• Pamela Belle


Updated: Aug 28, 2019

Jenna treated herself and Rosie to an expensive meal in Norwich that evening. This would be the last time for months, probably, that she’d be able to indulge her daughter, so she found an excellent Italian place not far from the Cathedral, and they had a very enjoyable dinner, with Rosie telling her in some detail about her other flatmates. They sounded a nice bunch of kids – kids! Jenna reflected wryly, I thought I was fully adult when I went to uni – how little did I know? Was it really nearly thirty years since she’d ventured into the tiny kitchen, with a mixture of curiosity, hope and apprehension, to meet the boys and girls who would share her life for the next nine months – and, in the case of four of them, for the next three years? She remembered Jon, his bright hair like a beacon in the inadequate fluorescent light, Jason with that look of disdain that actually concealed deep insecurity, Sarah, skinny, blonde and talkative, and Jules, so like Rick, although of course Jenna hadn’t known that then, with her energy, her thick dark hair and blue eyes under arched brows. She couldn’t remember what they’d done that evening, but she suspected that it had involved loud music and a lot of talk. Probably, Rosie’s party would be much the same.

She dropped her off on campus. “Are you still OK for a look round the city tomorrow?” Rosie asked. “I really need to find somewhere that sells towels – I forgot to bring any with me, Lauren’s had to lend me one of hers – she’s in the room next to mine.”

“Try and stop me. A bit of retail therapy will go down a treat. When shall I pick you up? Nineish?”

“Mu-um! It’s Sunday! Nothing’ll be open till ten or eleven.”

Jenna grinned. “Just kidding. Half ten it is. Have a lovely evening, enjoy yourself!”

She drove to the hotel where she’d booked a room for the night. It was a large, anonymous representative of a well-known chain, but it was clean and comfortable, with an impressively powerful shower and satellite TV. Jenna hadn’t realised quite how tired she was until she lay back on the bed with some crime drama playing out on the screen in front of her, and found her eyes closing. She turned it off, switched out the light, and surrendered to sleep, hoping, as she drifted off, that Rosie was OK and having a good time.

If she had, she showed no ill-effects the following morning. She looked heart-breakingly young and slight, in her cropped jeans and a loose lemon-yellow shirt tied at the waist, and her dark hair caught up in a scarf. “Very Audrey Hepburn,” Jenna commented, as Rosie got in, and hummed a few bars of ‘Moon River’.

“Who’s Audrey Hepburn? No, mum, it’s OK, I do know. Come on, let’s go, I want to hit the shops!”

They spent a happy morning browsing in the centre of Norwich, looked round the Castle Museum, had a sandwich in the grounds, and got the towels at a supermarket on the way back to the university. Rosie took her up to her room, which had undergone a radical transformation in the past twenty four hours, and now looked as if she was in full possession, with several music posters on the walls, books lined up above the desk, and Sid Vicious beaming malevolently from the pillow. Jenna admired it all and then, aware of her vow not to be a helicopter parent, said goodbye. They hugged, and she was touched to see tears in Rosie’s eyes. “Whenever you want a weekend with good home cooking, just let me know before you hop on the train. All I ask is that you don’t bring your washing back with you as well.”

“I won’t, promise! Bye, Mum, and thank you for driving me and for lunch and dinner last night and everything – it’s been great.”

“A pleasure, sweet pea,” said Jenna, employing the endearment she had first used when Rosie was a baby. “Have a lovely time, work hard, keep in touch on Facebook, and we’ll see you at Christmas, if not before!”

So that’s it, she thought, getting back into her car. My last chick, successfully launched from the nest. Good luck, Rosie my darling! She had few worries about her daughter. Rosie was bright, sensible, determined and hard-working, a formidable combination, and she was far more outgoing than Jenna had been at that age. How lovely, to be eighteen and pretty and carefree, with three years of study and hedonism in front of her.

Despite her determination, she couldn’t help feeling a little tearful. She sat in the car for a few minutes, listening to something bland on the radio, and realising that she didn’t want to go back to St. Albans just yet. The house was empty, Rick would be in New York for several more days, Saskia was busy organising her fashion show and a buying trip to a charity clothing warehouse, and there was no reason to hurry home, no job to get back for, no pet to feed or walk, no promises to keep.

Right, Jenna thought, today I’m going to please myself. And when she arrived back at the ring road, she headed not along the A11 towards Thetford, Cambridge and home, but in the other direction, to take the A146 that led to Beccles and beyond that, the east coast.

It took nearly two hours, because she stopped at an out-of-town supermarket, just as it was about to close, and bought the same kind of essentials she’d got for Rosie: bread, milk, fruit, some pasta and sauce. They had last visited the cottage back in August, just before May had been taken ill, so she was fairly sure that the kitchen cupboards were well stocked with tea, coffee and cereal. And then, her heart high with joyful anticipation, she drove south-east towards Suffolk.

She suspected that the reason this part of the country exerted such a powerful attraction for her, was that it reminded her of the landscape around Maldon, where she had been so happy during her year with May. Many people considered it to be flat, featureless and boring, but she loved the huge skies, the marshes, the smell and sound of the sea. At Beccles, she turned onto the road that led to Blythburgh and then ran parallel to the coast, a couple of miles inland. As so often on a cloudy day, she could tell where the sea was by the band of blue sky over to the east, shedding sunlight on the unseen water. She had never come to the cottage by this route before, but her sat nav directed her through the little villages strung out along the way, with their low colour washed houses, broad fields full of yellow stubble, and belts of Scots pines lining a distant hedge. This land had been colonised by the Vikings once, and some of the names had that harsh Northern edge: Knodishall, Blaxhall, Yoxford, Iken, Snape. Then she was on familiar territory: this was the way they went to Aldeburgh, or Southwold, or Dunwich, where the sea had swallowed half a town one night in the middle ages, and taken its time spitting it back out all down the coast to Orfordness. At Tunstall, she turned towards Orford, and was soon driving through the heath, where the yellow flowers of the gorse glittered above the grey dusty soil, and ranks of dark conifers lurked behind the camouflage of the silver birch trees lining the road. This was ideal cycling country, flat and peaceful, and she and Rick and Rosie had gone out several times, with a picnic split between their rucksacks, to explore the Forestry Commission woods which, despite their forbidding appearance, seemed mysterious and strangely compelling once you were amongst them. Those brief hours as a family unit – admittedly without the twins, but still a unit – seemed suddenly very bright and far away, like something seen down the wrong end of a telescope.

Soon, the heath was behind her, and she could see the new houses on the outskirts of the village, and beyond them, as she drew closer, the lowering bulk of the castle on the right, the smaller church tower to the left. She passed the garage, the King’s Head and the craft centre, and came to Market Hill, the inland heart of Orford, with its little shops, the bakery, the cafe and the famous restaurant. A left turn took her past the church, then right, down the shallow hill towards the river. She passed the rows of old red brick houses, fishermen’s cottages, with their roofs of slate or tile, and came at last to the Green, and the low, dormer-windowed shape of Wisteria Cottage.

There was, unusually, a parking space right outside. Feeling stiff and tired, Jenna got out and stretched. She collected her overnight bag and the supplies she’d bought, located the key on her ring, and made her way up the path to the blue front door.

As always, she felt a touch of anxiety about what might lie behind it. Leaving a house empty for weeks was a little risky, even if Ruth and Gary Marsden, who lived next door, were happy to keep an eye on it. Burglary, leaky plumbing, mice, squatters...

All that greeted her, as she pushed open the door, was a pile of junk mail and a vaguely musty smell, of nothing more sinister than rooms that hadn’t been aired for some time. She dumped her bag at the foot of the stairs and went through the tiny hall into the sitting room, which occupied almost the entire ground floor. It had been a holiday cottage when they’d bought it, furnished with cast offs and junk shop pieces that had been included in the price, and they hadn’t yet got around to making any major changes, knowing that it would only be stayed in by themselves or close friends. But the two large sofas, with the bright Indian throws that Saskia had given her when she’d stayed here at Easter, were capacious and comfortable, the shelves on either side of the fireplace were filled with books, there was a new TV, a wi-fi hub and a dock for I-pods, and Jenna had made fresh curtains to replace the old, shabby ones that had come with the house. It was homely without, yet, seeming like home, but nevertheless she felt a renewed love for the place.

In the kitchen, their three mugs were still upside down on the draining board where they had been left five or six weeks before. Jenna opened the window, noting with gratitude that someone, probably Gary, had cut the grass. The air that came in had the invigorating salty tang of the sea, mixed with river mud and a whiff of seaweed. She filled the kettle and turned the boiler on. A quick check of the cupboards revealed plentiful supplies of teabags, coffee and marmalade, as well as a couple of excellent bottles of wine, a present from one of Rick’s clients. Satisfied, she went back to the hall and climbed the stairs.

There were three bedrooms on the first floor, all with beams and sloping ceilings. Of course none of the beds were made, but she got linen from the big cupboard in the twin room, and dumped it on the double bed in what might have been termed the master bedroom, had it not been so small. It looked out onto the garden at the back of the house, with trees at the end, and beyond, in winter, a distant view of the river and a sliver of bright sea along the far horizon, and Jenna loved it.

No mice, no burglars, no squatters, and hopefully no leaks. She checked the bathroom, just to be sure, and then went back downstairs. There were still some chocolate biscuits in the tin, rather soft but edible, and she took a couple, along with the mug of tea, outside to the patio.

The sun was shining now, and she moved one of the wooden chairs out of the shade, sat down and closed her eyes. It was a game she had played with the children when they were small, as well as with her pupils. What can you hear? Birdsong, and gulls, and someone mowing the grass down the street. What can you feel? A gentle breeze on your face, straying through your hair, and the warmth of the sun soaking through your top and jeans. What can you smell? Mown grass, and tea, and the aroma of the sea.

Gradually, the tension that had gripped her since saying goodbye to Rosie ebbed away, to be replaced by a gentle, rather pleasant melancholy. This was, after all, what all parents were supposed to be striving for: the successful launch of their children into adult life. All that hard work, tending, caring, pruning, nurturing and educating, had finally born fruit. She wasn’t naive, or optimistic, enough to think that her job was complete, far from it. She would always be there, ready with help or advice, if Rosie or the boys needed her. But for the first time for nearly twenty two years, her life stretched out before her, empty and yet full of enticing possibilities.

“Hallo? Hallo-o!”

Startled, Jenna jerked upright, suddenly aware she’d been on the verge of sleep. Ruth Marsden was standing on the lawn, about ten feet away, dressed in dirty jeans and a sage green blouse, a trowel in her hand and her bobbed grey hair covered by a large straw hat. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was hoping it was you, because I don’t really feel up to chasing off burglars at my age. I didn’t know you were coming,” she added, with a look of expectancy. “Is Rick here too? And dear Rosie?”

“No, sorry, I should have let you know but it was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment decision,” said Jenna. She liked Ruth, and her help was invaluable, but she was always keenly interested in their business. “Rick’s in America, and I’ve just delivered Rosie to university in Norwich, so I thought I’d spend a couple of days here before going back home. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“No thank you, Jenna dear, I was gardening and I saw someone here, so I thought I’d better come round and check you out – before I realised it was you, of course.” Ruth smiled. “So Rosie is off to university! And how about the boys? Didn’t you say they were going to go back-packing somewhere?”

“Yes, Australia – they went out a couple of weeks ago. So I’m footloose and fancy free. I thought I’d do some walking, and explore some of the towns and villages. There’s so much to see and do round here, I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

The next ten minutes were spent in pleasant discussion of the local sights, Ruth giving her plenty of recommendations. She was a native Suffolker, born near Ipswich, and she and Gary had retired to Orford five years ago, largely for the sailing and birdlife (him) and golf (her). They had thrown themselves into local life with a bright-eyed energy and zest that reminded Jenna of Rosie’s long-departed gerbils, and made her feel quite exhausted. They’d volunteered, joined clubs, produced a booklet of footpath walks, started a bookswap library in a redundant phone box, and run birdwatching courses. The size of their contributions to the community reminded Jenna guiltily that she and Rick behaved like typically selfish second home owners, swanning in for a weekend here, a few days there, and failing even to let the cottage out to holidaymakers. She had suggested that they do that, and Rick had vetoed the suggestion, saying that it would be far too much trouble, renting to strangers, with all the hassle, perils and complications that would entail. It was yet another argument that he had won, because to her, the achievement of winning the battle did not seem worth the risk of daring to fight it.

“Well, enjoy your ‘me-time’, Jenna dear – you deserve it.” Ruth picked up her trowel, with which she had probably intended to threaten any burglar, and smiled. “And if there’s anything you need, you know where to come. Have fun!”

She went back up the garden, where a gate opened onto the track running behind the cottages. When she had gone, Jenna drank the rest of her tea, which had become tepid, and checked her phone. As she had thought from the sound she had heard while talking to Ruth, a text had arrived. It was from Rick, and much more intelligible than those emanating from his daughter. “Hope you got Rosie to uni OK. Sorry, delayed in NY, won’t be home till next week or later. Will keep u posted. R.”

Not even an x, thought Jenna. She texted a brief reply. “OK, let me know.” It would be late morning in New York, so he was probably in some meeting, and she knew better than to call him. Once Rick was focussed on an objective, it would take an earthquake to divert him from his chosen path.

The text had brought back some of the tension her doze in the garden had begun to dissolve. It was nearly six, and she felt restless and ill-at-ease. A walk, Jenna thought, that’s what I need, a good brisk walk. On impulse she got up and went over to the hedge that separated their cottage from the Marsdens. “Ruth?”

The disembodied voice was so close she almost jumped. “Yes, dear?”

“I’m going for a walk, would you like me to take Sammy? I thought I’d go along the river wall and then cut back across the marshes to the castle.”

“Oh, would you, dear? That would be lovely. I was just thinking it was nearly time for his evening walk, but if you’re going anyway you might as well take him. Come round to the back and I’ll have him ready for you.”

Jenna went back inside, put on the pair of old walking trainers she kept here for just this purpose, filled a bottle of water and locked up. By the time she arrived at the Marsdens’ gate, Ruth was there with Sammy, a small black cocker spaniel, panting eagerly on his extendable lead. She handed him over, along with poo bags, his ball and sling, and a pouch full of treats. “Thank you so much, Jenna, now I don’t need to bother about him, and I’ve done so much in the garden today, I feel quite exhausted.” This, knowing Ruth, didn’t seem very likely, but Jenna let it pass. Her neighbour went on. “There aren’t any sheep on the marshes at the moment, so you should be OK to let him off for a bit. Have fun – and you be a good boy, Sammy, for your kind auntie Jenna.”

That, thought Jenna as the dog towed her along the path behind the cottages and made a sharp right turn to head towards Quay Street, was pretty unlikely. Sammy, though friendly and nice-natured, was also young and silly, with a good helping of his owners’ boundless energy. But she enjoyed walking him, throwing his ball, and exchanging greetings with other dog owners, all of whom seemed to know Sammy of old. They walked briskly up to the quay. The tide was just on the turn, and the many small boats anchored all along the river pulled gently at their moorings, as if eager to be free. Some children were leaning over the edge of the quay, trying to catch crabs with bacon tied to a length of string, while their parents sat on a bench nearby, keeping a careful eye on them in case anyone fell in. Jenna shortened Sammy’s lead – he was quite capable of bouncing up to them and knocking a small child into the water in his attempts to be friendly – and turned right, walking along the top of the bank which protected the low-lying fields behind it from high tides and flooding. The path was empty, save for a jogger disappearing several hundred yards ahead, and the fields were still empty of sheep, so she halted and let Sammy off the lead. At once he frisked round her, barking eagerly, and then raced off down the bank to investigate the water. A couple of quick laps informed him that it hadn’t become drinkable since the last time he’d tried it, so he ran on, weaving in and out of the clumps of reed and samphire, nose to the ground, before racing back to Jenna, plumed tail waving, looking eagerly at his ball.

Obligingly, she hurled it for him, not really caring where it went, and he had a wonderful time rushing in and out of the reeds and the water, on both sides of the bank. The sun was low to her right, but the day was still warm, and very peaceful: in the stillness of the evening, it was as if the world were holding its breath, waiting for winter. Out on Havergate Island, across the sliding water, she could hear the birds beginning, with much whistling and twittering, to settle down for the night. It had amazed her, when she first went to stay with May at Maldon, that they continued to call during the hours of darkness.

They came to Chantry Point, where she would take the path that led back to the town. Obeying a sudden impulse, Jenna sat down on the river side of the bank, looking across the water to Havergate, and hoping to see one of the rare black and white avocets, with their swooping, upturned bills, for which the island was famous. She and Rick had walked along here with Gary last year, and he had lent them his binoculars and pointed out dozens of different sorts of birds, as well as a couple of seals. Despite his efforts, she still couldn’t tell a knot from a dunlin, but avocets were very distinctive. They were also, it seemed, unwilling to disport themselves for her delight this evening.

She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the warm grass, letting the tranquillity soak into her. It had been a good idea to come here. She could recharge her batteries in a way which was impossible in the bustle of St. Albans, where traffic noise was a constant backdrop even at night. Here, the constant noise came from the endless, distant hush of the sea against the unseen shingle banks of Orfordness, protecting the land, and from the thousands of birds who used it as nesting site, refuge and base.

“Excuse me?”

The voice, extremely close, made Jenna start, for the second time that afternoon. She sat up abruptly, and found a man looking down at her with an expression of concern on his face. “Are you all right?”

“What? Oh, yes, sorry, yes, I’m fine – I was just resting.” Jenna hastily scrambled to her feet. He might have been the jogger she’d seen earlier, since he was wearing an old loose T shirt, shorts and trainers. She judged him to be a little younger than her, with cropped light brown hair, a tanned, square face and the kind of upright, confident bearing that hinted at a military background.

“Good – I was worried in case you’d had a fall or something.” He grinned at her, and then his gaze shifted past her, and he said, “Is that your dog?”

Jenna turned. Sammy had evidently grown bored with frolicking along the edge of the river, because all she could see of him now was a round black head and flailing paws, as he swam valiantly towards Havergate Island, in pursuit of several seagulls. “Oh, shit! Sammy! SAMMY!”

One of the seagulls cast a contemptuous glance at the desperate dog, and then, in leisurely fashion, spread its wings and soared into the air, followed by its companions. Sammy, baulked of his intended prey, splashed on for a few more strokes and then seemed to realise where he was. As Jenna shouted his name again, he laboriously altered course and began to swim back to the shore. Unfortunately, the tide had turned, and was now on the ebb, drawing him inexorably downstream.

“Oh, God!” Jenna stumbled down the bank. Overhead, the seagulls cried mockingly. With visions of him being swept out to sea, she ran across the soft, shingly sand. She heard the jogger shouting behind her, and screamed at the top of her voice. “SAMMY! Come on, Sammy, here boy!”

Hearing her, the dog seemed to gain extra strength. As she sprinted along the water’s edge, she saw that he was winning the battle with the tide. By the time she reached him, he was paddling ashore, panting, soaked, and entirely oblivious to the upset he’d caused. Too late, she realised what he was going to do, a fraction before he shook himself enthusiastically and showered her with cold, muddy water.

“You bloody dog!” Almost crying with a mixture of relief and laughter, Jenna clipped his lead onto his collar and escorted him back up the river bank before he could cause any more harm. At the top, the jogger was looking on, and the expression of amusement on his face made her grow hot with embarrassment. He said, as she approached, “Don’t let the RSPB warden catch him doing that sort of thing. Dogs are supposed to be kept under control along here.”

“I know,” Jenna said contritely, wishing the bank would open and swallow her up. “My bad, I should have been more careful. He’s not even my dog – he belongs to my neighbours. I was just walking him as a favour. I’ll think twice about offering in future.”

“I don’t blame you.” He was eyeing Sammy as the dog came closer. “At least you didn’t jump in after him.”

“I may be stupid, but I’m not that stupid. Sammy has a well-honed instinct for self-preservation.”

“As have I – I’m not sure I want a cold shower.” He backed away, but not in time to avoid a generous spraying as Sammy shook off the rest of the river water and grinned at them both, inviting praise for his efforts.

“That settles it,” Jenna said, exasperated. “I’m taking you home, you repellent smelly dog. Look, I’m really sorry, er – “

“Marcus.” He held out a hand, lightly spattered with fresh drops of mud.

She shook it, noting that her own, which had been in close contact with Sammy’s collar, was smeared and dirty. “Jenna. And this vile creature is Sammy.”

“So I gathered. Is he actually deaf, or just pretending?”

“He can hear a crisp packet being opened at five hundred yards. Anyway, I’m really sorry about all this, and thank you ...”

“For what?”

“Hopefully, for not shopping us to the RSPB.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. See you around.”

Jenna watched him trot off along the bank, back towards the quay. Nice man, she thought, as she led Sammy down the other side and set out along the footpath that led back to the town. Just as well, that could have been really awkward. And God, how embarrassing. Bloody dog!

Later, returning the errant hound to his owners, she apologised for his damp and filthy state. “That’s all right, Jenna dear,” Ruth said benignly. “He’ll soon dry off.”

“Just as long as he wasn’t chasing the birds,” said Gary, coming into the garden with three bottles of ice cold French beer. “Here you are, Jen, you look as though you could do with it.”

“Umm ... I’m afraid he was,” she confessed, taking the proffered bottle gratefully. “My fault, I had him off the lead and I wasn’t paying attention. But they were only seagulls,” she added.

“Dear me, Sammy, you naughty boy!” Ruth scolded him. The spaniel flopped down on the grass with a happy sigh and rolled over, to reveal an extremely muddy stomach which no-one, to his disappointment, appeared to want to tickle.

“Well, I suppose no harm was done this once,” said Gary. “Did anyone see?”

“There was a jogger. Sammy gave him a cold shower.”

“Oh, Sammy!” said Ruth again, shaking her head. “I wonder who that was. Did you know him? Or her?”

“Him. He said his name was Marcus.”

“Ah,” Gary said, swigging back his beer. “That’ll be Marcus King. Fortyish, short hair, look of the army? Yes, he’s out along the bank every evening. He’s run the London Marathon, you know, and he goes in for all the local events. He even did the New York one, the year before last, raised a lot of money for Help for Heroes. Used to be an army medic, you see, out in Afghanistan. Now he’s a GP in Woodbridge.”

Jenna smiled. “Well, I suppose being showered by a muddy dog is pretty small beer compared to what he’s been used to. Anyway, he was very nice about it.”

“He’s a nice chap,” said Gary, finishing his beer. “Now, Jen, can we tempt you with some supper?”

“Oh, I’d love to, but I’m really tired – it’s been a long day. I think, if you don’t mind, I’m going to have a quiet evening in, and an early night.”

“Well, how about tomorrow? Say about seven? Ruth can do her Spanish chicken.”

“That’d be lovely,” Jenna said, and meant it: Ruth was an excellent cook, far better than she was, and she and Rick had enjoyed many delicious meals at the Marsdens’. “Thank you. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

She had said she was tired, but she hadn’t realised how tired until she sat down with a bowl of pasta and ready-made cheesy sauce, and found she didn’t want to get up again. Her legs ached, her feet ached, and her throat rasped from shouting at Sammy. The perks of growing older, she thought wryly. Downhill all the way from now on!

After she’d eaten, she settled down with a glass of Pinot Grigio, which she’d remembered to put in the fridge when she first arrived, and the tablet which the twins had given her for her birthday, and which had a larger, brighter and clearer screen than her phone. Downhill all the way indeed, since Jenna was beginning to suspect that she would soon need reading glasses. She checked her emails. There was nothing of much interest, so she sent a chatty message to Rick, telling him about the weekend, and her surprise meeting with Jon. Then she spent some time thinking about emailing Fran. She had always liked him, as a young man he had been quirky and interesting, and it would be fun to meet up again and talk about old times. Though of course, he might not feel the same way: after all, it had been twenty five years since they’d last met.

In the end, she composed a brief but friendly note. ‘Hi, Fran, hope you don’t mind, but I met Jon at UEA yesterday, and he gave me your email address and said you live not far away. Would you like to meet somewhere convenient for a coffee and a catch-up, if you’re free any time over the next few days? I’m staying at Orford at the moment. Love, Jenna (Clarke)’.

She looked it over, wondering if ‘love’ was too gushing and girly: deleted it and put ‘all the best’ instead, then decided that ‘love’ did sound better. After all, they’d all been so intimate once, sharing love affairs, friendships, betrayals, fallings out, with the desperate intensity of people who had lived together in such close proximity for three years. She also defiantly deleted the ‘Clarke’. If he couldn’t remember who Jenna was, then she didn’t really want to meet him again. Before she could change her mind, she added her mobile number and firmly clicked on ‘send’. Then, with a feeling of eager anticipation, she switched to Facebook.

As she had hoped, the twins had posted nearly eighty photos of their first days in Australia, full of brilliant sunshine, blazing colour, and an impossibly blue sea. They looked as if they were having a wonderful time, and she experienced a twinge of envy, which she sternly repressed. It would be easy to start feeling sorry for herself because everyone else in her family seemed to be having a lot more fun than she was. And after all, Jenna thought with a grin, what could be more fun than having a mud shower delivered by a disobedient and enthusiastic spaniel?

She saw that Saskia was online, and quickly sent her a message, saying that she was at Orford and hoping the preparations for the fashion show were going well. The reply flashed up a few moments later. “All good here. Enjoy your time off. I still think you’d make a great model, but I MEAN IT about the haircut. XX S.” There was a smiley face at the end.

“Ok, I’ll think about it,” Jenna typed back. There were no posts from Rosie, but that didn’t surprise her: she knew what Fresher’s Week was like. She just hoped that her mother-to-daughter lecture about staying safe on and off campus had sunk in. Rosie, being straightforward, open and honest herself, might not yet have the necessary skills to distinguish the genuine from the duplicitous or the predatory. She couldn’t bear it if some selfish, unscrupulous young man were to take advantage of her beautiful, trusting daughter.

But that, of course, she reminded herself, was how you learned about life, and the world. It was all part of growing up. Jon had taken advantage of her, and of Jules. She had forgiven him long ago, because he had been young too, and experimenting with relationships and sex, love and friendship. Rosie would inevitably have her heart broken, but she hoped that it wouldn’t be serious enough to leave lasting, damaging scars.

She yawned. It was barely half past nine, but she was so tired she’d felt herself nodding off a few moments ago, while looking at the twins’ photos. She finished the wine, and made herself a mug of hot chocolate. Then she locked both the doors, turned out the light and went upstairs to run a bath, filling it with foam left over from their last visit. It was almost too relaxing, lying with her knees bent in the little tub under the eaves, with the deliciously tingling hot water sloshing gently over her body, soothing away the aches of unaccustomed walking. Perhaps she ought to start going to the gym again, or take up swimming. Parts of her were looking distinctly flabby, and beginning to head south. All an inevitable part of ageing, of course, unless you were Cher, or rich enough to indulge in major surgery, and she was now forty-seven.

One foot in the grave, Jenna thought, as she dried herself. She peered into the little mirror, which was covered in condensation, and wiped it with a corner of the towel. Her familiar face gazed back, framed in straight wet hair that, as Saskia had told her, was in dire need of a good cut. Freckles, hazel eyes, a slightly upturned nose that had always defeated any desire to be elegant and adult, and dimples that were also rather too girlish on a woman in early middle age. She had lines, of course, especially round her eyes, but she’d never bothered too much about them. Perhaps it was in defiance of her mother, who still spent half an hour ‘putting her face on’ every morning, whether she was going out that day or not, that she hardly ever wore make-up and took so little care of her appearance. And there didn’t seem to be much point when Rick took not a blind bit of notice, even when she was all glammed up.

Well, that’s one thing I can do tomorrow, Jenna thought, going through into the bedroom. I can go to Woodbridge or Aldeburgh, and get my hair done. She put on her summer pyjamas, and left the window open and the curtains drawn back before climbing into bed. It felt wonderfully comfortable – the only new furniture they’d bought for the cottage had been the beds, all with memory foam mattresses, and the investment had been very worthwhile. She drank the dregs of her chocolate, and picked up her tablet again. One last thing left to do. She went onto YouTube and looked up Fran McNeil.

To her surprise, there were pages of entries. It seemed that Fran had made quite a name for himself as a musician. Stand-up was less in evidence, and all those clips seemed to date back at least ten years or even more. She clicked on the top item, a cover of a song which had been a massive hit, the previous spring, for a boy band whose name she couldn’t now recall, and turned up the sound.

The man on the screen seemed, at first sight, to bear absolutely no relation to the boy she remembered, awkward and intense. He was a slight figure, dressed in black jeans and shirt, wearing a fedora hat. He still had the beard, though it was grey rather than black, and he no longer held the guitar in the way she remembered, as if it were a shield against the world: now, it was merely a conduit of sound. This was a man at ease with himself, and with the world: this is what I do, what I am, his manner conveyed. Take it or leave it, like it or not, this is me, Fran McNeil. He nodded to the camera, and began the opening bars.

She’d always secretly liked the song, even when done by the boy band: it had a pretty tune and an infectious beat. But like this, pared down to its elements, it became a creation of intense beauty, carrying a yearning sadness completely absent from the more well-known version. Fran played without fuss, simply, letting the loveliness of the melody and the haunting words speak for themselves. His voice was not outstanding, but it hit the right notes at the right times, which was good enough for Jenna. When it was finished, she scrolled down the comments. He seemed to have much more than just a local following: many of them were in Spanish or German, and a couple appeared to be Japanese. There were lots of other clips to look at, but she’d save them for tomorrow. She switched off the tablet, closed the curtains, and turned out the light. It was delightfully easy to fall asleep with the breeze touching her face, and the distant sounds of the birds on the Ore, calling reassurance to each other all through the night.

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