Briony McAllister felt the glorious heat of the Mediterranean sun on her upturned face as she contemplated the cobalt sky above her and felt the tension ease out of her body, dissipating into the soft green tartan rug she was lying on. Little cotton puffs of clouds drifted over the sharp-ridged peaks of the sierras to the north, and the breeze whispered through the pine trees.
Beside her, her four-year-old daughter, Katie, was engrossed in plaiting her Moxie Girl’s hair. It was a Sunday afternoon in September, and a somnolent, peaceful air pervaded the Parque Princesa Diana, a pretty Spanish park on the Costa del Sol where Briony lazed with her daughter. Katie had wanted to go there instead of the beach, the swings and modest playground being a big attraction. Thankfully, she was now happy to play with her dolls after twenty minutes of blissful soaring back and forth on the swings, and Briony was content to lie drowsily in the late-afternoon sun, her novel unopened beside her.
Riviera, a small town on Spain’s southern coast, was empty of tourists, who had long gone back to their jobs and their mundane lives, their Costa holiday a faded summer’s dream. Where once older couples and retired expats would have filled the many restaurants and coffee shops, the recession had ensured that the Costa del Sol was devastated after many years of lavish boom. Briony knew full well the effects of economic collapse. She, too, should have been back behind her desk, dealing with the thousand and one queries that came with being an administrator in a busy private hospital. But life as she knew it had changed completely the day two months previously when the owners of the Olympus Sports clinic had called the staff together and told them that due to the current economic climate and falling patient numbers, redundancies would have to be made.
Briony knew, even before it was her turn to meet with HR, that she would be one of the staff to be let go. She had been last into the department, having left a similar position in a big teaching hospital the previous year to work nearer home and closer to her daughter’s crèche.
Briony sighed and brushed away a mosquito that had taken a fancy to her lightly tanned flesh. The truth was that with all the cuts in her salary the last couple of years, the prohibitive crèche fees had taken most of what was left, and now that she was redundant, she and her husband, Finn, were almost no worse off with her dole money, especially without having to pay for child minding. They had decided after much discussion that for the next year, before Katie started school, Briony would be a stay-at-home mother.
It was disconcerting adjusting to her new circumstances. Strange not having to get up at the crack of dawn and wake her daughter from sleep to feed and dress her before dropping her off at the crèche, greeting the other equally stressed, bleary-eyed parents she had gotten to know. And then making the bumper-to-bumper commute to work, hoping that she would get a parking place and not be last in, keeping her head down like a naughty schoolgirl and not a thirtysomething, self-confident career woman and working mother. She was still a “working mother,” she thought defensively, having realized in these last few weeks how irritating the term was to mothers who could choose to stay at home and rear their children themselves.
Why did she feel guilty every morning though when she and Katie shared cuddles in bed after Finn had left for work? It was such a treat having a leisurely breakfast and fascinating conversations with her four-year-old. She had already missed so much of her child’s development. When she’d worked in the clinic, the time they’d had together after Briony collected Katie from the crèche in the evenings was often ruined by teary tantrums and squabbles over bathtime and bedtime, both of them exhausted after their long day. It was all so different now, so much fun! But no doubt this, too, would change. It was still very new and different. She felt like she was playing truant from real life.
She was going to make the most of this unexpected blessing. It would be her gap year, Briony decided. This unemployment that had been foisted upon her would not diminish her. She would not allow herself to feel guilty that she wasn’t contributing to the family income, or that she was taking money from the state. She had paid her hard-earned money week after week, in social insurance, for just this eventuality.
How she and her colleagues had complained bitterly about the previous government’s truly atrocious handling of the economy and the “brown envelope” mentality that pervaded every level of society from the top down; and the avarice of bankers, politicians, developers, and the so-called golden circle; and the total negligence and incompetence by the so-called regulatory authorities; and that the country was bankrupted and Briony’s and Katie’s generations and generations to come would carry a burden of debt of horrendous proportions. For all the good their complaining did: Ordinary folk like them were being hammered while the people responsible were still living in their big houses, holidaying in the sun, and paying outrageous sums for lavish weddings at the expense of the taxpayer. Every tea break there would be heated discussion of some new revelation of chicanery or some new pay cut proposed that would leave Briony and her friends despairing of how they were going to manage in the future and what lay ahead for their children.
She hadn’t wanted to be let go from her job. She had been perfectly willing to work, albeit, she conceded with hindsight, at the expense of her relationship with her daughter. But the old saying “When one door closes, another one opens” was true. Everything depended on the way you looked at things.
This time had been given to her and Katie to strengthen their bond, and that was how she would view it. She’d had to sell her car. She no longer had money for life’s luxuries; eating out was a thing of the past for them, whereas once they had dined out three or four times a week and not given it a second thought. Even buying books, glossy mags, and makeup now required a do-I-really-need-this, can-I-afford-it? debate—whereas before they would have been tossed willy-nilly into her supermarket trolley. She’d sold her Ford Focus reluctantly, trying not to cry when she’d seen it disappear down her street and, with it, the privileged life she’d taken for granted.
The upside now, thought Briony, was that she was no longer time poor. The speed on her life’s treadmill had decelerated, and she felt as though she were slowly exhaling years of stress and tension that juggling her life as a wife and mother, combined with holding down a job, had created.
Briony felt the knot that had been in her stomach since she had walked out of her office for the last time loosen another little bit as she lay in the sunshine, and the feelings of failure, guilt, helplessness, and fear that still swamped her wafted away on the balmy breeze blowing across the sea from Africa, as the scent of jasmine and the chorus of birdsong sent her drifting off into drowsy slumber.
“Mom . . . Mom . . . I is hungry.” An indignant poke brought Briony back to wakefulness, and she squinted up to see her daughter’s indignant face hovering over hers. “Can we have our picnic now?”
“Can we have our picnic now, please?”
“Can we have our picnic now pleeeese?” Katie echoed exasperatedly, and Briony managed to hide a grin as she struggled up into a sitting position and wrapped her little girl in a joyous hug.
“Let’s have our feast then, I’m hungry too.” She smiled, nuzzling into Katie’s neck. Her daughter smelled of suntan lotion and talc, and as Briony inhaled the scent of her she wished Finn was here to share their lazy Sunday afternoon.
They had spoken earlier. He was up to his eyes doing a last edit on a report he had written for his managing director. He headed the export department of a large food-producing company that was constantly looking for new foreign markets. He was good at his job, and in the last year the company’s revenue had bucked the trend as new markets in China and Brazil opened up. Ireland’s booming export market was the one bright shining star on the gloomy economic horizon, and Finn had never been busier.
Briony hated that he had to work so hard, but he was driven and enjoyed it. He had urged her to take the few weeks to help her mother settle into her new villa, despite Briony’s protests that she didn’t want to be away from him for too long. Had she still been working in the clinic, she and Finn would have been like ships passing in the night. Funny how life had balanced out for them as a result of her redundancy, she mused as she opened the picnic basket she’d brought with them and spread out the egg and tuna-salad sandwiches, and their absolute favorites, the pear-and-custard tartlets she’d bought from the bakery in the big Super Sol supermarket across the road. She and her mother, Valerie, had done a shop on the way from the airport the previous day, and Briony still found the difference in food prices hard to believe. They had bought two huge fillets of salmon and a big bag of prawns for a half the price she would have paid at home, and the price of a bottle of Faustino was almost a third less than what she was used to paying.
The two weeks she was going to spend with her mother helping her to settle into the small beachside villa she had recently purchased would not cost her a fortune; in fact she’d live far more cheaply here than in Dublin. She watched as Katie busied herself putting sandwiches on two bright green plastic plates, reveling in this great new adventure. “One for you, one for me,” she sang in a singsongy voice, putting her juice bottle beside her Moxie Girl. Her Lalaloopsy doll, Jenny, had been left back at the apartment as a punishment for some naughty deed. Katie was a far sterner mother than Briony was, and the dolls lived under a much stricter regime than Katie did. Briony grinned as her daughter sternly admonished her doll to “sit up and eat properly and say thank you.”
They munched companionably on their sandwiches, Katie chattering away to her doll, sometimes singing, oblivious to all around her as she immersed herself in a scenario with her dolly that mimicked what was happening in her life right now. She had a vivid imagination and was a self-sufficient little girl who could entertain herself for hours on end. Even so, Briony longed to get pregnant again, to give her daughter a sibling. She didn’t want there to be too big an age gap between her children should she be blessed with another baby.
Briony savored the creamy egg-salad sandwich, a hazy memory of picnics she’d had in her own childhood floating into her mind. Picnics on a golden beach under the cliff at the end of her grandparents’ house. She could remember gritty grains of sand mixing with the egg as the breeze whipped the sand around them. Sadness pricked like an unexpected wasp sting as she remembered her grandmother Tessa. Briony had loved her father’s mother with all the love her child’s heart could muster, and she had been greatly loved in return. And then the indescribable shock of separation, of being told by Valerie that Gramma Tessa didn’t want to see them anymore. The grief of that bereavement equaled the pain of the loss of her dad. Briony’s eyes darkened at the memory and she brushed it away, annoyed that it still had the power to wound even after all these years. It was a long, long time ago; looking back brought only unhappiness and pain, and what was the point of that? For all she knew, the woman could be dead. She knew nothing of her father’s family now.
And yet, she had been curious when, earlier, she’d unpacked a box of photo albums and tatty brown A4 envelopes full of old photos curling at the edges. Black-and-white ones, faded Kodak color prints, and memory cards of long-dead relatives she didn’t know. Now that she had a child of her own she had become more interested in her family history; the time would come when Katie would want to know more of her family background. Valerie had always hated talking about the past and wasn’t very forthcoming when Briony quizzed her, but the photos would give her an excuse to bring up the subject.
She was looking forward to sitting out on the patio over a glass of chilled wine, the comforting shushing of the sea as it feathered the beach below them, studying this tapestry of her and Valerie’s life.
She’d not been able to resist bringing one of the old-fashioned albums with her to the park. A photo of her father and mother had caught her eye. They were snuggled close together, laughing, her father squinting into the camera as the sun caught him, looking so handsome and vital next to Valerie, petite and tanned, in a pretty blue sundress and making a face at whoever was taking the photo. Probably Lizzie, Valerie’s best friend and Briony’s godmother.
Idly, she finished off her sandwich, took a slug of fresh orange juice, and reached into her beach bag to pull out the album with its garish plastic cover of pink daisies and splashes of yellow. A torn brown A4 envelope fell out from the back flap, and a pale blue envelope slid halfway out of it. She was about to put it back when she saw with some surprise that it was addressed to her.
Miss Briony Harris
12 Eldertree Rd
Eldertree Road, she noted, surprised. That was where Valerie and she had lived all those years ago, when they had first moved back to Dublin before her mother had bought her own house. Who would have been writing to her there, and why had her mother never given her the letter? And why was the address written in a different pen and by a different hand from that which had written her name? The fine elegant cursive, written in blue ink, was neat, precise, the letters beautifully formed. Script from a bygone era, she thought, studying it intently. No one wrote like that now. Why on earth had someone written to her, this person with the graceful old-fashioned writing? And why had he or she not written the address, which was scripted in a rather untidy, less meticulous style?
She opened the thin envelope and eased out the two pages of closely written script, and for a surreal moment was sure she caught a hint of a long-remembered scent. Gramma Tessa had always worn perfume and face cream. Briony could remember playing with the cosmetic jars on her grandmother’s dressing table and Tessa daubing her face with Nivea and spraying her wrists with scent. Even to this day she could remember cuddling into her grandmother’s shoulder as Tessa sang, “Sugar and spice and all things nice, that’s what little girls are made of.” That sweet, distinctive smell that would forever remind her of a time when life was good and she was safe and happy.
My Darling Briony, she read as Katie hummed happily beside her, completely oblivious to her mother’s mounting shock.
Slowly, shaking her head, Briony reread her grandmother’s letter, so engrossed she hardly heard the “Yoo-hoo!” that a slender blond-haired woman was hollering as she ran up the steps of the park.
Almost in a daze, she studied her mother, willowy and tanned, looking ten years younger than her fifty years as she waved at them.
“Hello, my darlings, are you enjoying your picnic?” she asked breezily, bending to kiss Katie and tracing a tender finger along her cheek.
“Valwee,” squealed Katie, throwing her arms around her.
The rush of bitterness that surged through Briony almost made her gag as she stood up.
“Having fun?” Valerie raised laughing eyes to her. The smile faded from her lips when she saw Briony’s expression. “What’s wrong? Are you OK?” She straightened up and reached a hand out to touch her daughter.
“How could you, Mum?” Briony’s voice was shaking, as was the hand that held the letter, the letter that revealed that her mother had betrayed her in the most cruelly grievous way. A letter that revealed a litany of lies, lies, and more lies. A letter that showed that Valerie Harris was a heartless, selfish, cruel bitch, who was now standing in front of her pretending to be concerned.
“You make me sick,” Briony hissed, not wishing Katie to know that there was anything amiss.
Aghast at the venom in her daughter’s voice, Valerie glanced at the letter in Briony’s hand. Comprehension dawned. She paled under her tan. “I can explain,” she said urgently, running her fingers through her blond bob. “I did it for you, Briony. You must believe me. I can explain.”
With All My Love
As Katie plays, Briony pulls from her bag an old photo album, found in a box in her mother's new home. As she begins to study the faded photos, a letter falls to the ground. It is addressed to her.
My Darling Briony, it begins. As Briony reads the words with mounting shock, realisation dawns. Her mother lied to her about what happened with her beloved grandmother Tessa all those years ago - and denied Briony that most precious of relationships, the type of relationship Valerie now enjoys with Katie.
The lives of three generations of women are set to change forever as the past is revisited and the truth unfolds through the undelivered letters Tessa wrote to Briony over the years. Secrets, lies, betrayals and sacrifices - the complex bonds between mothers, daughters and granddaughters are intricately explored as Patricia Scanlan takes us into the hearts and homes of a family at war.
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