House of Silence - Extracts

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Chapter 1

I used to wonder if Alfie chose me because I was an orphan and an only child. Was that part of the attraction? I came unencumbered, with no family.

We were kindred spirits in a way. Detached, self-centred, yet both obsessed with the past. Our past. The difference was, I had no family and Alfie did. He had a family – a large one – but mostly he behaved as if he didn’t, as if he wanted no part of them, however much they might want a piece of him.

As a lonely child, then a solitary adolescent, I used to fantasise about having a family – a proper family, teeming with rowdy siblings, jolly aunts and uncles and of course doting parents. Alfie had that. But I suspect his fantasy was that they had all died, leaving him in peace as sole owner and occupier of Creake Hall.

It was a macabre joke we shared: that he lived on grim expectations. I used to chide him for his callousness and he would get angry, which was unlike him. He’d say, ‘You have no bloody idea, Gwen! You don’t know how much they expect of me.’

And it was true. I had absolutely no idea.

***

It’s Gwen. Short for Guinevere.

Don’t ask.

I was conceived, so I was told, at Glastonbury, foisted by father unknown on a semi-comatose mother. Sasha (she always insisted I call her that) must have done one line of coke too many. Sasha always said she had little recollection of my father but claimed my conception had been historic in all senses, that she had felt a deep, deep connection to the past (if not my father, whom she never saw again.)

Detail of quilt made by by Linda Gillard

To my eternal embarrassment, she named me Guinevere which was mercifully shortened to Gwen and sometimes, when she was having a stab at being maternal, Gwenny. But never Ginny. Ginny was the pet name (I use the term advisedly) of one of my dipsomaniac aunt’s monstrous and much-loved Persian cats. There were three: Whisky, Vodka and Gin. (Aunt Samantha had a quirky sense of humour when she was sober, which wasn’t often.)

Aunt Sam did booze, Sasha did drugs and my Uncle Frank did men - boys, if he could get them. This unholy trinity went down like ninepins in the ‘90s, martyrs to over-indulgence. All three died tragically young of, respectively, cirrhosis of the liver, a drug overdose and AIDS.

As for me, I’m allergic to alcohol and worry a lot about my pension. If she were alive, Sasha would have said this was unnatural in one so young. (Twenty-six, but people say I look older. I certainly feel older.) My mother, fond as she was of clichés, would have said, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” And Sasha did. I wouldn’t describe myself as the ambitious type, but I do aim to live longer than my mother. If I make it to thirty-five, I’ll have achieved that modest goal.

So it’s Gwen, not Guinevere. That’s one of the few things my mother and I agreed about. Names are destiny. So you might be surprised to learn that, despite the name and a genetic pre-disposition to excess, my friends describe me as frighteningly sensible, not at all the sort of woman who’d fall for an actor. And his home. And his family.

But Sasha would have understood. So, bless them, would Aunt Sam and Uncle Frank. They would all have cheered me on from the sidelines, for it would appear family is destiny too.

Even when you haven’t got one.

***

Alfie Donovan wasn’t my type. Given my limited experience with the opposite sex, I’m not sure I can presume to say I have a type. Male, sober, solvent and heterosexual would be at the top of my wish-list, with tall, dark and handsome not far behind. I don’t claim to be original. At five feet nine myself, I think I can be forgiven for giving short-arses a wide berth. (Uncle Frank used to claim, “It’s all the same when you’re lying down, sweetheart,” but his powers of discrimination declined in later years. Or, as he liked to put it, he developed “more catholic tastes”.)

Alfie was no taller than me. He was blond and funny-looking. Literally. His face made me laugh. His letterbox grin made a grey day suddenly sunny. Old ladies smiled at him for no reason and babies in buggies would crane their necks and stare, fascinated. Alfie’s face was so mobile, so expressive, he could talk with it without opening his mouth. A roll of his eloquent brown eyes spoke volumes. He could crack you up with a look, hint at filthy double entendres with the hoist of an eyebrow. But handsome? No, never. His was a striking face, a memorable face, and – though I didn’t realise it at first - it was also a familiar face.

I’m talking about Alfie as if he’s dead . . . He isn’t, of course. Not exactly.

But something died. Somebody.