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Authors: Lucinda Riley

Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance

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BOOK: The Orchid House
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Everyone else finds the hothouses unbearably stuffy, with the strong sunlight pouring through the glass windows, which, added to the lack of natural breezes, raises the temperature far above that of a humid English day.

I love it, for I hate wearing lots of clothes to keep me warm. It feels like my natural habitat and Grandfather Bill doesn’t seem to notice the heat either.

Besides, it allows the beautiful smells of the flowers to permeate the air.

‘This is a
Dendrobium victoria regina
, sometimes listed as the
Blue Dendrobium
but, as you can see, it’s lilac,’ chuckles my grandfather. ‘A true blue orchid is yet to be discovered. This one grows on trees in South-East Asia. Can you imagine? Whole gardens in the air …’

And Grandfather Bill would get that ‘look’, as I call it, and even though I ask him to tell me more, he never does.

‘Dendrobia like to rest in the winter – I think of it as hibernating, I do – and not be fed and just misted with enough water to prevent them shrivelling.’

‘How did you learn what they like in the first place, Grandfather?’ I asked him once. ‘Did you go to Orchid School?’

He shook his head and chuckled. ‘No, Julia. I learnt a lot from a friend of mine who lived in the Far East and had grown up surrounded by them. And the rest by trial and error, watching them closely to see how they responded to what I tried. Nowadays, I know what I’m getting, because it says what the flowers are on the packaging, but when I was a lad I used to get crates sent from far away and we never knew till it flowered what sort we was growing.’ He sighed. ‘It was exciting in them days, it was, even though I lost more than I grew.’

I know that Grandfather Bill is famous in the orchid world for managing to grow something called hybrids. His are unusual and often well-known horticulturalists will come to see his latest bloom. He’s very modest, doesn’t like to talk about it; says his job is about growing flowers, not boasting about the flowers he grows. Grandmother Elsie doesn’t feel the same – I hear her saying sometimes how much money Bill has brought into Wharton Park, what with all the day-trippers coming to see the hothouses and buying the plants he has for sale, and that he should get a bigger slice of it.

I don’t listen when she says these things. I don’t want anything to disturb the peace of my special haven. When I’m away from here and feeling sad, I go back to it in my mind and find comfort.

Julia brought herself back to the grim reality of what had been and wasn’t any more. She realised she was shivering with cold and didn’t want to be here any longer. Turning on her heel, she walked swiftly out of the hothouse and hurried across the kitchen garden to her car. As she was climbing inside, she saw Kit emerge from one of the stables. He waved to her and walked over.

‘Hi, Julia. I presume you’ve been to view the sad demise of one of the former glories of Wharton Park?’ he enquired.

‘Don’t,’ Julia sighed. ‘I feel so depressed. The hothouses are completely empty – there’s nothing left.’ She shook her head in despair. ‘You don’t happen to know where all the orchids went, do you?’

‘No, I don’t. I only wish I did. My father was an absentee owner here for far too long. And Aunt Crawford, for some reason, seemed to shudder at the thought of them. You know that day you brought her the orchid? Well, when you left, she handed it straight back to me and told me to get it out of her sight.’ Kit raised his eyebrows. ‘Don’t ask me why. I haven’t a clue. You’ll be pleased to know I kept it in my bedroom and took it back home with me when I left. It bloomed for years afterwards.’

‘How strange,’ Julia mused, ‘and sad.’

‘Absolutely,’ Kit agreed. ‘And God knows what else has gone missing from the estate, along with all those orchids. The sooner I hand this place over now, the better. Anyway,’ Kit brightened, ‘want to wander over and see your grandparents’ old cottage? I’m heading there now.’

‘Why not?’ Julia agreed. They made their way across to the cottage, tucked away in its own small quarter-acre garden just behind the Quad. Julia could already hear the sound of crashing and banging emanating from within its walls.

‘I hope that you won’t feel this has been ruined too, but it really wasn’t fit for human habitation. And whilst I still have the last vestiges of the estate workers in my employ, I thought they might as well do something useful.’

‘What will happen to them once the new owner takes over?’ asked Julia.

‘They will be re-employed, most of them, and probably far more content working for a hands-on employer than they’ve been for the last twenty years. Shall we step inside? I’m warning you, it’s very different.’

As Julia did so, she expected to see a dark, narrow hallway and a flight of steep stairs straight ahead of her. Instead she found she was standing in a vast empty space.

‘I’m allergic to low ceilings,’ he apologised, indicating his height. ‘I am six foot three, after all. So I took them out.’

The ceilings were not the only things Kit had taken out. The whole interior layout, which had previously housed all necessities such as kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom, had gone. She looked up to what had once been the bedroom ceilings and in the apex saw four newly fitted skylights. The only surviving interior feature was the large inglenook fireplace, which she had warmed herself in front of as a child.

‘I … it’s certainly … changed,’ she managed.

‘The upstairs is yet to go in. I’ve used the loft space to raise the level of the ceilings, providing more height downstairs. And I’m converting the old lean-to next door into a kitchen and bathroom. I know it’s radical, but I think it will suit me when it’s finished.’

‘You’ve certainly brought it into the new millennium,’ Julia murmured. ‘It’s difficult to think this is the same cottage.’

He looked down at her. ‘You’re upset, aren’t you?’

‘Of course not.’

But they both knew she was.

‘Look, Julia, why don’t you come up with me to the house for a sandwich? I feel I owe it to you, having desecrated your heritage.’

‘Hardly
my
heritage,’ she said. ‘But yes, I –’

‘Hi, my darling. Sorry I’m late.’

An attractive, auburn-haired woman appeared behind them. She kissed Kit warmly on the cheek and smiled at Julia.

‘Julia, this is Annie. She’s been helping me design my cottage and drawing up plans for turning the rest of the Quad into rentable homes – whilst she’s in waiting for her own project to come to fruition.’ Kit indicated Annie’s swollen stomach and threw an arm round her shoulder. ‘Not long now, is it?’ he said affectionately.

‘No, only four weeks to go, thank God.’ Annie’s clear green eyes twinkled at Julia. She spoke with a hint of an American accent. ‘I’ll be glad now when it’s hatched. You have any?’ she asked.

Julia’s eyes filled with involuntary tears and she stood silently, saying nothing. How could she answer?

‘Julia’s a very well-known concert pianist.’ Kit came to the rescue, understanding instantly. ‘We met at Wharton Park years ago and I was one of the first people she ever performed for. Isn’t that right, Julia?’ His eyes were full of empathy.

The respite had given Julia a chance to recover. She managed a nod and cleared her throat. ‘Yes. I’ve got to get off home. Nice to meet you, Annie, and … good luck.’

‘And you, Julia.’

‘Yes. Bye, Kit. I’ll see you soon.’ She turned tail and almost ran to her car before he could stop her.

8

The following Saturday, the weather-watchers were predicting snow. Julia decided to ignore the warnings – she wanted a day out of the cottage – and set off just after lunch towards Southwold and her grandmother’s bungalow.

She turned on the radio to break the silence and instantly recognised the haunting notes of the middle section of Rachmaninov’s Concerto No. 2. Julia immediately switched it off. There were some things that, even after her epiphany of the past few days, were still unbearable. Annie’s innocent pleasantry had torn her to her core. She’d cried for two hours on returning home. And that reaction was the very reason she’d hidden away for so long; being alone was a better alternative than facing a world full of sights, smells and people who, however well-meaning, were bound to say or do something to remind her of her tragedy.

Up until now, she’d known she couldn’t cope – that comments such as Annie’s yesterday would break her. But facing the pain was the next step on the road to recovery. Her emotions would take time to settle, and she’d slowly learn to deal with the visual and aural outside world. And the memories they brought. Like everything, it was a process. And she could not expect her rehabilitation to happen overnight.

As Julia neared the outskirts of Southwold, she reassured herself that the very fact she was here, sixty miles away from the sanctuary of her cottage, was testament to her radical improvement of the past few days. And Julia knew that seeing her grandmother would not cause her pain. Instead, she would be hurtling backward over the past few years of her life to a time that held no memories other than comforting ones. It was ‘safe’ territory and she was genuinely looking forward to seeing Elsie again.

Julia consulted the directions she had scribbled down. She followed them and found herself turning into a tree-lined cul-de-sac, and then into the drive of an immaculate bungalow.

She picked up her bag, which contained the Changi diary, and walked to the front door to ring the bell. The bell played a tinny, electronic tune and within seconds her grandmother was at the door, throwing her arms open to welcome her.

‘Julia!’

She was enveloped in the fulsome breast, which smelt of Bluegrass perfume and talc.

‘Let me look at you.’ Elsie took Julia by the shoulders and stepped back, clasping her hands together with pleasure. ‘My! You’ve turned into a beauty,’ she exclaimed. ‘You’re so like your mother was at your age. Now come in, my love, come in.’

Julia followed Elsie inside. The bungalow was tiny, but everything was neat as a pin, fresh and bright. Elsie led her into a small sitting room, furnished with a pink Dralon three-piece suite, crammed around a gas fire.

‘Now then, let’s take your coat, and you sit and warm yourself by the fire whilst I go and make us a nice hot drink. Coffee or tea?’

‘A cup of tea would be lovely thanks, Granny,’ answered Julia.

‘Righty-ho then, and I baked you some of those scones you used to like as well.’ Elsie eyed her. ‘You look as though you could do with some of Granny’s feeding up.’

Julia smiled. ‘You’re right. I probably could.’

Elsie went into the next-door kitchen and switched on the kettle. Julia sat back in her chair and succumbed happily to the familiar cocoon of security her grandmother had always provided for her. ‘So,’ said Elsie, returning with a laden tray and placing it on the small coffee table, ‘how has my famous granddaughter been?’

‘I’m okay, Granny. And it’s really lovely to see you. I’m sorry I haven’t visited before. I haven’t been out much lately.’

‘You’ve been through a lot, my love, and I knew you’d turn up when you was ready.’ Elsie patted Julia’s hand in sympathy and understanding. ‘Now then, I’m putting plenty of sugar in your tea. You could double for your grandpa when he turned up back from the war; like a skeleton he was. There now –’ She passed Julia a cup, then began the task of thickly buttering some scones and adding jam. ‘It’s my special homemade damson. Do you remember how you used to love it? I managed to grow a damson tree in that tiny patch of fresh air they take for a garden round here –’ Elsie indicated the small lawned area visible through the window – ‘and it does lovely, it does.’

Julia looked at Elsie’s twinkling eyes. Whatever she had been expecting in terms of her grandmother ageing, it just hadn’t happened. Perhaps when someone was, in the eyes of the young, ‘old’ to begin with, the ageing process seemed much less obvious. Julia took a bite out of the scone and savoured the familiar taste.

Elsie watched her approvingly. ‘I haven’t lost my touch now, have I? I bet they’re the best scones you’ve tasted, for all your fine Frenchy food.’

Julia chuckled. ‘No, Granny, you haven’t lost your touch.’ She saw Elsie was frowning as she studied something on the top of her head.

‘I can tell you haven’t been eating, miss. Your hair’s lost all its shine.’ Elsie reached a hand across to Julia and picked up a lock of her hair, rubbing the ends between her fingers. ‘Dry as a bone. You need a good trim and a pot of conditioner on that. And some decent food inside you,’ she clucked. ‘It’s what I tell all my ladies; what you put in your mouth ends up on your head.’

Julia stared at Elsie in surprise. ‘Your “ladies”? Are you hairdressing now?’

‘Yes, I am,’ she confirmed gleefully. ‘Only at the old people’s home on a Thursday morning, and they’ve hardly got much hair left between them all,’ Elsie chuckled, ‘but I love it, I do. Finally got myself the career I always wanted!’

‘Have you still got all your wigs?’ Julia enquired.

‘No, I don’t need them no more, now I have the real thing.’ Elsie glanced at her. ‘You must have thought me odd, the way I used to spend hours fiddling with them, but they were better than nothing. It was all I ever wanted to do,’ she sighed, ‘and I used to be right good at it, I did. Her Ladyship used to have me style her hair and do the same for her guests who came to stay at Wharton Park. Ah well, funny how life turns out, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it is, Granny. And are you well in yourself?’

‘As you can see,’ Elsie surveyed her substantial waistline, ‘still enjoying my own cooking. Bit more of a struggle now though, as it’s only me to feed. Your great-aunt died at the beginning of last year, so it’s just me rattling around this place now.’

‘I was sorry to hear that, Granny.’ Julia finished her scone and took another one from the plate.

‘Well, at least she didn’t suffer. She went to bed one night and just didn’t wake up. That’s the way I’d choose for me too, when I go.’ Elsie was sanguine, as old people often were about death. ‘She left me the bungalow, seeing as though she didn’t have kids of her own. These modern buildings are so much better than those poky, damp cottages I used to live in. Always warm, with hot water for a bath whenever I want one, and a lavvy that flushes every time.’

BOOK: The Orchid House
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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