If there is where they were missed.” -Louis Macneice
“In her room at the top of the house, Clare is thinking about time. Thinking with her eyes closed in the pokey little space up under the roof, where things scuttle and rustle. Stifling in the summer and far too cold in the winter and not anything like the room that will be hers a few years from now, when they all move to the new double house on Pembroke Street. The one where the scent of lilacs drifts through all the open windows. But that’s in the future, and the future, like the past, is nowhere in her mind. Instead she’s thinking about time in a different way. Thinking about what it is, and why it is. Thinking about how it can be Eternal, and yet gone forever. About how it is a thing that has carried on for everyone else these past hours or days while she was lying in her narrow bed, thinking nothing at all.”
Clare taught at the school for a year and was set to go back again in the fall but that was when the sickness came upon her and she spends most of the next year in bed. Through her eyes during that year, we are introduced and become almost intimate with the members of her family. “The room has two small windows, east and west, and when the word morning floats into her mind she knows that it’s there because of the faint bar of light that falls on her quilt through the panes to her right….They each have a quilt that their mother has made, sleep beneath patterns of worn-out clothing. The blue is from a shirt wee Alan wore before he died…a story they all know…she realizes how far one word has brought her, and she closes her eyes and falls back down into the dark.”
“Single words, patterns, colours…intricate connections to specific people, events involving them, images of the past, whose past, what words, which patterns. Ghostlike memories floating in and out, periods of deep sleep in between.”
“She wonders, idly, if this is what it is to lose your mind. When asked if she is feeling better she replies that she doesn’t know: “I don’t seem to know anything at all.””
Factual bits intrude: her mother died two years ago; her father cutting and stitching fine suits in the front room; Ross telling her about Eskimos; math problems that came in the form of a story; Ross’ departure; her father’s long illness; Aunt Peach who didn’t know anyone’s name. The reader meets the whole family as each in turn climbs the stairs to visit and/or check on Clare. Kez and Nan in turn bring food and help her wash and when one is missing Clare fears her fever has been passed on. But Nan has hurt her knee “dancing in the kitchen” and Ben the oldest boy at home was there and Charlie “had stopped by and was showing them some steps he said were all the rage.”
Nan and Kez “call each other Moon and Jug, but no one else does”. Nan has a round face and Kez has ears that protrude. “They were born as close together as they could be, without being twins; impossible to think of one without the other, even though they’re nothing alike. Charlie “brings her a book on repairing clocks and watches” and “when he’s gone she turns the pages, looks at the diagrams” and “covers the pages and tries to see it in her mind”. Ben “talks about what’s gone on at the Telegraph Office, tells her about an idea he’s working on, switches and currents and relays” but lately he has been drifting off “with a little smile on his lips, and once he asked about hair combs.” Gradually we come to know these siblings of Clare’s in the same ways that she knows them.
Time and stories move on. “The space between them now is tumbled with separate memories, from the time Nan was gone, and with their separate thoughts. But in those days they were together all day and all night, and Kez says, “How can you not remember that, when I do?” She thinks how most of the pleasure goes out of the remembering when there’s no one to really share it with.”
There is a mystery surrounding Clare’s background: as she lay in bed “the questions of who she really was flared and she tried to work it out for herself, knowing no one would give her a proper answer. When she was small her father said the fairies brought her, and once Kez told her that they’d picked her out from a bin in a shop…the most her mother ever said was that it was a thing to talk about when Clare was older.” She thought about the most likely answers: was she Ross’s child and had he been banished or did she belong to one of her sisters? She continues to ponder words like morning and time but she knows “the words are just another knot on the long string of memories that plays through her mind.”
Was she a stray taken in for no real reason except as a charitable action, nothing to do with “love or belonging”. Was she “plucked from a tree like an apple or fallen off the back of a coal cart”? “She didn’t seem to remember anything herself, and that was a blessing, so their mother said once given the state of the room they took her from and the daft baggage who handed her over.
Mysteries, memories, marriages, births. Houses, places, clocks and telegraph stations. Births and deaths. Stories and more stories. Nan and Kez, Charlie, Ben, Edie, Robert, Angus, Ross, Aunt Peach, Bella, John, Clare and Lizzie.
“It just wasn’t something we talked about,” Clare had said. “All that family history – it just wasn’t important.”
“The last time Lizzie was home she’d smoothed out a roll of photocopies, records of births and marriages and burials, written out by a long-dead hand. “Keep them for awhile,” Lizzie said, “you’ll get interested,” and Clare thought it unlikely, but was grateful. It surprises her, always, this kind of evidence that Lizzie has been thinking about her, worrying about her maybe. That their roles have been – not reversed, but somehow balanced out.”
“All those ghostly possibilities, with nowhere left to hide.” In the corners of an empty house, “she keeps catching flickers of movement from the corner of her eye.”
It’s about my ghosts and your ghosts. It’s about connections. It’s about making meaning.