MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
I’m nine years old, and I know nothing about Caribbean islands, or fake identities, or Scotland Yard, or that my father has gone by any name other than Dad. My name is Tyler Kane, and as far as I know that’s all I’ve ever been called. My family lives in Bradford on Avon in the West Country of England, a place of cobblestone lanes and huddled houses, a place where the past feels present again. We watch the river run through the wide arches of the ancient town bridge playing Poohsticks to pass the time: dropping a stick into the water upstream and rushing to the other side to see whose stick made it under first.
Our home is on a quiet cul-de-sac called Barton Orchard, set beneath the main street like a secret hidden down a winding stairway, the stone steps worn away to polished black glass from centuries of footfalls. This is my thirteenth house. Thirteen houses, five countries, and two continents, and I’m not yet ten years old. I know this is strange by the way people look at me when I tell them, but I like that strangeness. “Is your father in the Forces?” another child’s mother asks. “No, he’s a businessman,” I announce, as if that explains it.
My big brother Evan has seven years on me and at least four more houses, taking his tally up to nineteen, more by now, of course. Evan has two fathers—his papa and our dad—which is one more thing to keep track of. He can remember as far back as the Yellow House in California, where I was born, and he would carry me around, a fat baby cradled firmly in his seven-year-old arms.
We don’t count Dad’s houses after the divorce, because we only stayed weekends and holidays, and what makes a home anyway? Mom said home can be wherever you put your bags down, but then it means nothing at all. Mom kept us moving long after we had any reason to, like some internal screw tightened inside, and the only thing to relieve it was upping sticks and moving on. Even then it only bought us a year, maybe two, before the screw began to tighten again.
House #13 was a project. All the houses were projects, but Barton Orchard seemed to stand by force of habit alone. It was a nonsensical building, with dark back passages and twisted staircases. Originally a Georgian townhouse, an extension was tacked on in the nineteenth century and another one was added on the other side in the 1950s, making it a shambolic time machine falling apart at the seams.
There were two different entrances to every room, except for Caitlin’s. She lived at the top in a turret of her own with a wood pigeon, which sheltered on her windowsill. She learned to coo by blowing between her thumbs, and over time the wood pigeon cooed back. We thought of the wood pigeon when we had to leave and how he would return each day, waiting for her to coo.
There were holes in the ceilings, spiders in the corners, and rotting floorboards. The whole building wept for its once-glorious past, leaving damp brown stains on the walls. We were constantly painting, and this chemical perfume permeated our lives. Mom’s leggings always had holes in the knees, and splatters of white dappled her hands and face like Caitlin’s freckles.
The top step on the back stairs was missing so we had to leap over the hole to get to the second floor, and the ceiling in Evan’s room caved in one day, a warning. The house was trying to tell us something, but we didn’t listen.
We gutted its innards. We found a trapdoor, underneath the carpet in the living room, which Mom yanked open with a rusty scream from its iron hinges. Against my better judgment—to let alone things that live in dark places—she lowered a ladder and descended while Cait held a flashlight. Peering down into the abyss, we heard a muffled squeal, and Mom’s dusty hand emerged wielding a giant tooth, yellowed and fierce. The underworld of our house was full of old bones. (For the sake of a good story, we chose to ignore the fact that it was also full of farming equipment.)
Squeezed around the kitchen table we drank tea, ate crumpets, and made up tales of mad dogs and old monks ravaged while fleeing the Reformation. Like all the best stories, it grew in layers each time it was told, with the more gory bits coming from the builders, who permanently resided with us (only their names and faces changed). They told us that at night you could still hear the sound of the dog’s chains rattling beneath the house, and I couldn’t sleep for weeks.
There was an overgrown garden, which Mom coaxed back into life, allowing the sunflowers to grow up tall beyond our reach and digging a pond where fish would teach us important life lessons about death and cannibalism. A narrow alley ran along the back of the house, where we would gather with children of a similar size. There were no cars here to run us over and the only strangers who came we called “grockles,” the word the locals used for people not from around there. It was all so sweet we became sick on it, because it was just icing without the cake.
I didn’t love Barton Orchard; at least I didn’t love it until we had to leave. Houses are like people. You grow into loving them, and when you leave them behind, they slowly fade away, disappearing into the place forgotten things go, along with odd socks and hairpins.
My favorite house was called Canna, house #10. I don’t remember my bedroom there, just scraps of torn floral wallpaper and chicken pox quarantine. I only remember the tree in the garden, as tall as the house. We named it Tree. Sitting beneath Tree’s giant boughs, Mom used to read us a story called The Giving Tree, about a boy who loved a tree. The tree loved the boy back so much he gave him his apples to eat, his leaves to burn, and his branches to build a boat, until eventually he could only offer his stump for the now-old boy to rest his weary head, waiting to die. We all cried together: Mom, Evan, Caitlin, Tree, and I.
Cait and Evan didn’t seem to mind moving house, but I wanted to kick and scream and refuse to move again. I had tried that but it didn’t make a difference. The bigger I grew the more of me there was to leave behind. When we’d moved to Bradford on Avon from London a year previously, we had to leave Mango the cat, who meowed his own name (“mang, mang”), and dozens of uncontrollably shagging gerbils, whom Dad took to the pet store for snake food. I had to leave my best friend Jessica, who gave me a purple Quality Street as a goodbye present. I kept the wrapper in my box of precious things, along with old house keys and all of my baby teeth. I left a school where everyone knew my name to go to a new school where no one did, and worst of all we left behind Dad, as if he belonged with the dead houseplants and half-finished jars of marmalade.
“If in doubt, chuck it out!” was Mom’s motto. Each time we packed up our lives, deciding what should come with us and what should not, if I hesitated for a moment, she plucked the item out of my hands and hurled it on the pile for the Kurds. I didn’t know who the Kurds were or why they wanted my too-small sequined party dresses. She said it was important not to get too attached to things. She had left home at sixteen with nothing but a pair of dancing shoes strapped to her bag and train fare in her pocket. She’d eloped to Glasgow with a thirty-seven-year-old American playwright (husband #1), though this wasn’t something we were meant to know about.
Mom had been a model in the 1960s, and for her birthday one year we made a scrapbook of her pictures from a box we had found during the last move. Cait and I sifted through her cuttings, selecting our favorites. I could spend hours looking at her photos. There were stacks of them all chucked in together, as if they didn’t matter to her in the least. Mom on the pages of Mademoiselle or Glamour, high cheekbones and big kohl-lined batting blue eyes, or film stills from her role as the lovely daughter in Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, perfectly coiffured beside a pie-faced British boy band. In a book called The Six Nymphets, full of arty black-and-white photographs of women lying prone or cavorting through grass. Topless on Waterloo Bridge at dawn, unabashed with her tiny waist and egg-timer hips, suspended on these towering long legs. Mom’s past seemed a terribly glamorous place.
That’s how we found out about husband #1, in a yellowed newspaper clipping with a photo of Mom lying on her front smiling at the camera, daring you to judge. Beside her is Norman Thaddeus Vane, looking sinister, old, and bald. “Sarah, 16, writes home: Sorry, I’m Married” was the headline. It was a scandal at the time.
She moved to New York City a year later, having signed to Ford Models, which is where she met our dad. He was living in an apartment on the Upper East Side with our Crazy Uncle Rick, who isn’t really our uncle, not that it matters. They kissed the first night they met lying beneath the coffee table as a game of Scrabble was played above. She thought Dad was the most exotic-looking man she’d ever seen, like Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia, covered in constellations of freckles with a dark mustache and an aura of calm confidence. Really he was just a New York Jew, but for an English boarding-school girl in the 1960s, that was pretty exotic. After three dates Mom had walked out on Norman—taking his color TV in lieu of a divorce settlement—and moved in with Dad and Uncle Rick.
That was the first time they got together, but after three years, she walked out on Dad too, because the world was too big and she was too young not to go gallivanting in it. She went on to marry Papa (husband #2) and had Evan, and then went full circle and got back together with our dad (husband #3).
We didn’t dare ask Mom for the details about Norman, but we imagined he was Good-for-Nothing, because most men were Good-for-Nothing, according to Mom. We were sometimes Good-for-Nothing too, but we knew she didn’t mean it.
We worried she might be angry with us for rifling through her box, pawing over her secrets like sweets. She said she liked the scrapbook we gave her very much and flicked through its pages, telling us anecdotes about the other models or the film stills, but we never saw it again. Mom doesn’t dwell on history.
Through all the moving, she’s kept her piano, a wedding gift from Dad, which she would play as we were going to sleep. There’s a Victorian school bench, which informed us of the hierarchy in our family because we would never be allowed to keep something so cumbersome. And there’s her bed. The bed in which I was born, which must carry me in its fibers to this day. That bed is never-ending. Super-king size. We’ve traveled around the whole world together on that bed, our magic carpet, congregating every Saturday morning with papers and cookies and every Christmas day to open our stockings, playing games that only end in tears. There’s a hierarchy of pillow and space distribution, but we still jostle for position, chatting and laughing while Mom rolls her eyes and tells us to be quiet and not spill our tea. We did all our living in that bed, and I suspect one day we’ll do some dying in it too.
The piano, the Victorian school bench, the never-ending bed, and boxes labeled #1 to #26 would be stacked in a van and sent ahead. I would stand forlornly on the doorstep watching them disappear and then go back inside one last time to whisper farewell to the walls and scratch messages on hidden floorboards like Braille for the future children who followed in my wake. As the youngest, I had no one else to hand-me-down to.
Just before we left I kissed the letter box goodbye. This was my pièce de résistance. I didn’t know what that meant, but I suspected it had something to do with resisting change. I had performed this ritual on every move from the first—dragging my blanket behind me in the close Californian night—to the last—weeping for Arabella Caterpillar, my sweet pea plant, forgotten on the doorstep (and no, you never go back, not even for sweet pea plants).
Every other weekend we visited Dad in London. He lived in a tall white townhouse on Perrymead Street, with the attic converted into a playroom for us. In between visits, the playroom remained untouched, our games and Sylvanian civilizations as we had left them. In the evenings, we ordered in pizza, watched back-to-back Simpsons, drank Coca-Cola and Fox’s U-bet chocolate milk, and stayed up past our bedtime. He took us to his Italian restaurant in Kensington where the waiters would treat us to free bowls of gelato. He took us to his fancy Riverside gym where the ladies smiled and cooed over us. He snuck us into the hot tub (over-14s only!), and when the lifeguards walked past he would dunk us under the bubbling water. He could swim the whole breadth of the pool with Cait and me standing on his back like surfers.
And then we were returned, and when we refused to go to sleep, still on a sugar high from the soda, Mom phoned Dad, furious with him for undoing her hard work and making her out to be the bad guy. Meanwhile, I wished on every eyelash and every birthday candle that they would get back together and everything would go back to how it ought to be. Not how it used to be, but how it ought to be, because life had, as of yet, never fully subscribed to my exacting nine-year-old standards.
After living in Barton Orchard for one year, I had reluctantly accepted that we weren’t moving back to London; that my brother now went to a boarding school and my sister went to a coed, even though I wasn’t allowed; that the girls at my school were never going to like me and there was nothing I could do about it; and that we could only see Dad every other weekend. But just as these things were starting to feel normal, Two Strangers appeared in our front room one autumn afternoon in 1993, and everything changed all over again.
* * *
The sun was low in the sky by the time Cait and I made our way home. We spiraled down the path to Barton Orchard, our feet making crunch-crunch-crunch sounds on the cold gravel and our shadows two spindly giants looming ahead. We walked up the stone stairs one big step at a time. We passed the too-tall sunflowers, now withered and half dead, their heads sagging heavily on their chests like a row of sorry children. We passed the grand front door that we never used, and that’s when we saw them. Two Strangers. Illuminated in the warm orange glow of our living room against the autumn twilight in which we stood. They wore long, draping coats, which fell about them like black wings. Two ominous specters distorted through the glass.
Mom spotted us outside, and we saw her excuse herself. She moved quickly out of the room to meet us at the back door. I saw their black wings rise and fall with menacing calm.
She opened the door. The skin around her eyes and jaw seemed taut. She was struggling for composure, because she did not want to show us she was scared. She didn’t want them to see us here; she didn’t want them to speak to us, because we didn’t know which lies to tell or which to keep secret. Back then we didn’t know there were lies or secrets to be told or kept.
“Go to Jacky’s,” she said. “Stay there until you hear from me.”
She looked behind her. Then, with some urgency, “Go on!”
She turned her back on us and shut the door. We stood for a moment, looking at the closed back door of unlucky house #13, feeling lost and confused. I shivered, as if my body sensed this was the start of something, or the end.
Then we walked away.
The Two Strangers turned to look but did not see beyond their own reflection, our departure insulated by the dark outside.
Jacky lived up the road. I shared a car pool to school with her children, Polly, Bertie, and Jo, and our families were on their way to becoming lifelong friends. She answered the door, curling one eyebrow inquisitively at our reappearance.
“Mom sent us back,” I said, knowing it didn’t make sense, Jacky having only recently dropped me off.
“Well, all right then.”
She let us in under her arm with a quizzical smile, knowing our family was a little strange and liking us nonetheless. We joined Polly and Bertie and slouched in front of the TV like nothing had happened.
Inside our heads we opened the box of things-not-to-be-discussed and tried to squeeze in the Two Strangers. Their black wings flapped frantically and refused to keep still. Some things were harder to fit in the box than others. Things that flap, especially.
While Cait watched Neighbours and drank tea, I looked out the window, cupping my hands around my eyes to block out the light. I saw a black car pull up the path from Barton Orchard with the two shadowy figures in the front and a blond woman in the backseat. I thought I saw her head turn toward me as they drove away. Then she was gone.
While we ate dinner, the phone rang. Jacky stood to answer, taking the call facing the wall, but I could tell by a glance toward us it was Mom.
She answered, looking down. “Yes, of course. Don’t worry. It’s no trouble. No, just let me know when.”
She said goodbye, hung up, and turned back to us. She told us that Mom was going to stay with our granny tonight, because Granny was under the weather. Nothing serious. And with that the matter was closed.
We were put to bed in a row like a sleepover. Late at night, Cait and I whispered in the half language of sisters about Mom’s departure and Granny’s illness. We decided we didn’t believe Granny was sick without any evidence at all. We wondered if the Two Strangers were scumbag lawyers and Dad was trying to get custody. Whoever they were, we were probably going to move house again, because that was usually what happened.
Jacky drove me to school the next day.
I told my second-best friend (her best friend was another girl) that my granny was sick, and she treated me better for the rest of the day.
Jacky was waiting in her car at the school gate. It was almost normal again. Almost routine, but not quite, because today was Mom’s turn to drive.
Cait and I reunited at Jacky’s house to walk back down the gravel path to Barton Orchard.
We saw Mom through the living room window, this time alone, sitting at her desk with a pen in one hand, staring ahead intensely. When she spotted us, she jumped, startled, then frowned. It always made her angry when she got a shock.
She stood up, and by the time we walked through the back door into the kitchen she was already putting the kettle on for tea.
“How’s Granny?” Cait asked.
“Fine. It was nothing serious,” Mom said, pausing a moment too long.
Copyright © 2018 by Tyler Wetherall