Before I Met You
The day and, in fact, the rest of Elizabeth Dean’s life, had started at Weymouth at an ungodly hour, continued on to a damp, windswept ferry across the Channel, and culminated in a silent drive across Guernsey and a walk up a long graveled hill to a large house with gray walls and black windows. The house stood tall and wide atop a hill of dense woodland. In front of the house was the sea. Behind the house was nothing.
Elizabeth thought but did not say that the house was clearly haunted and that she would not countenance spending as long as one night in it.
“Elizabeth, this is my mother, Arlette. And Mummy, this is Elizabeth—or Lizzy, as we usually call her.”
“When she’s being good!” Alison, Elizabeth’s mother, interjected.
“Yes,” rejoined her mother’s boyfriend. “When she’s being good. When she’s not being good, she’s plain old Elizabeth.”
Her mother’s boyfriend ruffled Elizabeth’s hair and squeezed her shoulder, and Elizabeth grimaced. She stared at the ground, at the brown and red tessellated tiles beneath her feet, cut and formed into the shapes of stars. She’d known this moment was coming for two weeks, since Christmas Eve, when they’d gotten the call that had spoiled their Christmas Day. Two weeks ago Elizabeth’s mother and her boyfriend had sat her down and explained that his mother, a woman called Arlette Lafolley, a person of whose existence Elizabeth had been blissfully unaware before that moment, had fallen in her house on an island called Guernsey and broken something, and had been advised by her GP that she should have someone living with her.
And so it had been decided, somehow, somewhere, behind some closed door or other, that the solution to this problem was for Elizabeth and her mother to leave the only home that Elizabeth had ever known, a neat redbrick bungalow on the outskirts of Farnham in Surrey, and go to this island to live with this woman for at least, her mother had told her, three months, and to do so within two weeks.
“Elizabeth,” said her mother’s boyfriend, “are you going to say hello?”
Elizabeth tried not to squirm, but it was very hard not to squirm when you were in a haunted house with your mother’s boyfriend’s hand on your shoulder, being introduced to a terrible old woman whose frail bones had conspired to crumble and break and destroy your life. Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the woman in front of her but not before noticing, with some surprise, that the woman was wearing red silk shoes adorned with matching rosettes. Elizabeth’s gaze also took in black lacy tights over shapely calves, then a coat of full, luxuriant mink that hung from throat to mid-shin, and a face, round and elfin, like that of a child, pink lips, pearly blue eyelids, and a matching mink hat. On each earlobe, a small chunk of diamond shone dully in the muted candlelight.
Elizabeth gulped. “Hello,” she said.
The lady in the fur coat paused for a beat and then bowed down so that her head was level with Elizabeth’s and said, “Hello, Elizabeth. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
It was impossible to gauge from her expression whether these things she had heard had been bad or good, but then her face softened and she smiled, and Elizabeth smiled back and said, “I like your shoes.”
Arlette smiled too and said, “Then you have very good taste. Now come in and get warm, I’ve lit the fire.”
Elizabeth and her mother exchanged looks. Elizabeth’s mother had met this woman before, about two years ago, when she and her boyfriend had only just started dating. She had described her then as “colorful” but “mean.” And someone “not to be crossed.” She probably had not thought, as she’d passed these judgments upon her boyfriend’s mother to her daughter, that one day she and her daughter would have cause to come and live with her. And she’d probably forgotten ever saying them. But Elizabeth hadn’t forgotten. She had come to this place with a full armory of attitude and verve, ready to take whatever this lady had to dish up. And then been momentarily thrown by a pair of scarlet silk shoes.
But still, red silk shoes. Even on an old lady, that was rather spectacular. Elizabeth had had to endure all sorts of nonsensical after-school dance classes in order to get her mother to buy her interesting shoes. Slivers of flesh-colored leather with silky ribbons for ballet, and chunky-heeled shoes with buttoning straps for flamenco and jazz. Never anything in red silk. Surely, she thought, surely anyone capable of owning a pair of shoes that magnificent must be halfway decent.
She followed the old lady down the hall and into a room on the left. It was entered by a tall door with an ornately stained window in the fanlight.
“You’ll have to excuse the damp,” said Arlette. “I haven’t opened this room up for quite a while. And it’s too cold to have a window open.”
Elizabeth brought her arms around herself and shuddered. The room was tall and bare, with wood-paneled walls and pointy furniture, and everything was brown apart from a roaring fire in the hearth around which they all huddled on a tapestry-covered ottoman.
The adults were all having a conversation about the journey and about the delivery van and about the weather and about Arlette’s hip (she had walked with a stick and a fairly pronounced limp down the hallway). Elizabeth got to her feet and went to the window. It was leaded and a touch baggy, and framed by dismal gray nets. Through it Elizabeth could see, in all directions, a vast expanse of blankness. She sighed and returned to the fire, the cold of the room seeping into the very marrow of her, the smell of damp firewood and unloved furnishings and cold, cold coldness leaching into everything.
“We’ve got blow heaters coming in the van,” said Jolyon, rubbing his hands together briskly. “We’ll plug them in when they arrive.” He said this to Elizabeth and her mother in a perky, reassuring manner, but it was clear to them that it would require more than two cheap blow heaters to take the chill off this sad old house. “And then,” he continued, somewhat desperately, “I’ll take a look at the heating.”
His mother threw him a disparaging look. “Not necessary,” she said. “The air will warm up pretty quickly over the next few weeks. Remember, we’ve the Gulf Stream here. By the time you’ve worked out how to fix the heating and found someone willing to come and sort it for a sum of money that will not make your eyeballs bleed, it will be summer again. Every room has a fireplace. It’s all a matter of wearing the right clothes. And keeping to just a couple of rooms. And, of course, lots and lots of hot drinks. Warming ourselves up from the inside out.”
Elizabeth stared at Arlette’s furry coat and hat and thought, Well, yes, that is easy for you to say, you are practically wearing a bear.
Elizabeth was put in a room on the first floor that was papered with a green and blue vertical stripe that looked like old men’s pajamas. There were three small leaded windows overlooking the sea. It was even colder up here, and when she breathed out hard, her breath appeared around her like a wraith.
Her bed sat on the side of the room opposite the windows. It was built from some kind of very heavy, darkly veneered wood and covered over with a cheap-looking duvet with a blue case. Atop the two biscuit-thin pillows sat a threadbare blue knitted rabbit that looked like it had been left there to die.
Elizabeth thought of her bed at home. It was queen-size, with a white powder-sprayed metal frame with curly bits in it and knobs made out of clear Perspex. Her mother had bought it for her for her tenth birthday; “a double bed for double figures.” She also had a queen-size duvet, clothed in a white cover embroidered all over with rose sprigs, and a pillowcase trimmed with lace upon which Elizabeth arranged all her teddy bears every morning before she left for school. She’d asked her mum if they could bring the bed, if they could squeeze it into the big van with all their other things, but her mum had smiled apologetically and said, “Sorry, sweetheart, no beds. It’ll still be there when we get back.”
And that had been that.
Elizabeth rested her rucksack on the floor and unzipped it with icy fingers. Inside she felt around for the soothing plush of Katerina’s ears. She tugged at the fabric and pulled her free of the piles of books and games and notepads she’d packed this morning to relieve the boredom of an eight-hour journey. Elizabeth pulled the bear close to her face and breathed in the smell, and she felt her heart ache as the heady, honeyed scent of home filled her senses. With her nose still to the bear, she looked around the cold, Spartan room, she gazed at the endless concrete gray of the sea through the mean little windows, and then she stalked across the room, picked up the ugly knitted rabbit, opened a window, and hurled the thing as far as she could into the cold gray yonder.