‘We didn’t want to. We never spoke of you after that holiday. We were in Florida, and then suddenly we’d cancelled the rest of the holiday and we were going home, and it was as if you never existed at all. I tried mentioning your name to Mummy more than once, and she acted as if she couldn’t hear me.’
‘But that couldn’t kill her, Polly. And I’m as sorry she’s gone as you are.’
‘It killed her. You killed her.’
‘Cancer killed her.’
‘She died of a broken heart.’
‘People don’t die of broken hearts. I’m a doctor. That doesn’t happen.’
‘It happened to Mum!’ Polly shouted it. ‘After you left she was never the same. She kept it inside her for years without talking about it and it ate away at her. It caused something wrong with her. It caused something wrong with all of us.’
‘She never talked about it? Not ever?’
‘She wasn’t herself after that. Not that you’d know.’
‘You mean . . . you don’t know what I did? They didn’t tell you?’
Polly had been away, out with her new friends; not there for that horrible, final confrontation. The last time Emily had seen her father until now; the last time she had seen her mother at all.
‘All I know is that you made me lie for you. I lied to Mum and Dad and Christopher, because I trusted you. I thought you knew what you were doing, that you’d always do the right thing.’
Polly snapped out another cigarette from the packet and lit it with shaking hands. Emily could see the ghost of the little girl that Polly had been, the smiling little girl who used to dance around the house.
‘I loved you,’ Polly said. ‘I looked up to you. All my life, I wanted to be like my big sister Emily. And then suddenly you’re gone. And everyone I love is heartbroken. And we never hear from you again.’
‘I didn’t want to leave you behind. I didn’t have a choice. I tried calling you after you were back in England, but the person who answered said you’d moved out of the flat. I thought Mum and Dad would tell you where I was.’
‘It hurt them too much to even think about you. You never even said goodbye. Just suddenly: gone.’ Polly blinked hard and dragged on her cigarette. ‘And Mum was different, and Daddy was different. And Christopher . . .’
‘I’m sorry, Polly. This wasn’t the way I wanted it to be. I never wanted to lose you, too.’
Her sister shook her head. ‘I hope it was worth it for you. I hope you’re happy.’
‘I am happy,’ Emily said. ‘I have a little boy. Well, not so little now – fourteen. He . . . asked me the other day if he had any cousins.’
Polly laughed bitterly. ‘Fat chance. What have my models for good relationships been? Yours and Christopher’s? Mum’s and Dad’s? All that deception and silence? Nobody ever talking about anything? You think it was easy for me to trust someone after you left?’
‘So you’re not married?’
‘Oh, I’ve been married,’ said Polly through a cloud of smoke. ‘Men are dicks.’
‘I’m sorry.’ The words seemed so empty for how she felt.
‘No, you aren’t.’ She dropped this cigarette on the path, too, next to her last one, and ground it out beneath the pointed toe of her shoe. ‘If you were sorry, you would never have come back. You would never have made my father look at your face and remind him of how you broke Mum’s heart. He wouldn’t be standing there right now beside her grave, looking like death himself, so bad that I couldn’t stand it for another minute without a fag and had to miss my own mother’s burial.’ She kicked the filter, sending gravel flying. ‘And I’m going to him now. I’ve had enough of you.’
‘Please,’ said Emily. ‘Please tell him I love him. I . . . didn’t get the chance before.’
‘Too bad,’ said Polly. ‘Now you know how I felt when you left.’
‘Polly, I’m sorry that I left. I’m sorry that you never knew why. I can tell you everything. I can tell you the whole story.’
‘Too late.’ She stuffed her cigarettes and her lighter into her bag and walked through the archway, leaving Emily behind.
She tried to ring Robbie from the phone box outside the post office but Pierre, who answered, said that he’d gone down to Camden. No one picked up at home, either. Adam would still be in school. She looked at her watch and tried to stem a fresh tide of tears.
This had once been home to her: this street with its row of shops, newsagent, baker, grocer; the Royal Oak on the corner, the path leading down to the river, the school, the bus stop, the house she’d grown up in. Now the shops were different, the pub had been repainted, the red phone box replaced by a metal half box on a post. The geography was the same, but everything else had changed and though she’d thought she’d feel like the same person when she came back, she knew she was a stranger. She had once belonged here in Blickley, and now she didn’t. Her sister resented her, her father was ashamed of her, her mother was dead.
She put the phone back on the hook and wondered what to do next. She hadn’t thought any further than getting to the funeral, though now that seemed silly: perhaps she’d had an idea that her father would let her stay at the house. She considered trying to get a room at the Royal Oak for the night, but it would be full of locals. If Polly didn’t know what had happened to drive a wedge between her and her parents, the locals wouldn’t know either, but they might have theories. She quailed at the thought of their questions and curiosity.
Uncertain of her reception, she’d only booked a single ticket to the UK, and even though it was only mid-afternoon, the thought of driving another five hours back to Heathrow was unappealing. She hadn’t slept properly for nearly forty-eight hours. She needed time to rest, to lick her wounds. To try to work out whether she was truly the monster her family thought she was, or whether she was the person she’d felt like for the past eighteen years.
Emily got back into her rental car and drove south, to a place of happier memories.
‘Your sister said what to you?’
‘It’s OK, Robbie,’ she said, sounding bone-weary down the telephone. It was about nine o’clock there, and he doubted she had rested or slept. ‘She can’t help it. Polly has always been emotional. She’s passionate by nature. She blames me for abandoning her, and I can’t blame her for that.’
‘But she never even tried to—’
‘She took my parents’ side. She had to; they never told her what happened.’
‘You could tell her. If she knew, she might understand.’
‘I offered to,’ said Emily. ‘But she didn’t want to know. And I don’t want her to know, either. I . . . don’t want to give her any more reason to hate me.’
‘You’re not ashamed, are you?’
‘I’m . . . sorry for causing them so much pain.’
He couldn’t touch her, couldn’t take her hand. ‘I love you,’ he told her.
‘I know. I love you too.’ He heard her sigh. He wondered where she was sitting: in a hotel room, but what did it look like? Was she on the bed, or in a chair?
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘tell me something cheerful. How is Adam?’