- Published: 19 October 2021
- ISBN: 9781761042461
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 416
- RRP: $19.99
The Tea Gardens
I didn’t dare look at the palm of my hand for fear of seeing the bruising arc pattern of fingernails from the clenching of my fist moments earlier. Was it despair? Jealousy? Or was it plain shock to gaze upon him again, to feel his skin against my ungloved hand once more? Oh, dear heaven, I had to hide! I could not unravel now, after all this time having kept our secret so tightly wound inside. Find a quiet spot, I urged. Act your normal calm.
I half tottered, half strode, but grimly refused the temptation to look back over my shoulder, especially as I could feel my mind loosening while my treacherous body trembled like the late-autumn leaves clinging desperately to their branches. I spotted the park bench hidden behind a large oak and steered for its iron solidity to regain some balance. Meanwhile the banker, speaking so intently to my husband, was an unwitting ally; he’d happened along at the ideal moment to save me intolerable shame. They were deep in conversation but my husband would not wish to leave me alone for too long.
Had my darling husband registered my fluster, or had I -covered the signals of guilt? Moments ago it was all I could do to breathe through the shock. Whichever series of decisions brought him to me today resulted in pain that undid me like a zipper.
I kept trying to convince myself that if only we had chosen to walk through Kensington Gardens instead of Hyde Park, this -aching, twitching version of myself would never have emerged. Jove had gently insisted, though, claiming he felt like a change, but now I regret what his decision had cost me . . . may yet cost us. I recalled with loathing how my responses had come out hesitantly, and with aching politeness. I didn’t respond to his declaration of yearning. He noticed. He forgave me. The -awkward conversation heated my cheeks; was it minutes or just seconds? It felt like moons had waxed and waned while I tried to catch my breath at the sight of Saxon Vickery once again.
Is it wrong to love two men as I do? I can almost wish to split myself into a pair and exist in separate lives, but this is surely a pathway to madness.
I chose, although I had no choice.
But the yearning doesn’t disappear. Instead it enjoys punishing me as it lazily ebbs – like counting the ticking seconds of every minute as an entire day passes from morning into night. I’ve been guilty of losing time in this way, staring out of a window from our house as if hoping to find the answer on the horizon. My heart feels as though it beats a minim slower each day, as though his absence has become the metronome of my life. My academic training convinces me this burden will lighten in time but the invisible wound suppurates its grief daily and I must work hard to keep the pain hidden, for to show it means bringing sorrow to my dear husband, who deserves nothing but my affection and happiness.
‘Darling?’ That lovely familiar voice.
‘Yes, dear,’ I gushed, a fraction too enthusiastically to cover the terror of exposure.
‘Ralph over there is in a bit of a fix, my love. I was wonder-ing . . .’
I didn’t want explanation; I was just glad I might have a few more minutes to swim against the tide of shock. ‘Go,’ I said, genuine in my smile of affection.
‘Twenty minutes . . . tops,’ he promised. ‘I said I’d have a cup of tea with him over at the kiosk. I don’t want to, mind, but he needs my advice.’
‘He looks rather anxious, actually, so help if you can. I’ll meet you back here in twenty,’ I said, amazed at how breezy I managed to sound.
He kissed my hand. ‘Thank you. And Ralph thanks you too.’ He turned and walked away with the banker towards the small café kiosk in the park.
It suited me. I needed to take control; settle my upset, draw back the scattering thoughts that had already raced treacherously towards the Himalaya and box them in again . . . and turn a key on that box’s lock.
Sitting here, allowing my pulse to slow while distracting myself watching children at play, I knew the time approached when I would have to broaden my role as a wife and bless our marriage with youngsters. I suspected I would be pregnant soon and the moment I felt that child quicken within, it would be the moment to finally let go of selfish recollections of a single life.
So . . . perhaps if just to indulge myself a final time, I closed my eyes briefly against this sharp, winter sunlight and allowed the full memory of 1933 to engulf me once again.
The banker’s pipe had caught alight, I noted, and I could just catch a whiff on the air of the burley of Kentucky. My father used to smoke a pipe too and had tried all the tobaccos while he searched for perfection. I shared each of his displeasures, this burley of Kentucky among them for being artificially sweetened, he claimed.
I looked away from my husband’s retreating figure to recall the passage of time, as though I possessed one of those memories that remembers every word, every nuance, each colour and scene that the mind has encountered. It’s true that my talent for reliable and detailed recollection now feels like a curse because it won’t let me escape what I am trying so hard to run from.
I think it was a gentleman called Ballard who, just before the Great War, wrote of a type of memory processing called hyper-mnesia, postulating that memory of events is improved dramatically in clarity by the regularity of retrieving them. I have gone over these last almost three years so often that I am ashamed to face my dependence upon them, and my repeated retrieval has made these memories vivid enough that there are times I imagine myself reaching to trace the lines of his face. There are moments when I am so lost with him in memory that I can feel his breath against the skin of my neck as he kisses it, or his fingertips gently caressing my hands. ‘Healer’s hands’, he called them.
Let me then open my mind, allow 1933 to slip back into full focus and permit me to remember the whole story, not in patches, but in its entirety. Maybe, after this indulgence, I might find my way out of this tunnel of dependency.
It was nearing Christmas and I was taking a stroll with my father through the sprawling royal park of Kensington Gardens to the north-east. The southern side near our house was home to museums and royal buildings, including the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music. We lived in South Kensington, which was both fashionably envied by the social climbers and yet perhaps not as highly aware of itself as Belgravia and Knightsbridge. I grew up in a small enclave called Kensington Gate. It was built originally by an importer of tobacco and meerschaum pipes, and became a favourite corner for men who roasted chestnuts on open braziers.
The developer had arranged two terraced groups of homes in the Italianate style that is not overtly showy but leanly elegant with stucco fronts. It was only the entrance porticoes, supported on Ionic columns, that added the lustre of grandeur. The terraces overlooked a central, closed garden, which was a private park for our neighbourhood. The end houses, of which ours was one, possessed an additional storey and my suite of rooms was on that highest level looking out through arched windows. It was the only home I’d known but it was graceful to my eye, and growing up I used to love stepping out on the small balcony that was attached to my mother’s rooms. After her death my father suggested I move into her salon but not once did that feel comfortable, which I suspect pleased him, so the doors remain closed, locking in her perfume and scented talcs, her fragranced soaps and potpourri.
I probably believed we could maintain her memory with clarity by keeping her rooms as she had left them. This notion is still a comfort to two people who miss her brightness, which was like a sunrise to our quieter, sunset-like personalities.
On this particular winter’s day, we were walking towards Kensington Palace, muffled up against early November’s chill. The climate had been surprisingly dull and dry since autumn began gilding the landscape in her golden colours, and my father’s mood had caught a similar disposition. He had been muttering about the pound being devalued but he had fallen quiet while my mind was busy with the news of the social visionary, Gandhi, who was on a visit to Britain and being received by our King.
I thought we were walking in an easy silence and so it came as a shock when my father suddenly said, ‘Isla, we must discuss a suitable marriage.’
I’m sure my expression bore the same bewildered look as someone staring with disbelief at the arrow shaft poking out of their chest. It was a topic we had left well alone for years.
‘You’re nearing thirty now, my dear —’
He said this in a tone as if I needed reminding. ‘And I have duly marked each birthday, Papa,’ I replied, frowning.
He gave me a soft glare of admonishment and I knew he meant to have the conversation whether I cared to or not. ‘I made a promise to your mother.’
‘You surely made many,’ I said, resuming our walk. It was -easier to cope with this conversation if we didn’t have to face one another.
‘I did. Mostly about you and none more important than the two I made as she slipped away from us.’ He paused, forcing me to do the same and to watch as he seemed to search for the right words. ‘And the one about your marriage was agreed while she still had the strength to take a breath.’
I swallowed. My father was not prone to dramatics so I held my tongue.
‘I promised her I would accompany you down the church aisle in your wedding gown no later than thirty-one.’
‘So I have fourteen months,’ I said, with a nuance that silently conveyed plenty of time.
‘We can’t be flippant, Isla.’ The tenderness in his voice cut through to my heart more than any harsh words could. ‘Your career is precious – no one understood that better than your mother, who I often thought of as a pioneer, cutting open a pathway for you bright youngsters to follow. But even she did not want your career to come at the cost of a husband and family.’
No, I had to say it. ‘Papa —’ I imagine my tone clued him in.
‘Isla, my darling, I know it doesn’t sound fair that your mother waited while she forged ahead in her research but there are too many complications – that you above all people should know – about older women and childbirth.’
I smarted at the suggestion that I was suddenly an older woman but his rationale was not incorrect. ‘I lost your mother too early.’
‘We lost her due to complications of her disease, not childbirth,’ I said, as evenly as I could within the rising vexation.
‘I disagree. The disease weakened her but so did pregnancy at thirty-five. In concert, that wretched TB and her carrying a child so late, with complications around your birth and the season of your delivery, played the perfect death march.’ He held up a warning -finger. ‘She survived but not long enough. You didn’t even have your mother into your teenage years. I will not watch my only and beloved child follow entirely in her mother’s footsteps. I suspect we have six months, my dearest, before we must commit to a groom from your many suitors; there is a reception to plan, vicar to discuss formal arrangements with, your gown to be designed and created, banns to be read, a suitable honeymoon to arrange . . .’
My vexation turned to clear annoyance, which rose like lava to the mouth of the volcano. ‘Papa, who has been whispering in your ear? Is this Aunt Claudette again?’
He shrugged. ‘Your aunt knows about the promise; probably made an identical one to her sister. We both love you deeply, Isla; as the only child in this family we naturally want what’s best for you, but . . .’ He gave an admonishing lift of one silvery eyebrow to stop the inevitable torrent and looked over the top of his spectacles at me. ‘We intend to honour your mother’s wishes.’
We’d paused at the back of Kensington Palace and my gaze scanned momentarily for any sign of the royals – a glimpse of Queen Mary, perhaps, restoring her mother’s rooms, which we’d heard about on the radio.
‘Isla, please understand that —’
‘Papa . . .’ I began, desperate to stop his discussion, which was sounding rehearsed.
‘So I realise I can no longer expect you to choose someone, darling Isla, because you seem, well . . . shall we say, reticent?’ He smiled with such affection I felt my heart give a little. He took the softening in my expression to be permission. ‘Do you remember Jovian Mandeville?’
I blinked, bringing out of my memories a man I hadn’t seen since childhood. ‘How could I forget him, Papa? You know full well I had the most terrible crush on him when I was thirteen.’
‘Used to amuse your mother and me how you’d blush in his presence and stammer whenever he spoke to you.’
‘Which was hardly ever,’ me said, sounding a fraction churlish. ‘Gosh, I was so in love with Jove Mandeville, I kept telling myself if only he’d notice me for the woman I was inside and would one day be, rather than the flat-chested, pigtailed child standing before him.’
It was a joy to watch my father tip his chin to enjoy a genuine belly laugh. ‘But look at you now: quite the eligible woman with beauty to turn any man’s head.’
‘Stop priming me, Papa. What are you up to?’
‘I am now of the opinion that it’s been those younger men’s possibly arrogant dispositions that youth and wealth seem to generate that have turned you from them.’
I looked down to my two-toned suede leather boots.
‘And I am further convinced that you would thrive in the -company of an older man.’
I looked at him with helpless astonishment. ‘Jove?’
‘He’s not at all like the others, Isla dear. He is now turned forty-two. Still dashing, and all that old money intact. Did I ever mention that his family hails back to the early Middle Ages? I think one of his forebears was the Constable of the Tower of London in the eleventh century. The family estates are around Oxfordshire, you may recall?’
I nodded. It was coming back to me now. ‘Made their fortune in railways, steel, shipping, wasn’t it?’
‘Most varied, actually, including coffee importers, as I understand it. More importantly he’s led an interesting life since those summer stays with us and with the means to be a frequent traveller, to be well connected and, although he doesn’t broadcast it, I know him to be a noted philanthropist. For now you should know that he is returned to England, lives in Mayfair when Westminster is -sitting —’
He nodded. ‘I don’t know for how long. His constituency is somewhere in the Cotswolds. He has a country estate in Abingdon. I was delighted to be reconnected with him recently.’
Jove Mandeville! The name dredged up all sorts of fond memories, some awkward ones too; at the time, however, my girlish desire felt so real it was dauntingly powerful. He’d been in our lives as a young man for a few years – his parents close friends of ours – and then he’d begun to travel and I’d grown up, my mother had passed away, all those affectionate friendships were lost.
My father gestured to a bench and I sat next to him. We both enjoyed feeding the birds and it seemed like the best idea to keep us busy, even smiling, as the host of formerly hidden sparrows descended like a circus troupe on cue to flit around us, nipping at the breadcrumbs we tossed from small bags that we each carried.
‘Surely he can find a suitable wife with all of that going for him?’ I tried to sound polite.
‘It’s not a case of can’t find a wife, darling. There are women all over England . . . America, even, who are more than keen.’
‘Well, there we are. He hardly needs me.’
‘The point is, it’s not that he can’t but more that he won’t choose a wife from what’s on offer.’
I frowned and finally looked into my father’s kindly face, which was not unlike that of the old gorilla I’d seen in London Zoo. I don’t mean for a moment that my father resembled a great ape – no, it was more the wisdom I’d recognised in those small, dark eyes of the silverback and the tender way in which he played with a recently born infant of the family. There was curiosity in that ape’s expression but also a lifetime of knowledge.
I looked now at the pleading look in my father’s eyes, which were the colour of distant heather-covered hills: a sort of smudgy purple blue. I’d inherited similar eyes – shape and colour – except his had already spent more than sixty years in the gathering of knowledge; he was one of the country’s most celebrated physicians but it was his modesty and reserve I loved most about him. Actually, I lie. It was his adoration of my mother that impressed me most. His fondness for me required no stating but I sensed this was one of those moments . . . the passing of wisdom. My father’s gaze implored me to pay attention this time, to heed his advice, to follow this course.
‘Why won’t he choose?’ I asked and it was the right question, for my father became eager, tossing out the rest of the crumbs from his bag for our twittering friends so that he could turn and face me properly.
‘Because, while he uses the excuse that he is likely the world’s most boring man, who shouldn’t foist himself on a poor female, I suspect the truth to be that his intellect and especially his joy at life are offended by the queue of sociably acceptable but, in his judgement, dull women who fling themselves into his path.’
‘Shameful,’ I said with a small grin.
He returned it. ‘Well, some women are keener than you to be wed and are prepared to be more obvious in their overtones, but he refuses to marry for the sake of it. Has admitted to me he’d rather live alone than make a poor decision.’
‘I agree with him,’ I said, meaning it.
My father nodded with a resigned smile that said he knew he’d walked into that. ‘Nevertheless, I want the two of you to meet up again. He is intrigued by what I’ve told him about that youngster who used to blush in his presence and be sure, my darling, that I’ve mentioned your reluctance to be married off.’
‘Papa – I used to make such a fool of myself around him. Why would you suggest this? We’re perfect strangers.’
‘No, that’s not true. I have come to a conclusion that you could be perfect marriage companions and you are not strangers. He really hasn’t changed that much – leaner, greyer, wiser, but that boyish joy in simple pleasures has not left him. You’ll recognise the Jove of fifteen or so years ago. Will you meet him?’
I sighed, standing to tip out my breadcrumbs, but my movement frightened the chirruping sparrows and we were alone again.
‘You know I wouldn’t put just anyone in front of you,’ he assured. ‘Jove always was a bit of a rare bird and it’s the quirkiness, his lack of conformism, that I think you may find appealing – I also believe his age and reserve will match your maturity. Please say yes to a meeting. It will be like old friends reconnecting.’
I didn’t agree. I had been a child and Jove a grown man when we’d last been together. I was playing with a skipping rope while he was lamenting to my father about the price of gold. He didn’t even notice the adoration as I relentlessly skipped nearby. But I could see I had no choice. ‘Yes, I’ll meet him, for old times’ sake, and for you and Mother.’
‘Do it for yours, Isla. After I’m gone —’
‘Don’t,’ I warned. We both knew his heart was failing. It did not need discussing.
He nodded. ‘He’s taking you for a drive.’
‘So it’s already organised?’ My father gave me a look of tender sympathy rather than apology for the invisible hand pushing at my back. ‘Can’t we just meet in a hotel for afternoon tea or something?’ Now I sounded churlish but I had to show my -frustration somehow.
He shrugged. ‘It was his idea to have a day out . . . away from London.’
I sighed, resigning myself. It sounded to me as though my father had already made up his mind and this meeting was close to being academic. ‘I’m going to agree to this on one condition.’
He waited, watching me expectantly.
‘If Jove and I find some common ground . . .’
My father sat forward, eyes widening.
‘If . . .’ I repeated for effect, ‘then going ahead in any shape or form will be decided by me with Mr Mandeville. It is not for you or my aunt to make any decision on my behalf.’
‘I agree!’ He barely considered the careful wording of my proviso.
I nodded. ‘Then let’s hope he is every bit as interesting as you believe him to be.’
My father stood, a smile of triumph as he crooked an arm. ‘This deserves celebration. How about a pot of cocoa at Claridge’s? Let me hail a hackney.’
I glanced at my watch and winced with regret. ‘I would love to but I’ve promised to look in on Mrs Dempsey before I start my rounds.’
‘Ah, your lady with rickets? What’s your course?’
I was glad to be back on safe ground, talking clinician to clinician. ‘It’s so painful for her to carry this child and she’s been brave about it to date but I’m of the opinion that a caesarian section will be prudent: either tomorrow or certainly over this coming weekend.’ I looked up for his approval, despite my confidence in my decision.
He nodded thoughtfully and gazed out across the lawns. ‘The baby will need lots of help if that mother can’t breastfeed successfully and perhaps even if she can,’ he counselled. ‘Even a wet nurse . . .’ he offered, with a shrug.
The wisdom was sound but his old-fashioned protection could be circumvented with today’s expedient measures. ‘I was thinking about putting the baby under an ultraviolet lamp immediately. I know it frightens mothers but its effects are marvellous.’
He smiled. ‘Medicine is going ahead so fast these days, I’m almost glad to be retired. Trust your instincts, Isla. You were talking about man-made vitamins last week.’ He gave a soft sigh that was half dismay, the other half awe. ‘I read up on them. I’m -guessing you’ll be planning on some of those too?’
I smiled. ‘I will be prescribing some synthetic vitamin D; it can’t hurt the child.’
My father gave a soft whistle. ‘And there was I thinking cod liver oil.’ We both pulled a face of disgust at the thought. He kissed my cheek. ‘We’ll have cocoa another time. Go look after your patients.’
‘I might be late tonight. I said I’d do a special round on the ward for a couple of new midwives who’ve arrived at the clinic from India for training. Will you eat without me, Papa?’
‘I can go to the club. I’ll ring Mandeville from there.’ He winked.
I gave him a glance of feigned warning. ‘A meeting is all I’ve agreed to,’ I reminded him as my father lifted his walking cane in mock surrender.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
York – 1915 The argument had been tame, polite even, but there was no doubt in her mind that if she didn’t make a decision, it would be made for her.
He opened the new bag of coffee beans and inhaled, relishing the toasted aroma that his favourite brand of arabica gave off.
The air sagged beneath the burden of the day’s heat and the African sun felt as pitiless as her mother’s gaze upon meeting the man Louisa had chosen to marry.
The two men frowned at the map. It made little sense and one referred to the detailed instructions he’d taken good care to note down.
Jean Farmer took the call, and regretted instantly that she’d been the one to pick up the phone.
Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
The stink from the bags of rubbish piled against a wall in Scotts Road made Amelia involuntarily gag and cover her nose.
This incredible story was related by Lance Corporal Sidney Reed, who was a prisoner of the Nazis during the Second World War at Lamsdorf, Stalag VIIIB / 344, in Poland, and at the labour camp E166 at Saubsdorf quarry, Czechoslovakia.