Stormclouds

Chapter I


It was raining, sleet mixed in with the drops making splodges on the windscreen that the wipers swept away, only to have them immediately replaced. Under the wheels, the wet road hissed. It was a dismal day, and Susan felt perfectly in tune with it.

She shouldn’t be feeling like this, she told herself, firmly. She was going to visit her mother, whom in spite of everything she still probably cared about, she was going to collect her children from her soon-to-be-ex husband’s rather nominal charge, she was going to take them down to Cornwall to start a new life, and the fact that it would be without their father was sad, but inevitable. What he had so nearly accomplished, pursuing his own interests with such selfish dedication, made her feel physically ill if she thought about it, it had been such a close call. No, life with Tom had run its course; he no longer cared about her, even if he had once. There were better fish in the sea.

That, of course, was the main reason for her unseasonal depression. She had just spent four wonderful days with Carl, whom thanks to Tom and his two-faced deceitfulness she had so very nearly lost altogether, but when she returned home with the children he would be back living on his boat which, although moored to a buoy lying only just offshore at the foot of her garden, might as well be on the moon. The children hardly knew him; she could not, would not, do anything to upset the delicate balance of their readjustment. Acknowledgement of the growing new relationship must wait until Annabel and Sebastian were ready. What their father had done was enough to be going on with.

If they knew about that.

Tom had promised that while the children stayed with his parents he would not, on any account, allow them to know that he was planning to marry again so soon after parting from their mother. He wouldn’t make them meet Lorraine, wouldn’t talk about her, he would let them get used to the new situation gradually. The trouble was, with Tom also living in his parents’ home for now, Susan didn’t trust him. She thought he had totally failed to understand what damage their breaking marriage had done to their children: away from her influence he was quite likely to think that it would do no harm for them to - not know the truth, exactly, but to have some idea that things were going to change.

Annabel and Sebastian, Susan considered, had seen enough marital complications to last for a while. It wasn’t only the disruption of their own home: less than a year before they had seen the same thing happen in their grandparents’ home, when her own father had walked out on her mother - for good reasons, yes, but how could you explain that to children? Sebastian was only eight, for heaven’s sake! He could never in a million years begin to understand that his beloved Auntie Debbie’s choice of a husband had caused her disinheritance and dismissal from Grandma’s life and heart, her banishment from what had once been the family home - so Victorian, and quite unnecessary in Susan’s view. And if he did understand, if Annabel understood, it would only make things worse; their new Uncle Mawgan was a favourite with them. They hadn’t yet learned, and Susan hoped they never would learn, about out-dated class distinctions.

If only that was where it ended - or even began, Susan thought drearily, as she negotiated the early-morning streets of Axminster. But her stepbrother Oliver and his wife had been equally excluded from the family, although in their case as much from their own choice as from her mother’s interference, and she herself, with her impending divorce, was hardly flavour of the month either just now. Which last, Susan considered hypocritical when Dot Nankervis was herself legally separated, and Jerry had been divorced too when she married him.

If she was honest, Susan couldn’t see why her father - her adoptive father, she reminded herself, for her mother was a widow when she married Jerry Nankervis, and she herself had only very recently traced her natural father’s family - but why her father of whatever kind hadn’t divorced her mother, and long ago. It was a mystery, they hadn’t got on for as far back as Susan could remember, leading largely separate lives and certainly having widely differing interests and values. Up until recently, Susan hadn’t considered this particularly, it was just the way things were. Events within her own personal life, however, had recently given her a new perspective. They had, to a degree, altered relationships throughout the family unit, bringing her closer to stepbrother and half-sister, and by association, further from her mother. She couldn’t now believe how blind and complacent she had allowed herself to be, how much she had allowed Dot’s opinions to dictate her own. She was beginning to suspect the presence of secrets that hadn’t even interested her in the past.

Such as, it was obvious now that Jerry had never ceased to love his first wife, Helen, Oliver’s beautiful mother, nor she to love him. When added to the fact that he had been married to Dot for more than a quarter of a century, the inferences were bound to make you think a bit. And other questions immediately raised their ugly heads.

Such as, why had Oliver’s pleasant and talented godmother, Nonie Theodorakis, otherwise the highly regarded portrait painter Anona Fingall, been so totally excluded from his life for so many years?

Such as, why had Oliver been allowed to grow up, not so much disliking, as totally repudiating his own natural mother?

Such as, how had her own father’s family been side-lined so thoroughly that she had never even known of their existence until six months ago?

Who was her mother? How had she become that person?

And more pertinent, could she ever be brought to see the damage that she was doing to herself and others, and made to change her attitudes? Because if she did not, Susan was well aware, she would condemn herself to a very lonely life, and there were not many among those who should be close to her who would even care very much. Debbie, maybe. Herself. But not Jerry, not Oliver, not Chel nor Mawgan. Certainly not Helen and Nonie, with whom she had once, presumably, been friends. Not the Worthingtons, her own natural father’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren from his first marriage. If Debbie and Mawgan had children, as they surely would, she would never see them, never cuddle them or know them or have the chance to grow to love them. Even Annabel and Sebastian, if they didn’t see their Grandma, wouldn’t love her in the same way; children had short memories at their ages. And they wouldn’t see her all that often, for she would never come to Cornwall. The presence of Mawgan would keep her away, and although Susan was one of only three people besides the protagonists themselves who knew what he had done to her mother, she knew too how he had been provoked to it. Dot had offered him a substantial sum of money to ditch Debbie almost at the altar, and he had turned her unforgivable behaviour into a weapon, and blackmailed her into attending the wedding when she had sworn she never would, and to resuming contact - of a sort - with her errant daughter. Debbie didn’t know; if Susan had anything to say to it, she never would. She didn’t think Jerry would tell her either, or Helen, and Mawgan, certainly not. But the knowledge was there, a shadow at the back of Susan’s mind as she drove.

There were some secrets, she thought as she drove through Charmouth, that she wished she didn’t know.

Now she was up on the hump of the Dorset downland, the bulk of the journey behind her. She glanced at the clock on the dashboard; nine o’clock, near enough. She had only had a cup of coffee and a slice of toast before leaving St. Erbyn, she might just stop and have breakfast somewhere.

Dot would give her breakfast. More toast, crisp and brown from the top of the Aga, cereal, fruit and delicious fresh coffee. But, I fancy bacon and egg, Susan thought rebelliously, and did not think also that it would put off the time of her arrival.

It wasn’t that she didn’t love her mother, she told herself, love didn’t die as easily as that. It was simply that Dot had worked so hard recently to make herself unloveable.

A pub appeared on her left, it had a sign outside saying FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST, and without further argument with herself, she pulled into the car park. Switching off the engine, she reached for her mobile phone and brought up the number she wanted. She heard it ringing, and then abruptly stop.

‘Colenso.’

‘Carl - it’s me.’

‘Susie!’ He was the only person who called her that - had ever called her that, come to think. ‘Where are you? Have you got to Embridge already? You made good time.’

‘I’m somewhere around Bridport. I stopped for breakfast.’ She paused. ‘I feel a bit... bleak, actually. Missing you like hell.’

‘Yeah, know how you feel.’

‘Do you still love me?’

‘You betcha.’

It had been five o’clock in the morning when they had dragged themselves reluctantly from each other’s arms and from the warm double bed, to the sound of rain hitting the windows and wind in the creek, like tears and sighs for their parting. Swiftly, as they drank their coffee, they had cleared away every trace of his ever having been in the house, kissed passionately at the kitchen door, and she had watched him, running through the rain to the top of the steps leading to the creek. Going. When would he be able to return? Susan said, uncertainly,

‘Maybe it won’t be for too long. And you don’t have to stay out of sight, that’s one thing. You can make friends. In fact, you must.’

‘One step at a time,’ said Carl.

‘Yes - one step at a time.’ Her heart swelled, painfully. ‘How did I get to love you so much? I never meant to be an unfaithful wife.’

‘I don’t think you exactly were.’

‘Two wrongs don’t make a right.’

It was an old dilemma, probably as old as the human race. Carl didn’t make the mistake of trying to resolve it. He said,

‘I love you. I’m not planning to stop. Take it day by day, Susie, if it’s worth having, it’s worth waiting for.’

‘Yes.’ She paused. ‘Well... goodbye then. I just wanted to hear your voice.’

‘I’m glad you did. Me too.’

She switched off the mobile and sat for a moment or two with it lying in her lap, cupped in her two hands as if it was precious. Her link to Carl. Her lifeline.

‘Fool!’ said Susan to herself, fiercely, and pushed it into her bag.

The phone call, the treat of a cooked breakfast, and a pleasant chat with the landlord while she ate by the fire in the otherwise empty bar, made her feel insensibly better. There were not many tourists around on a sleety winter’s day only five days short of Christmas. The lights on the tree in the corner seemed to twinkle only for her. A little cheered, she paid her bill and went back to her waiting Range Rover and the road that led to Embridge.

*

Dot had coffee ready. This isn’t to say that she had actually made it herself, "the girl" had done that. It was unfortunate, Susan thought, that this information, handed to her with a peck on the cheek of greeting, should have reminded her of yet another grievance against her mother. Up until this summer, she had been the envied possessor of what had to be the World’s Best Au Pair, a delightful Polish girl whom her children had loved, and by whom they had been warmly loved in return. On hearing her unfamiliar Polish name, Dot had said firmly that the children would never get their tongues round that. It was, she had told them, smiling broadly, something between a cat’s miow and an exclamation. "Call her Maria," she had decreed, and so they had. It now seemed to Susan incredibly arrogant, and she wondered, as she hadn’t at the time, what Maria had nade of it. She had come very close, she now remembered, to making a real friend of Maria, but the girl had left prematurely, thanks to an unjust dismissal by Tom, blaming her for his own shortcomings and looking for a scapegoat.

Now she was doing it. Maria had left prematurely. Susan wished she could remember her real name. All she could think was that it must have begun with M.

‘Come into the drawing room, and sit down, you must be tired,’ Dot was saying, solicitously. ‘I’ll just tell the girl to bring the coffee through.’ No offer of breakfast. Presumably, after nine o’clock, breakfast was finished. Thank God for the pub!

Susan had been sitting down for the last four hours. Left temporarily on her own in the immaculate, elegant room, she wandered about restlessly, unable to feel at home. She wasn’t on good terms with her mother at present, both because of her impending divorce, and because of her belated discovery of her father’s family, that had been deliberately hidden from her, and by guess who? She almost wished that she wasn’t here.

Her life - and herself - had changed so dramatically in the last year that she no longer felt she belonged here, she realised. She had discovered a whole new family, she had been shocked to the core by the discovery of the depth of her children’s insecurity, she had taken issue with her husband over his all-too-public infidelity, she had fallen deeply, and she thought irrecovably, in love with a man younger than herself, and was triumphantly loved in return. She had made the life-changing decision to have a career, to become an archaeologist, she had begun to study to that end, and she had bought a house in Cornwall, near the half-sister and stepbrother whom she had thought despised her, and found herself welcomed instead. She was a totally different woman to the one who had come here last Christmas. Her mother, however, was unchanged.

How would that work out? Susan didn’t know.

She wished she hadn’t thought about last Christmas. It had been totally miserable, Grandpa and Auntie Debbie gone; only herself, Tom, the children, and a lonely grandmother who refused to admit to loneliness. She was resolved that this one should be different, but she had yet to convince Dot. She had mentioned, of course, that she planned Christmas in Cornwall, in the new house - but she didn’t think that Dot had listened.

In this, she was to be proved right.

‘Now, isn’t this cosy?’ Dot said, as they settled down over the coffee cups. She smiled at her daughter, nodding her head. ‘I shall have lunch ready when you collect the children from school, and then you can leave them with me while you go back to Sally and Irwin’s and load up the car.’ Sally and Irwin were Tom’s parents, with whom the children had been staying while Susan got the house in St. Erbyn ready for them all. Dot ended triumphantly, ‘Then you can have a cup of tea, and be off.’

‘Actually,’ said Susan, with apology, ‘I was planning to load their stuff this morning, and get off straight away. I want to be home before dark, if I can, with this weather.’

Dot said, ‘The children must have lunch, and it’s all prepared, it only needs cooking. You can have it early.’

‘I was planning sandwiches on the way,’ said Susan. They were in the car, all ready.

‘Sandwiches aren’t enough for growing children!’ Dot paused. Susan thought her eyes glittered, although not, she suspected, with disappointment. More calculation. ‘As a matter of fact,’ Dot said, ‘I don’t know why you have to take them all that way at all, when you’ll only have to come all the way back in a couple of days.’

‘Come back? Why?’

‘Oh Susan! For Christmas, of course.’

‘Mother, we’re having Christmas in the new house,’ Susan told her. She added, to make things quite clear, ‘in St. Erbyn.’

‘But you always come home for Christmas!’ cried Dot.

‘Our home is in Cornwall now.’

Dot tried a new tack.

‘The children should be with their father at Christmas.’

‘Oh yes? Are you suggesting I should be with him, too?’

‘I thought I’d invite him here, and his parents too. Have a real family party.’

‘You could do that,’ said Susan, encouragingly. ‘It would give you company on the day. But the children want to be with their Grandpa this year, and with Oliver and Debbie. They didn’t see them at all last Christmas.’

‘Well, I think you’re very selfish,’ said Dot. ‘You can all see them any time you want. I’m all on my own now.’ Unfortunately, it sounded more like a challenge than a plea for sympathy. Susan took a deep breath. She said, ‘You’re always welcome in my house. Come to Cornwall for Christmas. You can see Jerry, we can all pretend that nothing’s happened.’

Dot didn’t approve of Susan’s new habit of referring to Daddy as "Jerry", any more than she liked being called "Mother" herself. Useless to say so, as she already knew. She drew a deep breath; normally she would have slapped Susan down without a second thought for that piece of impertinence, but she knew that she had left herself wide open, and these days, in any case, she felt that she no longer understood her elder daughter. Susan was becoming alarmingly like poor Henry, far too intelligent and set on having her own way, however quietly achieved. She knew that she was losing this battle, losing too, if she wasn’t careful, her beloved grandchildren. Unused to being on the losing side, she had no idea what to say, and let the breath go, slowly. Susan saw her dilemma, and took pity on her. It would make them late, but she saw that it had to be done.

‘I tell you what,’ she said. ‘I’ll go and load up the car when I’ve finished my coffee, and collect the children from school and bring them back here. We’ll all have lunch together before we leave, but Mother, can you have it all ready? I don’t want to be late. Please. We’ve a lot to do when we get home.’

‘And you’ll come back for Christmas,’ stated Dot, but Susan shook her head.

‘No. We’re having Christmas with the family.’

‘Aren’t I - aren’t we - your family?’ asked Dot, with unexpected feeling.

‘You are,’ said Susan, as gently as she could. ‘Sally and Irwin will come to Cornwall any time they want. But Tom ... I don’t want to see Tom.’

‘And what about his children?’ Dot demanded. ‘Those poor little things! They’ll want to see their Daddy at Christmas.’

‘They’ve been seeing him all this week,’ said Susan, briskly. ‘It’s my turn now.’

‘And are you planning to incarcerate them in the West Country for ever?’

‘No, of course not. They’ll come and stay with him. And with you.’

‘But you won’t,’ said Dot, shrewdly.

‘I expect I shall stay with Joanna and Ian,’ Susan replied distantly. Joanna was her great friend. Dot said nothing for a few minutes, then, ‘You should let them live with Tom in the term-time. Then they wouldn’t lose all their friends. I know Annabel is very upset at losing her little friend Annie, and the schools here are so good.’

Sebastian, Susan knew, hated the preparatory school both children attended; would hate it even more when Annabel moved on, as she very soon would, to boarding school. She said,

‘They’ll make new friends. In fact, they already have, and Annie is coming to stay at Easter. And it would do them no good to divide their lives into two parts. It has to be a complete break.’

‘You really have a down on poor Tom, don’t you?’ said Dot, smiling.

‘Are you surprised?’

‘What surprises me is that you were surprised. Men aren’t faithful, Susan. If you expect it, you will never have a happy marriage.’

‘I don’t intend to try marriage again,’ said Susan.

‘So you say now.’

‘And I mean it. Like you say, I probably expected too much of it.’

‘You have to give a little, not be so inflexible.’

‘Listen,’ said Susan, on a quick stab of anger. ‘Nobody has to put up with infidelity just because their husband is a man! Tom agreed to try to make our marriage work, he agreed to make an effort for the children. And while I - not he - gave up any chance I might have of being happy somewhere else and really tried to make a go of it, he was asking some other woman to marry him as soon as he divorced me.’

‘But you had no chance, as you put it. I’m not condoning his behaviour, but it was different for Tom, he had met Lorraine. And be honest, you had already given up loving him. You say yourself you don’t want to marry again, so you mustn’t blame him so much, he’s only human.’

‘Oh, really,’ said Susan, with bitterness. ‘If I was prepared to put the children first, couldn’t their wonderful father?’

‘I already said, it was different for you. And I understand it was you who asked for a divorce.’

Susan, who knew it hadn’t been different at all, but very much the reverse since when she and Tom had agreed to try to save their marriage she had already met Carl, and Tom had yet to meet Lorraine, had great difficulty in not saying so. She bit her lip, and to cover her indignation, took a sip of her cooling coffee. Tom had obviously been putting his side of the story. She hoped again that he had not also treated the children to his version.

Dot noticed nothing. She folded her hands in her lap.

‘I suppose, now you have the sole charge of the children, you’ll be giving up this silly idea of being an archaeologist.’

‘Why? They’re not babies.’

‘Oh Susan! They’ve lost their father, they need their mother. Don’t be so self-centred!’

‘They haven’t lost their father. And they have not only me, but their new friends, two aunts, two uncles, and all the staff at Deb’s sailing school. Believe me, they won’t have a chance to feel neglected.’

‘You can’t leave Deborah and Cheryl to bring up your children! They have lives of their own.’

‘And I’m entitled to a life of my own, too. So far, I don’t seem to have had one.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous! You married, had a lovely home, children - ’

‘I think,’ said Susan, ‘that there is more to living than just marriage and children and running a home. And I’m not that good at running a home anyway.’

Dot shuddered. ‘Those poor children! Are they going to live in a tip, then?’

‘Very probably.’ Susan got to her feet. ‘But at least it will be a happy tip, and believe me, they won’t be neglected, as you seem to think. Thank you for the coffee, I must go and load up if we’re having lunch here. And please, I really do need to be on my way before one if I can, and even that’s leaving it a bit late.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ said Dot, primly.

But she probably wouldn’t, Susan thought, as she climbed back into the Range Rover. She was making a point, and she would encourage the children to help her make it. Her spirits sank to a new low.

At her in-laws’ house, at least some attempt had been made to be helpful. The children’s clothes were all packed ready; their books and toys that they had kept with them, and Sebastian’s beloved computer, from which he had refused to be parted, were all stowed in boxes, together with an enticing assortment of wrapped parcels for Christmas. But here, too, there seemed an unspoken feeling that the divorce was somehow Susan’s fault, a distance between herself and Sally and Irwin that she thought she hadn’t deserved.

‘Of course, we’re sorry that it’s ended this way,’ said Sally. ‘We’re very fond of you, Susan, you know that.’

The word but hung unspoken in the air. Susan wondered exactly what Tom had been saying. She said, ‘Oh well...,’ and the meaningless words sounded, even to herself, to be an excuse for something.

‘Tom was always such a warm, loving boy,’ said Sally, but Susan couldn’t let this implication pass. She wasn’t cold, she knew that now. She said, dryly, ‘The trouble was that he was warm and loving to too many people.’

‘Oh come, Susan. If he needed that warmth...’ Sally broke off, poking with her foot at the gravel on the drive. ‘You can get counselling, you know,’ she said, awkwardly.

‘For what?’ asked Susan, crisply.

‘Oh... you know.’

‘No, I don’t. Tell me.’

Sally looked as if she wished she hadn’t started this.

‘Well ... if you’re a bit frigid ...’ she said, and Susan felt a sudden surge of fury; how dare Tom? She opened her mouth to make a sharp reply, and both of them were relieved when Irwin came out of the house with the computer box in his hands.

‘Where do you want this?’ He put it into the back of the car without waiting for an answer and turned, dusting his hands. ‘Well, that’s it then. We shall miss the kids, be sure and bring them back often.’

This was easier ground.

‘Of course I will,’ said Susan, but then Irwin spoiled it by clapping her on the shoulder and saying, ‘And no hard feelings. If you’re born an academic, that’s the way you are, eh? Pity you didn’t find out before, but there, these things happen.’

‘Look,’ said Susan, but then, looking at their kind, closed faces, gave up. Tom was their son, of course they needed to blame her and believe him. She said, ‘You must come to Cornwall and visit us. We can put you up, there’s loads of room, and it’s a lovely place.’ She was over-egging the pudding, she could see it in their eyes. ‘I’d better be off, then. Thank you for looking after the children while I got sorted out.’

Sally put her arms around her, with what felt suddenly like genuine warmth.

‘It’s been a pleasure. And we’d love to come and stay. Take care, Susan, the children will settle when they’ve had time. Happy Christmas!’

Susan drove away, seething. Bloody Tom! And what was all that about settle when they’ve had time? The last time she had seen them, they couldn’t wait to get to Cornwall.

And then she thought, suppose when they come, there we all are playing happy families with Carl, and didn’t know whether to giggle, or be sorry for what Tom’s parents, who had always been kind to her, might then deduce.

Frigid, indeed!

Huh!

By the time she arrived at the school, it was already midday, and the playground was seething with over-excited children breaking-up for the holidays, and with impatient parents loaded down with sports bags, paintings and books. Annabel and Sebastian, faces sullen, waited under the porch out of the rain, their bags in a heap at their feet. As soon as they saw her, Sebastian came running to fling his arms around her, his face breaking into smiles, but Annabel followed only slowly, trailing her feet and with her lower lip stuck out. Susan hugged her son to her with one arm, and reached her spare hand to her daughter.

‘So what’re you looking like a thundercloud for, sweetheart? We’re going to Cornwall, isn’t that great?’

Annabel ignored the outstretched hand. She looked at her shoes.

‘I don’t want to say goodbye. Goodbye is a horrid word.’

Amen to that!

‘Ah.’ Susan took her hand anyway, and squeezed it. ‘It isn’t for always. Annie’ll come and stay, remember. We’ve already asked her.’

‘But Daddy won’t,’ said Annabel, and her lip began to tremble.

‘Not to stay with us, no, at least, not for a while. But there’s nothing stopping him coming to see you and staying at the pub, or you going to see him.’

Annabel sniffed, with distressing juiciness.

‘There’s her.’

Out of the corner of her eye, Susan could see the head teacher approaching, and Annie flying towards them with her arms outstretched. This was a really bad time for the kind of discussion Annabel seemed about to implement.

‘Tell me about it in the car, sweetheart.’ She turned to greet Mrs. Hope. Annabel and Sebastian ran off with Annie, and she was able to talk for a while with the teacher. The children were sorry to be leaving, she was told, but they would soon settle down - that phrase again. Sebastian had never really integrated, he might be happier in a smaller school. Even Annabel had been upset towards the end of the term, her work had been below standard and her behaviour confrontational, but once they were all in the new home -

‘ - she’ll settle down,’ said Susan, and sighed. ‘It isn’t going to be easy, Mrs. Hope, but I think it will be all right. They love their aunt and uncle, and there’s loads to do to take their minds off the break-up. I’m sure it will all be fine.’

‘I wish you all every happiness,’ said Mrs. Hope. ‘Let me know how it goes, won’t you? They’re nice children, we’re all sorry to lose them.’ They shook hands. Susan walked away, back to the car. Sebastian was standing beside it, and now it was his lip that was trembling.

‘Clink isn’t here.’ Clinker was the family dog, a stupid, loving black labrador who was Sebastian’s great friend.

‘He’s with Auntie Debbie for the day,’ said Susan. ‘You know how he hates travelling. He’ll be waiting when we get home.’

‘I wanted him now.’

Susan looked pointedly at the stack of things in the back of the car, and piled on the front passenger seat and in the footwell.

‘Poor Clinker, he’d be awfully squashed! He’d have to sit in the box with your computer.’

That made Sebastian smile, and Susan opened the door.

‘In you hop. Lunch at Grandma’s, and then off we go to Cornwall.’

‘And Clink.’

‘Yes, and Clinker.’

Annabel came over with her friend Annie and her mother. Annie’s mother had gone through a divorce as well, and knew the territory. She greeted Susan with a sympathetic smile.

‘Oh, my dear, how I feel for you! What an upheaval! Are you all right?’

‘I’m fine,’ said Susan. ‘Glad to be out of it, actually.’ She made a rueful face, and Annie’s mother nodded.

‘I know what you mean. It’s a wrench in a way, but it has to be done. I’m sure it’ll be all right when you all settle down.’

That phrase for the third time. Annabel, scrambling into the car beside Sebastian, was busy talking to Annie and, Susan hoped, wasn’t listening. She shrugged her shoulders.

‘It was the best thing. Life here had somehow come to a full stop.’

‘I envy you, I really do. Annie and I are so looking forward to Easter, Cornwall is such a lovely county. And you have family there.’

There was no point in spinning out the scene. Susan shut the door firmly on Annabel, who promptly wound the window down for a last word with her friend, and climbed into the driving seat. Waving goodbye, they drove away.

‘Wind up the window, Annabel, before we all freeze’ said Susan, quietly. ‘Now tell me, who is this her who seems to have upset you so much?’

‘She’s a friend of Daddy’s,’ said Sebastian, immediately. Annabel said nothing, concentrating on the window.

‘I asked Annabel, Sebby. Annabel?’

‘She came round one evening,’ Annabel mumbled. ‘I don’t think Daddy wanted her there, he was cross. But he likes her, I could see.’

So it was Lorraine, not Tom, who had blown the gaff. Susan supposed that was slightly better in one way, but she was angry just the same.

‘What did she want?’ she asked, as if carelessly.

‘She wanted to give him some stupid paper,’ said Sebastian. He began to hum. School was already a fading memory, his head was full of Cornwall, Clinker, and Auntie Debbie’s business partner, Roger Hickling, who was teaching him to sail and whom he hero-worshipped.

‘It was an excuse,’ said Annabel, so quietly that Susan hardly heard her. ‘Really, she wanted to see us, and let us know.’

‘Know what?’

Annabel burst into tears. Susan pulled into the side of the road and turned in her seat, offering a tissue.

‘Come on Annabel, cheer up. Daddy’s allowed friends, surely.’

‘She was all over him like a - a rug!’ said Annabel. Sebastian said, with unintentional - maybe - sarcasm,

‘Oh, your dear children!’ He scowled. ‘As if we were babies, when I can sail a boat really well! Anyway, how does she know we’re dear? We might be horrible!’

‘Life’s a bugger, isn’t it?’ said Susan. She smiled, and Annabel smiled back, even if the smile was slightly wobbly.

‘You swore, Mummy.’

‘Did I? I expect it’s the way I feel. Listen sweetheart, life is going to change. That doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be good - maybe even better than before. You just have to wait and see and try not to mind too much. I know it’s hard.’

‘Daddy’s ours,’ said Annabel, in a very small voice.

‘You can’t own people, sweetie. They belong to themselves. And Daddy will always love you like he always has.’

Annabel muttered darkly,

‘Not if she has anything to do with it, he won’t.’

Oh dear, Lorraine, you have put your foot in it! If it hadn’t upset Annabel so much, Susan would have been tempted to smile. Instead, she said,

‘Daddy won’t let her take him over, believe me. Now let’s see a proper smile, and we’ll go and have lunch with Grandma, and then we’re on our way.’

As she pulled out into the traffic again, she hoped that her mother would have lunch ready as she had promised; the sleet was showing signs of becoming real snow now, and she didn’t fancy crossing either Dartmoor or Bodmin Moor in the dark with snow falling. But of course, Dot hadn’t; she greeted them warmly and then said,

‘We’re just waiting for the pototoes. They won’t be more than twenty minutes, just to go crisp in the oven.’ She twinkled at the children. ‘Roast potatoes. Your favourite!’

‘Yum,’ said Sebastian, and Annabel said, ‘I’m not hungry.’

‘Oh Mother, I did tell you we needed to get off!’ said Susan, exasperated. Dot took no notice of any of them.

‘Come into the drawing room and warm yourselves by the fire. You must all be frozen.’ She bustled through the door and made a business of putting a fresh log on the hearth. ‘This awful weather! Are you sure you wouldn’t be wiser to stay the night, Susan darling? It may be better in the morning.’

Yes, and we may be snowed right up. Susan said, ‘No, we’ll get on our way as soon as we can. We can always stop somewhere on the road if it gets bad.’

‘Your sister thought that, and look what happened to her!’ said Dot, with more than a hint of malice.

‘Yes, well, it’s hardly likely to happen to me. For one thing, I’ve got more sense, and for another, I’ve got a four-wheel drive. Anyway, she did stop.’

‘Yes - when she ran into a snowdrift! And look where that got her!’

This was a reference to the way in which Debbie had met Mawgan, her husband. The drift had been outside a cottage in which he was lying unconscious on the floor after a nasy fall. It was lucky, Susan considered, that Debbie had been so stupid as to cross the moor in a blizzard; if she had not, Mawgan would have been attending his own funeral, not his wedding. She didn’t say so now.

It seemed an age before lunch was finally on the table, and when it was, neither of the children seemed disposed to hurry over it. Sebastian was enjoying his roast potatoes, slowly relishing every mouthful, and Annabel was picking at her food. Susan’s growing impatience to be off wasn’t helped by her mother returning to the vexed question of Christmas.

‘I’m sure the children would prefer things to be as they always have been,’ she said, with a coaxing smile at the children, which met with no response.

‘They’ve never had Christmas Day in their own home,’ Susan replied. ‘It’s time they did, don’t you think? Eat up Annabel, we need to be off soon.’

Annabel, if anything, ate more slowly. Dot said,

‘Oh Susan, don’t you think that’s being a little stern with them? They haven’t done anything!’

‘It isn’t a punishment,’ said Susan. She paused. ‘Neither have I done anything.’

‘Did I say that you had?’ Smile.

The implication had been there, Susan thought. She laid down her knife and fork.

‘That was lovely, but I’m not used to a heavy meal in the middle of the day. I shall fall asleep at the wheel, or something.’

‘Then perhaps you should stay over,’ said Dot, pouncing. Susan sighed inwardly, but only said,

‘Come on Sebby, you can eat faster than that.’

‘It’s too good to hurry.’

‘There’s pudding yet,’ said Dot. ‘Lemon meringue pie. I expect Annabel will eat that, poor child, you can see she’s upset.’

‘Not by me,’ said Susan, with certainty. Dot smiled again, an irritating smile.

‘Well, I’m sure you know best. Now listen, I’ve just had the most wonderful idea! If you won’t come for Christmas, why don’t you come for New Year? We could have a children’s party, all their little friends, and in the evening you could go to Joanna’s and see the New Year in with your friends, and I can babysit. What do you say?’

The children went suddenly still. Annabel’s eyes rose, for the first time, from her plate, and sought her mother’s. Susan said, calmly,

‘We’re going to Devon on New Year’s Day. It’s already arranged. The children want to see their cousins.’

‘Devon!’ exclaimed Dot. ‘They have no cousins in Devon, Susan, don’t be silly!’

‘We have,’ mumbled Annabel, into her plate. ‘There’s Katie and Lulu.’

‘And William,’ put in Sebastian.

‘And who,’ Dot asked coldly, ‘are Katie and Lulu and William?’ She almost spat the names.

‘My niece Alice’s children,’ said Susan. She added, ‘Your step-great-grandchildren.’

There was a silence in which a pin dropping would have sounded like the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. Then Dot said,

‘Oh, the Worthingtons,’ with deep scorn, and began to gather up the plates.

‘I hadn’t finished,’ said Sebastian, hanging onto his.

‘You should have eaten up when your mother told you,’ said Dot, removing the plate from his grasp. ‘She’s in a hurry to be off, she told you that.’

‘Mummy - ’

‘Just let him eat the last potato, Mother,’ said Susan.

‘Oh Susan dear, do make up your mind!’

Over the pudding, Dot returned to the attack.

‘You could come for New Year’s Eve and go on to Devon from here. You can do that just as well as you can from Cornwall,’ - she spoke with disparagement - ‘and it will please everyone.’

Oh no, it won’t! New Year’s Eve is one night I can legitimately spend with Carl.

‘There’s a party at the Fish,’ said Susan.

Dot looked shocked.

‘You’re not taking the children to that pub!’

‘Oh Mother, of course I’m not! They’re under age, anyway, they wouldn’t be allowed in the bar. We shall all sleep the night there, that’s all.’

‘So much for being in their own home,’ said Dot, and gave Susan a tight smile.

Altogether, Susan thought as they finally drove away, late and in heavy, sleety rain and the onset of an early dusk, not a successful visit. Driving away from Embridge felt like pulling her feet out of sticky tar; in the back, the children were silent.

Four hours to home.

It felt like a prayer.

 

Order Stormclouds from any good bookshop, buy direct from or Amazon.co.uk

ISBN 978-0-9554508-3-9

 

 

 
 

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