Percy Grey tries to escape her past in 1930's England, as the world teeters towards war
|It was too wet to walk, and too far for weary limbs which bore her yield with failing grace. Persephone longed to kick it into the air and create a white wave against the grey pallor of the morning sky. She longed to disrupt the quiet of the morning and yet she could not, would not, for good behaviour was a necessity now. She was never really alone; her family, their spies were everywhere. Any trace of malevolence, or fun or hell, any sense of character, must be denied. She was the banished, the black sheep, making her return and from now on complicity was key. She could not afford to slip up again.
She pulled back the heavy wool of her coat and looked at her watch. Not a flicker of annoyance glanced upon her features but by jove she felt it inside. Ever prepared for disappointment, she had telephoned the house that very morning to remind them of her return. Preparations would be in swing and on this day of all days (although the same could be said of any day) Persephone would not be the family's priority. And of course, no one had been available to speak to her; they were breakfasting, going over the menu for tonight or in the case of Miss Diana, still fast asleep in bed and not to be disturbed (especially not for one so lowly as Persephone) and yet the housekeeper, Mrs Thoms, had promised to pass on Persephone's message. She probably had, the old woman had always seemed to have something of a soft spot for Persephone, fond of her mother, most likely, or at least the memory of her mother as a girl, before it all went to hell.
And yet here she was, stood at the entrance to a railway station so tiny one almost wondered why they had bothered. It was the worst of an absolutely freezing January, with no car in sight, a locked waiting room and no guard to offer a telephone with which she could (probably unsuccessfully) attempt to summon help. Perhaps she should walk; after all, what's fifteen miles when one is utterly desperate.
Her eyes, cold and grey like the ghost of her mother, searched the barren landscape, nature left wanting by the icy claws of winter. Not a house in sight (again, what a bizarre place for the trains to pause), and yet somewhere there must be life and where there was life there was possibly a telephone and hope and something other than the endless wait in the cold.
She had spent the last few months surrounded by the vivid and ecstatic colours of Ceylon, the air awash with the pungent aroma of spices, and the monotonous drone of her Aunt Constance humming in her brain like a woodpecker tap tap tapping upon the bark of a tree. Now, she was surrounded by silence with not even a bird to break the peace with piercing song, and a grey colourless landscape which spoke of life ending; new beginnings seemingly so far away. But she longed for life and sound and chatter, and was so very grateful for the absence of her Aunt, despatched (finally) to her Yorkshire Dower House with little more than a curt 'good day'. Those few months had been a long few months.
Then, movement; a trace of an advance upon the horizon. The trace became a dot became a car; it's progress swift across the landscape. It was racing towards her, and as the colours and the shape became apparent she realised the car was for her. As the clock chimed midday and marked the third hour of her wait, Jon's blue and cream Morris rumbled to a halt.
Her cousin waved a hand in welcome, 'Percy, hello!'
His expression was jolly and bright but Persephone felt nothing but fury. 'I've been waiting all morning, Jon. Did Mrs Thoms not pass on my message?'
Jon winced. 'Ah,' he said, before adding softly, 'ah. She did, of course, but everyone is so blasted busy with Diana's shindig tonight no one could get away...'
'Even Driver? I can't quite picture him hanging bunting in the garage.'
'You know my mother, it's all hands-on deck. Anyway, I arrived from London to find dear Mrs Thoms most anxious - she does care, doesn't she - so I hot-footed it over here.'
Persephone rolled her eyes. 'My hero.'
'Come now, my dear, no one meant anything by it.'
Jon revved the motor and they set off across the across the countryside, along the winding coast road towards Aldeburgh Hall, nestled within the bursting bosom of the downs. The icy January wind whistled around them until her ears stung like nettle pricks and her eyes began to water. As he pulled the car into a lane, the spindly naked arms of an oak reaching out to greet them, Jon slowed the car to a gentler progress. The grey clouds above threatened a sodden embrace, and Persephone once again questioned the wisdom of such an open and exposed motor in winter. And then, as sudden as the chill on the wind, there was home. The gateposts with the spirals of Georgian carving, the sheep scurrying from the drive, the dome erupting from the belly of the building, and that biting but so familiar thud in the pit of her stomach.
Persephone put her hand over Jon's. 'Stop here, just for a moment, won't you?' And he did. 'I just need a moment.'
'It won't be so bad, you know. They're frightfully caught up with Diana's birthday. You're practically forgotten.'
A flip flop of her stomach. If only it were true.
'I didn't deserve to be sent away.'
'They did warn you my dear. Too many mentions in those gossipy rags is bad for business, so to speak...'
'And who are you to tell me that? You - the Aldeburgh Baronet pictured here with his close friend Stephen Timmonds. The Rt Hon Jolyon Grey and his constant companion Mr Timmonds!'
Jon, to his credit, blushed. 'Yes, well I...'
'The only thing I've ever done to gain access to those wretched papers is exist. That's it. And for that, I am to be eternally punished.'
'What a world we live in, in which a tour of India is seen as a punishment.' Harsh words perhaps, but said with a smile.
'With Great Aunt Constance!'
Jon started the motor with a great roar. 'Yes,' he conceded. 'I do see your point.'
Jon parked the motor at the foot of the grand stone staircase which led to the carved wooden doors which marked the entrance of Aldeburgh Hall. The rough sculpture of the doors spoke of ancient times, but their real age not so much. The Hall was a muddle of Georgian decadence and faux-Tudor ambitions, the bastard idea of an architect who melded his split-personality into the very fabric of the building. And so arrow-slit windows nestled with contemporary sash companions, simple hammer beam roofs bled into vulgar gold leaf explosions. Old met older and nothing quite fit. Yet it was home, and if the house never felt quite settled then it was alright, because neither did Persephone.
As she climbed down from the motor a spontaneous twitching of curtains erupted in every window of the house, as the staff jostled for the first few of the fallen cousin. Jon pulled her bags from the car (the notion of footmen long forgotten at Aldeburgh) and took the stone steps two at a time. Persephone followed but a little slower, more hesitant. She wasn't sure what lay in wait for her behind those heavy doors.
As it happened, there was no one behind the doors. No welcome home, no hello, not a person to be seen. Voices in the distance, a cross tone and a placatory response; her Aunt, no doubt, dishing out orders to all who had the misfortune to cross her path. Jon hurried off towards the melee, concerned his absence might have been noted and would be held against him for the rest of his stay (his mother was a vindictive type).
Persephone looked around the great hall and her grim-faced ancestors glared back at her, for the past was ever present at Aldeburgh. The air was thick with damp and mould, and the spores congealed in her lungs and burrowed into her skin until the decay, the very fragility of the house, became her fragility too. She felt a sneeze might bring the whole thing down like a house of cards.
Footsteps, an order called over a shoulder, and there was her Aunt striding towards her. White blonde hair, still shingled in an echo of the past, fell upon shoulders encased in the red velvet of her jacket. She paused, startled, when she came upon Persephone, still huddled in her coat with her suitcase at her feet. Persephone did not greet her Aunt. She had learnt not to speak first but hold back and await whatever would come.
'You're back then?' said her Aunt, a question so obvious it embarrassed them both. Her Aunt, Annette, younger sister of Constance, and with an even lower opinion of Persephone than that held by her recent travelling companion, took in her niece before her.
'You look so pale. Are you sure you've been away?' Her Aunt curled her lips into a sneer.
Her Aunt Constance, an avid traveller but thoroughly afraid of foreigners, had preferred the comfort of their hotel and the car, to the degree that if they weren't ensconced in one they would be found in the other. Persephone had seen very little aside the view from her bedroom window and the changing landscape beyond the car. How she had clung to that ever-changing cinema of scenery; life beyond the streaked glass of the window.
'Well, I expect you'll want to rest before this evening, as your Uncle insists you be there.' Annette rolled her eyes, never one to hide her disdain towards her husband's fondness for Persephone.
'I could help, if you like...' Persephone half-heartedly gestured towards the unseen chaos down the hallway.
Her Aunt looked surprised, then flustered, then annoyed and managed to convey such changeable emotions through the rapid movement of her eyebrows. Persephone smiled. A small victory for her.
'No, thank you, but no. Everybody is very busy but I'm quite sure we have everything we. Thank you.' And she turned on her heel and strode a way before Persephone could respond.
Her bedroom was masked by shadows; a white streak of light bled from a gap in the heavy drapes and split the room in two. Her clothes were scattered across the floor, debris from a last minute change of heart towards her travelling wardrobe. It was obvious that no one, neither family nor staff, had set foot beyond the threshold of her door in the last three months. Persephone was home. The one place she was allowed to call her own within the vast prison of Aldeburgh Hall. Perhaps she should just retreat from life, for it seemed the only way she would ever escape the celebrity burdened upon her by her mother's past. She would become the ghost which haunted the many passageways of the house. She would be boring, frigid, and lifeless. There would be nothing for those awful gossip rags to write about (even though they made it up, for the most part, so she could hardly claim to have been part of anything that had been written about her in the past). It was such a wretched burden, her infamy, and it clung to her like a second skin she wished she could shake off.
Persephone slipped out of her icy leather shoes and crawled onto her bed. How she had longed for this moment, as she lay her weary head against the pillow. A slight aroma damp crept into her nostrils but she wrinkled her flesh to chase it away. She would not be bothered, not now she was where she had so longed to be. A bed is such a funny thing, an item devoted entirely to comfortable practicality and entirely interchangeable, and yet there was nothing so satisfying as scuttling into the pillowy cocoon of your own bed. It was a sanctuary, a marshmallow of a hug against the icy fingers of the world outside. And it was hers; one of the few things her Aunt hadn't taken away. Of course fresh linen would be the icing on the cake but she knew to be grateful for small mercies. She had a bed, and for now that was enough.
She looked to the ceiling and traced the rivers of cracks which swarmed out across the cobwebbed surface. What would she do now, she wondered. Long enough out of school for the holiday to be truly over and yet what else could she do but wait out this stultifying experience of existence. A career? She was qualified for precisely nothing and her experience consisted of choosing items from her wardrobe and attending parties. Hardly the making of a modern woman. But the alternative, marriage? She could think of nothing worse and besides, no one would have her. And so here was, existing. No desire to be stuck a home but no way of escaping it and even if she did, she had no idea as to what she would do. Freedom was at once unreachable and unfathomable.
Persephone closed her eyes. She was exhausted and should really try to sleep and yet she could hear the hustle and bustle in the drawing room below. She could just imagine the scene; her Aunt collapsed on the blue velvet sofa in despair, crying out orders to those who just had to soldier on through. Diana, weeping, because all had gone to rot and she expected a lovely party and why wasn't anyone listening to her. Jon, slipping out of the half-rotten French doors with a cigarette and a roll of his eyes because if his family weren't the living end. And George, her beloved Uncle George, her one true ally in the house. He would be telling all that everything would be just fine and not to worry. Persephone could picture the flinch in his features as he endured the inevitable verbal backlash. Their innate predictability should have been endearing, but it just made her shudder.
Persephone slid from the bed and stood before the tarnished mirror upon a wall clad in the hand-painted French wallpaper of a bygone age, its colours now faded, its surface torn. She took in her reflection. Twenty-four years old and yet she could see the beginnings of lines forming in the flesh of her forehead, one for each member of her family. Her hair had grown during her long sojourn; it now curled at her breast, which would never do. She looked far too much like her mother, a photograph she hid within the detritus of her dressing table drawer; a link to the past awash in an ocean of pots and potions and pieces of ribbon for her hair. She rarely looked to the photograph these days, the chains which bound her to her past were tight enough. Taking a pair of silver scissors from the dresser top, their surface tarnished with a spray of copper blemishes, she began to snip the be-straggled ends of her flaxen hair. Her hair was textured like straw and she pulled her fingers through it in frustration. She would wear it up tonight.
A knock at the door and Jon slipped inside; he didn't wait to be summoned, just as he never waited to be summoned. He trod his own path and she both admired and loathed him for it, but she never spoke of her jealousy.
Jon flopped on the ruffled blankets of the bed and smiled. 'What on earth have you done to your hair?' He dodged her weapon of choice, a hairbrush, with stealth.
'It was the sun, idiot. Astonishing, as I spent most of my time in Ceylon indoors.'
'There's an almighty kerfuffle in the drawing room. I have taken my leave.'
'Lucky me,' she quipped, but she couldn't resist. 'What's happened now?'
'Mother took a telephone call from Edith Reynolds,' Edith Reynolds was a little mouse of a woman, terrified of her own voice, and even more terrified of her rather ferocious husband Charles, a loathsome bully of a man and an old school friend of her Uncle. That George maintained a friendship with such a horror of a man was a source of bafflement for Persephone.
'Anyway, it seems their errant boy has finally reappeared after his Spanish jaunt and with a bullet in the leg to boot, or at least a bullet hole - I didn't quite follow - and his parents are loathe to leave him alone in case he takes off and causes another scandal and so!' And here he opened his hands as his torrent gossip rolled into its crescendo, 'he is to attend Diana's party tonight. Diana's one true love since childhood will be here, at Aldeburgh Hall, in all his righteous communist glory! Diana almost passed out when she heard the news.'
Persephone tried to gather the pieces of the puzzle into a coherent picture. 'He was shot? In Spain?'
'My dear, you are behind aren't you? Don't people gossip in Ceylon?' How frightful. Yes, Julian took a wound for his cause. Such passion! Such principles!'
'He was in the war, in Spain?'
'Oh yes, jolly well ran away from home with a gaggle of communists, apparently there's a whole army of Brits and others over there, fighting for ... well, fighting for...'
'Their beliefs!' she cut in. She smiled. 'How romantic.'
'Don't let old George hear you speak like that. He just called Julian a traitor.'
'But imagine believing in something, anything, so ardently that you'd put your very life on the line to protect your ideals. I can't believe I haven't heard anything about this before.' She could conjure a vague sketch of dark curls and olive skin, of an eight-year-old boy with furious eyes and a scowl. But the Reynold's had spent much of the last decade in India and, until recently, had played but a small part in life at Aldeburgh Hall.
'Oh it was all rather hush hush. Charles thought it excruciatingly embarrassing for the family and of course there was Edith to think of and her nerves. I knew Julian at Oxford, until he was sent down of course. They couldn't tolerate his politics.' Jon smiled. 'He was always so frightfully cross.'
'And your mother thinks he's a good match for Diana, why exactly?'
'But darling, he's an Adonis. Of course, you won't have seen him for years. And of course, the Reynold's are worth a fortune...'
Persephone could hear the music begin downstairs, could picture the scene as the string quartet urged couples onto the floor and into the spirit of the party. A string quartet, so fussy and old-fashioned, so typical of her Aunt and Diana; positively Victorian. From her cloth satchel, its fabric now worn and frayed, she took her leather-bound sketch book. Every evening, she would steal a few moments away from Constance to try and record the colours of the day. The lush greens and yellows of the plants, the ochre and ashen spices - their aroma a colour in itself - and the deep cerulean of the pools dotted around the sprawling gardens of their hotels. Her sketchbook was a crayon tapestry for her senses. A visual arousal of memory which Constance had tried so hard to stifle. The sketchbook was her proof; she had experienced something and those experiences were hers and hers alone.
Bunting and cerise streamers littered her view of old faces and new, their gaze upon her; half smiles and whispers. A waltz gambolled from the great hall and with gusto the faces old and new paired off and made their way through the heavy gilt doors towards the music within. A waiter thrust a glass of champagne into her hand, her utter and sincere gratefulness evident in her smile. As her pinched feet found the parquet floor of the hallway she was swept along amidst a river of bodies towards the ballroom, past Jon, anguished and on the telephone, his face creased with tension as he struggled to hear the conversation on the line. Loves young dream run cold once more. Past her Uncle George, her first sight of the greying man with the bushy brow who was more of a parent to her than anyone else in her life. Yet her fury with him; the utter injustice of being sent away. She would forgive but not yet, and especially not when he was engaged with that loathsome beast Charles Reynolds. Charles returned her glare with zest. She knew his crime but not her own. He had hated her even when she was a young child wrapped in the blissful ignorance of infancy. How she longed to pull that blanket around her shoulders once more.
In the ballroom, the string quartet played with stiff formality and back through the decades they travelled, to the days of tea dances and high starched collars, and for some it was a blissful dip into a life they longed to return to but for others, like Persephone, it appeared as abstract as a foreign land. Her cousin Diana was in the middle of the masses platonically entwined with a man four decades her senior. Persephone manage to catch her giggle; her cousin spectacularly missing the point once again. Her aunt would be furious and with this thought Persephone lost hold of her laugh, the sound penetrating the crowd around her and she faced their quizzical looks with an unrepentant stare.
'Amusing joke?' said a voice behind her, and Persephone turned without thinking towards it. A man, a little over thirty perhaps or perhaps a little under it if she was ungenerous with her assumptions. His name with Maximillian Swift (he of course insisted on Max) and he'd just taken on the lease of the stables, a mile to the west as the crow flies.
'Sorry, didn't mean to disturb your thoughts. Isn't this party queer? Sorry, is that rude? It is rude, isn't it?'
She would come to discover that Max's conversation was consistently littered with apologies. And yet, with his lop-sided smile and kiss-curls, he could probably get away with never uttering a contrite word and would still be forgiven.
Persephone smiled. 'It's not rude, but rather accurate, actually.'
'It reminds me of my parent's parties I endured as a boy. I was never so thankful to have been sent away to school as to when I knew it had allowed me to avoid another god-awful evening with my father's parishioners. Wine and cheese and endless tedium. Are you local?'
'Yes, very.' Persephone stuck out her hand. 'Persephone Grey, pleasure to meet you.'
A puce bruise erupted in Max's cheeks. 'Oh god. You're the cousin. God. How frightfully rude of me. You must think I'm awful.'
Persephone felt the familiar chill and she built a wall, brick by brick, between them. But Max, unlike the others, the endless others, didn't turn away, or laugh, or ask her about the past. He reached out and gently placed his hand on her elbow. It was only the most fleeting of touches, and yet it caused the tight knot in her shoulders to loosen.
'I knew Jon, you see, at Oxford. Not well, but well enough. He's been nice enough to give me a tour of your Uncle's estate. I'm new to the area, you see. He told me all about you and your winter travels. He's obviously very fond of you.'
Persephone smiled, haltingly. 'I've heard about you. You've taken up farming, haven't you?'
'I have, just the ticket for me. I'm the new tenant at Amberley Farm, just over the way. It's delightful.'
'Bit of a change from London, I imagine.'
'Oh yes, good grief. But I'm a country boy, through and through. Never could quite stomach the city.'
' I'm the same. And yet, I suppose I'll live there someday. I can't think of what else I'll do.'
'It is rather a rite of passage. I'm glad of the experience, I think, or at least I shall be someday.'
'I wanted to go to Oxford with Jon, but apparently we don't believe in the higher education of women.'
'Don't we? What a shame, I can assure you it's very real. I've seen it for myself. Women, learning and reading books and attending lectures...'
'But not getting degrees.'
'Oh, heavens no, that would be a step too far. Education is one thing but rewarding women for the effort?'
There was a lull as the band took a moments breather. Persephone wondered if they were as bored as everyone else, playing the same tunes to the same people night after night. How frightful they must think we are, she thought. But she didn't speak her thoughts aloud. Max Swift was watching her with a bemused smile. And then the music began.
'A waltz!' Max laughed. 'Would you dare to believe it, another waltz. Miss Grey, I know we risk falling asleep on our feet through sheer boredom, but please would you dance with me?'
And she said yes, even though she usually clung to the shadows at family parties and avoided conversation before retiring to bed at the earliest opportunity. Persephone Grey, the delight of the London gossip columns, in bed by ten. What a scandal.
The ballroom was crowded with a concoction of young and old, as the revellers transversed the generational breach and embraced the formality of the music. There was distant relatives and old school friends of Diana's, and her Uncle and Aunt's crowd, and a few of Jon's folk dotted about. No one from her own circle but as much was to be expected. Her Aunt couldn't abide her friends (the 'middle classes') and Persephone's friends viewed her life in this austere but colossal house with a sort of distant bafflement.
Persephone framed her arms against Max and giggled as he began to twirl them both around the floor.
'I feel so silly,' she said.
'Well, you look marvellous.'
She noticed a few glances in her direction, a whisper behind a hand, a roll of eyes, yet she closed her mind to it. She was at a ball, to which she had been invited, why on earth shouldn't she dance? And she reminded herself once more; she had done nothing wrong. So they danced, they danced, they danced. And the music continued as one piece bled into another. A waltz is a waltz is a waltz when played with such passionless zeal. The pink streamers teased at her hair and tickled her shoulders. Her cousin Diana whizzed past in the arms of another geriatric admirer, which would never do, at least if the purpose of the evening was to find Diana an eligible and wealthy husband, which Persephone supposed it was. And then finally a break, and martinis, and a blessed sit down by the fireplace. Max was still with her.
'Heavens,' she said, and there was a lightness to her which she had not felt in an age. 'I'm utterly out of puff, Mr Swift.' Her feet were a paroxysm of pain.
She hadn't noticed her Aunt approaching and so hadn't seen the look of fury of her face; and had no time to prepare herself or warn Max of what was to come. She wondered if he had met her Aunt or if this would be his first experience of Annette Grey. And what a first impression it would be.
'Mr Swift,' said her Aunt. Her tone was curt and polite, and Persephone knew to be afraid. 'So delighted you could attend. I know how busy you are with your horses.' And here it was. 'I must apologise for my niece's behaviour this evening. I do so hate to see you bothered like this. I hope you can you can excuse her.'
Max looked confused. 'Bothered? I can't think what you mean. I'm not...'
'There's no point,' whispered Persephone, staring at her hands in despair and willing herself invisible so she could escape the utter utter horror of the moment.
'It's a sickness, you see,' continued her Aunt, with evident malice. 'We try to cope, we really do, but sometimes the very burden of having to care for Persephone is simply overwhelming.'
She longed for a chasm of burning amber and crimson flames to erupt beneath the ballroom floor and swallow them whole. She closed her eyes to Max, his cheeks flushed with cherry blotches, and willed a wild beast, wings striking the air, to burst through the stained panes of glass, swoop her from her seat where she squirmed under her Aunt's malevolent gaze and free her from the mortification of the moment. But it was not over yet. Fuelled by cocktails, frustration at her own daughter's refusal or inability to find an appropriate dance partner, and just in need of a smidgeon of fun, Annette was finally enjoying her evening.
'Of course, it's to be expected, with a past like hers,' she said, as if Persephone wasn't there.
'Aunt Annette!' Persephone put her head in her hands. She thought she might cry, but the tears would carve rivers through her flesh. Her mask was tarnished and slipping, her nakedness becoming apparent to all, white flesh and a bare soul.
'Perhaps I ought to leave...' said Max. His good spirit had already departed and was waiting for him at home. Slippers by the fire and his favourite whisky.
'It's my husband I feel sorry for,' Annette rattled blithely on, 'because of course when he looks to Persephone all he can see is a ghost. The sister he longs to forget and gosh, don't we all, after what she put this family through...'
As the last shreds of decorum, hell, decency took flight from the ballroom and fled the wretched ruins of Aldeburgh Hall, Persephone rose from her seat. She wanted to run but her body would not allow her to run. Her movement was stiff and controlled, her fists clenched, her muscles tight and bound to her bones, her face fixed in a grim tremble of disbelief, any pretence of enjoyment washed clean by her Aunt's words. She could hear Max calling her, her Aunt laughing before stopping abruptly, and then a low murmured apology. Perhaps she knew she'd gone too far, but Persephone knew better than to hope for such a thing.
Through the revellers and merrymakers she walked but she couldn't see them, couldn't hear the music behind her or feel the touch of the streamers as they tickled at her bare shoulders. Through the ballroom and the corridor to the mottled French doors and the frozen steps to the garden. The cold pin-pricked her flesh, her breath a fog of white before her face, yet still she carried on, one foot in front of the other in a purposeful march. She stopped at the lake, it's surface a patchwork of rime. She looked to the moon, a beacon emerging from a veil of cloud. The air was crisp but fresh and its icy fingers clawed at her neck and clung to her hair in stiff little droplets. And then she screamed. A powerful and primal wail from her belly to the sky. The ice didn't shatter, the moon didn't hide, and from the quake of her cry the stillness of the evening resumed. Somewhere, hidden but present, an owl hooted its response.
She heard the soft crunch of footsteps before her eyes caught the red glow of the cigarette. The man stepped from the shadows but in the moonlight she could only make out his vague silhouette. But the eyes, dark and piercing, ashen from muted smoulder of the cigarette, caught her gaze and held her for a moment. But she couldn't speak and neither could he, and who would know what to say in any case. The moment became a second and it was a brassy blast of music from the house, the party finally livening up, which finally splintered the pause. Persephone felt the chill in the air like a thousand cuts to her body, and took a step away from the lake and then another before she began to hurry towards the house. The red glow became a tiny flare in the dark, but she did not look back.
She couldn't remember falling asleep but when could she ever. Her body, still clothed in that ridiculous dress, was buried in blankets but still she couldn't escape the cold of the evening before. Her aunt's eyes and their malevolent glow, the blossoming pink in her cheeks as her words hooked both Max and Persephone into a storm of her own creation. Max; Persephone flinched as the pained expression stretched across his tight features flickered into view. Well she would never live it down and she'd never be able to cross the fields past Amberley Farm again, just in case. But the memory, torturous and arduous, did not linger for long; because for the rest of the day the face beyond the red glow of that cigarette would never be far from view.
She shrugged the laden blankets from her body and swung her legs to the floor. Her head throbbed with the effort but she thought little of it. As headaches went, the morning after the night before, she had endured far worse. She stood and slipped the crumpled chiffon from her shoulders and stood before her mirror. Naked, pink flesh dotted with freckles, she wondered how someone so ordinary could be the root of such a fuss. Beneath it all, she was just like any other. The latch clicked and their stood a maid, foiled in her silent attempt to creep in and light the fire. The girl, for that was all she was, looked to Persephone in horror.
'I'm so ... oh gosh, I'm never meant...' she stuttered, but remained rooted to the spot in the open doorway.
Persephone reached out her hand and slipped her robe from the bed post to her shoulders, a laconic artful move. It was hard to feel embarrassed when your whole world was already so steeped in shame. After a nod of the head, the girl shuffled into the room and began to stoke a fire. Persephone wondered if she had ever worked with such speed, or if she normally teased the flames from the coal with such stealth.
'Your name is Mary, isn't it?'
The girl was desperately trying to slip from the room. She froze in the doorway. 'Yes, Miss Grey.' She did not turn back.
'Thank you for lighting the fire,' she said, 'I hope you know you are appreciated around here.'
Mary, patently terrified, scrunched up her nose in confusion before fleeing the scene. Oh, to be able to enjoy such power! The ability to inspire such fear with merely a false reputation was not to be sniffed out, and yet she had no desire to exploit her capability, in fact she was more than a little tired of it.
Breakfast was arranged on a table at the end of the great hall. The staff must have been up half the night tidying the detritus of a party away. Persephone wondered when they managed to sleep. She expected an annoyed glance from the butler, she was rather early after all and doubted he'd been expecting anyone quite so soon. Yet there was Jon, despondent over the coffee. Persephone joined him after helping herself to toast with last year's strawberry jam and hot tea. She never could abide coffee first thing in the morning. The hothouse flowers in the table centre were already beginning to wilt. Like everything else in the house, they were just past their best.
'You're up early,' she said, for it was never too early to state the obvious. 'Which surely means you never made it to bed.'
Jon sighed. The sort of sigh intended to invite further questions. 'I made it to bed but not to sleep. Oh Percy, what a terrible night.'
'It was rather a bore.'
'Not the party,' he snapped. 'Well, yes, I suppose it was a bore.' He lowered his voice to a hiss. 'Sebastian was beastly, Percy, utterly beastly.'
'I didn't even see him.'
'That's because he didn't come.' Jon heaped another spoonful of sugar into his coffee. Persephone wondered how he could bear it. 'He really is the living end.'
Persephone tried to strike a conciliatory tone. 'Perhaps it's for the best, darling, I mean the whole beastly family was there, with their prying eyes and cold Grey hearts. Hardly the best time to entertain ... such a friend, no?' She could see he irritation rising like steam from his ears.
'That's hardly the point, Percy.'
Persephone smothered her bread in the summer's bounty and took a tentative bite. She wished the butler would leave the room, for she was sure she could see the almost imperceptive twitch of his ears every time Jon spoke. She wondered what the staff said about them all, cocooned in the safety of their own world below stairs. She was sure they loathed the entire family.
Jon carried on, oblivious. 'Anyway, I said I'd hotfoot it back to London and call in, straighten all this nonsense out before ...' He sighed, again. 'Before it's too late and I'm made to feel even worse.'
'You're going back to London already?'
'As soon as I've finished here, yes. Why?'
'No reason, it's just ... well...'
'Take me with you.' Persephone took a sip of her still blistering coffee. It seared her throat but it was the house which chocked her; the musty air clawing at her and causing her breath to catch. She was being suffocated by the past.
'But you've only just got back. I'm sure Old George is expecting...'
'I don't care. I just need to be away from this place.'
She counted her blessings and praised the high heavens, for Jon was able to collect the motor and having it waiting at the front of the house before the rest of the family stirred. Persephone threw her small overnight bag into the car and followed suit, her knitted scarf catching on the door handle as she tried to navigate passage into the seat of the tiny vehicle. It was a milder day and although the land was bathed in an icy sheen, the sun submersed them with winter warmth. Persephone looked back to the house as Jon pulled the motor away. She was sure she could see her Aunt in one of the upper windows, watching as they drove away.
They were silent for a while, perhaps both stewing over the events of the night before. Jon and Sebastian had been in engaged in a somewhat dramatic roller-coaster of a relationship for over a year. Consuming, passionate love could transform into tearful hateful rage in the blink of eye. They were together; they were apart, and the telephone calls and secret fretful meetings continued apace whatever the state of play. Persephone had learned not to ask and for the most part she didn't need to, Jon was more than happy to tell.
And yet, despite the overly tortured nature of their liaison, she couldn't help but envy them. To have a connection with another, a special bond, was something which always eluded her. Of course, she was never short of attention and those who longed to chalk up another notch on the bed post with the infamous Persephone Grey. But she didn't want a fleeting moment of togetherness which would be dissected and delighted over at drunken shindigs in Chelsea. She wanted someone to see her, and know her, and want to be with her over anyone else. Persephone was only twenty-three and yet she felt as she had a very large clock ticking above her head at all times.
She was already a burden, her Aunt hardly needed an excuse to remind her of that. Persephone was well away that she was sliding towards spinsterhood and that, for certain, would not be tolerated at Aldeburgh Hall. Yet she had no desire to marry just to escape her circumstances, for what a depressing scenario that would be and anyway, she might end up somewhere even worse. Not for the first time, Persephone cursed the limitations of her sex. How frustrating it was to be a woman, particularly one awaiting a fortune which could only be unlocked when she settled on a man (thus handing over the ready to her husband anyway). She'd say her Grandfather had a sense of humour when he decided to settle her mother's inheritance on Persephone, despite the shame of her birth, but he was only doing what was considered proper in the circumstances. A man could do whatever he wanted to do, a woman could be a wife and a mother, and maybe that wasn't necessarily such a terrible thing (although she'd prefer to have a choice), but she knew she couldn't do it without love.
'You're rather quiet,' said Jon, with a glancing look away from the road ahead.
'As are you, dearest.' Persephone sighed. 'I'm exhausted.' Of life, she thought, but she didn't speak aloud. She thought she might cry.
'We all know why that is, Percy. Darting around the ballroom with Max Swift as if you had not a care in the world!'
'Oh do shush. He's a charming fellow, and handsome to boot, you've nothing to complain about.'
Buildings awash with colourful advertisements, loomed high above the road. Acton to Holland Park to Mayfair. At Jon's bottle-green front door, they bid their farewells. Jon to his telephone and further lovelorn pleading, and Persephone to Cork Street and her dear friend Pip. She skipped between the men hurrying to work, and the nannies shushing their charges, and the wide-eyed tourists, and the traders lugging their laden baskets into the basements of those fine houses. Normally she found London suffocating, the heavy coal-filled air clawing at her throat as the endless crowds bore down on her, but today she felt free, her breath light. It might be freezing but she was endlessly grateful to be away from Aldeburgh Hall; it was colder there.
The gallery was awash with broad brushstrokes of colour, the work of a rather hapless painter in Persephone's opinion; an artist clinging to post-impression as if it was still the new thing, or indeed, an interesting thing. She stood before a portrait of the artist's greyhound and tried to feel something, anything, but the rather desperate stylistic quirks left her cold. A great many paintings had sold though, so maybe it was she who was out of sorts. She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned to greet her closest friend. Pip, dressed head to toe in a forest green velvet suit, gestured for her friend to follow her into the office.
Persephone sat down on a leather sofa, a muddle of silk scarves, catalogues, and books swept casually aside to make space; the detritus of a profession. Pip leant against her untidy desk and folded her arms, an errant strand of blonde hair tucked behind her ear.
Pip often despaired of Persephone and often failed to disguise it.
'Jon telephoned. He said you've run away.'
Persephone rolled her eyes. How typical of Jon. 'I haven't...'
'You've been back, what, a day? Honestly Percy, how many times must we find ourselves here? My girl, times are changing, it's more than time to free yourself from...'
'Are you giving me your modern woman speech again, Pip?'
'A flat in London would give you a healthy dose of independence and also the space you need from your horror of a family.' Pip smiled, satisfied. ''Twas the best thing I ever did.'
'But I'm not you, Pip. And even though they don't want me at Aldeburgh Hall, they also won't stand for me leaving unless it's on the arm of my husband. Apparently it's not decent, although of course it's perfectly acceptable for Jon...'
'Of course it is. He's a man.'
'I also don't have any money, Pip. I practically have to beg for my dress allowance as it is.'
'Get a job, dear.'
Persephone sighed. 'With my name, who would have me?'
Pip frowned. 'True.'
Persephone stretched out her legs. Woollen tights and snags and runs. How she envied Pip's effortless chic. 'It's not that I don't wish to do something with my life, because I do. Something extraordinary, something other; a gateway from this endless tedium.'
Pip laughed. 'I was thinking more a job in a bookshop or the like, but I can't fault your ambition. Dream big, my girl, dream big.'
They lunched at Pruniers, a treat they could little afford but Jon craved oysters and when he set his mind to spoiling himself he could rarely be dissuaded. It caused his father, knee deep in debt and an estate which bled money, endless woe. But Jon was celebrating; another romantic catastrophe averted, his prize still evident in the flush of his cheeks and ruffled disarray of his wavy blond hair. Pip would always appear oblivious to Jon's assignations but of course she noticed; she could trace any hair out of place because she daydreamed, hours and hours wasted and whittled away on such thoughts, of reaching over to him and brushing the hair from his face, her fingers grazing his forehead, his skin cool against hers. At the table, Pip visibly shook herself free from such thoughts; but nobody noticed.
Persephone felt agitated. The white table cloths and napkins, implacable as snow on a winter's day, felt as devoid of life as the barren spinneys and dells of the Aldeburgh estate. She craved colour, ochres and Indian reds in thick brushstrokes, and perhaps a trip to the Grafton Galleries would suffice if she could slip away before her inevitable return to Siberia. The lunch would cause a row at home when Old George spied it on Jon's accounts, yet here she was, accomplice and fellow conspirator. A bun in Lyon's Corner House would have satisfied.
The conversation wheeled and wheedled around the usual avenues. Jon was eager to talk about his morning with Sebastian, the fury and the passion, the inevitable coming together in so many ways. Pip examined her spoon. Persephone tried to elaborate on her disappointment at the paintings on show at Pip's gallery, but Pip wouldn't hear it and Jon wasn't interested. The artist was a genius and pioneer. The error was Persephone's, for being unable or unwilling to see it.
They slurped on the salt and lemon and grit of oysters.
Persephone's ears pricked at snippets of conversation from the next table. They talked the talk of the day, and from table to table the tenor was the same. But not they; no, they spoke not a word at their table of three.
'Isn't it funny how we never mention the war?' she said, tired of closing her eyes when the reality of their days was everywhere.
For every sentence which tailed off, the war was the ending. At every celebration of a birthday, was the unspoken wish to reach another. It was there as they wandered the streets of London and it was there in the moth-balled corridors of Aldeburgh Hall. It hovered between the lips of couples as they shared a dance, because what was the point of a beginning if such a horrible ending lay in wait just around the corner.
Jon and Pip managed to roll their eyes as one.
'We do speak of it Percy,' said Jon, 'We just aren't speaking of it now.'
'Besides,' said Pip, another oyster lost to the abyss, 'it's beastly to think of and beastly to speak of. Best to enjoy what we have, I say, in case it's taken away.'
'But it is going to be taken away, isn't it?' Persephone blindly grasped at her wine, the bitter swill against her throat a shock. 'There's an awful inevitability to it, isn't there? And we are so accepting of it - the possible destruction of our generation...'
'Golly, Percy!' Jon chuckled.
'But isn't it? Have we learnt nothing from the past? If this is going to happen, which given what has happened in Czechoslovakia, it appears it is, then why aren't we speaking up, shouting even, to ensure our voices are heard? We are the ones who will be destroyed by this and yet we do nothing. Our ignorance will be our folly.'
'Persephone Grey, have you become a pacifist?' Pip's tone was gentle.
'Pip, I do believe she has!' Jon sat back in his chair. 'Good grief Percy, my father will have palpitations. Best to keep it to yourself, old girl.' And he tapped his nose, her co-conspirator.
'For heaven's sake, I was merely expressing...'
'Now, now Percy,' Pip touched her hand. 'No need to get over-excited, and certainly no shame in having an opinion. It's hardly a surprise you should feel the way you do about such things, after all it's in your blood, isn't it?'
And to that, Persephone had no response.