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Read an Excerpt: The Starlings by Vivienne Kelly

We at Text have this to say about The Starlings by Vivienne Kelly: we love it.

We love it.

We love it so much that we’re offering a money-back guarantee on it. That’s how much we love it.

Did we mention we’re very keen on this book? Would you like to know why?

Then read the extract below: 


My eighth birthday fell on Sunday 31 March 1985. Among my presents were Karkin the Clawman and Calamitus the Battle Monster, both of whom I had coveted. That alone made the day memorable, but, as it happened, my grandmother died early that morning. For my father the weekend was notable because of the previous day, a red-letter day, as he called it; the football season began that Saturday, and Hawthorn had been defeated by Geelong.

For each of my family, then, that weekend, all those years ago, meant something different. For me it was my birthday and my presents; for my mother it was her mother’s death; for my father it was Hawthorn’s defeat. For my older sister, Pippa, it was probably not a significant weekend at all. Her attention was elsewhere.

Everyone sees things differently.

My family habitually played a forgetting game on birthdays. In my case, my father would read the newspaper and drink his coffee in silence. My mother would dart and pounce (toasting bread, making tea, chattering), and Pippa would ignore me even more strenuously than usual. It was a perilous time: I was nearly sure it was a game, nearly sure they hadn’t in fact forgotten, nearly sure the game would cease with much laughter and teasing (come on now, fess up: you thought we’d really forgotten!) and the delicious bubbly knowledge that I was loved after all.

On this particular Sunday morning, as I came down the stairs of our Hawthorn house, it was all very quiet. When I walked into the sunroom, the breakfast things were on the table. The only person there was my father, and he was not reading the newspaper but scribbling something on a notepad.

‘Nicky,’ he said, in a curiously neutral voice.

I looked around. This was a new version of the game. Perhaps my mother and sister were hiding. My mother’s battered leather briefcase, bulging as usual with unmarked essays, sat on an armchair in the corner; of my mother herself there was no sign.

‘Sit down, Nicky,’ said my father. He looked grim. I judged that this was probably because Hawthorn had been beaten. The previous evening my father had slumped in front of the television, morose and monosyllabic. That was how things were when Hawthorn lost, and a loss at the beginning of the season—exploding as it did all the heady optimism that had possessed him in the preceding weeks—was hard to take. At the end of the season, one could say (so I had learned), There’s always next year. At the beginning of the season, the despair was absolute. My father had listened grimly to the post-match analysis, which praised the brilliant performance of Geelong’s forward line, made patronising noises about the Hawthorn attack, and pointed out that the Hawks’ season would be mediocre indeed if their senior players could not lift. This summary put-down was made worse by the fact that Gary Ablett, the Geelong star full-forward, had dazzled yet again, with a bag of six goals, and had left Hawthorn looking pretty ordinary. And this in itself was made worse because Ablett had once been a Hawthorn player whom the club had transferred to Geelong, whereupon he turned into a superstar. It added insult to injury. My father customarily said that Ablett was overrated, and he did not like it when this hypothesis was disproved, which happened frequently.

My father was a dentist, and I used to think you would not want to be one of his patients on a Monday after Hawthorn had lost. Especially if you happened to be a Collingwood or an Essendon supporter.

Still, it was my birthday. Hawthorn’s loss was important—I understood this—but surely not more important than my eighth birthday.

I sat. ‘Where’s Mummy?’

‘Mummy’s gone over to be with Grandpa.’

‘Grandpa and Didie?’

My grandmother’s name was Diana and everybody, even my mother, called her Didie.

‘Just Grandpa,’ he said. ‘Didie has died, Nicky.’

A spasm flickered over his face, doubtless caused by the inadvertently comic edge of what he had just said. It sounded like a nonsense rhyme: I could not decode it, could not work out what was being expressed. I smiled and said nothing. I still thought I was in a game. Any moment, everyone was going to jump out whooping from under chairs, behind curtains.

‘She died, Nicky. Your grandmother died early this morning.’

I looked down at my empty bowl. I picked up the box of cereal and shook some in. ‘Okay,’ I said. I could be cool. It was a new version of the game, that was clear. I allowed my smile to linger and poured some milk over the cereal.

I suppose it must appear that I was being obtuse, but you should remember that I was primed for a version of the birthday game. Further, although I had some theoretical knowledge of death, my only actual experience of it had been when our cat was run over. I had seen poor Rossini splayed on the road outside our drive; I had seen my father scraping him up with a shovel, digging a hole in the garden, burying him. These were not concepts I could align with Didie.

‘Are there crumpets?’ I asked. There were usually crumpets on birthdays.

Now I realised something was badly wrong. My father had begun to assume the disappointed expression to which I was so accustomed during our dealings together: the melancholy bloodhound grooves of his long dark face were settling. And it was clear that my mother was not about to leap from behind the door.

‘Are you listening to me, Nicky?’ asked my father.

It had really happened: they had forgotten. I felt the prickling behind my eyes and in my nose presaging the unmanly tears that were my father’s pet hate, and vainly I tried to suppress them. To my surprise, he leaned across and held my hand, preventing me from eating my cereal.

‘Never mind, old son,’ he said. ‘It’ll be hard for you. It’s hard for us all. I think it would be a good idea if you had a quiet day today,just spent it thinking about Didie. How would that be, hey? The way you want to remember her.’

His voice wobbled and he stood, transferring his hand to my shoulder, which he squeezed. Then he left the room.

Thinking about Didie was not how I had planned to spend my birthday. It was hard to describe exactly how I felt about Didie. If you had asked me whether I loved her, I suppose I would have agreed that I did, but really only because she was my grandmother and you were supposed to love your grandmother. In fact I did not much like Didie: she had a sharp tongue from which her grandchildren had borne much. It had always seemed to me, moreover, that I suffered more than Pippa; why I did not know. Was it because I was younger? Or more obnoxious? Because I was male? Who could tell?

I finished my cereal and wandered into the lounge. Perhaps my mother might be concealed somewhere there. Hope had faded, however: the room was empty. I was arrested by the colour photograph of Didie and Grandpa that stood on a bookcase. It had been taken on their silver anniversary. There she was, her puffy white hair framing her familiar round face. I have the photograph still: she is wearing what she always wore, what we called Didie colours—mushroomy, cobwebby greys and cloudy pinks, generally in lacy knits, fussy shawls, pale silky blouses, trailing scarves. Didie was like a pigeon: she had a pigeon’s plump chest, and her colours were soft and feathery. When you hugged her—if she let you hug her—you sank into her warmth and the sweet flowery smell of her.

Of course, in recent months she had not been like this. The word cancer was not something I understood, but it had been uttered a good deal in our house over the previous year. I was confused about it, because Pippa (who consulted the astrology forecasts in the newspaper, with what degree of seriousness I was unsure) had told me that I was an Aries and she was a Cancer (another case of apparently irreconcilable concepts). But I knew that hugging Didie these days was different: what you felt was not softness and warmth but frail sharp bone, papery skin. And she gasped a little, if you hugged too hard, as if you were crushing her and she might crack.

But nobody had ever said she might die.

I stared at the photograph a little while, and then at the one beside it, which showed Didie and my mother together, arms about each other’s plump waists, laughably alike with their round faces and their wide eyes, except that my mother’s curls were crisp and dark. My mother’s smile was gormless and hopeful, while Didie’s by comparison was a trifle caustic. In physical terms my mother was all Didie—none of Grandpa in her at all, apparently. Grandpa was slight and dapper and urbane, and you could still see the handsome man he had been. My favourite photograph of Grandpa was in their album: it showed him in his air force uniform during the war. He was grinning cheekily up at the camera and under it Didie had written Mr Debonair! I think this photograph gave me my first intimation that old people had once lived other lives, had other bodies.

Donizetti was stretched on the sofa, and I sat beside him and scratched his back. Rossini had belonged to Pippa; when he died she had mourned extravagantly, and my parents had given her Donizetti, once a black velvety kitten, to fill the gap. (My mother always named our cats.) Since Donizetti had grown into a stately scornful adult, Pippa had largely lost interest in him, and I tried to make up for this by my attentions. On this occasion Donizetti gave me a disdainful glance, rose, arched his back and stalked off. He wasn’t interested in me either.

I wondered whether we would replace Didie, as we had replaced Rossini.

I drifted back to my bedroom, filled with bitterness at the unfairness of life, aggrieved that Didie had stolen my birthday limelight, anxious about the new and uneasy atmosphere that had entered the house. I paused outside my sister’s bedroom: her door was shut, and from within I could hear the radio playing Madonna. Pippa and I were not precisely enemies, but this was mainly because I was seven years younger than she was, and therefore not important enough to occupy much of her attention. On the whole, she simply swatted me away. We did have occasional moments of amity, and I wondered if the unusual circumstances might provoke one of these.

But it was never safe to knock at Pippa’s door, and I decided against it.

Later in the morning I went to find my father, and asked without much hope if I could walk around to my grandparents’ house. They lived only a couple of blocks away, but normally I was not permitted to go their on my own.

‘No,’ he said. ‘No, old son.’

That was twice he had called me old son; a sure sign that things were astray.

‘But I want to see Mummy,’ I said, starting to cry. ‘I want to see Grandpa, and Didie.’

‘Didie is dead, Nicky.’

I saw that he was on the verge of irritability, and was reminded of Hawthorn’s loss. We all stepped warily when Hawthorn had lost, but my rising panic made me reckless. ‘But I can still see her, can’t I? Why can’t I go and see Mummy?’

‘Mummy will be home soon.’

‘For lunch? Will she be home for lunch?’

My father looked annoyed and helpless. ‘Nicky,’ he said. ‘Try to be a bit grown up about this. It’s pretty bad for everybody, and Mummy is trying to cope with it, and she’s trying to look after Grandpa too. There’s an awful lot to be done and I’m afraid she doesn’t need you over there right at the minute.’

‘What needs to be done?’

‘Notices,’ said my father. ‘Funeral arrangements. Telephone calls. Organising. Flowers, and so forth. There’s a lot to be done, Nicky, when somebody dies, and poor Mummy is going to have to do most of it, and it’s going to be difficult for her. Please try to remember that.’

I had not liked to say so, but I wanted also to see Rose. She was the nurse who looked after Didie. She had been there, living in the house, for about six months, ever since Didie had come home from hospital, where she had had an operation. I worshipped Rose, who was young and pretty and friendly and sometimes played Scrabble or Monopoly with me. There were primitive computers and computer games in the eighties, but board games were big in our family, and jigsaws too. Grandpa always made sure a jigsaw was on its way on the big old dining table. Rose now helped with the jigsaws. She had hair like sun shining through a honey jar—dark golden, with deep lights in it. She tied it at the nape when she was on duty; otherwise it fell in thick shining waves, gorgeously, on her shoulders. Her skin was golden too; her teeth were small and evenand very white, and her eyes were sea-green. She was compact and sturdy and orderly and dependable, and I loved her, and I could tell that Didie loved her too. Rose would do something for Didie—bring her a cup of tea, or arrange her pale mohair rug (pink and lilac squares, fading into each other) over her knees—and Didie would smile at her with such warmth, such gratitude, that I felt my own passion for her was given force and reason.

And Didie was not an easy person to care for. She could be petulant and would snap at Rose: once, afterwards, she put her hand out and said, I’m a crabby old woman, Rosie, but I know you forgive me. And Rose gave her a hug, and patted her shoulder, and said, Didie, darling, you are the light of my life and the apple of my eye.

I wondered if Rose would now leave. Would I ever see her again? I wondered too whether there were presents for me, hidden somewhere, for instance under my parents’ bed, wrapped and ready, prepared earlier and then forgotten under the pressure of the day’s events. I wondered whether it would be worth looking for such presents, and decided it would not be. I was not a happy camper.

At eleven o’clock I heard the television being switched on and knew that my father was watching World of Sport, a program during which the previous day’s matches were thrashed out. I could never understand why he wanted to go through the pain of the post-mortem when Hawthorn had lost, especially since he regarded most of the footy commentators as overpaid fools.

I heard the car come in at around lunchtime: I peered out of my window and saw my mother emerge from it, carrying a bakery bag. This was heartening and I raced downstairs. My mother hugged me and said how sad it all was, and that I must always remember Didie, who had loved me very much.

But she said nothing about my birthday.

‘Rose is still there, of course,’ she said to my father while she made sandwiches for lunch, buttering bread and inserting fillings. ‘She’s a treasure, that girl. I was going to bring Dad home for lunch, but he didn’t want to leave the house, while Didie—while Didie’s body—is still there. So Rose said she’d make lunch for him. They’re expecting the funeral people this afternoon. I’ll go back, to be there when they come. I’ve said to Dad he should come around tonight, but we need to work out the death notice now, I think. Poor old thing—he’s very upset. It isn’t a surprise, of course, but nobody expected it so soon.’

She paused to blow her nose.

‘Always a shock, Jenny,’ said my father.

‘Yes, indeed. But very peaceful, at the end, Rose said. Nicky, you don’t want tomato in your sandwich, do you?’

‘No,’ I said, relieved that death did not mean I had to have tomato.

‘Nicky’s been very good,’ said my father. ‘No trouble at all.’

‘Good boy,’ murmured my mother, dropping a kiss on the top of my head. ‘I’ve been thinking about the notice. And the people we need to ring up. I’ve started a list.’

‘Will we put a notice up?’ I asked, all at sea.

‘It’s a different kind of notice,’ said my mother, briskly. ‘You put it in the papers. We need to put one in from our family.’

‘Will I be in the paper?’

‘Jesus, Nicky,’ said my father, as he usually did when I had displayed greater than usual stupidity or self-interest.

‘He’s only seven, Frank,’ said my mother, as she usually did, in mild rebuke.

It was too much. ‘I’m eight,’ I said, my voice breaking with the unfairness of it all. ‘I’m eight.’

My parents both stared at me.

Then my mother swooped. ‘So you are!’ she cried. ‘So he is! My poor darling, my poor Nicky! What have we done to you?’

From then on my mother fussed extravagantly. I was lauded for my self-restraint, kissed many times, and sat at the head of the table to receive my small pile of gifts. Of these I remember that Karkin the Clawman and Calamitus the Battle Monster were among them, but Fort Dread was not. I was in love with the Heroes of the Cosmos, tough synthetic figurines of the day with whom I enacted many dramas and fought many epic battles on my bedroom floor.

The chief protagonists were Zarlok the Prince of Justice (who was bronzed and muscular, wore a crimson tunic and rode a lion called Atrox the Giant Lion) and Fleshbane the Lord of Darkness (who was bright lime green, wore black armour and rode a tiger called Slyder the Golden Stripe). These four I had, as well as Brutum the Ogre, Hateshi (a martial arts expert), Stinger the Waspman, and Ironstrike. Now, Karkin and Calamitus (not a Hero but a kind of talking armoured vehicle for the Heroes to travel on) joined the family and made it number ten. The problem was that I hankered after Fleshbane’s headquarters, Fort Dread, which came with a moat (fillable with real water), parapets, trapdoors, a stone-throwing machine (properly known as a mangonel) and a battering-ram.

My parents seemed resigned to my having the figurines (although my mother worried that they encouraged violence and my father, contradictorily, that they were really dolls), but important infrastructure on a larger scale appeared to be beyond them. When I tried to explain the significance of Fort Dread, my mother handed me a shoebox and told me to do something creative with it. I thought this showed an amazing lack of understanding.

Still, I now had Karkin and Calamitus, and I hadn’t really expected Fort Dread in any case.

‘They’re a bit like Barbie dolls, really, aren’t they?’ said Pippa, who had been summoned from her room for the opening of the presents. She turned Karkin over in her hands. Karkin was scarlet: his left hand was a giant crab claw and he had murderous silver fangs. Delicately, she touched the claw with the tip of her finger.

‘No, they’re not,’ I said. I didn’t want to encourage my father’s misapprehension.

‘I mean, the principle’s the same. It is, really, Nicky. I’m not having a go at you. They’re sort of dress-up dolls, and you do stuff with them. I used to fiddle around with Barbie and Ken in their campervan; you fiddle round with Fleshbane and what’s-his-name in their fort thingy. There’s no difference, really.’

‘I don’t have the fort,’ I said.

My mother brought in the sandwiches, postponed to make way for my presents.

‘Except you don’t have any girls. I had Ken. Doesn’t Zarlok have a girlfriend?’

‘No,’ I said. I didn’t see any point in telling Pippa that when she was safely out of the way I used an old doll (long discarded by her) as the maiden whom Zarlok rescued from various disturbing predicaments, usually suavely engineered by Fleshbane. I hadchosen her because of her blonde hair and her poignant plastic nudity. I called her Rose.

My mother distributed plates and glasses and sat down, running her hands through her curls, something she often did when cross or anxious. ‘We need to work out a notice,’ she said. She had a scribble pad and a pen.

This recalled me to the business of Didie, who in some mysterious way was no longer. I assumed a sober expression and munched my sandwiches.

‘So,’ said my mother. ‘We need her full name and her dates.’

My father took a quick look at his watch and I knew he was thinking of World of Sport, which was still on. My mother glanced at him. He half-shrugged. ‘I’ll write it for you,’ he said, reaching over the table for the pad and pen. ‘Diana Glover.’

‘Diana Jennifer Glover. She was born in 1915. Fifteen May. Poor Didie. She was always so pleased with that date—fifteen, five, fifteen.’ My father wrote this down, and then he wrote 31 March 1985.

‘Beloved wife,’ said my mother. ‘Beloved wife of Daniel, loving mother of Jennifer. Should we put her maiden name?’ She blew her nose again, and wiped her eyes.

I had supposed this would be a brief process, but it dragged on. My mother wasn’t sure whether various things should or shouldn’t be included. Pippa as always had too many opinions, my father not enough; my mother hovered between them, increasingly anguished. I slid away after a little while and took Karkin and Calamitus with me: I was anxious to sort out how they would speak. Each of my Heroes of the Cosmos had a distinctive language, which I painstakingly invented and developed. Zarlok the Prince of Justice spoke in a heroic way, with much posturing. He was given to making speeches, and had a grandiose turn of phrase. For Fleshbane the Lord of Darkness I had devised a hissy sort of voice, with what I imagined to be a Nazi-type accent. And so forth. Calamitus was a vehicle, but animals and vehicles and some of the weaponry, being magic, also talked. It was a complicated business.

Around this time it became even more complicated, as I began to write plays for the figurines, instead of simply making up the action in a random way. The language and content of the plays were influenced (although she did not realise this) by my mother, who taught Literature at the school where Pippa and I went: Pippa was in Year Ten; I had just started Grade Two. Pippa had a best friend called Gina Hunter, and many other friends besides; Pippa played netball. I suppose I was an odd child. I loved books; I couldn’t play sport; I didn’t have friends.

My mother was less worried about these matters than my father. She considered it necessary for her children to have a good knowledge of her own household gods, who included Malory, Yeats, Dickens and Shakespeare. Her insistence on reading to me from Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb as soon as I had turned five had a good deal to do with my father’s notion of me as a sissy. My mother’s stubbornness in reading to me was bad enough: my own appetite for the stories rendered me beyond the pale. I adored them. He can’t possibly understand what he’s hearing, my father would grumble. He understands enough, my mother would reply. The truth lay halfway between. I was a precocious child, and something about the language intoxicated me. I remember learning the first sentence of the Lambs’ version of The Merchant of Venice, so that I could repeat it to myself whenever I wanted to. It went like this.

Shylock, the Jew, lived at Venice: he was an usurer, who had amassed an immense fortune by lending money at great interest to Christian merchants.

I would say an usurer to myself over and over again. I had not the faintest idea what was meant by usurer or the Jew or Christian merchants, nor where or what Venice was; I had a fuzzy notion thatat great interest meant that this particular sort of money was unusually interesting. It didn’t matter: as the story unfolded, enough was accessible to enthral me. My mother read all the tales to me from start to finish in a clear and strong voice (at university she had acted with the student theatrical company), omitting not a single nuance, not a single syllable, and when we had finished them we started again from the beginning. Sometimes, instead of the Lambs, it was Oliver Twist or David Copperfield; sometimes (better still) Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling of King Arthur, or Robinson Crusoe, or my illustrated books about Jason and the Argonauts, orThe Adventures of Robin Hood (also by Lancelyn Green), orGulliver’s Travels, or The Jungle Book, or Celtic Myths and Legends. I lapped them all up.

It was only later that I understood my parents were locked in a deadly battle for my soul. On my fifth birthday my father presented me with a brown and gold Hawthorn footy scarf and jumper. My mother gave me Tales from Shakespeare. As far as I was concerned it was no contest. The footy jumper had 17 on the back, the number of the great Michael Tuck, my father’s hero. I was impervious. I’d rather have my mother reading to me. If she wasn’t available, I’d look at the richly coloured illustrations on their satiny paper—Juliet leaning over her balcony, Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull, Lear on the blasted heath. Everyone wore robes, except for Hamlet, who wore black tights. I wanted to wear robes too. I wanted the rush of silk or the swing of velvet around my feet. Number 17 didn’t rate.

When the notice was finished my mother showed it to me. It ended with Devoted and beloved grandmother of Philippa and Nicholas Starling.

‘I want to be Nicky,’ I said. ‘Didie called me Nicky. She never called me Nicholas. Nobody calls me Nicholas.’

‘Pippa wanted her proper name, so it looks better if your proper name is there too.’

‘I want to be Nicky,’ I said. ‘Didie won’t know who I am if you call me Nicholas.’

My mother stared at me. ‘Nicky, darling, Didie won’t be reading this.’

I started to cry.

‘Heavens above, Nicky,’ said my father. ‘What a fuss over nothing.’

‘I’ll change it,’ said my mother. ‘You can be Nicky. Okay?’

‘Christ, Jenny,’ said my father. ‘Don’t give into him like that.’

My mother gave my father the sort of harassed look she reserved for comments of this kind, and the matter lapsed. I overheard her later reading the family notice to the newspaper on the telephone, and she pronounced and spelled my name, in its abbreviated form, with the same care that she used when she read to me.

There was still a question bothering me. I did not like to ask it in my father’s presence, but I needed an answer. My mother came into my bedroom to say goodnight. ‘Mummy?’ I said, as she tucked in the blankets.

She stroked my head and waited.

‘Will Didie be a ghost?’

‘A ghost?’

‘Like Hamlet’s father. You know how Hamlet’s father waits around and then talks to Hamlet?’

‘Oh Nicky, sweetheart,’ sighed my mother. ‘No, we won’t see Didie again, I’m afraid. No ghost.’

‘But is that because—’

‘Because what?’

‘Well, is it because nobody murdered her, or because ghosts aren’t real?’

‘Both,’ said my mother, straightening the sheet.

I knew in fact that ghosts were real, though I had expected my mother to deny it: the existence of ghosts fell in the range of phenomena my parents habitually denied. But I knew their reality. They gathered in my bedroom at night with energy and a commanding presence that were the unforeseen consequences of a game I played. I had spoken to nobody about this game, which was intensely private. I called it the Unscared Game and its purpose was to try to rid myself of the fears and anxieties that caused me sometimes to cry and thus to incur my father’s displeasure. I calculated that if I could manage to maintain composure in the face of something truly frightening, I would be well on the way to manliness and my father’s approval.

So I determined to imagine the worst and most dreadful things possible, and to stare them down. I undertook this project at night, since I reasoned that this was the scariest time, and if I was in bed in the dark I was unlikely to be distracted by other matters. There was a ghost gardener—long and spindly—who raked leaves below my bedroom window at night. There was a wombat ghost, with scarlet eyes and a pale, hairy body, who floated outside, snorting and peering in. And there was a headless ghost—the ghost of the Green Knight, who thundered up and down the road in full armour, riding a white stallion and carrying his green head with its green flowing hair under his arm. I feared also the three-armed hunchback ghost (the third arm grew, horribly malformed, from his hump), and the ape-like cannibal ghost, who preyed on my tender flesh. Once my imagination got into gear there was no end to the number of ghosts.

Wild animals also played a part in these terrors. There was a black lion who waited behind the door of the kitchen and pounced on me, baring his yellow teeth and scalping me with his hooked silver claws. A wild elephant with jagged, dirty tusks tumbled down the street, trumpeting his rogue cry at me, his vast pillar-like feet spoking out in all directions. Small sinister night creatures, with glaring eyes and flat ears and high-pitched keening cries, clustered under my bed. My room was thronged with malevolent creatures great and small, including the Thief in the Night, who was nothing more than a sidling shadow; the Bad Angel, who brandished a giant golden sword and whose wings were made of fire; and the Drowned Man, who dripped and limped and coughed. But worst was the dreadlocked wooden Tree Man, who sprouted gnarled limbs and barged into my room swinging a glinting tomahawk in his knotted fist.

The project had so far been unsuccessful: all it had achieved was to frighten me out of my mind. But none of the ghosts I had summoned was the manifestation of an actual person I had known. I did not want the ghost of Didie to appear at the end of my bed. When I came home from school the following day, shepherded as usual by Pippa, the house seemed trapped in a miserable fog. My father was at work and my mother was out somewhere doing unnamed things with Grandpa. At first I moped around; then it occurred to me I could watch afternoon television (intensely attractive to me because it was forbidden). But it had lost some of its spicy glamour, and when I heard my mother’s car in the drive I turned the television off without regret. She was preoccupied, however, and having dropped her customary kiss on the top of my head she went off to make some telephone calls.

After dinner that night, she made a doleful attempt to sound casual.

‘Pippa, Nicky, Grandpa wants to have a viewing of Didie,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come?’

‘Only Pippa,’ said my father, knee-jerk style. ‘Nicky’s too young.’

‘I am not,’ I said, knee-jerk style. I was an apt pupil in some things.

‘You don’t know what a viewing is,’ observed Pippa.

‘I do too,’ I said.

‘For goodness sake,’ said my mother. ‘Don’t squabble about it. It’s not something to be fought over. Pippa, what do you think?’

Pippa played with the fork on her empty plate. ‘I will if you say I ought to,’ she said in a hesitant tone which was most unlike her. ‘But I don’t want to, and I don’t think you should let Nicky.’

My mother looked mulish, and I could tell she was going to be on my side.

‘He’s far too young,’ said my father with decision.

‘I think Dad would like him to.’

‘Why on earth?’

‘He just said he would, Frank. He said, to the undertaker, you know, he wanted a viewing, and I said, did he want the children to come, and he said yes, he did.’

‘But why?’ asked my father, with that particular tone he did so well, the tone of Why-am-I-being-driven-so-utterly-mad-by-this-drivel?

‘He thinks Didie would like it.’

‘But that’s hardly the point, Jenny.’

‘Well, I think it is the point, really.’

‘God save me,’ muttered my father, standing up.

‘I need help here, Frank,’ cried my mother, in a suddenly wounded voice.

Pippa, who had been studying the table, glanced up at her, and at him, and then looked down again.

He sat down. ‘I’m trying to help,’ he said, ‘but it seems to me you’re not listening to what I’m saying.’

My mother clasped her hands and stared at them. Having jerked my father back into a participatory role, she did not know where to turn. The discussion petered out, and when Tuesday arrived I was still unsure of what a viewing was, or whether I was to be allowed to attend it.

As it happened we were driving towards the funeral parlour before this was clarified for me. I asked from the back seat whether there would be lollies. I suppose I was making some kind of a connection, suggested by the concept of viewing, with the cinema.

‘You haven’t got a clue, have you?’ said Pippa, not altogether unkindly.

‘Nicky, darling,’ said my mother. ‘We’re not going to a movie. We’re going to see Didie.’

‘I know that,’ I said, defensively and untruthfully.

‘He’s too young,’ muttered my father, who was driving.

‘Don’t say that, please, Frank,’ murmured my mother. She turned to me. ‘Nicky, this is just a way of saying goodbye to Didie. She’ll be in her coffin, and she’ll look pretty much the same, and she’ll be dressed the way Didie is always dressed. All we’re doing is saying goodbye to her. There’s nothing to be worried about.’

Until then I hadn’t been much worried, and now revised that attitude.

When we arrived, we were shown into a small room swagged and tasselled by many velvet curtains in some dark rich colour—burgundy, I think. Recorded organ music was playing, groaning and heavy. In the centre of the room there was a long box which (I realised) must be a coffin. It was polished and dark and narrow, and there was no lid. Inside, on a pale pink satin lining, lay something which both was and was not Didie. Her sharp old eyes were closed and her hands were folded on her chest; she was dressed in the pigeony, mushroomy colours to which she was accustomed. Somehow her face looked doll-like: it had been powdered, and her eyelashes were strikingly black.

‘I asked them not to put on mascara,’ my mother whispered, to nobody in particular.

We all stood around the coffin, eyeing its occupant. After the first glance, I no longer wanted to look at her. I tried to look at the carpet, at the flower vases at the head and foot of the coffin, at the mournful curtains. But my eyes were dragged back to Didie, who seemed to be occupying some different dimension from the rest of us.

My mother put her arm around me. ‘See, Nicky, darling?’ she said. ‘It’s as if Didie’s asleep, isn’t it?’

‘Except she’s dead,’ said Pippa, in a high-pitched voice which sounded on the unthinkable edge of a giggle.

My father scowled at her.

‘Pippa, darling,’ said my mother in remonstrance.

‘Please can we go now?’ I asked. I didn’t know how long a viewing should take. It was already long enough for me.

‘You’re here now; you might as well stay,’ said my father, just as my mother said, ‘You can pop out to the foyer and wait for us there, if you like.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ said Pippa.

‘I told you he was too young,’ my father said, as we left the room.

So there you have it. This is why we at Text love The Starlings by the marvellously talented Vivienne Kelly.

For details on our guarantee, you’ll need to buy the book. But really, you won’t need to worry about that. 

You’re going to love it.

The Starlings

The Starlings

Vivienne Kelly


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