Weeks went by when Ismay never thought of it at all. Then something would bring it back or it would return in a dream. The dream began in the same way. She and her mother would be climbing the stairs, following Heather's lead through the bedroom to what was on the other side, not a bathroom in the dream but a chamber floored and walled in marble. In the middle of it was a glassy lake. The white thing in the water floated toward her, its face submerged, and her mother said, absurdly, "Don't look!" Because the dead thing was a man and was naked and she was a girl of fifteen. But she had looked and in the dreams she looked again, but at Guy's drowned face. She had looked at the dead face and though she would forget from time to time what she had seen, it always came back, the fear still there in the dead eyes, the nostrils dilated to inhale water, not air.
Heather showed no fear, no emotion of any kind. She stood with her arms hanging by her sides. Her dress was wet, clinging to her breasts. No one spoke then, neither in the reality nor in the dreams, neither of them said a word until their mother fell on her knees and began crying and laughing and babbling nonsense.
When she came home the house was a different place. She had known, of course, that it would be two self-contained flats, the upper one for her mother and Pamela, the lower one for her and Heather, two pairs of sisters, two generations represented. In her last term at university, four hundred miles away in Scotland, what she hadn't understood was that part of the house would disappear.
It was Pamela's idea, though Pamela didn't know why. She knew no more of what had happened than the rest of the world knew. In innocence and well-meaning, she had planned and carried out these drastic changes. She showed Ismay the ground-floor flat and then she took her upstairs.
"I'm not sure how much Beatrix understands," she said, opening the door to what had been the principal bedroom, the room they had walked through to find the drowned man. "I can't tell how much she remembers. God knows if she even realizes it's the same room."
I can hardly realize, thought Ismay. The shock of it silenced her. She looked around her almost fearfully. It was one room now. The door to the bathroom had been--where? The French windows to the balcony were gone, replaced by a single glass door. The whole place looked larger, nearer to the dream room, yet less spacious.
"It's better this way, isn't it, Issy?"
"Oh, yes, yes. It's just that it was a shock." Perhaps it would have been better to sell the house and move. But how else would she and Heather afford a flat to share? "Has Heather seen it?"
"She loves all the changes. I don't know when I've seen her so enthusiastic about anything." Pamela showed her the two bedrooms that had once been hers and Heather's, the new kitchen, the new bathroom. At the top of the stairs she paused, holding on to the newel post and turning her eyes on Ismay almost pleadingly. "It's ten years ago, Issy, or is it eleven?"
"Ten. Coming up to eleven."
"I thought changing things like this would help you finally to put it behind you. We couldn't go on keeping that room shut up. How long is it since anyone went in there? All those ten years, I suppose."
"I don't think about it much anymore," she lied.
"Sometimes I think Heather's forgotten it."
"Perhaps I can forget it now," said Ismay and she went downstairs to find her mother, who was in the garden with Heather.
Forgetting isn't an act of will. She hadn't forgotten, but that conversation with Pamela, that tour of her old home made new, was a watershed for her. Though she dreamed of drowned Guy that night, gradually her mind-set changed and she felt the load she carried ease. She stopped asking herself what had happened on that hot August afternoon. Where had Heather been? What exactly had Heather done--if anything? Was it possible anyone else had been in the house? Probing, wondering, speculating had been with her for ten years and at last she asked herself why. Suppose she found out, what could she do with the truth she had discovered? She wasn't going to share with Heather, live with Heather, to protect her from anything, still less "save" her. It was just convenient. They were sisters and close. She loved Heather and Heather certainly loved her.
She and Heather downstairs, her mother and Pamela on the top floor. The first time Ismay saw her mother in the new living room, in the corner she had made for herself with her radio, her footstool, the handbag she carried everywhere, she watched her to see if her vague dazed glance wandered to the end of the room that was most radically changed. It never did. It really was as if Beatrix failed to understand this was the same room. Heather went up there with her when Pamela invited the two of them for drinks, and it was as Pamela said. She behaved as if she had forgotten, even going up to the new glass door and opening it to check if it was raining. She closed it and came back, pausing to look at a picture Pamela had newly hung on the wall where the towel rail used to be and Beatrix's bowl of colored soaps had stood. Ironically, the only thing to remind you it had once been a bathroom was that picture, a Bonnard print of a nude drying herself after a bath.
If they could forget or dismiss it or accept it, whichever it was, she must too. She had. She was almost proud of herself for doing what people said you had to do: move on. The next time she was up there with her mother, sitting with her while Pamela was out, she got up and walked across the polished floor, stepped over the two rugs, stood in front of the table where the shower cabinet used to be, and picked up a glass paperweight patterned with roses. Holding it up to the light, she felt her heart beating faster. The beat steadied, became rhythmic and slow, and, with deliberation, she turned to look at the place where Guy had died.
Beatrix had turned on her radio, had contorted her body as she always did, leaning to the left, so that she was almost resting her head on the shelf where the radio was, her ear pressed against it. If she noticed where Ismay was she gave no sign of it, managing a distracted smile when her daughter smiled at her.
Not long after that she found her job in public relations and Heather hers in catering. They got on well, they always had. Besides, long ago and almost unconsciously, Ismay had appointed herself, not Heather's guardian, never that, but her companion. Not exactly to watch over her, not in the commonplace phrase to "keep an eye on her," but just to be there and to see. Each time she came home, each time they met during those four years apart, she had watched and inquired and listened to what Heather had to say. She never thought much about the future, the inevitable separation which must come one day--must come or be avoided at a terrible cost to both of them.
Living together, they never discussed the changes to the house, still less what had happened on that August day when she was fifteen and Heather was two years younger. If they had, Ismay would have had to ask the question she had never asked. Each of them paid her share of the rent to Beatrix. It was what she lived on.
A year went by and half another. Ismay fell in love. To Pam, who listened, and to her mother, who never seemed to care or even hear, she described it as falling fathoms deep in love. There had never been a passion like her passion for Andrew Campbell-Sedge. Heather also listened but had nothing to tell her in return. Heather's love affairs, if she had any, must have been brief, superficial, and lukewarm. In Andrew's presence she hardly spoke and Ismay knew why. She was silent with the people she disliked, but there was more to it than that.
Andrew looked like Guy. He belonged to the same type. He might have been Guy's younger brother. Was that why she loved him and Heather didn't love him? The night she understood that, Ismay had the dream again but it was Andrew's face she saw under the clear, pale-green water.
Marion was there when Edmund came home from work. That was the second time this week. His mother said, "Marion kindly did my shopping for me, so I asked her to stay and eat with us. I knew you'd be pleased."
Did she? Why did she? As far as he could remember he had never expressed an opinion of Marion, apart from saying some months past that it was a mystery to him why women dyed their hair that unnatural shade of dark crimson. She smiled at him and sat at the table, starting to chat in her lively way about all the old people she visited and loved to help--"We'll all be old one day, won't we?"--the National Health Service and her late mother's deferred hip operation, sedatives and analgesics and alternative medicine. She thought it was his "field," she aimed to please him. Later on he would have to walk her to the station. It was only at the bottom of the hill, but he couldn't let her go alone through the dark streets. She would chat all the way about how marvelous his mother was in spite of her health problems.
His mother had produced avocado with shrimp, followed by spaghetti carbonara. "Absolutely delicious, Irene," said Marion, no mean cook herself in her own estimation. She had brought a Bakewell tart with her as a gift. "If I shut my eyes I might be in Bologna."
I wish you were, thought Edmund. So it was "Irene" now. Last time she was here they had still been on "Mrs. Litton" terms. Marion's hair was redder and darker than it had been at the beginning of the week and her little marmoset face more brightly painted. He had never known a woman to be such a fidget. She couldn't sit still for five minutes but was up and down, bouncing about on her little stick legs and her kitten heels.
"You mustn't think you have to come with me," she said to him when she had served and cleared away the coffee. Another first time.
"It's no trouble," said his mother as if she were doing it herself. "Suppose something happened. He'd never forgive himself."
She smiled. She made a conspiratorial face at Marion, a sort of can't-you-see-he's-longing-to-go-with-you face. And then he knew. Marion was intended for him. His mother's chosen present for him. Not from the first probably, not from when they first knew each other a year or two years back, but for perhaps six months. Like a fool he hadn't seen it coming. He saw it now. She was older than he but maybe by no more than five or six years. She was to be his girlfriend, then his fiancee, in a year or two his wife, a wife who would happily share a house with his mother.
Desperate situations call for desperate measures. He walked Marion down the hill, listening with only half an ear to her prattle about his mother's arthritis and her courage (as if Irene were ninety instead of sixty-two), then the latest doings of old Mr. Hussein and old Mrs. Reinhardt. All the while he was thinking what steps to take. Outside the station, as she thanked him for his escort, she lifted her face quite close to his. Did she expect a kiss? He stepped back, said good night, and left her.
"Such a sweet woman," said his mother. "Girl, I should say." She paused to let this sink in. "We've got a new neighbor. I saw him move in today. A Mr. Fenix. Marion says he paid over a million for that house and she should know."
Next day, at the hospice, he reviewed his fellow nurses. The women were all married or living with a boyfriend. At his mid-morning break he went downstairs to the catering department, for a slice of gingerbread or a piece of strudel to go with his coffee. The Jean Langholm Hospice was known for the high standard of its food. As Michelle, one of the cooks, said, "Let's face it, folks come here to die. The least you can do is make their last meals cordon bleu."
She was helping Diane prepare vegetables, cleaning broccoli and scrubbing carrots. Heather, the chef, was making wafer-thin pancakes for lunch. Edmund went up to Heather, as he sometimes did, to ask her how she was and tell her about Mr. Warriner, a cancer patient on his ward in whom she had shown an interest. She simply smiled at the first inquiry and nodded at the news of Mr. Warriner. She was a quiet girl and plain-faced, calm and reposeful, sturdy and full-bodied without being fat. She always looked as if she had just had a bath and washed her hair. Her eyes were the blue of willow-pattern china, and her beautiful thick fair hair was cut in a short bob with bangs. She asked him if he had come for his cake and could she offer him an almond slice or a piece of Battenberg. Edmund chose the Battenberg cake, then he said, "Would you like to come out for a drink one evening?"
She was surprised to be asked. He could see that. "All right," she said.
"Well, this evening?"
She didn't have to think. She stared at him. "If you like."
"What time do you finish here?"
"I'll come down for you at six."
It would mean hanging about upstairs for an hour, but never mind. He could have a chat with Mr. Warriner about his son and his dog and his once-splendid stamp collection. However awful the evening might be, however many long silences and glum stares, it wouldn't be Marion and her blather. It wouldn't be a step into the trap his mother and Marion were setting for him.
"What do you think," said Ismay. "Heather has a boyfriend."
Andrew, pouring wine, was so astonished that he let the glass overflow. Ismay ran and fetched a towel from the bathroom. He laughed and kissed her. "Who is this hero?"
"Oh, Andrew, that's not kind. She is my sister. I love her if you don't."
Copyright © 2007 by Ruth Rendell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.