Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.
Context: Violet gets to know her family better when she spends her first Christmas at the priory.
Christmas Eve flew by in a haze of board games, cheesy Christmas films and more food than I’d eaten all week. Adam taught me how to tango, which would’ve been much more fun if Seth hadn’t kept interfering. I was inducted into the family tradition of listening to Charles Aznavour records, while learning the rules of a card game called Up-Two from Magnus, who insisted he didn’t cheat while everyone else insisted he did.
I sat in my room that night, waiting for Christmas, the buzzing in my ears louder than the landscape. The shadows around me dissolved in the dark, and I fell into my dreams. I dreamed about counting seeds and scattered stars. I dreamed about Sean, who watched a blonde woman, who watched a man with silver eyes like she expected him to burst into flames. I dreamed I was a bird, my feet bound in clay, buried in the hardened ground, swaying in the wind like a seahorse in a current, wings aching with their attempts to fly. I dreamed of flowers that bloomed in the dark. Christmas morning was loud and bright, dissolving my dreams. My arms ached like wings.
There was a message waiting on my phone.
Leia: They suit me.
Beneath the message was a photo of the stupid slippers I bought her wedged onto her feet. They were furry, banana yellow boots with smiley turd emojis on.
Me: I knew they would.
Leia: Luke keeps calling me poo feet.
She sent a cascade of turd and footprint emojis after that. I was halfway down the stairs, but I went back up to clean my teeth after my phone showed me a toothpaste advert, like it could smell my Christmas morning breath.
Everyone was in the drawing room, dressed in proper clothes, except Seth, who was still in pyjamas like me.
“Do I need to get changed?” I said.
“Nope,” Magnus boomed, waving me into the room. “Come as you are.”
That was when I realised he was dressed as Father Christmas. “I see you’ve gone with traditional attire,” I said, raising an eyebrow.
“Tried to get me to dress as a poxy elf,” said Adam. “He just wants to see my fabulous legs in tights.”
Everyone was laughing when Glenda brought a trolley filled with tea and cake and Buck’s Fizz.
“Presents first, breakfast after,” she said, holding up a champagne flute. “Want some? It’s mostly orange juice.”
“Yeah, alright then.”
I watched everyone open their presents. I watched the twins get super-excited over a box of tiny electronic things, then deny being anything like their dad. I watched Magnus fix a bracelet round Eden’s wrist, and had to look away because the love between them was so intense, I felt like I was violating it. I watched Seth open each of his presents like he expected explosives, but the twins were paying no attention to him. Then Archer looked up, grinning while Seth cautiously waded through a box of polystyrene peanuts. Finally, a smug grin sprawled across his face and he pulled his hand out of the box. He was holding an egg. Everyone laughed, and Seth rolled his eyes.
“It’s tradition,” said Archer. “Seth thinks the only acceptable use for an egg is a cake.”
“You don’t like eggs?”
Seth made a gagging noise, then threw the egg at Archer. I gasped. The egg bounced.
Eden sighed. “For god’s sake, Seth. Not indoors.”
The package from Magnus’ dad contained exactly what they thought it would: an eight-page letter and a board game with a zillion rules.
Magnus read out the highlights. “He’s got a job.”
“A job?” said Eden.
“Are you really surprised by anything he does?” said Adam.
Eden shook her head. “Not really.”
“He said it was calling him home,” said Magnus.
Eden gave herself whiplash. “He’s in Cornwall?”
“Apparently so. He’s been on the road with a band. And Jem.”
“Who’s Jem?” I said.
“One of his brothers.”
“How many brothers has he got?”
Magnus looked at the ceiling. “I lose track. Many. And he’s sent something for you, Violet.” Magnus handed me a tiny package with my name scribbled on it, and everyone stared when I took it.
“Why would he send me something?” I pressed the top of the packet to pop it open, and tipped its tissue paper contents into my palm.
“It’ll be a stone, I should think,” said Eden. “Let’s see what he chose for you.”
I carefully peeled off the layers of tissue paper to find a small, deep purplish-red stone in a chunky, faceted teardrop shape attached to a small amount of silver chain with a loop at the top. It was pretty, but I didn’t really get what it was. “How do I …” I held it up to show Eden.
“You thread the loop onto your chain. It’ll hang behind your amethyst. It’s a garnet,” she said, holding her hand beneath it so it dragged across her palm. “To go forth in life, open to love and self-healing, shedding all shame, and empowering oneself with clarity and self-worth.”
“You believe that?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not,” said Eden. “It’s a thoughtful choice.”
“Mine’s malachite,” said Seth, pulling a chain with a swirly green stone from beneath his top.
“You’ve all got one?” I said.
Archer snorted when the twins held theirs away from their necks. Ben’s was a smooth lump of jade threaded onto leather, Ezra’s looked like a reddish wooden bead.
“It’s jasper,” he said. “Archer doesn’t wear his.”
“It’s ugly, that’s why. I wanted one like Dad’s, all black and shiny, and instead I got one that looks like it’s been carved from one of Grandad’s hideous tables.”
“You’re going to inherit those hideous tables one day, young man,” said Adam. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“As long as Seth gets the lamp,” said Archer, grinning at Adam.
“Can we have Gertie back?” said Ben.
“Can we not talk about Grandad’s will?” said Eden.
“Who’s Gertie?” I said.
Glenda started laughing like a maniac, which set Adam off.
“I have a doll,” he said, swallowing his laughter. “One of those china things that looks like it’s always staring at you, with the flouncy bonnet and what-have-you.” He waved his hands around, indicating frilly clothes. “I thought it must’ve been Eden’s, but she doesn’t remember it at all. Anyway, these two got hold of it a couple of years ago, combined it with some voice boxes from various toys, gave it legs and arms from a robot dinosaur, and flashing red eyes.”
“The one in your study?” I said, waiting for Adam’s nod. “I thought she had chicken feet.”
He shook his head. “She says some choice phrases now, while she struts around the house like a velociraptor.”
Seth put on a 1950s BBC voice, and said, “Calling all cars.”
Glenda deepened her voice and said, “Yo’ ass is mine.”
I laughed. “Oh, god.”
“You should see the scarecrows down at the orchard for more of their handiwork,” said Eden. “They’re perfectly ghastly.”
“And unscientific,” said Seth.
Everybody sighed dramatically.
“Dad’s a bad influence,” said Ben.
“And yet,” said Magnus, dipping some kind of Indian snack into his tea, “the fruit yields are up.” He tossed what looked like a tea-soaked bhaji into his mouth, and I tried not to gag.
When everyone went back to opening presents, I was so caught up in watching, that I forgot I still had some to open. I would be here for Christmas every year from now on. Maybe Leia would be able to stay for some of the holidays. It had only been a couple of months since I met everyone, and already I was home. I quietly took off my necklace and threaded the garnet on. Eden took the necklace from me and put it back around my neck. She gave my hand a squeeze and shot me an emotional look. I smiled and looked away quickly.
Glenda nodded at the pile of presents on my lap and gave me a wink. She’d knitted me a jumper. It was mostly black, but had a multicoloured stripe down the sides and on the inside of the arms which was only visible if I lifted my arms up. I put it on over my PJs because the fire hadn’t quite warmed my bones yet. I got some clothes and sketchbooks. Jess must’ve told Eden how fast I was getting through them. It was Si’s fault. Leia made me a baby Stitch cuddly toy, and I felt myself getting teary-eyed.
“Cute,” said Eden. “From Leia?”
“Yeah, it’s from a film we used to watch together.”
“Lilo and Stitch,” said Eden.
“Ohana means family,” said Ben, his tone serious when he nodded at my doll.
“Yeah,” I said, wishing I’d taken my hair out of its pineapple so I could hide beneath it.
Leia had made me something Stitch related for the last five years for the exact reason Ben said. This was the sixth. I had a cushion, a headband, a coin purse, a pencil case, and a felt badge. Now I had a cuddly toy.
When Ezra picked up one of my framed drawings, turning it in his hands, Ben looked at me quickly and said, “Maybe not yet.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s one each, but you need to open them at the same time.”
Ezra dug into the pile then, passing the presents around. I sat nervously while they tore into the wrapping. All of them were impatient. They all looked up at me at the same time, laughter in their eyes.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” said Adam. I’d drawn him in his smoking jacket, talking to his ugly lamp with a stack of cups and saucers piled in his hand.
They all laughed some more when they passed them around. Glenda in her wellies with a goat under her arm. Magnus sitting grasshopper style in a small chair with coils and springs in his hair and dead electronics in his hands. Archer juggling vegetables while he cooked. Seth weighed down by all the junk he won at the fair. Eden peering out from behind a pile of books wearing her weird owl glasses. I’d gone for something different for the twins. I drew a Rube Goldberg machine with the twins at either end of it. Ezra had a stack of glasses and a purple pout, and Ben had a stack of bowls. Then I’d cut it in half to make two pictures.
“I think you’ve started a new family tradition, Violet,” said Magnus.
A few days later, back at Pandora’s, I planned next year’s drawings in my head, knowing that by then, I’d never have to leave the priory again.
The source photo above is from PhotoMIX-Company on Pixabay