I AM LYING on my back on the grass. Thoby is lying next to me, his warm flank pressing into my side. My eyes are open and I am watching the clouds, tracing giants, castles, fabulous winged beasts as they chase each other across the sky. Something light tickles my cheek. I raise myself onto my elbow and catch hold of the grass stalk in Thoby’s hand. He jerks away from me, and soon we are pummeling and giggling until I scarcely know which of the tumbling legs and arms are Thoby’s and which are mine. When we stop at last, Thoby’s face is on my chest. I feel the weight of his head against my ribs. His hair is golden in the sunlight and as I look up I see the blazing whiteness of an angel. I loop my arm round Thoby’s neck. For the first time in my life I know what bliss means.
A shadow falls. My angel disappears. I recognize your snake-green eyes. You want to lie between us and when I push you away you jump up and whisper in Thoby’s ear. He lifts his head and looks at you. I see from his expression that your words have captured him. I know that you will lure him away with one of your daredevil plans. I roll over and press my face into the grass. The blades prickle my eyelids and I concentrate on the sharpness. When I turn round again the two of you have gone. I sit up and spot Thoby perching precariously on top of the garden wall. His hand clutches at the branches overhead as he tries to steady himself. I hear him shrieking with daring and fear. I want to shout to him to come and play in the grass with me. Then I watch you catch hold of Thoby’s leg and pull yourself up beside him. You wobble for a moment before you find your balance. I know that now you will turn and wave to me in triumph. I lie back on the grass, feigning indifference. Not for the world will I let you see my tears.
I lift my head from the page and look out the window. Sunlight shivers on the glass. For a moment I see your face as it was then, impish, grinning at me as I write. The light dissolves and you disappear. I am left staring at the empty pane. My memories are as tangled as the reels of thread and fragments of cloth in Mother’s sewing basket, which I loved to tip out and sort on the nursery floor: colored ribbons, stray buttons, a triangle of purple lace.
Mother. She enters the nursery like a queen. We, her troops, present ourselves for her inspection, fidgeting as we wait in line for our turn. Her hair is parted in the middle and tied at the back of her neck in a net. She wears a black dress, which rustles like leaves as she moves about the room, gathering up the damp clothes that have been draped over the fireguard, sweeping the scattered pieces of a puzzle back into their box. Her ringed fingers dance as she talks to the nursemaids. I learn the questions she asks them by heart. Later I will set out my dolls and quiz them in her clear round voice about castor oil and the mending. I practice standing with my head erect and my back straight until my shoulders feel as if they are pinned in a press. Finally, Mother seats herself in the chair by the fire and calls us to her.
Always, Thoby goes first. I watch him pulled into the curve of Mother’s arm, closing my eyes to imagine the silky feel of her dress, her smell of lavender and eau de nil. When I open my eyes her fingers are stroking his hair. I do not question why it is always Thoby who is first, or why, when Adrian is born, he takes his place after Thoby. I sense that this is the order of things and that here my wishes count for little. Yet when Thoby is relinquished with a kiss and Mother holds out her hand to you it is as if a promise has been broken. My stomach clenches and a hot spurt of indignation surges to my cheeks. I am the eld-est. I should come before you. As Mother lifts you onto her knee your dimpled hands reach for the ribbon she wears at her throat. Checked by her reproving frown, you lean forward and kiss her. Her smile is like sunshine on a winter’s afternoon. You seem to spend an eternity in her arms. Your palms clap together in a rhyme of pat-a-cake, and when Mother praises you I wonder what would happen if a spark from the fire were to catch your petticoat. I picture your clothes igniting and your red hair blazing and Mother in her alarm hugging me to her breast.
There is a knock on the door. Ellen, slightly breathless from the stairs, holds out a card on a tray. Mother sighs and reaches for the card. When she has finished reading it she puts it back on the tray and tells Ellen that she will come straight down. She lifts you from her lap and with a final instruction to the nursemaids follows Ellen onto the landing.
I stare after her. You crawl toward me and your hand reaches for the buckle on my shoe. Quick as lightning, I kick back with my heel and trap your fingers under the sole. Your howl voices what I feel. I count to five before I lift my foot. Then I reach down and pick you up and carry you to the chair Mother sat in. I settle you on my lap and rock you backward and forward until the soft lullaby of your breathing tells me you are asleep.
It is my half sister Stella who first puts a piece of chalk in my hand. She and I share a birthday. I rummage in her pocket and pull out the package I know is there. It is wrapped in brown paper that crinkles as I turn it over in my hands. Inside are six stubby colored fingers. Stella takes a board she has concealed under her arm and draws on it. I am amazed by the wavy line that appears and reach up to try the chalk for myself. I spend the morning absorbed in my new pursuit. Though my hands are clumsy, I persevere until the board is covered. I am fascinated by the way my marks cross and join with each other, opening tiny triangles, diamonds, rectangles between the lines. When I have finished I sit back and stare at my achievement. I have transformed the dull black of the board into a rainbow of colors, a hail of shapes that jump about as I look. I am so pleased with what I have done that I hide the board away. I do not want to share my discovery with anyone.
We are in the hall dressed and ready for our walk. At our request Ellen lifts us onto the chair by the mirror so that we can see the reflections we make. Our faces are inexact replicas of each other, as if the painter were trying to capture the same person from different angles. Your face is prettier than mine, your features finer, your eyes a whirligig of quick lights. You are my natural ally in my dealings with the world. I adore the way you watch me accomplish the things you cannot yet achieve. I do not yet see the frustration, the desire to catch up and topple me that darkens your awe.
“Who do you like best, Mother or Father?” Your question comes like a bolt out of the blue. I hold the jug of warm water suspended in midair and look at you. You are kneeling on the bathmat, shiny-skinned and rosy from the steam. The ends of your hair are wet and you have a towel draped round your shoulders. I am dazzled by the audacity of your question. Slowly I let the water from the jug pour into the bath.
“Mother.” I lean back into the warmth.
You consider my answer, squeezing the damp from your hair.
“I prefer Father.”
“Father?” I sit up quickly. “How can you possibly like Father best? He’s always so difficult to please.”
“At least he’s not vague.” You spin round and look at me directly. I sense that you are enjoying this discussion.
“But Mother is ...