Page 3 of Daisy Darker

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The clocks covering the walls in the hall are all different sizes, colors, and designs. There are big clocks, small clocks, round clocks, square clocks, digital clocks, cuckoo clocks, musical clocks, pendulum clocks, novelty clocks, and even a vintage wall-mounted hour glass, containing sand from Blacksand Bay. The clock nearest the front door is one of Nana’s favorites. It’s an antique wooden punch clock from an old Cornish factory, originally used by staff to clock on and off. My dad sighs. He is a man who preempts most challenges with defeat. He takes a card with his name on it from the tiny ancient cubbyhole, slots it into the clock, punches the time on it, then puts it back.

“Happy now?” he says.

“Ecstatic,” Nana replies with another smile. “Family traditions become increasingly important the older you get; they hold us together when we’ve spent too long apart. If you check your card, you’ll see it’s been a while since my only child paid me a visit.”

This is a familiar family dance, and we all know the steps.

Nana doesn’t need to nag me to punch in. Iloveall of her littlequirks and traditions, even the unconventional ones. But I’m used to her eccentric behavior; unlike the rest of the family, I visit Nana all the time. When we’re done with the unusual arrival rituals, we head into the lounge.

If you can imagine a room filled with mismatching retro furniture, a 1950s jukebox, pastel-colored sofas, comfy armchairs, shelves filled with so many books they have started to bend in the middle from the weight of them all, enormous windows with sea views, a huge open fireplace, and turquoise wallpaper covered in hand-painted birds and elderflower blossoms, then you can picture the lounge at Seaglass. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Nana holds up a bottle of scotch from the brass drinks trolley in the corner. I shake my head—it’s a bit early for me—but Dad nods, then makes a fuss of Poppins while the whiskey is being poured. He is the only whiskey drinker in our family; everyone else hates the stuff. Nana mixes herself a mojito, plucking some mint leaves, then bashing the ice with an ancient-looking rolling pin before adding a generous glug of rum. I marvel at the Darker family’s version of casual drinks. There is no humble sherry in this house, not even in a trifle.

Thanks to a smidgen of subsidence—barely noticeable unless you know to look, and our family has always been very good at papering over the cracks—drinks placed on tables in this room tend to slide right off. My mother used to say it was why the whole family drank too much—always having to hold their glasses for fear of breaking them—but I don’t think that’s the reason. Some people drink to drown their sorrows; others drink so they can swim in them.

We sit in an awkward but well-practiced silence, and I notice they both take a few sips of their drinks before attempting any further conversation. The branches of our family tree all grew in differentdirections, and it’s best to avoid the stormy subjects that might make them bend or break. I smile politely and try to forget all the years when my dad didn’t speak to me, didn’t visit me in hospital when I was a child, or behaved as though I were already dead. I pretend not to remember the birthdays he forgot, or the Christmases when he chose to work instead of coming home, the countless times he made my mother cry, or the night I heard him blame their divorce on me and my broken heart. Just for now, while we wait for the others to get here, I pretend that he is a good father and that I am the daughter he wanted me to be.

I don’t have to pretend for long.

My eldest sister is the next to arrive, the clever one, who saved me from drowning when she was ten. Rose is beautiful, intelligent, and damaged. She is five years older and almost a foot taller than I am. We have never been close. It isn’t just her height that makes it difficult to see eye to eye with my sister, and it isn’t the age gap either. Other than the same blood running through our veins, we simply don’t have very much in common.

Rose is a vet and has always preferred the company of animals to people. Her clothes are as sensible as the woman wearing them: a striped Breton top beneath a tailored jacket teamed with smart (extra-long) jeans. She looks older than her thirty-four years. Her long chestnut hair is tied off her face in a neat ponytail, and her fringe is too long—as though she is trying to hide behind it. We haven’t spoken since before she got married. We both know why.

Families are like snowflakes: each and every one is unique.

Rose is happier to see the dog than she would ever be to see me or Dad, so once again, Poppins gets all the attention. My eldest sister came here alone this weekend; I suppose we all did. Rose’s marriage lasted less than a year, and she threw herself into her work and opening her own veterinary practice after that. Even as a child shewas determinedly conscientious: the straight-A student who put the rest of us to shame. Rose has always had a thirst for knowledge that no amount of learning could quench. Dad calls her Dr. Doolittle, because he thinks she only talks to animals these days. He might be right. Rose fetches herself a large glass of water from the kitchen, then perches on the edge of the pink sofa next to my father, still wearing her jacket as though she hasn’t made up her mind whether to stay.

The sea is already starting to restitch itself across the causeway by the time the others arrive. While my father uses punctuality as kindness, my mother uses lateness to offend. Nancy Darker divorced our dad over twenty years ago, but she kept his name, and kept in close contact with his mother. She has traveled down from London with my fifteen-year-old niece and Lily—her favorite daughter. They have always been close and still spend a lot of time together. Lily is the only one of us to furnish our parents with an elusive grandchild; I don’t imagine there will be any more.

When my mother looks in my direction, I feel cold. She is a woman who never hides her seasons; she is winter all year round. Nancy looked so much like Audrey Hepburn when we were growing up that I sometimes thought itwasher on TV, when she made us watch those black-and-white films over and over. She is still a very beautiful and graceful woman, and looks considerably younger than her fifty-four years. She wears her hair in the same black bob as always, and still looks, walks, and talks like an out-of-work film star. The fur coat and costume jewelry aren’t the only things about my mother that are fake.

The fact that she could have been an actress—if she hadn’t accidently become a parent—is something she frequently reminds us all of, as though her failed ambitions are our fault. But in many ways, I suspect some level of parental resentment is normal, even ifrarely spoken about. Doesn’t everyone wonder who they might have been if they weren’t who they were?

The divorce settlement was generous but dried up once we had all fled the nest. I don’t understand where my mother gets her money from now, and I know better than to ask. She has made a part-time career out of competitions—entering every one she sees on daytime TV. Perhaps because of the sheer number she enters, she sometimes wins, but it can be dangerous to celebrate luck as success. Nancy has always been the puppeteer of our family, pulling all our strings in such a subtle fashion, we didn’t notice when our thoughts were not our own.

When Nana heaves open the old wooden door to greet the late arrivals, the causeway is already slippery with seawater. I can see that their shoes are all soaking wet, forming little puddles around their feet. Lily is too busy blaming everything and everyone but herself for being late—the traffic, the GPS, the car Nana paid for—to notice the way we are all staring at her. It’s as though she thinks the tide should have waited for her to arrive. Complaining is my sister’s not-so-secret superpower. She is a walking frown. The soundtrack of her life is little more than a series of moans stitched together into a symphony of negativity, which I find exhausting to listen to. I feel the chill of the cold shoulder she gives us all, and take a step back.

Lily is a smaller version of Rose, but without the brains or cheekbones. Like my mother, she has never had a full-time job, and yet is still a part-time mum, who got pregnant when she was seventeen. My sister stinks of perfume and entitlement. I get an unpleasant waft of Poison—her favorite eau de toilette—which she’s been drowning herself and our nostrils in since we were teenagers. That’s not the only thing about her that never changed. Lily still dresses in skimpy clothes from Top Shop, and I think she must sleep in her makeup because I can’t remember what her face lookslike without it. She twists a strand of highlighted hair around her finger like a child, and I notice that her roots are showing. She is not a natural blonde. We are all dark in my family, including my wonderful niece.

Trixie is fifteen. Like most children, she was a walking, talking question mark for years, filled to overflowing with endless whys, whats, whens, wheres, and hows. Finding the answers fast enough—or sometimes at all—was a constant challenge. These days, I think the bookish teenager she’s become knows more than the rest of us put together. She looks like a miniature librarian, and I think that’s a good thing because I love librarians. Unlike her mother, or mine, Trixie is well-read, very polite, and exceptionally kind. A little precocious at times, perhaps, but that’s no bad thing if you ask me. Not that anyone does.

Like me, she dresses in a way that her mother does not approve of. As soon as Trixie was old enough to have a say in what she wore, she insisted on only wearing pink. She would literally cry and hold her breath if Lily tried to dress her in any other color. The tantrums stopped years ago, but Trixie doesn’t dress like a typical teenager. She wouldn’t be caught dead in denim, or the cheap, trashy clothes her mother favors. I see that today’s carefully curated outfit consists of a fluffy pink sweater with a white lace collar, a pink corduroy skirt, white tights, and pink shiny shoes. Even her glasses are pink, and she’s carrying a small, vintage pink suitcase, which I imagine contains several books. Her shoulder-length hair is a mess of dark brown curls, and her reluctance to straighten it is yet another way she inadvertently irritates her mother. But all teenagers find ways to test their parents; it’s a rite of passage.

Trixie instinctively knows how to warm the coldest of hearts, and her presence instantly defrosts the chilly atmosphere at Seaglass. She might be a little immature at times and lacking in street cred,but she’s a kind and happy child, a rare breed of teenager. Her hopeful outlook on life seems to bring out the best in all of us.

“Nana!” she shrieks, with genuine excitement. “Happy birthday!”

“It isn’t my birthday until tomorrow, but thank you, darling girl,” Nana replies, beaming back at her namesake and great-granddaughter.

Hugs and hellos are exchanged between the women in the family, and I notice that we are all smiling at the same time. It’s a rare sight to see, like an eclipse.

“I’m so happy to see you, Aunty Daisy,” Trixie says while the others dump their bags, take off their coats, and remove their wet shoes, tights, and socks.

“I’m very happy to see you too,” I reply.

“Now, don’t forget to punch in,” Nana says to everyone. “All your cards are in their cubbyholes next to the old factory clock. You know I like to keep track of who is here and who isn’t.”

Nancy sighs. “You do know this isn’t a normal thing to ask guests to do, don’t you?”

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