One of the things I like most about being a writer is the challenge of communicating new ideas – or further exploring old ones in different ways; I particularly enjoy the marriage of content and structure, the ability of one to inform, and progress, the other. From the start, one of my intentions with my sixth book, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, was that the architecture of the novel should illustrate the idea that within a single house, particularly an old one, coexist many stories of the disparate lives led within its walls. I liked the idea that each of these stories should be able to stand alone and yet, in concert, strung together by the overarching narrative of Birdie Bell (who had, of course, borne witness to them all), would work together to tell another, larger tale.
I became very attached to all of my characters when I was writing The Clockmaker’s Daughter and each of their stories added history to the house and texture to the novel’s tapestry. During the editing process, however, I realised that one of them – “Caroline’s Story” – was not essential to the mystery at the heart of the novel. Thus, a layer of Birchwood’s history was lost and dust allowed to settle around its absence. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that the past refuses to remain buried for long. Satchels are found, Japanese maple trees are uprooted, lead boxes are opened. Caroline and her husband David spent a brief period as residents of Birchwood Manor, their lives interwove with those who came before and after, history can’t be changed.
And so, here it is. The following ‘secret’ story contains events to which the novel alludes. Caroline is a character whom we meet in Elodie’s present day storyline. She is Pippa’s mentor, a photographer of some renown, who is responsible for providing Elodie with the photograph of her mother sitting with a young man in leafy surrounds. But all of that happens after the events described below. Like all of the characters who are drawn to Birchwood Manor, Caroline has suffered a terrible loss when we meet her (and a gentle warning, dear reader, that this story deals with themes of loss and grief that might be triggering for some). She finds herself at Birchwood Manor in the summer of 1992 and discovers, over time, as Edward Radcliffe did before her – and Leonard, and Juliet, too – that the twin-gabled house tucked within its bend of the river is possessed of a strange quality; that it really is a light in the dark.
David leaned to peer at the map, open across her lap. ‘It must be here somewhere. Have we passed it?’
‘I didn’t see anything.’
‘This.’ He tapped at the page. ‘Here. What’s that?’
It was a road, she supposed, but a narrow one. ‘There should be a bridge.’
He pulled the car onto the verge and took the map from her. A faint scent of musk, familiar and vaguely pleasing, came off his shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows to escape the heat. Their car wasn’t air-conditioned. It was a green Peugeot 404 that had belonged to his parents before it came to them. They’d never needed a car prior to that. One didn’t in London, not with the Tube.
David was wearing the shirt she’d bought for him two Christmases ago, Caroline noticed. She remembered buying it. The man behind the counter had flirted with her and she’d enjoyed it. It was in a shop in Camden, much hipper than she was, and she’d been flattered, safe in the knowledge that she was buying a gift for her husband so the flirting would lead nowhere.
It was a handsome shirt. He was a handsome man. Older-looking now than when she’d met him but still handsome.
She’d aged, too, of course. She was thinner all over—‘Too thin’, her mother said—with bony wrists and prominent veins on her hands that reminded her of being a child, marvelling at her grandmother’s ancient claws as she sliced the Sunday roast. Her grandmother had been a good cook with a house that smelled like gravy, and Caroline had assumed, if she’d given it any thought at all, that it was the way of things, and someday when she grew up, she, too, would have a house that smelled like that.
While David turned the map the other way, Caroline dug an apple from the duffel bag between her feet. She could glimpse the river beyond the long grasses and, without a word, she opened the car door and walked towards it.
Caroline had grown up in Sussex near the River Ouse and much of her childhood had played out on its pebbled edge . . . That river still had one of her Dunlop Green Flash trainers in it, lost as she tried to swing from one bank to the other on a rope that someone had suspended from the branch of an oak tree a long time ago. She’d watched helplessly as the plimsoll slipped from her heel and fell, landing with a plock and disappearing beneath the river’s chattering surface.
Where it went afterwards was a mystery, because although she and the others had fished for it with a stick and spent the afternoon diving—between bouts of lounging and laughing and drinking pilfered ale—to the bottom of the deep hidden gullies, the plimsoll had not been found. ‘Consider it your offering to the River God,’ Susie had said, thinking of the poem that they’d recently studied for A levels. ‘Maybe he’ll think twice before drowning you!’
‘He’d have to catch her near the weir, first,’ said Joe.
‘Or fall in love with her.’ This was Jamie, who’d arrived at school eight months before, with long hair and a casual disdain for the rules that marked him as ‘other’ and, to Caroline, wildly attractive. The word ‘love’ on his lips made her blush; they’d been dancing around each other for weeks. His eyes met hers, holding her gaze.
He’d carried her home on his back that afternoon, in the bleaching sun of late August, and Susie had run ahead, darting from side to side as Joe gave chase, the light turning her hair to gold …
Caroline picked up a small smooth stone. It was cool, having been shaded by the long grasses, but warmed quickly within the grip of her closed fingers. A lone gull cut across the sky, far from home.
This river was the Thames, and wider here than the river of her youth, the land either side more open. A bridge was visible a mile or two upstream. It was the bridge that they’d been looking for, Caroline realised, the one from the map; which meant that in the pocket of trees beyond it was the house.
She wondered what it would be like, how their time here would unfold.
Everyone said it was the best thing that could have happened—given the circumstances. They always added that bit. A new house, a move to the country, a fresh start—the very best thing.
David’s voice behind her: ‘Caroline, let’s go.’
Virginia Woolf put stones in her pockets, Caroline remembered suddenly. She left her hat and cane on the bank, put stones in her pockets and walked into the river near her country home. That was the River Ouse, too, Caroline’s river, thief and keeper of her plimsoll.
It had taken three weeks for Virginia Woolf’s husband to find her. She’d made it all the way to Southease, almost to the sea. He was a good man, by all accounts, Mr Woolf; a kind man, who’d loved his wife very much. Caroline supposed his love simply hadn’t been enough to save her. Some sadness was like that.
David called again. He was beckoning her back to the car. ‘I think I’ve found it.’
With a last glance at the river, Caroline retraced her steps through the grass.
They came upon the house down a narrow lane with a church at one end and a series of small cottages along the way. Across a short stretch of fields, a stone wall appeared, behind which could be glimpsed the twin gables of the roof from the cover of the promotional booklet. David slowed down the car as they passed the wall and Caroline read a sign on the wooden gate: ‘Birchwood Manor’.
David turned right, into a driveway marked on the hand-drawn map on the back of the booklet as ‘the coach way’. He parked the car on the verge and they hopped out either side, coming together out of habit by the bonnet to observe the place that they would call home for the next six months or so. There was another gate here, more decorative, metal of some kind, and beyond it was the garden of the house.
David took her hand and they walked along the path towards the portico, removing the key from the envelope and sliding it inside the old lock to open the heavy door.
By unspoken agreement they separated once they were inside, David taking the room that opened off to the immediate left, Caroline following a passageway right, passing through a drawing room and a hall. The sun had slipped behind a cloud as they arrived and the rooms were dark.
She came to a staircase and began to climb it. There was a landing midway, where the stairs made a one-eighty-degree turn, and a window overlooked a large chestnut tree. Caroline stood for a moment, taking in a meadow that stretched beyond the back garden, a tumbledown barn in its middle, a thick wood in the distance. In one or two places, she could glimpse the river.
She continued to the first floor where the layout was even more curious than downstairs; bedrooms linked together via doorways rather than sitting either side of a central hallway and in each room white sheets turned the beds and chairs and dressing tables into lumpen ghosts. The attics were reached by another flight of stairs, and the ceilings up top raked at a sharp angle. Caroline, who was tall, had to be careful not to hit her head on the low rafters.
She started making her way back down and at the end of a passageway on the first floor found a narrow spiral staircase with oddly angled treads. She followed it and arrived in the kitchen, near where they’d first entered the house. David was waiting and when he saw her said, ‘I like it. Do you like it?’
Caroline agreed that she liked it, even though she wasn’t sure that she did. It smelled like shuttered windows and other people’s memories.
‘Are you hungry? Too early for dinner, but I thought I might crack open the fruit cake.’
‘Just what the doctor ordered.’
He was a doctor. ‘Not a real one’, he liked to say. But he was; he had been. He’d worked for Médecins Sans Frontières when the two of them were first married, in Cambodia and then the Congo. He’d returned from each place worn and troubled; but it was Uganda that broke him. He was employed by the NHS now, helping to determine the Government’s Emergency Response Policy, and was doing a year of research at Oxford University. That was part of the reason that they’d arrived here, at this place. At thirty-five, David was a student again.
‘You’ll love Oxfordshire,’ he’d said, when he proposed the idea.
‘You could get back to your work again.’ One of Caroline’s well-meaning friends.
‘The fresh air will do you good.’ Her mother, Janey.
It was Janey who’d found them the house, through her part-time job with the Art Historians’ Association. The AHA had acquired the house years before, but a bequest in 1980 had given them the money they needed to set it up as a museum. Ken Stoppard, the Chief Executive, had leapt at the chance to open Birchwood Manor to the public, but there’d been a number of hoops to jump through in order to gain the necessary approvals. One repair after another had required additional fundraising and further applications to the council and, in the end, it had taken a decade to get it ready. Everything had been set for a summer grand opening when a final inspection revealed a plumbing issue affecting the guest WCs. Janey had suggested that her daughter (‘an art restorer by trade’) and son-in-law (‘a doctor!’) might move in for six months or so: they were quiet and careful and wouldn’t mind limiting themselves to one or two rooms. The Association was content to have a small rental income and someone in the house while the works were underway. They’d had trouble keeping a caretaker in recent years, according to Janey.
‘It’s a good one,’ said David, sliding a plate of fruit cake across the table. ‘Try some.’
Caroline took a bite, and as she did so in this cold, grey kitchen she suffered a sudden flash of memory: the two of them on a mountain top in India, both doubled over laughing as the sun beat down. She couldn’t remember what they’d been laughing about. Nothing important, just a surge of pleasure at being young and in love and having it all ahead.
Caroline splashed cold water on her face and blinked at the small oval mirror above the bathroom sink. She patted her cheeks with a towel and then took up her hairbrush, running it slowly through her straight lengths.
She had used to pluck out the occasional silver-rooted hairs as she saw them, up in the tiny bathroom of their attic flat in Highgate. She’d stopped, though, after it happened, and an odd thing had occurred. A thick silver streak had grown down each side of her face. ‘Like a tiger,’ David had said once, stroking her head gently.
The morning was muggy and Caroline opened the small bathroom window. A creeper had spread voraciously on the other side of the wall so she had to push hard to unstick the casement from its frame.
The bathroom overlooked the coach way and as she was fastening the window Caroline caught a glimpse of the car. Strange to think that it was here now, and not where it usually sat on the street in London. It looked out of place surrounded by so much greenery. The dissonance made her shiver.
David had tried to sell the car afterwards. He’d placed an advertisement without telling her and because the price had been low there’d been a lot of interest. Caroline had answered the phone one Sunday morning, as the pealing bells of St Anne’s were marking the end of Morning Prayer, and a man’s voice had asked her if the car was still available. He’d said he wanted to come and have a look—could she tell him whether it was airconditioned?
‘I was thinking of you,’ David had said when she’d confronted him. ‘I didn’t think–’
He hadn’t thought she’d want the reminder, that’s what he’d said, and his expression of confused dismay had made it clear he was in earnest.
But how could she have wanted anything else? And how could he have imagined, even for a second, that being rid of the car would diminish the memories? Was his own grief so conveniently linked to physical objects that he thought to remove the object was to cure it?
‘We can keep it,’ he’d said, when she’d tried to express all of this. ‘I was only thinking of you.’
And so, they’d kept the car. Caroline didn’t drive it, but sometimes, at night, when David wasn’t watching and she was able to escape the burden of his concern, she would go down to the street and climb inside. She would curl up on the backseat and close her eyes and let time bury her like mud.
Caroline replaced the hairbrush on the shelf and stared at her face in the mirror. Thirty-five years behind her; perhaps another thirty-five ahead. She wondered how on earth she was going to make it through.
‘Eggs today,’ said David as she arrived downstairs via the spiral staircase; just as he had on each of the previous five days since they’d arrived at Birchwood.
She flicked the switch on the kettle. ‘Tea?’
They took their breakfast outside to the table on the stretch of grass overlooking the narrow tributary. The map called this the Hafodsted Brook and showed it running alongside the house to feed the Thames.
‘I’ll aim to be home by one,’ said David. ‘We can have lunch together.’
Caroline noticed then that he was dressed in his good shirt and remembered it was Monday – his meeting in Oxford with his new supervisor. ‘One is good.’
‘I’ll bring bread.’
She could remember being in love with David. He was handsome, no two ways about it, with cheekbones and that wide smile and dark eyes that invited people to laugh with him when he was jolly, empathise when he was hurt, and take him at his word, always. Caroline had been smitten along with most of the other women who’d been at Oxford with them.
If she had been capable of feeling much of anything, it would have shocked Caroline how little of that she now felt when she looked at her husband’s face. At one time, she had believed with all of her heart that she could not go on without him. Now, she felt nothing.
‘Any plans for the morning?’
She said, ‘I thought I’d go for a walk.’
‘Along the river?’
‘Into the next village.’
David was pleased by this, and as they gathered their plates to take back to the kitchen, he mentioned a pamphlet he’d found in the arrival package with a list of historical sites that she might be interested in. ‘There’s a huge National Trust house with a fine collection of paintings, and a church with a fifteenth-century fresco that was covered during the Dissolution and only recently rediscovered. You could go and find out what’s happening with the restoration?’
‘Or else, it’s going to be fine and warm, you could just enjoy the countryside.’
David was a strong person. Stronger than she was. Starting a new life, moving on, putting it all behind him. He was managing to do all of those things. By some miracle it seemed that he had even managed to forgive her. Sometimes Caroline lay awake wondering how it was possible that he could bear to look at her any more, let alone care about her. If their roles had been reversed, she knew she would never have been able to forgive him.
As it was, she would never be able to forgive herself.
‘Are you going to take your camera on the walk?’
‘That’s the plan.’
The camera had been a birthday gift, a month ago now. David had been excited about it. Caroline had never owned a proper camera and this one had a special Tamron lens bought separately, that he’d been very keen to show her, slipping it carefully from its velvet pouch and turning it backwards and forwards as he said things about apertures and f-numbers. Her mother had been there, too, and her friend, Gillian; all of them doing their best. They’d thought better of a cake, thank goodness, so there’d been no need for candles and singing.
‘Have you worked out how to load the next roll of film?’
‘I’ve got the instructions packed. I’ll take them with me and read them somewhere along the way.’
‘I’ll load it for you before I go, if you like?’
‘I don’t want to make you late.’
‘Don’t be silly. I’m glad to do it.’
David was a patient man with a calm voice. He never lost his bedside manner, no matter how far he was pushed. No matter how far she pushed him. Sometimes his goodness made her want to scream. ‘That’d be great. Thanks, Doc.’
David had been right about the forecast. It was warm when Caroline set out on her walk; the early cloud had burned off leaving the sky a brilliant blue. She took the path through the meadow at the back of the house and turned left when she hit the water, making her way west along the river’s edge. She had walked it every day since they’d arrived in Birchwood, once in each direction, and the course was becoming familiar enough that she had started noticing small changes, day by day. The comings and goings of particular narrowboats, the movement of cattle from one field to another, the way the shifting sun painted the greenery different shades depending on the hour.
Sometimes she passed another walker and they would nod at each other, and afterwards Caroline would reflect upon the way the person had looked at her as if she were just a woman out on a walk, and not a piece of wreckage abandoned in the wake of a catastrophic event. It had made her start to scrutinise others more closely—people in the grocery store, passengers in cars on the motorway, neighbours in their gardens—wondering how many of them were also just human shells.
This morning, there were very few other people about. A couple of kids were trying their luck with a fishing reel and an old man in beige overalls was working on the engine of a small wooden boat. One or two dog owners were being led along the dew-damp path tramped through the long grass. Other than that, Caroline had the river to herself.
There was a spot, about half a mile upstream from Birchwood, where a number of wooden posts rose up out of the water. They were rotten around the edges but their positioning—ordered, symmetrical—suggested that once upon a time they had supported a structure, a jetty, perhaps, that had since been swept away by the river. There was something both forlorn and comforting about the posts, and today Caroline stopped when she reached them, taking her camera from its case.
She had become alert to signs of impermanence. Also to signs of constancy. She thought about time a lot more than she used to do. Her therapist spoke often of ‘stages’, and Caroline had been given, at some point, by one of her well-meaning friends, a book that outlined the same ideas. The stages of grief were always represented visually along a linear timeline. But Caroline had stopped believing in the neatness of beginnings, middles and satisfying endings. She knew now that life was a jumble of fractured moments; that time could condense so that hundreds of events happened simultaneously; that it could stretch so that one moment lingered indefinitely.
Those posts, though: there was something about them that drew her interest. An enormous willow grew nearby and Caroline went to sit with her back against it, lifting the camera to her eye and twisting the zoom to bring the nearest column closer. Rough, rotting grain filled her viewfinder and she started focussing the lens.
Wood, damp and dark grey. So much variation in its texture when you actually looked. Striations within the grain, pitted holes bored by insects, decaying patches of white and a spread of something yellow—mould or lichen, she wasn’t sure. A fragile limb caught Caroline’s attention, as fine as a hair, and she traced it back to the pewter body of a spider.
Following the line of another long, thin leg to the right, she left the spider behind and kept searching the post until her view was filled with the edge of a duck’s feather. It was one of those soft, ill-defined white feathers that grows on the body of birds, beneath the wing, and it had become snagged on a rough shard of wood. Caroline adjusted the focus of the lens until the silken down clarified into filaments. After a moment, she let the viewfinder range slowly again, stopping only when it alit upon a dew drop, perfectly rounded upon the splintery top of the post.
At first Caroline had carried the camera with her each morning because it made David happy and she figured that she owed him that much. She hadn’t used it; just a few perfunctory snaps each day so that if he happened to glance at the shot counter he’d be satisfied. She had hated the idea of using it properly. The whole purpose of a camera, it seemed to Caroline, was to narrow in on images of beauty, and Caroline didn’t want to see beauty anymore.
But then, one day, she realised that the camera had other uses aside from the pursuit of beauty. She could point the lens at anything—a nail entering a country gate, the ground beneath her feet, a downy feather stuck to a rotten post. It didn’t matter. It was simply about seeing and recording something—anything—that was happening, right now.
And that was the key. Quite by accident, Caroline had discovered that her camera was a sort of time machine. It didn’t allow her to go backwards or forwards, nothing like that; rather, through the simple act of lifting it to her right eye and closing her left, she was able to shut the doorway to the past. She was able to stoptime travelling, just for a moment. It was simply impossible to look through the viewfinder, adjust the focus, and think of anything other than what she was seeing. For the briefest while, time didn’t reel backwards or spool forwards and Caroline was rooted to this instant.
She brought the droplet into focus now and, as she did, she noticed that the sun’s light had split into a spectrum of colour so that a full rainbow appeared across its taut surface. She was momentarily struck with awe that such a tiny object could contain so much. Overwhelming, too, to think that if she were to touch it, even lightly, the whole thing would disappear. She took the shot. David would be pleased to see it. And as she lowered the camera, her mind tossed up a snippet of poetry she’d memorised in her final year at school. It was Keats: ‘Life is but a day; A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way from a tree’s summit’.
Caroline packed the camera back into its case, and as she came out of the willow’s shade, she noticed someone standing on the other side of the river. It was Amy. She was wearing the mustard dungarees and white blouse that Caroline had bought for her from the market on Portobello Road.
Amy looked smaller than usual, standing there amongst the long grass. The breeze was playing with her curls and sunlight made them golden. Caroline smiled at her, as she always did, drinking in the sight, willing herself not to blink because she knew that when she did—
Amy was gone.
Before falling pregnant, in all her imagining, Caroline hadn’t counted on the worry. From the start she’d worried that Amy was too hot, too cold, too thin, too fat, too quiet, too noisy, too angry. She worried that Amy didn’t sleep enough, and then that she slept too deeply. The NHS nurse told her that she’d adjust; her mother told her that it was always difficult in the beginning; David said that she’d be fine once she found her feet. But Amy kept growing, she got older, and just when Caroline thought that she’d worked out how to do it, the job would change. Amy started to eat real food, solid food, with throat-sized pieces, and then, oh God, to move. She would disappear from one room while Caroline was in another; she pulled herself over to power plugs; she learned how to climb onto the edge of the settee. Even when she slept—which wasn’t often—Caroline worried about the newspaper stories she’d read about babies who didn’t wake up.
Which wasn’t to say that she hadn’t loved Amy with a passion that left her breathless, only that she’d enjoyed her baby most when she wasn’t responsible for her, on those rare occasions when her own mother stepped in for an hour or two, or when Amy had just fallen asleep, and Caroline was free to reflect on the day, to watch her daughter in her memory, to notice how clever she was, how sweet, how able, without the constant current of fear stiffening her shoulders and tightening her jaw.
‘Nothing is going to happen,’ David had told her.
‘But how do you know?’
‘You’re a terrific mother. You love her. You just need to relax.’
Alcohol helped. A glass of wine in the evening and she was just about normal again, almost her old self. More like all of those other mothers who chatted with one another at the park as their children climbed, who heard their little one start crying and looked up with mild interest instead of leaping to their feet with a stab of white cold fear to the heart; who ambled over to the fallen body of their son or daughter and told them that they were fine, just fine, that it was just a little bit of blood.
They had so much authority, those mothers. You could see it in their children’s eyes: a complete faith that everything would be all right because their mother had said so. Of all her many regrets, that was the worst. Caroline had never managed to embody absolute security. She had seen the way that Amy looked up quickly when something dropped or when she scraped her knee, expecting the expression of panic that she knew she’d see on Caroline’s face. Caroline had failed to make her daughter feel safe.
She had failed to keep her safe.
One moment of carelessness; one bad decision.
Incredible that she could have been so careless when she cared so much.
Caroline had never walked this far before, all the way to the other side of the wooded copse. The towpath tapered, becoming muddy and overgrown, and finally she arrived at St John’s Lock. The name was familiar: Ken Stoppard from the AHA had mentioned it in his notes, and the tourist plaque said that it was the first and highest lock on the Thames, named after a priory which had once stood nearby. Caroline passed a World War II pillbox and then found herself in open meadowland, the spire of a church rising up before her.
The meadows ran all the way to the Halfpenny Bridge, and she wound up spiral steps to reach the road. There was a car pulled over on the grass verge and she took a detour to check, as she always did now. Once she’d reassured herself that it was empty, she crossed the bridge into Lechlade and found herself in the middle of a bustling village, very different from Birchwood, much larger, with cars lining the streets and people on the pavements carrying shopping bags or children, sometimes both.
The church—St Lawrence’s—occupied a central position, standing one side of a busy market square with a carpark in its centre. The churchyard stretched out behind the building and could be reached by following a narrow lane. This was the place, Caroline knew, that had inspired Shelley’s lines of poetry when he and Mary visited Lechlade in 1815 and watched the sun set. It was also the church that David had suggested Caroline might like to visit so that she could talk to the art restorer. She knew what he was thinking, that she might start up a conversation, remember her old occupation and be reanimated.
David meant well, but Caroline had no intention of going inside the church. She stood in the centre of the carpark and turned a slow circle. She had done what she’d set out to do, walked to the next village thereby using up a couple of hours of another day. She was all set to start the journey back, when she noticed that across from the church there was a stone building with a sign above the wooden door that read, ‘Lechlade Community Library & Visitor Information Centre’.
As a child, Caroline had read a lot. Her mother used to take her, with her brother, to the local library where they were each allowed to choose three books per week. Caroline always finished her allotment within a couple of days and could remember begging her mother to let her return ahead of time to replace them. Looking back, she wasn’t sure when she had stopped reading. She suspected that her education had cured her of the habit; since she left university she couldn’t think that she’d so much as lifted a book for pleasure.
It was hot standing in the middle of the square, and Caroline felt a strange compulsion to walk towards the wooden door. Even as she thought better of it, she was already crossing the road. She stepped inside the library, reasoning that it would at least be a brief refuge from the heat.
She browsed aimlessly for a time and found herself in the children’s section where many of her old favourites were looking a little the worse for wear. It was strange to see them, friends from another lifetime. When she was a girl, Caroline’s most beloved stories had been the sort where children travelled through portals to other times and places. The back of the wardrobe, the top of the tree, the grandfather clock in the hall: it didn’t matter the method, she collected them all. The books were Caroline’s own doorways, allowing her to slip away from family life. A well-thumbed copy of Alice in Wonderland caught her attention and she almost took it from the shelf. But Lewis Carroll made her think of Oxford and punting and rivers, and Amy on the other side, and so she let it be.
The next aisle contained a selection of cassettes, music mainly, and Caroline browsed without really looking, until a familiar album spine announced itself. A Love Supreme. David loved jazz and they’d had the record at home, when home was the apartment in Highgate. Once upon a time, in the hazy age of Before Amy, the two of them used to climb onto the narrow balcony outside their flat and look out across London as Coltrane washed over them. They would drink red wine and let the night’s hours turn to rubber. They hadn’t listened to jazz for a long time. Caroline couldn’t even think where that record was now. They wouldn’t have given it away, and yet she had no recollection of having seen it when she packed up their things. She supposed it had gone to the place where all the lost things went. She slid the cassette from the shelf, possessed by a sudden urge to take it back with her to the house.
As she was nearing the library counter, she came upon a round table with a large handwritten sign that read, ‘Local Books’. She stopped and turned over a few: a walking guide, a history of the Locks and Weirs of the Upper Thames, a biography about a Victorian artist, and a collection of newspaper articles called Letters from the Laneway, written by a woman during the Second World War and bound cheerfully and cheaply by someone since. On a whim, she decided to take the articles with her. They were short. She liked that. She had lost the ability to concentrate on anything longer.
‘Membership card?’ said the woman at the counter. She had reddish-brown hair with a silver strip down the centre parting and a name tag that read, I’m Brenda. Ask me if I can help.
‘I don’t have one yet.’
Brenda glanced up over her half-glasses. ‘New to town?’ She pulled out a fresh index card.
‘Just staying for a while. My husband and I are renting a house by the river in Birchwood.’
‘You know it?’
‘Of course. What’s your name then?’
Caroline told her and the other woman wrote it down in large, careful handwriting. ‘If you’re living at Birchwood Manor, you’ll be wanting the Leonard Gilbert.’
The librarian nodded towards the table of local books. The biography about the Victorian artist was written by a man called Leonard Gilbert. Caroline wasn’t in the mood to read about art or artists, but she was in even less of a mood to argue with Brenda; the librarian was just one more person to add to the list of helpful people who seemed to know what Caroline needed and wanted these days. Without a word, she ducked back to the table and added, Edward Radcliffe: His Life and Loves to her small pile.
When David got home for lunch, he found her sitting beneath the old Japanese maple tree in the front garden.
‘Nice spot,’ he called.
She was ten articles in to Letters from the Laneway and it took a moment to climb out from beneath its spell. Caroline had only intended to read a page or two, but there was something in the way the author wrote that made it impossible not to link arms with her.
‘Good book?’ He craned his neck to read the title. ‘What’s it about?’
‘The war—sort of. It’s a collection of newspaper pieces, real-life stories about people who lived around here. Nothing momentous, just anecdotes and observations. The author was from London and she moved to the village with her three kids after her husband was killed at Dunkirk.’
Caroline considered the proposition. ‘It’s melancholy in places, and very sad things happen, but the collection itself is somehow . . . not. I guess it’s the context. The war. There was so much that was awful going on, it made the other things, the ordinary parts of life, more precious.’
Suddenly, Caroline didn’t want to be discussing sadness and loss, not with David, not today, not here beneath this tree where the grass was soft and the sun was poking through the gaps between the leaves, and so she closed the book and put it beside her. ‘How was your meeting?’
‘It was great.’
‘He liked your ideas?’
‘He seemed to.’
She smiled. ‘I’ll make some sandwiches. I think there’s still a tomato inside, and half a wedge of cheese.’
One week drifted into the next and the house began to grow on Caroline. It was a difficult building to get the measure of, and even after a month she wasn’t entirely certain how it all fitted together. There were deep, wide fireplaces in the ground-floor rooms, with chimneys that ran through the walls at odd angles, joining up to form two rows of four when they burst through the tiled roof. It was old, hundreds of years old, and some rooms had curious little adjuncts that weren’t replicated identically on the floor above. More than once, Caroline had been certain that she was looking north when she was in fact facing south.
There was a corner that was reliably warmer than the others; she wasn’t sure why. It was on the landing where the main stairs made their turn. A pale bentwood chair sat by the windowsill and the ledge was just wide enough to hold a small vase and a cup of tea. Caroline had taken to sitting there sometimes, looking out through the branches of the chestnut tree and over the meadow towards the woods.
More often, though, she sat outside in the garden, usually on the grass beneath the old Japanese maple. She liked the way the sunlight fell through the leaves in dapples; she liked, too, the boldness of the planting. Someone, at some point, had put the tree in ground directly in the way of the front gate, making it impossible to use the gate as a thoroughfare. The position suggested an inexplicable purpose. Its perversity appealed to Caroline.
Without intending it, to her routine of river walking and camera pointing, she had added a daily session of reading. She had finished the Letters from the Laneway articles and moved on to Leonard Gilbert’s book about Edward Radcliffe. It was an unusual experience to read a book whilst staying in the house that the author had lived in when he was writing; even more unlikely for it to be the very house for which the book’s subject had developed an intense passion.
She liked the idea that she was following people who had walked the same steps before her. She liked to imagine the house during Leonard Gilbert’s life, and before that, Edward Radcliffe’s. The artist’s fascination with folktales and archaeology and what it meant to belong somewhere, the keenness with which he’d gathered stories and the inspiration he’d drawn from them, made the ribbon of time unfurl even further. Caroline became more conscious on her walks of the land beneath her feet, the river on whose edge she was beginning to feel at home; they were fixities, anchors; their permanence over time somehow grounding. It was a relief, she realised, and a great comfort, to reduce oneself, one’s own life and experiences and loves and sorrows, to that of a temporary speck.
The book contained a number of photographs. One was an image of the house taken during Leonard Gilbert’s tenure of 1928, but of far more interest to Caroline were the photographic portraits from the 1860s, especially those of the summer that the Magenta Brotherhood had spent in residence at Birchwood Manor. Most had been shot by Felix Bernard, but there were some by his wife, Adele, too. The two artists had markedly different styles: where Felix’s images had crisp lines and the sort of precise, considered framing that suggested technical mastery, Adele Bernard’s pictures were unevenly lit and unfocussed; and yet, they were all the more beautiful for it. Hers were unmannered, exciting—alive somehow, their subjects staring directly at the camera giving the impression that they had just moved into frame and might move out again at any moment. Caroline couldn’t shake the sense that they were observing her every bit as much as she was studying them.
She had been having that feeling a lot lately, as if she were being watched. The way the light fell, or the floorboard creaked—something would make her turn around, expecting to see David, and instead she would find the hall behind her empty and still. It wasn’t an unpleasant or creepy sensation, just unusual. She had put it down to the folktale Leonard Gilbert had mentioned in his book, about the strange luminous children who’d strayed across the veil from fairyland and been rescued by the Fairy Queen herself, an awesome figure who’d arrived in a blaze and left behind a protection spell upon the plot of land on which Birchwood Manor was built. Caroline hadn’t believed in fairies since she woke in the night as a seven-year-old to find her mother struggling to exchange a coin for the tooth beneath her pillow, but the story was affecting. She had caught herself glancing up at the attic when she was outside at night, half expecting to see a light in the window.
Wishful thinking. But then people were capable of thinking and doing the most unexpected things, particularly in times of emotional turmoil. Edward Radcliffe had all but given up painting in the face of his heartbreak. Leonard Gilbert had described the loss of Lily Millington as ‘identity fracturing’ for the young artist; he’d spent a long time on the subject, musing upon the tendency of human beings under pressure to behave in ways that they wouldn’t dream of under usual circumstances. Leonard, Caroline had gleaned from reading the biography at the back of the book, had been a soldier in the First World War and she suspected that he knew what he was talking about. Because he was right, of course; Caroline knew that better than anyone.
Her father, when he was alive, had been religious and vain, the two traits sparking a war within him that could never be happily resolved. His standards were exacting, especially those that he held for himself, matched only by his need for adoration. Throughout Caroline’s childhood he’d had a series of women—secretaries, shop assistants, out-of-work actresses, the mothers of her friends, the friends of her mother—and she and her brother had always known when he’d started up with a new one because he’d suddenly become diligent about attending to jobs around the house. She’d see him some mornings, very early, just after dawn, cleaning the car in their driveway, a faraway look in his eyes as he rubbed the chamois in circles over the same spot on the bonnet. That’s how she’d know for certain. Their mother knew, too, of course, but she kept up the charade.
Caroline, as a consequence, had always understood herself to be pathologically monogamous. It was an aspect of her identity as certain as her left-handedness and mild allergy to bee stings.
Two months after it happened, though, she had been on the way to an appointment when she’d seen a man in the street. He was sitting at a table outside one of the pubs in Bloomsbury. He was not conventionally handsome, but held an air of danger and wasn’t at all the sort of man she’d have considered her ‘type’. Their eyes had met briefly and Caroline had kept walking, but something inside her had flicked and an urge had come suddenly upon her.
She felt instantly more alive than she had since the day the car was stolen. She found herself turning around, walking back, her heart pounding beneath her chest, her skin warm. In that moment, Caroline knew only that she had to find the man again. That he was the key to fixing everything that was broken inside her. She saw suddenly, clearly, that he was a door, a path through all of this horror and out to the other side, a place where none of it was happening because she was no longer herself and cared for none of the same things.
She was almost running by the time she turned the corner, but when she reached the pub the man was gone.
At the sight of the bare table, the empty glass, the discarded cigarette butt in the ashtray, a great gulf of grief had opened up inside her. She’d collapsed onto the seat where he’d been sitting and cried with the sort of ugly commitment that made people worry and glance the other way.
Caroline thought back to that day in Bloomsbury sometimes; not often, and when she did it was as if she were looking at a memory belonging to another person. The emotion of the day—so intense at the time—had faded like a charcoal rubbing of something that had once seemed vitally important. She had cried, as she sat outside the pub, with hopelessness and loss, and with relief, too, because she hadn’t really wanted to go home with a stranger; it had just seemed plausible in that moment, that if she occasionally went home with a dishevelled man sitting out the front of an unfamiliar pub, and stopped being a diligent flosser who tried to eat sensibly and drank in moderation and enjoyed nothing more than a night on the sofa with her husband, then maybe, just maybe, she would also be a person who wasn’t unbearably broken by the loss of her child.
It was soon afterwards that Caroline first saw Amy.
That made things better, though she quickly learned not to tell other people. There was a special frown of concern reserved for those who spoke about seeing their dead child on the bus, at the supermarket, in the middle of Queen Mary’s rose garden in Regent’s Park.
‘But what was she doing?’ This was Caroline’s mother, trying very hard not to sound alarmed.
‘Just standing there. She waved at me.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘Waved back, of course.’
But Caroline knew now that she wasn’t alone. In one of the articles that she’d just read, written ostensibly to describe the establishment of the family’s Digging for Victory garden, Juliet had described the acquisition of a new pet. ‘There are five of us living in our house,’ she’d begun. ‘Me, my three children, and a flame‐haired figment in a white dress, created by my son’s imagination and so vivid to him that we must consult her on every family decision. Her name is Birdie and thankfully she shares my son’s affection for dogs, although she has specified that she would prefer an older dog with a settled temperament. It is a sentiment, happily, with which I fully concur, and so both she and Mr Rufus, our newly arrived arthritic nine‐year‐old hound, are welcome to remain part of the family for as long as they so choose.’
Caroline had become fond of Juliet over the past few weeks, and not just because she seemed completely unfazed by the arrival of apparitions. Juliet had offered Caroline a new glimmer of hope, one that didn’t involve a stranger outside a pub. In an article published a decade after the war ended, but included in the collection by whoever compiled it, Juliet had stepped forward from the background to write about her own husband’s death and the terrible task of telling her three children that it had happened. The piece opened with one of her sons learning the truth and forcing her hand.
Until that point, she wrote, she had put it off, preferring to wait until she found the perfect words. Caroline, reading the article decades later, had thought she’d guessed where the story was going; she had read this sort of thing before and expected to arrive at the true but trite moral that there was no such thing as the perfect words or the perfect parent.
She had been mistaken, for the article was neither trite nor trivial. It was brutal. In it, Juliet wrote that when her youngest son questioned her, asking when she was going to tell the others, she began to picture herself doing so and realised that the barrier wasn’t a lack of words, it was a surfeit of rage. She practised in her room at night and every time she imagined saying the necessary sentences to her children, she felt a surge of ferocious anger, the sort that made her want to find the man who had pulled the trigger and fired the bullet that took her husband’s one and only life, her children’s father, her own envisaged future, pummel him with a blunt object and then reach into his chest and pull out his heart. She wanted to keep it in a jar on the mantelpiece. Her desire to exact vengeance made her clench her fists so tightly that her whole body shook and she struggled to get enough air.
Juliet had included an introductory paragraph explaining that although she had written the article during the war, it had not been published in the newspaper column at the time; she had not even sent it to her editor. ‘The point of Letters from the Laneway was to depict the experience of life at home during the war, not to confront people with one’s own considerable grief. It was my understanding then that one’s readers had enough of that in their own lives already.’ But Juliet had felt it, written it and kept the article, publishing it eventually in 1952. ‘It described the most difficult and yet the most important lesson I was ever forced to learn, and my husband, Alan, used to say that wisdom hard won should always be inflicted on others.’
The Juliet of the article travelled through a number of black paragraphs describing her loss and longing, before arriving at the realisation that in order to help her children to feel grief, but not the sort of anger that turns inward and irretrievably burns a person’s organs, she had no choice but to overcome her own dark rage. She had struggled with how that might be done—whisky, she writes, had at one point seemed a rather good option—before realising that she needed to forgive the man whose identity she would never know, whom she would never meet, whom she would fail to recognise if they passed in the street. The man who had killed her husband.
It wasn’t easy, she admitted. Frankly, she said, she had grown attached to her graphic revenge fantasies, nurturing them as one might the plans for a novel, whilst she paddled in the river or dozed in the shade of a tree. By and by, though, she realised that the fantasies were excuses: satisfying stopgaps that gave her somewhere to funnel her grief, instead of getting on with the real work, the necessary work, that would finally free her, if only because it would stop her from digging a hole so deep and dark that eventually it caved in on her so she was no longer able to climb out.
Caroline had wondered after reading Juliet’s article whether it was easier to forgive an unknown soldier fighting for his life and country, than a person standing directly in front of her who had made a terrible decision. For they had found theman who took Caroline and David’s car. Not a man really, just a boy. Only sixteen years old.
It was a mistake, his lawyer said, and he was filled with remorse. He was a good student, a boy with his whole life ahead of him. He would live with the guilt forever. He hadn’t even seen the child, sleeping in the back; she hadn’t made a sound.
Caroline, sitting in the West London Youth Court, had heard someone make a gasping sound when he said that, and people had turned around and she’d realised that it was she who’d made the noise. Her mother, beside her, had handed her a tissue, but Caroline waved it away. She’d gasped because she was relieved. She hadn’t realised, until she heard the lawyer say those words, how much she’d worried that Amy was awake, that she’d been frightened, that her last moments had been spent crying for her absent mother.
She believed what the lawyer said, that Amy had been asleep, because she had been sleeping when Caroline left her in the car. Caroline had thought it was her lucky day—she’d pulled into the carpark and noticed a space available right at the front of the grocery store.
Amy had looked so peaceful. She hardly ever fell asleep in the car, but it had been a rough few nights. Caroline only needed a bottle of water and knew there was a fridge just inside the entrance of the store. She could be in and out in two minutes. It was hot, though, and the car wasn’t airconditioned; Caroline had read about a baby who’d suffocated in the car—it didn’t take long at all—so she was careful to leave her window down a few inches.
Inside the shop, she’d taken a water from the fridge and joined the queue. It had been slow-moving; there was an old dear at the front, who’d trimmed a full-page advertisement from the newspaper featuring all of the weekly specials. She was now making sure that the lad behind the counter typed in the discounted price for each item.
Caroline could see the driver’s side of the car if she leaned very close to the man in front of her. She could see her window and Amy’s sleeping face behind, her head tilted backwards, her lips parted.
The old woman had just realised that she’d forgotten to buy a tin of baked beans, and the lad behind the counter was looking frazzled—he was the only person on duty, and the line was growing longer, and it was clear that the woman wasn’t going to leave without her beans.
Caroline had offered to run and get them for her.
She’d been gone for two minutes. Maybe three. The canned goods had been at the far end of the store, and she’d chosen the wrong aisle first, and then when she found the right spot she’d had to scrounge around at the back of the shelf for the discounted brand. It had been the last can there and Caroline could remember feeling triumphant when at last she had it in her hand.
She’d presented the baked beans to the boy behind the counter and then she’d glanced outside.
The car was gone.
Hard to remember what happened next. And the details didn’t matter for there was no way to make it unfold differently. The seconds, minutes, hours, rolling, stretching, gaping ahead, a dry and dusty track to nowhere.
A dare, Your Honour, the boy’s lawyer had told the magistrate. Steal a car, drive it somewhere and leave it. A stupid dare, yes. But malicious intent, no. He hadn’t damaged the car before abandoning it; he had put the window up because a storm was forecast. He hadn’t seen the child in the backseat. She hadn’t made a sound.
What Caroline did know was that it was a lot easier to forgive a sixteen-year-old boy with terrified eyes, than it was to forgive herself.
And so, she continued to carry the camera with her everywhere she went, spending more and more time each day loading, shooting, and capturing. The action of those words had jarred at first, but as the weeks went on, Caroline had come to see that they were apt. Despite herself she had stopped using her camera solely to arrest the flow of memory, and had started instead seeing and seeking opportunities. She really had begun to feel that she was hunting pictures—that they were out there in the wild, waiting to be found.
She had started to think beyond composition, wondering how she could harness the light to create different effects. There was a Kodak shop in Lechlade and she’d come to know the woman who did the developing, asking questions each visit about why some pictures came out darker than she’d expected, and how to make sure the sun’s flare didn’t overtake the image. The woman—Kay—had even invited Caroline to join her in the darkroom. When she’d exhausted Kay’s store of knowledge, Caroline had asked the library whether they had any ‘how to’ photography books and Brenda had put one on order from the Oxford branch.
In the meantime, she continued to experiment. The other day, she had been sitting beneath the Japanese maple looking through the viewfinder, playing with the f-stop settings, when she found that the roving lens had alighted on David. He had got it into his head that he should work in the gardens on weekends and was in the middle of the flower bed nearest the kitchen using an ancient shovel that had turned up in the barn behind the house. It was mid-July and very hot, and he was sweating. Caroline found herself focussing the camera on him as he worked. She noticed the way his shoulder moved, the way his forearm glistened in the sun, the way the cotton of his old T-shirt stretched between his shoulder blades. He caught her eye and mimed parched and exhausted before shooting her a grin; behind the camera Caroline smiled.
And then this morning had been one of those crystalline summer days when the air is visibly yellow. Caroline had headed out early; she’d become interested in the effects of light and shade and the conditions were perfect for shooting water. She’d spent a couple of hours trying to capture the silver-tipped surface of the river, and then started back. The day was beautiful and she walked the long way, continuing along the river beyond the Manor and looping back through the other side of the village. Her roll of film was almost finished and she decided to shoot the last two pictures so she could duck into Kodak and have it developed that afternoon.
The graveyard in the centre of Birchwood was smaller than the one in Lechlade, but very pretty. Lots of ivy and tangled roses and stones eroding gently with each passing year. Caroline had walked past a number of times, but so far she’d refrained from going in. Since Amy, she had studiously avoided having anything to do with churches or graveyards. It had made her job as a restorer of religious art difficult to maintain, but Caroline had discovered that she had little interest in maintaining it anyway.
Today, though, with only a single shot left on her camera, the lure of the old stone buildings and the profusion of creepers was too much to resist. She went inside quietly and discovered that she wasn’t alone.
A couple was sitting on the grass by one of the graves, a man and a woman, side by side and deep in conversation. The man was dark-haired and the woman had the sort of sharp-cheeked beauty that creates an illusion of heightened reality. She was wearing leather sandals and an Indian print dress and was sitting with her legs crossed, leaning forward with her elbow on one knee and her face turned towards the man. As Caroline observed them, the man nodded at something the woman had just said.
It had crossed Caroline’s mind at first that they were relatives of the deceased, but now she dismissed the idea. The woman was speaking, the man listening. She was serious, while he seemed sad. As Caroline watched, they’d stopped talking and were now staring at one another, the type of wordless communication that came only with the deepest of bonds. The man reached out then to stroke the woman’s face. It was a gentle gesture, fond and respectful, and the woman closed her eyes before reaching up to hold his hand against her cheek. When she opened her eyes again, there was a finality to her expression, a resolve and certainty that made her seem almost regal.
A shard of sunlight came through the foliage to bathe the scene in light and Caroline drew breath.
It was perfect. They were perfect.
She had lifted her camera before she knew what she was doing. Only one photo left on her roll and Caroline took the shot. As she did, she felt a small spark, a frisson of knowing that she would come to recognise in time as an innate awareness that the picture she’d captured would be a good one. And she felt something else, too, a split-second sensation that she hadn’t experienced in a long time, a tentative rekindling of a sense that she’d thought she’d never feel again. Just for the merest moment, Caroline realised as she slipped the camera away and started for home, she had felt something very close to satisfaction.
Kate Morton, London, 2017
Note: I took the photograph at the top of this story in the village of East Leach, one of my very favourite places. The narrow River Leach, which runs right by the church, is a tributary of the Thames and I love to stand on its pristine banks, watching the clear water rush over reeds on its way to join the great river and her flow towards London. The photograph below is of the upper Thames herself, just west of Lechlade, and not far from the bend where I imagined Birchwood Manor.