At our house, everything was stone. Not the dismal stuff of castles – walls scarred by wind and rain – no, we were altogether more refined. Our worktops were granite, the floors marble, everything meant to catch the eye and shine. Even our chessmen did battle clad in jet and alabaster.
We hadn’t always lived there. Our past played out in a dilapidated semi; one with cracked windows, and carpets that never came clean. I was the eldest, making me de facto leader when our parents were at work. I was cook, and confidante. Homework-helper, spider-catcher, and general dispenser of all worldly knowledge.
That is, until Madeline outgrew me. She was the middle child, and favoured for it; the fresh air through the fug of takeaways and ash. Even then, you could tell she’d be in sales. She had that knack for throwing her gaze, of pulling someone from a crowd and making them feel special. Every playground spat was brought to her, solved with a smile and a toss of her hair. Hair I brushed every morning, just to bask in its glow.
I lost that monopoly when Julia grew up. Now there were two of us to ply the brush, and walk behind her into school. Two of us to watch as Madeline’s reports were pinned over ours on the fridge. We should have fought, but we didn’t. Fighting meant Madeline would have to choose a side, and what if she didn’t choose us?
I never went to uni, but she sailed through her degree. I was answering phones and making coffee when she started her business. The day I got promoted, she made her first million. She bought Stoneygates soon after – this huge house, far from anywhere – and next thing I knew she’d asked me to move in.
“Julia’s already said yes,” she told me, over a brunch that cost more than my clothes, “and I’d like it to be the three of us again. The house is far too big just for me, and God knows I’m not going to get married.” She drummed the table, waiting for her omelette. Her nails flashed bronze. “Wouldn’t you rather work for me than some boring old company that doesn’t know a thing about you? I’ll pay you more than they would, too. How does Head of Domestic Operations sound? Oh, don’t worry, it’s not that grand. All you have to do is keep things neat and tidy, just like you did when we were small. What do you think?”
It didn’t matter what I thought. She was smiling, and that was enough. There was always a bite behind it, something that froze you in place until you said yes.
So, I packed up my desk, my little flat, and moved. Stoneygates awed me at first, with its colonnades and golden taps. Then I realised how much there was to clean. Madeline stocked up a cupboard just for me, full of cloths and sprays and polish.
It had to look perfect, she said, and she meant it too. Setting the table took half an hour at least, each knife and fork and glass matched in regimental lines. Madeline measured them with a butler-stick, and screamed if they weren’t straight. When she had guests to stay, it was worse. There were sheets to wash, beds to make, and if the covers weren’t folded at 90 degrees there’d be trouble. For hours I dusted and buffed, and spent my nights polishing shoes. Head of Domestic Operations – ha!
Julia was no help. She’d always been the nervous sort, and now everything seemed too much for her. She crept through the house like a ghost, eating in silence and burying herself in books. I wondered why Madeline had even asked her here, since her sole contribution was crocheting toys to sell on Etsy. At the mere whisper of the word party she fled to her room.
I was so busy that I hardly missed my friends. My laptop had been lost in the move, so I saved for another, only to find the WiFi code had been rubbed off the router. Madeline kept promising to find it, but she was always so busy with parties and clients that I gave up asking. I used my phone instead, ringing from the garden where I wouldn’t be in the way.
Still, it wasn’t all bad. As Madeline’s empire boomed – stretching from haircare to cosmetics, then on into clothes – she got no end of presents. She’d let them pile up, then open them with us as a treat, passing round perfume and jewellery for us to hold.
One client sent her a dress so beautiful that none of us could speak. It was green silk, dark as poison, with seed-pearls on the skirt. I’d never wanted anything more, and tried it on when I went to hang it up. Madeline laughed when she caught me.
“Oh, Steffy! You? Really? What were you thinking? You know it was made for me.”
And she made me take it off in front of her.
I didn’t touch it after that, except to slide it over her curves and watch her shimmer downstairs. The few who could fight her smile were powerless before that dress. Those nights she signed deal after deal, and I slid contracts into files already bursting. She was unstoppable. Unassailable. She was—
I never knew what caused the crash. Not the financial kind – she was too clever for that – but the kind with glass, and blood, and sirens called too late. There were pictures, but I didn’t look at them. I just sat, and stared, while people milled around me.
It was lucky her friends took care of everything, because Julia and I couldn’t move. They arranged the cremation, picked out an urn, and set up a fund in her memory. Dropped round every hour of the day with casseroles their wives had made. It was good of them, really, since they were grieving too.
Then, of course, there was her will. I couldn’t believe she’d made one, that she’d actually accepted she could die. The company came first – divided among her closest friends – but then it was our turn. There was a lot of legal-speak we didn’t understand, but the gist of it was we’d have an annuity from her as long as we stayed at Stoneygates. The papers were all over it, shouting her kindness to the skies. They missed the part where it said we had to live alone.
Even in death she was our lodestar, the axis we turned on. We set her urn on the mantle, and polished it in turn, the way we’d once brushed her hair. One by one we arranged things recovered from the crash. Her handbag sat on the hall table, her boots in their place by the door. Her keys we left by the urn, so she knew we hadn’t used them.
Days dragged into weeks, and I felt myself going numb. There was nothing beyond eating and sleeping, and the chair I sat on. Madeline would have killed me if she saw the state of the house, but I didn’t have strength to care.
It was Julia who saved me. Not by anything she did, for she was lost and lonely as I was, but by holding a mirror to my life. I saw her hunched in her chair, waiting for a saviour who wasn’t going to come, and realised I was the same. All at once, I saw our future: the moment strangers broke down our door and found the two of us had calcified. Curled in on ourselves, like ammonites on the beach.
Something in me leapt up.
“She wasn’t very nice to us.”
My throat closed as I said it. I stared at the urn, waiting for Madeline to leap out and hit me. Julia barely turned.
“Madeline. I don’t think she loved us very much.”
“What are you talking about? Of course she—”
“She ducked you in the bath, just for beating her at snap. Don’t you remember? You almost drowned.”
Julia sank back.
“It wasn’t as bad as that. Anyway, I shouldn’t have been boasting.”
“You were five! Why shouldn’t you have been happy you won? You did nothing wrong.”
I was angry now, my fear burning away.
“We did nothing wrong,” I insisted, “and I won’t sit here anymore as if we did. As if we owe her something for being alive when she isn’t. I’m leaving.”
“Yes I can. I can, I can, I can. I’ll get a job somewhere, find myself a flat. Once it’s done up nicely, you can move in with me. Keep making quilts, or rabbits, or whatever it is you knit now. I’ll sell them on Etsy for you, just like she did.”
“I don’t want to move.” She sounded more certain than she’d ever been in her life. “I want to stay here. Whatever you do, it won’t be right. You’re not as good as her.”
So, that was that. I tried talking her round, but I hadn’t Madeline’s gift for getting my own way. Once again, I packed up my life. Found a flat, a job, made new friends to replace the ones I’d lost. They weren’t what Madeline would call ‘our sort of people’, but they were kind to me, and shook me from my stupor.
Awareness came in the little things. The day I didn’t fold my duvet back. The day I didn’t plait my hair. The day I spent an hour buying my first perfume. Madeline was still there, hissing in my ear, but as my life filled up it drowned her out. I couldn’t ask her opinion forever, not when there was music and laughter and light.
I’d forgotten what friends were, and how much I’d missed them. For my birthday, they took me to a woodcarving class, and found the one thing I was actually good at. I started with spoons, then bookends, until finally I managed figurines. Next thing I knew, they’d signed me up for a contest, with the challenge to rework a legend.
“But I don’t know any myths,” I protested, staring at the flyer. “Madeline did, but I’m not clever like her.”
“Rubbish!” they said. “Myths are just stories, anyone can read them. Here, we got this from the library.”
The book in itself was nothing much – a child’s guide to Greek mythology – but it opened the world to me. That night, I read my way through a cast of heroes and monsters that felt more alive than anything in the real world. Then I got to Medusa, who could turn you to stone with a glance. Sounds like someone I know, I thought.
She even had sisters, Euryale and Stheno. I found myself thinking about them, days afterward. What did they do when Medusa was killed? Did they stay on that barren rock, screeching their pain at the sky? Did they even like their sister? Perhaps she’d only ever held them back. Perhaps, when she died, they made something of themselves. Pinned back their snakes, clipped their claws, and tried to fit in.
All at once, I had my subject. I carved Madeline as Medusa, with her smile that could turn you to stone. My Gorgon’s snakes were the curls I’d brushed a hundred times each night. Her curves were bound by a pinstripe suit, carefully ironed so the lapel stayed flat. Her talons, I painted with bronze polish, bright as knives against the wood.
I’d have liked to do more – added Julia and me in adoration – but I ran out of time. That, and I didn’t have the strength to face it yet: my life, and what I’d lost. It was bad enough bringing Madeline to life. No-one knew how that miniature stalked my flat, haunted my dreams, hissed laughter at my friends. It was a relief to pack her up and send her off for judging.
A stylish reinvention, they called it, which she’d have liked. I liked that it won first prize. There was money in it, and I sent half to Julia, hoping she’d never ask how I got it. That night, my friends took me out for drinks. I wore a green silk dress, with seed-pearls on the skirt, and commanded the room with a smile.
Last Minute Exile: Naomi Rebis
Hometown: Leicester/ Rugby
High School: Rugby High School
Like Seneca, like Aristotle, and like countless others from Classical history, you find yourself subject to an exile order, and must vacate the country tout-suite before some sort of sword-based injury befalls your neck!
You grab three records…
1. Gypsy by Ronan Hardiman – this is a beautiful track from Lord of the Dance, and is by far the
most-listened to song on my iPod (yes, I still use an iPod rather than having music on my phone!)
2. Mordred’s Lullaby by Heather Dale – I just love the inventiveness of basing a song around what
Morgana le Fey might sing to baby Mordred. Also an excellent track for plotting revenge against
those who have exiled me!
3. Speechless (from the live action remake of Aladdin) – I had to get a Disney song on this list
somewhere, and I think I’d need this one to make me feel triumphant in the face of adversity
1. Circe by Madeline Miller – while I’m sure I wouldn’t put my exile to as good use as Circe did, this
is one of my all-time favourite books and would be a ‘must’ to take with me. The prose is just so
beautiful, and would be a wonderful escape.
2. The Land of Far Beyond by Enid Blyton – most people know Enid Blyton for The Famous Five etc.
but this is very different: it’s an allegorical novel, about a group whose cruelty and selfishness
manifests as physical Burdens, and they have to travel to the City of Happiness to remove them. My
family copy is very special because it was given to my granny as a child in 1943, and has since
been passed down the generations (and we’ve each coloured some of the illustrations inside).
…a Tupperware of your favourite food…
Malay fried rice (rice + chicken fried in honey + vegetables – delish!)
…and something else at random.
I would love to take my laptop, because that’s where I do all my writing, but I admit this
might not be in the spirit of questions 1 and 2, since it would give me unlimited access to
songs and books. So, if I can’t take that, then I’d probably take my cross-stitch: I’m
currently working on a flower alphabet, and when that’s done I have some patterns for
Disney bookmarks that I’m going to make.
Exile is going to suck, but at least you won’t have to put up with…
Having to make small-talk (I’m presuming that, due to my exile, the only people willing to
be associated with me will be those I already know!)