Alexander pestered me about it all summer, as we saved up the money for train tickets to the other side of the country where our distant cousin once lived. The copies came in instalments, and I hid them from him in a box beneath my bed. I decided to leave them unopened. I’m embarrassed to say I was frightened of what they would reveal. From the solicitor’s expression, and that nimble flick of the hand as he moved the paperweight, I knew I would need time to digest the information that his files contained. And then, I would need time to figure out how I would translate it for Alexander, in a way that would not agitate him. No, I decided to focus on the business of Miss Unthank’s estate first.
On the morning we were due to go, I found Alexander in my room – letters and papers and the newspaper clippings I kept from him scattered across the floor. I didn’t have time to work out how many envelopes he had opened, if any, or how much he had read, how much he had understood. I shouted at him to get his jacket, and he looked at me with his wide eyes, and said nothing but “sorry” eleven times. I gathered everything up, and put it back in the box and under my bed.
We played association games to pass the time on the long journey, and by mid-afternoon we arrived at Redbourne in an Indian Summer. Glimmers of Burma came back to me, and a small voice inside warned of Monsoon. I gave Alexander some change and sent him over to the kiosk in the ticket hall to buy a map, while I went to the loo.
We walked from town – a foolish decision on my part; the distance to Providence Avenue seemed much closer on the map. We were both panting by the time we had climbed to the top of the road, and took turns to fan ourselves with the map.
Miss Unthank’s house was a detached Edwardian building named Rexmond. It looked long uninhabited – the windows of the ground floor were boarded up, and the front lawn was overgrown and strewn with wrappers and cans. The sweet, soapy smell of laundry floated across from the neighbouring property, and a dog barked in the distance.
Alexander grinned. ‘The whippet?’
Hot and impatient, I reminded him sharply that the whippet was dead. It took several minutes to console him, to coax him into coming with me to investigate. ‘Think of it as an adventure,’ I said.
‘You say that every time you want me to do something unpleasant.’
‘Would you rather stay out here by yourself?’
Alexander peered up at the house, apparently daunted. ‘I’d rather you didn’t go in there alone.’
‘Good, then come along.’
Inside was a desolate, destitute place. Remnants of squalor littered the scene. A greyed, frayed mattress was slumped against the hallway wall, with a dislocated telephone wire tangled in its springs. Further down the corridor, a scrunched up beer can had been squashed into the carpet. Splashes of its former contents orbited it, and the air hung heavy with the smell of staleness. A burned out mattress sat atop another in the first bedroom. Several windows were cracked.
‘Christ, she must have had some wild parties.’
‘Squatters, Alexander. She was eighty, not eighteen.’
Alexander peered into a room to the left, and gagged. ‘There’s dirty water in the bath. And… leaves?’
I reached past him, closed the door and said – ‘We don’t have time to take down an itinerary.’ I checked my watch. Two hours until the train home.
Alexander asked ‘Where is the dog?’
I reminded him again that it had been put down. Yet there was an old bowl in the kitchen, with mouldy food and a few crumbs inside it. A memory came to me then. I was being chased through fields at Brontide, the family plantation. A huge Great Dane that everybody said was harmless. I thought of the letters my brother had opened. Cautiously, I said – ‘Do you remember Honey, Alexander?’
‘Yes, I like it on toast.’
I sighed with relief.
He scrunched up his face. I felt that queer mixture of being dumbstruck and heartbroken by his childishness. ‘Come along,’ I said, and we traipsed down the corridor, which opened out into a modernised staircase with rubber grips on each step, and a handrail on either side.
Alexander bolted, with his young vigour even then, and stopped dead on the landing. I caught up with him, as he peered up at a gap in the ceiling.
Breathlessly, I said – ‘That must be the attic.’ I caught Alexander’s eager expression. ‘No,’ I said, ‘not today. I don’t have the energy.’
But he had already darted into another room and came out with a chair – a singular untouched item in stripey, sateen upholstery. The sort of chair seen everywhere in those days. I reached out to stop him, but he wriggled free, hopped up onto the chair, and wrenched himself up into the void. I, reluctantly, followed.
There were several cracks in the roof; enough to let in a decent level of light. The space smelled of damp and mildew, and I told Alexander to watch his step. As I did so, he tripped over something that chinked and rolled, and as I steadied him with one hand, I reached down with the other to pick it up. A crystal ship’s decanter, filled with an aged brown liquid, the colour of dark urine. I read the label aloud: “Apricot Brandy.” There was a second line, its ink more faded. I squinted, adjusted my glasses, tilted it a little further into the light. “Brontide, 1937.” I gripped the bottle in shock.
Alexander wandered over to the other side of the attic. ‘“Brontide,”’ he repeated. ‘Now, that rings a bell.’ He turned around. ‘What’s that you’ve got there? It looks like honey.’
‘Who keeps Brandy in a ship’s decanter?’ I said heartily, trying to distract him. I pulled out the stopper, and sniffed intently. I recoiled, wincing at the mulled stench, and flared my nose.
‘Do you think it’s valuable?’
‘God, no. Don’t be such a grasper, Alexander,’ I said, replacing the stopper and placing the decanter at my feet. ‘What’s left of the farm, whatever we can get for this place, that’ll be enough.’
‘And then where will we live?’
I looked up at the roof, through a crack I could see the high sun. ‘Somewhere… somewhere nicer. Somewhere where the locals don’t look at us funny, or ask us questions, or wonder about our wasted little lives on pathetic little Castend Farm.’ In my distraction, I hadn’t noticed what Alexander was doing. He had picked up the decanter, and before I could reach out he was swigging from it. He laughed, and sat down on a trunk, just within the shadows beyond the beam of light.
I strode over to snatch the decanter from him.
He pulled back, and his expression fell. ‘I don’t want to end up like our cousin Emmeline. Do you?’ His eyes were wide and frightened. I cursed myself for bringing up the move.
‘There are many people you wouldn’t want to end up as, Alexander. But sadly once again you have ended up as yourself.’ I said this with pity, I assure you, but Alexander grew agitated.
‘But I don’t feel like myself.’
‘I am Cousin Emmeline,’ he said. His voice had become higher, more feminine. And aged, as though he was speaking an old woman’s last breath. He closed his eyes, and I gawped at him. I tried to recall if he had ever had an episode quite like this.
‘I remember it now,’ he said. ‘Honey. Brontide. Orchard upon orchard, row upon row of fields. Little men working at the palms. You were diving back and forth, tripping over the furrows in the ground. I was in the nursery at the top of the house, watching over little Alexander. But I’d just dozed off, just for a moment.’ He winced, and he went on, a tad more pained than before. ‘Then I woke up, but little Alexander was gone. I searched the room, and under the daybed. Then I searched the house. Your parents were sleeping; we all napped when the heat got that high. But not you, Arthur. The heat made you restless.’ He chuckled, though it is not like him to chuckle. I couldn’t help but be entranced. I sat down cross-legged before him. I forgot about the decanter, though from the corner of my eye I could see it dangling in his hand, swaying back and forth, just missing his legs with each swing. I noticed, too, the beads of tears in his eyes, though he seemed stricken with fear. There came those same beads at my own eyes; the frightened tears of haunting memory. And so I let him go on, in his new voice.
‘I heard you out in the fields; Honey barking, and you were squealing. I’m not sure if it was fear or delight. I could hear the thrash of the sickles, back and forth like a distant breeze. I went out to the verandah, I saw you flickering between the trees. I was trying to see if your brother was with you. The air was still, and close. Then, I heard a giggle from above. I stepped off of the verandah and looked up, and it was little Alexander at the window of your parent’s room.’
The bead began to prickle, as if it were a thorn in my eye. ‘Stop it, Alex.’
‘He called down to me – I’ll be down in a moment, Milly.’ His voice, or whoever’s voice it was, caught, and gulped. ‘You always called me Milly.’ What nonsense was this? What ghastly nonsense. Then I remembered the letters. Was all of this in the letters?
‘Alexander looked scared, as he ran toward me. I asked him what was the matter, but without a word he clasped my hand in his, and dragged me into the orchard to find you. And my dress, Arthur. It got ever so dirty. Honey wouldn’t be told, and you wouldn’t believe that she was perfectly harmless.’
I got up. I loomed over my brother and clasped his shoulders. ‘Alexander, please.’ But his eyes were glassy, looking straight at the spot where I had just been sitting. I shook him, and he dropped the decanter, and even that would not rouse him. I stooped to pick it up, the brandy had spilled like treacle across the boards, and then I heard it. The strike of a match.
And he screeched: ‘Mee!’ I shook him, panicked. I could hear the sounds of the field workers screaming in my head. ‘Mee!’ I shook him again. ‘Mee!’
‘Alexander enough.’ I shook him violently then.
Yet still he continued, in that eerie, ersatz voice. ‘I knew enough of the language to know that meant fire, o I hitched up my skirts. All of the workers were rushing back to the house from the palm fields. Bless those men. So loyal, so dedicated to us, their keepers. And suddenly Thomas came racing through the rush of people toward us. “Come with me,” he said. “I’ll go down to the lodge and telephone for help.”’ The voice cracked. ‘Looking back I think… I think he might have known already. He might have thought I was trying to protect Alexander again, that we were running away. It wasn’t the first time he had played with matches.’
He lit another match.
‘Where did you get those? Alexander?’ I stepped back – back toward the gap in the floor.
‘And what Thomas must have thought of me, leaving Eloise and Halstead behind. But I would have done anything for you an Alexander. Anything.’
‘Emmeline! God give us peace, Emmeline!’
Alexander collapsed. The match, still burning, fell out of his hand and ignited the brandy.
I glanced down at his face, illuminated by the flames as they crept toward me. He looked peaceful. There was a twist in my stomach, and I clambered down from the attic. I ran out of the house, I ran back down Providence Avenue, I ran through the town to the station before I could be sick.
This morning, I took a tepid bath before breakfast. I have had two eggs, and a slice of toast to myself. The morning fog is just on the verge of giving way to intense sunshine. I sit at the verandah, Alexander’s last game sprawled across the half-broken table. I read the headline of today’s newspaper over and over. I wait for the telephone to ring, but I do not wait for my distant brother to come home.