"She won’t remember.” That’s what they said, but they were wrong. I remember very well. I remember everything. Sometimes I think I can remember being born, the pain and fear and the sense of being quite alone, with not even my mother there any longer.
Memory and imagination are closely linked. It must have been a shock for him when he got back. She bled to death you know, alone in the cottage while her man was out with another woman. He didn’t get back until the early hours and then it was too late. Perhaps they had downed a few glasses to celebrate a new year and the first day of the twentieth century.
I was named Lily after my dead mother and before I was six months old, I had a step-mother, Iris. Rose was born three months later. She could have been conceived the night I was born. The new baby was beautiful, they said, pink and perfect, like a freshly picked rosebud. From the beginning Rose was the special one – the extra spoonful of jam on her bread, the longest ribbon for her hair, the prettiest doll. Children notice these things.
Then came Violet. “Come in and see your Mama and your new baby sister, she’s blond and beautiful, just like Rose.”
“She’s not my Mama,” I declared, hanging back.
“Don’t be silly. Of course she’s your Mama.” The nurse looked taken aback. My father pushed me towards the door, so I had no choice but to enter the overheated bedroom, trying not to breathe in the smell of blood and faeces only partly masked by the pungency of carbolic and the sickly sweet scent of baby powder.
“Another flower to add to your bunch,” cooed the nurse. I refused to look at the baby and escaped as soon as I could.
“Just jealous. It’s hard for the oldest. You must make allowances.” I heard the nurse murmur as I squeezed past her bulk.
From the beginning, I would never call her Mama. I’m not sure why. As they said, I couldn’t possibly remember.
Rose and I started school together. It was a mile walk into the village and at six I was old enough to take care of Rose. At school I heard the stories whispered amongst the children in corners of the playground and between the mothers waiting at the school gates. They explained much.
My father, Jack Dean, had moved into the area with his wife, Lily from another part of the country. “They bought the cottage outright,” said the whisperers. For a common farm labourer to own property was unknown in these parts. When Lily died in childbed, Jack married Iris, the barmaid at the Dog and Whistle. There were rumours about a fortune in gold coins that Lily had brought with her, although no one quite believed that. No one in the village had ever seen a gold coin.
With these snippets in mind, I listened carefully to conversations between Jack and Iris. Their relationship was becoming increasingly acrimonious and they didn’t always bother to lower their voices. “Where could she have hidden them? Are you sure they existed and she didn’t just make it up? Maybe you made them up to trick me into marriage.”
“They existed all right. I’ve told you. She kept them in a casket in that old chest and the key on a ribbon round her neck.”
“Then she must have taken them out and hidden them somewhere else. Do you know how many were left?”
“Enough. They must be hidden somewhere.”
Sometimes I heard them searching, pulling up bits of floorboard and tapping the walls. They even dug around outside. I looked myself when I was alone in the house, but couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that we were looking in the wrong place. It would not be easy in a small cottage like this to hide a significant number of gold sovereigns.
As it was, there was not much money to spare. Jack earned less than two pounds a week and he had to hand all of it to Iris. We had a roof over our heads, a roof that desperately needed repair. Iris doled out the money and Jack had barely enough to get drunk one night in a month. Gin was her weakness and there was always a bottle hidden away somewhere. On occasions when the level dropped to empty before payday, even Rose and Violet kept out of her way and I collected enough bruises in the normal way to keep my distance.
When I was ten, an artist knocked on our door and asked if he could paint the cottage. A new gin bottle had just been opened so Iris was in a sunny mood and gave permission. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to paint our cottage. Iris had Rose and Violet sit on the front step so they could be in the picture too. I still had my chores to finish, so was banished to the kitchen. As the oldest, I always had more than my fair share of household tasks. When the artist disappeared into the shed in the corner of the garden, I crept out to peep at his work. I was carefully lifting a corner of the cloth draped across it when a voice behind me made me start.
“Go on. You can look.” A warm brown hand came over my small pale one and the cloth was lifted away. I gasped. This couldn’t be our cottage with its leaking roof, crumbling walls and peeling paintwork. And yet it was. There were the dandelions, splashes of gold along the wall, reflecting the light that also touched the hair of my two sisters, crouched on the step with their heads close together as they shared a bag of cheap sweets that the artist had given them. I turned to look at him questioningly.
He smiled. “Yes, all lies, but it will sell. Look more closely.”
I turned back to the picture. “Oh!”
“You’ve made them look like little pigs.” He had exaggerated the plumpness of their cheeks and made their eyes little slits. Even their up-turned noses could have been snouts.
He laughed. “Greed shows in the face. They didn’t save any sweets for you did they? Everything shows in the face. You need to remember that. Look there.” He pointed to the window behind them and I saw what I had not noticed before, a shadowy face at the window, one arm raised to part the net curtain. “Now there’s beauty worth painting.”
I turned and found he was looking at me with a strange intensity that made me afraid of what, if not greed, he might read in my face. Then Iris and the two girls came out of the front door and I backed away. Iris would have liked to buy the picture, but the price he named was too high. She shrugged. “Well it’s very pretty and a good likeness of my two little flowers.” No one seemed to notice the shadowy face at the window. The artist smiled and gave me a wink. Then he packed up his paints and left.
I never saw the artist again, but he made me think. The next afternoon, I was set to clean the sitting room while the others walked to the shop in the village. The minute they’d gone, I put down my duster and climbed onto the settee, so that I could look at my face in the one mirror we possessed. I don’t know what I expected, but what I saw gave me a jolt. Perhaps there was beauty in the dark almond shaped eyes and the mass of dark hair, but the expression was sullen and watchful. I frowned at the image and saw my brows draw closer together. I recoiled. This was not the face I wanted to show the world.
From then on, I set out to make myself agreeable. When I found a florin lying on the grass outside the Dog and Whistle, I bought Iris a bottle of her favourite. It made her happier I told myself, but I noticed that her features were becoming bloated and she was eating less. Like the house, she was beginning to disintegrate.
Rose and Violet were starting to take an interest in boys, allowing themselves to be kissed and fondled in that piece of woodland on the way to school. I’d left school long ago, but was needed at home. Iris was becoming less and less capable and someone had to shop and cook, clean and wash. I even took over the accounts and Jack reluctantly handed me his unopened pay-packet. By careful management, I was able to squeeze out an extra bottle of gin each week.
It was then that I discovered my mother’s secret. They say that the best place to hide something is in plain sight.
The hop in the village hall was a regular feature. Rose and Violet begged to go and I made them dresses out of clothes bought from the rag and bone man, quality garments discarded by the rich folk at the manor. Rose and Violet were barely grateful. Then Rose tore her skirt and threw a tantrum until I agreed to stitch it up. You can’t mend a rent like that in five minutes, so they had to wait. They would be late unless they took the short cut. I knew the stream was running high and the stepping-stones just level with the water. I told them to be careful. There was no reason why I should know that the stones in the middle had been dislodged and completely washed away. Their bodies were found next day a mile downstream.
After the funeral, Iris really fell apart and I had to replenish the gin bottle even more often, but we had two less mouths to feed. It was her liver, the doctor said and when her skin took on a yellowish hue, I knew it would soon be over. I don’t think she suffered, not as bad as bleeding to death anyhow.
So in little under a year, a family of five was reduced to two, just Jack and me. I continued to keep house and put good meals on the table, but Jack was beginning to look at me suspiciously, as though he thought I might be poisoning him. He was becoming less confident in his movements. “You must be careful when you are up on the top of those hayricks,” I warned him repeatedly. “Just one false step and you could fall.”
When Jack fell out of the hayloft, missing his footing on the top rung of the ladder, it could only be seen as another unfortunate accident. He broke his back, so it was a quick end. I am glad he didn’t linger. A man like that would have found it hard to tolerate pain and disability.
People turn away or cross the street when they see me approach and I can imagine the whispers as they huddle together. I’ve got a good offer for the cottage from the farmer, who wants to let it to one of his farmhands. They can have the furniture as far as I am concerned. All I shall take with me is the handful of letters, old bills, birth certificates and my mother’s death certificate that I found in the bureau when I started keeping the accounts. There should be enough to prove that I am the daughter of Lily Paxton and able to claim the little casket that she placed in a deposit box at Lloyds Bank. From the date on the receipt, she must have done it shortly after discovering she was pregnant. I wonder if she foresaw the future.
When I leave here I will never come back. All my life I have lived with memories. Now it is time to forget.