tagRomanceRestoring the Castle Ch. 03

Restoring the Castle Ch. 03

byolivias©

Ally drove down the mountain and found Lois Aylor's farm on the road just before entering the northern outskirts of the village of Washington. It was only with some difficulty that she found it, because she hadn't been there in years. There was a new Mercedes sedan parked by the door to the farmhouse that couldn't be either Lois's or her mother's, so she was hesitant to go in. But as she was sitting there wondering what she should do, she recognized her mother's old friend Angela Harris coming out of the door of the farmhouse—and waving when she saw and recognized Ally.

Angela Harris had, for as long as Ally had been aware, been Miranda's only close friend. She was a cellist with the National Symphony for most of the years Miranda had been the conductor's private secretary, and her husband, Dennis, had been first chair in the violin section. Ally didn't remember Dennis being around much—or being too attentive when he was there—but Angela and Miranda had been almost inseparable. The Harrises had moved to the little town of Washington first, buying an elegant, perfectly symmetrical eighteenth-century Georgian brick home named Shadow Hill on the western outskirts of the small town. It had been Angela who found the decaying Banffy during a walk up into the mountains and had decided it would be the perfect retreat for Miranda.

Waving back and exiting her rental car, Ally was sure now that her mother indeed was staying with Lois. There was a slight moment of wondering why Miranda wasn't staying with Angela, but then it occurred to her that Dennis possibly was the answer. As far back as Ally could remember, she'd never seen her mother and Dennis in the same room together. Ally had put it down to her mother's response to every man other than the two great conductors she had devoted her life to—and the lack of any relationship was probably no better symbolized than that Angela had been Ally's godmother, but there quite pointedly had been no godfather designated. And if there had been, Ally was sure it wouldn't have been Dennis Harris. He had also been stiff with her to the point of seeming to shrink away from her when they were in proximity. He was always going off to practice his violin in his remote study in the house—or saying that he had to.

"Ally! You're home!"

"Hi, Angela, it's good to see you. You're looking great." And indeed she was. She'd always been a beautiful woman, groomed to the nines, and time hadn't changed that. She was as smart looking in gray hair and a gray silk suit and fuchsia-colored silk blouse as she had been in her black satin symphony dress.

"And you . . . you're looking . . ." Angela stopped as she took notice of the cane and the limp as Ally moved toward her. She obviously had temporarily forgotten about what had happened to Ally, but her face flooded when genuine concern when she remembered, and, loving her, Ally brushed by the embarrassment and came in for a hug.

"You've just been to see mother? She's here?"

"Yes."

"And how was she?"

"Don't expect too much, Ally. You've been gone for several years. And your mother . . ."

"Is my mother," Ally completed for her. Ally laughed and Angela smiled, but there was something in the strain evident in her face that surprised Ally.

"Just remember that your mother loves you very much, Ally. You are the world to her and there was no one else she talked about those years you were in college, working on Broadway, and starting off at the State Department. But the passage of time is something we can do nothing about."

"You seem to be able to. You haven't aged a day since I last saw you." The conversation had been getting uncomfortable for Ally—Angela seemed to know Miranda so much differently than Ally did. She saw nothing to be done but to try to lighten the conversation again. Was there something Angela couldn't bring herself to say? Did Miranda begrudge Ally going off to begin her own life? She had almost literally pushed Ally off on her own, but had Ally misinterpreted that as bravado she secretly wanted Ally to reject? Was it because of Chad? Or perhaps Miranda hadn't fared as well in the fire as others were saying.

"Liar," Angela responded with at least half a smile. "We all age. Some just have to spend twice as long at the beauty parlor in old age as they did when they were younger. Go on into her; don't let me keep you. But I must ask and I should have asked before now—do you have someplace to stay? I don't think that Lois has . . ."

"I've been to the castle. I think it won't be too difficult to fix up the rooms mother was staying in. I can stay there while I . . . Angela, I've decided I want to restore the castle. Not to what it was when mother had it. Back to the way it was originally."

"Why ever for?" Angela asked, her voice full of surprise.

"Not to keep it and live in it, but as a project. I need to get beyond the recent past. I need a project—a big one."

"I see. So you won't be with us permanently?"

"Who knows. I have a year to decide that. But I need something to work on right now."

"I can see that you're serious about this. And, if so, more power to you. I'd love to see that old place restored. But you can't start living up there immediately. Come stay with me if you don't have other plans. I'd love to have someone in the house again."

"Dennis?"

"Is living in Prague. Permanently now. And we are both the happier for it. We both thought that forty years was enough of an attempt to make a bad idea work out. You know he came from Prague originally."

"He came from Prague? With the name Harris? I always thought that was a British accent he was practicing."

"No, not British," Angela said with a light laugh. "He took an American name because the symphony was saying it had too many Europeans in it when they were holding auditions. He took the name off the door of the office across the hall where they were holding auditions when he overheard that remark. It's perhaps the only amusing thing that Dennis ever did. Perhaps if there had been more humor in his life. . . . He of course had his name changed legally later—after his audition was successful. But enough of that. If you haven't promised to stay with anyone else until you have accommodations fixed up at the castle, then you simply must stay with me."

Ally wasn't about to let the invitation go by twice without grabbing at it. She had hoped that she could stay a bit at Shadow Hill. The only thing that had kept her from asking was the presence of the glowering Dennis—which no longer was an issue.

"Yes, certainly. And thanks. I haven't any plans, actually. I'm very much in a 'winging it' phase these days. Just taking each day as it comes."

"Remember that when you go in to see your mother," Angela said, her face returning to its serious mode. "We're all taking it as each day comes now. Your mother no less than others."

Promising to be along to Angela's house in no more than an hour, Ally stood and waved the Mercedes off down the road—wondering what Angela was trying to convey to her about her mother.

It didn't take long to find out.

* * * *

Lois met her at the door.

"I'm so pleased you've come, Ms. Templeton."

"Ally, please, Mrs. Aylor."

"Only if it's Lois to you. Any time you could come is a good time, of course, but I'm afraid this isn't one of your mother's better days."

"Not one of her better days? Has my mother not recovered from the fire."

"Oh, yes, indeed she has. She's no worse than before the fire."

"No worse? What do you mean?"

"Oh, my, has no one told you about your mother?"

"I haven't heard from or about my mother since before the fire. Mrs. Harris hinted at something wrong just now, as we were standing by our cars, but that was the first inkling I've had that something is amiss with Mother."

"Oh, of course. I should have realized. You were always good to call on such a regular schedule. And she worked so hard to be ready for those calls the last few months. You know your mother—a will of steel. If she had to appear normal, she jolly would force herself to appear normal—at least until the last couple of months."

"Appear normal? What are you saying, Lois?"

"Your mother has dementia, the poor dear. It still comes and goes, but the doctors say it will only get worse. I'm afraid she is drifting away from us, the poor darling."

"Where is she?" Ally couldn't think of anything else to say. If she hadn't been built of the same strong steel that her mother was, she might have just sunk to the floor here in Lois's front hallway. This had to be the worst year of her life.

She put on a brave smile as Lois led her out to the enclosed sunporch, where Miranda Templeton sat at a table—dressed to the nines just as her friend Angela had been—but concentrating closely on sorting buttons from a big box packed with the multicolor circles.

Ally wanted to cry. Her mother had never given two figs for sewing. She was probably the least domesticated woman Ally had ever met. But she fought the tears away.

Seeing Ally's distress, Lois turned her face to her and murmured, "It helps keep her hands busy. She hasn't given up smoking willingly. I just won't allow them in the house. I'd rather it not be my house that's burnt to a crisp. So I try to keep her hands busy."

"Oh, yes, of course," Ally whispered back. She went over and sat down beside her mother and started sorting buttons herself.

"And who is this sweet woman you've brought to help me, Lois?" Miranda said, looking up with an angelic smile such as Ally had never before seen on her mother's face, but with eyes that were blank.

"It's your daughter, Ally. Come home to you," Lois answered. "Isn't that nice?"

"That's nice," Miranda parroted.

Ally proceeded to talk for a half hour, telling her mother about all of the good things that had happened to her since they last were together—and none of the bad.

Miranda said little other than nodding occasionally and making sounds of agreement and pleasure. At the end of the visit, when Ally rose to leave, saying she would come back to visit the next day and was staying with Angela Harris for a while, Miranda looked up, gave her a radiant smile, and said, "You sound like you have such a wonderful time living abroad, dear. You know I used to travel extensively in Europe with my daughter, Ally. You must meet her someday. You could share such wonderful stories about your travels."

Ally couldn't leave the room fast enough.

In the hallway, Lois took her arm and said, "Please don't take that as how it always is. When you come tomorrow, she is likely to be sharp as a tack and you can start all over as if today didn't exist."

"I guess that's what Angela meant by taking up what I'd said to her and applying it to mother—taking life one day at a time."

"No doubt. Mrs. Harris remains the one person your mother knows each time she visits. There are days that she reintroduces herself to me even."

"It's so good of you to be taking care of my mother like this."

"We thought it was for the best, Mrs. Harris and I—and the judge."

"The judge?" Ally said that a bit louder than she had intended. It came as a shock to her.

"Yes, well, after the fire and all. And you not being here and being in the hospital and in a bad way yourself for so long . . . and not having anyone else to take family responsibility. The court said something had to be done. And me being her housekeeper already and a nurse and having experience in what this is. And I can certainly use the money . . . there's plenty in her estate, they say. But with you back and all . . ."

"No, please, Lois. Let's leave it this way for now, as long as you are willing. I wouldn't know where to begin, and there's so much to do with the castle and all. And I have my own therapy needs."

"Don't say a word, dear. I love having her here—as long as we can keep her away from cigarettes and matches, of course. I've been with her for some time, and I rather enjoy growing old with her—what with my Felix gone and maybe not coming back."

"Yes, your Felix. Gone?"

"Yes, just up and left me one night. I've all along thought it was the drink. And he was a mean one when he drank—and that it set his mind on other women and what he thought would be a better life than with me. But you should have seen how your mother would sort him out when he got that way—with the drinking . . . and looking to other women." She paused and looked Ally in the face. "But listen to me. Gossiping about like this. And it's all water under the bridge it is. You said you are going up to Mrs. Harris's to stay a bit? Maybe I could call there in the morning and let you know how Ms. Templeton is. It changes from day to day, and there's little use of you coming unless it's a good day. Mrs. Harris is another matter. It's always a good day for whatever time Mrs. Harris can come. But there's no need to distress your mother if—"

"Yes, I understand—and completely agree, Lois. Again, you are an angel to be taking care of her."

They were shuffling toward the front door and had reached it when Lois Aylor gave a little exclamation and said, "Oh mercy me, I almost forgot. Can you hang on for a second? I have something to give you. It's been burning a hole in my memory banks, it has."

When she returned, she was holding an old stereo vinyl record in a faded cover. "Here. Your mother asked me to hold this and give to you after she . . . after she was gone. But I know these cases. Chances are good I'll go before she does. She might outlive us all as strong willed as she is underneath it all. And it's burning a hole in my remembrances. I think and worry about it nearly every day. I've been so afraid I would mislay it or forget ever to give it to you or something. Truth of the matter is that she's mostly gone now anyway, the poor woman. So, if you don't mind, I'll give it over now. You can do what you want with it."

"A record? How strange," Ally said, turning the jacket from one side to the other, trying to focus on it. "It's a 33 1/3 recording of violin concertos. How odd. I don't remember my mother being particularly taken with the violin. She seemed to prefer the cello, like Angela used to play. They don't seem to be notable works. The only one here that I think I've even heard of is this Edward Elgar piece. The 'Violin Concerto in B Minor, Opus 61.' Performed by the National Symphony, though, under August Donáti. Recorded in 1976. How extraordinary. And you say that mother explicitly said she wanted it to go to me?"

"Yes, and I'm sure it was very important to her, it was."

"Did she say so?" Ally was still quite perplexed. This was a conundrum she really didn't need on top of the shocks she'd had this afternoon already.

"Not in words, no, but in action."

"In action?"

"It was lucky that I was coming to do some housework for her the day of that fire. If I hadn't come in in time, who knows what would have happened to the poor dear. The flames had already gotten to the curtains. But did she panic when I woke her? No, not her. She walked straight over to a bureau and fished out this record, clutched it to her chest, and suggested that perhaps we should leave. That there record was the only thing she'd tried to save. With us not knowing that the fire would be contained so quickly. It was mostly the smoke that was a danger. She clutched that record to her all the time the medics were giving her oxygen in the back of the ambulance. And it was during the ride down the mountain and to a hospital that she handed it over to me and, with the first breath she could manage to take without choking, told me to hold it for you."

"How extraordinary," Ally said, as she stood on the front stoop of Lois's house. And as exhausted and overwrought as she was—and not being able to reveal that to Lois Aylor—that's the only phrase she could think of during the short drive through the north end of the village of Washington, turning at the corner where the five-star boutique Inn at Little Washington stood, and then heading out the west end of the town to Shadow Hill, Angela Harris's Georgian manor house. How extraordinary, she kept turning over in her mind. How extraordinary indeed.

* * * *

"What do you have there?" Angela asked when she answered her door and let Ally in.

"I'm not sure," Ally answered. She was somewhat in a daze still and had climbed the front steps clutching the record jacket and forgetting that she had luggage in the trunk of the car. "It's a record. Lois gave it to me. She said that mother said she wanted me to have it—that it was the one thing my mother tried to save from the fire."

"Here, let me see it."

Ally could see Angela blanch after she had closely examined the record.

"What is it, Angela? Do you know the significance of mother wanting me to have it?"

Angela seemed unable to decide how to respond because her face took on a set aspect—a little smile that Ally didn't really believe and was surprised to see. Angela didn't normally give false smiles, and wasn't all that good at it.

"No, I have no idea—other than the memory value of it. She was working for the National Symphony at the time and 1976 was the year of your birth. I would suppose she just saw some significance in those two facts coming together."

"Were you with the symphony then? And was Dennis? Do you think you are playing on this recording."

"That's possible, of course. I don't remember, though. It was so long ago and there were so many recording sessions. But enough of that. Let's get you and your luggage in the house. It looks like it might rain. You may remember Virginia and its late spring afternoon thunderstorms. They come over the mountains fast and with little notice, bang about something terrible, and are gone again almost as quickly as they arrive. But for all of the noise, they can be destructive. I don't know how many trees we've lost in the village this spring alone—some of them were there when George Washington was still astride a horse, I wouldn't be surprised. I'll take you up to your room. You look like you could use a nap. And after today's events I'm sure you can. Supper will be at eight and I don't expect you downstairs a moment before that unless you want to come down for a drink first."

And I think you know something you're not telling, Ally thought, as the two women descended the front stairs to the circular drive for the luggage. But Angela was right; she was entirely too tired to pursue the issue further—at least now.

After she'd gotten upstairs, unpacked, and showered, though, she found she wasn't sleepy. She knew this would last for only a few moments, that she was actually on the verge of collapse and it had only been the shower that had momentarily revived her. She sat down on the bed and took another, close, look at the record jacket. Angela must not have been reading it too well, she thought. It was right there on the jacket under the credits. A violin solo featured in the Elgar concerto she was familiar with. And there, right in the credits, it showed that Dennis Harris had been the violin soloist.

I'll have to remember to tell Angela that Dennis—and therefore probably Angela too—had played on the recording, she was thinking as she drifted off to sleep—to dream what was becoming a recurring nightmare. In her dream Chad was leaning toward her, smiling, his lips coming closer. And then, puff, he was gone.

She appeared for dinner a few minutes early and, as Angela and the cook were making last-minute preparations in the kitchen, Ally walked around the large, formal dining room, peering into the various glass-fronted cases on the side walls that contained decades of mementos and trophies the Harrises had collected in their successful symphony days.

As she was walking down the line of cases, she stopped and did a double take. Her attention was arrested by a set of silver cups. It was the second time today she'd seen a silver cup with such a unique shape. There were seven of them, and they were a match to the one on her mother's mantelpiece at the castle. They were all obviously very old, just as her mother's was, and they were all turned so that the side showing the initials "A.D." was facing the observer. Ally had an urge to open the case and see if they had the same inscription on the other side that her mother's did: "Forgotten Never." But the case was locked. Also at that moment Angela and the cook were coming into the dining room from the kitchen, carrying more plates and bowls of food than two women watching their figures could possibly do justice to. Ally tucked into her brain a question for Angela on what the story was behind those silver cups—and how their mate had come to be one of her own mother's most cherished possessions.

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