Updated: Aug 28, 2019
“Do you think I’m making a fuss?”
Saskia considered, a large cup of frothy cappuccino hovering by her mouth. She took a swig, licked her lips clear of the chocolate-sprinkled foam, and put it back down. “No, I don’t. Well, you know me, a fully paid-up member of the ‘all men are bastards’ tendency. Apart from Greg, of course – he’s OK. For the moment. Did it go all right on Saturday?”
Her head still full of Rick’s phone call the previous day, Jenna hastily adjusted her train of thought. “Oh, you mean at Nan’s flat? Yes, he was very helpful. Nothing of any great value, but the silver cruet set might fetch a hundred or so.”
“Good, I’m glad he was useful. Makes a change – he can’t even put up a simple set of shelves in India’s room. I had to do it myself in the end. I really don’t know why I bother with men, they’re either hopeless or vile.”
“Oh, come on, aren’t you exaggerating? Just a little.”
Saskia surveyed her friend, a wicked smile on her face. “Nope. What do the twins think?”
“About Rick not being there to see them off? They seem OK with it, but it’s hard to tell, especially with Joe, he puts up such a big show of bravado all the time. I think Tom minds, but he’s not going to whinge about it.”
“It’s weird, men and their sons,” Saskia observed. “Honestly, when Jamie got to his teens, every time they met, he and The Mistake used to prowl round each other like they were in a wildlife documentary – you know the scenario, young pretender to the old lion’s position in the pride, that sort of thing. I half expected David Attenborough to pop up behind the sofa when they got particularly argumentative.” She adopted a hushed, reverent tone. “And here we see the young male squaring up to his father, beginning the fight for dominance ... “
“I’ve never heard you call him anything other than The Mistake,” said Jenna, diverted. “What was his real name?”
“Ian. Ian Prentice. And he was.”
“A Prentice, or a mistake?”
“A mistake. But then marrying your first real boyfriend usually is.” Saskia surveyed Jenna, eyes narrowed. “Was Rick yours?”
“No, I’d had a couple of serious boyfriends at uni before I met him. He was the brother of one of my housemates – Jules, you’ve met her, she’s the one with five kids who lives in France. Rick’s family,” said Jenna, with some feeling, “is huge. Tentacles over three continents. And on my side, it’s just me and my mum now Nanna May’s gone.”
“You must miss her a lot.”
“Oh, I do. She was such fun. And she had a really wicked sense of humour, too. I think that’s where Joe gets it from. And he certainly knows how to rub Rick up the wrong way. It’s like he’s got a big key on his back, and Joe winds it up and sets him going like a clockwork toy. There are some things I won’t miss when they go. I hate arguments.”
“And I love ‘em. Perhaps that’s half your trouble,” said Saskia, who could be relied upon to be brutally honest: it was one of the many reasons that Jenna valued her friendship. “You put up with too much. Sometimes, it pays to put your foot down hard. What are you going to do once the kids have flown the nest? Go back to teaching?”
“God, no. I’ve had enough of that. Ofsted, the National Curriculum, box ticking and league tables and constant government meddling – it sounds like a nightmare. Most of my old colleagues have taken early retirement or switched to something less stressful. No, in the short term at least, I’m going to research the casket.”
“Ah, the famous casket. When do I get to see it?”
“As soon as it comes back from the valuation. What am I going to do with it, Sass?” She glanced round the coffee shop, but there was no-one they knew, and the noise level was loud with Saturday morning chatter and the bustle of the market outside. “The specialist said it might be worth fifty grand.”
“Jesus Christ on a bike! Really?”
“Yes, really. And before you ask, no, I’m not going to sell it. But I might lend it to a museum, once I’ve found out a bit more about it. I’m planning to trace the family back, because it was passed down from mother to daughter, according to Nanna May, but it’s not going to be easy. Most people who research their family tree are following a particular name, but that’s not possible when you’re looking at just the female line.”
“It’s weird, isn’t it?” said Saskia. “Women don’t have their own names, ever – unlike men. They have their father’s name, and then they have their husband’s name. I’ve been a Page, then a Prentice, then an Owen, and now I’m back to being a Page again. And that’s that. Even if I have a dozen more husbands before my hundredth birthday, I’ll still insist on being Saskia Page. Name changing is just too exhausting, darling. As Liz Taylor probably didn’t say, but should have.”
Jenna grinned. “And I’ve only ever been a Clarke and then a Johnson. Nanna was a Goodwin, then a Talbot. I’ve got her birth certificate, that’ll help. And they run a ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ course up at the library, I thought of joining that. Don’t worry, I don’t plan to sit around moping once Rosie's gone to Norwich. What are you going to do when India’s at Birmingham?”
“Work, darling,” Saskia drawled, sipping her cappuccino. “Some of us do work for a living, you know.” She owned Tallulah’s, a vintage clothes and accessories shop just off the Market Place, which had successfully weathered the recession and was now thriving again. “We’ve got a fashion show in a few weeks, fundraiser at one of the local secondaries. Fancy being a model?”
“You’re joking, of course. I’m at least a foot too short.”
“Not a problem. We have the heels. We have the dresses. We have the bling. Get yourself a decent haircut and put on some slap, you’ll be fine.”
Jenna looked down at her loose White Stuff top and faded jeans. “What are you hinting, Saskia Page?”
“I never hint, I tell. And I’m telling you, darling, that you could look really good if you made the effort.”
“The last time I made the effort was at that Midsummer Ball Rick dragged me to, and God it was tedious, having to be polite to all his corporate suits and their wives all night, and the band played jazz and swing and I hate jazz and swing. Not even Robbie Williams could have made it cool. I’d have had more fun down at the Horn watching Ryan play.”
“Now there’s a thought. But, seriously, Jen, you don’t make enough of yourself. Unlike me.”
That was certainly true. Saskia had always been larger than life, both in looks and in personality. Tall, with a statuesque figure and a riot of dyed red hair, today she was wearing a white lace shirt over a flowing Sixties patchwork skirt, and a great many bracelets and rings. On most forty-something women it would have verged on the ridiculous, but Saskia had always been able to carry it off, and, as she pointed out, her clothes were an advertisement for the shop. It was curious, Jenna had often thought, that she and Saskia were such good friends, because to outward appearances they were complete opposites: she was the quiet one, unobtrusive and understated, whereas Saskia was loud, opinionated, vibrant. Parties revolved round her, as did men, who seemed mesmerised by her personality and vivid looks, while Jenna preferred to melt into the background. But they had met when India and Rosie had joined the same toddler group on the same day, had hit it off immediately, and had now been best friends for sixteen years. Jenna suspected that both of them found in the other something that they themselves lacked, and certainly their personalities dovetailed with the neatness of a Chippendale cabinet.
“I’m quite happy the way I am,” she said. “I’m not swimming in the dating pond, I’m sitting comfortably on dry land, looking at all the singletons thrashing about.”
“You mean you don’t bother to dress up for Rick?”
“I wore that gorgeous plum velvet gown to that ball, easily the most glamorous thing I’ve ever stood up in, and the only thing he said about my appearance all night was, ‘You’ve got a bit of lettuce stuck in your teeth.’ I rest my case.”
“Oh, well, that’s what happens after – how many years of marriage?”
“Twenty three. Time flies when you’re having fun.”
“Twenty three years,” said Saskia wonderingly. “I managed five with The Mistake, God knows how - I could only stomach India’s father for about five months. Since then, it’s been one damned man after the other. ‘Damned’ being the operative word in a lot of cases. What’s the time?” She scrabbled in a patchwork leather bag in brilliant rainbow colours, fished out a Smartphone and studied it. “Sorry, darling, got to get back to work. Shelley’s off at twelve, and I can’t leave Olivia on her own or half the stock would walk while she’s texting her boyfriend. Give my love to the boys and say bon voyage and have the time of their lives from me, and give Rick a kick up the backside just to remind him who’s boss. Oh, and don’t forget, I want a good look at that casket when you get it back!”
She swept out of the door, leaving more than one pair of male eyes following her progress through the crowds of market shoppers until she disappeared from view. Grinning, Jenna finished her own coffee. Saskia obviously thought that she should have been more self-assertive over Rick’s extended stay in New York, but there didn’t seem to be much point. He’d made his mind up and there was nothing she could have said to change it, especially not with the Atlantic in between them. So why make a fuss over spilt milk? She’d already decided not to mention it when he did finally get back. If he wanted to apologise, that would be great, but she very much doubted he even considered that he might have something to apologise for.
Meanwhile, she had her own appointment to keep, and May’s birth certificate in her handbag. She left the coffee shop and headed for the library.
Jenna had half hoped that Rick might change his mind and fly home at the start of the week, but the great day arrived with no more communication from him than a couple of terse texts confirming that he would be returning on Friday. At least she hoped he would be in the country when Rosie started at university in a couple of weeks. Taking the twins to Heathrow was simple compared to driving up to Norwich with her little Peugeot laden to the gunwales, and then driving back alone to an empty house.
Well, there was no time to feel sorry for herself, in the bustle of loading the car and ensuring that Tom and Joe had the absolute necessities – tickets, passports, visas, bank cards, phones and enough cash to see them through to Sydney, with brief stop-offs in Dubai and Singapore. Everything else was, at a pinch, losable.
“Of course we’ve got everything, Mum!” said Joe indignantly. “We’re not six any more, you know.”
“I do know, but I can’t help remembering that time I took you two and Ryan to a gig in London, and I asked him after about ten minutes if he had his ticket, just checking, and there was an awful pause and then he said he’d left it on the kitchen table.”
“And his dad had already found it and was following us in his car, and caught up with us a few minutes later after Ryan phoned him,” said Tom. “But we were sixteen, and Ryan’s always leaving something behind. He turned up at the Horn on Friday without his reverb pedal.”
“Is that vital?”
“No, but he was really pissed off about it.”
“And he left his wallet in the pub a couple of weeks ago,” Joe added. “Are you ready, Mum? ‘Cause we really ought to go or we’ll be late.”
They were not in fact late, and the M25 was for once so free of jams and accidents that they arrived with an hour to spare. Once the boys had checked in and handed over their luggage, which was surprisingly not over the weight limit, there was time for a coffee and cake before the moment of goodbye, which was something Jenna had been dreading. She made a valiant and largely successful effort to keep the stupid tears at bay, but told them sternly that they could not avoid a parting hug. They submitted with good grace – Tom rather more accepting than Joe, who was wired with eagerness to be gone – and then she and Rosie were waving to them as they vanished into the departure lounge, with boarding about to commence.
“Will you miss them?” she asked her daughter on the way home.
Rosie considered, chewing her long, straight brown hair, a habit she’d had since childhood. “Not really. I missed them when they first went off to uni, but then I had GCSEs to think about and it all sort of faded away.” She added, with a quick sideways grin, “The house will seem seriously quiet without them.”
“Won’t it just! Well, Dad will be back on Friday, so until then it’s just you and me, kiddo. How are you sorted for uni stuff? Have you got a list of what you’ll need? Like pots and pans and cutlery, for instance? Bedding? And don’t forget your teddy.”
“Mu-um! Of course I’d never forget Sid Vicious!”
Sid had been a fifth birthday present from Saskia. He had been adapted to her instructions by one of her suppliers, who normally created bags and scarves for her shop, and he sported a scarlet Mohican, a faux leather jacket complete with chains, and bright red tartan trousers. To Jenna’s surprise, it had been a case of love at first sight, and Sid had not only accompanied her many times to sleepovers and even to Brownie camp, causing much amusement amongst the parents, Brown Owl and Tawny, but had been regularly smuggled into school in her backpack.
“OK, OK, of course Sid goes too. Have you read all the books on your reading list?”
Rosie was going to study English Literature and Creative Writing. She’d won a national prize for one of her poems last year, and had ambitions to write a novel. She nodded. “We do the nineteenth century in the first year, so I’d already done quite a lot for A Level. I read ‘Wuthering Heights’ again, though, I really love that book, Cathy is amazing!”
“I bet she was a pain to live with, though. And Heathcliff too. Never put the top back on the toothpaste.”
Rosie giggled. “And always left the toilet seat up.”
“I didn’t think they had toilet seats in those days.”
I’m going to miss Rosie more than the boys, Jenna thought, parking the car in front of the garage. Tom and Joe had been away at university for three years, so she was used to not having them around. But she and Rosie, apart from a six month blip in Year 9 when her daughter had temporarily fallen under the spell of a ‘cool’ older girl who had serious issues with her own mother and assumed that everyone else had to follow suit, had always got on really well. They were very different to look at – like Tom, Rosie had Rick’s dark hair and blue eyes, whereas Joe had inherited Jenna’s paler colouring and freckles – but they shared many of the same tastes and characteristics, and, crucially, the same sense of humour.
The phone was ringing as Jenna opened the front door, and she grabbed the receiver before it could stop. “Hello?”
“Hello, is that Jenna Johnson? It’s Emma James here.”
“Hello, good to hear from you.” She made a T shape with her hand and the receiver, for Rosie’s benefit, and went into the sitting room.
“I was just ringing to give you an update on what I’m doing. I’m making a complete inventory of the casket, describing and photographing all the panels and the interior, and of course I’ll pass that on to you when it’s all finished and typed up, but I wondered if you had ever looked closely at the house on the lid?”
Jenna tried to visualise it, but the details in her memory were annoyingly hazy. “No, not really.”
“Well, I’ve compared it with other examples and when you do that, it’s obvious that yours is much more realistic. The houses on most caskets are stylised and look more like castles or palaces than an ordinary house. The designs were obtained from pattern books, so it’s no wonder they all resemble each other. Google ‘seventeenth century needlework caskets’ and you’ll see what I mean. I’ll email you a photo of yours, so that you can compare them. What I’m trying to say, is that I think that the house on your casket is a picture of a real house, and that if you can identify it, you’ll go a long way towards finding out who MJ was.”
“That’s amazing. Thank you so much.”
“Not at all. I’m loving this, I really am. Have you had time to do any family research yet?”
“A little, but I’ve had rather a lot of other things to think about - my sons went off to Australia today, backpacking. They’re hoping to be gone for about a year.”
“Wow, that’s exciting for them! I went to America after uni, but it was a six month study period, looking at US embroidery and quilting. Anyway, you must have loads to do, so I’ll let you get on. I’ll email the study details to you when I’ve finished, which should be in about a week, and there’ll also be a colour printed hard copy for you in the post. And I’ve asked around other experts, and without giving too much away, they all think that fifty thousand pounds was a pretty conservative estimate for a casket of that quality and uniqueness.”
“I still can’t quite believe that,” Jenna said.
“Believe it,” Emma said. “Because it’s true.”
She rang off just as Rosie came in with two mugs of tea. “There weren’t any biscuits left, the twins had the last ones I think. That’s something I won’t miss, thinking there’s food and finding they’ve nicked it all. Who was that on the phone, and what’s amazing?”
“It was Emma, the specialist who’s valuing the casket.”
“Is it worth more than fifty thousand?”
“Quite possibly yes, but that’s not what was amazing. She thinks the house on the lid is a real house, and she’s emailing me a photograph of it so I can have a good look.”
“Cool! So perhaps you can find out where it is.” Rosie picked up her mother’s laptop from its accustomed place on the coffee table and passed it to her. Obedient to her curiosity, Jenna logged into her emails. Sure enough, the most recent was from Emma, sent only a couple of minutes previously, with a large attachment. Rosie sat on the sofa beside her, her slim legs in their thick black tights curled up beneath her, cradling her mug of tea and peering eagerly at the screen as the picture came up.
In close-up, the stitching was much flatter than the figures around it, placing the house firmly in the background. Despite Emma’s enthusiastic words, Jenna did not think it was particularly realistic. Tiny stitches delineated the roof and a few chimneys, there were two towers, one at each side, with round roofs, in a faded green, and a central stone structure that might have been a porch, or possibly a gatehouse. Two rows of darker threads indicated windows. It was impossible to guess at the size of the house, for although the trees surrounding it were roughly in scale, the deer immediately in front looked as if it must be about ten feet high.
“The colours are so bright,” Rosie said wonderingly. “It looks almost modern, doesn’t it? I love that soft red on the house, it almost flickers, like a flame.” She looked round at her mother. “Please don’t sell it. We’re not poor, are we? We don’t need the money. I want to keep it, it’s so beautiful, I love it.”
“I promised Great-Nan that I wouldn’t, and I intend to keep that promise, whether it’s worth five grand or five hundred grand. And would you like it if one day it was yours?”
Rosie nodded, her eyes shining and her cheeks pink. “But we have to look after it properly – it’s been so well cared for, all that time, it’s an awesome responsibility. What if we were burgled, and it was stolen?”
“I know. But Emma James – the expert – she suggested that we might think about lending it to a museum, once I’ve done all the research into who made it. And that seems like quite a good idea. It’d be safe, and they could do any conservation work that it needed.”
“And best of all, it’d be on display and other people could enjoy it too,” said Rosie. “It needs to be seen, it’s been hidden away too long.” She grinned. “Perhaps it’s enjoying being studied and looked at and handled, after so long in the dark.”
“Being kept so long in the dark without being handled is the main reason why it’s in such good condition,” Jenna pointed out. “Well, we’ll see. There’s no hurry. And although I’ve made a start on tracing back our female line, it’s going to take a very long time. I’ve only got as far as Nanna May’s grandmother, and it took me ages in the library just to find out her name.”
“Not as big a mouthful as Nanna May’s mother, who was, wait for it, born Winifred Emily Merelina Durrant in Colchester in 1890. I got that off Nanna May’s birth certificate. She was christened just plain May Goodwin, perhaps her mother wanted to give her something completely ordinary.”
“Winifred! I quite like it,” said Rosie.
“Usually shortened to Winnie, I think. If you have a daughter, don’t you dare call her that, she’d have people neighing at her when she went to school. Anyway, Nanna May’s grandmother, mother of Winifred, was Emily Jane Gooch, and she was your – I think I’ve got it right – great-great-great grandmother.”
“Winifred probably because they liked it, Emily for her mother, so where does the Merelina come from? I’ve never heard that name before.”
“Neither have I, so I Googled it and apparently it’s the name of a genus of microscopic sea snails.”
Rosie snorted. “So were our ancestors like, mermaids?”
“I doubt it somehow. Perhaps Merelina was a made-up name, just for her.”
“Or a family name.”
They looked at each other. Jenna felt a frisson of excitement. She had told Saskia of the difficulties involved in researching the female line, with the name changing at every generation, but if a Christian name had been handed down along with the casket...
“Could be, but equally it could be, say, her grandfather’s mother’s name or something like that.”
“My brain’s beginning to whirl,” Rosie said, finishing her tea. “I can’t get my head round all these grandparents and great grandparents. You’ll have to draw up a family tree. Anyway, what if it hasn’t been passed down from mother to daughter? There could have been a generation where there weren’t any daughters. And if there are lots of sisters, how do we know which one had the casket? Oh, hang on, of course we’ll know because we’re working backwards, not forwards.”
“Exactly. The problems will start once I get back past 1837. That’s when compulsory centralised registration came in. Since then, it’s all been indexed, and there are websites where you can just look up a name and it’ll tell you when and where all the people with that exact name were baptised, or married, or buried. Then with that information you can order up a certificate and it’ll give you more details, like mother’s maiden name, or father’s occupation, and their address. There are census records too. But before 1837, you have to rely on parish registers, and just hope your ancestor wasn’t a Non-Conformist, or a Catholic, or a Quaker, because they have separate records.”
“It sounds awfully complicated,” Rosie said. “I’m glad it’s you doing it and not me – oh, I’m interested, of course I am, but not that interested, and anyway I’ll be off to uni in ten days’ time and I’ll have lots of other things to think about. Mum, as you’re online, can you look up the flight number? Joe said there was a website where you can track a plane’s path and see exactly where it is in real time.”
“It’s only just taken off,” Jenna said, glancing at her watch.
“I know, but can we have a look anyway?”
With the flight number duly entered, mother and daughter surveyed the map, upon which a short red line had begun to appear, heading south-east out of London. Jenna was visited by a sudden superstitious apprehension that it might disappear if she watched it. She said, “Are you out tonight?”
“No, I want to finish The Woman in White. What’s for supper?”
“Bread and pullet, as Nanna May used to tell me when I asked her.”
Rosie giggled. “She was fun, wasn’t she? I really loved her.”
“So did I. And I miss her. Lots. But we mustn’t be too sad – she was ninety-five, after all, she’d had a good life, though it was quite hard at times I think, especially when she was young.”
“Great-Granddad was killed in the war, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, on D-Day. Granny was only about three – too young to remember him. So Nanna May had to bring her up alone. They were quite poor and lived in a council house. She did cleaning and laundry for people, to make ends meet. But Granny got into grammar school and did a typing course and became a school secretary – which is where she met your grandfather, he was a teacher at the school. They got married, and had me.”
“And then Granddad was killed in a car crash.”
“Yes, when I was twelve.”
Rosie’s pale, open face creased with sympathy. “That must have been awful! I can’t imagine how awful it would have been. So that was why you went to Nanna May’s for a year.”
“Well ...” Jenna hesitated. She didn’t want to bad-mouth Patricia, but on the other hand it was quite difficult to explain why she had had to go to Maldon to stay with May. In the end, she decided on an expurgated version of the truth. “Apparently my mother was in the car with my dad when the accident happened. She had to spend a lot of time in hospital. There wasn’t any other family, so Nanna May offered to have me. I didn’t want to go at first – I’d just lost my father, my mother was ill, I didn’t like the idea of going to a school where I didn’t know anyone. But, you know, I soon realised that actually it was quite fun. Nanna May was never much of a one for rules and regulations. When she caught me drinking her sherry, she had one as well - to keep me company, she said. She taught me poker and we used to stay up late watching dodgy videos. But she also insisted that I behaved myself at school and did all my homework on time.”
She didn’t say that the year at May’s had been like the opening of a cage. Patricia, with her strictures on polite behaviour, her insistence on dressing smartly, her desperation to leave behind her council house roots, had tried to influence and control every aspect of Jenna’s life, and although her father, by then a deputy head teacher, had been much more easy going, he worked long hours and was usually too busy to pay her much attention, even when at home.
“Cool,” said Rosie. “I bet you didn’t want to go back to London.”
“No, I didn’t, but I knew I had to.” Jenna remembered the bleakness of that return to a cold, unwelcoming house, where all traces of her lost father seemed to have vanished as if he himself had never existed, and where her mother had tried in vain to reassert the control she had once had over her daughter, finding that a year in May’s company had changed Jenna from a docile child into a mute and stubborn teenager. The only saving grace had been May’s move from Maldon to Watford, close enough for Jenna to visit, though it took over an hour to get to her small terraced house on bus or tube from Finchley. It had been May who had bolstered her resolve to go to university to read history, while Patricia had wanted her to get an office job after her A Levels. When Jenna’s results had been very much better than anyone, including herself, had expected, her mother had changed her mind and urged her to take up the offered place at the University of East Anglia. And so she had flown from the nest as far as her wings could carry her, and had spent the subsequent twenty five years unobtrusively defying her mother because, if she was honest with herself, she was too cowardly to have a full-scale confrontation.
Would Rosie be the same? No. Rosie knew nothing of grief, or mental breakdown, or a needy, demanding parent. Her past was unclouded, her future bright. Like her brothers, she would take everything life offered, with open hands and a happy heart. And Jenna secretly rather envied her. She would love to be a carefree student again, with nothing on her mind but the next essay, the next boyfriend, the next night at pub or club. Well, she’d had her years of fun, and now it was Rosie’s turn. And she was determined not to be a ‘helicopter parent’, forever showing up and interfering. One of Tom’s school friends had gone to UCL, and had complained that his mother visited him three times a week to pick up his underwear and take it home to wash, and also inspected his cupboard in the communal kitchen, to make sure he was eating healthily.
“But it all turned out OK for you in the end,” said Rosie.
“Yes, it’s made me the wicked deranged woman I am today,” said Jenna. “Oh, look, while we’ve been talking, Tom and Joe seem to have arrived over France. They'll be almost at Sydney by this time tomorrow - and in a fortnight's time you'll be settling in at uni.”
"I can't wait." Rosie's eyes were shining with excitement and eagerness. "I'm going to miss you, Mum." She twisted round and gave Jenna a hug.
"And I'm going to miss you, and the boys. But I'll have lots to do, with the casket and everything, and we can keep in touch via Skype and Facebook."
It wouldn't be the same as having Rosie here, sharing cosy chats over cups of tea. But unlike Patricia, she was willing to let her daughter go, and live her own life free of interference.
One thing was certain - whatever happened, the future was going to be different.