Well, Jenna reflected, gazing at the mute and mutinous child in front of her, she couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned.
Half term was over, and Krystal had returned Flora to her father, before jetting back to California and her TV show. On Tuesday evening, the day before the regular Wednesday after school session, Fran had phoned. “I don’t know what’s up, but she’s turned into a right wee besom. Sulky, tetchy, won’t tell me what’s wrong, spends most of her time in her room.”
“Perhaps she’s just missing her mum, and wishing she could go to California too,” Jenna had said, looking on the bright side. “After a week or so back in her usual routine, with all her friends, I’m sure she’ll revert to normal.”
“I’m not sure Flora is ever normal,” said Fran, and she could sense his wry grimace as clearly as if visible on Skype. “Anyway, I thought I’d better warn you, she’s not all sweetness and light at the moment.”
“I’ve come across much worse in my time,” Jenna told him, with more confidence than she actually felt. “I’m sure I’ll cope.”
“I’m sure you will, hen, didn’t want you to come here tomorrow unprepared, that’s all.”
Even so, Flora’s sullen expression had come as a shock. For a moment, Jenna wondered if it could be a reaction to what had happened the previous week: then she remembered that of course the girl couldn’t know about it, though they’d planned to tell her this evening. She couldn’t help feeling nervous about it: how would Flora react to the news that her father had a new girlfriend, and that the girlfriend was her tutor?
Fran hadn’t thought it would be a problem. “She likes you. She likes me. She’ll be fine with it, don’t you worry. She’s not bothered about Krystal’s boyfriends, so why should she be bothered about you? It’s not as if you’re some total stranger, after all.” And he’d hugged her reassuringly.
Much to Jenna’s amusement, after the revelations of Monday night, they had agreed to ‘take it slow’. It didn’t seem quite the right expression for the enthusiastic snogging they’d indulged in, that first evening. She’d felt like a teenager again, and she suspected it was the same for Fran. To add to the air of unreality, their amorous mood had been completely shattered when Artemis, tired of being ignored, had attempted a flying leap from the back of the sofa onto Jenna’s head.
Once they had managed to get their rather hysterical laughter under control, and Fran had mopped up the blood and put antiseptic cream on the scratches, she made a pot of tea and they talked for hours. This was all so new for both of them, and Jenna, in particular, was cautious, even now wondering whether this would be OK. The memory of Rick’s betrayal and, much more distantly, Jon’s, still coloured her emotions. Rationally, she knew that Fran was a very different person, and that he had an innate integrity that both her husband and her lover had lacked, but her trust had been destroyed and it was proving difficult to rebuild it.
So they hadn’t yet gone to bed. Saskia would be horrified – Jenna could just imagine her reaction. “What? You’re not some fifteen-year-old virgin, darling, why wait, what have either of you got to lose?” And of course, there wasn’t anything. But this old-fashioned courtship, if that was the right word for it, was remarkably enjoyable. She didn’t feel pressured, she could just relax in the moment. And one day very soon, she knew that the moment would be right.
But her new feeling of happiness and optimism wouldn’t help her with Flora. She said now, casually, “Did you enjoy that book you were going to read last week?”
“Didn’t read it,” said Flora, sulkily, after a pause. When Jenna made no reply, she added, “Didn’t feel like it.” She folded her arms, and leaned back in her chair.
“That’s OK,” Jenna told her. “Sometimes I don’t feel like doing things either. Did you read anything else?”
“No.” The word came with finality.
“Or watch anything on telly?”
She was acutely aware of Fran, making coffee, well within earshot. “OK, then,” she said slowly. “Your call.”
Flora rolled her eyes and leaned even further back, mutiny in every defiant line. Jenna thought for a moment. Then, deliberately ignoring her pupil, she turned her notebook to a fresh page, took up a pen and made six dashes, a diagonal slash, and seven more dashes. She could sense the child’s interest, but didn’t look at her. Instead, she drew a careful rectangle below the dashes.
“What are you doing?” Flora asked, curiosity evidently overcoming her bad mood.
“Hangman. Do you know how to play?”
“Course I do, Mrs. Carroll played it with us on the last day of term. What’s the box for?”
“It’s the base of the gibbet.”
“What the hanged man hangs from.”
“But you’re not meant to start that until I’ve given you a wrong letter,” said Flora indignantly.
“Then give me one.”
“What’s the commonest letter in the English language?”
“E,” said Flora, after a pause.
Obediently, Jenna put an E above the penultimate dash in the first word. “And another?”
“Sorry.” She drew an upright above the box.
“I,” Flora said.
There were three, one in the first word and two in the second. Flora beamed, her stroppiness discarded. Distraction is ninety-nine per cent of the art of childcare, Jenna thought, with an inward smile. And of teaching too. “Try a consonant,” she suggested.
Flora didn’t ask what a consonant was. “T,” she suggested. As Jenna obligingly put it down, she squinted at the emerging words. “It ends in ‘it’.”
“Certainly looks like – it. What are you going to try next?”
An S was successful, but a D, an L and an M resulted in a cross-beam, a rope and a disembodied head. Flora studied the words, then gave a little start. “C?”
As Jenna wrote it down, the girl gave a little squawk of excitement. “B and U. There! Biscuit!” Then, as Fran put the mugs on the table next to them and peered at the page, she added, “No, Dad, don’t tell me!”
“I wasn’t going to, hen,” said Fran, affronted. “Because I don’t know either.” He glanced at Jenna, above his daughter’s sleek dark head, and winked.
“Did Mrs Carroll tell you about which are the most common letters?” Jenna prompted. “If you can remember them, that might help. Or – have you played Scrabble?”
“Course I have, I got it for Christmas, and there’s a set in our classroom too.”
“Then think about which letters have the lowest score.”
There was a pause, and then Flora said, “N.”
“Great.” Jenna inserted one letter. The puzzle now read _IN_E_/BISCUIT. Flora stared at it with a fearsome scowl of concentration on her face. “R?”
“Correct.” Jenna put it in.
The girl gave a sudden whoop of triumph. “And G! Ginger biscuit!”
“Sorry,” Fran said. “I haven’t got any, but there are chocolate Hobnobs if you like.”
They played several more games of Hangman, and Flora was only hung once, on the final word, which Jenna had deliberately chosen to be very difficult. Needless to say, she was indignant. “That’s not fair! I’ve never heard of onomatopoeia!”
“It’s using a word which sounds like the sound it’s describing. Like, cuckoo. Both the word and the sound.”
“Oh.” Flora digested this. “So the bird’s called after the sound it makes.”
“That’s exactly it. Can you think of any more?”
That filled most of the remaining time, and Jenna was happy to see the old Flora back, clever and enthusiastic. As they sat down on the sofas with more mugs of tea and a celebratory plate of doughnuts, she said encouragingly, “You’re coming along really well. You’ll slay them at that entrance exam.”
Flora’s face changed suddenly, and she jumped up, sending the sugared doughnuts flying onto the carpet. “Don’t keep going on about it! I don’t want to hear about it! Shut up!” And she ran out of the room. As Fran and Jenna stared after her in consternation, the front door slammed and a second later the child’s flying shape passed by the window, heading for the garden.
“What was all that about?” Jenna asked in bewilderment.
“I don’t know, but hopefully I’m going to find out. Give me a while, will you, hen?”
In his absence, Jenna picked up the doughnuts, rearranged them on the plate and put them by the wood-burner to keep warm. Then she found a vacuum cleaner and cleared up the crumbs and sugar on the carpet, before sitting back on the sofa and sipping her tea, which was growing cool. When Fran hadn’t returned after twenty minutes, she poured his and Flora’s tea away and boiled the kettle, ready for fresh replacements. All the while, Flora’s behaviour nagged at her. Had she changed her mind about going to that exclusive boarding school? Was that why she’d been so mutinous and bad-tempered on her return from London? And if so, would Fran be able to do anything to help? From what he’d let slip, Krystal wasn’t the sort of woman to be defied, or even persuaded. If she wanted Flora to go to that school, then Flora would have to go.
Unless, of course, she deliberately failed the entrance exam.
Just as she came to this unpalatable conclusion, she heard the front door opening and closing, and Fran came in, leading a reluctant and obviously sulky Flora by the hand. The girl came up to the sofa, and fixed Jenna with a defiant stare. “Sorry I was rude,” she said. “Can I go up to my room now?”
Jenna glanced at Fran, who gave her a nod. “Yes, of course – and thank you for apologising.”
Flora muttered something she didn’t catch, turned on her heel and marched out of the room, shutting the door behind her with rather more than necessary force. Fran sat down beside Jenna, and let out an explosive sigh. “Sorry about that. She’s not badly-behaved as a rule. Something’s really upset her.”
“Did you get to the bottom of it?”
“She wouldn’t tell me, but I think she’s worried about the entrance exam. I tried to reassure her, but that only made things worse. The best I could get out of her was that distinctly ungracious apology. Sorry for that.”
“Don’t worry. As the parent of a teenage girl myself, I can tell you, the worst is yet to come. Perhaps she’s hitting puberty a bit early.”
“I don’t think so. It’s much more likely to be Krystal being OTT about it. She probably spent most of last week nagging Flora about working hard and not wasting her opportunities. Which is a bit rich, coming from someone who flunked university in her second year.”
“I expect she doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes she made,” said Jenna, wanting to be fair.
“Could be,” Fran said, though he didn’t sound very convinced.
“Or,” she added slowly, “Flora’s decided she doesn’t want to go to that school.”
There was a significant silence. Then Fran let out another, even more explosive sigh, and ran his hand through his hair. “Ah. I hadn’t thought of that. She seemed so keen when we first talked about it. Christ, I hope you’re wrong.”
“So do I. It would make everything a lot more difficult, wouldn’t it?” Jenna paused, and then said reluctantly, “If you want to put off telling her – about us – I don’t mind. I don’t even mind cooling it for a bit, until she’s happy and settled.”
Fran looked at her, and she saw her answer in his face. I really don’t mind, she thought firmly. We’re just a middle-aged man and woman embarking on a relationship that might or might not work out. We’re grown-ups who can be sensible and unselfish about this. Flora is a child and her needs have got to come first, always – just as I’ve always put my kids first.
In response, he wrapped his arms round her and held her so tightly against him that she could feel his heart against hers. “I don’t want to, you know that. But I don’t think it’d help if we suddenly announced we were an item. One thing at a time, and she’s got enough on her plate already. So – yes – let’s step back a bit and concentrate on her.” He drew back a little, and gave her a warm, encouraging grin. “There’s no rush, after all. And while she’s unhappy, I can’t be happy.”
“Neither can I,” Jenna told him, with perfect truth. She had become very fond of Flora, her quirks and cleverness and bright laughter, and the child’s well-being was almost as important to her as it was to Fran. “We can do this, we can help her, I know it.”
“I know it too,” Fran said. He bent his head and kissed her, with warmth and passion, and she knew, even as she responded, that they could wait a while longer, if it meant that Flora would be happier.
So they cooled it. In any case, both of them were busy during the next few weeks. Fran was working on new songs for an American country singer who wanted to cross over into the mainstream, and threw himself into the task with a single-minded dedication that Jenna remembered from their university days, when he had shut himself in his room for hours at a time, writing and composing. Andrew’s former assistant had decided to retire, and handed in her notice, so Jenna found herself, as the approach of spring beckoned tourists and visitors back to Aldeburgh, working more and more in the shop. In addition, she was now attending Claire Stephens’s photography course every Friday evening, and gave Flora an hour’s tuition in Maths and English, twice a week. Fran hadn’t managed to find out what had been wrong, that Sunday at the end of half term, but to Jenna’s relief, it seemed as though the girl was back to her normal self.
And then there was the thorny question: what to do about Patricia?
She discussed the problem in a long phone call with Saskia, one Sunday afternoon in March. By this time, her mother had returned home, and was apparently being cared for by the devoted Stuart, but Jenna hadn’t yet summoned up the nerve to phone her: nor had Patricia, it seemed, felt the urge to get in touch. At first, she’d been relieved at the lack of contact: now, after nearly three weeks without a word, she was beginning to feel at once worried and, perversely, annoyed.
“And it’s her birthday next week,” she said. “I’m tempted to send her a card.”
Saskia’s snort came loud and clear. “Personally speaking, darling, I wouldn’t waste the price of a stamp on her, but you’re nicer than me – a bit too nice, if anything. And she’s your mother. How your lovely outrageous Nanna May could produce a daughter like her is totally beyond me.”
“It could have been a reaction against her,” Jenna said. “Just like I rebelled against my mum.”
“No, I think Patricia was born old. How old is she?”
“Mum? She’ll be seventy-five.”
“Well, that’s younger than any of the Beatles or the Stones. The Swinging Sixties must have completely passed her by.”
Jenna laughed. “Indeed they did. Twinset and pearls, and a skirt below the knee, that was my mum, even when she was in her twenties – I’ve seen the pictures.”
“Whereas my mum was living it up, spending a fortune at Biba and along the King’s Road. That’s what got me into vintage, you know, she gave me all her old clothes, and some of them were worth a lot of money – Ossie Clark, Mary Quant, Zandra Rhodes, lots of other well-known designers.”
“Wow. Did you keep any of them?”
“One or two, darling, but my mum’s a lot smaller than me, in every direction, so I didn’t fit most of them, even before I had kids. I’ve still got a few accessories, and a gorgeous Ossie Clark dress I can just about squeeze into, but that’s it – I sold the others online for quite a lot of money, bought some more, and the rest is history.”
“Did your mother mind that you sold all her stuff? She must have been fond of it, to keep it all that time.”
“Mind? Hardly, she suggested it – in fact she told me she’d kept the clothes as an investment for me. She was delighted I made such good use of them. Now, spill the dirt, darling, how are things going with your hunky Scotsman?”
Jenna couldn’t help smiling at the description of Fran as ‘hunky’, a word usually employed to describe unfeasibly muscle-bound Highlanders on the covers of romantic novels. It really didn’t fit him at all. She had wondered what she would say if Saskia asked, and now seemed as good a time as any to take the plunge. “Rather well, actually.”
“What?” Saskia’s shriek made her ear ring. “You mean you’ve done it?”
“You know, darling, Done It. Bed. Shagging. Humping. The Beast with Two Backs. Making Love. Have you?”
“I’m not sure I’d tell you even if we had,” said Jenna, trying and failing to sound prim.
“You mean you haven’t?” Saskia was obviously shocked.
“We’ve snogged a bit. Oh, all right, a lot. But we’ve agreed to cool it for a while – Flora’s going through a rather weird patch, we’re not quite sure what’s up with her, so we decided not to complicate things any further.”
“Oh,” Saskia said, sounding a little disappointed. “But still, darling, I’m thrilled for you, I really am. I just knew you were right for each other, he’s a lovely man and I’m sure you’ll be very happy.”
“I’m not making you Matron of Honour, if that’s what you’re angling for.”
Her friend’s laughter was almost as loud as her earlier shriek. “That’ll be the day! Take my advice, and don’t commit yourself to anything. Particularly don’t let him move in.”
“Of course not. He’s got his own place and it’s only a couple of miles away, besides being about twice the size of mine. Anyway, that’s jumping the gun with a vengeance. We’ve only just started going out together – or, rather, staying in together.”
“What you do with your spare time is your own business, darling.”
“I thought you were trying to make it yours?”
Saskia gave one of her deep, rich chuckles. “OK, OK, I can take a hint. Now, there’s something else I wanted to ask you. Is there any news of that baby?”
For a moment, Jenna didn’t know what she meant. Then she remembered that it was now March, and that Madison was due to give birth soon. “No, I haven’t heard anything.”
“Would he necessarily tell you, given that you parted on such bad terms?”
“He might not tell me, but he’d certainly tell the kids, he’d want to brag. Although they were pretty disgusted with him when he sent them cheesy pictures of him and Madison being all lovey-dovey. I suspect Joe sent him a very rude message in response.”
“Go Joe! I admire a man who tells it like it is. No wonder Indy’s got a soft spot for him. Well, let me know as soon as you hear anything. And I know you’re not meant to wish the sins of the parents onto the children, but I hope their offspring turns out to be an ugly, unpleasant and ungrateful little beast.”
This was so close to Jenna’s more unworthy thoughts that she couldn’t help laughing. “It’s not the baby’s fault! You shouldn’t say such things!”
“I know I shouldn’t, but you know me, darling, like Joe I’m never afraid to speak my mind. Anyway, I bet you anything you like you’ve thought them, even if you haven’t said them.”
“I knew it,” said Saskia with satisfaction. “Anyway, the slimy love-rat deserves everything that’s coming to him, and then some.”
“Can we change the subject? I’ve been trying not to think about Rick for months, and I don’t want to let him spoil my day.”
“OK, darling, I get it. Right, there’s something else I’ve been meaning to mention. Have you done anything about your ancestress with the weird name?”
“You mean Merielina Leheup?”
“That’s exactly who I mean. I’ve told Jon he’s not to go off hunting her, but he took some persuading. So, have you discovered anything more?”
“Um ... I haven’t really had a lot of time recently,” Jenna said, aware how feeble this excuse sounded. “I’m working four days in the shop now, and the garden desperately needs sorting, and I’m still tutoring Flora twice a week.”
“Oh, come on, darling! How long does it take to type a few letters into Google? You really ought to pull your finger out.”
“You don’t have to tell me – I know. But it’s almost as if ... “ Jenna paused, trying to find the words. “Almost as if I don’t want to find out. I’ve enjoyed the search so much, I don’t want it to end.”
Saskia’s derisory snort showed what she thought of that. “Well, you’d better hurry up or Jon will do it for you. Or I will. We’re both desperate to know who made the casket, if I was in your shoes I’d have finished it weeks ago.”
“Ever heard of something called ‘delayed gratification’?”
“No, but something tells me you’re about to enlighten me.”
“It’s supposed to be one of the ways you can spot a psychopath,” said Jenna blithely. “They can’t wait, they’ve always got to have it now.”
“So does any toddler, darling, but that doesn’t make them a serial killer.” Saskia chuckled again. “Anyway, I’ll treat that implication with the contempt it deserves, and change the subject. Again. Is Rosie coming back for Easter?”
“I think so, but I’m not sure when. The week before, probably. What about India? Would she like to come and stay? I’m sure Rosie would love that.”
“Or they could split the time between us,” Saskia said. “I’m likely to be busy, sales are really picking up and summer dresses are flying out of the shop, but I should be able to get some time off. How about you?”
They spent the rest of the call making tentative arrangements for the holiday period, which was early this year and now only a few weeks away. “Though we’d better check with the girls first,” Jenna said, before she rang off. “You never know, they might have decided to swan off to Ibiza instead.”
“In March? Unlikely. Plus I know for a fact that India’s run through all her term’s allowance already – I’ve already had to sub her once. I don’t know what she spends it on.”
“Probably best not to ask,” Jenna said, deciding not to mention the fact that Rosie seemed able to have a good time without draining her bank account. “Anyway, I’ve got to go, I promised to walk Sammy this afternoon. Ruth will probably be round with him in a moment, and I’ve got to put on all my waterproofs and thermals, it’s not a very nice day.”
“You’re a glutton for punishment, darling,” Saskia said. “I’m curled up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate and an even more steamy Jilly Cooper on my Kindle. Have fun!”
Fun, Jenna decided, fifteen minutes later, was not the right word. It was blowing a true mad March gale, straight from the west, so there wasn’t much in the way of shelter on offer, but at least it wasn’t too cold, and the rain which had fallen all morning had now stopped. The halyards and stays of the few boats moored near the quay clinked and rattled in the wind, and she could hear the distant roar of the surf breaking onto the Ness. The grey sodden clouds were dark in the distance, over the North Sea, but the rags of their rearguard chased wildly after them across a new blue sky. Studying it, she reckoned she had about half an hour before the next band of rain and squally showers threatened, so it would be their usual walk along the sea wall to Chantry Point, then back across the marshes, straight into the wind, to the town. It was a route she and Sammy knew well, and he ran on ahead of her, his ears and the long black hairs on his tail blown comically sideways.
Since that first, highly embarrassing walk when he had chased the ducks and she’d been scolded by Marcus, Jenna had done her best to curb and channel the spaniel’s enthusiasm. Now, she always carried a pocketful of his favourite treats, as well as the essential poo bags, and rewarded him lavishly every time he returned to her call. She was rather proud of her success, and Ruth, unaware of these informal training tactics, had recently remarked how much more obedient Sammy had become. “He’s a changed dog, what have you been doing to him?”
For answer, Jenna had shown her the gravy biscuits, and Ruth had laughed. “So that’s your secret! Perhaps I’d better start doing that as well. Though we’ll have to be careful he doesn’t get fat.”
That seemed highly unlikely: like all young spaniels, Sammy’s energy levels were sky high. She called him, and he skidded to a halt, plunged round, and headed back towards her at top speed. Jenna had brought her camera, and it was switched on and ready: she took a series of action shots as he leapt over a tussock of grass, and was pleased to see, on the display, that at least a couple of them looked rather good. Those evening sessions with Claire were certainly paying off: she was learning just what all the various modes did, and had the confidence to make the most of her high-tech kit and its numerous functions. It was amazing what you could do with it, and she was trying to get into the habit of taking it with her whenever she went out. Claire’s view was that a good photographer didn’t just need an eye for a potentially stunning picture – they needed to make the most of whatever opportunity came along. Jenna hadn’t yet tried the shot of Sammy shaking himself in the sunlight – it seemed rather unkind to deliberately encourage him into the water when the weather was still cold – but once the air warmed up, she was determined to give it a go.
There were birds on the river up ahead, sheltering from the relentless wind, so she put the dog on the lead and made him walk to heel. Sammy gave them a yearning glance, but she towed him briskly along, helped by the administration of a biscuit, and soon they were safely past. Jenna knew that out of sight meant out of mind – he had a very brief attention span – but she still left it a few more minutes before letting him run free again.
As they came up to the place where the paths diverged, there was a dull vibration deep in the pocket of her dog-walking coat, a padded waterproof parka, chosen for practicality rather than fashion, and purchased last year in a Woodbridge charity shop. At that moment, a particularly violent gust of wind nearly pushed her sideways, down the steep slope to the river. With an undignified squawk of surprise, Jenna managed to regain her balance: the tide was out, and she didn’t fancy landing in a foot of smelly mud and having to squelch ignominiously back home. Sammy was waiting for her – he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the box, but he knew where they would be heading next. He followed her down the bank on the other side, where the footpath crossed the marshes, heading back towards the castle, and sat down at her command, tongue lolling, while she fished the phone out and looked at the screen. She didn’t recognise the number. Wondering if it could be from one of the twins, she opened it.
In mocking refutation of her words to Saskia earlier, it was from Rick. And there was the photo she’d dreaded, of the young, beautiful Madison, perfectly groomed and looking as if she’d just had a relaxing session at some exclusive spa rather than giving birth, sitting up in a hospital bed and cradling a small, pink-wrapped bundle.
‘Rick and Madison Johnson are proud to announce the safe arrival of Harper Margaret Anne, weighing seven pounds and five ounces, after a very easy labour lasting just three hours. Mother and baby are doing wonderfully well!’
As if they didn’t belong to her, her fingers scrolled down the column of delightful pictures of a small, perfect infant, with a shock of dark hair and, horrifyingly, a definite look of Tom in her tiny, scrunched up face. Jenna felt sick, and all the old, vile emotions came flooding back. She’d thought she’d moved on, she’d thought she could be grown up about her feelings. And now, with a vengeance, Rick’s photos had brought it brutally home to her that she hadn’t, and she wasn’t. She found that she wanted to scream and shout, tell Rich to eff off in huge accusing capitals, and then throw the phone in the dyke so that she wouldn’t have to see them ever again, that perfect little family which had only been created by the destruction of her own family.
She only realised that she'd sunk to her knees on the wet dank grass when a bewildered Sammy thrust his nose at her face and gave her a comforting lick. Feeling suddenly ridiculous, Jenna looked down at the phone, but the screen had gone dark. She turned it off and thrust it vehemently back into her pocket. The dog did a little dance in front of her, and whined enquiringly.
“Sorry, Sammy,” she said, rather shakily. There were tears on her face, and she wiped them away with her sleeve. I am not going to let him get to me, she thought fiercely, though she suspected that the humiliating contrast between her, never conventionally pretty and at the wrong end of her forties, and the dewy Madison, would come back to haunt her in the small hours. He’s a smug, insensitive, arrogant twat, and I hope the baby screams all night and Madison loses all interest in sex.
Feeling better, she scrambled to her feet and looked around, but the flat bleak marshes around her were empty, and there was no sound apart from some shrieking gulls and the endless rustle of the wind in the rushes lining the dyke. Sammy looked at her expectantly, and she managed a smile. “Come on, boy,” Jenna said briskly. “Let’s go home before we get wet.”