Holton Park, Chapter Seven

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 7

Oxford and Holton Park: July 20 – August 8 2008.

Beth made her trip to Bramthorpe in the first week in August, after the Reimers went back to Canada.

Matthew and Emma went to Scotland for a week for their honeymoon, and the Reimers took the opportunity to do some more touring, making a trip down to the West Country to visit some historic places and enjoy the spectacular scenery of the south coast. Beth had thought about going with them, but she came to the reluctant conclusion that Claire would very quickly get bored, as well as being disoriented by the experience of sleeping in a different bed every night. So she decided to stay in the Oxford area, and Tom and Wendy immediately said they would stay with her.

“You don’t have to do that!” Beth protested. “I know Becca, and Owen and Lorraine, and I can look after myself, as long as you don’t mind leaving me the key.”

“We’d be quite happy to leave you the key,” Tom replied, “but we’ve seen the West Country many times, and we don’t often get to see you.”

“But you’ll miss spending time with Joe and Ellie.”

“I think our friendship will survive. Anyway, we want to show you around Oxford, and we know where all the child-friendly places are.”

And so Beth and Claire spent a leisurely week in the Oxford area. They spent a couple of days strolling in the city centre, going into any college that happened to be open and looking around it until Claire got bored, at which point they would find the nearest piece of grass to run on (preferably with swings and slides and climbing bars close at hand). They spent an afternoon at Cutteslowe Park in north Oxford, feeding the ducks, splashing in the splash park, and riding the miniature railway. This was the outing in which Tom firmly established himself as one of Claire’s favourite adults by going into the splash park with her and joining her in jumping up and down until they were both soaking wet. From that point on, she would take his hand without hesitation and go with him wherever he wanted to take her.

One afternoon Wendy took Beth to visit her college, Merton; they wandered through the fourteenth century hall, sat for a while in the quiet of the chapel, explored the various quadrangles, and ended up having coffee and a long visit in Wendy’s rooms. At the end of the afternoon, they went over to Magdalen College and walked for half an hour in Addison’s Walk, before going home to enjoy a meal which Lisa had prepared for them all with Claire’s assistance.

Lisa was back staying at Tom and Wendy’s house now that Emma was gone, and Beth found herself warming to her. Lisa was not sitting around while she waited to hear about her job application at the EU parliament; she was doing freelance translation work to support herself, and the spare bedroom had quickly become her office as well.

One night they all went out to Cumnor Hill, west of Oxford, for a family gathering of the Masefields at the home of Tom’s brother Rick. Tom’s mother was there, along with Becca and Mike and their son Luke, and Rick and his wife Alyson and their daughters Sarah and Anna (their son Eric was living in London, they explained, and didn’t come home very often). The weather was fine, and they ate on the patio, after which Beth wandered on the grass for a while with Sarah, who had visited Meadowvale with Tom three years ago.

On the Friday night they went over to Owen and Lorraine Foster’s house to share a meal and play some music. Tom, Owen and Wendy were a folk band, ‘Lincoln Green,’ and they sang some of their traditional songs for a while. But Beth had brought a guitar with her as well, and Owen was keen to hear her play. “I’d love to hear that arrangement you used to do of ‘Lakes of Pontchartrain,’” he said, and so Beth played the song for him, and afterwards everyone was very appreciative.

Matthew and Emma returned from their honeymoon on the Sunday afternoon, obviously aglow with each other’s company; they were scheduled to move into their flat in London on August 1 but had planned to spend the last week of July in Oxford so that they could visit with Emma’s Reimer relatives before they went back to Canada. On the Monday of that week Emma took Beth and Claire away by themselves for the day; they went canoeing on the Thames — “Or the Isis, as it’s known in Oxford, the home of all things pretentious!” said Emma with a grin — followed by a trip out of town to a riding stables where they all enjoyed a couple of hours on horseback, with Claire sharing a saddle with each of them in turn.

The Reimers flew back to Canada on the Wednesday of that week, and on the Friday Matthew and Emma went down to London to move into their new flat. Beth and Claire stood with Tom and Wendy and Lisa in front of their house, waving as Matthew and Emma’s car drove off down Bowness Avenue, with Emma waving back at them from the passenger window. They turned right at the corner onto Headley Way, and after a moment Tom gave a heavy sigh. “Well, there she goes,” he said. “My little girl is now Mrs. MacFarlane, and she lives in a different city than me.”

“Are you finally having a midlife crisis?” said Lisa.

“You’re bad, Lisa Howard!” Tom replied with a twinkle in his eye.

Wendy put her arm around him and kissed him on the cheek. “What are we going to do to stave off your melancholy for the rest of the day?” she asked.

Tom grinned at Beth. “I know what we’ll do,” he said; “We’ll plan a trip to Bramthorpe to see Holton Park. What do you think, Beth—would Monday suit you?”

“Absolutely! I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.”

“Not a chance. Let’s go and book ourselves a couple of hotel rooms in Stamford, shall we?”

***

They were able to get two double rooms at an old hotel in the centre of the old town of Stamford. It was a two-hour drive from Oxford, but they broke the trip up near Northampton with a stop for lunch and a few minutes for Claire to run around. Tom and Wendy split the driving between them, with Beth sitting in the back with Claire, reading to her and playing car games, and doing her best to keep her from getting bored.

Beth enjoyed the fact that the road was open, with no embankments obscuring her view. The countryside was mainly flat or gently rolling, the fields divided by lines of trees or hedgerows, and every few miles a village with houses of red brick or grey stone, and always the churches with their spires or towers pointing to the sky above.

They arrived in Stamford early in the afternoon. Tom and Wendy had been there before and were familiar with the town, so they found a place to park and walked around for a while. They stopped for a very expensive coffee at an ancient coaching inn, then wandered again, crossing a stone-walled bridge over a small river. Away on their left was a wide green meadow, while ahead, above the houses, Beth could see several church towers. “What river is this?” she asked.

“The Welland,” Tom replied. “The meadow’s really quite lovely, isn’t it?”

“It really is.” She looked around her at the narrow streets lined with buildings of grey stone. “You must really have gone through a culture shock when you moved to Canada, Tom,” she said.

“You’ve noticed the differences, have you?”

“Everything’s so green here. And of course, the buildings are so much older. Everything’s so young where we live.”

They stopped on the bridge, resting their arms on the stone parapet and looking down at the slow-moving river below. Tom lifted Claire up so she could see the ducks and coots floating lazily by. “Do you like it, Miss Claire?” he asked.

“It’s really nice.”

Wendy was standing beside Beth as they looked down at the river. “How are you feeling?” she asked in a quiet voice. “It must be a moving experience to know that your great-grandmother was born not five miles from here.”

Beth nodded slowly, her eyes far away. “I just realized that,” she whispered. “She mentions coming into Stamford many times in her journals. I wonder if she ever walked across this bridge?”

“It’s the centre of the town, so it would be a surprise if she didn’t. You’re probably standing in a spot she knew well.”

Beth looked at Wendy in silence for a moment, shaking her head slowly. “It seems so unreal,” she said. “I can’t believe I’m actually here.”

***

They had known beforehand that Holton Park was closed to the public each day at five, so they had decided not to try to fit in a visit on their first afternoon. They checked into their rooms at the hotel just after three, spent a little while getting settled in, and then went for a drive out toward Bramthorpe, just two miles north of Stamford on a narrow, tree-lined road. The first thing Beth noticed when they drove into the village was an old stone church on the left. “That’s St. Luke’s!” she exclaimed. “That’s where the family attended church on Sundays.”

“Were Joanna’s parents married there, I wonder?” asked Tom.

“That I don’t know.”

“Shall we stop and have a look? Some churches are open during the day; we might be able to go in.”

“Would you mind?” asked Beth.

Tom laughed. “This is your trip, Bethie; we’re going to stop wherever you want to stop and look at whatever you want to look at.”

They pulled the car up against the sidewalk and got out in the afternoon sunlight. The churchyard was surrounded by a low stone wall with a gated entrance; they went through it and followed the path round the side of the building to the stone porch with its old wooden door. Tom tried it and found that it opened easily. “Our lucky day,” he said.

Inside, the air smelled of wood and furniture polish. The wooden pews had red kneelers in front of them, and there was a matching red carpet leading up the aisle to the front, where the altar stood at the east end. The pulpit, off to one side, had a wooden sounding board above it; the lectern across the aisle was small by comparison, with a wooden hymn board on the wall behind it.

Off to her right, Beth saw a stone memorial set into the wall of the church, beside one of the stained-glass windows. Moving closer, she read out loud.

“Sacred to the memory of the men of this parish who gave their lives for king and country, nineteen-fourteen to nineteen-eighteen.”

She counted; there were thirty-two names, in alphabetical order. She scanned the list and found the name she was looking for. “Rowley, E.R.,” she whispered, “August thirty-first nineteen-seventeen.”

“Joanna’s brother Edward,” said Tom.

“Yes.”

“It’s rare to have dates given. Most war memorials just have names.”

“Joanna’s father put this up. He must have done the research.” She searched the list for the other name, and quickly found it. “Robinson, S.C.,” she said, “September tenth nineteen-fourteen.”

“Will’s brother,” said Tom. “He must have been in one of the very first battles the British Expeditionary Force fought. I remember the day Joanna told me about him.”

Beth reached out and put her finger on the two names, one after the other. “My relatives,” she whispered.

“Mommy, what is that?” asked Claire.

Beth stooped and lifted her up. “A very long time ago, there was a great war fought,” she said. “Many, many people died in it. This is a list of people from this village who died in that war.”

“These are their names?”

“Yes. Two of them are our relatives. Your great-great grandma and great-great-grandpa were both born here, and each of them lost a brother in the war. This stone is a memorial to them.”

“What’s a memorial?”

“It’s something their families put up so people wouldn’t forget them. It’s a long time ago now, and probably no one is still alive who knew them, but we can remember their names anyway, because they’re written on this memorial.”

Claire looked into Beth’s face. “Mommy, are you sad?”

Beth smiled through her tears. “Maybe a little bit sad, and a little moved. I’ve come a long way to see things like this, and it means a lot to me. Don’t be scared, sweetie; you’ll probably see me crying a few times, but it doesn’t mean I’m upset, okay?”

“Okay.”

Wendy wandered off to the front of the church and sat down in one of the pews. Tom put his arm around Beth’s shoulders. “This is just the beginning, Bethie,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. But even if this was everything, it would be enough. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I do.” Tom held out his arms to Claire. “Come to me for a few minutes?”

“Okay,” the little girl replied.

“Shall I carry you, or shall we walk?”

“Walk. Can we go back outside?”

“Sure.” Tom nodded at Beth; “We’ll leave you to it for a few minutes.”

“Thanks, Tom.”

***

They spent a couple of hours wandering around Bramthorpe. The streets were narrow, the houses built mainly of the same stone they had noticed in Stamford; they were mainly small to medium sized, but now and again they came across a more substantial property, often set behind a low stone wall with a wider expanse of lawn around it. On a street with some newer houses, they passed a primary school, set back from the road behind a playing field, and a little further on, a modern building with a sign out front advertising it as a veterinary clinic.

They found the little river Gwash on the edge of the village: it was only a few feet wide, and for a few minutes they stood on the bridge, leaning against the parapet and looking across at the fields and woods on the other side. “Steeple Farm is over there,” said Beth; “I remember its location from Google maps.”

“That’s the old Robinson farm, right?” asked Tom.

“Yes.”

“Shall we go and have a look?”

“Maybe tomorrow some time. I don’t want to rush things today.”

“Understood.” Tom glanced at his watch. “A little after five,” he said. “What do you say we go back to Stamford and eat at the hotel. Tomorrow, maybe, if the day goes well, we might find a pub out here and have a bite. What do you think?”

Wendy took his arm. “You’re a genius, as always,” she said with a grin.

“I agree,” said Beth, “although I’m not sure if I’ll sleep a wink tonight.”

“Excited, are we?” asked Tom.

“Just a little.”

***

The next morning dawned clear and bright. They left the hotel just after nine-thirty, and within a few minutes they were heading north toward Bramthorpe. On the passenger side of the car, Wendy had her window down and her arm resting on the frame. “I think it’s going to be a warm one today,” she said.

Tom glanced back at Beth in the back seat. “So—we’re going to Holton Park first, then?” he said.

Beth nodded. “The first guided tour starts at ten; we should be there on time, I think.”

They drove through the village of Bramthorpe and then followed the narrow road in a northwesterly direction. On their left was a line of trees, with a low hedge on their right, and beyond it, farmland stretching off into the distance. The countryside was flat, the crops in the fields golden under the morning sun.

Two miles north of Bramthorpe they passed a small private entrance to the Holton Park estate. They drove another mile, and then on their left saw an open gateway with a large sign:

Holton Park

A Stately Home for All Occasions

Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.

Tom turned in at the gate, and they followed the road westward for a mile or more across open fields to a thick stand of trees. Their way led through the trees for another half mile until they came to a more substantial entrance, with a sign welcoming them to Holton House. The wrought iron gates were already open, and Tom steered the car slowly through them. They passed a couple of buildings on their right, and then on their left, as they came out of the trees, they saw for the first time the large three-storey manor house. When Beth had seen pictures of it on the Internet, she had thought the stonework was grey, but now as she gazed at it in the morning sunlight, she saw that it was a richer, more mellow honey-colour, with a high red roof topped by tall Tudor chimneys. The house had four large gables with wide latticed windows, and its main entrance was on the ground floor of the second gable.

“Well, this looks grand,” said Wendy. “When was it built again?”

“In the sixteenth century,” Beth replied. “I think in the time of Elizabeth the First.”

“That looks about right,” said Tom as he pulled up beside four or five other cars already parked in the parking area in front of the house. He turned off the engine, then glanced up at Beth’s face in his rear-view mirror. “Do we just go right on in?”

“Yes. There’s a reception area just inside. I’ve already paid for the tickets; we just need to pick them up.”

They got out of the car, and Tom held out his hand to Claire. “You want to walk with me?”

“Sure”.

Beth and Wendy led the way, with Tom and Claire bringing up the rear. The front door was already open; inside, they stepped into an entrance hall with wood paneling, a tile floor, and an ornately carved ceiling. On the other side of the room, a richly carved staircase led up to the next floor. On the walls were a couple of portraits that looked to Beth as if they dated from the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.

There was a small table in front of them, and a young woman dressed smartly in skirt and blouse was standing behind it. “Welcome to Holton Park,” she said. “Are you here for the guided tour?”

“We are,” Beth replied. “I bought tickets online last night. My name is Beth Robinson.”

The young woman looked down at a list on the table in front of her. “Ah yes—three adults and one child. I’ve got your tickets here.” She handed the tickets to Beth and gestured with her hand toward a doorway opening off to her right. “That’s the entrance to the great hall,” she said. “The guests are gathering there; the tour will be starting in about five minutes. It’s a smaller group this morning, so you’ll probably get to ask more questions.”

“We should just go on through, then?” asked Beth.

“Absolutely.” The young woman hesitated, and then said, “If you don’t mind me asking, are you from America?”

“My daughter and I are from Canada, but my friends are from Oxford.”

“Oh, right. Sorry, I thought…”

‘Don’t worry about it; a lot of people get the accents confused.”

Beth led the way through the doorway into the great hall. The room was two storeys high, with dark wooden panelling stretching up as far as the bottom of the latticed windows, and then a pale cream coloured plaster reaching up to the ornate ceiling. The walls were covered in paintings, some of them obviously dating back to Tudor times, others more recent. Beth was particularly struck by a large family portrait on the west wall; it looked like a husband and wife and seven children, and from the clothing styles she guessed it to be from the eighteenth century.

Tom came over and stood beside Beth, with Claire still holding his hand. “Quite a culture shock for Joanna,” he whispered.

“No kidding.” She glanced down at Claire. “You okay with Uncle Tom?”

“Uh-huh.”

Wendy put her hand on Beth’s arm and pointed out a small piano in one corner of the room. “That’s a Georgian piano, isn’t it? The sort that Jane Fairfax would have played in Emma?”

Beth laughed softly. “I wonder if it’s genuine, or if someone threw together a replica for effect?”

There were already eleven other people in the room, strolling around and looking up at the paintings. After a moment a smartly dressed middle-aged woman came in. “Good morning, everyone,” she said. “My name is Sandy Matthews, and I’m on staff here at Holton Park. I’m going to be your tour guide for today. Toward the end of our tour, we’ll be joined by Edwin Rowley, our estate manager. He’s the son of Robert Rowley, the current owner of Holton Park, and he’ll be glad to answer any questions you might have about the family history.”

The people in the Great Hall gathered around as she continued. “Holton Park was originally an Augustinian monastery, Holton Priory, founded in the eleventh century. It was destroyed at the dissolution of the monasteries, and the estate was given by Henry the Eighth to Sir Philip Rowley in fifteen-forty. It was actually a reward for loyalty; the Rowleys had been loyal supporters of the Lancastrian and Tudor causes all through the Wars of the Roses. At the time it was a sizeable estate of two thousand acres of excellent farmland; some of that land has been sold off through the years, but there are still fifteen hundred acres remaining.

“Sir Philip built this house between fifteen fifty and fifteen fifty-eight, using mainly stone from the ruins of Holton Priory. By then of course King Henry was dead, and the years when the house was being built were times of conflict, with Henry’s young son Edward reigning for a few years, then Bloody Mary, and finally Queen Elizabeth the First, who stayed in this house several times, as Sir Philip was a particular favourite of hers.

“One of the things that makes this house so special is that its structure is substantially the same as it was in Elizabethan times. The decorations and the furniture have changed, of course, and a new wing was built in the eighteenth century, which is now used by the family as their private apartments. But the main house is very much as it was when it was first built. Now, let’s have a closer look at some of the features of this hall.”

She spent a few minutes pointing out various architectural details, and then took them round the hall to look at the paintings. As Beth had suspected, the family in the large painting on the west wall were from the eighteenth century, and there was also a striking sixteenth century portrait of Sir Philip Rowley hanging above the fireplace. But as they got closer to the northeast corner of the room, Beth’s eyes were drawn to another portrait hanging beside the latticed window. It was a family group in formal Edwardian attire; a father and mother and four children. The youngest daughter, who looked as if she would be about nine or ten, was standing beside her father; she was wearing a plain white dress reaching to her feet, and her father’s hand was resting on her shoulder. The girl’s face looked vaguely familiar to Beth; she looked up at her for a moment, and then felt Tom’s hand on her shoulder. “I’m pretty sure that little girl is Joanna,” he whispered. “If I’m right, that must be her family.”

Sandy Matthews came and stood under the painting as the people gathered around. “This is one of the most recent paintings,” she said. Pointing up at the figures, she continued, “here we see Sir Robert and Lady Rowena Rowley. Sir Robert was born in eighteen-sixty. He was actually the second son, so it wasn’t anticipated that he would inherit the estate.  However, in nineteen hundred his older brother was killed in a riding accident, and so when their father died in nineteen-oh-one, Robert inherited the estate.

“Robert married Rowena Courtney, daughter of the Earl of Devon, which was quite a step up for him. You see their four children here: Edward, Edith, James, and Joanna. In a way, history repeated itself; Edward should have inherited the estate, but he was killed in the First World War, so the estate went to his son James, and James was the father of our current owner, Robert Rowley.”

Sandy paused for a moment, and Tom spoke up. “Can I ask a question?”

“Of course, sir.”

“We always hear about the boys, but do you know what happened to the girls in the painting?”

Sandy shook her head. “I’m sorry, sir—I don’t know the answer to that. But perhaps Mr. Rowley will; you’d be welcome to ask him when he joins us at the end of our tour.”

“Right; thank you.”

Sandy gave everyone a bright smile. “Well, if there are no more questions, we’ll go through to the library, shall we?”

***

Sandy was a careful and thorough guide, and she was obviously very knowledgeable about the house and its history. She showed them the library, which was furnished mainly with Regency-style tables and chairs, with a couple of larger couches by the fireplace. Many of the books were very old, dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with a couple even earlier than that.

There was a formal drawing room with a white chalk fireplace and a gilded ceiling, and a smaller sitting room with a number of comfortable chairs grouped around another fireplace. Upstairs there was a fine minstrel’s gallery looking down on the Great Hall, and several large luxurious bedrooms, their furnishings rich but somehow subdued, as if the interior designer was intentionally trying not to appear ostentatious. At the other end of the house, they went into the room known as ‘the Queen’s Room’; this, apparently was the room used on several occasions by Queen Elizabeth the First. “Not that the family has always respected its history,” Sandy added. “Mr. Rowley senior tells me that when his father was a boy, it was the children’s playroom.”

“So Joanna would have played in here,” Beth whispered to Tom.

“Apparently.”

After an hour and a half of walking around the house Claire was starting to get cranky, so Beth was relieved when the group went outside. Sandy walked around the formal gardens with them for a while, recounting their history and pointing out some of the more striking arrangements. She pointed to a low stable block on one side of the gardens. “That stable block was renovated about ten years ago and converted into office space for the estate. The family still keeps two or three horses in there, but the rest of the building is offices now.”

She took them to see two or three other buildings, including an old tithe barn that had been converted into a modern wedding venue. Claire was now riding on Tom’s shoulders, and he was keeping to the edge of the group because she was beginning to get more vocal about her complaints. “Are we done yet?” she said to him for the third or fourth time.

“I think we’ll be done very soon,” he whispered. “You’re being amazingly patient, Miss Claire. I promise you that if you just hold out for a few more minutes, we’ll find a place where you can have a big piece of cake, or maybe even an ice cream. I see there’s a tea shop over there—it might have something delicious for you.”

“Ice cream!”

“Maybe—or cake.”

“I like ice cream!”

“I know you do, but I think cake is better.”

“Ice cream!”

“Cake!”

“Ice cream!”

“Cake!”

Wendy laughed softly at them. “Tom, you’re winding her up!”

“Hey, if you think this is bad, wait ‘til she gets a bowl of ice cream inside her!”

At the edge of the group Sandy glanced at her watch. “Well, I think Mr. Rowley will be ready to meet us now. Let’s go back to the Great Hall, shall we?”

In the Great Hall a man was standing by the fireplace looking up at the portrait of Sir Philip Rowley. He was of medium height, with wavy brown hair parted in the middle; he was wearing a white open-necked shirt and a light grey summer blazer. He turned and smiled at them all as they came into the hall. “Hello there, everyone,” he said. “I’m Edwin Rowley; I’m the estate manager here at Holton Park. My father Robert Rowley is the owner. Have you all enjoyed your tour?”

They were murmurs of appreciation, and then Claire, who was still riding on Tom’s shoulders, said, “I’d like some ice cream, please!”

Everyone laughed, and Edwin walked over and grinned at Claire. “What sort of ice cream do you like?”

“Chocolate!”

“Well, this might be your lucky day, because I believe we’ve got some chocolate ice cream at the tearoom today.”

Beth was shaking her head. “I’m sorry!” she said, her face colouring in embarrassment.”

“Not at all,” Edwin replied. “I’m a father of two myself. They do come out with the most embarrassing things sometimes, don’t they?”

“They sure do!”

Sandy Matthews moved over to stand beside her employer. “Perhaps you could tell us a bit about the modern Rowley family, sir?” she said.

Edwin smiled again; Beth noticed that he had a winning smile, and she thought he probably knew it. “Don’t worry,” he said to the people, “she only calls me ‘sir’ when there’s a crowd around!” He glanced around the hall, gesturing toward the paintings on the walls. “These paintings make our family seem like the stuff legends are made of, but of course we live in the twenty-first century, not just the sixteenth and seventeenth. I expect most of you booked your tickets for today’s tour online, and some of you have come from a long distance to be here. The world is changing fast, and many of those changes have happened in my father’s lifetime.

“Sandy’s probably told you that my dad became the owner of Holton Park by accident. His grandfather Robert had two sons and two daughters: Edward, Edith, James, and Joanna.” Edwin pointed to the painting in the corner. “You’ve probably already seen the family portrait over there. Edward was the oldest, but like so many other young men of his generation he was killed in the First World War. In those unenlightened days there was no question of women taking over the property, so James became the heir to the estate, and in nineteen-thirty-five, when his father died, he became the owner.

“Of course, it wasn’t long afterwards that the Second World War broke out. Holton Park was lucky; it was at the extreme end of the range of German bombers, and it didn’t receive any damage, even though the house was requisitioned for use as a military headquarters while the war was going on. But by nineteen forty-five the place was a mess; the army weren’t exactly model tenants, shall we say? It took several years to get the place back on its feet, and it became very obvious to James that he needed to find some reliable sources of revenue, since farming wasn’t making anything like the amount of money it once had.

“James was the one who first opened our house up to the public, at first just for two months of the year, but later for longer periods. He was the one who converted the south wing into family apartments so that the family would have a place to live while the rest of the house was opened up to folks like yourselves. He was the one who founded a dairy on site that now produces milk and eggs and ice-cream,”—here Edwin grinned at Claire, still sitting on Tom’s shoulders— “and he also bought a kiln and opened up an artisan pottery business. Also, it was in James’ time that the house was first used as the location for a couple of very successful feature films—an idea that we’ve really built on in recert years.

“James had four children: Helen, Elizabeth, Robert, and Harold. Helen married a Scottish aristocrat, Sir Frederick Lindsay, in nineteen forty-nine; he was the younger son of the Earl of Crawford, and became a distinguished member of the diplomatic corps. We didn’t know anything about that, of course; we just called him Uncle Freddie.”

There was some quiet laughter around the room as Edwin continued. “Tragically, my aunt Elizabeth was killed in London in a bombing raid at the age of twelve, in nineteen forty-two. My father was the third child, and last came my uncle Harold, who joined the British Army and rose to the rank of Major-General.

“And that brings me to my father. He was born in nineteen thirty-three, and in nineteen fifty-nine, at the age of twenty-six he stood for election to parliament, an election that he won. All told, he served as a Conservative M.P. for eleven years, and he was very proud of the fact that he never actually lost an election. But in the end, he got tired of politics, and he loved Holton Park, so in nineteen-seventy he decided not to run again. He moved back to Holton to help his father run the estate.

“My father was the one who marketed Holton Park as an event location. He brought in car shows and dog shows, and he opened the house up as a wedding location. That part of the business was so successful that eventually he had to build a second facility; he found an old tithe barn, had it moved here, and renovated it as a second wedding chapel—the first one being this Great Hall, of course. They’re busy every weekend from April to October, and sometimes during the week as well.

“My grandfather died in nineteen seventy-eight, so that was when my father became the owner of this estate—thirty years this year. My mother came from a local Peterborough family; her father was a developer and he’d done pretty well for himself. My mother and father got married while he was still an M.P., and they had four children. I’m the second one, and I’ve always been interested in the estate; I’ve been working alongside my father now since I was twenty-five, which is longer ago than I care to admit, I don’t mind telling you!” He gave the same diffident grin, and Beth smiled to herself; he knows he’s doing it, she thought.

“I have three siblings,” Edwin continued, “all of them gainfully employed. I’m especially proud of my little sister Diana. I don’t know if any of you are classical music fans, but she plays violin with a London ensemble you may have heard of, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.” A few heads nodded in the audience, and a couple of people made appreciative comments. “Thank you,” said Edwin. “Every now and again she brings a few of her friends up for the weekend and they put on little concerts for us in this hall. We feel very lucky, I can assure you.”

He looked around at the people. “Well, I think I’ve gone on for long enough, and my young friend on her grandfather’s shoulders over there is longing for her ice cream, so I’d better stop. I’d be happy to answer any questions, though.”

Beth took Tom’s arm. “I guess that makes you my dad!” she whispered.

“Well, that’s what I always wanted, you know!  We tried to buy you a couple of times, but your mum and dad weren’t selling!”

They both laughed softly, and then Tom raised his hand. “I have a question about the painting in the corner,” he said. “Actually, my friend here—I wish she was my daughter, but she’s not, so I’m only an honorary grandpa to Claire here—but I think Claire’s mum has a question about the painting in the corner.”

Edwin gave an embarrassed grin. “Sorry about that—should never assume…”

Beth shook her head. “No worries. I was just wondering what happened to the girls in that picture. We know Edward was killed, and James became the owner of Holton Park. Do we know what happened to Edith and Joanna?”

“You’ve got a good memory for names,” Edwin replied. “The answer to your question is that we know what happened to Edith; she married a landowner in Leicestershire, Reginald Willoughby, and they founded a tribe that’s still flourishing to this day. Actually, one of Edith’s great-granddaughters, Danielle, started working for our tech department a few months ago, and very good she is, too.

“But Joanna we don’t know about. All I can tell you about her is that she moved away when she was still young, and the family completely lost touch with her. We don’t know what happened to her. Sorry.”

Beth nodded, suddenly unable to speak. Tom put his arm around her and smiled his thanks at Edwin, who was still looking over at them. “Hopefully that’s answered your question, at least partially.”

“We’re fine, thank you,” Tom replied.

“Any other questions, then?” Edwin asked.

Another woman raised her hand. “Are you going to be the owner one day, then?” she asked.

“Ah, well, I’d love for that to happen, but it’s all up to my father. My brother John is the oldest son, but of course we’re not the royal family, the law of male primogeniture doesn’t apply to us, and anyway, John’s having a lovely career as a stockbroker in London. I think I might get it, but I don’t want to jinx it, so I’ll leave it at that, shall I?”

***

“Do you think Edwin was telling the truth?” asked Beth.

They were sitting in the little tearoom; Beth and Tom were drinking Café Americano, Wendy was sipping a cup of tea, and Claire was eating chocolate ice cream. The remains of a light lunch were sitting on the table in front of them.

“About Joanna, you mean?” said Tom.

“Yes. Do you think they really have no idea where Joanna and Will went?”

“Hard to say. Certainly Joanna and Will never gave them any help in the matter. They cut themselves off very thoroughly.”

“But Will corresponded on and off with his father over the years. Couldn’t the family have put some pressure on the Robinsons to tell them whatever they knew?”

“You’re assuming they’d want to,” Wendy observed quietly. “From what you’ve told me, I don’t get the impression that they would.”

“No—at least not at first. But if there had been a change of heart later on…”

Tom put his hand on Beth’s arm. “Bethie, don’t tie yourself up in knots,” he said. “If you really want to know, there’s only one way to find out.”

Beth stared at him. “You mean, to introduce myself, and ask up front?”

“Yes.”

She shook her head decisively. “I’m not ready for that yet, Tom.”

“I absolutely respect that, but I do find myself asking, why not? After all, you’ve really taken to this story, and anyone can see how important it is to you.”

“Yeah, but you saw that place! What could I possibly have in common with people who own a place like that?”

“I thought he was a rather charming young man, actually,” Wendy replied. “He certainly went out of his way to make his guests feel comfortable.”

‘He was very charming,” Beth agreed, “and I’m pretty sure he knows it, too!”

They all laughed, and then Beth sat back in her chair, her face suddenly thoughtful. “Of course, I’ve only seen how one half of the family lived,” she said.

“The Rowleys,” Tom replied.

“Yeah.”

“Are you ready to go and have a look at Steeple Farm, then?”

She grinned at him. “Just let me finish my coffee, and then we can be on our way.”

Tom winked at Claire. “Horses!” he said.

***

The afternoon was warm as they drove back into Bramthorpe.  They went down to the crossroads near the centre of the village, turned right, and took the road west across the little river Gwash. Within a minute they were in the country again, driving between flat open fields. A couple of miles out of town they saw a large Tudor-style farmhouse on their right; behind, they could see a modern stable complex. The sign by the side of the road said, ‘Steeple Farm Riding School and Livery Stables.’

Tom stopped the car by the side of the road and glanced up at Beth in his rear-view mirror. “What’s the plan?” he asked. “Shall we go in?”

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”

He turned into the driveway, and a moment later turned into a small car park. They got out of the car and wandered over toward the house.

“That’s bigger than I was expecting,” Wendy observed.

“I thought so too, when I saw it on the Internet,” Beth replied. “I guess it was built with a substantial family in mind.”

There was an open field off to one side, and they could see two or three children on horses, with a couple of adult instructors watching them and shouting occasional instructions. They walked over to the fence to watch, and after a moment a young man in riding boots came around the house, saw them, and walked over to meet them. “Can I help you?” he asked.

Beth hesitated, and then said, “Do you work here?”

The young man gave her a grin. “Sort of; I’m one of the owners.”

“Right; sorry.” She held out her hand. “My name’s Beth.”

“Justin,” he replied, taking her hand, “and I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think you’re from around here!”

She smiled awkwardly. “No—my daughter and I are from Canada. We’re visiting with our friends here. Would you be willing to indulge me for a minute and answer a couple of questions about this house?”

He raised an eyebrow. “The house?”

“I know, it’s weird, you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but trust me, I don’t have any sort of sinister motive.”

He grinned good-naturedly. “Okay—fire away.”

“Well, I looked at your website and saw that this farm has been in your family for a long time.”

“It has; my great-uncle bought it from the Holton Park Estate forty years ago, and my partner and I bought it from him in twenty-oh-four.”

“Do you mind my asking—was your great-uncle a Robinson?”

“He was and he is. Why is that important to you?”

“Do you mean he’s still alive?”

“Yes. Again, why is that important to you?”

Beth glanced fearfully at Tom, and he smiled reassuringly. She took a deep breath and turned back to face the young man. “I think my great-grandfather was born in this house.”

He stared at her. “And you’ve come all the way from Canada to look for it?”

“Well, I actually came for another reason, but I thought while I was here I might as well have a look.”

He put his hands in his pockets. “What was your great-grandfather’s name?”

“Will Robinson. He was born in nineteen-oh-four, and he left for Canada with his wife and a one-year-old boy in nineteen twenty-nine. The one-year-old boy was my grandfather, Mike Robinson.”

Justin frowned; “I’m not well-versed in the family history that far back. I know a bit more about the Berry family—my grannie was born Eleanor Robinson, you see, but she married Arthur Berry, who was a vicar, and they moved around a fair bit. Grannie died about seven years ago, and Grandpa about seven years before that. Grannie was Uncle David’s sister—I call him Uncle David, but he’s really my great-uncle. He’s seventy-six now; Grannie was eight years older than him. What a pity he’s gone away; I’m sure he would have loved to meet you! He just lives in the village, but he’s gone up to Inverness to stay with his son for a few weeks.”

Beth shook her head; “Is that far?”

The young man grinned apologetically; “Sorry, I shouldn’t assume you know British geography. Yes, it’s in northern Scotland, about four hundred and fifty miles from here.”

“I guess he won’t be coming back for a quick coffee, then.”

“Coffee—there’s a thought! Wait—no, I can’t right now, I’ve got a student coming in a few minutes.” He smiled at them all. “You don’t like to ride, by any chance, do you?”

“I’ve been riding since I was about four,” Beth replied, “and Tom rides too.”

Justin stretched out his hand to Tom and Wendy. “Sorry,” he said, “Justin Berry.”

Tom took his hand with a slow smile. “Tom Masefield, and this is my wife, Wendy. Beth and I are related too, but it would take way too long to explain how.”

Justin laughed as he shook hands with Wendy. “You’re not a rider?”

“Afraid not, but I love to watch.”

Justin raised an eyebrow at Tom again. “Tell me honestly—how good are you? Could you manage a full-sized horse?”

“Oh yeah. I’m fifty, and I learned to ride when I was in my mid-twenties, when I was living in Beth’s hometown of Meadowvale, Saskatchewan.”

“Wow—you folks are full of good stories! So, here’s the thing: my lesson will take an hour, so can I put you in saddles and let you ride around for an hour? The fields are big, as you can see, and there’s a nice trail along the river for a couple of miles that we’re allowed to use. Then in an hour I can make us some coffee, and maybe if I’m lucky I’ll get Uncle David on the phone, and he can say hello. How does that sound?”

Beth smiled. “That would be amazing!”

***

There was a big oak dining table in the centre of the farmhouse kitchen, with six matching chairs scattered around it. Wendy ran her finger along the surface. “This is beautiful work,” she said. “Is it bespoke?”

“Uncle David made it,” Justin replied as he poured hot water into a big French press. “He’s good with his hands.”

“My son makes bespoke furniture for a living,” said Wendy. “He’d love to see a set like this.”

“What sort of things does he make?”

“Cabinets, mainly.”

“That’s good work, if you can get it.”

“It’s what he’s always wanted to do.”

“I was that way with horses; always wanted to work with them.”

He put some mugs on the table, and a plate of digestive biscuits. He put the lid on the French press, moved it to the table, and brought out milk and sugar. “Now, what about you, little Claire?” he asked. “You look too young to drink coffee.”

“Yeah, I don’t like coffee. I like tea, though.”

“Do you? Well, I can make you a cup of tea; would that be okay?”

“Sure.”

Beth raised her eyebrows at her daughter. “Aren’t you forgetting an important word?”

“Please!”

“That’s better.”

Justin poured some of the remaining hot water into a tea pot, brought it over to the table and set it down beside the French press. They all sat down around the table, and Justin grinned at Beth. “The ride was alright, then, was it?”

“Oh yeah; the horses are beautiful. You’ll have to let us pay you; I’m sure you don’t normally let people ride your horses for free.”

“I think I can make an exception in this case. What did you think of the trails by the river?”

Beth sat back in her seat and shook her head slowly. “I think this whole country around here is magical.”

“You like it?”

“I really do. I come from the Canadian prairies, and we never see the kind of green you guys get around here. And our trees are different; we have poplars and aspens, and some evergreens, but we don’t get these oak and ash and chestnuts you guys have, and we don’t get the hedges either. I love it here.”

“Well, that’s nice to hear. Most of us take it for granted; we’d love to see mountains and snow and all that.”

He poured the coffee, passed the mugs around, poured Claire’s tea and passed it to her, and then took his mobile phone out of his pocket. “Let me see if I can raise Uncle David,” he said.

Beth watched as he punched in the number, and after a few seconds he said, “Andy? Yeah, it’s Justin. Is Uncle David around?” He was quiet for a few seconds, and then said, “Yes, I just need to talk to him for a minute, if I could. Nothing urgent.” He covered the mouthpiece, nodded at Beth, and whispered, “He’s there!” He waited, then said, “Uncle David? Yeah, I’m fine, nothing’s wrong. But listen, you’ll never believe what happened today.” He winked at Beth. “This gorgeous girl from Canada wandered into the farmyard; she told me her name’s Beth Robinson and that her great-grandfather was born at Steeple Farm.”

Beth raised an eyebrow, and Justin grinned and whispered, “Every word was true!” He was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Actually, yes, that is the name—Will.” He nodded at Beth; “He knows the story.”

“Really? Oh my God!”

“Here.” Justin held the phone out to her. “You can talk to him if you want.”

Beth took the phone tremulously and raised it to her ear. “Mr. Robinson? This is Beth. I really think we’re related!”

“So you’re Will Robinson’s great-granddaughter, you say?”

“Yes—you know about him?”

“Only a bit.” The old man was speaking in a broad Midland accent, and Beth had to concentrate hard to follow him. “Ee were me dad’s younger brother, you see? Me dad were born in eighteen ninety-six, and Will were born in oh-four, so me dad told me. Does that sound right, like?”

“That’s exactly right.”

“Me dad told me they ‘eard from ‘im for a few year; not that any o’them were much for writin’ letters, or writin’ anythin’ for that matter. But me granddad and Will, they wrote back and forth for a few year, so dad told me. I never seen the letters, you understand. It’s just what they said.”

“This is amazing, Mr. Robinson. I never expected the story to be well-known.”

“Ah—I don’t think there’s many as knows it, love, and them that do probably don’t know the ‘alf or it, you know? So, tell me— ‘ow do we get from Will to you?”

Beth laughed. “Will and Joanna had five children: Mike, Sam, Tom, Shirley, and Mary, and they all had big families. There’s quite a tribe of your relatives in Saskatchewan now! Mike was my grandfather. He married Rachel Wiens, and they had four children: Don, Ruth, Steve, and Jean. Don is my dad; he married Lynda Miller, and they had my older sister Amy and me. I’m a nurse, and a single mom; I have a little girl, Claire, who’s here with me today; she’ll be four in a couple of weeks.”

“And did you come all the way from Canada to find us?”

“Partly. I actually came for a dear friend’s wedding, but I decided to have a look while I was here. But there’s something else I should tell you about. The reason I’ve gotten interested in this is that this year, for the first time, I read my great-grandmother’s journals.”

“You mean Will’s wife? We don’t know nothing about her.”

“Right—so the family doesn’t know anything about who she was?”

“I s’pose me dad might have known more, but he never said nowt to me about it.”

“Right. Well, I do know more about that, but maybe I shouldn’t tell you that part right away, because there are other local people involved in the story.”

“I understand, me duck. It’s not goin’ to kill me not to know; I’ve managed fine wi’out it so far, if you know what I mean?”

She laughed. “I do, and thank you for it.”

“That’s fine. Listen, talking on the phone costs money, so we shouldn’t go rabbiting on for ever, but maybe you’d write to me, would you, and tell me more? I’d write back, of course.”

“I’d love to write to you!”

“Tell Justin to give you my address, and leave your’n wi’im too, if you would?”

“I will. It was lovely to talk to you, Mr. Robinson.”

“No need to be all proper-like, love; ‘David’ will do fine.”

“Alright, David, and I’m Beth. ‘Bye for now.”

“Goodbye, me duck.”

Beth closed the phone and handed it to Justin with a puzzled frown. “I think he just called me a duck.”

Justin laughed. “Did he call you ‘me duck’?”

“That’s exactly what he said!”

“It’s a term of endearment around here; lots of the old ‘uns say it.”

Beth grinned; “Well, it was a new one on me!”

“You’re going to write to him, then?”

“I am.”

“Good—he’ll like that.” Justin took a sip of his coffee and eyed her thoughtfully. “So, there’s some sort of mystery about Will’s wife, then?”

Beth glanced at Tom, and then nodded. “I feel bad about it, but there are other people around here involved, and I just don’t feel right about talking to the Robinsons about it, before I’ve talked to the others.”

“And are you going to do that while you’re here?”

She shrugged helplessly. “I honestly don’t know.”

***

On the night before Beth and Claire flew home to Canada, they both went to bed early. They fell asleep quickly, but at about three in the morning Beth found herself unexpectedly awake. She tossed and turned for a while, but eventually she got out of bed as quietly as she could, pulled on a pair of socks, checked to make sure Claire was still sleeping soundly, and then slipped quietly out of her bedroom and down the stairs to make herself a cup of tea.

To her surprise she saw a light under the kitchen door. She pulled the door open gently and saw Wendy sitting at the kitchen table in her pyjamas, wearing her reading glasses, a cup of tea at her elbow and a book open in front of her.

“Hey,” said Beth quietly.

“Are you alright?” asked Wendy.

“I woke up and I couldn’t get back to sleep. How about you?”

“The same. There’s tea in the pot; would you like some?”

“Thanks—I’ll get it.”

Beth poured herself a cup of tea, put a spoonful of honey in it, and sat down at the table with Wendy, glancing at the book in front of her. “The Bible?”

“The psalms. My old friends in the night season.”

“You like the psalms?”

“They’ve got me through some very difficult times over the years, Beth.”

“I get that.”

“How about you—what do you like to read when you can’t sleep?”

“Lately when I’m awake in the night I tend to write rather than read.”

“Do you journal?”

“On and off. I’m not an every-day writer, but two or three times a week, usually in the night. It’s not very literary, though; I hardly dare to read it afterwards, and I’m for sure going to burn it long before anyone else has a chance to read it.”

Wendy looked at her in silence for a minute, and Beth sipped her tea and avoided the older woman’s gaze. Eventually Wendy said, “It’s been so good to have you here, you know. I can’t tell you how much it’s meant to Tom, for you to come and spend this time with us. We knew you were going to come for Emma’s wedding, but we never expected you to stay so long afterwards.”

Beth was quiet for a moment, and then gave a heavy sigh. “To be honest, I needed to get away.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Again, the silence hung between them for a moment, and it occurred to Beth that she had rarely encountered a more patient listener than Wendy. Eventually she looked up and met her gaze. “It’s been a really hard couple of years for me.”

Wendy nodded slowly. “When did your divorce come through?”

“April.”

“In the middle of your grandma’s last illness.”

“Yeah—the timing was crap. Of course, the divorce just made it final; I was dumped two years before that.”

“That must have been awful for you.”

Beth nodded. “You think you know someone, and you think they love you…”

Wendy spoke softly. “What did he say?”

Beth found herself speaking in a matter-of-fact voice, and she knew she was steering as far away from the emotion as she could. “He said he’d realized that he never really loved me, and he’d known Michelle since they were in university together, and now they had something really good going, and it was better and deeper and stronger than what we had. And he told me very considerately that he hoped one day I’d find that kind of love with someone, and maybe it would be best for us to break up, so we could find the people we were really meant to be with.”

Wendy shook her head. “He really is a self-centred bastard, isn’t he?”

 “He’s a piece of shit. Sorry, Wendy, I don’t normally use that kind of language, but…”

“Don’t apologize; my daughter has given me a fine appreciation for the power of scatological terms.”

“She likes the f-word, doesn’t she?”

“I’m afraid so. In many ways she’s a genteel Oxford girl, but when she gets the slightest bit annoyed, she starts sounding like a docker.”

“Like a rig-pig, we’d say.”

“Expressive; I like it.” Wendy put her hand on Beth’s arm. “You know none of this is your fault, right?”

Beth shook her head. “I wish I could be sure of that. Maybe I wasn’t giving him the attention he needed. Maybe, with a new baby, and then going back to work to help pay our mortgage—our lives were so busy, Wendy, when we lived in the city. I can’t deny there wasn’t much romance going on.”

“And you’re prepared to take all the blame for that, are you, as if his emotional well-being was entirely your responsibility, while you were trying to care for a little child and hold down a full-time job?”

“When you put it like that…”

Wendy was quiet again for a moment, sipping her tea, and Beth suddenly realized she was enjoying those minutes of silence. To be able to sit with Wendy at her kitchen table in the middle of the night, sipping tea with her, and not to have to say anything, suddenly seemed like one of the most peaceful experiences she had ever had.

Wendy seemed to have made her mind up about something. “So, I was reading the psalms,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“I got into the habit of doing that after Mickey and I broke up. I don’t know how much Tom has told you about the absolute disaster of my first marriage.”

“I know it was an abusive relationship.”

“Yes. When I was a teenager I fell head over heels in love with Mickey Kingsley, even though we were very different. I was a vicar’s daughter, and he liked to play hard rock and ride a motor bike. I found him intoxicating, and I loved it.

“But gradually, as time went by, I realized he was a drug addict and a drinker, and when he was stoned or drunk, he got angry more easily. One day in my last year in Oxford he took an overdose, and my eyes were opened and I realized what a disaster it all was, so I broke up with him. And then Tom was there for me, and for a few months we were close friends, and very briefly, more than close friends, which, as I think you know, is how Lisa happened.”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t find out I was pregnant until Tom moved to Meadowvale, and through all the years he lived in Canada I never told him; in fact, I cut him off, because I went back to Mickey and asked him to take us in, my unborn child and me. He said he would, on the condition that Tom would never know the child was his. So I agreed, and we got married, and I thought things would be okay between us.

“At first they were, and we had some good times, but gradually I realized he was more controlling, and more angry, and more in love with power. And then he started to hit me, and we went into that cycle of abuse and repentance and honeymoon, abuse and repentance and honeymoon, over and over again. I was in that cycle for about twelve years. It was a nightmare, Beth.”

“Oh, Wendy.”

“Eventually one day he hit Lisa and me so hard that we had to be taken to hospital. That was actually the first time he’d hit her; he gave her a concussion, and he broke my jaw. He went to jail for that, and the kids and I left London and moved back to Oxford, where I was lucky enough to get the Merton job.”

Wendy took another sip of tea, her eyes far away. “We’d moved, and Mickey was in jail, but I was still terrified. I held it together during the daytime for the sake of the kids and my job, but the nights were bad. Specifically, the nightmares; they were awful.

“But gradually, something unexpected happened. Somewhere deep inside, I began to remember the prayers my dad and mum had taught me, and the comfort I’d found in them. After a while I started going to my college chapel. The chaplain noticed, and we started talking, and gradually, I found my way into faith again. Not quite the same flavour as my dad’s faith, though; he was more evangelical, but I found myself drawn more to silence, and contemplative prayer.

“And part of that was praying the psalms. The chaplain told me about them, and I started to read them, and the rawness of them really spoke to me. They spoke for me. They were real, honest prayers, from the middle of the mess, and I loved them.

“So that’s what I started doing when the nightmares came. I would wake up terrified of falling asleep again and finding myself back in the same dream, so I would get up and go down to the kitchen, make myself some tea, and then just read the psalms. Somehow, they calmed me down and helped me face my pillow again. They still do.”

“Is that what was happening tonight?”

“Yes. I very rarely have nightmares anymore, but once in a while I do.”

Beth looked at her, shaking her head slowly. “You’re awesome, you know.”

“No, I’m not, Beth. Don’t put me on a pedestal, please.”

“Okay, but…”

“No buts—let’s just be two friends, helping each other along the way.”

“I don’t think you need my help, Wendy.”

“Perhaps not today, but the time may come.”

Again they were quiet for a few minutes, and then Beth said, “I have a crazy idea.”

“Tell me.”

Beth smiled. “Where to start…”

“As close to the beginning as you can.”

“Okay. Well, here it is: I love my mom and dad, and my sister and her family, and my friends. But I really miss my grandma, and my husband dumped me and made me feel like a piece of shit, and even now, after seven years, I’m not really over Kelly’s death…” She looked at Wendy nervously, and the older woman nodded. “I understand. Emma and I have had this conversation.”

“Emma’s so lucky to have you, Wendy.”

“I’m lucky to have her, but it works because I never, ever try to be her mum.”

“Right.”

“Anyway, tell me more about your crazy idea.”

“I’ve had such a good time here. I’ve loved seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve loved the countryside and the history and the old buildings and the little pubs. I think I’d like to live here for a while.”

“Beth, are you seriously…?”

“Maybe.” She stared off into space. “When my mom and dad got married, they went to the Arctic for five years. My dad often says they were ‘having their adventure.” But I never did anything like that. Greg and I got married in Vegas, and then we came home and went right back to work.”

“So you think it’s time for you to have your adventure?”

“I think I need to find a way to pick up the pieces of my life and put them back together again. And maybe it would help if I wasn’t surrounded by a hundred reminders of my old life every day.”

“Your parents will miss you and Claire.”

“I know that; that’s what makes it hard to think about. I’d have been totally lost for the past two years if it hadn’t been for them. With my sister Amy it’ll be different; she’ll be so mad she won’t talk to me for a week, but then it’ll blow over and she’ll be rational again.”

“Is this something you’ve already made your mind up about?”

“No, but I’m thinking about it.” Beth looked at Wendy in the dim light of the kitchen. “Tell me honestly—am I crazy?”

Wendy shook her head slowly. “Emma would be thrilled to have you closer, and my daughter likes you a lot, so she tells me. And Tom and I would be thrilled, too. Also, if you were living over here for a while, it would be easier for you to take the next steps with the Robinsons and the Rowleys in Bramthorpe.”

“I’ve thought of that.”

“But how easy would it be for you to come?”

“As far as I can tell, there are three hurdles. The first is getting a visa, but it turns out that’s not so difficult. The UK has something called an ancestry visa; if you’ve got a grandparent who was born here, you can come and work here. And my grandpa Mike was a one-year-old when he left the UK, so I qualify.”

“Excellent. What’s the second hurdle?”

“To work here as a nurse, I’d have to register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and there’s a twenty-day course I’d have to take. And of course the third hurdle is Claire, and day care, and then school coming up before too long.”

“That course you mentioned—is it offered in Oxford?”

“Yes; Oxford Brookes is one of the places that offers it.”

“If you come, come here, Beth. You could stay here until you find your feet. Tom and I are both working, so we couldn’t be full time babysitters, but we know lots of people who use childcare, and we’d be able to help you find what you need. Also, your dad and Tom are old friends, and I think it might be easier for your mum if she knew you were close to us.”

“Wendy, that would be so great. Are you sure?”

“Well, of course, I’d need to consult my husband, but he’s been telling me for years that he’d like to adopt you, and besides, he appears to have taken to Claire in a big way.”

“I’ve noticed that.” Beth drained her mug, smiled at Wendy, and said, “Well, time for me to head for bed again, so that I can negotiate a transatlantic journey tomorrow.”

“Me too, I think. Thanks for this chat, Beth, and don’t be anxious about this so-called ‘crazy idea’. One way or the other, I’m pretty sure you’ll make the right decision.”

“I hope so.”

They both got to their feet, and then they turned and put their arms around each other. “Thank you,” said Beth.

“Not at all; as I said, I’m so happy you came.”

“Me too.” Beth stepped back and smiled at her.  “Sleep well, Wendy.”

“You too.”

Holton Park, Chapter Six

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 6

Holton Park, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire – August 1st 2008

On the morning of Friday August 1, Edwin Rowley got up at his usual hour of 6.30. He washed and dressed quickly in his small bedroom on the top floor of Holton House, then opened the curtains and looked out over the ornamental walled garden below. The sky was mainly clear, with a slight wind lifting the branches of the trees. A good day for visitors to the grounds, he thought to himself. He turned from the window, pulled on a wool sweater and went through to his private living room, where his three border collies, Angus, Stella, and Maggie, were waiting eagerly, tails wagging in anticipation of their morning walk. He stopped for a moment to greet them. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I know, I know—it’s that time of day. Come on then!”

He led the dogs out onto the narrow landing. His little apartment was under the roof, in what had once been the servants’ quarters of Holton House; most of the bedrooms up here were garret rooms with sloping ceilings, and the narrow central landing ran the whole length of the attic. He led the dogs to the main staircase and ran quickly down four flights of stairs to the ground floor two storeys below, where he let the dogs out at a small back door and followed them onto the south lawn. The dogs ran off down the path towards the footbridge over Manor Brook, while Edwin followed at a more leisurely pace, whistling under his breath and enjoying the fresh morning air.

South of the brook was a small lane with a row of old farm workers’ cottages. As usual, Edwin’s brother Dan was standing in the window of one of them, a mug of coffee in his hand; they gave each other a cheery wave, and then Edwin set off down the footpath across the fields toward the woods that marked the southern boundary of the Holton Park estate. He and the dogs did the two mile walk every morning, unless the rain was truly torrential, which had happened a few times already this year.

Returning to the house at about 7.15, Edwin let himself and the dogs into the family apartment in the south wing. In the spacious newly renovated kitchen on the south-east corner his mother, Evelyn, was standing at the counter by the window pouring hot water from a kettle into a French press. She was still wearing her bathrobe, but her short grey hair had been carefully brushed back from a face that looked a lot younger than her sixty-six years. “Good morning, Mum,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “You look wonderful as usual.”

“Thank you; what’s it like outside this morning?”

“It’s going to be clear and warm, I think,” Edwin replied, running water from the tap into a jug and stooping to pour it into the dog dishes on the floor. “What sort of night did Dad have?”

“He was up a few times, so I’m letting him sleep for a while now. Are you ready for some breakfast? What would you like?”

“Toast and coffee will be fine, but don’t worry about me; I’ll make my own toast.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Alright. What have you got planned for today? Before your brother and sister arrive tonight, I mean?”

Edwin opened a cupboard, took out a bucket of dog food and poured it into the food dishes on the floor; the dogs quickly crowded around and began to eat. “Meeting with some film people at eleven, then a few house and garden tours, and meeting some time this afternoon about next weekend’s dog show. After that, I’ll make myself available to greet Dan and Diana and the rest.”

“Appropriate, since they’re coming for your birthday!”

“And so they should; it’s not every year a man turns forty, you know!”

They both laughed, and she gave him an affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Edwin.”

“Thank you, mother. I don’t feel a day over thirty-nine, actually!”

She laughed again. “You’re looking extraordinarily well-preserved, if I may say so.”

“You may say it as often as you like, since my fragile ego needs all the help it can get.”

“Fragile, you say? Not exactly how I would have described it.”

“Now, mother—John’s still in charge of the abuse department, you know!”

“And it’s often reciprocated, but of course, I’ve said that before.”

“You have, but today is my birthday and I’m feeling magnanimous, so I’m not going to get on my high horse about it.”

“Good. Is there anything I can do to help out today?”

Edwin put a couple of slices of toast in the toaster. “I’m meeting with Amanda at eight-thirty, then at nine we’ll have a quick team huddle; if you’re not busy and you want to join us, we can get some idea of when the house tours will be this afternoon. I know Sandy’s always glad to have you on board, but if Dad needs you, don’t worry about it; I can step in for a few minutes to say my piece.”

“Right; I’ll sit with you while you have your breakfast, and then I’ll see how things go with your father; he’s very tired and I’m loath to wake him up until he’s ready.” Evelyn took two mugs down from the kitchen cupboard, poured coffee into them from the French press, and handed a cup to her son. “There you are,” she said.

“Thank you. Is the home help coming today?”

“Yes, she’ll be here at nine-fifteen.”

“Good. I think you should consider extending her hours, Mum.”

Evelyn shook her head; “Not while I can still do things for him.”

“But it’s going to get worse, you know; that’s the nature of Parkinson’s.”

“I’m well aware of that; let’s not argue about it any more, alright?”

“As you wish.” Edwin took his coffee and sat down at the breakfast table, glancing at the front-page headlines in the copy of ‘The Times’ that his mother had placed beside his plate. After a moment the toast popped, and he got up again, buttered the two slices and took them back to the table. “I assume you’re not having breakfast yet?” he asked as he opened a jar of marmalade.

“No; I’ll wait and see what time your father feels like eating.”

“Of course.”

***

Edwin finished his breakfast quickly, talking intermittently with his mother and skimming the newspaper at the same time. At about eight o’clock he excused himself, the dogs at his heels, and went through to the main part of the house, to the rooms open to the public. He spent a few minutes walking quietly through the length of the house: the formal dining room, the Tudor great hall with its open fireplace, rich wood paneling and many paintings of ancestors, the library with its shelves full of books dating as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the large drawing room with its chalk fireplace, rich carpets, and antique furniture. He then went back to the entrance hall and out through the formal front doorway of the house, stopping for a moment to enjoy the vast green expanse of the front lawn, stretching north past the driveway half a mile to the lake, with the line of trees beyond it that marked the road. Away to his left, partially hidden by another row of trees, was the old tithe barn his father had moved onto the estate years ago and converted into another banquet hall that could seat a hundred and forty guests in a fashionably rustic country setting. To his right, just north of the walled garden, was the stable block that now housed the offices of Holton Park Estate.

He made his way along the path to the stable block, reflecting, as he often did, on how well the conversion had been accomplished. The old exterior was still there, with only the modern windows betraying the fact that inside, approximately three quarters of the old stables was now a suite of offices. The eastern side of the stable block still housed two or three horses kept by the family for riding, while the remainder of the building provided workspace for the administrative staff who ran the house and organized the many public events that were at the heart of the life of the estate.

Edwin unlocked the front door and turned off the burglar alarm; he went through the reception area and up the stairs to his office on the west corner of the building, the dogs still at his heels. The room had windows facing west and north providing excellent views of the house and grounds; it was furnished with an antique desk and a modern computer station at one end, and at the other a meeting area with four armchairs set around a low round table. It was, he thought, a comfortable and yet suitably dignified office for the manager of an estate that dated back to the sixteenth century.

He opened a window to let in the fresh morning air, sat down at the workstation and turned on his computer. Around him in the office the three dogs wandered around aimlessly for a moment, as they usually did, before settling themselves into their customary spaces. Later in the morning, when outsiders began to arrive for meetings, he would take the dogs back to the family apartments at the main house, but he liked having them around him for the first part of the morning; they were friendly and well-behaved, and the staff enjoyed them as much as he did.

He spent a few minutes checking his email and responding to some messages that needed an immediate reply. He checked the estate website, and the Facebook page his communications manager had recently created, noting a couple of new comments left by people who had visited the previous day. He took a quick look at his calendar for the day, noting that Amanda Scott, his Personal Assistant, had added another morning meeting at ten o’clock with the estate’s building surveyor, Hugh Molyneux, who happened to be married to Edwin’s ex-wife, Liz. He scowled momentarily at the computer screen; there was no doubt, he thought, that Molyneux was one of the best building surveyors around, but that didn’t change the fact that it was an awkward situation.

There was a knock on his office door and Amanda came in, dressed formally in skirt and blouse, her long blonde hair pulled back severely from her face and tied behind her neck. “Good morning, Mr. Rowley,” she said as she put his mail on his desk. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Amanda; it’s good of you to remember.”

“It’s hard to forget, when you gave me such a nice invitation to the come and go tea tomorrow!”

“Right. On another subject, what does Molyneux want?”

“Drains, so he said. He told me to tell you it was important but not catastrophic.”

“I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies.”

“Yes. How many cups of coffee have you had this morning?”

“One, so I’d be glad of another, if you’re pouring?”

“I just made a full pot, so it’s nice and fresh. I’ll go and get it, shall I?”

“Excellent.”

Edwin got to his feet, stretched his back, and glanced at the letters she had placed on his desk. Two of them he recognised as being from the estate solicitor, and he had a pretty good idea what they were about. There were also two letters addressed to his father; for a couple of years now, by mutual agreement, he had been screening his father’s correspondence and weeding out items that the old man was no longer capable of dealing with. Today he recognised the writing on both envelopes; one letter was from his father’s only surviving sibling, his younger brother Harold, a retired military officer who at seventy-three was in excellent health and enjoying life in Hastings on the south coast. The other was from a retired politician who had served with his father as a Conservative M.P. in the late sixties.

Edwin was just scanning the second letter from the estate solicitors when Amanda returned with two mugs of black coffee, which she set down on the table in the meeting area. “Are you ready for me, Mr. Rowley?” she asked.

“Just about.”

“Right, I’ll get my notepad and files.”

As she slipped out of the room again, he picked up his day timer and a couple of file folders; moving over to the meeting area, he took his seat in one of the armchairs and picked up one of the mugs of coffee. Amanda came back into the room, took her seat across from him and opened her notepad.

“So,” he said, “tell me more about today.”

“Well, as you know, there’s a team meeting at nine in the boardroom. I’ve got a note from Sandy saying there are three tour groups coming through this afternoon, and she’ll want to make sure we’ve got everyone we need for each group. I hear that Mrs. Summerfield’s still sick, so I expect Sandy will have a backup plan to make sure the shop is staffed.”

“Who was the person they had yesterday?”

“Her name was Judith Edwards; she belongs to the Friends of Holton Park. She seemed quite knowledgeable. I don’t know if she’ll be back today, but I think we can leave that in Sandy’s capable hands.”

“Of course. Now, what’s this about drains?”

“Mr. Molyneux was here two weeks ago for a routine inspection of the exterior of the main house.”

“I remember that.”

“He says there are a couple of drains that are deteriorating and will need some work.”

“Not catastrophic, you say?”

“That’s what he told me in his email yesterday. He didn’t mention a figure to me, though.”

“Will we be able to deal with him in an hour before the film people get here?”

“He knows that he can have no more than forty-five minutes of your time.”

“Excellent. Now, remind me which film people we’re talking to today?”

“Strictly speaking, these are television people, not film people. They’re connected with ITV and they’re in the early stages of planning a miniseries set in the time of James the First.”

“So they’re following ‘The Tudors’ with ‘The Stuarts’, are they?”

“Something like that. We’re at the very early stages of planning and they’ve asked for a preliminary meeting; they want to outline what they have in mind and find out what we can offer and what sort of costs they’d be looking at.”

“Is there anyone coming to the meeting who we’ve worked with before?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Barry Desmond’s going to be in on this, I take it?”

“That’s right.” She handed him a manila file folder. “This is all the information I’ve got so far. I’ve sent you an electronic copy, too.”

“Good. Have you and Barry talked about it?”

“I had a very brief conversation with him yesterday, but he’s had copies of all the emails so he’s well-informed about what’s been talked about so far.”

“So, Barry will take the lead on this meeting, and I’ll just be there to add a word here and there, and to take the temperature?”

“Exactly.”

“Right. And what time is the dog show meeting this afternoon?”

“Four o’clock. Barry thought it would be a good idea for the team to get together, so everyone knows how everyone else’s preparations are going. He can take the lead if you need to be at one of the house tours.”

“Let’s see what Sandy has to say about timing and take it from there. My mother told me she might be able to step in to one or more of the tours, depending on how my father is when the time comes.”

“How is he today?”

“Still sleeping when I left this morning, but thanks for asking. Okay—what else do we need to be working on today?”

They talked for a few more minutes about various items on the agenda for the day, and Edwin jotted down some notes. When he was satisfied that he knew everything he needed to know, he said, “So, are you going to be able to drop by tomorrow afternoon?”

She gave him a shy smile. “I was going to ask you about that. You see, I’ve met someone…”

“Ah—you want to bring a date, do you?”

“Would it be alright?”

“Absolutely.”

“Only, I know your mum and dad are so conservative about these things.”

“That’s true, but you know, my cousin Martin is coming with his partner Charlie.”

“I don’t think I knew you had a gay cousin.”

“Did you not? That’s right, I don’t expect they’ve been up since you started working here. Yes—he’s the son of my father’s brother Harold. He’s an actor in London. We’ve all been getting on famously for years now.”

“What about your parents?”

“As you say, they’re conservative on these matters, but they aren’t nasty about it. At least, not to Martin’s face. So, what’s the name of this lucky person you’re bringing tomorrow?”

“Noor.”

“Noor? That’s Arabic, isn’t it?”

“Her parents are from Iran, actually, but she was born in Leicester.”

“And absolutely none of that is my business, but I would be delighted to have her at my birthday come-and-go.” He gave a little frown. “I should, however, warn you that among their many other charms, my parents are ever so slightly racist.”

“Really? I’m surprised to hear that.”

“I’m sure they would deny it, but there you are. I’m afraid it’s the age they grew up in, you know.”

“Right. Tell me honestly, would you rather I didn’t bring Noor? It’s not that we’ve been together for a long time or anything, but I’ve told her about this fabulous place where I work, and I’d love her to have the chance to see it.”

“You should definitely bring her; I’d love to meet her, and I honestly don’t think Mum and Dad will say anything offensive to her. But sometimes you don’t need to say anything, if you know what I mean.”

“I do.”

“So, tell her from me that she’s more than welcome, if she wants to come.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rowley; I’ll pass that on.”

***

The day went smoothly for Edwin, and he was able to excuse himself toward the end of the dog show meeting to go back to the main house and say a word at the end of the final tour of the day. Group tours of the house and grounds were common all through the spring and summer, and Edwin always liked to arrange for a member of the family to say a few words at some point in each tour; it was a custom his father had started years ago, and he was glad to continue it. He or his mother usually looked after it, as his brothers John and Dan and his sister Diana all had full-time jobs. John, the oldest in the family, worked as a high-end stockbroker in a well-known London firm. Dan, two years Edwin’s junior, was an architect in a small practice in Peterborough. Diana, the youngest of the four siblings, was a classical musician in London, where she played violin with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

During the winter months, when the house was not open to the public, the family often had their meals in the formal dining room, but during the season they usually ate in the smaller dining area in the family kitchen, unless they had guests for supper, in which case the room would be too small. On this weekend the family was planning on celebrating Edwin’s birthday with a come-and-go tea on Saturday afternoon, but his brother Dan and his sister Diana had also decided to join them for supper on Friday night, along with Dan’s two children and Diana’s husband. His older brother John and his family would join them on Saturday, along with Edwin’s two teenage children Alexander and Ashley.

 The cook, Mrs. Hedges, and the household manager, George Pascoe, were the last vestiges of the enormous staff of butler, housekeeper, footmen, and maids who had served the needs of the family a hundred years ago, and even these two were employed by the estate and not just the family. Mrs. Hedges worked with the catering companies that served wedding receptions and other large events on the estate, and also with the staff of the tearoom on the east side of the building. George Pascoe looked after the needs of the family, but he also took the lead in running the public areas of the main house.

As the final tour was leaving, Edwin made his way to the main kitchen, which, like many of the more functional parts of the building, had recently been renovated under his brother’s supervision. The two young people who ran the tearoom were just getting ready to leave, and Mrs. Hedges, a widow in her late fifties, was putting the finishing touches on a fruit salad; she glanced up when he came into the kitchen, smiled at him and said, “Hello, Mr. Rowley. Is there anything I can get for you? A nice cup of tea after a busy afternoon, perhaps?”

“No thank you, I’m going straight through to the apartment, but I just thought I’d drop in on the way and make sure everything’s all right for tonight.” He sniffed at the air. “Is that a curry I smell?”

She laughed; “I thought you’d like it, and I know your brother and sister like it too. Don’t worry—I’ve cooked a nice shepherd’s pie for your father and mother.”

“Very wise.”

“I thought with it being a warm day, though, a nice fruit salad with some ice cream would go well for the sweet?”

“Excellent; thank you very much.”

“I’m assuming you’d like wine with supper?”

“That would be nice.”

“Do you want me to make the choices, or will you do that yourself?”

“You’re so good at it; I’m sure I can safely leave it in your hands.”

“Very good. Both red and white?”

“Yes, please.”

“Have you heard from everyone yet about what time they’re getting here?”

“I expect Dan and his children will be here any minute. Scott and Diana told us to expect them around six, so we’ll eat at six-thirty, shall we?”

“Very good.” She gave him a sudden smile. “Diana’s husband’s such a nice young man, always very polite. I’ve never asked you what he does; is he a musician, like her?”

“No, he’s an estate manager, like me. Do you know Kenwood House in London?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“It’s an old stately home on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Scott’s the general manager there.”

“Really? He seems young for a job like that.”

“Ah, but my spies tell me he’s very good at what he does!”

“I suppose you would have a lot in common, wouldn’t you?”

“I can assure you, we’re never short of things to talk about. Anyway, I’d better go through.”

“Right you are, Mr. Rowley.”

Edwin slipped out and made his way down the corridor to the family living room where his parents were sitting in easy chairs on either side of a large window, with a small antique coffee table between them. The window looked south toward Manor Brook and the cottages beyond, and on this warm summer evening it was open to let in the fresh air.

Edwin’s mother glanced up from their crossword puzzle and gave him a warm smile. “I thought I heard you coming; would you like a cup of tea or something?”

“Actually, I’m going to have a whiskey. No, Dad, don’t get up,” he said as he saw his father struggling to sit up in his chair. Robert Rowley was seventy-six and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease ten years previously. He now rarely walked without a frame, and was beginning to have some difficulty with speech and cognitive functions. Nonetheless, he was dressed semi-formally today in a blue blazer, white shirt and cravat, and Edwin could see that he had been trying to help his wife with the crossword puzzle. The old man smiled up at his son and said slowly, “Did you have a good afternoon?”

“Very enjoyable. The first tour group was a grammar school party, and they were excellent. The last lot have just left. The dog show meeting went very smoothly.” Edwin went over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a whiskey. “Anyone else want anything?”

“No thank you”, said Evelyn.

“Where are the dogs?”

“Dan and the children came over early and asked if they could take them for a walk down to the woods.”

“Ah, they’re already here, then?”

“Yes, and Diana called a couple of minutes ago to say that they just got off the train at Stamford. They’re taking a taxi, so they’ll be here shortly.”

“I would have gone into town and picked them up.”

“They know you’re busy, and they don’t mind the taxi.”

Edwin heard the back door open, and a moment later the three dogs ran into the room, their tails wagging madly. They ran from person to person for a moment, and then Edwin heard his brother Dan’s voice. “Come back here, you scruffy lot—there’s water out here for you!”

The dogs ran out of the room eagerly, and a moment later Dan and his two children, nine-year-old Lexy and seven-year-old Jason, appeared in the doorway. “Uncle Ed!” Jason cried.

“Mister Jason! Have you been walking my dogs?”

“We took them to the lake, but Daddy wouldn’t let them run into the water!”

Edwin grinned at his brother. “I wish you’d share your secret with me; one word from me and they do as they like!”

“It’s simple: they’re afraid of me, and they’re not afraid of you. Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

The two brothers hugged briefly, and then stepped back and looked at each other. Of the four Rowley siblings, they were the ones who looked the most alike: they were both of medium height, with strong facial features, wavy brown hair, and a tendency to grow a five o’clock shadow at the end of the day.

“Any idea when the sister unit’s arriving?” asked Dan.

“Any moment now, apparently. Do you want a whiskey?”

“No thanks; I expect we’ll be having wine with the meal, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll probably wait for that, then.”

They took their seats around the room, joined a moment later by the three dogs, who went from person to person, looking up expectantly for attention. Edwin took a sip of his whiskey and grinned at his brother. “Busy day in the architecture business?” he asked.

“Average. In the office in the morning, then out to some building sites this afternoon. The last one was in Stamford, so I was able to get home a bit earlier than normal.”

“And you lot?” Edwin asked his niece and nephew. “Mooching around with your other grandma?”

“We went to Nene Park,” Lexy replied.

“Because it wasn’t raining,” Jason added.

“Oh, right—it’s been raining a lot, hasn’t it?”

“Almost every day,” said Jason.

Evelyn glanced out of the window. “Ah, here’s the taxi.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “Diana and Scott?”

Edwin nodded. “They came up on the train and then got a taxi at Stamford.”

***

Much later that night, the three Rowley siblings sat around the kitchen table, talking together in low voices. Their parents had long since gone to bed, as had Diana’s husband, and Dan’s children had bunked down on the third floor in the room beside Edwin’s apartment. But the three siblings were hungry for more of each other’s company, so they had gravitated to the kitchen. Edwin had initially suggested more whiskey, but Diana and Dan had asked for hot chocolate instead, and Edwin had decided to join them.

After they had caught up on each other’s news they were quiet for a moment, and then Diana asked, “When are we expecting John and Juliet and the children?”

“Early afternoon, I think,” Edwin replied. He gave a little frown. “Speaking of John, I need to talk to you two about something. I’ve got a feeling it won’t be long before our brother asks Mum and Dad for financial help again.”

Diana laughed softly. “Our brother the high-end stockbroker needs financial help?”

“I didn’t say he needed it; I said I thought he was going to be asking for it.”

“Forgive me, Eddie, but as a classical musician I’m having a difficult time summoning up any sympathy for him.”

“I’m on the same page as you, sis.”

“How can he possibly need financial help? He lives in a mansion in Mayfair, and he and Juliet both drive Jaguars. And didn’t they just get back from a holiday in the Caribbean or something?”

“They did.”

Dan frowned. “What’s going on, Ed? Is it something to do with the crash?”

“That, and their persistent habit of living beyond their means. And I should clarify: John hasn’t specifically asked for help yet, but he’s been fishing for it. He’s asked me a couple of times how the estate is doing financially, and last week he almost asked me how much money Mum and Dad have got in the bank.”

“How do you ‘almost’ ask a question like that?”

“He asked me how much money Mum inherited when Grandpa Cartwright died. He already knew the answer to that, of course, so it wasn’t a real question.”

“Is the crash really affecting his bottom line, then?” asked Diana.

Edwin nodded. “It’s getting serious, Di. Stock prices are collapsing all over the world, and some of our financial institutions are starting to look quite precarious. It’s especially bad in America, but that has a knock-on effect over here, too. I suspect John’s really feeling the pinch.”

“But he’s got lots of room to consolidate, hasn’t he?” asked Dan. “That house must be worth a couple of million at least.”

“I don’t expect Juliet’s eager to sell.”

“And what about her?” said Diana. “Her family’s not exactly poverty-stricken.”

“No, but I think John and Juliet may have gone to that particular well too many times already.”

Dan stared at his brother. “How do you know this, Ed?” he asked.

“I don’t know it, but John has dropped hints.”

Diana sipped at her hot chocolate and sat back in her chair, stretching her legs out under the table. “Have you talked to Mum and Dad about this?”

“Yes, and I think they feel torn about it. Dad wants to help, but he knows John’s got to learn to live within his means. Mum’s being Mum, of course; John’s her oldest, and she’s inclined to be supportive of him, but even she knows there’s got to be a limit.”

“How many times has this happened before?” asked Diana.

“Two or three that I know about, but I think there may have been one or two earlier occasions, before I started running the estate.”

“Is he pulling the older brother on you?” asked Dan.

“He’s tried that once, and I shot him down right away. This is the twenty-first century, and we’re not the Royal Family; there’s no law of primogeniture for families like ours. Ever since he went off to university John’s taken absolutely no interest in Holton Park except when he needed cash; there’s absolutely no chance that Dad would leave him any sort of interest in the estate.”

“You’re sure about that, are you?” asked Diana.

“I’ve seen their wills.”

“You’ve seen their wills?”

“They revised them last year, and Mum consulted me about them. There are legacies for all of us, but Holton Park stays in my hands.”

Dan nodded. “That’s as it should be. After all, you’ve done all the work.”

“I can see John challenging it, though, when the time comes.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“He might claim I’ve exercised undue influence on Dad and Mum.”

Diana frowned. “But surely this is all very premature, isn’t it? I mean, we all know Dad’s health is precarious, but Mum’s still young and strong. She could easily live another twenty years or more.”

“Exactly,” Dan agreed.

“The three of us know that,” said Edwin, “and John does too, but that won’t stop him dreaming. Meanwhile, though, he’s going to keep coming after Mum and Dad. Has he asked either of you for money?”

Diana burst out laughing. “Have you got any idea how small my bank balance is, Eddie?”

Edwin smiled. “I can guess; I know you don’t make a lot of money.”

“He hasn’t asked me either,” said Dan, “but then, he wouldn’t take that approach, would he? If he knows you’re not sympathetic, he might try to use us to go around you and put pressure on Mum and Dad.”

“I wondered about that,” Edwin replied. “He hasn’t done it yet, though, has he?”

Dan and Diana both shook their heads. “He probably knows he’d get no sympathy from me,” said Diana. She glanced at Dan. “He might come after you, though. After all, Christians are supposed to be generous.”

“To the poor,” Dan replied, “not to the extravagant rich!”

Edwin smiled. “Well said, little bro! I’m rather relieved to hear you take that line, actually.”

“Surely you didn’t think I’d cave in to him?”

“No, not really, but I’m glad to have my opinion confirmed.”

“I don’t want to be mean to him, of course. I mean, he is our brother.”

“And if he asked me for financial advice, I’d be happy to give it to him,” said Edwin. “That’s the sort of help he really needs, but I’m afraid he’s not going to come begging for it until things get really desperate.”

Diana drained her hot chocolate and stifled a yawn. “Well, boys…”

“That time of night, is it?” asked Dan.

“I think so; I’m for my bed.” She smiled at them both. “God, it’s good to see you two. Not to get all sentimental on you, but I miss you.”

Dan put his hand on hers. “Miss you too,” he said. “And I was glad to see you brought a violin with you. Dad always enjoys it when you play for us.”

“I know; that’s why I brought it.” She got to her feet. “Okay, you two are turning into small little dots in the distance, so I’ve really got to find my bed while I still can.”

“Yeah, I should get my two up and take them home,” said Dan.

“Do you need to?” asked Edwin. “They’re fine up there by my room, and it’s not as if they’ve never slept there before.”

“True, but they’re sleeping in their underwear right now.”

“Run over and get their pyjamas, if you like, and I’ll put them by their beds in case they wake up in the night. Anyway, I think Lexy’s probably got at least one dog in bed with her.”

Dan laughed. “You’re probably right about that. Okay, I’ll run over home and get their pyjamas, and then perhaps I’ll leave them in your capable hands, Ed, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. I know where to find you if I need you.”

Holton Park, Chapter 5

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 5

Oxford and London, England.

On the Thursday night before Emma’s wedding, Tom and Wendy Masefield had supper by themselves. Emma had been staying with them for a few days, but she had gone over to her grandmother’s house for supper, and afterwards was planning on spending some time with her cousin Sarah. It had been a dull and rainy sort of day, cool enough for Tom and Wendy to be wearing sweaters when they took their coffee through to the living room after cleaning up the dishes together.

“What time is Beth’s first flight?” asked Wendy as they took their seats across from each other.

“They’re probably just about to take off from Saskatoon. I think they’ve got a couple of hours on the ground in Toronto before they take the overnight flight.” Tom grinned at Wendy. “I think this will be Claire’s first plane flight.”

“I hope Beth has an easy time with her. You never know, with young children.” Wendy frowned thoughtfully. “Tom, do you think Beth’s alright?”

“Generally, you mean, or specifically with Rachel’s death?”

Wendy shrugged. “I suppose I meant with Rachel’s death, but now that you ask, I wouldn’t mind hearing your thoughts on ‘generally,’ as well.”

“Hard to say. She doesn’t talk to me about personal stuff as often as she used to.”

“I’ve noticed that.”

He took a sip of his coffee, and then wrapped his hands around the mug. “Mind you, I was always the second fiddle; Kelly was the one she was really close to.”

Wendy frowned again and shook her head. “It didn’t seem that way to me the year we went over there just before we got engaged. I remember you and Beth having a couple of long talks, and it didn’t sound to me as if they were just about news and gossip.”

“Well, that’s true.”

Wendy stretched her legs out a little so that their feet were touching. “So, what do you think?”

“I do have some ideas, but I’m really not sure about them.”

“Share them with me, if you want.”

He smiled at her. “Did I ever tell you that Beth was born in the Arctic?”

“I think so; remind me how that came about?”

“Don and Lynda were teaching in Coppermine, on the Arctic coast. They spent five years there after they first got married, and Amy and Beth were both born during that time.”

“How old was Beth when they moved back south?”

“Just over a year, I think. Don and Lynda both got jobs in Meadowvale. They bought a house just round the corner from Mike and Rachel’s, and somehow, Mike and Rachel both hit it off with little Bethie. Rachel wasn’t working outside the home, and she loved looking after her grandkids. Amy would have been four, so Rachel babysat her for a year before she went to kindergarten. But Beth had just turned one, so Rachel had her all day long for four years, and they got to be really close.

“That’s how it started. Rachel taught Beth to cook and sew, and play piano, and when she got a bit older, she liked hanging around in Mike’s workshop and watching him build things. And then when she was four, Rachel started taking her to church. Rachel was one of the main pianists at Meadowvale Mennonite Church, you know.”

“I remember her playing the piano when we were visiting.”

 “That’s right, she did. Anyway, Beth never had any sort of a dramatic conversion experience; she just inhaled Christian faith by being around Rachel and the folks at church. And she was lucky in having Rob Neufeld as her pastor when she was growing up. We all were, of course. Well, you know—you’ve met him.”

“Yes.”

“I’ve heard Beth say more than once that her grandma was her best friend.”

Wendy raised an eyebrow. “Do you think that’s really true? I know lots of kids are close to their grandparents, but I don’t know about being best friends.”

 “I don’t know how literally to take it. There were a couple of girls Beth was always hanging around with when she was a kid, and one of them, Jenny Ratzlaff—Jenny Sawatzky as she is now—is still her close friend. And she’s close to Amy, too. I guess I’d describe Rachel more as her mentor than her friend; to me, friendship implies equality, and I don’t think Rachel and Beth had an equal relationship.”

“Rachel was always the senior partner?”

“Exactly.” Tom frowned again. “There was trouble when Beth and Greg got married. They met in Saskatoon, and they fell for each other in a big way, but it was obvious from the start that they were very different. His family was made of money, and that was important to them. He wasn’t a Christian—he was never disrespectful of Beth’s faith, he just didn’t share it—and we’d all been formed with the idea that it wasn’t a good idea for Christians to marry non-Christians.”

“Is that an Anabaptist thing?”

“I think a lot of traditional Christian groups had that view; some still do. The idea was that if you couldn’t share the deepest factor in your life with your marriage partner, it could be a pretty lonely experience. I certainly believed that. I know I was really thankful that Kelly and I had faith in common, and I’ve been grateful for it with you, too.”

Wendy smiled and nodded. “Likewise.”

“And Beth and Greg’s wedding was weird. We found out later—because she told Kelly about it—that they’d been sleeping together for a while. Beth felt guilty about it, but Greg wanted it, and she loved him, and so she went along with it.”

“They wouldn’t exactly have been the first couple to sleep together before they were married.”

“Agreed, but, you know, traditional Mennonite upbringing…”

“…would have frowned on that—of course. I think we’ve had that conversation before.”

“We have. Anyway, they went down to Las Vegas on a holiday, and on a whim, while they were down there, they got married in one of the wedding chapels. Beth just wanted to make their relationship right as quickly as she could, so she wouldn’t have to feel guilty about sleeping with him any more, and so when he suggested it, she was really happy. But the shit hit the fan when her family found out about it.”

“They were angry? Really?”

“Lynda was hurt rather than angry. She was always the sort of mum who looks forward to planning her daughter’s wedding with her, down to the last detail. She had a grand time when Amy and Luke were married, I can tell you! So she felt cheated of that, and as for Don, he was just plain angry at Greg—and, by extension, Beth too. And Rachel didn’t talk to Beth for months, she was so upset.”

“I noticed you said ‘upset,’ not ‘angry.’”

Tom took another sip of his coffee, sitting back in his chair and stretching his legs out a little further. “Your feet are nice and warm,” he said.

“Are you cold?”

“I am a little, for some reason.”

“It’s not exactly been a warm summery day.”

“No.” He frowned again. “Here’s my theory, and I’ve never asked Rachel about it, though I did run it by Beth once and it made sense to her. Beth wasn’t the first one in her family to marry someone who wasn’t a Christian; years ago, Rachel had done it too. She’s always been very devout, but Mike wasn’t. His mum and dad, Will and Joanna, were strong Anglicans, but they weren’t successful in passing their faith on to their kids. After he left home, I don’t think Mike ever went to church again other than Christmas and Easter. He was a great guy, and I know he and Rachel loved each other their whole lives long. But I suspect that Rachel found it lonely not to have a husband who shared her faith. And I think she was disappointed for Beth, knowing she was going to feel the same loneliness.”

“You talked to Beth about this?”

“I did. She and Greg kept their marriage a secret at first, but they came to my fortieth birthday party, and that was the day Beth told Kelly about it, and Kelly told me. And then a year went by, and we didn’t see much of Beth—she was living in Saskatoon, and she and Greg were newlyweds, and Meadowvale had become a little uncomfortable for her, which was tearing her apart because she loved the people so much.

“The next summer came, and out of the blue she called me from the city; she was coming up for a visit and wanted to know if we could go for coffee together at the Beanery. So we did, and that was when she had it out with me. She was amazing. She told me she wanted to do what was necessary to get things back on track between us, and she asked me to be honest with her about what I was thinking. So, I spoke my piece about it not being a good idea for Christians to marry non-Christians. I did it gently, and she listened carefully, and then, without raising her voice at all, she tore me off a strip. She accused me of being arrogant—of believing that anyone who approached the subject thoughtfully and prayerfully would just naturally come to the same conclusion as me. She told me she’d prayed about her marriage, and she and Greg loved each other, and she had an easy conscience about it, and she wanted me to respect that.”

“Wow. How old was she?”

“Let’s see—it was the summer of ninety-nine, so she would have been about twenty-one. Mind you, keep in mind that for years she’d been part of the Sunday night group Kelly and I hosted, and we’d always encouraged the kids to speak their minds, so she knew she could do that with me. And the truth is, she knew Kelly and I loved her as if she was our own daughter.”

“But that might have brought some baggage with it, too—she might have felt she had more to lose.”

“True enough. Still, that’s what she said, and I realized she was right, and we made up. After that, we talked a lot. We were really close when Kelly was going through her cancer—I know that was excruciatingly hard for her, but she wanted so much to do whatever she could to help Kelly, which was a beautiful thing to see. And after Kelly died, she kept an eye on Emma and me, like a lot of other people were doing, and we appreciated that. Whenever she came to town she brought her guitar with her, and you know, she always liked traditional folk songs, so we played together at singarounds from time to time, with Don and Lynda looking after Claire.”

“But since she and Greg broke up…”

He gave a little nod. “Yes. She still calls, and we still talk, but something’s in the way again.”

“Do you think she’s afraid you might have been right, and she doesn’t want you to say, ‘I told you so’?”

“I would never have said that, even before I had a change of heart about her and Greg. Lots of marriages between Christians and non-Christians survive and thrive—I know that now—and I certainly wasn’t predicting that Greg would cheat on her and run off with another woman like he did. Mike would never have done that to Rachel—although I do know Christians who’ve done it to Christians, which is a little awkward for traditionalists to explain.”

“Right.”

“I have a hunch, though.”

“And what would that be?”

“That she’s struggling with the breakup of her marriage on a deeper level than she’s letting on. I’ve never had any indication from her that she’s losing her faith, but I think she’s disappointed with God, and I’m not sure she wants to talk about it with me, or at least, not yet.”

Wendy tilted her head a little to one side. “Do you think she’s talking to anyone about it?”

“I honestly don’t know. As I said, she and Jenny Ratzlaff are still good friends, but I’ve no idea how deeply they talk these days. I know she talks to her Aunt Ruth…”

“Ruth is Don’s sister, right?”

“Yes, so Ruth and Kelly were cousins, because Sally Reimer and Rachel Weins are sisters.”

“Right—got it.”

“Ruth married John Jantzen; they’re great people—Kelly and I were really close to them—and Ruth’s the only one of Rachel’s kids who kept up with Christianity after she became an adult, although she ended up following the Mennonite side of the family tree, not the Anglican, because she married a Mennonite. Their family used to sit in the pew across the aisle from us in church—John and Ruth and their three kids, and Rachel and Beth.”

“That’s lovely.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know if Beth has talked to Ruth about any of this. I just don’t know.”

“She’s going to be with us four weeks. Are you hoping…?”

He gave a heavy sigh. “I don’t know, Wendy—maybe I am. I know I’m not in control, and I know the last thing I need to do is push her about it.”

“Does she talk to Emma?”

“I know they talk a lot, but I’ve never asked Em what they discuss. Nor would I.”

Wendy nodded. “I get that. That was one of the things I loved about you and Emma when I first got to know her.”

“Thanks.”

At that moment Tom’s mobile phone began to ring. He took it out of his pocket, glanced at the name on the screen, and smiled. “It’s our other daughter.” He put the phone to his ear. “Lisa Howard. How’s the Reimer tour of London going?”

“Well, I think I can truthfully say everyone’s suitably impressed!”

“You’ve been showing them all the sights?”

 “I met them at Heathrow at lunch time yesterday, and we haven’t stopped since. We’ve seen Buckingham Palace, and we’ve been in Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London, and the National Gallery, and we’ve done the river tour to Greenwich. But, you know, the weather hasn’t been the best, and Sally’s arthritis is acting up, so now we’re all curled up by a fireplace in a pub after a nice meal, and I thought I’d just give you a bell about tomorrow.”

“Are you coming home with them?”

“That’s the thing. Joe’s hired a van, but there are ten of them, so they take up all the seats. I can easily take the train, and I’m happy to do that, but if you’re picking Beth and Claire up at Heathrow…”

Tom laughed. “You want to hitch a ride?”

“Would you mind? Could I meet you at Terminal Three?”

“Sure. Let’s check with Beth, though, before we decide what happens next. She might be looking forward to some one-on-one time with me on the drive home. Well, as much one on one time as you can get with a chatty not-quite-four-year-old in the back seat.”

“That makes sense. Remind me what time the flight gets in?”

“It’s Air Canada from Toronto; I think about eleven-thirty, but there’ll be passport and customs time, too.”

“So it’s basically the same flight the Reimers were on yesterday?”

“Correct. Shall we meet a bit earlier? How about eleven o’clock at the arrivals lounge? If I remember correctly, there’s a coffee shop in the corner where you can get a really good Americano. Let’s meet there.”

“Sounds lovely. I feel like I’ve been running around for ages without a real chance for a good visit with you.”

“I know what you mean. And before long I’m going to have to make an appointment to see you in Brussels!”

“Don’t jinx it, Dad—we don’t know for certain whether that’s going to work out yet.”

“Right. Really looking forward to seeing you. Do you want to say hello to your mum before you go?”

“Yes, for sure.”

“I love you, my girl.”

“Love you too, Dad.”

“Here’s your mum.”

***

It was Lisa who first caught sight of Beth and Claire coming through the double doors into the arrivals lounge. She was standing with Tom behind the rope barrier, surrounded by others waiting to meet people from the Toronto flight. A good number of passengers had already come through, and Tom reminded Lisa that the cabin crew might have asked parents with young children to wait until the rush subsided before moving into the aisle. At that moment Lisa caught a glimpse of a familiar face pushing a baggage cart through the doors. “There they are!” she said. “Wow—Claire really grew!”

“Well, you haven’t seen her since she was one!”

“True.”

Beth and Claire were both dressed simply in tee-shirts and jeans; Beth was carrying a backpack on her shoulder, and the baggage cart held a full-sized suitcase, a smaller backpack, and a hard-shell guitar case. They came to a stop, and Beth scanned the crowd anxiously; Lisa gave them a cheery wave, and almost immediately Beth saw them. Her face broke into a grin, and she pushed the cart over toward them, with Claire following behind. Tom held out his arms to them. “Ready for a hug?” he asked.

Beth dropped her backpack onto the floor and moved into his embrace. “From you? Always.”

They held each other tight for a moment, until Claire tugged on Beth’s arm. “Me too!”

They all laughed, and Tom released Beth and looked down at the little girl. “Do you remember me?”

“I think so.”

“I saw you last summer when Wendy and I came to Meadowvale. But you were a lot shorter then. Do you want to come up?”

Claire hesitated for a moment, and then nodded decisively. “Okay!”

Tom reached down, lifted her up and gave her a warm hug. “I want to introduce you to someone, okay? This is my daughter Lisa; she’s heard a lot about you.”

Claire looked over at Lisa. “You know about me?”

“Well, I actually met you when you were very little.”

Claire’s eyes grew wide. “I don’t remember.”

“No, because you were only one. But you and I don’t really know each other well, so perhaps if it’s alright with you, I’ll just give you a kiss on the cheek right now. After we get to know each other better, we can try out hugs. What do you think?”

“Okay!”

Lisa leaned forward and kissed the little girl gently. Tom turned to Beth. “You remember Lisa?”

Beth smiled at the other girl. “I do. Are you living in London now?”

“Actually, I spent the last year in France, but now I’m back in Oxford.”

“What were you doing in France?”

“Taking courses to upgrade my French. I want to work at the European Parliament in Brussels, but you need two official EU languages to do that. My Russian and German are both really good, but Russian isn’t an EU language, so I needed to do some work on my French.”

“Right—you’re a translator, aren’t you?”

“Yes. So now I’m just waiting to hear back about my application, and meanwhile I’m dossing down at my brother Colin’s flat in Oxford while Mum and Dad’s house is full of wedding guests. But I’ve been in London for the past two days, showing the Reimers around.”

“Will and Sally?”

“Yes—and Joe and Ellie and Jake and Jenna, and Steve and Krista and Mike and Rachel!”

Beth laughed. “Did you hire a limo?”

“We’ve been using public transport to get around in London, but Joe hired a van to drive everyone to Oxford this morning.”

Tom put his hand on Beth’s shoulder. “We don’t need to stand here talking,” he said. “Let’s go find the car and get on the road. Unless you need a bite to eat or something?”

“We were well fed on the flight, thanks.”

“Excellent. Let’s get going, then, shall we?”

Lisa caught Beth’s eye. “Listen—do you mind me catching a ride back to Oxford with you and Dad? I came up to town on the train, and I’m happy to go back that way if you’d prefer to have some private time to visit in the car.”

“No, don’t worry about it,” Beth replied. “It’s good to see you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Alright then—thank you.”

***

The skies were overcast as they took the M40 northwest from Heathrow towards Oxford, and by the time they passed High Wycombe the drizzle had turned to a steady rain. Beth was in the back seat with Claire, while Tom and Lisa were in the front.

“Sorry about the weather,” said Tom. “It’s not looking too promising for Emma’s big day tomorrow, either. What was it like in Meadowvale when you left?”

“Hot and thundery,” Beth replied. “We were in shorts and tee-shirts.”

“I hear Rachel’s funeral was well-attended.”

“Yeah, there were a lot of people there. Joel came from Dubai.”

“I would have liked to have come, but we were so busy with wedding stuff around here.”

“Everyone knew that, Tom. All kinds of people told me to say hi to you for them; I’d hate to even start naming them for fear I’d forget some.”

Lisa turned in her seat so she could see Beth’s face. “Is this your first trip to England?” she asked.

“Yeah, it is.”

“We could have taken you to Oxford by the slow and scenic route, but we thought you might like to get there as fast as possible today. We’re actually passing through some beautiful countryside right now, but you can’t see it because of the embankments.”

“What I can see looks pretty good; we don’t get trees this green in Saskatchewan unless we’ve had a really wet summer, which doesn’t happen very often. But we don’t get this much traffic on our roads, either.”

“It’s a small country, with a lot of people in it.”

“Right. So, who’s going to be here for the wedding?”

“My mum’s brother and his family are coming up from Essex,” Lisa replied, “and all Dad’s immediate family are going to be there. Then there are some of Emma’s friends from work and church, and of course Owen Foster and his family. You know Owen, right—Dad’s oldest friend from his school days?”

“Yeah—he and Lorraine used to come to Meadowvale every couple of years to visit Tom and Kelly. The first time I ever heard traditional folk music was at a house concert they put on while Owen was visiting.”

“Sweet!”

“Getting back to the wedding guests…”

“Well, of course, there are lots of people from Matthew’s side of the family, but I don’t really know who they all are, only that there are a lot of them.”

Beth frowned. “I thought Matthew just had the one sister.”

Tom gave a chuckle from the front seat. “He does, but his parents both come from big families, and all their siblings have children, so there are rather a lot of cousins.”

“Right.”

“And then, as you know, we’ve got some Canadians too!”

“And we’re delighted to be here!”

“And we’re delighted to have you. I wish we could have everyone to stay at our place, but it’s not very big. Will and Sally insisted on getting their own hotel room, but Mike and Krista and their kids are staying at Merton, Wendy’s college—like a lot of Oxford colleges, they rent out their student rooms for tourists in the summer. And Joe and Ellie and their two are staying at my mum’s house, which is about a ten-minute walk from our place in New Marston.”

“I thought your mom lived out of town?”

“She sold the old place in Northwood a couple of years ago—it was getting too big for her to keep up. But she made a nice profit on it, so she was able to get a reasonably sized three-bedroom place in town.”

“Is Emma staying with you?”

“Yes—she’s been in Oxford since last weekend. She’s camping in the spare bedroom, and you and Claire are in what’s normally our office—we did a little furniture shuffling to make room.”

“I hope I’m not putting you out.”

“Not at all. Wendy’s university term ended in mid-June, and I finished yesterday, so neither of us needs an office for the next few days. You will, however, have to put up with the crowded bookshelves, but knowing you, that won’t be a problem!”

Beth laughed; “Some things never change, Tom!”

“That’s what I thought.” He glanced at Lisa. “When Beth was Emma’s babysitter, she was always raiding my bookshelves.”

“And his record collection,” Beth added. “That was a huge part of my cultural education.”

***

After the wedding rehearsal that evening, Matthew MacFarlane’s parents hosted a light supper in the church hall beside Banbury Road Baptist Church, where Matthew’s father Jim was the pastor; Tom and Emma had started attending there a couple of months after they had moved to Oxford in 2003.

Matthew and Emma were not planning a big wedding. Emma’s cousin Jenna Reimer was her maid of honour, and Matthew’s oldest friend Adam Byrne was his best man. There were no other people in the wedding party because, as Emma had said to Matthew, “we both have so many cousins that once we start asking people, we won’t be able to stop without upsetting someone!”

This meant that, in theory, the wedding rehearsal did not need to be a big affair. However, in practice, a lot of people came to it because they had been invited to the supper afterwards. Beth knew all the Canadian visitors well, and she had also met Tom’s sister Becca, his niece Sarah, his mother Irene, and his friend Owen. But there were other Masefield relatives she was meeting for the first time, including Tom’s brother Rick (Sarah’s father) his Scottish wife Alyson, and their other children Eric and Anna. “And the whole family’s not even here yet,” Rick said to her after they had been introduced. “We’ve got quite a few aunts and uncles and cousins coming tomorrow, including some I barely know!”

At that moment a tall man with close-cropped grey hair wandered over and grinned at Beth. “Well, here’s a familiar face,” he said in a broad Oxfordshire accent.

“Hello, Owen!” Beth replied as they gave each other a warm hug. “It’s so good to see you again!”

“You too. And this is Claire, isn’t it? It doesn’t seem that long ago that we heard she’d been born, and what is she now—four?”

“Four next month.” Beth smiled down at her daughter. “This is Mr. Foster,” she said; “He’s Uncle Tom’s oldest friend.”

Owen crouched down so that he was at eye level with Claire and spoke to her in a quiet voice. “Are you meeting lots of new people, Claire?” he asked.

She nodded solemnly. “Lots and lots.”

“And you must be tired after your long flight.”

She shook her head decisively. “I’m not tired!”

“Right—that was silly of me, wasn’t it? Do you like to sing?”

“I like singing songs in church. And my mommy sings and plays guitar, and sometimes I sing along with her.”

“I’ve heard your mummy sing lots of times; she has a lovely voice, doesn’t she?”

“Yeah.”

Owen got to his feet again, glancing around the room at the tables and the people waiting for the meal to start. “Has anyone claimed you?” he asked Beth, “because if not, why don’t you come and sit with Lorraine and me?”

“I’d love that. Where are your kids tonight?”

“Oh, they’re out with friends, doing the teenage thing, you know? Just wait ‘til Claire hits that age; that’s when the fun starts!”

“That’s what I hear.” Beth stifled a yawn. “Excuse me!” she said with an embarrassed grin. “I only slept on the plane for about four hours, and my body clock has no idea what time it is. To be honest, I’m so tired I barely know where I am!”

Owen put his hand on her arm. “Go and sit down with Lorraine over there, and I’ll get you a cup of tea. And if you get so tired that you just have to get out of here, let me know and I’ll run you back to Tom and Wendy’s—okay?”

“That would be great, Owen; thank you!”

***

The supper consisted of cold cuts and assorted salads, washed down with coffee and tea, and juice and cold water. Owen got food for them all, and when he had brought it back to their table and passed it around, he took his seat across from Beth and Claire. “Enjoy!” he said.

“Thanks, Owen,” Beth replied.

“So—I hear you’re making a trip over to Bramthorpe to check out Joanna Robinson’s family tree?”

“Did you ever meet her on your trips to Meadowvale?”

Owen and Lorraine glanced at each other. “We’ve been trying to remember if we met her more than once,” Lorraine said. “We do know that she came to that concert Tom and Owen did at Pastor Rob’s house back in the late nineteen-eighties. Do you remember that? I think you were there.”

Beth nodded. “Of course,” she said to Owen, “that was the first time I heard you and Tom play music together. But I’d forgotten that Great-Grandma was there.”

“I’m inclined to think that was the only time we met her,” Owen replied. “But of course, Tom’s told us lots more about her since the story of the journals came out. It’s an amazing story, isn’t it?”

“Really amazing. I’ve been slowly reading through them, and I still can’t quite take it all in.”

“Did she live in Bramthorpe her whole life ‘til she moved to Canada?”

“Until she married Will. After that they had a rather unsettled couple of years, living in farm cottages while Will got casual work. But yeah—for her first twenty-one years she lived at Holton Park, which is quite near Bramthorpe.”

Owen nodded. “I’ve got a friend in the area, actually.”

“Oh yeah? In Bramthorpe?”

“No, in Stamford, which is quite close by.”

“Yeah, I know about Stamford.”

“Her name’s Helen Francis, and we were in medical school together, so she’s about my age. She’s a general practitioner, like me, and she’s part of a local medical practice. She’s been there for years, so she’s well established in the town.”

“Have you been there, Owen?”

“Stamford? Not much. A couple of times over the years we’ve stopped to visit with Helen and her family on the way through, but it’s been a long time. Lovely area, though. Stamford’s very historic.”

“Have you seen Holton Park?”

“No, I’m afraid not. There’s another very historic stately home near Stamford—Burghley House. It goes back to Tudor times, too; it was built by Queen Elizabeth’s chancellor, if I remember correctly. Helen took us there once.”

“I’m really looking forward to seeing the whole area. I’d love to get a clearer picture of how my great-grandmother grew up.”

“I’ll bet. Quite the adventure!”

“No kidding!”

“So—how are all the Wiens’ and Reimers and Robinsons and Millers and Janzens and all the other Meadowvalers?”

Beth grinned. “How long have you got?”

“You’ll probably fall asleep before I lose interest, Beth.”

“Alright then—let’s see how long I can stay awake!”