‘Tell me about when you were a little girl at Jericho’s End,’ I said. It wasn’t that I needed to hear her stories again, for they were engraved on my memory for ever, it was just that her thin, silvery thread of a voice was all that seemed to keep her connected to life – and to me.
After the last round of chemotherapy, her curling, red-gold hair had returned in the form of an ashy down, and her hand in mine, once so strong and capable, seemed to have turned into a bird’s claw, dry as a bundle of fine twigs and cool to the touch. Painkillers had smoothed out the lines in her hollowed face and clouded her blue-grey eyes with vagueness.
‘It’s me, Marnie. Can you hear me, Mum? Auntie Em’s dropped me off after school, but she’s going to come in and see you later, when she picks me up.’
‘Marianne, not Marnie,’ Mum corrected, with an echo of the old touch of reproof.
The hospice was so quiet that you could hear the bees buzzing among the lavender bushes in the garden, and only the purposeful footsteps of the nurses going briskly and competently about their work broke the drowsy spell.
‘Mum?’ I tried again. ‘Remember when you were a little girl and lived at Jericho’s End, and what you and your friends saw when you were playing among the stones by the Fairy Falls? Tell me that story,’ I pleaded.
‘Jericho’s End . . . ?’ A light seemed to glimmer in her eyes for a moment and the fleeting ghost of a smile touched her lips.
‘Ice cream . . . and angels,’ she sighed ecstatically on an exhaled breath, as if she’d had a glimpse through the doors of Heaven, and spotted the Angel Gabriel driving the celestial version of a Mr Whippy van – and then, in an instant, she was gone.
Even at twelve, you know when the butterfly has flown and the chrysalis is an empty husk, but I sat there holding her hand and wondering if the journey from birth to death wasn’t a straight line at all, but a circle, until Aunt Em came to fetch me.
When my mobile rang, I was digging up early potatoes in the walled garden of a vast and castellated French château, though not the one belonging to my adoptive family, the Ellwoods, which was an altogether more modest affair about forty miles away, in the Dordogne. I fished the phone out of my pocket with an earthy hand.
‘Marnie? Good news!’ announced Treena Ellwood, who filled the dual role of my almost-twin sister and best friend, sounding as if she was standing next to me, rather than back in the UK. ‘I just heard on the grapevine that Mike got married again early last year. I thought there must have been a good reason why he suddenly agreed to the divorce.’
‘He’s . . . remarried?’ I repeated, slowly. I spared a fleeting thought for his newest victim, but my overwhelming feeling was that one final shackle holding me to the past had finally fallen away. I found I was staring at the ice-blue sky, wondering if I still remembered how to fly.
And as I stood there, phone in hand, the memory of my brief marriage escaped the dark corner of my mind in which I’d hidden it and slithered out to taunt me for the reckless, loving fool I’d been.
It had been a whirlwind romance and I’d blithely followed a trail of rosy delusions right up to the altar within two months of meeting Mike Draycot. I’d assured everyone that despite the short time we’d known each other and the age difference – he was ten years older – we were true soulmates . . . though, later, I found it hard to think of anything we shared.
But then, I wasn’t the malleable, emotionally damaged person he thought I was; he just caught me at a low ebb. I was strong, prone to be acerbic and fiercely independent, and yet Mum’s death when I was twelve had left me with a deep feeling of insecurity. My adoptive family’s recent decision to sell up their home and garden centre business in the UK, and to relocate to an old château in France, had stirred up that feeling all over again. Somehow it felt like a second betrayal.
Mike had seemed so understanding and sympathetic. I’d told him more about how I felt than I’d ever revealed to anyone, even Treena, and since his first wife had died tragically young, we seemed to have a bond of loss in common.
He was charming, very clever and emotionally manipulative in ways I’d never even thought of. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.
. . . . .
Since Treena’s phone call, I’d applied for any job that sounded even remotely suitable. But unfortunately, it appeared that most of the situations with accommodation thrown in wanted a married couple, usually a gardener/housekeeper combo. I’d only had one positive reply and that was to an ad that Treena had happened to spot in her local paper.
Full-time gardener required to work at two adjoining country properties. Position includes small flat if required.
There had been a box number, to which I’d replied, and was astonished to discover that, by one of those weird coincidences that life sometimes throws our way, the advertiser lived in Jericho’s End.
The letter offering me the position was stowed in the small, worn patchwork leather rucksack slung over my shoulder. I could feel it glowing brightly in there, like a promise.
The speed of the first response, and then the offer of the job following hard on the heels of my reply, made me suspect they’d had few, if any, applicants. The pay was low considering there were two gardens to look after, but then, the inclusion of the small flat clinched it for me.
I’d had a tussle with my conscience before accepting it for, after all, Mum had made me promise never to go to Jericho’s End, though, as Treena had pointed out when I discussed it with her, that was when she was very ill and probably confused. What danger could there possibly be in a small Lancashire village?