Grandmother’s house had always been her safe place. There was no shouting here, no clash of angry voices, and no sudden tummy pains that she needed to keep to herself so as not to get their furious attention. Grandmother’s house had a glorious old garden, with a clump of banana trees that was perfect for hide and seek, and an old glasshouse full of plants that nobody had looked after since her grandfather died, but somehow they kept on living in that damp, quiet place, where the air was so heavy with the smell of wet soil that it was always a little bit hard to breathe. She always expected that one day magic would happen there, it was so different to the dry, dusty back yard of her own house, where a just a few bushes clustered by the fence, bushes with bright berries she had been warned never to eat.
And now she was going to grandmother’s house. She huddled in the back seat, hard up against the window she could barely see through, and tried to block out the sound of her father swearing at every other car on the road. Her mother had refused to come; “No Michael, you take her. Your mother never wants to see me anyway!” but she knew from the suitcase filled with her stuff that had been thrown in the boot, that this time she would be staying for a while. That made her happy. She thought of grandmother’s scones, with real strawberry jam, and all the old story books that she was just learning to read, and the nightlight shaped like a fish that grandmother left shining by her bed all night long. It was so peaceful.
There was a soft rain falling as they arrived, and her father impatiently chivvied her up the steps. He hated getting wet. But inside it smelled of fresh baking and old roses, and she relaxed. She curled up in the corner of the couch with Grandmother’s big fairy tale book, absorbed in the pictures: the fairies, the princes, the dark forests, the castles and the ridiculous frog with a crown on page 33. He always made her laugh.
The phrases from the adult conversation washed over her, half-heard: messages from another country she had little interest in. “The bitch!” (that was her father’s voice, followed by Grandmother’s hushing – she hated rough language) There were a few minutes of subdued conversation, before his voice was raised again. She was taking no interest, but some bits stuck in her memory, to be replayed when she was older, and trying to make sense of it all:
“Take no more!”
“More than flesh and blood can stand!”
“No, I’m done. But she’ll be safe here, look after her.”
“Send money when I can,”
Then he was gone, with a brief prickly good bye, and she was sitting at the table with Grandmother, eating chocolate cake.
She had no idea that she would never see her father again.