Back to Brighton for this story. And back in time.
The flat roof is exciting. She imagines being allowed to go up there alone. To stand on top of the house and look across the town. Even better if they let her sleep there one night, in the dark with the sky lying on the flat roof, on her, like a blanket. They never will.
Her feet, dusty white socks and Clarks Playdeck sandals – open-toed because she’d begged for them – are rocking on the first rung of railings. That’s the sort of thing that worries them – the way she’ll do anything to get a little bit higher.
‘Get down off there. Just stand carefully on the ground.’
A hand tugs her arm, makes her step down.
‘It’s not the ground.’
‘No, it’s a roof, which is why it’s dangerous to clamber about.’
The sigh is quieter than it would be if they were at home. Because this is Auntie Brenda’s house so they mustn’t make a fuss. Auntie Brenda steps through the doorway onto the roof space, carrying a tray. Mum goes to help her, holding the door open so it doesn’t swing back and bump Auntie Brenda – moving the chair so she can set down the tray on the round table.
‘Jessica, come here and sit down.’
Jess sits on the chair. It’s too far from the table for her to reach the tall glass of orange squash so she tries to move herself in. The chair’s strange, white and full of holes, like a chair made of lace, but it’s too heavy to move. She feels as if she’s got mouse arms but then she realises that the lacy chair is made of metal, hot in the sun, scorchy on the back of her bare thighs. She tries again to heave it but succeeds only in tumbling forward and has to put out her hands to stop her face bumping the table.
‘Stop messing about.’
‘I wasn’t, I…’
Mum’s eyes are fierce, like a hunting creature, so she’s quiet. Auntie Brenda is holding out a plate of biscuits.
‘Have a macaroon, Jessica.’
She takes one and knows she’s doomed. It’s big – like a face. The glacé cherry in the centre is half buried in the shiny beige biscuit. She’ll like the cherry. If she can get half-way then there’ll be the cherry. She wishes she could just dig it out now and eat it and the rest of the thing would disappear – like a magic spell. Instead, she takes a small bite. The underside is shiny white rice paper. Rice paper is amazing. Paper you can eat. She likes that too but the sweet, strange flavour of the macaroon is overwhelming everything and she has to swallow hard to make it go down. Taking the tall glass in both hands she gulps some squash. It’s too strong. Not like at home. It makes her cough.
‘Cover your mouth.’
Auntie Brenda waves her hand around, like she’s trying to swat a fly, but she isn’t.
‘I said to David, when we bought it, I said the roof would come in to its own in the summer, and I wasn’t wrong.’
Auntie Brenda has funny hands. She paints her nails shiny red but they don’t look like ladies on tv. They have brown marks and blue, blue veins like rubbery tubing on the backs.
‘It is lovely, Brenda. You’re so lucky.’
‘Well, David’s put in the years. With the firm, I mean. It’s about time he saw something for it.’
She is pouring tea for herself and Mum, little splashes of wee tea are leaping out of the white china cups. Jess says it over and over in her head.
‘Wee tea wee tea wee tea.’
It’s funny. Auntie Brenda makes wee tea. Then she adds the milk and it’s all spoiled – bursty, nasty white makes it look like normal tea now. Beige like the macaroon. She picks at a rough edge of rice-paper, peeling off a little strip and popping it onto her tongue. Mum is watching her sideways, so she takes another proper bite and chews slowly, with her mouth shut. Auntie Brenda leans back in her chair and gives her a smile, suspicious and sticky as the macaroon.
‘And this young lady, how grown up she’s looking! Eight years old next month, miss. What do you want for your birthday?’
The sticky smile is gone, as if she’d leant over and wiped it off with a damp flannel.
‘Jessica! Don’t be silly. She loves jigsaws, Brenda, and colouring.’
Auntie Brenda’s not listening now. She’s opened her big, white handbag. It’s got a shiny skin, bumped all over like a crocodile. But you couldn’t have a white crocodile, could you? Maybe. Like the rabbits that Sarah at school got for her birthday – white with pink eyes. Auntie Brenda pulls out a photograph.
‘You can see our Jackie in her, don’t you think?’
She holds it out towards Jess and Mum. There’s a girl in black and white, and funny bunches. She’s wearing school uniform. Jess doesn’t know who she is. A lump of macaroon is stuck to the roof of her mouth anyway, so she doesn’t speak. Mum does, in her lying voice,
‘Oh, Brenda, yes. And how is your Jackie these days?’
‘Oh, she’s doing very well. She’s engaged! He’s the deputy manager at the shop, Richard. He’s from Guildford originally. His parents have a beautiful place out there. For the engagement, they didn’t make a big show of it or anything, but, for the engagement we went up and they had drinks on the lawn. Little vol-a-vents with…’
Now’s the moment for Jess to slide the macaroon onto her plate and slide off her white chair. She walks slowly back to the railing and looks out across the town. There are little rows of houses like caterpillars running across the hillsides. She can see the two tower blocks next to her school. Home is hidden, down a dip on the other side. Far off to the right she can see the sharp sparkle of the sea, just a little triangle of it. She wishes they could have gone to the beach today. It would have been brilliant on the beach today and she wouldn’t have to be wearing a skirt and socks in her sandals. They never come to see Auntie Brenda, so why today? Why waste a lovely day? She glances over her shoulder to see if they’re watching her but Mum has pulled her chair round, much closer to Auntie Brenda’s and their heads are close as they talk.
There are some small pebbles around the edges of the flat roof, little tiny stones like the ones at the edge of the beach when the tide’s far out – just before the wide, wide, wet sand. It’s not a beach like they have in Cornwall. She’s seen postcards of the yellow sand there. The beach here has all pebbles unless the tide’s right out. Then there’s sludgy sand. She loves the way it sucks her feet in. There are razor clams and tiny crabs that run in the miniature streams. Mum sits far up the beach with the newspaper and Jess can run for hours, feels like hours, and sometimes they don’t go home ‘til Dad’s there and there isn’t even any tea ready so they get chips from round the corner. And they laugh and she has cherryade. But that was last year. She drops a tiny stone down into Auntie Brenda’s garden. It gets swallowed up in a bush with big, round pink flowers like candyfloss.
‘For just a couple of months, Brenda!’
Mum’s voice is wobbly at the edges.
‘I’d have to ask David and I can’t see him being keen. I mean, surely he has to give you money? I’ve no idea how it all works out but he has to support you, doesn’t he? And the child?’
Mum’s voice is quieter now and she can’t hear. Auntie Brenda opens the handbag again and gives Mum a tissue. Jess scoops up a handful of the little stones, they’re warm and trickly as she passes them from palm to palm. Then, without even caring if they see, she swings her arm back and lets them all fly, in a shower they fall, all over Auntie Brenda’s green front lawn.
‘What are you doing, young lady?’
Auntie Brenda’s red-fingered hand is on her bare arm and she grips hard. Jess needs the toilet suddenly. Mum looks over, she’s all wet-faced and confused and she stands, gathering up her handbag and Jess’s yellow cardigan.
‘I’m sorry, Brenda. We’ll be going now. Come on Jess.’
They have to step over the lintel, the stairs curve down in blackness. Jess misses her footing on the top step.
‘Will you be careful, Jessica!’
Mum takes her hand but it’s gentle. Jess holds on tight.