Penny’s family were sitting round her kitchen table after dinner, lulled almost to sleep by the reassuring warmth of the kitchen range, stupefied by Michael’s voice droning on and on about the failings of the French: their red tape, and how their trade unions seemed intent on destroying his wine-importing business. No one was listening to him. Helen certainly wasn’t. Well, what could you expect, married to him for twenty years? She was more intent on making a house with the square cheese biscuits she had selected, had just completed two storeys and put the roof on when Michael moved, knocked the table, and Helen’s house collapsed.
‘Bad wolf,’ Helen said. ‘Huffing and puffing.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Michael said. ‘You’re worse than a child.’
Penny wondered how you managed if you were married to a man like that. Why had Helen rejected John, and then married Michael, his brother? John had been so unhappy and Penny had found herself in the role of comforter. Then John had asked her. And she had taken him, with some misgivings. An odd thing, sisters marrying brothers. Best not to think about it too much.
Husbands come and go, Helen had said, but sisters are for life. Both of their husbands had strayed, Penny’s more than once. She had discovered his affair with his partner in his publishing firm. A hotel phoned, some query about the room, she told John.
‘What was the query?’
‘Don’t know. Phone them.’
He put his arm round her, hugged her. Ah, she thought, something going on.
When he returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair, she saw the lipstick on his shirt: Fire and Ice. She knew straight away who the woman was.
‘If you stay away from her we can forget about it,’ she said. ‘But I’m not sharing you with her.’
She waited to see what would happen. He returned, disillusioned by the demands, social and financial, of the younger woman he had gone to.
‘I’ve been very foolish,’ he said. ‘Can you forgive me?’
He addressed her as Penelope, as he always did when he had some misdeed to confess or favour to seek. He also called her Penelope in bed. He had returned to sleep in the same bed as Penny, and had occasion to be grateful there as well. Penny did forgive him, and their second child, Clara, was the child of forgiveness. He promised it wouldn’t happen again.
He hadn’t kept his promise, of course. The next woman lived in their village, her husband in the army in Iraq, and everyone offered her comfort, John giving most of all. When the husband returned, injured, a war hero, it was over for John. He came to Penelope again. Told her he didn’t deserve her. She knew he was right, but took him back, and there was a third child, Tom. Children were supposed to be tokens of love, she thought, theirs were tokens of infidelity.
Penny’s house was comfortable and warm, no longer the bleak vicarage it once was, but she had kept the kitchen much as it had been. The stone floor had been damp and cold, and when it was renovated Penny insisted that the builders took the stones up carefully and replaced them exactly where they had been. It had been her great-aunt’s house, and she had learned every one of those stones as she crawled around on those first visits to her great-aunt, who she feared and loved almost equally. She had licked the stones, as children do, made them part of herself. John knew that her kitchen was the most important thing in her life, after her children. He had no illusions about his own place in her affections.
This dinner was a family tradition. On Christmas Day each sister entertained some of the family - parents, uncles, aunts, stray cousins. Their parents had separated and remarried and, twenty-five years later, still couldn’t speak to each other. Helen entertained one parent, Penny the other and they rewarded themselves by coming together with their husbands and children in Penny’s house between Christmas and New Year. This was the real Christmas for the sisters, and Penny was surprised when Helen told her that she would be away next day in the afternoon.
‘Will you be back for dinner?’ Penny asked.
‘Yes.’ Abrupt, not looking at her.
Michael sat back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the table. He didn’t know, Penny thought.
‘Going to play the whore, I expect,’ Michael said.
Helen’s face was white, she was trembling. She had her wine glass in her hand, about to take a drink, and threw the wine over Michael. He sat there, the wine running down his face, his shirt soaked. Some of the wine hadn’t reached him, and was soaking into the table cloth. Everyone was jumping up, moving things off the table, removing the tablecloth. Everyone except Helen and Michael, sitting there, glaring at each other.
‘Well, you should know about whores. God knows how many you’ve been to,’ Helen said.
Some semblance of a pretence at Happy Families was restored. Michael had gone away to wash his face and change his shirt, and everyone else was sitting down again.
Helen was so beautiful, that golden hair, her blue eyes, and her face, the bones sharp beneath the skin. Penny was glad that she hadn’t inherited those looks herself from their mother. Men looked at Helen and wanted her, but they knew nothing of the real Helen, the Helen that she knew. It had been the same with their mother. Looks were deceptive, and their mother had been a deceiver. Penny couldn’t forgive her mother for her frequent desertions, but Helen’s affairs just made her sad, knowing how much unhappiness they caused, as much for Helen as for her men. And Helen’s daughter Iphy had inherited that same beauty.
‘Why do you stay with him, Mum?’ Iphy asked. Languidly, as if she didn’t care what the answer was.
James, Penny’s son, had been sitting with his head in his hands since the scene that Helen had created, but now he looked up and was gazing at Iphy, who was peeling a tangerine, neatly, fastidiously, carefully separating the segments, pulling the pith off until she was satisfied. She was elegant, wearing a dark blue shift, her hair the same colour as her mother’s, tied up with a blue ribbon. Then Iphy looked up, offered a segment to James, who nodded, held out his hands to catch the segment to be thrown to him, and Iphy put it into her own mouth. James smiled and shook his head. Penny worried about James’ girls, and was becoming more and more concerned about Iphy, fascinating Iphy. On Sunday they had been at church and the Vicar had been puzzled by Iphy’s name, who had told him that it was Iphigenia, called that so that her father could sacrifice her if the wine market crashed. The Vicar still looked puzzled, and turned away. James said that it wouldn’t work; the sacrificial victim had to be a virgin. Iphy pushed past, not looking at him, pushed away the hand he held out to her. Penny hoped the Vicar hadn’t heard. She needed the church’s consolation. Penny also hoped that it was just one of James’ jokes, and was wondering again when Iphy stood up from the table.
‘Please may I get down?’ she said, making herself a child again, thanked Penny for a wonderful meal, and kissed her. James stood up to go as well, and Penny asked him to see if the little ones were in bed. As James and Iphy walked away, they heard Iphy: ‘Stop it’.
‘I hope my daughter is safe with your son,’ Helen said.
‘I hope my son is safe with your daughter.’
Helen smiled and patted Penny’s hand. Yes, not a bad old thing, Penny thought.
‘Shall I clear the table?’ John asked.
‘No, go and find Michael, take him to the big room, sit by the fire,’ Penny said. John smiled, understanding the unspoken message.
It had been the big room for her great aunt. The room where their father had read them stories of their namesakes.
‘Sorry, Penny. I’m a terrible woman, aren’t I? I hope the wine washes out,’ Helen said when John had gone.
‘If it doesn’t it will be part of the record of our lives. That’s what this tablecloth is.’
‘Do you think it’s not just our names?’ Helen said. ‘Father teaching Greek. Do you think we had to act out his Greek myths? Did you have suitors?’
Penny thought of Mark. She had found that hard, John pursuing his village Calypso, and Mark pursuing her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Never.’
How long have we been having these dinners?’ Helen asked
‘Twenty years, so John says.’
‘I wonder where we’ll be next year.’
‘Here, I hope,’ Penny said.
‘Well, I will be, if you invite me.’
‘Helen, you don’t need to be invited. All of you have the right to be here.’
‘Well, yes, but you’re the keeper of the hearth. That’s what Father called you.’
‘That’s because he wanted me to look after him when Mother left him.’
They were quiet for a moment. She’s going to tell me something, Penny thought.
‘Michael and I are separating. Next year, when Iphy is at university, we’re going to sell the house. I hope it’s going to be amicable. He has someone. She’s rather nice. Do you know, I think he’ll be faithful to her. He’s getting old.’
‘What about you?’
‘Well, that’s what I have to decide. There is …, there is someone.’
‘But there’s a problem?’
‘I’m not a good woman, Penny, not like you. I’ve made one man unhappy, and I’m very fond of Colin. I don’t want to make him unhappy as well.’
‘Cold?’ Helen asked.
‘No, just, you know, the grave thing.’
Things would change, Penny thought. If the Fates had decided, that was it.
James and Iphy came back to the kitchen, bringing Tom and Clara in their pyjamas to say goodnight. Clara clambered onto her mother’s lap, ready to settle down. Tom had gone to Iphy and was gazing at her, she picked him up, sat him on her lap, and he stroked her hair. Oh dear, Penny thought, the Fates didn’t warn me about this. Tom, at eight, was safe, but would he be safe at eighteen, and Iphy even more fascinating? Perhaps Iphy would be married by then, but Tom had already shown an alarming disregard for convention.
‘It would be nice if Daddy’s friend lived with us,’ he had said. ‘She gives me sweeties.’
* * *
Penny knew every sound that her house made. If a door opened or closed, she knew which one it was, and that night she heard a door catch click. Iphy’s door, she thought, and wondered why Iphy was wandering around in the middle of the night. It couldn’t have been much later that she woke again, to hear Tom’s voice, querulous, frightened, Iphy consoling him. She got up, looked along the corridor, and there was James holding Tom, cuddling him, lit by the light from the open door of Iphy’s room.
‘Bad dream, I expect,’ James said, and at that moment Iphy came out of her room.
‘Shall we take you back to bed?’ Iphy asked Tom, and he put up his arms to be held by her. Then Tom saw his mother, and turned to her.
* * *
Next morning Penny was drinking tea before getting breakfast ready.
‘Going to fetch the newspapers,’ James said.
‘James, what was the matter with Tom? I couldn’t get anything out of him.’
‘Don’t know. Ask Iphy, he was telling her something.’
Looking out of the kitchen window she saw him walking up the drive with Iphy. It had snowed in the night, and the world was transformed. Iphy made a snowball, crept up behind James, and stuffed it down his neck. James fished the snow out, and looked at Iphy, who just stood there, smiling, daring him, waiting for the retaliation. Then she turned and ran, stumbled, fell over, and lay there, covered in snow, laughing. Elegance cast aside for a moment.
What did James mean, “Ask Iphy”? It had been James holding Tom.
Penny was standing at the sink, filling the coffee machine and talking to Helen, when James and Iphy returned. They stopped at the gate, talking, and Iphy put her hand up to James’ face.
‘Oh God,’ Helen said. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any point in speaking to them.’
‘There’s no point speaking to James. He’s like his father, when it comes to girls, women, he does exactly as he pleases.’
‘Iphy’s not a bad girl, you know.’
‘Their fathers are brothers. Their mothers are sisters. You can’t get much closer than that.’
‘Well, you can. Brothers and sisters. If they had grown up together, it wouldn’t have happened. Boys don’t fall in love with their sisters. If they’re cousins … they share so much, but there’s a little distance. The not quite understood.’
Everyone was quiet at breakfast, except Michael, who had embarked on a monologue about French taxes. Helen interrupted him.
‘Can we have a talk about the house, Michael? Iphy, you’d better come along as well.’
They both went, docilely.
James stood up to go.
‘James,’ John said.
Penny looked at John. She knew what he was going to say, and was surprised. Usually John would avoid any difficulties, pretend that nothing had happened.
James turned back, looked at his parents. His hands clenched.
‘It’s all right,’ he said. ‘It is unfair though.’
He banged his fist on the door, hard, and Penny jumped. He stood there for a moment, resting his forehead on the door. Patted the door gently with his hand.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ he said, and went.
‘How did you know?’ she said to John.
‘I’m not blind,’ he said. ‘He is my son. And she is Helen’s daughter. It was inevitable. Poor kids.’
Poor James, he hasn’t learned yet, Penny thought. It isn’t a question of fairness. Harder for a man like James to accept, of course, he wanted to change things, make things happen. It was different for her. A woman couldn’t help being hurt, being jealous, but it was better if she could be patient. Enjoy the gifts she had. James and Clara and Tom. And her home. I’m an anachronism, she thought. The wife who stays with her man. But John never strayed for long. He hadn’t gone off for years, obsessed with some publishing campaign or fooling around with nymphs disguised as literary agents. Each time he returned she wondered. She knew that many women would despise her because they would think she hadn’t asserted herself. But she had. It’s her or me, she had said, more times than she wanted to remember. And the Fates had chosen for John.