Victoria got out of the car, slammed the door behind her, and stared at the house in irritation. She really could have done without this.
Starting up the garden path, her thoughts still stormy, she started to search her bag for the keys. This was typical of old Great-Aunt Clarissa. She didn't want to know the family until something went wrong, and then there would be an urgent phone call with the expectation that someone would rush to her aid. Well, this time, Victoria's parents were away on holiday and Aunt Clarissa would have to make do with her.
Finding the right key at last, Victoria pushed it into the lock. It hadn't been used much, and didn't turn easily, and even when released the old heavy door unwillingly creaked open. Immediately, from within, Victoria heard her aunt calling. "Paul? Is that you, Paul?"
Rounding the corner into the small parlour, Victoria answered her. "No, Aunt, it's me, Vicky. Mum and Dad are on holiday."
Aunt Clarissa was seated in the same armchair as usual, although the reason for the emergency call this time was obvious. Her ankle, heavily bandaged, was elevated on a stool in front of her.
"I thought Paul would come," the old lady complained.
Victoria took a deep breath to conceal her irritation and repeated herself. "They're on holiday. So, what's happened?"
"I've sprained my ankle. And the doctor said I need someone here with me."
Great, Victoria thought. My last week's holiday and I get to spend most of it waiting hand and foot on the reject from the nursing home. The timing was bad as well; they were busy in the office and weren't happy about her taking time off now.
She cast a glance around the parlour, a room she had hated from childhood. Everything was exactly where it had always been; if the furniture was ever moved for cleaning it went back into the same place, ornaments and photographs likewise.
The fireplace, now fitted with an inexpensive two-bar electric fire, still had the large old wooden surround which dominated the room, and the place probably hadn't been redecorated since D-Day, if not before. The paper might have been pretty once, now it was a grimy-grey and peeling.
The only new item, shiny and incongruously out of place, was the walking frame presumably provided by the helpful doctor.
Her aunt saw Victoria's stare at the walking frame. "I don't like using that thing," she complained. "I'm not an invalid."
"At the moment, Aunt Clarissa, that's exactly what you are." Victoria was determined to start as she meant to go on. "I'm here, and I'll help out. But I am not going to start carrying you about if you're capable of walking. And if you weren't capable of walking, the doctor would have kept you in hospital."
Victoria hadn't seen much of Aunt Clarissa over the past ten years, and now she saw her aunt taking in the changes. In those intervening years Victoria had carved out a career, and now had her own flat and company car, and if James Stewart didn't keep interfering, she would go on to greater things.
"I'll bring my case in, then," she told her aunt.
Later, as she struggled with the museum piece of a gas stove, Victoria wondered again why she was there. So far, her aunt had complained that the tea was too strong, there was too much butter on the toast and did Victoria think she was made of money?
If Victoria had her way, Aunt Clarissa would be in a nursing home, and she wondered whether there was any point in working on this new doctor to see if he could help find a place. Although from the sound of it, he was one of these doctors who liked to keep patients in their own homes for as long as possible.
Over the meal; grilled chops, packet mash and an out-of-date tin of baked beans discovered in the back of the low cupboard, Aunt Clarissa began to ask Victoria about her job, and thankful that for the moment the criticisms were in abeyance, Victoria explained what she did.
"I work with computers mainly; setting up systems and maintaining them. I also get to write some software." Victoria stopped short of more technical details, reminding herself that for someone of her Aunt's age, computers were a complete mystery, but Aunt Clarissa nodded knowingly.
"I've seen something about that on the television. Are you good at it?"
"I think so. And so does my company, they've just given me another pay rise." Victoria's face clouded slightly, remembering that James Stewart had also been given a pay rise. She had started at the company just a couple of months earlier than him, and they had been in direct competition ever since. Of course, the company didn't lose out; with them both trying to outdo the other they were working longer hours and harder than ever, but recently Victoria had begun to wonder it was all worth it. She had lost touch with most of her friends and didn't have a life outside work. In fact, if the supermarkets didn't open 24 hours a day now, she wouldn't even find time for shopping.
Aunt Clarissa seemed to notice her expression. "How are your friends? And what about that nice young man?"
Victoria was startled, although amused at the quaint, old-fashioned phrase. "What nice young man?"
"I thought you were getting engaged. I've been waiting for my invitation to the wedding."
Belatedly, Victoria remembered that the last visit she had made to Aunt Clarissa had been with Peter in tow, just after university. She and Peter had been wildly in love for most of the previous two years; but their relationship had gone the way of a lot of student romances, and once they were both working in the real world the passion had faded immediately. And fortunately before they had made the mistake of committing to each other; Victoria was now seeing the student friends who had married getting divorced.
"Peter and I split up a long while ago. We weren't right for each other. Anyway I don't have time for boyfriends; I work much too hard, Aunt."
"Well, you shouldn't leave it too long to find the right one, Vicky. And when you do, you mustn't let him go."
Victoria heard something in her aunt's voice she hadn't heard before; regret. She knew Aunt Clarissa had never married but hadn't wondered why.
As always in the parlour, even with all the lights on, the low-wattage bulbs provided only dubious illumination for some parts of the room. For the first time, Victoria felt at home in its subdued atmosphere, and ventured to ask a question.
"Did you, Aunt? Let the right one go?"
There was a long pause, and Victoria wondered if she would get an answer, but her aunt suddenly nodded, slowly. "Michael Tyrone. Such a handsome man."
Her aunt stopped, and maybe it was just the poor lighting in the room, but Victoria was sure she had seen tears in Aunt Clarissa's eyes, and was softly encouraging. "Tell me some more about Michael."
There was another long pause, and Victoria was conscious of Aunt Clarissa's scrutiny, presumably trying to see whether she really wanted to know. Then her aunt answered, with some of the vigour Victoria associated with her. "I can do better than that. Can you fetch the photograph album?"
'The' photograph album was kept in the hideous old sideboard, and had been dragged out more times than Victoria cared to remember when she was a child. Aunt Clarissa had been in service at the Hall, and never tired of talking about 'the family'.
Now, Victoria hurried to find the leather-bound, dusty brown book, suddenly anxious to know more about Michael Tyrone, and hoping that Aunt Clarissa wouldn't go on about the family tonight.
As she laid the album in front of her aunt, Victoria could see that the family wouldn't even get a mention. Aunt Clarissa turned the pages, barely glancing at the precious, carefully-hoarded sepia tone photographs of My Lord and Lady Brooke, the Honourables Geoffrey and Joseph, and Miss Sophia, until she reached a large picture of the staff.
Victoria knew the photo; Aunt Clarissa had often pointed it out as being the first one that she had appeared in. It was still hard for Victoria to recognise her aunt in the freckled, pig-tailed, skinny 12-year old form of an extremely junior maid.
Just as hard to recognise was her grandfather, George, who was one of the under-gardeners, standing at one edge of the photograph.
Aunt Clarissa was gently running her finger over the picture, obviously reliving her memories, and Victoria prompted her. "Was Michael on the staff as well?"
The finger paused over the outdoors staff at the edge. "Michael worked in the stables. He was good with the horses." The finger pointed, tapping the chest of one of the figures, and Victoria turned the album to take a good look at Michael Tyrone.
The face under the cap was, as Aunt Clarissa had said, handsome, although from the size of the photo Victoria was unable to see much more.
Without further prompting, Aunt Clarissa sat back, and began to talk. "Michael had been on the staff for three years before I went into service, but I knew him already; he was George's friend. If they happened to be off on the same day, George would bring him home and Mother would give him tea; he was an orphan, you see, no family to go home to."
"And when you went to work at the Hall, you got to know him better?"
"Not at first. Indoors staff weren't allowed to fraternise with outdoors staff; they didn't even like it when I talked to George. But those sort of rules were made to be broken, and Michael and I would snatch odd moments to be together. He was three years older than me, and I thought he was so grown up, so mature."
"And was it true love?"
"Oh, yes. Even though some of the other maids said he was just playing with me, and that he saw other girls from the village. I didn't believe them. Of course, he flirted with other girls, but I knew he loved me." Aunt Clarissa paused, staring at the photograph album although she was seeing other pictures in her mind.
Victoria waited, and eventually her aunt continued, voice hollow with memories. "The summer of 1914 was the best I'd ever known. Michael would take me out and we'd walk, and talk about what we would do when we were married. And then the war started. Michael was 16, and he wanted to go and enlist, to do his duty for his country. But everyone was saying that the conflict would be over by Christmas, and I managed to persuade Michael that it would be daft to throw away his job, and join the army for just a few short months. So he stayed, to please me."
Another pause. "But Christmas came and went, and the war went on. No one realised then how long it would last. George turned 16 in May, and he and Michael decided to enlist together. They didn't tell anyone, just went and did it. They were given 24 hours to break the news to their families, before they were to report to a training camp, miles away."
"Did you see Michael before he left?" By now, Victoria had guessed the sad end this story was going to have, but wanted to know exactly what had happened.
"He and George came up to the Hall together, to hand in their notice and say goodbye to us all. George was sweet on one of the other girls, and Mrs Morris - that was the housekeeper then - allowed us both to have half an hour to walk in the gardens with them. Michael said he was sorry to be leaving me, but asked me to wait for him; as soon as the war was over he'd be back to marry me. He didn't have enough money for a proper ring, so he wove one out of long grass. I've still got it, in a box upstairs."
Aunt Clarissa stirred in her seat. "Of course, I said I'd wait. It was the sort of thing you said to those young men as they went to war, but I loved Michael and meant it."
"They would write every week, from the training camp. Michael would always end his letters by saying how much he loved me. There was no chance of them coming home; they only ever got two-day passes, and by the time they had travelled home it would have been time to start back again."
Pointing to the album, Aunt Clarissa told Victoria to turn over a few pages. Guessing what was next, Victoria stopped on the page bearing the photograph of her grandfather in his army uniform. He was with two other men; until now, unidentified.
From the earlier picture of Michael, Victoria could now identify him as the tallest of the three. The date by the photograph was January 1916. Clarissa confirmed the details. "That was taken just weeks before they went to France. The other man is Harry Daniels; they were together all through training. When George sent the photograph, and wrote that they expected to be leaving for France soon, I went to Lady Brooke and asked if I could have a few days off. Her sons were already in France, so she understood, and let me have four days. I travelled down to the camp to see them. George had a sweetheart living nearby, so Michael and I could spend time alone together. On our second day together, the day before I had to travel home, Michael asked me to go to a hotel with him."
Before Victoria could ask the question, her aunt answered it. "I refused. I know plenty of girls were doing it, but I didn't like the idea of the deceit, and signing in as a married couple. I told Michael that he would be back home soon, and then we would be properly married. He said he understood; but when we parted that afternoon I had no idea it would be the last time I ever saw Michael. I wish now I had gone with him to the hotel."
"So they were sent to France, and over the next few months, by some good fortune, all three escaped all but the most minor injuries. George wrote to us, but the post was erratic. By June, they were moved to the front lines on the Somme, and were among the first to move on the German lines."
Victoria remembered that she had asked her grandfather to help her with a school project once, but he had refused to talk about the war. Thousands had been lost, he said, good men that he couldn't bear to think about, and that she had best go to the library. Now she had a little understanding of the friends her grandfather had lost, and asked softly, "Was that where Michael died?"
Aunt Clarissa nodded. "George wrote to me. There was no easy way to tell me. The three of them had been on one of the first 'pushes', and only he and Harry had returned. They hadn't seen Michael fall, and didn't know what had happened, but he had been posted as Missing in Action, presumed dead."
Aunt Clarissa fell silent, memories written large across her face, and Victoria, respectfully, sat silent also, looking about her with fresh eyes.
The house had been tied to the Hall, and Aunt Clarissa had lived there since childhood. When she had retired from the Hall's service, having reached the position of Housekeeper, the house had been given to her for her lifetime. Now Victoria could imagine the room as it had been, probably lighter, freshly decorated with pretty paper; and Aunt Clarissa sitting with Michael.
"Were there never any other young men for you?" Victoria asked the question quietly, not sure whether her aunt was ready to answer her.
"A few. But none seemed to compare to Michael, and men were in short supply after the war - if you weren't interested, there were plenty who were. I devoted myself to the family - Geoffrey had been killed, but Joseph, although crippled, had survived, and he and Miss Sophia both married and had children." Victoria nodded; it was strange how she knew the history of the family at the Hall better than her own; the fact that the present Lord was a descendant of Sophia because both Joseph's sons had been killed in World War II.
It seemed the room grew a little brighter, as Aunt Clarissa stirred. "We never knew whether Michael had a proper burial, a headstone. So many fell. And the thing I regret the most is never having said goodbye properly; if there was a grave, I could have gone there to say goodbye."
Abruptly, Aunt Clarissa struggled to her feet, reaching for the walking frame. "I think I'll go to bed now."
Subdued, Victoria helped her aunt to the bedroom, before returning to the small parlour to turn off the lights and make her way to the spare room.
The following morning was sunny, and Victoria gazed hopelessly round the small kitchen as she made a pot of tea. Things were clean enough not to give anyone food poisoning, but the sun showed up lots of dirty corners Aunt Clarissa obviously hadn't been able to reach in recent years. She sighed; at least it would give her something to do.
Reaching her aunt's bedroom with the cup of tea, Victoria expected to hear the old lady complaining that she was late, but there was no noise. Unsuspectingly, Victoria pushed the door open, and the reason for the silence was immediately obvious, and Victoria felt herself grow cold as she looked at the now eternally-still form on the bed.
There was a gentle smile on her face; Aunt Clarissa seemed to have died happy, and Victoria carefully removed the photograph clutched in one hand. Well worn, it was, as she had expected, a photo of Michael Tyrone, in his army uniform. It was the clearest of the three that Aunt Clarissa had, and for a moment Victoria had a fleeting impression of recognition. She rejected it; handsome as he had been, Michael wasn't like anyone she knew.
In the parlour, waiting for the doctor to arrive, Victoria heard again her aunt's last words, and made a sudden resolve. She would find out where Michael Tyrone had fallen, and whether there was a gravestone, and she would go there, and say goodbye.
The next few days were busy ones for Victoria; as she registered the death, and tried to find out where Aunt Clarissa had kept her Will, and she was glad when her parents returned early from their holiday to take over.
Although she had intended to try and follow up on Michael Tyrone immediately, when she returned to work Victoria found that her 'holiday' had indeed been ill-timed; they had been so busy that James Stewart had been asked to take over one of her projects, and Victoria sat stony-faced as their boss explained that they couldn't wait.
"I appreciate that you couldn't do anything about the timing; and I'm sorry that your aunt died. But the client wanted to see some work, even a basic model, and James was able to do it in time."
"I'd already done all the basic modelling," Victoria burst in, guessing what had happened.
"I know; James used your model as a starting point." Before Victoria could object, the boss continued, holding up his hand. "And he gave you full credit for it. Anyway, the project will stay with James now. There's plenty of work to go round."
Her parents had called to say Aunt Clarissa's funeral would be on Wednesday at 1.30, and Victoria had decided she could get to work early and do a couple of hours work before she needed to leave. Consequently, she was ready to go by 10.30, and hurried to the car park under the building.
Turning the key, Victoria frowned as the engine refused to catch. She tried again, and a third time, but there was no doubt the thing was dead. Banging the steering wheel, Victoria realised she had left her lights on that morning in her haste to get up to the office; her battery had been playing up, it must be dead.
"Damn, damn, damn," she muttered to herself, glancing at her watch. She had at least a two-hour drive; she couldn't really afford the time to wait for the RAC to arrive. Perhaps a hire car?
As she got out, still undecided, James Stewart pulled into the space next to her car. "Problems?"
"Dead battery." Wishing he was dead, Victoria turned away.
"And you've got the funeral this afternoon."
Startled that he knew, Victoria turned back to him, as James got out of his car, and held out the keys.
"Take my car. I'll call the RAC, get yours fixed, and we can swap keys again tomorrow."
Wordlessly, Victoria took his keys. James, of all people, was doing this for her ...
She was still amazed when she reached the church, where her parents were waiting. With them was an elderly man, whom Victoria remembered from her grandfather's funeral three years earlier.
The ceremony was short; Aunt Clarissa buried in the plot reserved years before, next to her mother.
Back at the house, Victoria realised that the elderly man could provide a short cut in her as yet unstarted quest for Michael Tyrone.
"It's Harry Daniels, isn't it?"
"That's right, lass. Your parents called me about Clarissa, couldn't let her go without seeing her off. Always had a soft spot for her, you know."
"No, I didn't."
"Well, she wouldn't have me. Too busy mourning Michael, you know. And in the end, that was all a mistake, as well."
Victoria's attention was immediately caught. "A mistake? But Michael Tyrone was killed at the Somme."
"What we all thought. What the War Office thought for a long time. But it was a mistake."
Unlike her grandfather, Harry Daniels showed no reluctance to talk about the Somme. "When we went over, we were all together, dodging the shells and the snipers, you know? Anyway, some of those shells were pretty close, and when George and I got back to our trenches and Michael didn't, we all assumed the worst."
He paused. "There were nigh on 20,000 killed on that first day. And almost twice as many casualties. The way things were, it was too easy to believe Michael, and many others in our Regiment, were dead."
"But?" Victoria prompted him.
"We didn't know any different for many years. It was a chance meeting on a station platform in London during 1937; I passed a woman and child, and the little girl was such a pretty little thing, I turned to watch her. The man who picked her up was Michael."
Victoria held her breath. If he had been alive, why hadn't he come back for her aunt?
"He didn't recognise me. And not just because it was 20 years later. Michael didn't remember anything before 1919. When it became clear to the woman - his wife, Melissa - that I knew Michael, she asked me to go to a cafe with her, whilst Michael took their daughter to the park. Before she asked about Michael's life, she told me what had happened to him. Michael had been injured at the Somme, not seriously, but bad enough for him to be pulled back from the front. But his mental injuries were worse; Michael was badly shell-shocked and had total amnesia, and he was shipped home to a military hospital, where he stayed until 1919. Melissa was his nurse; she helped him through things, and they were married in 1920."
"So he never recovered his memory?"
"Not by then, he hadn't. I told Melissa only the barest detail of Michael's life; where he had lived, how we met at training camp, a little about George."
"You didn't say anything about Aunt Clarissa?"
"It wouldn't have done any good to anyone. Michael was happy with Melissa and their daughter; I'd seen that for myself. And Clarissa wasn't going to be any better off knowing that Michael was alive but didn't remember her and was married to someone else. No, I couldn't see any reason to disturb all those lives."
Victoria nodded. It was a terrible shame, but Harry Daniels was right. Something else occurred to her.
"Would I be able to trace Michael Tyrone now? I mean, was he called that; had they identified him?"
"Yes. But Michael was older than me and George, you know. Unlikely to be alive now; not quite sure what I'm still doing here, living on borrowed time."
"But I might be able to trace his family."
Harry Daniels looked doubtful. "Won't really do any good now. Probably better to let things lie."
"Aunt Clarissa wanted to say goodbye. If Michael Tyrone is dead, I can still go and do that for her."
All the way back to London, Victoria wondered how to go about tracing Michael's family. She had heard of people being traced over the Internet, but wasn't sure that would be helpful. Tyrone wasn't like Smith; but it wasn't that uncommon either.
If Michael had a daughter - and Victoria didn't even know her name - she would have changed her name when she married. She, like her own parents, would be in, or approaching, her seventies, or could even already be dead.
Victoria knew she could consult the official records - the new Records Office was not far from her office, in fact - but someone had told her that such research could be long-winded and costly if you didn't have fairly exact details to go on.
Victoria got to the office early again the next day. Her car was already in the usual space, and she parked James' car next to it, and made her way up to the office to his desk, with the 'thank-you' bag of danish pastries in her hand. James had a passion for them, although, gallingly, he never put on any weight.
Early as it was, James was already on the phone, and Victoria carefully placed the bag and car keys in front of him, before making her way to her own desk.
Within a very few minutes, James, using his usual method of getting around the office by scooting along on his office chair, arrived at her desk. "How was yesterday?"
"Oh, OK, I suppose. Not a particularly weepy, solemn occasion, just an ending."
"Did the car go all right? I got yours fixed for you; I'll let you have the bill later."
"It was fine. I'm really grateful, James. I was sure to have been late if you hadn't turned up."
"All part of the service." With a smile, James passed her own car keys over, and wheeled himself away. Normally, Victoria found that irritating, but today, she smiled. Maybe James wasn't so bad, after all ...
Later, whilst tapping at the keyboard, Victoria was forced to stop as a packet of sandwiches appeared over her shoulder, and she turned to find James.
"Stop for lunch. It's a lovely day, let's go and sit in the Square for a while."
Victoria hardly hesitated. Normally, she would skip lunch, too busy to think about finding something to eat, but today she had been finding it difficult to concentrate anyway.
For a while, they discussed their various projects, before James asked her more about the funeral. "Were you very close to your aunt?"
"Not really. Not at all, actually. Until the end, that is. On the last night, she told me a story about her childhood sweetheart who was killed in the first war, that made me feel really close to her."
"She was family, all the same. All my grandparents, and my parents too, were only children, and my father died in a car crash when I was three, so I feel I've missed out a bit."
Victoria nodded, sympathetically. That explained why James was so self-sufficient.
"Grandma Mel died when I was seven, and that was when Mum brought Grandpa to live with us. He was already in his seventies, but he was marvellous. Taught me all sorts of things. His health was never good, though; he'd been injured in the war, and he died when I was 14."
Unexpectedly, James grinned. "Right at the end, Grandpa was rambling, but the woman's name he kept saying wasn't Grandma's. I thought perhaps he'd had an affair, until Mum told me that he had lost his memory through being shelled, and it was more likely that he was remembering someone he had known before he went to France."
He stopped, seeing Victoria was staring at him oddly. "What's wrong?"
Victoria picked up her bag, and got out Aunt Clarissa's photo of Michael. Now the similarity was obvious, and Victoria smiled. "Michael Tyrone. Such a handsome man."
As James looked really startled, Victoria grinned. There would be plenty of time to explain to him. And she remembered Aunt Clarissa's words. Maybe this was the one she shouldn't let go ...