Christmas Eve, 1975, Margate.
Penny descends the staircase, banging the feet of her doll against the bannisters as she does so. They make a series of satisfying, almost musical, twangs.
The sun is shining through the stained glass window above the front door, casting colourful geometric patterns across the floor tiles.
At the base of the stairs she swings for a moment on the large final bannister. The lounge door is ajar and peering in she can see one edge of the television screen, her mother’s slippered foot, and a single branch of the Christmas tree.
Penny loves the Christmas tree, loves the layers of greenery and the glittering coloured lights. She sometimes gets up during the night and comes downstairs so that she can lie down beneath the tree just to breathe in the pine smell and stare up into the twinkling forest of branches.
She loves the piled up gifts beneath the tree too of course – wonderful gifts from uncle Cecil who, like an early Father Christmas, turned up yesterday.
At midnight even more gifts will arrive when the real Father Christmas brings his own contribution down the chimney.
Her mother says something which she doesn’t quite catch, and Cecil laughs in response and, drawn by the laughter, these sounds of happiness, she takes one step towards the lounge door, but then hesitates and continues on her way through to the kitchen where she walks as far as the dresser. Glancing back towards the lounge, she crouches down and opens the lowest cupboard.
Inside is the cake tin, and inside the tin is the Christmas cake her mother has been “feeding” with brandy for weeks now.
Penny considers opening the lid and touching her finger to the damp surface of the cake, then to her lips. She’s done this a few times now and she remembers the spicy odour of the cake and the tang of the alcohol. But then, conscious of the danger of being caught, she closes the door and stands again. “You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow, I’m afraid,” she tells Lucy, her doll.
She walks the doll along the ledge of the dresser as far as the sugar bowl and then dips her finger into the sugar. When it comes up dry, she licks her finger and repeats the process.
She thinks about the packages beneath the tree and wonders if the Operation game she asked for is there. Ed, who has dared to squeeze the un-named packages (squeezing is strictly forbidden) says that it’s not there, but, as it’s the only thing she has asked for and as it’s not even particularly expensive, Penny thinks he’s wrong, or lying. Jennifer from number eleven got Operation for her birthday, and Penny, who it would seem has steady hands, has beaten her every time. She may well, she thinks, end up being a proper nurse when she grows up.
Vicky has asked for a cassette player so she can record ABBA from the television. She has promised Penny a proper party in her bedroom if her wish gets fulfilled. And Ed has asked for a train set, which Mum says is too expensive, though Vicky says he’ll probably (being Cecil’s favourite) get it anyway. Penny thinks a train set sounds boring.
“I don’t know,” Penny says, lifting the doll to face her and answering a conversation inside her head. “You’ll have to see what Father Christmas brings, won’t you?” The doll, with her one droopy eye, looks half-drunk, half-surprised.
Dangling Lucy by one arm, Penny returns to the hallway. Upstairs she can hear Vicky and Ed arguing (nothing unusual there), and when uncle Cecil laughs again, she pushes the door to the lounge open. Both Cecil and her mother turn and smile at her.
“Here she is,” Cecil says. “My favourite youngest niece. Come and have a cuddle with your uncle Cecil.”
Penny smiles shyly at him and sidles instead towards her mother, who is knitting, but Cecil stands and sweeps her up in his arms and then sits back down with Penny on his knee, his ample stomach pressing against her back. She looks down at his brogues and wonders how he gets them so shiny.
“So, the Ning Nang Nong?” Cecil asks. The Ning Nang Nong is Penny’s favourite Spike Milligan poem.
“Yes!” she says.
“I’m not sure I remember how it starts,” Cecil mugs.
“In the Ning Nang Nong,” Penny prompts, and Cecil begins to recite the poem, speaking faster and faster and jigging Penny up and down more and more energetically as the poem progresses.
As soon as the poem is finished, Penny, though still giggling, wriggles free and moves to the far side of her mother’s armchair. “What are you making?” she asks.
“The same thing I was making the last time you asked,” her mother replies.
“A jumper for Ed?”
“Very good,” Marge says.
“Is it lunch time?” Penny asks. “Because Lucy says she’s hungry.”
Her mother glances at the clock on the mantlepiece. “Not yet,” she says, “but you were up early – there are sandwiches in the kitchen. If you’re hungry take one.”
Penny heads through to the kitchen and takes two of the tiny triangular sandwiches (which disappointingly contain fish paste) then returns to her bedroom where she eats them on her bed while forcing Bungle and Lucy to make up (they argued yesterday). The argument solved, she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, something has changed. She can’t put her finger on it, but it’s as if the air within the house has changed shape or tint or temperature.
She lies for a moment listening to the wind whistling past the leaky windows, to a gull squawking from a chimney pot, to a car driving past, to the silence of the house around her.
Her first thought is that everyone is sleeping, but the stillness somehow exceeds even that and she starts to feel panicky that everyone might have gone out without her.
She grabs Lucy’s hand and, frowning deeply, steps from her bedroom.
She walks past the junk room and silently pads down to the first floor.
She tries the handle of Vicky’s door first but it is locked, so she calls out, “Vicky? VICKY?”
“Go away!” Vicky replies, apparently through tears.
Next she climbs to the top floor and tries Ed’s door which swings open to reveal uncle Cecil leaning over his camp-bed re-packing his suitcase. “Not now, Penny,” he says, freezing but not looking up.
“Are you leaving?” Penny asks.
“Not now!” Cecil shouts, then as Penny steps backwards onto the landing, he adds, more softly, “Sorry. Yes. I have to get the three-thirty train.”
Downstairs, things are no less strange.
The television is playing to an empty room, and Penny finds her mother swigging from the brandy bottle in the kitchen.
“Is that nice?” Penny asks, and her mother lowers the bottle, hides it behind her back and spins to face her youngest, all in a single movement.
“Spying on me now, are you?” she asks, her eyes red, her voice sniffy.
Penny stares at her mother wide-eyed and slowly shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Where’s Ed?”
“I don’t know,” Marge says sharply, “Now, go and play or something, OK?”
Penny stomps her way to the back door, then lets herself out into the garden. “I don’t know what’s wrong with them either,” she tells Lucy.
But the wind out here is bracing and, despite the strip of sunlight, it’s impossible to remain here, so she peers in through the kitchen window and seeing that Marge has vanished, she lets herself back in, creeps past the closed lounge door, and back upstairs to Vicky’s room.
This time Vicky wrenches open the door and pulls her inside before locking it again.
“What’s happened?” Penny asks, her voice wobbling. “Why are you crying? Where’s Ed?”
“It’s nothing,” Vicky says. “It’s grown-up stuff, that’s all.”
Penny huffs. She hates it when Vicky pulls rank on her. She’s only two years older, after all. Well, three years older at this time of year.
“Where’s Ed?” she asks again.
“I don’t know,” Vicky says, blowing her nose on a tatty tissue.
“Why is uncle Cecil leaving?” she asks, and suddenly she has Vicky’s interest.
Vicky brushes her hair from her face and looks up at Penny. “Is he?” she asks. She sounds surprised. She sounds relieved, too.
“On the three-thirty o’clock train,” Penny says. “He’s putting his things in his case.”
“Good,” Vicky says. “I hate him.”
“Why?” Penny asks.
“I… I can’t tell you,” Vicky says.
“Look. If you want to stay, you have to stop asking questions, OK?”
Penny bites her bottom lip and nods. “He won’t take the presents with him, will he?”
“How should I know?” Vicky asks angrily, then, “But no, Sis. I doubt it.”
“Do you think you’ll still get your music player?” Penny asks.
“I had better,” Vicky says, suddenly sounding terribly grown up. “Otherwise…”
“Otherwise what?” Penny asks.
“Nothing,” Vicky says. “Otherwise nothing.”
END OF SAMPLE #1
Let the Light Shine will be published on the 30th September
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