It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 3

Their search of Opa’s house was unfruitful. No new discoveries, no extra clues about the trunk or the document. They had all peered into the mysterious cupboard by the stairs, still hoping to find something else. Ben lifted carpets to see if any wooden floorboards were wonky or loose, hoping for a secret hiding place. They rummaged through his tiny shed that Daria hadn’t emptied yet, full of boxes and tins containing baffling bits of engines and all things mechanical. Paint and grease, jars of nails, hardened brushes and rolls of tape filled shelves. Daria encountered more spiders than she thought ideal and so left it to the boys. Every little space was searched, each cupboard and cardboard box emptied and re-filled. But they found nothing new that would shed any light on the intriguing discoveries.

Much to Daria’s delight, Ben did express an interest in moving in once his work in Italy had finished, but she did wonder if he was partly motivated by not wanting to leave her alone. Although that would be several months away, probably not until well after the New Year, Daria still wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep the house or not. She’d considered moving in herself, but the size of the garden put her off. She’d always needed grass and a growing space, trees and shrubs. Nothing huge, but certainly bigger than the handkerchief size of Opa’s back yard. She considered letting, so maybe Ben could rent from her. He’d insisted on paying. But no idea felt right.

So they cleaned and arranged the furniture that had been left in a homely way, bought coffee and biscuits as well as some bits for the freezer to leave for when someone went round.

That evening, over pizzas that Anthony and Ben had made together, creating the usual mess and noise but producing amid their chaos a very tasty supper, they decided that the best course of action now would be for Daria to make enquiries at the archivists office where she worked. A quiet word with Ivy, her manager, might point Daria in the right direction and she was sure Ivy would respect the confidentiality that Daria needed. Daria didn’t really know why she felt she needed some secrecy about it all, but she had decided to tell Sandra and Amy. She’d invite them both round for supper one day in the week. And maybe they’d have some ideas about what to do next as well, even though the boys protested and said they’d thought of everything.

‘Enough. I can’t talk about this anymore’ said Daria ‘let’s talk about something else. We’ve done nothing else all day and I need to clear my head. So, Ben how’s the weather in Italy, can you still dig when it gets cold? Jack, when do rehearsals start? Anthony, tell me more about your new girlfriend?’

But before Anthony could object to the way his news was announced, cat calls of ″oh, Tony’s got a new girlfriend’ and ‘have you snogged her yet?’ prohibited Daria making any objections about childish behaviour. Bantering and teasing were inevitably prioritised over any sensible discussion about futures and so Daria just sat and smiled, watching them play out their roles that hadn’t really changed over the years. This behaviour had always amused her and she had learnt how to sit and wait. They slowly fell silent, noticing her lack of involvement and her wry grin.

‘Sorry, mum’ they mumbled one after the other. Then Jack gave Anthony a hearty slap on the back. ‘Good for you. What’s she like and how long has this been going on, eh?’ he said.’She started at school in September, Lois that is, moved from Leicester. Bit of a promotion apparently from a ridiculously huge comp where everyone’s having nervous breakdowns. She teaches the Social Sciences, mainly ‘A’ level. And she’s gorgeous.′ ‘Have you met her yet, mum? Why didn’t you tell us?’ said Ben.

‘Well, I can’t think why Anthony asked me not to say anything to you two just yet. How unreasonable of him. Anyone would think that he thought you two underwent some sort of spontaneous regression as soon as girlfriends are ever mentioned. Unbelievable of you, Anthony’ said Daria ‘and no, I haven’t met her. Yet.’

‘At least it means that you’ll stop going all hound-dog eyed on us every time Liz’s name is mentioned. She was just bland, so I hope this one’s sparky, at least’ said Jack.

‘Liz was not bland and I got over her ages ago’ said Anthony ‘anyway, Lois is completely different. And she has a child.’

‘What? Did you know that mum?’ said Ben, showing as much shock as Jack.

‘Yes, I did. And I think it’s lovely. A little girl, Rose. I’m looking forward to meeting her too. I didn’t actually mean to say anything, Anthony. Sorry. It just slipped out, my head was whirling.’

‘It’s ok. They were going to find out sooner rather than later, anyway.’

‘Well, knock me down. You are a dark horse, Tony. And I take it that you two must be serious if you’ve already met the kid’ said Ben.

‘I’ll say’ said Jack ‘well good for you. It’s about time you settled with a woman. Kid too, eh? Brilliant’ said Jack.

‘I take it she’s not married or anything?’ said Ben.

Daria noticed the look on Ben’s face. ‘Don’t rise to that, Anthony. And stop it, Ben.’

‘What? Me?’ said Ben, feigning indignation ‘you cut me to the quick, mother.’

‘I’m not going to have a sordid affair now, Ben, am I? She’s a single parent, no husband or anything on the horizon. Not that it’s any of your business’ said Anthony.

‘Now how wrong can a brother be, eh’ said Ben ‘of course it’s our business, bro. We’re nosy, caring, call it whatever you want. We have a right to know.’

‘A right?’ said Anthony, beginning to get irate, but Daria intervened again.

‘Stop. You are all idiots as I have always said. Ben and Jack, you two particularly so. But don’t get on any high horse, Anthony. You are hardly any better. Can we start having sensible conversations about things, please. You all exhaust me. Be nice.’

Although Daria enjoyed the ridiculous relationships the boys had with each other, she knew a deep affection lay between them all. But right then, it felt all too hectic. Her head was still spinning round over the discoveries, she constantly mulled over different ideas about what it all meant. It felt that it had all been in her head constantly since she found everything and although she loved it all and was glad about it all really, there were times that she felt she needed distracting from it. Daria also thought that the mystery was also effecting her ability to decide what to do about Opa’s house, even though she knew there was no rush.

‘I’m serious about renting Opa’s, mum’ said Ben ‘this dig comes to an end next March, no more funding. But I have been thinking about getting qualified. Doing Archaeology seriously. I’ve loved being involved and it’s made me feel as if I want more.’

‘Uni? You? ’ said Jack ‘What? Never.’

Daria ignored him.

‘Where would you study? It would be too hard to commute too far, if you want to live at Opa’s whilst your studying’ she said.

‘I’m ahead of you there. Already considered it. I know where does a great degree and it’s only a stone’s throw away. I can apply anytime from here on in. Honestly, I am serious about this.’

‘But I thought you wanted to go to Egypt next. A degree is a big commitment, you know. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a great idea and you know how much I’d love to have you around more.’

Daria was still concerned about whether he’d thought it all out properly. It would be dreadful for him if he dropped out. He’d take it as a personal failure and that was when he got restless, big time. The ending of a relationship, not getting a certain job, not having saved enough money for one thing or another. They all triggered itchy feet and he’d be up and off. But lately, there’d been a sort of growing inner stability, a constancy about him and Daria did not want to see that jeopardised.

‘I get the chance to go on digs and learn about analysing what we find. It means I’ll understand about loads of different artefacts. Honestly, it sounds brilliant. I don’t get the chance to be as involved as I want now. And I know I can do it. On this dig in Italy, they won’t let you touch any of their equipment, do any of the follow up stuff. I suppose I understand their point of view, but it’s really frustrating. I could do underwater archaeology, specialise in pre-history, which I’d love to do. Osteo-archaeology, landscape archaeology, experimental archaeology, there’s loads of good stuff. Real stuff. That’s what I need now.’

Daria heard him. She heard that earnest tone that meant he had seriously thought about it.

‘And would you still be thinking this way if Opa was still alive?’

‘I’ve been thinking about it for ages, mum, since before he died actually. I’d already spoken to their admissions woman and I looked at the application form online a couple of months ago. So living at Opa’s would be ideal.’

‘You have worked it out, haven’t you?’ said Anthony. He’d felt somewhat sceptical at Ben’s announcement to begin with, but realised that the fact that Ben had already spoken to the university about it made a difference.

‘Yep. And if mum decides to sell or rent Opa’s place to someone else, I shall see if I can get into halls of residence. Don’t worry, mum, I won’t be moving back again’ and Ben grinned at his mother ‘don’t want to cramp your style.’

‘I don’t know if I have a style to cramp really’ said Daria smiling ‘you could move back. Any of you could. Anytime. But I know moving back in with your mother is far from cool. And that’s ok, I’m happy to be here for emergencies.’

‘And for Christmas’ said Jack ‘never forget Christmas.’

‘How could I? And I suppose you’re all going to insist on still having your stockings over the fireplace again this year?’

‘Absolutely. Wouldn’t be Christmas otherwise’ said Anthony ‘and I was thinking. I know it’s a break from tradition, but could Lois and Rose come for Christmas dinner? Obviously, we’ll all meet before then. But if it feels right after that? What do you think? It’s sort of up to everyone. ’

‘Oh yes, I think that sounds lovely. In fact if we all get on and it doesn’t feel too soon, why not all stay here Christmas Eve? There’s room. And it will be nice to have a little child about. Instead of just big ones.’

‘Thanks. Ok. We can think about that. Let’s see how it goes. I don’t want to scare them both away’ said Anthony, turning to glare at his two brothers.

‘As if. And anyway, one look at your face in the morning would scare anyone away’ said Jack, laughing.

‘Yeah. And if she can cope with that, she can cope with anything’ said Ben. Both thought the other hilarious and took no notice of Anthony’s disapproving look.

Daria ignored them.

‘The invite stands. Let’s play it by ear. And I guarantee these two will behave. Or Santa can easily take away what she has bought. Presents are for good children.’

Ben and Jack looked at each other, each out-doing the others hurt and shocked looks.

‘Us?’

‘Never’

‘We always get the blame’

‘And it’s never us.’

But their objections fell on deaf ears as Daria and Anthony continued chatting about Lois and Rose, arranging to meet for a snacky sort of meal at Daria’s the following Thursday after Daria had finished work.

‘So if everyone’s ok with that? Sometimes breaks with tradition are good. Let’s see how Thursday goes.’

‘Thanks, mum. I really appreciate that’ said Anthony.

Daria sensed this woman meant a lot to Anthony, even after such a relatively short time. And he’d never want to commit to a woman with a child unless he was serious. She felt pleased for him, wanted to encourage the relationship, nurture and support it. Anthony had really had his heart broken by Liz, though it was unkind of the others to say he had a hound dog look. She felt eager to meet Lois. Anyone who could move to a new place, whilst bringing up a child on their own, must certainly have some get up and go, some sort of drive.

‘Anyhow, how are rehearsals going? What part did you get, again?’ said Ben to Jack, realising there was no extra mileage to be gained by teasing Anthony any longer.

‘Oh thanks for taking a real interest, Ben. It’s only the best role I’ve ever been given. I’m Biff, the eldest son in...’

‘The Three Bears from The Beano. Oh no, that was Biffo and he was the dad. I think’ and Ben laughed alone at his own joke.

‘...Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. It’s a really meaty part. He’s full of pent up tension and contradictions. Should be good.’

‘Is there a definite date for the performance yet?’ asked Daria.

‘Easter. And I hope you’ll all be there.’

‘Of course we will be’ said Daria.

‘Good for you, Jack’ said Anthony ’always knew you had it in you. It’ll be fame and fortune before you know it. Followed by drugs and rock’n’roll and it’ll be back down again for you.′

‘Oh, thanks for that vote of confidence. You won’t be invited to my opening night at The National then.’

Daria felt she needed to intervene, she couldn’t deal with more juvenile antics. ‘Right. As you can’t be sensible for a minute, Jack, go and wash up and tidy up the kitchen with Anthony. I want to talk to Ben.’

‘But I cooked...’ said Anthony, frowning.

‘Go’ said Daria and they left the room, each muttering about injustices done.

‘Tell me about your ideas about university, Ben. Have you really thought this through?’

So Ben talked Daria through his new ambitions and how he could apply for student loans, but he might be able to get a sponsor too. Apparently one of the site directors in Italy was encouraging Ben as he’d spotted real potential and the right sort of enquiring mind. He was looking into it and it would make the degree cheaper for Ben but he would have to commit to working for them for three years when he was qualified. Ben said he didn’t mind that, but he’d wait and see what they offered first.

‘And I’d pay rent to live at Opa’s, I’d have to wherever I lived. There are flats I could look at. I really don’t want to do a student house share with a load of 18 year olds off their faces cos it’s the first time they’ve been away from home.’

‘You’ve really thought the details out, then. Ok. I will think about it and as there’s no mortgage or anything, if I think it’s ok then you can live there rent free for as long as you are a student. The bills would be your responsibility, including council tax but maybe you can get a rebate as you’re studying. Look into that. Would you want to get someone in the spare room?’ said Daria.

‘Not necessarily, I’d rather just see how it goes. But I will pay rent, I’d have to anywhere else. That was lovely of you though. Really kind, mum. Save up the money for when you’re in your dotage. Jack can come to stay sometimes, when he’s around. Just let me know when you’re ready to decide. And no pressure. Sell if that’s what you want.’

‘Dotage, indeed’ said Daria and laughed ‘silly boy.’

*

Daria quickly arranged to talk with her manager at work and was delighted at how productive it was. There was never any question that Ivy, the manager of the City Archivists office, wouldn’t respect any confidences. But Daria needed that reassurance. Ivy had known who to call straightaway. Daria realised that that shouldn’t have been surprising really. Ivy had worked with Archivists of many descriptions over the years. Daria left clutching a piece of paper with the name and number of a Palaeographer who specialised in European languages and transcribing old handwriting. Daria had no idea what a Palaeographer was, but thought it must be someone who read old documents.

‘And, Ivy said she would be ringing him to say he should expect a call. She said he’d love it, no doubt. Apparently it’s right up his street. That was all so easy, I can’t think what I was so baffled about.’ Daria explained to Anthony when he called round on Monday evening.

‘Sounds brilliant but how much will it cost, then?’

‘I’m not sure yet, I’ll have to wait and see. And I can’t think of any other way.’

‘When are you going to call? Is he local or will you have to post it to him?’

‘I’ll have to post it but I’ll ring him in the morning. Ivy reminded me to press him on a date to do it and to call him regularly. He certainly sounds a bit eccentric. And he’s called Mr. Nutter. I mustn’t laugh when I call him.’

‘Seems like an appropriate name’ Anthony chuckled ‘but that’s great. Another step closer to finding out. Oh, are we still on for mid-week with Lois and Rose? They’re looking forward to it. Rose asked if me and Lois got married, would that mean that you’d be her grandma? Might be a bit soon to be thinking about going there, just yet.’

Daria laughed. ‘She obviously likes having you around then. Good for her. And of course it’s still on. I’m looking forward to it. Are you sure they like spicy food though? I was thinking about doing a few different tapas, not all spicy, just in case. And I’ll get some nice breads in to go with it. With ice-cream for pudding. That ok?’

‘Perfect. And thanks. I’m a bit nervous, actually. It’s important to me that you get on.’

‘Don’t worry about what hasn’t happened yet. Isn’t that what Opa always used to say? It’ll be fine. And we’ve got you in common, so that’s a good start.’

‘So when are Sandra and Amy coming round?’ said Anthony.

‘Tomorrow. They know I’ve got something to show them and it’s from Opa’s. I can’t wait to see their faces and I want to know what they think.’

‘What if it ends up with there being a house in France? And that it still belongs to him. Belonged, I mean. But what then? Will you go over?’

‘I honestly haven’t got the slightest idea what I’ll do. I can’t think that far ahead, my mind just goes blank when I try to. We can’t even read the addresses properly anyway. But how could I go? When? With whom? No. It’s probably been sold years ago anyway. That would be easiest as well. What would I do with a house in France? No. But the one shame would be that I won’t be able to find out more about the painting. There’s always Aunt Pearl, I haven’t told her about it all yet. Don’t know if I ever will. Or maybe. Perhaps she could throw some light on it. My head just whirls with it all. I’ll wait and see what Mr. Nutter says.’

Daria sighed and Anthony put his arm round her shoulder.

‘I know. It must be hard’ he whispered.

‘But do you see how my head just goes round and round with it all? It drives me nuts sometimes.’

‘Well it’s bound to, mum. There are huge implications. But we don’t even have to think about that. One step at a time. Give this bloke a call, talk to Sandra and Amy. And then we’ll take it from there.’

*

Daria’s heart had been thumping so loudly with nerves when she rang Mr. Nutter, she was sure it was making her voice wobble. But in fact, Mr. Nutter said he found the whole idea of transcribing the document quite exciting and put her at her ease. He assured Daria that he liked a mystery and a challenge, and this was both. He asked Daria to send him a copy, not the original, and two copies would be preferable so he could make notes on one. It was all arranged so smoothly that Daria felt quite thrilled about actually finding out. Mr. Nutter would take an initial look and then ring her Saturday morning to let her know how long it might take to complete.

*

‘You’re so right, Daria’ said Sandra ‘there’s always a thing going on about Opa. My god, this is astounding.’

The three women sat on the floor in Daria’s front room, artefacts spread out in front of them, having just finished dinner. They had all shared the responsibility of the meal, Daria had made a pasta bake and Sandra supplied garlic bread and salads. Amy had made dessert. They all contributed wine and Sandra and Amy had ordered taxis to go home in later.

‘This picture is really shit. It’s definitely not been done by a child either. It’s been done by somebody who can draw slightly better than a blind monkey sitting on a roller coaster. And what on earth is it doing with the Notaire thing?’ said Amy.

‘Do you think the house that the woman’s in, is the house mentioned in the deed?’ asked Sandra.

‘God, I hadn’t thought about that. Why not? The chest is in the painting, so why can’t the painting be of the inside of the house?’ said Daria, wondering why that hadn’t occurred to her.

‘And perhaps that woman is still alive and she’s got kids and grand kids’ said Amy ‘oh my god, maybe you’re all related somehow. She could be Opa’s secret love, a paramour and they had a flock of children together. He always said he was in France, but didn’t meet much resistance there’ said Amy ‘so what’s next?’

Initially, Amy had almost been shocked into silence by Daria’s revelations. A phenomena virtually unknown as Amy’s natural vivacity meant she had something to say about practically everything. Daria loved that about her friend and frequently envied her quickness of thought. Amy was open as well as considered, both qualities that Daria admired.

‘Talk about a flight of fancy, Amy. Apart from the fact that the woman in the painting is to young, my god, you’ll have relatives raining down on Daria from far flung corners of France’ said Sandra. But they laughed together, Daria’s friends sensing an underlying tension in Daria.

‘Oh my god, no more Aunt Pearls please. I couldn’t cope with more family like the Lewis’s’ said Daria, wiping tears of laughter away with her sleeve.

‘Seriously though, Daria. How are you with all of this? It’s a bit weird, but it’s quite exciting’ said Sandra.

‘It’s bogging me down a bit actually. I can’t get it out of my head, but I don’t know why I’m making such a big deal of it either. This is fun, exciting. I know that but it makes me feel, well, I don’t know what really. I just wish I wasn’t thinking about it all the time but, as I told the boys, it’s keeping Opa with me and I love that. Oh, I don’t know.’

‘I don’t mean to make light of what you’re going through’ said Amy, impulsively hugging her friend.

‘I know. In fact it helps really. I’ve got to keep this in perspective a bit. Stop worrying about it.’

‘What is it exactly that worries you, though?’ said Sandra.

‘I’m not sure. Maybe in case it’s real. A real house in France. What on earth would I do? Or maybe there isn’t a house in France and so would all this fall flat and I don’t want it to.’

‘If there is, sell it’ said Amy ‘there are websites that could do it for you. And all from the comfort of your own armchair. Or sofa, in this case.’

‘I don’t know if I could. Not without seeing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I’m sort of excited and nervous. Mad, really.’

‘Perfectly understandable. A real mystery’ said Sandra. Daria always sort of felt that she was somewhere in the middle of the two women. Sandra was Amy’s opposite in many ways. A total pragmatist, said it how she saw it without Amy’s flourishes. Daria thought Sandra a brave woman, a woman with a commanding presence and she had always found herself using Sandra as a sort of role model if she anticipated a tricky situation. Daria liked strong women, admiring qualities she felt she lacked.

‘More red, anyone?’ said Daria ‘and Amy, that tiramisu was heaven. I wish I wasn’t so full, I’d love more.’

‘Oh yes please. Oh, this is a puzzle, a real puzzle. It’s fascinating, though’ said Sandra, picking up the deed, ‘I love the feel of this old paper, it’s sort of waxy and soft.’

‘I think that’s why I think it’s a genuine deed. But another thought has just occurred to me. What if it’s a fake? What if this is another of Opa’s jokes, not that his antics could always be called a joke or were always funny. I remember when I was about thirteen, we were all supposed to be going to Aunt Pearl’s for Christmas dinner. God knows who thought that would be a good idea. Me, my mum and dad, and he was supposed to be picking us up in his new car. Some big American Mustang or something that he’d just got and was showing off about. Never turned up, never phoned, nothing. You can imagine the conversation round the turkey that year. Turned out, he’d gone off to Portugal to see some donkeys that were for sale. Donkeys in Portugal, for god’s sake.’

‘Hmm, not a terribly amusing consequence for you, I can see that’ said Sandra.

‘Did he buy the donkeys?’ asked Amy.

‘Yes and apparently he took them to a donkey farm in France. Or so he told me about two months later when he finally reappeared. Do you even get donkey farms?’ said Daria ‘but it’s France again. When I think about it, he has spent a lot of time there.’

‘Amazing. But why was he buying donkeys? Maybe you’ve inherited a donkey farm. What’s the French for donkey and maybe we could find the word here somewhere’ said Amy, scouring the document, ′ but oh my god, imagine having a house in France. Wow. I wonder if it’s hot there? We three could spend the summer there together. Can you imagine what fun we’ve have?′

‘And how will you leave two children who would have just finished their GCSEs? Let alone James. And how could we get so much time off work?’ said Sandra.

‘Ok, how about a couple of weeks, then?’ said Amy ‘oh, the cheap wine, the brioche and baguettes, the street markets full of cheese and olives. Can’t you just smell it?’

‘Oh it would be good. But this Notaire’s thing is so old. Who knows if it’s still Opa’s. I can’t think that far ahead. It feels as if there’s too much in between’ said Daria. The other two women noticed that Daria was beginning to look worn out with it.

‘Have you thought about trying to ring a Notaire in France? They’re bound to speak English or have someone in the offices who does. Is there a central Notaire’s department? In Paris, perhaps?’ said Sandra.

‘Brilliant idea’ said Amy.

‘Except I haven’t the faintest idea about Notaires. And I don’t know how to find out. I could look online I suppose, but I’ll wait for Mr. Nutty.’

‘Mr. Nutter, fool’ said Amy and the women fell about laughing.

The rest of the evening was spent fantasising about long, hot sunny months in France and laughing about the antics of Opa.

*

Apart from the meal with Anthony, Lois and Rose, the rest of the week dragged by for Daria and she found herself getting more and more apprehensive and excited. She’d told her sons, Sandra and Amy that she would ring them as soon as she heard anything about the deed. She wished that she could phone them all together, rather than saying the same thing five times. A home conference call, how ideal would that be, she thought.

She was just washing up on Friday evening and was looking forward to a glass of wine and watching an old black and white DVD, when the phone rang.

‘Mrs. Cooke? Rather Ms Cooke? This is Reginald Nutter here.’

Daria was silent. She couldn’t think of anything to say. Questions flashed rapidly through her head: why are you ringing today? What news could you have so quickly? What are you going to say? Why aren’t you ringing in the morning when I’d be ready to hear?

‘Hello? Ms. Cooke? Are you there?’

‘Yes. Sorry. I was just a bit shocked to hear from you now. Sorry. How can I help? They have arrived haven’t they? The copies?’

‘Oh yes, oh yes. That’s why I’m calling. I thought you’d like to know that the copies of the deed have arrived. Very prompt and good quality copies too. Sometimes people send me all sorts and expect me to perform miracles. But now. I thought you’d also like to know that I do have some preliminary findings. The writing is quite hard to decipher in parts, you were certainly right about that. I can certainly understand why you were finding it more than just a little difficult. And, of course, it’s written in official jargon which makes it even more difficult if you don’t know the language. For example...’

‘Mr. Nutter. Sorry to interrupt and I don’t want to sound rude. But what preliminary findings?’

‘Yes, yes of course. Of course you want to know. Yes. Well, after my initial glances, I could confirm the address and so I rang a colleague in Aubusson, it’s quite near Limoges. France. Well, he’s over there on sabbatical, you know, but he’s talking about staying. Beautiful offices, I was there about, oh must be about twenty five years ago now as it happens and ...’

‘Mr. Nutter?’

‘Yes, yes. I’m doing it again, aren’t I? The point about my colleague is that he was able to verify the authenticity of the deed and confirm my initial thoughts that indeed, Mr. Fevrolet is, or rather was, the current owner of a house and so by default as sole benefactor, you are. I thought you’d want to hear such exciting news straight away. How marvellous.’

‘Oh my god. What? Honestly? Where is it? After all this time?’ Daria felt her legs go leaden.

‘Yes. Certainly. The house was never sold and so the deed remains valid. Even though there is a page missing. Which is quite odd actually. Not that it makes any difference to the deeds authenticity. Well, as I was saying, the property is in Ayen, the Limousin region. I have the address if you would like it. It might be nice if you looked it up on line. Well, the area, I mean. Nice and warm, I was there twenty five years ago, you know...’

But Daria wasn’t listening anymore. She wasn’t sure what she was feeling. ‘A house in France, I’ve got a house in France’ was the only thought racing round her head.

‘Ms. Cooke, are you there? Have you got a pen and paper?’

‘Yes. No. Sorry, what did you say?’

‘Then you can write down the address. As I’ve just said, I should complete within the week, workloads just about right at the moment, not too bogged down. And, well, this is a nice one, I have to say. Ms. Cooke, are you there?’

‘No. I mean yes. I’ll go and get a pen. Oh, hang on, can I just ask, is it a donkey farm?’ and Daria felt a nervous giggle rising in her.

‘Donkey farm? No, no I don’t think so. Are you expecting there to be a donkey farm?’ Mr. Nutter sounded incredibly puzzled.

‘No. No not really. It’s an old and long story, never mind. I’ll just get a pen.’

And Daria left the phone, filled with disbelief, excitement, nervousness. She felt as if she was feeling everything and nothing at the same time.

Before going back to the phone, she took a deep breath and firmly told herself to concentrate, to focus. And not to cry, which is what she felt like doing. And to get Mr. Nutter to focus. The address. That would do for now.

After the call, Daria just sat. And looked at the paper she held in her slightly shaking hands. It was real. A real house in real France. But what now? And why hadn’t Opa told her? And why wasn’t he with her, right now, to tell her what on earth she should do next. It was then that she burst into tears.

*

Daria didn’t sleep much that Friday night. After the call from Mr. Nutter and once she felt calmer, she’d eventually got out the trunk and the painting. She was fascinated by Sandra’s comment about the painting being of the house, the inside of the house. Were the sink and the piano-bureau thing still there? No, she thought, that’s being a bit romantic about it. Almost seventy years have passed. But what’s happened to it, after all this time. If it’s been empty then it must be a ruin by now. Oh my god, I’ve inherited a ruin. Her thoughts ran wild and she didn’t know how to stop. She felt restless and paralysed throughout the night.

Over coffee at what Daria thought was far too early in the morning, she wondered who to ring first. She couldn’t do it straight after Mr. Nutter’s call. She’d felt she just needed to cry and then sit and think. And then she couldn’t decide who to call first. So she didn’t ring anyone. Anthony would rush over and she’d needed to be alone. Sandra and Amy would certainly have been prepared to drop everything and she didn’t feel she had the energy to say no. But today, she needed company. Glancing at the clock for the third time, she decided six thirty in the morning was still too early to call anyone.

She took out the document once more and held the piece of paper with the address on that she’d got from Mr. Nutter over it, scanning the paper to see if she could find similar words in all the elaborate lettering.

‘Yes. Got it’ she said aloud and wished she’d got a photocopy for herself so she could circle it. And that thought spurred Daria into action and she quickly got washed and dressed. She’d decided to walk to the newsagents, only about half a mile away. She knew there was a photocopier there and that would fill in some time until she could ring Anthony. Then she’d research the town online.

*

It was drizzling when she went out and still quite dark. She pulled her scarf up to her chin against the cold and damp and she buried her gloved hands deep into her pocket. Her footsteps echoed round the empty streets, letting her feel alone with her thoughts. Amid that mixture of emotions she felt she’d been experiencing for weeks, months, one uncomfortable question kept returning. Why had Opa never told her? It seemed too big a thing not to ever mention. At least if he’d have said something, she’d know what to expect now, even if it was a donkey farm or a ruin.

And whenever that question ricocheted into her head past the defences and distractions she’d created, it made her sad. She didn’t want to think about why Opa had never said anything. Daria knew he’d told her things he’d never told anybody else. His five months in prison in Holland for trying to smuggle antique jewellery. The time he’d been working on a rig just off the Scottish coast and he arrived laden with extravagant gifts declaring he’d had a win in Vegas. She knew that she was the only one who knew the truth. And the thought that she didn’t know the whole truth hurt. She remembered that as she grew up, she’d become more and more sceptical about his wild tales but she’d always known the truth about serious stuff. And surely the house in France was serious stuff.

Back home, she sat and circled the address on the photocopy and looked for other place names. Feeling it was still hopeless to try herself, she glanced at the clock again and seeing it wasn’t yet eight, fetched her laptop to find a map of the area. It must have been about an hour later when the phone ringing startled her out of a fascinating journey online.

‘Mum.’ It was Anthony ‘I just wanted to say that if you want me to come round this morning so I can be there when Mr. Nutter rings, just say so. I’m feeling all nervous and excited about it. I know you said...’

‘He rang last night’ Daria interrupted.

‘What? What for? What did he say? Does he know if there’s a house?’

‘Yes, he knows and yes, there is. There is a house. I’ve been reading up about the town, well I think it’s a village really...’

‘You know where it is, then? Mum, this is incredible.’

‘I know. I couldn’t sleep a wink last night thinking about it all.’

‘Why didn’t you call?’

‘I couldn’t. I think I just needed to be on my own, to absorb it all. I was just about to ring you. I’ve been waiting since about six.’

‘Can I come round? Now?’

‘Yes. I’ll put some coffee on. Have you had breakfast?’

‘Yes, but I’d love coffee. See you in half an hour.’ Daria smiled at the excitement in his voice and although she would have preferred to call everyone before people offered to come round, she thought she’d never be able to keep Anthony away.

By the time Anthony arrived, Daria had rang her friends and had briefly spoken to Jack and Ben. She explained it all four times, although her calls to Jack and Ben were considerably shorter as Jack was getting ready to go to a rehearsal and Ben’s phone signal kept breaking up. Much to her relief, she felt as though they all listened when she said she didn’t want anyone else round. Even Ben offered to fly home if he was needed. She wanted a quieter time to browse online, to be less frenetic, to talk to just one person which would keep it on track. Anthony was ideal.

And she wanted some time to talk to him about Lois and Rose, who had come for tapas a couple of evenings before. She smiled as she thought about what a lovely time they had all had. About how Rose had been so sweet, obviously wanting to be on her best behaviour. And about how impressed she was with Lois, tall, dark and startlingly handsome. Not a conventionally beautiful woman, but a handsome one. Daria liked her straightforwardness and her sense of humour. And Daria had noticed how very much in love with her son she was. Daria liked that.

*

Although Daria felt eager to explore the websites she’d found to look through with Anthony, show him the online photos she’d discovered of the area, she wasn’t sure if Anthony wanted to talk about Lois first. They hadn’t really had time to chat about it much, so Daria thought she’d just wait and see.

Anthony arrived with smiles and flowers.

‘For you. Because you’re finding all this a bit weird and because you were so lovely to Lois and Rose. Lois really appreciated that and she’s suggested you come round to my flat and she’ll cook. She’s a good cook, you know.’

Daria could read the slight undertone of anxiety in Anthony’s voice that indicated he cared about her opinion of this woman. Daria grinned at him, saying she was impressed with Lois and found her easy going and intelligent. Daria thought Lois seemed a kind soul and said that she’d love to have dinner with the three of them. That was all the reassurance Anthony needed and he immediately asked her to retell everything that Mr. Nutter had said. Daria laughed when she mentioned the donkey farm and the mystification in Mr. Nutter’s voice.

Looking at the document once more, Anthony helped her to identify a couple of other place names, including the Notaires office which was in Aubusson and then they looked at tourist information sites about the region. Daria was amazed at the natural beauty: landscapes of wooded hills and valleys; lakes with beaches and numerous rivers; chateaux and nature reserves.

‘What on earth was Opa doing, living in a place like this?’ asked Anthony ‘I thought he was a real townie at heart. You know, city lights, excitement and all that.’

‘Well, I don’t know about that. He knew a lot about nature, names of trees and plants. He could always identify every bush in a hedgerow, I remember that. And we don’t know that he lived there. But why else would he own a house?’

‘Yes, he was a bit of a naturalist, I suppose. And he always knew where to get the best conkers. But I also remember him calling Aunt Pearl a backward bumpkin because she’d once lived in a village. And I’ll never forget the look on her face.’ Anthony began laughing.

‘I’d forgotten that. Fancy you remembering, that was years ago. And he said she wouldn’t know good architecture from a compost heap. Pearl was so angry with him’ Daria had always loved Opa’s willingness to challenge Pearl when he thought she was being uninformed and opinionated. The rest of the family thought her too daunting to confront. ‘I think they were arguing about Tate Modern.’

The next couple of hours was spent reading and note taking from a variety of online sites about the area where Opa’s house was. Daria still referred to both of the properties as “Opa’s”. She didn’t think that that would ever change about his little Victorian terrace. And she couldn’t feel any ownership about the house in France. She wished she could see a photo. Of how it was when he bought it and of how it was now.

‘But what if it’s a ruin? What if it’s going to cost thousands to do it up? What on earth would I do then?’ Daria felt herself overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable problems.

‘And what are you always saying to us? No point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. Opa used to say that to all of us. And surely Mr. Nutter could find out something like that. Especially as he’s got that friend who works nearby. Did you ask him?’

‘No, I never thought. I might ring him. He wouldn’t mind, would he?’

’No, ‘course not. You said a few times how excited he was. Ring him now.’

‘Now?’

‘Why not? If he’s not in, leave a message. Ring him now.’

‘I couldn’t. Not just like that.’

‘Yes, you can. Why not?’

‘I couldn’t. Not straightaway.’

‘If it’s a ruin, it’s bound to be documented in his friend’s office. He won’t mind.’

‘He might. I’ll wait until he’s done it.’

‘No, do it now. Or I’ll ring him. Where’s the number?’

‘No. If that’s what we’re going to do, then I ought to do it really. Right. Ok. Yes. Yes, it’s a good idea. I’ll do it now. Before I think about it anymore.’

As Daria left the room to go to the phone, she wondered why she made a big deal about calling Mr. Nutter. As soon as Anthony had suggested it, she’d felt her heart race with anxiety. By the time she was dialling the number, she was reprimanding herself for being such a wimp.

‘And then he said that his friend would go over and take some photos of the house. And the street, the village. He’ll email them directly to me. Can you believe it? That was such a good idea you had, Anthony.’

‘It’s fantastic. You’ll have to send them to me straight away. To all of us.’

‘Of course. Oh, I feel a lot better now. Let’s go into town for coffee and cake. Can we meet up with Lois and Rose? Ask them to join us?’

‘I’ll give her a ring and find out. We hadn’t made any firm arrangements because I didn’t know how today was going to pan out.’

‘Oh, it’ll be lovely. Then let’s do some Christmas shopping. I know it’s a bit early, but it might be nice.’

‘It’s only six weeks away, you know. And that’s a lovely idea. I hope they can make it.’

Daria’s buoyancy was infectious that afternoon. Cake and shopping became several hours of laughter, discovery and enjoying each other’s company. Daria was delighted when Rose asked to hold her hand as they were about to cross a road. A house in France and an extension to her family. ‘Life’s certainly somewhat unexpected, at times’ Daria thought, later that evening ′ and I quite like it.′

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