There’s a moment’s silence. Anna walks in with caution, adorned in their mother’s old dress, her sister’s old pearls. She regards Anna – at how the sequins on the lapels have been safety-pinned back on, how low-cut it is, how low-cut it would have been for their mother. How sleek and black and altogether perfectly suited to Anna’s figure. But it’s too old for Anna now. She can’t stop herself from chuckling. But it was too young for mother, then! ‘Marvellous, Anna. Colour never did suit you.’ She slides along the sofa. ‘Come sit next to me.’
Anna dithers in the doorway. She’s pushed into the room by the Labrador, who skitters in and is followed shortly by the boy. ‘Out, Barker! Won’t you keep a hold of it? Keep him upstairs with you.’ The boy drags the animal back and says nothing. ‘There’s some soup in the ’fridge for lunch. Don’t touch anything that’s been wrapped up.’ She pushes the door to, glances into the room, and then calls after the boy: ‘you can have it upstairs.’ The boy looks mournfully at her but does not reply. Anna breathes out, closes the door, and goes to stand behind Hector’s armchair, her fingertips gripping the top of it. ‘You can stay in the attic room. The guests will be here in an hour, so if you don’t mind waiting until then, there’ll be some cold meats and sandwiches, among other things.’
She looks up at Anna, her posture arch, her face stern. She thinks – she is trying to maintain control. ‘I’m sorry if my arriving early has put you out. I just figured we’d have a lot to catch up on.’
Anna’s eyebrows rise. ‘Such as?’
‘Well Hector has been filling in the gaps a little.’ Their eyes meet. How dewy-eyed Anna still is; how innocent-looking and fresh of face. ‘Thirty now, is it? No one would ever dream that you were catching up with me.’ She slides a glance to Hector, who attempts to speak – but Anna places her hand on his shoulder to quieten him.
‘I guess,’ Anna replies, gripping the armchair tighter, ‘that’s the benefit of not having children.’
‘But what more could you want? The looks, the house, the husband, the clothes, the heirlooms, and the child might as well be yours. The books. Dear God, these wretched books.’ She casts a hand out like Gloria Swanson. She sweeps over the piles.
Anna looks stricken – from the door to her sister. ‘Must we go over all of this now? I’ve sent you a hundred letters. Were those not forwarded, too?’
‘It’s much easier to write words than it is to say them.’
‘I’ve said all the words I have to say, written or spoken.’ Anna moves over to the window. The towers of books loom over her. She notices that the ivy has started to find ways into the room through the rotten shutter frames. She twists one of the stems in her fingers. ‘You can’t really blame me for it, anyway.’
‘It was you who gave her the book.’
‘How was I to know there was a message in it?’
‘It wasn’t your book to give her.’ She looked at Hector, who was sunken in his seat. She rises, walks over to Anna and puts a hand on her shoulder. ‘Nor was Hector yours to take.’
Anna drops her shoulders and looks out of the window – through the ivy and toward the sunset. ‘Well, I–. Well–.’
She lets go. She goes to her case. ‘Look, I have something for you. Do you want it now, or after the party?’
Anna wipes her eyes and turns back into the room. ‘A present?’
She takes out a brown file and pinches it together to stop the papers within from getting out. ‘Well, in a manner of speaking.’ She holds the file out to her sister, who rushes toward it. As it changes hands, they both look over to Hector, who sits forward in his seat – a petrified expression on his face.
‘What is it? What ails you?’ Anna sits down on the edge of his armchair; the file on her lap.
‘Bryntham. I remember the name now.’
‘Who? Who’s Bryntham?’
‘Husband? You never said you were–.’ She goes to speak, then cries out. ‘Bryntham. Mr Bryntham?’ She grabs at the file, takes out the papers, and reads the first page aloud. ‘“Dear Mr & Mrs J. Bryntham.”’ Anna stops. Her shoulders sag.
Anna takes a deep breath. ‘“We write to inform you that your purchase of No. 47 Jarrond Grove is complete–.”’ She scans the rest of the letter – eyes darting back and forth. ‘“As previously instructed, we are investigating the planning procedures for redevelopment–.”’ Anna passes Hector the file.
He holds it a moment, hands wavering. ‘Merle this is beastly unkind of you.’
‘Read it,’ Anna snaps. ‘Read it all the way to the end.’
Hector hesitates, coughs deeply, and adjusts his glasses. ‘“Permission to demolish the existing property will most likely be granted, as the area has recently undergone–. Slum clearance.”’ He pauses, looks up at her, and continues. ‘“I will now contact the solicitor of Mr & Mrs. H. Giddens to exchange, and will be in touch with you soon regarding a date of completion.”’
She sits down on the couch and folds her legs.
Hector throws down the file. Its pages float and scatter with the dust, and come to land beneath the armchair. ‘How did you even know it was for sale? You were in Florence, last I checked.’
‘An old school-friend sent me a clipping from the newspaper. “Handsome property. All contents to be sold.” Some of it mine. Almost all of it would have been, if Anna hadn’t been so careless with my belongings.’
‘So you married that swarthy fellow? Funny accent. Funny name – Bryntham.’
‘I wondered why he was so interested in the history of the house.’ Hector stares at her. She stiffens her jaw. ‘I just thought he was keen on architecture.’
Anna launches herself toward her sister and begins to pummel her legs – just as she did when they were children. She does not resist. She waits, until eventually Anna gives up, and slides to the floor.
‘We made a generous offer.’
‘But why on Earth would you demolish it?’ Hector says. ‘The only house of its kind left on the street.’
‘How did you find the money?’ Anna cries. ‘You were sent away with nothing.’
‘One finds ways.’ She peers down at her sister. ‘When you have nothing you grasp at everything.’
‘And now you want everything only to destroy it?’
‘This house has stuck in my mind ever since I left. Ever since I was made to leave. The broken shutters, the dripping tap in the kitchen. Mother’s library, and all the books. Somewhere in these piles I’m sure I’ll find that book again. I can’t even remember what it’s called.’
‘I should never have written that message in it,’ Hector said.
‘Quite right. Wasn’t it a first edition as well?’ She arches her eyebrow and almost winks at him.
‘Yes. Yes it was.’
‘So careless of you, then, to taint it with everything you wanted to do to me.’
Hector coughs and reaches out for Anna. She recoils.
‘Soon it’ll all be gone. The room where I was beaten for our sins. The pantry where Anna chipped my tooth by bouncing a bottle top off of the wall and into my mouth. Remember that?’
Anna stirs, but says nothing.
‘And my bedroom,’ she says, looking at Hector, ‘where you and I made love. And the bathroom.’
‘Don’t,’ Anna says in a crumpled voice.
‘Where love was lost.’
‘Then the staircases,’ she says, turning back to Anna, ‘where you ran to me to say good-bye before they took me to the asylum.’ She gulps. ‘I want all of it. All of it gone.’
Anna clambers up onto the sofa, her make-up streaked with tears, and lies down with her head on her sister’s lap. ‘Merle. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry mother found out. I’m sorry about the baby. And Hector. But Hector was such a great comfort to me after you had gone and after mother had died and I–. I don’t blame you for hating us. But please don’t destroy the house. It’s all I’ve ever known.’
She strokes Anna’s hair, and bids her to shush. ‘Say something, Hector. You never wrote to tell me you were sorry. Anna did it all for you, and you didn’t even bother to sign your name.’ She pauses to think of something else; to stave off emotion, but she can’t. ‘You could have married me, you know. You could have made a proper woman of me.’
Hector opens his mouth, but no words come forth.
‘You could have had everything you really wanted.’
Anna begins to cry again, while she and Hector stare at one another, saying nothing.
The light begins to fail, and it seems hours until the first guest arrives. By then, it’s as though the ivy has swallowed the room into darkness.