like to jump to a month ahead and Laura sitting up in the hospital with the baby safely in her arms and Nick the sainted husband at her shoulder. She turned her back to the window and surveyed the shop.

Home early, why not? Last night had been a late one, after all. Monday the shop was closed, but she’d been in anyway, on her hands and knees repainting the old wooden floor, another layer of cream eggshell and all the stock swathed in dust sheets, along with the velvet chair, the sofa for husbands, the mirrored cube for the newspaper to sit on perfectly centered. Laura had once called her OCD in an unguarded moment, for her straightening of racks and scrupulous repainting of the floor once every six months, if it needed it or not. How many layers must there be, by now? Bridget had said with a laugh. She didn’t really know what OCD was, but she was fairly sure it didn’t cover what she had.

Last night Matt had picked her up without being asked, taken her hands in his, sore and cracked from the mineral spirits, put her bike in the back. The party dresses had all been hanging straight again and the dust sheets folded and back under the racks in the stockroom. She’d hung up her coat and made the tea, though, because he’d been at work, too, and it was only fair. She didn’t want their little world falling down around their ears for lack of sausage and mash. Besides, pretty much the only time she saw Finn these days was when he heard the table being laid.

It was normal, everyone said so, although how would she know what was normal? Bridget’s teenage years were a blur. Her quiet, shy, kind husband and her big, soft son wouldn’t have known her if you showed them a picture of fifteen-year-old Bridget O’Neill standing with her huge eyes staring out, gawky and angular, all knobs and bones. Whereas she’d seen Matt, an old yellowed photograph of him standing by his bike in glasses at that age, frowning with shyness, and had known it was him straightaway.

Something moved under the velvet chair in the back and immediately Bridget was over there on her hands and knees. Moth. In November? She must be keeping it too warm in here. It fluttered, velvety: Bridget didn’t like moths and catching them was like trying to catch a bird, but it had to be done. Kill it? She didn’t want to kill it. She had it between cupped hands when the bell pinged over the door and she looked up, expecting to see Laura.

A man and his daughter, more likely granddaughter: the man half turned away from her under the downlights but she could see bushy eyebrows, the sheen of scalp under thinning hair. He was holding the door for the girl and she walked in, bright, upright, and excited, face upturned. Fourteen, maybe fifteen, but looking young, with her hair pulled in bunches on either side of her head, though Bridget knew that was the look. She didn’t have the skinny jeans on, though that would have completed the look, but instead a knee-length school skirt, and her coat was tweed, like something from fifty years ago. Scuffed school shoes. Pretty.

And then abruptly Bridget felt a flutter of panic, sudden and extreme, and in that moment she couldn’t tell if it came from inside her own chest or was the caged moth, its wings beating furry between her hands. She stood hurriedly and moved past them, apologizing, to put it out into the dark before the door swung shut again. When she turned back around the man was standing at the racks, turned away from her and frowning down at things like he knew what he was looking for. The girl standing in the middle of the room, all eagerness.

Then the man spoke.

“Tell the lady what you want, Isabel,” he said, and from nowhere, nowhere except the sound of his voice, a prickling heat rose through Bridget’s body. She couldn’t stop it, she couldn’t name it: she reached blindly for a rack to hold on to.

“We’re looking for a party dress,” the girl piped up. The man raised his head then, quarter-profile toward her. Unsteady suddenly, Bridget caught the edge of a smile before turning to focus on the girl. Isabel. His hand was on the girl’s shoulder, slowing her down.

“What kind of party?” she said as he moved along the racks behind her. The girl was too young for almost everything in the shop: the thought nagged at her, troubling. Bridget’s stock was geared toward women of her own age and older, thirty-five to seventy, women who liked to dress up for weddings and the races or a weekend away in a country house hotel.

“Oh, it’s a recital,” said the girl, shuffling and shy suddenly. “And then there’s a reception thing afterwards.” She started for a rack and pulled something out, bright silk and short; Bridget smiled at her. “Why don’t you choose what you like first?” she said, wary. The man had moved off, was leaning down to pick up the newspaper beside the sofa, sitting down.

A recital. The word set up a pounding inside her and Bridget swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry: in her head she saw a row of black-clad girls gazing over their instruments. Think of something else. But she could still feel it as she stepped closer, had to stop herself from putting her hand to her mouth as the girl held something against herself in the mirror. Maybe fifteen going on sixteen after all: but jumpy, as though it were all an act, being grown-up. Isabel. Behind her the man turned a page of the newspaper.

Focus on the girl. Isabel was moving from rack to rack, bright among the muted tones, the cream and gray, but growing in confidence, pulling things out. None of it looked suitable to Bridget, something like panic pattering at her, Ridiculous, stop it, and she didn’t know if the words in her head were for her or Isabel. She couldn’t say anything, not yet, she didn’t want to crush the girl

“Ready?” she said, and Isabel nodded, excited.

The fitting room was in an alcove at the back, with the velvet chair beside it. As Bridget pulled the curtain around the girl and stepped away, the man got up from the sofa behind her abruptly, saying nothing, and crossed to the velvet chair beside the curtain. He moved the chair so that his back was to Bridget and the window, and sat down, crossing his legs. A bit of skinny ankle emerged from brown trousers.

Father or grandfather? You couldn’t ask. The girl hadn’t called him anything. But there was no accident in his sitting down right there, between her and the girl: he was paying, and he was going to have his say. The ticking of anxiety that had set up with her first sight of them, and which she might have expected to settle down, wouldn’t go away. Bridget had a sudden sharp irrational desire out of nowhere for them to leave. She’d seen it before, husbands, fathers, criticizing. And it was late, she was tired. If Laura would come back—

The curtain rings clicked softly and the girl came out: she’d pulled out her pigtails and was blushing as if she knew. The dress was a mistake: black, low-cut, and too long, a bit of beading on the shoulder. Bridget saw the man shift, his profile to her for a second, saw him half smile, superior, saw him nod, and in the tilt of his chin—older now, sagging, dusted with gray stubble—she could suddenly see him as sharply as if she had a telescope on him. She felt her mouth open, and they turned, they were smiling at her, smiling, and her insides were liquid.

Something happened, she didn’t know what, something spun, the world turning, back, back, too fast. She would be sick. Bridget put out a hand to steady herself against the wall.

He beckoned the girl over and she obeyed, hesitant: he sat there unmoving, so she had to bend, in the low-cut gown, and, seeing the shadow between what were not yet even breasts, seeing her expose herself unknowing, Bridget felt her throat close; her hand was at her mouth. She saw him whisper something in the girl’s ear, she saw the child’s chopped hair swing forward to hide their faces so close together.

“I don’t—” Bridget had begun to speak but she didn’t know what came next, she had only wanted to stop what was happening: she saw him turn at the words—again superior, amused, and knowing, and she felt it, tight and knotted and terrible under her ribs. And something that crept, something that brushed the hairs on the back of her neck. He looked at her. She saw the tip of his tongue flicker at his upper lip. He looked at her.

And then the door behind her pinged and she could hear Laura come in, breezy, mid-complaint about something, the post office queue, the cold, her aching feet, the everyday world beyond the door that was so remote, in this moment, that she might have walked back in from China.

Turning around, she saw Laura falter for a second at her expression, then, looking back again at the cubicle, saw the tableau all quiet, the curtain closed, the man with his back turned in the chair, hands resting on the padded velvet arms, very still. Blindly Bridget retreated behind the till.

After a moment’s hesitation, Laura was set back in motion, fishing in her pocket for the receipts from the post office, putting the kettle on. Bridget knelt behind the cash desk, pretending to be looking for her pins, hearing Laura begin to make conversation with them. Standing up again, she saw that something had changed: Isabel was bright again, chattering, and he had smoothly become gentler, more grandfatherly. She saw him move his chair, though, an inch or two, to get farther away from the great curve of Laura’s belly as she leaned to confide advice.

They decided on a different dress, between them. Simple, short, a black shift with a white lace collar that Bridget couldn’t remember even having ordered in, it was too schoolgirlish. And expensive. She waited behind the desk as Laura led them back over with a quick inquiring look: it was usually Laura dozy at the till or in a chair while Bridget gave encouragement and advice. But Bridget was numb, she couldn’t even deflect Laura’s glance, only returned it with a glazed smile.

Her fingers were rubber as she took the credit card, pushed it into the machine, processed the transaction: she had to enter the price three times. Laura was plumped down now on the sofa, oblivious, with her cup of tea on the mirrored cube, flicking through a magazine. His hands across the desk from her, the backs furred with sandy hair, as they reached for the card. Bridget felt as though she could hardly breathe; then she began to feel something else, something she couldn’t control: it wound its way up inside her, a tapeworm; a viper; a dragon. He was putting his credit card away when abruptly he looked her in the eye, and she had to hold his gaze.

Older, hair thinner, turkey neck. Sandy eyebrows. He smiled. He smiled at her.

He had been married, when she knew him, but they had no children. The girl standing beside him, peering eagerly at the shopping bag as Bridget slid it over the desk toward her, she wasn’t his daughter or his granddaughter. When she bent her neck to look inside, her shirt collar shifted, and Bridget saw something else: there was the old familiar mark, the callus rough and reddening on the soft skin of her shoulder. The recital: of course. Isabel was a student of the violin. Not father, not grandfather, but teacher. Teacher.

What did the word say, to most people? Authority with kindness, that’s what it was supposed to be. The teacher is stern and wise. The teacher leans over the student and places her hands on the bow, on the stem of the instrument, his mouth is close to her ear. The teacher knows better.

“All right if I take one of these?” He spoke in his soft, deep voice: How had she not known it straightaway? She realized that she had, that from the moment he came in there had been a hum in the air, of electricity, that had stopped her from hearing anything properly.

He was asking if he could take one of the shop’s cards. She pulled herself together, and some hazy idea formed, some plan that had something to do with behaving normally. She was making conversation.

“You’re not just visiting, then?” Her voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. Could he hear the fear in it? She knew he was listening: he was probing, circling.

“I’m at the university. A visiting fellow, in the music department—well—” and he was taking the card, he was putting it carefully in his wallet, casual. “It might be more than visiting.” He smiled. “They seem to rather like me.” Isabel had drifted toward the door. “Do you have a mailing list? Would you like my details, perhaps?”

Laura was looking up from her magazine at the sound of Bridget’s hesitation, so she leaned down, extracted a form. He took the pen from her hand before she offered it. “Just the email address is fine,” she said, but he was writing it all, address, telephone, laborious. That handwriting: copperplate, Mum had called it, approvingly. Classy, old-school.

Anthony Carmichael.

The girl was waiting obedient beside him, swinging the bag.

Bridget watched, very still, as he signed with a flourish, handed the form back to her, and for a moment his fingers rested on her forearm. He held the door for Isabel as she walked out in front of him.

Anthony Carmichael. Call me Tony.

Laura said, “Nice guy, right?”

Copyright © 2018 by Christobel Kent