The smell of burnt cakes always brought her back to her childhood. Her grandmother had read somewhere that grandmothers were supposed to bake with their grandchildren, so before Emma was dropped off to spend the summer with her she went out and bought three recipe books and a set of fancy cake tins and icing nozzles. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and happen it did.
They burned brownies to a crisp on the first day, and had to break the flapjack out of the tin with a chisel on the second. Fairy cakes were made with oregano instead of cinnamon on the third day, and the caramel experiment of the fourth day nearly burned the whole house down.
They gave up then, throwing the tins and nozzles in the kitchen bin along with the forlorn remains of traybakes gone wrong, and ordered a takeaway from the Chinese on the high street. The smell of smoke clung to the soft furnishings and Emma’s clothes for the rest of the summer.
She went there three summers in a row, to Grandma’s cottage on the outskirts of a picturesque Cotswolds village. It was a typically grandmotherly kind of place, which was strange as Emma’s Grandma was about as far from typically grandmotherly as it was possible to be.
She dyed her long hair jet black and wore it in intricate braids, different every day. Her cottage, predictably old-lady with low beamed ceilings and a farmhouse kitchen, was entirely devoid of florals. Each room was white with a feature wall – red in the living room, psychedelic tiles in the kitchen, rainbow stencils in the bedrooms.
Grandma still wore the leather jackets from her youth – “I was a bad girl, Ems, always did the opposite of what I was told” – and she let Emma wear her favourite one, the red one, in the evenings when the air became cool and they sat outside for hours talking about life, the universe, and everything.
She wore summer dresses most days, and black tendrils of her tattoos curled out over the papery skin of her shoulders. She showed Emma the biggest one, the dragon coiled around her torso, its tail flicking across the loose skin of her stomach. Emma ran her fingers along it, and the others, and Grandma told her the story behind each and every one. Years later after picking up a Swedish bestseller Emma described Grandma to her friends as the original girl with a dragon tattoo.
They stayed up late into the night playing poker and drinking gin – “only a taste, Ems, and don’t tell your mother.”
Emma spent the happiest days of her childhood in that house, rock ‘n roll on the record player and a vague smell of old smoke clinging to the curtains.
Emma never liked the house she grew up in. It was too big for three people, and the cavernous rooms made her feel like Alice made small. She wasn’t allowed to have friends over, and she couldn’t play in the garden because she would get mud on her shoes and mess up the grass. She saw her father rarely, though sometimes heard his voice late at night when she stayed up past lights out reading by torchlight under the sheets. She saw her mother more often, but usually only to be told to stay out of the way.
Emma could never quite figure out why her parents had her, in all honesty. At first she assumed she was a mistake, but later realised that her parents simply hadn’t understood what having a real, live child entailed. Her mother had probably viewed having a baby much like one might view buying a new sofa, or a coffee table. An investment to ornament the house and hopefully prove at least somewhat useful. Her father tended to just go along with what her mother wanted then disappear off to the office for 12 hour days.
“I don’t know what went wrong with him,” Grandma had sighed one summer evening. “He was such a normal child, happy and mischievous, with a hint of subversion. Thatcher got him, I suppose.” She shook her head. “Well, at least we’ve got each other, right Ems? Two square pegs in round holes.”
When her mother asked what she thought of the idea of boarding school, Emma leapt at the chance. She fell asleep that night to visions of midnight feasts and lifelong friendships.
The reality hit her the moment her father drove of and she was left alone. Far from a 13 year old’s paradise, St John’s was a poorly heated prison of rattling pipes, uncaring teachers and strictly separated cliques – none of which welcomed Emma. She shared a damp infested shoebox of a room with a girl who took one look at her and walked straight out the door. Abigail took up too much space in the wardrobe, insisted on leaving the window open all night, and told Emma never to speak to her in public.
Emma found sanctuary in one of the music practice rooms. Rarely used because of the perennially out of tune piano, nobody disturbed her while she curled up in the narrow gap between piano and wall. In her hidey-hole she wrote letters to Grandma, glossing over her intense loneliness and relating funny stories that happened to other people as though they had happened to her. She didn’t want Grandma to worry.
In winter she would bring a blanket and a flash of hot chocolate while she finished her homework. She read countless books, disappearing into other worlds and other lives. She imagined what it might be like to have friends who would crowd into the cramped room with her and laugh at jokes only they would understand. They would sneak sips of gin and pretend to like the sharp taste. They would draw fake tattoos on each others’ arms in permanent marker pen and hope no teacher saw the dark designs through their thin blouses.
It was the April of her second year at St John’s when she opened the letter from her father. Your grandmother is in hospital following a stroke. She is asking after you. If you would be so kind as to send a letter-
Emma threw up in the wastepaper bin.
She didn’t send a letter. She walked out of school and caught the first train going anywhere near the Cotswolds.
The hospital room was bright and warm. The sun dappled the blanket on the bed.
“Tell them to turn those blasted machines off, would you Ems?” Grandma grumbled. “How the hell am I supposed to sleep with that racket?”
“Gin and valium.”
“You speak only the truth, sweetheart. Shame this place is dry as the Sahara.” Grandma sifted on the bed. “Did they say when they’d let me out? I swear I wasn’t in this long after that stroke last year.”
“You hit your head. They’re just keeping an eye on you.”
“I drank too much and lost my footing. It’s not like I was hit by a flaming bus, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’ll ask again. Tell them I’ll keep an eye on you and bring you back at any sign of a problem.”
“You’re a star, Ems, and never you forget it.”
Emma knew her way around the hospital blindfold. Last year she’d refused to leave the building while Grandma was in for her stroke, and she’d come back in with her for regular checkups ever since.
She’d had a screaming match with her father in the corridor when he’d come to drag her back to school. He looked like she’d slapped him, and she realised he’d never heard her raise her voice. Probably never even heard her say so many words at once.
“Let her stay,” Grandma had said. “She can live with me, Lord knows I need the company.” Later, just to Emma, she’d said “you never told me you hated it there.”
Emma looked at her feet. Her black school shoes were scuffed. “I didn’t want you to worry.”
“Don’t you dare keep things like that for me, okay Ems? I never want you to be unhappy, love. You can tell me anything. Anything.”
Her parents didn’t put up much of a fight once Grandma got involved. Emma went home with her three days later.
They didn’t try baking this time. Grandma taught her how to make martinis and Harvey Wallbangers and told her stories of her youth in London and Paris. And Emma helped look after her, helped her dye her hair and braid it now her fingers weren’t doing what she wanted them to, and made her do the doctor mandated exercises.
And tried to ignore how frail Grandma was looking these days.
She’d heard an almighty crash four nights before and run downstairs to find Grandma on the floor in the kitchen doorway. Every afternoon since she had come straight from school to keep Grandma company and listen to her complain about the nurses, and had blushed scarlet when Grandma wolf whistled after the junior doctor “with that magnificent arse.”
The flat had six bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and one kitchen, and felt a lot less like a prison than Emma had expected. Sure, her room barely fit her bed, wardrobe and desk with space to move between them, but it was warm and comfortable and not nearly as scary as she’d feared. Maybe university would actually work out for her.
She also managed to make a friend. A real, actual friend.
“Hi! Are you Emma? I’m Libby, we share a wall. I promise I won’t play loud music late at night – or at least not too late. Have you been here long? I just popped out for a fag. Do you smoke? Sorry, I ramble a bit. I’m Libby, did I say that?”
It took Emma a couple of weeks to get used to Libby’s constant chatter, but she liked it. Libby was tiny but seemed bigger, and seemed to own hardly any clothes other than massive jumpers that swamped her slight frame. Her hair was dark and curly, and looked different every day. “I just let it do what it wants to, most of the time. Not worth the hassle to do anything else really!”
They would stay up all night in the kitchen drinking and talking – well, Libby talked, Emma listened – and every Thursday they ordered a takeaway from the local Chinese. It took three weeks before Emma mentioned Libby to Grandma. She wasn’t used to friends actually sticking around once they got to know her. But Libby stuck around. In fact, Emma couldn’t get rid of her.
They moved into a tiny flat together for second year. The walls were mushroom coloured and the sofa had suspicious looking stains on it, which they covered with a couple of lime green throws.
Emma was curled up at her side of the sofa when she got the phone call.
It was Grandma.
She was dead.
Libby found her there three hours later.
Emma doesn’t remember much after that.
It’s the smallest place she’s ever lived, including the shoebox room at St John’s, but it’s hers and it’s Paris so it’s perfect. The wall by the bed is bright red, there’s a tiny fridge and portable stove to the right of the window, and there isn’t a wardrobe, only a deep set of shelves in an alcove where she’s piled her clothes and books. She didn’t bring much. Only what would fit in a single suitcase and backpack.
The first thing she did – or rather, second, as she was shattered and just needed to sleep – was cover the chimney breast with photographs. There were dozens upon dozens: pictures from Uni of her and Libby messing around, pictures from her childhood before she realised how little her parents cared for her, and pictures of her with Grandma.
Three years. She’d been dead three years. Emma still cried sometimes. Not often, but sometimes. She cried a lot in the beginning. She’d had to get extensions for all her exams because she was in no state to sit them. Libby helped. Emma had never been so grateful for Libby than right then. Libby cooked for her, and made her green tea, and lay in bed with her for hours letting Emma cry into her shoulder. She went with Emma to the funeral too, propped her up when her legs felt weak and shielded her from her parents.
Libby had gone with her to the hairdresser when Emma decided to cut her hair off and dye it black. She held her hand when Emma got the dragon tattoo on her wrist. It wasn’t anything like Grandma’s, not really. It wasn’t nearly as big for one, and it was only an outline. It twisted around her wrist like a bracelet, and when she ran her fingers over it, felt the lines raised from the skin around it, it was like she was a child again and reading her Grandma’s life story on her skin like Braille.
Paris was because of Grandma too. Grandma had lived there for ten years, spoke about it as the best years of her life – “except now, Ems, now you’re with me” – but had never gone back. She didn’t want to tarnish the memories. But when Emma thought of Paris she thought of Grandma. When the weather was hellish, when the communal bathroom was dirty, when she had to spend her entire pay cheque on a space heater, when she missed Uni and Libby and Grandma so much it hurt, it helped that she was in Paris. She was in the place that held so many fond memories for Grandma, the place Grandma thought of as home.
Emma didn’t have a home, not really. She had places where she’d lived, sure, but not a home. Home was Grandma. And right now, Grandma was Paris.
She’d find her way here. She’d make her own memories. And when she felt lost and alone and sad, she’d open the bottle of gin she kept in the corner of the room, and she’d think of Grandma.
“Nothing lasts forever, Ems. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Live your life as best you can, make a home wherever you find yourself. And you’ll be happy. Cross my heart.”