This is a page dedicated to my novel, Grace – or at least, to the first few chapters. The chapters themselves are very short, hence posting several of them, but hopefully it will give an idea of how the novel works and how the plot will go.
The first thing they all asked me when I announced I was leaving the school was, “When will the wedding be?”. The second question – implied, of course, never plainly stated – was “Am I invited?”.
To the first I refused an answer, and my refusal neatly covered the second, and eventually everyone but me was left with a sense of dissatisfaction and not a little bewilderment. After all, who gets married but refrains from telling the people she’s worked with, lived with and loved for five years when it will be? I could almost hear them thinking: Since we’re on our way back to Blighty now, with war baying at our heels and our dream in tatters, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t all come to the wedding. It might cheer us up a little while we wait for our beloved foundation, the School, to re-establish itself on English soil, while we wait to see if we have jobs, lives, futures.
But why won’t Grace, our dear, little, pretty Miss Harris, tell us when it will be? Why, instead of a date and a place and a time, does she give us that arch smile, raise her eyebrow and say, “We’ll have to see”? Why this amusement at our expense?
But if I was arch, it was not to tease. There was no sauciness intended towards the gentle women who had made my years on the Continent so agreeable. No, if I dissembled, if I made light of their desire for details and feigned deafness to their friendly enquiries, it was all for my sake. My safety depended upon silence, and so I said nothing, merely smiled and nodded and, as soon as I could, got on the train, this very train I am in now, and headed towards London.
No-one would be at the wedding, and that was the way I liked it.
And now I have begun, I had better tell you why.
It started, as these things so often do, with a letter.
It was waiting for me beside my plate as I came in to breakfast. I recognised the boyish hand scrawled blue across the envelope and I must have blushed, for Miriam Knowles asked me if I was quite alright, as I looked a little hot. Of course, that set Matron onto me, worrying about a temperature – ‘flu perhaps, a fever at least – and I escaped only narrowly by pretending that I’d been late that morning and had had to run down the stairs to be on time for breakfast. Matron gave me one of her searchlight looks but I can be bland when I want to be, and since the blush had faded she had no reason to detain me, so she waved a hand with regal superiority to indicate that I might sit. One eye upon her, I took my place next to Bella Wilcox, wriggling slightly as though I had just been freed from chains, and as soon as general attention was focussed less upon my disordered state, and more upon rolls and coffee, I risked a second glance at the envelope lying beside my plate.
A year and a half, and yet here was the letter I’d hoped for! I wasn’t mistaken in my first glance. Here was the same thick-nibbed pen, the same bold script, my Christian name inscribed with the same dramatic G and curled H. This hand made my name a work of art. It had been a joke between us that the more passionate the letter, the more ornate the writing of my name would become – if that rule were anything to go by, this one was a real scorcher! I hardly dared open it at the table, for fear of being whisked away to the San by our white-starched dictator to answer for my flaming cheeks. I stretched out a digit and prodded the corner of the envelope to ensure its existence. Needless to say, it was real. I couldn’t resist – I picked it up and stroked my fingers across it, feeling the folded edge of the letter inside. I could hardly wait. A year and a half, and finally – finally it was here!
A gentle nudge to my ribs from Bella’s direction had me dropping the letter under the table and yelping like a squashed dog. For the second time that morning the attention on the staff table was diverted my way but this time, rather than face them, I dived under the tablecloth to retrieve the all-important missive, returning to the world only when I felt sure they would all have turned back to their meals. As I resurfaced, however, I caught the eye of Bella, who was chuckling quietly as she watched me struggle to retain my dignity with hair disheveled by the tasseled tablecloth.
“I was going to say, why don’t you just open it?” she said to me as I resumed my seat and set the letter down upon the table once again. “And have you forgotten we’re supposed to be eating breakfast, Grace? You’re the only one here with an empty plate.”
“I’d not forgotten,” I replied with just a touch of haughtiness, as I reached out for a roll. “I’m a little…tired this morning, that’s all.”
“Too tired to remember to eat!” Bella was laughing at me and I didn’t blame her – I was talking nonsense. That damned letter! I ignored it and squinted sideways at Bella’s profile as I buttered my roll. She had chestnut hair and rich lips, and I found myself, as so often I did, staring at the obtuse angle of her nose where someone had broken it years before – probably a badly-swung golf club, knowing Bella. The shape of it fascinated me for no reason I could identify, and in my weaker moments I wished for a nose as full of character as that of Bella Wilcox.
The thought of strong noses brought me in a roundabout fashion back to my letter and I paused with the roll halfway to my mouth, suspended in action like a stuffed bird in a case. The letter. I wanted to open it – the desire rippled through me in tremulous waves – but how could I, with Bella Wilcox so close by my shoulder, watching me, cat-like, waiting for her moment to pounce? No – better to wait until I was alone, for the privacy afforded by a small study bedroom in the upper reaches of the house that was the only space in this country that was entirely mine, and then I could read without the fear of being interrupted.
With this in mind I applied myself to my breakfast and even managed to eat heartily, a good thing, since I had a full day of gym and games ahead of me, and hanging upside down from a rope is not something that it is pleasant to do on an empty stomach. Not that it’s pleasant on a full stomach, either – a delicate balance must be maintained, but I am accustomed to that. No, that day, as most days, I ate just the right amount, and once I had finished I sat back in my wooden chair, the carved wood digging uncomfortably into my back, and then suddenly the letter was in my hand again and my finger was under the flap of the envelope, ready to tear my way in.
I stopped, frozen in the midst of things for the second time that morning. What if it wasn’t what I was expecting? What if, instead of energetic declarations of undying devotion, even after being parted for almost a year, I was about to read tales of an utter disdain for me, for the memory of me, for the life we had had together? What if I were to be rejected, as I had rejected previously? A prickle of cool sweat tickled my back and in a trice I had ripped open the letter and drawn the page half out, my eye falling immediately upon the greeting
Dearest, dearest Grace.
What a nonsense worry is! How often it fools us into thinking the worst. Here I was, terrified of a rejection, and yet in fact I was faced with not one, but two dearests! After such an opening, there was no way the letter could have gone badly, but now I was eager as a jackal to see the rest so, regardless of Bella Wilcox’s amused curiosity or Meg Mackenzie’s proximity to my right elbow, I dived right into the missive.
And what a letter it was!
I was just over halfway through when I became aware that everyone was getting to their feet. Hastily I leapt to join them, almost tossing my chair over in my eagerness, and hurriedly stuffed my letter back into its paper shroud. Grace may have been my name but it was not always my watchword.
As we staff filed out, Bella Wilcox leaned in to murmur a few sentences into my ear.
“You were very absorbed in that letter. Anyone in particular?”
“Oh, no. Just Archie. I mean…Archie is a…a…”
Well, what a prize chump! To give away the name so easily! My mind scrabbled rodent-like for an adequate excuse while I blathered on, saying the first thing that came into my head.
“An old friend of mine from England. Teaches classics. Um. Yes. I haven’t had word for a long time. Catching up on news, that sort of thing. Goodness, is that the time? I must dash – gym to prepare. See you later, Bella…”
One to me, I thought as I dashed off gym-wards, leaving Bella presumably rather confused. But I would have to be rather more careful in future. I didn’t want them all knowing about Archie, and I am a terrible liar. Better to say nothing at all and let it all fade quietly away.
But I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.
Love is a revolting emotion. Like a mill race it sucks us under, roars in our ears, baffles our sense and, if we are not careful, it drowns us. The majority of people are simply not equipped to deal with it. If they could, would we then get stories of husbands battering their wives, of parents beating their children, of infidelity, rape, or murder? Peek into every suburban household and you will find tales of misery, betrayal, loneliness, misunderstanding and, ultimately, hatred. And who can blame them? It takes a great deal of understanding to succeed in love, and many of us cannot even understand ourselves, let alone each other.
It is also, in my experience, finite. The overwhelming burst of sentiment that precedes it, the swell of excitement when he asks her to walk out with him, when she takes his hand in the back row at the pictures, when they smile at one another and whisper, “I love you” on the promenade in June – it confounds the senses and fools the tender lover into believing that this is what he has been seeking all his life. An agglomeration of expectations tumble after: marriage, children, mutual happiness, complete satisfaction are sure to follow this, the declaration of love!
But love needs nurturing, like a garden in spring, and when the bud of attraction has blossomed and bloomed, it is the work that one puts into tending it that decides whether the fruit of love will swell upon the branch, or fall withered onto the ground; and true gardeners are few and far between.
My parents were certainly not such. They met in a blaze of high summer, courted through a drift of autumn leaves and married in a twinkle of snow as the New Year bells rang out. The glamour of marriage, of affection, of lust, lasted longer than some, and the marriage was scarcely a year old when the jewel of their happiness, my bouncing ball of a brother, burst into their lives. My father felt unimpeachable in his heir, my mother fancied herself complete. Their joy was absolute, entire, immeasurable; their life’s work, their hopes, their fantasy of marriage, all were fulfilled.
Within eighteen months, my father had taken his first mistress, and my mother cried herself to sleep alongside her screaming child.
I was an afterthought, the tepid dregs of a love affair that lasted a very few years and ended in disappointment, disaffection, and dispersal. My father went abroad, to pursue work interests there, reappearing at intervals for appearance’s sake, nothing more; my brother was evicted to prep, then public school, returning every holiday with a raft of new opinions, none of them his own; my mother, nervous and fluttering and utterly self-absorbed, vanished to this or that clinic for her back, her feet, her stomach, her nerves; and I –
Perhaps I can sketch a picture for you.
A little girl, brown-pigtailed, loose-limbed, skirt a little ragged at the edges, runs down the brown-tiled hallway to the garden door. Gaily she skips out onto the lawn and rambles down through the flowerbeds to the kitchen garden, turning a cartwheel or two as she goes. She picks the last few peas from their crisp pods and eats them with grubby fingers and then, after poking her head into the greenhouse at the edge of the earthen plot, she tires of the vegetables and makes her exit, not via the slack-hanging gate but over the ruddy wall, its mouldering bricks crumbling beneath her kicking feet. A tree on the far side is little shaken by her slight weight, and then she is out of the garden and into the field beyond. She turns another cartwheel with a joy that is otherwise inexpressible and then away she flies, to roam the fields till the evening comes and brings supper, prayers, and bedtime.
That was my childhood. Somewhere along the way I picked up an education, for eventually I was sent off to school like my brother, but until that time came I was free, free as a blackbird, as bold and quite as cheeky. In the gardens of our little country house I learned to run, to dance, to climb ropes and turn somersaults, to stand on my head and walk on my hands, and slowly I grew tall and brown and athletic, turning my tricks until I was quite the little gypsy girl.
And then one day I found a new gap in the hedge – and beyond it I found Archie.