Holton Park, Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s really nice.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“That I don’t know.”

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

“Would you mind?” asked Beth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joanna’s brother Edward,” said Tom.

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

“Mommy, what is that?” asked Claire.

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

“These are their names?”

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

“What’s a memorial?”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

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

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

“Okay,” the little girl replied.

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

“Walk. Can we go back outside?”

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

“Thanks, Tom.”

***

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“Shall we go and have a look?”

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

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

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

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

“Excited, are we?” asked Tom.

“Just a little.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

Holton Park

A Stately Home for All Occasions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, right. Sorry, I thought…”

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

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

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

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

“Uh-huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

“Right; thank you.”

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

***

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

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

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

“Apparently.”

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

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

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

“Ice cream!”

“Maybe—or cake.”

“I like ice cream!”

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

“Ice cream!”

“Cake!”

“Ice cream!”

“Cake!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chocolate!”

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

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

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

“They sure do!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re fine, thank you,” Tom replied.

“Any other questions, then?” Edwin asked.

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

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

***

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

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

“About Joanna, you mean?” said Tom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Rowleys,” Tom replied.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Would you mind?”

“Not at all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He raised an eyebrow. “The house?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you mean he’s still alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beth shook her head; “Is that far?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Afraid not, but I love to watch.”

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

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

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

Beth smiled. “That would be amazing!”

***

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

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

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

“What sort of things does he make?”

“Cabinets, mainly.”

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

“It’s what he’s always wanted to do.”

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

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

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

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

“Sure.”

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

“Please!”

“That’s better.”

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

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

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

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

“You like it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Really? Oh my God!”

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

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

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

“Yes—you know about him?”

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

“That’s exactly right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d love to write to you!”

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

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

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

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

“Goodbye, me duck.”

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

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

“That’s exactly what he said!”

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

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

“You’re going to write to him, then?”

“I am.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Hey,” said Beth quietly.

“Are you alright?” asked Wendy.

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

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

“Thanks—I’ll get it.”

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

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

“You like the psalms?”

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

“I get that.”

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

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

“Do you journal?”

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

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

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

“April.”

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

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

“That must have been awful for you.”

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

Wendy spoke softly. “What did he say?”

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

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

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

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

“She likes the f-word, doesn’t she?”

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

“Like a rig-pig, we’d say.”

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

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

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

“When you put it like that…”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“I know it was an abusive relationship.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

“Oh, Wendy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that what was happening tonight?”

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

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

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

“Okay, but…”

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

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

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

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

“Tell me.”

Beth smiled. “Where to start…”

“As close to the beginning as you can.”

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

“Emma’s so lucky to have you, Wendy.”

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

“Right.”

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

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

“Beth, are you seriously…?”

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

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

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

“Your parents will miss you and Claire.”

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

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

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

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

“I’ve thought of that.”

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

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

“Excellent. What’s the second hurdle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I hope so.”

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

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

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

“You too.”

Holton Park, Chapter 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.

Clive Staples Lewis, November 29th 1989 – November 22nd 1963.

(Reposted, slightly amended, from recent years)

On this day fifty-eight years ago, the great C.S. Lewis died.

In the early 1990s I lent a United Church minister friend a copy of Lewis’ Mere Christianity; when he gave it back to me, he said, “Do you have any idea how much this man has influenced you?”

Mere Christianity came along at just the right time for me; I was seventeen and had begun to feel the lack of a rigorous intellectual basis for my faith. In this book, Lewis gave me just that. I went on to read pretty well everything he had written, including the various editions of his letters which seem to me to contain some of the best common-sense spiritual direction I’ve ever read. I’ve parted company with Lewis on a few issues (pacifism, Conservative politics, the ordination of women), but for the most part I still consider him to be one of the most reliable guides available to a rigorous, holistic, common-sense Christianity.

Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and, later, of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and in his professional career he taught English literature. Brought up in Ireland in a conventionally religious home, he became an atheist in his teens. Later, in his late twenties and early thirties, he gradually came back to Christianity (he told the story himself in his book Surprised by Joy) and went on to become a popular writer and speaker on Christian faith. He claimed for himself Richard Baxter’s phrase ‘Mere Christianity’. Although he lived and died entirely content to be a member of the Church of England (‘neither especially high, nor especially low, nor especially anything else’, as he said in his introduction to Mere Christianity), he had no interest in interdenominational controversy, preferring to serve as an apologist for the things that most Christians have in common.

Nowadays evangelicals (especially in the United States) have claimed Lewis as a defender of a rigorous Christian orthodoxy (despite the fact that he did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and was an enthusiastic smoker and imbiber of alcoholic beverages). Likewise, Roman Catholics have sometimes pointed out that many fans of Lewis have gone on to convert to Roman Catholicism (something he himself never did, because he believed that Roman Catholicism itself had parted company on some issues with the faith of the primitive church), and have resorted to claiming that his Irish Protestant background somehow gave him a phobia about Catholicism that made it psychologically impossible for him to convert. Lewis himself, I believe, would not have approved of these attempts to press him into the service of advancing a particular Christian tradition or denomination. I believe we should take him at his word: he was an Anglican by conviction, but was most comfortable with the label ‘Christian’.

What about his books? Well, there are so many of them! In his professional discipline of literary criticism he wrote several influential books, including The Allegory of Love (on the medieval allegorical love poem), The Discarded Image (an introduction to the world view of medieval and renaissance writers), An Experiment in Criticism (in which he examines what exactly it means to take pleasure from reading a book), A Preface to Paradise Lost (in which he introduces us to one of his favourite works of literature, John Milton’s famous poem Paradise Lost), and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (this is only a selection of his works of literary criticism).

Turning to his more specifically ‘Christian’ works, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gave us an imaginary series of letters from a senior to a junior demon on the art of temptation; along the way, as Lewis intended, we get some penetrating insights into practical, unpretentious, daily holiness. In Miracles and The Problem of Pain Lewis gives us an intellectual defence of Christian truth (the first book examines the question of whether miracles are possible, while the second deals with the issue of evil and the goodness of God). Reflections on the Psalms is a series of meditations on the issues raised by the psalms (including an excellent chapter on the ‘cursing’ psalms), while Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer gives us accurate guidance on what a life of prayer is really all about. In the ‘Narnia’ stories and the Space Trilogy, Lewis baptizes our imagination, using the genre of fairy story and science fiction to present Christian truth in a fresh and compelling way. And in Mere Christianity he presents his case for the truth of Christianity and a good explanation of its central ideas.

These are just a few of his books; there are many websites that give exhaustive lists.

This website by Lewis’ publishers is of course focused on trying to sell books – Lewis’ own books, collections of his writings published since his death, and many of the books that have been since written about him. Personally, I like Into the Wardrobe better; it isn’t trying to sell me anything, but includes a biography, a collection of papers, articles, and archives, and some excellent links.

Since his death Lewis has become almost a cult figure, especially in the U.S., and the number of books and articles about him continues to grow. He himself was uncomfortable with the trappings of fame, and I believe he would have been horrified with the growth of the C.S. Lewis industry today. It seems to me that the best way to observe the  anniversary of his death is to go back to his books, read them again (or perhaps for the first time), ponder what he had to say, and pray that his work will lead us closer to Christ, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace and rise in glory, Jack. And once again, thank you.

“If You Choose”

‘When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”’ (Matthew 8.1-4 NRSV)

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” This is a similar prayer to “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” The man with the skin disease (not leprosy as we understand it today, but serious nonetheless), doesn’t doubt Jesus’ ability to heal, but he’s not so sure about Jesus’ desire. Maybe Jesus is too busy today. Maybe he won’t want to be associated with a social outcast with a disfiguring skin disease. Maybe (and you just know this had happened many times in the man’s experience), it just wasn’t going to happen today.

I expect this man was very familiar with disappointment. Many of his hopes and dreams had not come about as he had hoped. Many of his prayers for God’s help had gone unanswered. Maybe he had often protected himself from further disappointment by quietly whispering that phrase so many of us use: “Don’t get your hopes up.”

Can you identify with this man? I must confess that I can. Many things I’ve wanted to happen just didn’t come about, at least not in the way I was hoping. Many of my prayers haven’t had the results I’d longed for. And I’ve used that phrase myself—maybe not in so many words, but I’ve certainly felt it—”Don’t get your hopes up.”

Jesus is not slow to rebuke his disciples for their lack of faith, but he doesn’t rebuke this man. He understands what the man has been through; he feels for his hurts and disappointments. People with skin diseases like this were social outcasts in the time of Jesus, and it may have been years since anyone had touched this man. But Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him. “I do choose; be made clean.” And immediately his skin disease is healed.

“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” Don’t feel you have to pretend to God that you have more faith than you actually have. If lack of faith is the problem, make that part of your prayer as well (“Help my unbelief!”). But don’t fixate on it. Fixating on our lack of faith takes our eyes away from God and fixes them on our own feelings instead. A better plan is simply to turn to Jesus and ask for help. The answer may be quick, or it may be slow. It may be a healing, or it may be extra strength to go through the difficulty. But let’s not doubt his compassion. He wants to help. He has the time. He won’t turn us away.

Picture from ‘The Chosen’, used by permission of a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International Licence (for further information go here)

Out of the Depths (a settler’s reflection on the residential schools)

I’m going to go on a bit of a ramble here.

I made my first trip from my home in England to Canada at the age of eight, in September 1967. My dad and mum, my brother and I travelled by sea from Liverpool to Montreal, took the train to Edmonton, then flew north in a DC-6 to Cambridge Bay NWT (as it was then called), where my dad became the missionary in charge at St. George’s Anglican Mission. This was a five year commitment for him, and it was not anticipated that we would get out for any holidays during those five years.

However, the Diocese of the Arctic had neglected to inform my parents that the school in Cambridge Bay only provided education up to a certain grade level, after which I would have to go to Inuvik, to a residential school. This would happen very soon, and my parents were not prepared to send me away at such a young age. So, my dad backed out of his agreement with the Diocese of the Arctic, and we returned to England after only one year. 

Of course, I knew nothing about the reasons for this at the time; it was many years before I found out about them. But even if I had known, I’m sure it would never have occurred to me that there was a whole category of people in Canada who had no choice about this residential school experience—that there were children who were taken forcibly from their parents—that whole communities had been robbed of their children, and the children robbed of their parents, against their will. My parents exercised a choice. I had no idea how lucky I was that they had that choice.

I returned to Canada (again with my parents) in December 1975, at the age of 17. To be honest, the last thing I wanted was to move to Canada; I didn’t want to leave behind my friends and family and the familiar world i lived in, and I was determined that as soon as possible, I would return to the UK. Ironically, 45 years later, I’m the only member of the family still living in Canada! (I put it down to the love of a good woman!)

I went to Toronto to the Church Army Training College in September 1976 for a two year training course in evangelism. I would be working in the context of the Anglican Church of Canada, but strangely, our Church History courses included no Canadian Church History. Nothing. Nada. We learned all about the controversies of the Reformation and all the European stuff, but nothing about the history of missionary work and evangelism in Canada. And I certainly never heard about the Residential Schools.

After a year serving in Ontario, I married Marci in 1979 and we moved west to Saskatchewan. The parish I was serving in was Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake; Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations communities. I helped lead services in those two communities Sunday afternoons, learned to sing hymns in Cree, taught religion classes at the government day schools at the two reserves on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week, and had, I think it’s fair to say, a lot of exposure to First Nations people, language, and culture. 

But no one told me about the Residential Schools. Or if they did, I didn’t notice. What I could see was that the schools on the two First Nations where I worked were day schools, just like the ones I had attended, with the kids going home to their families at the end of the day. I had absolutely no idea that this hadn’t always been the case.

Looking back now at some of the books I read (especially some of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, and ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’), I can see that the residential schools were mentioned in them. But the full story was not told. I had no idea that the churches had run these schools on behalf of the government, or that children had been taken forcibly from their parents to attend them, and that they had not been allowed to speak their own languages or practice their ceremonies. This was never explained to me.

In 1988 we moved north to the Arctic, where I served as missionary in charge of two parishes, Aklavik 1984-88, and Holman (now Ulukhaktok) 1988-91. Here, at last, I began to hear the stories of the residential schools. Aklavik had been the site of two of those schools and their student residences (later moved to Inuvik). But still, I didn’t get the full story. In fact, this story was never told me by anyone in either Aklavik or Ulukhaktok (perhaps they assumed I already knew?). It wasn’t until First Nations people in the Anglican Church of Canada began to publicly tell their stories at general synods that I began to realize at last the full enormity of what had happened. 

After that, of course, I heard far more than I ever wanted to hear. Survivors were coming forward and sharing their stories, at general synods and other church gatherings. The stories made me physically ill. We heard about the physical and sexual abuse, the beatings, the loss of language and culture and ceremony and identity, the isolation from the love of family and community, the intergenerational trauma, the substance abuse, the suicide. All of it a consequence of a system run by people who thought this was a good idea, that it would help the people. That it was a good way to make them Christian (by force? Where did we get that idea from Jesus?).

Full disclosure: I also knew three people who had worked in the residential school system. As far as I could tell, they were not monsters. They seemed to be good people. Maybe, I thought, it had been a good system with a few bad apples in it. But gradually, I realized this was not the case. It was an evil system from the beginning, despite the fact that some of the people involved were good people.

In the late 1990s, residential school survivors began taking the Anglican Church of Canada, and its individual dioceses, to court. Sadly, for most of us, we didn’t sit up and take notice until First Nations people began using our own court system against us. And it quickly became clear that this process had the potential to shut down hundreds of little churches all across Canada. Quite frankly, in the dioceses where I worked, there wasn’t a lot of reserve cash. And in fact, one of our dioceses did go bankrupt and had to shut down.

Eventually a settlement was negotiated between the Assembly of First Nations, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Government of Canada. A fixed amount of money was asked of the Anglican Church of Canada, and dioceses were asked to contribute to that sum. The Diocese of Edmonton had never had an Anglican residential school on its territory, but there was no question of us not taking part. Parishioners were asked to give, and many of us gave generously. We knew it was the right thing to do. Quite frankly, for most of us, we had no idea what else we could do.

But of course, the story was far from over. It was necessary for reparations to be paid, but money itself will not heal people’s trauma. And there was a bottomless well of trauma. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelled across Canada, it stopped in Edmonton for a while. Again, the stories were told. Witnesses relived their pain. Many of the speakers were justifiably angry at the massive injustice that the government and the churches (including my church) had perpetrated on their people. Like many of my colleagues, I put on my clerical collar and went and sat in that hall, and listened. I thought it was something I had to do. I was an ordained representative of a church that had participated in this system. It was my responsibility to take ownership of the sin that had been committed.

What was my part in that sin? After all, I was brought to Canada as a seventeen year old boy by my parents. I was not part of the decision to establish or run residential schools. I had no power in the church. The last residential school in Canada was closed in 1996. I was first elected to General Synod in 1998. So it would be easy, and comforting, to say “I had no part in this system.”

But I don’t believe this is true. My personal sin was that I chose not to ask questions. From the moment I moved to Saskatchewan in 1979, it was clear to me that First Nations communities were plagued with social issues. No need to go into detail about them here (I have no desire to add to the stereotypes). My sin was not to ask the deeper questions. Why are things this way? What is the history? Why is there such a huge difference in quality of life between these First Nations communities and their non-indigenous neighbours?

I didn’t ask these questions. At least, not very often. And when I did, I asked the wrong people, and so I got an inaccurate story. (I actually suspected that it was an inaccurate story, but I chose not to pursue the issue).

Today, I’m doing my best to do better. I’m trying to educate myself, to listen to indigenous friends and colleagues, to learn a more accurate history, to think about the bad things that happen when the Church gets into a Christendom relationship with the State—in other words, when it carries out its mission from a position of coercive power, not a position of marginalization and humble service. To think about how easily we confuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ with white European culture. 

When it comes to systemic issues, I confess to feeling overwhelmed. I’m fairly sure that the majority of Canadian Anglicans know that a vast evil was perpetrated. We know the Church was wrong to get involved with that system. But we also know that in those days of Christendom, Church and State were so intertwined that no one saw any problem with it.

So I guess what I’m doing now is that I’m trying to pray, trying to listen, trying to live out a lifestyle of reconciliation, trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a world of systemic evil (to which, of course the human Jesus was no stranger). I confess that the whole thing often seems too huge for me to fathom. So I try to reduce it to bite-sized portions. I try to think each day about what it means for me to love my neighbour as myself. I, who was not forced to go to that residential school, when so many of my neighbours had no choice. 

It continues to astound me that I could go to a two-year training course at an Anglican institution in the 1970s and learn absolutely nothing about the history of the Anglican Church of Canada. Never mind the residential schools—I was taught nothing about the history of the church I was going to work in. At that point in time I had lived in Canada for a sum total of ten months. Perhaps the Church Army assumed its students would already know these stories. I have no idea. But I hope it’s no longer the case. I hope that every student at any sort of Bible college or theological seminary in Canada, of whatever denomination, is now required to learn about these stories, and to own them. 

At the end of the First World War, so many people cried ‘Never again!’ Sadly, that cry was not heard. Twenty-one years later, a Second World War broke out. Lessons had not been learned. Again, millions died.

When it comes to the Residential Schools and the worldview that produced them, I, for one, am crying ‘Never again.’ But am I actually learning the lessons? Am I practicing what it means to be a follower of Jesus from a position of weakness and vulnerability, not a position of power and coercion? Am I a good listener? Am I a voice for justice for the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land?

I don’t know, and maybe I’m not qualified to answer that question. All I can say is, I do want to make a difference. And I do believe in the hope of the Gospel, which is that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The future doesn’t have to look like the past. The future can be about love and compassion, rather than hate and exclusion. As a Christian, I’m commanded to seek that future, to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.’ I’m still figuring out what that means in practice.

I’d like to finish this reflection with a prayer from the Bible, from Psalm 130.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

‘The Hunger Games’ and the Human Predicament

For the last couple of days I’ve had some late nights because I’ve been rewatching the32b48154b2be18daf89f26dee4993c60 ‘Hunger Games’ movies on Netflix (I’ve also read the books). I know, it seems a dark and depressing way to end the day, but I find them riveting. In fact, if I wanted to lead a young adult study group on the Christian doctrine of original sin, I think I’d start with ‘The Hunger Games’.

I can hear the objections. ‘Can you really imagine a whole society being so twisted that it enjoys the spectacle of teenagers—and some barely into their teens—killing each other in a virtual arena?’ Well, as it happens, I can. I recall a time in human history when gladiatorial contests were entertainment—the more blood, the better. I also recall a time when young children were sent up chimneys as sweeps, and many died when they got stuck up there. As a human race we’ve dropped bombs on children, sold them as sex slaves, kidnapped them and turned them into child soldiers. We’re not quite the enlightened race we like to think we are.

‘But a nation set up in such a way that a wealthy capital sucks in all the resources and enjoys the lifestyle they make possible, while keeping the regions that produce the resources in poverty and subjugation? Surely we wouldn’t do that?’ But that was the whole point of colonies, wasn’t it? Places that the developed nations could exploit for their resources, while keeping the natives under their thumb. People living in the two-thirds world tell us it’s still going on today.

‘But can you imagine people standing up in front of a microphone and telling out and out blatant lies like that?’ Um – funnily enough, in 2020, I can! Enough said about that!

‘But those ridiculous costumes and hairstyles! All that flashy extravagance and love of spectacle! Isn’t it all a bit over the top?’ Maybe, but is it really so very much different from a modern political convention—or the Grammy Awards?

‘But children standing up on stage talking about how they can’t wait to get out into the arena and fight for the honour of their district?’ Well, that sounds rather like what a lot of soldiers said when they marched off to fight in World War One. And some of them weren’t much older than the kids in the Hunger Games.

So yes—I think ‘The Hunger Games’ tells us some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. Christians believe human beings are made in God’s image, but are also infected with the disease of sin. And what is sin? It’s what Francis Spufford calls our ‘Human Propensity to F___ Things Up.’ We’re really good at it. We break things. We break people. We break relationships. We know it. We try to change it, but it’s desperately hard to break old habits and find a new path.

And ‘The Hunger Games’ reminds us that it’s not just about individual choices. Whole societies are organized in such a way as to institutionalize evil, to reinforce it, so that if you want to step away from it, you have to be intentional about it and be ready to suffer the consequences. As Cinna did. As Katniss and Peeta did.

A gloomy way to start a Friday morning? Maybe. I also believe God has come among us as one of us and started a movement to root out the poison of evil from our souls and our societal structures. But I don’t expect that to be the work of a few minutes, and I don’t expect it to be completed in a single lifetime.

As so often, Bruce Cockburn sums it up well:

From the lying mirror to the movement of stars
Everybody’s looking for who they are
Those who know don’t have the words to tell
And the ones with the words don’t know too well

Chorus:
Could be the famine
Could be the feast
Could be the pusher
Could be the priest
Always ourselves we love the least
That’s the burden of the angel/beast

Birds of paradise — birds of prey
Here tomorrow, gone today
Cross my forehead, cross my palm
Don’t cross me or I’ll do you harm

[Chorus]

We go crying, we come laughing
Never understand the time we’re passing
Kill for money, die for love
Whatever was God thinking of?

 – ‘The Burden on the Angel/Beast’ (from the Album ‘Dart to the Heart’ [1994])