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An Ocean Apart
By Robin Pilcher
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1999 Robin Pilcher
All rights reserved.
Jane Spiers drove with extreme caution through the pelting rain, her shoulders hunched over the steering wheel as she strained to make out the blurred outline of the road ahead. The windscreen wipers of the old Subaru struggled to cope with the deluge pouring down from the cold grey skies, and the feeble wheezing of the car's hot-air fan was of little help in clearing the steamy fog that had developed on the inside of the windows. That was Arthur's fault. He sat, enclosed in the boot by a large dog rack, soaking wet and panting heavily after his exertion on the moor. Jane opened the window a fraction to see if a little air circulation might help but shut it immediately when she felt the sliver of icy Scottish weather suck the warmth from the car. In all the forty years that she had lived in Scotland, she could not remember a May so cold and miserable.
Turning off the main road through a pair of lodge-gates, newly painted and bearing a sign marked PRIVATE DRIVE, she drove up the long tarmacked avenue, the tall oak trees on either side at last offering some protection against the elements. In this new-found shelter, the windscreen wipers' performance improved, and Jane crunched into a higher gear.
After half a mile, the drive opened out into a gravel sweep that rounded in front of the large Victorian house. Picking up one of her gloves from the passenger seat, Jane wiped the condensation off the windscreen, eager to complete the last few yards of her journey without running over either the trimmed edge of the grass border or one of the three black Labradors who customarily came bounding down the front-door steps.
On this occasion, there was no such welcoming committee, but even as she lurched the car to a halt in front of the house, Arthur sat up in the back and whined, his ears pricked forward and his nose pressed through the square mesh of the dog rack, anticipating a mad tear-around in the garden with his three black friends. Jane looked at his plaintive face in the rear-view mirror.
"Good boy, Arthur — you stay there," she said, pulling up the hood of her Barbour jacket and tightening the draw-string under her chin. "I won't be long."
Holding hard to the door in case the wind took it completely off its ageing hinges, Jane clambered out of the car, then, slamming the door shut, she scrunched her way in a half-run across the wet gravel and up the steps to the front door. With the informality of a frequent visitor, she opened up one of the heavy oak double doors and let herself in.
"Oooee!" she called out. "Anyone he-ere?"
No immediate reply. She took off her dripping Barbour and hung it on a hook amongst the collection of heavy tweed overcoats and waterproof jackets, then, clearing a space for herself on an old church pew, a dumping ground for fishing-tackle, hats and garden implements, she sat down to take off her sodden walking shoes.
"Hullo-o! Anyone here?" she called out again, and looked around to see if anyone had taken any heed of her call. The hallway of Inchelvie House stretched to the full height of the edifice, and was dominated by a huge central staircase which divided at right angles halfway up, leading to a balustraded landing above. Dark oak-panelled walls were lined with large family portraits intermingled with an eerie selection of crossbows, double-handed swords and shields, and above them, ranging to the highest point of the house, an array of about forty stags' heads, all rather old and moth-eaten. Jane smiled to herself, her own private thought always being that it was a toss-up as to which of these three adornments was the most hideous.
She left the pew and padded in her stockinged feet across the hallway. Approaching the bottom of the staircase, she became aware of a man's voice coming from the drawing-room. It was not a voice she recognized, more the deep, serious tone that might belong to a solicitor or chartered accountant, and instantly she wondered if she had chosen a bad time to call. She was caught in a moment of confusion, whether to try calling out again or just quietly leave, when a door opened in the far corner of the hall beyond the staircase and a small grey-haired lady appeared, precariously carrying a tray of tea and oblivious to her presence.
"Hullo, Effie," Jane said, as gently as possible, so as not to spread-eagle the little housekeeper and her load. Even at that, Effie stopped abruptly, making the contents of the tray shoot forward.
"Oh, Mrs. Spiers, whit a fright you gave me!" Effie said, steadying herself. "I didn't hear ye coming in."
Jane walked around the side of the staircase. "I'm sorry about that, Effie. I did call out twice, as loud as I thought decent." She smiled at the older woman, who was slowly recovering her composure. "I thought the dogs would probably have heard me. It's not like them to miss out on a good bark." She glanced towards the door of the drawing-room. "Tell me, is this a bad time to call? I have a feeling that Lady Inchelvie might have someone with her at this minute."
Effie shrugged up her little shoulders in a display of mousy mirth. "No, no, that's just the television you'll be hearing. Lady Inchelvie always has the volume up pretty high, and that's no doubt why the dogs never heard ye coming in." Effie always spoke quietly, as if everything she said were imparting some hugely private secret. "The snooker's on, ye see, and there's nothing she likes better than to watch the snooker." She moved forward, her eyes sparkling, ready to tell the best part of the tale. "Especially if yon Scottish laddie Stephen Hendry is playing. I think that she must be his greatest fan!"
Effie's face creased into another muted giggle, though it immediately gave way to a frown of concern when she noticed that Jane's jersey and tweed skirt were beginning to steam in the heat of the hall.
"Michty me!" Effie exclaimed. "You're surely awful wet! Dinnae tell me you've been walkin' oot on the moor wi' your dog on a day like this?"
Jane rubbed herself on the arm, Effie's observation suddenly bringing it home to her that she was indeed feeling rather damp. "If I didn't go out in weather like this, then Arthur wouldn't get a walk for about nine months of the year."
"Well, we canna have you standing around here catching your death," she said, bustling her way across the hall. "Let's get you in beside the fire, and then I'll away and fetch you an extra cup. Was Lady Inchelvie expecting you?"
"No, she wasn't. I just wanted to, well ..." Jane stopped Effie by putting her hand on her shoulder. "Actually, the real reason why I'm here is that my husband asked me to pop in just to find out how everyone is. He's purposely not visited since Rachel ... well, let's just say he felt that it would be better if I dropped in, sort of in passing, rather than him ... as the family doctor, so to speak."
"Dinnae say any more," said Effie, flashing an understanding smile at her. "I'll no' tell Lady Inchelvie that you're here just yet. I'll just take in her tea-things and you go through to the kitchen, and we'll have a wee chat before you go in and see her. Does that suit you?"
"That would be just fine. Thanks, Effie."
Jane watched her scuttle off to the drawing-room, knock and enter, then turned and walked across to the door from which Effie had first appeared, and pushed it open.
The kitchen was large and utilitarian, unlike Jane's own, which she herself had lovingly converted into the hub of the house over the years. This was a complete throw-back to the green-baize-door era, all the walls being painted in a sickly yellow and cream easy-wipe gloss. There were no easy chairs, no wall decorations, just a plethora of pots and pans hanging from meat-hooks alongside three blinding strip lights above the enormous scrubbed pine table in the centre of the room, its austere cleanliness reminding her of a Victorian operating-theatre. She walked over to the old cream Aga at the far end of the kitchen and leaned on its spotless surface in order to induce some heat back into her bones.
The door opened behind her and Effie entered. "There we are now," she said, walking towards her. "Let's get the kettle on, and we can have a good natter over a nice cup of tea."
Jane moved to the side of the Aga, so that Effie could put the kettle on the hob. "Can I do anything to help?"
"No, no, you just away and sit down at the table. I know where everything is in this place. Now tell me, how is Dr. Spiers keeping?"
"Run off his feet at the minute," Jane replied, pulling out one of the kitchen chairs from the table and sitting down. "This wretched weather is really keeping the cold and flu bugs flying around. About half the children at Dalnachoil Primary School are off sick, and rather than get them brought into the surgery, he spends most of his day charging around from one house to another in the village."
Effie moved around her familiar kitchen like an automaton, taking cups and saucers from the pine Welsh dresser, then the milk from the fridge and putting everything on the table. "Aye, we're that lucky to have a man like Dr. Spiers around here." She took the steaming kettle off the Aga and poured water into the teapot, then, turning to face Jane, she took up her apron and rubbed her hands on it. "He really has been the saviour of this family over the past six months."
Jane noticed a weary expression had come over Effie's face.
"How have things been?" she asked.
Effie carried the teapot over to the table and sat down opposite. "Och, they come and go, up one minute, down the next." She poured out the tea into the two cups. "Lady Inchelvie has had to work like a Trojan this last month, getting all the grandchildren's things together to get them ready for returning to school. Mind, they didn't go back at the beginning of term, it being only a couple of weeks after their mother's funeral; and besides, I have an inkling that Mr. David was in two minds whether he should send them back there at all, thinking that they might be better off closer to him at the village school." She sighed and cocked her head to the side. "However, from what I can gather, it was the children's choice to go back and be with all their friends." She paused, seemingly unconvinced herself by the decision. "I don't know. Maybe a comfort for them to return to some sort of routine."
Jane took a drink from her cup. "I do think that's probably right, Effie. A different environment, yet a familiar one. Sophie has her GCSE exams this term, doesn't she?"
"Aye, she does. She's a grand wee girl — mind you, no' awful wee now, she's nearly sixteen years old, and that well-organized — just like her mother." As she said this, Effie suddenly faltered and swallowed hard, her composure suddenly under threat. "Oh, Mrs. Spiers, it's that hard getting used to not having Mrs. David around anymore."
Jane leaned across the table and patted the housekeeper's hand. "I know. My husband often wonders if cancer doesn't prepare a family better for the inevitable than, say, a heart attack or a road accident, but I don't think so. The loss when it happens is still devastating."
Effie was looking down in her lap, fiddling with her apron, her bottom lip quivering. Jane took a calculated gamble to continue the conversation.
"And what about the other children?"
Effie took a deep breath, and, almost for something to do, replenished both their cups even though Jane's was still three-quarters full. She delved into the pocket of her apron and brought out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes.
"Oh, they seemed to have coped better than any," Effie replied, managing to smile bravely, though her voice still faltered. "Even during the tea after the funeral, Charlie was badgering Mrs. David's brother to go out onto the lawn to kick a rugby ball with him. And wee Harriet, well, Sophie just seemed to take her under her wing. I don't really think the wee lass has taken it all in just yet. It's a blessing that all three are at the same school." She leaned across to Jane and said with a caring look, "Sophie will look after her, you can be sure of that."
Jane smiled and nodded. "Everyone plays a part in the healing process, Effie, not least you. You're as much a part of this family as any, and I know that everyone would have found it hard to cope without your being here."
The older woman went rather pink, not used to being praised quite so openly. She got up from her chair and cleared away the cups and saucers. "Och, we all do what we can under these kind of circumstances." She pulled open the dishwasher and started loading the racks.
Jane picked up the milk jug from the table and carried it over to the fridge, playing for time before asking the next question. "And what about David? How is he?"
Effie closed the door of the dishwasher and turned towards Jane. There was a moment's silence, an expression of concentrated bewilderment on her face as she tried to work out in her mind what to say. Then she just shook her head.
"I really canna tell, Mrs. Spiers. I mean, I have to say that he was wonderful as always wi' his children when they were home, playing tennis and fishing wi' them and all that, but even so, there always seemed to be something missing, as if he was only going through the motions. It was as if his mind was away somewhere else." She smiled at Jane and picked up a cloth from the sink and started to wipe absently at the draining-board. She stopped and nodded her head slowly. "Aye, now I think about it, it was the laughter that was missing." She looked across at Jane. "Maybe he's just finding it awful hard to concentrate properly on anyone but his wife. Dr. Spiers will no doubt have told you that he had nursed her entirely by himself since December." She turned away and looked out the window, and Jane heard her voice once again begin to falter. "I've a wee feeling that he was so devoted to her that some part of him died wi' her."
Jane went over to the little housekeeper and, putting her arm around her shoulder, gave it a comforting squeeze. "I can see that, Effie. I know that it must be really hard for you to talk about it, and I do appreciate you telling me." Jane felt that she had to break the melancholy of the conversation, and looked up at the clock above the Aga. "Heavens, it's half past four. I had no idea it was that late."
Effie turned from the sink, and on reaction looked up at the clock as well. "Och, Mrs. Spiers, what am I doin'? I shouldn't be going on so." She started to move towards the door, drying her hands on her apron. "Come on, I'll take you through to see Lady Inchelvie."
"Oh, please don't bother to do that," Jane said. "Look, I'll just show myself in. I'm sure that you've enough to do in here."
"Well, if you're sure. I'll have to be gettin' started on the potatoes for dinner. Lord Inchelvie has a meeting in the village tonight, so we'll be eating early."
"Absolutely. I've been enough hindrance to you." She walked over to the door of the kitchen, then turned to the housekeeper. "Keep your spirits up, Effie. You really are one of the mainstays of the household. Just keep being as cheerful as you always have been."
* * *
The volume of the television hit Jane as soon as she entered the drawing-room, the usually whispered tones of the snooker commentator sounding as though he were speaking through a megaphone.
"... and if he can get a good angle on the pink ball, that should be the third consecutive frame to Hendry."
The three black Labrador dogs, however, heard Jane's entry above the noise, and, looking in her direction, each let out a short bark before realizing that it was a familiar figure. They left their place in front of the blazing fire and trotted over, their backquarters slewing from side to side with delight.
"Hullo, boys," Jane said, reaching down to pat their heads.
At the far end of the room, a figure moved in the high-backed armchair in front of the television. "Is that you, Effie?"
Unable to move any closer due to the keenness of the dogs' welcome, Jane called out, "No, Alicia, it's me — Jane."
Alicia Inchelvie peered round the corner of the chair, bowing slightly to look over the top of her reading spectacles. "Jane! How wonderful to see you! What a lovely surprise!"
She turned the television off with the remote control and rose to her feet, pushing a large ball of red wool onto the ends of two enormous knitting-needles. "Dogs, go and lie down and let poor Jane get into the room!"
Excerpted from An Ocean Apart by Robin Pilcher. Copyright © 1999 Robin Pilcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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