Updated: Aug 28, 2019
“She should have left it to me.” Patricia Clarke sipped at her steaming cup of Earl Grey, and eyed the gratuitously decadent selection of cakes and pastries beautifully arranged on a three-tiered stand. “I was her only daughter, after all.”
Jenna Johnson glanced surreptitiously round at the other customers: her mother’s voice always rose in pitch and volume when she was annoyed, and she did not want the entire tea-room overhearing their business. In this small town, gossip was rife, and Patricia had many friends and acquaintances here. She said, her tone conciliatory, “I told her that, Mum, but she was adamant.” Crossing her fingers under the table seemed childish in the extreme, but she did it all the same.
“Well, she always was very stubborn and difficult. We never got on.”
And that was the understatement of the year, Jenna thought drily. But she had loved her grandmother dearly, despite her faults, and often the strained relationship between the two older women had stretched her own loyalties to the utmost.
“I can’t understand why.” Patricia’s voice was becoming querulous. “It’s always been passed down from mother to daughter. Always. I don’t know why she had to be so contrary. She knew I ought to have it.”
Jenna knew why, but she had no intention of revealing it to her mother. Vivid as paint, she remembered the old lady, small and grey but still valiant, pulling off her oxygen mask and beckoning her closer. “The casket,” Nanna May had said, her voice no more than a fierce whisper interspersed with harsh breaths. “Leaving you the casket. Not your mother. Leaving it to you.”
“But it always goes down to the next generation,” Jenna had said, though her heart was thumping suddenly with anticipation. “Mother to daughter. That’s how it’s always been, isn’t it? All through our family.”
“Mother left it to me. Grandma left it to her. They knew it’d be looked after. You’ll keep it safe. But I know what she’s like.” May paused to suck in more oxygen, her lips ominously tinged with blue. “Ever since she saw that one like it. On the Antiques Roadshow. Going to sell it as soon as she gets her hands on it. After three hundred years, mother to daughter. And she wants to sell. Won’t get the chance, leaving it to you. She won’t like it. Tough titty.” She clamped the oxygen mask back over her mouth and nose, her dark eyes daring Jenna to disagree.
“Well, it’s yours, Nanna, you can leave it to the cat’s home if you like,” Jenna said, smiling. “But I will look after it, I promise. I’ve always loved it, ever since I was a little girl.”
“You can do something else for me,” said May, pulling the mask aside again. “Find out about it. Find out who MJ was. Asked my gran once. She didn’t know. Lost in the mists of time. She said.”
“She was probably right.” Jenna leaned over and took up her grandmother’s hand. It felt very cold, and the fingernails had the same bluish taint as her lips. Grief wrenched at her, and her eyes filled with tears. She swallowed hard and added, her voice almost level, “But I’ll have a go. Rosie’s off to uni in September, so hopefully I’ll have some time on my hands. I’ll be a bit rusty, though. It’s years since I’ve done any research into anything more intellectual than the best way to cook pulled pork.”
“You’ll do it. Clever girl. So’s Rosie. And the boys.” May smiled. “You did a good job there. Proud of them.”
Her breathing was becoming more laboured, and out of the corner of her eye, Jenna could see a nurse hovering. She said reluctantly, “You ought to rest, Gran. You look tired out.”
“Death’s door, you mean. Well, I am.” May closed her eyes for a moment, letting the mask slide back over her face, the icy fingers flaccid and lifeless.
“No, you’re not,” Jenna said, lying: the doctor, only twenty minutes ago, had kindly but firmly told her the truth. Advanced pneumonia, she had said, probably a matter of hours rather than days.
“Liar.” May looked up at her shrewdly. “Had enough - time to go. Don’t cry, love. Look after Rosie – and the boys – don’t forget – the casket – get one over - on your mother.” She uttered a faint, gruesome cackle. “When’s she coming?”
“Tomorrow morning. She’s got a big do on this evening, at the Bridge Club.”
“Well, she’ll be – too late. Never mind. Not – dying – to see her.” The old woman laughed, and then clenched her fingers on Jenna’s, so painfully that she stifled a gasp. “I want you to - promise me something, Jen. Make me a promise.”
“I promised to look after the casket, didn’t I?”
“Didn’t mean the casket. Talking about you, girl. You. You put up with too much.”
“What do you mean, I put up with too much?”
“What I said. From her. Madam. Ordering you about - expecting you at her beck and call, jump whenever she calls. Your life – not hers. She don’t need you - whatever she says.” The fingers clenched even tighter around Jen’s hand, and her wedding ring dug painfully into her flesh. “And that husband of yours too.”
“You ain’t got any more hidden away, have you?” May’s accent, in extremis, was beginning to revert to her native Essex. “He’s - more’n enough. You don’t shine as bright - as you used to, girl. I’ve seen it. Some men don’t like to be outdone by a woman. He’s one of them. Don’t let either of them rule your life. Don’t put up with it. Promise me. Do what you want, Jen, it’s your life, you’ve got the kids off your hands, live a bit.” She stared urgently up into her granddaughter’s bewildered face. “Live for me, Jen - seeing as I can’t do it for you. Promise?”
“Promise,” Jenna said, fighting back the tears that threatened to overwhelm her. “Darling Nanna, I promise. I’ve been thinking what I can be doing when Rosie leaves. I’ll see if I can find out about the casket.”
“And make sure you tell me - when you do,” said May. She chuckled softly, then began to cough, and her grip on Jenna’s hand abruptly relaxed. At once the nurse moved in, full of brisk kindness. “Let’s try and make you more comfortable, Mrs. Talbot.”
Not long after that, May had fallen into an exhausted sleep that had turned seamlessly into a coma, and then a peaceful, silent death just after midnight. Jenna had stayed with her to the end, ignoring the increasingly irritated text messages from Rick, holding the cold, unmoving hand until the last breath had been taken, the last tremors stilled, and the husk of her beloved grandmother lay devoid of the infuriating, inspirational and vibrant life that had inhabited it for nearly ninety five years.
That had been two weeks ago, and still her eyes prickled at the thought of it, and the funeral that had taken place only yesterday. It had been a quiet affair at the local cemetery – May having specified, with typical forcefulness, that she wasn’t going to be burnt – with only a couple of elderly neighbours and her immediate family in attendance: Patricia, her daughter Jenna, and Jenna’s husband Rick and their three children, Tom, Joe and Rosie. The cold August rain had not encouraged anyone to linger, and there had been no wake. It had seemed a perfunctory way to mark the end of a life, but Patricia had put herself firmly in charge of the arrangements, and as next of kin she had had her way over almost everything, bar the contents of May’s will. Shrewdly, Jenna’s grandmother had taken out a funeral plan years ago, so there was enough to pay for the burial, despite Patricia’s objection that cremation would have been cheaper: enough for a plain coffin and a bouffant circlet of flowers to sit jauntily on top of it, looking for all the world, as Rosie had whispered to Jenna half way through the ceremony, like Nanna May's most OTT hat, the one with the orchids and lilies round the brim. Together, inappropriately, mother and daughter had sat clutching tissues to their mouths, not to stem tears, but to stifle their rather hysterical laughter. And somewhere, Jenna was sure, May Talbot was looking down on them with wicked approval.
“What was all that about?” Rick had enquired, on the journey back to St. Albans. “Why were you and Rosie sniggering together?”
Jenna caught the note of disapproval in his voice, and sighed inwardly. So much of their relationship these days seemed to consist of disapproval or complaint on his part, smoothing over and keeping the peace on hers. She said lightly, “Oh, something just struck us as funny, that’s all.”
“Funny? At a funeral?”
“It was the flowers on the coffin,” Rosie explained helpfully, from her seat between her brothers in the back of the car. “They looked just like Nanna May's white hat.”
Joe guffawed loudly. “Yeah, you’re right, they did. Who chose them? Granny? I bet she did it on purpose.”
Jenna was certain that Patricia had picked the smallest and cheapest floral tribute on offer in the undertaker’s brochure, and that the resemblance to the hat was purely coincidental, but she had no intention of saying so. Papering over cracks, she thought wryly: that’s all I seem to be doing at the moment, papering over fissures so deep and wide that if I don’t, we’ll all fall right in.
“There wasn’t any music,” said Tom suddenly. “I was sure we were going to have ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’ But there weren’t even any hymns.”
“Just as well,” said his twin. “I hate hymns.”
“Funerals aren’t about what you want,” Rosie said. “They’re supposed to be about what the dead person wants.”
“About what Granny wanted, you mean,” said Joe. “She didn’t like Nanna May much, did she?”
“Oh, Joe, that’s not true!” There I go again, Jenna thought. Papering.
“Yes, it is, Mum, it was obvious. They couldn’t stand each other.”
“I think that’s enough, Joseph,” said Rick suddenly, his voice sharp. He didn’t take his eyes off the road, which was thick with late afternoon traffic, but Jenna saw that his hands were clenched hard on the wheel. “Don’t be disrespectful.”
“I wasn’t dissing her, I was just telling the truth.”
“Well, I don’t want to hear it, and neither does your mother, so kindly shut up, will you?”
It was perhaps fortunate for Joe that it was Jenna, not Rick, who had a clear view in the sun-blind mirror of the face he pulled in response to his father’s reproof. She felt a twinge of annoyance. Rick seemed to forget that his sons were twenty-two, grown men with brand-new degrees and currently planning a year’s travelling round the Far East and Australia, and treated them as if they were surly teenagers. In fairness, they could still sometimes behave like surly teenagers, and having them boomerang back home, turning the atmosphere in the bathroom toxic with powerful deodorants, leaving their shoes and other stray items of clothing in the most unlikely places, and emptying the fridge in the small hours was not always an unalloyed delight. Part of her looked forward to the months ahead, when they would have left again on their adventure to the other side of the world, and Rosie would be at university: but part of her dreaded it. What would she and Rick have to say to each other, without their children as a buffer between them?
She pushed the thought away firmly. It was ‘empty nest syndrome’, nothing more. Several of her friends had suffered the same, and she’d wondered why they were so upset, when they could have the house to themselves, their time their own, and the food bills halved. She had admired and, let’s face it, envied Jane and Carl, who had waved their youngest off to Cambridge and promptly gone on a six week touring holiday in California with never a backward glance. Perhaps she could persuade Rick to take some time off – she’d always fancied the south of France, and they’d never been, although he did a lot of business in Paris. Carcassonne, the Camargue, white horses, sun-drenched beaches...
Be realistic, she told herself. When does someone running their own high-powered financial business get to take some extended time off? They hadn’t had more than a long weekend in ages, though those long weekends had admittedly taken place in Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and Berlin. Her last proper holiday had been three years ago with Saskia Page, whose daughter India was Rosie’s best friend, and they’d only gone to Newquay with the girls. It had been miserably cold and damp – of course good summer weather in Cornwall was never guaranteed – and India, then fifteen, had taken up with an Australian life-guard ten years her senior and after one frantic evening of searching had been extricated from a nightclub at two o’clock in the morning, drunk, stoned and loudly indignant. Indeed, that week had proved so stressful that the word ‘holiday’ could hardly be applied to it, and the fact that Jenna’s friendship with Saskia had survived the experience had been testament to its fundamental strength.
The familiar bump as the car negotiated the first of the speed humps along their road, rather too fast for comfort, jolted her back to the present. She’d made a big lasagne that morning, and there was plenty of salad and garlic bread, so she had only to turn on the oven. At least her mother was not coming back to the house: she had politely but firmly refused Jenna’s invitation. “Thank you dear, but it’s the first leg of the Bridge Club tournament this evening, and of course I could hardly say no. However,” she had added meaningfully, “I think you and I ought to have a little talk. Are you free tomorrow afternoon? Then I’ll see you at the Primrose for tea.”
And now here Jenna was, sitting with her untouched cup of tea at the round table in the front window of the Primrose tea-room, just off the High Street in Berkhamsted, listening to Patricia’s righteous indignation. The casket was too valuable, too much of a responsibility, May should have left it to her, not Jenna, it should be sold and the money invested for all their benefits. What use was a three hundred year old embroidered box that belonged in a museum? It would be damaged, spoilt, what if Jenna’s house was burgled or there was a fire?
To all these arguments, Jenna had very little answer but sentiment, and she knew that her mother had no truck with any sentiment but her own. At last, when Patricia took a much-needed pause to sample one of the cakes, she said quietly, “I hear what you’re saying, Mum, and I’ll think about it, OK? But the bottom line is that Nanna May left it to me, and she wanted me to look after it and maybe find out a bit more about it. And I promised her that. So give me a few months to do some research, perhaps get in touch with a museum, and in the meantime I’ll take great care of it, you know I will. It’s the most precious thing I have – apart from Rick and the children, of course,” she added, with a smile.
Patricia, delicately chewing a fondant fancy, looked unconvinced. Jenna decided to ignore one of her mother’s rules of polite behaviour, and dunked her shortbread finger in her cooling tea. There was an awkward pause, filled by the approach of an elderly woman, clad in the Berkhamsted uniform of matching skirt and blouse with colour co-ordinated scarf and cardigan. “Patricia, my dear, how are you?” she said, with a sympathetic expression. “I was so sorry to hear about your poor mother. She can’t have been any great age, surely?”
Jenna watched with some amusement as her mother rose and perfunctory kisses were exchanged. She was tempted to tell the woman that May had actually been ninety-five, but thought better of it. If Patricia wanted her friends to assume that she was years younger than her real age, with a much younger mother to match, then that was her affair. In any case, she had always, as she put it, ‘looked after herself’, was invariably immaculately groomed and expensively dressed both in public and in private, and gave the general impression that she was only in her late sixties. No-one could have guessed that she had been brought up in a cramped council house by an impoverished and widowed single mother. In contrast Jenna, who cared little for her appearance, had never managed to shed the extra stone she had put on when pregnant with the twins, and usually dressed casually with the minimum of make-up, was aware that she was a disappointment to her mother in these matters, but had ceased to mind about it. There were more important things to worry about in her life than the way she looked.
The woman, whom she vaguely recognised, probably from some formal function at Patricia’s bungalow, was briefly introduced – “Susan, you remember my daughter Jennifer?” – and after an exchange of pleasantries, returned to her table on the other side of the room, where a man with a startling resemblance to a tortoise, presumably her husband, was waiting for her. Jenna finished her biscuit and the tea, and poured herself another cup. It was probably stewed by now, but she could do with the extra caffeine.
“Susan Makepeace,” said her mother, obviously confident of not being overheard amidst the general chatter and the sound of chinking china and cutlery. “A dreadful gossip, I’m afraid, but she’s secretary of the Bridge Club, so one can’t avoid her. Now, what’s this I hear about Thomas and Joseph? Richard said they were off to Australia.” She made it sound as if it were some barbaric outpost a thousand miles from any civilization.
“That’s right,” said Jenna, sipping her tea, which was indeed stewed. “They’re going in a couple of months, backpacking.”
“But how can they afford it? They’ve only just graduated. They’ll have all that student debt to pay off ...”
“They both had jobs at university, Mum. Joe worked in the student union bar, and Tom worked in the library. They’ve got quite a bit saved up – enough for the plane tickets, and to cover the first month or so. And don’t forget, Rick’s dad and one of his brothers live near Sydney. They’re going to stay with them while they find their feet, and then they’ll look for work.” She decided not to mention the Government Child Bonds, the gift years ago of her far-sighted and generous in-laws, which had matured very handsomely. Patricia, despite her expensive clothes and beautiful little bungalow high on the hill above the town, had always been, to put it politely, thrifty. But of course, given her poverty-stricken childhood, it was understandable.
“And how long are they planning to stay out there?”
“How long is a piece of string? Long enough to earn a bit of cash, enough to take them round the sights, then perhaps on to New Zealand – Tom wants to see where The Lord of the Rings was filmed – maybe Bali, Thailand, India, who knows? They may be gone six months, they may be gone a year.” She didn’t mention her greatest fear, that they would be gone forever, that they would like Australia or New Zealand so much that they would decide to stay. Young graduates with good science degrees would always be welcome there.
“But aren’t you worried?”
“Worried about what, Mum?”
“About crime. Bombs. Tsunamis. Anything could happen to them.” Perhaps because there were no other boys in her family, Patricia had always doted on the twins, far more than she had on Rosie.
Jenna smiled, though of course these thoughts had occurred to her too. “Mum, they’re twenty-two, they’re six-footers, and they survived three years at Bristol University. They’re streetwise and they can look after themselves. They may give the impression of being overgrown schoolboys at times, but they’re adults now, and this is what they’ve wanted to do for years. It’ll be good for them, and it’ll get rid of the itchy feet while they’re still young and free.”
“Well, I’d be worried sick,” said Patricia. “I’m surprised Richard didn’t put his foot down. He obviously didn’t like the idea. He told me he’d rather they got jobs.”
“There aren’t that many jobs around, Mum. Even for graduates. Anyway, Tom wants to do an MSc and go into research, eventually.” Jenna felt a surge of annoyance. She knew Rick wasn’t keen on the twins’ trip, but he had reluctantly acknowledged that it wasn’t his decision – or hers. It seemed disloyal to them, and to her, that he had expressed his disapproval to her mother. “And even if he’d wanted to ‘put his foot down’, which makes him sound like some stern Victorian papa, there wasn’t much he could do about it. Their money, their idea, their plans.”
“He could have given them jobs in the company, surely?”
Jenna tried not to laugh at the thought of dreamy, academic Tom and in-your-face, political Joe working for their father in high-flying finance. “Oh, come on, Mum, he knows they wouldn’t last five minutes. Tom would sell shares he wasn’t supposed to because he was thinking about landing a spaceship on Venus, and Joe would say something rude about tax evasion to a top client. They’re science geeks, not financial whizz-kids.”
“Well, I’m surprised at you and Richard, I must say, letting them go.”
“There isn’t a lot we could do about it, Mum, even if we’d wanted to.”
“Richard doesn’t want them to.”
“I know, but he’s accepted that what he wants isn’t going to make any difference.”
Patricia sighed, and finished her tea. “Well, I’m not happy about it, but I suppose I’ll have to let it go. Now, what are we going to do about clearing the flat? It should be done as soon as possible, and certainly while the twins are around to help.”
Jenna accepted the change of subject with relief. At least this wasn’t, yet, contentious. Apart from the casket, and a couple of small bequests to old friends, May had left her retirement flat in Watford and all its contents to her daughter, to do with as she thought fit. In view of how much the flat was likely to sell for, it was surprising that Patricia had made such a fuss about the casket, but Jenna suspected that her real objection was not the loss of its value, but the humiliating fact, as she saw it, that May had passed her over in favour of her granddaughter. They arranged to meet there the following weekend, and Jenna suggested that she ask Saskia’s current boyfriend, who was an antique dealer, to look at the furniture to see if there was anything that might be worth going to auction.
“Oh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” said Patricia dismissively. “Most of what she had wasn’t very old. There might be some silver, she inherited some pieces from an aunt a long time ago, but I remember her telling me that the only really valuable thing she had was the casket.” She got up to go, collecting her handbag and the bill. “Now, you will think seriously about what you plan to do with it, won’t you, Jenna? Don’t just leave it in a cupboard.”
“Of course I won’t, Mum. I’ve decided to get in touch with an auction house. They’re bound to have an expert who can tell me about it and give me an idea of its value. And when the boys have gone on their trip, and Rosie’s at university, I can do as Nanna May asked and try to find out who made it. It might make it more valuable,” she added cunningly, “if it’s got provenance.”
That was a concept very familiar to Patricia from her viewings of The Antiques Roadshow, Flog It! and similar TV programmes. She nodded. “Yes, that’s a possibility. Well, it’s nice that your degree may come in handy after all. Mediaeval history doesn’t seem very relevant in this day and age.”
“It was useful when I trained to teach,” said Jenna, determined not to rise to the bait.
“But you taught eight-year-olds!”
“Yes, and they knew more about knights and castles than any other kids in St. Albans.” Jenna grinned, feeling more cheerful now that the grilling seemed to be over. “No, Mum,” she added, indicating the bill. “I’ll get that. My treat.”
“Well, if you say so.” Patricia smiled serenely. “Thank you, dear. I’ll see you at the flat on Saturday morning. And don’t forget to bring Marigolds and plenty of bin bags and cardboard boxes.”
When Jenna got back to the St. Albans house, nearly an hour later, it was empty and quiet. She still missed the affectionate greeting of their cat, named Sooty with stunning originality by a toddler Rosie, but he had died last January at the ripe old age of fifteen. One day, Jenna thought, she would like to have another cat and perhaps even a dog – but not yet, not while she still had hopes of persuading Rick to indulge in a bit of travelling. She went into the kitchen and found a note fixed to the big American fridge with a magnet reading ‘If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun’ (a Christmas present last year from Joe, whose motto it could well be). ‘Shopping with I. J & T @ Ryan’s. C U l8er. Xx R’.
Rick probably wouldn’t be back till seven or even later, so she had a couple of hours to herself before having to cater to the troops. Jenna hung her handbag over a chair, made herself a cup of tea, picked a home-made chocolate chip shortbread out of the tin, and went upstairs, enjoying the peace. They had lived in this house since before Rosie was born, and over the years had adapted and extended it to suit their tastes and needs. It had started life as an ordinary three-bedroom semi, plain and pebble-dashed, with large feature bay windows at the front and a long garden running down to allotments at the back. Although the road could be a rat-run at peak times, hence the speed bumps, there was a small green area at one end and the huge expanse of the Verulamium park, with the leisure centre, river, lake and Roman ruins, at the other. The city centre was just up the hill, and a primary school not far away. It was not the kind of house you fell in love with, but it had proved an ideal place to bring up three children, and over the years, as Rick’s career and then business had taken off, they had added a garage at the side, with a fourth bedroom above it, built a small conservatory at the back, and a summer house in the garden. The boys had taught Rosie the rules of cricket on the sloping lawn, and Rick had hung a swing from the big ash tree at the end. The birthday parties had graduated from Hide and Seek and What’s the Time, Mr Wolf to sleepovers, fireworks and Hallowe’en fancy dress (the twins’ birthday was at the beginning of November) and more recently to late-night revels from which Rick and Jenna had sensibly made themselves scarce, promising not to linger or to ask too many awkward questions in return for a guarantee of tidiness on their return, with no vomit on the carpet or dodgy hairs in their bed.
It had seen a lot, their house, there were many happy memories in every room, and Jenna was fond of it, but she didn’t love it as she loved their holiday cottage in Suffolk, the prudent investment purchase that Rick had insisted on. She had argued against it at first, only to fall in love at first sight, instantly and forever, with the beams, the faded rose-red bricks, and the thought that the sea, or more correctly the river, was twenty five yards up the road.
Perhaps they could go this weekend. No, of course not this weekend, she’d just arranged to spend it clearing out May’s flat with her mother. And the following week Rick would be in New York, not expected back until late on Sunday night. Suddenly Jenna had a powerful urge to throw a change of clothes into a rucksack, climb into her red Peugeot and vanish up the A12, leaving everything behind her.
She wouldn’t do it, of course. It wasn’t sensible, and life and maturity had taught Jenna Johnson to be sensible. She went into the smaller of the two front bedrooms, turned into an office once the twins had gone to university, and unlocked the lowest drawer of the filing cabinet. Inside there were no files, only an old wooden box, battered and polished with the patina of age, perhaps fifteen inches square, and eighteen inches high, with brass handles on the sides. She lifted it out with great care and carried it through to their own bedroom at the back, a lovely room with a splendid view of the cathedral’s tower sailing majestically above the trees along the river Ver. Reverently, she laid it on the white embroidered duvet cover and went back to collect her tea and biscuit. She put them on the bedside table and sat down beside it. Unaccountably, her heart was knocking inside her ribs, and her hands felt hot.
“This is ridiculous,” Jenna said aloud. She took a long slurp of the tea, swallowed, breathed deeply as her yoga teacher had instructed, and lifted the lid.
This had always been the moment, as a child, when she had been terrified that somehow, during its sojourn in the box, the casket would not have stayed the same. She could never rid herself of the feeling that when they were not observed, the embroidered figures around it came to life and moved about, like the characters in Toy Story, acting out their own dramas without human intervention. And although the beautiful lady on the lid of the box, with her brown curls and her blue silk dress, did not look at all threatening, the same could not be said for the snarling lion on the left hand side, ready to spring upon the gold-horned unicorn browsing peacefully amongst the laden fruit trees, or the extravagantly spotted leopard lounging amongst the foliage on the front panel.
Although it must now, even at the most conservative estimate, be close on three hundred and fifty years old, the colours of the silks were still fresh and bright, for as far as Jenna knew it had always been kept in this box, which seemed to have been made especially for it, to protect it from dust, dirt and the fading effects of sunlight. And no, it had not changed: the lady on the lid (whom she had always thought of as Celia, for some reason) still simpered prettily at the gentleman facing her, who seemed to be in the middle of a flourishing bow, while flowers bloomed in colourful profusion around them, and in the distance a house with towers and gables stood amidst trees and exotic wildlife. The child Jenna had amused herself by counting all the animals, from the lion and the unicorn on the left, to the gentleman’s smooth coated hound, the miniature elephant staring balefully at the leopard, and a camel, several lolloping rabbits or hares, a lovely golden dog, and a cat with stripes and bristling whiskers lurking hopefully under the leaves in one corner. The flowers were far too big, and the snail would have been the size of a football in real life, but the scenes around the box had a vitality and exuberance independent of any errors of scale.
Jenna gazed at it for a long time, savouring it, admiring the skill which had made it, enjoying its beauty. She hadn’t even looked inside the box when she’d retrieved it from May’s flat, the day after she’d died, even though she had last seen it many years ago. It had all been too overwhelming, her grandmother’s sudden and unexpected illness and death, the knowledge that she had been entrusted with the casket in defiance of her mother’s wishes, the need to have it safe in her possession. For the first time, she wondered why. The block of retirement flats was extremely secure – Rick had always joked that getting in was harder than extracting gold from Fort Knox – and burglary very unlikely. Had she been subconsciously worried that Patricia, convinced that the casket rightly belonged to her, might remove it and refuse to return it?
No, that was doing her mother a very grave injustice. She grew red with shame at the thought. Patricia was many things, and not all of them likeable, but she would not stoop so low. Unless, of course, the casket wielded its own secret, irresistible power.
“One ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them,” Jenna quoted aloud, and smiled ruefully to herself. She had satisfied herself that the outer casket was just as she remembered from her childhood. Now for the interior.
The casket had three main sections. At the top, the lid hinged back to reveal a wonderful 3D garden scene, with a lady and a unicorn seated beside a tarnished silver mirror, representing a pond, and surrounded by wireworked trees and felted flowers. It could be lifted to reveal a shallow tray, lined in red silk and divided into several compartments, presumably for rings and other small trinkets. At the bottom, the two embroidered panels opened like doors, to reveal a selection of drawers, their fronts also covered by embroidery. The child Jenna had been fascinated to discover that there were also secret sections hidden behind, above and below them, although disappointed that there was no hidden treasure. Very gently, she removed each drawer, found the little box behind the largest, the tiny tray that slid under everything else, and then, right at the back, a small scrap of pink paper, roughly torn into the shape of a heart. Memory pierced her, sudden and vivid. She drew it out and stared at the neat round handwriting.
Jennifer Clarke luvs Simon Berry, 20th July, 1982
Yes, she had loved Simon Berry – she and most of the other girls in Year 8. Every time he brushed past her in the corridor, she had gone hot and red all over, and her stomach seemed to do somersaults. She remembered writing that note, and hiding it at the back of the casket as though it was some kind of magical spell that would miraculously make him fall in love with her. But she also remembered that she had written it knowing that she wouldn’t go back to Beechfield Comprehensive: her year-long stay with her grandmother was over, for her mother had pronounced herself recovered, and wanted her home. She had protested, wept, shouted, slammed doors, to no avail. Patricia, a pale bleak shadow of the woman she had been before her husband’s death from head injuries following a car crash, had come to Maldon to collect her, and, in what seemed to Jenna the ultimate act of betrayal, May had told her that she must go home with her mother.
The thirteen-year-old Jenna hadn’t understood. The adult Jenna, looking back across those years with the advantage of hindsight, knew why May, despite her love for her granddaughter, had insisted that she leave. She had seen that having Jenna back would complete Patricia’s recovery from the mental collapse that had followed her husband’s death, and repair the fraying bond between mother and daughter. But it must have been very hard for her to take the decision she knew was right, and best for her granddaughter in the long run, rather than yield to emotion.
May Talbot had been a very remarkable woman, in so many ways, and Jenna had never felt more proud of her grandmother than now, as the bittersweet memories flooded her mind. She had loved living in Maldon, the long walks with May’s aged terrier along the river paths, the bus rides into the big shops in Chelmsford, the nearness of the sea and the countryside, so different from the grey streets of Finchley where she had lived all her life. And, of course, she had loved Simon Berry.
Where was Simon Berry now? He hadn’t been an academic highflyer, he’d been cool because of his louche attitude, his beautiful hair and his long stride and the fact that he was so good at football, he’d been scouted by one of the big London teams. Not good enough to succeed, though, she suspected: certainly she had never heard his name again. And over the years, the memory of her first crush had faded, vanquished by life and love and family.
He’ll probably be bald and fat by now, Jenna thought wryly, but I hope I never find out. Some memories were best left as memories. She’d never returned to Maldon either: May had sold her little house there and moved to Watford, to be nearer her daughter and granddaughter, who were, after all, the only family she had left in the world. And she had stayed in her Watford house for twenty five years until deciding to move to a flat in a retirement block with a live-in warden, where she had galvanised the other residents out of their geriatric ruts, organised silver surfer courses and poker evenings and, on one never to be forgotten occasion, a group of male strippers for a friend’s ninetieth birthday.
“Oh, Nanna May, I miss you so much,” Jenna said aloud. She felt tears hovering, and wiped her eyes with her sleeve. Then she slipped the piece of paper back into the casket, replaced the drawers and carefully closed the little doors, locking them with the tiny silver key that May had given to her in hospital, and which she now wore on a chain round her neck.
Downstairs, the front door banged, and she heard Rosie’s voice mingling excitedly with India’s. Jenna put the casket back into its box, and tucked it into her wardrobe, right at the back. Tomorrow, she would ring one of the big London auction houses, and make an appointment. She had no intention of selling it, no matter what her mother might think, but an expert would be able to tell her more about it: the sort of person who might have made it, when they had lived, perhaps even where. And she needed that information before she fulfilled her promise to her grandmother, and went in search of its history.