Cecilia awakened from her childhood while she was on holiday in Italy, the summer she turned fifteen. It was not a sexual awakening, or not exactly—rather, an intellectual or imaginative one. Until that summer, the odd child she was had seemed to fit in perfectly with the oddity of her rather elderly parents. Her father, Ken, worked at a university library, and her mother, Angela, wrote historical novels, and when they came late to marriage—and then to childbearing and child rearing—they saw no reason to change the entrenched pattern of their lives, or to become more like ordinary people. No one who knew them could quite imagine afterward how they had managed nappies and dummies and spooning in baby food; they themselves couldn’t really remember how they had managed it. A squalling baby must have been an eruption of anarchy in lives that were otherwise characterized by restraint and irony.
It was only the once, in any case. There was just Cecilia, and she hadn’t squalled for long.
Even when her father was still carrying her in a backpack, she had looked around her with those wise huge eyes that were so like her mother’s, pale and heavy-lidded, drinking everything in with appetite and wonder, but not participating in it. Soon she had learned to hate children’s parties, preferring a trip to a museum or a castle—or rambling in the Lake District, pressing flowers for her collection. She had a stamp collection, too, and she and her father made what he called “stinks” with a chemistry set—although she quickly knew, as she said, that science “wasn’t her thing.” By the time she was nine, she had read “Middlemarch” and most of Dickens; she learned the violin and played it scratchily but at a tremendous pace, advancing through all the grades. She took extra Latin lessons at school because it helped her grasp the roots of her own language. Her teachers encouraged her and showed her off but didn’t like her, with her curious mixture of assurance and shy clumsiness. Cecilia wasn’t afraid of adults in those days, only of other children. Finicky about food, for years she was miniature, like an elf or a wizened old woman; at puberty, she grew suddenly tall and got an appetite, her limbs and her waist thickened, her skin became waxy, and her hair, which had been fair, turned to mud-brown. She was affronted by this bodily assault; discreetly, Angela supplied her with sanitary pads. Mother and daughter conferred only briefly and abruptly about such facts of life. Female biology seemed a disenchantment, after the pure thing Cecilia’s childhood had been.
Still, biology had produced Cecilia, and she was a marvel. If her parents mourned the fey little sprite she had been, they loved her too tenderly to give her the least sign of it. The three of them did everything together. They liked the same things and shared the same jokes: most of all, they liked the past. It was as if the past in some sense belonged to them, because they knew about it and understood it, whereas in the present they were submerged among so many alien others, such hostile crosscurrents, in such oceans of what was crass and wrong. You could feel their relief when they stepped out of the crowd in the high street of any provincial English town, spoiled by its Poundworlds and its McDonald’s and identikit shabby chain stores, and into the embracing quiet of some Tudor or Georgian house, open to the public, where a ticket seller dozed behind a few faded postcards. They even regretted it if the National Trust got hold of such a place and jazzed it up. Try on the crinoline, the wig! See if you can write a poem like Coleridge’s! The more austere the history the better, as far as Ken was concerned. Angela teased that he was never happier than when he spotted dense information boards, complete with floor plans, color-coded for different historical periods. She and Cecilia preferred a family tree, finding out which haughty beauty in a portrait had married whom, which children had died tragically young.
Angela was dreamy when she got up close to the past. She liked to close her eyes, breathe in the smell of a place, and feel its ghosts around her. In her own childhood, she had read so many books in which a house’s past was actually alive in the next room: you had only to open the right door to come across the Edwardian children who’d once lived there, or the Tudor plotters, or some powdered, jaded aristocrat bent over his papers or her embroidery. Reading aloud to Cecilia when she was small, Angela had loved reëntering the spirit of those books, and was sometimes so absorbed that she went on reading long after Cecilia had fallen asleep. Of course, it had to be an old house for the time travel to work. Angela had resented, when she was growing up, the smart modern homes her parents preferred, their showy windows, their roots planted so shallowly in history. She had yearned to own a house with a priest hole—or an attic, at least, with a trunk full of yellowed letters and long dresses. In real life, needless to say, she and Ken had had to make do with less, but she’d held out for a brick cottage in Coventry which had an air of harboring long-ago secrets, though it was rather swamped by the city’s postwar redevelopment.
Yet Ken and Angela weren’t cowardly, or even timid. They confronted their present cheerfully enough, were mostly quite happy in it and not naïve about its advantages. Angela was a feminist, grateful to be liberated from the tyranny of pleasing; Ken was a socialist, so couldn’t regret the end of feudalism or of the aristocracy. He even, in the abstract, hoped for a better future, though he was afraid that the best days of socialism were behind them, and its best minds. Of necessity, because of his work at the library, he was an early adopter of new information technologies, though he regretted their consequences in the wider society: he was involved in setting up Early English Books Online. Slim and compact and not unhandsome in his dark suit, he was small—by the time Cecilia was thirteen, both his women overtopped him—with a neatly trimmed beard and brown eyes that were unexpectedly limpid and expressive, suggesting that he held back strong feeling. His speech was constrained and quick, and at the library he was respected and even feared, passionate in support of his ideas, contemptuous of interference. He might have lived entirely sufficient to himself if he hadn’t once, on an improbable occasion—he didn’t, as a rule, attend evening receptions at work—encountered Angela, with her startled look and faintly panicky laugh. She had said something original and not stupid about the Tudor mentality.
Angela could have been very pretty if she hadn’t so determinedly refused that cup, willing it to pass from her. She was fine-boned and dainty, with a translucent complexion—though if she looked in a mirror, she avoided her own eyes. Her pale silky hair, cut short, seemed to lift in a perpetual breeze of static; as she searched for the right sentence, or the detail of a scene, she combed her fingers through it unconsciously until it crackled and stood on end. She didn’t wear any makeup or perfume. Her mother, Cecilia’s grandmother, who was elegant and drank and had lovers, had remonstrated when Angela was younger: if only she’d move more gracefully, less jerkily, if only she’d try contact lenses and wear dresses instead of shirts and slacks. Angela had advanced unhappily toward middle age, when such pressures would surely come to an end. And then before she was forty, when she was on her third book—her second had been a minor hit—and just around the time that she met Ken, her mother died, and so never knew that her awkward daughter had succeeded in hooking a man after all. Weeping angry tears, Angela allowed herself this bitterness when the funeral was over, mocking herself and her mother—but only when she was alone, in her most private thoughts.