Before I Met You

1

1983

THE DAY, AND, in fact the rest of Elizabeth Dean’s life, had started at Weymouth at an ungodly hour, continued on to a damp, windswept ferry across the Channel and culminated in a silent drive across Guernsey and a walk up a long gravelled hill to a large house with grey walls and black windows. The house stood tall and wide, atop a hill of dense woodland. In front of the house was the sea. Behind the house was nothing.

Elizabeth thought, but did not say, that the house was clearly haunted and that she would not countenance spending as long as one night in it.

‘Elizabeth, this is my mother, Arlette. And, Mummy, this is Elizabeth – or Lizzy, as we usually call her.’

‘When she’s being good!’ Alison, Elizabeth’s mother, interjected.

‘Yes,’ rejoined her mother’s boyfriend. ‘When she’s being good. When she’s not being good she’s plain old Elizabeth.’

Her mother’s boyfriend ruffled Elizabeth’s hair and squeezed her shoulder, and Elizabeth grimaced. She stared at the ground, at the brown and red tessellated tiles beneath her feet, cut and formed into the shapes of stars. She’d known this moment was coming for two weeks now, since Christmas Eve, when they’d got the call that had spoiled their Christmas Day. Two weeks ago Elizabeth’s mother and her boyfriend had sat her down and explained that his mother, a woman called Arlette Lafolley, a person of whose existence Elizabeth had been blissfully unaware before that moment, had fallen in her house on an island called Guernsey and broken something, and had been advised by her GP that she should have someone living with her.

And so it had been decided, somehow, somewhere, behind some closed door or other, that the solution to this problem was for Elizabeth and her mother to leave the only home that Elizabeth had ever known, a neat, red-brick bungalow on the outskirts of Farnham in Surrey, and go to this island to live with this woman, for at least, her mother had told her, three months, and to do so within two weeks.

‘Elizabeth,’ said her mother’s boyfriend, ‘are you going to say hello?’

Elizabeth tried not to squirm, but it was very hard not to squirm when you were in a haunted house with your mother’s boyfriend’s hand on your shoulder, being introduced to a terrible old woman whose frail bones had conspired to crumble and break and destroy your life. Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the woman in front of her, but not before noticing, with some surprise, that the woman was wearing red silk shoes adorned with matching rosettes. Elizabeth’s gaze also took in black lacy tights over shapely calves, and then a coat of full, luxuriant mink that hung from throat to mid-shin, and a face, round and elfin, like the face of a child, pink lips, pearly blue eyelids and a matching mink hat. On each earlobe a small chunk of diamond shone dully in the muted candlelight.

Elizabeth gulped. ‘Hello,’ she said.

The lady in the fur coat paused for a beat and then bowed down so that her head was level with hers and said, ‘Hello, Elizabeth. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

It was impossible from her expression to gauge whether these things she had heard had been bad or good, but then her face softened and she smiled, and Elizabeth smiled back and said, ‘I like your shoes.’

Arlette smiled too and said, ‘Then you have very good taste. Now come in and get warm, I’ve lit the fire.’

Elizabeth and her mother exchanged looks. Elizabeth’s mother had met this woman before, about two years ago when she and her