Owl Song at Dawn
I was in the Honeysuckle Room, doling out extra bedding, the day Vincent Roper returned. The most familiar of details seem so important now: the barbershop band rehearsing in our lounge; the pale yellow of the blanket; the airing cupboard scents of lavender bags, copper pipes, that smell of warm wool like a pint of milk about to turn; the toll the task had taken on my back.
Perhaps I was getting too old for all this. Maybe Zenka had a point when she mithered me about leaving all the housework to her. But, as usual, she’d shown up to clean Sea View Lodge in stilettos and a miniskirt so I’d set her to work in the kitchen, out of sight of our guests.
I allowed myself a breather since the Honeysuckle Room afforded a magnificent view of Morecambe bay: the pigeon-grey sands stretching out for miles until they reached the charcoal waves; the sky the shade of smalls gone through the dark cycle by mistake.
When I spotted an elderly gentleman heading up our front path, I thought at first that he might be a Frenchman: something about the cut of his jacket, the loose coil of his scarf, the rectangular shape of his glasses. But the high polish of his cane and the way he bowed his head to the wind with an air in between defiance and defeat – these things were unmistakably English.
He paused for a long while, taking in Sea View Lodge, his hand on our front gate. Perhaps he’d noticed that our masonry could do with a lick of paint or that the gutters needed repairing.
When the man looked straight up at the Honeysuckle Room, a memory broke into my mind: a girl holding her sister above the waves, letting the water lap at the little one’s toes; the child’s elfin face all wonder as a wave-froth caught in her curls.
I froze, there at the window, Vincent Roper staring up at me, his blue eyes appearing even brighter now that his hair had turned white as a gull.
‘Steph!’ I called out. ‘Len!’ And then, shaking my head to rid myself of the memory, and trying to quell the panic in my voice, I added: ‘Would one of you come in here?’
Steph arrived at the doorway, panting – the mauve quilt for the Lilac Room folded across her chest. ‘Problem?’ she asked, her hand clenching and flexing as it always did when she was distracted or distressed.
‘I’m sorry, love,’ I said, as she gazed up at me – her face full of concern. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you.’
Len bounded into the room, just as our doorbell rang.
‘Would you tell our visitor that I’m not in?’
‘You are in, Maeve!’ she insisted.
‘Remember how we run through it in front of the mirror, my love?’ I said, trying to hide my panic.
Steph nodded and stood up tall. ‘Welcome to Sea View Lodge. How may I help you?’
‘That’s right, my love. Hop to it.’
Len beamed at her. ‘You are the best receptionist in the whole wide world!’
‘You are indeed, my dear,’ I put in. ‘If the gentleman asks to see me, you’re to tell him I’m out.’
‘Oh no, you’re not!’ she exclaimed, as if we were rehearsing for a panto.
‘Now’s no time for honesty,’ I snapped. Folk with Down’s syndrome – the term of choice nowadays – don’t tend to go in for white lies.
Len studied his reflection in the mirror, pulling up the sleeve of his garish Christmas jumper to reveal his flexed muscle. ‘I can carry the suitcases!’ he proclaimed. ‘I’m a fine figure of a man!’
‘You’re not to let the gentleman stick around, do you hear me? He’s not to darken the door.’
Steph’s chubby hand began clenching and flexing again, making me feel shabby for having snapped.
The doorbell rang for a second time. Vincent Roper had obviously become impatient in his old age.
‘You’d be doing me a good turn,’ I said, trying to sound calm, ‘if you’d tell him that I’m not to be disturbed.’
As Steph and Len toddled off, I had to sit down.
The barbershop band started up an impromptu rehearsal in our lounge, so I waited there in the Honeysuckle Room for what felt like an age, unable to make out a word from downstairs. I kept my eyes trained on our front path, jumping each time the tenor’s voice rang out the high notes in their rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. And I girded myself all the while for Vincent Roper’s knock on the bedroom door.
That memory crashed over me again: it was your elfin face that I saw, Edie – a face that, God forgive me, I’d managed to block out for some time. The suitcase out in the shed contained a photograph of me dangling you over the sea, capturing a time before you grew fearful of water. You looked about five in that picture but, judging from my height, we must have been at least ten.
When I saw Vincent Roper heading out of Sea View Lodge, his body braced against the storm, my own body seemed to collapse – sweat springing to my palms, my pulse rushing to my ears, a sigh escaping from my lungs – as if everything had held itself taut until I was sure that Vincent Roper had left Sea View Lodge once more.
Forgive me for showing up unannounced but, ever since I learnt of Frank’s death, you’ve been very much on my mind.
How wonderful to find Sea View Lodge still going strong and you still at the helm. I returned, I must admit, with some trepidation.
I’ve taken the liberty of booking in for a week. Steph has kindly allowed me to leave my case, although she tells me that check-in isn’t until four. I’ll head into town for a mosey around, and perhaps catch mass at St Mary’s. I’ll keep out of your way until early evening, but I look forward to seeing you later.
With all good wishes from your old friend,
The wind thrashed around my face and billowed through my coat, but I forced myself out of Sea View Lodge. Vincent Roper was only by the Alhambra. I’d catch up with him in no time.
The lead singer from Aspy Fella A Cappella followed me onto the doorstep. ‘Excuse me, Maeve,’ he said in that robotic voice of his. ‘Forgive me for keeping you.’
‘I’m sorry, my dear,’ I called over my shoulder as I made my way down the front path. ‘We’ll chat when I get back.’
Although Vincent Roper needed a stick, he was going great guns up Marine Road West. I couldn’t afford to lose track of him now. By the time I reached the promenade, he’d almost got to the bowling alley and he increased his lead with every step. Who would have guessed that he’d end up the fittest survivor of our class? My own strides must have been fuelled by fury because I wouldn’t usually have been capable of such unexpected exertion: I’d already climbed up and down the stairs like a yo-yo today, thirty-three steps each way, and hauled five quilts and seven blankets out of our airing cupboard.
Vincent Roper paused by the Midland Hotel, which was all trussed up with Christmas lights. On the odd occasions I left Sea View Lodge, I always passed by the Midland. But today an image of our outfits sneaked up on me: my ocean-blue dress and your peachy blouse; the silk underwear from Wood’s; that brooch studded with mermaid-coloured gems.
The memory powered my stampede until I got waylaid by the chap from the Coffee Pot, who was pushing a twin buggy along the prom. ‘Good morning, Miss Maloney,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to see you getting out and about.’
Unlike some of our neighbours, he was a decent sort, but I would have to give him short shrift: I was almost within shouting distance of Vincent Roper now.
‘I was going to pop in,’ the chap said, detaining me, ‘to introduce you to my granddaughters.’
He was beaming with such pride that I could hardly dash off without stopping for a moment to admire the babies. His daughter, so I’d heard, had been trying for years. Before I peered into the pram, I stole another glance up the promenade. Vincent Roper had paused by the Midland Hotel.
‘This one here is Diza,’ the chap told me. ‘See that dimple on her right cheek? That’s how I tell them apart.’
To me, the baby girls looked identical in every way: their wisps of dark hair, their large black eyes, their tiny lips, and the creases at their chins.
‘And this one’s Dorra,’ he went on.
Vincent Roper was still ambling around by the Midland. He’d no doubt take shelter from the vicious wind in the Rotunda Bar, where he’d buy a criminally overpriced coffee. He’d be that type now – what with having gone to Cambridge, and having conducted the choir in Paris. His father had crowed about him from Blackpool to Barrow.
‘In my wife’s country,’ the chap explained. ‘Diza means gift and Dorra means joy.’
The babies’ skin and hair and eyes all carried a hint of their grandmother’s home – a land they would perhaps never see. I’m not one for cooing over children, but I found myself wishing that I could hold Diza and Dorra, feel their warmth and weight in my arms.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed that Vincent Roper had started walking again, so I made my apologies and then hurried up towards the Midland. ‘Mr Roper!’ I called out, but he continued to walk and the wind whipped my words out to sea.
As I crossed the road, he turned onto Pedder Street. I pursued him right into the red-light district – an area I hadn’t visited for a good while. Frank, so I heard, cavorted with some of the women around here. Pictures of buxom girls used to litter these streets, but now it was riddled with craft shops and curio stores.
Vincent Roper was still marching ahead at quite a pace and, try as I might, I couldn’t seem to reduce the distance between us.
‘Vince!’ I shouted, my hand springing to my mouth as if I could stuff the word back in. I could have sworn that he’d heard, but he continued to stride on ahead and I hadn’t a clue what I would have said next. How dare he come back after all these years, calling himself an old friend?
Above me a window screeched open, and a redheaded girl leant onto the ledge, her skin blue-white like skimmed milk. Although she looked straight down at me, her hair blowing around her face, she hardly seemed to notice I was there. She glanced back inside for a moment and said something I couldn’t quite catch. Doubtless she had a man in her bed although it was just past noon.
Once darkness fell, cars would still inch along here, no doubt, and women like that redhead would emerge from the alleyways – all bones and stilettos and miniskirts. Nothing much would have changed, except they’d be from Romania and Latvia and God knows where. Zenka’s get-up would be better suited to a brothel. Lord knows what Steph’s dad saw in her. When she’d applied for the manager’s post, I’d taken pity on this woman, down on her luck and far from home. She’d relied on me to translate many an episode of Coronation Street and I’d shared with her my recipes for shepherd’s pie and Victoria sponge. But she was right as rain now, living with Dave and behaving as if she were Steph’s mum.
That redhead brought back my own youth, when my own hair was as red and as full as hers, and she filled me with a lingering sense of unease – like the aftermath of a conversation that’s trailed off too soon.
When I took my eyes off her, I caught sight of Vincent Roper heading down the alley in the direction of St Mary’s.
I had to tell him that he couldn’t stay in Sea View Lodge, that I’d meant it all those decades ago when I’d told him never to return. But I just stood there, deflated, incapable even now of following him into the church.
This excerpt is from the first chapter of Emma Claire Sweeney’s debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn, the story of a fiercely proud octogenarian who has spent her lifetime in Morecambe Bay, trying to unlock the secrets of her exuberant yet inexplicable twin. It is published on the 1st July 2016 by Legend Press.