Under shifting glass, p.1

Under Shifting Glass, page 1


Under Shifting Glass

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Under Shifting Glass








  First published in the United States in 2013 by Chronicle Books LLC.

  First published in Great Britain in 2011 by HarperCollins Children’s Books under the title The Flask. HarperCollins Children’s Books is a division of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

  Text © 2011 by Nicky Singer.

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data available.

  ISBN 978-1-4521-2561-9

  Book and North American type design by Alison Impey.

  Typeset in Bulmer.

  Chronicle Books LLC

  680 Second Street, San Francisco, California 94107


  For my daughter, Molly,

  who taught me everything I needed

  to know to write this book, and

  who is teaching me still


  I find the flask the day the twins are born, so I think of these things as joined, as the twins are joined.

  The flask is in the desk, though it is hidden at first, just as the desk itself is hidden, shrouded inside the word bureau—which is what my gran calls this lump of furniture that arrives in my room. I hate the desk. I hate the bureau. It is a solid, everyday reminder that my Aunt Edie is dead.

  Aunt Edie isn’t—wasn’t—my real aunt, she was my great-aunt, so of course she must have been old.

  “Ancient,” says my friend Zoe. “Over sixty.”

  Old and small and wrinkled, with skin as dry as paper.


  Her bright blue eyes gone milky with age.

  No. No!

  My Aunt Edie blazed.

  At the back of her yard there is a rock garden in which she grew those tiny flowers that keep themselves closed up tight, refusing to unfurl until the sun comes out. They could be closed up for hours, for days, and then suddenly burst into life, showing their dark little hearts and their delicate white petals with the vivid pink tips. That’s what I sometimes thought about Aunt Edie and me. That I was the plant all curled up and she was the blazing sun. That she, and only she, could open up my secret heart.

  A week after her death, I find myself standing by that rock garden, staring at the bare earth.

  “Looking for the mesembryanthemums?” says Si. Si’s my stepfather and he’s good with long words.

  I say nothing.

  “They’re annuals, those flowers, the ones you used to like. Don’t think she had the chance to plant any this year.”

  I say nothing.

  “What’re you thinking, Jess?”

  Si is good with questions. He’s good with answers. He’s good at talking. He’s been talking in my life since I was two.

  “About the music,” I say.

  I’m thinking about Aunt Edie and the piano in her drawing room. About how her tiny hands used to fly over the keys and the room fill with the sound of her music and her laughter. I’m thinking about the very first time she lifted me onto the stool to sit beside her as she played. I must have been about three years old. There was no music on the stand in front of her; she played, as she always did, from memory, or she just made stuff up. But I didn’t know that then. I thought the music was in her hands. I thought music flowed out of people’s fingers.

  “Come on, Jess, your turn now!”

  And that very first day, she put my hands next to hers. My hands on the keys of the piano, the keys to a new universe. And, of course, I can’t have made a tune. I must have crashed and banged, but that’s not how I remember it. I remember that she could make my fingers flow with music, too. I remember my dark little heart opening out.

  After that I couldn’t climb onto that stool fast enough. Every time I went to her house, I would pull her to the piano and she would lift me, laughing. When I sat on that stool, nothing else in the world existed. Just me and Edie and the music. Time passed and my legs got longer. I didn’t need to be lifted onto the stool. And still we played. Hidden little me—unfurling.

  “Where shall we go, Jess?” she’d ask. “What’s your song today?”

  My song.

  Our song.

  I thought it would last forever.

  Then she was dead. It was Gran who found her. Gran and Aunt Edie were sisters. They had keys to each other’s houses, had lived next door to each other for the best part of forever. In the fence that separates their gardens there is a little gate. During daylight hours, summer and winter, they kept their back doors open, and you never knew, if you called on them, in whose house you’d find them. So they were joined, too.

  All sorts of things I’d thought of as separate before the twins were born turn out to be joined.


  The whole family gathers at the memorial home for the funeral. The hearse is late. My cousin Alistair, who is only five, keeps asking when Aunt Edie is going to arrive. Finally, the hearse turns up with the great brass-handled coffin.

  “But where’s Aunt Edie?” persists Alistair.

  The grown-ups hush him, but I know what he means. You’re invited to Aunt Edie’s for tea and there she is with a plate of pimento cheese sandwiches. You’re invited to her funeral, why wouldn’t she be there, too? Aunt Edie at the memorial home with a plate of pimento cheese sandwiches.

  Besides, as I know (and Alistair obviously knows), you can’t put the sun in a box.

  After the service there is a party at Gran’s that Si calls a wake. I don’t ask about the word wake but Si, with his Best Explaining Voice, tells me anyway. The Old English root of the word, which means being awake, he says, changed in late medieval times to wacu. He pronounces this like wacko. It means watching over someone, he tells me. People used to sit up overnight, apparently, with dead bodies, watching.

  I wacu the wacko people at the wacu. There are some I don’t know and no one else seems to know them either, as they are standing in a corner by themselves. Mom is sitting on the window seat, weighed down by the coming birth. I listen to her hiccup; she can barely breathe because of the two babies pressed together inside her. She asks me to take some sandwiches to the newcomers. There’s one plate of sandwiches, so I take that. The strangers—two men and a woman—don’t notice me at first because they are deep in conversation. They’re talking about Aunt Edie’s money and about who is going to get it, as she doesn’t have any children of her own and therefore no grandchildren.

  “Sandwich?” I say.

  “Oh—and who do we have here?” says the woman, as though I just morphed into a three-year-old.

  “Jessica,” I say. No one calls me Jessica unless they’re angry with me. But I don’t like this woman with her hard face and very pink lipstick and I don’t want her to call me Jess, which is what the people I love call me.

  “And what’s in the sandwiches, Jessica?”

  “Pimento cheese.”

  “Oh—not for me, thanks.”

  “It was Aunt Edie’s favorite,” I say.

  “Why don’t you have one then, Jessica?” the woman says.

  I have three. I stand there munching them in front of those strangers, even though I’m not in the least hungry. When I’ve finished I say, “Aunt Edie left everything to Gran.”

  Si told me that, too.

  Si doesn’t believe in keeping things from children.


  Later Gran says, “I want to give you something, Jess; something of Edie’s.” She pauses. “Edie would have wanted that. What would you like, Jess?”

  I do not say the desk.

certainly do not say the bureau.

  I say, “The piano.”

  This cannot be a surprise to my grandmother, but her hand flies to her mouth as if, instead of saying the piano, I’d said the moon.

  “I don’t know,” says Gran from behind her hand. “I don’t know about that. I mean, I’ll have to talk it over with your mom. And Si.”

  Mom says, “You already have a piano, Jess.”

  This is true and not true. There is a piano in our house, an old upright, offered—free of charge—to anyone who cared to remove it when the Tinkerbell Nursery closed when I was about six. I’d jumped at the chance of a piano—any piano. But the keys of the Tinkerbell piano had been hit for too long by too many small fingers with no music in them at all. The felt of the piano’s hammers is worn and the C above middle C always sticks and the top A doesn’t sound at all, no matter what the piano tuner does.

  Aunt Edie’s piano has a full set of working keys. Aunt Edie’s piano keeps its pitch even though it’s only tuned once a year. Aunt Edie’s piano holds all the songs we ever made together.

  It’s also a concert grand.

  Si says, “This is a small house, Jess.”

  This is also true and not true. The house is small, but the garage is huge.

  Si says, “You can’t keep a piano in a garage, Jessica.”

  And you can’t. Not when the garage is filled up with bits and pieces for your stepfather’s Morris Traveller 1000. And the Traveller itself. And the donor cars he keeps for spare parts.

  “What about the bureau?” says Gran.

  “Bureau?” I say.

  “Desk,” says Si. “A desk’s a great idea. A girl your age can’t be doing her homework at the kitchen table forever.”

  “It belonged to my father, Jess,” says Gran. “Your great-grandfather.”

  But I never met my great-grandfather. I don’t care about him, and I don’t care about his desk.

  But it still arrives.

  That’s when I learn you don’t always get what you want in life; you get what you’re given.

  Which is how it is for the twins.


  It is as if the desk has landed from space. My room is small, and it has small and mainly modern things in it. A single bed with a white wooden headboard and a white duvet stitched with yellow daisies; a chrome-and-glass computer station; a mirror in a silver frame; a slim chest of drawers. And a small(ish) space, where they put the desk.

  Two men puff and heave it up the stairs. They are narrow stairs. The men bang it into the doorjamb getting it into the room and then they plonk it down in the space and push it hard against the wall.

  “Don’t make them like they used to,” says the sweatier of the two men. “Thank the Lord.”

  The desk—the bureau—is made of dark wood. It has four drawers with heavy brass locks and heavy brass handles, which make me think of Aunt Edie’s coffin. The desk bit is a flap. You pull out two runners, either side of the top drawer, and fold the desk down to rest on them. One of the runners, the one on the left, is wobbly, and if you’re not careful, it just falls out on the floor. Or your foot.

  Si comes for an inspection. “I could probably fix that runner,” he says. “Or you could just be careful. It’s not difficult. Look.”

  I look.

  “Marvelous,” Si says, testing the flap. “You can do your homework and then—voilà!—fold it all away.”

  “I hate it,” I say.

  “It’s a desk,” says Si. “Nobody hates a desk.”


  The desk squats in my room. I don’t touch it, I don’t put anything in it, I don’t even look at it more than I can help, but it certainly looks at me; it scowls and glowers and mocks me.

  Here I am, it says. Just what you wanted, right? A bureau.

  I turn my back on that bureau. But it still stares at me—stares and stares out of the mirror.

  I turn the mirror to face the wall.

  Some weeks later, I hear Mom puffing up the stairs. She puffs more than the delivery men, because of carrying the weight of the babies curled together inside her. And also the weight of the worry they are causing.

  “Jess,” she says, stopping by my door.


  “Jess—I wish you could have had the piano, too.”

  And that makes me want to cry, the way things do when you think nobody understands but actually they do.


  The next day my friend Zoe comes over.

  Zoe is a dancer. She doesn’t have the body of a dancer; she’s not slim and poised. In fact she’s quite big: big-boned and, increasingly, curvy. But when she dances, you think it is what she was born to do. I love watching Zoe dance. When Zoe dances, she’s like me with the piano—nothing else exists, she loses herself in it.

  Otherwise, we’re not really very alike at all. She’s loud and I’m quiet. She’s funny and I’m not. And she likes boys. Mom says that’s because, even though we’re in the same grade at school, she’s nearly twelve months older than me, and that makes a difference. Mom says it’s also to do with the fact that she’s the youngest child in their family.

  Soon I will not be the youngest child in our family.

  I will no longer be an only child.

  Si says, “Girls grow up too fast these days.”

  And I don’t ask him what he means by this or whether he’d prefer Zoe (I’ve a feeling he doesn’t like Zoe that much) to go back to wearing a romper, because this will only start A Discussion.

  I have other friends, of course—Em, Alice—but it’s Zoe I see most often, not least because she lives at the bottom of our cul-de-sac, so she just waltzes up and knocks on our door.

  Like today.

  Then she pounds up the stairs and bursts into my room. Sometimes I think I’ll ask her if it’s possible for her to come into a room so quietly no one would notice her, which is something I’m quite good at. But I’m not sure she’d understand the task, which is another reason I like her.

  “Hi, hi, hi. Hi!” says Zoe. She wheels about, or tries to, which is when she comes face to face with the desk.

  “What,” she says, “is that?!”

  “It’s a bureau,” I say.

  “A what?”

  “A bureau.”

  “But what’s it doing here?”

  “It belonged to my Aunt Edie.”

  “It’s hideous,” she says. “And ancient.”

  Ancient is one of her favorite words. Anything more than two weeks old is ancient as far as Zoe is concerned.

  “It’s George the Third,” I say. Si again.

  “Hideous, ancient, and pre-owned. Who’d want something that already belonged to some George whatever?” she says.

  I’m going to explain that George Whatever didn’t own this piece of furniture, that he just happened to be on the throne of England when it was made, but that would turn me into Si, so I don’t.

  “Hideous, ancient, pre-owned, and bashed up,” she continues.

  Bashed up?

  I actually take a look at the desk. It’s not bashed up. And the wood isn’t as dark as I’d thought, either; in fact it’s a pale honey color and the grain is quite clear, so even though it’s more than two hundred and fifty years old, you can still imagine the tree from which it was originally cut. There are dents in the surface, of course, and scratches, too, but it doesn’t look bashed up, just as though it has lived a little: lived and survived.

  “It’s not bashed up,” I say.


  “And it’s not hideous. Look at the locks,” I say. “Look at the handles.”

  The locks and the handles are also not as I’d thought. They’re not heavy, not funereal; in fact they’re quite delicate. Around the keyholes are beautiful little curls of brass in the shape of leaves, and even the little brass-headed nails that hold the handles in place are carefully banged in to look like part of the pattern.

  “Hideous, ancient, pre-owned, and IN THE WAY,” says Zoe. Sh
e pirouettes. “I mean, how is a person supposed to dance in this room anymore?”

  Then she sees the mirror turned against the wall.

  “And what’s this?” she says. “Are you having a bad face day?”

  She hangs the mirror the correct way around and checks to see if she has any pimples, which of course she doesn’t. Even when she gets to be a teenager I doubt she’ll have pimples. Things like that don’t happen to Zoe.

  “I’m sorry about the dancing, Zo,” I say. “But I really like this bureau. In fact,” I add, experimenting, “I think I love it.”

  “Huh?” says Zoe, who’s still searching for pimples.

  Sometimes I think Zoe is a mirror. I look into her to find out who I really am.


  As soon as Zoe leaves (flamboyant twirl and a shout of Bye-eee as she flies down the stairs), I take my chair and sit at the desk.

  I never saw Aunt Edie at this desk, as I saw her so often at the piano. But she must have sat here, I realize. Sat writing letters, private things—not things you do when you have guests in the house. I pull out the runners (and Si is right about this, it isn’t difficult at all) and lay down the lid.

  Inside it is like a little castle. In the middle, there is a small arched doorway, the door itself hinged between two tiny carved wooden pillars. On either side of the door are stepped shelves and cubbyholes of different sizes, to store envelopes or paper, I suppose. There are also four drawers: two wide, shallow ones next to the pillars, and at either edge of the desk two narrower, longer ones. The desktop itself slides away if you pull a little leather tab. Underneath is a cavernous little underdrawer.

  “That’s where they would have kept the inkwells,” says Si in passing.

  I can see dark stains that could have been ink. People writing at this desk long before Aunt Edie. I imagine a quill pen scratching out a love letter. And suddenly those faraway people who sat at this desk, family or strangers, they don’t seem so faraway at all. They seem joined to me by the desk and all the things that have been written and thought here. And then I think about Edie herself, and how maybe she loved this desk. Sun-bright Edie, maybe coming here to be quiet, to be still, to unfurl her own dark heart.

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