Discover Rupert Thomson’s This Party’s Got to Stop
In a memoir of sibling rivalry, hedonism and loss, one of our finest writers has given us a masterpiece to rival Experience and Bad Blood.
Granta.com brings you the first chapter of Rupert Thomson’s remarkable This Party’s Got to Stop which will be published in April 2010 by Granta Books.
My mother spoke to me once after she was dead. Nine years old, I was standing outside our house, in the shadow of a yew tree, when I heard her call my name. It came from high up, and to my left, and I imagined for a moment that she was upstairs, but all the windows at the front of the house were closed, and there was nothing pale in any of those black rectangles, nothing to suggest a face. Besides, I felt her voice had come from outside. Real and clear, but disembodied, like a recording – though later I thought it was how an angel might sound, if an angel were to speak. I stared at the yew tree – its splintered bark, its scratchy leaves – and noticed how dull the berries looked, their red skin covered with a milky bloom. I stared at the scuffed toes of my shoes. I had answered my mother’s call – I had said, ‘Yes?’ – but I heard nothing else, and my one simple monosyllable hung on in the silence of that summer afternoon until it seemed I had been talking to myself.
My mother had died suddenly the year before, aged thirty-three. My brother, Robin, and I were at school that day. We went to lessons. We had lunch. We didn’t know.
When school finished, we walked home, which took half an hour. It was hot, even for July, and I could smell grass cuttings and the tar melting at the edge of the road. Three years younger than me, and something of a dreamer, Robin lagged behind as usual, and I arrived at the house ahead of him, but stopped as soon as I turned in through the gate. My uncle’s ice-blue Jaguar was parked in front of our garage. I glanced back down the hill. Robin was still a hundred yards away, socks around his ankles, cap askew. He looked exhausted and fed up – the long walk home was the part of the day he dreaded most – but when I shouted that Uncle Roland had come to visit, his face brightened and he speeded up.
I waited until he reached the gate, then we both ran up the drive. The back door was open. The house felt cool. Through the kitchen, across the hall. On into the sittingroom. Then darkness suddenly, and silence. I seem to remember shadowy figures at the edges of the room. I don’t remember what was said.
I bent over my bed, my face in my hands, my body shaking. Crying kept what had happened at a distance, stopped it becoming real. Crying meant I didn’t have to believe it. The counterpane was cream-coloured, with delicate orange stitching, and smelled as if it had just been washed. Granny Dickie – my father’s mother – stood behind me. I felt her hand on the back of my head. She said my name, and then she said I was going to have to be brave.
I spoke into the counterpane. ‘I don’t want to be brave.’
‘I know, darling.’
I imagine she stared past me, towards the bedroom
window. Outside, the weather was beautiful. My face stung.
‘I know,’ she said again.
I turned and pressed myself against her skirt, still trying
not to see or understand. Our front garden lay in shadow,
but intense orange sunlight coloured the tops of the trees
and the roof of the house over the road, as if that half the
view had been dipped in a sweet syrup.
The seventh of July. Long days.
I often tell people I can’t remember anything before I was eight, but it’s not true. I remember lying on the back seat of a car during a thunderstorm, the sky folding and crumpling above me – I was still a baby then – and I remember being two or three and watching bits of a cup dart across the kitchen floor while my parents shouted overhead. I remember being five and falling for a girl called Rowena. What I can’t remember is my mother. Her sudden death wiped her out, like a teacher rubbing chalk words off a blackboard. I can remember a dress she used to wear – pink with white polka-dots – but somehow she isn’t there inside it. I can’t remember her legs, or her shoulders. I can’t remember what shape her fingernails were. I think I can remember the smell of her lipstick, but I can’t see her mouth. I can’t remember how she sounded, even though I heard her call me once when she was dead. Was her voice light and breathy, or was it deep? Did she have an accent? I have no idea. I try and remember her saying the ordinary things that mothers are always saying to their children, things she must have said thousands of times during the eight years we were together. Hello. Come here. I love you.
But no, nothing.
Not long after her death, I left school in the middle of the day. On the street, it was unusually quiet; the sun lit a world that seemed motionless, suspended, like a statue of itself. I came down out of Meads village and turned along Link Road. Deciding not to cross the golf course, which was the short-cut home, I started up Paradise Drive. The woods rose ahead of me, the foliage massed in brooding clusters like a mushroom cloud.
The pavement narrowed and then vanished altogether, and I had no choice but to walk on the road. The bend into the trees was deceptively sharp; if any cars came the other way, they wouldn’t see me until the last moment.
Dad was always saying people drove too fast on Paradise Drive. It was a miracle, he would say, that nobody had been run over.
I shivered as the shade of the woods closed over me. Through the trees I could see the golf course, its fairways smooth in the sunlight. On top of the greenness was a narrow strip of blue. The sea.
When I reached our house, Dad was sitting at the far end of the kitchen table, a spoon halfway to his mouth. In the bowl in front of him was his favourite pudding – stewed blackcurrants and custard. He looked at me as if I were a stranger. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’ve come home,’ I said.
‘But it’s only lunchtime.’
He must have heard my footsteps, wondered who it was. He wouldn’t have been expecting anyone to walk in through the back door, not at that time of day, and not without knocking first or calling out. Did he think for a moment that it was his wife returning, even though he had watched her coffin drop into the ground? Was that why he had seemed so shocked, and why his voice had sounded different? Perhaps it had been in his mind to say, You’re back, or My darling. Then I appeared.
What are you doing here?
Normally, when school was over, Robin and I would catch a bus to the Town Hall and then walk home, but I hadn’t thought to query the sun’s position or the fact that I was on my own. Everything felt automatic, and harmonious.
It felt right. I wonder whether, at some deep level, I had been trying to out-manoeuvre fate. I had learned that bad things happened when I wasn’t there. If I made my absences more unpredictable, the bad things would be less likely to occur. Or perhaps – just perhaps – in taking the route that was longer and more hazardous, I was risking some kind of misadventure. I missed my mother. I longed for her. I wanted to follow her, to go where she had gone . . .
The deceptive bend, the speeding cars.
The cool shadow of the wood.
Perhaps it wasn’t the thought of his wife walking in through the back door that had startled my father. Perhaps it was something he saw in my face.