I've been taken to task this week! A few of my readers have complained that I don't post enough snippets from my novels on here...so today I've taken chapters 1 and 2 from 'Harvest' to whet their appetites. Harvest is the natural follow-on to The Seeds of Time. Readers who've already read 'Seeds' will want to find out exactly what happens to Billy and Richard. No stones are left unturned and in Harvest, Richard is met with another dark secret that leads him to Canada and one more piece of puzzle is set in place. Is that the end of the family saga? Never say never!
Anyway please enjoy...
HARVEST – Book 2 of THE CROSSING
Chapter 1 Memories
Richard glanced at his watch. It was still early. There was plenty of time to do what he wanted that morning. He took a sip of his strong coffee and then finished the last of his fried egg, ensuring no trace of the yellow yolk remained on the plate. He smiled; he took after his father. With a slight pang, he remembered the old man and his sometimes odd ways. Only now, since his visit to Hamburg, was Richard beginning to understand some of what had gone on in Billy’s mind.
So many things had happened since Richard first heard about Billy’s bible and his first meeting with Sorrel on her visit to England from America. Richard realised Sorrel and her ideas had been the perfect catalyst to start the healing process after the death of his wife, Connie. Sorrel was so full of life herself, it was impossible to stay morose in her company for long. He suddenly felt annoyed with himself. He knew he should have arranged another get together with her before they left Hamburg. He was stupid because he had felt a definite attraction between them. He got a grip of himself; then again, he didn’t want appear too eager. He would leave it a short while and contact her maybe a week later; he was sure he could come up with a good premise for a meeting.
Feeling relaxed and pleased with his decision, Richard poured another cup of coffee and thought about the morning’s task and the events leading up to it. He felt he had discovered so much about his father and his life, yet he still felt there was a lot more—hidden, but not forgotten. Despite all he now knew, Richard wanted to delve deeper into his father’s past.
After loading the dishwasher, he wandered along to his study. There, lying on the rug was his father’s old sea chest. He eased back the heavy lid and removed the smaller of two albums which were lying on top of the contents. The first time he had opened the trunk, Richard had only given this volume a quick glance. He now wanted to see if he had missed anything important.
He turned the cheap thin cardboard cover over and was delighted to find that the album contained wedding photographs of his mother and father. Richard had never seen these before. Peering closely at the grainy prints, he noticed how his father had changed through his lifetime and especially during his younger years. Billy had aged prematurely it seemed. The photos of his time on HMS Warspite showed a young, physically fit and dark-haired young man in his prime. Even though they were in black and white, Billy looked tanned and lean. He was propped up against the ship’s bulwark with friends gathered around him. Turning the stiff pages, Richard learnt more about Billy’s life. He obviously enjoyed a drink, a smoke, the occasional fist fight, and time spent ogling the girls.
But the wedding photos told a different story. Although Billy was smiling in each picture, the man standing there could have been an older brother. He stood awkwardly posed, thin and gaunt, wearing a suit which hung from rather than fitted him. That wasn’t all. The most startling feature was his hair. After his time spent in the camps, Billy emerged completely white-haired, but he certainly wasn’t an old man. Richard knew these photos were taken only a few years later. His mother, Penny, on the other hand, was slight and pretty; her face was alive, and she was smiling with complete happiness. In her arms she held a little girl with dark curly hair and solemn blue eyes which were most definitely her father’s. It could only have been his older sister, Megan.
Richard’s face softened when he remembered funny little Megan. It was a dreadful day when she died; she was far too young. Richard knew Billy mourned her deeply and never really came to terms with her premature death. Her passing was a wretched, long phase which left a void in his father’s life, especially after Penny’s death.
Richard turned another page of the album and smiled at the expressions on his grandparents’ faces. They had always been there for him, especially his grandmother. She had been swift to wipe away a tear when he fell and cut himself. She always gave him a quick consoling hug when he lost the obstacle race at infant school and—he laughed at the memory—a short sharp whack on the backside when he was caught stealing fairy cakes straight from the hot oven. Richard never did discover whether the whack was for stealing or because he was stupid enough to nearly burn himself. There were other faces on the page, some pale and blurred, which Richard didn’t recognise at all. Maybe they were local friends of the family or distant relatives? It didn’t matter now, anyway, as they were all long gone. Even his grandparents’ cottage in Bishop’s Waltham, where they had farmed the surrounding land, was no longer in the family. Everything had been sold and the acres parcelled off. It was a different era. The only other person left in the family was his aunt Mavis, Penny’s older sister. Richard was close to his garrulous old aunt and treasured knowing she was still around when everyone else had passed away.
Richard paused and looked up; he stared pensively at the wall. The album was a book of smiles and pleasures to be remembered. It possessed a pleasant richness of its own. Richard allowed himself a small sigh. His father found love during the war. Penny waited faithfully and patiently for him to return to her as she had promised. It was no different for so many other wartime couples. Richard’s parents’ love had been deep, there was no doubt about that; his sister, Megan, was the proof.
Richard was sure they had loved him too. But he was born much later and in peacetime, when everything was different and more stable, when there was no longer a fear of nothing being permanent or even long-lasting. The true sense of urgency threatened them no longer. Life was calmer and organised.
Richard placed the book back into the chest. He understood much more now, and although he didn’t have an answer to all his questions, many were solved. He could imagine how his father had felt; in the beginning, when he had left battleship life and the company of many hundreds of crew, to be thrust into a life which was much riskier aboard the small and infinitely more fragile motor torpedo boat; the death of his mates on-board and then the long incarceration in the POW camps with their own uncertainties and unimaginable terrors. Richard couldn’t possibly know everything that the old man had endured and suffered. Richard had struggled to understand his father in the past. But now he thought he could at last feel sympathy for an old sailor’s reticence about telling his own war stories and why he was so dedicated to his wife and daughter. They had needed him so much more than Richard had himself. As a son and man, he was always much more independent. The image of Connie and how she died so tragically passed through his mind. He felt really close to his father for the first time in years. Both father and son had shared unimaginable suffering. Sorrel was right. Richard’s visit to Germany and going through his father’s things was therapeutic. He crossed over to his desk in front of the study window and, with a reverence he hadn’t felt before, picked up Billy’s bible. It was amazing. Richard had no idea of its existence a few months before, let alone that someone had kept it in the States for almost sixty years. Now after meeting up with Sorrel and their subsequent visit to Germany, he had unearthed a wealth of history he was completely unaware of. This bible brought all the threads together. A strange feeling spread through Richard; he trembled as something seemed to flow from this tattered volume and into his body. He laid the bible down. So much had happened, and it was all down to this one book. His father may not have been a staunch Christian, but the bible had somehow looked after and shown the family the way.
Returning to the old sea chest, Richard rifled through the items for one last nostalgic look. He believed he had given everything at least a cursory look the first time he opened it, but he thought he would take another look at the correspondence between his parents; there might even be a letter or two he had missed. After a few minutes, he gave up and stood next to the trunk, stretching the stiffness from his cramped legs. Time had flown, and he hadn’t realised how long he had been crouching on the carpet. More coffee would be a good idea, he thought, and returned to the kitchen. Still thinking about the morning’s discoveries, he refilled the espresso machine reservoir and waited for the familiar smell to fill his nostrils. The view from the kitchen window was particularly beautiful this morning, but Richard gazed at it with unseeing eyes, lost in thought.
The peeling of the front doorbell startled him out of his reverie. He hadn’t heard a car come up the drive nor the scrunch of footsteps over the gravel. It wasn’t his aunt’s usual day for visiting. Perhaps it was the postman with a parcel. Richard retraced his footsteps back into the hall and glanced at his reflection in the mirror hanging above a small oak occasional table. He realised he was looking well. He was much fitter and healthier than he had been a few months ago, and he reckoned he didn’t look his age. Despite his different colouring, he thought he looked a lot like his father when he was younger. Connie had always said so. Connie. He was glad he was finally coming to terms with Connie’s death and able to see a new life ahead of him, despite the lingering sadness.
Glancing through the small panel of glass in the front door, he could see a woman standing with her back to him as she looked at the garden. Long silky hair hung around her shoulders in pretty soft curls; Richard always had a weakness for long hair. He opened the door, and when she turned towards him, he gasped. Richard was momentarily stunned, and he felt the blood drain from his face before he recovered and gave her a half-hearted smile.
Chapter 2 Miranda
“Richard!” was all she said.
“My God, Miranda! I didn’t expect—! What on earth are you doing here?” Richard exclaimed. He hadn’t seen his cousin’s ex-wife, Miranda, for years, but he recognised her immediately.
“Sorry, I know it must be a bit of a shock after all this time. Are you going to invite me in, or shall we stay out here?”
“Yes, of course. Come in.”
He stepped aside as she crossed over the threshold and into the hall. After closing the door, he turned to her, with dozens of questions flashing through his mind. She forestalled him as she walked further into the house.
“This is beautiful. I’ve often wondered about you and where you lived. You certainly have good taste.” Miranda looked around her with interest. She stood in front of an evocative landscape painting which could only have been executed from local composition.
“How long have you been here now?”
Richard answered her, and then with some impatience, since he couldn’t abide small talk, he asked in a brusque tone, “But you tell me something. Why the sudden interest? When we spoke on the phone about my father’s bible a month ago, you gave me no indication you might visit.”
Miranda gave him a dazzling smile which he recognised as dangerous.
“Richard, please don’t be cross. Knowing you, I recognise your terseness is an attempt to cover up your confusion.”
He opened his mouth to say more when she anticipated him with a pretty little pout. “Look, I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome. I know it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other, and then we didn’t part on exactly the best of terms. And I’m sorry, but I didn’t feel confident enough to go to Connie’s memorial service either. But now that I’m here and you’ve invited me in and we’re talking, it’s all to the good. Of course, it could just be your impeccable manners that I remember. All the same…dear Richard, say something! You haven’t changed a bit, you know. I would have recognised you anywhere. Which way shall I go? Through here?”
As she was already heading in the direction of the kitchen, Richard nodded in agreement. She hadn’t changed one bit either! She still possessed the ability to rob him of words. Richard felt his hackles rising. He would be civil, but he would see her out as soon as possible.
“Yes, through here.” He gestured towards the room where sunlight was spilling in through the open back door. The contented murmur of honey bees from the nearby herb garden evoked a peaceful, serene scene—a contrast to the tense awkwardness inside.
“Would you like a drink? A cup of coffee, or would you prefer tea?” It was too early to offer wine, and he certainly didn’t feel that friendly.
“Oh, coffee please, darling. Yours smells delicious. What a fabulous kitchen, a cook’s dream. And that view is pure heaven.”
Walking over to the door, Miranda let her gaze take in the garden and linger on the fields and wood beyond. The garden was still in full heady bloom. Spires of pink and yellow hollyhocks, interspersed with varying shades of delphiniums, vied for space and colour with clumps of lupins, red-hot pokers and aquilegia. Further flowerbeds were crammed with fuchsias, geraniums, and rampant lobelias. Only the rose garden was formally planted with specimen bushes of heavily scented blooms. The overall picture was a perfect delight.
“Mmm. So gorgeous, it’s almost chocolate-box perfect.”
She sighed as she turned back to watch Richard. “You’re lucky to have such a place.”
As she complimented him on his garden, he busied himself with the coffee paraphernalia. He asked himself, why are you here, Miranda? And he couldn’t come up with an answer. What was more, although they hadn’t had anything to do with each other since they had spilt up, he could still remember how she rarely did anything without an ulterior motive. He was also bothered by the fact that she had always been able to twist him effortlessly around her little finger. All in all, it didn’t bode well—for him. Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself. That was when you were still an impressionable twenty-something-year old. Being nearly fifty meant being able to keep one female under control, didn’t it? The little devil in him said, “Are you sure?” He clumsily spilt the coffee as he poured it into their cups. Damn her. He was doing all right up until now. He hurriedly reached over for the cloth and wiped away the mess.
Richard remembered exactly how she took her coffee, but he certainly wasn’t giving her that satisfaction. Besides, knowing Miranda, she would probably read something into it.
“How do you take your coffee? Is it still white with two sugars?”
Miranda hung her handbag over the back of a chair and sat down at the table.
“Please!” She stressed the word with a faint frown. “Black, without, thank you.”
She placed her manicured hands onto the scrubbed table top, palms down, and tapped one long fingernail absentmindedly. She watched Richard surreptitiously as he finished pouring the dark brew, a small smile playing around her mouth. He looked good. Much better than she had anticipated and still lean and fit.
Richard chose to remain standing and leant against the black granite worktop, the splendid garden view framing him from behind. He raised his cup to his lips and took a large mouthful of coffee. The scalding liquid invaded his mouth, and he winced as it burnt his tongue. God that hurt! Her sudden appearance and nearness startled and unnerved him. She always had this compelling hold over him. When they were younger, his infatuation was so great it had threatened to take over his whole life, and it nearly did. When she married his cousin, Richard was devastated. For ages, he hated her and what she had done to him. He also hated himself for being what he considered so weak. Now her sudden appearance was a total shock to his system. He made himself a promise. If there was one thing he was certain of, she was certainly not going to get under his skin again. Not this time.
“So, Miranda. You still haven’t answered my question,” he said, giving her a cold stare.
Miranda appeared unfazed. She lifted her grey-green eyes and opened them wide. “I’m sorry,” she replied. “I know I should have contacted you first, Richard. But, I was simply passing nearby.”
Richard’s short snort of disbelief seemed to throw her off balance. She coloured slightly and hesitated a second before continuing.
“It’s true. I have been staying with a friend down in Wickham. I knew Bishop’s Waltham was only about ten minutes’ drive away, so I couldn’t resist looking you up. I—I thought it was about time anyway,” she finished, flushed and embarrassed, while Richard continued studying her. She knew he was having trouble with her sudden unexpected arrival.
As the pause lengthened, Richard looked closer at the woman across the room.
The past years had been kind to Miranda. From where he was standing, her face was remarkably unlined, her beautiful eyes still sparkling and clear. Her hair was exactly as he remembered. It was long, thick, and lustrous, and almost the same colour of deep golden honey. He noted the absence of any telling grey and deduced she must follow the current trend of having her hair fashionably coloured and streaked. Her figure was as luscious as when she was his. Apart from being tall, she remained slim and full-breasted and probably only one size larger, if at all. She was dressed in a simple white linen dress which emphasised her figure, accessorised with light filigree jewellery. The dress was cut to just above her knees, and as she crossed her legs, Richard noticed her calves had fine muscle tone, and her ankles remained youthfully slim.
Richard idly wondered if she was still as enthusiastic in bed as he recalled, then collected himself before his daydreaming took over. For goodness sake! The last thing he wanted was to give her the wrong idea, and more importantly, he didn’t want her to have any sway over him. Think about the way she treated you instead, he told himself. He remembered how smitten he had been and how cruelly she cast him aside when she received a better offer.
“Okay. So you found me.” He shrugged as if he couldn’t care less and waited for her answer.
“I was also fascinated over the matter of your father’s bible. It was such an interesting story and such a coincidence that I made the first contact with the American family. I was intrigued to find out if you had bothered to follow it up. I also wanted to make sure that you were all right,” she finished softly with a coy smile.
Despite his good intentions, Richard let himself unwind a little. No harm could come of telling her what he had done and later discovered. She might even know something herself, as Billy always had a glad eye for a pretty face, and Richard knew he had cared for Miranda.
They finished their coffee, and Richard asked her if she would like another. He joined her at the table with refilled cups and a plate of biscuits.
“Mmm. These are very good. Not shop-bought shortbread, I’m sure”.
He noticed her full lips as she wiped the crumbs away from the corner of her mouth with a paper serviette.
“My Aunt Mavis makes them. She is always popping in with biscuits and cakes and the odd fruit pie or two. I think she’s afraid that now I’m on my own I’m going to starve,” he said drily and gave a short mirthless laugh before carrying on. “She doesn’t understand about the modern man and how we’re quite capable of cooking reasonable and decent meals. More to the point, some of us actually enjoy it. But you remember Mavis. She is of a different era.”
“I do remember her, and I also know what you mean. Most of that age group grew up running around after their husbands and children. The majority didn’t have real careers, as they didn’t feel they needed anything other than to bring up their families. That was their whole lives. Not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with that. It’s just that nowadays, what with most women working and bringing up a family, often the husband has to play a domestic role. You know like cooking, food shopping and helping with the kids. Family life now has a totally different meaning. Going back to your Auntie Mavis, wasn’t she on your mother’s side of the family?”
“Yes. She’s my mum’s sister. Mavis is a good old stick really, just a bit bossy and talks a lot. One thing though, she’d never let you down.”
As he finished speaking and reached for another sip of coffee he felt himself growing hot under his collar as he realised what he had said. The implication was plainly there. Her silence made him take a quick glance at her face. She had the grace to look as guilty as hell. Good, he thought. He let the silence grow as he bit into another rich buttery biscuit. After considering he had made his point, he continued.
“Anyway, back to the bible. Yes, in answer to your query, I did indeed contact the American flier. Well, I got in touch with his granddaughter really, as he wasn’t up to it because he’s ill and old, and the internet just isn’t part of his everyday life. She filled me in with his side of things. It really is an amazing story. These old war veterans seemed to survive against all odds.”
And then, Richard found himself telling Miranda about his trip to Germany and the subsequent visit to the POW camp and museum. He described the city, with its proud squares of new buildings, bridges, canals, and the old Rathaus or town hall. Richard explained how he had gone south and driven through the isolated villages and crop fields, along straight roads lined with perfect straight aisles of swaying poplar trees.
He spoke in a soft voice as he remembered the visit. “There was a stark memorial stone set back in the grass in front of the prison perimeter fence I read the inscription on it out loud, but it soon went to the back of my my mind as I contemplated the edifice before me. A second sign directed visitors to a museum and exhibition centre. It was isolated, desolate, and eerily silent. There were few other visitors that day, and I remember asking myself, who would visit it and why? Could we still learn lessons from there?” He paused for a moment, his eyes dark and brooding.
“I remember feeling like I was being watched over by silent men in ragged clothing hanging from their fleshless bodies. I swear I could hear the shrill orders and the rattle of gunshots and feel the presence of ghosts. They were the spirits of men who had starved and died, exhausted from their pitiless ordeal.” He hung his head in awkwardness as tears welled in the corner of his eyes. “It all felt so real.”
Miranda sat next to him listening in silence and gave a shiver when he finished speaking.
Richard stirred his coffee absentmindedly and then told Miranda everything he was able to piece together, including the American’s story. He spoke of what might have happened to Billy during those lost years and of what he knew for certain.
Miranda sat engrossed throughout. Towards the end, she interrupted him briefly to ask a question or two. When he finally came to a halt she surprised him by taking his cold hand in her warm one. What she said next amazed him.
“You know, Billy kept lots of secrets stored away in his mind.”
Richard sat up open-mouthed as he listened to her.
“I did know about Nat and how Billy tried to get him away to safety. He was quite a man your father.” Richard drew in his breath as Miranda revealed many of the things Billy had confided in her. He realised most things he had only been able to guess at so far. As she spoke, Richard remembered other snippets of information from his childhood he had forgotten about. Slowly, he began to recollect…
for more please read 'Harvest' available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk