1929. 17-year-old Barbara Delahay was a beauty, a young and untouched English rose, enjoying the social whirl of the debutante season. It was inevitable she would attract male attention. However, Barbara caught the eye of someone charismatic but wholly unsuitable. Someone damaged. Drawn under his spell, she almost succumbed, but escaped just in time to marry the decent but dull Brigadier Govan, a man 25 years her senior.
Now in 1953, the day of the new Queen's coronation, in an empty house with the rain rushing down the windows, the widowed Barbara is cowering in fear. For she knows who's out there, calling her name, seeking her out. Her past has returned to claim her, and this time it won't be so easy to deny.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.55(w) x 8.74(h) x (d)|
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Barbara flitted across the hall and paused – face to the wall, breath held. Silence lay in the dim rooms all around, rain roared on the windows. She gasped and ran again, pattering along the passage to the kitchen on wings of fear, quick and light as a moth. If she didn't breathe, if her feet scarcely touched the ground, perhaps she would be invisible. Everywhere in the house was unseasonably dark because of the rain, which had been falling all day long and showed no sign of abating. The downpour would obscure the view of anyone looking in, but would it hide them from her, too? How would she know who was out there? And where?
She flew past the pantry and the scullery that looked over the back yard and stopped before entering the kitchen, picturing the space beyond the door. In there, two windows faced one another across the length of the big deal table. Her objective was the larder on the far side. She had to hope that whoever was out there had not yet reached this end of the house. She released her held breath with a sob and sucked in another, before pushing open the door and rushing across the room, looking neither right nor left, closing the larder door swiftly – softly – behind her. The click of the latch was like a gunshot. Sweat crept in the roots of her hair.
She had never been shut in here before. Usually she would whisk in and out on a mission – depositing leftovers, taking dripping from a shelf, her mind on her task. Now she stood utterly still, her chest heaving and legs trembling from the effort of silent flight. On this drowned midsummer afternoon, the larder was cold and crepuscular as a tomb. There was a faint smell of overripe food. When she laid her hand on the edge of the marble shelf to steady herself, it struck her dank palm like ice. The small transom window high on the back wall was slightly open, the aperture covered with a fine gauze to keep insects out.
Barbara breathed again, her fists grinding a sob back into her squirming mouth. She should have gone upstairs! No one could have looked in at her there. Instead she had shut herself in this tiny cell, and was trapped! She dared not come out again and if she was found here, there would be no escape.
She realised that she had never, till this moment, been really afraid. She had read of people fearing for their lives, and this – this wild, thundering paralysis – was surely what they meant. The Bad Thing, far more terrifying in her imagination than anything known, was very close and drawing closer, creeping, questing ... the stuff of childhood nightmares. In her mouth was the taste of blood from her bitten knuckle. Her nose ran and for the first time since early childhood she swiped her cuff over it and gazed at the snail-trail with a sob.
The contents of the larder stood around her like the grave-goods of some ancient burial: Kilner jars full of pickled vegetables – onions, beetroot, cabbage – their contents suspended eerily in the pickling fluid, like body parts in a laboratory; the blackest of dark preserves, bramble and damson; butter, margarine and lard in greaseproof paper; milk in a green pottery jug, the top covered by a beaded net; the remains of the Sunday joint, a leg of lamb (that Maureen had cooked for herself and the Bryants) lay under the meat-safe, shaggy and grey, the exposed bone faintly gleaming; junket seeped water into a pyrex dish; the rhubarb that had accompanied it now like sodden yellow-grey hair; bottles of Camp Coffee, Lea and Perrins and gravy browning had been in here too long – there were ruffs of black sediment around the bottle-tops, and sticky brown rings showing where they had stood before. She must have a word ...
The rattle of inconsequential thoughts ceased.
Her name, had she heard her name?
The noise of the rain surged, snarling, on a gust of wind. A few drops plopped through the wire netting and spattered on the grey marble. How could she possibly have heard anything? But why would she have imagined it?
She was cold. Her circulation was never good and now her thin hands looked mauve. At least she still had her coat on. She had only just removed her hat and laid it on the hall table, when she'd heard the footsteps on the gravel, and knew she'd been followed. Her umbrella was standing open in the porch. Did that count as inside? Was it bad luck?
There was no mistaking it this time. Somewhere between the dead silence of the house and the roar of the rain, someone had spoken her name, with the slight interrogative inflection that meant he knew she was here. He had followed her back from the village and tapped once, softly, on the door with his knuckles.
She whimpered. If only Stanley were here – tall and severe and unimaginative, his shoulders pulled back and his brows beetling – to stump outside with his walking stick or a golf club, and then to come back in to tell her she was a goose and it was time to have some tea. In his case, it would have been something a little stronger from the decanter. Stanley, who was incredibly dear to her now and whose very ghost would have been a comfort at this moment.
For minutes, she had moved nothing but her eyes. Now, using the marble slab as a support, she stiffly lowered herself to the ground and sat on the floor, twisting her legs to one side and drawing her coat under her, between her thighs and the frigid stone. She wanted to tuck herself under the shelf, but there was a clank when her foot struck a box of old jars, so she hitched herself backward to huddle against the wall, her face buried in her upturned collar. Ostrichlike, she closed her eyes so as not to be seen.
Time crawled by. The rain eased. She felt even more unprotected, as if her breathing might be heard over its gentle hiss. It was early June and, if the rain stopped altogether, it would be light for hours yet. She thought, If need be I can stay here till Maureen gets back. Except that now her right leg, bent under her, was numb and she could feel that she needed to spend a penny, urgently. She had to change position, to ease her leg and take her mind off her bursting bladder.
She braced her arms to take her weight but, as she began to move her legs, she heard a tiny, sharp sound. No more than a scratch, close – so close! – and just above her.
Scarcely tilting her head and not daring to show her face, she looked up.
A hand was spread, spider-like, against the wire mesh of the window.
The Bryants had been most insistent.
'Bar, you simply must come.' Paul placed his knife and fork together with a decisive clink. 'Very good lamb by the way. It's a big occasion, a coronation – the biggest since the war and a happy one too.'
Audrey beamed at her, taking her husband's part.
'Yes, quite right, it's a celebration! That lovely young woman, a new Elizabethan age. Salting will be en fête.'
'Then I shan't be missed, shall I?' She realised this sounded sharp, but they were old friends and not easily offended.
'Not true,' said Paul. 'We shall miss you and Evelyn and Richard. David ...'
'... Lesley, Beatrice, everyone!' added Audrey in case her husband was running out of ideas. 'We're going to watch the ceremony in the parish rooms and be back for a buffet lunch at the Keyes'. Then, if we're all still going strong, we can go down to the Green for tea and watch the Mayor giving out mugs to the schoolchildren to the strains of the town band – how can you resist?'
Barbara smiled. 'I shall be there in spirit. I have my trusty wireless, remember.'
'But if you join us you'll be able to watch it on television, Bar, the whole thing, as it happens. Imagine – history in the making!'
She went in the end; of course she did. It had proved impossible to make them understand that she wouldn't be sad, or lonely, or that she didn't mean to be unpatriotic. She'd just prefer to listen to the day's events at home, eating her own sort of lunch at the time she wanted it. The Bryants were dears but she was more different from them than they realised. She had far more in common with Edith Malmay, whom they had failed to mentioned in their litany of friends, and whom she'd actually heard Paul describe once as a 'funny old bat'. Two of those words were true, but the three of them did not begin to sum up Edith.
The rain was coming down steadily, but it was not pig-headedness that prompted her to walk the mile and a half into town. She had only taken her test two years before and was still an unconfident driver; she didn't want the worry of parking or of being asked to run someone else home later. She would leave her beloved, pale green Morris snug in the garage. The walk would do her good and give her a reason to leave promptly.
Getting ready to go out always made her think of Stanley. He was a man of few words and not free with compliments, but she knew that he admired her appearance and she liked to maintain standards in case he was watching. She sat in front of the dressing table in her petticoat and applied a discreet veneer of Cyclax foundation, a dab of powder and the pearl earrings and necklace he had given her on their wedding day. While she improved on nature, her friendly wood pigeons croo-crooed in the trees on the Fort, the little hill in the garden of Hearts Ease.
Before putting on her dress, she brushed her hair. It was the only aspect of her appearance that had changed and which she knew Stanley might not have liked. From childhood onwards, Barbara had had long, silken, mouse-brown hair with the merest ripple of a wave, which she brushed fifty times morning and night. Stanley had liked to watch her and once she'd offered him the brush, but his cheeks had gone pink as he waved it away and she'd never offered again. Three years ago, she'd had her hair cut so that now it framed her face. The girl at Marcelle had complimented her on her decision and on her hair – the slight wave meant that she didn't need a perm or to have it set on rollers – It fell into place just nicely. She herself liked the new style because it was easy and practical, but she could imagine Stanley's reaction, the minute tightening of the mouth that gave him away. He would never have dreamed of criticising her but then he didn't have to, she always knew when he didn't like something.
She put on her navy coat, the matching felt hat with a becoming rolled-back brim and pulled on galoshes over her shoes. She was aware the galoshes were old-fashioned, but she found them useful. Salting being what it was, she was not the only galosh-wearer, though she may have been the youngest. From the stand by the door, she selected Stanley's old golf umbrella and set off.
Her route down to the town was via the old Church Path, which ran over the golf course and between the fields, joining the road just above the nursery garden and the Bay Tree Convalescent Home. There wasn't much cover in the first half mile but, even through the drizzle, she delighted in the view of Salting bay. There were the elegant houses and hotels clustered comfortably along the curve of pale shingle and the buttress of red cliff, with its shawl of trees on the far side of the estuary. There were no golfers out today, so she didn't have to wait to cross the fairway but crossed briskly, sheltered by Stanley's brolly. The fields were fresh and green, the gorse bushes and brambles in flower. Seagulls mewed and wheeled under the weeping, grey clouds. The church path was pitted with rain and puddles were already beginning to collect in the ruts. If this kept up, she would have to take the longer way home, by the road. But she had already decided that she would not accept a lift; politeness would dictate that she invite the person in, when all she'd want by that time was peace and quiet.
Audrey had been right; Salting was en fête – or doing its best under the circumstances. Red, white and blue was much in evidence. Union Jacks hung out of upstairs windows, strings of bunting drooped and dripped across the high street and many windows carried a picture of the young Queen. Aside from these shows of patriotism it was quiet, with the shops closed and everyone either indoors or, like Barbara, scurrying through the rain to wherever they were going to follow the proceedings. People with televisions or organisations who had rented them for the day, were few and far between and in great demand. The Masonic Hall, when she passed it, looked already full, with steamed-up windows and a handful of sodden people still waiting outside to get in. The parish rooms – a smaller and more select venue – were opposite the church, next to the doctor's surgery. Beatrice Talbot had been responsible for hiring the rooms and the television for this private gathering of friends.
She was welcoming arrivals in the lobby.
'Barbara! Good morning – or is it? What a day, at least we'll be in the warm and dry, pity those poor souls in London, such a rotten shame. Don't tell me you walked, you should have asked ... Brollies in the box in the corner, oh my goodness here's Cecil – Cecil, can you believe it ...?'
Barbara removed her galoshes, parked the golfing umbrella – like Stanley himself, it dwarfed its companions – hung up her coat and hat on the rack and went through the swing doors. Inside it was pleasantly fuggy, with a strong scent of damp fabric emanating from the thirty or so already there. Two rows of chairs had been placed in a semicircle facing the television, but there was no picture as yet and most people were still milling about inside the door, talking loudly.
Paul arrived at her side at once.
'Well done, Bar, so glad you came in the end. Not much of a day, but are we downhearted? Would you like some coffee?'
The coffee, though instant and not very nice, was hot and she had a little sugar to buck herself up. Everyone was most welcoming and she reproved herself for her earlier grudging thoughts. Of course one should celebrate these things together! As if to confirm this more benign view, she spotted Edith Malmay sitting at the end of the back row of chairs, reading a programme.
'Hello, my dear. I decided to bag my favoured seat.'
'Please. I'm just running through what we're all going to be looking at.' She glanced at Barbara humorously over her glasses. 'Which is rather a lot.'
'I suppose everyone has to be there.'
'Of course. Everyone who's anyone and some besides, if this is to be believed. Poor girl.'
By this, Barbara knew she meant the Queen. She returned to the programme and Barbara sat quietly for a moment, contemplating the 'poor girl' and the momentousness of it all.
'Right!' carolled Beatrice. 'Take your seats, we're about to switch on!'
Once Queen Elizabeth II had made her appearance on the balcony, Beatrice switched off the television, cried 'Long live the Queen!' and made up-in-the air shooing movements to indicate they should make a move. There was a general sense of relief – the picture was very small, the reception poor and the sound tinny – the whole thing had been something of an effort. Though 'Vivat Regina!' had been extremely stirring and the Queen was generally acknowledged to be beautiful and dignified beyond her years. As they shuffled about picking up handbags and programmes, Edith leaned towards Barbara.
'I've made my excuses, not going to the luncheon I'm afraid.'
'Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. I was really hoping you'd be there.'
'How nice of you to say so. I suspect the others can take me or leave me, though it was kind of the Keyes to ask. What I need now is peace and quiet and a bowl of soup, not cold bubbles and chit-chat.'
'I can't say I blame you.' Barbara couldn't hide her envy.
Edith rose, towering over her. 'You're going, I hope.'
'Quite right. And you will enjoy it.'
'I expect so.' She must have sounded unconvinced.
'Yes, you will.' Edith tapped her arm with the rolled-up programme. 'That's an order.'
'Right you are!'
'And don't hang about politely for me, for goodness' sake. I shall take my time and be last out.'
'If you're sure, I can't —'
At the door, Barbara paused before putting her umbrella up and glanced back. Edith had changed her shoes for black wellingtons and put on her long, unfashionable mac, with the hood that tied under the chin. She cut an odd figure, of no particular age, time or sex – she might have been an archer from Agincourt, a nun from some obscure order, or a mackerel fisherman straight off the boat.
Excerpted from "The Rose in Winter"
Copyright © 2017 Sarah Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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