The cold sweet spring: ivy leaves shivering on the trunk of an old tree, and the sticky black buds of the ash outlined starkly against a pale, dazzling sky. On the high moor, half hidden amongst the bleached grass where larks nest, tiny pools brimmed with water – blue eyes winking each time a cloud crossed the sun. Deep down in the lanes, sheltered and secret, primroses and celandines glimmered amongst the roots of thorn and oak in the steep stony hedgerows.
In the car, travelling between Port Isaac and Blisland, Liv drove slowly, revelling in the glory of it all. This sparkling day, coming after weeks of rain and cold winds, was a gift that she accepted gratefully. She sang beneath her breath, window down, braking sharply as a little party of sheep stampeded and panicked ahead, imprisoned in the high-banked lane. Lambs at heel squeaked little plaints of fright whilst the old ewes trampled against a field gate, forcing their woolly skulls against the unyielding bars.
Liv skidded past in a wide arc and, peering in the mirror, saw them scrambling up the muddy bank and back into the field, barging their way between the strands of broken wire. She couldn’t blame them for seeking freedom; it was that kind of day.
‘Just dashing over to see Aunt Em,’ she’d said to Chris, shutting down the computer, pushing back her chair. ‘Shan’t be long.’
He’d grinned at her across the desk. ‘You’ve always been the same,’ he’d said. ‘I remember when we were at uni, the first ray of sunshine and you had to be out in it.’
She’d ignored the reference to their past – long past – intimacy. ‘Why do you think I said I’d help you and Val out?’ she’d retorted. ‘My sunshine fix was part of the package. Anyway, there’s nothing for me to do at the moment. Aren’t you feeling good? You should be. We’ve weathered our first bank holiday and everyone’s happy. See you later.’
She hadn’t waited for his reply; it was so necessary for her to be outside, with the chill April wind sliding over her skin and the warmth of the hot sun on her face. She’d hurried into her annexe to pick up her jacket and the bag of cakes for Aunt Em, and then into her little car and away on the road to St Teath. At once her spirits soared; passing through a landscape she’d known for thirty-two years she was so happy she felt frightened.
Testing herself, she thought about Chris. How much of her happiness was because she was working with him, living in the annexe next door to him and Val, seeing him each day?
‘Are you sure it will work, darling?’ her mother had asked anxiously. ‘I know that you and Val are friends too, but you and Chris were so close when you were at Durham. There was a time when we really thought you would make a go of it together.’
‘Honestly, Mum,’ she’d answered impatiently, ‘it’s no big deal. We’re all good mates, that’s all there is to it. It’s ten years since Chris and I were at uni together. He and Val have had enough of London and they want to sell up and move to the country. They’ve seen this place at Port Isaac and want to have a go at holiday letting. I can help them.’
And she had: making ready for letting the three little modernized barns that were grouped round the old farmyard, and planning and stocking up the little shop and restaurant complex which, in its prime position on the edge of Port Isaac, was bound to bring in visitors. Penharrow, the original house now occupied by Val and Chris, had a tiny apartment for Liv.
‘Stop fussing,’ she’d told her mother, ‘and tell Dad too. I always wanted to do something like this, only it would have been even better if it had been my own project rather than Val and Chris’s. It’s a terrific challenge and I’m loving every minute of it. I know Dad thinks I should be a lawyer or a doctor or something he can brag about, but I always wanted to stay here, in Cornwall, just like Charlie always wanted to work with horses on Uncle Robert’s farm in Hampshire and Zack wanted to be in the navy. Out of us all, only Andy is a city person and Dad worries about him too.’
‘He wants you all to be happy and secure. That’s reasonable, isn’t it? And he’s not really fussing. It’s just that he doesn’t want you to be living at Penharrow with Chris and Val for the rest of your life.’ Her mother had hesitated. ‘It can be dangerous,’ she’d said at last, ‘when two people have had a very close relationship.’
Now, driving to Blisland, Liv remembered her mother’s expression; as if she were remembering something particular – and painful.
‘But I’m not in love with Chris any more,’ she argued to herself. ‘It doesn’t apply.’ Yet she felt uncomfortable, knowing deep down that there was a tiny remnant of real affection, and knowing that Chris felt it too. Part of her happiness was due to the knowledge that she would see him later; sitting together at the big refectory table with glasses of wine, talking over the day. Val would be there, of course, but it was fun, something extra, that sense of past intimacy.
The fresh sweet air was intoxicating and she took one hand off the wheel to lift the thick fair hair from her neck so as to feel the cool breeze flow like water on her skin. She shivered, remembering how, a few nights back, Chris’s hand had rested lightly there on the back of her neck: a casual gesture made as he’d passed behind her chair to pour some wine, whilst at the same time addressing a remark to Val as she’d bent, flush-faced, at the open oven door. Before Val had straightened up he’d already moved on, filling his own glass now with the bottle he’d held in his other hand, and she, Liv, had sat for one heart-stopping moment as if immobilized by his touch. Something had happened then, for her at least, as if he’d shown that they weren’t just good friends but that something more still existed between them. He’d made no other sign, no indication that anything had changed, and later she’d told herself that she was attaching far too much importance to what had, after all, been nothing more than a friendly gesture as he’d leaned to fill her glass.
But why, she asked herself, had it excited her, filling her with a new kind of mad exultation? Because it reminded her of other more intimate caresses?
‘It can be dangerous,’ her mother had warned.
Liv shook her head in refutation: she would never do anything to hurt Val.
She drove for a while, thinking about Val. If she were to be absolutely honest, Val wasn’t exactly doing herself any favours just at the moment. The strain of having Penharrow ready for Easter had taken its toll on her patience: she’d panicked at the least thing, snapped at everybody and developed a series of bad headaches. It was to protect Val from nervous strain, Liv reminded herself, that she and Chris had spent even more time together, working every spare minute – and relaxing together too, while poor old Val lay on her bed in a darkened room knocked out by painkillers.
Liv experienced anxiety, guilt and defiance all in one burst. Pee po piddle bum. She remembered the silly nursery jingle that she and Andy still chanted in moments of frustration, and grinned to herself. She was imagining things, letting the stress of the last week addle her brain. She turned down the lane into Blisland, driving slowly round the village green where daffodils blossomed beneath the trees, and parked outside Aunt Em’s small pretty house. Picking up her bag and the cakes, she got out, locked the car and began to climb the steps up to the garden.
Since Liv’s telephone call (‘It’s such a fantastic day, Aunt Em. Can I come and have coffee later on? I’ll bring the cakes’), Em had been enjoying the especial pleasure that an unexpected treat bestows on the recipient. She was touched that Liv should want to spend such a morning with her when she might have gone shopping to Wadebridge or Truro, or simply spent it with friends of her own age. In the early months of widowhood after Archie’s death she’d imagined such visits to be the result of kindness, even pity, though she’d been grateful nevertheless. Now, ten years on, she was able to accept that the young came to see her because they actually wanted to; she’d ceased to ask why. She’d quickly realized that such questions merely demanded a constant reassurance from family and friends, which was tiresome for them: much better to accept without question and simply enjoy it.
How difficult it had been to make that act of acceptance: what a shock to realize that taking required a particular kind of generosity on her part. It was so much more satisfactory to be the bestower of gifts, the good fairy dispensing kindness, than to be the one who was obliged to be grateful. Gradually it occurred to her that it was her own perception of herself that influenced other people: she need not enter into a mindset that implied that because she was old and alone she was no longer worthy of other people’s time or friendship. She was still worthy of love: gratitude was not needed here; with her work in her garden and greenhouse and in her little studio she was always busy.
She still missed Archie quite dreadfully but she’d learned to manage the loneliness: twenty years as a naval wife had given her plenty of practice. Em smiled reminiscently, remembering how she’d clung to Archie in the early years of marriage, almost smothering him with thankfulness for loving her. Her own lonely, loveless childhood hadn’t prepared her for Archie’s brand of generous affection. Even after their relationship had settled into the normal pattern of a naval marriage – periods of separation punctuated by leaves and the occasional shore job – the joy of loving and receiving love had been tinged with anxiety. She’d settled into the routine but, despite her natural self-reliance that carried her through the long periods of loneliness, she’d still looked to Archie to fill that aching need for family, especially when it became agonizingly clear that they would have no children of their own. She’d waited eagerly for his retirement, when they would spend time together; the long, lonely hours would be filled with companionship, that tiny aching need would be satisfied and she’d be content at last.
She’d learned, however, that contentment was not something that could be supplied by other people: it couldn’t be grappled with and twisted to her need. On the contrary; she’d realized that it was achieved only by letting go; by accepting that she could not control Archie or force him into the pattern she wanted him to fit.
It was when she and Archie had moved from Trescairn to the cottage that she’d taken up a long-abandoned hobby. She’d unearthed her painting equipment, made a space for herself in the small spare bedroom and, once she’d proved to herself that she was still able to produce an adequate watercolour, she’d joined the local art class. One of the members was a retired art master from Truro who was glad to share his experience with the group, and Em enjoyed these sessions and the painting expeditions to Padstow to sketch the fishing boats in the harbour or to the Jubilee Rock to attempt to capture the golden flowering furze. She’d bought a small rucksack to hold her paintbox and a few brushes, along with a bottle of water to clean them, and a pad of watercolour paper. On such mornings, she’d make sandwiches and a Thermos of tea, pack a waterproof jacket and set off for a happy day sketching and painting. Sometimes the group would pay for a professional artist to give them an inspiring demonstration and celebrate it with a small party to which they’d all contribute some delicious teatime treat and a little gift for a lucky dip. It was fun, and Em liked her fellow artists; it was her own special thing and Archie encouraged her in it.
He’d been impressed by her work and had persuaded her to submit a painting for auction at a fund-raising event for the RNLI. When it was knocked down at forty-five pounds Em was shocked into silence whilst Archie was openly jubilant.
‘It’s simply because it’s for charity,’ she’d said on the drive home from Padstow. ‘Forty-five pounds. Madness!’
‘Not a bit of it,’ crowed Archie delightedly. ‘You had those ponies off to a T. And the clouds massing just behind the Tor. It was excellent. I wish we’d kept it. And to think I never knew you had all this talent.’
‘Nonsense,’ muttered Em.
A few days later she’d been approached by a local architect who asked her to design a Christmas card for his company.
‘It’s just because he’s one of your cronies,’ she’d said uncertainly to Archie. ‘I haven’t got the nerve to design a Christmas card.’
‘It’s nothing to do with me,’ Archie had replied. ‘He loved your painting and he thinks you’ve got talent. Have a crack at it.’
Nervously she’d made a sketch of Delford Bridge under snow, with a dipper perched on a boulder mid-stream, and washed it with soft colours of blue and grey. It was delicate, charming, and though she was privately pleased with it she was sick with anxiety lest it should be rejected. The architect had loved it, insisting on paying her for the original, which he’d had framed and hung in his office. She had felt a little thrill of pride; her small skill was raising her self-esteem and confirming her determination to work towards allowing Archie his freedom for charity work or to go sailing without any resentment on her part.
How exhilarating it had been to discover that by giving Archie freedom from what might have been a crushing affection she’d become the recipient of an even deeper love. Over the years, as her confidence had grown, so a new measure of happiness had developed between them. It had come as a shock, after his death, to realize that she must now apply all that she’d learned to the new painful, lonely business of being a widow; accepting kindness and love without being choked by the insidious creeping tentacles of self-pity.
Em went out through the garden room into the courtyard to see if it might be warm enough to have coffee in the garden – she knew how much Liv loved the sunshine – and decided that it would be. The little south-facing court, ringed by fields and sheltered from the chill breeze, was bright with tubs of daffodils and sweet-scented narcissi and the pretty flowers of the ‘Lady Clare’ camellia blooming on the tree by the wall.
‘Camellia,’ Archie had always cried impatiently. ‘It’s pronounced camellia. Not cameellia! How do you pronounce b e l l? Bell. How do you pronounce m e l l? Mell. Right, so it’s camellia.’
The whole family, impressed by his passion, had abided by his dictum.
Em set out the French wrought-iron table and chairs, heard the car approaching and went swiftly inside and through the house to meet Liv. Standing at the top of the flight of steep stone steps, watching her getting out of the car, Em’s heart gave a little painful tick: how like her mother, the young Julia, this beloved child was. How often Julia had come smiling up these steps, sometimes with Andy and Liv running ahead and Charlie astride her hip, or carrying some little offering as Liv did today.
‘Hi, Aunt Em.’ Holding the cakes aside, Liv leaned to kiss the older woman. ‘What a magic day. Can we be outside?’
‘We can indeed, my darling. Go on through. I’ll switch the coffee on and be right with you.’
As she decanted the cakes on to a plate, Em watched Liv as she stood for a moment in the sunny courtyard. Slender and supple, she tipped her face towards the sun, rising on her toes, stretching out her arms: the gesture reminded Em of some ancient ritual. Picking up the plate, she went out to her.
‘So how is life at Penharrow this morning? Clearly not too busy.’
Liv sat down. ‘I shouldn’t really be here,’ she admitted. ‘But it was such a fantastic day I simply couldn’t resist. I can always work on later if I need to.’
Excerpted from The Way We Were by .
Copyright © 2008 by Marcia Willett Limited.
Published in January 2010 by St. Martin’s Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.