An excerpt from The Listeners, winner of the Rethink New Novels Competition, 2014.
May 25th, 1940
Up the stairs is a ghost house. Sun slants through the glassless windows, bathing the greying walls and pale spaces where pictures used to hang. No one comes here any more besides me, though when I was little we snuck inside to play and Rachel said if you concentrate hard you can catch them whispering from way back. We are the listeners, she told us, like in the poem. But we never did hear a sound, except for the beckoning branches, and once a stag coughing, which had me for a minute till I realised what it was.
Only later, on my own, did I make out the voice.
This, though, is different: something I have not seen here before. Silent, saying nothing, knowing everything, those empty eyes swallow me in; I do not think I will ever be able to look away, but my foot shuffles against the floorboards and, startled, it moth-flutters through the window’s hollow gape.
I sink among the muck and dust; at least in here I am apart from Mother’s stillness and Kate talking to me like I will forever be the smallest. Outside, the light lingers about the trees, soaking into the leaves as if they are marking where it happened. If I try my hardest to remember every single detail, the thoughts that craze my head may, finally, come right. Then I can try to make things better, help my mother and sisters become less sad. Because, even though he can no longer say, I think that is how he would want it.
Soon the house will go back to the wood and no one will realise it was ever anything but. First will come a blanket of bindweed, creeping through cracks in the floor. Ivy will grab the walls with never-let-go hooks, draping itself so thick that the stones beneath become a memory. Finally, the last slats of roof will surrender, releasing slender saplings to shoot skywards. The door has already fallen from its frame, half-hanging now, like the rotten bough that clings to the lightning-struck wych elm at the top of the drove. The deathwatches are stripping everything; it is becoming less and less of the place where he began and ended. I have not seen them, but their holes are drilled all about so I am certain they remain, hidden out of sight. Perhaps he caught a hint of their tapping right before I came upon him.
He is across at the church now. A year today since they covered him over, signing the spot with a cross of two sticks.
One whole year.
No name is written, but I watched them letting down the ropes so I know it is him.
Their hands move cautiously because they do not want to drop the box, all the while the Reverend going on in his special slow way he thinks God listens to.
‘We commit his body to the ground.’
I am crying out and cannot catch the rest – something about being gloriously transformed – so try to run to where the dirt rains into the hole, only Big Jack holds me back. I shout, to make them realise that the Reverend is a liar, but my words come out jumbled and nobody gets what I want them to hear.
HOW CAN IT BE GLORIOUS? I try to say. How can it be when he is stuck down there, being broken apart by the worms and centipedes? How can anything be good now he is under the earth?
It is a BLOODY LIE.
My eyes open to the darkening sky. Someone is calling me.
Could it be? I wonder if he will duck inside the doorway, so we can go home together and everything can be like before. Expectant, I wait, until I realise: I have been dreaming again.
He will not emerge from the trees.
I start back through the swaying shadows, coming into the meadow at the dip where the rainwater gathers, then skirt along the fence. It is quiet now, other than the birds singing their time-to-sleep songs – softly, so as not to stir themselves from their nearly-slumber. A movement ahead and a grey, hunched shape – a big lady sparrow hawk – scrabbles up off the grass. She glides away from me on angled-back wings, abandoning the still-warm carcass of a wood pigeon whose head she has picked clean. I think about taking what remains for the pot, as the rest is yet to be touched, but decide against. When I am out of her sight she can return and finish the job. If not, something else will come along in the night to clean up; already the feathers that soften the stiff outline are drifting across the damp pasture.
The cattle are filing back to the farm. Each evening at this time they begin their never-changing route. So regular how they tramp the same paths, like they cannot stray one step from where their hooves have always fallen. I will follow that way, presently, to where he is waiting.
Waiting for me to put things right.
My sister stretches ahead, desperate as always to outpace me. I feel disorientated, like a stranger – the parkland peculiar and out of place, the grass beneath the hornbeams a churned-up straggle of oats set down for the war effort. Why does nothing good remain the way it was? Will Tom even recognise any of this when he gets back?
I rise from the saddle and pedal harder, pulling alongside Kate as we pass through the open gates at the end of the drive; even at this distance the Hall squats over everything, ugly and square. We press on in silence, riding two abreast along the empty lanes in the waning sunlight. Approaching the house, I see Mother’s thin frame kneeling in the patch of garden by the door, as if in prayer. We put our bikes inside the shed and come across, but she doesn’t say a word. Just stares into the soil, her hands clasped so tight the skin across her knuckles looks set to split.
‘Come inside, Mother, it’s getting chilly. Shall we start on tea?’
She doesn’t hear me, is off in another place altogether. The distance is greater now, but has been part of her for as long as I can remember. Even when I was young and Kate hardly more than a baby she was this way. I’d watch her change, could tell when it was about to happen because she wouldn’t answer our questions or even seem to know we were there, her eyes fixed blankly on the sky like she was a different person. But if Kate started crying, or later William, she’d return with a smile, carrying them up and becoming our mother again. The two of us would fetch flowers from the garden, because she loved to bring the colours inside: peonies with their big petals, crinkled-up carnations, and white lavender that smelled of summer alongside ragged-edged sweet williams; finally, the dahlias and Michaelmas daisies, the last to be picked.
I was sitting next to her beneath the kitchen window helping pick roses, trying not to spear my fingers on their fairy-tale thorns. A good day because the sun was bright and I had the whole summer ahead with her; I must have been about ten, I think. She knelt beside me cutting stems with a pair of rusted scissors, before placing the pink blooms into the apron draped across her lap. I garnered the loose petals, threading them together to make a necklace while she recited a poem she knew by heart. I couldn’t concentrate on her words because I was arranging the colours so the darks alternated with the pales, when William started screaming out:
‘Shut up, Kate. I aren’t a flower. Am not!’
‘Yes you are, silly billy, you’re a big, pink, sweet william!’
He started chasing her around the grass – his little legs going like a partridge streaking across a field, his face all screwed and angry – but Kate was much bigger so he had no chance of catching her. Mother rose in an instant, the flowers spilling to the floor in a jagged heap, and marched over the grass to where the pair of them ran in circles.
‘Stop it!’ she shouted, rooting them to the spot. She came across and smacked Kate once on the backside – ‘Don’t tease your brother!’ – then picked William up and hugged him close to calm his choking coughs.
Later, we took Father’s lunch to him in one of the fields not far from home. The weather was scorching and his neck glared under the midday sun, droplets of sweat clinging to his charcoal fringe and trickling into his eyes, before he wiped them on the back of his thick forearm.
‘How’s my little man?’ he asked, lifting the scampering, chattering William and balancing him astride his shoulders. ‘And what about my three favourite girls?’
Kate sniggered as she handed him the basket wedged full of bread and cold mutton; he was smiling and his gaze lingered on Mother. I liked the way he regarded her, imagining how one day a boy would look at me that way too when we were married. With love in his eyes, I thought then, but who can tell with him? On the way back, me and Mother each held one of William’s hands and swung him between us while he shrieked with little boy’s laughter – a sound I’ve not heard for so long.
She’s pushing herself up from the floor now, absently brushing the dirt from her knees. I wish we could be like that again, that she could make everything better with her smile. That pretty, wavy-haired woman who bound us all together.
My mother from another place.