Last week my aunt Louise passed away from cancer. She was a wonderful, vivacious woman, always laughing, and positive in the face of everything life threw her way. She’s raised four fantastic children who are excellent cousins, and she’ll be hugely missed.
Love you lots, Lou.
Once upon a time, three sisters lived on a slope that led to the end of the world. Janet was fourteen, and could identify all the different valley trees simply by their leaves. Laura was ten, and when she was happy she would wave her arms in the air as if they were made of jelly. Kim was six, and she liked to hide in the pantry and jump out whenever her sisters were making soup in the kitchen.
Some of the other slope houses had been built with stilts on one side so they had flat floors, but the house in which the three sisters lived slanted just as much as the ground beneath them. Janet asked her father about this once before he died.
She said: Dad, why didn’t you build our house flat like the other ones?
And her father said: Why does it need to be flat?
Janet replied that it would stop everything rolling to the edge of the rooms, and it would mean the three of them could sleep in separate beds instead of having a triple bunk bed wedged up against the wall.
Her father asked what was wrong with the triple bunk bed and Janet said: Nothing really, except it squeaks sometimes.
Her father shrugged. Squeaking’s not the end of the world, he said.
Yes, said Janet, but everything keeps moving!
Her father shrugged again. Moving’s not the end of the world, he replied.
After this, Janet never mentioned the tilt again. If Laura or Kim complained, she would look at them severely and intone: Moving’s not the end of the world! Which was true. There was day-old porridge and cleaning the oven and Laura’s constant sleep-walking. Worst of all was the actual end of the world, which lay bubbling just at the bottom of the hill.
The three sisters lived by themselves and attended school three days a week. On the remaining four days, they helped gather food from the free-growing orchards that lined the lower reaches of their valley. The valley was like the inside of a cone or a funnel. At the very bottom was a flat circle of silver water, about the size of a small field, and then the land sloped smoothly outwards and upwards on all sides, carpeted with grassy fields and punctured by spindly clusters of trees. The slope steepened as you travelled away from the water, and within a few miles in any direction it became too steep to climb any further. If you were born into this valley, it would be the only world you would ever know.
Twenty-seven families lived around the slope in houses they built themselves. There was a doctor, who had learned to be a doctor from his mother. There was a teacher, who had learned to be a teacher from her father. There was a farmer, who had been born into a farming family, and a cobbler, who had grown up in the cobbler’s shop. And so it was that life progressed, in a manner of speaking.
Janet, Laura and Kim would often sit under the apple tree in their garden and discuss what they would become when they were older. Janet had already decided that she would become a baker like her mother, which meant that either Laura or Kim would have to follow their father into gardening. Kim was too young to know this, and liked to tell her sisters instead that she wanted to be a dinosaur or a cloud. At this Janet would roll her eyes and turn to her other sibling.
Laura, she would say, in just the tone her mother had once used on her, you’re almost eleven. You need to practise more!
More what? Laura asked, though she knew.
Planting broccoli, watering pumpkins, harvesting corn. You know – gardening!
Laura would nod but remain silent, staring across and down the hill. She could see the silver water all the way from her house, glinting behind the pear trees that hung their fruit precariously close to the water’s edge. The small, perfectly circular lake was empty of waves but filled with soft bubbles that would gurgle and pop and sigh into a quiet night. The water looked silver: not a poetic moonlit tinge, but a thick metallic stew. Laura would have loved to scoop some out and investigate it closer, but of course that was impossible, because the water was the end of the world.
One man’s job (and Janet would point out quite rightly that it could also be a woman’s job) was to guard the end of the world, which he did by patrolling the protective fencing with a megaphone and shouting at children. Once the three siblings snuck down to the lake during school without their disappearance being noticed by their teacher. Giggling and shushing each other alternately, they launched sticks and stones over the wooden fence and into the grey water, barely able to suppress their glee. That’s the end of you! they would shout, as the objects were greedily engulfed by the end of the world, never to be seen again. Eventually, Mr. Belvedore noticed them and his megaphone screeched his anger across the field. Get away from that fence! he was shouting, but to Kim it sounded more like Put a fish in a tent!
What do you think is down there? Laura would ask, whenever they looked out at the water.
Janet would shrug, but Kim would cross her legs and think about it as seriously as she could. Maybe it’s a party, she said once.
A party for who? Janet demanded.
Kim hesitated. Dinosaurs? she offered hopefully. Another time, she said to Laura: Maybe it’s like the opposite of this world. Like everything slopes the other way.
Laura thought about this. Maybe if it’s opposite, everything’s just flat, she said, and she ruffled Kim’s hair. Then you could move any way you wanted, instead of just down.
It’s nothing, Janet said. There’s nothing down there. It’s just the end of the world.
And it really was. Nothing that touched the water could ever be retrieved. If you stuck a wooden pole half-way into the lake, you would never see that half again. You could pull for the rest of your life, and the pole would never come out. Either it would snap, and you could keep the half that was still in your hand, or you would have to let the whole thing go. There were horrific legends of people falling into the lake in generations long past: submerged to their waist, they would scream and scream, but there was nothing that could be done. No force in the whole world could wrench them back from the water, and they would stand there sobbing until they had built up the courage to submerge themselves entirely and end their torment.
The most gruesome story that could actually be confirmed had happened when Janet, Laura and Kim’s father had been a little boy. Another boy his age crawled under the fence for a dare and meant to put his hand as close to the water as possible. He slipped and his hand disappeared into the silver liquid. Try as he might, he could not pull himself back out. His friends ran for help and eventually the doctor was summoned. No-one was allowed to watch but it was said the boy’s screams echoed long into the night. He didn’t return to school for some months, and when he did, he only had one arm.
Some people, when they were very old, chose to walk willingly into the end of the world. Their friends and family would line the bank, secretly hoping for clues as to what lay beneath that shiny grey surface. Sometimes the departing loved one would offer up information (Ooh, it’s warm! or It’s thick like soup!) but never enough to satisfy the curiosity of those watching on. By the time their eyes were underwater, their mouths were too, and they were unable to describe what they might or might not have discovered beyond the end of the world.
The end of the world wasn’t really anything to be feared, not if you were sensible and stayed away from it. It just was, like the grass and the rain and the sky. It never gushed or swelled or flooded up the valley. People got on with their lives and thought about it barely at all.
Until one mid-winter’s night, with scrunched-up frost on the trees.
Janet awoke, quite suddenly, and knew that something was wrong. Laura! she whispered into the darkness. Are you awake? Silence but for a distant rattle. Kim! Wake up! When neither of them replied, she stuck her head over the rail and looked down at the two bunk beds below her. On the bottom bunk, Kim was curled up tight, peaceful beneath an enormous blanket. On the middle bunk, the blanket had been cast aside, and no-one was sleeping in the bed.
This wasn’t unusual in itself. Laura’s sleep-walking often took her out of bed and around the house. But this time, Janet was scared. She took a deep breath: there was no sense being scared over nothing. What’s different? she asked herself. The room shone dully with the light of the moon, and she could see everything in its correct place. The playbox, the small desk, the telescope bowed beneath the window. Nothing looked wrong. But something was wrong. She listened carefully for Laura’s footsteps. Where is she? The kitchen? The corridor?
The near-silence persisted, so Janet slipped out of bed and stood in the middle of the room. And standing there, quite still, she saw a ghost. Outside the window, a pale figure all in white drifted through the garden. Janet watched as it left by the back gate, as if heading towards the end of the world. The night still wasn’t entirely soundless, and now Janet heard that distant rattle more clearly. It’s what woke me up, she realised. A sound I only hear during the day. The sound of… what?
Can you see that ghost? said a voice by her side. Janet jumped and turned to see Kim standing beside her, rubbing her eyes.
Yes, Janet whispered.
That’s okay then, Kim replied. Why is the door open?
Janet looked at the bedroom door. It’s not, she said.
Not that door, Kim said. The front door.
The rattle! The sound of the door – latched but not shut! The two girls ran out of the house in their own white pyjamas, two more ghosts flying across the garden in bare feet. The soil was icy between their toes but they didn’t stop till they reached the gate and looked down the hill, where the first ghost had already almost reached the orchards before the lake. Kim, go wake Mrs Lulham! Quick! I’ll stop her!
Kim turned and ran breathlessly to her neighbour’s house, frantically beating her fists against the door. Laura’s sleep-walking outside! she shouted. All the way down to the end of the world!
No sounds came from inside the house, and Kim suspected that Mrs Lulham was too old to wake up in the middle of the night, even if her house was being stepped on by a dinosaur. She shouted again, then – without stopping to dress warmly for the freezing night – she galloped down the hill. There was no sign of Laura or Janet anymore, and Kim didn’t see them again until she came out on the other side of the orchard. She fell twice amidst the dark trees and collided head-on with a trunk, and by the time she emerged from the blackness her skin was scraped and prickled with blood. Kim was almost seven, so she didn’t cry, but instead continued to run until she reached the lake.
There was Janet, screaming and pacing at the edge of the water, her hands tearing at her hair.
And there was Laura, standing quite still and fully awake, a full fence’s length away from the shore, her legs out of sight in the deepening water. She smiled as she saw Kim running towards her. Slow down! she said, as her younger sister approached the edge. You can’t come any closer!
Laura! Kim yelled, her voice shrill. What are you doing?
I guess I really wanted to explore, Laura replied. I woke up and I was here. You know, it’s a lot warmer in here than out there.
It was certainly true that, no matter how cold the slope became, the lake never turned to ice. It just floated there serenely, as winter rubbed out the world around it. That was the scene now, with barren trunks rising from white ground all along the water’s edge. The moon and stars shone similarly white, and the band of the galaxy looked like a streak of snow left by a sled.
I tried to stop her! Janet sobbed. I tried!
I didn’t need to be stopped, Laura said. Moving’s not the end of the world, remember?
There was shouting and crying, and shivering in the frigid moonlight. Janet wanted to run to get help, but Laura didn’t want to be helped, and – as she pointed out quite reasonably – there was nothing anyone could do anyway. She would rather have her two sisters by her side.
Janet and Kim watched as Laura kept moving, wading tentatively further and further out into the lake. The bottom half of her body was now fully submerged, but her arms were still raised up above her head.
I don’t want you to go, Kim said. Why do you have to go now?
Laura shrugged. I guess I don’t have a choice. What do you think is down there?
Kim thought. It could definitely be a party, she suggested. Not just with dinosaurs. Maybe with Mummy and Daddy.
Janet made an odd choking sound and turned her head away. Yeah, she said at last, Kim’s right. It definitely could be. It could be anything.
Laura laughed. Well I’ll let you know, she said.
Soon her shoulders were underwater. Her two sisters stood as close to the shore as they dared, hugging each other tight.
I’ll come find you, Janet said suddenly. When Kim’s older.
No rush, Laura replied. Oh, Kim, I guess you’re going to have to be the gardener.
And with that, her head disappeared beneath the end of the world. Janet and Kim sat down and looked out at the silver lake. For a moment, the moon fell behind a cloud, but then it emerged, and they could see Laura’s arms still raised up out of the water.
Both her arms were waving.
It was a funny thing, Kim later thought, how it seemed as Laura walked into the end of the world. The water was at the very bottom of a very long slope, and Laura had been walking downwards the whole way. Yet somehow it appeared as if she was above them, and climbing, and not so much moving down as moving on. And though she was soon entirely out of sight, that sense of motion never left Kim, and she knew Janet felt similarly too: that Laura was just a little way ahead of them now, walking or swimming or something else entirely.
They sat by the water, huddled together for warmth, until the moon was the least bright thing in all the sky. It was that feeling of motion that caused them eventually to get up and walk with difficulty back up the slope. It was moving that would convince Janet to be a gardener, not a baker, and that same movement which would lead Kim to one day become a teacher, though of course neither of them had any idea at the time. Moving just seemed like the right thing to do, so they kept at it for a long while, and always with the sense that Laura was moving too – still waving perhaps, in and beyond the distance.