Chapter 7

As the train pulled out of Waverley Station, Anna cradled her coffee cup in an attempt to warm her hands. September had come in hard and cold sending everyone to their wardrobes and closets for jumpers and scarves much earlier than they had anticipated or hoped. Trees held their green leaves, determined not to give way to autumn just yet, providing the only colour on an otherwise bleak and dreary day. The journey to North Berwick would take just over half an hour and a short walk from the station would take her to Aunt Abigail’s house, her Mum’s older sister. She hadn’t been to see her for several months and a weekend away was just what the doctor ordered. It had been a long, slow week at work. The tourists had all gone home leaving the city quieter and the museum noticeably more empty. Anna still loved it, still got a thrill from working there, but some days that week had passed achingly slowly and she had begun to feel bored and restless. The promise of more activity around the half term holidays kept her going, as had the idea of coming to see her aunt. Now more than ever she needed to feel that connection to her Mum and she had questions which seemed to be becoming more urgent if she and her Dad were to forge any kind of normal or healthy adult relationship. Having lived out from home through her university days in order to have her own space and independence, the already existing gap between them had widened. Returning had been awkward and in many ways Anna hadn’t wanted to do it but it would take a while to save for a place of her own and so it was the sensible option. She was also starting to recognise that there was perhaps a moment of opportunity here. If she could figure out a way to connect to her dad then maybe they could fix the future, otherwise they may end up stuck with this distance between them indefinitely. However it was hard work and she was ready for a break. She was pinning a lot on this weekend, she knew that, but the fresh sea air, the familiar sights and smells of the harbour, and the comfort of being accepted for exactly who she was were exactly what she needed. Hector sat at her feet, resting his head on her lap and providing some additional warmth for which Anna was grateful. Stroking his head, her companion wagged his tail in appreciation.

“Yes, you know where we’re going don’t you? Auntie Abigail is going to spoil us both rotten, isn’t she? And I am ready for it.”

Abigail was a free spirit with more than a touch of the bohemian about her. She had never married, although there were many tales of love affairs and stolen kisses with inappropriate people, always told with joy and laughter and never a hint of regret. She had travelled all over the world and her small house was full of paintings and sculptures from her adventures. She had also been a teacher and an artist, adding a small studio to her house a number of years ago in order to fully indulge her passion. Well known locally for her work, several of the independent shops in the town sold her paintings. Anna always loved to visit her home as it was like entering a different kind of museum. Every room held a dozen things to look at and every piece had a tale to tell. There was always something new, something different either from her most recent trip or that she had found on one of her many antiquing expeditions with her friend Nigel. The two of them loved nothing more than to take off on a Saturday to a market or car boot sale seeking treasure, or at least something they felt had an interesting backstory. Anna had spent many a happy evening in their company as they told her of their latest finds and concocted elaborate adventures behind each one, falling into gales of laughter as they tried to out-do the other with their outlandish imaginings. But more than good company and great stories Anna needed answers. Her mind buzzed with questions of her Mum, her Dad, their marriage and what had held it together. She wondered about the wider family she came from and if her personal history would reveal anything exciting or noteworthy. As the train pulled into the station Anna gathered her belongings and led Hector onto the platform before tugging on her coat, holding it closed at the neck with one hand against the wind whistling in from the sea.

“Bracing isn’t it?” called a fellow traveller, their voice almost immediately stolen away by a huge gust as they raised a hood and dipped their head to barrel against the onslaught. Among all of the passengers alongside her only Hector looked delighted by the weather. He loved the wind, facing into it with closed eyes and a satisfied expression on his face.

Usually Anna enjoyed the short walk through the small town centre, taking a moment to look in various windows, popping into a couple of the establishments where she had gotten to know the owners because they stocked Abigail’s work, having a rummage in the charity shops, but today the brooding clouds spurred her onward towards the warm safe haven of Abigail’s cottage. She reached it just as the first large drops of rain started to fall, lending an urgency to her knock at the door. The cottage was right on the street leading down to the harbour, with no porch or shelter and in the time it took for the door to be answered the heavens opened and so the sight that greeted the hostess was of two rather sorry and slightly soggy-looking creatures, one hoping from side to side to keep warm, the other still wagging his tail as if nothing at all was the matter.

“Goodness look at you two! Come in, come in,” Abigail called before ushering them into the hallway. In a matter of moments they had pulled off damp outer garments and boots, unclipped leads and dropped bags at their heels before being led into the large kitchen diner at the back of the house. Anna stood in the familiar space letting the smell of freshly baked scones fill her nostrils as the sound of the rain thundered on the large skylight above, momentarily drowning out the ever-present Radio 4 gently murmuring in the background. Hector made himself immediately at home on the blanket beside the radiator, laid out just for him in his favourite spot with a bone-shaped biscuit as a treat. They would be spoiled indeed.

The kitchen was just like its owner, walking the line between stylish and eclectic. An old green Aga took pride of place on the back wall, deep terracotta tiles filled the space behind the countertops and an assortment of bright coloured bowls and plates peeked through glass-fronted units. An ancient dark wood dresser sat against the left hand wall of the dining space teeming with recipe books, photographs, trinkets and right in the centre of shelves, in pride of place, Granny’s best china, a set of delicate cups and saucers with a trim of duck egg blue and pale pink flowers complete with matching teapot and jug. Anna sat on one of the mismatched chairs around the large round table and drank in the scene she knew and loved so well. On the stove the kettle whistled and Abigail called for the tea set to be lifted onto the table ready for use. Anna no longer questioned this choice, after being told many times “We don’t save things for best around here. You are the best, today is the best, this moment is the best. What would you be saving it for? Live your life girl!” It seemed to sum up Abigail perfectly.

“Can I do anything to help?” Anna offered, knowing exactly the response she would get.

“No, no, all under control here,” as a tray laden with scones, jam and cream appeared, the pot filled with tea and the whirlwind of activity finally came to rest before her. Aunt Abigail was a riot of colour, her simple purple dress offset with a vibrant emerald green scarf complementing her long silver hair currently piled precariously on top of her head secured with a paintbrush.  Earrings in the shape of tiny teacups dangled either side of her smile. Pouring the tea, she offered Anna a scone (insisting she took two, as they were really very small) before sitting back and enjoying the fruit of her labour. The two women smiled together, relishing the companionship in this well-worn ritual between them. Tea and scones were Abigail’s answer to most of the ills in the world. She had often told Anna how she had shared a simple cup of tea with all manner of people around the globe and found it to be the best way to make friends. “No one ever goes to war over a cup of tea, it’s simply impossible,” she was fond of saying.

 “Well now my sweet girl,” Abigail began once they each had a mouthful of scone, “how are you? Tell me everything. How is the job? How is your father?”

“He sends his regards,” Anna began with a slight shrug, knowing that she didn’t have much more to offer on that topic, and aware that her dad and aunt had a strange relationship. If her parents had been a case of opposites attracting then she wondered why these two didn’t get on better, as you couldn’t find two more different people on the planet. She also in that moment recognised the mystery of the human heart, that one person could have two such characters in their life and love them both dearly, despite them being so different in almost every way possible.

“Well that’s lovely,” Abigail smiled, “do please return my best wishes.” And then with a raised eyebrow she enquired, “Does he know you’ve come to see your wild and reckless aunt?”

“He suggested it actually.”

Abigail feigned choking on her tea.

“Goodness me, what moment of weakness did you catch him in?”

“Well it’s funny you should ask,” Anna began, before telling her aunt all about the conversation in the Sheraton and the brush off she’d received when asking about their family tree.

“I just don’t understand him, I wish I did,” Anna continued. “There are moments of small connection but most of the time there’s a distance, a formality almost. Yet when I think of Mum I remember warmth and laughter and a tangible sense of love in our home, and Dad being a part of that too and it just isn’t there anymore. How on earth did they get together, let alone get married? Can you shed any light on that? She must have talked to you at the time.”

Abigail tilted her head to one side and looked at her niece with kindness and understanding, sharing some of the same confusion.

“I wasn’t here when they met,” she began.

“I was living in Turkey, and so I didn’t see them together, but she wrote to tell me all about him. This was in the days of handwritten letters, mind, none of your emailing back and forth. I used to love getting her letters. She wrote of a man who was charming and sweet and who had entirely swept her away with romantic gestures. She knew that they were different but they shared a love of Edinburgh, of the outdoors and a deep desire to have a family. I was in no doubt of her love for him. When I finally met him he was very quiet, standoffish almost, but polite. They were engaged by this stage and although he and I never made a great connection I could see how much he loved your mum and she him. I also knew that so much of a relationship happens in the intimate unseen places, that people can present one thing to the world and have an almost entirely different persona when they are alone with the one who has their heart. For some unfortunate people that secret is a dark one, but for many it is the place of their deepest joy. I believe that was the case with your mum, that there is more to your father than he presents to the world and she had found the key to unlock that part of him.”

Anna looked down at her cup, slowly swirling the dregs of her tea around the bottom, watching the thin pale line of liquid turning circles at her command. She took a deep breath and sighed.

“I don’t always remember exact details about her. I can’t always recall the sound of her voice. But her presence…” Anna raised her eyes to meet her aunt’s. “I miss that every day.” Abigail reached across the table and took hold of her hand. “I do too my darling, I do too.”

“I wish we’d all had longer with her, you especially. I was always fond of her growing up, but there was a six year age gap between us and so we weren’t really friends. We became more like that as adults, but by then we had our own lives in different places and so didn’t get to spend a huge amount of time together, but we spoke a lot on the phone. I’d give anything for one more call from her.”

Anna sighed and Hector took his cue, rousing from his slumber and plodding over to Anna to sit by her side. Setting down her cup, and with one hand clasped across the table and the other resting on her ever faithful companion, she allowed the grief to sit with her once more. It felt good to connect with someone who understood. A little later, after they’d shared a few tears, Anna stood in the kitchen looking across at Abigail and smiled.

“Thank you, I needed that. I can’t remember the last time I cried about her. Weirdly it feels good to have done it.”

“She was worth the tears,” Abigail replied softly.

“I wish I could talk like this with Dad. There’s obviously still pain there but he’s locked it away and won’t let it out. I guess that’s his choice, or just his way, but it makes trying to talk to him like trying to have a conversation with someone behind a closed door.”

“I know sweetheart. But your Mum managed to find a way to the core of who he was, enough to fall in love with him. That same man is in there somewhere, he’s just buried deep under the façade. He’s shown you a little of that already, however briefly. Stay patient and maybe more will come.”

“I suppose so. Doesn’t seem like I have much choice right now anyway.”

Abigail paused before rising to her feet.

“What we do have a choice in right now is how we spend this weekend. So how about we start by tidying away these cups and making the most of the break in the rain to head out and blow away these cobwebs? Then we can settle in for the night with some dinner and a film or something?”

“Sounds perfect. What do you say Hector? Time for a walk?”

The dog’s tail signalled his approval.

The following morning broke bright and clear so before breakfast, and what she knew would be a day involving a lot of food, Anna took herself out for a short run around the town finishing up at the harbour. She ran to the end of the pier and climbed up the stone steps to the top level, catching her breath as she looked back across the bay. Berwick Law rose up behind the neat row of houses along the beachfront, the rocky green pyramid gently lit by the early sun. A spire peaked its nose above the roofs at one end of the buildings and the clock tower of St. Andrew’s church bookended the scene in ecclesiastical symmetry. Turning to take a gentle stroll back along the pier over to the lookout point, the glorious Bass Rock came into view, gleaming white against the brilliant blue sky. A misty memory surfaced of standing here as a young girl, posing for a photo with ice cream in hand and her mother’s arm around her shoulder. Who was taking the picture? Dad? Abigail? She couldn’t remember, but she was glad of the image in her mind. 

That evening, after a lazy day of perusing a flea market and craft stalls in a nearby village, eating ice cream despite the cold chill in the air and generally grazing their way around the local area, they settled once more around the kitchen table but this time with Nigel for company. He arrived at the door unannounced but brandishing flowers and wine and entered the kitchen with an eccentric flourish.

“I heard tell that there may be a stranger in town and I came to see for myself, bringing flowers in case she was beautiful, which I see that indeed she is,” and he leant to kiss Anna’s hand with a smile and a wink.

“Thank you for the flowers Nigel, that’s really kind. I know I haven’t been down in a while, but I hope I haven’t become a stranger!” Anna countered, ready for the gentle teasing that existed between them, glad of the light-hearted mood and easy company they all enjoyed together.

Nigel was always impeccably dressed, regardless of the occasion. Debonair and charming without being stuffy, he exuded an old time, easy sophistication which gave him an air of mystery. He seemed to belong to a different era, one that was infinitely more interesting than the present.

“That’s enough you old smoothie,” called Abigail from the stove, throwing a corkscrew in his direction. “Here, make yourself useful.”

“Your servant Madam,” he bowed, to the smiling eye roll of his longest dearest friend.

Once the plates were cleared and the second bottle of wine had been opened, when the stories had been retold for the umpteenth time and the laughter had given way to a satisfied lull, Anna suddenly broke the silence with a start.

“Oh I almost forgot! The two of you have been such a distraction I nearly forgot the main reason I came. I wanted to ask about our family tree. I want to look into it and Dad said to start with you.”

“So you mean you didn’t come for scones or the company?” Abigail enquired playfully.

“I do think the company has improved significantly this evening,” Nigel added with a wink.

“Seriously you two!” scolded Anna with a smile. “No, I’ve been thinking about it for a while but was just too busy before, but now I really want to make a start. Do you know anything that might help?”

“I don’t know a lot I’m afraid. Obviously there were my parents and grandparents, and I can give you what little information I have about them to get you started. It was your Mum who was into all that. I think she did try and look into it all at some point, but how far she got I have no idea. I know that our step-dad, who you just knew as Grandpa Mac, was interested in his side of the family and spoke to your Mum a lot about it before he died so she might have checked out something of his family. She might not have wanted to look into the past of our birth father at that point, simply to honour the man who brought us up, but if you want to find out anything then his name was Chambers.”

“I wonder where she’d have kept the things she found. Dad doesn’t seem to know or care, so I might just have to start over again.”

“Well, you could try having a look in the house at Elie,” offered Abigail. “That was her special place, and I’m sure there are boxes of things there that your Dad has never been through. Maybe you’ll find something there.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. That’s a great idea, thanks. Maybe the next weekend I have free I’ll head up there and have a look.”

Hector stretched and shook himself out before interrupting their conversation with an expectant look.

“Yes I see you,” Anna called to him, “I know you need to go out.”

“Why don’t you take him while myself and the butler here tidy this kitchen.”

Anna stood in the hall pulling on her coat to the sound of gentle chatter and laughter seeping through from the kitchen. Opening the front door she glanced back to see to the old friends dancing together, their bodies swaying gently in the candlelight.

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