didn’t want to go: “Will you take Ginny, please?” and I’d feel I ought to go along for Maud’s sake. Vivi was always the leader, even though she was younger: She’d have a plan, a contingency plan and an emergency strategy. But I’d be right there, next to her, following her every move.

So, the day we went up the bell tower for the last time, of course it had been all Vivi’s idea. She was eight and I had just turned eleven. We’d crept up there after breakfast with a piece of toast each that we’d been saving, luxuriously spread with our mother’s famous loganberry jam. It was Vivi’s favorite place.

“We’re going to ask Vera if she’s seen a stray cat we fed yesterday,” Vivi told Maud at the table.

“With your toast?” Maud had asked.

“No, we’ll eat it before we get there,” Vivi said, as we rushed out of the kitchen.

“See? Told you it would work,” my little sister gloated when we reached the second pantry unrecalled. The second pantry, where Maud stored her cheeses, hung her meat and dried her gourds, was also the start of the secret set of back stairs. Halfway up the stairs was a little oak door, one where even I, at eleven years old, had to stoop slightly to get through. It had a hole you put your index finger through to lift the latch on the other side. From there was a steep oak staircase, unlit except for a shaft of natural light that coursed down from the top, tumbling the dust in its path. It was a magnet for a child like Vivi—any normal, imaginative child, in fact—and at the top was a little wooden platform open to the air and a small turret, surrounded by a low stone parapet.

The turret had a peaked wooden hat held up by wooden posts, all painted a kind of limey green, and hanging from its apex was a beautiful, dainty, blackened brass bell. A thick, furry, red-and-white striped rope, like an enormous piece of the sweets the American soldiers used to give us (they called it candy), hung from a brass hoop on top. It was just too thick for either of us to connect our thumb and fingers when we gripped it, and it disappeared through a hole in the wooden platform, ending up in the back passage on the ground floor beyond the pantries. It was on this platform, under this bell, in our own little turret, that we found just enough space for two small children to dream. Truth be told, it was Vivi who dreamed and I who listened, enraptured, for I was very aware that it was a gift that she’d been given and I had not. We’d go there when Vivi wanted to plot her next adventure or scheme her next scheme. Just sometimes I’d offer her a little idea, and just sometimes, not often, she’d latch upon it to help her see through the puzzles in her head. And I’d feel ever so slightly triumphant.

Vivien was from a fantastic world, definitely not the same one as mine. I thought when God made Vivi he was giving me a window to see the world in a different way. She lived out her dreams and fantasies in our house or in the woods behind it, or in the eleven acres of meadow that stretched out down to the brook. She spent hours meticulously planning her life—and mine.

“Ginny,” she’d start, “you promise, cross your heart hope to die, not to tell anyone?”

“Promise,” I’d say. I’d cross my heart with my right hand and I’d mean it.

I never tired of Vivi’s company, and I always took her side, even against Maud. Vivi might have been able to make our mother laugh, but she knew how to infuriate her too. (I never argued with Maud, but I rarely laughed with her either.) After they’d had a row Vivi would storm off in an uncontrollable temper and Maud would send me to try to comfort her. Often I’d find her sobbing with such abandon that I truly believed that even the little things sent her mood spiraling downwards, that they really affected her. When she was young she couldn’t control her emotions, swinging easily from good temper to bad.

So, if I hadn’t been there, squatting in the bell tower with her, I might have thought she’d jumped. But I saw how she’d slotted herself into a huge crescent-shaped stone, which made up part of the low parapet round the platform. For Vivi, it was an irresistible place to perch. She was making herself comfortable while holding her toast level in her left hand. I remember saying that I didn’t think she should be there, that it looked too dangerous, and just as she said, “Ginny, don’t be so bor-ing” a pair of martins, scouring the eaves for a nest site, startled out from underneath her little ledge. My heart leapt but Vivi must have lost her balance. I watched her trying to regain control of the toast that danced about, evading her grip like a bar of soap in the bath. For those slow seconds it seemed as if repossessing the toast was of utmost importance to her and that she was losing her balance didn’t register. I’ve never forgotten the terror in her eyes, staring at me, replayed a thousand times since in my nightmares, as she realized she was falling. I didn’t see her grabbing the bell, but she must have stretched out for it as she went, because it rang and the echo of that strike gave to me a resounding significance, a lifetime of noise. As I looked over the edge I saw her lying, not on the ground, three long stories below, as I’d imagined, but hanging motionless over the battlements that run above the porch. Later, they said the algae, recently proliferated because of the first few warm days of spring, had made the ledge more slippery than usual.

Peculiarly, she didn’t die. Or, rather, she died and came back again. Two ambulance men in red and black jackets carried her limp little eight-year-old body, full of plans for our future, on to a stretcher and down a wooden ladder from the top of the porch. But I was watching her all the time and I remember the moment she died; while she was on that stretcher I actually saw her Entire Future give up the struggle to survive and leave her, and at the same time I felt my own future reduced to a dead and eventless vacuum, a mere biological process.

It seemed longer but later Maud said that really it was just a minute before they got her back again. She was resuscitated in front of the porch by the ambulance men. I was in the driveway, watching, when Maud rushed up to me, red-faced and frantic, tugging at my arm in a frenzy. Her usual calm and poise had been shattered, giving way to raw terror. She was leaning slightly forward, as if she were about to vomit, her hair angry, eyes acute and desperate.

“Tell me what happened,” she pleaded. I said nothing. I stared at the hydrangea crawling up the side of the porch, its branches woody, split and peeling. If it weren’t for the fresh buds appearing at the tips, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was dead. I had already told her how Vivi had slipped off the tower, how she’d tried to catch her dancing toast.

“Ginny, darling,” she sobbed, folding her arm round my waist, pulling me gently to her, squeezing her cheek to mine, her mouth near my ear. “I love you,” she whispered slowly, and I knew it was true. “I love you and I don’t blame you. I just need to know the truth.” I could feel her whole body trembling, her tears gluing our cheeks together. My mother wasn’t this wretched person; she was usually the source of all strength. I stood rigid, thinking of the wetness on my cheek, feeling her shaking and trying to understand, trying to fathom what she wasn’t blaming me for.

The next minute Clive was striding towards us from where he’d been helping to lift Vivi into the ambulance. He looked at me as he approached, searching my eyes and finding my confusion as Maud clung to me. He leaned over and kissed my forehead firmly while unclasping Maud’s hands from my waist.

“Come on. We’re going,” he said, pulling Maud towards him, fastening her arms round him and leading her off to the ambulance.

When they were sent home from the hospital that afternoon they had no news yet of Vivi’s prospects. Clive showed Maud into the library to get her a drink, which was what she needed at times of crisis. I helped to pour it. “Open the cabinet, get a glass, no not that one, the little one. Can you see the bottle that says Garvey’s?” I found it and put my finger on it. “That’s the one, finest old amontillado. Mother’s sherry.” I stayed out of my parents’ way after that but later in the day, as I passed their bedroom on the landing, I heard them arguing, my mother sobbing.

“It’s all my fault. I thought we could be a normal family.” She was hysterical.

“We are a normal family. Stop jumping to conclusions,” I heard Clive say softly.

“Her sister’s dying…. She’s not even crying…. She stood there staring at the shrubs.” Maud’s voice was scathing. “There must be something—”

“Pull yourself together,” Clive interrupted in a tone I’d never heard him use before, not unkind, but firm and authoritative. “Save your hysterics until you have the facts.”

I knew they were talking about me and guessed Maud was angry about something to do with me, but I had no idea what.

Half an hour later I was in the kitchen, huddled next to the wood stove with Basil, our elderly Great Dane, when I heard the front door’s brass goat’s-head door knocker being rattled. I went to open the door, and Dr. Moyse, our family doctor from Crewkerne, greeted me effusively.

In our household, Dr. Moyse was the most trusted member of the outside world. He had cured three of our evacuees of diphtheria, nursed Vivi and me through whooping cough and devised a potion for Clive’s gout. But everyone seemed to forget that he had consistently failed to rid me of the four warts that cursed the underside of

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