Keys

She hadn’t been back to the old house in a very long time. At first, it was the fear of being drawn in again, the sense of knowing that to set foot in the door would be to fall right back into the familiar patterns that had threatened to destroy her before she left, creeping out like a thief in the night. Then, it was the sense of shame at what she’d left behind, the shattered pieces of a life and family she’d turned her back on. And then it became the sense of distance, the knowledge that all of it was far behind her; viewed through a flickering screen of the past, as though it had happened to someone else in a place far away and beyond her interests.

When the phone rang that day and Anna picked it up, she sensed that palpable shift in the air, and braced herself for the impact of something hot, sticky, and messy, something that would cling to her just like the tentacles of the old house had. For a moment she was eight years old again, hunkering down in the decaying splendor of the master bedroom while her parents fought viciously in the parlour, longing to tease the peeling wallpaper away from the walls but knowing it would only get her in trouble, eventually cowering in the heavy, dusty canopies of the bed.

Her parents hadn’t been able to afford a household staff for a long time, and the house slowly fell down around them, just like their marriage, even as they tried to put a front on both. Her mother entertained in the one room her parents agreed to keep up, even as guests commented on the ragged garden and the disheveled appearance of the house, which looked like a lady on the verge of losing everything to a gust of wind on her way to church. And her parents duly accepted the invitations sent to them even as their numbers dwindled, as they faded quietly from society, the force of their coupledom diluting in the face of a world that was changing without them.

She heard Anna murmuring into the phone, the rise and fall of her voice, and she wanted to rise from the chaise and tiptoe into the other room, surprise Anna from behind, wrap her long arms around her and carefully pluck the phone out of her hang and crisply bang it back into the cradle, but she found herself frozen, instead, looking out through the windows across the sweep of the lawn and down to the river, watching the deer move quietly across the estate. She had spent so many years building this life for herself that she wanted to delay for a moment the sense she had that it was all beginning to unravel, with a single phone call, a sour note struck across strings of space, time, and family.

Anna hung up the phone and padded through the hall, slippers whispering on the rich, thick rugs they’d brought back from Morocco and Afghanistan, changing tone as they transitioned onto wood and marble flooring. Anna’s dress, short and in keeping with the fashion, rustled and occasionally caught against the furniture with a whisper of silk and beading, and her necklaces clacked against each other. She had been dressed to go out, almost hadn’t picked up the phone at all, but it had rung as she was at the door putting on her driving gloves and she’d picked it up reflexively.

Neither of them needed to say anything as Anna came into the room, her hat once again hung by the door and her gloves no doubt underneath it on the hall table. Her hair was still in stiffly marcelled waves, her eyes sparking, but she looked for a moment like an overdressed child instead of a grown woman preparing to step outdoors. Eventually Anna’s voice washed over her in a slow, reluctant tide, the rich tones reminding her of why she’d fallen in love with Anna in the first place, even though she wanted to reject everything she was hearing and return to the world before, when Anna was gaily calling out that she’d be back for tea as she prepared to open the door and venture out.

It hadn’t always been easy for them, living as they did, as who they were, but they’d fought their way up in society, reestablishing themselves. Anna came from a family that hadn’t lost everything in the war and the subsequent aftermath, a family that was vast and powerful and proud, and her name still meant something even if it was soiled. She laundered it and scrubbed it and cleaned it again until the stain was gone, until no one asked her about her parents in their decaying house in the north, the house that had threatened to suck her into a spiral of misery and despair, of endless days spent plunking absently at the keys of the piano, listening to it go further and further out of tune in the salty air.

And yet, with a single phone call, her mother could pull her back into that world, dragging on the string that she thought she’d severed years ago and reeling her, kicking and screaming, delicate shoes falling off in the mud while her hair came down in clumps around her face. Her mother could demand a final performance, the last show of solidarity in a family that had long since stopped even pretending, drawing upon those ancient ties of blood and bone.

Anna shook her head, and she rose, still in silence, putting one finger to her lover’s lips.

‘Enough,’ she said.

Image: Damage to Ocean House, Hartlepool, from a German raid in World War I. Museum of Hartlepool, Flickr