This isn’t going to work, thought Angela Mountjoy as she traipsed up the corridor of the “Long Hall” as it was called, at Hawkfield Hall. A Hall within a Hall. You knew things weren’t going to plan when trivia was a refuge.
But at breakfast in their hotel – a modern one, despite the holiday tour being called “Stately Homes of Eastern England” – it had been worse. Between eating his full English (she had settled for a poached egg on toast) and taking sips of strong tea in that odd, slightly birdlike way of his, Herbert had been holding forth about the day’s itinerary, and interesting facts he had discovered about the history of Hawkfield Hall. The thing was, the facts themselves were probably (if she had been paying attention) not uninteresting. But her mother had been right all along when she had said, and she actually got on quite well with her son-in-law, that he didn’t half pontificate at times. Anyway, Angela had realised she was far more interested in the fact that the lady at the table across the way had a quite magnificent hair on her chin than she was by either Herbert or what he was saying.
She had always sworn, well, come to think of it, Herbert had, that they would never be afflicted by so-called empty nest syndrome. First world problems, he had said, briskly, and it’ll be nice to have a bit of time and space for ourselves. In her heart she knew that she couldn’t accuse him of being callous or a bad father; he’d always been a good one, and loved Evan and Christa more dearly than life itself. But he was of the firm opinion that most things could be weathered by being brisk and sensible, and if that wasn’t quite working, by taking a holiday.
I am lucky, Angela reminded herself, in the weary and intense way of people who don’t feel as if they are. I am comfortably off, have a husband who loves me even though he’s never going to be one of life’s romantics, my own health, and two beautiful, healthy, brainy children who don’t treat me like the enemy. I have a lovely home and am on holiday visiting far more beautiful homes.
The Long Hall wasn’t one of those Halls of Mirrors of the kind they have at Versailles and its various imitators, but alongside life sized portraits of stern looking military gentlemen and ladies in bustle skirts or tweeds with faithful lapdogs, there were some mirrors, unevenly spaced with the pictures. She heard Herbert give a slight tut, and knew that he was aching to align them more neatly. He wasn’t exactly OCD (“First World Problems”!) but liked symmetry and order. Not that he would so much as touch them, of course. The term “rebel” was never going to be applied to Herbert.
I wonder if you lot had happy marriages, she thought, looking at the portraits, frozen in time. I expect you were brought up not to complain, and probably didn’t have much to complain about, not like the poor sods who worked for you. But truth to tell, though she did vote Labour (mind you, she was currently considering changing her allegiance to the Liberal Democrats) she wasn’t much of a rebel either. And she did have a cleaning lady a couple of days a week, which was really totally unnecessary, but she liked Annie who was far more of a friend.
Angela wasn’t too keen on looking in mirrors. She was by no means an unattractive woman, but knew that she would see a discontented face, and did not need to be reminded that she was discontented. But there are very few women (or men, come to that!) who can entirely resist a sideways glance into a mirror when so many are on offer.
When she looked into one, she did not see her own discontented face, but saw a couple of women seated on a couch upholstered in green velvet in a room with potted palms and polished floorboards flanking the green and gold Persian carpet. There was an upright piano against one wall, and a well-stocked bookcase against another. She guessed that one of the women was younger than herself, and one was older. They looked like each though perhaps the fact they were both wearing similar dark skirts and court shoes and knitted cardigans, their hair in buns, enhanced that. But she knew instinctively that they were mother and daughter. A tray with a teapot and china cups and a milk jug with a pattern of dainty roses was set on a low table by them.
The older one spoke, and she had what Angela had heard called a “cut glass accent” – reminding her of those old recordings of the Queen when, mysteriously, she sounded far more posh than she did now. “Frances, darling, I know this is a trying time for you, and don’t imagine I don’t know what you’re going through. Remember I had to endure much the same thing when Daddy was at the front.” Instinctively Angela knew that by “Daddy” she meant not her own father, but Frances’s. “And we didn’t have the newsreels and the radio then.”
“I’m not so sure if they’re any help, Mummy! They seem to be either intent on scaring us or on telling us that everything is absolutely fine when it quite possibly isn’t!”
“That’s unpatriotic talk,” “Mummy” said, in tones of gentle reproach. She sighed. “I daresay it’s true though. But thinking like that isn’t going to help us. Randolph is a lucky man, remember that.”
“You used to tell me we made our own luck!”
“That’s the kind of things mothers say, and I don’t want to sound heathenish, but he got through Dunkirk without a scratch, and there’s no reason he won’t come back from Normandy without one, too!”
“You make it sound as if he’s on a seaside holiday! And Normandy is only the beginning of the end.”
“As Mr Churchill said about El Alamein,” “Mummy” mused. “I know that, darling. I’m not making light of it. And I know it’s no consolation to say that millions of women all over the country – all over the world – are going through exactly the same thing.
Frances got up and started pacing across the carpet. Angela had the impression that “Mummy” was about to say something along the lines of one of her own mother’s favourite phrases “Do sit down, you’re making me nervous!” but she appeared to realise that Angela needed to pace for a while. “He has missed so much of Marion’s childhood! I sometimes wonder if she’ll recognise him when he comes home. I can hardly believe she’s three years old now!”
“I’m not going to pretend it will necessarily be easy at first. But a bond like the one they have can never be broken.”
“If he comes home,” Frances muttered.
Angela wondered if “Mummy” would say something like “chin up, old girl” but she didn’t. When she saw that tears were streaming down her daughter’s cheeks, she took her in her arms, an embrace at first awkward, and then all-unfolding, steered her back to the couch, and rocked her like a little girl for a few moments.
“Penny for them?” But Angela realised that Herbert’s voice, even if the phrase was one that grated on her, was kind. She did not fall into his arms, but when, in one of the gestures of rather awkward tenderness that sometimes took her by surprise, he put his hand in hers, she didn’t withdraw it.
If he could make an effort, so could she. “What was it you were telling me this morning, over breakfast?” she asked. “I’m afraid I was miles away.”
“I suspected as much. Mind you I do go on at times. I was telling you that the current owner, Marion Fitz-Owen, is quite a remarkable lady – still mucks in with helping out on all the running of the place, though she’s nearly 80. Mind you, if she takes after her father, she has a long way to go yet. He renovated the Hall when it was falling into disrepair when he was in his 80s, after being a surgeon for years – working all over the world, too. And he was a Normandy veteran – hats off to the old boy, I say!”
“Hats off indeed,” Angela agreed, and when she looked into the mirror again, she did not see the room and the Persian carpet, and the bookcase and the piano, and the couch, and the two women, but two middle-aged people, both looking rather tired but as if things might just work out after all, before they turned away from the mirror and smiled at each other.