The photographs were in a packet at the bottom of the rosewood box. He flicked through them, surprised to see that each one of them was of him - a photographic record spanning thirty years - and then tucked the packet back into the box. Solid, square, with pretty gold inlay, the box carried not only his mother's small treasures but a whole cargo of family history. It had belonged to his father's mother and therefore held a special link with the man whom he could barely recall. His memories of this shadowy figure had been jealously guarded, eked out and plumped up with a dozen tiny scraps of information dropped from the conversations of friends and family.
'Of course, you can't remember him,' he'd say to his small sister, Imogen. 'You were just a baby when Daddy died.'
She didn't care; Im was blessed with a happy, confident nature that made it nearly impossible for him ever to feel superior. She'd shake her head cheerfully, quite content for him to be the one who knew. She didn't care about the box either. The small treasures he was allowed - under hismother's surveillance - to put into the delicately scented interior were too fragile for her tiny, destructive fingers: a perfect shell, a frail crimson leaf, a shiny unblemished conker.
'Shall we put it in the box, Mummy?' he'd shout, running to bring her these gifts, and he'd watch whilst the little ceremony was performed: the box lifted from its shelf, the key produced and inserted into the gold lock and the lid opened. Eagerly he'd bend to look in, to see the familiar contents. If his hands were clean he'd be allowed to unfold his grandmother's small silk handkerchief kept in the embroidered, soft suede pochette that smelled of lavender; to take out the letter his father had written to him all the way from Afghanistan, and to look at the photograph that had been enclosed. The letter, which his mother would read to him, made him feel proud and strong; his father told him to be a good boy, to look after his mother and little sister, and then they would look at the photograph: his father smiling at them, standing in a dry, dusty, arid place. The biggest treat was to play with the carved and painted wooden cat which, like a Russian doll, separated into two halves to reveal yet another smaller cat, and then another, until the final, delightful surprise: a tiny mouse. Each cat had a wickedly mischievous expression and even the mouse appeared to be content with his lot, his painted whiskers curling jauntily, one eye closed in a wink.
As he grew older the enchantment gradually faded until he forgot the box altogether except as one of the familiar objects that moved with them from the small house in Finchley to the big, ground-floor flat in Blackheath, and finally to his mother's room at the nursing home.
Now the box and its contents were his; the packet ofphotographs probably collected together and added very recently. Matt sighed and pushed the box and photographs away. It was odd, and perhaps would be hurtful to her, that there were none of Imogen, but she needn't know. Their mother had been distanced from them for so long, first with her gradual descent into depression and alcoholism, and then with the onset of liver disease, that it was unlikely that Imogen would be upset: they were both too used to their mother's mercurial moods and irrational behaviour to attach much emotional importance to her actions. Even so, he wouldn't tell Im.
Matt took the packet out of the box again and flipped through the photographs. There was something odd about them but he couldn't quite decide what it was and he was too restless and preoccupied to study them more closely. The prospect of his next book, unwritten and unformed, pressed on his consciousness. Each new promising idea proved dull, each putative plot stale. And Im's phone call had unsettled him.
'We're having such a great time,' she'd said. 'I can't believe we're living down here on Exmoor at last, even if it is in a holiday let and we still don't know where we'll go at Easter. Jules is a bit twitchy but it's utter heaven being a few miles away from Milo and Lottie. Why don't you come down for a few days? They'd love to see you and so would we.'
Matt stood up, wandered to the window and stared down into the dismal late winter afternoon. The city street was damp with misting rain; the roofs of the parked cars glistened with chill moisture. In his mind's eye he saw the rosy sandstone house, standing beneath the high bare shoulder of Hurlstone Point, looking over the village of Bossington towards Dunkery Hill and westwards across Porlock Vale tothe sea, and he felt a childish longing to be there with them all.
'What would we have done,' Im had once asked him, 'without Milo and Lottie?'
'The odd couple,' he'd said lightly, not wanting to admit how important those two people were to him.
'They're our real family,' she'd said, 'aren't they? They saved our lives and kept us normal.'
Now, Matt glanced at his watch: twenty past three. If he got a move on he could be there by suppertime: in the galley kitchen at the High House, Milo - tall, thin, elegant - would be stooping over a saucepan of delicious soup or some exotic sauce that simmered on the Aga. He'd be calling through the archway to Lottie in the breakfast room, who'd be sitting at the long, narrow table that was always piled with books and newspapers, and reading some article or letter aloud to him. He'd call a response and they'd both roar with laughter.
Matt felt another stab of longing for the familiar scene. He picked up his mobile and scrolled down the names until he reached Lottie's. Half an hour later he was on his way.
Lottie tracked Milo down in the garden room, sitting in an old cane chair in a warm splash of February sunshine. His beaky eagle's profile was fierce with concentration as he frowned at the newspaper he was reading; his long thin legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles showing a glimpse of red sock. A golden-brown spaniel was curled under his knees.
'Matt's on his way,' she said. 'Isn't that fun? He'll be with us in time for supper.'
Milo put down the newspaper. 'Now that is good news. How is he?'
Lottie made a face; wrinkled her nose. 'Can't quite tell. A bit mere. I daren't mention the new book, of course.'
Milo shook his head. 'Poor old boy. He's paying for all that early success. An international bestseller and a Hollywood film with your first book is a very difficult act to follow. Everyone sitting round waiting for the next one to be a disaster.'
'He says his mind is quite blank with the terror of it. He thinks it was just a fluke and he'll never write anything again. At least he's financially secure, and I'm sure it will happen in time. I'm just making some tea. Shall I bring it out here? Now who's that?'
She stepped forward to the window, shielding her eyes from the low slanting sun, staring down the long drive which wound up from the village between unfenced fields. The car slowed to allow several ewes to amble across the track and then came on, bumping over the cattle grid and disappearing round the end of the house.
'It's Venetia,' Lottie said, resigned. 'I'll go and meet her.'
Milo showed no especial delight at the advent of his mistress. 'Don't let her see the cake,' he advised. 'You know her. There won't be a crumb left. Never known a woman who could pack in the carbohydrates like Venetia.'
'And still remains as thin as a pin,' said Lottie enviously. 'Sickening, isn't it?'
She went out into the warren of rooms that led through to the hall and met Venetia coming in from the little back porch. Elegant and gaunt as an old greyhound, she bent to embrace Lottie, lightly touching a perfectly maquillée cheek to Lottie's unadorned one.
'The snowdrops are simply amazing, Lottie,' she said. 'Not only here at the High House but everywhere. Andthe daffodils are just beginning. So heartening, isn't it?'
Lottie smiled. 'Spring is coming,' she agreed. 'We were just going to have some tea. Would you like some? Milo is in the garden room. I'll bring it through.'
'Darling, that would be very sweet of you. No cake, I suppose? Or a choccy bic? I'm simply ravenous. Why do good works make one so hungry? I've just been visiting poor old Clara. She's simply gaga now, I'm afraid, and I'm quite exhausted with answering the same question over and over, and today she couldn't remember who I am. She was such a pretty girl. Oh, Lottie, it's all so bloody depressing, isn't it?'
At the back of the still-beautiful, deeply shadowed violet eyes, Lottie saw the flicker of fear and horror.
'But spring is coming,' she reminded the older woman, 'and there's cake for tea.'
'Oh, darling.' Venetia's voice was full of gratitude. 'You are such a comfort. Honestly.'
'Go and find Milo,' said Lottie. 'Matt's coming down for a few days so he's feeling very cheerful.'
Venetia wandered away and Lottie heard her greet the spaniel that came to meet her. Presently he appeared in the kitchen. He was a pretty fellow; the result of a mating between a cocker and a Sussex spaniel. He had a very sweet nature - though, as Milo unkindly observed, he was as thick as two short planks. His coat was the colour of sticky toffee pudding, one of Milo's favourites, and he'd called the charmingly roly-poly puppy 'Pud'.
'All these new crossbreeds,' Milo had said to her. 'Labradoodles, sprollies and sprockers. Well, if a cross between a springer spaniel and a cocker is a sprocker, then a cross between a Sussex and a cocker is a sucker. Which just about sums up Pud nicely.'
He sat now, looking hopefully at Lottie as she prepared the tea.
'You heard the word "cake",' she told him, 'but you won't get any.'
She thought about Matt arriving later and was seized with a mixture of delight and anxiety. Ever since his mother had died a few weeks earlier she'd had a strong feeling that something momentous was about to happen: but what could it be? Imogen and Matt had long since ceased to depend on Helen, and her death had not been in the least unexpected. Her life had been a sad one, widowed so young and with two small children to bring up, but it was by no means unusual; other women had managed in the same situation without relying so heavily on drink. Of course she'd been devastated by the way Tom had died, caught in cross-fighting between factions in Afghanistan whilst reporting on the war, but her depression had begun before then.
Lottie could remember trying to talk to Tom about it once. It was some while after the little family had returned from Afghanistan the first time around, but he'd been evasive, not wanting to discuss it, hinting at a miscarriage that had badly upset Helen when they were out in Kabul and from which she'd never quite recovered. Lottie hadn't pressed him; by then she'd begun to love them all, Tom, Helen and the children, but Tom most of all. He'd never guessed; never, in all those hours they'd spent together over the editing of his book on the war in the Belgian Congo, had he suspected how much she'd loved him.
Lottie made the tea, assembled plates and forks and the cake, and, with Pud at her heels, she carried the tray into the garden room. At the door she hesitated. Venetia had pulledher chair close to Milo's and sat with her knee touching his, her frail, thin hand cradled between his two large warm ones. Her eyes were closed.
'Poor old Clara. It's so desperate, Milo, isn't it?' she was saying.
He watched her. His expression was tender, thoughtful, and Lottie knew that he was remembering the young, beautiful Venetia as he'd seen her on that very first occasion: the wife of his senior officer, Bernard - 'Bunny' - Warren at a ball at Sandhurst. Just for a moment Lottie could see them, too: Venetia, glamorous and sexy in her ball gown; Milo, tall and gorgeous in his mess dress. She saw their handclasp, the exchanged dynamic glance, and heard the murmuring of laughter and voices all about them, the chink of glasses and the distant sound of music.
'Old age is not for cissies, sweetie,' Milo said now, breaking the spell. He glanced round at Lottie, gave her a tiny wink. 'Here's the tea.'
Venetia opened her eyes and Lottie put the tray on the round glass-topped table. She wondered if Milo would ask Venetia to stay for supper. Lottie knew that Matt wouldn't mind. Though he valued and guarded his isolation and privacy when he was working, yet he loved the open-house atmosphere at the High House when he was relaxing - and he liked Venetia. Lottie had tried to be sensitive to the older woman's occasional moments of overwhelming loneliness and depression since she had been widowed, though Milo had all the instinctive wariness of the male lurking beneath his genuine affection for her.
'Can't be too soft-hearted,' he'd say when Lottie showed signs of giving in to one of Venetia's hints. 'She'll be living with us if you're not careful now dear old Bunny's gone.She's a tough cookie - Venetia. She knows what she wants and she goes for it.'
'So Matt's coming down,' Venetia was saying. 'You are so lucky to have your young close at hand. Imogen and Julian just across the Vale with that darling baby. And Matt popping down so often. They keep all these ghastly things in proportion, don't they? I never see mine these days ...'
Lottie, pouring the tea, caught Milo's eye. He raised an eyebrow: she nodded.
'Stay to supper,' he suggested. 'Would you like to?'
Venetia looked hopefully at Lottie. 'Would I be in the way? Would Matt mind, d'you think?'
Lottie shook her head. 'Of course he wouldn't. Do stay.'
'Aaah,' Venetia expelled a breath, as if released from some anxiety or fear; she relaxed back into her chair. 'I'd love it.'
After tea, Lottie left them together and went out into the garden to pick snowdrops. The early evening sunshine cast long shadows across the lawn; around the roots of the ancient beech trees rings of crocus flowered in circles of fiery gold and inky purple. A blackbird swooped low, his stuttering cry of warning shattering the silence. There were ghosts in the garden; the ghosts of people and of dogs but she had no fear of them. She knew them all and could sense when they were nearby: that great cloud of witness, some of whom seemed as close to her as the two she'd left in the garden room. She couldn't remember a time when she hadn't been aware of the pressing in of other worlds. As a child, in an attempt to rationalize it, she'd invented stories in her head: fragments of make-believe twined in with actual events with which she'd entertain - and even frighten - her school friends. Once, when she was seven, a schoolfriend's father had accused her of telling lies to his daughter. Shocked and surprised, she'd been unable to show him the fine line between the absolute truth and the realities of the imagination - and something more: some sixth sense. Later, comic or dramatic embellishments, added to fairly ordinary encounters, amused her friends, entertained her workmates and distracted from this ability 'to see further through a brick wall than most', as Tom had once described it. Nevertheless, a reputation grew up around her rather like the thicket around the Sleeping Beauty; it fascinated yet held others at arm's length.
Only Tom had penetrated it. It was odd that it should be Tom, who dealt with facts and the tough journalistic world, who had truly understood her; but Tom was a black-browed Celt with a grandmother who had the Sight. It was as if he'd recognized her at a profoundly spiritual level and she'd experienced a great relief in being acknowledged; as if she'd become visible at last. For the first time in her life she hadn't been lonely. Working on his book with him, enjoying occasional lunches, they'd shared a great deal; quickly, they'd arrived at a deep level of understanding which had filled her with happiness, and given him comfort.
Milo, on the other hand, had accepted her in a different way. She was simply little Charlotte, the much younger sister of his ex-wife, and his attitude was fraternal and uncomplicated and reassuring. It was he who had given her the nickname 'Lottie'.
She'd loved Milo from the very first moment that Sara had brought him home to be introduced. Sara had already warned her not to make a nuisance of herself but she'd been too fascinated by Milo's height and his happy, infectious roar of laughter to obey. His warmth drew her to him, Sara'swarning scowl lost its power, and he'd been sweet to her despite the thirteen-year gap between them.
Very quickly she'd been aware of the discordant vibrations between Milo and Sara.
'Why are you going to marry him?' she'd asked, confused by the outward and visible demonstrations of affection and the silent tensions that quivered in the air around them. Sara had stared at her with an angry contempt.
'Suppose you mind your own business?' she'd snapped smartly.
Any sibling relationship seemed out of the question. Sara was determined to blame Lottie's birth for the death of their mother six months later ('She was never the same once you'd been born!') and it didn't help that Milo's parents preferred the engaging little sister to the prickly, possessive and outspoken older one. Milo's mother 'adopted' the ten-year-old Lottie; she was invited to stay at the High House during part of her school holidays and very soon was given her own room. Her elderly and distant father had been clearly relieved; Sara had been irritated and contemptuous. She called it 'sucking up' but this new joy in finding genuine love and a sense of family was too great for Lottie to abandon simply in order to appease the volatile Sara, who now lived with Milo in married quarters near Warminster.
When their father died it seemed a natural transition for Lottie to make her home permanently at the High House. She loved it when Milo and Sara and baby Nicholas came to visit and, ashamed though she was to admit it, she loved it even more after the inevitable divorce had taken place and Milo came alone or with Nick. By the time Milo inherited the High House, Lottie was so much a part of it all that it seemed quite natural for them to continue to make theirhome together. Milo was a newly retired brigadier and Lottie was weekending from her publishing work in London, and it was then that Imogen and Matt became regular visitors, too.
Now, walking in the garden with her hands full of snowdrops, Lottie thought about Matt. He was uncannily like his father; a glance from his narrow brown eyes, the way his thick black hair was pushed into peaks by his restless fingers, these things could translate her back thirty years to remind her of that odd blend of happiness and heartache that belonged only to Tom. How hard it had been when he died not to be able to mourn openly; to be expected, instead, to comfort and support Helen whilst never showing for a moment the real pain of her own loss. The children had grown to depend on her as Helen had slipped further into despair and denial and silence. Lottie had brought the two of them down to the High House as often as she could to give Helen a respite from their demands and to allow Matt and Imogen freedom to run and shout and play, and she was deeply grateful to Milo for the all-embracing affection he showed these two little newcomers. Even Nick had enjoyed their visits, whilst trying to remain alert to his mother's warnings that these usurpers might steal his inheritance or worm their way into his father's affections.
Lottie turned back towards the house. She was worrying about Matt, still feeling that something cataclysmic was about to happen; yet she had no premonition of actual disaster, not that real dread she'd experienced when Tom had returned to Afghanistan. Matt had been a difficult child, prone to nightmares, terrified of being left alone. When his father died there had been an increase in his terrors, which took her own and Helen's combined efforts to overcome. That'swhen Helen had sold the house in Finchley and moved to the garden flat in Blackheath with Lottie as a lodger. It worked well for a while but even she had been unable to keep Helen balanced or protect her from the despair that tormented her. At least she'd been able to comfort Matt and settle him into his first school, and take care to ensure that Imogen was not infected by the overactive imagination that disturbed his sleep.
As he'd got older he'd managed his private demons with a stoic bravery that tore at Lottie's heart. One of his methods was to write little stories; these were generally about a child who was lost, or who had been abandoned, and was required to defend himself against a monster or an animal or a wicked magician. Behind the child stood an alter ego: a spirit child who protected the hero. These stories were odd and disturbing, and Matt's teachers were alternately impressed and anxious; none of them was surprised when he began to collect prizes for his essays or, later, got a scholarship to Oxford. He'd managed a first and gone straight into a publishing house and then, a year or two later, he'd begun the long slow work on his novel of fantasy fiction that had won him such acclaim. It wasn't really surprising, either, that he should be suffering from writer's block after such a huge success and Lottie was puzzled that she should be feeling this level of anxiety for him now that he had achieved so much. Yet experience refused to allow her to shrug it off. Perhaps when she saw him and talked to him she would have a better idea of the cause of it.
THE SUMMER HOUSE. Copyright © 2010 by Marcia Willett.