Iris, Fern, and Ivy are three women of three generations with one dark secret. Iris keeps a scrapbook of Lawrence, the lover who went missing years earlier. She defines herself by his loss and soothes herself with gin and the fairy tale of this one perfect relationship. Fern, once a strange and difficult child who believed her dead grandmother’s soul lived inside her stomach, reluctantly returns home to take care of her mother, Iris. She is tasked with finding Lawrence and in the process she has to confront her own past and memories. Ivy, Iris’s mother, had her own cache of secrets—spells she took to the grave that Fern unearths. The Scrapbook is a novel about the unreliability of memory; the tangled, often dysfunctional, bonds of family; and absence and the power that a void can exert over a person’s life.
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|Edition description:||Second edition|
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About the Author
Carly Holmes is secretary for the PENfro Book Festival committee, on the editorial board of the Lampeter Review, and organizes the Cellar Bards, a group of writers who meet in Cardigan monthly for evenings of spoken word.
Read an Excerpt
By Carly Holmes, Susie Wild
ParthianCopyright © 2014 Carly Holmes
All rights reserved.
I was four the first time I attacked my father. My memory of it is sulking behind twenty-odd years of bicycle tumbles and birthday parties, first kisses and fierce heartbreaks, and so I only have my mum's account to rely on. Depending on her mood, and how much she's had to drink, I'm either painted as a strange, difficult child (buoyant, first gin), or an out and out child of Satan, practically gnashing my teeth and straining towards people's throats (weepy, finishing that one too many).
Such an angry little girl ... So embarrassing ... I couldn't take you anywhere ...
The fragments I do recall are the smell of sun-scorched leaves and the back of my mum's head. She stood by the window in the front room and shivered from foot to foot, releasing layers of fruity scent with each warm tremble of excitement. Even now, if I dip my face into a bowl of peaches I feel bereft, just for a second.
I knelt behind her and itched to touch my clammy fingers to the filmy hem of her dress. It must have been summertime.
Granny Ivy sat hunched like a raven in a rainstorm and stabbed thick thread violently through one of my dresses, sewing a pocket onto it. She muttered constantly to herself, occasionally pausing to peer at me or to press a thin finger against the dark, cracked book she always kept by her side until the day it disappeared. Her Cooking Book, she called it, which always made mum snort.
The only ingredients you've got in there are toad's eyeballs and hen's claws.
So, mum stood, and shivered, and glanced over her shoulder but didn't shift from her vigil.
Fern, stop staring at me ... Fern, get up off the floor ...
And then she was gone. I blinked and looked away, as instructed, and movement tangled suddenly in the corner of my eye. The front door was wide open and I could still smell her, but she'd disappeared. I leaned over and looked for the puff of smoke, straining after her absence even as she returned, smiling and joyful.
Lawrence is here. I'm off now.
She stood in the centre of the room as if she'd never left it and tapped her feet and crossed her arms. I shuffled backwards, away from those mean looking high heels.
Don't wait up.
Granny Ivy hissed and jerked and the needle slipped deep into her palm. She and mum stared at each other and I watched the blood drip over the brand new pocket of my dress. I'd chosen the pocket myself from old curtain material and I wanted to point at the rusty stain as it ruined the beautiful pink cabbage roses, wanted to shout something at them both to break their concentration. But then a man walked into the room and straight up to me. I hadn't heard a knock at the door.
Mum snapped out of her hard face and into her soft one. She took the man's arm and hugged it to her.
Fern, say hello.
I looked at this man being held by my mother. I glanced over at Granny Ivy, then back.
Who are you?
There was silence. Then Granny Ivy sniggered and shot me a look that meant there'd be biscuits before bedtime. Mum laughed brightly, for too long. She bent down and showed me her hard face again, just for a second, just for me.
He's your father. Now stop being silly and say hello.
She straightened up and laughed again, turned to the man with a shrug of hopeless mirth. He grimaced at her and crouched down next to me, legs creaking inside soft grey cloth. I imagined wooden knee joints and wondered if he was a puppet. A huge hand descended onto my head, pressed my hairgrips into my scalp and hurt me. I wriggled and tried to duck away but couldn't slip out from under his palm.
Mum scooped up her handbag and glanced at her watch.
Say hello to your father, Fern ... Fern, say hello ...
I dived forward to escape them both and then flung myself onto his chest. Thrust upwards as high and as hard as I could, as if I was a swimmer and he was the water. I grabbed a handful of his hair in each fist. And I pulled.
It took them ages to uncurl my hands and drag me off him. By the time they'd managed it the man was scarlet and breathing noisily through his mouth and my mother was white and stiff. I scuttled to hide under Granny Ivy's long skirt, clutching strands of oily, mousy coloured hair. The man smoothed the front of his jacket, tried to smile, and turned away.
I'll be in the car, Iris.
He hadn't looked at Granny Ivy once in the whole time he'd been inside her home, and she hadn't looked at him.
My mother rushed to follow, pausing to point a finger at the bulge I made under my granny's chair. She mouthed speechless outrage and jabbed the air with menace.
After they'd gone – and this I remember very clearly – Granny Ivy gently removed all of the strands of the man's hair from my hands, untwisted them from my fingers and inspected my palms for any stragglers. Then she tucked the greasy bundle inside the cover of her Cooking Book and patted my back.
Good girl ... Don't cry ...
I followed the midnight billow of her skirts through to the kitchen and wondered if she was going to leave the hairs out on the sill for the birds to take away for their nests. I watched her to see if she would but then she placed a tin of biscuits down in front of me – the whole tin – and I was distracted for a while. We sat at the table and I crunched through bitter chocolate and fierce ginger while she watched me and smiled. She brewed tea and then opened her book, flickering through the pages as I reached for another biscuit, and then another. I wondered what she'd be making for supper.
Granny Ivy caught my wrist as it dived once more into the tin. She ran a nail along the knobbled warts that bumped a line down my middle finger. I sat with a biscuit in each fist and another in my cheek and listened as she began to speak.
Search and you will find
a large, smooth sprout
hanging low upon the stalk,
defying the helix,
and paler than its mates.
This is the one.
Sharpen your knife
Two halves. Two wrinkled hearts.
Press firm and hard this wrinkled heart of one half onto the wart.
Press, and count the minutes down from five to one.
Rejoin the halves and bind with string
and bury beside an oak tree.
The sprout now an oyster beneath the earth
cradling your wart in its rotting heart.
Remember not to ever dig around this buried vessel
or expose it to sunlight
as the wart will sense its kin
and cleave with you once more.
She continued to mutter as she stood up and fetched her sharp, wooden-handled knife from the cutlery drawer. I sneaked another biscuit and went to the window to watch as she prowled around the vegetable patch, bending, straightening, shaking her head and bending again.
It was only later, years later, I realised that her Cooking Book wasn't a recipe book in the strictest sense. At the time, as I listened to her words, I felt only disappointment that we'd be having sprouts for supper.
When mum returned, much later, I was awake in our room and my tummy hurt. I'd been whispering my secrets to the oak tree that loitered outside the window but when I heard her open the door I burrowed under the blankets and closed my eyes. She smelt different now, the fruity scent gone and replaced by an odour that was musky and pungent.
I snatched a peek as she climbed over me to get into bed and saw how swollen her lips were, as if she'd put too much of her red lipstick on without a mirror's guidance. Her neck was a swirl of blotches and she was smiling to herself. She looked happy.
I've borrowed the bones of my mother's recollections and fleshed them out with my own. Are they true? I can remember how mum smelt, both before and after her assignation with my father, and I remember the sting of his hair cutting into the flesh of my hands as I held on for dear life and for Granny Ivy. But was it real?
Because, you see, I can also remember screaming, spinning across the bedroom when I was about six as a spider thrashed around in the knots of my hair. And that didn't actually happen, according to mum. Well, it did happen, but to her when she was a child, not to me. She'd told me about it and I'd internalised the incident and made it my own. Memory's a trickster like that, isn't it? We all have a habit of rewriting our histories, donning and shedding layers as it suits us and believing every version. I'm no different, so consider yourself warned.
I was nine when my father disappeared, never to be heard of again. I attacked him twice more in the intervening five years, or so I'm told.
One of those times was at a picnic. Allegedly. I'm slightly dubious about this one as I don't remember a thing. Not even a smell. According to mum she'd spent ages persuading Lawrence to give me another chance and so we all went on a picnic, like a proper family. Jolly decent of him. He passed me a sandwich and I leaned in and bit his hand with my sharp little teeth. I growled. He had to have a tetanus shot.
Five stitches. He had to have five bloody stitches!
The other time I do remember but that doesn't make it true. He was stood at the front gate, waiting, while my mum hurled herself around the bathroom with hairbrush and mascara. His car filled the lane and was the colour of cherries a day before they've reached their peak. I wanted to pat the bonnet but didn't want to speak to him. I started to trot down the path, pretending to be a horse, and then broke into a canter and then a full-on gallop. Beds of forget-me-nots collided into one solid blur of colour as I raced down the path and prepared to jump the hurdle. Was I trying to skip past him and get to the car? Who knows? Either way, no matter how pure my intentions, I whinnied and butted him square in the stomach and he folded in half and clung to me to avoid falling over. His breath against my cheek thick and wet with pain.
After that he didn't even get out of the car when he came to collect my mum. He just hit the horn and kept the engine running. Sometimes his gaze would find mine as I peeped from the kitchen window, and he'd nod and raise a hand. I'd nod back and show those sharp little teeth in a grin and he'd lower his hand to his lap and look away. I knew then that he'd be massaging the scar I'd given him and the car's interior would echo with the battle cry that I'd shrieked into his stomach.
Has my mother ever forgiven me for his disappearance? Is there a chance she ever will? I know there are times when she blames me entirely for it.
Those times when she doesn't speak are the worst.
Every day since my return to the island, I see her strain towards the window, lumber from foot to foot until she gets too tired to stand, her varicose veins pushing through her tights like a nest of slow-worms, and I want to kneel behind her on the rug and see her as she used to be. My young, beautiful mother, in her gauzy dresses and her ridiculous heels. My magical mother, who could disappear without even needing a puff of smoke.
She refuses to move from this house. Even after Granny Ivy died and left behind plump pensions and insurance policies, she wouldn't even book a week's holiday to the mainland. You see, she believes he will come back for her. Just like old times. He'll appear in the lane in his magnificent motorcar and she'll lift up her skirts and run to him.
She knows that there are such things as telephone directories and he could track her down if he wanted to, but deep inside her, flailing for air beneath the hope and the gin, is the belief that if she made it too hard for him then he just wouldn't bother. She needs to stay right here, right where he can find her without any effort.
What he'd make of me being here as well I can only imagine. The poor sod, to finally return after an absence of seventeen years, certain that, by now, I must surely have gone. Only to find me once more narrowing my eyes at him over the threshold as I help mum up from her chair and out of her slippers.
I wouldn't be here at all if she hadn't needed me. I did actually leave Spur and was making a fairly decent stab at adulthood all by myself on the mainland when she called me back. Or rather Tommy did. He'd dropped by with some eggs and found her at the bottom of the stairs, twisted and spiky with broken bones. She'd been lying there for most of the afternoon, inching a tortured route across the hallway. Tommy thinks she'd been trying to reach the phone but I reckon it was more likely the bottle of gin on the dresser in the kitchen.
When he phoned from the hospital with his catalogue of injuries – concussion, broken wrist and elbow. Cracked ribs as well. She can't manage by herself, love, you need to be with her – I asked for time off from the cafe and agreed to come home. Just for a while, just until she could be safely left alone. It didn't take long to pack a bag and put all the plants out in the back garden to fend for themselves. The rent was taken care of for the next month and thanks to Granny Ivy I had savings to fall back on. There was nothing else to stop me. And once I'd committed I suddenly yearned for that sense of snugness only living on the island had ever given me. Swaddled by sea on all sides, safe.
To be honest I wanted to see her again, spend some time with her. Maybe even ask some questions. I've become sentimental lately, preoccupied with the past. I want to pick through that collision of gristle and genes that links the generations, try to make some sense of it. And that means I'll need to know something about him. My father.
I've spent my life refusing all knowledge of him, as if I could somehow be tainted by the familiarity. I don't even have a clear memory of what he looked like anymore because there are no photographs of him. It's only lately that I've come to accept, though grudgingly, that he had just as much to do with forming the person I am as my mother did.
We're doing okay actually. Me and mum. Since my return she's discovered gratitude and a sense of humour, and so we laugh a lot. It's generally barbed laughter, and at the other's expense, but that's how we both are.
Or how we've become.
* * *
Today she's indulging one of her bad, sad moods and she got at the gin while I was out watching the morning ferry from the mainland come into harbour. We have a rule that generally works: I won't try to stop her drinking and she won't try to pour it down her throat before dinnertime. I cheat a little, I have to confess, because I keep all of the alcohol on the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard so she'd be hard pushed to reach it without my saying so, and I can't see her scaling the cabinets unaided. But this morning she outmanoeuvred me somehow. Maybe after lunch I'll slick the kitchen counters with olive oil or tie her to her chair while she's sleeping it off.
'Oh, Fern, I still can't believe he just upped and left us,' she whispers to me as I try to wrestle the glass from her. She's as devastated as ever she was, and I'm a little in awe of a love so splintering that it can still hurt her this much. I give her a hug and then twist the glass out of her grasp. She lunges for it, arm flapping in its sling, and I drink down the contents quickly. Wince at the strength of the barely-mixed spirit.
'Gone. And no more until dinner. Remember your promise, mum.'
As I turn to leave she kicks out with a bloated foot and catches me on the ankle. I almost laugh despite the sting of it. 'Hey. That bloody hurt.'
'It's all your fault. You ruined everything. You and your bloody grandmother. You never wanted me to be happy.'
She tries to heave herself out of her chair but alcohol and anguish conspire to turn her bones to rubber. I hover a wary couple of feet away and watch her struggle and my irritation bleeds into pity. Again. But I won't move any closer, not just yet. She hasn't exhausted the limit of her pain and anger.
'You drove him away, with your nasty, spiteful temper. I thought we could be a family. Once I had you I thought it would all be different. And maybe it would have been if you'd only behaved like a proper daughter, given him a reason to want to come back.'
I cradle the glass to my chest and try to remember how fragile she is. Try to remember that this is not forever. Then I put the glass down.
'You weren't exactly a great mother, if memory serves.'
She swipes at me again, carves a shaky path through the dust motes dawdling in the sunlight. I laugh with bitter pleasure and dance backwards. 'Missed.'
Mum grunts and hunches on the edge of her chair, swaying. She looks as if she's about to topple right off it. 'I did my best. But you were impossible. Couldn't be trusted to behave like a normal little girl. And as for your grandmother ...'
I pick up the glass and turn to go. 'Leave her alone. She practically raised me.'
Her voice rises. 'You were nothing but her puppet. You know she was a witch. She used you to break us up. Turned you feral every time he came near you.'
Excerpted from The Scrapbook by Carly Holmes, Susie Wild. Copyright © 2014 Carly Holmes. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Variation On A Love Spell,
1 A Torn Scrap Of Dark Blue Handkerchief,
2 A Clipped Square From The Top Of A Cigarette Box,
3 A Bird's Claw,
4 A Blood Soaked Shoe Lace,
5 A Dried Fern Leaf,
6 A Pebble Shaped Like A Heart.,
7 A Tarnished Silver Chain,
8 A Creased Page From A Map Book, With A Wooded Area Ringed In Red,
9 Two Photographs Of A Man Asleep,
10 A Page From A Calendar (showing two months),