August 31st 1987
Holiday-makers speckle the beach, reclining behind brightly striped windbreaks, hands held to eyes against the late afternoon sun as they gaze at the glittering sea. On the horizon squats a huge grey tanker; in the middle distance a scattering of white-sailed yachts, their spinnakers billowed and taut. At the shoreline a young couple in surfing gear are launching a yellow canoe. He holds it while she climbs in, then he jumps on and they paddle away, the boat rocking and bumping through the swell. Two little girls in pink swimsuits stop paddling for a moment to watch them then carry on running in and out of the water, shrieking with laughter. Behind them, a family is playing French cricket. The ball soars towards the rocks, pursued by a dog, barking wildly, its claws driving up a spray of wet sand.
On the cliff path behind the beach, people are queuing at the wooden hut for tea and biscuits, or an ice cream, or bucket and spade or a ready-inflated Li-lo, which is what a couple of teenage boys are buying now. ‘Don’t take it in the sea will you,’ says the woman behind the counter. The taller boy shakes his head then he and his friend carry the airbed down the worn granite steps to the beach.
Here, the sand is pale and dry, glinting with mica. As they head for the water the boys throw a covetous glance at a blonde woman in a black bikini , who’s lying on a white towel, perfectly still. She’s enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sound of the sea pulling in and out, as steady as breathing. A sand-fly lands on her cheek and she brushes it away then pushes herself up, resting on her elbows. She gazes at the headland, where the grass has dried to a pale gold: then she looks at the dark-haired man sitting beside her, and gives him an indolent smile. Now she turns on her front, reaches behind to unclip her bikini, then hands him a tube of Ambre Solaire. The man hesitates, glancing at the woman’s two children who are building a sandcastle a few feet away: then he removes the cap and starts rubbing the crème onto the woman’s shoulders. As his palm strokes her skin, she sighs with pleasure.
Her daughter, kneeling in the sand, looks up. Seeing the man’s hand moving over her mother’s waist, the girl reddens then stumbles to her feet. ‘Let’s go rock-pooling,’ she says to her little brother.
He shakes his blond head and continues digging. ‘Don’t want to…’
‘I want you to.’
‘I’d rather stay with Mum.’
The girl picks up her plastic sandals and bangs them together. ‘But you have to come with me .’
She puts on the right shoe. ‘To help me.’
‘Don’t want to help you.’
‘Well you’ve got to...’ She shoves her left foot into the other sandal, bends to do it up, then grabs the bucket that the boy was filling and empties it. ‘I’ll carry this - you take the net.’
The boy shrugs his narrow shoulders, then stands. He hitches up his red swimming trunks which are hand-me-downs and much too big; then he picks up the net lying nearby.
Their mother lifts her head. ‘You don’t have long,’ she says. ‘We’ll be leaving at six, so I want you to come back when you hear the bell from the tea hut. Did you hear me?’ she adds to her daughter. ‘Hold his hand now. You must hold his hand.’ The girl gives a sullen nod then starts to walk towards the rocks that spill down from the low cliff to the sea. Her brother follows her, dragging the net, its stick leaving a sinuous trail, like the tail of the yellow kite which he now notices, swaying against the blue. He cranes his neck to watch it, one eye closed against the sun.
The girl glances behind and sees that he’s not following her. ‘Ted!’ she calls. ‘Come on!’ She wants to get as far as possible from their mother and her so-called ‘friend’. ‘Teddy!’ The little boy tears his gaze from the kite and follows his sister, jumping onto her footprints, leaving no tracks of his own. A toddler wobbles across his path, naked except for a white sun hat, then falls over, cries, and is quickly scooped up.
Now they’re passing a boy and girl who are digging. The trench they’ve made is six foot long, and so deep that they’re visible only from waist up.
Ted stops. ‘Look Evie!’ She turns. ‘It’s ‘normous.’
‘It is,’ she says seriously. ‘Must have taken ages,’ she says to the girl who’s about her own age, though tall and long-limbed. She’s wearing a white tee shirt with a large black ‘J’ on it. Evie wonders what it stands for. Julie? Jane?
‘It did take ages,’ the girl replies. Her face is a pale oval framed by long dark hair. She tucks a hank behind her ear then nods at the rampart of displaced sand. ‘We’ve been digging all afternoon - haven’t we Tom?’
Tom, a thick set boy of about eight straightens up. ‘We’re making a tunnel,’ he explains. ‘Like that Channel tunnel they’re building.’ He leans on his spade.
‘It was my idea,’ the girl adds. ‘We’ve done it all by ourselves.’ She turns to Tom. ‘Mum’ll be surprised when she sees it.’
Tom laughs. ‘She’ll be amazed.’
‘You making a real tunnel?’ Ted asks him.
‘Yes.’ Tom points to a deep recess at the back of the hole.
Ted peers at it. ‘Can I go in?’
‘Maybe.’ Tom shrugs. ‘When it’s finished. But we’ll have to be quick because the tide’s coming up.’
‘The time’s coming up?’ Ted looks at the sea.
‘The tide silly,’ says Evie. ‘Come on Ted, we’d better go...’
On the other side of the beach the children’s mother closes her eyes as her companion’s hands caress the small of her back, then the swell of her hips. ‘That’s lovely,’ she says. ‘Can you hear me purring?’ she adds with a laugh. Someone nearby is listening to Radio One. She can hear the Pet Shop Boys.
Her boyfriend lies down beside her. ‘You’re always on my mind, Babs,’ he murmurs.
She smiles and puts her hand to his chest, spreading her fingers against his skin. ‘This is the best holiday I’ve had for years...’
By now her children have reached the rocks – jagged grey boulders thinly striped with white quartz. They clamber up, and Ted looks in the first pool. He stares at the seaweed, some brown and nobbly, some as green and smooth as lettuce. He pokes his net at a sea anemone and it retracts its maroon tendrils. Then he spies a shrimp and thrusts the net at it. ‘Caught something!’ he shouts, but as he inspects the mesh his face falls - all that’s in it is a brown winkle. As he straightens up he sees with dismay that Evie is fifty or sixty feet away from him. ‘Evie!’ he calls. ‘Wait for me!’ But she carries on jumping across the rocks, the bucket swinging from her arm.
As Ted follows her he looks out to sea and spots a yellow canoe with two people in it, lifting and twisting their paddles. Now he hears a distant roar, and sees a motor boat rip across the water, the wake fanning out in widening chevrons that make the canoe rock and sway. Then he returns his gaze to Evie. She’s peering into a pool. ‘Evie!’ he yells, but she doesn’t respond.
Ted steps onto the next boulder but it’s crusted with tiny black mussels that cut into his feet. The adjacent rock looks smooth, but when he stands on it, it wobbles violently, and his thin arms flail as he tries not to fall. Sudden tears sting his eyes. The rocks are sharp, and his trunks won’t stay up and his sister won’t wait for him, let alone hold his hand like she’s meant to. ‘Evie…’ His throat aches as he tries not to cry. ‘Eeevieeee!’
At last she turns. Seeing his distress, she makes her way back to him. ‘What’s the matter Ted?’ She stares at his feet. ‘Why didn’t you wear your beach shoes?’
He sniffs. ‘I forgot.’
Evie heaves an exasperated sigh then turns towards the sea. ‘Then we’d better go this way – the rocks are easier. Mind the barnacles,’ she adds over her shoulder. ‘Ooh there’s a good pool.’ It’s long and narrow, like a little loch, with bands of leathery looking weed that sway to and fro. As Evie’s shadow falls onto the surface, a small brown fish darts across the bottom. ‘Give me the net!’ Ted passes it to her, takes the bucket, then Evie crouches down, thrusts the net under a rock and swiftly withdraws it. There’s a glint of silver. ‘Got it!’ she yells. ‘Fill the bucket, Ted! Quick!’
Ted dips the bucket in the pool then hands it to her. Evie tips the fish in and it swims to the bottom then scoots under a shred of bladder-wrack. ‘It’s huge,’ Evie says. ‘And there’s a shrimp!’ She feels a sudden euphoria – her loathing of her mother’s ‘friend’ forgotten. ‘Let’s get some more.’ As she dips the net in the water again she hears, faintly, the bell that the woman in the tea hut rings when she’s closing.
A few yards away the waves are breaking over the rocks; the children can feel the spray on the backs of their legs.
Ted shivers, then turns to Evie. ‘Is it high time yet?’
Evie thinks of Clive’s hands stroking their mother’s flanks. She thinks of his hairy chest and his thick calves, and of the grunts that she hears through the bedroom wall.
‘It isn’t high tide,’ she answers. ‘Not yet…’
Ted picks up the net again. ‘The bell’s ringing.’
Evie shrugs. ‘I can’t hear it.’
‘I can, and ‘member what Mum said, she said-‘
‘Let’s find a crab!’ Evie yells. ‘Come on!’
Thrilled by the idea, Ted follows his sister, relieved that she’s going more slowly now, even if it’s only to avoid spilling their precious catch. Here the rocks are not sharp with mussels, but treacherous with seaweed which slips like satin beneath Ted’s feet. He longs for Evie to hold his hand, but doesn’t like to ask in case it makes him seem babyish.
‘We should have brought some ham,’ he hears her say. ‘Crabs like ham. We’ll bring some tomorrow shall we?’
Ted nods happily.
On the beach the man flying the yellow kite is reeling it in. The mother of the girls in the pink swimsuits is calling them out of the sea. They run towards her, teeth chattering and she wraps a towel around each one while the encroaching waves lick at their footprints. The family that were playing French cricket are packing up: the father hurls the ball and the dog tears after it.
People are folding their chairs, or collapsing sun-shades and packing up baskets and bags as the sea advances, then retreats, then pushes forward again.
‘Five more minutes Clive,’ Barbara says.
He winds a lock of her hair around his finger. ‘So what’s happening tonight?’
‘Well, I thought we’d walk to Trennick and get some fish and chips; we could buy a nice bottle of wine, and then…’ She smiles suggestively. ‘I’ll get the kids into bed early.’
‘You do that,’ Clive whispers. He kisses her. ‘You do that, Babs.’ Barbara smiles to think that she’s only known Clive for eight weeks. She remembers the rush of desire when she saw him - the first time she’d felt anything for a man in years. She thinks of how she’d loathed the job - sitting at her desk all day with nothing to look at through the window but lorries and trucks with JJ Haulage on them; the only thing on her wall a road map of the UK. Just as she was wondering how much more of it she could stand, Clive had walked in. Tall and dark, with the shoulders of an ox, he’d reminded Barbara of a drawing of the Minotaur in one of Evie’s books. He’d come about his payslip – five overnights to Harwich that were missing. Flustered, Barbara had promised to correct it; then he’d suggested, cheekily, that she could ‘make it up to him’. She’d laughed and said maybe she would…
She’d told him that she had two kids – though no ex, God rest Finn’s soul; but Clive said that she could have had ten kids in tow and it wouldn’t have mattered. The fact that at thirty eight, he’s ten years older than she is makes Barbara feel good.
The tricky thing had been introducing him to Evie and Ted. Ted had taken little notice of him, but Evie had been hostile and when Barbara told them that Clive would be coming on the holiday with them Evie had really kicked up. But as Barbara had said to her, Evie had friends - why shouldn’t Mummy have a friend? Didn’t Mummy deserve a bit of happiness after all she’d been through? But Evie had just stared at her, then gone to her room. Well, she’ll just have to get used to him Barbara reasons as Clive kisses her fingertips…
Suddenly Barbara realises that the bell has stopped ringing. She sits up...
On the rocks, Ted is getting tired. But now Evie has found another pool, a few feet from the water’s edge.
‘There’ll be crabs in here,’ she says authoritatively. ‘Okay Ted, you hold the bucket. Be careful,’ she adds as she passes it to him. She takes the net. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘I want to hold the net.’
‘You’re too young.’ Confident that this has settled the matter she returns her gaze to the pool.
Ted puts the bucket down on a ledge. ‘I’m five!’
‘Well I’m nine, so it’s better if I do it. It’s not easy catching crabs.’
‘It’s my turn. You caught the fish - and the shrimp. So it’s my turn with the net now and-.’
‘Shhhh!’ Evie is holding up her left hand, her eyes fixed on the water. ‘I saw one,’ she hisses. ‘A big one.’
‘Let me get it.’
Evie leans forward, very slowly, then jabs the net at a clump of weed. As she lifts it out, a khaki coloured crab, the size of her hand, is hanging from the mesh with one claw.
Ted lunges for the net. To his surprise he manages to wrest it from her: as he does so the crab falls back into the water then pedals under a rock.
Evie’s mouth chasms with outrage. ‘Youidiot!’
Ted’s chin dimples. ‘I’m not.’
‘You are.’ She glares at him. ‘You’re an idiot – and a baby: a stupid little baby! No wonder Mum calls you ‘Teddy Bear’.’
Ted’s face crumples. ‘Sorry Evie...’ He offers her the net. ‘Catch it again. Please...’
Evie’s tempted, but then she notices how close the waves now are. ‘No.’ She blinks. ‘We’ve got to get back.’ She tips the bucket into the pool and the fish and shrimp dart away. Then she sets off for the beach which looks improbably distant, as if viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. She can just see Tom and his sister, flinging sand out of that hole as though their lives depended on it. She turns back to Ted. He’s still standing by the pool, his fringe blown by the breeze. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I want to get the crab!’ Ted’s eyes glisten with tears. ‘I want to show it to Mum.’
‘I can!’ A sob convulses his thin ribcage. ‘I can get it Evie!’ He squats down and thrusts the net into the pool, frantically.
‘It’s too late! You ruined it - now come on!’ Ted doesn’t move. ‘I’m wait-ing.’ Her hands drop to her hips. ‘Right! Ten, nine, eight…’
Ted glances at her.
‘Seven, six, five…’
He looks longingly at the pool ‘But…’
‘Four, three, two…’
Still sobbing, Ted starts to descend. As he does so Evie turns away, and springs across the rocks, the soles of her shoes slapping the stone. ‘This way,’ she calls as she moves higher up, towards the cliff. ‘Put your hand on that rock there.’ She points to it, then leaps across a gully. She jumps onto the next rock, then the next, stepping from boulder to boulder until at last, she’s only yards from the beach. Evie jumps onto the sand, surprised at how relieved she feels. There’s the girl with the‘J’ T-shirt, sitting by the trench, observing Tom with a blend of curiosity and admiration. Evie stands beside her as he wriggles into the tunnel, then she walks on, looking for shells. She stops to pick up a piece of sea glass but decides that it’s too new-looking to keep. As she straightens up she can hear gulls crying, and the barking of a dog. Then she sees her mother coming towards her, in her dress now, scanning the rocks, one hand to her eyes, lips pursed. Evie lifts her left arm and waves. Her mother waves back, smiling with relief. Then her expression changes to one of consternation, then alarm. Now on her face is panic. She starts running towards Evie.
Evie turns and looks behind. Her heart stops.
I guess it was inevitable that Nina’s wedding would change things between Rick and me, though I could never have guessed by how much. Up until then, it had been so easy being with Rick – we’d slotted into each other’s lives as though we’d always known each other. And now we were going to a wedding – our first one together - and suddenly being with Rick was hard. ‘They’ve got great weather for it,’ he remarked as I locked the door of our small North London flat. The early haze had given way to a pristine blue sky.
‘A good omen,’ I said as we walked to the car.
Rick beeped opened the doors of his old Golf. ‘I didn’t think you were superstitious, Jenni.’
‘I am, a bit.’ I put our gift, in its silvery bag, on the back seat. ‘But then I was born on Friday the thirteenth.’
Rick smiled. ‘That should make you immune.’
We drove west, talking easily, as we always do, but with an unfamiliar reserve, born of the anguished conversations that we’d been having over the past two or three days.
We sped down the A40, and were soon driving along rural roads past fields still stubbled and pale from the harvest. It was very warm for mid-October, and clear - an Indian summer’s day, piercingly beautiful with its golden light, and long shadows.
Nina’s parents lived at the southern end of the Cotswolds. Over the years I’d visited the house for weekends, or the occasional party - Nina’s twenty-first, and her thirtieth, which was already five years ago I reflected soberly. And now it was her wedding day, and before long, no doubt, there’d be a Christening.
Rick glanced at me. ‘You okay Jen?’
He changed down a gear. ‘You sighed.’
‘Oh… no reason. I’m just a bit tired.’ A bad sleeper at the best of times, I’d lain awake most of the night. As I’d stared into the darkness I’d longed for Rick to wrap me in his arms, but he’d turned away, feigning sleep.
‘So where do we go from here?’ For a moment I thought that Rick was talking about us, then realised that he was simply flummoxed at the crossroads. ‘Which way?’
I spotted the sign for Bisley. ‘Go right.’
A few minutes later we turned into Nailsford Lane where a clutch of white balloons bobbed from a farm gate.
‘Looks like we’re the first,’ Rick said as we drove into the parking field which was empty except for an abandoned tractor. He parked in the shade of a huge copper beech: as he opened his door we could hear its leaves rustle and rattle. Rick buttoned his shirt collar. ‘So is it going to be a big do?’
‘Pretty big, I think – eighty or so.’
So who will I know - apart from Nina and Jon?’ I pulled down the visor. ‘I’m not sure – Nina’s invited quite a few of the people we knew at Bristol – not that I’ve kept up with that many… ’ I checked my reflection. My eyes were red-veined with fatigue, and my skin so pale that I quickly brushed on a little blusher. ‘I’ve only kept up with Nina and Honor.’ I wound my long dark hair into a bun then pinned onto it the pale pink silk flower that matched my dress.
Rick pulled a tie out of his jacket pocket. ‘So will Honor be there?’
‘Of course.’ Rick groaned; I glanced at him. ‘Don’t be like that, Rick – Honor’s lovely.’
‘Exuberant,’ I countered, wishing that my boyfriend was a bit keener on my best friend.
Rick grimaced. ‘She hardly draws breath. So she’s in the right job, not that I listen.’
‘You should – her show’s the best thing on Radio 5.’ As Rick looped and twisted the blue silk I suppressed a dark smile. He’s tying the knot, I thought.
As I reached into the back for the gift I saw more cars arriving, bumping slowly over the field. I opened my door. ‘Let’s go in.’
We made our way across the grass which was studded with dandelion clocks, their downy seeds drifting like plankton. We strolled up Church Walk then pushed on the lych gate, which was garlanded with moon daisies, and went up the gravelled path.
Jon was waiting anxiously by the porch with his rothers, all three men in morning dress with yellow silk waistcoats. They greeted us and we chatted briefly; then the photographer, who had been sorting out his camera on top of a tomb, offered to take a picture of Rick and me.
‘Let’s have a smile,’ he said as he clicked away. ‘A bit more - it’s a wedding, not a funeral,’ he added genially. ‘That’s better…’ There was another volley of clicks then he squinted at the screen. ‘Lovely.’
Now Tim handed Rick and me our Order of Service sheets and we walked into the cool of the church.
I’d been to St. Jude’s before, but had forgotten how small it was, and how simple the interior, with its plain walls, wooden roof and box pews. There was the smell of beeswax and dust and age, mingled with the scent of the calla lilies that festooned the columns and pulpit. It was also very light, with clear glass, except for the East window, which depicted Christ blessing the children. The sun streamed through its coloured panes, scattering jewelled beams across the whitewashed walls.
‘Lovely church,’ Rick murmured as we sat down.
‘It is,’ I agreed, though its beauty was a shard in my heart. Rick and I glanced through our service sheets as the church filled up, heels tapping over the flagstones, wood creaking as people sat down, then chatted quietly or just listened to the Bach partita that the organist was playing.
Jon’s parents went to their seats, behind them I recognised a colleague of Nina’s and now here was Honor, in a green ‘bombshell’ dress that hugged her curves and complemented her creamy skin and blonde hair. She blew me and Rick an extravagant kiss then sat near the front as she was to do the reading.
Now Jon and his older brother, James, took their places together while their younger brother, Tim, ushered in a few late-comers. Nina’s mother, in a turquoise opera coat and matching hat, smiled benignly as she made her way to her pew.
I turned and caught a glimpse of Nina, standing in the porch, in the white silk dupion sheath that Honor and I had helped her choose; her veil drifting behind her.
As the Bach drew to an end the vicar stepped onto the altar and welcomed everyone. Then there was a burst of Handel, and we all stood as Nina walked down the aisle on her father’s arm.
After the opening prayers we sang ‘Morning Has Broken’; then Honor stepped up to the lectern to read the sonnet that Nina had chosen.
‘My true love hath my heart, and I have his,’ she began, her dulcet voice echoing slightly. ‘By just exchange one for the other given. I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss. There never was a better bargain driven…’
As Honor read on, I envied the reciprocity of feeling between the two lovers. I thought I’d had that with Rick…
‘My true love hath my heart – and I have his,’ Honor concluded.
As Honor returned to her pew, the vicar raised his hands. ‘Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony…’ As I looked at Nina and Jon, side by side in a pool of light, I wondered whether these words would ever be said for Rick and me. ‘Nor taken in hand wantonly,’ the vicar was saying, ‘but reverently, discreetly, advisedly and soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.’ At that I felt Rick shift slightly. ‘First, it was ordained for the procreation of children.’ I stole a glance at him, but his face gave nothing away. ‘Therefore, if any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else, hereafter, forever hold his peace.’
I tried to follow the service but found it hard to focus on the music, or the Address, or on the beauty and solemnity of the vows. As Nina and Jon committed themselves to each other, with unfaltering voices, and a clear, steady gaze, I felt a stab of pain. The register was signed, the last hymn sung and the blessing given; then, as Widor’s Toccata mingled with the pealing bells, we all followed Nina and Jon outside.
We showered the couple with petals and took snaps with our phones; then the photographer began the formal photos of them while we all milled around by the porch.
- ‘Great to see you! Fantastic weather!’
- ‘Lovely service – much prefer the King James.’
- ‘Me too. Well read, Honor!’
- ‘Should we make our way to the house?’
- ‘Not yet. I think they want a group pic.’
While we waited for this, Rick and I, keen to get away from the crowd, strolled through the churchyard; we looked at the gravestones, most of which were very old and eroded, blotched with yellow lichen.
Rick stopped in front of a slate headstone. ‘That’s odd. It’s got a pineapple on it.’
I looked at the carved image. ‘A pineapple means prosperity, as do figs, and I guess this was a prosperous area, probably because of the wool trade.’
We walked on, in silence, past stones that had angels on them, and doves and candles, the symbolism of which was clear.
We could hear the babble of the guests, a sudden burst of Honor’s unmistakeable laughter, then the photographer’s voice. Could you look at me Nina?
We heard the warbling of a wood-pigeon then sudden wing-flaps as Rick approached another grave, by a yew. He peered at it. ‘This one’s got a bunch of grapes carved on it.’
I stood beside him. ‘Grapes represent the wine at the Last Supper.’
Rick glanced at me. ‘How do you know all this Jen? I didn’t think you were religious.’
‘I had to research it for one of my books. It was years ago, but I’ve remembered a lot of it.’
Now look at each other again…
Rick studied every headstone that we passed. ‘Here’s a rose,’ he said. ‘Which means, what, love?’
Oh very romantic...
‘No. Roses show how old the person was.’ I looked at the worn emblem. ‘This is a full rose, which was used for adults.’ I read the inscription. ‘Mary Ann Betts… was…’ I peered at her dates. ‘Twenty five. The stem’s severed, to show that her life was cut short.’
‘I see…’ The conversation felt stiff, and formal, as though we were strangers, not lovers.
Can we have a kiss?
‘A partially opened rose means a teenager.’
And another one. Lovely.
‘And a rosebud is for a child.’
Hold his hand now.
Rick nodded thoughtfully. ‘So that was a sad subject.’
‘Yes...’ Okay boys and girls! Can you all come and stand together please – nice and close!
Rick and I re-joined everyone for the group photo for which the photographer climbed onto a step-ladder, wobbling theatrically to make us all laugh. We smiled up at him while he clicked away then, hand in hand,Nina and Jon led us down the path, across the field, to the house.
The Old Forge was just as I remembered it - long and low, its pale stone walls ablaze with pyrocantha. A large marquee filled the lawn which was skirted by a border that glowed with scarlet sedums and fronds of goldenrod. In the distance were the hills of Slad, the plunging pastures dotted with sheep, their bleats carrying across the valley on the still air.
We joined the receiving line, greeting both sets of parents, then the bride and groom.
Nina’s face lit up and we hugged. ‘Jenni...’
I had to fight back sudden tears. I didn’t know whether they were tears of joy for her or of sadness for myself. ‘You look so beautiful Nina.’
‘Thank you.’ She put her lips to my ear. ‘You next.’ I hadn’t told her about my troubles so I just smiled.
Jon kissed me on the cheek then, clasped Rick’s hand. ‘Good to see you both! Thanks for coming!’
‘Congratulations Jon,’ Rick said warmly. ‘It was a lovely service.’
Now we moved on into the large sunny sitting room where drinks were being served. I put our gift on a table with other presents and cards. Then a waiter offered us a glass of champagne. Rick raised his glass. ‘Here’s to the happy couple.’
‘They are happy – it’s wonderful.’
‘How long have they been together?’
I sipped my fizz. ‘About the same as us. They got engaged on their first anniversary,’ I added neutrally, then laughed at myself for ever having thought that Rick and I might do the same.
I looked at Rick, so handsome, with his short dark hair, open face, and blue gaze. I tried to imagine life without him and felt a sliding sensation. We’d agreed to talk things over again the next day. Presently a gong summoned us into the marquee which was bedecked with white agapanthus and pink nerines, the tables gleaming with silver and china. We found our names then stood behind our chairs while the vicar said Grace.
Rick and I had been placed with Honor, and with Amy and Sean, who I’d known at uni but hadn’t seen for years, and an old school-friend of Jon’s, Al, who was attractive with grey eyes and curly fair hair. I was glad that Nina had put him next to Honor; she’d been single for a few months now and was longing to meet someone. Also on our table was Nina’s godfather, Vincent Tregear, who I vaguely remembered from her twenty-first birthday, and a near neighbour, Carolyn Browne. As Carolyn introduced herself I steeled myself for the effort of making small talk with people I don’t know: unlike Honor, I’m not good at it, and in my present frame of mind it would be harder than usual.
As our starters arrived I heard Carolyn explain to Rick that she was a solicitor, recently retired. ‘I’m so busy though,’ she said. ‘I’m a governor of a local school, I play golf and bridge; I travel. I was dreading retirement, but it’s fine.’ She smiled at Rick. ‘Not that you’re anywhere near that stage. So what do you do?’
He unfurled his napkin. ‘I’m a teacher - at a primary school in Islington.’
‘He’s the deputy head,’ I volunteered, proudly.
Carolyn chatted to Rick about Ofsted inspections and SATS tests; then she looked at me. ‘And what about you, erm…?’
‘Jenni.’ I turned my place card towards her.
‘Jenni,’ she echoed. ‘And you’re…’ She nodded at Rick.
‘Yes, I’m Rick’s…’ The word ‘girlfriend’ made us seem like teenagers; ‘partner’ made us sound as though we were in business, not in love. ‘Other half,’ I concluded, though I disliked this too: it seemed to suggest, ominously, that we’d been sliced apart.
‘And what do you do?’ Carolyn asked me.
My heart sank - I hate talking about myself. ‘I’m a writer.’ ‘A writer?’ Carolyn’s face had lit up. ‘Do you write novels?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘It’s all non-fiction. But you won’t have heard of me.’
‘I read a lot, so maybe I will. What’s your name? Jenni…’ Carolyn peered at my place card. ‘Clark.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘Jenni Clark…’
‘I don’t write under that name.’
‘So is it Jennifer Clark?’
‘No - what I mean is, I don’t write under any name.’ I was about to explain why, when Honor said ‘Jenni’s a ghost.’
Carolyn looked puzzled. ‘A ghost?’
Honor unfurled her napkin. ‘She ghosts things. Strange to think that it can be a verb isn’t it? I ghost, you ghost, he ghosts,’ she added gaily.
I rolled my eyes at Honor, then turned to Carolyn. ‘I’m a ghost-writer.’
‘Oh I see. So you write books for people who can’t write.’
‘Or they can,’ I said, ‘but don’t have the time, or lack the confidence, or they don’t know how to shape the material.’
Carolyn broke her bread roll. ‘So it’s actors and pop stars I suppose? Footballers? Tennis players?’
I shook my head. ‘I don’t do the celebrity stuff - I used to, but not any more.’
‘Which is a shame,’ Honor interjected, ‘as you’d make far more money.’
‘True.’ I rested my fork. ‘But I didn’t enjoy it.’
‘Why not?’ asked Al, who was on my left.
‘It was too frustrating,’ I answered, ‘having to battle with my subjects’ egos, or finding that they didn’t turn up for the interviews; or that they’d give me some wonderful material then the next day tell me that I wasn’t to use it. So these days I only do the projects that interest me.’
Honor, who has a butterfly mind, was now discussing ghosts of the other kind. ‘I’m sure they exist,’ she said to Vincent Tregear. ‘Twenty years ago I was staying with my cousins in France; it was a very warm, still day, like today, and we were exploring this abandoned house. It was just a shell, so we could see right up to the roof...’ She paused. ‘And we both heard footsteps, right above us, on the non-existent floorboards.’ She gave an extravagant shudder. ‘I’ve never forgotten it.
‘I believe in ghosts,’ Carolyn said as the rest of the table tuned in to the conversation. ‘I live on my own, in an old house, and at times I’ve been aware of this … presence.’
Amy nodded enthusiastically. ‘I’ve sometimes felt a sudden chill.’ She turned to Sean. ‘Do you remember darling, last summer? When we were in Wales?’
‘I do,’ he answered. ‘Though I believe it was because you were pregnant.’
‘No: pregnancy made me feel hot, not cold.’
‘A few years ago,’ said Al, ‘I was asleep in my flat, alone, when I suddenly woke up, convinced that someone was sitting on my bed.’
I shivered at the idea. ‘And you weren’t dreaming?’
He shook his head. ‘I was wide awake. I can still remember the weight of it, pressing down on the mattress. Yet there was no-one there.’
‘How terrifying,’ I murmured.
‘It was.’ He poured me some water then filled his own glass. ‘Has anything like that ever happened to you?’
‘It hasn’t, I’m glad to say. But I don’t dismiss other people’s experiences.’
‘I’ve always been sceptical about these things,’ Sean said. ‘I believe that if people are sufficiently on edge they can see things that aren’t really there. Like Macbeth seeing the ghost of Banquo.’
‘Shake not thy gory locks at me!’ said Honor with a theatrical giggle. ‘And Macbeth certainly is on edge by then isn’t he, having murdered, what, four people?’ Then she went off on some new conversational tangent about why it was considered unlucky for actors to say ‘Macbeth’ inside a theatre. ‘I’d always thought it was because of the evil in the story,’ she said as a caterer took her plate. ‘But it’s actually because if a play wasn’t selling well, the actors would have to quickly rehearse ‘Macbeth’ as that’s always popular, so ‘Macbeth’ became associated with ill luck. Now… what are we having next?’ She picked up a gold-tasselled menu. ‘Sea bass – yum. Did you know that sea-bass are hermaphrodites? The males become females at six months.’
Al, clearly uninterested in the gender-switching tendencies of our main course, turned to me. ‘So what sort of books do you write?’
‘A real mix,’ I answered. ‘Psychology, health and popular culture; I’ve done a diet book, and a couple of gardening books...’
I thought of my titles, more than twenty of them, lined up on the shelf in my study.
‘So you must learn a huge amount about all these things,’ Al said.
‘I do. It’s one of the perks.’
Carolyn sipped her wine. ‘But do you get any kind of credit?’
‘I thought that with ghost-written books it usually said ‘with’ so-and-so or ‘as told to’.’
‘It depends,’ I said. ‘Some ghost-writers do ask for that. I don’t.’
‘So your name appears nowhere?’
Carolyn frowned. ‘Don’t you mind?’
I shrugged. ‘Anonymity’s part of the deal. And of course the clients like it that way. They’d prefer everyone to think they’d written the book all by themselves.’
Carolyn laughed. ‘I couldn’t bear not to have any of the glory. If I’d worked that hard on something I’d want people to know!’
‘Me too,’ said Honor. ‘I don’t know why you want to hide your light under a bushel quite so much, Jen.’
‘Because it’s enough that I’ve enjoyed the work and been paid for it. I’m happy to be… invisible.’
‘You were always like that,’ Honor went on. ‘You were never one to seek the limelight - unlike me,’ she giggled. ‘I enjoy it.’
‘So are you still acting?’ Sean asked her.
Honor shook her head. ‘Not for five years now - I couldn’t take the insecurity, so I went into radio, which I love.’
‘I’ve heard your show,’ Amy interjected. ‘It’s really good.’
‘Thanks.’ Honor basked in the compliment for a moment. ‘And you two have had a baby, haven’t you?’
‘We have,’ Amy answered. ‘So I’m on maternity leave…’
Carolyn resumed her conversation with me. ‘So what are you working on now?’
I fiddled with my wine glass. ‘A baby care guide.’
‘How lovely,’ she responded. ‘And are you a mum?’
My heart contracted. ‘No.’ I sipped my wine.
‘Doesn’t that make it difficult?’ Carolyn went on. ‘Writing a book about something you haven’t been through yourself?’
‘Not at all. The client’s communicaed all her experience to me – she’s an NCT teacher – and I’ve written it up in a clear and, I hope, engaging way.’
‘I must buy it,’ Amy said to me. ‘What’s it called?’
‘’Bringing up Baby’. It’ll be out in the spring. But I always get given a few complimentary copies, so if you give me your address I’ll send you one.’
‘Thanks,’ Amy said. ‘That’s really kind. I’ll write it down…’ She began looking in her bag for a pen, then couldn’t find one.
‘You can contact me through my website,’ I suggested. ‘Jenni Clark Ghostwriting. So… how old’s your baby?’
Sean took out his phone, swiped the screen then held it up. ‘She’s called Rosie.’
I smiled at the photo. ‘She’s gorgeous. Isn’t she lovely, Honor?’
Honor peered at the photo and beamed. ‘She’s a little beauty.’
‘She’s what, six months?’ I said.
Amy’s face glowed with pride. ‘Yes – she’ll be seven months a week on Wednesday.’
‘So is she crawling?’ I asked, ‘or starting to roll over?’ Beside me I could feel Rick stiffen.
‘She’s crawling beautifully,’ Amy replied. ‘But she’s not rolling over yet.’
Sean laughed. ‘It’ll be nerve-wracking when she does.’
‘You won’t be able to leave her on the bed or the changing table,’ I said. ‘That’s when lots of parents put the changing mat on the floor – not that I’m a parent myself, but of course we cover this in the book...’ Rick had tuned out of the conversation and was talking to Carolyn again. Al turned to me. ‘So can you write about any subject?’
‘Well, not something I could never relate to,’ I answered, ‘like particle physics - not that I’d ever get chosen for a book like that. But I’ll do almost any professional writing job; company reports, press releases, new business pitches, personal memoirs…’
‘Personal memoirs?’ echoed Vincent Tregear. ‘You mean, writing someone’s life story?’
‘Yes – usually an older person, just for private publication.’
‘Do you enjoy that?’ Vincent asked.
‘Very much. It’s the best part of the job. I love immersing myself in other people’s memories.’
Vincent looked as though he was about to say something, but then Caroyln began asking him about golf, Amy was telling Rick about yoga, and Honor was chatting to Al about his work as an orthodontist. She found him attractive; I could tell. Good old Nina for putting them together. uddenly Honor looked at me, grinned, then tapped her teeth. ‘Al says I have a perfect bite.’
I raised my glass. ‘Congratulations!’
‘Not just good,’ Honor said. ‘Perfect!’
‘Don’t let it go to your head,’ Al said.
Honor laughed. ‘Where else is my bite supposed to go?’
Soon it was time for the speeches and toasts; the cake was cut, then after coffee there was a break before the evening party was to start.
Amy and Sean had to leave, to get back to their baby. Vincent Tregear also said his goodbyes then went to speak to Nina’s parents. As the caterers moved back the tables, Honor carried on chatting to Al while Rick and I went out into the garden.
We sat on a bench, watching the sky turn crimson, then mauve, then an inky blue in which the first stars were starting to shine.
‘Well… it’s been a great day,’ Rick said. The awkwardness had returned, squatting between us like an uninvited guest.
‘It’s been a lovely day,’ I agreed. ‘We should…’
‘What?’ Rick murmured.
My nerve failed. ‘We should go inside. It’s getting cold.’
Rick stood up. ‘And the band’s started.’ He held out his hand.
So we returned to the marquee where Jon and Nina were dancing their first waltz, then gradually everyone took to the floor. But as Rick’s arms went round me and he pulled me close, it was as though he was hugging me goodbye.
‘So… what are we going to do?’ Rick asked me gently the next day.
We’d had lunch - not that I’d been able to eat - and now faced each other across our kitchen table. I shook my head, helplessly. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
‘We’ve got three options,’ Rick went on. ‘One, I change my mind; two, you change your mind or three…’
I felt my stomach clench. ‘I don’t want to break up.’
‘Nor do I.’ Rick exhaled, hard, as though breathing on glass, then he looked at me, his blue eyes searching my face. ‘I love you Jen.’
‘Then you should be happy to let me have what I want.’
He flinched. ‘You know it’s not that simple.’
A silence fell in which we could hear the rumble of traffic from the City Road.
Rick clasped his hands. ‘I keep thinking about this quote I once read. I can’t remember who it’s by, but it’s about how love doesn’t consist in gazing at the other person, but in looking together in the same direction.’ He shrugged. ‘But we’re not doing that.’
I cradled my coffee mug with its pattern of red hearts. ‘We’ve been together for a year and a half,’ I said quietly. ‘We’ve lived together for nine months, and we’ve been happy.’ Until a few days ago, I reflected bleakly. I glanced at Nina’s wedding invitation on the kitchen mantelpiece and bitterly regretted having gently asked Rick when we too might take our relationship forward.
‘We have been happy,’ Rick agreed. ‘That’s what makes it so hard.’
Another silence enveloped us. I could hear the hum of the fridge. ‘There is a fourth option,’ I said, ‘which is to go on as we were. So let’s just… forget marriage.’
Rick looked at me as though I were speaking in tongues. ‘This isn’t about marriage Jen.’
I glanced at my manuscript, the typed pages stacked up on the end of the table. Bringing Up Baby. From Newborn to 12 Months, the Definitive Infant-Care Guide.
‘So what are we going to do?’ Rick asked me again.
A page had fallen to the floor. ‘I don’t know.’ A wave of resentment coursed through me. ‘I only know that I was always honest with you.’ As I picked up the sheet, random sentences leapt out at me. ....great adventure of parenthood… bliss of holding your baby for the first time… what to expect, month by month.
‘You were honest,’ Rick agreed. ‘You told me right from the start that you didn’t want to have children and that this was something I had to know if we were to get involved.’
‘Yes,’ I said hotly, ‘and you said you didn’t mind, because you work with children every day. You added that as your brother has four kids, there was no pressure on you to have them. You told me that you’d never been bothered about it and that people can have a good life without children – which is true.’
‘I did feel like that Jenni. But I’ve changed.’
I felt my throat constrict. ‘Well I wish you hadn’t; because now we’ve got a problem.’
Rick pushed back his chair, then went and stood by the French windows. Through the panes the plants in our small walled garden looked dusty and dry. I’d been too distracted and upset to water them. ‘People do change,’ he said quietly. ‘They’re allowed to change. And it’s crept up on me over the past few months. I’ve wanted to talk to you about it but was afraid to, precisely for this reason, but now you’ve brought the issue into the open.’
I stared at him. ‘Why have you changed?’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t know - probably because I’m nearly forty now.’
I pulled a tissue out of my sleeve. ‘You were nearly forty when we met.’
‘Or maybe it’s seeing the kids at school develop and grow, and wishing that I could watch my own kids do that.’
‘That didn’t seem to worry you before.’
‘True. But now it does.’
I glanced at the manuscript. ‘I think it’s because I’ve been working on this baby care book.’ I felt my lips tighten. ‘I wish I’d never agreed to do it.’
‘The book has nothing to do with it Jen. I wanted to be with you so much that I convinced myself I didn’t want children. Then I began to believe that because we were in love we’d naturally want to have them. So, yes, I thought you’d change your mind.’
I clutched the tissue. ‘Which is what you’re hoping for now.’
Rick exhaled again. ‘I guess I am. Because then we’d still have each other, but with the chance of family life too. I’ll be applying for head teacher posts before long: I’d like to try for jobs outside London, if you were happy to move.’
‘I’d be happy to be wherever you were,’ I said truthfully.
‘Jen…’ Rick’s face was full of sudden yearning. ‘We could have a great life: we’d be able to afford a bigger place.’ He looked around him. ‘This flat’s so small.’
‘I don’t care,’ I said quietly. ‘I’d live in a bed-sit with you if I had to. But, yes, it would be wonderful to have more space - with a garden.’
Rick nodded. ‘I’ve been thinking about that garden a lot. I see a lawn, with children running around on it, laughing. But then they fade, like ghosts, because I know you don’t want any.’ Rick sat down again, then reached for my hands. ‘Jen, I’d like to share my life with you, but we have to want the same things. And the question of whether or not we have children isn’t one that we can compromise on; and if we can’t agree about it-‘
‘All right.’ I withdrew my hands. ‘Let’s imagine that I do change my mind. What if we then find that I can’t have kids?’
Rick sighed. ‘At least I’d know that we’d tried. Or maybe, I don’t know… we could try IVF.’
‘A bank-breaking emotional rollercoaster with no guarantees. The other day Honor interviewed a woman who’s spent forty thousand pounds on it and still isn’t pregnant.’
‘Well, we might be luckier. Or we could adopt.’
‘That’s supposed to be fraught. In any case this is all academic because I won’t be changing my mind; and if you really do love me, you’ll accept that. Can’t we just go on as we were?’ I added desperately.
Rick blinked. ‘I don’t see how we can.’
My throat ached with a suppressed sob. ‘Why not? Because now you’ve decided that you would like kids, you’d want to go right out there, as soon as possible, and find some woman to have them with? Is that it? Should I start knitting a matinee jacket for the baby right now?’
Rick flinched. ‘Don’t be silly Jen. It’s because we’d become less and less happy together;I’d come to resent you and you’d be upset with me, and we’d break up anyway.’ He shook his head. ‘What I don’t understand is why you won’t at least explore why it is that you feel-‘
‘No,’ I interjected. ‘I won’t.’
‘Because I’m not prepared to bare my soul to some stranger!’ I blinked. ‘In any case there’s nothing to explore. Yes, lots of women want children, but there are lots who don’t, and I’m one of them. So seeing a counsellor won’t make any difference. You’re making the condescending assumption that I don’t know my own mind!’
‘No.’ Rick sighed. ‘I’m just trying to work out why you feel as you do. Because you like children. You go out of your way to be with them.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘It is - you come in every week and read to the reception kids.’
‘I… do it for you.’
‘Jen…’ Rick looked bewildered. ‘That’s how we met.’
Another silence fell. I could hear a magpie chattering in a nearby garden. ‘Well, it’s hardly a big deal, helping out at the local primary, especially as my flat was practically next door. And liking children doesn’t mean I want to have them myself. I don’t.’
‘Yet you’ve said that if I’d been divorced, with children, you’d happily have had those kids in your life.’
‘But you won’t have a child of your own.’
‘I wish I knew why not.’ Rick turned up his palms. ‘If you told me that it was because you felt that having children would wreck your career, or your lifestyle - or your body - I could at least understand that and try to accept it. But to say that you won’t have children because you’d be too scared…’
I put my hand on the table, tracing the grain with my fingertips. ‘I would be,’ I said quietly.
I looked at him. ‘I’ve told you; I’d be scared that something would go wrong, or that I’d make a terrible mistake – that I’d drop the baby, or forget to feed it or give it enough to drink.’
‘They don’t let you forget, Jen; that’s why they cry.’ He nodded at the manuscript. ‘And you’ve just written a book about babies. Hasn’t that made you feel you could cope?’
‘It’s given me knowledge of how to care for them,’ I conceded. ‘But it hasn’t taken away my fear that something bad would happen.’ Panic swept through me. ‘Like… cot death, God forbid, or meningitis; or that I’d turn my back for a few seconds – that’s all it would take - and the child would fall down the stairs, or run into the road, or that there’d be some awful misadventure that I could never, ever, get over.’ Sudden tears stung my eyes. ‘Parenthood’s a white-knuckle ride, and I don’t want to get on.’
Rick gave a bewildered shrug. ‘Most people probably feel the same way, but they control their fears: you let them govern your life. You’re normally so level headed, but with this I think you’re being-’
‘Don’t tell me - irrational?’
He stared at me. ‘Yes.’
‘It’s not irrational to avoid anxiety and stress.’
‘It is irrational to presume that things will go terribly wrong – especially as you’ve no reason to think you wouldn’t be a good, careful parent.’ Rick shrugged. ‘What’s your real fear Jenni? That you wouldn’t love the child?’
I shook my head. ‘On the contrary; I know that I would - which is precisely why I don’t want to have one.’
Rick groaned. ‘But you know, Jen, this isn’t just about whether or not we have a family.’
My spirits sank again. ‘What do you mean?’
Rick gave a frustrated sigh. ‘We get on so well, Jen. We like each other, don’t we?’ I nodded. ‘We respect each other. We communicate well - we’re attracted to each other.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed quietly. ‘We are.’
‘But you’re not open with me. If I ever ask you about your childhood you deflect my questions, or change the subject. And you won’t talk about your mother – you’re virtually estranged.’
I felt the muscles around my mouth tighten. ‘I’ve explained why.’
Rick shook his head. ‘You haven’t - at least not in any way that I can understand. You just said that she neglected you.’
‘No. She looked after me. But she was distant and cold.’
‘That is neglect.’ Rick chewed his lip. ‘So… was she always like that?’
‘No.’ I saw my mother playing with me, reading to me. Holding my hand... ‘But as I grew older, it got worse; and it wasn’t as though I had a father to make up for it.’
‘Maybe that’s why she was so remote – though you’d think what happened might have brought her closer to you.’
‘Well… it didn’t.’
‘That doesn’t mean you’d be like that with your own child.’
‘How do you know?’ I demanded bleakly. ‘I might be worse.’
Rick stared at me. ‘I wish that you’d at least talk to someone, who might be able to help you overcome your fears.’
I laughed. ‘With a wave of their magic, psychotherapeutic wand? No. In any case, there’s nothing to resolve.’ I clasped my hands. ‘I don’t want to have children. I like talking to them, and reading to them and playing with them and yes, I can see that having a child must in many ways be wonderful. But against that I set the never-ending, heart-wrenching anxiety of parenthood. I intend to protect myself from that.’ Rick gave a weary shrug, stood up then walked over to the patio doors and unbolted them. He went out and sat on the wooden bench at the end of our small walled garden. After a moment he took a pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket, lit one, released a nebula of smoke, then sat with his hands on his knees, head bowed.
I pushed back my chair, gathered up the manuscript then went down the hall into my study. I put it beside the computer then sat staring at the darkened screen.
Three options… allowed to change… not open with me…
I heard an e-mail come in but ignored it as I tried to work out how Rick and I might resolve our problem. There was no way I’d have counselling; I didn’t need it, and in case it would be more likely to destroy us than help us. Automatically, I clicked the mouse and the screen flared into life.
I looked at the list of unread messages. The first three offered me laser lipo, cut-price hair extensions and fifty per cent off a pocket-sprung mattress. The fourth message was headed Ghostwriting Enquiry and had been automatically forwarded from my website. It was from Nina’s godfather, Vincent Tregear. Surprised that he should contact me, I opened it. It was a two line message, asking me to call him, but I was too upset to speak to him now.
Desperate to distract myself I opened the baby guide document and did a few final corrections. Then, curious about Vincent, I wiped my eyes, reached for the handset and dialled the number that he’d given.
After three rings the phone picked up, and I recognised Vincent’s voice.
He thanked me for getting back to him. ‘I know we hardly spoke at the wedding,’ he went on. ‘But I was very interested in what you were saying about writing memoirs. So I made a mental note of your website and last night I took a look at it and was very impressed. The reason I’ve got in touch is because I’m wondering whether you might be able to help my mother write her memoirs.’
‘Well, could you tell me a bit about her?’
‘Of course. She’s seventy nine,’ he began. ‘She’s in good health, and her memory’s fine. For years my brother and I have suggested that she write something about her life. She’s always been against the idea, but recently, to our surprise, she said that she would like to. But it won’t be easy as there are some parts of her life that she’s never talked about.’ There might have been broken attachments, I speculated, or marital difficulties. ‘Notably her experiences during the war.’
‘I see.’ My mind was already trying to find a possible story for Vincent’s mother. She would have been a child at the time. Perhaps she’d lived in London, was evacuated, and was treated badly. Perhaps she’d stayed, and seen terrible things.
‘She doesn’t have a computer,’ I heard Vincent say. ‘So I offered to help her get her reminiscences onto paper; but she said that she’d find it too awkward, sharing such difficult memories with her own child.’
‘That’s completely understandable. I know I’d find it hard myself.’
‘So for a while we left it there; then last week, out of the blue, my mother suggested that we find someone for her to talk to. I thought about commissioning a journalist, but then at the wedding I heard you talking about what you do. So… how exactly would it work?’
I explained that I spend time with the person, and record hours of interviews with them. ‘With their permission I also read their diaries and correspondence,’ I went on. ‘I look at their photos and mementoes – anything that will help me to prompt their memories.’
‘Then you transcribe it all,’ Vincent said.
‘Yes – except that it’s much more than a transcription. I’m trying to evoke that person, in their own voice. So I don’t simply ask them what happened to them, I ask them how they felt about it at the time; how they think their experiences changed them, what they’re proud of, or what they regret. It’s quite an intense exploration of who the person is and how they’ve lived – there’s a lot of soul-searching.’
‘How long would it take?’
‘About three months. But that time includes the four weeks needed for the printing and binding. So have a think,’ I added, still avidly wondering what his mother’s story might be.
‘I don’t need to think about it,’ Vincent responded. ‘I’m keen to go ahead. In fact I was wondering if you could start next week?’
‘It is, but we’d like to have it done in time for my mother’s eightieth in late January. It’s to be our present to her.’
‘I see. Well, I’d have to check my diary.’ I didn’t want to let on that there was precious little in it. ‘But before I do, could you tell me a bit more about her.’ I reached for a pad and pen then clamped the phone to my shoulder, glad to have this distraction. ‘Did your mother work?’
‘Yes – very hard,’ Vincent replied. ‘She’s farmed for most of her life.’ I scribbled farmer. ‘It’s not a big farm’, he explained, ‘just a hundred and twenty acres; but it’s been in my father’s family since the 1860s. He died ten years ago.’
Widowed I wrote. Farm. 150 yrs.
‘Mum still works hard,’ Vincent went on. ‘She runs the farm shop and grows most of what’s sold in it.’
‘And what sort of education did she have? Did she go to university?’
‘No. She married my father when she was nineteen.’
Married @ 19… Tregear. ‘And what’s her first name?’ Vincent told me. Clara. ‘That’s pretty.’
‘It’s spelled with a ‘K’.’
‘So… is your mother German?’
As I turned the C into a K, I imagined Klara growing up in Holland, under German occupation. Perhaps she’d known Anne Frank – or Audrey Hepburn – they’d have been about the same age. I saw Klara standing in a frozen field trying to dig up tulip bulbs to eat.
‘My mother grew up in the tropics,’ I heard Vincent say. ‘On Java. Her father was the manager of a rubber plantation.’
‘When the Pacific War started, after Pearl Harbour, my mother was interned with her mother and younger brother.’ Interned… I imagined bamboo fencing and barbed wire.
‘We know that internees suffered terrible privation, as well as cruelty, but she’s rarely talked about it, except to mention the odd incident in this camp or that.’
I wondered whether Klara’s brother had ever spoken about their experiences, if he’d been old enough to remember. I made a note to ask Klara this. And I’d have to do some research. I scribbled Dutch East Indies, then Japanese occupation.
I felt a surge of adrenaline as I glimpsed a new story. ‘Vincent, I would like to take on this commission.’
‘Really? I’d be delighted if you would.’
‘And in fact I could start next week.’ My pen had run out. I yanked open the drawer and rummaged in it for another one. ‘So if you give me your address I’ll send you my standard letter of engagement.’ I started writing his name. ‘Where do you live?’
‘In Gerrards Cross, near Beaconsfield.’
‘I know it. It’ll be easy to get there. It can’t take more than, what, half an hour by train, or I could borrow my boyfriend’s car - that’s Rick, he was there yesterday; he doesn’t use it much and so-’
‘Jenni, I must stop you,’ Vincent interjected. ‘My mother doesn’t live here.’
‘Oh.’ Why had I assumed that she did?
‘She lives with my brother, Henry: he runs the farm.’
‘Oh. And where is it?’
‘In Cornwall.’ My heart sank as I wrote it down. ‘At a place called Polvarth.’ My pen stopped. ‘It’s just a coastal hamlet,’ I heard him say, ‘but it’s beautiful, with patchwork fields going down to the sea, and there’s a wonderful beach. Jenni? Are you still there?’
I closed my eyes for a few seconds. ‘Vincent, have you contacted anyone else about this?’
‘No. As I say, I was going to try and find a journalist, perhaps someone from the Cornish Guardian, but then yesterday I heard you talking about your work and was impressed. I particularly liked the way you said that you love immersing yourself in other people’s memories.’
‘I do,’ I said quietly. It distracts me from my own.
‘And on your website you say that being a ‘ghost’ isn’t just about being a writer; it’s like being a midwife - you’re helping to deliver the story of someone’s life.’
‘But I also say that it’s a very intense, emotional process, and that it’s therefore important to choose the right person.’
‘I can’t help feeling that you are. I also think that my mother would like you. I must say, I’m a bit confused, because you said just now that you wanted to do it.’
‘I did say that... but I always advise prospective clients to, well, shop around. So that they have a choice,’ I went on, trying to keep the tension out of my voice. ‘I can recommend some other ghost writers.’
There was a pause. ‘Are you unsure about it because of the distance?’
‘Yes,’ I said, gratefully. ‘That’s the reason. It’s such a long way.’ I could hear Rick coming in from the garden.
‘We’d pay your travel expenses. And my mother would put you up-’
‘That’s kind,’ I interrupted, ‘but I never stay with the client - it’s one of my rules.’
‘Fair enough, but she has a holiday cottage just down the lane. It’s not that big, but it’s comfortable.’
‘I’m sure it’s lovely but-’
‘You’d be completely independent, then you could come up to the farm during the day. My mother’s a very pleasant person.’
‘I’m sure she is Vincent, but that’s not why…’ My voice trailed away.
‘You just want to think about it.’
‘I do. And I’d need to talk to Rick.’
‘Of course. I’m sorry, Jenni. I didn’t mean to push you. But if you could let me know, either way.’
I hung up, then sat staring at the computer screen again, seeing nothing. I lifted my eyes to the shelf above my desk. ‘Battling the Enemy Within – Regain the Confidence to be Your Self’. I’d bought that book a year before, but still hadn’t summoned the courage to read more than a few pages. Nor had I read the one beside it,‘Transcending Fear – How to Face Your Demons’.
I’d never faced mine. I’d buried them, in the sand.
I heard Rick’s footsteps, then there he was in the doorway. ‘Are you okay Jen?’ He smiled, trying to reassure me that things were fine, when we both knew that they weren’t. ‘I heard you talking,’ he went on. ‘You sounded agitated.’ I told him about Vincent’s call. ‘But that sounds interesting.’ He came in. I could smell the scent of his cigarette. ‘And it’s work.’ He lifted a pile of magazines off the armchair, put them on the floor then sat down. ‘Do you have much on at the moment?’
‘No. I have to get the baby guide to the publisher by Thursday, then there’s nothing.’
Rick stretched out his long, lean legs, crossing them at the ankles. ‘So why aren’t you sure about this job?’
I couldn’t tell him the truth. I’d wanted to, many times, but the dread of seeing shock and disappointment in his eyes had stopped me. ‘It’s so… far.’
He looked puzzled. ‘But you went up to Scotland to do a memoir last year. We e-mailed and Skyped didn’t we - it was fine.’ I nodded. ‘But if you did this one, how long would you have to go for?’
‘The usual.’ I put the top on my pen. ‘A week to ten days.’
‘Well…’ He shrugged. ‘Perhaps it’s come up now for a reason. It might be good for us to have some time apart.’
I felt a constriction in my throat. ‘So that we can get used to it you mean?’
‘No, so that we have some breathing space, to think about everything. It could… help.’ Rick didn’t look as though he believed that it would. He clasped his hands behind his head. ‘So where is Polvarth?’
‘It’s in south Cornwall, close to a fishing village called Trennick. It’s very small - just one long lane, that leads down to a beach. At the other end of it there’s a farm.’ The Tregear’s farm I now realised.
‘So you’ve been there before?’
I nodded. ‘There are a few holiday homes, built in the sixties.’ I pictured the one that we’d stayed in, ‘Penlee’. ‘There’s also a hotel.’ It had a big garden with a play area at the end of it with swings and a see-saw. ‘Just below the hotel is the beach. And on the cliff path behind the beach is a tea hut; or there was. Perhaps it’s gone now.’
‘You remember it very clearly,’ Rick remarked. ‘When were you last there? You’ve never mentioned the place to me.’
‘I… forgot about it. I was nine.’ ‘So you went there with your mother?’ I nodded. ‘And was it a happy holiday?’ I didn’t answer. ick exhaled, clearly frustrated by the conversation. ‘Obviously not. Then perhaps you shouldn’t go – if it’s going to upset you it won’t be worth it. But you’re thirty four, Jen. It’s your call.’ He stood up. ‘I think I’ll walk up to school: I’ve got a huge pile of marking to do and I might as well do it there.’ He gave me a tight little smile. ‘See you later, Jen.’
‘Yes… see you later.’
After Rick had left, I sat at my desk, head bowed, as the computer hibernated again and the daylight began to fade.
‘It’s my call,’ I murmured. I took the phone out of its cradle. ‘I don’t have to do it.’ I tapped in Vincent’s number. ‘I don’t want to do it.’ My finger hovered over the green button. ‘And I’m not going to do it.’ I pressed ‘call’.
The phone was picked up after three rings. ‘Hello?’
‘Vincent? It’s Jenni Clark here again.’
‘Hello Jenni. Thanks for phoning me back.’
‘Vincent…’ I steeled myself. ‘I’ve thought about it.’
‘I’ve also discussed it with Rick. And the thing is…’ My eyes strayed to the shelf. Transcending Fear. ‘The thing is…’
‘So… what have you decided?’
How to Face Your Demons.