Go to My Grave – Catriona McPherson

The house was a held breath. Its ten empty rooms waited, polished like a bowl of apples. There were flowers in the hall and in the big bay windows of the drawing room and dining room. There were logs in the baskets and candles in the holders. The snooker balls were framed and the magazines were fanned and every window was open an inch at the top, not enough to make the curtains tremble but enough to let in the sound of the sea. The sea. You couldn’t get away from it even if you wanted to. From every room you could hear it, thrashing up on the beach and rattling the pebbles as it drew back again. You could smell it under the lemon cleaner and beeswax polish, under the lilies and freesias and the eucalyptus. You could see it in a film on the west-facing windows, little dots of wet salt back again hours after washing them. And in the shiver of damp when the sun sank and the squabble of gulls when it rose again, there was the sea. Of course I’d grown up on an island so I was used to it. Although we’d never lived right on the seafront on Skye, because those houses are worth more rented to tourists than sold to locals. Which was exactly the point: the hard cash value of the sound of the sea. I walked up the stairs one last time, in and out of the five bedrooms.

Pillows plumped, blankets smooth, tissues folded into fans. More flowers. In and out of the five bathrooms. Thick towels laid over warmed rails. Big bars of good soap unwrapped in every glittering dish. Not a drop of water or a speck of dust in the baths. The house had seventeen rooms really, but the kitchen didn’t count and the breakfast room attached to it was the ‘staff lounge’. In other words, the dumping ground for supplies. The two smallest bedrooms didn’t count either, because the nearest bathroom was down the back stairs, past the laundry facilities. We couldn’t rent beds without en suites.

Not at the prices we were charging. So they were ‘staff accommodation’ too. And that was why the little room at the top of the stairs was called a snug in the brochure, even though it had a sofa-bed for overflow. Or – as my mum said – for flouncing off to after arguments. I spent two late nights on Amazon choosing jigsaws and board games. My mum raised her eyebrows at the bill but she didn’t argue. Hospitality was my end of this little venture, along with catering. I know my stuff and she trusts me. I had to blink at the cost of the high-speed Wi-Fi, not to mention the fax and scanner and the extrafast colour-printer down in the study, but I trusted her too. Holidays would be our bread and butter, she told me, but corporate retreats were the geese that shat the golden shit, second only to weddings.

And Galloway’s cheap property and dark night skies with the excellent star-gazing – we had provided binoculars and a telescope – went hand-in-hand with pitiful connectivity. ‘But I can outwit all that,’ she said. ‘By the time I’m finished we’ll have download speeds like a bank in Manhattan.’ She spent a lot longer than two late nights setting the search terms so that corporations, brides and holiday-makers would all find us, no matter what they thought they were looking for. She knows her stuff too. The website had been live less than a day when we got the first booking. It was a tenth wedding anniversary. Eight old friends coming down from Glasgow, over from Edinburgh, up from England for a reunion. They bought the full-catered package: Friday tea till Monday breakfast, with a big dinner on the Saturday night. Which was why I was wearing black trousers and a starched white shirt with an apron on top as I padded round the rooms.

If only my mum had been there too I’d have been padding round without my knees knocking. As it was, I was doing this whole weekend – eight people, four meals a day, five counting drinks and nibbles – on my lonesome. ‘It sucks hard and blows back out again,’ my mum agreed, when the news broke, ‘and if you say no, it’s no. So … what do you say?’ Because the thing is we had entered every competition going – as you would, starting up on a shoestring – and we had won one. The prize was free registration and a corner stand on the central aisle at Scotland’s biggest wedding fair, at the SECC in Glasgow. We were still pinching ourselves. ‘I’m more the business end anyway,’ she’d said. True, but she can wash dishes and scrub toilets and she’s great with names. It’s always been my worst weakness, despite all the tricks and hacks in the book. It’s the reason I prefer high-end, where you can ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ your way through everything.

‘I promise I’ll keep up with the bookings online in the quiet minutes,’ she’d told me. ‘But it’s your call, Donna. Coal face and all that.’ ‘I can do it,’ I announced. ‘If we ditch the pan-seared scallops and soufflés, I can do it. But are you sure you can do the expo? You’ll be more knackered than me.’ ‘We can both do it,’ she said. ‘We’re unstoppable.’ A car door slammed, out on the gravel. I nipped to the side of the window and looked down.

A navy-blue Range Rover had pulled up, slantwise, right across the front door, and a man was standing there with his head thrown back, staring so the house was reflected in his sunglasses. He had to be one of the guests. He was dressed exactly like a townie dresses for a country weekend: brand-new cords, brand-new waxed jacket the same colour as his car, an inch of a checked collar showing above the neck of his cashmere. I edged in closer to the glass for a better look and, as I did, the passenger door opened and a girl stepped out. A woman. She matched him like the other side of the cuckoo clock: long legs in dark red jeans, tall boots, a sheepskin gilet over her angora. She was beaming and her hair bounced and shone as she skipped round the back of the car to stand beside the man. She took his arm and squeezed, then reached up onto her tiptoes and pecked his cheek. It happened too fast for me to be sure. One minute she was kissing him, holding onto his arm, and the next she was sprawled on her arse.

I’d have said she overbalanced, if he had stooped to help her up again. If she was still beaming. But he was back in the car and she scrambled to her feet, rubbing her hands on her red jeans. Heels of your hands on the gravel like that, they had to be stinging. The car was moving and she hopped and hobbled after it. She managed to get the door open and herself into the seat as he gunned the engine and squealed away. I trotted down the stairs without touching the banister. It gleamed like an eel, with not a single fingermark along its length. Even though that had been a false alarm, I thought I should get the scones in the oven. The smell of baking when the guests arrive is a basic move.

There’s nothing complicated about a batch of cherry scones, but knowing they’ve been baked fresh just for you works wonders on the toughest guest. And doing it calmed me too. I stepped outside afterwards, wiping my hands on my apron, and found – as I’d suspected – that the sunglasses man had left a scar on the gravel when he peeled away. I took the rake from where it was leaning half behind the ivy on the long front porch and started scraping the ruts flat again. There was the print of her skinny bum and the two small dents from her hands. I smoothed them away with two swipes of my rake. Then I stopped. I nudged at the little bit of granite until it turned back again, showing the speck of red. She had fallen hard enough to break the skin and bleed. I picked it up – that one red chip in the sea of perfect silver-grey – and put it in my pocket, beside the petals I’d tidied from a table-top and the white thread I’d lifted from a black hand-towel.

Then I raised my head at the sound of an engine round the bend of the drive. They were coming back, or someone was arriving. I didn’t have time to get out of sight unless I took the rake with me so I stashed it back among the ivy and waited on the step like a welcome party. It was a different car. This one was a red hatchback, sitting low on its suspension. The driver tooted a tune – Tum-tiddly-aye-la! – as it got close and someone waved at me from the passenger seat. I wiggled my fingers in reply as the car slowed and stopped. It was another couple. Or maybe not, I thought as they climbed out, since both of them had the same short legs and thick waists, the same brown eyes. His hair was clumsily cut into a divot and hers had highlighted spikes, but it was the same hair.

‘Unbe-fucking-lievable!’ said the man. He was standing staring up at the house like the Range Rover guy, knuckling his back and pushing his paunch out like a pregnancy. ‘It’s not,’ said the woman. ‘It can’t be. Glancing similarity.’ Then she smiled at me. ‘You must be Kim.’ She scurried forward, trying to get her bag, coat, phone and a bunch of flowers out of the way to shake my hand. ‘It’s so lovely to meet you at long last.’ ‘I’m Donna Weaver,’ I said.

‘Welcome to The Breakers. You’re the first to arrive.’ ‘Donna?’ said the man. ‘What the hell happened to Kim?’ His voice swooped with concern, but his eyes were twinkling. ‘Shut up, Buck,’ the woman said. ‘Ow.’ An earring had caught on her fluffy jumper and her head jerked to the side as she fiddled with it. ‘Here,’ I said, stepping forward. ‘Let me. I’m Donna from Home From Home.

I’m going to be looking after you for the weekend.’ ‘Oh, you’re a sweetheart,’ the woman said, working her neck round, now the earring was free again. ‘I’m Peach Plummer.’ ‘Peach,’ I repeated, staring hard at her. I was trying to get her name into my head. She misread me. ‘God, don’t I know!’ she said. ‘But my real name’s Morag. And this is my brother, Buck.’ Peach, I told myself.

Round and fuzzy. And sweary Buck. Rhymes with— ‘Buchanan Leslie,’ the man said, shaking my hand. ‘The curse of my mother’s maiden name. If you’re trying to tick us off on your sheet, you should know that my wife’s not coming. One of the ankle-biters has come down with tonsillitis and she drew the short straw.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Peach. ‘We’ll measure the straws on Sunday, shall we?’ ‘Right then, Donna-from-Home-from-Home,’ Buck said, after a moment’s silence. ‘When you say you’re looking after us, are you unpacking the car and ironing our jimmy-jams or should we—’ ‘Shut up, Buck.’ ‘I’ll show you to your rooms and then leave you to unpa—’ I began, but he spoke over me.

‘No need to show us anything, Donna. Every nook and cranny is seared into our brains, despite all the therapy.’ ‘We think we’ve been here before, you see,’ Peach said. ‘But it wasn’t called The Breakers then.’ ‘That’s right,’ I told them. ‘It had a name-change. It used to be … Knockbreak House, I think.’ ‘That’s right enough, then,’ said Buck. ‘God almighty.’ ‘Welcome back!’ I spread my arms.

‘I’d still love to see over it,’ said Peach. ‘It was a right old dump when we were kids. And look at it now.’ ‘But don’t look at it with a black light,’ Buck said. ‘Just kidding,’ he added. He even gave me a wink. But I didn’t miss the way he hesitated on the porch before he walked through into the vestibule. I was holding the inner glass door for him and, as he passed, I could see his arm where his sleeve was rucked up and the gooseflesh that bristled there. * * * I still enjoyed showing off the house. The corridor stretched its length, with the stairs at one end and the front door in the middle, so it would have been a bit much to cover everything.

But we had a quick neb at the two rooms we passed. First, the library with its sage-green walls and carpet, dark green button-back wing-chairs, its long, pale, chesterfield couch; the bookcases were only MDF with beading tacked on, but we’d stained them and varnished them and I’d insisted on hardbacks. The black and yellow dining room was my favourite. All set for dinner, it took my breath away but even now the high polish on the bare table swelled me with pride. Home From Home had worked so hard and scrimped so much. I had been scared the plain black curtains with the patterns used for tiebacks and toppers would be too obviously thrifty but they weren’t. They looked elegant and confident – the more so for a bit of restraint, maybe. ‘Oops,’ the Peach woman said, looking at a towering arrangement of allium and lilies in the dining-room window, then down at her cellophaned bunch of chrysanths. ‘Maybe I could put these in my bedroom.’ ‘There are flowers in the bedrooms too,’ I told her.

‘But I’ll find a jug and there’ll be a perfect spot somewhere. They’re lovely.’ ‘Oh, aren’t you nice!’ she said. Buck was coming along the corridor with a couple of Tesco bags in each hand. ‘Kitchen still in the same place, I’m guessing?’ ‘Oh!’ I said. ‘The food’s all laid on, actually. Chef on duty all day every day.’ ‘Chef?’ said Peach. ‘Kim said we didn’t need to, but I thought she was just being polite.’ ‘Shite,’ said Buck.

‘Don’t tell me I dragged my arse round that supermarket for nothing!’ I took the bags from him and glanced into them. ‘Good bread and English apples. These won’t go to waste.’ ‘Oh, God, really? Aren’t you nice!’ Peach said. ‘Will the chef get offended, though?’ ‘You’re looking at her,’ I said, nodding to my apron. ‘And no. Come upstairs and I’ll show you your bedrooms.’ The corridor stretched the length of the house up here too. The rooms off to the left had their doors ajar and the light poured through, dappling the long run of carpet. To the right, the door to the back rooms and back stair was closed and bolted on the other side.

‘So I’m sharing with Jennifer, am I?’ Peach said, when she saw the sign on the door. ‘Fair enough.’ Buck whistled through his teeth, as we all trooped in. ‘I have to say, this is pretty fantoosh.’ It really was. The couple who’d booked the weekend were getting one corner room and the other was reserved for a ‘Paul and Rosalie’ but this was the next best and it was charming. It was big enough for two Scotch doubles and the blue and white wallpaper was perfect with the cherry-wood suite – antiques from an auction in Glasgow. The curtains were white muslin and there was a white carpet that felt like velvet under your bare toes. It had the bathroom with the proper window too. Blue and white tiles and a roll-top bath.

‘There’s a lovely view,’ I said. You could see the sea from all the front upstairs windows. Not the beach, because of the steep drop beyond the garden wall where a switchback path of leaf mould and tree roots led to the edge of the sand. But there was a clear sightline to the broad grey ribbon of sea filling the bay. In a few years, our plan was to turn that treacherous path into a set of steps with a handrail so that The Breakers would be good for families as well as gatherings like this one. Until then, clients got warnings in their booking emails and there was a little plaque on the gate and a basket of torches on the hat-stand in the vestibule. They’d walked over to the window as I gestured and now they were standing in silence, looking out. Three waves thrashed up and rattled back and still they stood there. ‘The trees have grown,’ Peach said at last. Buck put an arm out and hugged her.

‘You’re along at the end, Buck,’ I said. ‘Pretty much in the nursery, I’m afraid, but it’s the only family room, and we thought you were bringing…’ They hadn’t turned round as I spoke and talking at their backs like this was starting to feel weird. ‘I’m afraid you don’t have a sea view,’ I added. ‘But you’ll still be able to hear the waves.’ They both turned then and whatever the expression they had on their faces – I couldn’t name it – they looked more alike than ever as they stared at me.

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