Excerpt of The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman
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Summer Maisie, 1967
WHEN WE FIRST CAME to the Abbey, it rained for five days. Nonstop. I'd
been warned that this could happen in England, in spring and in summer,
but I hadn't believed it. Every morning, we'd sit in silence at
breakfast. Gramps hid behind his newspaper; my sisters fixed their eyes
on their plates; my mother stared at air. I had to be propped up on
three cushions to reach the table. Outside the windows was a wet,
The laurels by the house hadn't been cut back then, and they dripped
dismal black tears. Beyond them, you could see a corner of the old
cloister, with a gargoyle spouting rain from mouth and eyes. The lawn
had reverted to pasture, and the grasses bowed their heads like a
congregation of penitents. The English air was a thick, peculiar mauve.
The wind keened: The ground under the beech avenue was littered with
broken limbs. I could see a severed arm, a giant's thighbone, and a
terrible stump of a head, knotty and twisted round with ivy. It had two
huge eyes. I knew they were watching all that grief seeping into the
house. They were measuring the damp that fingered the walls and counting
the drips from the ceilingsthree buckets in that room alone. The wind
gusted and moaned in the chimney. The windows rattled. "Well, children,"
Stella said in a wry way that meant trouble, "there is no possibility of
taking a walk today."
She made the same remark, after the same interval of time, every day
for five days. On the sixth day, she took to her bedroom and locked the
door. We tried the usual remedies: flowers, fiction, and food. Julia
took up a tray. Finn took her a bundle of books. I took her a bunch of
bluebells (Hyacinthus nonscriptus), which Finn helped me pick in
Nun Wood. We made a regular check: Three days later, they were still
there outside the door.
The sun had appeared by then. Stella had refused to sleep in the
large room she'd once shared with Daddy. Instead, she'd selected a mean
little space on the attic floor, where the nuns' dormitories once were.
The long corridors there were hot, dark, and stuffy smelling. The water
in the jam jar had evaporated; the bluebells had doubled up and died.
The packet of cigarettes was unopened, the emergency tot of Jack
Daniel's was untouched, and the tiny triangular sandwiches had curled.
Finn counted and checked the books. Six in total: Little Women,
Mansfield Park, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, and
Great Expectations were still there, but the sixthI think it was
Kidnappedhad gone. "Progress," said Finn. She pressed her ear to
the locked door, and we all listened intently. The air in this house is
odd, as you knowit has a weighty, brooding quality, and we were more
aware of it then, when we weren't yet accustomed to it. So as we
listened, it felt as though it listened right backand that was weird.
After a while, Finn claimed she could hear the rustle of pages. A
relief. We went off to explore. We investigated the library; it was a
moth-eaten place theneven more so than it is nowand Gramps said that
it used to be the nuns' Lady Chapel. Where the fireplace is now, there
used to be the altardid you know? We tried the famous Squintand found
it worked with amazing efficiency. We didn't notice what's so odd about
itnot that first time. Then we set off to map the gardens and the woods
and the village and the orchards and the lake and Black Ditch
Copyright © 2005 by Sally Beauman