Updated: Aug 28, 2019
Tom and Joe arrived safely in Sydney the following evening, but true to form, Jenna only discovered this on Friday morning, when a text to that effect arrived on her phone. Thanks to the flight path website, she and Rosie were at least aware that nothing untoward had befallen the plane, but for all they knew to the contrary, the twins could have been stranded in Singapore or Dubai, their documents and money stolen, penniless and with no means of getting home. Where they were concerned, Jenna had always tried to take the view that no news was good news, although she had never forgotten the 4 a.m. phone call from Joe, just after his A Levels. “Mum, can you come and collect me? I’m at the police station.”
He’d genuinely been an innocent bystander on that occasion, and released without caution or charge, but you never knew with Joe. Tom was the sort of boy who’d always intervened in a fight to try and stop it, particularly if he felt that it was unfair – she’d once been thanked by a mother whose bullied son he had rescued from being set upon by a group of older lads. But Joe was quite capable of starting a fracas, or wading in to escalate it. How, she had often wondered, could two children who had shared the same gene pool and the same womb, turn out so different, and yet such good friends?
Well, they were now safely in Sydney, at the home of their uncle David, and doubtless looking forward to a few days on Bondi Beach with David’s two very blonde, very Australian daughters, Ashley and Erin. Meanwhile, she had to get to Heathrow on time to meet Rick’s plane, which was due to land that morning at around eleven o’clock. Rosie was still in bed, practising for adjusting her body clock to student hours, so she set off in what she assumed would be plenty of time, straight after breakfast. Of course, sod’s law dictated that there had been a major rush-hour pile-up on the M25, with long tailbacks, and even though Jenna knew various alternative routes, she still arrived nearly half an hour later than she’d planned.
Rick was waiting for her in Arrivals, looking more than a little annoyed. “Sorry,” Jenna said, hurrying up. “Traffic problems. Did you have a good flight?”
“OK,” said Rick, giving her a perfunctory kiss. “Bit of turbulence, but the jetstream was working overtime, we landed twenty minutes early. Come on, let’s get home, I could do with a good English cup of tea.”
Once in the car, he leaned back and closed his eyes wearily. It was a clear barrier to any chat, so Jenna concentrated on negotiating the traffic and delivering them safely back to St. Albans. They walked through the front door to be greeted by the smell of toast, and Rosie sitting at the kitchen table devouring several slices covered in what, given her aversion to marmite, was probably chocolate spread. As Rick walked in, she leapt up and hugged him. “Dad! You’re back! Would you like some tea, the kettle’s hot?”
“That sounds wonderful.” Rick sat down rather heavily in his usual place at the head of the table. Jenna, looking at him, thought he seemed more than usually tired. She went to help Rosie with the tea, saying over her shoulder, “Did it all go well, in New York?”
“What? Yes, very well. Got the deal all sewn up, and another one in the pipeline. All pretty manic, though – never seemed to have time to sit down and take stock. God, I’m knackered.”
“Well, you’re back now, and you can have a really good sleep,” said Rosie cheerfully. “Here you are – do you want a biscuit?” She proffered a newly-opened packet of chocolate hob-nobs. Rick took one and dunked it in his tea. “That tastes so good. That’s one thing the Yanks have never got right – the perfect cup of tea and the perfect biscuit. Can’t complain about their breakfasts, though. I think I’ve put on a few pounds.”
“You’ll have to start running again,” said Rosie. “I’ll come with you if you like. We can go round the lake like we used to.”
“And risk being chased by the geese? No thanks, I’d rather go to the gym. Anyway, aren’t you off to uni this weekend?”
“No, Dad, it’s next weekend, remember?”
There was a brief, uncomfortable pause, before Rick said, “Oh. Sorry, Rosie, but I’ll be back in the States by then. I’ve got an appointment with the CEO of a big recruitment agency lined up for today week, and I’ve already booked a flight back to New York on Wednesday.”
“I thought you were coming to Norwich with me,” said Rosie, disappointment suddenly plain in her voice. “Can’t you change it?”
“I’m really sorry, Rosie love, but I can’t mess this guy around. He could bring us a lot of business, it’s absolutely vital that I’m seen as reliable and committed.”
Jenna stared at him, wondering how he could sit there and let their daughter down so blithely. He knew as well as she did that Rosie had been greatly looking forward to showing him round the university and the city. They had planned the weekend months ago, a hotel room had been booked for herself and Rick for the Saturday night, and she’d intended to suggest that they treat themselves to a couple of days at the Suffolk cottage on the way home. How could he possibly have got the wrong weekend?
Perhaps he hasn’t, whispered a little, Saskia-influenced voice inside her head. Perhaps he just went ahead anyway because this unknown CEO is far, far more important than his wife and daughter could ever be.
“But you promised me!” Rosie said, and there were tears in her eyes. “You said you’d come with me and Mum, we had it all sorted ages ago, how could you have forgotten which weekend it was?”
“I did forget, Rosie, OK? I’ve said I’m sorry, but there’s no changing it, you’ll just have to manage without me, and I’m sure you’ll be fine. Now can we drop it? I’m tired, I’m jet-lagged, and I can really do without one of your tantrums.”
His daughter stared at him furiously. Then she turned, snatched up her bag from its accustomed place on the dresser, and went out. The front door banged with more than usual vehemence, and she was gone.
“Just a storm in a tea-cup,” Rick said, without any trace of irony. “I thought she’d grown out of that sort of thing. Seems I was wrong.”
“Did you really forget?” Jenna asked.
“Of course I bloody really forgot!” Rick’s voice was considerably louder than usual, and suspiciously defensive. “What do you take me for? Anyway, it’ll all blow over, she’ll have forgotten it all herself as soon as she gets to uni.”
If she was honest with herself, Jenna could acknowledge the likelihood of this, but she could also sympathise with Rosie, who had always been close to her father and patently felt betrayed. “I expect so,” she said at last.
“I can’t help it,” Rick said angrily. “You know what the Americans are like. Unless they can count on a hundred and ten per cent commitment, they’re not interested. Families come a long way second.”
“Well, perhaps it shouldn’t be like that,” Jenna said, keeping her own voice level and calm. “But Rick, do you really need all this US business? You were doing brilliantly before, surely. And it’d be nice to see a bit more of you, especially now the kids won’t be around so much.”
“You don’t pass up opportunities like that. The first deal pretty much landed in my lap, I’d have been mad to turn it down. And I need this other company as back-up, in case the first goes pear-shaped. Come on, Jen, you know the score. I work hard so you don’t have to.”
That stung, especially as it had been Rick’s suggestion, five or six years ago, that she pack in her private tutoring work. It had been absolutely vital, as well as lucrative, keeping them afloat when he had been made redundant just as the twins started secondary school, and was setting up a consultancy, troubleshooting company finances, on his own. At the time, he had been very persuasive, arguing that as the business was now doing so well, she didn’t need to work. Eventually she had agreed, with considerable reluctance, tempered by the fact that she would never have to listen to Sebastian Arthur barking at his reading book again, or try to explain to a succession of bewildered children the significance of the decimal point.
“But you don’t have to work that hard,” she said. “And I’d quite like to get a job.”
Rick laughed derisively. “You don’t mean that. You like being a yummy mummy, swanning around drinking coffee all day with your friends. Anyway, I’m knackered and I’m off to bed. Wake me up in a couple of hours.”
He picked up his tea and went out of the kitchen. Jenna was left by the sink, feeling more angry with him than she had for some considerable time. What had got into him? He had almost lost it just now, and he was not a man who made a habit of raising his voice.
He’s tired, she thought, trying to be charitable. Tired, jet-lagged and feeling hassled and defensive. He’ll be fine after he’s had a good meal and a decent kip.
Indeed, he was in a much better mood when she woke him in the middle of the afternoon, with another cup of tea, and they talked quite amicably about his trip. The same could not be said for Rosie, however. A terse text arrived on Jenna’s phone as she was cooking quiche and new potatoes for supper. ‘@ Indys. Back late. Xx R’.
“Was that Rosie?” asked Rick, who was perusing his emails on his laptop at the kitchen table.
“Yes. She’s at India’s. Said she’d be back late.” Jenna chopped up a few stalks of chives from the garden and sprinkled them over the buttery potatoes, boiled in their jackets.
“So she’s still sulking, then.”
“She’s really disappointed, Rick. She was so looking forward to showing us round Norwich.”
“She’s never been to Norwich.”
Jenna glanced round in surprise. “Yes, she has, of course she has – she went there for a taster day just before Christmas, stayed overnight.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“You were in Frankfurt, I think.”
“Well, then, of course I don’t remember.” He closed his laptop and leaned back to place it on the dresser, repository of everything in the house that needed a temporary refuge. “But I do remember being surprised they offered her a place.”
“I wasn’t surprised. She was predicted straight As and A stars at A Level. And she got them. She’s done so well.”
Rick grunted as the quiche and potatoes appeared in front of him, along with a big bowl of green salad, and a much smaller bowl of tomatoes from the two leggy plants in the conservatory. “With those results, she could have gone to Oxford.”
This was an old gripe that Jenna had hoped had been long forgotten. “She didn’t want to go to Oxford. Or Cambridge. She wanted to do that particular course, and although other universities do similar ones, UEA has the best reputation.”
“Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? You went there.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it. Of course it’s nice for me that she chose Norwich, but that’s not the point. What matters is what’s best for Rosie, and what she wants.”
“I never said otherwise.” Rick spooned salad onto his plate and began to attack the quiche. Feeling suddenly sad, Jenna sat down with her own food, though her appetite seemed to have disappeared. Everything Rick said these days seemed to be so negative, and it distressed her. She was proud of her children, and what they had achieved, and yet he could only find fault.
She remembered suddenly that she hadn’t yet told him about the casket. Would he complain about that too? Or tell her to sell it? Pour scorn on her plan to research its origins?
He’d certainly complain, and justifiably, if she kept it a secret. She said, “Do you remember Nanna May's casket? The embroidered box?”
“She left it to me in her will.”
“Turns out it’s very old, and quite valuable.”
“Really?” Rick looked up at her. “How do you know?”
“I took it to be valued by a specialist. She was very impressed, Rick, she said it was of national importance.”
“Really?” Rick said again. “How come Nanna May had it, then?”
“Well, she didn’t nick it,” said Jenna, keeping her tone light with an effort. “She inherited it from her mother. It’s a family heirloom, passed down from mother to daughter.”
“So what does this expert think it’s worth, then?”
“Fifty grand. Minimum.”
Now she had his full attention. His blue eyes bored into her. “Fifty thousand pounds?”
“Yes. Probably more. It’s unique.” Jenna was beginning to wish she hadn’t begun this conversation, because she could see only too clearly where it was going.
“Christ. What in God’s name are we going to do with something like that? We can’t keep it here.”
“Why not? Nanna May kept it in her flat.”
“What if we were burgled? The Carters down the road lost a load of stuff last year. TVs, laptops, jewellery, his great-grandfather’s medals. And think of what the insurance will cost. It simply isn’t practical, Jen, we’ll have to sell it.”
“I promised Nanna May I wouldn’t. That’s why she left it to me rather than to Mum.”
“I don’t imagine your mother was very keen on that idea. What does she think? Does she think you ought to sell it?”
“There you are then. We can send it to Sotheby’s.”
“Rick. I’m not selling it.”
He stared at her. “Of course you’ve got to sell it. It’s the only solution.”
“Solutions belong with problems. Owning the casket isn’t a problem, it’s a delight. I want to research it, find out who made it.”
“And how in God’s name are you going to do that?”
“I have a history degree, remember, and some of it stuck. And I have contacts who could help me. Emma James, she’s the specialist, she’s very keen.”
“I bet she is, she’s probably charging a small fortune for the privilege.”
“Rick,” said Jenna, knowing that she was risking an explosion, “money may be the be-all and end-all in your world, but it isn’t in my world. Emma’s firm are only charging me for the valuation. I’ve already made a start on tracing my family back. You said yourself I’d need something to do now the kids are pretty much off our hands, and this is what I want to do. I’m keeping the casket, and that’s not negotiable. I may lend it to a museum once I’ve done the research, but I’m not selling it, OK?”
They stared at each other across the bowl of green leaves. Jenna saw the flush of anger suffuse his face. She had always thought him a good looking man, with his even features and springy dark hair, now streaked with distinguished strands of grey, but the person glaring at her seemed like an ugly stranger.
“You’re mad,” he said at last. “What a bloody stupid idea. How can we keep something as precious as that safe? It’d have tea spilt on it, or dropped, and then that’d be fifty grand down the drain. Even more, if what your expert says is true.”
“It’s kept in a case. The original case. It’s not going to be knocking about on the table or left in full public view on the sitting room windowsill. No-one apart from my mum and Saskia and the kids knows I’ve got it. I’ll find out about insurance, and if it’s too expensive I’ll think about lending it to a museum. But I am not selling it, Rick, no matter what you say.”
“Then you’re an idiot. Christ, think what you could do with that kind of money.”
“I’d rather have the casket,” said Jenna, with the stubborn, quiet defiance that had so incensed her mother, many years ago. “Anyway, we’ve no need of the money, we can afford to keep it. And I promised Nanna May.”
“Well, she’s dead now, and her mind must have been going if she made you do such a stupid thing.”
“She wrote her will three years ago, and her mind was perfectly sharp right to the end. Come on, there’s no need to be so unpleasant about it. Just chill, Rick, please. Why are you so angry about all this?”
“Because you’re not listening to reason, that’s why.” He got up abruptly, with a vicious scraping of the chair legs across the laminated floor. “I’m going upstairs. I’ve got work to do.”
So, Jenna reflected, as she cleared the table, that was both remaining members of her family flouncing out of the kitchen in a huff. And for the first time, she found herself looking forward to the moment when Rick stepped on the plane to New York, and she would have a few days when she didn’t have to watch everything she said in case she set off an explosion.
The next few days were extremely uncomfortable ones. Rosie spent most of her time at India’s, or with other friends, and made a point of not speaking to her father if she encountered him on the rare occasions when she was at home. Rick spent most of his time in the study, on his laptop or on the phone, and made a point of speaking to both of them in monosyllables. Jenna, who didn’t herself make a habit of sulking, made strenuous efforts to restore pleasant relations – papering over the cracks yet again – but with little result. And the last thing that her husband said to her, at the entrance to the departure lounge, was, “You have to think again about that bloody box. It’s ridiculous to think you can keep something like that.”
“I’m sorry -” Jenna began, but he had already turned away. Her last sight of him was his back, stiff with annoyance, brushing through the other passengers as he made his way towards the duty free shop.
Once, he had been an easy-going man, happy to share a joke or play with the children. That Rick, the Rick of the first twelve years of their marriage, seemed to have vanished forever, forged into a new and harsher mould by the disappointment of redundancy, the demands of establishing a new and precarious business, and the pressures of success. She wished, with all her heart, that he was still working for the small company with offices up on the High Street in St. Albans, dealing with other small firms who still regarded their employees as human beings with lives that didn’t entirely revolve around work. But probably, in these highly competitive days, with bankruptcy and unemployment lurking round every corner, such companies no longer existed, except in the cloud cuckoo land of her imagination.
She drove home, wondering unhappily why he was so angry about her refusal to sell the casket. Surely it couldn’t be about the money? Ever since his business had taken off, half a dozen years ago, he had, by his own admission, been raking it in. They still had a mortgage on the house, but it had been taken out twenty years previously, when prices were far lower, and despite the expense of the extension, there was an enormous amount of equity tied up in it. The Suffolk cottage had been bought outright, and had doubtless increased in value in the two years since then. Compared to what Rick was earning, fifty grand was peanuts. If they needed to sell anything, it would be the cottage, though Jenna didn’t want to do that either. She had imagined them retiring to it, in the not so distant future, and living a leisurely life of gardening, walking, perhaps even sailing. But now the thought of living with Rick, constantly irritable and resentful, cooped up in a place where they knew almost no-one, filled her with dread.
She put it to the back of her mind when she saw Rosie come running out of the house to greet her. They hugged, and then her daughter said, “I wish he hadn’t gone. I was hoping he’d change his mind.”
“I’m sorry, love, but he didn’t. He couldn’t afford to miss that appointment.”
“He should have made it for another day. Next week. Anything.”
“The bloke he’s going to see will be in Beijing next week, apparently.” Rick had let slip that piece of information a couple of nights ago, when Rosie had spent yet another evening avoiding him. “Anyway, he’s gone now, and we’ll just have to manage without him. Do you think we can?”
“Course we can! You and me against the world!”
“And a girls’ night in tonight. Pizza, Chinese or Indian?”
“Mum, we have a Netflix account. DVDs are so last century. Can I choose?”
“Anything, as long as it doesn’t involve guns or car chases.”
“So not Thelma and Louise, then.”
“Something light, funny and possibly with a bit of music thrown in will suit me just fine,” said Jenna, and put her worries aside in the interests of making her daughter happy.
They had a Skype call from the twins the following morning, pre-arranged by text. They looked happy and relaxed in T shirts and shorts, their hair still damp and spiky from surfing. Rosie said nothing about Rick’s unexpected return to New York, and when Tom asked where he was, Jenna said neutrally that he was out, but sent his love. They wished Rosie luck in her first term at uni, and she left them to it, suspecting that some brotherly advice was about to be given, regarding boys and how to fend them off. Rosie had had several boyfriends at school, none of them serious, unlike India, who had diligently worked her way through half the sixth form, and it was plain that Joe regarded her as a relative novice. Whether Rosie, who indisputably had a mind of her own and a stubbornness to match her mother’s, would take that advice was, of course, another matter.
The great day arrived, with no communication from Rick apart from a brief text advising her of his safe arrival in New York. Still sulking, then, Jenna thought, and then mentally berated herself for being unfair. He had a lot on his plate at the moment, it was obvious. Surely, if he could just get this second deal sewn up, he could relax and this unpleasant blip could be firmly placed where it belonged, in the past.
Together, mother and daughter loaded up the car. Bags of books, her laptop, a suitcase and a rucksack full of clothes, one box full of kitchen equipment, crockery and cutlery, and another packed with food essentials like coffee, cereal, tinned tomatoes, pasta, baked beans, spices and rice. Jenna had filled a cool bag with perishables – milk, yoghurts, bread, mince, sausages and some ready meals to tide her over the next few days – and thought that Rosie at least would have no worries about meals until the middle of next week.
“Do you think I’ve forgotten anything?” her daughter asked her, securing a distinctly jaunty-looking Sid behind the elastic on the back of the rucksack.
“How can you have? It looks like we’ve packed half the house. Got your bag, cards, cash, laptop, phone?”
“Course I have. Shall we go? I really, honestly can’t wait to get there.”
It took more than two and a half hours, but it was a light-hearted journey, singing along to the music on Jenna’s I-pod, which was full of cheesy old eighties and nineties hits. Arriving at the outskirts of Norwich, her sat-nav directed her to the university campus, and deposited them outside Suffolk Terrace, one of the two ‘ziggurat’ halls of residence for which UEA was famous, and in which Rosie had a single room in a flat with eleven other students. Nearly thirty years ago, Jenna had spent her first year in Norfolk Terrace, and had fond memories of it. Since then, of course, the accommodation had had several makeovers, and the little room, with its single bed, washbasin, desk, wardrobe and wonderful views over the grounds and the lake, seemed nowhere near as basic as the one she had lived in.
“Isn’t it nice?” said Rosie, dumping her rucksack on the bed and looking round in delight. “I saw these when I came for my interview and I knew this was where I wanted to be.”
Jenna, rather breathless after lugging the suitcase and a bag of books up two flights of stairs, said, “Where’s the kitchen?”
“Down the corridor, I think. I’ll go and get the food, mum, you put the kettle on. Back in a sec!”
She clattered out, and Jenna heard her greeting, presumably, a flatmate also arriving. She removed the kettle from the box that Rosie had brought up, filled it with water, found a plug and switched it on. By the time her daughter returned, puffing under the weight of one of the boxes, she had filled a mug with boiling water and was waiting for the teabags and milk.
“Mum, this is Jack, he helped me carry the boxes.” Rosie indicated a tall boy with curly fair hair, wearing a baggy T shirt and very tight jeans. “He’s in this flat too, he got here this morning.”
Jenna, feeling like Methuselah, got up and shook hands. “Hi.”
“Hi,” said the boy, looking decidedly awkward. “Um, see you later, Rosie, OK?”
“OK, Jack, and thanks!”
“He’s doing biology,” said Rosie, extracting the teabags from their box, while Jenna opened the cool bag and took out the milk. “And he plays guitar. There are seven boys and five girls in this flat, apparently.”
“Well, make sure the boys do their fair share of the chores.”
“That’s what Tom said.” She grinned. “The good thing about having two older brothers is that you don’t think boys are a separate species. And you know how to boss them around. Jack said there’s a fresher’s party tonight, and he asked if I was going, and I said yes.” She looked apologetic. “I know we were going out for a meal, but ...”
“That’s OK, we can make it an early one. Unless the party starts at six?”
“God, no, it probably won’t get going till eight or nine.” Rosie looked round at her room, now chaotically crammed with her belongings. She pulled Sid out from his travelling position and placed him firmly on the pillow, taking possession. “I’ve got so much stuff! Where’s it all going to go?”
“Tell you what,” Jenna said. “I’ve got to go and move the car anyway. I’ll leave you to have a mug of tea and sort yourself out and meet the other students, and I’ll go and have a little look round, visit some old haunts. Then I’ll come back around six, and we can go for that meal. Is that OK?”
“Brill, mum, thanks.” Rosie gave her a hug. “See you later!”
Jenna managed to find a space in one of the main car parks, though only because another vehicle pulled out just before she got to it. She nipped in quickly, frustrating another parent coming the other way, and sat for a few moments with the campus map in her hands, trying to orientate herself. So much had changed since her time here: new buildings had sprung up, there were new signs, new road layouts, and she didn’t want to get lost. Although the ziggurats, so distinctive, must be visible from most parts of the campus, however much the trees had grown up.
Feeling more confident, she got out. It was a lovely September day, and still warm: she wouldn’t need her jacket. She crossed the car park, and headed towards the main buildings. Rosie’s School of English and Creative Writing was somewhere towards the far end, along with the School of History, where she herself had studied. There would be shops here, and cafes, and the Students’ Union, with its noticeboards doubtless still crammed with posters advertising books for sale, rooms in shared houses, upcoming gigs and offers of lifts. Unless they did all that sort of thing online now, of course.
She spent some time looking round, and bought a paperback to read in the hotel later. In the doorway of Waterstones, she had to wait as a gaggle of Chinese girls came in, all looking about fifteen, followed by a boy carrying a skateboard. As she emerged, she saw a man coming towards her. He was about her age, so either a parent or a member of staff, tall, with reddish hair and a distinct swagger in his walk that caught suddenly at her memory. Without stopping to think, she said, “Jon?”
Her memory was correct, for his head jerked round and he paused, staring at her in a ‘do I know you?’ way. She said quickly, “It’s Jenna. Jenna Clarke. We shared a house in our second and third years.” And the rest, she thought silently.
“Good God.” His face suddenly broke into a brilliant smile. “Jenna. Little Jen. Well I never. What on earth are you doing here?”
“Delivering my daughter, Rosie. She’s doing English and Creative Writing, this is her first term. What are you doing here?”
“I teach in the School of History. Professor Jonathan Gerrard, at your service, ma’am.” He bowed, in the flamboyant way that she remembered so well, and they both laughed. “So – are you on your way to anywhere in particular?”
“No – I’ve left Rosie to settle herself in, she’s in Suffolk Terrace, and I was just having a look round. There’s been quite a lot of change in the last twenty five years.”
“Indeed there has, and obviously not just on campus.” He was looking at her, with such a genuine expression of delight on his face that she blushed. “Have you got time for a coffee? It would be great to catch up, and there’s no time like the present. There’s a good place just across the square, and it didn’t look too crowded when I went past just now.”
She didn’t have any memories of the cafe he chose: presumably it hadn’t been in existence during their time here. It was quite small, but the smell of freshly roasted coffee was so intoxicating that she abandoned her usual rule of tea in the afternoon, and ordered a cappuccino, which he insisted on paying for. They sat at a corner table, well away from the other customers, and he said, “I wouldn’t have recognised you. You look fantastic, Jen.”
“Thank you,” she said, grinning. “I wear it well.”
“’A little out of time, but I don’t mind’,” he quoted. “God, do you remember Jason and his Rod Stewart fixation?”
“How could I forget? Almost as bad as you and your Clash fixation. Yours was marginally more up to date, though, I have to admit.”
“We had some good times, didn’t we, Jen?”
“Certainly did.” Before you broke my heart, she wanted to say, but that would have been churlish. In any case, it wasn’t a serious break: she’d started seeing Rick only a couple of months later. “So,” she added, “you’re a professor here?”
“Yes. I’m ashamed to say I never left. Did an MA, then got a teaching post. Landscape history is my specialisation, and UEA do the only undergraduate course in the country.” He sipped his coffee. “So, what are you doing? Didn’t you go into teaching?”
“Yes, I taught primary in St. Albans for five or six years, then I did tutoring for a while.”
“So you never used your history degree. Shame, that, you got the best results of any of us.”
“No, I didn’t - you got a two:one as well. Anyway, there’s not a lot you can do with it except teach, if you don’t want to go into academia.” The cappuccino was scalding hot, but delicious. She put the cup down and added, “Have you kept in touch with any of the others?”
“Some. Jason’s in California, still living the bachelor life, working in Silicon Valley I think – I get an e-card every Christmas. I married Sarah, of course, but unfortunately it didn’t work out, we had two kids, son and daughter, they live in Reading now with her new husband.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” He had left her for Sarah, although ‘left’ was too large a word for the simple act of swapping one room for another. “You know I married Jules’s brother? Rick?”
“Yes, I’d heard that. So you’ve got kids then? Of course you have, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“Two boys, twins, and then Rosie. The boys have just finished at Bristol and they’re doing some backpacking. They’re in Australia at the moment, visiting one of Jules’s other brothers. And Rosie’s starting here, in a ziggurat, just like we did.”
“It must take you back.”
“It does indeed.” She smiled. “Though not as much as meeting you, I have to say. Suddenly it seems like I never left.”
“Well, I didn’t. How’s Jules doing?” Jon had slept with her, too, in their second year, and that had also ended in tears.
“Married to a Frenchman, lives near Bordeaux, five kids, runs a holiday gite business. Rick’s other brother Mike is in Chicago. Those Johnsons certainly get about. Rick’s the only one who stayed in England – though he’s in the US too at the moment, on a business trip, otherwise he’d be here as well.”
“So you’re still together, then?”
“Yes, we’ve been married twenty-three years.”
“Most prison sentences are shorter than that,” said Jon, with a rather wry smile. He’d also worn well: he looked trim and athletic, and his hair was still thick, although the vivid gingery red that stood out in all the old photos had faded.
“And what about Fran? Do you ever hear from him?”
“Fran the maverick has done rather well for himself, in an unconventional way. He’s got quite a following locally as a folk musician and stand-up. He’s also published some poetry, which was very well reviewed. He teaches a module here, in fact, so if your daughter is doing the Creative Writing course, she may well run across him. Not sure where he lives, somewhere down on the Suffolk borders I think, but I can give you his email address if you like.”
Fran McNeil was Scottish, and had started as the odd one out in their house, the only one who hadn’t been part of their tight little first-year group of ziggurat flatmates. Jen remembered a lanky, introverted, bearded young man who had preferred practising his guitar playing to socialising with the rest of them. It had taken quite a while for him to be accepted, and Jason in particular had not been very welcoming, with lots of sly digs and sneering remarks about wailing, nasal folk singers, which Jenna at the time had thought a bit rich, given his love of Rod Stewart.
“He always seemed so shy,” she said. “I wouldn’t have thought that stand-up would be his sort of thing at all. If you don’t get it right, the audiences will crucify you.”
“Oh, that was all a front, he’s about as shy as Billy Connolly – though not quite as foul-mouthed. There’s some of his stuff on YouTube, I’ve watched one or two clips, he’s quite amusing. Take a look.”
“I will.” Jenna glanced at her watch. “Hell, I’d better be getting back to Rosie, I promised I’d take her out for a meal tonight and she wants to go to a party later. So I gotta go. But it was lovely to see you, Jon, really good.”
They swapped email addresses and phone numbers, and he gave her Fran’s as well. As they got up, Jenna remembered something. “Jon, would it be possible to pick your brains sometime? I’ve got a bit of a project, just for my own interest really, but I’d appreciate some pointers. Basically I’ve inherited a family heirloom and I want to research its origins. I know you’re into landscape history, and this is an embroidered casket, but you might be able to help. I’ll email you all the details and what little I’ve already done.”
“Of course I’ll help,” Jon said. “Even if I don’t know, I’ll know someone who does. Bye, Jen, and keep in touch!”
They kissed cheeks briefly, the first time she had touched him since that awful day, twenty five years ago, when he’d told her it was over. She had been worried that there might still be some spark there, but to her relief felt nothing but the pressure of his hand on her arm. As she hurried away towards the ziggurats, she glanced back and saw him still standing at the cafe entrance, gazing after her. He waved, she lifted a hand in return, and then, smiling to herself, went to meet Rosie.