Between these two sat our mother, Mair. She was dressed in a very formal black suit she generally reserved for sad occasions. She'd put on a little make-up, her hair in a Lao bun, and she looked like an elegant, middle-aged funeral director, more beautiful than I'd seen her in many a month. I did notice that the white blouse she wore beneath her jacket was buttoned wrongly. It might have been a fashion statement but I knew better. I couldn't stand the silence.
"Somebody dead?" I asked.
"Us," said Sissi, staring pointedly at the joists inside the roof. The temperature had reached 34 degrees centigrade that day but, as usual, she was wearing sunglasses and a thick silk scarf because she insisted her saggy neck skin made her look like a turkey. It did no such thing; her neck was fine. There really was nothing sorrier than an aging transsexual ex-beauty queen. At least I used to think so.
"Does anybody want to tell me what's happened here?" I pleaded. Evidently not. Nobody spoke. The ceiling lizards were taking up their positions around the as-yet-unlit, fluorescent lamp above our heads and they were ticking with anticipation of a big night ahead. But my family was silent.
"She's sold us out."
The voice came from behind me. I hadn't noticed Granddad Jah follow me in but he now stood in the open doorway with his arms folded. It had been such a long time since I'd heard him speak I'd forgotten what his voice sounded like. The family was complete now but unstuck. I raised my eyebrows at Mair. The most wonderful if sometimes the creepiest, of my mother's traits was that she never seemed to be fazed by anything. She would greet even the most horrific moments, tragedies and accidents alike, with the same sliver-lipped smile. Her pretty eyes would sparkle and there'd be a barely perceptible shake of the head. I'd often imagined her going down with the Titanic, Leo DiCaprio splashing and spluttering beside her, and Mair's enigmatic smile sliding slowly beneath the surface of the icy water. She was wearing herTitanic smile there at our kitchen table and I knew it masked something terrible.
"Mair, what have you done?" I asked.
"She's sold it all," Sissi blurted out. "The house, the shop, everything."
It couldn't be true, of course.
"Mair?" Again I looked at her. She raised one eyebrow fractionally. No denial. It felt as if the floorboards had been pulled out from under me. I plonked down on one of the spare chairs.
"We're going to have a better life," Mair said. "I decided it's time to move."
"Please note the high level of consultation," Sissi hissed.
"How could you make a decision like that without talking to us?" I asked. "This is our home. We all grew up here."
"We should all die here," added Granddad.
"A change is as good as a holiday," said Mair. "I'm thinking of you all. You'll thank me for it."
"Is it too late to unsell?" I asked Sissi. She was our contract person, our unpaid clerk and accountant. I was sure she'd have checked the paperwork. She pulled a wad of documents from her Louis Vuitton local rip-off handbag and dropped them onto the table.
"The deed is signed, witnessed and incontestable," she said. A shuddering sigh erupted from the Arny end of the table. Granddad was seething in the doorway. We all knew the land documents should still have been in his name but he'd listened to Granny on her deathbed. Listened to her for the first time in his life.
"Sign them over to the girl," she'd said. "You could keel over any second, then the bastards at City Hall will suck all the taxes and rates out of it. There'll be nothing left. Sign it over to the girl."
So, that's what he'd done, a final promise to a woman he'd never really honored or obeyed. The one time he'd done what she asked him, and look where it got us all. As the sole owner, his daughter had no legal obligation to involve them in her decision. No legal obligation.
Excerpted from Killed at the Whim of a Hat by Colin Cotterill. Copyright © 2011 by Colin Cotterill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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