The engagement party
Somehow, he could not engage with it all. There were the usual tag-alongs, mustling in on – what should have been – Zoe and Jeremy`s best day since their chance meeting on the beach at Gwenver. Wet-suited, she was body boarding in the vivid whiteness at the edge of the incoming tide. He was riding the waves, exhilarated by the huge spring breakers. Their eyes met as he took a breather, his surfboard carried, nonchalantly, as he passed her.
`Hey. Some good waves, uh?` he called out. He was friendly. Nice smile; open face. It went from there. That was 18 months ago.
Now he sat, sipping a Heineken, questioning the big picture. They had had a good time. Together, learned a great deal about life. That was exciting. New. She was – still is – something else when it came to superficial things like how she dresses; does her hair; smiles. But, did he really want to be tied down? He had got caught up in the net of other people`s expectations. Of course, you`re going to get engaged, aren`t you? her mother had asked, firing a warning shot over what was, until then, a carefree, uncommitted relationship that was to their liking, and going nowhere fast. He knew Zoe did not want to be lassoed to marriage, even if it was just a distant proposition. So, how was she persuaded that their engagement was necessary? Even more to the point, how did he agree to it?
The latter was easier for him to understand. It was all to do with those manipulative eyes that shone from her face like two lighthouse beacons leading the lost through perilous seas. He could not say no. He wanted to. He tried to; but failed to find the right words. It was too late. When Zoe makes up her mind about something, she becomes obdurately immovable. And, even more so, when her mother is the unrelenting force behind the decision. Her mother reminded him of the prevailing westerly that battered the rear of their house for at least six months of the year.
This day should be a celebration, he told himself, looking grimly at the empty glass. Everyone else was enjoying themselves, ignorant in their belief that Zoe and Jerry were happy in their engagement. Seeing only what they wanted to see; what they expected from the two youngsters. They failed to pick up on the signs that spoke of friendship rather than marriage. But, Zoe and Jeremy knew that, as a married couple, they were ill-matched. There`s was an imperfect relationship.
As the idiotic laughing and party poppers blasted their way into Jeremy`s muddled thoughts, he felt a tinge of sorrow for them all gathered into the tiny lounge behind him, caught up in the hollow merriment of such an unreal situation. Everyone, that is, except Zoe. She knew. She wanted it no more than he did. Regretted submitting to her mother`s demands. Wanted more from life than what she gleaned from her parents` marriage. `It is solid and robust,` her mother had told her. So why was dad always away? If his daughter mattered to him, why was he not here? The answer? He was on holiday – by himself – photographing puffins in the Shetland Isles. That`s about as far away as he could get from his wife without actually going abroad. Says a lot about commitment to his family. Granted, Zoe had not heard her parents arguing much. She knew why. Dad was always treading carefully. Living under the suffocating umbrella of mother`s domination. Not a good recipe for a happy marriage. Zoe wondered where Jerry was. She went to find him.
`All alone with your thoughts and lager?` she greeted him.
`It`s empty,` he responded, looking up at the tell-tale frown upon her lovely face.
`I`ll get you a refill …`
`Are you coming back in?` she asked, expecting a negative reply.
`No. Going home. I think it best.` He got up, made for the old wooden gate at the bottom of the garden, ducking almost in two to pass the hydrangea bush – it had not been pruned for the past two years. With no parting smile or wave, he walked out along the alleyway that would eventually take him home; never to return.
Zoe watched him incredulously. She recalled the arguments. Not surprisingly, they had become more intense and frequent since the engagement was announced. It was like a death sentence had been pronounced upon them. No turning back now. Finished. No tears; she did not feel in the least like crying. Some would say the expected, `told you so`. Too young – Zoe, nineteen; Jeremy, two years older. Too much of life to live without being tied down. She agreed. Shrugged her shoulders as if shaking dust from her shoes and walked back into the house.
Popular music of the 70s was blaring out from the portable CD player. Mother`s choice. Mungo Jerry seemed a tactless inclusion; and yet, she did not know. Will not be surprised; or sorry. Perhaps, she might even be concerned for Zoe. No need to be.
This was not Zoe`s taste in music. Her love for Bach and Handel had begun when being soothed as a baby. Brought up on it from the very beginning. Mother did not play her favourite music then. Just those beautiful, calming pieces that appeased the baby`s tendency to scream and wail. It worked. The flavour of the classics had remained. Little wonder that she was attracted to art; it all merges into one glorious creative scenario. And yet, she was not entirely averse to contemporary music, even if `contemporary` was nearly 40 years old. She listened to Simon and Garfunkel – the next track of mother`s selection. The words spoke out as if they had been written just for her. She stopped and listened, dreading anyone interrupting her thoughts. No-one did. “Sail on, silver girl,” attracted her attention. “Your time has come to shine; all your dreams are on their way.” Yes. Those words seemed to be written for her. The dreams; ambition sorely left to simmer for so long. Now she was free. Those words were prophetic. Your dreams are on their way, resounded in her head as she moved on through the house.
She passed her mother sitting on the bottom tread of the stairs, in deep conversation with Mavis Widdicombe. She had been `stood up` by her new boyfriend, and was in torrents of theatrical tears. Mother was good when there was trouble; seemed to take control of the situation. Zoe looked round at all the friends and family who were, apparently, enjoying themselves. Riotous laughing continued. The whole scenario was false, like a superficial world lacking in form and substance, of which Zoe was not a part. She could not wait to get back to her painting. That is what mattered. Art. Renoir; Picasso; Monet. They were her favourites; especially Monet. She loved Monet so much. Was brought up on Monet.
As a child, mother would read The Magical Garden of Claude Monet over and again at Zoe`s insistence. She would study the pictures for hours at a time. Monet, himself, looked kind, approachable, with honest eyes. Even allowing for author`s licence, cynically understood in maturity, she readily reflected upon that book with the same open eyed innocence of years past. Remembering, too, pretending to be Julie absorbed in the beauty of that mysterious garden in France.
`Where`s Jerry?` someone asked, breaking into those safe, carefree days of her childhood.
`Who?` she responded, absently, not wanting to leave Monet for the present.
`Jerry. You`re fiancé,` the voice laughed.
`Oh. Jerry. He`s gone home. Headache. Gets them really bad. They come on quickly,` she ventured a half truth. No point in avoiding the question. Soon, everybody would know, anyway. But … not tonight. It seemed tasteless, somehow. Unnecessary. Let everyone carry on in their blissful ignorance. Tomorrow will do.
The following morning
`You`re right, my dear. I`m not in the least surprised,` Zoe`s mother exclaimed. They were in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. Mother was suffering from too many glasses of cheap white wine. Hadn`t drunk so much in years. Zoe had broken the news that the engagement was off. That didn`t last long, mother thought.
`So, where is he now?`
`At his home, I expect,` Zoe replied. How should I know. What a silly question. It merely reflected the effects of the rare overdose of alcohol upon her mother`s usually razor sharp brain.
`So … he just walked off?` she continued, as if Zoe`s announcement was untrue.
`What do we say to the family? All those people, last night, came to celebrate the engagement. And … what about the presents? Do we just give them back?`
`I presume so. This has never happened to me before,` Zoe replied, a little bemused by it all. The words had the effect of changing the focus of mother`s attention to her daughter.
`You don`t seem very upset, Zoe?` was a question.
Zoe thought carefully about her reply. No need to say too much. This was not the time for deep, personal analysis. `I feel it`s the right decision,` is all she said.
Mother weighed this up in her foggy mind. `Yes, I think you`re right, my dear,` she mumbled. `When I saw him arrive in that scruffy sad ida tee shirt, I thought he could have made more of an effort. Warning bells sounded.`
Zoe was relieved and smiled. Her face was open, innocent with youth; eyes as blue as a cloudless summer day. Mother had not seen her, as such, for years. Not through the painful journey of adolescence; into the explorations of teenage life; through the passionate rebellion of independence. No, this was the Zoe that mother had sorely missed.
She hugged her daughter. Caressed her long, golden hair with a hand, and warmly whispered, `you can now put all your efforts into what you want to do. Your painting. I love to see your work.` Zoe was thrilled by her mother`s affirmation and encouragement. It had always been there, but guarded; it had never presented itself so overtly.
`Thank you,` she said, excited. `That`s exactly what I`ve been thinking these past few hours.` It was not exactly the truth, but was as much as Zoe was prepared to admit. She had, in fact, been rueing her lack of time and motivation for months. There was always a question mark hanging over her frequent visits to the alluring beaches with Jeremy. Then there were the late into the night parties with other like-minded folk. Last year`s spring and summer had been a massive obstacle, like a seductive demon. The same was threatening to happen again. What she really wanted was time for art. Time alone in her bedroom- come-studio. Time with Monet. Mother clearly understood this as well.
`When does dad return?` Zoe asked, changing the subject. Her mother did not know exactly.
`The puffins will be gone back to sea by the end of this month. Then he`ll return. Should`ve taken enough photo`s to keep him in work for a year, at least.`
`Where will he go then?` it was asked with a cynical tone which Zoe did not attempt to hide.
`Down Under. At least, that`s the plan for next year,` Mother sighed. `But … things change for your father.` As long as he can get away – be alone for a fortnight or so – he will be able to face the other 50 mundane weeks of the year, mother thought. Brendon was a `maverick`. He found family life a struggle, constantly needing space for himself. She understood why it was, but, even with her knowledge, she still found him difficult to live with. She was quite relieved that Zoe and Jeremy`s engagement had stumbled; for her own experience told her, marriage should never be taken lightly.
On the Wednesday
Puffins, but no pain
Brendon Daniels woke early; it promised to be another dry and sunny day. He peered out through the window of the caravan at the sea loch; dark blue and foreboding at this early hour. Westward facing, the sunrise could only be perceived by the streaks of orange, painted on the gentle ripples of the water, and sprayed generously upon the few fluffy clouds, dotted here and there in an otherwise perfectly clear, blue sky. Such a diluted light blue; painted in water colours.
It was the day he planned to return to Sumburgh Head, the most southerly point of the Shetland mainland. He had ventured there on the day he arrived, eager to catch sight of the puffins. He had not been disappointed. The jolly, portly birds, in their black, white and orange summer plumage, resembled tiny creatures in dinner jackets – albeit without bow ties. Humorous they may have looked, but, once airborne, they flew amazingly fast, their credibility restored.
Photographing the birds was delightfully easy to achieve on the grassy slopes of the rugged coastline; sitting, preening, sleeping, eating, playing, basking in the sun, flying low overhead. They were such agreeable little things, keeping themselves just far enough away from human interference to be safe.
When he reached the Head, again, there seemed to be even more puffins awaiting him. He had parked the Citreon hire car and walked uphill along the old road towards the lighthouse, with the evocative shrieks of the multifarious sea birds. There was a sense of freedom up high in this far northern part of Britain. The wind – a southerly – tugged at his silver hair and he swallowed lung fulls; soft, invigorating. It was good to be alive this July morning. His thoughts meandered due south and west where his heart rested. Was she enjoying the morning as much as he? He had seen her face already; the image greeted him as he awoke from a restful night. Was she well? Could she ever be truly well?
He followed the frequently trodden path towards the Head. He was not alone. There were others with cameras; some, even larger than his. Capturing the moment. A smile from a camouflaged woman. A nod that said `Good morning,` but did not welcome a discourse of any length.
`Lovely day,` Brendon replied, enthusiastically. She nodded again. Smiled. He realised that was enough. He did not want to talk, either. Heaven forbid!
There they were. Little black and white friends greeted him by remaining still, like colourful garden ornaments. He was too far away to disturb them. But not far enough to prevent good photography. He zoomed in for some close-ups of their pretty heads; their orange beaks made a good balance of colour. Beaks closed; beaks slightly open. And one, having made a neat landing from the sea, had an eel pressed possessively within its beak, long enough to hang out at each side. Excellent timing. A photograph to treasure.
Two puffins sat together on a lower ledge. They looked like besotted lovers, eyes blinkered, focussed only upon their heart`s desire. It was a masterpiece of natural beauty. He stood back a pace. Still too close. Stood back again, eager, excited …
The camera shot upwards; briefly, he viewed the sky. There was some awareness – a frightening reality – that he was falling. Then … nothing. Not even pain as his head thumped upon the rocks, some 30 feet below him. His body bounced like a rubber ball, and dropped another 10 feet, finally coming to rest on a rocky ledge just above the formidable, treacherous ocean. He lay, unmoving, still, peaceful. No pain. He had not felt the pain.
Rosemary Daniels was absorbed in the “Forgotten Garden”. The telephone sounded. Her thoughts did not stir from the early 20th century. It continued to ring, determined to bring her back from the safety of a semi-fictitious world. The piercing sound finally penetrated into those thoughts of Cornwall in 1913 and she stood up abruptly, dropping the novel from her lap. Reluctantly, she walked the three paces across the room and picked up the handset.
When she heard the Scottish accent she immediately thought it was her Uncle Alec. Soon, she realised, it was not him. The messenger was too young, grim, factual, unambiguous.
`Yes,` she replied, `Brendon is my husband …` The rest of the conversation drifted into unreality. Dead? He can`t be dead. No, they`ve `phoned the wrong number. She sat back in her armchair, placed the book back on the table next to her. Then rearranged it. And, again, shifted it around; anything was better than thinking about that telephone call.
She sat, frozen in disbelief. Brendon was DEAD. And then, to prove that she had not even begun to accept what she had heard, wondered when he would be returning. What train he would be arriving on. Whether he would have eaten. Perhaps a light meal would be best, just in case he was hungry. I know why he needs to keep going away, she thought to herself, remembering her early morning conversation with Zoe, last Sunday. He needs time for himself. Spent so many hours alone as a child. That was the foundation upon which his life developed. No wonder he needed his own space. He was never demanding, though. In fact, Rosemary concluded, he was too easy-going. Rarely argued. Agreed to most things. It was only fair that he should be able to have some time away. Time for himself.
Focusing upon Brendon, Rosemary`s thoughts merged with the message of the telephone call. Suddenly, the facts began to take shape and substance within her head. He is dead. Fallen down a cliff in Scotland. Killed instantly, she was told. Dead when the helicopter lifted him from the rocks. Pronounced dead on arrival at Lerwick. Those were the facts. She could not believe it; needed time for them to pass through her natural defences. At that moment it was merely a case of survival. Life had suddenly become unsafe; frightening; utterly dark, like extinquishing the lights on a winter`s night.
She remembered there had been some post delivered in the morning. Quietly, light-footed, she walked to the front door and collected them from the carpet. An electricity bill. The latest magazine from the RSPB. And a postcard. She held it whilst putting the other two on a small mahogany table in the hall.
The picture of a puffin instantly told her who had sent it. A puffin. She turned it over and read …
Dear Roz and Zoe
Having a great time. Weather dry and sunny – haven`t needed that new anorak yet ! Seen lots of these little friends, already.
Going back Wednesday to take more photos.
See you soon.
Love, Brendon xxx
The result of reading the postcard was quite staggering. Rosemary threw herself onto the sofa and sobbed into one of the pastel green cushions. Tears erupted like an explosion of volcanic ash. Then, the realisation of the moment turned her tears into anger. She thumped the cushions with clenched fists, whitened with exertion. `My man is DEAD!` she shouted, repeatedly. And then the tears returned. She remembered buying him the anorak. `Just in case it rains hard,` she had told him. `You know what Scotland`s like. Your old coat won`t keep you dry anymore.` His new anorak. I wonder if he was wearing it when he …` More tears. Longer this time. She did love him. Their relationship was just different from other people`s. They were happy, in their own way. But now … he was gone. She would never see him again. Dead.
Then she remembered. She would have to go up north to collect his things. To speak with the Procurator Fiscal. Probably to identify the body. There were so many things to arrange. Travel to the Shetland Islands. She did not really know where they were; up north, somewhere distant. Funeral. Family and friends to inform. And, of course, Zoe to be told.
Poor Zoe. How will she take it?
Two days later
A dark discovery
The small aircraft touched down at Sumburgh. So this is Shetland. Rosemary and Zoe alighted and filled their lungs with the invigorating Scottish air. It had been a long day, full of waiting in busy airport lounges and within stuffy `planes that inter-connected between Newquay and where they now stood, almost 900 miles from home. Strangely, Rosemary thought, Brendon felt closer to her in this distant place.
It was like the day she had visited him in Gloucestershire for the first time, in the early days of their relationship. His home, not hers. Everything seemed new; oddly unfamiliar. Just as it did, then, stepping upon Shetland soil for the first time.
Zoe looked around, bemused. She had not even started to come to terms with her father`s death. She remembered when he left home on this last trip. It was breakfast time and he was ready to depart when Zoe appeared, somewhat irritably, in the kitchen. Morning was not her best friend. If only she had known it was to be the last time she would ever see him … but, alas, she just mumbled a goodbye, accepted his kiss on her right cheek, and turned to the packet of Weetabix, to which she paid proportionately more attention. Okay, she thought, responding to her conscience, I was cross with him. Going away when I was to be engaged. He didn`t even mention it. But … if I had known then what I now know … our parting would have been different.
The taxi was waiting to take them on to the caravan, as arranged all those miles away in St Ives. When they arrived, the owner was waiting for them and opened the car`s rear door just as if they were royalty. They were following a programme of events. That is how Rosemary was able to cope. She felt detached from all that was happening. But everyone was so kind and helpful. When there were minor inconveniences, they apologised profusely. These were just details; the big picture was all that mattered.
The caravan sat on the edge of an inland loch, water almost lapping at the low wall, protecting it. The view across the water was breath-taking. Rosemary could understand why Brendon had wanted to be here. And then they were escorted inside. A tiny bedroom, a small kitchen and lounge/diner, and a toilet were all neatly within. Zoe sat at the dining table and looked out at the loch, imagining what it would be like, on a happier occasion, to sit there and drink wine as the sun set over the water. She admonished herself for thinking such things in the light of the sobriety of their visit.
Most of Brendon`s personal possessions were in the bedroom. With the caravan`s owner respectfully waiting in his car, they faced the task of collecting them. And that is when Rosemary saw them. The photographs. No doubt the first thing Brendon would have seen upon waking on that last morning of his life. There were the smiling faces of Rosemary and Zoe. But, in a smaller frame, another woman`s face. Who was she who had suddenly invaded their grieving?
Zoe noticed her mother looking at the photograph. She saw in her face a mixture of confusion and anger. Clearly, whoever it was, had a special place in her father`s affections. She put a comforting arm around her mother`s shoulders. `I think I`d better take this,` she said, removing the picture frame from the bedside table.
`I don`t know who she is,` her mother admitted, in a whisper.
`Nor do I,` Zoe said, reacting with youthful suspicion.
`Let`s not jump to conclusions, Zoe,` her mother replied, defending Brendon`s memory. `There may be a simple explanation for this …`
`Maybe,` Zoe reflected, doubtfully.
For the remainder of their time in the caravan, they worked in silence. Zoe guessed what mother`s thoughts would be. She also hoped there would be no other surprises waiting to materialise. Her father`s address book would need to be checked through, if only to notify people of what had happened. There again, a clue to this nameless lady may be found.
Rosemary thumbed through a notebook which she quickly realised contained personal entries, rather like a journal or diary. This, she thought, may need to be studied later. And there were several books which she did not recognise. Why did he carry a Bible? she wondered.
Rosemary`s programme of events would take in a visit to the Procurator Fiscal, and then to be escorted to Sumburgh Head. To the exact place where Brendon had breathed his last breath of life. But they were planned for the next day.
That evening, in their hotel room, they pored over the address book to see if they could find any link to the unknown lady of the photograph. To no avail.
`Maybe she doesn`t exist,` Zoe said hopefully.
`Doesn`t exist? What do you mean?`
`Well, perhaps she`s a model or someone like that,` Zoe explained. `Or else, she could be someone from his past …`
`No, Zoe, this photo`s too new,` Rosemary replied as she inspected the picture frame.
`Hold on a minute,` the youngster called out, eagerly. `Let me look at it again.` Her mother passed the frame to Zoe, who immediately turned it over, inspected the back, then undid the clips that held it all together. She removed the photograph. Indeed, it was not old. She turned it over and found what she suspected. Written on the back of the photo were these words:- to Brendon, may God`s love be with you, always, Winifred. No `dear` or `love` or kisses.
`Strange,` Zoe said, surprised by what she had read, `this doesn`t seem like something given from a lover to her lover.` And immediately she regretted her insensitive words as, at the very thought, tears gushed from her mother`s eyes. `I`m sorry, mum, I …`
`You just said what you were thinking. I confess to having thought the same. But … I agree with you, the wording does seem odd if they were … lovers.`
`At least we`ve got a name to go on,` Zoe said with a half smile. She lifted the address book and initially opened it at `W`, wondering if the lady had been entered by her Christian name. No entry. `That means we`ve got to go through every page until we find a Winifred,` she sighed. But it did not take long. There she was, entered as Winifred O`Hara, 26 Elm Terrace, Broadleigh, Newport, Wales.
A sudden shock of realisation struck Rosemary. `Your father had been making regular business trips to Wales. He never told me exactly where he was going, and never mentioned anything about them when he returned.`
`I`m so sorry, mum,` Zoe said, as they cried together. This all seemed so unfair. It was bad enough that Brendon was having a secret affair, but worst still that Rosemary had uncovered it, especially at such an emotional time.
Brendon Daniels` funeral was probably the most difficult day of Zoe`s life so far. She hated all the black. Seemed to oppose all that she held beautiful. She was tired of crying and the pain of seeing mother constantly in tears was draining. The service at the crematorium was dull, which suited her mood. The weather overcast, but calm. Then there was the drive back to St Ives. At least the hour seemed to pass quicker upon the return journey.
And there they all were, in their blacks and looking grim. No doubt feeling that way, too. Dad was only forty-eight. Zoe willed that day to end. Why was it, she wondered, that some days seem like forever, whilst others, when you`re enjoying yourself, go by too fast?
There were so many people crammed into the house in St Ives. She could not help but draw comparisons with the previous occasion when it was full – the party for the aborted engagement. Then she saw her – she looked so mature and self-assured – her young cousin, with her parents. Zoe had met Jayne`s father at the party. She had been so thrilled for her, having just been united with him for the first time in her life. But, now, it all seemed raw and uncomfortable. What Jayne had recently gained, Zoe had lost. Their eyes met. Jayne half-smiled. It seemed appropriate, under the circumstances. Zoe bravely walked to her and they hugged.
`Zoe, I`m so sorry,` Jayne whispered in her cousin`s ear.
`Thank you for coming. I know mum will be pleased as well.` And then Zoe remembered the picture frame and the words on the back of the photograph.
`Jayne, I want to ask you something that`s been troubling me for a few days.` She ushered her young cousin to the open rear door, leading to the garden. It was a long shot, but worth a try.
`We found this picture, recently. It belonged to my dad,` she said, producing the photograph from her shoulder bag. `The words have puzzled us. Seeing that you go to church, I wondered if you have any idea who this woman might be.`
Jayne studied the photograph and the words, thinking carefully before replying. `She is obviously someone who believes in God,` she said. `Otherwise, why would she have written those words. No … I don`t know who she is. Sorry.`
Zoe was disappointed. `I`ve tried desperately to find an answer to this. We found it beside his bed …` she whispered.
`Well, mum is putting on a brave face today. But, all the rest of the time she doesn`t speak and does nothing all day. She just sits and stares at the ceiling most of the time. I wish I could find a way of helping her.`
`I know someone who could help,` Jayne offered. `He`s a friend of mine. He`s to do with the church but he`s not all churchy, if you know what I mean.`
`Yes, I think so. Mum hasn`t any time for the church. Says it`s a waste of time … but I know you`d not agree with that.`
`No, I wouldn`t. But I do understand why some people think that way. We`re all different, aren`t we? Anyway, I`m sure my friend would come and see Aunty Rose, if I asked him. Would you like me to?`
`Yes. Where does he live?`
Jayne thought for a moment. `I don`t actually know … but I know where to find him. I`ll go and see him soon and then let you know what he says.`
`Thanks, Jayne. Don`t mention it to mum, yet. I`ll do that. Ok?`
Two days later
Arrangements are made
There was sense of relief in Jayne`s strides as she walked through the city. For once, her visit to the `man with the cards` was not directly to do with herself. It felt good that she was doing something to help Zoe and her mother. She had always liked Zoe. They were quite similar in the way they thought and had never suffered from lack of conversation, when together. Rosemary was Marcia`s older sister, by five years; which, she calculated, was the same age difference between Zoe and herself. It meant that both Rosemary and her mother had their daughters when they were the same age. She smiled at the coincidence, feeling light and bouncy as she entered the Cathedral square.
The `man with the cards` was there. Jayne stood at a distance and waited for his eyes to rest upon her. She knew they had a special relationship and was confident that he would be pleased to see her. He was.
`Jayne. Jayne, my friend,` he came towards her with eyes twinkling and a broad smile. Yes, he was pleased to see her. `Is this just a social visit to cheer this old man through the day?`
`Old? You`re not old, sir,` she replied, happily.
`I feel it sometimes,` he replied, quietly, pretending it was a secret. `Or is there something you want me to do for you?` he asked, giving her an easy opening to say what was on her mind.
`It`s not so much for me but for my cousin, Zoe.`
`Ah. You`re on a mission. I could tell,` the Cardman laughed. Then he saw the sadness in Jayne`s eyes. `Excuse me for having a little fun. We all need to come up for air sometimes. And that`s what I`ve just done and I`m delighted to see you.`
`Thank you. My uncle, Brendon, recently died after having an accident in Scotland. He was Zoe`s father.` The Cardman listened intently. `When Zoe and her mum went to collect his things from the place where he was staying, they found a photograph of another woman … beside his bed.`
`Another woman? That sounds conclusive. Are you sure she`s actually another woman?` the Cardman asked, gently, knowing Jayne would understand his phraseology.
`That`s what they think.`
`But they don`t know for certain?` the Cardman asked.
`No. That`s why I`ve come to see you. Zoe tells me that Aunty Rose is in a state of shock over it all. Not surprisingly. She doesn`t talk unless she has to. Eats very little. Doesn`t sleep much. And just stares into space. Zoe doesn`t know what to do to help her.`
`That`s where I come in? Am I right?`
`Yes. I thought – there`s only one person who can help my auntie, and that person is you.`
`Thank you, Jayne.` The Cardman smiled. Even he appreciated affirmation. `Do you want me to go and see her?`
`I was hoping you`d ask that. Yes, please. The only thing is, she lives in St Ives.`
`Mm. That`s a long way to ride my bike.`
`I could ask dad to give you a lift. I`m sure he wouldn`t mind.`
`That would be good, Jayne. I`d like to spend some time with your father. I like him a lot.`
`I`ll ask dad first, then I`ll set it up with Zoe. Could you make it in a morning?`
`Yes. Any morning.`
`Even on a Sunday?` Jayne queried.
`Yes, even on a Sunday. My `parish` knows no bounds.`
`She doesn`t go to church,` Jayne told him, hesitantly, almost as a warning.
`Now, young Jayne, what`s that supposed to tell me?`
`That … that she may not believe in the things we do.`
The Cardman laughed. He was pleased with Jayne`s mature answer.
`Everyone is important, Jayne. No-one is outside of God`s love. Although there are too many who don`t know that. Perhaps your Aunty Rose is one of them. Would that be right?`
`Yes, sir. I don`t think she knows anything about God.`
The Cardman smiled, mischievously. `She will do when I`ve seen her. And, probably, the word `God` will not even be mentioned.`
Curtains are lifted
It all happened as arranged. Matthew collected the Cardman from the Cathedral square at 11am. He drove him to Rosemary Daniels` house in St Ives, and waited in the car.
`Be as long as you need. This novel, I`m reading, has got me gripped,` Matthew confessed, enthusiastically, like a small boy who had just learned to read. He turned the engine off.
The Cardman looked back as he alighted from the car. `Science fiction? Do you believe in all that stuff?` he asked, teasingly.
`Sure. Don`t you, then?`
`There`s enough to do on this earth without worrying about little green men from other planets,` the Cardman laughed. He climbed the six, steep, narrow steps that led him to the front door. Not a good place to live for someone with limited mobility, he thought to himself. Then he turned and looked down over the harbour. St Eia`s church stood proudly in the foreground and the colourful panorama of seaside shops flowed round in a half circle, embracing the golden sand and deep blue sea like a mother comforting her new born baby. It was a view that visitors would pay hundreds of pounds to see for a week`s holiday. And it was worth every penny, he concluded.
He was expected. Zoe opened the door before he rang the bell. `You must be Jayne`s friend,` she greeted him, with a genuine smile but sad eyes.
`Yes, I like to think myself privileged to be called that.`
`Come in, you`re very welcome. My mother is in the front room. I`ll lead the way.`
Her words `come in` echoed in his head. You see, Jayne, he thought, they may think they do not know God. But they still welcome him. Rosemary was sitting in her armchair. She stood up when he entered the room. `Can Zoe get you a cup of something?` she asked.
`Yes, please. Coffee. Strong, no sugar – if that`s alright?` He sat down on the sofa, opposite Rosemary. She broke the awkwardness by speaking about the weather and asking if he was well. The Cardman was familiar with this way to gently begin a conversation. If that is what Rosemary needs, then that is how we do it.
`I`m very sorry to hear about your husband,` the Cardman came to the point of his visit. He looked around the tidy room at the array of bereavement cards. Brendon was obviously a popular man.
`It was a shock …` Rosemary bravely told him.
`And still is,` he replied, with understanding. She nodded. The Cardman looked at Zoe, tears filled her eyes as she remembered.
`I don`t know why my daughter took it upon herself to arrange this. I`m okay, really. But it seems that my sister`s girl, Jayne, has had something to do with it.`
The Cardman sat quietly. He was expecting a rebuff. It had to happen. Rosemary was a proud lady and he, a stranger to her. He replied, quietly, `I`m grateful that you have agreed to see me.`
`I know it`s early days yet. We have only just begun to take it in. I`ve not been able to talk about it to anyone … except Zoe,` Rosemary spoke gently and openly.
`Everything has to be in your time, Rosemary. There`s no need to feel guilty if you`re not ready.`
He`s easy to talk to, Rosemary thought. She had caused so much fuss when Zoe had told her he was coming. And she had said the most unkind things about Jayne; not trusting her judgement, calling her a kid with no experience in life. How could she help? Apart from the fact that she did not want everyone to know about the picture. It was personal. Rosemary`s business. And, to an extent, Zoe`s too. But nothing to do with that schoolgirl with a zest for `saving the world`. To Rosemary, that religious stuff was nonsense. And then Zoe had told her that someone was coming to see her. A friend of Jayne`s, she said. A friend? What sort of friend? A man in his sixties and a mere girl? It didn`t seem right; didn`t seem normal. No … she resented being persuaded into seeing this man, who was now with them, seated on their sofa, sipping away at their coffee. She eyed him up and down. He was not smart like those Jehovah`s Witness people who knock the door at the most inconvenient times. Sorry, she would always say, I`m not interested. And just close the door on them. But he did not look like one of those. He doesn`t look like someone I could just close the door upon, she thought. A green and white striped shirt, with no tie, and beige trousers was casual. Not that you can `tell` a man by what he wears, but it`s a guide. And his hair is not short and doesn`t look as though he had spent the first hour of the day combing it. Not that it matters, anyway. And yet, his smile is authentic. Yes, that`s the word … authentic.
Rosemary suddenly felt the pangs of guilt. Guilt at the way she had shouted at Zoe when she first told her of his visit. Guilt at all the nasty things she had said about Jayne, even though she believed them to be true; some things should not be said. Guilt at her unenthusiastic response when he arrived. But, I did stand up when he entered the room, she defended herself against the searing light of her conscience.
She stood up again, aware of the Cardman`s eyes following her as she walked to the large bay window. She lifted the net curtains and looked out. `Do you know … this is the first time I`ve wanted to see this view in weeks,` she said, theatrically. He watched her and felt the pain and sorrow, and the feeling of rejection that she carried. He, too, knew about betrayal; about one whom he loved, turning away. He could feel what she was feeling. He could see, in her eyes, the pain that burdened her. And why should she embrace the world outside when she felt so appallingly lost, within? It had been a time of shutting herself off from all around her. And it was right … for a season.
Rosemary looked out, enjoying the beautiful day and the vivid colours that greeted her. She unlatched the sash windows and lifted one to allow in some air. There was a sudden intrusion of sounds entering the room.
`Ah!,` she said, triumphantly, `I`ve emerged from my prison cell.` She smiled at the Cardman. It was a smile of relief more than anything else. And he could see the burden beginning to lift from her.
`I love W H Auden,` she said, almost to herself. `Do you know his work?` she asked the Cardman.
She pointed a hand towards her bookshelves. `Tennyson, Shakespeare, Browning and Betjeman. Keats and Kipling. But the one I love most is Auden.`
`Poetry is in my blood,` she continued, lightly. `My father was a literary scholar. He handed his love of the poets to me.` Then she stopped and became melancholy.
`That`s where I`ve been these past few weeks – “stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone … let the `planes circle, moaning overhead, scribbling their message in the sky … my man is dead.”` She fell silent, like the art of a clown. `“He was my north, my south, my east and west, my working week and my Sunday rest, my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song” …` she said, convincingly, reciting Auden`s words. `”I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.”` Having whispered those last three words, she silently returned to her chair. Her performance was over. But it was good. Good to hear. Good to see. And, good for her to say the things that needed to be said. It was a huge step; and, having been safely taken, she could begin to look outside herself once more.
`I think I am now ready,` she said, surprising herself, remembering the Cardman`s earlier comment.
`Mr … Mr? I`m sorry, but I don`t know your name.`
`People seem to call me the `man with the cards`.`
`That`s a bit of a mouthful,` Rosemary smiled and gave the first indication that a chuckle was just below the surface. `I think I`ll call you the Cardman.`
He smiled and replied, `I rather like that.` He then looked at Zoe. A mature young lady; not so cool that she would not ask for help. Jayne was right when she had told him about her. An attractive face and soft, auburn hair that gently fell upon her shoulders with an abundance of curls. She wore a grey tee shirt and light blue jeans, both of which looked well worn and loved. This was a time for a little comfort, he thought.
The Cardman sipped at his coffee, hands nestled around the mug. He, too, needed comfort and warmth as their pain and sorrow seeped into his heart. `I don`t think I have ever seen so many cards before,` he told Zoe.
She smiled. `Dad was well liked.`
`My husband knew a lot of people,` Rosemary explained. The Cardman sensed an air of hostility towards the man she referred to as `my husband` rather than Brendon. The conversation was nearing the point when she would mention the photograph.
`Had Jayne told you that he was in Scotland when he died?` she asked matter-of-factly.
`And did she mention the photograph?`
The Cardman nodded.
`It was a terrible shock when we found it. Zoe and I went to Shetland to collect his things and we found this on a table by his bed.` She held the small photo frame in her right hand, and she stood up and passed it to him. The picture was a portrait of a woman. He guessed she was in her late fifties or early sixties, although it was difficult to judge. The photograph was not new. `This is not his mother, by any chance?` he asked.
`No. I knew his mother when Brendon and I first met. It`s not a picture of his mother.`
`Mm,` the Cardman thought carefully. `I believe I understand what you`re thinking …`
`What else can I think?` Rosemary`s tone contained anger.
The Cardman also recognised the hurt that she felt. `But you don`t know for sure … or do you?` he carefully chose his words.
`No. I would like to think otherwise … but everything points to her being …`
`Everything?` the Cardman reflected.
`There`s an inscription on the back of the picture. Written by someone called Winifred O`Hara. We looked through his address book and found someone of that name living in Wales. And,` she paused as she remembered, `we found a postcard that he had not been able to post, already written and addressed to her.`
Rosemary removed the card from a pile of papers on the table by her chair.
`What does it say?` the Cardman asked.
`He had written … Dear Winnie, having a good time; weather sunny and dry; lots of puffins; going back on …` She stopped, remembered, and wept. Then, continued, `going back on Wednesday to take more photos. Keep well. Brendon.`
The Cardman pondered on the words. `There`s something missing,` he said.
`It doesn`t sound like a card being sent to someone`s lover,` he ventured. Rosemary had already considered this. `Indeed, there`s no lots of love or love from. It`s all very bland. Like the card one would send to a neighbour or mere acquaintance. Not to someone special.`
Rosemary had thought long about it. On the one hand, she felt reluctant to believe the relationship was innocent but, on the other, she was eager to find an alternative conclusion. `This doesn`t explain why the photo was beside his bed. A photo of someone else …` The hurt she felt had surfaced.
`I can understand why you feel as you do,` the Cardman said, kindly. `But, I just wonder if there could be another explanation. Some perfectly acceptable reason why this Winifred was important to him. Had he ever mentioned – even briefly – about someone in Wales?`
Zoe answered, `He often went to Wales on business. Dad was a freelance photographer and travelled all over the place.`
`So, you think his visits to Wales were not just for business?` the Cardman asked Rosemary.
`What else am I supposed to think?`
`We need to find out for certain,` the Cardman thought aloud. He knew that, unless the truth was known, Winifred would remain a burden to Rosemary for the rest of her life. `I could go and visit this lady for you,` he continued. Rosemary`s eyes widened as she contemplated such a thing. `But … if I do and return to you with a perfectly reasonable explanation, you will believe me for a while. But, then, after a week, or a month, or however long it takes to settle, you will start to question what I had told you. `Perhaps he`s got it wrong?` you`ll think. Or, he didn`t ask the right questions and she covered up the truth.`
`So, what are you saying?`
`I`m saying,` the Cardman continued, `that, when you feel strong enough, you must go and face this woman. Then you`ll know the truth for yourself.`
Zoe opened the front door and the Cardman stepped into the heat of the August sun.
`Thank you so much for coming,` she said, genuinely grateful. `What do you think mum should do next?`
`She needs to write a letter just asking if she could call and see Winifred. Maybe offer her a date for your visit – you don`t want to go all that way and find she`s not there.`
`Yes, that`s a good idea. I`ll suggest it to her. I`m sorry that she was a little difficult at first …`
`I can understand it. Someone she has never met before comes into her house; and she probably expected I would try and convert her.` He chuckled.
`Well, I think you`ve helped her a lot.`
`There`s still a long way to go, Zoe,` he replied, with care.
`But, I want you to know something. My thoughts and prayers will be with you both. I will share your joy and sorrow, and walk beside you until this journey`s through. Please keep in touch. Either directly or through Jayne. Don`t forget.`
`I won`t,` she promised as she watched him turn and descend the steps towards the waiting car.
She stood and watched as the Volvo pulled away from the curb. Then her eyes took in the panorama before her. Mother was right, she thought, for Zoe was also ready to face the world again. But, what would the next few days bring? Who was this Winifred O`Hara who had brought such misery upon them?
The Cardman was also right. They had to find out for themselves in order to close the chapter. For it needed to be closed, so that mother and daughter could eventually move on.
A week later
The row of unpretentious terraced houses was not what they expected from the address. Twenty-six, Elm Terrace, gave the impression of a wide, tree-lined town street; but the reality of it was a little off target. For one thing, the elms were missing. Just stumps where they had once proudly stood. The passage of time carries with it both joy and sadness, Rosemary Daniels thought as she approached the house. It was a three storey building, she noted, straining her neck to look up at the newly tiled roof. She heard the taxi move away, having brought them from the railway station; just a 10-minute journey through Newport`s centre to the residential part of the town, along sodden streets after a series of heavy showers. Once, the road in which they stood was in a most desirable area. Rosemary imagined a horse-drawn carriage returning the `master of the house` after a tiring day of business in Bristol. How times change.
She was nervous. And questions kept challenging her superficial composure. What was this Winifred going to be like? How should Rosemary act? Courteously, of course. But, if the truth comes out about their affair … how is she then to react? Coolly? Angrily? What would Auden do, if he were here now? Yes – that`s it – be poetic. Imagine she`s talking about someone else. Brendon who? Step out of it; be the third person. Use your drama training, Rosemary.
The way to the imposing, solid oak, front door was entirely different from their home in St Ives. There were no steps. A smooth concrete pathway took them to the threshold of all the fears she had been harnessing since that grim discovery in Shetland. She hesitated before pressing the door bell. She looked at Zoe who also appeared to be nervous, displaying a spurious smile that said more than words could ever do.
So this was it. Soon Rosemary would know the truth. There was a part of her that did not want to know; it disabled her thoughts like a demanding toddler. No, there was no turning back. She had to go through with it; had to know for certain. She remembered what the Cardman had said about not believing unless she had met Winifred, herself. There was real sense in that. And the peculiar thought crossed her mind. It had occurred to her that he may actually know Winifred. He seemed to speak from a position of experience. I wonder, she thought. And then dismissed it from her mind as she pressed the bell.
A tall, slim, elderly lady opened the door with a wide-eyed welcome that instantly told Rosemary that the visitors were expected. Is this Winifred?
`Come in, please,` the lady said, indicating, with an elaborate gesture, for them to enter the hall. She wore a light blue housecoat and Rosemary guessed that this was not the owner of the house.
`Sister is expecting you. Can I take your coats? This rain is ghastly, isn`t it? But they say the gardens need it – whoever `they` are.` So, this is Winifred`s sister, Rosemary thought.
`Would you like to come to the lounge. Sister has been a little delayed, but has told me to apologise on her behalf and to tell you that she will only be a few minutes.` Then she added, in a whisper, as if passing on a secret, `she always has a little nap after lunch.`
`I see.` Rosemary smiled politely and followed the lady along the carpeted hallway, noticing a lift on the left and various solid, light-wood doors ahead of them. One of the doors opened into a spacious lounge.
`Please make yourselves comfortable,` the lady said hospitably. `Would you like a cup of tea?`
`Yes, thank you; that would be nice,` Rosemary replied, answering also for Zoe. `Just as it comes for both of us.`
`Excellent!. Sister will be with you, shortly.` And, with that, the lady hurried from the room, closing the door behind her. Rosemary and Zoe looked at each other in amazement; Zoe giggled, which was a sign that she felt both uncomfortable, being in a strange house, and nervous. Rosemary shared her daughter`s feelings.
`I suppose, she`s Winifred`s sister,` Rosemary said quietly, referring to the lady in the housecoat.
`Yes. I hope Winifred doesn`t talk as much.` Zoe giggled some more.
When the door swung open and Winifred entered, Rosemary nearly dropped the rainbow coloured cup and saucer from her hand. Winifred was not at all what she had expected. There was no fanfare of trumpets, or eloquent words by a master of ceremonies, to prepare her for what she saw. It was all most unexpected. The first sight she glimpsed of Winifred was of her being wheeled into the lounge by the lady in the housecoat. She was older than Rosemary had imagined from the photograph. Older, indeed, than Brendon. But it was not her face that took Rosemary`s attention. It was the colourful woollen shawl that lay across Winifred`s legs.
`I`m so sorry to keep you waiting, my dears,` she said, warmly. `You know, I just could not wake up today. Usually I have a few minutes sleep – early afternoon – and that keeps me going for the remainder of the day. But … could I wake up? Not today. I`m really sorry.`
The warmth of Winifred`s personality immediately impressed Rosemary so much that she spontaneously stood up from the sofa. The tea cup rattled on its saucer. She really was nervous. `It`s not a problem. We have plenty of time,` Rosemary said, agreeably.
`Good. Just as well, my dears,` Winifred replied. `By the way,` she continued, `has this kind lady introduced herself to you? Well, this is Sister Mary Andrew. Like me she`s Irish, but the `Andrew` comes from her father`s side. He was born in Glasgow, you know.`
Rosemary did not know, but she was pleased to learn a little more about the lady in the housecoat. `So, you are sisters, then?`
`Indeed, we are,` Mary Andrew replied, `and this is Sister Winifred.` To Rosemary it seemed a strange way to refer to one`s sibling; but, perhaps, she thought, they do things differently in Wales.
`I think you might be a little confused, my dear,` Winifred said, smiling. `We are Sisters of a religious community. Not sisters as in a family, genetically.` She laughed.
`A religious … you are both nuns?`
`Yes, my dear. For our sins, the Good Lord has made us his life-long servants as Sisters of the Order of St Bride.`
`But … excuse me for saying this, but neither of you look like nuns,` Rosemary responded, realising that their openness and warmth had melted her cold defences.
`Ah! Type-casting, again! It`s always happening to us, isn`t it, Andy?` Winifred turned to look up at her friend and carer. `Her housecoat has become her habit.` Sister Mary Andrew nodded in agreement, then left the room, smiling broadly.
`Well, sit down, my dears, and make yourselves at home. We don`t stand on ceremony here. Well … Andy doesn`t and I can`t.` And she laughed. Rosemary was amazed by this other woman`s wonderful persona. Here she was, obviously unable to walk or even stand up, and she was laughing at her infirmity. Rosemary began to feel at ease; her nerves subsided; all because of Winifred`s generous warmth towards her and Zoe. And yet, she had hardly said a word. Rosemary tried to reconcile the image, created in her wild imagination by the photograph, with the disabled lady who now sat before her. She had visualised the `other woman` as younger, more attractive, sensuous and demanding of her late husband`s affections. But, here, before her eyes, was the truth. Nothing could be further from that other image. Rosemary was confused. For a month she had wrestled with the nightmare of a secret affair; but, now, she could see for herself, an older woman who presented no threat to her.
Winifred looked at her two visitors. Her expression became serious, as if the light-hearted introductions were now over. `I was so very, very sorry to have received your letter – the first one, I mean. It must have been such a dreadful shock to you both.`
`Yes, it was,` Rosemary replied, feeling it strange that they were talking about a subject without actually mentioning what it was.
`So … how are you feeling now?` Winifred`s question was asked out of genuine concern. Rosemary wondered how this lady, who she had never met before, could be so overtly caring towards her.
`We were very busy at first. Going up to Scotland to collect Brendon`s personal things and to see the Procurator Fiscal …`
`Of course,` Winifred interrupted, with sudden realisation. `I hadn`t thought of that. Oh, my dears, how awful for you.`
`Yes, it was not a good experience, although everyone was so kind and helpful. But it was a nightmare. Somehow it all seemed unreal. We were just going through the motions – doing what we had to do.` And the memory of it all flooded back. Perhaps it was safer now – with an increasing distance from it, created by the passage of time. It helped Rosemary to talk more freely. And it was good, too, for Zoe to hear her mother recall what she also found hard to put into words. `There were all the letters to write. That was difficult …`
`I`m sure it was,` Winifred said, sensing Rosemary`s pain.
`Then the funeral had to be arranged. And the day itself, of course. It came and went – I don`t remember much about it, now. And, since then, we`ve just taken each day as it comes.`
`Some days good – some days not so good?` Winifred asked.
`Yes. Mostly not so good. But it`s getting better.`
`It will do, my dear, it will. In time. Don`t try and force things to improve. It will happen in its own time,` Winifred`s wise words were comforting to hear. `But … I sense there is more that concerns you, my dear. Am I right?`
Rosemary was surprised how quickly Winifred had managed to steer the conversation to the main reason for their visit. It was like she had, almost undetected, sliced away at an apple to reveal the core. What was she to say? Were you my husband`s lover? seemed inappropriately direct. She decided upon a different strategy.
`I wonder whether you could tell me a little about your relationship with Brendon.` It did not sound the way it was intended. Indeed, the word `relationship` was spoken with a tone of accusation, drawing upon the deep hurt within her.
`My dear. Oh! Do I detect a certain misunderstanding in your question?`
`I don`t know,` Rosemary answered, `perhaps you could put my mind at rest.`
Winifred looked at Rosemary, with concern. She asked softly, `Had your husband not told you about his visits here?`
`No. He was always coming to Wales on business.`
Winifred sighed and shook her head. She understood the problem without any need for it to be spelled out.
`These legs of mine are useless,` she said, sadly. `I have been like this for 24 years – the consequence of a road accident. I have no feeling below the waist. Apart from my physical ineptitude, I am also a nun. I have taken life vows of chastity. Do I need to say any more? `
Rosemary sat silently. She felt her face redden. She could not answer at first. But there was a sudden feeling of relief that flowed through her, for which she instantly tried to hide. Her joy came at someone else`s expense.
`I`m so sorry,` Rosemary eventually answered. All the fear, assumption and accusation had gripped her as tightly as an eagle holds its prey. Now it was released, she, too, had been freed from the uncompromising jaws of the predator. The unknown can be so easily misunderstood. Winifred read the expressions on Rosemary`s face.
`He came to see me to seek direction,` she explained.
`Direction? For what?`
`Spiritual direction, my dear,` Winifred answered, not showing her surprise at Rosemary`s tone of resentment. `Your husband was a very spiritual man, Mrs Daniels. He wanted to know more about our God …`
`But I never knew,` Rosemary interrupted, bewildered by the news that Brendon had a part of his life that he kept securely to himself. And yet, it explained why he had owned a well used Bible and other books of a religious nature.
`He told me you didn`t see things in the same way as he did. And, therefore, he kept the spiritual side of his life hidden. I suggested, on many occasions, that he should speak to you about it … but, clearly, he never did.`
`No, he didn`t. How long had he been coming to see you?`
`At least five years, my dear.`
Rosemary thought about this new scenario. It was different. There was no lover – at least in a physical sense. She could not balance in her mind the Brendon she had known with the one that Winifred described. How could he have kept it so hidden? And why had he? Was she such a monster that he could not talk with her? He did talk, of course. But, obviously, not about the things that really mattered to him. He had found another person to whom he could talk. This was the part that now hurt more than anything else. In a sense, Rosemary did not know the man to whom she had been married. Not fully. She was shocked. Winifred could `see` the words spinning around inside Rosemary`s head, uncontrolled and jumbled like washing in a machine.
`It`s hard to accept something like this,` Winifred mused. `What is harder, still, is to allow another person – someone we love – to have a part of himself that is for him only. A very precious thing it is. Perhaps, again in time, you will begin to see that it was not your fault that he had never told you. How you are, is just as important as he was.` She paused as she searched for the right words. `Don`t be too cross with me, my dear,` she said gently. `I am not responsible for what your husband decided to keep hidden. He was an adult, capable of making his own decisions. And don`t be too cross with him, either. Or yourself, for not knowing.`
No, Rosemary thought. No, it was not this lady`s fault, especially if she had advised him to talk to her. But, why could he not speak about it? And the answer came to her as if it had been dredged up from the distant past when, on one rare occasion, Brendon had spoken, deeply, about himself. When they had first known each other. When they had gone for walks along Cornwall`s rugged cliffs, hand in hand. And they talked about the people they really were – about their childhood experiences. How those events had moulded their lives. And, she remembered, Brendon was the youngest of six.
`He was bullied,` she spoke in a whisper. Almost inaudible words. `He told me, long ago, how he was ridiculed for carrying a teddy bear with him, everywhere he went, when he was at least eight or nine years of age. He stowed it away in his school satchel. But his older brothers would laugh at him and call him names. So, he admitted to me, he eventually learned to hide it from them…`
`And many other things as well,` Winifred said, showing that she fully understood what Rosemary was saying.
`Yes. He told me he would never tell anyone what he was really feeling … because they would rubbish it.` And she thought about Brendon, the man she had married. `It`s a miracle that he seemed so well adjusted.`
`Seemed, is the correct word, my dear. Beneath the surface of maturity was a little boy of eight who hid away the things that mattered to him, in case he was ridiculed. One day, though, he must have realised he needed to talk about it. That`s when he found me.`
`How did that happen?` Rosemary asked, intrigued.
`It was through a mutual friend, Randolph … Randolph O`Malley. He was also a photographer, and I knew him when I was young and in Ireland. He was a good Catholic. He`s been dead some time, now. But he had met your husband at a function, somewhere up north and they got talking. Perhaps it felt safe to speak quite freely with someone he thought he would never meet again. And your husband spoke about his childhood and how it was a burden to him. Randolph suggested that he might find it helpful to come and speak with me … and he gave him my address. I was living here by then.`
`So that`s how he started to come and see you?`
`Yes. And he talked. I listened.` Winifred remembered the man who sat in her study like a young boy. His expressions – even his words – were of an eight year old. `He didn`t speak about God. Not for a long time. Then, one day, he said the most extra-ordinary thing.` Rosemary sat forward in order not to miss even the slightest nuance in Winifred`s reminiscences.
`He told me,` the older lady continued, `that he regarded his teddy as his God. He would tell Him everything that mattered. The sort of things that he would have told his brothers had the situation been different. Indeed, from those early childhood days, he was aware of his relationship with God.`
Rosemary sat silently and thought deeply about the picture Winifred was painting. It was just a sketch, but it gave her an idea of the finished masterpiece. But, sadly, it felt that she had not been a part of it.
`We found that teddy,` Rosemary said, quietly. `It was Zoe, actually. She found it at the bottom of his wardrobe at home. Hidden.` Zoe nodded, as she remembered the painful clearing of her father`s personal possessions. It felt like stepping into a world in which she did not belong. Of touching things that she had no right to touch. Of removing things that he might still want.
`One thing I do remember from the funeral was a part of the priest`s address,` Rosemary said, surprised by the sudden recollection. `I haven`t thought about it until now. But the priest talked about a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. The butterfly represented the life to which Brendon has gone. And I wondered then – and still do – whether that is true.`
Winifred smiled. `My dear, no one knows for certain, although Jesus promised us paradise after we die. It is our hope. And, I believe in heaven and eternity with God. But, believing, without knowing, requires faith. And that is what is at the heart of Christianity. That address obviously spoke deeply to you.`
`Yes, I guess it did. I thought, at the time, and hoped, that Brendon would be part of that beautiful life to which the priest referred. But I was unsure about it because … I didn`t know what I now know … I didn`t know he went to church, and he had never mentioned God to me.`
`Ah!,` Winifred exclaimed, `the first shall come last and the last, first.`
`It`s something Jesus said. What it is saying is that outward appearances are unimportant. It is what is within that matters. And only God knows what we are truly like. For instance, there could be a preacher who eloquently spreads the Word of God, but, within, thinks more about his own appearance and standing. He is clever, and his motives are known to no-one. Except God. On the other hand, there is your husband, who kept his beliefs hidden. But, God read his heart and knows. It is your husband who, in the eyes of the world, is last, but is really first. Does this make sense?`
`Yes, I think it does. Thank you,` Rosemary replied, looking at Zoe and realising that she, too, understood. `There was one other thing you said that made me think,` Rosemary continued. `It was about seeing and believing.`
`The gospel talks about Thomas,` Winifred said, eagerly. `He would not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead unless he saw the marks of crucifixion on Our Lord`s hands.`
`And Jesus willingly offered to show him,` Rosemary said, surprising herself in the process, drawing upon what she had learned from her religious education lessons at school, many years before.
`Indeed,` Winifred continued, `it was like he knew Thomas would not believe unless he saw. But, that is not faith. Faith is believing without having seen. The proof comes from knowing God intimately. I know that my Lord exists, and nothing could persuade me away from that. Not that I don`t have my doubts, from time to time. But I work through them and feel stronger in my faith because of them. Oh! listen to me, droning on about what I believe.`
`What he told me was right. Go and see Winifred for yourself, he told me. Yes, he was right.`
`Who are you talking about? Who is `he`?` Winifred asked, puzzled.
`They call him the `man with the cards`. He is well known in Cornwall. Stands outside Truro cathedral giving out cards with messages on them, to passers-by. I thought he was some kind of religious freak. I`m sorry if that sounds unkind. My niece, who goes regularly to church, has befriended him. It was Jayne who suggested that he might speak with me about the picture of you. And he came and saw us at home. He was very kind. Really not what I expected. He didn`t try and convert us, or anything like that. He was very gentle and listened to me going on about Brendon and `this woman` in Wales. He said that he was willing to come and see you, but considered it best if I did. Unless I meet you for myself, I would not know the truth, he told me.` Rosemary paused and thought. `It`s rather like Jesus offering his hands to Thomas.`
`It`s the same, my dear. This `man with the cards` is very wise. I have heard about him. He`s made quite a stir in the Church. I understand he was on your local radio, and also on television. The Catholic Herald and Church Times have recently had articles about him. But you mentioned a picture. What picture is that?`
`The portrait of you, Sister,` Rosemary replied.
`Of me? Are you telling me, your husband had a photograph of me?`
`Yes. In a picture frame. We found it by the side of his bed; in the caravan where he was staying in Scotland. We know it was of you because you had written on the back of it.`
`Of course,` Winifred remembered. `Yes, there was a photograph. Your husband insisted – about three years ago – he wanted to take my photograph. I refused, of course. But he continued to ask me and, in the end, I gave in to his whim. On his next visit, when he had printed the photograph, I wrote a message on the back of it for him. It was only a little thing, really. But, I guess, it was important to him. Found by his bed, you say?`
`Yes. Zoe will vouch for that.` Zoe nodded.
`No wonder you have been suspicious. My dears, I am so sorry for the hurt this has brought you. If only I had thought about it more. I just gave in to him.`
`If he wanted something he kept on until he got it,` Rosemary admitted.
`Indeed. I think he was just a little obsessive,` Winifred agreed. `Alas, I speak from experience when I tell you I know a great deal about obsessive traits. It`s been a burden of mine for as long as I can remember,` she confessed. Looking down at the shawl, draped over her legs, she added, `my early days in the convent, back home, were tormented by my need to be somewhere else. Whenever I was supposed to be within the walls, I wanted to be outside them. It was a difficult time for me and for the others of the community. And, of course, it all came to a horrible end when I lost control of the motor cycle I was riding …`
`Motor cycle?` Rosemary interjected, unable to believe her ears.
`Yes. My obsession was for my motor cycle. I should never have been allowed to have it, but Reverend Mother was a kindly soul and thought it would do no harm for me to keep it for use at recreational times. It was also useful, of course, when she wanted me to go on an errand for her. But it fed my obsession for being out with nature. I was not born to be imprisoned. Anyway, one particular winter`s morning, Reverend Mother asked me to go into town, about a five-mile ride, and pick up a few essential provisions. I leapt at the chance.` Winifred paused as she remembered the last time she had the use of her legs.
`I think about that last ride a great deal. I`ve learned many lessons from it. Anyway, it was a foggy morning. As I rode along, I felt like I was in another world. It was as if I was safe, rather like the caterpillar in a cocoon. I remember singing Handel`s `Hallelujah Chorus` at the top of my voice. I was happy. Free. Where I wanted to be. But, then, suddenly, I could make out some red lights ahead of me. I braked, instinctively, and lost control, sliding broadside under a car that had stopped in front. I hadn`t realised how icy the road was. Right under I went. Oh! The pain. Someone pulled me out and turned off the bike`s engine. It all seemed like a bad dream. Unreal. But that was the end.`
`What happened next?`
`I was initially taken to hospital in Dublin. Then they flew me to England – to Stoke Mandeville – and I was there for a long time. They were so kind,` Winifred stopped and remembered all the kindness that had been shown to her. `When I was ready to leave, it was suggested that I should not return to the Convent, but to come here. This house was already owned by the Community. And, since then, I have been here with Sister Andy and I am able to pray and follow the Order`s daily offices. And to see people, like your husband. In fact, that part of my ministry has grown out of the enforced stability of being in one place and not thirsting to be somewhere else. That`s all gone now. I thank my Lord for bringing something good out of a bad situation. He does that all the time, you know.`
`That`s an incredible story, Sister. Thank you for telling us.`
`It doesn`t actually tell you why your husband had my photograph at his bedside. But, I wonder, if he looked upon me in the same way as I regarded my motor cycle.`
Rosemary looked puzzled and wondered if Winifred was getting too tired and needed a rest. Winifred discerned what she was thinking. `I know it sounds strange,` she added. `That motor cycle was my way of escaping – my passport to freedom, if you like. I was not running away from God, like Jonah. That couldn`t be done, even if I had wanted to. No. At that time, I was not ready for community life. I know that now. And Reverend Mother also knew it. But, in her wisdom and kindness, she allowed me certain privileges, hoping – I imagine – that I would grow up and settle down. That never happened, of course. But, the motor cycle served my obsession. In the same way, I wonder if that photograph was your husband`s passport to freedom. Not to be free from you or Zoe, but a different kind of freedom altogether. A freedom that comes from knowing and loving God. Until you become aware of it, you may think `what is all the fuss about`. But, believe me, when you realise how much God loves you – really realise it, I mean – it is something that puts everything else in its shadow. I wonder if your husband looked at me as the key to his walk with God. If so, then I can understand why he treasured that photograph. Not because of me, as such, but because of what it stood for. God had sent him to me and, through our times of talking and listening, he found God deep in his heart. It`s to be treasured. Does this make any sense?`
`Indeed. It does. Of course, I will never know for certain …`
`But you will, my dear,` Winifred smiled. `When you feel at peace about it all … then you will know for certain.`
Reluctantly, Rosemary looked at her watch and realised that their taxi would soon be returning to collect them.
`You must go,` Winifred said, practically. `I`m sorry to have gone on about myself, but sometimes it can help to put things into perspective. I, too, sin. I, too, am forgiven. But, just in case you wonder, I will tell you that I am very happy with life. I have found stability, which was the one thing that I could not accept when I was younger. God is so good to me.`
Rosemary and Zoe stood up. `I am grateful to you, Sister. You have cleared up the many questions I had that were troubling me.`
`I think the person you really need to thank is that `man with the cards`. If it had not been for him, we may never have met,` Winifred said, wisely.
`Yes, you`re right. I will make a point of seeing him. But I also thank you for all you have said to us this afternoon. I have never really thought much about God until these past few days. But … I can feel a little of that thirst you mentioned.`
`Good. Some seeds fall on stony ground, whilst others find good soil. I needn`t tell you which you are, my dear.`
`Thank you. We must go.` Rosemary and Zoe slipped quietly out of the house. Rosemary felt like she was walking on air, such was the relief that she experienced. There had been no lover. No lover. The photograph was not a threat anymore. And, she had seen Winifred, face to face. There had been no confrontation. What a remarkable woman! So humble. So brave. And, what has she given me to take away? Something to treasure, like Brendon knew.