NaNoWriMo: Grief, Exposed – Chapter Two

As it’s almost half past eleven and I’m a mere six hundred words from completing this year’s NaNo novel, I hope you’ll forgive me for not writing a blog post today and, instead, uploading the second chapter of the novel I’m currently trying so damn hard to complete (please do, however, bear in mind this is very much a FIRST draft, hence the fact it’s doubtless littered with typos, repetition and grammatical errors…):

The night had been long. Scarlett had never been so glad to see a sunrise, nor been so desperate to get on a train home to Cornwall. It was a four hour journey to Bodmin Parkway, from where Phil would pick them up – Jake having flatly refused to let Scarlett travel alone after hearing the news. Whilst she was grateful for his support, Scarlett couldn’t help but feel stifled. Would she ever be allowed to stand on her own two feet, or had her childhood illness left an indelible scar on her life that would never be given the chance to fully heal? “Hey, Scar, it’ll be okay you know.” Jake was sitting opposite her, the morning sunlight shining directly onto his face, highlighting the faint pock-marks on his skin from teenage acne and the bags under his eyes from lack of sleep. Most of the time he looked young for his twenty three years, but today he looked much older. Scarlett didn’t dare think what she must look like. She hadn’t washed her hair in three days and was still wearing yesterday’s clothes and makeup. After her mum’s call the only thing she could do was rock gently back and forth for hours, tears streaming down her face as she chanted her sister’s name over and over again. “Ruby, Ruby, Ruby…” Jake could only hold her as she rocked, his comfort failing to hit its mark, until they both fell asleep around four am. Their train left at nine. “How exactly will it be okay, Jake?” Scarlett asked in a tone that was both harsh and unkind. “They said they’d found a body, but that doesn’t mean it’s definitely her. Travellers die abroad all the time. It could be someone else, completely unrelated. Ruby’s probably fine…” His voice trailed off and he swallowed, his adam’s apple dropping down into his throat like a stop cock. “It’s a bit of a coincidence that she’s missing and they’ve found a body though, don’t you think?” Scarlett looked down at her hands in her lap. Musician’s fingers, her mum had always called them, whereas Ruby’s had been shorter and stubbier. Had been. Scarlett’s stomach clenched. Why was she already thinking of her sister in the past tense? Surely Jake was right and there was still hope? There had to be, because the alternative was too much to bear.

They said little else to one another for the remainder of the journey, Jake busying himself in his latest book – a Lord of the Rings-style epic about gremlins and ghouls in far off places – and Scarlett staring out of the window and watching the landscape rush by, thinking as she always did on train journeys that it was like looking at a single giant impressionist painting of the world. When the train pulled into Bodmin Parkway they disembarked and stood on the platform in the grey drizzle, searching the sea of faces for someone familiar. When her eyes alighted on Phil instead of her mum, Scarlett felt a jolt of disappointment. “Hey Scar,” he said, his lanky frame stooping so he could plant a kiss on her cheek. “Alright Jake?” It felt so normal, this greeting with her step dad, like the ones they’d had a hundred times before. But they all knew this was as far from normal as could be. The question was, which one of them would acknowledge it first? “Right then,” said Phil, taking Scarlett’s knapsack and swinging it roughly onto his shoulder. He had always looked older than his years, the early part of his life having involved heavy drug use and homelessness, but today he looked as if he’d added another decade to his actual age of forty seven. His face was unshaven and his greying eyebrows bushier than ever. The skull tattoo on his neck looked as if it had faded in the sun and his ears hung down like spaniels’ – the result of years of ear-stretching jewellery. Looks-wise, Scarlett had never known what her mother had seen in her step father, but he had a kind heart, and she suspected there weren’t many men who would take on a woman’s three young children, especially when one of them was recovering from a life-threatening illness. Phil might be odd-looking but he had been there for them – for her – and for that Scarlett would always be grateful.

They drove in a silence that was punctuated only by the occasional question from Jake in the back seat, enquiring after this neighbour or that, trying in vain to make normal conversation. When, at last, they were on the winding road leading down into Port Isaac Scarlett felt relief flood through her body. She was home. They drove through the narrow lanes until they reached the Church House at the top of the hill leading down towards the beach. There, they parked the car and walked down to the Piskie Shop that Scarlett’s mum, Jane, had run since they’d arrived in Port Isaac when Scarlett was seven, Ruby two and their brother Toby eleven. The outside of the shop had been painted since Scarlett had left and the delicate spines of its bay windows were now gleaming and white. When she pushed the door the familiar tinkle of the bell alerted her mother to their presence. She had been sitting on a high stool behind the counter, fiddling with one of the tiny pixie statues from the main display, but when she saw them she stood and ran towards them with her arms outstretched. Scarlett fell into her mother’s arms and the two embraced for what seemed like an eternity but must, in fact, have been only a minute or two. Phil and Jake stood either side, the tower of strength to the women’s fragile house of cards. When at last they pulled apart their faces were streaked with tears. Jane, too, seemed to have aged considerably since her daughter had last seen her. She seemed so small to Scarlett, dwarfed by her giant knitted cardigan, tracksuit bottoms and Ugg boots. She looked, to Scarlett, like a tiny, multi-coloured bird. Her grey-streaked dark hair was pulled back into a rough bun that revealed the flap of loose skin around her jawline. The skin itself looked dry, her lips cracked and pale. And the dark circles beneath her eyes betrayed her lack of sleep. “Darling,” she said, finding her voice. “I’m so glad you’re here. Shall we go back to the house?”

They shut the Piskie shop and walked down to the bakery where old Mary was putting the freshly baked pies and Cornish pasties in the window display for the passing lunch trade – not that there was much of that, it being November, and a particularly fresh one at that. “Well I never,” said Mary as they walked in. “If it isn’t the prodigal daughter.” Scarlett blanched at the description, as did her mother, but they kept the smiles fixed on their faces with remarkable skill. “Afternoon Mary,” said Jane, “we’re just after some pasties for lunch.” Mary shuffled back behind the counter, her stoop more pronounced than ever, and pulled out some paper bags for the pasties. “How many are you after dear?” she said. “Is the whole brood back for the weekend?” At this Jane made a guttural noise, turned on her heel and ran out of the shop, slamming the door behind her with a bang. “Something I said?” Mary’s cataract-clouded eyes were awash with confusion. “No, not at all,” said Phil, “Jane’s just…had some bad news, that’s all. We’ll take seven pasties please. Meat ones.” Mary began filling up the bags. “Nothing serious, I hope – the news?” Phil smiled and handed over the money. “No, it’s nothing serious.”

Jane and Phil walked back up to the car, leaving Scarlett and Jake – on Scarlett’s request – to walk to the White House. The ten minute journey took them right down to the pebbly beach and up again to the other side of the bay. It was a steep climb but one that both Scarlett and Jake were used to doing. The White House sat on the crest of the hill, tall and proud like a sentry watching over its charges. Scarlett had loved it from the moment she’d laid eyes on it, even though back then its paint was peeling and its walls all damp with mould. She remembered Jane pulling up their battered old Volvo estate outside and the whole family – Jane, Scarlett, Ruby, Toby and their old dog, Clive – tumbling out of it, like a scene from the Waltons. The estate agent seemed dumbfounded by their love of the house but Jane, who had always had the gift of farsightedness, was delighted with it. With three young children and a divorce in the process of being finalised she was desperate to provide her family with a proper home. And, mouldy walls or not, this would be it. Her offer was accepted the very next day, and the five of them had been installed six weeks later, just in time for Christmas, which had always been Scarlett’s favourite time of year. Now the very thought of it filled her with dread. It was less than two months away. What if Ruby…No, she couldn’t think about that, not yet. She needed to get all the facts before she would allow herself to grieve.

Phil and Jane had passed them on the road, and when they arrived were carrying boxes of new stock for the shop into the house. As Scarlett and Jake pushed open the white painted gate into what Scarlett had always affectionately called the Sliding Garden – so named because of the sharp angle with which it sloped down towards the beach some hundred feet or so beneath – there was a clatter and a loud bark, followed by a blur of brown fur running straight at them. “Barney!” Scarlett crouched down to greet the family dog, an eight year old red setter that they’d had ever since Clive passed away when Scarlett was fifteen. Barney jumped and put his muddy paws onto her skirt. She laughed and pushed him gently back down, ruffling the soft fuzz of hair on the top of his head as he drooled happily onto the grass. She stood up and followed the hop scotch of paving slabs that led around the side of the house to the front door, stopping along the way to take in the view of the bay beneath. For now, the tide had been sucked out of it, leaving a string of pebbles and seaweed in its wake, like the aftermath of a party once the guests had all departed. Before long though, she knew, the sea would be back, crashing onto rocks and surging into caves, covering all in its way.

“I got your favourite cake,” said Jane in a faux-cheerful voice as they pushed open the stable-like front door and put their bags down in the hall. Scarlett walked into the kitchen and attempted a feeble smile at the spread her mother had put out on the table – the best china tea set, a Battenburg cake and some scones with jam and what she assumed was freshly whipped cream. “I just wanted it to be nice,” Jane continued. “Although now I look at it everything just feels so…wrong…” Her voice broke and her tiny frame began to quake with sobs. Scarlett crossed the kitchen with a sweep of her long, and now also very muddy, skirt, and wrapped her arms around her mother. When the sobs had subsided she led Jane to the table and gestured for Jake to boil the kettle. “Come on Mum,” she said, “let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We don’t know all the facts yet.” Jane sniffed and pulled a tissue from the pocket of her cardigan. She pressed it to her nose and blew hard. “Is Toby coming?” Phil entered the kitchen, stooping to avoid hitting his head on the wooden beam above the door. “Yes, and Mia and Sam too.” Mia was Toby’s girlfriend, Sam her four year old son. Whilst Scarlett had nothing against either Mia or Sam, she had never felt entirely at ease around them. But then if she was entirely honest with herself, Scarlett never felt entirely at ease around her own brother. Growing up they had never been close and, rather than bringing them together, after her illness Scarlett felt the distance between them even more keenly. Toby had moved away as soon as he could, passing his A Levels with flying colours and securing a place at Warwick university to study law. It was little surprise to the family when passed his degree with first class honours and was made a partner at a law firm in Southampton. What was more surprising was the fact he gave the partnership up soon after meeting Mia on a night out with his lawyer friends, and promptly moved to Brighton to take up a more menial position in a local firm so he could set up home with Mia and her little boy. Jane, who was astounded enough that two of her three children looked set to excel in their careers (Scarlett being forgiven, as she always was, because of her illness), was more astounded still that her only son had fallen in love not only with a woman ten years his senior, but also with the woman’s son (Toby never hitherto having shown the slightest inclination towards women of any age, and certainly not towards children).

The sound of a car outside, followed by the squeal of a child’s laughter and the sound of shoes crunching on gravel alerted them to Toby’s arrival. Barney came bounding through the door into the kitchen with Sam in hot pursuit. “Doggy, doggy,” chanted Sam, chasing Barney around the table until he rolled onto his back and demanded to have his tummy stroked. There was no denying Sam was a beautiful child, as angelic as they came with his unruly mop of blond curly hair and eyes so deep and blue they were like rock pools. His cheeks bore perfect spots of pink, the rest of his skin being almost translucent in colour, as if he had never been exposed to the sun. This, Scarlett thought, was odd, since his mother’s colouring was of an entirely different hue. As if on cue Mia stalked into the kitchen. Dressed in skinny jeans, a mohair jumper and thigh high leather boots, she would have looked more comfortable on Bond Street than in a tumbledown cottage in deepest, darkest Cornwall. Her hair was, as always, coiffured to a standard of perfection that Hollywood film stars would admire. She pulled first Jane and then Phil into exuberant embraces, then stopped and looked across the kitchen at Scarlett. “Scarlett,” she said, “how are you?” Scarlett smiled a tight-lipped smile. “Fine, thank you.” The two women regarded one another, not with rudeness, exactly, but a kind of swarthy respect. Scarlett knew that Mia had once coveted a singing career, but that health issues had scuppered it before it had taken off. The fact that she was treading that same path seemed to make Mia more reverent towards her than she might otherwise have been, or at least that’s how it felt to Scarlett who, on her part, was merely bemused as to why a woman of Mia’s evident beauty and talent had ended up in a two bedroom house in Brighton living with her brother.

Toby brought up the rear of his family group, stepping into the house and bolting the door behind him. Ever since he was a child he had always had a commanding presence. People used to comment on his serious expression, as if he knew something that others didn’t; that a war was about to break out, perhaps, or possibly a plague. It was rare that anyone could make him laugh, a trait that had failed to develop even in later life. Scarlett knew Jane blamed herself for this inherent lack of joy in her son. He had been nine when she had separated from their father, the only one of her three children really old enough to understand what was going on. And, if his subsequent personality development was anything to go by, Toby was also the only one to have been seriously affected by it. Now he walked into the kitchen and shrugged off his heavy lawyer’s overcoat, taking a seat at the table and helping himself to a slice of the Battenburg cake that sat limply on its plate before even acknowledging his mother or his sister. “Mum, Scarlett,” he said as he chewed his first bite of cake. “Phil,” he added almost as an afterthought, turning the cake over in his mouth, observing the reactions of his family around the table. He sat back in his seat, swallowed hard and cracked his knuckles. “So,” he said, “what exactly is going on?”

“Take a seat, everyone,” said Jane, finding her voice and shepherding everyone towards the table. She looked at Mia. “Perhaps Sam would like to take some cake and watch a DVD in the living room?” Mia nodded and Jane cut him a slice of Battenburg and took him next door to settle him in front of the television. When she came back the rest of the family had assembled around the table as instructed, leaving the seat at the head of the table for her, the matriarch. She sat down and pulled her cardigan around her. Phil reached across the table for her hand and nodded. “Right,” she began, “first of all thank you so much for coming. I wasn’t sure what to do when I first heard the news, but now that you’re all here I know this was the right decision.” They all stared at her, waiting. “This all started with a phone call the day before yesterday. It was from a staff member at a beach resort in Goa. A budget place, you know, for travellers. They said that Ruby had been staying with them for a week or so, but that she hadn’t been seen in two days – either entering or leaving the premises.” Her voice began to break again so Phil stepped in. “The man said Ruby hadn’t used her room in two nights or more. They knew because all guests are asked to leave their keys at reception when they leave the premises. Until Wednesday morning Ruby had been doing that, but then she stopped, just like that.” Phil broke off and fixed his gaze on the Battenburg. “And then yesterday they found a body.” Mia gasped. “A body?” Scarlett looked first to her mother and then to Toby. Neither raised their head. “Wait,” said Scarlett, “you didn’t know they’d found a body?” Toby shot a warning look at her across the table. “I wanted to protect her,” he said. “Until we knew for sure.” Scarlett frowned. “But we don’t know for sure, do we? I thought we didn’t know for sure that it was Ruby?” Jane dabbed at her eyes with another tissue from her never ending cardigan supply. “Darling,” she said with a sniff, “they think it’s her. She fits the description and…She was wearing her clothes.” Scarlett wrinkled her nose. “So? She might have lent them to someone. That’s what travellers do. Just because she was wearing her clothes doesn’t mean it’s Ruby. For Christ’s sake, there must be more evidence than that?” Phil shook his head. “That’s all we know for now, Scar, but we’re working on finding the money for one of us to go out there, you know, to identify the body and…bring her home.” Tears sprang into Scarlett’s eyes as if from nowhere, and she felt a surge of emotion so sudden and powerful it might just as well have been a tidal wave. “I want to go,” she said quietly. “Darling,” said Jane, “I don’t think that’s a good idea…” Phil looked first at his wife and then at Scarlett. “Scar,” he said, “I know this is hard for you, it’s hard for everyone. And that’s precisely why we” – at this he looked to Toby and back – “are trying to protect you all.” “We’re going,” Toby said, “me and Phil.” Scarlett looked to her mother for support, but Jane averted her gaze and stared silently out of the kitchen window at the sea beyond. “And that’s the end of it Scar, okay? We leave tomorrow.” Scarlett, who had never once stood up to her brother, nor indeed to any member of her family, before, rose to her feet and pushed back her chair. “No Toby,” she said. “That’s not okay. I’m coming too.”

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