Nicky sat in shock, trying to take in what her solicitor had said. She worked her jaw a few times, but couldn’t even formulate the questions in her mind let alone her mouth.
“I know,” he said again. “I couldn’t believe it at first either. But I’ve been through everything I can find, besides just the evidence here, and I’m afraid that seems to be the truth of the matter. Any funeral expenses will be covered, however.”
Colour flooded Nicky’s face. She hadn’t even thought about that, it was almost the least of her worries. What a farce. “What now?” she said bleakly.
“If you want.”
“No, what do I do now?”
“Ah, well I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.”
She stared blankly at the papers on the desk again. “Yes, I suppose it is.” What that meant though, she hadn’t a clue. But she wasn’t going to work out any answers now. Here, in this increasingly hot and claustrophobic room. “Thank you, I think,” she said, turning to him and holding her hand out.
He stood to take it, following her lead in observing the social niceties. “I’ll be in touch about the expenses. And if anything else comes to light, of course. Will I reach you at the same address?”
Shaken, but too dazed to figure it out, “I expect so,” she replied tersely. “I don’t know where else I’d be.” And with that parting shot she swept out of his office, maintaining her dignity until she reached the privacy of her car and shut the door on the world outside. This just couldn’t be happening to her. She would wake up soon and realise it was all a bad dream.
For the first two weeks after his death, Nicky had expected Stuart to walk in the door at any moment. She couldn’t believe his happy smile and cheery greeting were gone forever, taken from her that moment when he said he was feeling a bit funny. She was used to his absences after all; twenty odd years of living with a builder meant a lot of give and take in their relationship, and she was used to being on her own with the two girls during the week, and occasional weekends when he was working too far away and had things that needed to be finished off. She’d never known him have more than a day’s illness in all that time, certainly nothing that kept him off work. He hadn’t even said he was ill this time, just turned grey and sat down on the bench in the garden. A bit funny! It was her first aid training that made her run into the house to call the ambulance, but they had to be some of the most ridiculous last words ever uttered.
The first indication she had that something was more seriously awry was at the funeral. She had put a notice in the paper, but it was like there were two audiences at the crematorium. The one she was expecting, and one there for someone else. Thank goodness nothing was said to her there! Sophie and Hannah were too oblivious to notice anything odd, just pleased or relieved that their dad had had a decent send-off. Now, Nicky realised she had to try and keep it that way. She couldn’t shatter their illusions, like hers had been. Not without reason, or any tangible proof.
Because from what her solicitor had told her, there clearly were two Stuarts. One she thought she knew, and one a complete stranger to her. With a different life, a different job, a different family, and a different wife. Not an ex-wife who didn’t want a divorce, as Stuart had told her, but a wife he lived with when he wasn’t with Nicky. It didn’t even bear thinking about.
Nicky gave her eyes a good rub, sore but still as dry as ever, blew her nose, which wasn’t, and somehow pulled herself together enough to drive home on autopilot. It was easy driving, and she didn’t pass anyone she knew, which might have caused her to break down altogether. But after turning the engine off and getting out of the car, she realised she didn’t want to enter the house. Even the garden felt wrong to her, filled with memories as it was. Feeling numb inside, she let her legs take her where they wanted to go, which seemed to be uphill, continuing along the track that was their driveway, and then when it contoured round, further up into the woodland beyond. To where there was a rocky place, a bit of a clearing, and some larch trees. She sat down by the tallest one.
Gradually she became calmer inside. Still. It was a hot day, but here the temperature was more bearable, and the cool smell of larch invaded her senses enough to help her switch off the thoughts running endlessly around her head. Here, Stuart had no presence, it was just her and the trees and Nature. A few buzzing insects, the occasional bird.
Returning down the hill later, to cook some dinner for them all, Nicky found herself assailed once again by a sense of helplessness.
“There is no money,” was what she felt able to tell Sophie and Hannah. “We had our own accounts, plus the joint one for household bills that we each paid into, but, well…” How could she tell them that without a will his wife inherited everything? How could she even tell them he had a wife? That they were second best?
She wanted to deny it was possible for Stuart to have lived two lives. Yes he compartmentalised everything, but she had generally admired him for it since it meant that he always focused a hundred percent on where he was. She couldn’t remember ever having the feeling his thoughts or desires were elsewhere. Not ever! Yes, they had lived quietly, having a simple social life, but he was always out in the week, he said. He liked to come home to quietness, he said. Gardening, doing the old stone house up, going for walks or cycle rides, being together as a family. And she did her writing in the evenings, largely undisturbed as her children got older and more independent. About the only thing she could think of was him insisting the house went in her name, because of his paying alimony to his supposedly ex-wife.
Suddenly she was angry with him. How could he have spent over twenty years living a lie? Every single day, he was lying. He wasn’t even a builder, he was an architect! He earned thousands, and here she was on her school secretary salary with a small supplement from her writing. His contributions had been so pitiful they were never even missed by his wife, but she was going to miss them. Her salary had never paid all the bills, how were they ever going to cope? Especially this year?
Bursting into tears finally, overwhelmed not just by loss but by the responsibilities suddenly heaped on her shoulders, she clung to her two girls and they to her.
“I’m sorry,” she said eventually, giving a good sniff before reaching for her handkerchief and using it on all parts of her face. “I guess it’s just the three of us now. We’ll just have to do the best we can.”
Sophie’s wedding went ahead as planned. They had to scale down the arrangements, and ask her fiancé’s family to contribute more than expected, but everyone understood. “It’s what he would have wanted,” they all said.
Nicky kept silent; she had no idea any more. She was still too angry with him for his twenty two years of lies. For not sorting out even the basics to leave provision for his daughters. For abandoning her.
With more time on her hands, Nicky thought she should be able to write better stories. She could spend longer at each sitting, really getting into the plot instead of the distractions of stopping and starting as she snatched hours here and there, but she couldn’t write. Every time she sat down in front of the computer, she went blank. Or else had her mind invaded by all the thoughts she didn’t want, circling endlessly round and round.
Eventually she took a notebook outside, since she didn’t seem to be able to manage much in her study, and headed up to where she had found peace before, by the larch trees. She watched some butterflies fluttering in circles around the tallest tree, and a squirrel, and started to feel better. Abandoning the idea of writing, she sketched what she saw instead. It seemed a happier thing to do.
In the autumn Nicky found herself back at the larches again, mourning the loss of her second daughter, this time to university. The trees echoed her feelings, as their needles turned yellow-brown. She started telling them how she felt. Bereft. Lonely. And lost, without her guide and mentor. Stuart had encouraged her writing, had listened to every chapter she wrote, and had been the one to help her send it off to agents. He had opened a bottle of champagne when her first book got accepted, long before she saw any money for it. And before that, he had found the house, he had helped her get the job at the school, he had been both anchor and guidepost in her life. Without him, his listening ear, his practical help, she was collapsing.
Of course other people couldn’t refrain from offering her their suggestions. Join this club or that, go out more, do something new. Come to dinner, where I will invite some sad, confirmed bachelor or bitter divorcee to match you up with. Or, that empty house on the moors must be too big, too much for you now, too full of memories, too remote to be on your own. You should move somewhere closer to the village. She couldn’t tell them it was all she had and she couldn’t afford to move even if she wanted to, but she also realised sadly that her friends and colleagues were all so used to her being the listening ear that they didn’t know how to listen to her when she needed help.
Strangely, the trees did. That made her sound crazy, she knew, but they listened without judgement, unlike everyone else around her. She found herself telling them about how she missed the Stuart she thought she knew, and wondered what he was really like. She worked through some of her anger and decided she still had a right to miss him; he was useless, had let her down badly, but he was probably so stuck in the situation he didn’t know how to get out of it. Coward, dying like that! She also told them stories of her days at school, things she would have told Sophie and Hannah over dinner. About shopping lists and what she needed to remember to buy. About her agent chasing her for something that she didn’t seem to be able to produce. Anything and everything, as there seemed to be no one else she could burden with her woes.
She didn’t talk of her plans for the future however, because she didn’t have any. Instead she sketched the squirrels that played in their branches, and her pictures almost looked like squirrels now to her critical eye, instead of a child’s scribbles.
The mists moved in, obliterating the outside world. The trees became dormant, as if dead, preparing for the winter. The butterflies and buzzing creatures had long since disappeared, and any visitation seemed a gift. A robin bobbing its head. A siskin after the seeds. Squirrels again, always active.
And then the snow came.
Thick and white, like a cold, wet blanket deadening all the sounds and making it impossible for her to get in or out of her drive. She should have been used to it; most years she had to leave her car at the bottom of the hill and walk down with her boots on and rucksack with shovel and flask and spare clothing, and then up the hill with extra provisions to cope with the times she failed to get to the shops or receive deliveries. When it was really thick she walked all the way to the village and the school where she worked, setting off in the dark and returning by moonlight if she was lucky. But this year was different. All the responsibility for food, warmth, power, water, security, fell upon her alone, and when she returned each night, she felt trapped in the house. Being cosy by the fire was all very well when she had company, but miserable trying to chop wet wood and get it to light on her own after the snow had blown in. Hannah happily at university, and Sophie enjoying her new husband made her feel like she had got something right, but she didn’t feel able to call them more than once a week just for a chat for her benefit. And she no longer had her writing either, since she didn’t seem able to come up with a single creative word any more.
Christmas was a brief interlude when normality returned for a few days, the house was filled with people and light and warmth, and then it was back to her solitary confinement again. But being the holidays, she managed to go for walks. To the larch trees, where else? Every other walk had reminders of Stuart along the way, but the larches were fast becoming her special place.
They were as dead and lifeless as she felt.
Spring came. The snow melted, flowers sprang up from the ground, snowdrops with their purity and then celandines reflecting the light. Nicky started to relax again, to breathe out. She returned to the larch trees, where there were some wild daffodils.
She had some shocking news to tell them, that a good friend of hers was getting divorced. Sheila had realised she no longer had anything in common with her husband, now that their children had left home, and after he had decided to take a promotion which involved moving to the other end of the country, they were splitting up. Freeing each other up to persue their own interests and meet new people. They would stay friends, but their marriage had run its course, launched the children in their own careers, and now it was time for them to each do something different.
Wow, Nicky thought. How could you do that? It made her want to cry, even now. But in telling the larches she started to wonder what would have happened to her and Stuart after Sophie and Hannah had left home. They clearly didn’t have much in common either, away from the children. All their time was centred on being a family, doing things as a family. And love. Loving each other, being there for each other.
What a lie! He hadn’t actually been there for most of their lives together! He wasn’t even honest with her! Yes he had loved her, enough to destroy his own peace of mind by living two lives, but not enough to tell her the truth. Did she not deserve better? How had her confidence in herself got so low that she had been happy to accept the little he offered her without question or argument? Why had she relied on him for everything, when everyone at work considered her a really capable person who kept the place running?
Sheila had so many plans for her life that no longer depended on anyone else. She and her husband had owned a lot of tenanted land in the area, most of which she was keeping in the divorce settlement in lieu of his future earnings, and she had great plans to develop it. She was considering a campsite, wanted more organic and sustainable farming, maybe a farm shop, a nature reserve using various grants, and her own love, a centre for injured birds of prey. Nicky was amazed and impressed, and started to wonder about herself. She seemed to have been satisfied with very little for a long time. What had happened to her own dreams?
As the larch trees came into leaf, their bright green was the most wonderful thing on the hillside. Being with them, Nicky felt alive. She could feel the sap rising to greet the sunshine, bursting with new life, new potential. The animals were courting and she drew the squirrels confidently now. Then she started to write: Squirrel Pinecone lived in a larch tree on top of a hill in the middle of a wood. It was a very tall tree, and when the wind blew it swayed. It was doing that today, rocking him in his dray and making him not want to get up. But he was hungry.
She wrote and wrote and wrote. All the things she had observed around the larch trees through the past ten months, turned into a story. Normally she wrote for adults, but this was for children. The sort of story she used to tell her own children when they went for walks, or ill children at school waiting for a parent to arrive and needing a distraction for a few minutes as they sat in her office. She was amazed at how naturally it all came to her and flowed out of the pen onto the paper. Later she did a mock up of the story in book form, and sketched a few pictures to fill in the spaces. The school photocopier helped her to use some pictures from her notebook as well, and with her heart in her mouth she sent ‘The Larch Trees’ off to her agent. They probably wouldn’t want it, but she hadn’t produced anything else for them for over a year now, and she liked it.
They phoned the next day. Yes, they loved it! And they loved her drawings, they had a quirky style about them that was quite unique. Please could she do a whole series on different types of trees with their different animals and birds and butterflies? It was exactly what was wanted right now.
Nicky ran up the hill to tell the trees. They had sheltered her, protected her, listened to her, looked after her, and ultimately inspired her. Suddenly she knew what she wanted. To redecorate her home, to make it fully hers, to redesign the garden and make it somewhere she could write and draw and observe, from indoors even when the weather was unkind to paper, and to make a trail through the woods that anyone could follow but especially children to tell them all about the different trees and animals that lived there. Maybe using pictures and quotes from her books, if she could manage to do a whole series. She really wanted to! And since Sheila owned most of the land and was as connected to it as she was, she thought it might make rather a good joint project.
It seemed, however that the larches had some news of their own, as the first pink flower buds had just opened. She smiled in delight.