IT STRUCK LAUREL, as she sat down to a dinner of baked beans on toast, that this was very likely the first time she’d ever been alone at Greenacres. No mother or father going about their business in another room, no excitable sisters making the floor-boards creak upstairs, no baby brother, no pets. Not so much as a hen roosting in the boxes outside. Laurel lived by herself in London, she’d done so on and off for the better part of forty years; to be frank she was rather fond of her own company. To-night, though, surrounded by the sights and sounds of child-hood, she felt a loneliness the depths of which surprised her.
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’ Rose had asked that after-noon before she left. She’d lingered in the entrance room, twisting the end of her long strand of African beads and inclining her head towards the kitchen—‘because I could stay, you know. I wouldn’t mind a bit. Perhaps I should stay? I’ll just call Sadie and tell her I won’t be able to make it.’
It was a strange turn up for the books, Rose to be worried about Laurel, and Laurel had been taken aback. ‘Nonsense,’ she’d said, perhaps a little sternly, ‘you’ll do no such thing. I’ll be perfectly fine by myself.’
Rose remained unconvinced. ‘I don’t know, Lol, it’s just, it’s not like you to phone like that, out of the blue. You’re usually so busy, and now …’ The beads threatened to snap their bonds. ‘I’ll tell you what, why don’t I just ring Sadie and tell her we’ll catch up tomorrow? It’s really no bother.’
‘Rose, please—’ Laurel did a lovely line in exasperation—‘for the love of God, go and see your daughter. I told you, I’m just here to have a little down time before I start filming Macbeth. To be honest, I’m rather looking forward to the peace and quiet.’
She had been, too. Laurel was grateful that Rose had been able to meet her with the keys, but her head was buzzing with the list of what she knew and what she still needed to find out about her mother’s past, and she’d been eager to get inside and put her thoughts in order. Watching Rose’s car disappear down the driveway had filled her with a sense of enormous anticipation. It had seemed to mark the beginning of something. She was here at last; she’d done it, left her life in London in order to get to the bottom of her family’s great secret.
Now, though, alone in the sitting room with an empty dinner plate for company and a long night stretching ahead, she found her certainty waning. She wished she’d given Rose’s offer a little more thought; her sister’s gentle patter was just the thing to keep one’s mind from drifting someplace dark, and Laurel could’ve used the help right now. The problem was the ghosts, for of course she wasn’t really alone at all, they were everywhere: hiding behind corners, drifting up and down the stairs, echoing against the bathroom tiles. Little girls in bare feet and smocks and various lanky states of growing up; the tall lean figure of Daddy whistling in the shadows; but most of all Ma, who was everywhere all at once, who was this house, Greenacres, whose passion and energy infused each plank of wood, each pane of glass, each stone.
She was in the corner of the room right now—Laurel could see her there, wrapping a birthday present for Iris. It was a book about ancient history, a children’s encyclopedia, and Laurel could remember being struck at the time by the beautiful illustrations inside, black and white and somehow mysterious in their depictions of long-ago places. The book, as an object, had seemed distinctly important to Laurel and she’d felt jealous when Iris unwrapped it on their parents’ bed next morning, when she started turning the pages with proprietorial care and readjusting the ribbon bookmark. There was something about a book that inspired dedication and a swelling desire to possess it, especially in Laurel, who hadn’t many of her own.
They hadn’t been a particularly bookish family—it always surprised people to hear that—but they’d never gone without stories. Daddy had been full of dinner table anecdotes, and Dorothy Nicolson was the sort of mother to invent her own fairy tales rather than read them out of books. ‘Did I ever tell you,’ she’d said once when Laurel was small, and resistant to sleep, ‘about the Nightingale Star?’
Laurel had shaken her head eagerly. She liked Mummy’s stories. ‘Have I not? Well, that explains it then. I did wonder why I never saw you there.’
‘Where, Mummy? What’s the nightingale star?’
‘Why, it’s the way home of course, little wing. And it’s the way there, too.’
Laurel was confused. ‘The way where?’
‘Everywhere—anywhere—’ She smiled then, in that way she had that always made Laurel feel glad to be near her, and leaned closer, as if to tell a secret, her dark hair falling forwards over one shoulder. Laurel loved to hear secrets; she was very good at keeping them too, so she listened closely when Mummy said, ‘the Nightingale Star is a great ship that leaves each night from the rim of sleep. Have you ever seen a picture of a pirate ship, one with billowing white sails and rope ladders that swing and sway in the wind?’
Laurel nodded hopefully.
‘Then you’ll know her when you see her, for she looks just like that. The straightest mast you can imagine, and a flag at the very top, silver cloth with a white star and a pair of wings at its centre.’
‘How do I get aboard, Mummy? Will I have to swim?’ Laurel wasn’t a very good swimmer.
Dorothy laughed. ‘That’s the best part of all. The only thing you have to do is wish, and when you fall asleep tonight, you’ll find yourself on her warm decks, about to set sail on a grand adventure.’
‘Will you be there, too, Mummy?’
Dorothy had a faraway look on her face; a mysterious expression she wore sometimes, as if remembering something that made her feel a little bit sad. But then she smiled, and ruffled Laurel’s hair. ‘Of course, I will, poppet. You didn’t think I’d let you go alone, did you?’
In the distance, a late train whistled into the station and Laurel let out a sigh. It seemed to echo from one wall to another and she considered switching on the television, just to have some noise. Ma had steadfastly refused to upgrade to a set with a remote control though, so she tuned the old wireless to BBC Radio 3 and picked up her book instead.
It was her second Henry Jenkins novel, The Reluctant Muse, and truth be told Laurel was finding it rather hard going. In fact, she was beginning to suspect the man was something of a male chauvinist. Certainly his main character Humphrey (just as irresistible as the male lead in his other book) had some questionable ideas about women. Adoration was one thing, but he seemed to look upon his wife, Viola, as a precious possession; not so much a flesh and blood woman as a blithe spirit whom he had captured and thereby saved. Viola was an ‘element of the wild’ brought to London in order to be civilised—by Humphrey, of course—but whom the city must never be permitted to ‘corrupt’. Laurel rolled her eyes in impatience. She found herself wishing Viola would just pick up her pretty skirts and run in the opposite direction as fast and as far as she could.
She didn’t, of course, she agreed to marry her hero—this was Humphrey’s story, after all. Laurel had liked the girl at first, she’d seemed a spirited and worthy heroine, unpredictable and fresh, but the more she read, the less of that girl she saw. Laurel realised that she was being unfair—poor Viola was barely an adult and could therefore hardly be blamed for having questionable judgement. And really, what would Laurel know? She’d never managed to sustain a relationship for longer than two years. Nonetheless, Viola’s marriage to Humphrey was not Laurel’s idea of a fine romance. She persisted through two further chapters that took the pair to London and established the creation of Viola’s gilded cage, before it all became too much and she slapped the book down in frustration.
It had only just gone nine, but Laurel decided that was late enough. She was tired after the day’s travel and she wanted to be up early next morning so she could get to the hospital in good time and hopefully find her mother at her best. Rose’s husband, Phil, had dropped over a spare car from his garage—a 1960s Mini, green as a grasshopper—and she was going to drive herself into town as soon as she was ready. Tucking The Reluctant Muse beneath her arm, she washed her plate and took herself up to bed, leaving the dark ground floor of Greenacres to the ghosts.
‘You’re in luck,’ the sour nurse told Laurel when she arrived the next morning, managing to make it sound a regrettable state of affairs. ‘She’s up and in fine fettle. Last week’s party tired her, you know, but visits from family seem to do them the world of good. Just try not to excite her too much.’ And then she smiled with a remarkable deficit of warmth and returned her attention to the plastic clipboard she was cradling.
Laurel abandoned plans for a rousing session of Irish dancing and started down the beige hallway. She arrived at her mother’s door and knocked lightly. When there was no answer, she gently opened it. Dorothy was reclined in the armchair, her body curved away from the door, and Laurel’s first thought was that she was sleeping. It wasn’t until she crept closer that she realised her mother was awake and paying close attention to something in her hands.
‘Hello there, Ma,’ said Laurel.
The old woman startled and turned her head. There was a glazed look about her eyes, but she smiled when she registered her daughter. ‘Laurel,’ she said softly. ‘I thought you were in London.’
‘I was. I’ve come back for a bit.’
Her mother didn’t ask why, and Laurel wondered whether perhaps a person reached an age when so much was kept from them, so many details of life discussed and decided elsewhere, misheard or misunderstood, that to be surprised was no longer disconcerting. She wondered whether she, too, would find one day that absolute clarity was neither possible nor desirable. What a ghastly thought. She wheeled the tray table aside and sat down on the spare vinyl-covered chair. ‘What’s that you’ve got there?’ She nodded at the object in her mother’s lap. ‘Is it a photograph?’
Dorothy’s old hand trembled as she held out the small silver frame she’d been cradling. It was old and dented, but freshly polished. Laurel couldn’t think that she’d ever seen it before. ‘From Gerry,’ she said, ‘A gift for my birthday.’
It was the perfect gift for Dorothy Nicolson, patron saint of all discarded things, and that was typical of Gerry. Just when he seemed completely disconnected from the world and all who dwelt in her, he managed a stroke of breathtaking insight. Laurel felt a pang when she thought of her brother: she’d left a message for him on his university voicemail—three messages, in fact, since she’d decided to leave London. The last she’d recorded late at night after a half bottle of red, and she feared it had been rather more plain spoken than those previous. She’d told him she was home at Greenacres, determined to find out what happened ‘back when we were kids’, that the other sisters didn’t yet know the details and she needed him to help. It had seemed a good idea at the time, but she hadn’t heard back.
Laurel put on her reading glasses to look closely at the sepia photograph. ‘A wedding party,’ she said, taking in the arrangement of formally attired strangers pressed behind the spotted glass. ‘No one we know, though, is it?’
Her mother didn’t answer, not exactly. ‘Such a precious thing,’ she said, shaking her head with slow sadness. ‘A charity shop—that’s where he found it. Those people … they should be hanging on someone’s wall, not lying in a box of unwanted things … It’s terrible, isn’t it, Laurel, the way we throw people away?’
Laurel agreed that it was. ‘The photo’s lovely, isn’t it?’ she said, running a thumb over the glass. ‘Wartime by the look of the clothing, though he’s not in uniform.’
‘Not everyone wore one.’
‘Shirkers, you mean.’
‘There were other reasons.’ Dorothy took back the picture. She studied it again and then reached, shakily, to set it down beside the framed picture of her own austerity wedding.
At mention of the war, Laurel had felt opportunity spread be-fore her, the vertigo of anticipation. Surely there could be no better moment to raise the matter of her mother’s past. ‘What did you do in the war, Ma?’ she said with careful nonchalance.
‘I was with the Women’s Voluntary Service.’
Just like that. No hesitation, no reluctance, nothing to suggest this was the first time mother and daughter had ever broached the topic. Laurel grasped keenly at the thread of conversation. ‘You mean knitting socks and feeding soldiers?’
Her mother nodded. ‘We had a canteen in a local crypt. We served soup … Sometimes we ran a mobile canteen.’
‘What—out in the streets, dodging the bombs?’
Another slight nod.
‘Ma—’ Laurel was lost for words. The answer itself, the fact of having received one at all—‘You were brave.’
‘No,’ she said, with surprising sharpness. Her lips quivered. ‘There were far braver people than I.’
‘You’ve never mentioned it before.’
Why not, Laurel wanted to plead, tell me. Why was it all such a big secret? Henry Jenkins and Vivien, her mother’s childhood in Coventry, the war years before she met Daddy … What had happened to make Ma seize her second chance so firmly, to turn her into the kind of person who could kill the man who threatened to bring her past back home to haunt her? Instead, Laurel said, ‘I wish I’d known you back then.’ Dorothy smiled faintly. ‘That would have been difficult.’
‘You know what I mean.’
She shifted in her chair, an ill expression pulling at the lines of her papery brow. ‘I don’t think you’d have liked me very much.’
‘What do you mean? Why ever not?’
Dorothy’s mouth twitched, as if the thing she wanted to say would not come out.
‘Why not, Ma?’
Dorothy forced a smile, but a shadow in her voice and in her eyes belied it. ‘People change as they get older … grow wiser, make better decisions … I am very old, Laurel. Anyone who lives as long as I have can’t help but collect regrets along the way … things they did in the past … things they wish they’d done differently.’
The past, regrets, people changing—Laurel felt the thrill of having arrived at last. She tried to sound light, a loving daughter asking her elderly mother about her life. ‘What sort of things, Ma? What would you have done differently?’
But Dorothy wasn’t listening. Her gaze had a distant look about it; her fingers were busy working the edges of the blanket on her lap. ‘My father used to tell me I’d get myself into trouble if I wasn’t careful …’ ‘All parents say that sort of thing,’ Laurel said with gentle caution. ‘I’m sure you never did anything worse than the rest of us.’
‘He tried to warn me, but I never listened. I thought I knew best. I was punished for my bad decisions, Laurel—I lost every-thing … everything I loved.’
‘How? What happened?’
But the previous speech, whatever memories it brought with it, had tired Dorothy—the wind literally lost from her sails—and she was slumped now against her cushions. Her lips moved a little but no sound came out and after a moment she gave up, turning her head back towards the misted window.
Laurel studied her mother’s profile, wishing she had been a different sort of daughter, wishing there was more time, that she could go back and do it all again, not leave everything to the last and find herself sitting at her mother’s hospital bed with so many blanks to fill. ‘Oh, now,’ she said brightly, trying a different tack, ‘Rose showed me something rather special.’ She fetched the family album from its shelf and slipped the picture of her mother and Vivien from inside. For all her attempts at ease, she noticed that her fingers were trembling. ‘It was inside a trunk, I believe, somewhere at Greenacres.’
Dorothy took the proffered photograph and looked at it.
Doors opened and closed in the hallway, a buzzer sounded in the distance, cars stopped and started on the turning circle outside.
‘You were friends,’ Laurel prompted.
Her mother nodded, haltingly.
‘In the war.’
‘Her name was Vivien.’
This time Dorothy looked up. Surprise fleeted across her lined face, followed by something else. Laurel was on the verge of explaining about the book and its inscription when her mother said, ‘She died,’ so quietly that Laurel almost didn’t hear. ‘Vivien died in the war.’
Laurel remembered reading about it in Henry Jenkins’s obituary. ‘A bombing raid,’ she said.
Her mother gave no sign of having heard. She was staring again at the photo. Her eyes had glazed, and her cheeks were suddenly moist. ‘I hardly recognise myself,’ she said in a thin and ancient voice.
‘It was a long time ago.’
‘Another lifetime.’ Dorothy drew a soft crumpled handkerchief from somewhere and pressed it to her cheeks.
Her mother was still speaking softly behind her hanky, but Laurel couldn’t make out all the words: something about bombs, and noise, and being frightened to start again. She leaned closer, skin tingling with a strong sense that answers were close at hand. ‘What’s that, Ma?’
Dorothy turned to Laurel and the look on her face was as fearful as if she’d just seen a ghost. She reached out and gripped Laurel’s sleeve; when she spoke, her voice was frayed. ‘I did something, Laurel,’ she whispered, ‘during the war … I wasn’t thinking straight, everything had gone horribly wrong … I didn’t know what else to do and it seemed like the perfect plan, a way to put things right, but he found out—he was angry.’
Laurel’s heart lurched. He. ‘Is that why the man came, Ma? Is that why he came that day, on Gerry’s birthday?’ Her breaths were short. She was sixteen again.
Her mother was still clenching Laurel’s sleeve, her face ash-en and her voice as thin as a reed. ‘He found me, Laurel … he never stopped looking.’
‘Because of what you did in the war?’
‘Yes.’ Barely audible.
‘What was it, Ma? What did you do?’
The door opened and Nurse Ratched appeared carrying a tray. ‘Lunchtime,’ she said briskly, wheeling the table into position. She half-filled a plastic cup with lukewarm tea, and checked there was still water in the jug.
‘Just ring the bell when you’re finished, dear,’ she sang in a too-loud voice. ‘I’ll come back and help you to the toot.’ She glanced about the table to check everything was as it should be. ‘Anything else you need before I go?’
Dorothy was dazed, spent, her eyes searching the other woman’s face.
The nurse smiled brightly, bending from the waist so she was nice and close. ‘Anything else you need, dear?’ she enunciated.
‘Oh—’ Dorothy blinked, and gave a small bewildered smile that broke Laurel’s heart. ‘Yes, yes please. I need to speak to Dr Rufus—’
‘Dr Rufus? You mean Dr Cotter, dear.’
A cloud of confusion cast its brief shadow on her pale face, and then, ‘Yes,’ she said with an even fainter smile. ‘Of course, Dr Cotter.’
The nurse said she’d send him in when she could, and then turned towards Laurel, tapping a finger to her temple and delivering a Significant Look. Laurel resisted the urge to garrotte her with the handbag strap as she squeaked around the room in her soft-soled shoes.
The wait for the nurse to leave them was interminable: she collected old cups, marked things on the medical chart, paused to comment idly on the driving rain. Laurel was almost burning with suspense when the door finally closed behind her.
‘Ma?’ she prompted, more sharply than she’d have liked.
Dorothy Nicolson looked at her daughter. Her face was pleasantly blank and Laurel realised with a jolt that whatever it was that had pressed so urgently before the interruption was no longer there. It had receded, back to the place where old secrets go. The frustration was breathtaking. She could ask again, say, ‘What did you do that brought that man after you? Was it something to do with Vivien? Tell me, please, so I can let the whole thing go,’ but the beloved face, that weary old-lady’s face, was staring at her now in a state of mild confusion, a slight, worried smile forming as she said, ‘Yes, Laurel?’
Mustering every bit of patience she could—there was always tomorrow, she would try again then—Laurel smiled back and said, ‘Would you like some help with your lunch, Ma?’
Dorothy didn’t eat much; she’d wilted in the past half hour, and Laurel was struck anew by just how frail she’d become. The green armchair was a rather humble affair, one they’d brought from home, and Laurel had seen her mother sitting in it count-less times over the decades. Somehow, though, the chair had changed proportions in the past few months and was now a great hulking thing that devoured Ma’s frame like a surly bear.
‘Why don’t I give your hair a brush?’ said Laurel, ‘Would you like that?’
The ghost of a smile passed Dorothy’s lips and she nodded slightly ‘My mother used to brush my hair.’
‘I pretended not to like it—I wanted to be independent—but it was lovely.’
Laurel smiled as she collected the antique hairbrush from the shelf behind the bed; she passed it gently over her mother’s dandelion fluff and tried to picture what she must have been like as a little girl. Full of adventure, no doubt, naughty at times, but with the sort of spirit that made people fond rather than cross. Laurel supposed she’d never know, not unless her mother told her.
Dorothy’s eyelids, paper-thin, had closed and the fine wiry nerves inside them twitched occasionally at whatever mysterious pictures were forming on the black beneath. Her breathing slowed as Laurel stroked her hair, and when it took on the rhythm of slumber, Laurel set down the brush as quietly as she could. She pulled the crocheted rug a little higher on her mother’s lap and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
‘Goodbye, Ma,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll come again tomorrow.’
She was creeping from the room, careful not to jiggle her bag or make too much noise with her shoes, when a drowsy voice said, ‘That boy.’
Laurel turned, surprised. Her mother’s eyes were still closed.
‘That boy, Laurel,’ she mumbled.
‘The one you’ve been going around with—Billy.’ Her misty eyes opened and she turned her head towards Laurel. She lifted a feeble finger and her voice when she spoke was soft, sad. ‘You think I don’t notice? You think I wasn’t young once myself? That I don’t know how it feels to fancy a handsome boy?’
Laurel realised then that her mother was no longer in the hospital room; that she was back at Greenacres, talking to her teenage daughter. The fact was unnerving.
‘Are you listening to me, Laurel?’
She swallowed, found her voice. ‘I’m listening, Mummy.’ It had been a long time since she’d called her mother that.
‘If he asks you to marry him and you love him, then you must say yes … Do you understand me?’
Laurel nodded. She felt strange, dizzy and rather hot. The nurses had said her mother’s mind was drifting these days, in and out of the present like a radio tuner slipping its station, but what had brought her here? Why would her focus settle on a boy she’d barely known, a fleeting crush of Laurel’s from so very long ago?
Dorothy’s lips moved against one another softly, and then she said. ‘I made so many mistakes … so many mistakes.’ Her cheeks were moist with seeping tears. ‘Love, Laurel, that’s the only reason to get married. For love.’
Laurel made it as far as the toilets in the hospital corridor. She turned on the tap, cupped her hands and collected some water to toss on her face; she leaned her palms on the basin. There were hairline fractures near the plughole and they merged together as her vision glazed. Laurel closed her eyes. Her pulse was beating like a jackhammer in her ears. God, she was shaken.
It wasn’t merely the fact of being spoken to like a teenager, the instant erasure of fifty years, the conjuring of a long-ago boy, the faraway feeling of first love fluttering at her edges. It was the words themselves, the urgency in Ma’s voice as she spoke, the sincerity that suggested she was offering her teen-age daughter the wealth of her own experience. That she was pressing Laurel to make choices that she, Dorothy, had not—to avoid making the mistakes she had.
But it didn’t make sense. Her mother had loved her father; Laurel knew it just as certainly as she knew her own name. They’d been married for five and a half decades before Daddy’s death without so much as a sniff of marital disharmony. If Dorothy had married for some other reason, if she’d regretted that decision all this time, she’d done a terrific job of pretending otherwise. No one could keep up a performance like that, surely? Of course they couldn’t. Besides, Laurel had heard the story of how her parents met and fell in love a hundred times before; she’d seen her mother gazing at her father’s face as he recounted the way he’d known at once that they were meant to be together.
Laurel looked up. Grandma Nicolson had had her doubts though, hadn’t she? Laurel had always been aware of some-thing uncomfortable between her mother and grandmother—a formality in the way they spoke to one another, the stern set of the older woman’s mouth when she was looking at her daughter-in-law and thought no one else was watching. And then, when Laurel was fifteen or so and they were visiting Grandma Nicolson’s boarding house by the sea, she’d overheard some-thing she shouldn’t have. She’d spent too long in the sun one morning and come in early with a raging headache and a bad case of sunburned shoulders. She was lying in her darkened bedroom, nursing a wet flannel on her forehead and a feeling of great hardship in her breast, when Grandma Nicolson and her elderly boarder, Miss Perry, happened along the corridor.
‘He’s a real credit to you, Gertrude,’ Miss Perry was saying, ‘Of course, he always was a good lad.’
‘Yes, worth his weight in gold, my Stephen. More help around here than his father ever was.’ Grandma had paused, waiting for the knowing grunt of agreement that was forthcoming from her consort, and then continued, ‘Kind-hearted, too. Never could resist a stray.’
That’s when Laurel had grown interested. The words were weighted with the echoes of previous conversations and certainly Miss Perry seemed to know precisely what it was of which they spoke. ‘No,’ she’d said. ‘The lad didn’t stand a chance, did he? Not with one as beautiful as her.’
‘Beautiful? Well, I suppose if you like that sort of thing. A bit, too—’ Grandma paused for thought and Laurel craned to hear which word she’d pluck—‘a bit too ripe, for my tastes.’
‘Oh yes,’ Miss Perry backpedalled fast, ‘terribly ripe. Knew a good wicket when she saw it though, didn’t she?’
‘Knew a soft touch when she met it.’
‘And to think he might’ve married a nice local girl like that Pauline Simmonds down the street. I always thought she might have been sweet on him.’
‘Of course she was,’ Grandma snapped, ‘and who could blame her? Hadn’t counted on Dorothy, though, had we? Poor Pauline didn’t stand a chance, not against one like her, not against her when she had her mind set.’
‘Such a shame.’ Miss Perry knew her cue and her line. ‘Such a terrible shame.’
‘Bewitched him, she did. My dear boy didn’t know what had hit him. He thought she was an innocent, of course, and who could blame him—back from France just a few short months when they married. She had his head in a spin—she’s one of those people though, isn’t she, who gets whatever she sets her mind to.’
‘And she wanted him.’
‘She wanted an escape, and my son gave it to her. No sooner were they wed and she dragged him away from everything and everyone he knew to start again in that tumbledown farm-house. I blame myself, of course—’
‘But you mustn’t!’
‘I was the one who brought her into this house.’
‘There was a war on, it was near impossible to get good staff—you weren’t to know.’
‘But that’s just it. I should have known; I should have made it my business to know. I was far too trusting. At least I was at the start. I made enquiries about her but not until after, and by then it was too late.’ ‘What do you mean? Too late for what? What did you find out?’
But whatever it was Grandma Nicolson had found remained a mystery to Laurel, for the two of them moved out of earshot before her grandmother could expand. To be honest it hadn’t concerned Laurel too much at the time. Grandma Nicolson was a prude and an atten- tion-seeker who liked to make her eldest granddaughter’s life a misery by reporting to her parents if she so much as looked at a boy on the beach. Whatever it was Grandma thought she’d discovered about their mother, Laurel had decided as she lay there cursing her throbbing head, it was bound to be an exaggeration, if not an all out fiction.
Now though … Laurel dried her face and hands … now though, she wasn’t so sure. Grandma’s suspicions—that Dorothy had been seeking an escape, that she wasn’t as innocent as she appeared, that her hasty marriage had been one of convenience—seemed to tally, in some ways, with the things her mother had said just now.
Had Dorothy Smitham been running from a broken engagement when she turned up at Mrs Nicolson’s boarding house? Was that what Grandma had found out? It was possible, but there had to be more to it than that. A previous relationship might have been enough to sour her grandmother’s milk—Lord knows it hadn’t taken much—but surely it wasn’t the sort of thing her mother might still be crying over sixty years later (guiltily, it seemed to Laurel, all that talk of mistakes, of not thinking straight)—unless she’d run away from her fiance with-out telling him? But why, if she’d loved him so much, would Ma have done such a thing? Why hadn’t she just married him? And what did any of it have to do with Vivien and Henry Jenkins?
There was something Laurel wasn’t seeing, lots of things, probably. She let out a hot sigh of exasperation that echoed around the small tiled bathroom. She felt thoroughly thwarted. So many disparate clues that meant nothing on their own. Laurel tore off a piece of toilet tissue and dabbed the mascara that had smeared beneath her eyes. The whole mystery was like the beginning of a child’s dot-to-dot, or a constellation in the night sky. Their father had once taken them sky-watching when Laurel was small. They’d set up camp on the rise above Blind- man’s Wood and, as they waited for the dusk to darken and the stars to appear, he’d told them about the time he’d been lost as a boy and followed the stars home. ‘You just have to look for the pictures,’ he’d said, lining up his telescope on its stand. ‘If you ever find yourself alone in the dark, they’ll show you the way back.’
‘But I can’t see any pictures,’ Laurel had protested, rubbing her mittens together and squinting at the twinkling stars above.
Daddy had smiled at her then, fondly. ‘That’s because you’re looking at the stars themselves,’ he’d said, ‘instead of the spaces in between. You have to draw lines in your mind, that’s when you’ll begin to see the whole picture.’
Laurel stared at herself in the hospital mirror. She blinked and the memory of her lovely father dissolved. A sudden pressing ache of mortal grief took its place—she missed him, she was getting older, her mother was fading.
What a bloody mess she looked. Laurel took out her comb and did what she could with her hair. It was a start. She pushed air through her lips with a thoughtful steadiness. Finding pictures in the constellations had never been her strong suit. Gerry was the one who’d been able to wow them all by making sense of the night-time sky; even as a small boy, he’d pointed out patterns and pictures where Laurel saw only deep dark space.
Thoughts of her brother tugged at Laurel. They ought to be together on this search, damn it. It belonged to both of them. She took out her mobile phone and checked for missed calls.
Nothing. Still nothing.
She scrolled through the address book until she found his number and pressed to make the call. She waited, biting her thumbnail as a distant telephone on a cluttered Cambridge office desk, rang and rang and rang. Finally, a click and then: ‘Hello, you’ve reached Gerry Nicolson. I’m shooting stars at the minute. You’re welcome to leave your details.’ No promise that he’d do anything with them though, Laurel noted wryly. She didn’t leave a message. She’d just have to go on alone for now.