Home > Most Popular > If Only I Could Tell You

If Only I Could Tell You
Author:Hannah Beckerman

If Only I Could Tell You

Hannah Beckerman

‘Never to bid good-bye,

Or lip me the softest call,

Or utter a wish for a word, while I

Saw morning harden upon the wall,

Unmoved, unknowing

That your great going

Had place that moment, and altered all.’

Thomas Hardy, ‘The Going’


23 June 1988

It is a Thursday morning and Jess is walking up the stairs even though she has no need; she has already brushed her teeth and pulled her hair into some semblance of a ponytail. Her schoolbag is leaning against the umbrella stand by the front door and, in a few minutes, she and Lily will meet in the hallway and begin making their way to school.

Later – many years later – Jess will speculate that somehow she knew, somehow she sensed what was happening: an inexplicable sisterly intuition compelling her to investigate.

As she reaches the top of the stairs, Lily is coming out of the spare bedroom. Her back is turned to Jess and she closes the door quietly, reverentially almost, her hands clasped around the handle. Jess watches her take in a long, deep breath that she seems to hold in her chest for an impossible length of time before letting it out slowly, steadily.

‘What are you doing?’

Lily jumps round, her face flushed, eyes darting from left to right. ‘Why are you creeping up on me like that?’ she hisses at Jess in an angry whisper that does not sound like her usual voice.

‘We’re not supposed to go in there this morning. We were told not to.’

Jess hears plaintiveness in her own voice, bordering on a whine, and she winces at the sound of it.

‘Do not tell Mum I was in there. I mean it, Jess. You don’t want to be a telltale.’

Lily’s voice is quiet but firm, and there is a look in her eyes that Jess recognises from all the times she has caught Lily using the telephone when their mum has told her not to, or the afternoons she has seen Lily smoking with her friends behind the children’s playground in the park.

There is a moment of uncertainty, neither of them knowing what Jess’s next move will be. Until her left foot joins her right on the top stair, Jess isn’t sure what she’s going to do next, either.

‘I want to go in too.’

The two sisters glare at one another and Jess feels something pass between them: something unknowable yet frightening that she can’t, or daren’t, articulate.

‘You are not to go in there, Jess. Do you hear me?’

Lily’s body blocks the door, her arm stretched behind her as if in the process of being arrested. Around the corner of Lily’s body, Jess can see her sister’s hand gripping the handle, a final barrier should Jess get that far.

‘But I want to. If you’ve been in there, why shouldn’t I?’ Jess edges along the landing, emboldened by what she senses to be Lily’s fragile hold over the situation.

‘Stop it. I mean it, Jess. You must not go in.’

The expression on Lily’s face sends a cold draught tiptoeing along Jess’s spine: her sister’s flushed cheeks, narrowed eyes, pinched eyebrows. The panic trying to disguise itself as authority. It is unclear whether Lily is about to defend herself or launch an attack.

Fragments of memory play in Jess’s head like conversational earworms: things she has heard that she knows she shouldn’t. All those murmured conversations behind closed doors, confessions whispered into telephones when the speaker thought no one was listening.

Jess’s stomach somersaults beneath the elasticated waistband of her bottle-green skirt. She feels the blood pulsing at her wrists as if her body is urging her into action. She imagines taking a step forward and pushing Lily aside, a struggle in which she manages – against Lily’s advanced years and superior strength – to emerge victorious. But thoughts of what might happen afterwards – what she might see and what she might learn – cement her feet to the floor.

The alarm on Lily’s digital watch beeps. Lily jerks her hand to turn it off and Jess feels herself flinch. She knows it is Lily’s 8.30 a.m. alarm, the one her sister has set to ensure they leave for school on time now that their parents are too distracted to remind them. Lily holds Jess’s gaze for a few seconds more until Jess is the first to turn her head away. Jess begins to make her way down the stairs, and only then does she realise that her legs are trembling. She hears Lily’s footsteps close on her heels but does not turn around. She cannot bear to see that look on Lily’s face again: a look that has told Jess something she does not want to know.

All the way down, Jess contemplates finding her mum, telling her where Lily has been, what she thinks has taken place inside that bedroom. But by the time she reaches the bottom stair, Jess knows she cannot. To tell her mum would be to voice suspicions Jess is not yet ready to assert, things she does not, at the age of ten, have the courage to say out loud.

Instead, she picks up her schoolbag and exits the front door, unsure whether it is the summer heat or Lily’s breath she can feel prickling the skin on the back of her neck. She does not yet know it, but by the time she gets home this afternoon, the fabric of her family will have been altered irrevocably, and the morning’s events will repeat in her mind like a record stuck under the groove of a needle for the next thirty years.

Part One

February 2016

Chapter 1


Audrey Siskin sat on the bed, palms flat beside her on the duvet, arms locked, as if unsure whether she was coming or going, and cast her eyes around the room she was being encouraged to think of as her own. Familiar objects stood forlornly and ill at ease, like children in a classroom on the first day of school. There was the wrought-iron double bedstead that had served all the years of her marriage and beyond; the white-painted dressing table she’d dreamed of as a child but hadn’t been able to afford until adulthood; the tall oak wardrobe she and Edward had bought when they’d first moved into the house in Barnsbury Square, newly married and five months pregnant.

Leaning forward, Audrey ripped at the parcel tape on one of the two dozen cardboard boxes stacked up around the room but couldn’t bring herself to flip open the lid. Once she’d unpacked, that was it: there was no going back.

It’s not far, Mum. Only a few miles. Things won’t be that different at all.

Both her daughters had said it, separately but equally persuasively. And technically – geographically – both Lily and Jess were right. It was barely seven miles, less as the crow flew. A simple exchange of north London for west. Islington for Shepherd’s Bush. Georgian for Victorian. And yet to Audrey it felt as though she’d swapped the earth for the moon.

She knew how lucky she was, having two daughters vying for her to move in with them, knew that it was better to make the move now rather than in a year’s time when she would likely find it even more difficult. But Audrey still couldn’t help feeling that it was all wrong. Children shouldn’t become responsible for their parents: it upset the natural order of things. But then, Audrey thought, images spooling through her mind of all the events she’d forget if forgetting were an option: so many episodes in her life had upset the natural order. So many of the defining moments – births, deaths, marriages – were not how they should have been had the world spun faithfully on its axis without ever tilting a few degrees out of kilter.

‘Granny, how are you getting on? Do you need a hand with anything?’