Poppy Adams

The Sister

To Will Barter


Chapter 1


It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of almost fifty years.

I’m standing at a first-floor window, an arched stone one like you’d find in a church, my face close up to the diamond-shaped leaded panes, keeping lookout. For a moment I focus on the glass and catch the faint, honest reflection of my eye staring back at me, a lock of gray straggly hair in its way. I don’t often look at my reflection and to peer at this moment directly into my eye feels more disconcerting than it should, as if I can sense I’m about to be judged.

I pull my wool cardy—an old one of my father’s—more tightly around me, tucking the loose end under my arm. It’s dropped a degree today, the wind must have changed easterly during the night, and later we’ll get fog in the valley. I don’t need a barograph or a hygrometer these days, I can sense it—pressure changes, a shift in humidity—but, to tell the truth, I also think about the weather to help me take my mind off things. If I didn’t have it to ponder right now, I’d already be getting slightly anxious. She’s late.

My smoky breath turns to liquid as it hits the window and, if I rub the mist into heavy droplets, I can make it trickle down the glass. From here I can see half the length of the grassy drive as it winds through the tall skeletal limes on either side, until it disappears right, curving downhill towards East Lodge and the lane and the outside world. If I move my head a fraction to the left the drive elongates and the tops of the limes veer suddenly to the side, distorted by the imperfections of handmade glass. Moving it a little to the right splits the beech hedge in two on either side of a bubble. I know every vagary of every pane. I’ve lived here all my life and, before me, my mother lived here all her life and, before her, her father and grandfather.

Did I tell you that Vivien said in her letter she was returning for good? For some final peace, she said, because now, she said, we ought to be keeping each other company for the rest of our lives, rather than dying lonely and alone. Well, I’ll tell you now, I don’t feel lonely and I certainly don’t feel as if I’m dying, but even so I’m glad she’s coming home. Glad, and a little nervous—a surge of apprehension is swelling in my stomach. I can’t help wondering what we’ll talk about after all these years and, I suppose, if I’ll even recognize her.

I’m not, as a rule, an emotional person. I’m far too—how shall I put it?—levelheaded. I was always the sensible sister and Vivi was the adventurer, but my excitement at her impending arrival even surprises me.

She is late, however. I look at my wristwatch—the digital one on my left wrist. Her letter most specifically read one-thirty and, believe me, it’s not my timekeeping that’s gone awry. I keep a number of clocks just so I can be sure that, even if one or two let me down, I can always find the correct time. When you live by yourself in a house that you very rarely leave and is even more rarely visited, it’s essential that you don’t lose track of the time. Every minute lost—if left uncorrected—would soon accumulate to an hour, and then hours, until—as you can imagine—you could easily end up living in a completely erroneous time frame.

Our mother, Maud, and I were always waiting for Vivi: in the hall before we went to church or shouting for her from the landing to hurry up for school. And it’s now, as I wait for her again, that I find snippets of our childhood jumping into my head, slices of conversation, things I’ve not thought about since they happened: our first pair of boots, which Vivi had chosen for us, long black ones that laced to the top; long afternoons in the summer holidays spent damming up the brook to create our own tributaries and islands; sneaking into the loggia at harvest time to drink cider before taking it to the men in the fields; giggling with Maud at Clive’s rare excitement when he created a Six-spot Burnet with five spots; our first trip to boarding school, holding each other’s clammy hands with shared anticipation, squeezed among the chemical bottles in the back of Clive’s car.

It was a childhood in perfect balance, so I’m wondering what it was that came along and changed everything. It wasn’t just one thing. There’s rarely a sole cause for the separation of lives. It’s a sequence of events, an inexorable chain reaction where each small link is fundamental, like a snake of upended dominoes. And I’ve been thinking that the very first one, the one you push to start it all off, must have been when Vivi slipped off our bell tower and nearly died, fifty-nine years ago.

Chapter 2

The Bell Tower

When Maud gave birth to Vivien, on 19 October 1940, I thought she’d borne twelve other children of varying ages at the same time. I was almost three and I remember they all came home from hospital in a minibus. When I asked Maud why she’d had so many she said that we had the largest house in the district and could fit them all in, and two maids and a housekeeper to help her look after them. My father, Clive, told me later they were called evacuees. They had come from Bristol to play with us and to double the attendance at Saxby village school. I always thought Vivi was one of them and when, three years later, the worst of the blitz was over and the evacuees all went home, I couldn’t understand why baby Vivi had stayed.

“She’s your little sister, Ginny. This is her home,” Maud had said, hugging us both to her in the hallway.

I took a good look at Vivi then, in her little red woolen jumper, her fluffy hair sticking up and her big round eyes gazing at me. From that moment on, I worshipped her. Two more war years passed, and V-J Day brought weeks of celebrations. Then, while everyone else was adjusting to life in a country on its knees, Vivi and I were just getting on with our childhood together, sharing our secrets and our sugar ration.

Not only is Bulburrow Court the largest house in the district, it’s also the most striking. Tucked away in the soft folds of the West Dorset countryside and buttressed against the slope of its own hill, it overwhelms the village of low-lying houses below. A vast Victorian folly.

There are four stories and four wings. In the reception rooms marble fireplaces stand squarely under ornately corniced ceilings. In the paneled hall, a large oak staircase pours majestically from the vaulted ceiling onto the parquet floor, while behind the pantries at the back of the house—the north side—winds a much smaller, secret staircase designed to shuttle domestic staff discreetly up and down. By the time we were born, Bulburrow Court’s glory days were buried well within the previous century, when the house and gardens would not have run smoothly on less than twenty staff, more if you counted the surrounding tenant farmers and farm laborers, all originally part of the estate.

As we grew up, the Red House, as it was often called on account of the Virginia creeper that turns the south side a deep red each autumn, became better known as a local landmark than for its splendor. It was a reference for directions, a passing spectacle for West Country holidaymakers—iced in Gothic extravaganza and topped with castellated turrets, an observatory, the bell tower and mock-Elizabethan chimney stacks that rise above the peaks and valleys within the immense landscape of the roof, all arrogance and late-Victorian grandeur.

Outside, at the back of the house, the cobbled courtyard is enclosed by stables and apple stores, an old

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