Part One: Two Sisters.
Penny glances at her buzzing mobile then, continuing to stir the soup, she leans over to study the screen on which a single word is flashing: Vicky.
She sighs. She probably has about eight buzzes left before she has to decide what to do. She loves her sister – forty-five years of shared history makes that a given. But it doesn’t mean that Victoria is an easy person to love, and it doesn’t make their relationship an effortless one, either. So Penny generally attempts, at least, to choose the most fortuitous moment in which to speak to her sister. She tries to wait until a positive outcome seems feasible.
She gives the soup another stir as she glances back at her husband, Sander, seated behind her. He raises one eyebrow. She returns her gaze to the phone, now vibrating gently across the worktop, slowly making its way towards the abyss.
On the for side of the equation it is a beautiful October day. The sun is shining, the gulls are squawking and Penny is feeling relatively optimistic – energised, even.
On the against side, she needs to leave in – she glances at the kitchen clock – forty minutes, and she’s just about to have lunch with her husband, a fairly rare occurrence these days. Plus she has already spoken to her mother this morning, which in some way makes her feel that her family obligations have perhaps already been fulfilled, at least for the current twenty-four hour period.
The phone is still buzzing like a wasp in a box, and it has almost reached the edge of the countertop now, so it’s decision time and, realising that if she doesn’t pick up it will be the third time in a row that she has failed to do so, she reaches out and snatches it.
“Hello you,” she says in her best chipper voice, simultaneously turning off the gas. The soup, and lunch, will have to wait.
She walks past Sander – he rolls his eyes in commentary – then opens the back door and steps out into the garden. A robin is tweeting from a branch on the apple tree.
“Finally,” Victoria says on the other end of the line. “I was beginning to think I’d been banished or something.”
“It’s a gorgeous day here,” Penny says, powering through the negativity. “It’s like summer almost. What’s it like up in London?”
“It’s sunny here, too,” Victoria says. “Though less pretty than Whitstable, I expect.”
“I can’t talk for long I’m afraid,” Penny warns. “I have to be in Ashford by three. We’ve got two unaccompanied juveniles arriving.”
“Right,” Victoria says. “It’s just that I had Mum on the phone.”
“She phoned me too,” Penny says, pulling a weed from the base of the wall and unthinkingly chucking it into the garden of the uninhabited neighbouring house then feeling a little guilty about it. “Was it about Christmas?”
“Exactly,” Victoria says.
“I told her we hadn’t thought about it yet. Which is the truth, actually. We haven’t.”
“I know that. But we’re going to have to think about it at some point. What do you think?”
“I think it’s October,” Penny says.
“I know it’s October.”
Penny grimaces. Irony is so often wasted on Victoria. “So I think that there’s no hurry,” she expounds. “I think we have plenty of time to think about Christmas.”
“I know but–”
“Look, I’ll chat to Sander,” Penny interrupts, deciding that answering was a bad idea after all. The conversation is spoiling her relatively Zen start to the week and it’s still a beautiful day. She wants to continue to enjoy it. “And I’ll call you back at the weekend, OK? But I really do have to go. I’m sorry.”
“Only we won’t be here at the weekend. We’re off to Venice,” Victoria says, showing no signs of hanging up.
“Yeah, you know. In Italy. The one with all the canals.”
Penny pulls her phone from her ear and frowns at it briefly before continuing. “Yes, I do know where Venice is, dear.”
“Oh, have you been there?” Victoria asks.
“Have I been to Venice? Hum. Let me see.”
“There’s no need to be like that,” Victoria says. “Anyway… it’s just a mini break. Just two nights, actually. It’s a perk, from Bower and Watson, that’s all. Bertie’s staying at Aaron’s place for the weekend.”
“Right,” Penny says. “Great. Well, you know, have a nice time and we can talk about it next week, OK?”
“Talk about Venice?”
“Oh, OK,” Victoria says. “Are you all right? You sound funny.”
“Yeah… I’m just… I don’t know. I’m tired, I guess,” Penny says. “I’m suddenly very tired.”
When she steps back into the kitchen, Sander is pouring the soup. “Posh, I take it?” he asks. Sander has nicknamed Victoria, “Posh” and her husband Martin, “Becks.” The kids have even started calling their cousin Bertie “Brooklyn” behind his back.
Penny pulls a face and nods. “Just popping off to Venice for the weekend, darling,” she says in a mocking, pompous voice.
Penny nods. “Yep. It’s a perk from his job, apparently.”
“The hard lives people live, huh?”
“She wanted to talk about Christmas.”
“She just wants to decide where it’s going to be, I think. You know how stressed she gets about Christmas.”
“I know how stressed she gets about everything,” Sander says under his breath.
“Is something up, love?” Sander asks, softening his tone. He has noticed an infinitesimal and unusual droop to his wife’s shoulders.
Penny shakes her head gently and shrugs. “She just… you know what she’s like. She said we should get away more. She said it would do us good.”
“Right,” Sander says. “Cheers, Vicky. Thanks for that.”
“When was it, anyway?” Penny asks. “I was trying to remember.”
“That’s what I thought. Twenty-twelve. It’s been over two years, Sander. We haven’t been anywhere for over two years. Not even a mini-break. Can you believe that?”
“Bournemouth was enough to put me off mini-breaks for life,” Sander laughs. He pushes a bowl of soup across the table towards his wife. “Here,” he says.
Penny sits down and raises a spoonful to her mouth. It’s not really as hot as she would like it to be, but she won’t say anything. She’s trying to encourage Sander to help more around the house, and has decided that criticising what little he does do probably isn’t the best way to achieve that end. Husbands, she has decided, need to be managed more like children. Reinforce the good behaviour, dissuade the bad.
As she tastes the soup – tomato, Heinz, lukewarm – she thinks back to that weekend in Bournemouth. It had been a raffle prize – a weekend in a hotel. It had been the first prize, supposedly.
Even now, she struggles to understand why they had gone. Something to do with not “wasting” the prize, no doubt. That and some misplaced idea that it would be, could be, “fun”.
The hotel had been horrible, “shit brown” walls, as Sander always describes them, and questionable levels of cleanliness, too. It had rained all weekend (they’d gone out and got soaked only once) and their room – which looked out not at the sea as advertised but onto a graffitied red-brick wall – had been depressing and, when contrasted with the sea-views of their own draughty windows back home, slightly worse than disappointing.
The meals – not included – had been poor and overpriced, and to top it all, Sander had picked up a stomach bug and had spent the entire drive home asking her to pull into service stations so that he could throw up. Seeing as they had eaten the same meals, they had never been able to blame that one squarely on the hotel’s restaurant, but they had their suspicions all the same.
Her sister’s weekend in Venice will be nothing like that, of course. Penny imagines them now, in evening dress in a candle-lit restaurant eating lobster. She grimaces. No, it won’t be like Bournemouth at all.
“So, Christmas,” Sander is saying between sips of tinned soup. “I thought you just alternated, in which case it’s their turn, isn’t it? What’s to think about?”
“Max says it’s boring at their place,” Penny says. “He wants us to do it here.”
Sander sighs. “He’s not wrong,” he says. “But you know how much it cost last year. We were paying for it till March.”
“I know,” Penny agrees. “But last year was silly. If we do it here again, we’ll just have to ask them to chip in or something. We can do that, can’t we?”
“Hum,” Sander says, remembering the pre-arrival cleaning regime and the post departure economy drive of the previous year.
“I was just thinking,” Sander says. “I mean, seeing as you always argue anyway, you could perhaps – shock – horror – even consider Christmas apart for once?”
“Yeah. What do you think?”
Penny smiles sadly at her husband. “You know that’s not an option,” she says.
Sander shrugs. “Just, you know, throwing it out there for discussion.”
“You know how difficult Christmas is for us, Sander. For both of us. And for Mum.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard if you weren’t together,” Sander offers doubtfully. “Maybe you’d think about it less if you weren’t there to remind each other–”
“Sander,” Penny pleads.
“This was, what, thirty years ago?”
“Forty,” Penny says, “Your point being?”
“You’re a shrink. Isn’t your speciality helping people get over shit like that?”
Penny looks at him disdainfully, then bows her head and studies her soup, driving the spoon through the thick redness of it. “I’m a psychologist, Sander, not a shrink,” she says, quietly. “And to my knowledge nobody ever gets over…” She clears her throat. She swallows. She’s suddenly angry. It’s bubbling up in her like a rush of boiling water from a geyser. She raises two fingers to form the quotes around the final three words. “Nobody ever gets over ‘shit like that’,” she says.
END OF SAMPLE #2
Let the Light Shine will be published on the 30th September
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