The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley is an exploration of domestic derangement, as sinister as Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Rebecca, that plumbs the depths of sibling rivalry with wit and menace (available April 3, 2018).
Oh, to be a Beloved—one of those lucky people for whom nothing ever goes wrong. Everything falls into their laps without effort: happiness, beauty, good fortune, allure.
Betty Stash is not a Beloved—but her little sister, the delightful Gloria, is. She’s the one with the golden curls and sunny disposition and captivating smile, the one whose best friend used to be Betty’s, the one whose husband should have been Betty’s. And then, to everyone’s surprise, Gloria inherits the family manse—a vast, gorgeous pile of ancient stone, imposing timbers, and lush gardens—that was never meant to be hers.
Losing what Betty considers her rightful inheritance is the final indignity. As she single-mindedly pursues her plan to see the estate returned to her in all its glory, her determined and increasingly unhinged behavior—aided by poisonous mushrooms, talking walls, and a phantom dog—escalates to the point of no return.
MY DEEP DISLIKE FOR my sister first struck me at the age of nine, when I shut her in the linen cupboard. We had been ordered by our mother to play hide-and-seek, and I told her to close her eyes and count to a hundred before coming to look for me, and then I quietly left the house. I wanted to go swimming alone in the man-made pool we call the water hole, in the field at the back of our house. I would be in trouble later, for swimming without permission, and for not taking her with me. Nothing I couldn’t handle, though.
Gloria was only allowed to swim when I was in the water to care for her, to keep my eye on her and make sure that she stayed in the shallows. I knew that she would want to come, that in her company I would become her nursemaid and have no fun myself. She had been following me around all morning, whining that I was walking too fast, that I wouldn’t play her stupid games.
“You be mummy, and I’ll be your baby.”
I was particularly annoyed with her that day, for trailing her jammy fingers along my bedroom walls, and for howling when she stumbled as I shoved her out my bedroom door, bringing our mother running. I must have told her a hundred times to stay out of my room.
“She’s only six. Please be extra kind to her today,” Mother pleaded. “Her kitten is missing; you know how she loves it.”
In some secret part of me, I waited out the anger I felt at the look in my mother’s eyes as she bent to comfort Gloria. Revulsion overtook me at the sight of their petting, at the tears, and the “there, there, don’t cry.” It is true, you know, that eyes light up when they focus on the one they love. Mother’s did for my sister. For me, though, the light was at best occasional, and never as bright.
“Shut up,” I hissed at baby face out of our mother’s hearing. “Stay away from me, you little creep.”
The water hole is bigger than it sounds. More like a small lake than a hole. It was scooped out by my grandfather, Arnold Stash, at the junction where a gushy stream suddenly dives underground. A mini army of ash and alder half circle the water, creating in their leafless season the illusion of a man-made ruin; there is a cloistered feel to the pool—some secret, delicious, hidden quality
The day was cool. A sharp little breeze agitated the air and set the water lapping. I stood shivering on the creaking wooden jetty for a minute or so before diving in. A brief submerging, then surfacing with a whooping intake of breath, a complaint against the frigid water.
I swam to the middle, raised my arms above my head, and allowed myself to sink slowly to the pool’s muddy bed. Spongy pondweed brushed against my body on the way down, causing a small panic. I hugged the panic to me. Then as now, I like the feeling I get when I do something daring, something with risk attached.
Such a silence down there in the deep, a strange sort of hush that wraps itself around you, brings the relief of being completely alone. I have always wanted to be an only child, but I think that I could have borne a brother more easily than a sister. A boy who would have followed his own path, not bounced about on mine, a brother who would have looked out for me. Why, little sister, if you had to be at all, why could you not have been a boy?
It was early in the season to be swimming, but in the cool depths of the lake where nature has set pale plants that drift toward the light, my heartbeat slowed, I felt at peace. My breath was running out, but I didn’t want to surface. Then as now I am at home in the shadows, those dusky places where Mother held the devil lurked. I have never been afraid of the dark.
When I broke the surface again, the weather had changed. A sulfurous yellow stained the sky, the clouds had clumped together, and lanky shadows stalked their way through the trees. And there, on the jetty in her little pink swimsuit, was the thorn that was my sister, waving and calling and jumping up and down, and I knew suddenly that it wasn’t simply irritation I felt. The loathing I experienced at the sight of her pulsed in that part of me, somewhere middle chest, a dark liverish thing that’s still there after all these years.
Her hair had escaped her plaits and was whipping about in the wind like corn in a storm; her narrow legs were white and straight, her fluttering arms those of a ballerina. She was nearly as tall as me already, not yet beautiful, but its promise loitered around her, waiting to settle. Even then I knew that her loveliness was unfair: the gift of her golden hair, her sunny nature, her popularity, accepted without a thought of what it might be like to be without those things. She had the angel’s share, but I was the one who understood beauty, who valued it beyond the usual limitations of a child’s senses. It came to me in a flash, a “lightbulb moment,” as they say, that life was not fair, that it picked its favorites, soft-padded their lives; the rest of us are expected to make the best of being satellites to their stars. Not me.
In those days, people often remarked on the family likeness between us, yet I was not on my way to beauty, I was already made pretty, beauty’s poor relation. If the resemblance was ever there, the grating years since have muddied it.
I closed my eyes and trod water. I hugged to myself the secret knowledge of where her cat had gone. Nasty little thing—peeing in all the wrong places, scratching the furniture, always yowling for food—untroubled in its watery grave now, the river a pleasant enough resting place.
I played dumb, pretended not to see her, pretended not to hear that trilling voice. I turned from her, pressed my hands together as though in prayer, and sank to the bottom of the pond.
I HAVE HEARD IT said that a woman is never completely free to be herself until after her mother dies, until the maternal strings are cut. We are supposed to rise, like the phoenix, from the ashes of our mothers’ lives, stretch our wings, and fly alone for the first time. My freedom has not been so easily won. I have found nothing easily won.
I rarely think of my mother without memory dragging me to the remote scape of childhood, to those flashes of toddler recollections, the denied plea for ice cream, the outrage of that stinging first slap. More usually, though, I am taken back to my nine-year-old self, when, regardless of what others thought, I knew that I was already formed, sharp as a lemon, and the brightest in my family, yet the least appreciated. My intelligence has rarely been recognized; in childhood it was not to be spoken of, unless to warn me of the sin of pride.
“Pride angers the gods,” Mother would caution. “Top of the class doesn’t make you the best person.”
Even then I knew Mother had chosen her favorite child; it was, and would always be my annoying little sister, Gloria. Pouty, shiny Gloria, a scene-grabbing enchantress of a child. Then as now I was alone in noticing her faults, the way she manipulates with sweetness. Others would enthuse on what a darling girl she was, a little sunbeam who paid back the smallest kindness with a smile and a hug.
I was forever in my mother’s bad books for not sharing, for being too rough with Gloria. Despite that yesterday I pulled a single gray hair from my head, the first one to show itself, those memories still offend.
On my sister’s behalf, Mother would step out of her placid nature to lecture irritably on sibling rivalry. I shouldn’t resent her, she was younger, I should make allowances, her nature was more sensitive than mine. She accused me of being thoughtless, of holding grudges. She never, though, accused me of not loving my only sibling. The thought perhaps had not occurred to her. We were family, so it was a given that love for each other swam in the current of our blood, was set deep in our bones.
Mother was generally a bit of a Pollyanna, but she had her faults and could be ruthless. Kind to others, she was behind glass to me: don’t touch, keep your distance. Perhaps she sensed that was how I wanted it, that I wasn’t one for cuddles and hair stroking. I have never experienced those sentimental feelings that others lay claim to. Some would say there is something missing, I suppose, some melting, saccharine quality. Nothing is missing. It is simply that I have evolved more than most.
Copyright © 2018 by Maureen Lindley. From the forthcoming book THE BELOVEDS to be published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.
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Maureen Lindley, born in Berkshire and raised in Scotland and England, was trained as a psychotherapist. She is the author of two previous novels, The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel and A Girl Like You. She lives in the Wye Valley on the border between southern England and Wales. Visit her at MaureenLindley.com.