On a day in August 1916, fifteen-year-old Peppina Carroll stood by the stonewall staring into the large back garden. It was a warm day. Peppina felt the warmth of the early morning sun on her face. She couldn't see anyone about in the garden, not even her stepfather, who was often about at that time of the morning amongst his dahlias. This was the time of day she loved best; the freshness of it soothed her.
"Shall I cut off those long locks of yours," said her stepbrother Jack holding a small pair of scissors in his hand.
Peppina turned, surprised by the sudden appearance of Jack. "Don't you dare," she said, her eyes compounded of bewilderment and humour. "Why did you creep up on me like that? I could have died of shock."
Jack took a lock of Peppina's brown hair and held it up to the sun. "That would have upset me, but I couldn't resist it," he said pretending to cut her lock of brown hair.
Peppina grabbed his hand and squeezed his fingers until he released the scissors. "What a savage you are, Peppina Carroll," he said smiling, at the same time massaging his fingers.
Peppina put the scissors in her dress pocket and gazed at Jack sternly. Her eyes saw the old black hat he was wearing on a head of black hair and the dark-blue eyes gazing back at her. "You should be careful. What if your father should see us here together like this. You know what he's like," she whispered leaning close to him
Jack shrugged. "What harm is there?" He smelt a hint of scent and breathed in deeply as if he were taking his first breath of air. "Heavenly," he said.
Peppina pushed him away gently, then glanced about the garden anxiously in case some one had spotted them. No one was about. All was quiet except for the song of birds. Turning round cautiously she kissed Jack on his cheek.
The sensation of her lips against his cheek made Jack weak at the knees. He felt strangely light-headed as if he had drunk some of his father's whiskey. "I'll never wash again," he said smiling.
"That shouldn't break many rules," Peppina said. She wanted to kiss him again, but didn't. She thought it too risky. She might be seen and then there would be hell to pay or worse. "Best go now," she whispered. Jack nodded and walked back into the small orchard he came from a few moments before. She watched him go, and then turned round to stare at the garden. Her heart jumped as she saw her stepfather walking up the garden path towards his dahlias, his heavy hands held tightly behind his broad back, his eyes downcast on the ground, his features sour as a lemon with a cigarette drooping from his lower lip like some strange appendage. She moved back behind the wall hoping he hadn't noticed her. He moved on towards his dahlias as if greeting a secret love. She was unnoticed. She sighed with light relief, moved away from the wall and crept around the back of the house, out of his sight and out of his mind and one day hopefully, she mused, out of his house.
Horace Carroll stood amongst his dahlias. The blooms were what he hoped for; the colours varied. Lifting his eyes, he looked up at the early morning sun. His thoughts turned to his eldest son, Adam who was somewhere in France in some trench as far as he knew. If this war goes on much longer Jack will be called up as well, he mused, sniffing one of the blooms near by.
His wife was not the mother of his sons; their mother had died giving birth to Jack. His wife now, Maria, was in the kitchen preparing his breakfast. He tried not to compare his wife with his son's mother, but sometimes a memory came flooding back and he briefly made comparisons with his former wife and his present one and wondered if he had made a good choice. Maria was Italian and when upset babbled away at him in her native tongue, which in turn only amused him. But the daughter was a different matter. She had said little to him during the year she has lived with him and her mother. Her manner annoyed him, but he found her youthful features and slim body difficult to ignore. His eyes studied her when she wasn't aware of his stare; his hands itch to touch her briefly as she passed by, but he didn't, he allowed his arm casually to brush against her if the opportunity arose, and sighed deeply to himself as she moved away.
He wondered how Adam was coping with his lot. Each morning he feared a telegram coming or a knock at the door. He read the paper with apprehension, fearing to see news from the area where Adam's last brief letter came from some weeks ago. The dahlias were his one consolation. Their life and beauty added something to his own. Maria was also a consolation, he told himself, without her company and their sexual relationship; he knew he would find his life lonely and empty.
He sniffed another bloom. He held the stem gently between his fingers and drew it gently towards him. If only Peppina could be this close, he thought, letting the scent enter him. If only she were this close to me as these dahlias are and allowed herself to be touch as they were touched. He dismissed the very thought and stared up at the sky. Somewhere in France Adam may well be looking up at this same sky, but with different longings, different wants, different dreams, he mused, releasing the flower with reluctance.
Maria was in the kitchen when Peppina came in from the garden. Her daughter gave her a quick gaze then turned away and looked out of the kitchen window at the garden. Her stepfather was not in sight; still with his dahlias, she mused.
"Your breakfast is ready," Maria said in Italian. She always spoke in her native tongue to her daughter when Horace was not about; she felt it gave her a special relationship with Peppina.
Peppina turned from the window and looked at the table where various foodstuffs had been placed. "Where's Jack?" Peppina asked in Italian.
Maria shrugged her shoulders and nodded towards the table. "Help yourself. Your father will be back soon," Maria said.
"He's not my father," Peppina replied," he's your husband."
Maria glared at Peppina, her eyes darkening. "You should show respect. He gives you a home and love." Maria snorted and jabbed her index finger into Peppina's back.
"He's still not my father," Peppina said, her Italian as fluent as her English.
"Your father died four years ago, he's not coming back," Maria said. She looked away from her daughter and stared out of the window. Mario Petroni, her late husband, drowned and disappeared when the Titanic sank. He was on his way to America to start a new life for himself and his family. He went ahead to prepare things for his wife and daughter. They had come to England in 1897 when Maria was seventeen and a young bride. She sighed and spotted Horace coming along the path towards the house.
"I wish I drowned with him," Peppina whispered studying her mother's slim figure and dark hair drawn back behind her head in a bunch. Her mother hadn't heard. She didn't repeat her words; she allowed them to drift away like dark clouds.
When Horace entered the kitchen, he seemed deep in thought. He washed his hands at the sink and gave Maria a gentle hug as he passed her to the table.
"Dahlias are fine this morning," he said sitting down, giving Peppina a quick glance.
"Good, I'm a glad they are a fine," said Maria resorting to her broken English. "I think you love your dahlias more than me," she added with a smile.
"Not more, Maria, but differently," Horace said, letting his eyes focus on his wife standing by the table, her dark eyes sparkling. He sensed Peppina opposite him; he was sure she was staring at him with her intense eyes, but he didn't look to find out. "Where's Jack?" he asked.
"He's about," Maria replied. "I hear him not long ago."
Peppina watched as Horace broke open a bread roll and spread butter over the insides. She studied his hands, large and clumsy, hold the knife and roll. She hated it when he tried to touch her; hated the very thought of his hands on her, however innocently he pretended to do so. Her eyes lifted to his lips as they opened to receive the bread roll. The thought of them kissing her nauseated her. He did, when she least expected it; kiss her cheek as if he had a father's right to kiss his child. She looked away when Horace looked up at her.
"Have you seen Jack, Peppina?" Horace asked, allowing his eyes to settle on his stepdaughter as if they were mere extensions of his fingers.
"No," Peppina replied. She knew he was looking at her in that way he had at times. It felt as if he were actually touching her with his eyes, peeling away her clothes, piece by piece.
"Morning," Jack said as he entered the kitchen from the passage. "How are you all this bright morning?" He looked at Peppina briefly, and then gazed at his father who stared at him with a puzzled expression.
"You're late," Horace stated. "You should be up before this."
"I was up early. I've been in the orchard picking fallen apples," Jack said.
"That a good. I can a use them for a pudding," Maria said, eyeing her husband, hoping he would smile, but he didn't.
"But breakfast time is breakfast time," Horace stated. A silence descended on the kitchen which was only disturbed by the sound of cutlery and crockery being used, and the occasion birdsong from the garden which was dismissed as if it were an unwelcome visitor from a far away land.
After breakfast, Horace, having taken a quick look at his dahlias, set off for the Southampton Port where he worked. His mind was on Adam far away in France.
Maria, having seen Horace off to work, returned to the kitchen to clear the breakfast things and wash up. She mused on the lovemaking that had taken place the previous night: it had been over so quick that she felt quite unfulfilled and irritable. And Peppina didn't help, Maria said to herself, putting the dishes into the sink, what with her attitude and stares, and the way she is with Horace. If she were younger, I'd punish her. And Horace knows it all. He would punish her too if she were a young child...She paused and sighed. She thought of Adam. The last time he was home on leave he and she...She stared out of the window behind the sink at the sunshine on the garden. Horace's dahlias were up at the far end away from the house. Near to the house were the vegetable beds and the small orchard to the side. She wished Adam would come home again: there was always something secure about the house when he was there, she thought, placing her hands into the water, feeling in her mind Adam's arms about her. But he was in France. And I am here, she sighed. The kitchen echoed her sigh as if mimicking her like a tormenting brother.
Jack sat on Peppina's bed watching her stare at the print on the wall opposite. It was a Renoir print that Adam had brought back for her. City Dance, Adam said it was, which Jack found boring, but Peppina loved and stared at it whenever she could. He listened out for footsteps. Maria would not be pleased if he were found in Peppina's room. He studied her hair flowing over her shoulders, released from the restraining bow. His eyes wandered over her figure before him, they paused at her waist.
"What do you find so interesting in that picture?" Jack said.
"The dancing figures," Peppina said. "So alive."
"Would you like to be able to dance like that?" asked Jack leaning a few inches from her shoulder.
"Yes," Peppina replied quietly. "If you'd dance with me."
Jack squeezed her waist. "I'd dance you if I could, but I can't dance."
Peppina turned her head and kissed Jack on the lips. He released her from his hold and felt suddenly as if he were hanging from a cliff edge. She kissed him again and made it last longer.
Jack blushed and held on tightly to the bed rest behind him. "I'd best be going," Jack murmured. His breathing quickened. He felt as if he were falling. "Your mother may hear us," he added.
"Let her hear us," Peppina said softly. She moved forward and kissed Jack's earlobe.
"I've work to do," Jack said moving off the bed and standing unsteady on the floor. "Father will expect the jobs done before he gets home."
Peppina smiled and nodded at him. Turning over on her back she stared up at the off-white ceiling, her legs crossed at the ankles. Jack left the room quietly, closing the door behind him with a mild click.
Peppina sighed softly. She wanted to kiss him repeatedly until he came to life. Until he kissed her back of his own will. With passion, she said to herself, with passion, passion, passion.
Horace found it hard to concentrate on his work. His mind wandered back and forth about Adam and Peppina.
The women who worked under him at the port, talked unceasingly about the war and their loved ones who were away, and those who had heard news of others being killed or reported missing.
His thoughts about Adam were of his son being killed or being reported missing, and the fear of not seeing him again, but his thoughts about Peppina were a compound of anger and desire. He tried to dismiss thoughts of her, but each time he saw one of the young girls working near by, his mind would allow thoughts of her to rise up again.
Staring down at the port below he wondered how to rid himself of this torment inside him. Why is she so hostile to me? He mused grimly. He thought of Maria the night before and their lovemaking, but it didn't help. Why do I desire what I can't have and who dislikes me? His thoughts nagged at him. Lifting his eyes, he stared out at the sea beyond the port and his thoughts returned to Adam, France, and death.
Jack wandered over the field, the touch of Peppina's lips still wet against his cheek. He felt strangely out of it, as if he were walking on water. His stomach churned over when he thought of Peppina and what she did to him. He had never been kissed like that by anyone. He stopped and stared over the horizon, which was laid out like a sleeping woman with its high points and low ones, its low valley and small rising peaks.
Maria he had accepted as a substitute mother, but he wasn't really close to her. She seemed somehow foreign to him, like an Italian landlady rather than a real mother substitute. But Peppina seemed too close to be the sister he always wanted, but also, strangely, too close to be anything more than a sister. He sighed. The touch of her lips made him feel uneasy and unsure of himself and who he was. Putting his index finger to his cheek, he traced where she had placed her lips and sensed a jolt in his groin as if he had been kicked.
The horizon looked inviting: the sun seemed settled on the rim of it; the clouds appeared to stretch themselves over the skyline like waking giants. Jack closed his eyes. He wanted to feel again the damp touch of those lips; wanted to sense Peppina's warmth against him; wanted her in a way he had never wanted anything in his life before, wanted her until he ached and ached and ached.
Peppina helped her mother in the house cleaning the rooms and preparing the dinner. They worked in an agreed silence, only speaking if their work necessitated it. After a few hours non-stop activity they paused in the kitchen for a mid-morning drink.
"Why do you look at your father the way you do?" Maria asked in Italian.
"My father is dead," Peppina replied in Italian, sitting at the table with her cup of tea. "Horace is no father of mine. He's your husband. That's the only link I have with him."
"Horace is a good man. He feeds you, clothes you, and provides shelter. Why do you treat him as if he were a stranger?" Maria said, her dark eyes focussing on her daughter.
Peppina pouted. She could not deny Horace did these things. He never mistreated her, or laid a hand on her in punishment, but there was just something about him that made her feel uneasy in his presence. The way he touched her in passing; the way he had of embracing her to him, as if she were his own flesh and blood; the way he looked at her, in which she sensed he was almost undressing her with his eyes, as if they were the extension of his stumpy fingers. She shook herself as if to displace the very thought of him close to her.
"And further more," Maria said, peering at Peppina," he loves you. He wants us to be a real family, especially when Adam comes home." She paused. The thought of Adam had stopped her words in mid-air as if a knife had pierced her. She could almost imagine him kissing her again; almost sense him entering her upstairs in her bedroom when Horace was at work. She stared at the table. Her breathing deepened as if she were about to sink beneath water.
"He gives me the creeps," Peppina stated suddenly.
"Who?" Maria asked softly, her eyes not leaving the table.
"Horace. Who'd you think?" Peppina said, staring at her mother's far away look and vacant expression.
"Horace? What about Horace?" Maria asked vaguely.
Peppina couldn't be bothered to repeat herself; she sat back in the chair and gazed at her mother's face. "He misses Adam," Peppina said. "And that makes him sad."
Maria nodded and caught a glimpse of her daughter's gaze before she turned her head away. "Yes, he does," Maria said," he misses him very much." And the image of Adam seemed to stand by the kitchen door and smile at her, just as he did that day when it all began to happen. "He loves you," she murmured quietly.
"A fox can love chicken, but it doesn't do the chickens any good," Peppina replied.
Maria didn't hear; her thoughts were elsewhere. The image of Adam moved from the kitchen door, stood by the table, and stared down at Maria still smiling, as if he wanted to share a strange secret or a funny joke. She stared at the image, watching the lips open and close, but no words came, only a mime of talking, as if he were in a silent movie. Then he was gone. Maria shuddered. She glanced up at Peppina hoping she too had seen the image, but Peppina sat gazing at her in that annoying arrogant way she had of gazing with her head turned to one side slightly. "He's gone," Maria murmured.
"Who?" Peppina asked.
"Gone where?" Peppina stared at her mother's bewildered face and frowned.
Maria didn't reply, she shrugged her shoulders and stood up. Placing the cups and saucers in the sink, she walked out of the kitchen and into the garden with its birdsong and sunshine.
Horace looked up when the door to his office opened, but there was no one there. Frowning he got up from his desk and walked to the door and looked outside. There was no one about, except his secretary busy typing at her desk.
"Did anyone come to my door?" Horace asked.
"No, Mr Carroll, I saw no one." The secretary stared at Horace through her glasses with a sense of uncertainty.
Horace nodded and returned to his office and closed the door. Sitting at his desk again, he returned to his writing, but sensed as if someone were watching him. Lifting his eyes to the door once more, he noticed Adam standing there.
"Adam? When did you get back?" Horace asked rising from his desk. The image of Adam said nothing, but only smiled. Horace stood by his desk uncertain what to make of his son's sudden appearance. "I've been worried about you."
The image faded and was gone. Horace gazed at the spot where his son's image had stood. Shaking his head, he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. I am tired, he mused sadly. Even seeing my son when he isn't there. He mused on what he had seen. The image seemed so real that he had actually thought Adam had been there. Opening his eyes again, he hoped his son would be there again, but there was no one. And the only sound came from his secretary's typewriter outside the door, which had a monotonous feel about it like the ticking of a clock.
Jack knocked on Peppina's bedroom door, but there was no reply. He wondered where she could be; he had not seen her in the kitchen or garden. He knocked again. Nothing. Sighing he walked back along the passage to his own room and closed the door behind him.
Sitting on the edge of his bed, he thought about Peppina's kisses. He had never felt the way he did about anyone; never felt so undone; never had the thoughts he had now. He looked about his Spartan room. No pictures adorned his walls, no books on shelves, nothing except a chest-of-drawers and a small wardrobe.
He lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. He wanted to be with her, as he had never felt about being with another person before. It was so urgent, so passionate, that he feared he was going mad. Even the mere thought of seeing her caused him to panic and blush. His breathing became laboured as if he were climbing a steep mountain with a heavy load on his back. He closed his eyes and tried to imagine her beside him on the bed, but nothing happened. He couldn't bring an image of her to his mind; she seemed suddenly vague, like some far away vision moving away until nothing was left except grey ashes of some memory.
Peppina sat on the cliff looking out to sea. She'd walked as far as she could and sat on the cliff's edge. Her mother's words had depressed her. The mere mention of Horace made her unhappy, especially any mention of his love for her. The thought of him and her mother in bed together sickened her. She wondered what her mother saw in him, what it was about him that attracted her. What did Horace and her mother do that made such noise at night? she mused staring at the seascape.
Jack was different, she thought, he made her feel awake. Even if he was shy, he still awoke something in her; stirred her emotions. And as she remembered kissing Jack that morning, she suddenly felt as if she were falling from the cliff's edge. She clutched at the grass beside her to save herself from slipping into the sea. He was her stepbrother, she reminded herself. He was Horace's son. Yet still she couldn't stop herself wanting to kiss him; couldn't escape the feelings she had when she saw him. A friend at school a year back had told Peppina what she had seen her sister and boyfriend do in a hay-barn. It had seemed unlikely to Peppina then, but now it seemed... She closed her mind to the image that arose within her. She thought of Horace and her mother and quickly shut out the mere idea of such a thing happening between them.
"You'll find love one day," Adam had told her when he came home on leave the last time and brought her the print. "It'll hit you so suddenly you you'll barely be able to stand up and walk," he had added, kissing her cheek briefly.
The sun warmed her. The mild breeze swept up across the cliff and touched her hair. Is it, love? she mused. Is this what love is? Is it? Is it? Is it?
Maria couldn't find Peppina anywhere. She had looked all over the place, but there was no sign of her. And where had Jack gone? she asked staring across the garden.
And why had that image of Adam appeared so suddenly that morning? He had seemed for a few moments so real that she almost got up and kissed him. Horace's lovemaking was nothing compared with Adam's, she mused, walking along the path to Horace's dahlias. But it shouldn't have happened, she said to herself, stopping briefly by the blooms. It should not have occurred, but it did and I am glad. And for a few moments, she sensed his arms about her and his lips on her neck.
She turned shaken from her daydream. It was Jack standing just behind her on the path.
"Yes?" she said, trying to control her voice and features.
"Have you seen, Peppina?"
"No. I looked for her myself," Maria said. "She's always going off when I need her."
Jack nodded, but said nothing.
"Why she not like your father?" Maria asked.
"No idea," Jack replied.
"He a good man. She should show a respect for him," Maria moaned.
"She'll come round eventually," Jack said. "Girls are like that sometimes."
Maria stared at Jack. He was like his brother, Adam, but six years younger. The eyes were similar; the lips had the same thinness; the features had the same look. She looked away. Her breathing began to quicken. She sensed as if Adam was there behind her; felt the need to hold him to her; to kiss him as she had that day.
Jack gazed at Maria as she turned away from him. She seemed miles away. He wandered off back down the path towards the house. There were times when his stepmother seemed a little odd to him, as if she were connected to a different world. And her speaking Italian made her that much more off-key as far as he was concerned. Still it was his father's choice, not his. There is no accounting for choice, he thought, looking quickly over his shoulder at Maria as she stood staring up the garden, as if someone was talking to her somewhere beyond her vision, someone who held her attention with the grim intensity of one seeing the unimaginable.
The telegram came as they all sat down for dinner. Horace read it slowly at the door as the telegram boy stood waiting. He dismissed the boy with a wave of his hand and returned to the kitchen.
Maria stared at the telegram in her husband's hand, her eyes already filling with tears. Horace sat down and put the telegram on the table. No one touched it.
Peppina looked at Horace trying to decide what the telegram had said by studying the features of his face. She watched as his eyes became vacant and empty. His lips parted to speak, but nothing came.
Jack looked from Maria to his father wondering whether to say something, but said nothing. Looking at Peppina, he tried to catch her attention, but she was focussing her attention on his father with a concern she rarely showed anyone.
"What's its say?" Peppina asked eventually.
"Is it about Adam?" Maria asked softly.
Horace seemed not to hear them; his eyes stared at the telegram as if it were some alien object he had only just noticed.
"Open it," Maria said to Peppina in Italian. Peppina shook her head. It was not for her to open it up and read the message. It was Horace's job to tell them in his own good time, she mused, looking back at her stepfather again.
Jack felt suddenly empty. His eyes watered. His voice had gone. He gazed through a blurred vision at Peppina. She was lost in a mist.
"Adam's been killed in action." The words came into the room about them. Horace spoke, but his lips barely moved. His hands were shaking; his face seemed set in stone.
"How?" Maria asked, but not wanting to know she left the table and ran out into the garden.
"Why?" Peppina asked looking away from Horace and letting her eyes fall on Jack with a certain heaviness. Jack sensed her vision on him, but his blurred sight could make nothing of the intensity of it.
Horace rose from the table and staring about the kitchen briefly, went out into the garden to be with his dahlias and wife.
Peppina got up from her chair and kissed Jack's cheek as if words were too cheap for the occasion. He took her hand, drew her to him, and kissed her on the lips. Rising from the table, he led her upstairs to his bedroom with a slow but deliberate pace. Nothing was left to be said. Words were beyond them now. The silence of the room was only disturbed by distant birdsong and the gentle easing of the springs.