It's Not a Donkey Farm

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Chapter 8

Minutes passed or hours passed, Daria neither knew nor cared how long she stood there holding the woman who was Opa’s sister. She felt as if it was the next best thing to actually hugging Opa and she did not want the moment to end. And the tenderness of the moment was deepened by the fact that Tilly did not seem to want to pull away either. Daria felt as if she was melting into the woman, as if they were merging in to one, through a mutual recognition of the absolute love they each had for Opa. And to Daria, that made Tilly an extra-ordinary woman.

Slowly parting, Tilly held Daria’s chin and gently stroked away the tears. Then she slowly ran her hand over Daria’s hair, over her cheeks and shoulders. Daria’s breathing relaxed and she felt mesmerised, comforted, at peace. And she just stared into the deep brown eyes that so reminded her of Opa and which seemed to be taking in every detail. As soon as Tilly began speaking, her voice sounding like soft, dark chocolate, Alfie, who was still standing just behind Daria, translated quietly.

‘I have waited all of your life to see you and now you are finally here. Ah, Daria. You are as beautiful as Gene always said.’

‘Gene?’ interrupted Daria and turned to Alfie for confirmation she had heard correctly.

‘Eugene. Your Opa. My Gene’ continued Tilly. ‘So you decided to come, just as he always said you would. Ah, I am so happy to meet you at last. At last.’

As the women continued to smile at each other, Tilly continued to stroke Daria’s cheek until Daria took her hand and kissed it.

‘And I am so happy, so very happy to meet you’ she said ‘you look so like Opa, even down to your incredibly thick hair’ and Daria smiled as she gently ran her hand over Tilly’s untameable, white hair that was almost tied back in a bun. Daria found herself incredibly at ease being so physically and emotionally close with Tilly. The fact that they were strangers, that they had never met before and indeed, Daria had only found out existed the day before, seemed to increase the need for such intimacy. Rather than subdue it.

‘I just cannot believe I am here, with you, Opa’s sister. Opa had a sister and I am with her. Oh, how my boys would love to meet you. It’s amazing, it’s too unbelievable. I have so many questions. I don’t know where to begin’ said Daria.

Tilly kissed her. ‘Let go of your questions. They are not for now, not yet. Ah, I know what you want to ask. But not yet.’ Tilly turned to Alfie, who was clearly beginning to feel as if he was intruding on a very intimate moment. ‘And you are very welcome, Alfie Norton. It is good that you are here for us both. I am very grateful to you.’

Daria felt almost spellbound by the presence of Tilly. She felt as if Tilly had an aura of authority based on an innate wisdom; that Tilly almost insisted on being heard, on being seen. Yet these characteristics were borne of a gentleness, not by any sense of her own superiority. And physically, at eighty three years old, Tilly’s stature revealed a frailty born of age and a potency that belied her physique.

‘Come. Let us sit. Here, little flower angel. Ah, sit close to me so I can look at you while you speak.’ And Tilly led Daria to a small stool next to the old armchair. Alfie followed Tilly’s gesture for him to sit on the settee.

Tilly looked searchingly into Daria’s eyes. ‘Tell me of your journey here. Since you found the trunk.’

‘The trunk? It never occurred to me that you knew about the trunk. Oh, the flower angel. You called me that. It was on the trunk. How is that’s me? I never knew. And the painting? The deed?’ Daria looked perplexed, unsure.

‘Of course I know about the trunk. How else are you here? How else could I have been expecting you since Gene died?’ and Tilly smiled and looked deep into Daria’s eyes.

‘But how did you know it would happen like that? I mean, I could have found it any time.’

‘Gene would not have allowed that. If he never told you, then you were meant to find the trunk when you did. Ah, remember your Opa, didn’t he always know what he was doing? How to do things? Didn’t you always know to trust him?’

‘Yes. No. I mean, I know. Told me? But, yes, you’re right. And I think he trusted me to follow up on it all. To find it, to do it this way. I just never thought...I don’t know. What if I never found it? So you must know about the painting? Do you know about the painting?’

Daria felt as if a whirlwind of questions were competing to be asked, all at once. She didn’t know if she was making any sense.

‘Ah, I more than know about the painting’ and Tilly chuckled, just like Opa. ‘And you are eager to see how everything fits together. You will, Daria. You will. But it is a long, long story. First, tell me of your journey. I need to know Daria for myself, not just how Gene spoke of you. So I know how to answer you. But would you both like a drink first?’

Daria declined and felt compelled to tell her story, even though she wasn’t quite sure why Tilly didn’t answer her questions. And she desperately wanted to know. But even so, she told of finding the trunk, showing her sons and eventually contacting Mr. Nutter and Alfie. Daria spoke frankly of the worries she’d had, how she couldn’t understand and was initially so hurt about why Opa hadn’t told her of owning a house in France. And pride was clearly detectable in her voice as Daria described the support she’d received from her boys and her friends, and their conversations about her having inherited a ruin or a donkey farm. Then she described her Saturday of revelations and how that led to her buying the van from Jack and announcing her plans to her sons. She even told of Paul and how she had thrown him out and was glad she hadn’t succumbed to his charms just before she left, as she had the summer before. At that point, she glanced at Alfie, not wanting to find an expression of condemnation on his face. But he was clearly just fascinated in the detail she was giving Tilly. And Daria spoke of her night in the park and how incredibly indebted she felt to Alfie for talking her out of going home. Daria didn’t say how grateful she was that Tilly didn’t laugh. Rather, Tilly just sat and looked intently at Daria, studying her face and her gestures throughout. Not interrupting and definitely not judging. When she had finally finished, Tilly reached out and touched Daria’s cheek.

‘Oh, flower angel. Ah, what a journey indeed. You are a stronger woman than you realise. Thank you. Now. Alfie, would you make coffee? It’s all through there, ready for you.’

Left alone, Tilly got up and opened a drawer in an old bureau that stood in the corner of the room. As Daria’s eyes followed her, she jumped up.

‘That’s it. That’s the writing bureau piano thingy in the painting. It’s yours? Is it the one? The same one?’ Daria cursed her lack of French, but saw Tilly laughing and nodding her head.

‘Ah, yes, the painting’ she said in a heavy accented English, patting the bureau.

Tilly fetched an old shoe box out of the bureau and beckoned Daria to sit next to her on the settee. It was full of old photos.

‘I have photos, too. They’re in my bag.’ Daria started to get up but found Tilly’s arm gently on hers, as if to hold her back. Then Tilly started speaking and Daria felt soothed by her melodious, deep voice, even though she could not understand much beyond the odd word. Tilly quickly sorted the photos and made a couple of piles.

‘These are of Gene, of Opa’ translated Alfie as he returned with a tray. Tilly handed a small pile to Daria before she got up and directed Alfie to a small table.

‘I think Tilly’s got the oldest coffee pot in the world’ he said to Daria, immediately translating for Tilly who smiled and nodded her head. Then Tilly disappeared into the kitchen and Daria and Alfie just looked at each other.

‘What an amazing woman’ he said.

‘I know. I feel as if I’ve known her all my life. Already. And she looks straight into your soul, but it’s not weird or anything. I felt as if I wanted her to know everything. Does that sound nuts? I can’t think what I was so nervous about. And thank you for being here.’

‘It’s a bit odd, actually. Not that I mind, but I do feel as if I’m intruding on something.’

‘Oh no’ said Daria ‘you’re invaluable. Truly. To be honest, I almost forget you’re here.’

‘Well, thank you, Daria.’ Alfie feigned indignation.

‘No, no. I didn’t mean it like that. Oh, you’re teasing me again, aren’t you?’ Daria and Alfie smiled at each other. ‘I just meant that even though you’re translating everything we both say, you’re doing it so quickly. It’s amazing. I think I’d thought that I’d say something, you’d translate, then Tilly would say something and you’d then translate. You know, and it would be all bitty. But it’s not like that. It’s as if you’re sort of translating at the same time as we speak. It’s very impressive. And I nearly forget you’re there because it’s not intrusive. Does that make sense?’

Tilly entered with an ornate small wooden box full of biscuits. Alfie translated that they were delicious with coffee and that she had made them yesterday especially for Daria.

‘They must be dunked. It brings the proper flavour out’ said Tilly, dipping her biscuit and encouraging Daria to do the same.

For about the next hour, Daria thought that if it hadn’t been for the steadying presence of Tilly, she would have felt as if she had been thrown into a metaphorical blender. From amusement and delight, to shock and disbelief, Daria’s emotions tumbled and churned through highs and lows. Tilly talked her through the precious photos of Opa, one as a baby, then as a child of two or three years old, and several as an adult. Daria lingered over the one of Opa as a baby, held by his mother, Miette and with Aaron, his father standing behind. She marvelled at the clothes and the formality of the stiff unsmiling poses. Tilly gave names and places, using her hands to show the locations of fields, houses and surrounding roads when describing the photos. Amongst the pictures, Daria saw some of the Opa she had known. He was already forty-five when she was born and she had only ever known him with white hair. There was one photo that she thought was a true delight. Opa was throwing his head back with laughter, his arms outstretched. It almost looked as if he were inviting the viewer to laugh with him and it certainly had that effect on Daria. But there was another photo that chilled her spine and raised the hairs on her arms. Opa was with a small group of grave looking, young men. And each was holding a rifle. Daria turned to Tilly.

‘The Resistance?’ she whispered, frowning, ‘Opa once told me he’d been a member. Was it true, then?’

‘Yes. Here he was only twenty two years old. Ah, so young for so much. Too much. And here. Look at this one. Here he is five years later.’

Tilly handed Daria the two photos and was speechless. At twenty two, he looked full of vitality and confidence. Even though he was wearing a cap, his wild and then black hair was visible. Whereas by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he looked thin and haggard. And his hair was white. The difference shocked her. It was so stark.

‘What happened? Something dreadful must have happened. Was it to do with Dareau, your brother? I know they’d fallen out about something or other. Was it the Resistance? Oh god, what happened?’

Tilly soothed her.

‘Later. That is for later. That part of the story is long and first you need to know what happened before. Gene and me, ah, we spoke many times about how he wanted this to be. It was important for him. All of your questions will be answered. Ah, Ila is here. She is a little early, I think.’

And at that very second, the front door opened and in walked Tilly’s eldest daughter. Daria and Alfie looked at each other in bemused bewilderment. Neither had heard any noise to indicate her arrival.

‘Sorry I’m early, mum. I couldn’t wait any longer’ translated Alfie, but then remained silent as mother and daughter embraced and quickly spoke to each other. Then Ila turned to Daria, who had just watched the encounter open mouthed. The family resemblance between Opa, Tilly and Ila was remarkable. And they all had the mad hair that Daria loved so much.

‘It is wonderful to meet you, Daria. I have been hopping around all day with excitement.’ As the two women kissed and embraced, Daria could imagine her hopping round. She thought Ila must be in her sixties and was clearly a lively, charismatic woman.

‘I hope your journey here was good. Oh, and you must be Mr. Norton. It is so good for all of us that you are here. I used to be quite good at English, but where is the need out here?’ Ila shrugged her shoulders and waved her arms. ‘So even if I could speak it, who would there be to listen and understand? But it’s not that bad either, I have to say.’

Ila beamed at Daria and held her hands. ‘I expect you know how important this was to my uncle Gene, to all of us. Thank you so much for coming. News of his death hit us very hard and we all felt the sorrow of not being able to bury him here.’

‘Oh god, I never thought of that. I didn’t know you existed. You could have been there, you should have. How did you find out?’

Tilly interrupted. ‘We got a letter from his solicitor but we knew Opa would die in England and we had accepted it. As he grew older and couldn’t travel as much, he chose to be with you. We saw him about five months before he passed. He told you he was off to a reunion, remember?’

‘Yes, yes I do. He was away for a couple of weeks. He flew to Lyon. It was really raining when I took him to the airport, I remember. So he came here. Where did he stay?’

‘In his house. Always there. Always independent.’ Tilly grinned.

‘Which bedroom?’ Daria felt it was important to know.

‘Which would he choose? Which did you choose?’ asked Tilly, quietly.

Daria smiled and nodded and loved the idea that about a year before, Opa had slept where she would be sleeping.

‘And his house has been kept so beautifully. I just love the garden, the path, the arbour. Who has done all that?’

‘Ah, my Ila has the green fingers in the family’ said Tilly, ‘she has taken care of that garden for over forty-five years.’

‘And the trees? Are they apple, plum, cherry? The blossom is just amazing. I couldn’t tell what they were in the painting. Have you seen the painting?’ Daria turned back to Ila.

‘Oh that painting. Yes, I know the painting. The trees are cherry, not that you’d know from the painting. Oh, it is so bad’ and Ila laughed, ‘is it as bad as I remember?’

‘Probably. I wanted to see if the kitchen was the one here, I mean there. And I have so many questions, especially as you both know about it.’

Tilly and her daughter looked at each other.

‘We shall all go to look at the painting now. Daria?’ said Tilly.

Daria nodded, not sure that she had said she’d bought it with her. Tilly assured Daria that the evening meal was all organised, so Daria needn’t worry about a thing.

Tilly walked slowly, arm in arm with Daria while Alfie and Ila chatted behind. Tilly continually patted Daria’s hand as she shuffled along and spoke throughout. Again, although Daria could not understand, she felt as if the woman’s words were comforting. As if Tilly were asking her to be strong, by passing on a strength through her words.

Once in Opa’s house, they all automatically went into the kitchen. The trunk was on the kitchen table. Tilly walked over to it and gently ran her hand over the lid.

‘Ah, I think it’s been twenty or maybe thirty years since I’ve seen this.’

‘When did Opa take it to England then?’ said Daria.

‘Ah, it was when Gene decided how he would tell his story to you. He thought of many ways. It was if he wanted to make it a game for you to play. If you chose to play it. A game in which we all had a role. And he wanted you to enjoy it. Have you enjoyed it so far, Daria?’

‘I didn’t. I found it really hard at first. But then I loved the idea that from the minute I found the trunk, it kept Opa close and alive, sort of. But I found it so difficult as well. That he’d kept it from me, that he had such a huge secret. And it took me quite a while to understand what he was doing and why he had done it. But once I understood, it changed everything. Mind you, it’s not been plain sailing and I’ve hated some bits,’ Daria paused and half smiled. ‘But have I enjoyed it? From where I am now, yes. Yes, I have. And maybe I wouldn’t change any of it.’

And somehow it seemed to both women that this was a moment when they needed to hug each other. For Daria, holding Tilly felt as if they were both acknowledging that their roles in Opa’s game were as important as Opa had wanted them to be. That it would be a tie to bind them. And she felt as if Opa was telling her that she could love and trust this woman. So she did.

As they simultaneously and slowly parted, they both just stood, facing each other and holding each other’s hands. Just smiling, until Tilly finally spoke.

‘Alfie, would you put this on the floor, please?’ she said, gesturing to the trunk ‘then Daria will show us the painting.’

As Daria lifted the painting out of the trunk, she noticed that Tilly took a quick look at the back and smiled to herself. Then they all sat around the table, with the painting propped up against a heavy saucepan so they could all see. This time, nobody laughed. Everyone sensed that this would be very important to Daria.

‘You have guessed that this is the kitchen in this picture and, yes, this old bureau is now in my house ’ Tilly ran her hand over the painting. ‘It is the same one. Ah, must be nearly two hundred and fifty years old by now and has been in the family all that time. And the cherry trees in the garden, even though there aren’t as many anymore and some new ones.’

Tilly then ran her hand over the frame. ‘Had you guessed that Opa made this frame? Ah, this took him so long, it was such painstaking work but he just went on and on with it. Learning as he went along.’

‘What? Opa made it? Really? I didn’t know he could do stuff like this. I know he could turn his hand to most things. But this? Wow’ said Daria, reaching out and touching the animal depictions in the corner, the twisting, twirling branches full of leaves. She could feel tears prickling and sighed loudly. ‘Did he make other things?’

Tilly reached out and wiped Daria’s eyes.

‘Yes’ she said ‘a few. I can show you. Ila has a candle stick and I have several pieces. Did you notice my biscuit barrel? He didn’t make many things, but this frame was his finest. Ah, what a talent Gene had. He was a natural. He made it for our mother, but we all decided it should be used for the painting. Once he’d had his idea.’

‘His idea?’ said Daria.

‘Of how to tell you his story. So, some things I will explain now.’

Daria’s heart thumped and she thought she’d cry. But she took a deep breath to compose herself. Alfie leant over and placed his hand on hers.

‘It’s ok. You’ll be ok’ he said soothingly.

Daria tried to smile with thanks, but was feeling quite nervous. In the short pause that followed, Daria was strongly reminded of how she had made an occasion of telling her sons about her trip. Of how she’d felt she needed to surround herself with an order and a structure to announce something so big. Daria knew she’d always been like that. Whenever she’d felt she had important things to say, she always tried to make sure the circumstances were just right. Circumstances she could control. It was like a security blanket. If she had a tight hold on what was going on, nothing would escape. Nothing could slip away and not be noticed, as happens in casual conversations. And now, a similar occasion was being made of Opa’s story being told to her. Had Opa recognised this need in her? Tilly said he’d planned it all in a certain way. And Daria was aware that Opa knew her through and through.

‘Gene fell in love with you the second he saw you after you were born. It was quite by chance that he was with that stupid woman, Pearl, when...’

Ila interrupted. ‘Mother. You have never met Pearl. And maybe Daria gets on well with her.’ Alfie felt a little unsure about interpreting and pulled a questioning face at Daria as he did so.

‘Daria. What do you think of Pearl? As if I didn’t know already’ said Tilly.

That made Daria smile but before she could reply, Tilly carried on.

‘There, you see. Daria’s face said it for me. Now stop interrupting Ila. Daria is not a fool. She told me her story, so I know this’ Tilly turned back to Daria. ‘Ah, it was Gene’s blessing, as he always used to say, that he was nearby when you were born and you captivated him from the start. Which is why he bought that dreadful house...’

‘Mother. You’re doing it again. You have never seen it. How can you say it’s dreadful. And perhaps Daria loves it, or has one like it.’ Ila sounded slightly exasperated at Tilly now.

But Tilly just laughed and carried on. She waved her hand at her daughter, dismissing what she said.

‘So cautious, Ila. Daria understands. Just look around you, do you think Daria prefers that little box in England? But of course Daria loves that house in England, but not for the house itself. It is only because Gene lived there.’

Daria grinned at Alfie, enjoying seeing the relationship with mother and daughter.

‘Daria, do not be afraid of contradicting my mother’ said Ila ‘she won’t take offence and will certainly contradict you if she feels fit. She can be totally outrageous at times. And she knows it.’

‘Ah, I speak as I find. Daria will not be offended by me. Like me, she speaks from the heart. Ah, my little Ila.’ And Tilly smiled at Ila, touching her daughter’s cheek with a delicate feather-like movement. Ila shrugged and raised her eyebrows at Daria.

‘So, Daria. Gene saw you at two days old and was besotted. Ah, I remember when he showed us the photos of you. The love and pride shone from his eyes. You were asleep on a pillow that was so delicately, so beautifully embroidered with wild flowers and he thought you looked like an angel. Which is when he called you his flower angel. And from that moment, he knew that if ever he were to settle, it would be near you. And it was always so very, very important to him that you had a good opinion of him. Remember that my dear Daria. Remember that.’

Tilly held Daria’s hands and nodded. Daria knew it wasn’t the time to ask what she meant. Like all of her questions, she’d find out.

‘So, this painting. Ah, what contradictions. Gene made the frame, such talent. But he also did the picture. And as you can see, although he could carve, he could not draw or even paint’ Tilly started to giggle. ‘What fun we had that day. And believe me, this is the best of the several he did.’

Daria suddenly had a thought. ‘Is it you? In the painting?’

‘Ah, it is family, yes. But not me. It is Ila. Though who would ever know by looking at it? It is so good to see it again. You laughed and laughed when you first saw it. Oh, how we laughed at it as well. Even Gene. He knew how bad it was, which is strange, when you think about how beautifully he understands wood. He always said it was because he could feel the wood, it spoke of its hidden shapes. But he found paper too flat. And here, Ila is nearly 15 years old and that was her favourite cardigan. You remember it, Ila?’

‘But why did he paint it and why was it in the trunk? With the deed?’ Daria felt as if she really needed to know.

‘Because it speaks of the bigger story and it was the first step of a journey you could choose, or not, to make. But that is not for now. Let me begin years earlier than that. How everything came into being.’ Tilly looked deeply into Daria’s eyes and Daria felt as if she were asking her if she was ready. Daria gently nodded.

‘So, first. A very quick and potted family history, so you know the background. There is a lot to say and I will do my best to say it in order. Ah, Daria. I have waited a long time to say this to you and I feel as if I want to burst with it all.’ Tilly’s grin was huge. ’Gene was born to Aaron and Miette, my mother too and as Alfie must have already told you, Aaron died when Gene was little more than a baby. Ah, how can I say that that is a shame, even though it was. For if he had not died, then perhaps I would never have been born. Who knows? But Aaron was a respected man for many miles around. The local hero to some. The voice of the people, they used to say. He was always involved in politics in one way or another and worked so hard. His door was always open to those in need. Aaron fought evictions, never afraid to tackle landowners and landlords on behalf of others. He prevented families from starving or freezing in winter. He brought communities together in times of real hardship. He did so much for so many people. Mother had such a shine in her eyes whenever she spoke about him. And his reputation as a champion of the unfortunate grew for miles around. They named my street after him. Aaron Street, did you notice? But that was after he died. A good man, with a huge, kind heart.

‘But Gene’s father had his leg shot off during the barbarity of the first world war. Ah, such evil was around. It took Aaron months to die because nobody thought him important enough to save. Just an infantryman, just an ordinary man. So long as the generals and the politicians were safe, it was all just numbers to them. But enough of that. What happened, happened.’ Tilly sighed and shook her head before carrying on.

‘Gene was seven when Miette remarried. When my parents married. But our mother did not choose so wisely that time. Ah, but who knew how many choices she had. So difficult for a woman with a child to live alone and not starve. There was such poverty between the wars and having a street named after your dead husband did not put bread on the table. And I do not care who says it, Bonner, that’s my father, was a nasty piece of work. A bully. But his family had a little money and he won my mother over by offering her a safety net. Who could blame her? Ah, but he was so very jealous of a dead man. A man who could earn respect and did not have to buy it. And his jealousy made him a bitter man. And one of the most dreadful, the most heinous things he did was to throw Gene out. Yes, can you imagine that? A little boy, turned out of his home, away from his mother with nowhere to go. Just hours after Miette married Bonner and there was nothing she could do. Oh, Bonner was a nasty man and for what he did, I will never call him father. And I never did, except to his face. He would not have tolerated otherwise and he would have taken it out on my mother as well.’

Tilly grinned and looked severe at the same time, Daria thought. The passion in her voice revealed how strongly she felt and Daria felt herself being swept along with empathic emotions. Then Tilly shook her head.

’Ah, mother told me of how she struggled against him, begging and screaming for him to change his mind, to let Gene stay. But the more she cried, the more he beat her. ‘Everyone always seemed scared of him, nobody questioned him or challenged him without suffering in some way for it. ’

‘Oh my god, that’s horrible. How could he? How did Opa survive?’ Daria could feel a rage and resentment against Bonner rising. And a shocking disbelief of what she was hearing. Alfie laid his hand on hers. She turned to look at him and saw compassion in his face, and lay her free hand on his, whispering ‘thank you’ to him. Then she blushed as she noticed Tilly grinning at them both.

’Ah, my mother was clever. Too clever for Bonner. She’d whispered to Gene to go to her cousin who was a farmer in the next valley and to tell him what had happened. Miette knew he would help and he would know Miette would be in touch as soon as she could. So Gene walked the twelve miles and had to wait to see what would happen next. But can you imagine? A little boy, on his own, whose world had been turned upside down in a morning and had seen his mother beaten and crying. How must he have felt? How afraid he must have been. And for his mother also. Terrible. What a terrible day.

’But somehow, and very quickly, she contacted all those families that Aaron had helped. But, ah, she had to be careful. Bonner would never have tolerated my mother going behind his back. Never. So she would sneak away when he was out or in a drunken stupor so he would not realise. And she set up a network of neighbours and families and friends who kept Gene safe. People who had a spare bed or even a barn where he could sleep and people who could feed and clothe him. She gave them money she stole from Bonner or replaced the food. But Gene could not stop anywhere for long for fear of Bonner discovering.

‘Yet, somehow my mother constantly saw him, even if it was just minutes here and there. And they devised ways of sending messages to each other. Ah, how clever they both became. Leaving notes behind stones in walls or tying knots in a piece of string and hanging it in a certain tree which would mean the time and place to meet. Or a single word from a neighbour, a nod from a friend. Ah, yes. They devised many ways. And there were enough people who hated Bonner or who had loved Aaron to want to help.’

Tilly stopped and asked Ila to get some juice from the fridge. As she did so, she looked questioningly at Daria.

‘I know this is your house Daria but I am sure you don’t mind me asking Ila.’

‘Oh gosh, no. Of course not. You all know this house a lot better than I do. It doesn’t feel mine, not with you here. It feels ours. Except I’m the one staying here.’

‘Ah, Gene was right about your generosity’ said Tilly, then added just as Daria was about to object ‘and he always said that you do it so naturally that you don’t even realise.’

Tilly laughed, nodding her head at Daria which Daria was realising meant that Tilly was acknowledging an unspoken agreement.

Ila brought the drinks and glasses to the table and poured for everybody.

‘Hmm, this is delicious. What is it?’ said Daria.

‘Ila made a peach cordial, from trees in her garden. There was such a big crop last summer we hardly knew what to do with it all. Now Daria. Tell me about you and Alfie. Surely you have known each other longer than a day or two?’

Daria started and pulled her hands away from Alfie, realising neither of them had let go since he comforted her. And she really hoped she wasn’t blushing.

‘Mother’ said Ila, interrupting as she saw both Daria and Alfie looking decidedly embarrassed. ‘Stop being so outrageous. Now, Daria, Alfie, take no notice.’

Tilly laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks, unable to speak and soon everyone was joining in. Daria felt very grateful for the laughter as it meant she didn’t have to answer.

‘Ah, my Ila. Maybe this time you are right. But those two know what I mean. Ila, I have said enough about that, so don’t interrupt me again. Yes, you know you were going to.’

She patted Daria’s cheek and whispered ‘Tilly knows.’ And Daria was comforted again by her touch.

‘Now. Let me carry on.’

As Tilly continued, Daria realised how resourceful Opa and his mother were and she found herself hanging onto every word. She was amazed at how Tilly herself became part of the intrigue. Miette regularly took Tilly with her to see her brother and Tilly related tales of their mischief with tears of joy and sadness in her eyes. Somehow, despite the circumstances, Tilly and Opa had had some lovely times together. Their mother would arrange for them all to picnic by a river, in a hidden bend where they couldn’t be seen. Or she would tell them both stories as they walked through the forest. Occasionally, they would travel to Limoges when Miette could arrange it with a local who may have business there and so could secretly take Opa, while Tilly and her mother would travel independently. And they would sit together in a park or wander the streets before having a meal together. And there were times that Bonner was away which meant that Opa could stay with them.

But that changed after Dareau was born and was just about old enough to understand what was going on. Never hiding the fact they had a brother that he forbade them to see, Bonner apparently used to ridicule Opa for the shame he brought on the family through his evil ways. Bonner had tried to poison the minds of not only Tilly and Dareau, but of the village as well. He told tales of Opa’s apparent lack of control and unruliness, of how Opa would hit and bite his mother, throw and break things. And if experience hadn’t taught Tilly otherwise, she’d have thought Opa was a thief and a cheat who was insolent and wild. But Dareau chose to believe his father.

Tilly was six when Dareau was born and she soon realised the greater value that Bonner placed on a son. He became involved in Dareau’s life much more than he had with Tilly and created a bond based on ridiculing the females of the household and constantly stating the superiority of the males. He belittled both Miette and Tilly, goading his son to join in. Bonner was manipulative and contriving and would mercilessly tease and taunt Dareau if he caught him playing with his sister. So Opa could no longer visit his family if Bonner was absent and it reduced the times Tilly and their mother could see him.

Tilly then explained about how the years that Opa had spent roaming and relatively unchecked, also meant that as he grew older, he would travel further and further. His lack of home made him want to explore and so in the end, he could never settle in one place.

‘Ah, he had so few years having a home and a family around him. Too few. He never knew how to settle, until he could travel no more. That restlessness was in his bones. Ah, but how mother would shine after she’d seen him.’

Suddenly, Tilly laughed. ’And that stupid bully never knew. Oh, how I love that. To the day of his death, he never knew. I would like to have told him on his death bed. I would have liked to tell him right at that moment of passing and seen his face. For all the misery that he caused us all. Even Dareau. Bonner’s ramblings never made Dareau happy. He made Dareau’s life a misery through bitterness. And it meant that Dareau never knew what a joyous person Gene was. By the time they met, Dareau’s head and heart were firmly against him.

‘Ah. And now. I have had enough of talking and I am getting hungry. So, off to Pasquale now, Ila. Food must be ready.’

Daria was almost startled at the abrupt ending and wanted to hear more. She felt as though Tilly had only just begun but, glancing at the clock, was amazed to see how late it was. Hours had passed since she had first knocked at Tilly’s door. Yet it had gone by so quickly.

‘We shall speak more of Gene’s story tomorrow. Ah, it gets hard and I am tired of speaking so much’ said Tilly.

‘Oh Tilly, of course. I understand. And by the way, who is Pasquale?’ said Daria.

‘My eldest son’ said Ila ‘I have three sons, like you I think?’

‘Oh how funny. Yes, I have. Anthony, Ben and Jack. I really need to ring them later. Oh, hang on’ Daria said, ‘I have a couple of photos in the living room.’

Daria went to get the photos she had brought from home and proudly showed off her boys.

‘They have a look of you about them. Especially the eldest. My others are Pippin and Rémi, but you’ll meet them at the weekend, along with Louvel, my husband. He’s been away for a couple of days. Pasquale and his wife, Marie, have made the evening meal. It’s only a few minutes away, so we’ll be back soon.’

Tilly called out to Ila as she was leaving the house ‘Ila, do not forget the champagne’. Then she turned to Daria with a very serious look on her face. Daria’s heart began to thump again.

’Daria. There are a few more things I need to say to you today. That I need you to really understand. So, Gene managed to survive during those dreadful years until Bonner died somehow knowing the love and support of some of his family. And he knew what fun a family could be. Family was so important to him and loving you the way he did, in the way that he could, brought him real joy. Away from everything here. Of course, many around Ayen and beyond had helped him and there is no doubt that Gene learned many skills from those people during that time. But it was hard for us all, mostly for Gene. He knew times of hunger, sadness, hardship, loneliness, so many things, too many things. Yet there is another thing you should think about. Gene grew to blame himself, not Bonner.

‘Ah, Daria. Do not object. Of course a little boy cannot be held responsible. But he knew what Bonner was saying about him and he knew there were those about who either believed Bonner or who were too afraid to disagree. They were the ones who may have seen him but did not tell. But they did not help either. He had to be forever on his guard which is why he travelled around and left for weeks at a time when he was a teenager. But for many years, he was not welcome into the family home. And that marks a soul. All of these things together shamed Gene and he carried that burden throughout his life. He never had any chance to properly belong to this family and so he never really had the chance to tell others of his innocence. Those others who believed the worst. So he gave up trying and decided the best way was to just let people make up their own mind. When he could return home after Bonner died, he never properly stayed and still had to face the scorn of some. Even then. People in small places have long memories. Remember that Daria. Remember. Ah, now let us prepare the table and celebrate as Gene would.’

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