Caroline Evans was having a day out from her rented London flat, driving through rainy Oxfordshire with her fifteen-year-old daughter slumped in a silent sulk next to her.
They had taken in Oxford, “city of dreaming spires,” which seemed to have more traffic than a motorway in rush hour, plus a couple of thousand young people smoking and drinking coffee and hanging about outside pubs. Issy ignored it all but Caroline had fallen for the rain-slicked courtyards and the ancient colleges half-hidden behind tall gates that had been there long before Henry’s time. That would be Henry VIII, who, Caroline now figured couldn’t have been all bad, despite the six wives. After all, her own husband had had two, and that was before her.
“A serial husband,” she had said doubtfully when James told her he was going to marry her, though she was longing to say yes because she was so besotted by him she couldn’t see straight, even with her glasses on.
Forget charming the birds; James Evans could, and did, charm everyone. Caroline remembered thinking it was okay about the other two wives, she would be the last wife. That’s what James told her. And she’d believed him. She was twenty-two.
Now she was thirty-eight and an ex-wife, with a teenage daughter whose name was Isabel, always known as Issy, who some days talked to her and some days did not; who looked mostly like her father; and who, Caroline suspected, was smoking. However she did not yet have a tattoo, or at least not one in any place visible to her mother.
“Oxford’s a lot different from when I was a girl,” she said, maneuvering the old Land Rover bumpily out of the city and onto the A40, toward Cheltenham, though she had no specific destination in mind.
“Of course it is. That was a long time ago.” Her daughter turned to look at her. “You should wear lipstick,” she said. “And mascara.”
Caroline sighed, remembering not so long ago when her child had thought she was perfect. She fiddled in her handbag for the lipstick and Issy told her she shouldn’t do that while driving. It seemed she could do nothing right.
“Bloody rain,” Issy said, looking at the wipers sloshing water sideways across the windscreen.
Caroline glanced sharply at her, then caught the sign for Burford and swung right into one of the prettiest high streets in the Cotswolds. Picture perfect, lined with small shops selling the usual souvenirs and postcards, but also art galleries and antique stores, bakeries and tea shops, as well as trees dripping onto the umbrellas of the few hardy citizens who waded through the puddles, heading for shelter.
Caroline slammed on the brakes as a car pulled out in front of her. “Look, we’ve got a parking spot. We were meant to stop here. Let’s have tea.”
Issy’s sigh matched the stoop of her shoulders as she clambered unwillingly out of the car and stood in the rain, looking, her mother thought with a twinge of pity, utterly helpless and defeated in her new Marks & Spencer parka. Rain slicked her brown hair and there was a look of sadness in her brown eyes. It had been there ever since they’d left Singapore a year and a half ago, and Caroline did not know what to do about it.
Now, though, she grabbed her hand firmly and hurried her across the road into the nearest tearoom. As they climbed the stairs and took the last available table, she wasn’t thinking about the strawberry cream tea she would order for them both, she was thinking of James, wondering, as she had so often, if she had done the right thing, leaving him.
“Mom.” They had just sat down and Issy got up again. “I’m going downstairs to look at the shop.”
The tearoom was over a junky jewelry-souvenir shop. “Okay.” Caroline watched her go.
The tea came, carried on a plastic tray decorated with birds of the region, by a young woman not much more than her daughter’s age, but who at least smiled at her and said it was the Earl Grey you wanted, Madam.
Caroline said it was and the girl put the tray down, arranged the small flowery cups in front of her and indicated the two-tier china cake stand with its nicely browned scones and a choice of small cakes; éclairs, fruit tarts, and iced buns. There was a dish of strawberry jam and a deep bowl with cream so thick you could stand your spoon in it.
“Perfect, thank you.” Caroline found herself smiling as she poured pale tea into the flowery little cup. She had been brought up in London, an English girl who’d married and gone to live in Singapore with a husband she loved, a daughter she adored, a beautiful penthouse home with a view of the river and the city and its twinkling nighttime lights.
“Best of both worlds,” James said, when they first looked at it. They were young marrieds; he American in his early thirties, successful in hedge funds and investments, and so attractive and charming he didn’t need a penthouse to feel on top of the world. And she was so hazy with love and sex she couldn’t think of anything else.
That was then. Now, was this rainy English day, a steamy little tea shop, and an almost silent daughter who finally came back, taking the wooden stairs two at a time. She sat down, took a scone, sliced it neatly, slathered it with jam and a dollop of thick cream, took a too-large bite, then picked up her phone and began texting.
Who she was texting Caroline didn’t know. Still, she took a scone, and smiled. “This is the best,” she said hopefully.
“Yeah.” Issy’s thumbs were busy but Caroline noticed she was also watching her as she struggled to arrange cream on top of the crumbling scone without it collapsing entirely in her hand.
“You should cut it into two pieces,” Issy informed her.
“You sound just like my mother,” Caroline said, making Issy smile. It was the first smile Caroline had seen all day.
“Here, this is for you.” Issy pushed over a small package, wrapped in pink tissue paper.
“Really? For me?”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
She looked away and Caroline knew she was embarrassed and thought she was being loud, and that everyone was looking.
“A present,” she said, unraveling the pink tissue. “Ohh, Issy, how lovely.”
It was a tiny brooch, junky, cheap but somehow sweet. She ran a finger over the fake silver. Fake or not, she would always treasure it. “A little bird, on the wing,” she said.
“Sort of like us. Birds on the wing, never alighting anywhere.”
“You mean us not having a real home anymore?” Caroline felt that clench in her heart again. “We’ll get one, soon. I promise you.”
Her voice sounded more confident than she felt. Money was tight, to say the least. When she’d married James, she had been young, she hadn’t known any better and had signed that prenup, which of course meant that all she’d gotten from the divorce and sixteen years of marriage was a very small lump sum, and child support until her daughter became eighteen.
She glanced round the small tearoom at the other people; ordinary people, mackintoshes and parkas steaming over the backs of their chairs in the heat wafting from a long white radiator under the already steamed-up windows. People, Caroline thought, whose lives were all set; who had a pattern, a routine, and probably not a care in the world as they ate their scones and jam and cream and talked about the rain, as the English always did because it always rained anyway.
“Come on, have that last chocolate éclair, why don’t you,” she said briskly, pulling herself together. “Then we’ll get out into the countryside, see a bit more of the Cotswolds.”
Issy gave her that world-weary fifteen-year-old shrug. “Whatever,” she said, which Caroline guessed meant she agreed.
Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Adler