Read The Way Back Home Online

Authors: Freya North

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Way Back Home (9 page)

It’s nothing to do with you.

That’s what they’d said when he found that she’d gone.


Oriana couldn’t help but think of Casey. Even though she’d managed to stick doggedly to her ban of permitting him anywhere near her memory for the last two or three months, she had little control over his voice ricocheting around her head today.

‘Headfuck,’ he’d say if he were here. ‘If that wasn’t one total headfuck, baby.’

And Oriana had to admit – he’d be right on that one.

She’d stilled the car. Daylight was fading. From a distance, resembling sheets of organza fluttering in a gentle breeze, the rain came sweeping over the dales in fast, cold, needle-sharp gusts. Concentrating on the sound of the weather on the roof of her mother’s car while watching thousands of droplets busying their way across the windscreen provided welcome respite from the barrage of thoughts. Soon enough, though, it all became a background blur as the crux of the matter came to the fore.

What on earth was she to make of what had happened that day? The immensity of it all. Windward, Jed and Malachy too. Facts and feelings were weaving around each other like snakes in a pit, moving too fast and mercurially for her to sort through and make sense of. Ashlyn, Cat – they would both willingly wade in to help, she had only to ask. But just then, she realized that to ask meant to involve; that she’d have to confide to the one or the other as much about her present as her past. There were things she didn’t want either of her friends to know, things she wanted under lock and key in a secret space. Bringing them into the open would only slice open fragile scars protecting deep wounds. A problem shared is a problem magnified. She wondered, why did I even go back there? What deluded part of me thought it could in any way be a good idea?

‘Idiot is my middle name,’ she said, resting her forehead against the steering wheel. ‘Idiot is my middle name.’ The mantra was comforting in its familiarity. Today, though, it suddenly brought Jed to the fore. How he used to love tinkering and warping the most mundane things, distorting words and situations in order to change something grave, awful even, into something ludicrous and light.

Oregano Idiot he called her when she was fretful, when she called herself an idiot, when he needed to make her feel all right.

‘So your mother gave up Robbing to live with Burning Safety.’

And he had flopped back in the long grass at the edge of the mowed lawn at Windward and pulled Oriana against his chest. She’d tuned in to his heartbeat while he hummed ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ on a blazingly sunny day.

* * *

Gladly she welcomed Pink Floyd into the car and played through the whole song in her head, even adding where the vinyl was scratchy and the one place the needle always jumped. But there came a point when she just had to let it fade out and she found herself still in her mother’s car with the weight of the day rendering her unable to know what to do for the best. She stared at Jed’s number now in her contacts lists. She opened the browser on her phone and searched for the White Peak Art Space website. She scoured it, reading Malachy’s profile on the About Us tab.

Malachy Bedwell was born in Derbyshire. He is the son of world-renowned architect Orlando Bedwell and Jette Stromsfeld, a furniture designer of international standing. He was the first child to be born at Windward, the artists’ collective that his parents founded in the late 1960s, with other seminal figures including Robin and Rachel Taylor, Gordon Bryce, Laurence Glaub, George and Lilac Camfield and Louis Bayford.

He credits the absolute assimilation of all arts into everyday life at Windward with his enduring passion for them.

‘As a baby, my mother fed me in a highchair designed by Gerrit Rietveld. I hung my school blazer on a Louise Bourgeois sculpture and read Agatha Christie novels whose covers were original Windward artworks. The soundtrack of my teenage years was either played at home or even written there. The phone would go and Celia Birtwell would simply say, “Hullo, Malachy – is your mother home? It’s Celia.” There’d be a knock at the door and someone would be standing there, asking, “Is Keith here?” and we’d go upstairs and tell Keith Richards that he had a visitor. Our cutlery was David Mellor prototypes. Our furniture was Bauhaus and beyond. We kept apples in a Bernard Leach bowl.’

Oriana looked up. I
that bowl.

She remembered Keith too. And Marlon, his son. She’d had a huge crush on him. Jed and Malachy had taken the piss terribly though both their noses had been visibly out of joint too.

She read on, under her breath.

The White Peak Art Space seeks to unify the diverse talent of international artists inspired by Derbyshire. Whether they live here or abroad, whether they work figuratively or wholly abstract, whatever media they favour, our artists are united by the Peak District
genius loci
, the spirit of the place.

She felt proud of Malachy and yet strangely sad too. But you wanted to be a writer, Malachy. You and that great novel of yours. The White Peak Art Space arguably had philanthropic as well as financial value. But was it what Malachy truly wanted to do? She remembered him saying how he wanted to be the John Irving of his generation, having read
The Hotel New Hampshire
cover to cover twice in one week. How they’d all fallen about laughing! Now she felt sad, concerned. She wondered whether losing his eye had anything to do with it. She hoped not. She shuddered.

The rain had stopped and suddenly the sun was charging through and the wet landscape let off a glare; flares of light piercing through the windscreen. Headache weather.

Oriana thought, where do I go now?

Hathersage? Hathersage was no more home than San Francisco was. An image of the cedar at Windward loomed large – it was the place she’d always gone to for solace – something about shade and solitude under the embrace of the branches, the scent of the space around the trunk, the way the air was always a degree cooler than beyond the boughs, how the light from the day outside the tree was filtered into something else as it spun through the branches, the needles. It was a world within a world and for so many years it had been hers alone. In her youth, the other children had been put off it by a strange psychic who’d stayed at Windward and denounced the tree as the Place That Has Seen Death. But she couldn’t go back to the tree or Windward – not with Jed there ready to leap from the balcony and her father inside the house and two small unknown girls badgering to befriend her.

The paradox struck her – she was welcome the world over; welcome at Windward, in Hathersage, she could pitch up in California tomorrow and a dozen people would fling open their doors and arms for her. Yet just then it felt that there was nowhere that was hers, not one place she could truly call home. Other people’s places could never be anything other than halfway houses. She looked around her; this wasn’t even her car. Those were Bernard’s Werther’s Originals in the cup holder of her mother’s Peugeot. There was a synthetic-smelling cardboard air freshener in the shape of a smiley-faced strawberry dangling from the rear-view mirror and an oversized
Road Map of the British Isles
in the footwell, as if her mother and Bernard took to navigating a sweetly scented kingdom on a whim any day of the week. She thought, I’d never choose this type of car for my own. And then she thought, you ungrateful cow. She felt alone mostly because she knew she was defiantly turning her back on the few who were there for her.

Cat – her childhood friend who knew so much, but not everything.

Ashlyn – her closest friend who knew so much, but not everything.

Casey. Jed. Malachy. The men she’d loved, lost, left.

She traced her finger over the shiny lion emblem in the centre of her mother’s steering wheel.

‘It doesn’t matter how many questions there are if there can never be any answers.’

She thought, what a stupid thing to say out loud. She thought, I am not a teenage existentialist and I’m not a cod-philosophizing hippy even though I grew up with enough of them.

‘I’m thirty-bloody-four and there’s not a single certainty in my life.’

Oriana forced herself from looking inwards to watching how the dusk was now creeping across the moor like spilled treacle, edging its way in a slow but determined advance. Her fingertips were cold and she needed to blow her nose. If this had been her car, not her mother’s, she’d have had to use her sleeve. But she looked in the glove compartment and found, as she predicted, a packet of tissues. She gave the strawberry-faced air freshener an apologetic smile. She started the engine. She wanted to be indoors, by a fire, in an armchair, on her own with a cup of tea. She wanted to be home, wherever that was. The room which opened up in her mind’s eye wasn’t in San Francisco nor was it in Windward but it was as well known to her as either. She started the car, made a U-turn and drove.

Django McCabe watched the headlights send stuttering beams into his quiet Saturday evening as the car made its way along the lurch and swerve of his unmade driveway. Sometimes, he experienced sights as sound and, though from inside the house he couldn’t hear the car’s engine, its lights were like an uninvited visitor with a grating voice asking for a favour he wasn’t actually prepared to give.

‘You can bugger off for a start,’ he muttered, taking his mug of Bovril and heading for the utility room where he sat down and said bugger, bugger off. He thought to himself how the more social a person was in their heyday – as he had been to a legendary extent – then the more justified was a cantankerous dotage. So bugger off, whoever you are, this is my Saturday evening. I’m closed.

But the voice, when it called out, baffled him. He was expecting the brittle but strident tone of the village busybody. Perhaps the gruff hail of someone off to the Rag and Thistle. More likely, the gently melodious greeting from the vicar who had called in with alarming regularity over recent months despite Django having visited the church only twice – and once was accidental. But he wasn’t expecting the voice of someone young. And female.

‘Knock knock. Django? It’s Oriana.’


Cat put the phone down and looked at it thoughtfully.

Ben watched. ‘Everything OK?’

She nodded slowly. ‘I think so.’

‘Do you want any more pizza?’

She looked at the box, in which the two remaining slices looked now to be made of the same cardboard. ‘No, thanks.’ She knew her husband would wrap them in tinfoil and have them for breakfast, cold.

‘That was Django.’

‘I gathered.’

dropped in.’ Cat thought about it. ‘She stayed for two hours.’

‘That was nice of her?’ Ben was unsure why Cat appeared disconcerted.

‘He said she asked to go upstairs and then she wandered around, looking in rooms and standing deep in thought.’

‘And?’ Ben didn’t want to comment too much – the umbilical cord appeared to be syphoning off much of his wife’s patience and sense of humour. If that was the case, their baby would be imperturbable and have great comic timing.

‘It’s just –’ Cat thought about it. ‘She’s my oldest friend – I know everything about her.’ Absent-mindedly, she pressed at her jutting navel as if trying to keep thoughts in. ‘But when I saw her, it struck me that she was just ever so slightly guarded – as if there was something essential she was concealing.’

‘Maybe she didn’t want to say in front of Django?’

‘Don’t be ridiculous – Django’s world famous for being unshockable.’

‘I wouldn’t take it personally.’

‘Why wouldn’t I? She’s my oldest friend. God! You just don’t understand!’

Ben counted to ten in his head. ‘Well – perhaps she was just passing?’

Cat looked at him as if he was dense. Django lived so off the beaten track that impromptu visits always necessitated an involved detour and a certain level of planning.

‘Did Django say where she was on her way to – or back from – to make a trip to his plausible?’

There was a long pause. ‘She’d been to Windward,’ Cat said. ‘That’s why it’s weird.
She went back to Windward
. Just like that.’ She rubbed her belly thoughtfully, as if hoping to elicit the genie from the lamp.

‘And you wanted to go with her?’ Ben was trying to second-guess. Cat looked at him blankly. ‘Or – you wanted her to let you know she was going? Or had been?’

‘You would’ve thought she’d’ve phoned me.’ She felt hot, uncomfortable. ‘Whatever. Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s watch telly. Can I have a cuppa?’

Ben took the pizza boxes into the kitchen, Cat muted the sound on the television, randomly channel hopping while managing her thoughts. Why
Oriana back? Why would she go to Windward anyway? Why
she told her – beforehand or straight after? And she thought, have we grown apart? Can friendships not last such lapses? If all you have in common is a shared past, is that reason enough to believe you’ll always be as close as you were? To Cat just then, the past was neither halcyon nor troubling, it was simply a long, long time ago.

Ben made tea and thought to himself how often he had heard his patients who were pregnant complain that people treated them differently – as if growing a baby equated to diminished brain cells and the incapacity for any conversation other than about babies. They felt excluded because of some misplaced need of others to protect them from any topic anything other than bland ones. And, for the most part, they didn’t like it.
My baby’s stolen my identity!
one had declared. He thought about Oriana. He’d only met her a few times, when they were all living in the United States but, through Cat, he felt he knew her well enough. He remembered how, if ever he answered her call, the first words she’d always say were
sorry to bother you

‘She’ll call,’ he told his wife. ‘She’s probably just worried about bothering you.’

* * *

In Hathersage, no one asked any searching questions. It was enough that ‘Did you have a nice day?’ was met with ‘Yes, thanks, did you?’ In fact, most of the questions came from Oriana who tactfully chose topics she knew Rachel and Bernard could answer at length. The route to Wakefield. The Bennets’ house. What they’d had for their dinner. And their tea. The weather forecast tomorrow. The amount of detail that anodyne subjects warranted was surprising and insubstantial minutiae floated through the evening like musak until it was a respectable time to turn in. As Oriana climbed the stairs, she thought to herself, that’s probably the longest conversation I have ever had with my mother.

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