I know what I'll say when they come for me. I'll tell the tale that protects me from trouble. It's as familiar as the truth and with each repetition it grows more real. But it isn't the truth.
Each year I keep three anniversaries: the date of the murder, the date of the hanging and Sandy's birthday. I keep them involuntarily, jolted into remembrance by, perhaps, a glance at a calendar or the act of writing the date on a cheque. Without these cruel anniversaries it might have been possible to bury the truth.
I don't mark them in my diary. Look, my pencilled notes are only for appointments, shopping to do and bills to pay. There's nothing to startle anyone who peers over my shoulder.
Two more days. To the anniversary of the murder, I mean.
Oddly, I'll be spending it at the scene of the crime. Well, no, not exactly but close, visiting a cousin of mine who's settled in the town. June's older than me, lame now and clinging onto family, always begging visits. How could I refuse without her wondering whether my reasons were less to do with enjoying a busy life than with repugnance at long ago death? Deaths. Two of them, remember: the slaughter and the hideous legal retribution.
This year it so happened it was June who alerted me to the anniversary, in a telephone conversation hinging on her increasing isolation. She ended a good-natured grumble by saying: 'Anna, you never allow enough time, dear. Come for a weekend and then we'll really have time to talk. How about the end of March?'
And there it was, the fatal date, falling this year on the final Saturday of the month. The murder itself took place on a Tuesday.
Without quibble I replied: 'Yes, I'll come then.'
I wrote diagonally across the space for two days on the diary page: See June. As I scribbled I imagined her sitting by her telephone, triumphant. Because she looks frail I underestimate her. If I were to forget how gaunt her body is and concentrate on the determined line of her jaw, which is plain now she's taken to commanding her steely hair with combs and drawing it into a knot on the nape of her neck, I'd give way less frequently. When I'm annoyed I've done so I tell myself she's selfish. We are on the whole, I think, a selfish family.
Since June's call the anniversary has hung around in my head, an impending tribulation that's all the worse for being anticipated. If only I could be sure June isn't aware of it, too. Of course, there's no means of checking without giving away what's on my mind, so I'll just have to turn up on Friday evening and hope for the best.
I could be lucky. She hasn't talked to me about the murder for ages, except for a few cautious remarks when I first went to visit her. She'd been living in the town - a run to seed sort of place, all history and no future - for a couple of months by then and it would have been peculiar if neither of us had commented on her coming full circle, back to what was once her parents' home and also to the town where the family drama was enacted. Every one of us had moved away in the intervening years. June's parents, too, had let their house and gone.
'The last batch of tenants were awful,' she said, and we smartly set off along the landlord-tenant by-way which meant murder was kept off the agenda.
Perhaps she attempted to revive it before I left an hour or two later. Yes, I'm sure she did, but I'm adept at dodging and I had the perfect excuse for slipping away: I faced a long journey home. Presumably she registered my reluctance because she hasn't mentioned it again, not even, I think, indirectly.
Reminiscing with June is curious. As she's ten years older than me her perspective has always been different. What I saw as a child, she viewed with the sensitivities of a girl on the brink of womanhood. All the events and characters we refer to are remembered from quite different angles.
'Auntie Patch was my favourite,' I admitted once. 'I was really sad when she went to the States.'
June's face lit with humour. 'But Patch was so mean, Anna. Don't you remember what she did to Nella?'
Nella had seemed to me a dull, locked-in personality. I raised an eyebrow in query and June told me the tale of two sisters. The story didn't amount to much, not unless you were the aggrieved sister, but it justified the opinion June held. I couldn't argue with her because she was looking at it from the vantage point of her extra ten years.
'Good heavens,' I said, showing the required surprise. Privately I was sure there was bound to be another interpretation, one that favoured Patch. Bias, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
On one of the other occasions that we went in tandem down memory lane I sensed June holding back rather than contradict me. It would be very easy for all our conversations to turn into mild arguments which she's bound to win because of the superiority those ten years grant her. She remembers lots of things I don't and lots more about the things I do, or so she says.
Do you know, I don't especially remember June herself when I was young. Although I struggle for a recollection of a gawky big girl, I can never bring her into focus. I recall her parents and her rather dashing brother more clearly. Naturally, I haven't said this to June because it's a distancing kind of thing and she needs, very obviously needs, to feel close to someone who's family.
We have little in common apart from a few genes. She's a retired civil servant who's led a risk-free life in the lower ranks of the Ministry of Something or Other. She's a spinster who's never, as far as I know, been tempted to change her status. Her taste runs to understated jersey suits with German labels; holidays where one learns about art, opera or cookery; the Daily Telegraph; and scarifyingly dry sherry. I'm not like her. My life isn't like hers. That scattering of genes is the magnet that attracts her to me and I, dutifully, respond.
No doubt we had more in common when we were young, living in the same town and making Sunday afternoon outings to see the same set of grandparents. We were at the same family events, such as christenings and weddings. Not funerals, though. The family excluded children from funerals. I remember the exclusion, remember being curled on a deep bedroom window-sill and watching a black car pull away down the street, and I remember the silence in the house because everyone had gone to be sad somewhere else. But I don't know how old I was or whose funeral it was or who, precisely, was in the car. I'm left with a sensation, a symbol rather than an entire event.
To me childhood is another place, one peopled by strangers. In my mind's eye I see the little girl on the window sill and I call it 'me', but only because it's my memory or my imagining. I have feelings about that moment she lived through, but I doubt they can be her feelings. No, I'm investing the scene with a pathos she can't have experienced because she was in the picture and I'm merely looking at it, interpreting it. Sometimes, at odd remembered moments in her young life, I identify with her and accept her without question as me. But it doesn't last. It's rather like recognising a friend across a street and finding, as you hurry towards them, you're facing a cold-eyed stranger.
People talk about children blossoming into adults, and they use rosebuds as sentimental symbols of innocent childhood, but to me the imagery seems inadequate. A gentle unfurling of petals doesn't describe the metamorphosis that separates babe in cradle from child, and child from adult. We're reinvented in a series of different forms before we're completely developed, and it's as hard to find the child in the adult as it is to see the caterpillar in the butterfly. The butterfly drinks nectar and doesn't know why the caterpillar chewed on the leaf. When we leave childhood behind, we lose a language and a system of reasoning, and there's no way back.
I should say we seldom hold matching views of current events, either. For instance, I'm convinced she exaggerates when she complains about her neighbours and their garden fires and noisiness. Although I've been to her house a number of times I haven't caught a whiff of smoke or heard a peep.
And then there's this business of her local shopkeepers who deliver groceries and meat and vegetables, even a decent bottle of wine, and appear to me to be a blessing most housebound folk can only envy. June, though, knows the worst about them: overcharging, giving short measure, gossiping about her to all and sundry.
Once, irritably, I started to say: 'Cancel them, then. You don't have to bring them to the house if they cause you so much upset.'
Just in time I bit my tongue because she has no choice but to rely on them, and it's her reliance which is her real hurt. I expect she extends the resentment to me, too, because I'm the only member of the family who visits regularly. I'm more or less certain of that. To begin with she made it sound as though several of the others came, and I believed it simply because they live nearer. Now I suspect they each made a single visit, calling on her soon after she moved in, drawn by curiosity to see her parents' old house once more. What did they talk about, I wonder? Probably the things she doesn't talk about to me.
She isn't truly old although you might be thinking so from what I've said. No, she's in her early sixties. But I notice she's behaving old, as though having a lame leg is affecting her attitude. This surprises me because the family prides itself on stoicism - or used to although I doubt any of them have said it in a long time, stoicism having gone out of fashion. Who cares about stiff-upper-lippery these days? People prefer to bare their breasts and share their suffering, wouldn't you say?
Sometimes I catch myself wondering where June and I will be in ten years time. Will she, as she insists, be destitute and totally crippled? Will I be the only one who visits and, willy-nilly, becomes responsible for her?
But it's too soon to worry. Besides, June is most unlikely ever to be destitute and she'll come to the top of the waiting list and have an operation one of these fine days. After that, who knows? Salsa dancing? Mediterranean cruises? A walk to the butcher and the grocer?
When we meet, June and I, we gently ruffle a few leaves of memory, swap stories of times long past, discuss her troublesome present and her fears of the future. We don't, if we can help it, dwell on murder.
Yet I feel it drawing closer, the moment when the matter becomes unavoidable. They'll come for me, you see, and I'll have to tell them something. Oh yes, I'm confident I know what's best to say. All that's required is the story that's always been my salvation. But having found me there's a chance they'll go to the old house, too, and then they'll encounter June and I don't imagine she has a story that fends off questions.
You see my difficulty? I'd like to warn her to expect questions but I'm stuck because I can't do anything without discussing the murder.
© 1998 Lesley Grant-Adamson
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