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Authors: Emily Barr

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The First Wife

BOOK: The First Wife
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The First Wife
Emily Barr

Copyright © 2011, Emily Barr

The right of Emily Barr to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

For James, Gabe, Seb and Lottie,

as ever, with lots of love

Thanks to Aidan and LeEtta of Trevithick School, Camborne, for donating their names to two of the characters in this book after winning the writing competition with their fantastic and intriguing imaginative feats.

Thank you to Samantha Lloyd for a research trip to Barcelona that took an unexpected and delightful turn thanks to a cloud of volcanic ash, and to everyone who helped hold the fort at home until we got back.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have both Jonny Geller and Sherise Hobbs in my corner, and this book would not have reached fruition without their input and encouragement. Huge thanks to both of them: they are the best.

And thank you to the teachers at St Francis School who look after my children while I write, and to everyone who puts up with the swings between obsessiveness and despair that are all part of the process. Finally, thanks to my family for providing the necessary counterpart to the life spent writing; making me go for walks on beaches, take them to the cinema, and scrabble around doing ‘creative homework’ at the weekend.



It rained all day, the day of her funeral. A few of her friends showed up for the service, but when it ended, they huddled under black umbrellas talking about who would be next, and wandered off together, and nobody went on to the crematorium but me.

The crematorium was familiar from the previous funeral. It was blank, boring and terrible at the same time. Confronted by rows of expectant seats, I sat in the middle of the front row. For once, there was nowhere to hide. I was out in the world.

Only a few weeks earlier, I had been here for his funeral; but that time I had taken her, leading her by the hand and trying to keep her from saying inappropriate things. She shouted out something about a baby as his coffin slid away, and she had no idea that she was saying goodbye to her husband. I had been her carer. She was, even then, my protector, in all her crazy randomness.

Today the world was new. Its edges were sharper. For a few disorientating seconds, I felt I was on a stage set, that behind these fake walls was darkness. The reality was worse than darkness: there was a world of which I knew nothing, in which I had no place. I gripped the edges of the seat with both my hands.

Sombre music was piped in from somewhere, and a man arrived and pretended he was speaking to a crowded room. I hardly heard his platitudes, because he had not known her, and nothing he said meant anything. I tried not even to think about her. I was glad we had decided on no hymns.

Her coffin was in front of me. I stared at it, imagining the body in there, knowing I should be displaying a few tears, if only to prove to the man in the suit (‘Joy led a long and fulfilled life’) that I really was her granddaughter.

I was a terrible person. Once I started crying, I could not stop, and he had to raise his voice to get his words to carry over my sobs. Yet I knew that my tears were not just for her. They were also for myself. The rain hammered on the flat roof.

The man in the suit did not mention my tears. He said she was a beloved mother, without remarking on the fact that her only child had not bothered to turn up. He did, however, seem to be very interested in muttering his way through the words as quickly as he possibly could, and walking out of the door.

I set off down the road, heading for home automatically. I was following the ancient family solicitor’s advice: the cottage was going on the market in the morning, I would pack up all my stuff, wait for the place to sell, and then leave.

At that point, my plan skidded to an abrupt halt. The two old people I had spent years caring for were dead. They had been my world: I had no friends. I knew I had no family any more; at least, I had to act as though I had no one. I had hardly dared to hope they would come back for this. I had written them a postcard, in my most careful calligraphy with my purple fountain pen. I was worried about scaring them off, so I just wrote this:

Joy and Ken both died this month. Please come home for a while.

I posted it to the last address Grandma had for them, a place called Mount Eden.

They would not have received it, booked their flights, and got back in time for the funeral. I had never expected that. I did half-hope that they would show up in the next few weeks, though, while I was still at the cottage.

They might come. I did not write my name on it, in case I scared them off. Even now, I half-expected that every person I saw on the street would be one of them. I lived and relived a scene in which they appeared from around a corner, looked at me, looked again, and smiled. It happened again and again, in my dreams and in my daydreams. I would know them at once, either of them, and I would forgive everything, in half a second.

I walked home, three miles, through the downpour. Puddles gathered as I watched, on our track, and I stepped straight through them, soaking my black ballet shoes. Rain cascaded down my face. My dress, which I had hardly had time to iron since the previous funeral, clung to my body, cold and clammy. My hair turned to wet string and stuck to my neck and back. By the time I reached the cottage, I was soaked through. I looked deranged, but that did not matter, as there was no one to see me.

I had come to live in this cottage when I was a child, and it seemed inconceivable that I would ever think of any other house as ‘home’. It was a pretty, deceptively large house, with thick stone walls and a climbing rose up the wall. There were four bedrooms (three upstairs, one down), a big kitchen with a table, and a sitting room filled with ancient furniture. Everything was old and made to last. It was a delightful, comforting time-warp.

I opened the heavy wooden door, and tried not to look at the spot at the bottom of the stairs where both of them had fallen – first him, and then, fatally, her.

Almost all our stuff was already packed away. Without telling either of them, I had been sorting it into boxes for years. Neither of them had been upstairs for a long time. In that time, every single thing up there, with the exception of the contents of my bedroom and bathroom, had been either thrown away, sent to charity, or boxed up. I had been so scared of them dying, for so long that, perversely, the only way to hold the terror at bay was by making horrible preparations for the day on which I would find myself alone. That had seemed to make it less likely to happen.

The fact that they
both die, one day, had always been there, though the three of us existed right up to the end by pretending that we would carry on the way we were for ever. It had seemed distasteful even to think about what would happen to me when they were gone.

Ever since I was eight, I had lived with Grandma and Granddad in their cottage in this Cornish village. They were everything to me, my rock, my stability, and I loved them furiously, clinging on tight and never quite relaxing into the belief that they would not abandon me. And now, finally, they had. Grandma could have gone on for decades more, though she had been losing her mind for over a year. It had happened suddenly, unexpectedly and it was all my fault. She must have wandered upstairs in the night. I had vaguely heard a cry and a bump, but had not properly woken. I would never know for sure, but I was certain in my heart that she had seen the upstairs rooms in her house – her old bedroom, the spare room that had housed her fabulous clothes, my mother’s childhood room – empty and packed up in anticipation of her death, and had fallen down the stairs in horror and confusion.

My packing up to ward the moment off had made it happen.

When I contemplated the world outside these walls, I grabbed the table to keep myself upright. I had not the faintest idea of what to do.

I had been an anxious child, and when I came to live with them I was eager to fit in. I embraced every aspect of life in this cottage with gusto. It was only when I was eleven that I realised that my grandparents were the local eccentrics. When I had friends over, I saw that their habit of walking around naked was odd and apparently alarming and scary. They meant nothing sinister by it: it was just what they did, just as they started each day with a cup of hot water with a chunk of ginger in it, and recited one of Shakespeare’s sonnets before every meal because it was ‘better than Grace’.

The friends went home and told their parents about the nudity, and after that, no one was allowed to come to play. I became the Weird Girl. Grandma and Granddad descended slowly into incapacity, and by the time I was fourteen I was looking after them more than they looked after me; helping them up the stairs, keeping the cottage clean. I managed to care for them when they needed it and do my GCSE coursework without too much trouble, until Granddad fell downstairs. That was the beginning of the end for him, and it marked the moment at which they both gave up.

And now they were dead. I skirted the fated tiles at the bottom of the stairs and headed to the kitchen, where I put the kettle on. It would take me a day to pack up the rest of the house, and I would sell it. I would take the money, and with my funds in the bank, I would do something.

Oh, I thought, yet again. If only I had the faintest idea what that
might be. The house was going on the market for three hundred thousand pounds. They would have paid the mortgage off years ago. With that money, I could do anything I wanted. I had already applied for a passport, just in case. It was simply going to be a question of working out what normal people did, how they did it, and doing that. It was a straightforward question of courage.

In the back garden, I picked some sprigs of mint from the pot next to the wall. I rinsed the mint in the ceramic sink, and stuffed it into the teapot with a teaspoon of sugar, because we drank mint tea, rather than commercial rubbish that was crammed full of chemicals. We drank home-made herb tea, or proper coffee, or water. On Sundays we had a glass or two of sherry.

I hated being here without them. I could not stay here, living their life on my own. It was time for me to go out into the world, like one of the Three Little Pigs.

As I poured the boiling water into the hand-painted teapot, I allowed myself a few minutes to contemplate the hard truth of the fact that Grandma and I would never again sit in front of the roaring fire brushing each other’s long hair. Granddad would never heave himself to his feet to declaim Edmund’s soliloquy, from
King Lear,
ending with a triumphant: ‘now, gods, stand up for bastards!’ Those things were gone. Other things would fill the gaps they left, but I could not begin to imagine what those things might be.

I was on my own in the world. I was twenty, with a clutch of GCSEs and a pretty yet overgrown cottage to my name. I knew most of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart, but I had no idea how people lived. My hands trembled as I poured a stream of dirty hot minty water into my cup. There was no one to care whether I used a saucer or not. My days were no longer to be spent washing and cleaning and escorting elderly people to the loo. Time stretched ahead, blank and unknowable.

BOOK: The First Wife
5.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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