is not tall. He is pale and the sun fails on his skin. He used to write restaurant reviews, plying a thesaurus for other facets to the words "juicy" and "rich." He met Lily at a magazine Christmas party; a room set up like a chessboard, at its centre a fir tree gravely decorated with white ribbons and jet globes. They were the only people standing by the tree with both hands in their pockets. For hours Lily addressed Luc as "Mike," to see what he had to say about it. He didn't correct her; neither did he seem charmed, puzzled, or annoyed, reactions Lily had had before. When she finally asked him about it, he said, "I didn't think you were doing it on purpose. But then I didn't think you'd made a mistake. I don't know what I thought. I suppose I thought you were calling me Mike because Mike was my name, if you see what I mean."
He wooed his wife with peach tarts he'd learnt from his pastry-maker father. The peaches fused into the dough with their skins intact, bittered and sweetened by burnt sugar. He won his wife with modern jazz clouded with cello and xylophone notes.
His fingers are ruined by too close and careless contact with heat; the parts that touch each other when the hand is held out straight and flat, the skin there is stretched, speckled and shiny. Lily had never seen such hands. To her they seemed the most wonderful in all the world. Those hands on her, their strong and broken course over her, his thumbs on her hip bones.
One night she said to him, "I love you, do you love me?" She said it as lightly as such a thing can be said without it being a joke. Immediately he replied, "Yes I love you, and you are beautiful," pronouncing his words with a hint of impatience because they had been waiting in him a long time.
He seems always to be waiting, his long face quiet, a dark glimmer in his heavy-lidded eyes. Waiting for the mix in the pot or the oven to be ready. Waiting for blame (when, at twelve, Miranda's condition became chronic he thought that somehow he was responsible; he'd let her haunt the kitchen too much, licking spoons. He forgot that he had allowed Eliot to do the same.) Waiting, now, for the day Lily died to be over, but for some reason that day will not stop.
Meanwhile he has the bed-and-breakfast to run, he has cooking to oversee, peach tarts to make for the guests who know to ask for them. The peach tarts are work he doesn't yet know how to do without feeling Lily. He has baked two batches of them since she died. Twice it was just him and the cook, the Kurdish woman, in the kitchen and he has bowed his head over his perfectly layered circles of pastry, covered his face and moaned with such appalled, amazed pain, as if he has been opened in a place that he never even knew existed. "Oh," he has said, unable to hold it in. "Oh." Luc is very ugly when he cries; his grief is turned entirely inward and has nothing of the child's appeal for help. The Kurdish woman clicked her tongue and moved her hands and her head; her distress was at his distress and he didn't notice her. The first time he cried like that she tried to touch her fat hand to his, but he said, "Don't--don't," in a voice that shook her.
Nobody knew what to say to Luc. His children were closest to knowing, but Miranda was mad and when she saw him those first few weeks after Lily's death, she wasn't sure who he was. Eliot noticed Luc more, as an eye does when something is removed from a picture and the image is reduced to its flaw, the line where the whole is disrupted.
I find Luc interesting. He really has no idea what to do now, and because he is not mine I don't care about him. I do, however, take great delight in the power of a push, a false burst of light at the bottom of a cliff, just one little encouragement to the end. Sometimes it seems too easy to toy with him. Other times . . . I don't know. But he is always so close by that it doesn't matter so much.
My father is very brief. All in the most likeable manner possible--he gets this look of discomfort whenever someone tries to discuss something with him at length. He looks as if he would very much like to spare you the effort. He used to go through horrors with Miri on the subject of her day at school, his replies cautious and neutral in case he appeared to be disapproving of something that was a good thing. Miri would chatter and chatter about our teacher having been unfair or the disappearance of her pencils. "Ah," Dad would say, and, "Right." And, "Really?"
If I was going on a trip or something it was a simple matter of handing him a letter or an itinerary and saying, "Dad, it's £300," or whatever it was. He'd scan the paper and say, "Fine," or he'd say, "Here's the thing; can't afford that this term. Are you now resentful?"Are you now resentful
is always a genuine question from him. We never, ever said yes. It was my dad's idea to open Lily's house as a bed-and-breakfast. Lily's grandma, our GrandAnna, had raised Lily herself, and when she died she left Lily the house in Dover. I heard my Dad on the phone to someone about it: "Seven bedrooms, four bathrooms and God's own 1940s kitchen . . ."
Lily wanted to put the Dover house up to let and use the money to pay the rent on our flat in London, which, Dad said, made no sense at all. But: "Why on earth would I want to live in Dover again? I spent my childhood in a state of inertia."
Dad spent about six months working on Lily. The facts, figures and written proposals he'd prepared for the bank left her completely unmoved; she always tried to ignore things she didn't understand rather than be intimidated by them. But apparently it was the bed linen that changed her mind. Cool blue silk and cotton patchwork. When Dad laid the stitched pillowcase and duvet out for her on the sofa, the colours reminded her of something she'd never seen. She said to us, "Imagine everyone in the house--even people we don't know--all wrapped up safe in blue, like fishes. What fun . . ."
Miri and I were ten; Dad spent some time with a big map, planning a scenic route, and then he drove the moving van himself. Miri and I fidgeted at first, then settled when we saw cliffs bruising the skyline and smelt birds and wet salt on the air.
Our new house had two big brown grids of windows with a row of brick in between each grid. No windows for the attic. From the outside the windows didn't look as if they could be opened, they didn't look as if they were there to let air or light in, they were funny square eyes, friendly, tired. The roof was a solid triangle with a fat rectangular chimney behind it. Lily bounced out of the van first and I scrambled out of the other side and crooked my arm so as to escort her to the door. The house is raised from the road and laid along the top of a brick staircase, surrounded by thick hedge with pink flowers fighting through it. "Careful on the steps," Lily said. The steps leading up to the house bulge with fist-sized lumps of grey-white flint, each piece a knife to cut your knee open should you slip. Opposite our house there is a churchyard, a low mound of green divided into two. The graves beneath it are unmarked. Lily took my arm and held Miri's hand and when we got up to the front door she rubbed the crescent-moon-shaped door knocker and laughed a little bit and said, "Hello, hello again."
The first thing Lily showed us inside was the dusty marble fireplace. It was so big that Miri could crawl into the place where the wood was supposed to sit. She tried to make crackling, fire-like noises
(when we were ten I always knew the meaning of the sounds she made, even when they were unsuccessful)
but ended up choking on a puff of dust that bolted down the chimney. Next Lily showed us the little ration-book larder behind the kitchen; the shelves were wonky and the room had a floor so crazily checked that none of us could walk in a straight line in there. I remember how brilliant I thought it all was; there was nothing for it but to jump in the air and yell and kick and make kung-fu noises.
Miri and I conferred and decided that we liked the tallness of the house, the way the walls shoot up and up with the certainty of stone, "Like we're in a castle," Miri put it. We liked the steep, winding staircase with the gnarled banister. We especially liked the ramshackle lift and the way you could see its working through a hole worn into the bottom in the back left corner. We liked that the passageways on each floor were wide enough for the two of us to stand beside each other with our arms and legs spread, touching but not touching. I climbed one of the apple trees and surveyed the garden, the patches of wild flowers that crumpled in the shade, the Andersen shelter half-hidden by red camellia shrubs. I was well pleased. "Wicked house," I said. "Magic," said Miri, from somewhere below.
We thought it would be hard to make friends because of the way people came out and stared at us in the moving van as it passed through the streets. But Miri is good at making friends, and I am good at tagging along on expeditions and acting as if the whole thing was my idea in the first place. Miri was very pleased with Martin Jones's curly hair; the boy's head was like a sheep's. He became our first friend in the area and he brought most of the rest.
Actually, when we were sixteen Miri gave me the task of telling Martin that he didn't stand a chance with her. Miri called me into her room, fixed me with a look of dread and whispered, "He asked me out and now I just can't look at him anymore." I refused point-blank to be her messenger or to have anything to do with any of it, but she said, "Then I'll write him a letter." I cringed and said, "Don't do that."
Martin and a couple of others came around to smoke and watch what promised to be "strange and unusual porn." Women with horses, women with lizards, women with women plus horses and lizards. I pretended to be leaner than I was and at one point mentioned aloud one of the "actor's" resemblance to Miri's boyfriend. The others groaned.
"What the fuck--"
"Too gay, Silver."
Martin didn't say anything himself, but I knew that he was gutted and I didn't let him pay for his share of the weed; he put a note down and when he wasn't looking I screwed it up and threw it into his coat pocket with a sense of relief so huge it was disabling. I wrote something in my diary about it a few days later, about our teenage years being a realm of the emotionally baroque. I wasn't even lean when I wrote that.
So Martin was the first friend, but the other kids he brought liked the house too.
For a few months after we moved in it was just Lily, Miri, Dad and me in the house, no guests. Decorating happened, the kitchen got updated; Lily went away to Mexico and came back with a pair of shrivelled corn-husk dolls that she put on a shelf in her studio when Miri and I rejected them. During that time there was no better place in the neighbourhood for hide-and-seek, or for Robin Hood versus Sheriff of Nottingham swordstick fighting in the back garden. There was no better place to play Hitler Resistance Force, a game I made up so I could be Churchill. My first kiss was in the Andersen shelter, more a percussion of heads, faces, mouths than anything else. We were thirteen. Emma's the sort of girl who likes boys who have unpredictable moods and write poetry and imagine things, so I played up to that. We were in the shelter because she was supposed to be a Nazi double agent giving me secret information. For some reason whilst kissing her my main preoccupation was not hurting her or bruising her. I tried not to hold her too hard. Her hair and skin were so soft.
There is another shelter inside the house. It is beneath the sitting room with the fireplace; it is under a trapdoor set in the floor. The room is dim and long and deep; a room for sleeping in. Sleeping and not much else. I tried to revise for exams in there and ended up curled up on my side on the floor, snoring.
What took getting used to in Dover were the gulls and their croaky sobs, and the sense of climbing upstairs when walking on some roads and downstairs when walking on others. The house, the garden, moving. The whole thing was like a dream; for weeks Miri and I couldn't believe it and wandered around the place with pangs in our stomachs, pre-emptive homesickness ready for the tiem when Dad and Lily would announce it was only a holiday and it was time to leave. Aside from our great-grandmother dying, we knew that it was Dad that had made it all happen, and we revered him as a wizard.
Miri's room was darker than mine, even before she took to keeping her curtains drawn at all times and Lily started calling her room "the psychomantium." That first day, Miri found something on the floor of that room she'd picked as hers. I didn't see what it was, but it was very small, and I thought that it must have cut her or something because just after she dropped it into her pocket she sucked thoughtfully at her finger. It took me about an hour of my best teasing and insults to get the secret out of her; finally she sighed and showed me. It was a ball of chalk.
Copyright © 2009 by Helen Oyeyemi. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.