The Write Stuff: The Treacle Well, Moira Forsyth

Illustration: Grant Paterson
Illustration: Grant Paterson
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THE intense relationship between twins Caroline and Daniel haunts Moira Forsyth‘s new novel The Treacle Well

It’s 1960. Twins Caroline and Daniel have gone to a Highland cottage to have a week on their own before starting medical degrees. They’ve also gone to get away from family for a while.

Moira Forsyth. Picture: TSPL

Moira Forsyth. Picture: TSPL

It was a traditional Highland croft house: two rooms and a small bathroom downstairs, and a narrow staircase leading to two bedrooms with sloping ceilings. It was cool and dusty and had a smoky smell from peats burned in the open fire.

‘You’ll need to keep your milk in the burn just up there,’ Peter said. ‘The kitchen gets warm in the mornings, but that’s a fine cold place.’

There was no fridge, the small electric cooker needed cleaning, and the cupboards held a basic selection of dishes and pots. This much Caroline established, but did not care, since for a week it was theirs and it was perfect.

Peter left them with a roar of the Land Rover as he went on up the hill to his own place, the dog up and pacing about again as she recognised the familiar landscape.

They danced and danced till they were breathless

‘Right,’ Caroline said. ‘Beds. Food. Let’s get sorted out.’

They found linen in a cupboard on the landing; there was a double bed in each room, both with creaking springs and sagging mattresses. Daniel sat on one and bounced.

‘We’ll hear each other turn over, won’t we?’

Caroline laughed. ‘They are pretty noisy.’ She had cheered up; it was an adventure now.

They made cocoa with boiling water and squares of Cadbury’s chocolate melted in the bottom of the mugs, and ate some of the fruit cake Janet had sent with them. By now it was dark and too late to bother lighting the fire, so they went to bed. They left the bedroom doors ajar, talking to each other across the short landing.

‘It’s very quiet, quieter than Braeside,’ Caroline said, listening to the silence.

‘So it is,’ Daniel murmured, sounding sleepy.

He slept quickly and easily, while she would lie awake for hours. The bed smelled of something musty but sweet; Caroline pulled the blankets round her, curling up tight.

Daylight woke her early with sunlight through the thin curtains. The bed was warm as a nest. She stretched out, hearing it creak, listening for an answering creak from Daniel’s room.

‘Are you awake?’

‘No.’

‘I’m so cosy, are you?’

‘Mm.’

‘There’s a spider’s web in the corner with about a dozen poor dead flies. I don’t think George does much cleaning in this cottage.’

‘He just comes for hill walking – don’t suppose he cares about the cobwebs.’

‘You are awake. Go and put the kettle on. I wonder when Peter will bring the milk.’

‘I’m awake now, thanks to you disturbing me. It’s so early he’s probably still milking the blooming cow.’

Caroline got up with a rush of energy and pulled the curtains back.

‘Wow, we really are in the wilds. Nothing but hills.’

Pulling on a jersey and a pair of socks, she went downstairs in pyjamas to visit the bathroom and then inspect everything in sunny daylight. The sky was brilliantly blue, without a cloud. Caroline opened the front door and breathed in air that was already tinged with the warmth to come. We are going to have such a wonderful week, she told the hills and the stunted tree by the gate and the sheep on the rough ground beyond.

Peter Macdonald was as good as his word: at eight he came down in a truck, bringing them milk in an enamel jug with a lid, two old bicycles and a pump for the tyres that had gone soft with disuse. Daniel pumped them up while Caroline got breakfast ready.

‘There’s a record player and some LPs in the living-room,’ she told Daniel as they ate. ‘Not exactly what we’d choose – I don’t think George is an Elvis fan, or even The Shadows. More kailyard folk…’

‘So that’s the entertainment sorted out.’

‘What will we do today?’

‘Read?’

She ignored this. ‘We’ll go for a walk, will we, or take the bikes out?’

‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but every way you turn is a hill, Caro. I think we’ll save the bikes for going into Ullapool when we run out of food.’

‘Walking then.’

He grinned. ‘Don’t know why you bother asking me – you’ll decide anyway.’

After school, and coming home, being just with Daniel was a relief. He demanded nothing; he expected nothing. She did not have to be anyone special with him, she had no image to maintain as she had done at school for so long it had become the person she was, away from home. Here, with Daniel, her other self, nothing was required but simply to be, day by day, and eat and sleep and read and talk. And walk, they would walk for miles.

They did.

‘What will you do all day?’ Janet had asked them when they decided to take up the offer of the cottage. ‘I hope you won’t be too bored.’

They were not bored. The days passed too quickly, the evenings stretched out with talking and they went to bed later and later.

‘We could stay up all night,’ Daniel said on the Thursday. ‘It doesn’t matter, there’s nobody to make us get up next day.’

‘Let’s do it.’

They went outside at midnight and stood under the stars, dazzling in the black sky.

‘You can see the stars like this at Braeside,’ Daniel said when Caroline gave a little jump of pleasure on the doorstep.

‘I know, but they look different. Brighter.’

They sat on the drystone wall and Daniel smoked, the scent of his French cigarette raw and sweet in the night air. Caroline did not smoke, but now and again he let her have a draw on his. Everyone else they knew smoked Players No 6; only Daniel was different.

Caroline went indoors and put a record on. Through the open door came the rhythm and reel of fiddle music, so infectious they began to dance and Daniel caught her in his arms and jigged away with her down the path to the gate and back across the rough grass in front of the cottage. They danced and danced till they were breathless, then collapsed on the lumpy chairs indoors, hot and thirsty, so that they drank two of the cans of beer they had brought, all the more delicious because a novelty. Theirs was not a drinking family and they were only just eighteen.

At two o’clock in the morning, Caroline said, ‘I feel we’ve been up for hours and hours of the night.’

Daniel smiled. ‘We can go to bed if we want to. It’s not obligatory to stay up all night.’

‘No, but it’s giving in, isn’t it?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘What will we do then?’

‘Read?’

‘Pfft. What about Scrabble?’

They were well matched; at home only Janet could sometimes beat them. One game to Daniel, the second to Caroline.

‘Best of three?’

‘Right.’

Third game to Daniel.

‘Best of five? What time is it?’

Daniel checked his watch. ‘Half past three. Fine, best of five.’

‘Ok.’ As she cleared the board and tumbled the tiles about again, Caroline said, ‘Why did Dad give you a watch and me a ring? I never thought about it at the time, I was only fifteen, but now I think, do women not need watches too? And it’s sort of wasted on you, you don’t wear it half the time.’

‘There’s no clock here, have you noticed?’ Daniel said. ‘You’re right, that’s the only reason I’m wearing it. I don’t think your ring would fit me, do you?’

‘Idiot.’ The tiles were ready. Caroline began picking hers and put them on her wooden stand.

‘It was only because of Margaret,’ Daniel said.

Caroline was sighing over all the vowels she had landed. ‘What was?’

‘The watch and ring. Sorry, darlings, I married a new woman and now we’re having a baby, but never mind, I still love you, so here are expensive presents to prove it.’

‘Dan! It wasn’t like that.’

‘Oh yes it was.’

They were kneeling by the fire, long gone out, but even now the night was mild. They had hardly needed it at all. Caroline sat back on her heels. ‘Do you really think that? Did you mind him marrying Diana?’

‘We talked about all that. No point now.’

‘You don’t mind Margaret.’

‘Of course not, poor wee thing.’

‘She adores you.’

‘Esther adores you – we’re quits.’

Caroline shook her head, smiling. ‘Maybe.’

Daniel grinned. ‘Louise adores Louise.’

‘That’s true too!’

‘Are you ready? Winner begins.’

He placed his letters: HOUSE

Caroline considered, wondering how many of the vowels she could get rid of.

‘Are we allowing place names?’

‘Sure, why not?’

They had their own rules when they played alone. They even allowed the words they had made up as children, when there had been just two of them, living with Granny and Grandpa after Daddy went abroad. It was like that again in the cottage perhaps, Caroline thought, no grown-ups, nobody to make us go to bed or eat up our veg.

She placed her word:

O

HOUSE

I

O

.. and they began again.

Game 4 to Caroline.

‘Right, last one. Best of five.’

‘I’m going to muddle the letters much better this time – I had so many vowels to begin with.’

‘You overcame the obstacle though, made it through and triumphed.’

‘I won by four points. It’s not much of a triumph.’

They began again. Game 5 to Daniel.

‘I’m getting tired,’ Caroline said. She was cross with disappointment. It was only a stupid game. ‘What time is it anyhow?’

‘Sorry, watch has stopped. Do you want to go to bed?’

‘Not till morning.’

In unison, they looked up at the window. Because the lamps were lit they could not tell how much light there was outside. Daniel rose and switched them off. A grey dawn showed beyond the window, changing the light indoors, shadowed and dim, but good enough to see each other, if not to read or play Scrabble. Caroline had had enough of Scrabble, anyway; she began to drop the tiles into their little cloth bag.

‘It’s morning,’ Daniel said. ‘I’m going to bed.’

‘We made it then, we stayed up all night.’

It was not all it was cracked up to be, she thought, as she went slowly upstairs. Daniel was in bed first, and probably, given his facility for sleep, already unconscious. She looked in to his room: he was lying on his side, eyes closed, the covers as high as his nose.

Caroline lay awake in the growing dawn, tired but no longer sleepy, having waited it out. If they slept all morning it was a waste of the day, so it had been a daft idea. She was regretting it now, not wanting a minute of the week lost or missed. It was Friday too, their last full day. Peter Macdonald was coming to take them through to Inverness tomorrow morning. They should really just get up again and have their day. And yet, she was growing warm and sleepy. Only an hour or two, she promised herself, then we’ll get up.

When she woke at twelve, Daniel was in the doorway with a mug of tea.

‘Thought you were never going to surface,’ he said. ‘Do you want this?’

‘Oh – what time is it?’

‘You know what,’ he said, coming to sit on her bed while she struggled up and took the mug from him.

‘What?’

‘I’m going to buy you a watch for our next birthday.’

‘I’ll just pawn the ring. Get my own watch.’ She turned her hand with the ring loose on the third finger. When it had first been given to her, it had been too big, and she had worn it on her middle finger. ‘I suppose I do like it – a bit. They wouldn’t let me wear it at school so I had to put it on a chain round my neck and tuck it inside my shirt.’

‘My chain?’

‘Yes, the one you gave me. So I had my two nearest family members entwined together!’ She smiled, mocking. Daniel leaned forward and pulled the delicate chain out from under her pyjama top.

‘Is it a good idea to wear it in bed?’

Caroline shrugged. ‘I just do.’

‘Get up then,’ he said. ‘Last day – we’ll have something to eat, then do our walk and cook an amazing curry for dinner. OK?’

‘Yes, good. I’m up.’

In adulthood, when she was so often solitary, Caroline sometimes thought of this week, this rare example of knowing you were happy at the time you were, not merely in retrospect. Every day, every minute, she knew that the week in George’s cottage was perfect happiness.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Moira Forsyth grew up in Aberdeen, lived in England for nearly 20 years, and is now resident in the Highlands. She is the author of three previous novels and many short stories and poems published in anthologies and magazines. She worked for many years in education, including teaching in a Young Offenders’ Institution in the North of England, then latterly in Highland as the strategic lead for government initiatives to assist young people to move on successfully from school. Her previous novels, Waiting for Lindsay and David’s Sisters were originally published by Sceptre, but are now available as e-books from Sandstone, which also published her third novel, Tell Me Where You Are. Her fourth, The Treacle Well, is out now.