Surprisingly, I didn't scream, yelp or collapse into a quivering heap when I was confronted by an intruder in my home. I reeled back as my heart lurched to a stop; I stared at her with wide, shocked eyes, but I didn't scream.
It was early on a Saturday morning. I'd just stepped out of the shower and had been about to dash across my flat to the bedroom to get dressed when I'd found the intruder—intruders, actually—standing in the area outside the bathroom, staring at me. The intruder who spoke to me was about three feet tall, six years old with green eyes that were as dark and glossy as eucalyptus leaves, and shoulder-length black hair—one side bunched with a red elastic band, the other falling in waves to her shoulder. Beside her stood her male mirror image—he had shorter dark hair but was the same height, the same age and had the same green eyes.
The pair of them weren't dressed so much as "ensembled." Her pink skirt with ruffles at the bottom she wore over striped blue and white tights, and with a white, long-sleeved T-shirt under a faded orange vest. She had yellow socks bunched like legwarmers around her ankles, while red shoes with big yellow flowers on the front adorned her feet. He wore long blue trousers, one leg of which was tucked into one of his green socks. His white T-shirt was decorated with avant-garde artwork of felt-tip pen marks and grubby fingerprint streaks; one collar of his blue fleece zip-up jacket was folded inwards, hugging his shoulder.
Both of them wore clothes that were crumpled and creased, as though they'd slept in them.
As well as the dishevelled clothes, the twins also shared grey-white complexions with dark, blue-purple circles smoothed like smudges of dirt under their eyes. They looked like a pair of street urchins, battered and worn by the February cold, who'd wandered into the warmth of my flat. But they weren't street kids, I was pretty certain of that. They were my landlord's children. I'd only just moved into this flat and had yet to meet my landlord and his family because they'd been away overseas when I'd arrived from Australia. Obviously they were back.
The children openly explored me with their eyes, took in the clear plastic shower cap that covered my black hair, my cleansed and moisturized face, my damp neck and shoulders, the towel I'd wrapped around my torso and was currently clutching closed in a death grip, my knees peeking out from beneath my towel, and my water-spotted calves. Their gazes lingered on my feet, probably fascinated by my fluffy white slippers.
"You're black," the girl stated again, her voice clear and firm; she spoke with the honesty of a child and the confidence of an adult. She knew how to address people no matter how old they were. In her arms she carried a blue, floppy toy rabbit.
"So I'm told," I replied.
"I'm Summer," she said, confirming she was my landlord's daughter. She jerked a thumb at the boy. "He's Jaxon. We're twins." She looked me over again—from my shower cap to my feet—then whipped her eyes up to mine. Our gazes locked. She had me hypnotized, had my undivided attention for as long as she wanted. Her face, framed in that unusual way by her hair, was innocent and open, yet wise and private. A million insignificant and profound thoughts went on behind that face.
Summer shrugged her small, bony shoulders, breaking eye contact as she gave a slight nod of her head. "You're quite pretty," she said.
"Erm . . . Thank you, I think," I said.
Jaxon leaned across to Summer, cupped his hand around his mouth and began whispering in her ear. He talked for a few seconds and when he stopped, she nodded. Jaxon straightened up. "You're not as pretty as my mumma," Summer informed me.
Guessing this was his contribution, I glanced at Jaxon. He stared defiantly back at me, daring me to argue. He obviously wasn't much of a talker, but he knew how to get his point across. "Oh, OK," I said.
"Summer! Jaxon!" a male adult voice shouted from the bottom of the stairs, near the front door of my flat, causing my heart to lurch again.
"What are you doing up there?" the voice continued as footsteps began up the stairs. This was probably my landlord, Kyle Gadsborough, running up to join his children as they watched me with no clothes on. Before I could plan an escape, could work out if I'd be able to fling myself back into the bathroom, Mr. Gadsborough appeared.
He took up the area at the top of the stairs because he was a tall man, over six foot at a guess. He was slightly older than me, thirty-six, maybe thirty-seven, with a solid but trim body. He was dressed in loose, navy-blue jeans and a creased white T-shirt under a gun-metal-grey jacket. His black hair was cropped close to his head; his eyes were as large as his children's but brown. He had a shadow of stubble on his face and, like his children, he was the kind of pale that looked like he was fighting off sleep.
My landlord came to a halt at the top of the stairs, heaved a sigh and rolled his eyes at his children. "I told you," he said, "she's not here—probably out shopping or something." When they didn't respond to him and instead continued to stare at me, he obviously wondered what they were looking at and glanced in the direction they were focused on. He gave me a brief "hello" nod before turning back to the kids. He stopped. I saw the moment his brain registered that he'd seen a person in that quick glance to his right. He turned back towards me, surprise and confusion on his face. "Oh, you are here," he said. "Sorry, we—" His voice halted as he realized he was in the presence of a virtually naked woman. One who wasn't his wife. His grey-white, sleep-deprived face exploded with color and two bright stripes of red burned a scarlet trail across his face.
"Oh-h-h," he stammered. "Oh, um, I, um . . ." He started to back away, forgot he was standing at the top of the stairs, missed the top step, and slip-tripped backwards. For a moment, a fraction of a second, Mr. Gadsborough seemed to hover midair, then his body began its fall down the wooden staircase. My already racing heart went to my throat as I watched him, waited for him to tumble out of sight, but at the last moment his hand snapped out and caught hold of the white banister railing and managed to keep himself upright. Once steady on his feet, he ran down a few more steps until all we could see from where we stood were the soft bristles that sat in uneven swirls on the top of his head. He faced the wall so he wasn't even vaguely looking in my direction.
"Come on, kids, we've got to go," he said to the wall. "Now. NOW!" And his footsteps pelted down the rest of the stairs and out the door as though the devil was on his heels.
Summer, who, like Jaxon and I, had been watching Mr. Gadsborough, turned back to me. "We've got to go," she said seriously, her tone adding, But we'll be back.
"OK," I replied to both the spoken and the unspoken statements.
Summer started down the stairs first; through the gaps in the banisters I saw her move carefully down each step until she disappeared from view. Jaxon started down after her, but before putting his foot onto the second step, he stopped, turned and threw a look at me. You don't fool me, that look said. I can see right through you.
I drew back a little at its intensity.
Only one other person had looked at me like that in all my life. And that was an age ago. The look had unsettled me then, but now it almost knocked me over. How could a six-year-old boy look at me as if I were an open book?
I blinked at him, wondering if he was going to say something. But no. His work done, his look thrown, Jaxon turned and trooped down the stairs after his sister and father.
OK, I thought, as the door clicked shut behind Jaxon, I have to get out of here. Right now.
Before I did anything else, I propped a dining chair under the handle of the bedroom door.
I was taking no risks with this: if I was going to take my towel off to get dressed, then I wanted a several-minute warning in the event of anyone from the Gadsborough family showing up again.
Double-checking that the chair was secure before I dropped the towel, I picked up the bottle of body lotion sitting on the bedside table and squeezed a large creamy-white dollop into the palm of my hand. I moisturized my body in record time—thirty seconds, tops—then grabbed my black bra from the bed and fastened it on. I shoved my legs into my knickers and pulled them on, then I tugged on my white, long-sleeved T-shirt and buttoned on my jeans. It took me less than two minutes to get dressed, and as I did so, I kept my eyes fixed on the doorway, just in case.
Seven days ago I was in Australia.
That still spun me out a little, made me look around checking my surroundings like a mole seeing the light aboveground for the first time. I'd be constantly reminding myself that the bare trees, the cool temperature, the fresh bracing air meant I was in Britain. I was back in the land of my birth. Back home. Seven days ago I was living a very different life in Sydney. I had an apartment near the city center, and I was communications officer for a large media company.
Five days ago, cramped, exhausted and buzzing slightly from the sugar high, a _twenty-four-hour sweets binge, I'd wandered out of immigration and customs at Heathrow airport and into the arrivals area. Ignoring the people who ran into each other's arms, reunited and happy, returned and being collected, I'd made my way out to the taxi queue. No one was meeting me because few people knew I was back. My parents lived in Ghana, my sister lived in Italy and my two brothers lived in Spain and Canada. My family was scattered across the world and I couldn't impose on any friends to come pick me up.
I had all my carryable worldly goods in a backpack and two suitcases. My papers I'd posted to myself the day before I left so they'd arrive at some point. I'd queued up for a taxi at the airport and asked for an address in Brockingham on the Kent-_London borders.
As the taxi cruised along the motorway, heading for the knot of traffic that was London, I knew the Gadsboroughs, my new landlords, wouldn't be there. Kyle Gadsborough had told me that his family needed to go to New York, and while it wasn't ideal that they wouldn't be there to greet me, there was nothing either of us could do—they needed to be in America, I needed to be in England.
To pick up the keys I had to go to the next-door neighbor's house. She'd opened the door to me and I'd drawn back a little. She had hair that sat like a brown meringue on her head, violently plucked eyebrows and a mouth so wrinkled with fault lines it looked as though it was on the verge of caving in on itself.
She hadn't wanted to hand over the keys. She'd asked to see my passport and a copy of the rental agreement. Once I'd complied she'd asked to see another form of ID. I'd shown her my British credit card. Knowing she couldn't delay any longer, she'd said she'd put her shoes on and come over with me. That'd been it for me. After twenty-four hours on a flight and spending £150 on a taxi, my patience, which had already been stretched, was now paper thin. I'd held out my hand for the keys. Reluctantly she'd dropped them into my palm.
The entrance to my flat, Mr. Gadsborough had told me, was on the right of the house behind high, ornate iron gates. After unlocking the gate, I'd wheeled my luggage along the stone path and the side of the white house. The back opened up to a large, grass courtyard surrounded by large, slate-grey flagstones. Opposite the main house stood my flat.
Mr. Gadsborough was an architect and had designed and rebuilt the flat that sat above a former garage as a self-contained studio for his wife. It was white on the outside, with a row of six large picture windows that looked over the courtyard and three skylights embedded in the slanted roof. At the center of the building, where the entrance to the garage had been, was the blue front door.
As I'd approached it, it had felt like my flat, even though I'd only seen the pictures that Mr. Gadsborough had e-mailed me. It felt like the place where I could start again. Leaving Sydney had been a decision made in haste. I had no idea where I was going to live, no family in England I could impose upon, so I'd spent hours trawling the Net until I'd seen the ad for this place. After a few conversations with the owner, when we'd gone through the process of couriering contracts back and forth, and transferring money, it was mine. All mine. I'd felt a calmness flow through me when Mr. Gadsborough told me I could rent the flat. I had somewhere to live, somewhere to hide.
I'd wheeled my _metal-grey suitcases around the grey flag-stone path to my flat. The navy-blue front door had a brass knocker. Behind the door would be stairs that led up to what would become my space.
The chill of the place had come rushing down the stairs to greet me as I'd swung open the door. It was cool outside, but colder inside—the absence of someone in the house had left its mark.
I'd stared up at the wooden stairs with a gentle turn at the top—there was no way I'd make it up in one go. Leaving my suitcases on the doorstep, I'd climbed the stairs.
I'd shed my rucksack and bag, then pelted back down and bumped one of my suitcases up the stairs, pelted back and bumped up the other one. After shutting the door behind me I'd stopped. It seemed to be the first time in weeks I'd done that, stopped. I'd stopped and allowed the stillness that came from a place that hadn't been inhabited for a while to descend upon me. I'd closed my eyes, inhaled the sensation of motionlessness deep into my lungs, then exhaled it. Pushed it out to join the quiet around me. This was what tranquillity felt like. This was what I wanted when I'd boarded the plane for home.
I'd opened my eyes and for the first time properly took in the room. The entire flat was about forty feet long, most of it open plan. To my right was the living area with a sofa, the television and a coffee table. Beside the sofa was the doorway that led to the bedroom. To my left was the small and round dining table with three chairs. Beyond that, at the far end was the kitchen with a whole wall of glass that let light flood in. Beside it, the door that led to the bathroom. The entire flat, apart from the bathroom, had stripped wood floorboards, topped with brightly colored rugs that sat like islands at equally spaced points along the floor.
On the dining table stood a box of chocolates tied up in a pink bow, a piece of white card propped up against it. I'd picked up the note.
Welcome to your new home, Kendra.
From the Gadsborough family.
A sweet and unexpected gesture that told me they were good people. Normal, kind. I'd felt that every time I'd spoken to Mr. Gadsborough. They were decent and friendly.
Friendly. That had caused a trickle of anxiety to run through me. Their potential friendliness could be a problem, I'd thought, as I'd put down the note and stared at the chocolates. I needed to be left alone for a while. I felt like a fugitive, running away from Australia, and I needed solitude now that I was home. A place where I could spend time on my own, licking the wounds that had made me leave Sydney; get myself together. Get stronger as I eased myself back into being around people again.
My biggest fear as I'd fingered the cellophane covering of the chocolates was that they wouldn't leave me alone long enough for me to start rebuilding my life. That they wouldn't leave me alone, full stop.
Excerpted from Marshmallows for Breakfast by Dorothy Koomson. Copyright © 2009 by Dorothy Koomson. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.