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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

“Jon!” Jenna tried, and failed, to hide her surprise. “What are you doing here?”

A silly question, because of course she knew what he was doing here. He was Saskia’s latest squeeze. At once, all her friend’s coyness about the identity of her new boyfriend was explained. Dear God, Jenna thought, at once astonished and exasperated, is there a single one of my female friends that Jon hasn’t shagged over the past thirty years? She had a wild image of those he hadn’t – Ruth, Shelley, Mags, Cathy – forming an orderly queue outside his door, and resisted the temptation to giggle.

“I’ve come for supper,” said Jon, with his most charming smile. “If that’s OK?”

With an effort, Jenna regained her composure. “Don’t be silly, of course it’s OK! Come in. Fran’s already here, and Saskia of course.”

As if she’d been summoned, Saskia appeared in the hall, wine-glass in hand. She gave Jenna an unapologetic grin, and sashayed forward. “Jon, darling, you made it! I thought you’d get lost in those trackless forests, and be eaten by wolves.”

“I have been here before,” Jon pointed out, drawing her into an embrace. “Lovely to see you both. Jen, that smells delicious. How are you?”

“I’m good, thanks,” she said, and spoke no more than the truth. “You?”

“Great,” said Jon, with a smug smile that once she would have found irritating. He’d better watch out, she thought, Saskia’s perfectly capable of having him for breakfast and planting the leftovers in the garden.

“Anyway, let’s go through,” she said, squeezing past the lovebirds and returning to the sitting room. Fran was looking at her quizzically, and she gave him what she hoped was a meaningful glance. Then Saskia was ushering Jon into the room, asking him what he’d like to drink. “There’s wine, beer, OJ, mineral water – “

“I’ll have a beer, thanks. Hi, Fran, didn’t expect to see you here.”

If Fran had been surprised at Jon’s appearance, he hid it extremely well. Jenna was amused to see that they didn’t embrace, despite having known each other for more than thirty years, but shook hands. “Jen’s giving Flora some extra tuition,” he said, with a smile in her direction.

“Really? Does she need it? I was under the impression that she’s a pretty bright kid.”

“She is.” Fran sat down on one of the sofas next to the stove. “But Krystal wants her to go to an exclusive boarding school in the US, and there’s a tough entrance exam.”

“And how do you feel about that?” Jon enquired, taking a place opposite, with Saskia beside him, rather ostentatiously snuggling up.

“How do I feel? That’s not the point, it’s how Flora feels.” Fran took a swig from the bottle of beer he’d been given earlier. “And at the moment she’s very positive about it.”

“Boarding school, eh?” Saskia frowned. “Don’t tell me, she thinks it’s a cross between Malory Towers and Hogwarts. And I can assure you, it isn’t.”

“Did you go to boarding school, then?” Fran asked, with interest.

“Had to, darling, Daddy was a construction engineer and mostly worked abroad. Good educational facilities are a little lacking in the remoter parts of Namibia or Brazil.”

“I can imagine. So – did you like it?”

“Do you want my honest opinion?” Saskia fixed him with a look that for once was completely devoid of her usual irony. “I hated every minute. Boarding school is great if your home life is grim, or if you fit in with the rest of the crowd. I spent the first three years crying into my pillow every night, and behaving as badly as I could during the day so that I’d be expelled.”

Jenna stared at her in consternation and sympathy. She’d known for years that Saskia’s school career had been somewhat chequered, but she’d had no idea that it had been so bad for her. It was now painfully obvious that her aura of world-weary sophistication had disguised a great deal of misery and hurt. She thought of her own difficult childhood, and suddenly wondered if, subconsciously, that shared unhappiness in their early lives had drawn them to each other, despite the fact that outwardly they were so very different.

“But you survived,” said Jon, who, Jenna seemed to remember, had attended some elite grammar school in the Home Counties – there’d been a photo of him bandied about at uni, wearing an expensive-looking uniform complete, embarrassingly, with cap.

“Only just,” said Saskia, giving him a look. “All I can say is, thank the gods for smuggled vodka. The day girls used to sneak booze and fags in and sell them to us. We may have been known as the Inmates, but we weren’t short of cash. Guilty parents are usually pretty generous.”

“Hopefully times have changed,” said Fran, but he was looking very thoughtful. Of course, he’d been unsure of whether boarding school would be suitable for Flora, but hadn’t had much choice in the matter. Saskia’s lurid descriptions were undoubtedly not what he’d want to hear. Jenna opened her mouth to divert the conversation to safer topics, but was forestalled by her friend, tactless as ever. “Of course they have, darling, only now it’s drugs and internet porn and sexting. Still, I’m sure your Flora is sensible enough to avoid all the temptations and pitfalls. Though when you get a gaggle of girls together ...” She gave an exaggerated shudder. “My school made St. Trinians look like a vicarage tea party.”

“Sass, can you give me a hand with the food? I think I can smell burning.”

In the kitchen, Saskia looked at her indignantly. “The food’s fine. What was all that about?”

“Sorry, but Fran’s really unsure about whether boarding school would be right for Flora, but he can’t do anything about it because her mother has custody, or whatever they call it in the States. So telling him about all your awful experiences isn’t going to help.”

“Maybe not, darling,” Saskia said, obviously not mollified. “But they were awful, and I don’t feel like sweetening the pill, frankly.”

Jenna immediately regretted being so blunt. She said unhappily, “Oh, Sass, I’m sorry. I really am. I hadn’t realised quite how bad it was for you.”

“Well, most of the time I do my best to forget. But I didn’t want Fran’s kid going through the same thing.”

“If I’m honest, I don’t want it either. But it’s not up to me - or him, unfortunately. Did you meet Flora?”

“She was at your New Year bash, wasn’t she? Long dark hair? Quite precocious, I seem to remember.”

Jenna grinned. “That’s Flora. But she’s lovely - really bright, and quite quirky. Very much her own girl, I think.”

“She’ll need to be,” said Saskia darkly. “But I do get it, Jen – I’ll back off. Can’t be upsetting your inamorata, after all.”

“He’s not! Anyway, I thought ‘inamorata’ was a woman?”

“I thought it was a hippo.”

Hippo? How much wine have you had?”

“Not nearly enough, darling, and my glass is empty, hint hint. You must know the Hippopotamus Song. Flanders and Swann. I remember singing it at school.”

“Of course I know it!”

Saskia put her glass down on the draining board and warbled, surprisingly tunefully, “His inamorata adjusted her garter and lifted her voice in duet – mud, mud, glorious mud, nothing quite like it for cooling the blood. So follow me, follow, down to the hollow, and there we will wallow, in glorious mud!’”

Their helpless laughter brought both men to the kitchen door. “What’s so funny?” Jon demanded, looking as if he thought he was the object of their amusement.

“Nothing,” Jenna gasped, feeling the tears rolling down her cheeks. “We just got the giggles.”

“I’m sure I heard the Hippopotamus Song,” Fran said with a grin. “Isn’t that a wee bit random?”

“Randomness rules,” said Saskia, who had extracted another bottle of wine from the fridge and was in the process of unscrewing the cap.

“Remind me again, how old are you two?” Jon enquired, but he was smiling.

“Old enough to know better, darling, young enough not to care.”

That set the tone for the evening. Some semblance of formality was maintained at the dining table, which Jenna had set carefully with her best place mats, the ones depicting the unicorn tapestries – she had given Fran ‘Hearing’, Jon ‘Touch’, and Saskia ‘A Mon Seul Desir’, which seemed to fit them all quite well, and ‘Sight’ for herself, while the bowls, heaped with mounds of steaming pilau rice and the prawns in coconut milk, fragrant with spices, were laid appropriately on ‘Smell’ and ‘Taste’. While the food disappeared with gratifying speed, the talk ranged from university reminiscences, exchanges of news about their offspring (fortunately avoiding any further mention of boarding schools), and updates on work and careers. Jenna, mindful of the fact that both the men were driving home and couldn’t indulge in alcohol, restricted herself to a couple of glasses of wine, and to her secret relief, Saskia took the hint for once and also limited her intake. By the time she took the much depleted cheesecake back to the kitchen and found a space for it in the fridge, it was well after nine o’clock, and she put the kettle on. “Anyone want coffee? Or tea?”

“I’ll have a good strong coffee,” said Jon. “Got to get back to Norwich tonight, unfortunately – I’ve got an article for an archaeology magazine to finish, and the deadline is looming.”

“I seem to remember that you were always the one producing your essays at five past midnight on the day they were due in,” Jenna said with a grin. “One coffee, eye-wateringly strong – anyone else?”

The coffee machine duly spluttered into action, and she rejoined her friends, who had migrated back to the sofas by the fire. Jon glanced up as she sat down opposite him. “By the way, Jen, I’ve been meaning to ask you. Remember when we met at UEA back in September, when you were dropping Rosie off at the start of term?”

“Of course,” Jenna said.

“You said you wanted to pick my brains about something, but you never got around to telling me.”

“Ooh.” Saskia squirmed round to give her an arch look. “Sounds intriguing, darling, do tell all.”

“I would if I could remember what it was,” Jenna said ruefully. “Another senior moment, I suspect.” She cast her mind back to their conversation in the university cafe. It was a world away now: a world in which she was still ostensibly happily married, in which she lived in St. Albans, in which she knew nothing about Madison Briggs and her baby. That Jenna now seemed ludicrously delusional, cosily wrapped in her middle class bubble, unaware of what was lying in wait for her. With an effort, she dredged a memory from the recesses of her mind. “I think it must have been to do with the casket.”

“The casket?” Jon looked puzzled. Briefly, she explained. “It’s a seventeenth century embroidered cabinet. I inherited it from my grandmother, and she asked me to research it, try and find out who made it. So I’ve been tracing it back in time – I’ve got as far as the eighteenth century.” Belatedly, part of her was wishing she hadn’t mentioned it, even though these were her closest and oldest friends, and she wanted to share her discoveries with them.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” Saskia said. “Have you seen it, Jon?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Nor me,” Fran added. “Though I’ve heard a lot about it. Jen, you’ve got it here, haven’t you? Can we have a look?”

She went upstairs to retrieve it. Every time she opened her wardrobe door, some shard of panic invaded her: would it still be there? And every time, of course, she saw the squat, anonymous wooden container with its worn brass lock, hinges and handles, giving no inkling of the wonder that lay inside it. With a smile, Jenna pulled it out, picked up the cotton gloves which Emma James had given her, and took it back downstairs. Saskia had already cleared the coffee table and wiped it clean, and she set the precious box down on it.

“It doesn’t look very impressive,” said Jon, his expression dubious. “I presume the star of the show’s inside it?”

“It’s the original box,” Jenna told him, with a prickle of irritation. ”You’d be a bit shabby too, after three hundred odd years.” She put the gloves on, acutely aware of three pairs of fascinated eyes glued on her, and turned the key. With care, she raised the lid, and lifted out her unexpected, embroidered inheritance.

Saskia, of course, had seen it before, but the two men leaned forward eagerly to get a better view. “That’s amazing!” Jon said, with evident and gratifying admiration. “How old did you say it was?”

“About three hundred and fifty years, probably. If I can find out who made it, I can narrow the date down a bit – they were generally made by very young girls, twelve or thirteen.”

As they expressed their surprise and astonishment, she showed them how the doors opened, and the drawers behind them, leaving the exquisite miniature garden till the last.

“And there are only a couple of others with that, didn’t you say?” Saskia commented. “One’s in a museum, and the other – get this, guys – is owned by the Queen.”

“Apparently so,” Jenna said.

“It must be worth a fortune,” Jon said. “Aren’t you worried that something might happen to it?”

For some reason, Jenna wasn’t as annoyed with him for mentioning this, as she had been with Rick. She said, “I’m going to offer it to the V&A on semi-permanent loan. They have all the resources to conserve it properly, look after it, and put it on display so everyone can enjoy it.” She hadn’t known until she spoke that this was what she had decided, but it felt very much the right thing to do.

“But first,” she added, “I’ve promised myself that I’ll finish my research into its origins. I’ve probably only got another two or three generations to go.”

“So you won’t need my help?” Jon asked, sounding disappointed.

Jenna thought about it. There was something in her that jealously wanted to keep this to herself, make her discoveries all her own work, but that was being childish. These were her closest friends, why shouldn’t she share what she’d found with them?

“I’m not sure,” she said at last. “My grandmother said it had been passed down through the generations, mother to daughter, and I assumed she was right about that, but she wasn’t – there was at least one occasion where it must have gone from mother to son, because there weren’t any daughters.” She explained about what she’d learned from her visit to Hessett Church.

“How do you know that was the only time?” Jon asked. “It could have happened more recently, and you’re researching the wrong family altogether.”

“I know I’m not, because of the name – my great-grandmother was called Winifred Emily Merelina, and Merelina crops up again and again. That’s how I knew that the mother-daughter line had been broken when I saw the memorial tablets – they were both called Merielina Leheup, and they turned out to be grandmother and granddaughter, with a son in between.”

“You’ve lost me, darling,” Saskia said. “But I’ll take your word for it.”

“So this mysterious MJ, who made the casket, could have been called Merelina too,” said Fran.

“That’s what I’m thinking and hoping. Now all I have to do is go back another two or three generations, because the grandmother Merielina Leheup in the church was born around 1734. If you assume twenty or thirty years per generation, then that would make her grandmother born about 1670 or 80, when caskets like that were fashionable.”

“So Google her,” Jon said. “That’s the obvious thing to do. There can’t be many Merielina Leheups around.”

“I know. But I’m sort of reluctant to finish it – I’ve really enjoyed doing this and I don’t want it to end. Not yet, anyway.”

“Well, would you like me to do it?” Jon was already taking out his phone.

“No, please don’t!” It came out more urgently than Jenna had intended, and he looked at her in rather hurt surprise. “Why not?”

“Because it’s her casket, her project, and her research, you plonker,” said Saskia, her affectionate tone softening the bluntness of the words. “Don’t take it over now, when she’s almost done.”

“OK,” Jon said, putting the phone back in his pocket. He gave Jenna his most disarming grin. “Sorry. I tend to get carried away by the magic word ‘research’. By far the most interesting part of what I do – the real chore is writing it all up afterwards. Which is why I’m going to have to tear myself away by ten – I’ve got work to do tomorrow. And that reminds me,” he added, turning to Fran, “How’s the writing going?”

To Jenna, his tone sounded very slightly patronising, but Fran didn’t seem to notice it. “I’m glad you asked – I’ve got something I need to run by a critical audience.”

“You haven’t brought your guitar, though,” Jenna said, puzzled but interested.

“Don’t need it – it’s all on here.” He pulled his keys out of his jeans pocket and indicated the tiny USB stick attached to the ring. “The wonders of modern technology. Can I plug it into your laptop, Jen?”

She took it off the shelf beside the fire and put it on the coffee table next to the casket. When she’d switched it on, Fran leaned forward and slotted the stick into the port. As the other three watched with interest, he pressed a couple of keys and stroked the touch pad. The same delicate tune that he had played to her a few weeks previously, on the day she had first realised that her father might not be dead after all, dropped into the quiet. Then his disembodied voice broke in, quiet and reflectively tuneful.

Winter falls on the town,

Dusk comes soon in the day.

In the cafe,

We sit and we talk,

While outside the snow is drifting down.

Guitarist is singing of love sure and true,

But I don’t know if I love you.

People hurrying past,

Certain of what they’ll meet.

In the cold street

We smile and we walk,

While round us the snow is falling fast.

And you make me laugh, and such friends are few,

But I don’t know if I love you.

The town is lovely at night,

Darkness hides all the scars.

Under the stars,

We sing as we walk,

Through snow in the strange streetlamp light.

Don’t know where I’m bound, or if you’ll come too,

And I don’t know if I love you.

Winter has come to the town,

Crystal cold in the night.

Under street light,

We stand and we talk,

You smile through the snow falling down.

Guitarist was wrong, there’s no love sure and true,

But I know that I’m in love with you.’

There was a moment of silence when the song ended, and then Saskia let out a long expressive sigh. “Wow, that was something else. I love it.”

“Thank you,” Fran said. “The lyrics are a wee bit rough, they’ll need more work. But the tune’s OK, and that’s the most important thing.”

“It’s good,” Jon said, nodding appreciatively. “Who are you going to give it to? Do you have someone in mind?”

“I do, but if I told you, I’d have to kill you. Let’s just say it’s a woman, and a household name.” Fran took the USB stick out of Jenna’s laptop and closed the lid with a gentle but final snap.

“You couldn’t give us a teeny tiny hint, darling?” Saskia asked, putting a deliberately wheedling tone into her voice.

“Absolutely not.“ He grinned at her, softening his refusal, and then turned to Jenna. “Did you recognise it?”

Yes, she had recognised both the tune and the subject of the lyrics. Suddenly, as the song played, she’d been transported back to their student days long ago. They had all frequented a cafe bar in a backstreet just off Norwich city centre, often spending whole afternoons there, making bitter coffee and slabs of the indigestible, allegedly homemade fruit cake last as long as possible, talking, gossiping, setting the world to rights or discussing relationships. The cafe owner, a middle aged man who fancied himself as a potter – the cakes always appeared on thick, misshapen brown plates, and the coffee cups never sat neatly on their saucers – had operated an ‘open mike’ policy every Saturday, and Fran had played his first gig there one snowy winter evening, so shy and nervous that his voice had been barely audible above the sound of his guitar, while they all watched encouragingly and applauded him with an enthusiasm that the other customers didn’t seem to share.

Was Marino’s still there? She doubted it. After thirty years, Johnny Marino and his small, voluble Italian wife were probably long since retired, or even dead. But Fran’s song had brought it all back, those wonderful heady days when anything seemed possible and a snowfall was a thing of wonder and delight, rather than an inconvenience to be cursed.

Jenna dragged herself back to the present with an effort. “It’s the tune you played me a while ago, isn’t it? With a few extra twiddly bits here and there.” She wondered suddenly who had been the ‘you’ in the song. Kirsten, the Swedish girl who’d had a crush on Fran for a while? It seemed unlikely, she’d been pretty but intense, slightly scary, and entirely lacking in any sense of humour. Elaine, who’d sometimes sung with him? She was attractive and had a good voice, but was a committed member of the university’s lesbian group. There’d been another girl on his course, Abbie, but with her sharp tongue and extreme political opinions she didn’t seem to be Fran’s type. Certainly not Jules, who was going out with Jon at that time, before he took up with Jenna. Or Sarah, perhaps? She’d been unattached until Jon switched his fickle attentions to her, leaving Jenna in the lurch.

All those tangled, fraught relationships seemed trivial now, and their younger selves like children playing, pretending to adult feelings and adult roles that they hadn’t fully understood. Anyway, although much of the song seemed to be based on reality, there probably hadn’t been any ‘you’. Any writer could employ many different components to create a book or a lyric, and imagination usually played a much bigger part in the process than most people realised.

“Like it?” Fran asked. His eyes, the colour of good dark chocolate, were warm and enquiring. She smiled at him. “No, I love it. And the words too.” She wasn’t going to ask him whether ‘you’ was a real person, that would be prying. Fran was a good friend, but she respected his privacy.

Jon had no such scruples. “So who is she?” he asked, with a knowing look. “Or is she a figment of your imagination?”

“Don’t be nosy,” said Saskia, nudging him. “Anyway, songs don’t have to be autobiographical.”

For a very brief instant, Fran’s eyes met Jenna’s, and she realised that he had guessed that she remembered Marino’s. Then he grinned. “No,” he said mildly. “No, they don’t. Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance.”

Saskia snorted. “That’s the one where he sings ‘Spare him his life for this one cup of tea’.”

"'Pork sausages', you mean," Fran corrected her.

“’From this monstrosity’,” said Jon, who could be very literal at times.

“They’re called ‘Mondegreens’,” Jenna told him. “There’s an old folk song where you’re supposed to sing ‘And laid him on the green’, and it was misheard as ‘Lady Mondegreen’.”

“’Gladly my cross-eyed bear’,” said Fran. “We used to sing that in kirk when I was a wee lad. Or ‘I will make you vicious old men’. ‘Fishers of men’,” he added for the benefit of Jon.

“That Madonna song,” Saskia said. “’Young girls with eyes like potatoes’. Or ‘The girl with colitis goes by’.”

“What’s that from?” Jon was looking increasingly bewildered.

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – ‘the girl with kaleidoscope eyes’.” Fran was laughing too. “Have you really never heard any of those before?”

“’The ants are my friends, blowin’ in the wind,’” Saskia sang, warming to her theme. “’Should I give up, or should I just keep chasing penguins?’ ‘See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen’.”

Jenna wasn’t going to be outdone. “’I can see clearly now, Lorraine has gone, I can see four lobster claws in my way.’”

“This is getting very silly,” Jon said, but he was laughing too now, and Jenna was pleased to see him put his arm round Saskia and give her an affectionate kiss.

Silly it certainly was, she thought much later, when Jon and Fran had said good night and returned to their separate homes, and Saskia, having polished off all the remaining wine, had taken herself up to bed. But her sides were still aching with laughter, and her memory of the evening was tinged with a happy glow. She undressed and snuggled down under the duvet, with the kittens, twin furry musical hot water bottles, curled up beside her, and thought about Fran’s song. She’d said to him quietly, as they exchanged goodbyes on the doorstep after Jon’s departure, “Was it about Marino’s?”

“I thought you’d guessed. Yes, that was part of it. Great times, good memories. It needs a chorus or a key change, though, and I’ll have to put in some serious graft on it before I can call it finished.”

“I wonder if Marino’s is still there,” Jenna had said. “Unlikely, I suppose, after so long.”

“It’s not. Johnny and Pia retired to Italy, oh, about ten years ago I think. It’s a tattoo parlour now. Sign of the times!” He grinned at her. “And before you ask, no, I’ve never had one.”

“Nor me. Saskia has, though. And Rosie went through a phase where she kept nagging me to give permission, and I kept telling her no.”

“If she wants a tattoo, she’ll get it. You’d be surprised how many of the students have at least one.” He kissed her briefly on the cheek. “Thanks for a great evening, lobster claws and all. OK for Flora on Wednesday?”

“Great. See you then.”

She smiled now, knowing that if Rosie got a tattoo, there was nothing that she could do about it. In fact, a small, tasteful red rose on her shoulder, say, could actually be quite attractive. And Patricia would loathe it.

Thinking of Rosie, and her mother, reminded her that she hadn’t yet told her daughter that her grandfather was still alive, and that she had an Australian family they’d known nothing about. She would have to do so tomorrow, before the twins let something slip. But she wasn’t, yet, going to send any kind of olive branch to Patricia. She wanted to give her time to think about the consequences of her actions, and to contemplate the necessity of an apology. Not for the first time, Jenna felt far more adult than her own mother.

And there was something else she must do as soon as possible – she must try to finish her family researches. Despite his words earlier, she wouldn’t put it past Jon to Google Merielina Leheup and put the last piece into the puzzle with a triumphant flourish. He’d always had a strong competitive streak. But this was her family, her hunt, and she wanted to bring her efforts to a final, glorious conclusion, without anyone else’s assistance. She had a strong sense that MJ was waiting for her, eager for her descendant to solve the mystery and reunite the marvellous casket with the full name of its creator. And once that was done, she could get in touch with the Victoria and Albert Museum, and offer it to them on indefinite loan, so that the world could share its delights as all the women in her family had, for more than three hundred years.

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