Winner of the Somerset Maugham and Betty Trask Awards
In a decaying house along the marshy Fenlands of Eastern England, four sisters—Milly, Agatha, and identical, inseparable twins Ellen and Esther—have lived in self-imposed isolation for more than sixty years. Like good sisters, they bicker, go about their daily routines, and believe the bright myth they’ve created about their childhood. Sometimes Milly can recall a blessedly unexceptional youth of ordinary days, domestic tranquility, and young love. But what came after is so much more consuming, and so much harder to forget. So are the questions no one dares to answer out loud . . .
Why does Milly still count the knives? What was the corruption their father warned them about? Was their mother really swallowed up by the roaring river? And why does no one sing to Baby George anymore, who’s locked away in the cellar? As a ceaseless rain lashes away at the house, the sisters prepare for a coming storm. With it comes the threat of steadily rising waters that will give up the secrets still holding them in thrall.
“A fairytale gone gruesomely wrong”, Lesley Glaister’s debut novel was the recipient of the Somerset Maugham Award, for which she joined the likes of Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Sarah Waters, and Ian McEwan (The Literary Review). An “eerily tragic and mesmerizing first novel” (Publishers Weekly), Honour Thy Father is “a true original” (The Sunday Times).
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Honour Thy Father
By Lesley Glaister
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Lesley Glaister
All rights reserved.
There goes Aggie again. Bang and crash and scrape all night. Where she gets the energy from I don't know. The wrong side of eighty, she is. And she wants this room, my room. But she has a room. We all have our own place. A room apiece. And this is my room. She's the eldest and she thinks it should belong to her because it's the biggest; because it was Mother and Father's room; because of the view from the window. I can't be doing with it myself, the flatness, not any more. Little skin of land stretched tight as a sheet and the sky billowing. All that weight of sky and no relief. Yet it's my room, fair and square.
It must be sixty years of banging and crashing and scraping just to prove a point. More than sixty years! Childish I call it – and the carpet's fair worn away. Bed under the skylight to catch the light? No, too draughty. In the low corner by the dressing-table with its pots and pots of old grease? No, too dark, too cramped. As if it matters! It's the attic room, where the twins used to sleep, with a sloping ceiling and narrow skylight of grubby grimy glass – for it's never cleaned. She doesn't care to crane her neck just to see the blessed sky, she says, and so the glass is green with growing things, tiny things that live in the wet. And yet she bangs and scrapes. Evil old bitch. Shout what you like, loud as you like. She'll not hear above the sound of her constant movement. One of these days you'll go through the floor, Agatha!
Even on Sundays. I said no relief. But if you strain your eyes, if the sky is perfectly clear, there is a kind of relief in the distant shine of the stone spire of the church in Witchsea beyond the dark bundles of trees and the odd roof. Just a faint glimmer, a tiny point on the horizon – but perhaps you can't see it at all. Perhaps it's one of those mirages, an image bounced off the tightness of the earth.
And then there's George. Poor baby George. Down there, below us all. Quite happy in a mindless, vegetable way. He is Agatha's. Never could do anything right, that one. But she doesn't help with him, hardly acknowledges his existence. She used to sing to him sometimes, those old songs, the ones Mother used to sing to us. But she doesn't do anything for him any more. No more use than ornament big sister Agatha since she's got old. I do not know what the twins think. The two of them – Ellen and Esther – are scarcely two at all but one and her reflection. And which is which? Mirror images they lean in when they walk, heads almost touching; one left-handed and one right. They walk in step; they talk often in unison. Ellenanesther.
They're young still – not seventy yet. They almost destroyed the house all those years ago, trying to pull down the wall between their rooms. They've got the smallest rooms because they match, long and narrow and dim with long windows facing out onto the fruit trees at the back. And they worked together, wordlessly, one each side of the wall, hacking and chipping until the house began to shake and creak. A crack slithered across my ceiling then – and it's there still. Inching across even now in a storm, or when Aggie has a really big shake-up. And they're left with a hole now. A two-brick-sized hole. They have their beds pushed against the wall, six inches apart, and when they lie down they can see each other's faces. Just watch each other until they fall asleep at the same instant and dream, I suppose, the same dream.
'Stay away from that dyke. Whatever you do. You hear me?' Every time he went away Father left us with this warning. And once he'd gone, like clockwork, we'd get up and do the chores. I did the laundry, the worst of the jobs – don't ask me how that decision was made – and the baking; Agatha did the outside work, and fed and milked the cow; the twins cleaned the house and helped us if we asked them to. With all of us working hard, four strong pairs of hands – even the twins were quite capable as long as they worked together – the chores were done by dinner time. The chickens and the cow tended; the garden seen to; the beds aired and the floors swept. And then – except for wash days – there was the long afternoon.
It was worst when it rained and blew. Then the sky would be full of whorls of rain and grit that flung and pelted against the walls that held us inside. Although I was quite content on those days because I was happy to be still. Sometimes I read an old newspaper of Father's, sometimes, when it wasn't too cold, I just sat, alone, in Father's room gazing out of the window. Already I loved that room, loved the sweeping endless view and knew that here I'd be the first to see him coming back. A little dot at first, steadily growing into a long shape; a pony and trap; and then into Father. And then, once he'd become Father again, he'd arrive home. And whether it was joy I felt, or whether it was fear, I was not certain. Anyone that went away from here, I used to believe when I was small, ceased gradually to be themselves, became nothing but a tiny dot. And then nothing at all. Unless they came back, as Father always did.
Ellenanesther used to sit by the hearth playing with their peg dolls, whispering in their private language, lives for their toys. Their voices were soft, scarcely audible, like rustling leaves. But little words would catch in the air sometimes: omotheromothero; the blood and the mud and the holy goat; wetollthemdead. The hearth with its arch of brick pointing up the furred black chimney was the church and the lives of the peg dolls were played out before it – the pairings and multiplyings and deaths – and when their blunt legs snapped they were sent via the flames to Heaven. For Heaven was up that chimney.
Agatha was the only one who liked to work in the afternoons, to work in the barn, forking the hay; splashing the brick floor clean; or outside in the garden hoeing between the rows of lettuces and beans, sending the weeds flying in muddy arcs. And once she'd tired herself out she'd go to Barley the brown cow and talk out her complaints about her lot – for Aggie was always complaining, always sighing – talk out her dreams. The animal would gaze calmly at her, past her, with wet brown pansy eyes, listening and blinking wisely her spiky lashes. And Aggie would doze sometimes, her ear against the warm tunnel of Barley's back, hearing the comforting gurgling and churning – but these times were rare, for Aggie was really a doer, with no time for idling – or idlers.
Sometimes, on hot days, when scarcely a breeze blew across the flatness, we'd walk along the narrow dusty paths, gathering blackberries or sloes or mushrooms or sometimes just a bunch of wild bright flowers. We always walked in a little procession. Aggie first, the eldest: she was nearly six foot tall, gawky in her pinafore and endless length of black stockinged legs; me, Milly, behind, plumper and shorter and never as beautiful, with my tow-coloured hair in a long plait down my back; and Ellenanesther at the back, leaning in, heads almost touching, like reflections. Thus we would walk, and sometimes – solemn and silent but for the rustling of Ellenanesther – we would turn towards the dyke.
We'd walk along the road beside the bank that was one side of the dyke. High above it towered, and behind it a wall of water, way above our heads. 'If ever the bank gave way,' Aggie always used to say, looking back over her shoulder at us dramatically, 'a twelve-foot wave would sweep the countryside, destroying everything. Us first!' And we'd all shudder in delicious terror, imagining such irresistible destruction.
And then we'd climb up from the road, up the steep side, and stand in a row along the top and watch the water. The sides were steep, dry and flakey at the top, a glistening chocolatey mud just above the water. Not much grew in this part of the dyke, save the occasional staunch bullrush, for the water flowed so swiftly. It was not clogged with life like the slower ditches and dykes, not like a friendly reedy willowy river bank. This water meant business. It was brown and opaque and the surface of it screwed up with the concentration of the rush it was in. It flowed away and away and away.
It had taken Mother away.
Father told me about the dykes once, when I was very little. He said that once this land was under water. He said the Romans dug ditches to drain the land for farming. And he said that later there were riots when it was done again, because people used to like the wet. They used to fish and catch the water fowl. They used to walk on stilts! But it was all drained. It must have been odd having the whole of your world changed like that. Having all the wet sorted from the dry. Over the years the land has blown away and sunk leaving these towering walls of water, of laboriously patched mud. They angle round the corners of ancient fields, some monstrous, some little more than ditches. We called this one Mother's Dyke because it was the one that had taken our mother.
From the way Father talked, it was almost as if he was afraid of the water. No, not afraid quite, more as if he didn't approve of it. He admired the people who drained the land, controlled the flow of the water. He sometimes travelled to Holland on business, and he said the land there was just the same, flat and tame, managed by man. He said it was a Dutch engineer who had drained the land, in likeness of his own country, in the seventeenth century. Yes, Father approved of the straight lines, the corners, the distinction between the wet and the dry.
Sometimes, disobediently, we would visit Mother's Dyke. We would hold vigil, clamber up the bank to see the water. Sometimes one of us would think that she saw something beneath the surface, nudging up through the wrinkles. Aggie and I knew that by now she would be nothing but a skeleton, so that it would be a skull that would appear, the water rinsing through the empty eye sockets, maybe an eel threaded round, maybe green weed flowing out like hair. But Ellenanesther who were only babies when Mother died saw something like a sepia photograph, a calm sad-eyed dignified face, a sweet smile, a white hat; they strained to focus on it among the brown ripples but could never quite get it clear. Lucky they had each other, these two, for they filled the space a mother would have taken, and Mother – the photograph on the mantelpiece; the unfocused flowing face in the dyke – was just an idea.
The longer she wasn't there, the more of a mystery Mother became. She had been a lady, that much was clear. She had talked like a lady and she had many manners. Ways. Ways that weren't common round here – at least our nearest neighbours, the Howgegos, didn't possess them. Father insisted on manners though, and so she kept them up. But that wasn't all there was to Mother. There was something bad and glamorous too, something that didn't fit with her lady voice. Something that Father didn't like to be reminded of, and that was the music and the songs. She had a piano, terribly out of tune, and rarely played, but still, a piano which gave the room an air. And she knew songs, really funny songs that would have us laughing and dancing on dark winter afternoons when Father wasn't here. The thing that was not quite respectable about Mother was that her father had been a music-hall artiste, a real artiste although her mother had been a lady. 'She married him for love,' Mother explained once, sighing, 'but it didn't work. There was something in her, after all, that didn't approve.' And she had been confused. Her father's world was exciting but wicked; her mother's, dull but good. This was what we knew about the woman who had been our mother. Also that we had loved her. Also that she had gone.
Big sister Agatha. Scraggy Aggie. Agatha, bitch name, witch name. Pain. Standing in the kitchen, so proud, as if she knows it all. Remembers it all.
'Remember the time,' she says, 'when our second cousin and his friend came to call? Home on leave. Heroes. And they spent two weeks cycling, and they came to call on us. Remember that time?'
I shrug. But there's no stopping her. And she stands still when she talks, at least, a far-off look in her eyes, making up memories while I get on with making tea.
'And I was wearing my pink dress with the blue sprig – my prettiest – and a wide hat with a pink rose on the brim, just here ...' she looks at her ravaged reflection in the glass, 'and I looked a proper picture. Roses in my cheeks, roses on my hat of palest pink. I was tall and straight. Slender. And they came to call on me, us ...'
'Oh no,' I say, for we must get it right, 'I remember that time too. I remember a stroll in the evening with the friend. It was evening, getting dark, and there were bats, and one nearly tangled in my hair, and I jumped and he steadied me with his arm. With his strong arm, soldier's arm. Roger, I think was his name.'
'Oh no dear, you've got it wrong. His name was Roderick, and it was me that he walked with. Impeccable manners too, and my arm that he steadied. He held my arm just above the elbow here, like this,' and she demonstrates, a proud little smile on her face, 'and he said how lightly I walked, how very ... gracefully ... I was tall and straight then, remember, slender.'
'And you muddied your dress ...'
'I did no such thing. We walked together and the sun was setting and the sky was aflame and he said he'd come back ...'
'But he never did. Did he? Did he?' I say, smashing eggs into a bowl. 'And he walked with me too.' Because he did. I remember. She will poach my memories. I have the room that she wants. She's never forgiven me for taking that room, the biggest and the brightest and the best room and now she tries to take my memories instead. But they are my memories, it was my arm he steadied – not that I care, it was Isaac I always cared about – and as he grasped me the back of his hand brushed the side of my breast. I can feel it still. The back of his soldier's hand against my breast, just at the side. A soldier's hand, a hand that had held a gun, killed perhaps, the enemy, brushing against my breast.
'I suppose you want some of this?' I say, beating and beating the eggs, smashing the yolks to slivers, the whites to foam.
'Since you're doing it,' she says, as if she couldn't care less. 'What was his surname then? Eh? If you know it all, go on, what was it?'
'Get me some chives,' I say. 'Take the scissors and snip me some chives. You know and I know that we never knew it.' I've got her there because it's true, we never did. She goes off, bent grey witch, into the garden, spiked scissors in her bony hand.
And it was my knee he touched when we sat on a cushion of clover. Inside my skirt. It was my knee, never Agatha's.
She comes back with a handful of hollow green spines tangled with grass. 'Chop them then,' I say, cross, for she is a useless article in the kitchen, my sister Agatha.
It was a hot dry day and the muddy side of the dyke was cracked and pale where the water level had fallen. Aggie squatted, her hands clasped round her knees. She kept sighing. She was pale.
'What's up with you today?' I asked.
Ellenanesther sat down too, dangling their feet over the side, little black boots banging against the side, sending dried flakes into the water.
'Something is wrong. I must have done something wrong.'
'What do you mean?'
'Look.' Agatha slid her hand inside her skirt between her legs, and when she brought it out her fingers were red and slick with blood. 'And there's pain here,' she said, pressing her hand on her belly.
'Are you cut?' I asked, staring fascinated at Agatha's scarlet fingers. Ellenanesther began to cry. Agatha wiped her fingers on the grass. 'No. I don't think so. It's from my ... a little yesterday, but more today.'
'Have you told Father?'
Agatha looked at me as if I was stupid. She snorted and stood up. She looked into the water for a moment. 'Mother isn't there,' she said brusquely to Ellenanesther. 'Dry your eyes.'
And there's tea to get for George. My turn to feed him. Turns! That's a joke! Monday: my turn; Tuesday: my turn; Wednesday: my turn. Every blessed day my turn. Except Sunday. Aggie's supposed to feed him on Sundays, but I don't know. Perhaps he doesn't get fed at all. I really don't know. He never says. She prefers animals to people – that's what she says. That's what she used to say. You'd think she'd have a bit more time for George in that case.
We eat our omelette with the last of the bread and a cup of tea. There is no gin, which always makes me tetchy. Aggie chews, noisy as ever, with a far-away look in her eyes.
'Brown!' she says, suddenly, triumphantly. 'We did know his surname, and it was Brown!'
'Not Brown,' I say, scornful. 'Brown was never his name, that was ...' but I can't remember. I must think, must say something or she'll think she's one up. And then it comes back, 'Brown was Father's partner! Pharoah and Brown or Brown and Pharoah, that's it!'
Excerpted from Honour Thy Father by Lesley Glaister. Copyright © 1990 Lesley Glaister. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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