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Saturday 3 July
[Minus three hundred and five]
My underwear is in the apple tree.
I’m lying in the grass, staring up through the branches. It’s late afternoon and the rest of the garden is lemonade sunshine, but under here it’s cool and dark and insecty. When I tilt my head back, the whole garden is upside down—and my laundry with it, festooned like the world’s saddest bunting.
Déjà vu flattens me, and I have the stupidest thought: Hey, Grey’s home.
When our clothesline broke a few years ago, my grandfather Grey was underneath it. “Balls and buggery to the flames of hell!” he roared, flinging the wet clothes into the trees to dry. He loved the effect so much, he insisted we repeat it every time the sun came out.
But Grey died last September, and we don’t do things like that anymore.
I shut my eyes and recite pi to one hundred decimal places. When I open them, the apple tree still blossoms with underwear. It’s a throwback to how things used to be—which means I know exactly who’s responsible.
Then I hear his voice saying my name, floating towards me over the bushes.
“Gottie? Yeah, still a total Mensa patient.”
Rolling onto my front, I peer through the trees. Across the garden, my brother Ned is coming out the back door. Six foot of stubble and snakeskin leggings, and a clothespin clipped to his T-shirt. Since coming home from art school a couple of weeks ago, he’s been making a pastiche of Grey’s summers: dragging our grandfather’s things out of the shed, rearranging furniture, playing his records. He settles himself on the grass, swigging a beer and air-guitaring with his other hand. Perpetual motion.
Then I see who’s following him and instinctively duck into the grass. Jason. His best friend and bass player in their band. He slouches slowly to the ground, where I stare a hole in the back of his leather jacket.
“It’s past seven,” Ned is saying. “Grots’ll be home soon, if you wanna say hi.”
I wrinkle my nose at the nickname. Kla Grot—little toad. I’m seventeen!
“It’s that late?” Jason’s voice is a low rumble. “We should call the others, have band practice here.”
No, don’t do that, I think. Shoo. It’s been one thing, having Ned home these past couple of weeks, bringing the house alive with music and noise and mess. I don’t want Fingerband here too, squawking their guitars all night and talking, talking, talking. Not when I’ve been an elective mute since September.
Then there’s Jason. Blond, bequiffed, blue-eyed. Beautiful. And, if you want to get technical about it, my ex-boyfriend.
Aside from the funeral, this is the first time I’ve seen him since the end of last summer. This is the first time I’ve seen him since we were having sex in the sunshine.
I didn’t even know he was back. I don’t know how I missed it—our village, Holksea, is the size of a postage stamp. Barely enough houses for a Monopoly set.
I want to throw up. When Jason left for college, this was not how I pictured us seeing each other again—with me lurking in the shrubbery like Grey’s vast stone Buddha. I’m frozen, compelled to stay where I am, staring at the back of Jason’s head. It’s too much for my heart to take, and not enough.
Then Umlaut appears from nowhere.
A ginger blur through the garden, landing with a meow next to Ned’s cowboy boots.
“Yo, midget,” says Jason, surprised. “You’re new.”
“That’s Gottie’s,” Ned non-explains. Getting a kitten wasn’t my idea. He appeared one day in April, courtesy of Papa.
Ned stands up, scanning the garden. I try to blend, a five-foot-nine-inch leaf, but he’s already strutting towards me.
“Grotbag.” He raises one cool eyebrow. “Playing hide-and-seek?”
“Hello,” I reply, rolling onto my back and staring up at him. My brother’s face is a reflection of mine—olive skin, dark eyes, beaky nose. But while he lets his brown hair fall unbrushed around his shoulders, mine hasn’t been cut in five years, and is twisted up in a permanent topknot. And only one of us is wearing eyeliner. (Clue: it isn’t me.)
“Found ya.” Ned winks. Then, quick as a flash, he whips his phone from his pocket and snaps me.
“Uuuhhhnnn,” I complain, hiding my face. One thing I haven’t missed while he’s been AWOL all year: Ned’s paparazzo habit.
“You should come and join us,” he calls over his shoulder. “I’m making Frikadeller.”
The prospect of meatballs is enough to coax me out, despite myself. I stand up and trail him through the shrubbery. Out on the grass, Jason’s still lounging among the daisies. He’s obviously found a new hobby at college—there’s a cigarette half-smoked in his hand, which he lifts in a half wave, half smiling.
“Grots,” he says, not quite meeting my eye.
That’s Ned’s nickname for me, I think. You used to call me Margot.
I want to say hello, I want to say so much more than that, but the words vanish before they reach my mouth. The way we left things, there’s still so much unsaid between us. My feet grow roots while I wait for him to stand up. To talk to me. To mend me.
In my pocket, my phone weighs heavy, untexted. He never told me he was back.
Jason looks away, and sucks on his cigarette.
After a pause, Ned claps his hands together. “Well,” he says brightly. “Let’s get you two chatterboxes inside. There’s meatballs to fry.”
He struts off to the house, Jason and me walking silently behind. When I reach the back door, I’m about to follow them into the kitchen, but something stops me. Like when you think you hear your name, and your soul snags on a nail. I linger on the doorstep, looking back at the garden. At the apple tree, with its laundry blossoms.
Behind us, the evening light is condensing, the air thick with mosquitoes and honeysuckle. I shiver. We’re on the cusp of summer, but I have the sense of an ending, not a beginning.
But perhaps it’s that Grey is dead. It still feels like the moon fell out of the sky.
Text copyright © 2016 by Harriet Reuter Hapgood