We arrived mid-morning, turning off the single-track road onto a driveway that belonged to cattle and pigs and hard work before my parents arrived in the '70s—before capital and new ideas transformed Avon Farm into Seacliffe.
The boys ran straight past the small red brick house and made a beeline for the lake, a consommé of still glass seemingly purged of the effluent that assaulted me as a youth. Henry was eight, only three years older than Joseph, but a lifetime as far as he was concerned. They ran for their lives as sunlight bled through tall trees, shards of energy lighting up grey squirrels flying through the branches, ever-buoyant after their war of dominion with the reds.
"How much do you think we'll get for it?" I said, sticking the key in the front door, a twinkle in my eye as I looked back at Gwen.
"David," she shot back instantly. "It's been a week."
I shrugged. "Come on. It's just a money pit. Hopefully the good kind."
In the kitchen I put the kettle on. It would be charming if your eyes were new to it, all Bakelite utensils and brown linoleum floors. When I was a kid people called me posh for having a holiday house. I always thought it would have played well at Eton or Harrow or Westminster School for Boys, but at a comprehensive in South London, it didn't. In the middle of the room sat a large wooden breakfast table, the one original thing they'd kept, my name carved on the underside where I thought it wouldn't be seen. I was wrong about that.
I looked out of the small sash window as the kettle boiled, my hands clinging to the sides of the belfast sink as I watched the boys running by the lakeside in a blur of dark hair and awkward limbs. I could sense her watching me, as I watched them.
"Try to remember David. This is a good place for them. They have happy memories here."
"What memories? I haven't brought them since dad died, that's nearly five years ago."
"I just want us to think about it," she said, masking her anxiety by pulling her long brown hair into a courtroom ponytail.
"Gwendoline," I said, hoping for a rise, "I'm forty-two this year. You're nearly fifty. It's time we moved on don't you think?"
She gave me her best withering look. "Yes, you're middle-aged just like me. And by the way, you look bloody ridiculous."
"Me?" I said, looking around the room to see who she could be talking about.
"Barbour jacket. Flat cap. Hunter wellies. Are you playing farmer today?"
I laughed. "The beauty of having kids is that they think you're a superhero no matter how fucked up you are. So today Gwen, I'm playing the dashing countryman. We'll take the boat out, and fish, and I'll say stuff that sounds clever, and they'll believe me."
She stood with me by the window, poking me in the ribs, not entirely playfully. "Enjoy it while it lasts."
I looked down the expanse of lawn that stretched to the lake, reclaimed to the point you could barely see the borders of mum's flower beds.
"When I first brought Rose here, before the kids came along, we used to fuck in that long grass where the garden meets the trees."
She pretended to choke on her tea. "Jesus, David. I do not need to know about my little brother's sex life."
"Mum never liked her," I said. "It's no wonder it all went pear-shaped."
"Yes, nothing to do with you shagging around."
"I thought we weren't talking about my sex life?" I said, pushing the stiff window up. "Henry! Stay where I can see you."
"Right, we might as well make a start," she said, opening the big draw by the sink where they kept the bills and paperwork. And family photos. That always struck me as fitting. Shoved in with the dry mechanics of a life. I reached over her and grabbed an album, pulling out a picture of a boy and a girl on a donkey on Woolacombe beach. "Here. Hold it and close your eyes," I said to Gwen. "This is the sort of shit my therapist gets me to do."
"I refuse to be psycho-analysed by my own brother. At least not before I've had a glass of wine."
"The indomitable Gwendoline, scared of a little self-reflection?"
She rolled her eyes. "Quickly," she said, her foot tapping impatiently on the floor.
"OK, you have to do it properly. Just think of the picture and tell me what you see."
"We're on the beach. I don't want to get on the donkey, but they're cajoling me—and you are, you're bloody pushing too. I'm scared. You're holding my legs against it, even though I should be holding onto you. Dad's arguing with the guy as we come back. Saying we've only had seven minutes, but he's paid for ten. He keeps pointing at that old Casio watch like it's admissible evidence."
She opened her eyes.
"See?" I said.
Gwen grabbed for the photos. "OK, your turn you smug bastard."
I took the picture she was waving at me. "We're on the lake. Out. Right in the middle. I'm thirteen or fourteen. The wall of fir trees is stretching up the side of the hill. Feels threatening like it always did. Mum's there. It's the first time in ages she's come on the boat. She's tight lipped but happy. Anne ... what was her name ... Henderson. Anne Henderson had come for coffee and complimented her on some bullshit or other. Two guys on a speedboat come too close. Dad shouts 'wankers' at them. He never swore. That old boat is nearly tipping over in the wake. I'm enjoying it. I'm enjoying the look of horror on her face. I think I want us all to be thrown in."
I opened my eyes to find Gwen, inscrutable.
"I should have been there," she said.
We both looked towards the kitchen door as Henry burst in to break the silence I was impulsively about to fill. His cheeks were flushed and he was breathing like a racehorse.
"Joseph fell over, there's mud on his knees," he said. All the words rolling into one.
"Can you deal with it mate?"
"He needs you."