Colin Graham stood and sighed as he surveyed the empty pile of suitcases left by his eldest daughter Alice as she finished unpacking having returned home after three years at university and wondered how he was ever going to fit them all in the loft. Sighing again he wondered where the last twenty one years had gone and how his once little girl had grown into the young woman she now was. It seemed like only yesterday he had come racing back from London to see his newborn daughter and now here she was ready to take on the big wide world.
“Colin!” The sound of his wife’s voice cut through Colin’s thoughts and he set the step ladder down with a start as Sharlie Graham bounded up the last of the stairs. “Could you look out the kids’ christening shawl whilst you’re up there?” she asked. “Becca can’t remember what happened to it after Pippa’s christening and Sarah swears she hasn’t seen it and I wasn’t sure if Alice had picked it up afterwards.”
“I’ll have a look,” he said thoughtfully. “Any idea where it might have ended up?”
Sharlie shrugged. “Try in the boxes with the kids coming home outfits and first shoes?” she suggested.
Colin shrugged and swung himself from the top of the step ladder into the loft and began picking his way through the mounds of Christmas decorations poking precariously out of numerous carrier bags, boxes piled high with papers and garishly coloured plastic toys and overbalancing suitcases that blocked his path.
Surveying the chaos she had instilled in her tiny room on trying to house an excess of books Alice Graham also sighed. Three long years at university had encouraged her to value her independence and being at home seemed like a step backwards. Idly picking up a pile of books she wondered where she could put them as the sound of her parents’ voices drifted through from the landing.
“Have you tried looking in the box with the first shoes?” she heard her mother asking and there was a muffled reply from her father that she couldn’t quite catch.
Curiosity aroused Alice left the pile of books on her bed and drifted out to see what was happening.
“I’ve looked in there,” she heard her father saying impatiently.
“What’s he looking for?” asked Alice.
“The christening shawl,” her mother replied. “Did you see it after Pippa’s?” Alice shrugged. “Da, do you want me to come up and give you a hand?”
Unable to catch Colin’s reply, Sharlie descended the ladder and motioned for Alice to go up. As she picked her way over the obstacle course her father had laid for her Alice followed the mumbled instructions from Colin that most people would have struggled to understand, but not Alice used to her father’s ways after so many years. The result of each instruction proved fruitless and in the end, tripping over a small red toy car, Alice arrived at the far end of the loft with Colin and her sharp eyes spotted a cardboard box in the back corner under another box laden down with papers.
“Have you tried that one, da?” she asked as Colin mumbled something almost incomprehensible to her in reply.
Alice shrugged, knowing better than to pay any attention to her father’s nonsensical mumblings and carefully manoeuvred the boxes at her feet containing her younger brother Luke’s school work so she was able to perch on top of a box of toy cars to reach down the paper filled box. Peering into the promising looking box underneath there was something white in a clear plastic bag.
“Is this it da?” she asked pulling the bag out of the box.
Colin spun round from where he was grumbling about a pile of the primary school drawings of his five children being a fire hazard to see the bad held in Alice’s outstretched hand. He shook his head. “No, that’s your mam’s wedding dress.”
Alice stared, it was something she had never seen. “Can I have a look?”
“No, we’re looking for that bloody christening shawl, put it back.” Alice shrugged and laid the dress beside her. “What else is in that box?”
Alice reached in and pulled out a bulging bag with something white and woollen poking out of the edge. “This,” she said simply. “It looks promising. Da?”
Colin nodded, saying nothing, his face remained frozen as he took the bag from Alice’s hands and headed back across the loft calling to Sharlie as he did so. Alice settled back on the box of cars, watching her father’s back disappearing down the loft hatch. With a small sigh she picked up the car she’d tripped over on her way across the loft, examining it under the flickering light of the electric bulb, it wasn’t one she could instantly recall to memory so she placed it back amongst the others in the pile beneath her. She picked her way back across the obstacle course to the loft hatch catching the sound of a muffled sob as she swung her legs on to the step ladder.
“I’d forgotten that was in there,” she heard her mother saying as she eased herself on to the top step of the ladder and cautiously made her way down. “I bought it as something to remember Alice by…” Alice heard her mother break off into fresh sobs as she rested against the step ladder, a puzzled expression dancing across her face. She didn’t catch her father’s reply. “It’s so silly,” then came from her mother. “It’s been forty three years since Alice…”
“I know,” came the soothing reply from her father.
“Listen to me, still weeping over it.”
Alice frowned as she stepped off the last step of the ladder, trying to do so quietly and failing as her foot slipped and she crashed into the doorframe of the airing cupboard with a resounding “ouch”.
“Alice what on earth are you doing?” Colin asked as he stuck his head around the bedroom door. “It sounded like you were trying to bring the house down.”
Alice rubbed her shoulder and winced. “Slipped,” she mumbled. “Da… what’s… what’s mam upset for?”
“How much did you hear?”
“Not much. But I… I’m Alice.” There was a silence between the two of them for a few moments. “Is mam okay?”
“She will be in a minute.”
“Da, I don’t understand.”
Colin slipped an arm around his daughter’s waist and led her downstairs and out into the back garden. He had never questioned Sharlie’s decision to not tell the children about the baby she had miscarried during her time at university but he had always had a niggling feeling that it would all come out one day. He was only glad that it was Alice that had overheard and not one of the younger ones. Three years at university had given Alice the chance to grow up so much more than her younger siblings and out of the five Graham children she was the one who had most inherited her mother’s ability to see just that little bit deeper than everybody else.
“Da?” Colin sighed. “Who was Alice?”
“Alice was your mam’s first baby. She miscarried in her first year at university.”
“It wasn’t yours then?”
Colin shook his head. “Long before my time.”
“Was it Will’s?” Alice had heard the stories of her mother and Will Macintosh.
Colin shook his head again. “Alice’s father was called Matthew Holmes; he and your mam were seeing each other in her first year. He was a friend of Will’s actually. Your mam broke things off with Matthew because he had been seeing somebody else behind her back and then she found out she was pregnant and lost it.”
“It was your mam’s decision to not tell you.”
Alice paused. “No, I understand. So was I named after her?”
Colin nodded. “There was never any doubt over what you would be called. You were always Alice.”
Alice sat down carefully in one of the plastic garden chairs. “What was in the bag with the shawls then?”
“It was a dress she’d bought for Alice; I had an inkling it was in there but I wasn’t completely sure.”
“Who else knows about her?”
Colin thought for a moment. “Your Aunt Eliz, Trixie, Tish, Lucy and Kathie from what I remember.”
“Have you always known?”
Colin shook his head. “No. Not until she was pregnant with you.”
“Alice, are you sure you understand why we didn’t tell you?”
Alice nodded. “You can tell mam I know but I’ll only talk about it if she wants to. It’s strange, you know. All this time I’ve thought I was the first… but you know, I always had a funny feeling that there had been one before me. I always thought I was imagining things – Katy had a twin who was a still born but she didn’t find out until we were about fifteen. She always said she knew, subconsciously, she was a twin. I suppose it was like that.”
Colin shrugged. “You won’t tell the others, will you?”
“No. Luke wouldn’t care for a start. The twins might understand but you can never be too sure with them and the same with Lottie and Roo’s just a kid still.”
“You tell him that,” said Colin with a smile at Alice’s shrewd assessment of her siblings.
“I’m not completely daft – Roo hates being called a kid. You’d think he was 24 not 14 sometimes. Da…”
“Was I your first? I mean…”
Colin nodded. “You were. That was why your mam told me about Alice – she was scared of it happening again.”
“There was one between the twins and Roo but we didn’t tell you about it. It was an early miscarriage and you were only six at the time. We didn’t think you’d understand.”
“No, I don’t think I would have done then.” Alice stared thoughtfully out over the garden, thinking back for a moment. “Da?”
“Was it that time mum got rushed into hospital? You remember when Auntie Kathie came to stay before Lottie was born?” Colin nodded. “Things suddenly make a little more sense.” The two of them sat in silence for a few minutes. “I’d best finish my unpacking, hadn’t I?”
“Yes, your mam’ll only complain if there’s empty bags left around the house after today for her to fall over.”
Alice chuckled and the two of them headed back indoors and upstairs. Sharlie greeted them at the top of the stairs, the tear stains evident on her face but her eyes saying that everything was in order once more. Colin gave Alice’s arm a reassuring squeeze as she headed along the landing back to her room to collect the last of her bags to put in the loft. She clambered back into the loft, sitting on the edge of the hatch with her legs swinging as Colin passed up the pile of suitcases and bags to her.
“That’s the last,” shouted Colin, handing up a small blue case as he did so.
“Okay,” came the reply as Alice vanished into the loft to try and find somewhere to keep them all.
Half an hour later, having been distracted by her curiosity to see her mother’s wedding dress, Alice picked her way back to the loft hatch only to discover that the ladder had disappeared. Kneeling over the edge as far as she dared she saw no sign of it.
“Da!” she called, getting no response. “Mam?”
Sharlie appeared from the bedroom. “What?”
“Could you please tell da that I know he doesn’t like me on occasion but trying to leave me in the loft is a bit cheap?” Unable to help herself Sharlie began to laugh. “Mam, it’s not funny,” moaned Alice.
“I’m sorry, love,” mumbled Sharlie pulling herself together momentarily before breaking off into fresh giggles.
“M-am, stop it! Fine, I’ll just have to jump.”
“Don’t you dare,” exclaimed Sharlie. “Alice Kathleen Graham don’t you even think about it.”
“Well, could you find me then step ladder then, please?”
“What’s all the fuss about?” asked Colin as he appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Da!” groaned Alice. “You’ve taken the step ladder so I can’t get down. Dirty trick, I say.”
Colin grinned mischievously. “Sorry, love, but I needed to get in the airing cupboard. Sharlie, it’s in the boys’ room – why didn’t you get it for her?”
Sharlie stared at Colin in disbelief. “Because you didn’t tell me where you were putting it! Honestly Colin, I’m not a mind reader and, more to the point, you’ve never trusted me with that ladder in all the years I’ve known you.”
“Because if I let you up it you’d be liable to fall off it and break yourself. Who was it that broke her wrist falling over her shoelaces?” Sharlie scowled.
“D-a, very nice though this row is could you please let me down from here?” implored Alice. “Oddly enough I don’t want to spend the rest of my life up here.” Colin and Sharlie both stared up at her for a moment, each thinking back over the last 21 years since Alice’s arrival. “Please?”
“Okay, okay,” said Colin with a sigh, followed by an impulsive kiss with Sharlie.
“M-am, d-a, don’t do that, it’s not right!” wailed Alice, covering her eyes. “Stop it!”
Her parents broke apart laughing as Colin walked off. “How do you think you got here?” he called over his shoulder.
“D-aaaaa, just no,” retorted Alice firmly as her father placed the step ladder beneath the loft for her and she descended to the landing. “I’m going to my room,” she said with a sigh.
Watching their eldest daughter walk off Colin slipped his arm around Sharlie’s waist as they both stood lost in their thoughts and memories.