Holton Park, Chapter Four

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 4

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN.

The funeral of Rachel Robinson was arranged for Saturday July 12, a full week after her death; the delay was mainly to accommodate the timetable of her grandson Joel, who was working for an oil company in Dubai and needed a few days to arrange a trip home. Amy’s husband Luke Bernard drove from Calgary to Meadowvale the day before the funeral. As for Amy and Beth, they spent the intervening time visiting with the relatives who were slowly gathering, taking their children to play with family members and friends, and helping their father and their aunt clean out their grandmother’s room at the special care home. Beth was also still working, so she left Claire with Amy and her children a few times when she went up to the hospital for her shifts.

The two sisters continued to skim through Joanna Rowley’s journals, looking for references to the unfolding story of her relationship with Will Robinson. By the time the day of the funeral arrived they had already reached the point where Will and Joanna were married, had been ostracized by their respective families, and were beginning to make plans to move to Canada. To get this far they had skipped a lot of the story, but each night in bed Beth had begun to read the journals slowly, word for word, savouring every little detail of the daily life Joanna recorded. Mindful of her father’s interest, Beth talked to him regularly about the things she had discovered in her reading, and she knew he was sharing the stories with other family members, especially his sister Ruth.

Three days after Rachel’s death, while Amy and Beth were having coffee with their parents, Don put his hand on Beth’s. “I had a phone call from Tom,” he said.

She looked at him nervously. “Oh yeah?”

“We talked for a long time. He told me the whole story, Bethie.”

She shook her head. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she whispered.

“No, no—you’ve got nothing to apologize for. I knew Tom and Grandma had been close, and he explained to me that she really wanted to protect us all from being hurt like she’d been hurt. I don’t understand her logic, but when Tom was done explaining it to me, I told him I thought it was an amazing thing that he’d honoured her wishes and kept the secret for eighteen years.”

“I know.”

“He told me an interesting story. He and Kelly and Emma went on a trip to England the summer Grandma died. He told me Kelly asked him about looking for Holton Park while they were there, and he told her he didn’t want to. Do you know why?”

“I think I can guess, but go on, anyway.”

“He told Kelly he was uncomfortable that he knew more about our family history than Ruth and I did, and he was already finding that a hard load to carry. He said he didn’t want to make it even harder, so he’d prefer not to learn any more than he already knew.”

“Tom’s a good man, Dad.”

“I know; he’s been my friend for over twenty-five years.”

“I was worried this might cause a rift between you.”

He shook his head. “I was upset at first, but he talked me out of it.”

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

***

One night after the three children had all gone to bed, Beth and Amy huddled around the laptop on the kitchen table while Beth introduced her sister to the website of Holton Park. The main page showed a front view of the three-storey grey stone manor house, with its tall, latticed windows and imposing Tudor chimneys. An aerial shot showed a large ornamental walled garden on one side of the manor, a little stream running at the far end of a large lawn space behind the house, and farm buildings nearby. Beside the walled garden they could see what looked like a stable block.

“So that’s where it all began!” Amy observed with a smile.

The website bore the title ‘Holton Park: A Stately Home for All Occasions’, and had obviously been designed to advertise the house to prospective users; it mentioned weddings, conferences, banquet halls, musical recordings, and filming. But one paragraph was of particular interest to Beth and Amy, and Beth read it aloud:

“Holton Park was built by Sir Philip Rowley between fifteen forty-two and fifteen fifty-eight, and the house has been in the Rowley family ever since. The current owner, Robert Rowley, is a direct descendant of Sir Philip, and lives in the family apartment at Holton Park. His son Edwin Rowley is the current manager of Holton Park Estates.”

“So the family’s still there,” said Amy.

“That’s what I told you.”

“You didn’t mention the son, though.”

Beth shrugged. “I didn’t think it was important, I guess.”

Amy was scrolling through the photo gallery. “Look at these rooms!” she exclaimed.

They browsed through a series of pictures of the Tudor-style great hall with tall windows, a fireplace, rich wood paneling and many paintings on the walls. There were also shots of a formal library, a drawing room with luxurious carpeting and antique furniture, and several ornate looking bedrooms, including one called ‘The Queen’s Room’ in which, it was claimed, Queen Elizabeth the First had once slept.

“Imagine moving from that to a homestead outside Meadowvale in nineteen twenty-nine,” said Beth in a hushed voice.

“The things we do for love,” Amy replied.

“I guess she must have really loved him to have been willing to part with all that.”

“I wonder what he parted with. Is there anything about Steeple Farm on the Net?”

“I haven’t looked.”

“Well, now’s a good time.”

Beth googled ‘Steeple Farm, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire,’ and the first reference that came up was ‘Steeple Farm Riding School and Stables, Bramthorpe.’ She followed the link and found a website describing a fairly new establishment, offering basic riding instruction as well as stabling for horses. The website included several photographs, including one of a white two-story Tudor-style farmhouse with black beams and latticed windows, with stables just visible behind.

Amy raised her eyebrows. “That’s bigger than I thought it would be—if it’s the same place, that is. Does it say anything about who the owner is?”

Beth searched the website for a moment and then read out loud:

“Steeple Farm Riding School and Stables is jointly owned and operated by Justin Berry and Alan Peterson. The farm has been in Justin’s family for over forty years, as his great-uncle bought it from the Holton Park estate in the early nineteen-sixties. It was converted into a riding school and stables in twenty-oh-four.”

“I wonder if his great-uncle was a Robinson?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“See if you can get it on Google Maps.”

Beth clicked on the ‘maps’ link on Google, and after a moment a map came up showing a location north of Stamford, on the western side of the village of Bramthorpe, just two miles south of the Holton Park estate.

“Well, now we know how to get there!” said Amy. “Are you going to go?”

Beth clicked the back button on her browser until she found the Holton Park webpage again. She followed a few links for a moment. “The house and grounds seem to be open to the public five days a week,” she said, “from May to September, from one to five in the afternoon. Admission to the house is by guided tour only. There are several contact email addresses, and a mailing address too.” She laughed. “The mailing address is just ‘Holton Park, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire,’ with the postal code!”

“I guess it’s big enough that the postal workers know where to find it!”

“I guess so.”

“Are you going to try to contact them?”

Beth hesitated. “I don’t know,” she replied.

***

Meadowvale Mennonite Church was full for Rachel’s funeral; along with immediate descendants, nieces and nephews and their children and grandchildren, there were many friends from the community and many members of the church Rachel had attended for most of her life. She had always been a lover of choral music, and the church choir sang a couple of pieces, one in English and one in German. Beth’s father read the eulogy, and Pastor Ron Bergen preached.

Rachel’s will had specified that she was to be buried at the Meadowvale Cemetery four miles south of town. All the members of her family of origin were buried at the cemetery at Spruce Creek, twelve miles north of Meadowvale, where the Mennonites had settled when they first arrived in the 1920s. However, Rachel’s husband Mike was buried at Meadowvale Cemetery, and she had stated her wish to be interred beside him.

Beth and Claire rode out to the cemetery with her parents. With the family gathered in a circle around the grave, Rachel was laid to rest beside her husband while the church choir sang another hymn in four-part harmony. The big prairie sky was a clear blue, the weather a warm twenty-four degrees, with just a light breeze rustling the leaves on the branches of the trees around the cemetery.

As the family members were dispersing and making their way slowly back to their cars, Beth wandered away to look for the place where her great-grandmother Joanna was buried; she had not visited the grave in many years, but she knew approximately where it was. After a few minutes’ searching she found it, a simple grey headstone marked ‘Joanna Elizabeth Robinson, May 25 1905 – June 2 1990.’ Someone had set fresh flowers on the grave, red and white carnations in a glass vase. Beside it was another grave with a similar headstone, marked ‘William Alfred Robinson, February 13 1904 – May 21 1975.’

“I thought you might be looking for these.”

Beth turned to see her father standing beside her, with Claire at his side in her best white dress, holding onto his hand. He had worn a dark grey suit and blue tie for the service, but for the interment he had added a straw hat to protect his bald head from the summer sun. She reached up and kissed him on the cheek; “Nice hat!” she said.

“Thanks.”

“Did you put the flowers on the grave?”

“Ruth and I did. By the way, are you going to Ruth’s place for coffee after the reception?”

“Probably. Are there going to be a few people there?”

“Most of the family are going, I think. But if you and Claire are tired out after the reception at the hall, that’s fine too.”

“I think we’ll be okay”. She held out her arms to Claire; “Want to come up?”

“Okay!” the little girl replied with a bright smile. Beth picked her up, kissed her on the cheek, and walked slowly back toward the cars with her father. “Anything new from the journals?” he asked.

“Not really. We’ve got to the point where they’re making plans to move to Canada.”

“Any information about how they were able to afford it?”

“No, but I wasn’t expecting any. Grandma read them all the way through, and she told me Joanna never mentioned it.”

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know. Grandma thought it had to be one of the Rowleys who gave them the money, but as far as I can tell, Joanna had absolutely no contact with them after her dad fired Will.”

“Some members of the family are quite interested in the journals.”

“Yeah, Auntie Ruth keeps asking about them—and Kathy.”

“Your Uncle Steve’s asked me a few questions. I think he wants to know if there’s any money in it!”

Beth laughed softly; “Not as far as I know!”

“That’s what I keep telling him.” Don was quiet for a moment, and then he added, “I think Steve and Jean have some questions for you, if you’re willing to answer them.”

“Today?”

“Steve’s going back to Alberta tomorrow.”

“It was nice he could make the time.”

“You’re singing from my songbook, Bethie.”

“I know.” She shrugged; “I’ll do whatever you think is best, Dad.”

“People have been getting little snippets of information. It might not hurt to give everyone an opportunity to get on the same page.”

“Is there going to be trouble?”

“I don’t think so. If there is, you let me handle it, okay?”

“Okay—thanks.”

As they approached the cars Beth saw the Janzen family standing together. Her Aunt Ruth was the second oldest of the Robinson siblings. Beth had seen photographs of Ruth when she was in her late teens, and her basic look had never changed: long dark hair pulled back into a thick braid, with jeans and a tee-shirt in summer and a fisherman’s sweater in winter. She had put on a dark summer dress for the funeral, but Beth smiled to see the open sandals on her feet. She was standing beside her son Joel, two years Beth’s junior, who had arrived home from Dubai the day before. Beth walked up to him with a grin; “Hey, you!” she said.

“Hey yourself! Holy crap, is that Claire? It can’t possibly be you, little girl; aren’t you still a baby?”

“I’m not a baby—I’m turning four years old next month!”

“I bet you don’t remember the date of your birthday, though!”

“Oh yes I do – August Ninth!”

“Wow—I’m impressed! Last question: do you remember who I am?”

“You’re Joel, silly! You’re my mom’s cousin!”

“‘Joel silly’—yeah, that sounds about right!”

They all laughed, and Joel leaned over to kiss Beth on the cheek. “Sorry, Bethie,” he said in a voice that was suddenly serious; “I know you and Grandma…”

“Thanks. Are you staying long?”

“I’m afraid not—I’ve only got a couple of days and then I have to head back.”

Ruth’s husband John grinned at Beth. “I guess he’s an important man on the other side of the world!”

“Well, it’s good to see you anyway,” Beth said to Joel; “We miss you around here. Are you going to be at your mom and dad’s place after the reception?”

“I think so.”

“Great—let’s catch up then.”

***

John and Ruth lived in a large house on an acreage just south of Meadowvale. After the official reception at the community hall, many family members went back there for coffee, including Beth’s father and his siblings Ruth, Steve, and Jean, along with their spouses and children.

It was a hot afternoon, but John and Ruth’s back yard had several large poplar trees for shade. As the afternoon wore into the evening some people gravitated out there, and Beth found herself sitting in a circle under one of the trees, keeping one eye on Claire who was running around the yard with her cousin Chelsey and a couple of other children. Ruth was there with her three children Kathy, Joel, and Rhonda; she had changed into jeans and tee-shirt almost as soon as she got home from the reception. Amy and Luke were there too, and one-year old Nicholas was sound asleep on Amy’s lap.

After a while Don came out into the yard; he had removed his jacket and tie and put his straw hat back on. “Not a bad evening,” he said to no one in particular.

“Are you joining the back yarders,” asked Ruth, “or just taking a break from the lawyer and the oilman?”

“Well, the lawyer and the oilman and a few others in there are curious to hear more about Grandma’s journals—if you’re willing, Beth?”

Ruth gave him a cautious frown; “They’re not going to gang up on her, are they?”

“Not if I have anything to do with it.”

“I’m good, Dad,” said Beth. “Inside or out?”

“They appear to be sitting around the living room.”

Beth glanced at Claire and Chelsey, and Kathy Janzen said, “I’ll stay out here and watch them, Beth; you go ahead.”

***

In the spacious living room most people were drinking coffee, although Beth’s Uncle Steve was on his second beer, his collar undone, and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. He had worked in the oil patch as a heavy-duty mechanic for nearly thirty years. He had two children from his first marriage, Darren and Ryan, both in their late teens, who had not come back to the house for coffee. His second wife Deb was sitting across the room from him; her eight-year-old daughter Alicia was playing down in the basement. Jean, the youngest of Rachel’s children, was sitting on the couch beside her husband Martin McDonald; she had been practicing law in Saskatoon for over twenty years. Some of the more distant Robinson relatives were also in the room, including Don’s youngest cousin Erin and her husband Darren Peterson, who was one of Don’s teaching colleagues at the high school.

Beth sat down on a stool in the corner of the room; the others who had been sitting out in the yard gradually found seats or spots on the rug, and Ruth took her place beside Beth, folding her arms and resting her back against the wall.

“Okay,” said Beth. “I’m here to fill everyone in on the story of Great-Grandma Robinson, so that we’re all on the same page. What would you like to know?”

Jean was the first to speak. “We hear you have Grandma’s journals,” she said.

“I do. They cover the period from January nineteen-eighteen up to a year or so before she died; I think the last entry is August nineteen eighty-nine. The box also contained some letters from Will Robinson’s father; they’re dated in the early thirties. Grandma didn’t say anything about leaving them to me, so as far as I know they’re common family property.”

“But why did Mom leave the journals to you?” asked Steve. “Why didn’t she leave them to the whole family—or your dad, as the oldest son.”

Don shook his head slowly. “That’s not a matter of discussion today. Mom’s will is very clear: the journals are to go to Beth. Everyone knows Beth was very close to Mom, and Mom trusted her to take care of the journals and share them with the whole family.”

“But surely if there’s any benefit to be gained, the whole family should know about it.”

“Steve, I keep telling you—there’s no secret treasure trove in Grandma’s journals. If there was, Mom would have told Beth ahead of time.”

“What’s in them, then?” Steve asked suspiciously.

Ruth put her hand on Beth’s shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us about it right from the start, Bethie?”

So once again, Beth found herself telling the story she had become so familiar with over the past three months, sticking mainly to the outline her grandmother had originally given her, and adding only a few details from her own reading of the journals. When she was done there was silence in the room for a moment, and then Jean spoke up. “So we could have both rich and poor relatives in the old country?”

“I don’t know about rich or poor,” Beth replied. “I know for sure that the Rowley family still lives at Holton Park, because there’s a Holton Park website on the Internet. You should all take a look at it. It’s not an enormous house, like Buckingham Palace or anything like that, but it’s big and it’s very old. It was built in the fifteen-hundreds, and it’s been in the Rowley family ever since. The current owner is Robert Rowley—the same name as Joanna’s father—but the website says his son Edwin is the current manager. I don’t know how they’re descended from Joanna’s family; her brother Edward was killed in the First World War in nineteen-seventeen, so the estate would probably have gone to his younger brother James. Perhaps Robert’s his son or grandson; I really don’t know.”

“Are they part of the aristocracy?” asked Steve.

“I don’t know enough to know if that’s the right word. They aren’t dukes or earls or counts or anything like that. It’s true that Joanna’s father was a knight, but that’s not a hereditary title in the British system—so I’ve discovered. But we do know that Joanna’s mother came from a titled family; her father—Joanna’s grandfather—was the Earl of Devonshire, and members of that family are mentioned frequently in the journals.”

“What about the Robinsons?” asked Joel.

“Will’s father Sam was the tenant of Steeple Farm on the Holton Park Estate. We know the farm’s still there because there’s a picture of it on the Internet. It’s now a riding school and stables, and one of the owners apparently bought it from a great-uncle, who bought it himself from the estate back in the nineteen-sixties. But we don’t know if that great-uncle was a Robinson or not.  Personally, I think it’ll be a lot harder to track the Robinsons than the Rowleys.”

Luke Bernard spoke up. “Are you going to track them down, Beth? Is that your plan?”

“I don’t really have a plan, Luke. If Holton Park is still a very rich estate—and it’s hard to tell whether it is or not—it looks grand, but for all we know it could be mortgaged to the hilt—but if it is rich, I think it would be hard to make contact with the current owners without appearing to be after some money.”

Heads nodded around the circle, and Steve added, “I’ll say; if Grandma was one of three surviving kids, wouldn’t she have been due a third of the estate when her father died?”

“That’s not the way it worked,” Beth replied. “If they’d followed that system, none of the old landed estates would ever have survived in viable form, because they’d have been split up into smaller and smaller portions with every generation. In the old days the custom was that the property and the bulk of the money went to the oldest son; the other children got some inheritance money, but nothing like an equal share. I’m not sure how it works today, though.”

“I’ve heard inheritance taxes have really killed a lot of those old stately homes in England,” said Ruth. “Lots of families have had to sell their houses, or turn them over to the state, so they can afford to pay the taxes when the owner dies. I’ve read quite a bit about it. There’s an organisation over there called the National Trust that owns a lot of these stately homes and opens them to the public. A lot of their properties were given to them by the owners to avoid paying massive inheritance taxes.”

“It looks as if Holton Park is open to the public for at least part of the year,” Beth replied, “and it’s also used for weddings and conferences and movies and that sort of thing.”

“They’d have to do something like that to make ends meet,” Don observed. “If farming over there is as bad these days as it is here, you’d never run an estate like that on farming profits.”

“I’ve heard it’s really bad,” said John Janzen. “They’ve got a lot of farm subsidies, but since the mad cow disease crisis a few years ago, thousands of families have lost their farms and left the land for good.”

“What do you think of Grandma, Beth?” asked Ruth softly. “I mean, I knew her well when she was old—I was the one who lived closest to her and kept an eye on her, just like you did for our mom—but you’re getting a completely different picture of her now, from her younger years. What was she like?”

“I think she was very idealistic. There’s a very strong religious element in the journals; she seems to have been very devout, and her faith took her in some unusual directions.”

“What do you mean by unusual directions?” asked Joel.

“Her parents gave her a copy of the Bible as a confirmation present; I don’t know if they really expected her to read it, but she was a voracious reader and she devoured the whole thing. In the later parts of the nineteen-nineteen journal she comments regularly on bits of the Bible she’s reading and what she thinks about them; I could tell she was really captivated by the gospel stories about Jesus. Later on, when she met Will, she’d already started to develop an unusual social conscience—unusual for a member of her class at that time, I mean—and I think a lot of it came from things she’d read in the New Testament. She and Will were both quite high-minded and they’d really come to believe that the social class system in England was an evil that needed to be fixed. For Joanna, like I said, I think that started with her reading of the New Testament after she was confirmed. Will seems to have been quite religious too.”

“He was,” said Don. “They went to the Anglican Church in town all their lives, and I know it wasn’t just a social custom to them; they used to have family prayers in their home as well. I remember Dad telling me about that.”

Beth nodded. “But when they were young, I think they were quite naïve about it. I think they genuinely believed they’d be able to persuade their parents that a marriage between them would help break down the divisions between social classes in England—and that their parents would see this as a good and Christian thing. Joanna seems to have genuinely loved her parents; I think it was inconceivable to her that it would be impossible to bring them around to the point of being happy she’d married the man she loved—even if he was only the son of a tenant farmer.”

“It’s amazing that she gave up all that wealth and prestige and everything,” said Jean. “I can’t imagine going from being the daughter of an aristocrat to being a farmer’s wife in Saskatchewan in the dirty thirties.”

“Beth hasn’t got that far in the journals yet,” said Don, glancing at his daughter. “You told me you’re still at the point where they’re planning to move to Canada, right?”

“That’s right. If I get any more insights, I’ll let you know.”

Don smiled at her. “I’m really looking forward to reading those journals for myself before too long.”

“That’s another thing; I want the journals to be available for anyone to read, but I think if I start letting them out in ones and twos, I’ll pretty soon lose track of where each individual book is. So I think what I’ll do is photocopy them as I go through them, and then scan the copies and make them available as PDF files. I can send them to anyone who wants them; just email me and I’ll put you on the mailing list. Is that okay with everyone?”

Heads nodded around the circle, and then Joel said; “So what are you going to do, Beth?”

“Like I said earlier, I haven’t really decided yet.”

“I know—you don’t want to show up at the door of Holton Park like some fortune hunter. But I’m assuming you’d be interested in establishing some sort of contact?”

She shrugged; “I guess I’d need to know if everyone’s okay with that.”

“I’d be okay with it,” Don replied, “but I do think it should be you that makes the contact. You’re the one who’s reading the journals, and Mom kind of made you responsible for all this.”

“Yeah, I know. What does everyone else think?”

Heads nodded around the circle. Don glanced across at his brother; “Steve?”

Steve shrugged; “Makes sense to me, as long as we’re all in the loop.”

Ruth put her hand on Beth’s shoulder; “Are you okay with this, Bethie?”

“I’m a little nervous, but I think my curiosity will probably get the better of my nerves.”

“You’re going over to England in a few days, right? For Emma’s wedding?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you go have a look while you’re there? You might not be ready to try to make contact with the people, but you could have a look at the house and get a sense of what it’s like, and the area around it and all. Maybe after you do that you could decide how you feel about initiating some sort of contact.”

Beth smiled. “I like that idea. I’ve been worrying about how I should try to contact them; this seems like a slower and more gradual way of going about it. Also, I’d like to talk to Tom some more.”

Ruth nodded. “There are probably things Grandma told Tom that she never told any of her kids or grandkids—not just about Holton Park, but other stuff too.”

“Okay,” said Beth, “that’s what I’ll do.”

“When are you going over?” asked John Janzen.

“On Thursday, and I’m coming back August Ninth. Emma’s wedding’s next Saturday, and after that Tom and Wendy are going to take me touring.”

Ruth grinned. “Now we know where one of the tours is going!”

“I guess we do!” Beth replied.

Holton Park Chapter 3

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 3

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN.

Rachel Robinson died on July 5. The pneumonia that had first shown up in March proved persistent and stubborn, and she never really got rid of it. By the middle of June she was completely bedridden, and she was finding it increasingly difficult to talk due to shortness of breath and constant coughing.

Her family members tried to make sure she was never left alone. Her granddaughter Kathy Janzen worked in the office at the special care home, and she looked in on her several times a day. Beth’s father Don, the principal of Meadowvale High School, stopped by almost every evening, sometimes alone and sometimes with his wife Lynda or his sister Ruth Janzen. Ruth visited her mother every morning, and Rachel’s other two children, Steve and Jean, who lived further away, also made trips to see her. Beth’s sister Amy came over from Calgary for a week with her two young children, Chelsey and Nick. And Rachel’s younger sister Sally Reimer, now seventy-six and in increasing pain from osteoarthritis, came with her husband Will at least a couple of times a week.

Beth spent as much time as she could with her grandmother. She usually worked three or four twelve-hour shifts a week at Meadowvale and District Hospital, and she was always tired when she got home. Nevertheless, even on her working days she tried to stop by for at least half an hour with Rachel, and on her days off she came either by herself or with Claire.

At the end of June Rachel was transferred to the hospital, where she spent the last week of her life. By now she was heavily sedated and rarely awake, and visits from most of her family members became much shorter.  There was a small group, however, who were quite happy to sit in silence beside her bed and hold her hand; this group mainly consisted of Sally Reimer, Ruth Janzen, and Beth and her father Don.

As June turned to July, Beth began to get more and more worried about her commitment to attending Emma Masefield’s wedding in England. When Emma was little, Beth had been her babysitter; the two of them had become very close friends over the years, and Beth, who had never visited England, was really looking forward to the trip. She knew she was not the only one; Emma’s grandparents Will and Sally Reimer, and her aunt and uncle Joe and Ellie Reimer and their children Jake and Jenna were also planning to attend. There had already been whispered conversations on the subject in the hospital hallways and little chats at the Meadowvale Beanery, the favourite coffee shop for the younger element in Meadowvale.

Emma herself was very clear about it when she was talking to Beth on the phone. “You do what you need to do, Beth,” she said. “I’ll be sad if you’re not here, but we’re not always in control of everything in our lives, and your grandma was your best friend.”

“I really don’t want to miss your wedding, Em.”

“I understand, but I know you well enough to know you’d never forgive yourself if your grandma died and you weren’t with her.”

Beth was quiet for a moment, struggling to control her emotions. Eventually she said, “Sorry—I almost lost it there.”

“No need to apologize.”

“You’re right, of course. How did you get to be so wise, Emma Masefield?”

“Might be something to do with my very wise babysitter.”

Beth laughed. “Sometimes I don’t feel very wise—and if I am, it’s mainly to do with my grandma.”

“If she’s still alive the week of my wedding, I think you should stay, Beth. Stay with her, and give her my love if she’s still conscious. I’ve told my grandma the same thing; Rachel’s her sister, and she should be with her. I know Jenna and Jake are still coming, along with their parents.”

“Jenna’s going to be your maid of honour, I hear.”

“Yes, she is. All my cousins are going to be here, so I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me, Beth; do what you have to do, and come over when you can.”

“I will definitely do that. As soon as I can get over, I will.”

“You take care. Call me whenever you feel like it, okay?”

“Thanks, Em.”

***

Rachel died in her hospital room early on the morning of July 5, with three of her four children around her, along with Beth and her cousin Kathy. She had been conscious on and off through the night, but her breathing had become more and more laboured, and she had spoken her last words to her daughter Ruth at about three in the morning, before slipping off into a sleep from which she never woke up. At about six o’clock Doctor DeVries checked her pulse and nodded silently to the family; “It’s over,” she said. Beth felt something welling up inside her chest, and she quickly turned to her father and buried her face in his shoulder. She felt his arms around her, and for several minutes he held her silently while she cried.

Eventually she looked up at him through her tears, nodding gratefully. “Are you okay, Dad?”

“I will be,” he replied, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.

Beth turned to her mother, and for a moment they held each other close. Eventually Beth stepped back; “I should call Amy,” she said.

“Are you sure?” her father asked. “I was going to do that.”

“I’d like to, if you don’t mind.”

“No, I don’t mind. You go ahead.”

“Thanks; I’ll do it now.”

She stepped out of the room into the corridor; it was still early, and very few people were awake yet. She smiled at a couple of the nurses finishing their night shift, walked quickly down to the front lobby, pushed open the glass doors and stepped out into the brightness of the summer morning. The hospital was on the edge of town, and looking west she could see wide open fields. Taking her cell phone from her pocket, she turned it on and called her sister’s number. The phone was answered after the first ring, and she heard Amy’s sleepy voice. “Hi Beth; is there news?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, Amy—Grandma died a few minutes ago.”

For a moment there was silence, and when Amy spoke again her voice was unsteady. “Are you okay, Bethie?”

“I’ll be okay. She told me a few days ago she was ready to go, and she wasn’t afraid.”

“Were you with her?”

“I was. So were Dad and Mom, and a few others.”

“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there.”

“Are you still coming today?”

“Yeah; the kids and I are getting into Saskatoon about four o’clock. Can you pick us up at the airport?”

“Sure. There are things we need to talk about, Amy.”

“Oh?”

“There’s some stuff Grandma told me a couple of months ago that I want to talk to you about. You’ll stay at my place, right?”

“Of course.” Amy was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “I know this is really hard for you; no one was as close to her as you were.”

Beth felt the tears in her eyes again. “Yes,” she whispered. “It hurts like hell.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too. Have a safe flight.”

“I will; ‘bye now.”

***

Back in the room Beth saw that her parents and Ruth were talking quietly with the doctor. Kathy was standing beside the bed looking down at Rachel’s peaceful face, and Beth noticed immediately that someone had removed the oxygen line her grandmother had been wearing. She crossed to the bed and stood beside her cousin, putting her arm around her waist. “She looks so lovely,” she whispered.

“She does.” Kathy turned and put her arms around Beth. “You okay?”

“I’ll be okay. I should get over to your place and make sure Claire’s all right.”

“Don’t worry; Jamie’s there with her and Aidan, but as far as I know they’re both still sleeping. He’d call if anything was wrong.”

Beth felt a hand on her shoulder, and when she looked up her father was standing there. “Did you get through to Amy?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Are they coming today?”

“She and the kids are flying into Saskatoon around four. I told her I’d go down to the city and pick her up.”

“Is she going to stay at your place?”

“Is that okay with you and Mom?”

“Sure—we know you guys will need some sister time.”

“Thanks, Dad. So, what’s next?”

“We’ll arrange for the funeral home to pick Mom up, then I expect we should call Pastor Ron and arrange for a service.”

“I could set that up; I’ll give him a call later on if you like.”

“Okay. There’s a few other things to deal with, like cleaning up her room at the special care home, but we don’t have to think about that right away. Ruth’s invited us to her place for some breakfast first.”

Beth put her hand on his arm. “Dad, before we start cleaning up Grandma’s room, I need to ask you about a box in her closet.”

“A box?”

“Grandma told me a couple of months ago that there’s a box of old journals in the closet that she wanted me to have. She said it’s in her will that they’re to come to me. Do you mind if I have a look today and make sure they’re still there?”

“That’s fine; are the journals hers?”

“No, they’re older than that. Apparently they belonged to Great-Grandma Robinson.”

He raised an eyebrow. “No kidding!”

“That’s what she told me.”

“I had no idea she had anything like that. So she left them to you, eh?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to go and have a look right away?”

“Well, after breakfast, maybe.”

“Alright. If you don’t mind, I’ll come with you.”

“Of course I don’t mind. To be honest, I always felt a little awkward about it.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah—about the fact that she told me about them, but she hadn’t told you.”

“That does seem a little strange.”

***

And so in the middle of the morning Beth went over to the special care home with her father and her aunt. Nothing had been moved at all in old Rachel’s room, and Don looked around, taking in the furniture, the pictures on the walls and the two bookshelves crammed full of books. “She got rid of a lot of her books when she moved in here,” he said, “but there’s still plenty to go around.”

“You and Beth and Amy had better go through them,” said Ruth. “I can’t see Kathy or Rhonda wanting any of them, and Joel’s too far away.”

“Let’s have a look for these journals,” said Don.

They went over to the closet, and he opened the concertina doors. A few articles of clothing were hanging there, including a winter parka at one end, and there was a shelf unit with shoes and boots. Three cardboard file boxes were stacked in the corner; there was writing on two of them, but in the dim light it was hard to read. Don went over to the door and turned on the overhead light; Beth was already kneeling, her eyes straining to read the faded writing on the bottom box. “Joanna Robinson – journals,” she read.

“Let’s have a look,” said Don, crouching down beside her.

They lifted off the two other boxes and pulled the bottom one out of the closet. Don picked it up, took it over to the bed and set it down. He stepped back and nodded at Beth. “Go ahead, Bethie,” he said.

The cardboard file box had a removable lid with an envelope taped on top. Beth removed the envelope, opened it, and took out a single sheet of paper in her grandmother’s handwriting. It said simply, “These are the journals of my mother-in-law, Joanna Robinson (née Rowley), 1905-1990. They have been in my possession since my husband died, and I now bequeath them to my granddaughter, Bethany Ann Robinson. Signed, Rachel Ann Robinson, March 2nd, 2008.”

Beth handed the paper to her father, and he read it and passed it to his sister. “She’s known for a while she was going to give them to you, then,” he said to Beth.

“Apparently.”

Beth lifted the lid off the box; inside were four closely stacked piles of old journals, mostly five by eight notebooks, with another sheet of paper on top, also in Rachel’s handwriting. It said simply, “Beth: I have sorted the journals into chronological order. The pile with the red journal on top contains the oldest ones. The red journal is first.”

The stiff paper cover of the red journal had faded with age, but it was still possible to read the handwritten title on the front:

Joanna Elizabeth Rowley

My diary:

January 2nd 1918 to February 17th 1921

Beth showed it to her father, and he nodded; “She’d be about twelve or thirteen, then, when she started it.”

“Yes.” Beth sat down on the bed, opened the book, and read aloud from the first entry, written in faded ink in an immaculate copperplate hand.

“Wednesday January Second Nineteen-Eighteen.

“Today I decided to start a diary, and since one day someone else might read it, I will start by introducing myself. I am Joanna Elizabeth Rowley. I was born on May Twenty-Fifth nineteen-oh-five. My papa is Sir Robert Rowley, owner of Holton Park Estate, and my mama’s name is Lady Rowena Rowley. I am the youngest child. My oldest brother, Edward Rowley, was killed in action in France on August Thirty-First nineteen-seventeen. He was twenty years old. Second is my sister Edith who is eighteen years old. My brother James is now heir to the estate; he is fifteen. I am the fourth and last child.

“We live at Holton House, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire. It is a very old house with many rooms. I have my own horse and I like to ride, but my governess, Miss Halliday, will only let me ride twice a week. She teaches me lessons every morning and afternoon. James is away at Eton, and Edith spends a lot of time in London, so I am often alone with Miss Halliday, Mama and Papa, and the servants. I like reading so I do not often get bored, but I am sometimes lonely.

“I am woken up every day at half past eight, and my day usually starts with breakfast at nine o’clock. I am in the schoolroom from ten until one, and in the afternoon again from two until four. Sometimes if the weather is fine Miss Halliday and I will go for a walk in the afternoon instead of lessons; she likes to show me trees and plants and teach me their names, although I do not always remember what she tells me. I do like drawing and painting, though, and sometimes she lets me take a sketchbook with me on our walks. On Tuesdays and Fridays, we ride in the afternoons if it is not raining. At half past five we wash and then we dress for tea. Miss Halliday and I have our tea at six o’clock. Mama and Papa dine much later, at eight o’clock, but by then I am getting ready for bed. I am usually in bed by nine o’clock, but I do not go to sleep very easily. I like it best in the summer when it is still light outside, and I can read my book after I go to bed. Now it is winter, and the evenings are dark. I have electricity in my room but if I turn the light on someone will see it under the door. Sometimes I light my candle again and read for a little while, but if I do that too often, they will notice that my candle has burned down.

“On Sundays we go to church in the morning in Bramthorpe. Our vicar is Mr. Skelton. I believe in God, and I like singing the hymns, but Mr. Skelton’s sermons are long, and I must confess that sometimes I fall asleep while he is speaking. Our family sits in the front pew, so everyone can see it when I fall asleep, and Papa always scolds me. This year I am going to be confirmed, and Mr. Skelton is going to come to our house to teach me confirmation classes. I am not looking forward to this.

“There are many servants in our house. Our butler is called Brookes; he is in charge of all the servants. Our housekeeper is Mrs. Ridgeway. Papa has a valet and Mama has a lady’s maid, and now that Edith is out, she also has a lady’s maid. There are also two footmen, a cook and at least two kitchen maids, and some others who I do not see very often. Outside there is a stable master and some grooms who look after our horses, and some gardeners and groundskeepers as well. I do not know all their names. I do know that our stable master is Sellars and the groom who looks after my horse is called Peter. I like talking to him because he obviously really loves horses, but Miss Halliday says I should not be too familiar with him, as he is just a servant, and I am a young lady. I wish I could go out to the stables sometimes and help them feed and brush down the horses, but I am not allowed to do this.

“We have just finished the Christmas holidays. We did not go away this year; usually we go to Devon to stay with my aunt and uncle, but Papa said we were not going this year because of the war. Actually, I think he and Mama are still too sad about Edward being killed, and they did not want to be around other people where they would have to pretend to be happy. I had not seen Edward much since he went away to join the army a year ago, but I was very upset when I heard that he had been killed and I really do miss him. I cried in my bed every night for weeks and weeks. Several young men from our village have been killed or injured in the war. Papa told me he is keeping a list, and when the war is over, he will pay to have a memorial put up on the wall of the church. I hope the war is over soon or it will be a very long list.

“I am going to write this diary every night before I say my prayers. Miss Halliday used to say prayers with me, but after my eleventh birthday she told me she would leave me to pray by myself. I am not sure that prayers do any good; I prayed that God would look after Edward, but He did not answer that prayer. But since there is nothing else I can do to make the war end sooner, I will still say my prayers. I will write more tomorrow.”

Beth looked up from the journal, and Ruth stared at her brother. “Our grandmother was the daughter of a landed aristocrat?”

“Seems like it. I had no idea.”

“Me neither. How on earth did she come to marry a poor farmer and move to Saskatchewan?”

“I don’t know; do you, Beth?”

Beth nodded. “Grandma told me a little about it; she’d read the journals herself.”

Don frowned. “Are we going to find any more surprises in here?”

“Probably, but I’d like to look a little more closely at them before I say anything more.”

“I see.” For a moment he looked steadily at her, and she returned his gaze. Then he nodded. “Okay, honey; you take them and have a look at them by yourself. But I’d like to read them too; there are things I’ve wondered about my grandparents.”

“I understand, Dad.”

He was still looking her in the eye. “Your grandma told you quite a lot about what’s in these journals, didn’t she?”

“Yes.”

Don looked down at the box on the bed. “I wish she’d told the rest of us about this.”

“I think she had a reason, Dad—more of a reason than the fact that she and I were so close.”

“Did she?”

“Yeah. She told me your dad thought the journals should have been destroyed; he thought the past should stay in the past. I think while he was alive, she didn’t feel free to talk to anyone about them. And I think even after he died, she struggled between loyalty to his wishes and a desire to pass the stories on.”

“That must have been quite a conversation you had with her.”

Beth shook her head. “Dad, I don’t want this to be a thing between us, okay? It wasn’t my idea for Grandma to keep this between the two of us. She’d decided she wanted to give me the journals, and she didn’t feel right about telling anyone else. Please don’t blame me for it, okay?”

Don gave a sudden smile and held out his arms; “Come here.”

She stood up and moved gratefully into his embrace, and for a moment he held her tight. “We all know you and Mom had a very special relationship, Beth,” he said.

“And we also know she could be a little eccentric sometimes,” said Ruth, her hand on Beth’s shoulder. ‘You take these journals and read through them, Bethie. Sure, your dad and I would like to take a look at them too, but Mom left them to you and I sure don’t want to do anything to piss her off, even though she’s dead!”

They all laughed, and Don kissed his daughter on the forehead. “Do you want to take the box with you now?”

“Yeah; I’ll put it in the car and take it home right away. I just wanted to make sure the journals were safe.” She stepped back and smiled at Don and Ruth. “Thanks; I’ve been feeling more than a little apprehensive about this.”

Ruth shook her head; “No need, at least not on my part.”

“Nor mine,” Don agreed. “If Mom was still alive, I might have wanted to have a conversation with her about this, but like Ruth said, we’ll do what she wanted, just like we always did!”

They laughed again, and Don bent and lifted the box off the bed. “Let me carry this to the car for you,” he said.

***

Claire was an outgoing and demonstrative child, and she did not hide her excitement when she saw her Auntie Amy coming through the doors into the airport arrivals area with three-year-old Chelsey’s hand in hers, one-year-old Nicholas on her front in a child carrier, and a large bag slung over her shoulder. Amy’s thick blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail; her face was a little fuller than Beth’s, but she had the same sharp chin and grey eyes. Claire squealed with delight, tugged her hand free from her mother’s, and ran up to give Amy a hug.

“Wow, the royal welcome!” said Amy. “You’d think I’d been away for years!”

“Well, she hasn’t seen you guys for a month,” Beth replied as Claire took Chelsy’s other hand.

“I’m not complaining!” Amy leaned down, kissed her niece on the cheek and said, “How are you doing, munchkin?”

“Good! Are you guys staying at our house?”

“Yes.”

“Yay!”

Amy and Beth kissed each other, and Beth smiled at the sleeping one-year old in the child carrier. “Did he sleep through the flight?”

“Fell asleep during take-off.” Amy looked her sister in the eye. “Tough day?”

“I haven’t been thinking about it. I was with Kathy and Jamie most of the day.”

“Are Mom and Dad at home?”

“Yeah. I set up a meeting with Pastor Ron tomorrow, and Dad and Auntie Ruth are going to take the lead on that. They’re also dealing with the funeral home and the lawyer, though I think Grandma’s will is pretty straightforward.”

“Is Glenn her lawyer?”

“Yeah. And what about Luke; is he coming over?”

“I’m supposed to call him as soon as we know when the funeral will be. He’s going to drive over to join us the day before.”

“I assume you’ve got more luggage?”

“Just a little!”

They both laughed, knowing how much luggage small children caused. “Did you manage to squeeze three child seats into the back of your little car?” asked Amy.

“I’m driving Dad’s SUV; he and I traded cars this afternoon. He already had a child seat in the back, and I borrowed an old one of Kathy’s.”

“I didn’t think you’d be bringing Claire down to meet us.”

“Neither did I, but she made such a fuss about coming to meet Chelsey and Nick that I gave in.”

“They’ll be glad of the company in the back on the way home.”

“That’s what I thought, too.”

***

By the time they got back to Meadowvale it was close to six o’clock, but it was early July, and the sun was still high in the prairie sky. Beth and Amy worked together to cook a light supper in the kitchen at the back of the house, with Claire and Chelsey running in from the back yard from time to time to help out. They ate at the dining table, and then Beth did the dishes while Amy played with the children in the living room. After that, the five of them walked up the road to Don and Lynda’s house so that the children could have a visit with their grandparents. They stayed until just before nine o’clock, and then brought the children home and put them to bed.

Chelsey was camping in Claire’s room, while Nicholas would sleep in Claire’s old crib beside his mother’s bed in the spare room. Beth usually read to Claire and said prayers with her before turning out her light, but tonight, even though she was excited at having her cousin in her room with her, the little girl was exhausted, and when Beth saw that she was having trouble keeping her eyes open she cut things short, kissed both girls goodnight, and slipped quietly out of the room, pulling the door almost closed behind her.

Back in the living room Amy was sitting on the couch nursing Nicholas; she looked up at her sister and smiled. “Are they asleep?”

“I think so. You look pretty comfortable there!”

“It’s a comfortable couch.”

“Do you want a cup of herbal tea or something?”

“Sure—peppermint or chamomile or something like that.”

“Coming right up.”

Beth went out to the kitchen, boiled the kettle, and made two mugs of tea. When she brought them back into the living room Amy was just laying her sleeping son down on the couch beside her, covering him with a light blanket. “Thanks,” she said as Beth set a mug down on the coffee table in front of her.

“You’re welcome.”

“You must be exhausted; weren’t you up all night?”

“I was pretty sleepy this afternoon, but I seem to have hit my second wind now.”

Amy nodded at the box of journals Beth had left beside the door. “What’s in the box?”

Beth sat down in an easy chair across from her sister and put her feet up on the coffee table. “It came from Grandma. She told me about it a couple of months ago, but I only picked it up this morning from her room at the special care home. It’s full of old journals; they belonged to Great-Grandma Robinson.”

“Wow! She was the first generation to come to Canada, right?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know she’d left journals behind?”

“Not until Grandma told me back in March. She’s been keeping it to herself, and she didn’t want me to make a big noise about it either. Apparently she’s had them since Great-Grandma died.”

“Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

“There was a disagreement between her and Grandpa about what should be done with the journals. He thought the past should stay in the past, and he wanted them destroyed, but Grandma thought they should be preserved and passed on.”

“She won, apparently.”

“Yeah, but it bothered her, and even after he died, she felt guilty about telling anyone. That’s why she waited so long to pass them on.”

“Did Dad know?”

“No; he found out this morning when I told him.”

“That must have been awkward.”

“Yeah, and I feel really bad about it. Grandma left specific instructions that the journals were to go to me, and apparently she’s put that in her will. She told me she wanted me to know Joanna’s story because I’m the one who’s taken an interest in family history.”

“Not to mention the fact that she’s always had a soft spot for you.”

“I know, Amy, but I’ve never tried to take advantage of that—at least, not since I was in my teens.”

“I know. I never resented that thing you had with her, you know; I loved her of course, but I didn’t feel quite the same way about her as you did.”

“Thanks. Oh yeah—there is one other person who knew about the journals: Tom Masefield.”

Amy raised an eyebrow. “Why Tom?”

“Apparently he was a really good friend to Great-Grandma in the last few years of her life.”

“Oh yeah, I kind of remember that; didn’t he read the eulogy at her funeral?”

“I honestly don’t remember, Amy. I have absolutely no memory of her funeral.”

Amy gave her a mischievous grin. “Well, you were barely out of diapers, weren’t you?”

“I was twelve years old, thank you very much!”

“Like I said, barely out of diapers. Have you looked in the box?”

“We had a quick look this morning when Dad and Auntie Ruth and I picked them up.”

“Do you want to wait ‘til I’m gone to have another look?”

“No—let’s finish our tea, and then we’ll look at them together, if you’re interested?”

“I’m interested if you’re interested. Did Grandma say anything about what’s in them? Had she read them?”

“Yes, she read them all, and there are some surprises in them.”

“What kind of surprises?”

“Well, the biggest one is that our great-grandmother was a member of the landed gentry, and our great-grandfather was the stable groom she ran off with.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Beth recounted the story as her grandmother had told it, and when she was done, Amy sat in silence for a moment. Then she shook her head, took a sip of her tea, and said, “Well—now I’m curious. I wonder if the Rowleys are still living at that place—Holton Park, you said it was called?”

“They’re still there; I found it on the Internet. The owner’s name is Robert Rowley, but I don’t know anything about him.”

“What about the Robinson family farm—Steeple Farm, you said?”

“I don’t know; I didn’t try googling it.”

“I’d be curious about the Robinsons. I wonder if the farm’s still in their hands. If farming over there’s anything like it is here, I wouldn’t be too hopeful.”

“You could be right; they might have moved off the land by now. It might be fun to go over and investigate, don’t you think?”

Amy laughed. “What do you have in mind—walking up to the front door of Holton Park and saying, “Hello, I’m Beth Robinson, I’m your long-lost cousin from Canada, and could I please have my share of the family fortune?”

Beth gave a sudden frown. “Wow—I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“But you’ve obviously thought of going?”

“I can’t deny that the idea of going for a look has occurred to me. I’ll be in England in about two weeks, you know.”

“Right—you and Claire are going for Emma’s wedding, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, and afterwards Tom and Wendy have promised to show me around a little.”

“Sounds like a good opportunity.” Amy drained her teacup. “Well, are we going to have a look at those journals?”

***

Beth brought the box into the living room, sat down on the couch beside Amy, and took out the first journal. She put her feet up again, opened the book and read the first entry aloud to her sister as she had done to her father and aunt earlier in the day. When she was done, she glanced at Amy; “What do you think?”

“She sounds quite philosophical for a twelve-year old.”

“Yeah—I don’t think I would have been writing theological reflections at that age. Have you ever kept a diary, Amy?”

“Occasionally, but I’ve never stuck with it. You?”

“Pretty much the same. Do you want me to read some more?”

“Do you mind if we skip ahead a little? I’d like to read the whole thing at some point, but for tonight I’d be really interested in the part where she first meets Great-Grandpa, and they start falling in love with each other. Do you know when that would be?”

“I think Will started working at the Holton Park stables when he was fifteen, so that would be some time in nineteen-nineteen. But they didn’t run away together to get married ’til nineteen twenty-six, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. There might be a mention of him in this journal—the cover says it lasts ’til February nineteen twenty-one.”

Beth began flipping quickly through the pages. “The first entry seems to have been unusually long,” she said. “Most of them are a lot shorter. Let’s see—here we are, January First nineteen-nineteen.” She turned the pages more slowly now, stopping every now and again to read. “She mentions going riding on January Third—no, there’s no mention of a groom.” She scanned a few more pages. “She mentions riding pretty well every time she goes out, but she doesn’t say anything about it—just ‘I went for a ride with Miss Halliday this afternoon.’ Wait—here’s a mention of the stable master:

“While Miss Halliday’s back was turned this afternoon I asked Sellars if he would let me help them brush down Diamond sometimes, or feed her. He said he wouldn’t mind but I would have to ask Papa. I will ask him tomorrow.”

“And did she?”

“Let’s see – here’s the next entry:

“Wednesday March Nineteenth nineteen-nineteen.

“I spent the morning in the schoolroom: French, Latin, and a little history. After lunch I practiced the piano for a while, then Miss Halliday left me to read some more of Oliver Twist. I am both fascinated and horrified by this novel; did people really live in the sort of squalor and suffering described here, and do they still?

“After lessons were over, I went to find Papa in the library. He was surprised to see me. I told him that I really enjoyed riding and wanted to learn more about horses and their care, so would he allow me to watch Sellars and the grooms as they rubbed Diamond down after a ride and fed her, and perhaps try to learn the things they did? To my surprise, Papa seemed pleased; he said he would talk to Sellars and Miss Halliday. He also said that he did not know I enjoyed riding so much, and that he would like it if I would ride with him sometimes. So, although I was nervous about talking to Papa, it turned out well in the end.”

“So did she start fraternizing with the servants right away?” asked Amy.

“Let’s see.” Beth scanned the next couple of pages, and after a moment she said, “Here—she mentions Sellars again.”

“Monday March Twenty-Fourth nineteen-nineteen.

“Today it was cold and windy, but nonetheless Miss Halliday and I went for our ride in the afternoon. We were very cold when we got back to the stables, but I reminded Miss Halliday that Papa had said I might stay and watch while they took care of Diamond. So she left me at the stables, and I watched while the groom took off Diamond’s saddle and gave her a rub down; he was a new groom and he took quite a long time about it, and I wondered if he might perhaps be taking longer than usual to impress me. I asked Sellars and he said, ‘Oh no, Miss Joanna—we always give her a good rub after you come back from a ride. We won’t feed her just yet, but if the master lets you come back in a couple of hours, we’ll be giving her a nice hot mash.’

“I went in and asked Papa, and he said it would be alright, so I went back out just before we dressed for dinner. Sellars was teaching the new groom how to make the hot mash; he told me they just use the normal helping of oats and add a bit of bran and garlic and mix it up with hot water. I watched while they mixed it in a green bucket, and then the groom went into Diamond’s stable and hung it on a hook on the wall. Diamond seemed to really enjoy it.

“I talked to the groom for a minute and asked him how long he had been working at Holton Park, because he didn’t seem to be much older than me. He seemed very shy around me; he said he had started only two weeks ago and that he came from one of the farms on the estate.”

Beth glanced triumphantly at Amy; “Looks like we’ve found our great-grandfather!” she said.

“For sure. Does she name him?”

“Wait a minute; let me see. Yes, here it is:

“I asked the groom his name and he said it was William Robinson; I asked him his age and he said fifteen. He was painfully shy, not looking me in the eye, and tugging at his forelock all the time, and since I was obviously embarrassing him, I stopped asking him questions. I did really enjoy watching them look after Diamond and I hope that before too long they will let me try”.

Amy smiled; “Not a very promising beginning to their relationship!”

“No; let’s see what happens next.” Beth scanned a few more pages. “She mentions riding again, and—yes, watching Sellars and William looking after Diamond. Let’s see; here’s another one:

“Friday May Thirtieth nineteen-nineteen:

“Slipped out to the stables before we changed for dinner. William let me mix the feed for Diamond and set it on the hook in her stall. I stayed with him while he and the other grooms fed the other horses as well. I asked him about his family, and he said he had three brothers and two sisters, but his oldest brother was killed in the war. He is the youngest but one. I told him that my oldest brother Edward also died in the war, in nineteen-seventeen; he told me his brother Sam was killed in one of the very first battles in nineteen-fourteen. I asked him how long it took him to get over his brother’s death, and he said he didn’t think he was over it yet. I said I felt the same.

“William’s father is the tenant farmer at Steeple Farm, so I have ridden past their farmhouse on a number of occasions. He told me he has always liked animals; he has been helping his father with the cows since he was a little boy, and of course they have horses on the farm as well. I asked him if he liked to read and he said he did, but he has very little time for it. I asked him if he had read Black Beauty and he said he had not, and he asked me what it was about. I told him some of the story and he seemed very interested. I would like to ask Papa if I could lend him my copy, but I’m afraid Papa would not like that.”

Amy laughed; “I guess not—that would be radically egalitarian!”

Beth was already reading ahead. “Looks like there won’t be any more fraternizing for a while, they’ve gone to London for the rest of the season.”

“The season? What does that mean?”

Beth laughed; “You don’t read enough Jane Austen novels! Those society families all went up to London for a few months every year; I’m not just exactly sure when, or for how long. Looks like the Rowleys went up at the beginning of June; Joanna mentions that it was unusually late for them, but she doesn’t say why.”

“What did they do in London?”

“Hang on, I’m skimming here. She mentions her parents going out to dances, but she’s too young to be invited—she’s not pleased about that. There’s Royal Ascot—I think that’s a horse racing event—yes, she mentions watching the races here. Wow, that seems to go on for a few days, four or five at least. Let’s see; pretty soon after that they’re off to Henley to watch the boat races—Royal Henley Regatta, that is. Hmm—looks like they’ve got relatives in town too, she mentions Uncle Freddie and Aunt Eleanor, there are cousins too—Sarah, George, Bertie—hmm—looks like they’re about the same age, they all seem to be hanging out together anyway. Wait—no, Sarah’s older, she’s been presented at court and she’s going to a debutante ball, I guess she must be eighteen, maybe?”

“How old is Joanna now?”

“Fourteen, I think. Ah—she refers to her Uncle Freddie here as ‘the Earl of Devon’.” Beth looked up at Amy and smiled; “Okay, looks like we are related to the nobility!”

Amy laughed. “Read on!”

Beth skimmed a few more pages. “She’s describing her reading in some detail here, she seems to be quite a bookworm. She’s still at Dickens—Bleak House—she’s been reading some Siegfried Sassoon—Counter Attack and Other Poems, she found the book at a bookshop on Euston Road. Here’s what she says:

“‘It made me think of Edward, of course, and it made me cry. I must find out more about that wretched war, because according to Sassoon’s poems it wasn’t glorious at all, and he was there so he should know.’”

She scanned the next few pages. “Mainly just London routines. She mentions the family going to church a few times—going out to the theatre and the opera and that sort of stuff. Wait—yes, she’s talking about them getting ready to go home now. Here we are, Monday August Eighteenth nineteen-nineteen, they set out on their way home.”

“How did they travel?”

“By train, I think—yes, she mentions a chauffeur driving them to King’s Cross Station. Let me see—back home, getting unpacked, etc. etc.—yes, here we are, Tuesday August Nineteenth nineteen-nineteen.

“I was glad to see Diamond again, and William seemed pleased to see me as well. He told me he had taken special care of her and had taken her for regular rides to make sure she was properly exercised. I asked after his family and he said his mother had been ill, but she seemed better now. I went for a long ride in the afternoon with Papa and Mama and James; the weather was very hot. Later, William let me rub Diamond down, and I prepared her mash and gave it to her. We talked about books, and he asked me again about Black Beauty. I have decided to lend him this book; I know he does not earn enough money to buy books for himself and it seems a great shame that someone who is so interested in bettering himself is frustrated through lack of means. I also told him about Oliver Twist and what it had to say about living conditions among the poor in London. He told me his mother had read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to her children when he was young. I think William left school when he was twelve and began to work on his father’s farm. I have had so many advantages in my life compared to him; I should be ashamed of myself for wasting so much time really. When I think of how many young men from our village were killed or injured in the war, and how many others have so little to live on, I should be doing all I can to help them and to be a useful person in the world. I don’t think Papa would approve but I’m going to lend William some books anyway; it seems the least I can do”.

“She’s growing a social conscience,” said Amy; “That’s how it started.”

“It seems so.” Beth stifled a yawn. “Shall I keep going?”

“Well, that’s up to you. Have you suddenly remembered that you didn’t sleep at all last night?”

“I think so; maybe it’s the chamomile tea and the relaxed conversation, but I’m suddenly very sleepy. I’d really like to press on with this, but maybe we should pick it up again tomorrow some time.”

“Fine with me. What’s the plan for tomorrow anyway?”

“We’re meeting with Pastor Ron at the church at two in the afternoon—Dad, Auntie Ruth, and me. I guess that’s when we’ll set the date and time for the funeral. Right now, I’ve no idea when it might be—depends how long it takes family members to get here, I guess.”

“Of course; who’s the furthest away?”

“Well, of the immediate family that would be cousin Joel, I guess.”

“Right; he’s working in Africa somewhere, isn’t he?” Amy yawned. “Okay, now you’ve got me going. Time for me to say hello to my pillow.”

Beth put the journal carefully back into the box and replaced the lid. “I’m going to take these to my room,” she said. “I don’t think the kids would get into them, but you never know.”

“Good plan.” They got to their feet and put their arms around each other. “Good night, Amy,” said Beth; “I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too. Have a good sleep, Bethie.”

Holton Park Chapter Two

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 2

HEADINGTON AND NEW MARSTON, OXFORD.

It was the end of the afternoon, and Tom Masefield was tidying up his desk at the front of his classroom when he felt his mobile phone vibrating in his pocket. He took it out, saw the name ‘Wendy’ on the screen, smiled, and lifted it to his ear. “Hello there,” he said. “Are you back?”

“Yes, and I brought Emma with me. She’s free this weekend, so on the spur of the moment she decided to come up for a visit.”

“Excellent!”

“She wants to cook pizza; is that all right with you?”

“Emma’s pizza is always all right with me.”

“That’s what I thought. The sky’s looking a bit threatening out there; do you want me to come and get you?”

“Sure—that would be great.”

“About half an hour, then?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a couple more things to do here before I shut the shop down for the holidays.”

“We’ll have a cup of tea, and then I’ll leave Em with the cooking and come down for you.”

“Thanks. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

***

Gypsy Lane School was situated on the west side of Headington. It had been relocated there in the early 1970s, so the buildings were very new by Oxford standards; most of them were two-storey structures, grouped in a rough U-shape around asphalt tennis courts and a few treed areas, with a larger playing field off to the west.

It was just after five o’clock when Tom made his way out to the car park on the south side of the school. A gentle rain was already falling, and he pulled up his hood and sprinted across to the silver Volkswagen Golf waiting in one of the guest parking spots. He opened the front passenger door, slid in beside his wife and dropped his backpack on the floor between his feet. Wendy gave him a slow smile. “All finished, then?”

“All done for the holidays.” He leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips. “I missed you.”

“You noticed I was gone, then?” she replied playfully.

“You’d better believe it! How was London?”

“Very busy. I don’t mind visiting, but I’m always glad to get back home.” She started the car, put the gearshift into reverse, and backed slowly out of the parking spot. “Still, Emma and I had fun. I like this stepmother of the bride business.”

“Did she find what she was looking for?”

“I think so, but she wants you to look at the pictures before she confirms the order.”

“Me? I’m just the dad! What do I know about wedding dresses?”

Wendy grinned at him. “She still wants your opinion. And anyway, I seem to recall that you rather liked mine.”

“True enough.” He reached across and put his hand on hers. “Thanks for doing this, Wendy. Was she okay?”

Wendy pulled the car out onto Cheney Lane and joined the flow of traffic. “For the most part. Once or twice she was struggling a bit, but I get that; every girl would rather have her mum help her choose her wedding dress. And I know she’ll always miss her mum.”

“You make it a lot better for her, though.”

She gave him a quick smile. “Thank you.”

“So, is it just the three of us tonight?”

“I think so. But, you know, Emma will make enough pizza to feed the Russian army, so if by chance someone unexpected shows up…!”

He laughed. “Of course she will; what was I thinking?”

***

Tom was tall, with greying dark hair, but his daughter Emma was blond and a good twelve inches shorter than him. She met him at the doorway of their house on Bowness Avenue, and they held each other close for a moment. “Hello, you,” she said softly against his shoulder.

“Hello, Emma Dawn. How’s life in the big city this week?”

“Good.” She stepped back and grinned up at him. “Matthew says hi; he’s going to come up tomorrow to stay with his parents.”

“I suspect you’ll see more of him than they will.”

She laughed softly. “I guess that’s probably true!”

“I hear you had a successful day today?”

“Yeah, I’ve got some pictures to show you.” She smiled gratefully at Wendy. “You were a huge help, Wendy; you know London so well. Anyway, I’ve just made a pot of coffee, so if you two were thinking of coming in…”

They went inside, and Tom and Wendy both hung their coats in the entrance hall. Tom dropped his backpack at the bottom of the stairs and loosened his tie. “What time are we eating?” he asked Emma.

She led them through to the kitchen at the back of the house. “We can have coffee and then I’ll put the pizza in the oven. Are you going to look at these pictures, or are you about to fall asleep?”

“Depends how much caffeine is in the coffee, I guess!”

“I’ll pour it, then.”

The three of them were just taking their seats at the little circular table in the kitchen when Tom felt his mobile phone vibrating again. He took it out, saw the name ‘Becca’ on the screen, and lifted it to his ear. “Hello there, Becs.”

“Are you home?”

“Just walked in the door; Emma’s pouring the coffee.”

“Emma’s here?”

“She came back from town with Wendy.”

“Oh right—did she pick a dress?”

“She’s pretty well decided.”

“Has she got pictures?”

“Yes, she has.”

“Can I come over after supper for a look?”

I covered the phone with my hand and grinned at Emma. “Becca wants to see the pictures.”

“Is she coming over?”

“After supper, if that’s okay with you.”

“Sure, especially if she brings Luke.”

I spoke into the phone again. “Emma says that would be okay, especially if you bring Luke. How is my little nephew tonight?”

“Running around like a tornado at the moment. Hopefully the energy level will have gone down a bit by the time we come over. Right—Mike’s cooking, but I need to help him out a bit. See you later, Tommy.”

“See you soon, Becs.”

***

Tom and Wendy and Emma had just started cleaning up after a long and relaxed supper when they heard the cordless phone ringing in one of the other rooms. “I’ll get it,” said Tom as he deposited their plates beside the kitchen sink. “Anyone know where it is?”

Emma laughed. “I think I saw it on the couch in the living room!”

Tom went through the hallway to the living room and picked up the phone. “Tom and Wendy’s.”

“Tom, it’s Beth.”

“Bethie!” He sat down in his easy chair by the gas fireplace and crossed his legs. “It’s good to hear your voice. It’s been a while.”

“Yes. Sorry about that.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m good. Are you finished supper?”

“We just started cleaning up. Emma’s here; Wendy went down to the city a couple of days ago to help her find a wedding dress, and she brought her back for Easter weekend.”

“Oh, awesome! Maybe I could say hello to her in a minute?”

“I’m sure she’d love that. How’s your grandma doing?”

“I’m a little worried about her; I think she may be getting pneumonia. Were you talking to my dad?”

“Not for a few days; last time he called he just said she was feeling a little under the weather.”

“It’s progressed; they’ve got her on oxygen now.”

“Really. Okay, maybe I’ll give her a call in the next day or two.”

“She’d like that.” There was a brief silence, and then Beth said, “Tom, there’s something I want to ask you about. Last weekend Grandma asked me to go up and visit with her, just the two of us. It turned out she had something specific she wanted to talk to me about. She told me about my great-grandmother’s journals, and she said you already know about them.”

Tom was quiet for a moment, and then he said, “Yes, I do.”

“So you know the story, then.”

“Yes. I’ve never actually seen the journals, but Joanna told me what was in them before she died.”

“Grandma says she’s going to leave them to me in her will, and she wants me to read them and make sure the story is preserved and passed on in the family.”

“How does your dad feel about that?”

“He doesn’t know. I’m the only one she’s told.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“And how do you feel about that, Bethie?”

“Really uncomfortable. I think if she dies and then he finds out she’s told me things she hasn’t told him, it could be very awkward.”

“You know Joanna didn’t want anyone to know about this, right?”

“That’s what Grandma said. Apparently Grandpa felt the same way, which is why no one was told about it while he was still alive.”

“Yeah, he and I had that conversation years ago, on the day of her funeral.”

“Did Kelly know?”

“Yes; Joanna said I could tell her. As far as I know, Kelly and I and your grandparents were the only ones.”

‘How did you come to know?”

“Well, that’s a long story.”

“Is this a bad time?”

“No, not at all. Do you have a day off today?”

“Yeah, today and tomorrow. I work Saturday and Sunday.”

“Shiftwork—the joy of nursing in a hospital.”

“Kelly did some of that, didn’t she?”

“For a few years.”

“Will you tell me the story of you and Great-Grandma?”

“Of course.” He sat back in his easy chair, stretched out his legs and put his feet up on the coffee table. “I’ve always felt awkward that Joanna swore me to secrecy about this story. I still feel awkward that your dad and his brother and sisters don’t know; I found it hard to keep it from them for all these years—especially your dad and your Auntie Ruth. But I loved your great-grandma dearly and she made me promise, and I’ve always kept that promise. You know your grandpa wanted to destroy the journals, right?”

“That’s what Grandma told me. She said she talked him out of it.”

“She can be a little persuasive.”

Beth laughed softly. “I know all about that!”

“I guess you probably do.”

“When did you first meet Great-Grandma?”

“Part way through my second year in Meadowvale. It was not long after Kelly and I got engaged, so it would have been in late nineteen eighty-three or early nineteen eighty-four—I forget which. Kelly and I bumped into her at the Co-op deli one day; she and Ruth were doing some shopping and they’d stopped for a coffee—or in Joanna’s case, a tea. Not that I ever called her ‘Joanna’; she was always ‘Mrs. Robinson’, although I was able to persuade her to call me ‘Tom’ when she got to know me better.”

“Did she call you ‘Mr. Masefield’ at first?”

“She did. She was very old-fashioned that way.”

“I think I remember that.”

“Anyway, as soon as she found out I was English she invited me over for tea at her house. I didn’t take her up on it right away, but after Kelly and I were married we went together, and that was when I first noticed the mystery about her.”

“The mystery?”

“Yeah. She claimed to be the wife of a transplanted English farm labourer, but her accent was quite upper-class. And she seemed to have no past—no stories, no family photographs or connections with people in the old country. I asked her a couple of times, and all I could get out of her was that she and Will were from a village near Stamford, and they’d moved to Canada because he was having difficulty finding work back home. Whenever I tried to push her for more information she deflected me, and I realized very quickly that she didn’t want to talk about it.”

“How did you handle that?”

“You know, in a strange way I could understand it. You know that when I first moved to Canada I had a rather painful relationship with my dad, and I really didn’t enjoy it when people asked me about my family back home in England. I told Kelly that if Joanna didn’t want to talk about her past, that was fine with me.”

“But you were still able to become friends.”

“Oh yeah. I kept visiting her, and I quite enjoyed her company. And she really loved Kelly, and when Emma was born she really took an interest in her, too. She was quite a devout Christian, you know.”

“I remember that.”

“She enjoyed talking about faith with me. I also discovered she liked poetry, especially World War One poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Her oldest brother had been killed in the trenches in nineteen-seventeen, and when I heard about that I came to understand better why those writers meant so much to her. I often read her favourite poetry to her, and I introduced her to some of my favourites too.”

“Did you make a John Clare fan out of her?”

Tom laughed softly. “You remember about me and John Clare?”

“You were rather passionate about him in English class, Tom!”

“I guess I was. And yes—she didn’t know Clare very well, but when she found out he was from Helpston she was quite interested. That’s quite close to Bramthorpe, you know, which is where she was from.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“She also enjoyed the fact that I sang traditional English folk songs. She recognized some of them; apparently Will used to sing them from time to time.”

“Nice!”

“Yeah. So, time went by, and we became closer friends. Kelly’s mum and dad were my Meadowvale parents, but I often said that Joanna was my Meadowvale grandmother, and a real English grandmother too. We were like you and your grandma, Beth; we talked about all kinds of things. It was an extraordinary friendship, and a real gift to me.”

“That’s amazing, Tom.”

“I know. Anyway, to make a long story short, the year she died we started getting closer to the story of how she and Will came to Canada, and what they left behind. The night before she died I visited her, and she told me the whole story from start to finish. She said she wanted me to know, because I’d been such a good friend to her. She told me about the journals and that she’d left instructions that they were to go to your grandpa, but she didn’t want anyone else to know.”

“Grandma said she was trying to protect the family.”

 “Yes. Even after sixty years, she was still scarred by what her family of origin had done to her—to disown her the way they did, and completely cut her off—and at all costs she wanted to protect her children and grandchildren from anything like that. Personally, I thought it was a bit overdone; after all that time, it seemed unlikely to me that anything bad could happen, but she was such a good friend to me, and I owed it to her to respect her wishes.”

For a moment there was silence on the other end of the line, and then Beth said, “What was she like, Tom? I mean, I remember the way she dressed like an old-fashioned English lady and the way she was formal in her speech, but I don’t have many other memories of her.”

Tom laughed. “Appearances can be deceptive, you know. There was a wild and radical heart that beat beneath that conventional English exterior.”

“What do you mean?”

“She told me her parents had given her a Bible as a confirmation present, and she’d actually read it all the way through. I’m not sure if they meant her to do that, but she did, and it had a real influence on her.”

“Grandma mentioned something about that.”

“Yeah; the gospels really got to her, and the rest of the New Testament as well. Somehow, she was able to break away from the conventional way English people of her age and class read the Bible, and really hear and understand Jesus’ radical message. That’s why she and Will had the courage to do what they did; they were both very devout, and they believed God would have been appalled with the English class system. Years later your grandpa told me they had always been strong supporters of Tommy Douglas and the CCF, which is another thing you don’t expect from someone who dresses like the Queen wandering around her country estates!”

It was Beth’s turn to laugh. “That’s amazing!”

“You can be proud of her, Beth, and I know she’d be very proud of you. She loved her kids, but she was sad that none of them turned out to be churchgoers. She was really glad your Aunt Ruth had married a churchgoing Mennonite; in her final years she was really close to John and Ruth and their family. And I remember the day Kelly and I told her that Rachel had started taking you to church with her; she was absolutely delighted.”

“I’ve got a vague memory of her saying something about it to me when I was really little.”

Tom glanced at his watch. “Listen, Beth—we’ve got Becca and her little guy coming over soon, so I’d better go and find Em and pass you over to her for a few minutes. But before I do, let me ask you—would it be okay with you if I told Wendy?”

“Wendy, yes, but maybe not Em just yet. When the time comes, I don’t want my dad to think I’ve told a whole bunch of other people, but not him.”

“Understood. Speaking of that, when he finds out about all this, let me be the one to tell him I already know the story, okay? There’s no need for you to have to try to explain to him why I knew before he did.”

“That would be great, Tom; I’ll admit, I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about that scenario.”

“When the time comes, and I hear from you that he’s found out about the journals, I’ll email him or call him right away and tell him what Joanna told me and why I never told him about it. If he’s going to get upset with anyone about that it should be me, Bethie, not you.”

“Thanks, Tom. I’m sorry I haven’t called you for a long time; I’ve really missed talking to you.”

“Likewise.” He got to his feet. “I’ll find Emma and pass the phone on to her.”

Holton Park, Chapter 1

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 1:

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN

The outside temperature in Meadowvale that Sunday afternoon, including the wind chill, was minus thirty-one, so Beth Robinson and her daughter Claire agreed that going outside to play wasn’t on the agenda. Not that Beth would have minded, but she knew three-and-a-half-year-old Claire wouldn’t last ten minutes before she started to shiver and cry.

“How about cookies?” Beth asked. “We could start them now, and you and your Grandma could carry on with them while I go visit your Great-Grandma.”

“Why can’t I come with you?”

“Because you’ll be bored.”

Claire shook her head vigorously. “I like Great-Gramma!”

“That’s because she usually reads you stories and stuff. But she’s not doing that today; she just wants to talk to me about something. That’s why Grandma’s coming to babysit you.” Beth leaned forward and kissed the little girl on the forehead. “Come on now—wouldn’t it be more fun to bake cookies with Grandma? A lot more fun than having to sit quietly while Great-Grandma talks to me about grown-up stuff!”

“What grown-up stuff?”

“I don’t know; she hasn’t told me.”

“Why not?”

Beth laughed. “Questions, questions! What about those cookies?”

Claire gave a heavy sigh. “I guess that would be okay.”

“Good! What do you think? Peanut butter? Oatmeal and raisin? Chocolate chip?”

“Chocolate chip!”

“Alrighty then—let’s get started, shall we? Then when your Grandma gets here, you two can keep right on going.”

“Okay.”

***

Half an hour later, when Beth’s mother Lynda Robinson arrived, Beth and Claire were at the kitchen table with all the ingredients spread out around them. Claire looked up as Lynda walked into the kitchen. “Grandma!” she cried, holding out her arms.

“What’s going on here, then?” asked Lynda with a grin.

“Chocolate chip cookies!”

“Sounds like a great idea on a cold day!” Lynda bent over and gave her granddaughter a hug. “How are you doing, honey?”

“Good! But Mom says it’s too cold to play outside.”

“She’s pretty smart, isn’t she?”

Claire shrugged. “I guess so. I like making cookies.”

“Me too! Cookies and coffee are my favourite.”

Beth smiled apologetically. “I was full of good intentions about getting the coffee going, but then we got started, and, well…”

Lynda laughed and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t fret yourself, Bethie—I know how to make coffee!”

“Yeah, I know, but I like to make it for you.”

“Any idea why your grandma wants to talk to you?”

“No—just that she asked me to come this afternoon, and to come by myself. Auntie Ruth was in to see her yesterday; she said she had been coughing a lot. They were talking about putting her on oxygen.”

“Yeah, that’s what Ruth said to your dad. They were talking on the phone at lunch time today.”

“I hope Grandma hasn’t got pneumonia. She’s been feeling under the weather for a few days now. Well, I’d better get going, Mom.”

“Don’t you want to let your car warm up for a minute?”

“I’ll walk.”

Lynda smiled at her daughter. “Of course you will; what was I thinking?”

***

Rachel Robinson’s room at the Meadowvale Special Care Home was not large, but it was comfortably furnished, with a bed at one end, a carpeted floor, two easy chairs on either side of a small table by the window, and a couple of bookshelves against the inside wall. In one corner, a wide doorway led to a small bathroom.

When Beth arrived, Rachel was sitting by the window, wearing a thick wool cardigan, her long hair tied up in a bun. Beth noticed the oxygen tank at her side. She went over to her grandmother and kissed her on the forehead. “Are you short of breath, Oma?” she asked.

“Just a little, but I’m all right. How are you, my dear?”

“I’m good, thanks.” Beth took off her parka and hung it in the closet. “Are you warm enough?”

“I’m fine. Did you walk over?”

“Yeah. Shall I make us some tea?”

“I just made it a couple of minutes ago. It should be ready to drink; why don’t you pour it for us?”

Beth glanced over to the counter and saw the tea pot in its woollen cosy, with two mugs, a small milk jug and a sugar jar. “Looks like you’ve got everything ready.”

“I had a pretty good idea when you’d get here.”

Beth poured the tea, handed one of the mugs to her grandmother and then took her seat across from her.  Rachel took a sip of her tea. “Is your mom watching Claire?”

“Yeah; I left them in the kitchen, making chocolate chip cookies.”

“Claire will like that.”

Beth gestured toward the oxygen tank. “When did they bring that in?”

“Last night. I was coughing a lot, and Doctor DeVries seemed to think I might need some help breathing. I’m feeling a little better today, though. How was church this morning?”

Beth ignored the question. “Did the doctor have anything else to say?”

“Yes; she thinks I might have pneumonia.”

“That’s not good, Oma; are you keeping warm and drinking lots of fluids?”

Rachel smiled at her patiently. “You don’t have to be my doctor, Bethie—I have a perfectly good one already.”

“I know, but I like to keep up on how you’re doing.”

“They’re giving me drugs and oxygen and telling me exactly what you just told me—keep warm, drink fluids, and get lots of rest. And I’m doing as I’m told, so you can stop worrying about me now and answer my question: how was church today?”

“It was good. Pastor Ron had an interesting sermon, and I liked the hymns.”

“What was the sermon about?”

“Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey.”

“Would you mind reading the passage for me?”

“Of course; English or German?”

Rachel smiled. “English is fine, but I appreciate the offer.”

Beth picked up her grandmother’s worn King James Bible from where it had been sitting on the table, turned to the passage, and read it slowly. When she was finished, Rachel asked her to say more about the sermon, and for a few minutes they discussed the passage and its meaning. Beth had known this would happen. Her own parents were not churchgoers, but her grandmother had started taking her to Meadowvale Mennonite Church when she was five years old, and conversations about the Sunday School lesson or the sermon had been a regular part of her life ever since.

Eventually the old lady fell silent, her eyes far away, and after a moment Beth said, “Are you okay, Oma?”

Rachel reached across and squeezed her granddaughter’s hand, and for a minute she simply looked at her with a smile on her face. In many ways the two of them were mirror images of each other; they were both lean and wiry, with the same brown eyes, thin faces, and sharp chins. Beth was wearing her long brown hair loose down her back, but she knew that if her grandmother untied her bun, her white hair would be just as long.

“Are you all right?” she asked again.

 “I’m fine, Bethie. It’s just that I’ve been thinking for a long time that there’s something I want to tell you about, and I think today might be the day for me to do it.”

“What is it?”

Rachel inclined her head toward the closet on the other side of the room. “In the bottom of my closet you’ll find a box of old journals that belonged to your great-grandmother Robinson. She started keeping them in England before she and your great-grandfather came to Canada, and she wrote in them regularly until the year before she died. They came to your grandpa after her death, and that’s when I first read through them.”

“I had no idea she kept journals.”

“She was very private about it. When she died, your grandpa found the box in her room at the special care home, with a note asking him to take care of them. I remember asking him at the time whether we shouldn’t share them with the family, but he said no, some things were better left in the past. I think he would have preferred to get rid of them, but after I read them, I asked him not to do that; I thought the story needed to be preserved and passed on to your generation. But she said in the note that she didn’t want a lot of people reading them.  I’m pretty sure there were only four people who knew about them until today.”

Beth gave her a quizzical glance. “You and Grandpa, and…?”

“Tom and Kelly Masefield.”

“Tom and Kelly? How did they find out?”

“She told Tom about them, just before she died. They got to be good friends in the last few years of her life, you know.”

Beth smiled. “That’s right; Tom told me about that a few years ago.”

“She liked the fact that he was English; she used to make him strong tea, and he read poetry to her.”

“He would enjoy that.”

“I think so.”

“Do you want me to get the journals out now?”

“No, but after I’m gone I want you to take them home with you and keep them safe, and I want you to read them. I’ve left instructions in my will that they’re to be your property, and you’ll be the one who has the final say about what happens to them.”

“Me? Surely they should go to Dad?”

Rachel smiled. “It’s true he’s my oldest son, but you’re the one who’s always asked me about family history.”

“Yes, and you’ve never told me much about the English side of the family.”

“I didn’t feel free to talk about it while your grandpa was alive, Bethie; I knew he would have preferred to leave the past in the past.”

“What’s in the journals? Why are they so important?”

Rachel lifted her mug slowly to her lips, drank a little tea, and then set it down carefully on the table between them. “What do you remember about your great-grandma?”

Beth frowned thoughtfully. “I was only twelve years old when she died, but I remember she was very English in the way she dressed and spoke. And quite formal, sometimes, too—I remember she rarely addressed adults by their first names—it was usually ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ Was she always like that?”

“Yes. I remember when I first met her, in the summer of nineteen forty-seven, when Michael started walking out with me. Of course, I’d been born and raised on a farm, and I’d never known any other kind of life, but it occurred to me then that Michael’s mother didn’t seem entirely comfortable as a farmer’s wife. There were things she just didn’t seem very good at, things I’d been doing since I was a little girl.”

“Was she not raised on a farm, then?”

“Ah—now we come to it.” Rachel paused for a moment, her eyes suddenly far away. “The world was such a different place in nineteen twenty-nine, when Will and Joanna Robinson first came here as a young couple with a one-year-old son. Especially in England. The First World War had brought a lot of changes, but it was still nothing like the sort of life we lived here on the prairies. Of course, my parents were lucky to escape from the Bolsheviks with the clothes on their backs, but the life they built for themselves here in Canada was much like what they’d experienced in Russia before the war. But for Michael’s parents, it was very different.”

“How so?”

Rachel stretched out her hand again. “Hold my hand, Beth.”

Beth reached across and took her grandmother’s bony hand in hers. “Go on.”

“Your great-grandfather’s name was William Robinson—Will, his wife used to call him. He was born on a farm in south Lincolnshire, on a big estate near a village called Bramthorpe. I’ve never been there, of course—I’ve never been to England at all—but I’ve looked it up on a map. It’s northwest of Peterborough, near the town of Stamford. Will’s father was a tenant farmer on the estate, so he paid rent to the local squire—I think that would be the right word, although Joanna never used it in her journals. She was the squire’s daughter, you see.”

Beth gave a little laugh. “You mean my great-grandfather ran off with a member of the aristocracy? Wouldn’t that have been a little scandalous in those days?”

“I don’t know if the word ‘aristocracy’ is right; as far as I can tell, her father was never a duke or an earl or a count or anything like that. But he was definitely the local landowner, and the estate had been in his family for over four centuries.”

“Four centuries? Back into Tudor times, you mean?”

“That’s right.” Suddenly Rachel started to cough, and after a moment Beth got up, put her arm behind her grandmother’s shoulders, and started rubbing her back gently. “Do you want me to get you a glass of cold water?”

The old lady nodded, still coughing. Beth went over to the sink, took an empty glass from the shelf, filled it with water and brought it to her. Rachel smiled her thanks, raised the glass to her lips and took a few sips. After a moment her coughing began to ease, and she put the glass down beside her teacup. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome; take a break for a minute if you want.”

“No, I’m fine. Now, where was I?”

“Will Robinson and the squire’s daughter.”

“Right. Her maiden name was Joanna Rowley. Her father—the squire—was Robert Rowley; occasionally in the journals she gives him the title, ‘Sir Robert Rowley,’ which I suppose means he was a knight of some kind. I don’t think that’s a hereditary title in England, though I might be wrong. It seems when Will was about fifteen—that would be in nineteen-nineteen—he left his father’s farm and went to work as a groom in the squire’s stables; he was always very good with horses, I remember. Apparently the squire’s daughter was an enthusiastic rider, and that’s how they first came to talk to each other. Joanna had lost an older brother in the war, and it turned out Will had too, and she found some comfort talking to him about it.

“They became friends across the social divide, and eventually they started to fall in love. They were both very idealistic, and Joanna had come to believe that the whole class system she’d been brought up in was wrong. She wanted to leave the old way of life behind and start something new, throwing off the shackles of tradition; it might be hard, but she and Will would be sustained by their indestructible love. I’m not being cynical; these are the words she uses in her journals, and I’m sure she was very sincere.”

“Where did she get ideas like that in the nineteen-twenties?” asked Beth.

Rachel smiled again. “Actually, she got them from reading the Bible.”

“The Bible?”

“Yes. Her parents gave her a Bible of her own in her early teens. I expect it would have been a very common sort of gift in those days; I don’t know if they expected her to read it, but she was a voracious reader. Over the next few years she read the whole thing from cover to cover, and somehow she was able to break through conventional interpretations and see the message of justice and love there, especially in the gospels. And I think that helped her see the English class system with different eyes.”

“They obviously got married at some point,” said Beth. “How did they get her family to agree to that.”

“They didn’t. They ran away to Scotland in nineteen twenty-six, got married in Gretna Green, and then came home and presented it to their families as a fait accompli.”

“At which point I expect things got a little complicated.”

“More than a little complicated; her father disowned her and dismissed her new husband from his job as a groom. And it wasn’t just her family that were against them; Will’s family were shocked by what they had done, and I expect they were afraid of what the squire might do to them if they supported Will and Joanna. So at that point, they were really on their own.”

“What did they do?”

“Will was able to get a job as a farm labourer on another farm in the area, but the wages were low, and they lived a very hand-to-mouth existence for the next few years. I think gradually Joanna began to realize the enormity of what she’d done. I don’t think she’d really expected her family to disown her so completely. And of course, your grandfather was born during that time, too.”

“So eventually they came to Canada?”

“Yes—in nineteen twenty-nine, just in time for the great depression.”

“How on earth did they find the money to emigrate?”

“That’s a good question, and Joanna never talks about it in the journals. I can’t help thinking that someone in her family—a brother or sister, perhaps—must have secretly given her some money, so she and Will could start again somewhere else.”

“After they moved here, did she never write to any of her family?”

“I can’t say for sure, but Michael and I never found any letters from them in her papers after she died. We did find one or two from Will’s father; his name was Sam Robinson, and the farm was called Steeple farm. I have no idea whether it still exists.”

“That wouldn’t be hard to find out nowadays with the Internet. Does she mention the name of the estate? Did the old house have a name or anything?”

“The estate was called Holton Park; I expect the house was called Holton House or something like that. As I said, the nearest village was Bramthorpe.”

Beth was thinking hard. “Oma, going back to something you said a minute ago, are you telling me that Will and Joanna had an unhappy marriage? That in the end they wished they hadn’t married each other?”

“No, but I think it was difficult for them in the early years. I’m sure they found a lot of happiness together, but I’m also sure they both underestimated the gap between the life he’d been raised in and the things she was used to. Will had a lot of working-class pride and resentment at the way he had been treated by the squire, although they both believed strongly in the need to forgive, and they really tried to do it. And as for Joanna—well, can you imagine leaving a place like Holton Park and moving to a homestead on the prairie in the thirties? Mud all summer long, and cold and snow all winter?  And of course, she’d never been a farmer’s wife and wasn’t used to farm chores; she had to start from the beginning and learn all the things the women around her had known since they were girls. I think she felt guilty that she didn’t know how to support her husband the way the other women did.”

Beth shook her head. “I never knew. I saw her often when I was a little girl, and she never breathed a word about any of this to me.”

“Nor to anyone else, as far as I know, except to Tom.”

“I wonder why she would talk to Tom about it, and not to anyone else in the family?”

“She told Tom she was worried some of her children or grandchildren might try to go back to England and dig up the old family connections. She didn’t want to risk them being hurt in the same way she’d been hurt.”

“Tom told you this?”

“He told your grandpa. Michael asked him about it after Joanna’s funeral; he’d read the note she included in the box of journals, and he wondered how much Tom knew. I think Tom was in a difficult situation, actually; Joanna had specifically asked him not to say anything to anyone in the family except Michael, and then only if Michael raised the issue with him. Michael told me afterwards that Tom had talked to Kelly about it, but that was it.”

“So my dad doesn’t know?”

“I don’t think so. Your grandpa certainly never said anything to him, and I think if Tom had talked to him, he would have come and asked us about it.”

“It must have been hard for Tom to keep that from my dad; they’re such good friends.”

“I know.”

“So you and Grandpa never tried to make contact with any of the family back in England?”

“No. Joanna didn’t want that, and Michael agreed with her; he thought the past should be left in the past. Even after we discovered those letters from his Will’s father, he never did anything about them.”

“What does my dad know?”

“He knows what you knew until today: that his grandparents came here from England in nineteen twenty-nine and never went back to the old country or maintained any contact with family over there. He’s never asked me about it, so I don’t know whether he’s ever wondered about that lack of contact.”

“So, what do you want me to do, Oma?”

“I want you to read the journals and look after them, and make sure the story isn’t lost to the family.”

“Do you want me to take them now?”

“I don’t think so. I wouldn’t want your father thinking that I’d kept something from him and given it to you while I’m still alive, but if they come to you in my will…”

Beth nodded. “I understand, but that means it’s going to be a few years yet before I get to read them.”

Rachel shook her head slowly. “At my age, Bethie, I can’t take that for granted. That’s why I wanted to have this conversation with you today. And now I think I’ve told you all I want to say about your great-grandparents; the whole story is in those journals, and I know you’ll read them, so I don’t need to say anything else.”

“I may be able to do more than read them. I’m going to England this summer, you know.”

“Of course you are—for Emma’s wedding. When is that again?”

“July nineteenth, four months from now.”

“Well then—perhaps you can do a little exploring while you’re there.”

“I think I’d like that.”

Rachel looked away for a moment, a thoughtful expression on her wrinkled face, and Beth waited patiently, knowing that when she was ready, she would share what was on her mind. Out in the corridor a couple of people were laughing together, and Beth thought she recognized the voice of her cousin Kathy, who was on staff at the special care home.

Eventually Rachel reached over and took Beth’s hand again. “On another subject, I keep meaning to ask you—what do you see the future holding for you? Are you still happy to stay here in Meadowvale and try to raise Claire by yourself?”

“Well, I’m not really raising her by myself, am I? Mom and Dad are taking a lot of the load for me, especially when I’m at work, and Auntie Ruth helps too, and Kathy. But I don’t know what else I can do, Oma. I’m divorced, and Greg’s in the Cayman Islands, and he doesn’t want to know us or have anything to do with us.”

“He still hasn’t tried to contact Claire?”

“No, and to be honest, I’m not complaining about that. He pays his child support every month, and beyond that I don’t know whether I would want him to be involved in Claire’s life. He’s the one who walked out on us, and she needs a better role model than that.”

“It’s a terrible thing,” Rachel replied, “but I want you to promise me you won’t allow yourself to be consumed by resentment. I know you’re angry with Greg, and I can’t blame you for that, but please don’t get stuck there. You’re a lovely young woman, Beth, and you’ve got a heart full of love to give. Don’t let it get locked up there, okay?”

Beth looked away. “I know you’re right,” she whispered. “But sometimes I have a hard time getting past it all.”

Rachel squeezed her hand. “God will help you, in time.”

“I hope so. Do you mind if we talk about something else?”

“Of course not.”

“So, when I go to England in July, would you be okay with me looking for Holton Park?”

For a moment Rachel didn’t reply; she looked away again, and Beth could see she was going over things in her mind. Eventually she gave a little nod. “I think so, but be careful.”

“What are you worried about, Oma?”

“To be honest, I don’t really know. It’s been nearly eighty years since Will and Joanna came here, and I doubt very much whether anyone over there would have any anger towards my mother-in-law’s descendants; the ones who are alive today have probably forgotten she existed—if they ever knew. But she was worried about that, and I suppose I’ve taken that worry on myself.”

“Time to set that burden down, I think.”

Rachel smiled and nodded; “You’re probably right, my very wise granddaughter!”

Beth laughed; “Not so very wise, I think! I still need regular advice from my even wiser grandmother!”

“Well, then I’ll give you some, if I may?”

“Of course.”

“Enjoy that trip to England, Bethie. Travel around, see the historic places, spend time with Tom and Wendy and Emma and…and…I’ve forgotten the name of Emma’s young man.”

“Matthew—Matthew MacFarlane.”

“Right—Matthew, I knew that. Well, have a good time with them, and if you want to go looking for Holton Park while you’re there, well, you do that too, and bring me back some pictures.”

“I’ll be sure to do that.”

“Good!”

“One more thing: do you want me to say anything to my dad about this?”

Rachel shook her head. “Not yet; I don’t want to have to go over this story over and over again with everyone in the family who takes an interest in it. I’ve got other things I want to talk about with them! But I can rest easier knowing that you know, and that you’ll take the journals and look after them. After I’m gone, talk to anyone you want and share as much of the story as you feel you should.”

“Alright then; that’s what I’ll do.”