© Ray Forder-Stent
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New York Summer 2007
Claudia was completely thrown off guard when she stared at the painting.
‘What do you think of it?’ Lara shouted from the kitchen.
‘Oh. It’s lovely, darling,’ she made herself say, ‘and the colours are beautiful.’ Her mind raced as she recognised the signature. ‘Thomas Gill,’ she said quietly to herself.
‘It’s by somebody called Thomas Gill,’ Lara called. ‘I’ve looked him up and can’t find anything about him, but there’s a Maltese address on the back. It’s called “The Jacaranda Shadows” by the way.’
Claudia tried to stifle her panic, but the more she stared at the painting, the more vivid the memory was.
‘Oh, you’re still looking at it,’ Lara said as she carried in the tea things. ‘Are you ok, Mum? You’ve gone quite pale.’
‘Yes, I’m fine, darling. Just a bit tired after the flight.’
‘Come and sit down then, have some tea and tell me all the village gossip.’
Claudia could still see the painting reflected in the mirror behind Lara’s head. She was listening and tried to concentrate, but at the same time was on a journey of her own.
England December 1994
Claudia picked up the agent’s details of Old Rectory House and gazed at the glossy photograph on the front. Large cardboard boxes were stacked all around her and in the morning they would be on their way.
‘Oh. Hi, darling. You’re back early,’ Claudia said as Alec walked in. ‘Did you pick up Lara?’
‘Yes, she’s outside saying goodbye to the girls next door. I hope she’s going to be all right with this move. She’s very excited, but I think the reality of leaving is just sinking in. I won’t interfere, but I think I’ll just go and check she’s not too upset.’
Claudia smiled as he left the room. Alec suddenly popped his head back round the door.
‘Oh, I forgot to tell you. I called several golf courses near the village this morning and a couple of them sound quite promising. I’ll go and suss them out when we get settled.’
‘Oh, that sounds good. You’re sorted then,’ Claudia smiled.
She let her eyes travel around the bare walls and empty bookcases with no feelings of regret. She had outgrown this house; there was no reason to stay with the tedium of suburban living any longer and they still had the Thames-side apartment as a London base for weekends.
Both the boys were independent and planning their own lives with their fiancés so she had no real worries about them. It would be tough for Lara at first, but she was a bright likeable girl and made friends easily. Eleven was the perfect age for her to start at St Swithun’s school and it being located just a few miles from the village would be very convenient. She hoped it lived up to its good reputation.
She took one last look around the room before going to the kitchen to make tea and really hoped the fresh new start and country lifestyle was going to ease the constant nagging at the back of her mind. Tomorrow couldn’t come quick enough.
Claudia was glad she could leave shortly after the removal lorries had started loading. Alec was driving down with Lara after the loading had been done and she enjoyed being surrounded by fields again as she turned off the busy motorway. Even on this rather wild December day, it still felt tranquil. The landscape had a timeless quality about it with the neatly cut hawthorn hedges and the bare beech trees rising up the escarpment beyond the puddle-filled fields. Billowing grey and almost purple clouds scudded across the sky and released intermittent bursts of heavy rain as she drove slowly along the leaf-strewn lane.
She noticed some gouged out ruts in the roadside verge. The hedgerow was also partly flattened and she made a mental note to approach this bend with caution in future. Cars were parked along both sides of the lane as she entered the village and she noticed first a hearse and then a large mass of people sheltering under umbrellas in the churchyard.
‘Old Rectory House,’ she said out loud as she drove along the main village street and liked the way it sounded. Like a Jane Austen novel, she mused, knowing that Jane herself was buried only a few miles away in Winchester Cathedral. She turned and drove slowly up the little lane.
‘Home,’ she said quietly as the house came into view. The bare windows on the
handsome façade of the house almost looked as if they were searching the valley for new lives to be acted out under its roof.
She parked in the gravel drive and hurried to the front porch between the rainy squalls. A wayward rose branch was scraping the door in the wind, so she swiftly threaded it back on the trellis before sliding the key with the agent’s tab still on it into the lock. She stood on the threshold, breathing in the musty smell as she admired again the parquet floor in the hall and the elegant banisters on the staircase. She turned to look at the wintry view across the valley before she entered. Yes, this was a good choice, she thought to herself.
A calming silence filled the house as she pushed the door closed and shut out the noise of the blustery wind and rain.
She opened the door to the large front room they had imagined as a library. Alec’s desk would fit in nicely, as would the bookshelves that were at this very moment travelling down the M3. She remembered the funeral and the nearly blocked lane by the church and felt slightly guilty as she hoped they would be gone in time for her removal lorries to get through. She glanced around the large hall and visualised it decorated for Christmas before she walked through to the kitchen.
She knew she would have to put up with the old kitchen cupboards until after the New Year, but at least the Aga looked welcoming, as it sat in its recessed corner on the flagstone floor. She smiled to herself, as she remembered Jilly Cooper novels. She imagined a large wooden table for casual kitchen eating and it would be essential for any Christmas preparations she would want to do. The agent had told her about several antique shops in Winchester and Alresford that sold nice pieces. She would investigate on Monday. She peered through the dirty kitchen window at the weed-covered flagstones. A Victorian conservatory ran the length of the old stable block and she hoped it could be restored, as it had so much character. The garden beyond looked bedraggled as the wind buffeted the overgrown shrubs and long grass and she was longing to give it some loving care. She wandered through to the living room and pictured it with the French doors flung open on warm summer days. The large fireplace with its generous mantelpiece was just waiting for a blazing log fire and she wondered where she would get logs. She guessed the village shop would be the best bet for information. Village gossip was always passed on in these places; she wondered if they would know someone who wanted a day’s cleaning work every week. She would go in the morning, she decided.
She walked back to the hall and as she opened the front door to collect the kettle from the car she was surprised to see the first of the removal lorries slowly coming up the lane.
Two weeks of hard work had certainly paid off and Claudia smiled with pleasure as she pushed the front door shut with her shoulder. ‘Lara, are you awake?’ she shouted up the stairs.
The large Christmas tree looked welcoming as it twinkled with tiny lights and the white and silver decorations gave the hall a bright cheerful look. She had decorated the banisters with artificial blue spruce garlands, silver baubles, lavender ribbons and more tiny lights. A large Chinese bowl on the hall table was full of white poinsettias. She gathered up the cards from the doormat, walked to the kitchen and placed her shopping on the large oak table she’d found in the Winchester antique shop. This pre-Christmas weekend was going to be fun and really make the house feel like a proper home for the first time.
She sat at the table while she waited for the kettle to boil and played her usual game of trying to identify the handwriting on the envelopes before she opened them. She got the first two right. The third envelope had a local postmark with only the house address on the typed front. It was a religious card depicting a stained glass version of the Madonna and Child and the inside read, “Welcome to our village. We hope you will be very happy amongst us. If there is anything you need, do not hesitate to call us,” and it was signed, “Rosemary and the Reverend Edward Bush. The Vicarage, Easton,” and the phone number had been written at the bottom. Claudia wasn’t sure what either of them looked like, but was amused that somebody could be called Rosemary Bush.
‘Oh. Good morning, sleepy head.’
‘It’s so quiet here,’ Lara said through a deep yawn.
‘Yes, it feels strange at first, doesn’t it?’
‘It’s like the past was just a dream now.’
‘Yes, darling, but don’t forget, the past always stays with you in your head. You never really forget everything you know. The past is always what has made you who you are when you are living in the present.’
‘Oh, Mummy, what are you going on about?’
‘Oh, nothing, but you’re still young. When you get to my age there’s a lot more of the past to remember.’
Claudia had forgotten she’d left the cardboard box of decorations in the living room, so she lifted out the remaining baubles and hung them on the tree next to the fire. She checked again that the tree lights were working and smiled with pleasure as the warm red glow from their twinkling bulbs brightened the room.
‘Wow, that looks lovely,’ Lara exclaimed as she entered the room and placed a pile of books on the sofa. ‘Oh, you’ve used that old paper fairy again.’
‘She’s getting a bit tatty though, isn’t she?’
‘I’ve always loved her,’ Lara said as she looked up at the rather greying crepe paper skirt, shiny smiling face and little silver wand.
‘She’s got the same blonde hair as you,’ Claudia said as she moved next to Lara.
‘Yes, but she looks as if she could do with some conditioner, doesn’t she?’
‘Yes, I suppose she does,’ Claudia laughed… ‘You are happy with your room, aren’t you?’
‘I love it. I’ve already done a little pencil sketch of the view.’
‘Yes, I do a bit every morning. I love all the bare trees. I’ve been trying to identify them from these books.’ She picked one up and started flicking through the pages. ‘The one at the bottom of the garden is an oak and the ones across the field are beech trees. Here, look.’ She skimmed through the pages and found the pictures to show Claudia. ‘But look how exotic some of these are,’ she said as she opened the section on tropical trees. ‘Look, Mummy.’ Claudia was only paying half attention as she was closing up the cardboard box. ‘Mummy, look,’ Lara said as she thrust the book under Claudia’s nose.
There was a picture of a vibrant red flame tree, but Claudia’s eyes were drawn to the Jacaranda tree picture on the other page. She hesitated and tried to regain her composure. She swallowed hard, took a deep breath and tried to sound normal before saying, ‘Come along, darling. I need to get on.’
‘I prefer the bare trees,’ Lara continued. ‘It’s like they’re waiting for something to happen. Do you know what I mean?’
Lara put the open book down on the sofa as she rescued a fallen bauble from under the tree. Claudia tried to ignore it, but found she was constantly drawn to the lavender coloured picture staring up at her.
Claudia tried to relax and calm herself after the shock with Lara. She pushed the unsettling thoughts to the back of her mind as she sipped a sneaky gin. She noticed it was brightening up as a flicker of weak winter sunlight illuminated the kitchen. She tried to focus on normal things and remembered seeing some cooking apples on the tree that might still be usable for a crumble. She grabbed a carrier bag and went outside. It felt fresh, but looked quite cheerful now that patches of blue sky had appeared. A little flock of birds scattered from the trees as she approached and she watched as they flew towards the oak tree on the edge of the village green. She was thinking how lucky they were to fly anywhere they liked when a dark shape suddenly swooped and a sparrow hawk grabbed one of the birds with its talons. Claudia watched in horror and found she was scrunching the carrier bag into a tight ball as a few feathers slowly fluttered to the ground.
Back in the kitchen, Claudia continued to sit in the gloom and she welcomed a few moments’ break to get things back in perspective after a tiring day.
‘Oh, you made me jump,’ Alec said as he switched on the light. ‘What are you doing sitting in the dark?’
‘Five-minute chef break. I’ve just poured a drink, do you want one?’ she asked, starting to rise.
‘Stay, I’ll do it,’ Alec said as he put his hand on her shoulder. He poured his drink and joined her at the table.
‘Did you get your paperwork done?’
‘Yes, thank goodness. What time are all the others arriving?’
‘I told them about eight, but Justin might be a bit late. He was going to close the gallery early, but you know what it’s like getting out of London on a Friday evening.’
‘Are you going to have a little rest first?’ Alec asked.
‘Yes, a little one I think.’
‘Anything you want me to do?’
‘You can check there’s enough logs by the backdoor in case we need more.’
‘Ok, I’ll do it now before I shower. Are you coming up?’
‘In a minute.’
‘Don’t be too long then,’ he said as he put his glass in the sink.
Claudia listened to Alec’s footsteps on the stairs and her mind wandered back to the uncertain times before he had turned her life around and given her the stability she needed.
Alec had left the kitchen light on and she shielded her eyes from the brightness of the overhead bulb. It reminded her of that stage light again and she smiled when she remembered the happiness, the bouquets and applause. Then she remembered the pain. She looked at her hand. The hand that had linked with the two-timing bastard, as they bowed together under the spotlights... How long ago it all seemed.
There had been happiness and some pain with Alec, but they had survived. Bouquets on anniversaries and birthdays tainted with guilt. She stood abruptly and refused to let her memories spoil the weekend as the haunting accountability of her own actions began to pollute her mind. She tried to think of other things and walked to the living room door. Lara was asleep on the sofa. The book she’d been reading had fallen to the floor and the room was bathed in warm red light from the Christmas tree and flickering fire. She stared at the fairy’s little wand and hoped it was also strong enough to fend off her own personal demons, as it tried to spread seasonal joy around the room.
Claudia hurried to the front door. ‘Hi, Justin. We were getting worried about you.’
‘Yes, sorry I’m late. Wow! The decorations look wonderful, sweet. How have you found time to do all this? Don’t you ever sleep?’
‘No, not much.’
‘Well, it looks fabulous. All those theatrical years haven’t left you, have they? Here, put these in the fridge.’ He opened the bag containing two bottles of champagne, two bottles of wine and a large box of Belgian chocolates. He lowered his voice slightly. ‘Who’d have thought you’d end up with all this?’
‘I know. I don’t deserve it though, do I? I started thinking about things earlier.’
‘What do you mean? The Alec episode? Come on, sweet, that was years ago. Don’t go there. I didn’t realised you still tortured yourself about it.’
‘Most of the time, but sometimes it’s worse than others.’
‘Well, stop it this minute. Cheer up; you’ve come this far. There’s no reason for anything to change.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’ She smiled, opened the library door and placed his coat with the others. ‘Come through to the kitchen while I find room in the fridge for these and then we’ll go and join the others.’
‘My, something smells good,’ Justin exclaimed. ‘Just a little something you’ve rustled up, is it? Or have you been out hunting in the jungle?’
‘It’s Hampshire, Justin, not the Congo and no, it was Tesco’s as it happens.’
‘You look great, sweet. I think the country air is doing you good. You’ve got a nice colour in your cheeks.’
‘Probably the hot oven… Or the gin! Come on, let’s go through.’
Claudia thought back to their conversation at the door and realised what a loyal friend Justin had been over the years.
‘Hi, everyone,’ Justin said as they walked into the living room. ‘Oh, the tree looks lovely, Claudia. You have been busy.’
Alec topped up everybody’s glass before going to chat with Justin by the fire. He rested his elbow briefly on the mantelpiece, knocking over several cards. One fell on the fire and Justin quickly retrieved it when he realised where it had landed.
‘Sorry, darling,’ Alec said as Claudia came across. ‘Whose card is it, anyway?’
‘Oh, it’s one that came today from the vicar and his wife.’ She opened the card and the scorched corner had completely blackened the written script. Only the word Rosemary was readable. ‘Oh well,’ she said as she laid the remains of the card on the mantelpiece. ‘I’m sure I’ll bump into them sooner or later.’
It had been an enjoyable day and Claudia walked to the window with only the light from the landing to guide her. She stood and gazed into the blackness of the night. A new moon was rising across the valley and as her eyes adjusted she could just make out the fast-flowing silvery-grey river as it slithered across the meadows between the dark trees.
She looked up at the myriad of stars and had forgotten how magical the clear night sky could be after living with the light pollution of London. She heard the haunting bark of a fox in the darkness and could just make out a four-legged shape as it moved stealthily across the fields on the other side of the lane. Standing back slightly, she noticed her own ghostly reflection on the windowpane. She stared into the image for a few moments and smiled as the image smiled back. She knew she was going to be happy here. Everything was going to be perfect and she grinned broadly before relaxing the muscles in her face. Suddenly the image didn’t look so happy and had a look of concern on its face as she let her mind dwell for just a little too long on something that never went away and how everything could suddenly all collapse around her.
Michael was glad the flight was nearly over and looked forward to some time at home. Perhaps Sarah would be less frigid towards his advances this time. He wondered if, after thirteen years and no children, all marriages got to this stage, like food that’s past its sell-by date.
He expertly guided the Jumbo jet into line for the final approach into Heathrow and emerged from the clouds to the familiar tapestry of London. He always thought the Thames looked like an anaconda as it wound its way through the city in a series of sinuous curves. The river snaked its way towards Kew as he lined up for the runway and floated down to land like a stiff winged albatross.
Michael’s time off was passing quickly. All in all, it hadn’t been a bad week. Sarah had even tolerated him putting an arm around her shoulder one evening while they watched television.
‘Michael, are you there?’ Sarah called from the kitchen door.
‘Yes, I’m in the orchard.’
‘I’ve made some coffee.’
‘Ok, just coming,’ he shouted as he loaded the last leaves into the wheelbarrow.
‘Still chilly out there,’ he said, rinsing his hands under the hot water. Sarah was stuffing papers into her briefcase.
‘You’re all dressed up. Are you going out?’ Michael asked as he sat at the kitchen table.
‘Yes, there’s a site meeting about the speed humps we’ve been badgering the council to put in and a few of us are going.’
Sarah sat at the kitchen table as she sipped her coffee and stared at nothing in particular. He watched the creases around her eyes as she chewed on a Garibaldi biscuit and noticed a few grey hairs were appearing around the edges of her brown bobbed hair.
She suddenly glanced at the old school clock on the wall. ‘Oh my lore, is that the time?’ She gulped down the last of her coffee. ‘There’s soup in the fridge if you want some for lunch. I’m going to Rosemary’s after the meeting.’
‘Ok, see you later.’
‘I’ve got lamb for later,’ she shouted as she slammed the front door.
‘Drive safely,’ he shouted back, but knew she wouldn’t have heard him.
Sarah put the heater on full to clear the windscreen. “The Final Countdown” was playing on the radio and she sang along at the top of her voice. It’s the final countdown to getting these speed humps, she thought to herself. It must be an omen.
‘Oh, damn,’ she said and wondered if she had put the minutes in from the last meeting and reached to open the flap of her briefcase. She hadn’t noticed she had veered across the road slightly and looked up to see a large lorry, travelling at speed coming straight towards her round the bend. She grabbed the steering wheel frantically but skidded on the black ice and wet leaves as the front of the lorry came across her bonnet.
Only the rear of the car was visible. The crumpled front was embedded under the lorry in the hedgerow. Shattered glass and scattered papers from Sarah’s briefcase littered the cold icy road.
She didn’t stand a chance.
Michael felt strangely isolated, even though he stood between his best friends Nigel and Maggie at the graveside. She squeezed his hand reassuringly as she glanced at his pale face and glazed eyes. Michael looked at the raised arms holding the forest of black umbrellas that formed the encircling canopy. It quite bizarrely reminded him of a childhood classroom; eager hands vying for the teacher’s attention because they knew the answer.
The actions in front of him seemed completely surreal. Blank faces and bowed heads. A shiny box being lowered into the sodden ground by strangers. The vicar, with his outstretched arm and words about ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Michael stared down the rectangular pit in front of him. He noticed how white the freshly cut chalk was before his eyes rested on the wooden coffin, now being battered with heavy raindrops. It was hard to imagine his wife Sarah inside it. Then he noticed Rosemary shaking uncontrollably, a hanky pressed hard against her mouth as she tossed a small posy of rosemary, winter heather and honesty onto the coffin.
Michael stared at her and she almost toppled in as one of her heels sank into the soft turf. As she raised her head, their eyes met across the silent void. She had always avoided direct eye contact with him in the past. But now, as their eyes locked together, there was a look of total distress, or was it accusation, about them before she turned and pushed her way through the sea of black behind her.
Michael, Nigel and Maggie walked slowly along the edge of the parked cars in the middle of the lane to avoid the muddy puddles.
‘Hey, keep in,’ somebody shouted from behind them as the sad procession left the churchyard and made its way back to the cottage. They waited between the parked cars as a large removal lorry tried to edge its way through. It stopped next to them as it waited for someone to move a car on the other side of the lane. The driver leaned out of his window to check he had room to squeeze past.
‘Sorry to bother you,’ he shouted down to them, ‘any idea where Old Rectory House might be?’
‘Yes,’ Michael replied, ‘carry on down the main street and turn right before The Chestnut Horse pub. I think it’s the last house at the top of the little lane.’
‘Thanks mate,’ the driver replied cheerfully as he pulled away.
Maggie fanned away the exhaust fumes before she said, ‘Now you are definitely coming to stay with us in London for a couple of weeks.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure about that,’ Michael protested.
‘Oh, that wasn’t a question, Michael. That was an order.’
Michael was glad he’d had the two-week break with Maggie and Nigel, but sorting out Sarah’s clothes was something he was dreading. As he approached the village, the skid marks were still visible on the road. Although he tried not to look, he still noticed the gouged out grass bank and broken down hawthorn hedge where Sarah’s car and the lorry had ended up. He started to feel physically sick and he tried hard to concentrate as a mouthful of bile surged from his stomach.
He hoped he could get into the cottage without too many people seeing his car and he dreaded seeing Rosemary. She was bad enough at the funeral, weeping and snivelling.
He pulled into the drive and parked behind the yew hedge. The cottage looked lonely and desolate, matching the weather, with the leaden sky hanging like a pall just a few feet above the thatched roof. Grey and flat, no shadows, no sunlight… No life.
As he pushed the front door open it brushed a pile of envelopes across the mat. Some addressed to Mr and Mrs Slater, others only had his name on them. Sympathy cards, he guessed.
The cottage was silent, apart from the low ticking of the school clock in the kitchen. It was quite dark with the gloomy weather and he hesitated before flicking on the lights. Feeling like an intruder in his own house, he walked in darkness to the kitchen and switched the lights on there instead. He made a strong black coffee and gazed out the kitchen window. Even the garden looked sad and dismal with the last of the yellowing leaves on the apple trees and the remaining fruit rotting on the branches.
He turned from the window and stared at the refuse sacks he’d placed on the table. He remembered that was the last place he’d seen her sitting, when they’d had coffee before she had gone out that morning. A lump came in his throat and his vision blurred into a watery haze as he realised this was going to be much harder than he had imagined.
The phone ringing broke his trance. ‘Oh. Hello, Maggie.’
‘Just thought I’d see if you’re all right. How are things so far?’
‘Ok, I guess. I’ve not long got here, so haven’t started anything yet.’
‘Well, don’t overdo it. One step at a time, remember. Clear the clothes and you’ll start to feel better.’
‘I hope so.’
‘You will, I promise you. Oh damn. Look, I’ll have to go; the boss has just come back in. Stay strong and we’ll call you tonight.’
‘Ok, speak later then.’
As he walked upstairs, he avoided looking at the wedding photograph on the landing. Sarah had always been organised and all her clothes were neatly folded in the chest of drawers, so it was relatively easy to scoop things up and place each drawer full in a separate sack. The exhausted air from each bag carried the faint smell of laundry and Sarah as he squashed them down and he tried hard not to think about it too much.
As he took out the last T-shirt, he noticed a small antique key tucked in the back corner. This was a distraction from the depressing clothes sorting and he wondered why it was there. There was nothing in the bedroom that it would fit and then he remembered Sarah’s den room as she called it, where she kept her papers for the village committee work.
He walked along the landing and opened the door to the tiny room that overlooked the garden. The antique bureau under the little recessed window had keys that matched, except the lower drawer. It was locked, so he pushed the key in the ornate brass keyhole and turned it.
All it seemed to contain was old writing pads and office odds and ends. As he lifted the last note pad he saw a few opened envelopes with Sarah’s name handwritten on the front. It was a birthday card and he couldn’t believe what he was reading. “To my darling Sarah, Happy Birthday. I’m so glad we have found each other, looking forward to more good times together. Your loving Rosemary XX”
Michael swallowed hard and grabbed at the second envelope. It was a Christmas card with the message, “Darling dearest Sarah, Merry Christmas. You make me feel so happy. Let’s hope next year will be as good for us as the last. Your ever loving Rosemary XX” A sprig of dried rosemary and the papery seed heads of honest tied with red ribbon had been sellotaped to the inside of the card.
He dropped the cards onto the carpet and pulled open the other two envelopes. Another birthday and Christmas card with similar messages. He felt his hands start to tremble as the cards slipped through his fingers and he swallowed back a mouthful of saliva as the realisation of what had been going on between them began to sink in. It was hard to believe, but they were always together. He then remembered the time when he’d walked into the kitchen and found Rosemary massaging Sarah’s neck and how flustered they both suddenly seemed to be when they saw him. The way she had slowly but completely shut him out from anything intimate now made a lot more sense. The last time he had tried to get close to her, he’d ended up feeling like a dirty old man wanting a grope.
He wondered how he could have been so oblivious to what had been going on; how he had tortured himself, thinking of ways he could get her to love him again. All those thoughts had now been turned into a mockery. They had certainly hidden it well. Feelings of humiliation and anger filled his head. He had never hated anyone in his life before, but at that moment, he really hated Rosemary.
Michael drank several brandies before he went back to the den room and scuffed the cards into the corner with his foot. Feeling more focused, he checked all the drawers and paperwork and separated the village things from the personal, placing them in neat piles on the carpet. He stared at the organised stacks of papers before turning his gaze towards the scattered cards in the corner. He sighed heavily, but knew his life in this cottage was now definitely over. It would be hard to leave but it would be even harder to stay with the ghosts of the past still all around him.
Returning to the kitchen, he made coffee and stepped outside, glad of some fresh air after the suffocating indoor atmosphere. The low cloud had lifted, revealing patches of blue sky as shafts of low winter sunshine shone across the garden. The leaves on the apple trees that earlier had looked so drab and depressing, now shone a butter yellow as they fluttered in a light breeze and the last apples hanging had taken on a golden glow.
Starlings were pecking greedily at the fruit and their plumage gleamed with iridescent colours as they jumped around in the branches. He watched a blackbird pecking at some of the fallen apples and heard, and then saw, a robin singing his heart out at the top of the tree. Illuminated by the sunshine, he looked so cheery and full of life. It felt like a sign that there was still a life ahead to be lived and confirmed again that he needed to move on and face whatever life had in store for him.
It was almost dark when Michael went to the lounge, so he drew the curtains, switched on the side lamps and decided to light a fire. There were a few logs in the basket by the hearth, but he went to the store and brought in enough to last the evening. He piled on several logs, kicked his shoes off and settled on the sofa to read, only managing a few pages before he fell into a deep sleep.
He woke with a start as the book he had rested on the back of the sofa fell on his head. He looked at his watch and it was just before eight. Five hours was the longest he had slept in one go since the funeral. The fire was just a pile of red and white ashes, so he rolled off the sofa, crawled over and blew gently across the embers as he carefully placed more logs on. Luckily the wood was dry and soon there was the welcome flickering of cheerful flames. He lay on the carpet and stared at the beamed ceiling for a few minutes before he flopped on the sofa and tried to read again. He couldn’t concentrate, but felt more refreshed and alert than he had done for weeks.
He started thinking about Sarah again and didn’t want to have negative thoughts about her. She had been popular in the village and was good fun in company. Her kind, generous nature was something he had liked and admired. He would try to remember her that way. He thought about Rosemary and Sarah and his mind wandered to thoughts about love and feelings. Had Sarah really fallen in love with Rosemary? He tried to reason it out. Wondering then, whether people really do meet the love of their lives, or do they just settle for one another and make the most of it? Is that what love is, he wondered?
He remembered clearly the cheap package holiday and the drunken party night in the awful Jacaranda hotel when he and Sarah had been entertaining their crowd with witty banter and someone shouted, ‘You two should get married.’ They had been together for a couple of years and he had looked at her and said, ‘So, shall we then?’ and she said, ‘Yes, ok.’ It wasn’t exactly romantic. But they were happy then, they had lots of friends, work was going well and sex was fun.
Perhaps his marriage wasn’t anchored by real love at all? He’d always thought it was. She had always seemed happy enough, even though she didn’t seem to need him intimately.
He’d recognised years ago that human emotion is a very complicated thing. People fall in love, whatever that is, with people. Men with women, women with men, women with women and men with men.
As a student he’d read several books on psychology and had always been fascinated by the subject and for a while, even considered taking it up as a career.
His mind leapfrogged from one thing to another and he suddenly started thinking about Roger, his best friend at college and the things they had done together; the nude swimming, summer picnics. He remembered how he had been infatuated and wanted to spend all his spare time in his company. That was just a teenage crush surely! But he then remembered how devastated he’d been when Roger got a girlfriend and it all changed. How he had moped about until he got in with the crowd where he had eventually met Sarah for the first time and put all those thoughts behind him, determined not to get hurt like that again. From then on he had always made a dogged effort to change the way he thought about his sexual needs.
Feeling more than a little unsettled by what he was now thinking, he went to refill his glass. Then he remembered the cards upstairs, so hurried to get them. He read each one again before throwing them on the fire, and for some strange reason felt guilty doing it.
His glass was almost empty and he stared at the blackened remains of the cards and envelopes as they started collapsing around the logs. But he couldn’t stop his mind returning to unsettling thoughts as he watched the flickering flames and curling columns of blue-grey smoke disappearing up the chimney.
It was going to be Tom’s first Christmas in the Winchester cottage and he was enjoying the brisk walk back to St Cross. He loved this ancient city, but this particular evening there was something almost Dickensian about the scene as people appeared and disappeared into the thick fog that had settled with the darkness. Street lamps glowed with golden haloes as fog swirled around them and the arched entrances to Winchester College buildings now closed for the winter break, with their huge wooden studded doors, added to the atmosphere. Christmas trees already twinkled in town house windows, spilling their warm coloured light into the foggy street and decorative wreaths hung from glossy front doors. Tom readjusted the canvases under his arm and looked forward to the days between Christmas and New Year when he could set up his studio in the second bedroom properly. He had let his painting lie fallow for far too long but this move had reawakened and stimulated his artistic awareness more than he could have imagined.
Tom looked at the pile of leylandii branches piled up at the end of the long narrow garden. The removal of this inappropriate tree had given him some welcome space that would be perfect when he wanted to paint outside.
He visualised long summer afternoons and canvases full of colour. Mediterranean exotica would be his theme for the garden, he decided. He already had the two cordyline palms, rescued from his aunt’s house after she had died. They were desperately in need of release from their pot-bound existence.
After one final look at the darkening garden and his head spinning with ideas, he made his way to the shower to rid himself of the irritating little twiggy bits that had fallen down his neck.
He was glad to have had the weekend alone. There were enough Christmas invites over the next few weeks to look forward to. He felt curiously energised after his shower and poured himself a welcoming brandy before flopping on the sofa.
Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was playing quietly in the background and his thoughts rambled back to his painting again. Spontaneously, he went to the second bedroom where cardboard boxes, still unpacked, lined one wall. He moved several aside until he came to the ones marked ‘art stuff’ and smiled when he came across a sketch pad that announced in childish scrawl that it belonged to ‘TOM aged 7’. There were attempted drawings of the garden in South Africa and even some of insects and his pet tortoise. He turned the pages, suddenly overcome with nostalgia. There were pictures of flowers with the names carefully written in childish block underneath, ‘ROSE, HIBISCUS, and JACARANDA’. Memories flooded back to days playing underneath the Jacaranda tree with his sister Joan. Then he thought about the other Jacaranda encounter. He relived the images in his head as he stared blindly at the word JACARANDA. He placed the older sketchpads on top of the box next to him as he rummaged for more recent artwork. But the top one fell to the floor and opened. There, two faces, crayoned by his childish hand, looked up at him. ‘MUMMY and DADDY’ was written underneath them. He stared at the page and began to feel his eyes prickle. So long ago, he mused before he broke his trance, gathered up an armful of more up-to-date artwork and returned to the comfort of the sofa to browse.