Postcards from the Past: A Novel

Postcards from the Past: A Novel

by Marcia Willett

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466846517
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/14/2015
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 236,217
File size: 871 KB

About the Author

Postcards from the Past is MARCIA WILLETT's fifteenth novel to be published in the U.S. Her novels are available in seventeen countries around the world. She lives in Devon, England.

Born in Somerset, in the west country of England, on the day the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Marcia Willett was the youngest of five girls. Her family was unconventional and musical, but Marcia chose to train as a ballet dancer. Unfortunately her body did not develop with the classical proportions demanded by the Royal Ballet, so she studied to be a ballet teacher. Her first husband was a naval officer in the submarine service, with whom she had a son, Charles, now married and training to be a clergyman. Her second husband, Rodney, himself a writer and broadcaster, encouraged Marcia to write novels. She has published several novels in England; A Week in Winter is the first to be published in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Postcards from the Past

By Marcia Willett

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2013 Marcia Willett
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4651-7


There are two moons tonight. The round white shining disc, brittle and sharp-edged as glass, stares down at its reflection lying on its back in the black water of the lake. Nothing stirs. No whisper of wind ruffles the surface. At the lake's edge the wild cherry tree leans like an elegant ghost, its delicate bare branches silver with ice, yearning towards the past warmth of summer days. Tall stands of dogwood, their bright wands of colour blotted into monochrome by the cold brilliant light, guard the northern shore of the lake and cast spiked shadows across the frosty grass.

She stands in the warm room, staring down at the frozen, wintry scene and, all the while, her fingers fret around the edges of the postcard thrust deep into the pocket of her quilted gilet, just as her mind frets around the meaning of the words scrawled on the back of a reproduction of Toulouse Lautrecs's La Chaîne Simpson.

'A blast from the past. How are you doing? Perhaps I should pay a visit and find out!'

It is addressed to her and her brother – Edmund and Wilhelmina St Enedoc – and signed simply with one word: 'Tris'. She fingers the card, breaking its corner; from a room below drift a few notes of music, the lyrical poignancy of the trumpet: Miles Davis playing 'It Never Entered My Mind'. It is one of Ed's favourite CDs.

Instinct made her hide the postcard earlier, shuffling it beneath yesterday's newspaper as Ed came into the kitchen to see what the postman had brought. She made some light-hearted remark, passing him the handful of envelopes and catalogues, whilst the writing on the postcard burned on her inner eye.

'... Perhaps I should pay a visit and find out! Tris.'

Later she slid it into her pocket to examine it in the privacy of her own room. The postmark is Paris, dated three days ago. By now he might be in the country, driving west. How could he know, after more than fifty years, that she and Ed would still be here together?

Fifty years.

'Tris the tick.' 'Tris the toad.' 'Tell-tale Tris.' Ed, at twelve, has a whole collection of private names for their new stepbrother. 'We'll have to watch out for him, Billa.'

'Try to be nice to Tristan, darling.' Her mother's voice. 'I know it's hard for you and Ed but I do so want you all to get on together. For my sake. Will you try?'

Fifty years. She takes the card out of her pocket and stares at it.

'Billa?' Ed's voice. 'Are you coming down? Supper's ready.'

'Coming,' she calls. 'Shan't be a sec.'

She glances round, picks up a book from the small revolving table – her mother's little walnut table – and slips the postcard inside. Drawing the curtains together, closing out the two moons and the lake, Billa goes downstairs to Ed.

* * *

He stoops over the supper he's prepared, checking the sauce. The jointed chicken legs have been marinaded overnight in oregano and garlicky red wine vinegar, then cooked in white wine, and he looks approvingly at the result, now on a dish, with its sprinkling of olives and capers and prunes. It smells delicious. His cooking is capricious, extravagant and occasionally disastrous, but he likes to pull his weight. Tall and wide-shouldered in his navy Aran jersey – unravelling at the cuffs and patched at the elbows – his thick thatch of badger-streaked hair falling forward as he bends to take plates out of the bottom oven of the Aga, he looks like an amiable bear. Ed's approach to life is simple, unhurried; he hates fuss or extravagant emotion and believes himself to be inadequate in fulfilling people's expectations of him. The women who are drawn to his innate kindness, his gentleness, grow irritated by his inability to commit. He went straight to a major publishing house from university and stayed there until his early retirement, but always weekended here at Mellinpons. He cherished his authors – naturalists, travellers, gardeners – enjoyed launch parties and lunches but, in his middle fifties, with his childless marriage drifting into an amicable divorce, he decided to move back to Cornwall. His own book, published two years later – Wild Birds of the Peninsula – was an astonishing success, partly attributable to his charming ink drawings and beautiful photographs. Wild Birds of the Cornish Cliffs and Coasts followed, and now he is planning Wild Birds of the Cornish Inland Lakes: Colliford, Crowdy, Siblyback.

To his regret, their own lake is too small to harbour more than a few wild duck; too domestic to be home to tufted duck or great-crested grebe. Frogs in plenty come to carouse in the early spring, slipping and sliding, clasping and clambering in the shallows, their mating songs echoing eerily in the night.

Ed lifts out the warmed plates from the lower oven. Billa and he were always happiest here at Mellinpons; always glad to leave the big town house in Truro at the beginning of the summer holidays. He can remember the excitement of heading out of the city with their father driving the big Rover, their mother beside him, and he and Billa packed into the back with their favourite toys and books. Mellinpons: built as a mill in 1710, extended and converted into a butter factory by a co-operative of local farmers in 1870.

Their branch of the St Enedoc family made its wealth from mining, and Great-grandfather bought this piece of land with its mine – now defunct – the mill and some cottages back in the 1870s. In 1939 the butter factory closed when the men were called up for war, and it lay derelict until Harry St Enedoc decided to convert it. Mellinpons was his post-war project. He'd had a bad war and afterwards took very little interest in the family business, passing more responsibility to his fellow directors, resigning from the boards of the great mining companies, until at last he moved his family out of Truro and settled in this quiet valley. He lived only six years at Mellinpons before he died.

It's odd, thinks Ed, that, though his father lived here for such a short time, his influence is still so strongly present in the butter factory. It was his idea to use the old millstone as a hearthstone beneath a granite chimneybreast, which takes up one whole corner of the hall from where it is possible to look up and up, past the galleried landing, to the massive black beams in the roof. The great window facing down the valley was his idea, too. The recess, cut into the thick granite walls, is big and deep enough to take two armchairs. It was he who named the old butter factory Mellinpons: the Mill on the Bridge.

Ed places the dish beside the plates on the huge slate kitchen table, on which the butter was once patted into blocks, glancing up as Billa comes in.

'That looks good,' she says appreciatively

The kitchen is warm and full of delicious smells, Miles Davis is playing 'I'll Remember April' whilst Ed's Newfoundland – the colour of tobacco and called Bear because, as a puppy, he looked like a brown bear-cub – sleeps peacefully on an ancient, sagging sofa beneath the window. Keeping her eyes resolutely away from the mess Ed will have made at the business end of the kitchen, Billa sits down at the table. The huge dog raises his head, checks her arrival and slumps down again. His tail beats gently, just a thump or two of welcome, before he resumes his slumber.

'Don't get up,' Billa tells him drily.

'He won't,' Ed says comfortably. 'Far too much effort would be required.'

He spoons some chicken and sauce on to a beautiful old Spode plate, whose gold leaf is nearly worn away, and passes it to her. There is roasted parsnip mash in a Clarice Cliff bowl and some purple heads of broccoli in a Mason's Ironstone dish. Ed chooses his dishes for their designs and colours but with no sense of uniformity. Oddly, it works; old and new, priceless and valueless, all existing happily together. The table is only partially cleared: seed catalogues, a pair of binoculars, the latest edition of Slightly Foxed, as well as the diary – bursting with crucial pieces of paper containing addresses, telephone numbers and all the notes Ed makes to himself whilst on the telephone – are scattered across the black slate. A terracotta pot planted with cyclamen stands beside a pretty branching silver candlestick.

Ed fills Billa's glass with wine – a mellow South African Merlot that has been warming by the Aga – and sits down. He talks enthusiastically about his plans for seeding the small meadow with wild flowers and grasses, for planting more bulbs beneath the great copper beech, and all the while, as she nods and says, 'Mmm. Good idea ...' her mind skitters around the words written on the postcard.

Ed notes her distraction but says nothing. She is generally more involved in her charity work for the local hospice than in his writing and drawing, his continuing development of the land along the stream and his study of its wildlife. This is where Ed reigns supreme and Billa doesn't attempt to advise him on any of these subjects.

As he clears the plates, shovelling a few tasty morsels into Bear's bowl, he reflects on Billa's marriage to the much older, well-known physicist, Philip Huxley. Ed's always believed that the relationship was based on hero-worship on Billa's side, rather than passion, and by an almost paternal kindness on Philip's. Gradually she was undermined by a series of devastating miscarriages, subsuming her grief into a growing absorption with her work as the head of the fund-raising wing of a big charitable organization for disabled children. She'd nursed Philip through his last, long illness and then come back to live at Mellinpons. Yet even now, widowed and retired, Billa is still tough and he is glad that his expertise is outside her own areas of endeavour. They get along very well together.

Bear climbs down from his sofa and goes to inspect the contents of his bowl. He glances up at Ed as if to say: 'What d'you call this?'

'Don't you fancy it, old man?' Ed asks, concerned. 'Too much oregano?'

Billa rolls her eyes. 'Perhaps he'd rather have it on the Spode plate.'

'Perhaps he would,' answers Ed, unruffled by her sarcasm, 'but there are only two of them left. They were Great-grandmother's, as far as I can remember, and I rather treasure them. I do agree, though, that your old chipped enamel bowl is rather mere, isn't it, Bear?'

Billa bursts out laughing. 'Poor old Bear. We'll buy him a new one for his birthday. Do you want me to make the coffee or will you do it?'

Her laughter relieves some of her tension and she feels stronger again. After all, what can Tristan do to them now? That particular part of the past has long gone; finished.

But, as she watches Ed making coffee, his figure dislimns and fades and she sees her mother instead, standing there fiddling with cups and saucers, eyes averted from her children, sitting side by side at the table.

* * *

'I know it will be difficult at first,' she was saying rapidly, hands busy with the kettle, with the tea caddy. 'But I know that you'll love him as much as I do when you get to know him. After all, it is more than five years now since your father died and ...' The kettle began to sing and she lifted it from the hotplate. 'And I want you to try very hard to understand how lonely it is for me with you both away at school ...'

'We don't both have to be away at school.' Billa's voice was harsh with anxiety. There was something frightening, embarrassing, at the sight of her mother so nervous and beseeching. 'At least, I don't have to be away,' she said. 'Ed does, of course, especially now he's got a place at Sherborne, but I could be a day-girl. I could go to Truro School.'

'But, darling ...' Their mother looked at them at last and Billa saw that she could not hide her happiness; her excitement. She stretched her hands to them, like a child at a party inviting them to join in the games. 'You see, Andrew and I love each other. I think you are old enough to understand this. I am so happy, you see.'

Ed, feeling his sister's tension, said politely: 'Perhaps we will understand when we've met ...' he stumbled over the words 'this man' or 'him' and settled rather waveringly on 'Andrew'. 'When we've met Andrew,' he finished more strongly.

Their mother made tea, though Billa could see that her hands were shaking. 'And,' she said, in a special voice, as if this was an extra bonus, 'and Andrew has a son of his own, called Tristan. He's ten, two years younger than you, Ed, and I'm sure we shall be very happy together. A proper family again. They will both live with us here at Mellinpons.'

Billa and Ed were stunned into silence: a boy of ten. Tristan. Living here in their house.

Out of sight, under the table, Billa's hand stretched out to Ed and fastened round his wrist. They stared stonily at their mother as she came across the kitchen and put their tea on the table.

* * *

Ed pushes Billa's coffee cup towards her and stares at her, bending down a little to peer at her more closely.

'Are you OK?' he asks.

She looks back at him, frowning, and then nods. 'Sorry,' she says. 'I went off there for a minute. I was just remembering Mother telling us that she was going to marry ghastly Andrew.'

'I suppose he wasn't that bad,' Ed says. 'It can't have been easy for him, either.'

'We were just the wrong ages,' says Billa reflectively. 'Fourteen is no age to watch your mother falling passionately in love. Of course he was very attractive in an edgy kind of way, but she was so mad about him that it was embarrassing, especially in public. I stopped telling her about events at school because I couldn't stand the humiliation. Girls can be so cruel.'

'It was easier for me.' Ed sits down at the table. 'Andrew was quite clued up about things like rugby and cricket. It was that little tick Tris that I couldn't stand. He was such a stirrer, wasn't he?'

Billa is silent, thinking of the postcard, panic twisting again in her gut. 'Mmm,' she says, not wanting to talk about Tristan, bending her head over her cup lest Ed should see her expression. After a moment she gets up, picking up her coffee mug. 'I'm going to check emails,' she says.

Ed continues to drink his coffee and Bear comes to lean heavily against his chair, which shunts slowly sideways across the big rug flung down over the slate floor until Bear collapses gently to the floor. Miles Davis' trumpet fades into silence and Ed stands up, bending to blow out the candles, and begins to clear away the supper. As he sorts the plates that will go into the dishwasher from the more delicate pieces – the Spode and Clarice Cliff – he broods on Billa's preoccupation. All day she's been on edge but he knows that any kind of questioning or concern will evoke a quick denial that anything is wrong. And on those rare occasions when she shares some anxiety or fear with him she'll immediately add: 'But it's fine. It's fine, really,' hurrying away from any comfort he might offer, turning the conversation.

Even as a child, once their father died, she shouldered her own burdens; made her own decisions. He'd relied on her so much when they were small. Her eager, passionate vitality lent colour to his quiet, subdued personality, investing it with some of her own brilliance. She made him brave, laughing at his terrors, spurring him beyond the modest limits he set himself.

* * *

After their father died suddenly, one cold March day, she was silent with shock for weeks, her face rigid with suffering. She was just nine years old, Ed was seven, and the quality and depth of her grief frightened him, diluting his own sense of loss. He subsumed his pain, his terror of death, into focusing on the life that continued to riot heartlessly around him. The cold sweet spring: how vital and generous it was, almost profligate in its abundance. He began to notice that many of the wild flowers were yellow and for the first time – the first of many – he made a list. It became a test; a challenge. It wonderfully concentrated his mind.

Catkins – he wrote in his round childish hand – cowslips, daffodils, primroses, dandelions, buttercups, celandines, kingcups. Alongside each name he drew a picture of the flower and painted it carefully, noting nature's wide range of the colour yellow: egg-yolk, lemon, cream. Pussy willow might be a bit of a cheat, being more grey than yellow, but he put it in anyway. Billa watched him, clenched in her misery.


Excerpted from Postcards from the Past by Marcia Willett. Copyright © 2013 Marcia Willett. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Postcards from the Past 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Stephanie_Grace More than 1 year ago
This is a very character-driven novel, and I enjoyed that aspect. It took until the second or third chapter for me to really connect with some key characters, but the connections were very strong afterward --and that is truly what "made" the book for me. I must admit, though, that the delay in the connections could have been caused by the tense in which the book is written. While Ms. Willett did a masterful job of keeping consistent with the present tense throughout the book, I always find that I need to warm up to it, to adjust my thinking to "this is happening right now in their world," and I often expect to find a slip-up early on that ruins the whole thing for me. I am so pleased that such was not the case with this book! The mystery aspect of the story really ended up kind of fading into the background. It was always there, a threat looming overhead, but I found myself flipping pages more to get into the daily lives of the characters, to know them better, than to predict what was coming. I developed fears of scenes that would make me abandon and/or literally throw the book which probably led me to feel even closer and more protective of my little book family. There was a time or two (okay, maybe five) when I put down the book between reading times, glared and it, and said, "Don't you dare, Ms. Willett. Don't you dare to that you him/her/them!" So, yes, I was drawn into the mystery part, but more because of my feelings toward the characters than intrigue. Having said that, I was a tad let down by the end of the mystery side of things. It was wrapped up a bit too quickly or tidy, I guess. The buildup had me expecting something much more sinister. I was happy to be wrong, but it just seemed to be cut a bit too short. (Typing that, I just realized that, for me, this book wasn't about the mystery at all, but just about people and how the past continues to affect us and the control we give not just to people, but memories as well.) I found the romantic aspect to just be a bit too convenient and easy, but that's my usual view of romantic story-lines. Thankfully, though, it did lean toward being realistic and realistic issues were addressed. It wasn't some fantastical romance plot that betrayed the realism of the novel itself. (I never quite connected with the female character involved, so I may be to blame here, too.) All in all, the characters are wonderfully developed, the writing itself is superb (though I admit there were a few brand names mentioned that were beyond my knowledge), and the whole book truly read like a movie: I didn't just 'read' everything; I saw it happening. I received this book for free through Goodreads Giveaways and I feel incredibly fortunate because, otherwise, I might never have known about Marcia Willett. This is the first book I've read by this author and I closed it wanting to read more of her work. I find this very hard to rate: I enjoyed and loved it, but was a bit let down by the mystery aspect, I guess. For me, this had a strong emotional impact, if the mystery would have hurt more, if I really had thrown the book, I think a five-star rating would have been the obvious choice. I do not easily tear up while reading, but this came close. If it broke through that wall, I'd be asking for a chance to add stars.