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The Cornflake House: A Novel

The Cornflake House: A Novel

by Deborah Gregory

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For fans of Kate Atkinson, Barbara Trapido, and Alice Hoffman--the magical story of an unconventional family in the English suburbs

Eve has grown up in a decidedly unconventional family, one of seven multi-racial children with different fathers and a mother named Victory who raises them her own way. When Eve is eight, Victory calls upon her hidden talent--second sight, 'the ability to harness chance.' It's a gift that often brings Victory forebodings of disaster, but it also wins her first prize in a cereal-box competition. The rag-tag family leaves its trailer home for a house in a leafy London suburb: The Cornflake House. The neighbors' consternation at their arrival has comic, then disastrous, consequences.

Now Eve is a young woman in prison. How she got there, and how her amazing mother planned long ago to get her out, makes for a dramatic and utterly original novel of family and magic.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466892385
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 03/17/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 822,399
File size: 294 KB

About the Author

Deborah Gregory lives in England. She is the author of Cornflake House.

Read an Excerpt

The Cornflake House

By Deborah Gregory

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1999 Deborah Gregory
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9238-5


Today for the first time my magic has let me down. No warning that something – sorry, someone – special was about to enter my life. Not one tingle down my usually sensitive spine, nor one buzz in my brain. An intangible beast, magic, but I find myself searching for it now in my cell, as if it were a lost coin. Oh, of course, the warder told me that, once I'd completed my toilet duties, a prison visitor would be waiting for me. I was informed, but not prepared for who I found there. We're allowed to wear a little make-up and stud earrings; had my head or my heart given me even a tiny inkling about you, I would have made roses of my lips and filled my ears with pearls. Instead I'm forced to admit that I looked my worst, and probably smelt of lavatory cleaner.

Perhaps I'm misreading the situation; after all, your unannounced appearance had, for me, all the panache of the old rabbit-from-a-hat trick. Only this time, the trick's on me.

You must be wondering what this is all about; why the fuss? Meeting you, Matthew Pritchard, visitor extraordinaire, was the surprise of my life. I am – an unusual state for somebody with sixth sense – in shock. This means that you must be as special as me. Nobody has ever before taken away my breath and my magic in one instance.

I'm sorry for the earlier lack of communication, sorry I sat there like a tailor's dummy while you tried to get to know me. Now, alone in my cell, I wish I had at least offered you a word or two, so that you'd be hearing my voice as you read this. You mustn't see our meeting as a failure, you did all you could. No one could have been more patient or considerate. I was simply struck dumb. And I especially appreciated the way you didn't pry into my case, although I guess you must have wondered how I came to do, or to be accused of doing, the terrible crime that brought me here. Was my crime the reason you chose me to visit? If so, I'm glad my once-in-a-lifetime act of violence brought me here, to a place where you come and go.

I intend to make up for that lost opportunity, for my sealed lips, by writing this to you. I want you to know me; yes I know that'll seem odd coming from a woman who didn't so much as nod her head in the Visitors' Room, but nothing matters more to me now. Were you allowed to see my file? I'm new to this, my family had its brushes with the law in the past, but we were cautioned, fined or, in the case of my son, given Community Service. Ironically, Community Service was exactly what my boy thought he'd been doing when he committed his offences, but never mind. What I mean is I've never been either prisoner or prison visitor before; I don't know the ropes. But if they've showed you my file, I suppose you'll have done your homework and read my background. You know my age, will understand that the first flush of youth has faded to a pale colour-wash. And then you must have read about The Cornflake House, about my large and shall we say non-conformist family. I wish you could have met them. We'd have laid on tea for you on a Sunday. The neighbours would've watched you, as they watched everybody else, walking up to our house, and they'd have thought how surprisingly normal you looked, considering. Then one of us, Zulema say, in her dress of midnight blue threaded with silver moons, would have opened the door and welcomed you. I'd have been shy as I introduced you to my relations, but Mum would have given you a nip of something special to break the ice. Before long we'd have been laughing and catching each other's eyes as we sampled Mum's baking and suffered my brother Django's insults.

I wish I had a file on you, Matthew. Not just papers telling me your date of birth ... mind you I do wonder ... but a thick stack of reading full of details like whether you can see anything at all without those dear, round glasses, what food gives you most pleasure and do you prefer baths to showers? But then, you have only my skeleton in your possession, the bare bones, so until I'm through with my story don't think you have too much of an advantage. I know already, for example, that you are a brave man, one who has come to terms with his lack of height. Even though it meant tilting your head at an angle likely to leave you with pains in the neck, you never stopped looking me straight in the eye. In a narrow-minded world such as ours, you must have suffered for your stature ... but now you might allow yourself a smile as you read that today you met a woman, a tall, imposing – I like that so much better than the word big – woman who knows all there is to know about prejudice and who finds you irresistible.

Also, you must be an intrepid soul to enter a prison of your own free will. The very word, like cancer, fills the weak-spirited with dread. I know when my son was up before the beak I prayed for him to stay out of gaol. Not only is it hard for a mother to cope with the prospect of her child's confinement, but the thought of visiting him, making that journey into the unknown, made me ill with worry. Luckily, I suppose, when I first came here I was in a haze of sorrow and confusion. I heard the infamous clanking of doors, smelt the mixture of chlorine, urine, mustiness and cabbage, but hardly took any of it in to my muddled brain. They say those who fall are often cushioned by shock, and certainly in my case the worst was absorbed, zapped if you like, by the electrifying horror of what had just happened. I've seen that stunned look on the faces of fellow inmates; you're never alone in prison.

Now, brave visitor, I'm about to ensure that we'll know each other better. Something I was lucky enough to glimpse, to marvel at, as we shook hands, encourages me to believe it will be worth my while. As you reached to take my hand in introduction, I was embarrassed to meet your eyes. I focused instead on your hand and wrist. I saw the shine on your worn but clean white shirt, the fluffy fringe where your cord jacket rubs against the world. And I noticed, to my astonishment and delight, your cute cuff link. Are you blushing, Matthew? I do hope not. Why shouldn't you wear something whimsical? What was it made of? It looked like black enamel, with a tiny red collar, on silver. I saw the pair of them, tail to tail when you pressed all ten of your fingers together. Scottie-dog cuff links, wonderful. Wear them with pride. They're inspirational. I'd have fallen for you anyway, but I'm not sure I'd have found the nerve to write this if you'd held your sleeves together with the usual square or oval objects.

So, my turn now; I am the oldest of seven children; seven was an essential number to Mum. I have two sisters, Zulema and Perdita, and four brothers, Fabian, Merry, Django and Samik – my mum favoured the unusual. I promise you shall meet them properly in time. My mother taught me to introduce myself by saying, 'I am Eve, the first born.'

She liked us to take the wind out of people's sails from the first moment, she thrived on giving surprises, my mother. I assume this was because, being clairvoyant, she was rarely taken aback herself. I inherited my magic from her; she was the centre of my universe. Obviously my records will tell of her recent death, of her dramatic and, to some minds, grisly departure from this world. But do they even hint at the grief this death has caused? Well no, how could they? Why should they? It has nothing, officially, to do with my case. Even my family can have no idea how I suffered, am still suffering. Loss; I could write of chasms, of black holes where once there was so much colour, but I would never touch the truth of it. This may sound ridiculous, coming from a daughter, but I had no life without Mum; there's no part of my history which isn't centred on her. I never broke away, as most adults do. I made a few pathetic attempts to leave home, to travel, to fall in love. But The Cornflake House was a powerful magnet, or perhaps I should say it was a comforting roost. I was always the homing pigeon, back before darkness fell.

Magic and death; there is a link the human mind can't handle. In my case, death has caused a halt to magic. For my mother it was the other way around; magic brought about her death.

It wasn't only the magic that made her special. Her warm lap or wide arms were always ready to accommodate a tearful, wounded child. She was seldom cross or critical, as other mothers were. Our achievements met with instantaneous praise and a spontaneous, joyful hug, but her expectations of us never soared to the unattainable. To her we seven were a species apart, élite, infallible. It was wonderful to be amongst the select, perhaps especially enchanting to be the eldest of the tribe, chosen one of the chosen. I grew up with a deep sense of my own importance within my family and within the world.

I imagine everybody feels partly as I do when their mother dies, unsheltered, as if a wrap of finest feathers, not wings but a cloak they never previously appreciated, has been spirited from their bodies. Left standing, bewildered, without the one person who loved us unconditionally, uncritically. Without the one who made us who we are. Ordinary, with the harsh, disapproving population of planet earth to please all of a sudden.

I do understand how curious you must be about my recent past, but I feel happier, safer, beginning with my mother's story. What frightens me is the way control has taken over from chaos. I like chaos; it's what I'm used to. Prison life leaves no room for muddle; somehow I've lost my identity in all this routine. I need to talk about the distant past before we get to the present.

My mother always maintained that she was sold to her parents by the Gypsies. If this was nothing more than a childhood fantasy, she never outgrew it. She did possess many of the attributes we usually associate with Romanies, a love of the outdoors, the gift of telling fortunes. Besides, my granny, Editha, who lived with us for the last years of her life, never refuted this claim. Granny used to smile and nod at the story, even adding details of her own to embellish it, although these personal touches changed with each telling. The idea that my grandparents had paid a sum of their hard earnt cash for my mother had a faint ring of truth to it, because they'd been childless for years beforehand. Then there was the way my mother looked, which wasn't remotely like either parent. She was brown the year round, tanned even in places which were never exposed to the sun, whereas Editha, like me, was golden haired with pink and white skin. Eric, my grandad, was bald by the time I came along, but you could see from his freckled arms and bushy eyebrows that he'd been a roaring red-head in his day. He was an ugly bugger, physically and mentally. Women who met my grandad didn't fancy shaking hands with him, let alone getting into his bed. Maybe Editha went along with the Gypsy story to deflect people from considering another possibility. Well, if she did spend a blissful moment or two in the arms of a dark stranger in order to conceive, few would have blamed her for it.

It took one of history's worst storms to make my mother feel proud to call herself Editha's daughter. By then the Gypsy story was too deep rooted to be discarded, and so she let it stay and stay. For my generation it was a family legend, and we children were eager to believe it. Apart from the glamour, the romance of being one quarter Gypsy, we clung to this possible heritage as a safeguard against the taunts of schoolmates. It made us stronger, when strength was needed in a hostile playground, the chance that Gypsy blood flowed through our heated veins. We weren't invincible in battle, but when we fell our enemies were seldom rewarded with the sight of a Cornflake House kid in tears. I know that I for one carried another child inside my soft, blonde self, a dark, bright girl who was light on her feet, swift with her tongue and whose heart was the colour and texture of a walnut. I would never let her down.

Also, there was the question of our relations. We loved Granny Editha well enough, in spite of her irritating little ways, but none of us would have chosen to believe we were related to Eric. He frightened and fascinated us. Much as we all yearned to have a man in our lives, we fled from his company. At least he couldn't chase after us; part of his menace lay in the fact that he had only one leg.

Before my grandmother met Eric she ran her fenland smallholding on her own. When her parents died, she carried on picking fruit, feeding chickens and hoeing the vegetable patch in all the fierce variety of weather. How was she to know, as she accepted the offer of marriage from the knife and scissors sharpener who called on her one day, then came back and called again the next, that she would still be running the place on her own after her wedding? Having hardly ever ventured away from her square, flat homestead, having met so few people before, I suppose Editha thought she'd done well for herself by marrying at all. I once overheard my mother asking Grandma why she'd hitched up with Eric, and the answer was 'because he came, it seemed meant – once he was on the doorstep'. There you have it, as simple a truth as the answer, 'because he asked me,' which must have been given by a million spouses. Editha wasn't young, had no expectations, and Eric can't have been so dreadful at that time when he had both his legs, all his hair and a flat stomach as yet unstuffed with Grandma's chickens and potatoes.

What you also have, in that answer of Editha's, is the seed of one of the ruling factors in my own mother's life. She believed implicitly in certain things being meant to be. Who knows how different our lives would've been if that belief hadn't existed? We would never have been brought up in The Cornflake House without it; maybe never have been born at all.

Whatever else he did – or mostly didn't – do, Eric has to be given credit for loving his baby girl. In that, at least, Editha was always able to defend him. He might have been the fattest, laziest slob who ever sat by a fire day in, day out, but he doted on the brown-haired, brown-eyed baby. Not that fatherhood inspired him to get off his backside and make more money, his grinding wheel lay rusting in an outhouse right through his daughter's childhood, but he was generous with his smiles. He must have loved to see his little girl running around, helping her mother to keep the place going. By the time she was four my mother was capable of dragging a full scuttle of coal from shed to kitchen. According to Mum, she was six when her dad taught her how to chop wood, small pieces at first, of course; Editha tackled the full sized logs.

Then it was time for Eric's little helper to get an education. She walked the mile or so to school alone, her route a dead straight line across the wetlands, following a ditch between raised fields. I've walked that journey with her, a nostalgia trip, and I know how exposed to the winds and the rains she was. What strikes you is the absence of landscape and colour; an artist, especially in winter, would need only to mix greys and dull greens to do justice to that scene. Whichever way you turn, the horizon is spiked with church spires, but no other landmarks are visible. The only trees there are willows which grow along the steep bank. These have been cropped by the locals and stunted by gales until their trunks are dwarfish, their branches skeletal. There was little comfort at the end of Mum's journey either. Like most buildings in the area, the school was a makeshift affair. We looked for it together, Mum and I. After all the stories, I was excited at the prospect of seeing the buildings; but they'd disappeared. New houses stood on the site, their gardens covering the old playground.

This is probably no bad thing for my mother's generation, some pretty horrific memories were attached to the place.

Before its demise, the school consisted of one central brick hall surrounded by 'temporary' wooden classrooms with tin roofs. On wet days the rain played these roofs like steel bands and old stoves, which smoked at the teacher's end of the classrooms, were encircled by small pairs of steaming boots and shoes.


Excerpted from The Cornflake House by Deborah Gregory. Copyright © 1999 Deborah Gregory. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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