|The English Roses: A Field of Green
Author: aims80 PM
Brenda's childhood is idylic in the countryside of Devon until a tragedy changes everything. A new life of hard work and pain and no more of the love she'd always known. Will she ever be free and loved again? Please R and R.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Romance - Chapters: 56 - Words: 228,657 - Reviews: 100 - Favs: 31 - Follows: 14 - Updated: 08-16-10 - Published: 04-11-05 - Status: Complete - id: 1883142
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Rochford, Norfolk, England, 1904.
I was sitting in a comfortable armchair by the big bay window in the sitting room, two blankets tucked severely around me and the fire roaring in the grate, looking out to the lawn stretching in front of the house. On the grass seven children, varying in age from two years to seventeen years, were running around, playing and laughing. There was also a small grouping of adults who were watching the children play and sometimes joining in. Squinting, as my eyesight was terrible in my old age, I could see the silver hair of my husband standing tall against the other adults. As I watched one of the children barreled up to him, almost knocking him over and he laughed and pretended to be angry and chased the girl around for a minute or so before stopping. He was 68 years old now and couldn't quite keep up with a child so well, but he still tried. And the children all loved him for that. If I could have joined in I would have, but I was unwell.
I knew I was dying but I hadn't told anyone that. Not my husband, not my children, not my stepchildren and certainly not my grandchildren. I knew I needed to tell my husband and my adult children. But just not yet. I wanted them to have a little longer living in ignorant bliss. I didn't want to have them always fussing around me- although my husband did that, he just thought the doctor's recent visits were because I was feeling a little under the weather. I'd forbid the doctor from telling anyone anything about the true state of my health until I decided it was time. Everyone I loved, my whole family, had lost someone they'd loved. Luke, Linda, Frank and I had lost Jack. Anthony, Joshua, Victoria and Andrew had lost their wife and mother respectively. So I wanted to let them have just that little bit longer before they knew everything was going to change.
After Jack died I had not expected to love another man like I'd loved him. I'd thought that I'd never find that sort of love again after losing Jack but I'm pleased to say I was wrong. Five years after Jack had died I'd married Anthony Mason. Our love had been a gradual thing. After he'd helped me out with the situation with Charles Neville we had seen each other occasionally and he'd often sent me letters to ask how the children and I were coping and if he could do anything to help. I'd thought he was simply being a friend or that he had respected Jack and liked me and felt guilty about asking me to leave my position in his household. Or possibly both. However I soon came to realise his interest was more romantic. At first I resisted. It had only been two and a half years since my husband had died and I thought that allowing myself to love another man would diminish the meaning of my marriage to Jack and make my love for him seem moot. But Anthony understood I needed time and he was actually prepared to wait. He reminded me he'd been there before- when he lost his wife he'd thought he'd never love another woman, but then he said things had changed, he'd met me. So we took it slow, being friends first, and gradually spending more time together and coming to love one another so completely that we knew the only thing we could do was to get married and spend the rest of our lives together. The day I became Brenda Mason was a perfect day. It was like I'd been given a second chance at love, having a husband and a family together and I vowed never to take it for granted. And I haven't in those 17 years of life with Anthony. As if he had sensed my gaze on him, feeling my fond eyes on the back of him, my husband turned around and smiled and then waved to me. I waved back and blew him a kiss, which he pretended to pocket like it was a real thing.
After Charles signed the contract giving me power over all of Jack's affairs and promising to not interfere in my life without my express permission, nor try to take control of it, the children and I had moved into an inner-city house where we had the whole top floor to ourselves, another young family had had the second floor, and the elderly landlords had lived on the bottom floor. I'd wanted to stay in the cottage but in my heart I knew that Charles was at least right about one thing- and that was the longer we stayed the less money we'd have. Even so leaving the cottage and leaving trees, and grass, and backyards was hard. It took a good year or so for Luke, Linda, Frank and I to get used to it. I had continued working for Lord Pemberton- and through him I heard that Charles had left the company completely but I didn't know any details about his departure- and I also worked in an accountancy firm as a secretary two days a week, and every second Saturday I manned a market stall which was owned by my faithful old maid Vera and her husband who had his own farm in the Lancashire countryside and supplied shops and restaurants in Liverpool, as well as the morning weekend market.
I had not had the money to send Luke to Saint Paul's but after Anthony and I married Anthony paid for Luke, then Linda, and then Frank to attend good schools. Both Luke and Frank had gone to a London boarding school once they completed their early education and though I missed them terribly for the five years they spent their school terms in London the sacrifice of closeness had gotten them both into university which they excelled in. I would go up to London on the train a couple of times a year to spend a Sunday with the boys and sometimes Linda or Anthony would come too. Linda didn't go away to school as most female children don't, so having her still in the house was some consolation, but she went to the best girl's school in Liverpool and graduated in the top ten percent of her class.
When Anthony and I had married the children and I gave up our rooms and moved into his house, which wasn't quite as grand as the one in London but was still something amazing to see and live in. With his London home being mostly closed up he made the decision to sell it and instead he bought a much smaller one which was the right size for the little time he spent in the capital city. He also had small places in Edinburgh and Southampton, both of which cities he had yards in as his business expanded. And the coup de grace: we spent summer holidays in the Norfolk countryside in a home he bought that was a stunning old home built in the reign of King Henry VIII of England in the 1500's and owned by a noble family until the early 1800's. Once the children had grown up, left home, and had their own families we moved down to Norfolk full time and the Liverpool home was kept for when Anthony was in Liverpool, or when any of my children and stepchildren were in the city and needed somewhere to stay. Anthony was still running his business for the first few years of our time in Rochester which meant he spent more of his time in the four cities overseeing his business and we were apart often. Frequently I would travel with him, or meet him in one of the cities for a week or two. Finally, only seven years ago, when he was 59 he stepped back completely from running the company in any major capacity and instead was consulted on decisions and received reports from the various yards and sections in all four of his yards, but left the day to day running to someone else. His eldest son Joshua stepped in and was currently in charge of the London yards which also housed the offices of the entire operation. And Andrew was in charge of the Liverpool yards which were the biggest in terms of the amount of ships built. Both would one day in the not too distant future, be in charge of all of Mason ships.
I'd worried that the children wouldn't accept my remarrying but by that point they had come to know Anthony well and even to love him as not their biological father or a replacement for the father they'd lost, but as their stepfather. The only child to express any unhappiness about my growing relationship with Anthony was Linda. She resisted becoming too friendly with him, and she'd be quick to point out if he asked her to do something or suggested she shouldn't do something that he was not her father and had no right to tell her what to do. I was ashamed and angry about it but Anthony assured me it didn't matter and that she'd come around eventually. And so she did, after I told her that Anthony had asked me to marry him and I had accepted but that I needed her to be okay with it before I went ahead with the planning. I'd assumed her reservation came from her fear that her father was being replaced in our family and her disliking the idea of me marrying someone that wasn't Jack. I'd been wrong. She held back from liking and accepting Anthony because she thought that if she allowed herself to love him and she lost him like she'd done her father it would be too painful, she just didn't want to go through that ever again. For a girl who had lost her father at four and was still only nine it wasn't all that surprising. But once were married everything was perfect.
Anthony's children had also been supportive of the new marriage and they had lived in the Liverpool house with us, although at that point Joshua was away at Eton for most of the year. Anthony had offered to send Luke and Frank to Eton, like Joshua and Andrew would do, but Luke had expressed desire to go to this other school instead, primarily because he'd managed to get a partial scholarship there and was proud of that fact. Frank went to the same school so he could follow in his big brother's footsteps. Victoria and Linda were eleven years apart but seemed to be closer in age and both took to having a sister instead of just two brothers very quickly and spent much of their time together.
I'd been lost down memory lane but a sudden shout from the lawn brought me back to the present. I saw that one of the girls was squealing loudly in consternation at something one of her cousins had done but she was quickly back to her usual sunny self once she got plenty of attention from her parents, aunts and uncles and grandfather and the games were back on.
I looked at the three faces that, next to my beloved husband, I loved best. That's not to say I didn't love my stepchildren and their children, or the grandchildren of my children, but I was incredibly close to Luke, Linda and Frank still. I think it was because we went through hard times together but came out on top that we were so close. None of my friends, none of my social circle during the infrequent times that Anthony and I spent in London, were so close to their grown up children.
There was a knock on the open sitting room door and Nora, a housemaid in the home, came into the room. "Mrs. Mason, there's a letter 'ere that just arrived for ya. Do ya want anything to drink or to eat or another blanket if ya not warm enough?" She asked.
I took the letter from her and told her I was fine as I was, besides which I thought that everyone would likely come inside soon as now that the sun had begun it's descent in the sky, lengthening the shadows of the trees by the lawn, everyone would begin to come inside and some would then leave on their journey back to their own homes. Nora nodded and left the room.
I opened the letter and withdrew the one sheet which was about three-quarters written on. It was from Lady Constance Pemberton, the wife of my former employer and friend Lord Randolph Pemberton. Constance Wheeler and Lord Pemberton had married three years after Jack died and theirs was a rocky relationship, although it was firmly based in love and indeed they had more love for one another than many other marriages have. Constance, now in her early 80's, lived with her stepson and his wife, and their daughter. Her stepson and her daughter-in-law had cared for both Constance and Lord Pemberton in their ailing health until eight months ago when Lord Pemberton had deterioted rapidly and terribly and had been admitted to a hospital for around the clock care, something his son and daughter-in-law had not been equipped to give. But Constance was remarkably spry for someone her age and indeed I thought she was likely in better health than me at 54. I unfolded the sheet, put my spectacles on, and read it to myself:
I hope this letter finds you and Anthony both well, as well as the children and grandchildren.
I'm afraid I write this with a heavy heart for I have bad news to dispatch- my husband has lost his fight with illness and passed away after a second stroke yesterday in the middle of the night.
Randolph often spoke fondly of your first husband Jack, even in his old age, and he also spoke with some affection of you. Though we have not seen you for almost ten years I felt you would want to know about his passing.
My own health is good. In fact the doctor considers it extraordinary for a woman to be at my old, old age and have no major sicknesses. I think it quite likely that Richard and Jane believe they will never get rid of me and get this house to themselves with Anne who is now thirteen and quite precocious- although I would never confess that in front of my stepson and my daughter-in-law and I feel sure I can trust you not to betray my confidence there. (Especially considering you do not see either of them now you live in the middle of nowhere which I would find dreadfully dull if I were you!)
I worry that Anne will grow up into a young woman who is spoiled, and completely knowledgeable about how pretty she is and how beautiful she will be as a young woman instead of a girl and how to use that beauty for her own means and to get her own way in this world. Her education has been fine but she is not inclined towards study nor does she have the concentration to be intelligent. My beloved husband worried about her too, right up until the day he died, but neither Richard nor Jane seem to be concerned about the adult she will become and both let her have her way far too often. I compare her to a stallion I saw my mother break when no man could do it and the job was given up on as too hard, nay impossible: wild, impulsive and only interested in fun. But I do not wish to trouble you with my petty burdens, especially not considering I have just been the bearer of bad news to you.
Richard is now the new Lord Pemberton and Jane the new Lady Pemberton. Which leaves me simply as Mrs. Constance Pemberton. Not that I begrudge either of them their new titles: both have been simply marvelous in looking after Randolph and I for many years now. Without them I shudder to think what would have become of me.
I must close here, my dear Brenda, as I find myself too overcome in writing this unhappy letter. I just wanted to let you know about Randolph's passing. Please say a prayer in his name or light a candle in Church.
I put the letter aside to show Anthony later and find myself shedding a couple of private tears for the former Lord Pemberton. I would never forget him because not only had he given Jack a job but he'd also been one of the only employers in the shipyards of Liverpool- and no doubt indeed the whole of England- to hire a woman in any capacity at that point in time. And I hoped I had repaid him by being loyal to him after Jack's unexpected death. Even after I married Anthony I continued to work for Lord Pemberton for another few years, though Anthony had repeatedly told me that I had no need for working, because I liked the small money it paid and the idea of being slightly financially independent. The other jobs I had given up after we returned from our honeymoon which was delayed for almost a month after the wedding to allow for our moving into Anthony's home. Vera, who had not been working for me since fifteen months after the children and I had moved into our rooms in the city and been no longer able to afford to pay her wages, had stayed at the Mason home to look after my children as well as Andrew who was sixteen at the time and had been home from his boarding school for the summer holidays.
After she left my employ Vera had gained a parlourmaid position in one of the largest homes in Liverpool with my excellent character for her as well as Anthony vouching for her work ethic and integrity and at the time of my wedding she had worked her way up to under-housemaid. She still lives in Liverpool with her husband who is a police officer, and their twin sons, and we communicate on a semi-regular basis. As I did with my former cook, Mrs. Haigh, who died a few years ago back in Scotland after she lost her husband. Of my groom and driver, my occasional laundrymaid, I know nothing.
I also regularly communicated with Nellie. Not long after Jack died she lost Adam in a tragic accident on the street right in front of his home. She told me that he had been conducting an affair with a woman named Georgina for a long time before his sudden death. It wasn't that she was jealous, but rather the fact that the whole drama played itself out in public; the news was common knowledge in their circle, indeed in London society, that Adam was looking to someone else for his needs. Nellie said that was the worst part: that everyone knew, and that they all thought she must have known too since Adam was incredibly indiscreet about it. A year after Adam died Nellie married Robert, her deceased husband's best friend and the man she'd been secretly in love with for years. I was so glad at how well everything had worked out for her. I'd never stop feeling guilty about the way I had treated Nellie when I first met her and for the first few years that I knew her, but her happiness now soothed that guilt somewhat. I hadn't known Robert well since I was just a maid and he was the friend and equal of the younger master of the home, but I had always got the impression that he was a kind and genuine man, very decent. The fact that he looked after Nellie and her children after Adam's death, before they were even openly courting and considering a marriage, proved it.
Thinking of Nellie and her children made me think about my own. My eyes sought out Luke, Linda and Frank, and then also journeyed to where Victoria was standing. Neither of my stepsons, Joshua and Andrew, were here today, but Joshua worked in London and Andrew in Edinburgh. I considered myself extremely blessed to have my three children as well as Anthony's three children in our lives.
Luke was 33 now, a married father of three, and he was a teacher at Eton. It had been an unexpected career choice, especially considering he had thought to go into the Mason shipbuilding firm, like the stepfather he loved and respected. But in his second year at Cambridge University he confessed to me that he didn't want to seem ungrateful to his stepfather and if I insisted or he insisted he'd go to work for the business and give it his all and be good at it, but what he really wanted to do was to teach. He told me about one of his teacher's at high school who had inspired him to actually question the world rather than just accepting it. Instead of writing essays praising the policy of the government, the teacher told him to examine it more closely- both the positives and the negatives- and think of how things could be better because in everything there was always room for improvement. I was not in the least disappointed when Luke told me his dream and I assured him Anthony would not be either and he must do what he knew he'd love to do. And Anthony was not disappointed, as I predicted, and told Luke that if he changed his mind in the future he could always get a job in Mason Ships. Standing close by Luke's side was his wife, Miranda. Miranda was a very quiet and reserved person and I noticed that in social situations she would stick to Luke's side rather than go and start her own conversations. It had taken her a few years of marriage for her to open up to me. It was really only when she first found herself with child that I saw her true personality as she giggled with excitement and asked me question after question on pregnancy, childbirth and rearing children, storing it all inside her mind for future reference. She was still shy around people she didn't know, and even those she did know were used to the fact that she wouldn't be one to start a conversation or raise her voice or do anything to draw attention to herself. She was the complete opposite to Luke but, amazingly, the combination of the two of them worked perfectly. As I watched Linda said something to her that made her laugh and then the two of them wandered off a little way, talking avidly. I smiled at that, glad that motherhood had torn down some of the barriers she erected between herself and others- even family. Luke and Miranda had three children, all of them girls, the eldest was seven and the youngest were twin four year olds. Luke and his little family lived a fair distance from Norfolk so we saw them infrequently but every week, without fail, I'd get a thick envelope from them and inside it I'd get a letter from Luke, sometimes one from Miranda, and without fail something from each of the girls. For the eldest it was usually a letter, the twins would send combinations of pictures they'd drawn and a few sentences they'd dictated to their mother or father since they'd not yet learned to write much more than their own names and a few words of choice.
I was watching Linda with Miranda and thought that the relationship she now shared with her sister-in-law was something like the one she'd shared with her stepsister, Victoria. Linda was now 31 and a married mother of one, a three year old son. Her husband Eric was a doctor in London's best hospital and she worked as a volunteer nurse in the hospitals devoted to the poor folk of London who had the same diseases as the rich, but many of their own unique sicknesses too, due to the lack of food, clothes, and a roof over their head. That was how she first met Eric. Linda was late to marry and I think even she had given up hope of being a wife and mother. Though I never said as much I too had worried greatly that she wasn't going to get to fulfill the two roles that she most wanted in life. She'd made light of it, said that her nursing work was her calling and would be the most important thing she'd do in her life, but I saw the sadness beyond the surface. I regularly confessed my concerns to Anthony and he'd remind me every time that a woman didn't have to be a wife and mother for her life to mean something. So when she met Eric I was delighted. He was extremely driven and very ambitious but it wasn't a matter of his just not finding the right woman to marry until he met Linda, but rather that it was his career that mattered. Which was exactly why he and Linda were such a perfect match. I'd rejoiced when they married and when Linda had given birth to their son at a later age than usual for childbearing. Unfortunately it had been a very bad labour and Linda had lost far too much blood and hovered on the brink of death for a week afterwards, although the baby was resilient and never in any medical danger. It was so bad that Anthony and I had gone to London to say our goodbyes and Eric had had a priest at her bedside. It was a miracle when she suddenly began to get better and within a few days was fully recovered and only had to spend another week in hospital before she and Eric got to take their son home. But Linda was told she could never carry another baby to term without possibly killing herself and endangering the baby and after one scare where she missed two of her courses an operation was performed to ensure she would not be biologically able to conceive again. She slipped into a bit of a depression then, grieving for the babies she would not ever have, but the love of her family made her realise she was luckier than many, many women in England- like those she nursed back to health and the equal or even greater number of those she lost.
I couldn't see from this distance whether or not Linda was wearing the bracelet I had given her. I couldn't even tell whether my children, grandchildren and husband were smiling or frowning- even with my spectacles still on! But I was sure she was. I had given her the bracelet I had treasured for so many years, the one which had been all I'd had of my own mother, when she turned sixteen. I told her the story about the bracelet, and how it might not be much when compared to the jewelry we saw daily, but how it had been a reminder to me that my mother had died but had fought to hang on long enough for me to be born. Her love for me had, ultimately, been the only thing she was able to really give me, apart from this one piece of jewelry. So to me the bracelet symbolized the unbreakable bond between mother and child and when I held it with one hand while it was on my other wrist and closed my eyes I could almost be back in the countryside of Devon, with Plymouth not too far from where I was. After that story Linda had worn the bracelet every day. She only took it off when she was going to bed, bathing, or working where it might be stolen as indeed often happened working in the slums or with people who were so used to having to steal to survive that even in hospital they'd be inclined to steal anything they could take and pawn. And though she had been given far better pieces of jewelry as she grew up, from Anthony and myself, and then from Eric, that bracelet was always her most treasured thing. She told me that having no daughter she would hopefully be able to pass it on to a granddaughter down the track.
My eyes left my only daughter and went to where my youngest child was standing, laughing with his brother and the man he considered his father since he'd been too young to remember Jack with any clarity. Frank was now 28 and a widower with two young children, a four year old daughter and a two year old son. If it had broken my heart to see my son lose his beloved wife it had done so doubly for Frank. His reaction hit far too close to home for me, touching a raw nerve that had never ever healed. It was like history repeating although Emma had not died in childbirth but rather from pneumonia. Suddenly Frank was only 26, with an infant and a toddler, and all alone. The only consolation was that he didn't live too far from Anthony and I and we took him and the two children in while he got himself back together and his life back on track. Frank was probably the smartest of my three children and had begun studying law at Oxford. But in his second year a visiting professor at the university offered him a job in his office. And that professor is now a member of parliament and the talk is he will be the next leader of this country. And Frank is his protégé. Although his job suffered when his wife died and he left London to come and stay in Norfolk for almost four months. It took Frank a lot of work to get his job back and to regain the trust of the professor. But he did it. And that was eighteen months ago. Since then Frank has gained considerable experience and is being paid a lot of money for someone who didn't even finish university. I looked at him carefully and then put my spectacles back on to see more clearly. Frank was the child I worried about the most considering Luke and Linda had their wife and husband respectively to help look after them, and Frank had not yet considered remarrying, nor met any woman he'd consider it with. I was sure, in time, he would though. The reason I was looking so carefully at him was to check his expression. I felt relieved to see him laugh loudly at something his step-sister Victoria said and then at something his step-father said.
I took the glasses off and placed them on the table next to me and I closed my eyes. I was incredibly tired and I found in the last few weeks even doing hardly anything exhausted me. The doctor had told me it would only get worse, but I resisted changing my habits too much, lest Anthony notice I was sick. Mind you both he and I were getting on so we were considerably slower than we'd been a few years ago.
We often talked about what legacy we'd leave behind us when we left this earth. For me it was my happy children and grandchildren, for Anthony it was his happy children and grandchildren and Mason Ships. I was convinced that Mason Ships was his fourth child. That was the one regret I had in this life- that Anthony and I had not been blessed with having a child together. I'd wanted it so desperately and so had he- though he was never fervent in that desire because he didn't want to upset me or put any pressure on me. It wasn't that I didn't consider my three children and his three children enough, because I did. I treated Joshua, Victoria and Andrew just as well as I treated the children I had given birth to. But, for me, a baby with Anthony would just complete our family perfectly; it would bring the two families together forever. Once I knew it would never happen I admit I was upset frequently. Naively I thought I hid it well enough from my husband and my children. But Anthony was the one to snap me out of it. He asked my permission to formally adopt Luke, Linda and Frank, to make them Mason's rather than Neville's. I was in two minds about it but I was touched by the gesture. Anthony was showing me that even if he and I did not have a child together, we still had six children in this little blended family. I had to think about it for awhile because I wondered whether it would be disrespectful to Jack and would deny the children's heritage. Would making them Masons, officially, make it as though they'd been Anthony's own children rather than Jack's? I realised though that Jack wouldn't ask me to keep his surname for our children because it was just a name, it didn't mean he wasn't their father. Jack had told me that after he had been gone a little while I should find another man to love, another man to marry. I'd been annoyed at his bringing up such an indelicate matter but he'd insisted I at least know his feelings. I liked to think that Jack was looking down on us and he approved of the man I'd chosen to be with. He had liked Anthony well enough when working for him. And, although he had been a little hurt and a little mad at Anthony's ultimatum for him and for me, I thought he would still know that Anthony was a good man, and his motives were pure and his intentions good.
The one good thing that came out of my inability to have another child with my new husband was helping Linda through her own health issues in that area. I understood her frustration with not being with child once she'd been married awhile, and then I understood how the news that she couldn't have another child hit her so hard. Mind you I thought that considering how sick she'd been after she gave birth that there was no way she'd even want to go through that experience again and risk loosing not only her life but the baby's. That was not too clever on my part considering I had often thought how I'd give up so much for the chance to be a mother for the fourth time with my second husband. But destiny had another plan for me: I was only to give birth to three children, with Jack, though I gained three other children through my marriage with Anthony.
I had thought of Jack often lately. I think it was because I knew I was getting closer to seeing him again. I wondered whether he would still be waiting for me even though I had been forced to live a long lifetime without him, and had found another man to love. I thought he probably would be.
"Brenda?" A voice asked.
I jumped and made a noise of shock. With my eyes closed I hadn't seen anyone enter the room. Victoria was looking at me with concern. "I should've made some noise. I didn't know you were asleep." She said, coming over to my side.
"I wasn't asleep…at least I don't think I was." I replied.
She crouched down in front of me, so our eyes were level. "I just wanted to say goodbye. We've got to get going now or we'll miss the train back up north." She told me.
"I suppose Hamish will meet you at the other end." I said.
Victoria nodded. "We've got the overnight train so hopefully we can get some sleep on the journey. We paid extra for sleeping seats because I knew Angus would no doubt want to sleep on the way back home. It never fails to amaze me how a seventeen year old boy- no, man- sleeps so much. I'm 47, I should be sleeping." She laughed. "Anyway, we'll try to get back down in a few months. I know that Sarah wants to bring the baby down to meet her great grandparents."
Victoria and her husband Hamish had two children, one of who had recently married and had a child of her own, making Victoria a grandmother, and my dear Anthony a great-grandfather. Hamish had worked in the Mason Ship's Scottish office and worked his way up. And when he was in Liverpool for some business at the yard there Victoria stopped in to see her father and, as Anthony tells it, the moment Hamish and Victoria laid eyes on one another he knew they'd be together forever. I liked Hamish the moment I was introduced to him as Victoria's beau when he began to court her. He was raised in one of the poorest parts of Edinburgh, so he'd been taught to work hard, and he'd proceeded to do just that for Mason Ships before being given a position of great prestige in the company and he was now the chief engineer for the entire company, based in Scotland, but travelling to the other yards regularly. There had been a bit of a problem when Andrew had wanted that role too. Joshua was already working in the business by that point, and Hamish had been there even longer than Joshua, but Andrew had only been there for less than a year. But Anthony told him he'd have to learn the business from the ground up so that one day he and Joshua would be joint presidents. Andrew had accepted his father's decision with only a little complaint and had grudgingly begun on the bottom rung. While Joshua was married and had a son Andrew had not yet married- although I had been told through friends who still lived in Liverpool that he had been seen regularly with a young debutante who was heir to a pretty sizeable mining dynasty.
"I'd like that. I'd love to meet her. And I know Anthony is desperate to meet his great-granddaughter." I told Victoria.
She looked at me thoughtfully, her head tipped slightly to the side. "You do know that Sarah considers you her great-grandmother, right? Not Mum. As long as Sarah has been alive she's seen you as her grandmother. Just like Joshua, Andrew and I consider you a mother rather than a stepmother." She said.
To my embarrassment I felt my eyes begin to water. "That's very sweet. And I consider you three my children too." I told her earnestly.
"I know." She said with a smile. She stood up and groaned as her knee cracked. "So, we'll see you soon. Right?"
"Definitely." I agreed automatically. But I suddenly felt- out of the blue- that I wouldn't see Victoria soon and probably wouldn't ever meet the baby that was my only great-granddaughter thus far. I don't know how I knew this, I just knew it. As surely as day would turn into night.
For a moment I wanted to tell Victoria to tell Sarah's child that her great-grandmother loved her very much. But I knew that to do so would be to give away my big secret. If Victoria knew I was dying then she would not keep it to her self- she'd tell Anthony first, then Luke, Linda, Frank, Joshua and Andrew. And I knew that each of the six children would spend a lot more time in Norfolk with me. While I loved my children and grandchildren dearly, more than I had ever known was possible, I also loved the peace and quiet of this country home, and the easy, quiet companionship with my beloved husband.
"Take care of yourself Brenda." Victoria said. She leant over to kiss my forehead and went to leave the room. But on the threshold she stopped and turned back around. "Brenda?"
"Yes sweetheart?" I asked. My eyes reluctantly didn't return to the window, but rather to the doorway.
"Have you seen the doctor?" Victoria asked.
I was too shocked to reply. I just stared at her incredulously.
"Well?" She demanded.
I hesitated. Oh how nice it would be to tell the truth, to have Victoria- and by extension the whole family- know and have the burden of my impending death and my fears at it being painful and scary, not entirely of my own. But I had made my decision and I wasn't going to waste time second-guessing it. I would tell them, I'd never be so cruel as to deny them that knowledge so they'd hopefully cope better with losing another parent, and get the chance to say their goodbyes and me mine. It just wasn't the right time. I needed a little longer. I'd tell them at the end of the month. I felt guilty that that telling would be done via a letter rather than in person but it would be too hard to do it in person when my family was spread out all over England and Scotland. I knew I was using the logistics as somewhat of an excuse but it mattered little. "Yes. I'm fine. Nothing to worry about. I'm just getting old." I told Victoria.
For a minute I saw she didn't believe me and she wanted to challenge me and I held my breath. But then, instead, she nodded. "Okay. But promise me if you feel unwell or just not right you will call for the doctor immediately."
I went to bed early that night, once my children and grandchildren had all departed. We were about a forty-five minute carriage ride from the city where they'd all catch their various trains back to their homes and lives. Once everyone was gone Anthony and I sat down to eat but I had little appetite, which wasn't unusual for me lately. We talked about how well and happy all our family were looking, and how nice it was to have so many of us in the one place- something that happened rarely.
"It does happen rarely. Tell me how it happened today? It's not like it's anyone's birthday, it's no special holiday or special occasion. So how?" I'd asked, wondering how on earth I had not seen this earlier and had not questioned it before now.
Anthony had had the good grace to look abashed. "I organized it. I thought you might like it." He'd admitted.
"I did. I loved it. But why did you do it for me?" I'd pushed, determined to get an answer.
When it came it was not the one I had expected, it was a complete and utter shock. "I did it because I know." Anthony had replied. At my raising and enquiring eyebrow he'd added, "I know you're sick, Brenda. I know you're really sick."
"How?" I'd asked quietly.
"I've got eyes. And the maid admitted, when I asked, that the doctor had been four other times than the one I knew about. And all of them in the last month. I went to see the doctor and at first he wouldn't tell me anything, said he didn't have permission. But I persisted and told him I needed to know what was going on with my wife. And he relented. Why didn't you tell me, love?" Anthony had asked.
"I was going to." I'd said softly.
"You should have told me. I shouldn't have had to hear from the doctor that my wife is…dying." Anthony had said, having trouble with the last word of his sentence.
"I know. I was wrong. How long have you known?" I'd asked, a little curious.
"Four days. Did the doctor tell you what is wrong with you? Or whether it can be fixed?" Anthony had asked, looking for hope even though I knew he knew deep in his heart it was a hopeless case.
"It can't be fixed. He won't give me a time limit on how long I've got left. But he did say I wouldn't be very likely to make Christmas." I'd answered.
Anthony had sworn and ran a hand across his face. "Oh Brenda…"
"Don't. Please don't. Not yet anyway." I'd begged him. The irony of not wanting to do this when it was Jack dying was not lost on me.
"But how will I know when it is time?" Anthony had asked.
"I'll tell you. I promise." I'd assured him.
"Okay. But let me say this at least: I love you Brenda Mason. I never expected to get a second chance in love after my wife died. But I got it. And I thank God daily for that. I made a life with you, a home with you, and raised a family with you. And I consider myself extremely blessed for that. Now…I don't know about you, but I'm a little tired after today. I think it might be time for bed." Anthony had said.
Now, lying in bed, I thought about what I'd say to Anthony when the time came to say it. Thanks seemed so inadequate. I love you, so obvious. You brought me back to life and fixed my heart, too clichéd. I had a little while to think of what to say, God willing.
I'd also thought of my father some these past few weeks. He was dead now, leaving behind myself, a widow and another child. While we had not reconciled I had forgiven his actions. Carrying a grudge forever wasn't healthy. It had actually been Anthony's idea for me to find out what happened to him. Obviously Anthony knew the whole story and how my father had used me and stolen my money for his gambling debts and his fondness for alcohol usually before placing such bets, and pretty much all the time. The first time Anthony mentioned wondering if his father-in-law was still alive and whether he'd approve of him was not long after we married. And, after then, he mentioned it occasionally, usually about once or twice a year. Each time I shut him down. But he was patient. And persistent. And, after six years of marriage, I finally realized that the reason Anthony kept mentioning it wasn't because he was curious about the man who had fathered his wife, and then promptly left her in the care of an Aunt and later on broken her heart. It was because he knew I needed to know, knew that I wanted to know, despite my claims otherwise. So together we tracked him down. It was hard and took almost two years. After all we'd only had a destination from over fifteen years ago. And my father had been inclined to move around a bit. I'd assumed, as a child, he did that because he went where the work was, but now I thought it more likely that he moved to avoid paying his debts and when employers in the city got word of how he preferred to drink and gamble than work hard.
We tried a few different avenues of investigation. Anthony worked contacts in different cities. I put together a list of all the places he'd lived and all the places he'd worked, which really only covered the first sixteen years of my life, and then a couple of years when I was a bit older and working at the Hamilton's which was where he found me and took the money. I often said I would have given him some if he'd been up front with me because, regardless of why he needed the money so desperately, he was still my only surviving parent- my only surviving relative even- and I would have wanted to keep him out of trouble. But I would not have given him my entire savings. I would have given him enough to help and then he would have had to work for the rest. Eventually we decided to hire a detective to find him. The first two failed, the third, who was a retired police officer of some note, found him. He was living in Leeds, remarried and with another daughter, working sometimes, drinking and gambling always. Once I had the information it was up to me whether or not I used it.
It took me almost six months to finally act on it, and to draft a letter I wrote over and over for days. In the end I stuck to the basics. I told him what had happened with me since we'd last seen each other- leaving the job at the Hamilton's for a promotion as housekeeper at the Mason's, meeting and marrying Jack, moving to Liverpool to start our lives together, having our three beautiful children, Jack's untimely death, the struggle to cope afterwards, my marrying Anthony Mason, his plans to expand his business to a third yard in either Southampton or Wales, and my content with how my life had turned out finally. I told him I knew he had married again and that I had a half-sister. I did not mention that I knew his second wife was a lot younger than him, younger than me even. Nor did I mention that Mason Ships was making a decent amount of money because I didn't want him to suddenly become interested in my life again simply to get more money. If he wanted to be involved in my life, in a limited capacity though as it was all I could offer to the father who had hurt me badly before, I wanted it to be because he wanted to have a relationship with his daughter. I wanted to know about his new wife and daughter. I didn't put anything in the letter about how I had been told that he continued his old tricks with the drinking and gambling and that he'd been described, at the politest, as a degenerate and a conman. But that even so it was common knowledge that his marriage was good and true, and that he was close to his daughter. That part bothered me, even though I didn't want it to. I kept wondering what it was about his new daughter that made him stay in her life and be so close to her, while having not hesitated to leave me and later steal from me. Did it say something about me, rather than him? Eventually I decided that maybe his new wife surviving was the crucial part. Had my mother lived maybe I would have had that father-daughter relationship. My life might have been completely different. I might not have met Jack and had my children, and then fallen in love with Anthony. Because I couldn't imagine a life without that I put my thoughts out of my mind completely and permanently.
I admit I was surprised when a reply letter came, despite my having asked him to reply in the one I sent. It was nowhere the size of mine and was a little stilted and formal considering the lack of relationship we had. In it he told me, briefly, about his wife and daughter. And told me that he had a better job at the moment then he'd had in awhile and he hoped he could remain at it for the rest of his life. "It's more money than I have ever earned before and I often think I'm actually not worth that much. I'm trying to cut down on my drinking and gambling. My new wife and daughter have pleaded with me many times. But it was the day I saw fear and even some disgust in my daughter's eyes that I knew I had to try and stop. I'm not perfect, I still do both. But just not so much." He wrote. And he also expressed some regret at what had happened with us. "You looked so much like your Mum when you were a child that I had to stay away because I knew if I stayed with you I'd never cope, and I'd drink to numb not only the pain of losing her but to be able to look at you without feeling that pain. I regret not being a father to you then. Or ever." But he glossed over the incident with stealing my money, and mentioned instead being sorry about hurting me in London. And he ended with an offer to pay back the money he'd stolen. "I wouldn't be able to do it all at once because I need money to support my family; to make sure they've got food in their bellies, a roof over their head, and clothes on their backs. But I could send you a little bit every now and then, maybe once a month or every second month. If you want. To make up for what I did." He finished with another apology and told me that he was glad to hear I'd managed to make a good life for myself and to find a good man to marry and have children with.
I wrote back to tell him that he didn't need to pay the money back. And I told him that I accepted his apologies and while I had not completely forgotten, I had certainly forgiven his actions. And, on an impulse, I also said that I would be glad to have a relationship with him now, and for my children to have a relationship with their grandfather as he was the only grandparent they had, for all intents and purposes. And that I'd also like to know my sister. I'd not had any plans to have any kind of relationship with him when I'd first made the plans to find out if he was alive and where he was, nor when I decided to actually contact him after a few months of agonizing over the decision. But after his letter I thought maybe we could keep in contact occasionally. Like two people who were father and daughter, two people who were related and tied by blood bonds.
But my father never wrote back. Clearly he didn't want to have a relationship with me and he'd only replied to my letter to let me know he was all right, well and happy even, and to tell me he regretted what he did to me. Though I had noted that he'd never apoligised for stealing my money, and his apology about my childhood had been hollow and had clearly been an excuse to make himself believe he wasn't the worst father going around. I thought, when no other letter arrived for me that the entire letter had likely been about making himself feel better about what he did, saying sorry to himself even rather than me. I had long since been resigned to not having a relationship with my father so it wasn't hard to accept the reality of that. But I didn't regret tracking him down and sending the letter to him. When he'd died, ten years ago, his widow had written me a letter to let me know about it. And we'd communicated a couple of times a year after that- my half sister included, and she was the one to tell me her mother, my stepmother in name rather than reality, had died eight years ago. I had wondered whether when he went to heaven- although admittedly with my father's life that wasn't a great possibility- would my mother and his second wife both be waiting for him there?
And once I knew I was dying- before the doctor confirmed it though- I thought about the same thing. Would Jack be waiting for me? Or would I be up there waiting for Anthony instead? I also thought about poor Francis Pagnel and hoped he would be waiting too. Not because he'd loved me so much that he didn't want to see anyone but me up arrive up there- again assuming I made it to heaven- but because I wanted to know he'd forgiven me for not agreeing to marry him. I hoped time would make him realise that our marriage wouldn't have worked because nobody would have wanted it to bar the two of us. And yes, the same thing had happened with Jack's family, but Jack was a stronger man than Francis- especially physically- and had been able to stand up to his family. Francis might not have done that so easily. Oh he would have sworn he would and I had no doubts whatsoever that he wouldn't try, but he might not have succeeded. And had I married him he would likely have not lived to be a ripe old age because he was always sickly. If he had died before his parents, before horrible Nancy, leaving me behind, I couldn't imagine the Pagnel's making me welcome in their family any longer, nor being too willing to give me any money to look after myself and any children Francis and I might have had. I needed to see Francis just to know he understood my refusal, knew that while I had loved him I hadn't been in love with him enough to make a leap of faith, and accepted that. And, in the little time he'd had afterwards he'd come to terms with it all before his death. I also hoped he had not been unhappy enough with my refusal to get sick enough to die. I would never forgive myself were that the case.
In bed beside me Anthony turned over and, in his sleep, threw one arm over me, holding me. I smiled and turned on my side so we were lying face to face. I'd truly never thought I'd love a man as much as I loved Anthony. I'd loved Jack too, desperately, but this love was different. This love was gained by adversity and strengthened by a lifetime together rather than only seven years. Were it possible I believed this love grew with every day that went by.
I felt my heart begin to race and suddenly I felt incredibly sick. Yet also incredibly peaceful. I knew what was happening now: I was dying. Not in the near future, but right now. I wanted to wake Anthony up to tell him I loved him, but I didn't have the energy, I felt incredibly exhausted. I wanted to wake him up and give him messages for the children- all six of them- and my grandchildren.
But again I felt too sleepy to accomplish this. So instead I concentrated on Anthony's face in the darkness. The curtains weren't pulled shut so the moonlight lit the room well enough to see. Though I would know Anthony's features on his face even with my eyes closed, I wanted him to be the last thing I saw in this world, until he joined me in another place and time.
Silently I said "I love you Anthony Mason. I loved being Brenda Mason. And having a whole big family with you." And then my eyes closed, of their own volition, and my eyelids were too heavy to force them open again.
And then I saw people I hadn't seen in a very, very long time. My mother, my Aunt Linda, my father, my stepmother and half sister I'd never met, Francis, Jack, Frank's wife… And I felt like I was coming home. And I could finally rest. Forever.