“Humphrey, Humphrey; you must talk some sense into her.”
Petunia stood in the doorway of her husband’s study, shaking with rage.
“What is it now, Petunia my dear?” Sir Humphrey reluctantly put down his copy of The Times and looked at his distraught wife.
“Daphne is refusing to go to the Hunt Ball with Charles Worthington. She says he’s boring.”
“Well, my dear I tend to agree with her.” Sir Humphrey returned to his newspaper and the report on the previous day’s Test March at Lord’s.
“Oh, do put that newspaper down. This is serious. Charles’s mother told me that he intends to propose to Daphne at the Ball. He has such good prospects and will inherit the estate when his father dies. And Daphne is 23, it’s high time she was married.”
“Daphne is a spirited girl and I’m sure she can make up her own mind about marriage,” Sir Humphrey replied wearily. “Why are you so keen to see her married off?”
“Why are you being so obtuse Humphrey! If she doesn’t get married soon, she’ll be a spinster and then we will never have grandchildren.” Petunia gave a delicate little sniff into a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “Surely you want grandchildren?”
“Noisy little blighters,” Sir Humphrey muttered into his newspaper. But he smiled sweetly at his wife and said, “Of course my dear. I’ll have a word with Daphne. Now please let me finish reading my newspaper in peace. This article is most important,” hoping she hadn’t noticed that it was the sports page he was reading.
“Oh, do have a word with her. You seem to have more influence on her than I do. I really can’t think why,” and she bustled off to see Cook about dinner.
Later that evening Sir Humphrey invited his daughter to join him in a brandy in his study. Lady Petunia had retired early pleading a headache. Caused, she said, by her daughter’s obstinacy.
Father and daughter seated themselves comfortably in front of the fire and savoured their brandy in silence. After a few minutes Daphne put down her glass and said, “I suppose Mother has asked you to ‘have a few words’ with me? Why is she so intent on marrying me off to a succession of boring young men?
Her father sighed, “She only wants the best for you, my dear. What do you want out of life? Do you want to get married, or have you something else in mind?”
“Oh Papa, I don’t really know what I want. But I know what I don’t want, and that’s to be like Mother. Her life revolves around flower arranging, organising bazaars to raise money for the church and entertaining a set of boring people who have no idea what goes on in the wider world.”
“And how do you know what goes on in the wider world?” he queried.
“Oh Papa, surely you realise that I sneak a look at your copy of The Times. I do wait until you’ve finished with it. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Nothing wrong with being educated, my dear. Although clever women have to be careful what they say. You don’t want to upset a potential suitor by appearing cleverer than him, do you?”
Daphne snorted, “But all my potential suitors are so shallow it isn’t difficult to be cleverer than they are. I wouldn’t put it past Reuben the gardener to know more about the ways of the world than Charles Worthington. Reuben certainly knows all about India because his brother is in the army out there.”
Sir Humphrey looked hard at his daughter. “Do you have chats with Reuben about India?”
“Oh, yes. It sounds very interesting, but he says that more should be done to allow the British and the Indians to mix socially,” she stopped. “Oh, Papa, I fear I have shocked you. Please don’t be cross with me, and please don’t be angry with Reuben.”
“No, no, my dear. I’m just surprised you take such an interest. Would you like to visit India? I still have contacts in the Colonial Office, even though I’m retired. And I have always kept in touch with fellow officers who served with me in the Punjab. Wish I’d stayed on sometimes. This could be the perfect solution to your problems with your mother. She is bound to know of someone returning to India from leave. They could act as chaperone and then there is your aunt Emilia. She and her husband live in Calcutta. They would be delighted to put you up.”
“Oh, Papa, you are such a darling. I would love to do that; it sounds so exciting.”
After several months of planning Daphne finally found herself surrounded by trunks awaiting embarkation on the ship that was to take her on the long voyage to Calcutta. She had been introduced to the Etherington-Smiths at a dinner party given by her mother. The couple were in their 30’s and the husband was carving out a career in the Diplomatic Service. Daphne immediately warmed to the couple, especially the wife, who, although older than her had a ready wit and a slightly radical outlook on life. Daphne thought that the voyage would be fun and she was excited about the prospect of her future. She was sad to be saying farewell to her father but less so about leaving her mother. She hoped that Aunt Emilia would not be like her mother, but as she was her father’s sister, she expected her to be a touch more easy going.
On arrival in Calcutta she was met by her aunt and whisked away to a pleasant house outside the centre of the noisy city. Set in pleasant gardens the bungalow style house was comfortable and she given a large bedroom overlooking flower beds of unknown and exotic plants. The only problem that she had experienced was the heat. Her aunt, who was proving to be as charming and understanding as Sir Humphrey, explained that Daphne’s English clothes were totally unsuitable to the Indian climate. She swiftly organised a trip to the dressmaker and shortly after Daphne was clothed in cool Indian cotton. Later that afternoon, when the heat had gone from the day, Aunt Emilia arrived in Daphne’s bedroom bearing a large length of brightly coloured cotton.
“This is what you need, my dear. Now take off that dress and let’s get down to your undies.”
An astonished Daphne did as she was told and Aunt Emilia proceeded to show her how to wear a sari.
“Practical, cool, and very becoming,” she said, surveying her niece. “How does it feel? Look at yourself in the mirror and give me a twirl.”
“It’s wonderful, I love it. But surely you don’t go out wearing a sari?”
“You surprise me Daphne. Humphrey said you were a bit of a radical and here you are being very British Raj!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. But wouldn’t it offend the Indians?”
“Not the Indians that we mix with. The British might not approve. And you can wear it next week when we have been invited to dine with Dalip Singh and his wife. You’ll like them, very charming. They always have an interesting mix of guests and also some army and civil administrators.”
“I hope you are not trying to marry me off, Auntie.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, my dear. Your father says you are quite capable of making up your own mind!”
The following week Daphne, her aunt and uncle made their way to Dalip Singh’s palace. Dalip was a minor maharaja and lived in some opulence. He had allied himself closely to the British establishment and enjoyed what could be considered the best of both worlds. He had also, cannily, kept in touch with his school friends from Harrow, many of whom had joined the Indian army.
Daphne was enchanted by the evening and felt relaxed in the company of both Indians and British. Maybe that was because the assembled company were realistic in their view that India was heading for independence.
Returning to her aunt and uncle’s bungalow she reflected on the evening and her future. She was sure that life in this strange but vibrant country was going to suit her. However, she felt that she must use her time usefully. She was not one to sit around doing nothing. The following morning she sought out her aunt and put the problem to her. Her aunt smiled, “well it didn’t take you long to come to the conclusion that you should occupy your time. But I don’t think you would be interested in the usual good works that the British memsahib does!”
“If you mean flower arranging and running bazaars for the church, certainly not. I left England to escape from that sort of life.”
“Exactly. Come with me tomorrow when I go to the refuge and school for children who have been abandoned or orphaned. Some are disabled but I think you are tough enough to cope with that.”
“That sounds more like it, Auntie. Thank you so much for all that you are doing for me. I feel that my future is here.”
The following day was a revelation to Daphne. She had never stopped to consider the dark under belly of Indian life where children were left on the street to die if they were crippled, where the feeble minded were left to wander alone and survive as best they could. This refuge took in those people and fed them and kept them safe. Daphne was left to play with the children and found that it was a pleasurable and rewarding pastime. At the end of a busy and tiring morning she and her aunt returned home. Her aunt asked her how she felt. Daphne was enthusiastic.
“I’d like to go back tomorrow. The children are enchanting, but they need to be taught to read and write. Maybe I could do something like that.”
“Well, you’ll have to learn Hindi but I expect the children can teach you a few words and we have a friend who can give you lessons. Would you like me to arrange it?”
Daphne was quick to nod her head, “That would be splendid.”
After that conversation things moved swiftly. Daphne had lessons most afternoons with a wizened little man who had been tutor to Dalip Singh’s son. Her mornings were spent at the refuge. She was supremely happy and for the first time in her life felt useful.
Late one afternoon after her Hindi lesson her teacher produced an envelope from his pocket. “I have been asked to give you this. It seems you have an admirer.”
Daphne was intrigued but waited until she was alone before opening the missive. It was an invitation to take tea the following week.
Letters home to England took a long time to reach the recipient so it was several weeks before Daphne’s letter arrived at her parents’ house. Her mother was the first to see the letter and open it. She sat in her favourite chair overlooking the garden and savoured slowly opening the letter from her daughter. She hoped Daphne had met some lovely suitable young men; perhaps a rising star in the Diplomatic Service or a dashing army officer. She smoothed the folded pages and began to read. But what was this; teaching Indian children to read and write? Her hand flew to her mouth in horror. But then she began to smile as she read about the young man that Daphne had been seeing. Dancing, tea, dinner. It all sounded perfect. Then she stopped reading and shrieked.
“Humphrey, Humphrey, come quickly!” But she didn’t wait and ran down the hall towards her husband’s study. “Humphrey!” she burst in upon him, “Humphrey, Daphne’s got married.”
“Well that’s good, just what you wanted. Are you pleased?”
“But Humphrey, she’s married some native! Maharaja Dalip’s son, whoever he may be. Don’t just sit there, do something!”
Oh, Dalip. He’s a good sort, knew him in the Punjab. He’s the Maharaja of Baratpur and his son will have that title when Dalip dies. Pretty wealthy too. Clever little Daphne.”
“But Humphrey, he’s a native. What if they have children?”
“Thought you wanted grandchildren.”
“Yes, but not half caste. How will I ever be able to face the Rector and the Ladies Guild?”
Humphrey started to laugh, a deep rumbling that became a bellow. Tears ran down his face.
“What is there to laugh at? It’s a disaster, shaming.”
“Well my dear, if you ever meet Daphne again, unlikely, I admit, you will have to curtsey and address her as Your Highness.
Footnote. In the 1920’s many young unmarried women went to India in the hope of marrying. Many of them did, but had unhappy marriages. The ships they travelled on to India were known as “The Fishing Fleet.”
‘She’d have appreciated this,’ the young woman squatted down in front of the slate bench and traced the letters inscribed upon it. ‘Did she come here every day?’
‘Pretty much. Your gran reckoned the peace and the quiet of it all kept her sane.’
‘I’d say she was right mum,’ the young woman straightened up and re-read the words picked out in gold.
Jemima Baxter (nee Stuart)
Born 14th March 1932 Died 27th March 2019
‘I’ve just gone fishing’
‘Funny how she didn’t want to be buried in grandad’s family plot, I wonder why?’ she glanced up at her mother.
Her mother shrugged, ‘No idea Janey, but it’s what she wanted and the lake owners were very happy about it. I think she must have already approached them; they didn’t seem surprised.’
Janey nodded and looked out across the water of the Hammer Pond; a faint mist seemed to be rising where the early morning sunshine broke through the trees, shrouding the lake edge in a thick mantle of green. A jay squawked, flashing across the water and was gone. Barely a ripple creased the mirror-like surface and for a moment Janey felt she could have walked right across to the far side, it looked so real.
‘I’m glad we’re going to scatter her ashes here, the place where she died, sitting with her rod and keep-net,’ Janey felt her voice wobble and took a deep breath. Jemima had fallen asleep in the late afternoon sunshine watching a heron on the far bank; her heart had simply stopped, so the coroner told them.
Sitting herself down on the bench she took a deep breath, glad it had been peaceful for her grandmother but sad she was gone from their lives. Her mother dropped down beside her and put an arm around her.
‘She used to say, ‘’Penny, don’t mourn when I’m gone. I’m a good old age and been happy. I’ll only really have gone fishing,’’ and she’s right we mustn’t be sad.’
‘I’m not really, I just miss her, she always knew the right things to say. I think this was her most favourite place in the world, sitting here. I don’t remember grandad fishing. Did he ever?’
Penny shook her head, ‘No it was something gran did for herself. Said he was too loud and restless; he’d frighten the fish away.’
Janey smiled, it sounded like her grandfather, a tall, brusque man with a voice to silence a parade ground. A tiny bird fluttered down from a low, spreading bough on to the wooden jetty at their feet. It bobbed and preened its feathers, before flitting on a little further.
Janey watched its progress surprised how unbothered it was by humans.
‘Goodness mum, look. Someone’s left flowers, see over there where that little bird was, a posy of pink and white campion,’ she crossed over to it and lifting it up saw a small card, propped up in amongst the flowers. Easing it out gently, she saw the neat script slanting across the card and read it to her mother, ‘To my darling puddle-duck from your very own Jeremy Fisher. Wait for me by the pond; I’ll be with you soon,’ she stared at the words and said, ‘Who’s Jeremy Fisher?’
Penny thought a good deal about the card and its message over the next few days. No one in the angling club was called Jeremy and there was no one in her mother’s address book by that name either. It was a mystery and she felt slightly odd about it.
Janey had suggested it was a joke, a play on Jemima’s name by someone they didn’t know, ‘We could ask Bill Stone, you know the old gentleman who found gran. Perhaps he’d know. They always fished together.’
Penny had nodded, it was a sensible idea. He’d been part of the angling club for decades, a friend of her mother’s for donkey’s years. A lovely old chap with a pipe and fox head buttons on his waist coat. Once the scattering of the ashes was sorted, she’d go round and see him.
‘Are you going to open it?’ Janey looked pointedly at the long manila envelope sitting on the top of the old writing bureau in Jemima’s study. They’d been working their way slowly through the house for days, sorting through Jemima’s life, deciding what to do with a lifetime’s worth of possessions.
Bags and boxes lined the hallway, clearly labelled for the antiques centre, charity shop or dump.
Penny remembered a similar process when her father had died ten years earlier. It wasn’t any easier this time than at the first. Her mother had done a lot of it, saying she wanted to sort things out and remember the good times.
Now they’d reached the more personal part of her mother’s life. The bureau contained a life time of correspondence; she’d been a lover of writing letters when she wasn’t fishing. Penny remembered her mother sitting at the bureau in every house they’d lived in and there’d been quite a few. Life, as the wife of an army colonel, had meant being stationed all over the world until his retirement in the late Eighties to settle in Sussex. He’d taken up golf and running the Parish Council whilst she’d taken up fishing.
The manila envelope had been labelled clearly with Penny’s name and laid in the writing section, in front of the neat little drawers and pigeon holes, below the writing desk there were three drawers inlaid with rosewood. Jemima had always kept it locked; the key hung on a narrow ribbon worn around her neck. Many a time Penny had wondered why the bureau was locked but hadn’t liked to ask. Now she had the key and perhaps the question might be answered.
‘I will in a second, I thought I’d check the drawers first, I doubt there’s much in them, the financial stuff’s all in the filing cabinet. I expect they’re full of fishing flies or old reels,’ she inserted the key in to the top drawer and eased it out.
‘Could be maggots, remember when I found them in a plastic box in the fridge, that was gross,’ Janey put the manila envelope back on the bureau and looked over her mother’s shoulder, ‘Letters? Hundreds of them, wow I wasn’t expecting that.’
Penny stared at the letters neatly packed in to the drawer, most in small bundles, tied with blue ribbon, a few loose. She pulled one out at random and opened it up. Neat script slanted across a sheet of good quality paper.
‘Who’s it from?’ Janey tried to read it but her mother folded it back up sharply.
‘Jeremy Fisher,’ was all Penny would say.
Each of the three drawers were full of letters, all were addressed in the same neat script, all from Jeremy Fisher. Penny and Janey sat in silence, not reading any of them after the first; it had been far too personal. They appeared to span the last forty odd years.
‘Perhaps that letter addressed to you will explain,’ Janey put a cup of tea beside her mother and picked the manila envelope. ‘It’s weird, like we didn’t know her at all.
‘Seems like it was she wanted us to find this lot,’ Penny waved her hand at the drawers, ‘or they’d be gone.’
She really didn’t know what to feel or think. Maybe Janey was right and the envelope would explain.
Taking a deep breath, she opened it carefully and drew out a letter of many pages.
Dearest, dearest Penny,
If you are reading this then I am gone and you are sorting out all the stuff I’ve collected over the years.
I’m writing this because I want you to know that my life wasn’t ever quite how it seemed. I suppose I want you to know the real me and whilst I should have told you long ago, I wasn’t really brave enough. We all have secrets; some people take them to the grave only for them to eventually get found out. I don’t want that to happen. I want you to have the facts.
This all sounds very dramatic, it isn’t really, it’s quite sad and the story of a young woman who made choices she probably wouldn’t have if she’d been older and wiser.
I’ve written this letter three times now and each time it doesn’t come out quite the way I want. Well perhaps this time I’ll say what I mean.
I hope you won’t judge me too harshly and in a different day and age my life would have been very different. My grandmother told me I’d made my bed and must lie on it. Make the best of it my mother said and truly I did try.
Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning. I met your father in the summer of 1952, he was a dashing army Captain and I was a star-struck twenty year old, who thought she’d found her Clark Gable. Rationing was almost over and after all the long war years I was fed up making skirts out of old curtains and painting my tennis shoes white. I was rather silly and vain, a total pushover for a man in uniform. I’m afraid I married your father for all the wrong reasons. I thought a life of glamour was on offer, endless parties in the officer’s mess, gin cocktails on the veranda in exotic locations. Unfortunately, the exotic locations came with nasty biting insects, periods of great loneliness and a husband who wanted a pretty young thing on his arm to look the part as his career took off. I grew up very rapidly and discovered that married life was more about doing what I was told rather than being doted on. Your father was not a bad man and, in his way, he loved me. I tried very hard to be the two-dimensional person he needed to adore him but I could never quite pull it off. The only good thing I did was have you.
I suppose I’m telling you all this to make myself look better when you read the next part. I’m not trying to excuse myself or my actions.
When we finally returned to Britain in the late 1970s, I made it clear I was staying put and not traipsing half way around the world again. Lionel didn’t like it but he was offered a command in Aldershot and we went to Sussex to live. It was there that I re-discovered fishing. I’d often fished with my brothers and my dad when I was younger.
Our house, this house, backed on the Hammer Ponds, on the edge of Mannings Heath. Your father took up golf at weekends and I took up fishing again. That’s when I met the love of my life. He was, well is, the antithesis of your father and at first we were only friends. I was heading for fifty, your father for sixty and we rubbed along by ignoring each other most of the time. I doubt you ever noticed it; maybe you did and were too polite to say.
Over time I realised that the quiet, gentle man I often shared my sandwiches with was becoming more than just a friend to me. We both knew what was happening and both refused to take it further because he, like me, was married and had two children. I met his wife a few times, she was perfectly nice but they’d grown apart and I suppose they rubbed along a bit like your father and I.
Destroying someone’s marriage along with your own is, well, the wrong thing to do or at least it was for us. Divorce seems to be an easier option in this day and age. For us, the upset would have been too great and I don’t think we were brave enough back then.
We contented ourselves with fishing together, days out and the odd holiday away with the club. Remember I went to all sorts of places with the Hammer Ponds club? We fished in the lochs in Scotland, the fjords in Norway and marlin fishing in the Caribbean. Your father came once, declared it to be the most tedious week of his life and left me to it. I loved those stolen times, they kept us going through many a long winter.
Your father never knew, he may have suspected but he never asked. He had his little fan club, that dreadful Angela Allerton of the cerise lipstick and Marjorie Kemper who hung on his every word. Perhaps he had discreet dalliances over the years, I never asked.
Once he’d had the stroke, I did my best to make his last few months as easy as possible, he did so hate being ill, escaping only occasionally to my Jeremy Fisher for an afternoon of peace at the ponds. Then it was all over and for a while I felt the most dreadful guilt. Jeremy’s wife discovered she had a fatal cancer so for more than a year we had little contact except by letter.
You may have found them; I kept them all, almost forty years of them. Even now we are both free we send each other little notes.
My dearest Penny, I expect you are horribly shocked now, possibly disgusted and ashamed of me. For that I am sorry. Life doesn’t always go to plan; people don’t always follow the script they originally signed up for. When you scatter the ashes try to remember me as the person who loved you and Janey more than life itself. Forgive me if you can.
There are many things I should have done and not done but I have no regrets. Without Lionel there would have been no you. I lived my life as I thought best and my Jeremy Fisher with his fox head buttons made it all worthwhile,
All my love
The bench was empty when Bill arrived, the air was warm with late autumn sunshine and the odd ripple creased the water as a fish jumped for flies. He settled himself down and set up his rod and propped it up, line trailing across the surface.
Taking his pipe out, he filled it, lit it and sat contentedly puffing, eyes half closed waiting.
Penny and Janey had come to see him; he’d known they would eventually. Jemima had left enough clues for them to work it out, his wonderful Puddleduck.
‘That disgusting old thing will be the death of you.’
‘I know, hopefully soon, I miss you so much,’ he turned to the woman beside him, ‘what’s it like?’
‘Very tranquil. I even saw Lionel; those bloody women are still trailing about after him.’
Bill laughed; he could quite imagine it.
‘My girls’ happy?’ her voice was tentative.
‘Oh yes my darling. I think they understand. They don’t hate you, though Janey said we should have told them. Perhaps we should, who knows.’
‘No, it was better our way, times were different then. I’m glad they can live with it, with me being unfaithful.’ She took his hand, ‘The scattering was perfect. I saw it all, didn’t think so many of the club would turn up.’
‘Of course, you were very important to them plus most of them would go anywhere for cake and fizz.’ Her fingers felt almost real, not as he was expecting. They sat side by side just as they always had waiting for a fish to bite.
On the far side of the lake another angler raised a hand in greeting and Bill waved back. It was perfect sitting here with his Jemima Puddleduck, not talking merely being.
‘Bill its time, we should go. We can come back and look anytime, perhaps our girls will come and fish one day.’
‘Maybe, your Penny said she’d explain to my girls, tell them about us, let them read the letters.’ He sat up a little, ‘Will it hurt Jem? Will I know?’
She shook her head, ‘Hardly at all. Stand up and bring your rod, I’ve some perfect flies.’
He nodded and together they set off across the pond, not a ripple marking their path, disappearing towards the trees.
Bill stopped for one final look, ‘Goodbye old boy,’ he said to the figure slumped on the bench. ‘Goodbye Jeremy Fisher. We’re going fishing.’