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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
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.
“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:
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?”
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?”
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.
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.”
“I like ice cream!”
“I know you do, but I think cake is better.”
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?”
“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?”
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.
“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?”
“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?”
Beth raised her eyebrows at her daughter. “Aren’t you forgetting an important word?”
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?”
“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.”
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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”