Книга: The Secret Keeper
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Greenacres, 2011

ANOTHER DAY of Indian summer, and a golden heat haze hovered above the fields. After sitting all morning with her mother, Laurel had handed over to Rose and left the pair of them with the pedestal fan turning slowly on the dressing table while she ventured outside. She’d intended to take a walk down to the stream to stretch her legs, but the tree house had struck her eye, and she decided to climb up the ladder instead. It would be the first time she’d done so in fifty years.

Lord, but the doorway was much lower than she remembered. Laurel clambered through, bottom cocked at an unfortunate angle, and then sat with her legs crossed, surveying the room itself. She smiled when she saw Daphne’s mirror still set on its side along the crossbeam. Sixty years had caused the mercury backing to rupture and flake so that when Laurel looked at her reflection, the image was mottled as if through water. It was strange indeed, to find herself within this place of childhood memories and see her grown-up wrinkled face staring back at her. Like Alice falling through the rabbit hole; or else falling through it again, fifty years on, only to find herself the only thing changed.

Laurel put the mirror back and allowed herself to glance out of the window, just as she had that day; she could almost hear Barnaby barking, see the one-winged hen turning circles in the dust; feel the stretched summer glare sheering off the driveway stones. She was just about convinced that if she peeked back at the house she might see Iris’s hula hoop rocking against its leaning post when the hot breeze grazed it. And so she didn’t look. Sometimes the distance of years—all that was contained within its concertina folds—was a physical ache. Laurel turned away from the window instead.

She’d brought the photograph of Dorothy and Vivien into the tree house with her, the one Rose had found inside Peter Pan, and now Laurel took it out of her pocket. Along with the play script itself, she’d been carrying it around with her ever since she’d got back from Oxford; they’d become a talisman of sorts, the starting point to this mystery she was trying to unravel, and—God, she hoped—with any luck, the key to its solution. The two women hadn’t been friends, Gerry said, and yet they must have been, for what else explained this picture?

Laurel stared hard at them, their arms linked as they smiled at the photographer, determined to find a clue. Where had it been taken? she wondered. In a room somewhere, that much was clear; a room with a slanting roof—an attic perhaps? There was no one else in the photo, but a small dark smudge behind the women might have been another person moving very quickly—Laurel looked closer—a small person, unless there was something tricky going on with the perspective. A child? Perhaps. Though that didn’t help especially, there were children everywhere. (Or were there, in London during the war? A lot were evacuated, particularly during the first years when London was being blitzed.)

Laurel sighed frustratedly. It was no use; no matter how she tried, it was still a guessing game—one option was as plausible as the next and nothing she’d discovered so far gave any real hint as to the circumstances that had led to this picture being taken. Except perhaps the book it had been nestled inside all these decades. Did that mean something—had the two objects always been a pair—had her mother and Vivien been in a play together? Or was it just another infuriating coincidence?

She focused her attention on Dorothy, slipping on her glasses and angling the photograph towards the light of the open window, better to see each grain of detail. It struck Laurel that there was something not quite right about her mother’s face; it was strained, as if the extreme good humour she’d found for the photographer wasn’t entirely genuine. It wasn’t antipathy; certainly not; there was no sense that she didn’t like the person behind the camera—rather that the happiness was an exaggeration. That it was driven by some emotion other than pure simple joy—


Laurel jumped and made an owl-like whoop. She glanced at the tree-house entrance. Gerry was standing at the top of the ladder, laughing. ‘Oh, Lol,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘You should have seen your face.’

‘Yes. Very funny, I’m sure.’

‘It really was.’

Laurel’s heart was still pounding. ‘To a child perhaps.’ She looked out onto the empty driveway. ‘How did you get here? I didn’t hear a car?’

‘We’ve been working on teleporting—you know, dissolving matter into nothing and then transmitting it. Going pretty well so far, though I think I might’ve left half my brain in Cambridge.’

Laurel smiled with exaggerated patience. Delighted though she was to see her brother, she was in no mood for humour.

‘No? Oh, all right. I caught the bus and walked up from the village.’ He climbed in and sat down next to her. He looked like a lanky shaggy giant, craning his long neck to take in every angle of the tree house. ‘God, it’s been a while since I’ve been up here. I really like what you’ve done with the place.’


‘I mean I like your flat in London, but this is less pretentious, isn’t it? More natural.’

‘Are you finished?’ Laurel blinked sternly at him.

He pretended to consider, tapping his chin, and then pushed his unruly hair back from his forehead. ‘You know, I think I am.’

‘Good, then would you kindly tell me what you found in Lon-don? Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m trying to solve a rather significant family mystery here.’

‘Right, well. When you put it like that …’ He was wearing a green canvas satchel across his body and he lifted the strap over his head, long fingers feeling about inside to draw out a small notebook. Laurel felt a surge of dismay when she saw it, but she bit her tongue and didn’t remark on how tatty the book was—bits of paper coming out at all angles, some curling Post-it notes at top and bottom, a coffee ring on the front. The man had a doctorate and more besides, presumably he knew how to take good notes, hopefully he’d be a dab hand at finding them again.

‘While you’re riffling,’ she said with determined cheerfulness. ‘I’ve been wondering about what you said the other day, on the phone.’ ‘Mm?’ He continued searching through a clutch of papers.

‘You said Dorothy and Vivien weren’t friends, that they hardly knew each other.’

‘That’s right.’

‘I just—I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how that can be. Do you think you might’ve got it wrong somehow? I mean—’ she held up the photograph, the two young women, arms linked, smiling at the camera—‘what do you say to that?’

He took it from her. ‘I say they’re both very pretty young la-dies. Film quality’s come a long way since then. Black and white’s a far more moody finish than col—’

‘Gerry,’ Laurel warned.

‘And—’ he handed it back—‘I say all this photo tells me is that for a split second, sixty years ago, our mother linked arms with another woman and smiled at a camera.’

Damned, dry science logic. Laurel grimaced. ‘What about this then?’ She took up the old copy of Peter Pan and opened it to the frontispiece. ‘It’s inscribed,’ she said, pointing her finger at the handwritten lines, ‘Look.’

Gerry set his papers in his lap and took the book from her. He read the message. ‘For Dorothy, A true friend is a light in the dark, Vivien.’ It was small of her, she knew, but Laurel felt just a wee bit triumphant then. ‘That’s a bit harder to dispute, isn’t it?’

He stuck the pad of his thumb in his chin dimple and frowned, still staring at the page. ‘That, I grant you, is a little trickier.’ He brought the book closer, lifted his brows as if he were trying to focus, and then he leaned it more towards the light. As Laurel watched, a smile brightened her brother’s face.

‘What?’ she demanded. ‘What is it?’

‘Well, I wouldn’t expect you to notice, of course—you humanities types are never big on detail.’

‘The point, Gerry?’

He handed the book back to her. ‘Have a closer look. It strikes me that the body of the message is written in a different pen from the name above it.’

Laurel moved to beneath the tree-house window and let sunlight stream directly onto the page. She adjusted her reading glasses and stared hard at the inscription.

Well—some detective she turned out to be—Laurel couldn’t believe she hadn’t noticed before. The message about friend-ship was written in one pen, and the words ‘For Dorothy,’ at the top, though also in black ink, had been written with another, slightly finer. It was possible Vivien had started writing with one and then switched to a second— the ink of the first might have been running low—but it was unlikely, wasn’t it?

Laurel had the dispiriting sense she was clutching at straws, particularly when, as she continued to look, she started to perceive slight variations in the two handwriting styles. Her voice was low and clipped: ‘You’re suggesting Ma might have written her own name in the book, aren’t you? Made it look as if it were a gift from Vivien?’

‘I’m not suggesting anything. I’m just saying two different pens have been used. But yeah—that’s a distinct possibility, particularly in light of what Dr. Rufus observed.’

‘Yes,’ said Laurel, closing the book. ‘Dr Rufus—tell me everything you found, Gerry. Everything he wrote about this—’ she waved her fingers—‘obsessive condition of Ma’s.’

‘First up, it wasn’t an obsessive condition, it was just your garden- variety obsession.’

‘There’s a difference?’

‘Well, yes. One is a clinical definition, the other is a single trait. Dr Rufus certainly thought she had some issues—I’ll get to those—but she was never actually his patient. Dr Rufus had known her as a child—his daughter had been friends with Ma when they were growing up in Coventry. He liked her, I gather, and he took an interest in her life.’ Laurel glanced at the photograph in her hand, her beautiful young mother. ‘I’ll bet he did.’

‘They met regularly for lunch and—’

‘—and he just happened to write down most of what she told him? Some friend he turned out to be.’

‘Just as well for our purposes.’

Laurel had to concede the point, but only grudgingly.

Gerry had closed his notebook and he glanced at the Post-it note stuck to its cover. ‘So, according to Lionel Rufus, she’d always been an outgoing sort of girl, playful, fun and very imaginative—all the things we know Ma to be; her origins were ordinary enough, but she was desperate to lead a fabulous life. He first became interested in her because he was researching narcissism—’


‘—in particular the role of fantasy as a defence mechanism. He noticed that some of the things Ma said and did as a teen-ager tallied with the list of traits he was working on. Nothing over the top, just a certain level of self-absorption, a need to be admired, a tendency to see herself as exceptional, dreams of being successful and popular—’

‘Sounds like every teenager I’ve met.’

‘Exactly, and it’s all a sliding scale. Some narcissistic traits are common and normal, other people parlay the same traits into forms for which society generously rewards them—’

‘Like who?’

‘Oh, I don’t know—actors …’ He gave her a crinkly smile. ‘Seriously though, despite what Caravaggio would have us believe, it’s not all about staring into mirrors all day—’

‘I should think not. Daphne would be in trouble if it were.’

‘But people with a bent towards narcissistic personality types are susceptible to obsessive ideas and fantasies.’

‘Like imagined friendships with people they admire?’

‘Yes, precisely. Many times it’s a harmless delusion that fades eventually leaving the recipient of the ardour none the wiser; other times, though, if the person is forced to confront the fact that their fantasy isn’t real—if something happens to crack the mirror, so to speak—well, let’s just say they’re the type to feel rejection rather deeply.’

‘And to seek revenge?’

‘I should say so. Though they’d more likely see it as justice than revenge.’

Laurel lit a cigarette.

‘Rufus’s notes don’t go into enormous detail, but it seems that in the early 1940s, when Ma was around nineteen years old, she developed two major fantasies: the first with regards to her employer—she was convinced the old aristocrat looked up-on her as a daughter and was going to leave her the bulk of the ancestral estate—’

‘Which she didn’t?’

Gerry inclined his head and waited patiently for Laurel to say, ‘No, of course she didn’t. Go on …’

‘The second was her imagined friendship with Vivien. They knew each other, they just weren’t as close as Ma imagined them to be.’

‘And then something happened to spoil the fantasy?’

Gerry nodded. ‘I couldn’t find a lot of details, but Rufus wrote that Ma was “slighted” by Vivien Jenkins; the circumstances weren’t clear, but I gather Vivien openly denied knowing her. Ma was hurt and embarrassed, angry too, but—he thought—all right, until a month or so later he was advised she’d come up with some sort of plan to “put things right”.’

‘Ma told him that?’

‘No, I don’t think so …’ Gerry scanned the Post-it note. ‘He didn’t specify how he knew, but I got the impression—something in the way it was worded—that the information didn’t come directly from Ma.’ Laurel drew in the corner of her mouth, considering. The words ‘put things right’ made her mind cast back to her visit with Kitty Barker, in particular the old woman’s account of the night she and Ma went out dancing. Dolly’s wild over-the-top behaviour, the ‘plan’ she kept on about, the friend she’d brought with her—a girl she’d grown up with in Coventry. Laurel smoked thoughtfully. Dr Rufus’s daughter, it had to be, who’d gone home afterwards and told her father what she’d heard.

Laurel felt sorry for her mother then—to be denied by one friend, reported on by another; she could well remember the hot intensity of her own teenage daydreams and imaginings: it had been a relief when she became an actress and was able to funnel them into artistic creations. Dorothy, though, hadn’t had that opportunity …

‘So what happened, Gerry?’ she said. ‘Ma just let her fantasies go, snapped out of it?’ The word “snapped”, and Laurel remembered her mother’s crocodile story. That sort of change was exactly what she’d been suggesting in the tale, wasn’t it? A transition from the young Dolly of Kitty Barker’s London memories, to Dorothy Nicolson of Greenacres.


‘That can happen?’

He shrugged. ‘It can happen because it did happen. Ma’s the proof.’

Laurel shook her head at him in wonder. ‘You scientists really do believe whatever your proofs tell you.’

‘Of course. That’s why they’re called proofs.’

‘How, though, Gerry …’ Laurel needed more than that. ‘How did she shake off these … traits?’

‘Well, if we consult the theories of our good friend Lionel Rufus here, it would appear that although some people go on to develop a full-blown personality disorder, many simply outgrow the narcissistic traits of adolescence when they reach adulthood. Of most relevance to Ma’s situation, though, is his theory that a large traumatic event—you know, shock, or loss, or grief—something outside the direct personal sphere of the narcissistic person, can, in some cases, “cure” them.’

‘Put them back in touch with reality, you mean? Make them look outwards rather than inwards?’


It was what they’d posited when they met that night in Cam-bridge: that Ma had been involved in something that turned out terribly, and she became a better person for it.

Gerry said, ‘I guess it’s the same as the rest of us—we grow and change depending on what life throws at us.’

Laurel nodded thoughtfully and finished her cigarette. Gerry was putting away his notebook and it seemed they’d reached the end of the road, but then something occurred to her. ‘You said before that Dr Rufus was studying fantasy as a defence mechanism. Defence against what, Gerry?’

‘Lots of things, though most notably Dr Rufus believed children who felt out of place within their families—you know, those who were held at a distance by their parents, made to feel odd or different, were susceptible to developing narcisstic traits as a form of self-protection.’

Laurel considered their mother’s reluctance to speak in detail about her past in Coventry, her family. She’d always accepted it was because Ma was too grief stricken by their loss; now, though, she wondered if her silence hadn’t been due in part to something else. I used to get in trouble when I was young, Laurel could remember her mother saying (usually when Laurel, herself, had misbehaved); I always felt different from my parents—I’m not sure they knew quite what to make of me. What if young Dorothy Smitham had never been happy at home? What if she’d felt an outsider all her life, and her loneliness had driven her to generate grand fantasies in a desperate attempt to fill the hole of need inside. What if it had all gone terribly wrong, and her dreams had come crashing down, and she’d had to live with the fact until finally she was permitted a second chance, an opportunity to put the past behind her and start again; to become, this time, the person she’d always wanted to be, within a family who adored her?

No wonder she’d been so taken aback when Henry Jenkins, after all that time, walked up the drive. She must have seen him as the author of her dream’s demise, his arrival bringing the past into collision with the present in a nightmarish way. Maybe it was shock that made her lift the knife. Shock mixed up with fear that she might lose the family she’d created and adored. It didn’t make Laurel feel any easier about what she’d seen, but it certainly went some of the way towards explaining it.

But what was the ‘large traumatic event’ that so changed her? It was something to do with Vivien, with Ma’s plan, Laurel would have staked her life on that. But what exactly? Was there any way of finding out more than what they knew already? Anywhere else she might look?

Laurel thought again about the locked trunk in the attic, the place Ma had hidden the playbook and photograph. There’d been very little else inside, only the old white coat, the carved Mr Punch, and the thank-you card. The coat was part of the story—the ticket dated 1941 must surely have been the one Ma bought when she fled London; the provenance of the figurine was impossible to know … But what about the card with the Coronation stamp on its envelope? Something about that card had given Laurel a flutter of deja vu when she found it—she wondered if it might not be worth her while to take another look.


Later that evening, when the day’s heat had begun to roll away and night was falling, Laurel left the others looking through photo albums and disappeared up to the attic. She’d taken the key from her mother’s bedside-table drawer without even a hint of bad conscience. Perhaps knowing precisely what she’d find inside the trunk took some of the sting out of her prying. That, or her moral compass was now completely moribund. Whatever the case, she didn’t linger, merely took what she’d come for and hurried back downstairs.

Dorothy was still sleeping when Laurel returned the key, the sheet drawn high on her body, and her face wan against the pillow. The nurse had been and gone an hour before, and Laurel had helped to bathe her mother. As she’d drawn the flannel down Ma’s arm, she’d thought: These are the arms that nursed me; as she held the old, old hand, she’d found herself trying to remember the reverse sensation, of her small fingers wrapped inside the safety of her mother’s palm; even the weather, the unseasonal warmth, the bursts of sun-shot air that came down the chimney, made Laurel feel unaccountably nostalgic. Nothing unaccountable about it, said a voice in Laurel’s head. Your mother’s dying—of course you feel nostalgic. Laurel did not like that voice and shooed it away.

Rose stuck her head around the open door and said, softly, ‘Daphne just called. Her plane gets in to Heathrow at midday tomorrow.’

Laurel nodded. It was just as well. When the nurse was leaving earlier, she’d told them, with a delicacy and experience Laurel appreciated, that it was time to call the family home. ‘She hasn’t far to walk now,’ the nurse had said. ‘Her long journey’s almost done.’ And it was a long journey—Dorothy had lived a whole lifetime before Laurel had even been born; a life that Laurel was only now beginning to glimpse.

‘Need anything?’ said Rose, tilting her head so that silvery ripples of hair fell over one shoulder. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

Laurel said, ‘No thanks’, and Rose left. Sounds of movement started up in the kitchen downstairs; the hum of the kettle, cups being laid out on the bench top, the cutlery clattering in the drawer. They were comforting noises of family life, and Laurel was glad her mother was home to hear them. She went closer to the bed and sat down on a chair, stroking Dorothy’s cheek lightly with the back of her fingers.

There was something soothing in watching the gentle rise and fall of her mother’s chest. Laurel wondered whether even in her sleep she could hear what was happening; whether she was thinking, ‘My children are down there, my grown-up children, happy and healthy and enjoying one another’s company.’ It was hard to know. Certainly Ma slept more calmly now; there’d been no nightmares since the other evening; and although her moments of wakeful lucidity were rare, they were radiant when they came. She seemed to have let go of the restlessness, the guilt Laurel supposed, that had plagued her over the past few weeks, moving beyond the place where contrition ruled.

Laurel was glad for her; no matter what had occurred in the past, it was insupportable to think of her mother, so much of her life led in kindness and love (repentance, perhaps?), engulfed by guilt at the very end. Yet there was a selfish part of Laurel that wanted to know more; that needed to talk to Ma before she passed away. She couldn’t bear to think that Dorothy Nicolson might die without them having spoken about what happened that day in 1961, and what happened before that in 1941, the ‘traumatic event’ that changed her. For surely at this point it was only by asking outright that Laurel was going to find the answers she needed. ‘Ask me again one day, when you’re older,’ her mother had said when Laurel wondered how she’d turned from a crocodile into a mother; well, Laurel wanted to ask now. For herself, but more than that so she could give Ma the comfort and true forgiveness she so surely craved.

‘Tell me about your friend, Ma,’ Laurel said softly to the dim, silent room.

Dorothy stirred and Laurel said it again, a little louder. ‘Tell me about Vivien.’

She didn’t expect an answer—the nurse had administered a sleeping tablet before she left—and none came. Laurel leaned back in her chair and slipped the old card from its envelope in-stead.

The message hadn’t changed; it still read only ‘Thank you’. No more words had appeared since last she’d looked, no clue as to the sender’s identity, no answers to the riddle she sought to solve.

Laurel turned the card over and over again, wondering whether it was only a lack of other options that made her think it was important. She put it back inside its envelope, and as she did, the stamp caught her eye.

She felt the same frisson of memory as last time.

Something was definitely eluding her, something to do with that stamp.

Laurel brought it closer, taking in the young queen’s face, her coronation robes … It was hard to believe it had been almost sixty years. She rattled the envelope thoughtfully. Perhaps her sense of the card’s importance was less to do with Ma’s mystery and more to do with its representation of an event that had loomed so large in Laurel’s eight- year-old mind. She could still remember watching it on the television set her parents had borrowed specially for the occasion; they’d all gathered around and—

‘Laurel?’ The old voice was as thin as a drift of smoke.

Laurel put the card aside and leaned her elbows on the mat-tress as she took her mother’s hand. ‘I’m here, Ma.’

Dorothy smiled faintly. Her eyes were glazed as she blinked at her eldest daughter. ‘You’re here,’ she echoed. ‘I thought I heard … I thought you said …’

Ask me again one day, when you’re older. Laurel felt herself at a precipice; she’d always believed in crossroad moments; this, she knew, was one of them. ‘I was asking about your friend, Ma,’ she said. ‘In London, during the war.’

‘Jimmy—’ the name came quickly, and with it a look of panic and loss. ‘He … I didn’t …’ Ma’s face was a mask of anguish, and Laurel hurried to soothe her: ‘Not Jimmy, Ma—I meant Vivien.’

Dorothy didn’t say a word. Laurel could see her jaw twitching with unsaid things.

‘Ma, please.’

And perhaps Dorothy perceived the note of desperation in her eldest daughter’s voice, because she sighed with ancient sorrow; her eyelids fluttered, and she said, ‘Vivien … was weak. A victim.’

Every hair on Laurel’s neck stood alert. Vivien was a victim, she was Dorothy’s victim—this felt like a confession—‘What happened to Vivien, Ma?’

‘Henry was a brute …’

‘Henry Jenkins?’

‘A vicious man … he beat …’ Dorothy’s old hand gripped Laurel’s, her gnarled fingers trembling.

Laurel’s face heated as realisation fired. She thought of the questions raised by what she’d read in Katy Ellis’s journals. Vivien wasn’t ill or infertile—she was married to a violent man. A charming brute who abused his wife behind closed doors and then smiled at the world; who did the sort of damage that kept Vivien in bed for days at a time recovering while he maintained a vigil at her side.

‘It was a secret. No one knew …’

That wasn’t quite true though, was it? Katy Ellis had known: the euphemistic references to Vivien’s health and well-being; the excessive concern over Vivien’s friendship with Jim-my; the letter she intended to write, telling him why he had to stay away. Katy had been desperate that Vivien not do anything to draw her husband’s ire. Was that why she’d counselled her young friend away from Dr Tomalin’s hospital? Had Henry been envious of the other man’s place in his wife’s affections?

‘Henry … I was scared …’

Laurel glanced at her mother’s pale face. Katy had been Vivien’s friend and confidante, it was understandable that she might know such a dirty marital secret; how though did Ma know such a thing? Had Henry’s violence spilled over? Is that what had gone wrong with the young lovers’ plan?

And then Laurel was seized by a sudden, awful idea. Henry had killed Jimmy. He’d found out about Jimmy’s friendship with Vivien and killed him. That’s why Ma hadn’t married the man she loved. The answers fell like dominoes: that’s how she knew about Henry’s violence, that’s why she was scared.

‘That’s why,’ Laurel said quickly. ‘You killed Henry because of what he did to Jimmy.’

The answer came so softly it might have been the current of the white moth’s wings as it flew through the open window and soared towards the light. But Laurel heard it. ‘Yes.’

Just a single word, but to Laurel it was music. Caught within its three simple letters was the answer to a lifetime’s question.

‘You were frightened when he came here, to Greenacres, that he’d come to hurt you, because everything went wrong and Vivien died.’


‘You thought he might hurt Gerry, too.’

‘He said …’ Ma’s eyes shot open; her grip tightened on Laurel’s hand. ‘He said he was going to destroy everything I loved—’

‘Oh, Ma.’

‘Just as I … just as I’d done to him.’

As her mother released her grip, exhausted, Laurel could have wept; she was overwhelmed by an almost crushing sense of relief. Finally, after weeks of searching, after years and years of wondering, everything was explained: what she’d seen; the menace she’d felt as she watched the man in the black hat walking up the driveway; the secrecy afterwards that she couldn’t understand.

Dorothy Nicolson killed Henry Jenkins when he came to Greenacres in 1961 because he was a violent monster who used to beat his wife; who’d killed her lover; who’d spent a decade trying to track her down and, when he found her, threatened to destroy the family she loved.

‘Laurel …’

‘Yes, Ma?’

But Dorothy didn’t say more, her lips moved soundlessly as she searched the dusty corners of her mind, grasping at lost threads she might never catch.

‘There now, Ma,’ Laurel stroked her mother’s forehead. ‘Everything’s all right. Everything’s all right now.’

Laurel fixed the sheets, and stood for a time watching her mother’s face, peaceful now, asleep. All this time, she realised, this whole search she’d been on, had been driven by a yearning need to know that her happy family, her entire childhood, the way her mother and father had looked at one another with such rare abiding love, was not a lie. And, now she did.

Her chest ached with a complex blend of burning love, and awe, and yes, finally, acceptance. ‘I love you, Ma,’ she whispered, close by Dorothy’s ear, feeling, as she did, the end to her quest. ‘And I forgive you, too.’

Iris’s voice was growing typically heated in the kitchen and Laurel itched, suddenly, to join her brother and sisters. She gathered Ma’s blankets up smoothly and placed a kiss on her forehead.

The thank-you card was sitting on the chair behind her and Laurel picked it up, intending to stow it in her bedroom for safe-keeping. Her mind was already downstairs fixing a cup of tea, so she couldn’t have said later what it was that made her notice then the small black marks on the envelope.

But notice them, she did. Her steps faltered halfway across Ma’s room and she stopped. She went to where the lamplight was brightest, slipped on her reading glasses and brought the envelope close. And then she smiled, slowly, wonderingly.

She’d been so distracted by the stamp that she’d nearly missed the real clue staring her in the face. The cancellation mark was decades old and it wasn’t easy to read, but it was clear enough to make out the date the card had been posted—June 3rd, 1953—and, better yet, where it had been sent from: Kensington, London.

Laurel glanced back towards her mother’s sleeping form. It was the very place Ma had lived during the war, in a house on Campden Grove. But who had sent her a thank-you card over a decade later, and why?

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