Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The House by the Sea’ by Louise Douglas.
The House By The Sea
I was walking the dogs along the footpath beside the River Avon when my sister, Martha, called to tell me that Anna DeLuca had died.
It was April. The air was cool, the tide was out and I was alone. The dogs sniffed the grassy fringes of the path, while I held the phone to my ear and listened as Martha described how my former mother-in-law had passed away peacefully in a sunlit room in a hospice in south London. As she spoke, I watched a boy cycling towards me. He was fourteen or fifteen, dark haired, slightly built. He could have been Daniel. I stepped aside as he passed. He stood on the pedals to keep the bike steady, leaned over the handlebars and nodded his thanks. He was wearing school uniform: rolled up shirtsleeves, a jumper tied around his waist, black shoes with scuffed toes, mud on the knees of his trousers. His cheeks were flushed with exertion.
‘It was a lovely room,’ Martha said, ‘and Cece said the staff were angels. She said it was a good death. All the family were there.’
I watched the back of the boy, cycling away from me. The jumper flapped behind him.
‘Edie?’ Martha asked. ‘Did you hear me?’
I would have liked to tell her about the boy who looked like Daniel, but I knew if I did she would make the face she always made when I told her about something that reminded me of my son. Even though I couldn’t see her, I’d know that was what she was doing.
A silence grew between us. Martha was expecting me to say that I was sorry about Anna’s death or to ask her to pass on my condolences to Cece, but I couldn’t. I simply couldn’t bring myself to say it was all for the best, or that at least it was an end to Anna’s suffering, or some other cliché. I’d spent ten years picking at my hatred for Anna and the wound was deep and bloody. I could hardly say something kind about her now.
I watched the boy on the bike riding through the tunnel made by the overhanging branches of trees. He went around a bend and disappeared.
‘Was Joe there?’ I asked.
‘Was Joe with Anna when she died?’
‘Yes, I just said, all the family were. He’s spent a lot of time with his mother over the last few weeks.’
I expect she was asking him for forgiveness, craving his reassurances. I could imagine him holding her trembling hand, telling her that what happened to Daniel wasn’t really her fault and she, oh, she’d be doing her best to believe him, but deep down she must have known Joe was only saying those words because he loved her. In her heart she must have known he didn’t mean it, because it was her fault, she was responsible for us losing Daniel, and even if Joe said he forgave her, it wouldn’t be true. Daniel was his son as much as mine. How can anyone forgive the unforgivable?
I looked back towards the city, hoping I might catch sight of the boy on the bike, but I couldn’t see him.
‘Edie, are you okay?’ Martha asked tentatively.
Was that the boy? Was that him over there, cycling on the other side of the river?
No, it wasn’t him. Only some man on a road bike.
‘Yes, I’m fine.’
Another pause, and then, in a less tentative tone of voice, Martha said: ‘Cece asked me to tell you that the funeral’s next Thursday at the crematorium. We could go together. You will come, Edie, won’t you?’
‘I don’t think it’d be a good idea.’
‘At least think about it. It would be progress for you; closure. It might help you put everything behind you and… you know… move on.’
Move on? No! I didn’t want to move on. How could I want to do anything that would mean leaving my son behind? Forgetting him?
Martha talked and I half listened, letting my mind wander, watching the two dogs, side by side, cautiously sniffing at a piece of timber brought up by the tide. Sanderlings and avocets were feeding on the great slopes of pewter coloured mud that reflected a low, grey sky; trailing scribbles of bird prints below the tideline of driftwood and plastic. High above, gulls spiralled beneath the underside of the Suspension Bridge.
I would not go to Anna DeLuca’s funeral.
I didn’t want to see Joe again. He wouldn’t want to see me either. It was his mother’s funeral, let him deal with it on his own, in his own way. I’d rather be anywhere else in the world, than with him, remembering her.
Fourteen weeks later
The aircraft tipped to begin its descent and through the porthole I watched the southern side of the island of Sicily emerge from the glare of the sun. Beyond the breaching wing lay a hazy, mountainous land surrounded by turquoise water. Wispy clouds bunched around the summit of Etna, the shadow of a forest creeping up her flank. I saw the sprawl of cities, the pencil lines of motorways, the meandering loops of a river and the brilliant blue rectangle of a reservoir. My journey was almost over and Joe was somewhere down there, waiting for me. The last time I’d had a meaningful conversation with my ex-husband was ten years previously, and on that occasion, I’d told him I wished he was dead, and I’d meant it and he knew that I meant it. I’d watched him implode, emotionally, in front of my eyes. I’d turned away. I didn’t know how I was going to face him again. I didn’t know how either of us were going to cope.
It wasn’t as if we had anything in common any more, save memories too painful to revisit. I knew very little of Joe’s life now and I didn’t know how much, if anything, he knew of mine. He probably didn’t know that home, for me, was my friend Fitz’s two bedroom house in Southville and work, the Special Educational Needs department of St Sarah’s school, South Bristol. In my spare time, I walked Fitz’s dogs or went to the Watershed cinema to watch European films with subtitles. Sometimes I meandered around St Nicholas’ Markets and treated myself to a Caribbean wrap and a ball or two of knitting wool; some second-hand books. Most of my energy was taken up with keeping Daniel’s memory alive, that was my raison d’être; I would not let my son be forgotten – never. It might not look much of a life, but it was mine and I was happy with it. I felt safe and I didn’t have to worry about the worst happening because the worst had already happened. I was doing fine and if Joe thought I wasn’t, well, he’d be wrong.
All this anxiety was his mother’s fault. Anna DeLuca was the reason why I was on this plane and why Joe was waiting for me at the airport in Sicily. She was behind this, she couldn’t leave us alone, she had to be interfering in our lives, pulling our strings, moving us around like the pieces on a chessboard, even now, months after her death. Hadn’t she ruined our lives enough already? Hadn’t she caused enough heartache? Martha had said Anna’s death would be a line drawn in the sand for me, but Martha had been wrong. I thought of Anna’s small, heart shaped face, her black hair, her pretty brown eyes and little white teeth, the peppermints she used to freshen her breath, and the old fury began to rise in me.
I was distracted by the passenger beside me, who knocked my arm as he reached for his seat belt.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘so sorry.’ His jumper slid off his lap and landed on my feet. It was unpleasantly warm. Surreptitiously, I kicked it back towards him. ‘I’m all fingers and thumbs,’ he said. ‘I don’t like take-offs and landings. Always make me nervous.’ He laughed uneasily.
I moved closer to the window, turning my body away from his. I didn’t like flying either. Last time, I’d sworn ‘never again’ and yet here I was, on a journey I hadn’t planned, going to a place I didn’t want to visit, brittle with nerves, resenting the time and energy I was expending, dreading what was to come, and all because of her, Anna DeLuca, and her stupid, manipulative will.
The intercom pinged and the pilot informed us that we’d be landing in fifteen minutes. She said the weather in Sicily was a fine and sunny twenty-five degrees. Good, I thought. It would be nice to have some sunshine. The British weather had been dull in the weeks since Anna’s death and I’d been out of sorts. Nothing had gone terribly wrong, but nothing had been right either. I’d felt as if I had a persistent hangover, or jet lag; some affliction that dulled my mind and slowed me down. It was knowing that this trip was coming; knowing I had to use my precious holiday allocation to come to Sicily to meet Anna’s lawyer; knowing I’d have to burn energy dealing with whatever mess Anna had left for me and Joe to clear up.
My paperback was on my lap and I’d been using a photograph of Daniel as a bookmark. There he was, my beautiful boy, sitting astride the skateboard that Anna had bought him for his fifth birthday. He’d been asking for a skateboard for months, begging for one, and Joe and I kept saying ‘No,’ because we didn’t think he was big enough and back then we lived in a tiny flat on the second storey of an old house in North London. There was no way I could manage the creaky stairs with a child, a shopping bag and a skateboard in tow. But Anna being Anna, that didn’t stop her. She presented the gift to Daniel on his birthday; his eyes were wide with delight as he tore the paper from the present, its shape and weight giving away what was inside. It was a fabulous board, the exact one he’d wanted. He kept saying: ‘This is the best day of my whole life!’ Anna told him the skateboard had to stay at her house, close to the park. She also – pre-empting objections from us – gave him a protective helmet and pads and told him that using the board was conditional on him wearing the safety gear. I could still recall the sinking feeling as I watched Daniel hugging his present, the half-hearted smile I dredged up, Anna’s eyes flicking from Daniel to me, delighted at his joy, desperate for my approval, and Joe saying: ‘Wow, that’s great, Anna!’ (he never called her Mum) and then reaching across to take hold of my hand to let me know he knew how annoyed I was.
I lay Daniel’s picture back in the book, closed it carefully and tucked it into my bag. The closer I came to seeing Joe again, the more anxious I felt. Funny how it was always the relationships that once were closest that caused the most trouble when they were over.
We were lower now, so low that details of the landscape were revealing themselves: a water park, a motorway junction, a shopping mall. I saw the shadow of our plane swoop beneath me, a ballet partner mirroring the arc of the real thing. I thought of Joe, waiting for me, and had a rush of nerves. Here I was – a jolt as the landing gear mechanism lowered the wheels – here we were – a groaning of the air brakes – the two of us about to be reunited because of the machinations of his mother, and it was too late to do anything about it now; too late to do anything but comply.
The man beside me was breathing heavily. ‘Oh God,’ he muttered, ‘Oh God, oh God, oh God!’
The roofs of the apartment blocks rushed closer and closer, a forest of aerials and chimneys and water tanks. We skimmed the power lines and the tops of the trees, the airport terminal came into view to our right and there was the bump as the plane touched down, a brace against the forward thrust as it braked, a spasm of relief.
‘Hurrah!’ the man beside me muttered. He grabbed hold of my wrist. ‘We did it!’ he cried. ‘We’re safe!’
He was the lucky one. For him, the anxiety was over. For me, it was just beginning.
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