In the winter of 1952 Cressida Wiseman, aged 16, decides to leave home and return to the place where she’d spent five happy years as an evacuee during World War 2. There is a community there, run by three sisters, each with her own private past. Despite the joyous and uninhibited atmosphere, there are secrets everywhere. Cressida has brought one with her, a danger which she is unaware of, and which threatens to engulf them all. This is the story of four people, a girl, and three mature women. There is also a fifth, but perhaps the less said about her the better.
The meadow, the huddled farm buildings, and the hedgerows lining the lane are enveloped in the grey stillness of dawn. Small sprays of dew are scattered from Cressida’s footsteps, like ice-powder from the blades of a skater.
There’s no one about. They’re all still in bed.
She hears a small sound in the silence, and recognises it as the click of Peter the Postman’s back gate. It leads from his vegetable garden directly into the meadow. Someone is heading unhurriedly across the grass, up towards the farm.
It’s Olivia, wearing a dressing-gown, walking sleepily up to the house through the cold dawn air. Her bare feet are wet. She is looking down at them as she walks.
Then she looks up and sees Cressida. She changes direction a little, and they approach each other.
She’s like a woman in mythology. Lovely and full and tall, with her dark hair loosely tied up in a magnificent coil, and those wide grave eyes identical to Rebecca’s. But it’s not her loveliness that Cressida envies; it’s her composure, her air of containment. She’s always quiet, always calm, like a deep lake. She’s a woman who might have taken gods into her bed.
Olivia’s face is sleepy and unconcerned. Her dressing-gown is open and she’s wearing nothing underneath.
‘Hello! What are you doing out so early?’ There’s no furtiveness, no unease.
‘I wanted to watch the sun rise,’ Cressida says. How young and silly that sounds!
Olivia smiles. A small ironical smile. She wraps her dressing-gown over the front of her body. ‘There’s no need to be embarrassed,’ she says. ‘Everyone knows.’
But Cressida isn’t embarrassed. Just curious. ‘Do you go every night?’ She is surprised at herself, for speaking so bluntly. So knowingly.
‘Well, I’m less keen in the winter,’ Olivia says. ‘But please don’t say anything to the children. They don’t know. And they wouldn’t understand.’
But she expects me to understand, Cressida thinks. Just because I’m sixteen.
‘Besides,’ Olivia went on, ‘Peter thinks it’s a secret. He’d be mortified if he found out that everyone knows.’
That’s probably true, Cressida realises, for whenever Olivia and Peter are with the others they never show any sign that they’re lovers.
‘Well!’ Olivia says, ‘now I’m going to have a couple of hours in my own bed.’ And she calls back over her shoulder: ‘And that’s quite nice too!’
But as one of them walks up to the farm and the other down towards the river, Cressida is thinking to herself that Olivia has underestimated the children.
She’d once asked them how long they’d been friends. They were inseparable, and she was curious about that. A little envious, in fact. She’d never had a friend like that.
‘We’re not friends,’ Patrick said. He was emphatic. Almost indignant.
‘And we’re not cousins either,’ Rebecca said.
Cressida was mystified. Of course they weren’t cousins.
‘We ought to be brother and sister,’ Rebecca said.
‘We’re not related at all,’ Patrick added. ‘And we should be!’
Why, she’d wondered, did they believe they should be brother and sister?
‘Mummy goes to Peter’s house nearly every night.’
Rebecca must have thought Cressida didn’t appreciate the importance of this, for she added: ‘She gets into bed with him.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘We followed her one night.’
‘You followed her into the house?’ These children were without shame.
‘No, only into the garden.’ Rebecca was whispering, as if this adventure was still happening. ‘The bedroom window was open – and we stood there and listened.’
‘We heard them talking,’ Patrick said. ‘And we heard the bed creak when she got in.’
‘Then we went back to bed,’ Rebecca said. ‘Together.’ She is coolly challenging Cressida to be shocked by this wickedness.
‘So you see – we are related to each other,’ Patrick said. ‘But there’s no word for it in the English language.’
They both stared at Cressida, slightly outraged. Then Rebecca went on. ‘And calling us best friends won’t do – because Patrick’s best friend is Toby Johnson at school. They both help in the school library.’
And – because she didn’t want him to think she was accusing him of disloyalty – Rebecca added: ‘I’m just the same. My best friends are at school too.’
‘There should be a word for us,’ Patrick insisted.
They’d left Cressida full of thoughts. They were not shocked that Rebecca’s mother and Patrick’s father spent their nights together in bed – but they were baffled and outraged because there was a relationship that couldn’t be named.
It was a mistake in the way the world was set up.
Something else puzzles her. Patrick is twelve, Cressida thinks. I’m sixteen. At what point, she wonders, does their kind of understanding about lovers change into my kind? And is there a word for that change?
Somewhere nearby, a thrush – a solitary bird – sets the dawn chorus going with its uninhibited melody of promise.