Andrea Gillies

The White Lie Excerpt

When Ursula went running into the drawing room that afternoon she had angry red marks at the top of each arm, marks I inflicted, already purpling into finger-shaped bruises. So that helped with the defence, obviously, the private defence provided to the drawing-room court. They couldn’t have gone on all these years, as they have, protecting her with quite such conviction, had they not been so sure that she was provoked. She makes an unlikely murderer in any case, Ursula the gardener, the vegetarian, the knitter; Ursula who if she isn’t gardening or knitting is likely to spend the day in bed in marabou feathers, opera on the record player, engrossed in wholesome reading that’s selected and vetted on her behalf.

She went charging in at quite a lick, across the hall and through the picture gallery. It wasn’t only her swift light footsteps that registered, the squeaking of the plimsolls she wears, white plimsolls child-sized on bare feet, but also a high-pitched disjointed noise, an interrupted murmuring wail that kept time with the footfalls and exaggerated them.

Hearing her coming, the family looked mildly alarmed around the eyes and in a certain stiffening of limbs, though these reactions were manifested in the usual guarded way. It was instinctive with them all, not making too much of a grazed knee or a poacher seen on the hill or any of the other things that might and do upset Ursula. If people didn’t take their well-practised calming approach, upsets could swiftly become disproportionate. Her older sisters, the twins, of which my mother is one, were at this time 38 to Ursula’s 29, and had spent pretty much all of their lives being careful about Ursula, being loyal, being sensitive to her peculiarities, objecting to anyone else’s use of the word peculiarities, attesting good-humouredly to her being a one-off. Careful and loyal and tired.

Ursula burst into the room, her long brown hair flying. Edith went immediately to her, grasped her, holding her tight to her chest, saying, “What an earth is it?” and Ursula cried harder, extricating herself, her body convulsing with sobs. Her dress was pale blue, sleeveless, with shiny floral embroidery at the neckline, a dress that had belonged to one of the great aunts. Ursula won’t wear new clothes. There was a tidemark at the thigh-line of the dress, and crinkling of the fabric reaching down to the hem.
“She’s waded through water, she’s been in the loch!” Ottilie exclaimed, and everyone was equally amazed because nothing could have been more unlikely. A faint loch aroma emanated. Ursula’s skin was its customary near-white, though mild stripes of sunburn tracked the principal bones of her arms, and sweat had beaded pink along her hairline. The weather that June was almost freakish for the north, weather so hot that everything looked different, the landscape transformed, remade in new colours. Every window was open but it was just as stuffy in the room as before, a soup of thick and exhausted air.

Edith continued asking her youngest daughter what was wrong. Sometimes what’s needed is that you repeat a question in different ways, trying out different intonations. Edith pushed her own head back on her neck, chin recessed into her throat, to look properly at Ursula’s face, to signal to her that she was being scrutinised and that things were expected to come of this, but Ursula distanced herself, stepping back and shaking her head. Now my mother’s twin came forward, Joan, looking (characteristically) as if she’d take charge, then thinking better of it and folding her arms against intervention. She moved back again, saying, “Oh for god’s sake, get a grip.”

Edith looked towards her husband, face perplexed. Henry, preoccupied with financial problems and believing this still to be something trivial, took a few extra moments to put down his letter.
“Michael!” Ursula shouted, and then again, and it was like an appeal, like she was calling after me still, and I was near at hand. She directed her calls towards the windows, as if I were waiting just outside and might hear. Now she went into distress mode, arms tight across her waist, grasping her own elbows as if holding tight to them mattered, stepping forward and sideways, back and sideways again, her eyes cast down. Henry got to his feet. Ottilie got onto her feet, her toast falling to the floor, its upturned buttered quarters pathetically domestic, out of place in any kind of crisis. She put one hand to her mouth, saying, “No, no, no, no,” beginning to grieve even before the news was told. Now Ursula was squatting, her dress ridden up, holding tight to her knees, her nails indenting fiercely into her skin. “I’ve killed him, I’ve killed him,” she said, and there was something about the tone that sounded vaguely surprised and as if pleading for contradiction.

Ottilie half fell and half sat on the floor, going down hard, jarring her back, her face registering the pain of the landing. She bent forward and clasped her hands over the top of her skull, demanding that Ursula explain – “What do you mean, what do you mean you’ve killed him, what do you mean?”
Henry went to Ursula, to the Chinese rug that has half the fringe missing, taking hold of her arms and pulling her gently up to stand. He had Ursula by both wrists and was saying, “Calm, calm; breathe, calm,” his quasi-military authority to the fore. He opened her arms wide and closed them again as if they were bellows, a technique that had been used before with success. “Breathe” he said again, elongating the word. Ursula began to calm. “Look at me.” Henry took her face in his hands and insisted on eye contact. “Where is Michael? Where is he?”
Ursula said that I was drowned, and that she hadn’t meant it: they had to understand, please, that it hadn’t been meant. She sagged again onto her haunches, and Henry was forced to let go of her. He took a step backwards.

Those who hadn’t been on their feet were on their feet now. Cups and tea plates had fallen in slow motion onto upholstery and onto the floorboards, splintering china into shards, a general exodus already in progress even as the china fell. They gathered up Ottilie, who was staring wide-eyed and unblinking, who went passively along as if sleepwalking, steered from the door. They went along the picture gallery and into the hall, Ottilie reacting as if blindfolded and having to be directed, only just dodging pedestal tables, into the gloom of the rear passage and towards the back stairs. The servants’ entrance (as was) is the closest exit to the loch. Joan’s husband Euan was first out, emerging at speed into the yard and almost cannoning into Alan, who was coming in. Euan, immensely tall, lanky, cool-skinned and cool-eyed, couldn’t have presented a greater contrast to Alan, who was overheating and blowing hard. He’s plump, has a tendency to blush, has a tendency to sweat, and his blonde hair is almost white.
“I’m sorry,” he panted. “Can’t run like she does.” Bending over and breathless, like an athlete after a sprint. “And I was ill. I’m sorry.” When he lifted his head there was dried vomit crusted around his mouth. His nose and left cheek were bruised and swollen.
“Alan,” Euan said, with a gesture that could have been solidarity, putting a hand on his shoulder, those long bony fingers, but in truth pushing him gently back and out of the way. Alan turned to watch as Euan ran across the yard and disappeared onto the lane. As Alan swivelled, his pink face screwed up against the glare, moisture gathering on his brow and upper lip, Joan appeared from the stairway, calling after Euan and ignored.
“Alan,” Joan said, as if introductorily, before abridging the thought into two words. “A crisis.” She was business-like in a trouser suit and silk shirt, trim and blonde and smartly dressed; she and Euan had just returned from Glasgow, from a university open day, and she’d wanted to be impressive among the other mothers.
“Wait. Alan, what happened to your face?”
“I was there; I saw it all.”
“But what happened to your face?”
“I swam into the boat.”
“Come with us,” Joan told him, and then, “But hang on. Wait a moment for my father.”
Alan put his hands one to each side of his head. “I was there; I saw it all.”

Now Henry approached, guiding Ottilie from behind, and then coming around to stand in front of her. “Alan,” he said. “You saw Michael, Ursula and Michael. Alan, you’re injured.”
“It’s okay. Looks worse than it is. I swam into the boat.”
“Alan, tell us. Tell us if it is. What it was.”
“Ursula has told you, then,” Alan said, his voice full of regret. He left it to others to say what it was that Ursula told: later, that would seem significant. And now there she was, stepping out into the yard with Edith, holding hands tightly, out from the stairs and through the door into the light. Despite being close to five o’clock the day remained dazzling and golden, thick with yellow dust.
“I killed him and I can never get him back,” Ursula said. “That’s what Alan told me and it’s true.”
“You waded in – he was in trouble and you waded in a little way and couldn’t go further. Was that how it was?” Edith was desperate for it to be so.
“I killed him,” Ursula told her, calm and solemn.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs Salter,” Alan said.
“We must get down there,” Edith announced, and then, “Alan – what happened to your face?”
Alan touched his cheek with his fingertips. “I swam into the boat.”
“We must get down there, and quickly.”
“It’s too late; he’s gone,” Ursula told them, almost irritably.
“It’s too late; he’s gone,” Alan confirmed. “I spent half an hour looking.” They’d remark on this later, that interpretation ran fluidly in his account: he followed only where Ursula led. But he looked like a man who’d had a great upset, even if only circumstantially. His left leg, his left shoe, were juddering nervously against the gravel.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m having a panic attack. It’ll pass in a minute.”

They watched as he did a little circuit of that area of the yard, hands casual on his hips, miming again that same runner's habit, though this was the look of a competitor in the moment before the race began, fingers hooked onto hip bones and shaking his legs out one at a time.
“But how did she?” Edith extended her hands palms-up in that biblical way that she has, and was looking at Ursula, who was walking away towards the loch path. “It doesn’t make any sense. Are you absolutely sure? Are you sure?”
Ursula turned briefly to face them, walking backwards for a few paces. “The oar. I hit him with the oar across the head.”
“Oh no, Jesus, no!” Henry pointed his head skyward, his words a shout.
“I told you, I told you,” Joan said, “but nobody listens.”
“Though that wasn’t the first thing,” Alan interrupted them, returning to the group. Ottilie remained in a trance, her eyes unseeing, and Alan put his fingers to her elbow, squeezing and stroking briefly down her forearm. There was something unmistakably proprietorial in the gesture. He cleared his throat. “The first thing. She pushed him with it and he lost his balance.”
“She pushed him,” Joan repeated. “And?”
“That was the first thing. And that was fine. He fell out of the boat. That was fine. They were fighting and he went out.”
“The boat. What was she doing in the boat?”
“It was when he tried to climb back in. When he tried to climb back in, she …” He trailed off, bending again. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I can’t believe it either and I’m ill.”
“And I can’t believe there isn’t any hope,” Edith said, her voice breaking on that last almost unsayable word. “Come on! Come on – we mustn’t waste any more time.”

Henry was already astride the old motorbike, a heavy black monster, tar-black, that survives from his father’s day and that he used on the hill tracks. Alan got on behind him, by invitation that turned to insistence, and went off holding on lightly to Henry’s waist.

Edith turned to Joan. “Where are the children? The children. We must tell them before someone else does. Where are they?” Her eyes swam in and out of focus and she put the heel of her hand to her forehead as if containing her racing thoughts physically.
“Mum,” Joan said. “Mum. Are you listening? Only Mog is here. You know that. The others are all off around the village. We’ll get messages out after.”
Edith met her gaze. She looked as if she were going to speak and then didn’t. She let her fingers trail down over her nose and mouth and chin.
Joan said, “She’s still upstairs. She’s up with Granny.”
Edith’s attention snapped back into the present. She turned and hurried back up the stairs, hearing as she approached the great hall her mother’s shrill cries; seeing, as she approached the great hall, Vita standing remonstrating with Mog, Vita in orange and Mog in red, vivid against the black and white tiles of the floor and all the sombre wood colours. They stood in a rectangle of light created by one of two tall windows, and Mog was pleading with Vita to stay put, to return to the drawing room. Edith stepped in, telling her mother abruptly that Mog was right, that negotiating stairs and the walk to the loch were too much for her, and then she returned to the yard, her face wet, turning her head as she appeared and shouting back up the stairway, “No! Please! Stay put, stay there". Her hand went to her forehead. "That’s all we can do; we can’t physically restrain her.” She spoke more quietly now, into the house, to someone unseen, and after a moment Mog emerged, blinking in the light, her mouth pulling down hard, Mog trying in vain to correct it. Without saying anything further, Edith took the bicycle that was left by the entrance and cycled away, wobbling and weaving. Joan and Mog followed down the lane on foot, each overtaking Ursula, who brought up the rear at a sedate and hopeless pace, her eyes three-quarters shut, talking rapidly to no one, gathering and then releasing the fabric of the skirt of her dress.

At the lochside there was a hastily discussed and amended plan of action, one that only Ottilie was oblivious to. Ottilie went down to the end of the jetty and strained herself towards the water, shouting my name again and again. “As if he’s a lost dog,” Joan said to Edith, Edith not responding. Euan ran back towards Ursula, who just at this moment had stepped onto the beach, demanding angrily to know where it was, the spot in question, approximately, approximately would have to do. Ursula ignored him, swerving around him, and so he turned to Alan, who was heaving the rowing boat from the shore. Edith and Joan decided they’d join Alan in there, wading into the shallows and boarding with his help, his steadying hand. As the boat floated free and Alan climbed aboard, Euan shouted after him for his opinion about location, about where they should be looking. Alan found it hard to say, and it was genuinely hard to say, on such a great expanse of water, where it was that the boat was sited earlier that afternoon. Their urgency, their cooperative urgency, was a touching thing to see. They acted as if there was something that could be done, as if even now I might be dragged up and out, coughing up water and alive after all.

Henry set out along the jetty, my mother turning to register his presence before facing the water again.
“People survive longer in cold water,” she said as he came to stand beside her, her voice unrecognisable. “Don’t they? Dad. Please. They survive longer in water this cold.”
“Ottilie.” His tone wasn’t promising.
“I read something though. About breathing shutting down. Breathing shutting down. Please.”
Euan had his shirt off over his head, had stepped out of his trousers and was wading stoically, unflinchingly out in his boxers, before executing a strong forward dive. He gasped as he surfaced, treading water, because, yes, as it happens it was as cold as the grave. He went forward again, arcing his arms forward one after the other, swimming the crawl towards the spot that Alan suggested, that was Alan’s best guess.
“If anyone can find him, Alan will,” Edith said.
“My husband isn’t completely pointless, Mother” Joan told her. A beat fell. “Though I agree he is mostly pointless.”
Euan was beginning to make exploratory dives, dipping and resurfacing and diving again. Alan was out of the boat and doing the same, the two of them like feeding birds. Already the voices came at them, wanting news. “Anything? Anything at all? Not a sign? Nothing? Try further along.” It’s hundreds of feet deep and dark as a moonless night down there.
Joan took the opportunity of their being alone to say to Edith that when he saw what was happening, Alan should have come straight to the house. “Half an hour, he wasted half an hour trying to do it all himself and be the hero. The hero all over again.”
Edith was brusque. “He did the right thing, Joan. He might have saved him.” Sebastian’s name was in the air unspoken.

Later, a week or so after this, Alan surprised them all by going into the loch and coming up with one of my shoes, a brown leather boat shoe soaked almost black. He had found it on a rocky outcrop under the surface and this had sparked a new search much closer to shore. The fact that Alan found it would be thought to be important later, when the questions began in earnest. Later, you see, there wouldn’t be certainty, but only deeper and greater doubt. Certainty has only come recently. At the time there was nothing systematic about the thing; it was and remained essentially amateurish. This might shock you, but the fact is that the police weren’t involved in the aftermath of my disappearance, and not just not then, at the beginning, on the day. Not at all; not ever. The family could always have played the suicide card they held up their sleeves in readiness, if the authorities had come sniffing round, but it wasn’t something they felt complacent about, not with the risk of a head wound revealing itself. Dragging the lake, in any case unfeasible, was quite impossible in these circumstances. This is something Henry had to be blunt about when dealing with my mother.

Alan surprised them all with his tact. There was no way of assuming him locked into the secret, but nonetheless Alan was meticulous in supporting the Salter version of events in the village. Henry tried to have a conversation with him at the beginning, a conversation about consistency, but Alan interrupted him in his full euphemistic flow, lifting his hand up as if it were a pledge and saying that if anyone asked, he would tell them – of course – that Michael left home, left a note, and that his current whereabouts remained unknown. All these assertions were, after all, true.
“The rumours are a disgrace.” He said this almost as an afterthought, half out of the door.
“Rumours? What rumours are there?”
“That his car was left on the beach because Michael never left the loch. That Michael killed himself.”
“Nothing about … anyone else?”
“No. No, no. There’s no implication –”
“I see. Well, thank you, Alan.”

Some people have an aura about them, an unfortunate editorial addition to the facts of their physical selves, and Alan was one of these people: probably still is. At the time I disappeared he’d already taken on the doughy, shadowed-eyed look of a man who has lost faith in the idea of life, who senses that life has no great plan for him and finds consolations where he can. He’d adopted a daily uniform of formal black trousers, just a little too short, showing white socks in the gap between hem and shoe, and loudly patterned zipped sweaters that were stiff with acrylic. When he left here last year in disgrace, by then mostly bald, he’d grown out his monkish tonsure of hair so that it could be brushed across from one ear. At the time I was born things were different. At that time he was handsome in his sturdy soldier-boy way, unfashionable but well presented, a lover of well-pressed slacks and short-sleeved shirts finished with a knife crease down the upper arm, strong-chinned and even-featured, if rather hard-looking, his face usually closed on its outward side, with who knows what doors and windows on the inward-facing wall, but in middle age he’d become desperately unkempt.
“Well, what do you expect?” Henry would say, when the subject arose. “Two men living in that small house together.”
Henry went along the shoreline, past Mog, who was walking briskly up and down, her hands held in front of her, massaging one with the other in turn. He went along to see Ursula, who was sitting at the edge of the wood, at the base of a tree, knees clasped tightly, but she wouldn’t speak, wouldn’t look at him. He knew these silences and knew that they end only when Ursula is ready, so he abandoned the attempt and returned to Ottilie on the jetty. They stood watching as the rescue effort became openly disheartened.
“No, no chance,” I heard Henry say.
“But he’d float, wouldn’t he?” Ottilie asked him. “He’d float if he were drowned, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t sink, would he? Or he wouldn’t sink far, would he?”
Henry believed in honesty, always said so. It’s what he was known for, his straight talking, that is if you could get him to talk at all. Ordinarily he was a man who didn’t say much unless there was a practical need, and it had been like that since Sebastian died. Edith has always maintained that Henry was optimistic once, a happy, uncomplicated soul who found contentment in ordinary daily busyness and recuperated in good spirits afterwards, glad to spend time with his family. When I was born Sebastian had been dead five years, which was longer than he’d lived, and it wasn’t any longer easy to engage Henry, but if you could engage him, he was disarmingly straight. Disasters did this to people, he said. He never pretended to a child that there’s a Santa or a Tooth Fairy or (out of Edith’s earshot, at least) that there was anything special about the Baby Jesus beyond being a man with a good heart, about whom many myths sprang up in his lifetime and then even more so afterwards, as is the way with celebrity. He wouldn’t lie to Ottilie. She knew that. That’s why she was asking.
“He might be … suspended at a certain depth,” he said to her, apparently unemotively, looking out at the two men, who were diving and surfacing and yelling at each other to move along a bit. Alan said that judging by the view of the wood they were 50 feet out, maybe, but it was so hard to say; it was almost impossible to say.
“It isn’t just about the distance from the beach,” Euan told him. “The location needs plotting in three dimensions.”
“Whatever you say, professor,” Alan sniped.

Ignoring this, Euan said Ursula should be with the women in the boat, shouting this ineffectually towards the shore. Then he was gone again, getting into his dive by surging firstly up, his breath held, his ribs obvious and wet, his boxers soaked against his hips, before plunging down, his long pale legs beating at the water as he tried to get more vertical and deeper.

“It depends on how long,” Henry was saying.
“But people are found floating in rivers, in the sea,” Ottilie countered.
“They have air trapped in their clothes. Or are carried along by the current, the tide. Or if not, if they sink, they tend to ... they tend to bob up again, at a certain point, at the point when …” He stopped mid-sentence. Not even Henry could bear to tell my mother that my body would have to rot a little, made buoyant by decompositional gas.
“Carried along,” she said.
“But in a loch this cold he might never resurface,” he told her.
“What do you mean?”
“In water this cold, it’s extremely cold: you understand that, don’t you? It’s ice cold down there in the deeps. The truth is that he won’t be found.”
“What do you mean? No. No, Dad. No, Dad. What are you saying?”
“I’m sorry. But you want to know. You want to know, don’t you? The unvarnished truth of it?”
“No. I want to know something different. Take me back to the start of this and I would give anyone’s life. Yours, Dad. Even yours.”
“I’m so very sorry.”
“Nobody’s sorry enough.”
Nothing further was said for a while. What Henry was thinking, I’d bet, is that this would be a good thing, a saving grace, my non-reappearance. Ghastly, tragic, terrible, too terrible to comprehend fully, a terrible day it had turned out to be, but at least I wouldn’t reappear. That would be the arrived-at family perspective, the grown-on family orthodoxy. They didn’t want me resurfacing, found bloated on the surface by a fisherman: the only thing that lay on the other side of that eventuality was a more concrete disaster, a living human disaster, one that was unnavigable. Henry was reassured that I was unlikely to be found, and was too ashamed to admit it. Ashamed the whole rest of his life.

They spent another hour and ten minutes at the loch. Everyone knew it was hopeless and that there was little point, but nobody could bear to leave, to turn their backs on me, until Edith said that she must go and see Vita and that they should go back to the house, perhaps returning later. That perhaps was the mechanism for permission. Once they’d gone, they weren’t going to return – other than for the private visits, three, four times daily at first, and then less and less often as the weeks passed, their resolve leaking into duty, duty turning into resignation. They came often at first, scanning the water, something nobody talked about but everybody did, individually and without mentioning it, waiting for the possibility of my showing as an object limp and buffeted, something foul and changed. Once human, now a repellent human debris.

What is it we learn as we grow older in the world? Nothing, it seems to me, besides what it is that love means. My mother loved me, but in a language I didn’t understand. Things were obvious to her that I couldn’t even guess at. My grandparents loved me in a way that was sincere and useless. Mog loved me in a way that left me anxious for her: her love was like another way of being lost. Everybody else loved me only after I’d gone.

Andrea Gillies