* With lots of thanks to my dear editor Dawnj!
The story is rather long, and the naughty bits are only from page 7 onwards... Those who do not like that sort of thing, be forewarned! :) *
I. Skeleton in the Closet
It was a rather hazy day in mid November. It was too mild for the time of year, but most trees were leafless, and the few that were not sported their full autumn colours. It was good to be outside, even here in the old, small churchyard beside the newly-dug grave. The neighbours had been fantastic; they'd taken a lot of things off her mind as had the undertaker. Now, though, everything was over. Florence felt empty - her mother, Carrie Kingscote-Johnson, had passed away a fortnight ago, and she'd been buried it felt as if she suddenly had more time on her hands than she could fill. The parson had taken his leave with a few comforting words - if he only knew - and Florence had said goodbye to one or two old friends of her mother's and her few remaining relatives, all three of them in their late seventies or older. Her younger aunt had asked her about a rumour, but as Florence obviously didn't know, she'd waved it away as unimportant. Two people from her work had found the time to attend the ceremony as well, and she was talking to them for a moment. Joan worked at the front desk of the office, and young Fred was one of the trainee lawyers. Florence knew them only superficially, but they were really quite nice to her, and she enjoyed their conversation.
Florence Kingscote was five foot six with chestnut hair and a nice face. Unfriendly voices would call her well-preserved, but they were usually feminine ones; the average male would think of her as rather pretty, notwithstanding her forty-seven years. She was an only child. Her father had died when she was only seven, so she grew up with just her mother, in an old, rambling house in a small Suffolk village that had been extensively renovated; it had all mod cons. She had a couple of boyfriends; they were invariably sent packing by her mother, who never found any of them good enough for her daughter. They were not handsome enough, not good enough, they didn't have the right job - and when she'd grown old enough to disregard her mother's opinion openly, her mother had begun to get more and more poorly. Florence, who certainly had some grave reservations about her mother's complaints, had been called upon to care for her, and the more her mother gave in to her ills the more often that strident voice called out to Florrie - a name she hated with a vengeance - to bring her a drink, and then to take it away again and get her something else, as she knew, didn't she, that it didn't agree with her, and how could she be so callous to forget? And while she was at it, could she please prop her up against the cushions a little higher? Then, when she'd just returned to the kitchen her mother would call on her to draw the shutters, or open them a little, as the light was too harsh, or too dim... Whatever she did, it was never okay and never enough.
It had been too hot in the house, and positively stifling in her mother's rooms. It had been a positively stifling life for her, for all that - she couldn't bring herself to mourn her mother's passing. The money that was left proved not enough to live on for the two of them; her mother had spent the better part of it by the time Florence had finished her education, and so her work had been a necessary but very welcome break in the monotony of her life at home. Without it she'd certainly gone out of her mind; it had taken a lot out of her anyway.
When Joan and Fred had said goodbye and gone their various ways Florence stayed behind for a little time. She went into the church and sat down in one of the pews, and stared at the rood screen, a medieval wooden structure with beautiful, slightly crudely executed paintings of a couple of saints, and statues of St Peter, Mary and the crucifix on top. She wasn't particularly religious, but she loved their little church with its timeless atmosphere of peace and quiet. It had been a true refuge for her when her mother had been in one of her more demanding moods; her church duties had always been accepted as useful and necessary.
She would be meeting their family lawyer, who had sent someone over to value the contents of the house the week before, at nine thirty the next morning. Her mother had not made a will, so her estate would devolve to her - for what it was worth. She knew there were a handful of valuable paintings, the beginning of her father's intended art collection. She'd want to keep a few, but she didn't like the others. There was no money to speak of; Florence had always taken care of their financial well-being. She hoped that there would be enough money to meet the inheritance tax once the paintings were sold... The old house was lovely, with a nice garden - not too large, just manageable, really. Oh well, she could always take a mortgage if the worst came to the worst. She hoped it would not come to that, though.
When she felt herself get cold, she got up and left the church. She looked for a moment at the spot in the churchyard where her mother was buried. She shook her head and then she walked home. The house in its mellow red brick and still fairly new thatch looked wonderful in the low sun of late afternoon. And re-decorating the place to her own taste was a great prospect indeed. She was looking forward to clearing out her mother's rooms. She had suffered in those rooms long enough, and now her mother had been buried it was time to go and see to it. It had seemed not done to start on it earlier.
She went inside and had a light meal first; then she went upstairs into her mother's sitting room. Papers were less confronting than clothes, she hoped. She looked around the room, that seemed stuffy, cluttered with too heavy furniture and with a few very ugly paintings on the walls. Almost hidden away behind a few bunches of artificial flowers was a pipeclay figure of St Anthony. Someone must have spoken to her about it, for she seemed to recollect it was 15th century; it was a bit grimy but it looked friendly and pleasant. Something to keep, obviously. Then there were two vases that she didn't dislike too much, and she picked them up and carried them into the kitchen, to be washed in the morning; they were grey with dust. There were no other objects she would like to keep.
Back in the room she looked around to decide where to start. The contents of the bookcase? She needed boxes for those books. The knickknacks and gewgaws? She could either get a binliner and chuck them in or invite one of the local charities over to come and see if they wanted any of them, which seemed the better idea...
She sat down at her mother's desk and methodically went through its contents. It was a little strange to be sitting there, going through her papers. They had always been strictly private. Her mother had kept the key to her desk in her purse, which felt like a clear sign of utter distrust to her. She might just be a little too cynical, but she didn't think so. The top half contained letters, all of them obviously boring and unimportant; Florence dropped every single one of them into the wastepaper basket after having read the first few lines. Fortunately there weren't too many of them. There was the address book that she had used to send word of her mother's passing to the people that might want to know. She put it on the side to keep it for further reference. The little drawers were filled with paper clips, staples, thumb tacks and the like. Most of them were quite rusty, and she threw them immediately. There was a box of elastic bands in one of the pigeon holes. The rest of the top half contained small, brightly coloured china figurines and pretty-pretty artifacts - rather nauseating, Florence thought. She collected the lot in a shoebox.
Then she went through the three big drawers. The top one contained her mother's knitting, and sewing material; the electric sewing machine had been abandoned over a decade ago and taken to the loft. Florence hated that kind of work; she wondered if a charity would be happy with it. She could always ask. The middle drawer was empty but for a couple of magazines. They were quite old, and Florence consigned them to the pile that was to be recycled. The bottom drawer held a mixed assortment of rulers, scales, a sponge that had been used for wetting lots of stamps in a dim past, an old fountain pen, an ink bottle that was almost empty... She decided to throw the lot; there was nothing in there she could use. Then she stopped short and opened the middle drawer again. It appeared to be a lot larger than the bottom one. She opened the bottom one again; it really seemed not as deep. She got up and knelt down. Then she pulled the drawer completely out of the desk. There was a second compartment at the back which contained a small pile of neatly folded underwear and a book with a lock.
Florence briefly looked at the underthings. They were quite sexy, and so old that the elastic had gone brittle; when she pulled, she could hear it break. They must have belonged to a different time of life. She had done all the washing for as long as she could remember, and her mother's underthings had always been quite conservative. More stuff to be thrown.
The book was locked. Florence supposed it was a diary, and she got up and had a look in her mother's purse, but there was no key to fit it. It was a rather sturdy copy; she briefly wondered how to open it, and then decided she would use a hacksaw. She put it off until the next morning after her meeting with the lawyer.
It had been a long and somewhat depressing day and she felt she'd had enough, so she put on her coat and walked up the road to the green, and took the footpath across to the George, where she had a simple meal and a pint of cider. Brett Dawson, who'd bought the house across the road from hers five years ago, and whom she vaguely knew, came over to greet her, and he sat down at her table and talked for a while. He seemed to be ok, she thought. As soon as she'd finished her meal, though, she took her leave.
She went home. She had another glass of wine and read a chapter of the thriller she'd started some time ago. She enjoyed it, for one thing, because the writer wrote in detail about the music the 'tec played on his car radio; she had a couple of the CDs that were mentioned. It contained a nice lovescene - detailed enough to make her feel very hungry. She put down the book, and went straight to bed, where she opened her legs to touch herself. She lay moaning at the ceiling while wishing she weren't so old...
The meeting with Mrs Chaigne, her lawyer, proved to be the first surprise of the day. Apparently there had been more money than Florence knew. Her father had left her a substantial sum that her mother had not been able to get at. The lawyer was surprised Florence didn't know; she thought she had been informed upon reaching maturity. They always sent a letter by registered post in such cases. It was almost impossible now to find out what had gone wrong... Florence had her own ideas on the matter; she expected that the local postman, who had been a contemporary of her mother's, had asked her to sign; she wouldn't wonder if her mother had simply destroyed the letter. The amount would be quite enough to cover the death duties, the lawyer said.
"So I can simply keep the house," Florence said with a sigh of relief.
"You can, with money to spare," Mrs Chaigne said.
Then they went into a discussion of the other assets; the official valuer had not recognised the pictures as valuable, and Florence hadn't put him wise. It did make the difference in death duties; it meant that she had better wait before putting the works on the market, though. Oh well, being able to keep the house without any trouble was what counted!
It was arranged that Mrs Chaigne would deal with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. Florence went home in a happy state of mind; she had been rather worried about the financial outcome, and this unexpected windfall was a great boost of morale.
She went back to her mother's sitting room to finish the work she'd started the day before. On the desk was the diary she'd found - she'd forgotten about it. There really didn't seem to be a key anywhere...
She took it to the garage where her late father's tools were still kept in a cupboard, well arranged but getting a little rusty, too. There was a small hacksaw that felt sharp enough, and she carefully cut through the metal of the clasp. It was a diary indeed. It was filled in her mother's small but clear handwriting; the first entry was the date of her parents' engagement, some eighteen months before her arrival, and the final one dated back to her fourth birthday. Too much text to read just now, she thought. She took the diary back into the house and put it on a side table in the living room to be perused that evening.
She spent the greater part of the morning sorting out her mother's clothes, separating the good ones and the ones that were too worn to be of any use. While she was at it she took down the pictures. she lined them up against the wall and put one small oil painting that she'd always enjoyed looking at aside. It was a landscape in autumn colours, a little sombre but for the light over the trees. Then she found the telephone number of the Heart foundation and arranged a visit of one of their volunteers to discuss what they could use of her mother's belongings. They would come the next morning.
Jewellery. Yes. Her mother had always worn bangles and a necklace, and quite often a brooch of sorts; she had kept her jewellery in a small cupboard that must have started life as a receptacle for music scores, Florence thought. She'd never looked at its contents, and she'd probably have been scolded if she'd tried. The collection of items inside was surprising. THere was one part that contained quite beautiful necklaces and pendants that seemed to be old and rather exotic. There was a necklace with three strings of big amber beads on red wool, and another one of irregular pieces of coral... She'd never seen them worn. She put on the big amber one and looked at herself in the mirror. Wow, she thought. How incredible to keep that locked away in here... There were other pieces that she did know; none of those were to her liking at all. she returned the lot to the cupboard and carried it into her own bedroom, where she lay everything out on the floor. Then she went back to her mother's room, put the small oil under her arm and took it downstairs.
After lunch she went into the living room. There were a number of things there that were not to her liking, and she carried everything she did not want into the hall, furniture, vases, more knickknacks. The bookcase had been her father's, and she thought he had a nice little library that she would be happy to keep. The bookcase in her mothers room contained nothing of note, she thought. Mere junk; perhap not even good enough for a charity shop...
The big painting she really liked had been relegated to the scullery wall; she went there, took it down and carried it into the living room, where she gave it pride of place on the wall opposite the door. Then she took down all the sentimental engravings and floral watercolours her mother used to like. The wallpaper was a little discoloured where they used to hang; she decided some of the money left after taxes would be used to have the place redecorated. If only half possible she would have different curtains, too. She pondered for a moment where to the painting she salvaged from her mother's bedroom should go. She put it up over the mantlepiece.
Then she rearranged the furniture she wanted to keep. It took quite some shoving back and forth, but after about thirty minutes the room was a lot more to her liking. Finally she could take her music and books downstairs and put them in the living room, where they belonged. Her mother had always complained whenever she tried to change anything in there - even if only putting a book in the bookcase.
She happily spent the rest of the afternoon carting her stuff into the living room and turning it into a place she really, really liked, removing all traces of her mother's taste and supplanting them with her own. When it was time for dinner she felt quite satisfied with the day's work; she'd succeeded in making the room feel like hers and hers alone!
She had another meal at the George, and went back early. She made herself a large cup of tea and settled down in the living room to read the diary.
She started reading in the hope that she would get some information about her father and, perhaps, learn something about her mother that might ameliorate her ideas about her a little. She was soon undeceived. The diary was mainly about her mother's love life, which apparently involved a second man, whose name was never mentioned; he was only referred to as "R." Her father, James Kingscote, figured as "J."
It appeared that she even had had a tryst with this second man on her very wedding day. Florence read the unedifying diary with a growing sense of anger and frustration. It was rather a lot of same, she thought - but it just wasn't done! Not that she'd have put it below her mother.
At some moment R was away for a time - out of the country? - and her father figured a little more often. Not that it served to endear her mother to her; entries like "sex with J - seemed very happy - idiot" rather managed to achieve the opposite. There was a jubilant entry about R's return. Her birth got a mention. She was not very enthusiastically received, to put it mildly... She stopped for a moment to pour herself a drink. Then she went on reading. The diary kept on in the same vein; and she skipped to the date of her father's death. She read the entry - and then she stopped and reread it, open-mouthed. She felt so dazed by what she'd just read that she downed her drink in one gulp and almost choked. She read it for a third time.
"had sex with R - very satisfying - went shopping and returned to find J suspended from staircase. suicide note - has made over money to F - stipulated it will go to charity on her death no matter her age - bastard! learnt florrie not his, he says - says I mustn't let on - always too fond of the brat. cut him down - arranged with H. to have things covered up - had to pay in kind. damn the child - will make her pay."
Florence poured herself another drink. Cheers, she thought. My goodness - some news. H? she looked through the pages of the diary. Oh yes, the GP. Then she remembered the remark aunt Martha had made. So that was what she'd meant? She looked up her number and made a call.
When her aunt answered the phone Florence told her she'd found her mother's diary.
"I was afraid you might," her aunt said. "I don't know what's in it, but it might be shocking."
"I'll read one entry to you," Florence said.
When she'd done so it stayed silent at the other end of the line for a considerable time.
"That's even worse than I expected," her aunt said. "We were bamboozled, obviously - I always thought he'd died in a motorcycle accident..."
"Yes," Florence said. "I was told the same. Did you know about this R? Who was he? What did he do? It appears my father -" she checked herself - "mother's husband was better off, and so a better catch..."
"Flo, I hope you will understand that James - who really was a very nice man; I had an eye on him for a long time - er, that James was really and truly a loving father to you, no matter the biology behind it. I would try and keep thinking of him as your father if you can. We, the sisters, knew about Robert. He was a no-gooder. He was flashy, careless with money, handsome, and absolutely untrustworthy. He left the village a year after your father died, and he perished in a pub brawl in the Argentine in 1995 or thereabouts. James found out about him quite soon after you were born, but he stayed because he didn't think Carrie would be a good mother to you at all - and he was right, wasn't he? Poor James... Apparently finding out you were not even his did it for him. But it's typical of him to make sure you were provided for - financially at least."