It was Jack Maynard who broke the silence.
“I’m so sorry, old man.” His eyes full of sorrow, he looked across at his friend and brother-in-law, wishing desperately that he could think of some words of comfort to offer; but somehow all that seemed to come to mind were clichés and platitudes and he knew that none of those would help Jem tonight. “If there’s anything that Joey and I can do, you know that you’ve only got to ask. The children can stay with us for as long as you want; and if you need any help arranging the funeral ...”
A strangled sob broke from Madge at that point, but still Jem said nothing, and still he didn’t move from his position by his sister’s bedside where he’d been now for over two hours. Exchanging an anxious glance with Jack, Madge tentatively laid a soft hand on her husband’s shoulder. She longed to put her arms round him, to try to take some of the burden of his sorrow upon herself, but she sensed from the rigid way in which he was sitting that he wasn’t yet ready for that. “Jem?” she said gently. “Jem, would you like me to stay with you, or would you prefer it if Jack and I left you alone with her for a little while?”
“What’d be the point?” Jem spoke at last, but his voice was toneless. “She’s gone. She isn’t in this room, or the next room, or any other room. She’s gone.” Rapidly and suddenly he stood up. “I can’t stay here. I must go. I need to leave. I need to leave now.”
Hastily Madge took his hand. “Jem, it’s all right. I’m here. Jem, I’m here: it’s all right. Come on, we’ll go through to the sitting room. Marie will bring us some tea ... Jack, would you mind? Marie and Andreas are both in their own sitting room. They said that they’d wait up, until ... well, in case they were needed. Rosa’s with them too: Josette’s fast asleep and she said she’d check on her regularly.” Baby Josette was alone in the nursery on this night: normally Bonne Maison was a home full of children, but the only other two children presently in the house were the young son and daughter of Marie and Andreas. Daisy and Primula Venables, since a few moments ago orphans, had been sent away from Guernsey almost three months earlier, their mother insisting that she didn’t want them to see her life drawing to its close, and the two elder Russell children and their four Bettany cousins had spent the previous few days and nights staying with relatives or friends.
Jack nodded. “Of course.” He headed towards the door, glad to have something practical to do, but then he stopped. “Oh ... do you want me to ... to tell them?”
“Oh.” Madge shook her head as if to try to clear it. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking: I’d better do that, hadn’t I? I’ll go now: would you mind waiting with Jem? Jem, let’s go to the sitting room, and then Jack will wait with you whilst I go down to the kitchen. I won’t be long, and then Marie will bring some strong tea up. Or would you be better with something stronger - shall I get you a brandy?”
“I need to leave,” Jem repeated. “I need to leave now. Daisy and Primula don’t know. I need to go and tell them. Madge, would you help me to pack some things, please? Or ask Andreas to come and help me? I must go. As soon as possible.”
“Oh, Jem.” Madge reached up and touched his face. “Jem, listen to me. It’s the middle of the night. There’s nothing you can do now until the morning. And you need to get some sleep: we all do. Jem, come on. Come with me.” Gently she pulled him towards the door and, a dazed expression on his face, he allowed himself to be drawn away from his sister’s room, or what had been his sister’s room, and downstairs to the sitting room. At Madge’s signal, Jack moved towards the drinks cabinet, but Jem shook his head. “No. No, thank you ... and thank you for everything, Jack. I don’t know what we’d have done without you tonight. But I don’t want brandy, or anything else alcoholic. I need to keep my mind clear. But I will have some tea, I think.”
He shook his head. Tea. His dear old nanny had always thought that tea was the answer to everything. As if the hot brown liquid could somehow bring his sister back, or take away the terrible grief that lay ahead for his young nieces, sleeping innocently in their beds on the other side of the English Channel, unaware that their lives had just changed for ever. But he needed something, if only something to reawaken his senses. Not that he was sure that he wanted them to be reawakened, either now ever, because then he was going to have to face reality, and the reality was that his sister was gone and that he would never in this world see her again.
They knew from the look on Madge Russell’s face what she’d come to tell them. And it wasn’t as if they hadn’t been expecting it. Why were they all sitting here, wide awake, at this hour of the night, if it wasn’t to wait for this moment which they’d known must surely come before the dawn broke on the new day? And yet somehow it still came as a shock, and somehow they couldn’t even give up hope until they’d heard the words spoken out loud, and so they all waited in silence until they received that final confirmation.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you all that my sister-in-law died a few minutes ago,” was all she said, but with those few words everything changed. Nothing could ever be the same again once someone who’d been a part of your life, and those who lived under the same roof in any capacity inevitably formed a part of each other’s lives, had gone for ever. And when that person had been still relatively young it was even harder to bear than if they’d lived out a full lifespan. Whatever that was.
“Shall I make some tea, Madame? Or some coffee?” It was one thing that she could do to help at the moment, and she knew that.
Madge nodded. “If you would bring us some tea, Marie, that would be wonderful. We’ll be in the sitting room. And ... and thank you, for everything that you’ve done. All of you. For everything.”
“We’re all so sorry, Frau Doktor Russell.” Andreas, who’d known Jem longer than any of them and just a few years earlier had rejoiced so greatly to see his master reunited with the sister he’d feared he’d never see again, moved towards her, as Marie, tears in her own eyes, tried to comfort the sobbing Rosa. “She was such a lovely lady. The house won’t be the same without her. And if there’s anything you want us to do, either now or in the morning... whatever you need, we’ll do it.”
“Thank you, Andreas.” Madge looked at her watch to see just how far apart now and the morning were: time seemed meaningless this night, the previous afternoon might have been a lifetime ago, but the practical side of her knew that they all needed to get some rest or before long none of them would be any use to anyone. And the morning would be here all too soon, and with it a myriad of tasks to be undertaken, none of them easy, in addition to the normal work of the day, as this strangest of nights ended and the reality of daylight took its place. “There’ll be plenty to do in the morning, but for now I think that the best thing any of us can do is to try to get some sleep. Marie, if you’d be so kind as to bring up the tea, then – don’t worry about clearing anything away, it’ll wait – we’ll say goodnight.
“I don’t know quite what’s going to happen tomorrow, or later today I should say, so for the time being I’d ask that you try to carry on as normal, or as close to normal as is possible.” Just saying that felt wrong, saying that life carried on when Margot’s life would not felt wrong, but the house still had to be cleaned, clothes still had to be washed and dried, food still had to be prepared and eaten and, above all, her baby still had to be cared for. The world wouldn’t just stop and wait. It couldn’t.
Marie nodded. She began to walk towards the door, but then she stopped, and exchanged a glance with Andreas. He nodded, and she turned back to Madge. “Madame, forgive me, but ... would it be all right if we tell the children what’s happened, when they wake? Jakob is probably too young to understand very much, but Gretchen certainly will realise that things aren’t as normal and we’ll need to explain.”
Madge nodded. “Of course. I’m only sorry that they should have to ... that you should have to tell them something like this, when they’re so young. So young. All of them ... they’re all so young.” Thoughts of Daisy and Primula filled her mind and she left the room hastily, leaning against a corridor wall as the dam broke and the tears came, and she wept and wept for a gentle woman who’d suffered so much, had nothing left to fight with and was now gone for ever, and for the months of bitter sorrow which lay ahead for all of them, all those who had loved Margot Venables and must now learn to bear her loss and carry on without her.
“Jack, if you want to be getting off home then please don’t feel you have to stay. You’ve done enough.” Madge gripped her brother-in-law’s hand tightly. “More than enough. Thank you so much, Jack. For everything.”
Jack shook his head. “There’s no need for thanks, and if there’s anything else I can do then please just ask. But I think I will head off now, if that’s all right. I think we could all do with some sleep. And I told Joey not to wait up but I’ve got a feeling that she will have done anyway, and probably Robin and Anna as well.” He shook his head again. “They’ll know as soon as I walk in, about Margot. Joey’ll want to speak to you, but I’ll ask her to wait until the morning: you’re both exhausted. And Jem, old chap, don’t spend a second worrying about anything at the San. You take as much time as you need: we’ll see to everything.”
He held up his hand as Jem looked set to object. “No, no. You’re not indispensable, you know! And you’ve got more than enough on your plate at the moment. Leave the San to the rest of us for the time being. I’ll let everyone there know not to expect you in for at least the next few days.” He looked from Jem to Madge awkwardly. “The children, though ... I presume that you’ll want to tell them yourselves?”
Madge looked at her husband. “Jem ... I think that that’s something that we really have to do together. And first thing tomorrow – later today, I mean - if possible. I know that there are a lot of arrangements to be made, but we need to tell the children, before we do anything else.” She was feeling weepy again now. David, and Sybil, and her nieces and nephews ... they were so young, and so innocent, and now they were going to have to bear this terrible sadness, and she and Jem were going to have to be the ones to put this terrible sadness upon them. And the ones who would have to be strong for them, to try to help them through it. She could hardly bear it herself.
Jem, sensing how she was feeling, and feeling very much the same himself, put his arm round her, and she drew close to him, each of them seeking comfort from the other and seeking to give comfort to the other. “You’ve said exactly what I was thinking. First thing in the morning, the two of us, you and I, together, will go over to Les Rosiers and ... and tell them. And I think that we should tell all of them together: I know that technically she was only an aunt to David and Sybil but I know that she thought of the others as her nieces and nephews too.”
He turned back to Jack. “Jack – that’s something you can do, if you will? Call in on Grizel and Gillian and Joyce on your way to work and tell them what’s happened, and ask if they can take Peggy and Rix over to your house so that all six of them’ll be there together – say something about Joey having a new story to tell them or something. And you’ll tell everyone at the San the reason I’m off as well, won’t you? Oh look, I’m sorry to put all this on you, old man, especially when you’ve done so much already ...”
Jack waved away his apologies. “It’s all right. I said I’d do anything I could to help, and I will. Leave it to me: I’ll sort it out. And, again, I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry.”
He left them alone then, wiping a tear from his eye as he got into his car and drove away, knowing that his very arrival at his own home would bring bitter grief to those who awaited him there. And that, however bad it was for any of them, it would be far worse for those two little girls who would be at present sound asleep in the home of Canon and Mrs Dene, the father and stepmother of Jem’s secretary Rosalie Dene, blissfully ignorant of the fact that their mother had gone from them for ever. And what a terrible blow Margot’s loss was for Jem, too. If anything were to happen to Mollie or to Bob ... he shook his head vigorously, not even wanting to think about it, not able to bear even the idea of it. Madge and the children would be a great comfort to Jem, he knew that, but no-one would ever be able to fill the void that Margot’s passing would leave in her brother’s life.
The relationship between siblings was one which no other relationship could ever match or replace. And siblings were the only people in anyone’s life with whom they could hope to share the entire course of that life. In the natural order of things – although not always, he thought, remembering with sorrow his nephew Rolf - the older generation would go before you. If you were lucky, you’d share many years with parents, aunts, uncles and even grandparents, but you’d never expect them to be there still when you grew old yourself, any more than your children would expect that you yourself would still be there when they grew old in turn. Friends, however close, came along at different stages in your life, and even a great friendship might fade away as times and people changed; and a spouse, however beloved, wouldn’t be part of your life from the beginning and share your earliest years. Only a brother or sister could be with you throughout, share both your childhood memories and the joys and sorrows of your adulthood, but Jem would share that unique bond with Margot no longer, and would go through the rest of his life without it.
As for Daisy and Primula, nothing would ever be able to compensate them for the loss of their mother. They’d lost so much already, and now they’d lost Margot too. They were too young to have suffered too much loss. And Margot had been too young to have died. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. And, as his thoughts and his sadness overpowered him, he found himself weeping so hard that he was unable to see the road and had to pull over until he was able to compose himself sufficiently to carry on.
“Jem, dear, I really think you should try to get some rest now,” Madge said anxiously. “I know that we’re both going to find it difficult to sleep, but there’s going to be a lot to do in the morning and neither of us are going to be any use to anyone if we’re completely exhausted.”
Jem nodded. “You’re right. I know you’re right: I’ve just got no idea how I’m ever going to get to sleep when there’s so much going on in my mind. I can hardly even think straight, and I know that I’ve got to: there’s just so much to do and so much to think about. I’ve got to get on a ferry to England as soon as possible ... and I can see that you’re about to suggest coming with me, but no, Madge. It’d be too much for Josette at this stage, and you could hardly leave her behind. And Rosalie will travel back with the girls and me: she’s always said that she would.
“I’ll cable the Denes before I go, let them know that I’m on my way. There was a phrase I agreed with Canon Dene for ... when the need arose, so that if Daisy or Primula should see the telegram they wouldn’t know what it meant. Nor Rosalie: her father will tell her what’s happened - she was fond of Margot and she shouldn’t have to find out from a telegram. But before I do that I need to go for the certificate, and I need to ... well, something’s going to have to be arranged about the funeral.”
He breathed deeply and shook his head. “It feels wrong, Madge. Burying her here in Guernsey. We’ve not even been here a year: she hardly knew the place, or anyone in it. But where else is there? She’d want to be buried with her three boys if it were practical, I suppose, but it just isn’t, and the Russells have always been buried at our local parish church but even if we could make arrangements to take her there I don’t think it’s what she’d have wanted. In fact, I’m sure it isn’t. She said when we were talking about leaving Austria that she never wanted to end up back there. So it will have to be Guernsey. It just seems so strange. And I don’t want to do the wrong thing and let her down.” I let her down enough when she was alive, he thought in agony.
“You won’t be letting her down, Jem,” Madge said softly. “Where someone’s buried doesn’t matter. For us it’s a chance to say goodbye, but you said yourself that Margot wasn’t in her bedroom any more, and she won’t be in a graveyard either. She’s here, here with us, in our hearts and in our memories. And she was happy here in Guernsey, for a little while. She liked it here. It’ll be all right, Jem. Shall we see if we can speak to the vicar some time this afternoon, if he’s got time?”
Jem stood up and began to pace around the room. “I suppose we’ll have to, but, truth be told, I’m not sure I can face the vicar at the moment. All that cant about the will of God and entrusting Margot to His care ... I know it’s well-meant, and I’m sure some people genuinely believe every word of it, but quite frankly none of it makes any sense to me at all at the moment. Why did she have to go, Madge? Why Margot? We both know what’s happening in Austria and Germany: tell me how it can possibly be the will of God that the sort of men who perpetrate that kind of evil are alive and well when a good woman like Margot has her life taken away from her when she’s not even fifty?
“I just don’t understand it, Madge. I don’t feel as if I understand anything any more. Tell me why. Why Margot? Why did this have to happen to Margot? She wouldn’t have harmed a fly; and she was loved, and she was needed ... so why? Why has any of this happened? Can the vicar tell me that? Can he? Because if he can then I’d be very interested to hear it: very interested indeed. But he can’t, can he? Because at the end of the day none of us know. We do a lot of talking, but we haven’t got a clue what any of it’s all about. And Jack and I and everyone else in our profession battle day in day out to save people’s lives, to stop what nature’s doing to them, because we’re arrogant enough to think that we can do that, but sometimes it seems as if we’re completely powerless. We see people slipping away and we do everything we can to save them and yet it’s not enough. It just isn’t enough.”
His voice broke again. “What sort of a doctor am I, Madge? I couldn’t even save my own sister. I couldn’t even seem to make her want to fight. Why wouldn’t she fight, Madge? Was it because she was worn out? Was it my fault? If I hadn’t asked her to make that terrible journey out of Austria with all the children ... to take charge of our children and Dick and Mollie’s children as well as her own, just her and Rosalie ... it was too much for her. I should never have done it. Or is it all just part of some sort of cycle? Did we ask for too much? We’ve had so much happiness since we came here, Joey and Jack’s wedding and then Josette being born. Maybe we had too much: maybe we weren’t entitled to so much and that’s why Margot had to die. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. The Lord taketh away Margot.”
“Jem.” Madge, aghast, rushed across the room to fling her arms round him and hold him tight. “Jem, stop this. You’ve got to stop this now, do you hear me? Please, please, stop this. None of us truly understand these things but you mustn’t think like that. Josette is a blessing and so is Jack and Joey’s marriage: you can’t link them to Margot’s death, you mustn’t. Anyway, how could it possibly be fair to take Daisy and Primula’s mother from them because of anything that’s happened to anyone else? You mustn’t think like that: I won’t let you. And I won’t let you blame yourself either. You’ve just said yourself that sometimes there’s nothing that doctors can do. And if Margot was worn out then it went back to everything she went through in Queensland, and maybe the journey to Guernsey didn’t help but it most certainly wasn’t the start of it. Anyway, what choice did any of us have about leaving Austria? It was beyond our control, Jem. Maybe there were things we could have done differently, but there are always things any of us could have done differently and dwelling on them like this isn’t going to help. And you’re exhausted. Now come on. You’re going to bed and you’re going to try to get some sleep. Now.”
She held her breath, wondering if he’d resist, but he looked overwhelmed suddenly, as if all the anguish had come out of him and he had no energy left to resist anything. He nodded his head in silent consent, and finally they both left the sitting room and made their way back upstairs. And somehow, despite everything that had happened, they both slept, and knew no more until daylight.
For a brief moment, when she first awoke, Madge Russell forgot what had happened. She woke with a feeling of unease, knowing that something was very wrong, but it took a fraction of a second for her mind to register what it was. How could that be, she wondered dazedly? How could that happen, even for a space of time so short that it could barely even be classed as a moment? And how could she have slept for so long, when she’d been so sure that she’d struggle to sleep at all?
She rose almost immediately, knowing that there was much to be done in the difficult day that lay ahead. Once dressed, she made her way down to the breakfast table, assuming that that was where Jem had gone before her; but he wasn’t there, nor was he in the sitting room, nor could she see him when she looked out of the window to see if he’d gone outside for some fresh air. Eventually she found him in his study and, when he turned round on hearing her enter the room, she saw that she was holding in his hand a picture of David and Sybil and their cousins, taken at Die Rosen about a year earlier, all of them happy and carefree and laughing into the camera.
“I was just ... I don’t know.” He turned round, put the photograph down on his desk and then turned back to face his wife. “I do this so often. Tell people bad news, I mean. When I first started work I thought it was something I’d never learn to cope with, but I did ... but this, this is different. I’m their father, their uncle: it’s supposed to be my job to protect them from hurt, and instead ... how do we do something like this, Madge? How do we do this to them?”
“We go to Les Rosiers, in an hour or so’s time when they’ll all be there, and we tell them that Auntie Margot was very tired and that God sent an angel in the night to take her away to Heaven.” Madge spoke quietly but her voice didn’t falter. “And we tell them that she was sad to leave us all, but that she’s very happy now because she isn’t tired any more and she’s with her three little boys again. And, if you can bear it, we might even tell them that she’s happy because she’s with her husband and her mother and father again too. They’re too young for anything else, Jem. Rix at least will probably ask questions, but we’ll have to deal with that when it happens. That’s all we tell them for now. You agree with that, don’t you?”
Jem nodded. “There’s nothing else we can say, certainly not to the younger ones. They’ll be upset enough as it is, and we don’t want to make this any more difficult than it has to be. And they’ve always accepted the idea of Heaven, when we’ve had to tell them that someone at the San’s ... gone.” He smiled wryly. “Maybe it’s a blessing at a time like this, to be young enough just to accept the idea of Heaven and angels and eternal rest exactly as someone tells you. I’m hoping that Primula ...”
He shook his head. “I’m trying to get it straight in my mind, what I should say to Daisy and Primula. I’ll have to tell them together, I can’t tell one and not the other, but I can’t just tell Daisy that God sent an angel to take her mummy away to Heaven, can I? She’s way past that age ... but she’s so young too, Madge; and she’s been through so much already. Stephen Venables was a ... a ... well, we both know what Stephen Venables was, but he was those girls’ father; and Daisy remembers her brothers too, and losing all of them. How can a girl of her age bear so much loss, Madge? I just don’t know how she’s going to cope.”
“She’ll find a way,” Madge said softly. “She’s close to the age Dick and I were when we lost both our parents, and we coped. Somehow, we coped. And Dick and I were alone in India, with a newborn baby who was never even going to know her parents, the three of us packed off on a ship a few months later to relatives we’d never met before. Daisy and Primula will have all of us, at least. We’ll all be here for them. Every step of the way.”
“Oh, Madge, I’m sorry: I wasn’t thinking.” Jem reached for his wife’s hand. “I’m a selfish so-and-so. All that ranting last night, and now this, and I’m forgetting that this must be bringing back all sorts of bad memories for you. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” she said gently. “I’m here for you, Jem. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling, I’m here for you. And whatever you need to say, I’m here to listen to it.”
“What would I ever do without you?” He squeezed her hand tightly and shook his head again. “I know, I do know, that things like this happen every day of the week. And far worse things too. Margot could have had another twenty or thirty years, maybe even more, but there are so many people who don’t have anything like as long as she did have. Heaven knows I see it all the time. Children who’ve never known a day of good health. Lives snatched away from young people who were just starting out in life. Families destroyed. Look at Margot’s three little boys, never even had a chance at life, or poor Leonard Redfield, or young Biddy left without a soul in the world. And when I think of so many of the chaps I knew at school, losing their lives trying to capture a few inches of land in France or Flanders ... oh Madge, I try to tell myself that Margot was one of the lucky ones, and that we were all lucky to’ve had her for as long as we did.”
His voice broke and his face crumpled. “But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work, Madge. She was only a young woman. She had so much still to do with her life. And Daisy and Primula need her. I need her. And I want her back. But she’s gone, Madge. She’s my sister and now she’s gone, and we’ll never see her again, not in this life anyway.”
He would never have let anyone else see him crying, except perhaps Margot herself and if Margot were there then he wouldn’t be crying in the first place, but with Madge it was all right, and he sobbed in her arms as if he were no older than the children they were about to go and see. And afterwards, in a strange way, he felt better. And stronger.
At almost exactly the same time, a few miles away, Jack Maynard was driving away from Les Rosiers, his heart heavy. Joey was badly upset and he hated having to leave her, but Jem was likely to be absent from the San for a week at least and there was no way that he could be absent for a full day as well. Difficult as it was to accept, the world didn’t stop when there was a death in the family. All around him, in the other vehicles on the road, on the pavements or in the buildings by the roadside, he could see people just going about their daily business, their lives totally unaffected by the fact that the Russell-Venables family would never be the same again. There was no reason for it to be otherwise, and yet how strange it seemed that everyday life should just be going on as if nothing had changed.
Yet, too, how many people any death did affect. Joey, Robin and Anna had all been awake when he’d returned, as he’d known they would be, and, knowing that the end had been near, they’d all known at once what his arrival had meant. Joey had been very tearful, for Margot, for Madge and Jem, and, above all, for Daisy and Primula, who wouldn’t even know of the terrible loss that had befallen them until tomorrow at the earliest. And, even though they’d known for some time that Margot couldn’t live much longer, she’d struggled to accept the finality of it, the reality of the fact that someone who’d been living and breathing little more than an hour earlier was now gone from the world for ever, gone to somewhere where those whom she’d lived amongst could no longer reach her.
In some ways, Margot’d death was the first such loss that Joey had suffered, he mused. He knew that she’d mourned Frieda Mensch’s grandmother, to whom she’d grown quite close during her early years in Austria, but old Frau Mensch had been in her nineties and her passing had seemed a natural end in a way that Margot’s somehow didn’t. And she’d been fond of her guardian, who’d died when she’d been twelve, but he’d been a somewhat distant figure to her, someone she’d seen only a few times a year, not someone with whom she’d shared the ups and downs of daily life, and for a time shared a home, as she’d done with Margot. And of course she’d never even known her own parents: he knew that that was a great sadness to her, but, unlike Madge and Dick, she hadn’t had to bear the bitterness of their loss. But nor had she known the joy of their love. Daisy and Primula had known Margot’s, and loved her in return; and he prayed that that would be of comfort to them now, when comfort would be so hard to find.
Robin too had been upset, but she’d seemed to find the news easier to accept than Joey had. That was Robin, though, always seeming able to accept anything which she couldn’t change. Everyone had to cope in their own way with the blows which life dealt them, he supposed – and it had certainly dealt Robin more blows than anyone of her age should have had to bear, and now it had done the same to Daisy and Primula. Was it a good thing or a bad thing to be able to accept that life wasn’t fair, that life was often downright cruel, rather than railing against it, he wondered? Maybe it was, because bitterness achieved nothing, but he knew how bitter his sister-in-law Lydia still was at having her only child taken from her and he couldn’t find it in himself to blame her for that. Life could be very hard to cope with, and neither Robin’s way nor Lydia’s way seemed entirely healthy to him, but then who has he to judge? Who was anyone to judge how someone else coped with the loss of a loved one?
And Anna had been devastated too. She’d offered to go to make them all some tea and she’d seemed to take a very long time, and when Joey had gone to see what was wrong she’d found her sobbing her heart out in the kitchen. In their distress, somehow they’d all forgotten that Anna had worked with Margot at the Chalet School, had known her well, and was bound to be deeply affected by her death, as so many other people would be. A death didn’t just affect those closest to the person who’d gone: it affected everyone with whom their life had been shared in any way.
Margot hadn’t lived in Guernsey long enough to know many people well, and yet there would still be many there affected by her passing, most of them people whose lives she’d touched but little but touched even so. In a short while he was going to have to break the news to everyone at the San: some of them had worked at the San in Tyrol and so known Margot for some years, and there were others who, although they’d never known her, would be saddened because of the loss suffered by Jem. And then there were all the other people who’d known Margot one way or another. Neighbours. Shopkeepers. The lady who’d cut her hair. News of a death affected everyone.
And then there were all the people whom she’d known well. Most of them didn’t live on Guernsey, couldn’t be told in person and would have to learn of her death by other means. Some would have to be informed individually, a task of letter-writing which would presumably fall to Madge whilst Jem made the sad journey to the Denes’ home in England. And there would be others who’d learn the news, either directly or when someone passed it on, from the announcement which Jem would place in the Times. Old acquaintances, people who’d known Margot at school, or in her nursing days before her marriage, people who’d worked for the Russell family, former pupils and staff of the Chalet School, and so many others. So many. So many people affected by one person’s death.
And then there’d be people who’d somehow miss the news and who, at some time a few months hence, would innocently enquire of a mutual acquaintance if they’d heard anything of Margot Venables recently, and learn only then, shocked and horrified, of what had happened. And, at Christmas, cards would arrive which would be addressed to “Margot, Daisy and Primula,” and their senders would have to be notified then of what had happened, months after the event. And always, throughout all the years to come, new friends, and eventually potential sweethearts, would ask Daisy and Primula about their mother, and awkwardly mutter “I am so sorry,” when told that she’d died when they were young. At every important moment in their lives they would feel her absence, and nothing anybody could ever say or do would be able to make that right for them.
Back at Bonne Maison, Madge was making her way to the nursery to check on her baby daughter. Marie and Rosa were going about their work, and Andreas had gone to make some enquiries about ferry times for the following morning. Jem was in his study with his nose in a pile of paperwork: she was sure that there couldn’t be anything which he had to deal with so urgently, but she suspected that he felt the need to keep busy until it was time for them to leave for Les Rosiers. And maybe his study, the part of the house which was his own and into which it was rare for anyone else to venture other than Marie with her dusters, was the part of the house where he felt most able to think, to be alone with his thoughts.
She herself had retired to the sitting room after breakfast, to make a list of people to whom she would have to write with the news of Margot’s death, and in the sitting room there were so many memories of Margot, so many mental images of her, so many physical traces of her. A book which Margot had begun reading a few weeks ago stood at the end of a shelf: she’d asked Marie to put it away, saying that she no longer felt able to concentrate on it and would finish it when she felt better. She’d never finish it now. Just as she’d never hear the end of a radio serial which she’d been listening to and enjoying. How strange it was that someone could just be taken away like that, taken away in the middle of everything. Margot’s birthday was marked in Madge’s diary, a birthday that she wouldn’t now, for ever the age which she’d turned the previous year, be reaching: should she leave it there, or draw a line through it? And why was she even thinking about something so trivial, ridiculous? Yet that was what you did. Little things. That was what life was mainly made up of, little things.
Margot’s personal possessions, all the little things which spoke of her, remained in place, and would continue to do so for the time being. Madge remembered all too well the day on which she and Dick had returned home to find that well-meaning family friends had cleared away all their late mother and father’s things whilst they’d been out, thinking that it was distressing for the two children to be surrounded by objects which acted as reminders of everything they’d lost. It had been kindly meant, but it had been devastating for both of them: it was as if people had been trying to pretend that their much-loved parents had never been in the house at all. Margot’s possessions would have to be dealt with when the time was right, but that certainly wasn’t yet. It would be when they were all ready for it and not before.
She hadn’t left very much. Photographs. Her clothes. Some books. A few pieces of jewellery, those which hadn’t been sold during her time in Australia, and some ornaments and other small personal items. But she’d left instructions about what was to be done with it all. Her clothes were to be given to a charitable organisation which would be able to make use of them. One well away from Bonne Maison, Madge thought to herself: it would be distressing for Daisy and Primula should they see a stranger wearing their mother’s things. Everything else was to be divided between her daughters, with the exception of various items to be given as keepsakes to other members of the family. “If they want them,” she’d added. Which they would do. Of course they would do.
“Other members of the family” included Joey, Robin, the Bettany children and the Moniers and Rosa: she’d forgotten no-one. Including baby Josette who sadly would have no memories of her Auntie Margot. Margot had been delighted at Josette’s birth and had doted on her youngest niece in the all-too-brief time that they’d had together, but Josette would never remember those times, would remember nothing of the aunt who’d loved her so much, Madge thought with sorrow as she opened the nursery door, to spend some time with her youngest child before she and Jem set off to tell their older children and her brother’s children that death had come to Bonne Maison in the night.
These were their last minutes of privacy, she knew. Jack would be on his way now to tell Grizel and the Lintons, and then he would be making his way to the San where he would have to let all the staff know of Jem’s bereavement. And the news would soon spread: news of a death always spread quickly. Soon the news of what had happened at Bonne Maison would form the basis of conversations amongst everyone they knew; soon the telephone would start ringing; soon people would start calling round to offer their condolences and ask if there was anything that they could do to help; soon their time and their grief would be their own no longer.
Pushing open the door of the nursery, Madge found Marie there as well as Rosa. The housekeeper stood up immediately, an apologetic look on her face. “I’m sorry, Madame. I hope you don’t mind: I haven’t been here long. All the breakfast things are cleared away, and I’ll make a start on everything else soon but I just wanted to make sure that the children were all right. We told them earlier on, and I don’t think Jakob really understands but Gretchen is upset and ...”
“It’s all right, Marie,” Madge said gently. “Sit down: there’s nothing to be sorry for. Of course you wanted to be with Gretchen and Jakob.” She understood: she wanted to be with Josette, and she wanted to be with David and Sybil and her nieces and nephews too, badly, even though she knew that that would mean that they had to share the grief of Margot’s loss and she wasn’t sure how she was going to bear that. Margot would never hold her children again, but she could hold hers and she wanted to, desperately, and it was only natural that Marie would feel that way too. And maybe also Marie and Rosa were feeling the pain of being separated from their family in Austria particularly badly today, knowing that in any time of trouble they and their loved ones back in Briesau would be many miles apart.
She and Jem were here for Daisy and Primula, though. She could never take Margot’s place and would never even try to, but she must try to be a mother-substitute of sorts. As she’d been doing ever since she’d been a young girl like Daisy. To Joey, to Robin, to Juliet, to Dick and Mollie’s children, sometimes to Biddy, sometimes to Stacie and perhaps even in a way even to Grizel. She didn’t know why this should have been the pattern of her life, but it had; and she would try to do everything that she could for Margot’s children, everything that Margot would have wanted.
Josette was fast asleep in her crib in the room adjoining the main nursery. Madge lifted the baby gently from her cot and held her close, and then placed her carefully back down, not wanting to wake her. Oh, to be a baby and to be able to sleep so innocently, so blissfully unaware of everything that was going on around you, she thought sadly. Marie’s little ones, who shared the nursery with the other children whilst their parents were busy about their work, were wide awake, though, and playing on the floor. Jakob was engrossed in pushing a toy train about, but Gretchen was sitting quietly in a corner, a strange look on her small face.
“She understands too much and too little, Madame,” Marie said quietly. “She knows that Frau Venables has gone, but it’s all very confusing for her.”
The little girl looked up at Madge. “Mummy and Daddy told us that Frau Venables has gone away to Heaven,” she said. “And they said that it was all right for us to be sad for a little while, but that we mustn’t be sad for long because Frau Venables wouldn’t want us to be sad, and that she’s happy now because she’s with Daisy and Primula’s little brothers, who went to Heaven a long time ago, and she won’t be tired or poorly any more. And she said that we must remember that you would all be very sad, because Frau Venables was Herr Doktor Russell’s sister and you would all miss her very much. I’ll miss her too, Frau Doktor Russell. I’m sorry that you’re sad.”
She walked over to stand by Madge’s side. “I don’t understand how people get to Heaven, though. Mummy said that God sent an angel to take Frau Venables to Him, but how did they get there? Angels can fly, but Frau Venables couldn’t fly. Did the angel carry her? I didn’t think angels could carry people when they were flying, because they only have thin wings, not big strong wings like big birds have. And how did they get out of her bedroom? Mummy said yesterday that Frau Venables couldn’t get out of bed because she was so poorly, so how did she get out to go to Heaven? Did the angel lift her out of bed as well? I don’t understand. Do you know, Frau Doktor Russell?”
Madge looked at Marie, not wanting to risk contradicting anything that the Moniers might have told their children about the mysteries of death and risk confusing the child further, but Marie nodded and so she squatted down on the floor and took the little girl’s hand gently in hers. “When someone goes to Heaven, Gretchen, what happens is that they fall asleep, and whilst they’re asleep, an angel takes them into a different world, and they wake up with God. That’s what death is – falling asleep to wake with God, in the next world.”
“So it’s a bit like a magic door?” Gretchen looked at her, her little face alert and serious. “Like in a story? The angel took Frau Venables through a magic door whilst she was asleep, in her bed so that she didn’t have to get out of it and try to fly, and when she woke up she was in Heaven?”
Madge nodded, trying desperately to hold back her tears. “That’s right, Gretchen. It’s like a magic door. To God. Frau Venables is safe with God now.”
Gretchen nodded, satisfied. Impulsively, Madge hugged her close, and then Marie, mouthing words of thanks, did the same, and Jakob, not quite understanding what was going on but sensing that it was important, came over to join in, and Rosa followed him.
“Thank you so much, Madame,” Marie said as they left the nursery together a few minutes later. “It can be so hard to explain things to little ones sometimes. And you want so much to shelter them from sorrow, to make it so that they can be happy at all times, but ... life isn’t like that, is it?” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Madame, some time later on, when my work for the morning is all done, I would like to go to the church, our church, and light a candle for Frau Venables. Would that be all right? Do you think she would have minded?”
“I know that she wouldn’t.” Madge shook her head. “They’re just different paths to God, after all. She would have appreciated it, Marie. And Herr Doktor Russell and I appreciate it too. Frau Venables’s ... death ... affects all of us. All of us who knew and cared for her. But, if we can, we’ve got to try to believe what we tell the children – that she’s safe now, and she’s happy. We can never know for sure, because nobody’s ever come back to tell us. But that’s what we’ve got to try to believe. That way, it becomes that little bit easier for us to try to bear it.”
It was Karen, once the cook and head of domestic staff at the Chalet School and now working as a housekeeper for Grizel Cochrane and the Linton sisters, who opened the door of the house which the three young women were renting when Jack Maynard rang on the bell. It was rare for anyone to call this early, unless it was the postman with a parcel to deliver; and it took her only a moment to realise what the doctor’s appearance on the doorstep at this time of day must mean. “It’s Frau Venables, isn’t it?” she asked quietly.
Jack nodded, wishing that he didn’t have to be the one to bear bad tidings to so many. Karen, of course, would have worked closely with Margot during the School’s last years in Tyrol and would have got to know her well. Grizel too – herself motherless since she was younger than Primula was now, he thought sadly - had spent a lot of time with her, both at the school and during the holidays, and Gillian and Joyce had found in her a source of support when their own mother had been taken from them. This would be a sad day for all four young women. “I’m afraid so, Karen. She died in the night. I’m so sorry to have to be the one to tell you. May I come in?”
“Oh – of course.” She moved back, embarrassed. “I am so sorry, Herr Doktor Maynard: I wasn’t thinking. Please, come in. Fraulein Grizel is just at her piano practice, as you can hear , and Fraulein Gillian and Fraulein Joyce are upstairs with the children.” She paused. “The children ...?”
“The Russells are going to tell all the children together, at our house,” he told her quickly. “We need someone to take Peggy and Rix over there as soon as possible, but not to alarm them. If Fraulein Grizel’s on her own, I’ll speak to her now, tell her what’s happened. It’s all right if I just go through, isn’t it? ” He smiled sadly. “This’ll probably be the one and only time that she’ll ever have been sorry to’ve had an excuse to leave her piano practice part-way through. It’s not that the news’ll be a surprise, but not being a surprise doesn’t necessarily stop something from being a shock.”
“I’ll go and make some tea,” she said. She smiled sadly too. “Hot sweet tea. It’s supposed to help, isn’t it?”
She just managed to make it back to the kitchen before the tears came, and she sat down, clutching the teapot in her hand. She’d never drunk tea until she’d come here to the Channel Islands. Even at the Chalet School, with all its British connections, they’d always drunk coffee. The Chalet School, where she, the daughter of a goatherd, had found herself working alongside the sister of “the great Herr Doktor” James Russell. She’d been bemused at first when she’d heard that Margot Venables was to take a job at the school, but she hadn’t known her then. Now she did. No. Now she had.
She’d secretly rather admired Frau Venables. Matron Venables. For many reasons. The Russells might not have liked having their family secrets discussed in public but Margot’s history was certainly known to those who’d worked at Die Rosen and, whilst Marie wasn’t a gossip, since their childhood there’d been very little that either she or Karen knew which the other one didn’t. So Karen knew all about how the then Margot Russell had defied her parents to elope with the man she’d loved. A man they hadn’t approved of. How they’d threatened – a threat which they’d carried out – to cut her off completely if she married him, and how she’d done it anyway. She’d left behind her family, her friends, her home (and, presumably, her money), all for a great love, a passionate love. Whatever had happened after that, she’d known a force of emotion to which many people, however long they lived, never came even close.
And she’d dared to act on it. She hadn’t let herself be hidebound by convention, constrained by the rules of society. She’d followed her heart. And she’d travelled to a far-off country, and she’d experienced a completely different way of life to the one in which she’d been brought up. And, however painful the path of her marriage might have been, at least she’d had her daughters, and for a little while her sons, to love and be loved by in return. She hadn’t been alone, or lonely. Karen hadn’t just admired her: she’d envied her, and if envy was a sin then that didn’t stop it being a compliment to the one who’d inspired it.
It wasn’t only in her marriage that she’d been brave, either. Karen and the rest of the domestic staff at the school had been surprised at first to learn that Herr Doktor Russell’s sister was a trained nurse. They’d soon learned that she’d received that training during the Great War, serving in military hospitals, treating horrific injuries under conditions of almost unimaginable difficulty, and continuing that work during the equally dark days of the Spanish influenza epidemic which had come just as the world was trying to mark the return to peace. It took a special kind of person to be able to do that, and Margot Venables had been such a person. Even her taking the position as a school matron, when surely her brother would have supported her and her children financially and she need never have worked again, spoke of a certain type of bravery, and of a pride which not all the terrible experiences she’d been through in Australia had been able to break.
The life of Margot Venables might not have been long, and it certainly might not always have been happy, but it had been fuller than that of many people. Karen hoped that people would remember that. She hoped that people wouldn’t just think of Margot Venables, née Russell, as “that poor little woman”, who’d “faded tranquilly out of life”, as Jem Russell’s sister or even as Daisy and Primula’s mother. She hoped that people would remember her also as the brave, passionate and spirited person that she had been, and that they’d cherish the memory of that person always.
She’d like to think that they would.
Jem Russell stood on the deck of the ferry which was carrying him from Guernsey to the English port of Weymouth, his hair blown about by the wind and his face splashed by the spray thrown up from the sea. It wasn’t the best of days to be making the crossing and no-one else was up on deck, but the grey clouds and chilly air seemed far more appropriate for this journey than blue sky and sunshine would have done, and the absence of any of his fellow passengers anywhere nearby suited him. He wanted to be alone, to think. Several people had volunteered to make the trip with him, but in the end he was glad to be making it on his own, although he appreciated their kindness in offering.
People had been very kind generally, not only since Margot’s death but during her illness, asking if they could do anything to help - sit with Margot for a little while, take the children out, run any errands which the Russells might need doing, deliver any items which Marie and Andreas might not have time to collect. And Joey had spoken about endowing a prize in Margot’s name once the Chalet School reopened, as a lasting memorial to her. It was a lovely idea: he couldn’t think about it just yet, but he would do.
The sense of pain and loss which he felt was still very raw and he knew that it would remain so for days, weeks, perhaps even months yet, but he was much calmer now than he’d been in those first terrible hours. He’d apologised to Madge more than once for his bitter outburst in the sitting room, but she’d insisted that there was nothing to apologise for, that it was better not to bottle grief up, and that in times of trauma people often said things which they wouldn’t say normally.
That last bit was certainly true. He wouldn’t say anything like that normally. He was a doctor: he’d seen death come in many guises, to people of all ages and in widely differing circumstances. He and others in his profession could try to study patterns, the effects of lifestyle and climate, whether or not there seemed to be any hereditary element to illnesses, but he knew all too well that there was no fairness or justice in any of it, no punishment, no reward, no sense. Some people lived to a great age and others to a lesser one. Some couples conceived easily whilst others never conceived at all. Sometimes he was treating two patients at a similar stage of the same illness and one made a full recovery whilst the other deteriorated and eventually died of it. That was how it was. Railing against the unfairness of it all, of life and death, was useless: it achieved nothing.
Nor did blame. And nor did thinking “if only”. How often did he find himself listening to despairing patients and their relatives telling him how much they wished that they’d sought treatment sooner? It didn’t change a thing. If. If he’d done something more all those years ago, might Margot have remained in England, never had to go through everything that she’d endured in Queensland? If he’d been more sympathetic towards her, or tried harder to find her after they’d lost touch, might she have come to him in Austria sooner, and might the collapse that she’d suffered after reaching Die Rosen thus have been avoided? If he hadn’t asked her and Rosalie to make that frightening journey away from Tyrol with so many children to be responsible for, might she have arrived in Guernsey less weary and more willing to fight? If, if, if. There were so many ifs, but all the ifs in the world wouldn’t bring Margot back. He had to move on from them; and he would do so, for everyone’s sakes.
The vicar hadn’t preached at him and Madge, or come out with anything about the will of God or it being a relief that Margot’s earthly sufferings were over. He’d been sympathetic and helpful, and practical. The funeral had been arranged for the following week. Jem had never been sure whether Margot, when she’d said that she wanted Daisy and Primula to be sent away until it was all over, had meant until after her death or until after her funeral, but he’d chosen not to ask her for clarification and he and Madge had decided that it would be best to bring their nieces home before the burial. He didn’t know whether sending them away at all had been the right thing to do – he kept remembering Hilda Annersley’s words about children and death when Princess Balbini had been dying, and in some ways this had been even worse because Daisy, at least, had realised exactly what was going on – but it had been Margot’s choice and Margot’s wish, and he and Madge had had to respect that.
And at least the girls wouldn’t have the memory of a sick and weak woman, no longer able to do anything but the smallest things for herself, too heavily sedated for the sort of deathbed words of love and comfort which always seemed to be spoken in books, overlying the memories of the woman that Margot had really been. He knew that in time those last memories would fade from his mind, and that when he thought of his sister he’d remember the lively child with whom he’d shared a nursery, the laughing girl with whom he’d shared Christmases and holidays, the beautiful and brave young woman who’d served as a nurse in the Great War, and the sister who’d come back to him after all those wasted years apart, but for the time being they were sharp and clear in his mind and at least Daisy and Primula had been spared that. Although whether or not that was how they’d view not having been with their mother during her final weeks remained to be seen.
Telling the other children had been difficult as he and Madge had known it would be, although not as difficult as in their worst fears. Peggy and Bride had both burst into tears immediately: they and their brothers had spent more time with Margot in their short lives than they had with their own parents, he’d thought with a strange sadness. Tears were natural, though: tears were to be expected, they could cope with tears. Rix had insisted that only girls and baby boys cried, but Madge suspected that he’d shed a tear or two later when he’d thought that no-one was looking. As they’d known he would, he’d had some questions to ask about the nature of death, but at least he hadn’t asked them whilst the younger children were within earshot. And, later, Madge had heard him, Peggy and Bride saying that they must all be very nice to Uncle Jem, because his sister had died and he was bound to be very sad.
Sybil had been quiet at first, but then she’d started to cry too. Madge and Jem had been worried that she hadn’t understood and was only crying because her cousins were crying, but then she’d sobbed out that she’d known that Auntie Margot was poorly but that she’d thought she was only a little bit poorly, because she thought that anyone who was very poorly went to the San, and that she’d drawn her a picture to give her to make her feel better and now she wouldn’t be able to and Auntie Margot would never know that she’d drawn it. And people who went to Heaven couldn’t ever come back, could they, and now Daisy and Primula would never see their mummy again, like Biddy and Stacie and Cornelia and Auntie Grizel and Auntie Gillian and Auntie Joyce and Auntie Rosalie, and it wasn’t fair and why did so many people’s mummies have to die? They’d been able to calm her down eventually, though, and since then she’d seemed more accepting of what had happened. And at least their biggest worry, that she just wouldn’t understand, hadn’t manifested itself.
Jackie had wanted to know what Heaven was like. Would Auntie Margot be able to see them all from Heaven, he’d asked. And how did everyone fit in there if everyone who’d ever died in the whole history of the world was there? And did dogs and cats and other animals go there too, or just people? And did the people there get apple strudel to eat, like Marie made, because that was Auntie Margot’s favourite? Madge and Jem had answered his questions as best they could, and he’d seemed satisfied with their replies and they’d been glad of that. And they hoped that Dick and Mollie, who weren’t here to consult, would approve of their explanations.
Perhaps surprisingly, the worst difficulties had been with David. Like Rix, he’d refused to let himself cry in front of everyone else, although he’d sobbed his heart out later when he’d been alone with Madge. He hadn’t asked what Heaven was like, or why people had to die, or, as Rix had done, what happened to people’s hair and fingernails and toenails when they died or whether their eyes stayed open or shut, but he had asked why Daisy and Primula had been sent away so that they would never get to see their mummy again. Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising: he and Primula had been close from the very first day that the Venables family had arrived at Die Rosen. Eventually he’d accepted that it had been what Auntie Margot had wanted, because she hadn’t wanted her daughters to see her when she was so poorly because it would make them sad, but he’d said that he still thought Daisy and Primula would be cross about it. He’d be very cross if he were them, he’d said fiercely. And he thought it was silly to say that they’d been sent away so that they wouldn’t be sad. Of course they were going to be sad: their mummy had just died. He was going to be extra nice to them when they got home, and everyone else had to be extra nice to them too. They all had to try to look after them, because now they didn’t have either a daddy or a mummy.
Oh Margot, Jem thought. I will look after your girls. It’s the one thing I can do for you now. Daisy says that she wants to be a doctor, and no-one’s taken her very seriously so far – she’s a bright girl, but how many women become doctors? – but I’m going to take her seriously from now on. I’ll do everything I can to see that she gets her chance. And Primula’s too young yet to have much idea of what she wants from life but, whatever it is, I’ll do everything I can to see that she gets her chance too. They won’t want for anything. A home, clothes, food, books, toys, games ... encouragement, support, or love. Madge and I can’t take your place and we wouldn’t even try to, but we’ll always be there for them. I promise you that. We will always be there for your daughters.
“Oh Dr Jem, I’m so sorry. My father told me.” Rosalie’s eyes filled with tears as she opened the door. She brushed them away hastily: heavens, Daisy and Primula mustn’t see her crying at the same time as they saw their uncle or they’d guess what had happened before he had chance to say a word, and that would be a terrible way for them to find out. Get a grip on yourself, Rosalie, she told herself sternly. Your job here’s to support the girls, not to start crying again. You can do that when you’re on your own.
Deep breath. “Come in, please. Daisy and Primula are just in the garden, playing with my stepmother’s dog – Primula’s very taken with him. Only the three of us are here: my father’s at work and my stepmother’s gone round to see a friend. Would you like me to call the girls in, or would you rather go out to them?”
“Would you mind asking them to come in – just say that it’s time to have a drink or something?” Jem shook his head. “I’m afraid that when they see me they’ll know straight away –well, Daisy will, anyway - and I’d rather be inside the house rather than out in the garden when it happens.” He reached out and squeezed his secretary’s hand awkwardly. “Thanks for everything you’ve done, Rosalie. Margot was so adamant that she didn’t want them to see her like ... like that, and we’ve got some cousins but Daisy and Primula have never met them and we didn’t want to send them away with strangers. I don’t know what we’d have done without you. I can never thank your father and stepmother enough for agreeing to have them to stay.”
“It was the least we could do.” Rosalie smiled sadly. “I just wish it could have been under happier circumstances. Here, let me take your coat, then I’ll go and ask them to come in.” It seemed rude to greet a guest like this: she felt that she should be offering Dr Jem some refreshment, asking him how his journey had been, enquiring after everyone in Guernsey, but he’d come here to tell his nieces that their mother was dead and she knew that that was all that was on his mind at the moment, and that delaying that with the conventions of politeness would be neither welcome nor helpful. Excusing herself, she walked rapidly to the door which opened on to the garden. “Daisy! Primula! It’s time to come in now,” she called, trying hard to sound normal. “Don’t forget to take your shoes off if you’ve been walking on the grass! I’m just about to make us all a drink and get some biscuits out.”
Daisy came rushing in moments later. “Prim won’t be a minute, Auntie Rosalie: she’s just messing about with Rover. He’s dropped his squeaky bone somewhere, but she says she knows where it is and she’ll just get it and ... Uncle Jem.”
She stopped in the middle of the hallway, and all the words which Jem had rehearsed went straight out of his head. He had to tell both of them together, but only one of them was here. Hell, what did he do? Stall for time. Quick, think of something to say until Primula comes in. “So, you’ve been playing with Mrs Dene’s dog, have you?” he heard himself ask, in a hearty voice which sounded ridiculously false even to him. “Good fun, having a pet around the house. I still miss old Rufus, although I don’t think Marie misses the hairs he used to leave all over the place! I’m surprised your Auntie Jo hasn’t done anything about getting another dog now that she and your Uncle Jack are nicely settled in at Les Rosiers, come to think of it.”
“Mummy’s dead, isn’t she? That’s why you’re here. You’ve come to tell us that she’s dead.” She stared at him unblinkingly. “She’s dead, and we didn’t get chance to say goodbye.”
Oh no. This was what I dreaded most. “Oh, Daisy.” Jem started to walk towards his eldest niece, but, before he could say or do any more, Primula came in. Her face lit up and she hurtled across the hallway towards him.
“Uncle Jem! Uncle Jem! Nobody told us you were coming! Have you come to one of your doctor meetings, or have you come specially to see us? Are we going home with you? It’s lovely here, but we miss everyone. Especially Mummy. How is she now? When can we go and see her? And is Auntie Madge here as well? Have you brought David with you? I want to show him Rover. And how’s baby Josette? Oh, Uncle Jem!”
She ran into his arms, and he lifted her up and hugged her close. Everyone said that Primula was the image of him in looks, but she had Margot’s affectionate nature, he thought. And Daisy had Margot’s lovely golden hair and deep blue eyes. And, he thought wryly, Sybil had the wilfulness which Margot had shown as a young girl and even more so when she’d set her heart on marrying Stephen Venables, and maybe David had something of the elder sibling protectiveness which she’d shown when she and he had been young. She would never truly be gone as long as these children lived on, and as long as she lived on in people’s hearts ... but the Margot who had lived and breathed amongst them was gone, and that was what he now had to explain to her children.
“I’ll go and put some biscuits out and make some tea,” Rosalie murmured. “Would you like to go into the lounge? It’s just through here. Girls, why don’t you show your Uncle Jem into the lounge? I’ll just be in the kitchen.”
Daisy obeyed mutely, and Primula, sensing now that something was wrong, looked anxiously from her uncle to her sister and then followed them. Jem shut the door behind them, motioned for them to sit down on either side of him, and took a deep breath.
“Daisy ... Primula ... I’m afraid that I’ve got some very sad news for you both, and there’s no easy way of saying it. Your mummy, my sister ...” oh God, help me, he thought. How on earth do I do this? How do I tell them something like this? And then what do I do? What do I do to try to help them to cope with it? How do I help them to bear the pain?
I’ve got to get the words out. “Your mummy, my sister,” he repeated, “has been very poorly, as you know. That’s why she wanted you to go away for a little while, because she knew it would upset you to see her when she wasn’t well. She got worse after you went away, and yesterday morning, she,” - no, he wasn’t going to wrap it up in euphemisms like “passed away” or “went to Heaven” or “fell asleep and never woke up”, because that wouldn’t help – “died. Your mother died yesterday morning. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Oh hell, he mustn’t cry. He must not cry. And he hadn’t got a clue whether or not he was saying the right things. Maybe he should have let Madge come with him after all: they’d have managed with Josette somehow, and she’d have done this so much better than he was doing. Madge was so good at explaining things to children, especially girls, whereas he … he could stand up in front of a room of eminent doctors and talk about the latest developments in treating tuberculosis without thinking twice about it, but he was struggling like mad with this. He was trying so hard, he really was, but he had no idea whether or not he was getting it right. If there was any way that anyone could get something like this “right”.
“No! No, she can’t have died. Mummy can’t have died. Not Mummy. No, Uncle Jem. Mummy can’t be dead. She was poorly, but people get poorly all the time and they get better. You’re a doctor: you make people better. Oh Mummy. Oh Mummy! I want Mummy. I want my mummy. I want my mummy. I want my mummy.” Primula burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably, and Jem pulled her into his arms, not knowing what to say but hoping that somehow he might be able to bring her some comfort, or at the very least be able to make her feel safe. “I’m here, Prim” he said, hoping that his voice didn’t sound as shaky as he felt. “I’m here. It’s all right, darling. Uncle Jem’s here.” And then suddenly Daisy, who hadn’t spoken, stood up and ran out of the room, as she did so almost knocking over Rosalie who’d been standing outside uncertainly, before he could stop her.
“Daisy!” he cried in anguish. “Daisy, don’t run off. Daisy … hang on, please, please don’t run off! Where are you going? Daisy, wait!”
Rosalie was at his side in a trice, the plate of biscuits she’d been carrying shoved hastily on the window sill. Chocolate ones, he noticed – why was it that in times of crisis you always found yourself noticing such irrelevant things? “It’s all right, Dr Jem. Go after her. I’ll look after Primula. Oh, Prim. Oh, Prim, darling, come to Auntie Rosalie. I know, I know. I understand. I lost my mummy too. Come to Auntie Rosalie, darling. There, there, it’s all right. Auntie Rosalie’ll look after you. Uncle Jem and Daisy’ll be back very soon, and then we’re all going to go home, and Auntie Madge’ll be there, and Auntie Joey, and Uncle Jack, and David’ll: they’ll all be there. Come on, darling. You cry as much as you want to. Auntie Rosalie’s here. And Daisy and Uncle Jem are just going to have a little talk.”
“It’s all right, Uncle Jem. You don’t have to hug me. I’m not a little kid: I’m not going to cry all over you.”
Jem had stopped a couple of feet away from her. He wasn’t sure exactly what to do. She didn’t seem to have any intention of leaving the house, at least, and she seemed to be willing to talk to him. That was something. “I’ve cried,” he said. “I’ve cried a lot. And I cried when my mother died too.”
“Were you there?” Daisy fixed him with another unblinking gaze. “When your mother died? Were you there?”
All I can do is answer her questions. Completely honestly. “Yes. I was with her until the end.”
“Mummy wasn’t, though, was she?”
Jem shook his head. “Your mother and father were living in Australia by then. Your mother didn’t know about it until later.” Until seven years later, when I had to tell her that both our parents had died, without ever having made peace with her.
Daisy nodded. “Was it horrible?”
“It wasn’t very nice,” Jem acknowledged. “She never really recovered from when my father died, three months before she did, and I don’t think she was sorry to go; but it was horrible for me, yes.”
“Was she ill for the three months?”
All I can do is to keep answering her questions. Tell her whatever it is she feels that she needs to know. “No, Daisy. Your grandmother was only ill for a few days. She went pretty quickly.”
Daisy nodded again. “Daddy died very quickly. He got bitten by a snake and it poisoned him. He went out in the morning as normal and we had his funeral in the evening. He was there, and then he wasn’t. And Frankie and Steve were both only poorly for a few days. But Jimmy was poorly for a long time before he died. Mummy and Daddy kept saying that he’d get better, but he didn’t. And then Frankie and Steve died too. And then Daddy. They all died, and Primula was only a little baby and I used to keep telling Mummy that I was still there, and it was all right because we were still together, the three of us. Just the three of us.
“Did Mummy know that we weren’t there? And were you with her, at the end? She wasn’t on her own, was she? You were with her?”
“I was there, and Auntie Madge, and Uncle Jack as well,” Jem said carefully. “I hope she knew that we were there, but I’m not sure whether she did or not – I’m honestly not sure, Daisy: I’d tell you if I were. She was asleep for a lot of the time, the last few days. She wasn’t in any pain, though: Uncle Jack and I made sure of that. And she knew that you and Primula were in England with Auntie Rosalie; but it was what she wanted, Daisy. She didn’t want you to see her like that. She didn’t want you to remember her as someone who was ill: she wanted you to remember her how she was. Please, Daisy, understand that that was what she wanted. She just wanted to do what she thought was best for you and Primula. Because she loved you both so much.”
“I understand. I do understand, Uncle Jem: I understand that that was what Mummy wanted. But I just can’t believe that we’ll never see her again. Oh, Uncle Jem, she’s gone. We’ll never see her again. We’ll never, ever see her again.” Great tearing sobs began to come from her, and now Jem did put his arms round her. He was fearful at first that she might resist, but she flung her arms round him in return and sobbed into his chest even more bitterly than Primula had done a few minutes earlier.
“The boys, and Daddy, and now Mummy too. Oh Uncle Jem, it’s not fair. Why did she have to die? She wasn’t old. She didn’t have tuberculosis or anything like that. Why did she have to die? Why didn’t she stay with us? Why did she go away, Uncle Jem? Why did she leave us on our own? Why did she leave me and Primula on our own? Why didn’t she stay with us?”
“Oh, Daisy.” Jem was battling back tears himself now. Oh, my poor child. Oh, my poor little girl. Oh, Daisy. “Daisy ...Daisy, listen to me. Listen to me. You are not on your own, Daisy. You and Primula are not on your own: you’ll never be on your own. You’ve got me and Auntie Madge: our home is your home; you’re part of our family. We can’t bring your mummy back, and I know that no-one can never make up for her not being here, but you’ll never be on your own. You’ve got us, and you’ve got Auntie Joey and Uncle Jack, and Robin, and David and Sybil and Josette, and Peggy and Rix, and Bride and Jackie, and Marie and Andreas, and Gretchen and Jakob, and Rosa, and Auntie Rosalie, and Canon and Mrs Dene, and Auntie Grizel, and Gillian and Joyce, and everyone at the school when it opens up again. You’re not on your own, Daisy.
“ I know it’s not the same, but we’re all here for you. And your mummy was very tired, my darling, and sometimes people are just too tired to be able to go on any more. I tried to save her, I promise you – I tried so hard, God knows I tried - but she’s gone. And we must believe that she’s safe in Heaven now, and that she’s with your brothers and that she’s happy. Try to believe that, Daisy, if you can. Try to believe that she’s safe with God now.”
“I do.” Daisy lifted her face to his. “I do believe it. Mummy always said that when people died they went to Heaven. I do believe it, Uncle Jem. And I believe that she’s watching over us. When Nurse Rickards died, Mummy said that she’d be watching over us. And when we were on the ship, when we left Australia, we’d go up on deck in the evenings sometimes and we’d see the stars, and if one of the stars was shining extra brightly she’d say that that was Nurse Rickards, and that she was looking down on us. And now Mummy’ll be looking down on us too. But it’s not the same as her being here, is it? It’s not the same as being able to see her and touch her and talk to her?”
Jem shook his head sadly. “No, Daisy. No, it isn’t. But it’s how it is, and all we can do now is to accept it, and to let her go in peace. We have to accept that she’s gone, and that we have to say goodbye.”
Daisy nodded slowly, and then took a few paces back. “I’m going to say goodbye. At the funeral.” She looked at him with eyes that were the mirrors of Margot’s, and had in them every bit of the spirit that Margot had had as a young girl, and more. “And I don’t care if anyone says I shouldn’t go because it’ll upset me. I’m going. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Mummy before, but at least I’ll be able to do it then. And you’ll let Prim go too, won’t you, if she wants to?”
Jem nodded mutely. He couldn’t make that decision for them. He’d promised himself that he’d do anything for them, anything to help them, but that was one thing that he couldn’t do. And so he told Daisy that she must decide for herself, and that Primula, young as she was, must make that decision too. And then he followed his eldest niece back into the lounge. And the two sisters ran into each other’s arms. And Rosalie Dene poured him a cup of tea, with one sugar and not too much milk, just the way he liked it, and asked him if he’d prefer a fruit shortbread biscuit or a ginger nut. And the next morning they all left for Guernsey, and home. To pick up the pieces of their lives and to try to carry on. Because that was all that they could do. And that was what Margot would have wanted.
We have come here today
Jem and Madge sat towards the right hand side of the front pew, Daisy on Jem’s other side and Primula on Daisy’s other side. Next to Primula sat David, and beside him were Jack and Joey, and next to them Rix, Peggy and Bride. Jem and Madge were still unsure about the wisdom of bringing the younger children to the funeral service – Joey was on standby to make a rapid exit with anyone who found themselves unable to bear it - but Primula, after they’d explained carefully to her exactly what was going to happen and that she might find it very upsetting, had insisted that she wanted to be there; and David and the three eldest Bettany children had all asked that they be allowed to come and say their final farewells to Auntie Margot. Sybil and Jackie, for whom the occasion would have been too much, were at home with Rosa. For once Sybil hadn’t protested about being left behind, for once Rix hadn’t pulled away and muttered about girls being sissies when Peggy had slipped her hand into his, and for once there’d been no arguing about who was going to sit where or next to whom.
On Bride’s other side was Robin, and in the pew behind were Grizel, Rosalie, Gillian and Joyce, all of them sombre in their funeral black. Further back sat Marie, Andreas, Karen and Anna, all making their first visit to an Anglican church, a scattering of neighbours, people from the San and a few others whose acquaintances the Russell-Venables family had had made since their arrival in Guernsey, and a small number of people who’d made the crossing from either England or France to pay their respects to Margot and lend their support to those she’d left behind. It was a small gathering, but all those who mattered most were there.
Jem rose from his seat at the vicar’s signal and made his way to the front of the church, praying that he wouldn’t break down before he’d said what he had to say. He was aware that this was going to be difficult, aware of the sound of weeping from several quarters, and horribly aware that inside the wooden coffin now only a few inches away from him lay the earthly remains of person with whom all his earliest memories were filled and the mother of the two young girls sitting between his wife and his son, someone who’d just a few days earlier had been alive, to live and breathe, to laugh and cried, to love and be loved; but who was now dead and gone, gone from them all for ever.
You can do it, Jimsie! Go on, Jimsie. You can do it. Margot’s voice came echoing to him down the years. Some old friends of their parents had come to stay with them for a few days, bringing with them their two boisterous sons, one the same age as Margot and one a couple of years older; and Nanny had agreed that it would be all right for the four children to play outside provided that they didn’t go too far from the house. They’d wandered a little further than they should have done, and the two older lads had decided to try jumping across a muddy ditch, daring the young Russells to do the same. Margot had reached the other side in safety, apart from some spatterings of mud on her clothes which Nanny was to have plenty to say about later on, but Jem had hesitated. He wasn’t one to shirk a dare, but his legs were shorter than those of the other three and he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to make it. But Margot had stood there, cheering him on, shouting words of encouragement, and he’d taken a deep breath and jumped. And landed safely on the other side.
You can do it, Jimsie! Go on, Jimsie. You can do it.
Jem took a deep breath and began to speak.
Uncle Jem’s just walked to the front of the church, Mummy. I don’t really understand that. It’s vicars who stand at the fronts of churches, not uncles. But I don’t really understand anything very much any more. I don’t understand why those bad men came to Die Rosen and frightened us all. I don’t understand what happened that day that Daisy and the others went shopping in Spartz and only Daisy came back. I don’t understand why we had to leave the Sonnalpe and move to Guernsey, except that it was something to do with the bad men and I don’t understand what the bad men wanted. And I love Baby Josette but I don’t really understand where she suddenly came from. And most of all I don’t understand why you had to die. The one thing I do understand is that you’ve gone and we’ll never see you again. I miss you, Mummy. I miss you so much, and I’m going to go on missing you for ever.
But I know that you can see us. I know that you’re in Heaven. I’m not sure exactly where that is, but I know that it’s somewhere up in the sky, a very long way up where not even aeroplanes can get to. And I know that you’re looking down on us, because Daisy said so. She said that you’ll always be watching over us, wherever we are, and making sure that we’re all right. And we’re going to be all right, Mummy. We’re back at Bonne Maison, with David and Bride and all the others. Auntie Madge and Uncle Jem and Rosa are looking after us. And everyone misses you, but we’re trying hard to do normal sorts of things. Please don’t worry about us, Mummy. We’ll be all right.
I’d better concentrate now, Mummy. Uncle Jem’s talking, and you know that he gets cross if he thinks that people aren’t listening to what he’s saying. But I want you to know that I’m thinking about you, and that we love you, Daisy and I. We’ll always love you. But I know that a funeral means that it’s time to say goodbye, and so that’s what I’m saying inside my head. Goodbye, Mummy. Goodbye.
Primula shifted slightly in her seat, and Daisy looked at her anxiously for a moment, and then, reassured by the tentative smile that her sister gave her, turned back to face the front of the church, steeling herself to listen to the tribute marking the end of their mother’s life.
Uncle Jem’s just going to give the eulogy, Mummy. It’s a funny word, “eulogy”, isn’t it? It sounds like one of those medical terms that Uncle Jem and Uncle Jack use when they’re talking about work. He looks a bit nervous. I’ve never seen Uncle Jem look nervous before: I suppose that’s what funerals do to people. I was nervous this morning as well. I didn’t know how I was going to feel sitting here with all these people. Part of me wishes that they’d all go away, so that Prim and I could say goodbye to you on our own like we never got chance to before you died, but on the other hand it’s nice that they’ve all come. They’ve come because they care, Mummy. They care about us, and they cared about you.
Primula and I’ll be all right, Mummy. We’re very sad just now, but we’ll be all right. Auntie Madge and Uncle Jem’ll look after us, and so will Auntie Joey and Uncle Jack. And when I’m grown up I’ll get a house of my own, and Primula’ll come and live there with me. I’ll help to keep an eye on Primula for you, Mummy. I’m your big girl. You can count on me. And I’m going to make you proud of me, Mummy. I’m going to be a doctor, like Uncle Jem and Uncle Jack. Rix says that girls can’t be doctors, but Rix is wrong. Some girls do become doctors, and I’m going to be one of them. I’m going to work really hard at school when it opens again. And I’m going to throw myself into hockey and lacrosse and cricket and tennis too, and get really stuck into Guides, because you always said that it was important to play hard as well as to work hard. And, most of all, I’ll try to be a good person, always, because you always told me that that was the most important thing of all. I’ll remember everything that you ever told me, Mummy. And I’ll make you proud of me. I will. I promise I will.
It’s strange, being at Bonne Maison without you. I keep expecting you to walk into the sitting room or the dining room or the nursery or wherever else I am at any minute. And I keep thinking of things that I want to ask you or to tell you, and sometimes just for a moment I forget that I can’t because you’re not there any more. I’ll get used to it eventually, I expect. I’ll get used to your not being here. But I’ll never stop missing you. And I’ll never stop loving you. Prim and I will never, ever stop loving you.
Uncle Jem’s just about to start talking. It’ll be time soon, Mummy. Time to bury you. But I know that you’re not really in that wooden coffin at the front of the church. I know that you’ve already gone. But I also know that funerals are held as a way of letting people say goodbye. Especially if they didn’t get the chance beforehand. And that’s why I wanted to be here today. To say goodbye. So goodbye, Mummy. You’ve gone, and we’ve got to say goodbye. Goodbye now, Mummy. Goodbye. It’s time to say goodbye.
“I’d like to thank you all for coming here today,” Jem began. “Margot hadn’t lived in Guernsey for long, as you know, but I like to think that she was happy here, for a while. It was the last of quite a number of different places in which she lived during the course of her life. When we were young, I don’t think she ever envisaged herself moving very far from where we grew up, but life has a way of not turning out as we expect and it took Margot in many different directions over the years.
“All our lives changed when the Great War came. Margot volunteered her services as a nurse. She did her initial training in a hospital in our home county, and, once she was old enough, she joined Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service. Our parents had a lot of concerns about her decision, understandably so, but Margot felt that it was something that she had to do: she was an incredibly brave woman. Daisy, Primula, you’ll have her nursing ribbons as a tangible reminder of how brave she was, and how she did what she thought was right even though she knew that it was going to be harder than anything she could ever have imagined.
“Later on, when Margot married, she and her husband moved to Australia, to start a new life. Sadly, however, the fates didn’t smile on them there. They lost their three young sons, and then Stephen Venables himself also died. Thankfully Margot and her two daughters were spared, however, and Margot supported the three of them alone for a time, before coming to Austria where I was living with Madge and our children. Some of you know the story of how they got lost in the centre of Innsbruck and asked directions from two girls whom they heard speaking English, and how those girls turned out to be my sister-in-law Joey and her friend Frieda. It sounds like something almost too strange to be true; and when Joey contacted me to tell me that Margot had arrived in Tyrol I was barely able to believe that to be true. We’d been apart for so long … too long. But Margot said that she’d come to me because she knew that she and her daughters would be safe with me. And I was determined to make sure that they would be. But, unfortunately, none of us were to be safe in Austria for long. We had to leave, under difficult and frankly rather frightening circumstances. And I couldn’t … I couldn’t …”
He stopped. Madge, feeling his agony and barely able to bear it herself, wondered if she should go to him, but he managed to compose himself and he continued speaking. “It was not God’s will that Margot should be spared to us for long, once we arrived in Guernsey. She was exhausted, physically and mentally. Her health began to fail, and she didn’t have the strength to recover. But now she’s at peace, gone to her eternal rest as people say, and we must try to be glad for her in that, even as we mourn her loss.
“Margot is at peace now, as I’ve said. She was able to die in peace because she knew that her daughters would be safe with those of us to whom she’d entrusted them – and they will be, Margot: I promise you that. Daisy, Primula, you will always have a home as long as Madge and I are here. You will always be cared for and cherished, and you will both have the chance to do whatever you want in life. I promise that too. Margot will live on in the two of you, and in the memories which she left with all of us, and we must try to carry on without her as best we can because that is what she herself would have wanted.
“I am a doctor. Mostly I treat people suffering from tuberculosis. I see death frequently. I see it far, far too frequently, but I never become inured to seeing it. I know that every single one of those deaths brings with it terrible grief to those who are left behind. That is what death does. And that grief spreads, like a stone thrown into a pond. It is deepest at the centre of the ripples, where are those closest to the person who’s gone, but it also affects other relatives, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and anyone else whose lives that person touched. None of our lives will ever be the same again without Margot in them. But Margot’s gone, and we have to accept that. We have to say goodbye, and we have to move on.
“Margot didn’t have a long life, and during that life she had to bear a great deal of sadness, perhaps more than any person should have to bear. But she also knew a great deal of happiness and a great deal of love, and that’s what we must try to remember when we think of her. As we will do every day, those of us who loved her, for the rest of our lives. Those who die are gone from us, but they are not forgotten, and, although we’ve come here today to bid Margot goodbye, her memory will be with us always.”
And with that he sat down. The vicar stepped forward to move the service on towards its conclusion, and a short time later all was over, and Margot Venables, née Russell, lay at rest in the rich soil of the island where, as her brother had said, she’d been happy for a while. And those she’d left behind walked away from her graveside, slowly, sadly, but knowing that they must leave and that she could not come with them; and went away to their homes, to their workplaces, and the rest of their lives.
Warning - this may be distressing.