My feet are leaden as I walk slowly up the gravel driveway towards the house. This is the last place on earth I want to be. How well I remember the sagging rhododendrons, the grey stone walls and the solid oak front door. My stomach is churning like tangled laundry.
I grew up here in Ashton House but I haven’t been back in more than twenty years. I didn’t come home after dad’s sudden death. In Peru at the time and hard to reach, I contrived to avoid the whole affair.
This came as no surprise to my family, who expect no better of their errant, wayward daughter. The one who spends her life uselessly traipsing around the planet, rather than gainfully employed in a respectable profession. Quite unlike my younger sister, Mel, the golden girl who magnetises success and approval. She’s a lawyer now, married to a paediatrician. I could never compete, so I never tried.
I fled the nest at seventeen with hardly a GCSE to my name and embarked on my nomadic lifestyle. A cruel disappointment to my uncomprehending family.
Mum’s death was more difficult to avoid. It was easily anticipated and I was only in France, so an excuse was more difficult to manufacture. So here I am, after all these years; the prodigal returns.
My course in life was set it seems, when I was just nine years old and my baby brother, Jamie was hit by a passing car. I was supposed to be minding him, you see, keeping him safe inside the garden wall. But I was absorbed in ‘The Secret Garden’ and somehow Jamie got out. Someone must have left the gate unlatched and he toddled in front of a red Toyota.
All my fault. I saw the accusation in my parents’ eyes at once, the looming black cloud of their disappointment in me. I’d failed to keep safe their precious little boy. And Jamie’s chubby baby face and huge blue eyes still haunt me to this day.
Mel though, who is three years younger and was ‘helping’ mum make strawberry jam at the time of the accident, was obviously blameless and soon became the ‘blue eyed girl’. While I struggled under the staggering weight of parental blame, she grew up in a blaze of golden light.
All this was years ago now, but such things linger. Mum’s funeral was yesterday and I’m longing to be on my way. I can’t escape this place fast enough. But my presence is required at the house this afternoon for the reading of the will. Mel and her esteemed medic stayed here last night, but I opted for the pub down the road, away from scrutiny and invasive questions.
It seems that everyone thinks it’s time for me to come back home and settle down, but I have no intention of doing so.
“Ah, Jess. You’re here at last.” Mel makes as if to hug me as I step inside, and then thinks better of it. “Come into the dining room. We’re ready to start.”
The solicitor I see, is a rabbity little man with a ginger comb over. Also gathered around the heirloom, Georgian mahogany table are Mel’s husband, the good doctor, and mum’s sister Wendy.
I can’t imagine why I need to be here at all, as it’s pretty obvious to all concerned whose lap our parents’ worldly goods will be falling into.
Ginger comb over clears his throat and fixes us all with his pale stare over heavy rimmed glasses. “Shall we begin now that Jessica has arrived?”
He mumbles though the preliminaries, “last will and testament, being of sound mind,” so on and so forth. I’m hardly listening. Then, “To my daughter, Melanie, I leave my investments, all of my jewellery and her choice of household goods.”
There’s a pause for assimilation. Then, “To my daughter, Jessica, I leave the house and all the contents, except for whatever Melanie may have selected.”
What! All eyes around the table are fixed on me and I feel my blood turn to ice. What do I want with the bloody house! It’s a final blow from beyond the grave. A snare to tie me to this deadly mausoleum. The ultimate punishment for my childhood crime.
Mel looks intently at me, her face a picture of saccharine concern. She reaches out and touches my arm.
“Don’t look so cross, Jess. Mum just wanted you to have a home. A place to come back to whenever you’re ready. It’s what we all want.”
Snatching my arm away, I bolt for the door. I have to get out of here fast.
And as I flee the house like one pursued by a pack of wolves, I can’t help remembering the day that Jamie died. If only he hadn’t pestered me so, pulling at the pages of my book. He only wanted to play, I know. And if I hadn’t been so deeply engrossed in the adventures of Mary Lennox, I never would have said what I did.
“Stop it, Jamie. Don’t be such a pest,” I said. “Why don’t you go down to the gate and see if Daddy’s coming up the road.” If only I hadn’t said that. If only.
© Sue Hassett