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‘I’ll have to start work now,’ she said.
‘So you like painting houses?’ said Mirabelle, keen to continue.
‘I like painting gardens.’
‘Well, we’ve got lots of those here,’ she laughed.
Tessa put down her drink. ‘I believe there’s a rose garden here, with old roses. I was looking for it earlier … some rather rare roses, I thought,’ and her brown eyes fixed on Mirabelle.
‘Ah … well, yes, there was.’ Mirabelle’s bracelets jangled. ‘I’m afraid there was a rather bad winter … well, in the end Bernard had the swimming pool.’
‘What a shame, I love roses.’ Tessa stood up and Mirabelle stood up too.
‘It happened before … me … you see, I’m the second Mrs Hallivand.’
The light through the church windows struck her sideways, emphasising wrinkles under her make-up. In her youth she would have had petal-pink skin but she hadn’t aged well.
She’s as old as me, thought Tessa. ‘I see,’ she said. Mirabelle’s eyes were the palest blue; curiously, the more uncertain they became the more she smiled.
‘Well … well, I shan’t keep you.’
‘Yes, I’m better working uninterrupted.’
‘I could show you the house, the photographer was very impressed.’
‘Not today, I’m already late.’
‘And if you wanted anything, you will ask, won’t you?’
‘Yes,’ said Tessa opening the door. ‘Thank you, Mrs Hallivand.’
‘Oh, please, please, call me Mirabelle,’ and a tremble ran right through her, clanking all her jewellery.
CHAPTER THREE (#)
Tessa took her sketchbook to the far side of the moat, where the cornfield met the grounds of St John’s. Here the Hall could be seen through the trees. This was the first glimpse one saw from the road, so it seemed the best place to start. Murray would be impressed by St John’s, she thought, and this made her smile because he would never see it now and when they were together he had shown no interest in this section of her life. He loved gardens and it was gardens that had brought them together. Tessa had advised him about the tiny courtyard garden at the back of his gallery. The gardens of St John’s would make him very quiet and put his head to one side, and say, as he did when he was interested in something, ‘Hmm, possibilities …’
The Hallivands’ improvements were not noticeable from this angle. Through the trees the Hall was as mysterious as it had ever been when weeds grew in the courtyard and the gardens were a knot of brambles and nettles. In the field the ripe wheat was prickly against Tessa’s legs and she began to draw.
They stood staring at the house feeling out of place and uncomfortable. Don, whom nobody embarrassed, was at a loss for words. ‘Er, um,’ he said, and it had been his idea in the first place.
Then a door opened and a woman strode out, short, squarish, a broad face and black hair scraped into a bun. She marched towards them as if they were dirty geese. ‘Shoo! Shoo! Off you go.’
Don ran up to her. ‘Molly, it’s me! Don’t you remember? It’s me!’
Molly was not impressed.
‘Oh, Molly, it’s me, I’m Donald, George’s boy, George and Hetty, the Bells, you know; Miranda, Donald.’ At each name he showed how high they used to be. ‘Frances and little Marsha, she’s twelve now …’
Molly threw up her hands. ‘Donald! It is you, and you so grown, when I last saw you, you were …’
‘A squirt, and I was always up the apple trees, and Miranda played the grand piano …’
‘She had a lovely voice.’
‘She’s at the Royal Academy now, she is, she plays the cello too.’
‘And Frances? Such a serious little thing, dark, not like you.’
‘She’s a scientist, she’s brilliant, she’s going to Cambridge.’
‘And the baby?’
‘Oh, Molly, you wouldn’t recognise her, she’s the beautiful one, blonde …’
‘Like Mummy. Well, Marsha’s twelve, she’s quite a lady,’ and they both laughed.
Tessa and Dee-Dee were still standing by the car, Dee-Dee tugging her mini skirt. Don pulled Molly over to them.
‘You must meet my friends! This is Tessa and Dee-Dee.’
Molly looked them up and down gravely. Tessa’s mascara had smudged into her cheeks.
‘Gosh! I don’t know their surnames … I met them a week ago … they’re at art school, London’s great at the moment.’
‘I’m Theresa Fulks and this is Deirdre Stallard,’ said Tessa, feeling the whole situation needed clarifying. ‘Don invited us to see his cousin.’
‘Yes, yes, and how is Geoffrey, I’d heard he wasn’t too—’
‘He’s bearing up very well,’ said Molly stoically; ‘rests a lot, we try and look after him.’
Tessa and Dee-Dee gazed at the overgrown garden and the sorry state of the barns. Molly was embarrassed. ‘Charlie’s back’s been bad, he can’t do much now, and I can barely keep up, what with the cleaning and all.’
‘Oh dear, Molly, I didn’t realise, I should have written. Have you got a phone yet?’
‘Oh, no, Mr Bell won’t have it … shall I tell him you’re here? He will be pleased, Donald.’
‘We shouldn’t have come,’ Tessa whispered to Dee-Dee.
Molly led them through the porch and into the blackness of the Hall. It smelled of wet stone, damp rush-matting and woodsmoke. Dee held Tessa’s hand. Molly opened the door in the panelling. Light through the high church windows streamed onto an old collection of broken furniture, stuffed animals under glass, piles of books, Indian dhurries and half-dead geraniums. The great hall was lofty and damp, there were broken window panes and on one of the rafters was a bird’s nest. Beside the stone fireplace, in which a few logs smouldered on a heap of ashes, was an armchair, and in this slept an elderly man in a dressing gown. They moved closer and Tessa could see he wasn’t really old but had the shrivelled yellowish appearance of the terminally ill. His dressing gown was brown checked wool, bought for someone once larger than he. His wrists were thin.
‘Mr Bell, Mr Bell,’ said Molly shaking him gently, ‘there’s somebody to see you.’
The sick man opened his eyes and smiled. He had a kind face, which even illness could not hide. ‘Molly? Is it tea-time already?’
‘No, Mr Bell, there’s Donald to see you, come all the way from London.’
Don rushed over and shook his hand enthusiastically, but Tessa could see how upset he was, he had not expected to find his cousin so frail. ‘Geoffrey, it’s been ages.’
‘Dear Donald, what a surprise. Let me see you, doesn’t he look like George, Molly, a blonde George.’
‘He’s brought some friends, Mr Bell.’ Molly pushed Dee-Dee and Tessa nearer.
‘What modern ladies … and you too Donald, quite the thing, and such a shirt.’
‘Oh, everybody in London wears this sort of stuff, Geoffrey.’
‘“With it”, that’s what they say now, isn’t it?’ He held Don and Dee-Dee’s hands. ‘How splendid of you to come all this way, and such beautiful ladies …’
Dee-Dee’s knees went pink.
‘Molly, make some tea, bring out your best fruit cake. Donald, find some chairs, and let’s celebrate.’
An hour or so later everybody was relaxed, laughing and stuffed with Molly’s cakes. She kept running into the kitchen to make more sandwiches. ‘There’ll be no more food left at this rate, Mr Bell.’
‘Never mind, Molly, tomorrow we’ll get Ram’s to deliver.’
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