Looking for Henry
'Do you think she knows?' asked Joanna Clarke, lowering her voice, although there was no chance of her being overheard by anyone who mattered. Her friend Mary Clarice Anstruther followed the direction of Joanna's eyes across the restaurant and came to rest thoughtfully on a tall, good looking man who had just come in with a smart young blonde on his arm.
'I should think she must do,' she said. 'You can't say he's trying very hard to hide it.'
'She hasn't said anything. Maybe he's passing it off as business lunches.'
'You think Susan would fall for that old chestnut?' Mary Clarice raised her eyebrows.
Joanna looked irresolute.
'Ought we to say something do you think?'
'Who to?' Mary Clarice looked derisive. 'Susan? Or Tom?'
'I just think ... we're meant to be her friends.'
There was a pause.
'That's just it,' said Mary Clarice, slowly. 'I thought we were meant to be her friends, too, but she seems to have given up telling us things. And the way her family is blasting apart just now - well, it makes you feel you want to step right back and avoid the fallout. Doesn't it?'
Joanna said, 'You can't blame her father for leaving her mother. Face it, Mare, she's a dreadful woman! She's always been a scheming social climber, and nobody's sorry she's fallen on her face. When I was going out with Oliver, she was all over me like a rash, just because of who my father was.'
Mary Clarice's smile wasn't without malice.
'You didn't say that at the time.'
'No.' Joanna accepted the justice of this, and went on to make the mistake of trying to explain. 'Oliver was different. He ... he dazzled you. Anyone would have fallen in love with him - back then, anyway.'
'I didn't,' pointed out her friend. 'Anyway, Oliver never was different. He married that girl who worked behind the desk at the Queen's, the one he dumped you for, and Deb's just got married to some man who runs a pub. There's a very earthy streak there, they gravitate downwards. I always heard that Jerry Nankervis's father came out of a west-country farmyard, for all he played the big solicitor and made stacks of money, perhaps it was true.'
'Susan isn't Jerry Nankervis's daughter.'
'And what's that supposed to prove?' asked Mary Clarice, curiously.
'Nothing, I suppose. But Oliver isn't his awful wife's son, either, come to that. But Deb is the daughter of both them, and she's a star, so where does that leave us?'
The conversation having staggered to a halt, a silence fell between them. Mary Clarice stirred her coffee and looked at Joanna under her eyelashes. For all her recent influential marriage to a man who was - for a man - quite pleasant, Mary Clarice suspected her of still carrying a torch for Oliver Nankervis. She didn't say so, however. Instead, she said, 'Who was Susan's father? Do you know?'
'No. Nobody ever talks about him.'
'There you are then.'
Two questions immediately presented themselves to Joanna; where exactly was she, then? and why did she like this woman she called a friend? She gave voice to neither of them. Mary Clarice was always acerbic, particularly where the opposite sex was concerned. She had nothing good to say of them - but then, she had nothing much good to say of women either. How, Joanna asked herself, had she managed to make her friendship seem such a privilege? Before she had found any answers, Tom Casson, seating himself at a table not far away, spotted them for the first time. To her satisfaction, he turned a dull red. She smiled at him, and raised a hand in acknowledgement, and he looked hurriedly away, leaning across the table to say something to his companion. She, too, looked across at them, but for her there was no smile. Joanna gave her a chilly glance, then looked away and met her friend's eyes - and yes, she was a friend in spite of everything.
'Ho hum,' said Mary Clarice.
'He's coming over,' said Joanna, watching out of the corner of her eye.
'He's got to, hasn't he?' said the cynical Mary Clarice. 'Dear things - when will they ever learn that making excuses only rams the point home?'
'Hullo girls,' said Tom, arriving on cue with a cheerful smile. As a greeting, even he realised it had struck the wrong note, particularly in front of such a confirmed feminist as Mary Clarice, who grinned at him, not nicely.
'Hullo boy,' she said, and made it sound as if she was talking to a dog. Probably something small and fluffy, that yapped. Joanna hid a smile, not very successfully. She wasn't, after all, trying that hard.
'Just having a quick brainstorming lunch,' said Tom, predictably. 'Elaine is my PA, we have a lot on at the moment, and one must eat ...' He faltered to a stop, perceiving that he was on a hiding to nothing. He shuffled his feet, uncomfortably. 'Oh well, better get down to it I suppose, lots to discuss, can't just go out to lunch for the pleasure of it, not like some.' Cheesy smile. 'Nice to see you both. Ciao.'
He walked briskly away to his own table, and Joanna and Mary Clarice caught each other's eye and dissolved into giggles. But it wasn't funny, and the giggles very soon ceased.
'Bastard,' said Mary Clarice.
'At least he had the grace to look guilty.'
'Is guilt a grace? You could have fooled me!'
'The thing is,' said Joanna, after a short pause, 'that a good friend probably should pass on a warning, only I have a feeling that the good friend who did that wouldn't be a good friend any more. If you see what I mean.'
'Nobody welcomes the bearer of bad news?'
'Something like that, yes.'
'Do you really think it likely that an intelligent woman like Susan would have missed something so ... so obvious?'
'Even so - '
'So, as I thought I said just now, if she wanted to confide in us, she would have done it by now. So she doesn't.'
'It's so tacky,' said Joanna, distastefully. 'I used to quite like Tom, but really!'
'Women's lot,' said Mary Clarice, mockingly.
'And there are children involved. That makes it worse, even.'
'There generally are. I often think that's the whole reason for marital infidelity, children. They represent a tie and a responsibility, a loss of precious freedom. It makes men wriggle.'
'Even more for women,' Joanna argued, and added, belatedly, 'and only some men surely.'
'Oh, sure. Anyway,' Mary Clarice added, thoughtfully, 'maybe Susan will be well out of it. If she gets out of it. If.'
Joanna looked a startled question.
'Sacrifice for the greater good,' explained Mary Clarice. 'Don't you feel that Susan has the capacity for martyrdom?'
'For the sake of the children, you mean? But that's so unfair. She's still young. And attractive, too. Pretty.'
'But not beautiful.' Mary Clarice's eyes strayed across the room to the blonde, now laughing at her companion across the tablecloth, intimate, familiar, openly beguiling. 'Tom wanted a trophy wife, I suspect, he's the kind. Something decorative and domestic but stupid, to entertain his clients and bear him two-point-four children and make him feel good. He got Susan. His mistake.'
'But Susan was never that type. Surely he wasn't so stupid ...?'
'She has money,' said Mary Clarice. 'That's a plus. And intelligence. That's a minus. And children. They're a hostage to her fortune, you could say. He thinks he can have his cake and eat caviar on the side and the children will keep him safe. And perhaps he's right. So like a man!'
'But even so ...'
'If you want my opinion,' began Mary Clarice, and paused. Joanna sighed.
'All right, go ahead. I know I'm getting it anyway.'
'It goes back to what you said yourself. Susan's mother - and Oliver's stepmother - wanted a "good" marriage for her, and for him. Only Oliver didn't play ball. Susan did. Even today, women have less options.'
'Susan says that Oliver is very happy,' said Joanna, uncomfortably. 'With his painting and - and everything. In spite of what happened after he married that girl. Actually, I get the feeling Susan quite likes her now.'
'And do you think he would have been happy with you? Or you, with him?' asked Mary Clarice, but these were questions Joanna had no intention of even considering, let alone answering. She hauled the conversation back on course.
'So what about Susan? What do we do?'
Mary Clarice nibbled her lip. She was as concerned for their friend's happiness as Joanna, but really, with children and everything and a mother like the wrath of God, what could one do? She offered the only suggestion she could think of.
'Stand by to pick up the pieces?' she said.
'It seems so feeble.'
'Marching in and blowing the whole situation to blazes would be kind of messy, don't you agree? So maybe feeble is the word right now.'
'But poor Susan!'
'Susan is well able to look after herself, believe me.'
'She was so good to me when I needed her to be.'
'Then be the same for her,' said Mary Clarice. 'If she needs you to be, that is. Come on, let's settle up and go. Suddenly, I don't fancy any coffee. There's a bad smell in here, perhaps we should speak to the manager.'
Susan wasn't deliberately turning her back on her friends. In some ways, it would have been nice to talk things over with them, but in others it was quite impossible. Not only would it be humiliating to have to confess that she couldn't hold onto her husband, or to repeat the things that he had said to her when confronted with his betrayal, but the whole situation had become unbelievably complicated by a meeting she had had at her sister's wedding.
With a man.
Not, she told herself, lying awake in the dark, that there was anything in the meeting itself, or likely to be. He was younger than she was, and anyway, she was the mother of two children and, technically at least, married to Tom, although Tom didn't seem bothered. No, it was some of the things he had said. They had been ... disturbing.
Susan's family situation was confused. Her mother had been a widow at the time of her marriage to Jerry Nankervis, and Susan was the child of the earlier marriage. Similarly, Jerry Nankervis had been divorced, and her older stepbrother, Oliver, was also the child of an earlier marriage. Their mutual half-sister Debbie was the child of the second marriage - marriages - and, Susan was forced to admit, probably the most normal and balanced of the three of them. On the other hand, it was undoubtedly the arguments over her marriage - not to a man who owned a pub so much as an extremely talented chef - that had finally broken her parents' marriage into tiny, irreparable fragments. If she was honest, Susan was in fact surprised that the marriage had limped on for so long, but that was another story.
The waters ran deeper. Although Dorothy Nankervis had never adopted Oliver, whose natural mother was very much alive, Jerry had adopted Susan. Her own father having died only days before she was born, she had never known any father but Jerry, never had any interest in the late Henry Worthington, about whom in any case her mother never seemed to want to tell her, right up until the day of her sister's wedding and her own meeting with Carl Colenso. Up until that moment, Jerry had been enough. Her Daddy.
She should have been interested, she realised that now her life was falling so comprehensively apart. Henry Worthington was half of her, and by not knowing about him she now felt that she couldn't wholly know herself, which was an uncomfortable feeling. This unknown man had given her his genes and she knew nothing whatever about him beyond his name, and the fact that he had bequeathed to her in trust the fortune that had bought her Tom Casson. Crude, but true. She - or her mother on her behalf - had bought her husband. It had been a shaming discovery.
To Carl Colenso, writer, sailing instructor, and partner in her sister's new business venture, Susan knew that she had confided more than she should have done. He had found her sitting alone on the forecourt of her new brother-in-law's pub, facing up to the stark truth that she was married to a man who was quite happy to maintain the fiction provided she didn't interfere with his personal life, and he had been kind. Distantly in the background, she recalled, had been the buzz of cheerful talk and laughter, the music, that had attended Debbie's wedding, but adjacent to the forecourt had been only the quiet lapping of the river on the foreshore and the sound of her own tears. Carl it was who had suggested she seek out the history of that unknown father, had even offered to help her to do so, and by so doing he had placed her in a dilemma.
It was a dilemma with several horns to it. The first, and sharpest, of these was her mother. If Dorothy Nankervis had deliberately kept all knowledge of her natural father from her, then Susan could only suppose that there had been a reason. Not necessarily a good reason, that much she had recently learned about her mother, but a reason anyway, and one that she might not wish to learn for herself. In spite of her appalling behaviour over Debbie's engagement, Susan had both love and respect for her mother, as well as a fellow feeling which Dorothy would not have appreciated. Jerry had left her, true, but not for another woman. Even so, the other woman was there, had possibly always been there in one sense, in the shape of Oliver's mother, renowned sculptress Helen Macken, who had gradually, during the ongoing row over Debbie's wedding, drifted back into their lives after years of self-imposed absence. Dorothy wasn't universally popular, she was too bossy and manipulative for that in spite of her practical involvement in so many good and charitable causes, and people were smiling, Susan knew if Jerry didn't. Social humiliation no doubt had the same bitter taste as any other kind. Susan had no wish to make things worse for her mother.
Then, of course, there was the consideration of Jerry himself. Susan loved her adoptive father dearly, he had always been kind and generous towards her, as if she was indeed his own. Sometimes, when she was feeling low, she convinced herself that he loved Debbie and Oliver more, but that surely was understandable. To go searching for her natural father would therefore be a betrayal, an admission that Jerry had never been enough, deep down. She thought - hoped even, on one rather shaming level, that it would hurt him, but that, she knew, she could never do.
But was it true? The weasel thought couldn't help but twitch its whiskers. Susan hoped so, but she was being asked to face up to so many unpleasant truths just lately that she really wasn't sure of anything any more.
The third horn of her dilemma was Carl himself, and that one had so many extra barbs that it was far more like a hedgehog than a horn, which was ridiculous when she hardly knew him. They had met once, for that brief and distressing interlude on the forecourt at the Fisherman's Arms, and really, there was no more to it.
Except that it wasn't true to say that. There had been more. Hadn't there? Certainly on his side.
Thinking about it, Susan found herself almost smiling, and then quickly frowned instead. It was inappropriate for a married woman, responsible for the welfare and happiness of two children, even to think about being found attractive by another man and one, moreover, several years her junior. The fact that she believed the attraction to have been genuine didn't make things better, it was still forbidden ground, and Annabel and Sebastian were only part of it. She didn't try to kid herself that Tom would care how she felt, even if she knew what that was, but she did think he might object if she had an affair, although he was having one himself, quite openly and brazenly. It wouldn't be because he loved her, it wouldn't even be because of his children, but because he liked his affluent lifestyle and would see it at risk. Whether she would mind his objections was immaterial, although the answer was probably not, sadly. If she made a move towards Carl, even so simple a move as to take him up on his offer to help her trace her natural father, it could open up a pit at her feet.
To understand why this was so meant trying to untangle some very black threads that made part of the pattern of Nankervis family life, a pattern which Susan had only now begun dimly to discern. Some of it was family folklore; Dorothy had been Jerry's girlfriend before he met Helen, or so she claimed. Jerry said something slightly different, when he said anything at all, but that was the foundation on which the family history appeared to be built, and Susan wasn't about to question it. It hardly mattered anyway. Jerry deserted Dorothy for Helen, and Dorothy married Henry Worthington, a man nearly three times her age. Oliver was born to Jerry and Helen, herself a couple of years later to Dorothy and the by that time late Henry. He had died, Susan was given to understand, from a heart attack due to executive stress, it was about the only thing about him of which she was sure. Jerry and Helen's marriage foundered, according to Dorothy under the strain of parenthood. Susan didn't absolutely believe that in the light of later events, although she didn't actually want to take the subject out of its dark corner and place it under a microscope. So, end of chapter one.
Chapter two was, of course, the subsequent marriage of Jerry and Dorothy, a union rendered hideous, as Susan well knew, by the bitter and intractable resentment of Oliver. He had turned family life into a battleground where the fighting was both bitter and bloody, and between him and his stepmother had grown a deep and abiding dislike that Dorothy tried to hide, but Oliver seemed to glory in. Thankfully, he had left home at the earliest opportunity, gone first to university, then on to become a delivery skipper, a job which took him right out of the country for a large part of the time, and thank God for that. Whether it was solely his behaviour that had turned the marriage sour, who could tell by this time? The one thing Susan was fairly certain about was that the birth of Debbie had been the last really good moment for any of them. Jerry, although a loving father, had been less and less a companion to her mother; the only thing cementing them all together, Susan had often thought, was the pretty little blonde girl who was the only point that they all had in common. But Debbie had, in the end, been the one to knock the wheels off the wagon and bring the family grinding to a halt. So, on to chapter three.
With a heedlessness worthy of Oliver at his worst, Debbie had given up a good job and a swinging social life in London and taken off down to Cornwall to help some old friends start up a sailing school. The venture had foundered from a combination of internal dissent and inexperience, but as a direct result of the experiment Debbie had met, and subsequently married just three weeks ago, Mawgan Angwin. Leading on, as inexorably as night leads to day, to chapter four. The big picture, the great uncertainty, the monster question mark.
Mawgan, on paper at least, was a disaster, not least to a woman such as Dorothy who set such ridiculous store by social position. A native Cornishman, born on a fairly rough council estate, reared alongside a builders' yard, apprenticed to the trade at sixteen, he spoke not with the requisite cut-glass upper-class accent, but with a regional accent rich as Cornish cream. He had received a brief, inglorious State education, and to crown this huge pile of social sins, he had also been to prison. Dorothy's detractors, and Susan was beginning to discover she had more than a few, had laughed themselves sick, and an attempt to bring the errant Debbie into line by threatening to disown her had merely ended in disaster for Dorothy herself, for Jerry had packed his bags and left, apparently thankful for the excuse, gathered up his family and regrouped on the other side of a chasm.
His family ... one of which Susan had never felt herself to be a true part.
The point about Mawgan, which Susan appreciated for she liked her new brother-in-law, was that off paper, he was a totally different proposition, something which Debbie had been quick to see and which Dorothy had never even bothered to discover. All those things were true, of course, but the coin had another side. Bright, ambitious and talented, he had turned his back on the family building firm - he was the only son in the third generation so this hadn't gone down well - and branched out as a chef. He had worked for some years on the continent, gradually rising through the profession, speaking both French and Italian fluently and earning a Michelin star along the way, and had returned to England six years ago to look for a restaurant of his own. Luck had been with him then, he had been part of a syndicate that had won a modest, but still useful amount on the Pools, and had entered into a partnership with one of the other winners to buy the Fisherman's Arms at St. Erbyn on the Helford River, together with its adjoining restaurant. The tragic - and in Jerry's opinion, accidental - death of his brother-in-law had resulted in a conviction for manslaughter, his partner had walked, and by devious means he had managed to raise the money to buy him out. Now, he owned the whole complex, pub and restaurant, which made Debbie, for the first time in history, an inexorably fixed point in the universe.
It was a bit, Susan reflected now, like planting a flag on a salient point, the fragmented and dysfunctional Nankervis family had rallied like an invading army. First Oliver and Chel, looking for somewhere with a studio in which Oliver could paint, had bought a house on a tiny creek just below the village, led thereto by Debbie. Chel now consolidated the position by managing the Fish for Mawgan, who had been forced into buying it but never really wanted it. Oliver and Mawgan, after a brief period when they couldn't seem to find the key to each other, had ended up with the kind of uncritical, easy-going close friendship that is rare, and in Oliver's case at least, unprecedented. Oliver's godmother Anona Fingall, now Anona Theodorakis, reappearing unexpectedly in his life after a gap that had lasted since the dissolution of Jerry's first marriage, had moved into the family like a long-lost favourite aunt. Jerry, trying to make some sense of Debbie's affairs, had inexplicably brought his ex-wife Helen back into the circle: she and Nonie Fingall had been close friends in the past, seemed to have buried their differences and were well on the way to being close friends again, and Susan didn't like to consider what might have been the cause of the rift in the first place. That, she suspected, probably formed some kind of prologue. There was suddenly a real family circle forming down there in Cornwall; Susan's children loved going there, gloried in the new atmosphere, were changed somehow as soon as they crossed the Tamar.
But, and it was a big but, there seemed no place there for Susan herself. There had never, she thought miserably in the small hours of the long nights, been a place for her anywhere, even her mother had seemed to prefer Debbie, or even Oliver, because they were Jerry's children, and although she knew that they would all always be kind to her, she did not want to be anywhere on sufferance. Which brought her to Carl.
Carl was Debbie's business partner - one of them, at least. That was the big problem. Debbie had picked up the pieces of the abandoned sailing school and begun glueing them together with the help of her friend and erstwhile fellow-instructor, Roger Hickling, and Roger's friend - Carl. They were satellite moons to the family sun, very much part of life in Cornwall. Carl, in fact, like Mawgan, was a Cornishman, albeit a university-educated one. He was a writer who lived on his yacht, a qualified yachtmaster instructor, and a kingpin of the business. To encourage Carl, Susan dimly discerned, might be taken to be pushing herself in, and anyway, he had to be three or four years younger than she was and probably wouldn't want to take on another man's children. They had only met once. She could - she must - walk away, and keep walking. To even allow herself to dream otherwise was to deceive herself. There was no way open to her that led west.
The thought led to another one; did she want there to be? Would she seriously contemplate the idea of walking away from her, admittedly loveless, marriage, condemning her children to live in a broken home with all that this implied, knocking the one remaining foundation stone from beneath her mother's tottering fašade? How much did she really owe to any of them, to Annabel and Sebastian, to her mother, to Tom? Her whole life, her happiness? Was she over-reacting even to think this way?
The truth was that Susan didn't know. Accustomed all her life to knowing exactly what should be done and how to do it, she now found herself adrift on an unknown sea without a compass. All the stars were blotted out, the maps had proved to be misleading. The resulting insecurity was shattering. The simple discovery that her husband cared mainly for her money had knocked the foundation stone, not from beneath her mother but from beneath herself. With it had gone everything, the whole carefully built edifice that comprised her idea of herself. The pieces were still rolling, away into the dark corners. She wasn't yet sure if the disaster had let in sunlight or chaos. She had nobody to turn to; her mother would advocate - had already advocated - turning a blind eye to Tom's affair and behaving like a lady, she had somehow built herself up in the estimation of her friends as calm and efficient, unflappable, she had alienated her stepbrother and his wife, she was uncertain of her ground with Debbie, she feared to hurt or even lose her adoptive father, if he wasn't already lost. Only one person had, for a brief moment of time, made her feel that he understood; Carl Colenso.
Don't go there.
Somewhere deep in the dark, sleeping house a clock struck three. Susan rolled over onto her back and stared up in the direction of the unseen ceiling; beside her, Tom stirred in his sleep and sighed, gave a gentle, snorting snore and fell silent again. She reached out under the duvet and touched his back, warm under her fingers, but he didn't move and she withdrew it again. What did she feel about Tom, she wondered? Up until Elaine, she had taken the fact that she loved him for granted, but that certainty, like so many others, had collapsed and fallen into dust, leaving behind it a bleeding hole that ached and stung and gave her no rest. Her whole life had been built on the assumption of his love for her and hers for him, the whole foundation of their children's existence rested on it. How could any of them continue on this road if the ground was crumbling beneath their feet?
You couldn't, ever, take love for granted; she wasn't even sure now that she had any real idea of what it was. Just because someone was your husband, your adoptive father, your brother or sister didn't automatically mean that they loved you. Love had to be earned, and it was beginning to look as if she had done nothing to earn it from any of them.
Three o'clock in the morning is the very worst time for thinking - as also, she knew from experience, were eleven o'clock, midnight, one, two... four, five... her sleep patterns appeared to have collapsed with everything else. Her whole body was beginning to ache with the need for sleep and the effort not to toss and turn and wake Tom, perhaps it would be better if she went downstairs and made herself a hot drink. If nothing else, it would help to pass this endless night.
The kitchen was warm. She switched on the hob light above the big Aga, but made no attempt to make herself a drink, simply sitting in a chair at the kitchen table and resting her face in her hands, elbows on the hard wood. A wave of misery engulfed her, if it wouldn't be pointless and weak she would have wept. A single tear did try to squeeze out, running hot down her cheek. She wiped it away with a finger. She had never known that the break-up of a marriage was so humiliating; she had always taken the pragmatic view that if one party or other wanted out, then divorce was the sensible option. Probably it was, but that didn't make it easy.
Divorce.... She sat alone at the empty table and contemplated it.
The trouble was that it nearly always was a case of one party wanting it. If things had stayed the same, or even if they could be repaired, it wasn't something that she herself wanted - she thought it wasn't. She loved their home, enjoyed their lifestyle, had thought up until quite recently that Tom did too, that they were happy. The children needed them both, they had a good, if conventional, life, the four of them. She couldn't see beyond it.
The thought drifted into her mind and lodged there; Tom hadn't said he wanted a divorce. He had simply said that he didn't find her a satisfying sexual partner, that she was too fat and getting on a bit, he no longer found her attractive and he was happy to go elsewhere for his needs. She could go on being his wife, that was fine by him, she was a good hostess and the children mustn't be hurt, after all. He hadn't put it exactly like that, of course, but that was what it came down to.
Susan felt sick. Apart from Carl Colenso, who had somehow sneaked up on her blind side, she couldn't imagine ever telling anyone that. Had he listened to himself, or was he so self-absorbed that he thought it was a normal thing to say? And she wasn't fat, it was just the way she was built, and what could she do about that? It had simply been an excuse to set her aside. She couldn't, either, do anything about the fact that Elaine was twenty-two and slim as a reed, whereas she was thirty and had borne two children. His children.
Perhaps she could think, find a way through it, if only she could sleep for once. She let her arms drop, and her head fall onto them. A blessed numbness began to creep over her.
The door creaked open, and a head came round it.
Susan sat up with a jerk as her daughter slipped into the room.
'Annabel! What on earth are you doing up at this hour?'
Annabel came over and snuggled into her side.
'Daddy woke me up when he came in, and I couldn't get back to sleep. He was awfully late, wasn't he? Did he wake you up too?'
'Something like that.' Susan put her arm around Annabel and cuddled her close. There was a few minutes silence, which Annabel broke.
'Are you all right, Mummy?'
Susan managed a laugh.
'Of course I am.'
'Only, I thought when I came in, you were crying.' Annabel hesitated, and Susan remembered, with a deep jab of pain, that her daughter had been an unseen witness to some of that horrid scene with Tom. She kissed her on top of her head.
'Silly Annabel,' she said. 'I tell you what, shall we make ourselves some hot milk and drink it by the stove here? And then, back up to bed. It'll help us sleep.' She got to her feet and Annabel slipped onto the chair in her place, watching as she took milk from the fridge and found a pan.
'Maria uses that one for milk,' said Annabel, pointing. 'Wait, I'll get it - ' She jumped up and ran across the room. Their hands touched as the exchange took place, but Annabel didn't meet her mother's eyes. She looked down at the saucepan in her hands. 'Mummy, does Daddy love us?'
'Of course he does,' said Susan, briskly. She poured the milk into the new pan and set it on the hotplate. 'Fetch us some mugs out of that cupboard. Do you want honey in it?'
'Yes please,' said Annabel, automatically, but continued inexorably. 'Only, he doesn't want to be with us any more, does he? He didn't even want to come to Auntie Debbie and Mawgan's wedding, did he?'
' He had work he should have been doing,' said Susan, her eyes fixed on the pan. 'It wasn't about you and Sebastian. Come on, hurry up with those mugs - this is just hot enough.'
Annabel brought the mugs obediently, but she still hadn't finished.
'It isn't very nice here now,' she said. 'Everybody's gone. Grandpa and Uncle Oliver and Auntie Debbie, there's only us and Grandma -oh, and Grannie and Grandad, but they're different. Couldn't we - '
'Hold the mugs steady,' said Susan, quickly, and poured. 'Here - get a spoon for the honey.'
They sat at the table and sipped at the milk. Susan wondered how much, if anything, it would be wise to tell Annabel, and decided that for the moment it was a case of least said, soonest mended, she was only nine after all. She answered carefully, for answer there had to be.
'Life's like that, Annabel, it doesn't always stay the same. Auntie Debbie's married now, it was bound to change things. And Grandpa is still here, he just doesn't live with Grandma.' Her voice tailed off. Annabel said,
'Who is that lady, Helen? Is she Grandpa's girlfriend? She looks like Uncle Oliver, a bit.'
'That's because she's his mother,' said Susan. Annabel's eyes widened, at nine years old you tend to take a lot for granted, some of the finer points of family history had gone past her.
'But Grandma says divorce is against the church,'she pointed out. 'Or weren't she and Daddy married?' Right on the ball, Annabel, she didn't miss a trick. Susan said,
'Yes, they were married. These things don't always work out.'
Annabel digested this in silence for a minute.
'She's nice,' she ventured, after a while.
'Yes, she is,' said Susan. There was a pause. Annabel sipped her milk and said nothing, and eventually, Susan said, 'It'll be fine Annabel. Just give things time. It'll all settle down.'
'Will it?' asked Annabel, doubtfully.
'Yes, it will. Now finish that milk and we'll go back to bed, shall we? Come on, I'll tuck you in. You'll sleep now.'
Annabel followed her to the door, trailing her feet.
'Sebby cries at nights,' she said.
'Yes, I know. Maria told me.'
'He thinks Daddy is going to leave us. His friend Paul at school's Daddy left, and Paul's had to go to a different school, and they've had to move into a horrible little flat where they couldn't even keep the dog.'
Susan paused, suddenly aware of an absence in the kitchen.
'That's a thought. Where is Clinker? He's usually all around our feet.'
Annabel went pink. Susan gave her a perceptive look.
'I see. Well, we won't make a big thing of it. Come on - bed.'
She tucked Annabel into bed, and went quietly along the passage to Sebastian's room. The big black labrador lifted his head from the duvet and thumped his tail as she came in, but didn't move from her son's feet. She stroked his head gently, and looked down at the sleeping little boy.
'Don't you worry, Seb,' she whispered. 'I won't let anything bad happen, I promise.'
And how, she asked herself, as she rolled into her own rumpled bed, do you keep a promise like that?
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