by Peter Dowden, 2011
- Poor Miss Lee
- by A Rolling Stone, based on information provided by the Swallows and Amazons
- Best-selling author of Mixed Moss and Peter Duck
- Jonathan Cape, 335p hardcover, 12/-
Nancy walked in to the silent hallway, out of the a blazing July day in Harrogate, glancing at a newspaper clipping of a book review on a side table.
"If the GA has found out about Poor Miss Lee there'll be some fireworks," she thought as she hurried two at a time up the stairs.
The drawn curtains blocked most of the light but little stars of intense sunshine glinted through the dark brown lace. Great Aunt Maria's soft breathing was the only sound, then a rustle as Mother brushed away a tear.
The Great Aunt stirred. "Ruth?"
Nancy shuddered, then steeled herself. "Yes, it's me, Ruth."
The Great Aunt couldn't resist the opportunity to correct: "It is I." Nancy could see her Mother's expression tighten, but she did not change her own.
"That book, Ruth. You and James did your best to keep it from me, but Miss Thornton couldn't resist; she even had it gift-wrapped." ("Spiteful beast," Nancy thought.)
"Well you got it about right. I don't recall ever telling you I was half-back at hockey. I feel a need to forgive you, but I know not for what: is it for understanding me or for trying to conceal the fact that you understand me, or for failing to conceal the fact that you understand me?"
"I have had your number for many years, Aunt Maria. I understood when you gave the scales back to Timothy. I understood that you understood. And I understand your resentment, believe me. You had so much to enjoy, at Cambridge and in life. You and I are not so much different, and I can't allow myself to despise you for the strictures placed on you by your society; but I certainly despise those strictures."
"Very well put, Ruth. As you wrote, I believe: 'She is only doing it because of her duty to her ancestors.' You have never been troubled by that sort of thing; you have resisted social strictures, and resisted me, I suppose. Do you really see me as a Latin mistress, holding you prisoner?"
"No, no!" Nancy protested. "I have these many years seen you as a pirate. I wanted Uncle Jim to have Miss Lee travel home on Shining Moon with the children. To show that she could have Cambridge and piracy. But Uncle Jim said it was too much, that readers would assume she and Captain Flint would marry. I think we all know that neither Miss Lee nor Captain Flint are the marrying type..."
"Well I said it once before, Ruth. You posses much of the tact shown by your great grandfather, the man you had me 'sitting in council' with."
"I have always known your father was a great man."
"A great man, yes, but maybe not a good one. I have spent far too long revering him, and nowhere near enough time being angry at him for enslaving me as guardian of Mary and James. Angry at everyone else though.... I have that horrid monkey to thank I suppose. The fire on Peel Island did me so much good."
"Your Temple Island, Aunt Maria."
"Well I thank you and James for not burning it. Once was quite enough. But the resting place of my father's ashes is now ash, so maybe I should take the hint and finally let go. Ha! Tommy Jolys could stand on the lakeshore and blow his trumpet for all he liked, but with his men all at war, there was no chance."
"Letting go would include calling me by my proper name, Aunt Maria. And Mother has never liked you calling her Mary."
"Very well, Nancy! I'll never call your mother Mops though. There's a lot I can forgive Robert Blackett for, but not that!" Great Aunt Maria's laughter grew into a spasm of coughing, as Nancy supported her frail shoulders and found her a handkerchief.
"Thank you, dear Nancy. Well, to business: I think we can all agree that I am not much longer for this world. In dying I am finally relinquished from the burden of owning the Beckfoot estate for as long as I remain 'intimately involved in the upbringing of Mary Elizabeth Turner and James Alfred Turner and any issue of the same' - I suppose I can finally die homeless, which state my father threatened me with if I didn't comply. I have named you as my executrix, Ruth, I mean Nancy. It all goes to your family; my family: mostly to Mary, Molly, thereby to you and, er, Peggy, with plenty set aside for the usual periodical writing-off of Jim's debts. I want you to replant Peel Island and hand it over to the National Trust when you see fit.
"And in return I want you to make me one promise, Nancy."
"What is that, Aunt Maria?"
"Promise me you will never make any promise at a dying relative's bedside."
The nurse entered to bustle them out. Nancy bent forward and kissed her Aunt on each cheek, frail as bone china; their tears of joy, relief and forgiveness mingled.