One: August 2018, Libby
Libby just wanted to be normal. When she was still at school that meant embracing the make-up and fashion her mother rejected, and choosing heels her mother called silly. It meant clubs and pre-loading, magazines to flick through, diets, and acquiring all the things her mother didn’t want or need.
“I’m sick of hearing about climate change,” she told Manda at fourteen. “I don’t know why people like me have to have our faces rubbed in the shit because it’s not our fault. We only inherited this mess.”
With her friends, and sometimes her father, she turned her mother into a running joke, one her big, easy brother never laughed at. Manda was the hippie, the tree-hugger and the Earth Warrior on wheels (two). At university Libby told her best friend Bee that her mother made her sick because even though she never went to any kind of church she was so full-time holy – and determined to lay guilt all over her, like concrete. So Libby tried to feel angry instead.
What did her mother expect? The world was in trouble whether or not she did a road trip across the States with Bee as soon as she passed her test. And sin of sins, flew there first. As a student, she thought of Manda every time she loaded her shopping into plastic bags in spite of the recycled sari and jute alternatives she’d given her. Even once she started work, her mother haunted her when she threw another takeaway coffee cup into a bin and pictured the thoughtful bamboo keep cup Manda had provided, sitting unused in her kitchen cupboard.
People always remarked on the likeness between the two of them. This grieved Libby given the time she spent on her own hair – cuts, straightening and focused conditioning regimes – while Manda just let hers grow until it weighed more than she did. It was the dark grey of a practical, flecked carpet, and looked almost as tough. Rob’s had been the same and sometimes Libby thought it was part of their connection, symbolised when two heads of hair became one in an embrace. But Libby was taller than her mother, even in flats, and curvier too. Her style was understated, pastel and discreetly coordinated; Manda’s was random, and crumpled. She informed Libby that she’d started to wear everything at least three or four times if possible, to reduce washing, so must be forgiven if she smelled a little riper than she used to.
Libby quoted that development to her dad one Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2018. He used to roll his grey eyes at what he called Manda’s fanaticism or excesses. But he had been quieter since the split over what he called a stupid fling at a rock choir he’d joined on Tuesday nights, and Manda’s hard-line response. Libby felt sorry for him, mostly – when he wasn’t being a sexist male less than fully aware of his white privilege.
That afternoon was Mediterranean again but Libby chose to sit in his small, untamed garden to top up her tan. Her father kept manoeuvring himself into the shade, which required regular shifting.
“So how is your love life, poppet?” he asked, once she’d closed her eyes under her sunglasses.
Could anyone be a poppet at twenty-two? Libby sighed, and drained her glass of Pimm’s. She knew he’d run out and bought the bottle after her call; he was sweet like that, and never preached – even in her smoking days.
“I’m tired of relationships,” she said. “Were you tired of Mum? Because she really is tiring. Which is not to excuse your behaviour.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to.”
“But you hoped Mum would.”
“I did, yes. I thought honesty… well, I thought she deserved that. And practises it, after all.”
“To doctorate level and beyond,” Libby muttered. “I would have kept quiet. Not that I would cheat.” There had been a boyfriend who was with his childhood sweetheart but that didn’t count, or last.
“Your mother is principled…”
“And it’s all about love. I just didn’t measure up.”
Libby was thinking about her mother’s love – for all species, which made her vegan. For the earth, which made her sell the car and start pedalling – and protesting. For her brother Rob, who never really died but was there in her mother’s world and conversation. For humanity, apparently. So much love to withstand; it was hard to return.
“I’ve been wondering whether I… looked elsewhere… because of the grieving. Not that I’d shaken off my own grief – far from it – but I couldn’t live it like your mother. I needed some kind of distraction or light relief.”
Libby sat up straight and reached for the sunblock after all. “Dad, do we have to debate which of you was more to blame? I’m not sure any jury would acquit you.”
James removed his sunglasses and gave her a look that worried as it fixed her. “It’s the grief I’m talking about, sweetheart. And I think that as a family we got it wrong.”
Libby felt everything tighten inside. This was why she wasn’t visiting Manda today, so she wouldn’t announce, “Rob’s birthday tomorrow,” as if she was pretty sure Libby had forgotten to send a card. She’d thought she and her dad would duck it together, as rational beings who knew dates changed nothing.
“Manda needed to express hers and I shut it down,” he told her, his voice thinner, higher. Might it crack? “Because it shut me down. And I think yours is locked away too, with no words to name it and the lid bolted tight.”
“It didn’t go so well when Pandora opened the box,” mumbled Libby, but he didn’t hear and she declined to repeat it.
His hearing was no sharper than his eyesight and he was only fifty-five. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him look old before – and it shocked her that every day he’d be older again. She didn’t know how anyone bore being seventy, eighty. And she supposed it was time she visited Grandma in the home where she had to wear nappies, even though, frankly, dying would be the lesser of the two evils.
“Evasion’s never healthy, Libby. Nothing big and painful goes away. When Rob died I had no idea what to do.”
“No one does.” She still didn’t, after three years.
She’d been at university when he called. “It’s about your brother,” he’d said, his voice half worn away but also full of something she hadn’t heard before. Rob, killed in a car that wasn’t even his, and cut out of its old metal as it lay upside down. “Why does he have to be so downright irresponsible!” Manda had wailed, as if he was still alive and she’d give him a talking-to when he came home. Libby didn’t say so but that was what she liked best in him: that spontaneous, why-not side of him that breathed life into the easy, mostly-absent side. Five years younger, she didn’t really know who he was inside the loose walk and the “Sure, whatever” and the “Mm, maybe.”
Now her father was looking ahead as if something beyond the hedge compelled him.
“Rob never liked me,” Libby said, and as she heard the words, believed them with conviction.
“That’s ridiculous, poppet,” her father told her. “He doted on you when you were little. He was so patient and caring…”
Libby had seen the photos to prove it – Rob pushing her in a wooden truck, or holding her hand on a cold British beach – but it didn’t feel true. She must have been annoying; toddlers were. She didn’t want children of her own because she wouldn’t be patient or caring enough. That was just the truth and nothing to do with her mother’s grief for all the unborn children who would suffer climate chaos and were better off without living.
A blue tit flew into the box Manda had nailed to the tree long before she left. Libby poured herself more Pimm’s.
“Don’t say Rob didn’t like you, poppet. He’s not here to contradict.”
“Really?!” Libby looked around theatrically. “You sure?” She sipped her drink. Really he was everywhere Manda went, like a fellow-pedaller on a tandem. He was the hidden meaning in her words and the pauses between them.
Libby apologised to her father and said she was in a funny mood. He smiled and she wished she forgave so easily.
“Rob always defended you…”
“When I was bad?”
“When you were wilful.”
Libby supposed that was what she was being now. Without explaining, she rose to go inside to the bathroom where she’d discovered the first menstrual blood on her knickers, and six years later shared a risky post-coital shower with a boyfriend while her parents were out. The décor hadn’t changed. The loo roll holder still rattled to the floor unless she outwitted it – as she did this time, remembering the way Rob never bothered to slot it back into place, which made her swear from behind closed doors. Once she threw the whole roll and holder into his bedroom to make a point – which backfired when it was still there twenty-four hours later, and had to be shoved back into place while he slept in spite of her shouting.
Libby had always felt small beside him and now she would never be his equal. “One of the last things he did was campaign for the university to divest,” Manda had said at the funeral, adding, “from fossil fuels” for the benefit of the climate illiterate. Libby had recognised the patronising change of tone; she was used to it, being one of the apathetic mass who didn’t even try to keep up.
On the landing, Libby stopped at the door to his old bedroom. It was ajar, and as she stepped in she felt the temperature drop. In novels that meant a ghost but Rob would never go along with such things. “It’s just Mr Willis from the church,” he whispered, when she was afraid of Santa in the grotto James had thought would be fun.
Her brother’s room might have belonged in an old B and B, except that being minus a stainless steel tray with kettle, tea and coffee, it was even barer. No trace of Robert Liam Craig. But the curtains were the same ones he’d kept drawn half the day during uni holidays. The same ones they’d pushed aside after bedtime when they were small, to look out for James when he worked late. “I can’t sleep until Daddy’s home,” she would tell him, because of the creatures that filled her dreams. Rob tried to ward them off with robot dancing, which worked up to a point, but it was Daddy who made the difference. And now she had no idea why.
Sitting on Rob’s single bed, she thought of Gem, the girl he’d been seeing when he died, but never once mentioned. Gem who looked like a slightly rebellious Girl Guide but was really an older woman. “Oh, only a few weeks,” she’d said when Manda asked. So no one knew what it meant, what they meant to each other. Everyone cried but Gem seemed awkward through hers, like an interloper with no clearance. “They couldn’t be that serious or they’d have been together that night. Maybe he’d just ended it,” Libby reasoned, but part of her feared Gem had been closer to Rob, known him better in those few weeks than she had in a whole life. “Soulmates,” Manda had called them, when it came out that Gem was vegan and Rob had just made the same commitment.
Gem had vanished from all the platforms Libby used after the funeral and Libby hadn’t messaged her since. She stared at her phone screen, not sure why or how. The number was still there. She tapped in, Hi Gem. How are you doing? X
She waited but no reply came by return. Gem was probably tied up at some protest. Or married with a job and a baby and trying to think who Libby was. Maybe all she remembered about Rob was the shock. Libby realised his death had swallowed up his life and spat it out in a few messy, incomplete bits she called memories but the final scenes were so much bigger than the rest.
She hadn’t kept in touch with Gem because they had nothing in common except the dying, and – she supposed – because she was jealous. In case Rob loved skinny, straggly, earnest Gem more than her. Now she couldn’t delete what she’d sent. With luck Gem would think it confirmed what she thought of her – that she was crass, frivolous and unfeeling – and ignore it.
At the funeral, whenever Libby circulated with a tray of food vegans couldn’t eat, Gem had been with Rob’s longer-standing uni friends like Nick Gorski, but apart too, pale and silent in charity shop black. At the beginning and end, when they hugged, she felt model-thin, all bone and scentless. Maybe she was broken now, by grief for the doomed world and Rob too.
Relieved by the absence of a reply, Libby pocketed her phone and smoothed Rob’s bed before she left it. She looked back into the room, trying to picture it plus teddies, trains or film posters, but the cool emptiness defeated her. A ray of sunlight illuminated the dust on the chest of drawers. She imagined Rob’s soul like a snake skin, tucked between his old underwear and socks, and drifting out thin as a cobweb. But if it hung around anywhere, perhaps it was at a fracking site, or in Gemma’s bed.
Her father opened his eyes as she returned to her garden chair. “I’m thinking of getting some bereavement counselling, Lib.”
“Good for you.” She pulled her sunglasses down from her forehead. “I mean, that will be good for you. It’s not what I want.”
“I know, poppet, but it might be what you need.”
Libby nearly said what she wanted was another drink but she knew her mother worried him about that, as if drinking away two nights at the end of the week wasn’t absolutely normal, and just an alternative response to the state of the world.
“What do you think a soul looks like?” she asked James. “Don’t say a tea light.”
“Maybe it depends whose it is.”
It always depended with James, who practically lived on the fence as far as Libby could see. And from that vantage point he seemed to think Manda’s head was in a dream world, a Utopia, when Libby thought it was way too dark and scary to venture anywhere near.
“Tell me what Rob was like,” she challenged him.
“Libby, why don’t you tell me?”
“I’m asking, Dad. It’s not a test.”
Her father’s head tilted up as if he were listening for something he couldn’t quite identify. Libby waited, remembering how Manda used to complain if she used her phone during what she called conversations but feeling tempted to scroll through the silence he’d let in.
“He was a good person, I think. Kind. Well meaning. He thought the best of people but not so highly of himself. A bit chaotic and vague at times. Funny, in a wry, deadpan sort of way.”
Libby repeated key words in her head. “Thank you,” she said. “Wish I’d known him.” She saw her father look troubled, about to protest. “I’m not dissing him, Dad. I just have this yawning gap I want to fill, you know? Everything’s fuzzy. And I want to fill him in, seeing as he towers over the rest of us in his… deadness.”
“I understand.” But she could tell from his voice and the anxiety in his eyes that he didn’t. Perhaps she was a mystery too, but she didn’t dare ask for the same kind of character study.
“Death and birthdays don’t mix,” she told him instead. “And I have too much alcohol in my bloodstream.” She put down her glass, and watched next-door’s cat jump the fence and eye them defiantly.
That was when Gem’s message sounded on her phone. Libby, what a surprise. I’m heading north tomorrow but maybe we can arrange something when I get back. No kisses.
Libby didn’t want to arrange anything now. It would be painful. “Oh shit,” she muttered.
“Anything I can help with?” asked James.
“Thanks but I’ll have to do my own clearing up.”
“You were always good at that. You thought the brush and dustpan in the kitchen was a great toy. And you hated sand or dirt in your nails. Even when you were a teenager your CDs were stacked straight in alphabetical order.” He smiled. “I’ve never known anyone smell as good as you.”
“Fussy to the point of OCD but fragrant,” she summed up. “I’ll take that over good and kind any day.”
“I didn’t mean… Come on, Lib.”
“Yeah, prickly too. No wonder the love life flat-lined.”
She heard the landline ringing from the kitchen long before he did.
“That’ll be your mother.”
He hurried, almost eager. Libby decided not to reply to Gem, who would probably want to eat vegan sludge in a place with salvaged scrap for décor. Another impulse led her to check Gemma Lovelock’s profile picture, which must exist somewhere even though she’d be the kind to scorn Facebook. Finally she found her, with a straggly-haired child in her arms.
Not Rob’s?! Libby reasoned with the part of her that had absorbed the shock and gone into freeze-frame. Not old enough, surely. But conceived not long after the accident either, so Gem had moved on fast.
Then again, the photo could be an old favourite rather than the latest. She looked back at the child’s face. The hair was wild enough.
She would never contact Gem again.
The next chapter will be available from 5:30 pm on Friday 18th January.