Authors: Barbara Erskine
Tags: #Fiction, #Psychological
Joss Grant’s family tree
A beam of cold sunshine finds its way through a knot hole in the wood of the shutters and strays across the dusty boards. Laser like, it creeps from right to left until it reaches the flower lying in its path. One by one, in the spotlight, the petals fall open, their thin creamy whiteness already edged with brown.
In the silence the skirt skimming over the boards makes no sound; the footsteps from the past are quiet.
With no ear there to hear them the echoes in the house are silent.
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ad she really not wanted to know? Joss put her foot down and accelerated into a bend. Or had she been afraid of the truth?
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?’ Before she left home her husband Luke reached in through the open window and put his hand over hers as it rested on the wheel. On the seat beside her was the gazetteer and the file with the copy of her birth and adoption certificates and the note of the address. Belheddon Hall. She had glanced up at him and shaken her head. ‘I must do this alone, Luke. Just this first time.’
The gate, hidden behind the yews and laurels, had not been opened for a long while. The wood was damp and swollen and slimy with lichen. It caught on the untrimmed grass as she pushed it back and it hung open behind her as she stepped out onto an overgrown path which appeared to lead into an area of woodland. Pushing her hands down into her pockets she walked cautiously forward, feeling half guilty, half exhilarated as the wind whipped her hair into her eyes. The woods around her smelled of rotting leaves and beech mast, bitter and sharp with early autumn.
Somewhere near her a pheasant crashed out of the undergrowth with an explosion of alarm calls and she stopped, her heart thundering under her ribs, staring round. As the frightened bird flew low through the trees and out of sight the silence returned. Even the cheerful rustling of the leaves overhead died away as the wind dropped. She stared round, straining her ears for some kind of sound. Ahead, the path curved out of sight around a stand of holly trees, their glossy leaves almost black in the dull afternoon light, their berries shocking in their abundant redness.
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood
The line from the carol floated through her head. She gazed at the trees for a moment, strangely reluctant to walk any further, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling as she became aware suddenly that eyes were watching her from the thicket on her left. Holding her breath she turned her head.
For several seconds she and the fox stared at each other, then he was gone. He made no sound but the space he had filled beneath the old hawthorn bush was empty. She was so relieved she almost laughed out loud. Whatever thoughts had raced through her head at that moment they had not included a fox.
With a lighter heart she stepped forward, aware that the wind was once more blowing strongly in her face and two minutes later she rounded the corner near the holly bushes to find herself on the edge of an overgrown lawn. In front of her stood the house.
It was an old grey building with gabled roofs and mullioned windows, the plastered walls covered in ivy and wisteria and scarlet Virginia creeper. She stood quite still, staring. Belheddon Hall. Her birthplace.
Almost on tiptoe she crept forward. Internal shutters gave the windows which faced her a strangely blind aspect, but for a moment she had the strangest feeling that she was being watched from somewhere behind those shutters. She shivered and turned her attention firmly to the porticoed front door which looked up the long tree lined drive leading out of sight, presumably to the front gates. Where once there had been gravel there were now knee-high thistles and ragwort and wind-blown rose bay.
She sniffed. Emotions she didn’t know she had been harbouring seemed to be welling up inside her: loss, grief, loneliness, disappointment, even anger. Abruptly she turned her back on the house and gazed down the drive, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.
She spent a long time wandering round the overgrown gardens and lawns, exploring the lake with its perimeter of reeds and bulrushes and weeds, and the stableyard and coach houses which lay through the archway at the side of the house. Her shoulders hunched against the wind she tried the front door and the back, both locked and bolted as she had known they would be, and she stood at last on the terrace at the back of the house looking down towards the lake. It was a wonderful house; wild, deserted, locked
in its dreams of yesterday. With a sigh she turned and stared up at the blind windows. It had been her home if only for a few months, and presumably the scene of whatever unhappiness had made her mother give her away. It was in her blood and it had rejected her.
It was for Tom she was doing this she had reflected wryly as she drove through the network of quiet North Essex lanes. Tom. Her baby son. Until she had held him in her arms and gazed into that small, crumpled red face, so like his father’s, she had been content to leave her origins a mystery.
She had been happy and secure with her adoptive parents. She was special after all; a chosen child. Her day dreams about her real parents had been vague and stereotypical, her mother in turn princess, parlour maid, poet, painter, prostitute. The choices and permutations were endless; harmless fun. One day she would search for the truth but if she were honest she knew she had put off looking for fear that the truth might be dull. It was not until she had looked down at Tom and known what it was like to hold her own baby in her arms that she realised she had to find out not just who her own real mother was, but how and why she had been able to give away her daughter. Between one minute and the next vague curiosity had become burning obsession.
At first it was too easy. Her mother, it appeared from the records, was Laura Catherine Duncan, née Manners, her father Philip George Henry Duncan, deceased. He had died seven months before she was born. She was born at Belheddon Hall, in Essex on 21st June, 1964.
Alice and Joe, her adoptive parents, long prepared for this moment, had tried to persuade her to go to one of the agencies which tracks down families for adopted children but she had said no, this was something she had wanted to do for herself. Even if her mother no longer lived at Belheddon Hall she wanted to see it, to explore the village where she was born; to see if she could feel her roots.
On the map Belheddon featured as a small village on the coast of East Anglia on the border between Suffolk and Essex. Surprisingly remote, it looked north across the broad expanse of water where the Stour Estuary met the North Sea, some five miles from the small town of Manningtree.
She had hoped for something more romantic than Essex, the West Country perhaps, or Scotland, but her brief to herself had been strict. She was not going to prejudge anything or anyone. She was keeping an open mind.
Her mouth was dry with nerves as at last she drove into Belheddon and pulled up outside the single small shop, its window unaesthetically lined with yellowing cellophane paper. Belheddon Post Office and Stores. She had closed her eyes, as she put on the hand brake and turned off the engine, surprised to find that her hands were shaking.
On the cold pavement a scatter of dead leaves cartwheeled past the car. The sign above the door swung violently backwards and forwards in the wind as, climbing stiffly out, Joss glanced round. It had been a long journey. If she had pictured the whole of Essex as a suburban wasteland irrevocably merged into north-east London she couldn’t have been more wrong. The drive had taken more than two and a half hours from Kensington, where she and Luke lived, and for at least the last hour it had been through deep country.
Ahead of her the street was empty of both cars and people. Straight at this point, it ran between two lines of pretty cottages before curving away across the village green towards the estuary. It was only a small village – no more perhaps than a couple of dozen houses, a few thatched, two or three timber framed, the last spires of windswept hollyhocks standing sentinel in their gardens. There was no sign of a church.
Taking a deep breath she pushed open the door of the shop which was to her surprise a great deal more sophisticated than she had expected. To her left the window of the small post office was enclosed behind piles of postcards and stationery and racks of sweets; to her right she found herself facing an attractive and well stocked delicatessen counter. The woman serving behind it was small, stocky, perhaps some sixty years old, with wispy white hair and piercing grey eyes. Reaching with a plastic gloved hand into the display for a lump of green cheese she glanced up at Joss and smiled. ‘I won’t keep you a moment, my dear.’
The woman in front of Joss in the queue succumbed to her curiosity and turned round. Tall, with dark hair escaping from a knotted head scarf, and with a weather-beaten face which spoke of years living within reach of the cold east wind, she gave Joss a
friendly grin. ‘Sorry, I’ve been buying up the shop. Won’t be two ticks now.’
‘That’s all right.’ Joss smiled. ‘I actually came in to ask if you can direct me to Belheddon Hall.’
Both women looked surprised. ‘It’s up by the church.’ The woman in front of her had narrowed her eyes. ‘It’s all closed up, you know. There’s no one there.’
Joss bit her lip, trying to master her disappointment. ‘So the Duncans don’t live there any more?’
Both women shook their heads. ‘It’s been empty for years.’ The woman behind the counter shivered theatrically. ‘Spooky old place.’ Wrapping the cheese deftly in some cling film she slipped the parcel into a paper bag. She glanced up at her customer. ‘There you are, my dear. That will be four pounds ten pence altogether. My husband and I have only had the shop since ’89.’ She smiled back at Joss. ‘I never knew the people up at the Hall.’
The other woman shook her head. ‘Nor I. I believe old Mrs Duncan who used to live at the schoolhouse was a relation. But she died a couple of years back.’
Joss pushed her hands down into her pockets. Her sense of let down was acute. ‘Is there anyone who might know what happened to the family?’
The post mistress shook her head. ‘I always heard they kept themselves to themselves at the end. Mary Sutton, though. She would remember. She used to work up at the Hall. She sometimes acts a bit ga-ga, but I’m sure she could tell you something.’
‘Where could I find her?’
‘Apple Cottage. On the corner of the green. With the blue gate.’
The gate was stiff and warped. Joss pushed it open and made her way up the narrow path, dodging between overhanging thistles, downy with blown silk. There was no bell or knocker on the door so she rapped with her knuckles. Five minutes later she gave up. There was obviously no one at home.
Standing at the gate she stared round. Now that she had walked a little way out of the village street she could see the church tower partially concealed by trees on the far side of the green. And the Hall was somewhere beside it.
Leaving the car where it was she began to walk across the grass.
‘So, do you like our little church? It’s thirteenth century, you
know.’ The voice behind her made her jump as she leaned thoughtfully on the lych gate staring up the path which disappeared round the church.
Behind her a tall, thin man in a dog collar was propping his bicycle against the hedge. He saw her glance at it and shrugged. ‘My car’s in dock. Something wrong with the brakes. Anyway I enjoy cycling on these lovely autumn afternoons.’ He had seen the pensive woman as he turned out of New Barn Road. Coming to a stop he had watched her for several minutes, impressed by her stillness. As she turned now and smiled at him he saw that she was youngish – late twenties or early thirties perhaps – and attractive in a quirky sort of way. Her hair was dark and heavy, cut in a bob with a fringe across her eyes – eyes which were a vivid Siamese cat blue. He watched as his bicycle subsided into the nettles and gave a humorous shrug. ‘I was just coming to collect some books I left in the vestry. Would you like to see round before I lock up?’
She nodded. ‘I was actually looking for the Hall. But I’d love to see the church.’
‘You can reach the Hall through the gate over there, behind the yews.’ He led the way up the path. ‘It’s empty, alas. Has been for many years.’
‘Did you know the people who lived there?’ The intensity of the gaze she fixed on him disarmed him slightly.
‘I’m afraid not. It was empty when I came to the parish. It’s a shame. We need a family there.’
‘Is it for sale then?’ She was dismayed.
‘No. No, that’s the problem. It still belongs to the Duncan family. I believe Mrs Duncan lives in France now.’
Mrs Duncan. Laura Catherine. Her mother.
‘You don’t have her address, do you?’ Joss could hear her voice shaking slightly. ‘I’m a sort of relative. That’s why I came.’
‘I see.’ He gave her another quick glance as they reached the church. Taking out a key he unlocked the door in the porch and ushering her into the dim interior he reached for the light switches. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know where she is, but my predecessor might. He was in the parish for twenty-five years and I think he kept in touch with her when she left. I can give you his address at least.’
‘Thank you.’ Joss stared round. It was a beautiful small church,
plain, with a whitewashed interior which showed off the carved stone of the thirteenth-century windows and the arched doorways and the brasses and plaques with which it was lined. On the south side there was a side aisle where the oak pews gave way to rows of rush seated chairs. The church had been decorated for Harvest Festival and every window sill and shelf and pew end was piled with fruit and vegetables and flowers. ‘It’s lovely.’
‘Isn’t it.’ He surveyed it with fond pride. ‘I’m lucky to have such a charming church. I have three others of course with three other parishes, but none is as nice as this.’
‘Is my –’ Joss was looking round. My father, she had been going to say. ‘Is Philip Duncan buried here?’
‘Indeed he is. Out by the oak tree. You’ll see his grave if you walk through to the Hall.’
‘Is it all right if I go and look at the house? Is there a caretaker or something?’ Joss called after him as he disappeared to collect his books.
‘No. I’m sure it will be all right if you go and wander round. There’s no one to mind any more, sadly. The gardens used to be beautiful, but they’re a wilderness now.’ He reappeared from the shadows and closed the vestry door behind him. ‘Here, I’ve scribbled down Edgar Gower’s address. I don’t know his phone number off hand, I’m afraid. He lives near Aldeburgh.’ He pushed a piece of paper into her hand.