The voice of Brighton’s grandmother came clattering through the house to Brighton’s bedroom like plumbing. “Doesn’t that bother you?” she was saying. She was talking to Brighton’s mum about Brighton. “Doesn’t that bother you that she’s like that?”
Brighton’s grandmother—Grenalda Camplin—had left her black handbag on the hall chair and was still wearing her coat as she walked through the house. Brighton couldn’t see all this from upstairs, but she knew.
The horse-chestnut tree was shaking under Brighton’s window. For the last week, since it had been summer, the tree was so full that it almost looked uncomfortable, like something pregnant, and if Brighton stepped out, over the window sill, over her row of glass globes, and planted her foot, the tree would support her weight, she thought.
“And she won’t come down?” the voice of Grenalda carried up from the kitchen now. Brighton’s mum’s voice was quiet and Brighton could only tell when she was speaking by a slight bending in the air, like the bending sky over a hot car.
It was only women—and Brighton—in the house now. These were important times, with only women in the house. Brighton was becoming a woman, but it wasn’t going well. She’d started to feel like something alive being kept in a shoebox, everyone peering in, wanting her to move.
Brighton was at work on one of her summer projects. This summer she was fourteen and her project was a series of hotels. Today, she’d dedicated herself to making the main structure of a red-brick town hotel. She’d painted two sheets of cardboard with red paint mixed with brown paint. But when the sheets were dry, Brighton realised that they were too smooth. She should have mixed sand into the paint, or used sandpaper instead of card.
At that point she took her first break, but she didn’t leave the room, even though it was hot outside. She just moved from the floor to her bed, lay back, and looked at the pattern on the ceiling.
Like an off-duty architect, she let herself imagine her own future house. She went back to the shortlist of colours she’d thought about the day before, and tried out the haystack colour in her mind. She thought about it for her future study. Haystack was a study colour. Some people would have it in the kitchen, but Brighton would have it in the study.
When she went back to the floor and looked at the painted cardboard again, it took a moment to remember it. Oh yes. As if she were a business woman coming back from lunch. That’s how she liked it. She would make these hotels—if it took all summer. And one day, people would see everything she made and it would stretch so far that they would think it was another world.
Brighton set about trying to turn the painted cardboard into bricks. Firstly, the surface was too smooth and needed to be roughened. But to get sandpaper, she would have to go downstairs, through the kitchen and into the garage. She would have to explain herself. So she couldn’t do it. She sat for a moment on the floor gazing under her bed, into the shadowy space where she kept boxes full of her documents, her plans and sketches. She had already done so much, she thought. It wasn’t necessary to keep everything—she didn’t need to go back to any particular document—but having it all there helped her to know how much she’d done and how much there still was to do.
She thought she saw a spider moving at the back, between boxes, a slow waking up of legs in the dark, and she leapt up and then was back on the bed again, thinking haystack for the study and a desk with scratches that would bring out the color of the walls. Light streaming in.
“Have you asked her why she won’t come down?” said the voice of Brighton’s grandmother.
Grenalda was called Renny by her friends. For an old woman, she had a lot of friends, and she often wore an expression like she was about to host a party and she didn’t have long to talk to you. She wore it as she walked into the kitchen and looked out of the window at the birds on the feeder. Brighton couldn’t see, but she knew.
Not that Grenalda was rich. She had parties in the cramped living room of her house that spilled out down the hall. She had friends who invited her to London and she’d wear the same red outfit with a piece of old turquoise costume jewellery at her neck.
Brighton could tell that her mother was crying before any sound came out of her. The air felt hot like a storm.
“Now, don’t,” her grandmother said. “Is this about her or about you?”
Brighton stretched her legs out on the bed and watched as the tree outside her window quivered from a bird she couldn’t see. She wanted to say something out loud, but she couldn’t think what. She went into the haystack study. She noticed that it was full of straw. On the scratched surface of the desk, where a pile of neat papers had been, there were spines of straw lying every which way. There was straw underfoot that made her feet itch.
Brighton had been in this situation before. She’d tried several remedies. She could sweep the straw off, try to bundle it up and put it outside the study door. That worked for a moment, but then she found that she had to carry the straw further in order to get rid of it, all the way to a farmyard, where she would have to try and sell it to the farmer. She tried lighting a match and burning it, but she always burned some of the study too—the haystack wallpaper would start to crinkle and brown and come away. What she usually had to do was more like magic. She would picture the study being taken up by a force, and cleansed; the study would silver up into the sky and come back down and settle, and hopefully it would be perfect again.
She tried it. But the study had warped; the shadows in the corner were too solid, and wouldn’t stay still. And the floor had risen and spread like water, so that Brighton couldn’t keep all the objects in place.
Nobody cries for very long. If they do, that’s another thing. That means something’s really wrong. But after ten minutes of quiet, in which even Grenalda Camplin lowered her voice and listened, Brighton knew that one or other of them would come up the stairs.
There’s the beginning of the cry—the awkward, almost deliberate start of it—then there’s the middle, the heart, where it’s free to unroll itself, then there’s the end. The end can be long. It’s quiet, as the person begins to think clearly again.
Brighton wished the boys were in the house. There was still crying when they were here, but the end of it didn’t go on, it didn’t stick in the corners like cobwebs. It was swept up and everybody laid the table for dinner, or it was swept up and everybody watched the football.
Grenalda came up the stairs. She pulled herself up with the bannister, even though she was in near perfect health, and made a stomp on each step. She called out when she was halfway up, just so Brighton knew she wasn’t messing around, and she wouldn’t join in these silent games. “Bee,” she said, almost singing.
Brighton thought about climbing out onto the tree and trampolining out of sight, but instead she hopped down onto the floor and busied herself with fixing the bricks of her latest hotel. Sugar, she thought. That’s what would make the surface rough enough. Brown sugar glued on. Then came a knock on the door. Grenalda’s hostess face appeared. Brighton looked up from her work as if she’d been surprised.
“Hello, Bee,” Grenalda said. Her hair was thin and blue in a pretty way but her face was handsome, with the Camplin nose. “May I come in?”
Brighton cleared her sheets of cardboard into a pile and stocked up her glue, scissors, and paint tubes under the shadow of her bed. “Come in,” she said. It was hard to be serious in front of her grandmother. That stubborn, stuck thing in Brighton’s chest loosened when Grenalda was there; it felt silly to be stuck in front of Grenalda, who had lived so long and dressed like a movie star in Saint-Tropez. Now Grenalda sat on Brighton’s bed, and moved the pink duvet up to meet the pillow so it looked better.
“What are you making?” Grenalda asked.
“Oh, nothing much,” said Brighton. “Just trying something.”
Grenalda looked seriously at the walls of Brighton’s latest hotel and, Brighton thought, something passed over her grandmother’s face momentarily, as if she knew all about what Brighton was doing, about how to apply the brown sugar to the wall, but instead the old woman looked up suddenly from the burgeoning hotel, and studied Brighton’s bedroom. Brighton’s wallpaper was pink, and framed photographs of meadows hung, one on each wall. They’d been there when the room was a guest room, before Nile was born, but now they were Brighton’s, her first inheritance. Brighton’s other possessions crowded for room on her shelves and dresser; glasses and pots, pencils and miniature flags from sea holidays, stacks of notebooks, a pocket dictionary, a carved wooden dog. Among them were a number of gifts from Grenalda. Classy, ladies’ objects—functional—a leather purse, a sewing kit in a mother-of-pearl box. Now Brighton tried to go into her study, but all she could see was her own room, her own feet crossed on the carpet, the floorboards underneath, and her mother below, exerting an invisible force, like when you put your hand in a stream and feel the current pulling.
Grenalda busied herself tying a knot in a pulled thread on her jacket cuff. Her hands were tough and knuckly. It was as if when Brighton’s granddad died, he’d given something of his own hands to Grenalda. She wasn’t going to be scared off by Brighton. She’d seen it all before. She had moods that were eighty years old; had turned them into children and grandchildren, gardens in three different counties, traditions—traditions as light as air that buoyed them all through life.
Brighton watched her grandmother’s lipstick as she waited for her to talk again. It was the colour she always wore, an orange-red, but as her lips had grown thinner, the lipstick had grown darker. The lipstick was just as much a part of Grenalda as the Camplin nose, or her grey eyes, and yet she’d chosen it, once upon a time, had chosen it and put it on in front of a mirror, moving her lips, filling in all the dull, bare pink with this precious paint.
“What’s your lipstick called, Granny?” Brighton said.
Grenalda jumped a little, then put her finger to her lips. “The colour?” she said. “It’s in my bag, if you’re curious.”
“You don’t remember it by heart?”
“You’ll have to go down and take a rummage in my bag,” said Grenalda.
She knows what the colour’s called, Brighton thought.
Grenalda looked down at Brighton as if she could read her mind. She looked at Brighton’s limbs, and chest, as if to check that she was growing properly.
“It all passes,” Grenalda said and swallowed.
Brighton felt the stuck thing turn and toughen in her chest. She looked down at her cardboard and regretted it all. What did Grenalda know about things passing? What could Brighton possibly say? She thought she was safe talking about a lipstick, but now even that had joined the battle. Everything in her life seemed to be separate and hanging loose—the horse-chestnut tree, her hotels, her mother, the kitchen—everything was upstairs or downstairs.
Grenalda and Brighton sat on the bed and on the floor respectively, in their own minds. Perhaps Grenalda had huge secrets, too, Brighton considered. Perhaps her whole life was a sort of secret, just as Brighton’s was. Grenalda’s top lip pressed the bottom one and the lipstick intensified again, and Brighton found herself wandering into her haystack study and taking a seat at the desk chair.
Over the deep, sawdust crack in the desktop the afternoon sun shone, coming in from a garden Brighton couldn’t see. The light reached just as far as the corner of the room beside the desk, where the haystack was dull and greyed by old soft cobwebs. An elegant mirror was hanging high above the desk and Brighton could only see in it the reflection of the ceiling. Something was playing in her peripheral vision, a shadow, rainbow-edged, which suggested the presence of someone else in the room, but Brighton didn’t confront it.
There was a stack of fresh, yellow pages on the desk; hard work was always pretty in the haystack study. Never had her vision been so clear, her room so stable that she could move around it, noticing the surface of the wallpaper and the way the air moved. She hardly realised that Grenalda had heaved herself up from the bed, had pulled the door gently to, and was on her way back downstairs.
For a moment, the scent of pollen from the fat horse-chestnut tree threatened to make Brighton cry. The air was heavy as vase water.
As Grenalda reached the bottom of the staircase, Brighton’s mother spoke and the air thickened again—mud disturbed in a pond—but this time Grenalda made no reply. The boys would be back soon, wanting dinner, filling the place with their stories. Brighton checked her pile of materials and straightened it up under the shadow of her bed. “Clocking off,” she said, just to mark the time. Then, she stood in the room for a moment, still half in the haystack study, her mind throbbing slightly, as if she’d been spinning around on the spot. Her feet tingled gently with pins and needles, as she made her way out of the room, pulling the door to, and down the staircase, past the trunk of the horse-chestnut in the staircase window, where ants were crawling, forming a film over the bark, making something she didn’t understand.
Georgina Parfitt was born and raised in Norfolk, England. She moved to the US in 2009. Since then she has been peering at both places with love and fascination. She’s currently in Boston, teaching, writing, and plotting a piece of theatre. You can find more of her work at www.georginaparfitt.com.