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Mariana
Author: Susanna Kearsley

One

I first saw the house in the summer of my fifth birthday. It was all the fault of a poet, and the fact that our weekend visit with a favourite elderly aunt in Exeter had put my father in a vaguely poetic mood. Faced with an unexpected fork in the road on our drive home to Oxford, he deliberately chose the left turning instead of the right. 'The road less travelled by,' he told us, in a benign and dreamy voice. And as the poet had promised, it did indeed make all the difference.

To begin with, we became lost. So hopelessly lost, in fact, that my mother had to put away the map. The clouds that rolled in to cover the sun seemed only an extension of my father's darkening mood, all poetry forgotten as he hunched grimly over the steering wheel. By lunchtime it was raining, quite heavily, and my mother had given sweets to my brother Tommy and me in a vain attempt to keep us from further irritating Daddy, whose notable temper was nearing breaking point.

The sweets were peppermint, striped pink and white like large marbles, and so effective at hindering speech that we had to take them out of our mouths altogether in order to talk to each other. By the rime we reached the first cluster of village shops and houses, my face and hands were sticky with sugar, and the front of my new ruffled frock was a stained and wrinkled ruin.

I've never been entirely certain what it was that made my father stop the car where he did. I seem to remember a cat darting across the road in front of us, but that may simply have been the invention of an imaginative and overtired child. Whatever the reason, the car stopped, the engine stalled, and in the ensuing commotion I got my first watery glimpse of the house.

It was a rather ordinary old farmhouse, large and square and solid, set back some distance from the road with a few unkempt trees dotted around for privacy. Its darkly glistening slate roof sloped down at an alarming angle to meet the weathered gray stone walls, the drab monotony of colour broken by twin redbrick chimneys and an abundance of large multipaned windows, their frames painted freshly white.

I was pressing my nose against the cold glass of the car window, straining to get a better look, when after a few particularly virulent oaths my father managed to coax the motor back to life. My mother, obviously relieved, turned round to check up on us.

'Julia, don't,' she pleaded. "You'll leave smears on the windows.'

'That's my house,' I said, by way of explanation.

My brother Tommy pointed to a much larger and more stately home that was just coming into view. 'Well, that's my house,' he countered, triumphant. To the delight of my parents, we continued the game all the way home to Oxford, and the lonely gray house was forgotten.

I was not to see it again for seventeen years.

That summer, the summer that I turned twenty-two, is strong in my memory. I had just graduated from art school, and had landed what seemed like the perfect job with a j small advertising firm in London. My brother Tom, three years older than myself, had recently come down from Oxford with a distinguished academic record, and promptly shocked the family by announcing his plans to enter the Anglican ministry. Ours was not a particularly religious family, but Tom jokingly maintained that, given his name, he had little choice in the matter. 'Thomas Beckett! I ask you,' he had teased my mother. "What else could you expect?'

To celebrate what we perceived to be our coming of age, Tom and I decided to take a short holiday on the south Devon coast, where we could temporarily forget about parents and responsibilities and take advantage of the uncommonly hot and sunny weather with which southern England was being blessed. We were not disappointed. We spent a blissful week lounging about on the beach at Torquay, and emerged relaxed, rejuvenated, and sunburned.

Tom, caught up on a rising swell of optimism, appointed me navigator for the trip back. He should have known better. While I'm not exactly bad with maps, I am rather easily distracted by the scenery. Inevitably, we found ourselves off the main road, toiling through what seemed like an endless procession of tiny, identical villages linked by a narrow road so overhung by trees it had the appearance of a tunnel.

After the seventh village, Tom shot me an accusing sideways look. We had both inherited our mother's Cornish colouring and finely cut features, but while an me the combination of dark hair and eyes was more impish than exotic, on Tom it could look positively menacing when he chose.

'Where do you suppose we are?' he asked, with dangerous politeness.

I dutifully consulted the map. 'Wiltshire, I expect,' I told him brightly. 'Somewhere in the middle.'

'Well, that's certainly specific'

'Look,' I suggested, as we approached village number eight, 'why don't you stop being so pigheaded and ask directions at the next pub? Honestly, Tom, you're as bad as Dad—' The word ended in a sudden squeal.

This time, I didn't imagine it. A large ginger cat dashed right across the road, directly in front of our car. The brakes shrieked a protest as Tom put his foot to the floor, and then, right on cue, the motor died.

'Damn and blast!'

'Curates can't use language like that,' I reminded my brother, and he grinned involuntarily.

'I'm getting it out of my system,' was his excuse.

Laughing, I looked out the window and froze.

'I don't believe it.'

‘I know,' my brother agreed. 'Rotten luck.'

I shook my head. 'No, Tom, look—it's my house.'

'What?'

'My gray house,' I told him. 'Don't you remember, that day the cat ran onto the road and Daddy stalled the car?'

   
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