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Authors: Marcia Willett

Summer on the River (7 page)

BOOK: Summer on the River
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Mikey groans, finishes his tea, licks his fingers. He wants to go into the town again, to watch the stalls being set up, the rowing gigs out on the river, to be part of all the excitement. He assesses his father; looking for familiar signs that might lead to depression or an outburst against something or somebody, but Dad looks OK, not too twitchy. Mikey gives an inward sigh of relief.

‘Can I go out?' he asks. He can hardly bear to sit still knowing all that is happening just beyond the door.

‘We'll go together,' Dad says, which is a bit disappointing; Mikey really liked being in the town by himself but he doesn't argue.

Dad goes into the kitchen to fetch his rucksack. These days he never goes anywhere without his rucksack and his bottle of water tucked in its front pocket. The rucksack and the bottle are new; since Mikey got back from school for the summer holidays. Dad says he has this problem with a dry mouth and throat and needs frequent little sips, but he'll never let Mikey touch the bottle.

‘Don't want you catching anything,' he says. ‘You can never tell with throats.'

Mikey can hear water running, so he's probably topping it up, and then Dad comes out and grins at him and it's such a relief that he's OK that Mikey feels a happiness that he's almost forgotten about. He feels guilty, too, because it seems terrible to be happy with Mum dead, but just this minute he can't help it.

‘Ready?' Dad asks, and Mikey nods and leads the way downstairs.

Evie sees them walking towards her as she makes her way home. Instinctively she hesitates, recognizing her watcher, and then stares curiously at the striking-looking boy beside him. He looks up at the thin fair man beside him and then turns away, laughing, and pointing at something out on the river. That little streak of memory she experienced with Claude shifts slightly and she is thrust back thirty years or more to a crowded study in a different town and Russell Dean laughing and gesticulating at something beyond the window.

Russ: how she loved Russ. He was one of the first of the ‘history men'; those forerunners of Schama and his like, striding across our television screens, talking on hilltops, expounding at gravesides, theorizing on cliffs. Russ had won hearts and minds. He was exciting, amusing, intelligent and he put sex into dull old history. The nation loved him.

He and Evie worked together at the university, sharing their passion for that particular period of English history: the Civil War. They'd talk for hours, laugh together, as Russ put forward ideas to encourage the great British public to love Cromwell, warts and all.

Half hidden behind a newly erected stall, Evie stares at the boy, seeing Russ in the shape of his brow and the set of his eyes. Then she looks at the man. There is another tug of memory, a twinge of guilt, reminding her of Russ's wife, suffering from MS, already confined to a wheelchair. Pat was a pretty, pale woman; slightly whiny, her suffering so nobly borne that it was rather like another person in the room. She adored the boy, her hand always reaching to smooth his head where he stood beside her chair; a small, watchful, wary boy of seven or eight. What was his name? James? Jake? Jason, that was it. She called him Jay and he'd nestle into her, his pale eyes – his mother's eyes – fixed mistrustfully on Evie.

Jason and his son are coming closer. Abruptly Evie turns and walks away, but the past goes with her. She remembers Russ's study, the piles and shelves of books, half-folded maps, the smell of his Gauloise cigarettes and the scent of his aftershave. Their shared passion drove the relationship forward. He loved Pat, made sure she was looked after, watched over Jason – but his vitality, his energy, was always seeking after something new and exciting. For a short while Evie fitted into that space. They snatched opportunities to be alone together, precious moments to make love in her small room, and now, as she walks quickly through the streets, she feels guilt that she allowed it to happen; that back then she didn't think much about Pat, confined and hedged about, but simply accepted everything Russ had to give – the love, the sharing, the passion – before they moved apart.

Thinking about it now, it seems that Pat hardly entered into that scholarly part of Russ's life. It was as if she had her own private, separate, inviolable existence – Russ's wife and the mother of his son – that was never discussed, certainly never to be questioned or threatened. It didn't occur to Evie that she might be a threat to Pat. In her late twenties, ten years Russ's junior, sharing ideas, research, Evie knew very well that she was just one in a line of young women that Russ attracted. She began to write novels in her spare time, he encouraged her, and, after her early success, she left the university. He pursued his television career but at some point it lost that first impact, was crowded out by the competition. Then, nearly ten years after their affair, she had the letter from him.

Evie stops to lean on the wall opposite the Merchant's House where she first met Tommy. It was Tommy who told her to have nothing to do with it. They were still in the early stages of their relationship and she'd told him about Russ. There were similarities between the two men: Tommy was nearly ten years older than she was; he had the same ability to inspire enthusiasm, to enter into the world of her imagination.

‘My darling girl,' he said, ‘you can't possibly commit to something like that. Five years' public school fees? It's madness. OK, so you've done well, but you've invested nearly all your money in your house and you've still got a mortgage, which you're relying on the sales of future books to pay. It's much too risky and he has no right to ask, no matter how much help he gave you with your research.' He paused. ‘
he help you that much?'

Evie considered the question. ‘It's impossible to answer that truthfully,' she said at last. ‘Who can actually define what has informed someone's work? We are all inspired by the great artists in our field; we read books, or listen to music, or look at great art. We absorb it, digest it, live with it. Who can accurately say what is directly attributable? Russ never gave me specific ideas or information but he inspired me with his love of his work. How can I evaluate that?'

‘It's your decision,' Tommy said gently, ‘but you asked me for my opinion and I'm telling you what I think. It's too risky and not fair on the boy. If you had to stop halfway through it would be a disaster.'

So she'd written back to Russ, explaining, saying how sorry she was, and a few weeks later she had another letter, beseeching her, telling her that Jason had set his heart on Winchester, that it would mean so much to Pat, who was now very ill, and then a stronger hint this time about how much Evie owed him for his help in her research.

In this letter she recognized another voice – Pat's? – and her reply this time was more forceful and after that there was silence. Evie stares across the roof-tops: no wonder Jason had been watching her with such dislike. Clearly he recognized her and he was remembering her refusal to help. Perhaps he blamed her for his missed opportunity, though it was possible that his parents had found the money from another source. Perhaps he guessed at her relationship with his father and was resentful on his mother's behalf. It certainly explained that sense of hostility.

Nevertheless, she would like to speak to the boy: Jason's son; Russ's grandson. She feels sad that her relationship with Russ was spoiled at the end; that she must have seemed so uncaring – selfish, even – in refusing to help. Looking back, she wonders how much she was influenced by Tommy; whether left to herself she might have agreed to pay out, though she knows in her heart that Tommy was right and the request was out of order. Still, she wonders how hurt Russ must have been and she feels an odd, foolish desire to reconnect with him, to make up in some way for that earlier decision.

The boy looked so much like his grandfather, his eager brightness contrasting with the inimical stare and cold, pale eyes of his father. Perhaps, if she hadn't run away, she could have mended a few fences. She wonders if they are here for regatta; if there is a wife somewhere. Dartmouth is a very small town whose life centres around the few streets just off the Embankment and around the Boat Float, especially during regatta. If they are staying it would be almost impossible to avoid them. Yet an irrational fear remains; it was an instinctive reaction to avoid Jason but she can't think why. What could he possibly do to harm her?


a table in Café Alf Resco, close to the door under the big awning, finishing her breakfast. She likes taking the occasional unscheduled break in the middle of the morning for one of Alf's breakfasts, but it's busy today. All the tables outside are crammed with holidaymakers and even inside there are very few spaces left. She's managed to get the only unoccupied table for two, with the black Lab, Otto, curled in under her feet.

A tall, dark-haired man turns in off the road, pauses at the door and glances round, and she feels a little shock of recognition. He looks at her and she sees that he is having the same reaction: he raises his eyebrows, smiling a little, and she smiles back at him. He makes a little gesture at the packed café and another at the empty chair at her table and she nods. He goes into the cavernous interior to order and presently reappears beside her.

‘Thanks,' he says, sitting down. He looks down at Otto and back at Jemima. ‘At the risk of sounding corny, I think I've seen you before. At Stokeley Farm Shop, wasn't it? I remember this fellow. You were with another woman and a little girl.'

She remembers now; she'd been with Miranda and Maisie. Maisie had been having one of her difficult moments, staring at this man sitting on the sofa, and Miranda had been cross with her. She remembers, too, that she liked the look of him.

He's watching her; his expression is friendly, alert. ‘I'm Ben Fortescue,' he says.

‘I remember seeing you,' Jemima says. ‘I'm Jemima Spencer. Do you live locally?'

‘Just up in Southtown. I moved down from London at Easter. It's been a family house for generations so I know the area very well. It's great to be actually living here rather than just coming for holidays.'

‘I know those houses,' she says. ‘I work for a company who lets out holiday cottages. We've got one in Southtown on our books. Very nice it is too. Is your house beautiful?'

He nods. ‘It is very beautiful. I've always coveted it but sadly it doesn't belong to my side of the family. Never mind. I can rent it for as long as I need to, so I can pretend.'

She smiles at him, liking him. ‘I know how you feel. I rented a flat once in Salcombe right on the harbour. Gosh, I loved it. Then I moved to Kingsbridge for a few years but I realized that I am unhappy unless I can see water so now I rent a tiny bit of a cottage at Torcross.'

‘Ah, so you can look at the sea?'

She shakes her head. ‘I couldn't afford the sea view. I look the other way, at Slapton Ley. My cottage is built on the back of one of those lovely big houses on the sea wall. But at least I don't have visitors walking up and down outside my windows all day and I'm safe from the high tides.'

He laughs. ‘And you haven't got far to walk to look at the sea.'

‘Not far. And the ley is wonderful.'

‘And the fellow here?' Ben jogs the Lab gently with his foot. ‘Otto, isn't it? He doesn't chase the waterfowl?'

The dog raises his head and looks up at him with an expression that is at once reproachful and expectant. ‘Just tell me what you want me to do,' he seems to say, ‘and I'll try to oblige.'

‘Certainly not. He's very well trained. He's a rescue dog. His elderly owner died and I took him on. She was a client, an absolute sweetie, and I always promised her I'd look after Otto if anything happened to her. His proper name is Othello.'

Ben leans down to smooth Otto's head; his hand is gentle, long-fingered. She wonders if he's married; attached.

Before she can speak, one of the waitresses calls out, ‘Ben?' and he raises his hand in acknowledgement. She brings his coffee to him and he nods his thanks as she puts it on the table and dashes away.

‘And the little girl?' he asks casually. ‘She seemed to think she knew me.'

‘Ah, Maisie.' Jemima pushes her plate aside, picks up her mug of coffee. ‘Well, poor little Maisie has a problem. Her father abandoned her and her mother just before she was born. Said he wasn't ready for the responsibility and upped and left them to it. Miranda's been a very protective mum, very “you and me against the world”, but recently Maisie's begun to ask serious questions about her father. She's started primary school and loves it, and Miranda decided that she should know the truth.'

Jemima hesitates, uncertain whether she should be telling this stranger these intimate details and then decides to go on. After all, it isn't a secret.

‘Poor Maisie,' Ben is saying. ‘And poor Miranda. That's a very difficult situation.'

‘Mmm. Maisie's taken it rather badly, behaving as if it must have been Miranda's fault that he went, and now she looks for him everywhere. It's driving poor Miranda round the bend.'

‘I can imagine.'

His ready sympathy warms her heart. She summons up her courage and asks casually: ‘Do you have children?'

He answers easily, with no embarrassment. ‘I have a daughter, Laura. She's twenty-two. She just got a languages degree and she's off backpacking with friends. Her mother and I are splitting up, which is why I've come back to Dartmouth. I'm a freelance photographer so I can work almost anywhere.'

His directness silences her for a moment. She is confused by her feelings, by her attraction to this man.

‘Well, I have no experience of marriage or children,' she says after a short pause, ‘apart from my half-sister's two, so I don't know how to help with Maisie at the moment.'

BOOK: Summer on the River
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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