Read The Orchid House Online

Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

The Orchid House (6 page)

BOOK: The Orchid House
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What was to stop her?

She looked down at the grey water, willing herself to take the final plunge into release, but …

She couldn’t.

She gazed up hopelessly at the wintery, white sun, then threw her head back and let out an enormous scream.


She sank to her knees on the melting frost. And she howled and beat her fists into the ground in fury and pain and anger.

Why them?! Why them?!
’ she repeated over and over until, through exhaustion, she had to stop, so she sobbed instead.

She lay flat, spread-eagled, her tears mingling with the wetness of the grass, crying with the full force of seven months of not doing so.

Finally, she ran out of tears and lay there; still, silent and empty. After a while she sat up, rose to her knees as if she was praying, and spoke to them.

‘I have to …
! I have to live without you, somehow …’ she whimpered. Her hands went out to the side, palms stretched upward to the sky. ‘Help me, please help me, help me …’ She sank back down, put her head in her hands, resting it on her knees.

All Julia could hear was the rhythmic lapping of the water surrounding her. She concentrated on it and found it calmed her. She felt the weak warmth of the sun on her back and was suffused with a sudden and unexpected sense of peace.

She had no idea how long it was before she stood up. Wet through from the thawed grass, her legs like jelly and both hands numb from the cold, she staggered back along the spit towards home.

She arrived at the cottage, shaking from the exertion of the long walk and the release of emotion. She was just turning the handle to open the front door when she heard someone calling her name.


She looked down the hill and saw Kit Crawford striding up the narrow path towards her from the High Street.

‘Hi there,’ he said as he reached her. ‘I came to see you, but you weren’t in. I put a note through your letter box.’

‘Oh,’ she said, feeling disorientated, and hardly ready to cope with speaking to the living.

Kit was staring at her. ‘You’re soaked. What on earth have you been doing?’ He looked up at the sky for an answer. ‘It hasn’t been raining, has it?’

‘No.’ Julia pushed open the front door, her boots treading on the folded piece of paper that Kit had pushed through the letter box. She leant down to pick it up.

‘I left my mobile number.’ He indicated the note. ‘But as I’ve caught you, do you think we can have a quick chat?’

Julia knew she was looking less than enthusiastic and her teeth were starting to chatter. ‘I think I need to get straight into a hot bath,’ she said, hoping this was enough to make him leave.

Not to be dissuaded, Kit followed her inside the cottage. ‘Yes. Those precious fingers of yours are virtually blue. We can’t afford to have Britain’s most famous young concert pianist getting frostbite, now can we?’ He shut the door behind him, then shivered involuntarily. ‘Blimey, it’s freezing in here too. Listen, why don’t you go upstairs and have a hot bath, whilst I make a nice fire and some coffee?’

Julia turned round and eyed him. ‘I might be some time. I need a good soak.’

‘I’m in no rush,’ Kit answered amiably. ‘Off you go.’

Julia lay in the bath, taking time to thaw out both her feet and her brain, wondering at the timing of Kit’s appearance. She wasn’t used to having visitors turning up unexpectedly on her doorstep, and she wasn’t sure she liked it.

Yet … out there alone, she had known she couldn’t stay in the place she’d been any longer, that she
to do what everyone told her she must, and try to move on.

She could have chosen to die.

She had chosen to

Pulling on her jeans and her old woollen cardigan, she walked back down the stairs. Kit was sitting on the sofa, a small package resting on his knee. The fire was burning merrily in a way she could never quite achieve, however hard she tried.

‘So, how did you find me?’ she asked Kit as she hovered by the fire.

‘My sister, Bella, of course,’ Kit explained. ‘She knows everyone. Or should I say, she makes it her business to know everyone, and if she doesn’t, then she’ll know someone who does. In this case, it was your sister, Alicia. I did try to call, but your mobile seems to be permanently switched off.’

Julia thought guiltily of the seventeen messages she hadn’t listened to last time she switched it on. ‘There’s very little signal here.’

‘No problem. Firstly, I wanted to apologise for the other day.’


Kit studied his hands. ‘I didn’t know about what had happened to you. As I said, I’ve been abroad for years. I only came back to England a few months ago.’

‘Who told you?’

‘Bella, of course. Apparently it was in all the newspapers here. So she’s gleaned her information from them. I’m sure most of it was inaccurate, as these things usually are.’

‘I … don’t know,’ Julia sighed. ‘As you can imagine, I didn’t read them.’

‘No, obviously you didn’t.’ Kit looked uncomfortable. ‘I’m sorry, Julia. It must have been … must
, terrible for you.’

‘Yes.’ For both their sakes, Julia swiftly changed the subject. ‘So, what was it you wanted to see me about?’

Kit’s face brightened. ‘I’ve found something that you and your family might be interested in.’


‘Yes. You remember I mentioned that I was renovating the cottages in the Quad?’

Julia nodded.

‘Well, it turns out my new home
your grandparents’ old house. The plumbers were taking out the floorboards and they found this.’ Kit indicated the package on his knee.

‘What is it?’

Julia watched Kit unwrap the package carefully to reveal a small, leather-bound book. He waved it at her. ‘It’s a diary, beginning in 1941. I flicked through it briefly and it’s an account of life as a prisoner of war in Changi jail.’

Julia’s brow furrowed. ‘That’s in Singapore, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ Kit replied. ‘A lot of British soldiers who were fighting in Malaya at the time ended up in there for a while as guests of the Japs. Do you know if your grandfather was a prisoner of war?’

‘Grandfather Bill talked a lot about the “East”, but mostly of the beautiful flowers that grew there,’ Julia smiled. ‘He never mentioned Changi.’

‘I don’t suppose he would talk of it to a young child, but it certainly seems a possibility this diary is his, given what you’ve just said,’ said Kit. ‘And I can’t imagine it being anyone else’s, seeing as your grandfather lived in the cottage for the whole of his life.’

‘May I?’ Julia reached out her hand and Kit gave her the diary. She opened the first page and saw that the leather had protected the thin paper from too much ageing, and the writing on it was quite legible. And it was a beautiful hand that had written these words, the writing elegant, scripted in black ink.

‘Do you recognise that as your grandfather’s writing?’ Kit asked.

‘To be honest, I can’t ever remember seeing anything he wrote. It was my mother who used to record his notes on the many different types of orchids he grew in the hothouses,’ said Julia. ‘Perhaps my father would know his writing. Or, of course, my grandmother, who’s in her eighties, but still hale and hearty, from what I’ve heard. The question is, if it
his,’ Julia pondered, ‘why on earth did he hide it?’

‘Having read a little about the experiences of POWs at the hands of the Japanese, they had a pretty grim time of it. Perhaps your grandfather hid it, not wanting to upset your grandmother. When your family has read it, maybe I could borrow it? A first-hand account of a piece of history is always fascinating.’

‘Yes, I suppose it is,’ said Julia, feeling guilty she knew so little of Grandfather Bill’s past.

Kit stood up. ‘And … I was going to ask you a favour.’ He wandered over to the shallow bookshelf that stood on one side of the fireplace and pulled out a book. ‘This, I believe, is mine.’

He was holding
The Children’s Own Wonder Book
, which Julia had bought for one pound at the Wharton Park sale.

‘It can hardly be yours! It’s dated 1926.’

‘Yup, amazing what plastic surgery can do these days.’ Kit grinned in return. ‘But, seriously, it’s actually
grandfather’s book. So would you call it a fair exchange for the diary?’

‘Of course.’

‘Thanks. Look, Julia,’ Kit seemed suddenly awkward, ‘I’m starving and I was wondering if maybe we could go and get –’ He was interrupted by his mobile. ‘Excuse me, I’d better take it.’ He put the phone to his ear. ‘Hello? Hi, Annie …’ He listened then shook his head. ‘I can’t hear you, the signal’s dreadful here. What? No good, can’t hear. I’ll leave now and see you there. Thanks, bye.’

‘Sorry, Julia, I’ve got to go.’ Kit stood and walked towards the door, then turned back to her. ‘Let me know what happens with the diary, won’t you?’

‘Of course I will, and thanks, Kit, for taking the time to bring this over.’

‘No trouble. By the way, I checked on the hothouses; they’re still standing, although God knows what kind of state they’re in, judging by the mess in the kitchen garden. Come and see them soon if you’d like to, before the new owner takes up residence. Bye, Julia.’ He gave her a weary smile and shut the door.


Late afternoon saw Julia in the most unlikely of locations – the supermarket in the nearby town of Holt. After Kit had left, she had wandered aimlessly around the cottage, tried to rest, then finally decided that she was hungry. And not just lightly peckish, but starving, for the first time in weeks. Sitting in the car park, she proceeded to munch her way through a packet of sandwiches, two sausage rolls and a chocolate bar, presuming her appetite had been rebooted by the fresh air and the long walk that morning. Before, she’d always had a very healthy attitude to food; a high metabolism and a busy work schedule had demanded it as fuel to function. She had always eaten what she liked and never put on an ounce of weight. She didn’t own a set of scales, but the way her jeans currently hung off her hips told her it would take many more packets of sandwiches to regain what she had lost.

Throwing the sandwich wrapper on to the passenger seat, Julia set off for home. However, when she reached the crossroads on the outskirts of Holt, she paused. Now that she seemed to have misplaced the map of exactly what she had been doing in it for the last seven months, the thought of going back to the cold, dark little cottage was unappealing. So, instead, she turned right and headed for Alicia’s cosy farmhouse.

‘Julia, what a lovely surprise!’ Alicia’s face lit up as Julia entered through the kitchen door. ‘Look who’s here, kids – Auntie Julia!’

‘I thought I’d just … drop in.’ Julia was suddenly uncomfortable.

Alicia was standing by the Aga, doling out supper into bowls for the children, who were sitting squabbling at the kitchen table.

‘And I’m really glad you did. Want some? It’s bean stew.’ Alicia dipped her fingers into one of the bowls and tested it. ‘Tastier than it sounds.’

‘No thanks. I’ve just eaten.’

Alicia raised an eyebrow as she took the bowls to the table. ‘Really?’

‘Yes!’ Julia quelled the familiar feeling of irritation. ‘I
just eaten actually. I’d love a cup of tea, though.’

‘Put the kettle on and make that two.’ Alicia sat down next to a complaining Fred and spoon-fed him.

‘Mummy, beans are

‘Fred, the faster you eat it, the sooner it’ll be gone.’ Alicia let him be and came to stand by the Aga with Julia. ‘You’ve got some colour in your cheeks. In fact, you look better today than I’ve seen you in ages.’

‘Thanks.’ Julia concentrated on pouring boiling water into the teapot, feeling Alicia’s eyes on her. ‘I went for a long walk this morning. It did me good,’ she acknowledged.

‘Looks like it did. James! Will you stop flicking your beans at Fred. I’ll make you take them back and eat every last one.’

Julia passed Alicia her cup of tea. ‘And … I had a visitor today.’

‘Oh, you mean Kit Crawford?’


‘I was meaning to tell you that Bella Harper had called for your number. Actually, she was quite chatty.’ Alicia went to the table to clear the bowls away and presented the children with a yogurt each. ‘I presume she’s worked out exactly who you are. I’ve been elevated in her estimation, due to the fact I have a famous sister.’ Alicia raised her eyebrows. ‘Anyway, enough of that silly woman. What did Kit want?’

‘He found something at Bill and Elsie’s old cottage and he wanted to give it to me.’ Julia sipped her tea.

‘Really? What?’

‘A diary, which was presumably written by Grandfather Bill. It’s an account of being a prisoner of war in Changi jail in Singapore. I’ll let you know more when I’ve read it.’

‘How fascinating,’ breathed Alicia. ‘How old was Grandfather Bill when he wrote it?’

‘Well, it was 1941, so he would have been in his early twenties. Did you know he was held captive there?’ Julia asked.

Alicia shook her head. ‘No, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t. The person to ask is Grandmother Elsie. She would know.’

‘Have you seen her recently?’

Alicia looked guilty. ‘No, I haven’t. I never quite seem to find the time to go and visit her, what with the kids … I should have made more of an effort.’

‘Is she still living in Southwold?’ asked Julia.

‘Her sister died a year or so ago, so she lives there alone now. Do you remember the way she was obsessed with doing our hair? Up, down, plaits, ponytails, curls …’ Alicia giggled. ‘And that strange collection of wigs she kept in the back room of the cottage. She used to spend hours styling them, like a child playing with her dolls. She always wanted to be a hairdresser, didn’t she?’

‘Yes, and she hated my hair because it was too heavy to curl, even when she put it in what she called “rags” overnight.’ Julia smiled fondly at the thought. ‘I will go and see her. I’d like to anyway.’

Alicia walked over to the dresser and opened one of the drawers. She pulled out an address book and flicked through it. ‘This is Elsie’s telephone number and her address. Do go, Julia,’ she urged. ‘What with you living in France and me up to my neck in kids, we haven’t exactly been model granddaughters, have we?’

BOOK: The Orchid House
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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