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!”

Holton Park, Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN.

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

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

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

She looked at him nervously. “Oh yeah?”

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

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

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

“Tom’s a good man, Dad.”

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

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

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

“I’m glad.”

“Me too.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what I told you.”

“You didn’t mention the son, though.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I haven’t looked.”

“Well, now’s a good time.”

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

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

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

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

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

“It doesn’t say.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

“Are you going to try to contact them?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“I thought you might be looking for these.”

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

“Thanks.”

“Did you put the flowers on the grave?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Today?”

“Steve’s going back to Alberta tomorrow.”

“It was nice he could make the time.”

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

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

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

“Is there going to be trouble?”

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

“Okay—thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh yes I do – August Ninth!”

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

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

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

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

“Thanks. Are you staying long?”

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

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

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

“I think so.”

“Great—let’s catch up then.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the Robinsons?” asked Joel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess we do!” Beth replied.

Holton Park Chapter 3

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

MEADOWVALE, SASKATCHEWAN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No need to apologize.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Em.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to, if you don’t mind.”

“No, I don’t mind. You go ahead.”

“Thanks; I’ll do it now.”

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

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

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

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

“Were you with her?”

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

“I’m really sorry I wasn’t there.”

“Are you still coming today?”

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

“I love you.”

“I love you too. Have a safe flight.”

“I will; ‘bye now.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Are they coming today?”

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

“Is she going to stay at your place?”

“Is that okay with you and Mom?”

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

“Thanks, Dad. So, what’s next?”

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

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

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

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

“A box?”

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

“That’s fine; are the journals hers?”

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

He raised an eyebrow. “No kidding!”

“That’s what she told me.”

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

“Yes.”

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

“Well, after breakfast, maybe.”

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

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

“Oh?”

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

“That does seem a little strange.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Apparently.”

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

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

Joanna Elizabeth Rowley

My diary:

January 2nd 1918 to February 17th 1921

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

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

“Wednesday January Second Nineteen-Eighteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Seems like it. I had no idea.”

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

“I don’t know; do you, Beth?”

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

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

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

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

“I understand, Dad.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Did she?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Yay!”

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

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

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

“Are Mom and Dad at home?”

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

“Is Glenn her lawyer?”

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

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

“I assume you’ve got more luggage?”

“Just a little!”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what I thought, too.”

***

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

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

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

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

“It’s a comfortable couch.”

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

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

“Coming right up.”

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

“You’re welcome.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Why didn’t she tell anyone?”

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

“She won, apparently.”

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

“Did Dad know?”

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

“That must have been awkward.”

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

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

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

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

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

Amy raised an eyebrow. “Why Tom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of surprises?”

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

“Seriously?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you’ve obviously thought of going?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And did she?”

“Let’s see – here’s the next entry:

“Wednesday March Nineteenth nineteen-nineteen.

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

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

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

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

“Monday March Twenty-Fourth nineteen-nineteen.

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

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

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

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

“For sure. Does she name him?”

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

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

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

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

“Friday May Thirtieth nineteen-nineteen:

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

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

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

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

“The season? What does that mean?”

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

“What did they do in London?”

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

“How old is Joanna now?”

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

Amy laughed. “Read on!”

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

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

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

“How did they travel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course; who’s the furthest away?”

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

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

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

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

“Me too. Have a good sleep, Bethie.”

Holton Park Chapter Two

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

HEADINGTON AND NEW MARSTON, OXFORD.

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

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

“Excellent!”

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

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

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

“Sure—that would be great.”

“About half an hour, then?”

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

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

“Thanks. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she find what she was looking for?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I hear you had a successful day today?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll pour it, then.”

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

“Are you home?”

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

“Emma’s here?”

“She came back from town with Wendy.”

“Oh right—did she pick a dress?”

“She’s pretty well decided.”

“Has she got pictures?”

“Yes, she has.”

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

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

“Is she coming over?”

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

“Sure, especially if she brings Luke.”

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

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

“See you soon, Becs.”

***

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

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

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

“Tom, it’s Beth.”

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

“Yes. Sorry about that.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m good. Are you finished supper?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you know the story, then.”

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

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

“How does your dad feel about that?”

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

“Really?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did Kelly know?”

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

‘How did you come to know?”

“Well, that’s a long story.”

“Is this a bad time?”

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

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

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

“Kelly did some of that, didn’t she?”

“For a few years.”

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

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

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

“She can be a little persuasive.”

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

“I guess you probably do.”

“When did you first meet Great-Grandma?”

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

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

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

“I think I remember that.”

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

“The mystery?”

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

“How did you handle that?”

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

“But you were still able to become friends.”

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

“I remember that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t know that.”

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

“Nice!”

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

“That’s amazing, Tom.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“Grandma mentioned something about that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Time to Mend’ is now available on Kindle

timchesterton_A5My new novel, ‘A Time to Mend’, is now available for purchase in the Kindle store.

I call it ‘my new novel’, but I first typed the (now totally unrecognizable) ancestor of this story on a manual typewriter in my study in Aklavik over thirty years ago! Although it follows ‘Meadowvale’ chronologically, it was conceived before ‘Meadowvale’; in fact, I first wrote ‘Meadowvale’ because I was interested in the back story to ‘A Time to Mend’.

The basic story will not be strange to long-time readers of this blog, who will have read earlier versions of it. However, it has been substantially revised from the last version that was published here.

If you have a Kindle (or the Kindle app for your computer or iPad) I’d love it if you’d buy it, and I’d love it even more if you’d write an Amazon review for it afterwards! I will soon be announcing a paperback edition (from Amazon), and also hopefully Kobo and iBooks versions.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Two years after the loss of his beloved wife Kelly, Tom Masefield comes face to face with a new challenge: his father—the one he originally left England to get away from—is dying. For twenty-one years they have lived on different continents and have kept their personal contact to a bare minimum. But now Tom’s conscience tells him he needs to make one more attempt at reconciliation before his father dies.

‘So Tom and his daughter Emma decide to move back to England. Over the next two years, they will find out whether it is possible to mend relationships that have been broken for half a lifetime. And along the way, Tom will make a discovery that will transform his life in ways he never imagined.’

Links:

Canada

USA

UK

Australia

New Zealand

If you aren’t listed above, simply do a search on your local Amazon website.

 

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 15

Link back to Chapter 14

******

I woke up during the night to the howl of the wind and the sound of rain beating against my window. I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I returned I turned out the light in my room and lifted the curtain to look outside. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I could see that it was blowing hard; the trees were shaking and the rain was slanting down at about a forty-five degree angle. It was cold in my room, and when I got back into bed I pulled the comforter up around my neck, thinking as I often did of the many winter nights over the years when Kelly had come back to our bed and wrapped herself around me to get warm again. She had felt the cold far more than I did; it was a constant running joke between us that she had married a hot water bottle and I had married an ice pack.

I woke up again at around seven and got up shortly afterwards to go for a walk. The rain had stopped but the streets and pavements of the village were slick with ice and wet snow. I had to walk slowly to save myself from falling, and the few cars that passed me at that early hour of the morning were crawling along at a sluggish pace.

It was about nine o’clock by the time we sat down at the table in the kitchen to eat breakfast together. In answer to my query, my father told me that he had slept reasonably well and was feeling good, although I noticed that he ate his bacon and eggs very slowly. “How was the weather outside this morning?” he asked me.

“Cold and icy; the roads are pretty slick”.

“Is there much snow?”

“A little, but it’s mainly ice. I was awake at about two and I heard the rain coming down in sheets; it must have turned to sleet after that”.

“I hope everyone got home alright yesterday”.

“We would have heard by now if they hadn’t”, said Becca.

“Yes, I suppose so”. He glanced back at me; “Are you expecting some phone calls from Canada today?”

“I think Steve and Krista might call us a bit later on, but the person I’m actually expecting to hear from fairly soon is Owen”.

“Oh?”

“He’d said they were coming out to see his dad and mum today, but with this weather I’m hoping they might change their minds and stay home”. I glanced at Becca; “Are you going home today?”

“I’m supposed to take over from Owen at noon”.

“Being on call, you mean?” Emma asked.

“Yes”.

“You drive carefully now”, my mother said quietly.

“Don’t worry, Mum; I’ll be fine”.

******

Owen called me on my mobile phone just as we were finishing breakfast; I apologized, excused myself from the table, went out to the hallway and said “I hope you’re calling to tell me you’re staying home today”.

“Yes. The police aren’t advising travel, at least until mid-afternoon”.

“That’s good; you get a bit more time to enjoy your family”.

“Yes, and I might as well stay on call too. Tell Becca I can cover for her for the next twenty-four hour period”.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure”.

“Okay. How was Christmas at your place?”

“Messy; very messy. How about you?”

“It was good; we had a pleasant family gathering and my brother even left his Blackberry at home”.

“Bit of an addict?”

“I’m afraid so. My dad’s brothers and their wives were here; I got to have a nice visit with my cousin Ann and her family”.

“You haven’t seen her for a while”.

“Not since we were here in ’97, even though she just lives in Oxford. We agreed that we’re going to try to get together again soon. She’s always kept in touch with me over the years; she’s the only one of my cousins that’s done that”.

“Right”.

“You’re going to miss seeing your family today”.

“Well, we see each other a lot so I’m not really worried. I think Fiona and Jeff are staying at Mum and Dad’s for the weekend; hopefully the weather will clear up tomorrow so we can get out”. I heard someone calling him in the background and he said, “Well, I’d better go; apparently there’s some sort of family snowballing thing going on outside!”

“You’ve got snow on the ground in town, then?”

“Yes; haven’t you?”

“Just a skiff”.

“We’ve got enough for snowballs here; the kids are pretty excited”.

“Give them my love, Owen; we’ll see you soon”.

“Bye for now, Tom”.

******

We spent our morning indoors; my father and Emma sat talking by the fireplace in the living room while Becca and I helped our mother finish the cleanup from the day before. At about eleven o’clock Becca made coffee, and we were just taking the tray into the living room when the phone rang in the hallway. My mother started to get up, but Emma, who was standing in the doorway, said “You stay where you are, Grandma – I’ll get it”.

“Thank you, my dear”.

Emma disappeared back into the hallway; Becca put the tray down on the coffee table and began to pour, and she was just handing the mugs around when I heard my daughter’s call: “Dad, could you come please?”

I was on my feet instantly, recognizing the note of urgency in her voice. Out in the hallway she was standing with the phone in her hand, her face pale.“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“It’s Auntie Alyson and she’s really upset – something about an accident involving Uncle Rick and Sarah”.

I took the phone from her hand, put it to my ear and said “Alyson, it’s Tom”.

“Oh Tom, thank God!” she sobbed; “I think it’s really bad! Rick was driving Sarah up to Woodstock to visit Brittany and he spun on the ice and got hit by a lorry and another car. They’ve been taken to the J.R. and the police say Sarah’s been badly injured!”

“Where are you calling from?” I asked as calmly as I could.

“A police car on the way to the J.R.”.

Becca appeared from the living room with a little frown on her face; I gave her a warning glance and then spoke into the phone again; “Can you tell me what you know?”

“A policeman came to our door a few minutes ago”, Alyson replied, struggling to hold back the tears. “He said…he said there’d been an accident on the Woodstock Road, a collision, and Rick and…and Sarah were both injured, and so was one of the other drivers. He said it sounded as if Sarah…as if Sarah had been very badly injured”.

“Where are Colin and Anna?”

“They’re at the house – I didn’t think I could look after them at the hospital as well as dealing with whatever happened there, so I…”

“Right”. I looked at Becca; “Rick and Sarah were in a car accident”, I whispered. “They’re both injured; the ambulance is taking them to the J.R. and Alyson’s on her way there right now in a police car”.

“They’ll go to the Trauma Unit”, she replied softly; “That’s where the ambulance will be going”.

I repeated this to Alyson, and then said, “Don’t worry; we’ll make sure Colin and Anna are okay and we’ll come and join you as quickly as we can”.

“Thank you, Tom: I – I’m going to need some help at the hospital”.

“We’re on our way; you hang in there”.

“Right”.

As I put the phone down my mother emerged from the living room; “Is everything all right?” she asked uneasily.

“I’m afraid not” I replied, and as my father appeared in the doorway behind her I repeated what Alyson had said to me. When I was finished we were all quiet for a moment, and then Becca said, “So we need to look after two things; someone needs to go to Eric and Anna to make sure they’re all right, and someone needs to go to the hospital right away to help Alyson”.

I glanced at Emma; “We’ll go to Eric and Anna”.

“Eric will want to go to the hospital”, said Emma.

“Then we should bring them both. Will you call Eric?”

She nodded, digging in her jeans pocket for her mobile as she turned away toward the back of the hall and went through the open door into the piano room. Becca looked at my parents and said, “I’d better go to the J.R.”.

“We’ll come with you”, my father replied.

Becca shook her head; “I don’t think that’s a good idea Dad”.

“Why not?”

“If the injuries are serious they’ll take them through for surgery right away, and it will probably take a long time. We’re probably going to be sitting in waiting rooms until late tonight”.

“We’d like to be close, though”, my mother said.

“I know, Mum, and I understand, but believe me – it’s very unlikely that we’re going to get anywhere near them tonight; we’ll be with Alyson and the kids, not Rick and Sarah. And I think if we’re there for twelve or fourteen hours Dad’s going to be worn out”.

My father shook his head, and I saw the determination on his face. “This is my son and my granddaughter we’re talking about. I want to be there”.

My sister looked at him for a moment, and then nodded reluctantly; “Alright then. Let’s all remember that the roads are treacherous today so we can’t go fast. Tommy, I’ll go straight to the Trauma Unit with Mum and Dad; it’s on the north side of the J.R. and it’s got its own parking lot. I’ll probably get there before you, so when you arrive, wait for me in the reception area; I’ll come to you as soon as I can”.

“Where are you going to go?”

“As soon as I get there I’m going to try and find Alyson, and then I’m going to try to pull all the strings I can to find out what’s going on. But I’m only a GP, not one of the trauma surgeons, so I might not get very far”.

“Understood”.

Emma slipped back into the hallway, putting her mobile back in her pocket. “Eric knows we’re coming”, she said to me; “He told me Anna’s really upset. He’s trying to reach his other grandparents in Edinburgh; his mom asked him to call them”.

“We’d better get going”, I replied.

******

Emma and I arrived at Rick’s house in Cumnor Hill just after noon. Eric and Anna were ready for us; by the time my car had come to a complete stop in the driveway they were already emerging from the front door, wrapped up warmly in winter coats and scarves. They climbed into the back of my car and Eric said, “Thanks for coming, Uncle Tom”.

“Have you heard anything else from your Mum?” I asked over my shoulder as I reversed the car out of the driveway.

“No”.

“Were you able to get through to your Mackenzie grandparents?”

“Yes; they’re going to start out this afternoon some time”.

As we drove into Oxford I glanced at my rear view mirror and saw that Eric had his arm around his little sister; after a moment Emma reached back and took her hand as well. I kept my eyes on the road ahead; traffic was beginning to get busy despite the slippery conditions, and I guessed that the lure of Boxing Day sales was prompting people to brave the slick highways.

“I don’t know where we’re supposed to go when we get to the hospital”, Eric said.

“Becca told me to go to the Trauma Unit; that’s where they treat people who’ve had injuries in car accidents and things like that”.

“The policeman didn’t say anything about how bad their injuries are; he just said Sarah’s were more serious than Dad’s”.

I glanced at the two of them in my rear view mirror again; Eric had both his arms around Anna now. Emma squeezed her hand; “It’ll be okay”, she said softly. “They’re going to the best possible place; they’ve got some of the best doctors in the world there and they’ll look after them well”.

Anna didn’t reply, and after a moment Eric said “It was supposed to be Mum driving Sarah today”.

“What was happening?” I asked; “Was Sarah going to a party or something?”

“Not a party – just two or three friends getting together at Brittany Coleman’s in Woodstock”.

“She’s Sarah’s best friend”, Emma explained to me; “They’ve known each other since they were little kids”.

“Mum was going to drive her”, Eric continued, “But when she woke up this morning she had a bad headache – she gets them sometimes – and so Dad said he’d do it. He was really busy today; when I got up he was already working in his study”.

 “He told me yesterday he had a big trial to get ready for”.

“Yes, I heard him tell Mum last night he was going to be working on it all day today”.

******

It took me a few minutes to find the car park for the Trauma Unit, and a few minutes more to find a parking spot; apparently the JR was a busy place on this Boxing Day. Once inside the main doors I looked around helplessly; people were walking here and there or sitting on chairs scattered about the reception area, and lines of people were waiting at the desks. Eric was still holding Anna’s hand; he looked at me and said “How are we going to find them?”

“Becca told us to wait here”.

“There’s Grandma and Grandpa”, said Emma, looking over to the far side of the room. I followed her eyes and saw my parents sitting at one end of a row of vinyl chairs with a plant pot beside them; my mother had just seen us, and as we made our way over to them she got to her feet and held out her arms to Anna. “It’s alright, darling” she said, drawing her close and holding her tight; “Auntie Becca’s gone to find them. She’ll be back in a few minutes to tell us what’s happening”.

“Are you okay, Dad?” I asked my father.

“I’m fine; Becca told us not to be worried if she was gone for some time”.

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking”.

It was actually about twenty minutes later that my sister emerged from one of the elevators. She saw us immediately, came over and gave Anna a hug, and then put her hand on Eric’s shoulder. “You two come with me”, she said; “Your mum’s on one of the units and I’m going to take you to her”. She glanced up at the rest of us and said, “Sorry, they’ll only allow immediate family; I’ll come back as soon as I can and let you know what’s happening”.

“What is happening right now, Becs?” I asked.

“They’re both being prepped for surgery. I don’t know Rick’s surgeon but I heard someone say that Sarah’s surgeon is John Fellows; he’s an old friend of Owen’s from medical school days. He and I know each other a bit”.

“Right; I guess we’ll wait here then”.

“It could be a while, Tommy”.

“I understand”.

Becca led Eric and Anna across to the elevator, and Emma and I sat down with my parents. “Shall I try to find a coffee machine?” she asked.

“That’s all right; I think I’ve had enough”.

******

And so we waited there for the next three or four hours, flipping absent-mindedly through magazines, talking quietly to each other, and getting up occasionally to stretch our legs. New people were coming in all the time; some were able to move on quickly but most, like us, sat down to wait, not knowing how long they would be waiting for. I tried to stop myself from continually checking my watch; the numbers seemed to be changing with excruciating slowness. At one point my father shook his head impatiently; “What the devil is taking so long!” he exclaimed.

“They said the injuries were serious, Dad”, I replied quietly.

“But why can’t Becca come and tell us something?”

“It’s possible that she’s the calming voice in there right now, with Alyson and the kids”.

He looked at me for a moment, and then he nodded and said, “You’re right, of course. I’m sorry – I just hate waiting, that’s all. And I hate this place”.

“I know”.

At about four o’clock in the afternoon Emma got up and went outside for a few minutes; she was finding the atmosphere stuffy, she said, and she needed a breath of fresh air. She had just returned and taken her seat again when I looked up and saw Becca coming across the room toward us. I immediately stood up; “Any news?” I asked.

“Sit down and I’ll fill you in”.

We took our seats, and Becca covered my mother’s hand with her own. “Rick’s got a broken arm and a broken leg, along with three broken ribs. He seems to have a mild concussion but the team doesn’t seem overly worried about that. They’re still working on him and he’s under general anaesthetic right now, but he was conscious when they brought him in”.

“What about Sarah?” Emma asked.

Becca shook her head; “Things are a lot more serious with her. Both her femurs are broken and one of them is an open compound fracture; the bone’s broken in three places. She’s also got several broken ribs, a broken wrist and a broken collarbone. Also both her lungs are collapsed, and she’s in a coma”.

“A coma?”

“Yes. That’s probably the result of a severe blow to the head”.

Emma stared at Becca, her face pale. “Is she going to be okay?”

“They’re working on her right now to stabilize her. I think they’ll probably try to address the situation with the lungs and the compound fracture first, but I wasn’t in the operating room so I don’t know for certain”.

“So she’ll come out of the coma then?”

“We can’t know that, but the best thing for them to do is to assume she will, and to start to address her other injuries”.

My father took my mother’s other hand. “Becca, is her life in danger?” he asked softly.

“She’s in critical condition right now, Dad. I’ll feel a lot better if and when she comes out of the coma but it’s impossible to say when that might happen”.

“What do we know about the accident?”

“It happened on the A44 just south of Begbroke. As far as we can tell Rick lost control of his car on black ice and was struck by a lorry and also by a smaller car. He hit the meridian and flipped; his car was upright when it came to rest but the roof was badly damaged, so it must  have gone all the way over, 360 degrees. I’m assuming that’s when Sarah sustained the blow to her head. Several other vehicles were involved in the accident and one of the other drivers was killed. The police aren’t releasing any names yet, for obvious reasons”.

“How are Alyson and the kids doing?” asked Emma.

“Alyson and Anna are really upset. Eric is too, but he’s doing his best to be there for his mum and his sister. Speaking of which – I should probably go back and give him a hand”.

I looked at Emma; she smiled at me as bravely as she could but I could see in her eyes that she was shaken by the news. I reached over and took her hand; “Are you going to be okay?”

She nodded; “Can we go and see them?” she asked Becca.

“Not yet – as I said, they’re both still in surgery”.

“Give Alyson and the kids hugs for me”.

“I will”. She glanced at my father; “Are you alright, Dad?”

“Don’t worry about me; we’ve got far more important things to think about!”

“Are you getting tired, though?”

“A bit, but I’ll be alright for a little while yet”.

“Will you two stay in my spare room tonight?”

My parents glanced at each other, and my mother said, “Let’s see how the evening goes, shall we? We can always take a taxi home if we need to”.

“Why don’t you find the cafeteria and have a bite to eat? I’ll ring Tommy’s mobile if anything important happens”.

“That sounds like a good idea”, I replied; “How long do you think, Becs?”

“I’ve really got no idea; it could be several hours yet”.

******

We stayed at the hospital until after ten o’clock. Rick was out of surgery by then, and Alyson and the children went in to see him briefly, but his nurse said he needed rest more than anything else, and after a few minutes she asked them to leave so that he could get some sleep. Sarah was in intensive care with a nurse monitoring her around the clock; Alyson was allowed in to her room briefly, but the rest of us were limited to looking at her through the window.

The next day was a Saturday. Shortly after one in the afternoon I stuck my head around the door of my brother’s room in the Trauma Unit. His right leg had a sort of pulley and weight contraption attached to it; his right arm was in a cast, and his chest was heavily bandaged. He was staring vacantly into space, and although he turned and looked at me when I entered the room, he seemed at first to be having difficulty focusing on my face.

“Does it feel as bad as it looks?” I asked.

He shrugged; “Not too bad at the moment, but then they’ve got me on a fairly heavy dose of pain killers. They’re making me a bit drowsy though, so you’ll have to forgive me if I nod off”.

“Do you mind if I come in?”

“Be my guest. Are you here by yourself?”

“Emma came with me but she’s gone down to Sarah’s room. Is there anyone else around yet?”

“Alyson was here for a while but she went to see how Sarah was doing. Mum and Dad are with her. Becca’s doing a Saturday morning clinic, I hear”.

I nodded. “I talked to her earlier on; she’ll be here soon”.

We lapsed into silence for a moment; he reached for a glass from the bedside table, sipped cold water through a straw, and then put it down again.

“Do you remember anything?” I asked gently.

“About the accident, you mean?”

“Yeah”.

He looked away. “I lost control of the car”, he said quietly. “I must have hit a patch of black ice; that’s what the police think. After that it’s all a bit hazy. Something big struck us on the passenger side; the police say it was a lorry. I’ve got a vague memory of colliding with another vehicle on the rebound, and then we hit the barrier – it’s a dual carriageway up there – and I must have been knocked out. When I came to, the car was upright but my head was touching the roof. Sarah was unconscious beside me, and she was covered in blood”. He glanced at me, and I saw the horror in his eyes. “God, Tom, I thought she was dead; she looked awful”.

“Have you heard anything about her this morning?”

“Apparently they put a chest tube in last night to drain the air from around the collapsed lungs”.

“The collapse would have been caused by punctures from the broken ribs?”

“Yes; she’s got five of them. I’ve got no idea why her injuries were so much worse than mine”. He shook his head; “I’d have been glad for it to be the other way around”.

“She’s still in a coma?”

“Yes”. He looked down; “They don’t seem to  know how long that’ll go on for”.

“No”

He was quiet for a moment, looking down. I waited, not wanting to inadvertently say anything that might interfere with the raw honesty of our conversation.

“One of the other drivers was killed”, he said, his eyes still down.

“That’s what I heard”.

“Apparently she was a single mum”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“She had a two-year old boy at home”. He shook his head slowly; “Imagine being two years old and losing your mum”.

“Yes”.

“Is Emma all right?”.

“She was a little shaken last night but I think she was doing okay this morning. What about your other two?”

“Alyson left them at home with her parents today; they got in from Edinburgh around eleven last night”. He glanced at me; “I heard you were the one who brought Eric and Anna in yesterday”.

“Yeah”

“Thanks for that”.

“Not at all; it was the least we could do. Emma and your kids have been getting pretty close”.

“Emma’s special. She’s old for her age, isn’t she? I sometimes have to remind myself she’s only eighteen. Still, I suppose she’s had to do a lot of growing up in the last few years”.

“Yes”.

He looked at me for a moment without speaking, and then he said, “You never know what life’s going to send your way, do you?”

“No, you don’t”.

He picked up the water glass for a moment, took another sip and stared away into space. “I wish I could see Sarah”, he whispered, “but I doubt if I’ll be able to get out of this room for a while”.

“Are they saying anything about how long you’ll be here?”

He gestured toward his broken leg. “They say it could take three months to heal properly. I’m not sure how soon I’ll be able to go home, but they’ve told me I’ll need to be very patient with myself. I’ll be off work for a while, I think – or at least, I won’t be going in to the office”.

“Someone else is going to have to cover that trial for you”.

“Yes; funny how completely unimportant that seems now”.

“I think I can understand”.

He nodded slowly; “Yes – I think you probably can”.

“How was Alyson this morning? She seemed pretty shaken yesterday”.

“Still the same, I think. She can be a bit fragile”.

“Understandable”.

“There’s not really much she cares about more than the children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, and with me working so much…”

“It’s the nature of the job, so I understand”.

He gave me a wry grin; “Dad and I have given you that lecture a few times, haven’t we?”

“You have”.

“I wonder how Dad feels about it right now”, he said softly, looking away toward the window.

“Have you asked him?”

“Me? Good heavens, no! The old man and I don’t talk on that level”. He frowned thoughtfully at me; “Have you?”

“Not yet”.

“You plan to, though?”

“If I can”.

As he opened his mouth to reply there was a gentle knock on the door. We both turned to look as my mother and Becca appeared in the doorway.

“Did you just get here?” I asked Becca.

“I’ve been here for a few minutes. Mum called and asked if I could come over a little earlier, so I gave away some appointments and came right away”.

“Is there a problem?” asked Rick.

My mother shook her head; “Not a problem – I just wanted her to be involved in a conversation we were having with Sarah’s doctor. He wants to do a procedure on her today”.

“What sort of procedure?”

“They want to insert a titanium rod into her left leg”.

Rick frowned; “That sounds rather drastic”.

“It’s standard procedure in situations like this”, Becca replied; “They might do the same thing for you in a few days. Sarah’s bone’s broken in three places and they need to fix it in position so it can knit together properly. The titanium rod is called an intramedullary nail; they’ll insert it into the marrow canal of the femur either at the hip or the knee and it’ll be screwed to the bone at both ends. It’ll keep it in proper position so it can heal”.

“How long will it be in place?”

“It’ll be permanent”.

“Permanent”. He looked away, shaking his head slowly. “This is going to affect her for the rest of her life, isn’t it?” he said quietly.

“She’ll be all right, Rick”, Becca replied softly; “Lots of people are walking around with these rods in their legs”.

“They’re just doing it on the one leg?”

“Yes; the other one isn’t so badly injured; it’s just a transverse fracture. They’re going to put it in traction and wait for a few days before they do anything”. She sat down on the other side of the bed from me. “This is just the first of several surgeries Sarah’s going to have, Rick”, she said. “It’s going to take a long time for her to come back from this. But she’s alive and she’s in good hands. I know you’re going to worry; that’s only natural. But the people here know what they’re doing; you can trust them”.

“Is she still in the coma?”

“Yes. There are no indictions at the moment as to when she’ll come out of it”.

“Or if she’ll come out of it”.

“No”.

He was quiet for a moment, his eyebrows creased into a frown, and then he looked at Becca again; “So do they need my consent for this procedure?”

“They asked Alyson, but she said we should ask you too”.

“You think it’s a good idea?”

“As I said, it’s absolutely standard procedure”.

He nodded; “Right then – let’s do it”.

Becca got to her feet; “I’ll go and tell them”, she said.

******

Link to Chapter 16

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 14

Link back to Chapter 13

Emma and I went out to Northwood on the evening of the 22nd, and Becca came out to join us as soon as the clinic closed on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The three of us went to the village church that night at seven; the pews were almost full, and Claire Lucas preached a thoughtful sermon which seemed to hold even my sister’s attention. Becca had usually accompanied us to our church on her visits to Meadowvale, but I knew that she rarely attended when she was home in England.

After the service was over we walked back to my parents’ house through the cold night air. Becca grinned at us; “That was a bit different from your usual service at Meadowvale Mennonite Church”.

“A little”, I replied, “but we like it alright. The people here are getting to know us, and we get to see George and Eleanor”.

“And Claire’s started to recognize us, too”, Emma added; “I had a nice conversation with her last time we were here”.

“You two are so easy to get along with! Surely you must miss your own church just a little bit on Christmas Eve?”

“Oh yeah”, Emma replied softly; “I miss a lot of things about home”.

“Who’s going to be at Will and Sally’s for dinner tomorrow?”

“Uncle Joe and Auntie Krista and their families for sure, and I think David and Anna will probably be there too”.

“How many’s that?”

“Twelve, I think”.

Becca grinned at me; “I think that for once we might have a bigger group here!”

“Uncle Arthur and Uncle Bill are coming, aren’t they?”

“Yes – and their wives, and Ann and Mark and their family, and Auntie Brenda, and all of us: that makes nineteen”.

“Do you know why Auntie Sarah’s not coming?”

“I think Uncle Graham’s pretty frail; they don’t stray too far away from home these days”.

“Auntie Sarah’s Grandpa’s sister, right?” asked Emma.

“Yes”, I replied. “Grandpa’s the oldest, and the others are Arthur, Sarah, and Bill”.

“Which family does Ann come from?”

“She’s the oldest daughter of Uncle Bill and Auntie Joan. Her husband is Mark Fogerty, and Caitlin and Molly are their kids; they’re seven and four”.

“They’re the ones that live in Oxford?”

“Yes. Ann’s actually the only one of my cousins who’s kept in touch with me through the years”.

“Have I ever met her?”

“Last time we were here she and Mark and Caitlin drove over from Cambridge to see us; Caitlin would have been a baby at the time. You probably wouldn’t remember it, though”.

“Actually I think I do; she was kind of tall, with long blond hair. Her husband was a little shorter than her, and his hair was really black and curly”.

“Yes, that’s them”.

Becca took my arm. “It’s a long time since anyone from Dad’s family came for dinner on Christmas Day”.

“Well, there’s a bit more of a sense of urgency this year, isn’t there?”

“I would think so”.

******

I was up early as usual on Christmas morning, and I went for my walk while it was still dark; there was a sharp frost in the air, and I knew that when the daylight came the bare fields would look spectacular with their thin white covering, different and somehow colder than the snow I was used to from my prairie home. Praying while walking had been a habit for me for many years, but on this, my third Christmas without Kelly, I found that there wasn’t a great deal that I wanted to say. It seemed to be enough just to walk quietly, breathing a few prayers of thanksgiving for Christmases past, and asking God to watch over the many loved ones who were far away from us this year.

When I got back to the house my mother was already up and working in the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers, stuffing the Christmas turkey. We chatted for a few minutes while I made tea; I promised to come down and give her a hand, but she shook her head and said, “Becca’s just getting up, and we’ve got a good system between us. You take Emma her tea and then the two of you just enjoy yourselves for a while; we’ll be alright”.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes”.

“Okay then; thanks, Mum”.

I poured two mugs of tea, kissed her on the cheek and went up to Emma’s room. She was already awake, with the debris from her stocking spread over her bed; she greeted me with a smile and a hug and held up the paperback I had wrapped for her a couple of days before. “Adam Bede”, she said; “I’d been thinking about getting this one for myself”.

“Aren’t you glad you didn’t?”

“I know the rules about December shopping. Did you look at your stocking yet?”

“Not yet; I’m going to drink my tea and grab a quick shower, and I’ll probably do it after that”.

“Are you going to play us some carols today?”

“Would you like me to?”

“I love it when you play carols; it brings back lots of happy memories. I heard you and Grandma practising on Saturday”.

“You could even join us if you wanted”.

“I don’t play them as well as you do”.

“Your voice is lovely, though”.

“Thanks. Is Grandma already up?”

“Yes – she’s stuffing the turkey”.

“I’d better get up and give her a hand”.

“I already offered, and she told me she and Becca have a pretty good system”.

“What time are the guests arriving?”

“I think dinner’s at one-thirty. I expect Rick and the family will be here before noon; I’m not sure about everyone else”.

“Is it a ‘dress for dinner’ kind of day?”

“It was when we were here back in ‘94”.

“Oh yeah – I remember Mom coming down in her jeans and then running back up to put a dress on!”

“Did you bring a dress?”

“I brought a skirt and a nice sweater; I hope that’s okay”.

“I’m sure Grandma would be happy for you to come in jeans if you wanted to”.

“Well, it’s a denim skirt, you see!”

I laughed; “Very nice!”

“Thanks; it’s the warmest skirt I own, too!”

******

Auntie Brenda arrived at around eleven-thirty; she greeted us with smiles and hugs, went into the living room to put a few gifts under the tree, and then joined my mother and Becca in the kitchen to help put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner.

Rick and his family made their appearance just before noon; we met them in the hallway, exchanging hugs and handshakes and wishing each other ‘Merry Christmas’. Emma had been hanging a few extra decorations in the dining room when they arrived, and Sarah and Anna immediately joined her there, while Rick talked cheerfully with me as I helped him bring in a few presents and place them under the Christmas tree. Afterwards my mother served coffee from a silver coffee pot in the living room; I knew she only brought this pot out on special occasions, and Emma had helped her polish it the previous afternoon.

A few minutes later my father’s two younger brothers, Arthur and Bill, arrived with their wives; they had come together in Uncle Bill’s car. They were all dressed formally, my uncles in jackets and ties and my aunts in elegant dresses, pearls, and brooches. Emma sat down with them almost immediately and began to ask them questions about their homes and their families in her usual quiet way. By now she had changed into her denim skirt and sweater, and I had put on my jacket and tie in deference to the unspoken dress code.

My cousin Ann and her family were the last to arrive, and she apologized profusely to my mother for their lateness. “The girls were enjoying their Christmas presents”, she said; “They weren’t very impressed when we told them it was time to leave them behind to come to Northwood!”.

“Did you bring a few of the presents with you?” I asked, pointing to the backpack she was carrying over her shoulder.

“I did actually!” she replied with a smile; “How are you, Tom? It’s lovely to see you!”

We greeted each other with a hug and a kiss, and I bent over to introduce myself to Caitlin and Molly, but they were obviously wary of strangers, and four-year old Molly hid behind her mother’s leg. Emma laughed and said “Way to go, Dad!”

“Do you remember me, Emma?” asked Ann.

“I do – I remember you coming over to visit us last time we were here. I also remember you sending us a lovely card and note after my mom died; Dad and I really appreciated that”.

“Yes, we did”, I agreed.

“Do you want me to take that backpack?” Emma asked Ann. “Maybe if I have the toys I might be able to interest the children in playing with me”.

Ann smiled at her; “You are your mother’s daughter, aren’t you? I remember her taking Caitlin from me almost as soon as I walked in the door”.

******

As Becca had said there were nineteen of us sitting down for Christmas dinner. We had put two long dining tables together end to end and dressed them with festive tablecloths and decorative candlesticks, and the meal was served on my mother’s best china with silver cutlery and crystal glassware. The turkey had been cooking since early morning; it came with all the trimmings, along with the appropriate vegetables, and afterwards we had Christmas pudding and a selection of pies and cakes to choose from.

“When was the last time you had this many people around your table for Christmas dinner, Grandma?” Emma asked.

“I honestly don’t remember”, my mother replied with a smile. “There would have been eleven of us last time you were here for Christmas; that’s probably the most we’ve ever had until today”.

“Wasn’t there a time when Tom and I were little when we had all the aunts and uncles at once?” Rick asked.

“I’d forgotten about that”, my mother replied.

“We set up the tables in the music room, didn’t we?” I said.

“Yes, we did”.

“How long ago was that?” Emma asked.

“Before my time”, Becca replied.

“Maybe not”, I said; “I think you were a baby. You were born about the same time we moved here, and I definitely remember us eating in the music room, in this house”.

My mother nodded; “I think Tom’s right”.

“Thirty-three years ago, then”, said Rick; “It’s hard to believe we’re all that old”.

Rick was wearing a jacket and tie like the other men, but I noticed that for once he was not continually checking his Blackberry. I grinned at Becca; “I think there’s something missing from our brother’s personal accessories today”.

“Something small and noisy, maybe?”

“We’re not hearing any chimes or alert sounds. I wonder where that cheeky little Blackberry  is today?”

Alyson laughed; “I insisted he leave it at home; if anyone rings him on Christmas Day they deserve to be ignored!”

“I’ll check my messages when I get home!” said Rick.

“You are definitely an addict!”, I replied.

He shook his head; “It’s the world of modern business, I’m afraid”.

Emma tactfully changed the subject; “Grandma, are you going to play some music for us a little later?”

My mother smiled; “We’ll see how the afternoon goes”.

“Don’t let her get away with that excuse!” Auntie Brenda said with a smile; “I’m her sister but you’d be amazed how rarely I get to hear her play!”

“We’ve got lots of other musicians here, too”, my mother said; “Tom, Emma, Eric…”

“Do you play Christmas songs, Tom?” asked Ann.

“Does he play Christmas songs?” Becca exclaimed with a laugh.

Emma grinned at me; “Dad loves playing Christmas songs! I know for a fact that he and Grandma were practising on Saturday”.

I grinned at my mother; “I think we’ve just been smoked out of hiding!”

Emma looked across the table at Eric; “Did you bring your guitar?”

“I did, but I don’t really know any Christmas songs. I’ll be happy to play along, though”.

******

When the meal was over and the Christmas crackers had all been pulled, we took our coffee into the living room, where we spent a while retrieving gifts from under the tree and opening them. When we were done, Emma smiled at my mother and said, “Well, is it music time, Grandma?”

“If you insist”. She glanced at my Masefield relatives and said, “I know you’ll be wanting to get on the road soon; don’t feel you have to stay for this unless you really want to”.

“We’ll need to be getting these two home before too long”, Ann said apologetically, “but we’ll stay and listen to a couple of tunes if you don’t mind?”

“No, of course not”.

“We should get going before too long as well”, my Uncle Bill said, glancing at his watch; “We don’t want to be driving in the dark for too long”.

“Perhaps we could stay until Ann leaves”, my Auntie Joan suggested.

“If that’s what you want, dear”.

So we went back to the music room, carrying a few hard-backed chairs with us; my father apologized for taking the only armchair in there, but his brother Arthur said, “Don’t you worry, Frank – you make yourself comfortable”. My mother went over to a bookshelf in the corner where she kept a few music books; she selected an old red hardback with a faded cover, smiled at me, and said, “The Oxford Book of Carols?

“Sure. Why don’t you play some of the least guitar-friendly ones first, and then I’ll go get our guitars and we can play along with a few of the others?”

******

My Masefield relatives said their farewells at around four o’clock but the rest of us stayed in the music room for another half hour or so. My mother had played three carols and then insisted that we join in, so Emma and I accompanied her for a few of the old traditional carols I liked and Eric did his best to play along with us. Later on Emma and her cousins went out for a walk, and Becca and I told my mother to sit tight while we cleared up from dinner and washed the dishes.

Rick and Alyson ended up staying into the early evening; their children were obviously enjoying spending time with Emma, and when Alyson announced at about five o’clock that it was time for them to think about heading for home, all three of them protested. “Can’t we stay a bit longer, Mum?” asked Sarah.

“I don’t think Grandma was anticipating feeding us again today”, Alyson replied.

“Oh, nonsense!” said my mother; “The house is full of food, and anyway I’ll be surprised if anyone’s really all that hungry”.

“I’m certainly not!” I said.

“Nor me”, Becca agreed.

So my mother put some cheese and crackers out, with a few cakes and a bit of Christmas baking, and we continued nibbling in the living room while the children played board games and the adults carried on their quiet conversations. After a while Emma smiled at me and asked my mother if she had a Scrabble set anywhere; my mother quickly produced one from the sideboard, and Emma, Alyson, Sarah and I played a game for a while with a few of the others watching. I wasn’t surprised when my daughter won, although in the end the scores were quite close.

“Staying out here for a few days, then?” Rick asked me as Emma and Sarah were putting the game away.

“We don’t really have a time frame; I expect we’ll be here ’til Sunday morning anyway. Owen and his family are coming out tomorrow to spend a few days with his parents; I expect we’ll get together at some point”.

“I foresee more music in your future”.

“Maybe. How about you – straight back to work?”

“The office is closed ’til Monday but I’ll be working at home for a few hours tomorrow”.

“That’s too bad”

“Can’t be helped; we’ve got a big trial coming up in the new year and I’m a long way from being ready for it”.

“What sort of trial?”

“It’s a tax case; I can’t say much about it apart from that”.

“Corporate law then?”

He nodded; “That’s almost all I do. I used to do criminal law but now I leave that to a couple of the other partners who’ve made a specialty of it”.

“Are you going to see Alyson’s family over the holidays?”

“We’re going to make a quick trip to Edinburgh over New Year’s”.

“Do you have any commitments this Sunday evening?”

He shook his head; “I don’t think so”.

“Come for supper, if you like?”

He grinned; “You think you can squeeze us all in?”

“We’ll squeeze you in just fine. Do you like Indian food?”

“We do actually”.

“We’ll cook a nice hot curry, shall we?” I said to Emma.

“For sure”, she replied with a smile.

Rick glanced at Alyson; “What do you think?”

“Sounds lovely; can we bring anything, Tom?”

“How about if you bring the wine? Your husband seems to have a pretty discerning palate for it”.

“Yes, he does!” she agreed.

******

Rick and his family left at about nine o’clock, and a few minutes later Auntie Brenda said her goodbyes. As we stood on the front step waving to her, I could feel the damp chill in the air. “It’s going to be a cool one tonight”, I said to Becca.

She glanced up at the darkened sky. “I think we might get some rain; I can’t see any stars up there, and I can feel the moisture”.

“Maybe even snow”, Emma said with a smile; “I don’t think I’ve ever seen snow in England!”

“The children love it but the adults don’t; we’re not set up for it the way you are in Canada. The roads get slick and the trains get cancelled and everything gets chaotic”.

“Well, it’s a holiday, so it’s a good day for it”.

“Except that there’ll be thousands of holidaymakers on the roads tomorrow”.

“I guess; I didn’t think of that”.

My father was pale with exhaustion by then, and my mother and Emma helped him up to bed while Becca and I cleared up the debris from the living room, put the leftover food away, and washed and dried the dishes. My mother came back downstairs after about half an hour; she came into the kitchen, kissed me on the cheek and said “Thank you”.

I smiled at her; “You’re welcome”, I replied. “That was a wonderful dinner today. Is Dad okay?”

“He’s fine; he’s just very tired. Apparently Emma is too; she asked me to tell you she’s going to go to bed with her new book and she was wondering if you’d bring her up a mug of hot chocolate?”

“I’ll do that. Are you going to stay up for a while?”

“Do you mind if I don’t? I’m rather tired too”.

“You’re entitled, Mum”, Becca replied; “You did an amazing job today; you’re a wonderful hostess”.

“Yes, you are”, I agreed.

“Thank you both”, she said; “Are you two going to carry on your hot-chocolate-by-the-Christmas-tree tradition tonight?”

I glanced at Becca; “What do you think?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”

“I’ll put the kettle on”, I said to my mother. “Shall I bring you up a mug when it’s ready?”

“That would be lovely”.

“How about Dad; shall I bring one for him too?”

She shook her head. “He was barely able to stay awake to change into his pyjamas; I’m sure he’s already fast asleep”.

So while my mother went upstairs again to get ready for bed I boiled a kettle and made the hot chocolate. I took a cup up to my mother, dropped another one off with Emma, and then came back down the stairs to join my sister in the darkened living room. I turned on the Christmas tree lights and stoked up the fire, and we sat side by side on the chesterfield. Becca kicked off her shoes, drew her legs up underneath her and cradled her mug in her hands. “You didn’t get any calls from Meadowvale today”, she said.

“No; we told them we’d be tied up with a family gathering this afternoon and evening. We talked to Joe and Ellie and the kids yesterday, and Will and Sally. We’ll probably call Krista and Steve tomorrow, and Beth”.

She took a sip of her hot chocolate. “Our brother did rather well at being present in the present today, didn’t he?”

“He did; I can’t believe he went for a whole day without his Blackberry”.

“Well, he didn’t have much of a choice, did he? Alyson made him leave it at home”.

“One day out of three hundred and sixty-five”.

“What do you want to bet he’s on it right now, furiously checking messages and answering emails?”

I laughed; “Probably! His kids were sure having a good time with Emma today, weren’t they?”

“She’s good for them”.

“They’re good for her, too”.

“It was nice to see Ann and Mark”.

“It was, and Dad didn’t do too badly with their kids either”.

“No, he didn’t. It helped that they were at the other end of the table from him”.

We lapsed into silence, and for a few minutes the only sounds were the crackle of the wood fire and the ticking of the old clock on the mantlepiece. Eventually she sighed and said, “You and I haven’t had too many Christmases together in the past twenty years”.

“No”.

“The last one would have been here, nine years ago”.

“Three years ago you missed it by one day, when you came out to us on Boxing Day”.

She nodded slowly; “The Christmas before Kelly died. I was so frantic, and she was so serene”.

“She was”.

“How are you and Emma doing this year, Tommy? Really, I mean?”.

“Okay for the most part”. I took a long drink of my hot chocolate and then set it down on the coffee table in front of us. “It’s been a different sort of Christmas for us so far, but mostly good”.

“How’s Emma feeling now about being in England? She doesn’t talk about it much with me”.

“She doesn’t talk about it much with me either. I know she still really misses home; she and Jenna talk a lot, and Jake too of course”.

“Jenna must really miss her”.

“I think so”.

“She’s been making some new friends here, though”.

“She has, and she’s really enjoying her cousins and grandparents”.

“Has Dad said any more about paying her fees?”

“No – I think he’s dropped the subject”.

“So telling him about the life insurance was a good idea?”

“Yes, but I should have done it a lot sooner”.

She was quiet for a moment, staring thoughtfully into the fire, and then she looked at me with a smile; “Do you remember the first year we came down here during the night?”

“You were eight, and I was home from university”.

“I couldn’t sleep with excitement about Christmas, and I came to your room and woke you up…”.

“I seem to remember I wasn’t very happy about being woken up”.

“But you were so nice about it! We talked for a while and then we snuck down here, and you turned on the Christmas tree lights just like this, and we sat and watched them for a while”.

“Actually we sat and watched them ’til you fell asleep, Small One, and I carried you back up to your bed”.

“Did you? I don’t remember that!”

We both laughed softly, and she drained her mug and set it down on the coffee table. “It was always such a comfort to me when you came home from university for Christmas. That’s how it feels this year too; just having you and Emma here makes it so much better for me”.

I smiled at her; “You’re in a pensive mood tonight”.

“I am, aren’t I? Maybe it was the churchgoing last night; it’s been a few years since I’ve gone to the Christmas Eve service”.

“You used to go with Mum sometimes”.

“Yes I did, and I was glad to go with you last night. Whenever I came home from visiting you and Kelly and Emma I always resolved to go more, but then my life seemed to swallow me up again and my resolutions seemed to evaporate into thin air”.

“The busy life of a doctor”.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it? You’d have thought losing Mike would be a wake-up call for me but I don’t seem to have learned much from the experience”.

“You’ve been slowing down a bit since we came back”.

“I’ve been trying to, but I still can’t escape that sense of being driven”.

“It’s a Masefield family disease”.

“You’ve found the cure for it somehow, though”. She stifled a yawn; “Well, I think it’s about time for me to find my bed”.

“Yes, I think I’ll find mine too”. As she got to her feet I took her hand and said “Listen, Becs – about church”.

“Yes?”

“If you’d like to go from time to time, you’d be very welcome to come with Emma and me”.

“To Banbury Road, you mean? Is it like your church in Meadowvale?”

“In some ways it is, but there are some differences; there are more university students, and there’s more of an ethnic mix”.

“Well, I’ll think about it; you know I still have lots of questions. I know you found faith but it still seems to be really difficult for me”.

I got to my feet, and we made our way quietly up the spiral staircase. At the door of my room, she kissed me on the cheek and said, “Goodnight, Tommy”.

“Goodnight, Becs; see you in the morning”.

******

Link to Chapter 15

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 12

Link back to Chapter 11

Wendy and Owen and I got together to play music at our house on the first Saturday in December.

After we had met Wendy at my school back in October, Emma had checked her other books out of the library and read them both. She had been hoping for an opportunity to meet her again soon; in this respect, however, she was to be disappointed. A couple of weeks after our first meeting I emailed Wendy, asking if she would like to come over to play some music with Owen and me. She replied immediately, saying that she would be interested at some point but she was especially busy right then and would get back to me later. After that I heard nothing from her, and gradually I came to the conclusion that even though our meeting at the school had been enjoyable, she was not really interested in renewing our old friendship.

It was Owen who pointed out to me that there might be another explanation. “She might just be genuinely busy, you know”, he said.

“You think so?”

“Well, it’s term time right now, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so”.

He grinned at me. “You’ve forgotten when Oxford university terms run, haven’t you?”

I smiled sheepishly at him; “I guess I have”.

“Michaelmas term lasts from mid October to the end of the first week in December, and if you remember, it’s rather intense. And Wendy’s a single mother with a teenage boy still at home”.

I nodded; “She takes him to a lot of sports events, too”.

“Give her a chance; she probably hasn’t got a minute to call her own”.

“I never thought of that”.

******

Wendy called me after supper on the last Sunday in November; I was working at my desk up in my den when the phone rang. “Tom?” she said; “It’s me – Wendy”.

“Hello there – I was wondering when I would hear from you!”

“Yes, I’m sorry – I don’t get many moments to call my own once term starts. What about you – have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, not at all; I’m just doing a bit of prep work for tomorrow”.

“Do you want me to ring you back in an hour or so?”

“No – this is fine. So how’s your term been?”

“It’s always busy – tutorials and lectures and individual conferences with students, and I do some curriculum work too”.

“Are you doing any more writing?”

“I’ve been exploring some ideas but I haven’t got anything in process at the moment”.

“Will you write about George Eliot again?”

“I don’t think so; I think I’ve said everything I’ve got to say about her. No – I’ve been doing some lectures on 18th and 19th century poetry and I’m toying with the idea of working them up into a book”.

“That would be excellent!”

“Yes, you always were a lover of poetry, weren’t you?”

“I still am”.

“I think you might enjoy some of my lectures. One of them concentrates on George Crabbe and John Clare; you were a big fan of Clare, weren’t you?”

“I still really like him”.

“You were the one who first got me interested in him; I’d never really paid much attention to him before you and I met”.

“I didn’t know that”.

“You thought I spent a lot of time ignoring you, didn’t you?”

I laughed softly; “You had pretty strong opinions. Wendy”.

“I know – I’m sorry about that”.

“I wasn’t complaining; I always enjoyed our conversations”.

“Me too. How’s Emma?”

“She’s well. She’s been reading your earlier books, actually; I think she’d love to ask you about them”.

“I would enjoy that”.

“Apart from that, she’s still busy volunteering at Marston Court, and spending time with family and friends”.

“She’s made some friends, then?”

“We’ve started going to a little Baptist church in north Oxford; she’s gotten to know some of the young people there”.

“I didn’t know you were a churchgoer”.

“Yeah, that’s something that happened since I moved to Canada. I married into a Mennonite family and it kind of rubbed off”.

“I’ve gone back to church over the last few years too”.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yes – it happened after we moved back to Oxford”.

“It would be fun to compare notes”.

“I’d like that”.

“So are you interested in a visit with Owen and me?”

“Yes I am, but I want to make sure you both understand that I haven’t sung any of our old songs for a long time”.

“That’s fine, Wendy. Like I said the other week – singing or not, it would be good just to have a visit”.

“Yes, it would”.

“So when were you thinking?”

“Would next weekend work for you?”

“Saturday would work. Sunday we’re kind of tied up – it’s Emma’s eighteenth birthday”.

“Well I certainly don’t want to interrupt that! We can wait a bit longer if you want?”

“No, I think it would be fine. We’re having a family party at Owen and Lorraine’s place on Sunday evening. My sister and Emma are cooking jambalaya and I’m baking the cake, and that’s about the limit of my responsibilities”.

“Did you tell me Owen and his wife had children?”

“Yes – Andrew and Katie. They’re quite a bit younger than Emma but they get on really well with her”.

“Is that why the party’s over there?”

“No – it’s because there are going to be sixteen of us, and their house is bigger”.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait a few more days for our visit?”

“Let me talk to Owen – I think he might enjoy a couple of hours on Saturday”.

******

She came over to my house on Saturday afternoon, dressed casually in faded jeans and an Aran sweater, her hair hanging loose to her shoulders. Owen and his family had come for lunch earlier, and then Lorraine had taken the children and Emma out for the afternoon; I had told Emma I thought Wendy would be less self-conscious about singing with us if there was no one else around.

Owen and Wendy greeted each other warmly; I made tea, and then we sat around the living room for a couple of hours, singing our old songs. Wendy asked Owen and me to sing a few by ourselves at first, but eventually she began to join in, and it quickly became clear that even though she hadn’t sung the songs for a long time she still remembered them very well.

“Nothing wrong with your memory!” Owen said mischievously after we finished one of our old favourites.

“I’ve always liked ‘Reynardine’”, she replied with a grin.

“I remember”.

“What about some newer stuff? Surely you boys haven’t stopped learning songs since we last saw each other. Do you still play in public, Owen?”

He nodded. “I’ve got a band, actually; we call ourselves ‘The Oxford Ferrymen’”.

“Is that your band?” she exclaimed with a smile; “I’ve seen posters around town from time to time”.

“Yes, we do gigs at the ‘Plough’ and a few other places; occasionally we go a bit further afield”.

“What sort of music do you play?”

“Mainly Celtic stuff; I’ve learned to play bouzouki and cittern since the last time you and I saw each other”.

“You didn’t bring them with you today, though?”

He shook his head; “Hopefully there’ll be another chance”.

We sang a few more songs, including some that Owen and I had learned in the years after we had lost touch with Wendy, and then I made another pot of tea and we talked. Wendy was sitting in Emma’s easy chair by the hearth with her feet up on a footstool; “This has been really good”, she said softly. “Thank you both”.

“It’s really great to see you”, Owen replied.

“You too, Owen. Have you always worked in Oxford?”

“Yeah – I joined a little practice after I finished my training and eventually I became one of the senior partners. Tom’s sister Becca works at our practice”.

“As a doctor?”

“Yes”.

“I didn’t know she was a doctor. Actually, I didn’t really know much about her at all; the last time I saw her I think she was about eleven. Didn’t she come to that concert we did for your mum’s music society, Tom?”

“Yes, I think she did”.

She glanced at Owen again. “You’ve got a family too, I hear?”

“Yes – I’m married to Lorraine and we’ve got two children; Andrew’s twelve and Katie’s nine. It took us a while to get going on the reproduction business”.

Wendy laughed again. “Did you already know Lorraine when we were here together?”

“No, I met her not long after you two left – in church, actually; she showed up there one Sunday in September of ’82”.

“Are you still a churchgoing family?”

“We are”.

“I’ve gone back to church myself in the last few years”.

“Tom told me that”.

“My dad’s pleased, of course”.

“Where do you go?”

“When I first started I just went to Merton Chapel, which is where I was confirmed, but it only has regular Sunday services during term time and they’re in the evenings, which isn’t very convenient for family meals. So after a couple of years I started going to St. Michael and All Angels here in New Marston; I sometimes sing in the choir and I get on pretty well with the vicar. I’m still involved in some Merton Chapel activities though, and now and again during the week I sing in their choir too, so I suppose you could say my church life is a bit schizophrenic. What about you?”

“We go to St. Clement’s; I was going there through most of my student years”.

“I went there once or twice but it was a bit too charismatic for me; I like something more traditional”.

“We three have really got the Christian spectrum covered!” Owen observed.

Wendy nodded, looking across at me; “You said you’d started going to a Baptist church?”

“Yes, but Emma and I are actually Mennonites”.

“Right – you told me your wife’s family were Mennonite”.

“Yeah – I guess I sort of married into it”.

“I expect there was a bit more to it than that”.

I nodded; “There was”.

“Do you mind me asking about it?”

“Not at all. Kelly’s dad Will Reimer was the principal of my school in Meadowvale and he and his wife were very helpful to me in my first few months there. They were pretty strong in their faith, but Kelly had strayed away from it for a while as a teenager. When I got to know her she was just finding her way back. She and I talked about it, and I also had some really good conversations with her brother Joe; he and I became really good friends. And of course I’d been getting interested in spirituality for a while; Owen and I had been talking about it before I left England”.

Owen nodded; “We exchanged a few letters about it after you moved, too”.

“We did”.

“Kelly came back to her faith, then?” said Wendy.

“She did; we made that journey together, and eventually we were both baptized on the same day”.

“An adult believer’s baptism, you mean?”

“Yes; that’s the Mennonite tradition”.

“Mennonites are pacifists, aren’t they?”

“They are”.

“So you’re not cheering for Bush and Blair and their war with Iraq?”

“No we’re not; peace and justice are a very important part of our faith for Emma and me”.

“Emma’s a practising Christian too?”

“Yes – it’s very real and personal for her”.

“That’s brilliant; I wish I could find a way to help my two make that connection”. She frowned thoughtfully; “What was it you found attractive about the Mennonite faith? I mean, I came back to the church I was raised in, but you moved to something completely different”.

I shrugged; “I didn’t really know very much about different denominations; it wasn’t as if I was evaluating all the local churches to see which one I liked the best. Kelly and her family were all Mennonites and their pastor, Rob Neufeld, had been one of the people who guided me on my way into Christian faith. So it just seemed natural that after I became a Christian I would stay with the people who had helped me find faith”. I grinned; “Rob was sneaky, actually; he invited me to play music in their church before I became a Christian. Kelly’s dad played guitar and Joe’s wife Ellie played the fiddle, and we worked up some gospel songs together, and before we knew it the people liked us and they wouldn’t let us stop!”

Wendy laughed, and Owen said, “They’re wonderful people, all of them”.

“You’ve been out there, then?” Wendy asked him.

“Oh yes – several times. Lorraine and I really loved Kelly, and of course we were kind of fond of this bloke too”.

“It was mutual”, I replied softly.

“Lorraine had difficulty conceiving when we first got married”, said Owen; “We tried for a few years and nothing seemed to work. She got really upset and angry about it, and then one time when we were out at Tom and Kelly’s on holiday Kelly spent a lot of time with her, just listening to her and loving her. She was a remarkable human being; I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone else with such a gift for sympathy and love”.

“She’d had struggles of her own, of course”, I said.

“With her cancer, you mean?” asked Wendy.

“Yes. After her first go around with it she lost both her ovaries, which meant she couldn’t have any more children. That was a real heartbreaker for her”.

“I can imagine”.

We were quiet for a moment, sipping thoughtfully at our tea, and then Owen smiled and said “So what about you, Wendy Howard; what have you been doing all these years?”

“Oh, well, my life’s not exactly been a smooth ride, I’m afraid!” She looked down at the floor, gathering her thoughts, and then said “I went to London, as you know. Mickey and I were able to work things out and we moved in together”.

“That was a big surprise for me”, I said; “You seemed so keen on staying in Oxford for your doctorate, and I was pretty sure you and Mickey were past history”.

“It might have been better if we had been. Anyway, my daughter Lisa was born about a year after we moved in together, and we got married not long after that. I worked on my doctorate at UCL, and Mickey did well in photo-journalism and set up his own business. He got to travel to all kinds of exotic locations to take photographs for magazines, and later on he got a name for going to dangerous places on assignment”.

“That must have been stressful”, I said.

“Yes. Anyway, by the time Colin was born I had my doctorate, and a couple of years later I got a job teaching at UCL. The rest you know. I wrote some books, and I got a chance about six years ago to move back to Oxford and get a fellowship at Merton. The time was right because Mickey and I had just broken up”. She paused, and then said, “He got quite violent, and the children and I were just too afraid to stay with him any more. I actually had him charged when I left; he was convicted, and he spent some time in jail. He’s out now, but he’s supposed to stay away from us. Most of the time, he does”.

Owen and I were both suddenly silent; I was amazed by the matter-of-factness with which she had summed up what had obviously been a horrific experience for her. I was just opening my mouth to speak when we heard the front door open, and after a moment Emma came into the living room with Becca behind her, both of them still wearing their coats, with shopping bags over their shoulders. “Look who we found in the covered market!” she said with a triumphant smile.

“I was shopping for ingredients for jambalaya”, said Becca, “because someone told me she’d like to have it for her birthday”. She glanced at the three of us; “Sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt”.

“Not at all”, I replied, getting to my feet. “Becs, you probably don’t remember Wendy Howard? Wendy, this is my sister Becca”.

“Actually, I do remember you”, said Becca as Wendy got up to greet her; “I think I must have been about ten or eleven the last time I heard the three of you play together”.

“Did you hear us more than once?” asked Wendy; “I thought perhaps it had only been that one time we played for your mum’s music society”.

“You came to the house to practice a couple of times; I remember you using Mum’s music room”.

“So we did!” Wendy held out her hand, and Becca took it with a smile. “Are you going to sing some more?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know; I should be going soon”.

“Do one song for us, at least”, Emma asked eagerly; “I’ve heard so much about the three of you and I’d love to hear you play together”.

I glanced quizzically at my two partners; Wendy shrugged, and Owen grinned and said, “Take your coats off, then, while we try to think of something that won’t embarrass us too badly!”

“Is there tea in the pot?” Emma asked.

“I think there is”.

So Becca and Emma hung up their coats, Emma poured tea for them both and then they sat down with us. Owen glanced at Wendy; “What do you think?”

“What about ‘The Recruited Collier?’”

“Good choice!” Owen looked across at me; “Key of E Flat?”

“I’m on it”.

The song was not one of the pieces we had played earlier, but it had been one of our favourites years ago. Owen and I began to play a slow introduction, and after a moment Wendy took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to sing:

“What’s the matter with you my lass, and where’s your dashing Jimmy?
Them soldier boys have picked him up, and taken him far from me.
Last pay day he went into town, and them red-coated fellows
Enticed him in and made him drunk, and he’d better have gone to the gallows”.

For the second verse of the song, I sang harmony with her:

“The very sight of his cockade it sets us all a-crying,
And me I nearly fainted twice; I thought that I was dying.
My father would have paid the smart and he ran for the golden guinea,
But the sergeant swore he’d kissed the book so now they’ve got young Jimmy”.

“When Jimmy talks about the wars, it’s worse than death to hear him.
I must go out and hide my tears, because I cannot bear him.
A brigadier or a grenadier he says they’re sure to make him,
and still he jibes and cracks his jokes, and bids me not forsake him”.

Emma was sitting on the floor, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back resting against the front of the sofa, a smile of pure pleasure on her face; Becca was sitting forward in her chair, her legs crossed, obviously captivated by the music. Wendy and Owen and I sang the last verse together:

“As I walk o’er yon stubble field, below where runs the seam;
I think on Jimmy hewing there, but it was all a dream.
He hewed the very coals we burn and when the fire I’m lighting,
To think the lumps were in his hands, it sets my heart a-beating.
So break my heart and then it’s o’er, oh break my heart my dearie;
And I lie in this cold, green ground, for of single life I’m weary”.

When the last chord died down there was a brief silence in the room, and then Becca shook her head and said, “My God – that was absolutely gorgeous!”

Emma nodded; “Beautiful!” she said softly. “I had no idea…”

Wendy coloured slightly; “You’re both very kind”.

“Will you do another one?” Emma asked.

“Oh, I don’t know”, Wendy replied; “I should be going soon. My daughter’s joining us for supper tonight, and I need to get something ready”.

“Speaking of families”, said Owen, “Did you lose mine somewhere along the way, Em?”

Emma laughed; “Lorraine told me she had a couple of other things she needed to get, so she sent me home with Becca”.

Owen gave her a knowing grin; “I see how it is!”

“That’s what I thought!”

“Are they coming back here to get me, then?”

“I think that’s the plan; Lorraine told me to tell you if there was any change you should call her on her mobile”.

“Right”.

Wendy smiled at Owen and me; “I really should be going”, she said.

We all got to our feet, and the next thing we knew, the three of us were gripping each other tight in a three-way hug. For a long moment we held each other, and when we stepped back, Wendy’s eyes were shining. “Thank you both”, she said quietly; “I really enjoyed myself”.

“So did we”, Owen replied; “Let’s do it again soon”.

“Absolutely”. Wendy turned to Emma; “Happy birthday tomorrow”, she said.

“Thanks!”

“I hear you’d like to talk about my books some time”.

Emma gave her a delighted smile; “I really would!”

“Well, we can make that happen. Get my e-mail address from your dad”.

“Thank you – I would love that!”

I followed Wendy out into the narrow hallway, took her coat down from the peg and helped her on with it. “That was very thoughtful of you”, I said; “You must be really busy”.

“Term’s over now; I’ve got a bit more free time”. She wound her scarf around her neck, zipped up her coat, and turned to face me. “Tom, I wonder if you and Emma would like to come over to Merton for a special Christmas event?”

“What sort of event?”

“I mentioned my daughter Lisa; she’s up at Christchurch reading Modern Languages, but she also sings in a chamber choir called the Radcliffe Singers, and they’re doing a Christmas carol concert at Merton Chapel on the Sunday before Christmas. It’ll be an evening event, of course”.

“A Christmas carol concert?”

“Yes. The university’s down so there aren’t many people around, but they usually get a good turnout for their concerts; if you want to come I should get tickets for you fairly soon. They’ve arranged to have a reception in hall afterwards, if you’d like to stay”.

I smiled; “I’m actually rather fond of Christmas carols”.

“They’ll probably do a few of the less well-known ones”.

“All the more interesting. Put me down for sure, and I’ll talk to Emma and see if she’s interested, too. How much are the tickets?”

She shook her head; “Come as my guests”.

“Are you sure?”

“Of course”.

“All right, then; I’ll talk to Emma and get back to you as quickly as possible”.

“Good”. She held out her hand, and I shook it rather formally. Then, a little impulsively, she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “This was a really good afternoon”, she said; “Thank you”.

“I’m glad you could come, and I know Owen is too”.

“I hope you have a wonderful party with Emma tomorrow”.

“I’m sure we will”.

******

Link to Chapter 13

‘A Time to Mend’ Chapter 9

Link back to Chapter 8

******

Eric’s birthday party was the occasion for our first visit to Rick and his family in their house at Cumnor Hill; it was only a few years old, and was situated well back from the road on a sizeable lot behind a high hedge. The ground floor windows were all latticed, and there was a large double garage on one side of the house. There were several cars already parked in the driveway when we arrived; I recognized my father’s Rover, along with Becca’s Renault and Rick’s Range Rover. I pulled my Escort up behind them, turned off the engine, and glanced across at Emma; she gave me a wry grin and said, “I smell money!”

“In a social activist mood this afternoon, are we?”

She laughed. “Actually, I was expecting this; Sarah told me about it”. She glanced at the cars on the driveway; “Look’s like Auntie Brenda’s not here yet”.

“Unless Becca picked her up. Shall we go in?”

“Sure”.

******

Alyson met us at the front door, dressed in jeans and a white blouse; she smiled warmly at us and said, “Welcome to our home; I’m so glad the two of you could come!”

She led us through the reception hall, and I noticed the woodblock flooring and the dark polished staircase leading up to the bedrooms. The living room had the same woodblock flooring, partially covered by a colourful rug; there was an open brick fireplace with a tiled hearth, and at the back of the room French windows opened onto the large back garden. Off to the left, an arched opening led through to the kitchen area.

My brother was sitting on an easy chair as we came into the room, talking with Mum and Dad and Becca who were sitting on the chesterfield across from him; on the glass coffee table between them there were several plates of hors d’oeuvres and a tray with a coffee pot and some cups. When he saw us, Rick got to his feet and held out his hand to me. “Good to see you”, he said; “Any trouble finding the place?”

“No, it was pretty straightforward. Is Auntie Brenda not here yet?”

“She rang a few minutes ago to say she’d be here about five”.

Emma glanced at the open French doors; “Is Eric out back, Uncle Rick?” she asked.

“He is. He’s got a few friends with him, and Sarah and Anna are out there too. Feel free to go and join them, Emma, or stay with us old folks if you like”.

“Maybe we’ll both go out for a few minutes and greet the birthday boy”, I said.

“Cup of coffee to take with you?”

“That would be nice – thank you”.

“How about you, Em?”

“I’m fine thanks”.

******

Out behind the house there was a long lawn dotted here and there with trees and shrubs. The French windows opened onto a stone patio with a few lawn chairs arranged around a circular table; Eric and one of his friends were playing guitar there, with a few others sitting around listening, including Sarah and Anna. Eric looked up and smiled when he saw Emma; “Did you bring your guitar?” he asked.

“I didn’t think about it; sorry!”

We sat with them for a while, listening to the songs and chatting on and off with the other young people. I was taking in my surroundings, speculating about how much this luxurious property was worth in the inflated market of Oxford, and wondering what my brother had thought when he had seen the little house Emma and I were renting.

After about half an hour we went back inside; Emma and Sarah slipped upstairs to Sarah’s room for a while, and I joined the growing company in the living room. Becca and Alyson were sitting together on one of the couches; I helped myself to another cup of coffee and sat down with them.

“How was the music?” Becca asked.

“Very enjoyable. I didn’t quite catch who the other guitarist was, but they sounded good together”.

“Jeremy Venn”, Alyson said; “He’s Eric’s best friend”. She shook her head; “I’m sorry I didn’t think to ask Emma to bring her guitar along; I’m sure Eric would have enjoyed that”.

“Don’t worry about it; there’ll be other times”.

“Have you and Emma had a busy week?”

“It’s getting busier, with school starting and all that. She’s about to start volunteering at a local nursing home, too”.

“Does she like that kind of thing?”

“Very much”.

“Was it Kelly who got her interested?”

“Partly”.

Alyson shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem that long ago that she and Eric and Sarah were babies”.

“That’s for sure”. I frowned; “You have an older sister, don’t you?”

“Yes, Sheila; she’s three years older than me”.

“I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen her since your wedding, but I remember you and Rick talking about her a few times. Wasn’t she married to a banker?”

“Yes – Alistair Cameron. Unfortunately they broke up a few years ago; he’s living in Switzerland, and Sheila’s back in Edinburgh working for my dad”.

“Did they have any children?”

“Two boys, Ewan and David; they live with their mum. Ewan’s sixteen and David’s thirteen”.

“That’s tough on the kids when a marriage breaks up; Kelly’s cousin Brenda went through something like that”.

She nodded; “Sheila and I weren’t especially close while she was married, but she tells me it had been going wrong for a long time. Of course, I never saw any of that”.

“What do we really know about what goes on in other people’s marriages?”

“Isn’t that the truth? Sheila and Alistair always looked fine to me; I suppose they were just good at keeping things private”.

“Brenda and Gary were the same”.

“Brenda and the kids seem to be doing alright”, said Becca.

“They are. Of course Bren’s always busy with the Beanery; she tells me owning a coffee shop is a lot like being married!”

“It’s been a long time since she and Gary split”.

“Ten years”.

“I was with you when it first came out”.

“That’s right, you were; it was when we had the first Reimer family reunion”.

Becca shook her head slowly; “It doesn’t seem like ten years ago”.

“It must have been a bit overwhelming for you”, Alyson said to Becca, “walking into the middle of a big family event like that. You wouldn’t have known many people there, would you?”

“Actually I knew quite a few of them; I’d visited Meadowvale almost every year since about 1987, and Tommy’s father in law usually hosted a family barbecue to welcome me. When I was there this year for Emma’s grad they all greeted me like a long lost cousin”. She smiled at me; “They’re always so good at making me feel like part of the family”.

“You are part of the family; that’s how they’ve always seen it, since the first time they met you”.

“I know”.

******

Supper was served around six; it was a professionally catered buffet laid out on the dining room table. I noticed that my father stayed in his chair in the living room while my mother filled his plate for him; he had been coughing on and off, and from time to time I saw Becca watching him, a little frown on her face.

“Is Dad okay?” I asked her at one point when we were both refilling our plates at the same time.

“I don’t think so; I think he’s got a chest infection”.

“Should we do anything?”

“I asked him earlier on if he was feeling okay, and he just about bit my head off”.

“That would be a ‘no’, then?”

“I’m afraid so”.

******

After the birthday cake had been cut and shared out, it was time for Eric to open his gifts. The young people had been sitting in one corner of the room by themselves, but now Emma came and sat herself down on the floor in front of me, leaning her back against my knees.

Eric received many gifts, some of them quite expensive. Emma and I had given him a CD and a card with a cheque for £50. Eric read the card out loud: “This is the first £50 toward your new guitar”. He beamed over at us; “Thanks!” he said.

“Are you getting a new guitar?” Rick asked; “I thought you already had one”.

“He’s getting to be a really good player”, I replied; “but a quality guitar would do a lot for him”.

My brother shrugged his shoulders and smiled awkwardly. “If you say so; I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject!”

When the gift opening was over the conversations continued in different parts of the room. Rick came over and sat down on a hard chair beside Emma and me, a cup of coffee in his hand; “Thanks for coming”, he said, “and thanks for your gifts for Eric”.

“Thanks for having us, Uncle Rick”, said Emma; “It’s really nice to be able to come to family birthdays and stuff”.

“Emma’s got one coming up soon”, I added.

“How old are you going to be, then?” Rick asked her.

“I’ll be eighteen on December 7th”.

“Ah – a party of some significance!” He grinned at me; “This is when you surrender all responsibility for her, is it?”

I laughed; “She’s been pretty responsible for a long time”.

He frowned; “I wish I could teach my son a bit of that. You know, no offence intended, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t give him too much encouragement in this guitar-playing obsession. It’s a great relaxation, I can see that, and for you two that’s all it is, but the trouble is he’s got this idea in his head that he can become a professional musician, and I can’t see anything but grief on that path”.

“It could be challenging, I guess”, I replied.

“Well, do you know anyone who’s making a go of it as a full-time musician?”

“Grandpa Campion did”.

“Ah yes, but he was a professional organist, and he didn’t really support himself by performing, did he? He was an organ teacher and a busy one, but it didn’t exactly give him a very comfortable lifestyle. If Mum hadn’t married the old man, we’d have been raised in abject poverty, bro!”

I shrugged; “I’ve never heard Mum complain”.

“No, she wouldn’t, would she?” He frowned again. “I just wish Eric would set his mind on getting a good, well-rounded education. I want him to get a good degree that will give him a lot of options. I’m not naive enough to think I can talk him out of trying to make a go of this music business, but I want him to have something else he can fall back on if it doesn’t work out for him”.

“What else is he interested in?” I asked.

Rick shook his head; “Not much, actually. He spends all his time listening to those old blues singers, and when he reads at all it’s them he’s reading about – not like Sarah, who reads absolutely everything she can lay her hands on. I’m trying to persuade him to aim at a business degree: it’s such a flexible thing to have and you can apply it in so many different fields. Of course I understand that it’s not his favourite thing right now, but the day might come when he changes his mind and realizes just how useful it can be. I just hope that day doesn’t come too late”. He shrugged and said, “Oh well – sorry to burden you with my worries. What about you, Emma – what do you want to do? I suppose you want to be a professional musician too, do you?”

She laughed; “No, I’m with Dad – I’d rather do it for fun. I actually want to be a nurse”.

“Oh right – your dad did tell me about that, now that you mention it. Following in your mum’s footsteps, then?”

“Yeah. It’s not like she ever tried to push me, but somehow from hearing her talk about it I realized it was what I wanted to do”.

“Well, somewhere in the world someone’s always going to need a nurse. I don’t expect you’ll ever get rich but you’ll probably always be able to find work”.

“I’m not too worried about getting rich; I don’t spend much, so I don’t need much”.

Rick grinned at me again; “Chip off the old block”, he said.

******

After church the next day Emma and I were just getting our lunch ready when Becca called. “I was right”, she said; “Dad’s got a chest infection”.

“Is he going into hospital?”

“He’s on his way to the John Radcliffe as we speak”.

“Should we go in to see him?”

“Maybe not today; I expect they’ll be getting him hooked up to antibiotics, and they’re going to try to get him to rest as much as possible. Tomorrow night might be a better idea”.

“Are you sure? It seems weird not to go in today some time”.

“Trust me on this, Tommy; his doctors are going to be trying to keep people away from him so he can rest. Also, he might not want you to see him when he’s feeling really rough”.

“Right – I didn’t think about that”.

“He can be hard to take when he’s sick”.

I laughed softly; “He can be hard to take when he’s healthy, too!”

“True! Feel free to ring Mum later on tonight if you want; I’m going to pick her up after supper and drive her home”.

“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks, Becs”.

 ******

The following evening we went over to the John Radcliffe Hospital; the ‘J.R.’ was only a fifteen-minute walk from our house in Marston. My father was in a room in the crowded intensive care unit; he was lying on a hospital bed with his head and shoulders slightly raised, and I could see at least two IV tubes attached to his arms. He looked pale and thin, and the dark circles under his eyes were larger again. My mother was sitting beside him; they both looked up as we entered the room, and my mother said, “Well, here’s Tom and Emma!”

My father frowned and shook his head; “There was no need for you to come out”, he said gruffly. “Just a little setback, that’s all; I’ll be up again in a few days”.

“It was no trouble”, I replied.

“But you don’t want to be hanging around in the hospital; you hear so much about people picking up viruses and getting sick from being in here”.

“I’ve done my share of hospital visiting, Dad”, I said softly.

“Well, then you know…”

Emma leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “How are you feeling, Grandpa?”

“A bit rough, thanks, but at least I’m not coughing as much as I was yesterday”.

“They’ve got you on antibiotics, I guess?”

“I think so; I suppose you know all about that sort of thing, do you?”

She laughed softly and shook her head; “I’m a long way from being a nurse; I just remember when Mom went through it”.

He looked up at her in silence for a moment, and then shrugged and said, “Well, since you’re here, you may as well sit down. There’s room for you at the foot of the bed there; Tom, there’s an extra chair in the corner if you want”.

We sat down as we were told, and my mother smiled at Emma and said “How are your other grandparents? Have you been talking to them?”

“We talked to them for a few minutes this morning, actually”.

“I expect they miss you a lot”.

She nodded; “They’re used to having us all around”.

“Are you still thinking of applying to Oxford Brookes University?”

“I think I probably will. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in England, but it would make sense to make a start. I actually did some research before we moved here, and there is one little snag”.

“What’s that?” my father asked.

“I seem to have fallen through a little crack. Apparently if you’re a U.K. resident you can apply for nursing training and the National Health Service will pay your fees. But if you’re not a U.K. resident then not only will they not pay your fees but they don’t want you to apply for training at all until you’ve lived here for at least three years, for purposes other than education”.

“That’s ridiculous! Typical Labour government policy!”

My mother frowned; “You mentioned ‘falling through a crack’?”

“I guess my situation’s unusual – on the one hand I’m not a U.K. resident, but on the other hand I didn’t move here specifically to go to university. And I am a U.K. citizen through Dad. I think the university’s busy trying to figure out which category I fit into. But whichever one they put me in, I don’t think the NHS will pay my fees”.

“How much money are we talking about?” my father asked me.

I could see where this conversation was going, and I didn’t like it. “Several thousand pounds, but don’t worry about it, Dad; we’ll be fine”.

For a moment I thought he was going to argue with me, but then I realized that he was just too weary to object. He glanced at Emma; “I don’t like to see your education suffer because you moved here”.

“Don’t worry about me, Grandpa; it looks like in a week or two I’ll be starting to volunteer at a nursing home not far from here. I just have to wait while they do all the police checks; that’s going to take a little longer than usual, because my records are all on the other side of the Atlantic”.

“I suppose they would be, wouldn’t they?”

On the crowded table beside the bed there was a paperback book; Emma glanced at it and said, “The Constant Gardener; I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that one”.

“Are you familiar with John Le Carré?”

“He writes spy novels, doesn’t he?”

“He does; I rather like them”.

“I think I read one of his a couple of years ago; did he write The Russia House?”

“He did; what did you think of it?”

“I enjoyed it, but I thought it was kind of bleak”.

My father nodded; “He’s got a rather dark view of the world; I expect it comes from having worked for MI5”. He glanced at me; “What about you? Are you familiar with him?”

“I’ve read a few of his books; I think he’s very good, but I don’t especially care for that style myself”.

“No, I suppose not”. He looked across at my mother; “Perhaps you people would like to go down and find a cup of tea or something?”

“We came to visit with you, Dad”, I said.

“I know, but I’m actually feeling rather tired”.

“What do you think, Mum?” I asked.

She and my father exchanged glances, and then she shrugged and said, “Perhaps it would be a good idea; I think your father wants to sleep a bit now”.

******

“Sorry about that”, my mother said to us as we took our seats together on stools around a high table in the little hospital coffee shop. “He’s really not good at having people around him when he’s sick”.

“Becca warned me about that”, I replied, “but I must admit it felt pretty weird”.

“For a minute there I thought it was going to be okay”, said Emma.

“He likes you, my dear”, my mother replied with a smile. “I know it might not always be easy to tell…”

Emma shook her head. “I understand; people don’t always say what they really feel”.

My mother was quiet for a moment, and then she reached out and put her hand on Emma’s. “You’re very wise, Emma Dawn”, she said softly.

Emma smiled awkwardly. “Thanks; I learned a lot about that kind of thing from my mom”.

My mother nodded; “Of course you did”, she replied.

******

Link to Chapter 10