It’s autumn. Behind the cottage in Brackstone Wood the mosses are cold and velvety to the touch. The air smells of mould, leaf litter and mushrooms.
‘We may be lucky and see goblins,’ Jessie used to tell her granddaughters when they were small.
Chloe is expected on Thursday. The furniture has been polished, the chair covers - faded blue linen - have been cleaned of cat’s hair.
Cat, for that’s the only name he answers to, is chased to the floor by the roaring maw of the vacuum cleaner. Now a ball of frazzled tabby under the telephone table, his tail moves dust back and forth across the floorboards. ‘There, there,’ I soothe, stooping to tickle his chin, and he comes to purr and weave against my ankles.
The cottage is redolent of lavender, beeswax and countless years.
Chloe brings with her a box of exotic orchids. Her eyes dart towards the teapot, a gaiety of pink roses and gold rims.
‘You shouldn’t use that. It’s an antique.’
‘Grandma has always used it. It belonged to her mother.’
‘If it chips it will lose its value?’
‘Not if it still functions as a teapot.’
The initial skirmish over, Chloe looks away to fuss with the orchids. ‘What shall I do with these? I carried them all the way from Singapore.’
‘Arrange them in a vase while I make us some tea. You know where the scullery is.’
The pipes judder and groan as water is forced through them. Through the kitchen window the garden stretches in a glorious riot of colour towards an overgrown blackberry thicket. Its thorny arms droop with the weight of its fruit.
‘The grass needs mowing,’ Chloe says, needing something to criticise.
‘Josh will be here this afternoon. He’ll do it.’
‘You remember Joshua Harrison.’
Chloe flicks a scimitar of dark hair back from her face with a scornful toss of her head. ‘He had a crush on me once. Didn’t he have a sister?’
‘Annie. She married the dairyman. They have a little shop to catch the passing trade and serve cream teas in their conservatory. Grandma sells them blackberry jam.’
Chloe touches the bones of her hips, reassuring herself of their existence. ‘I don’t eat cream. As I recall, Josh never had much ambition.’
I smile at such a notion. ‘He became a doctor.’
Chloe’s long fingers snap the stems of the orchids as she measures them against the brown stone jug used for spring daffodils.
‘That jug is wrong for orchids.’ I fetch a wine carafe bought in the church jumble sale and tell her, ‘Josh is looking forward to meeting you again.’
The exotic beauty of the orchids is out of place in the homely cottage.
‘How’s Richard?’ I ask her.
Silence stretches for a few moments. Richard had driven into their lives in a red sports car. He’d stayed a week, a man so handsome and exciting I could hardly draw a solid breath when I’d looked at him. But he’d come with a price I hadn’t wanted to pay. He’d turned his sights on Chloe. She’d left with him, the dreams in her eyes replaced by a grim reality.
My sister’s suffering shows in her face, so I kiss her cheek. Chloe expects such gestures and allows a pensive sigh to escape. ‘Richard shouts at me, and he has affairs.’ Her voice breaking, Chloe comes into my arms and we hold each other tight.
I wish I didn’t love Chloe quite so much as I murmur, ‘He’s not worth it . . . you’re better off without him.’
‘Oh, I’m not, I’m not!’ she cries, pushing me away. ‘You’ve always been jealous because he picked me instead of you.’
Space thickens between us. The kettle on the hob begins to sing, the lid rattles and steam spouts. The sun moves a fraction, sending a beam of light through the dusty window. Dust motes dance inside it.
‘Remember when grandma used to stir them with her hand and say, “Fairies, girls. Watch them twirl and dance.” ’
As if thinking of the old lady brings her forth a quavering call comes from the sitting room. ‘Has Chloe arrived yet?’
Rump in the air, Cat claws the rag rug into untidy ridges. Soon, he’ll pay his visit to the sitting room. He knows which windowsill the sun will shine on at any given time of day.
‘Why don’t you take grandma the flowers and have a chat with her,’ I suggest. ‘I’ll join you with some tea, shortly.’
Chloe glides off on tortured feet, looking as deceptively delicate as a reed in the wind. Her hair is drawn back, her dark bun tied with a velvet ribbon. Elfin eyes dart this way and that. White chiffon drifts over blushing satin.
‘I’ve brought you some flowers, Grandma,’ Chloe says brightly.
‘How lovely they are, my dear. What are they?’
‘Orchids, they grow like weeds in Singapore.’ I imagine Chloe giving a shrug.
‘It’s wonderful to see you. How pretty you look in that dress.’
‘It’s an old thing I bought in Paris last year.’
My own outfit is sensible, a blue-checked blouse hanging loosely over jeans. Careless curls spring against my smoothing palms.
Cat strolls by, does a pirouette before crabbing sideways on his way to the sitting room.
I tell him, ‘In case you’ve got grand ideas, there’s no room for another prima ballerina in the family. I found that out the hard way.’
‘Is she looking after you properly?’ Chloe whispers as, timing it nicely, Cat slides swiftly through the closing door.
Later, I take the tea tray through, setting it on the table without a flicker of the annoyance I feel. ‘Perhaps you’d like to pour the tea, Chloe.’
‘This teapot is an antique, you should be careful with it, Grandma?’ Chloe points out, taking a firm grasp of the handle.
‘It belonged to my mother.’ Grandma turns away from Chloe to exchange a smile with me. ‘The blackberries need picking if we’re to have some jam this season.’
‘I’ve planned it for this afternoon. Josh will help me. Perhaps Chloe can give us a hand.’
Chloe yawns. ‘I’ll probably take a nap after lunch.’
It’s the afternoon. The air smells of Indian summer and cut grass. French widows, peeling white paint and framed by wisteria, open to the patio, where yellow daisies and purple alyssum grow amongst the cracked grey flagstones.
Grandma is seated on her chair inside the door, a position from where she used to watch us play as children. Song birds flutter down to peck at the crumbs she scatters.
Josh’s voice is quiet against my ear, but there’s an element of anger in it. ‘There’s nothing more I can do for Jessie. She left it too late.’
Tears prick my eyes and he draws me against his chest to kiss the top of my head. Dearest Josh, always my friend. More than that now.
I touch his cheek. ‘Let’s get these damned berries picked. Grandma is determined to make a batch of blackberry jam this year.’
His lips graze gently against mine. ‘I love you,’ he says and my heart melts with the unexpected joy of being told.
‘Hi, Josh.’ Chloe’s voice is husky. Framed by the window, her body gleams in a white leotard and tights. Long, supple thighs support her arms which, in turn, supports her chin. Her hair tumbles darkly and a rose glows red against her cheek.
Josh sucks in a breath.
The cauldron of jam bubbles and spits, an aroma of sugar and fruit fills the house. Glass jars stand to attention, a cane basket holds labels, waxed circles and frilled covers.
Chloe is petulant. ‘I’ve always hated this smell. I think I’ll drop into the surgery. Josh might take me for a spin.’
‘A nice lad, is Josh,’ Grandma says from her vantage point in the rocking chair. Chloe mutters something under her breath as she drifts away in a haze of discontent.
‘You’d better put those jars to warm.’ Jars in the oven . . . watch the pan doesn’t go off the boil . . . don’t burn yourself. Jam coats the back of the spoon.
My fingers stain purple. Grandma tastes my offering and nods. ‘Best jam I ever made.’
Ten minutes later the jars are gowned in their frills.
I haven’t seen grandma so well for a long time. Chloe’s visit has done her good. I’ve never missed a season yet,’ she says. ‘Allow the jars to cool before you move them, my love.’
‘You must be tired. Go back to the sitting room and I’ll bring you a cup of tea.’
She gives me an old-fashioned hug after I’ve helped her up, one usually reserved for arrivals and departures. ‘I’ll have a little nap first. Give mother’s teapot a good scrub, would you? Chloe seems to set quite a store by it. She can take it with her.’
Cat follows grandma into the sitting room. Ten minutes later he returns to offer me a dubious meow.
The sitting room smells of dead orchids.
Richard arrives in the middle of Chloe’s hysterics. She leaps into his embrace, as graceful as a gazelle. ‘I’m so glad you’ve come. I’ve had a dreadful time of it and I’ve missed you so much.’
Richard looks suitably worshipped. ‘I came as soon as I was able,’ he tells her. Pinching her upper arm he shrieks. ‘Oh, my God... flab!’
Richard turns to gaze at me, his smile neon. ‘You resemble Chloe so you must be her sister, Miss...um...’
‘Eve,’ I tell him. ‘We met before, when I was little more than a child.’
‘Ah...yes. Didn’t you dance, too?’
‘She wasn’t good enough and you chose me,’ Chloe snaps. ‘Besides, someone had to stay and look after grandma.’
I grin like an idiot, thankful for small mercies.
‘Is there a will?’ Chloe suddenly demands to know.
‘Grandma had nothing to leave.’
The elfin eyes harden. ‘The cottage must be worth a bit.’
‘She sold it, long ago.’
‘Sold it? To whom? What did gran do with the money?’
Telling her will be sweet. ‘Josh bought the cottage so grandma could pay for your dancing expenses over the years.’
Chloe goes quiet.
‘Your sister and I will live here when we marry,’ Josh tells her, then grins self-consciously.
I always knew his proposal wouldn’t be romantic, but my smile tells him he’s worked it out to our mutual satisfaction.
I remember the teapot and sense an opportune time to hand it to the simmering Chloe. ‘Grandma wanted you to have this. Take some blackberry jam with you too, if you like.’
‘You know I hate blackberry jam. The stuff is so bloody provincial.’
‘Up to you, of course. I’m going for a walk up through the woods. Coming, anyone?’
The only taker is Josh, who fetches my jacket from the hook by the door.
There’s a crash just after we leave, as if the teapot has been thrown at the wall - as if Chloe discovered that removing the stains had revealed the crack in the spout.
I’m going to miss the old teapot.
It’s a glorious autumn. Leaves rustle in the breeze, drift down from the trees and crunch under our feet. The undergrowth is peppered with glowing chestnuts. Then we are out in the open. Ahead of us is a stretch of shining sea where gulls wheel on silver wings.
My eulogy is short. ‘Thank you for the home you made for me, and for Chloe. Enjoy your wings, Grandma. I’ll miss you.’
Her ashes are sent journeying on the wind.
Josh takes my hand in his. ‘Perhaps she’ll make it to New York in time for the ballet season.’
‘I hope she returns in time for our wedding.’ I kiss his cheek, loving him as he draws me into his arms. ‘I do love you, Josh. Let’s go back home.’
‘Scones and blackberry jam for tea?’ he says, and smiles when I nod.