Almost 10,000 words of a novel I started in 2018 and haven’t touched since. I have no compulsion to finish it so it remains untitled, unedited, and unfinished…
The letter from her mother disturbed Autumn. Somehow, it tore apart the equilibrium of a life she’d constantly tried to justify. But then, how foolish to assume she could live forever without the salted wind and the misted mountains roaming across the horizon. For years she’d programmed herself to remember only the winters at Ty Traeth. The rain, the mud.
And then there were the horses. Difficult to quantify how she felt about the horses. Her mother lived and breathed all things equine and made it plain that raising three daughters who hadn’t embraced her passion in quite the same way was a constant, crushing disappointment. Furthermore, none of them would ever be forgiven or included in her will. As it might suggest, someone who thought nothing of wearing paisley bell-bottoms or a man’s kilt and gumboots to muck-out,Deanna was prone to theatrics and exaggeration, although this kind of declaration still had the power to depress. Autumn should have been her time of the year to shine, but the letter had quickly dulled any perceived sense of well-being. The musty paper had stayed in her coat pocket for the remainder of the day, its presence reinforcing a number of familiar, unresolved issues. Deanna’s words not only cut deep but unceremoniously dragged Autumn’s head out of the sand where it had lain dormant for too long. She could almost taste the sea and feel the grit beneath her eyelids.
Sharing a name with one of the four seasons always tended to attract diverse opinion. Most of the time she simply felt enormously grateful that her mother had stopped at three children and no one had had to suffer being christened Spring. And at least Autumn couldn’t be shortened to a nickname like Sum, or Winnie. Summer had daringly called her Tum on more than one occasion but she’d quickly put a stop to that. And then a surprising number of people imagined she might sport a vibrant hair colour, although she could argue that mousy brown was easily as seasonal as red, or yellow. But the mood of the season was perhaps especially fitting since she often felt as if she might be approaching the end of something.
A Friday evening on the last day of September proved a case in point. She’d finished late at the office and since it was her last day, allowed herself to be swept along to the pub. A place which represented a noisy conglomeration of city life squashed into the confines of the latest less-touristy establishment favoured by the real Londoners who lived and worked there. On the face of it, less pretentious than the glitzy wine and cocktail bars. Perhaps it was more pretentious because of its exclusivity tucked away on a side street, the entrance heavily disguised as a fridge door. Autumn emerged as darkness began to descend across the city, transforming the urban landscape into one of blinking and twinkling surprise. Breaking through the constant drone of traffic, the strains of a familiar song by U2. On autopilot, her feet took her in the direction of the pounding bass, the well-known guitar riff, the soaring vocals.
Four youths stood in the middle of the traffic island by Tower Hill tube station, rush-hour traffic crawling past. Wet leaves, the rush of people walking by and the twilit city added to the surreal scene. The band were good, even gave her goosebumps. Gloria! She used to wish her name was something ordinary like Gloria, and Alfie had laughed and tried to pick out the refrain on his guitar. He couldn’t play it, neither could he sing like Bono, but she’d loved the way his floppy hair had fallen into his eyes when he’d tried to concentrate. They’d collapsed laughing in the end, drunk on fresh air and infatuation. Well, that’s what she’d always told herself. Nostalgia was always such a bitter-sweet pain.
Twenty-three years ago. She’d been sixteen, a bookish geek, impressionable, a hopeless romantic. He’d been three years older, a mathematics geek, unimpressionable, a guarded romantic. Encouraged by his cheek and his hip-hugging denims, she’d joined him in taking a couple of the faster horses – without permission – to the beach at Llanddwyn. It had been exhilarating galloping through the surf in November, Dwynwen’s Celtic cross – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – outlined against a sepia sky on the peninsular. But they’d got into terrible trouble when Chiron, her mother’s hunter, had pulled a tendon after suddenly ploughing into soft sand. Her fault, but Alfie had heroically taken all the blame and walked the horse home while she jogged alongside on the headstrong Gypsy. Ah, Gypsy. Black as coal, a mane and tail like long knotted seaweed.
Autumn heaved a sigh, hitched her bag over the opposite shoulder, and stuffed her hands into her pockets where her fingers found the letter again. A handwritten letter held more gravitas. Deanna never used the phone or a computer. No doubt this was one of the reasons the riding school had failed some ten years ago. Reduced now to private teaching and a handful of liveries.
No doubt the same identical letter had gone to her sisters, although Winter and Summer would already have responded. Summer would be eager to seize an opportunity to tell Deanna exactly where she had gone wrong and worm herself back into favour as the golden girl, when in fact Winter was the only one with any real understanding about horses and had been itching to get involved for years. But then she was with Joe, and he showed no interest whatsoever in their family affairs let alone a painfully old-fashioned washed-up riding school run by a difficult eccentric like Deanna. For Win to be hands on would mean moving onto the island, and there was no way Joe would make a compromise like that. Since the blame culture and the rise of indoor schools, the landscape had changed. There was no money in it. And therein lay the age-old problem.
Autumn took the tube back to Bethnal Green, and walked briskly past the launderette, the greengrocers and the Asian shops. Her flat was in a gated community, surrounded by sharp railings. She punched in the code at the gate and passed through, head down. She had no idea who her neighbours were and sadly, she didn’t really wish to know. Too late now, anyway. Her sanctuary, four rooms in a refurbished soap factory, frequently felt as if they might be closing in. The moment she was through the door, the cats threaded through her legs and demanded feeding, but Autumn was grateful for the distraction. She opened two pouches of tuna crunch, wrinkling her nose at the odour. An overhead train rattled past and its thunderous passage sent shock waves through a glass upended on the sink drainer. She filled it with red wine then moved to the sofa, opened her laptop and scanned the emails. No job news, nothing from either of her sisters, but a confirmation that contracts had exchanged on the flat. Something lurched in the pit of her stomach but it was too soon to consider whether it might be relief, shame, excitement, or fear. Maybe it was failure, after all.
Facebook informed her that she had just five notifications, this after at least ten days of not looking. She browsed her elder sister’s timeline and rolled her eyes at the continuous stream of showing-off attention-seeking nonsense, the most pertinent being a post reminding everyone of their deceased father’s birthday. Autumn hated posts about imaginary anniversaries, or the continuous yearly announcement of someone who’d died years ago. Surely it was touting for sympathy and exactly the kind of thing Summer did on a regular basis. ‘It would have been Dad’s birthday today,’ she announced, accompanied by an ancient photograph of them all playing on a beach with Dad wearing a bright smile and a pair of psychedelic shorts barely skimming his thighs. Who did she imagine might be interested in an old family photograph, other than the relatives themselves? And yet the stream of sympathy kept coming ‘Aww so sorry, Sum. Hope you’re okay?’
Of course she was okay. She was married to Alfie.
Winter allowed a lopsided smile to crease her face on sight of Summer’s photograph. Judging by the blurred, distant view of the Llyn Peninsular in the background the beach scene was almost certainly somewhere on Anglesey. Dad in a pair of hideous shorts sporting a milk-white chest. Autumn looked especially haunted, buried up to her neck in sand and seaweed and, as usual Summer looked especially carefree in a bright sundress, pouting and striking a pose. Even as a young teen and before the advent of phones and cameras, Summer knew how to play to an audience. Winter could afford to be mildly blasé about the family history because all those photographs Summer scanned in to her computer hardly ever included Winter and if they did, she invariably only appeared as a small child on a hairy pony. On the other hand, she didn’t remember their father with the same heartache as her elder sisters. And anyway, what mattered to Winter was the here and now, the present. She’d already responded to Deanna’s summons with enthusiasm. Personally, she couldn’t wait for the distraction. Her only immediate problem was persuading Joe that October half-term was a good time to spend a week on Anglesey at the family pile. No doubt Summer would seize the opportunity if she could juggle her work, but then like Joe, she was a bit… obsessed with her career. And these days, Summer’s limited holiday time tended towards something hot, expensive and exotic. An island off the North Wales coast didn’t tick any of those boxes.
Joe padded down the stairs, yawning.
‘Why didn’t you wake me? 60 covers for lunch today.’
‘And risk getting my head bitten off?’
He opened the fridge and when his shoulders drooped at sight of the sparse contents, anxiety crept along her spine. It didn’t help her cause that she was cleaning tack on the kitchen table. She occasionally rode her neighbour’s horse and the secondhand saddle was her contribution to a casual arrangement which so far had served them both well, but if Joe knew the full story he’d hit the roof. She rubbed oil along the old, cracked leather with her fingers, raising her eyes to Joe’s muscular back as he removed a carton of orange juice and three eggs decorated with tiny feathers and soil. At least they always had eggs, and Ty Nant Honey. Free-range, organic. A Welsh cottage garden in a jar. The production of home-grown fruit, herbs, and vegetables had proved a bit hit and miss but at least she was trying, and during holiday times the honesty box at the end of the drive always collected a few pounds. When they’d first moved to Ty Nant, Winter had imagined that her home crafts and the cottage garden might be the perfect fit with Joe’s job and her lack of earning skills. But the struggle with money and the endless repairs to their dilapidated farmhouse in Snowdonia had proved otherwise. Joe was good, too good even for the renowned Llewellyn Arms, but living where they did had its limitations career-wise.
‘What’s this?’ he said, Deanna’s letter between his fingers.
‘Why don’t you read it?’
He scanned the letter quickly and grunted, then threw the creased sheets of paper back down onto the worktop. He rummaged noisily through the cutlery drawer. ‘Who the hell’s Bertie? Anyway, I’ve got a two-day meeting in Birmingham at the beginning of that week, on top of everything else. No chance of me being there.’
‘Oh, Joe, we never take a break and the pub owes you so much time.’
‘Whatever. Bertie’s mum’s friend, remember?That old guy who dabbles in antiques.’
‘Christ, him. Anglesey’s answer to David Dickinson. What’s he got to do with anything? Why is he even hanging around?’
‘Not really sure. That’s why the family need to form a united front.’
He waved a spatula in her direction. ‘Summer has enough front for everyone. Anyway, you only want me over there to cook for you all. What did we have last time your mother decided to boil something?’
‘Peacock, wasn’t it? From the estate, I should imagine. The dogs are always hunting them. What’s the difference to you cooking… I dunno, an ostrich?’
‘Everything.’ He began cracking eggs into a bowl with one hand.
‘Joe, look, can’t you make stuff in advance at the pub and leave them to it?’
She knew better than to challenge this. His reputation was everything. Joe Sullivan didn’t just cook, he created a religious experience. Given some of the sensitive content of Deanna’s letter, perhaps it was best that Joe went to work and attended his meeting. After all, her mother had a low opinion of nouvelle cuisine and loathed any show of extravagance, or waste. Deanna still had a Welsh dresser stuffed to the rafters with Co-op plastic bags, baler twine, and tins of corned beef circa 1965. Somewhere in the pantry there was a rusted, tinned vegetable omelette with a grinning baby on the label.
And then she insisted on either mending everything or shopping for clothes in charity shops. Deanna hadn’t thrown anything out for about fifty years, but it meant Ty Traeth had been a treasure trove of discovery for a child. Rainy days for the sisters had meant trawling through the attic or locking themselves in the cellar until one of them screamed. Eventually, Summer and Autumn became too old for such games and left Winter to her own devices. Despite the awful food, it had been a rich childhood in all the ways that mattered. Now though, Deanna remained in the past, while the rest of the family existed somewhere in the blinkered future. A future Winter wasn’t sure coexisted happily within herself. Sometimes she understood her mother’s craving for how things used to be in the fifties and sixties, when everything had seemed slower and safer, and everyone knew the Christian name of the postman’s second cousin removed.
‘You go,’ Joe said, tipping the eggs into a sizzling pan. ‘I’m not one for family stuff, you know that. And I can’t see Autumn turning up, she’s stayed away for years. So that means Alfie and Summer giving each other dagger looks for a week.’
‘Alfie’s a laugh.’
‘Used to be.’
He had a point. She’d have to persuade Autumn it was a good idea.
~ ~ ~
‘Actually, I am coming to Ty Traeth,’ Autumn said, later. ‘I’m coming home for a while.’
Winter cupped the phone closer to her ear, bemused that her sister had called Ty Traeth, home. ‘Really? That’s brilliant! I know it sounds silly, but I get nervous and morose around Summer without backup. Her drinking is worse than ever these days.’
‘Worse than it was at Christmas?’
‘Maybe. I don’t know how Alfie puts up with it, I really don’t.’
A guarded silence. ‘You’ve never got on.’
‘No, well. And she’s such a social climber these days with her artificial tan, and the way she fawns over her gown-up children is just… weird.’
A sigh. ‘I know.’
‘Sorry, I promise I won’t antagonise her.’
They talked briefly about Autumn’s redundancy and Winter’s unexpected, undisclosed pregnancy, before Autumn said she had to go and buy a cat carrier from the Indian Mini-Mart.
In truth, the family powwow presented Autumn with a medium-term fix. She’d taken a room on short-term rental to see her past the completion date on the flat. Some breathing space on Anglesey with all her worldly goods in storage – such as they were – felt well-timed. She’d made no real effort to find another job or somewhere permanent to live, mostly because one without the other in London posed a problem and without a clear sense of direction, her entire future felt open for debate. On the upside, she had a healthy bank balance and the freedom to do as she pleased. In fact, if Summer promised not to squabble, some time spent at Ty Traeth might even be enjoyable. The only difficulty about leaving London for an undisclosed length of time had been trying to explain her exodus to Warren.
‘But for how long? When will I see you?’
‘Warren, I… I think we should call it a day.’
‘Good grief, well, I didn’t see that coming.’
He didn’t try to oppose her. In fact, his only reaction was to loosen his silk tie, but then Warren was used to being obtuse. He was an MP. Married. He’d never strung her the line that his wife didn’t understand him. It was more Autumn who didn’t understand him, or herself for that matter, for carrying on with something so utterly devoid of passion and commitment. Friends with benefits was over-rated and as of this day, over and done with. Even clandestine trips to the theatre and dinner at Ramsey’s in Chelsey had its limitations. Warren was bland, and so was his expensive life.
He’d been mildly allergic to the cats.
Sensing something was up on travelling day, Piglet and Tigger evaded capture until a bribe was forthcoming. She’d made the interior of the carrier as comfortable as possible with a familiar blanket and some dangling mice filled with catnip. She’d also managed to compress a sensible wardrobe of items – plus a bag of dried cat food and some kitty litter – into a pull-along case, and then she had a leather backpack which doubled as a handbag. Heaving these items onto the train at Euston and heaving them off again at Chester was no mean feat. No one helped these days, for fear of being accused of obstructing feminism. Warren would have helped, but she’d closed the door there. He’d not even turned-up to wave her off, but perhaps that was for the best.
The train was on time. As she left the outskirts of London the countryside opened out and it felt cheesy to suggest that her heart did too, but it went some way to reassuring Autumn that she’d done the right thing. At least, for a while. And if she found it tiresome or too difficult, then there were plenty of web developing contracts in London to scuttle back to.
A couple of hours later, Autumn stood outside Chester station as instructed by Summer, the cats yowling at her feet. She could easily have caught the Holyhead train and continued her journey but all told that made another two hours of travelling, and it wasn’t fair on the cats and so suggesting to her sister that she travelled in with herself and Alfie for the final leg, made more sense. Or that’s what she told herself. In truth, Autumn wanted to test her reaction to Alfie, assess Summer’s level of drinking and perhaps mediate a smooth way forward before the holiday – if that’s what it could be called. Once in the clutches of their mother, things were apt to go off course very quickly and it always paid to have some sort of plan.
Her sister’s gas-guzzling car came into view. A Mercedes four-by-four, a huge, black thing with tinted windows and a carbon footprint the size of Switzerland. They exchanged the usual pleasantries but as usual, Summer was only half-listening while Autumn filled her in on the redundancy and the demise of Warren, while she manhandled her bag and the cat carrier into the cavernous rear hatch. Autumn climbed into the passenger seat and only just managed to pull the belt across before Summer swung the vehicle back out into the traffic.
‘Why have you bought the bloody cats?’
‘Why do you think? I could hardly leave them in London by themselves, could I?’
‘You’ll have to shut them in the utility room. Or the conservatory. I don’t want them climbing the William Morris drapes.’
Autumn stared through the side window, at the windblown streets and the cascades of leaves, occasionally stealing a glance at her sister. She looked tired, but groomed to the nines. Long, lustrous hair, obviously helped by a mahogany tint, but even so. Fully made-up face with slightly too much foundation and a thick slick of dark pink lipstick. Matching nails, one with a diamanté tip. A dark business suit, jewellery in the form of diamond earrings, a Cartier wrist watch, and a white gold wedding ring nestled to a ruby engagement ring. Some of her business cards were scattered across the dash. McCormack and Morris-Jones Solicitors. Mrs Summer Rose McCormack, specialising in family law.
The car swung into The Groves, a prestigious road of individual properties. Summer and Alfie lived in a five-bed period house, originally Georgian, but extended and altered too much beyond its original imprint. For example, Summer had insisted on a huge modern conservatory, something which Autumn thought downright unnecessary and grossly ostentatious. This was mostly down to the water feature and several fake bronze statues. They walked through the hall and into this cavernous space and Autumn gravitated towards one of the over-dressed sofas. She moved several cushions to clear a space in order to sit.
‘Where he always is at lunchtime.’ Summer avoided eye contact and rummaged in a bulging leather briefcase. ‘Propping up the bar at the Dancing Bear.’
‘You make that sound like he’s some sort of waster.’
Her head came up then. ‘He is! It’s a job for a student, not a 42 year-old man with an incredibly clever brain. The Alfie I married used to be a financial analyst for several high profile investment bankers. Now he’s on something like seven quid an hour. Plus tips. Mustn’t forget those.’
So, it still rankled after all this time. Summer’s disdain because Alfie no longer earned mega-bucks, hadn’t diminished one iota.
‘But um… he likes the pub?’
‘Of course he likes the fucking pub!’ she spat, almost rounding on Autumn for asking the question. ‘Everyone loves him because he can add up a drinks list in his head faster than the bloody computerised till. He’s like a… a mascot for them, some sort of weird novelty.’
‘Alright, alright. I get it.’
Summer held up her hands in a placatory gesture. ‘I’m sorry. I just feel like I’m the only one in this family earning any money to keep us all going. And now Mother’s whinging about the financial mess she’s allowed herself to get into.’ Summer pinched the bridge of her nose and Autumn was part horrified, part fascinated to witness tears welling in her sister’s eyes. ‘I have to get back to work. I’ve got clients for the rest of the day.’
‘It’s fine, you go.’
‘You know where everything is?’
‘I think so.’
The front door slammed behind her sister. Tigger and Piglet yowled. Autumn set up the litter tray and let the cats out for a stretch, then made her way into the kitchen. Acres of sparkly granite worktops stretched into the distance across glossy white units, but rather than try to locate a kettle, her eyes were drawn to a pair of Alfie’s denims perched on top of a pile of laundry.
October half-term promised a mix of weather. Local forecasts rarely synchronised and so the upshot meant that it was wise to expect anything and everything on Anglesey. She’d dropped Joe at the train station first thing. She did think it a little odd that a training course necessitated setting off on Saturday morning, but it most likely included a meet-up with the other chefs and the usual night on the town criticising someone else’s dinner. And there wasn’t much point in him being home alone. It would take something like three hours to get to Birmingham, down to a replacement bus service somewhere along the way, and an expensive taxi trip at the other end. Guilt then, because she’d bagged the car. Summer couldn’t collect her on the way because their car was full including Autumn, squashed into the back between the cat-crate and a baby-seat which was too difficult to keep taking out. Summer’s offspring and their offspring, generally went everywhere their respective mothers did, often in preference to friends of their own age. But then Summer seemed to pay for everything rather than make them stand on their own feet, and so these over-privileged, emotionally dependent adult children were forever in the picture and more often than not, offering up opinions on matters that didn’t concern them. Coupled with Summer’s drinking, and the way she undermined Alfie at every move, didn’t set a good example and the whole dynamic made Winter feel uncomfortable, especially the way the Rose women viewed all men as losers. It was a relief that Deanna had explicitly asked that children of all ages be excluded on this occasion and went some way to endorsing Winter’s view that her older sister exhibited dubious parenting skills.
But then focusing on a different set of problems for a while other than her own, might be quite cathartic. A mild wave of nausea reminded her of the major undisclosed item at the top of her personal list. Joe would be alright about her pregnancy, once he’d got over the shock. Once he’d accepted that his career was not the be-all-and-end-all of their relationship. They’d raise strong, respectful, independent children and Joe would see her in a new light. She’d have a sense of purpose, an important job to do because in truth, Winter had always felt over-shadowed by her sister’s careers.
~ ~ ~
Holiday traffic meant that the drive took more than the usual couple of hours to drive to Pentref-y-Gog. Although she liked the rented cottage where they lived on the outskirts of Llangollen, Winter loved the island more. The close proximity of the sea, the dramatic headland walks, the ancient history and the small, coastal communities. A vanilla sky rose like parchment above the stretch of water called the Menai Strait, the perfect backdrop to the remaining colours of autumn. She sped towards the old suspension bridge, a line of traffic halting her progress down to a crawl. But then the road widened, peeling off towards the west coast and Holy Island, and the old car picked up speed. Holy island, just fifteen square miles; notched with coves, and saturated with burial chambers and standing stones.
Winter turned right at the church down a long rutted driveway and minutes later Ty Traeth – the Beach House – came into view. Huge, crumbling, imposing. As always her eyes were drawn to the horses strung out across the muddy wind-flattened fields. The land surrounding the nineteenth-century house and the dilapidated barns and stabling, all belonged to Ty Traeth and gradually gave way to open headland and a coastal footpath. The sea roared and crashed against the rocky shoreline but today it was unusually calm, hopefully a prophecy of things to come.
Summer’s car was already there.
Delaying the inevitable, Winter glanced towards the stables, looking for Chiron’s dark velvet head dozing over his stable door, his bottom lip dangling and his ears flopping sideways. Her mother’s hunter was twenty-seven, a pensioner in horse years. He hadn’t worked in over a decade down to a string of expensive complaints, but continued to live out his final years in better conditions than a lot of people. But the yard was eerily deserted, and after scanning the fields for Chiron’s red rug and drawing a blank, steeled herself to enter the house. Access to the back door was hampered by a large porch filled with rows of coats and outdoor gear and the outer door needed a good shove. Ancient wax jackets with rotting pony nuts in the pockets and festooned in cobwebs, plus racks of boots, filled the space. Old wellingtons, gumboots, leather show boots, jodhpur boots, old sandals. Mice. Everything covered in dust or mud, some of it mildewed, most of it not used in years.
The inner door was wedged open. ‘Hello!’
‘Is that you, Win? We’re in here.’
She dragged her case down the hall and into the snug, the wheels catching on the wrinkled carpet. The room was full and her eyes touched on Autumn gratefully, before she tugged at the zip on her coat and kissed her mother’s proffered cheek. ‘Where’s Chiron?’
‘Ah.’ Bertie cleared his throat and inclined his gaze. ‘He’s re… stabled, up there. Pride of place.’
Above the ferocious log-burner, the long mantle displayed the cremated remains of special family dogs and horses since 1965. ‘He’s dead?’
Deanna flapped a hand at her. ‘Wouldn’t have been fair to make him endure another winter.’
‘Kindest thing in the end,’ Bertie grunted. ‘Genuine antique Welsh gold, that box, all lined.’
‘All entirely unnecessary,’ Summer said. ‘Another obscene waste of money. And anyway, how would you know it was the kindest thing? You know nothing about horses.’
‘He went down,’ Deanna said, defiant in the face of Bertie’s polite discomfort. ‘Want the details?’
‘Then be quiet. Despite every effort on my behalf, you don’t know much about horses, either.’
‘Well, that box looks fake to me. Just like him.’
‘Why are you so rude? Chiron deserved the best. Not that it’s any concern of yours how I choose to remember my dearest companions. I don’t lecture you when you spend obscene amounts of money on your spoilt, ungrateful grandchildren.’
The eye-rolling was palpable. Alfie shot Winter a tired smile then got up and stoked the fire. Summer gave her a barely-there nod, too busy with pouring another glass of wine, but at least Autumn came over for a hug. She looked her usual geeky self in grey woollen tights and a long grey cardigan over a purple skirt and clumpy boots; all of which was reassuring.
The house seemed in a worse state than Alfie remembered, or maybe it was just that in the summer months it looked a lot better. Softer, somehow. Summer used to be softer, too. When he saw the three sisters side-by-side it emphasised how muchharder his wife had become. Of course she was the eldest and life took its toll, but the heavy drinking and the bitterness did nothing for her demeanour let alone her once stunning looks.
He felt mild unease at sight of Autumn, but he couldn’t allow his current state of mind to dwell on the past. After years of avoiding family gatherings, he assumed Autumn’s appearance meant she was in agreement with this mindset. As for Winter, he simply felt relieved that Joe had waived the entire thing. Something about the guy made Alfie feel woefully inadequate. He studied Winter’s downcast eyes for a moment but pushed any uncomfortable thoughts to the back of his mind. There was plenty of other stuff to contemplate.
The ‘big news,’ was to be discussed after dinner. Autumn and Winter took themselves off to the kitchen to reassure themselves that ‘dinner’ meant a repast in the traditional sense of the word, and not a half-hearted attempt at some eighteenth century recipe involving the blood of three cockerels or some other such atrocity. On the other hand, it could easily mean instant noodles served on silver platters. Alfie used to find that stuff funny. Still, he was working on it. No pills for several months now. He creaked up the stairs to their room, already needing to escape the tension between Deanna and Summer. It was a great room. Dual aspect bay windows commanding sea views, big purple skies full of racing cloud and somehow, you just knew there were millions of stars up there. And on the headland, a small group of brightly-coloured walkers, heads down against the wind. He lowered himself down on to the edge of the bed. The pink candlewick bedspread, nibbled and faded at the edges, clashed with a badly fitted threadbare peach carpet, the sculptured sort with scrolls. The sort of carpet that held on to dust and spilled drinks like a treasury of past times. None of this decor was improved by the addition of a rippled Chinese rug; lying in wait by an antique dressing table cluttered with memorabilia. On closer inspection the rug was hiding a couple of rotten floorboards, and while he was crouched at floor level, Alfie spotted a mousetrap behind the curtains amid several inches of dust.
His wife materialised, threw her handbag across the bed and began to disrobe. ‘Close the curtains will you? I can’t get changed in here it’s like a bloody fishbowl.’
‘How so? There’s nothing out there.’
‘The coastal path? Everyone has binoculars these days or cameras with zooms.’
Alfie tugged at the heavy material and it screeched along wonky metal rails, forcing the last beam of afternoon light to concentrate upon Summer’s fancy suitcases and his old leather holdall. He no longer owned enough clothes to warrant bringing a suitcase and his wife had given up buying anything for him. He used to have rows of Saville Row suits, silk ties, hundreds of shirts. Fancy shoes with shoe-horns in them, a dry-cleaning account. The holdall contained a soap-bag, some underwear, a jumper, a beanie hat, his running gear and two pairs of Levis. He’d applied this same philosophy to those areas of his life where he felt he could get away with it. It irked him that the word simplicity contained the word ‘city,’ but you couldn’t have everything. Maybe he was overthinking again.
Summer shot him an expectant look before pulling something woollen over her head and poking her arms through. ‘So, have you had any ideas how we can make Mum see sense?’
He used to like watching her dress. Especially when she wore stockings and nice lingerie but that felt denied now, or too complicated. It was about performance, targets, rewards. All the things that had eventually destroyed him. ‘See sense? About what?’
‘Have you not read the letter?’
‘Let’s see what the others say first.’
‘You’d better back me up, Alfie.’
He ignored this. Not too long ago he’d have gone along with anything if it meant a quiet life. But on this occasion Alfie was genuinely interested in Autumn and Winter’s take on matters. He had a feeling his wife might be in the minority, but if surviving a breakdown had taught him anything it was to take control of the abyss before it swallowed him again. Complacency, and indifference held up as significant negatives, or so his therapist had said. He used to scowl and scoff at these statements, but some things were beginning to make sense.
He watched his wife check her phone, scrolling through messages.
‘Oh, God, no! River. She’s in a right state.’
She turned her back to him and speed-dialled, then paced up and down the room, boards creaking. Alfie stretched across the bed and closed his eyes. His eldest daughter had always enjoyed the monopoly on attention. Was it right to feel so resentful of one’s own offspring? There was no way of blanking out the fraught exchange. River crying and shouting, Summer trying to placate and commiserate.
‘Come home to The Groves with the kids till he sees sense,’ Summer said.
This had Alfie’s blood pressure leap. He’d only just got rid of them all six months ago! River’s wedding had seen bells and whistles of the highest order. Sugared almonds, thousands of peace doves, white horses wearing pink plumes. Swathes of shell-pink silk and highlighted, straightened hair. Dagger-like nails with crystals in them, all those expensive, pampered hands unable to do anything in case the nails spoilt, split or snapped off.
‘I’m only helpless till my nails dry!’ his youngest had said, and they’d all laughed. Alfie had cried, but behind the smoking garden at the pub, so that was alright. He used to cry for himself, but now he cried for them. He often cried for his daughters and the things they deemed important. He tried to counter their immaturity against his still sometimes fragile emotions, but living with three hormonal daughters plus River’s children and her fiancé, hadn’t helped Alfie’s overall recovery. The arguments, the pettiness of everything from whose phone-charger it was, to banging doors at all hours of the day and night, a two-year old going through the tantrum stage and a teething baby. A baby who cried and grizzled while Alfie was trying to sleep after a long shift in the pub, but of course no one really cared about that because it wasn’t a ‘proper’ job. Summer loved the chaos, the feeling of being needed all the time but then she was out at work all day, took credit for all the good stuff, then lapped up the agony aunt role on her return. Ironically, she practised family law for a living. Alfie reckoned the good guys never got a look in. Pay up, and ship out.
‘They’ve had a bloody row, that’s all. Sum, she can’t keep running home all the time, she has to learn to deal with stuff. Stop… helicoptering or, what’s it called? Micro-parenting, that’s the one.’
‘I thought you hated buzz words?’
‘I thought you understood them?’
She looked slightly wrong-footed at this, at his quick response. ‘Whatever. Anyway, in my book it’s called caring.’
‘That’s passive-aggressive. You’re intimidating I don’t care.’
Alfie lay back down and covered his eyes with an old, yellowing edition of Woman’s Own. Why Summer involved herself in the details of their daughter’s marriage was quite beyond him. The poor guy she’d married didn’t stand a chance. Neither of them did.
Dinner consisted of beef stew. It was passable, if one avoided any kind of close visual inspection and firmly bypassed the concrete dumplings. At least Alfie had found some decent wine. She watched him fill up everyone’s glass with a light-hearted flourish, until he came to Summer. When he ignored her glass and placed the bottle out of easy reach, the resultant glare could have curdled milk.
They plodded through the meal, eyes mostly cast downwards until Autumn finally cleared the plates and carried them through to the kitchen. The dogs followed her, but even they recoiled at the dumplings, although they made a polite effort to lick them clean of gravy. On her return and once re-seated, Bertie prised open an ancient tin box, the lid of which depicted a colourful Victorian cottage garden. The sort of box usually full of sweet promise but in Autumn’s experience of Ty Traeth, just as likely to contain a sewing kit, or assorted screws. Maybe she should have trusted her initial instinct because several Kit-Kats suddenly exploded into the middle of the table. Alfie whistled and rubbed his hands together.
‘Hey, look what Joe’s missing!’
Winter shot him a soft smile. ‘I like Kit-Kats. Especially with a good Merlot.’
‘The girl has taste. Do you dip them in?’
‘Right, down to business,’ Deanna cut in. She rose to her feet, bangles jangling, purple spectacles perched on the end of her nose, silver hair piled up in a wobbly topknot. Both dogs immediately leapt up from beneath the table. ‘Bones! Chutney! SIT! Sit down.’ Neither dog obeyed. Bertie offered to take them for a walk. At mention of the W word, the whole barking shebang started again until Bertie managed to escape outside, both dogs in tow – rather gratefully, Autumn thought. The second the door closed behind them, Summer grabbed the bottle of wine from where Alfie had placed it under-guard, and upended it into her glass.
‘Good, right. Well, this has nothing to do with him, anyway,’ she said.
Deanna bristled. ‘On the contrary, it has everything to do with darling Bertie. In fact, we’re getting married. This very week as it happens.’
‘Seriously? Is this why we’re all here? I haven’t brought anything to wear.’
‘You’re not invited,’ Deanna said starchily, then glanced round the table. ‘None of you are.’
There was a collective sigh, looks were exchanged, and then a brooding silence descended while Deanna opened a cardboard file and shuffled the papers. Summer brushed dog hairs off her woollen dress and glared at Alfie. Winter mostly studied her orange juice; a mix of bewilderment and despair etched across her face, but then her younger sister had looked over-emotional from the moment she’d arrived. Autumn longed to offer her a shred of sisterly comfort, but now wasn’t the time.
‘Right. I’m 65 soon,’ Deanna went on. ‘And I need to make some decisions about this place. Not one of you has ever bothered with it, despite it’s all I have to gift to you when I’m gone. It will likely be worthless by then. Crumbled to dust.’
‘So you keep saying,’ Summer said, ‘but we have our own families, jobs… properties.’
‘So you keep saying. Thing is, it destroys me to the very core that this house and the horses and everything your father and I did to build it into something special has been left to rot! Including me!’
Summer’s snort of derision ripped through the ensuing silence.
‘Mum, be reasonable. The condition of Ty Traeth isn’t our fault,’ Autumn said, although she could concede that her own attempts to visit since moving to London had been abysmal, and it didn’t help that Deanna would never know the real reasons why. Autumn meant to glance at Summer in a placatory way but her eyes were drawn like magnets to Alfie. He sat in deep thought, turning his wine glass round by the stem, such beautiful sadness etched in his face. A random memory then of riding bareback, the sun glancing through the trees, cooking supper on the beach. The perfume of warm horses, his saltwater kiss, and the dark chill of the rising moon. She’d been a fool to imagine returning to Ty Traeth as a different, more mature woman could wipe all that away.
Deanna broke through her thoughts. She cleared her throat, smoothed-out a single sheet of paper and squinted through her spectacles. ‘The main thing is, I’ve had a substantial offer for the house and the 15 acres of attached land. From Cariad Caravan Parks.’
‘So, what’s the problem?’ Summer said, at once more animated. ‘Sell up, and let’s split the proceeds. Don’t you agree, Alfie? Alfie!’
Deanna’s face darkened. ‘I’ve said nothing about splitting any proceeds. Bertie and I have talked at great length about taking a gap year.’
‘A gap year?’ Autumn said, unsure then if she was confused or bemused at the idea.
‘Yes! We may well spend your entire inheritance on Singapore Slings, street dancing in Costa Rica and a cruise down the River Nile.’ Deanna leant across the table towards Summer. ‘The last thing I want is for your spoilt children to be enabled to buy another phone, one of those silly pedigree dogs they’re always hankering for, or another pair of ridiculous shoes.’
‘How dare you!’ Summer gasped, ignoring Alfie’s quick restraint on her arm.
‘Easily, I’m afraid.’
‘So, what are you saying?’ Autumn went on, intent on keeping Deanna focused.
‘What I’m saying is if you want a decent inheritance then you’ll all have to do something about it.’ She wagged a finger round the table. ‘Two out of three of you round this table have enormous salaries.’
‘Oh, so, you want us to pay for our own inheritance?’
‘Really, you are all incredibly dim! Alfie you should understand what I’m driving at here. If you invest in Ty Traeth now, think how much it will be worth in say… twenty years time, or whenever I shuffle off this mortal coil.’
Summer’s jaw dropped. ‘So you’re expecting Autumn and myself to restore this place, then when the time comes to split it three ways? Sorry, Win, but I don’t see how that’s fair.’
Winter nodded miserably in agreement.
Deanna rolled her eyes, removed her spectacles. ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat. This isn’t just about money. It can be about the most valuable investment of all: time, and love. Something Winnie has in abundance.’ After a moment she looked at Winter and added, more briskly, ‘Winnie you can move in right away and start working the horses.’
‘I… I can’t.’
‘Why not?’ Deanna said, indignantly. ‘Joe can live here as well. Look at the rent you’ll save! Enough for a deposit on your own place. I can’t for the life of me understand why you pay rent when there are perfectly good rooms here.’
‘Er… Joe’s job?’
‘Joe can easily commute to the pub from here while you help your sisters bring this place back to life again. Winnie, darling, you’re the one with all the knowledge, the empathy, a proper little horsewoman. You can use that long-lost qualification of yours and start teaching again.’
Summer scraped her chair back and got to her feet. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve never heard such a harebrained scheme to get your own way.’ She pointed a long nail at Deanna. ‘You know something, all of this sounds like blackmail to me. And if you’re getting married to Bertie all this talk of inheritance will be null and void anyway.’
Deanna flapped a dismissive hand at this. ‘Bertie signed a disclaimer on Ty Traeth a week ago. He has his own perfectly lovely place in the village. We could easily live there while any renovations are under way.’
‘Good for you. Your life, your choice. I’msorry girls, but I’m out.’
Summer yanked a jacket off the back of her chair and made for the door, fuelling Deanna’s wrath yet again. ‘The alternative is for me to accept Cariad Caravans generous offer and travel the world with Bertie! Everything here reduced to a cloud of dust. Imagine that!’
‘Go for it. I’m afraid I have a crisis at home which is more important.’
The dining room door slammed and rattled the mis-matched crockery on the dresser. Alfie rubbed his temples then scrolled a hand down his face and peered through his fingers. Winter looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Although her heart was banging and her mind raced in first one direction, then another, Autumn couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
Her old room hadn’t changed much. The handmade shelves on either side of the fireplace were given over to a substantial collection of books featuring girls and horses, as well as old classics like The Red Pony by Steinbeck; Black Beauty, Thelwell, and hundreds of paperbacks she’d inherited from Autumn. A Pony to School, Pony Club Camp, I Had Two Ponies… The paperbacks were yellowing and fragile, the pages so well-thumbed some of the print had faded. The nostalgia of the colourful covers set in the fifties and sixties felt both sad and powerful, because all of these books linked ostensibly to her mother’s dreams. Dreams which her father had endeavoured to ensure came true. Further evidence adorned the walls of Ty Traeth in its heyday. The pony-trekking business had supported her mother’s first love, that of breeding Welsh ponies. Winter studied the mostly monochrome prints on the wall, choked with dust and juggling wall space with posters of Britney Spears and Robbie Williams. Curious that the pop posters felt enormously embarrassing now and the old books and framed photographs which she’d almost thrown out – completely fascinating. Her mother’s prize-winning Welsh Section-A stallion peered out at her from beneath a plaited forelock, a nervous Autumn hanging on to his fancy bridle at Anglesey show. Faded rosettes clung wearily to the frame. She rummaged through her dressing table to find a long lock of ebony tail plaited with dead daises, curled in the drawer.
Much of the time, Winter felt she’d missed out on all the good stuff. She’d inherited the souvenirs and the second-hand memories. By the time she’d been a teenager in the nineties, the horses were not much more than pets and the riding school was already beginning to struggle, defeated in the face of those places with indoor schools. Deanna had scoffed at the same children when they arrived at holiday times, wanting to ride on the beach. Most of them were unprepared at the feel of a forward-going pony in an open space, used only to riding inside, to a set of strict rules and regulations, something Deanna had never entertained.
‘They learn nothing in those despicable city sheds!’ she’d say, hands on hips.
Winter was in the throes of ripping-up the pop posters when a knock on the door preceded the entrance of Autumn, still holding a glass of Merlot.
‘Oh, no, not Robbie!’
‘Can’t understand what I ever saw in him.’
‘Me neither.’ Autumn swirled wine around her glass. ‘So, what are we to do?’
A shy smile. ‘About Robbie? It’s too late, I’ve binned him.’
Winter turned to look through the window, lifting her eyes above the roof of her sister’s car towards the horizon, and the sun sinking towards the sea. Her unborn child, her unborn dreams and her loyalties to herself, all struggled in the face of Joe’s ambitions. Was that fair to say? Closer to home, she spotted Summer re-packing her car, throwing a bag and some coats onto the back seat. Not wanting to think about the significance of this, either, she moved away from the window, planted herself down on the bed and chewed a nail. Autumn straddled the dressing table stool. To say the questions about what to do about Ty Traeth represented the proverbial elephant in the room, was something of an understatement. They reached the same conclusion within minutes; that without Summer on board the entire project was pretty much doomed, and not only from a cash perspective. The thought of squabbling over Ty Traeth when the inevitable time came to split the estate, was unthinkable.
‘Can’t we talk to her, the three of us sit down and work something out?’
Autumn was about to respond when the sound of skidding tyres on gravel had them both lock eyes as the unmistakable sound of the engine changing gear and then roaring into oblivion, had Autumn spring-up to look through the window. ‘So they’ve gone, just like that! Without even saying goodbye or apologising for leaving me here?’
‘Typical of her. At least Sum knows her own mind. I’m not so sure I do. I mean, is it the right timing for me to have a child,’ she said, a little surprised by her admission. Her sister frowned. ‘You’re not saying what I think you’re saying?’
‘How do you mean?’
Her sister’s face assumed a guarded look. ‘Win, you’re halfway to forty, and you’re already pregnant. It’s now or never.’
‘Alright, you don’t need to rub that in.’
‘Joe will be fine about having a child, the longer you leave off telling him the worse its going to be. Or are you waiting till you get to the point of no return?’
‘No, course not.’
When Autumn spoke again, her voice was so quiet Winter struggled to hear her. ‘I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that if you weren’t pregnant, you could be here, doing everything Mum wants you to do. I know that wistful look of yours.’
‘A little bit. Alright, quite a lot.’ Her throat thickened with emotion. ‘I just want Ty Traeth to be here forever.’
After a moment, Autumn whispered, ‘Me too.’
Deanna said she had things to do outside. She looked dragged-down and disappointed. Alfie could easily identify. He wanted to say something, but his thoughts wouldn’t form into anything relevant or coherent, despite feeling enormous empathy for a woman who’d lost her husband in her early forties and had been alone ever since. Bertie seemed an okay bloke to Alfie, despite Summer’s animosity. There again, his wife tended to be a cup half-empty kind of person these days. His fault. He’s emptied all the cups and chipped all the handles. He waited until the room emptied, his gaze lingering on Autumn as she made for the door. She glanced round at the last moment and caught his eye but his face felt too wooden to respond, programmed into a passivity he was beginning to resent. Eventually, he made his way upstairs, his heart-rate uneven and uncomfortable. This most likely down to the anticipation of a row, nothing to do with his physical health because since he’d started running he felt more together than he had in months, years even, and his once slack muscles had begun to find shape again.
The room looked mildly ransacked but because Summer hadn’t really unpacked, she didn’t have much of a job rearranging her case and zipping it closed. ‘Get your stuff, I’ve told River we’ll be back tonight.’
‘Why do you think?’
She shoved past him in a cloud of fresh perfume, and for a moment Alfie listened to her feet hammering down the stairs, huge case bumping the bannisters. He tipped his head back and studied the dirty ceiling bathed in the soft rosy glow of dusk, then crossed to the window for inspiration. Deanna looked to be weighed down with buckets, dogs at her heels, while his wife shoved bags and coats into the car. The same bags and coats they’d unpacked less than four hours ago. When he heard her re-enter the room, car keys jangling, he turned about and they stared at each other, mostly indifferently.
‘Why are you still stood there like a dummy?’
‘Like a dummy? Is that how you see me?’
She folded her arms. ‘Alright, what is this?’
‘You tell me. We drive all the way over here to spend a week with your family and now you want out?’
‘I’ve said my piece about their stupid plan. Thanks for your support, by the way. Anyway, River needs m–’
‘No, she doesn’t. She has a husband. And two sisters at home, come to that.’
‘I’m still her mother!’
‘And I’m still your husband. Remember me?’ he said, quietly. ‘Sum, I’m not coming back with you to babysit a grown woman. A pastime which more or less translates to you both drinking wine and slagging-off men.’
Her eyes travelled over his body and for a wild, surreal moment he thought she might cross the room to kiss him. But then her arms flapped at her sides and the spell was broken. ‘So, what are you going to do, stuck here with no car?’
He shrugged. ‘I’ve booked a week off work, so I’m taking it. When I’m done, I’ll get the train back with Autumn. Remember her, she came with us in the car? Nice, the way you treat your family, by the way.’
A deep exhale, a hand through her hair. ‘Alright, look… I need you to drive. I think I might be over the limit, in fact I–’
‘Then the obvious answer is to do the decent thing, and stay. Don’t be a dummy, for once.’
‘Goddammit Alfie, what’s got into you?’
‘Loneliness, common-sense? Look, I want you to stay.’
‘Don’t give me that crap, Alfie.’
‘You see that as crap?’
‘At this moment in time, yes.’
Her slanty eyes and her deep irritation still had the power to throw him. In some ways she was right; he’d been complacent for years and now, when she’d hoped to rely on his compliance, he’d suddenly cracked out of his shell. Only a hairline crack, but even so. She thundered back down the stairs and his guts waited for the door slam, the crunch of tyres and the spit of gravel.
Guilt. Everything these days seemed to boil down to feeling guilty about something, about trying to apportion blame.
The upshot of this meant Alfie remained more or less motionless on the bed, thechill night air seeping into the room while he imagined every worse case scenario involving a powerful car and a determined, alcohol-fuelled woman. Not for the first time, either. Through the gap in the curtains, pinkish grey clouds parted to reveal a full moon, adding to his sense of doom and casting a strange light across the wardrobes. He gave her two hours to get back to Chester before he tried calling and texting. No response – which was fully expected. She’d be in a pow-wow with River, casting scornful glances at his messages… wouldn’t she? Unless… unthinkable. He messaged his youngest daughter, figuring Sienna wouldn’t be especially interested in the latest drama.
Hi love. Mum get hone alright?’
ages ago where r u?’
At Grans for a bit.
A row of laughing faces, and one with a pair of rolling eyes, but that didn’t matter. The relief that Summer hadn’t crashed the car was a double-edged sword in that it welcomed back every other emotion he’d been holding at bay. He heard the shrill whinny of a horse and moments later, a reassuring answer from a stable-mate, followed by absolute silence. And he knew then, knew he’d done exactly the right thing. For now.