Updated: Aug 28, 2019
“Jenna! Good to see you again. How are you?”
Today, Emma James’s office was gloomy, while outside the rain poured down. The lovely weather that Jenna had enjoyed in Suffolk had been drowned by the arrival of a cold front and chilly winds, and her drive home, the previous afternoon, had been wet and nerveracking.
“A bit damp,” she said with a grin. “But at least it’s warm in here. Can I put my jacket somewhere to dry?”
With quiet efficiency, Emma’s assistant whisked away the soaked garment, while Jenna ran a hand through her dripping hair: she hated umbrellas and never carried one, but this was the kind of day that made her wish she’d changed her mind. Two mugs of steaming coffee arrived, and a small plate of chocolate biscuits that looked delicious, and home-made. Jenna sat down in the chair opposite Emma, with the desk between them. She saw the fat folder lying on it, with a laminated picture of her casket on the cover. It looked very professional, and somehow more perfect, more intimidating, than it was in reality. This is a museum piece of great value, the photograph seemed to be saying. Touch it at your peril.
“It looks amazing,” she said, taking a welcome gulp of the coffee, which was wickedly strong. “Can I see?”
“Of course.” With a smile, Emma pushed the folder over to her. “Our in-house photographer took the pictures – he does our catalogues, and he’s very good at getting the lighting just right. I hope you like it.”
With a growing sense of awe and wonder, Jenna leafed through the folder. On each page was a photo of one panel, with a couple of close-ups beneath, and a paragraph explaining the stitching and materials used, and the probable scene being depicted. The main theme appeared to be the Four Seasons, with Spring on the lid, Summer on the doors below, and Winter and Autumn on the two side panels. The other large panels seemed to depict the Five Senses, and there were flowers – pansies, carnations, lilies – stitched along a curling stem that ran round the four narrow bands below the lid. Then more pages detailed the interior of the casket: the lining, of pink silk, the colour still bright and rich: the mirror on the underside of the lid: and, most wonderful of all, the tray with the 3-D garden, portrayed in lovingly detailed close-up that emphasised how beautiful it was, and revealing little details – the petals on a rose, the bright glint of the fountain at the centre, the silver wire twisted in the unicorn’s horn – that she had never noticed before. Foolishly, she found tears prickling in her eyes, and thought, if only May had lived to see this.
“This is wonderful,” she said at last, closing the folder. “Thank you so much. You’ve worked so hard.”
“No problem. I’ve had the time of my life. You’ve no idea what a privilege it is, to make a study of something as special as this.” Emma smiled. “Have you had any progress with your research into its origins?”
“Not a lot, so far. I’ve rather got stuck on my great-great grandmother. She had a very common name – Emily Taylor – and although I know roughly when and where she was born, I’ve failed to find her actual birth registration.”
“You could try looking for her on the census records,” Emma suggested. “Are there any other clues? What was her daughter’s name?”
“Fortunately, she was completely unique, I suspect. Winifred Emily Merelina Durrant. But on her birth certificate, her mother is given as plain Emily Taylor, born in Colchester, probably in the 1850s or 60s. The trouble is, I can’t find an Emily Taylor born in Colchester.” She shrugged at Emma’s sympathetic glance. “But it’s early days yet, and I’ve hardly had time for a serious look. I’ll find her.”
“I’ve no doubt you will,” said Emma. “But it’s interesting you should say Colchester. You remember I told you that I thought the house on the casket might be a real one rather than a stock design? Let’s have a look at the close-up of it.”
Jenna found the relevant page, and the two women stood on opposite sides of the desk, studying the photograph. It was much higher quality than the rather blurred image Emma had emailed to her, and every stitch was sharp and clear. Now, it was obvious that the central feature was a porch, with an arched door and something, perhaps a window, above it, but she couldn’t tell if the slim lines of russet cotton at the rear of the building were chimneys, or another two towers to match the ones at the front.
“OK,” Emma said. “This is going way out on a limb here, but everything – the style of embroidery, the fashion for needlework boxes like this, and certainly the clothes the figures are wearing – points to your casket having been made some time in the last half of the seventeenth century. And at that time, most larger houses, the sort lived in by a family wealthy enough to afford the cost of it, would have been built in the sixteenth or early seventeenth century.”
“Elizabethan or Jacobean,” said Jenna. “Hatfield House, that sort of era. Though perhaps not as grand.”
“Hatfield House is a good example, because it has the towers, very similar to the ones on either side of your house. See those funny little curved roofs on top? They were very fashionable in the Elizabethan period. Perhaps the maker of the casket lived somewhere similar. In which case, it’s possible the house still exists. Possible,” she added, with a wry smile, “but not likely. After four centuries and more, there aren’t many of them left, and those that are tend to have been altered quite a lot, especially by the Georgians – Hatfield House included. I’m not a building historian, far from it, but going by its colour, the casket house seems to have been made of brick, and brick houses with those corner towers are most common in the eastern part of the country. Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk – and your great-great grandmother was born in Colchester. Families move, certainly, but often they don’t move very far.”
“My Nan always used to say she was East Coast through and through. I wish I’d asked her more about her family. She must have known more than I’ve been able to find out so far.”
“She probably did. I’m in the process of recording my own grandmother for posterity. She grew up during the war, and she’s got some amazing stories to tell, not only about her own childhood, but family stories handed down.”
“I should have done that with Nanna May. But you never think of these things until it’s too late.”
“I know. I wouldn’t have, but my mother suggested it. Perhaps your mother might be able to help?”
“I could ask her,” said Jenna, though she had no intention of doing so. Patricia had made it abundantly clear, during the course of her life, that intrusive questions about family matters were unlikely to be answered at all, let alone in any detail. “Anyway, it’s a long-term project, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.”
“Well, keep me posted. I’d love to have the maker’s name. What did you say your great-grandmother’s name was?”
“Winifred Emily Merelina Durrant. Born in Tottenham in 1890.”
“Merelina? That’s an unusual name.”
“I know. My daughter and I were wondering if it was a family name.”
“Could be,” said Emma James thoughtfully. “It could be a major clue – or a major red herring.”
“Well, I hope I don’t find out the hard way. I know I’ve got a lot to learn about genealogical research – have you done any?”
“No, but my mother has. It’d probably be a good idea to find out as much as you can about Winifred Emily Merelina’s family – you can get a lot from census records, they may go into a bit more detail about her father’s job, her mother’s background. If she was born in 1890, she’ll be on the 1891 census, and on the ones publicly available after that. I’m sure you’ll track her mother down eventually. I know it’s a common name, but there can’t be hundreds of Emily Taylors in Essex.”
“There aren’t hundreds, true, but there are dozens. Still, I’m looking on the bright side – she could have been called Anne Smith, or Mary Brown. And there are thousands of those.”
Emma laughed. “I bet there are. Would you like some more coffee?”
More coffee was brought, and Emma continued to talk about the casket. “It’s quite unusual in a lot of ways. Most of them are quite conformist. We have pattern books from the seventeenth century, that were produced to give embroiderers something to work with. So you tend to find that the same designs crop up again and again. The birds and flowers all tend to look similar, and so do the castles or towns in the background. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite for individual expression.”
“Almost as if it was a skills test. Everyone has to try and produce the same thing, so that they can be easily compared.”
“I don’t think it was quite as formal or organised as that, but I can see what you mean. Anyway, although your casket does feature some stock figures – yes, that goofy-looking lion crops up on a lot of them – the maker seems to have incorporated quite a lot of different elements in the design. For instance, the dog that accompanies the man on the front panel looks as if it’s an actual animal, with that white blaze on its chest and the star on its head, and the man himself looks quite individual as well – many of the male figures were modelled on Charles I, and he certainly isn’t. Perhaps she was putting her own family on the casket, and her home.”
“It’d be lovely to think so.”
“Wouldn’t it just? So if – if – the man is her father, I wonder if the lady with the lute is her mother. Or the figure of Flora, on the Spring panel.”
“Flora?” Hearing the name of Fran’s errant daughter in this context gave Jenna quite a jolt.
“Yes, the lady with the flowers is almost certainly representative of Flora, the Roman goddess of Spring. The summer panel is Ceres, goddess of the harvest, and winter is Saturn, I think, that old man by the fire. I’m not sure about Autumn, it’s a man cutting trees by the look of it, but I’ve no idea who the Roman god of tree-cutting was.”
Emma choked with laughter. “I’ll have to remember that one. The other main panels are certainly the Five Senses, with Hearing on the lid – the lady is carrying a lute, of course.”
Jenna flicked back through the photographs. “I think this one must be Sight – the two girls looking in the mirror. And the little boy with a piece of fruit could be Taste?”
“Yes, that’s what I thought. There’s another girl with a flower by her face – Smell, probably. And Touch is a lady stroking a small animal, I think it’s a cat. Now that’s all unusual as well, because depictions of the senses followed a conventional pattern, and these certainly don’t. There’s a real individual at work here, which makes it even more special.”
“So what were the conventional designs?”
“Sight is usually a lady and an eagle – as in ‘eagle-eyed’. Smell will have a dog somewhere in the picture, which is also fairly logical. Hearing does usually have a lute, but Taste has a monkey, because they were supposed to have a particularly acute sense of taste, and a tortoise, believe it or not, symbolised touch.”
“Perhaps because they move so slowly? Or because of the hardness of their shells?”
“To be honest, no-one seems quite sure. Anyway, I think I can safely say that what the Touch lady is holding isn’t a tortoise.”
“Agreed. For starters, tortoises don’t have tails. Or stripes. But I think the designer, whoever she was – “
“Or he. Professional embroiderers were often men, and so were the compilers of design books.”
“She,” said Jenna, with a defiant grin. “Whoever she was, thought that a nice, sleek, cuddly cat was a better symbol of Touch than a tortoise. She’d probably never even seen a tortoise, whereas I expect every big house had several cats, to keep the mice down if nothing else.”
“Yes, those were my thoughts too. I know this is all pure speculation, and speculation tends to be rather unprofessional, but I think we’re in agreement here. Our embroiderer seems to have been using elements from her own life to decorate the casket, rather than conventional designs and patterns. She’s not only a highly skilled needlewoman, she’s a strong-minded individual. That alone would have made it unique, but the garden inside it is something else.” She flicked through the folder again until she came to the two pages of close-ups. “I can’t get over the fact that it’s so small, and yet so perfect.”
“She must have had amazing eyesight – a young girl’s eyesight. Though they had spectacles then, didn’t they?”
“Yes, and magnifying glasses too. And to be honest, some of the work is so fine, I think she would have needed magnification, even if she had twenty-twenty vision. Have you seen pictures of the other garden caskets?
“No, I haven’t.”
Emma took a couple of books from the shelves behind her desk and laid them out on the table beside the photographs. “This is the Queen’s one. As you can see, the scene is on the lid.”
“Good grief.” Jenna stared in wonder at the little shepherdess, seated under an oak tree, her sheep around her and her crook in her hand. “That’s just astonishing. How on earth was it done?”
“The trees are made from silver wire, wound round with silk. The sheep and the shepherdess are made of wire too, stuffed with wool and then the outer layer of embroidery sewn round them. It’s exactly the same technique as MJ used on your casket, but larger because it’s on the lid, rather than inside. Here’s another one.” She produced a large photograph of another casket, the lid open to show a rather bare garden, lacking the glorious profusion of Jenna’s. “This lifts out like yours does, but they’ve used these little ivory figures to look like statues, and there’s not much in the way of greenery. I don’t think it’s nearly as nice as yours. It’s in the Victoria and Albert, like Martha Edlin’s, but it’s in store. And finally ... “
She placed an auction catalogue on top of the photos. It was open at a page showing a casket which at first glance was much plainer on the outside, and more shabby, than the others. But beneath the open lid bright flowers rioted above a green lawn. Jenna saw carnations, pinks, pears, strawberries, a rose and a lily much larger than anything else, and small white blooms like stars. “Wow,” she said, rather inadequately. “That’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t it? It sold at auction for around thirty five grand, but that was ten years ago. And if you look closely at the picture, you can see that the flowers aren’t needlework – the petals are made from cut silk, fastened together with stitching and wire, similar, in fact, to modern silk flowers. All very impressive, but yours is embroidered, which took a lot more work – and skill. And again, that’s another thing that makes it very special. Add it all together, and no wonder I’ve had five collectors on the phone in the past week, all asking me when it’s coming up for auction.”
“I hate to have to disappoint them,” said Jenna firmly, “but it isn’t. Ever.” She thought of Rick’s angry words, and wondered again why her refusal to sell her inheritance seemed to have caught him on the raw. Surely, surely it couldn’t be because his business was in trouble? Wouldn’t he have told her if it was?
She pondered it on the way home, the precious casket snuggled on her lap inside Joe’s old rucksack, and came sadly to the conclusion that she and Rick had somehow got out of the habit of telling each other things. It was her fault as much as his: over the past few years he had become so patently uninterested in her daily doings, the struggles to impart any knowledge in the children she was tutoring, her meetings with Saskia and other friends, even Rosie’s successes at school or Joe’s misdemeanours, that she had grown tired of his monosyllabic, irritated responses and simply stopped telling him. She had tried to ask him about his work, but he obviously found it difficult to describe it in an interesting way. Once he would have come home full of it, eager to tell her about the quirks of his colleagues or a new deal he’d sewn up: now, everything seemed to be conducted on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis, and Jenna knew she was just as guilty as he was. She resolved to make a fresh start when he came back from the States. They could go to the cinema, or the theatre, take weekend breaks that weren’t connected to his work, just try to enjoy being a couple again, as they hadn’t done since the twins arrived. He was due back on Monday or Tuesday, he still hadn’t told her exactly when, and she decided to cook him a special meal that evening: steak, a nice bottle of wine, something chocolatey for pudding, and some relaxing scented candles. It was so long since they’d done anything romantic, and she couldn’t, now she thought about it, actually remember when they’d last made love. Saskia would be horrified, but she had no intention of telling her. There were some things even your best friend shouldn’t know.
In any case, Saskia had other things to think about, chiefly the fashion show at the school that all their children had attended. Jenna went round to the shop later that afternoon, and found her making last-minute lists of the clothes, already hanging in their plastic covers on portable rails, steam ironed and labelled, and deciding on which of her amateur models would wear them.
“Hallo, darling! I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it back from the wilds of Suffolk!” They went through their usual parody of air-kissing – “‘Mwah!” “Mwahhh!” and then Saskia held Jenna at arm’s length and studied her. “Yes, I like it. Very gamine. It suits you. I’ve decided what you’ll be wearing, do you want to see them?”
“You can’t get away with wearing just the one outfit, Jen, I’ve got two full rails of stuff and only ten models. Here, what do you think?” She whipped the plastic off a Fifties dress, flowery and fun, with a fitted bodice and a full skirt. “Just made for jiving.”
“I’ve never jived.”
“Minor quibble, darling, minor quibble. You’re a twelve, aren’t you?”
“On a good day.”
“Don’t talk crap. You’re a twelve.” Saskia held the dress up against Jenna, and then manoeuvred her so that they were facing the long mirror on the wall by the counter. “You’ll get into that, no problem.”
It was difficult to judge what it would look like once it was actually on, as Jenna was currently wearing a loose jacket over the cardigan she’d put on when she got home, damp and chilled, from her meeting with Emma. She liked the bright primary colours, though, and she could see that it was roughly the right size. “Love it,” she said. “What else have you got for me?”
There was a pair of lemon-yellow cropped cigarette pants, with a white blouse that tied at the waist, also from the Fifties, a mini-dress in a Mondrian-style geometric print, and a trim Utility suit in airforce blue, with neat shoulder pads on the fitted jacket. Finally, Saskia brought out what she evidently considered to be the piece de resistance. “I thought you could close the show wearing this. Like it?”
It was a black and purple satin cocktail dress with a plunging neckline, and a deep frilly peplum above a narrow knee-length skirt. Jenna couldn’t decide whether it was glamorous or just in totally bad taste: it certainly wasn’t the sort of thing she would ever wear in real life. “Gosh,” she said, rather inadequately. “What era is that?”
“Eighties, darling, your salad days and mine. Princess Di could have worn something like this.”
“I don’t think she ever did.” Jenna grinned. “But just a minor quibble. For charity, I’ll wear it, but please don’t laugh.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Saskia, sounding hurt. “You’ll look totally fabulous. Did I tell you, I’ve got Mandy to do all the make-up? And Bee’s going to do everyone’s hair.”
“She won’t have to do much to mine now – just a lick and a promise, as Nanna May would say.”
“Just as well, with ten of you to style. Anyway, that cut suits any vintage. Now for shoes. Have you got a pair of ballet pumps or something similar? Good, they’ll go with most of the outfits. And the Utility suit and the vamp dress will need heels, but not five-inch spikes.”
“I’ve got a couple of pairs that might do.”
“Great, bring ‘em along.” She grinned at Jenna. “Don’t look so worried. You’ll look fab-u-lous. Anyway, just keep repeating the mantra – it’s for a good cause.”
“Remind me, what is the cause?”
“The PTA and the sixth form are sponsoring a school in Malawi. This will go a little way towards building and fitting out a new classroom. We’re charging a tenner each for the evening including food, and they also get a fifty per cent commission on any orders I take on the night. So let’s hope someone buys that purple number, I want at least a hundred pounds for it.”
“Good grief, really?” Jenna looked at the dress as Saskia expertly slid it back inside its plastic case and closed the zip. “I wonder if I’ve got any Eighties tat I could flog.”
“Charming! Not the casket, of course. How did that go, by the way? Have you got it back yet?”
“Yes, it’s home safe, with all the paperwork.” Jenna looked around: there were several women browsing in the shop, as well as Shelley on the till, so she merely said, “I’ll tell you all about it another time. Do you want to come round on Saturday evening for a meal? Rick won’t be back till next week, and it’d be nice to have a real good chin-wag and show you all the stuff.”
“It’s a date. I’ll drop by after the shop closes. Put some Prosecco on ice. And in the meantime, darling, do try not to look so worried. It does nothing for your wrinkles.”
“I’m not worried! Just, oh, a little nervous, that’s all.”
“Well, don’t be. You’ll be absolutely fine. None of the other girls have done anything like this before either, and they’re all shapes and sizes. It’s just a bit of fun, and if we raise lots of cash for Malawi, so much the better. Lighten up and enjoy it!”
When Jenna arrived at the school the following evening, she had duly lightened up. After all, it wasn’t to be taken too seriously, and if she tripped up or fell out of the vamp dress, the punters would probably be even more likely to put their hands in their pockets, out of sympathy. As requested, she had come an hour early, so that her makeup could be applied. It was a novel experience to sit in the chair in the staffroom, a large mirror propped in front of her, while Saskia’s friend Mandy, who’d done the makeup for Rosie and India at their sixth form prom, wielded foundation, powder, eyeliner and lip gloss with an expert hand. She had even managed to display no surprise when Jenna, asked what colour foundation she normally wore, told her that she didn’t even possess any, let alone wear it.
When Mandy had finished, it was like her reflection in the Woodbridge hairdresser’s all over again: the woman in the mirror didn’t look like Jenna at all. Her greenish eyes enhanced, her freckled complexion subtly burnished and her lips bright and glossy, an impossibly glamorous character gazed back at her in bewilderment. With a flourish, Mandy whipped off the coverall and twirled the chair – borrowed from the admin department – round to face Saskia, who was standing behind them. “Looking good, Boss.”
“Yes, doesn’t she scrub up well?” Saskia grinned, and handed Jenna the Fifties dress. “Here you are, try it on and see how you look.”
By now, the staff room was filling up with women, some of whom Jenna knew, most of whom were at least familiar faces. The mother of one of Rosie’s friends took her place in the chair to await Mandy’s ministrations, and she retreated to a corner, slipped off her outer clothes and inserted herself into the dress. It was a bit tight across the bust, but fitted well everywhere else. Still reluctant to believe it was her in the mirror, Jenna obediently gave Saskia a twirl, and admitted, with a reluctant grin, that she actually didn’t look too bad in it.
“Actually, you look fantastic. Wear that and Rick won’t be able to keep his paws off you. OK, everyone!” She turned to the room, pitching her voice so that the chattering and noise swiftly died away. “Heads up, guys. We start in twenty minutes. I’ve got a list here for everyone, giving you the running order and the clothes you’ll be wearing. Each outfit is already labelled, so you should be able to find everything. When you’ve finished, take it off and hang it back on the rail – we’ll be putting them out after the show so people can see the clothes close up and maybe, hopefully, place an order. If you yourselves want to buy anything, see me or Shelley. I’ve got a list of the prices and they’ll be read out as part of the description when the model comes down the catwalk. Have you all practised your walks? Not too camp, please, darlings – no pouts or flounces – just a nice steady stroll and a turn at the end before you come back.” She demonstrated, amidst rather ironic applause. “The main thing is to make lots of money, and have fun while you’re doing it. Are we all ready for the off? I said, ARE WE ALL READY? That’s better. There’s a full house out there, just itching to see you strut your stuff, so let’s knock ‘em dead!”
Later, Jenna reflected that she hadn’t expected to enjoy herself so much. The atmosphere was exciting, full of energy and anticipation, she chatted to several women she hadn’t seen since Rosie left the school, and she even found the trip down the catwalk in the purple dress gave her a buzz, though she wasn’t at all sure that the garment suited her – or, indeed, would have suited any woman, even Princess Di. Afterwards, she put in a bid for the Fifties dress, but found someone else had already snapped it up.
“Shame, darling, it really looked good on you, but I’ve got a couple more very like it, back at the shop,” Saskia said. “I’ll bring them round tomorrow evening, if you like. Should be with you about six. And you were just amazing, darling, absolutely gorgeous. You really ought to get your light out from behind that sodding great bushel more often.”
“That’s very much what Nanna May said.”
“And she definitely knew a thing or two, didn’t she? Well, the pix are going up on my Facebook page this weekend, so you’ll be able to show off to all your friends and family.” She gave Jenna a sly glance. “What do you suppose your mother will think?”
“She’s not on Facebook, thank God. In fact, she’s not even on the internet, so I’m quite safe from that quarter. I’m more worried about what the twins might think of me in that purple thing. Has anyone offered to buy it?”
“Of course they have. In fact, I’ve had two people after it, set up a bidding war, all in the interests of charity you understand, and the winner paid a hundred and fifty. Not bad, eh? Seventy five quid to the PTA, just from that one dress. I’m not taking much stock back, I can tell you. A huge success all round, and I expect the shop will be heaving tomorrow. OK, Shelley, are we ready to go? See you tomorrow, darling, and many, many thanks!”
Yes, it had been a good evening. Jenna drove home feeling tired but happy. It was late when she got in, so she didn’t bother to check her phone or emails, but ran herself a hot foaming bath and wallowed in the scented suds, knowing she should take off her makeup but curiously reluctant to do so. It had really transformed her face, but in a subtle, understated way. She had tried to pay attention to what Mandy had been doing, but now, relaxed and drowsy in the bath, she found that she couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter, she could always phone her up and ask her. Meanwhile, imagining indelibly mascara-stained pillow-cases, she obeyed practical considerations and sponged it all off, before climbing out of the bath. Her hair just needed a quick towel and blow-dry, and she put on her pyjamas and curled up in bed with a book, and the radio on softly, until she was ready for sleep.
True to her word, Saskia arrived the following evening at five past six, bearing two familiar looking plastic covers. Jenna had spent the morning browsing the market and the shops in the town centre: Tallulah’s had been gratifyingly packed when she passed. She’d had a sandwich lunch and then gone to the library, trying to track down her great-great-grandmother. Although she had a subscription to the main genealogy websites, they were free on the library computers, and when she needed to check every Emily Taylor in the census records, the fact that she didn’t have to pay for each page she accessed was a bonus.
And it had worked. Emily’s daughter, Winifred Emily Merelina, was easy to find in the most recently released census details, aged 21 in 1911, working in a shop and living in Leyton. Ten years earlier, she had been in Tottenham with her parents and siblings, two older brothers and a younger sister. Her mother Emily’s place of birth was listed as Colchester. Ten years before that, in 1891, the family were at the same address, the father, James Durrant, a grocer, born in Tottenham, and the mother Emily, nee Taylor, born in ...
The writing was cramped and hard to read, but it was definitely two words, and definitely not Colchester. Jenna zoomed in on the screen, put on the despised reading glasses which she had only recently begun to need, and peered. Layer Morney? Layer Marney? The name sounded familiar, and suddenly she was a child again, sitting on the top deck of the Colchester bus, and seeing a signpost pointing down a side road. “That’s where the Tower is,” her grandmother had told her in answer to her question. “We’ll go up there in the summer holiday, you get a lovely view from the top.”
But before the summer holiday, she had gone back to Finchley and Patricia, and they had never got to Layer Marney Tower. Curious, Jenna Googled it. She had been expecting some Victorian folly, but the building on the screen was a gorgeous confection of brick and terracotta, rising triumphantly out of the surrounding grass like a rose-red wedding cake, eight storeys high. The accompanying description told her that it had been built in the early Tudor period.
A red brick Tudor house with a tower, in a village where her great-great grandmother had apparently been born. Could this be the building on the casket? Jenna stared at it, trying to find some point of similarity. Even allowing for artistic licence, she didn’t think the Tower bore much resemblance – for a start, it didn’t have those funny little curved roofs – but it seemed altogether too much of a coincidence.
Totally absorbed in her quest, she began to search for Emily Taylor in the previous census. In 1881, it seemed she had been nineteen and freshly married to James Durrant: they as yet had no children. Once the date of her marriage had been narrowed down, she was able to find it quite easily, ordered the certificate from the Registry Office and then, her eyes aching and her head buzzing with names and dates, logged off and went home, well pleased with her efforts. It had all taken rather longer than she’d planned, so she didn’t have time for more than a quick cup of tea before starting supper.
“Smells wonderful, darling,” Saskia said, coming into the kitchen. Today, she was wearing a long, slim emerald cable-knit jumper over bright green jeans with a green and orange scarf, a combination that was certainly eye-catching with her dyed red hair. “I do envy you, being able to cook. I can barely boil an egg.”
“You might change your mind after this. Anyway, most of the time when I’m on my own, I microwave something or have an omelette with a salad. Cooking can be a bit of a chore when you have to do it day in, day out.”
“And don’t I know it! Lucky for me that India does most of it – or did, of course. Now I’m on my own,“ Saskia said, striking a tragic pose, “I shall probably starve to death. Well, what is it? A curry?”
“Thai green. With jasmine rice and stir-fry veg.” Jenna gave the simmering pan a stir and carefully lifted the spoon to her lips, blew on it, and tasted. “Yes, that’ll do. Hey, you didn’t need to bring wine!”
“Look on it as your fee for last night. You were sensational. Have you seen the Facebook pix yet? I put them up at lunchtime. Feel free to share.”
“I haven’t had the chance, I spent the day in town. I was going to pop into Tallulah’s, but I don’t think you could have squeezed any more people in there. Was business brisk?”
“Well, put it this way, darling, if you’ve got any Eighties tat to flog me, I’ll bite your hand off. The racks are looking a little thin, and there isn’t a handbag left in the shop. I shall have to go on another buying spree next week.” Saskia put a foil-topped bottle down on the table. "Now, how long's that food going to be? Because we've got a couple of dresses to try on first, not to mention a good look at your amazing casket."
With the curry gently simmering in the kitchen, they went upstairs and Jenna spent ten minutes trying on the two dresses that Saskia had brought. Both of them fitted well, but she preferred the one with short sleeves, and a pretty pattern of blue flowers on a pale yellow background, and said she’d buy it. Then, wearing cotton gloves and with suitable reverence, she brought the casket out of its case.
She didn’t often see Saskia astonished, but she was now. Smiling, Jenna opened the upper lid and lifted out the garden. She put it gently on the bed between them. “Impressed?”
“Utterly gobsmacked, darling. I had no idea. What a fantastic, beautiful, amazing thing. No wonder you don’t want to sell it. Personally, I’d kill to hang on to it.”
“Hopefully it won’t come to that. Trouble is, I can ignore my mother’s thoughts on the matter – I’ve had forty-seven years of practice, after all – but not Rick’s. And he’s adamant he wants me to sell it.”
“Oh, lots of reasons – cost of insurance, keeping it safe, looking after it responsibly. He seems to think I’ll spill coffee over it.”
Saskia snorted. “He hasn’t got much faith in you.”
“But I can see his point. It’s a huge, massive responsibility. So I’ve pretty much come to the decision that when I’ve finished researching it, I’ll lend it to a big museum – the V & A, perhaps. Then others can enjoy it too, and it can all be recorded for posterity. Of course I’ve got this – “ she indicated Emma’s brochure – “but once it’s in a museum, everything can be put online. At the moment, I don’t want too many people to know I’ve got it, or how much it’s worth.”
“And how much is it worth, now your tame expert has done her work?”
“It could be as much as seventy grand. Apparently rumours are flying round the world of antique textiles, and there’d be a bidding war if it ever went to auction. Which it won’t.”
“You go, girl, stick to those guns. You promised your nan, after all.”
“And knowing her, she’ll be bound to come back and haunt me if I break my word.” Very carefully, Jenna lifted the garden and put it back in the casket, replacing the lid. “I think I’d better go and check on the curry, it’d be a shame if it burnt.”
“It certainly would. So you’d like the blue and yellow dress? Wise choice, darling, that style and those colours really suit you.” She hung the favoured garment over the wardrobe door, zipped the other back into its cover, and followed Jenna back downstairs. “Now for a drink. Glasses in that cupboard, right?”
“Right. You open it, I’m no good at bubbly, it always goes everywhere.” Jenna tipped the contents of a pack of mushroom stir fry into her wok, and shook it. Saskia put two tall champagne flutes on the table and expertly removed the cork with a soft popping sound. She poured the contents into the glasses and handed one to Jenna. “Cheers. Here’s to Tallulah’s next fashion show!”
“Cheers.” Jenna took a hasty sip before draining the rice and stirring the vegetables. “This is one time when an extra hand would come in, um, handy.”
“Your wish is my command, darling, pass me that spoon. Have you heard from Rosie?”
“No, and I’m hoping that it’s because she’s having such a good time she’s forgotten about her poor bereft mama. What about India?”
“Same. Some highly incriminating photos on Facebook, but no direct contact. Oh, the joys of Freshers’ Week.”
“I remember them well. It was so strange, going back to uni. Parts were so different I hadn’t a clue where I was, and parts were just the same. And I freely admit, I was more than a little envious.”
“Me too. Oh, to be young, free and single again!” Saskia took the first plate of food from Jenna, and set it down at one of the two places already laid. “Now, tell me all about this man you met while you were away.”
“Ooh!” Saskia’s eyes gleamed. “Was there more than one?”
“Two, actually. Three, if you count the one that Sammy the spaniel showered.”
“Come on, darling, spill all the beans, I’m agog.”
So over the curry, and the blackberry and apple tart to follow, Jenna gave her friend a concise account of the events of her trip to Norwich and her stay in Suffolk. She made it all light-hearted and amusing, though one detail seemed to intrigue Saskia more than the others. “So this Jon was your boyfriend?”
“Yes, we went out together for nearly two years. Actually, we mostly stayed in together, seeing as we were housemates, but you know what I mean.”
“So, what did you feel when you saw him again? Any of the old fire?”
Jenna considered. “No, not a flicker. Even though he’s neither fat nor bald. I think being abruptly dumped for someone you thought was a friend kills most passions stone dead.”
“I’ll take your word for it, darling.”
“And he did make a habit of it. He used to be with Rick’s sister Jules, then they split up and a few weeks later he started a relationship with me. Then he dumped me for Sarah, who was the other girl in the house. Fortunately, it was right at the end of the third year, so we didn’t all have to live in simmering hostility.”
“So who did this serial shagger dump Sarah for, then?”
Jenna grinned. “Isn’t that a bit harsh? Jon told me she was living in Reading with their kids and a new husband, so for all I know she dumped him rather than the other way about. Anyway, I’m not interested, not one bit. I didn’t have time to be miserable, I met Rick that summer and started looking forward rather than back.”
“Good for you, darling, just what I’d have done.” Saskia finished her tart, while Jenna got up and made coffee. Just as she put the cafetiere on the table, the phone rang. She glanced at the clock: it was nearly nine, so it could, just, be Tom or Joe, though she doubted it, and in any case they’d arranged a Skype call tomorrow morning. She picked up the receiver on the dresser, suspecting that it might be Patricia. “Hello?”
“Jen.” To her surprise, the voice at the other end was Rick’s. “You’re in at last.” He sounded accusatory.
“Yes, sorry, I’ve been out most of the day – were you trying to get hold of me?”
“Yes,” said Rick shortly. There was a pause, during which Jenna had time to think, this is it, he’s going to tell me the business is in trouble, and then he added, “Jen, I’ve got something to tell you. There’s no easy way to put it, so I’ll just say it.”
Here it is, she thought. He’s gone bust, we’ll have to sell the house. The line hissed gently with three thousand miles’ worth of static, and she waited for whatever was coming, sudden apprehension and fear gnawing her stomach.
“Jen? Are you still there?”
“Yes. What is it?” Please, just spit it out, she wanted to say, though she couldn’t gather the courage.
“Jen, I’ve met someone else.”