It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 13

‘I knew it. Didn’t I say, Sandra? Oh my god, give me sordid details. Speak woman, speak.’ Amy’s laughter was dismissed by Sandra as Daria listened to her two friends, amused by their different reactions. This was the first time she’d spoken to them both together using the speaker phone at Sandra’s and they were talking about Alfie.

‘Amy, stop being so childish. Daria, you are quite vulnerable at the moment. Are you sure you’re ok with it’ Sandra’s sensibilities produced a moment of longing in Daria. She missed her friends. ‘God, you’ve been through so much and in such a short space of time.’

‘Honestly, I’m fine. He’s just an amazing man and “je ne regret riens”. Ha-ha, see how French I’m getting already.’

‘Daria’ Sandra’s tone clearly denoted disapproval, ‘do not indulge Amy. She needs no encouragement whatsoever.’

‘Oh, don’t be so prudish,’ was Amy’s reply, ‘and lighten up a bit, Sandra. The woman’s been through hell. She deserves some fun and distraction.’

‘Except he’s more than a distraction,’ said Daria.

‘Don’t you dare fall in love and never come home.’ Amy sounded quite serious now.

‘Now that’s pretty unlikely, isn’t it?’ said Sandra ‘this is Daria we’re speaking about.’

‘Yes. Speaking about, not to. I’m not sure what that meant Sandra, but will the two of you have your discussion about me later, please?’

‘Sorry, Daria’ the two friends spoke in unison and their laughter untied them across the miles.

Daria had called Sandra after the picnic by the lake to tell them about the last couple of days and what an amazing time she’d had with even more members of her new family. It was sheer luck that Amy happened to be there. She’d already spoken to Anthony and Ben, but couldn’t get hold of Jack. So she’d left him a message, particularly as she knew he had his interview date for a place on an archaeology degree the following week. She knew he’d do well, his passion would shine through, but Daria also knew he’d be nervous.

Obviously she hadn’t told Anthony and Ben about her night with Alfie, even though Ben had intimated that he knew more than she was saying. As she had expected, Anthony had wanted to join her so he could be there during what he insisted must be a stressful time. And, best of all, he also confided that he intended to propose to Lois and wanted to know what she thought. She nearly cried with happiness and excitement, and insisted on being part of the planning for the wedding. From the first time she’d met Lois, she’d instinctively felt they were good for each other and that they’d be happy together. And she promised not to tell his brothers, fully understanding that until he had asked Lois he did not want their inevitable ribbing. They both knew, though, that Jack and Ben would be as delighted as she was.

Daria loved speaking to them all. Not only because she missed them, but because it made her feel normal during a time when her life felt anything but. Not that she had any regrets about her decisions, but because everything seemed as if it had been shaken up then thrown in the air to see what landed.

But what a day she’d had. And how it had all helped wash away the tinges of anxiety she’d felt as she walked to Tilly’s that morning. Daria couldn’t shake off a feeling that she was missing or forgetting something. And, if she was honest with herself, she did feel a bit nervous about meeting so many new people all at once. She tried running through their names to stop the edgy niggle in her head, but couldn’t remember all of Ila’s grandchildren.

Everyone was already there and she’d been made to feel as if she was some sort of prodigal returnee, quickly feeling at ease and at peace with all her new relatives. Although the absence of Alfie’s proficient translating skills made communicating somewhat slower, there were no major stumbling blocks and they’d all made themselves understood one way or another. Everyone had encouraged Daria to practice her French and she had surprised herself with how she managed. She was praised on her accent and had soon realised there was no need to feel self-conscious if she made mistakes.

After a delightful walk, during which everyone seemed to be vying for her company, they turned off the road past Opa’s and through a meadow. Ila’s grandchildren ran on ahead, playing hide and seek in the long grass, squabbling about hiding places and the memories of similar occasions with her own children and Opa gave her a sense of real belonging.

At one point, both Ila and Tilly walked arm in arm with her, with Ila translating. Tilly said something and it seemed to Daria that Ila immediately reprimanded Tilly. She could sense Ila’s disapproval, but Tilly just giggled.

‘Tell me, Ila. I don’t mind what Tilly says.’

‘Hmm, maybe not. But she doesn’t know any boundaries and sometimes some things are just not any of her business.’

‘I know it was to do with Alfie, I heard his name and I really don’t mind. I do love her outrageousness and the way she can be very blunt. In a way, it’s quite refreshing and it makes me laugh.’

‘You indulge her, Daria’ Ila said with amusement, ‘so I am sorry about this but she wanted to know why you hadn’t let him stay the whole night and she couldn’t see the point of him having driven home so early in the morning.’

Daria spluttered then grinned. ‘I thought it may have been something like that. His car was parked outside her house. How she knew when he left, considering it was at dawn, I don’t know. Surely Tilly wasn’t awake? Or can she read minds when she’s asleep, as well?’

Both women laughed, but Tilly immediately made it known that she disapproved because she couldn’t understand.

‘Please tell Tilly that it just sort of happened that way. He’s got a lot of work to do today and we both sort of assumed that it would be best if he got back home sooner rather than later.’ Daria smiled at Tilly as Ila translated. As Daria expected, Tilly nodded her head, brown eyes twinkling. And as Daria did not expect, Tilly pecked her on the cheek and stroked her hair.

‘Tilly knows’ she said, in a sort of broken English and nodding her head, ‘it is good. Ah yes, it is very good for you both.’

*

They’d eaten fruits and cheeses, breads and cakes, and drank red wine and coffee. Daria had splashed about in a lake for the second time in her adult life, thoroughly enjoying soaking, and being soaked by, Ila and her small grandchildren whilst being encouraged by Louvel, Ila’s husband. Daria had not seen Tilly laugh so long or so loudly, as she sat and watched, wrapped in a beautiful shawl. Daria looked at the large family party, sitting amid blankets and picnic hampers and thought that she’d never have guessed she would be spending such a day in France. As the afternoon was drawing to a close, Tilly beckoned to Daria, indicating that she wanted to take a walk with her. Ila started to get up, but Tilly waved her hand at her to tell her there was no need.

Arm in arm, Tilly and Daria sauntered off round the lake and it really didn’t seem to matter to Daria that she could barely understand a word Tilly was saying. She simply loved hearing Tilly’s slightly rasping, deep voice. She found it comforting, intimate. It seemed to increase her feeling of wellbeing, without knowing why. Except that this was how Opa made her feel, especially during potentially difficult times.

Daria didn’t really know how she would have coped with some of the times she’d had with Paul, her ex-husband, particularly the divorce, if it hadn’t been for Opa. And, somehow he always seemed to know when things were tricky for her, sometimes just arriving completely out of the blue at exactly the right time. And even when he’d permanently lived in his little terraced house, he seemed to know when she needed him. Or even when she had silently felt she needed rescuing from the rather hum-drum teenage years she had spent growing up. Suddenly he would arrive and make a difference.

Tilly pointed out wild flowers, telling her their names in French and getting Daria to repeat it. And to Daria’s astonishment, Tilly could also identify a variety of animal tracks, dens and pooh, rummaging through the undergrowth until she found what she was looking for. Then, much to Daria’s delight, Tilly comically mimicked each animals behaviour in order to make herself understood. When they’d returned to the family group, they were greeted with hoots of laughter whilst copying several of Tilly’s seeming dances and everyone asking what had been going on. Daria laughed and loved being part of this noisy, close family. She thought it felt like an extension of her own with her somewhat boisterous sons.

*

It was quite late that evening when Alfie rang. Daria was sitting in the garden with a glass of Ila’s peach cordial, musing over the delightful day she’d had and not yet feeling tired. He asked about her day saying that he’d thought about how they were all getting on several times. She told him about Tilly’s animal imitations and her comment about him not staying the night and leaving very early in the morning.

‘How did she know? Her house was totally dark and I made sure I was quiet. Are you alright with that? I mean, that means everyone knows and we haven’t spoken about anything. I mean, it doesn’t feel as if it’s a secret or anything, but, well, I don’t know. Do you mind? Have you...’

Daria thought he was sounding overly concerned and it made her laugh. ‘No. Honestly. It’s Tilly. That’s the way she is. How could I mind, even if everyone knows. I am not morally affronted, if that’s what you mean. We might have guessed if we’d have thought about it.’

‘Well as long as you weren’t embarrassed or anything. That woman is incorrigible, but you can’t help loving her. I think I envy you your relatives.’

‘Thank you. I think I’d envy me, if you know what you mean. And it was such a lovely day. Totally perfect. I wish you could have been there but, if you don’t mind me saying, perhaps it was quite important that you weren’t. Oh, that didn’t sound as I meant it. I mean...’

Alfie chuckled silently, but feigned being indignant. ‘Put me in my place, why don’t you? At least I know I have some uses, I am yours to beckon or dismiss.’

For one insecure moment, Daria wasn’t sure how serious he was and tried to assure him that it wasn’t like that. That she hadn’t meant it the way she said it. It was not until he could no longer hold back his laughter, that Daria realised he’d been teasing her.

‘It’s ok, I knew exactly what you meant, Daria. And I agree. They’re your new family and it’s important. After everything that’s happened over the last few days, you needed to get to know them and have some fun. Except that I hope the fun began last night.’

‘Are you fishing for compliments, Alfie?’

‘What me? Never.’

‘Well you ought to be. You deserve several if I remember things right.’

‘And now you’re making me blush.’

‘What me? Never’ parodied Daria.

Daria loved the bantering with him, the ease with which she could joke and laugh with him. She told him about Anthony’s forthcoming proposal and realised that he was delighted with the delight she was feeling. He asked about whether or not Anthony had already bought a ring and was there going to be some sort of celebration. Was it going to be a long engagement, a big or an intimate wedding? Church or registry office? And on her fourth ‘I don’t know’, she realised she hadn’t asked Anthony any sort of appropriate questions. They’d just spoken about Lois and how much they thought Rose would be delighted. Daria had also tried to ask, half-jokingly, if it meant that future grandchildren were imminent, but Anthony refused to indulge her.

‘Oh god. Don’t ask me anything else, because I don’t know anything’ she said to Alfie, ‘does that make me a bad mother? That sounds dreadful. I didn’t ask a single thing.’

‘No. It makes you sound like a caring mother. It’s more important to you that Anthony makes the right choice and that Lois is a good woman, rather than bothering about practicalities. I bet it was a lovely conversation you both had.’

Daria also told him that Tilly and Ila had both insisted that he join them the following day, if he had the time. A big lunch was planned at Pippin’s, at the farmhouse they had passed on their way to Aubusson and it was within walking distance from Ayen. Daria had been told that it would probably last all day if tradition had anything to do with it.

‘No. It’s family time. A family weekend. Not that it’s not tempting and I...’

‘Would you like to come or not? You know Tilly. She’s hardly going to have given the invitation if she didn’t mean it. And she did sanction our night of passion.’

They laughed together and Alfie agreed. He’d arrive in the morning and he could afford to spend the time away from his work.

*

Later that night, Daria found she still could not sleep and so returned to the bedroom balcony to sit and look out at a wondrous night sky. In the quiet, she just sat and let her thoughts freely wander. And although the night was peaceful, although the sky was erupting with the brilliance of what looked like millions of stars, Daria felt an unease. She felt slightly agitated but could not focus in on why. She still felt as if she’d missed something. That there was something she had to do and couldn’t for the life of her think what that thing was.

*

That feeling did not leave Daria the following day, despite the lovely time she had. Everything has been perfect. The weather, the company, the huge outside table laden with a myriad of foods and drinks, and the setting. Huge trees brought welcoming breezes and shade as the adults sat around, simply enjoying the day, while the children played and giggled together. Alfie was warmly welcomed and revelled in teasing Tilly as much as she teased him, much to the delight of everyone around.

The subject of Opa and the accusation was not raised which on one hand surprised Daria and on the other relieved her. She was enjoying this respite from the intensity of the previous couple of days and, strangely, it also didn’t appear appropriate. It seemed to Daria that everyone was quite naturally respecting the fact that this weekend was about the present. That it was about everyone discovering new things and delighting in them. That it was not about the past.

But as they were walking home and Daria and Tilly were linking arms and talking about the fun they’d had at the lake, Daria had a sudden thought.

‘Tilly. I have another question. I know we’re together tomorrow and you’ve got more things to say. But something has just occurred to me. Just a quick answer.’

‘Ah, flower angel. Some answers cannot be quick. This, I think, you have learnt. But you have had time to think, time to put pieces together. Even amongst time with this unruly family. So ask me quickly and I will answer you quickly. No more. And you will probably be too busy to think this night, eh Alfie?’

Daria spluttered with laughter as Ila, who was walking just behind them, scolded her mother and Alfie blushed as he translated. Daria was also highly amused that Tilly had just called her family unruly, when she was probably the most boisterous of them all.

‘You are a beacon for outrageous honesty, Tilly. And I love you for it’ laughed Daria, ‘My question? I can’t believe I didn’t even think about it when you first mentioned Opa had received post from Adam’s uncle. What was in the parcel?’

‘In time, I think you would have guessed. When you had found out more about how people live in France. For who else around here, apart from a few in Upper Ayen, own their own house?’

‘You mean Adam’s uncle gave Opa the house?’

‘The parcel contained the deeds. Gene removed the page where it was written from whom. He said he did not need reminding.’

‘But why...’

‘A single question spoken and a single answer quickly done. That is all. I will add one more thing, for you will not think to ask it. It was not the only thing in the parcel. Do not ask, Daria, for even I do not know.’

‘But there was something else in there? You don’t know? Does anybody know?’

‘Ah, Daria. Gene said you will eventually know and then we all will’ and suddenly Tilly laughed so much that they had to stop walking and wait for her. Everyone looked on slightly bewildered and amused, nobody knowing what was happening. Eventually Tilly composed herself.

‘Ah, I am sorry. How my Gene always made me laugh. Daria, remember. Gene had a mischievous side and he loved to play. Is that not your Opa?’

‘Yes, you’re right. God, I can remember times...’ but Daria couldn’t carry on. She was thinking about the ‘something else’.

They arrived at Opa’s house and Tilly insisted that nobody was going to accept Daria’s invitation to go in and have a drink. Tilly kissed Daria goodnight.

‘It is late and there is time enough for everything. So, this is time for you, Daria. Enjoy yourself’ and Tilly started laughing again as they all walked away.

Ila shrugged her shoulders and, hugging Daria, apologised for her mother’s behaviour before following her.

Daria and Alfie were left standing alone, watching the others disappear around the corner with the children laughing, waving and skipping down the road.

‘Just look at them, Alfie. What a beautiful family.’ Daria said.

‘They are. They certainly are. No wonder you fit in so well with them.’

‘Flattery will get you everywhere. I hope you’re not intending to go straight home.’ Daria was surprised at her own frankness. She wasn’t sure that she’d ever propositioned a man before.

‘I didn’t want to impose. Or have you assume that that’s what I expected, but now you’ve mentioned it...’

‘False modesty is not becoming in you, young man and...’ but his kiss silenced her.

*

Later, they sat in the garden under the arbour with a blanket around their shoulders to keep off the chill of the night air. Stars were shrouded by clouds and only the halo of the moon was visible.

‘Are you ok? You’re a bit fidgety or restless or something. Do you want to go for a walk?’ Alfie sounded concerned.

‘No. No, seriously, I’m fine. I don’t know what it is. I hope this doesn’t sound silly, but I feel as if I’ve forgotten about something. And I sort of feel it’s important and I can’t shake it off.’

‘What sort of thing? Have you spoken to everyone in England that you should?’

Yes. No. It’s nothing like that. But it’s making me feel sort of itchy inside. Don’t laugh.’

‘I think you should notice that I’m not laughing. And I do know what you mean. Can I help?’

‘I don’t know. There’s something I need to remember and that’s all I know.’ Daria sighed.

‘Ok. Let’s try to work it out, then. Word association game. It works sometimes. But first, do you think it’s about Opa?’

‘Yes. Definitely. What next?’

‘I say a word to do with Opa and you say what comes into your head.’

‘Sounds simple. Who goes first?’

‘I do. Ok then. Ayen.’

‘House.’

‘Ila’

‘Cross.’

‘Cross? Why?’ Alfie sounded puzzled.

‘She got cross with Tilly today. For being too blunt. Actually, this is making me feel a bit nervous now. Is all this making me neurotic? Where’s the wine, I need another glass.’

‘You are not neurotic and nerves are understandable’ said Alfie as he poured them both a glass. He raised his eyebrows as the speed with which Daria seemed to gulp half of the glass down. ‘Blimey. You needed that.’

‘Yes, I did. Ok, carry on. Whose turn is it?’

‘Mine. Balcony.’

‘Views.’

‘Tilly.’

‘Sister.’

‘Dareau.’

‘Mosley.’

‘Hmm. Interesting association. Henri.’

‘Sorrow.’

‘Garden.’

‘Peach trees. Ila’s peach trees. They’re in the painting. Ha, that’s it. It’s the painting. Something about the painting’ and Daria leapt up and ran into the house.

‘The painting?’ said Alfie, following her as quickly as he could while carrying a bottle and two glasses. ‘What about the painting?’

Once inside, Daria rushed upstairs and was already back in the kitchen by the time Alfie came in.

‘It’s the painting. It’s something to do with the painting. I just know it.’ Daria said breathlessly and excitedly.

As they sat around the table, they both scrutinised Opa’s painting that Daria held. Staring. Trying to see something new.

‘No. I don’t get it’ said Daria, leaning back and taking a sip from her glass, ‘I’ve looked at this for hours, there can’t be anything new to see. I know every square inch of it.’

‘Maybe it’s not the painting. Could it be the chest or the deeds?’

‘Hmm. I don’t think so’ Daria said, slowly and deliberately, ‘but Tilly said something the other day, yesterday. I don’t know when. She said something like why else had he left me the stupid painting? And she’s right. Why? The deeds would have done. I didn’t need this. Unless it’s more than a painting.’

‘I think you’ve stumbled upon something there, Daria. You’re right. Why the painting? Just a joke or something, perhaps? I get the impression he enjoyed a laugh.’

‘Yes, he did. But sort of not just for its own sake, unless he was just laughing and joking, I mean. That doesn’t make sense, does it?’

‘No. But never mind. I’ve made allowances for the influence of alcohol.’

‘Hey Mr. Righteous. Count your own glasses. Influence of alcohol indeed’ Daria said, not very successfully pretending to be affronted. ‘And just for that, I’ll have another glass.’

‘And I will join you’ he said, broadly grinning and showing that he was thoroughly enjoying himself.

‘Opa was a jokey, laughy sort of man. But he liked joining in, if you know what I mean. He had to be in on his jokes and his laughter and this is too remote. He can’t join in on this. Am I making any sense? Have I had too much wine?’

Alfie squeezed her hand. ‘You are not yet totally incoherent, if that’s what you mean’ and he grinned at her.

‘The cheek. And now you sound like Jack or Ben and I thought I was getting away from all that. Oh, I must have been very bad in a previous life to have to live like this,’ and she grinned back at him.

‘Oh thank you. Is this any way to treat your new paramour?’

‘Paramour indeed. You foolish man.’

‘You lovely woman’ he whispered and moments passed as they just stared into each other’s eyes.

Then, Daria slowly turned the painting, tilting it in all directions to see if anything was hidden. Then she turned it over.

‘Ha,’ she said ‘I’ve got it.’

‘What? Where? How?’ said Alfie, not understanding at all.

Daria stood up, went over to a drawer and reached inside for a sharp knife. She smiled at the look of bemusement on Alfie’s face.

‘When Tilly first saw the painting, she turned it over and grinned to herself. I’d almost forgotten that. And do you know something I thought of at home? After I’d first found the painting in Opa’s trunk?’ Daria paused.

‘I haven’t the slightest idea.’

‘I decided to take the back off once I’d got it home that day. But I forgot. And I haven’t remembered that since. I was looking for clues and I still am.’

Daria peered round the outside of the back of the painting, gently feeling her way around to find a starting point. Dreadful as the painting was, she didn’t want to damage it. Or the frame. She eased a corner away, using the knife to gently part the brown backing paper from the edges. Then it all seemed to come away easily.

And there, wedged between the picture and the frame was an envelope. Daria’s hand trembled as she reached for it and as she held it in her hands and turned it over, her heart pounded and her head felt as if it was spinning out of control.

‘Oh my god’ she whispered breathlessly as her eyes filled with tears.

One word on the envelope. Her name. In Opa’s handwriting.

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