Hitting the “speaker” button on my mobile, I flung it down on my desk, as if physically distancing myself from my sister Kate’s voice would protect me from giving in. But I knew it was already a lost cause.
“I wouldn’t have asked you if our usual sitter hadn’t come down with the lurgy, but you know the rule – I can’t have her in contact with the kids until 48 hours after she last threw up, and I can’t sentence the whole family to a sickly Christmas just because of you.”
And so it was that I found myself heading out of town, down unlit country lanes, on the winter solstice, the worst night of the year for anyone who, like me, is afraid of the dark. Kate’s years of legal training were not in vain. She can argue that black is white and people will believe her.
But even if it had been broad daylight, I was still not ready to go back to Kate’s, just six months after last summer’s tragedy.
Well, ok, so it isn’t really a tragedy when a 92 year old woman dies. I’m only allowed to use that word very sparingly at work when I’m writing up the obituaries, and my editor would definitely blue-pencil it out in this case. But it certainly was traumatic, most of all for me, because I found her. And the 92 year old woman in question was my lovely Great Aunt Sophie.
It was Midsummer’s Eve and we were all out at my Kate’s huge place in the country to celebrate her husband Tom’s 40th birthday. Normally this would be a treat for me, escaping from the confines of my poky city-centre flat to soak up expensive food and drink at their expense. Tom’s family own a fancy car dealership, and what with Kate’s lawyer’s wages too, they’re loaded. For this party, they’d pushed the boat out even more than usual, because they were also celebrating Kate’s promotion to partner at her legal firm. It felt more like a wedding than a birthday bash, and, as ever, I felt like the bridesmaid, never the bride. But I’m not complaining – I could get used to prosecco.
All the family were invited to come during the day, with friends and work colleagues piling over in the evening. After family games for all ages in the afternoon, there followed a buffet and dancing to a live band in a marquee in the garden. The finale was a professional firework display, with the pyrotechnics let off from the stableyard giving everyone a fine view from the vast terrace. (It was a good thing there were no horses in the stables, only Tom’s family’s collection of vintage cars.)
Great Aunt Sophie was at the daytime celebrations of course, as she had been at every family partythat I remembered. She’d even been at our house on the night that I was born, and loved to tell me of the first time she saw me, just minutes after I was born. I had rosy pink cheeks, the loudest of cries and two big tears in the corners of my scrunched up little eyes.
Great Aunt Sophie was so much a part of my life that I couldn’t imagine ever being without her, even though I knew that eventually we must part. Whenever I’d been away from home for long, such as when I went off to university for three years, I’d keep a little bottle of her favourite perfume in my handbag, so that I could get a little hit of her summery, flowery aura whenever I was missing her. But she showed no sign of giving up the ghost that day, beating us all hollow at cards and charades. She claimed to be unimpressed by Tom’s milestone birthday.
“Forty? That’s nothing! I’m in my 93rd year, I’ll have you know! That’s you twice over, young Tom, plus your Zoe and Archie too.”
Zoe and Archie are Tom and Kate’s kids, aged ten and three.
Zoe was particularly impressed.
“So you’re me nine times over, plus an Archie,” she gasped. “No wonder you get so tired.”
Sure enough, Sophie was flagging by the time the evening guests arrived, and she pottered off contentedly to bed around 8pm, shrugging off sympathetic looks as she made herself her usual bedtime mug of cocoa.
“I’ll have the last laugh on you, my dears. I’ll be fresh as a daisy at dawn while you’re all out for the count nursing sore heads.”
I chinked my Prosecco glass against her mug, suspecting from my already spinning head that she’d be proven right.
Next day I awoke at 8.47am, according to the annoying loud clock ticking away on the bedside table in the guest room. Trying to remember exactly when and how I got to bed the night before, I staggered out onto the landing, kicking aside my discarded clothes on the floor, to search for orange juice – my preferred hangover remedy of choice. It was a glorious bright day already, with sun streaming in through the tall stained glass window that dominates the staircase, scattering coloured shadows across the pale parquet floor. I had to turn my head away from its glare, and as I did so, I caught sight at the far end of the corridor a white heap, crumpled at the foot of the full-length mirror on the wall. Oh God, I thought, someone’s been sick in the night and dumped their sheets there for Kate to wash – charming!
But then, my eyes adjusting to the shadows, I realised that it wasn’t a soiled sheet at all, but a pristine cotton nightdress – and contained within it was the frail body of my Great Aunt Sophie. I ran towards it, thinking I’d help her to her feet after a fall, but before I even reached her I realised that she was beyond my help.
Even so, I reached out hopefully to touch the smooth, papery skin on the back of her hand, as familiar as the taut flesh on my own. Worn smooth as old silk by her age, exuding her favourite night-scented stock handcream, its raised veins were still.
I only realised I had screamed out loud when I saw Tom reflected in the mirror, standing over us both. He’d staggered out of his and Kate’s room, looking nauseous.
“Christ,she looks how I feel!” he began. “I thought she was on tea and cocoa, but maybe it was Sophie who drank that litre bottle of sherry?”
Kate appeared alongside him, hastily tying the belt of her silk kimono.
“Tom, you moron, she’s not drunk, she’s bloody dead!”
Tom’s face turned ashen. He must be mortified, I thought – no that’s the wrong word, change it to gutted.
A more appropriate choice, it turned out, as straight away he dashed to the bathroom to be noisily, violently sick.
I never saw Great Aunt Sophie again.
After the funeral was over – I have to report that the post-mortem decided it was natural causes, by the way – normal life carried on for us all, except Great Aunt Sophie, of course. The only difference for me, apart from Sophie’s excruciating absence, was that I began to find excuses to avoid going back to Kate’s house. I couldn’t bear to see again the place where my beloved aunt had died. Until tonight, I thought Kate had understood. She had at least been letting me off the hook.
Of course, I knew I’d have to go there some time. I tried to bring my objective journalistic judgement into play. Surely I wasn’t going to let the inevitable death of one old lady cut me off from the rest of my family? But why did it have to be tonight, of all nights? The longest, darkest night, which I usually spend at home with all the lights on, the telly on full blast, trying to distract me from my fear of being alone in the dark.
I don’t know why the dark upsets me so, but I can’t remember a time when it didn’t. I always slept with a nightlight in my childhood bedroom, a much brighter one after Kate had moved into her own room. I even took it away with me to university.
Although as a local paper reporter, I’m positively penniless compared to Kate, I’m still happy to spend a sizeable chunk of money on my electricity bill every month, just so that I can keep all my lights on. I once went to stay with an environmentally-minded friend who only ever lit up the room she was actually in, turning the lights off obsessively on and off wherever she went around her house. If I had to do that in the winter, I think I’d die. Either that, or I’d have to move into a bedsit, so I had only one room to worry about.
I think in a former life I must have been something like a swallow. I need light and warmth to thrive, and I long to fly south as soon as the nights draw in each winter. Then I’d only return when the nights are only as long as the time I need to sleep.
Fear of the dark dominates my life. Although the power never goes off in the city, I keep a wind-up torch and candles in every room, in a place where I know I can put my hand on them, just in case we’re ever plunged unexpectedly into the dark.
What would happen if I had to spend time in the dark? I don’t know, because I’ve never had the courage to find out.
When I got to Kate and Tom’s , my heart was still pounding from driving through dark lanes with no street lighting. How do people live out in the sticks like this, with only the moon and stars to brighten the night? I’d had to drive the last three miles with the map-reading light on in my car to compensate. When I reached their house, I pulled my car up as close to their front door as I could. Thankfully, their security light came on just after I swung the car door open and my foot crunched down on the gravel, sounding for all the world as if I’d stepped on a pile of light bulbs. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
When Kate let me in, I realised she must have been feeling guilty about dragging me out here, as she’d crammed the coffee table full of upmarket snacks – olives, pistachios, kettle chips,Belgian chocolates – alongside a newly-opened bottle of Rioja on the hearth. She knows Rioja is my absolute favourite, even better than Prosecco in the winter.
“I can’t drink that, I’ve got to drive home later,” I objected ungratefully, already worrying that those lanes would be even darker after midnight.
“Don’t be stupid, you must stay here, I’ve got the guest room ready,” said Kate.
I thought it better not to tell her that I wasn’t prepared to go upstairs. After all, that’s where the childrens’ bedrooms were. What kind of babysitter was I?
Kate chucked a couple more logs on the blazing open fire before tipping about a third of a bottle into one of those big balloon glasses, the comforting sort that sit nicely in your hand in pubs, which they give you to make you drink more. I glanced around the room, scanning for candles. There were plenty of big fancy scented ones with multiple wicks in glass jars, the sort that cost about as much as a standard lamp. I felt in my pocket to reassure myself that I’d got matches to hand.
“We’ve got a taxi booked for half past midnight, so we’ll see you about one,” said Kate, wrapping a thick red wool stole about her shoulders. “But feel free to go to bed before we get back if you want to. That would be fine.”
I scowled. There was no way I was going upstairs. There were shadows and dark corners, and no light switch within reach before you got there. I picked up the Sky remote to distract myself. My self-hypnosis would begin the minute they went out the door.
A slight figure appeared in the living room doorway.
“Hello, Emma,” said Zoe, who recently dropped the Auntie title on the basis that she’s nearly a teenager. (Nearly? She’s 10 – she must be as bad at maths as Kate.) I hadn’t seen her for a few months, and for a moment I was startled by how similar she is to Kate – same long-lashed green eyes, same fine dark hair, falling in shiny waves to her shoulders, which, just like Kate, she shrugs in a particular way when she’s restless or bored. In fact, I always think of Kate as being about 10, as that was how old she was when I first became aware of ages, when I was about 5. Archie is much more like me, straight lighter hair, blue eyes, serious look. Sometimes, when we’re all out together – which has happened much less often lately – people will assume he’s mine and only Zoe is Kate’s. It’s funny how these genes seem to side-step through family trees sometimes – mannerisms and ways of speaking too.
“Archie’s in bed already, because he’s been a bit zonked since having his latest cold ,” Zoe was saying. “I’m off to bed too now, night night.”
She came over to give me and her mum a kiss.
“Please will you tuck me in before you go out, Mum?”
So much for the nearly-teenager.
I awoke, shivering on the sofa, just after the ten o’clock news had finished. The log fire had dwindled to ash and barely a spark. Hauling myself up off the sofa, I shuffled over to the fireplace to add a handful of kindling topped by a couple of logs. These weighed much less than I expected from the look of them, then I realised they’d probably been stacked in the stables to dry since last winter. What luxury to have so much space. Soon sparks were crackling like gun shot in the grate, popping out of the dried ivy clinging to the bark, and I jumped at every single tiny explosion.
I turned my stiff back to the fire to warm it, remembering that I still hadn’t adjusted my office chair as I’d meant to. I always seemd to be too engrossed in bashing out my latest news story to remember to sit with the health-and-safety-approved posture.
It was only while I was surveying the room with a rapidly warming bottom, like some lordly Victorian gentleman, that I remembered that Kate and Tom didn’t bother with curtains in their house. All around me, on every wall, there was a large, blank glass window, with a view of nothing but the blackest of nights. Wherever I turned, I could see one. And I really didn’t want to look.
Ever since we read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” at school when I was about 14, I’ve had a thing about not looking out of windows after dark. I have a vivid memory of terrifying scenes in which dismissed, disgraced servants come back to press their face against the glass after dark, sinister with some unspoken threat. I cannot think of anything more frightening – the cold, dark threat of the unknown, emerging from the depths of one’s own imagination. I’m not even sure now whether I’ve misremembered it, but I daren’t go back and re-read the book to check, in case it makes it worse rather than better. I don’t know what the answer is.
I cupped my hands round my eyes, attempting to create the effect of a horses’ blinkers, and tried to concentrate on the telly, but my pulse was too loud in my ears. I rummaged in my pocket for my matches and stooped down to light an exotic-looking, five-wicked candle in the fireplace. I didn’t like to calculate how much each minute’s burning of those five little flames must be worth, I just needed all the light that I could get.
Slumping back on the sofa, gazing at Kate’s huge television screen, I tried some deep breathing exercises to calm my nerves. The sound of my pulse was just receding when there came another noise – the creaking of a door. I gave a little shriek and looked around, then realised with relief that it was upstairs – probably Zoe going to the loo or getting a glass of water, rather than a burglar or a ghost downstairs. I tried to attend to the panel game that was just starting up Channel 4, and to ignore than the glass of Rioja that was tempting me to take some Dutch courage. I heard the door creak again as Zoe pattered back across the parqueted landing to her room.
Then just before the start of Round 3, a noisy coughing started upstairs. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, hoping it would quickly abate. It sounded shrill – it was definitely Archie rather than Zoe.
Zoe will sort him out, I told myself, hopefully. She doesn’t need me to go upstairs. I’m not going upstairs. I’m staying by this bright and cosy fire.
The strong scent of the candle, channelling verbena and jasmine, started to weave its way down into my lungs. A little spluttery cough of my own brought me to my senses. Kate may be my sister, I suddenly thought, but she’s a lawyer too. I can’t let her son die of neglect, just because I’m too afraid to go upstairs.
On impulse, I knocked back half the glass of Rioja – there was still time for it to wear off before I had to drive. Then I seized a pale shawl that lay artistically draped across the rocking chair and wrapped it tightly around my shoulders, as if it were symbolic armour against the dark. Cautiously I crossed hall to to the foot of the dark oak stairs and began to climb them carefully.
Please stop coughing, please stop coughing, I urged Archie at every tread. Don’t make me come all the way up there.
I proceeded as quietly as I could, as if making my passage in silence might reduce the risk lurking in the shadows.
Archie went on coughing.
I rounded the dogleg half-landing and continued to climb, conscious that the higher I went, the darker it was. I couldn’t believe Kate hadn’t left the landing light on. Wasn’t it dangerous to have unlit stairs? It wasn’t as if she couldn’t afford the bill.
Archie’s coughing was becoming shriller, tighter, grating on my nerves.
At least he’s breathing, I comforted myself. No real harm done yet. But what was Zoe thinking? Why wasn’t she in there helping her poor little brother?
A small amount of moonlight was now glinting down from the skylight above the corridor, and as I reached the top of the stairs and turned left towards the children’s bedrooms, I stood stock still. For there, at the far end, who should I see but my aunt, standing in the spot where she had died? Great Aunt Sophie, shrouded in white, was staring back at me, her long pale hair adrift from her habitual bun, and streaming down her shoulders, thicker and lusher than I’d ever seen it in her life.
Who was it that said “Death becomes her?”
And why do such random thoughts spring into our brains at the least helpful time?
I didn’t know I’d screamed until Zoe flung open her bedroom door, flicking on the hall light switch and casting a full 100 watts upon me – and on Great Aunt Sophie. Except it wasn’t Sophie at all, but me, like a frightened rabbit caught in headlights, staring at myself in the mirror.
Then I realised that Archie had stopped coughing.
Tearing into his room, with Zoe right behind me, I snapped on the light switch on the wall (no nightlights in this house, cruel mother that Kate is) and dropped to my knees at the side of his tiny bed. It’s one of those ones that you pull out to make bigger, every time your child grows a bit. It always reminds me of a child-sized coffin. His eyes were closed, his cheeks pale, his body still, and sticking out of his mouth was a small plastic toy zebra. I grabbed it quick and flung it across the room, seized him by the shoulders and shook him.
“Archie, Archie, breathe, for God’s sake!”
After what seemed like hours, he stirred slightly, took a noisy deep gasp, puffed it out, and resumed normally steady breathing, tinged with a snuffly baby snore.
He didn’t even open his eyes as I lay him gently back down on his side, hoping I hadn’t dislocated any bones. He settled immediately back down to the easy sleep of the small, untroubled if slightly nasally-challenged child.
Zoe, meanwhile, calmly collected the toy zebra from the other side of the room, gave it a token wipe on her nightie, and stood it up neatly beside its twin on the gangplank of Archie’s toy ark.
“I don’t know why you’re making such a drama out of it, Emma,” said Zoe. “Anyone would think you were scared of the dark.”
I emitted a false little laugh and hoped it fooled her.
“Haha. Back to bed now, Zoe, or your mum will be cross with you.”
“No, she’ll be cross with you, Auntie Emma,” replied Zoe firmly.
For a moment, Zoe had forgotten her near-teenage status, and she trotted obediently back to bed.
After I’d made sure there were no other choking hazards within Archie’s reach, I pulled his door to not quite closed, just to be on the safe side, and turned back to stare at myself in the mirror. With Kate’s pale wrap around me and with the shadows cast across my face by the moonlight, I really did look a lot like Great Aunt Sophie. As I stood there smiling at my reflection, I realised that it was actually a comfort. Maybe she wasn’t as far away as I had thought.
As I pottered slowly back down the stairs, I began to wonder what my children will look like, when I get round to having them. Will they get any of Sophie’s genes, or will they turn out like Kate? Or Mum? Or Dad? I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.
I’d finished the Rioja by the time that Kate and Tom got home, and I was busy writing in the shorthand pad that I always keep in my satchel a shopping list for the garden centre of the scented plants I’m going to put in my window boxes this spring: narcissus, wallflowers, hyacinths, and Great Aunt Sophie’s favourite, of course, night-scented stock. I’m looking forward to sitting on my balcony when the days are at their longest, a glass of something cool and refreshing in my hand, looking out to the views beyond the city, and breathing in the perfumes of the flowers of the long summer nights.
When Kate finally staggered home, she thought I didn’t notice her fall off one of her designer heels as she got out the car, but I’d been watching them as they pulled up outside the big picture window of the lounge.
“Kate, had you ever noticed how much I look like Great Aunt Sophie?” I said casually, hoping that she would agree.
Kate gave me that knowing look that only big sisters can pull off.
“Of course you bloody do, have you only just noticed? Now get to bed, you look knackered.”
I heaved myself up from the comfortable wallowing position that I’d sunk into in the soft leather sofa, and gave her a l goodnight kiss, though not so light that it didn’t leave a little Rioja-coloured mark on her cheek.
“Thanks for having me,” I said, unnecessarily, and wove my way upstairs with an airy tread, not forgetting on the way past the children’s room to give Great Aunt Sophie a little wave in the mirror.