Over fifty years later
Crime. Crowds. The way a big city forces girls to grow up too fast, strips them of their innocence. It’s time for the family to leave London, move somewhere gentler, more benign. They’ve viewed a number of houses in the last three months – the estate agents’ brief, rural, roomy, a doer-upper – but not one that Jessie felt could be called home. Until this moment: standing in Applecote Manor on a late January afternoon, feeling as if she’s being filled with sunlight.
It’s in a right state, of course. They couldn’t hope to afford a house like this otherwise. Evergreens are packed hard against the orangery’s windows, threatening to break them and scatter the wooden window-seat with poisonous berries, like beads. The stone flags on the floor undulate, rising in the centre of the room as if a creature might be pushing up from the earth. But Jessie is already imagining oranges dangling, blood-warm and heavy in the hand, the glass doors flung back to the euphoria of summer, the peal of girls’ wild laughter.
Her face soft, opening, Jessie tracks the paned glass as it climbs to its geometrical peak, a feat of Victorian engineering that promises tangy Mediterranean fruit in the English climate among the woolly pippins. Something about that optimism – control through enclosure, a sort of forced nurturing – whispers in her ear: isn’t she trying to do something similar, only with a family?
Jessie glances at Bella, who is slumped on the window-seat, pecking out a text on her mobile phone. A twist of too-long legs and inky hair, her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter is the striking spit of her dead mother, the first Mrs Tucker. Sensing Jessie’s questioning gaze, she lifts her pale, aquiline face, narrows her eyes to glossy pupil-filled cracks, and answers it with a look of fierce refusal.
Jessie’s glad Will didn’t catch it, that look. Hands stuffed boyishly into his coat pockets, her husband is gazing back into the shadows of the adjoining kitchen with a sweetly furrowed air of recalibration, struggling to square the rural dream – an urban male fantasy of chopping logs, foraging, probably sex outside – with the eerie sound of birds fluttering in cave-like chimneys, the sense of imprisoned pulpy damp, this terrifying, thrilling isolation.
Beneath the shearling of her favourite lambskin jacket, in a 1970s-style that suits these rough-hewn surroundings, Jessie’s heart quickens. She tucks her unruly autumn-red hair repeatedly behind her ears, ordering her thoughts. For she knows there’s a huge jump between viewing an old country house on a winter afternoon – filmy silver light filtering through skeletal trees, moody and strange, like something dreamed – and the stress of moving hundreds of miles away, shedding their city skins. It would be an act of reckless blind faith, like falling in love with Will had been. But the house simply feels right – as Will did from the start – and, on a level that she can’t explain, destined to be theirs.
And, really, the scale of Applecote is perfect. They wouldn’t be lost in it. Huge compared to their London semi, it’s still a doll’s house compared to the real old piles in the area – the name “manor” is definitely pushing it. Only two rooms deep, the square footage is in the width, and it’s rustic rather than grand with gnarled woodwormed beams, walls that bulge as if breathing, no straight edges. A pelt of ivy covers the Cotswold stone exterior, the house not immediately visible from the road. Jessie likes this, the unshowiness, the way Applecote doesn’t dominate the surrounding lush countryside but settles into it, like an elegant elderly lady dozing in long grass. Jessie can see Bella finally finding some peace here, and her own daughter, Romy, freed from rubber-matted city playgrounds, climbing trees, those strawberry-blonde curls catkin-fuzzed.
Romy already seems perfectly at home, prodding at the kiss of a snail’s fleshy sucker on the other side of the glass with chubby toddler fingers. Jessie is sure her little girl will love the freedom of the countryside, just as she did as a kid, all those secret nooks of childhood, tiny worlds invisible to grown-up eyes. When the snail foams forward, Romy giggles and looks up: Jessie sees her own pixie-pretty features miniaturized, her family’s Irish teal-blue, copper-lashed eyes, Will’s full mouth. She grins back, Romy’s delight her own. Their relationship is still porous, umbilical, the opposite of the one with Bella, which seems to be fortressed by a wall just as thick as Applecote’s. Occasionally, she can peer over it, if she pulls herself up, dangling precariously. Not often. Certainly not today.
It’s been three years since Jessie crossed the city with her five months pregnant belly, the world’s happiest accident, bulking under her coat like a hidden present, and moved into Will’s house. Two years after Mandy died. Not wanting to intrude upon his life or his daughter’s, she had hung on to her independence and Dalston flat-share as long as possible, resisting the man she’d fallen madly in love with – “I don’t want to waste another minute of my life apart from you. I need you, we need you, Jessie” – until it became ridiculous and impractical. They didn’t want to unsettle Bella further by moving then, not with a new baby on the way. And Jessie naively believed that a big heart, an eagerness to love Bella as her own, would eventually win over the fawn-like girl with the haunted eyes, who clung to her father’s hand as if he were the last human left on earth. She had no idea that trying to love Bella, let alone parent her as she grew into an angry teen, would be like trying to hug an animal that wanted to sink its teeth into her neck. That she might never be forgiven for invading Bella’s private world with her father and bringing forth the joy, noise and disruption that was Romy, a rival for her father’s affections, and embarrassing proof of his new sex life. And who could blame poor Bella?
Time, everyone says. But time seems to be making things worse for Bella in London, not better, like something fragile left outside in the polluted city air, accruing damage. These last few months have been particularly bad, hormonally explosive with an unsettling crescendo that’s forced their hand. Both Jessie and Will are agreed that Bella, whether she wants it or not – not, obviously – needs a fresh start. She must be removed from the skunky parties and the toxic cliques, taken far away from what she did to that girl, everything that happened. There’s no point just moving to another London borough. If they’re going to do it, they need to be radical, reframe their lives. They will leave the city for somewhere much more innocent and benign. And what could be more innocent than Applecote Manor?
The windowpane bisecting the family’s reflection seems uncannily symbolic, reminding Jessie that there are other, murkier, reasons Applecote draws them: Will trying to escape the mental imprint of a lorry turning left, the broken body of his beautiful wife churned along a concrete road; Jessie’s insecurities, the ones that flare secretly, pettily, in her brain. For how can she tell Will that she’s never felt comfortable in his dead wife’s smart house, a domestic life that was never hers? That she has to fight terrible childish urges to paint over the chic grey walls with a riot of colour? That this is his second marriage, yes, but it is her first, her only, and she wants it to have its own unique character. And that Mandy, magnificent Mandy Tucker, a subject so huge and heartbreaking that Jessie daren’t mention her at all, is inescapable in the London house. Only last week Jessie pulled out one of Mandy’s scarves from behind the radiator in the hallway. Sitting down on the stairs, the grey walls pressing in, the scarlet silk limp in her hand, secreting another woman’s expensive scent, she wondered what to do with it. In the end, at a loss, she dropped it back behind the radiator and felt terrible. But Jessie knew that bits of Mandy would always be in that house, her marriage, hiding in crannies, waiting, watching.
They wouldn’t be at Applecote Manor. No ghosts here.