a mower, swerved to give them berth. They avoided the rose garden and instead cut into the pebbled allee which was lined with elms whose twigs had not yet sprouted their leaves, so that it was apparent a tree actually grew, that a twig had worked its way out of a branch, that an elm did not arrive in the world elm-shaped. The girl declined to leave the lawn, would not put a foot onto the allee, until her brother opened her suitcase and from it removed the tiny exoskeleton of a pram. She settled her doll into the pram and, reassured, proceeded on, managing to push the pram and pull her suitcase at one and the same time.
The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap. The woman took hold of the doorknocker - it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull - and weighed it in her hand. Knocked. They waited patiently, and their kind of patience was born more from exhaustion, from abandoning any expectation of easy gratification, than from gracious goodwill. She reached out to ruffle the boy's hair, to give them both some courage. Knock-knock. An old woman answered. She was wearing her perennial uniform, a black dress and white apron, and her hair, grey now, was curled in a tidy bun. They stared at one another without speaking and between them passed an understanding of the unsung miracle of the door - one moment a person wasn't there, and the next moment ... there. Peering inside, the children spied the entrance hall; it was austere and immense, the wood-panelled walls were painted palest dove-grey. High ceilings lent it the authority of a church or a courthouse although this authority was undermined by brightly coloured helium balloons weighted down in vases and tied along the banisters of the grand central staircase.
'Hello Ida,' said the woman calmly. 'It's me.'
'May I introduce the children?'
Each child gave a limp wave. Ida noted the boy's bloodied shoulder, his torn shirt and trousers, but held her tongue. She bent down and twinkled her fingers in greeting, ushered them inside.
Grandmother crowned the staircase. She was impeccably dressed in a matching boucle jacket and skirt, a faultless string of pearls. A sceptral silver-topped walking-stick rested by her side. Though small and frail, the impression she gave was one of dignified resignation.
The woman climbed the marble stairs, and when she reached her mother she took her soft scaly hand and kissed it. A formal gesture, not one of reconciliation. And her mother, in turn, made an assessment - the straggled hair, the torn stockings, the broken arm. Tactful, she determined not to pass comment.
'I needed to come home,' said the woman. There was a long silence. 'Well, meet the children.'
She waved them up the stairs.
'This is Andrew, we call him Andy. Andy, this is your grandmother. Grand-mere. Grandmother.'
He said hello; she smiled.
'And this is Lucy. Lucyloo.'
'Hello Lucyloo,' said Grandmother.
The girl was too shy to reply. 'Will you be staying long?' A pause.
'Yes, I think so.'
'So, the day of days,' said Grandmother. She tapped one of the balloons with the end of her walking-stick. 'Your brother will be home soon. They are pregnant, you know. In the hospital. We expect them any minute. Everything here is ready, just for the first six months or so - when it's hardest. But, of course, there is plenty of room. Where would you like to sleep, Olivia?'
'Wherever is convenient.'
'Ida will see to it.' She looked to Ida for confirmation. 'Well, come now, are you tired? You must be tired. Such a long trip.' And then she added, 'Was it a long trip?'
`Very long,' replied the woman. 'Wasn't it, kids?'
The boy shrugged but the girl bobbed her head up and down without stopping.
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Disquiet by Julia Leigh. Copyright © 2008 by Julia Leigh.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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