“Welcome to the freezer.” Andrew Marshall unlocked the door of his shop and ushered Jenna through. Inside was almost as cold as it was out, though at least there was no snow falling from the ceiling. “I’ll go and put the kettle on – the heating should start up any moment.”
It was half past nine on the Wednesday after her ‘date’ with Marcus, and this was Jenna’s first day in her new job. She’d been greatly looking forward to it – which was probably an indication of how much she needed some sort of stimulus outside the snug confines of Wisteria Cottage – and she’d felt distinctly nervous beforehand. Get a grip, she’d told herself, you’re a humble shop assistant, not a City high-flyer – you’ve got nothing to prove, just do your best and enjoy it.
She’d been intending to take the bus, but five minutes online had brought home to her one of the major disadvantages of living in what Saskia still insisted on referring to as ‘the arse end of beyond’ – there was no direct service between Orford and Aldeburgh, although they were less than three miles apart across the river. She’d have had to take the bus from Orford to Woodbridge, and then another one which seemed from its timetable to tour most of north-east Suffolk before arriving in Aldeburgh more than an hour later, too late to open the shop. So it had to be the car, and she’d found somewhere to park it after more internet searching. Unfortunately, it was at the Slaughden end of the town, and a brisk, cold and windy walk to the High Street and Andrew’s shop. To her relief, she’d seen him approaching from the other direction as she hurried along, hands deep in her coat pockets and a scarf wound round the lower part of her face to protect against the icy blast of the north-east wind, so she didn’t have to wait for him to turn up.
With her outer garments hung on a hook in the back room, a mug of hot coffee warming her hands and the boiler fired up, Jenna was starting to thaw out. She grinned at Andrew, who was sorting through the morning’s post. “Where did you park your car?”
“Oh, I know a handy side street with no restrictions, but it’s ten minutes away. You didn’t leave yours up at Slaughden, did you? No wonder you look frozen half to death. Right, we don’t open until ten, so I’ve got time to show you round and induct you into the mysteries of the till and the card machine.” He smiled at her. “And after that, stock control, contacts, records, and of course not forgetting health and safety. By which time, I’ll expect you to be running screaming down the High Street, never to be seen again.”
“I’m not that much of a wuss. I can tough it out.”
“Actually, you’ll probably find that boredom’s the killer. There have been days in the dead of winter when I’ve had no customers at all. Not very good for morale.”
“I can always do displays or rearrange things,” Jenna said brightly.
“If you do rearrange anything, please tell me. Lynne – she was my assistant before Melanie – had a mania for sorting paperwork, with the result I filed my accounts late because I couldn’t find half the stuff. It turned up months later at the back of the filing cabinet, behind all the files.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not planning to do anything like that, but if I do I’ll draw you a map.”
“Splendid. I can see you’re going to be just my kind of assistant – hands on, but not interfering. Now, let’s switch the till and the card machine on, and I’ll take you through the procedure.”
“I can’t wait,” Jenna said with a grin.
“Cheeky!” Andrew wagged a finger at her in mock reproof. “By the time I’ve finished with you, you’ll be ringing things up in your sleep.”
He hadn’t been far wrong, Jenna thought, nearly eight hours later, as she walked back to her car. Her feet ached and her mouth was dry from all the talking – not so much to customers, though she had been pleasantly surprised by the steady trickle of people coming through the door – but to Andrew, who loved a gossip and a natter almost as much as he loved the endless cups of tea and coffee he made throughout the day, and the generous quantities of biscuits he liked to dunk in them, to the obvious detriment of his waistline. They’d talked about popular TV shows, films they’d seen, and art they both liked. Over a quick lunch – Andrew had bought a huge club sandwich from the deli a few doors down the High Street, whereas Jenna had a much smaller ham, cheese and pickle one she’d made at home – the conversation turned to genealogy. “So have you had any more breakthroughs?” he asked her. “When we talked before, I seem to remember, you’d just found out about your three greats grandmother.”
“Yes, Emily Maria Merielina Tydeman. I ordered her birth certificate, and it arrived yesterday. She was born in 1840 in Bury St. Edmunds. Her mother was called Maria Merielina, and her maiden name was Rogers. I’ve looked for her marriage online but I couldn’t find it.”
“Well, if it was before 1837 then it’ll be more difficult to trace, and it might not be on the websites you looked at,” said Andrew thoughtfully. “The best place to start would probably be at the record office in Bury. If Emily Tydeman was born in Bury, it’s quite likely that her parents were married in Bury too, and in any case the record office should have indexes.” He grinned. “At least she wasn’t called Emily Smith.”
“Her daughter was Emily Taylor, and it took me a long time to find her birth record. Believe it or not, nineteenth century Essex was full of Emily Taylors.”
“Oh, I can,” said Andrew, with a sorrowful look. “One of my great-grandfathers was called John Wright. I gave up on that line eventually, though I may go back to it one day. I found a much more interesting branch, who fetched up in India.”
“That sounds difficult,” said Jenna, dunking one of Andrew’s chocolate hobnobs into her tea.
“Not at all – in fact in many ways it was easier than researching the ones who stayed put.”
It hadn’t sounded much easier, and Jenna felt fortunate that her own ancestors seemed to have stayed close at hand. It was a lot simpler to drive thirty miles to Bury St. Edmunds than to visit the National Archives, or to track down those who’d gone off to distant corners of the Empire. She mentally pencilled in a date for the first part of next week, when she wouldn’t be working.
On her way back to the car, it rapidly became apparent that leaving it in that particular car park had been a mistake. The street lighting was sporadic, the wind was getting up, and the sea roared, threatening and invisible, in the darkness away to her left, beyond the cottages and the shingle. At least it wasn’t snowing: last Friday’s fall had melted by lunchtime the following day, and she was glad she would have a clear road home tonight. As long as a tree doesn’t land on my car, Jenna thought, as she turned into the car park.
As she approached the Peugeot, her phone started up. She’d asked the twins, in their Skype call at the weekend, for instructions on how to change the ring tune, and instead of the unseasonal sounds of the cuckoo, the cheerful notes of The Bare Necessities did their best to drown out the bellow of the waves and the buffeting wind. Jenna fished it out of her coat pocket and pressed ‘accept’. “Hi, Fran, how are you?”
“Just fine, thanks. Are you still on for tutoring the wee lass?”
“Of course.” A particularly forceful gust nearly knocked her sideways, and she hastily pressed the button on her key fob. At once the Peugeot’s indicators sprang reassuringly into life. “Let me just get into the car and I can give you my full attention.”
“It’s a wild night. It sounds here as if the trees are about to get to their feet – or should that be their roots – and march around. Where are you?”
“Aldeburgh. I’ve just finished my first day at the shop.”
“How’d it go?”
“Great, really enjoyed it. Phew, that’s better.” Jenna flopped down in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Calm enveloped her, and she sighed with relief. “Tomorrow, I’m going to leave it in a car park that isn’t ten minutes walk away.”
“Good idea,” Fran said. “So – when are you free?”
Jenna took a moment to sort out her timetable in her mind. “As it stands, I’m working every day, Wednesday to Saturday, ten till five. I don’t mind calling in on you on my way home from Aldeburgh, I virtually pass your door anyway. Or any time on Sunday, Monday or Tuesday. Take your pick.”
Fran laughed. “Too much choice! Tell you what, how about an hour on Sunday afternoon, and another on Wednesday evening on your way home?”
“Sounds good to me.” Jenna realised that she was really looking forward to seeing Fran and Flora on a regular basis. “Do you know what subjects and areas I need to cover?”
“Maths and English mainly – comprehension, verbal reasoning, that sort of thing. Krystal’s getting some past entrance tests to give you some idea. She’s very keen.” He paused, and then said, his voice wry, “So keen she suggested paying you fifty pounds an hour.”
“What?” Jenna realised that she was squawking, and hastily moderated her voice. “Fifty quid an hour? Are you serious?”
“Well, Krystal is. She really wants Flora to get into that school.”
“I can tell.” Jenna didn’t know whether to laugh, or grab the money with both hands. “That’s well over twice the going rate.”
“Don’t complain, that’s what she’s offering.”
“Is she going to want her money back if Flora doesn’t get in?”
“She’ll get in. She’s a bright kid.”
“Well, even bright kids can have off days, or panicky meltdowns. And how does Flora feel about all this?”
There was a pause. “She’s OK with it,” Fran said at last. “Looking forward to seeing you again. I don’t think she understands the implications, to be honest. And to be brutally honest, I don’t want her to. I don’t want her put under a lot of pressure – she’s only ten, after all. There’ll be plenty of opportunity to worry about exams a few years down the line, when she’s older and can cope with the stress a bit better. Which is why I’m glad this is happening when she’s with me, and even more glad that you’re around to help.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Jenna. “But I’m not taking fifty quid an hour. I’d rather put some of it towards a charity. That way, I won’t feel so bad if it all goes pear-shaped.” She paused, and then on impulse, decided to speak her mind. “I think it’s a bad idea. You obviously think it’s a bad idea. So why have you agreed to it?”
Another pause, in which she had time to wonder if she’d offended him. Then his voice came back, tinged with resignation. “I didn’t have a lot of choice, hen. Krystal has custody, or whatever they call it in the States. What she says, goes. And if I don’t play ball, she’s quite capable of making sure that I don’t get to see Flora for a very long time, if ever.”
“Can she do that?” Jenna asked, appalled. She felt suddenly very sorry for the child, shunted off to her father when her presence was inconvenient, or used as a bargaining counter to ensure Fran’s compliance. In the circumstances, it was a marvel that Flora wasn’t a neurotic wreck, or a complete brat.
“Oh, she can do it, no doubt about it,” said Fran. “In fact she’s threatened to do it once already – when I said I couldn’t have Flora over the summer, a couple of years ago when she was filming Game of Thrones in Ireland. Never mind that I had a couple of deadlines to meet, and a one-bedroom flat - I had to cancel stuff at short notice, and sleep on the sofa for two months. So, yeah, She Who Must Be Obeyed holds all the cards. But I have to say, in fairness, that she’s not usually so demanding.”
It didn’t sound like it to Jenna, but she realised that the apparently manipulative and selfish Krystal must nevertheless genuinely love her child, and want the best for her. And if that best was a high-powered and exclusive school which would offer Flora a superb education and opportunities other children couldn’t even dream of aspiring to, then she had no right to interfere, or even to offer an opinion. It was, after all, none of her business.
She arranged to come round for lunch on Sunday, by which time Fran should have received sample papers, and she should have done some preparation. Then she drove home through the windy dark, to an unlit, chilly cottage, and two hungry and indignant kittens. Jenna fed them, made herself a cup of tea, and was just settling down for a quiet evening when her phone announced the arrival of a text message. It was from Ruth next door. ‘Have you remembered book group tonight? Will pick you up at 10 to 7.’
It was entirely typical of Ruth to use full words instead of the text-speak most of Jenna’s friends and family employed. Taking her cue, Jenna texted back. ‘There’ll be food, won’t there?’
‘Vast quantities. Don’t eat anything.’
Jenna grinned as she put the phone down. She had been looking forward to a cosy night in, perhaps looking for American test papers online, and watching a new drama series on the telly. But she’d promised Paula that she’d be there, and she suspected that she’d never hear the end of it if she failed to show up. However, she felt it was quite significant that despite reminders, her memory stubbornly refused to co-operate. Just as if I really didn’t want to go, she thought, cuddling Apollo, who had arrived on her lap with whiskers smelling of Whiskas. But as long as I don’t take it all too seriously, it should be fine.
She’d forgotten – another signal from her subconscious? – that Marcus would be there, and to judge from the expression on his face as she walked into the Woodmans’ huge kitchen, he hadn’t realised she was coming either. Paula, an officious and formidable hostess, did the introductions. “You know Jim and Andrew, of course, and Marcus – Felicity Campbell, who’s a very old friend, and Celia and Rosemary, who help me with Meals On Wheels.”
Paula’s footsoldiers smiled a welcome, and Jenna took the place indicated at the end of the enormous table, next to Ruth. Everyone had copies of Bleak House except herself, but since she’d emphasised that she wouldn’t have read it, she didn’t mind. Andrew Marshall grinned at her across the expanse of well-scrubbed pine. “You made it, then. I remembered when I got home that I hadn’t reminded you.”
“It’s OK, Ruth did.” There was a delicious aroma emanating from Paula’s Aga, on which a pot of something steamed softly, and two large loaves of what looked like home-made bread. Jenna hadn’t had anything but a biscuit and a cup of tea since her small sandwich at lunch time. Her stomach rumbled in appreciation, and she hoped that no-one else had heard. Unfortunately, it rapidly appeared that the food would not make an immediate appearance, but would be served only after they had earned it by an in-depth discussion of one of Dickens’s most complex and difficult novels.
It was a long evening, and Jenna found it hard to keep awake at times. She’d been put off Dickens at school, and although she’d seen a TV adaptation, it seemed to bear little relationship to the book. She took refuge in observing the other members of the group as they talked or listened. Paula was of course very much the leader, and she was suitably bossy, urging some to speak up and others to pipe down when they’d rambled on enough. Her three minions, Celia, Rosemary and Felicity, didn’t seem to have much in the way of independent thought, but Andrew more than made up for it, and Ruth was also forthright in her opinions. Jim seemed happy to let his partner do most of the talking, and Marcus said almost nothing, though several times Jenna caught him looking at her. She was relieved when at last the discussion petered out and Paula bustled over to the stove to start dishing out soup, while her husband, emerging from some inner sanctum at her peremptory command, distributed the steaming bowls. There was bread, obviously homemade and still warm, and a bewildering array of pickles, chutneys, salads, dressings, cold meats and cheese. “Tuck in!” their hostess admonished them, “I don’t want anything going to waste!”
“Told you,” Ruth muttered to Jenna, out of the corner of her mouth. “This group can get a touch competitive in the food and drink department.”
Jenna thought of her tiny sitting room and tinier kitchen, and grinned. “If I ever host it, half of them will have to sit on the stairs listening to the discussion on a loop.”
“Or pick a nice summer evening and have it in the garden,” said Ruth, ever the practical. “Have you got any ideas for the next book? Something fairly light after that tome, I think.”
“How about the new Ian Rankin? It’s had good reviews and it’s sure to be a quick easy read, without insulting the intelligence.”
“Sounds good to me,” Ruth said, with feeling. “I’d forgotten just how much I disliked Dickens.”
“Me too.” They shared a conspiratorial grin. Further down the table, Paula was suggesting a recently published novel that would doubtless only be available in expensive hardback, or at the end of a very long waiting list at the library. At once a chorus of sycophantic approval rose, and Jenna decided not to mention the Ian Rankin. She made a note of the title, the date and venue for the next meeting in February, and obeyed her host’s instructions regarding the soup and bread.
Later, stuffed, weary and ready for bed, she was putting her coat on when she saw Marcus approaching. “Hi,” he said. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks. You?” Jenna reflected, with resignation, that his attempt to kiss her had put an impenetrable barrier between them, surely the opposite of what he’d intended. It was so awkward: she didn’t want to be too friendly in case he made unwarranted assumptions, but neither did she want to be rude.
“Yeah, fine.” He paused, and then said quietly, “I’m really sorry about the other night. I hope I didn’t offend you.”
“Of course not.” She summoned a cheerful smile. “What do you think of the next choice?”
“Interesting,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it. Is Ruth giving you a lift home?”
“Yes, I am,” said Ruth, appearing by Jenna’s side. “Sorry, Marcus, but I must go. Gary said he wanted an early night. See you soon!”
“Thanks,” Jenna said, when they were in the car, and Ruth was carefully negotiating the Woodmans’ crowded drive: they lived in a big old brick farmhouse on the outskirts of the town, with an impressively spacious frontage, but there were about a dozen other more or less badly parked vehicles to consider.
“No problem. God, why do people have cars that size? I know for a fact she only ever uses it for driving to Sainsbury’s. Yes,” said Ruth, finally extracting them from the melee and turning into the road, “I thought you might need rescuing. Marcus is a lovely man, but he can get a bit intense.”
“Oh, he’s OK,” Jenna said. “He knows I don’t want any kind of relationship yet. It’s only a few months since I split up with Rick, and I need time and space.”
“Of course you do. Anyway, he’s Orford’s most eligible bachelor, so I’m sure he’ll have plenty of choice. Now, do tell me, how did it go at the shop?”
The rest of the brief journey home was taken up with Jenna’s account of her first day. She thanked Ruth for the lift, and let herself into Wisteria Cottage with a sigh of relief. Feed the kittens, hot chocolate, and a hotter bath, in that order, she thought wearily. I’m absolutely knackered – but it’s been a great day.
She’d just emerged from the bath, pink and steaming, when her phone announced the arrival of a text. She dried herself, put on her dressing gown and took it into the bedroom, where the kittens, now rather wary of the bath, were waiting for her, curled on her pillow together and looking sickeningly cute.
It was from Joe. Hoping it didn’t mean bad news, she opened it with a suddenly thumping heart.
“Hi, ma, do you know Bill Clarke? In Oz, wants to be friends on Facebook, no idea who he is, do you? Xx Joe.”
Jenna looked down at the message, puzzled. Her father’s name had been Keith. Had he had a brother? She didn’t think so, she couldn’t remember any uncles, and certainly not an Uncle Bill. Perhaps this person was a more distant relative. Or perhaps he was no relation at all, and the surname was just a coincidence. In the end, she texted back: ‘Could be related, but be careful.’ Perhaps she’d look him up on the library computer next week. In the meantime, cradled in the cosy warmth of her bed with the kittens snuggling down under the duvet, she barely had enough energy to add, ‘All OK? All OK here, kittens send love. Speak to you soon, love, Mum.’ She pressed ‘send’ and then, her eyes closing, she switched out the light, and sleep claimed her at once.
“Hallo, Jenna!” The door to Keeper’s Cottage was flung wide, and Flora stood there, beaming, while a delicious spicy aroma wafted round her. “Lunch is nearly ready!”
“What is it? It smells wonderful.”
“Lamb curry.” The girl ushered her inside, out of the rain, took her wet coat with aplomb, and hung it on a hook just inside the door. “Don’t worry, it isn’t too hot, Dad only put two chillies in.”
“Five, actually,” said Fran, appearing from the kitchen area, an apron tied round his waist and a wooden spoon in his hand. “No, hen, just kidding. Flora, you were going to lay the table?”
“Ooh, forgot, sorry!” At once his daughter erupted into a whirlwind of energy, whisking cutlery out of a drawer, sweeping a pile of correspondence, magazines and school debris to the end of the table, and plonking a varied collection of place mats down in front of the chairs. Jenna watched with some amusement as she swept three tumblers off a shelf and arranged them in the appropriate position, then began torturing a white paper napkin into complicated folds, which eventually assumed the shape of a swimming swan.
“Can I do anything?” she asked Fran, who was straining rice into a sieve over the sink.
“No thanks, all under control. Ah, yes, there is something, can you open the beer? In the fridge door.”
“I’m not having beer,” Flora announced, beginning on the second swan: this was evidently her party piece. “Beer’s minging.”
Jenna got two bottles of Cobra out, and looked round for an opener. Fran handed one to her. “The longer she thinks beer’s minging, the better,” he said with a grin, and began to spoon rice onto plates in a generous manner that wouldn’t impress on Masterchef, but would certainly slake her hunger. Flora, protecting her hands with a tea towel, carried them to the table, while her father piled fragrant curry and vegetables into two large bowls, and Jenna carefully poured out the beer. “What have you got to drink, Flora?”
“OJ. It’s in the fridge, I’ll get it. You sit down, everything’s under control.”
Smiling, Jenna obeyed, while Fran kept his face commendably straight. “This all looks amazing,” she said, surveying the food. “And I love the swans, Flora. Do you do a lot of origami?”
“Dad gave me a book for my birthday. I can do birds mostly. And I won the prize at school for the paper plane that flew the furthest. It went right from one end of the hall to the other.” Flora sat down opposite her, putting her orange juice next to her swan. “It’s lamb rogan josh, saag aloo and tarka dhal. Do you like curry? Dad said you did, he said you used to eat lots when you were all students.”
Jenna remembered those takeaways, the foil trays and orange ghee, the nameless whole spices that someone always managed to bite into by mistake. “And did he tell you about the time he and Jon and Jason had a chilli eating competition?”
“No, what happened? Did he win?”
“No, Jason won, but he paid for it the next day,” said Fran. He passed her the rogan josh. “Jon and I had more sense, but Jason always had to go that little bit further. I think he ate about a dozen.”
“How did he pay for it?”
“I’m not going to go into that when we’re just about to eat.”
“Was it disgusting?”
“Painful,” said Jenna, remembering Jason’s cries of anguish from the bathroom the following morning.
“Eeeurgh,” Flora said, making a face. “You did only put two in, didn’t you, Dad?”
“One in the lamb, and a dried one in the tarka dhal. You’ll just get a wee tingle on your tongue.” He passed the first laden plate to Jenna. “Get stuck in, we don’t stand on ceremony here.”
The food was delicious, savoury and rich, with just the right amount of spice. She ate hungrily, and finished with satisfaction. “That was amazing. I didn’t know you were such a good cook.”
“Dad’s brilliant,” said Flora, who’d polished off her own plateful with gusto. “He went on a proper Indian curry course.”
“Not in India, unfortunately – Ipswich. Good fun, and very interesting. I put on about a stone.”
“You don’t look as if you have,” said Jenna, eyeing him. Fran was admittedly now considerably more substantial than the skinny, gangly boy she’d known at university, but he couldn’t remotely be described as fat.
“I managed to get it off again. Doing some of the work on this place helped.”
“And chopping wood,” said Flora, cracking the last poppadom and then offering it, as an afterthought, to Jenna. “That stove eats wood, it gets through about a tree a day. He’s got arms like Iron Man’s.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Jenna said, waving away the poppadom. “So – are you going to be ready for some work, after all this food?”
“I’m ready,” Flora said stoutly, though a look of apprehension had crossed her face. “Is there a lot of math? Because that’s not my best subject. My best subject is English.”
“I thought we’d start gently, with some fun stuff – I’ve got some puzzles for you. And some number games, nothing too difficult to start with. But most importantly, I’ve got this.” She scrabbled in her bag, and produced three pages of typescript.
“What is it?” Flora’s voice sounded dubious, and a little apprehensive.
“A list. Not a list of books, but a list of authors. You may know all of them, though I doubt it, because there are some names on there that I remember reading when I was your age. You won’t like all of their books, but I can guarantee that you’ll like some of them. And it’ll be fun finding out which ones are your favourites.”
Flora was already perusing the list. “I’ve read lots by Roald Dahl. I like Matilda best. And the Little House on the Prairie books, they’re cool. I thought Terry Pratchett wrote for grown-ups?”
“No, he wrote kids’ books as well, and they’re great, my three all loved them. Anyway, you can read as many or as few as you want, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a list of ideas.”
“Can you get them all as ebooks? I can download them onto my tablet.”
Jenna exchanged a wry glance with Fran. “I expect you can – certainly the more recent ones. And if some of them are only available as boring old-fashioned paper books, well, you’ll just have to grit your teeth and put up with it.”
“I like paper books too,” Flora hastened to reassure her. “But my tablet’s so cool. Mom bought it for me for Christmas. I can play games on it, and music, and take pictures, and go online also. Would you like to see it?”
While Fran cleared the table and made coffee, Jenna was introduced to the delights of Flora’s tablet, a device considerably more expensive and sophisticated than her own, though she was relieved to discover that a child filter was part of its software. Precocious Flora might be, but she wasn’t yet old enough to surf the net unsupervised, or to venture onto social media. Then she showed her the puzzles and number games she’d gleaned from various websites, and worked through some of them with the child before leaving her to complete the rest on her own.
“It’s just a start,” she said quietly to Fran, as they sat by the stove, sipping their coffee and delving into a large box of very indulgent Belgian chocolates. “I want to make it something she enjoys doing. How did she take the idea of going to boarding school?”
“OK, I think. I did as you suggested and compared it to Hogwarts, which went down well – good call, that, thanks. But you know what kids are like, they live in the moment, and I don’t think the reality of it has sunk in yet. Krystal sends her thanks, by the way, I told her I’d found a first rate tutor and she was pretty pleased. So plaudits all round.”
It was very pleasant to sit and relax near the warmth of the stove, chatting about trivia and occasionally reminiscing. Then they got onto the subject of the woods surrounding the cottage, and Fran proved surprisingly knowledgeable – though on reflection, Jenna decided that she shouldn’t be surprised, at university he’d always seemed to know a great deal about a wide variety of topics.
“It’s an overgrown mediaeval hunting park,” he said, leaning forward to close the windows on the stove, which was leaping with life after he’d put a couple of fresh logs on it. “Lots of really ancient pollarded oaks, some of them almost dead, and the holly trees are amazing – the biggest in the country. Some of them grow right up against the oaks, as if they’re trying to become part of each other. And the wildlife is fantastic, apparently, if you’re into invertebrates – which I’m not. Though Flora is always showing me dodgy creepy-crawlies she’s found under logs or in the woodshed.”
“I bet there are deer.”
“Yes, and they dine on my garden nightly. But I’ve decided to put up with the damage, because I love seeing them. There are lots of birds, too, owls hooting from all sides, and bats in the summer. If you’re not used to it, the wood can be fair spooky at night.”
Jenna couldn’t prevent a delicious shiver of primeval fear. “Have you gone into it after dark?”
“A couple of times, before Flora arrived. Now, of course, I can’t leave her alone in the house. But I’ve promised her a witchy walk in the dark dark woods once summer comes.” He sent her a wry, resigned look over his coffee mug. “If she’s still here.”
Jenna thought privately that it would be a huge shame if Flora wasn’t. The affection between father and daughter was obvious, and the child was delightful. If she was honest, she was really looking forward to tutoring her, even if it meant that she was whisked back to America in a few months’ time, to her hot-house future.
“Well, if you do that, invite me along,” she said. “I’d love to come.”
“Will do. Ah, hen, have you finished already?” Flora had come over, papers in hand, a smug expression on her face: no resemblance to the scary Wednesday Addams was visible now.
“Yes, I have, and they were easy-peasy.” The girl’s command of English children’s slang was impressive, given she’d only been at primary school for a term. “Jenna, are they really going to have questions like that in my exam?”
“No, they’ll be a lot harder. This was just a gentle introduction.” Jenna grinned at her reassuringly. “The tough ones start next week.”
Flora wrinkled her nose. “Do I have to?”
“Yes, hen, if you want to go to that great school,” said her father firmly. “Anyway, it’ll do your brain good, to have a thorough work-out. Use it or lose it.”
“I do use it! Mrs. Carroll is always giving me hard work, cos I’m on the top table.”
“OK, OK, but you work hard for Jenna, hen, she’s going to a lot of trouble on your behalf and the least you can do is return the compliment.” He gave his daughter a quick hug. “And no cheeking her.”
“Course I won’t!” Flora sent a vivid smile in Jenna’s direction.
“I know you, lassie. Trouble’s your middle name.”
“It isn’t, it’s Mary.”
“You know what I mean, you wee besom. Now, have you really finished or are you just kidding?”
“Dad! I’ve really, properly finished. All of them. Jenna, look!”
She was quite right, every question was completed, and almost all of them correctly. Jenna went through them with her, checking that she’d worked out the puzzles and got the number sequences right by deduction and not by chance. “Well done, that’s great for a first time. So, next Wednesday, about half five? The shop closes at five, so that gives me time to get here.”
“Can I come to your house instead? To see the kittens? We could work there,” Flora said beseechingly. “Please. I’ll work really hard, I promise.”
Jenna glanced at Fran, who smiled and said, “I don’t see why not – as long as you don’t spend all your time playing with the kittens. Would it be OK for her to come to you on Wednesday, then?”
“Of course it would.”
“Oh, thank you, Jenna! Thank you!” Flora cried, and flung her arms round her. “I’ve been longing to see them again.”
Driving back to Orford in the rainy dusk, Jenna reflected that a few months in Fran’s care seemed to have done Flora the world of good. The frighteningly self-possessed and precocious young lady she had met at the Maltings had vanished, replaced by this bright, enthusiastic and uninhibited little girl. It seemed such a shame that the rest of her childhood was destined to take place in the strict and highly competitive environment of that American school, but there wasn’t much that Jenna could do about it, save give Flora the means to find her own self and the confidence to take her own path. And she knew, from her own experience, how hard that could be for a child, when circumstances were against you.