A broken family, a house of secrets—an entrancing tale of love and courage set during the Second World War. After Rebecca’s mother dies, she must sort through her empty flat and come to terms with her loss. As she goes through her mother’s mail, she finds a handwritten envelope. In it is a letter that will change her life forever. Olivia, her mother’s elderly cousin, needs help to save her beloved home. Rebecca immediately goes to visit Olivia in Cornwall only to find a house full of secrets—treasures in the attic and a mysterious tunnel leading from the cellar to the sea, and Olivia, nowhere to be found. As it turns out, the old woman is stuck in hospital with no hope of being discharged until her house is made habitable again. Rebecca sets to work restoring the home to its former glory, but as she peels back the layers of paint and grime, she uncovers even more buried secrets—secrets from a time when the Second World War was raging, when Olivia was a young woman, and when both romance and danger lurked around every corner... A sweeping and utterly spellbinding tale of a young woman’s courage in the face of war and the lengths to which she’ll go to protect those she loves against the most unexpected of enemies.
Release date: January 5, 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Print pages: 416
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I TAKE THE PHONE AWAY from my ear, end the call and stand looking at the impression of oil and powder left on its blank screen, traces of make-up I so rarely wear. I wipe the mark away with my thumb and transfer the phone to my jacket pocket. It is hard to take in the words that have just oozed into my ear.
There was something on the scan…
Across the street two women are still engaged in the noisy altercation that started just as my phone rang. The woman in the red car drove into a parking space that the woman in the muddy SUV was preparing to reverse into. The traffic is halted on either side of them: people have stopped on the pavement to watch the argument. Some are taking sides. Heated words are exchanged, photos taken. A moment ago I had been diverted by this intense little drama; now, it seems absurd and I experience the urge to run across the road and tell them that life is too short to get angry over something so trivial. But I don’t. I am feeling dislocated from the world. Words from the phone call buzz in my brain like angry bees, then spiral away again, trailing bitterness and regret, tinged with fear.
It may not be anything, but we should scan you again, just to be sure.
I find myself thinking, ‘I must tell Mum,’ and then remember why I am here. I cannot tell Mum anything ever again, not in this life.
A commuter sounds two angry blasts of their horn, summoning me back, and I watch the muddy-SUV woman concede defeat and drive off with a screech of tyres. The tide of humanity resumes, flowing around me as I stand on the corner, a still point, a pebble in a stream. Then the horn sounds again and someone calls my name.
‘Becky? Come on, we’re going to be late. Honestly, women drivers, shouldn’t be on the road. I’ve been sitting in this sodding traffic for ten minutes!’
It is my brother, James, in his shiny Lexus, and beside him in the passenger seat his wife, Evie. My heart sinks. At the best of times Evie makes me feel like a bag lady, with her exquisitely put-together look and superior manner. Feeling self-conscious in my ill-fitting black skirt, which I have not worn in years, I scramble into the back seat and give them a tight smile, keeping my terrors behind my teeth. My brother and his wife feel like members of a different species to me.
Funerals are uncomfortable occasions, no matter what your connection to the deceased. In unfamiliar surroundings, in unfamiliar clothes, you bid farewell to someone who can no longer see or hear you, and are not sure whether to sit or stand, almost more stressed by the rituals than by the loss itself. There is always something to knock you out of the moment, something out of place: the brisk compassion of a celebrant who never even met your loved one; a child’s cry erupting suddenly into silent contemplation; a bum note sung during the parting hymn. And when this happens you stand alone in your own head, your connection to the departed suddenly stretched so thin it is like a span of spider silk trembling in the air, and you don’t know who you are. And then, just as abruptly, grief at the transience of life almost bowls you over and you find your hands are trembling so much that the words on the hymn sheet have become unreadable. And then you catch yourself wondering if you are honestly grieving for your mother, or whether a selfish grain or two of self-pity may not have crept in and salted the occasion with terror about your own mortality.
At the end of the service I look around. Apart from James and Evie, I recognize only a couple of Mum’s friends from the Ramblers’ Association – one chap accompanied by a grey-haired woman in a dark red hat with a net veil that has probably not been out of its box since a wedding decades ago – and a family of four: Rosa, a blonde Lithuanian woman who used to come in to help Mum with the housework, her husband and their two children. Rosa and I hug briefly afterwards outside the crematorium in the bright daylight.
‘I’m so sorry about your mother. The news came as a terrible surprise.’ She considers me. ‘You look so pale! How are you, Becky?’ she asks, and I give the usual reply. She peers over my shoulder. ‘And where’s your handsome man?’
That’s a good question. I experience a physical yearning for Eddie that rushes through me like fire. I mumble something about unfortunate timing and quickly change the subject, brightening my tone. ‘How about you and Lukas, are you well? You look well! And your girls have grown so much!’
‘Anna is just finishing Key Stage 2. It’s a good time for us to move.’
‘You’re moving? Where are you going?’
She looks surprised, as if the answer is obvious. ‘Back to Lithuania. To be honest, we don’t really feel welcome here any more. Besides, Lukas says there are good jobs to be had with the energy company, so it makes sense for us to go.’ She puts her hand on my arm. ‘You know, I would have come in and helped Jenny more if I’d known she was ill. Not for money, you understand,’ she adds quickly. ‘But she didn’t tell me she was sick.’
‘She didn’t tell any of us,’ I say. Her death feels unreal. Why hadn’t I paid more attention during our twice-weekly calls? I must have missed so many little clues. Had there been some small hesitation when I asked how she was? The answer was always, ‘Fine, dear. But more importantly, how are you?’ and I hadn’t recognized this as deflection. Mum had been putting others before herself all her life. I didn’t even know she was in hospital when we last spoke: my mother used the same mobile phone no matter where she was.
‘Why didn’t she tell us she was so ill?’ I had asked my brother when he called to break the terrible news.
An uncomfortable pause. ‘She told me,’ he said. ‘But only recently. She said there was nothing that could be done, and you already had enough on your plate. She knew I wouldn’t fuss and would just get on with doing what she wanted.’
The word ‘fuss’ cut deep. I had always unloaded my problems on Mum, because if you can’t tell your mother your deepest fears and your daily disasters, then who can you tell? Every time something awful happened I would think, Well, at least it’ll give me something to talk about with Mum, and would gather amusing or gruesome details with which to embroider the telling.
The realization was a sort of second bereavement, a mourning for the relationship we shared, as well as for the mother I lost. It is confirmation of how weak Mum must have thought me, and now I will never have the opportunity to change her perception.
The next day James, Evie and I make our way to Mum’s flat, which lies at the top of an unprepossessing building on the edge of Warwick. James turns the spare key in the lock and pushes the door, but it won’t budge more than a few inches. I drop to my knees on the dusty doorstep and reach around the frame to find that the obstruction is a pile of unopened post. I claw it away till the door opens a bit wider and James steps inside. I am about to get up to follow him, but Evie presses a hand down on my shoulder and steps over me, placing the spiked heels of her crocodile-skin boots carefully into the islands of floorboard revealed between the ocean of envelopes and flyers. ‘Good grief,’ she says as she passes. ‘Anyone would think she’d been dead for years.’
I stare at her retreating back in disbelief.
She stalks down the hallway and stares in passing at the framed pictures on the wall, dismissing them as worthless. Yes, Evie, they’re barely worth the cost of the canvas they’re daubed on: I painted them.
I gather the post into a pile, imagining Mum lying in her hospital bed with the stupid, oppressive reminders of ordinary life spilling through the letter box day after day. Sixty-four years old, gone without warning; of course the bills and letters and junk mail have kept on coming – no one expected this sudden departure. Again, the enormity of her passing hits me. I will never be able to call her on a whim, to ask if she’s seen the size of the moon tonight, or to check on her recipe for scones; never share another Christmas lunch with her, never have to sneakily return ill-fitting birthday presents to Marks & Spencer. Never be able to hear her say, Don’t worry, darling, I’m sure it’s nothing. I sniff back tears.
James reappears with a roll of black bin bags, a long length of which he tears off and passes to me. ‘Here you go. Evie, bless her, is going through Mum’s clothes.’
I feel suddenly hot with outrage. ‘Don’t you think you should have asked me to do that?’
‘Calm down! We thought it’d be too much for you, so Evie volunteered. You should be grateful: you know what a good eye she has. She’ll be able to tell at a glance if there’s anything worth selling on, though she said right away she thinks most of it will have to go into recycling or to charity shops—’
‘It’s not Mum’s fault she didn’t dress the way Evie thinks she should. Dad left with all the money and then fucked off and died after spending the lot on his mistress!’
James shuffles his feet. ‘No need to swear, not very ladylike.’
Not very ladylike, I mouth at his back. When did my brother become such a prig? Probably ever since Evie started campaigning.
Gathering the post into my arms, I take it into the lounge and dump it on the coffee table, knocking a framed photograph to the floor in the process. James picks it up and stares at it, hands it to me. The photo is faded into the ochre and pale blue of old Kodak stock. It shows the four of us, Mum and Dad with James and me, standing in front of a hedge and old gate, and beyond us a shining expanse of sea stretching into flared-out infinity. James and I look about eight or so. You’d never know we were twins. We don’t look alike, have never even had much in common. As soon as we’d developed our own little personalities the family had fractured along gender lines: me and Mum, with our fine, fair hair and introversion, our love of books and plants; James and Dad, dark and confident and loud, disappearing to take part in manly pursuits. It’s a window into a lost age.
‘I wonder who took it?’ I muse. ‘It obviously meant a lot to her but I can’t remember where or when it was taken.’
James shrugs, uninterested. ‘May as well chuck it. The frame’s just plastic.’
‘I’m going to keep it.’ I pick at the black metal clips on the back so that I can remove the precious print, but James has already moved on and is opening cupboards and exclaiming at the crammed contents.
Mum moved into this flat when she and Dad divorced, declaring that she loved that it was bijou – like a jewel – and so much easier to look after than their big old four-bedroomed house. Which I took at face value, never looking past the fresh paint, the bright curtains and rugs, to see that the underlying carpets were worn, that mould was encroaching in the bathroom and beneath the bedroom window, that its peeling, unloved state mirrored her own. Looking past James, I see damp has brought down a sizable chunk of cornicing. It must have fallen recently, since it has not been cleared away, as if it was holding on all this time and as soon as Mum was gone, simply let go.
‘If you go through the post I’ll check her bureau for the documents we need for probate. Just chuck all the crap and keep the official stuff and bills.’ And off he goes to the spare room. Beyond, I can hear the clack of clothes hangers and the efficient rustle of discarded garments being thrust into bin bags.
Boy jobs and girl jobs.
I turn my attention to the pile of post. Bills. Bank statements. Credit card demands. More bills. Catalogues, flyers for local reading groups, adverts for mobility scooters, circulation improvers, novelty garden ornaments, solar panels. I sigh. It’s tragic how little a life can be reduced to, how much of it is transient and disposable.
Evie appears carrying a bulging bin bag in each rubber-gloved hand. Did she bring the Marigolds with her? I wonder. Does she have a full hazmat suit tucked away in her Prada handbag? ‘Sooo much to go through!’ she trills. ‘It’s like the aftermath of a jumble sale in there.’ She manoeuvres the stuffed bags through the doorway and out into the hall, reappears empty-handed. ‘We should have hired a skip!’
My throat feels hard and swollen, as if bulky words are trying to choke me. I watch her peel off the gloves finger by finger, snapping them back into shape with brisk efficiency as if performing a medical procedure. Her nail varnish is a shade of dark plum, like old blood.
‘Poor Becky.’ She knows I don’t like her calling me that: it’s too intimate. ‘It’s so awful to lose your mother after all you’ve been through.’ She pauses. ‘Such a shame Eddie couldn’t be here to support you.’
Is there any real concern here, or is she just point-scoring?
‘I mean, it’s a bit much, not coming to your mother’s funeral. And with you so fragile.’
I hate that she knows so much about the sinkholes in my life. But the worst part is she’s completely right. Tears sting the back of my eyes, but I cannot cry in front of Evie. I thrust myself to my feet. ‘Need a cigarette,’ I mutter, and flee.
I don’t smoke, actually – never have. Out on the concrete steps I sit and fiddle with my phone, selecting my home number with trembling fingers. I need to hear Eddie’s voice: it will calm me down.
When I told him tearfully about the awful readings James had chosen, and the soulless venue for the funeral, he had held me close and let me weep into his chest. But as soon as I mentioned getting his suit dry-cleaned, he’d gazed at me as if I’d mortally wounded him.
‘Becks, you know I don’t do suits and funerals – I’m an artist.’ He ran a hand through his wild, dark hair, exasperated by my failure to understand something so fundamental to his being. ‘Look, you know how fond I was of your mum. I’d love to help you give her a proper send-off. But I just can’t afford to lose the time, not now, for God’s sake, Rebecca, my exhibition! I can’t lose an hour, let alone days! Besides, what does it matter? Jenny’s gone, and anyway she’d hate all the ritual and empty show. She’d say, “Eddie, for goodness’ sake, you’ve got to make your exhibition a success. It’s so important.”?’
My mother would have said exactly this. At once I had felt mean and unworthy. But that was before yesterday’s world-altering phone call, which has ricocheted around my skull all through the night, nicking little edges of sentient matter here and there, leaving me thick and dull after barely two hours of sleep. I want to share the content of that call with Eddie. But I can’t: that really would be selfish. He’s already been through so much with me. I’ll tell him after the exhibition, but for now all I want is to hear his voice, to receive a virtual hug from the man I’ve lived with for ten years.
We never actually got married, because Eddie said marriage was a bourgeois social construct designed to control people’s individuality. ‘All that parading around in fancy clothes, while a load of people you don’t really like, who’ve bought you gifts you don’t really want, stuff their faces with food and booze you’ve paid for with money you don’t have!’ I had sort of agreed with him: we didn’t need a piece of paper to prove how much we loved one another, and neither of us was religious. Besides, we were broke.
But if we had been married and if he had come with me to Mum’s funeral, I would have felt more armoured against the world, including Evie’s sniping, which in the bigger picture is such a small thing.
The bigger picture looms at me again, and I push it to the back of my mind, and tap our home number in the Contacts list. The ringback tone goes on and on. I can imagine the phone sounding out in the lounge of our London maisonette, echoing off the walls, the mismatched furniture, the blank TV screen, the half-drawn curtains. I let it ring on in case Eddie’s in another room, but I know he’s not there. I cut the call and try his mobile and for a moment my heart rises as I hear his hello, then falls as I realize it’s just his voicemail message. He must be in the studio, cracking on with the last pieces for the exhibition. It’s an exciting opportunity for him, and he really deserves a break, that crucial bit of luck all artists need.
When I go back in I am relieved to find no one in the lounge, though the furniture appears to have acquired coloured stickers: white ones on the sofa, the armchair, the coffee table, the bookcase; a red one on the television and the Georgian mirror that was Granny Jo’s. I frown. Somewhere overhead the joists creak: James up in the attic, rummaging for anything saleable amongst the detritus of our mother’s stored hopes and faded dreams.
Forcing myself to my task, I discard the catalogues and junk mail into a bin bag and stack up the official-looking letters. I have got through over half of the pile before I come upon a pale blue envelope addressed in an emphatic hand to Mrs Geneviève Young.
I slit it open. Inside are two folded sheets of Basildon Bond, covered in erratic handwriting.
Someone who knows Mum well, then, to use that rare, affectionate shortening.
I must ask you to come down RIGHT AWAY.
This is so savagely underlined that the pen’s nib has gone right through the paper.
They are talking about putting me away, the devils, in one of those establishments so erroneously referred to as ‘care homes’. But I DO NOT want to go. I may be ninety-odd, and I dare say there are some who would place the emphasis on ‘odd’, but I am not losing my marbles! Chynalls is my home. My BELOVED home. I was born in this house and I am determined to die in it! THEY WILL HAVE TO CARRY ME OUT OF HERE FEET FIRST!
It is a frightful nuisance not to be able to get up the stairs. The deterioration of the flesh is a grim business. Trips to the privy are getting to be as bad as Polar treks. I always hated the cold. Hot countries hold far greater appeal. I walked in the Sahara Desert once…
Who is this person? I turn to the last page to find a florid signature beneath the words Your cousin, Olivia Kitto, the K looping as madly as an inky Elizabethan capital. The name jolts a distant memory – a long-ago family holiday redolent of seaweed and saltwater. Rock pools and shrimping nets, the rub of a sandy towel on my thighs. The letterhead reads: Chynalls, Porth Enys, Cornwall. No postcode, as if the house is in Narnia, not part of the modern world at all.
Batty old biddy. I can hear Dad’s voice. Queer old bird.
Did we visit her? Yes, I remember it now, that long-ago Cornish visit. A hazy image of an enormous house, a smell that stings the nose, a strange sense of apprehension…
I need your help in getting Chynalls in order so that I can stay in my own house. Social Services say I must have a proper bathroom. Proper bathroom!! Who are they to determine what is proper and what is not? Ridiculous RED TAPE! I’m perfectly fine with a lick and a spit. I lived through a war, I told them. We didn’t have hot baths and power showers then. A fig for all their HEALTH & SAFETY! And they had the gall to complain about Gabriel, too! My only companion for all these years! Dirty and unhygienic, they called him.
Chynalls was beautiful once, and I suppose I was too. Both of us are rather decrepit now. There’s not much you can do to get me lickity spit but, Jenny dear, I need your help to get the house shipshape. Humilitas occidit superbiam and all that, but I am forced to throw myself on your mercy, since you are my only living relatives, you and your little girl, charming manners, name escapes me. I CAN TRUST NO ONE ELSE! They circle like vultures. If you come down we shall see them off! We must keep them AT BAY. When you arrive I will tell you all. You can stay in the upstairs rooms: they are COMPLETELY PRISTINE!
The capital letters, underlinings and incomprehensible Latin are alarming, but I begin to feel sorry for her: an elderly woman, beset by illness and infirmity and the complex manoeuvrings of social services. It must have been hard for her to overcome her pride enough to cry out for help.
James appears, burdened by a large cardboard box. I fold the letter away. ‘Oh, nothing, a note from some old biddy.’ Daddy’s word.
I watch him put the box down and his shirt rides up out of his trousers. Red chinos: who wears red canvas trousers in their thirties? Husbands of Tory councillors, I suppose.
‘What have you found?’ I ask.
‘Usual rubbish. Did you know she even kept those hideous old dining room curtains from the old house, the ones with the giant poppies on them?’
I do know. Mum was constantly promising them to me, when you and Eddie buy a place of your own. Another lump forms in my throat. ‘Nothing else?’
‘Some personal papers. I suppose we ought to go through them to make sure there’s nothing important before the house clearance people come in.’
‘House clearance? But we haven’t even discussed…’
My brother shrugs. ‘It’s the only practical solution, Becks. I mean, we have our lives elsewhere: us down in Surrey and you in London. We can’t keep running up and down to Warwick, and life moves on, you know. There will be a ton of admin to do, and you know that’s not your forte… That’s exactly why Mum asked me and Evie to deal with everything.’
So Mum had specifically invited Evie to come here, into her inner sanctum. My sinuses burn and I blink and blink. Tears slide out of the corners of my eyes and spill, scalding.
‘Oh God, you see? Mum knew you wouldn’t cope with it. “Let Rebecca choose any of the jewellery or paintings she wants to keep,” she said. “And then get rid of the rest. I know there’s nothing worth keeping.”?’
Nothing worth keeping. So Mum knew all along she was living a half-life among the decaying fragments of our broken family life. All that pain and betrayal, cruelty and sadness. I feel my heart may crack open.
James is still talking, individual words leaping out of a blur of sound.
‘… counterpart lease… grant of representation… insurance documents…’
I brush my hand across my cheeks, wiping the tears away, and make an effort to concentrate.
‘… make a stab at the probate value of the estate and get all the forms filled in. Just check through this lot and see if there’s anything we need to keep.’
And he’s off again, to check on Evie and her progress through the bedrooms.
I go back to Olivia Kitto’s letter. Such a lovely name. I didn’t know we had Kittos in the family: a proper Cornish cousin. Poor old woman, beset by officious nitpickers in her hour of need, reaching out to my mother – too late. I scan the first page but there’s no date on it, and the postmark on the envelope is smudged. I wonder how long it’s been sitting here. Weeks, maybe? Perhaps she’s already in a home, or worse, passed away. But what if she’s not? What if she’s trapped in hospital waiting for her last living relative to rescue her?
A mad thought strikes me. Perhaps I could step into Mum’s shoes and prove I am not completely useless. I could nip down to Cornwall to find out what needs to be done, see if I can help in any way. And let Olivia know that Mum is dead, poor old dear. I need something positive to focus on, and the universe has provided. It’s a gift, isn’t it? A gift to both Olivia and to me, both of us beset and bereaved.
Filled with new energy, I burn through the rest of the mountain of post, filling a bag with rubbish, and placing the remaining official letters into a neat pile. In a heap of correspondence beside Mum’s armchair I find more letters from our Cornish cousin. I am just sifting through these when James and Evie reappear, James with more full bin bags, Evie with a cardboard box. James deposits the bags in the hall, then comes back in, rubbing his hands on his trousers. ‘We’d better get cracking,’ he says.
‘The town planner and her husband are coming for dinner tonight,’ Evie says brightly over the top of the box. ‘I was going to put them off, but sometimes it’s good to have practical things to focus on, don’t you think?’
I am so gobsmacked I can’t find any words. I just look at my twin in disbelief. To give him some credit, he looks abashed. ‘Sorry, Becks. Life goes on, eh?’
I swallow, and nod. Getting to my feet, I add the pile of official correspondence to the cardboard box.
‘Can I give you a lift to the station?’ James asks.
I shake my head. ‘I’ll hang on here for a bit.’
Evie leans forward to give me an air kiss and I can smell her perfume – something musky and expensive, tainted by the lingering trace of rubber gloves. ‘I left your mother’s jewellery box on the bed,’ she says, nodding back towards the bedroom. ‘It’s all cheap costume stuff but you may want to keep something out of sentimental value. Oh and,’ she hands the box to James then reaches into her handbag and gives me the roll of red stickers. ‘You may want to put these on the paintings you don’t want the clearance chaps to take.’ She pulls away. ‘And you know, dear, you shouldn’t smoke…’ A meaningful pause.
I stare hotly at the sticky labels, then at James.
‘Take care of yourself, sis,’ he says, then shoulders his way out of the narrow door, and just like that they are gone. I can almost feel the apartment sigh in relief, its violations at an end.
I go into Mum’s room. It shows little trace of Evie’s depredations, but when I open the wardrobe doors, there is nothing left inside but the smell of camphor and a couple of dozen empty hangers. The jewellery box lies on the floral duvet covering the bed where Mum has not lain for two months. There is nothing left of her, nothing left but absence itself. Disconsolately, I open the box and gaze at the meagre contents: strands of coloured beads, a coral necklace with a broken clasp, an old cameo brooch, some rings. I remember Mum wearing this one: a dress ring with a long green stone set in silver. When I pick it up I am suddenly assailed by her perfume. Je Reviens by Worth. I will return. Except she won’t, not ever. I remember her wearing this ring so clearly, holding her hand out to admire it. ‘Who cares if it’s not valuable?’ she said. ‘It could have come out of a cracker and I’d still love it. You should never wear jewellery you don’t love.’
Oh, Mum. I put it away: a keepsake.
Going to her bedroom window, I press my hand against the pane, my breath making a bloom on the glass, just in time to see James’s Lexus disappear at the junction. My splayed fingers look like a plea for help and the little winking stone in my ‘engagement’ ring seems to mock me.
I call Eddie’s number one more time, and one more time I get his voicemail. ‘Hi there, it’s me, Becks,’ I tell the message recorder. ‘Look, it’s a bit complicated, and I’ll explain properly when we speak, but I’m going to Cornwall for a few days. It’s a family thing. It’ll give you time to finish the final preparations for the show.’ I pause. ‘Eddie? I wish you’d been able to come with me.’ I tap the red phone icon and stare at the screen. I wish I hadn’t
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