Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘A Villa of Sun and Secrets’ by Jennifer Bohnet.
Villa of Sun and Secrets
Carla was not surprised when Tante Josette didn’t come to the funeral. A nondescript wreath arrived – its white flowers already wilting. The words ‘RIP Amelia. Your loving sister, Josette’ scrawled on a black-edged sympathy card by some unknown hand at the florists.
A congregation of fewer than ten had gathered for the service. Carla knew her mother, Amelia, always a difficult person to get along with, would have been surprised at even that number. The owners of the care home, duty-bound to be there, two neighbours from Amelia’s street, Carla, David and Maddy representing the family. Edward had left the week before for South Africa, impossible for him to return so soon. The wreath he sent his grandmother though, was lovely.
Standing in the crematorium watching her mother’s coffin disappear behind the curtains, Carla felt the first stirrings of sadness, and anger. Sadness for a mother for whom she’d never felt good enough and anger for the fact that Amelia and Tante Josette had been estranged for over forty years. She’d written to Josette when Amelia had gone into the home, mainly to let her know about her twin sister, but a little bit of Carla had hoped Josette would visit and the two sisters would heal their decades’ old rift. It wasn’t to be.
Josette had written back saying she was sorry to hear of Amelia’s decline but she wouldn’t be coming to England to see her for one last time: It seems a pointless exercise, as you say, Amelia’s mind has switched off so she won’t know me. It would be equally pointless if she were still compos mentis because then she wouldn’t want to see me.
An angry Carla had longed to reply, Come for my sake so I can believe that the two of you once cared about each other. That somewhere in the dim and distant past there was a loving, supportive family in the days before we became the prototype model for a modern dysfunctional one. But she’d recognised the truth behind Josette’s words and had sighed before throwing the letter away.
Josette sat in the sunshine at her favourite pavement cafe on the quay in Monaco, the coffee on the table in front of her growing cold, her thoughts lost in the past. She and Amelia had often caught the train from Antibes and spent the day wandering around the principality hoping to see some famous people. Today, though, the memory of a long-ago visit that was to change everything in their lives was on her mind. Today, for the first time in years, she’d caught the train to Monaco to say a final goodbye to her sister in the principality where decades ago she’d been given the news that would start a chain of events that would ultimately change the course of her own life.
It had been Cannes Film Festival time and Amelia and Josette had sat at another pavement cafe, the Cafe de Paris, hoping to spot some celebrities leaving the Hotel de Paris opposite. Or even sauntering up the steps into the casino for a game of roulette.
Josette had just exclaimed, ‘Quick – look over there. I’m sure that’s Sacha Distel,’ and turned towards Amelia to make sure she was looking in the right direction when, to her dismay, she saw Amelia was sitting there with tears running down her cheeks. ‘Que se passe-t-il?’
Shocked, Josette stared at her twin. ‘Is it Robert the sailor?’ she had finally asked. Amelia had told her about meeting a crew member from one of the expensive yachts a few weeks ago. Twenty-three years old, he was spending the summer after his finals working on one of the prestigious boats before returning home and starting his banking career.
Amelia had nodded.
‘Papa will kill you both,’ Josette had said. She was silent for a moment. ‘What does Robert say about it?’
‘Je ne lui ai pas encore dit. You’re the first to know,’ Amelia whispered. ‘I was hoping you’d help me decide what to do.’
‘When d’you expect to see Robert next?’
‘The yacht is due back in port tomorrow afternoon, so probably our usual place in the evening.’
‘You have to tell him. Once you’ve done that and we know his reaction, we can decide what you do.’ Josette had glanced at her sister. ‘Do you love him? Do you want to keep the baby? Do you want him to marry you?’
‘Yes. No. Yes. I don’t know what I want other than I don’t want to be pregnant.’
‘But you are,’ Josette had said, as a sudden thought struck her. ‘You didn’t go to Doctor Lefebvre, did you?’ The old family doctor would have gone straight to their father, she was certain.
Amelia shook her head. ‘Je ne suis pas si bȇte. I went to one in Cannes.’
Josette had caught hold of her sister’s hand. ‘If Robert is the kind of man I think he is, he’ll marry you.’
‘But his life will be in England. I don’t want to leave here and live over there. I won’t know anyone and his family will probably hate me and—’
‘Stop it. Nobody could possibly hate you. And after you’ve married Robert and moved over there, I shall be a regular visitor. Tante Josette. Imagine!’ Josette had looked at her sister and squeezed her hand. ‘Try not to worry. Whatever happens, I’m on your side.’
The next evening, a shocked Robert had immediately said they’d marry when Amelia had told him she was pregnant. Had even braved the wrath of her father, holding her hand tightly, as they broke the news together.
Now, years later, Josette acknowledged Amelia’s news that day had laid the foundation for the fracture that would tear their family apart in less than five years. If Amelia had never met Robert, so many lives would have been lived differently – she, Josette, wouldn’t have been estranged from all the people she loved the most, would have had a stable life instead of always being on the move from one place to another, she’d have married and had a family with…
‘Another coffee, madam?’
Josette dragged her thoughts back to the present. She shook her head. ‘Non, Merci.’ She paid for the undrunk cold coffee before standing up and beginning to make her way up to the old town and the cathedral.
Climbing the steps and strolling through the gardens to the palace, Josette took her time, stopping once or twice to admire the view out over the town and the harbour. Eventually, she passed under the arch, skirted around the caped sculpture of the infamous monk and founder of the Monaco royal family, Francois Grimaldi, that she personally always found terrifying, and onto the palace precinct.
The large open forecourt in front of the palace was, as always, swarming with tourists and Josette crossed it diagonally, aiming for the small street that led down to the cathedral. Before she reached the flight of steps leading up to the entrance, she pulled a veil-type scarf out of her bag and placed it over her head, glancing at her watch as she did so. Perfect timing. The English funeral would be underway.
Inside, the ambience of the cathedral was hushed and reverent. Josette carefully lit a candle and placed it on the stand, whispering to herself, ‘RIP Amelia. Je ne t’oublierai jamais, ma soeur chérie.’ She stood for a moment, eyes closed, mentally saying a final goodbye to the sister who, for some still unknown reason, had cast her out of her life all those years ago. Now death had taken the final, irreversible, step of concealment of what had gone wrong between them all those years ago.
Ever since the news of Amelia’s death had reached her, Josette had waited for the sorrow to engulf her. Now, standing in front of the flickering candles, the tears arrived with the realisation that any possibility of a reconciliation had died with Amelia. Oblivious to the looks of other cathedral visitors, even to the gentle touch of a sympathetic hand on her arm from a stranger, Josette stood waiting for the tears to subside, for her mind to return to its decade old default mode of ‘it’s in the past, let it go’.
It was ten minutes before she felt strong enough to become a part of the shuffling crowd making its way around the cathedral, past the last resting places of Princess Grace and her Prince before making for the exit.
Blinking as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunlight, Josette thought about the future. She was free to do, to say, as she wanted. With Amelia’s death the need to keep her own secret had died. Hadn’t it? She was the last of the family who knew the truth. If she wanted, she could shout it out to the world. There was no one to gainsay her now. But was it worth upsetting another generation of people with the truth?
The Monday after the funeral, Carla collected the ashes from the crematorium before driving to her late mother’s home to begin the task of sorting and clearing the house.
During the three months Amelia had spent in the care home, Carla had gone to the empty house once a week to keep an eye on the place and to water the house plants. David, her husband, had encouraged her to use the time to make a start on clearing and emptying the house.
‘We all know Amelia won’t ever go back there, so it makes sense to begin getting it ready for sale.’
Carla had shaken her head. ‘It might make sense, but, sorry, I can’t do it.’ She’d tried to explain to David that, as illogical as it was, she felt she’d be invading her mother’s privacy, even though she’d have no idea what Carla was doing. It would be easier when Amelia had passed. But, in truth, it was never going to be easy.
Inserting the key into the lock of No. 29 and letting herself in, she fancied that the house was even quieter than it had been over the last few weeks. As if the house knew Amelia was dead and had shut down on itself. Carla shook the thought away.
Placing the urn on the sitting room mantelpiece, Carla went into the kitchen to make herself a coffee. Waiting for the kettle to boil, she opened the back door and went out onto the small patio her father had created years ago. Looking out over the garden, she sighed. Never a keen gardener, Amelia had abandoned the garden the year Robert had died. Since then it had been left to Carla, or David when she could persuade him, to push the old-fashioned cylinder mower around the large patch of grass every couple of weeks in summer. The flower borders over the last ten years had simply merged into a weed-infested green border around the outside. Carla could see she’d need to get the mower out again soon.
A memory flitted through her mind of the garden when it was her dad’s solace from work – and her mother. The Christmas he’d strung fairy lights around the bare branches of the gnarled apple tree in the far corner. Amelia had declared it an unnecessary extravagance and as soon as Christmas Day was over she’d demanded the lights were taken down. They were never seen again.
Back indoors, coffee made, Carla sat at the kitchen table and started to make a list of the things that she needed to organise. Emptying the house and getting it ready for sale would be her first priority. Clothes and books – charity shop; furniture eBay or local second-hand shop? Perhaps joining a local Facebook Buy and Sell group would be the easiest option. No, getting a house clearance firm to come and take the lot would be better.
She’d need to check with Maddy about the white goods – she might like the fridge for her new flat. Once the house was empty and clean, she’d contact some estate agents and get it on the market. The three or four boxes of papers and photos she knew were in a cupboard upstairs she’d put in the car and take home with her. Go through them, deciding what needed to be kept and what could be thrown away, in the comfort of her own home. Then there was the question of where to scatter Amelia’s ashes.
Carla stopped and glanced through the door at the urn on the mantelpiece – looking for all the world as though it had been there forever but where it obviously couldn’t stay. Another memory flashed into her mind. When her dad had died, Carla had asked Amelia if she could be with her when she scattered his ashes, to say a final goodbye.
Amelia had shrugged. ‘Too late. Done the day I got them. I threw them in the river.’
Carla had never hated her mother so much as she did then. Not because of scattering her dad’s remains in the river (the frustrated sailor in him had always loved being down by the river) but because she’d kept silent about what she was doing and denied Carla the chance of a last goodbye. Hadn’t deemed it important enough to ask her to go with her.
But where to scatter Amelia? She wouldn’t appreciate the river. Maybe Maddy would have an idea. There was no rush. It would be sometime yet before everything was finalised.
Her mobile rang. Mavis. The manager of the charity shop where Carla volunteered three mornings a week.
‘Hi, everything all right?’
‘Carla, I’m so sorry to have to ask, and I’ll understand if you can’t help, but I don’t suppose there’s a chance of you being available this afternoon?’ Mavis asked. ‘I’m one short and there’s piles of stuff to sort through out the back of the shop.’
‘Two o’clock okay? I need to talk to you about some of Mum’s stuff too,’ Carla said.
‘Great. See you then. Thanks, lovely,’ Mavis said.
Carla put the phone back in her bag. Looking out of the kitchen window at the grey day, she had a sudden longing to be somewhere else. Living a different life to the one she got up every day to exist through. David had never wanted her to work, insisting her job was the family, which when the twins, Ed and Maddy had been young was true. Her life had revolved around their needs, her social life around fundraisers for the PTA, brownies, scouts, ballet, football. You name the club, she had probably baked cakes for it. But these days that was all gone. With the twins away and David busier and busier with the business, she was spending a lot of time alone.
As she put her bag over her shoulder and picked up her keys ready to leave, Carla came to a decision. Once her mum’s affairs were all settled she was going to change her life and start enjoying it again. Just how she would accomplish that she had yet to decide, but one thing was certain, she would insist she and David spent more time together.
The days were lengthening and the spring bulbs in the front garden were beginning to flower before No. 29 was finally clean and empty. Carla instructed the local estate agents who arrived to measure up and take photographs, ready for the house to go on the market once probate was finalised.
One evening in early March, Carla sat at her own kitchen table with the last box of her mother’s papers and photos to sort. The previous five boxes had been uninspiring, but this one contained more photographs than paperwork and Carla had saved it for last deliberately. Secretly, she was hoping the photographs would give her a silent insight into the largely unknown history of her maternal French family.
Faded black and white photos of mysterious foreign relatives standing staunchly arm in arm on some mountainside; a Provençal mas; wide-eyed children fastened into cavernous whale-bellied prams. Two laughing little girls holding hands in a hayfield – ‘Amelia et Josette. Juin l950’ faintly pencilled on the back. Two older girls paddling on the beach holding their skirts high above their knees – ‘Amelia et Josette, Juillet l962’. Proof that the twins had once been close.
A wedding photo dated September l964 taken on the steps of an imposing Hotel de Ville, showed her mother and father smiling in a stiff, grown-up wedding pose. Josette standing to one side looking happy. What row in later years could possibly have been serious enough to keep them apart for ever more?
Carla jumped as David appeared at her side with a glass of wine.
‘Anything worth keeping amongst this lot? Or do we burn it all?’ he asked, pushing some of the photos apart.
‘I can’t just burn things,’ Carla protested. ‘It’s my family history. I need to go through it, maybe identify who I can, then the box can go in the cupboard in the spare room. Maddy’s keen on genealogy, perhaps she’ll want to do the family tree one day.’
David picked up a sealed envelope marked ‘Josette. Private and Confidential’.
‘Wonder what this is. Shall I open it?’
Carla took the envelope from him and examined it curiously. ‘Tempting as it is, I don’t think we should open it. I’ll put it to one side and pop it in the post to Josette next time I go to the post office. I don’t suppose it contains anything of earth-shattering importance to her though.’
‘You could always go for a visit. Deliver it personally,’ David said. ‘You could do with a break after the last couple of months.’
Carla looked at him. ‘True. But you’d be on your own now both the children are living away.’
‘For god’s sake, Carla, I’m quite capable of looking after myself, you know. You haven’t been around looking after me recently anyway.’
‘I didn’t have the choice. Mum’s house had to be sorted. I’m sorry you feel hard done by, but you were busy too. There weren’t many evenings when you were even home to eat dinner.’ She didn’t add: And you were clearly too busy to even offer to help me.
‘No point in coming home when you weren’t here. Easier to work late and eat at the club before coming home.’
David’s look challenged her to argue, but she couldn’t summon the energy, so she ignored it.
‘Don’t worry about me. A break would do you good,’ David said. ‘At least think about it.’
‘To be honest, I’m not sure about visiting Tante Josette. It’s not as if she’s ever issued an invitation.’ Carla looked at David. ‘Are you busy at work for the next few weeks? We could go together?’
‘Not a chance,’ David said. ‘You don’t have to stay with Josette. Just hand her the envelope and if she doesn’t want to talk, you’ve done your bit. Find a hotel and have a few days’ holiday.’
Carla shook her head. ‘I don’t want to go alone. It’s better to post the envelope. I’ll finish going through everything in here in case there’s anything else marked for her.’
David shrugged. ‘Whatever.’
A day later, the sorted box of photos was ready to go into the cupboard in the spare room. Pushing it onto the bottom shelf, Carla met with resistance and dropped to her knees to see what was blocking the way. An old shoe box had somehow wedged itself across the back, and as Carla tugged it free, the lid moved and she saw the black velvet jeweller’s box.
Christmas was over months ago and it was too early for her birthday. Had David planned to give her a surprise? Something to help ease the pain of the last few months? Carefully, she took the diamond pendant necklace out of the box and held it against her neck. Beautiful. As she did so, a piece of paper fluttered out of the lid onto the floor.
Darling Lisa, all my love, David.
Carla felt a stab of real pain reading the words and tears spilled down her cheeks. After the stress of the last few months, she didn’t know if she could cope with David having another affair. Her fingers trembled as she replaced the necklace in its box. He’d promised so often that each time was the last; that it was Carla he truly loved and begged her forgiveness. She knew that if she confronted him about Lisa he’d do the same this time. As she stood up clutching the velvet box, she mentally straightened her shoulders. This time she wasn’t in a forgiving mood.
Twenty-four hours later, without a word to anyone, Carla fled to France and Tante Josette.
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