Chapter Thirty-three

 

 

 

GEMMA OPENED THE door to the shed, the blanched wood rough beneath her hand. The door creaked shut as she and Mary stepped inside. Cobwebs dangled from the corners of the ceiling, the webs clumped with years of dust. The air in the shed, stagnant and musty, reminded Gemma of watching Nan paint at her easel. But that easel now sat empty.

“For now I hid this up here,” Gemma said and stepped atop a wobbly chair. “I didn’t want my mum or aunt to come across this.” She propped the portrait against the table, moving away so Mary could see the image.

“Good heavens!” Mary said. “I haven’t set eyes on this in over fifty years. Emily promised she’d destroy this, or at least...obscure my bosom,” she whispered and placed a hand over her face. “Oh, what you must think of me. This feels like another lifetime ago.”

“It’s certainly a lovely depiction of how she felt about you. But this wasn’t the only thing I discovered.” Gemma retrieved a bin from the shelf then sifted through the letters, her hands trembling as she handed the letter to Mary.

Mary eased into the chair, staring at that letter for a few moments. Shaking her head, no words exited her mouth as she studied the page before her. Her hands quivered as she clenched the worn paper. “This...well, this is rather shocking to see this,” she finally said and closed her eyes. “She told me she had burned these particular letters. For years I had assumed there was no longer any record of this.”

Unable to look directly at Mary, Gemma gazed out the dusty window. A sinewy cobweb, sticky with years of dust, clung to the corner of the pane. Already having rehearsed the words in her head several times since she’d come across these letters this morning, she thought carefully of what would be most appropriate to say right now. “You can imagine how bewildered I was to find that,” she finally said, setting a hand on the table.

Mary set the letter in her lap and placed a hand over her mouth as she closed her eyes and rocked forward. “I realize this all must be so shocking to you,” she said quietly.

Gemma opened the door, the air cooling her face. The silky blades of grass swayed gently, the daffodils planted decades ago bobbing with each gust of wind. “When I met you the other night,” she said and turned to face Mary, “I was overcome with elation at having met someone so adored by Nan, someone who—” Gemma stepped closer to the door, breathing in the crisp air. “Up until this morning, I saw you as Nan’s true love, and now I find out you’re much more than that. That you’re my—” Gemma held a hand over her mouth, halting the word she couldn’t say.

Mary pushed herself up from the chair then stood at the window, the glass clouded with dust. Lifting a finger, she attempted to clear the glass, merely creating a smear of soot across the pane. “Years ago I’d met with an unfortunate situation,” she said, her voice breaking. “To not disgrace my father, it was best that I hide out in Paris until...the baby was born. You must realize that Emily’s desire was always to be a mother, but with her weak heart, she knew it would be too much of a risk for her to ever have a child of her own.”

Gemma stood near the window, the glass obscured by decades of dust. A flurry of thoughts raced through her mind, the words coming out like sludge. “All my life...I’ve known her as my blood, my lineage. And, my mum has seen Nan as her mother for nearly fifty years. Well, and so has Maggie.”

Mary set a hand on the table and stood there silent, gazing through the smudged window. The din of voices from the house filtered into the garden, the voices blending into a cacophony of unfamiliar sounds. “Emily became a mother the moment she held Helen in her arms. She wanted nothing more than to raise those children as her own. Emily was their mother. This must always be the truth to them.”

A burst of wind caused the windows of the shed to rattle, the door flapping open and thudding against the worn panels of wood. Gemma stepped closer to the door, setting a hand on the splintered wood. She picked at a loose fiber, poking at the wood until her finger became raw from the splinter. She stood in the doorway and faced the wide expanse of land, the decades of perennials swaying in the breeze. “I couldn’t have asked for a better Nan,” she said, her eyes filling with tears as she turned to face Mary. “But I can’t deny that she loved you deeply. This portrait certainly conveys how she felt about you. I realize her death must be devastating to you.”

Mary closed her eyes, the moment quiet and tense. This woman, who in that portrait was the image of beauty and grace, wrinkled her face and shook her head, the words exiting her mouth with weighted staccato. “Knowing I will never hear her voice again, never feel the touch of her hand in mine,” she said, closing her eyes and shaking her head with each word uttered, “causes an irreparable ache, an emptiness that can never be filled.” Mary set her palms on the table and looked as though she would collapse, but she righted herself then stared out the murky window.

As Gemma’s eyes flooded with tears, Mary took a couple steps closer then set a hand on the table. “You were never supposed to find out about this. But you must know that I’ve always loved Helen and Maggie. And you, as well. Well, all the grandchildren. My dear, you must realize by now that no blood ties can ever replace the love your grandma gave you.”

Gemma wasn’t ready to acknowledge that here stood before her the person who had birthed the woman who would eventually become her mother. She could not yet accept that Nan—the woman she’d always known as her own flesh and blood—was in all reality a surrogate who raised the Oldfield women.

Mary stepped closer then clenched a trembling hand on Gemma’s arm. Standing even closer, she wrapped her arms around Gemma. The tighter Mary held Gemma, the more the tears flowed. For several quiet moments, the two of them held one another and cried until Gemma pulled away. The questions which continued to circulate in her head would be saved for later—for a time when this day to honor Nan had passed. Today Gemma would continue to grieve and to celebrate all that Nan had given to the Oldfield women.

Gemma wiped the tears from her face then urged Mary to take as long as she needed to read through the letters before they were destroyed. Gemma left Mary alone in the shed then stepped onto the damp grass and inhaled the crisp air, her body heavy and weak. As she took a few steps away from the shed, she saw Hannah over by the fence.

“I’ve always loved the scent of lilac,” Hannah said, holding a clump of purple blooms and burying her nose in the flowers. “Such a sweet but lingering scent.”

Gemma neared Hannah and exhaled a long, heavy breath. “Nan never planted lilacs in any other color besides those. In one of Mary’s letters she said something about purple lilacs representing the first signs of love, that moment when love is just starting to blossom. After they die, long after the twigs have dried out, they retain their scent. If you burn the wood, the sweet fragrance endures in the smoke.” Gemma wiped her tears then squinted at the glaring light filtering through the clouds.

“You all right?” Hannah asked and stepped closer.

“It’s all been so much, all at once.” Gemma closed her eyes and inhaled the crisp air. The reality of what she’d discovered pressed on her like lead, the truth crushing her heart. Stepping away from the sparse shade of the sycamore tree, she said, “I’m quite stunned at the moment. I found more letters this morning, here in the shed.”

“More about Nan and Mary?” Hannah asked, fumbling with that sprig of lilac.

The sycamore flowed with the breeze, the branches quivering at each gust of wind. Gemma took a few more steps away from the shed, her feet nearly buried in the lush blades of grass. “I discovered that my mum and I are not,” she said, quickly hushing her voice and glancing behind her, “not actually Oldfields.”

“What? How could that—” Hannah started to say then quieted her voice. “I don’t understand. How could this be?”

“These letters, well, they’ve revealed that Nan is not the biological mother of my mum.”

“You’re certain there’s definitive proof of this? And this is the first you’ve learned of this?”

“Earlier this morning, actually. And just now it’s been confirmed as being the truth.”

“This all must be so difficult to process, so much to take in.”

The cool breeze blew through Gemma’s hair as she bent over to pluck a daisy from the lush lawn then gently rolled the flower in her hand. “It’s shocking to know she and I are not connected by blood. I mean, all my life I’ve known her as my nan.”

“This all must be so overwhelming to you. But she was your grandma for upwards of thirty years now. That much is true. You can’t quantify things based only on blood ties. What Nan passed on to you surely makes you an Oldfield. The evidence of her influence is certainly seen in your paintings.”

Gemma took in the words that Hannah had said, sentiments from someone so familiar with the main tenets of grieving. She wanted to say more to Hannah, to reveal all she’d discovered these past several days. But for now, the words remained lost in some distant, buried place. But, Hannah was surely right about all that Nan had passed on to her. Summers and long weekends spent with Nan here in Moulton had nurtured Gemma into the woman she was today—an artist, someone who could not settle for a life of mediocrity all the way over in another country.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better art teacher,” Gemma finally said and tossed the daisy aside, “or a better nan.”

“She’s certainly created a most beautiful canvas here in this garden. There’s such a perfect blend of scents and colors out here. I don’t usually find jasmine to be a scent I prefer. But the jasmine here, well, it’s not at all overbearing. I may even say I like it now.”

“I’ve adored jasmine for as long as I can remember.” She inhaled, her lungs filling with that heavy scent. The wind shook the branches of that lone tree, the tender wisps of new leaves fluttering in the breeze. Gemma stepped into the sparse shadow of the tree as she walked away from the shed, the voices from the house behind her quieting to a dull murmur. Somewhere in that din, Gemma heard her mother, the lilt of her voice so distinct from the others. She clasped her hands behind her then stepped onto the path leading to the back porch. “I suppose I should get back inside, see how everything is going. See if my mum is okay.”

“By the way, I passed Lorna as I was heading out here. She told me to tell you she must head back to London soon for an extra rehearsal. Said the female lead backed out and that the director wants her to take the part. You know, she was acting peculiar,” she said then took another whiff of the lilacs in her hand.

“Peculiar? More so than usual, you mean? I think I might know what’s on her mind. She wanted me to ask you something a few days ago, but, what with all the preparations for today, I hardly thought it would be the right time to talk to you.”

“Lorna?” Hannah asked, setting the clump of lilacs on the bench. “She okay?”

“I’m not sure how to say this without embarrassing Lorna, especially if she’s wrong about this, but she’s under the impression that you’re in love—” Gemma dug her shoe into the damp grass and folded her arms. “Ah, perhaps love is too strong of a word. I think maybe a crush is more accurate.”

“Oh dear. Is it that obvious? Even to her? So, you know?” She slumped on the bench, gripping her hands around the wooden slats. The clump of lilacs slipped through the openings in the bench, falling to the grassy patch below.

“Then it’s true?” Gemma asked and sat next to her. “At first I thought it was absolutely preposterous. I’m surprised you feel this way.”

“Surprised? Well, they are long ago feelings that I’d buried several years ago. I’m realizing I’d be a fool to ignore these feelings now.”

Large grey clouds eclipsed the sun overhead, the air turning cold and damp. Gemma leaned forward and clasped her hands around her waist, shaking her head as she attempted to take in what Hannah had said. Gemma sighed, looking to the far corners of the field—this canvas Nan had created decades ago now so vibrant and colorful. The adjacent fence, covered in supple vines and vibrant blooms, stretched to the perimeter of the garden.

“You two have certainly chosen the best spot out here,” Gemma’s mother suddenly said from behind them, standing there holding two small plates heaped with blackberry cobbler. “You all did such a lovely job today. The food selections were unusual, I must admit, but it was certainly a fitting tribute to Nan.”

“I hear your mum had a way with those berries,” Hannah said and took a plate of cobbler. “My friend Jon wanted to pay tribute to her in some special way with the food selections.”

“I was surprised to see how much everything cost,” Helen said. “I saw a check for the caterer sitting on the counter. When I saw it sitting there, I couldn’t help but to look at the name on the check. I wanted to thank the person who had paid for today’s fare. Imagine my surprise at seeing an M. Thornton at the top of that check.”

“So, you know that Mary paid for all of this?” Gemma grimaced.

Helen stood there, even more erect than usual, and nodded several times before words exited her mouth. “I wasn’t a bit surprised to see that it’s a Lloyds’ account, a joint account to be precise.”

Gemma sat silent, not sure what her mother would say next. Hannah remained quiet next to her, the only sounds coming from the murmur of voices in the house behind them. By now, the two of them had finished the cobbler, the plates scraped nearly clean.

“Up until today, I never imagined they were financially connected. Mind you, I was shocked to see her today, surprised she was even aware that Mother had passed away.” Helen shook her head and clasped her hands on her arms, looking as though she had more to say. But she stood there silent and continued to shake her head and purse her lips.

Gemma gripped the slats of the bench as she leaned forward. She tapped her feet together, the soles of her shoes dampening from the wet grass. “I felt she should be here today,” she said and turned to face her mother, “so she could properly say goodbye.”

Helen wrapped her hands around the back of the bench, her knuckles whitening as her grip tightened. “I occasionally saw Mary at some of Mother’s charity functions over the years. But the last I spent any considerable time with her, I was probably no more than seven or eight when Mum would take us to stay at Mary’s house in Putney.”

“The house near the boathouse?” Gemma asked. “You know about that place?”

“I always did love going there. Always loved being by the Thames. I suppose you can see why I ended up in Richmond, close to the river.”

“There’s something magical about being along that river,” Hannah said and reached back to set her hand on Helen’s. “Your mother’s spirit is certainly still there.”

Grey light seeped through the clouds overhead, the air at once becoming colder. Gemma gently rocked forward and closed her eyes before continuing. She inhaled, her lungs filling with the jasmine-tinged air. “Mum, there’s something you need to know,” she said and squinted at her mother. “You see, Mary told me that Nan left that place to me.”

“Nan left that to you? I assumed Mary still owned that place.” Helen shook her head and clenched her jaw as she stepped to the side of the bench.

“It belonged to both of them, actually, along with some other places—properties which could be sold, the profits going to you and Maggie. Surely this will prevent you and Maggie from having to sell this place?”

Helen closed her eyes and placed a hand over her lips. “Doesn’t seem like home without Mother here,” she said, her voice breaking.

“I didn’t know Nan visited London as much as she did, didn’t even know about Mary until this week. I wished I’d known about her, about Nan and Mary, I mean. And I wished I’d told Nan about me and...well, my lover. She probably would have told me to—”

“I always felt it best that you didn’t know about Mary.” Helen stood silent for a moment and tapped her fingers on the bench. “That place along the river was always special to Nan, even more than this house.”

“Mary certainly did care deeply for Nan,” Gemma said, wincing her eyes. “For decades.”

“Yes, yes, she did. Seems fitting she left that place to you. You deserve to experience what Nan had experienced, what she’d had for so many years.” Helen squeezed Gemma’s shoulder then stepped back from the bench, standing for a moment and scanning her eyes across the field before traipsing through the damp grass toward to the house.

Gemma leaned forward to reach for the cluster of lilacs under the bench and watched her mother enter the house. The sun over the tree cast long, elongated shadows onto the garden. “I should probably get back inside. Surely you’ll want to see Lorna before she leaves. Forgive my reaction, but the reality of what you told me earlier is just sinking in. It’s certainly been a day of shocking discoveries. But, Lorna’s right. You’re quite lovely, as she’s pointed out on numerous occasions.”

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Lorna knows as well,” Hannah said.

“For once Lorna hasn’t leapt to conclusions. But, I had no idea you had feelings for her.”

“You think I’m referring to Lorna?” Hannah asked, her voice shrill. “Oh, heavens no!” she said and touched Gemma’s arm. “Gemma, these feelings are not for her, and yet at this point, I’m not sure it’s right that I should even be telling you how I feel, especially after coming across your letter.”

“My letter? What letter? What’s that got to do with—”

“The one to Beth. I’d never read such sentiments between two people so in love. It was certainly noble of you to have written such words of longing for her.”

“I hardly think they were words of longing,” Gemma said and sighed. She’d foolishly begun those notes to Beth, quickly putting such whims aside after reading the second of those harsh e-mails. One of those notes must have slipped from her bag when she was with the Davises at dinner. No amount of words could resurrect a love that had been dead for so long now.

“I shouldn’t hang on to this any longer,” Hannah said as she retrieved a letter from her pocket. “Surely you’ll want to post this soon. When I first saw it under the keyboard, I should have told you I’d found it. I was foolish to think I could slip this into your bag or into a drawer of your belongings without you knowing I had seen it.”

Gemma took the letter from Hannah and immediately recognized the familiar writing, her eyes settling on the last two lines. “This isn’t for Beth. She abhors anything remotely sappy,” she said, recalling the call she’d received earlier. Beth and Jan in New York together—a business trip, so they said. “This is one of Mary’s letters.”

“Mary? I simply assumed, since the other night you’d been sitting in my room, at the computer, and I thought you’d left it there. There are even references to the roads being closed, and I assumed it was in reference to the recent bomb threat hoaxes.”

“Bomb threats? No, I gather she was referring to air raids or something of that sort.”

“I actually hadn’t planned to tell you how I felt about you, figuring you’d be returning to California soon...and to Beth.”

Gemma, not sure how to respond to Hannah’s declaration, placed a hand over her mouth, her heart beating fast as the words formed in her mind. “My heart has hungered for love, for someone to love me as deeply as...well, as Mary and Emily had loved. Like how these words in her letter convey,” she added and read the last two lines. “’I will dream of gardens planted together. Continue to sow such soil until I can join you as well.’”

“I used to think James loved me that way, that he hungered for me. But, I’m realizing now that his love for me is no more different than, well, Roger’s love for me. Perhaps one day I will allow my heart to open up to the opportunity to again love deeply.”

Gemma plucked a flower from the clump of lilacs, the delicate petals a shocking purple. Fumbling with the flower, she continued to take in what Hannah had said. “You know, the other day I’d said something to Philip about how I hope to be lucky enough to find the sort of love that Mary and Nan had. But he told me it wasn’t necessarily a matter of luck, that I must go and search for love, to open my heart to it. But, he added it might be closer than I realize.”

“Most things are often closer than we realize. But sometimes they’re invisible until our heart is open enough to see,” she said and gazed into Gemma’s eyes for a long moment. A beam of light peaked through the tree’s branches, the radiance piercing through the shadows and creating a soft glow.

Gemma leaned her body closer to Hannah’s, the two of them quiet as the wind whispered through the trees. The flowers that Nan had cultivated so long ago swayed, the branches overhead likewise quivering from the wind. The sun had been kind today, only leaving intermittently—the daisies closing their delicate petals at the temperamental absence of light, only to open again at the return of the sun through the grey clouds.

“As I mentioned the other night, on our faux date,” Hannah finally broke the silence, “this is all somewhat new to me, but I’d certainly like to see you again, before you return to L.A. Perhaps I’ll see you at Lorna’s play next weekend?”

“I hadn’t planned to stay through next weekend,” Gemma said. “I don’t even have a ticket to her play. But I certainly can’t go back to L.A., at least not yet. There’s too much keeping me here. Hell, a new limb has been added to my family tree. Can’t walk away from that tree yet.”

“I requested two tickets, actually, and...well, I would be delighted to have you join me. It’ll be a real date this time.” Hannah laughed and stepped closer to Gemma. They faced the expanse of lands, the breeze causing the grass to gently sway and the hyacinths and dahlias to bob their heads.

“Perhaps we could have dinner first, make it a full evening? I know a nice café in Islington.”

“That’d be lovely,” Hannah said and glanced at the house behind them. “I wish I could stay out here with you like this, but I’d imagine I’ll need to leave soon to drive Mary and Philip back to London.”

“Then stay. Here, with me, tonight,” Gemma said and leaned her body into Hannah’s. “Perhaps Roger could drive Mary and Philip back? I’m not ready for this moment to end yet. With you, I mean.”

“There’s so much here to explore,” Hannah said and reached down to pluck a daisy from the grass then locked her eyes with Gemma’s. Standing above the hyacinths, she placed the daisy in Gemma’s hand then wrapped her arm around her waist as they approached a flowerbed, the blooms so vibrant and resolute.

“You know, years ago,” Gemma said, “after I met you at that meeting...well, I never forgot you. I was attracted to you right away, but I let it go because I just thought it was a fleeting attraction. Had no idea there’d ever be any potential.”

“I felt the same. At the time, I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. But I know now. Haven’t ever been so sure, actually.”

Gemma took Hannah’s hand in her own, their fingers at once interlacing. Gemma set a hand on Hannah’s face and kissed her softly on the lips. With one kiss not being enough, she kissed her again—those lips so soft and inviting. Hannah’s lips welcomed hers, her tongue as well. Behind them, the door to the shed creaked open as Mary stepped out and stood on the lush grass. Mary’s eyes locked with Gemma’s as she saw before her the woman who gave Nan a lifetime of love and undying devotion. Mary raised a hand and waved to the two women as they followed the narrow pathway next to the shed. Hand in hand, Gemma and Hannah followed the fence, pausing to pluck a blackberry dangling from the vine or to take in the fragrance of the lilac or jasmine. The pathless green expanse welcomed the women, their steps leaving imprints upon the lush grass of the endless field.