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Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: The Orchid House
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‘It’s very cosy, certainly,’ said Julia kindly. ‘So, you don’t get lonely?’

‘Lord, no! I’m rushed off my feet. I’ve got my hairdressing, and there’s not a day goes by when I’m not to one of my social clubs or out visiting some of my friends. We was so isolated at Wharton, Julia, with just the other estate workers to choose friends from. Here, I’ve got a whole town full of OAPs!’

‘I’m glad to see you’re so happy, Granny,’ said Julia. ‘You obviously don’t miss your life at Wharton Park.’

Elsie’s face darkened. ‘Well now, that wouldn’t be the truth, my love, cos I miss your grandpa something rotten. But no, I don’t miss the life I had there. Remember, I went into service when I was fourteen at the Big House; up at five, bed by midnight if I was lucky and they didn’t have a dinner or no guests staying. I worked like that for over fifty years of my life.’ She shook her head. ‘No, Julia, I’ve enjoyed my retirement, make no mistake. Anyway, enough of me, now you know I’m well and happy. How are your dad and your sister?’

‘The same as ever,’ Julia answered. ‘Dad’s still working far too hard and just about to trek off to the other side of the world on a research project. Alicia’s got her big family to look after, so that keeps her busy too.’

‘I should bet it does, she sends me pictures sometimes. She’s always saying come over for a visit, but I don’t like to be a bother. And besides, I can’t drive and I don’t like them trains. Maybe one day, when they’ve got time, they’ll come and visit me here, like you have today.’

‘I promise I’ll try and come to see you more often from now on. Especially now I’m back in the country,’ Julia added.

‘You’re staying here, are you? Permanent, like?’

‘I don’t know,’ Julia sighed. ‘I’ve got some decisions to make, but up to now, I haven’t wanted to make them.’

‘No, my love.’ Elsie looked at her with sympathy. ‘I’m sure you haven’t. So, you told me you’d got something you wanted to ask me.’

‘Yes,’ Julia said. ‘I don’t know whether you’ve heard that the Wharton Park Estate is being sold?’

Elsie’s face remained impassive. ‘Yes, I had heard,’ she answered.

‘Kit Crawford, the heir, is keeping the Quad and moving into your old cottage.’

Elsie threw back her head and laughed, a deep rich sound that resonated throughout her body and made it shake. Finally she wiped her eyes. ‘Master Kit, or should I say, his Lordship, moving into our old gardener’s cottage?’ She shook her head. ‘Oh, Julia, you do make me laugh.’

‘It’s true,’ insisted Julia. ‘He’s had to sell up because the estate is in bad debt and needs a lot of money spent on it. Besides, it was a lovely cottage,’ she added defensively.

‘That’s as may be, but the thought, in my day, of Lord Crawford moving into our basic place makes me laugh, oh it does.’ Elsie found a hanky from her sleeve and blew her nose. ‘Sorry, my love,’ she said, ‘carry on with your story, do.’

‘Well, the thing is, that when the plumbers were putting in some new pipes, they had to pull up the floorboards.’ Julia dug into her bag and pulled out the diary. ‘And they found this.’

Elsie stared at it and immediately Julia could see she recognised it. ‘It’s a diary,’ she said, stating the obvious.

‘Yes,’ was all Elsie could manage.

‘Of being in Changi jail in Singapore during the war.’

‘I know what it’s about, Julia.’ Tears appeared spontaneously in Elsie’s eyes.

‘Oh, Granny, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. You don’t have to read it or anything. I just wanted you to confirm it was written by Grandfather Bill. He was there, wasn’t he? Out in the Far East during the war? I’ve been thinking that some of the things he used to say to me in the hothouses when I was younger probably meant he was. Although he didn’t ever tell me where or when,’ she added hurriedly, seeing Elsie’s face paling.

Finally Elsie nodded. ‘Yes, he was there,’ she said slowly.

‘In Changi?’

Elsie nodded.

‘So, this
is
his diary?’

There was a pause before Elsie asked, ‘Julia, have you read it?’

She shook her head. ‘No, I keep meaning to, but somehow …’ she sighed, ‘the truth is, I thought it might be painful and right now, selfishly, I’ve had enough pain of my own.’

‘I understand,’ Elsie nodded. She heaved herself up and walked slowly to the window, where fat flakes of snow were covering the grass on the small patch of garden outside. The sky was darkening already, even though it was only just past four. With her back to Julia, she said: ‘Weather’s coming in fast now. Will you stay tonight?’

‘I …’ Up to that moment, Julia had not thought of staying. She looked at the snow, thought of the drive home, her bleak cottage and her grandmother’s obvious discomfort. And nodded. ‘Yes, I will.’

Elsie turned round. ‘Good. Now, Julia, I’m going to go and prepare us a bite of supper. I’m best to think whilst I work. And I need to think,’ she added, almost to herself. ‘Why don’t you watch some telly whilst I do it?’ She indicated the remote control and left the room.

Forty-five minutes later, after Julia had watched some bland Saturday night talent competition and enjoyed it more than she felt she should, Elsie came back into the sitting room with a tray.

‘It’s almost six and I always treat myself to a Noilly Prat on a Saturday.’ She indicated her tumbler. ‘I’ve got some red wine that a friend brought round. Don’t know if it’s any good, but would you like a glass?’

‘Why not?’ said Julia, glad that Elsie had a little more colour in her cheeks.

‘Shepherd’s pie’s in the oven and we’re all set to eat it later,’ she nodded, passing Julia a glass and taking a swig of her own drink. ‘I’ve had a think too, whilst I was chopping, and I feel a little bit calmer now.’

‘I’m so sorry, Granny, I really didn’t want to upset you. I should have realised it was painful.’ Julia took a sip of her wine. ‘I’ve spent too long thinking about myself recently and I need to start remembering the feelings of others.’

Elsie reached across to Julia and patted her hand. ‘Course you’ve been thinking about yourself. You’ve had it tough, my love, and there’s an end to it. You haven’t upset me, really. Seeing
that
–’ she indicated the diary – ‘was just a bit of a shock, that’s all. I thought Bill had chucked it on to the fire. I told him to, said that one day someone was bound to find it and it would lead to no good …’ She stared into the distance.

Julia sat patiently, waiting for her grandmother to speak.

‘Well now …’ Elsie collected herself. ‘I suppose you’re wondering what the matter is, what I’m thinking. The truth is, Julia, that diary has been found and given to you. I could lie to you and, believe me, I’ve thought about it, but I don’t think that’s right. Any more, at least.’

‘Granny, please tell me. If it’s a secret, you know I can keep it. I always did when I was younger.’

Elsie smiled at this, then reached across and stroked Julia’s cheek. ‘I know you did, my love, and I know you wouldn’t tell. The problem is, it’s not quite as simple as that. It’s one of them secrets you see, family secrets, that if it were told, would upset more than a few people.’

This made Julia even more intrigued. ‘There’s hardly anybody left to upset,’ she said. ‘Just Dad, me and Alicia.’

‘Well,’ mused Elsie, ‘sometimes these secrets affect more than just one family, don’t they now? Anyways,’ she said, ‘I think the best job is to start the story at the beginning and see where it leads, don’t you?’

Julia nodded. ‘Granny, you do what you think is right. I’m happy to listen.’

Elsie nodded. ‘I’m warning you, it might take me some time to remember, but – well now, I suppose this story starts with me, when I was learning to be a lady’s maid in 1939, up at the Big House. Oh –’ Elsie clapped her hands together – ‘you wouldn’t have recognised Wharton Park, Julia. The whole place was so alive, buzzing with the Crawford family and their friends. They had house parties almost every weekend in the shooting season. And one weekend, some friends of theirs came up from London and I were put in charge of looking after their eighteen-year-old daughter, one Olivia Drew-Norris. She was my first “Lady”.’ Elsie’s eyes brightened with the memories. ‘Oh, Julia, I’ll never forget until my dying day, the moment I walked into that Magnolia bedroom and saw her for the first time …’

9

Wharton Park

January, 1939

Olivia Drew-Norris walked over to the window of the large bedroom she had just been ushered into and looked out of it. She gave a heavy sigh at the greyness of the scene that presented itself to her.

It was as if, since she had docked in England two months ago, someone had decided to wipe the bright, warm colours from her visual palette and substitute them with a blurry, sludgier version painted in brown and grey. The starkness of the view, with the mist already skimming the tops of the fields even though it was only just past three o’clock, made her feel physically cold and mentally depleted.

She shivered and walked away from the window.

Olivia knew her parents were both glad to be back in England. They could accept this horrid, damp island because its memory was stored in their brain as ‘home’. For Olivia, it was different. She had never set foot outside India since the day she had been born. And, having finally arrived here, she couldn’t understand how all the talk she had heard – at the Club or over dinner at her parents’ house in Poona – tended to lean nostalgically towards England. As far as she could tell, it had nothing to recommend it whatsoever. Everyone complained about the heat in India, but at least they didn’t have to retire for the night in six layers of undergarments and then lie freezing in sheets that smelt of damp, waiting for the circulation to return to their toes. Olivia had suffered from a permanent cold since she had stepped off the ship.

She craved the scents and the sounds of her birthland … ripe pomegranates, incense, the oil her Ayah had used on her long, black hair; the sweet noise of singing from the servants in the house, children laughing in the dusty streets of the town, the traders in the market shouting out their wares … it conjured a colourful, noisy picture in such contrast to this silent and bleak land.

And, after all the build-up, the excitement of coming ‘home’, Olivia had never felt more dejected or miserable in her entire life. The worst part was, she could have stayed behind when her parents left to return to England. If she had paid more attention to the advances of that ruddy-cheeked colonel, and allowed him to woo her, she could still be in Poona now. But he was so jolly old – at least forty-five – and she was eighteen.

Besides, she had survived the searingly hot nights, when sleep was rendered impossible, by reading a miasma of English novels by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. They had served to fire her belief that ‘true love’ would one day be found.

In the next few months, she was to do the Season in London, where she would be introduced to suitable young men. And from them, she fervently hoped, she would find her own Mr Darcy.

It was the only bright spark in a haze of bleakness. And, Olivia thought brutally, unlikely. The young British chaps she had met so far did not fill her with confidence for the future. Their pasty complexions, immaturity and apparent lack of interest in anything other than shooting pheasant had not endeared any of them to her. Perhaps it was because she had spent so much of her life to date amidst adults, unluckily being one of only a very few young ladies and gentlemen in Poona’s social circle. She had mostly grown up with her parents’ friends, attending dinners and parties, riding and playing tennis. And her education had been unusual too, although Olivia saw this as a bonus. Her parents had employed the tutorial services of Mr Christian, an ex-Cambridge graduate who had been wounded out of the army in the First World War, but had decided to settle in Poona. Mr Christian had taken philosophy as his degree at Trinity and, finding a willing young mind, had taken the opportunity to fill it with a breadth of knowledge Olivia would not have found in an all-girls’ English boarding school. He had also taught her how to play chess to a near-professional standard
and
cheat at bridge.

However, in the past few weeks Olivia had come to realise her cultural sophistication would be no help to her here in England. Her wardrobe, which had seemed modern in India, was hopelessly out of date. She had insisted her mother’s dressmaker take up her hems, allowing them to fall nearer her knee rather than her ankles, as all the young ladies she had seen recently in London were doing. And when she had taken a shopping trip to Derry and Toms with her mother, she had secretly purchased a bright red lipstick.

The shortening of her skirts and the lipstick were not because Olivia was particularly vain, but rather because she didn’t want to stand out from the crowd more than she already did.

And now here they were, in another freezing, damp mausoleum of a house for the weekend. Papa had apparently been at school with Lord Christopher Crawford, their host for the weekend. As usual, Papa would spend the days shooting and Mama, or
Mummy
, as she was learning to call her, would sit in the drawing room drinking tea and engaging her hostess in polite conversation. Olivia would sit by her, feeling like a spare part.

There was a light knock on her door.

‘Come,’ she said.

A sweet, freckled face containing a pair of sparkling brown eyes appeared around it. The girl was dressed in an old-fashioned maid’s outfit, which looked rather too big for her.

‘ ’Scuse me, m’um, my name’s Elsie and I’m to help you whilst you’re here. Can I unpack your suitcase for you?’

‘Of course.’

Elsie stepped over the threshold and hovered nervously. ‘ ’Scuse me, m’um, it’s a little dark in here. Can I put on some light? I can hardly see you over there.’ She giggled shyly.

‘Yes, please do,’ Olivia replied.

The girl scuttled over to the lamp by the bed and switched it on. ‘There we are,’ she said. ‘That’s better now, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’ Olivia stood up from the bed and turned to the girl. ‘It gets dark so early here.’ She felt the maid’s eyes boring into her. Finally she said, ‘Is there something wrong?’

BOOK: The Orchid House
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