The Path From Tree Hill (5/5)
Continued from Part 4: The Path From Tree Hill (4/5) | ABCtales
‘I should have asked you,’ said Lena, returning with the replenished tray, ‘did you want to watch some television? Mummy used to like having the television on Christmas Day, as she got older.’
‘Only if you do,’ I said.
‘Perhaps we’ll leave it then,’ she said. ‘These days it’s no problem, is it? Everything’s on catch-up. I don’t do the Netflix thing though, do you?’
‘Yes, I do, as a matter of fact.’
I sat back down in the armchair and she handed me my coffee. ‘I suppose it’s good to have something to pass the time, in London. It’s not as though you can get out for a good walk, is it? Unless you’re near one of the lovely parks. I don’t think you are, are you?’
‘Not really,’ I said.
‘That’s the thing about California, isn’t it? Nobody walks there, so I’ve heard. They drive everywhere. Is that right? Oh, I suppose you wouldn’t know either.’
I put my coffee down on the side table. ‘So, are you thinking of selling up?’
She resumed her place on the Chesterfield. ‘Yes, I am, to be honest. It is a lot of work, and I’m not sure I can be bothered with it all any more.’
‘Where would you go?’
‘Well,’ she said, ‘There’s a couple of nice little cottages up for sale in the village. I might have one of those.’
‘That sounds good,’ I said.
She regarded me thoughtfully for a few moments. ‘Or I might go somewhere else entirely. The thing is, living here isn’t the same now. Not now that I know.’ She picked up her coffee, and the chink of cup against saucer echoed in the room. Outside, rain began to patter softly against the French windows.
‘I suppose,’ Lena said, ‘I always felt a bit like Mummy and a bit like Daddy. The Manor was a link with Kit, and I wanted to know. I wanted to have some inkling why he did it. It ripped our family apart, you know. It destroyed Mummy and Daddy. And why would Kit do that? Why would he even contemplate doing that?’
I looked out at the rain.
‘It destroyed my life too,’ she said quietly. ‘Because I was all that was left. I was all the eggs in the one basket. The only one there to take care of everybody in the end.’
‘It can feel like that,’ I said.
She put her cup down and leaned forward. ‘But you’d always been an only child, Jill. I wasn’t used to it. I didn’t know how to handle it. I wasn’t meant to be an only. It was like an amputation. I mean, the pain, Jill, the pain, and it never got better. It got worse and worse, as we watched other people growing up, doing all those things Kit would never do.’
Drops streamed down the glass panes.
‘We didn’t just lose the future,’ she said. ‘We lost the past. The memories. The Christmases when we thought he was happy, but he wasn’t. He was so unhappy, he didn’t even know how to tell us. And we never knew why.’
The rain hissed against the window. ‘And now you do?’
‘He told Maisie Leatherwick.’ Lena clasped her hands together. ‘He made her promise never to tell anyone. And she never did, because she thought it would only make things worse for us. Sometimes, she said, she even managed to convince herself it wasn’t true, she’d misunderstood it or perhaps imagined the whole thing, although God knows why anyone would imagine something like that. But I mentioned you, when she came here that day. I said maybe I would make more of an effort to keep in touch with you, now we were the only ones left. And then she told me what he’d told her.’
I thought how calm she was, as if she’d rehearsed this many times, and knew exactly what she would say. It was completely controlled, like a recitation. ‘He told her that it only ever happened at Christmas, because of course there was so much else going on then. So many distractions. No-one noticed anything. The adults never had time to wonder why he didn’t eat much. They just thought it was sweet that he insisted on including me in everything you and he did, keeping me with him everywhere you and he went, as far as was possible. Anyway, who would ever have believed him? His girl cousin. What boy couldn’t stand up to his girl cousin?’
I took a sip of my coffee. ‘You’re saying I did something that made Kit kill himself?’
‘I know he couldn’t have stood up to you, because neither of us ever could. You were a monster. You were mean, and cruel, and if we ever said anything to Mummy or Daddy they would say we had to make allowances because you were an only child and yes, there were two of us and only one of you. Of course they’d never have believed what Kit told Maisie Leatherwick. They would not have thought such a thing possible.’
I put the coffee cup down. ‘Lena, is this some weird variation on Charades? Guess the delusion, perhaps?’
She looked at me intently. ‘I often wondered why your husband suddenly took your girls so far away. Even more, I wondered why you never made any attempt to get them back. Did he have proof you were a monster, or did he just suspect?’
‘You’ve been living here too long, Lena, with all these ghosts. It’s turned your mind.’
‘We were children, Jill.’ She gave me an almost pleading look. ‘I thought, I still think, that I could forgive the child. If you said you regret it. If you said you feel pain over what happened. If I could believe you’re no longer that person and your husband took your girls because he’s a bastard. We’re the only ones left, and I just wanted to give you that chance.’
I looked at the old photograph of us all by the Christmas tree, with the same baubles, the same tinsel, those three cardboard ornaments made by her, Kit and me. ‘Why? If you really believe I’m responsible for what happened to Kit, why would you want to forgive me?’ I held up the photograph. ‘It’s for this, isn’t it? This is what you’re trying to rescue. The happy days. All of us laughing at the brilliance of your brother, a boy so desperate for attention he had to turn a game of Charades into a vaudeville act. Oh Lena, my father didn’t spill his drink because of Kit. He spilled it for the same reason he always spilled drinks, because he was drunk. He was perpetually drunk. Don’t you remember? And no-one noticed if Kit ate anything at lunch because everyone was so terrified Aunt Stella would have one of her episodes and start going on about what a swine Uncle Robert was, or Grandpa would start dribbling and wet himself and use grossly inappropriate language in front of the children. Don’t you remember? Don’t you remember your father comforting Aunt Stella? Don’t you remember that?’
There it was, in her eyes. That engagingly familiar, frozen, uncertainty.
‘Your little fantasy never existed, Lena. You and Kit in a world of snow and make-believe and Charades and home-made decorations and Christmas Eve stew, perfect except for me. Where your brother would have been completely safe and happy, if not for me. But most of the time when we were playing Robin Hood or whatever it was on that hill, we’d been sent out there to give the adults time to reset. Time to shout whatever it was they wanted to shout at each other, to try and clear the air of resentment before we came back in. Don’t you remember?’
She said, ‘You are still a monster. You don’t even deny what you did to him.’
‘What I did to him? Your parents sent him away to that bloody school. Ever thought that might have had something to do with it? I expect whatever I’m supposed to have done was amateur hour compared to that.’
Ah, the little sparkle in those eyes, the struggle to contain the tears.
I sat back in the armchair. ‘As for my daughters, their father wanted to go to America and I didn’t. He was a bastard to me, but as far as I know he treated them well enough. They were the price of my freedom. I’ve never regretted it.’
Quietly she said, ‘Have you ever regretted anything?’
I looked round at her carefully created memorial. ‘Losing this, I suppose. Our childhood Christmases. I mean, the real ones. The truth of them, not the pretty layers of tinsel and the endless bloody games of Charades.’
And now the uncertainty edging its way to something more raw. Something she’d almost forgotten. Something I’d thought lost to me.
I sighed. ‘Oh, Lena. Did you think the echoes of Christmas past would make me gibber with guilt and beg forgiveness?’ I leaned towards her and she flinched, just as she used to when she was six or seven and I was nine or ten. ‘You’re the one calling up ghosts, Lena. You wanted to follow the path to Tree Hill. Did you think we’d bring Kit back with us? That we’d find the footprints going down?’
The tears were flowing now.
I studied her face. ‘Those little dimples. So cute the way they crinkle up, whether you’re laughing or crying.’
She managed to say, ‘Get out.’
‘It’s a bit late for that now. You invited me back in. After all these years, you let me back in. I may get on that train to London, but I’ll always be here. In fact, I expect you’ll take me with you, wherever you go. I may be wrinkled, and not so sprightly on my pins, but some things never change.’ I leaned forward again and put my face close to hers. ‘You’re still frightened of me.’
‘Why should I be frightened of you?’ Trying so hard to be brave.
‘I hold the key to your world. Maybe I’m the answer to why your brother condemned you and your parents to a life of agony. Or maybe Maisie Leatherwick is wrong, or mad, or your attention seeking brother told her a load of lies for his own purposes. Maybe I’m a monster, or maybe I’m just a bitter and rather unloveable old woman. Those things matter to you, Lena, but none of them matters at all to me.’ I smiled. ‘I should thank you, though. It’s a long time since I felt I held the key to anything. I’d forgotten how exhilarating it is.’
She looked at me, in fear, and bewilderment, just as I remembered. And then she looked towards the window, and the path to Tree Hill.
Just as he had.