The stone cottage slides into view through the taxi window like a painting, a memory being wheeled across frame.
There it is, the house in a sort of Gainsborough tableau; the crookedy path leading to the door and the trees outlining it with the heavy feathers of their branches. The edges fade into many shades of blackness because there’s dark woods all around, leaning and dripping on the roof. Every time I come back the trees have grown a little.
‘Didn’t even know this was here,’ says the taxi driver. He’s smoked the entire journey, one arm resting on the windowsill. But somehow I hadn’t summoned the energy to ask him to stop.
‘Whenever I visit I always think it might have disappeared. Just like that – into the night,’ I say. But the taxi driver doesn’t know what I mean so I pay him and wheel my suitcase up the pocked path to where my parents have come out, alerted by the slam of the taxi door, to greet me.
‘Hello, hello.’ The breeze whips up their white hair exposing pink furrows of skin. Mum raises her hand to wave. Even from a distance I can see how she can’t hold it up straight, how it folds into itself like a wing.
‘Happy Christmas,’ she calls out, waving her wing around. ‘Happy Christmas Stella.’
Because today is the day before Christmas Eve and I have come from London to have the holidays with them in Wales in the house where I spent my childhood. It’s awhile since I last saw them and they seem a little more bent over, their feet shuffle back and forth on the front step slightly more uncertainly. The door behind them has peels of green paint and wafts back and forth in the wind.
‘Inside,’ I scold, ‘you’ll catch your death out here.
Inside: a cottage with the ground floor knocked into one, kitchen on one side, sitting room on the other. Stone flags. Wood burner, not yet lit. Sofa with patchwork cover thrown over it to hide the threadbare fabric.
I have a moment of vertigo. The walk down the path was one I’d taken a thousand times after being dropped off by the gate – the last stop of the school bus. Long ago: every evening coming home from school. In the winter it would be dark already, twilight. The woods tip tapping all around me. One lit window in the house shining out. The long evening would stretch out – Mum, Dad, me. I would know inside a stew will bubbling, flub, flub, and that was the sound of divorce. There’d be treachery and betrayal around the bottom of the stairs, rolling with its thin fingers stretching out, ready to poke you.
But now my Dad is merely marvelling over my suitcase on wheels, he’s never seen anything like it. He holds the handle and pushes, the body of it like a hard black giant turtle, up and down on the flags, making a rumbling noise.
‘Dad. It’s the twenty first century, how is it possible you haven’t seen a suitcase with wheels before?’
He looks slightly hurt. ‘Don’t get out enough I expect. I just don’t understand why anyone didn’t think of doing it before. All that lugging I used to do with my great suitcases all the way up Paddington station. Down into the tube.’
My Dad used to be an engineer. Simple, practical solutions delight him. ‘No.’ I unwind my scarf, decide to keep my coat on for a bit. ‘It’s true, why did nobody think of it before?’ I realise I’m smiling for the first time since I arrived.
But he’s still engrossed in the suitcase. ‘I just like it is all.’ He says and I realise he hasn’t set eyes on me once since he’s noticed it. Oh, buck your ideas up Stella, I tell myself. You’re only here for three days for fuck’s sake.
Dad sets a match to the firewood and newspaper already laid in the wood burner and we have tea, sitting at the kitchen table. I look down and notice the chair I’m sitting on has a burn mark down one leg.
‘So no Charles?’ my mother asks. She has soft brown moles on her face, flat against her skin that I don’t remember.
‘No. No Charles this time.’
It’s nearly dark before the Tesco online shop is delivered.
‘We couldn’t find it,’ the men in overalls apologise. Their van is parked right down by the gate and they have to carry the plastic boxes of food all the way up the path. They stand in the doorway and wipe their foreheads despite the dark evening chill that’s falling all around us. When they’ve gone Dad takes a packet of cheese from a blue striped carrier bag and sniffs at it, as if it might not be real.
‘So you bought it all in London? Before you even came here?’
‘Yes, Dad. It’s one of the joys of the Internet.’
I look around the tiny stone cottage. The walls must be two foot thick and I wonder if broadband could even penetrate here.
‘Well I think that’s absolutely marvellous,’ Dad bursts out suddenly. ‘Marvellous.’
I unpack the shopping, bustling round the kitchen. Cranberry sauce, a good Stilton, mounds of vegetables in plastic bags, butter, bacon, wine – lots of wine. The turkey is huge – I think I must have made a mistake when I clicked on the size – and I wonder if it will fit in their oven.
I’m to sleep in my old room and I take my case up the wooden spiral staircase in the corner. Inside the room’s become jammed up with junk. The energy saving bulb hanging from the ceiling casts a strange, dim light over boxes where Dad’s half finished paintings stick up like ice burgs. A green tea set is in another. The golden stars I once stuck to the wooden headboard of the bed shimmer weakly. Mum and Dad are hovering behind me. Two lumpy shadows in the narrow hallway.
‘You’ve kept it as a sort of shrine I see,’ I mutter it to myself but they can hear.
‘We started to give it a clear up but it got a bit too much. We thought maybe you could give it a go while you’re here. It’ll be something for you to do,’ my mother says. She was always big on doling out jobs.
‘Thanks,’ I say.
Stop it. Shut up, I tell myself. Just stop it. Everything from your mouth sounds like a wasp’s angry buzzing. Just because you moved to London. Just because you think you got away.
I sleep, marooned amongst the boxes and wake up, cold, and lie in bed for half an hour worrying about them managing in this house. I think of my lovely warm flat in London. My yellow silk curtains at the gracious living room window. When I left there was a spray of broken glass on the kitchen floor. But I just left it as it was, closing the door on it.
It’s Christmas Eve. I decide to cook the turkey today.
In the proper light of day I can see how dirty the floor is. I fill a bucket with hot water and find an ageing crusty scrubbing brush under the sink.
‘Is this all you’ve got?’ I brandish the scrubbing brush at Mum and she eyes it like she’s never seen it before. She has a slightly rheumy look to her face and a grey curl flops down over her forehead.
‘There’s no need for you to do that,’ Dad interrupts. He’s spooning teabags out of three mugs by the sink. He’s smiling and I look over and realise what he’s smiling at. It’s Mum, standing there with her blouse slipping off one shoulder exposing a pale, blue veined shoulder and a pink ribbon strap. He’s looking at her adoringly.
‘It’s fine.’ My voice is brisk. Grown up. Efficient. ‘Let’s put the cooker on first to heat up for the turkey.’
The door of the cooker won’t close.
‘Use the chair,’ Mum says. ‘Push the chair against it to keep it closed.’ With a kind of dawning horror I make the connection with the burn on the chair leg. I look to Dad for help but his head’s to one side with a quizzical smile on his face and looking like he might be sharing a joke with his wife.
I say nothing, wedge the oven closed with the chair and start scrubbing at the quarry tiles with steaming lemon scented water.
When the black and red tiles have been sluiced and the water in the bucket turned black I stand up. ‘You should think about getting a cleaner in,’ I say to Mum. ‘A few hours a week in here wouldn’t do any harm.’
Her eyelids lower slightly. She hasn’t lost it, that look. She doesn’t like this, I think, all their little ways being exposed.
I look down and see my adolescent feet on the wet floor. Naked, vulnerable. Itching to head out of the door.
While the floor is drying they both walk around like cats with stiff legs and they only seem to settle once the floor is dry and patterned with their footprints.
In the evening I make supper. A Christmas Eve feast. Smoked salmon. Expensive out of season new potatoes. A soft whipped cream cheese from France. I open a bottle of wine while I cook and Dad lights the fire. I watch him as, once he’s got it going, he takes a book from a pile to the side and feeds it into the wood burner.
‘Dad, what are you doing?’
He stands up stiffly. ‘Free fuel. We only burn stuff we don’t want. We don’t have to think about getting rid of them that way.’
‘Honest to God, you’re like the Nazis.’
Mum appears from upstairs. ‘Stella thinks we’re Nazis,’ he says to her.
‘What? What?’ She sits at the table and pours herself a thimbleful of the wine.
‘Because of the books. Our free fuel.’
‘Oh that.’ She giggles.
A thought occurs to me. ‘You would tell me if you can’t afford fuel wouldn’t you? I can help you know. Buy a load in of logs.’
‘No, no. There’s a load out there delivered last Saturday.’ It’s true. I remember passing them now heaped by the side of the path. So it’s not that. They just like burning books.
They exclaim over the exotic food and pick at it. The turkey is finally ready and I take it out to cool. Mum switches the telly on in the corner of the living room while Dad and I have pudding – a frangipane tart and thick Jersey cream.
‘Everything alright Stella?’ he asks.
I nod. ‘Heard from Byron?’ I ask, to deflect him. Byron – my brother. The one that got away properly. First into the woods as a boy, then working for local foresters and then Australia. But that was alright, according to my mother, when I complained about how he was allowed to do what he wanted and I not, because he was a boy. I had to stay at home. I had to be good.
Dad shakes his head. Then: ‘You drink too much you know,’ he says sharply, his woolly persona dissipating in one swift move. I think about denying it, but what’s the point? Instead I raise my glass to my lips with an exaggerated elbow movement. ‘I know,’ I say.
They go to bed ridiculously early, it can’t even be nine o’clock yet. A wind has picked up around the house and the wood burner slowly cools. I refuse to take part in their insane book burning and the log pile seems far away in the dark. Instead I wrap myself in the patchwork throw and open another bottle of wine. Sod it; I have to do something to get me through. But each sip seems to mine more memories. When, I think, did my parents get to be best bosom friends? They’re like an aged Romeo and Juliet. Must have been when my back was turned. What I remember were murderous recriminations bouncing of the walls. Vicious voices heard from in bed. Divorce, flub, flub, and steam filling the house. Well just divorce and be done with it, I used to think.
I imagine Charles at home alone in our flat. He always hated Christmas with a spiteful passion. Why do we have to have presents, why parsnips, why baubles and a tree, why on this day? Why not on any day? It’s not like we believe. We’re just being suckers to commercial forces.
He’ll have a curry tomorrow, I think. He’ll love that – curry and a beer on Christmas day. The smell of tarka dahl permeating the rooms. His two fingers up to Christmas. To me.
I think of the arc of glass breaking in a shimmering fountain across the kitchen floor. His face was a volcano, bubbling with hatred. ‘The thing is Stella there’s nothing. Nothing here…I should walk away from this right now. In fact I will, leave you in your little palace.’
But instead it was me that walked away. What will happen now, I wonder? We’ll have to put the flat on the market. My brain races ahead and I amaze myself at how already I’m looking ahead, planning. I wonder if he’s doing the same. But we’ll have to try and make new lives for ourselves, somehow, in our forties. New identities.
The second bottle of wine is empty and I crawl up the stairs and into bed amongst the boxes.
When I wake it’s the middle of the night. There’s an icy draught flowing underneath my bedroom door. I sit up; my mouth is dry and my heart pounding from all the wine. I seem more hemmed in by the boxes than ever before.
I wrap my dressing gown around me and come down the stairs. The front door is wide open to the night. Moonlight floods in through the front door. Blue and cold, illuminating the night air with a magic lantern feel. Outside my parents are standing on the path holding hands and looking up at the moon.
‘What are you doing?’ I whine. ‘It’s the middle of the night.’
I take a few steps towards them and look down at my feet. They’re cold. Bare and child-like on the stone tiles. ‘Come inside. You’re making the house freezing.’
My Mum and Dad look back. The moon seems to make their faces bulge, giving them youthful contours again. ‘Come and look. Come and look at the moon Stella,’ they call.
I hesitate. ‘But it’s cold out there.’
‘Oh come on. It’s lovely. Come and look with us,’ Dad says and I hear Mum laugh at all the beautiful recklessness of it.
‘But…’ My words fizzle and die.
I follow them out into the night to join them in the moonlight.
Kate Hamer grew up in Pembrokeshire. She did a Creative Writing MA at Aberystwyth University and the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course. She won the Rhys Davies short story award in 2011 and her winning story was read out on Radio 4. She has recently been awarded a Literature Wales bursary. She lives in Cardiff with her husband and two children.
Kate’s story is included in our new anthology, A Fiction Map of Wales, available to buy here.
original illustration by Dean Lewis