“I don't care about her will,” Iris said as soon as the solicitor left the mansion. “This house belongs to you as much as it does to me.”
“I don't know.” Ian leaned against the front door and rubbed his scalp. Tiny flakes of skin floated onto his black polo neck. Iris studied her brother's posture, a mix of nonchalance and solemnity. He had aged since the last time she saw him, almost two years ago. He had lost weight in a healthy way; she could tell he took care of himself. But he wasn't her little brother any more, the shabby student who only took off his jogging bottoms to shit, shag or have a shower. None of which she ever witnessed, to her great relief.
“Believe me,” she said and gently pushed him into the corridor. “She only sold me the house for a symbolic price to avoid death duties.”
“I just... I can't believe I didn't even know about this. It's not like I didn't visit her every other week.”
“I know,” said Iris. Every other week, she thought. She tried to remember the last time she saw her mother, and realised it must have been Christmas. But then again, Ian had a car. “Mom told me on the phone. So how are you and... Are you still seeing Caithlin?”
“Yes, we're fine.” Ian rested his hand on the copper doorknob of their mother's bedroom. “More than fine, actually. We're thinking about getting married.”
“You've proposed?” Iris' eyes widened. She never liked Caithlin. They went to university together and got to know each other when Caithlin ran off with Iris' boyfriend, Alessandro. At first, Iris blamed his Italian nature and swore to never date a foreigner again. But her next boyfriend, Billy, was as British as the Royal Mail and he too left her for Caithlin. After she graduated, Iris met Gareth, her current partner, and she made sure he never met her rival. When Ian told her he had started dating Caithlin, Iris said he was lucky their father was dead. “That woman is literally trying to take over every man in my life. She would ditch you for dad, if he were still around!” That was the last time they saw each other, until the message of their mother's death called them both back to Bath.
“Sort of. I know it doesn't really make a great story, but we've kind of discussed the advantages of marriage.”
“So things are really serious then. Well, I'm happy for you. And,” Iris nudged him, “if you're really thinking about starting a family, you might need the house. Or your share of what it's worth, if we're selling it.” Together they walked into the bedroom. The summer afternoon tumbled in through the sash window. They could hear children play hide and seek and hopscotch. Same place, same games, same sounds; it was almost like, outside of this house, the world hadn't changed since their childhood, and they could hear themselves playing. A soft breeze stirred the sheer curtains; the fluttering voile filtered the sunlight and spread a soft glow through the Victorian bedroom. This is where the neighbours found her, Iris thought, when they went looking for her because they hadn't seen her for days.
“This is where we used to have breakfast in bed,” Ian said, “on Sunday mornings, when we were still kids.” He sat down in the rocking chair next to the window. The last months, his mother could sit in it and look at the sky for hours, just rocking back and forth, back and forth. “Like the Lord giving and taking,” she'd once said, “resistance is futile.” Her faith grew with her forgetfulness. When she called driving “the nearest thing to heaven”, Ian had asked her to sell the car. Too often he'd had to pick her up after she just went along with the flow of traffic, trusting the road and the Lord, until she'd ran out of fuel. “All roads lead to Rome,” she'd muttered when the highest bidder drove off in her Rover. And that was it, she'd never mentioned driving again.
Ian caressed the walnut arm and leaned back. The high ceiling was recently redecorated and painted in a peaceful white. He smiled. “I would love to move back in. But Caithlin would never leave London. She would wither like a poppy.”
“Just think about it.” Iris put her iPhone on top of the secretaire and flicked through the documents she had laid out earlier.
“Take a look at this,” she said after a while, and waved with a contract. Her brother got up from the rocker and looked at it, posing like Michelangelo's David. He had never been particularly interested in legal business and really couldn't focus on it right now. Mindlessly he stroked the sideboard of the writing desk. His fingers lingered at scratches on the surface.
“Do you remember these?” he asked. Iris read their names on the side of the heirloom. The three jagged letters of her brother's name were carved with great force, her own name was written more elegantly, a little above it.
“You were six and had just taught me how to write my name,” Ian said. “And then you told me I had to engrave it in mom's desk, so that I would never forget.”
“It worked, didn't it?” They both giggled. “I can't remember she ever got angry over it, though.”
“She didn't. She once told me, when I asked her about it, that she loved the future more than she loved the past.”
“She was a very special woman,” Iris said. “This desk could have been worth four to eight grand, if we hadn't ruined it.”
“She was a very special woman, indeed.” Ian put down the contract he had been pretending to read and walked to the cupboard with the stereo in it. “I'm gonna miss her like hell.” He switched on the device and pressed play. While he walked back to the rocking chair, tender violin strokes filled the room. The last music his mother had heard was the divine Air of Bach.
The rest of the afternoon they spent packing clothing for Oxfam. They ordered a large Pizza Diavolo and tipped the delivery guy fifty per cent. For old times' sake, because Ian had once worked for the same pizzeria. At nine thirty they locked the front door behind them and ambled to Ian's van on the opposite side of Longfellow Avenue.
“I'll give you a ride, sis,” said Ian.
They stood still and gazed at the roof pediment. The clear sky behind it coloured pink. An occasional far-off plane drew a line of clouds on it, which slowly evaporated. Apart from the screaming seagulls, Bath was completely quiet. The silence stirred memories of their childhood, welling up like blood from a skinned knee.
“I think she knew,” Iris said.
“Knew her death would bring us back together.” Iris stared at the arched portico and the leaded glass in the front door. She didn't want to go. More than anything, she longed to go back in, find her mother still alive, spend another night and have one more Sunday morning breakfast on the Victorian bed.
“I reckon that's why she gave the house to you. She knew you'd do the right thing.”
Side by side they watched the sky go orange.
“It's okay to cry,” Iris said.
“I know. But I was hoping you would cry first.”
“Tough.” They laughed until they had to hide their tears on each other’s shoulders. And then they hugged and wept without shame.
“You're so thin,” Ian remarked when the street lights flicked on.
“And you've been working out.”
“I know I have. Now get in the car and I'll drive you back to London.”
“I'll give Gareth a call,” she said, “I'll ask him if he can pick me up at your place.”