RURAL England, a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, a summer’s day at the start of the 1960s. The house is unassuming: half-timbered, with white paint peeling gently on the western side and clematis scrambling up the plaster. The chimney pots are steaming, and you know, just by looking, that there’s something tasty simmering on the stove top beneath. It’s something in the way the vegetable patch has been laid out, just so, at the back of the house, the proud gleam of the leadlight windows, the careful patching of the roofing tiles.
A rustic fence hems the house, and a wooden gate separates the tame garden from the meadows on either side, the copse beyond. Through the knotted trees a stream trickles lightly over stones, flitting between sunlight and shadow as it has done for centuries, but it can’t be heard from here. It’s too far away. The house is quite alone, sitting at the end of a long, dusty driveway, invisible from the country lane whose name it shares.
Apart from an occasional breeze, all is still, all is quiet. A pair of white hula hoops, last year’s craze, stand propped against the wisteria arch. A teddy bear with an eye patch and a look of dignified tolerance keeps watch from his vantage point in the peg basket of a green laundry trolley. A wheelbarrow loaded with pots waits patiently by the shed.
Despite its stillness, perhaps because of it, the whole scene has an expectant, charged feeling, like a theater stage in the moments before the actors walk out from the wings. When every possibility stretches ahead and fate has not yet been sealed by circumstance, and then—
“Laurel!” A child’s impatient voice, some distance off. “Laurel, where are you?”
And it’s as if a spell has been broken. The house lights dim; the curtain lifts.
A clutch of hens appears from nowhere to peck between the bricks of the garden path, a jay drags his shadow across the garden, a tractor in the nearby meadow putters to life. And high above it all, lying on her back on the floor of a wooden tree house, a girl of sixteen pushes the lemon Spangle she’s been sucking hard against the roof of her mouth and sighs.
It was cruel, she supposed, just to let them keep hunting for her, but with the heat wave and the secret she was nursing, the effort of games—childish games at that—was just too much to muster. Besides, it was all part of the challenge, and as Daddy was always saying, fair was fair and they’d never learn if they didn’t try. It wasn’t Laurel’s fault she was better at finding hiding places. They were younger than her, it was true, but it wasn’t as if they were babies.
And anyway, she didn’t particularly want to be found. Not today. Not now. All she wanted to do was lie here and let the thin cotton of her dress flutter against her bare legs, while thoughts of him filled her mind.
She closed her eyes, and his name sketched itself with cursive flair across the blackened lids. Neon, hot-pink neon. Her skin prickled, and she flipped the Spangle so its hollow center balanced on the tip of her tongue.
The way he stared at her over the top of his black sunglasses, the jagged lopsided smile, his dark teddy-boy hair . . .
It had been instant, just as she’d known real love would be. She and Shirley had stepped off the bus five Saturdays ago to find Billy and his friends smoking cigarettes on the dance-hall steps. Their eyes had met, and Laurel had thanked God she’d decided a weekend’s pay was fair exchange for a new pair of nylons.
“Come on, Laurel.” This was Iris, voice sagging with the day’s heat. “Play fair, why don’t you?”
Laurel closed her eyes tighter.
They’d danced each dance together. The band had skiffled faster, her hair had loosened from the French roll she’d copied carefully from the cover of Bunty, her feet had ached, but still she’d kept on dancing. Not until Shirley, miffed at having been ignored, arrived aunt-like by her side and said the last bus home was leaving if Laurel cared to make her curfew (she, Shirley, was sure she didn’t mind either way) had she finally stopped. And then, as Shirley tapped her foot and Laurel said a flushed good-bye, Billy had grabbed her hand and pulled her towards him, and something deep inside of Laurel had known with blinding clarity that this moment, this beautiful, starry moment, had been waiting for her all her life—
“Oh, suit yourself.” Iris’s tone was clipped now, cross. “But don’t blame me when there’s no birthday cake left.”
The sun had slipped past noon, and a slice of heat fell through the tree-house window, firing Laurel’s inner eyelids cherry cola. She sat up but made no further move to leave her hiding spot. It was a decent threat—Laurel’s weakness for her mother’s Victoria sponge was legendary—but an idle one. Laurel knew very well that the cake knife lay forgotten on the kitchen table, missed amid the earlier chaos as the family gathered picnic baskets, rugs, fizzy lemonade, swimming towels, and the new transistor, and burst, stream-bound, from the house. She knew because when she’d doubled back under the guise of hide-and-seek and sneaked inside the cool, dim house to fetch the package, she’d seen the knife sitting by the fruit bowl, red bow tied around its handle.
The knife was a tradition—it had cut every birthday cake, every Christmas cake, every Somebody-Needs-Cheering-Up cake in the Nicolson family’s history—and their mother was a stickler for tradition. Ergo, until someone was dispatched to retrieve the knife, Laurel knew she was free. And why not? In a household like theirs, where quiet minutes were rarer than hen’s teeth, where someone was always coming through one door or slamming another, to squander privacy was akin to sacrilege.
Today, especially, she needed time to herself.
The package had arrived for Laurel with last Thursday’s post, and in a stroke of good fortune Rose had been the one to meet the postman, not Iris or Daphne or—God help her—Ma. Laurel had known immediately who it was from. Her cheeks had burned crimson, but she’d managed somehow to stutter words about Shirley and a band and an EP she was borrowing. The effort of obfuscation was lost on Rose, whose attention, unreliable at best, had already shifted to a butterfly resting on the fence post.
Later that evening, when they were piled in front of the television watching Juke Box Jury, and Iris and Daphne were debating the comparative merits of Cliff Richard and Adam Faith, and their father was bemoaning the latter’s false American accent and the broader wastage of the entire British Empire, Laurel had slipped away. She’d fastened the bathroom lock and slid to the floor, back pressed firm against the door.
Fingers trembling, she’d torn the end of the package.
A small book wrapped in tissue had dropped into her lap. She’d read its title through the paper—The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter—and a thrill had shot along her spine. Laurel had been unable to keep from squealing.
She’d been sleeping with it inside her pillowcase ever since. Not the most comfortable arrangement, but she liked to keep it close. She needed to keep it close. It was important.
There were moments, Laurel solemnly believed, in which a person reached a crossroads, when something happened, out of the blue, to change the course of life’s events. The premiere of Pinter’s play had been just such a moment. She’d read...
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