You read to the girls before bed, it's your turn, and anyway it's nice to get the opportunity to as you don't get to see Ava very often. She's your cousin's daughter and lives in Canada. The two girls have tucked themselves up in a makeshift bed on the pull-out sofa, they've zipped their sleeping bags together to make one giant one, and they are giddy. When you finish the book they don't seem any sleepier, but you kiss them goodnight, switch off the light and leave, then you sit on the stairs just outside the room.
You hear the excited low whispers ''Why does your Papa have a mark on his face?'' ''He was born with it, it was just there. ..Where is your Dad?'' ''He's working.'' ''Will he come back for your birthday?'' ''What presents did you ask for?''
They ask secret things, things they don't want to talk about in the light of day when an adult might be listening. And suddenly you feel like you're spying on them, intruding on their private conversation, you wonder when it happened, that your little girl started having secrets of her own. You know this hushed chat is not for your ears, but it's too irresistible, it's too hard to pull away from. You remember the feeling yourself. That feeling that you'll never go to sleep, you'll stay awake all night chatting and giggling. Of course you did the same, just 25 years earlier, and you think about that for a bit then and feel sad that you've lost it.
You've been in this holiday house for a few days, you drove over with your daughter Ally. Your parents, your sister and one brother are here too, and your cousin Rachel has just arrived today with Ava, her little girl.
You think about how nice it is to see Ally and Ava together, they seem to be naturally drawn towards each other even though they haven't met that often, just a few times over the years, one Christmas, one New Year, one time in the Summer holidays. It's Ava's birthday in two days time, and Ally's in less than a month, they're both turning 7. You were pregnant with Ally at the same time as Rachel was pregnant with Ava. That was a coincidence, but no-one was surprised, you had always been so similar to each other, from wearing the same dress to school dances, to choosing the same course at Uni.
That was before though, you live far apart now, you can't bare talking about it, but the families have splintered, the way a beautiful big wooden boat would splinter if it crashed into a rock. Ally and Ava don't know about all the splintering, for them this is a fun holiday in a little holiday cottage on the west coast of Scotland. They know the happy stories about their mums, their aunts and their uncles when they were little, so for them, this is all normal.
As kids, you would go on holiday together with your cousins, to little west coast cottages a bit like this one, where there was unpredictable weather, swarms of midges, but also beautiful long empty beaches, kayaking bays and a glimmering chance of one or two spectacular weather days which made the risk of playing indoor family games on rainy days for a week worth taking. Those days were golden. There were thirteen of you on those holidays, made up of two families, the McKins and the Walters, with 4 children each. Your uncle Ray who is your mum's twin, and aunt Orla with your cousins Craig, Rachel, Carla and Fraser and your mum Elsie and dad John with your sister Frances and you and your brothers Charlie and Danny, and Granny was the thirteenth, she used to come too at the beginning. The McKins might as well have been your brothers and sisters. You had at least one dog per family and sometimes a cat on those holidays. There are no shops in these remote places, so you had to pack up a week's worth of food, as well as bikes, boats and kayaks. You would spend the days looking for wildflowers, digging pits in the sand for the sea to swallow, looking for shells, cowries were the best, swimming, rock-pooling and rock climbing, having sandwiches on the beach, eating dinners together. And as you started to get older, there would be beer with the dinners, then when you were students you would still go on those holidays, you would bring wine, and whisky. Boyfriends and girlfriends would start coming on the holidays too, it was fun, they joined in the games, the walks, the drinking.
You didn't notice though, until it was far too late, but as you were getting older, it wasn't just that you were all drinking more, there were niggles, resentments, the kind that could have been normal and worn off if ignored, but they weren't ignored and didn't wear off. Fraser resented Craig because he never paid for rounds. Rachel resented Ray for being so angry and bossy. Ray worried about Craig because he was so down. Charlie resented Danny for acting superior all the time, but Danny resented Charlie for being aggressive and rude back to him. And the boyfriends and girlfriends that had started to come on these family holidays too, threw spanners into the works. Rachel's husband Brendan thought that Carla's partner Peter was posh and arrogant, and Craig directly told Brendan that he was loud and obnoxious. Your brother-in-law Alan and your partner Anthony hated being on family holidays at all, and made it obvious. And dear little Danny really did always say inappropriate comments at inappropriate times to the wrong person.
But anyway, it was all just family banter, normal stuff, you thought. You would still go on family holidays of course. Before one summer, Ray had wanted Charlie to help fix up Craig's house, because he was a builder. Charlie said Craig probably wouldn't spend the money to do it properly, but Ray insisted, so Charlie obliged. Then Craig said it wasn't okay because Charlie was charging him more than he would have liked to fix up his house. Then Ray was annoyed that Charlie had pulled down Craig's chimney. Charlie said the chimney was really old and deteriorated and it would have been dangerous to keep it as it was. It was all so obvious now you think about the chain of events.
But it wasn't obvious then you know. You all still thought a family holiday was the best idea, you remembered how good those good old days were, and you love your cousins, they really are the best company and the most fun. Thinking about it now, sitting on the stairs outside the girls makeshift bedroom, you shake your head and wish it had been different, that heavy feeling comes to your stomach. You're annoyed with them for letting this happen.
You were all so silly, those little cottages don't fit that many people, so you were juggling bedrooms and spaces for sleeping before the holiday began. But you still did it anyway, and at first that holiday really was amazing.
You close your eyes now to jog your memory of that day and where it went wrong, you try to remember it as it happened. On that first day you all go out on the kayaks, you see seals and dolphins, it is beautiful. You have dinner together, a merry event, with wine. For a moment it was worth it you think. The ones with babies and young children take them off to bed. The others stay and have another beer. It is fun. A few jokes, some old stories, reminiscing. Then the whisky comes out. One bottle tinkles as it is thrown into the recycling bin. Another cork pops off another bottle. Before you know it, Ray asks Charlie if he had finished the work on Craig's house. Charlie says Craig never paid him so he stopped working. Ray said he had done a bad job anyway. Craig says that he had actually paid Charlie. Charlie says that yes, he had, but not even enough to cover his own costs. Craig says Charlie had decreased the value of his house anyway. That hurts Charlie, you can see his eyes well up then the anger brewing under his skin. Rachel accuses Ray of being inappropriate by bringing this up. Charlie is still fizzling quietly. Ray says that thing again, that Charlie made Craig's house worthless. Fraser says nothing. You look down and say nothing, what can you say? You can't think how to bring everyone back out of this conversation. Then Charlie says it, he says that if Craig is so useless and sad that he should go off and kill himself and no-one would care. And no-one says anything. You can't breathe.
Craig leaves and never speaks to Charlie again. Carla can't forgive Charlie for what he said. Ray is certain he was in the right, he doesn't want to forgive Charlie, but he regrets starting that conversation. Charlie can't forgive Ray for so pointedly provoking him and for what he said about his work. Elsie is so shocked her brother could wind up her son like that, and can't forgive Ray either. And that's when the family splinters.
Regret and bitterness is in the air everywhere you look.
You open your eyes. You take a sudden breath in as the emotion all comes back. You know that was the end of those holidays together. You think about how Charlie spent a dark year alone ruminating about the whole thing and feeling like shit. How Craig cut himself off from you and he doesn't reply to your messages, but you know he sold that house and bought a new one. Ray tried to call Charlie, but Charlie stepped away, he said he was out of the family, he couldn't be part of it. That broke your heart. You wonder if Charlie and Ray will ever speak again. Conversations with any of the McKins are all so stilted and awkward now, you hardly see them. But you remember, Rachel has come to see you.
Your thoughts come back to the the stairs you're sitting on. You can still hear Ally and Ava gossip as they fall asleep, and you keep listening to their conversation. ''Sharing a sleeping bag is the best way to sleep, don't you think?'' ''Do you think you could come to Canada one day?'' ''Yeah, I'll ask my Mum'' ''Do you want to build a sandcastle tomorrow?'' ''Yeah, we could make a big one with bridges ...''
Your eyes give way and some tears run out, they roll down your cheeks and you wipe them off. Now your face will be blotchy, so you sit there listening just a little bit longer, you can't go back to the others until your face clears up.