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Jo Maynard had found herself at a bit of a loose end the following weekend. The family had moved back to Plas Gwyn when Jack had retired from active practice at the Swiss San. They’d sold off Freudesheim but kept on the chalet in the Austrian Tyrol where they spent a few months of every year, otherwise renting it out to various friends and relatives. Jack was into his 70s now but was still considered a world authority on TB, more so since the death of Jem Russell two years previously, and he had been asked to give a talk on the fight against TB in Switzerland. It was a rare weekend for Jo in that none of her children wanted to visit with any of the grandchildren. Needing to do something to pass the time she had rounded up a few old friends and then phoned Robert to beg Abigail for the weekend. He’d been apprehensive at first but had soon come round to Jo’s way of thinking eventually and so it was that Abigail made the train journey to Armiford the following Friday afternoon.


 


Plas Gwyn was always a happy place, always full of people making a pleasant contrast to life with mother and Gran at Carn Beg. Auntie Jo was always warm and welcoming and there was usually inviting smell of Anna’s baking giving it that extra homely feel. It was somewhere safe, where you could never feel out of place or as though you didn’t matter. Auntie Jo always had time for everyone and you always left feeling that there would be a place for you there. When the Maynards moved to the Gornetz Platz with the San, which Uncle Jack was to head, everything at home in Howells changed. There was nowhere to escape to when I needed a change of scenery or a fresh perspective on things. I would never have begrudged Uncle Jack his career move, but all the same I bitterly regretted them leaving. Of course I saw them in Switzerland, their home was just next door to school, but it just wasn’t the same. I didn’t want to have to ask permission and make an appointment to go over to Freudesheim. The name of their house meant ‘happy home’ and it certainly was. I suppose it changed over the years as the Maynard children left home but I will always remember it as happy and filled with laughter, my haven.”


 


 


Abigail clambered down from the train at Armiford station trying carefully not to viciously attack anybody with her rucksack as she did so. She battled her way through the crowds to an almost empty spot of platform and glanced apprehensively around her. She hadn’t been overly keen about this weekend but she supposed it couldn’t be all bad, just so long as Jo Maynard didn’t expect her to have read any of her books. As Jo briefly crossed her thoughts Abigail wondered where on earth she was. The instructions to her father had been quite explicit that Jo would meet Abigail on the platform as she got off the train. She looked around again but there still didn’t seem to be any sign of her. Abigail sighed dejectedly and crossed the platform and sank on to the nearest bench all her apprehension disappearing as nerves overtook her. What if Jo had forgotten all about her? What would she do then? Not for the first time Abigail found herself wishing that she’d never agreed to coming in the first place.


 


Jo Maynard abandoned her car outside the front of Armiford station. She knew that she wasn’t meant to do that any longer but decided that she would take the risk now and suffer the consequences later. Checking her watch she swore under her breath, she hated running late especially when there was someone counting on her. As she ran over the bridge to the opposite platform she caught sight of Abigail perched uncomfortably on the bench looking around her.


 


“Abigail!” Jo shouted as she ran down the steps.


 


Abigail looked up at the sound of her name and saw Jo running towards her. Her apprehension and nerves vanished immediately and were replaced by a feeling of relief and she allowed her face to break into a smile.


 


“I’m so sorry I’m late,” said Jo. “I can never get used to the amount of traffic on the roads these days.”


Abigail shrugged. “It’s okay,” she replied standing up and swinging her rucksack on to her shoulder. “I’ve not been here all that long Mrs Maynard.”


Jo stared at Abigail with an expression of disbelief. “We’ll have none of that ‘Mrs Maynard’ business, if you please. I was Auntie Jo to your mother and so I must be to you as well.”


“Okay,” muttered Abigail. She was sure she could cope with that for the course of a weekend just so long as there was no mention of reading Jo’s books to go with it.


“I’ve invited a few of your mother’s old school friends over tomorrow,” chirped Jo as they crossed the bridge to get back to her car. “I thought it would be nice for you and we can all have a good reminisce.” Jo failed to notice the face that Abigail pulled behind her back and carried on oblivious to the fact that in Abigail there was a schoolgirl who wouldn’t fall instantly for all her charms.


 


Despite her initial misgivings Abigail quite liked the look of Plas Gwyn from the outside. The swing hanging from the big tree in the garden, the child’s toys belonging to one or the other of the grandchildren left scattered across the garden gave it a homely air and appeal. She’d liked the look of Howells village as they’d driven through it. It seemed as though time had stood still in Howells and Abigail was sure that it hadn’t been any different when the Chalet School had originally been here during the war. Jo let them in to the house and Abigail took in the décor with an initial shudder. It was quite clear that if time had stood still in Howells village, it had stood equally still inside Plas Gwyn. But there was something warm about it, like the garden the children’s toys were scattered across floors, surfaces and stairs. It was a real family home and Abigail liked it.


 


Jo led Abigail up the stairs to the room which would be hers for the weekend and then left her to settle in. As they’d progressed through the house Abigail had taken more of it in, in particular the photographs on the walls. Seeing these she had felt a pang of jealousy; she knew only too well that her father had done everything he possibly could for her but seeing the group shots of an only too evidently happy family had touched something deep inside her. All Abigail had ever wanted had been a proper family of her own but that was something she had to keep to herself; it was hardly the sort of thing she could share with her father. The room in which Jo had left her was clearly one used by visiting grandchildren or more specifically visiting granddaughters. The walls were painted a fresh shade of pink and a flowered rug covered the cream carpet. It was hardly Abigail’s ideal choice of décor but she forced herself to admit that it wasn’t all too bad. The bookshelves were lined with an array of titles including several Josephine Bettany books, she supposed that it was only natural. A sudden blaze of curiosity prompted her to reach out for the nearest one. Jo’s voice calling her floated up the stairs just as she did so and Abigail hastily shoved it back on to the shelf as though an electric shock had cut through her body.


 


“How do you like it?” chirped Jo as she poked her head around the door.


“It’s… nice,” responded Abigail diplomatically, she still wasn’t completely sure how she felt.


Jo beamed. “Good. Look, come on downstairs, I’ve looked out some old photographs of your mother so we can have a good look at them before dinner. Would you like anything now?”


 


Abigail shook her head and followed Jo down the stairs into the sitting room. It clearly hadn’t been decorated in a good ten years but it was everything else which made the room a welcoming and inviting place. There were more photographs of the family and friends on the walls and in frames scattered around the room along with trinkets from every corner of the globe. The big bookcase in the corner was well stocked with an array of books for all ages and from all eras.


 


“Have a seat, have a seat,” said Jo ushering her to the sofa underneath the windowsill, her arms full of photograph albums.


 


Abigail didn’t like to disagree and perched beside Jo at an almost awkward and precarious angle and craned her neck over the photographs. Jo opened the album at a page she knew so well. A tall girl with long fair hair in two plaits down her front stood under an apple tree with three younger girls. The younger girls, clearly sisters despite their outward differences, had cheeky smiles.


 


“My triplets,” Jo said to Abigail.


“Is that…?” she asked pointing at the elder girl.


“That’s your mother, the first summer she was at Carn Beg. We’ll take a walk by there tomorrow before the others get here but I don’t know the people who own it these days; they tend to keep themselves to themselves.”


 


Abigail stared at the picture and lightly fingered the end of her own messy plait. Jo had told her she looked like her mother, now she could see it. But there was something that prevented her from completely reconciling the carefree young girl under the apple tree with her friends with the woman she had become.


 


The telephone chose that moment to ring and Jo got up with a sigh to go and answer it. Abigail could hear her chattering away animatedly to whoever was on the other end; from the way Jo was talking it sounded like one of the many members of the family. Abigail began flicking idly through the photograph album, she recognised the triplets in the pictures in which they featured. She recognised Jo as well, she hadn’t changed all that much over the years, time had been good to her. Abigail tried to suppress the longing feeling in the pit of her stomach but found her curiosity aroused as a piece of paper dropped out of the back of the album. She reached down to pick it up, clearly a letter of some description. She knew that she shouldn’t read letters which belonged to somebody else, but she couldn’t help it.


 


Dear Jo.


 


I’m sorry we parted the way that we did. If I’m truly honest to myself I didn’t expect you to understand when I tried to explain it all to you. I keep thinking things over, and I’m none too sure that I understand myself. I just know that I couldn’t stay. Abigail means the world to me but I know that I wouldn’t be able to love her in the way she needs to be loved. I always said I was never going to get married, never going to have children, and I know why now. Oh you always laughed at me and said that it was exactly the same thing you used to say but there’s a difference between us. You loved your own children and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t love Abigail as a mother. I’m not you Jo, I can only be myself and I know that a wife and mother is not what I was made to be. I fought so hard to get where I am today, and you and Jack supported me all the way; I fought too hard to give it all up. Maybe one day I’ll change but for now I can only hope that you can accept my decision and at least try and understand why I made it. I shall be here in Greece for the next few months then I’ll be back in Oxford for a couple of months to present the findings of the dig. Please Jo, don’t let this tear us apart.


 


Abigail stopped reading as she heard Jo clattering the receiver back down and entering the room. She tried to hastily shove the letter back into the album but Jo’s eyes were too quick for her.


 


“I…” stammered Abigail, unsure what to say.


“Oh Abigail,” exclaimed Jo. “I’d often wondered where that letter had gone. I’m sorry you had to see it.” She sat down beside Abigail and took the letter from between the girl’s shaking fingers. “Abby?”


Abigail looked down at the floor. “I wish…” She turned her face to Jo. “I don’t know. I’ve heard it so often, just never from her. I suppose…” She broke off, biting her lip hard to bring her emotions under control.


Jo slipped a comforting arm around her. “You are allowed to cry,” she said gently.


“It just makes it all so real,” cried Abigail as her self restraint broke down and she let out the hurt she had suppressed for so long.


 


Jo took the sobbing girl in her arms to comfort her. Inside her thoughts ran round and around in circles. She had certainly never intended for Abigail to find that letter; in fact Jo had had no idea what had happened to it and how it had come to be pushed in the back of that particular photograph album. She’d always known what to do in awkward circumstances, but this was one that challenged even her.


 


They remained that way for a few minutes until Abigail broke her sobs.


 


“I… I’m sorry,” she mumbled scrubbing fiercely at her eyes with her sleeve.


Jo fished in her pocket for her handkerchief. “Here, use this,” she said holding it out to Abigail who took it with a weak smile. “Abby, you have nothing to be sorry for, you are allowed to cry. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard all this is for you.”


Abigail bit her lip to hold back fresh tears. “She never told me herself when I saw her at the end; it’s only something I’ve heard from other people. Now I’ve seen it in her own words it just makes it so… real. I wish she’d been able to tell me herself, but then I suppose she never imagined I’d find that letter.”


“No, I don’t suppose she did.”


 


The silence between them said so much. Abigail became acutely aware that the situation was awkward for Jo as well as her.


 


“I shouldn’t have…”


Jo knew what Abigail was trying to say and reached for her hand. “Abby, I made a promise to you to help you learn about your mother. I intend to keep that promise, along the way we may come across things that are unexpected and that may hurt. But I will always be here whenever you need support or help. I admit that I have never fully understood your mother’s reasons for leaving and I know full well that I did not offer her any support when perhaps I should have done. I don’t think that she herself was ever able to explain things fully.”


“I wish she’d told me herself at the end.”


“It wasn’t the right time then.”


“No, I suppose not.”


“She wanted to know you, Abby, as yourself. Perhaps she should have explained to you, but it would appear to be one of those things that we are fated to never know.” Abigail smiled weakly. “Now, how about some dinner? You may as well make yourself useful and come and give me a hand.”


 


They passed a quiet evening, Jo regaling tales from the ‘dark ages’ as she termed them, Abigail listening wide eyed at some of her mother’s wilder exploits. Hearing about her mother’s early life fascinated her as she tried to draw parallels between the carefree and friendly girl she had been and the dying woman in the hospital bed. Abigail, in turn, offered a few details of her own life to Jo, there were a lot of things that she felt Jo would not be able to understand fully and so steered away from those. She felt that her global conscience and the actions she had sometimes taken to express this, coupled with her religious apathy, would not go down too well with the traditional older woman beside her. After a few hours the long train journey caught up with Abigail and she found it harder to stifle her yawns.


 


“Tired?” asked Jo sympathetically.


 


Too tired to even speak Abigail nodded as Jo helped her up and led her up the stairs. Once in her pyjamas, washed and tucked up in bed Jo slipped into her room.


 


“Sleep tight,” she said as she kissed Abigail’s forehead.


“Goodnight,” came the reply, if a little muffled as Abigail snuggled down into the covers.


 


 


Abigail awoke early the following morning and for a few moments struggled to adjust as to where she was. As the world came into focus her eyes settled on the row of Josephine Bettany books and it all made sense once more. She struggled into a sitting position and took in the book titles once more and one in particular leapt out at her, Cecily holds the fort. It had been the one she’d been forced to read by her friend Alice and she’d hated it. Abigail felt immensely curious once more and slipped out of bed over to the bookshelf to fetch it down. She glanced at her wristwatch, it was only six thirty and she hoped that Jo wouldn’t expect her to be up for a good couple of hours yet. She clambered back into bed, wriggled down amongst the covers and began to read.


 


Jo decided to look in on Abigail at eight thirty, she wanted to allow her to sleep as long as she could and, as such, was pleasantly surprised to see her awake when she poked her head around the door.


 


“You’re awake,” she said trying to keep the surprise out of her voice.


“Couldn’t sleep,” replied Abigail as she tried to hide the book. But once again Jo was too quick for her.


Cecily holds the fort?” she asked. Abigail nodded and blushed. “My first book that,” said Jo reminiscently. “I wrote it the term after I left school, my second attempt actually. The first was so dreadful I ended up burning it. What do you think of it?”


“I… I…” faltered Abigail. “I’m not too sure to be perfectly honest. It’s not really my sort of thing; my friend made me read it a couple of years ago, but… I was just curious I suppose.”


Jo smiled. “I suppose you find it a bit old fashioned for you.”


Abigail turned a brilliant shade of red. “I… um… well…”


Jo laughed again. “Sorry, didn’t mean to put you on the spot there. How about you get up, have a wash and then come down for breakfast?”


 


After a leisurely breakfast Jo proposed a stroll down towards Carn Beg so that Abigail could see the house where her mother had spent so many happy years. Abigail took the house in whilst keeping half an ear on Jo’s chattering; in her mind’s eye she could just make out her ten year old mother outside the house. Abigail smiled to herself, Jo noticed the smile.


 


“Why the smile?”


“I was just thinking.”


“About your mother?”


Abigail nodded. “It’s so strange actually being here, seeing the house where she spent so many years. It makes her more of a real person I suppose, somebody who was once my age.”


 


There were no words that either of them could say as they turned and walked back to Plas Gwyn. Jo’s thoughts were firmly in the past; Abigail’s were developing a deeper understanding.




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