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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Aldeburgh library on a Monday morning was very quiet, although Jenna had ascertained from a poster that there would be a children’s singing session later. She settled herself at the computer, logged on, and began to peruse the genealogical website, looking for the marriage of Maria Merielina Rogers to William Tydeman, sometime before 1840. A frustrating twenty minutes later, she gave up. She’d found the family in the 1851 census, so she knew that William Tydeman was a physician who lived in Westgate Street, Bury St. Edmunds, with his wife and four children, three boys and her great-great-great grandmother, Emily Maria Merielina Tydeman, aged eleven. The eldest boy, William, was fourteen, so that pushed back the date for the marriage to 1837 or earlier. She’d have to go to Bury and check the parish registers in the archives there. That could wait until tomorrow, when she could make a day of it: she’d only been there a couple of times, but it was a lovely little town. Meanwhile, she still had more than half an hour of her session left. On impulse, she typed ‘Bill Clarke’ into the search box.

There were, of course, thousands of Bill Clarkes, quite a few of them in Australia. ‘William Clarke’ brought the same result. She narrowed her search down to the UK, with a birth date ten years either side of 1940, when she knew her father had been born. To her dismay, though not to her surprise, there were hundreds of them in that 20 year period. But she knew her father’s birthday, and if she found him in the birth registers, she would discover his mother’s maiden name, which she’d forgotten, if she’d ever known it, and hopefully would be able to track down the mysterious Bill that way – if he was her father’s brother. After all, he could just as easily be a nephew, or a cousin, or even no relation at all.

It struck her, as she typed ‘Keith Clarke’, that she knew very little about her father, and even less about his side of the family. She could remember that his birthday had been on the 24th of March, 1940, and she knew that he’d been a head teacher, but he hadn’t been the kind of man who told stories about his childhood or his background. And after his death, it had been made very clear to her, both by her mother and by Nanna May, that he was not to be talked about or even mentioned. She had come back from Maldon to a new house in a different part of London, a secondary school where she’d known no-one, and every trace of him had been expunged – there were no photos, and all his clothes and possessions had vanished. It was as if he’d never existed at all, save in her memories.

Fortunately Keith was a much less common name than William, and she found him immediately. His birth had been registered in Bedford, which she hadn’t known, and his mother’s maiden name had been Hamilton. Armed with this information, she searched again, hoping to find the mysterious Bill, or another relative who could tell her more about her father. After all, if he’d lived, he would now be in his seventies, and it was perfectly possible that other members of his family could still be alive.

Unfortunately he only seemed to have had one sibling, an older sister called Anne, who’d been born in 1933. Jenna knew there wouldn’t be much point in searching for her marriage: there’d be hundreds of Anne Clarkes getting married in the 50s and 60s, and no way of knowing, unless she got hold of the actual certificate, which one would be her aunt. She skipped back through the pages she’d already looked at, until she came to the one with her father’s details.

It leapt out at her then, and she wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before. His name on the list of records: Keith J. W. Clarke.

A cold feeling bloomed inside her. She stared at the screen for a long time, her mind frozen. After all, W could stand for a lot of names. Walter. Waldorf. Wilfred. Wayne. Werner. Wesley. Winston. Given that he’d been born in 1940, that seemed quite possible. It didn’t have to be William. It couldn’t be William. And she was leaping to a conclusion that was so wildly improbable that it seemed to belong in a plotline from Eastenders or Corrie, rather than in real life.

But if it was true, what did that mean? It meant that for her entire adult life, her mother had lied to her. She had been told, at the age of eleven, that her father was dead, and she had believed it, because you did believe what you were told when you were a child - though she had wished with all her heart, she remembered, that it could have been otherwise, and that someone had made a terrible mistake. But worse than her mother’s lies, were Nanna May’s. Nanna May, whom she had loved and trusted far more than Patricia, who had been the rock that had anchored Jenna to the world, who had helped her deal with the grief and the shock and the terrible sense of loss. Emotions that had shaped her, emotions that had threatened to overwhelm her. Emotions that, it now seemed, had been unnecessary, for her father might not be dead after all.

It was ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. It couldn’t be true, it couldn’t. She had taken a coincidence, two coincidences, and built this preposterous and flimsy theory without any scrap of concrete evidence.

But now she had thought of it, so much fitted. Conveniently, there had been no relatives to pop up with a different story: her mother was an only child, and her father’s sister Anne had never been around or even mentioned – perhaps she had died young. Moved to a new house, another school, Jenna had been separated from anyone who might have known what had really happened, and she had accepted all the changes without question, just as in the end she had accepted the news about her father’s death, because Patricia and Nanna May had told her so, and she had had no choice but to believe them. Rebellion had come a little later, once she had realised that the cage was beginning to close around her again.

Of course, there was the one, obvious way to discover the truth, but she had no intention of asking her mother. If she was wrong, the consequences would be too awful to contemplate. And if she was right ...

Well, there were other ways of checking. She found the website for the local paper in the area of London where they’d lived, and looked to see if it had an archive section. It did, but it only went back five years. Then she tried Googling ‘Keith Clarke’, with predictable results. ‘Keith Clarke accident 1980’ brought up nothing useful. She’d heard it said that you could find any information online, however obscure, if you looked hard enough, but this seemed to be beyond even the internet’s reach. On impulse, Jenna went back to the genealogical website, and found that their records went up to 2007. Her heart banging with apprehension, her palms sweaty, she put the details in. Just two names came up, and both of them were much too old. She went back and widened the date range to ‘plus or minus five years’, then ticked the boxes that permitted name variations. Of course the list was now much longer, but although she went through it three times, very carefully, she could find no-one who could possibly have been her father.

There were only a couple of minutes left of her session. With hands that shook a little, Jenna logged off. Someone else was waiting for the computer, so she got up, gathered her coat and bag, and went over to the reading area to sit down and collect her thoughts.

She could remember a TV archaeologist saying, after a dig lasting three almost fruitless days, that “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” OK, so there didn’t seem to be any record of her father’s death, or at least not in London in 1980. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. There might be some tiny detail that she hadn’t entered correctly, or the website’s data was incomplete, or any number of things. It couldn’t be true. One Facebook friend request from a stranger, one casual text message from Joe, couldn’t have led to this earthquake. In a way, it was worse than Rick’s announcement that he wanted a divorce, because in some deep, dark place within her, that had not come as a complete surprise. But discovering, at the age of forty-seven, that the most important and significant event of her childhood might not actually have happened at all, had blown all her certainties and beliefs into smithereens. Because if her own mother and her beloved grandmother had lied to her for years and years, what else was a lie?

She felt an urgent need to talk to someone. Saskia was a hundred miles away, and doubtless up to her eyeballs in shop business. Andrew Marshall would lend a sympathetic ear, and he might know whether the website’s information was to be relied upon, but he was a virtual stranger and this was a desperately personal, private dilemma.

It wasn’t forbidden to use her phone in the library, but even so, she went back to her car, scrolled through her list of contacts until she came to Fran’s number, and dialled. It rang four times before he answered it. “Hi, Jenna!”

The sound of his soft Scots voice was immensely reassuring. Heartened, she said, “Hi. Look, say if it’s not convenient, but I think I may have just made a fairly earth-shattering discovery about my family, and I’d really like to talk to someone. Are you at home?”

“Aye, I’m here until I have to pick the wee lass up from school at three. Where are you?”

“Aldeburgh library.”

“Come right on over, I’ll put the kettle on, you sound as if you could do with a mug of coffee – or something stronger. Are you OK?”

“Yes,” she said automatically, and then corrected herself. “No, not really. I’ll explain when I get to you. See you shortly.”

She ended the call, took a couple of deep, calming breaths, and started the Peugeot. With any luck, he’d tell her she was being an idiot, adding two and two together and making fifty six. And they’d have some coffee, and laugh about it, and she’d go back to Orford as if she’d discovered nothing momentous at all, as if an hour on the library computer hadn’t changed her entire life history and cast her mother and her grandmother in a new and very unpleasant light.

The rich fragrant aroma of what she’d always called ‘proper coffee’ wafted out in welcome as Fran opened the door to her, some twenty minutes later. Inside Keeper’s Cottage, it was warm and cosy, a bulwark of comfort against the rain outside. Fran had evidently been working, for an acoustic guitar was propped up on one of the sofas alongside a microphone and a laptop, and several sheets of music and a piece of paper covered in what she assumed must be lyrics. She said apologetically, “Sorry, I’ve interrupted you – “

“It doesn’t matter, I’ve nearly finished anyway. Either the next million-seller, or a total mis-hit – at this stage I’m always too close to it to tell.” He grinned at her, pushing a hand through his greying hair. “Here’s your coffee. Strong, white, no sugar. Where do you want to sit? It’s warm by the fire, but it can get a bit much after a wee while.”

“By the fire will be fine, thanks.” Jenna carried her mug, which featured the legend ‘Keep Calm and Play Another Chord’, over to the sofa and settled into its comforting, comfortable embrace. She still felt chilled to her bones, and not by the weather.

“So,” said Fran, sitting down next to the guitar on the other sofa, “what have you found out that’s so appalling? Bigamy? Bastardy? Murder?”

It didn’t seem something she could make light of. She shook her head. “No. Worse than that. I don’t suppose you remember, but my dad was killed in a car crash when I was eleven – or so I was told. And now I’ve found out that he might not be dead after all.”

“Shit. That’s a big one.” Fran stared at her, frowning. “Are you sure?”

“No, I’m not. I’m worried that I may be jumping to a massive unjustified conclusion. Oh, God, I don’t know what to think.” She felt dangerously close to tears, and her hands were still shaking. Worried that she’d spill her coffee, she put the mug down on the floor beside her and drew a long breath, trying to calm herself. “I got a text message a few days ago from Joe – one of my sons – to say that someone had asked to be friends with him on Facebook. Someone called Bill Clarke. Clarke was my maiden name, and I thought he might be related to my dad, maybe his brother or a nephew. So when I was in the library this morning, I had a look for him online.”

“And?”

“And I couldn’t find any relatives of my dad apart from an older sister I didn’t even know he had. Then ...” She paused, swallowed, and picked up the coffee mug again. The hot fragrance on her tongue was heartening. “Then I saw that ‘W’ was one of my dad’s initials. And of course Bill ... “

“Is short for William. OK. But that’s not a lot to go on.”

“There’s more. I looked up my dad’s death on the genealogy website, and I couldn’t find it. Their records go up to 2007, and he was supposed to have died in 1980.” She looked up at him, seeing the concern on his face. “It wasn’t there. There was no record of his death.”

“You’re sure?”

Jenna nodded. “Positive. I tried different combinations of his name, variations, you name it. Zilch. The only Keith Clarkes who died in that year were old men in their seventies or eighties, and he was 40. Then I tried looking in other years, but still no-one who could possibly be him.”

“Could there be some glitch? Perhaps his record got left out for some reason?”

“I suppose it’s possible, but I thought those sites were supposed to be accurate and comprehensive. Anyway, which is more likely? That the website has made a mistake, or that my mother and my grandmother have been lying to me for thirty-five years? And why? Why would they pretend he was dead?” She gave voice to the fear that had haunted her for the past hour. “And I can only think of two reasons. One is that Mum didn’t want me to know that he’d left her.”

“Which seems a bit far-fetched. I mean, getting divorced isn’t exactly shameful these days.”

“It would be for Mum. Outward appearances are all she cares about. But of course ... the other reason could be that he might have done something really awful. Something so terrible he went to prison for it. What if he’d been accused of child abuse? He was a primary school teacher, after all. It’s not that unlikely.” To her dismay, Jenna felt tears beginning to well up. “Sorry, but this has been such a shock, I didn’t mean to come and lay all this on you – “

“Ah, don’t worry about that.” He leaned over, proffering a tissue without comment. “So – what are you going to do?”

Jenna blew her nose and gave him a rather watery smile. “To be honest, I don’t know, I really don’t. I haven’t even really thought about it. I just wanted to tell someone.”

“I take it asking your mother isn’t an option?”

“No.” Jenna shuddered involuntarily. “This could be such a writhing can of worms, I can’t begin to contemplate what might happen. Even if it’s all in my imagination, she’s not going to take it very well. Anyway, she’s on a cruise and won’t be back for a couple of weeks, and this certainly isn’t the sort of thing you can broach in a mobile phone call.”

“Too right. So, how about the guy himself? This Bill Clarke? Can you find him on Facebook?”

She thought about it. “Yes, possibly. I’ll have a go.”

“After all, you don’t have to wade in demanding to know if he’s your father. You could just ask if he’s a relation. And the chances are, he is, but not your father.”

“And all this angst will have been for nothing.” Jenna gave herself a mental shake. “You’re right. Can I borrow your laptop?”

“Be my guest, hen. It’s logged onto my wi-fi, just go for it.”

She called up Facebook, entered her email address and password, and saw the usual photos and messages pop up. Cute cat pictures, recipes, whimsical words of wisdom shared by friends, green slogans posted by the old friend who’d never lost her eco-activism, demands to sign worthy petitions which wouldn’t sway the government an inch, however many millions obliged. There was a friend request, but when she clicked on it, the familiar face of a St. Albans acquaintance grinned at her. She typed ‘Bill Clarke’ into the search box, and pressed ‘enter’. “There’ll be thousands.”

There were certainly scores: it was, as she had already discovered, a very common name. Men called Bill Clarke proliferated in the UK, in America and in Canada. There was even a page dedicated to a footballer who’d played in the nineteenth century.

“Any joy?”

Jenna shook her head. “There are just so many – hang on, here’s one in Australia.” She looked at the thumbnail photograph, which was too small to discern much detail without putting on her glasses, and then, wondering what she was letting herself in for, she clicked on it.

It wasn’t her father, but a much younger man, probably in his early thirties. He was wearing bright yellow and orange beach shorts, and a purple T-shirt, and he was standing somewhere leafy and exotic, with a big grin on his face. Feeling at once ridiculously relieved, and also disappointed, she shook her head. “Nope, not him.”

Fran peered over her shoulder. “Colour co-ordination obviously isn’t his strong point. Can you access his profile?”

“I feel like a stalker.” There was certainly something almost voyeuristic about looking at the personal information of a complete stranger, but after all, she told herself, Bill Clarke had put it up on Facebook for the whole world to see, and was evidently proud of his years at university in Sydney, studying marine biology, his leisure time, which appeared to be centred on diving the Great Barrier Reef, and his slim, glamorous girlfriend. She couldn’t for the life of her see why this man, if indeed it was him, had got in touch with her son.

“Take a look at his friends,” Fran suggested. “He’s obviously not your dad, but there might be another link.”

There was a grid of thumbnail, captioned pictures, the glamorous girlfriend, dark haired and tanned, who appeared to be called Natasha, lots of other tanned, fit young men and women, the latter including a cheerful-looking blonde in jeans, holding a glass of wine, and labelled ‘Jodi Clarke’, presumably Bill’s sister. She shook her head. “They’re all young people. I could message him, I suppose, ask him if he’s a relation. Or of course he could be an axe murderer ...”

“He doesn’t look like an axe murderer, but I know that appearances can be deceptive.”

Jenna thought for a moment, wondering what to do. She said, “Part of me wants to solve this now, this instant, message him and find out whether he’s a long-lost relative or a total stranger. And another part of me wants to shut it all back in the box and forget all about it, because I’m afraid that if I start some serious digging, I might not like what I find.”

“I can understand that.”

She looked down at the cheerful, good-natured face on the screen, trying to see some family resemblance, and completely failing. Common sense told her that he was no relation. Common sense told her that the absence of any death record for her father was a mistake, and that she’d find it on another genealogical website. Common sense told her that this was all wild surmise, the product of coincidence, happenstance and, more prosaically, the view, still prevalent in her childhood, that the less children knew about the horrible details of car crashes and parental death and breakdown, the better. Her mother and grandmother had thought they were protecting her from a reality they assumed she was too young to cope with: instead, they had left her with doubts and questions that had surfaced more than thirty years later, to haunt her.

“I did wonder,” she said aloud. “I wondered at the time. I used to fantasize that it’d all been a terrible mistake and that he wasn’t dead. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t tell me the things I wanted to know – the details of what had happened, why my mother had survived and he hadn’t, why my mother had apparently had to spend a year in hospital, why I wasn’t allowed to visit her. But they told me it was better I didn’t know, told me to forget about it. And I had no choice but to accept it – I was only eleven when it happened, after all.”

“So – what are you going to do?”

Jenna looked round at him over the rim of her mug. “Oh, God, I don’t know. Whatever I do, it might turn out badly.”

“So might going out of your front door, but you still do it,” Fran pointed out.

She nodded, not daring to look at him. The flames burned briskly in the stove, and as he had warned, it was already becoming too hot. As if he sensed her growing discomfort, Fran leaned forward and closed the vents, and the fire began to diminish. Jenna finished her coffee and came to a decision. “I think I know what I’ll do. I’ll text Joe and ask him to get back in touch with this guy, if he’s the same one, and find out casually if he’s related, or thinks he’s related. I don’t want to get in touch myself, not yet, not when it’s quite possible I’m adding two and two together and making a hundred and ten. And I’d rather the boys didn’t know for the moment – it’s best if they just think he’s a distant cousin or even no relation at all.” She swallowed hard. “And I hope I am making a mountain out of a molehill. I’d rather what Mum and Nanna May told me years ago was the truth, I think. The alternative is just too awful to contemplate. Do you think that’s stupid?”

“No, I think it’s entirely understandable.” Fran’s voice was soft but confident. “I suspect there’s a perfectly logical and rational explanation for all this, but we just haven’t thought of it yet.”

Jenna risked a quick glance – she had the incipient tears well under control now – and saw that he was smiling at her. “I appreciate the ‘we’,” she said, smiling back. “Thanks, Fran, for being such a good listener.”

“It’s what friends are for, isn’t it?” He bent and picked up her empty mug. “Do you want another one? There’s still some in the pot.”

She hesitated, then nodded. “Go on, then. Sometimes I think I must run on caffeine.”

“You’re not the only one. I’ve got a mug somewhere that says ‘Instant Human, Just Add Coffee’.”

While he busied himself at the machine, Jenna leaned back against the soft cushions of the sofa, feeling suddenly drained of emotion. She had been right – talking to Fran had helped enormously to clarify her thoughts. She’d leapt to a very unlikely, ridiculous and embarrassing conclusion on the flimsiest of evidence, and he’d been very kind and refrained from howling with laughter.

“Sorry,” she said, when he returned with the coffee. “I think I’ve been a bit of an idiot, really. I’ve been watching too much daytime TV.”

“Ain’t no such thing.” He handed her the mug, sat down on the other sofa and picked up the guitar. “I’ve been there too. Anything, anything rather than actually doing something constructive – or creative. Can I run this past you?”

“Oh, please do – I’d love to hear it.”

“You may change your mind in a couple of minutes, but here goes.”

It was a simple tune, spare but delicately beautiful. Jenna watched his long, capable fingers busy on the frets, and felt a deep envy. She’d always longed to be able to play a musical instrument, any instrument, but despite childhood piano lessons (encouraged, of course, by Patricia), she’d proved completely free of any aptitude, though she loved music and had an I-player full of favourite songs gleaned from a lifetime of eager listening.

“It’s gorgeous,” she said, with genuine pleasure. “Have you written any words to go with it?”

“Not yet, but I’ve got a few ideas. Don’t imagine, by the way, that the finished article will sound anything like what I’ve just played you. By the time it’s been through the production mill – if it gets that far, of course - you probably won’t recognise it at all. I’ll have tweaked it, the producer and the sound engineer will have tweaked it, and the artist will tweak it. Sometimes I really don’t like what people do with my songs, but I just have to grit my teeth and cry all the way to the bank.”

“It’s a brilliant way to earn a living,” said Jenna, thinking how lucky he was – though luck, of course, was only a part of the reason for his success. Fran had a gift, and he was making full use of it. She wished suddenly that she could also have some talent, some creative bent that would enrich her life, if not her bank balance. But if it hadn’t manifested itself in the past forty-seven years, it was unlikely to come to her now.

“It’s not bad, is it? How about this?” Fran played a different tune, jaunty and defiant, his fingers moving so fast that Jenna couldn’t follow the pattern they made on the strings. Belatedly, she recognised it as a hit from a few years ago, sung by an American hip-hop star. “Surely that’s not one of yours?”

“Aye, it is. Believe it or not, it started out as a sweet folksy little number I’d intended for a teenage girl who’d just been given a record deal. And finished up in the US top ten with a video featuring street dance and graffiti artists on the subway. Every time I start to write a song, I never know where it’ll end up – and some of them go to the most unlikely people.”

“Do you write specifically with someone in mind, or just put it out there and hope it’ll be picked up?”

“A bit of both. I started out writing for certain artists, but once I’d had a few hits, other people came knocking at my door, wanting to know if I’d got any spare tunes, so I sent them demos and it kinda snowballed from there.” He put the guitar down and grinned at her. “Every day I wake up and pinch myself. I’m a lucky bastard.”

“No, you deserve it,” Jenna said. “And you’ve got a real talent - I remember you writing songs and playing guitar when we shared a house.”

“OK, so I’m a talented lucky bastard. More coffee?”

“No, thanks, I’ll be buzzing if I do. Anyway, I must get back, I’ve got things to do this afternoon, and I promised Ruth I’d walk Sammy, for my sins.” She grinned at him. “And it’s not hindsight, honestly, but I knew you were good, even back then.”

“Really? You do surprise me. I can’t bear to play any of my early stuff. Self-pitying self-important lyrics matched up to clichéd tunes for the most part.”

“Well, I liked them,” said Jenna stubbornly. “And so did a lot of other people I know. Jules was one of your biggest fans, I seem to remember, and so was Sarah.”

“If you say so.” It was the first time she’d seen Fran look even vaguely embarrassed.

“I do say so. Anyway, you must have something – call it talent, call it luck or hard work, I don’t know, but so many people don’t manage to make it, and you did.” She held out an imaginary microphone. “So, Mr. McNeil, what’s the secret of your success?”

“Blackmail,” Fran said promptly. “I know where all the bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking. Nothing whatsoever to do with ten hours hard graft a day.”

“And there you have it,” said Jenna, returning the invisible microphone to herself. “Straight from the horse’s mouth. Thank you, Francis Duncan McNeil, Scottish bard extraordinaire!”

It was very heartening, she thought later, as she drove back to Orford, how half an hour with Fran had cured her of her panic – for panic it had definitely been – about her father. He’d listened to her, he hadn’t mocked her, but he’d pointed out that rationally a mistake on the website was far more likely than her wild conspiracy theory. And then they had gone on quite naturally and calmly to talk about completely different things, and they’d laughed together, and then she’d thanked him and said goodbye and driven away smiling. She’d always felt easy in his company, even long ago in that first year at UEA, because unlike arrogant Jon or the needy, insecure Jason, he made no demands, he just was Fran, quiet, self-contained, thoughtful. It was good to know that he was only a short drive away, a true friend, someone who’d be on her side, who’d be quick to listen and slow to judge. Because after Rick’s infidelity, she no longer really believed in her own ability to discern who was and who wasn’t worthy of her trust. If she had been so wrong about her own husband, after more than twenty years of marriage and three children, then she could be wrong about almost anyone.

But not Saskia, she thought. She could rely on Saskia, and she could rely on Fran. And she hoped with all her heart that her suspicions concerning the truth about her father’s death proved to be unfounded, because if they were not, then Patricia’s and Nanna May’s betrayal would be the worst of all.

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