Alice Rose is a foundling, adopted but then rejected again by a horrid step-mother. As she struggles to find a place where she belongs, only through baking in her little teashop can she find a sense of home
Prologue: West Yorkshire
2 March 1978
There had been no signs to warn me of the imminent catastrophe about to overtake me, or if there had been, I was oblivious to them. When everything kicked off that night, I felt as if I’d been catapulted straight into a horror movie and a gross one, at that – or the nightmare from hell.
Fear and confusion were quickly followed by realization, panic, shock and revulsion, for who’d have thought a birth involved so much goriness? Certainly not me, even though, ironically enough, my sights had refocused on gaining an Oxford place to read medicine the very moment my brief first love affair the previous summer had come to an end.
But then, that wasn’t because I felt any kind of vocation to heal the sick, the halt and the lame, it was simply part of my plan to mould myself so much in Father’s image that he forgot I wasn’t actually his biological child at all.
As these thoughts jostled chaotically together in my normally clear, cool and analytical mind, my eyes met Mum’s over the small, misshapen, skinned-rabbit of a thing that lay weakly mewling on the bed between us and I expect the expression on her ashen, stunned face mirrored my own.
Her mouth moved silently once or twice, as if it had forgotten how to shape words. Then finally she whispered, ‘Liz, your father must never find out!’
She always was entirely mistress of the bleeding obvious.
Chapter 1: Once Upon a Fairy Tale
I grew up knowing I was adopted, so it was never a shocking revelation, merely one of the things that defined me, like having curly copper-bright hair, distinctive dark eyebrows, a fine silvery scar above my upper lip and pale green eyes (like boiled gooseberries, according to Mum, though Dad said they were mermaid’s eyes, the colour of sea-washed green glass).
As a little girl I’d sit for hours painting with Dad in his garden studio, while his deep, gentle voice wrapped me in a soft-spun fairy tale, in which my desperate young birth mother had been forced to abandon her poorly, premature little baby, hoping that someone like Mum and Dad would come along and adopt her.
Or like Dad, at any rate, since eventually I came to see that Nessa (she’d insisted I call her that rather than Mummy, practically the moment I could string a sentence together), had had no maternal yearnings; she’d just been paying lip-service to his longing for a family, smug in the knowledge that she couldn’t physically carry a child even if she had wanted to.
‘A bad fairy had put a spell on baby Alice, but when the nice doctors had made her lip all better, everyone agreed she was the prettiest princess in the whole of Yorkshire,’ he’d finish his story, smiling at me over his canvas.
‘And they put the wicked fairy in a metal cage and everyone threw rotten tomatoes at her,’ I’d suggest – or even worse punishments, for some old fairy-tale books given to me by my paternal grandmother, including one strangely but wonderfully illustrated by Arthur Rackham, had had a great influence on my imagination. We lived near Granny Rose in Knaresborough until moving to a village just outside Shrewsbury when I was eight, and I can still remember her reading to me the long, long poem by Edith Sitwell about Sleeping Beauty, once she’d tucked me up in bed. I’d slowly drift off on a sea of musical, beautiful words about malevolent fairies and enchantments.
Other favourites of Granny’s included The Water-Babies and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – the latter a favourite of mine, too, since the heroine had the same name. I begged for her lovely old copies after she died and Dad made sure I got them, even though Nessa was hellbent on having a clearance firm empty the whole house. She was a minimalist sort of person … except when it came to her own clothes, jewellery and shoes.
Our house was a tale of two parts, with most of the creatively chaotic clutter in Dad’s studio, which might have been stables once upon a time – until he married a wicked witch disguised as a flamboyantly beautiful ex-opera singer and she banished him there.
Anyway, you can see why I have a tendency to turn everything that happens in my life into a dark-edged fairy tale – I can’t help it!
‘They threw stinky rotten eggs at the wicked fairy, too,’ I’d once added firmly to the familiar story.
‘Well, perhaps, but only until she said she was sorry and then they let her out,’ Dad had amended, kind-hearted as always.
Over the years we embroidered the story with increasingly ridiculous flourishes at every retelling, but it had served its purpose, for I grew up knowing that I’d been abandoned in the village of Haworth in Yorkshire and adopted, and the filament-fine silvery scar was all that remained to show I’d been born with a harelip.
Of course, later I realized Dad had had no way of knowing whether my birth mother was young or not and also, once I became quite obsessed with the Brontë family and Haworth, I knew that it was extremely unlikely that she’d tiptoed up to the steps of the Parsonage in the middle of the night and laid me there, in the expectation that he and Nessa would shortly swing by and scoop me up. I mean, it was a museum by then, so it would have been closed, and also, adoption didn’t quite work like that. (I’m still surprised they let Nessa on to the register. I can only think that her opera training kicked in and she hadn’t been able to resist throwing herself into the role of eager prospective mother.)
But while Nessa might make extravagant expressions of affection towards me only when her London friends were visiting (one of whom once cattily let fall the information that she hadn’t had that brilliant a voice even before the operation on her vocal cords that ended her career), I’d known real love from Granny and Dad.
And I also had Lola, my best friend, and her lovely parents, who owned a nearby smallholding, growing herbs commercially. There we helped look after the hens and goats, ran wild in the fields and learned to bake in the long, cool, quarry-tiled kitchen. All my life, baking – even the scent of cinnamon and dried fruit – would have the power to transport me back immediately to those happy days and transfuse me with warmth and comfort.
So it was an idyllic childhood on the whole, though once the rebellious teenage hormones kicked in I began to clash more and more with Nessa.
Still, the finer details of my distant past didn’t seem to matter … until Dad suddenly died from a massive heart attack when I was nearly eighteen and my safe, secure world collapsed around me like a house of cards.
In any ordinary family, his loss might have pulled Nessa and me together, but she was not so much grief-stricken as filled with a volcanic rage, mainly directed at me. And she became so obsessed with money that immediately after the funeral she sold the entire contents of Dad’s studio (he was quite a well-known artist) to an American collector without a word to me beforehand, locking the door so I couldn’t even go in there to find solace among the comforting, familiar smells of oil paint and turpentine.
That was bad enough. But then, with even more indecent haste, she moved a new man into the house – and a horrible one, at that, who was scarily over-friendly in an old-lech kind of way whenever she was out of earshot – and I came to realize that now I was just an encumbrance and she couldn’t wait for me to go off to university the following year.
The pain of Dad’s loss was still raw and I couldn’t bear to see another man in his place, so I had the row to end all rows with Nessa, culminating in my saying that I hated her and I was going to go and find my real mother.
‘She has to be an improvement on you!’ I finished.
‘You’re a foundling, darling, so there’s no way you can find her,’ she snapped cuttingly. ‘And bearing in mind that she dumped you out on the moors on a freezing cold night, she’d be unlikely to welcome you with open arms, even if you did.’
Stunned into silence, I stared at her while I took in the implications of what she’d just told me. ‘She … didn’t leave me in Haworth village, but up on the moors, where she didn’t think I’d be found?’ I asked eventually.
Nessa looked at me, the fury dying down slightly into a sort of malicious, slightly shame-faced pleasure that shook me: I knew she’d never really loved me, but until recently I’d thought her as fond of me as her self-absorbed nature would allow.
‘Your father never wanted me to tell you the truth, but I think that was a mistake. And maybe she was batty and thought someone would come across you,’ she suggested, possibly divining from my expression that she’d gone too far.
‘No, if she left me at night out on the moors, then clearly she hoped I’d die and never be found,’ I said numbly, for the spell of Dad’s fairy tale was now well and truly shattered and there was no way it could be glued together again. I felt empty, alone and lost … and unwanted – totally unwanted – by anyone.
‘I hate you!’ I cried with sudden violence as hot tears rushed to my eyes. ‘I wish you’d died instead of Dad – though you couldn’t have had a heart attack, because you haven’t got a heart. You’ve never loved me like Lola’s mum loves her.’
She shrugged. ‘I expect Dolly actually wanted children, which I never did, even if I could have had them. Your father finally wore me down into agreeing to adoption and he was over the moon when we were offered a baby. But you’d only just had the surgery on your face and what with that and the carroty hair, you weren’t exactly prepossessing, darling.’
Now the floodgates of frankness were open, there seemed to be no stopping the hurtful revelations, so I added one of my own: I told her that the day before, when she was out, her creepy new lover had tried to kiss me and made suggestive remarks.
‘You lying snake in the bosom!’ she hissed furiously, clutching those generous appendages as though she’d just been bitten there by an asp.
And though of course she didn’t believe me (which was why I hadn’t already told her), there was no going back after that.
Dawn found me on a coach heading to Cornwall, with the loan of Lola’s birthday money in my bag, to tide me over. I took only one case with me, leaving with her for safekeeping my most precious possessions, including Granny’s books and a small portrait of me in oils, painted by Dad.
Of course Lola had wanted to tell her mum what had happened, but I’d sworn her to secrecy until I’d found a job and somewhere to live.
‘I’ll stay in a bed and breakfast at first, and there are lots of hotels and cafés there where I can get some casual work until I find my feet,’ I assured her.
Inspired by some of Dad’s old stories of the Newlyn artists and our holidays in Cornwall, I had romantic ideas about joining an artists’ colony, where my aspirations to become a writer and painter could be nurtured, though later I realized this was not only unrealistic, but several decades too late.
The stark reality was that my arrival, late in the evening and off-season, when many places were shut up for the winter and no one was hiring, left me without any option other than spending the first night huddled in a shelter on the seafront … and all too soon my over-active imagination was peopling the darkest corners with evilly muttering goblins and foully hellish Hieronymus Bosch creatures.
When the cold breeze blew a discarded cardboard cup across the prom I thought it was the clatter of running footsteps and even the soft, constant susurration of the sea sounded like an unkind conversation about me.
I’d begun to write my own contemporary mash-ups of fairy tales, fables and folklore, spiced with an edge of horror, but when it came to the crunch, this princess was no kick-ass kind of girl able to rescue herself, but a frightened waif in urgent need of a handsome prince … or even a kind, ugly one.
Hell, I’d have settled for a reasonably friendly frog.
Tears trickled down my face and I shivered as the cold wind picked up and wound its way around my legs.
Then, all at once, I heard the staccato tap of high heels and the excited yapping of a small dog. Before I could attempt to shrink even further into my dark corner, it dashed in and discovered me.
A torch snapped on and I screwed up my eyes against the dazzling beam, though not before I’d glimpsed the small and unthreatening shape behind it, so that my heart rate steadied.
‘Well, what have we here, Ginny?’ said a surprised female voice with the hint of a highland lilt. ‘A wee lassie?’
Find out more about the author
Alice Rose is a foundling, discovered on the Yorkshire moors above Haworth as a baby. Adopted but then later rejected again by a horrid step-mother, Alice struggles to find a place where she belongs. Only baking – the scent of cinnamon and citrus and the feel of butter and flour between her fingers – brings a comforting sense of home.
So it seems natural that when she finally decides to return to Haworth, Alice turns to baking again, taking over a run-down little teashop and working to set up an afternoon tea emporium.
Luckily she soon makes friends – including a Grecian god-like neighbour – who help her both set up home and try to solve the mystery of who she is. There are one or two last twists in the dark fairytale of Alice’s life to come . . . but can she find her happily ever after?
Wonderfully wry, heart-warming and life-affirming, Trisha Ashley's hilarious novel will charm lovers of romantic comedies. And it contains recipes!