A Lifetime Burning - Extracts
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The Dunbars are a good-looking family - even the old ones - and massed in black, as they are now, impressive. Clearly the gene pool has never been muddied with inferior stock. Was it in fact ancient in-breeding that produced such refinement of feature, such acute sensitivity, such intelligence? The Dunbars aren't telling. We're a canny and a clannish lot, loyal to a fault - even when we hate each other. A Dunbar will stand by another to the bitterest of ends - even the black sheep. Especially the black sheep. (And I should know - flighty Flo, dear Aunt Flora, poor Reverend Wentworth's mad wife who, for everyone's sake, really should have been kept in the attic.)
The Dunbars have an effective way of dealing with miscreants. You could call it assimilation, I suppose. We simply pretend the black sheep is white. As Hugh once said in one of his sermons, 'There's none so blind as those who don't wish to see.' There was a lot the Dunbars didn't wish to see.
And so we didn't.
Theodora Dunbar, matriarch, known always as Dora, is ninety-three. Only my mother could manage to look commanding in a wheelchair. The entourage helps of course - a bevy of attractive and attentive men hovering, pandering to her every wish. Dora has loved us all in her own peculiar way and the Dunbars have returned that love with loyalty and devotion. Only I stepped out of line. And of course Colin, but he was instantly forgiven on account of his extreme youth and my extreme wickedness.
Dora's wheelchair is manoeuvred by one of her grandsons, Colin. My ex-lover. My nephew. My brother Rory's son - like Rory, but much darker. The awkward boy has matured, as I (being something of a connoisseur in these matters) always knew he would, into a handsome man. But today Colin stands, as ever, in Theo's shadow.
Theo. My son. At thirty-four, a few months older than Colin, taller, fairer, finer-featured and always said to favour me. Everyone agreed Theo's Apollonian good looks owed little to Hugh. Theo is a Dunbar through and through. Nevertheless, Hugh and Theo are close - to spite me, perhaps. Theo adores Hugh, protects him, supports him - at the moment quite literally. At nearly eighty, Hugh's tremendous height and bulk are bowed. Leaning heavily on Theo's slender frame, he droops, like an ancient, gnarled tree, his thick black mane now white as a wizard's.
There has been much love in this family - some would say too much - and not a little hate. The most unlikely love has been Hugh's for Theo and Theo's for Hugh. Against all the odds... I doubt Hugh ever contemplated revenge since he regards himself as even more of a black sinner than me, but if he'd wanted to settle old scores, loving Theo and making Theo love him would have been a masterstroke.
Rory weeps. My brother stands between his wife Grace, as plain and four-square solid as Grace has always been, and Colin. (My niece Charlotte is not present. She is on the other side of the globe, the distance she thought necessary to put between herself and my son.) Colin fidgets, clearly embarrassed by his father's tears. My husband and son are dry-eyed; my mother, stunned by grief, is stoically composed; my sister-in-law Grace can barely disguise her relief.
Grace hated me. I can't say I blamed her - she had good reason. Several, in fact. But if you asked my gracious sister-in-law why she hated me, she'd say it was because I seduced her precious firstborn, relieved him of the burden of his virginity, chewed him up and spat him out on to the admittedly sizeable scrap-heap marked 'Flora's ex-lovers'. That's what Grace would say. But she'd be lying. That isn't why Grace hated me. Ask my brother Rory.
Rory and I haven't spoken for thirteen years, but my twin brother, my childhood companion, the other half of my life, the other half of my self weeps, weeps for me, his dead sister, who burns.
Like a witch.
Extract from Chapter 18
It was as if God had just popped out for a minute. The church waited breathless and still, expecting His return at any moment. Absence was the word that reverberated in Theo's mind. An absence of people, of sound, of colour. What remained was a mournful and monumental simplicity. Here was a church that had once been great. Now it had a forgotten, almost neglected air, a dim glory, as faded as the bleached paintwork of the angel roof where the gaudy hues of medieval artists had been scoured away by the sands of time, leaving only traces of pigment here and there on the great wooden rafters and central bosses. The twelve pairs of wooden angels, with their disproportionately large carved wings were pale, anaemic creatures whose beauty was enhanced rather than diminished by their absence of colour. Theo gazed up at the roof, his shaggy golden head thrown back at a dizzying angle and regarded them. It seemed for a moment as if their ashen wings were about to flutter. He wondered if the angelic host beat their wings when the church was empty, like toys coming to life at night in the nursery. He thought it possible. In this place anything was possible.