Authors: Lucinda Riley
Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance
Fred hopped up to George on one leg. ‘We bought you a really cool present, Grandpa. It’s a –’
‘Shut up, Fred. It’s a surprise,’ said Rose – the disdainful teenager – from the sofa.
Max came back in with the champagne uncorked and poured it into three glasses.
‘Well, cheers everybody.’ George lifted the glass of champagne to his lips. ‘Here’s to the next sixty-five.’ Taking a sip, he asked, ‘Is Julia coming?’
‘Yes, she said she would. She’s probably running a little late.’
‘How is she?’ he asked.
‘Not good.’ Alicia shook her head. ‘I took her out last weekend, to Wharton Park actually, which is where I got your birthday present. They were having a Sale of Contents. She seemed … well, maybe a little better, but that’s not saying much.’
‘Such a terrible thing,’ George sighed. ‘I feel so … helpless.’
‘We all do, Dad,’ said Alicia despairingly.
‘First, losing your mother when she was eleven, and now …’ George shrugged helplessly. ‘It seems so unfair.’
‘It’s dreadful,’ she replied, ‘and very difficult to know what to do or say. Julia took Mum’s death so hard then, as you know, Dad. It’s like she’s lost the three people in the world that have meant the most to her.’
‘Has she mentioned if she’s going to return to the South of France?’ asked George. ‘I would have thought she’d be better off in her own home, rather than sitting in that depressing cottage all day.’
‘No. Perhaps she can’t face the memories there. I know I’d struggle if this house was suddenly –’ Alicia bit her lip – ‘empty.’
‘Grandpa? Do you have a girlfriend?’ The mood was diffused by Kate, climbing on to his knee.
‘No, my darling,’ chuckled George softly, ‘I only ever had eyes for your granny.’
‘Well, I could be your girlfriend if you wanted me to,’ Kate offered generously. ‘You must be lonely, living in that big house in Norwich all by yourself.’
Alicia winced. Kate had an unerring habit of saying all the things that everybody else just thought.
‘I’m not lonely, darling.’ George ruffled her hair affectionately. ‘I’ve got Seed, my doggie, and all my plants to keep me company –’ he squeezed her – ‘but I promise you, if I’m ever in need of a girlfriend, I’ll give you a call.’
Alicia saw Julia’s car snaking slowly up the drive.
‘She’s here, Dad. I’ll go and greet her, see how she is.’
‘Right-ho, darling,’ George agreed, sensing Alicia’s concern.
Alicia went to the front door and opened it. As she stood waiting for Julia to climb out of the car, she mused on the fact that, even though it was over twenty years since their mother had died, George had never done what most men did and looked for a replacement for her mother. Alicia remembered the eagle-eyed divorcées circling her still young and attractive father, yet he had never shown the least bit of need or interest.
Perhaps, thinking back, there had been the occasional woman, but only to serve on a physical level. She doubted he had even bothered to look on an emotional one, believing and accepting that no one could replace his soulmate, his partner in crime and botany: her mother, Jasmine.
Perhaps having a passion like her father did had helped fill the hole.
But then, surely, that should be true of Julia too?
Julia emerged from the car, shrouded in a cardigan several sizes too big, and walked up the path towards her.
‘Hi, darling. Dad’s here already.’
‘I know. I’m sorry I’m late. I lost track of time,’ she answered defensively.
‘Never mind, come in.’ Alicia indicated the rectangular present under Julia’s right arm. ‘You managed to get the pictures framed, then?’
‘Julia!’ Max walked towards her as she entered the room. ‘Lovely to see you,’ he smiled, as he put his arms round his sister-in-law’s painfully thin shoulders. ‘Can I take that from you?’ he offered.
‘Hello, Dad. Happy birthday.’ She bent down to kiss him.
‘Darling, thank you so much for coming.’ George reached for Julia’s hand and squeezed it.
‘Right, now we’re all here, shall we open the pressies?’ suggested Alicia.
‘Can I open them for Grandpa?’ said a voice from under the coffee table.
‘I think Grandpa can manage,’ Max admonished his youngest son as he picked up the urn and gave it to George. ‘This is from all the Howards. Looks like one hell of a beer tankard to me,’ he chuckled, indicating the large handle-bulges on each side of the urn.
George started removing the wrapping paper, helped by a small pair of hands that had appeared, like magic, from under the coffee table.
‘It’s a very big pot, Grandpa,’ announced Fred as the urn was unveiled. ‘Do you like it?’
George smiled. ‘It’s wonderful. Thank you, Alicia, and thank you, kids.’ He looked up at his daughter. ‘Did you say you got this from Wharton Park?’
‘Yes.’ She looked at Julia. ‘Are you going to give Dad your present now?’
‘Of course.’ Julia indicated the package on the coffee table. ‘Why don’t you open it?’
Julia couldn’t help but look expectantly as her father opened the present. The framers she had taken the paintings to had done an excellent job, mounting them with a fawn-coloured border and advising Julia to use a simple black wooden frame around their edges.
‘Well, well, well …’ George’s voice tailed off as he looked at each one. Eventually he said, ‘These were from Wharton Park too?’
He sat silently, trying to work out something that was puzzling him. The whole family was watching him. Finally Alicia broke the silence. ‘Don’t you like them?’
George looked up at Julia, not Alicia. ‘Julia, I … love them, because you see …’ he smiled and surreptitiously wiped a tear away from his eye, ‘I’m positive that these were painted by your mother.’
The conversation over the lunch table was full of ideas as to how Jasmine’s paintings could have ended up at the Wharton Park Sale of Contents.
‘Are you absolutely sure they were Mummy’s paintings?’ asked Alicia.
‘Darling,’ George said as he tucked into the perfect roast beef Alicia had cooked, ‘I’m convinced of it. The first time I clapped eyes on your mother, she was sitting in a corner of your grandfather’s hothouse with her sketchbook and her tin of watercolours. And later, when we travelled together, and we’d find a species of interest, I’d take down the notes and she would paint the flowers. I’d recognise her style anywhere. When I get home I’ll study them again and compare them to some of your mother’s other paintings. But, Julia,’ he smiled warmly at his daughter across the table, ‘you really couldn’t have given me anything better.’
After coffee back in the drawing room, Julia stood up.
‘I’m off, Dad.’
George looked up. ‘So soon?’
Julia nodded. ‘Yes.’
George reached for her hand. ‘Come and visit me some day, will you? I’d love to see you and have a chat.’
‘Okay,’ agreed Julia, but they both knew that she wouldn’t.
‘Thank you so much for those paintings, darling. They really do mean the world to me,’ he added.
‘I think we’d better thank serendipity, because I’d no idea,’ said Julia. ‘Bye, kids, see you soon,’ she waved.
‘Bye, Auntie Julia,’ they chorused.
Alicia caught her hand just as she was walking out of the door. ‘Coffee next week?’ she offered.
‘I’ll give you a call. And thank you very much for lunch.’ Julia kissed her sister on the cheek. ‘Bye.’
Alicia shut the door behind her sister and sighed. A pair of arms snaked round her waist from behind and held her tight.
‘I know, Lissy. She’s still in a pretty bad way,’ sighed Max.
‘She is,’ Alicia agreed. ‘But she doesn’t help herself, sitting in that miserable cottage alone all day long. It’s been over seven months now.’
‘Well, you can’t force her,’ Max sighed. ‘At least she uttered a few words today. Anyway, Grandpa’s staying on for tea and I’m in charge of the washing-up. Go and put your feet up, darling, and talk to your father.’
Alicia went back into the drawing room and sat down, content to watch her father bond with her two sons over a jigsaw. Rose had snuck off upstairs to her bedroom and she could hear Kate in the kitchen helping Max. She stared into the fire, thinking about the newly discovered orchid paintings, and Julia.
When their mother had died, tragically young, of ovarian cancer, Alicia – being the eldest of the two and, even at fourteen, already a nurturer – had done her best to ‘mother’ her younger sibling. George was often away lecturing or specimen-collecting; it seemed to Alicia he spent as little time at home as he could. She understood it was her father’s way of dealing with the loss of his wife, and never complained about his absence.
After Jasmine’s death, Julia had withdrawn into herself. Alicia had seen the pain of loss written on her face. Yet, try as she might to help and comfort, from the start, Julia seemed to resent Alicia’s well-meaning protectiveness. And as she grew through the difficult, teenage years, she had been unwilling to open up to Alicia about school, friends or boyfriends, building a wall around her private thoughts and spending all her free time perfecting her technique on the piano.
Alicia had actually come to view the ‘set of teeth’, as she called the upright piano in the study, as her rival for Julia’s affections. And her sense of responsibility to take care of Julia – it was the last thing her mother had asked of her – overrode her own wants and needs. At eighteen, Alicia had won a place at Durham University to study psychology, but Julia was still at school. Even though there was a housekeeper to take care of their domestic needs and stay overnight when George was away, she didn’t feel she could leave Julia alone. She’d gone to university in Norwich instead and, subsequently, in the year Julia had won a place at the Royal College of Music and moved to London, she’d met Max.
Her unnatural, often lonely childhood had made Alicia dream of a husband, a large family and a comfortable home to put them in. Unlike her sister, who suffered from the same wanderlust as her father, Alicia craved security and love. Max proposed and they were married within six months. She was pregnant within the year with Rose and, since then, had concentrated on giving her children all the things she had never known during her own formative years.
If her horizons had been narrowed because of her past, Alicia accepted them. What she found harder to accept was her younger sister’s continued antipathy. As Julia’s career had taken off, and she’d become a celebrity in the classical music world, Alicia had rarely heard from her. Seven months ago, Julia had needed her again, and Alicia had been there for her immediately, to bring her home to Norfolk, to try and comfort her. Yet she still felt the same distance and undercurrent of tension between them.
Just as twenty years ago, Alicia simply did not know how to reach her sister.
‘Mummy, I’m baking fairy cakes for tea. Where’s the tray to put them on?’
Alicia looked up and saw Kate at the sitting-room door. She roused herself from her thoughts and stood up.
‘On my way, darling, on my way.’
When Julia awoke the following morning, she lay there, waiting for the dark thoughts to assail her mind as they always did – the feeling of hopelessness that insidiously consumed the first few positive seconds when she was too sleep-ridden to remember.
They didn’t arrive.
And so, rather than rolling over and clapping her hands to her ears, as if to uselessly block out the thoughts, she decided to get up instead.
She walked over to the bedroom window and pulled open the curtains.
The cottage – which was a basic, two-up, two-down – had been particularly popular with holidaymakers because of the magnificent view. Perched high on a grassy knoll, just a few seconds’ walk from Blakeney High Street, it had the convenience of being in the village, yet the peace and open aspect of its elevated position.
Today, the sun was shining its crisp January light on the frost-covered hillock. Below was Blakeney harbour, and beyond that the sea. She opened the latch on the small window, flung it wide and breathed deeply. Today, Julia thought, it was actually possible to believe that spring might come again.
She closed the window, shivering suddenly in her thin T-shirt, pulled on her cardigan and went downstairs to make some tea.
By lunchtime, Julia was aware that something
shifted. Try as she might to remember what she had been doing here in this cottage every day for the past few months, she could not. Time was dragging; she felt restless, bored even. She searched her mind fruitlessly for the path back to the comforting torpor, but it steadfastly refused to take her there.
Feeling claustrophobic, Julia realised she needed to get out of the house. She threw on a jacket, scarf and wellies, opened her front door and marched across the grass and down towards the sea.
The harbour was deserted. The small boats brought in safely to land during the winter sounded restless too, their rigging making a tinkling sound, as if to remind their owners of their usefulness to come. Julia left the harbour behind and continued walking along the long spit of land, at the far end of which seals basked on the sand, to the delight of the tourists who took boat rides out to see them.
The chill wind nipped at her face and she pulled the collar of her jacket up higher to protect herself. She kept going, relishing the fact that she was so completely alone, now with water on both sides of the diminishing strip of land – as if she was walking away from the world.
She stopped, then turned and made her way down one side of the spit towards the water lapping below her, just inches from her feet. It was deep here, deep and cold enough to drown in, especially with the strong outgoing current that would sweep her swiftly away from the shore. She looked from side to side, reassuring herself she was truly alone.
If she threw herself in, there would be no one to stop her …
… and the pain would be over.
At worst, she would go to sleep forever. At best, she would see them again.
Julia dangled one tentative boot out past the land’s edge.
She could do it now …