“So how did it go?”
Jenna hung her coat over the hook on the back of the workroom door, and turned to greet her employer. Andrew was sitting at his desk, which was covered with sheaves of untidy papers, invoices, bills and photographs of craft work, cradling a mug of coffee. He smiled at her. “Did you find what you were looking for, in Bury?”
“Yes, eventually, but it took me a long time.” She had spent the previous day there, as she’d planned, and had managed to forget most of her doubts and fears about her father in the utterly absorbing pursuit of her female ancestors. “I was trying to find the marriage of Maria Merielina – she’s my four greats grandmother.”
“And did you?”
“Yes, but only after about five hours of hunting. I was sure she must have been married in Bury, and she was certainly there with her husband and children in the 1851 census, but I looked through all the Bury registers about three times and couldn’t find her. So then I was a bit stuck but the archivist suggested I look again at the census records, because they usually give you a place of birth, which I should have remembered. And bingo – she was born in a little village called Hessett, not far from Bury. So then I had a look in those registers, and there she was, not only her birth but her marriage too.” Jenna grinned back, feeling very pleased with herself. “I already knew her husband was a doctor called William Tydeman, and she married him in Hessett, in 1836. So now I know her maiden name – it was Rogers, and she was the rector’s daughter. He was the Reverend Thomas Rogers. So then I researched him, and found that his wife was called ... “
She paused for dramatic effect, and Andrew obligingly provided the answer. “Merielina?”
“You guessed it. The magnificently named Merielina Leheup – I don’t think she’ll be too hard to track down, somehow. But by that time I’d been squinting at old books and records pretty much all day, and I was beginning to think I might die if I didn’t have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, so I left it there and went and had a mooch round the town. Lovely, isn’t it?”
“Well, I think so, but it made Crap Towns a few years ago. Smug and boring seemed to be the verdict.”
“But very pretty. And some gorgeous shops, not to mention some really good tea-rooms. The lemon drizzle cake was to die for.”
“Talking of which,” said Andrew, with a sly smile, “I’ve been baking.” He indicated a tin perched precariously on the corner of his desk. “Not lemon drizzle, but Dutch apple. You’ll need a plate, it self-destructs.”
They had twenty minutes before the shop was due to open, time for coffee and cake – indeed, as Andrew pointed out, he always had time for coffee and cake. Gathering the crumbs together between her fingers for a last delicious nibble, Jenna thought back to her time in the Bury Records Office yesterday, and the question she had put to the archivist, once they’d tracked down Merielina Leheup. Rather nervously, she’d asked her how accurate genealogical websites were.
“As accurate as the data that’s entered into them,” the archivist told her. She was a plump woman in her fifties, with greying hair and glasses, friendly and approachable. “Which is, I’m afraid to say, not a hundred per cent. Human error is always a factor. Are you thinking of a particular site?”
Jenna told her the name, and the archivist nodded. “That one’s not at all bad, but there are still mistakes. As you can imagine, I help a lot of family researchers, and I’ve come across births not recorded, place names spelled wrong, names wrong, dates out by a couple of years. The one you’ve mentioned is pretty good on the whole, but only last month I had a woman looking for her grandfather who found that his place of birth had been transcribed wrongly from the 1911 census, which was why she’d taken so long to find him – he had a very common name. Once we’d tracked him down, all the other information turned out to be accurate, but she’d wasted a lot of time. Have you got a particular issue?”
“I’m looking for a relative – I’m fairly sure he died around 1980, but I can’t find any mention of his death, even though the website has records going right up to 2007.”
“Well, it’s perfectly possible that for some reason his details have been left off, or they’ve got his name wrong – are you sure about the date?”
“I think so.” Jenna didn’t feel inclined to reveal that the relative was in fact her father: it was all too close and important to confide such personal details to a stranger, however pleasant and helpful she was.
“Even so, I should widen the search – look at everything from 1970 to 1990, under as many different variations of his name that you can think of. Is there a possibility that he died abroad?”
“No, I’m sure it was in the UK.”
“Then try other websites. They all have different transcribers and different methods, you may just have been unlucky. Or Google him. The records will be out there somewhere, and you just have to track them down.” She had smiled at Jenna encouragingly. “Remember, new information is being added to these sites all the time. If the details aren’t there now, they might well be a few months down the line.”
Another researcher had come up to the desk with a query, so Jenna thanked the archivist and retreated, feeling at once heartened – mistakes, it seemed, were perfectly possible – and downcast, because whatever it might mean for her family, for her relationship with her mother and her love for her grandmother, a small spark of hope had been lit inside her, that her father might after all be alive.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the shop door. Andrew jumped up, nearly sending his plate across the desk. “Oh, Christ, I’d forgotten she was coming today.” He brushed any lingering crumbs from his jumper and ran his fingers through what was left of his hair.
“Who?” Jenna asked, stacking her plate neatly on top of his and carrying them to the small sink in the corner of the workroom.
“The photographer woman. Claire. You bought one of her pictures – driftwood, wasn’t it? She’s bringing a new batch of prints.” He hurried across the shop to the outside door and opened it to admit a tall, dark-haired woman that Jenna recognised from the photograph on her website. “Hello, Claire, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks.” She was wearing a thick, rather shabby brown coat and carrying an A3 portfolio, tied with red ribbon. “Though I could do with better weather. These overcast miserable days are bugger all use for photography.” Her eye fell on Jenna, standing in the doorway to the workroom, and she looked enquiringly at Andrew.
He obliged. “Claire, this is Jenna Johnson, who’s my temporary assistant while Mel is out of action.”
The other woman smiled, and held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Claire Stephens.” She looked at Jenna again, and added, “Sorry, do I know you? Your name seems familiar ...”
“That’s because I emailed you on your website a week or so back, asking for details of your photography courses.”
“Yes, now I remember. And I said there was an all-day one on Saturday in a couple of weeks time. Can you make that? There are still some spaces.”
Jenna shook her head apologetically. “No, sorry, I’ll be working here for a while yet, until Mel comes back.”
“And you can’t spare her, Andrew? Shame on you!”
“Jenna’s already asked me, and she knows it’s not really possible. Saturday is our busiest day. But Mel should be back in mid-March, so if you’ve got a course then ...”
“Yes, there’s another Saturday one the week before Easter, and then after Easter I’m starting an evening class, every Tuesday for six weeks, seven till nine. By then there should be plenty of daylight. Still interested?” she added, turning back to Jenna.
“Of course. I’ve never done photography properly – just taken quick snapshots. But I was given a nice digital SLR, and I’d love to learn how to get the most out of it.”
“Digital – oh dear,” said Andrew, shaking his head. “Claire’s not too keen on digital.”
“Oh, don’t talk rubbish, you old queen,” said Claire with cheerful affection: they were evidently very old and good friends. “Digital’s great. I just happen to like doing old-fashioned developing, and I think it’s a very rewarding skill, but for sheer convenience and ease of use you can’t beat the modern high-tech cameras. After all – “ she patted the portfolio lovingly – “quite a few of these were taken on a state-of-the-art Canon. Would you like to have a look, Jenna?”
“Love to. I bought one of your photos – it was what drew me in here in the first place. Andrew had a display of them in the window.”
“Good to hear he’s doing his job properly,” said Claire. She untied the portfolio and spread the contents out over the counter. “What do you think?”
“Wow. They’re really beautiful,” said Jenna, wishing she had a better vocabulary: the words seemed inadequate to describe the photographs in front of her. Most were in colour, but there were some landscapes in black and white, quite grainy in texture, emphasising the winter bleakness of the Suffolk coast and the implacable power of the sea. “I love these. They’re very ... relentless, somehow.”
“That’s Suffolk for you,” said Andrew. “God’s own country, but often cruel and unforgiving. Especially if you sail, as Jim will inform you at great length. That’s why he’s strictly a fair-weather sailor.”
“I thought he’d nearly been drowned trying to cross the Deben Bar in a hurricane,” said Jenna, with a grin. “Or that’s what he was telling everyone at New Year.”
Andrew laughed. “He ran aground and had to be towed off by a local fisherman. It cost him several drinks in the Ferry Boat Inn. He does love to, um, embroider the boring facts with a bit of interesting colour. These are great, Claire, and the winter ones will sell like hot cakes in the summer, when everyone’s forgotten what the East Coast is like in February.”
“Or they’re holidaymakers from London who’ve no idea,” said Claire drily. “Now, I haven’t had any of these framed yet, but if you think they’ll go, I can hopefully have another batch for you at the end of next week. My tame framer’s got flu at the moment.”
“Those big white frames were very popular,” Andrew said. “But I’ve still got a couple left, hanging on the wall over there. What do you think, Jenna?”
“They’re nice,” Jenna said, though she knew that they were three times the price of the simple prints. She paused, searching for a way to be tactful. “But if you’re on a budget, or buying several, then I’m sure the unframed ones will sell well too.”
They spent a while discussing the photographs, and Andrew plied Claire with more coffee and cake. Jenna, looking through the images, suddenly thought of Sammy, shaking himself over the unfortunate Marcus back in September, and could visualise the photograph she might have taken, had she been prepared: the black spaniel, ears flying, in a glorious shower of sunlit drops of water.
“Do you ever take pictures of animals?” she asked Claire.
“Occasionally. As you can see from these, it’s not really what I do, but I have been known to shoot wildfowl or birds of prey – strictly in the photographic sense, of course. Is that what you’d like to do?”
“I’m not sure,” Jenna said slowly. “I just had the smallest germ of an idea, that’s all.”
“Well, run with it. I’ve always thought that taking inspiration by the scruff of the neck and shaking the living daylights out of it was the best way forward. If you’re passionate about something, it’ll show in your work, whether you paint or take pictures or anything creative. Just don’t be cutesy about it. Facebook is far too full of photos of dear little fluffy-wuffy kitty-witties as it is.”
Jenna thought, with a grin, of Apollo and Artemis, who were effortlessly appealing while simultaneously channelling their inner tigers. “Don’t worry,” she said mendaciously. “I don’t do cute.”
“I’m glad to hear it. I don’t either.” Claire smiled. “Are you going to tell me about your idea? I’m bursting with curiosity.”
“Not yet,” Jenna said. “I want to mull it over first.” She’d need to have another look at the camera manual, for a start. What she’d envisaged would need a very fast shutter speed – did they even have shutter speeds on a digital SLR? Shamefully, she couldn’t remember. Plus careful setting up, warmer weather so that Sammy wouldn’t get a chill from being soaking wet, and above all, sunlight, something which had been in distinctly short supply so far this year.
Thinking creatively was a novel experience for her, and kept her mind busy for the rest of the day, which apart from Claire’s brief visit was rather short on incident: seven customers, three phone calls and ninety five pounds and forty three pence in the till. Andrew didn’t seem too bothered when she queried the lack of visitors. “It’s January, and blowing half a gale – to be honest, seven brave souls through the door means it’s been quite a good day. Don’t be downhearted – every day is different, and we struggle through somehow. Besides, you haven’t been on the website today, have you? We’ve taken nearly two hundred pounds worth of orders all told, most of them the Valentine flowers.”
The flowers in question were displayed in the window this week: pretty confections of dried rose buds and petals, arranged in heart shapes or on tiny straw hats. They were a bit twee for Jenna’s taste, but obviously the great British public disagreed. Andrew grinned at her expression. “Yes, I know, but they’re nicely made, not too expensive, and above all different. People are looking for unusual gifts, things that say, ‘I didn’t find these at my local pound store, I made an effort because you’re worth it.’”
“Crying all the way to the bank,” said Jenna wryly, thinking of Fran, though it was now obvious to her that two hundred quid would be very small change compared to the sort of money his song-writing was earning.
“Can’t complain,” Andrew said, turning the light out in the workroom. “Are you going to take up photography, then? I know Claire tends to call a spade a bloody great shovel, but she’s an excellent teacher and really knows her stuff.”
“Good,” Jenna said, shrugging into her coat and wrapping her scarf warmly round her neck. “Because I’m pretty much a total beginner.”
“The bit that sticks out is called the lens, and you point that away from you,” Andrew said helpfully. “And when you take someone’s picture, you’re not stealing their soul.”
“Of course. My village is missing me. Have you got everything?”
“I think so.”
“Then I’ll see you tomorrow. Oh, and Jenna?”
“I don’t think I’ve really thanked you for stepping into the breach and helping me out. You’ve been great.”
“It’s a pleasure,” Jenna said, meaning it wholeheartedly. “Glad to be of service. And I’m having a lot of fun.”
“Good, because you’ll probably be here for at least six more weeks. Think you can stand the strain?”
“Just about. See you tomorrow!”
Strain and stress, of course, were things entirely lacking from this job: apart from the fact that it was only temporary, it suited Jenna very well. She was beginning to settle into a comfortable and pleasant routine. Her Mondays and Tuesdays were free, she worked at the shop for the rest of the week, and gave Flora her tuition on Sunday afternoons, at the witch’s house, and at Wisteria Cottage every Wednesday after the shop closed. From Flora’s point of view these latter sessions had been a huge success: she had obviously planned on spending most of the hour playing with the kittens, and it had taken all Jenna’s resolution and cunning to ensure that she did at least do some school work. But it was lovely to have company – for Fran of course stayed as well – and she had decided to return his hospitality and give them a meal after the tuition had ended. For this, her slow cooker was invaluable, and although fine dining wasn’t exactly on the menu, Jenna had had plenty of experience feeding her family over the past twenty-odd years and knew what would appeal to a hungry ten-year-old.
All in all, a good life was beginning for her here in Suffolk. She had a job, friends, new pastimes to explore, a sense of possibilities and opportunities opening up for her. But always, at the back of her mind, were nagging anxieties. Some of those were the inevitable consequences of being a mother, of course: she worried about Rosie at university – was she working hard? Making friends and having fun? Coping OK with the demands of independent living? Eating properly and not drinking too much or taking too many drugs? And she worried rather more about Joe and Tom in Australia. Were they safe? Had they avoided poisonous snakes and spiders, murderous lunatics, crocodiles, rip currents off shore and getting lost in the Outback? After that cryptic text asking her about Bill Clarke, there’d been no further contact, and she realised with alarm that she didn’t even know where they were beyond the vague ‘somewhere in Queensland’. A glance at their blog revealed that it hadn’t been updated for several days, though this was nothing new.
“Take it from me, darling,” Saskia said, when Jenna rang her at the weekend. “No news is good news. I haven’t heard from my own precious petal for over a fortnight, and she’s had the cheek to unfriend me on Facebook. Count yourself lucky yours are still reachable.”
“Can’t you ring or text her?”
“I could if I knew her number, darling, but the little dear let me know via a friend that she’d lost her phone the day after she got back to uni, and she hasn’t given me the new one. Still, she’ll get in touch when she wants something, whether it’s extra cash or a criminal lawyer.”
“Oh, come on, Indy’s a good girl!”
“I shouldn’t be so sure about that,” said Saskia darkly. “When I think about what I got up to at that age ... Now, tell me more about this mysterious Bill Clarke in Australia.”
Jenna was beginning to regret mentioning it, but she knew that talking about her fears with Saskia would go a long way towards exorcising them. She said, “It’s possible he’s a relative, but if he is, I know nothing about him.”
“Well, everyone’s got a skeleton somewhere in their family tree, darling, and I don’t suppose you’re any exception. He’s probably descended from your great-great grandfather Clarke who was transported a couple of hundred years ago for stealing a sheep. You know what they say about Australians – hand-picked by the best judges.”
Jenna wanted to laugh, but couldn’t. Instead, she blurted out the words that had been going round in her head all week. “I’m wondering if my father might not be dead after all.”
She had expected a dose of Saskia’s usual brisk common sense, and was disconcerted by her actual response. “Shit. Holey moley, Jen, what makes you think that?”
As she’d done with Fran, Jenna went through her reasoning. Saskia listened in silence, and then said, “Jesus Christ on a bike. That could open up a massive can of worms.”
“I know. Please tell me I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.”
“Well, you could be, but on the other hand ... I don’t suppose you’ve considered asking your mother.”
“I can’t say I blame you, darling, in your position I’d feel happier about taking a running jump off a cliff, but if there’s nothing else for it – “
“No. I don’t think our relationship would survive it.”
“Oh, I know she’s demanding and needy and interfering and disapproving, but she’s the only mother I’ve got, and Rick’s mum and dad are dead, so she’s the only grandparent the kids have got.”
“I think.” Jenna sighed, determined not to give way to any more tears. “I’ve asked Joe to get in touch with this guy in Oz, so maybe that will clarify things. But I’m damned either way. If Dad isn’t dead after all, that means that my mother and Nanna May were lying to me. And if he is dead, I’ll be grieving for him all over again.”
“Do you want me to come over tomorrow? I’ve got nothing on, and it’ll only take a couple of hours to get to you.”
The unwonted sympathy in her voice was almost Jenna’s undoing. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s OK, Sass, honestly. I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound especially fine.”
“All the same, I am. I really, really am. I’ve got a lot more digging online to do before I can come up with any answers. And Bill Clarke may have them anyway. Mum’s still on her cruise and won’t be back for at least a week, so even if I do nerve myself to ask her outright, I won’t have the opportunity for a while yet.”
“Well, don’t forget to keep me posted.” Saskia assumed a sugary American accent. “I’ll always be here for you, honey-bunch, because I’m your dearest friend.”
Jenna couldn’t help laughing. “Don’t be silly, I know that.”
“But I mean it, honestly and faithfully. I’m at the end of the phone, just give me a call. And I’ll put Shelley in charge next weekend and come down to give you a bit of moral support.”
“You really don’t need – “
“Bollocks, darling, unmitigated bollocks. I’m coming, so don’t argue. And you can keep me up to speed about all these hot men you’ve been seeing.”
“What about the Scottish guy?”
“Fran’s a very good friend from back in the day, Saskia Page, and that is all. Stop trying to pair me off. I don’t want any kind of relationship for, oh, I don’t know, at least five years.”
“By which time, darling, you and I will be in our fifties, a couple of dried-up menopausal old crones.”
“You do say the nicest things.”
“It’s true, though.” Saskia paused, and then added, a little too casually, “What about that bloke at the party? Your other old friend from uni?”
“Jon? Haven’t seen him since, but we’re friends on Facebook now.”
“Perhaps I could be, too.”
“You’re incorrigible, did you know that? I’ve no idea whether Jon’s attached or not, and anyway I wouldn’t trust him further than I could throw him. He’s got a lot of very dodgy form in the infidelity department.”
“Still hot, though.”
“Well, you’re welcome to try, but don’t blame me if it all ends in tears.”
“It never ends in tears where I’m concerned,” said Saskia, with supreme self-confidence. “Now, how are those little furry demons getting on? Ruling the roost, I hope?”
Since Apollo and Artemis were currently curled snugly on her lap as she sat on the sofa, Jenna was able to assure her that they were, indeed, masters of the household, and regaled Saskia with the tale of how she’d inadvertently shut Artemis in the airing cupboard, and had searched everywhere for her until she’d noticed Apollo sitting on the floor outside, miaowing plaintively, and the muffled and indignant response from within. By the time they said goodnight, after another ten minutes of chat, Jenna was feeling much more positive. She couldn’t change what had or hadn’t happened to her father, but she needed to find the courage to winkle out the truth, whatever it might be. And she was beginning to realise that she was not as cowardly as she’d always thought.
However, she did have some less painful and contentious genealogical researches to do, and the following morning, after a Sunday breakfast of boiled egg and soldiers that was intentionally nostalgic, she fired up her laptop and drew up a précis of what she’d discovered so far. She put her own name at the top, and below it the list of her female ancestors.
Jennifer Clarke, married Rick Johnson
Mother - Patricia Talbot, married Keith Clarke
Grandmother - May Goodwin, died 2018, married Ray Talbot
Great-grandmother - Winifred Emily Merelina Durrant, died 1953, married John Goodwin
Great-great-grandmother – Emily Taylor, died 1919, married James Durrant
Great-great-great-grandmother – Emily Maria Merielina Tydeman, died 1906, married Joseph Taylor
Great-great-great-great-grandmother – Mary Merielina Rogers, died 1872, married William Tydeman
Great-great-great-great-great-grandmother – Merielina Agnes Leheup, died 1816, married Rev. Thomas Rogers
Eight generations – nine, if you included Rosie – covering more than two hundred years. She thought about all those women, the clothes they wore, the children they’d borne, the men they’d loved, or not. And each one of them had cherished her casket as she cherished it, had kept it safe, resisted the temptation to sell it even if times got hard, and had passed it lovingly on to her daughter. Looking at their names, Jenna felt an emotional swell of pride. Apart from her mother and Nanna May, she knew very little of them, she had no photographs or pictures, she had no indication of their personalities or their appearance. But they had survived, they’d endured hardship, bereavement, loss, they had been strong, resilient women in times when women were belittled, disenfranchised, abused and mocked, subject to the rule of their fathers or husbands, often powerless yet idealised and put on ridiculous pedestals. She didn’t need letters or diaries or descriptions to know what they’d been like: she felt their strength deep in her heart, because it was her strength too.
As she typed the name of Merielina Leheup into Google’s search box, her phone rang. Her mind still absorbed with her researches, she answered it automatically, without checking the caller identity. “Hallo?”
The voice sounded very distant, but unmistakeable. “Jennifer.”
Only one person on the planet still called her that. Surprised, Jenna glanced at the screen to confirm it. “Mum? I thought you weren’t back till next weekend.”
“Friday, actually. Are you free on the Saturday and Sunday?”
“Well – “
Before she had the chance to add, “I’m working and Saskia’s supposed to be coming down,” Patricia said quickly, “Good. I need to see you.”
“It isn’t really – “
“I need to see you.” Her mother’s voice had risen slightly higher, and now had a shrill note that Jenna knew only too well. “I haven’t seen you since you moved to Suffolk. Are you saying you haven’t the time?”
“No, but – “
“Good. I’ll be with you on Saturday afternoon.” There was a pause, while Jenna stared at the phone in rising indignation, and guilt at the indignation, and then Patricia added, with heavy significance, “I have something to tell you. Something very important, vitally important. And it can’t wait.”