Today's Reading

Sometimes, she still glimpsed her father in his armchair, his face set in a wax-like smile, as he requested his slippers, his supper, the TV channel switching over, his copy of The Times, a glass of milk (warm, not hot).

Her mother liked to crochet small patches, which she made into scarves and bedspreads for a local residential home. Martha's later memories of her were inherently linked to Battenberg-like pink-and-yellow woolly squares.

Lilian helped out sporadically, when her other family commitments permitted, but her efforts amounted to bringing magazines, or reams of wool, around for Mum. She'd sit with Dad and read his beloved encyclopedias with him. She, Will and Rose might set up a family game of Monopoly, or watch Mastermind on TV.

The day-to-day domestics, the help with hair washing, the administering of painkillers, trips to the doctors, outings for coffee mornings to the church, cooking and cleaning fell to Martha.

"Now, why are you calling?" Lilian asked.

Martha reached out for the book. It looked smaller now, less significant. "There was a parcel waiting for me at the library tonight. It was propped against the door."

"My Cecelia Ahern?"

"No. It's an old book, of fairy stories, I think." Martha read the dedication again, her nerve endings buzzing. "Um, I think it belonged to Zelda."

'"Zelda?"'

"Our grandmother."

"I know who she is."

An awkward silence fell between them, so thick Martha felt like she could touch it. Images dropped into her head of sitting at the garden edge with Zelda, their heels kicking against the cliff. "Don't you ever wonder what happened to her?"

"We know. She died over thirty years ago."

"I've always felt that Mum and Dad didn't tell us the full story, about her death—"

"Bloody hell, Martha." Lilian's voice grew sharp. "We were just kids. We didn't need a coronary report. You're far too old for fairy tales, anyway."

Martha's shoulders twitched at her sister's spiky reaction. You're never too old for stories, she thought. "I'll bring it to the library tomorrow," she said, her voice growing smaller. "If you're passing by, you can take a look. There's a dedication inside, but there's something odd about it."

Lilian didn't say anything.

Martha added, "It's the date—"

The phone receiver rattled. "I have to go now."

"But, the book—"

"Look," Lilian said, "just stick it on a shelf and forget about it. You've got loads of other stuff to do. I'll see you soon, okay?" And she hung up.

Martha stared at the phone receiver and listened to the hum of the dialing tone. Her sister sounded more stressed than ever and she hoped she wasn't overdoing things. She made a mental note to finish Will's trousers as soon as possible, to try to put a smile back on Lilian's face.

Snapping the battered book shut, she told herself that her sister was probably right. After all, she was the successful sibling, the one with the good job, luxury bungalow and two great kids. And Martha had pressing things to do, like feeding Horatio's fish and watering his plants. The school might want the dragon's head back soon.

She reached out for her Wonder Woman notepad and opened it up, and red dots of lateness seemed to glare at her like devil's eyes. She should select what to do next, complete the task and mark it off with a neat green tick. But her thoughts kept creeping back to the book. She couldn't stop her brain ticking with curiosity and disbelief.

Although her nana might have written the words and dated the dedication, there was something terribly wrong.

Because Zelda died in February 1982.

Three years before the message and date in the little book.


This excerpt is from the hardcover edition.
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