On the second day of my three-day holiday at Foxglove, there was a knock at the door. I was alone, calmer than I was when I’d arrived, but suddenly nervous at the fact there was a visitor outside. Glancing at the clock, I saw that it was half-past one so Bertie wouldn’t be home from Rosegate for quite some time. Rising from my chair, I went to the front door and opened it to see a handsome man outside standing with his guitar case strapped over his shoulder. He was twentyish with light brown eyes, tousled hair and a smile which died the moment he saw me.
“Who are you?” he asked, surprised. “Where’s my Auntie Bertie?”
‘You haven’t wasted any time, now, have you, Greg?’ I thought, immediately aware that I was face-to-face with Anthony Winterbourne, also fully aware this meeting had been orchestrated by Gregory and Bertie. “I’m Justine,” I replied. “Justine Walcott.”
“Oh, the maid,” he said brightly. “I’ve heard of –”
“I beg your pardon,” I interrupted. “Is that how you present yourself to young women?”
“Oh, right,” he said sheepishly. “That didn’t come out how I wanted it to. All I meant to say was that my Auntie Bertie’s spoken a lot about you. She sings your praises, she does, seeing as you relieved her from her duties at the house.”
“Well, the house is where she’s at now,” I retorted.
“How strange,” the young man said. “She invited me to come here today in particular. Why the devil would she do that if she were going to be at the house? And why would she leave you here?”
“She’s giving me a holiday,” I replied, irked at his utter lack of formality. He hadn’t even introduced himself for God’s sake and he was already asking questions to which he wouldn’t want to hear the answers. “I’m going to be here until tomorrow night.”
“Really?” he said, stepping in uninvited by me. “Well, I’ll be here for a week at least.”
“And you are?” I moved aside.
“I’m Anthony,” he answered, beaming. “Bertie’s nephew.”
“Well, then Anthony – pleased to meet you. I’m Justine.”
“Yes. Justine the maid who’s on holiday.” He took a dramatic little glance around the place. “Here. Five minutes from where you work. Marvellous place for a holiday I reckon.”
“Right,” I responded with a sniff. “And you’re the nephew who’s forgotten his manners.”
“Ah-ha,” he said. “If I thought that you could take it, I’d ask you to hang up my cloak and hat but seeing as you’re on holiday, I won’t put you to work.”
“And I only work for people who pay me,” I rebutted, angrier by the second.
“What if I paid you with a song?” he asked, drumming his fingers on his guitar case.
“Well, I should have to hear the song first to decide if it’s worth it.”
And that was that.
Anthony Winterbourne set down his case, pulled out his guitar and, in his boots, cloak and hat, sang me a song about a bonny lass who’d drowned at sea but came to visit him every night in his dreams. Despite its tragic theme, it was a rollicking jig and I couldn’t help but to tap my foot and light up just a little albeit against my will. The more I lit up, the more triumphantly he sang and the more triumphantly he sang, the more I tried to hide the light. And so-on and so-forth it went until I bloody well beamed brighter than the lighthouse in the song.
“Oh, for the love of God, Anthony, you win. Give me your cloak and your hat then.”
“I thought so,” he declared as I took his things and hung them up. “Works every time.”
“You do this often, do you then?”
“The lasses love it, they do.”
“Well, if you want anything else out of me, you’re going to have to sing me another one then. You’ll truly have to sing for your supper.”
“My pleasure,” he said, walking straight to the fire and sitting down. “A song for some of your sweet attention, Justine Walcott on holiday.”
In that moment, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t disappear into a bedroom and close the door and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me set to work in the kitchen. My only option it seemed was to go and join him by the fire which, reluctantly, I did, staring at him, at a loss for words and, admittedly, slightly taken aback by his blinding comeliness. He sat there, flushed and tousled, sculpted and bronzed in the firelight, his dark brown curls spiralling every-which-way, his wide eyes shining. He looked so comfortable and easy whilst I looked so awkward and stiff.
You must remember, I was still grieving Gregory’s death and it’d had only been a day since I’d begun to feel his ghost with me. My grief, as cutting as it was, was compromised by my resentment at Greg’s praise of the very man before me now. I couldn’t help but wonder if Gregory’s ghost had shown up when it did to execute the plan he and Bertie had set up before his death.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said. “When did you make your plans to come here?”
“I’d planned to come for Sir Wells’ funeral,” he replied as brightly as if he were talking about a party. “But Bertie told me it’d be better if I waited a month and gave her something to look forward to once the funeral was over. She said she could do with the company in the dead of winter.”
“She did, did she?”
“I was a little taken aback because she adored Sir Wells,” Anthony continued, “and she knew I revered him too which I did, so it was strange she talked me out of coming. But then, she has a way of convincing does my auntie. She said that if I came in January, it’d brighten her spirits after having lost her beloved employer. So, there you go.” He gave his thigh a little whack. “Here I am. In the flesh.”
“How convenient,” I said, rolling my eyes. ‘You bloody scoundrel, Greg.’
‘Ah, but you’re my scoundreless,’ Greg whispered in my ear.
“Judging by your air,” Anthony said, “you’d rather I wasn’t here.”
“Oh no,” I lied. “You simply caught me by surprise. Bertie didn’t say a word to me about you coming. In fact, she’d told me that I’d have the cottage to myself to rest.”
“To rest? Whatever from?”
“Well, aren’t you a right, proper lad? I can see why you’re not married.”
“The lady doth offend,” he said dramatically. “Would you like another song?”
“No, I would not like another song. I’m starting to see you use your music to compensate for your lack of manners as well as to get people to serve you. Have you no sense of decorum?”
“I don’t have time for it,” he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “And I don’t expect it of you either. Here. For a lark, why don’t you toss your manners aside as well and ask me whatever you want? Right here. Right now. From this moment forth, nothing you say will offend me.”
I looked at him incredulously.
Never in my life had I met a man so forward, so unapologetic for his forwardness and so damned happy with his own behaviour. The whole thing seemed absurd. And yet, he was catching me so off-guard, he was rapidly making me forget about my own misery. Not only that, he was presenting me with a challenge and God knew I loved a challenge.
“Well then,” he continued. “I’m waiting. Let’s be unrefined together.”
I looked at him with the coldest eyes I could muster. This child had no clue of what was about to hit him. There he was as cavalier as could be, all proud of himself before he had any reason to be proud, his confidence quite clearly a result of his ridiculous good looks and his ability to sing a song, the only thing I envied so far.
“Are you afraid, Justine?” he asked with laughing eyes.
“Is that your first impolite question?” I replied. “And no, I’m not afraid.”
“Very well then, let’s get started, shall we?”
In that moment, I could’ve gone in any direction. I could’ve asked him a romantic question about first kisses and all those lasses he’d swayed with his songs. I could’ve asked him practical questions like how old he was and what he did for a living. Any of these questions would’ve been terribly indelicate for a first meeting. But I decided to test his reverence for Gregory.
“You mentioned that you revered Sir Wells,” I said. “Why?”
“He fascinated me,” Anthony replied. “Years ago, when he returned from Mexico and was convalescing at our house, he’d let me play with some of the artefacts he’d brought back with him. The one I liked most was a golden bird made from the very gold he’d mined. He said his friend Virgilio had made it. But he also said that this bird was important in showing geologists and prospectors where the gold was located beneath the ground. According to Sir Wells, this bird would feed on plants which grew in the soil above the gold deposits. The bird was the sign. If you found it feeding in a certain area, there was sure to be gold in that location. This he’d learned on his travels, not in any schoolbook.”
I was stunned. I’d seen the bird a thousand times on the shelf in Gregory’s study and, with a shudder, I remembered Thomas Bevin pointing it out with his “I see you’ve still got Virgilio’s bird”, but Greg had never told me of its significance, nor had I ever asked.
“Of course, I saw the bird again when I was older, when I came to visit Bertie later,” Anthony continued. “Sir Wells would let me visit with him in his study and tell me all about his time away. I always wondered why he didn’t tell George about it but now I think that it’s because Sir Wells’ adventures overseas were such a problem for George’s mother. He probably didn’t want to feed George too much information. I was safe. Besides, I liked to listen. I liked to live through Sir’s accounts.”
“That’s quite a refined answer,” I responded, trying to digest the information. “I thought we were going to be indiscreet.”
“But you didn’t ask me an indiscreet question,” he retorted. “But I can ask you one, that’s for certain. For instance, here’s one. How old are you, Justine?”
“Just turned twenty.” I replied. “And you?”
“Twenty-two and a half. What do you loathe about working as a maid?”
“Feeling invisible a lot of the time. What do you do for a living?”
“Carpenter. Have you ever been in love?”
“No, never,” I lied. “And you?”
“Me neither. Do you want to get married?”
“Is that a specific question or a general question?”
“You can’t do that,” he retorted. “You can’t ask another question until you’ve answered the one which I’ve given you. That’s cheating.”
“Very well then. If it’s a specific question involving you, me and a wedding ring, the answer is no. If it’s a general question involving a gentleman I’ve not yet met, me and a wedding ring, the answer is yes.”
And so, the lark went on for an hour or more, the questions and answers sparking between us. And in that time, unless Anthony referred to Gregory in his answers, I forgot I was in mourning. I even laughed from time to time. I couldn’t believe it; I hadn’t thought myself capable of chuckles or guffaws, not since Gregory had died. One thing was for certain: I was truly in the company of Mr. Positive which led me to my final question.
“Why are you so happy?”
“Because I don’t have much time to waste on anger, sadness and the likes.”
“And why is that?”
“I have a serious heart condition,” he replied bluntly. “If I make it to thirty, I’ll be lucky.”
Again, I was stunned.
“That shocked you, didn’t it?” said Anthony with a wink. “I’m used to that reaction. But that’s the reality of my situation and if I have a decade left, I’m not going to waste my time with the negative moods. I’m going to bloody well enjoy myself. And to continue with the forwardness we’ve established here this afternoon, I have enjoyed myself for certain and I’m glad that you just happen to be on holiday whilst I’m taking one myself. What a lovely bit of serendipity that is. Almost meant-to-be, I’d say, wouldn’t you? The gods couldn’t have planned it better.”
Right, those gods being your Auntie Bertie and my dead lover!
“And that’s where the lady responds, ‘Oh my God, nooooooooo, Anthony, how tragic!’ – He flung his head back and gripped his chest dramatically to bolster his performance. “That’s where she cries, ‘You’re breaking my heart. It’s more than serendipitous. It’s destiny. Marry me this very instant. Lie me down and ravish me and fill me with your babies. We must make haste! To the bedroom!’”
“Are you serious?” I said, raising my eyebrow.
“Almost never,” he declared. “Although you’re very pretty, Justine, so if I were going to make haste to a bedroom with any woman and fill her with my babies, I’d choose you for certain.”
“Well, I’m sorry for your tragic circumstances, but I wouldn’t choose you!”
‘Oh, but we jolly well would,’ Gregory interrupted silently.
“Is that a challenge?” Anthony said.
“It most certainly isn’t!”
On the outside, I was vexed but, on the inside, I was awestruck. Not only was I flabbergasted at this young man’s bravery around his own troubling circumstances, I was coming to see why Gregory had promoted him so vehemently as future husband material. Anthony Winterbourne, for his music, his connection to Gregory, his sense of humour and his penchant for verbal sparring, was just the sort of man who’d keep me entertained. Not only that; he’d be the bright side to my darkness, a healer of my grieving self and probably too a joyful father to his children. Beyond that, he was talented. As the afternoon progressed, I learned he’d made most of Foxglove’s furniture for Bertie, chairs and tables I’d always admired when they were gleaming in the sunlight or the glimmer from the candles and the lamps. His ‘practice furniture’ he called it before he’d started building pieces to be sold.
Once the sun began to set, Anthony sang me several more songs as I made the dinner. And it was strangely pleasant for me because I’d never been in a household filled with song. Never. Not in the Borough Flats. Not in Rosegate. And not during my visits to Foxglove. So, to cook to music – well – it was a welcome change. At one point, Anthony sang his way out the back door and came around to the window outside, belting out the lyrics so I could hear them through the glass. If he was trying to get me to smile, he succeeded because there in the dark, strumming like mad and crooning in my reflection, he looked simultaneously gorgeous and ghoulish. When he grew too cold to continue his performance, he came back in, brilliant-eyed and red around-the-edges, setting his guitar down in the corner and pouring himself a cup of warm milk.
“You don’t have any difficulty making yourself at home, do you?” I said.
“Why should I?” he replied. “For I’ll wager I’ve spent a great deal more time here over the years than you have, Justine. Besides, the place is filled with my furniture. I’m just sorry I didn’t come here sooner. I might well have visited more often if I’d known just how engaging you were.”
I smiled – again, to my chagrin.
“I’m glad you’re on holiday,” he kept on. “I love Auntie Bertie, but well, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” And I know a hell of a lot more than you do.
By the time Bertie hobbled through the front door, I couldn’t be angry at her for her romantic scheming. I was too relaxed, too entertained and too content to reprimand her. Not that I could’ve chided her anyway in Anthony’s presence because he’d had no clue of his auntie’s true intention which, to be clear, was to carry out Greg’s wishes and get me married off to her nephew.
“Ah, I see yer’ve got yerselves awl acwainted,” she clucked as she hung up her cloak and came to the table, blowing into her hands to warm them. “I shudof told yer abowt eech uther but in me old age, I mustof forgotten. But wat dus it mater wen yer both look so cosy an’ warm?”
“Why didn’t you tell me more about Justine earlier, Auntie?” Anthony said, leaping up to hug her before she sat down.
“But I did, lad. I did.”
“You didn’t tell me how clever and pretty she was.”
“Well now yer know an’ tha’s tha’!”
“Stop it, you two,” I interjected. “I’m not that clever and I’m not that pretty.”
“Nor did you tell me how humble she is,” said Anthony quickly.
“Wich makes her even priteer,” chimed Bertie.
“For the love of God, enough,” I said gently.
Once we’d eaten together and cleared the kitchen, Bertie brought two duvets out from her room, laying one before the fire to serve as a mattress, setting the other on top of it as the bedspread. Seesawing back to the bedroom, she returned with two pillows, clucking, “Yer gointa be here, Anthony, by the fire. Justine’s sleepin’ in the spare room. I’m gointa leeve the watur jug, basin an’ flanels ‘ere on the kitchun tabul fer yer. But as fer me, a day with Laydee pretendin’ to be in mournin’ has me knackered to no end. I’ve got to get meself sum shut-eye, I do, to brace meself fer tomorrow.”
“Are you sure, Bertie? Because I can go back,” I said.
“Dont yer be daft, luv,” she huffed, putting her hands on her hips. “Yer’ve got to keep me Anthony company, yer do. Tha’s yer job.” She turned to her nephew. “Tell me strait, lad. Whood yer prefur? Yer old auntie ‘ere? Or the fair mayden Justine?”
“I don’t mean to offend, Auntie,” Anthony said. “But I’d prefer the fair maiden of course.”
“Tha’s wat I thought!” Bertie declared, turning back to me. “God has spoken!”
“Well then, God –” I tossed a glance at Anthony – “gets what God wants.”
“Before you leave,” said Anthony, ignoring my quip, “would it bother either of you if I played my guitar once you’ve retired. For I’m not sleepy yet.”
“Yer play wat yer like,” replied Bertie. “Ooooo, Justine, ‘tis a treet to be serenaded to sleep!”
“I suppose,” I said. “Just don’t belt out your songs like you did when you were outside.”
And so, that January night, my story took a turn for the better. For the very first in my life, I had the pleasure of falling asleep to music. As I lay down in the bed where Gregory and I had been during our treecalmoon, I listened to Anthony playing his guitar by the fire. The melodies he strummed were slow and gentle reminding me of the sea, but when it was calm. To the rhythm of Anthony’s music, I could picture its waves curving up onto the sand then pulling away, leaving a tapestry of pebbles, shells and seaweed in their wake – but only for a moment before the watercurves frothed up again to replace that tapestry with another. I’d always considered myself a girl of the land. But, upon meeting Anthony Winterbourne, I came to realise that my vision had been too narrow, for any girl born on an island, its jagged edges encompassed by the dark blue ridges of Atlantic and the English Channel, was an ocean girl who’d breathed salt all her life; she’d just been living, unaware of the sea in her own soul.