The tiny kitchen, with the fire lit and the oven on, was probably too warm for September, but the intention had been to create an ambience as resplendent as an autumn day. Golden and welcoming. A brass coal scuttle glimmering in the hearth, reflected the fire's amber glow. On the spacious windowsill, inside a frame of ecru drapes, a huge bronze pitcher was crammed with preserved beech leaves and dried wheat. Bunches of dried corn were tucked amidst the porcelain plates that stood side by side on a wooden rack.
The room, which she fancied was once a scullery, was where Gentle spent most of her time. Its smallness was comforting. She could bake or read or knit squares for Oxfam and forget the isolation of the enormous, inherited house. It was far too big for a woman living alone but today George was coming to tea. The prospect excited her. For far too long she had functioned like an ageing spinster when in fact she was only forty-three.
Not having enough recreation was her biggest difficulty. With only housework to occupy her she was becoming dull and uninteresting. Redundancy had struck hard. It had eliminated colleagues, assurances that they would keep in touch forgotten directly the office doors slammed to. Polly Moss had stayed in touch; she wasn't one of those perfunctory acquaintances who bandied pledges like confetti, but she was in the throes of a wild intrigue with Gary Starr, an all-in-wrestler, and was currently away with him on tour. Although the two friends regularly spoke on the phone it wasn't the same as getting together for a proper chin-wag.
The solution to enforced solitude was in Gentle's own hands. She could go out, join a social club, mix with the opposite sex. If she could ignore the phobia of abandonment she might find it easier to mingle. At times she felt doomed to dwell in eternal isolation, time surging ahead and dragging her into immortality. However, that brand of depression was rare. Mostly, she got on with life, grateful for excellent health and reasonable prosperity.
Gentle had opted for a solitary lifestyle after three serious relationships were shattered. The first by reason of death when a week ahead of their wedding her boyfriend contracted killer meningitis; the second terminating when the man who swore undying devotion was involved in a steamy sex scandal with his boss's wife; and the ultimate liaison that ended when her third beau took an unhealthy interest in female fashion. For a while Gentle had wondered about her ability to attract that kind of man. The episodes had wholly killed off her appetite for male companionship … until she met George and came to value his friendship.
Humming softly, she sorted the cutlery, choosing silver for the salad and delicate bone-handled knives for the scones. Would George commend her cooking? Would he like her home?
She had been drawn to him by his apparent regard for animals. When she first saw him in the park he was hunkered down to talk man to dog with a Yorkshire terrier. The next time he was perched on the school wall whispering to a cat, his beard blending very well with the animal's white fur. Several times she saw him by the lake tossing bread to the ducks. Sometimes he fondled the donkeys' manes; always he slipped titbits to dogs when their owners weren't looking. A man with a virtuous heart!
Gentle sniffed the air, inhaling the delicious smell of baking that made her mouth water. Satisfied the scones were cooked she scurried to the oven. Pulled open the door. Grabbing a heavily-singed oven cloth, she withdrew the tray and unloaded the scones onto a dish decorated with cornflowers, with divisions to take pots of jam and clotted cream. Arranged to her liking she deposited the dish adjacent to an oval platter of carved ham and a cut-glass bowl filled with green-leaf salad.
Hearing the grandfather-clock chime the half-hour, Gentle glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. Ninety minutes to countdown. Her stomach lurched. What had she done? What did he want? In the three years she had lived here only tradesmen had entered this house. Would she shape up as a hostess? Could she adequately converse with such an erudite man? It was one thing to twitter away making small talk, it was quite another to take part in profound topics such as politics, or the arts, or issues of an educational nature. Panic rose in her breast.
She tried to suppress her anxiety by twitching curtains, plumping cushions, straightening the framed landscapes; an inessential activity in that snug and shipshape room. Feeling the tremor in her lower lip she bit hard to make it stop, cursing her nervousness. She brushed a hand through chestnut curls that had been so carefully styled. Realising her mistake she rushed to a mirror to check its condition, releasing a sigh when she saw that no harm had been done. But anxiety continued to dangle its ice-cold digits and she sank wretchedly into a wooden armchair.
Silently Gentle counted the Denby cups hanging on the Welsh dresser. The monotony of the mental exercise was guaranteed to calm her. Four ... What had possessed her to accede to his request? Seven … What had he in mind when he asked to call? Twelve ... Why was she in such a terrible spin? She was behaving as if she was expecting a suitor instead of an elderly companion.
Polly had been aghast when she learned his age, claiming that Gentle must be mad to associate with such an old man. He was old enough to be her father. Gentle had chuckled, thinking how like her deceased parent he was. At least in features. They even shared a name. When Polly heard about the similarity, she joked that her father's spirit had returned to protect her. Gentle hadn't enlightened her about his lack of concern for his children.
Kicking off her slippers, she pondered on the unusual relationship with George. She felt safe with him, as if he was indeed family. Lacing her fingers she let her hands lie in her lap, remembering the first time he acknowledged her and how amazed she had been to see the familiar glint in his eye and an almost recognisable little-boy grin.
The winter sun had burst through the cloud the second he bade her good morning, lighting his face and igniting his smile. Or so Gentle thought. She was later to learn that his inner well-being was the cause of the illumination. Now that she was near to him, she noticed the smoothness of his skin, almost baby-like in its texture. His green overcoat was unbuttoned, displaying a beige polo neck shirt beneath a toning sweatshirt embellished with a sporty logo. His choice of clothes belied his age, she thought, inching a fraction nearer the man she had spent hours scrutinising from afar. They were sitting on a corroded iron bench with diverse messages scratched in what was left of the basic black paint.
'Only place to be on a fine day,' he said, favouring Gentle with another bright smile. 'Though the benches are not what they were.' He gazed at her, quite candidly. 'Do you come here often?' Hazel-flecked blue eyes held hers until she felt the colour rise in her cheeks, compelling her to look elsewhere.
'Every day,' she said, shyly, crushing a desire to reveal her study of him, to disclose her approval of his demeanour, and profess to being envious of his self-assurance.
He fingered his whiskers, and then extended his hand so rapidly that Gentle jerked backwards. The movement made him laugh but he was instantly contrite and concerned about her welfare, reassuring her with an apology. The way he was with animals, Gentle thought as she adjusted her collar.
'I was about to introduce myself,' he said. 'But maybe now you have no desire to become acquainted.'
Although Gentle's smile was coy she felt somewhat coquettish inside, as if the practice of picking up men was routine. She was not at all certain how she would feel in such a circumstance since she had never before spoken to a stranger. 'My name's Gentle Appleyard,' she said, proffering her hand and praying he wouldn't laugh at her silly name.
'Gentle Appleyard,' he repeated, angling his head skywards as he experimented with the name. 'Gentle name for a gentle lady. Delightful.'
Gentle blushed, wishing he would release her hand so that she could mask her trembling mouth.
'And I'm George,' he said, restoring his gaze to her face. 'George Tensing.'
Gentle tried to suppress a giggle. 'That's a coincidence. I live in a property called Tensing House. I moved there when Bridget Road was demolished.'
'Ah, yes. The motorway development.'
They debated the development and the major upheaval it had caused. The residents had been agreeably compensated though George said he failed to see how one could be sufficiently recompensed for losing one's home. Gentle kept her own situation to herself. It was, after all, no-one else's business.
They met frequently after that, always in the park. George didn't actually invite her to join him, merely specified the time he would be there, permitting Gentle the freedom to schedule her own afternoons. Nevertheless, except for one occasion when a migraine kept her closeted in a darkened room, she visited the park whenever he said he would be there. Her admiration of him grew. Fondness ripened like blossoms in spring. Their friendship was precious. There was an affinity she couldn’t define, a closeness equivalent to that experienced with family members. He was as vigilant as a father, as waggish as a brother. And now, at his request, he was coming to tea. She didn't know why but trusted he wasn't intending to propose, for although she adored him it was as a sister for a favourite brother or a daughter for a beloved father.
Gentle toured the ground floor for a final inspection, speculating on what he would say when he arrived at the imposing house. Would he judge it too grand? She had made no mention of the fact that her abode was a gift or that her benefactor chose to remain anonymous. She inhabited this beautiful home, free as a bird with no-one to call her to task, yet the plumes of perpetual puzzlement weighed heavy.
There had been no other choice for Gentle, when she was booted out of the family home in Bridget Road, but to accept the fantastic offer of occupancy, albeit from an unrevealed source. It would be more substantial than an apartment, which was all she could have afforded. At the beginning she had shrunk from moving out, believing she was forsaking the ghosts of her family, but the conditions: the rubble, the diggers, the houses plummeting like swatted flies, forced her to heap her paraphernalia into crates and get out. With tear-drenched eyes she had bid her ghosts adieu: father, mother, two younger brothers and a sister, all dead.
Gentle's father, George, committed suicide after Matilda, her mother, died in childbirth. Twenty-five years ago. The baby, baptised Caroline, also died. The triple tragedy motivated Peter and Graham, Gentle's harum-scarum brothers, to go completely off the rails, taking to drink in a big way. Both were killed in a horrifying car crash for which they were unreservedly responsible. Ghosts were all Gentle had to call her kin.
Tensing House, as instructed by the solicitor who summoned her to see him about a most urgent matter, had been assigned to her by an unknown donor; a most generous gift, he said, looking down his nose as if the subject disgusted him, as if the transaction was disreputable and sordid. Gentle was unable to take in the significance of the settlement and implored the lawyer to shed some light. She gleaned this much: that the donor, who craved anonymity, was a friend of her mother, and as her mother had passed away long ago the likelihood of discovering the identity was remote. The lawyer remained mute and, at length, Gentle suspended the inquisition. Keys were handed over; the residence and contents were hers. Despite that, apart from sporadic checks, Gentle stayed with her ghosts until the bulldozers were well into their annihilation of Bridget Road.
George arrived punctually at five o'clock, carrying a colossal bouquet of bronze carnations. He presented them with a slight bow which generated another fracas in the pit of Gentle's stomach. She stuttered her appreciation and prayed they weren't a precursor for some sort of declaration. Perhaps she shouldn't have worn a dress with plunging neckline but it was the only one that complemented the decor, a blend of sage and cream with a dash of subtle orange at the neck.
After putting the blooms in water, she led the way to the library, still intact with her benefactor's books, where she intended to serve tea. The same autumn-like flavour had been accomplished by filling an array of ceramic vases with more preserved foliage and roping in some yellow ribbon. The log fire was blazing, its flames reproduced in two glass decanters on an Italian escritoire. A low varnished table, identical in length to the two beige couches either side, was already laid. Neatly folded Irish linen napkins indicated the seating arrangement. Scents of firewood, potpourri and lavender polish gave the setting a homely quality. Dimmed lighting hid the stains on the wallpaper that came with the house, a predisposition to redecorate having fully eluded her.
George's outfit: taupe cords, polo neck shirt, and a rust-coloured suede jacket, perfectly fitted the room. Remarkably at ease, he warmed his backside in front of the fire before sliding to a place at the table. He unfurled his napkin and planted it on his knee with enviable aplomb. 'This is exceedingly civilised,' he remarked as he dug the salad servers into the bowl and transferred a bundle of lamb's lettuce to his plate.
'I thought salad would be safest, not knowing your preference.'
'My preference, dear Gentle, is for simple fare.' George aimed his fork at the cornflower dish. 'And I'm rather partial to home-baked goodies like those delectable scones.' He stabbed the fork into a slice of ham then helped himself to a segment of pork pie.
'Would you like pickles with your meat?'
'No thanks, m'dear. I like them but they're not overly fond of me. Pickles, particularly onions, give me a gippy tum.' George speared a cherry tomato and viewed his surroundings, taking in the magnificent portrait of an elderly man above the mantelpiece. Gentle tracked his glance and denigrated the artist again for not signing his work; a signature might have solved the secret of the estate. Ethel Rhodes said the portrait had always been there, but she didn't know the subject.
Ethel was Gentle's immediate neighbour, a middle-aged widow who had lived in the area for twenty years. When her husband was alive, they often visited the house. It was she who unveiled the owner's identity: Gilbert Mellish, describing him as an elderly bachelor who had chosen to take more modest accommodation. No, she did not have the address. No, she was not aware that Mr Mellish had any family. Gentle had striven to trace the man but the solicitor declined to divulge any more. ‘Mr Mellish,’ he said, ‘was entitled to do what he liked with his personal domain. He was also entitled to his privacy. Miss Appleyard must either take it or leave it. Goodbye.’ Gentle shook her head at the memory of the man's curtness and recalled Polly's reproof that she hadn't thought fit to shove a fist in his scowling face.
'Is something wrong?' George asked.
'Just me and my pointless thoughts,' she said, and wondered if she should explain about the house. She decided against it. It was such an improbable tale; he wouldn't believe a word of it. Seeing that George had finished his salad, she passed him the dish of scones. 'Can I tempt you?' she enquired.
'Definitely, m'dear.' George attacked a scone with his knife, his gleeful expression as he spooned the jam and piled on the cream akin to a child let loose in a sweet factory.
Like Dad, Gentle thought. The same Cheshire cat grin that stretched from ear to ear whenever he got his hands on the cream. She said as much to George. 'Honestly,' she said, 'you remind me of my father. Without exception, when he…'
A loud clunk cut her short. George had dropped his knife. Moreover, in an attempt to rescue it, he nudged his plate into his cup and the lot went down in hot pursuit. Dollops of jam smeared the Axminster. Milky tea dribbled down the leather couch. Crimson-faced, he eyed the mess, tugging his beard in his agitation.
Gentle shot up. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'I'll soon have it cleaned up.' She loped towards the kitchen, side-stepping an ivory jardinière containing a giant weeping fig. Dodging a king-size, circular pouffe she raced through the kitchen door, gathered floor cloths, and hurtled back.
George was still sitting on the couch, plainly crestfallen. His complexion had resumed its natural pallor but the way he kept parting his beard laid bare his nervousness. Gentle rested on her heels and stared at him. Why was he so flustered over a minor casualty? It wasn't as though he'd smashed the Royal Doulton.
'I'll go, m'dear, before I do more damage.'
'I must. I don't feel so good.'
Certainly, he was not his regular happy-go-lucky self. 'I'll see you home, George.'
'No, really, I'd rather walk alone. The fresh air will do me good.' George advanced towards the hall and the cloakroom where he had installed his coat and hat.
Gentle trailed after him. 'If you're absolutely sure -'
'Yes, m'dear. I am. A decent sleep will see me right for tomorrow's trip to the park.' He swivelled to face her and then did something altogether unexpected. He put his hand on her shoulder and bent to kiss her cheek. 'Shall I see you tomorrow?' he asked in a low voice.
Gentle nodded. 'I'll be there,' she said as he scurried into the night, but she didn't think he could have heard for he peered straight ahead as he hurried along the gravel drive. Watching from the doorway, Gentle raised her arm to wave, but George carried on and all she could do was retreat into the house. Tears were looming as she attached the brass door chain and slid home the bolts. Severe sadness overtook her. The pleasant evening she had carefully and so delightedly prepared for had crumpled like the debris in Bridget Road. She felt as if she, too, had been demolished. If only she hadn’t insulted him so.
The following morning, still mentally damaged, Gentle busied herself in the house. To prevent further morose thoughts maturing she toiled like a Trojan at her chores. She changed and washed the bedclothes, tidied the wardrobe, ironed her blouses and stored them on hangers, and polished the bath until it shone. Then she embarked on a ground floor vacuuming session, whirring round like the crazy woman she felt. After a turbulent night spent constantly brooding and trying to interpret George's hasty exit she was, to some degree, unhinged.
Library cleaning concluded, she wheeled the machine into the hall and steered it towards the cloakroom. She was in two minds about going to the park, anticipating that the afternoon would be futile. George would probably shun her, if he showed up at all, while she would be at a loss for words. Tweaking the arm of the red coat she wore most often and rearranging the shoulders on the hanger, Gentle persuaded herself that the black one would be more suitable today.
Chastising herself for being a fool, she switched on the vacuum and proceeded to clean under the padded bench that lined the wall. A chat with Polly would improve her mood; on the other hand, consultation might return her to fathomless doldrums. Gentle propelled the vacuum so vigorously under the bench that it became wedged behind one of the support posts. Exasperatedly, she flicked off the machine and stooped to free it. Trying to manoeuvre a hefty machine in such a confined space wasn’t easy and eventually she lay on her belly so that she could use both hands. Her fingers touched a number of lost items which she pulled out of the way: a brown glove, a pad of yellow post-it notes, and a leather purse.
With the appliance finally detached from its restraint, Gentle finished cleaning the void beneath the bench then started to pocket the things she had fished out, intending to put them in the bin. However, what she had taken for a purse was, in fact, a wallet, grey leather with initials in the corner. Distinctly baffled, she stood for some moments staring at it, running her fingers over the embossed letters: G.G.M. It was, it must be, the property of Gilbert Mellish. She collapsed onto the bench as comprehension developed and with it a certainty that enlightenment was near. The tremendous excitement that surged through her body clouded the belatedness of her find and the fact that in three years it had not earlier emerged.
Eagerly, she opened the notecase. One side contained assorted papers; the other was designed to accommodate credit cards: American Express, Barclaycard, and an RSPB visa. The papers were purely scribbled notes and exhibited not one useful bit of information. No address or telephone number or telltale receipt. Impatiently, she unzipped a bulky compartment and discovered a set of sepia snaps secured by a rubber band. Suspecting she was about to unearth some long-awaited answers, she withdrew the pack and hurriedly removed the band.
Outside, a gang of refuse collectors bombarded each other with friendly abuse as they slung rubbish into the cart. Ethel Rhodes would soon be there, gathering and folding black plastic bags and posting them like letters through various doors. It was Gentle's custom to invite her in for morning coffee; she would have to give it a miss today.
She laid the photographs on the bench, equidistant like the line-up for solitaire. One was of a wedding group in twenties clothes and another, taken on a riverbank, was of the blonde bride and her poker-backed groom. The couple were captured again, this time with an infant in knickerbockers. They looked frightfully posh. The man held a splendid cane and his wife wore a disgusting fox fur. In the hall, the letterbox rattled. A faint plop signified the arrival of the plastic bag. Gentle held her breath, presuming Ethel would ring the bell. When no sound came, she reverted to the photographs, selecting a puckered one from the other end of the row, the result of endless handling. A more up-to-date snap, conceivably taken in the fifties, a different woman gazing at the child in her arms, her features hidden by a curtain of dark hair.
As she replaced the picture, Gentle's eye took in the next one. She lifted it, starting in surprise. How like George the man was. Same build, same Assyrian beard, though naturally darker considering the difference in the generation. Gentle examined the man's face, noting the jutting eyebrows and distinctive Roman nose, and she knew suddenly that it was George. More youthful, but undeniably him. An involuntary cry escaped her lips. Her hands flew to her mouth. The snapshot fluttered to the bench. Gentle trembled, fearing the concept of uncharted territories. She swept the snap aside, then, as abruptly, retrieved it. Her discernment had been ousted by overwhelming consternation. She skimmed the reverse for an inscription. There was none, not even a date. Disheartened, she sifted through the outstanding snaps. They were of no help.
What should she do? How should she deal with this bizarre enigma? Gentle was examining her reflection in the bathroom mirror where she was sluggishly titivating in readiness for the outing to the park. Like yesterday, her nerves were in shreds. Polly would know what to do. She'd have it sewn up in seconds. Don't know what you're worrying about, she'd say. It's not as though you've unlocked the secrets of the grave. Challenge him. Maybe he'll disentangle the riddle. But Polly wasn't home. Even the answering machine was unavailable.
Gentle's only recourse was to tackle George outright about his relationship with the mysterious Gilbert Mellish. It was vital she determined the connection between herself and him. She teetered between forgetting the whole affair and grubbing about until she unearthed the truth for herself, but why should she do that when the facts were a mere half-hour away. By evening, like it or not, by diplomatic confrontation, the history of Tensing House and its master could be resolutely established. George, she would say, lightly so as not to alienate him early on, I have come across a picture of your double, a veritable effigy of yourself.
She fixed her make-up with loose powder, dabbing an extra bit on her nose to reduce the shine, and then deftly applied the merest smear of coral lipstick. Her freshly shampooed hair was tidy and the style intact, an extra quantity of ultra-firm hair spray had competently done its job. A modicum of Vol de Nuit behind the ears and on the lapel of her heather and navy dress and she was set to go. She cleared the shelf of cosmetics, stuffing them in a rattan box, dropping cotton wool and sodden tissues into a raffia bin. Occasionally, when she was late, she left the mess until she came back; today, the chore was a stalling ploy, Only when the glass shelf was spotless did she go downstairs to don her black coat.
George was feeding a gaggle of Canada geese and talking reassuringly whenever one ventured to take the bread from his hand. He obviously discounted the steady drizzle for his soft-felt hat was squashed into the pocket of his Barber jacket. Much good will that do him, Gentle thought, as she huddled into her paisley umbrella. Leaving the path, she stepped across the grass to where George was shooing the geese away.
'That's all, boys and girls,' he said, bestowing Gentle with a sheepish grin. 'Hello, m'dear. Wasn't sure you'd wander out on such a miserable day, especially after my discourteous exodus.'
In spite of Gentle's determination to keep her cool, she thrust her hand in her pocket to bring out the grey wallet. Stitches popped as she wrenched it out.
'Brilliant,' George exclaimed. 'You found the wallet. I couldn't think what had happened to it. Didn't realise I'd left it behind. Thought I'd lost it in the bank, but the manager said no-one had handed it in.'
An unbearable wave of disquiet circulated Gentle's internal system. There was no question it was Gilbert Mellish's wallet; the initials confirmed it. So what was George doing with it? George was holding out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for her to hand it over. Idiotically, she thought how deeply-etched his life-line was and how red the flesh embedding the shank of a gold signet ring.
'Are you all right, m'dear?'
By degrees, Gentle's wits returned. Without a doubt, there was a lucid explanation. 'I thought it belonged to Gilbert Mellish,' she said, offering the wallet. 'He was ... is … my benefactor. There was a photograph of you. I thought ...'
George reddened. There was a lull so intense that Gentle thought his malady had recurred. 'It looks as if I have been found out,' he said. Gentle was surprised to see him grinning. He plucked the photographs from the wallet and leafed through until he came to the one of him. Perusing it briefly, he inserted it behind the one of the woman and child. He pressed his lips firmly together as though subduing an additional comment.
Gentle was exhaustively flummoxed. She tilted the umbrella and tested the air with her hand. The rain had stopped. A military jet streaked through the sky, observed by children in a nearby school-yard. It was home-time for them. They knew where their homes were. Gentle wasn't so sure. She wasn't convinced of anything any more.
George stowed the prints in the wallet and snapped it shut. Thoughtfully, he contemplated Gentle as if deliberating what to say, while Gentle furled the umbrella and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to envisage what the eventual upshot would be.
George confessed: 'My name is also Gilbert. Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish.'
The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak. She simply gawked.
'I hoped you would never find out.'
'Why?' she whispered. Gentle meant why did he give her the house but George thought she was responding to his last statement and he replied that, rightly or wrongly, he had reckoned it in her best interests not to know.
'Come,' he said, examining the dull sky. 'Let's take shelter before the next deluge. He picked up the paisley umbrella, took her arm, and escorted her to the deserted bandstand. It smelled damp. Puddles lay where rain had penetrated the punctured tarpaulin cover. The floor was littered with sweet papers, ice cream cups, and a pizza box. A baby's pink bootee was wedged in the rails. The perimeter bench was cluttered with crushed Carlsberg cans which George had to dispose of before they could sit down.
It was at that desolate site that Gentle Appleyard's entire existence was pulverised and rebuilt, the script rewritten with a change of characters. It came to light that Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish had a bigger role to play in Gentle's life than she could ever have guessed.
George had got to know Gentle's parents at a local youth club. They played table tennis and participated in tournaments. Matilda had been the strongest player and pretty soon outdistanced her artistic boy friend. She progressed to champion level, but didn’t win a title. Her head at that time was filled with ideas of betrothal and her concentration lapsed. She was unable to resist the attentions of the handsome academic.
'Seems like a hundred years, looking back,' George said.
Gentle listened intently, unaware that she was corkscrewing her handkerchief, damp now from continual swabbing of raindrops in her hair. She did not interrupt. She was anxious for details of her parents' early lives, for neither had shown an inclination to air their past. Both were unresponsive to their children's curiosity. It was as though mortality had not commenced until they met. They were orphans, she knew that; they met in an orphanage in Birmingham. Perhaps that was why they didn't recount their exploits, or describe their romance, or spoke of friends, electing to forget the lamentable events.
'We lost touch when I went abroad,' George said. 'India. Five years, sketching the scenery and the people. Remiss of me not to ...' He broke off as two breathless juveniles appeared at the entrance, piloted by a heaving Alsatian puppy on a well-chewed lead.
'Sorry, mister,' the tallest boy said, intimidated by George's menacing glare. 'Majorette wanted a pickle.'
'Well, take Majorette elsewhere. There's enough moisture in here without adding more.' George winked at Gentle as the boys were led sharply away by the energetic hound. 'Majorette indeed. Ridiculous name for an animal. So, where was I?'
At Gentle's prompting, he continued his account. 'George and Matilda were married by the time I returned,' he said, wincing as he said it. He fell silent, hanging his head as if ashamed. 'I shouldn't be discussing them with you.'
Gentle urged him to go on.
'They weren't as happy as one would have expected them to be considering how ardent they'd been at the start of their engagement.'
Gentle reflected on her parents' unhappiness, hearing once more the nocturnal arguments. Separately, they portrayed as kind, tolerant, and caring parents, leastways to the outside world, but those characteristics could only be attributed to her mother. At other times, one sensed the sparks waiting to ignite.
To their merit, they struggled to sustain near-normal behaviour so that the children would not be affected; maintaining an atmosphere so harmonious that no outsider would suspect anything was amiss. That was daytime. At night, things went terribly wrong. That was when, in the seclusion of their own space, their disputes ricocheted like exploding shells. That was when, converged in gloomy recesses, Gentle and her brothers encountered the qualms of insecurity. Notwithstanding, regardless of their trepidation and revulsion, Gentle and the boys respected their father and adored their mother. That's why their deaths were so painful.
With echoes of the past occupying her mind, Gentle missed a lot of George's nostalgic narration and by the time she tuned in he was reminiscing about the dinner he laid on for Matilda's birthday. 'I gave her a brooch. A butterfly. She prized it like it was a crown jewel. How radiant she looked when she opened the box. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight. The shawl collar of her chiffon dress encircled her throat like a soft cloud.' George moaned at the memory. 'She gave me permission to pin the butterfly to her lapel. I thought I would go insane with affection for her.'
'Where was this, George?'
'Why, at home, m'dear. Tensing House.'
A presentiment took shape in Gentle's overactive imagination, an inkling that it was because of her mother she had been given the house. Restraining herself from babbling, and willing now to receive whatever clarification came, she enquired if it was on account of her mother that he entrusted the house to her.
'I gave you the house, m'dear, to salve my conscience, because you are your mother's child. I would have provided for her and her family if she would have allowed it, but she dreaded public disgrace. No matter that your father's knowledge of her disloyalty converted him to a brute or that he beat her unmercifully, she perceived that her children's innocence was of paramount importance.'
Finding the revelation distressing, Gentle twisted away and peered through the sheeting rain. A courting couple were canoodling by a broad oak, heedless of the inclement weather. What a pity her mother had not seen fit to turn a blind eye to her principles, thought Gentle, wondering how she hadn't discerned that she was a victim of domestic violence, or even that her mother had a paramour. Nor had she grasped the worthiness of her values. Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as she embraced the dawn of understanding, and recognized the forfeits her mother paid. She had trodden a principled path in her denial of love and all for the sake of moral standards. Gentle challenged her mother's prudence in enduring beatings when a man like George abided in the wings, a man who idolised her, who would have comforted and sheltered her, and cherished her to the end of time.
Gentle's imagination was operating at such a pace she was losing the thread of George's revelations and missing significant details. The picture was almost complete, but she needed to backtrack, to the year her mother's birthday was celebrated in Tensing House. She swung round and asked. 'When was the birthday dinner? Was it long before she died?' She was thinking about poor baby Caroline.'
'Oh no, m'dear. It was the year before you were born.'
Confounded by the startling announcement and totally unprepared for its implication, Gentle was devoid of rational speech. She could only gape in astonishment. She'd had the notion that Caroline was his daughter, instead it seemed...
Gentle swallowed. This was a new slant. It suggested that her creation was due to him and not the man who raised her. An echo of shouted words ascended from the past, when she and her brothers were sheltering in the dark, quietly querying what their father meant when he labelled their mother a whore, and why he was ordering her to pack her bags and go to her fancy man. And mother, exhausted by the years of bickering, insisting she would not leave the children; and father, refusing to let them go. And the subsequent screams, their father bellowing, for some strange reason, his own name: George. Bloody George.
Gradually, as recollection faded, Gentle returned to consciousness. George was indulgently contemplating her. 'Are you telling me… ?’
'You are my … our father?'
That night, while sipping a beaker of hot chocolate, George's leather-bound chronicles abandoned beside her on a mulberry chaise-longue, Gentle finally admitted that subconsciously she had known from their first meeting that they were related. The fire was ebbing, the last fragment of charred timber ready to cave-in. Great-grandfather Mellish smiled benevolently from his gilt frame. The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six. As an accompaniment, someone's car alarm rang out. The lounge was lit by a single lamp, ample to read by without disturbing George, who was dozing in the fireside chair. A velvet cushion supported his head. She had covered his knees with a tartan travel rug in case his slumbers deepened. He was worn out and no wonder, having borne the burden of confession that should have been endured by her mother. Gentle had begged him to stay, and they laughed when she did. Inviting a man to stay in his own house had seemed hilarious. He had a singular sense of humour. He didn't deserve to have been so unfairly rejected.
Noiselessly, she slithered from her seat and kneeled alongside him, reaching up to stroke the edge of his beard. A whit more silky growth and he could play the part of Saint Nick and deliver gifts at Christmas. But his gift to her, the gift of belonging, could never be equalled or accepted so emotionally. Gentle searched his countenance, scanning the laughter lines and the minor imperfections: liver spots and a tiny scar on his brow. The affinity was so strong, so vibrant, it was surprising he didn't wake and catch her out.
She was thrilled with him. It was as if the other George, her pseudo Dad, had not existed. She wished her brothers could have known him. They, like her, would not have deduced that he had sired the entire Appleyard stock. What would they have said if they had known? Peter, the noisy one, often conceded his disgust for their father's arguing and yelling, sometimes mimicking the seething rages so well that Gentle fretted they could become immutable. Graham was a mystery. Quiet, uncomplaining, outwardly reacting as if the situation was ordinary family conduct, except that Gentle habitually heard him crying in the confines of his room. Caroline, poor mite, hadn't had the chance to learn any of it.
Returning to her seat, Gentle cupped her beaker and sipped the chocolate, letting the steam drift into her face. She lowered her eyelids and mused about her family, whose ghosts had taken alternative identities. Mother: a sweetheart and a mistress; siblings: all bastards; and father: a barbarous impostor. Primarily, Gentle understood his attitude. He must have thought the assaults were justified even though, according to George, the marriage was never consummated. Equally, she appreciated that her mother's frustration had driven her into George's arms. That she worshipped him there was no doubt, she had gleaned that from George's diaries, each entry infused with elements of rapture and delight, passion and enchantment, and the melodrama that accompanied each welcome birth - barring Caroline who died with her mother, she, too, a victim of George Appleyard's brutality.
Gentle drained the last mouthful of chocolate and selected another diary. The only one in white leather. Raising the cover, she saw more photographs of her grandparents and George in his knickerbockers. There was also a portrayal of the woman and child. She extricated it from the protective film and turned it over. A dedication was penned in black ink. At the foot, a squiggly arrow had been inserted to draw attention to a block of kisses the size of a postage stamp, below which was written: To dearest Bertie, with all our love, Matilda and Gentle. The date was Gentle's first birthday.
With tears in her eyes, she looked at George and saw that he had stirred. He was smiling, and his smile depicted a contented soul, personifying a man who had, at last, achieved his rightful place in his daughter's heart.