'Eleven Houses': an extract


I had come to live with my great-aunt Zane - everyone else called her Jane, but to me she was Zane - at Eldron when I was two and a half years old. Before that there were only flashes of people and places.

Did I really remember Tompa the butler in Trichinopoly, or was that because he was later described to me? Or was Tompa the name of the butler's monkey, who chased the ducks across the compound, beating their retreating tails with a little stick? And who was the lady with the dark face and shining teeth who looked over the edge of my cot and said I'd soon have a new brother or sister? There were wide sands and warm waves that you could sit in and then the waves were shockingly cold and my grandmother (or someone) said that I had got too used to the beach at Negapatam, and Portstewart would soon harden me up. I didn't think that was a nice thing at all, but my mother said it wouldn't be long before we were all back in India and I'd be able to bathe in the warm sea as often as I wanted, and I'd see Lily Tiger Tail and Esmeralda again.

"Oh, yes," I said - but who were they?

"Our cats, of course! Don't you remember them?" my mother asked. "Lily Tiger Tail had a striped tail and used to sit on the roof of Daddy's car."

But we didn't go back to India to see Lily Tiger Tail and Esmeralda and Daddy. We were in my grandmother's house in Belfast and a man was playing a barrel-organ outside the window and she handed me a penny to give to him, but when she opened the front door I was unable to move, so she went out and gave him the penny herself. Upstairs there was a new baby called Nicholas in a cradle that swung to and fro and had a white canopy over the head end. At night I heard a long, shuddering sort of noise in the wall. My grandmother said it was only Elsie drawing water in the kitchen. Drawing water? Was she scraping her pencil along the wall to make the long noise? Was she drawing houses and people and animals? And did she have coloured pencils like mine? Would I see them in the morning, the whole kitchen wall covered in coloured drawings?

After that there was nothing for a long time, until the Monaghan landscape slowly unfolded. I was at Eldron, and this was Zane, and the other person in the house was Lizzie.Did it not occur to me to enquire, or even to wonder, why I was there? What had been all the talk about going back to India? Why had I been left behind? If anyone had asked me where my mother was I might not have known, but no one did ask.

The earliest sound I heard in the morning was Lizzie brushing out the cinders from the sitting-room grate with the wing of a goose. Except for lacing my shoes I was able to dress myself. Then Lizzie was making toast on a wire fork at the kitchen range, and Zane appeared from the bathroom in a grey belted overcoat that had once belonged to Greatuncle Brereton. She disappeared into our bedroom, appearing once more in a long, coloured dress and smelling of lily-of-the-valley, which she kept in a little green bottle; and then Lizzie set the tea and toast on the table and we heard her going out into the backyard and calling the hens to their breakfast.