No-one ever came to the front door. To get there you had to walk right through the middle of our garden; you had to walk through our private life. Visitors came to the back, by the road. The man with the telegram came to the front. He stepped on the daisies scattering our unmown lawn.
Mum was wearing the dress I liked best, horizontal slashes of golden yellow and bitter chocolate. She made her own clothes. We must have been about to go out, because she didn’t often wear the dress, it was for special occasions.
I remember the way the telegram looked just as clearly as I remember the dress. A collage of words from the other side of the world, stuck piece by piece onto a small oblong of paper, crying, Look at us, we’re true.
STEPHEN DEAD. DROWNED UNDER ICE.
I had never met my cousin and, just like that, he became a trick of the light.
When I set off for Joanna’s on my bike the next day, Mum told me she needed to buy eggs at the village shop. She got her own bike from the garage and cycled with me. She hadn’t ridden it since the summer before. The brakes squeaked. As we passed the village pond, a fish jumped and she swerved into the middle of the road.
Mum said ‘no’ when Joanna and I wanted to take the bus into town. I tried to argue that last week she’d thought it was a good idea, a trip from which I would learn independence. She shouted at me.
That night, I turned Top of the Pops up loud. It wasn’t my fault my cousin was dead. Mum came in and turned the volume down. She stroked my hair. Her touch made me hate her and love her, all at the same time. In the morning, I tried to go out without her noticing, but she was hovering near the back gate, waiting for me. I should have left by the front door, but I could still sense the telegram man’s presence.
“You’re coming down with something, Christine. Go back inside.”
The worry in my mother’s eyes made me shiver. I strode over to my bike and started to wheel it towards the gate.
“I need some more eggs. I’ll come with you.” She still hadn’t put her bike back in the garage, where it belonged.
I counted. One second, two seconds.
“I’ll get you some eggs, Mum.”
She said nothing. For ages, she didn’t move, then I heard a change in her breath. Gravel crunched under her heels as she walked towards the house. She returned with her purse and counted sharp smelling coins into my palm. She tried to smile.
My shadow was ahead of me as I pedalled towards the village, head down. The dustbins were out. I slalomed as close round their edges as I could. Behind the rectory wall a hoe scraped soil. I slowed down. I reached up and plucked a drooping, lolly-shaped blossom from the overhanging buddleia.
As I pedalled down the hill towards the pond, I didn’t use my brakes. I knew I should, the lane was narrow and cars drove fast, but I didn’t care. For a moment, just before the tightest bend, I let go of the handlebars.
I braked hard as I neared the pond. I liked the way my body jerked to a stop, the buzz that shot up my arms. Telling myself I was hoping to surprise the fish just like it had surprised my mum, I crept towards the water’s edge and gazed into the stagnant water.
Far below the mud at the bottom of the pond, on the other side of the world, there was another pond, this one covered in ice. A boy had played beside it, but he would never play there again. I held up a hand in front of my face and imagined it wrapped in a red glove. Next, I gave him a red hat and scarf to match. I put him in a blue coat. I had no idea if this was right.
All I knew for certain was that there had been ice.