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After five years the gravestone was still as clean and well-tended as on the first day, a tribute to somebody's loving care. At the top it read:
MARK ANDREW SELLON, 9th April 19157th October 2003 A much loved husband and father
A space had been left below, filled three weeks later by the words:
DEIRDRE SELLON, 18th February 192128th October 2003 Beloved wife of the above
'I remember how you insisted on leaving that space,' Pippa murmured as she tidied away a few weeds. 'Even then you were planning for the day you'd lie beside him. And the pictures too. You had them all ready for your own time.'
A family friend had returned from a trip to Italy and mentioned how Italian gravestones usually contained a picture of the deceased. 'It really makes a difference to know what people looked like,' she'd enthused. 'I'm going to select my picture now.'
'So am I,' Dee had said instantly.
And she had, one for herself and one for her husband, taken when they were still in robust middle age. There, framed by the stone, was Dee, cheerful and ready to cope with anything life threw at her, and there was Mark, still bearing traces of the stunning good looks of his youth, when he'd been a daredevil pilot in the war.
Below them was a third photograph, taken at their sixtieth wedding anniversary party. It showed them standing close together, arms entwined, heads slightly leaning against each other, the very picture of two people who were one at heart.
Less than two months later, he had died. Dee had cherished the photograph, and when, three weeks after that, she had been laid beside him Pippa had insisted on adding it to the headstone.
Finishing with the weeds, she took out the flowers she'd brought with her and laid them carefully at the foot of the stone, murmuring, 'There, just how you like them.'
She rose and moved back, checking that everything looked right, and stood for a moment in the rich glow of the setting sun. A passer-by, happening to glance at her, would have stopped and gazed in wonder.
She was petite, with a slender, elegant figure and an air of confidence that depended on more than mere looks. Nature had given her beauty but also another quality, less easy to define. Her mother called her a saucy little so-and-so. Her father said, 'Watch it, lass. It's dangerous to drive fellers too far.'
Men were divided in expressing their opinion. The more refined simply sighed. The less refined murmured, 'Wow!' The completely unrefined wavered between, 'Get a load of that!' and 'Phwoar!' Pippa shrugged, smiled and went on her way, happy with any of them.
Superficially, her attractions were easy to explain. The perfect face and body, the curled, honey-coloured hair, clearly luscious and extravagant, even now while it was pinned back in an unconvincing attempt at severity. But there was something else which no one had ever managed to describe: a knowing, amused look in her eyes; not exactly come-hither, but the teasing hint that come-hither might be lurking around the corner. Something.
A wooden seat had been placed conveniently nearby and Pippa settled onto it with the air of having come to stay.
'What a day I've had!' she sighed. 'Clients talking their heads off, paperwork up to here.' She indicated the top of her head.
'I blame you,' she told her grandmother, addressing the photograph. 'But for you, I'd never have become a lawyer. But you had to go and leave me that legacy on condition that I trained for a profession.'
'No training, no cash,' Lilian, Pippa's mother had pointed out. 'And she's named me your trustee to make sure you obey orders. I can almost hear her saying, "So get out of that, my girl.'"
'That sounds like her,' Pippa had said wryly. 'Mum, what am I going to do?'
'You're going to do what your Gran says because, mark this, wherever she is, she'll be watching.'
'And you were,' Pippa observed now. 'You've always been there, just out of sight, over my shoulder, letting me know what you thought. Perhaps that was his influence.'
From her bag she produced a small toy bear, much of its fur worn away over time. Long ago he'd been won at a fair by Flight Lieutenant Mark Sellon, who'd solemnly presented him to Deirdre Parsons, the girl who later became his bride and lived with him for sixty years. To the last moment she'd treasured her 'Mad Bruin' as she called him.
'Why mad?' Pippa had asked her once.
'After your grandfather.'
'Was he mad?'
'Delightfully mad. Wonderfully, gloriously mad. That's why he was so successful as a fighter pilot. According to other airmen that I spoke to, he just went for everything, hell for leather.'
To the last moment, each had feared to lose the other. In the end Mark had died first, and after that, Dee had treasured the little bear more than ever, finally dying with him pressed against her face, and bequeathing him to Pippa, along with the money.
'I brought him along,' Pippa said, holding Bruin up as though Dee could see him. 'I'm taking good care of him. It's so nice to have him. It's almost like having you.
'I'm sorry it's been so long since my last visit, but it's chaos at work. I used to think solicitors' offices were sedate places, but that was before I joined one. The firm does a certain amount of the "bread and butter stuff', wills, property, that sort of thing. But it's the criminal cases that bring everyone alive. Me too, if I'm honest. David, my boss, says I should go in for criminal law because I've got just the right kind of wicked mind.' She gave a brief chuckle. 'They don't know how true that is.'
She stood for a moment, holding the little bear and smiling fondly at the photos of people she had loved, and still loved. Then she kissed him and replaced him in her bag.
'I've got to go. 'Bye, darling. And you, Grandpa. Don't let her bully you too much. Be firm. I know it's hard after a lifetime of saying, "Yes, dear, no, dear', but try.'
She planted a kiss on the tips of her fingers and laid them against the photograph of her grandparents. Then she stepped back. The movement brought something into the extreme edge of her vision and she turned quickly to see a man watching her. Or it might be more exact to say staring at her with the disapproval of one who couldn't understand such wacky behaviour. Wryly, she supposed she must look a little odd, and wondered how long he'd been there.
He was tall with a lean face that was firm almost to the point of grimness. Fortyish, she thought, but perhaps older with that unyielding look.
She gave him a polite smile and moved off. There was something about him that made her want to escape. She made her way to a place where there were other family graves.
It was strangely pleasant in these surroundings. Although part of a London suburb, the cemetery had a country air, with tall trees in which birds and squirrels made their homes. As the winter day faded, the red sun seemed to be sliding down between the tree trunks, accompanied by soft whistles and scampering among the leaves. Pippa had always enjoyed coming here, for its beauty almost as much as because it was now the home of people she had loved.
Just ahead were Dee's parents, Joe and Helen, their daughter Sylvia and her infant son Joey, and the baby Polly. She had never known any of them, yet she'd been raised in a climate of strong family unity and they were as mysteriously real to her as her living relatives.
She paused for a moment at Sylvia's grave, remembering her mother's words about the likeness. It was a physical likeness, Pippa knew, having seen old snapshots of Great-Aunt Sylvia. As a young woman in the nineteen-thirties she'd been a noted beauty, living an adventurous life, skipping from romance to romance. Everyone thought she would marry the dashing Mark Sellon, but she'd left him to run off with a married man just before the war broke out. He died at Dunkirk and she died in the Blitz.
Something of Sylvia's beauty had reappeared in Pippa. But the real likeness lay elsewhere, in the sparkling eyes and readiness to seek new horizons.
'In the genes,' Lilian had judged, perhaps correctly. 'Born to be a good time girl.'
'Nothing wrong with having a good time,' Pippa had often replied chirpily.
'There is if you don't think of anything else,' Lilian pointed out.
Pippa was indignant. 'I think of plenty else. I work like a slave at my job. It's just that now and then I like to enjoy myself.'
It sounded a rational answer, but they both knew that it was actually no answer at all. Pippa's flirtations were many but superficial. And there was a reason for it, one that few people knew.
Gran Dee had known. She'd been a close-up witness of Pippa's relationship with Jack Sothern, had seen how deeply the young girl was in love with him, how brilliantly happy when they became engaged, how devastated when he'd abandoned her a few weeks before Christmas.
That time still stood out fiercely in Pippa's mind. Jack had left town for a couple of days, which hadn't made her suspicious, as she now realised it should have. Wedding preparations, she'd thought; matters to be settled at work before he was free to go on their honeymoon. The idea of another woman had never crossed her mind.
When he returned she paid an unexpected visit to his apartment, heralding her arrival by singing a Christmas carol outside his door.
'New day, new hope, new life,' she yodelled merrily.
When he opened the door she flew into his arms, hoping to draw him into a kiss, but he moved stiffly away.
Then he dumped her.
For a while she'd been knocked sideways. Instead of the splendid career that should have been hers, she'd taken a job serving in the local supermarket, justifying this by saying that her grandparents, both in their eighties and frail, needed her. For the last two years of their lives she'd lived with them, watching over them, giving them every moment because, as she declared, she had no use for boyfriends.
It was then that the innocent beauty of her face had begun to be haunted with a look of determination so fierce as to be sometimes alarming. It would vanish quickly, driven away by her natural warmth, but it was still there, half hidden in the shadows, ready to return.
'Don't give in to it,' Dee had begged in her last year of life. 'I know you were treated cruelly, but don't become bitter, whatever you do.'
'Gran, honestly, you've got it all wrong. So a man let me down! So what? We rise above that these days!'
Dee had looked unconvinced, so Pippa brightened her smile, hoping to fool her, not very successfully, she knew.
Only after her death had Dee been able to put the situation right with a modest legacy, conditional on Pippa training for a proper career.
Pippa had changed from the quiet girl struggling to recover from heartbreak. Going back out into the world, starting a new life, had brought out a side she hadn't known she had. Her looks won her many admirers, and she'd gone to meet them, arms open but heart closed. Life was fun if you didn't expect too much, and she'd brought that down to a fine art.
'Aunt Sylvia would have been proud of you,' her mother told her, half critical, half admiring. 'Not that I knew her, she died before I was born, but the way she carried on was a family legend and you're heading in the same direction. Look at the way you're dressed!'
'I like to dress properly,' Pippa observed, looking down at the short skirt that revealed her stunning legs, and the closely cut top that emphasised her delicate curves.
'That's not properly, that's improperly,' Lilian replied.
'They can be the same thing,' Pippa teased. 'Oh, Mum, don't look so shocked. I'm sure Aunt Sylvia would have said exactly that.'
'Very likely, from all I've heard. But you're supposed to be a lawyer.'
'What do you mean, "supposed" ? I passed my exams with honours and they were fighting to hire me, so my boss said.'
'And doesn't he mind you floating about his office looking like a sexy siren?' Lilian demanded.
'No, I guess he doesn't,' Lilian conceded. 'Well, I suppose if you've got the exam results to back you up you'll be all right.'
'Oh, yes,' Pippa murmured. 'I'll be all right.'
One man, speaking from the depths of his injured feelings, had called her a tease, but he did her an injustice. She embarked on a relationship in all honesty, always wondering if this one would be different. But it never was. When she backed off it was from fear, not heartlessness. The memory of her misery over Jack was still there in her heart. The time that had passed since had dimmed that misery, but nothing could ever free her from its shadow, and she was never going to let it happen again.
'I reckon you'd have understood that,' she told Sylvia. 'The things I've heard about youI really wish we could have met. I bet you were fun.'
The thought of that fun made a smile break over her face. Sometimes she seemed to smile as she breathed.
But the smile faded as she turned to leave and saw the man she'd seen before, frowning at her.
Well, I suppose I must look pretty crazy, she thought wryly. His generation probably thinks you should never smile in a graveyard. But why not, if you're fond of the people you come to see? And I'm very fond of Sylvia, even though we never met. So there!
Her mood of cheerful defiancé lasted until she reached her car, parked just outside the gate. Then it faded into exasperation.
'Oh, no, not again!' she breathed as the engine made futile noises. 'I'll take you to the garage tomorrow, but start just this once, please!'
But, deaf to entreaties, it merely whirred again.
Getting out to look under the bonnet was a formality as she had only the vaguest idea what she was hoping to find. Whatever it was, she didn't find it.
'Are you in trouble?'
It was him, the man who'd interrupted her pleasant reverie in the graveyard and practically driven her out by his grim disapproval. At least, in her present growling exasperation that was how it seemed to her.
Not that he was looking grim now, merely detached and efficient as he headed towards her and surveyed the car.
'Won't it start?'
'No. But this has happened before, and it usually starts after a while if I'm firm with it.'
His lips quirked slightly. 'How do you get firm with a car? Kick it?'
'Certainly not,' she said with dignity. 'I'm not living in the Dark Ages. I justtap it a little and it comes right.'
'I've got a better idea. Suppose I tow you to the nearest garage, or have you got a special one where you normally go when this breaks down?'
'My brothers own a garage in Crimea Street,' she said with dignity.
'And do they approve of your "tapping" the car?'
'They don't approve of anything, starting with the fact that I bought it without consulting them. I just loved it on sight. It's got so much personality.'
'It's certainly got that. What it hasn't got is a reliable engine. You say you have brothers in the trade, and they let you buy this thing?'
'They did not "let" me because I didn't ask their permission,' she said indignantly.
'Nor their advice, it seems. I hope they gave you a piece of their minds.'
'So would I if you were my daughter.'
'But I'm not your daughter, I haven't asked for your help and I certainly haven't asked for your interference. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to leave.'
'How?' he asked simply.
In her annoyance she'd forgotten that she was stranded. She glared.
'It's three miles to Crimea Street,' he pointed out. 'Are you going to walk it? In those heels? Or are you going to call them to rescue you? They'll love that.'
'Yes, and I'll never hear the end of it,' she sighed. 'Ah, well, I don't seem to have any choice.'
'Unless I give you a tow?' Seeing her suspicious look, he said, 'It's a genuine offer. I can't just leave you here.'
'Me being such a poor, helpless damsel in distress, you mean?'
His lips twitched. 'Well, there must be something of the damsel in distress about you, or you wouldn't have bought this ridiculous car.'