'Michelle has a lovely style, engaging, individual characters with great voices who are comic and charming (reminds me of Marian Keyes). I loved this book.' Helen Falconer, Author. (This book was previously titled The Dancer)
Veronica and Gabe met when they were children at a ballet class and by the time they’d reached their teens they knew they’d be dancing together forever. Only Gabe’s mother had other ideas…
Twenty something years later Veronica no longer dances and life hasn't turned out how she thought it would. She’s a divorced woman in her forties. She’s got a needy ex-husband, teenage sons, a sister who fancies herself as a long in the tooth ‘it girl’ and a mother who’s recently moved into a care home. She’s tying herself in knots trying to be everything to everyone.
Veronica also has a secret.
Isabel was a lost soul until she moved to the Isle of Wight and found a place to call home, but there's still a part of her that's missing. She knows she must reach out and find the missing piece if she's to feel whole.
When Veronica receives a letter she never thought she'd get her past collides with her present. The time's come to share her secret with her family, but she's not the only one who's been keeping a secret...
A Reader’s Favorite, Gold Medal award winning novel.
Veronica plunged her fork into the fat wedge of triple layered mud cake and popped it in her mouth. She knew before her taste buds had time to acknowledge what they were being served up that no matter how sweet its taste it would still be bittersweet. Today, March the tenth was Isabel’s birthday. She’d be turning twenty-seven and it was this knowledge that yet another year had ticked by that would turn the chocolate ganache slightly bitter.
She was eating the decadent dessert not because she’d had a craving for cake but because it was tradition. Her tradition. It was a tradition that involved unearthing the shoebox from the shelf in her wardrobe first thing in the morning too. It was tucked in behind the pile of sweaters she’d folded up hoping not to have need of them again until next winter. She’d pushed them aside and slid the box out before carrying it over to her unmade bed. Perching on the edge of the mattress, she’d taken the lid off casting it aside to allow her fingers to touch the precious bits and pieces contained inside. A small photograph, a plastic identity bracelet, paperwork and Isabel’s blanket. She’d sat for an age remembering and wondering, a tear sliding down her cheek.
She’d only moved when Haydn bellowed, ‘Mum! Hurry up. We’ll be late.’ It was an about-turn given it was usually her shouting the sentiment and, brushing the tear away, she’d put the box back from where she’d gotten it. She wouldn’t look at it again for another year. She’d learned a long time ago that some memories were too painful to touch and she had the boys to think of, she couldn’t wallow. It wouldn’t be fair but she was allowed to today, on Bel’s birthday.
Her morning ritual with the memory box and this cake ceremony of sorts had been her way of marking Isabel’s birthday for the last twenty-seven years and she wasn’t about to stop now even if she was supposed to be watching her calorie intake.
An attractive young woman with mid-brown hair who reminded her of her younger self minced into the café shaking off the chill of early spring. Her hair was pulled back in a low ponytail and she was dressed in a high-necked leopard spot blouse with a pencil skirt and black, heeled ankle boots. She stood eyeing the cabinet of food and Veronica wondered what she did for a job. Her confident air and clothes suggested something high-powered and, realising she was staring, she forced herself to look away before she got caught out. She’d be around the same age as Bel and the tug of loss came keenly.
Her birth mother’s name was Veronica Kelly or it had been twenty-seven years ago. She was married now, separated according to her Facebook page, and her name was Veronica Stanley. She was forty-four years old with twin sons who were fourteen. Isabel had worked their age out from the last post on Veronica’s social media feed, two years ago; it was of their twelfth birthdays. Her birth mother had let social media slide after that with only one other entry to say Veronica Stanley was at Sunny Days Caravan Park in Devon. Isabel stared greedily at the screen scrolling through the pictures of Veronica and her boys, Haydn and Hunter. She was sitting at their dining table the laptop open in front of her.
She tried to imagine herself tacked into the middle of their tableau. Where would she slot in? Would they even want her to? Then the familiar churning as to how even thinking those thoughts would make her parents feel revved up. She should be happy with what she had because she was far luckier than some, most even, but still there was a tug, a need to spend time with these people on the screen in front of her.
How would it make Veronica feel to know she was, at that this moment in time, scouring her Facebook posts? She scanned the boys faces and Veronica’s for physical similarities deciding she had the same eyes as her birth mother and, although the boys’ eyes were darker, they were shaped like almonds as were hers. They didn’t share the small bump in their noses she had in common with Veronica though, lucky them, and where she and Veronica had a smattering of freckles and pale skin that burned easily the boys had the sort that would tan to a mahogany in summer. Twins! Didn’t they run down family lines? She couldn’t imagine one baby at the moment let alone two. Not that she didn’t want children because she did, but not just yet.
She touched her finger to the screen in wonder. This lady had given birth to her. It was strange to think of it and that nineties movies her mum had on DVD sprang to mind, Sliding Doors. If different choices had been made, she could have had a completely different life. She’d never thought she’d have siblings but she did and there, frozen in time on the screen in front of her, was the proof. Two beautiful brothers. Were they outgoing or shy? It was hard to tell from photographs although she fancied she could see a cheeky glint in both their eyes. Was Veronica a nice person? The sort of person who’d check in on an elderly neighbour to make sure they were okay or was she self-centred and all about herself and her boys? She felt Rhodri’s breath on her neck as he leaned over her shoulder to see what she was up to.
‘Put yourself out of your misery, Isabel, and write to her.’
‘But I don’t know what to say or what I even want from her.’
‘Tell her about yourself,’ he said, planting his hands on her shoulders. ‘And tell her you’d like the opportunity to meet her. Baby steps. Don’t overthink it.’
Isabel was the queen of overthinking and she’d been doing plenty of it. A part of her was frightened of reaching out only to be rebuffed. There was no guarantee Veronica would be pleased to hear from her. There were no guarantees if they did meet up that they’d like one another. It was all so very uncertain and Isabel didn’t like uncertainty. For all she knew, Veronica might have closed the page permanently on the chapter of her life in which Isabel had been born and not want reminding of it.
‘It just feels—’
‘Disloyal, I know, you’ve said, but it doesn’t change how you feel about your mum and dad. You’ve a right to be curious and for all you know, Veronica might be desperate for you to get in touch.’
Veronica couldn’t access Isabel’s adoption records, contact had to be initiated by her. This was something Isabel had been grateful for growing up, insomuch as she didn’t know how she would have felt if her birth mother had suddenly appeared on the scene. It would have dented the security of growing up Isabel Stark, the daughter of Babs and Gazzer who were a bit mad but whom she loved wholeheartedly. They were solid and could be counted on and that’s what good parents were all about.
It hadn’t been easy asking her parents if she could have her adoption records. She’d seen the hurt flash in her mum’s eyes and understood it was hard for her. She was frightened of losing her daughter, something Isabel had told her emphatically would never happen. She hadn’t done anything initially with the information Babs had presented in a plain manilla folder but she had it and when the time had felt right, she’d begun to try to find Veronica. Now she had, she didn’t know what to do.
‘I’ve bought you a present,’ Rhodri said, moving over to the sideboard and opening the top drawer.
‘What is it?’
‘Close your eyes.’
Isabel did so, feeling a soft breeze as something thumped down on the table in front of her.
‘Okay, open them.’
It was a pen, along with a pretty writing set.
‘Write to her, Isabel,’ Rhodri said before planting a kiss on top of her forehead. ‘You’ve no excuse not to now.’
‘No excuse not to,’ she echoed.
At forty-four and three-quarter years of age, Veronica Stanley had officially become an invisible woman. Oh, she hadn’t donned her cloak, Harry Potter style and vanished as such but she had just been blanked. The Patels’ oldest lad who worked at the family newsagents come the university holidays had looked right through her. He’d flicked back his greasy fringe to ring up a bag of crisps instead of the chocolate bar she was first in the line waiting to buy. The salt and vinegar flavoured Walkers were in the hand of a girl with hair down to her waist, crayoned in eyebrows and sprayed on jeans. Veronica knew all this because she’d unconsciously scanned the teenager’s face. Was Bel like that at that age?
The girl was all of sixteen if she was a day and if Veronica’s nose served her right and it usually did, given her job, she’d drenched herself, like a sheep being dipped, in Vera Wang’s Princess perfume. She shot the girl a look that said queue-jumper and then, eyes flitting from her to him, she tapped her foot while love’s young dream embarked on the youthful version of flirtatious banter.
‘Me and my squad are going to the Minstrel tonight.’ The girl flicked her hair back and nearly took Veronica’s eye out.
‘That club’s supposed to be lit but I’m trying to save my cheddar.’ Greasy fringe flick.
‘Yolo.’ Eyelash bat.
Veronica rolled her eyes; it was like listening to a foreign language and given she was the mother of two teenage sons she should be up with the play. But come on, whatever happened to would you like to go out with me sometime?
‘Yeah, you’re right. Me and my bruv might check it out.’ Eyebrow raise of acknowledgement.
‘Dope.’ Lip-glossed half smile.
She’d been tempted at that point to slam the chocolate bar down on the counter and march out of the shop. The only thing stopping her was she knew she’d regret a rashly made decision come her morning tea break at work. It was her Saturday morning treat. Having said that, what she should be having as a mid-morning snack was carrots and hummus sticks but sadly they were nowhere near as creamy or satisfying as a Galaxy bar. That was another thing about being forty-four and three-quarters, her metabolism had decided to grind to a halt. This was something Abi her younger sister was keen to point out happened to women approaching their mid-forties. In the end it was two things that swayed her decision in the chocolate bar’s favour and saw her stand her ground. The first being chocolate and coffee were a partnership made in heaven and the second being it wouldn’t be fair to breathe garlic hummus breath all over her customers.
The gruesome twosome eyed one another and Veronica cleared her throat excessively. The girl took the hint and with one last hair flick wiggled her bum out of the shop.
It wasn’t only the Patel boy, Veronica mused, the buzzer sounding as she left the shop, Galaxy bar in her hot little hand. It was little things like the way people’s eyes would move past her as she walked down the street. It was as though she wasn’t there. A ghost. Granted, the uniform she wore five days a week and on Saturday mornings wasn’t exactly eye-popping. A navy blouse tucked into black trousers, or navy, or black tights under a knee length skirt. Her footwear, Hush Puppies black, slip-on shoes.
She’d never thought the day would come when comfortable footwear was a priority. The Hush Puppies weren’t uniform and they were a far cry from the dainty ballet slippers she’d once spent her time in, but when you were on your feet all day there was a lot to be said for sensible footwear. Sometimes, when she closed her eyes, she’d conjure that salty smell of passion mingling with hairspray and sweat and she was back there once more behind the curtains, adrenalin beginning to course.
She also liked to imagine what Heidi, her line manager, would do if she broke rank and wore fishnet stockings under her navy skirt, or impossibly high red strappy sandals. Her old pal, Saskia, had been on holiday to Cuba last year and she said that was how the women working at the airport in Havana dressed. Go girls, she’d thought, hearing this and had wound up with that old Eurythmics hit Aretha Franklin had joined in on, Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves, stuck in her head all day.
It rankled being talked down to by Heidi, a girl barely out of school, especially given her long service to Blakeley’s department store. She’d worked on the perfume counter there since the boys had been old enough to attend nursery. She loved her job too, the stories behind the different perfumes learned at the various training schools she’d been sent to over the years caught and fired her imagination. Like dance had once upon a time. It was what made her a good salesperson. It was also was why Heidi wouldn’t give the Saturday shift she resented having to work to young Sophie who did the late-night Thursday for her.
‘You’ve had the training, Veronica, and Saturday is the busiest day of the week in the parfumerie,’ Heidi would say in that snippy little upstart manner of hers. What she wouldn’t say but what hung heavily in the air between them was that Blakeley’s had paid for Veronica to attend the various perfume training schools and as such they intended to get their pound of flesh. Heidi didn’t believe in work-life balance. She was also the sort of person who managed to look busy even when they weren’t doing much of anything. She’d perfected the art and would often be heard as she marched around the shop floor, sighing over how busy she was. Busy my arse, Veronica would think.
At twenty-six the line manager had no dependents and still lived at home with her mum who probably cooked her dinners and did her washing for her. What she wouldn’t give to get off the treadmill and not spend her free time catching up on the one hundred and one things she hadn’t managed to get around to in the week. How lovely it would be to spend some time with her boys that didn’t involve nagging at them to get their lazy backsides into gear and help her.
Veronica aimed her keys at the red Ford Fiesta, shivering in the chilled morning air. The colour made her feel like she was driving a sports car. It made her feel young and carefree. The boys said the car was cringey. It was their new catchphrase and apparently their mother was ‘cringe’ full stop. Come to that everything in the boys’ world where adults were concerned was an embarrassment these days. To be fair though, they’d gotten so tall of late they did look funny sitting in it with their hair grazing the roof. Unlocking it she settled herself in behind the wheel.
She picked up the banana she’d tossed on the passenger seat for breakfast and peeling it, a long-ago incident sprang to mind. She couldn’t help but smile as she took a bite before buckling in. She’d not long left school, and back then was working in Miss Selfridge. It wasn’t her dream job but she had the best wardrobe along with an enormous shop bill. There she’d been on her lunch break, making the most of the glorious day and trying to get a spot of colour on her lily-white legs in the parklike grounds of the old abbey.
She’d peeled the skin back from a banana and had been about to take a bite when she’d spotted the chap, old enough to be her dad had he stuck around and not gone and gotten himself killed, sitting on a nearby bench. He had a newspaper open in front of him, not that he was reading it. He was too busy staring over the top of it, mesmerised by her mouth and the banana. It dawned on her as she looked at the phallic shape she was holding that he wasn’t thinking about how much he liked bananas and so she took a vicious, teeth bared chomp from it. It had been satisfying to see him grimace and cross his legs tightly before burying his nose in his paper.
Veronica turned the ignition and sighed all the way from the tip of her shoes. It was ironic given as a woman barely out of her teens she’d once bemoaned the attention she’d gotten from the opposite sex. ‘All men are perverts,’ she’d declared with passion to Saskia, who’d nodded, equally emphatic in her agreement. Nowadays she could dance around the park bloody naked and nobody would notice. Okay, she was exaggerating but it had been over a year since she’d had a wolf whistle and it didn’t count given it was from a flipping bird. The only bonus being she’d dined out on the story of her having donned her Lycra activewear before striding off on a power walk in an attempt to gee up her metabolism. She’d stood straighter, had even done a hair flick of her own when she’d heard the whistle, glancing around to see who the culprit was, just in case he was cute. You never knew your luck; only she should have known her luck.
It had taken her a moment to pinpoint him, he was swinging on his perch inside his cage which hung in the doorway of number 19. George the cockatoo. She used to stop and say ‘Who’s a pretty boy then,’ making kissy noises at him back in the days when Haydn and Hunter had still wanted her to walk them to school. George was getting payback.
Veronica indicated and pulled out in the gap in the traffic, taking another bite of the fruit. It should stave off any rumblings until morning tea.
A firm believer in stock rotation, both at work and in her own kitchen cupboards, Veronica was placing the order of cellophane wrapped boxes she’d ignored yesterday in an orderly row behind the sole remaining box already on the shelf. A man moved into her peripheral vision and, glad of something to distract her on what was proving to be an unusually slow Saturday morning, she paused her task to give him a sneaky once-over instead. His suit had to be bespoke she concluded eyeing the soft, wool fabric in a jacquard grey check managing to resist the urge to stroke the luxury material. It fitted his lanky, definitely not skinny frame too well not to be.
She waited impatiently for him to look her way and give an indication of requiring assistance but the manner in which he was scanning the men’s fragrance shelf told her he knew what he wanted and was best left to it. The seconds ticked on and fed up with waiting she was about to say ‘hello’, the first rule of sales was to always approach the customer with an open greeting, when he plucked a rectangular box from the shelf. He scanned the text on the back.
It was as she’d thought, he was a man who knew what he wanted and at that moment she fell a teeny bit in love with him as she spied his chosen aftershave. Tom Ford’s latest men’s fragrance, Beau De Jour. It was a scent she could imagine on the pillow next to hers at night and the thought made her shiver. The cologne was pitched as classic, sharp, and maverick for the perfectly groomed gentleman and she’d always had a soft spot for gentlemen.
Her dad had been a gentleman and it might seem old-fashioned but she’d loved the way he always walked on the roadside of her mother and held doors open. Okay, so upping and leaving not just his wife but his children too, for a younger model, hadn’t been very gentlemanlike but nobody deserved the sort of karma he’d gotten. He’d died in a car accident not long after he moved away and Veronica and Abi had been told by their mother, he wouldn’t be coming back so they needed to put him from their minds. She never spoke of him again. It was as if he’d been chalk on a blackboard and she’d wiped him off in one swipe.
She also knew in marrying Jason with his good-looks and easy charm, she’d married a version of her lost father. It was what daughters did. It was why Abi had lurched from relationship to relationship and her mother had refused to trust in another man beyond a few casual dates too. Thinking of Jason sent an instant spike of irritation through her because her ex was sporting a lovely tan at the moment. He’d just spent a week in Ibiza despite him giving her constant earache about what he had to pay in maintenance.
She wouldn’t mind a holiday. What bliss to flop poolside while the boys grazed the all-day buffet and she devoured a good book and, since she was daydreaming, she might as well throw in a handsome Spaniard who couldn’t take his eyes off her. A holiday wasn’t on the cards though, not with a mortgage and said boys, teenage twins, who despite their lean builds put away enough food on a daily basis to feed a small village. Jason was good with the boys when it suited him but the way he carried on about opening his wallet to help out with all the extras having two strapping sons brought, you’d think he’d had nothing to do with the actual conception of them.
She’d married Jason or the Useless Git as she called him when the mood took her in her early twenties and they’d been separated for five years now. He was an electrician who’d plugged another woman’s socket. Neither of them had gotten around to doing the proper divorce bit. It was on her never ending to-do list. Despite the length of time they’d been apart she was still his first port of call for advice and help but then he’d always been needy. She’d love to muster up the courage to tell him to fuck off when he showed up to see if there was a spare plate going for dinner, or if she could sew a button back on his shirt but, truth be told, she was frightened if she did, he would. It wouldn’t be her that would bear the consequences if she said her piece, it would be the boys.
To be fair to her fickle ex, he was a man who needed to feel he was the centre of her attention and it must have been hard to love a woman who wasn’t whole. She’d always held a part of herself back from everyone because that part belonged to Bel. It was a part he knew he’d never be able to fill.
Jason hadn’t coped with taking second place when she’d been trying to cope with two babies, thank God for her mum! But they’d gotten through that and come out the other side or, so she’d thought. They’d plodded along happily enough, no marriage was perfect after all. When her mum got sick though, her time was once more consumed elsewhere. The boys were ten when he announced he was moving to greener pastures.
The anger that still lurked over his leaving her when she’d needed him most smacked her in the face. Twin boys, a mother who’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a sister who flitted in and out of their lives when she saw fit, and he’d gone and left her for a younger woman. As soon as Greta, his girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby he’d been out of there and these days he was a lad about town. A long-in-the-tooth lad she thought, shoving her ex aside because Suit-man as she’d decided to nickname him was about to place his purchase down on the counter. She straightened the row of pretty pink Miss Dior boxes and turned around with a smile.
His hand was thrust in his pocket, searching for his wallet presumably, and she watched as it moved on from his trouser pocket to patting down his jacket. She bit her lip so as not to smile, noticing the coffee stain on his tie. There was no wedding band or telltale white ring mark where one had recently been on his finger either.
‘Ah, there it is.’ He pulled the errant wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket looking at her for the first time with a sheepish, almost shy grin. ‘Sorry about that.’
His hair was salt and pepper brown and in need of a trim and his eyes were deep, the colour of dark-washed denim. His jawline, which once would have been chiselled making him almost too handsome, was showing the softening of middle age and was stubbled which gave him a slightly unkempt air. It was decidedly sexy, Veronica thought, but it was his smile that caught and held her in its embrace making her knees feel trembly.
Her knees hadn’t felt that way, apart from when she’d attempted the power walking, since Jason had first pinned her in his line of sight. His grey eyes had sparkled with the promise of things to come. This man smiled with his whole face in a way that told her he was without guile and she found herself beaming back at him. Crumbs, how fortuitous she’d gone for the Galaxy bar because this was definitely not a hummus breath moment.
‘Lavender, moss and amber, classic aromatic accords; you’ve made a good choice,’ she said taking the Beau De Jour and holding it up as though posing for an advertisement. She cringed as the words popped forth from her mouth.
Suit-man looked taken aback she saw with a quick glance up at him before she slid the aftershave into a Blakeley’s bag.
‘Good to know, thanks.’ He grinned.
Cringe, cringe, cringe as her boys would say.
She completed the sales transaction, all fingers and thumbs, conscious of him watching her. She held his gaze a tad too long and he took the bag from her with a lazy smile and thank you. A feeling of dissatisfaction that the transaction was complete stole over her as she watched him go but a split second later her breath snagged. Instead of striding out of her life he’d walked straight into the MAC lipstick stand causing young Tyrone to startle, his hand fluttering to his chest as Suit-man apologised profusely, casting a flustered, red-faced glance back at her. She liked him all the more for being human.
Pier View House (upstairs flat, above the Leap of Faith Art Gallery)
Isle of Wight
I hope this letter doesn’t come as too much of a shock and if it is a shock then I hope it is a good one. My name’s Isabel Stark and I’m your birth daughter. I decided to reach out to you now because recent experiences made me think about things differently. I suppose they made me look at my adoption from your perspective not just my own and I hope that doesn’t make me sound terribly selfish. The saying goes there’s two sides to every story but where adoption’s concerned, there’s three. I want to tell you my story.
I’m an only child but I don’t think I’ve been spoiled as a result. I never went without anything but there wasn’t lots of money to go round in our house either. I’d have liked a sibling but it wasn’t to be and in the end that was okay because it’s what I know. I had a wonderfully, ordinary childhood with my parents, Barbara and Gary who everyone calls Babs and Gaz. They are salt of the earth people.
I grew up in Southampton and there’s not a lot to tell you about that. I did okay at school but was hardly the brain of Britain. I wasn’t sporty. I was too much of a dreamer for that. I think I could have done better at school if I’d known what I wanted to do with myself once I’d left. Actually, I did know what I wanted to do and that was the problem. I wanted to sing. I spent my time in class and on the sports field or in the gym dreaming about that instead of paying attention to what I was supposed to be doing.
I’ve always loved to sing and I have a good voice but to be professional you need more than that and I never had the confidence to perform in front of others. I only ever sang in the shower or bath and the thought of stepping out onto a stage on my own was terrifying so I did nothing about it and just drifted along instead.
I worked a few dead-end jobs in the ensuing years and was in a relationship I thought was going to be long-term until he cheated on me with my friend. It was humiliating to say the least but at least it spurred me into action. I took off travelling to put some distance between myself and what happened and I wound up having the best time. There’s such an amazing sense of freedom when you’re in a new country with no responsibilities to anyone other than yourself and the opportunity is there to be whomever you want to be.
I spent my time abroad working, exploring, and having fun in Australia and didn’t want to go home without jumping the ditch as the Aussies and Kiwis call visiting one another’s country. It was when I was in New Zealand that something happened. It changed the course of, well, everything.
I was road-tripping in a camper van with my friend when we came across an accident in the middle of nowhere. There was only one car involved with a single occupant, the driver who was an elderly woman. She wasn’t in a good way but was still conscious and I held her hand until she passed away. She told me in those last minutes she’d wanted to go back to the Isle of Wight, that she was wrong and she should never have left. Before the light went out of her eyes she made me promise I’d tell Constance she was sorry. Of course, I had no idea who Constance was or why she was sorry but I did know I had to keep the promise I’d made her.
It’s a long story and it began when I went to the woman’s funeral. Her name was Virginia or Ginny as everyone called her. Her son Teddy and his wife and daughter had flown in for the funeral from Hong Kong where they live. I learned Ginny hailed from Southampton originally but had ties to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Hearing this was a goosebumps moment, it was too coincidental but then my whole journey through to now has been full of coincidences. So much so, I half believe Ginny’s been looking down on me orchestrating everything, trying to put things right. I felt like it was fate that I was the one who held her hand when she died and I couldn’t get her or the promise I’d made out of my head.
I arrived back in Southampton shortly after this and found myself a fish out of water. It’s strange when you’ve been away because you come home expecting things to be the same as they were when you left, only time doesn’t stand still. Oh, Mum, Dad and our corgi, Prince Charles (Mum’s a staunch royalist) were the same, they don’t change thank goodness but my old friends had moved on. I didn’t know where I fit and with nothing keeping me there, I set off on a quest of sorts to the Isle of Wight to find Constance. It sounds completely mad, I know, but it all worked out.
I got a job the day I arrived on the island, behind the bar in a local pub called The Rum Den, here in Ryde where I live. The landlady put me up for the night and then the next day I set off to door knock at various rest homes in the area. I was walking down the Esplanade which if you’ve never been to Ryde, straddles the sea when I spotted a sign advertising a room to let in the window of an art gallery. The gallery was called A Leap of Faith and the owner was a rather good-looking Welshman called Rhodri who lived in the two-bed (the third’s a study) flat above his gallery. He was looking for someone to rent the spare room and split the household bills. I thought the flat with its views out over the water was lovely and moved in straight away, pleased to have found both work and somewhere to live so quickly while I looked for Constance.
I didn’t have to look for long because when I confided in Rhodri what I was up to, he told me he’d bought the building, Pier View House from a woman called Constance Downer. He said she was one of the island’s more colourful characters. A firm believer in the healing powers of herbs, she’d run Constance’s Cure-alls, from what’s now his gallery, selling natural remedies for years. Her shop had been an island institution with some of the locals whispering she was a witch but this only added to her allure and brought the curious customers flocking in.
I went to Sea Vistas the care home she was residing in to find out if she was the woman I was looking for. She was, and by now you’ll understand what I meant about coincidences. Meeting Constance changed my life, and hers too, though neither of us knew it would the first time we met.
Ginny, I found out was Constance’s sister-in-law. Constance lost her brother, Ginny’s husband during the war and poor Ginny suffered a stillbirth not long after. Constance, who was sixteen at the time met and fell in love with a Canadian air force man stationed on the island and he was killed in a bombing in the building where she now lives, Sea Vistas. Back in the war it served as a convalescent home for servicemen. She was devastated and she was also pregnant. It was decided Ginny would adopt Constance’s baby and bring the child up alongside the family in Pier View House. Instead, she disappeared with the baby, a boy, as soon as the papers were signed and the first Constance knew of what had happened to her son was when I came to pass on Ginny’s last words to her.
So many wonderful things have happened since then. Constance’s story was a sad one but it has a happy ending. I helped her reconnect with her son, Teddy. She’s become a big part of my life. It was Constance who opened my eyes to the power of natural healing and it’s down to her encouragement that I’m on my way to qualifying as a Naturopath. She’s also a driving force behind my decision to reach out to you.
I work at The Natural Way and for the first time in my life have a job I love. It’s a herbal health store around the corner from where I live and Delwyn, my friend who owns it, has asked me to go into business with her. I’m pretty excited about that. Delwyn’s partner is a drop-dead gorgeous potter called Nico and when I first met her I thought she had designs on Rhodri. He was taking pottery lessons from Nico at the time and I got it in my head she was offering lessons with benefits. Turned out it wasn’t him she was interested in at all. I hadn’t a clue she was gay! It worked out well for me that she was destined to be with Delwyn because I wound up with my lovely Rhodri and he makes me smile every day.
I’m singing too and not just in the shower. I finally got up on the stage. I joined an acapella group called The Angels of Wight. It’s lots of fun being part of something so much bigger than just myself and it’s given me confidence. Hmm, what else? I can’t cook to save myself but fortunately Rhodri is a whizz in the kitchen. He’s chief cook and I’m the bottle washer. I love classical music too. I always have which is weird given Mum and Dad are rockers of old who love nothing better than cranking up a bit of Springsteen. They fancy themselves Southampton’s answer to Bruce and Patti lip-syncing and playing air guitar along to the Boss’s music. It has to be seen to be believed! Oh, and I have a secret crush. Andréa Bocelli, I adore him and my dream is to one day see him perform at Teatro del Silenzio in Tuscany. I’ll get there one of these days.
So, there you have it, that’s me. I’ve wondered about you a lot over the years, Veronica, and would love to meet you and your sons. I’d like to talk to you about who my father is too. You can write to me at the address on the envelope or if you’d rather ring or email, these are my details:
I hope we can connect and I hope this letter hasn’t brought up unhappy memories.
Isabel put the pen down on the table and flexed her fingers. She’d debated with herself over how to sign off for the longest time but yours faithfully or yours sincerely were too formal and to use the word love didn’t seem right. Love was earned. It grew. It wasn’t automatic.
A briny breeze was drifting in through the open window and she could hear the familiar thrum of early afternoon activity on the street below. Saturday’s were always busy on the island as visitors and locals alike ventured out and about. It had been her turn to work the morning shift at The Natural Way with Delwyn relieving her at midday. She’d come straight home to write the letter knowing she’d not be able to settle at anything else until she’d got everything she wanted to say down on paper.
She folded it and placed it in an envelope leaving it unsealed. A plate with the crumbs of the sandwich she’d slapped together for a quick lunch decorating it sat next to her cup of tea. It would have a skin on it by now she thought. She’d been so absorbed in what she was writing she’d forgotten to drink it. Pushing her chair back she got up and stretched before carrying them over to the sink. She tipped the cold tea down the drain and rinsed the cup and plate.
She’d lost count of how many times she’d written versions of this letter only to screw them up and toss them in the bin. There were only two sheaves of paper left in the set Rhodri had bought her. Was she giving too much of herself away? Did she sound like a crackpot? Maybe she’d be better getting straight to the point of why she was writing and leave it there. The questions butted for attention making her feel anxious and she made up her mind she’d go and see Constance next chance she got and ask her opinion on this latest effort.
She left the dishes to drain and rolling her shoulders tried to ease the knots in them. It didn’t help so she decided to try her luck downstairs because if the gallery was quiet, Rhodri might just give her a shoulder rub. He’d be pleased she’d finally gotten the words down and in an envelope.
She found him sitting behind the counter reading a letter of his own. The gallery, she saw with a quick glance around the shop floor, was quiet. There was a pile of half-opened mail scattered next to him. Bills mostly by the look of it. Rhodri’s gaze flicked up at her, his usually toffee coloured skin, a throwback to his Celtic heritage, pale.
‘Are you okay?’ Isabel asked.
He shook the paper he was holding. ‘It’s from Sally.’