Chapter 3 – Seven Tales
‘Nana? We’re heading off soon.’
Rebecca nudged open the door to discover Lillian propped up against two pillows on the right side of the bed. She was wearing a polka dot nightdress and purple reading glasses, and frowning down at the tablet Daphne had bought her for Christmas, tipping it from side to side like a steering wheel.
‘Becca, what’s an eCard?’ she asked.
Grateful to delay the moment she’d be alone with Rosalyn again – her mother had been subjecting her to dark looks since dinner – Rebecca perched on the edge of the bed and helped Lillian navigate a link in an email from her godson. They both gave a start as music blared from a bunch of cartoon balloons.
‘Well,’ said Lillian, once Rebecca had switched off the device, having established there was no other message but HAPPY BIRTHDAY GODMOTHER!! ‘I suppose it’s the thought that counts.’
She wriggled into the centre of the bed, towards the side once occupied by Grandpa Archie, and patted the space she’d just created. Rebecca moved up until they were sitting next to one another and she was breathing in her grandmother’s scent, which was warm and lightly floral, like an expensive candle.
‘How’s everything downstairs?’ asked Lillian.
She’d slipped away shortly after the cake, so had missed an uncomfortable hour of Rosalyn aggressively tidying, Morton rattling about in the drinks cabinet and Daphne and the twins growing increasingly bored and shrill.
‘Yes, fine,’ Rebecca lied, aware that her mentioning Leo at dinner was at least partly to blame for the evening’s tension. ‘I think Mum wants us to go in a bit, though.’ Again, she winced at the thought of the long and likely silent walk back to Primrose Cottage.
‘Before you do, may I ask you something?’ Lillian removed and folded up her glasses.
Rebecca, anticipating gentle chastisement, said, ‘I didn’t mean to ruin your dinner.’
‘I happen to think you’re perfectly entitled to ask about your father. I’m just curious about what made you do so tonight.’
After Rosalyn’s reaction, Rebecca was reluctant to mention the journalist, even to her grandmother. ‘I guess I just think about him sometimes, that’s all.’
This was true, though she’d never admitted it before. No matter how hard she tried to forget him, Leo had a habit of bounding back into her head around her birthday, at Christmas, every Father’s Day. And, occasionally, something smaller and more unexpected would bring him back: certain nursery rhymes, the taste of lime cordial, the lengthening of her shadow on a summer evening . . . She couldn’t remember the details of these associations, exactly, but the surprise cameos they prompted felt raw, until, regardless of how long it’d been and, in spite of her feelings of abandonment, she even wondered whether she missed him.
Like before, the thought of Leo seemed to trouble Lillian, and Rebecca was tempted to change the subject. But as she fiddled with the edge of the quilt, she wondered whether she was being presented with a second chance.
‘You don’t know where he is, then?’ she asked.
Lillian shook her head. ‘I’m sorry.’
She seemed sincere, but Rebecca began to consider what else her grandmother might be able to tell her. Before she’d thought of a question, however, Lillian asked,‘Would you fetch me something, dear?’
Almost relieved, Rebecca rose from the bed.
‘In the wardrobe, on the shelf at the top, there’s a box . . .’ Rebecca, who’d been anticipating a request for a novel from
the bookshelf or perhaps a hot chocolate from downstairs, turned the ornamental key in the wardrobe door. Inside, Lillian’s perfume was stifled by a musty, cupboardy smell, and all her brightly coloured blouses, dresses and jackets looked curiously dull when dangling, disembodied, from a row of hangers. Feeling slightly awkward, Rebecca stood on her toes and began to search along the top shelf, her fingers brushing past the brims of hats and heels of shoes.
‘Are you sure it’s here?’ she asked, worried Lillian was getting muddled.
‘Yes – it’s wooden, with a little latch on the front.’
Rebecca’s hand made contact with something solid, half- hidden behind a stack of scarves. It was about the size of a shoebox, but far heavier and, as she slid it from the wardrobe, she saw it was made of a dark mottled wood, possibly walnut. When she brought it over to the bed, Lillian threw open the lid and began to rummage through a random assortment of objects: handwritten letters, a man’s wedding ring, an envelope marked M’s first tooth.
As she sat down again, Rebecca picked up a photograph depicting a surly dark-haired boy of around ten, and two red- headed girls in matching dresses, the taller thin and pensive, the smaller gap-toothed and sunny. ‘They haven’t changed much,’ she remarked.
Lillian didn’t respond. She was now tossing aside keepsakes – a christening bracelet, a square of embroidery – as though they meant nothing.
‘Nana, are you all right?’
‘Of course, dear – ah, here we are!’
From the very base of the box, she withdrew a book. It was small and narrow, with a faded olive-green cover, and would’ve been unremarkable – the kind of volume lost to the shelves of a second-hand bookstore or junk shop – had it not been for the gold lettering of its title, which was glinting in the lamplight:
A little bewildered by this choice of reading material, which was not in keeping with the cheesy romance novels her grandmother usually favoured, Rebecca started tidying the other mementoes back into the box, asking, ‘Do you want me to put this back now?’
‘I want you to stop fussing and look at this.’
Rebecca turned to find Lillian offering her the book, which she assumed was a volume of fairy tales or fables, and her puzzlement turned to concern: her grandmother wasn’t often mysterious, nor prone to strange bequests. Hopefully this wasn’t anything more serious than post-birthday exhaustion.
‘Nana, I’m almost twenty-six,’ she said, trying to laugh it off.
‘Meaning . . .’ Rebecca reached for the book and skimmed through its pages, catching sight of a few titles: The Voyage to the Edge of the World; The Enchanted Lute. ‘Meaning I’m a little too old for children’s stories.’
‘Actually, I think you might be exactly the right age,’ her grandmother said. ‘It’s long overdue, anyway – I should’ve passed it on years ago.’
Rebecca, who was growing impatient with these cryptic comments, decided to be more direct: ‘Nana, you’re not getting confused, are you?’
Lillian shot her an arch look. ‘I assure you all my marbles are accounted for, thank you.’
‘Then why are you giving me this?’
‘Because it’s yours,’ Lillian said again, now sounding a little impatient herself. ‘Because he left it for you.’
Rebecca looked down at Seven Tales, suddenly acutely aware of how it felt; its scant weight, its downy clothbound cover. Balanced on the tips of her fingers, the book seemed to hum, like something sentient. She wished she’d known it was from him; now, she felt tricked into taking it.
‘I shouldn’t have kept it this long,’ Lillian was saying. ‘But I didn’t realise you still thought about him, you never mention him and Rozzy said—’
Rebecca wrenched her attention from Seven Tales. ‘What?’ she asked, more sharply than she intended. ‘What did Mum say?’
Lillian squirmed, as though the pillowcase at her back was filled with needles. ‘After he left, she told me you didn’t want anything to do with him.’
Rebecca’s impulse was to deny this but, again, she couldn’t remember his departure, let alone any conversation she and Rosalyn might’ve had about it at the time.
‘Back then, holding onto it seemed the right thing to do . . .’ Lillian continued, her eyes growing filmy.
‘It’s fine,’ Rebecca said, relenting in the face of her grandmother’s distress. ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s only an old book.’
‘But you’ll keep it?’
‘If you want.’
‘And you’ll read it?’
‘Um, maybe . . .’
Rosalyn’s voice floated in from the hallway: ‘Becca?’
‘I’m with Nana!’
Lillian gripped at Rebecca’s sleeve. ‘He wanted you to have it. If you read the stories, you’ll understand, and then we can—’
‘What are we all doing in here?’
As Rosalyn swept into the room, her cheeks pink, Rebecca slipped Seven Tales under her cardigan. She doubted her mother would acknowledge what had happened at dinner, especially in front of Lillian, yet it seemed unwise to flaunt this book of Leo’s in her presence.
‘I thought we were going, Petal? Morty’s out for the count in his old chair – as usual – and Daffy’s threatening to wake him, which will only end in tears.’ Rosalyn spotted the wooden box on the bed. ‘What’s that?’
‘I was just showing Becca some old photographs.’
‘Oh.’ Rosalyn grimaced as Lillian held up the picture of her, Morton and Daphne as children. ‘Well, are you all right, Mum? Do you want me to make you a cocoa before we go?’
‘I’m fine, my love, thank you.’
While Rosalyn began to plump pillows and smooth down the quilt, Rebecca slid from the bed and retrieved the memory box. She poked down its contents so everything would fit inside again, and only then did she see what was neatly stitched into the square of embroidery she’d noticed earlier: Rebecca Adeline Sampson 03.09.90. This unnerved her a little – she had no recollection of ever having his surname, the keepsake could’ve been meant for a stranger – so she quickly shut the box’s lid and slid it back into the wardrobe, out of sight.
‘Night night, then.’ Rosalyn was kissing Lillian on the cheek. ‘And happy birthday, Mum.’
‘Night, Nana,’ Rebecca added, turning the key in the wardrobe door.
Lillian blew her a kiss. ‘Keep your eyes peeled for badgers on the way home,’ she advised. ‘I saw two by the Websters’ farm the other night.’
‘Will do, will do,’ said Rosalyn.
As Rebecca followed her mother to the door, she felt a dig to her side, like someone had nudged her in the ribs. Automatically, she glanced back at her grandmother, but Lillian was still nestled in the bed, her dark eyes on Rebecca, her expression imploring. It was Leo’s book, Rebecca realised, remembering she’d bundled it under her cardigan. She wished she’d given it back. In spite of her curiosity, she didn’t want anything of his. She should’ve returned it to that box when Lillian wasn’t looking. But it was too late now – Rosalyn would see – so Rebecca fastened her arm more tightly to her side, securing the hidden book in place.
Rebecca’s old room in Primrose Cottage was a perfectly preserved shrine to her teenage tastes. Along with magazine clippings featuring once beloved celebrities, the walls were still dotted with postcards of ancient ruins: Pompeii, Ephesus, Angkor Wat. A map of the world as imagined by a sixteenth-century cartographer remained pinned above the chest of drawers and black-and-white photographs of Mary Leakey and Gertrude Bell on their respective dig sites still hung to either side of the door.
Now, Rebecca lived in a neat newbuild in Exeter, whose interiors were sleek and largely unadorned, and perhaps this was why she felt like an imposter whenever she came back here, as though the room belonged to someone else. She needed to clear it out, take down the pictures and donate all the old clothes, trinkets and school textbooks to charity shops or Higher Morvale’s monthly jumble sale. It was childish, holding onto this rubbish, retaining these reminders of the unworldly little person she’d been before university. Yet at the same time, Rebecca envied the girl who’d grown up here, dreaming of discoveries; at least she’d known what she wanted.
Sitting cross-legged on the single bed, her eyes sticky with fatigue, Rebecca contemplated Seven Tales. She was still tempted to sneak it back to her grandmother somehow, or even throw it away – she wanted answers, not a load of children’s stories – but now, studying it more closely, she saw it was an unusual-looking book. There was no barcode and nothing to indicate a publisher or even an author, other than a symbol at the bottom of the cover, embossed in gold like the title; a circle and a squiggle, which looked to Rebecca like the outline of a bulb that had briefly sprouted before wilting.
She found this motif repeated on the second page, under a dedication of just two words:
The little black letters were dwarfed by the expanse of blankness around them, and the longer she looked the more they seemed to be retreating from her, dissolving into cloud. She traced them with the tip of her index finger, pinning them in place.
She had forgotten the nickname. Now, though, as she whispered it to herself, she could hear him calling it, calling her: Birdie! Like the room and its clutter, the name seemed to belong to a different person.
He hadn’t just left her this book, Rebecca realised, her pulse ticking in her throat as she turned over the page; he’d written it.
These stories were for her.
Publishing in hardback, audiobook and ebook on 8th July 2021