Switching, Switching

 

I wish my father had taken me to Canada with him when I was fifteen, instead of my brother, and I lived in a cabin on the lakes and flew planes for a living.

I have scrambled up on to the tasteful but sturdy, green and white fitted bathroom units and am leaning out of the window. Hanging out here has become a habit at bath time as I wait for my husband to come home. He is always so late these days. I wish Iain was home and I wish I had never met him.

'Be careful what you wish for, Tina,' I hear my father's voice. 'You never know who's...'

I shut my father out of my mind.

 

The bathroom in our new house is light and airy, large, square, well proportioned, with twin hand basins under the wide window, which is opened to its full extent, letting in the evening fragrances of a previously well-planned but recently neglected garden. The sunset is alive with colour, one of the best.

One basin is pristine, with a neatly pressed tube of toothpaste and an electric toothbrush with recently replaced head; the other, out of bounds, has a dark scummy tidemark, a fraying, faded toothbrush, squidged tube of toothpaste, and a slightly smelly flannel.

The quadrant shower is big enough for both of us, should we ever find ourselves in that kind of mood, which doesn't seem likely anymore. The vast pedestal bath that stands slightly to one side of centre with not quite enough room to run the cleaner easily all round is currently occupied by two noisy, splashing children. There are no bars on the window and it's not high up; it would not be difficult to climb out.

I turn to stare at the spreading puddles of soapy water on the bathroom floor. Water turns to fire as the splashes capture the radiance of the sky. I can see my brother in the flames and am gripped by a familiar spasm of dread. Fire! Fire! Pour on water...

 

The moment passes.

'... want Daddy, we want Daddy,' the girls have started chanting again.

'You can't have Daddy, he isn't home,' I say, 'and look what you've done to the floor.'

I am screaming inside but I say it mildly. More in despair than fury. More in sorrow than in anger, remember, Tina, if ... Besides, I am too tired to shout any more. Too tired. I want them to stop. Why won't they stop? I pin my arms tightly to my sides. I must not hit them. I must never hit them. If I did, I might not be able to stop. I can't cope with this. This is not the life I want. Iain is good at bath times, sod him. I know he isn't happy at work and must be as tired as I am, but he finds time to play with the girls. When he's home.

 

Iain was viewing the remarkable sunset with narrowed eyes. The bright sunlight was at eyelevel and making driving difficult but that was not the problem. At some deeper level he could not fathom, sunset had come to signify all that was going wrong. Not with his marriage exactly. What partnership could sail unscathed through more than seven long years of house moves, bereavements and twins?

Things had not been right since the baby died, and then the dog. He was not enjoying his promotion from woodwork teacher to Deputy Head.

As he parked, he wondered if Tina was watching the sunset but doubted it, being bath time, though he thought she might get a glimpse from the bathroom window. When they moved a year ago, it was the colours of the sunset glancing off the pale stone that clinched the deal.

'We want Daddy, we want Daddy. Who do we want? Dad-dy.'

He banged the front door behind him, so they'd know he was home.

He climbed the stairs.

 

There was a yellow plastic duck out on the landing, the one with the elastic. He sat it on his head, tucked the elastic behind his ears and under his beard, held his mobile in front of him like a VHF radio mike and thumbed an imaginary button as he walked towards the bathroom.

'Sailing vessel Gemini, Gemini, this is motor vessel Rubber Duck, Rubber Duck. Are you receiving me?'

 

I watch as Sula and Petra grab at the soap for their microphone and jab their fingers into it. It shoots across the bathroom, narrowly missing their father. They squawk in unison,

'Rubber Duck, Rubber Duck, Gemini, Gemini. Receiving you loud and clear.'

'Now then, Gemini, what's all this noise?'

'Change channel, change channel,' they chant.

 

Iain closed his eyes to suppress a grimace. They were such sticklers to the rules. His fault. He taught them radio etiquette. He had owned a small racing dinghy, a Hornet, but his dream was to buy a robust family yacht and set out in leisurely fashion around the world. He hadn't shared this dream with anyone, had hardly been aware of it himself until recently.

It upset him more than he could put into words that Tina hated the idea of sailing. Couldn't swim. No head for heights. Or depths.

Tina didn't like rules, particularly games with rules. She joined in board games but show her a rule and she searched for a way to break it. Like Agatha Christie's Poirot, she complained she should be allowed to build hotels on the railway stations in Monopoly.

'Of course there are hotels on railway stations.'

With the boat names she would say them three times, or even five times, never the time honoured twice.

'Odd numbers are more appealing,' she would say.

Lately, he reckoned, she had forgotten how to play games, with or without rules.

 

As Iain joins me in the bathroom, he makes a great pretence of clicking buttons on his phone and listening to it intently, checking to see what channel is available.

'Seven three is clear, let's go to seven three.'

The twins grab the sponge for a new mike; fight over it; slip down in the bath with a huge splash; shriek.

'Switching, switching.' They wave the sponge, prodding it furiously.

'Rubber Duck, Rubber Duck. This is Gemini, Gemini. Are you receiving us on seven three?' They collapse in giggles.

'Gemini, Rubber Duck. Receiving you loud and, ah, wet. Now then Gemini, what's all this fuss?'

'She got soap in our eyes.' Petra speaks first. Unusual.

'She got soap in your eyes, did she? Who is this great She-bird?'

Not the cat's mother in our house, always birds, Iain insists. We think of the girls as seabirds, Sula with long fair wavy hair, a gannet, and Petra, with short dark brown hair cut with a fringe, a storm petrel. Gannets are noisy, greedy birds; we didn't mean it that way when we named her, hadn't known it meant gannet, but liked the name. It is Icelandic, after his grandmother. It has turned out to be a fair description, loveable but noisy and pushy. Petra is the quiet, plucky one.

'Mummy got soap in our eyes.'

'And?'

'We were wriggling.'

He turns to me,

'Go and pour yourself a drink, Love, you look as if you need one. Pour me a large one too. It's been a long, long day and I'm exhausted.' Iain tries to smile, fails, and steers back to the girls as I stomp downstairs.

 

'Now then, what am I supposed to do with these heads? Bang them together?' He imagined the hiss of disapproval Tina would give if she heard him. He knew she hated it when he threatened even as a joke.

'Sometimes you have to smack,' he would say, 'don't you?' A quick slap that didn't hurt, merely served as a warning, as a lioness might cuff her cubs if their play became too rough. Tina shouted at them, which he hated. Smacking was wrong, they had both agreed, and Iain knew too well what it was like to be thrashed. It was all pretence, and he had only, softly, to start counting to three ...

Iain washed their hair, mopped up the floor, supervised teeth cleaning, read one, short, story each, tucked them into their bunks and kissed them goodnight.

Finally, patience worn thin as his finest wood shavings, he tried not to make any sound as he crept downstairs to hunt for his slippers and the gin and tonic.

 

'Don't start,' I say when he comes in the kitchen.

'I didn't...,' he protests.

'I know. You didn't say a word. You looked. I'm rubbish. You're a better mother than...'

'I'm not...,' he tries again, 'you're not... did you pour me a gin?'

'Yes.'

Iain sees an empty glass on the draining board and the almost empty one in my hand.

'Want another?'

'It's all gone.'

He fetches his car keys.

'Tonic's all gone too.'

 

I close my eyes.

Sunset. Watercolours.

Start with Ultramarine Blue and Indian Red and a giant goat-hair mop, perhaps, or a wide silk wash brush, to drop puddles of thin wet paint onto thick damp paper and tilt the paper so that the colours dribble and run. Large round sable with Burnt Orange, Cadmium Yellow, and Permanent Rose. Flick the vivid tints into the sober ones, letting them seep into the wash; watch them spreading and merging. A few spots of washing up liquid to alter the flow? Salt? No not for this one.

Huge paper. I could get a roll ... cut off a sheet to cover the table ... spray it, tape it ...

Wouldn't be ready by the next mealtime ... Girls might want to make biscuits ... Flour in the paint. Paint in the flour. Ask not what paint can do for your flour but ...

I can't afford a roll of watercolour paper, there is nowhere to store it and the kitchen table isn't anywhere near big enough. I don't have any goat-hair or silk brushes, only one synthetic wash brush and a handful of nylon rounds and flats. Adequate for small paintings but with no 'feel'. Not capable of caressing the paint; of being an extension of my delight. Or ardour. Or fury. Or despair.

My few genuine sable brushes are all tiny -- gifts from Iain's well-meaning relatives.

 

 

2

 

 

Iain went to the pub rather than the off licence and when he eventually returned, he found Tina curled up on the sofa, asleep. Her face was puffy and wet as if she had been crying. He debated whether to carry her upstairs. She was not heavy, but his back had been giving trouble lately.

He fetched her quilt and tucked it around her. He turned on a lamp: the one he had turned on the school lathe, he reflected. He smiled at the play on words. Tina would have approved. She was always finding links between words in his sentences that he would not have noticed. He was learning. She opened his eyes and ears to new things in the world. You should be a poet, she told him. It was true he loved poetry when she read it to him. But write it?

He gazed round the living room. Everything lovingly handmade. Beautiful and precious in a way bought goods could not be. Inexpensive too. Tina had made the lampshade out of leftover scraps of fabric. Each fragment reminded him of their many projects - the twin Moses baskets, the drop-sided cots, the stuffed fabric mobiles and, later, the bunk beds, the wooden train set with landscaped countryside, and the puppets with proscenium arch and stage sets. She told him they were complementary, with different skills that added up to a perfect whole. He loved wood. She loved working with textiles.

Their most challenging undertaking had been the sofa and matching chairs: almost matching sofa and chairs, designed as a set but each piece individually carved and inlaid. They were made of elm, rescued after Dutch elm disease swept the country, and some of the beetle tracks were visible. Iain had carved around the tracks in an intricate, evolving pattern evocative of chaos theory and fractals. Where the wood had been badly damaged, he had inlaid with apple and walnut, gleaned from neighbouring orchards, blending the inlays with the carving in swirls and loops.

The seat cushions and quilt were patchwork. Tina hadn't cut identical shapes but selected pieces that fitted together naturally. Dry stone walling, he thought. She used her favourite colours of autumnal burgundy, russet and gold, not quite random but lending an underlying unity and cohesion in the design with embroidery wandering through the irregular textures which echoed the traceries of the carvings.

 

Toys and rag rugs littered the hand-sanded, varnished wood floor. The varnish was somewhat worn. Like themselves. Nothing new since this last move. Too many moves. Too many deaths. It was not only baby Anna but his father, her father, her grandparents: all within the last four years. Gioia's death was the last straw, perhaps. Gioia. Joy-ah. A beautiful black and tan Doberman bitch, slim and elegant and not in the least bit fierce. Good with the children.

The huge house, part old building, part converted barn, had belonged to the girls' piano teacher, Joy, and her sculptor partner. When her partner died, Joy could not bear to go on living there alone, so she put it up for sale and moved into a smaller house in the town.

They had both already fallen in love with it before Joy decided to sell. The price was reasonable and there was no question in their minds, but the mortgage left them almost broke. There was no money for upkeep and improvements until Iain accepted promotion. And then Tina had unexpectedly become pregnant again.

He stood looking at Tina, trying to compare how she looked now with when they had first met. Her hair was shorter, perhaps, but probably the same indeterminate light brown. He didn't know how to describe it. She was wearing old jeans, T-shirt, and white socks that showed the stained imprint of discarded trainers. When bare, her feet were beautiful.

There were shadows under her eyes, but her lashes were still long and fair. He had noticed her eyelashes immediately; unadorned - unsullied - by make-up. She was young and fresh, in a short cotton dress, barefoot in the sand and sawdust on the floor of The Dolphin. He was studying for his BEd at Marjon; she was at Plymouth College of Art and Design. The Dolphin, haunt of artists, writers, and aspiring students of all kinds, was a natural place to meet. For him, the spark was immediate. He did not enquire if she felt the same but pursued her until she accepted him.

She had been 16 to his 22 and living with her grandparents on her mother's side, Alan and Edith. Three years after they met, when she was finishing her diploma, she did not need much persuasion to move in with him and they married soon afterwards.

Iain did not know much more than that as he rarely asked questions but waited for others to let things slip into conversations. He had learned more from Edith in five minutes at Alan's funeral than he'd garnered from Tina in all their eleven years together. He ached with the need to protect her. He wanted her back - that earlier version of herself. He stood looking at her for some time, like an uncomplaining bloodhound waiting to go for a walk, before shuffling off to bed.

 

I wake with a start. Where am I? God, I'm stiff. Two hefty gin and tonics have not helped. Why do I do it? Drowning my sorrows? Unlike what I have read in magazines, I do not wish that my husband would have a fatal accident. I do not want to divorce him or murder him. Iain is not a nuisance. He helps with the housework. He does most of it. He is not the problem.

Except that there is no point trying to tell him why I'm not happy. He listens but he grunts and says yes and no in the right places and after a while he goes out into the workshop. I have no idea what goes on inside his head and suspect he doesn't know either.

I pull aside my quilt; Iain must have put it round me. I pause mindlessly for a moment, get up, go for a pee and tiptoe up the spiral wooden staircase, designed by Joy's partner to fit perfectly in the L-shaped recess beside the cloakroom. I try unsuccessfully to remember which treads creak most. I slide into bed beside Iain and tentatively snuggle up against his warm back. He smells nice. He is unresponsive, thank goodness, and when I stop shivering, I turn away. I don't want his smell.

 

Sunset. Oils.

Better than watercolours. Rich and buttery. Drag the paint with a finger. Use a knife. Of course, I'm angry. My father was wrong. A good outpouring of wrath is what I want, not sorrow. Enormous canvas. Clashing colours. Turbulence. Volcano. The heavens breaking open. It's been done. My turn.

I love that turpentine smell ... Iain doesn't like it. Nor the girls. 'What's that stinky smell, Mummy?' they would say, and Sula would start, 'stinky pants, stinky pants.' Petra would join in with gusto and the more I tried to stop them, the louder and wilder and more scatological they would get.

Not in the kitchen. With the butter. No room for the vast wet canvasses. Too big. Too small. Need a studio. Need time. Lots of time. Endless time. How have I allowed myself to ...?

I am alone in the bed. I can smell breakfast. Fi fie fo fum. Freshly made bread, coffee and bacon. Yuck! I am NOT hungry. I can hear the breakfast clatter of plates, cutlery and laughter. Too loud! Must be Saturday. Iain is the homemaker, no doubt about it, like his mother. Not that he does like his mother. I do. I turn my face into the pillows and try to shut out the world.

 

'Iain?' I begin with some hesitation. I have been rehearsing for some time but am not sure I will get the right tone. No point pleading, he wouldn't respond. Being cross wouldn't work either. No point sounding tired, he must be tired of that. Enthusiasm would put him off. Iain merely grunts, and I continue.

'Now your father's ...' I hesitate again. Normally I would say 'dead' but the word has become ugly and brutal. Too many deaths. I hate euphemisms like 'passed on' and will not use them.

'Yes? What about it?' He continues peering at the newspaper in that annoying way of his. I know he isn't reading it but using it as a barrier. It's my newspaper.

'Do you think?' I say slowly, and then rush on, 'do you think we should ask your mother to stay?'

'No.' Iain turns the page of the newspaper.

'But,' I try to sound caring and conciliatory at the same time, 'she's all on her own now in the big old house, no-one to care for, or to look after her. She must be lonely.'

'No!' Iain retorts with uncharacteristic vehemence as he flings down the paper and marches out of the room.

'She's good with children and bakes cakes ...' I say to his retreating back.

I glower at the mess of breakfast things.

 

Inevitably, before long, the subject of going to the doctor comes up again.

'Please, Love,' Iain pleads, 'you know you've not been yourself since ...'

'Since Gioia died? I know. I will. When I'm ready. I can't see what he can do. I want to sleep. Sleep for a year. If I thought he could do that for me, I'd go. What I need is cryogenic sleep therapy.'

'I know, Love, you keep saying all that but it's not about your dog, is it?'

I don't want to sleep. I want to paint. He knows that. He doesn't understand why I have stopped painting. I have two options, as I see it: now the girls are at school I could train as a teacher and teach art, or I could do design or become an illustrator. That's three options. I have sent some stuff off. It's not what I want. In the meantime, I am tired.

'I loved Gioia. I miss her.'

Gioia. Bundle of joy. After my Venezuelan-Italian tutor in art college. Gioia Arellano. Joy-ah. Not Gee-oy-ee-a or Goya, she used to tell us. How I miss her.

'I know, Love, but ...'

'Don't "Love" me, Iain ...' I stop. Don't I want him to love me? Probably not. I do not feel lovable. Everyone except Iain calls me Tina but I hate it, which is why he doesn't. Not to my face.

He knows I would have preferred to have been called Chris but Christopher won that particular battle. I called him Topher, but it didn't catch on with anyone else. Why had our wretched father called us Christina and Christopher? Knowing the answer doesn't make it any less annoying. What about Dad's name? Evelyn. He was from the same era as the writer Evelyn Waugh, so it must have been in vogue as a boy's name and become a girl's name later. All very well when we were small and called him Evelyn at home, not Daddy, on account of how old he was, but at school it became embarrassing, and I got tired of explaining.

I walk away on the pretext of having to put the washing on. I have already been to the doctor, but I am not going to give Iain the satisfaction of knowing.

At least the doctor hadn't tried to make me talk, didn't ask me many questions, accepted one-word answers, hadn't said much himself, merely that my grief is to be expected and I am suffering from clinical depression and can start a course of anti-depressants if I wish. In the meantime, while they begin to take effect, I can go to his mother-in-law, Oki, who is an art therapist. Guess what Iain would have to say about that? He doesn't know any more than I do about art therapy. But he hates the idea of psychotherapists or psychiatrists. Shrinks. Trick cyclists. Not to be trusted.

I like the sound of Oki and, if only to spite Iain, I shall go. First appointment next week.

 

 

3

 

 

I walk slowly towards Oki's studio and wonder what she will say. I suppose I shall have to paint a picture and Oki will tell me what the painting means. It won't do any good, but it is better than staying at home. At home I might explode. Or implode. I think I might fold in on myself and disappear.

Here it is. I ring the bell. A helicopter passes overhead. This makes me nervous. Helicopters always do. I don't know why. Maybe I should paint a helicopter and Oki can tell me what I'm afraid of. My breathing is noisy. There is a nasty smell of garlic. My chest hurts and I put my hand on my chest to feel my heart thumping. Quick, back down the steps. Perhaps no-one will answer, and I can go away again.

No such luck; the door is opening. Oki is a tiny woman with a distinctive brown wrinkled face and sleek dark hair drawn back in a waist-long plait. She'd be fabulous to draw. She is pulling aside her hand-embroidered heavy cotton skirt as she comes down the steps, exposing sinewy brown ankles and feet clad in beaded soft leather moccasins. Lovely ankles. Would she sit for a drawing? Instead of doing therapy?

'Hello, my child,' Oki says, 'come along in.' I follow her up into the house. Oki calls everyone 'my child'. Somehow it is not patronising or offensive, merely inclusive in grandmotherly fashion.

Oki slips off her moccasins and I take off my doc martens. We sit. Oki remains silent. She is frowning badly and looks tired. Perhaps I ought not to bother her with my problems if she is burdened with her own.

I don't want to talk. I want to paint.

I expect Oki to say something, but she is sitting quietly. Still frowning.

'Iain doesn't understand,' I say.

'Iain doesn't understand,' Oki repeats. She looks puzzled.

'No-one understands,' I say. 'When I show them my paintings, they all say how good they are. How can I explain they aren't right? Aren't what I want to do?'

'Your paintings are not what you want to do.' Oki said. 'Tell me about what you want to do.'

I gaze at Oki. Oki gazes back.

'What I want demands time. What I want doesn't want to stop for meals; for the school run; for being nice to people.'

I stop speaking as I expect Oki to question me, but Oki remains still and silent. She doesn't look worried now but has an angry face. She must be angry with me. I've never told anyone I am fed up with being nice to people and want to be on my own.

'You want to be on your own,' Oki says.

Did I say that out loud?

'Tell me about it,' Oki says.

'Tell you about what?'

'About what you are thinking, perhaps,' Oki says.

'I wish I was still a student again and could go wherever I want, whenever I want, and spend all day and night painting without interruption and without being aware of the time. I shouldn't have got married. I definitely shouldn't have had children. I didn't mean to do either. They sort of happened.'

When I go home, I confess to Iain that I have been to the doctor and for an art therapy session. I show Iain my picture.

 

A letter has arrived from Canada. The last time I heard from Christopher was four years ago, telling me Evelyn had died and he, Christopher, was moving house. I wasn't able to go to the cremation. If there was one. He didn't say where he was moving or send his new address. I tried his old address, his cell phone and email but nothing heard, as Iain would say.

There is no return address on the envelope and the postmark is illegible. I daren't open it. What other bad news can there be? Better wait until Iain comes home. No bath tonight and the girls are already in bed. Not usually this quiet. Is that the Land Rover? It doesn't sound the same as usual, but it can't be anybody else. Useful gravel. I know when someone is coming. I open a new bottle and pour two glasses. Car door opening. Feet on gravel. Garage doors opening. Feet on gravel. Car door closing. Tyres on gravel. Silence. Garage doors closing. Feet on gravel. Back door opening. Would an intruder sound different?

'Drink?' I call out. I hear a grunt that could mean yes, then the swish of coat being hung on hook. Iain, not intruder. Except that Iain is an intruder. In my life. Except that I let him in. Without protest. I hand him one of the glasses of red wine as he enters the kitchen.

'Thank you,' Iain sounds cautious, eyeing the envelope in my hand, 'good news?'

'Don't know yet. Haven't dared open it. It's from Canada.'

'Ah.'

I fetch a knife and slit the envelope carefully. This is not my usual style for opening envelopes, and I notice Iain is watching equally carefully as I pull out a single page and flap it open, half expecting something to drop out of it. Nothing does and I begin to read.

'Christopher's in Flin Flon,' I say. 'He's still working as a pilot but also part-time on the radio. He's coming over. He wants to fly to Dartmoor, and he wants to take me too. He'll hire a plane and we'll fly down to Roborough and explore all our childhood places. He wants to do his radio journalism thing and find some secret animal research clinic and can't say more but will tell us all about it when he gets here. He's coming in a couple of weeks.'

'That's marvellous, Love. Er... isn't it?' Iain falters.

'Yes. I suppose so. Look! No address. No telephone number. We can't say no. We can't say yes. I haven't seen him for years. Not since ... not since our 21st birthday party and I didn't see much of him as I was ill and he stayed with his girlfriend. Do you remember? No you were away. Some teaching conference or other. You were away for my 21st. I had morning sickness all winter.'

'Yes,' Iain says, 'I remember, you poor ...'

'Apart from that one visit, I haven't seen him since he and Evelyn went to Canada when we were fifteen. Christopher didn't want to go. I did, but Evelyn did not give us the choice. Some photos of him must be somewhere around, there's one of him and, mm ..., can't remember her name, at the 21st. When - you - were – away - for - my - 21st. Oh dear, we'll have to move the beds around. We should have enough sheets. Can you separate the bunks?'

'Yes, definitely. Designed to separate. The girls can sleep toe-to-toe in one. I don't suppose they're too tall for that yet, and we'll move the other into one of the spare rooms for your brother if we can make a space big enough. Moira? Was that her name? Is she coming too?'

'Doesn't mention her or anyone else. But you're right, she was called Moira. Fancy you remembering. Did you meet her?'

'When's he coming?'

'27th. Saturday week. He's hiring a car and we won't need to collect him from the airport.'

'OK, that's helpful. Plenty of time, Love, you can relax. It'll be good when your brother comes. You'll enjoy your trip to Dartmoor.'

'Maybe.'

'You'll get some sleep.'

'Maybe.'

 

I go for a few more sessions with Oki. I take off my shoes, close my eyes and Oki tells me stories.

In each story she says I am doing something. I can think of this as perhaps doing something; it is up to me to decide whether to do it or not. When she finishes the story, she suggests I might let one of the images float up in my mind and choose coloured crayons and make a picture. Oki asks me if there is any significance, and I don't know so I make up some stuff to fit.

 

The first one is about walking in the countryside, climbing a hill and then going down into a dark wood. I don't want to go into the wood at first, but Oki does not insist, and I decide I will go in after all, since I don't have to.

I hear a dog bark. Gioia is with me and I can hear her panting and feel her wet tongue on my fingers. I am going further and further downhill. I smell smoke. The path is steep. I stumble. The wood is getting darker.

It's all right. Gioia is with me.

I come to a clearing and there is a small house. Smoke is coming from the chimney. Wood smoke. I notice the door is open. I knock but no-one answers. Should I go in?

I wouldn't normally, but this is a story, and something is drawing me in. The cottage is dark inside and at first I can't see anything. I can smell a log fire but I can't see it. I can smell tea and freshly baked cakes. As my eyes adapt to the darkness I can see the glow from the fire through a doorway. I step into the room and find a fairytale old person sitting by the hearth. 'Welcome, my dear,' the person says. 'Would you like tea?'

When we have finished, I say I had better be going. The elderly person gives me a present. I can't see what it is but after I have gone back out of the wood and out onto the hillside I find it is a bunch of flowers. I can't tell what they all are - they are vague - but one is a daffodil, I think. Jane's flower, for her birth sign.

 

Another story is about digging and I draw nine graves: eight big ones and one small one. I write the number 27 on the small one but I have no idea what that represents. I guess it's because I'm 27 and I'm small and it's my grave even though I'm not dead yet. I have smothered the paper with charcoal. The charcoal catches thickly in the textured surface and is all dense and velvety. I rub away some of the charcoal with a putty rubber to make the drawing. 'It's called pulling out,' I tell Oki. 'You can use bread instead of a rubber. White bread is better than brown, homemade is best but the supermarket kind will work. Iain makes bread. He is much better at cooking than I am.' I pause. Oki doesn't say anything. I've told her that before.

'It's dark and black. That's fairly obvious isn't it? Nothing surprising there. Nothing to dig for. Dig. Hah! Pun. Dig into my past, into my mind; dig the graves. I pull out the graves. Pull them out of the earth or pull them out of my unconscious mind? Why do I keep calling them graves? They're coffins. What's that about, Oki? Graves? I am grave aren't I? I pull the coffins out. The eight big coffins are labelled with their names, Evelyn, Jane, Alan, Edith, Alistair, Alauda, Michael, Gioia. Too many.

'I did one for Evelyn even though he hasn't got a grave. He had a coffin, I suppose, before he was cremated. The same for Alan and Edith. We scattered their ashes at the funeral home.

'Alistair's grave, that's Iain's dad, is in Anstruther in the McIntosh family plot. And Alauda's. She died soon after she got engaged, not long after Iain and I met. I never met her or her fiancé but I think he, - I can't remember his name - keeps in touch with Iain's mum.

'Michael was stillborn, Robert and Kirima's second baby. I haven't met them either, they live in Scotland. So does Adair. The other Adair, that is, Iain's oldest brother.

Every time I mention babies I start crying. I have no idea why. I have two healthy six-year-old children. I don't want a baby. Oki passes me a box of tissues. She doesn't try to make me talk and does not offer any interpretations. I can take my time and see if I can work out what is wrong for myself. Nothing, yet. I don't think there is anything wrong. I'm just tired.

 

4

 

 

 

Another time I go to Oki, we light a candle and I tell Oki about the fire. The fire. The one when we were tiny. I don't remember the fire. We were five. The family story is that Christopher was playing with matches - you know, the usual boys' stuff - set some blankets on fire. Lots of smoke. We were rescued, of course, or I wouldn't be here now. As we were waiting outside, apparently there was an explosion, the gas lighting they said. It had never been removed. Evelyn wasn't too hot on safety. Jane used to keep on at him, the villagers said, but she wasn't there long before she died. The whole house went up. Fortunately, it was detached and outside the village. I don't know how bad it was but we moved house, to the row of tin miners' cottages. Evelyn told me once he was glad to move; Jane hadn't liked the house and it held all the wrong sorts of memories for him. Later the site was cleared and rebuilt as flats.

The fire has never been a secret – no repressed memories or anything like that. We've talked about it occasionally. I don't think Christopher was punished, or not much. I certainly wasn't. You know the funny thing was Evelyn wasn't cross with Christopher. Boys will be boys. He approved of us pushing limits – never said that, of course. We were constantly getting into scrapes, trying things out. He talked gently to us about what was right and wrong. He turned a blind eye to our wrong doings, mostly, as if he expected them and sanctioned them, as long as we knew we were doing wrong and apologised if needed. Can you understand? I don't suppose we did anything more dreadful than scrump apples with Christopher's friends; we were too busy to be naughty. We had to help with cooking, cleaning, gardening. Evelyn was a good cook; learned it all from his first two wives, he said.

Oki lifts the candle and puts it close to my face. I inhale the scented smoke. It makes me cough and then suddenly I'm back in the fire.

I watch as a match is struck and it bursts into flame. I watch as a candle is lit. It is a plain white kitchen candle, the sort we use for going to bed, that we are not supposed to light except at bedtime. The candle tilts over and falls. I watch as hot molten wax spills out and solidifies. The flame is catching a sheet of paper. The flames are spreading and burning the toys in the cupboard. We both watch as my black Caribbean doll flares up then smoulders and slowly turns to ashes, now we are choking on the smoke and someone is shouting to us to get down on the floor and crawl where there is less smoke.

Outside, a fireman gives Christopher his helmet to wear and hoists me up on to his shoulders. Croaking a bit from the effects of the smoke, we sing London's Burning.

'You shouldn't have lit the candle, Tina,' Christopher says, 'but don't worry, I'll tell them I did it. I'll look after you cos you're only a girl.'

I have always wondered if that was what happened; that he took the blame for something I did and I was never able to confess and be forgiven and have lived with the guilt all my life. Have I felt inferior all my life because my brother called me only a girl?

However, it was not like that. I can see clearly now. I did not light the match. I did not light the candle.

How could he make me feel guilty for something I did not do and pretend to be chivalrous and take the blame?

I return to the present with a bump and look at Oki. I see my anger and hatred reflected in her face. Oki is clever like that. I have come to realise that what I see in her face is what I am feeling. Oki smiles and I realise I am smiling too.

'It wasn't my fault,' I say. 'Christopher made me feel guilty but swore me to silence and condemned me for being a girl.'

Do I hate Christopher? At the time of the fire, he was a young child and so was I. He was only parroting what he heard others say. Is it his fault that it has stayed with me and influenced my whole life?

 

5

 

 

Christopher coasted to a stop and paused to look at the view. Hadn't taken long to adjust to driving on the wrong side of the road. Now where was that darling little cottage near Buckfastleigh with a For Sale sign? Moira had loved it. But - water under the bridge. While he found his feet, he ought to be able to get a job; something at Roborough aerodrome, perhaps, if that was still operational. Aerodrome – what a fantastic word, so much more romantic than 'airfield'.

Or local radio. Or both again. He had enjoyed his intermittent job in radio, for when flying was slack: reading the news, indicating the road works, interviewing local celebrities, racing against time to dub clips of music onto the interviews for the next deadline, making the 30 second commercials – the usual – cash pot bingo, local restaurants, loan scams, baby beef liver at 69c per pound, he hated baby beef liver, that was calves liver to Tina, bubblegum-flavour ice cream, financing for all-terrain three-wheel motorcycles with huge balloon wheels for riding in mud and on snow, engagement rings.

He nearly bought an engagement ring for Moira, before he came to his senses. Lily was a much better option.

And now he could tell Tina they had given him a major assignment, which fitted in with his own plans perfectly. He had no intention of returning to Canada.

A cottage on Dartmoor would be okay if he put in decent triple glazing and central heating. Nowhere near as cold as Canada but damp and bleak; you had to be born to it to enjoy it. Misty and mysterious. You had to be careful hiking in case the fog came down suddenly; it could come without warning. Always carry a compass and sufficient protective gear and provisions in case you have to stay put for 24 hours or more, even if the weather was fine and sunny when you set out. Evelyn had been good at that; he was a great hiker. Had been a mountaineer in his younger days, he told them. He liked to get away from home as much as possible. But not after he met Jane.

Two matches for the campfire or they had cold rations only. They had learned to make brilliant fires. Tina was the one; she was obsessed with fire. She was also sneaky and kept a stub of candle in her pocket in case her first match didn't work. She thought he didn't know but there was that time when it was pouring with rain and their supply of newspaper was soaking wet and Tina still managed to light her fire with the second match. Even Evelyn must have guessed but he didn't let on. What he encouraged was resourcefulness.

He didn't condone lying or out-and-out deceit but he had never said they couldn't bring candles or even their own matches. The rule was that he would only issue two matches and the rest was up to them. They had cottoned on pretty quick. 'You should say "quickly", Uncle Christopher,' he anticipated one of the kids correcting him. He hadn't met them yet but knew they would pick him up on his Canadian grammar and spelling. Or was it merely a memory of his father's insistence on good spoken English, even in Canada?

He had spent whole days exploring and must know every inch of the moors. Not Tina so much. She had been hiking on the small hikes when they were little but later she had opted for visiting friends or staying at home with her painting. It had been hard to drag her away from her painting sometimes, even for meals, and she would have starved and gone unwashed if he and Evelyn had not insisted. She hated to tidy up, although she always saw herself as tidy. If one of their pairs of wellingtons was not stacked as Evelyn declared it should be; it was always Tina who pointed the accusing finger. Not that he was blameless; he was a boy.

What a break, being sent to Dartmoor to investigate the transplant rumours, it was his first scoop. A good excuse to come back. He liked Canada, it had been his home, but he missed his favourite haunts, he missed his sister and he wanted something more.

He remembered the first letter he had sent her: 'Up here the men are men. And the women look like men. And the mosquitoes don't look like men, but they are as big.'

And the drawing of a 'Nylon' he sent the girls. He had sent them tiny moccasins one Christmas and they had demanded to know what kind of fur they were trimmed with so he drew an empty cardboard tube with eyes and ears and a nose and a fluffy tail and described the Nylon's nocturnal habits and nesting procedures. That all seemed a long time ago. Time now to go and join Tina and her family. How he envied Tina.

 

 

6

 

Christopher has arrived as he had said he would. Big bear hugs all round. The girls take to him, call him Uncle Chris, and follow him around. He doesn't seem to mind. Petra fetches the moccasins he sent one Christmas and which she has preserved in tissue paper together with his letter about the Nylon. Sula can't find hers.

When we go to the nearby Buckinghamshire airfield, we are joined by Iain's stockbroker second brother, John, and his fashion designer wife, Sarah, and their boys, Robert who is thirteen and Adair who is ten, who are both choristers. The butter wouldn't melt kind. I am especially fond of Adair. Red hair and freckles - naturally. Always singing - equally naturally. Unselfconsciously. Sarah has red hair but not naturally.

We come to this airfield occasionally, whenever they come out from London to visit, as we like to go round the museum. Not a patch on the London science museum which is closer to where they live but more intimate and more fun and we know all the exhibits and can watch the planes taking off and landing. All four children have been promised a glider flight for their 18th birthdays.

Christopher shows us the plane he has hired, a two-seater. Small. Fragile.

'Oh shit!' I say to myself, 'however, I've come this far and I truly, madly, deeply, want to go to Dartmoor. Anything he can do ...'

'Do planes have wing mirrors, Uncle Chris? Sula and Petra chorus.

Christopher is about to say 'no, but perhaps they should,' when he catches the glint in their eyes.

'Of course, he says, 'can't you see them? Look there and there.'

He points to places above each wing and the girls laugh and run off, chasing each other across the open field. It is left to the other adults to catch them and caution them yet again about how to behave on an airfield when planes might arrive without much warning.

I climb in awkwardly, not helped by the thick jacket he insists I must wear. It will be cold, he says. He is wearing an old-fashioned leather bomber jacket. 'Poser.' It has a rip in one sleeve. 'Poser.'

He does all the pre-flight checks. I watch.

'Why two fuel gauges?' I ask, more to distract myself from the perils of flight than out of real interest.

'One for each tank,' he says. 'There's a little switch between the seats. Before the first tank runs dry, I'll switch us over to the other. It helps us keep track of how much we've used. Make sure you don't knock it by mistake, Little Sis.'

'I'll do my best, Big Brother,' I say, thinking I might mean I'll do my best to knock it deliberately. Serve him right if I did. Serve him right for what, I am not sure. He is a man. Serve him right for being a man and for not having children and for what he said to me when we were five.

Taking off is exciting. A rush of speed and then we seem to be floating. I glance down and wave to Iain and the children. They are tiny dolls. Looking down is scary as I think the glass has been pushed aside in the window and the frame is below my waist. There seems to be a big empty space between me and the ground. I clutch my brother's arm. He grins. He explains we will now turn to the left. The world appears to tilt crazily but it is fine. He is sitting on the left of the plane. I am sitting on the right. I lean against his reassuring bulk and it is fine.

When we level up, I have an excellent view. I try to concentrate as he points out landmarks. Nothing is familiar and he says that is normal for a first flight. People and cars and trees look tiny and strange. You have to learn to perceive the world in a vertical direction, he says. Our ancestors never got higher than treetops, so it is not part of our genetic inheritance. He does not give a warning when it is time to turn right. The world tilts. My head swims and I feel sick. I am now in an extremely good position for falling out. I will not scream. I clutch his arm more tightly, acutely aware of his tangy male sweat and the faint leather aroma of the jacket and the tear in the sleeve. I can hear and smell and feel but I cannot see because my eyes are screwed tightly shut. I probably have an absolutely splendid view of the ground.

Gradually, however, as I survive a few more changes in direction, I manage to unwind and begin to enjoy myself. We have to shout above the engine, but I get used to this as Christopher points out more landmarks and explains the dials for altitude and suchlike.

'Want to take over?'

'What? I can't do that. I don't know how to fly.'

'Yes, you can. Hold your stick, like this, one hand each side.' He puts my hands in place and I can feel the vibration of the plane in my fingers. 'Now, look ahead and watch the altimeter.'

'At the same time?'

'Yes, at the same time. Like driving. Now, all you have to do is keep the plane level. Watch that dial there. I'll tell you when to turn.'

'Turn?' To my shame, I know I have squeaked. 'I can't turn.'

'Yes you can. Ready? Good. Now, I'm going to take my hands off my stick. See? There you are. You have control.'

I sense the plane shudder but nothing else seems to happen. We are flying along steadily. I grip the joystick so hard my knuckles stand out sharp and white. I look ahead. I look at the dials. I peek out to my right and down at the ground. I grip harder.

'Brilliant!' my brother says. 'How do you feel?'

'Not sure,' I say, unable to control the wobble in my voice.

'You're doing fine,' he says, 'now, rotate the stick a little to the left.'

To the left, I think, that's all right then. I won't fall out yet. I turn the joystick slightly. The plane lurches.

'Steady, now, bring the stick back up to the center. Good. See? You're flying.'

Like a swan. I'm a swan.

Christopher lets me fly; teaching me to control the plane from left to right by tipping the wings, and up and down, in small manageable amounts. He takes over again when he says it is time to go higher and keep to his schedule. He talks me through the altitude readings until we are above the clouds.

'When people ask me what the weather has been like,' he jokes, 'I can tell them fine and sunny. Always is up here above the clouds. We'll go down again in plenty of time to have a good recce.'

'Do you wish we had known our mother?' I say. 'We never talked about her when we were children, did we?'

'Dad never mentioned her. Want some lunch yet?'

And you don't want to talk about her now, I say to myself, as I reach back to get the bags of food, squashed in behind the seats. I hand Christopher a mangled chicken leg.

Mangled. Is that what I looked like after they pulled me out?

'Sorry,' I say, 'couldn't get the bag out without twisting it.'

'Okay, Sis. No problema. Probably from one of the transplant chickens. You know, the ones with four legs? Is it a front leg or a back leg, do you suppose? Difficult to tell in this condition.'

'Is that what they do at this secret research centre you want to find?'

'Could be. That and grow wings on the backs of rabbits. Or swap heads.'

'Is that possible?'

'Some of it, yes. There are lots of stories.'

'What about swapping heads, though? They can't, can they?'

'Probably not, Little Sis, too difficult to swap the nervous system. Be thrilling though.'

'What? Swapping?'

'Yeah, why not?'

'What would it be like,' I say, 'to swap with someone? What would it be like if you and I swapped? I could have your body. What if I were six foot two, instead of five foot three? What if I had your big hands and hairy chest? And no breasts? That would be fun.' That would serve him right,' I add to myself.

'I would have your body, Little Sis. Fun indeed. I wouldn't mind swapping. I'd like that. I'd love your life, wearing slinky silk underwear, having breasts, being married, having children, no pressure to go to work, no need to prove myself. But you don't like your body do you?'

I look at him but don't answer. Slinky underwear? Really? I do not know him at all.

I don't tell him it isn't my body I don't like. My breasts are fine. I am hoping this visit to Dartmoor, seeing all the places where we played together as children, will help me to sort myself out and decide what I would like to do with my life. Combine art and family properly. Start again, somehow.

'Body swaps,' Christopher is saying, 'are science fiction. It will be enough for me to get evidence of illegal experiments and cruelty to animals. We're going down a bit now. Watch out for gothic buildings.'

As we descend below the clouds we can see the whole of Dartmoor. Dark vertical lines between cloud and ground in the far distance indicate heavy rain but Christopher estimates it is not coming in our direction and the brewing storm is a long way off yet and we will have time to explore that area and get to the aerodrome before it hits.

'Look, there, Topher, the tors. Is the water over there Burritor reservoir? I'd love to land and go walking.'

'No walking today. We need to locate some of the gothic buildings and put them on the chart. I've arranged for us to land at Roborough Aerodrome and we'll explore tomorrow.'

As we circle above the moors, I spread the chart out on my lap and Christopher points out all the different landmarks. There are several dark buildings, including the prison at Princetown, clearly recognisable from the air. I put marks on the chart for buildings where Christopher indicates. We go low enough for me to spot the bridges I had known as a child: Post Bridge, which is an old clapper bridge; Two Bridges with the hotel. Walkers look up and wave. I wave back.

'Is that river below us where we used to go swimming?'

'Don't know. I don't think I went swimming with you, Sis, you must have gone there with Iain. Oh shit!'

'What's that funny noise, Toph?'

'It's the wind. Haven't you noticed there's no engine noise?'

'The engine?'

'Has died. Not possible. I don't believe this. We're out of gas. I must have miscalculated.'

'Will we crash?'

'No, of course not. No problema. Perfectly safe. Forced landing, not crash landing. Done it before. We do it deliberately during training by switching off the fuel and gliding down. It won't feel any different than with the engine. We'll be fine. See those trees ahead? We'll aim for the level field beyond the dry-stone wall up ahead, not far from those buildings. Make sure your belt is nice and tight. Might be a bit bumpy. You okay?'

'I'm OK.' I can barely get the words out.

'See? We're safely past the trees, and look over there, there's someone running. Must have spotted us. Okay one more dry-stone wall.'

The ground is rushing towards me. I catch a glimpse of two huge male Doberman guard dogs before I shut my eyes and hold on tight to Christopher's arm with both hands.

'Shit!' I hear my brother say. 'Where did those sheep come from?'