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The Many Colours of Us
By Rachel Burton
HarperCollins PublishersCopyright © 2017 Rachel Burton
All rights reserved.
'I'm Julia Simmonds,' I say, as I walk up to the reception desk at Jones & Cartwright Solicitors. 'I've got an appointment with Edwin Jones.'
'Take a seat,' the woman behind the desk replies. She has steel-grey hair and a stern expression and peers at me over half-moon glasses. 'Mr Jones will be down shortly.'
I perch on the edge of a big brown leather sofa. It's so old and worn out it looks as though it will swallow me up if I sit on it properly. I'm sweating already and I can feel my hair curling around my temples. The weather forecast said that today will be the hottest June day since records began. There is no air-conditioning in Jones & Cartwright. I fiddle with the strap of my bag and stare at the floor.
Two black Prada shoes appear in front of my eyes. You don't grow up in the same house as Philadelphia Simmonds without being able to recognise Prada when you see it. They are attached to two long pinstriped legs. Very long pinstriped legs. Someone who I can only presume to be Edwin Jones is smiling at me, his shirtsleeves rolled up past the elbows, his tie loosely knotted. He's a lot younger than I imagined. And a lot more handsome.
'Miss Simmonds,' he says. I nod, unable to find my voice. He looks hot. In more ways than one.
'Would you like to follow me?'
I stand up and realise how tall he is – a good five or six inches taller than me. I could have worn heels, I think, pointlessly. At 5' 10" I rarely get the chance to wear heels without feeling slightly ridiculous. I follow him up a wide spiral staircase and along a wood-panelled corridor. He holds open the door to his office. His name is emblazoned on it in gold plate.
'Take a seat, Miss Simmonds,' he says as we walk in.
'Julia, please,' I say, finally finding my voice.
'Julia,' he repeats. He turns on a pedestal fan and opens his window a little wider. 'Thank you for coming down from Cambridge to meet with me. I'm sorry if it's inconvenienced you at all but this is a little ... um ... sensitive and I felt it should be done face to face.'
It's unbelievably hot in here and I can feel the stray hairs at the nape of my neck getting damp. The walls are wood panelled like the corridor, making the room dark, and I can't decide if that helps or hinders with the heat.
'That's OK.' I smile, trying very hard not to show that it has inconvenienced me. 'It's less than an hour on the train.'
We both sit down on leather armchairs either side of a low coffee table, rather than at his overwhelming leather-topped desk. This whole room reminds me of a scene from a Dickens novel. It's tremendously old-fashioned and nothing like the sleek chrome and glass air-conditioned office I work in.
He pours me a glass of iced water out of a jug on the table and asks if I want any tea or coffee. I shake my head. I just want to get on with things now.
He picks up a folder of papers and looks at me. He really is quite beautiful. It's so hot in here that I feel a bit odd, a little light-headed. I can't quite catch my breath. I take a big gulp of water and I remind myself I'm here to inherit some horrible artefact and then I'll never see these offices or Edwin Jones again.
'You look exactly like your mother,' he says, still looking at me. 'I hope you don't mind me saying that.'
I shrug. 'No, everybody comments on it.'
'I've known her a long time,' he goes on, 'since I was a child actually. My father was her lawyer originally but he retired a few years ago. Her numerous papers have been handed to me.' He pauses again. I wonder why Mum didn't say anything if he's known her for years as he claims. This is all very odd.
Just as I think I'm going to have to fill the silence with something inane he begins to speak.
'The truth is, Miss Simmonds ... um ... Julia, I don't really know where to start with this. I asked Philadelphia to tell you herself but she insisted I do it.'
'Typical,' I say.
'Does the name Bruce Baldwin mean anything to you?'
I stare at him, slightly taken aback. 'Up until last week I'd never heard of him,' I say, 'but over the last few days I've heard his name several times. He died in earlier in the year I'm told.'
He pauses again. I watch him take a breath. He looks as though he is about to apologise for something but stops himself.
'Bruce Baldwin was your father.'
* * *
When I first received an email from Edwin Jones telling me I was the benefactor of an inheritance, I imagined the worst. My mother's friends have been dropping like flies recently, the hedonistic 70s finally catching up with them, and they do like to remember 'little Julia' in their wills. The worst inheritance so far has been an elephant's foot umbrella stand that turned out to have been made from an actual elephant's foot. My housemate, Pen, made me sell it on eBay. It wasn't worth as much as we'd hoped.
I had phoned my mother about it, of course. She always seems mildly surprised when I call.
'How are you?' I asked.
'Oh, fine, dear,' she replied. She always says this, whether she's fine or not.
'Look, Mum, I was thinking of coming down to London to see you next week. Monday afternoon maybe?' I was testing the waters. I was never sure if she liked having me around or not.
'The big smoke calling you back already?' she asked. She knows I can never stay away for very long.
'Well a solicitor called actually,' I replied. 'Does the name Edwin Jones mean anything to you? Or a firm called Jones & Cartwright?'
My mother was suddenly uncharacteristically quiet.
'Um ... it may ring a bell,' she finally admitted.
'Well this Edwin Jones says I've inherited something and I just wanted to check ...'
'Edwin is Cedric's son,' Mum interrupted in a vague, spaced-out kind of way. 'And Bruce died of course.'
'Bruce Baldwin.' After a long pause, in which I waited for her to elaborate she said, 'I must go now, darling. I suppose I'll see you on Monday. You have a key?'
'Yes, Mum, but listen. '
'Well, let yourself in.'
'Mum?' But she'd already gone.
So Edwin Jones telling me he's known her since he was a child just didn't add up.
I had asked Pen if the name Bruce Baldwin meant anything to her.
'As in Bruce Baldwin the world-renowned artist?' she replied.
'I guess. I've never heard of him.'
'Really, Julia, you can be such a philistine sometimes. He died a few months ago; his obituary was in the Times'
'Did you read it?'
'I did actually. It's quite a poor-boy-made-good story. He was born into a Yorkshire mining family, managed to get into grammar school where the art teacher discovered his talent and off he went to St Martin's, although I suspect it was all a lot more difficult and arduous than I've just made it sound! Apparently, he spent years in and out of rehab before he was finally recognised in the art world. I should think the obituary is still online if you want it. Why anyway?'
'Mum,' I replied. 'When I asked her about Edwin Jones and the inheritance she started going on about Edwin's father and Bruce Baldwin. I can't really see how it's all connected.'
'Well you know your mother, Julia, nothing if not vague. You'll find out on Monday anyway.'
* * *
So here we are on Monday and Edwin Jones is looking at me across the table. Neither of us has spoken for several minutes.
He breaks the silence first. 'Julia, are you OK? Can I get you anything?'
I shake my head. Edwin looks vaguely uncomfortable. He is still holding the folder of papers. I wonder what they say.
'I never knew who my father was,' I begin, although I suspect he knows this already. 'My mother always claimed she had forgotten, which was rubbish of course but if you know my mother you know that sometimes it's impossible to get anything out of her.'
Edwin smiles. That smile tells me he knows my mother well.
'I think you probably need to tell me everything you know,' I say.
He sighs, putting the folder down on the coffee table and leaning back in his chair, staring at the ceiling for a moment. Whatever he has to tell me, he really doesn't want it to be his job. Finally, he looks at me, placing his hands on his knees. I realise I can't look at him so I focus on his hands as he begins to tell me what can only be described as the story of me.
'My father, Cedric Jones, dealt with your mother's legal affairs when she arrived from New York in 1973,' he tells me. 'This firm worked closely with your mother's agency so she wasn't the only model on the books. It's hard to believe that this stuffy old place was quite hip and bohemian in its time.' He looks around at the endless wood panels, as though he would rather be anywhere else than here. He's not the only one.
'Here's what I know,' he says, as I keep looking at his hands. They are lovely hands, well looked after, big, slightly tanned. 'Philadelphia Simmonds and Bruce Baldwin had an on-off relationship throughout the 70s and early 80s. You were born towards the end of that relationship and for whatever reason, shortly afterwards they went their separate ways. I know that your mother never told you about Mr Baldwin but I can tell you that they were certainly in contact throughout your life, although I don't believe your father saw you very often.'
He pauses. His hands are going in and out of focus and I feel very hot again. I look up and use every ounce of energy to concentrate. I have a thousand questions but don't have the energy to ask any of them.
'As you may know, after you were born your mother lost some of her lucrative contracts ...'
'All of them apparently,' I interrupt. 'And don't I know it.'
'Yes, well ...' Edwin looks down at his own hands. Thank goodness they're there or what would we have to focus on during these awkward moments. 'In a nutshell, she ran out of money sometime in the early 90s. She remortgaged her house several times but by 1993 she was in serious financial difficulty. It was around that time that Mr Baldwin, your father, bought the house off her.'
I'm paying attention now. My mother hadn't owned the house since I was ten? My father owned it? And she never thought to tell me? Because, of course, she'd 'forgotten' who my father was.
'From that point on my father became Mr Baldwin's lawyer too. Mr Baldwin set up his will not long after buying the house. In it he has left everything to you.'
'Everything?' I ask, not sure what everything entails.
'A trust has been put to one side for your mother but otherwise, yes, everything. The house in Campden Hill Road, Bruce's flat in Notting Hill, his studio in East London and, of course, his entire estate. Basically,' he concludes, bringing the palms of his hands together, 'you're a very rich woman.'
I stand up and Edwin looks up at me. His eyes are very blue.
'I think I need to go now,' I say. I feel as though the wood panelling is going to close in on me if I don't get out soon.
He stands up quickly, opening the door and ushering me through.
'I completely understand this must come as a huge shock to you,' he says as he leads me back down to reception. 'There is still a lot we need to go through but perhaps you should go home and talk to your mother. We can meet tomorrow or later in the week if you prefer?'
'Um ... later in the week maybe,' I reply.
'Muriel will fix an appointment,' he says, turning to the grey-haired woman at the reception desk. 'How am I fixed for Friday?' he asks her.
She books an appointment and Edwin Jones turns back to me, shakes my hand.
'Until Friday,' he says.CHAPTER 2
'Mum, it's me,' I call as I let myself into my mother's house on Campden Hill Road. Actually no. It's my house now. I shake my head, unable to take it in.
'Mum,' I shout up the stairs. Still nothing. I check the rooms of the ground floor and head down into the basement kitchen.
The note sits in the middle of the kitchen island. The island that is used for nothing other than making and drinking coffee or gin and tonic, depending on the time of day. I have never seen my mother cook.
Darling girl, had to pop to Manhattan for a few days. Enjoy yourself and see you another time, Love Mom xxx
Forty years in England and she still insists on spelling like an American. And who the hell 'pops' to Manhattan. It doesn't take a genius to work out that she's avoiding me now Edwin has told me everything he knows.
My relationship with my mother has been fractious for years, mainly due to her refusal to tell me who my father is. But despite this, every few months the umbilical pull back to West London is too strong to resist. I have long since lost count of the number of times I've made the journey from Cambridge to Kensington; train to Kings Cross, the fast one if I can get my times right and then the Circle line going west and south, looping through Baker Street and Bayswater, stations I've travelled through for half of my life but never got out at, until my stop, High Street Kensington.
There are probably quicker ways, but I love the Circle line. It was the first tube I ever remember travelling on and the first I ever travelled on alone. It's as much my home as the streets of Kensington above and there's something about its circuitous nature that appeals to me. There is no end of the line here, just a sensation of going around and around until you find what you are looking for. I'm probably the only person in London who has warm feelings about the Circle line. Most people find it as useful as a chocolate teapot.
I've never had a proper conversation with my mother about her life before I was born. When I was a little, her past had been something that seemed glamorous and mysterious, that I was too young to understand. All her old headshots and magazine covers were kept in pink filing boxes at the bottom of the wardrobe in the smallest bedroom at the top of the house that my mother ostentatiously refers to as her office. As a child, I used to go through these boxes in secret, looking in awe at pictures of my mother advertising make-up, modelling on the catwalk, arriving at parties. I never heard any stories about those times, even when I pushed and pushed to be told. My mother just smiled sadly and changed the subject.
These days, of course, it only takes a simple internet search to realise how famous Philadelphia Simmonds was and how quickly she had fallen from grace. In the early 80s nobody was interested in a model with a child. If there wasn't a husband, then there wasn't a six-page magazine spread either.
My mother went from being one of the most famous faces on the planet to has-been in one fell swoop and all by the time she was my age.
No amount of internet searching or scouring old newspapers and library records has ever given anything away about who my father was. God knows I've searched enough over the years.
My earliest memory is from 1986, my third birthday. It's summer, twilight, but still warm. I'm wearing a sundress with red dots and I'm barefoot. We are in the garden and there are dozens of people everywhere, inside and out. Philadelphia Simmonds's parties were legendary, perhaps less so in the 80s than they had been in the 70s but infamous nonetheless.
The air is thick with smoke and laughter and music, so much wonderful music. There is a song playing that I really love and I ask for it to be played again and again while a man with long dark hair and a beard that tickles my cheek spins me round and round. Whenever I think about it I can still smell the faint aroma of spice and turps that surrounded him. He tells me the song is called Penny Lane and I tell him I like the bit about the fire engine best.
And then the memory disappears. I can't work out what happened to the man with the beard or who he was. Whenever I've asked my mother about it she claims she doesn't know what I'm talking about.
Part of me has always liked to daydream that the Penny Lane guy was my dad and that he had to go away on some secret mission, or something equally romantic. Suddenly today I'm wondering if he was, in fact, my father. If that guy with the long hair and beard was Bruce Baldwin circa 1986. I know absolutely nothing about Bruce Baldwin – I didn't even recognise the name when my mother first mentioned him, but as Pen said, I'm an absolute philistine when it comes to art. I know that picture of the melting clocks was by Salvador Dalí, but that really is the limit of my knowledge.
If the guy from my third birthday is Bruce Baldwin I'm sure Google Images could let me know quickly. But right now I don't want to find out, because if that isn't him then the only thing I've held on to from childhood will be a lie.
Excerpted from The Many Colours of Us by Rachel Burton. Copyright © 2017 Rachel Burton. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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