that the Standish-Caves were not ‘abroad’, and came knocking on our door to find out where they really were? I’ve come to the conclusion that the world just will not go away. That’s all we want it to do, just go away and leave us in peace. But it won’t. It never does. It keeps at you, prodding and pricking till you’re demented, slicing at all your defences till you’d do anything just for a place to lie and gasp, and even if you’re lucky enough to find one, it’s just when you’re beginning to breathe normally that it comes after you again. The whole idea that we could keep the world away indefinitely was, of course, desperate. You can go ahead and call it mad if you like, I wouldn’t.

So the change of plan came into my mind, and my mind, I assure you, is as clear as could be. And when I changed the plan, I began to come up here to the study to write my report in the afternoons, feeling that I should like everything to be understood, even though I am not sure who I am writing to, exactly. I have been coming up for a few hours each day for about twelve days now. The Standish-Caves are due back on the 3rd of September. It is the 31st of August. Tomorrow morning I shall put all these pages I have written into an envelope and send Michael to post it, first class, to Shelley. That’s the obvious destination, I can rely on Shelley to get things moving. But I do not know who will be here first (the post is so unreliable these days), whether it will be Shelley herself, or the police, whom Shelley is sure to contact at once, or the Standish-Caves. I do apologise to whoever it is for what is sure to be an unpleasant discovery. I should like to leave things somewhat tidier, but I don’t believe that’s possible.

You see, I have told Steph and Michael that it is my birthday tomorrow. I think that right this minute down there in the garden they are discussing what they might give me as a birthday present, but of course they have given me everything already. Thanks to them I am not just an agoraphobic old woman with wild hair, I am Michael’s mother, a devoted mother-in-law and grandmother, a homemaker. They gave me that. Steph is not just a sleepy, tongue-tied girl in strange baggy clothes, nor is Michael to be dismissed as a depressive with nervous eyes and an occasional facial tic. We are a family. And for that reason, I’m afraid it is necessary to include Charlie in this. He would be lost without us. You may say he would still have Sally, but that would be to overlook an important point. I have met Sally, of course, and spoken to her on the telephone and heard enough about her from Steph, to know that as Charlie grows up Sally might take on the world for him. She’ll be shrill on his behalf, abuse his teachers, insist on his rights. He’ll get the best in car seats, bicycle crash helmets, orthodontics and for all I know hot air ballooning lessons, but will he know a moment’s peace? What will she do when he is frightened, lonely and unsure? Do you think she will wrap him round quietly, with wisdom and warmth, make him feel strong, and secure, and wanted? No, it has to be this way, to save him knowing what it is to grow up with a mother who does not really want him, not enough. He must be spared that.

The sun is leaving the garden now. From about now until sunset the edge of the house will cast a shadow like a sundial across the grass, between the willow tree whose leaves Michael swept up the other day and Miranda’s grave, where Steph’s marigolds are finishing now. There is a coolness in the air already; I shall ask Michael to light a fire this evening. I wish every remaining hour of today and tomorrow to be gracious and pleasant.

I have made a cake for my birthday, of course. It is in the oven now, a honey cake with the necessary amount of spice added. I shall give it a layer of icing for extra sweetness. I expect they will find some candles for it. And at teatime tomorrow I shall blow out my candles and cut the cake into slices. I shall mash up a little bit with ice cream and feed it to Charlie myself, and when I have seen Steph and Michael bite into theirs, I shall eat my own. I shall spare them from knowing, beyond a little bitterness on the tongue, that the end has come.

Now I realise that it is the house that has brought us to this. For this house is itself a kind of deep and slow- ticking clock, in which our days have spent themselves as imperceptibly as a perfect mechanism winds down or a living heart beats towards its own end; the days have ticked out so quietly that it seems that our hearts have beaten with more mellow calibrations than before. Our passing lives have slipped by us here in the way that a song cheats time. When I hear Steph singing her song to Charlie,

Row, row, row the boat Gently down the stream, Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream

I want every note to float to the next, not caring that in the very singing of the song, time is being depleted. The house has shaken out time itself upon us like a garment that we have gathered around ourselves, Steph, Michael and me. So we shall spend a last day here. Steph will sing her songs to Charlie and I shall listen, smiling. Michael will watch over us all with his careful eyes as the last of our finite, peaceful days passes, wrapping us at the end in time’s warmth and in our great and reciprocal gift of love.


I would like to thank Vanda Joss, Patrick Toynbee and Ben Wright for sharing expertise and giving advice, and I am grateful also to Jonathan Ray for help with wine cellars.

Thanks for their faith and hard work are due, as ever, to my friend and agent Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton Limited, and to my editor Wayne Brookes, to Lucy Dixon and the sales and marketing teams at Hodder & Stoughton.

Most of all, my thanks to Tim and Hannah, for everything.

Morag Joss

Morag Joss

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