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Authors: Anthea Fraser

Presence of Mind

BOOK: Presence of Mind
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PRESENCE
OF MIND

Anthea Fraser

CHIVERS

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available

This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.

Published by arrangement with the Author

Epub ISBN 9781471311932

Copyright © 1978, 1994 by Anthea Fraser

The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work

All rights reserved

This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental

Jacket illustration © iStockphoto.com

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Prologue

There was a burning sensation behind his eyes and he gripped the steering wheel whitely in an attempt to still the trembling which threatened to disintegrate him. It just wasn't possible. Not now, after all that had happened.
Don't let her die!
He had no idea to whom he addressed this plea, but it was more command than supplication. Just don't let her die, that's all! And then, as an agonised, superstitious afterthought –
Please!

His brain shuddered away from the mere possibility. Appendicitis wasn't serious anyway, he told himself defiantly. It was just like having a tooth out these days. But apparently there were complications – peritonitis, a persistent temperature, and increasing lassitude. There had been no mistaking the unspoken fear in Mrs Cameron's quiet voice over the telephone.

‘It's a fine time for you to be ringing,' she'd said bitterly, and the rider ‘when it's too late' leapt over the wire between them, piercing his eardrum with a vicious jab.

‘I'll go at once – I must see her!' he had stammered, and she'd answered with weary hopelessness, ‘They won't let you.'

But they would, if he had to force his way to her bedside.

A lorry swooshed past with a warning blare of its horn and he realised he was weaving erratically about the road. Gritting his teeth, he fought the wheel to straighten the car again. This was the stretch of road along which he had taught her to drive. Another throbbing memory: there was no escaping them.

It had all been such a ghastly mistake. Somehow he had to make her understand that. Not only the mix-up over the picture, but allowing her to leave the way she did. It was only after she'd gone that he realised how much he loved her, and by that time pride and a niggling sense of shame had prevented him from contacting her. Impatiently he waited for the traffic lights to change. The first thing, of course, was to tell her about the prize. Then they'd have to decide the best way of explaining the mistake, that it wasn't his work at all. It would be embarrassing, but it would have to be done as soon as possible, before there was much publicity. The ridiculous thing was that he hadn't even seen the painting until that very morning. If he had, he'd have known straight away that it would have to win. It was the most wonderful painting he'd ever seen. He had never dreamt Ailsa could achieve something like that. The most ironical thing of all was that she'd done it for him, for his birthday, and made him promise not to look at it.

‘It's far and away the best thing I've done, Jamie,' she'd remarked once.

‘Then why don't you enter it for the competition?' he'd demanded truculently, glaring at the empty canvas in front of him.

‘You know quite well why! Firstly it's
your
picture, and secondly I submitted my entry weeks ago.'

His picture. That had been the root of the misunderstanding. They'd always called it that. ‘How's my picture coming along?' He could see her now in the studio they shared, head tilted critically on one side, her red-gold hair blazing like some exotic chrysanthemum above the pale stem of her neck. Oh God, why did he ever let her go?'

It had all been Anderson's fault. ‘We're getting concerned, laddie. The competition closes next week. It's not like you to leave it to the last minute.'

‘I tell you it's no good,' he'd answered furiously. ‘Nothing will come. Don't you think I've tried? For months now I've been starting on one canvas after another. Nothing will come.' The keen eyes had regarded him under bushy brows. ‘Then how about some of your older work? Hell's teeth, man, it's almost a foregone conclusion that you'd win the thing! You can't just throw it away! Let me come and have a root round. We're bound to come up with something.'

‘I've a lecture this evening, but you can look if you like,' he'd said carelessly, tossing him the key to the studio. If only he'd realised, then, what he was throwing away.

The hospital loomed up, grey and forbidding, on his right and he swung across the road without a signal, not even hearing the screech of tyres as the bus immediately behind swung desperately to avoid him. Robert Burns Ward, Mrs Cameron had said. Even that seemed an act of spiteful fate. With a spasm of pain he closed his mind to the memory of her soft singing. The stomach-sinking smell of the hospital, compounded of disinfectant and a recently finished meal, filled his nostrils as his eyes raked the direction board. First floor. He didn't wait for the lift but went up the stairs two at a time.

‘Miss Cameron?' he demanded of the first nurse he saw.

She turned her stiffly starched head. ‘No visitors, I'm afraid. Only parents. I'll tell her you called.'

‘But I have to see her!'

Something of his desperation communicated itself to the woman and she hesitated. ‘Would your name be Jamie?'

The name leapt at him over the intervening months. It seemed an eternity since he had heard it, had held her close and felt her calm, loving confidence flowing into him. He said past the obstruction in his throat, ‘That's what she calls me, yes.'

‘Aye. Well, she's been speaking of you. Two minutes, then. Her bed's in the far corner, behind yon screen.'

He scarcely paused to thank her. Two minutes! As if he could say all that had to be said in two minutes! He strode between the rows of high iron beds, each with its chart at the foot, his eyes fixed on the screen at the far corner, yet when he reached it he had to brace himself to go round it and as he did so all the fears he had been so frantically suppressing rushed over him again in an icy deluge. The limp figure on the bed bore little resemblance to the Ailsa he had known. The almost transparent skin stretched tightly over the prominences of nose and cheekbones making an unfamiliar mask of her small, pointed face. Some obscene contraption was rigged up beside the bed and from it a tube led into her bandaged arm, pitifully thin and childlike on the coverlet. And her hair, her vibrant red-gold hair, spread across the heaped pillows in a dull, lacklustre mat.

‘Jamie?' The voice was soft enough to have been in his own head, but it brought his attention swiftly back to her face, to the cavernous grey eyes which, now open, regarded him. With difficulty the white lips curved into a smile. ‘I knew fine you'd come.'

‘Ailsa!' He pulled a nearby chair close to the bed and reached for her free hand, fragile and birdlike inside his, trying desperately to transmit some of his own pulsing life-force into her frail spent body. ‘Listen, sweetheart, the competition results are out. Have you heard? It won, Ailsa! Your painting!'

A shadow crossed her face but she still smiled. ‘
Your
painting!' she corrected in a whisper.

He felt the blood suffuse his face. ‘You do understand that I didn't realise what would happen? If I'd only seen it beforehand –'

‘Hush, Jamie, I know.'

‘But that's why you left, isn't it? You said it didn't matter, but it did.' She moved her head slightly in a negative motion, her eyes straining to his face as though she knew it was the last time she would see it. Helplessly he sat holding her hand and his mind slid back again. The phone had been ringing when they got back to the flat that night, and for a moment he hadn't known what Anderson was talking about.

‘Laddie, it's fantastic! I should have known you were bluffing, letting us get steamed up when all the time you had this up your sleeve!'

‘Just a minute,' he'd broken in. ‘I don't understand. What's fantastic? There's nothing –'

‘
Eternal Spring,
that's what! Come on, boy, the game's over! You must know how good it is.'

‘
Eternal Spring?
' he'd repeated blankly. The name meant nothing to him, but at his side Ailsa's attention had been caught. He'd raised his eyebrows at her interrogatively.

‘Of course! It
is
your painting, isn't it?'

‘It's mine, but I didn't –'

‘Well then! No use prevaricating any more – I've already sent it in!'

He had replaced the receiver irritably and turned to Ailsa. ‘Old Anderson came snooping round here this evening, convinced I wasn't serious about not having anything. He seems to have landed on the birthday painting. We might as well let him have it; it'll keep him quiet and you weren't going to enter it yourself, were you?'

Until his memory played back the scene he hadn't realised how arrogant and hurtful the words must have sounded to her: his careless assumption that since obviously it stood no chance of winning the competition, its being entered under the wrong name didn't matter too much. No wonder that from that day on the gulf between them had widened.

‘How you must have hated me!' he said in a low voice. ‘It's a fantastic picture, haunting somehow. Don't worry, I'll get things straightened out right away and then you'll get all the credit you deserve.'

Her eyes, which had closed wearily during his silence, flickered open. ‘No, Jamie, no. What's the use?'

‘But of course I must! I can't possibly –'

‘Whisht, of course you can! What good would it be to me?' Appalled, he stared at her. ‘Ailsa, what do you mean? Don't talk like that!'

‘Keep it, Jamie. Promise – not to say anything. It was always for you anyway. I can't take back a present, can I?'

He pressed her hand fiercely against his cheek, struggling to find the right word to negate her hopelessness, and into the throbbing silence a voice said suddenly, ‘Daddy, where am I? What's happening?'

His head jerked up. Ailsa hadn't moved; her eyes were still closed. The voice must have come from the other side of the screen. Poor kid, he thought dispassionately, before his mind swung back to his own pain.

He was still miserably clutching her hand when a gentle touch on his shoulder spun him round to see the nurse behind him.

‘Not yet!' he pleaded, ‘Please!'

‘You've had longer than two minutes. Come along, now, you'll only tire her. She must rest.'

Reluctantly he stood up, releasing from his fingers the limp, flaccid hand. Awkwardly he bent and kissed her forehead. ‘I'll come again tomorrow,' he promised in a choked voice. It might have been an attempt at a smile or a mere muscular twitch which moved her lips, but she hadn't the strength to open her eyes again. Perhaps she knew that for her there would be no tomorrow.

In silence the nurse accompanied him as he stumbled back the interminable length of the ward. It crossed his mind that she was afraid he might fall. In any case he was grateful for her implied support. At the door he turned to her beseechingly.

‘There is – some hope, isn't there?'

Her eyes were full of compassion and gave the lie to her calm, professional reply. ‘There's always hope, laddie. There's always hope.'

CHAPTER ONE

I had never liked the painting, but I'm not sure at what point I actually became afraid of it.

It was this picture which, twenty years ago, had set Lance on the ladder to success, had in fact made his reputation overnight, and it had haunted us all the time we'd been together. It was reproduced on calendars, in glossy magazines, even on biscuit tins and chocolate boxes, and whenever Lance's name was mentioned – in television interviews or the learned art columns of the more erudite Sunday newspapers, it was always with the corollary ‘the artist who as a student created such a stir with his brilliant allegorical painting
Eternal Spring
'. And all the time the original hung in pride of place over the sitting-room mantelpiece, beautiful, mystical and somehow full of menace.

Part of my dislike was probably a frustrated jealousy because of the importance it obviously held for both Lance and Briony. Lance himself seemed to have a love-hate relationship with it. Once, he had even burst out uncharacteristically, ‘Good grief, you'd think I'd never painted anything else! Why can't they let it rest in peace and refer to some of the later works?' Often in the evenings I would notice his eyes on it and a look of brooding sadness on his face.

BOOK: Presence of Mind
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