Authors: Margaret Mayhew
When Juliet Porter's mother dies, she leaves her a letter and an old second world war photograph, which reveal a shattering secret. The father she had known and loved dearly until the end of his life had not been her father after all. Instead, it seems that she is the daughter of an American bomber pilot who is completely unaware of her existence. Without knowing his name and with only the photograph to help her, Juliet sets out to search for her real father.
The task of tracing him proves both daunting and difficult. The trail is old and cold, and seemingly best left undisturbed, but Juliet feels compelled to go on, driven by a desperate need to find her father. Her search takes her back to the old wartime Suffolk airfield where her mother fell in love with the American pilot in 1942, and, eventually, to California where in the end she meets not only her past but also her future.
A superbly romantic wartime saga by the bestselling author of
For Debbie and Fergus
My mother was buried on a bitterly cold day in mid-February, 1992. It had snowed on the day that she died and a hard frost had followed â so hard and so lasting that there was a problem about digging the grave. The funeral director was smoothly apologetic. Unfortunately, arrangements would take rather longer than usual. The cemetery was experiencing difficulties; the grave-diggers, faced with earth as hard as iron, were being unco-operative.
My brother and I sat in front of his desk while he explained this to us. While he talked, I noticed that the previously old-fashioned funeral parlour had undergone a complete makeover since my father's death eleven years before. On that occasion, I remembered sombre furniture, sober colour, sepia photos of horse-drawn hearses, black horses with black head-plumes, and pall-bearers with top hats swathed in black veils. Those photos had disappeared and in their place hung a large, framed declaration, a professional testimony in black, gilt-edged letters:
DIGNITY. PERSONAL, CARING SERVICE AT ALL TIMES. PRIVATE CHAPEL OF REST. FUNERALS COMPLETELY FURNISHED
The Dickensian dÃ©cor had been updated to silver-and-grey striped wallpaper, fitted carpeting, venetian blinds and modern office furniture, while the elderly undertaker had been superseded by this much younger funeral director, smartly dressed and seated behind an Ikea desk. He slid an open folder across its shiny surface towards us and revolved it deftly for our inspection. Inside there were coloured photographs of coffins made in different styles and woods. Solid oak, he informed us, was the best, the most durable and, naturally, the most expensive. For that reason, it was normally only chosen for burials, together with handles of solid brass â also rather expensive. But there were more reasonably priced options; he turned a page, indicating other photographs with a well-manicured forefinger. Oak veneer, he assured us, was considered a perfectly acceptable alternative for burials, as well as half the price â and the handles were often what was known in the trade as brassed.
âPlastic covered with brass, Mrs Porter. Particularly suitable for cremations, which are becoming increasingly the norm â what with the shortage of land and the change in people's lifestyles. Though, of course, here we're concerned with a burial.'
His manner was brisk now that we had got down to business; quite matter-of-fact. He might have been selling refrigerators, or washing machines or any other consumer durable. He must have decided that this was the most effective way to deal with bereaved families and achieve the painful decisions necessary to dispose of the loved one decently, efficiently and quickly. And for the same reasons that any good salesman targets the woman rather than the man, he had twitched the folder slightly in my direction, away from my brother, and addressed his remarks to me. He turned another page and flicked at the only photo dismissively.
âThis one is made of pine and the cheapest. It's really only used in cases where there are no known relatives and the local council bears the cost.'
âExactly.' He went back to the beginning and the solid oak. I fumbled for my reading glasses and took a closer look before I shifted the book back in Drew's direction. âWhich do you think?'
He peered at the photos. âUp to you, Ju.'
The funeral director said, âThe raised-lid design is
âIs it possible to see one? I mean, do you have samples here?'
He hesitated. âAs it happens we
have one of that particular style on the premises â in our private chapel here â but I'm afraid there's a lady resting in it. Of course, you're quite welcome to view, if you have no objections.'
In my state of shock and grief, I had a ludicrous vision of some exhausted passer-by clambering into a spare coffin for a lie-down. And then I understood him. âNo, noÂ .Â .Â . that won't be necessary.'
The decision was finally made. Anything other than solid oak was really unthinkable and I felt my mother would have preferred the simplest style without the fancy lid. And solid brass handles â the plainest design. The black folder was closed and returned immediately to a desk drawer; perhaps the funeral director had also learned that, if not, the woman in question might start changing her mind. Again, he looked at me, rather than my brother.
âWill you wish there to be floral tributes â other than from the close family? Many people prefer not. The trend these days is very much towards donations to some favourite cause instead. It can be specified in the newspaper announcement.'
There was a black urn containing white plastic lilies placed on the window sill behind him. For some reason, I found them even more distressing than the coffin photos or the lady resting close by.
âOur mother adored flowers. The more people send, the better.'
âYes, of course, Mrs Porter. It's entirely as you prefer.' Another desk drawer was opened, another folder placed on the desk, turned round and slid towards us. I read the words on its cover:
The Flower Basket: Sympathy Guide
. âWe find find this local florist very satisfactory. As you will see, they offer some most attractive and original arrangements â the old-style wreaths have rather gone out of fashion these days. I assume that you and Dr Byrne will wish your own personal tributes to be placed on the coffin?'
I looked at more colour photographs â this time of flowers contorted into a bewildering variety of shapes: cushions, crosses, hearts, teardrops, teddy bears, toy trains, anchors, harps, guitars, open books, gates of heavenÂ .Â .Â . The blooms all looked perfect specimens of their kind â presumably real, but just as depressing as the plastic lilies.
The funeral director said encouragingly, âThe tributes would be delivered here on the morning of the funeral and we will take care of the rest for you. We offer a complete package, you know. The announcement in the press, limousines, service sheets, pall-bearers, even making the arrangements with a priest or minister, if necessary â not so in your case, of course, but the majority of people these days are not regular churchgoers. You'd be surprised at how many never go at all, but they still want a religious service of some kind. We arrange everything for them. It takes a lot of the stress out of the whole sad experience.'
âIs that such a good thing? Isn't stress rather a natural part of it?'
He said blandly, âWe find our clients appreciate the support, Mrs Porter.'
I closed the florist's
and sent it back across the desk. We also declined the limousines, assistance with the announcement in the press and with the printing of the service sheets. I wondered if the completely furnished funeral package included choosing the hymns and the music too, as well as the readings? Almost certainly. Perhaps they could even supply someone to deliver an appropriate eulogy â about somebody they'd never met?
We must have been a disappointment to the man, but it was well hidden. More condolences were expressed, assurances given of every personal care and attention, and we were conducted smoothly to the door and out into the Oxford street. I shivered and took Drew's arm for moral support, as well as to avoid slipping on the icy pavement. âI could do with a stiff drink.'
âMe too. Let's find a pub.'
It was close to lunchtime and the pub bar was filling up, but I found an empty table and staked a claim to it while Drew fetched the drinks. All around me, people were talking and laughing, drinking and smoking and eating. Brutally, life went on just the same without missing a beat.
Drew came back. âI made it a double.'
The drink worked its magic and I pulled myself together. âWe're due at the vicarage at two. Have you any thoughts about hymns?'
He shook his head. âNot really. You'd know what she'd have liked. I can't remember the last time I went to church.'
âFlavia and I went with her at Christmas when we were staying there. She seemed perfectly all right then. A bit thinner, that's all â I do remember noticing that. I rang her regularly afterwards as usual, of course, but she always sounded fine. I'd no
anything was the matter. Not a clue.'
âPerhaps she hadn't either.'
. The doctor told me that she was diagnosed early in October. She insisted on knowing exactly what the situation was and he gave it to her straight out. She knew from the very beginning that there wasn't really a hope and she refused point-blank to have chemotherapy. I was going to see her, you know, towards the end of January, but she put me off â told me she'd got some charity committee meeting that she'd forgotten about and had to go to. I just wish to heaven she'd told me that she was so ill, Drew. If only she had.'
âYou know what she was like, Ju. Could never stand a fuss.'
âWe wouldn't have fussed.'
âWe probably would. Or
would have, almost certainly.'
âI still wish we'd known. We could have spent more time with her.'
âWould that have helped?'
âShe wouldn't have had to face it alone. And it wouldn't have been such a ghastly shock for us. I suppose it's very selfish of me to think like that â if that's the way she wanted it â but I hate the fact that we never had a chance to say goodbye. That's what saddens me most of all. Flavia too.'
âMmm.' He picked up his beer again. âNot really Ma's style to have us gathered round the bedside, was it? I can't see her going for that. And she always hated goodbyes of any kind.'
It was true, which helped â a bit. She had never been one for lingering over partings. No prolonged wavings or watery words or looking back. It had always been a smile, a hug and then she was gone.
âWill you stay on till the funeral, Drew?'
He took off his glasses and polished them carefully with his handkerchief. âWell, I really ought to get back to Cambridge for a couple of days or so. I'm meant to be lecturing this week. I was thinking of going off first thing tomorrow and coming back the day before it â that's if you can manage the rest.'