Every June the first, Naomi’s eldest sister visited their grandmother, insisting whoever was available on the day be towed along to watch Gran blow out a candle on her birthday cake and fall asleep with feigned exhaustion.
‘I’ve baked a cake,’ Rebecca announced over the telephone to Naomi. ‘You’re coming, and we’ll pick up Leia on the way to the house.’
Naomi behaved exactly as Rebecca would expect – like a grumpy teenager impatiently waiting to turn twenty. ‘Oh, God, do we have to take her? You know Leia hates all the mumbo jumbo that Gran spouts. She’d have her in one of those sheltered housing places.’
‘Gran’s not that old. If it wasn’t for Granddad passing away, she’d still be sprightly and full of beans.’
‘And in her right mind. Why do we put up with all this nonsense? Her clairvoyance? This “I can see the future” business?’
‘She doesn’t see it. She hears it,’ Rebecca corrected with infuriating precision. ‘It doesn’t do anyone any harm, so leave her to it.’
‘Harm? No, I suppose not.’ Naomi hung up and closed her bedroom door, blocking out the scrape of bow against string. She’d taken up residence with an ambitious violinist who preferred to practise in the hallway, sandwiched between the front door and the bottom of the stairs, where she claimed the acoustics were good. The budding Nicola Benedetti was in full flight of the bumble bee mode and unlikely to stop practising for a few days due to her impending recital. Naomi preferred the hallowed practice rooms of the university.
A trip to Gran’s cosy house wasn’t a bad idea.
During the journey across the southern Fens to Chatteris, the three sisters ignored the flat fields flooded with golden rapeseed and isolated ribbons of trees and twisted thickets. Rebecca sighed a few times, Leia dozed, and Naomi wished she was spending the day with Kyle.
When Rebecca opened the sunroof, a slice of cold air cut through the car’s interior. Leia jerked in her seat.
‘What the—,’ she muttered.
‘Leia!’ Rebecca said.
Naomi smiled. ‘Isn’t this jolly, eh? All of us together.’
‘Don’t be so negative, Naomi,’ said Rebecca.
Leia’s head lolled from side to side. ‘Wake me when we’re there.’
‘No appreciation, you two. I keep this family going, you know that?’ Rebecca drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. A lock of hair flew across her face. Her hand brushed against her eyes. Tears? Rebecca wasn’t jolly in the slightest. However, she wasn’t visiting Gran’s house under duress. Their parents never required them to visit Rose on her birthday and Rose wasn’t bothered with gifts or cards.
Rebecca always wanted to go, as had her father, Paul, who’d visited his mother on a regular basis. As the only child, he’d been quite aware of his filial duties. After his career had taken off, he’d handed the reins over to Rebecca, who’d then dragged her siblings along to witness something that had become an obsession: Rose’s enigmatic premonitions. None of them had ever come true, a fact that Leia laboured frequently. Ignoring the lack of enthusiasm, Rebecca led the pilgrimage to the heartlands of the bleak Fens to pay tribute to an aging woman who was both disconnected from the outside world and constantly grieving her lost husband.
Rebecca’s empathy was legendary. She cried over television dramas whether the ending was happy or sad, she melted when told a love story and dreaded watching the news for fear it might upset her. Prone to nightmares, when she was a child she often sleepwalked, and tested her parents’ patience with her ghoulish dreams and horrible visions. Were the two things tied together, Rose’s profound belief in fate and Rebecca’s fear of the unknown destroying what she loved? Naomi, emerging from her adolescent years, and finding the adult view of the world more daunting than she’d anticipated, wanted a simple life that removed her from her family’s quirky way of living apart from each other, yet often interfering as if suffocatingly close in proximity.
‘Why did they go, do you think?’ Naomi said, thinking out loud.
‘Who?’ Rebecca asked, closing the sunroof and turning up the heater. Summer was tardy this year.
Leia snored softly.
‘Mum and Dad. Why did they go to live in the States?’
‘Because they had the chance.’ Rebecca never begrudged them the decision.
‘I should have gone, shouldn’t I?’ Naomi said, lowering her chin and examining her clasped hands. ‘I’ve held you back.’
‘Nonsense.’ Rebecca managed a swift glance over her shoulder to the rear seat. ‘I don’t regret you living with me. I’d do it again. Watching you turn into a young woman has been deeply satisfying. Any man who snaps you up will have found a nugget of gold.’
Naomi stared at the back of Rebecca’s head. The compliment caused a swell of unbearable guilt at her behaviour over the past year and her attempts at shaking herself free from Rebecca’s maternal grasp.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, struggling not to cry.
The air-conditioner blasted into her face; Rebecca might not have heard the apology. Naomi sank into the misery of silence.
‘Wake up, sleepy head.’ Rebecca prodded Leia. ‘We’ve arrived.’ The car stopped outside of Rose’s tired house with its bay window and lace net curtains.
The three of them trooped up to the faded front door. ‘Now, girls,’ Leia said after a lengthy yawn, ‘let’s do this one more time.’
‘One more time?’ Rebecca asked in alarm. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ll tell you later. And as for you, Naomi, chin up. Rebecca loves playing big sister. She was born to watch over us.’
‘You were awake!’ Rebecca glared at Leia.
The rebuke ended abruptly. Rose opened the door and held open her arms, welcoming in her granddaughters with a cheerful smile.