Read an Excerpt
Three days earlier
4 January 2019
The snow is still falling, feathery flakes whirling in the golden light of the train window, then sucked into the black. But the 14:04 London-Penzance keeps hurtling west, drawing Lauren closer to Rock Point, the house she fled one summer's day twenty years before. Her gaze flicks to the carriage's emergency stop button, away again. Ridiculous. It's only three nights. And she has a promise to keep.
With a metallic screech, the train lurches. Lauren grabs the back of a seat, her hands small, strong; nails clipped short to disguise the biting and painted the sort of pale pink she hopes won't show chips. Since offering her seat to a mother and her toddler an hour ago, she's been stuck swaying in the crowded aisle, wedged between dandruffy shoulders and boxy sales bags advertising department stores she can't afford. Lying across her feet, a gym holdall never used for its intended purpose, hurriedly packed, quite possibly without her phone charger or enough knickers. And almost certainly the wrong clothes for a reunion with Kat and Flora, the half sisters she rarely sees.
Her father's email had landed on Boxing Day, knocking the air right out of her. She'd had to read it three times, sunk to the floor of her Whitechapel kitchen, emptied of flatmates over the holidays. Pinning her hopes on the invitation being some sort of awkward mistake, she didn't reply. But Dad left voicemails. He texted: "Charlie Finch will not take no for an answer!!! You must come, Laurie. I have an important announcement to make. P.S. Kat and Flora think this reunion a MARVELOUS idea."
Ever since, Lauren's tried extremely hard not to think about the last time they were all together at Rock Point: the thrilling, appalling summer of the total solar eclipse, 1999. But whenever she drifts or blinks, there it is: Girls and Birdcage, the portrait they sat for that August, in their artist father's Cornish studio. She dreamed about the painting last night, tossing and turning as the London snow fell. And she can still see it now, like a hologram projected on the carriage wall.
Caught in meaty gouges of their father's oils: her younger self-a scruffy shy scribble of a thing-and her older half sisters, Kat and Flora, with their fearless gazes and rich-girl glitter. The three of them glowing from sea and sun-the delirious freedom of cliffs and coves; those precious days before the eclipse-squished on a white sofa next to the black dome of a large empty birdcage.
Charlie Finch's masterpiece, the critics agree. But really, it's a piece of them. As they were. The girls in that painting climbed out of its gilt frame-and into separate lives-long ago.
Lauren startles, and the painting pops like a soap bubble.
Sitting in the adjacent window seat, the man is studying her with navy eyes. He has one of those roughly cut, craggy faces that don't reveal themselves straightaway. Something about him pings in Lauren. She hasn't the foggiest why.
"You've been standing for ages." He speaks with an unmistakable Cornish burr, just in case she needed a reminder of where she's headed. "Here, please... my seat." Rising to his full rangy height, he sloshes takeaway coffee on his jeans. The woman sitting beside him irritably yanks her handbag to her knee.
"I'm good. Thank you, though," Lauren says after a beat, stupidly flustered. She's spent too much time alone over Christmas, lost all her social skills. Grief has opened her up like a whelk.
The man nods, lowers again. But his gaze sticks, like a handshake that goes on too long. Feeling exposed, Lauren stares hard out of the window, her mind turning with the clacking wheels to childhood train journeys-same line, same destination, same migratory path-that once bookended August. Back then the view rolled past lush green, hazy with insects, heat, and hope. Now: smears of light from country houses and distant villages. Superimposed upon them, her winter-pale city face: hollowed eyes, dark as mineshafts; a slightly regretted cobalt streak in her blunt fringe.
She's swaying, twisting, digging in her handbag for her mobile-better tell the others she's nearly there; no, she's out of charge-when a passenger tugs open a nearby window's top partition. Lauren's unprepared for the cold salt air, the way it streams into the carriage, flushing away the gamey fast-food stink-and drawing in the heart-stopping smell of sea. With it, fragments of their last Rock Point summer: linseed oil; her sisters' laughter; the burned-out eye of eclipsed sun. Fear and longing.
For all Lauren's mind has blocked, deep down her body remembers. And in the reflection of the train window, she sees the man who offered his seat staring intensely, his hand over his mouth, like he might too.
Local or not, he can't possibly recognize her, Lauren tells herself, panic prickling up the back of her neck. It was so long ago, and they'd been too young to be identified in the papers. She meets his gaze with a defiant flash, then turns away, steeling for the reunion. With a diesel hiss, the train picks up speed, syncing with Lauren's racing heartbeat, and plunges to the far edge of the map.
As the small plane bucks toward Newquay airport, Kat wonders what the hell her father is playing at. She's struggling to focus on work-Spring's subscriber data marches across her laptop screen, awaiting analysis-her thoughts maddeningly, compulsively looping back to her father. Rock Point.
When she'd first read his email, her inner voice yelled, "Do. Not. Go." Instead, she'd listened to her mother as they were squashed together in a booth at the Carlyle, Manhattan. Kat's treat every year, even though any sort of holiday makes her twitchy. Still. Anything to escape the minefield of Christmas. Dad had similarly slipped away to Paris, sparing Flora the agony of how to seat him and her mother at the same lavish table. And if Lauren's mum-RIP, Dixie-hadn't lost her battle in October, Lauren wouldn't have volunteered at the hospice but hunkered down with Dixie in Oxford, eating nut loaf in a cloud of incense.
When there are three half sisters and three rivaling mothers with some overlap, it's complicated.
"So, the old wolf is inviting you all to Rock Point?" Sipping her Virgin Mary, Blythe had brazenly read the email over Kat's shoulder. "Oh, hello. 'An announcement'? Charlie's not getting any younger. Maybe he wants to hand over the house. Don't do that skeptical thing with your mouth. You'll get marionette lines. Look! He says Flora and Lauren think a reunion is a marvelous idea! Frankly, if Lauren is brave enough to go back . . . and Flora's probably camped outside already, that mother of hers crouched behind a rock, egging her on." Blythe's hand gripped her glass tightly, historic grievances surfacing. "I'm not having my girl missing out. We deserve something from that man, Kat. We really do."
We? Charlie Finch had been her mother's lover. (And, at that point, married to Flora's mother, Annabelle.) But he is Kat's father, even if he doesn't always behave like it. "For all we know, Dad's going to announce what he ate for breakfast. And I really can't take any more time off, Mum. It's mental busy. I've got a shareholder meeting, a big eff-off early the following week. Seriously, no bandwidth."
"Well, find it, honey." Blythe's shellacs furiously tap-tapped on her phone and magnified an aerial view on Google Maps, making the hairs on Kat's arms lift. "Rock Point. Prime real estate, Kat. You want to be the only daughter who is too busy to show? Who pisses off her narcissist father and gets squeezed out?" When Kat rolled her eyes, Blythe moved in for the kill. "This is not about a house. Or money; we all know you've made a stack of that. This . . ." Righteous pause. ". . . is about fairness, my darling."
And just like that, Kat's childhood insecurities were expertly detonated. Whatever it was-even if just her father's attention for a freezing weekend in January-Kat needed to have her slice of it, ideally the biggest.
Only now she's irreversibly on her way-the jaunt no longer theoretical, or some sort of inheritance TV drama, scripted by her actor mother-it feels like she's shooting through time, not space. And that by returning to Rock Point, there's a possibility she'll regress into her teenage self; she and Flora their old glorious savagery.
Also, the whole thing is just odd, even set against their father's low bar, Kat thinks, stretching a long leg into the plane's aisle. Until last month, the house was long-term tenanted by a retired couple, charged a peppercorn rent; their role was to inhabit the place uncomplainingly. Dad never talks about Rock Point. None of them do. Well, they wouldn't. And they haven't slept under the same roof for years, let alone that roof. Flora will no doubt slap on a sepia filter and insist they're all having A Lovely Time. But Lauren? Kat won't blame her if she bails at the last minute and stays hiding in Whitechapel. Rail disruption, the perfect excuse.
What's hers? Unlike Lauren, Kat doesn't carry the weight of that summer. She's not sure she even recalls what happened the day of the eclipse, not accurately. All anyone remembers from their teenage years is what they mythologize as adults, isn't it? In a similar way to how a faked emotion starts to feel real if you keep the pretense going long enough. And it was a different millennium. Analog: pre-smartphones, Twitter, and smashed avocado. A time of her life that, set against the ever-scrolling present, seems hazy, discontinuous, and remarkably undocumented.
Ridiculous then that she's been barely able to eat for days; her stomach fluttery, not with nerves but something else, an emotion she can't identify. Then there's this sweaty, caffeinated feeling. For the third time on the short flight, she dabs a skein of sweat off her nose with the scarf she keeps hidden, scrunched at the bottom of her handbag. Scarred with rips, wine stains, stiletto heel punctures, and cigarette burns, the Dior silk scarf belonged to her mother at her most chaotic in the late nineties. Kat always travels with it, a sort of discomfort blanket; the photographic negative of her hard-won success. A reminder of how far she has come.
"Whoa!" The plane takes an ear-popping dive. The woman spilling over their shared armrest squeals, dropping her tube of Pringles. Someone whispers a Hail Mary. The pilot broadcasts a brisk order to buckle seat belts and prepare for landing.
Kat calmly puts away the laptop. As a kid, flying alone between her mother's TV sets and disparate American and British relatives and schools, she taught her petrified self to enjoy turbulence. The cabin crew would fuss over her and offer extra dessert. When Kat told them who her parents were, they'd pretend to have heard of them, and say, wow, that's so cool, and she'd crackle with pride and loneliness.
"We're all going to die!" screams the Pringles woman, as the plane rolls.
"Not today," Kat shouts into the woman's ear, trying to reassure. "It's just physics! Thrust, drag, and a severe weather warning . . ." Then through the porthole window, a wavy hem of malachite-green sea. Dark gold sand. A patchwork of fields.
Kat sucks in her breath, Cornwall's rapid approach registering as one tiny shock, then another, until it's like dozens of acupuncture needles bristling on her scalp. The rest of her life-her six a.m. runs through streets of glass and steel; the industrious murmur of the Spring office; all the likes and shares and tweets-fades away, unreal. And something small and scared inside Kat-normally bolted tightly down-loosens. As the plane bumps to the runway, tears blur her eyes. She wipes them fiercely on the ratty scarf, wondering what's going on. She hasn't cried for years-and no effing way is she about to start now.
"You have arrived at your destination," announces the satnav. Oh god. Reluctant to leave the warmth and safety of the SUV, Flora listens to the Atlantic raging two hundred feet below. With a four-year-old in the car, it feels much closer. Like the ocean might rear up in a monstrous wave and suck them off the cliff to their deaths any minute. Her stomach registers this with a small convulsion.
Rock Point isn't quite the elegant Victorian villa she remembers; more a lonely old house that's been swept against the rocks, quite possibly with its tenants skeletonized within. Light thrown down by the windows bores across the drive and the wind-gnarled hawthorn tree to the rocky edge of the raised bank. Beyond that, it vanishes over the cliff edge, into the velvety dark. As might a young child. You wouldn't hear the scream.
Flora sucks harder on her antacid. They'd been so unsupervised here as girls. Left to roam. Build bonfires on the beach. Trusted not to run across the hot embers or fall or drown. She's not felt that free since. Giddily, stupidly free. It's a miracle any of them survived, frankly.
Rock Point too. While it's still standing, the salt has eaten into its white façade like acid on a tooth. What a costly restoration that's going to be. Adding jobs to an imaginary builder's list, her gaze travels from the keystone-dated 1841-to her childhood summer bedroom on the first floor then to the art studio at the very top, with its brow of small square windows squinting at the horizon. The hipped slate roof is as symmetrical as the house: you could fold it in half, like a napkin, and its corners would meet. But there any sense of order ends. Above Rock Point, the bruised uplands of fields and moor hunch under a vast cold sky.
Flora is struck by a powerful urge to reverse. Drive back down the potholed ribbon of lane, edged by steep banks of rock, past the abandoned mines and collapsed cottages-caved in, like warnings-away from this desolate place. Three hundred miles back to Surrey, her husband, Scott, and their smart house in its leafy, gated cul-de-sac of executive homes, with its gentle microclimate of heated driveways and steamy Nespresso machines.
But she's run out of bribery treats. Her ears are still ringing from listening to the same children's audio stories on repeat-"Again, again," Raff demanded-until she thought her brain would explode.
Also, she's promised Raff adventures. ("I don't like adventures, Mummy." "You will.") And she'd never let down Daddy. Whatever her mother says-"selfish bastard"-he's always been there for her, at least when she really needs it. And she's got a gut feeling something's not right. For the last few months-since Dixie's funeral, really-he's been vague about his whereabouts, only the international dialing tone announcing he was in Paris-Paris!-on Christmas Day. When she has managed to see him in person, he's seemed guarded yet excitable as if he'd pulled off some sort of secret criminal heist. All compounded by this short notice, out-of-character, out-of-the-blue, season-inappropriate invitation to Rock Point.
But…if Kat and Lauren think the reunion "a marvelous idea", she certainly does too. It’s a rare opportunity for them to hang out as sisters again rather than three women who happen to share half their DNA, whose draw to each other is usually overcome by its opposite repelling charge. Yes, they will make new Rock Point memories. Overwrite the old.
Nothing can go wrong. Not this time. She’s brought notes on rainy day excursions; directions to the nearest A&E; a menu plan. Emergency supplies: Calpol, Nurofen, Ovex, loo roll. Unwaxed lemons. Clothes to cover all weather events. Even a bathing costume she’s zero intention of using. ("Bring swim stuff," Kat messaged last night; no kiss, no emoji, nothing). Most importantly, she will stay stone-cold sober and on high alert for signs that anyone is on the verge of talking about it. For the sake of harmony, the day of the eclipse must stay sealed, unmentioned. Like an affair if a marriage is to survive.
But first, game face. Grabbing a hairbrush from the glove compartment, Flora smooths her shoulder-length blond hair - carefully blow-dried that morning - applies a slick of nude lipstick and inspects herself in the mirror. Christ. How did the lithe, spirited creature in Girls and Birdcage turn into this? Knackered. Puffy faced. No, she’ll call it: fat. A thirty-something mum with an inexplicable digestive issue and a bladder that, to her deep shame, leaks. She will never tell her sisters this as long as she lives.
Raff was a humongous baby: ten pounds. A ventouse. Thirty stitches. Like a purse zipper all the way up. She’s forgiven him now. In the rearview mirror, she eyes her mini bullock of a son, his clenched fists and cross frown. (First word: "No’") Her heart squeezes. He looks pitifully alone in the carapace of this giant SUV, the seats either side of him empty, awaiting siblings. A reminder it’s the wrong time in her cycle to be away. Scott hasn’t worked that out yet. But he will. She knows he will.
Pushing open the car door, Flora lurches into a rushing wall of air, a raw salty pong mixed with wood smoke. The wind slaps her cheeks. Sucks at her sheepskin gilet like a rabid Hoover nozzle. The weather is an affront, a rude shock.
What was she expecting? The smell of Ambre Solaire and coconut-sweet gorse. Well, yes! In her mind, this place was summer.
"Kat!" Flora whips around. Her mouth parts, cold clinking against her fillings. They’ve not seen each other since that charged, difficult drink after Dixie’s funeral back in October. Kat’s work phone had flashed in the centre of the table, like some sort of air traffic control radar charting all the unspoken issues flying between them.