Sir keeps on saying it's the hottest summer ever, and this seems to please him somehow—even when he's having to fan himself with the newspaper at breakfast. I never reply; I just smile. I know he thinks I don't understand, but the truth is I just don't know how to respond.
At first I kept quiet out of shame at how awkwardly the words sat in my mouth, how ugly and plodding my sentences were. I've always been sharp— that's what our neighbors used to say when I was little. 'She may not be a looker, but she's bright', they said to Mama. 'You can count yourself lucky to have such a quick daughter. Quick-witted and quick-footed.'
But I don't feel sharp anymore, not since I came here.
I'm not funny here. No one laughs at my jokes, and no one is impressed by what I have to say. They don't even care. If I say nothing they think I don't understand, but if I speak they just hear my mangled words and assume I'm stupid.
This wasn't the new life Mama wanted for me. This isn't a new chance.
I've only been in this country four months, and I know I just have to keep at it—but God, Mama, I just want to come home.
How I wish I could just go home.
"There," says Sebastian, snapping me out of my thoughts. I give a start and look up.
After passing seemingly endless fields, the narrow, private road led us through a stretch of dense woodland, and now the tall, frost- dappled tree trunks open up to reveal a cluster of buildings. A sloping gravel drive leads down to the main house—a beautiful, well-kept two-story manor with white plastered walls and rows of dark windows that stare out at us blankly. Behind it I can see other, smaller buildings, and a small lake lined by frozen reeds. The ice lies perfect, blue and unbroken.
"Wow, some place you've got here," says Sebastian.
"Yeah ... I mean, the lawyer did call it a mansion, but this..." I shake my head.
"What are the other buildings?" he asks.
I try to scan my surroundings. Some of the smaller buildings aren't really so small; one of them is almost half the size of the main house. I imagine it's a stable or barn of some sort, as it's set back slightly from the other buildings, nestled in at the forest's edge.
"You tell me," I say. "I have no idea."
To my surprise there are two cars waiting for us on the drive, one an anonymous gray Volvo, the other ...
"I thought it was just going to be us and the lawyer?" Sebastian asks as he pulls up and parks.
I shake my head. "So did I."
As the words leave my mouth, I spot my aunt. Dressed in one of her innumerable black coats, she's leaning against the wall, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. I find myself saying—with a sharpness that's unlike me but sounds eerily Vivianne:
Neither of us makes any move to get out of the car.
"I thought she wasn't coming," says Sebastian, and I can hear the worry in his voice even though he's trying to hide it. Sebastian has only met Veronika once, but that was more than enough. It is for most people.
"So did I. She said she wasn't."
Her exact words were 'I wouldn't come if the old battle-ax paid me to', though in a way that's exactly what this is: Solhöga has to be surveyed and valued before Veronika can get her hands on her inheritance.
I have no close relationship with Veronika; I don't know if anyone does. When I was little she would often come over with gifts, a stale but glamorous stench of cigarette smoke wafting around her loose black clothes like a cloud. But then her visits stopped. Now I only see her at Christmas every year, for a long, excruciating lunch of saddle of venison, red-currant jelly, and potato gratin, where she and Vivianne try to size each other up from opposite ends of the table, while I try to maintain some semblance of festivity.
Or we used to. Never again. Not the three of us. Not Vivianne.
Veronika eyes up Sebastian's car with the same sort of idle, mild disgust she might show some roadkill at the side of the road. Her oversized black coat hangs like a pair of drooping wings, and her straight, black bob creates a razor-sharp frame around her narrow face.