How do you help someone who is grieving, when you are grieving yourself?
After the death of her mother, ten-year-old Imogen Hearne moves from London with her older sister, Rosalind, and her father to Farleigh, a rural village in North Devon where her father’s family has deep roots. Her father hides his grief by burying himself in his work at the university, while Rosalind vents her anguish by acting up and running off with friends — leaving Immy to fend for herself.
To pass the time, Immy decides to take after her father and become an anthropologist, studying the different ways that people manage grief. As she wanders through the village and the countryside to study the locals, she watches, listens, and makes notes, looking for clues she can use to bring her fractured family back together again.
This moving prequel to The Revolving Year is a welcome reunion with familiar and much-loved characters and places.
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“Vanessa Furse Jackson has written a story that is genuine, nostalgic, funny and poignant. As Immy walks the line between childhood and adulthood, we see village life unfold through her eyes. The patchwork quilt of Immy’s collected observations becomes a source of entertainment, wisdom, and comfort. I felt like I was there, spending the summer in the English countryside with her.” — Val Muller, author, The Scarred Letter and The Girl Who Flew Away
“An achingly poignant glimpse into a young girl’s search for her place in the world, whose anthropological study of the people around her becomes an unexpected excavation of her own motherless family. Vanessa Furse Jackson vividly and deftly pits the adolescent yearnings for self-assurance and independence against the strength of enduring love that binds families together.” — Jennifer Leeper, author, Padre: The Narrowing Path
Tina filled the whole of her back door space, her poofed hair shining bright as gold foil in the sun. “You run out of milk again?” Tina had very round eyes, and she made them look like big pennies of astonishment as she said this.
I smiled at her, and the pennies collapsed into her fat eyelids. “Dad told me to ask nicely,” I said, trying not to look at her enormous bosoms. Tina was one of my best friends in the village.
“You’re a card, you are,” she said. “Your dad’s not at home. I saw him leaving in that old Ford Anglia of his.” She stressed the old. Her shiny red Datsun was an ‘M’ registration, new last year. Though last year—1973—already seemed ages long ago to me.
“I meant to buy an extra pint yesterday,” I said.
“Where’s that sister of yours, then?” she asked. “That Ros. I haven’t seen her for a while. You all on your own then, Immy, love?”
Immy is short for Imogen. Ros is short for Rosalind. Mum was keen on Shakespeare. Before she met Dad, she wrote a thesis on the darkening of the Shakespearian imagination. All my life, I have associated the word thesis with a giant shadow, looming up walls and across ceilings.
“Not on my own exactly,” I said to Tina. I hated lying to her, but I didn’t want her to think that Dad had done anything wrong in going out. Sometimes, he just had to get away.
“You poor lamb.”
“I just wanted to have tea ready for Dad when he gets home,” I said. “But I forgot the shop’s shut on Saturday afternoons.”
“You in charge of the shopping, then, are you, lovey?”
I was, kind of. I mean, Dad would sometimes bring home weird stuff like duck eggs or salmon or Jerusalem artichokes. People gave things to him at the university in Exeter where he worked. I think they felt sorry for him because of Mum. Dad was a cultural anthropologist. Before I was born, he used to spend months doing fieldwork in the Mixteca Alta in Oaxaca, Mexico. Ros once went with him and Mum, and she used to tell me stories about the people and the food. I couldn’t remember when he’d last been there. He just went to Exeter now.
I looked at Tina, a little troubled. Was she cross with me? I didn’t like to tell her that Dad hated going to the village shop to buy our everyday things. He said the women in there never stopped yakking. So to begin with, Ros was in charge. But she was a born space cadet, not to mention always on the bathroom scales, writing her weight down in the little diary she kept in her underwear drawer. Sometimes, when I mentioned food—or the lack of it—she could actually make herself go pale and have to run for the loo. And she wasn’t here at the moment anyhow.
“Cat got your tongue?” Tina asked. But her eyes disappeared in a smile as she said it, so I knew she wasn’t cross after all.
“I didn’t want Dad to have to worry,” I said, relieved.
“Come on in, then, lovey,” she said. “I’ll find you some milk. And we can look at my wallabies, if you like.”
Dart Cottage, where we’d lived since moving to Farleigh in March, was a real cottage with thick cob walls that had little footsteps scurrying up and down inside them at night. I’d lie in bed and imagine that Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice were living there with us. The cottage didn’t have roses growing up it or a thatched roof or anything, and the garden was mostly down to long grass, nettles and dock leaves, but the stairs were steep, the upstairs floors creaked, and from the street you could see that the windows had all been cut crooked into the walls. So cottage seemed the right word for it in a way that it didn’t for Tina’s.
Tina’s house was next door to ours and was the only new house in this bit of the village. Her last husband had built it for her before he died. It was a bungalow with concrete steps up to the front door, a flat red-brick face, and a matching garage where Tina kept her Datsun Cherry. We didn’t have a garage, and Dad had to keep the scruffy white Anglia outside in Fore Street, the main village street. Unlike our house, though, Tina’s had roses growing up it so rampant that in June—which was right now—the postman had to go around to the back to deliver the letters. It had riots of flowers in the little piece of garden at the front, and in the back garden were vegetables and herbs and apple trees and sheds and bits of greenhouse all so close together that the weeds, so Tina said, had long since turned tail and fled for the fields beyond.
I followed her across the red-tiled floor of her bright little kitchen, feeling both thankful and a little guilty. There was still half a pint of milk in our fridge, truth to tell, which would have done for tea, even if it wouldn’t quite have got us to Monday. I wondered if she guessed that I’d knocked on her door in the hopes of being invited in. It was almost the summer holidays, and my bedroom felt like a cage.
We went into the shag-piled comfort of her living room, which had become one of my new best places in the world. It had a real chandelier hanging from its ceiling, every dangly bit of which Tina polished once a month. And it had pictures, mirrors, curvy brass lamps, and little shelves pinned like bats to every wall. Some shelves held clustered gangs of wallabies. Others had her collection of baby shoes carefully arranged in little empty pairs. In the corner next to the window was a big TV in a wooden cabinet with doors that shut, on which we sometimes watched Crossroads. Tina loved the show. She had never missed one single episode of it, ever. Her chairs and sofa—what she called the suite—had white lace mats like table mats draped over their tops and were covered in hard maroon material the same as the local bus seats.
“Look,” she said, turning to me. “What d’you think?”
I looked at her. I couldn’t quite make out her face against the creamy light coming through her net curtains.
“What? Think of what?” I hated questions I didn’t know the answer to. Especially when grownups asked them, my world always tipped sideways for a moment, as if it’d come off its stand.
I caught the shiny glint of a round eye as her head nodded downwards. I followed the nod and saw, in the V-neck of her blouse, a small furry head embedded, its snout just poking out enough to breathe. Tina always wore blouses that showed the crack between her immense bosoms, of which, I have to say, I was truly in awe.
“Wally!” I said. The little, soft toy wallaby I’d always loved the best of her collection.
“In my pouch. What d’you think?” The bosoms began jiggling around Wally’s small head as she shook with sudden laughter and he bounced in helpless mirth. My world steadied, and the afternoon opened up like a big tent.
Tina moved away from the window, Wally still riding snugly in his pouch, and went over to the big bookcase where, instead of books, all the wallabies that hadn’t spilled over onto the bat-shelves were arrayed. Her face had become bright again, and her upper plate with the pale pink plastic gums gleamed in her mouth like the Colgate ring of confidence. “Spot the new addition?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she took down a small china wallaby with a titchy joey in her pouch and handed it to me.
“Where’s that sister of yours, then, lovey?” she asked again.
I cupped my palm carefully around the delicate china animal.
“Gone out carousing and left you all alone, has she?” Tina said. Her voice sounded teasing, but I knew she expected an answer.
“She’s staying with Carly in Clapham,” I said, stroking the wallaby. It felt warm in my hands, the round hindquarters smooth against my fingers, the little head of the baby a sharp bump to be tender with. “Did Louise send her?” I asked.
Louise had been a pen-friend of Tina’s for over thirty years. She lived in Australia—in Sydney—and had a shop called Kanga-Lou’s, which was where most of Tina’s collection had come from.
“She did. Arrived this morning, snug as a bug in a rug. That Lou knows her business, I’ll say that for her. Never had an accident. Not so much as a chip. Who’s Carly?”
Sensing her eyes on me, I glanced up at Tina and then down at the wallaby again. “Carly Brown. Ros’s best friend. Ros has gone to stay with her because she has a nice mother.” Mrs. Brown was one of the grownups in our block of flats in Clapham who used to give me tea when I got home from school. When Mum was so ill. I didn’t really want to think of Clapham or of the Browns. “What are you going to call her?” I asked Tina.
“Your new wallaby.”
“And him,” I said, touching the titchy head.
“How d’you know it’s not a little girl joey?”
“He just looks like a boy.” And even though he was so tiny, he looked like his mother, the two heads identically prick-eared and mouse-snouted, making my heart ache with a quick love for them. “Oh, I wish I had a baby like that,” I said. “I mean to have in my pouch—to hold—to look after.” I didn’t quite know what I meant.
There was a sudden pause that seemed to fill the room with an awful silence. I thought Tina must be thinking how stupid I was. Avoiding her eyes, I put the wallaby gently back on the shelf and then pretended to examine the others, one by one.
“A baby’d be nice, wouldn’t it, lovey?” Tina said finally. She cleared her throat, and her voice got brisker. “So what shall we call her then? The mum?” She moved past me and plumped herself down on the maroon sofa, picking up a copy of Woman’s Own to fan herself with.
We. I liked that. I forgot about feeling silly and looked back at the mother wallaby. I thought of all the Shakespearian names Mum had taught me. “How about Jessica?” I suggested.
Tina wiped a moustache of sweat off her upper lip and lifted the golden hair from the back of her neck. “Jessica and her Joey,” she said. “That’d do nicely, lovey. Well, then.”
I said a mute goodbye to the newly christened pair, then turned around and smiled at Tina, grateful for her easy acceptance.
She was sitting with her skirt rucked up over her knees and her big legs well apart, still fanning herself, Wally staring out contentedly from the bosoms. I don’t think she remembered he was still there, though. Her eyes weren’t on me, and she didn’t smile back. She was gazing at her sideboard, which was crowded with photographs, and she remained silent for a long moment. Then she said quietly, “My mother-in-law was called Jessie.”
“She was?” I asked cautiously. I’d learned to be wary when enquiring how dead people made grownups feel.
Tina had been married four times. Her whole name was Tina Husbands because the last man she married, the one who’d built the bungalow, had been called Walter Husbands. But it was also a good joke, about which she shook like a jelly with laughter whenever people encouraged her to find another to add to her collection. In the end, though, I realized that to be called Mrs. Husbands when the one you loved had died wasn’t very funny.
“My Walter’s mum,” Tina said. “Photo in the middle with the gold frame. That’s her with the baby on her knee, see? The little boy with dark hair.”
I went over to the sideboard. There seemed to be lots of photos of babies and tiny girls with fair curly hair. I looked around and finally found a gold-framed picture of a thin woman with a little dark-haired boy on her lap. “This one?”
“That’s her. And that’s my Walt. Darling, isn’t he? Not surprising I fell for such a beautiful feller, is it?”
Into my mind came a vision of Tina in a great white sail of a dress, scudding up the aisle of a church hand-in-hand with the little boy in the photo.
“She was a lovely woman, my ma-in-law. A saint, she was, really.”
I pictured the thin woman sitting in the church with a golden halo around her head.
“And then she died.” The picture vanished. “Like all the best loved in my life.” Tina gave an immense sigh. “I’m not a lucky woman.”
I walked over and stood in front of her. “How did she die?” I asked her.
She looked at me sadly out of her round eyes. “Dropped down dead as a doornail in Marks and Spencer,” she said.
I gasped. “Just like that?”
“Just like that. Gone into Barnstaple on the bus. Heart attack. Wouldn’t credit it, would you?”
“My mum was ill on and off ever since I can remember,” I said. “For ages before she died anyway.” I didn’t want to imagine that someone could die in—what?—a couple of seconds? It was a terrifying thought. And there was Dad, out driving who knew where…
“Walt took three years,” Tina said. “But it was still a shock when he went. You’re never prepared, are you?”
“You can die just like that?” I said, my mind shying away from Dad and fixing back onto the thin angel with the baby on her lap.
“Here, what am I thinking?” Tina said. “Wally don’t want to hear that kind of talk, do you, Wally, love?” Tenderly, she drew the stuffed wallaby from between her bosoms and handed him to me. He was warm, and his fur felt faintly damp, so that in my hands he seemed as if he might be alive. I stroked his head.
Tina heaved herself up from the maroon sofa with a loud groan, waving me out of her way with Woman’s Own. “Let’s have a fizzy lime,” she said. “Nothing to take the doldrums out of a day like a fizzy lime. With lots of ice. Come on, Immy girl.”
In the kitchen that always seemed, like her blouses, one size too small for her, Tina opened her fridge and took out a tray of ice from the little freezer compartment at the top. All she kept in there was ice—several trays of it. We never had any ice in our fridge. She took down two tall glasses and half-filled them with ice cubes. She splashed in generous portions of lime cordial. Then, very carefully, a bit at a time, she squirted in soda from the siphon she kept with her whisky by the toaster. “Sit down, do, lovey,” she said.
I sat on one side of the speckled, Formica-topped table, and Tina sat at the other. Wally sat on the table at the end where Mr. Husbands might have sat if he’d still been alive.
Tina handed me my glass. “What’s that sister of yours doing in London, then?” she asked. “Living it up in the bright city lights?”
“She’s taking her ‘O’ levels,” I said. “She should have taken them last year, but Mum was ill at home, and everything was too upset.” I closed my eyes against the memory and took my first sip of the cold green drink. The bubbles tingled and hissed on the roof of my mouth, and the lime taste crept deliciously over the back of my throat.
“‘O’ levels, eh?” Tina took several gulps of her lime then picked out an ice cube and, with her eyes shut, ran it over her wide red forehead and down the side of her face. “Poor little bugger. I always hated exams.”
“She couldn’t take them down here,” I said. “They have a different… I’m not sure exactly… something to do with a board. So Dad had to let her go back to where we lived in Clapham. He didn’t want to.”
“Can’t keep an eye on her up in London,” Tina said, popping the melting ice cube into her mouth and crunching down on it with the even white teeth. “Ouch. Should remember not to do that.” She rubbed a finger along the top of her own gums, above the pink plastic of her dental plate.
“Carly’s dad went and married a Greek lady he met on holiday,” I told her. “So Mrs. Brown goes out dancing and to the cinema and things. She’s fun. Dad doesn’t really approve of her or of Carly, though he doesn’t quite say so to Ros. But she knows.”
“Do you like her? This Carly, I mean?”
“She’s okay.” I didn’t know her. She was too old to have anything to do with me. I mean, I’d only just turned ten, and she and Ros were sixteen. But she was very pretty. “She has long red hair and white boots,” I told Tina. “And her older brother is best friends with Trey Campbell, who Ros likes. That’s why she wanted to stay with Carly, as well as Carly’s mum being so kind.”
“Oho,” Tina said, watching me over the rim of her glass. “Go on. Tell me all.”
But I didn’t have anything else to tell her. I thought I probably shouldn’t have said as much as I had. I put my tongue into my glass and let the bubbles pop against it, then took a sip of ambrosial lime.
“Taking ‘O’ levels with Carly and the mysterious Trey would make any dad anxious, I shouldn’t wonder,” Tina said, gulping some more of her drink.
“He’s not mysterious, just Canadian,” I said. “Wally is much nicer.” I leaned to my left to stroke the fur on the top of his head.
“Wally’s the best,” Tina said. She gave a small belch. “’Scusez-moi.”
I looked at her, huge and hot, her wooden kitchen chair completely disappeared beneath her. “You’re the best, too,” I said. “I think there’s probably not anyone like you anywhere.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I think. You want some mint in your lime? Go and get us a couple of bits, why don’t you?” She picked out another ice cube and, with her eyes shut, held it gently against the lines between her eyebrows.
I got down from my chair and went out of the open back door into the sunlit rampage of the long back garden. Tina had taught me thyme, rosemary, parsley, and mint, though she grew several kinds and you had to be careful to smell first. I found the right one and nipped off two sprigs. Squatting down there with the herbs above my head, breathing in the scent of mint leaves with the sound of droning bees somewhere near, I felt suddenly happy. Safe. I shut my eyes and let the bees grow louder in my ears.
“What are you doing out there, Miss Dozy? Not been snatched away by the fairies, I hope.”
I stood up reluctantly, the sunlight dipping and buzzing around me. I could see, through Tina’s neatly cut hedge, the ragged grass in our back garden that was even growing up through the slats in the wooden seat outside our back door. I looked away. Just for a moment, I tried to make myself believe that Tina’s garden was ours. That we lived here with her, that I had weeded and dug and planted the ordered herbs around me.
“Might’ve died waiting,” Tina said in her comfortable way, as I ducked back into the fuzzy light of the little kitchen and sat down again at the table. She took a sprig from my hand and rubbed it between the wide pads of her fingers. The kitchen filled with minty air.
I felt sorry for the drooping, mangled leaves, as she pushed them under the remaining ice cubes in her glass. I wished for a moment that I’d left the mint alive out in the sunshine of the bee-loud herb bed. I eased the cut end of my sprig down into the green liquid in my glass, so that it looked like a flower growing from a magic spring.
Tina took a great swallow, then nodded at my glass. “Poke it down, go on,” she said. “Then tell me that isn’t the best thing you ever tasted.”
I gently squeezed a leaf of my mint then, looking over at Wally and the little smile of black wool that curved around his nose, I pushed the sprig beneath the ice in my glass.
“This Trey, then. He’s your sister’s boyfriend?” Tina asked. She didn’t let go of things. I knew that about her really, though sometimes I forgot.
“Yes,” I said, as if I was sure, which I wasn’t. Ros didn’t tell me stuff anymore. I shut my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at the poor drowned sprig, and I drank. The lime was one taste, but the mint lingering behind it was many. I drew the layers up the back of my throat and into my nose, trying to see if I could separate them.
Reluctantly, I squinted open my eyes. “He’s only in England for a year. His dad’s doing something at a place called the London School of Economics, so he brought his family with him. Would you teach me to grow herbs? I could make a bed in our back garden for them.”
“You can come and pick any you want, anytime,” Tina said, absently. She gave me a concerned sort of look. “So if Rosalind’s in London with her paramour, and your dad’s gone out driving in the Anglia, you were all alone in the cottage, weren’t you, lovey?”
I bent my head to the minted lime. “He’s only popped out for half an hour,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
Tina looked at a clock on the kitchen wall. “Half an hour, eh?” she said.
“He needs to drive sometimes,” I told her. “It’s all right, honestly.” It was all right, even though I always worried about him when he was gone. Half an hour could mean two or three hours when he started driving and forgot where he was going, and I knew that all the time he’d be thinking about Mum and not really looking at the road properly. But sometimes he got so sad he just couldn’t stay in the cottage for a moment longer. He had to go—he couldn’t help it. I looked at Tina, willing her to understand.
She looked back at me out of her round eyes. They were the palest golden-green, like sweet gooseberries, and when she looked right at you, you could almost imagine you saw the seeds shining through them. “Having a bad day, is he?” she asked, sympathetically.
I hated talking about Dad—about any of us—feeling sad. I forced my worry about him to go to the back of my mind. “Can I have a bit more lime in this?” I asked.
Tina gathered up both our glasses, swiveled her chair with an ear-wrenching screech on the red-tiled floor, and refilled them with ice, lime and soda without actually getting up, which I thought was pretty clever. She swiveled back, dumped the glasses on the table, and motioned me to drink. I could tell she was looking for another way into the same subject, so I asked the first question that came into my head.
“Are you going to get married again?”
She coughed in the middle of a mouthful, and a dollop of lime fell with a splosh onto the top shelf of her chest. She wiped at it without looking, spreading the damp bit all over one of the blouse-covered bosoms. I could see a lacy imprint coming up through the wet like a brass rubbing. Instantly, Dad came into the very front of my mind again. I couldn’t help it. He used to take me to a church near the Tower of London where you could learn brass rubbing. It was something we did together, just him and me. In one of those moments of shock that still sometimes leapt on me like a lion, I realized that I’d probably never go there with him again. I swallowed hard.
“You got someone in mind?” Tina said when she’d stopped coughing.
“Someone?” I said vaguely, through the lump in my throat.
“In mind for me to marry?”
“Mr. Husbands was the fourth, wasn’t he?” I asked, trying to concentrate on her wide red cheeks and watering eyes. Trying not to see Dad’s face there instead, ordinary and smiling like it used to be.
“Fourth and only proper one,” she said. “The first three were rubbish. I don’t count them anymore.” She ticked them off on her big hands. “Tony, who was a two-year wonder because the stupid bugger put one up the spout when we were both seventeen, but had no balls when grief came to call. Mick, who lasted three years before he found his own seventeen-year-old to get pregnant. Larry the rebound, the bastard. And Walter.” She smiled into her glass as she said Walter’s name, and her voice went soft. “My Walt.”
I cleared my throat. “Walter—Mr. Husbands—he was a good husband?” I said.
“Walt was like his mum—one of the best.” She drank deeply and belched again. “Nothing but gas, that soda,” she said.
“So you’ll never…” I began.
“Who says I’ll never?” she said, quick as a flash. “Would Walt want me to repine here on my own? Would he, heck! Walt knew how to live, even after the doctors told us.”
“Told you what?”
“Doom and gloom. All that.” Tina reached down between the wet and the dry bosoms and pulled out a surprising mauve hanky. I glanced at Wally. Had he been nested on it all that time? She trumpeted into it so loudly that I thought for a moment it was a joke nose-blowing, like comedians do on the telly to show you they aren’t really crying. Then I saw the red lines around her eyelids.
“Are you all right?” I asked nervously. I hoped she wouldn’t say she wasn’t. It might make me cry, and I was trying really hard not to.
She gave a small sniff. “See my hair?” she said, tucking the hanky back into the depths again.
“My hair.” She put both hands up and fluffed out the great mass of back-combed curls that sprung out in a flossy halo around her head.
“You have gold hair,” I said, not sure what she was getting at. “It’s lovely.” I wasn’t sure if it was or not. I’d never quite been able to make up my mind.
“It’s gold from grief.” Tina put her brilliant head back and laughed till the tears reddened her eyes again.
I liked hearing her laugh. I took a couple of swallows of my fizzy lime and mint to encourage her to continue.
“Oscar Wilde, that is. We did the play with the Mothers’ Union,” she said. “Oh, about three years before Walt passed on. Did it in the village hall one Christmas. What a smash hit it was, too. Just a gorgeous production. Never get anything as good as that now. Not since Vicar’s been given another church to look after. Shame, really.”
“What play?” I asked.
“‘Importance of Being Earnest.’ I played Lady Bracknell. Got all the best reviews, you’d be astonished.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” I said, truthfully. “I bet you were fantastic.”
“Well, I was,” Tina said. “Though I couldn’t recite but a smidge of it now. Cripes, it was a pill to learn. But…”—she paused impressively—“I never forgot the best line ever.”
I took up my cue. “What was that?”
She deepened her voice and put on an accent like the Queen’s. “‘Her hair has turned quite gold from grief’.” Tina looked at me and then fell about laughing again, the bosoms jostling like big joeys inside her blouse. “Quite gold from grief—how d’you like that, then?”
“How did it do that?” I asked. “Turn gold, I mean.”
“Golden Tomorrow, mine’s called. I do it on a Thursday night about every four or five weeks. You have to leave it in for ever such a long time to get it to fix properly.” She peered at me from her reddened eyes. “Hair dye, lovey. Fake. Fake youth. Antidote to grief, see?” She sighed, and her mouth went straight again.
I looked carefully at the hair. I could see now that it wasn’t natural. It looked a bit like doll’s hair, and I felt slow for not having noticed before. “Why from grief?” I asked.
“Well, you’ve got to do something, haven’t you? Can’t just sit around. Don’t tell me your sister doesn’t do the same thing. Highlights, anyway. Those long blonde curls of hers are too good to be true, or that’s what they’re saying around the village, anyhow.”
“Ros?” I said. “She doesn’t dye her hair. It’s like Dad’s. His was fairer than hers when he was a boy, so Mum said.” I always wished I’d known that fair-haired boy. Sometimes, I even imagined he was my friend, walking with me, all mine.
Tina looked at my dark hair, cut as short as I was allowed, so I didn’t have to mess too much with its silky, static-prone straightness. “Well, he was a little towhead, that’s true enough,” she said. “I
remember him staying down here at his grandpa’s place when we was all kids.”
“You do?” I asked. She’d known the fair-haired boy. I wanted to ask her about him, but I felt shy suddenly.
“Your mum’s hair was dark then, was it?” Tina asked.
“Like a long black veil,” I said, the words coming sweet as sugar into my mouth.
“’She visits my grave while the night winds wail’,” Tina sang in a clear high voice.
I looked at her, surprised. “Dad used to sing that, too. He was always saying her hair was like a long black veil. I don’t remember it very well.” I had only the haziest of memories of what it felt like to be inside that great fall of hair. Sometimes, I wasn’t even sure I remembered it at all. “They cut it off when she got ill,” I told Tina. I took a drink of lime and mint, letting the melting ice cubes splash up against my lips. “Sometimes she hardly had any. Sometimes it was short like mine.” I took Wally from off the end of the table and stuck his snout in my glass. It seemed unfair he shouldn’t get some. “He says it’s good,” I told Tina.
“He’d say anything, that Wally would.”
Wally smiled, and I remembered the milk I’d come for. I didn’t want Dad to find me not there when he got home, which I crossed my fingers would be very soon. I wanted him to be pleased with me. Not to be sad. To smile with his ordinary face.
Tina’s eyes were bright. “Walt said he’d never laughed so much. Never.”
“Tina, could you…?”
“Came to watch me all three nights. Laugh? I thought he’d have a heart attack right there and then in the front row.” She pulled out the mauve hanky and wiped her eyes. “And instead, oh dear, oh dear,” she said. And then, after a moment, “Yes, I could. I could get married again. If I could find another Walt. Another Mr. Husbands.” She gave a rather watery laugh.
“No, I meant, could you let me have some milk? Just till Monday?”
She looked at me, her round eyes bright with tears. “Course you can have some milk, Immy girl. Course you can. But you just knock on the door anytime you’re alone, you hear me? I know all about alone, lovey. All about it, believe me.”