Authors: Judy Nunn
Suddenly I had an ally and it felt good. Geoffrey was just as keen as I was to discover the lost half of Emily’s life.
‘Simple,’ he said. ‘Harry’s solicitor. Emily would have retained the same firm, I’m sure.’ He grinned. ‘And solicitors know all about their clients, believe me.’ So much for the eager cocker spaniel – when Geoffrey was inspired he really got down to business. ‘Ring your own solicitor and find out who handled the exchange of contracts on the house.’
I did. And he was quite right.
Colmer & Mitchell was a small family firm. Old man Colmer had handled the original sale of the house when Harry had purchased it in 1920, and Colmer the son explained to me that he himself had handled the sale of the deceased estate upon the death of Emily Roper.
Before I could think of a probing question. Colmer the younger went on to say, ‘And of course I still handle the estate of Emily Tonkin.’
‘Emily Tonkin?’ I was totally nonplussed. ‘What estate?’
‘Her book has been kept regularly in print for over twenty years now.’
‘Yes. Published in 1955. Her collection of poems.’ A pause while he waited for me to say something. I didn’t. ‘She was a poet, didn’t you know?’
Two days later, I tracked down the book in a small shop in Kings Cross.
‘Oh, yes,’ said the spindly woman behind the counter, ‘among true poetry lovers Emily Tonkin is quite popular, particularly with the older set.’ She went on to explain that the publishers printed a limited edition each year, usually in the autumn.
‘Two copies please,’ I said, wishing that she would hurry up.
I walked to the fountain at the top of The Cross, sat on a bench and looked at the book. A slim paperback volume.
, it was called. ‘The story of an ordinary life’ by Emily Tonkin. I wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time. I flicked through the pages. There was a poem called ‘Margaret’, there was a poem called ‘Harry’, there was a poem called ‘My House’. I didn’t read them then and there. I wanted to be alone. Just Emily and me.
Geoffrey wasn’t at his hotel. He was probably out on a book search himself. We’d decided to split up on our hunt for Emily’s poems. I left the copy I’d bought for him at the reception desk.
Back home once more, the phone off the hook, I settled down by the wardrobe. And, curled up in the spot where I’d read of her life, I opened Emily’s book.
On the very first page was the dedication:
For Harry, who taught me that love
Is the very last breath that we take.
The breath that we share and then, beyond.
To the richness we leave in our wake.
I heard her voice. And I continued to hear her voice all through that night as, page after page, Emily spoke to me …
It’s nearly twenty years since all of that happened and the little old house is no longer mine. I’m married now – I live in England and my name is Margaret Brigstock. (Although my friends still call me Nancy.) But Geoffrey and I kept the wardrobe and everything’s stored inside. There’s the cardboard box and the biscuit tin. And the hot water bottle covers and Harry’s gown. And, wrapped in tissue, the christening robe, which has been worn three times since then.
I’m no longer a struggling journalist – these days my work’s in demand. And, though I never did write that epic novel, I think Grandma Rose would be proud. Because I did become an author of sorts. I did see my words in print. I wrote a story and I called it ‘The Wardrobe’, and Emily guided the pen.
Elizabeth couldn’t understand her father’s passion for oleanders.
Alfred Hoffmann had shifted from London to the leafy county of Surrey, where all forms of glorious flowering shrubs thrived, and yet in the impressive conservatory at the rear of his house he’d chosen to grow nothing but oleanders. A veritable forest of them, in all shapes and sizes. Some remained gangly bushes while others towered to a height of eighteen feet, their leathery leaves sweeping the arched dome of the conservatory. Their pink and white blossoms were not unattractive, but the overall impression was one of unruliness. They were cumbersome plants, there was no denying it, and very much at odds with the surrounding countryside.
The entire situation was bewildering to Elizabeth. For as long as she could remember, her father had been a businessman, and a highly successful businessman at that. If, in his semi-retirement, he’d developed an interest in horticulture, which itself
was surprising, why was he limiting himself to just one species? And why a species as mundane as the oleander, considered by some to be little more than a noxious weed – perhaps even poisonous, if she were to believe her colleague at
The Aldershot Courier-Mail.
‘Don’t go chewing on the leaves, Elizabeth,’ Walter had warned her during an afternoon tea-break, ‘you’ll end up as sick as a dog.’ When she’d laughed, he’d assured her he wasn’t joking.
‘Why on earth did Daddy choose oleanders?’ she finally asked her mother.
‘I’ve no idea.’ Marjorie Hoffmann had accepted her husband’s idiosyncratic behaviour without question, as she always did. ‘Perhaps it’s his love of travel.’ Noting her daughter’s mystified expression, she drifted a typically vague hand through the air as if she were conducting a heavenly choir. ‘I mean they’re so …
, aren’t they?’
Mother and daughter were very alike in appearance. Above average height and regal of bearing, both had dark eyes and auburn hair offset by the fairest of complexions, creating an overall effect that was striking. They were the sort of women people referred to as handsome. In character, however, they could not have differed more greatly. Elizabeth was already wondering why she’d bothered asking her mother about the oleanders. She should have known better.
‘They’re all over the place in Europe,’ Marjorie blithely continued, ‘particularly in Italy and Greece. I’d rather he’d chosen olive trees myself – symbolism and beauty combined. I would have enjoyed painting
olive trees.’ Marjorie’s skill with watercolours was considerable; her landscapes adorned the walls of many a boutique gallery in London. ‘But there you are, that’s Alfred.’
With an impatient shake of her head, Elizabeth gave up on her mother and made the enquiry directly of her father, whose response, although less vague than his wife’s, was ultimately just as unfathomable.
‘I admire the oleander,’ he said after she’d cornered him in the conservatory where he sat with a glass of claret. ‘So hardy. Such a passion for life. It’s heat and drought resistant, you know, can survive anywhere.’ He appeared most gratified by her interest. ‘Versatile too. Is it a shrub or is it a tree?’ Stroking his trim grey beard thoughtfully, he gazed up at the tallest of the plants. ‘As you can see, Elizabeth, it can be either. All dependent upon the way it’s pruned. Don’t you find such adaptability marvellous?’
Elizabeth didn’t, and she didn’t see how her father could either. ‘Somebody told me it’s poisonous,’ she said in her customary blunt fashion, ‘but that’s not true, surely.’
‘Oh yes, quite true. The whole plant’s highly toxic. Leaves, branches, bark – the sap in particular. Ingestion can produce gastrointestinal and cardiac effects, which, I believe, can be fatal – to children anyway, and most certainly to animals.’
All had suddenly become clear. Elizabeth’s grin was triumphant. Her father’s chain of pharmaceutical outlets, over which he still presided as chairman, made him first and foremost a businessman, but didn’t alter the fact that he had started out a humble, and highly
dedicated, chemist. It was only natural that such a man would be interested in the chemical properties of a potentially lethal plant.
‘The oleanders. You’re making a study of their chemistry.’
‘No, no.’ Her father was dismissive. ‘I doubt whether the toxic properties of the oleander could ever serve any medical or pharmaceutical purpose.’ As he returned her smile, however, there was a gleam in his eye. ‘But you’re right, their poison does add to their fascination. It’s yet another tool in their survival kit, you see. The oleander poisons those who might harm it – extraordinarily tenacious, wouldn’t you agree?’ His question appeared rhetorical. ‘But then tenacity is the key to survival,’ he said. ‘I think I’ll have another glass of claret.’ It was plain he considered he’d answered her question in full. ‘Will you join me, Elizabeth?’
She shook her head. ‘No, thanks, Daddy.’ And, left alone with the oleanders, she heaved a sigh, none the wiser.
Elizabeth Hoffmann was an eminently practical young woman. At times she despaired of her parents’ eccentricity, but she loved them for it too, knowing it was their eccentricity that had afforded her the life opportunities she so valued. For Alfred and Marjorie Hoffmann, eschewing the conventional attitudes of the day and firmly believing in equal rights for women, had offered their daughter every educational advantage and encouraged her in the pursuit of the career she so obviously yearned for. Now, at the age
of twenty-three, when most of her contemporaries from Ralston Girls School were settling down to have babies, Elizabeth, having graduated with a BA from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, majoring in History and Literature, had been working as a journalist with
The Aldershot Courier-Mail
for a whole eighteen months.
‘We’re very proud of you, Elizabeth,’ her father had said when she’d been offered the position fresh out of Oxford.
’s just the start, Daddy,’ she’d answered. ‘I’ll give it two years in Aldershot, then I’ll be back here in London working for
I intend to be their first female feature writer.’
‘Of course you do, my dear.’
A year later, when her parents had shifted from their grand townhouse in Belgravia to the rambling cottage in Surrey, Elizabeth had been deeply concerned. The property her father had bought was barely five miles from the township of Aldershot in nearby Hampshire, where she lived in a humble boarding house several blocks from the offices of
She’d been appalled at the thought that her mother and father might have made such a drastic change to their lifestyle simply in order to be near her.
‘Good heavens above, no,’ Marjorie had replied when her daughter tentatively raised the question. ‘What would be the point? You’ll be back in London soon with
won’t you? Two years, you said. No, no, I’m in need of rural surrounds – I’ve run out of trees in London.’ She’d laughed distractedly. ‘I must have painted every single tree and every single bush in every park in Westminster. Besides, your father very much wanted a country place with a
conservatory. For some unknown reason he’s decided to start a garden.’
Elizabeth had hugged her mother fondly, marvelling, as she did, at her parents’ constant ability to surprise.
Over the ensuing months, she’d visited the cottage in Surrey on a regular basis, watching the oleanders grow until she could bear it no longer. But her question had resulted in no answer and the oleanders had remained an unfathomable mystery – until the day she brought Daniel home to meet her parents.
Elizabeth herself met Daniel Gardiner in the spring of 1954, two months before her twenty-fourth birthday. The occasion was a military event, which was hardly surprising in Aldershot. The township was not known as the ‘home of the British army’ for nothing.
What a splendid sight, Elizabeth thought as she stood with the other journalists and photographers in the area specially allocated to the press, right beside the main entrance to Princes Gardens. The military never failed to put on a good show, and she never tired of the spectacle, but today was particularly impressive.
Down the entire length of High Street the parade was in full swing, brass bands strutting their stuff with all the pomp and ceremony only the army could offer. Military police on motorcycles preceded tanks, armoured vehicles, transport trucks and cars of every description. Troops marched with perfect precision, regimental colours and battle honours held high. Infantry, artillery, tank, parachute – on and on they came, a sea of men, the thousands of spectators cramming the pavements cheering each unit as
it passed. The citizens of Aldershot were out in force this fine spring morning, along with hundreds of others from nearby towns. This was a day of historical significance for the entire area.
Upon command, the colours and escorts peeled away in turn from the grand parade to enter the broad, grassy square of Princes Gardens, where they took up their allotted positions flanking the brand new fountain that sat in the centre.
The fountain, simple and unadorned, was to be presented as a gift from the military to the township, commemorating the centenary of the British army’s association with Aldershot. Indeed, the fountain’s location, Princes Gardens, was the exact spot where the Royal Engineers had camped during the time of the Crimean War while planning the permanent military base to be established with Aldershot as its centre. In the decades following the base’s establishment, the extraordinary growth of Aldershot from a small village to a thriving Victorian town had been a direct result of its relationship with the army. Now, 100 years on, the fountain was to become the proud symbol of a fine and happy marriage between borough and military.
Elizabeth carefully scrutinised the regimental banners as they passed, scribbling the details of each in her notepad. She was unsure how much of the data she would use in her article, but her research, always meticulous, was of particular importance today. Today’s story would be the best she had ever written, for she intended to send a copy of it to
as an example of her work – along with her application for employment.
A twinge of guilt accompanied the prospect of deserting her current employer should her application meet with success.
had offered her many opportunities she would never have experienced elsewhere. But then she and Henry Wilmot, the editor, had shared an unspoken understanding from the outset.
‘You’re very talented, Elizabeth,’ he’d said bluntly, as if it were an accusation.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘And, I suspect, very ambitious.’
She’d remained silent.
‘Sign of a good journalist, ambition.’ Again, despite the apparent compliment, his tone had been strangely accusatory. ‘Ah well, I suppose if you’re determined to put your talent to good use, we at
had best take advantage of the fact.’ And instead of assigning her to social events befitting a female, as he would normally have done, Henry Wilmot had offered Elizabeth her very first feature story. ‘Just a trial, you understand. I don’t promise to print it.’
‘What’s your middle name?’ he’d asked when she’d presented him with the piece.
‘E. J. Hoffmann,’ he’d said with a brisk nod. ‘Has a nice ring. We’ll publish you as E. J. Hoffmann until I feel readers are ready to accept the fact you’re a woman.’ Then he’d added, ‘Or until we part company, whichever comes first.’ It was plain he anticipated the latter.
Henry Wilmot genuinely admired Elizabeth, both for her talent and for her audacity in assuming she
could compete in the male-dominated arena of the press. But her femininity would be her downfall, he’d thought, particularly in a town like Aldershot. God almighty, they’d all be after her. She’d no doubt resist the obvious young studs bent on sexual conquest – she was smart. But she was also handsome, and a young woman of breeding – perfect officer’s wife material. She’d be in love in six months, probably married within twelve, and then children would claim her and goodbye career. Such was the natural scheme of things.
Now, eighteen months later, Henry thought differently. Elizabeth Hoffmann appeared impervious to the attentions of even the most eligible young officers whose family connections saw them hurtling through the ranks destined for distinguished military careers. Apparently she had no wish to be married. How very, very odd, he thought. He was pleased to have retained her services longer than expected, but was prepared for her departure nonetheless. If Elizabeth’s ambition outranked the natural desire for a husband and children, then her days with his provincial newspaper were surely numbered. In his heart of hearts, Henry Wilmot wished her luck.
The last of the colour sergeants and escorts had taken up their position around the fountain. The formal ceremony was about to commence.
‘I’m off to the other side of the park,’ Walter muttered. ‘I’ll get a better angle on the official party from there.’
’s principal photographer and invariably accompanied Elizabeth on her assignments. The two had become close friends.
She nodded. ‘Make sure you get plenty of shots of the fountain.’
‘What a good idea,’ he said mockingly. She’d told him at least a dozen times to photograph the fountain from every possible angle. ‘Just as well you reminded me – might have slipped my mind otherwise.’ Then he winked, gave her the thumbs up and disappeared.
Elizabeth had already completed the historical aspect of her feature article, and made few notes during the official speeches, which offered nothing new. She was keen for the formal ceremony to be over so she could mingle with the crowd. What she needed now was the human element.
She glanced around at the other journalists, most from nearby towns or neighbouring counties – they often bumped into each other at local events. Pete Hearson of
The Farnham Gazette
was scribbling away furiously in shorthand, taking down every single word of the mayor’s tedious speech, but it was the pouchy, middle-aged man beside Pete who was the focus of Elizabeth’s attention. He’d stopped making notes and appeared as bored by the mayor as she was. This was the journalist who’d come down from London, or so Walter had told her.