• Pamela Belle


Updated: Aug 28, 2019

“How does that look?”

Jenna stared at the woman in the mirror, and the woman in the mirror stared back, unsmiling. One thing was for sure, it didn’t look like her. The woman in the mirror might actually be quite attractive, if only she’d lighten up a bit. The back of her neck felt naked and the sculpted shape of her newly shorn hair seemed alien and unfamiliar. She was used to it hanging around her shoulders, and having to brush it out of her face on windy days.

“It is quite a change,” said the hairdresser. She was a plump woman whose own hair, coloured, highlighted and twisted into an elaborate knot, was obviously intended as an advertisement for her skills. “It might take some getting used to.” She angled the mirror so that Jenna could see the neat layers at the back of her head. “But I do think it really suits you.”

“I’ve always had longish hair up till now,” Jenna said. “It doesn’t look like me. But I think it’s very nice,” she added hastily.

“Slim women like you can get away with short hair,” said the hairdresser, whose name was Sharon. “You don’t need to balance your body. If you’re bigger – bigger than me – very short hair looks silly. That’s what I always think, anyway.”

Jenna, who’d never thought of herself as slim, nodded sagely. She got out of the chair, and Sharon removed the coverall and brushed stray hairs away. Trying not to keep glancing surreptitiously at her new self in all the mirrors in the salon, Jenna collected her jacket, handed over a very reasonable amount of money – far less than she’d have paid in St. Albans for a restyle – and stepped into Woodbridge High Street, wondering what Rick would think of it. In the days when he still commented on her appearance, he’d always said he liked her hair long.

If he notices, of course, a little wormy voice said.

Of course he’ll bloody notice, Jenna retorted. He’d better bloody notice. It was a breezy morning, and her head was cold. She walked briskly down to the bookshop, which had a nice little cafe at the back, and went inside, feeling in need of a restorative cup of coffee.

She had barely sat down when her phone sounded. A few weeks ago Joe, in a spirit of mischief, had changed the ring tone, and the cheery call of a cuckoo clock resounded through the shop, making all the customers look up. She checked the screen. Her mother. With the guilty realisation that she hadn’t told Patricia where she was, she pressed ‘accept’.

“Oh, thank goodness for that. I’ve been trying to reach you at home and there’s no reply, all I get is that wretched answering machine. Where are you?”

“I’m in Suffolk, Mum. At the cottage. I thought I’d spend a couple of days here on my way back from Norwich.”

“Well, I do think you might have told me. I was imagining all sorts of things when you weren’t answering at ten o’clock last night.”

“I could have been out with Saskia,” Jenna pointed out.

“No, I knew you weren’t, because I rang her after that. I have to say I didn’t really like her tone.”

“If you phoned her at ten o’clock, I’m not surprised.”

“I was worried,” said Patricia plaintively. “You hear such dreadful things ...”

“Then stop reading the Daily Mail. Mum, I can’t keep you informed about every little thing I do, I’m not seven, I'm forty-seven.”

There was a hurt pause. Jenna glanced up, saw an elderly woman at the corner table look hastily away, and realised that her one-sided conversation was in danger of becoming the morning’s entertainment. She said, moderating her voice, “Anyway, I can’t talk here, I’m in a cafe. I’ll phone you when I get back to the cottage, OK?”

“When’s that likely to be? I’m meeting Susan for lunch.”

Jenna looked at her watch. Half past eleven. “Not until later this afternoon, probably. Look, to be on the safe side I’ll call you this evening. About seven OK?” Too late, she remembered that she was having supper at the Marsdens’, and hoped she wouldn’t forget to ring. If she did, Patricia would never let her hear the end of it.

“I suppose it will have to do,” said Patricia. “Please don’t forget, Jennifer. I want to hear all about Rosie and the boys.”

“You will,” Jenna assured her. “I’ll speak to you later, sevenish. Bye, Mum.” She pressed the off button quickly, before Patricia could offer any objection, but she had barely put the phone down on the table when it rang again. Oh, for God’s sake! Jenna thought in exasperation, snatching it up and answering, no more than half way through the first cuckoo. “Hello?”

“Hello, is that Jenna?”

It wasn’t her mother. It was a man, and his accent told her who he was an instant before he offered his name. “It’s Fran. Fran McNeil.”

“Fran! Hello, great to hear from you! Look, sorry if I sounded a bit abrupt, but I thought it was my mother.”

“I wasn’t your mother, the last time I looked.” His voice was warm and amused. “Anyway, how are you?”

“I’m fine – and you?”

“Oh, just fine. So – what were you doing at UEA?”

“Dropping my daughter off. It’s her first term, she’s doing English and Creative Writing. While I was there, I happened to bump into Jon, and he told me you were still around, so I thought it’d be nice to meet up.”

“I’ll go with that. And you’re in Orford? I’m not that far away – I live in Aldeburgh.”

“That’s a long way from Inverness,” said Jenna.

“Aye, it is that. But more convenient.”

The conversation was in serious danger of becoming hopelessly bogged down in banality. Taking the plunge, Jenna said, “How about Snape Maltings? There’s a nice cafe there, and we can sit outside if it’s sunny.”

“I’ll go with that. Is tomorrow afternoon OK? Around three?”

Slightly bemused by the speed of it, Jenna agreed. When the call ended, she sat for a while, sipping her coffee, thinking about her time at university. It had formed her adult self so emphatically, establishing her as the quiet, sensible geek girl, that it was sometimes hard to remember that she’d had a life since, as a wife and mother. All the paths taken, or not taken, that had contributed to the person she was now, seemed to be tangled up in her mind. And did she necessarily like where she’d ended up? She felt suddenly that she’d never done much with her life or her qualifications. She didn’t have music on YouTube, or a professorship, or a thriving business. She just had a husband and three children, and none of them seemed to need or want her any more.

There you go again, said the wormy voice. Self pity is a horrible trait, and you’re in serious danger of indulging in it. You’re young(ish), you’re intelligent, healthy, and you’re not poor. Get off your pampered backside and do something useful, before you get stuck in a rut so deep you’ll never climb out of it.

That voice had more than a little resemblance to Saskia’s. Reminded, Jenna angled her phone, took a quick selfie of her new haircut, and sent it to her friend for approval, or not. Then she finished her coffee, and bought a guide to local walks. She could do with losing some of the flab that had accumulated over the past few years, without her ever really noticing, and she wanted to see a little more of the beautiful countryside around her. But not necessarily, she thought with a grin, in the exhausting company of Sammy the spaniel.

She spent the rest of the morning browsing the small shops in Woodbridge, bought a few clothes, and a set of jars for the cottage kitchen, and had a look round the quayside. On impulse, she went into the Tide Mill, which had been restored some years ago and was now a museum. It was the sort of place she would have visited with the twins when they were younger, and fascinated by machinery of any sort. She found it surprisingly interesting, and thought with a pang that Tom, in particular, would have loved it, and known all the right questions to ask the guide. A school party was going round, groups of chattering ten-year-olds with bright green jumpers and clipboards, accompanied by half a dozen rather harassed looking adults, and she felt not the slightest desire to jump again into the teaching maelstrom. Whatever she did in the future, it wouldn’t include a return to her old profession, in any guise. Been there, done that, and never want to do it again, Jenna thought, standing to one side as a tide of small boys rushed past her in their eagerness to see the wheels turn. But I’ll have to think of some job I can do – my own self-respect demands it, if nothing else. Once I’ve finished the research into the casket.

What with the visit to the Tide Mill, followed by lunch and a leisurely shop at a small supermarket, where she bought enough fresh food and milk to last her several more days, it was late afternoon by the time Jenna returned to Wisteria Cottage. This time, there was no parking space outside, so she drove round the track beside the houses and left her car at the back, just outside the garden gate. Walking up the path to the kitchen door with her bags of shopping, she realised suddenly that for the first time it felt as if she was truly coming home.

Checking her emails with a cup of tea and a biscuit beside her, she found one from Saskia. “AT LAST! Knew you’d look amazing, you foxy bitch! Rick’ll love it! That clinches it, you’re modelling for me. I’ve got just the clothes for you, come round when you get back and you can try them on. Rosie OK? India couldn’t wait to see the back of me. Love, S.”

Jenna wasn’t a hundred per cent sure that Rick would love her new haircut, but at this precise moment, she didn’t really care. She’d become more accustomed to her naked nape during the course of the day, but she still didn’t recognise the woman she kept glimpsing in shop windows. “So I’m a foxy bitch, am I, Sass?” she typed in reply. “Grrr! Glad you like it. Rosie was fine, we had a fun weekend, and I’m going to stay here for a few days, meeting an old uni friend tomorrow. See you soon, love, Jen. PS You’ve twisted my arm enough. OK, I’ll model for you. Is it this weekend? That’s a promise. xxJ.”

She sent it, and then saw that another email had arrived in her inbox. It was from Emma James. With some anticipation, she opened it.

Her work on the casket was finished, Emma wrote. She’d written it all up, and taken a lot of photos in close up of both the exterior and all parts of the interior. The report was ready and Jenna was free to come and collect it, and of course the casket, whenever was convenient. “And perhaps we can discuss it over lunch,” the email ended. “I know you said you don’t want to sell it, but the grapevine has been working overtime in the world of antique textiles, and I’ve had someone contact me who’s very interested in buying it, at a price considerably more than the sum I mentioned. So that’s something to think about before we meet. In the meantime, many thanks for entrusting it to me – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself. Give me a ring to arrange a date. See you soon, all the best, Emma.”

Jenna looked at the time on the computer. Five forty-three, so Emma would probably soon be heading home on bus or tube. She could phone tomorrow morning, and perhaps suggest a meeting either on Friday or early the following week. Despite her eagerness to see the finished report, and to have the casket back in her possession, she was enjoying her stay at the cottage too much to hurry back to St. Albans. There were places she’d promised herself she’d visit, she had the meeting with Fran to look forward to, and she knew that she needed to unwind from the tensions, the hassle and above all the grief of the past few months. It was one of the reasons they’d bought Wisteria Cottage, to have somewhere totally different from home or work, where they could both relax and be at peace. It was a shame that Rick had only found the time to come here twice this year.

Emma’s email had reminded her of her intention to research the casket’s history while she was in Suffolk. She couldn’t do much this evening, because she was going round to the Marsdens for supper. And before that, she needed a bath, and a period of time to psych herself up to phone Patricia. It seemed ridiculous that she should still feel like a naughty child whenever she spoke to her mother, but she couldn’t help it, and she had the uneasy feeling that most other people’s parents didn’t have the same effect, especially when the child in question was a supposedly mature forty-seven.

In fact, Patricia was far more eager to hear about the twins in Australia than to complain about anything that her daughter had, or had not been doing. Jenna promised to print out and send her some of their photographs (Patricia had not yet joined the internet age), and then gave her a brief resume of her trip to Norwich. As she had suspected, her mother was not so interested in Rosie’s new life, a fact which irritated Jenna, who loved her daughter dearly. It was easy to say briefly that she was going out for a meal, and her quick ‘Sorry, mum, I’ve got to go, speak to you soon’ cut through Patricia’s insistent questions – “Who? Who are you going with? Where are you going?”

As always after a phone call to her mother, Jenna felt drained, frustrated and annoyed. She wished she could have had a different relationship with Patricia, that she could have been less critical and demanding, more friendly and supportive. But it was no use wishing, she thought sadly, at seventy-five she was unlikely to change, and ever since her father’s untimely death, Patricia had lived her life through her daughter. It was a major reason why Jenna had been so determined not to interfere in her own children's lives, or indeed lay down the law with any of them once they became old enough to think for themselves and make their own decisions. In any case, it was counter-productive: the more Patricia tried to meddle, the more determined Jenna became to keep her distance. One day, in the not so distant future, the time would come when advancing age and infirmity meant that her mother would genuinely need her help and support, but Jenna had long ago decided to banish the prospect from her mind, until it actually arrived.

Fortunately, supper at the Marsdens’ was an excellent antidote to the feelings engendered by the phone call, and Jenna enjoyed every moment, particularly the Spanish chicken, fragrant with olives and chorizo, and accompanied by a very nice white Rioja. Two generous glasses ensured that she slept soundly, and woke with a feeling of pleasurable anticipation, mixed with dread. This was the day that she would meet Fran McNeil, for the first time since leaving university. Would they have anything to talk about? Would there still be that easy sense of camaraderie she remembered, when they had sat in the kitchen long into the small hours, putting the world to rights, she, Jules and Sarah, Jason, Fran and Jon? She’d felt it was there when she’d met Jon at UEA, and it was there, too, the rare times she talked to Jules. Hopefully she wouldn’t have to spend an hour making polite small talk to someone whom she hadn’t seen for a quarter of a century, and with whom she no longer had anything in common beyond the fact they’d shared a student house for two years.

Over a leisurely breakfast of toast and marmalade, plus considerable quantities of coffee, Jenna looked at some of his other songs on YouTube. They were mostly covers – beautiful, but still covers – of well-known hits. A couple she didn’t recognise, but that was nothing new – the twins regularly teased her about her ignorance of recent music, especially the kind that didn’t feature on commercial radio stations. It seemed a shame that he didn’t play his own stuff – she had a vague memory of him composing some rather pleasant music behind the firmly shut door of his room – but she supposed that for someone who’d published poetry, song lyrics were very small beer indeed. She decided not to look at the stand-up clips, acknowledging to herself that she didn’t want them to be disappointing, and turned instead to the genealogy site she’d subscribed to a few weeks ago, when she first started the research on the casket.

A few clicks and her password called up the female family tree she had begun to compile. Jenna Clarke, Patricia Talbot, May Goodwin, Winifred Emily Merelina Durrant, and, at the top, the name of her great-great grandmother, Emily Taylor. To find out the name of her mother, she needed her birth certificate, and although she knew that she’d been born around 1862, in Colchester, that information proved to be insufficient – there were dozens of Emily Taylors, their births registered in places she’d only vaguely heard of, like Tendring or Romford, some in various parts of east London, but none in Colchester. She looked at the list for a while, wondering why she’d thought it would be easy or straightforward. The family history expert she’d consulted at the library had pointed out that information given on official documents wasn’t always accurate – people were frequently vague about where they’d been born, a birthplace might not be where the birth was actually registered, and there was a strong tendency to lie about exact ages. The census information, consulted next, was similarly awash with Emily Taylors of around the right age, and Jenna looked at it rather helplessly. How could she possibly tell which was the right one, when all she had to go on was a place of birth that might not be right, and an age which was quite possibly wrong as well? It cost around ten pounds to get a copy of a birth certificate, which would give her the information she needed to go back to the previous generation, and while she didn’t mind making one or two mistakes, the thought of having to order dozens of them to find the right Emily Taylor was daunting, and not a little ridiculous.

Well, she wouldn’t find her three-greats grandmother by staring at a screen. Jenna resolved to consult the woman in the library again, when she got back to St. Albans. She knew she wasn’t in the right mood for concentrated research this morning, she was too wound up about meeting Fran. There was something else she’d decided to do while she was here, and she spent the next couple of hours going round the house, noting down her ideas for redecorating it. She’d decided that a fresh look, pale blue and primrose yellow, would suit Wisteria Cottage very well, and although it would mean replacing some of the curtains she’d made, they had been cheap and cheerful and it was worth getting it all exactly right. It seemed nothing short of criminal that they’d spent so little time here, and the cottage, not to mention Orford, deserved better. She imagined quiet weekends away, winter walks and a glowing fire in the wood-burning stove in the living room. Somewhere for Rick to relax – and God knows, Jenna thought, he’s in need of it.

She went out into the garden and looked back at the kitchen. It was housed in a small lean-to that had been added to the cottage about ten years previously. The Marsdens had a similar extension, but theirs was much bigger, came out further, and had room for a table as well as kitchen units and appliances. Jenna loved the kitchen in their St. Albans house, which was a large family room where everyone could eat together. It wouldn’t cost too much to enlarge the one here, and getting planning permission should be straightforward. She’d run it past Rick when he returned.

By the time she’d finished taking notes, and photographs on her phone, it was twelve o’clock. She phoned Emma James, who turned out to be busy, but managed to make an appointment with her assistant for Thursday morning. Then, feeling in need of some fresh air, she walked up to the market square to buy more milk and some croissants at the bakery, and a sandwich for her lunch. She ate it sitting on a bench by the castle, watching another group of schoolchildren, in red jumpers this time, assembling at the entrance with their clipboards. It was very pleasant in the sun, and almost possible to pretend it was still summer, instead of the third week in September. She remembered the conversation over dinner the previous evening, when Gary had asked her if they were stocked up with wood for the stove, and had joked about the East coast winter just around the corner. “Wait till you feel our lazy wind!”

“Lazy?” Jenna had queried.

Her host adopted a competent version of the local accent. “Thass a lazy wind – that don’t goo round yew, that goo straight through you!”

They had laughed, but Jenna remembered the bleakness of her winter in Maldon, long ago, the bitter gales, and May’s cheerful voice. “You’d better get used to it, girl, there ain’t nothing between you and Russia!”

Something else, then, to do while she was here. She took out her phone and made a note: ‘wood – where? how much, price, where to put, shed?” Then she strolled back towards Wisteria Cottage, enjoying the warmth and the sense of peace and relaxation which seemed impossible to obtain in St. Albans. There was still an hour or so before she must leave for Snape, so she filled that time with some long overdue weeding of the herbaceous borders edging the garden. It took her mind off the coming meeting with Fran, and proved highly therapeutic. Washed and changed into cream chinos and a flowery top, she set off for Snape with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.

Snape Maltings, with its craft shops, galleries and concert hall, was a favourite destination for residents and tourists alike, and Jenna had visited it many times. Despite the lateness of the season, there were few spaces in the car park, but she squeezed the Peugeot into a narrow gap at the back, between a yellow Mini and a very large and immaculate 4x4 that looked as if it had never been off-road in its short life. As usual, she’d arrived early, so she nipped into the food hall. She wanted to buy presents for Saskia and her other friends in St. Albans, and jars of locally produced honey, chutneys and jams were always popular. It took her longer than she’d intended to choose them, and when she emerged with two heavy, clinking bags, and glanced at her watch, it was ten past three. Silently cursing, she hurried round to the tea room. There was a queue at the counter, and the tables were full. She hastily looked round, searching for a lone man in his forties, perhaps dressed in black ...

And there he was, sitting at a table under one of the windows, talking to a child. It was so unexpected that she wondered for a moment if her eyes had deceived her. But no, it was unquestionably Fran, because he saw her looking and smiled suddenly in recognition. As she began to make her way over, he got to his feet and held out his arms. “Jen! It’s good to see you!”

“And you,” she said, and meant it. All the awkwardness she had feared had vanished like snow in sunshine. They hugged, and then he looked her up and down. “I’d be lying if I said you hadn’t changed a bit,” he said, with a grin. “But you wear it well.”

“That’s what Jon said. You don’t look so bad yourself.”

It was true. Maturity suited Fran, had removed the gauche awkwardness from his movements and given his face character. He was still lean, but no longer had that gangly, unfinished air she remembered. In a white shirt and black jeans, he looked fresh, assured, at ease with himself and the world, just as he had in the YouTube clip. Unlike many middle-aged men who wore hats, however, his hair although greying was still plentiful, and rather longer than Jenna’s new crop.

“Come and sit down,” he said. “I’ve got a big pot of tea and some cake. And there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

The child had stood up. With her high forehead, her black hair scraped into long plaits, and her pale intent stare, Jenna would not have been surprised to hear her introduced as Wednesday Addams. Instead, Fran said, “My daughter, Flora. Flora, this is Jenna, one of my oldest friends.”

“You don’t look very old,” said the child, frowning. “Are you the same age as Dad?” To Jenna’s surprise, her voice had a distinct American twang, which increased the resemblance to Wednesday Addams.

“’Fraid so,” Jenna told her cheerfully. She sat down at the end of the table, so that she had Flora on her left and Fran on her right. “And how old are you?”

“Ten,” said the girl. She had a very large pink milkshake in front of her, with a candy-striped straw in it, and she sucked at it with gusto, studying Jenna all the while. “And a half.”

“Going on eighteen,” said Fran, with affection. Unlike his daughter, his own accent was still liltingly Scottish, although he’d left the Highlands nearly thirty years ago and never, as far as Jenna knew, gone back. She seemed to remember that he hadn’t got on with his father.

“My daughter Rosie is eighteen,” she said. “A bit older than you, Flora, but you’ll soon catch up.” She accepted the steaming cup which Fran passed her, and chose a piece of caramel shortbread from the plate of cakes. “Thank you. Jon said you were living on the Suffolk borders, but I didn’t realise he meant Aldeburgh.”

“He didn’t. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks – I used to live near Beccles. This is further to commute to the university, but then I only go in once a week, to take a tutorial.”

“That’s where Rosie is, at UEA – you may come across her, she’s just started on English and Creative Writing. Rosie Johnson.”

“I’ll remember her, but I don’t promise favourable marks,” said Fran. “Not unless I’m paid a great deal of money.” He grinned. “Couple of million, perhaps.”

“Cheap at the price. So ... why Aldeburgh?”

“I could say, why Orford? Are you living there, or on holiday?”

“Both, sort of. It’s our second home – my husband Rick and I actually live in St. Albans. You remember Jules? He’s her older brother.”

“How could I forget Jules? Miss ‘If It Doesn’t Move I’ll Drown It In Bleach’ 1988. I think she was the only reason we didn’t all get dysentery. So you married her brother?”

He hadn’t come to the wedding – in fact, of her five housemates, only Jules had attended. Jenna nodded. “Yes. We’ve got twin boys, as well as Rosie. They’re in Australia, back packing, and Rick’s on a business trip in the States. So my nest is finally empty.”

“I thought mine was,” said Fran. “And then my chick came back.” He smiled at Flora. “And very welcome she is, too, despite her arrival being somewhat unexpected.”

“Mom’s in California,” Flora said with pride. “She’s got a big part on a new TV show.”

“Has she? What’s her name?”

“Krystal Waters.” Flora’s pale blue stare prevented any tactless amusement. “And she’s famous.”

“I think I’ve heard of her,” said Jenna, although in fact the name was completely unfamiliar, as well as being faintly ridiculous. “What was she in?”

“She was in Game of Thrones, the last two seasons, but she got killed in the final episode. And Breaking Bad also. And now she’s going to be a detective in a new cop show, and she’s going to be so busy she knew she wouldn’t have time to look after me properly while it was filming, so she sent me to stay with Dad. And I flew all the way from LA to London by myself.”

“Wow,” said Jenna, genuinely impressed. “That was brave of you.”

“I’m used to it,” said Flora nonchalantly. “I’ve done it gazillions of times before.”

Fran silently mouthed ‘twice’, and Jenna found herself struggling to keep her face straight. She said, “Are you going to go to school while you’re here?” It had not escaped her notice that the autumn term in most English schools had commenced a couple of weeks ago.

“Don’t worry, she starts at one of the Aldeburgh primaries next week,” said Fran. “I have no intention of letting her run wild for six months.”

“Good. Once a teacher, always a teacher, unfortunately.”

“So you’re not still at the chalkface?”

“No, I gave up when I had the kids, and decided I didn’t want to go back. Though I did private tutoring for several years. There’s a big demand for it in St. Albans.”

“I can imagine. Well, if I want Flora’s maths licked into shape, I’ll know who to ask.”

“I’m sure she won’t need it. Are you an A student, Flora?”

“Yes,” said the child, with a look that said, ‘Of course, I wouldn’t be anything else.’ “And I’m good at math. Miss Stein said I was the best in the class.”

Jenna wasn’t sure if she warmed to this extremely self-assured and rather intimidating little girl. She said, “How long have you lived in California, Flora? You sound very American.”

“That’s ‘cos I am. Since I was two and Mom and Dad split up. But I come to England for holidays. And when Mom was filming Game of Thrones in Ireland, I stayed with Dad. I was eight then.” She finished the milkshake with a resounding and prolonged slurping noise that rather spoilt her adult air, and added, “Dad, can I go look for a card and a gift for Mom? It’s her birthday soon.”

“OK, the card shop’s just through there, but don’t go anywhere else.”

“I won’t,” said Flora. She pushed the chair back and hurried out of the cafe, brandishing a beaded purse.

“Gosh, she’s very grown up,” Jenna said, into the vacuum left by her departure.

“The word you’re too polite to say is ‘precocious’.” Fran leaned back in his chair, smiling. “She’s been Mommie’s little princess for far too long. Six months at an English school will do her the world of good, rub a few corners off. And she’s not channelling Wednesday Addams, by the way, despite the unnerving resemblance. The intended effect was Anne of Green Gables. I caught her trying to buy red hair dye in Boots on Saturday.”

Jenna choked on her tea. “That’s something that never occurred to Rosie, thank goodness. Her childhood heroine was Hermione Granger.”

“Good for her. She must be bright and hard-working if she’s got onto the Eng Lit course – there’s a huge demand for places.”

“Without trying to sound too boastful – well, all right, sounding boastful – yes, she is.” Jenna decided not to mention the poetry prize, which really would sound boastful. Anyway, if Rosie was going to attend Fran’s tutorials at some point, she wanted him to judge her output on its merits, not on any preconceived ideas.

“Jon said you’d had poems published,” she added. “And I checked out some of your stuff on YouTube.”

“Not the stand-up. Please tell me you didn’t find the stand-up.”

“Don’t worry, I didn’t. Is it that embarrassing?”

“Of course it is. Me, my guitar and some very dodgy jokes. A sort of cut-price Billy Connolly, but without most of the swearing.”

“I liked the songs, though. They were lovely. A shame they were all covers, though, I remember you writing your own stuff at uni.”

Fran smiled rather wickedly. She thought suddenly how attractive he was, something she’d never noticed all those years ago – but then he had been a callow boy, and she’d only had eyes for Jon, apparently so much more adult and confident. “They weren’t covers,” he said, watching her.

“But they were! Love You All My Life was a massive hit last year for that boy band, and didn’t Ellie Goulding do Frozen Heart?”

“She did. But I did it first.”

Belatedly, his meaning filtered through. “You mean ... you wrote them?” Stunned, Jenna stared at him, and Fran grinned back. “Aye, I did.”

“Wow. Triple wowzers, as Rosie would say. That’s amazing! And they’re so good.”

“Don’t sound too surprised.”

“Well, no, I didn’t mean to – but I’m seriously impressed, I really am. How did you get into that, then?”

Fran poured them both another mug of tea. “I used to do the rounds of the clubs, when I wasn’t doing stand-up. I’d just split with Krystal, I was spending most of my time on the road, here and in the States, earning a crust of sorts. I did a gig in London, supporting a guy who was getting a name for himself, and a couple of record companies sent their people along to listen. One of them liked my songs and asked if I’d consider writing for an act his label had just signed.” He grinned. “They weren’t interested in me personally, of course – too old, for starters, too croaky, no X factor. But I was getting sick of being a nomad by then, and I thought, why not? So for the last eight or nine years, that’s what I’ve been doing – writing songs for anyone who’ll pay me. And I can think of much worse ways of earning a living. I’ve been very lucky.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jenna said warmly. “Luck doesn’t mean much without talent.”

“Thank you. It’s given me the freedom to write poetry, to live the life I want. But yes, I really am lucky. If that guy hadn’t been in that club that night ... I’d still be singing hackneyed folk tunes for fifty quid a night to boozed-up punters or, if the worst came to the worst, busking on the Tube. Which I’ve done, by the way. Until I was mugged for my takings, and decided it wasn’t worth the risk.”

“God!” Jenna stared at him in horror. “Were you hurt?”

“Five stitches here.” He touched the left side of his jaw, under the beard. “And some more serious damage to my pride.” He smiled wryly. “Just before they attacked, they made a highly slanderous reference to my musical ability. Anyway, it was a long time ago, and I don’t lose any sleep over it. In fact, life is pretty good right now, even with Miss Little Princess. In fact, especially with Miss Little Princess. She’s a good kid, under all that Californian nonsense, but my gran would have called her a wee besom.”

“Do you go back much?”

“To Inverness? No. My parents died years ago, my sister Kirstie lives in Bristol and my sister Isabel’s in Birmingham. Both married, kids, boringly conventional.”

“They sound just like me,” said Jenna. She tried to make it a light, casual remark, but Fran looked at her quizzically. “Now who’s selling themselves short? I remember what you were like at uni.”

“Yes, I was Geek Girl. Complete with certificates in mediaeval Latin and Norman French.”

“Just what every conventional married woman with two kids needs.”

“It came in really handy for mopping up babysick.” Jenna finished the shortbread, which was delicious, and took a mouthful of tea. “And you still haven’t answered my question. Why Aldeburgh?”

“I like it. Not quite as posh as Southwold, more arty farty. Anyway, it’s temporary. I’ve bought a house near Butley, and it needs a lot of work, so I’m renting a little place on the High Street. Saying farewell to civilization before moving to the back of beyond.”

“Butley’s just down the road from Orford!”

“I know. Strange, where coincidence can take you. If you hadn’t met Jon the other day, you’d never have known I lived round here. And then you’d have bumped into me in Aldeburgh one day, and got the shock of your life.”

“A nice shock, though. Better than a slap in the face with a wet fish, as my Nanna May would have said.”

“She sounds as if she’d have got on famously with my gran.”

“I expect she would. Nanna May was a one-off, and I loved her dearly. She died a couple of months ago.”

Fran looked at her with sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, she was ninety-five, so it wasn’t unexpected – but awful, just the same. And she did something rather surprising.” Jenna took a deep breath. She hadn’t intended to mention the casket, but Fran was so easy to talk to, and she found herself telling him the whole story. He listened attentively, and then said, “So you’re going to hang on to it? I can’t say I blame you. A promise is a promise.”

“That’s what I think. I loved Nanna May, she was so good to me at a very difficult time when I was a kid, not much older than Flora – “

“Which reminds me, where is Flora?”

They looked at each other, and then, as one, rose and made for the door. The card shop was just outside the tea-room. It was empty of all but two grey-haired women browsing a display of artistic local photographs. Fran went up to the girl behind the till. “Have you seen a wee lass? Ten years old, hair in plaits?” Under stress, his accent had strengthened.

“Oh, yeah, she bought a card and went out there.” The girl pointed to the door that led to the car park behind the main building.

“Jesus, I’ll murder her,” said Fran, and, ignoring the girl’s look of alarm, ran outside with Jenna hard at his heels.

There was no sign of Flora anywhere. Jenna looked round. The river, with the barge moored up below the road bridge, was an obvious draw for a child. So was the separate gift shop, in a wood and brick barn across the car park. But the river was dangerous, while the shop wasn’t. She ran across between the cars, narrowly avoiding a VW Golf coming in rather too fast, and up to the quay. The barge lay below her, gently tugging on the ropes that moored it fore and aft to bollards, its deck scrubbed and empty. She looked wildly up and down the expanse of murky river water flowing sulkily under the bridge. The tide was still rising, so if Flora had fallen in...

“Are you looking for me?” Fran’s daughter ambled round the corner of the creeper-covered wildlife information centre next to the quay. She carried a couple of small bags, and wore a self-satisfied expression. “I wanted to buy something for Dad. It’s a surprise.”

“Flora!” Fran came panting up. “What the hell were you thinking of, going off like that? Next time, you wee besom, tell us where you’re going before you leg it!”

“Wee besom?”

“Naughty little girl,” Jenna translated, careful to keep a straight face, though the relief was overwhelming.

“Sorry, Dad,” said Flora, meekly and with every appearance of sincerity. But Jenna caught the sparkle of mischief in her lowered eyes, and knew that the child had every expectation of being able to wind her father round her little finger.

“Well, don’t do it again, OK? The river’s dangerous, and you never know what nutters might be around.”

“I won’t.” Flora held out one of the bags. “I was buying a present for you, Dad.”

“Oh, God.” Fran stared at her rather helplessly, and then started to laugh. “You and I are going to have a long and serious talk, young lady, when I get you home.”

Jenna judged that this would be a good moment to say her farewells. “It was really nice to see you again. And to meet Flora.”

“Not so sure that was such a pleasure,” said Fran, but there was a definite twinkle in his eyes. “Anyway, let’s not leave it another twenty-five years, OK? And good luck with your casket – let me know how that goes.”

“I will,” Jenna promised. They hugged, kissed, and then she watched him walk away towards his car, Flora firmly held by the hand. As they reached a blue hatchback, the child turned and gave a cheeky wave, and before she could stop herself, Jenna waved in reply. Then she remembered that she’d left her bags of jams and chutneys in the tea-room, and went back inside, hoping that they hadn’t been nicked, or, worse, assumed to be a suspicious parcel and ordered to be blown up by the bomb squad.

Of course, neither had happened, and she sat down, finished her tea, by now rather cold, and thought about the meeting. It was nice to discover that twenty five years had made no difference to their friendship, and she looked forward to seeing him again, with or without the redoubtable Flora. And if he was buying a house near Butley, there’d be no reason not to. She must email Jules and tell her that, quite unexpectedly, she’d met up with both Jon and Fran, and wondered what her forthright sister-in-law would say to that.

Meanwhile, she must go home, sort out something for her evening meal, and try to carry on with her research. Maybe something had escaped her this morning, and the right Emily Taylor would suddenly pop up on her laptop screen, waving enthusiastically and saying, “You see, I was here all along, right under your nose!”

If only, Jenna thought, making her way outside to the car with her purchases. But she’s out there somewhere. All I have to do is find her. Apart from anything else, I want to report some positive progress when I see Emma on Thursday.

She couldn’t help feeling, though, that it was a case of ‘easier said than done’, and that tracing her female ancestors would be a long, frustrating and difficult task. I hope you appreciate it, Nanna May, she told her grandmother silently, as she got into her car. I’m going to a lot of trouble on your behalf, to keep my promises, and I just hope I succeed.

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