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Authors: Marcia Willett

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BOOK: Summer on the River
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She wonders if he is watching them, if he were in the least put out by Maisie's intent regard. Of course it's difficult for Miranda now that Maisie is convinced that her father will come back to find them. Jemima feels sorry for her friend and wonders how she can help her, apart from the occasional stints she puts in looking after Maisie when Miranda is working and her mother can't cope.

She and Maisie and Otto get on very well together and Jemima enjoys those sleepovers. The child brings another dimension to her life so that there's a different dynamic in her little cottage when Maisie is present.

Miranda sighs as if she is aware that Jemima's attention has been distracted.

‘And then there's Mum,' she says, ‘going on about the boys in Australia. Did I tell you she's suggesting that we go out for Christmas? It's rather a tempting thought, actually. It's just so expensive.'

Jemima nods sympathetically. She knows that they all miss Miranda's brothers, who both live with their families in Melbourne. They miss the regular contact, and especially now that both wives have had babies within the last few months.

‘It would be wonderful,' Jemima says encouragingly. ‘Fantastic for Maisie. Worth every penny, I should say. You might meet someone rather nice out there and it would give Maisie something else to think about.'

Miranda looks more cheerful, she sits up straighter, and Jemima breathes a silent sigh of relief. The awkward moment has passed. They collect their belongings, and Otto and Maisie, and make their way back to the car park. Jemima gives a last glance through the big glass doors but the tall dark man is no longer there.

Miranda follows behind Jemima, envious of her friend's placidity. Nothing seems to faze Jemima: she is so independent, so self-sufficient. She has no idea what it is like to know fear, to have the sole responsibility of a child. At the same time, Miranda knows, if she's honest, she only has herself to blame. She let herself get pregnant thinking it was the way to make Maisie's father commit after a long relationship that never seemed to be quite as secure as she longed for it to be. She needed to feel sure of him; to bind him to her. Well, that certainly backfired. She was left to manage alone, with all the pain and humiliation of rejection – and, in due course, with Maisie. No one will know how much she longs for security: for someone else to take the strain. Maisie is a darling but as she grows older she's beginning to push the boundaries, to challenge authority and argue about even the smallest things. She used to be so easy, so sweet and such a wonderful companion. Of course, she's angelic with Jemima which is irritating in one way but gratifying in another. At least it shows that Maisie does know how to behave.

Even now, she's swinging along on Jemima's hand, chattering and laughing whilst Jemima strolls at the child's pace, listening to her, Otto on his lead in her other hand. Onlookers might think that she was Maisie's mother, so comfortable do they look together. This thought might bring a bitter taste, send a tiny shaft of jealousy to the heart, yet it is such a relief to watch somebody else taking charge that Miranda simply feels grateful.

Maisie glances back and beams at her and Miranda's heart twists with a painful mix of love and anxiety.

‘Come on, Mummy,' Maisie cries. ‘We're going to take Otto for a walk along the ley.'

They climb into Jemima's car and drive away towards Torcross, and Miranda begins to gird herself up for the trip back to Torquay and the night shift at the hospital.


a bench on the Embankment in the sunshine watching the busy holiday scene. At little octagonal wooden kiosks, painted like beach huts, river trips are advertised; plastic pails containing bait for sale stand in a row outside the station café; people disembark from the Castle ferry, climbing the steep stone steps to the Embankment. Out on a mooring a young couple is making ready to go to sea in a small yacht. Loaded with provisions, they clamber from their little dinghy on to the deck and disappear below to stow things away.

The excitement and anticipation of regatta buzzes all around Claude: the flare and explosion of fireworks high above the town, the air-shattering roar of the Red Arrows slicing up the river; races and competitions; rowing and sailing; the raucous shriek and thump of the fairground. There is nothing quite like regatta.

A thin fair man sits down at the other end of the bench and as Claude glances at him he is shocked by the expression of misery on the man's face. It is an expression of loss, of loneliness, and Claude guesses that this man has lost someone very dear to him and he knows exactly how that feels. It is a few years now since Jilly died but the pain still strikes fresh; nothing ever quite fills the emptiness.

Even as he glances at the thin fair man Claude sees his face change, as if he is willing down his grief so as to smile at a boy standing nearby at the edge of the Embankment where children lie peering over the edge into the water, their fishing lines hanging down weighted with bait, waiting for crabs to bite. The boy – Claude guesses that he is about twelve – smiles back, clearly enjoying the contest, looking as if he might like to join in whilst conscious that he's rather too old for such games. Parents are at hand lest the younger ones become too excited and in danger of falling in or getting their fingers nipped. Seagulls sometimes make opportunistic forays on the exposed bait lying beside the young fishermen, and a very small boy screams with terror as a herring-gull swoops in and snatches at the piece of out-of-date bacon. As the great bird carries its trophy away it is immediately mobbed by a group of gulls who drive it down towards the dazzling water where they fight and quarrel noisily as they snatch for the prize.

Claude watches sympathetically as the little fellow sobs, shocked by the noise of the shrieks from vicious yellow beaks and the violence of the beating of powerful white wings; his father, almost as scared as his child by the sudden attack, puts an arm around him.

‘I didn't think they'd dare to come in so close,' he says, bewildered, to sympathetic onlookers. He glances around anxiously, probably expecting to see the child's mother rushing up to see what the trouble is all about; telling him off for not exercising more care.

Claude experiences a twinge of fellow feeling: he often gets into trouble with his daughter for allowing the children too much freedom.

The older boy comes across to the bench, looking shocked but excited, too.

‘Did you see that, Dad?' he asks the thin fair man, sitting down beside him. ‘That was really scary.'

His father puts an arm around the boy's shoulders. ‘Remember that, Mikey, next time you have an ice cream,' he says, ‘or you could be sharing it with one of those brutes.'

‘Are you OK, Dad?' the boy asks, rather as if it is he who is the adult; as if he is used to checking up on his father.

‘Yeah, yeah. Sure. Just one of those moments, you know.'

The boy, Mikey, nods. Yes, he knows.

Claude is struck by a sense of their private suffering: he feels that he is eavesdropping on them. He stands up and walks away from the scene, around the Boat Float, where small boats lie at their moorings along the wall, into the town. He tries not to dwell on how much it has changed since he was a young sub-lieutenant up at the College and instead concentrates on the preparations for regatta: marquees being erected around the bandstand in Royal Avenue Gardens, burger stalls, the fair, traffic notices. He turns into Anzac Street and passes beneath the churchyard wall, with its overhanging canopy of feverfew and valerian, the east window of St Saviour's towering above him. It's getting on towards lunchtime but he's probably got time for a quick pint before he goes back to the boathouse. He crosses Fairfax Place, passes the cars queuing for the lower ferry, heads for the Dartmouth Arms and disappears into the bar.

When Claude arrives back at the boathouse Evie is waiting for him. She has a purposeful look, as if she has taken a decision, and she is holding a glass of wine.

‘Have you had a drink?' she asks, indicating the glass.

‘Had a pint,' he answers. ‘Not for me, thanks. What's up?'

‘There's something I want to tell you,' she says, and makes a little gesture behind her.

On the big oak table are some small framed sketches and he bends to look at them. They are almost cartoons: an elephant with a howdah full of astonished-looking dignitaries; a blimpish-looking colonel; an Indian rajah. In each of these is a small dog: a Cairn terrier, whisking round a corner, sitting up to beg, nipping someone's ankle. The drawings are full of character and charm, and down in the right-hand corner are the initials DF.

‘I recognize these,' Claude says. ‘They used to hang in one of the bedrooms in the Merchant's House.'

‘I want to tell you about them,' Evie says, sitting down. ‘It's a way of clearing my mind. It's quite a story. I'm not going to tell it to you the way TDF pieced it together but as his final conclusion. I've got to share it with somebody, Claude, and you are the only person I can totally trust. I'm telling you in complete confidence.'

He sits down, flattered but rather puzzled, and also slightly nervous.

‘I shan't say a word, of course.' He looks again at the cartoons. ‘Who was DF? He was a relation, wasn't he?'

Evie picks up the sketch of the elephant. She stares at it as if she is getting things organized in her mind and then begins.

‘The Fortescue estate was always entailed on the eldest son. TDF's great-great-grandfather had two sons, Thomas and David. The younger, David, married first and had a son called George. David was an artist, he worked for the
Illustrated London News
and he did these cartoons.'

She puts the sketch down again and clasps her hands together. Claude waits.

‘David was given an income from the estate and was generally looked after but it was nothing compared to his older brother, Thomas's, inheritance: the wine import business, property, investments. Thomas married later and there was only one child, Charles, TDF's grandfather. OK so far?'

Claude nods. ‘All clear.'

‘So we fast-forward through three generations. Cousins, second cousins, until we get to Charlie and Ben. Now just before he died, TDF found two very beautiful little etchings in Totnes market. He brought them back as a present for my birthday and, because he didn't have much time to get them framed, he decided to use two frames from the cartoons. They are all different and they aren't very valuable but there were two exactly the right size and colour for the etchings. When TDF took them apart he found that in the back of one of them was a piece of paper.'

Evie sits back and takes a breath.

‘A letter?' asks Claude.

She frowns and shakes her head. ‘Not as such. It was a piece of paper that looked as if it had been torn from a notebook. The family history relates that the cartoons were sent to TDF's grandfather, Charles, each birthday when he was a small boy from his uncle David. Charles had a Cairn terrier and there is a little sketch of the dog in each of the cartoons.'

She pushes one across the table.

‘David sent sketches to his own son, George, and to other members of his family when he was working abroad but only Charles's cartoons had the dog. It was like a signature, a code between them.'

Claude draws the cartoon towards him. There is the dog: eyes bright, ears cocked. In one sketch he is lifting his leg and a small puddle is forming. Claude gives an amused snort.

‘They are very charming.'

‘Yes. Delightful. Except that the implication is that David is writing to his son and not his nephew. He writes that it is very hard not to admit the truth and that he hadn't imagined how difficult it would be not to be able to acknowledge Charles as his son. TDF was intrigued. He checked all the cartoons and found several other pieces of paper. On one of them David writes that they are like letters in a bottle cast into the sea hoping that someone will find them and discover the truth; that he, not his brother, Thomas, was Charles's father and that some kind of restitution be made.'

‘But nobody had found them? Not before TDF?'

Evie shakes her head. ‘If the papers had been found they would almost certainly have been destroyed.'

Claude is puzzled. ‘But why? Surely there's no great harm even if it's true, is there? It was all a long time ago. So David, apparently, had an affair with his sister-in-law. It's not unknown. What does he mean by restitution?'

Evie leans forward. ‘Think about it, Claude. Apart from the scandal it would have caused at the time it means that, if it's true, then Charles shouldn't have inherited when his father died. He was illegitimate. The estate should have gone to Thomas's brother, David, if he were still alive, or to David's own son, George, who was older than Charles.'

‘Good God! You mean that technically … Bloody hell.'

‘The estate should have come down on David's side to George. Thomas had no other children. TDF checked back through the family records. David died first of some disease he picked up abroad. At that point his son, George, was the legitimate heir. But when Thomas died everything was left to Charles.'

‘But how serious is this stuff? I mean, can you really believe these letters? Maybe he was just a bitter younger brother.'

‘TDF believed them to be genuine. And he believed that it was true that Charles was David's son. Thomas was often abroad on business and there was a kind of family rumour that his wife was much too friendly with his younger brother. Later, one of the papers shows that David had begun to feel resentful that his elder son, George, would inherit nothing whilst Charles – who was technically illegitimate – would get the lot, but he was clearly anxious about making things difficult for his sister-in-law. He wrote about the love they had for each other.'

BOOK: Summer on the River
12.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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