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Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: The Orchid House
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‘Julia, honey! How wonderful to hear from you. At last,’ he added pointedly.

‘Where are you?’ she questioned.

‘In NY,’ he answered. ‘I had a client playing with the New York Symphony Orchestra at the Carnegie tonight. Jeeze, it was uninspired. Anyway, honey, let’s talk about you. I’ve a hundred unanswered emails currently sitting on my desk; requests for your presence from the usual suspects in Milan, Paris, London,
et al
. I’ve told them you’re taking a sabbatical but, Julia, baby, they won’t keep asking forever.’

‘I know, Olav,’ she replied apologetically.

‘These guys are working eighteen months to two years in advance. If we don’t accept a booking soon, it could be three years before you’re back on the platform. Any thoughts as to when you’ll be ready to give me a “yes”?’

Even though Julia was grateful that Olav had not taken the sympathy route and had got straight down to his greatest love – business – it did not give her a solution as to how to respond.

‘No. To be honest, I haven’t given it a lot of thought.’

‘Do you have email there, honey? I can send the requests through to you, you can peruse, and see if any of them appeal.’

‘No, I don’t. My laptop is still in my house in France.’

There was a pause on the line. ‘You still in Norfolk?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Well then, baby, I’ve gotta better idea. I’m in London next week. We can meet for lunch at Claridge’s, and I’ll give you the file myself.’

Julia could hear pages being turned at the other end of the line. Eventually, he asked: ‘How would next Thursday suit? I can also hand you over the bunch of cheques that have arrived here over the past seven months. As I said on the voicemail, it’s a substantial sum. I didn’t bank them with you, as I normally would. I wasn’t sure what you were doing with your old joint account.’

‘No.’ Julia swallowed. ‘Next Thursday will be fine.’

‘Great! It’ll be good to see you, honey. Now, as it’s four thirty in the morning here and I’m flying to Tokyo tomorrow, I’d better get some shut-eye. Let’s make it noon in the bar by the restaurant. See you then, baby. Can’t wait.’

The line went dead.

Julia sighed in relief that initial contact had been made. She knew she could always cancel next Thursday, but her newly hatched, still fragile shred of optimism had not allowed her to turn him down point blank. Besides, she had to be practical. She had been living on the money in her English account, on the rental cheques from her cottage that she had deposited there over the past eight years. Last time she’d looked, which had been over a month ago, there had only been a few hundred pounds left. She hadn’t been able to face calling the bank in France where she and Xavier had held their accounts and into which the majority of her earnings were poured. There would be forms to fill in to change the accounts into her sole name. And, so far, she had not been ready to accept that Xavier was gone.

She knew she must return to France to sort out her life. But making a call was one thing, physically confronting the facts was another.

Not wanting to cloud the progress she had made so far this morning – one step at a time – Julia decided to go for a walk. Just as she was pulling on her jacket, there was a knock on her door.

‘Hi, darling, it’s me, Dad,’ said a voice through the wood.

In surprise, Julia opened it.

‘Sorry to barge in,’ George said, as he stepped over the threshold. ‘Alicia said you were usually here. I can come back some other time if this isn’t convenient.’

Julia thought how incongruous her father looked in the tiny room; like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput. ‘No, it’s fine,’ she said, removing her jacket as he sat down. ‘Want some coffee?’

‘No thanks, I’ve just had some. I’ve been out on the marshes at Salthouse taking a cutting of an unusual plant that one of my PhD boys found there. So, I thought I’d drop in on the way home.’ George studied her. ‘I won’t ask how you are, I know from experience it’s irritating. But I will say that I think you look better than I’ve seen you in a while. Not quite so drawn. Alicia keeps telling me she’s worried you’re not eating. Are you?’

Julia grinned. ‘Dad, you can check my fridge if you want. I went food-shopping only yesterday.’

‘Excellent. You know, I … do understand. I’ve gone through similar myself, although at least I didn’t have to suffer the pain of losing one of my children as well as your mother. And Gabriel was such a sweet little thing. It must be unbearable for you, darling.’

‘It has been, yes.’ Julia’s voice caught in her throat.

‘All I can say, without sounding patronising, is that things do improve, but it takes time – not to “get over it” because of course you never really do, but to …’ George searched for the right word, ‘adjust.’

Julia studied him silently, knowing he had more to say.

‘And at some point, you do get over the “hump”,’ he continued, ‘when you wake up one morning and the dark isn’t as dark as it was, if you understand what I mean.’

‘Yes,’ Julia agreed. ‘I think … well, something happened yesterday, and today – this morning, anyway …’ She struggled to voice what she felt. ‘You’re right. The “dark” isn’t quite as dark as it was.’

They sat there silently for a while, comfortable in mutual understanding. Finally, Julia said, ‘Was there anything particular you came to see me about?’

‘Yes, actually, there was,’ replied George. ‘It’s nearly lunchtime. What say we get out of this godforsaken cottage and walk across the road to the White Horse for a glass of wine and some freshly caught fish?’

Julia overrode her immediate knee-jerk negative response. ‘That sounds a good idea, Dad.’

Ten minutes later, they were ensconced at a cosy table by the fire. George ordered two plates of fish and chips and carried the glasses of wine back from the bar.

‘Great pub this,’ he commented, ‘a real “local”, especially in the winter, without the tourists clogging it up.’ Impulsively, he stretched his hand across the table and squeezed her arm. ‘Julia, I’m so proud of you. I know now that you’re going to make it. Keep going, darling. Understand you’ll have good days and bad, but just keep going.’

‘I’ll try, Dad, I really will,’ she answered, a lump wedged uncomfortably in her throat.

‘Anyway,’ George cleared his own throat, ‘what I wanted to talk to you about was those orchid paintings you gave me. I’ve compared them to some of the other watercolours your mother did, and there is absolutely no doubt they were painted by her. More than likely when she was much younger.’

‘I’m so pleased I found them, Dad,’ said Julia. ‘It was obviously meant to be.’

‘Yes, but there’s something else interesting about those paintings, or at least, one of them.’ George took a sip of his wine. ‘I know that, as a child, your mother would spend hours in the hothouses with your grandfather, just as you did after her. To pass the time, she’d sit and paint the flowers. Now, I’ve identified three of the orchids, which are all commonly cultivated in England and could have been grown by your grandfather; all three of them are genus of
Cattleya.
William Cattley, a man whom one could call the “father” of British orchids, was the first horticulturist successfully to grow epiphytic orchids here in the early nineteenth century, and most of the orchids we see here are descended from them. But the fourth orchid your mother painted, well now, that’s another story altogether.’

‘Really?’ said Julia, as their lunch arrived.

‘Yes. If her painting is accurate, and having worked with her for fifteen years, I have to assume it is, then the orchid she has drawn is a
Dendrobium nigum.
’ George broke into the thick beer batter on his fish. ‘Now, either your mother copied the picture from a book, which is of course a possibility and to be honest the most likely scenario – or,’ he added between mouthfuls, ‘it was growing in her father’s hothouse at the time.’

Julia began to eat too. ‘So, if it was growing in the hothouse … ?’

‘Well, put it this way, the last specimen of
Dendrobium nigum
sold at auction for almost fifty thousand pounds. It’s an unbelievable bloom. Only a few were ever found around the hills of Chiang Mai in Thailand. It’s the closest thing to a black orchid there is, even though its true colour is deep magenta. Botanists have never been able to reproduce it out of its habitat, which makes it very valuable. I’d be amazed if this plant had found its way to the Wharton Park hothouses in the nineteen fifties.’

‘Didn’t Grandfather Bill have Mum type up all his notes and then weren’t they passed to you when he died?’ Julia asked. ‘Surely there might be something in there?’

‘That’s what I thought too,’ agreed George. ‘I’ve spent most of my time since Sunday scouring through them, but as far as I can see, there’s no mention of it.’ He placed his knife and fork together on the side of his empty plate. ‘Your grandfather had over two hundred different species of orchids growing in his hothouses. I haven’t found this one recorded yet, but I’m going to keep looking.’

‘Changing the subject for a moment,’ said Julia, ‘did Alicia mention the diary that Kit Crawford found under the floorboards in their old cottage?’

‘Yes, she did, briefly. Apparently, it’s an account of being a prisoner of war in Changi jail. If you’re going to ask me whether Bill was in Changi during the war, I’d have to tell you I’ve no idea,’ said George. ‘The only person who’d know would be Elsie, your grandmother. I had a Christmas card from her and she’s still going strong at eighty-seven. Why don’t you go and visit her?’

‘I’m going to, Dad,’ said Julia. ‘Alicia’s given me her number and I intend to give her a call.’

‘Good. So what else is new? Apart from perhaps thinking whether you really want to stay for much longer in that depressing cottage of yours.’

‘I know,’ Julia agreed. ‘But it’s only in the last couple of days I’ve actually realised how ghastly it is.’

‘And no room in it for a piano …’ added George softly.

‘I don’t want a piano,’ Julia said vehemently, ‘but if I’m going to be here for a while, then I might get Agnes to ship a few of my things over from France.’

‘That’s the spirit, darling. Right,’ George banged the table, ‘I must be off. I’ve a pile of emails to answer and a lecture to write before tomorrow morning.’

Julia waited for him at the entrance to the pub whilst he paid, and they walked companionably across the road and up the hill to the cottage.

‘Darling, this has been an unexpected pleasure.’ George enveloped Julia in his arms and hugged her. ‘Take care and please keep in touch.’

‘I will, promise.’

Her father nodded, then ambled off in the direction of his car.

7

The following morning, Julia called Elsie. The old lady was delighted to hear from her, making Julia feel further guilt that she hadn’t made the effort to get in touch, and she arranged to drive to Southwold for tea the following Saturday. After that, she dressed, threw on her coat and set off for the hothouses of Wharton Park, glad to have a positive destination rather than face a long day of solitude at the cottage.

The fact that she was finding the silence at home so much harder than she had up to now, she accepted as a good sign. But if she wasn’t to drive herself mad with empty days, it also meant that it was time to make some plans for the future.

She turned right into the entrance of Wharton Park, admiring the copper beeches that fringed the edges of the parkland on either side of the drive. And the old oak, under which, legend had it, Anne Boleyn had once kissed Henry VIII.

Five hundred yards later, she turned right again and drove down the bumpy road that would eventually take her to the Quad. Beyond that lay the kitchen garden, in which the hothouses nestled. Feeling a shadow of the excitement and anticipation she had experienced as a child, she realised it mattered hugely to her that they were still there.

She parked her car in the Quad and stepped out into the chilly air. She remembered this as a place of high activity; as well as the families who lived around it, the stables were also here. There had been horses clopping in and out, bales of hay constantly being transferred and dumped in the barns from the tractors, narrowly avoiding the workers’ children playing football in the centre of the Quad.

It had been a world within a world …

Which now stood silent and deserted.

Julia left the car and walked along the overgrown path towards the kitchen garden. The blue door was still there, albeit covered in ivy. With effort, she pushed it open and walked through.

The carefully cultivated long lines of carrots, peas, cabbages and parsnips were no more. In their place was a tangle of weeds and nettles, interspersed with the odd, mournful face of an overblown cabbage. Julia walked towards the small orchard that stood at the bottom of the kitchen garden, shielding the hothouses from view. The many apple, pear, and plum trees, some of them extremely old, were still there, their crooked branches stark and naked, windfalls from the previous autumn lying uncollected and turning to mulch beneath them.

Julia walked through the trees and saw the roofs of the hothouses peeping above the bushes that had spurted up unchecked around their sides. She stepped along the now barely distinguishable path towards the first door.

It was no longer there. Instead, it lay at her feet, a heap of rotting wood and broken glass. She picked her way through it and entered the hothouse. It was empty, bar the old trestle tables that used to line it, and the row of iron hooks hanging from the trusses above her head. The concrete floor was covered in moss, and weeds were encroaching underneath the frame and inside it.

Julia walked slowly to the end of the hothouse. And there, in the corner where it always had been, was the stool she used to sit on. And underneath it, its metal components heavily rusted, was Grandfather Bill’s old Bakelite radio.

She knelt down and picked it up. It was beyond repair, but she had to take it with her anyway. She cradled it to her breast like a baby and twiddled the knobs in a fruitless attempt to resuscitate it …

‘Orchids love music, Julia. Perhaps it replaces the noises of nature they hear in their native homelands,’ Grandfather Bill tells me as he shows me how to mist the delicate petals with a spray gun. ‘And warmth and moisture, to imitate the humidity they’re used to.’

BOOK: The Orchid House
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