(PS: I listened to comments at the end of the previous chapter and have hopefully satisfied some of them here)
Margaret Hogmore stood in the baker shop doorway, dressed in an uncharacteristically simple but stylish outfit of olive green slacks and matching woollen scarf, white silk blouse beneath a thick overcoat in sandy brown, and flat brown shoes. Simple perhaps, but Nathan suspected designer labels hid beneath the clothing’s surface. Despite the years, she had kept her figure well, although, even from behind the counter, Nathan could see aging lines on her long, once elegant neck. With her grey hair pulled back now in a tidy bun, to Nathan she looked classic and unmistakable. Genes-wise, Clifton had a lot to be thankful for. Sadness framed her face today as her gaze took in the shop; the empty upper shelves of dark oak, ornate stucco ceiling, and white marble flooring. In her eyes, nothing would have changed much since she lived in England, maybe everything simply appeared a little like her, worn around the edges.
Eventually, her gaze came to rest on Nathan, who had been working alone out front when she turned up, and her face immediately transformed into a genuine smile. Like his mother, Auntie Margie’s presence always had a way of lifting spirits. But where his mother wore a bohemian mishmash of inexpensive clothes in vibrant colours back then, Auntie Margie dressed in the latest Chanel suit and silk headscarf, always in heels despite the turf of the football pitch. Perhaps the sight of this unlikely pair should have caused derision, but Nathan only remembered his teammates’ positive comments and ardent attention. Clifton alone voiced any irritation at her public presence, even though Nathan knew he worshipped the ground she walked on.
“Lovely to see you, Margaret,” said Nathan, coming out from behind the counter, and offering her the quintessential English greeting. “Cut of tea?”
Her smile faltered an instant, before she regained her composure. Nathan hesitated, too. Margaret—the Margaret he had known—had always loved Assam tea and digestive biscuits with his mother. Maybe her time in Los Angeles had changed her tastes.
“That’s Auntie Margie to you, young man,” she said, in reprimand, but the smile had returned to her face.She leant in and gave him the kind of brief hug he remembered well. Apart from her floral perfume, he noticed a slight American pronunciation of some words, Auntie sounding like Arnie. “And no, thank you. I thought we could grab coffee on the way. You ready?”
Nathan had already told Fingal about the visit, giving him the briefest of details. He’d agreed to come in for the day, even though the week was not strictly his shift.
“Let me go and let my stand-in know. Do I need an umbrella?”
After the deluge of April, the first week of May had been nothing short of optimistic. Cloudless skies and brilliant sunshine dried the puddles and put everyone in good spirits. This morning, however, the temperature had dropped again with clouds low in the sky, and, based on Auntie Margie’s attire, Nathan figured he needed a coat and an umbrella.
“Best bring one anyway. Better to be safe than sorry. You know what the weather’s like over here. Four seasons in one day.”
Nathan found Fingal in the small office, going though invoices, deep in concentration. Nathan smiled to himself for a moment, before gently rapping a knuckle in the doorframe.
“My aunt’s here. Are you okay if I head out now?”
“Of course I am. Sorry we haven’t had time to chat this morning. Did you see we have a buyer for two of the ovens already? I’m going to push for the new one to be delivered a month earlier. So we get used to the new one before selling off the last two.”
“How did Grant get on last week? I haven’t had a chance to speak to him yet.”
Fingal grinned then, not unkindly, and leant back in his chair.
“Let’s just say he was very keen, if you know what I mean? Took instructions well and he certainly has a way with the customers. I think a few of them thought they were talking to you. You should have a chat with him, though, see how he felt about the few days working here. I know the early starts didn’t agree with him. On Thursday, before they left, he told Arthur and his son to open up themselves on Friday and Saturday, that he was having a lie-in. Not that it made the slightest bit of difference to Arthur. The man can make his own tea, for Percy’s sake.”
Nathan smiled, but the comment didn’t go unnoticed. Why had he insisted on getting up and opening so early every morning? Had it really been necessary? Had Arthur simply been humoured by the gesture? He’d only opened up and made tea because his father had done the same thing.
“More importantly, I didn’t get the chance to congratulate you on your win Sunday. Or ask you about your trip to the Lakes.”
The past week had been unreal. After Grant and Polly managed to land a front page article on the team, over a hundred locals turned out to watch Crumbington United against Tonbridge Knights. Having the support for their side definitely helped spur on Nathan’s team, but even by half time, neither side had scored. About ten minutes into the second half, the Milton twins played another blinder and managed to get one past the goalkeeper. As uninspiring as the rest of the game was, playing a strictly defensive strategy, they managed to win 1-0.
“We’re through to the semis. Crumbington. Can you believe? That’s like winning the lottery.”
“No doubt you deserved it. And the Lakes?”
“Beautiful part of the country. Weather wasn’t fantastic, but we managed to keep ourselves amused.”
“I’m sure you did.”
They certainly did, the majority of which he would not share with Fingal. He and Jaymes barely left the bed the first full day in their beautiful old rented cottage. Fitted out with a modern kitchen, Jaymes spent two of the four days spoiling Nathan with his culinary skills. After Jaymes had got back from hospital, they’d had a heart-to-heart of sorts, but Jaymes had not been particularly focused or clear-headed, an overspill from the medicines the hospital had prescribed. Holidaying in the Lake District had been just the remedy they both needed, with Jaymes back to full strength and focused on enjoying some down-time and also on pleasing Nathan.
On their second morning, they sat naked on top of the bed, facing each other, and sipping mugs of tea that Jaymes had brought back to bed. After a few minutes enjoying the drink and grinning at each other—they seemed to be doing that a lot lately—Jaymes reached over and took Nathan’s mug from him, and then took both Nathan’shands in his own.
“Let’s talk. As you know, my stint in Malaysia will last around six months. I can’t do anything about that now. But I wrap things up there at the end of November. And then I’ll be home, Nate. Back to you. New Zealand isn’t until the end of January, another six month contract. If I was going to be totally honest, I wish I could get out of that now, but I don’t want to muddy the waters. They’re being really good to me, and the pay is excellent.”
“I don’t want you to change anything. Don’t know how many times I need to say it, baby, but I’m really pleased you’re doing what makes you happy.”
“Just wish I could kidnap you. Put you in my case without anyone noticing, and take you with me.”
“Nice thought. I’d probably even let you.”
“The thing is, Nate—and I’m sorry it’s taken a bump on the head for me to finally say this to you—I feel as though I can be myself around you. I’ve never had that before. Not with anybody. People always want me to change, to be more serious and tone down my personality—”
“I love your personality.”
“My point exactly. And as I’m going for honestly, you should know that I used to get bored with the few partners I had. Pretty quickly. Although that might have something to do with them taking me for somebody I’m not. But with you, Nate, every time I see you my heart does this happy flip, like someone’s switched the lights on.”
Nathan smiled down at his hands, overwhelmed. When he finally brought his eyes level, Jaymes still had his amazing smile aimed at him.
“Well, you do the same to me. And more.”
In the spirit of honesty, Nathan decided to ask a question he’d been burning to ask ever since the weekend at Martin and Gallagher’s home.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Something Lawrence said.”
Nathan almost decided to drop the question when he saw the change of expression on Jaymes’ face. But Jaymes fought off whatever emotion had hit him and nodded his approval.
“Go ahead. As long as you’re not going to ask me if Lawrence and I were ever a thing, because I already answered that question.”
“He said one of your boyfriends took his own life. Because of you. What did he mean?”
Jaymes let out an exasperated sigh and looked away.
“Is that what he’s telling people behind my back? The little shit. I should have stayed, let him say that to my face. The boyfriend he’s referring to was my lying, cheating, sack-of-shit, drug addicted ex. Almost a year after we parted company, a college friend called me up to say he’d died of an overdose of heroin and booze. He and three friends were on a binge, partying at one of their parent’s houses. Apparently, they found him passed out on the bathroom floor. When the medics got to him, he was already gone. The college friend asked if I wanted to attend the funeral. Fortunately for me, I was working in Chile at the time, so couldn’t have got back even if I’d wanted to. Which I didn’t.”
“So he didn’t overdose because of you?”
“Absolutely no way. The day I walked out the door, I never heard a word from him again. Friends told me he’d shacked up with the fuck buddy neighbour, which tells you what a class act the man was, and exactly how much he thought of me. Perhaps Lawrence cites my influence, because I was the only one who tried—and failed—to get him help when we were together. But after a whole year had passed, I’d be surprised if he could even remember my name, let alone who I was. Rumour has it his parents tried to arrange an intervention, but he was always a stubborn bastard. If anything, he was a little tragic, didn’t want to get clean. His family could see where he was heading. I think he could even see himself. But for some people, there’s no helping them.”
While Jaymes had been talking, Nathan had nodded his understanding. Everything made sense. Jaymes was the kind of person who would help others, would never tread on them or purposely make them feel bad about themselves. Nathan knew that instinctively from the short time they’d known each other.
“I need to ask you if you’d do something for me,” said Nathan, making up his mind. “And you can say no, I won’t be offended.”
“Does this involve lubricant?” said Jaymes, smirking seductively and raising one eyebrow.
Nathan laughed then, and shook his head. After leaning over and pecking Jaymes on the lips, he reached down to get his trousers from the floor and then rifled through each of the pockets until he found what he wanted.
“Doris gave me these.” Nathan held two rings in his palm. “They’re Claddagh rings.”
“I know what they are,” said Jaymes, staring reverently at Nathan’s outstretched palm. “And they look pretty darned expensive, too.”
“The thing is, would you wear one of these for me? If I wear the other?”
Jaymes didn’t answer straight away. Instead, he asked a question.
“Isn’t there some story about which hand you need to wear them on, and which way up they should be?”
“There is,” said Nathan, placing one ring on the bed in front of him, and demonstrating with the other. “If you’re single and available, you wear the ring on your right hand with the tip of the heart facing outwards.”
Nathan placed a ring on his right hand to demonstrate the direction.
“Exactly. And if you’re in a committed relationship, you wear it on the same hand but with the heart pointed inwards, the right way up.”
Again, Nathan demonstrated, plucking off and returning the ring the other way up. He continued doing the same for the last two positions.
“Once you’re engaged, you wear the ring on your left hand with the heart pointing outwards, and finally, once you’re married, you wear it on your left hand with the heart facing inward.”
“So what are you asking me?”
“I—I thought maybe we could wear the rings on our right hands, facing inward, to show the world that we’re in a committed relationship.”
Jaymes pondered the idea for a moment, his face serious, until he looked up into Nathan’s eyes.
“No. I don’t think I can do that, Nate.”
Nathan’s heart dropped, but he didn’t want to spoil the moment, or the weekend, so smiled bravely.
“No, not at all. But if we’re both going to be wearing these, I think they should be on the left hand, upside down.”
“Engaged?” said Nathan, his face lighting up.
“Give me your left hand, Nate.”
Nathan did as told and Jaymes slid the golden ring into place.
“Now you. Place the ring on my finger.”
Nathan followed suit, until they both held their ring hands out to each other. After a moment of admiring the rings, Jaymes leant forward and pulled Nathan into a fierce hug.
“In case I haven’t already told you enough, Nate,” said Jaymes, his warm breath in Nathan’s ear. “You’re it for me. I love you. I love you so much.”
Nathan almost collapsed into the embrace, his heart overflowing.
“I love you, too,” said Nathan, something inside bursting, his arms tightening around Jaymes.
The rest of the weekend went by in a blur of happiness; making love, laughing together, helping prepare meals. Nathan couldn’t help catching a glimpse of the ring on Jaymes’ finger, when he did innocent things like reaching for a carton of milk, or scratching his head. And each time he filled with pride. Friday afternoon they took a refreshing country walk after finally managing to get out of the cottage, Jaymes taking his hand as they strolled down a country lane. Inadvertently, their walk culminated in them stumbling upon the local village pub, where they decided to sample the local beers and home cooked food, chatting about football, the news, and, of course, Polly and Grant. But mainly they enjoyed the simple pleasure of each other’s company.
Margaret stood outside the shop front, appearing to take in the old town. Perhaps the sight brought back memories. She stared up the buildings a little like Grant had the first time Nathan met him.
“Do you want me to drive?” asked Nathan, joining her.
“No, that’s fine, Nathan,” she said, setting off immediately. “Cliffy loaned me his car and his driver. They’re in the car park, around the corner.”
“So where are we going? I’m trusting you here, Auntie Margie.”
“I thought we’d head down to the coast. Have a coffee, and then a spot of lunch. And catch up. How does that sound?”
Nathan let her lead the way to the small carpark tucked away at the back of the high street. Along the short walk, she said nothing, and he chose not to fill the silence. She had called for the meeting, after all. When they reached the Tesla, she got in the back without a word to the driver. Once Nathan had belted up, the car started moving off almost silently, the driver obviously aware of the destination. Five minutes into the drive, and Margaret reached forward to a concealed compartment, revealing a large aluminium jug, carton of milk and china mugs. Without a word, she made coffee for Nathan and herself before settling back in her seat.
“I suppose Cliffy told you what happened? To him, I mean,” she said, sullen, her head swinging quickly around to acknowledge Nathan’s simple nod. “A mother ought to have known. Not easy finding out that some older man thought to sexually exploit your own son. From everything Cliffy told me at the time, he seemed to adore college life. Finally found something he had a passion for, something he worked his heart out to excel at. When we lived here, he was never very interested or talented in anything.”
“Ooh, that’s a little unfair. He rocked at football.”
“Nonsense. He was mediocre, at best. Your mother and I knew he only joined the team because you did. In case you hadn’t worked it out, Clifton worshipped you, Nathan. You thought you were both being so smart, towards the end there, but I could tell there was something more than friendship between you two. You never talked about girls, like the other boys. And Cliffy would have done anything you asked.”
Was that true? Nathan always assumed Clifton wanted to be a part of the team as much as he did. He always had the impression he was the one doing the following around and the hero-worshipping.
“If you’d still been in his life, none of this would have happened.”
Like a slap in the face, the remark brought Nathan back to the present.
“Come on, Auntie Margie. That’s a little unfair,”
“Oh, I’m not blaming you, dear. Exactly the opposite. Your influence when you were around him, was very—levelling for Cliffy. Something I noticed every time you were together. Your moral compass is very centred.”
Nathan felt uncomfortable with the topic, and decided for a reprieve before they went back there.
“So how’s life in LA?” he asked.
“The way we left was wrong, I know,” she said, ignoring his diversion. “Very hard on both of you, but particularly you, after your mother and everything. But at the time, we had no say in the matter. My husband—my ex-husband—accepted the new job without really consulting us. Which was always his way. We were a part of his entourage, little more, and when he said jump, we jumped.”
“What happened to him?”
“Don’t worry about him. He got what he deserved.”
Nathan pulled a face, imagining the worst. He’d rarely met Mr Hogmore, but he wouldn’t have wanted anything bad to happen to him.
“Oh, nothing like what you’re imagining. Two years ago, he remarried, to a twenty-four year old underwear model—his third wife—who is currently expecting twins. My ex-husband turns sixty-five this year, and having been forcibly retired from the bank, he spends a lot of time pottering around their home. So let’s just see how he copes with crappy diapers and sleepless nights. Maybe there is a God.”
“And how about you?”
“Me? I’m doing well. Started my own business back in 2012—an online fashion house. Since then we’ve gone from strength to strength. Of course, it doesn’t hurt having a son in the spotlight.”
“So you’re like Stella McCartney, except in reverse?”
“Exactly. Although I’m hoping this little setback of his isn’t going to be permanent. Becoming a celebrity no longer has the appeal it used to. One little misdemeanour or slip of the tongue and you’re yesterday’s news, and nobody will hire you. Ironic, really, when some our politicians say and do whatever they want, no matter who they offend, and the voters still rally to endorse them.”
Nathan had been training his gaze out the car window, half listening when she made the remark. Something he had loved as a child, was searching for the flat horizon of the sea when they drove to the coast. Just the sight gave him a thrill, knowing that soon they’d be able to smell the sea air, and wade in the chill waves of the Atlantic Ocean, if they wanted. Today, he guessed that wouldn’t happen, bearing in mind the deteriorating weather outside the car.
They parked a few roads back from the Hastings waterfront. Margaret leant in and informed the driver they would be around three hours. When she led the way, he was intrigued, wondering what kind of luxury lunch venue she had found. So when she stopped outside a small cafe serving locally caught fried fish in batter, with fat chips and mushy teas, he burst out laughing.
“What?” she asked, grinning at him. “Did you think I’d ever lose sight of my humble roots?”
“I was thinking more of your waistline.”
“So let’s call this a cheat day, and be done with it.”
“Fine by me.”
They washed down their fish and chips in true local fashion with mugs of milky tea, sat at a table by the window overlooking the seashore. Margaret surprised Nathan by discarding cutlery, and using her thumb and forefinger to delicately pull apart the batter and fish, and to eat like a true local. In between eating, they chatted about general things, Margaret hogging most of the conversation with stories about her impressive successes. One was her pride and joy, her ‘cosy little’ house she’d snapped up in Bel Air with six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and its own Olympic-sized swimming pool. More than enough room to house her, her four Pomeranians, her three domestic helpers, and Clifton and Raul whenever they chose to come and stay. Without saying a word, Nathan guessed her divorce settlement must have been substantial.
“Let me get the check,” said Margaret, returning from the bathroom, primped and spruce. “And then we’ll take a stroll along the promenade.”
“That’s bill to you, Auntie Margie. And I don’t think this place takes American Express, even if you do have a black card.”
“Darling, I do have cash. It’s Auntie not Princess. I’m not royalty,” she said, waving her purse at him, before disappearing off to the cash register.
Nathan walked outside into the cool air, where the day still couldn’t make up its mind whether to be foul or fair. Leaning his backside against a bollard, he folded his arms and waited. Meeting with Margaret had been fun, not awkward at all, and a little like going back in time. But the point of their meeting had yet to be addressed and Nathan wondered what Margaret wanted to talk to him about regarding Clifton. When he looked up, she approached him holding two golden cones, topped with vanilla-swirled ice cream and two milk chocolate flakes sticking from the top of each like alien antennas.
“There we are. Ninety-nines. Used to be your favourite.”
“Okay, officially a cheat day,” he replied, reaching for one.
Margaret linked her arm with his as they strolled along the raised path separating the road from the shingle beach. Few other people had braved the day, their stroll undisturbed.
“So, Nathan. Crunch time. I need your help. My Cliffy needs his best friend back. He has Raul, who is an absolute darling, but he’s so busy travelling this year.”
“I’m there for him, Auntie Margie. Whenever he needs me.”
“Are you? Well, he’s got a public appearance coming up at the end of this month, an awards ceremony where they’re bound to ask a lot of uncomfortable and inappropriate questions. Raul’s not around, so I wanted you to accompany him. I would be there myself, but I’ve got a store opening in New York at the same time.”
“Hang on. Won’t the press read something more into us being seen together?”
“Not if we’re upfront with them. Tell them you’re an old friend from schooldays. At the moment, the press are onside, and we need to keep things that way.”
“What does Giorgio say?”
Margaret rolled her eyes dramatically, and with a flourish, dumped the remnants of her ice cream into a conveniently placed rubbish bin.
“That man? Honestly, Cliffy can’t poop without Giorgio asking him twenty questions. I raised the idea with him and although he wasn’t completely adverse—for a change—he said you’d never agree.”
“I’m not over the moon—”
“Cliffy needs someone to support him right now, Nathan. And you are his friend.”
“Look, as long as Raul’s okay with me standing in for him. And I’ll need to clear it with my own boyfriend.”
“You’re dating?” Margaret appeared delighted, and Nathan held up the ring to show her. “Cliffy never said anything. How lovely. Tell me all about him.”
Talking about Jaymes came easy to Nathan, with Margaret asking questions to find out more, questions Nathan found he enjoyed answering. Before he realised, they’d walked half a mile down the beachfront.
“Ouch, we’re a long way from the carpark. Should we turn back?”
“Not yet. Let’s go on a little further.”
At the top end of the beach road, the tall buildings petered out and only a few smaller bungalows sat back from the road. A cul-de-sac road, no cars came along this stretch, even though the promenade continued, the only sounds coming from the constant crash of waves and the cry of seagulls. They kept going slowly on, arms linked, but now walking in companionable silence. Nathan decided the time was right to ask the question burning a hole in his brain.
“So are we going to talk about my mother?”
“Do you want to?”
“Of course I do. Wasn’t she your best friend?”
Margaret stopped and turned to the ocean, her gloved hands placed on the seafront railing. Smiling wistfully, she glanced out to the horizon.
“Not sure if you know, but we were both single children, your mother and I. Just like you. To me, it was like having the sister I always wanted, someone to talk to and confide in.” Her gaze returned to Nathan and faltered for a second, as though she were unsure how he might react to her next words. ”What do you remember about her?
“So much. I remember her laughter, like birdsong, and the smell of her perfume. I remember her dancing, and the way she watched me when she bought me a present, so happy watching me tear away at the packaging, and especially when she saw me delighted with what she’d bought. I loved hearing her talk to the customers. She had a way about her.”
“A lot of positive things?”
“That’s good. That’s very good.”
“But then she disappeared, Auntie Margie, and I still have a hard time reconciling that.”
Margaret put an arm around him and squeezed in sympathy.
“You know,” Nathan continued, staring out to sea. “When I got older, I ran through a whole heap of scenarios for her leaving, but the only one I could reasonably justify, the only one that made sense, was that she’d met someone else. Another man. My father was too tired and, frankly, too dull, to be of interest to other women. And my mother was a firecracker.”
“Did you ever ask your father?”
“A couple of times. In my late teens. He stated quite firmly that she hadn’t had an affair, and on both occasions seemed to want to tell me more, but then sort of became overcome, really sad and withdrawn. When I look back at his reaction, I thought he might have been in denial. But the last thing I wanted was to make him unhappy, so I stopped pushing.”
“Poor John. He loved her so much.”
“But I had these dreams that one day she would come back for me, take me out of that dungeon and fly me across the world somewhere, to be with fun people and live an interesting life.”
“She always said you were like her. I know she argued with your father about your future.”
“So what happened to her?”
Margie took his arm again, and pulled him further along the coast, until they reached a wooden bench.
“Here we are. Sit down.”
“Are you sure? It’s seriously nippy out today. Sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable in the warm coffee shop back down the road?”
Offshore blustery winds buffeted the coastline, sending errant grains of sand and carelessly discarded items of trash onto the road, and causing him to button tight the collar of his overcoat. Before answering, she seated herself on the bench, and then yanked on his sleeve for him to join her.
“Are you disparaging me as an LA mom, used to more temperate weather? I did live here for most of my life, Nathan. And still have some fond memories of the place. Look out there.”
After Nathan joined her and settled back, she nodded her chin out towards the deserted beach and white spume of the grey Atlantic waves.
“Do you remember coming here as a child?”
“To Hastings? Yes, of course.”
“Not just Hastings, Nathan. To this particular spot.”
As Nathan stared out at the view and focused, a wave of memory washed over him. Even though the family had only ever enjoyed one or two proper holidays, they often came to the beaches of the south coast on Sunday or a bank holiday, and particularly here, to Hastings. Right in front of them was where they used to set up camp, the same spot every time. Nathan had been back to the town a few years since. Despite the pebble beach, Hastings always felt more genuine, less commercialised than other towns along the south coast, with its rows of pretty three-storey buildings facing the sea and cluster of working fishing boats at one end of the beach. Less than an hour’s drive from home, they could spend the day here and still be home in time for tea. On many occasions, the two families had come to the beach together, always without Clifton’s father, and often without Nathan’s. He still had a photograph of his mother wearing a huge brimmed straw hat, hugging a squirming Nathan—who must have been four or five at the time—and grinning happily at the camera. Looking back, he assumed Auntie Margie had taken the photograph. In his late teens, he began to question that assumption. Had there been another man taking the picture? Had the other man been his real father? If so, were he and his mother living together somewhere? Adolescent minds could conjure amazing fantasies.
“Vaguely. Yes, I do. We were happy here.”
“We most certainly were.”
Memories of his mother made him sad, and though he didn’t want to be rude to Margaret, he needed some answers from her, whatever she had.
“Do you know where my mother is, Margaret?”
She must have heard the tone in his voice, because she replied, very plainly.
“Yes, I do.”
Nathan waited for an answer, but when none came, he turned sidelong to look at her.
Margaret took a deep sigh, before continuing.
“She’s right here.”
“What do you mean? Here. Here, where?”
Nathan looked behind him, at the small seaside bungalow right behind them, wondering if his Aunt had set him up with a surprise meeting with his estranged mother.
“Right here,” said Margaret, smiling tenderly. “We’re sitting on her.”
Nathan looked down between his legs, confused.
“We’re sitting on a bench, Auntie Margie,” he said, as though talking to a twelve year old.
“Look between us, behind you, at the top of the bench.”
Nathan did as asked and spotted a bronze plaque, weathered speckled with age, affixed to the top of the stone seat. The inscription read: Eleanor Jane Fresher, 1959-2001, Loving Wife and Mother, “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”
A sensation Nathan didn’t recognise overwhelmed him. Understanding mixed with confusion mixed with sadness and dismay. Maybe, he thought, this is what grief feels like. Deep in his brain, he realised the truth in the written words. Shine On You Crazy Diamond, the Pink Floyd song, had been his mother and father’s first dance song at their wedding.
“I don’t understand,” he said, his eyes misting, even though instinctively he did know. Maybe, though, he needed to clutch at straws. “That’s the year she ran way, isn’t it? Or is she—?”
Margaret let out another deep sigh, and continued looking out to the sea.
“This is so unfair. Your father should have brought you here a long time ago.”
“My father’s dead.”
“I know, Nathan. And so is your mother. She died in 2001. The reason she left is because she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Terminal and horribly aggressive. She’d had no warning signs until it was too late. By then the cancer had pretty much spread everywhere. Your father knew about this. Of course he did. But the decision to leave home for the hospice was hers alone, and she did so mainly to shield you from seeing her go into decline. She refused to let your last memories of her be of a woman becoming frail and diseased. Whether that was the right thing to do or not, I don’t know. I am not here to judge. I wonder sometimes if there was a little vanity in there somewhere. Your father was supposed to tell you about all of this when you were older—I even went to the shop to remind him a couple of times—but clearly he decided to put the deed off until it was too late. I think she might have sensed your father’s reticence, because the last time I saw her—bless her, she was barely clinging onto life—she kept telling me that you were her world. She loved you above anyone else, you were the biggest and brightest achievement of her life. I went straight back to John and told him we needed to take you to see her before she passed, and he finally agreed. But before we could arrange anything, though, she’d already gone.”
Nathan sat rigid. Cold winds rocked into him, but made no impact. Too many emotions almost prevented him from thinking things through properly.
“Was she buried?”
“No, she wanted to be cremated.”
“Did my father lay any tombstone or stone plaque in the crematorium? So that people could go and pay their respects?”
“She didn’t want that. You knew your mother. She lived for life. Wanted half of her ashes to be spread in the sea out there, which is what we did. And she asked John to have a bench built here, where she was the most happy, playing with you by the sea.”
Yes, thought Nathan. That made perfect sense. As if reading his mind, Margaret reached across and took his hand in both of hers.
“One of her worries was that you might be prone to the same disease, through inherited cancer genes. Doctors said the chances were slim. But she made your father promise he’d have you tested each year—”
“Twice a year. I always wondered why my father was so obsessive about that.”
And then other dots began to connect; how his grandfather had stepped back in from retirement to help out full-time when his mother left, never once uttering a bad word about her; how his father had uncharacteristically taken time away from the shop following her departure; how they’d closed the shop on a Tuesday later that year, to both attend a distant relative’s funeral. Maybe not so distant, as fate would have it.
“If it’s any consolation, she loved your father. I get the impression she didn’t have a happy childhood. She eventually found her little corner of heaven with you and your father at the bakery, and she wanted nothing more than for you to find yours.”
“Well, it’s not in the bakery, Auntie Margie.”
“You think she didn’t realise that?” said Margaret, turning to him and squeezing his hands in hers.
“The questions is, Nathan. What are you going to do about it?”
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