Moorhens is a house overlooking a quiet stretch of the Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire. It is a real house - I was born there. Many of the events described in the book are true ones. The attached village and neighbouring town are also real places, though like the house differently named. While the main events take place in the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 2005, we also visit the primary characters and some others in 1945, 2017 and 2033.
The initial focus of the story is 41-year-old Lena who, two years ago, was a passenger on a train that came off the rails on its way north from London. Several people were killed. Lena was one of them. Yet she wasn't. So touch-and-go was her life at that instant that in one variant of reality she survived and in another she did not. One of these Lenas had a daughter, the other a son. Miriam and Cal are in their 21st year, and their lives are about to change radically - as is the surviving Lena's, though when it happens she doesn't notice, except in her dreams. Disturbed dreams.
Black October night. Rain hammering the windscreen. Rhythm of the sluggish wipers scrambling my thoughts, returning me to the year everything changed. Changed twice in three short seasons. The first dramatic, emphatic, heartbreaking, the second leading to this, all these years on, running from betrayal with a little passenger inside me. Driving home to preserve a family tradition.
To bring a child into the world at Moorhens.
I've lost the habit of trying to pinpoint critical instants when futures swing in the balance, but tonight, bitter as hell, cursing the dark, the weather, everything, everything, I wonder at what point it went wrong this time. One point or many? All those tangent-filled split-seconds when a life might veer in any direction, any at all. The numerous tiny moments when everything can change – does change – and you never know it.
Never suspect it for a minute.
Two years. Two to the day, and no one's mentioned it. Trying to forget it ever happened perhaps. But I can't forget. The second anniversary of your death isn't something you can easily set aside.
'Starting to snow,' I say.
He shrugs. 'Won't settle.'
'The forecasters beg to differ. And you have a long drive.'
'I'll put my foot down, beat it there.'
'Don't you dare.'
'Drive like an idiot.'
It was a day like this. Very like it in the beginning, far from like it at the end. A rail, a single rail, weakened by what came to be called a 'rolling contact fatigue crack', made so brittle by the freezing conditions of previous weeks that when the wheels of that particular train on that particular night lumbered across it, it shattered into more than three hundred pieces and the engine jerked upward, taking two of the carriages with it. I was in the second carriage. Several of my fellow passengers died instantly. No seatbelts, so where do you go? Any damn where, that's where, crash-crash, smash-smash. I remember nothing of it, or of the hours that followed. I was one of those whisked off to Addenbrooke's as soon as the ambulances reached us. They operated on me right away apparently. Me and I don't know how many others. Some of the others survived. But me?
I didn't make it.
I was gone. Well and truly gone.
But they brought me back. Against all the odds, they brought me back. Don't ask me how. All I know is that I died and I've never felt quite right since – in the head, the heart – though the only person I let it show to is the Lena in the mirror, when we're alone. Two years later, as well as can be expected, in body if not mind, I insert one of Joe's arms into his overcoat. He shakes me off.
'I can't drive in this.'
'You'll need it,' I say.
'There's a heater,' he replies.
'It'll take a while to make a difference. You can pull in to a lay-by and strip off when you're warm enough.'
He gives in, but when I start brushing the coat's shoulders, he says, 'Lene, will you for Christ's sake leave me alone?'
'You look a mess,' I tell him.
'I'm comfortable as a mess. I swear, if I dropped dead this minute you'd tidy me up before the body-baggers got here.'
'Goes without saying.' I raise my voice. 'Mim, he's off, break open the champagne!'
Miriam emerges from the kitchen nibbling toast. 'Already open.'
Joe says, to both of us as if addressing children: 'Now what's the procedure while I'm away?'
'Procedure?' one of us asks.
'With strangers at the door.'
'Er... don't open it to them?'
'How will we know if they're strangers unless we open the door?'
'Well, you look through the window beside the door, what else?'
'What if they're strangers who want to read the meters?'
'Why would they want to read the meters?'
'Their job maybe?'
'Are the meters due to be read?' he asks me.
I jerk a shoulder. 'But if they are meter readers,' I say, 'should we let them in or tell them to take a hike?'
'Depends if they can prove they are.'
'How would they do that?'
'You ask to see their IDs, of course. They have to have IDs if they're legit.'
'Ah,' says Mim, 'but how will we know their IDs are genuine?'
At last realising that he's being set up, Joe says, 'Look, you two. Listen. There's a lot of dodgy characters about these days, and our nearest neighbour is not only too far away to hear your screams, but stone deaf, so stop being a pair of smart-arses and take care, all right?' He picks up the canvas holdall he dropped by the door earlier. 'Give you a ring tonight,' he says to me. 'Mid-evening sometime.'
'You'll be there before that.'
'I'll need to settle in.'
'Go out on the town with your bit of stuff, you mean.'
'I'll tell her that's what you call her.'
He brushes our foreheads with his lips, steps backwards into the porch, and heads for the garage hunched against whirling snowflakes that suddenly seem out to get him. Mim and I wait dutifully in the porch, arms tightly folded, shoulders high, as he pulls the garage doors back and goes inside. Soon, if not soon enough – it's not warm out here – we hear the engine turn over. Then the car backs out, crunching gravel, reverses in a tight semicircle.
'Drive carefully!' I yell, the way you do.
He gives a ha-ha-devil-may-care wave and the stripped trees and bushes that line the drive squeeze out silver flashes all the way to the gate, at which point, approximately, the oddest feeling comes over me.
'What?' Miriam says.
I glance at her. 'What what?'
'You said “He could be driving out of my life”.'
'I said that? Out loud?'
I pull a face. 'My mind needs a padlock.'
'Are you two all right?' she asks.
'All right? Us? Why wouldn't we be?'
'What do I know, I'm just the daughter. He might have shut the garage doors.'
'I'll see to them later.'
'Could be half full of snow by then.'
'Nothing stopping you doing it.'
She shivers. 'Huh!'
'Plans for the day?' I ask, closing the door.
'If I say sweet Fanny Adams will you promise not to do your usual?'
'Fanny Adams,' I say brightly. 'Eight year old girl horribly murdered by a solicitor's clerk in Hampshire, August 1867.'
She rolls her eyes. 'And your dad told you that when you were Fanny's age and it still makes you shudder to think of it, I know, I know, I know.'
'Speaking of dads, with yours out from under, we can clean the house, put everything back in order, yippee.'
She groans. 'I should have gone with him. I could have, but no, I chose to stay with the only person in the world who has to have the fridge magnets in perfect alignment.'
I open the first door off the hall. 'I'll do in here, you start on other rooms.'
'I haven't finished my breakfast,' she says.
'Well, when you have... please?'
In the Long Room I open the curtains. The uninspiring view of the south garden from the French windows is already improved by the drifting snow. The snow does something else too. Takes me back to last night. That old familiar feeling that I shouldn't be here. That the two of them should be carrying on without me. From there I got to wondering what the house would be like if I hadn't been clawed back to life without my consent. Would they have looked after it? Kept it tidy? Cleaned, dusted, all the rest? Pathetic stuff. As if such things matter. But in the night such idle maunderings are hard to switch off. Impossible, even.
Well, morning now, and Joe away for a couple of days, and – whisper it – I feel mildly liberated by the thought of not having to include him in my personal equations, accommodate him in all the customary ways. It's different with Mim. I'm never happy when she's out of reach. I owe her everything, always will. I've ruined her life and hate myself for it. Ruined it by going to a London exhibition. It's as simple, as absurd, as tragic as that.
Spinning away from the French windows I distract myself with activity, plumping up cushions, snatching one up from the floor by Joe's armchair, sorting the coffee table, tidying the papers and magazines in the rack. Moving on to the other half of the room, allowing myself the limp that I do my best to suppress when Joe and Mim are about, my eye is caught by my guitar, leaning casually against the wall as if waiting for me. I go to it. Run my nails across the strings. Not very melodic, but pleasing. I pick it up by the neck, carry it back to the French windows, sit down on the floor facing out, and set about proving yet again that I have very little idea how to play the stupid thing.
He had nursed his anger through a third of the night and it was still with him, even though the cause no longer seemed all that consequential. Neither of them were given to easy forgiveness, and their parting had been just a shout from downstairs, a grunt from him up here. In the ten minutes since the front door slammed, he'd barely moved. Fully dressed but wrapped in his duvet for its warmth, he gazed out of the window, elbows on the ledge like a kid, snowflakes thumping the glass like tiny fists, an inch from his nose. Down the slope and beyond the landing stage, the river looked like a single plate of ice. The trees on the far bank were caricatures of themselves. Nothing moved. Even birds, high above, hovered as though waiting for something to happen. The frozen river, the birds, the falling snow, perfect some might think. Not him. To him it felt like a small, brittle region of sanity between his father's departure and the next scene, into which Julia would fling herself. Then, a couple of days later, it would be Kath's turn to bother him. He wanted to be alone, but alone was out, it seemed. Someone had to be with him at all times. Why? What did they think he was going to do if left alone for a day or two? Cut himself? Stick his head in the oven? Wank himself into a coma?
It was the imminence of Julia's arrival that had started last night's shouting match. He'd protested that he didn't need a minder, to which the reply had been, 'There's been a lot of break-ins round here lately.'
'Oh, right, so if someone breaks in, she'll fight them off, will she?'
'Well, I wouldn't want to break into a place where she's in residence,' his father had said.
'Glad you find it funny, because I don't.'
'Well, it's arranged now, it's done, she's coming.'
'I get a say in nothing, do I?'
'You do when something's up for discussion.'
'Which Julia wasn't. Which Kath isn't.'
'Now don't start on Kath again, we've been over this.'
'You've been over it. I've just listened.'
'Yeah, not too well, it seems, or we wouldn't still be talking about it.'
It had gone on from there, on and on, until doors were slammed, stairs stormed up, more doors slammed, leaving the remnants of their hostility to fuel the silent hours that followed.
Dull and empty after all the rage, he was still elbowing the window ledge when he caught a movement on the opposite bank. Saw a man push his way out of the tangled trees and bushes to stand looking across at the house. He leant back, not wanting to be seen, and as he did so he heard music, an acoustic guitar playing softly, and was briefly happy until he remembered that there was no guitar-player, that he was alone in the house, quite alone, with nothing to look forward to. Nothing, ever again.
He tossed the duvet aside and left the room.
I was close to my last mouthful when Dad left, but learning that I must be party to returning the house to the state of perfection preferred in his absence, I take my time getting up from the table. It's not until I go out to the hall that I hear the guitar, played very quietly so as not to draw attention. I laugh. Can't help it. That woman will never learn – literally, in the case of the guitar. I enter the Long Room. She's sitting cross-legged at the French windows, plucking the strings with hands that might as well be encased in mittens.
'What's that meant to be?' I ask.
She glances round. 'Surely you recognise Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto.'
'I thought I detected one of the notes in there somewhere.'
She gets to her feet. 'I'll never get the hang of this.'
'Dad says he'll gladly pay for lessons,' I remind her.
'Yes, to save his ears from shredding, he said. I'm not taking lessons in something I don't need to do. I'll either teach myself or give it up.'
'In that case, might I suggest...?'
'Have you nothing better to do?' she asks, returning the guitar to its usual place. 'We have a house to put right, remember.'
'I don't see you doing much.'
'I've tidied this room. Mostly.'
'It was never untidy. Not what normal people call untidy.'
'Why don't you start in the River Room? There's a duster in the left-hand drawer of the sideboard, and a can of spray polish.'
'Do you keep a duster and polish in every room?'
'Try to. Go on now.'
I sigh. 'My life's just not my own.'
'Whose is?' she says.
MOORHENS : a novel in three seasons
What if someone else was living your life? Someone of the opposite sex.
Look below the surface. Reality is different there.
A c.640 page novel, an immense labour
of love, the completion of which left me drained for quite some time.