A Storm in Warboys
an extract from Weird Sister by Kate Pullinger
The wind that resides in the attic of the house is whipping itself up, whirling up and down the fen and back again, gathering speed and strength. A storm is on the way; the wind makes ready to meet it. Robert is down in London at his annual tourism conference, two days and nights. His colleagues look upon it as a chance to drink and shag and swill about the night-clubs of London, but not Robert. He phones home and Agnes tells him that she and Graeme are nailing shut the doors of the unfinished rooms upstairs in order to keep out the gale. He is alarmed - he thinks of water cascading through the holes in the roof and what further damage that will do - but she calms him. ‘The rain is coming down so heavily we are worried the house will float away. Like the ark,’ she says lightly. ‘Graeme will paddle with his cane.’ Robert laughs and tells her how much he loves her. He puts down the phone and turns on the TV.
In Warboys the citizenry are worried. Lolita Drury runs up and down the stairs of the Black Hat, securing the window locks, pulling the curtains shut, closing the fireplaces. Jim is outside, beneath the cellar doors, taking a late beer delivery. The driver and his helper throw down the kegs and Jim’s arms feel the strain. Jim has felt tired - terribly tired - in the months since the pub got vandalized. Sometimes he finds himself wishing that he was still playing host to Agnes upstairs. He thinks if she was staying with him - if she hadn’t married Robert Throckmorton - everything would be all right.
Marlene Henderson calls Geoff on his mobile. He is in another village showing a client a house; she wants him to come home. When the wind comes off the fen she longs for her parents’ sturdy house in northern Germany, a thick blanket of snow covering everything. Marlene is not an anxious person but at the moment she is changed. She’s a lawyer, a successful, professional, confident, articulate and skilled, but at the moment, she feels superstitious and fearful. She is pregnant - just ten weeks - and she wants Geoff near her, safe.
Karen is frantic, the meal is late as though the weather got in the way, and the little boys are fractious, as if the wind is whipping up them as well. Francis smacks Andrew and Andrew tips his brother’s pudding into his lap. Both boys scream with frustration and glee. Graeme rises up form the table like a monster from the deep. He raises his hand as well as his voice. He has been casting dark glances at Agnes all evening - he went to the cottages before lunch today and she didn’t arrive. He is worried that she is tiring of their meetings. ‘Get down from the table’ he shouts, and the adults wonder if he means them as well as the boys, but it is only Andrew and Francis who slide off their seats. Karen puts her own body between her husband’s and the boys thinking, he would never hit them. He would never hit them, would he?
Jenny sits next to Agnes at supper. She has been avoiding her sister-in-law of late - since discovering Agnes’s stories were fraudulent, the plots of tacky movies - but now that the storm is coming she needs her reassurance, wants to be near her. She is contrite and solicitous toward Agnes, asking if she can get her anything, offering the salt, the pepper, a clean plate. Agnes accepts her overtures graciously and Jenny wonders why she ever doubted her, how she could have been avoiding her, when she is so elegant and serene. So what if the stories weren’t ‘real’ stories, what does ‘real’ mean?
While they are eating, Martin’s wheelchair moves toward the table suddenly, away from the corner where he is sitting. Everyone looks up. Graeme stands, wheels him back toward the fire. A few minutes later the chair rolls forward quickly, as though the wind has given it a heave. Martin’s face is expressionless.
‘Perhaps he’s trying to tell us something,’ says Agnes.
‘Oh yes,’ says Graeme, ‘and what might that be?’ He gets up and pushes his father back to his place, tucks his blanket around his knees.
After dinner, Karen wrestles the boys into the bath. Sometimes their physical strength amazes her; it’s as though their little bodies are made of solid muscle as they flip and twist away from her like freshly netted fish. They fight with her as though there is no love between them and it is all she can do to stop herself from pushing their heads under the water, one at a time. She dries them off and gets them into their pyjamas and they are clean little angels with spiky damp hair. A story, and a cuddle, and a kiss, and they are off to bed.
The kitchen is a mess. No one has bothered to clean up. Jenny has gone to her room. Agnes and Graeme are in the sitting room, drinking whisky. The fire remains unlit, because of the wind. After putting Martin to bed - tonight she devotes more time than usual to him, she keeps thinking of his wheelchair swinging forward - Karen begins to clear the dishes, then looks in on Agnes and Graeme and thinks better of it. She joins them for a glass of wine.
Graeme roams around the room, restless. He taps the floor with his cane as though testing the floorboards. Agnes sits by the window, holding open the curtains. She is watching the trees as they bend and sweep. Karen stares into her drink and shivers with the cold.
‘I should be at this conference as well as Robert.’
Karen looks at her husband. Agnes doesn’t shift.
‘I don’t see how I can be expected to just sit back while Robert continues to fuck things up with the estate. He underestimates me.’ Robert has not told Graeme about the state of their finances; as far as Graeme is concerned the builders walked off in a fit of petulance.
He rants on. ‘We could expand so easily. Tennis courts. Swimming pool. Angling.’
Karen wonders whom Graeme is addressing. Not me, she thinks.
Agnes turns away from the window. ‘A shooting range,’ she says acidly.
Karen is shocked. Graeme laughs. ‘Great idea! A rifle range. We could hire the locals as targets. I could give lessons.’ He laughs again. Neither of the women responds. He continues to pace, keeping his thoughts to himself for the time being.
Karen finishes her wine. The windows rattle in their frames. Suddenly she longs for sleep. ‘Well,’ she says, ‘I can hear my bed calling me.’ She smiles at no one, for no reason.
Agnes turns away from the window again. ‘You work so hard Karen. You take such good care of those boys. You’re a wonderful mother.’
Karen is surprised, and Agnes’s words give her pleasure. She smiles and finds herself moving toward her sister-in-law. She leans down and kisses her soft cheek.
Graeme and Agnes sit in silence for a time, a noisy silence - the storm is well underway. Rain scrapes against the house like paint stripper, coming back up through the ground, streaming down through the fissures, cracks and holes in the roof. Thunder. They look up warily. There is lighting far off, moving closer. Graeme stands and takes a step toward Agnes. The curtains are drawn tight, there is only one lamp burning. The empty wing of the house groans and creaks and drips. Graeme moves forward until he is standing directly in front of Agnes where she sits on the settee. She puts her hand up and unzips his fly. Later, he gets on top of her and the awkward angle of his stiff leg on the settee makes him angry, impatient. He pushes into her without caution.
Jenny has fallen asleep sitting up. Her desk light is burning her hand with its heat and thunder jolts her awake. She pushes the lamp away, alarmed, but her skin is unharmed. The thunder sounds very close. She can hear gabbling voices. She puts her dressing gown on and ventures downstairs to see who else is awake.
In the sitting room Graeme is fucking Agnes. When Jenny walks in they are displayed in front of her like an intricate tableau, an oil painting. The colours are very rich - the yellow walls, the red rug on the floor, the dark green sweater her brother is wearing, lit by warm golden lamp light. They are fully clothed, no flesh exposed except Agnes’s right breast whose nipple Graeme has been sucking.
Graeme is grunting and muttering obscenities and he does not hear his sister enter the room. But Agnes opens her eyes and stares at Jenny, her face expressionless, showing neither pleasure nor dismay. Graeme continues humping. For a long moment Jenny is transfixed. Then she turns and flees.
That night it takes Jenny a long time to fall back asleep. She gets into bed and she can’t help herself - she doesn’t want to do it, she hates doing it, it makes her feel dirty, she can’t stop herself - she masturbates. Her brother’s stiff leg, her sister-in-law’s bare breast. Fucking on the settee. All those stories Agnes told her and none of them were…true? She knew none of them were true - none of them were…none of them belonged to Agnes. Now none of them belonged to Jenny.
She falls into a fitful sleep and is woken by a noise from outside, a loud banging. She goes to the window and opens the curtain a fraction. Outside she can see the wind has bent the curly willow so low it is hitting the wall, over and over again, knocking itself senseless. She watches, half-asleep, mesmerised. She hears something else - footsteps on the gravel. Agnes has walked out of the front door of the house. She is standing in the drive; light from the doorway falls on her. She is looking up at Jenny, stern, her arms crossed. Her face changes, softens, and she smiles and slowly rises off the ground without moving her arms or her feet. Jenny is horrified. Agnes’s skirt flaps gently around her legs and she rises and rises though the air until she is directly outside Jenny’s window. Her face nears the glass. Jenny wants to close the curtain and scream but is unable. Agnes is speaking in a low voice, Jenny can hear her. She says, ‘Don’t you tell anyone, Jenny Throckmorton, don’t you tell anyone what you have seen.’
Novel, Phoenix House/Phoenix, 1999