Lucy Caldwell: The Story So Far

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The Independent Online

My best friend has a saying: old flames are dead matches. It's the saddest thing to return to the past - to a person, or a place - only to discover that what once set your heart or mind ablaze is now desolate and barren. I always think of Jane Eyre going back to Thornfield to find little more than a charred and blackened ruin.

Yet I found myself yearning to revisit childhood worlds this week. It's the time of year, perhaps: cold and wet and melancholy, the long evenings drawing in (who was it that first remarked that childhood seems to take place in hazy summer days?) or perhaps it's because my youngest sister is now 21.

At 18, though officially an adult, you're still a teenager; at 21 you're properly grown-up. Mum still has her plastic "21st" key: its silver paint is flaking and the ribbon is frayed, but wound up, it splutters into life and plays its tinny, mournful ditty. As children, my sisters and I were fascinated, and slightly scared, by it. Rather than opening doors, it seemed to represent them closing, being locked out of the family home. In those days, Faye avowed she'd marry Daddy, and I made Mum promise that I'd never, ever have to leave home: she insisted on adding, "unless you want to", which I agreed to simply because the notion that I would was preposterous. But Faye's 21st seems a final, inevitable acknowledgement that we're all grown-up, now.

We spent our childhoods in imaginary worlds; huge, sprawling, complicated sagas spanning generations of Lego people and years of real time. Jane Eyre was the first "grown-up" book I ever attempted, and more than the book itself, I think I loved the idea of the Brontë sisters, holed up in the bleak Yorkshire parsonage, urgently, feverishly, and with perfect solemnity, creating their worlds of Angria and Gondal. Gerard Woodward's haunting, eerie, unsettling poem "The Brontë Brother" is narrated by Branwell, who watches his sisters huddled in bed together and "hear[s] them at night whispering / In their odorous and dark sisterhood / 'How will we get away?'"

We never thought we'd want to get away: but the time came, of course, when we were embarrassed and scornful of the old "games": we grew apart; our new fantasy worlds were created with schoolfriends, and involved boys and parties. It's the way things should be - have to be - and these days, as we get older, we grow close again in new ways.

But this week, I made hot chocolate with Cointreau and curled up in bed with a book I've been saving, Villette, the last Brontë novel I have left to read. And it seemed somehow significant, or portentous, that the heroine is called Lucy.

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